Scales

I slip down into the dark. In New York, we are tunnel and train denizens — this is how we go. Wind tugs my tangled white blonde curls and buffets my coiling eyelashes. My teeth rattle in the black squeal that shoots a silver train up to the dim platform. I enter the sliding doors, into the arrangement of crisscrossing bars and a black-matted walkway lined with blue and white plastic seats. And bodies. My body. They shoot my body, mostly, or Pieces of it. They hang me in the subways with the rest of the trifles for sale.

The train is almost empty, and I sit, white plastic beneath my shredded denim and creased black leather. Just across from me, hanging on the curving wall between windows: my Leg twined with another Leg. My Leg is brown and angular. Her Leg is white and lacy. Both our Legs bend, our Knees meet. You could touch them, the Legs, despite the dingy plastic and light dripping across like glue.

I mock up the Legs in my seat. I’m awkward and I giggle at my hip cocked against hard plastic. Me with my leg, poking out of my gray ankle boot and through my distressed jeans. Craning my neck to see the ad — I cackle. I remember the shoot. I remember the other model — Bridgette. How she’d had fun — she had licked my knee between each shot. Disgusting. But good. I mug for myself, for my game. I turn to see a man staring. Grinning like someone had thrown him my dice.

“Is it you?” He slides forward in his seat, keys clipped to jeans clicking on blue plastic. He points at the white Leg. He half-stands and leans across the aisle, thrusts with his finger, tapping at the air just before the smooth curving wall.

My grin wants to scowl. I point at the brown Leg. “This one.”

“Can I have your John Hancock?”

I try to stretch my grin, but my lips seem just to get tighter. I take the wrinkled yellow menu and pen he offers and scribble my name on the blank side.

“Manny?” His face screws into a question mark and he waits.

My toes try to minuet. My fingers want to scratch my neck. “Manoela.”

He leans forward as though we’re in on something. “You can just never tell with models anymore. You’re all so thin!”

He puts the menu in his pocket, then gazes into the black outside the window. I slide down the empty seats — bump, blue, bump, white, bump, blue, stop. My eyes drift across the center aisle and settle on the curving wall, a bright white square framed by black-filled windows, and within the white: another set of brown legs. Darker than mine. With feet this time, and thin, braceleted ankles. Above them, teeth and face. All the possible parts. A Guilherme ad. I know her too, the model — Bruna. I recognize her because it is a Guilherme ad.

I gaze at the backlit ad selling the brushed blue suede couch Bruna doesn’t even touch. But it also centers her and the chocolate melting on her body — the yellow cocoa pod upon which she sets one lovely grouping of chubby bare toes, painted beige and French manicured. I gaze a moment. An hour. Like looking in a witch’s magic mirror. I feel swirls of dark and light snake and coil within me, and I know — this is what I was meant for. Not modeling, but “Guilherme.”

• • •

My apartment feels like his tank — rectangular, humid. Clean counters rim the borders of the tiny galley kitchen and a sparkling sink hides in the corner, not because I am such a fastidious housekeeper, but because I am also missing a microwave and my refrigerator has only red wine in its belly. Cabinets containing paper plates, maybe a take-out menu or two, suspend from the spotless ceiling. Four red clay pots on the window sill burst forth thick, woody stems and broad green hands waving in the evening breeze coming in through the cracked-open window.

I pass through the arch into the living room — his room, red and warm, full of soft light and tall, leaning lines. My fingers dip into my pocket and I feel him, Cheeto. His tongue touches me first, a flicker of cold paper on my skin; then his lips, a rubber kiss. He weaves between my fingers, satiny dry scales, and I pull him out, lift him to my face. He’s small still — less than two feet long and inches around at the middle. His red, black, and white bands remind me of coral jewelry. Its why I wear him, why I fancy he’s so fancy — why he cocks his head at sharp angles when he’s the center of attention and why he striates his coils along my forearm when he’s allowed to travel outside my pocket.

“Who’s hungry?” I ask him as I place him in his tank. He hasn’t eaten in a week. I reach into my other pocket and extract the small box. I pull back the top of the box and drop the small mouse into the tank. It freezes. Twitches its nose. Smells death. Cheeto doesn’t hunt, doesn’t play. He streaks. Strikes. Soon, he is a mutant — half-snake-half-mouse-all-digestive-system.

I watch. I admire the food baby working through Cheeto’s mouth, throat, and then long belly. I poke the mound. I want my own food baby.

• • •

I try not to look at Phil. He drinks beer and watches me eat the food he brought.

“You’re disgusting.”

I gaze at Phil’s sulking blue eyes. Smooth blonde hair frames the handsome angles of his face, which are folded into a gag. I shove an entire falafel in my mouth, then a spoonful of hummus and a bite of naan. How convenient he finds me disgusting — he’s already gotten his part anyway, come so many times I’ll never get my sheets clean. “Mmmmmmm,” I moan and rub my growing food baby.

“I don’t understand how you can do this and look like you do.” In his hands, a sweating bottle of 60-calorie pale lager. He’ll drink two tonight and take the rest when he goes. I drink a glass of red wine. I’ll finish the bottle.

“I’ve explained it before.” In my experience, explaining myself to lovers has all the romantic benefit of flogging them. “I don’t want to repeat it, okay?”

“It’s weird. Eating with your snake.” He shudders.

I throw off my crimson boyfriend-style shrug with the runs in the weave, exposing the clavicles pushing at the tawny skin below my chin. I tug down the waistline of my oversize jersey pajama pants, revealing the food baby growing above the gaunt pelvic bones lifting the skin into a taut, flat tarp. “I look like I’m going to rip out of my own skin, Phil. I think that’s weird. I make my food babies because for a couple hours, I am soft. I look like my aunts did. And my…” I bite whatever’s between my teeth — copper fills my mouth. “You know how much I care that you think that’s disgusting?” I stare at his pout and I take an overflowing bite of shawarma.

• • •

“I gained three pounds!”

Phil spins and the makeup girl streaks blush along his cheekbone up to the end of his eyebrow. His eyes sparkle and he smiles. I hug him.

“I can see it I think.” He takes my biceps and pushes me back a step. “Are you a little hippier? You look great. Next thing you know, you’ll be J-Lo.”

I punch him in the arm and drop my voice. “Oh my god, wouldn’t that be wonderful. I would love to look like her.”

Phil pins me with wondering eyes and shakes his head. “There’s a lot of you today. Not as many of us, which is why I’m in makeup and you’re in calls.”

I allow the warm, satisfying blossom inside me to bloom. Is Phil becoming a good one? I wander away, still in a cloud. Down long hallways made of temporary walls. Barraged by shouts for lights, poses, expressions, makeup, by bodies too hurried to notice other bodies, by thoughts of fat cells hugging my bones and joints.

I’ve been through the hell of calls often enough now I know what to expect. For one thing, I only report to calls that want me — I’m a Brazilian model, so I don’t go to calls for blondes, despite the natural white shock on my forehead. For another, I remember that calls are brutal. I’ve had good luck with calls. My wide lips with my beauty mark, romantic black eyes with the thick, corkscrew lashes, high cheekbones, all coupled with my straight up-and-down body — I’m an androgynous dreamchild. I get the work. Especially what I call the piece-work. They hack up my body and shoot it. An eyeball here or lip there. But I remember; you never know when your number gets called out.

The room for calls is a meat locker. Rows of folding metal chairs make rusty screams. Hundreds of stunning femme people huddle or mill or merely sit and pass the moments.

At the opposite corner stands an unpainted door. Every so often, it opens and the profile of a pair of lips appears. They part and wobble and scream out a number, followed by a pronouncement, a falling ax.

I’ve barely entered when those lips call my number. “Thirteen-oh-one.”

Blood surges through me. How it works is, they don’t call me here. Not in the meat locker. I want to run, but I freeze when I hear the words. Words only Phil could have been responsible for.

“You need to lose three pounds.”

• • •

I’m always the same in Jock’s office. I twitch, shuffle. He tells me to relax. I deserve to be here. That’s his line.

Mine is to deflect. “How’s the new diet?”

His eyes widen and he hesitates. Then he shows me his pearls. He’s remarkable looking, especially when he smiles — wideset eyes black as coal, skin almost purple with melanin, skull tight waves shiny with oil. He could be in front of the camera himself, instead of lining us up to be there.

“Headaches are improving. I’m sticking with the low glycemic.”

I smirk. “You don’t miss the bakery?”

“I stop in for one of those fancy cupcakes on rare occasion.”

“Glad to hear you’re getting relief. Also … I quit.”

His eyes pop and he leans forward. “Quit? For real, quit? Why the hell you want to do that?”

“Because this job is bullshit.”

“Bullshit? Maybe for everybody else, but you’re making money and working regularly. You can build your look into a brand, if you want. Quitting is a terrible decision.”

“A terrible business decision, maybe, but think about it — what’s my commodity?”

Jock looks at me and purses his lips.

“Well?”

“Your body, it’s your body.”

“You don’t have to squirm. There’s nothing unethical in that. Every laborer sells their body—”

“You’re telling me? I haven’t always been behind a desk in a suit.” He bends down over the desk and shows me the back of his head. A pink scar cuts across the base of his skull. “I loved the game, but it didn’t love me,” he says. He turns back to me and frowns.

I nod. “I can’t begin to tell you what I’ve seen some of these other models do to themselves to achieve the curse that’s always hounded me. Ha! — how dare they make me the lucky one! And it’s not just them; it’s this entire industry. They call me beautiful; but I am the monster hiding in their dark. I do strange things they don’t understand to gain rewards they consider sin …” I reach for the Newton’s cradle on his desk, lift the two end balls, drop them. They crash against the center three, lift to half the height, and crash down again. “I was successful in my endeavor. I gained weight. You and the client took my job away for that, for three pounds. You took away my purpose,” I say over the dying metallic knocking. “The one thing I do with my body that makes sense of the chaos that is my body. What happened was a punishment. Both for me achieving the one inaccessible need in my life. And for refusing to do it anyone’s way but mine. Fuck that. I quit.”

“Get one thing clear: I’m not punishing you. But I understand because we all have the managers and owners. You have ‘em, I had ‘em. But quitting? I never quit because I had something to do; I had a game to play. Didn’t you say you have a purpose?”

“You’re right. You didn’t quit; you retired. That’s what they do in football, right? Well models quit. And, purpose or not, I have to quit.”

“You know you’re in contract, right?”

“Do what you have to do, you parasite.” My voice trembles, but I like the insult on my tongue. I like the flicking of the fork at the tip. I wish I could slide forward and coil behind the word. Instead, I flip him off and wiggle it.

Jock chuckles. “You’re only doing that because you need to.” He reaches to shake my middle finger over his cherrywood desk. “Hope I see your body around again, Manny.”

I climb out of the sling chair. “Me too, Jock. With a food baby.”

He crumples his brow at me. Then, he reaches into his desk drawer and extracts a silver tag of cardstock the size of a bookmark. On the front, I spy Bruna, draped in gold. My breath catches in my throat. He hands the card over the desk to me.

“I don’t know what the hell a food baby is,” he says, “but I think this guy might be curious about it — and you.”

• • •

My Aunt Julia’s warm, wet palms press against my breastless chest and dampen my thin white cotton shirt while her familial black eyes search my face. Her familial wide lips insist if I just eat the yams in the dish on the table, my breasts will grow. I look away from my time-lapsed face and glance about me at the unchanged kitchen — stove and my other aunts at the far end and the ancient, blue Frigidaire pressing me into my Aunt Julia’s grabby affection.

My aunts Leticia and Luana cross the kitchen to slap Julia’s hands away from my body. They pull me from her and toward the stove and all its pots, chiding her for her “macumba.” On the way through the kitchen, we pass four windows hung with blue curtains, clean and thin with age; the window sills burst with tiny white clay jars of purple and green herbs. Leticia sweeps open the oven door and releases a wall of heat that has long ago curled the linoleum on the floor.

“Now,” she says and thrusts a wooden spoon deep into the roiling cast iron pot within. “Tell me about the new fellow.”

A fat crayfish pops in the bubbles of the stew and milky eyes wink in the fish heads. My stomach growls at the buttery, tangy scent of moqueca and I think of chewy pão de queijo dripping with the mellow and bitey broth. I rub my belly and wonder if I will eat tonight or if it’s just a misfire. I feel like tissue paper around the aunts — they hold me up to something bright and hot to see how much I’ll crumple and that’s how they get the truth from me. It’s so hard to eat around that.

“No fellow, Aunt Leticia,” I tell her. “They never stay long.”

“Pshhh!” She blows garlic and cilantro into my face. “You make them stay. What you do wrong this time?”

“I let him see me eat, what else?”

“He would rather see you starve?” Luana asks. “Does he know what we must do to make you eat in Brazil?” Luana’s voice reminds me of river stones. Smooth and cool, a texture to touch. A texture to drown.

I look at Aunt Luana in her moony, cheeky face with the only blue eyes in the family — like lakes after a storm. “His attitudes about my body were a little … patronizing. Besides — I explained, but he thought I was a freak.”

Aunt Leticia flaps her hand under my nose. Heat stirs against my cheeks. “You should never have eaten in front of him. Not until you enchant him so he cannot deny you.”

I barely catch my eyes from rolling and try to put on my armor.

Soon, the aunts will have me crammed in the corner, and my brother Luiz will abandon his cars in the garage to join us. It will be just us five. We will be in the sweating kitchen, the stove will be lit, five Brazilian matchsticks, moist from the steam, but dry enough to kindle and waiting to set alight, perhaps just to see if we can still burn in the damp.

• • •

“I quit.” It had felt better when I said it to Jock. “I’m free-agent now. That’s what they call it, right? In football?”

Luiz stops chewing. The Aunts glance at each other with identical lost expressions — each looking to the others for permission to react. Too much silence passes before my brother swallows his food and gets practical.

“No one in this family watches football. Who’s paying your bills? I can’t and I won’t. Had enough of that before you signed with Jock.”

I throw a pão de queijo at him. Luana waves her hands across the table with her lips pursed and eyes swimming — an instinct held over from our childhood and the family table over which she towered with her small, rounded shoulders and glowering face. She would snatch the flying bits of food straight from the air during the great food battles — the only things I ever liked about food back then. When she seems convinced we will not go to war, she puts her hands on her teacup and clears her throat. Her chubby, round cheeks and blue eyes settle like a river against my brother.

“She’ll come back here, of course,” she says.

I flash through endless days of Julia trying to reshape my body, of Leticia setting me up with everyone on the block, of Luana drowning me in her eyes and will. I know I no longer belong here, in Astoria. The garage is my brother’s and the house is the Aunts’.

“I can afford my studio in North Corona. You think I would have moved someplace swanky without saying something? I’ll be fine for a while. Besides, I have a plan.”

Julia titters and speaks through her fingers. “You will be fine much longer than a while, you wonderful boyish girl. I understand now why no yams.”

I lock my eyes on my giggling aunt. Her odd portents burn to the touch and tingle my spine. Leticia swats harmlessly at Julia’s hair and shoulders, clucking at her. They need only start chasing each other around the kitchen and they will be Louis Carroll’s Red and White Queens.

“Yes, you would have, because you’re lonely as hell.” Luiz says around a mouthful of fish, and I don’t know what he’s talking about. It’s his way, to respond to things said too long ago.

I search the black he’s thrust me in and discover something about my apartment. About telling them if I would have moved. I feel the sting in my throat, because would I? Would I have told him? I can’t find any words to assure him. So, I just say, “senha.” It’s what we said to each other in the creeks when the leeches got too thick or we stepped on something sharp.

He tears his teeth into a pão de queijo and fixes me with his eyes. “What’s your plan?”

I pull the silver card Jock gave me out of my pocket. Jock’s last gift to me, accompanied by a contract termination fee invoice for two grand. He could have charged five times as much. After sending him the funds today, my savings is empty — a detail I keep to myself.

“Turns out, it’s an invitation to Guilherme’s next soiree. He sometimes invites Jock’s models — and I’m in.”

“So, no hard feelings?” Even Luiz knows Guilherme’s reputation.

I shrug. “Maybe not? The modeling world isn’t full of good will. But maybe the respect Jock and I shared meant something. Whatever Jock wants or doesn’t want or thinks or doesn’t think will happen when I meet Guilherme — it’s my chance. I can make something strange and wonderful with it, or I can’t, right?”

My brother chews slowly. “You’re nothing if not strange and wonderful. Do you remember how much time we spent in the creek? You didn’t even mind the leeches.” His eyes flash as he slurps a crayfish into his mouth. The meat crunches between his teeth. “Take Cheeto. He’s the best jewelry you have.”

• • •

The black wide-leg satin tuxedo pants kiss my bare body parts. Outside the lights, I don’t let myself feel the slippery sensations of the fabrics on my skin. Tonight, though, every cell asks to live. The scooped red cowl-neck top drapes to my navel and reveals every rib in my breastless chest. Black patent leather pumps transform my stately five-feet-nine into an artistic six-feet.

Around my neck, down my arm, around my wrist, and between my fingers — Cheeto slips and slithers, shines under the light. His black, cream, and coral bands bold like armor, each scale a delicate jade plate. His eyes glimmer, two bright gems of onyx. He lifts his head like a king cobra — proud and arrogant. Guests flush and flurry before him. We are just a woman and a snake — setting out to slant the scales back in our favor using beauty and strangeness.

We mill about the party mere moments before we earn the attention of the host — Guilherme. His skin is deep brown and his eyes hide behind gold-rimmed aviator sunglasses with blue reflective lenses propped on chiseled cheekbones. Strong, square jaw muscles pop and flex. He points to his hair, a foot-high black pompadour with a clean part and a sharp fade, and then to mine, and back again. I laugh. My curls also tower, stiff with wax and brushed up and away from my hairline in a mock-up of Frankenstein’s monster’s bride.

Just then, the Rose twins, two pale and towering giants, intercept Guilherme. While I watch Guilherme kiss the female half of that stunning plant, I feel my thrall to that beauty begin to lift me off my toes. I turn away and take a step, but I still gaze at all the molten, fleshly gold behind me.

I smell Phil before I collide with him. Soon, our mouths touch, our noses tangle.

“Ohp! Hi.” He reaches up to grasp my elbows. To steady me. Put inches between us.

Inside, I am stale crackers under feet. Phil is just another in a long line of men who have found me freakish and, not just hurt me, but used their relative safety to blow up my life boat. I wonder what a headbutt across his nose would feel like. That violence, disruption would weigh something. But I also suppose — I know — quitting was the more subversive act. The act I was waiting for.

• • •

Finalmente.” His warm breath on my shoulder meets the cold air from the open window on my bare skin and I shiver.

“Guilherme.” I turn from the window and lean forward to kiss his cheek. Our professional culture.

He puts up a hand. “None of that European nonsense with me, querida. I don’t want everyone’s saliva on me. Do you?”

I smirk. “No. I don’t. And I don’t like kissing people I don’t know.”

He smirks and takes my hand in nimble fingers. He lifts my wrist as though he might kiss it and reveals my living jewelry. He slips a finger under Cheeto’s chin and gives his lips a flick. “You don’t like kissing strangers, but scaring them is fair?”

I lift Cheeto up to my cheek and vogue with him. “Isn’t he stunning?”

Guilherme grins. I hadn’t noticed anything in his hands, but he offers me a cup — a low tumbler fashioned from a gourd, painted like a face, with handles for ears. A glance around the party reveals champagne flutes, highball glasses, crystal tumblers — nothing else like this. I pierce him with my gaze. “Is this…”

His smile is slow.

I take a sip. My mouth puckers and pulls from the nostalgic bitterness. I swirl the tea straw. It has been ages and tears smart my eyes. Somehow, I keep them from tumbling to my cheeks. I hand the cup back. He sips as well and sucks a lingering drop from his bottom lip.

He hands the tea back to me. “There’s something I don’t understand. You are etéreo. Are you a woman? An alien? No one knows. They don’t know if they’re attracted to you or if they just want to bring you whatever you need. Etéreo. But! You are also the model who quits at the blossoming of her career because — Jock tells me — you don’t want to be thin?”

After choking on a sip of tea, I say, “First of all, I’m not an alien. I am a woman! I am interesting but not because I am ambiguous as a gender. Or even species!” I laugh. “I am an interesting woman with an image worth seeing. I look this way because … and I quit because … I have disordered eating and a metabolic disorder. Because I am a woman who can’t eat, and even when I can, my body won’t use the food.” I lift Cheeto up to eye level. He twirls around my wrist and across my hand — he is showing off after being forgotten for a while. “I only like food when I eat with him.” Guilherme’s passive expression opens into wonder. “That part of me is etéreo, the effort to live, my partnership with the snake — if Cheeto is successful and I gain weight, I’m still worthy to look at. I quit because in the modeling world, I am everybody’s monster when all I want is to gain a few pounds now and then.”

Guilherme is quiet while I pet Cheeto’s head and tickle his flickering tongue. After a moment, Guilherme’s short brown fingers join my own.

I meet Guilherme’s eyes. I didn’t have a chance to notice before, but they are green, like fir trees under snow. “May I show you? I think it will be easier than trying to explain it.”

He gazes at me for a whole minute. “Show me what, Manny?”

I gulp. “About making the food babies.”

He leans his head forward and turns one ear toward me. One eyebrow lifts.

I clear my throat. Try to ignore the rush of blood heating my chest and neck. “I want to show you about making the food babies.”

Guilherme’s eyes float away, first, then his body — like someone removing a giant magnet from the room. He takes another sip of tea from the gourd, turns his back, and walks away.

• • •

I left the party a couple hours ago; I debated getting food for me and Cheeto before returning to my apartment. We both need it — but I’m not hungry. Not even Cheeto hungry.

The humid breeze waving the broad, green mittens on my kitchen plants cools my swollen face. The Malbec in my stemless wineglass eases my swollen throat.

It’s after midnight, so I answer the phone when it rings. Because of the question, I don’t hang up on the unfamiliar voice.

“What the hell is a food baby?”

“Who is this?”

A pause. “It’s Guilherme.”

“Why would I tell you anything now?”

“I don’t even know why I reacted like that. I was curious, like so curious it made me feel … muitos sentimentos. And I didn’t know how to react. Maybe if I wasn’t at a party … it doesn’t matter. I didn’t act right.”

I stare at the leaves waving in the breeze and try to think of the next thing to say. It won’t come at first. Then I realize — if I can’t bring him the rest of my way, it doesn’t matter that one of the most powerful photographers in the city is calling me to apologize.

“You want to know about food babies?”

He chuckles. “That expression is so porra estranho! I’m dying to know.”

“Okay. Here’s what you bring…”

• • •

Guilherme picks and I devour from the spread of Mexican food almost overflowing the small wooden table in my kitchen. Metal tins of tamales and massive styrofoam cups of molcajete give off spicy, savory steam carrying the temptations of meat and vegetables. I peel a warm corn tortilla from a foil roll and stuff it full of red Spanish rice and pinto beans and take a huge bite. A gob of beans tucks into the corner of my lips. I wipe it away with a pinky and poke it into my mouth.

I take a moment to look over at Guilherme’s face. He smiles and his eyes dance like bears. I grin back at him as I eat the rest of my bean and rice tortilla. My cheeks bunch out. “Saboroso,” I say through a spray of crumbs.

Guilherme laughs as he chews a bit of shrimp. “Você é mágico e acho que amo você.

I throw an olive at him. “It’s not love, it’s curiosity. But the last man who saw me do this told me I was disgusting and then sabotaged my next shoot. So, ‘I think I love you,’ is a big improvement.” I fork a bite into my mouth, chew it, swallow half. “I needed it to happen though. Phil’s bullshit? He got me fired from that job with those three pounds. Those three pounds weighed tons. They don’t make scales big enough for that kind of invisible, hold-over-my-head weight. I have my hands full just trying to keep a few pounds on.”

“So, you do this whenever Cheeto eats?”

“I eat in between, too. I have to. But it’s extremely little. But when Cheeto eats, those are the times I like food and want the food babies. His food baby makes mine okay.”

Guilherme narrows his eyes.

“It doesn’t have to make sense.” I reach for another enchilada. “I used to catch snakes with my brother in the creek behind our house back in Brazil. We lived in that creek. Then we started keeping the snakes, caring for them. Feeding them was my favorite part. Even then, when I was only eight or nine, it was obvious I had a metabolic disorder. By the time I was thirteen, it was a source of torture. My Aunt Julia never lets me forget it, even now — always trying to feed me yams to grow breasts still.”

Guilherme guffaws and slaps my shoulder as though he too has an aunt or grandmother who once fed him unpalatable remedies.

“I felt angry at food, at eating. That just made things worse and I was always thin. Then, I started feeding our snakes and became fascinated with their food babies. These slender creatures eating a week’s worth of calories, all at once. Like they were getting it out of the way. I grew envious and then I wanted to imitate them. Every time I fed them, I made my own food baby with whatever I could find in the Aunts’ kitchen. They were so happy to see me eating, they started getting ready for me. I finally gained a little adolescent weight.

“I’ve kept a snake ever since. It’s harder here; I only have room for Cheeto. I’d keep more if I could. And I’d probably be bigger.”

I eat a bite of enchilada and meet Guilherme’s eyes. He watches me chew, slides a napkin from under a tin of tortilla chips and wipes something off my chin. I lean back and smile — I’ve eaten about as much as I’m going to. I shade my eyelids, give Guilherme the full force of my thick, curly eyelashes, but my breath slips rapid past my lips.

He turns a weird light on in his eyes that makes my bones thrum and my brains rattles. He places a finger over his lips and cocks his head first one way, then the other. I wish he would let me go, with those eyes, those glowing stone eyes. He’s weighing me.

I clear my throat. “You brought everything else?” I can’t swallow the tremor.

He nods, stands up. Starts walking about the apartment. He doesn’t use his hands to measure space, but I know that’s what he’s doing. He nudges objects and furniture with his toes, looks for locations for his equipment. He squints, blocks outside light with fabrics.

He stops at Cheeto’s tank and presses his hand and then belly and groin against the heated glass. “Olá, lindo,” he says into the open top. Cheeto responds to his lilting tenor — the snake stands as high as his swelling food baby allows him and then topples against the sides of the tank. Guilherme lifts Cheeto from the tank, holds him up to eye level and gazes at his tiny face.

“We lived in the palacio, most of the time, in Paraná, the whole family,” Guilherme says. “Me and my closest brother, Arturo, entertained ourselves, as it sounds like you and your brother did. We could’ve chased snakes in the rivers that rushed in all directions around the city, if we wanted. But, for Arturo, the magic was lizards. He had stacks of cages in his room. The lizards would roam wild through the palace too and sometimes my brother’s lizards would get free and mingle with the wild ones.” He traces the scales down the length of Cheetos’s long body. He lingers over the twitching bulge working through the snake’s midsection. “He always knew them from each other — his own from the wild lizards. Arturo was never wrong.” Guilherme places Cheeto back in among the shredded straw and turns to the kitchen. “How we loved those feras minúsculas. How I miss him, at their cages, cool scaly flesh in his gentle fingers.”

He walks toward me with his hands out. I take hold of him and he pulls me to my feet with such force that I nearly fall into his arms. His green eyes and his handsomeness strike me mute for a moment. And then his warm, soft hands brace my shoulders and hold me off the floor. He searches my face. His hands drop and then hover over my stomach. My flesh there pooches out, satisfied, soft, round.

Posso?” he asks. I nod.

His fingers are tender and palms curious on the softness of my food baby. He rubs, touches where the round flesh meets with sharp rib and pelvis. He watches his exploring hands, then my face, which feels fixed while I observe his devotion.

Guilherme says, “This baby is all the love you have for your body. All the love you have for home, for the you that grew out of that creek.”

I unlock my jaw and speak because the truth, however elusive, deserves more than a nod or a mumble. “Yes, Guilherme, yes.”

His eyes flash and his jaw sets firm and square. “Você será perfeita. And if you want the job, you are my newest model. Come, let’s look at your wardrobe. You, me, and Cheeto — we have art to make tonight.”

“Yes. Art!”

• • •

It’s not my body he shoots. Or pieces of it. He shoots me, all of me. Until he looks at me above the camera and says, “Belo! That’s the one.”


Dona McCormack is a disabled writer living in Northeast Ohio with her devoted partner of 19 years, four fuzzbutts, and one over-sized, goldfish-chomping, aquatic turtle named Bob. Dona pores over writing craft manuals and clips ironic and diabolical story plots from small town newspapers. She is completing her thesis collection, American Animals, for her masters in writing and English from SNHU and she writes Realism and Weird/ New Weird. Dona’s publishing credits include Saturday Evening Post, Tahoma Literary Review, Fabula Argentea, and Kansas City Voices. Find her online: DonaMcCormack1.wixsite.com/donawrites or on Twitter, @DonaWrites.