by Ivy Grimes
I wanted to close my eyes, but I couldn’t. I focused on every detail.
His mouth was stretched wide enough to admit a cantaloupe, his lips cracked and split. I put my left hand inside his mouth. So warm. All the advice columns said to commemorate the event with a ceremony, typically a party beforehand, but I preferred the excitement of elopement. Or so I thought.
The heat of his mouth overwhelmed me. I wanted to pull my hand back, but it would certainly derail the process. The idea was to relax like I was floating on my back in a swimming pool. With no resistance, the process would be blissful, and I would sink up to my shoulder in his mouth, and then. He would swallow my head.
Like wearing velvet. That’s what the advice columns said.
To fall in love, there must be a swallower and a swallowed. My mother was a swallower and had hoped I would follow in her footsteps, but I didn’t have the jaw for it. I could barely open wide enough to stuff a whole cookie into my mouth. I had to take small bites.
Comfortable as Rich’s mouth was, my mind was cluttered with oranges. Would Rich still eat them for me?
Rich and I met while volunteering to teach music lessons to rural teens who thought my clarinet was a kind of perverse harmonica. Rich was a guitarist with a gravelly voice in a range between Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits. The kids disdained us both as pretentious city pricks, and we were.
Both of us were vegans and ornithophiles and librarians, but no matter how much alike a couple might be, there will always be some point of disagreement. Rich loathed oranges, whereas I ate oranges every day. Palmed tangerines and nestled navels. My mother made me eat them for the Vitamin C when I was sick as a child. The taste of sweet citrus made me feel like my mother’s hand was on my cheek.
And Rich hated them for some equally unreasonable reason linked back to childhood. He promised (like all swallowers) to take my interests into account once I was inside of him. He promised we would read my favorite Victorian mystery novels once a year, and wake up early twice a week to see the sun rise, and play chess in the park on Sundays.
Once the union took place, the swallowers naturally had better control over their bodies than the swallowed, though the swallowed had some. Twenty percent control on average, scientists estimated. Some more, some less. A bad deal, maybe, but someone had to do it. Uniting was part of the fabric of society, and without it, there wouldn’t be enough resources for everyone, and there would be no offspring.
Those who didn’t unite were cast out. They had to journey to a special camp in the Arizona desert, and reports varied on what it was like out there. Some articles said the inhabitants there were collaborative and free, while others said life there was dull and lonely. Sometimes the idea of escape appealed to me, but it also terrified me, and there was so little concrete information available. The camps were seen as the last resort of the desperate, not a serious option for the swallow-averse.
I was running out of time. I was thirty-nine, and on my fortieth birthday, I’d be sent off to the desert where I’d probably become nothing. A nobody.
And yet the imminent terror of being swallowed overwhelmed me. The desert still seemed far away.
“Rich?” I whispered once I was up to my left elbow
“Hmmbh?” Even with his bloody lips and his jaw all bent out of shape by my body, he was beautiful. Eyes sharp as whittled sticks.
He sputtered, frowned.
“I’m not ready now, but I’m sure I will be next time. Could we try again? I just—I think I’m coming down with a cold,” I said, on the verge of tears. I couldn’t seem to catch my breath. When he disgorged me, I ran to the bathroom to wash my arm. I felt so guilty, but his saliva on my arm felt like noxious slime. It wasn’t supposed to be that way. Nothing I’d read had prepared me. Once I was done in the bathroom, I grabbed my green bathrobe from my bedroom to cover my nakedness. Rich was still sitting on my couch in dignified khakis and a red cashmere sweater. It was a relief to feel the worn fabric of my robe again. If I’d united, it would have been given away.
“You don’t love me.” That was Rich’s diagnosis once I returned to the living room. By then, his mouth was almost back to its normal shape, and he sat rubbing his jaw. On the table remained an empty bottle of wine, the last bottle we were supposed to have consumed as separate entities. The bottle of champagne to celebrate our uniting was chilling in the fridge.
“I do.” My mind felt like a pencil eraser, gummy and unelectric, and I couldn’t access whatever region of my brain would help me sound sincere.
“Should have known something was up. You didn’t even tell your parents.” Rich touched a napkin to the blood seeping from his lips. I felt sorry for him, but not sorry enough to tell him to try again.
“It seems like a private thing. I wanted it to be special.”
“I support your independence, Amanda, but you’re becoming obsessed with power struggles. That’s not what love is about. Being swallowed doesn’t make you less powerful. You’re one of the strongest people I know. That’s part of what attracted me to you in the first place.”
After glancing at my hand to make sure I’d washed away the last trace of slime, I looked up again to find Rick staring hungrily at my fingers.
“I need some time…”
“That’s what you’ve been saying for months,” he muttered. “My friend John just met his partner Neil last week, and they’re uniting next Thursday. I mean, did you forget that you’re almost forty?”
The reminder of my age hurt, but I ignored it and gave him a halfhearted pep talk. “Uniting happens really fast for some people, but it takes a time for others.”
“I wish I could turn things around, Amanda! I wish you could swallow me. But I can’t do anything about the capacity of our mouths.”
In an instant, my guilt changed to bilious anger at his hypocrisy.
“You wouldn’t change places with me for all the money in the world!” I shouted louder than intended.
“Have you ever considered how hard this is for me? I’ll never be alone again. There will always be someone inside of me. But you only think about yourself!”
He got to his feet without a word of farewell and slammed the door on his way out. I was alone, just like I’d always been. It was the first time I’d almost let someone swallow me. I’d thought Rich was the one.
After moping around my apartment for several days (and eating as many oranges as I could), I knew I needed some uncommon advice. In the past, I’d always gone to my mother, believing my father’s thoughts were folded in. This time, I drove an hour out of the city to their country house so I could seek the direct counsel of my swallowed father.
When I pulled into their pine-studded driveway, I found Mom hanging a watercolor painting on the clothesline in the front yard. She’d always said that Dad was the artist, and after she’d swallowed him, his abilities worked through her. They sold his paintings at a local gallery. Honestly, though, I’ve always thought of Mom as the artist. I’ve always thought of her as everything and of Dad as some invisible Jiminy Cricket or a buzzing bee. Hardly anything.
It was different for every couple. Most of my friends had already united, and those who were swallowed still talked to me alone sometimes. Their partners would go to sleep, and they would emerge. I recognized their gestures and the rhythm of their speech. The swallowed can sometimes surface that way, but my father never did.
“It’s fun to be taken in,” one of my swallowed friends told me. “Life is so comfortable and easy. I don’t even have to wake up when my wife goes to work.”
That was appealing in a way, and I could see what he’d gained by allowing his wife to swallow him, but what about what he’d lost? I didn’t want to make him feel bad by asking how he felt about all he’d lost, but I desperately wanted to know.
“Amanda!” Mom cried when she spotted me, wrapping me up in her tight hug. “We were just finishing our art hour and getting ready to have brunch. Later, we’re going to the gym. Join us!”
“I came here with a mission, Mom.”
She pulled back and looked at me with some surprise. Usually, Mom planned out any days we spent together. That’s how it had always been.
“What’s worrying you, hon? Is it Rich? Did something happen between you two?”
She’d never been fond of Rich, but then again, she didn’t want to lose me to banishment. Once you were forty and forced into the desert, it was hard to keep up communication. Only one person I knew, my former friend Katie, lived at the camp. The mail there and back took forever, and their reception was spotty. Whenever we talked on the phone, she seemed so listless. Either she was bored by her life or bored by me. Once we lived in different worlds, we lost all we’d had in common.
“About Rich…” I began.
Anxiety brightened Mom’s light brown eyes (she said the lightness came from Dad, whose eyes were blue).
“He wanted to unite. But I couldn’t do it.”
The last thing I wanted was to cry, especially in front of Mom who was such a bulwark, but my voice broke, and soon I was sobbing. I didn’t want to be inside of Rich (or did I?), but I missed him.
“Well, don’t you worry. Now that Rich is gone, you can find someone better. You know, someone with a backbone. Someone with a real lust for life. I’m sure you will want to unite with someone like that.”
“Maybe, Mom. But I actually came here today to get advice from Dad.”
Mom gasped a little as if I’d lightly slapped her. “Dad is always giving you advice. He’s in every word I speak. He’s in every little gesture. Don’t you know that? If you think being swallowed means getting wiped out, maybe it’s my fault.” She shook her head sadly and trailed slowly away from the backyard into the kitchen, which was coated with flour on every surface.
Since retirement, my parents had done some baking (for Mom) and some art (supposedly for Dad) every day. I smelled cinnamon rolls on the edge of burning in the oven, and I took them out without asking Mom. She was better at kneading dough than knowing the proper baking times, and Dad seemed to be no help.
“I’m sorry to upset you, Mom. But I didn’t know Dad before you swallowed him. Obviously. I’ve seen some pictures, but it’s hard to tell from that how much…I don’t know. How much of Dad is really shining through you.”
Mom prided herself on taking action, not sitting around being pensive all day. Presumably to keep herself somewhat distracted from the depressing conversation, she busied herself by whipping up cream and powdered sugar into a thick icing for the cinnamon rolls and slathering it on while the rolls were still warm.
She held an unfrosted roll out to me.
“Want one? I made these vegan for you, except for the frosting. I must have had some hunch I’d see you,” she said.
“I prefer orange rolls.” I felt like crying again. Any taste of orange I had might be my last.
“Oh, I know. But your father doesn’t like them. Cinnamon is your father’s favorite.” She raised her eyebrows and nodded at me as if she’d proven her thesis. Dad was important in our household. His wants and needs were taken most seriously.
“But Mom, I’ve never talked to Dad alone. When you sleep, he sleeps. I’ve talked to some of my friends who’ve been swallowed, but never Dad. Don’t you think that’s weird?”
Mom grabbed a cinnamon roll (presumably for Dad’s sake) and chewed thoughtfully. “Before Dad was swallowed, he told me he was really committed to our uniting, and I was, too. It was a little different in our generation—we wanted all our movements, all our expressions, to be combined. We really wanted to be one. When you hear from me, you hear from him. But your generation is so cynical, and you feel you understand me as an individual but not your father. I should have known.”
We were silent for a moment. The wind whipped through the pines outside, and I saw the watercolor fluttering on the line. It looked like something abstract—a pink tunnel with a central blob. Mom (or Dad, perhaps) liked to paint odd, disturbing subjects in a delicate style.
“So can I talk to him?” I said.
She sighed. “We’ve been one person all these years, but he realizes it’s a special circumstance, and he doesn’t want you to be exiled. We’d miss you so.”
“Wonderful,” I said, though I was nervous. It wasn’t so different from how I’d felt when Rich and I had planned our uniting elopement. I wanted to move forward, but the idea of such a radical change was nerve-wracking. What if I didn’t like my dad?
“Come with us to the bedroom. I’ll take a little nap, and Dad says he can stay awake to chat for a bit.”
I followed her, and she settled into her unmade bed. For the first time, I wondered who had chosen the yellow patterned sheets and comforter. Surely Mom?
As directed, I pulled a chair from the kitchen table into the room and placed it near her head. My heartbeat roared in my ears, and I felt like I’d been swallowed by a wave. This was it. I’d know the truth about my father’s life at last.
I fiddled with my fingers, picking at hangnails as I watched her drift off. It only took a few minutes. She appeared to be in a deep sleep, and there was no sign of my father at first.
Slowly, her lids opened again.
“Hey, kid. I heard you wanted to see me. Your mom and I’ve got an all-or-nothing kind of thing, but I understand this conversation is a once-in-a-lifetime deal. You have to make your peace with being swallowed.”
A shiver came over me; it was so eerie to see the difference between them. Dad had a totally different way of talking—slow and sarcastic. Mom was quick and always earnest.
“I’ll be exiled next year.”
“That almost happened to me, too. I wasn’t chomping at the bit to be swallowed myself. But when I met your mom, I was a goner! Just between you and me, if that camp for exiles had been someplace like Seattle, I might have gone. I can’t take the heat.”
“I feel the same way!” I said with some triumph. “I hate the heat! It isn’t just being exiled, though of course I’d miss Mom…and you…and my friends.”
“I felt way too hot when I was being swallowed, as a matter of fact. Your Mom is hot-natured, and when she was swallowing me, I felt like I’d melt away. I almost stopped the process and broke it off—but I didn’t. We always keep the AC down low for my sake.”
This was why people researched their genealogies and mapped out their genes. If everything feels like your own free will, you feel so responsible for everything. Now I knew it wasn’t only my fault that I didn’t want to be swallowed or live in Arizona. I couldn’t take the heat. Just like my dad.
“Are you glad you went through with it?”
He smiled. “Course.”
“It’s not so obvious to me. That’s why I’m here.”
He coughed loud and long. “Coming down with some kind of cold,” he said. “I told her not to shake hands anymore with strangers. She goes around touching everybody.”
“Does that annoy you?”
He squinted. “No, I just wish she wouldn’t.”
“Why can’t you admit that it annoys you? It’s obvious.” We probably didn’t have much time. Mom never took long naps.
A heavy sigh escaped Mom’s lips. “You’re acting like her,” he said. “She never believes me when I say I’m fine.”
“So you’re not annoyed that Mom shakes everyone’s hands and makes you both sick?”
“It’s not that simple. I mean, I guess it annoys me a little, but I don’t mind that much. It’s hard to explain being united to someone who’s single.”
“Well, if you’re swallowed, how do you feel like an individual? Do you ever feel resentful for losing your body and having to share all your time with someone? You might want to paint all day, but Mom wouldn’t. Right?”
He shrugged. That is, he made Mom’s shoulders shrug.
The nerve of the man! I would have thought he’d have more to say after all those years where I felt like Mom was the one raising me, but it was like trying to get milk from a seashell. I was making the most important decision of my life, and he had no insights.
I must have huffed, or maybe rolled my eyes, because he shot me a warning look.
“You’re impatient as your mother. What, you want me to tell you what to do? That’s not my bag. But I’ll tell you this. Being inside another person gives you insights into that person. Your Mom doesn’t know me near as well as I know her.”
“Really? None of the advice columns mentioned that.” At last, something I could use!
“No one likes to talk about it, because it sounds manipulative. But the truth is, when you’re inside, you know what makes the other person tick. You know what they feel guilty about. You know what they love and what they hate about themselves.”
“How does that help?”
Dad looked back and forth as if someone was about to sneak up on him.
“Say I want to paint for longer than the painting hour. Well, I might remind your mom of how my college painting teacher said I was a natural, destined to be a famous artist. Mom feels guilty about that. Her work at the library and her baking hobby don’t take the kind of delicate handiwork that my painting took. And I lost my hands. She feels bad about all that, see?”
I nodded slowly. Guilt, yes. If part of Dad’s talent was in his hands, he had given up something important.
“I wish God hadn’t made us this way, to be honest. But that’s the way it is. One swallows another. That way, everyone in the world has enough food to eat, and we make more life—like you—but everyone sacrifices something in the deal,” he said.
“Everyone always says how great it is. They never admit about how much you give away.”
I began to cry again. Mom would have comforted me, but Dad just looked at the bedspread.
“Look kid, you don’t want to go into exile, so you’re going to have to make your peace with it. But remember what I said—in some ways, being swallowed gives you more power than being the swallower. Can you dig what I’m saying? I can’t stay any longer. I’m getting pretty tired now.”
He closed his eyes, and Mom’s head drifted down to her pillow. Soon she was snoring. They were both asleep.
I wiped my tears away. I’d done enough worrying, enough crying. This was the way of the world. I could either let myself be swallowed or submit to my exiled fate.
On the way back to my apartment, I stopped to see Rich, and his face lit up when he opened the door. Honestly, I’d only planned to stop by and see how he was.
He invited me inside, and one thing led to another. Before I could think too much about it, I was begging him to try again. He unhinged his jaw, and this time I closed my eyes so I wouldn’t see his tight-stretched lips or his guitar-shaped face. That unpleasantness was only momentary.
My dad’s words pinged inside my head. The swallowed has more power.
First my hand, then up to my shoulders. Like floating in water. When he swallowed my head, I was plunged into silence and darkness, and I screamed, but no sound came out. He kept swallowing and swallowing until I was all inside, until I was arranged properly inside of him and could look out from his eyes. Could hear from his ears.
“Rich?” I said to him without opening my mouth, without opening his mouth. And he heard me. I only had to think in his direction.
“Amanda! My darling. This calls for a celebration.” He had to speak aloud.
He ran to get the champagne, and it was so strange to see him pour only one glass. I wanted to ask where my glass was.
Oh, the fizz. The sparkle. I could taste it through his tongue. Now I’d never have to go to Arizona.
Mom (and Dad?) would be so happy to have me around. We might have children, too. I’d never wanted them, but that was the next step, wasn’t it? And since Rich was the swallower, his body would bear the pain of the pregnancy. Maybe Mom could watch our children for us while we played our music.
Our music. He had promised to play both the clarinet and the guitar. To alternate.
We drank glass after glass of champagne. Rich called his parents and mine, and then we called our friends, and everyone was so happy with the news. Two-in-one. One. United. They all said congratulations as if the whole thing had been one big party.
“I’m hungry,” I told him after the phone calls. Now was my time to test him.
We went to the fruit bowl and peeled a mandarin. I felt his face make a grimace as we stared at the fruit.
“Oh, tasty,” I thought at him. “So good.” But he resisted.
I concentrated. Maybe if I tried, I could control more than twenty percent. I could use my father’s methods, too, but maybe I could be even stronger. Maybe I could put all my strength into his hand. His right hand held the naked orange. I brought the whole thing to his lips, and I pressed it hard into his face.
“Hey!” he said through tight lips, trying to keep me from shoving it into his mouth. He had such a big mouth, I thought I might as well take advantage.
I pushed harder, but he waged war with me, keeping his teeth and lips shut. Pulp tickled his nostrils.
“Think of all I gave up for you,” I reminded him.
He opened his mouth, and I tasted an explosion of orange. I stuffed the whole thing inside of us.
“Gross,” he mumbled, and I ignored him. I could almost feel my mother’s hand against my cheek.
I wiped the pulp from our lips and sat us on the couch. I would settle in. With time, maybe I could make this body my own.
Ivy Grimes lives in Virginia, and her stories have appeared in The Baffler, Vastarien, Seize the Press, ergot., Tales From Between, Dark Matter Magazine, and elsewhere. You can find her assorted thoughts and stories @IvyGri on Twitter, www.ivyivyivyivy.com, and ivygrimes.substack.com.