C is for Cannibalism
Jake ate my face.
It wasn't like what you see in the movies. It wasn't like what happened to that man on that beach in Miami in 2012. Bath salts were involved in that, or so everyone thought. In reality, the only thing they found in the face-eater's system — besides face — was marijuana, a fact I learn years later from my stoned best friend. You know, she says to me, if you didn't have a mental block about it, you could bite the tip of your pinkie finger off as easily as snapping a carrot. I feel crazy enough to do it. I know I'll chicken out.
In high school, a classmate of mine named Stella wrote a poem for our school literary magazine called "Pinky-tip." The final stanza went like this:
In a mood like this,
I don't feel like a vampire
and when I admit my shame serving it
in aluminum with plastic utensils
like don't make a big deal it's like just a joke
you take my hand always serious with me and look straight
at me and say if I ever really want it I can have a piece.
Everyone thought the poem was about sex. Sort of, Stella had explained, But it’s more literal than that. It's about wanting to eat my boyfriend's finger.
For four marathon days, lawyers from across the United States attended keynote speeches and sipped cocktails; us children of lawyers, who held nothing in common but our parents' profession, flirted in the hotel hot tub. I was fourteen, and the summer sprawled wildly before me. For four days, I’d skulk around a California ski resort for the legal industry conference my dad was attending. Then, a week at my grandma's in Sacramento. After that, I'd be on my own to bide time before high school; I had graduated early from summer camp, and wouldn't be heading back in a few weeks with the girls in my old bunk, who now packed tampons and razors in their duffel bags. Everyone was hooked on this new app called Snapchat. Everyone was growing boobs.
I had boobs, but I also had glasses, and I was convinced these canceled each other out. My older sister had boobs and no glasses, so she got to flirt with Joe, who had abs and played lacrosse. He was dangerous because he attended Catholic school and had smoked cigarettes before (things that also granted him infinite sex appeal). I was stuck with Jake, who had a haircut like a libertarian. Jake was on a "break" with his girlfriend. Jake bragged that he had persuaded his friend not to shoot up their school. Every word Jake spoke grated the air like forks on a dinner plate. But Jake was seventeen, and tall, and paid me an unfamiliar attention that prickled my skin. He sensed me — I wasn't sure if I liked it or not, but being sensed was, at fourteen, all I'd ever wanted.
It wasn't like what happened with that man on that beach in Miami. But it wasn't too far off.
We say goodbye to the lawyers and the children of lawyers, and drive away to my grandmother's house. The drive takes us right by Donner Pass, where, in the winter of 1847, a group of California-bound pioneers stranded by a heavy snowfall may or may not have eaten each other. My mother makes us pull over at the Donner Party Memorial museum so we can inspect dioramas of wagon trains and scope out the cannibalism for ourselves. My mother doesn't know I've had my first taste of human flesh. My sister knows, but she doesn’t know how much it scared me.
We meander through a dinky theater where a historical reenactment screens on a loop. We give a once over to copper pots in display cases. We learn that Lewis Keseberg, a member of the Donner Party expedition, was found with a pot full of human flesh in his cabin when the salvage party arrived — in Keseberg's cabin, the rescuers also found the body of Tamsen Donner, a schoolteacher whose husband spearheaded the perilous expedition. As we putter about the gift shop, my sister questions me about Jake. He must have been a pretty bad kisser, she says, if you stayed in our hotel room for two whole days afterwards just to avoid him. Ignoring her is easier than admitting Jake’s kiss made me sick to my stomach. I pick up the first book I can find — "Impatient With Desire: The Lost Journal of Tamsen Donner” — and pretend not to hear her.
Desire and cannibalism are at the forefront of Yellowjackets, a new series from Showtime which has been called "the female version of the Donner Party" (as if the Donner Party wasn't a family affair). Yellowjackets shocked viewers when it first came out — partly, perhaps, because the eponymous varsity soccer squad who find themselves abandoned in the woods are "girl cannibals" whose survival tactics subvert expectations for proper feminine behavior. The Yellowjackets aren’t the first girl cannibals — Kate Robertson wrote a piece for The Atlantic in 2017 about the influx of female cannibals into pop culture in shows like Santa Clarita Diet and movies like Raw, the debut horror feature of French director Julia Ducournau. In these films, Robertson explains, women's cannibalistic tendencies often appear in juxtaposition with their nascent sexual desires. Female cannibals, writes Robertson, "offer an image of resistance to society’s demand that women keep their appetites under control. If viewers can get past the stomach-churning sight of a girl biting off a boy’s lip or of a woman munching on human fingers, they may find themselves empathizing with such acts of liberation, however symbolic or messy."
It’s hard to find the appetite for liberation, though, under the weight of shame: eat or be eaten, you might still end up in bed with a stomachache, thinking the bad meat was your fault.
I bit the tongue of the first boy I kissed after Jake. I pretended like it was an accident. My hunger was still an anger then. In some ways, it still is: I consume only parts, gnaw on bite-sized pieces. It’s been easier, but it hasn’t been filling.
"We love as cannibals," wrote the philosopher Simone Weil. "Beloved beings…provide us with comfort, energy, a stimulant. They have the same effect on us as a good meal after an exhausting day of work. We love them, then, as food. It's an anthropophagic love."
A year after Jake eats my face, a girl asks me to nibble on her ear. She wants me to pretend I'm the boy she has a crush on at school. She likes the brush of my lips, the heat of my breath. Maybe she likes that I’m a girl too, but she won’t admit it.
It happens there first, perhaps, in that tent on a beach by the ocean. Later, it’ll happen on a tarry rooftop under a smear of midnight clouds. In old, worn beds with rose-printed sheets. In the bed of a truck while I watch your window. In a field in a valley in the shadow of a summer afternoon. In a bathroom at a party in a house that isn’t ours. You are never one you, but that hunger has always been singular. It happens there first, the need to eat you whole. I feel crazy enough to do it. I’m scared I'll chicken out.