The job description was accurate: Assistant Needed for Commercial Body Modification Project was what it read, and Sherilyn was excellent at assisting, having done it most of her life. She was certified to assist the nurses who would visit her grandparents in their home where they would eventually die—together, in flames, probably though not conclusively one last act of rebellion against the world that had always conspired against them in their view. She had assisted dozens of her friends with their writing in college—plagiarism, really, though no one called it that then. Had driven getaway for her high school boyfriend’s second vandalism spree (two hundred plus broken windows, flares shot up over the water like fireworks trailing into glitter, all the parking meters downtown winched up from the concrete then left there like used toothpicks for giants), and admittedly it was sort of under duress, if that’s what you’d term their love, though she would have rolled on him in a minute if she had somehow been caught. Still, she could be counted on to show up on time, appropriately attired, prepared for almost anything, at any time, and to see whatever through. If she was a boy she would have been a boy scout, peppered with pins and multicolored badges, having mastered WEBELOS and on her way to Eagle. Which is why she kept getting hired for these jobs. Her references: impeccable. Her work record: spotless. This was a kind of genius, she told herself, to be the supporting cast, even if you never got to call yourself a protagonist.
She had little respect for the body with its interlocking systems of fluids, its hormonal bursts and spurts, where had it ever got her, she thought, except in clinics, and she was happy to help to tame it when she could, she said at the interview. Her job was to just be professional, to maintain lists, to watch the subject’s food intake, to monitor the subject’s weight as it slowly—then increasingly quickly, accelerating as the body began to burn its fat reserves—dropped, approaching the contractual goal. She would also be responsible for administering small electric shocks to curb undesired behavior, and occasionally for doing other things as needed. The need for discretion went without saying.
The Starvationist was a behaviorist at heart, with a bit of the dietitian's training and a strong streak of the dominatrix. Her fashion reflected this—chokers, leather strips, keychain handcuffs that her assistant assumed must be a joke, and a complicated strappy mask she wore in all official Encounters with the Subjects. The look was a put-on mostly. She called it her game face, and it always struck Sherilyn as odd, and when she asked, the Starvationist told her that it reassured the supplicants, I mean the subjects. That’s half of it, she said. They wanted to be reassured, to feel that by someone’s holding them they could assert control. This is exactly what they lacked, and she gave it to them. So you had to look the part. You can detach, submerge into the role, and act. Sherilyn was asked to wear only red and black, something professional with a touch of sexy. She would be the carrot; the Starvationist was the stick. This was how it was explained to her. Nearly any human behavior could be worked away like this.
Take this subject for instance: he could benefit from the stick. At forty-six, not an age past salvage but an age where the outlines of life have long become clear: whatever the glass was, half-empty or half-full, the line was calcified on the side of the container. Sherilyn could tell he was a sort of sad guy, just out from what he’d termed an open marriage, the sort of open marriage that you sensed was more open on his side than on his wife’s, that that was the story he’d been telling himself, that it was what she deserved for no longer wanting sex with him. He’d looked defeated, coming in, and was, no doubt. But he had one killer feature, a full head of hair, glossy and almost false-looking, which he’d grown out to the point that it was hard to read as anything but a performance. He had contracted the Starvationist to help him reach his goal weight, which was to drop no less than sixty pounds. He wanted to get his old self back, he said, find his mojo. The usual. He wanted to impress girls. One in particular, he said: his ex. He wanted her back. He’d done something to lose here, though what that was he wouldn’t say. Now he’d do anything. Become anyone. He’d tried a lot of things, he said, but none of them had worked. What did she want, anyway, he asked Sherilyn, and of course she couldn’t say.
It could almost make you blind, encountering this kind of sadness on the daily. You could see by the cabinets and garbage in his house that this was a last chance for him. She saw it all on the walk-through now, just Sherilyn and him, gathering data for the Starvationist.
He had all the products seen on television. Had a box of brochures and glossy folders from weight-loss seminars. Hypnotism didn’t work, Sherilyn told him: it only goes for 30% of people, those who are predisposed to those sorts of states, and you are not. It’s not your fault. Don’t worry, she had said. We’ll get you there. You’ll get to see the inside of that meditative state. People often find that once they get beyond the first two stages of the Process they begin to lose sight of their lives. They come out beautiful; they come out changed.
Another one was this actor who needed to lose forty-one pounds for what he clearly thought would be an Oscar-winning role. He was supposed to be an ascetic, a sexy kind of resisting historical priest, and while the studio told him they could digitally reduce him onscreen if they had to, he was a method kind of guy, and needed to get there for real, by himself, to get inside the body of a 110-pound man, for it to feel yes, the click, so right. He had got down to 132 by himself through diet and exercise, deprivation. He’d tried six different diets, trainers, the Zone, low carb, all pineapple, etc. but he plateaued at 132. 132 was skinny, but it was not 110. He was spinning his wheels, he’d said when Sherilyn was doing the initial interview, and his people couldn’t get him down any further, and if he didn’t he would lose it, and he would lose momentum, he’d said, whatever that meant, and when Sherilyn had asked he’d said you know, the story, the one where you are the next; when you lose it you’re the previous, the last; the roles stop coming. He said he had heard the Starvationist was the breast. He actually said breast, and then corrected himself, laughing, and then Sherilyn laughed with him. She had liked his last movie, though she didn’t (would never—she didn’t want to be one of the masses who deify those whose lives occur onscreen) tell him this.
The job was mostly good. She got to talk to the famous, the semi-famous, and the very very depressed because they were not more famous, and that was a perk. It kept things in perspective. Here was what you wanted, and here was what you had to do to get it. It was a simple story that they told. Everyone seemed to feel the same: they wanted and they wanted. Even those who’d appeared to be themselves, be happy: inside they wanted worse than anything. They just wouldn’t—or couldn’t—say.
The Starvationist held her at arm’s length for the first few months before she relaxed. She’d make a joke while prepping a subject under anesthesia. She’d show some hidden section of herself in moments like this one where the subject was under. She could rely on Sherilyn, she said. She’d had trouble finding the right person. She gesticulated with the scalpel. They’d come and wouldn’t stay past the first three months.
Why was what, she wondered aloud. I’ve never quite understood. Do you know? Why are you still here? I don’t mean to complain, but I’d resigned myself to replacing you like all the rest.
I couldn’t say, Sherilyn said: I mean I don’t know. I like the job. You help people.
We help people, Sherilyn.
I know, she said.
We change people, Sherilyn.
Yes, she said. It’s hard to change, to really change.
Sherilyn saw the bodies melt away, the sags and flaps develop, because that was what happened when you lost a lot of weight in a very short time. Sometimes that spare footage rubbed together and you had to grease the rubbing parts if you run, which almost no one ever did. It wasn’t always pretty, this kind of care. Keep your clothes on, subjects were told, until you see the cosmetic surgeon, if that matters to you.
The system partly works on fear and bargaining. The testimonials they had on the brochure explained one former subject who was able to leach the last twenty pounds into his right foot middle toe, and then they lopped it off. No toe but he did make his weight. The guy was really, truly happy to be down to what he weighed when he graduated high school and got the first of his four lifetime Camaros. The middle toe doesn’t do jack for you, he said—who thinks about that toe? It doesn’t help with balance, doesn’t make you faster, more beautiful, cooler, or otherwise better equipped for life. He was thin now and life could not be better, he said, and that was how the testimonial read. He beamed. The camera loved him and always would forever.
Sherilyn had her doubts. He went on too long, especially for a testimonial. They couldn’t identify him by name, but they mentioned a couple movies he had been in before and the blockbuster that came after. Still. Sherilyn wondered: What would have really happened if he hadn’t made the weight?
Almost no one doesn’t make the weight, the Starvationist said.
But what if?
He would have lost something bigger, the Starvationist said.
For instance: The whole amputation thing was real and written into the contract. She didn’t doubt whether it happened—she had seen the toe stump, had helped pull it off and preserve it in ice, so she knew it did—but it seemed awfully grisly. The Starvationist had a cat named Spragmos, which was something unattractive from some ancient Greek Myth. The cat was ugly, bloated, angry, fat, not sleek and clean like other cats. He had a big hump along its back. Was missing a tooth in the front so it often appeared to snarl even when he was apparently pacified. He bit you in the head while you were sleeping, she explained. Sherilyn wondered why you’d even have a cat like that. Love, the Starvationist had said. He hadn’t always been this way. When you have a pet, you commit.
So commit her assistant did. The job became all-encompassing, all she thought about, even at home or walking through the city, waiting for something to happen to her. When she began to dream about amputation Sherilyn knew she had something real. So when Paul, an ex, walked in for an afternoon appointment, she felt almost—what—violated, she thought, later, once she’d recovered from the shock. And god, what had become of him? She’d heard from mutual friends that Paul had changed in the wake of their breaking up. He had grown quite large indeed (the gossip suggested it was grief and desolation over him losing hold of her heart, her heat, her gleaming, perfect teeth—that her spurning him set something finally off, broke a boundary inside him, and he just inflated after that). Or it might be just that it was his name. He hated it, being one of the Pauls. He always had, but being in a relationship had protected him from it, himself, his doom, he’d said.
Name one successful Paul, he’d said, when they had been dating for a year.
McCartney, Sherilyn replied.
Second fiddle, but alive and married to a woman with just one leg, he said: so there’s that. But okay, name another.
She got distracted: there’s what? He was alive and married, a multimillionaire. She paused before responding. How about the apostle?
Is that successful?
He’s remembered, right?
Wasn’t he crucified or pulled apart by dogs or something awful?
He might have had a point, though, when she thought about it, and she spent a whole weekend trying to disprove his theory, and this was the conversation from the relationship that came back to her from time to time, and she’d never had a great answer, which was pretty strange, you had to admit, because how much could a name really determine? (Don’t ask a John.) Eventually the best she figured out was: Bunyan, some baseball player for Milwaukee famous for a string of hits in consecutive games, and probably some pope somewhere along the line (John Pauls do not count, he reminded her). How about J Paul Hurhston, the famous horror writer?
J, my dear, is for John.
Hmm, she said.
Compare the success of Pauls, he said, to Johns.
I give up, she said, and did.
It had been a year.
Paul had contacted the Starvationist, though he had first referred to her as the Interventionist, mixing her up with one of those jokers who specialized in curbing any old kind of behavior unwanted by families on television shows. When he had called, his voice was unrecognizable—thick and thinky, like he had spent far too much time alone, in his head. Who knows how many loser Pauls he’d now collected? It’s like his vocal cords had gotten fat, too, if that was even possible. Luckily, maybe, he didn’t recognize Sherilyn either, until she and the Starvationist had come out for the initial consultation, which was a little more than awkward, and the Starvationist could surely sense it. If he wasn’t sure when he’d walked in, the look on Sherilyn’s face—impossible to hide—was what clicked for him, he said, later: that was what now committed him to the Method, the full course of it.
She explained their history to the Starvationist.
Good, she said. Stakes are important.
Sherilyn was not so sure. Shouldn’t you be here on your own? she asked. People will do a lot of stupid things to try and get someone back who it turns out they cannot have.
He’d explained that his weight had increased ever since she left, it was all he could think about, eating, the slow roll down the inclined plane of their love (he was an engineer and worked hard for these kinds of metaphors). Was there a maximum blood pressure you could get to and still be alive?
Lord, he said, give some salt to Paul.
Now he—and now via the magic of institutionality he became Subject, no longer Paul or he at all—looked like a sandwich, his brow inflated, his neck inflated, the all of him mushrooming outwards, and it was all that Sherilyn could do not to let her horror out. She had heard, of course, what everyone had said, but she doesn’t believe in talking to one’s exes. And especially in this case, she had thought it better just to cut it off entirely—you don’t want to leave men with hope.
As part of the Contract Meeting, Paul was informed that it was a possibility—possible, though rare—that he might have to lose an extremity as part of the treatment, but that he got to pick which one, if it came to that, and he had to pick, so there would be Actualization of Consequence.
Of course he had to pick the penis.
Almost no one picked the penis. Though one man picked his lover’s penis, being sort of petulant then, when informed the extremity had to be his own. After that he—like most people—picked a toe.
Toes were the easiest, the least obtrusive, amputations. Very few people had any love for the toe, aside from the array of sandal-sniffers, stocking-stuffers, and foot fetishists that inevitably found their way to the Starvationist, fetishists drawn inexorably to another, usually through the power of the Internet. Occasionally you got the people who wanted amputations, who were that particular brand of fucked up, the Starvationist told Sherilyn. That’s why they did the psych-screen up front, the MMPI, those weird Rorschach cards, and the rest of the battery of tests. That way you could control certain variables, keep the real wackos out, those who didn’t want to succeed, for whom the consequences were the endgame.
Runners never picked the toe, but runners never came to the Starvationist, having already found their system.
Afterwards Sherilyn told the Starvationist that he probably wouldn’t do it, if it came to it, that he’d pick another body part.
Who would really want it to be the penis? she said.
You never know, the Starvationist told her in another one of those unguarded moments that became almost startling: her father had chemically castrated himself to reduce the incidence of one of many urges that visited him compulsively.
But that’s different, Sherilyn said, he still had the body part, right?
That’s true, said the Starvationist.
Sherilyn asked, is he still alive?
Yes, she said. Kind of, she said. I don’t want to talk any more about it.
What kind of life would it be to have the sex drive just stripped from you—or would it remain a learned compulsion? It must have been pretty bad, she thought. But then a lot of it was pretty bad, she found, working here.
And besides, Paul’s penis, like most penises on men, was never one of his better features, though perhaps now with his massive weight gain its position had improved, thought Sherilyn. Maybe it too would become weighty when engorged, would sway from side to side like a pendulum. This was not a thought she had ever thought before, she realized, with some alarm, and wondered where it came from.
The Method is rough, what with the collars and the tourniquets, the tubes, and the restricted diet, but the worst part was the lack of sleep. At least there were no drugs. The Starvationist did not believe in drugs, believed instead in the power of the will, and of suggestion, and of threat and consequence.
Her father’s chemical castration didn’t take, she said, later, in an unguarded moment. He had done some things, and it was ordered by a judge, this was another time, when that still happened, but it didn’t help. They had found out later that he’d taken reverse hormone therapy to bring back his sex drive, as it turned out: he said he just couldn’t live without it. And he had committed another crime, and had to be removed to an experimental camp, and he had returned completely changed.
Just changed. He wasn’t the same. Less there, really, which honestly was better. He could be a terror before. Now he was just a shell of one.
Her assistant wondered: Was that where it began for her?
The subjects were nearly all able to make their goal weights. They lost tens of thousands of pounds in the aggregate. There was Danny, a four hundred pounder who lost, with their help, half of his body size in just underneath a year, though he died shortly afterward from an unrelated condition that no one was aware of: the Testimonial still appeared, with the before and after photos, on the brochure with an asterisk and type so small it was illegible except with a magnifying glass, which they had to get specially printed on a super-high-resolution printer; it read There Are Health Reasons Not to Suddenly Lose All Your Body Weight (the designer really liked his capital letters at the beginning of words, being a fan of nineteenth century novels). And Sherilyn was impressed and a little bit surprised when each of them finally made their weight, in spite of what she knew about the Method, which worked whether or not you wanted it to. That was its genius. That was why the Starvationist could charge such fees, why she could afford to pay an assistant as extravagantly as she did. After all else fails, call the Starvationist: that was the little jingle the agency had created that Sherilyn found herself humming. Sherilyn didn’t know why they’d bothered with advertising, since almost all of their business aside from the Internet wackos came from word of mouth. There is no shortage of those hoping to lose (or even occasionally gain: the Starvationist did this too) weight in this world, and they all come eventually to the Starvationist. Working here Sherilyn had started to notice how omnipresent weight was, how advertisements everywhere gestured toward its loss and in every medium: television, newspapers, Internet, magazines, even stapled up on telephone poles all throughout the city or plastered on the crowded, aging bulletin boards at the public library and the coffee shop. Besides sex, this was now the one the great draw. There is money to be made, people to be saved from themselves, from the imminent world.
At the end of the world there will be cockroaches, a few stalwart lovers reaching out towards each other, some battlements, a shitload of Styrofoam, weirdo constantly-mutating viruses attacking each other or the few remaining human hosts, and the Starvationist. That’s what Sherilyn told her friends who wanted to know why she stayed on. They asked: wasn’t it just awful being around so much want? Wasn’t it like a cult? And could you tell us more about its dictates? About how it operates?
No. She stayed, she thought, because the method worked every time, unlike love, family, or autoerotic asphyxiation. Sherilyn saw it work: she helped it work. She affixed the tubes, held the Subjects down, administered pulses of electroshock to the points circled into constellations on their sometimes-willing skin. She drew the cutting lines and helped to guide the Starvationist’s hands in the cases where it came to that. This was the one task for which the Starvationist needed an assistant: her hands got shaky when touching skin, when cutting. She had tried med school before washing out of surgery. She just had a mental block, and could not get past it. This was her secret. And when Sherilyn started paying attention, she realized that the Starvationist never actually touched a subject flesh to flesh. Not once. Hence the gloves and the getups and the masks. Here was what she was really needed for: the cutting and the touching.
So Sherilyn would cup her hands on the Starvationist’s until they stopped their little shaking, and—like Ouija!—would guide them sort of semi-mystically to do what they had to do. Once when the Starvationist couldn’t do it, Sherilyn had to make the cuts herself unguided, which was far harder than she would have guessed: flesh unzipped so easily under the Starvationist’s hands on her hands, and even though it seemed that Sherilyn did all of the work, alone, suddenly she was in her head with all those Pauls, and she nearly botched the cuts.
This particular subject wanted the ring finger gone if something had to go, had been deserted by her husband, who, after upending her from her friends and life in Minnesota, moved her to Tucson, Arizona, where after just six months, he confessed that he was gay and wanted a divorce. She asked: why did he even want to move us here? Not us but me: he moved me here—and not even to Tucson proper, I don’t know if you know it (it’s a dusty little town) but even worse, to Rita Ranch, a shitty commuter suburb for those who worked down at the avionics corporation where they designed missiles or software for them or parts to help them fly straight and long and kill, and then he left me there. All the restaurants they went to there were chains. It burned her skin to go outside. Every plant had hooks or barbs, and sometimes you wouldn’t even notice you got a spine in you until you went to bed. Some spines got so deep in you they wouldn’t ever come out, not ever, she explained. And then with his boyfriend they moved right back to Minnesota and I was there alone in all that desert suburban fucking air. She said it would be a fitting reminder of what was there and would never return, even as she could fit back into a size ten, something the husband had said she would never do again, that she did and did again.
And of course he came crawling back to her when his boyfriend left him in frozen Minnesota. You’re my best friend, he’d said. You’re the only one who really knows me. Yes, she said, that’s true, I know you, but I am not your friend. She would go back to Minnesota but not with him and not for him and in fact not with him knowing. So she changed her name and changed her life again. You had to admire a woman like that for doing what she did, for recovering from that kind of wreck.
Was that the kind of wreck that Paul was that brought him here? He sure seemed wrecked, but Sherilyn could not see how it was her problem or her fault. He did genuinely seem to want change. It was uncomfortable being so close to him as he fell apart, even to be part of the solution.
The second time Sherilyn saw Paul in the office she could see him stiffen up, and not in the way she briefly used to love. He stammered for a minute, then got control, found civility, said hello. It’s not like he didn’t know that she was here, that she was the hands around the Starvationist’s hands, that she was part of what was happening to him now. So today, as usual, even when he wasn’t late, Sherilyn told him he was early so he’d have to wait. That it could be some time. Expectation was part of the Method. Plus the Starvationist was with another Subject, an actor, better known for his many non-acting passions that seemed like they must amount to either a mania or a joke. Normally she wouldn’t say anything this specific, but she was put off by Paul and the beach ball of his engorged body, then the thought of possibly bearing some responsibility for it, and for his eventual future de-penising if the Method didn’t work, so she was off-guard and stumbling. They both were. It was like their first date, which also went badly, involving diarrhea, a word he was completely unable to spell in the apology note he sent her afterwards attempting to overcome her food poisoning and his botched attempt at cooking Thai. Back then Paul was beautiful, and his big skill, the thing he had mastered, was the ability to listen to Sherilyn as she told him about herself. He was all ear, all hammer and anvil and Eustachian tube and drum, and she had loved that immediately about him, this self-effacingness. He looked sort of dumb, too, and that was a plus.
The downside of this was that their relationship quickly became all about her, him hanging on her, always listening. She revealed herself to him, and got little back, until the great Pauling happened. It wasn’t domination, nothing like that, but there was nothing to it finally—he could not emerge from this stance and tell her anything she needed—and so she soured even as he took more of her inside himself. In retrospect their vectors were diverging even after their first night together, and she assumed he was too dumb or proud to tell.
The actor whom they both recognized came out of the closed door and down the hallway, beaming in the way that actors do when they know that they are recognized, when they do their public masking thing. Sherilyn and Paul locked eyes—he knew that she would not dignify the actor with her praise, and he was right as the actor passed between the two of them without comment. She wondered if the actor would feel let down, what that would feel like for him. He was looking thinner already, she thought, but didn’t say.
Then more weeks.
And then just one more.
As the method worked on the expanded version of Paul, the Starvationist’s Assistant watched him whittle himself away. His behaviors normalized, then simplified, then some of them disappeared altogether. He took on this habit at times of seeming not to breathe, and Sherilyn wondered if it was real or illusion, if it was a literary allusion to some story by Kafka, Hurhston, or King, or Borges (his favorite authors, none of them, of course, an unadorned Paul), if he had some store of oxygen inside his sloppy body or if it was all a trick. He did it constantly, annoyingly, as Sherilyn charted his progress, the pounds slipping away, though the Starvationist was not concerned: she said this was not what was important. What was, Sherilyn wondered, and neither Paul nor Sherilyn asked themselves about why she had given up on him and the Love That Was (grandiosely, he had referred to this in most of the dozen emails they had traded around the end of their relationship, recapping it in hopes of finding an alternate ending to their narrative), which she was thankful for. She did not want to talk about it here or elsewhere either, and because The Method depended on Excising the Personal (and possibly the penis), she had to quash it the one time he had tried to bring it up. He had to wear the Choker Apparatus for a day when the Starvationist noted this. It was a spike on his otherwise unremarkable chart, and after that his behavior curve improved, smoothed out. He was in the groove, right on trend, approaching norm. And as he was Reduced, he said less and less, and that was more as Sherilyn remembered him.
Then he plateaued for a week, and his chart went horizontal, requiring the Starvationist and her Assistant’s intervention. Sherilyn asked him: what was wrong? What had changed? She was not supposed to do this; subjects were tracked and redirected but not interrogated, normally, but she couldn’t help herself. She knew this was where the Possibility of Amputation was turned into an Actual Scenario. They had to bring it out to be Examined, Photographed, and Considered, and if it was a humiliation, so much the better. The Subject gave in to tears, not for the first time, though this did not sway the Starvationist. It was either the last ten pounds—just ten pounds after all that work!—or he would lose the thing. Predictably Paul tried to back out, said he was happy the way he was, having lost a lot of weight already, nearly ninety pounds: that was a lot, he said, don’t you think?
It was, but the contract had another number. The Method required, as Sherilyn explained and had explained before, the Full Weight Loss. It’s guaranteed.
We can do it the hard way or the hard way, the Starvationist said.
Sherilyn asked him: why is it so hard for you to see this one thing through? (She wanted to ask him instead: which one of us is the wreck you’re diving in?)
He said: Why is it for you?
It was, wasn’t it, Sherilyn thought, at least a little bit. She could feel a space opening up inside her like a subject.
Why didn’t he choose a different body part, she wondered, but couldn’t ask because of the answer she feared he’d give. She didn’t know what this would mean, if it meant forgiveness or something else.
The air between them got weird.
Things the Starvationist doesn’t know about Sherilyn, in spite of the rigorous examination she was subjected to in the job application process: she was once a large girl—at twelve, Sherilyn weighed 166, and her mother thought she might never stop expanding, since the kid was voracious, would eat almost anything. Her parents were vegetarians, but Sherilyn had discovered meat—pork, bacon in particular—on sleepovers and visits to restaurants. They thought maybe Sherilyn’s increase in mass was a genetic anomaly or some kind of hormonal imbalance: she sure was a hungry girl, didn’t seem to be depressed or bulimic, acting out or wearing goth clothes or ostentatious thongs. But they weren’t cutting in their comments about her weight. Everything in the family was done by consensus, through logically argued points that they would talk through and wrangle over. Sherilyn took responsibility for her own upbringing, and she too agreed that she was getting further away from thin, from their family ideal. She assisted in the presentation about her deviation from the norm. Her parents were slim, worked out constantly, watched what they ate. It was oppressive; it was reassuring. It made her hungry.
Also: she was a lonely girl. This was less important to the future job, and was perhaps related to her weight, the swelling of her hands, the rapidly decreasing likelihood of anyone wanting to hold them tenderly at horror movies or out by the lake. But how do you measure loneliness? Can you index it? Does it show up on tests? The answer was not really, not that it should matter anyway.
Suddenly, like a storm, her weight peaked, began to wane, and melted away for no good reason. No behavior change; no moral lesson. She ate the same, but her metabolism sped up, and by fifteen she was well beneath the state’s cutoff line for obesity, which was admittedly pretty high. She was part of the solution, not part of the problem, and she would remember this. As she lost the weight, she felt more like she was becoming someone else, another self, a more attractive twin. And she was no less lonely than she was, even as she started to acquire her first few variously criminal boyfriends that she could then assist in their endeavors, that could take her from the life she led to another, more interesting one.
She had always wished, though, that she could have done it by herself, through self-control, through force of will, because this made her lazy, she always thought, or at least it introduced an uncomfortably irreducible mystery at the heart of the self. Maybe that’s why she couldn’t let it go. When she took on a new behavior, she couldn’t change it easily. Couldn’t change her mind. The obsessive rubbing at her skin, the self-administered burns, the occasional cutting, these were things she couldn’t do anything about except to keep them covered up, to keep them secret, to keep them safe, her own. If the Subjects or the Starvationist would see this evidence, she wouldn’t be kept on, she knew, and Paul knew these secrets, good as he was at letting her reveal herself. Appearance is important for the Method, for the Methodist church she used to attend before giving it up after her Confirmation that confirmed church as a choice, a choice she now made to sleep in Sunday mornings and watch taped reruns of forensic television shows in which mysteries at least seemed to be solved, not deepened.
Two days closer to the deadline, things had not improved with Paul. He hadn’t lost one more pound since last check-in, couldn’t quite make it past plateau. The three of them sat down and consulted the photographs, the documentary evidence, the binding pledge, the signatures on all the paperwork. He presented some serious-looking language from his lawyer that the Starvationist just brushed away. It was all in order, simple, fixed: he would do it or he would not. He had less than a week now to lose those last ten pounds or they’d have to do their trimming thing. This happened in maybe five percent of the cases they took on. They would have to draw the weight into the appendage with the Pneumatic Apparatus and take it off. The success rate was important, inevitable. Axe that: it was essential.
The Starvationist’s face—the part you could later see through the mask at the lopping ceremony—was beautiful and stern at moments like this, when she delivered the Ultimatum. She had this ability to completely drain herself of the human, to be assured, to be simple. It was more than an act—it was a talent. It was impressive. It made her like a machine, impenetrable like a pre-nup or a battlement. Sherilyn admired her, or it might even have been love, she sensed, at times like these.
When the Starvationist was out of the room, she hissed at him: Just lose the fucking pounds. You’re embarrassing. She will do it: she’ll cut it off, take it away. This isn’t a joke, she said. You need to do this for me, she said, and for yourself.
He moaned and mooned a bit, a trait that Sherilyn always hated, at least in retrospect, this way he could make himself seem guileless and faultless—she told herself it had always been like this, that she hadn’t loved it for a while, for at least a night. It was clear he didn’t believe that the two of them would do it, would amputate. He said, it’s my party. I’ll cry if I want to. He asked: And what if I ran? Would you come with me?
Paul, it doesn’t fucking matter, she hissed. You will achieve your goals! And as if to demonstrate this, she fitted two straps around him and locked them down. This is to remind you of the pressure, she told him. It is what we do.
It’s what she does, he said, already forgiving her. You’re just the assistant. It’s not on you.
She put on another strap and jerked it tight. He could barely walk like this. This will release tonight, she said, automatically. You have three days, she said, and left him in his apartment with all the Star Wars posters on the wall. At least he finally got them framed. That was a kind of progress.
Later that night she could hear his moaning in her dream.
Paul didn’t make the weight. He missed it by a pound.
It was only one pound, almost within the range of scale error! Sherilyn was telling the Starvationist, her exclamation point nearly a plea (and she never pled on anyone’s behalf, so what must she have thought of this?), but midsentence Sherilyn looked at Paul and in his eyes she saw, again, forgiveness, and so she hardened, too, and ceased her plea.
Let that which Paul deserveth come to Paul, she thought.
The machine was spinning up. She could hear it hiss and spit.
The subject was on the table now, strapped in for the procedure. The chamber was rising, and with it they would bring the last pound out. The three of them would watch his penis swell, like in those ads you’d see in adult magazines, in the days before the wash of Internet porn, for penis pumps, buff guys with ripped abs, their dicks in pumps getting jacked up like Christmas inflatables. Sherilyn had never understood that either: did it feel good to see your dick that big? How long did it last when it came out before it shrunk? Paul was moaning now in anticipation, or maybe it was capitulation. Only he could know right now how it felt: was it like freedom or something else? His eyes were closed, his mouth an O and then a line. The surgical tools gleamed on the disinfected felt.
The Starvationist and her Assistant locked eyes and hands. What she took from the Starvationist in this moment only Sherilyn could say, but she felt herself—what was the opposite of blooming? Becoming, maybe. Was she breathing? Yes, she was. Everything, she thought, was just arrangements of letters, and it didn’t matter so much if they spelled the world you wanted. The word you wanted, she thought then. She did not think of Paul. What they had to do was done in a minute, pressure applied and bleeding stopped, the sentence ending not with a bang but with a mute hiss, the vacuum’s release, an ellipsis attenuating itself finally to a period and then a blank. They had to wait for two minutes while the machine spun down.
When Sherilyn had released the Starvationist’s hands, she could feel something had changed. But what? She blinked up at the recessed lights. Now he would sleep for at least a day and he would wake under different lights, a new man, as they had agreed.
Sherilyn closed her eyes. The light left streaks along her vision that would follow her for an hour, maybe longer. It was done. The weight was gone. The story would go out and be repeated, comma after comma after comma: anything about someone’s dick seemed to go viral fast. And this one had all the elements that people liked: a love gone bad, a redemption chance, a second act, an amputation scene, a metaphor: it would be something to be believed, or at least propagated.
Sherilyn didn’t care whether it would be repeated. She wouldn’t tell anyone, herself. Was it even true? No matter. The Starvationist’s Assistant would never leave, be able to doubt her job again, after this.