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By the end of winter, I couldn’t fall asleep unless I was watching Milena eat. Each night I held my phone in my hand, close enough to my face that I could hear the rustle of her napkin against her chin, light burrowing and refracting into my eyes until I was forced to close them. My dreams were soundtracked by her chews and bites and slurps. I would wake in the mornings with my headphones still in, tasting an invisible meal.

She uploaded a new video every three days or so, always filmed against the same pale lilac wall, as if she were sitting in a hospice waiting room. In the left corner was a slice of her door—paint peeling, an indoor lock. The table that she placed the food on was made of cheap white plastic, and sometimes she would drum her nails on the surface arrhythmically. There was a lot of thought put into the kinds of things that she ate—variations of fast-food chain fare, pasta, barbecues, dumplings—to keep it interesting. I appreciated the thought, though I did not really care. It could have been bowls of plain cereal in every single video. Unlike other creators, she preferred to eat rather than talk, and this was a relief. Proof of her innate understanding and consideration. People like me did not want to know that the food was so good, or what she’d done that weekend, or what her parents were like.

It was supposed to be an all-ages website, but I knew Milena—if it was her real name—was catering to a very specific of fetish. That was why her shirt was too small, and why she sucked her fingers into her mouth to get the sauce off. There was a contact email in her bio, so you could get in touch for “business opportunities,” meaning private webcam sessions. In the comments, viewers asked for messier foods: whipped cream, birthday cake, birria tacos, so she could spill it down her chest. Some wanted her to eat so much that she threw up and keep going. Others wanted to see her get fatter. They called her rica and delicious and gorąca dziwka.

I wasn’t aroused by her, not really. But she didn’t do what they wanted her to do, and it was alluring. She was a neat eater, methodical. While she chewed, she looked straight into the camera, like everything she was doing was for me alone. Maybe that was why I ended up clicking the link in her bio, craving her full attention. She wasn’t beautiful, but her eyes were the strangest shade of blue. The color of Latex gloves pulled onto a surgeon’s hand before his first incision.

I lived alone, which I could afford because an old hookup had referred me for a lucrative HR job at a medical insurance company. Before that, I’d had three roommates and an elevator that didn’t work. Sometimes, if somebody had taken my keys by accident, I would clamber onto the fire escape and convince a neighbor to let me in. It had not occurred to me to be dissatisfied with my lifestyle; most people I knew, crippled by student debt and oppressive rent, were in the same position. But when the man put my name forward, a strange longing had gripped me. I wanted to have a pantry instead of a shelf. I wanted to have a bathroom that nobody else used.

The interview had been short. I’d tried my best to appear normal, friendly, competent. The skirt I’d worn was borrowed from my mother’s closet—she had left me several for events that would likely never come to pass: “baby shower,” “date night,” “PTA lunch.” It took me weeks to starve my body enough to fit, and I was always small. I wished she could have been alive to see it, bones poking through my skin like they were saying hello. It would have made her proud.

I just want to watch you enjoy yourself.

The interviewers asked me a few questions about college, and then made me role play a scenario in which I had to fire a woman. I had been firm, as if I was disciplining a dog. They’d looked at each other, nodding approvingly. “I’m sorry, ma’am,” I’d said. “But the decision is final, and you need to pack up your things.” As I’d left, the interviewer had smiled at me with none of her teeth. “I like your skirt,” she’d said. “Great color.” My mother had loved orange. The objectively ugly tone of processed cheese. I had realized that the interviewer knew how I had gotten into that room, but I wasn’t ashamed. That meant that she also knew that I could like the dirty, cold facets of life. That I understood how the world, at its core, was a transaction in the process of being fulfilled.

I took the job when they offered it to me and quit the café chain I was supervising. As soon as I could afford the deposit, I found a small rented townhouse in the outer suburbs. One bedroom, one bath, a tiny garden, a balcony. For the first time in my life, I could hear birdsong.

The man probably had expected me to be grateful for his intervention. It wasn’t the explicit terms of our arrangement, but how else to interpret a married stockbroker in his fifties dating a twenty-seven-year-old woman, paying for her clothes and dinners, occasionally putting his foot on her head when he fucked her? Instead, I told him we had to come to the end because he could no longer give me anything I couldn’t give myself.

Since then, I hadn’t seen anybody beyond a few stilted first dates; a couple unenjoyable encounters in back alleys or on a futon. There was nobody in my life to tell me to shower regularly, or brush my teeth twice a day, or eat more than granola bars and frozen hot dogs. But in the office, I revived myself searching through piles of dirty laundry for clean pants, scraping plaque off my teeth with my nails. I never missed a meeting.

On my own time, I rotted—glued to online videos. A man who spent hours giving condescending advice to debt-laden callers, F-list celebrity feuds, people watching people play low-fi horror games, Christian couples bawling as members of their wedding party prayed over them. Stories upon stories, all tragedies.

Before my first session with Milena, I was nervous. I sat in front of my laptop, half an hour early, debating whether to switch the camera on. And where to point it? To show my face was stupid beyond all proportion—yet I wanted her to see me.

I was still adjusting when the screen flared to life. Her dishwater blonde hair in a long ponytail, a buttoned-up shirt that scooped low on her neck. Against her clavicle, the glitter of something cheap. There was a trace of openness in her face, as if I had caught her doing something illicit. The pseudonym I had emailed under was unisex and single-syllable, and it occurred to me that she had assumed I would be a man.

Her mouth opened, and I held up a hand. “Sorry,” I said. “I’d prefer if you didn’t speak.” The half-moon of her smile was unnerving. My request was probably not uncommon. Slowly, she picked up a fork and pushed it into her mouth. When she pulled it out, a long string of spit clung to the tines. “Stop it,” I said, much more harshly than I’d meant to. “Stop doing that.”

She started to type. You don’t like it?

No, I wrote back.

You want something different?

I watched as she stroked the buttons of her shirt. Her nails were long and purple, studded with diamantés. I hated them. The small, hard points of her nipples were visible. She must have touched them deliberately beforehand, gone braless on purpose. I wanted to reach into the computer and slap her.

You don’t understand, I wrote. I don’t like any of that.

She looked at me more intently this time. You just want me to eat?

Yes, I typed. Just to eat.

Okay, she wrote. Did she feel relief at the role she no longer had to play? Or did I come across as threatening, even stranger than her other customers? I’ll just eat.

She’d ordered carbonara with my credit card, maybe fifteen hundred calories’ worth. No cream, pure yellow eggs. Guanciale, pink and crisp, sitting in the spaghetti like old blood. Pecorino on top, dry skin. A meal of the body. I watched her pick up the fork and plunge it into the bowl. My eyes fluttered shut at the first bite. Soft, hot sauce; the salt and fat and grease. It could have been my mouth she was feeding.

After that session, Milena seemed to know what I needed. Once or twice a week, I requested half an hour of her time in the depths of the evening. She would turn her camera on and look at me while she ate. It was important, I had told her, that she look at me. During the day I organized employee well-being seminars, trained new hires, cut severance pay, filed sexual harassment complaints, sourced organic feminine hygiene products, fired unpaid interns. But at night, over bowls of low-calorie konjac noodles or cans of diet soda and vodka, I watched Milena consume.

Sometimes she would email me, making coy reference to rent or a large, urgent bill. These felt like bland, form requests, with no regard as to who I was or the importance of what we did together. Once she had begun with hey baby, and this so enraged me that I did not schedule a call with her for nearly three weeks.

The next email was barely a paragraph long. Money for toiletries, she’d said, a low blow. Something one woman would whisper to another in line at the pharmacy. Okay, I’d sent back, and gave her nearly four hundred dollars. The week after, another one. Look, she’d written. I don’t say this to anyone, but you’re my favorite client.

I was special. I was her favorite client. I sent her one thousand dollars from my credit card and told her to buy caviar. The best she could find. When she called me, I sat on the closed toilet lid and I watched her unscrew the tin. She blinked at me with her blue-glove eyes, and opened her mouth so wide I could see the red, raw place inside of her.

What would you like me to eat? she always asked me, the day before our session.

Xiao long bao with the juice busting out onto your chin, butter chicken the color of mercurochrome, dan-dan noodles with pork mince, lasagna, triple-smash burgers leaking grease, loaded fries with American cheese, Wagyu steak, blueberry muffins from Starbucks, KFC buckets you can smell through the screen, pierogi, tonkotsu ramen with boiled eggs and shiitake, vegan nuggets, tuna and salmon and whitetail sashimi platters, pumpkin pie, more dan-dan noodles, wontons with prawn and chives, momo in johl sauce with a thali platter, country-fried steak with macaroni and cheese, pork ribs, beef ribs, filet mignon, omelets stuffed with bacon and mushrooms, home fries, buffalo wings with blue cheese sauce dripping down the sides, tagliatelle, chicken pot pie, pulled pork, mapo tofu, normal tofu, meat lover’s pizza, cheese-stuffed pizza, garlic bread, paella, tuna tataki, peshwari naan, injera, shrimp with the heads still on, collard greens, pesto gnocchi, tiramisu, ice cream, matcha mochi, crispy fried duck, crispy fried pork, mashed potatoes with cream and butter, pancakes with chocolate chips and whipped cream, grease, oil, ghee, butter.

I don’t care, I often typed back. I just want to watch you enjoy yourself.

I was a thousand dollars in debt. Two. Three. I didn’t care. She was enjoying herself.

One spring Monday, I fired a man who had been with the company for thirty-two years. No severance package, my manager had whispered to me. Just shy of retirement age. In his threadbare plaid shirt, he reminded me of a painting in the back of a charity store; all-American, the frame rusting at the edges.

“I’m sorry, sir,” I told him. “But the decision is final, and you need to pack up your things.”

He tried not to cry, but I saw the tears trembling at the corner of his brown eyes, the way his upper lip furrowed. He said nothing, never looked at me directly. He gathered his things, his thirty-two years, which almost but not quite filled up a single cardboard box.

My manager wouldn’t tell me what the man had done, citing confidentiality. But at lunchtime I sat down with my manager’s secretary, a chronic oversharer. As she ate from her Tupperware full of tikka masala (store-bought, oily, over eight hundred calories, though she wouldn’t believe it if I told her) she placed a demure, damp hand on mine.

“He got caught watching videos, if you know what I mean,” she said.

“What videos?” I asked, though I did know.

Her eyes gleamed; two dull coins. “Adult videos. He forfeited his benefits, and his wife has MS. She must be devastated.” When she said this, her mouth lifted at the corners as if she were licking a delicious secret.

“You’re a cunt,” I said, and then I got up and washed my cup in the dirty sink.

When I got home, I searched for Milena’s channel. She was gone without a trace—the URLs refusing to load, screen black but for a sad error message. I could feel my pulse rising as my emails bounced back. When I searched for her name, nothing turned up. I’d saved photos of her, but the searches returned only similar avatars, filtered teeth gleaming. I tried to send money to her PayPal, but the transaction failed. She was just gone. I pressed my face into my pillow and screamed so loud that my throat went raw.

On Tuesday, I walked into work and found a sack of garbage overturned on my desk. It was unseasonably warm; the room stank of rot and sugar and old meat. My old Dell laptop was in pieces on the dirty carpet, and on my window, somebody had scrawled BITCH in large brown letters. Curled quietly on my chair was a human-sized shit.

My manager, gone so pale in the face that he resembled a powdered donut, ushered me into his office and called the building security and the police. His secretary tried to hide her delight, but not very hard.

“I don’t want to make a statement,” I told him. I had been unable to sleep the night before, scouring the internet for Milena until the sun hooked its yellow fingers into the sky and dragged itself up.


“I don’t want to,” I repeated. Something in me had been severed.

He let me go home. On the subway I thought about the man who had come in and emptied the garbage bag and shat on my chair. I wondered if the act had given him pleasure, or whether it had all just made him feel empty. If he had ever done anything like that before, whether his wife had cried when he’d come home and hung up his jacket and told her that they were no longer eligible for health insurance. It’s not your fault, my manager told me, but of course it was. It is the gun’s fault when the bullet is fired. It is the fault of the man who pulls the trigger and the one who patents the design and the one who sells the ammunition. I was a very good weapon. Milena did not reappear and my transactions continued to bounce.

I found other girls—prettier ones, thinner ones—but they never had the same eyes. It was the blue that I missed, the blue that had made me overdraw my credit card. It was the blue that I recognized, months later, staring at me placidly over the counter of the bar.

“Do I know you?” she asked me. Her voice was higher than I’d expected, edged with a twang that spoke of cleaner air, sparser buildings. She looked healthier, less acne, a little chubbier. It was a quiet night, after a failed date in a different borough. As I walked back to the subway station, I’d seen her picking up empty cocktail glasses at a shitty dive. My breath had been punched out of me.

“Yes,” I told her, and watched the blood drain from her cheeks.

I stayed at the same corner table for the whole night. The clock ticked on and the customers stumbled out. Occasionally she looked over at me, worrying her lip, whispering to a coworker with the stupidest mustache I had ever seen. In real life she was rough, textured. I wanted to press my nails into her neck, to touch the pulse racing underneath. I wanted to watch her eat.

“We’re closing,” the man said to me, around midnight. “You have to leave.”

“Sure,” I said. I went outside and leaned against the wall, just out of sight. People drifted past, students maybe, laughing and hanging onto each other. All my life I had been young and now, watching them, I knew I was not.

Milena came out after closing, wrapped in a jacket even though it was summer, looking around anxiously. When she started walking down the street, I followed at a distance. She held her keys spiked through her fingers, hand clenched. When she turned around, I saw her pupils dilate under the yellow streetlights. She was the same beautiful as a car crash. A disaster you couldn’t tear yourself away from.

“Please,” she said. “Please go away, or I’ll call the police.”

“I won’t hurt you,” I said to her. “I just want to talk. I want to know where you went.”

“That’s none of your business.”

“I think it is.” I stepped towards her, and she jerked back. “I spent a lot of money on you.”

“That was your choice,” she said. The words were angry, but her voice was shaky. “I did my job, it was a fair exchange.”

“You want to know what I think?” I asked. “I don’t think it was fair at all.” She stayed silent, fist held up. Her keys shone. “I’ve done what you did,” I continued. “I mean, not exactly. But I’ve provided services.”

“So you know that you should leave me alone.”

I thought about it for a while. “No,” I said eventually. “I don’t think so. I don’t think you finished your job.”

She turned around and kept walking, and I kept following her. We walked for a long time, winding downtown, ducking through streets and side streets. Her hair bounced against her shoulders, her gait slightly uneven. When she stopped at a rundown apartment building, brick stained with bird shit and graffiti, I stopped with her.

“You should have kept doing the videos,” I told her.

“I didn’t want to do that anymore.”

“Why?” I asked. “You were good at it. People miss you.”

“Look,” she said, shifting from foot to foot. “It just made me feel so tired. I had to throw everything up to keep the weight off. They wouldn’t pay otherwise. Please,” she said again. “Please just leave me alone.”

“I would have given you more money.”

“It wasn’t about the money anymore.”

“It’s always about money.”

“Go away,” she begged. “Please just go away.”

It wasn’t the same if she wasn’t looking at me. I watched her push the door open and climb the stairs, her hands shaking. I remembered the man who had gotten me my job, and how he had sometimes left an envelope of cash for me on the bedside table. The hard clench of his fist around my throat when I’d broken it off. The things we give away, and the things we don’t.

The next Thursday, I skipped work for the first time in my life. My manager called me repeatedly, then texted, then emailed. There are consequences for this behavior, he said. If you’re sick, you need to let us know. I blocked his number.

It is the gun’s fault when the bullet is fired. It is the fault of the man who pulls the trigger and the one who patents the design and the one who sells the ammunition. I was a very good weapon.

I had always been good with directions. I took no more than a few wrong turns before I arrived at her building. Through the glass, I could read the names on the mailboxes. Third floor, apartment four. Around the back was a fire escape. It was easy enough to haul myself over the railing. A woman on the second floor stuck a white permed head out after I tapped on her window and she smiled when I said I was looking for Milena. I was a close girlfriend and had left my jacket in her room. Who would doubt it? I looked like a nice young woman, in my flats and my button-down shirt. Incapable of harm.

“Just above me,” she said. There were very few teeth left in her gums. “She always leaves the window open.” I kept climbing. I saw the open window, the green patched curtain. It was August, and the city squirmed under a thick, panting heat. Perhaps every summer she left her windows open like that, let the air rustle her bare skin. Closed her eyes, imagined being somewhere else. I could see myself watching the small gap between her lips.

In her apartment the floor was dirty, the counters cluttered. I saw her table and the lilac tablecloth. Her camera equipment, the ring lights. A bong on the couch, empty beer cans overturned on the table. A fan whirred desperately in the corner. I put down the groceries I’d bought—eggs, bacon, rope, pancake mix, handcuffs, orange juice, donuts, zip-ties, bagels, pasta, rice, potatoes. Enough for weeks. The door, as I’d remembered, locked from the inside. I picked up the keys on the side table and put them in my pocket.

She was in the bedroom, slumped over her bed, her mouth barely open. Her eyelashes fluttered. I could see the veins in her wrists, the thin skin that held her together. Sweat beaded her temples. The slightly stained nubs of her teeth, the tiny hairs on her chin. I crept up on the bed and curled around her, felt her heart beating. She stirred but did not wake. “You’re special,” I told her, and she muttered something sad and quiet. When my mother had been sick but still alive, I had crawled beside her and listened to her breathe. The noise of her machine had sung me to sleep, telling me what she could not.

In an hour or two, we will wake up and she will understand. The light will be a very pale yellow, the color of the yolks that we will crack into a bowl in the kitchen, that will become breakfast, that we will consume at opposite sides of her sad plastic table, looking at each other. Yes. The color of that.