by Melisa Gregorio
It began on Christmas Eve morning with wisps of chocolate above my wife’s lips. I had just stretched the sleep from my limbs when I noticed her new brown moustache.
“You didn’t share your midnight snack with me,” I said. I kissed and licked along her lips until the moustache disappeared. “Mmm, chocolate.” She snuggled into me. A moment later, I felt her drop back asleep. I extracted my arm without disturbing her.
I was frying pancakes when I felt her hands reach under my t-shirt to cup my breasts.
“Thanks for making breakfast,” she said, lifting my ponytail to drop a kiss on the back of my neck.
The next morning—Christmas!—I reached for my wife. My hand felt something soft and sticky. It was dark, and I could barely see her among the blankets. As I lifted my hand, she screamed.
“Ow! What are you doing?” She sat up, clutching her head.
I switched the lamp on. The light revealed her long, black hair was gone. Clouds of pink, blue, and purple stuck straight up and out around her head. She looked like a cross between Albert Einstein and a troll doll. There was something brown above her lip.
“What in the world…” I trailed off, noticing drops of blood sliding from her temple down to her cheek. “My love, you’re bleeding.”
She whimpered and ran to the bathroom. I followed.
“My hair!” she said, looking at her reflection. She wiped away the blood at her temples and cheeks. “I don’t know what happened.” Up close, I could see her hair had turned into cotton candy. Strands of it stuck to her fingers. Crying, she turned away from the mirror and pointed under her nose. The moustache made of chocolate had returned. It was thicker than what I had licked away yesterday, and it reminded me of the moustaches worn by those in barbershop quartets. She turned back to the mirror, and with a twist and a yank, she ripped it off.
Dots of blood appeared where the moustache had been. The hair I had accidentally ripped out left several sugar-crusted patches on her scalp. “I don’t know what happened,” she repeated.
What could I say? I stayed silent and hugged her close to me.
We didn’t feel like celebrating Christmas, but our plans would be more trouble to cancel than to attend. My wife was too scared to shower, so I helped her with a sink bath, gently washing her body, part by part. “You get ready,” she said, and gave me a kiss. She gestured to her head. “I’ll figure out what to do with this.”
After my shower, I went into the bedroom. I saw she wore a red satin slip dress, with her lips painted the same colour. With the black toque she placed on her head, she looked like a 1920s flapper girl.
I slid my hands from her back to her hips. “You look gorgeous.”
She fussed with her toque. “What will happen when I wash my hair?” she asked. “Will I be bald?”
“It doesn’t matter,” I said. “You’ll be beautiful no matter what.”
At the Christmas parties, there were questions about her toque, especially as it contrasted with her fancy dress, but she told people it was covering a bad dye job. When I was asked about it, I shrugged and looked to refill my wineglass.
We returned home late. Our unopened gifts waited in the living room like parents waiting for their teenagers out past curfew. We tiptoed by the presents and went straight to bed. We needed the comfort of each other—the holidays with our families were stressful enough without the added strangeness of my wife’s new way of growing hair.
The next morning, the light was bright on my eyelids, and the air smelled delicious. Muffins? I sniffed again. Maybe French toast. I yawned, and I opened my eyes to see my love standing beside the bed. She was crying. The tears slowly dribbled out of her eyes, leaving thick amber trails on her cheeks that dripped onto her re-grown chocolate moustache.
I sat up. “Shh, shh. What’s wrong?”
She held out her hands. I reached for her, but she withdrew.
“No,” she said. “Just look.” She moved her fingers. At the end of each finger was a nail-sized golden potato chip.
She sank beside me on the bed. “What is happening to me?”
From the smell and the slow trickle from her eyes, I guessed her tears were now maple syrup. As I wiped them away, they left sticky smears on her cheeks. I was worried. It had started with a moustache, and then moved to her hair; now, it was her nails and tear ducts. What was next? I thought of French fry fingers, the grease on my lips, on my skin, inside me, mashed. I dreaded to imagine if her new tears would affect her vision, but she had mentioned no issues seeing yet.
I was careful on that Boxing Day. I insisted she relax, and for breakfast, I made an omelette and toast—I knew we wouldn’t be able to stomach pancakes. I gave her another sink bath and helped her get dressed. When she needed to use the bathroom, I wiped her, and I didn’t have to tell her the toilet paper wasn’t stained with feces. There was no smell of excrement, only peanuts: she was shitting logs of peanut butter. When she urinated, the toilet water turned orange.
“It hurts to pee,” she whispered.
My first thought was a UTI, maybe a bladder infection, but the toilet water bubbled and foamed. I sniffed. Orange Crush, I thought. Her urine is soda.
I took her to the hospital. Repeatedly, I had to explain what was happening to my wife’s body; by then, she wasn’t talking. When they took her away for an assessment, they wouldn’t let me stay in the room with her.
A few minutes later, a nurse left the examination room. She was pale and holding her mouth. A doctor followed her out and stood in front of me.
“Is she okay?” I asked.
“You pull out her fingernails and cut out her tongue, and you replaced it with god knows what, and you have the audacity to ask if she’s okay?” He crossed his arms. “We’ve called the cops.”
What happened to her tongue? I thought and pushed past him, into the room where she sat on a stretcher, her legs dangling. Her toque lay on the floor, full of the remains of her cotton candy hair. She was bald. Her scalp was an angry patchwork of scratches, scabs of sugar, and blood. Maple syrup oozed from her eyes.
I took a step toward her before I was yanked backwards. My wife opened her mouth and formed words with her lips, but she didn’t make a sound.
“You’re done hurting her,” the doctor said, gripping my right arm. A security guard stepped forward to restrain my left arm. A second security guard stood watching.
“I didn’t do anything,” I said. “I brought her here. We don’t know what’s happening. Is she okay?”
“No, she is not okay!” the doctor yelled. “You’re a monster! You should burn in hell for what you’ve done to this poor woman.”
“No! It wasn’t me!” I fought against their hold on me. “I want my wife! I want to be with her!” They forced me to the ground as I shrieked. “I want my wife back! I want my wife back!”
In my jail cell, I went over and over the last image I saw of her. The sticky tears on her face, and her beautiful, naked head. I remembered how when she opened her mouth, her new tongue had glistened a bright red. What had it become? I thought. I had been in jail for a week when I figured it out. I had ruled out candy that had shiny, red surfaces, like M&Ms or Skittles, but I debated whether it resembled a Swedish Fish or a Swedish Berry. Was it licorice? I thought, but decided it wasn’t—licorice was a duller red with striations. I shut my eyes and remembered the moment her mouth had popped open to speak. She still had her teeth—her strong teeth that nibbled, bit, and marked my skin—and it was the glistening I focused upon. I knew then that the tongue I had sucked and licked and teased and was my favourite taste in the world, had been replaced by a Sour Patch Kid—the glistening was the sour sugar.
It may have taken me a week to figure out what her new tongue was, but it took the authorities a month to figure out I hadn’t mutilated her. She couldn’t talk, but she convinced the police that I was innocent. The police officer handed me my belongings. He told me my wife could not pick me up, but she’d be waiting for me at home.
“We’ve never had a case like yours before,” he said, as I rushed into the taxi they called for me. “We’re very sorry for the inconvenience.”
With trembling hands, I unlocked the door to our apartment. What would she look like after a month? I thought. There were stains, crumbs, and pieces of food everywhere. I followed a trail of shredded coconut into the bedroom. It was late January, and there was enough sunlight from the fading afternoon that I could see she was face down on the bed.
It wasn’t hard to tell she was naked; the light illuminated the dusting of sugar on her back that swelled into her hips. Her bum cheeks were now two plump ensaymadas—our favourite brunch food we picked up at the Filipino bakery down the road. We would take the still-warm soft buns, topped with butter, sugar, and grated sharp cheddar, and eat them with our coffee. Further down, her hamstrings and shins were spotted with red circles, pepperoni. Her legs had turned into pizza. The pizza-legs tapered into seaweed, rice, and avocado topped with dabs of wasabi; her feet were sushi.
My stare trailed back to her head. She was facing me now. Her eyebrows were chocolate, her nose was a small marshmallow, and two Swedish Fish swam where her lips used to be. Her eyelids opened, revealing two purple grapes.
“My love,” I said. “Can you see me?”
She held out arm-shaped slabs of butter. Her hands were two circles of beige; cake maybe. Extending from her cake-hands weren’t French fries like I had thought was a logical progression from potato chip nails; instead, she had purple cylinders covered with shredded coconut. Puto bumbong, I thought. Her fingers were rice cakes made by steaming sticky and long grain purple rice inside a bamboo tube. She had fed me these treats when we went to the Philippines on our honeymoon; I remembered how she always kissed away the muscovado sugar and coconut that remained on my lips.
It was fragrant in our bedroom. The smells were overwhelming—sweet, savoury, and spicy, like the food court at the mall. Still, I could smell her, an aroma I’d recognize with my last dying sniff. A mixture of mint, cinnamon, clay, and stale water. It was her scent; she was still my wife.
I joined her on the bed, but I avoided her outstretched arms. I didn’t want to hurt her. In response, she scooted closer and gathered me in a hug. I was afraid her arms of butter would melt, but they did not. I snuggled into her and laid my head between two breast-sized cherries.
She had no heartbeat.
There was a hum, a mechanical droning, like that of a refrigerator.
A tear fell from my eye and plopped onto her cherry-breast. She squeezed me tighter, then released. Another tear dropped, and this time, I traced its descent with my tongue. There were stems where her nipples used to be, and I licked them. I heard a noise between gasping and gagging, but when I stopped, her cake-hands lightly pressed against my head. I resumed my affections and kissed her butter arms, her shoulders of pomelos, and her Swedish Fish lips. I tried to suck the Sour Patch Kid tongue as I used to, but she shook her head.
Working my way lower, I kissed each of the sixteen taquitos that now composed her abdomen. I found her mons covered in cotton candy, and it melted on my lips. All the mysteries I had solved on our first, second, third, and fourth dates—her labia, clitoris, vagina, and perineum—had turned into a mosaic of Oreos.
The authorities had told me my wife couldn’t talk, but I heard her sing when we made love that night. It was the same as always, sweet and frantic, with her wanting just one more climax. She craved affection and demanded multiple orgasms, but this didn’t mean she was a pillow princess; it only meant she wanted love and pleasure, lots of it, to be both given and received.
She was both greedy and generous on our final night together. My face was a sticky mess of maple syrup, icing sugar, and salt. My lips and nails were dark with Oreo crumbs, and my palms burned from the smears of wasabi on them. I had kissed every square inch of her, determined to show her nothing had changed: she was still my wife, and I would always love her. I passed out with her puto bumbong fingers caressing my hair.
The next morning, I gathered the pieces she left of herself behind. A jagged edge of a potato chip nail. Three grains of rice. One last chocolate moustache. Half a pepperoni. A piece of ensaymada, too big to call a crumb. I pressed a Swedish Fish to my lips repeatedly until the shreds of coconut caught in my eyelashes fell into my eyes and made me cry even more. Our bed was a mess of crumbs and seeds and stains. The shower drain was clogged, and I pulled out a large clump of hair that smelt strongly of sugar. That night I slept with the hairball, and as I cried, I sporadically sucked the sugar from it, imagining I tasted my love.
It was painful to collect these parts of her. When I had returned to the apartment, it had already been a mess. How would I know if the crumbs by the fridge were parts of her? They could be months-old dregs from our meals. I came across a lone coffee bean, and remembered our lazy weekend mornings, only leaving our bed for coffee and malutong monsieurs—our personal twist on a croquet monsieur—sandwiches made with pan de sal stuffed with Spam and Cheez Whiz, broiled in the toaster oven. I found two hardened and shrunken peas under our bed, survivors from a tasty stir-fry she had made; I cried when I tossed the peas and the bean into the trash.
I placed the parts I thought were my love in one of the jars she used when she made jam. I had to research how to seal the jar without boiling it; I didn’t want to cook her. Once the jar was sealed, I placed it beside the picture of us on our wedding day.
Around town, some fanatics still accused me of murdering my wife. They claimed I killed her and ate the evidence. Reporters had dubbed our story, “The Case of the Candy Lady,” and they called me daily, sometimes hourly, until a note arrived at the police station. It reported she was alive and happy, that I was innocent, and for everyone to stop bothering us both. They questioned the validity of the note until the police revealed the note was smeared with something bright pink and sticky. When they tested the smear, it resulted in two matches. The first match was her DNA, and the second match was raspberry jam. After this discovery was shared, the calls dropped to every month or so; people still wanted to know the details of a Margaret Atwood novel gone wrong, even without a murder.
I don’t leave my apartment anymore. I work from home, and the only times I open my door are for my deliveries and for the neighbourhood kids. The children are always polite when I answer their knocks. “Hello, how are you? May we please see the Candy Lady?” they ask.
On the days I feel okay, I answer the door and usher the children inside my apartment. First, I show them the picture of us on our wedding day, and I point out her beauty and our bridal dresses she designed and made herself. I tell them how our love was like boiling brown sugar, butter, and cream; it bubbled and boiled and threatened to burn and harden and spoil, but our love transformed into something sweet and delicious, perfect caramel.
Then I bring out the jar. The items have stayed intact without spoiling. The potato chip, the grains of rice, the chocolate, the half slice of pepperoni, the piece of ensaymada, and the Swedish Fish. I let them look at the jar for as long as they want. I answer the questions they ask about the items. “Fingernail,” I say, “feet, moustache, leg, bum, lip.” They always giggle when I say “bum” and the last question they ask is, “Why did she turn into the Candy Lady?” This I cannot answer—I cannot bring myself to lie, either—and instead, I thank them for visiting, and send the kids on their way.
On the days I feel sad, I don’t answer the door at all. She has a key, and I haven’t changed the locks.
On the days I feel mean, I will bring them cookies, and after they’ve eaten them, I grin and ask the kids if they like the cookies made out of the Candy Lady. They scream and run away—I may amuse them, but they still think I am crazy.
On the days I feel angry, I show the children the life she has without me. I type her name into the search bar, and her career fills my laptop screen. The children and I squish on my couch, and they stare as we read glowing reviews of her poetry and plays. We study the images of her paintings and sculptures; we pick our favourites from her line of cutlery and tableware. I click savagely, moving from one work to another. There are many clicks, and the children often leave without seeing my wife’s entire portfolio. She has been dubbed the Picasso of our time; a multi-talented, unique, tortured artist, who is glamorously traumatized (although she lost her body, not her sister.)
After the children leave, I imagine she comes back to me. Sometimes she comes back as a gingerbread woman, and before I snap her into pieces, I rip off her gumdrop eyes, and I hold them to my chest so she can see all the pain in my heart. Sometimes she comes back as our love, a woman of caramel, and I stretch her until she is ten, twenty, fifty, a hundred feet long, and I bite her in half. I take bite after bite of her, filling my mouth, chewing until my jaw aches, until I am wearied, and my teeth are stuck together, locked: both of us finally silent. Sometimes she comes back as I last remember her, and I lock her inside a steaming shower. I watch until she melts. She slips down the drain, gone again. Even when I am angry, the last fantasy I always entertain is of us in bed. We relive our last night together, and she sings as I taste every part of her.
There are no pictures of her online, and the only information I can find pertains to her work. I read her poetry and study her paintings, and I wonder about the mechanics of how she creates—how did she master her new body? How does she write, sculpt, and design? How does she live without a heart?
I remembered a time early in our relationship when our legs tangled under the blanket, and our hair tangled on the one pillow we shared.
I had asked her, “How many times have you been in love?”
“Never before now,” she told me, holding my face. “You are my only love. You have my heart.” I saw the smile lift and stall on her lips; sincere, but afraid. A moment later, the smile blossomed across her mouth, and she whispered, “You are my heart.” As we kissed, I felt her love in my very marrow, from the tips of my fingers to the chambers of our heart. She was telling the truth. She loved me. But time has diluted her love, and every day she stays away, I feel her slip through me.
Why did she leave? The truth lies with her: she could not be with me, changed as she was, as my wife. It wasn’t her fault each kiss bruised, each caress fractured, and every touch hurt. Our last night together was proof I could not change how I loved her; I could not love her how she needed to be loved now. A taste here, a nibble there, but sooner or later, I’d consume her entirely. She had to escape while she could, wounded and scarred, incomplete.
I hold the jar that holds the scraps of her. I worry her love for me will suddenly stop. If it stops, where does it go? Static, does it grow stale? Will it simply fade until it disappears? Or maybe it will be gradual, like falling asleep; her love drifting off, a forgotten dream. I cradle the jar closer and kiss its glass surface until my worries go away. She did not leave because she did not love me; she left because love cannot replace life.
Maybe one day I will eat the pieces left of her. I could validate her fear of being devoured and justify why she left me. How satisfying would it feel to chew, chomp, and swallow her; eventually flush her away. But the jar is all that remains of us: the potato chip nail on the finger that traced words on my back for me to guess (my favourite post-coital, pre-sleep game to play); the piece of the ensaymada that was her glorious bum—the bum I admired before I saw who it belonged to, and thought it wasn’t fair that someone who could possess such a bum could also be kind, smart, and funny; and the Swedish Fish lip—one half of the lips that had kissed me and kissed me and kissed me. These kisses completed our hellos, goodbyes, good mornings, and good nights; these kisses punctuated our manners, apologies, and passion. How could I give up the little I had left of my love?
Every morning when I wake up (except for the days when I am very sad and cannot move at all), I touch the skin above my lips. That’s how it started for her—the wisps of a chocolate moustache. Maybe she’ll come back if we’re the same, I thought. Maybe I can change, too.
I remain in our apartment, and I wait.
Melisa Gregorio is a writer whose work focuses on strong Filipina characters. She is the daughter of first generation immigrants: her Tatay is from Gapan, Nueva Ecija, Philippines, and her mother is from Whitehaven, England. Her fiction has appeared in Ricepaper, Pulp Literature, and other publications. She is completing a collection of short stories and revising her first novel. In addition to being a writer, Melisa works as a master’s-prepared registered nurse whose areas of expertise includes nursing education and clinical informatics.
If you would like to submit original art for the print issue and/or feature online for this essay, check out our art contest at bit.ly/asianvoicesart, running May 1st-July 1st, 2022.