That Time I Ate the Moon in Key West
fiction by Jennifer Vaknine
That Time I Ate the Moon in Key West
The road to Key West is a tightrope barely breathing above lazy ocean tides, and we crawl after the other cars like ants. Our dusty little ant-car is carrying my husband, myself, and a small infant shrieking like she is at war.
“She needs to eat.”
My husband grins at me from the driver’s seat, because he’s given me a vacation. I am not grinning, because this is what he’s given me: two hours in an enclosed vehicle with a newborn. I’m still bleeding. I’m not sure I’m ever going to stop. I hope I’m not bleeding onto the seat.
“She just ate.” He laughs at this, like her hunger is a funny little thing. And why shouldn’t he? It’s not his body she’s devouring like clockwork every forty-five minutes.
He doesn’t stop, so I ignore his protests and unbuckle my seat to clamber next to her rear-facing car seat. Her face is swollen, red and accusatory, and I pretzel my post-partum body into a position that frees up my breast without moving her. It’s like knives, when she eats. How can something so toothless bite so hard?
My husband reminds me again that she just ate, she can’t be hungry, but he thinks this will be a relaxing vacation, taking a colicky five-week old to a middle-aged drunken mecca.
When I’d mentioned that, he wrinkled his nose and told me I needed to be more spontaneous. So I spontaneously feed her. My nipples are bleeding. She eats my blood, too. I hope it’s good protein. I rub lanolin on my chest and leave my shirt off as we crawl, crawl, crawl down Florida.
We approach by a gas station and I suggest we stop so I can pee. I don’t really need to pee, but I do need to change this giant monstrosity of a pad. He tells me we already stopped, he just wants to get there already. I insist I have to pee, because I read that men are disgusted by post-birth realities. He tells me at the next stop.
“I’m going to bleed all over your fucking car.”
We stop. I attend to post-birth realities. When I get back into the car, she eats. I rub cream onto my chapped, bleeding nipples. I chew a granola bar.
I try not to lose my balance as we wobble down, down, down.
The thing is, I can’t be upset with her hunger—I’m hungry, too. Famished, even, if I wanted to be dramatic about it, and I do. I understand the urge to rage until someone else fills her up. I’d scream until my throat bled if I thought it would work for me, too.
So we’re on this hamster wheel together, crying and feeding and crying and feeding and this night is worse than any other, because the bed is strange. My husband has no room to escape to like he does at home, so he’s offering useless advice at us as strangers bang on the walls and she and I cry and cry and cry.
In the morning, she sleeps. He sleeps. I heat water in the coffee machine and devour four instant oatmeal packets. They go down like slugs and I close my eyes for a few seconds and she wakes up to cry. She eats.
We’ve survived glares on the hotel van into downtown as she shrieked and spat my milk down my blouse. I smell like sour milk. It’s ninety degrees out.
“She’s too young to be here,” an older woman scolds me. “It’s too hot for her.”
I want to argue, but I agree. We walk into a record shop for air-conditioning, and then we walk into a drugstore and buy the sunscreen we should have brought ahead of time. She’s quiet in her carrier, but I’m scared, because I’m always scared, because I read things once and they percolate in my head: things like heat stroke and an infant’s inability to regulate their bodily temperature build and climb like thunderheads until I’m shaking and crying and we’re back on the hotel van by noon and she’s screaming, too, and my husband is rubbing his forehead against the window because I always do this, I can’t just live, I can’t just enjoy things.
It’s lunch time. I’m starving. He goes out to get food and get away from us and she cries herself to sleep and we curl around each other on the faded carpet floor.
The evening is cooler, so we eschew the hotel van and drive our own car to park and look at Cuba.
“There’s Cuba,” everyone is saying. “You could swim there.”
I don’t swim there. My husband is searching online for the best key lime pie. My stomach acid is suggesting it could digest my stomach if I don’t eat soon. She soothes herself by sucking on my knuckle.
There is a pie shop down the street. We do not go to that pie shop. He wants to go across town, to the best pie shop. She is crying, she is hungry, and then she is eating me on a brightly painted bench so I suggest he goes instead.
“You’re not even trying, you know?” He is sullen. “This was supposed to be our first vacation as a family, and you’re being miserable.”
She pinches my sore nipple between her snapping gums and I swallow a shout and I bite my lip and now I’m bleeding from three places. He doesn’t even have a sunburn, he looks golden and perfect against the twilight rise of the ocean tide.
I hate him. All the anger I can’t feel towards her, for crying, for not sleeping enough, for eating me until I am contemplating self-cannibalism, I push all of it towards him wordlessly until he walks away and we’re alone.
“That’s Cuba,” I mutter into her hair. It still smells like vanilla. “We could swim there.”
The moon rises. I can see its crescent reflected in her blue eyes. I haven’t had much affinity for the moon. I dated a girl once who did. She rambled on and on about lunar cycles and phases and womanly tides and I would nod along, like I did when my uncle talked about the radios the government had planted in our heads. She claimed the patriarchy had erased the goddesses.
And she does look a bit erased, the moon, as though her swollen round belly has been diminished, like a slice of pie with only the bland crust left. Like the stars dappling the darkening sky are her crumbs.
But it’s just a trick of the light. She’s still full, I think.
My husband returns with pie. He sets the plastic pie trap into my lap with a flimsy fork. He doesn’t say anything, and I don’t thank him. She’s crying again. I arrange myself so she can eat, and with one hand easing my nipple into her vacuum mouth and the other clumsily shoveling pie into my mouth.
It tastes sharp, like my mother’s voice. I think of her, think of claws curled into my ponytail, of hair and mouth like a lion. Had I let her sleep enough? Had I eaten her like this, until she roared back? I don’t think that I could have. I don’t have a bite of courage in me, of self-preservation. I am bleeding and bleeding and bleeding myself into the ocean.
I eat the crust. It’s dry, the crumbs are like dust. I lick the rest from the plastic. I am probably making a scene.
I’m so hungry. She eats and eats.
“Do you want more?”
I want everything. I stretch out my fork towards the sky. The ends are crooked from my desperate teeth but they hook in just fine, they pull bits of the moon down from where it hangs. It has the consistency of mascarpone cheese, and I suck it greedily.
She stops eating.
I don’t. I eat all the light from the sky, I eat the streetlamps, I eat the wavering echo of light from his phone. I eat until tourists flock to the corner store to purchase flashlights, and then I eat those, too. And when it’s as dark as creation I finally sleep.
We drive back home the next night. Our headlights shine on the empty road.
There’s a hole in the sky, a bit darker than the rest, but I am full and she’s sleeping and I have no regrets. I prop my feet up on the dashboard and sigh.
“Marathon,” my husband nods towards a population sign. “I read it’s better for families.”
I cover his hand with mine and it glows.