A work of satirical fiction that explores the isolation of the body in a culture of victim blaming, and the urgent hunger that comes with a desire for control…
by: Niamh Burns1
Peanut butter has been my favorite food since I was fourteen years old. In high school I found out that the boy who had a crush on me in English class was allergic to it. At that time, I thought it was funny to tease him and tell him I’d eaten a whole lot of it, and this alarmed him and caused him to avoid me altogether. It also caused him immense panic — noticeable from across the room — as our roles reversed and he became the one afraid of being approached. Those were the days when sexual harassment was secondary to other woes, like which makeup to wear and how much of it, or which clothes I could wear to fit in but not so much that I looked like everyone else. There’s a science to being a fourteen year old girl, but there was no equation that could prepare any of us for the sexualization, the degradation, and the humiliation that would come with growing a pair of breasts.
I cursed my chest in vain because I couldn’t stop it from growing. The only protection I felt I had was the peanut butter. I had the kind of features that boys called unconventional, or hideous even. The crueler ones called me butter-face, which added a thin veil of irony to my love of peanut butter. I didn’t get bothered much in the ways other girls did, which suited me fine because unlike those I tried helplessly to fit in with, I didn’t want boys to look at me in a sexualized manner. That look made me feel nauseous, like I had a nest of newborn cockroaches lodged in my throat. I had an aversion to boys the way in which most people my age had an aversion to acne.
The overt desires towards me began, and were accentuated by, Peanut Butter Boy. For a long time he was the only member of the opposite sex to look at me in a desirous way. He made no attempt to conceal his hunger for me or save me the disturbance of his expressions. As we grew older the way he considered peanut butter changed. On a usual peanut butter-less day, he tossed glances at me. However, on the days I did eat peanut butter he stared, his mouth curled slightly and leaking at the edges a thin, gooey substance that looked like drool. Peanut butter was a word and a food that enticed him beyond rationality, most likely I reasoned because he simply could not have it.
“Boys want what they can’t have, my mother once told me when I complained about him. “You have to learn to conceal what they want,” she continued, but not too much, because then they’ll be mad.” This didn’t make much sense to me. How could I know the proper procedure of concealment? How would I know which was too much or which was too little since the measure was relative?
I didn’t stop eating peanut butter, even though my mother warned me about it. Even though my mother warned me to stop teasing Peanut Butter Boy. “ Of course he’s going to stare,”she said, “if you’re flaunting it.” I didn’t care about what Peanut Butter Boy wanted or didn’t want. In those days, I didn’t see the harm in doing what I wanted.
I liked the way that the peanut butter stuck to the roof of my mouth the most. I knew that if his tongue ever travelled there that I would be safe from him at least upon the moment that his throat closed and he’d be able to kiss no more. I read up on anaphylaxis, and knowing what it could do to him empowered me. I only had been kissed by one person before. It happened when I was twelve and I wish I had something like peanut butter then to erase the stale grit of his mouth. It was my seventh grade English teacher who had kissed me, and I wasn’t supposed to tell anybody that because he said it was a social experiment. He wanted to know who he could trust. Which of his students truly obeyed. He said he did it because I was his favorite, and he thought he was my favorite too. It was a test that I unwittingly failed. He said that he would never do it again because he was very sorry that he hurt me and sorry for the tears that fell from my eyes. He made me promise not to tell, stating that if I told, I would be kicked out of school. I would be punished. He never had to specify how.
I was forced to carry that kiss in my mouth for the rest of my adolescence. His mouth tasted like an insult. It was dry and grainy, much like sucking on a towel but without the pleasure of engaging with something inanimate, or free of intentions. I would often chew on a towel when I stepped out of the shower, because I liked the way the tiny bits of fabric felt in my teeth. I liked the pull and the bits of blood that would bead between my gums if the strings became stuck. After that kiss, never again would I have such a simple pleasure to engage with. I would have to continue all my life submitting to men taking things from my mouth, and putting things in it as well. He asked me almost every day after that if I was doing okay. I think he was afraid I would break our pact and tell someone. I never did.
Peanut Butter Boy became something like an infection in my life, like a pustule on the entire experience of my aliveness. He eventually faded into the background as we grew older, but ling in a small town you can never escape someone entirely. We’ve stayed in close proximity to each other throughout our lives. In high school we had different interests, so our paths didn’t cross as often as they had in our younger years. I was inclined to study delicate things like calligraphy and baking. I delved into the fine arts. He wrestled and chunked himself up with other beefy guys who wanted nothing at all to do with delicacy.
Around the eleventh grade my mother told me that I had to stop bringing peanut butter to school. She urged me to refrain from having it in public at all, because I was becoming a “woman.” She said this word as though she was sorry about it, as though there were secrets attached to it she couldn’t prepare me for.
There came a time where peanut butter allergies became a hot topic, where discussions about this concern were abounding and there were reports on the evening news. These reports recounted how some people might act out when faced with the allergies, how they may drool and froth at the mouth and become rabid. How they could fold into themselves and close up completely. How they wouldn’t be responsible for how they acted. Mom said, “You see? I told you that I wasn’t crazy. You have to watch what you eat around men.”
Men lick their lips and growl at the thought of a nice peanut butter sandwich made by an orderly woman, a proper woman, a woman who knows that real men don’t cut the crusts off, they tear the whole thing in two with their ragged, manly teeth. That is, unless they’re allergic. Men who are allergic have fragile appetites.
One day there was a sobbing woman on the news. She was wearing a homely cardigan and her makeup was smudged the way my mother’s had been when I was young and her and my father had fought about “the other woman.” The sobbing woman said a man had attacked her, that he had ripped through her like some violent disaster, and that she felt dead and exposed. The interviewer asked if she had eaten peanut butter that day, and the sobbing woman said “yes” and then there was a hard cut to a weather report and the topic wasn’t spoken of again. After that I never really ate peanut butter much, only enjoying it when I thought I was alone. Those are the times when women can be hurt the most, those times when we think we are alone.
I would often walk through the backwoods on my way home from school. One day I was seventeen years old and set to graduate on the day I turned eighteen. We called the backwoods The Blind Spot, because it’s where all the kids went to smoke pot, drink, and play with whatever vices they were into. I went to the Blind Spot to eat peanut butter where I believed I wouldn’t be bothered. I walked past a group of boys smoking pot out of an empty Monster Energy Drink can. They hooted and startled me, and then said “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t see your face” which was followed by a probing kind of laughter. I kept walking, I was used to these comments. I walked to a point where I felt I was obscured by the trees and I unwrapped my sandwich quarter, smelling the freedom of that little triangle of squished bread. I unfolded one sticky piece of saran wrap, licked my finger, tasting my own salty sweat mingling with the salt of the peanut butter. My mouth was becoming eager, salivating into the spots between my tongue and teeth. I sucked the warm liquid back and put the bread in my mouth. I felt free.
The trees behind my head rustled. I tried to hide the sandwich and the parts of my body exposed through the peanut butter: my tongue, my tonsils, my esophagus — all fighting against the prying stickiness of the peanut butter on the roof of my mouth. I tried a swallow and immediately wished I had brought water. I thought of bears, of the ways the wild can attack you when you’re alone with it, and then I saw him. That hostile face, the pitless eyes. The unholy mouth with its cracks and crevices. I’d never seen him so close, the tiny deep holes in his face, little infected freckles of dirt. The spots where puss oozed out. The worst were the eyes, the frightful things that screamed along with his mouth I’ve been waiting a long time to be alone with you.
He ravaged me right there in the woods. Later, at the trial, the judge would say that he was probably hungry. That he had wanted my sandwich. The judge implied I was asking for it, stating, “you should not have been carrying a sandwich if you did not want someone hungry to try to eat it.” A friend of a friend said “it’s not a big deal, sharing your sandwich.” But that was my freedom, the battle against the grumblings of my belly mind, the freedom to let loose my cravings and feel comfortable with them.
I wanted to be all woman, all hungry. A fed woman. I didn’t want to be ashamed of my eating habits. I tried to tell them, it wasn’t about the sandwich, it was about my body, the way I ate the sandwich, the sanctity of my aloneness, how it couldn’t be about the sandwich as he was allergic to it. I tried to tell them he wanted to devour my femininity, not the sandwich. They told me “you’re hardly feminine, you wish.” They said “you knew he was allergic, you wanted this to happen.”
While I watched him, above me, move his face down to mine, not to kiss or nuzzle but to bite, to feast, to have his way, his eyes rolled so far back into his head I wondered for a moment if his conscious mind had informed him of what horrors he was committing as he toppled off my lifeless body, onto the space in the dirt where my sandwich had been discarded. His mouth was foaming, rapid waves rising through his cheeks. He was coughing up a whole ocean, spraying, convulsing, from his calves up through to his mouth. Watching him throttle like that brought life back to my thighs, as though something in this world had been looking out for me, something bigger didn’t want me to be penetrated by him.
Then the final decision came down, and the judge declared “Thirty years to life, for bodily harm, for attempted murder. You should have told him you were eating peanut butter.” Women are so senseless, he implied. My defense attorney told me, “In your defense, I think you wanted to kill him. Women like you are out to get men. At least you got that small prize.” My mom didn’t show up at my trial. I knew what she would have said, “You see?”
Then there were men on all sides of me. They decided what I was and they decided that I was nothing. They dragged me into a van with no seatbelt and then through a door that swallowed the sunlight. They used force even though they didn’t need to. Behind bars, we aren’t allowed peanut butter. There’s nothing to save you from the men who want after your khakis, no matter how uniform or dirty or oversized.
Niamh Burns is a queer poet and fiction writer from Canada. Burns is the author of two novels to date and always has a new piece in the works. They write unapologetically and seek to evoke a sense of unease and truth in the reader.
- Header art by Tristan Tanovan-Fox. [↩]