Updated: May 28
Susannah Candell has studied English and creative writing as an undergraduate at Bryn Mawr College, where my fiction won the 2017 Alexandra Peschka Literary Prize. Food of Love is her first published story.
I don’t know where the song came from. Nobody does. All I know is that Brooke started it.
It was spring semester of our sophomore year, and her boyfriend had just broken up with her. I hadn’t really liked him that much. I’d known him, a little—he and I had a few mutual friends, even before he and Brooke had started dating—and I always kind of thought he had fuckboy vibes. But like, nerdy fuckboy vibes. That’s possible, right?
Anyway, Brooke loved Noah—that was his name—head over heels for him. They hadn’t even dated for that long, three or four months, but he was her first, and she was a romantic. When he broke up with her, it messed her up for a month. She lay in bed for days, stared at the ceiling while I brought her takeout from the dining hall. Then she found the song.
I was bringing her dinner for the fifth or sixth day in a row, but when I reached the door, it swung open before I had a chance to knock. She was standing there. Her hair was tied in a messy bun like a nest on top of her head, and she was in pajamas, but she was out of bed.
“Hey, Cora,” she said, giving me a tired smile. “What did they have tonight? Filet mignon?”
“Close,” I said, opening the box. “Spaghetti and...mush.”
“I think it’s supposed to be spaetzle,” she said, peering at it. “Wow. I can’t believe you brought me two types of pasta.”
“Well, excuse me for not waiting on you more adequately,” I teased. “Next time I’ll be sure to take your order straight to the head chef.”
“Oh, you’re adequate.” She bounced onto the bed cross-legged and patted the leaf-patterned bedspread, motioning for me to sit down next to her. “Just not stellar.”
“Does this mean I don’t get a tip?” I asked.
She hesitated, looking at me calculatingly, and then pushed a piece of mushy spaetzle at my mouth with her plastic fork.
I laughed, fending her off. She seemed to be in a good mood. It made me happier than I would have expected, seeing her smile again. I hadn’t realized until now just how much of her sadness had seeped into me.
When Brooke laughs, she sounds like a bird. And her face freezes and her eyes go wide and she starts grinning like she’s the happiest person in the world.
“Can I show you this song I found?” she asked, out of the blue.
“Sure,” I said, and she pulled out her phone. I got a peek of the screen—she had it all queued up. It wasn’t even on YouTube or Spotify, it was on Soundcloud. By a user called: validityandpitch.
When Brooke and I shared songs with each other, we didn’t talk, or get bored and cut off the song in the middle. We listened all the way through. So I listened now. And I tried to feel what she felt in the lyrics, what she was trying to say to me.
It started simply. A few plucks of acoustic guitar strings, a light, slow rhythm. The lyrics had the molasses-thick quality of memory. Then the chorus hit, and it was like all the lights coming up on a stage at once. All the stereos blared to ten, modulated by that heavy, slow, seductive rhythm. Listening to it gave me a feeling of being half-awake.
The song was about a relationship, I think. There was a feeling that true intimacy had been found, and now there was something in the way. It was over, something had happened. All of that loss and yearning and giddy joy at finding true closeness was contained in it.
I looked over at Brooke. She had her chin propped in her hands as we listened, her eyes half-closed. Seeing her like that was oddly poignant. I hadn’t really seen their relationship as anything special. He was this ordinary, kind of irritating guy. But listening to the song, for just a moment, I caught a glimpse of just how much it had meant to Brooke.
“Huh,” I said, when the song was finished. We sat in silence for a moment. I tried to make my face neutral, to conceal how powerfully it had affected me. “That’s a really good song.”
“Isn’t it?” Brooke said, rolling over and smiling at me.
I smiled back. I had to admit, a part of me was glad to have Brooke back. She’d been my best friend and unofficial meal buddy since week two of college, but when she was with Noah, she became flaky. She’d sit around all day waiting for him to text, and then message me twenty minutes before we’d planned to meet for dinner saying sorry, she couldn’t hang out and watch Bake-Off with me tonight, Noah had invited her to the lacrosse team’s party and she had to get ready. He couldn’t have told you that more than two hours before? I wanted to say. But I didn’t want to seem jealous because I was single or whatever, so I held my tongue.
Of course we weren’t entirely free of him yet, though, because before long, the conversation circled back to Noah.
“I just wish I knew why,” Brooke said.
I shrugged. “He always seemed like kind of an untrustworthy person to me. Remember how he would ignore your texts?” He’s just stringing you along, I told her once. But she wouldn’t listen, because she was starstruck by the fact that he’d noticed her at all.
“It was just so out of the blue.” I saw her face turn inward, thinking about it. “We were happy. We were going to go to that sushi place next week.”
I didn’t really know what to say to that, so I said nothing.
“Maybe he was gay,” she said. “Do you think that could’ve been it?”
“I think guessing about it isn’t going to help anyone,” I said.
She sighed. “I just keep thinking—was there something I could’ve done to save it? Was it because I was too clingy? Or too distant?” She chewed on her lip. “Was there something about me that drove him away?”
I drew her into a hug. “Hey. Stop that. None of this is your fault. He probably had shit going on that you couldn’t know about, and he was bad at communicating, and it makes me furious that he’s made you feel so insecure. You are good enough, okay? You are more than enough.”
When Brooke and I met during freshman orientation, she gave me her favorite mug within five minutes because she found out I was homesick. Someone like that deserves the whole fucking world.
“Yeah.” She was quiet. I could feel her breath against my neck. Then she squeezed me tighter. “Yeah. You’re probably right. You’re the best.”
When I went back to my room, I hesitated, my fingers hovering over my phone. The song was still echoing in my head, and I desperately wanted to search for it. But I didn’t. Not at first. It didn’t feel like something I should mess with. It felt like Brooke’s song.
All that day, snatches of the song played in my head. A few lines of the chorus, ghosts of that feeling lingering over me. Finally, I couldn’t stand it anymore. I plugged in my headphones and I pulled it up on Soundcloud and I listened to it.
When the first chorus washed over me, I closed my eyes with sheer pleasure. It had this slow, tranquillized tempo, even at the most heightened moments. There was something sensual, almost seductive about it, the vocals low and sultry. It felt like having a secret, impossible love. It felt like waking up from a dream into reality and, for a moment, not knowing which was which.
It sounded like intimacy. That’s what it was. A darkened room, a heart full of need, almost desperate, to share it with someone else, to let you be a part of them.
The more I listened to it, the more I started to feel as though the loss was personal. Like I’d been in a relationship, and I’d lost something. At first it was about Brooke—I almost felt bad that their relationship hadn’t worked out. I remembered how happy she’d been when they first got together, how she’d rapped on my door after their first date and told me how he’d kissed her on the nose. But then it became something more. I would be listening to it, and the sense of grief and love was so acute I would almost forget that I hadn’t dated anybody in months. It was like the song was transmitting to me the feeling of being in a relationship I’d never had.
Was that possible? To just be in love, and heartbroken, without being in love with anyone in particular?
As I replayed the song yet again, something surfaced in my head that I hadn’t thought about in months. One morning last semester, Brooke had slunk into calculus twenty minutes late and given me a shifty smile. “So, guess who lost her virginity last night,” she whispered, taking out her textbook.
I covered my gasp with a cough. “Brooke! Look at you! How was it?”
“It was...interesting,” she said. She dug in her bag for a pencil, not looking at me. “It was good, I think. Yeah.”
We pretended to scribble notes for a minute until the professor looked the other way.
“But it hurt,” she added quietly. “I guess it’s supposed to hurt, but like. And it wasn’t really my choice.”
Ice dripped into me.
“What do you mean?”
She shrugged. She still wasn’t looking at me. “I mean I wasn’t expecting it to happen so soon, that’s all. I kind of just wanted to cuddle. But he…” She swung her hair up into a ponytail, then shook it loose and combed her fingers through the strands. “I’d never have expected it from him, he’s so sweet and quiet. But he’s got this impulsive side to him, too. When he wants something, it’s like he won’t take no for an answer. He just goes for it.”
I didn’t know what to say. It felt like there was a hot coal burning inside my stomach. But she seemed perfectly fine. Happy, even.
“Did he hurt you?” I asked quietly.
She copied out an equation. “I mean, I told you. It’s supposed to hurt the first time, right?”
“Not necessarily,” I said. “Not if you do it right. Mine didn’t hurt.”
“Well, maybe it’ll be better next time,” she said. She glanced over, checking my math. “Hey, you got this one wrong.” She leaned over and sketched a flower in the corner of my open notebook.
There was a knock on the doorframe. I jumped.
“Hi,” Hannah said, leaning in. She was still in her cross-country uniform. “Sorry to interrupt. I was just wondering what you’re listening to.”
“Oh. Yeah.” It took me a moment to reconnect with reality. “It’s this song Brooke showed me. I can send it to you, if you like.”
At the mention of Brooke’s name, I thought I saw Hannah’s face cloud.
“How’s she doing?” she asked.
“She’s...doing okay,” I said. “She’s still pretty beat up about Noah.”
“Yeah, I know,” Hannah said, in a tone that made my stomach tighten.
“Um, what do you mean?”
Hannah lowered her voice. “She’s been texting him, like, ten times a day. Begging him to talk to her, to give her another chance, you know.”
I frowned. That didn’t sound like Brooke at all. “She hasn’t told me anything about that.”
“Yeah, well, she wouldn’t,” Hannah said, shrugging. “I mean, I wouldn’t. It’s, um...not the most flattering behavior.”
Irritation rose in me at hearing her badmouth Brooke like that. I mean, if it was true, she was right, but still. “Listen, I’ve got problem sets to do.”
“Oh, sure.” Hannah backed off. “But, you know, maybe talk to her? Noah feels really bad about it.”
“Sure,” I said.
When she left, I put on my headphones and played the song again. I thought I almost had my finger on what made it so powerful. It had the nostalgia of a sweet reality that was very recently the present, turned and fermented by memory. The process of feeling so acutely, and then letting go, was such a relief that by the time you got to the end, you just wanted to go back and listen to it all over again.
And I did.
“Hey, Brooke,” I said, when we were studying in the common room later. “You heard from Noah at all? Like, have you been in touch with him?”
“No,” Brooke said, looking up at me with big, innocent eyes. “I told you, he’s barely acknowledged me since the breakup.”
“Huh,” I said. “Seems like Hannah’s been spreading rumors, then.”
“Why? What’s she saying?”
“Just that you’ve been texting him, you won’t leave him alone.”
“I did text him,” Brooke said, her eyes flashing, “asking him to talk to me like a grown-up. He never responded.”
I shrugged. “Just thought I’d ask.”
We went back to our books for a while.
Brooke stood up. “Hey, I’m going to go grab a textbook from my room. Would you mind watching my stuff for a minute?”
“Sure,” I said.
I tried to focus on conjugating my Latin while she was gone. On the other end of the couch, her phone screen glowed to life with a text message.
I picked it up to rescue it from getting lost in the cushions, then paused.
Her passcode was my birthday. Quickly, I keyed it in and opened up her message app.
I tapped on Noah’s name, and a column of blue text bubbles filled the screen. My heart sank as I thumbed through a dozen unanswered texts, all from her.
“Oh, Brooke,” I whispered.
Hannah had exaggerated a bit. There weren’t exactly ten messages a day. But there were way more than Brooke had told me about. The first few messages were normal, reasonable things:
hey u doing ok?
can we talk?
i just want to know why
noah! please answer me!!
can we talk about this like mature adults please?
But gradually they devolved into pleading, long rambles, things that made me cringe to see, until it was finally just:
Then there was a gap of about three days, and then another message, sent just this morning.
hey u should listen to this :)
I stared at it for a long moment, then heard footsteps. I quickly quit out of the app and locked the phone.
“Hey,” Brooke said breezily, flopping back onto the couch.
“Hey.” I smiled. Tried to concentrate on my Latin.
Why was she hiding things from me?
“You know,” Brooke said, “I always kind of thought he had a thing for Hannah.”
I looked up. “Why?”
“You know.” Brooke had almost a dreamy expression on her face. “You know how they are together. Making inside jokes, touching each other all the time…”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I think they’re just really good friends. He was the first person she met at freshman orientation, remember?”
“What if that was why?” Brooke said it like she wasn’t even listening to me. “What if he broke up with me because he was always in love with her?”
“She was single for most of freshman year,” I said. “If he was into her, why didn’t he date her then?”
“It’s just, the way they look at each other sometimes…” She sighed. “It’s just a feeling I have. I can’t explain it.”
“Then maybe you shouldn’t be jumping to conclusions,” I said. I don’t know why I said it like that. It’s just—this was all she had been talking about for weeks.
The effect was immediate. Her face closed up, her voice went chilly. “Right. I don’t know why I expected you to understand.”
“And what’s that supposed to mean?” I said sharply.
Brooke sighed. “Look, Cora, I know you’re jealous. You’ve always been jealous, but you don’t have to take it out on him.”
“Is that what you think?” My voice came out several decibels louder than I intended it to. “That I’m jealous of him? I don’t have to be jealous of him. He was a shitbag. He was rude and boring, and honestly I don’t know why you’re still hung up on him. I mean, you weren’t even that happy with him. He made you more nervous and insecure than you’ve been the entire time I’ve known you, and that thing you told me in Calc?”
“What about it?” Something in her face shifted, became guarded.
“Honestly? It sounded like sexual assault.”
“No, it wasn’t,” she said immediately. “He’s not like that. I can’t believe you’d even—”
“You said it wasn’t your choice. You said he wouldn’t take no for an answer—I mean, that’s textbook rape, Brooke—”
“It wasn’t!” she shouted. Her voice rang in the empty room. “We were dating, and I was being a prude, and if you’re going to talk about my relationship like that, you can get out of my room.”
She pointed at the door. Her hand was shaking. Too angry to speak, I grabbed my bag and walked out.
In a room across the hallway, the song was pulsing through the walls.
On the last day of February, I was walking through the quad on my way to class. It was early in the morning, college-early at least, and the walk was busy with people. Hannah was walking up ahead of me, with Noah. I was walking more slowly than usual, trying not to catch up.
Over the trees, a flock of starlings rose, dived as one, rose again. I wondered how they knew to do that—if one of them was leading, or if they somehow all thought with one mind.
I had the song in my head. It was pretty much constant, by that point. I hadn’t eaten breakfast; I hadn’t had much of an appetite since Brooke stopped talking to me, and so I was a bit lightheaded. Everything seemed to be a little removed, a little unreal. Maybe that was why, when I saw Brooke walking toward me, it did something funny to my stomach: an electric jolt, a magnetic pull toward her.
“Brooke, hey,” I said. Her eyes were red-rimmed. “Are you okay?”
She lifted up one shoulder and let it fall. “I guess.”
“I’m sorry if I upset you the other night,” I said. “I guess I crossed a line.”
“Yeah,” she said, tightening her scarf. “You did.”
“Can we talk about it?” I asked.
She started to nod. Then her eyes flicked away, focusing on something behind me. I followed her gaze.
She was looking at Noah. He’d seen her, but he was trying to pretend he hadn’t.
The hum was so soft at first, I thought it was inside my head. Then someone passed close by me, and I realized it was coming from them: low in their throat, the opening notes of the song. A girl I thought I recognized from my chem class jogged by. She was humming it too.
All around us, a soft, dissonant melody rose, swelling and fading as the crowd shifted. No one seemed to notice us or acknowledge what was happening in any way. There was just that hum in perfect unison, emanating from everywhere.
“Brooke,” I said. “What’s going on?”
Brooke’s eyes were alight. Her hair almost seemed to float off her shoulders, as if lifted by some strange electricity. She took a step toward Noah and lifted her chin. “Hey,” she said. “Talk to me.”
Slowly, as though his motions weren’t his own, Noah turned around. He gazed at Brooke with a curiously blank expression.
“You know, it’s not just immature that you’re ghosting me, it’s also stupid. We live on the same tiny campus. What did you think was going to happen?”
The music washed over us in waves, like something tangible. Chills swept over my body; my skin suddenly felt like ice, and the touch of cold air was somehow painful. Noah just stood there, arms limp like an automaton, staring at her.
“Brooke…” I began, reaching for her, but she held up a hand, and my mind went fuzzy.
Noah’s face twitched.
“Just get over it already,” he muttered, and turned away.
I reached for her, wanting to comfort her, be close to her, I don’t know what, but the hum was still rising through the air, maybe from my own throat, and there was no more room in my head to think.
I came down with a fever. I didn’t go to class, just drew the blinds, crawled into bed, and slept. My dreams were restless, unceasing, full of invisible ships moving through me, a blazing sun, Brooke’s face. I thought I saw her lean over me and spool the dreams out of my head, sponge the sweat off of my forehead with a cool cloth. “No,” I said, “don’t take them,” I wanted to keep the dreams in my head, but also I wanted to take her face in both my hands and pull her toward me. I was helpless to do either; she cupped my chin and smiled as she pulled the last of the thoughts from my temple. And I surfaced from the shallow water of the vision with a yell, only to break into more dreams.
I woke at dusk. Deep orange light bled around the corners of the blinds. There was a message from Brooke on my lock-screen.
You were right.
The light was so strange. Without bothering to put on my shoes, I stumbled out into the hall and went outside. The sky was a deep, angry amber, the wind soughing in the trees. It didn’t feel like any time of day at all. My head felt stuffed with cotton. A storm was coming in.
From somewhere nearby, I could hear the low, familiar bass of the song, carried on the wind.
I wrapped my jacket around me and wandered toward it. The campus was strangely empty. I felt like I had slept for a hundred years, through some fiery apocalypse, and now all that was left was me and the ashy sky.
I followed the strains of song through the walled garden and up the hill. The rays of the setting sun struggled to break through the clouds, like the grasping arms of someone drowning. I moved as if asleep, pulled by the music, and it brought me to the end of campus, where I came to a stop at the edge of the woods.
The silhouetted trees whispered amongst themselves. The music was coming from in there.
Rotting leaves left over from last November squished under my bare feet. I followed the dirt path into the trees. Faint notes floated toward me, caught on motes of dust. The sun was almost entirely gone now. An oil-slick of light lit the matchbox trees. The song was still playing; maybe it was on a loop. Or maybe it never stopped at all, just stretched out infinitely, with no beginning and no end.
I crested the top of the hill and stopped.
The clearing was filled from edge to edge with people. People, seemingly everyone I knew, and far more I didn’t, dancing to the rhythm of the song. I couldn’t see where the music was coming from, but I saw its effect. I saw Hannah dancing with tears flowing down her face. I saw a couple who everyone knew had broken up a year ago wrapped in an embrace.
I saw Brooke.
She was across the clearing. She must have been standing on something, because she was elevated somehow, staring out across the crowd, like she was commanding it. Looking at her, I felt something in my chest seize. She seemed luminous up there. Her hair fell around her face in thick dark curls, her mouth pearly and perfect. Seeing her like that, cold and smiling and above it all, was almost too much to bear.
Under her gaze, I danced. I let the crowd take me and I moved to the rhythm of heartache. I let the song open me up and I let it writhe inside my bones.
Dirt and leaf rot crawled up my ankles. Time seemed to stop. I seemed to stop. I lost track of where I ended and the crowd began.
Somehow, below Brooke, the crowd parted and spat out a person. It was Noah. He stumbled forward, shaggy-headed and unsteady. He looked up at Brooke, dazed, and I could see in his eyes that he was just as awed and stunned by her as the rest of us.
The song was reaching a peak in intensity. It almost made it hard to move, to think. It was like moving through a viscous liquid. As the crescendo rose, the crowd simmered. We had the song in our bones, and we could feel just how he had wounded her, how he had used her and thrown her aside, as deeply as if he had done the same to us. The ache was raw and delicious. Brooke looked down at him, smiling, and we could feel her judgment.
“You’re nothing,” she said.
And the song swelled. The crowd roared, and surged forward as one, and we swallowed him up.