Marian goes to Duncan’s apartment. Although she doesn’t remember the exact address, she somehow knows exactly where to go, which surprises her. When she arrives, Duncan greets her and begins to iron the clothing she brought him. As Marian sits and watches Duncan ironing, she remembers a conversation she had with Ainsley that morning. Ainsley had asked Marian where she was going, and Marian refused to tell her, instead simply saying that she was going “out.” Ainsley then tells Marian about her night. Len had gotten extremely drunk, and Ainsley tells Marian about how he barely remembered what happened when they woke up the next morning, implying that they had sex. Ainsley appears to find the story amusing, which Marian finds unsettling.
Marian brings her attention back to Duncan as he continues to iron. Marian feels like she wants him to pay attention to her, which she dislikes, and she decides to go to the bathroom to avoid her emotions. When she returns, Duncan points out a mirror that he smashed. He tells her that he smashed it because he didn’t want to see himself in it and goes on a long tangent about how seeing himself bothers him. He then reveals that he was lying about his reasons for breaking the mirror. Marian and Duncan continue to talk until Duncan asks Marian if he can iron the blouse that she’s wearing, offering her his own grey nightgown to wear while he irons the blouse for her.
Marian agrees and gives him the blouse. Duncan continues to speak, reminiscing on his hometown as Marian half-listens. She is captivated by his appearance, as he is frighteningly thin. At one point, Duncan looks up at her and tells her that she looks like him while wearing the grey nightgown. He pulls her closer to him and takes her into his arms. She feels unsure of his intentions, as it seems to her like he is holding the night-gown and she has just “happened to be inside it.” She kisses his nose and tells him that she is engaged. Duncan appears not to care, and tells her that her engagement is “her problem.” She responds, saying that she shouldn’t be at his apartment, but doesn’t get up.
Duncan thanks Marian for telling him about her engagement and says that he doesn’t want her to think that “all this” means anything. He adds that it “all” always happens to “somebody else,” as if he, himself, is dissociated the entire time, and tells Marian that she’s a substitute for the laundromat for him. Marian wonders, out loud, what Duncan is a substitute for, and he says that he’s a universal substitute. He turns off the light, but the door outside slams and Duncan realizes one of his roommates is home. Duncan quickly pretends that he and Marian were playing chess, although his roommate doesn’t believe Duncan’s cover-up. After his roommate leaves, Duncan takes Marian’s hand and holds it.
The chronological narrative jumps forward; Marian and Peter are at dinner. They discuss the education of children, a conversation that appears theoretical but that Marian sees as being symbolic and consequential because they are, in some ways, discussing their own future plans for educating the children she and Peter will have together. They have both ordered steak, although as Marian eats, she feels her appetite waning and begins to grow disgusted by the food. While they eat, Marian considers how she feels like Peter has started to treat her clinically and analyze her more closely, which makes her feel uncomfortable. As Marian watches Peter slice the steak, she begins to imagine the butcher and the cow the steak came from. She is disgusted and unable to stop seeing blood and death within the meat in front of her. Marian is unable to finish eating her steak.
The narrative jumps forward several weeks. Marian has not been able to eat normally since the steak dinner. She finds it impossible to eat any sort of meat other than fish. Len calls Marian and asks to come over. Marian fears that he wants to talk about Ainsley, who has just received the news that she is pregnant. Marian is right; Len arrives at the apartment and expresses his concern about the pregnancy. He feels guilty, even though he can’t even remember the night that he and Ainsley had sex. Marian tells Len that Ainsley had planned for Len to get her pregnant and that she did it on purpose.
Ainsley arrives at the apartment and Marian tells her that Len is in the living room. Len tells Ainsley how upset he is and how he feels that she used him, adding that he can’t psychologically separate himself from his new role as a father; Ainsley responds with little care, but then comforts Len. Marian leaves the room, feeling disgusted by Len’s behavior, amazed that he was so quick to let go of his “thick and calloused” shell—she believes that he is weak. The next morning, when Marian tries to have an egg for breakfast, she is unable to eat it, haunted by the fact that it used to be alive.
The relationship between Marian and Duncan begins to become stronger and more complicated, taking on an explicit romantic tone. Their relationship contrasts with Marian and Peter’s; whereas Marian and Peter’s relationship remains murky, with Marian continuing to express doubt about what Peter feels for her—like she does at dinner, unsure of why he seems to analyze her so closely now—the terms of Duncan and Marian’s relationship appear to be clear. Duncan explicitly tells Marian what she means to him; she is a placeholder, like the laundromat, a stable activity that disrupts his graduate studies and allows him to occupy his mind. Duncan also tells Marian that she doesn’t have significant emotional weight for him, again, making his feelings towards her explicit in a way that Peter never does.
Additionally, Peter and Duncan are further contrasted, again, by the physical spaces that each appears in. Duncan’s apartment is in “semi-darkness” with only one lamp turned on. A mirror is shattered, imbuing the space with a reminder of uncontained emotions—completely unlike Peter’s apartment, with its sparse, expensive furniture and shiny surfaces. Similarly, the two men’s physical appearances are contrasted as Marian describes in more detail Duncan’s appearance. He slouches, and has a “shrunken child’s-face,” whereas Peter is repeatedly described as a “perfect” man that Marian finds no physical flaws in.
The dark environment, the secrecy with which Marian approaches visiting Duncan, and the intimate emotional conversations they have, along with their physical intimacy, all create a foreboding tone and cast the relationship between Marian and Duncan as an illicit one. And yet, despite its forbidden nature, it is unclear whether Marian feels positively or negatively about it. She is drawn to Duncan, but cannot explain to herself why. When they hold hands, she describes his fingers as “dry and rather cold”—a sensation that is unpleasant. She appears to gain no tangible physical or emotional pleasure from him; their relationship remains opaque, and thus, Marian’s life remains bleak in light of the alienation and growing dissatisfaction she feels within her engagement, her jobs, and her friendships.
A vital theme emerges in these chapters: Marian’s inability to eat anything that used to be alive or is related to life. Her vision of food begins to disintegrate. She sees meat as something raw, with blood, and can’t help but recall how the meat used to have a life as an animal. As Marian feels devoured by the constricting factors in her life, such as Peter (it’s no coincidence that her inability to eat begins while she watches Peter devour a steak, an action Marian describes as “violent”), she, herself, is unable to eat anything that used to be alive.
Marian’s alienation from her friends continues to increase as she realizes that Len is not the man she thought he was after witnessing his reaction to Ainsley’s pregnancy. She is amazed that he was so quick to crack, and compares him to a “white grub… repulsive[ly] blindly writhing,” an image that diminishes him and conveys the extent of her disgust. This shattering of expectations distances Marian from Len, one of the few characters who she expressed admiration towards in the first part of the novel.
Ainsley’s announcement of her pregnancy and Len’s reaction also adds another layer to the novel’s depiction of gender roles. Ainsley delights in her pregnancy while Len descends into hysterical distress, proclaiming his helplessness. Ainsley takes on the physically superior role when she comforts him, reversing the gendered expectation that a man must take care of a woman. Instead, it is she who comforts Len. However, Ainsley is not a whole reversal of femininity. She is also deeply defined by her womanhood, but instead is defined by its power. She embraces her incoming maternity, and when she comforts Len, she does so with a maternal air. Her womanhood and her ability to be a mother give her power and strength, rather than making her weak or reliant upon male support.