Marian and Duncan go to a museum. They walk through the Ancient Egyptian section and look at mummies. Marian thinks about their relationship, considering how Duncan is “using” her, but accepting that she’s okay with being used, since she, too, is using him for her own satisfaction. She remembers all the times he’s told her that he doesn’t like her “very much,” but also how he’s told her he likes seeing her (as opposed to a graduate student, like himself) because she is an escape.
The pair approach a mummy and Duncan explains that his roommates, Trevor and Fish, are skeptical about Marian’s influence on him because they are protective, almost like parents. Marian finds this comparison puzzling, but says little to criticize or voice her opinion. As Duncan points out that the mummy is his favorite, Duncan kisses Marian. A museum guard interrupts them, telling them that there is no kissing allowed in the Mummy Room.
Duncan and Marian leave the museum and go get coffee. Duncan tells Marian that he wants to have sex with her. She feels uncomfortable; thus far, she’s justified her illicit relationship with Duncan by abstaining from having sex with him, keeping it within the realms of “innocence.” Duncan tells her that he wants to have sex with her to get over his own aversion to sex. When she asks him why he wants to have sex with her, specifically, he tells her that it is only because he knows she won’t react poorly or get “hysterical.” Duncan then sees his roommate, Trevor. Trevor invites Duncan and Marian back to their apartment for dinner, but Marian insists she can’t go, citing all of her dietary restrictions as the reason she won’t be able to go (since, by this point, she is unable to eat meat, eggs, dairy, and certain vegetables).
Despite trying to avoid the dinner with Fish, Trevor, and Duncan, Marian finds herself at their apartment for dinner nonetheless. As Trevor prepares an elaborate meal, Marian starts to talk to Fish, who is sitting in the living room under a pile of books and papers. He explains a long theory about Alice in Wonderland, which he’s currently writing a term paper on. Duncan interrupts him, mocking how esoteric the theory is, and all four of them sit down to have dinner.
Marian finds herself unable to eat the meat that Trevor has prepared. She secretly throws chunks of it to Duncan in order to make it seem like she’s eating and not hurt Trevor’s feelings. After the dinner, she marvels at the fact that neither Trevor, nor Fish, seemed to ask her anything about herself—she decides it seemed like she was invited over to satisfy them, not because they were genuinely interested in her. She and Duncan go outside and sit on a bench together, where Duncan says once more that he wants to have sex with Marian. However, she says that even if they were to have sex, they couldn’t do it at her apartment, nor could they do it at his, and she isn’t willing to pose as a prostitute to go to a hotel that would let unmarried couples in. Duncan agrees and leaves.
Sometime later, Marian and Peter relax in their apartment. As Marian lies next to Peter, she thinks about the past few days, when she discovered that she could no longer eat rice pudding—something she had been relying on to get enough sustenance as the number of foods she’s been able to eat has dwindled. Marian wonders why she, of all people, is the one having problems eating; after all, she views herself as completely “normal,” and a problem like hers wouldn’t happen to her if she was abnormal.
Marian decides to ask others if she is “normal.” She goes to Clara’s and asks Clara. Clara tells Marian that Marian is “abnormally normal,” which Marian agrees with. Marian tries to tell Clara about her problems eating certain foods, but Clara doesn’t seem to understand. Clara thinks that Marian is just having pre-wedding nerves and asks Marian if she has any questions about sex that Clara could answer. Marian dismisses Clara, unsatisfied with her reaction. She leaves, feeling slightly frustrated and annoyed with Clara and even more worried about her inability to eat.
The narrative returns to focusing on the present moment, where Marian is next to Peter. Marian asks Peter if he thinks she is normal, to which he says that she is “marvellously normal.” Peter asks her to bring him a drink. She goes into the kitchen, where a cake that Peter had bought her for Valentine’s Day is on the table. Marian cuts herself a slice and tries to eat it, but finds it disgusting, as if a million lungs are bursting in her mouth every time she chews. She decides to bring Peter a slice, to test if he finds it inedible, too. She brings him the slice of cake. He eats voraciously, telling her he’s worked up an appetite, and confirming that there is nothing wrong with the cake itself.
Chapters 21-23 illuminate the shallow, unsatisfying nature of Marian and Duncan’s relationship even further. It is clear that Duncan and Marian have little in common, a fact that Marian appears conscious of when she asks Duncan why he doesn’t pursue another graduate student who would be able to discuss his studies with him. He says that another graduate student wouldn’t be the same “escape” that Marian is, emphasizing that the distance between their respective occupations—and their mindsets—makes her appealing to him.
Marian’s alienation from Duncan is the very thing that makes him want to spend time with her. He relishes Marian’s distance, and uses it for his own gain, commodifying and exploiting it. While Duncan was initially painted as a total juxtaposition to Peter, Duncan’s relationship to Marian is, in many ways, a mirror to Peter and Marian’s. Peter prizes Marian for her complacency—a feature of hers that she finds frustrating and constricting. By loving Marian for this reason, Peter reinforces Marian’s need to be complacent. If she wants to remain with Peter, she must continue to be the complacent woman he believes her to be. Similarly, Duncan prizes Marian for her alienation. Like the complacency that Peter loves Marian for, Marian’s alienation is another feature that makes her deeply unhappy. Both men value Marian for qualities that alienate her and push her into oppressive structures of femininity.
Additionally, both men see Marian as a woman separate from other women because she is not “hysterical.” Their misogynistic view of women as hysterical pushes them to value Marian because she doesn’t express her emotion, which sets up a distressing irony: Marian feels loved for her ability to repress, but it is her continuous repression of emotions and thoughts that renders her alienated, alone, silent, and frustrated.
Even though Marian and Duncan seek solace within one another, “using” each other for some kind of fulfillment, they do not understand each other, which becomes obvious when Marian attempts to tell Duncan about her issues with food. This act is vulnerable; Marian is confessing to something that makes her “abnormal” and disrupts the normalcy she clings to. Duncan, however, doesn’t respond with any sympathy or understanding. Instead, he tells her that her behavior is probably “representative of a modern youth” before beginning to discuss his own relationship towards food, turning the conversation onto himself and ignoring Marian. Similarly, when he proposes having sex, he does so only for himself. He wants to use Marian to figure out his own relationship to sex and find out the root of his aversion to sex. But he has little regard for her desire or comfort; she is a placeholder, a body that he can use for his own physical and emotional needs.
The Valentine’s Day cake is a potent symbol within the arc of Marian’s inability to eat. Her issues start while she is at dinner with Peter and she sees him consuming a steak. As they progress, she loses the ability to eat anything associated with life: dairy, eggs, and even vegetables. However, the cake isn’t directly associated with life—instead, as she bites into the cake, she imagines “lungs” that she is chewing on. The cake is a gift Peter gave her for Valentine’s Day; it is a symbol of their relationship. It is an afterthought, and its plainness displays just how little Peter knows Marian. The cake is something anybody could get or gift for Valentine's Day. It is normal and devoid of personality, showing no real emotional understanding or attempt at making it meaningful. As the cake transforms into “lungs,” it becomes a symbol of her ability to breathe. The cake has trapped her own lungs within it—Peter, and their relationship, has trapped her ability to live, breathe, and speak. The cake is decorated with a pink heart and frosting, a traditional symbol of love. It is this traditional structure that Marian cannot stomach and must spit out.