The group leader is showing us how to pre-eat.
“Pre-heat?” I say.
“Pre-eat,” she says.
“Pre-eat?” I say.
She lifts her hands into parentheses, as if she were showing us the size of a fish. Not a very big fish. A minnow, maybe.
The other girls in the group follow suit, lifting hands, curving fingers, all trying to be one another. I follow along, too, making brackets with my palms. I’m just trying to be like everyone else. Isn’t everyone? Isn’t it the impetus behind laughing when happy, crying when sad, shaking hands and bless you, how are you, good thanks, fine thanks, behind driving single file, walking down the sidewalk single file, the impetus behind wearing capris and then ripped jeans, sideburns then bangs, behind liking Abba, no, Ariana Grande, and toe rings and adult coloring books and Facebook? The humanest of instincts is to follow. And the group of us, all of us, we’re just trying to be human again. So we do it. We follow.
“Now,” says the group leader, her voice meant to be calming, tender and slow as a tidal change. “Imagine what might be between my hands.”
“A chain of paper dolls,” says a thin girl, whose name I don’t know. I stopped bothering with names after a week or two. They die or they leave. These are the options for thin girls in the facility. Not me, I’ve been here an entire year!
It’s inappropriate to think of your endurance here as an achievement, the group leader likes to tell me.
I like to tell her, would you tell the pyramids of Egypt that their endurance is an inappropriate achievement?
Then the group leader says something like, perhaps we should unpack this strange comparison you have made between yourself and one of the great wonders of the world.
I hate to unpack! I haven’t unpacked since I got here. I like the ephemeral feeling that comes with a full suitcase. The in-betweenness of it. I’m not thin enough for my body to shut down, too thin to live in the real world. I’m not dying, not living, I’m surviving. Welcome to my purgatory, I’m Rose.
“No, it can’t be a chain of paper dolls,” says the group leader, and just like that, the paper dolls of our collective imagination vanish. Poof! “It has to be food. Pre-eating.”
“You didn’t say that when you said the rules,” says Sarah, my only friend. Her eyes bag like a basset hound’s, and she’s younger than most of us. Only eighteen, skin still acned all over, bubble wrap. I like her, Sarah. The way she pops her knuckles every hour, on the hour, clockwork. The way she peels tiny licks of skin from her lips. Plucks her eyelashes, one by one. She can’t leave herself alone. As if she needs the constant reminders: This is your body. Do with it what you will.
“Let’s just imagine it’s a sandwich,” says the group leader and we all agree that there could plausibly be a sandwich between her parenthesized hands.
“Can you see it?” says the group leader. “Can you see the sandwich?” I can’t, because there isn’t one, but I do want to impress her, and I do want to recover, and so I nod. I nod and say, along with the crowd, “Yes, I see it, I see the sandwich, yum!”
“Now I want you to try not to think about calories,” she says. “Don’t think about the calories in this sandwich.”
Which is easy because the sandwich is air.
“Think about something else, girls,” she says.
We were ten years old and making paper dolls and Lily slipped and snipped her hand with a pair of scissors. Sliced right through the webbed smile that connects thumb to forefinger. Before she had time to shout out, to start crying, before she had time to mourn her new mutation, I took my own pair of scissors to my skin, closed my eyes, pinched the blades closed. The thin flesh cut easy as craft paper. I didn’t cry. As we nursed our bloody wounds, our mother tutted, said, “If Lily jumped off a bridge, would you follow her then?”
“Yes,” I told her.
There’s a knock on the door to the group session room, and we all turn, invisible sandwiches suspended, mouths wide and about to bite. She’s standing in the doorway, tall and thin. She looks like a streetlight.
The new thin girl is wearing a top hat and a bow tie, to hide her balding, her bones, respectively. She can’t fool us thin girls with that gaudy getup; we’ve tried every trick in the book to keep our starvation to ourselves.
Her eyes are rimmed with black pencil, and it makes them look cartoonish, like those animated eyes that can boing out of a skull in surprise. She’s so elegantly ugly, this new thin girl. And familiar! I look around at the other sandwich holders, and they, too, are squinting with recognition.
Her wave is a flicker of fingers. “Kat,” she says. Then she licks her palm and uses it to bat at a feline ear that isn’t there. “Like cat,” she says.
It’s that, the kitsch gesture, the voice so low it crawls, that makes our eyes widen. We know this thin girl. Kat Mitchells. Child star. Her song, the only one she ever released, maybe, appears like an unwanted guest. The chorus, something about falling in love with a girl.
There was outcry about the sexualization of the singer, Kat Mitchells, who was thirteen and wearing golden hot pants onstage. There was more outcry about the sexual orientation of the singer, Kat Mitchells, who called herself a lesbian on live television.
“She’s a kid!” the people said. “How can she possibly know she’s gay!”
“How can your kids possibly know they’re straight?” said Kat Mitchells, in a talk-show interview that took over the world for a moment. Then she stuck out her tongue. It was pretty, pink, studded silver, and it drew to a point at the tip.
The humanest of instincts is to follow. And the group of us, all of us, we’re just trying to be human again. So we do it. We follow.
Kat Mitchells was so cool. You know Madonna? Mariah? Miley? Kat Mitchells was cooler. She was the first face of hair mascara and stick-on earrings and temporary tattoos. She had her own line of tube tops that said things like cool chick and bite me. She was the celebrity face of KitKats and released her own customized raspberry bar called the KitKat Mitchells. The Kat Mitchells Barbie wore fishnets and a leather miniskirt and came with a headset microphone and if you tugged her ponytail, she’d belt out a few robotic notes. Kat Mitchells wore men’s jackets wide open with nothing underneath. She dyed her hair neon and shone like a nightclub. She looked like a fucking
Friday night. She chewed gum like it was part of her biology and blew big pink bubbles that never splattered over her face when they popped. Parents hated her. We were in love.
Lily and I watched the show from our bundle on the threadbare couch, eyes and mouths wide.
And now here she is. Kat Mitchells. The Kat Mitchells! At the facility, my facility, standing in the doorway, older, thinner, uglier.
“Welcome, Kat,” says the group leader, gesturing to a spare chair.
“Welcome to Intellectual Eating. Please, take a seat.”
“I’d rather not, darling. Actually, I’d rather perform fellatio on an aroused gorilla.” All the moisture has been wrung out of her voice. I want to lotion her throat.
The group leader raises her eyebrows. “Sit.” She doesn’t care that Kat Mitchells is a celebrity. This facility has a way of equalizing everyone, not communism but cloning. We all become one another in here—sick is all that we are.
Kat sighs into the spare seat next to me. I shuffle my chair away.
“What’s wrong, baby?” Kat leans over and whispers in my ear as she folds her long body into the too-small chair. “Do I scare you? You think I’m gonna bite?” She snaps her teeth closed, and, if she’d been holding a sandwich like the rest of us, she’d have just taken a large mouthful.
“No,” I whisper. My cheeks hot, palms spiked with sweat. Kat smells of peppermint and vomit. Fresh and stale. I inhale. “I’m Rose,” I say. “I’d shake your hand, but . . .” I nod at the way we are all still holding our imaginary sandwiches.
Kat smiles, her teeth sepia as an old photograph. A purger. I check her knuckles, and sure enough, they are the color of concrete, calloused and dry.
Anorectics experience extreme weight loss. But you lose more than that. Hair, fingernails, teeth. Your skin dries and flakes. Your muscles start to rust. You lose your friends, family, yourself. You lose your sense of the world. Of what is important beyond the not-eating. And, eventually, you lose it all. Your life.
She’s greedy, anorexia is.
The group session room looks like a classroom. We sit in a circle, on little chairs, behind little tables. The walls are elaborately dressed in motivational posters featuring photographs of landscapes, mountains, forests, lakes, the sorts of scenery people might describe as tranquil. Superimposed over the images are a series of words in bold fonts. INSPIRE: AWAKEN YOURSELF, GRATITUDE: THANK THE WORLD, PEACE: NOT HARM. We are being monitored by abstract nouns.
“Open your mouths wide, girls.”
Everyone does. Too many teeth are rotten, given our ages, which are mostly twentysomething. Our smiles are expired corncobs. Every fourth tooth, blackened.
Kat is the only one not holding a sandwich. Instead of semicircling her hands, she’s examining her wrists, running long fingers along each scar, tracing their paths like a maze in an activity book. Under the table, she shifts her leg, rests her thigh against mine. Her skin is cold and soft. Have you ever felt the icy suede of a snake sliding over your skin? She’s reptilian, this new girl.
“Did you hear?” Sarah, on the other side of me, hisses, breath hot, rough lips against my ear. Grateful for the distraction, I turn to her. Her eyes flash with conspiracy and she whispers, “There’s a lesbian in our midst.”
In high school, we were taught about the USA’s founding fathers. About how, in 1779, Thomas Jefferson’s suggested punishment for lesbianism included cutting a hole in the perpetrator’s nose cartilage, at least a half-inch in diameter.
The next day, every popular girl’s nose piercing had been removed.
No lesbians here, said their un-studded nostrils.
“What do you mean?” I say to Sarah, a whisper. “What do you mean a lesbian?”
“Did you say lesbians?” Kat leans across me, rudely ignoring my clutched sandwich. “Are you talking about me, darling?”
“What? No?” says Sarah. “There have been moans coming from the supply closet. Everyone’s talking about it.”
“Well, this place just got a little more interesting,” says Kat, taking a tube of lipstick from her breast pocket and crayoning her mouth a shouting red. “Thank god. So, who’s the dyke?”
I swallow and look around at the group. Try to see them as individuals, try to remember their names, but it is so hard to tell human skeletons apart. I give up and return to my not-meal.
Scientists can easily tell an anorectic’s skeleton. Saw any bone in two and see how it is porous as honeycomb. Cannibalistic mandible, the jaw has eaten only itself.
Kat, bored of the no-eating, she yawns. Takes an imaginary sandwich from the table in front of her, a giant sub. She opens her mouth, wide as the night, and bites down on the air between her palms. She chews, swallows, shows us her clean pink tongue, its silver stud rusted orange. Kat stands and takes an elaborate bow. The neckline of her T-shirt hangs open, and I see all the way through, a tunnel of cotton. She’s not wearing a bra and her nipples are raisined with cold. I look away.
When we were eleven years old, Lily and I were invited to Jemima Gates’s sleepover. Jemima Gates was the leader of the popular pack. She was rich. Her grandmother was the founder of AbsoluteAbs, a fad workout from the 90s, and Jemima got a healthy cut of the royalty checks. She was the sort of girl who swished her blond hair over her shoulder like an expensive satin scarf. The sort of girl whose mascara-dressed eyelashes seemed to grow, floral, toward the sun. Who varnished her long legs in an oil that smelled of pacific islands and then slipped like a fish, brushed up against any bare skinned boy like an eel just to show that she could. She looked like Scarlett fucking Johansson and she slathered lipgloss, thick as frosting, outside the lines of her lips. She liked to kiss the soft inner wrists of her chosen few friends, stamp them with her own sticky red seal.
Well, Lily was invited to the sleepover, and I packed my bag too. She didn’t go places without me. “Rosie,” said Lily, as we tucked toothbrushes into side pockets. “Can you do something for me?”
“Can you just try to be normal, tonight?” Lily sucked her lip. “Just, I just mean, I don’t mean that you shouldn’t be yourself. I just mean, can you be a more normal self?”
“My normal self?”
Jemima’s house was big. This sprawling brick mansion that, compared to our two-bedroom home, seemed palatial. “Lil!” Jemima hugged Lily. Kissed her cheek. “Oh! You brought your sister,” she said, her smile tightening.
I raised a hand in a nearly-wave.
“Okay,” said Jemima. “That’s fine. Come in. The girls are in the basement.”
The foyer, a room that seemed to have no function except to hold shed-shoes, was so huge and empty it felt as if the house was abandoned.
“Are your parents home?” I asked, as I added my shoes to the pile. Jemima ignored me.
“Are your parents home?” Lily repeated.
“Oh, no,” Jemima laughed, shaking her head. “Hardly ever. It’s so cool. I get to do anything I want.”
I looked at Lily.
“The housekeeper’s upstairs,” said Jemima, nodding at a long, curved staircase that looked straight out of the movies.
I made a sound. It was a laugh of disbelief I’d attempted to stifle, but the resulting noise was a snore. Lily elbowed me.
“Is your sister okay?” Jemima asked Lily.
“She’s fine,” said Lily. “She’s cool. You’re cool, right Rosie? Let’s go downstairs.”
The girls welcomed Lily and politely ignored me. They sat around, all wearing fluffy robes in feminine shades. Lily and I didn’t own robes, and when I suggested we change into our matching Elmo pajamas, she shushed me.
The basement was dark but for the twinkle of white festive lights. There was a table adorned with pink candy and pink-frosted cupcakes and a large chocolate cake that had Jemima’s name written in a loopy pink cursive, a font reserved for pretty girls. At school, on tests, in birthday cards to relatives, I always wrote my name in capital letters. ROSE, I shouted to everyone. ROSE, ROSE, ROSE.
Music was playing, a song I recognized. Kat Mitchells crooning about kissing girls. It was everywhere right now. Our parents called it that gay girl song whenever her sandpaper voice bellowed out the opening notes. We weren’t allowed to sing along, but Lily and I knew every word, lip-synced the lyrics to one another—she was the only audience I ever needed.
Lily poured a cup of lemonade, my favorite, and dug a pack of cards out of her bag, ones she must have packed especially. She handed both to me.
“You play solitaire over here,” she whispered. “And drink this. I’ll be just over there, okay?” She was pointing at the herd of girls, who sat in a circle, chatting and sipping on sodas spiked with vodka. I nodded and started to shuffle.
Time passed in won games. Twelve. Mostly, I managed to tune out the warble of girl gossip and giggling.
“Rose,” said a voice that wasn’t Lily’s. I stopped dealing cards and turned. It was Jemima, and she was looking at me. Talking to me. On purpose! “Come here,” she beckoned.
I stood, moved forward a single step, untrusting.
“We need you to be the lookout.”
“That’s right.” Jemima spoke to me slowly. As if talking to a child.
“The lookout. Go stand at the top of the stairs,” she said. “And shout if the housekeeper is coming.”
“Why?” I said.
“Just do it, Rosie,” said Lily, with a smile. “You’re part of the game.”
“The most important part of the game,” said Jemima.
“Really?” I said, skeptical.
“Really.” Jemima winked.
“Okay, I’ll do it. I’ll play.” I hurried up the stairs and stood on the landing. “Ready!” I called. “What now?”
“Now wait up there!” yelled Jemima.
I sat, my back against the wall, and waited. Time ached. I braided my hair, unraveled it, and braided it again. There was a lot of laughing, yelping, squealing, all coming from the basement. I peered down the stairs, but it was dark. They’d turned the lights off, and I couldn’t see anything. There was a gasp. A scream. I stood, slipped down the stairs silently, squinted into the black.
“I dare you to kiss me.” The voice was Jemima’s.
“Kiss you?” said my voice, which meant Lily was talking. “Like on the mouth?”
“Duh,” said Jemima.
“You’d only be afraid if you were a lesbian,” said Jemima. “Are you?”
“No,” said Lily. “I’ll do it.”
I could make out the shadows. My sister’s silhouette, so like mine, and Jemima’s, curvier, more adult. Then the space between them disappeared. Their shadows combined, and there was a wet smacking sound that made me wince.
“Lil?” I said, and the shapes leapt apart.
Someone hit the lights and I squinted into the new brightness.
“Why are you watching us, lesbo?” said Jemima, wiping her lips with the back of her hand. Her eyes, a terrible cliché, sparkled. They really did!
“We should go,” said Lily. “We’ll go home. Come on, Rosie.” She took my hand, chose me, and led me back up the stairs. We only needed each other.
In the daytime, we’re meant to socialize with one another, us thin girls, all crowded together in our hollow common room. It’s called a common room not because it’s a room we have in common but because we all have hollow in common: us girls and the space.
Numerous studies have been done on the collective behaviors of animals. A tiger cub added to a litter of puppies will teach itself to bark. An orphaned lamb among piglets will learn to nose the ground, snoutless. It’s nature versus nurture. We behave like those around us. As anorectics among anorectics, we starve.
“So what do you ladies do all the time,” says Kat. She’s lying on her back on the floor of the common room, watching the blades of the ceiling fan chase one another, her hipbones reaching skyward. She is a hyperbole of us. Maybe that’s what celebrities are. Human hyperboles.
“We just hang out,” says Sarah, taking her knuckles and pulling each one, pop, pop, pop. I want to take her hands and hold them in mine. Keep her safe from herself.
“Why are you here?” I say to Kat, who frowns.
“Same reason as you, I’d imagine, baby.” She sounds like an expensive engine. “We’re all just learning how to human, aren’t we?”
“But you’re famous,” I say. “This is such a shitty facility. Why aren’t you at some fancy place?”
“Ah. So you do recognise me. Bravo.”
I say nothing.
“Oh, please,” Kat says. “Everyone knows about this place. Everyone knows that this is the recovery centre to go to if you don’t want to recover. Its infamous, darling. It’s the worst-run clinic this side of the equator. No one comes out of here healthy.”
She’s right. It is a badly run facility, this one. Poorly funded by the government, who want to say they support mental illness institutions more than they want to support mental illness institutions. The other main problem with the facility’s function is that the nurses don’t understand us. Most of them have never needed thinness the way we do. They don’t know the lengths to which we will go. Sometimes they pick up on our tricks, sure, but they don’t understand our minds. They don’t understand how we will do anything to vanish.
“I do want to recover,” I say.
“Sure you do, baby.”
I say nothing. I don’t believe me, either.
“Plus, I mean, it was one song. It’s not like the cash could last forever, darling. Not with my lifestyle. Designer pills. Designer shoes. Designer designer. It all adds up.”
I want to grab her. I want to say, Be normal!
“It’s good to have you here,” says Sarah. She’s smiling at Kat, and I don’t like the smile. The way it makes her eyes shine hopeful.
Kat sighs. “My god, this is boring. I’m bored! Let’s go check out the supply closet. Maybe a little voyeurism will lighten the mood.” She rolls onto her stomach, clambers to her knees, her bones clacking together like a wind-up toy. “Didn’t you say that’s where the excitement’s happening, Sarah, baby? The supply closet?” When she wiggles her eyebrows, they disappear beneath the brim of her hat.
A bell sounds, and I stand. “It’s the bedtime bell,” I say, when the ringing gradients out. I reach to help Sarah off the floor, pull her upward and groan from the effort. I give her a half hug, like embracing a flagpole. “Good night.” I kiss her temple. Her skin, dry. “Protect your own peace,” I say. This is the facility’s mantra. Protect your own peace. It means almost nothing, but it’s nice to say. Rolls about on the tongue, soothes the throat, like a lozenge.
“Protect your own peace,” she replies.
Kat reaches for me, and I take her hands, help her off the floor, too. This is what us thin girls do for one another. This is our supportive environment.
“So,” Kat says, her hands still in mine. “Were you a fan? A Kat Mitchells groupie? One of those tragic little girls who’d fall to their knees at my feet and beg to lick my pussy on the spot?”
I swallow, silent, as the thin girls dwindle out of the room, calling, “Protect your own peace!” and “See you at breakfast!”
Kat lingers, and, eventually, we are the only two left in the common room. She’s standing too close. I’ve forgotten how to move. She traces her fingers up my arm. “You know,” she says, “I could see you before breakfast?”
I smile. “I’m not, you know. Well. Anyway. Protect your own peace, Kat!”
“You’re not fooling anyone, Slim,” she calls after me. I say nothing, I don’t even turn around.
After her sleepover, Jemima bumped two other girls from her table to let Lily and me sit with her at lunch. The table talked about blowjobs.
“That’s disgusting,” said Lily. “Can we not?”
“Stop being a baby,” said Jemima.
“Come on, Lil,” I said. Jemima smiled at me and it was the first time she’d ever responded to my being with an expression other than disgust and I was so grateful for the pause in cruelty that it almost felt like kindness. I wanted to make her smile again. I wanted to be the only reason for it.
“You start like this,” said Jemima, lifting her banana and running her tongue around the stalk. “You can’t just go right into it.” We lifted our bananas, ran wet tongues around the stalks. “Then lick all the way up the underside,” said Jemima. “Like you’re trying to stop a popsicle from dripping.”
We did. We licked.
“Then you take as much of it as you can into your mouth.”
We opened wide, we inched the bananas back, like pointing a revolver up, toward the brain. The fruit felt too big for my mouth, but I didn’t mind. This was how to be popular! Practice oral sex at lunch! The hardened tip nudged the back of my throat, and I gagged.
“That’s my girl,” said Jemima, laughing and removing her own banana from her mouth. “That’s the kind of dedication that’ll get a man to fall in love. Doesn’t it feel good?”
My throat felt wounded. The banana’s head was red with blood—mine.
“Yes,” I said. “It feels so good.”
Then Jemima Gates took my hand, flipped my arm, soft-side up, and pressed her mouth to my wrist. My first kiss. Afterward, she winked and my stomach yelped. “So, I read about this new diet,” she said, turning back to the table, our interaction over. I mourned the moment immediately. The way an extra must feel when the star of a show interacts with them briefly, just to order coffee or push past them on the bus. A fleeting fame.
Jemima told the table of a diet she’d read about in one of her mother’s magazines: The Apple-a-Day Diet. The diet’s title was also its rule book. Simple. Foolproof. One apple per day for ten days.
“It’s the diet Kat Mitchells is on, and have you seen her? She’s so skinny.”
“So pretty,” the table agreed.
Jemima tucked her hair behind her ears. “Okay, then.” She smiled, her lip gloss glinting in the sun. “Are you in?”
“I’m in,” Lily said, looking at me, then Jemima, then me.
“We’re in,” I said.
“Diet starts today, ladies,” said Jemima, taking only the apple from her lunch tray and smiling at the group as, one by one, each popular girl picked up her apple. “We’re gonna be Kat Mitchells skinny!” She bit into the apple and the sound was a sharp crack.
Each morning, I mark days on the wall of my room, despite the cliché of it. A prisoner might have counted in coal or bark. An especially obvious inmate might have used their own blood. I use ketchup from the dining hall. I like the way it tattoos my plaster wall pink.
I’m not counting down the days; I’m counting up. I’ve given up all hope of recovery by now, and a life in the facility wouldn’t be so bad. It’s like its own little world in here. Smaller. Less frightening. Our worlds are only as big as the spaces we create for ourselves.
Before breakfast, as I add the 367th notch to my tally, I notice a light on across the courtyard. The lit room is identical to mine—bed, desk, closet, and an identical human sitting on the foot of the bed. That room has been empty for as long I’ve been here, but now it is occupied and it is occupied by a man. Handsome, tall, lean, his dark hair hanging long and heavy like expensive curtains. I stand from my bed; the man stands, too. I press my hand against the glass; he does the same. I smile and he smiles. I wave and he waves. This is what we call a meet-cute. We wave for a long time, until our wrists ache and the gesture becomes foreign, artificial, like posing too long for a photograph.
Eventually, the man retreats into his room, opens his closet, takes a square of lilac fabric and dangles it at me. I laugh, effervescent with excitement, then take a Kleenex because I don’t own a handkerchief. I hold it up for him to see.
We stand at our windows, waving our handkerchiefs at one another like eighteenth-century women at a parade. This, I think, elbow aching from the exercise, must be the love of my life.
“What took you so long?” I say to the window. “I’ve been waiting for you!”
After school on the day the apple diet started, our parents ordered a pizza and left it on the table for us to find before going out on a date night.
Lily opened the box and inhaled. “Pepperoni,” she said.
“We’re not eating, remember?” I took a glass from the cupboard and filled it with water, calorie-free and diet-approved.
“Don’t be stupid.” Lily lifted a slice, used her palm as a plate. “Jemima was joking around.”
“I don’t think so,” I said.
“You’re so weird about Jemima Gates,” said Lily. “That whole banana-blow-job thing today. It’s like you have a crush on her or something.”
She watched for my response so carefully.
“I’m doing the diet,” I said.
Lily shrugged. She ate and ate. She ate her way through the entire pizza. I could almost feel the ache in my own belly, but she pretended to be barely full.
“Yum,” she wiped her lips with a napkin and closed the empty box. “All done.”
Lily went to watch tv and I printed a poster of Kat Mitchells in a mini skirt and tank top. Her hipbones splayed out of her body like wings. Her clavicle, sharp cliffs over her chest. I hung it above my bed and smiled up at her, the popstar, so thin. I could look like that.
As we brushed our teeth before bed that night, I noticed Lily’s stomach in the mirror, swollen, a tiny bulge under her t-shirt. I stroked my own torso, flat.
When we look in the mirror, we see inverted versions of ourselves. In a photograph, flattened versions of ourselves. The closest anyone can come to seeing themselves is still only a manipulation of the self. The closest I can come to seeing myself is Lily.
I go to the cafeteria, giddy with daydreams of new love. A crush must have been named for how all-consuming the feeling is. The way new passion covers the skin like a sweat, wear it and glow.
The way people say, It’s just a crush, but have you ever seen an object crushed? It’s never just.
The man across the courtyard, the way his eyebrows, thick and dark, frame his eyes like awnings, he and I could eat celery sticks and drink lemon water on date night, curl up on the couch, all bones and sinew, tough body wound around tough body, like an old rope tied into a knot. I imagine our thin wedding. Like someone had drawn the occasion using stick figures. We would drink herbal tea for the rest of our lives, the thin man and I. We would sit on our porch in rocking chairs, him reading the newspaper, me knitting, our hair falling out in clumps, our stomachs twisted into tight, constipated fists. A love for the ages!
Everyone would point at us as we strolled down the street, hand in hand, counting expended calories beneath our shallow breaths. Look! they’d say. Look, she finally found a man to spend her life with.
Kat is already sitting at breakfast with Sarah, my Sarah. They look as if they’ve been friends forever. The table is full of thin girls who want to be near Kat. Our brand-new celebrity. My hands, fists.
What our group leader would say: The only thing you can control is your own joy. She thinks I have a problem with control. She says, it’s okay to let things happen to you.
I breathe. Smile. “Hi,” I say, pulling up a chair on the other side of the table. It’s okay.
“Hi,” Sarah and Kat say in near-perfect synchronization. Sitting across from them, I feel strange. An audience. Watching this relationship begin from the outside. I miss the warmth of Sarah at my side, and she’s hardly even warm!
Kat is wearing a different top hat today. It’s sequined pink.
Breakfast is peanut butter on toast—an easy one—I make sure the supervising nurses are preoccupied and sections of bread, lift my T-shirt, let the condiment act as glue, and stick each piece to my stomach, mosaic my torso with toast.
I want to recover, I just hate to eat.
French philosopher Simone Weil died from anorexia at age thirty-four. For her, bodily hunger signified a void in the self in which god could reside, but I don’t want god inside me, either. The weight of omnipotence—imagine!
Sarah and Kat are whispering. “I’ll teach you how, baby,” Kat says.
“I’ve never been able to,” says Sarah. “It grosses me out.”
“I’ll teach you. It’s so easy. And it means you get to eat.”
“What’s so easy?” I say. “What’re you teaching her?”
“Never you mind, Slim!” Kat says, lifting a slice of toast, inspecting it, inhaling, then taking a large bite.
I swallow nothing but my own saliva and frown at Kat, who has finished every crumb of bread and is now busy licking peanut butter off her plate. Sarah, too, is eating.
“Mouth,” says a nurse as I exit the dining hall.
I open wide. Lift my tongue. Show her the insides of my cheeks.
I lift my fists, unfurl, my fingernails have left tiny red smiles on my palms. The nurse waves me through and I walk back to my room gently, so as not to disrupt the toast, tiptoe past the supply closet. Its door is ajar.
Whenever I felt like I was going to break the diet, I looked up at my Kat Mitchells poster, my own form of prayer. She was biting her lip, hand on prepubescent hip. The poster excited me in a way I didn’t understand. I found myself reaching beneath the covers, beneath my underwear. I watched Kat all the while, her wide eyes, stick legs, I had my first orgasm looking up at her airbrushed body. The collapse of it, a fleeting loss of control, frightening, exhilarating.
The line between wanting her and wanting to be her, indecipherable.
A knock on my window. My handkerchief-waving lover is standing in the courtyard, breathing fog onto the glass. He’s handsome, even from such a close distance, a proximity at which most people become ugly, even yourself. Have you ever kissed a mirror? But my new lover: see how his cheekbones run straight as ramps. His smile is adoring, he loves me. I am wanted.
I hold my hands against his, just the width of the glass between us, and think that this is a good analogy for how I live. A window-width away from everyone else. Like being with beloved friends who are somehow speaking French. Like the whole family eating around the dining table, but the table is rectangular and the rest of the family is clustered at one end and I am a long stretch away, too far to make out what anyone is really saying. Like sitting inside on a gloomy day with sunglasses on, seeing only the shadow of everything. I experience life from a distance, just the width of an eating disorder away from everyone else.
A nurse taps my lover on the shoulder. His expression is pained as she ushers him from my window, a husband being torn from his wife. This is how war must feel. I miss him immediately.
At school, Lily was better, smarter, prettier, funnier. But I was good at dieting. I ate a slice of apple for breakfast, half for lunch, and the rest for dinner. Lily ate the food from my plate.
Jemima and the other girls lasted two days on the diet, but I kept going. To be a twin is to relinquish power over the self. Lily and I had always been a single entity more than we were individuals. We were referred to as ‘the twins’ and we referred to ourselves as ‘we’ and ‘us’ and ‘our’ and we were always aware of what the other was doing and where and why. Lily and I played a constant game of controlling the other and ceding our control to the other. It was a game of self-protection and sister-protection. A tiny, consensual war. But this diet was mine. Consumption was something I could dictate on my very own.
These halls are carpeted to keep a creak from sending some thin girl over the edge at the reminder of her body. The supply closet door is closed. When I press my ear to the door, I hear a choking gasp. Then I am flattened, on my stomach, a soldier in combat, my eye pressed tight to the gap between door and floor. It’s dark in there, too dark to see, but, listen, the breathing strangled with pleasure, the sighs inflated with want.
My hand slipping into my leggings. My heartrate picks up when the sounds do. I try not to think of Kat, the way her lips, butterflied, beautiful. My body trembles in time to the closeted couple’s grunts. And when they come to a stop, I, too.
I wonder how many calories an orgasm expends.
Don’t think about calories, our group leader says. But it’s psychology 101, the human mind doesn’t register the negative well.
Test subjects are presented with the sentence: There are no birds in the sky! The same test subjects are presented with two images, one showing a bird in his nest, the other showing the bird in the sky, and, every time, the subjects associate the sentence with the picture of the bird, flying, skyward.
Instead of don’t think about calories, try think about elephants.
Instead of don’t think about her, try, think about rabbits, or food, or a man.
I try the door and it creaks open and I’m caught. Two figures in the dark, so thin they are more asterisk than anthropoid, they squat on the floor of the closet, heads hung over buckets, fingers forced to the backs of their throats. “Sarah?” I say.
Sarah wipes the corners of her mouth. Kat Mitchells looks up from her crouch, her teeth rotten, her eyes bloodshot from the strain of her sickness, she smiles up at me, monster.
Each morning, I saw a difference, flatter stomach, leaner thighs.
“Look at you, babe!” Jemima Gates said, just a week into the diet, when I showed her the gap between my jeans and my hips. She made the table watch as I pulled my waistband away from my body, an advertisement.
Lily slid my lunch over to herself; she had already eaten her own. She consumed everything I didn’t; gained the weight I lost. We became an hourglass, my sister and I – emptying one side filled the other.
“Hey, Lil,” Jemima Gates said. “Don’t you think you’re looking a little bigger these days?”
The other girls giggled. I felt Lily’s embarrassment, hot in my mouth, but kept my eyes locked on the empty table before me. Jemima took my wrist, flipped it. Her kiss lingered against the veins, my wiring. Her lips left a heart-shaped stencil and I fought the desire to see if my mouth fit there.
Our group leader is teaching us how to pre-drink. We sit in our room, surrounded by pictures of mountains and forests and lakes, words that say DREAM and HOPE and LOVE, these things that are meant to inspire us, meant to make us feel something other than hungry. We focus on the drinking glasses in front of us.
The group leader drops two slices of lemon into a carafe of water. She fills our glasses then sits at the head of the circle. Circles, if drawn properly, should not have a clear summit, but they all do. In every circle there is a leader. Ours is lifting a glass to her purple-painted lips.
“Just let the liquid touch your lips, girls,” she says. “Don’t open your mouths. Just tip, don’t sip, and release.” She sets the glass back down. There is a purple smear where her lipstick has stained the glass. “Now you try!”
Through the window, I see that the thin men, too, are in a group session. They, too, have glasses filled with water and lemon wedges, and their leader, too, is lifting a glass to his lips. I scan their circle and spot my handkerchief-waving lover, staring at his glass of water as if, if he were to stare hard enough, it might shatter into nothing.
I wave discretely while the rest of the thin girls focus on their glasses.
“Are you okay, Rose?” the group leader says.
“Yes,” I say.
“Are you, darling?” Kat says. “Are you really? You seem a little, I don’t know, wound up. I could help you with that.” She licks her chapped lips. “Could help you release some of that tension.”
I say nothing. Touch the rim of the glass to my lips, and, across the way, in the other window, my handkerchief-waver does the same. Almost as if we’re reflections of one another. Or like we are sitting across a candlelit table, a cheers (to love!) our first sip. Heterosexuality! Me and my lover, a real live man!
“Well done, Rose!” Our group leader claps and claps. “You did it!”
My lips make no mark on the glass. It looks untouched when I set it back down. Like I never took a drink. Like I was never here at all.
Excerpted from Thin Girls by Diana Clark. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Harper, an imprint of Harper Collins.
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