I stare at my meal. It’s on a plastic tray. I’ve got a bowl of oatmeal and some slices of banana. I had a choice between a carton of orange juice or a carton of milk. I asked if I could have a glass of water and the lady, Mrs. Susan, in her dirty apron, said I need calcium, and I need vitamin C, and I can choose between the two. I chose milk and she took a carton from the big fridge and handed it to me with oatmeal-crusted hands. I said thank you.
It’s hard to eat oatmeal, or to think of eating on a day like this. My nineteenth birthday. The second the oatmeal touches my lips I feel sick. Brady and Veronica are watching me. They’ve hardly touched their meal. They watch me with pity.
Birthdays here at Golden Horizons Treatment Center aren’t celebratory occasions. This will be my third one here. Already I know it will be my worst. I know because I can feel my knees anticipating, like my knees will shake so hard the caps fly out. At 3:00 PM, shortly after lunch, they’re going to come through the kitchen with it. A cupcake. And they’re going to put a candle on it. And they’re going to sing Happy Birthday. I’m going to be forced to eat every bite—in front of everyone.
A girl I know, she’s sixteen; her name is Helen. She’ll hang her head in shame like last year. Veronica and Brady will avert their gaze. The new girl, Yora, who’s twenty-four, will witness for the first time what it’s like to be here. Remembering what it was like to be her, I’ll be conscious of my every wince and my…whatever it is that I’m going to do.
They do it to all of us. Every year. Why? I don’t know. To remind us how powerless we are. To degrade us. To step on us.
This morning I went to my physical without showering. I’d overslept and was already late. Nurse Gwenyth is huge. Like two, three hundred pounds maybe. She has a fat, acne scarred face and ratty brownish hair. She smells like soap and shampoo.
I stood on the scale and behind me she leaned over the desk to read the weight on the computer screen. They do this so we can’t see the number when they record it every morning. She writes it down on her clipboard. It amazes me that she can even write with those cucumbers for fingers.
She said I could step off the scale. She lugged her body around the tiny room and took the pressure cuffs off the wall and asked me to sit down. I sat on the hard examination table and she took my blood pressure. I felt her big warm hands touch my arm. Then she took off the pressure cuffs and wrote down the numbers. Then she wrapped her hot bulbous fingers around my wrist and, holding a watch in one hand, counted out my pulse under her breath. Her bottom lip moved back and forth. Then she wrote it one her clipboard. She poked the bottom of the pen on her second chin and it clicked. She made a disgruntled face.
“You’ve lost weight,” she said. I didn’t say anything. I looked at the floor. “You were doing so well,” she lamented. Then she asked me about my energy levels, and whether I felt any pain or discomforts, or any dizziness. I told her I felt fine.
She said I was done and she looked at her clipboard as if forgetting something.
“It’s your birthday,” she said. I told her yes, it was. I was glad she didn’t ask if I had special plans because I don’t. She said, “Well, happy birthday, sweetie. I hope you have a wonderful day.” She touched my arm on my way out. I think I would have felt better if she had at least said my name. It’s Elanor. My name is Elanor. It’s at the top of her goddamn sheet but she never says it. I don’t need anybody calling me sweetie.
I took a shower after the physical—a nice hot long one. I scrubbed each arm three times; my feet five times; my armpits many more. I felt like I was full of toxins. The feeling happens a lot. It’s inside my skin, like there’s something crawling around inside me. I had a fit of gagging in the shower.
My family isn’t coming to visit. I spoke with Mom last week on the phone, reminding her that it was my birthday coming up, and she said she’d try to call. I know she won’t. She’ll have forgotten by now. I’d asked if I could speak with Mac and she said he was predisposed. I asked if she even knew what that meant.
“Of course I do,” she’d said. That’s two lies right there. First, Mac was on the couch sleeping or eating. Second, she doesn’t know what predisposed means. She probably just heard it on TV.
My real dad died when I was fourteen; he was in the Marines and his helicopter crashed. I didn’t ask to talk to my half sister Linda. She doesn’t give a shit about me. She’s fifteen and boy-crazy. My biological brother Patrick is a single dad with two kids who lives in Connecticut. Of all people, I’d like to hear from him but I know how busy he gets.
Veronica and Brady have finished their oatmeal but I have not. It’s been an hour, and I feel like I’ve eaten a barrel-full already. I keep scooping oatmeal into my mouth, chewing it, swallowing it, feeling it slither into my body, hitting my stomach acid with an awful slosh. Spoon after spoon. I keep scooping oatmeal but the amount inside my bowl stays the same. It’s like there’s a hose under the table connected to the bowl that fills it back up after every bite. It’s not fair: I’m clearly eating it.
Veronica offers to eat it for me. It’s nice of her. It’s selfless. I say, “No, that’s all right.” She seems relieved but that’s ok because it was polite to offer. She says she’ll wait here with me until I’m finished.
“Thank you guys,” I say. Veronica smiles. She has a lot of fake teeth because she’d burned through all the real ones with vomit. Brady doesn’t smile. She has the serious face of the tennis player she used to be. Her stern cheekbones probably make her look more serious than she really is.
There’s an orderly standing near us, making sure we don’t try to cheat by throwing away the food.
I eat for another fifteen minutes and raise my hand. He has to check that I’ve finished before I can go. He’s tall with a short-haired moustache. He leans over me and shakes his head.
“I’m finished,” I say.
“There’s still oatmeal, and banana left,” he says.
“But it’s my birthday.”
“I’m sorry,” he says, “I can’t let you.”
Brady and Veronica try to convince him to let me off just this once. Just because it’s my birthday. He’s firm with them.
I tell them to go ahead. I might be here a while. They leave the cafeteria and there’s only four or five of us left, spread around, each at our own table, suffering over our bowls of heavy slop.
I’ll get in trouble if I don’t finish. I get three hours of free time in the evening and if I act up too much I’ll lose it. I could also lose my trip to the mall. Once a month they take us to the mall in a bus. We get pretty much the whole Saturday. You can earn cash by doing little jobs around the place.
Forty-five minutes later I’m not done and it’s time for us to leave. There’s only three of us left. The head orderly takes our names in a frustrated tone and reminds us there are repercussions. Then he releases us.
When I was still in school my friends would get angry with me. They’d ask why don’t I feel hungry. People don’t seem to know that I’m hungry all the time. I wake up sometimes with pangs and cramps. I’ll go to the bathroom and expel whatever it was I ate in the form of diarrhea and feel more hungry than before.
I think about food a lot. I think about apples, about donuts, even carrots. I get cravings for mashed potatoes and cheese. I don’t want to eat it. I just want to taste it. Sometimes I indulge myself by licking a piece of chocolate. I’ll keep a little bar in my dresser drawer. It’s my secret shame. I can almost smell it sometimes, soft and cozy, snuggled in aluminum foil on a bed of underwear. I’ll be in bed trying to sleep, or at my desk trying to study, and the scent calls to me. When I get too distracted I’ll take it out of the drawer and peel back the foil and take a lick—just the tip of my tongue on the edge of the bar. It melts in my mouth and I roll my tongue to spread the taste.
I instantly regret it and feel depressed. I’ll take the chocolate into my hand and speak to it, saying, “You’re such an evil. You’re going to make me fat. Why do you torture me like this? Are you trying to kill me? Are you trying to drive me crazy?”
It doesn’t answer of course. It’s a piece of chocolate. It mocks me silently. Its sweetness, its richness, its dark flakes. It brings me low without a word and without a care. And I have to ask myself if I should put it back inside my drawer or throw it out. If I put it back I’ll start crying, more angry than sad. If I throw it out I’ll feel satisfied and proud, but it’s not long before I’ll get ahold of another.
They must have the vending machine there on purpose, just to mess with us. They think they’re helping but they’re not. They’re really not.
My psychiatrist, Dr. Glen, is a friendly man with a low voice and curly hair. He wears brown suits and has a beer belly, but he doesn’t seem like the drinking type so it’s probably just potato chips that does it.
In our sessions, which I have on Mondays and Thursdays, he sits in his chair and leans back. He folds his hands, resting them on that belly of his, and we talk about how I’d like to start eating.
“Really, Doctor,” I say, “I’d like to eat the whole world.”
He’ll smile and say, “that’s good Ellie. I’m glad for that. I want you to get better and go home. I want that for you. I want you to get better. The sooner you get back to health the sooner we can make it happen. And you can be with your family again.”
“I’m trying, Doctor Glen,” I’ll say.
He’ll nod and say, “I know.”
He gets frustrated when I lose weight.
“Is something the matter?” he’ll say, “What’s on your mind?”
“Nothing’s the matter,” I say, “I force down everything they give me. I’m not cheating.”
He grimaces because he doesn’t believe me. He taps his belly.
After breakfast I go through my day angrily. It’s Friday so I don’t see Dr. Glen. Yesterday we didn’t talk about my birthday because, I’m pretty sure, he forgot. I purposely didn’t bring it up. Talking about it wouldn’t make it any easier.
I clean my room and go to class. I still don’t have a high school diploma. I have to listen to Mrs. Hepton droning and droning.
At 1:00 pm we’re sent to lunch. That one orderly with the moustache gives me a look. Lots of people tell me that I should be grateful for having food on the table. They say that starving children in Africa would be happy to eat it. If I hear someone say that one more time I’ll never eat again.
Wouldn’t it be great if I could just fucking trade places with one of those kids? Wouldn’t that just make the world a better place? And what if murderers were murdered, and what if men could give childbirth, and what if politicians were poor? Wouldn’t that also just make the world a better place?
Brady and Veronica and I go through the cafeteria line. We’re served a slice of turkey sandwich and a piece of orange. Lemonade to drink. We sit and start to eat and I can barely swallow. I can’t think of anything but the cupcake.
Dr. Glen asks me sometimes, “What is beauty? In your opinion.”
“Why would my opinion matter?” I say.
“It matters,” he says.
“I don’t decide what beauty is,” I’ll tell him, “Everybody else does.”
“Why do you think that?”
“Because it’s true.”
“I don’t think so. I think you can decide what beauty is.”
“I’m sorry,” I say, “I don’t agree.”
I bet he’d like to point out that I weigh less than all the supermodels. As if I didn’t know that. He’d probably like to tell me being this skinny is ugly. If he does, I’ll tell him that having a belly like his is ugly, too. Who’s going to put him in a hospital for having a belly? Who’s going to sit him down and ask him what beauty fucking means to him? I’d like to see people in suits telling him to tuck that belly in, feed him noting but granola bars.
Why on earth would I ever talk to him about how in eigth grade, when I was thirteen and soon-to-be fourteen, I watched the fat girl get bullied while the thin girl was practically squirt upon by all the boys? Her name, the fat girl, was Margarie, and she didn’t have any particular food habit. You’d expect that she spend a lot of time snacking on candy or chips. She never did. But when she sat alone at lunch eating the same cafeteria food everyone else was served, the girls would walk past and say, “Bet you’re hungry, huh, Margarie?” and “How much do you think you can eat, Margarie?” and “Don’t forget to breathe, Margarie.”
I was compelled to sit next to her. I remember the day I tried. I walked to her with my tray of food and she looked up at me like she was waiting for me to say something mean. It startled me so I kept walking and never sat with her. Then in January she killed herself.
I was getting fat, too. My waist was getting bigger and bigger. I was already size six. My butt was made of cellulite, and I started dieting.
Why on earth would I ever talk to him about how Mom remarried, after everything Dad had done? He was a strong man. He was a brave man. He served our country in the Marines. He and everyone in the Twin Huey helicopter died when it crashed during a training exercise.
They didn’t give us any specifics on what happened, but for some reason I always imagine him swinging on one of the ropes when it went down. The helicopter is hovering over the roof of a building and he’s lowering himself down when some unexpected waft of air travels up and rolls the entire helicopter over. The helicopter slides through the air, unstoppable, as if following a track, my dad dangling just beneath. It cuts into the ground and my dad might have made it if it wasn’t for the pieces of the rotor flying everywhere, and the force of the impact that broke his body and the body of the helicopter, and the flames that appeared soon after.
Of course my mom was sad. Of course she was lonely. But when you marry someone you’re supposed to be faithful to him your entire life. Otherwise it would mean he’s replaceable. It’s like saying, ‘Oh, this other guy is just is good.’ My dad died for her and me. He’s buried in the burning ground. There’s a crater where there once lay the black carcass of a Twin Huey. The least she could do is bear a lonely night or two.
That’s what I did. At night I would run. I don’t know how far I’d go. I’d put on running shoes and hit the sidewalk and run around the neighborhood. Then I started running farther. I’d run from Wal-Mart to the outlet mall—about a thirty minute run. I’d run back and forth, again and again. That was the epitome of loneliness. But you know, it was peaceful and silent. It was cold. Time never seemed to matter. There’s nothing like a strip of concrete; it leads you, it confines you. It’s endlessly long behind you and in front of you. Sometimes when you drive around you think that streets and sidewalks are just there, as if from nothing, but they’re not. They were made by us with definitive purpose. Someone had to ask how to get a person from one place to another, and that person would have to draw it on a blueprint, and the city would pay for it. Then men in machines would lay down these roads.
Anyways, I’m basically fine. I’m just here because when I was fifteen I was walking to English and I collapsed and woke up in the hospital.
I decide to stop eating the turkey sandwich. I just stare at its half-eaten shape. At least sandwiches are less deceptive about how much is left. It takes me an hour to finish.
Afterwards, I raise my hand for plate inspection. The orderlies take the plate and tell Mrs. Susan. She goes to the kitchen and brings the cupcake out with a lit candle and three orderlies following behind her. They sing Happy Birthday dutifully and clap. They tell me to blow out the candle but I just sit here, about to cry.
The cupcake is huge. It’s slathered in chocolate frosting. It’s wrapped in a colorful wax paper cup.
When the candle wax starts dripping onto the frosting someone blows it out. I take the candle out and slowly tear back the wax paper. I feel my knees shaking. I feel a tear run down my cheek as I lift it to my mouth. Then I sink my teeth through the cool frosting, then through the dark fluffy cake. I chew and swallow.
I feel my stomach expanding with cakey bile and fat that lines my innards with endless filth. That’s when the crying actually starts. Trying to choke back tears makes me cough some crumbs onto the table.
Yora is horrified. Veronica and Brady don’t avert their gaze. They sit next to me and Veronica touches my shoulder.
They say it’s all right. They say I can do it. Veronica takes my left hand in her tiny bony fingers and squeezes weekly. She looks into my eyes.
I’m halfway done. The chocolatey flavor fills my mouth. It’s overwhelming my senses. I can feel the sugar rubbing on my lips, and the cake getting stuck in my teeth. When I swallow, it feels like my body absorbs the chocolate directly, as if it’s turning my blood brown. After that painful bite I gasp.
The women give a chorus of support.
“You can do it,” they say to me. I don’t know if I can. I really don’t. I don’t know how much more I can take.
The orderlies are watching me. The chef. Mrs. Susan. One of the head caretakers. They stand like gargoyles, looking at me like I’m a toddler who needs to learn a lesson.
“Don’t worry about them,” says Veronica, “Just look at me.” I look at her. She has straight blonde hair. A lot of it has fallen out. She has gray bags beneath her eyes. I can tell that she’s a strong woman.
I ask for water and Brady brings me some. I take a sip and swish to try to get the chocolate off my teeth. Then I take another bite. It makes my body feel ten pounds heavier. My neck is suddenly too weak to hold my head up.
“Almost there,” the women tell me. They’re almost cheering. I feel a hand behind my head, lifting. I chew that piece and swallow it quickly in anger. Mrs. Susan smiles at me with crooked teeth, the bottom row of incisors completely overlapping one another. Her hair’s pulled back tightly in a bun. The excess skin on her arms wobble when she clasps her hands and nods encouragingly. She has no idea how long and pencil-thin a sidewalk is at night.
I bite again. And again. I’m grimacing with disgust and anger. I let the taste of chocolate overtake my senses, and it feels like an infection on my skin turning to rich, sugary boils, or a rot that starts in the marrow and turns the bone to sand.
“Last bite,” says Brady.
I wipe my tears on my shoulders.
I put the last piece of cupcake in my mouth and smash it with my molars. My body is demanding that I reject it. I have the urge to wretch but I force it down. I want out of here so bad. I don’t care about getting cured. All I want is to get out, go home, be alive again, make friends, or lock myself alone, I don’t care. I’m not an experiment I’m a girl, about to be a woman. I practically am a woman. There’s still time to find someone and fall in love, if anyone would love me back. I’d have to deal with being around Mom, but I could get back to jogging, really jogging. I could see the world, or at least the States, on my own two feet. I could run to Reno, I could run to Portland. What’s out there? Trees whose leaves turn red in fall? People riding bikes along a beach with an ocean breeze? I could run the coast and see the birds and dolphins and ride a sailboat to Baja California. Who cares? I could see whatever when I escape this awful place.
With all my strength I send the last bite down my throat. Then I gasp for air as if I’ve never breathed and never will again. As if air had never tasted so sweet.