A Story That is Barely There: Half-Life
I tried vomiting. I knew other girls who did it. They were assholes, but it isn’t only assholes who want to be thin.
I didn’t like the vomiting, but for what it’s worth, it worked. I’d eat, go to the bathroom, gag myself, vomit, take a breath mint. I’d be back in the cafeteria or in class in just a couple of minutes. It takes me longer to shit than it did when I used to make myself puke.
But I hated it. And I gave it up. Because I like—no, I actually love—the way things taste. Throwing them back up again just messes it up completely. Nothing tastes like a cheeseburger or a bagel with lite cream-cheese or Mom’s carrot cake after it’s been acidulated or whatever by your gastric juices. Everything ends up tasting like puke. Because by that point, that’s all it is. And it makes you never want to eat it again in its original state, either.
So I gave up the vomiting.
The last thing that was supposed to happen was for my sister to find out. She’s my little sister, but she loves me like a mother cat loves her kitten, skewering it by the scruff of its neck. It’s love, I guess. But it hurts. I’d never be that kind of mother.
According to my sister, I’ll never be a mother at all. I’ve messed up my periods According to my sister, I’ll give myself ulcers. According to her I have bad teeth. Except I don’t have bad teeth. It’s that my mother had pneumonia when she was carrying me. They had to put her on antibiotics. The milder ones didn’t work, so they ended up giving her drugs that crossed the placenta and left me with a yellow tinge to my teeth and enamel that’s softer than normal.
So I’ve always flossed. And especially when I was vomiting I always flossed. And brushed. I’ve never even had a cavity. Maybe vomiting would have given me a cavity if I hadn’t been so careful. But I had been.
You couldn’t tell that to my sister, though. Not that I even tried. She found out about the vomiting and told Mom and Mom called my dad and told him, though he had very little to say on the subject. He has very little to say on any subject.
Mom was relatively okay about it once I told her I had already stopped doing it. She knows my sister is a drama queen and that if it suits her to exaggerate something, she does. I assured Mom that, yes, I had been vomiting, but I just hadn’t liked it, so I’d stopped.
What I didn’t tell her was that just because I had stopped vomiting it didn’t mean I was going to stop losing weight. Losing weight was what I wanted to do more than anything else. And what I discovered is that it is actually easier to eat next-to-nothing, then to eat a lot, then throw it all back up.
Since I had already lost my taste for all the things I’d thrown up over the course of the few vomiting months, I no longer wanted to eat them. Now, during dinner I’d take a few bites, then push the rest of it around the plate. For breakfast I’d spread a bagel with cream cheese and even sometimes jelly, wave it in my hand as I walked out the door to go to school. At the corner I’d drop it in the trash can at the Gas-N-Go.
And it was easy not to eat lunch at school. I just went to the Art wing and got out paints or charcoal or whatever I needed for whatever assignment I had.. Nobody cared what you did in the Art wing. That’s why you could find geeks like me in there working on their projects, not talking to anybody, with Radiohead and Franz Ferdinand blaring through IPOD speakers and none of the Art faculty anywhere in sight.
Neither my mom nor my sister noticed what I wasn’t eating, anyway.
The point, for them, was that I had stopped vomiting. For me, it was that I got even thinner. I don’t know why that was important to me. Especially since I kept myself covered up. I didn’t want anybody else seeing the lines of my ribs beneath my skin or the lanugo that had begun to grow on my arms. My thin-ness was my business. That was how I saw it. I didn’t want anybody interfering, whether it was to tell me how svelte I looked or how emaciated.
What I looked like was nobody’s business.
And the truth is, it felt like a kind of victory over my sister. She had been so superior about the vomiting.
Besides which, she was the dancer in the family and now I was thinner than she was. Puberty had hit her pretty hard. She had real breasts and real hips and when I saw her at her recitals or rehearsing for the high school musicals, it was clear she was no longer the gamine she’d been just a year or so ago.
Now I was thin enough to be a dancer. True, I was graceless and uncoordinated. But I was thin enough.
Except that what happened was that after a while my sister started losing weight, too. It happened right under our noses. And unlike me, she wasn’t subtle about it. She wanted to be noticed. She used her food as props—at dinner waving away most of everything there was on the table, drinking black coffee for breakfast and sucking on some orange wedges.
I’d see her when I walked past the cafeteria. She’d have a yogurt or a cup of ramen in front of her. But from the way she was talking and gesturing—her plastic spoon going everywhere except into the soup or into her mouth—I knew she wasn’t eating.
Unlike me, she wanted to be noticed. She made Mom buy her a portable practice barre for the basement and she’d be down there doing plies, grand battements and tendus frappement as if to say look how many calories I’m burning.
Nevertheless, my little sister’s cause celebre went unnoticed. Mom never had a clue. I had been the identified problem child, the child with the eating disorder. And now, all evidence suggesting otherwise, that was a thing of the past. Our little ranch house was too small for twoanorexics.
But I knew. I saw her lose the weight. And lose it quickly. She started doing some of my special tricks—feigning her period by taking tampons out of their wrappers, then rolling them up in Kleenex and dropping them in the wastebasket. I hadn’t had my period for some time now. And I did not miss it.
She also started wearing more layers, the way I did. Leg warmers. Sweaters, even during rehearsals for the musical. I asked her about it—why she always wore so many clothes during rehearsal. Wasn’t she hot?
It’s a dancer thing, she’d said. She said it like as if you’d know.
What I did know was that she was looking sick. Different than I did. I could carry the thinness. She just looked unhealthy. Her skin looked sallow. She had circles under her eyes which is something I never saw when I looked in the mirror at my own face. I don’t know for sure what I saw when I looked in the mirror at my own face, but it wasn’t dark circles.
Finally, I thought I should talk to her. Tell her I knew what was going on. Help her out.
Only--something stopped me.
I just really didn’t want to give her the attention. Because that was exactly what she wanted. The attention. Mom didn’t mean to not notice. And Dad lived far away and never noticed anything, anyway. Her dance teachers didn’t notice because too-thin is what dancers are supposed to be.
The only person who could give her the attention she needed was me.
And I didn’t want her to know I knew.
It was mean of me. But I wanted to be the only thin girl.
*** *** ***
My first year in college I didn’t gain an ounce—that’s without vomiting or taking laxatives or diet pills. Quite an achievement. Sure, I drank on weekends or whenever. But the next day I would eat next to nothing. I dumped out food when no one was looking. I boiled oats in the dorm kitchen, tossed the oats and drank the water they were boiled in, seasoned with cinnamon so it at least tasted like something.
But during my sister’s first year in college they found out she had some heart damage and had ruined some of the enamel on her teeth. She ended up getting sent home. And my mother—guilty, traumatized by her lack of oversight—devoted herself to my sister’s recovery. Finally, my sister was getting some attention.
I was a senior in college by then and thin as ever. I hadn’t had a period in years. And I couldn’t have been happier with the way things were. Because frankly, I had it all:
I had a boyfriend who called me ‘butterfly’ and took pains not to crush me when he was on top. I had a friend who asked me to be a bridesmaid because she said I’d look great in no matter what kind of dresses she chose. I was asked to be a model in a life art class and the teacher was always declaiming on the shadows and angles of my thin-ness.
Slowly, my sister gained weight. She ‘returned to the land of the living,’ as my mother put it. She re-grew her breasts and hips. Her periods came back. But as soon as she did, she became just another girl again and no one special. She didn’t mind asking the salesgirl at Old Navy to bring her a larger size of jeans. Without an apparent second thought, she would knock back fries and a cheeseburger at Five Guys or a couple of funny-tinis at whatever bar she and her friends were at.
She seemed happy not to be thin anymore, even if it made her no one special.
But thin was all I wanted to be. Because thin was all that anybody wanted. I was fashion’s darling, a boyfriend’s dream, the envy of other girls and an object d’art. I gave them all that they wanted.
None of me went to waste. And they didn’t want anything more of me than what was right there.