The hunger isn’t new. As a child your mother despaired of your expanding hips, the breasts spilling out of tank tops, the way you reached for a second slice of cobbler unhesitatingly as if it was your birthright. Once she hissed, sotto voce, to you at a dinner party that she couldn’t understand how you were always hungry, always acting if you were being starved. Enough, your mother says, and you curl your lip, snatch leftover cobbler defiantly from the plate. In response, your mother grips the fat on your back and twists, her long polished nails digging into the skin. You know how this goes by now so you don’t react: instead you lean into it, rest your head against her arm that isn’t pinching. Inhale the faint jasmine scent of her, the plastic smell of her coral lipstick.
It becomes a game. You become a professional at hiding food, at consuming before your mother can sniff you out. You eat half a carrot cake, once. Nearly an entire fruit bowl full of peaches until you collapse, whimpering, on the carpet. A third of a block of cream cheese mixed with sugar, eaten in the faint glow of the refrigerator light before anyone in the house wakes up. You make sure to stash the wrappers at the bottom of the trash or space them out throughout the day, even under your pillow if necessary. Crowded together in the shower, your mother examines the faults of your body. “Look at those ham hocks,” she says sourly, “just look at yourself.” you remember, suddenly and vividly, your mother telling you of a summer she spent on a farm, the tender way she feed the pigs before they were slaughtered.
“You wanna blow up like a house? Just you keep it up,” your mother tells you in high school. The game is less fun now, but you keep it going for the sake of it, for the chance to maybe win at something. Your mother bursts into the bathroom like a calculated attack, is so gleeful to see the sagging weight of your heavy breasts and dimpled thighs. Her eyes roam over your body at dinner, taking the defiant heft of you in eagerly.
You think that the sight of you has caused her to lose her appetite. She eats exclusively off of a saucer and then arches an eyebrow at you, flips through prom magazines and reminds you which dresses will not sit right on your body. You make a face and then retreat to the bathroom, where you bite your fist until you feel calm again.
“Do something about it if you don’t like it, then,” your mother suggests. She buys another dieting book, starts drinking her coffee black instead of with thick condensed milk. Her cheekbones are sharp and beautiful. When she shows you the pictures of her and her sisters as young adults, she sighs with happiness. “Look how skinny Mommy was,” she says wistfully, tapping the photograph. “Even after having babies. Even after having you. Your Mommy was so skinny.”
Years later, you retell this story to your oldest sister, who remembers that version of your mother with tightly curled hair and a frame as thin as a specter. She rolls her eyes. “Mom got tube fed once,” she says, staring at her reflection in the mirror.
“I think she didn’t eat or whatever,” your sister says. “Isn’t that dumb?”
Your oldest sister is the most slender out of all of your family members, doe-eyed and sweet mouthed. Your uncle calls her the beauty queen. Your mother sometimes calls her “that skinny bitch”. You desperately want to look like her: you have daydreams about the coltish shape of her running down the track, the way her bony arms would wrap around you when you visited her at college. Her body does not ever seem to betray her: it is powerful and sinewy, speckled with beauty marks.
An eating disorder is the obvious outcome but less so is the way you will demand for others to hurt you, the way you will demand for yourself to be hurt. You begin to agonize over calories, trade dieting tips with girls while waiting for the bus. You learn that a certain celebrity only eats 1,300 calories a day and mimic it as best as you can. A friend from school works with you on it, but more often than not the two of you will make weepy phone calls to each other from the bathroom where you recite your food journals from memory. If you forget anything, she goads you, says “That all? That really all, babe?” until you stammer out that maybe you forgot something, maybe a fruit cup that had gone unmarked.
The cashier at a local convenience store will give you cigarettes if you lean over the counter just the right amount so you pick up smoking too, cheap menthols that are easy to shove in the bottom of your backpack. You smoke feverishly out of the bathroom window while your parents are at work, and then allow yourself to slowly chew a bowl of rice, spitting it out before you can swallow any of it. Soon even this is intolerable: you learn to throw up neatly and quietly whenever time allows for it, lose that last inch from your waistline before graduation and then another one for good measure.
You can’t stomach anything for longer than fifteen minutes, so you begin to fuck your way out of eating. You have rushed sex any time it’s available, your stomach growling the whole way through, your mind entirely full of warm static. Sometimes you even enjoy yourself, come to look forward to kissing instead of staring bleary-eyed at the calories within a muffin, wondering if it’s worth the risk.
It works seamlessly for a few years, you dropping inches and inches and laying under the hands of anyone who would have you. Your most delightful memory is being tossed neatly onto the bed like an object and then being told, in such a sweet and gentle tone, “You’re so small!” You hoard that compliment for months. It carries you through the worse months, the ones where you bleed from the back of your throat or stare confusedly at the palm of your hand where a patch of hair has fallen out.
Your mother is ecstatic. You relish the way she cups your hip with her hand, the way the jut of her wedding ring leaves a tiny bruise. “You look amazing,” your mother says, kissing your forehead. You have had numerous stomach bugs this semester, and cannot stand without sagging against a friend’s shoulder. Your sister, squinting at you through the camera lens of a cell phone, says you look jaundiced. Your father says, “I sure hope you’re taking care of yourself” and leaves it at that.
You smile at her. “I feel amazing,” you say, “I feel great.” Last week you sat in the student clinic getting a cardiogram while the nurse droned on about the statistics of death via eating disorders. You told her you knew everything about that already, you were being safe, and besides which it was nothing was wrong. It was, at the most, a slight issue with food, one that was so minute that it didn’t need to be named.
“So you just don’t care,” the nurse sneers. She tightens her mouth when you ask, dazed and already thinking about the lunch you won’t eat, “about what?”
Over the summer, you vow to lose twenty more pounds. This becomes your mantra even after you graduate: unlike your friends, who at most want to tone up or lose around five or so, you have always needed to get rid of more of yourself. You are convinced that you are entirely composed of excess, and yet aware of how drawn your face looks, the scratches on your index fingers and your red-rimmed eyes. You spend so much time running directly from the bathroom to class that you always smell faintly of vomit, even as you laboriously spritz perfume over yourself. Your natural state is this: hunched over, gargoyle-like, massaging your stomach with a knotted fist, the other digging in your bag for spearmint gum.
Your boyfriend’s mouth pleats into a frown whenever he sees you, moves around your body as if it disgusts him. You cannot sit through a single meal without leaping from the table, nervous smile stretched wide. “One sec,” you say, and disappear for far too long, leave your boyfriend sitting awkwardly at the table he’s booked for an anniversary dinner.
You have a screaming fight about it later, ending with tearful promises to learn how to get better. He asks if you mean it and you say tremblingly, “of course, of course,” by which you mean you will become immaculate in your deception.
Your father appears around you with food constantly, stocks the fridge with organic yogurts and then shouts when they go bad, unopened in their containers. You wear sweaters in the middle of July. You throw up neatly into plastic bags and bury them under your bed, wait until the morning and throw them into the safety of the dumpster and then you jog. Once or twice you pass out on the side of the road, one arm flung out dramatically into the street. There is gravel stuck to your skin, a bruise on the side of your knee but there are always bruises there now, both from what your mother says might be from “poor blood circulation” and from you crying in the quiet of the house when everyone is out, hitting yourself repeatedly in the leg for going three hundred calories above what your limit was supposed to be. Your body looks like rotting fruit, like a mistake, like something that ought to be put out of its misery.
Soon enough, though, your mother stops being impressed by your magical ever-shrinking body. You don’t know if it’s because you’ve beat her at her own game, or if it’s because you refuse to play at all. Before it all, you yearned to be near her even as she scowled at you but you’re more given to being sullen now. You refuse to kiss her cheek, instead stomping upstairs to weigh yourself for the third time that morning. You snap at her when she comes into the bathroom without knocking, steal her coral lipstick and cut it with scissors until it is a stump. You want to destroy anything she touches, even if it is yourself. The feeling of her fingers wrapping around your wrist in the supermarket made you dig little half-moons into your thighs, the nails weakly snapping off and falling to the tiles. “Honey,” your mother calls you now, “sweetheart.” She is trying to be softer to you, but you are a hard little thing, a cold person that doesn’t like to trust. You have a peach pit where your heart should be. You refuse to let her hold you. “I’m your mother,” she says, bewildered. “Why are you acting this way? For god’s sake, I’m your mother.”
You look at her, your mother standing there before you with her chin tipped up to you, eyes the color of toffee. It is no longer cute or acceptable to chastise you about your body, as your illness has become so apparent--you are prone to dizzy fits, to picking at dinner or flat out refusing to sit down at the table. The bottle of milk of magnesia your father buys goes missing for days at a time and then shows up suddenly, lighter than before. She has seen the faint outline of your ribcage against your sallow skin, the way you scanned your reflection in the bathroom mirror with insurmountable rage, then grim determination and back again.
You cannot handle being touched but you want her to slap you the way she would when you were little and misbehaved, the arc of her hand cutting through the air, her rings glinting in the light. She always seemed to hesitate at the last moment before making contact with your cheek, as if she wanted to apologize already but could not quite stop herself. As if she knew it would be her duty as your mother to give you hurt measured out in small doses, in hopes that you would become as calloused and unyielding as she thought herself to be.
L.Cain is a New England native. Their work can be found in Gone Lawn Journal, The Sonder Review, and other publications.