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A Masterful Illusion This work is considered exceptional by our editorial staff.


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Seven hours plus seven hours plus seven hours equals 21 so far this week, and it’s only Tuesday. That means I’ve burned 2300 calories, which is 1640 more than I’ve eaten this week.
Officially eaten, that is.
2300 calories burned through 21 painstaking hours of jogging on the hated treadmill, running steps, yoga, and rep after rep of lunges, push-ups, and sit-ups. The numbers are impressive, even to me, and they should add up to self-satisfaction, at the very least.
That’s all fine and well until it’s 3:26 in the morning and I’m shoveling handful after handful of greasy French fries into my mouth out of the trash can – leftovers from my brother’s McDonald’s dinner. He offered me some and I declined. I had to sit there for 37 torturously long minutes and watch him scarf down those deliciously fattening carbs, squirming under my mother’s gaze. She didn’t say anything – she never does – but her eyes were shining with a mixture of disappointment and concern, and I would do almost anything to make her smile again. It’s been so long. And I know seeing me eat would make her happy. But my mother will be even prouder of me when I’m thinner. When I’m the daughter she always wanted. When I make our family okay again.
Still, seeing the worry in my mother’s eyes almost gave me the excuse I needed to have that French fry. I really wanted it, too, but I knew if I started I wouldn’t be able to stop. Just like now.
I’ve managed to hold out until this moment – the calorie count for the day is 160. 160 calories of carrots, broccoli, fat-free cottage cheese, blueberries, and sugar-free gum. I’ve been a good girl and done my workout, and now I deserve a reward.
I drop the now-empty container of French fries back into the garbage and move on to the leftover birthday cake in the fridge. It’s stale, but I don’t care. I wolf down the cake and move on to the muffins sitting on the countertop.
A tear leaks from my eyelid, followed by several more as I stuff each muffin into my mouth. Why can’t my mother just stop buying all this crap? Then I wouldn’t be able to gorge myself on candy and cookies and muffins and cake. Why can’t she just listen to me when I tell her I’m on a diet, and help me instead of tempting me? I can resist anything except temptation.
I finish up all six of the muffins and start on the chocolate chip cookies in the cupboard, tears flowing freely now. I eat the entire container, and when I’m sure I’ve exhausted every single morsel of junk food in the house, I stop, satisfied for now. There’s nothing left to tempt me. This will be the last time.
I chuck the packaging into the garbage and start to go up to my bedroom. Then I stop.
I’ve almost forgotten – the popcorn. I run back down to the kitchen and lay the popcorn package in the microwave and turn the dial to 2:30. When I hear the popcorn start to pop, I smile as I measure out the butter and salt. I’m nearly salivating just imagining how the popcorn will taste, the perfect crunchiness and slight saltiness balancing out the artificial richness of the butter. Popcorn has always been one of my favorite foods.
When it finishes, I take out the popcorn and dump it in a bowl, then add the butter I’ve just melted. My heart jumps as the butter sizzles over the popcorn and I add the salt. I grab the can of Coke I’ve stashed in my backpack so my mother wouldn’t find it and start to gobble my snack, washing down each mouthful with a gulp of Coke.
Now I’m done for good, and I throw away the bag of popcorn, crying so hard I can barely breathe. Why do I have to be so fat? Why can’t I just stick with my exercise and my low calorie counts and keep to my diet?
I wish I could throw it all up. I’ve tried before, but my body just won’t cooperate. It betrays me with its steadfast refusal to shed those last few pounds, insisting on arriving with my period each month; a red stain in my underwear that underscores my failure like a scarlet letter.
If I was really committed, if I really wanted to lose weight, if I could really control myself, I’d be able to throw it up. That’s what the real dieters can do. I smile slightly as I imagine the feeling of success as the excess calories spew from my throat in waterfalls of brown and yellow – for the popcorn I’ve gorged on.
I go up to my room and lay down in bed, hugging my teddy bear to my chest. The walls feel as though they’re closing in on me; a blanket of crimson plaster which will suffocate me the second I close my eyes. I try not to think about it, try to calm myself down and focus on the comforting sensation of my teddy bear’s soft fur against my collarbone, and soon my gasping sobs quiet and my racing heart slows.
“Never again,” I promise myself.
But I know the words are futile, because I said that yesterday, too.
***
The angry buzzing of my cell phone’s alarm jolts me awake at 4:55 in the morning. I groan, but reach over to shut the alarm off with a newly-ignited determination once last night – rather, earlier this morning – comes flooding back to me in waves, crashing over my consciousness like a tsunami of guilt. I jump out of bed, eager to atone for my mistake and punish myself for it.
Mistake. That’s a rather generous characterization of what happened last night. Not a mistake so much as a loss of the control I hold so near and dear; a loss of control made all the more terrifying in the fact that it continues to happen, no matter how hard I try to suppress it. I should be better at this by now.
I set to work, punishing my body with fifty sit-ups, welcoming the ache in my stomach, the pull of muscles awakening after being dormant for more than an hour of sleep. I already had a couple hours earlier, but they were fitful. I kept awakening and counting down the minutes to my binge. That’s the whole problem. It would be one thing if scarfing down thousands of calories in the space of an hour was spontaneous, but it’s another to be so out of control that I fantasized about the food for hours and still gave in to the impulse. My stomach was aching and my head was pounding, and I thought that eating something would make it go away. Then I thought maybe I’d eat something I liked, as a treat for being so good. And as usual, it all spiraled out of control. Just this once, I thought, and my traitorous brain listened, even though it should recognize the pattern by now and know I can’t stop.
Either way, I know that sleeping so little isn’t good for me; I see it in the deep purple bags beneath my bloodshot eyes when I finally dare to glance at my reflection in the mirror each morning. But time spent sleeping is time spent inactive, and there’s enough of that when I have to sit through six hours at school every day. Besides, I need to wake up early to get all my pre-six-hour-rest exercise in. I try to take breaks as often as I can when I’m at school, raising my hand to ask for a washroom pass and instead power-walking around the perimeter of the building, or running up and down two flights of stairs, but I know it isn’t enough. And having bags under my eyes just means an extra couple minutes layering my foundation in the mornings. Tired can actually be covered with makeup, unlike fat.
I finish with the sit-ups and move to the push-ups, cursing the flabbiness so evident on my upper arms as I complete my five reps of ten. I savor the burn as I pull myself up and then move my elbows back into ninety-degree angles. Surely doubling the push-up and sit-up repetitions can’t hurt; it’ll be my penance for last night, although I know I will spend the whole day worrying about it, and nothing I do will be able to make the guilt go away. But I know I deserve the guilt, and this punishment.
When I’m done with the push-ups, I move on to lunges, then go back and repeat my fifty sit-ups and push-ups. I’m smiling now, the knowledge that I’m doing something right for a change stretching my lips into a curve of self-satisfaction. The adrenaline rushing through my veins and the strength of my heart beating in my chest comforts me as I finish my last push-up. I’m alive, I think, smirking as I touch my index finger to the pulsing artery in my neck, reveling in the evidence of my physical exertion.
My next thought, which brings with it a new surge of guilt, crushes me with its implications and forces me to inhale deeply so I don’t suffocate under its weight: Too bad.
***
Breakfast is always an event in my house. My mother thinks she’s the next Bobby Flay and is always whipping up some new concoction that she’s eager for my brother and me to try. This morning it’s some type of omelet, and I don’t even want to ask what’s in it. Not that I’ll be eating it, of course, so it really doesn’t matter how many calories it has or whether she used cream or skim milk.
But I feel bad, a little bit. Maybe more than a little bit. Through her cooking, the one thing she’s always understood better than people, my mother is trying to salvage our broken family. I wish I could let her. I wish I could sit down beside her and gobble down the omelet, both because my stomach is growling at the sight of it and because I know it would make her eyes light up like they used to before Dad left. He used to love it when she cooked. She used to make us fattening but delicious dinners of roasted duck with truffled potatoes, just like at a restaurant, or breakfasts of fluffy, melt-in-your-mouth strawberry crepes with a generous dollop of whipped cream. And I used to be able to eat all of it, too.
My brother has brought his Gameboy to the table, as usual, but my mother doesn’t tell him to put it away. She knows it’s a losing battle. Instead, she focuses her attention on me. “Do you have anything interesting going on at school today, honey?”
I shake my head, cutting the omelet into tiny pieces – a trick I’ve learned, so that if she turns to look at my brother I can pretend I at least had a bite or two. I’m not sure if she falls for it or just pretends to because she’s too worn out to fight with me about it, but either way, I persist in shuffling the small pieces of omelet around on my plate.
The fight we had the first time I didn’t eat dinner was epic. It was the first dinner after Dad left, and she’d made lasagna, which was my favorite. She was already testy because my brother was nibbling on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich instead of the dinner she’d made, and when I didn’t want to eat, she yelled that she’d made it especially for me and I was going to sit at the table until I had finished my entire plate. I told her I wasn’t hungry, and she said I needed to be grateful for all that she was doing for me and stop behaving like a spoiled brat. “Don’t you know there are kids whose parents don’t even care about them enough to sit down with them for meals, much less than cook them their favorites?” she said, and I started crying, because I knew what she was saying was true, but my stomach was so upset that I felt if I put a single thing in my mouth, I’d throw up.
My tears obviously had the desired effect, because she didn’t bug me about eating after that and still doesn’t, months later. I know she doesn’t want to lose me like she’s losing my brother and like she lost Dad. But I almost wish she would say something. I almost wish she’d let make me run out of excuses.
“Andrew, do you have anything exciting going on today?” she asks my brother, who barely looks up from his game.
“Mom, don’t distract me. I’m about to kill the gorgon. Almost got him – die, gorgon!” He bangs on several keys, his fingers flying as he attempts to destroy the virtual monster.
My mother looks back at me. “Aren’t you going to eat your breakfast? I made it special. I know you’re trying to eat healthy, so I used only the egg whites and skim milk.”
“I’m not so hungry,” I say, and I see something in her eyes fade, and I feel a stab of pain in my chest that corresponds to the pain I’ve just caused my mother by rejecting yet another meal she’s made for me.
She forces a smile. “That’s okay. I’ll put it in the fridge for you and you can have it after school if you get hungry.”
I feel the weight of her disappointment settle over me like a dark cloud, and suddenly the room seems to be closing in on me. I have to get out, go somewhere away from this, somewhere away from me, somewhere away from the people I always end up hurting.
“I’ve got to go, Mom. I’m going to be late for school.”
“Have a good day, sweetheart,” she says, the synthetic smile so wide that it looks nearly painful at this point. She turns away, busying herself with packing up my uneaten breakfast.
I know the guilt of disappointing my mother, too, will stay with me all day today. I have two things to feel guilty about already, and it’s not even 8:00 yet.
***

School, on the other hand, is a non-event. I’m invisible here and I like it that way. When I’m thinner, maybe I’ll be okay with people looking at me, but right now, in everyone’s gaze I see the judgment, the mockery of my rounded belly and jiggling thighs. Soon that will change, I tell myself, and I have to believe it, because I don’t think I can go on much longer like this.

At lunchtime, I change into sweatpants and a t-shirt. I never wear shorts because I’m sure that when I run, everyone is staring at how fat my thighs are.

I go outside and start my run at a moderate jog. Usually I go to the track at the park, which is only two minutes away at this speed. I use the time it takes to get there as a warm up, and once I reach the track, I push myself harder, breaking into a swift run. The burn in my thighs at the exertion is delicious. I grin as I run circles around the track, my ponytail swishing in the wind. When I run this quickly, I can almost forget how awful I am, how fat I am, how much of a burden I am. When I run this quickly, the whole world falls away.
***

When I get home, I head to the bathroom, and my first stop is the scale. Weighing myself at the time at which I will be the heaviest is a trick I use to motivate myself. I read in a magazine that weight fluctuates up to two pounds throughout the day, and I know I will weigh less first thing in the morning before I’ve eaten anything than after school, when I allow myself the first meal of the day in the form of a low-fat, low-carb protein bar which I graze on as I walk home.

It has to be like this, I think to myself. The scale is both an instrument of torture and one of liberation; those flashing red numbers have the power both to hold me prisoner and set me free. When I’m thin enough, once my flabby thighs and blubbery stomach are toned and lean and perfect, I will be able to reclaim that power.

That’s the hope, anyway.
I climb onto the scale and hold my breath. Should I punish my body even further today? I ask the scale, and as its red numbers settle against the black background, it answers me. I count to ten before finally glancing down, my heart pounding wildly in my chest.

98 pounds, the scale says, and a smile tugs at the corners of my lips as I walk briskly up to my bedroom to start another round of sit-ups.



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This article has 2 comments. Post your own!

FutureWorldRuler This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
May 17, 2013 at 1:58 pm:
This was a really great, well written piece. You had me until about the middle and then I started wondering if maybe she wasn't so fat as she claimed. But you kept my attention until the very end!
 
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aladine_98 This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
May 16, 2013 at 11:13 pm:
Amazing! This was masterfully written. The character you created seemed so real to me, and so sadly broken yet motivated. I felt like supporting her, but at the same time I wanted to say, "Don't do that to yourself." And then the end sentence came, and I was left staring at the screen in shock. NOOO!! I feel like crying now. You have truly and artfully mastered the genre of "realistic fiction". :)
 
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