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I sat in the cafeteria, the too-bright fluorescent lights stinging my eyes, trying not to breathe. If I took a breath, I could smell the thick, delicious, scent of pizza, with the luscious crust and mouthwatering cheese. If I smelled it, I would want it, and if I let myself want it, I might buy it. I didn’t have any money, but that didn’t matter. One of them would be more than happy to pay for me. I hated them. So I didn’t breathe. I panted, desperately trying to fill my lungs with enough air.
I could feel the cool, uncomfortable plastic seat through my jeans, and I wanted to be anywhere but there, where everywhere I looked I was reminded of food. Quickly, hungrily, I pulled out the only thing in my lunchbox, a small bag of carrots. I could feel the stares, two pairs of eyes following me with an intense, bitter mix of disgust and sadness. I selected a carrot and looked up. Silence. I thought at first it only felt that way, but one glance at them confirmed that they weren’t speaking. I tried to move my hands under the table and out of sight, but Michelle saw them first, and I could tell by her raised eyebrows she had seen the shaking.
“You’re shivering.” Sarah said this calmly, almost coolly, but with a certain edge of urgency. I tried to laugh, and almost didn’t recognize the long, hollow, sound coming out of my throat.
“It’s like, the middle of November.” I tugged on my sweatshirt to hide the goose bumps. I took one bite and then another, imagining my stomach being filled up, then took out five more carrots before putting the bag away. I didn’t need food. I didn’t. All around us, the vacuous room was abuzz with activity, students eating, gossiping, and filling the air with little cartoon speech bubbles of excitement. Our tiny island of silence and tension seemed so out of place in the hubbub. I looked around and took a deep breath to calm myself, before fully realizing what I had done. By the time I regained my senses
was completely overwhelmed. Hamburgers, cookies, chips, tater tots, fruit roll ups, ice cream. Food. Hungry. Want. Immediately I fired back against my body, launching a vicious counter-attack.
Fat. Fat. Fat. You can’t have those things. Do you have any idea how overweight you are? It’s embarrassing. Don’t you want to be skinny?
People don’t like fat girls. Stay strong. They noticed. Of course they noticed.
“Are you sure you don’t want a bite of my sandwich? Or we could get you-“
“No. I’m not hungry.” I felt them exchange glances, and I rolled my eyes. I knew I should have been less sharp, but it really wasn’t any of their business.
“This isn’t healthy. It’s been a month. You need to eat.” Michelle’s eyes bored into mine, pleading with me.
“I’m eating, see?” Triumphantly, I popped my third carrot into my mouth and chewed slowly for emphasis.
“You know what I mean. I’m worried about you. You have a problem.” She spoke slowly and deliberately, as if skirting around something nobody dared to say.
“Really? Because I’ve lost five pounds. I think you could benefit from a diet.” That shut her up. She closed her mouth and turned away. I took a noisy bite and shivered again, wondering why I was so cold. More importantly, how many calories were in six carrots? Did I need to eat less? I could eat less if I needed to, I knew it.
“You have an eating disorder.” Sarah spat it out, her eyes wide, as if shocked by the ugly thing that had just escaped her lips. She and Michelle must have been whispering without me noticing. Whatever.
“What? You have got to be kidding. You guys need to take it down a notch!” I attempted to laugh again, and my hands quivered even more. Michelle shook her head.
“We’re your best friends. You are not fat. Why can’t you see that?”
“But I am. You guys don’t get it. Can we please switch the topic? How’s everyone’s day been so far?” I eased a fake smile onto my face, glancing nervously at the other people around us who were looking at me. They were talking too loud. It was nobody’s business. My stomach rumbled and I looked down at the ugly, bloated mess. I hated it. Shut up, I thought. You don’t know what’s good for you. Sarah started talking, bridging the awkward gap.
“It’s been okay, I guess. I totally failed the social studies test though.”
“Oh, really? I have that tomorrow. One more thing to look forward to, huh?” I ate my last carrot slowly, trying to convince myself I didn’t need anything else to eat. Movement. My head snapped up in time to catch the end of a shared glance. I sighed. Why were they so intent on forcing me to eat? They said they wanted the best for me, but they didn’t know what the best was. Only I did.
I took care of myself, I really did. I ate. Tons of people dieted, so why couldn’t I? A few less calories here and there never killed anyone. Sarah and Michelle really needed to calm down, and the food needed to stop smelling so appetizing…
“Hellooo?” Time to snap back. Leah looked concerned. What had she been talking about again?
“Oh. Hi, sorry I kind of spaced. Where did Michelle and Sarah go?” I looked around for them, but couldn’t see them at any other table.
“They’re getting out of the snack line. You’re really out of it today, huh?” Without bothering to respond I stared as they walked back from the ridiculously short line and towards me, trays laden with cookies, chips, and a slice of pizza. I wanted pizza more than anything at that point. Sarah looked nervous but Michelle had a determined expression on her face, weaving through tables as if every long, rectangular, strip of fake wood was merely one more obstacle in her quest for successful food delivery. I pretended that my eyes had the ability to shoot lasers, and then focused all of my energy on scorching them with vicious stares. After what seemed like an eternity they sat back down and Sarah subtly nudged the hot pizza towards me, her face completely devoid of expression and yet somehow impossibly innocent, as though her brain didn’t quite understand the heinous act she was committing.
“We kind of bought it with you in mind. It’d be really selfish to waste it.” I smiled my fakest, widest smile back, showing off almost every one of my off-white teeth.
“Yes, it would be a real shame. I wouldn’t want it to go to waste,” I called out to a nearby girl whose face looked almost contorted in hunger, “Anne! Do you want some pizza? We can’t finish it and I know you forgot your lunch at home.”
I smirked as she reached gratefully over. Two could play at that game. I turned around to watch the two girls who called themselves my best friends each eat a delectably soft chocolate chip cookie and clasped my arms tightly around my stomach to silence it.
Finally, mercifully, the bell that signaled the end of my own personal Hell rang. I grinned, my first real smile of the day, and began the long, exhausting walk to the other side of the building for math. Even short walks had me out of breath and sweating, but at least I was burning calories. I reached the classroom panting, slid into my seat, and tried to focus on the board. The teacher had already gotten busy writing nonsensical numbers and formulas and pretending as if we had a clue how to solve them. Supposedly she had taught it to us earlier, but I couldn’t remember the lesson, and the warm ups made zero sense to me. I couldn’t even register the other people in the class, and I felt my body shutting down. A few minutes later, right when I began to lose the battle against my eyelids, the door clicked open and in walked a girl.
She must have been a seventh grader, because I had never seen her before. I gazed in wonderment at her impossibly tiny frame, speculating on how she could even support herself with her sickly thin body. What was her secret? In her hand she held a yellow slip of paper, which confirmed her office aide status. That tiny yellow scrap held the power to get one lucky student out of class, be it for a doctor’s appointment or a trip to the principal’s office. She walked slowly over to the teacher, as if trying to summon the courage to face a classroom full of convicted felons who had somehow gotten their hands on some serious weaponry. As if. They wouldn’t even let us have gum in certain classes, and there seemed to be a huge conspiracy against white-out, like we were going to sniff it or something.
I watched her with detached interest, the same way I would watch ants carry a ridiculously disproportionate object together. She handed the note to Ms. Vale and then, with one final, frantic look around she scurried out. Definitely a seventh grader. I slouched back down in my chair and began to doodle, but my thoughts of swirls and stick figures were soon interrupted.
“You’re wanted in the counselor’s office immediately.” Surprised but not willing to sacrifice my get out of class free card, I hopped up and speed-walked into the hallway. I was smart enough to know that a visit to the counselor’s couldn’t be good, but naïve enough to hope for an exception. I walked past every door until I reached the end of the hall, and examined the door for a moment, trying to figure out what in the world would bring me here.
I took a big, ragged breath before pulling down the cold, metal handle, pushing open the shockingly heavy door, and entering Ms. Springer’s office. She looked up and observed me as I entered the room, trying to freak me out, like she knew all my secrets. Coming from a woman who smiled every three seconds, wore a sweater in a different shade of pink every day, and towered a full five feet two inches in heels, it looked pretty pathetic. Nonetheless, I gave her a pepped-up smile while shooting her a look that said, “I’m shaking in my boots,” although the sarcasm was probably lost on her.
Encouraged, she shuffled some papers around on her desk, cleared her through uncomfortably, and informed me, “Some little birdies have dropped by to tell me some very concerning news.”
S***. Immediately, my cool demeanor evaporated and my palms started to sweat. Could teenage girls get hot flashes, or was that something only women in menopause got?
“I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about Ms. Springer. There certainly are quite a few birdies out there.” I made my best Bambi eyes and shook my head slowly, praying that she would buy it.
Some girls have come to me and told me that your eating habits have not been healthy, in fact it appears they have been on the, ahm…lower spectrum. If that’s true, it is very serious. Most young girls don’t understand the gravity of the situation they put themselves in. So tell me, have you been eating full meals? Or do you feel as if you might have developed,” here her voice dropped to a near whisper, “anorexia?”
I felt myself starting to hyperventilate, and my pulse jumped. I hadn’t expected her to say it out loud, not really. I stared at her, my face closely resembling my fiery nails. Hurriedly, I reviewed my options. Lying seemed like my best bet, the only thing guaranteed to not interfere in my diet. But what if I told her the truth? A tiny, traitorous, part of me longed to tell her everything, to make it all go away. Could I trust her? There was only one way to find out.
“Well you see…”