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Author's note: For my three best friends in the whole world; you know who you are. I'll never be able to repay you for all you've given me; millions of laughs, words of wisdom, and memories that will last forever. I love you all to the moon and back. #Sappy. & For everyone who has helped me comb through this book and make it better. You're all awesome. & For my mother and father, the two most supportive parents on the planet. My gratitude toward you both is endless. & For anyone who may need this story. This one is for you.
"Mia, you're up next," my teacher spits from beneath the thick-rimmed glasses perched on the tip of his nose. Dozens of necks snap toward me. Beads of sweat sprint across my forehead, have relay-races down on cheeks. My palms feel clammy as hundreds of eyes scope me out, track me down. My chair skids across the tiled floor, screeching loud enough to break one of Mom's expensive wine glasses. I stand up, clutching onto my poster-board as if I'm the girl from Titanic and it's that last floating door that saves her at the end. Except she's drowning with cute Leonardo DiCaprio and I'm all alone.
I stare hard at the floor and attempt to navigate the quickest path to the front of the room. The tiles have a repetitive checkerboard pattern and I loose myself in them. Blackwhiteblackwhite. They stretch on and on for miles. The front of the room seems light-years away. "Hurry up, now. There's only 5 minutes left of the period," Mr. Finch mutters, a hand grazing over his bald head. I'm buried under more eyes. I feel them on my body, crawling around my neck and hugging my curves. I wince and dart up to the whiteboard in the front of the room. My sneakers slip-slide past rows of adolescents, trip on gossip and tears and lies and drama; melodramatic teenage problems that don’t matter much to me. All too quickly, I'm forced to face them all. My shoulders quiver as my trembling hands lift my poster in front of my face, displaying my painstaking effort to detail the Major Turning Points of World War One.
I hear the class whisper. Sometimes, I wonder if they know.
My cheeks burn until I turn the same color as the red on Germany's flag. I contemplate slipping into some yellow pants and throwing on the black baseball cap that I have somewhere in my closet to complete the look. Hey; too many people are witches for Halloween. Why not be the German flag? They should add that to the Party City catalogue. I'm sensing a bestseller.
I begin to rattle off information that was poured into my dense brain the night before. The locations of important battles must be squished in there somewhere; dumped right beside the big-fat number that last graced the screen of my bathroom scale. I don't want to turn around my poster, even though I know everything is listed on there. I don't want them to see my face; so meek and vulnerable. I can't remember when the war finally concluded, so I begin to call out random years; when I was born, when Columbus discovered America, when Beyonce won her first Grammy, when I started doing this to myself; two months ago. Anything to be able to return to the safety of my seat.
"1997?" Mr. Finch repeats, after I tell him my birthday. His dark eyebrows dance around on his rugged skin, slithering snakes above his lashes.
My head nods behind my poster-board-shield. I battle off more eyes. The come at me like daggers, slicing through my project and stabbing me one by one. There is a drone of giggles from the back row. Am I a comedy act, or something? What if I just placed my poster down on the floor and took a bow? "Thanks for coming out tonight, ladies and gentlemen. It's been fun," I could say, waving at them all once they finish cracking up. I could, but I won’t.
"Pretty sure the war was fought quite some time before 1997," a girl mocks from my audience, her words slashing me. I try to juggle my emotions as best as I can; keep cool, calm, and collected. I just need to stay relaxed. This shouldn’t take too long. When I’m done, I can crawl back into my chair and fade into the back round of this all. That’s what I do best, anyway. “1997 was 15 years ago. There definitely wasn’t any type of World War going on then.”
"I know. I'm sorry. I just forgot," my voice escapes, clouding the air like smoke. I feel my warm breath blanket my nose before it vanishes. Insignificant. Irrelevant. Unimportant. Sometimes, I question my existence.
"It says 1918 right on your poster," a boy exclaims, and I know he’s right. I remember writing it on there; top right corner, red Sharpie marker. Laughter brews, then explodes. I feel my body start to rock, a steady back-and-forth swaying. My temples buzz and I release my grip on the poster and let it kiss the ground. An uneasy feeling chews through the pit of my empty stomach, munches on it like a dog with a new bone. I clutch onto the nearest person's desk for balance. The room spins so fast that I feel like I'm on an amusement park ride.
"She looks like she's going to throw up!" a flippant back-row-boy calls out.
"Oh, don't worry about it, then. Mia throws up all the time," I think I hear. My imagination has been getting the best of me lately. Either way; the words, or lack of words, slap my face and push me over the edge. The faces of my giggling classmates zip around in front of my eyes and soon a hazy film coats my pupils like paint. Tears drench me; drip from my hair and cause me to choke. My stomach groans.
"I find it really funny how she throws up every meal she eats and she's still fat," is the next thing I think I hear. In my mind, I'm a dartboard, open for anyone to use, and they're all experts at this game. I’m weak in the knees, but try my best to stabilize my heavy thighs. I search for Mr. Finch, but after looking at a few of my taunting classmates, I collapse. My cheek feels cool against the tile, and I catch one more glimpse at my poster before I'm out cold. I decide I now resemble the white on the French flag a bit more. Party City really needs to get on this by October.
"I can't go back; I can't," I frantically tell my dessert, as Mom refills her bowl with more ice cream. She rolls her eyes and offers the Ben & Jerry's tub to me. She bites her lip and I bite mine. Skinny arms and visible ribs, Mom is exactly what I want to look like. She stares me down until I'm obligated to take another spoonful. I add to the pile of Chocolate Fudge Brownie already in my bowl. I used to love this flavor. I'd make Mom drive my friends and I to Ben & Jerry's after soccer practice to get it, back in elementary school, back when things were normal. I glue my eyes to it until it melts on my spoon, turning into a slushy mush. Mom crunches into chocolate chip cookies, straight from the package, one after another, emptying the sleeve with no consequences. My hand wants to grab one too; it floats over them, runs its fingers along each individual cookie, playing with the magnetic forces holding them down. I want to dig into all of this so badly. I want to completely stuff my face.
No. I can't.
Mom distracts herself by admiring the kitchen utensils we've had around for as long as I can remember. Between the tines of her fork, she sneaks glances at me. I think she knows what I've been doing; bouncing back and forth between not eating at all, and severely binging and purging. She's probably contemplating saying something to me about it. I'm contemplating asking her for a new mother; one that doesn't have a tiny waist and free space between her thighs to taunt me with. This is probably the most attention she’s paid to me in a while. I’d also like one of those mothers who harass their children about everything they’re up to; as weird as that may sound. I’d feel a lot safer that way.
I've only been at this for a few months, but it's been extremely rough, and I’ve heard it gets worse. Only one person truly knows. Daniella Demotta, a talkative Sophomore from my Gym class came across the truth at the most unexpected time. I forgot to lock the stall door in the girl's room. She burst in, snapping her gum deliriously. I turned around, guilt smeared across my face, and she asked me, flat out, "Are you Bulimic?" The question hit home. It was like I was asleep and she poured a huge bucket of ice water on me, waking me up completely. The water still trickles down the small of my back whenever I think about it. Why does everything need a label on it? Bulimia? Anorexia? Depression? They're nothing but stamps that doctors shove on people to make money.
Yet, the words still tangle themselves to me; etch into my tongue, and seep through my veins. They drip-drop into my raw, pink stomach. They are beginning to define me. I don't know what else I am anymore.
Daniella's question tackled me. I tried to dodge it at first. Beyond my quivering lips, I shook my head, slowly. I couldn't help it, though. I eventually started crying hysterically. I felt way too exposed, like a fresh, new wound of mine was being ripped open. Daniella threaded her eyebrows and shoved her hands in the pockets of her jeans. She kept opening and closing her glossy lips, about to say something. She kept looking behind her, looking around for someone to tell. That's when I lost it. I shoved her out of the stall and pushed her into the row of sinks that lined the wall under a series of mirrors. I saw my face in them, like nothing I've ever seen before. This wasn't the same Mia that collected the fifty states' quarters as a kid, and drew with sidewalk chalk on her driveway. This was a monster baring sharp, pointed teeth at its prey. I even terrified myself, haunted eyes looking frightened about the future, about what I was doing to myself. "Don't tell anybody! Don't say anything! Please!" I yelled, my mouth releasing blood-curdling screams that would later echo in my nightmares. Judging from the tone of my voice, I could have just witnessed a murder. She was petrified, nodding ferociously and bolting out of the bathroom.
I was left alone. I punched a hole in the mirror. My reflection tore through this lifeless skin-bag that I toted around. My eyes glued themselves to the shards of glass as they rained down from the mirror and clogged the drain of the sink. The image that was being shown back to me was just as broken as I was.
I see Daniella every single day. We exchange glances as we jog past each other on the track. She tugs on her blue gym shorts as she inhales wafts of my shame and exhales breaths of regret. Secrets fill both of our bodies to their brinks. Sometimes, I see her wobble and wonder if she'll tip, and spill out everything. I just can't imagine what my life would be like if everyone found out. I'd rather muddle around, dwelling in puddles of my own pain than cleaning it all up. It's so difficult to explain to myself why I'm doing all of this. Pretty sure it'd be impossible to explain to anyone else. I know I'd be sent to doctors and they'd assess me and discuss my issues like I'm a sick patient. Except, I'm not sick. I'm fine. They'd pump fluids into me. They'd fill back up this body. They'd make it fatter and fatter, until its arms jiggled again and I'd have to pick shirts from the back of the row of hangers in the mall. The whole situation makes me cringe, just thinking about it.
"Mia, is there something you want to tell me?" Mom once said, barging into my room after dinner one day, when she noticed my entire plate of food was dumped into the trash. Man, I was so careless about the secret then. I shook my head, quickly, and then shoved it back down into whatever book I was reading. My insides crackled and fizzed as I waited, patiently, holding my breath, for her to bug me to tell her everything. She didn't. She just spun around on the heels of her work shoes and I watched her blonde hair bounce out of the room. Tears soaked my pillow all night, and I prayed for her to ask me about it the next morning, but at breakfast, she acted like nothing even happened. She still served me warm eggs and smoking bacon and tall glasses of orange juice. "Eat up, honey!" she said, a smile plastered on her face like a sticker. I slurped down the juice, even though it burned my throat, and I picked at the ends of the bacon, until she stopped watching me. I made a dramatic exit toward the bathroom, but she didn't even flinch.
Mom is the biggest workaholic I know. She's a manager at this huge corporation that did God-knows-what. She is always a little disconnected from my life; that one mother that didn't come to watch the 3rd Grade Play, the one mother who didn't show up to our Mother's Day Picnic in Kindergarten. I was the only kid who graduated middle school without at least one parent there to support them. Sometimes, I felt like a had to hire a skywriter in order to inform her I failed a math test. Except if a failing math test slips past her, I'll be okay. Starving myself may not be the best secret to enclose upon myself. I have to admit; I'm really scared. I know I'm destroying myself. I know what I'm doing is awful. As much as I want everything to be kept secretive, I still want to be okay. I want someone to help me, to rescue me. I don't have enough faith in myself to get out of this tangled mess alone.
"Mom, you don't get it. I really don't want to go back to that school," I say again, taking out a cookie from the package and poking it with my spoon until crumbs collect in my lap like decorations on my jeans. I sound like a stereotypical teenager on some ABC Family show. "Mom! You're ruining my life!" all the can't-date-until-they-graduate sitcom girls whine with me.
"Okay, do you want me to tell you what I think?" Mom says, licking off the ice cream-lipstick she has on and cleaning her prim mouth with a ratty old napkin that she and Dad had stolen from a restaurant on their first date. She uses it every day; pretends I don't notice. I notice. It kills me; pricks me each night like thorns on a rose or the needle used to retrieve my yearly blood-work.
Dad left her when he found out he got her pregnant with me. He was too young, just out of high school, and didn't want to be father yet. I don't blame him. I wouldn't want to tote around the baggage of having a kid as useless as me. It's like carrying around a big black bag of garbage with you wherever you go. I couldn't imagine the conversations he'd have with his friends.
"Here's my son, Mr. Perfect. He has straight A's and is the quarterback of his school's football team. He also won Homecoming King last week," one of them would say.
"Oh! You should introduce him to my daughter, Betty McBeautiful. She's been gifted with good looks and brains. She's also a violin prodigy. She was offered a Juilliard scholarship in the 3rd grade," another would dote.
"My daughter is Mia. I would list her accomplishments, but the most exciting thing she's ever done was shove her fingers down her throat and vomit," my Dad would say. I wonder if Mr. Perfect and Betty McBeautiful's parents could top that.
I brace myself for Mom's rare opinion on my life. Whenever she has something to say, she really comes at me with it. "I think you're being overdramatic; about this, about everything. You do realize your a teenager now, right, Mia? You guys have all hormone changes and what not. You can't go making destructive decisions every time you have a bad day. So, you fainted and were embarrassed in class. Big deal. We don't need to switch your school because of it," she says, her blue eyes drilling holes into my skull; her perfect, happy eyes judging me.
"It wasn't just today, Mom. Every day is bad; okay? Not a single person in that school cares about me at all," I moan. My voice is annoying as hell. I don't even want to listen to myself.
I stand up and begin to scrape the soggy ice cream-drenched-cookies from my bowl into the trash. The sound of my knife against the porcelain dish sends chills down my spine, like a warning sign, telling me to stop what I'm doing, sit down, and eat them. The disagreement of my mind and body causes me to loose control and drop the bowl right there on the floor. It cracks at my toes and the pieces sprint off my shins. Mom squeals, running over to me with a broom. She commands me to clean up the mess like I'm a puppet.
"The bowl? You're worried because the bowl broke? What about your daughter? She's broken too, if you haven't noticed," I scream, inside my head. My voice echoes through my brain and seemingly screeches across the whole country. I can't even fathom why my mother can't see this; me crumbling to pieces before her very eyes.
Crumbling and crumbling. If I keep breaking like this, will I disappear all together? That's what I want. I want to be so thin that I feel limitless. I want to drift through the air like a ghost and not be weighed down by this sluggish body.
I kick the plate's debris in all directions, surrounding her in it. She swims out and yells at me for what seems like an eternity. I tune her out and play the most recent America's Next Top Model episode behind my eyelids. Tyra eliminated the only plus-size model. She was a size six. I'm a size eight.
Suddenly, she says something causes me to snap out of my daze. "You know, there are so many other things wrong with people out there. Kids battling Cancer, living life with Autism; Cystic Fibrosis. You think you have it bad because you're overweight. Please, Mia. Give me a break. Everyone knows you're just doing all of this for attention. You're obviously fishing for compliments." I don't say anything. What does she even expect me to say to that? I take slow steps back at first, then spin around and walk away defiantly. I hear her call after me, but I'm too busy to listen. My real thoughts are muffled by this sudden, new, fierce mentality. Depressed-girl thoughts surf through my head; thoughts I shouldn't be having. They envelop my mind. I cough them out, one by one.
I hate myself. I hate myself so much. I am disgusting. I am worthless.
My alarm clock screams and my eyelids pop open, my hands rubbing the sleep from the corners of them. My pupils dilate as the clock flashes in front of me and brightens the room much too quickly. I stretch out my arm and slap it to stop the dog-whistle-ringing. The silence feels refreshing, like taking a shower after a long jog in the park. Maybe, that's a good sign. Sometime during the three days I refused to leave my house and go back to school, Mom finally gave in. She quickly reached out to another school in the area and they said I could transfer there right away. A whole new school; there'll be a whole new sea of fish to swim through and an unfamiliar ocean to navigate. Sure, it will be what I want; to escape my past and reinvent myself. It excites and terrifies me knowing that, in a matter of hours, I'll be a Calloway High Bulldog. Bulldogs are strong, right? I need to be strong to keep up this whole charade, to win this war against myself.
I had a dream the night before that I was being swallowed up by a blazing house fire. As I scrambled to find the safest exit, the window or the backdoor, I felt angelic arms wrap themselves around my waist and we flew away together; right through the air. We soared right out of the burning building, wind slapping our cheeks like one of those big fans they shoved in sweaty classrooms during the dwindling school days before July.
I didn't get to see the person's face, but I think my dream was trying to tell me something. "You're going to find people at your new school that will pull you out of this whole mess!" it told me. I hope I interpreted that correctly. I don't know how much to believe; it was a dream after all. I can't get my hopes up. If everything in my dreams happened in real life, then I'd be a professional basketball playing, fire-breathing dragon who lives in a castle with an assortment of good looking movie stars.
I pull my blanket up over my nose and breathe deeply into it, stuffing the clingy fabric into my mouth. I watch the minutes tick by on the screen of my clock. Five, ten, fifteen of them pass before I allow myself to be pried of out bed. I stare hard at my ceiling, slide my eyes across the walls. They were painted baby pink. The color fit me once, when I was light and airy and innocent on the inside. The pink used to be soft and comforting, my absolute favorite color. Now, it feels itchy. It wraps around me like an old quilt, scratching at my neck and making me uncomfortable. It drapes on me like those ill-fitting hand-me-down sweaters that Mom used to squeeze me in for Picture Day. It's all wrong.
If I could repaint it, what color would I choose? A chalky grey. A jet black. Something that would make me feel small and invisible. Something that would collect my problems in its corners and let me relax; harden and decay.
Shocks of my dirty-blonde, tangled hair make their way through a worn-out hair elastic. My chest protrudes out of a blue t-shirt and I fall into a pair of jeans. I attempt to keep my eyes sealed shut while I change, but I have to peek. I have to. A floor-length mirror hangs on the back of my door and displays my unkempt self for all to see. S***. Why did I have to look there? The mirror sings my name. It calls me over to where I have it hung, the only place it my room with scarily bright lighting. The mirror that shows all of me. It teases me and temps me to take step after step until all I can see are my mistakes.
My pudgy hand lifts the hem of my shirt and pinches at my stomach. "Ew," I scold myself, "You're absolutely gross. No wonder no one likes you." The words bubble in the back of my throat and splash down onto my skeleton. I try to watch my peeling lips move in the mirror, try to brainwash myself to remember this. My teeth are yellow and are rotting away from vomiting. My mouth seals itself with a zipper. The secret tucks away inside.
My eyes distract me; slip me into a trance. Blinkblinkblink. They look so tired, like I'm running on an hour of sleep and an unlimited supply of Starbucks. Guess I'm just drained; empty. I feel like someone reached inside of me and hollowed me out, leaving only this pitiful, inadequate shell of a human and a negative voice to go with it. My good-girl side emanates from me; springs out from my ears. Hands glide over to the mirror and remove it. The paint on the back of the door is chipped away, and a lone nail shimmers and sparkles with hope.
I remember when I wasn't so hard on myself. I remember when I used to look at my reflection and see these same blue eyes dancing like ballerinas, not warped with self hatred. I was so happy and healthy.
My feet lead the way out of my house and down toward my new bus stop. It's already the beginning of March, but it still isn't too nice outside, yet. It's one of those years where the groundhog didn't see his shadow. The air is crisp and cool and reminds me, all too much, of the real first day of school; the one in September. On that day, you're supposed to be nervous. In April, you're not. My toes tap the sidewalk to the beat of a nonexistent background track. I kick a pebble, roll it down a hill until it hits a parked Mini-Van with "Soccer Mom" bumper stickers adhered to it. I catch my reflection in it's rear-view mirror. I halt, automatically, and critique my body one last time before being thrown into a whole new school.
Boarding my bus, I expect to be stared at, like the new kids in movies, but nobody notices me. I hover through the aisle like I'm dressed in an invisibility cloak. The leather seat scratches against my legs as I slide in. I arrange myself in a way where I feel the most hidden, my backpack on top of me like a child on its mother's lap. Just as I finally get settled, a head pops up from the seat in front of me.
Her freckles remind me of the sun. Wavy blonde hair collects upon her shoulders. Her eyes are mint chocolate-chip ice cream, and they graze over mine; just scoping out the new girl, I guess. She sits back down. "She looks our age," she reports to whoever else is in the seat. My heart does backflips and I have a sudden stage fright feeling. I inch my backpack closer and closer to me until it's pressed tightly against my chest. My bones rattle under my skin.
She appears again, with another blonde this time. They both stare hard at me, eyes widening. I squirm under their view; sizzle and fry. "Hi!" they yelp.
"Hi," I mumble back behind clenched teeth.
"What's you're name?" the girl's friend says. Her hair is just as blonde, but pin-straight, framing her tiny face and perfect features. They both look so happy, giggling with each other. Sunlight pours in through the cracks in the shoddy windows and fills up the bus. They squint simultaneously. It's like they're twins. I guess a lot of best friends are like that, though. There must be something about being around someone all of the time that makes you adopt some of their traits. Best friends say the same things at the same time. Best friends will know how their friend is feeling without them even saying a word. Best friends can spend hours and hours talking and never run out of conversation topics. I, for one, am best friend-less.
I divert my attention to my shoelaces as I mutter, "Mia," and quickly fetch a book from my backpack to inform them that the Hotel Mia was closed for the day. They've overstayed their welcome, anyway. My eyes stumble over about a paragraph before I hear them talk again.
"Mia's a pretty name. Wasn't there a girl named Mia at your camp?" the wavy-haired girl says.
"Yeah!" the straight-haired girl replies.
I stare hard at a line in the book I'm attempting to read. The words cruise through my mind about two hundred times before jumbling together and giving me a headache. I mutter the line under my breath. The wavy-haired girl leans in to me, hoping to catch my words in the palm of her hand and eat them up like the breakfast I should have had this morning. Mmm. Breakfast; warm pancakes drenched with maple syrup; warm pancakes that would sliver down my esophagus and pollute my stomach; warm pancakes that would make my body weigh too much.
She waits for me to repeat myself, but I don't. If reaching up and sliding them both back down into their own seats was socially acceptable, I'd so do it. "Mind your own business!" I want to scream at them.
"I'm Summer. I'm a freshman," the straight-haired girl says, reaching out a thin hand toward me. Her fingernails are each painted a sophisticated lavender shade. I clench my fists; the electric blue polish I picked up at the Check-Out counter of Walmart chipping off. I shake her hand, half-heartedly, like it's some random friend of my Mom's that remembers me from when I was little and knows embarrassing childhood stories about me; someone I wouldn't be too thrilled to see.
"And I'm Elle," the wavy-haired girl chimes in, offering me a big, wide smile. She holds out her hand like a peace offering. I quickly brush my fingers across it and go back to my book. She doesn't seem offended.
"So, where are you from?" Summer asks.
"Do you play any sports?" Elle pipes in, fiddling with her lacrosse stick.
"Do you like One Direction? They're my favorite band!" Summer gawks, hands flailing in front of her face.
"They're okay." I shut my book and sarcastically put it aside. "Any more questions?" I ask them, surprising myself with my own bitterness. They blink back at me, a little stunned. "Are you sure? I'm waiting," I mockingly say, my voice hitting them like freezing snow. Summer and Elle disappear and I feel relieved. Just as my heart starts to beat at the correct pace again, the bus suddenly stops, causing my body to jerk back and forth. My head rushes forward and collides with the smooth glass window. My vision blurs for a minute, but I'm able to make out "Welcome to Calloway High School!" written on a sign out front, in big, royal-blue block letters. Chills cascade down my spinal cord. My body feels heavy, and my neck aches, like supporting my bustling head is a tough job. I pay close attention to the way I carry myself as I stand up. Back straight. Shoulder-blades jutting out. I'm an old wind-up toy, springing back to life; trying to fit into the mold of someone else. I silently wish on every birthday cake candle, dandelion, fallen eyelash, and shooting star I've ever seen to be back in the comfort of my warm bed; guarded, safe, and protected from this world that I'm scared to take on every morning. Instead, I am shoved forward, by a sweaty hand.
"Move, fat ass," I think I hear. I skid off the bus like I'm on a conveyor belt and march into the school feeling paralyzed, feet locked in autopilot.
My Math teacher thinks she's a comedian, I swear. She prances around the room, frolicking from desk to desk, saying the cheesiest little knock-knock jokes I've ever heard. I moan after she says one of them. She hears me. Oops.
"It's Mia, right?" she says, making her way toward me. Her name is Mrs. Gallanti. Her face is marked up with wrinkles; tiny paths that make stripes on her forehead and diverge at the corners of her eyelids. Her hair is cut short and dyed auburn, but her grey roots glimmer through under the bright school lights. Her teeth clamp together and she flashes creepy-teacher-smiles. They make me uncomfortable.
"Yeah. Mia. Mia Duncan," I respond. My hands fumble through the pages of my cheap CVS notebook. I rip out all of the work from my old school and pile it on the corner of my wooden desk; stacks of my old life. I fold a list of vocabulary words into a paper airplane and toss it toward the trash can. 3-2-1-Blast off. Mrs. Gallanti hovers to me; lingers over my desk for too long. Her eyes radiate laser beams at me. I put my head down like how we used to do when we played 7-UP in elementary school. I always used to win because I would cheat and look at the people's shoes. That was my top-secret trick.
Joke time. "Well, Mia. What kind of bathing suit did The Little Mermaid wear?" she asks, her voice gritty and decorated with a thick Bronx accent. She sounds like she's choking on pebbles.
"I don't know. It's, like, made of shells or something," I spit into my desk. Even when I crack my eyes open, all I can see is its brown surface. I like life like this. Sometimes, I wonder what it would be like to be blind. Everyone always considers that a disability, but all I can say is that I would give anything to be blind; oblivious to the ugliness of the world. Being deaf would be cool too. Then, you could just sit there, muffled by your own thoughts, and scream as loud as you want to about things. I think my Mom would try to get me a therapist if I told her this. It just seems so much easier to live that way.
"No! She wears an algae-bra! Get it? Algebra! It's a math joke!" Mrs. Gallanti bellows, her stomach bouncing around joyfully; huffing and puffing with laughter. She looks like she just ate an entire Thanksgiving dinner by herself.
If I can keep this up, I'll miss Thanksgiving dinner this year. I'll tell Mom I'm sick. I'll stay in my bed, picking apart my pillowcase until thin pieces of white thread dangle from the edges like professional trapeze artists, as the smell of thick slabs of turkey drenched in tasty gravy float into my room. I'll be so tempted that I'll sit around and fantasize about dunking a spoon into mashed potatoes, buttered up to perfection. I'll end up trotting downstairs to shove green beans and cranberry sauce and stuffing deep into my mouth. I'll munch on Grandma Lynn's famous apple pie to end the night.
Then, my family will crouch around the TV, watching football, while I cleanse myself and do five hundred crunches on the bathroom floor. Happy holidays.
The mermaid joke makes my eyes roll. "Funny," I say, my words dripping with sarcasm. She looks a little hurt, and the class is somewhat taken back. It's not her fault, it has actually been hard for me to laugh at anything lately, with so much going on. Even the things that used to bring me the most happiness do nothing for me now. I feel dead to the world. Mrs. Gallanti makes her way back to the whiteboard, where she finishes a problem. I watch as she throws her arm around in the air like she's conducting a symphony. I take my ruler and measure the distance around my own.
Straight ahead of me sits one of the blonde girls from my bus; Summer, I think it is. Her desk is parked next to a boy's and every so often she'll turn to him and giggle. He interlaces his fingers with her's and their palms kiss each other. They have thumb-wars behind the desks, busying their free hands with algebra problems. His name is Noah. Mrs. Gallanti said so when she tried to wiggle his name into a joke. He's really cute; blonde hair, the same shade as Summer's, that tumbles across his forehead and pokes between his lashes. He's tall, towering over her so much that he looks like a father with a small child. He's protective of her; a body guard, a papa bear. I could tell just by looking at him. I study the way he turns to her every so often and smiles, grateful to have her there. I'm almost mesmerized.
I scan the room and scope out the other guys. Their grimy hands and faces dotted with acne pale in comparison to Noah. I'd probably have to settle for one of them; someday, anyway. Maybe as a date to prom or something. I could never get a guy like Noah. Nobody looks at me the way that he keeps looking at Summer, but I don't blame him. She's just so pretty, with her big, glassy eyes and that infectious smile. He can lock his hand around her's, so dainty and petite. He can wrap his arms around her thin waist and pull her in for a hug. He can run a finger across her collarbone, feeling the coolness of it from under that flimsy layer of skin. He can probably pick her up, carry her in his arms, spin her around on his index finger like a basketball. She's just so light and delicate and cute. She buzzes around the classroom, waving hello to everyone, while I trudge through like an iceberg, slow and steady.
I sigh; a dramatic stage-whisper sigh. Summer turns to me, and we lock eyes before she has to force her's away. I want to evaporate into a puff of smoke, drift through the air and coil myself around someone until they tell me that everything's going to be alright.
The chorus room smells of sweat and ruthlessness. I'm shoved into a mosh-pit of altos and handed a stack of sheet music to study and sing. Half the songs are in Italian. The teacher informs me that foreign languages help with vocal placement. I nod like I know what she means. The walls are plastered with posters from Broadway shows. I walk past Mamma Mia and Rent and find a spot pushed right up against Hairspray. Two girls next to me harmonize to some song from it, I guess, while I scan the board, run my eyes across clusters of music notes.
I only sing to calm myself down. It's my go-to relaxation technique. When my body is sprawled out on the cold bathroom floor and I feel faint from not eating anything, I can always get myself to stop crying by humming a little tune. It's a silly one too; that children's song, "The Wheels On The Bus." It reminds me to be strong, though. It reminds me that I need to toughen up and power through all of the hard parts. Eventually, I'll get to my goal weight and I won't feel like this anymore; fat and worthless. All I need is to persevere.
The song has so much significance to me. It was my solo in our little Kindergarten graduation concert. Kindergarten Mia was four feet tall and had 6 missing teeth. Kindergarten Mia was ridiculously excited when she won her favorite song to sing for all the other kids and the parents. She marched off her bus, full of joy, and happily told the news to her mother. She practiced every single night for over a month, singing, "The Wheels On The Bus," to rows of her American Girl Dolls. She went out and bought a brand new dress, a frilly pink one that cinched at her waist and had flowers dotting the hem. Her mother even let her paint her nails, using a deep red color from the beauty counter at some department store in the mall. It was her special day. She was overjoyed and jittered, restlessly, in her bed the entire night before. A smile occupied the space between her cheeks when she woke up the morning before, and even the dark circles under her eyes didn't stop her from looking her best.
Her Mom dropped her off in front of the school and she scampered in, showing off her new attire to her classmates. The boys and girls hugged each other goodbye, as they saw the cast of High School Musical do when they graduated. Then, a happy-faced young teacher grabbed the line leaders by their minuscule hands and led them onto the stage. Kindergarten Mia's song was the very first one listed in the program. She took two huge strides to the center of the stage as the accompanist played the starting notes. She unclenched her gapped teeth and searched the crowd, frantically, as she sang her first word. Camera's went off from the audience, smiling parents celebrating their kid's big day, and each snapshot made Kindergarten Mia rub her eyes. Flash. She couldn't find her Mom. Flash. She stopped singing. Flash. She ran off the stage, crying.
Before the teachers could catch her, she slid out the back door of the school and jogged to the parking lot. There she found her mother, face beat red, screaming at someone on the phone. "Rob! Rob, can't you actually be a dad for one night? The kid needs you! I know you don't care, but could you at least pretend to for five seconds? She's so excited about tonight!" she was yelling. Kindergarten Mia got chills up and down her skinny arms. She wrapped her pink frock tighter to her skin and ran to the playground she went on for recess, leaving a trail of tears on the pavement behind her.
She climbed to the tippy-top of the shiny, new equipment and perched herself up on top of the slide. She wiped off each individual tear before it streaked her face long enough to leave some kind of battle wound. Kindergarten Mia was truly down, for the first time in her life. A clap of thunder split the sky. She looked up at the blanket of black clouds that were falling down on her, as if she was begging for the rain to come. And, it did. It poured; staining her dress, frizzing her hair, and leaving puddles on the playground. She leaned over one of them and saw her pigtail-clad self reflected back. Her eyes were sad and her heart was beating almost visibly out of her frail chest. She yelled at herself, for the first time. "Your Daddy hates you! All the other Daddy's are here, but your Daddy doesn't care about you! Even Mommy said so!"
Kindergarten Mia jumped in the puddle and mangled the reflection with her Mary Jane's. She stomped until the water was splattered everywhere and bled through the sides of her ankle socks. Then, she turned and belted out, "The Wheels On The Bus," to a row of empty swings.
I was a lot stronger back then. Even though I was hurting, I kept on going. I sing to be reminded of that. Except, now I need to be strong for different reasons.
I don't even get the chorus teacher's name. She seems a little disorganized, but I would be too with a class of over 50 students packed into a single room. Before I know it, she's standing behind a piano, plucking out single notes with her index finger. The class "oohs" and "ahhs." The sound comes crashing down on me like a tsunami wave. I follow along.
"Rosie, could we try you on the opening solo of the new piece?" the teacher says, beckoning toward the sopranos on the opposite side of the room. My attention diverts over there, and I peek through the heads of my classmates to see a brunette emerge. She is absolutely beautiful. Prettier than anyone I've ever seen before. She steps, gracefully, to the front of the room, her hair billowing behind her like a Disney princess. She blushes, ever so slightly, as she smooths out her floral dress and sings her opening note. Silence overcomes the class, like we all willingly let someone Duct Tape our mouths. Her voice is perfect.
She gallops through the song, flawlessly, not missing a single pitch and floating over the high notes like they aren't any big deal. She holds the hem of her dress and swishes it back and forth to the beat. After she's done, she paints a demure smile on her face, as the class applauds and the teacher runs over and gives her a hug. I almost want to as well. Jealousy presses down on my shoulders; clogs my throat.
The bell rings, and I watch as she files each individual piece of sheet music neatly away into a folder. One of the cute, older tenor boys comes over and gives her a high five. She looks so happy. It makes me happy. I realize that only her and I are left in the room, and I want to tell her how good she was, but the words are stuck to the back of my throat. I'm almost starstruck. So, I give her the most painful, pathetic wave in the history of painful, pathetic waves and watch her dress delightfully bounce joyfully out of the room.
I see all three of them together, for the first time, collected around a decent-sized table in my English classroom; Rosie, Summer, and Elle. I don't make it far from the door. I just stand there with my head rested against the wall and observe for as long as I can. Elle's face is bright and animated, like a cartoon character. It looks like she is telling a story and every once in a while Rosie will almost collapse to the floor, laughing. I like the way her dress dangles off the edge of her classroom chair, the way it hits her just above the knee and is classy and modest while still looking cute. I like the way Summer giggles, during each of Rosie's laughing fits. I like how she clasps her hands over her face and lets her expressive eyebrows do the talking, peeking out from between her fingers. I like the way she and Elle high-five each time they get Rosie to chuckle, like they're playing a game, or something. I like the way Elle kicks her sneakers around underneath her desk, subconsciously, tapping their soles against the tips of Rosie's pink flats until Rosie playfully kicks her away. I like how Summer's eyes sparkle every time she laughs. I like how tears gather in the corners of Rosie's; happy tears. I like how they all lean in to the center of the table and whisper secrets to each other, confide in each other. I hate how they're all skinny. "What's your favorite novel?" I hear someone ask. My neck snaps around and I see the teacher. My schedule says his name is Mr. Dixon. He's probably in his mid-30's and has the most prominent beer belly I've ever seen. His face is friendly and his chubby cheeks remind me of Frosty The Snowman's. He's overdressed, his stomach shoved inside a tucked-in collared shirt and overlapped with a lime green tie. "The Fault In Our Stars," I respond, quickly, "by John Green." "That's a great one. I read it last summer at my beach house in Florida. My wife kept telling me to put it down so we could go somewhere, but I couldn't stop reading." "I read it a week ago. My mom told me to keep reading it so that I wouldn't notice the fact that she's never home because of work." Why did I tell him that? He laughs, his pale pink lips twisting up into a smile. I can't stop staring at his neck, the way each roll of fat slumps over the others. I wrap my plump fingers around my own and squeeze it, pretending I can compress it using just my hand. "I could tell that you were a reader just by looking at you," he announces, his benevolence making me feel slightly more at home. "Really?" "I could. Why don't you take a seat over at Table 4 next to Elle," he declares, pointing a finger in their general direction. Rosie notices him pointing and offers me a smile. I rub my sweaty palms over my thighs and make my way toward the free desk. The air feels warm and suffocates my flushed face, like someone is clasping their rough hands over my mouth. I feel like I can pass out, again, at any moment. Elle turns around and sees me, then gives Summer a nervous grin. I probably frightened both of them on the bus this morning. Great job, Mia. Good for you, scaring off one potential friend at a time. I wonder how long it will be before Rosie jets out the door, screaming. I take a seat without saying anything, even though words are growing and expanding and popping under the roof of my mouth. The three friends exchange glances, and their eyes roll in all directions before landing on me. Elle tries to say something, twice, but Summer shoots her glares each time; we-already-tried-getting-involved-with-her glares, she's-weird-don't-associate-with-her glares. I silently plead for one of them to talk, to take me in. "You're in my chorus class, right?" Rosie says. I let out a sigh. "Yeah." "Do you sing?" "Yeah." "Really? That's awesome. I love to sing." "I mean, no," I stutter. The three girls look at me, ridiculously confused. I feel like such an idiot. "I don't sing. Not really." Mr. Dixon swoops in like a superhero and rescues me from the moment. He drops four copies of Romeo and Juliet onto the table. Elle swoons. My heart flutters a bit. Romeo and Juliet is the most romantic story in history. Every girl enjoys Romeo and Juliet; it's in our blood. I watch as all three friends pick up their copies and flip through the pages, reciting lines in their best Shakespeare-voices. Rosie leans over to Summer and grabs her hand. "What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun," she giggles. It makes me smile, all of this. It is impossible for me to understand how they are so happy, how they hold their heads up so high and live so freely. It's almost like they're children, without a care in the world. I admire it. "Do you think we're going to act it out?" Elle asks, hopefully, turning around and dramatically eying a boy across the room; a broad shouldered one with a mop of dark hair. He's throwing one of the books back and forth with a friend, who is equally as cute. This other boy has sandy blonde hair and big blue eyes that look like puddles of rainwater. The two are contained inside football jerseys and have muscular arms that make me get goosebumps on my own. Rosie and Summer laugh. "Elle as Juliet, Steve as Romeo," Summer says, impersonating Mr. Dixon. Elle clamps a hand over her heart and blood rushes to her cheeks. "What's the other guy's name?" I say, without thinking. "Tyler?" Summer questions. All three girls lean in to me a bit. I don't like the feeling of their eyes on me; scorching hot against my flesh. I know what they're thinking. I know I'd never date a football player, much less one like that blue-eyed-boy. I know they're evaluating my fat body to determine if I'm even worthy of the rats that squirm across these tiled floors after the school's closed for the day. I blush more than Elle, and scold myself for speaking. That's what I get. I know I'm not supposed to speak. I know that nobody cares about what I have to say. I know that I need to stop thinking I might have a chance with people. I'm so stupid for doing so. "Never mind," I mumble and quickly pick up my own copy of Romeo and Juliet to dig into. The girls are silent for a while, and I pretend to listen as Mr. Dixon speaks about the central themes of the play. My body shivers as he scratches a piece of chalk across the board to write down the homework. We have to read the first two sections of the book and write what we think about them. The class mutters one collective groan, and a boy bellows, "Homework on a weekend?" Mr. Dixon nods. I shrug. I have nothing to do over the weekend anyway. The bell rings and the class files out as quickly as they can. Summer pokes Elle's back with her long, thin fingers until she exits. Rosie tries to wave at me, again. I look away. "Stop fooling yourself. Face the facts. Nobody liked you at your old school, nobody will like you here. Nobody will ever like you. When are you going to realize that? F*ing dumb b****," I think I hear. I bob my head at the invisible bully, surrender to him. I let him drag me across the floor and walk on me, like a staircase. I let him shove swords in my back and slice open my baggy skin. I let him scoop out any happy parts left of me, until I am nothing but a walking dead-girl. I pack up as slowly as I can so that I don't have to face lunch. Mr. Dixon hops on to the desk where Elle was sitting. "Rough first day?" he questions, noticing my drooping shoulders. "Pretty much." "You know, I bet things will get better. Give it time." I pitifully laugh at myself. Things don't get better when you're Mia Duncan, it's always a downward spiral. He doesn't get it, thinks I'm just having trouble because I'm a new kid. He probably has said the same thing to five hundred other new kids. I don't know how much time I can give it. I don't want to sit here in this body and complain about it. I want to fix myself. I'm not going to lose 50 pounds just giving-it-time. I have to do something about it. Waiting will do nothing; Mr. Dixon knows nothing. "I mean it," he says, standing up and making his way out of the room for his lunch break. "Have a nice weekend, Mia. It was lovely meeting you."
My pounding head is hung between my knees, and I'm curled up into a fetal position. I'm perched on top of a toilet in one of the stalls in the school bathroom. It's freezing. The blonde hairs on my arms stand anxiously on their ends, like nervous little Kindergarteners taking their first class picture. Air conditioning in pumping from the vent above me, swatting at my face, causing my rapidly batting eyelashes to turn to icicles. I wiggle my toes inside my sneakers to remind myself that I'm still alive. At moments like this, I can't really remember exactly where I stand. Blood, real and red and raw, drips through my veins, but my body isn't fueled. I haven't eaten a single thing all day, and, as good as it feels, I barely have enough energy to support my neck. My shoulders slump, like my team just lost the championship game, and it was all my fault. My stomach howls, begs me to feed it, but I squeeze the extra skin around my bellybutton and sing, "The Wheels On The Bus," to stop myself from giving in.
I'm here because I'd rather be shoved into a tiny bathroom stall with no room to breathe, than in the cafeteria, surrounded by teenagers munching on slimy school pizza. I could easily go there and sit alone, isolated on a separate island, a separate planet from everyone else. Groups of people could sit together and share bags of potato chips while pointing at me like I'm some sort of zoo animal. I could just sit and stare back at them, one eyebrow raised, daring them to say something to my face. Or, maybe, somebody would invite me to sit with them; take in the poor new kid. Then, they could stare me down as they pick apart their sandwiches and I rearrange the order of cheese slices on mine. "I eat when I get home!" I could tell them. That's what I normally say, because I can't binge during school, so starving myself is the only other option. I can't let that fatty school food reach my stomach and plump me up even more.
The door of the bathroom stall is marked up with secrets; initials of this girl's latest crush, lists of the the biggest sluts in the school, the cutest boys, it's all here. I contemplate taking out a marker and jotting down my own secret, but a door won't do anything about it. Secrets are meant to be told; it's a fact of life. Everybody is brought up thinking that secrets should be kept, locked away, but that only brings danger. Secrets are waiting to escape; pleading. If it's a real secret, then it's most likely something you're guilty about, and guilt begs for release.
I bury my head in my hands, and wait until tears begin to trickle from behind my eyelids. They seep through my lashes and make puddles on my palms. They taste salty on my tongue and feel disgusting pressed up against my face, but I don't even have the will to move my body. My cries are more-or-less whimpers, and I purposely quiet down as each girl enters the bathroom to reapply makeup or wash their hands, or something.
Suddenly, I feel something clawing at the inside of my stomach, ripping through its walls and scratching pointy nails deep into it. I stand up, immediately, starting to vomit, completely involuntarily this time. The tears cake up on my cheeks, like horribly-applied foundation and I feel each of my body systems begin to shut down, one by one. I scream, hoping and praying that nobody is around.
Too late. "Are you okay in there?" someone says, as they enter. Judging from the footsteps, about three or four people follow behind her. I'm breathless for a moment, and cough a few times before she speaks again. "Is everything alright?" I press my head to the door and get as close to this person as I can, close to someone who cares. I measure their breathing, get completely lost in it. Their voice sounds all-too-familiar. I squat down a little and peek at the shoes on the other side through the crack at the bottom of the door. Sure enough, prim pink flats tell me that the girl on the other side is Pretty Perfect Rosie. Pretty Perfect Rosie doesn't have physical and emotional break downs inside the school bathroom. It probably helps that Pretty Perfect Rosie doesn't have a reason to.
"Come out. You don't sound okay," Rosie says, fumbling with the handle used to open the stall. Her voice is gentle and soothing and motherly and I just want to take it and wrap myself in it, like a blanket. I finally muster up the courage to open up the door, and Summer and Elle are both there too. None of them seem too shocked to see it's me. Breaking news! Weird girl from English class is caught being weird during lunch. Surprise, surprise! They each grab one of my hands and pull me out. One of them is bound to notice the vomit in the toilet, or the lifelessness of my body, but they don't mention it. They prop me up against the sinks. Rosie wets a paper towel and dabs my cheeks with it. Every time her tiny hand passes through my view, my stomach churns. I see Summer trying to escape; Elle too. They probably notice how edgy I'm getting. I draw deep breaths from the back of my throat and try to keep myself from saying anything. I clamp my lips together so that it won't be a repeat of the Daniella-situation. Rosie makes me feel really safe, though; the way she stares at me with those doe eyes, seriously worried about me. I like the feeling of being circled by them, yet I want to run and hide more than anything in the world. I know what they will ask next.
"What happened?" Summer asks. Boom. There we go.
Panic punches holes in my gut, chases me around in circles. I stutter and stammer for what seems like forever, before Rosie shakes her head. "It's fine, Mia," she says, rubbing my cheek with the moist paper towel one last time before tossing it across the room into the trash. "You don't need to tell us. You're okay, though, right?"
"I heard there's a stomach bug going around!" Elle squeals, "My sister's friend had it." Her pupils spin around her eyes in confusion, oblivious to the intense aura of the room.
"I don't have it. I'm fine. Just a little nervous about my first day at a new school," I half-lie. I want to crawl back into my stall-cocoon and whisper my secrets to the toilet paper dispenser instead.
Summer throws her arms around me, her bones clank against my back. She's so small that I feel like I may crush her. I wish for nothing but to have that worry, myself. I want to throw her off, but it's nice of her to try to comfort me. I smile and nod until she separates herself from me. Rosie grabs my hand and slides it into her own. She squeezes it, and the warmness of her healthy blood pumping under her palm wakes me up a bit, shakes me from the coma-like life I've been living. "Hey, don't sweat it, okay? Calloway is a great place. I promise. We're all really nice kids here," she begins.
I'm not nice. The only thing destroying me is myself.
"If you ever want someone to show you around or to sit with or anything, you have us!" Elle adds.
Summer leans in for one last hug. "You can even come over my place Saturday night! We have a sleepover every weekend. It'll be great. Want to?"
I can't. I can't go that long not eating without one of them noticing. Summer's parents would probably order a pizza or we'd snack on chips and stuff. I'd have to go to sleep with cheesy mush slipping down into my stomach. I'd be puffed up with snacks and desserts. I'd look inflated by the morning. I'm busytiredsick. I can't go.
"Want to?" Summer asks again. I realize that I never answered. I just shake my head and scoot by the three of them, nodding at them as a thank you. I catch my reflection in the mirror, walking out; 130 pounds of regret.
I skim through back-orders of Cosmopolitan, while Mom blabs loudly into her phone to some client. We're at the doctor's office, my pediatrician. I have to get a physical for the new school. Murals of Winnie The Pooh are painted on the walls of the waiting room, and the bright orange rugs coating the floor make me feel awkward. I exchange glances with a teenage boy occupying a chair across the way, his mother patting his head like he's a dog. He hasn't grown into his body yet, and his legs are gangly and knock into everything as he walks into the room to get a check-up, or whatever. I feel his pain; nothing more embarrassing than being at a place that still gives you lollipops and stickers when you're all-better. Not my ideal Saturday morning plans.
Dr. Jean pokes her head out from a door and calls my name. I don't like the way it sounds on her tongue, like Mia Duncan is a kind of sickness and she's infecting us all with it. I look around at the other people there, slimy infants crawling across the floor, toddlers wiggling free from their parent's grasp. I have this vision that one of them will stand up and utter, "I volunteer as tribute!" to save me from this all. Honestly, I'd rather take part in The Hunger Games than get a physical with Dr. HealthFreak Jean.
Mom doesn't even hang up with the person on the phone, but rudely talks to them as she follows me in to one of the rooms. Dr. Jean points me to a little chair and I sit down. It's meant for 3 year olds; my body squishes into it. She slips on rubber gloves and sorts through her weapons. First, she checks my throat, while Mom discusses the big project she'd start next Tuesday. Dr. Jean-breath is splattered on my face as she leans way too close. She smells like cherry cough drops. I scrunch up my nose to let her know she should move back. She doesn't.
She sees my teeth, how they're chipped away and stained. Her lips twist into a frown and she makes such direct eye contact with me that I feel like I'm melting inside. "I drink a lot of coffee," I explain. That trick always worked. She nods, understanding. I pat myself on the back and wipe invisible sweat off my forehead, thanking God that I avoided the conversation. Mom doesn't even notice that we've said anything. If I have to tell her something, I'd be talking to her back. She is turned around and is sorting through her purse, her cell phone held between her ear and her shoulder. She fetches a little-black-book from the front pocket of her bag and writes in the dates and times of some upcoming event. I wonder if she writes my events in there and ignores them, or if she doesn't even bother at all. I wonder if I'm even worthy of the book.
Dr. Jean sticks her bony wrists in front of my face as she checks my ears and nose. Jealousy dances through my brain when I see the way the three bracelets she has on her arm dangle loosely. They'd probably hug tight around mine.
"So, what grade are you in, now?" Dr. Jean says, being the small-talk-expert she is.
"Wow! You've gotten so old!" She glances down at a manila folder marked with my name, runs her index finger over stacks of my medical records. She pulls out a certain chart and points to the scale in the corner of the room. I wince, and chills laminate my skin . "Now, lets see how big you've gotten!"
"Too big," I mutter under my breath, as I kick off my sneakers and tip-toe across the room in my socks to step on the scale. Dr. Jean hears me, I think. She nods. I chew on my lip like a piece of gum and watch as her stack of bracelets clank against the metal scale as she fixes it for my height. I feel like some science experiment being weighed on those triple-beam-balances we have at school. My pursed lips form a barricade between the outside world and my thoughts. I refuse to let them open. Dr. Jean stops moving the bars and I pretend not to hear her as she announces "125 pounds," but the number reminds me of everything good in life. I'm five pounds lighter than I thought I was. I must have lost those five pounds over the past week or two. I high-five myself behind my back. Dr. Jean plots the number on a graph. Her pencil scratches across the paper as she connects the points. I'm proud for once, happy that I'm weighing less. If 125 feels this good, I can't imagine how amazing I'll feel at 100. Or 90. 80, even. I smile in spite of myself. 125 is better than ice cream and pizza and potato chips. 125 feels better than anything tastes.
She checks my blood pressure next, says it's a little on the low side. I nod, hoping she'll move on, but she insists on checking it again. I keep my eyes on Mom; attempt to send her telepathic messages to turn around and participate in the conversation, even though I know it won't do me any good.
"What's that, sir?" She gawks into her Blackberry. She turns toward us and holds up her index finger before making her way out of the room. I hear her talking in the hallway and I, so badly, want to grab her and pull her back in here.
"Have you been eating right, recently?" Dr. Jean asks.
"Yes. I think so," I respond. I lock eyes with her and try my best to remain as confident with this answer as possible. She squints at me, reaching for the bag of cough drops in her purse and unwrapping one. Her fingers pick through more sheets of my records while mine play with the fat on the back of my calfs. I squeeze and pick at it, reach for the tools on her shelf, see if there's anything I can use to just cut it all off, so you can see my bones, count my ribs like sticks on an autumn day. I'm sure I'd look ten times thinner just getting rid of this skin; it's like when people shave their dogs.
"Alright. We're done for today, Miss. Duncan. That's all Calloway School District requires for me to check. Just make sure you're eating well-balanced meals, little sweets, fruits, vegetables; all that jazz. Okay?" Dr. Jean tells me, skeptically.
"I came here for my physical, not to be lectured," explodes from my mouth, not missing a beat. She raises an eyebrow at me, and I gnaw on my lip a little more as my stomach screams at me for saying something. Dr. Jean bobs her shoulders, unfazed. I guess having a job where bratty preschoolers yell at her for giving them shots makes her immune to this type of an outburst. She ushers me out of the room, and back down the hallway where Mom is on her knees, using one of the waiting room chairs as a desk to write down more contact info for whatever client she's loudly talking to now. Dr. Jean's wide eyes glare at me as she grabs a roll of stickers from the front desk and hands me one. It's bright blue and has a picture of a rainbow and some flowers on it. So cool. Can't wait to stick this on my High School locker, or better yet; wear it proudly on the front of my shirt. Thanks Doc.
A snaggletoothed young girl zips into the waiting room, her pudgy arms and legs flailing through the germ-infested air. Her Mom follows close behind and makes sure she doesn't trip. My Mom stays far away, and lets me free fall time and time again.
The doorbell sings and Mom hops through the house, her heels bouncing off our carpeted floors. It's Grandpa Eric's birthday, and the whole family is coming over to celebrate. Eat and celebrate. She answers the door and our family enters like they are participating in a parade. Grandpa Eric complains the moment our house's musky scent greets his nose. "Laurie, why don't you ever clean up around here?" he says, his cheeks crackling as he forms words. He kisses her on her head and pulls me close for a hug. He smells like coffee.
"Been busy with work, Dad," Mom mumbles as she kicks a few mismatched shoes off our doormat.
"You know, your mother used to be so neat and clean when she was a kid. She used to clean her room every morning before school. We'd have to pull her out of there in the middle of her bed making so that she wouldn't be late," he says to me, running his finger down the bridge of my nose. I can't imagine Mom being my age. I can't imagine her going to school and having friends and doing the things that Grandpa and Grandma tell me she did. She's too busy for her old life, now. She's one dimensional to me. She's my hard-working Mom, and that's it.
Grandma Lynn prances in and hugs Mom, her beady eyes evaluating our place. Grandma Lynn is eccentric, white wiry hair and pink lips. I bet she was a total wild child in high school. Grandpa Eric is 100% smitten with her. He blushes every time she kisses him, and takes every opportunity he can to coil her wrinkly fingers around his. He's a war veteran, a retired cop, and a strict father, the kind of man that is honorable and doesn't get excited by much. Grandma Lynn makes his heart happy. It's awfully cute, actually.
Mom's sister follows close behind Grandma Lynn; Aunt Wanda. She's a little taller than Mom, a little older than Mom, and a little more everything than Mom. Aunt Wanda bleaches her mousy brown hair and wears t-shirts from 80's rock concerts. Her knee-high Doc Marten's dig their soles into the floors of our home and leave footprints in our carpets. Aunt Wanda has a kid on her back, and three more clutching onto her left hand. An older boy follows behind, or maybe it's her husband. I can't keep track of Aunt Wanda. Each of her four or five kids were born with a different Dad. We barely see them, because she and Mom have had their differences since college. They were brought up too close, suffocated by each other so much that they grew to dislike each other. Aunt Wanda drops the kid on her back to the floor and I watch as she stumbles through the house on her hands and knees, pigtails flying behind her.
"Wanda," Mom mutters.
"Hi Laurie. Thanks for having us over. It's been a while."
"It has," she replies, and then turns to the guy. He doesn't look much older than me; gross. "I'm sorry, have we met?"
"I'm Carl," he tells, and then follows Aunt Wanda into our kitchen. Mom's eyebrows thread and I'm circled by Aunt Wanda's tribe of children. I free myself from their web and we both walk to the kitchen as well.
"What did I tell you about this refrigerator, Laurie? I said to you, 'This refrigerator is a piece of crap!' And what did you do? You bought this refrigerator," Grandpa Eric moans, rummaging around for something to eat. Food. I attempt to bolt out of the room, but Aunt Wanda reaches out a hand and spins me around to face her.
Her eyeshadow is caked on her lids. I watch them blink at me while she talks, the shadow crumbling between her lashes. "How's school, kiddo? Got a boyfriend?" I shake my head. "I had this crazy boyfriend back then. Kinda like my last ex-husband, he was all about himself. He didn't even get me a gift on my birthday; that jerk." I grit my teeth, as she twirls around into Carl's arms. He's asian, or something, and has olive skin and matted hair. I try to assign one of the children to him, and decide the drooling baby perched up on our kitchen table is the one. Carl runs his hands across Aunt Wanda's back and massages her shoulders. I shut my eyes and try to make my way out while she's not looking, but Grandma Lynn waves a hand at me. She's cornering Mom, pestering her about dating, finding someone new like Aunt Wanda does. Mom's eyes are weak and plead me to remove the wacky-overprotective-elderly woman glued to her bones.
"Mia, don't you think your mother should go out and find a new man while she's still young?" she crows. Grandma Lynn has been in Mom's face about this situation for years, and Mom hates it. Mom isn't Aunt Wanda. She's not the type of woman who switches men faster than she switches clothes. Mom delves into relationships and gets stuck in their puddles. I feel bad for her, because if I didn't come along, she'd probably still be with him. They'd be married, they'd be cuddled together on the couch while Grandma Lynn harasses Mom about something else.
It's all my fault. I quickly squeeze Mom's hand and watch her hazy eyes tear up. She doesn't even like thinking about Dad. Neither of us do.
"Grandma Lynn, Mom baked some great appetizers last night. You have to taste some!" I announces, removing her from Mom and directing her toward the platters that Grandpa Eric had already pulled from the refrigerator. Grandma Lynn's eyes pop out of her head and her pinching fingers dip into each bowl of food. She shoves something into my mouth, before i can say anything, her lips forming a toothless smile. My cheeks flush and I chew. It tastes like a piece of cheese on some kind of cracker. I have to admit, it's good. I'm ready to swim across the table and engulf everything, but I can't. The cracker splits on my tongue and the cheese squishes onto my gums. I break out into a cold sweat as they both snake down my throat and plop into my stomach. Grandma Lynn nods her head and picks more food from the table. I dodge her hand as she comes at me with a little bit of something else. I slip out of the room before she can catch me.
I inhale gulps of relief through my mouth as my bedroom door shuts and muffles the sounds of my dysfunctional family. My legs take me to the bathroom, and my arms peel the clothes off my body. There I stand, in front of my mirror, slivers of fat poking from beneath my ribcage. I'm disgusting. I don’t want to make myself throw up. My vision trips over the toilet and diverts out to the shower. I get in, turning the knob to the warmest setting.
The water burns me, paints my body various shades of red. The heat is unbearable, but I force myself to stand in it. I watch as my skin disintegrates over my brittle bones. It feels so bad, but so good. I burn away the parts of me that I hate. Time ticks fast. I'm not sure how long I stand in there, but it's long enough for the water to collect in the bottom of the bathtub. My feet try their best to swim in the oceans of boiling water.
Mom pats on the bathroom door, sometime later; her nails knock on the wood. Rat-tat-tat-tat. "We have company over. What are you doing, Mia?"
I snort. The water dripping from my bangs and sliding off my eyelids makes me feel invincible. "Oh. So, now you care where I am? Want to pretend you're a great mother in front of your family or something?" I sneer, bubbles of hot water zip-lining across my forehead. My voice curls up in the steam and sticks to the shower curtains. She doesn't hear me, the pressure of the water is too loud.
"Seriously, Mia? Come back out here!" she commands. ComeSitJumpBeg. Bad Mia. Bad Mia. Bad Mia. She talks to me like a dog. "Do you hear me? Turn off the water, come out and dry off."
I hope the water burns my flesh to ashes. I hope I exit the shower as a skeleton. The burning feels good along my neck, under my breasts, down my shins. I like the way sweat aligns my upper lip. The heat distracts me from everything, the way my head is throbbing and how there's a steady pang in my stomach. My thoughts drain from my ears and my life slips off my thoroughly pruned fingertips.
Mom sounds like she's about to break down the door. I inch up the temperature knob on the shower a little bit, and the water is so hot, I barely feel it anymore. It's coming out harder now, too, drilling fist-sized holes in my back. Suddenly, I start to feel a little nauseous. I crouch down and sit on my knees while the water tangles up my hair from above. I reach out one of my slippery hands and attempt to steady myself, but I end up knocking over a row of colorful shampoo bottles. Shaving cream squirts out of its bottle. It splatters on and streaks my beat-red skin. My palms can make their way over to the handle and switch the water off, but everything seems to be moving in slow motion. My naked body flops out of the tub like a dead fish.
"Mia! Seriously. Turn off the water right now, and get out here! You're being so rude to your family!" Mom is screaming now. "What the hell, Mia? Act your age!" What the hell, Mia? Act normal for once.
I'm gasping for air and my skin is stinging. The room is hot and my body is hot and the hot water is still pumping from the shower, like a never-ending waterfall. My stomach hates me. It wants food. There's plenty upstairs in the kitchen.
If Mom knocks on the door any harder, it'll swing off its hinges and crush me like a falling tree would. "Mia! Unlock this door, right now, young lady!" My legs are limp and flimsy; paper limbs that's can't hold up such a heavy girl.
All of a sudden, I'm out cold.
My lashes bat as I wake up, sometime after. Water laps at the rim of the bathtub and skirts the floor around it. Stumbling to my feet, I reach into the shower and turn the tap until it stops spraying more. My body is dry, but my skin feels raw and is peeling along the back of my knee. Clothes feel weird on top of the burns. I'm too numb to care. My eyes are inscribed inside dark circles and my hair is twisted and tangled, but I leave it down anyway. If anyone saw me they'd think I've been to hell and back.
I trudge upstairs and poke my head under the railing at the top of the stairwell. The voices of my family echo through the house and I spot them all crowded around our TV, screaming out the answer to some question on an episode of Jeopardy. "I know this one! I know this one!" that guy Carl shouts, wagging his hand in the air much too excitedly. Grandpa Eric says the correct answer a split second before a short, stocky woman named Paula does on the screen. Aunt Wanda pats Carl on the back and cheers like Grandpa Eric has just won the real Daily Double. His forehead bursts out into paths of wrinkles and he smiles his best denture smile. Grandma Lynn kisses him. His cheeks are washed with the color of roses. Too cute.
I sneak past them on the balls of my feet and find the kitchen. Something is cooking in the oven, and it's smell butterflies past my nose and causes my burned knees to grow weak as I enter. All sixteen-hundred of Aunt Wanda's kids roam around the kitchen like students on their recess break at school. The two oldest toss a roll of paper towels back and forth while a little boy tries to fit himself into our freezer. I travel through a maze of them and pick up a single piece of fried shrimp from the table, dropping it onto an empty plate. That's it. One piece won't kill me.
The kids scream as that one younger boy finally monkey-climbs into the freezer and lowers his baggy diaper on top of our ice tray. He shivers and jumps out, bruises his little legs on our wood floors. It sounds like Aunt Wanda has just guessed an answer on Jeopardy, too. "Go Wanda!" I hear Carl shout. The room is chaotic and makes me ready to rip my hair out. The only thing that aches more than my burns is my stomach. Before I know it, I'm grabbing more food; all kinds. I'm piling pieces of different things onto a mountain on my plate. I scrape the bottoms of bowls and pour crumbs on top. I take all the food I can; more and more and more and more. The kids buzz around me like bees. I dodge them and make my way out the back door, slamming it behind me with immense relief and satisfaction.
I balance the heaping plate on my flattened palms and stare directly into the sun, the exact way you're not supposed to. My vision is dotted with white blurs and streaks of red. I rub my eyes and slide my bare feet over to our garage. It's warmer outside than it has been, the first little glimpse of spring. The heat doesn't feel the best on my peeling skin, but I adjust my t-shirt to cover myself up a bit. I yank my bike out onto our driveway and lower the plate into the Tiffany-box-blue basket attached to the handlebars. My weak legs tremble as I pedal out of the driveway and down my road. Each house I pass is the same. Our neighborhood is the epitome of stereotypical suburbia. Each manicured lawn has pastel-colored flowers spurting from its grasses; Marigolds and Daisies and Tulips. Each house has picture-perfect paved driveways with fancy cars parked in them. There are hundreds of basketball hoops and tricycles and baby pools with water-treading toddlers inside. "Children At Play" signs dot every corner and burly dads with mustaches hammer away at broken doors and roofs. Days and days of newspapers are dropped on every doorstep; nobody reads them anymore because they all have their brand new iPhones that have apps to read the news on. I read the house numbers painted on each mailbox as I ride by. 14,16, 18; soon enough I'm up to 36 and halt to a stop. I did not realize how far I was riding. It's so easy to get lost in the repetitiveness of it all.
The smell of the food in my basket haunts me and makes me sick. Or, maybe, it's the fact that I have no food in my system at all. My tires screech as I lower my bike to the ground at the curb I'm stopped at; rest it against a stop sign. My legs wobble as I peel my thighs off the hot leather seat and fall into a cool blanket of grass. My fists pull out chunks of someone else's lawn and sprinkle them down on top of my jeans; party confetti. Time to eat. Time to eat. Time to eat. Here, away from everyone else, nobody will see me get rid of it all. I drop the plate onto my lap and begin shoving every piece down my throat. I scoop up handfuls of it, stuff my mouth. I'm eating so fast that I can’t even distinguish each taste as it falls down my throat. Footsteps sneak up behind me. They get louder as they get closer. I wipe my mouth with the back of my hand, covered in dirt from this lawn, and cough.
"Mia? Is that you?" I hear from behind me. I whip my head around, stare Summer from school directly in the eye. Rosie and Elle stand behind her. They're all still in pajama pants and stare at me like I'm out of my mind; but I don't blame them. I probably look like a mentally insane person; an animal, even. A Wild Mia approaching from the jungle; uncivilized and savage. They should make an Animal Planet special about me.
"Uh. Hi," I say, fumbling hands shoving the food back into my bike's basket. Crumbs rain from my lap as I prop myself up onto my feet.
Hey, there, you guys! Just binging in your front yard. No big deal!
Summer and Elle exchange glances. Rosie rubs her palms together. I can taste the awkwardness in the air. I feel in plugging my throat like a cork. I try to settle down my stomach; it barks at the girls. "Is this where you live?" I finally ask Summer.
"Sure is. Did you decide you wanted to come for my sleepover or something?" Summer mumbles. Her head is cocked in confusion and her blonde hair tumbles from her scalp, a little wavier than it was on Friday. Her plaid pajama pants are loose around her thighs and are a slight bit too short. Her ankles peek from under the hems at the bottom, her skin fair. Both of her ankles together have the circumference of one of mine. Plus, mine are still beat red from the scalding water. I pull down the end of my jeans over my bare feet and smooth the back of my hair as best as I can. I wonder if my family notices that I'm gone.
"I was just taking a ride," I tell, making grand gestures with my flabby arms at my bike. Its handlebars are turned over themselves and its seat struggles to receive breaths of fresh air from underneath them. The wheels are caked with dirt. Crunchy orange leaves from last fall are smothered underneath them.
"And eating?" slips from Rosie's mouth. She clamps her top row of teeth over her bottom lip after she speaks.
"Wanna come in?" Summer invites, surprising me a bit. I imagine climbing onto my bike and jetting back to the house, leaving a trail of various appetizers behind me. After seriously contemplating it, I find my head nodding back at the girls. Summer slips her tiny hand into mine and runs me back to her front door. I hear Rosie and Elle's bare feet punching holes into the fresh grass behind me.
The door squeaks as Summer pushes it open. Her house smells like paint, all kinds of it; the kind you use to shade your room a new hue or the kind you mimic Jackson Pollack with in elementary school art class. The smell of her house should be splattered on a smock, in a bucket of dirty brushes. I like it, though. It's different. I wonder what people would said my house smells like; abandonment, maybe.
Her front hallway leads to a living room. It's furnished nicely; two beige couches and a love-seat propped up against the walls. Vacuum cleaner lines indent the carpet.There's bowls of popcorn left on the coffee table, along with stacks of movies; probably where the girls hung out the night before. A dusty TV is mounted on the wall and enclosed by tons and tons of family pictures. I see a smiling Summer in her 3rd grade school picture. Her teeth look breakable, like little pieces of paper plunged into her tiny gums. There are a few of her mother and father, I guess, on their wedding day. Summer's mom looks like her; same button nose and thin lips. Her dress is gorgeous, and its train trails behind her as her and Summer's dad take a stroll on the beach. Her tuxedo-wearing dad has the light blonde hair Summer does, so do her two brothers. There is a picture of all three kids right above the center of the TV set. Her two brothers look younger than her, but not by much. In the picture, they're all wearing matching Cape Cod sweatshirts and are posing happily in front of some house. I'm so enthralled by her family photos that I don't notice that the three girls spilled into the next room.
I turn on my heels and make my way in there. It's Summer's room. The walls remind me of spring time and warm weather. They're painted the color of tangerines. I can almost smell a fruity scent wafting from the ceiling. A big closet occupies one of the walls and I see her clothes slouching over plastic hangers. I'm tempted to go over and check the sizes on them. I want to run my fingers on tags stitched with labels that say, "Small" or even "Extra-Small." I want to pretend they're mine. I want to squeeze them over my body and see how much more weight I need to loose; how much more food I need to throw up.
Suddenly, I feel all of the food I had eaten outside envelop me. Each piece skids across my ribs and crawls to my stomach like a spider. I lock eyes with Summer, who's laying down on her bed, with Rosie and Elle on either side of her, showing them something on her phone. "Where's your bathroom?" I ask, my voice hushed and urgent. She points her finger at a door on the other side of the room. I run there and slam the door behind me. Even her bathroom is painted tangerine-orange. As I lift up the toilet seat, I notice something on the wall. To the left of her mirror, something is etched into it. It's only written in a thin black pen but it jumps out of the tangerine paint like the flashing "Open" sign in front of the deli that Mom used to bring me to. I move closer, squint my eyes at it. Scribbled in Summer's bubbly handwriting is the quote, "Being the way that you are is enough." It's from a One Direction song, I know; that popular one that the radio has in its constant loop, but it makes me feel something. My heart wobbles and I feel my flesh grow warm. I stare hard at myself in the mirror. I take in my freckled skin, fried to a crisp and peeling from the burns. I accept the loose skin on my neck, embrace it as it dances and jiggles under my arms. I hug my body, wrap my arms around it and feel like everything is okay for a second. I don't feel beautiful or skinny or cared about, but I feel like I am enough, just from that one quote. My palm feels cool as it lowers the toilet seat and I back out of the room, counting my footsteps away from this all. The food I had eaten settles in my stomach. My lips purse and I kiss the air; a thank you kiss to whoever put that there. Words of comfort. I send my regards to England. Whoever wrote that One Direction song makes me feel better than my own mother can.
“I like the quote on your wall,” I tell her when I get out.
“Thanks. Oh my god. That’s my favorite song ever. I love seeing that quote. Whenever I’m unhappy with myself, it reminds me that I’m enough. The 1D boys are the best,” Summer giggles, blowing kisses at a giant poster of the five of them hanging over her closet. I nod and lick my lips, waiting for mean thoughts to come coasting through my ears, but they don’t. I tell Summer that my Mom texted me and I have to return home, but thank her for inviting me over, letting me in. She bobs her head and Rosie gives me a quick wave goodbye, her cheeks blushing. I pedal back home on my bike. A sunset is sprayed onto the sky and I'm encircled by pinks and yellows and tangerine-oranges. The doors of these suburban houses shut for the night, clasp in front of other families' troubles and over-the-dinner-table conversations. Fathers return home from a long day at work and hug their squirming children and worrying wives. Lights shut off one by one; windows turn from portals to black holes. A chill stings my spine and I hear the leaves rustle on the trees around me. The wind sends a pebble bouncing down the sidewalk next to me. It skips over cracked pavement and kids' chalk masterpieces. It follows me home and I pick it up and shove it in my pocket; a souvenir from today. It looks like the rest of the family is gone. There is only a lone car in our driveway. I wonder what went on when I was gone. I wonder if we all gave Grandpa Eric birthday presents or a cake or something. I wonder if Aunt Wanda had another kid. I wouldn't doubt it, to be honest. I wonder if they looked for me.
I push open our front door and its hinges squeak at me, welcome me home. I feel changed, different. Something about my skin feels renewed as I enter the familiar place. I wonder if I burned off the bad layer in that hot shower.
Mom is sitting on a couch in the living room, a book cradled in her left hand, a mug of tea in her right. She dog-ears the corner of a page and sets the novel down on the coffee table in front of her when she sees me come in. It's kind of weird to see her so calm. She's usually a busy, nervous wreck doing anything she does. Her lips don't perch into a smile or fall into a frown, just draw a straight line from cheek-to-cheek. "Where'd you go?" she asks.
I got fed up with our family. I ate a lot. I planned on binging and purging like I normally do. I met some people from school. Friends; can I call them that? I went over one of their houses. I read a quote drawn on her wall; a really cheesy one, and now I feel just a little bit better, for whatever reason.
If I was a good-little-daughter and we were close I'd tell her everything. "I went for a bike ride," I reveal. That's it. A bike ride.
"And your arms?"
"My arms?" I glance down at my dangling limbs. Flakes of my skin chip off and rain to the floor. The burns look worse than they did before.
Oh, and I also took a depressingly hot shower because I wanted to burn away all the parts of myself that I hated.
"I fell. I fell off my bike and onto the pavement. I scratched up everything," I lie. Mom and I play a game; a staring contest. I lock my eyes against hers. She tears her vision away first. I win. Her hand winds up back in the crease of her book, its pages yellowed and crinkly from many years of reading. She slurps up a sip of tea as I turn and walk to my room, my nice mood dampened by a torn relationship.
Entering the Calloway High School gym's locker room makes my insides knot up. I push open the creaky wooden door, and my vision is suddenly filled with bodies and bodies. Stomachs and thighs and knees and elbows and necks and feet and hands. The proud athletes change for gym class right in front of the door. They slip their cloth uniform t-shirts on over their sports bras and abs. I watch them as they fix their hair into tight ponytails and high-five each other, like even changing is a team effort. My sneakers lead me past them, to a row of lockers beyond the athlete's ones. I slam my head against the blue locker that our gym teacher assigned to me and twirl the combination lock with my fingers. The other girls dance behind me. The lock opens faster than I had hoped for it to. Inside lies my brand new gym uniform, folded and pressed neatly. At my old school, we played gym in our normal clothes. That was so much better.
A red-headed girl in a sundress sneaks past, to the locker next to mine. Her collarbones pop out as she twists her lock and removes her uniform from the interior. I cringe, lifting the grey t-shirt from mine. Time slows down. I feel like I'm frozen in the midst of a ton of commotion. My classmates' loud squeals turn into hushed whispers. I lightly lift the hem of my regular shirt, reveal my belly button to the row of lockers and suddenly, I'm more nervous than I've ever been. The world seems to fall completely silent. The walls seem to close in on me. The girls seem to whisper more. I stick my hand under my shirt, grab my stomach with all five of my fingers. I hadn't thrown up any of the food I had eaten the night before. I was actually feeling pretty good for a while. I even ate breakfast this morning; well, a piece of toast, but it was something! I was beginning to hear some good voices in my head. They might still be there, inserting their two-sense every once in a while, and making random appearances out of no where, but they are covered up by all of this whispering. It grows louder and louder. It completely envelops me. Thirty or forty girls must be packed into this tiny, musky room that reeks of deodorant and sweat.Thirty or forty pairs of lips whisper at me. They hiss like rattlesnakes, snicker like preschool children. I hear their whispers in my ears, crawling around inside of me. The red-headed girl joins in, as she jumps into her athletic shorts and wiggles on a pair of socks. They cut low around her ankles and present her bony legs. Her knees are flat, like two table tops. Her voice sounds poisonous. It drips off her tongue and spills onto the tiled floor like toxic waste. I hop over in, make sure it doesn't stain my sneakers. Whisperwhisperwhisper. My shoulders shake. I wish I had eaten more than a piece of toast. Some bacon, maybe, or eggs. Eggs would have been nice.
"Why would you eat bacon and eggs? Don't you want to look good? Or are you just happy looking like disgusting pig forever?" I think a whisper-girl tells me. I nod my head and attempt to lift my shirt off my body again. The big clock on the wall ticks loudly. The bell's about to ring. I'm expected to be sitting in the gym in less than a minute; uniform on, sneakers laced up, ready to play. Why do schools have to do this? It's like child abuse, making kids parade around without clothes on. It's just asking for trouble. The clock ticks louder. I feel like it's some big timer counting down the seconds until my death. The room begins to empty out. Some girls linger behind, brushing their hair, applying lip gloss, getting all primped up for a basketball game. Stupid.
"Hurry up, fatty. The bell's about to ring," I think someone slurs in my ear. My heart isn't beating anymore. I don't think so. It sounds more like there's a giant gong behind my ribcage that someone is banging on. I gasp and inhale quick gulps of air. I can't seem to find enough to inflate my lungs. I lean out of my row of lockers a bit and chug a mouthful of perfume-filled air. The girl spraying it gives me dirty looks as I cough it out. She flips her hair and tucks the glass bottle back in her purse, before heading off to the Gym, the heels of her pink sneakers clicking like tap shoes against the cold floors.
"Are you afraid? I don't blame you. I wouldn't want anyone to see that body if I had it either. Gross," I think another person says. I sit down on the floor and curl myself up. I press my head against my knees and fiddle with the laces on my sneakers. If I were skinnier, I could probably fit myself into one of these lockers. I could close the door in front of me and have a nice air supply through the slits above the combination lock. I could peep through the holes and stare at slivers of people's skin. I could watch their toned stomachs as they leave their school-shirts and enter their gym-shirts. They could probably fit straws through those slits. I could take sips of water, just enough to keep me alive. That way I won't be eating. The door will be like a wall between me and the world's food. My fat will disintegrate and I'll exit the locker a while later with a brand new body. It's like the new Weight Watchers. $40 a month.
The bell screams through my ears and a few last wanderers scurry for the exits of the locker room. I'm left alone, on the floor in fetal position. Even though there's nobody around, I'm positive I still hear someone whispering. I want to yell, bang my fists on the lockers. I want to scare the voice away, tell it to leave me alone. It won't.
"There's a mirror over there. You know you want to look in it. You know you want to, Mia," it tells me. The truth is that I do. I strip to my bra and underwear and stand in front of the mirror, displaying everything to myself, all my curves and imperfections. I hate them. I hate them. I hate them. I scratch my stomach with my jagged fingernails, leave red lines across my belly button. My skin is raw with the burns from the day before. I fetch a pen from my backpack and press it into my skin over where I scratched. "Fat," I write there, digging the ballpoint tip deep into my skin. I move onto my thighs. "Too big," I scrawl in there. I pull on them, stretch them like a chef would stretch pizza dough. I want a gap between them. That's all I want. I want a thigh gap like I wanted this porcelain tea set on my 5th birthday or like my Mom wants my father back. I smack my thighs with my palms. Red handprints are left on them. When I get to my arms, I shove the pen even farther down as I write, "Disgusting," on the area above my elbow. I push it so far into my skin that it hurts. Tears spring from the corners of my eyelids. I taste them as they waterfall over my lips. When I lift the pen out of my arm, blood trickles out from where I put it in. I watch my eyes widen in the mirror. The blood feels warm and clammy as it drips. I drop the pen to the floor and run to the bathroom to throw up a few times. I hate myself. I hate myself. I hate myself. The words on my body remind me why I need to do this. A person as big as me is worthless. Nobody will ever like me if I'm like this. Nothing's gonna stop me from getting smaller. I refuse to be this way anymore. My index finger snakes down my throat and draws up everything I've eaten since I have last done this. My nails teeter on the ends of my fingers like ten creaky floorboards. I don't stop doing this until I'm gasping for breath and the clock tells me the bell's about to ring. I wipe my lips with toilet paper, and use part of the same roll and some water from the sink to rub the dried blood from my arm. I leave the words. They were already there before I wrote them down, anyway; in my mind at least. I pull my sweatshirt on over my body and pull jeans over my legs. They sit snugly on my hips. Soon, the room is filled with mindless teenagers again. Their blank canvases of skin bob around in front of my eyes. I will not erase the words on mine until I'm able to strut around like they do while changing. Until my body is good enough for others to see, I will not treat it well, because it's not good enough for me.
The bell rings, and I watch the class file out. The red-headed girl kicks the self-hatred-pen with the tip of her sandal, before linking arms with a stocky girl in a Calloway Volleyball t-shirt. My skin stings as it's smothered by the cloth of my sweatshirt. This body deserves it, though. It doesn't deserve to breathe free.
The day drags by so slowly that watching the big classroom clocks is more aggravating than watching paint dry.
In Math we learn something about graphing. I spend the majority of the period trying to neatly rip a piece of graph paper from this book I bought. Every time I take a new piece out, my hand wobbles a little bit and I end up tearing through the middle. The greasy boy who sits next to me gives me confused looks. He even offers me pieces of his pre-cut graph paper, perfectly packaged and hole punched 3 times to fit into binders. I shake my head, and he shrugs. The acne on his face reminds me of polkadots. I take a red pen from my backpack and begin to draw some on the graph paper. He thinks I'm insane. I agree. Mrs. Gallanti tells me a total of six math jokes. I don't crack a single smile. Her wrinkly hands yank at her hair until it almost falls out and she sits back down at her desk in the front of the classroom to finish the lesson. I watch Summer's back as her and that Noah kid she's dating draw hearts on each other's arms. Her hearts a perfectly drawn, his look more like a confused Kindergartener would draw them. I wonder if boys are programmed to be completely incapable of drawing hearts. Seems like it. After they finish their graphs, they hold them up next to each other's to compare and peck each other on the lips when they see that they match up. The greasy kid next to me attempts to do the same thing. I draw more polkadots on my paper.
I spend Spanish flicking folded up Post-It notes at the girl in front of me until she turns around and yells, "Para, Mia!" I raise my eyebrows in confusion, until she points to the board. Our teacher has written, "Para- To Stop," in fancy cursive handwriting. I should have picked a different lesson day to annoy her. She waits for an apology. I don't give her one. It's just then that I notice that cute boy from my English class is also in this one with me. Summer had said his name was Tyler. He's sitting on top of a desk at the other side of the room, his sneakers mounted on top of the chair. Our Spanish teacher, Señor Rivera doubles as the school's freshmen football coach. He pretty much disregards anything his players do while in class, so Tyler sitting on a desk talking loudly to a few cheerleaders is completely acceptable. Tyler's smile is great, so friendly and happy. I hate how he's using is at those cheerleaders. Their bodies are so thin that he could probably wrap his muscular arms around their waists twice. They wear their cheerleading bows in their hair and sport the Calloway school colors from head-to-toe. I catch the way he looks at them, similar to the way I look at him; he's interested. I sigh repetitively until the bell rings. The girl in front of me tattles on me to Señor Rivera, showing him all of the Post-It notes I sent into her hair as evidence. I dodge his glances and travel out of the room along with the huge pack of students in our class and mix with the even bigger group outside of the door. He'll never find me. I'm safe.
Chorus comes next, and all I want, more than anything, is to hear another solo by Rosie. I wait in my spot in the Alto Section until I see her skip into the door. Her hair is tied up into a high ponytail and swings like a bouncy pendulum behind her head. Her wide eyes scope the room until they land directly on me. I breathe heavily into my sheet music as she comes closer. "Hi!" she says to me in a sing-song voice. I wave and she slides over to the crowd of sopranos, waving to our teacher, whatever-her-name-is, on the way there. She gives 100% during Chorus, belting out song after song as if they were all her solos. She dances a little bit to the upbeat ones, swinging her hips and swishing her skirt along with the music. I find myself dancing sometimes too. The music feels lovely as it coasts past my eardrums. The words I'm singing feel uplifting. They make me giggle a little bit, make the fat hanging from my abdomen seem a little less prominent. I like it.
Art is boring. I want to take an array of Mrs. Johnson's brightly colored pencils and stab them in my eyes. That sounds a lot more fun than learning about the use of shading in portraits. Art at my old school was interesting. We got to make whatever we wanted to. We'd leave with our fingers covered with clay and a project to bring home and tape to the refrigerator. At Calloway everyone is serious. Twenty-seven desks are arranged in a circle around Mrs. Johnson's in the middle. Her too-short blonde bob has no volume and her eyes are the most disgusting shade of grey. She wears a pair of overalls that have lots of pockets going down the sides. She hides pairs of scissors and markers and stuff in there, and then tells us that we should feel free to take all the art supplies we would like, as if it's totally legal for the students to reach their grimy hands in her pockets. How stupid is this lady? She drones on about the history of art while we all wait for her to give us something to do. She never does. The bell rings just as I begin to doze off, using my spiral notebook as a pillow.
English comes next, and I automatically feel comforted. It's like something stuffed deep inside the walls of that room sprays out perfumes of hope. I breathe them in and take my seat next to Elle. She smiles at me a little bit, I think. I nod my head at the three of them and fetch my copy of Romeo and Juliet from my backpack. Mr. Dixon is dressed to the nines once again and paces back and forth in front of the classroom, scoping out the students. He begins writing names on the board; who will play who when we act our the play. I blink for a second and open my eyelids to a cheery smile dancing on Rosie's face. She'll be playing Juliet. I could have casted that. Juliet is perfect. The most beautiful girl Romeo's ever seen. The role of Romeo is handed to Tyler; another no-brainer. Elle gets to play Juliet's mother and Summer giggles as she's assigned the part of one of Romeo's guy friends. Mr. Dixon scans the classroom for someone to play the nurse. I feel my cheeks start to flush when his eyes and index finger land on me. Everyone turns to look at me when he says my name. Thank god he didn't cast me as Juliet. I could imagine the voices I'd hear behind my temples. "Juliet is supposed to be beautiful,” they’d sneer.
The first few scenes don't include the nurse. So, I stand quietly in the front of the room next to the rest of the kids, fidgeting around and playing with a crusty piece of chalk resting against the board. I watch Rosie in awe as she delivers her lines with great amounts of enthusiasm. She smiles in between every line, even if what she's talking about is upsetting. Her eyes grow wide every time Tyler talks. Maybe she has a thing for him too. Oh well. I even think they’d make a cute couple.
Tyler's not a bad actor, actually. He reads very fluently and even throws in a few strategically placed hand motions every once in a while. He looks directly at Rosie when he speaks, the reflection of his blue eyes puddling in her green ones. He's probably taking in her happy voice and silky hair and tiny nose. He's probably smitten by her cute dimples and her red lips and her thinthinthin waist. I'll never have a chance because I'm nothing compared to her. He definitely likes her. I have to stop focusing so damn much on people I'll never be with; him or her or any of them. They're all too good for me, higher up on this invisible ranking tucked into the back of my mind.
I sulk in the corner as they finish up the first few scenes and approach mine. The bell cuts off Rosie mid-speech, just three lines before mine, and the class dashes out of the door before she can finish. Rosie giggles at the deserted classroom, and waves goodbye to Mr. Dixon. He runs his pudgy hand along his freshly shaven jawline and grants her a bashful smile. I stand next to Rosie, along with Elle and Summer as we pack up our bags. As I'm zippering up the front pocket of my backpack, I hear the familiar screeching of Tyler's basketball sneakers from behind me. My breaths lessen and I see Rosie smile a little bit before turning around to him. Elle clutches onto Summer's hand.
"Just wanted to say that you did really well today," Tyler announces.
"Thanks! You were great too!" Rosie slides back. Smooth. Easy. Quick. I wish I could talk to boys like that.
"See you later!"
"Bye!" Rosie chirps, holding in her excitement until he leaves the room and we are alone with Mr. Dixon. Then, we all scream; even me. I don't know where it comes from, but I'm a giddy little girl and fall into a big hug from Rosie. I squeeze her. We dance and laugh and smile. I feel so genuinely happy and included that I don't even care that he's the only guy I've had eyes on since I got here. I just get so wrapped up in the fact that she's excited.
I end up following the girls to lunch. I find a seat for myself at the end of their table and am introduced to Summer's boyfriend, Noah, properly for the first time. Noah is laid back and funny. He seems apprehensive about talking to me at first, probably because he's just another one of those people I've scared off so far. He eventually gives my hand a firm shake, though, and offers me some of his french fries. I decline, obviously, and stare hopelessly at the ticking white clock on the wall for all 42 minutes. Noah munches on french fries like it's his day job. He pops one after another into his mouth and licks the salt off his lips. It seems to fuel him to be as funny as he is, telling stories about something he and his brother did when they were growing up and cracking jokes like nobody's business. Elle eats a hamburger and a bag of fruit snacks. Summer munches on a bag of chips after devouring two salads. Rosie's slice of pizza looks mouthwatering as it's crust droops from being so heavy with cheese. She takes bites between giggles. I have nothing. They are french fries and hamburgers and salads and pizza and I am nothing.
They don't question my empty tray. I think they notice it, but they don't say anything. I exhale deeply when the bell rings and we all rush to our last class. I don't say goodbye to any of them before parting ways. I don't want to be clingy. I'm just thankful they let me sit with them.
My Global teacher spits on me as he lectures, and I sit three rows back. I guess that's considered part of the "splash zone." His name is Mr. Crandeen and he's the oldest man I've ever seem. He's older than Grandpa Eric and Grandma Lynn. He can barely move, just shuffles his heavy shoes across our floors and tells us to read chapters in our history textbooks. He doesn't bother to acknowledge me; maybe he doesn't even realize I'm new. Either way, I'm just part of the scenery, not a real, confused person waiting to be recognized. The day ends peacefully and successfully when the last bell rings and I hop into the front seat of my bus, Elle and Summer busy gossiping about Rosie's new fling with Tyler several rows back. I fade into the leather seat and mesh my face into the glass window. The bus grumbles and groans as it begins and then chugs down the street and delivers me to my front door.
I wipe my feet on the doormat and pat myself on the back for eating nothing all day. That is my only goal. Whatever else happens in life can happen, but that is the only thing that I will let affect my happiness. I fold myself into the comforter piled on my bed and decay underneath it before Mom even comes home from work. I hear her call at my door at dinner time but pretend I'm sleeping. Sleep time is the only time I automatically win the war I'm fighting with myself. I don't even have to try. My mind forfeits and my body, yearning to be thin, wins, hands down. I have mixed feelings about the day when I finally doze off just before 8:00.
The dark spaces in the nighttime sky draw words from the corners of my lips each night, yet I have nobody to tell them to. I'm always too cold to fall asleep, my porcelain frame shaking under layers of blankets until the wee hours of the morning. I sleep-walk to the closet by the upstairs bathroom and retrieve an old quilt Mom knitted before I was born. She used to be into that type of thing; sewing and crocheting until she almost permanently had needles glued between her fingers. Her busy hands would create socks and hats and blankets. She'd sport them on her way to and from the little yarn shop a few blocks down from us. She sure was different. I can't imagine Mom sporting a knitted scarf over her suit-jacket and black pumps.
The blanket still doesn't keep me warm, even when it's topped by three other throws and a sleeping bag. My bones clank together as I tremble, and I can't feel my toes. My whole body feels disassembled, like a Barbie Doll with it's legs yanked out or a box full of Mr. Potato Head parts. Goosebumps rise like freshly baked bread on my skin. I stab them one by one with my broken fingernails. They command their territory, so I let them be. My stomach yells for help, but I muffle it with another blanket that's shoved behind my nightstand. It's dotted with hearts and fairies, something Mom bought me as a child. It feels like a piece of felt, and doesn't assist much with keeping me warm. The numbers on my alarm clock brightly inform me that it's 3:12 in the morning. Time to give up on sleeping.
I press the power button on my TV and it lights up in the midst of the dark. I squint at it for a second before my eyes adjust, and focus on the show it presents. They play the strangest stuff on Tuesday mornings at 3:12. I skip past a wrestling match and a Full House repeat before landing on the shopping channel. A bubbly brunette walks around displaying a pair of beige riding boots with patent leather buckles. Free shipping and handling. I coast through more channels, two loud-mouthed Italians cursing each other out on MTV, an old black-and-white movie about cowboys, a series of tear-jerking soap-operas, and some sit-com entirely in Spanish. I leave that one on and play games with myself, trying to make up what they're talking about, imagining my own story lines. It becomes nearly impossible when the leading lady kisses the old Hispanic man who I dubbed as her Dad. I change the channel. Old episodes of SNL used to be the funniest things on the planet. They don't even make me smile anymore. Nothing. It's like my lips are fixed in this one neutral position and anything other than that makes my whole body uncomfortable. The TV is so loud, too loud for how still the rest of my house is, but I keep it on, because I always feel loneliest at night, and Tina Fey's best sketches blasted as background noise at least keep me some sort of company.
I pull out my hidden scale from under my bed. I went out and bought this one all on my own, saved up the money and everything. Mom doesn't even know I have it. Weighing myself is becoming an addiction, even more so than starving myself is. The numbers on the screen are dwindling every day, and but I'm never satisfied. It needs to be lowerlowerlower. If I'm happy at 120 pounds, I know how much happier I'll be at 119. Every single pound shed removes a brick of stress off my back. Except, each pound shed adds a different brick of stress in their places. I'm cold, starving, dizzy, depressed, and needy. Sadness sleeps in between by bones. When will it wake up? Sometimes, I wonder what would happen if I died. Would anyone even notice?
"Oh, what happened to that Mia girl who sat with us the other day?" Noah would ask at lunch, his sleeves rolled up as he digs into a sandwich stuffed with greasy cold cuts from the supermarket.
"No idea," Elle would respond between bites.
"I heard she died," Summer would point out.
"Oh. Too bad. She seemed nice," Rosie would say.
I'd probably be banished to the back of their minds; a memory, a figment of their imaginations. I'd haunt them in their sleep, but they'd cuddle deeper into their blankets and I'd go away; just like that. Some other girl would move here and attend Calloway and obtain my seat in English. She'd be normal and healthy, a funny girl who everyone would fall in love with. My ghost would hover under her seat, intwine with her legs. I would tangle myself to her, live vicariously through her, my ghastly heart beating next to her's behind her ribcage. I could watch the life that I could have had if everything wasn't so messed up. It's much too late to live that way now. I'm doomed, consistently heading in this extreme downward spiral. I'll fall and fall until I've smashed my skull into the crunchy, brown Earth. Mom would dress in all black at my funeral, that velvety dress that has hung in the back of her closet since Uncle Jon passed away two Octobers ago. Size small. She wouldn't bother to iron it, its wrinkles collecting years of her pain living with me. Her sullen face would shrivel as relatives would hug her and show their respect. Grandma Lynn would shake her head at her and join Aunt Wanda, with her normal kids for a normal dinner after the funeral. Mom would be all alone, and she probably wouldn't even notice a different aura in our gloomy house.
Mom probably wouldn't have to tell them how I died. It's pretty obvious, if you ask me. They'd pity me, say, "Poor girl. It's a shame that she had to hate herself so much." It wouldn’t happen without them, though. I wouldn't be starving myself to death if I wasn't given two hundred of the world's coldest shoulders all at once. A smile or a hug would be nice; an, "Are you okay?" I don't want people to give up on me when I push them away. I want them to love me enough to insist they stay. Nobody would care if I killed myself, and that's exactly why I'm not afraid of accidentally doing so during this quest to become thin. If it happens, then so what?
Excitement pulses behind Elle's flushed cheeks as she bounces up and down in her bus seat when I board the next day. "Mia! Mia!" she beckons. My name coasts over the heads of everyone else, and they all turn to stare at me. Their eyes thumbtack themselves onto my thighs. They gag at my name, at how I look. I'm too distracted by Elle and Summer, who are hurriedly wagging their hands in the air. I've never seen anyone so enthused about talking to me before. I climb through the bustling aisle and plop down on the seat across from them.
Summer flips strands of her hair over her shoulder and smiles until it looks like her cheeks will rip. "Oh my god. Okay, so you know how Tyler came up to Rosie after English the other day?" I nod, and sneak a few glances behind me to make sure they weren't gossiping with someone else. I felt so included, threaded together with others in a way that I haven't been since I can remember. "He Facebook chatted her last night!"
Elle flails both her arms in the air and squeals. "He said that they should talk more because she seems really nice and is really beautiful. Can you believe that? He said she was beautiful! She called me last night freaking out!"
"Plus, he said that Steve's kind of into Elle! Thinks she's funny and pretty and stuff," Summer vents.
"I've liked Steve since fourth grade!" Summer spits at the leather bus seat. The girls scream and jump around. I'm so interested in how they can just loose track of everything. It's like they have no problems, like they're the purest of people from the inside out. Summer reaches a hand to me and grabs onto mine, dancing my arms back and forth. It's really cute how they're so happy for each other; true best friends. Summer's pale skin chills my arm.
I try to squirm out of Summer's grasp and pretend I don't love being there. I turn my back toward the girls and slide my cheek across the window, over the push-here-for-emergency-exit sign. I pretend I hate it when they continue talking to me, Elle narrating a story about what happened at Lacrosse practice. I roll my eyes at her, send her telepathic messages to get away, but she keeps at it. Both of them stay right by my side the entire bus ride, and try to include me in every single conversation. I pretend it's the most annoying feeling in the world, but it's actually the only thing that's keeping me from fetching a paperclip or a pair of scissors from the junk at the bottom of my backpack and carving this skin like a pumpkin, letting the monsters inside drip out. The fact that somebody actually wants to speak with me makes me happy enough to throw a party. I think people take simple moments like this for granted all too often.
I have this family friend, Sienna, who I used to idolize when I was younger. My mom and her mom went to college together, or something, and shortly after they both had kids of their own, they wanted to make them the best of friends as well. So, I was dragged over to Sienna's family's house every Saturday as a child, and I'd toddle around her room, wander into her closet. She was in 8th grade at the time, her long brown hair streaked with blonde, like one of the dolls I had at home. She'd wear jeans with rips in them and tube tops and platform shoes. She'd always be playing the latest Backstreet Boys CD, and I'd pretend I knew all about Destiny's Child when I overheard her ranting about Kelly Rowland in the newest music video. The thing is, I always just kind of sat in the corner and observed, and she would barely acknowledge that I was there. She'd invite her friends over and they would all sit in a circle on her pink fuzzy carpet, trading secrets about how to kiss boys and how to make yourself look prettier. I'd stare at them in awe as they complained about the creepy high school guys at middle school parties and screamed over the latest pictures of Aaron Carter in some cookie-cutter teen magazine. Even if I was completely ignored by Sienna, it felt like such an honor that an 8th grader would even let me in her room. I knew all of Sienna's secrets, the boy she had a crush on and how she was planning on sneaking out to go to his house one night. She never did. I felt completely involved in the whole mess, like I was a gum-snapping middle school girl with painted toenails and scrunchies in her hair myself.
The thing I liked about all the middle schoolers that Sienna hung out with was that they were almost replicas of the teenagers they showed in movies. Lots of sleepovers, lots of spin-the-bottle. Each Saturday brought me a new chance to lean against her walls and fantasize about the twelve year old version of myself. Except, the minute I hit twelve years old, I didn't feel any different. All the years of waiting for my life to get as exciting as their's were culminated in a big let down. Twelve years old didn't bring me lots of friends and happiness. It brought me nothing but this moody, idle behavior. I wanted to lock myself in my room day after day, staring out my window as groups of teenagers rolled by on their skateboards or whatever along my road. I don't get it. The middle school and high school years were supposed to be the best years of my life. I planned it all out before I even went to school myself. I'm not supposed to feel weighed down by billions of issues, suffocated with hatred. Hatred for the world, hatred for my parents, hatred for myself. All the emotions that evoke my mind are at the complete opposite end of the spectrum from, "happy."
Sienna moved to Arkansas when she graduated, didn't even say goodbye to me. It's like she didn't know who I was after all those years, and I truly believe she's the one that set my life up to become a complete failure. She'd probably spray my face with laughter if I told her this, but it's true. All of those teens were always merry and lived their lives to the fullest everyday, something I want to do, but can't because I have nobody to do it with me. I wouldn't say I'm all alone. I have loads of things to keep me company, sometimes too many to juggle; my weight, the food I must ignore, the exercise I must do, the people I have to stay far away from. Toxic things, that's what they all are. There's nothing in the mix that makes me smile or laugh, just things that make me worry.
I didn't know the girls that hung out with Sienna too well, but it didn't seem like they ever worried about anything. Life was just one big playground for them. They'd fly high up on their rubber swings, when I can barely get me feet off the wood-chips coating the ground. Elle, Summer, and Rosie seem carefree as well, playfully teasing each other and spending the majority of their time talking about boys and clothes and TV shows. I want to feel childlike, like they do. I want my worries to drain from my ears. I hate being bogged down so much.
I want to be the lightest I can be, not only weight-wise, but problem-wise. There's nothing better than feeling that weight being taken off my shoulders, pound by pound. The length of my smile seems to reflect directly on the length between my two thighs. If my stomach is emptier, I'm happier. Simple as that. Sure, starving yourself may be a little taboo, but there is nothing wrong with striving to be joyful.
I think the whole world revolves around a foundation of lies. We're lied to from the time we're born. I remember Mom telling me these wondrous tales of Santa Clause and his reindeer circulating the globe on one night to sprinkle presents around the world's Christmas trees. Lie. I remember spending countless hours wiggling teeth out of my gums so that a tiny, sparkly fairy would crawl under my fluffy pillow and retrieve each baby tooth in exchange for dollars to use in the gum-ball machine at the drugstore. Lie. I remember Mom telling me that no monsters were found under my bed, or in my closet. I remember her telling me that monsters don't even exist. Lie. Lie. Lie. I know this first hand because I've become one; a flesh-gobbling monster with a hunger for the child deep inside the walls of my skin. They teach us that lying is bad, while lying directly to our innocent faces. It doesn't add up. That's why the world is so messed up, meddled with, and confused. We are all mixed up from the time we are babies. As we get older, the lies swell. They begin to become crucial. Mom lied to me that my Dad had died for a while. Who does that to a kid? Did I really have to find out he was still alive, probably in the arms of another woman, kissing another kid goodnight from Grandma Lynn? Lies are disgusting. They sting like those bees that leave behind huge, red welts on your skin. Lies spill from our mouths every day. Lies stick to our bodies, padding us up and keeping us cushioned from the dangers of the world. They sugarcoat all the bad things and make them into something just a little bit better. That's why when Summer tells me I look "really pretty" on Thursday I get angry. Lie. I'm practically trained since birth not to believe her. She's just trying to prop me up so that I won't fall hard. She's trying to keep me safe and happy and healthy. She probably noticed my bare lunch trays or maybe the way I lost another five pounds. She was just looking out for me, being a good friend. Except I'd rather her tell it like it is. It'd give me motivation to keep up what I'm doing. That's what I'd want a good friend to do. That's the only thing that'll help me get better. That's the only thing that will help me loose weight. She says it casually. It rolls off her tongue when I see her in Math. I take my seat obediently. She and Noah turn around to say hi. I wave back to them and even smile a little bit. The only thing I feel is happiness. I have two potential friends in front of me. I have nothing to be unhappy about. Then, she says it. "You look really pretty today, Mia!" I want to stand up and flip over this desk. I want to crash my fists through the wall and snap all 25 of Mrs. Gallanti's new protractors. I grit my teeth and say thank you, although it is just a boomerang-lie back to her. Noah eyes me up and down when she says it, and it makes me feel objectified. I want to hide, crawl under my desk and sliver out of this body-bag so that i can emerge capable of accepting the compliment. It kills me that it was just a little white lie to gain her bonus friendship points, or something. It's not her fault. What does she know? She was probably brought up the same way I was. Lies pulse through our veins and levitate themselves up our spines. We're all a bunch of liars. It's natural. I nod at them both until they turn around and Mrs. Gallanti teaches us a boatload of new formulas. My right hand feverishly copies them down onto looseleaf paper while my left plays with the fat on my thighs. The words she jots down blur across the board. The letters jumble together into one big puddle of puzzling math. I can't focus on anything because Summer's lie keeps coasting through my mind. I raise my hand halfway through the class and excuse myself to go to the bathroom. Mrs. Gallanti hesitates for a moment, then allows me to leave. Does she notice something is up? I feel dizzy as I stumble out. The bathroom on this wing of the school is roomy and has a nautical look to it. The ceilings and floors are painted with blue and white stripes that make me feel queasy when my eyes run across them. I enter the biggest stall and notice how decayed my fingernails are getting when I place my fingers onto the rugged patch on the front of my tongue and inch them back slower than snails. The bathroom is deserted since it's the middle of the class period and the sound of my body's fluids refluxing scares me a little. The sound gets worse as I keep going. I have to stop because I feel so dizzy that leaning forward makes me nervous. I fall back onto the cold, slimy floors and stare at them until I'm seasick. Then, I punish myself by doing hundreds of crunches. I feel like I'm tearing my stomach to shreds as I scrunch it together again and again. I do crunches completely through Spanish and Chorus and Art. The time slips by so fast, but it leaves it's mark in the form of sweat drizzling down my neck. I feel so weak by the time I stop. I crawl out of the bathroom and drag the lifeless version of myself into English, plopping it onto the chair next to Elle. "Where were you in Chorus today? I was looking for you!" Rosie asks when I get there. "I wasn't feeling well," I mumble back. I'm sweating so much that they could probably all smell me from a mile away. My t-shirt is soaked and my head spins. "Aw. You poor thing!" Elle says, grabbing my hand. "Did you go to the nurse?" "I'll take you down if you want!" Summer offers. "No. I'm fine. I swear. I feel totally better now." "You sure don't look like it!" Summer responds, her tiny nose wrinkling. "I'm fine!" The girls are quiet for a second and then begin ranting and raving about an episode of Dance Moms from the night before. I let my head fall onto my desk and wait for the bell to ring. Their voices blend together into a single person talking. The rest of the class seems nonexistent, silent extras in a movie. Mr. Dixon begins the class the second the bell chimes, and I force myself to turn my head towards the board to watch him. "Today we'll be talking about being careless, hasty, and making mistakes," his deep voice beckons. "What are some mistakes that Romeo and Juliet made at the end of the play?" Rosie's hand shoots up. "They think they're in love when they're really not. They only just met." Summer adds, "They even kill themselves for each other." "You guys don't think it's possible to fall in love as fast as those two did?" Mr. Dixon says, tapping his fingernails against the board. His dress shoes pitter-patter on the floor until I find myself keeping track of every time he hits his sole against the ground. My body feels dismantled, my bones stacked like Linking Logs. "What about love-at-first-sight?" a girl calls from the back of the room. "That kind of love isn't something you should make destructive decisions over," Rosie snaps back, turning her head toward the girl. Her eyes reflect images of the sun shining in through the window. I loose myself in them and finally begin to catch my breath. I feel like I'm swimming in my t-shirt and it dangles off my body, sadly billows like a sopping wet American flag would. "They weren't allowed to love at all while they were alive, though. Their families were enemies!" Elle pipes up. "They said that Juliet was the most beautiful girl in the world. I'd kill myself to be with someone like that," Steve, the guy Elle likes, says. He shakes his scruffy head of hair and runs a hand through it nonchalantly, ignoring the fact that any girl in the room wishes they were the Juliet to his Romeo. He sure was cute. No wonder Elle likes him so much. "Nothing is worth killing yourself over. Living is the best thing that can happen to any of us," Rosie responds, staring intently at Steve. The words sink in with everyone. They settle deep in my brain, sprout out of my skin, little reminders for me. I don't want to die, do I? "We're teenagers. We rush into everything we do. We don't take time to think over what we're doing. I've f*ed up so many things already because I don't think enough," Tyler says. The class winces at his bad language, but Mr. Dixon doesn't seem to mind. He raises his eyebrows, encouraging more people to discuss what they think. I want to curl up in a ball at home. Lights out, silence, rested body. Everyone's faces whip past my eyes. I'm so nauseous that I can't even lift my head from my desk. The pain feels amazing, though. I know those crunches will trim my waist a little bit. My weight is dropping every day. My stomach applauds me. It's completely empty and clean in there. This will all be worth it when I can stand up next to these other girls and feel adequate. It'll be worth it when I can go up to cute guys and talk to them without feeling like I'm polluting their space. It'll all be worth it when Mom pays attention to me. I'll look so great that she'll have to get off her freaking conference calls and admire me. It'll be worth it when I'll feel like I'm worth something. Dad will totally regret leaving us. All these people will regret skipping over me all the time and choosing not to be my friend. Sweat pools under my arms and I bob around in it. "We don't think of the big picture, as teenagers. We are set in our ways with every idea we have," Tyler says. "I hate hearing other peoples opinions about things I'm sure I want to do," Summer points out. I second this. I hate when people try to make comments about what I'm doing. It's working out just fine. They need to lay off. "Here's the thing, though; we can't just sit around and say that making reckless decisions is a part of being a teenager, because then that's all we'll be known for. Don't you guys want to be the generation that changes that stereotype? Don't you want to be the ones who are smart about what they do?" Rosie responds, her cheeks red. "Sometimes, that's not too easy to do. Sometimes, we do all the planning in the world and still come out with the wrong outcome. Sometimes, we trick ourselves into believing the wrong thing that we are doing is right. Not all bad decisions are spontaneous. They didn't kill themselves because they weren't thinking or because they were stupid teenagers. They killed themselves because they loved each other and if they killed themselves than they could be with each other forever and ever. Once they're dead, there won't be anything to make them unhappy. They'll just be peaceful and in love forever. I'm sure both of them thought about it a lot more than you guys assume they did. English teachers can't just shove labels on people, marking them as hasty, crazy kids. They had reasons. Everybody does!" explodes from my mouth. I leave my head face down as I say this, but I can feel everyone looking at me. It's like this ratty, wet t-shirt has eyes on its back. "They didn't have to kill themselves for their love, though. They could have just bugged their parents a little bit and I'm sure they would eventually let them date.There are other ways to deal with the stress of living," Elle mumbles in the quiet of the room. "Not always!" I say, standing up. My hands flutter over the paper on my desk and dump everything in my backpack. It's just then that I notice the tears in the corner of my eyes. I haven't cried all week. I've had a few breakdowns, but I haven't felt real emotional tears in a while. "It's not always easy like that." I don't know what the hell I'm doing. I'm making a big scene and kicking and screaming and letting everyone know everything. I storm out of the room as fast as I can. Rosie follows after me. I hear her flats click-clacking on the tiled floor. "Mia. Mia, wait!" she calls. I slam our classroom door in her face and fall to the floor outside shaking hysterically. My stomach screeches at me. It calls for help. It needs it. I'm so close, though. I'm loosing pounds so quickly that I'll reach my goal weight in no time. I'm right there, and I blew it. Someone is bound to turn me in now. I shut my eyes and scream. I hear people talking around me. I see people poking their heads out of the doors of nearby classrooms. They ask me if I'm okay. I scream again. I want to be thin. That's all. I don't know what the big deal is. I begin to shake, violently. My shoulder blades ram into the wall and I dig my heels into the bottoms of my sneakers. My stomach keeps growling. It won't stop. Suddenly, thin arms make their way around me and my nose is filled with peachy perfume. I open my eyes and Rosie's in front of me, hands resting around my neck. She pulls me closer to her and holds me tight against her floral dress and long, brown tresses. I cry in her arms, bleed rivers of tears. She doesn't let go, no matter how much I'm squirming around in her arms and no matter how many people gather around us. She holds so tightly that I can't budge from her grasp. Her tight grip stops me from shaking. I become quiet and my tears cascade from my face until her hair is soaking wet as well, a silent waterfall. I don't stop to wipe my face or anything, I just let the tears fall where they may. I cry because I'm hungry. I cry because I'm weak. I cry because I'm in pain. I cry because I feel lonely. I hug because I'm scared. "It's gonna be okay. Whatever it is, it'll be alright. I'm here, and I'll help you get through it. I promise," Rosie whispers in my ear. I cry so hard that I can't hear anything else but her. My lips twist into a smile, but my tears still spurt. Gratefulness overwhelms me and I hug her tighter because I don't know how to express how thankful I feel just to have her to lean on.
Mr. Dixon lifts Rosie and I off the ground and leads us both down to the main office, where he tells me to call Mom and ask her to pick me up. He watches me with stern eyes as my fingers dial her number and I press the receiver to my ear. Rosie stands next to me, her hand locked in mine. I'm glad he let her come with me. She makes me feel less nervous. All of the secretary ladies stare at me as I speak to Mom. They snap their gum and eavesdrop. So rude of them. I want to be back on the floor of the bathroom, or tucked into my bed; anywhere away from all of these people. It's so quiet that you could hear a pin-drop. A fresh-faced woman with a blonde bob leans on the desk that the phone is on, getting so close that she can probably hear Mom's annoyed voice. She flutters her eyelashes at me, anxious to see what my deal is.
"Mia? Is that you?" Mom says when she picks up.
"Yeah. I need you to come pick me up from school,” I say, purposely being as blunt as possibly. The blonde secretary looks frustrated with my answer, and I wrinkly my nose at her. Nope. No gossip for you, today.
"Why?" Mom pipes under a layer of white-noise. I can hear her rustling papers, probably searching for some client's information, because the call she's about to have with them is so much more important than the call she's having with me. Two more secretaries widen their eyes at me, leaning in and parking themselves next to the blonde. They’re all dying to know the reason my English teacher had to drag me down and force me into this painful phone conversation. They could also just be staring in disbelief at the rings of sweat and tears trickling down my sides and bleeding through my t-shirt. Either one is embarrassing.
I purse my lips and rack my brain for something to say. "I'm sick," I sputter, the usual answer to get me out of explaining things. My stomach growls a little more detail.
"With what?" Mom gawks.
"Mom. I'm sick. Just come, okay?" I yell, and slam the phone back down, hanging up. I take a few steps back and fall into a green lounge chair parked by the office's entrance. The two latest copies of Vogue peek from underneath an open Time Magazine issue on the coffee table next to it. Mr. Dixon has all eyes on me, so I don't pick any of them up, but I can't help notice the girls on their covers. Gorgeous clothes that hang over their barely-there skin. They're all bones; so pretty. Rosie eyes me as well, and I stop looking at them, choosing to stare straight at the bright blue carpeted floor instead. I wonder how long it'll be until Mom shows up, or if she will at all.
"Mia, I want you to talk to the school nurse for a few minutes. Just until your mother arrives. Rosie can come in with you if you want," Mr. Dixon says, pausing between each word and sighing at the end. I gnaw gaps in my bottom lip. My mouth searches through excuses, but doesn't have the time to spurt them out. Mr. Dixon places his hand on the small of my back and leads me to the nurse's office before I can say anything.
She's short, maybe 5'1, and I look down to her as I shake her hand. She and Mr. Dixon exchange glances and I see him mouth something to her in the corner of my eye. Rosie's thumb hits against the back of my hand. She taps three times like she's trying to signal something, but I'm totally not a translator of this type of Morse Code. The nurse's name is Debra. She wears a red lanyard around her neck that proudly displays this, along with an old picture of her and the title, "Heath Specialist." Health Specialist? Really? She gives kids Hello-Kitty band-aids and bags of ice to hold over bruised knees. What's so special about that? I sneer at her, and she notices, pursing her lipstick coated lips at me. They're the color of berries and glimmer under the school's lights. She has curtains of freckles draped on her cheeks and over the bridge of her nose. Her frame is small, knobby shoulders and thin wrists. I hate her already.
"Take a seat, Miss. Duncan!" she says, gesturing to the row of chairs in front of her desk. I do, and my eyes stumble over the contents on her desk. Three cell phone pictures of her and her husband, or boyfriend, are stuffed into a single frame. The dark red lipstick teeters on top of a stack of books. Their spines foreshadow the rest of my day and make me antsy. "The Dangers of Self-Harm," reads the first one. "Signs of Child Abuse" and, "Coping With Eating Disorders" are piled underneath. Debra's hands had previously picked through all of them. I can tell by the way that their pages are studded with book marks. I wince at them. I don't have an eating disorder. I don't. No way.
Mr. Dixon leaves the room and Rosie sits down next to me, fixing her floral printed dress as she sits. She smooths it underneath her so it won't wrinkle, then she turns to me and smiles. The smile seems so bizarre, yet fitting at the same time. I smile back, but my smile is so forced that it makes me feel robotic. I can't even situate my lips and teeth into a happy position. There is no way I'll be able to return to that sort of lifestyle. It's just not how I am anymore. "Mia, I'm going to ask you a bunch of questions and want you to answer, without hesitating, while being as honest as possible! Got it, sister?" Debra chants. I squint at her, roll my eyes, then find Rosie's head nodding for me. Debra sits down and holds a clipboard out in front of her. She reads from it like she's reading a Dr. Seuss book to a bunch of little kids, expressive eyes and strategically placed hand movements. My index fingers drum on the arms of my chair, tap out the rhythm to a made-up song that soon blends into the D.J. Mia remix of "The Wheels on The Bus." Debra pops a pair of glasses onto her face, and tucks her stringy blonde hair behind her pointy ears. She has cross earrings in, as well as little diamonds shoved through a second hole.
"Are you happy?" she asks.
"What makes you unhappy?"
Everything. "Nothing. I'm happy."
"Are there any problems going on at home?"
Well, my mother barely speaks to me. "Nope."
"Do you get along with your parents?"
"Excuse me?" Debra says, eyebrows raised. Rosie turns to me.
"My mom is single."
"Do you see your farther anymore?"
"Did he pass away, sweetie?" Debra asks. She looks seriously concerned, like she's known me for years and she's ready to tear up over my loss. What an act. She could be in movies with that whole charade going on. Rosie's eyes become stoic and she stares straight ahead. I wonder why they allowed her in here. I didn't attest to it, but if I was ready to spill my deepest secrets, I don't know if I'd be ready to pour them out in front of her. She's awfully sweet, and seems like a great friend to Elle and Summer, but nobody can just obtain trust in the blink of an eye. Trust has to be earned. It's the greatest thing to receive from someone.
"No. They just broke up," I respond as Rosie lets out a huge sigh and throws a few of her brown curls over her shoulder. They tumble down her back in perfect formation, synchronized swimmers receiving a perfect 10.
"They got divorced?"
"They were never married. They broke up a few months after I was born. I was raised by my mother. Are you done asking questions now?" My tolerance for this woman is wearing thin. She's already scooting her way under my skin and delving too far into things when I've only been here a few minutes. I'm so dizzy and hungry and sleepy. My body yearns for Mom to come through the door at any minute, while my mind contemplates running away, hiding from all of this. I want to be cared for and helped. I want to be better, but as of now, I don't know what "better" really is. I'll feel better once I'm thin, and I'm getting there; taking baby-steps.
"Just a couple more, hun. Can you tell me why you were crying earlier?"
"No." What am I supposed to do? Pour out everything? I don’t understand how some people are so open with the way they feel. I’d rather shut everything away forever than spill, no matter how hard that particular task may be.
"Do you know why?"
"I get emotional over 9th grade English literature," my lips slur. The room spins like a globe around Debra.
"Mia, please take our meetings seriously," Debra scolds. She sounds like Mom, barking commands at me like I'm a new puppy being trained. How can I take any of this seriously? It's a bunch of bull-s***. She's just some nosy lady who gets paid big bucks to stick her face in other people's problems. She's a nurse. This isn't even something she went to college for or anything. She's supposed to be checking slimy kids for strep and running her cold fingers down our spines to catch scoliosis in its early stages. She's supposed to allow kids mope around in here while they have stomach aches or want to miss their Spanish mid-terms. She's not a therapist or anything. She's probably not even legally allowed to snoop around in my family matters.
"What book were you talking about in class that upset you?"
"Romeo & Juliet."
"What about it bothered you, sweetie?”
"I don't know. There were a lot of things upsetting me. I just kind of broke," my mouth gives away. I have no idea where this comes from. I'm broken. That much is true. It’s only because of my weight, though. That's the root to all my problems, it seems. I fantasize about throwing up a couple more times after an uncomfortable ride with Mom back home. I can even blame it on this so-called sickness I have. Perfect. I also heard I can use laxatives. There's a drugstore down the road from where a live, on the same street as Summer's house. I'll ride my bike there when I get home and pick up some. My body will be stuffed under my comforter by sundown, and it'll be cleaned out, just the way I like it before I have to face school head-on when I return tomorrow.
"What were some of the things that were bothering you recently, girl?" Debra asks, her fingers coiling around the three self-help books and inching them closer to her chest. The lipstick does an elaborate balancing act on top of them. My heart beats fast, as she unstacks them and checks out each title one by one. Her fingers use the covers as jungle gyms and run across the matted letters written on them.
"None of those things."
"What was bothering you, Mia? You said there were many things."
"Just stupid stuff. That's it."
Debra shakes her head at me. "Nothing is stupid in here. Tell me what it is, honey-bear." This woman makes me want to jab pins in my eyes. It doesn't help that my stomach feels almost visibly hollow and is ready to attack anyone that comes close. It groans loudly and I whimper. Debra and Rosie's eyes fall on my belly. I swat them away, doing weird distraction dances with my arms. They look back up to my face again.
Rosie stares at me, intently. Her eyes are the prettiest shade of green, like two little Granny-Smith apples hidden away behind shocks of mile-high lashes. Each lash is mascara free but stretches on and on forever. The sparkle in her eyes that is normally there is noticeably missing, although she looks stunning, even clothed with an expression of worry. She doesn't break her stare when I look away. She keeps here eyes fixated on mine no matter where I look in the room. She searches for secrets behind my skin. Maybe, she has x-ray vision.
"Rosie can leave the room if you would like. Would that allow you to open up a bit more? Nothing you say here will ever leave this room," Debra mumbles. It's beyond me how she thinks saying something like that will help me. Adults never mean it when they say that. Teens are always blamed as the culprits of gossip, but sometimes they're just as bad. They talktalktalk and bragbragbrag and tattletattletattle. Every little thing that kids do is spread around to all of their parent's friends. Teachers are never better. They always seem to sneak an email or phone call home. I doubt that the school nurse would ever keep my secret locked between the walls of her room. She's carry it with caution, maybe, but it's escape. It'd squeeze out under the crack in the door or fly out through the windows in the dark of the night. It'll spread like an epidemic after that, passing from one person to another as fast as the common cold. There'd be people all over who'd hear about it.
They'd come up to me and ask me, "Are you the girl with the eating disorder?" even though it's not one. I choose to do this. It's not some disease.
Rosie looks hard at me again. "You should tell her what has been bugging you. She could probably help!" she says, her cute, cheery voice still in effect. I feel like, if given the opportunity, this girl would perform me a full song-and-dance number on Debra's desk in order to bribe me to cough out my secrets. She'd belt high notes and throw in a series of pirouettes. She'd end in a split, jazz hands raised overhead. Debra would break out into applause and cheer for an encore. Rosie'd whip out another fan-favorite and invite me on stage (desk) with her to perform it.
"Do you cut yourself, babe?" Debra bluntly asks.
I display my wrists to her. My skin is pale and clean, stretched loosely over my bones. The only marks on my body are where I dug into it with that pen during Gym on Monday, which, I have to admit, felt pretty good. I understand why cutters do it. There's so much control involved. Everyone wants control in their life. Nobody enjoys things spiraling out of hand. If they can't keep a firm grip on how things go, then they're unhappy. It's the way things are. I starve and binge and purge and exercise to keep control of my weight. Cutters want control of their pain. "I have never," I spit at her. I would, though.
"Do you harm yourself in anyway?"
I answer, "Rephrase that," which, rephrased means, "Kill more time until my mother gets here." I never thought I would be so anxious to see her, especially since she avoids me like the plague and treats me like dirt.
"Do you burn yourself?”
"Do you starve yourself?"
"Never!" I say, almost sarcastically. I don’t realize until I look down that I’m biting my nails, chewing directly through each one. My stomach yells, screams.
"Do you make yourself throw up?"
"No.” My voice is so meek.
Rosie stands up, suddenly. Her back is erect and her hands yank at the hem of her dress. She blushes and stammers for a moment, then turns to me. Her voice isn't loud, more like a hushed whisper. "Mia. I like you a lot, okay? I don't know what it is about you, but you seem like a really good person, and I can't stand to see you always feeling so down! Will you just tell her what's wrong? We can all help you! You'll feel better!"
There's a heavy knock on the door and Mr. Dixon comes in, tired eyes and veins popping out of his forehead. "Mrs. Duncan is here," he says, delivering the news I've been waiting for. Rosie turns to me and gives me another hug. She holds on for a while and Debra doesn't say anything, just watches us while running her thumb across the series of self-help books.
My stomach is twisted into knots. My hunger pangs are worse than they've ever been, yet this is the longest I've gone without eating anything. Food is just so repulsive. Sometimes, I don't even want to binge anymore. I want to be clean, and I hate that my stomach can't put up with the emptiness. I shake a little bit in Rosie's arms and she whispers, "Tell us what's wrong. Please. I'm so worried for you." The passion in her voice makes my brittle, yellow teeth chatter before my secret dissipates.
The tough bully that uses my lungs as punching bags tells her, "I hate everything about my body."
The monsters and ghosts that curl through my veins and use my flattened tongue for slumber add, "I starve and binge and I want to cut." Rosie's eyes are so wide I could dive into them and take a swim. Each breath she takes is short and punctuated.
"And I need help," the Real Mia reveals.
The seats of Mom's car are so itchy that I can't focus on a single thing but the torn apart leather scratching at my back. Mr. Dixon and Debra had a meeting with her back at the school, while I sat in the office lobby, my head bobbing in a mess of tears and unmasked secrets on Rosie's shoulder. Mom hasn't said a thing. It's not like this whole thing was a complete surprise to her. She definitely knew a bit. Her lips are pursed in silent thought and she spins the radio dial with her index finger and thumb, passing through stations of mindless pop music. The roads are deserted, as it is the middle of a weekday, and all the normal people are sitting at office desks and playing Gym and doing normal-people things. Leave it to the me to be abnormal. That's how my whole life is these days.
"I'm going to make steak for dinner. I found a really nice recipe online, sort of like what Grandma Lynn used to make for Aunt Wanda and I when we were your age," she says, after the first chorus of the song she stops at. I take deep breaths and admire the view, how beautiful the world is when I'm locked away from it. Rain begins to drip down our windshield just as I think this, like I'm not even allowed to enjoy the goodness of life from a distance. The raindrops cruise across my window like little fish racing to a finish line. The ground is soaked, Mom's tires squeaking through puddles. The noise of it all blankets the void of silence in my heart, the drummer-boy beating his sticks on my chest. I don't know what will become of me, how I will deal with this all.
"I don't want any."
Mom's cheeks flush, and she glances at her furrowed brows in the rearview mirror. "It's really great, the best recipe around."
Her hands pat on the steering wheels and she spins the volume-control dial on the radio. allowing the groaning guitar and crooning singer to grow quieter and quieter until they sound like whispers from a distance. "I'd really like for you to eat some." Her voice is so small that I can tell she's afraid. She knows she's going to have to deal with her messed up daughter head-on now. She can't escape from me anymore, can't run and hide. It's like all of her nightmares are awakening before her eyes.
I stare ahead, count the rain drops painting the car. The clouds spit all over us, faster that the windshield-wipers can clean up. My head slowly shakes, my chin quivering. I feel the car pull to a stop, but don't recognize where we are, some random person's driveway. "Mom, I'm feeling sick. Why are we stopping?"
"Mia Cassidy Duncan, you will eat your food! All of it!" Mom screams. Her voice stings me, boils my blood. Her forehead wrinkles and crinkles, veins exploding on her paled skin, drawing a map from her widow's peak to her folded, red lips. Her eyes look darker than usual, the blue not as vibrant. They resemble mine a bit more now; damp and saddened. I see a young boy with shocks of sandy hair peek his head from a window of the house we're parked at, two toy trucks resting in his palms. He drives them along the glass, their mini-tires crushing the scary scene beneath him.
"You can't make me," I shriek at her, my words polluting the air and flooding the suburban home. The boy coughs at the dust in my voice. I guess it has already made its way up to his bedroom, sticking to his toy-box and chilling his little bones.
Mom sneers, "Oh, yes I can."
"What are you gonna do?"
"I'll force-feed you if I have to."
"Ridiculous," I scream, rolling my window down and letting the obstreperous raindrops bolt onto her torn, leather seats. "You've never had time to before." I can't believe this conversation is finally happening, somethings that's twisted its way through my dreams and intertwined with every single thought that puffed through my mind. It haunted me knowing that one day I'd have to face this demon that hitched on to me for so long. Today has been an obstacle, a day that will imprint my rugged skin and stamp it's details on my tongue. Everything was fine. I was driving in the right direction, there is no need to pull over now, just when results are starting to happen. I've dodged the question forever. I've been strong. Why am I breaking, cracking, letting this all out?
"What the hell does that mean?" Mom slurs. "I've made time to deal with all your careless behavior since the day you were born."
"Maybe back then, but over the past few years you've barely looked at me. It's like I don't even exist to you. You could have left with Dad, you know! You could have put me up for adoption and dashed out of my life with him."
"Mia, stop." Her voice is hush-hushed and comes from deep, down within her.
"I know that's what you want. You've been jealous of him your whole life. You got the worst end of the deal, stuck with me your whole life, while he got to jet off and start all over. I'm worthless to you, aren't I? You'd throw me away in a heartbeat if you could," I scream. I need to stop talking, but the words keep coming out, pouring like waterfalls all over Mom, who suddenly becomes smaller, curled up into a fetal position on her worn seat. Her shoulders tremble and she hits the steering wheel with closed fists, pounding out some sort of tribal chant. I've never seen her in this state before, so soft. She usually carries herself like a statue. Her eyes are always dry. If she even has tears, they're locked beneath her lashes, never seeing daylight. Her posture is always picture perfect, but now she's crumpled up in such a compact way that I can almost pick her up and drop her into my pocket.
"Mia, you have no idea what you're talking about," she suddenly stammers, springing back to life, squishing her body back into the Mom-mold.
"Yes, I do."
"No, you're crazy, delirious. You're so hungry that your not even thinking straight," she tells the boy in the window, backing out of his driveway, swerving the car onto the road. He reaches a hand up and waves at us, his arm wagging through the air. He smiles big, his teeth fragile. His two front ones are missing, a giant gap spanning across his mouth. I remember having that same blank space, everyone does. I was five, or so; innocent. The gap didn't even let in all the monsters that lurked around me and snuck in once I reached puberty.
Mom stumbles over a bumpy, unpaved street and my thighs knock together each time the car shuffles out of place. The fat built around each one slaps the leather on the seat, causing a red irritation to build up on my skin. Mom's legs hold themselves in place, thin enough not to spasmodically jiggle. "I hate that you don't understand. I'm thinking perfectly normally right now. I know what I want and I'm fine."
"Starving yourself isn't normal!"
"I don't care! I'm not saying it is! I'm just saying that it's my life, and this is what I want. You can't do anything about it!"
"I can't let you do this," she growls. There's urgency in her voice that has been nonexistent for as long as I can remember. Her lips purse and she hisses at me, yanking her stiff hair behind her ear. I wonder what she's thinking. I wonder if she feels as helpless as I do. I keep pushing her away, but we're in the same boat. We're both drowning, restlessly with nobody to save either of us. I wonder if this is all crushing her the way it is crushing me.
She's driving slowly, her tires grinding up the road. A car honks from behind us and Mom turns around to check out who it is that is so terribly impatient; an old woman with wisps of white hair falling over her ghastly face. She wrinkles her nose at Mom and signals that she has places to go, people to see, like the whole world should just get off the road so she can make her way to the library or the church.
"Mom, drive faster. That lady's mad," I let her know, even though it is particularly obvious. Raindrops coast down the windows of her old car, streaking her frown.
"Stop changing the subject," she screams, and slows down even more. The lady honks her horn again, but Mom turns the volume of our car's radio up more. A dark, thumping beat bangs on my ear drums. The rain plays songs on the roof. It's so loud that even my screaming thoughts are muffled.
The woman honks three times in a row, barely pausing in between each. "Just drive, we'll talk at home!" I yell over all of the other noise.
"No, Mia. We need to talk right now! I've been avoiding this for weeks!" I roll down my window as the rain pours harder and I let it splash my face, rinse my eyes and mouth from this disgusting secret that is now frighteningly public. My ears ring when the lady honks again.
"Drive!" I call at her, the rain running down the bridge of my nose. A lightning bolt quakes the clouds and splits the sky. Thunder grumbles louder than our car's engine. The ground shakes, ever-so-slightly, like the genesis of an earthquake. Mom gets really freaked out, by the whole thing. I'm pretty frazzled too, this big argument sparking between us, an old lady loosing her mind behind us, and the Earth recognizing how insane all the people that reside on it are.
Mom brings the car to a halt, my seatbelt choking me, wringing my neck. "Mia, no! You have to eat! I can't watch you die like this!" The loud, belting singer on the radio coughs on her words as the old lady behind us rams into our bumper. Mom and I jump forward, her hand flying across my chest to protect me from banging my head on the window. I close my eyes and the whole world falls flat. An eerie silence stuns us both. Her cries echo inside my mind, bounce off my bones and momentarily stop my heartbeat.
I wipe my muddy sneakers on our doormat and enter my house, the rain still smacking on all of our windows. Mom has a bony hand on my lower back and keeps a firm grip on me, her fingers pinching my t-shirt. The house smells familiar, and everything is in place as we have left it, but my whole world seems to be thrown out of place. Mom stays silent, her hand pushing me to the kitchen. She seats me on one of our rickety chairs, and uses her forearm to brush a stack of newspapers off the tabletop and onto the cluttered floor. My jaw locks into place so much that I can't even protest when she reaches into our jam packed refrigerator to get me something to eat. I watch her rummage through, her hands patting old Tupperware containers filled with leftovers, my non-eaten meals from previous nights. She removes a stack of sandwich meats and a half-empty package of bread from the cabinet, along with two shiny apples from a brown bowl. I watch her dish me out a paper plate and begin to lay out two slices of bread. A lightbulb flashes in her head and she goes back to retrieve a jar of mayonnaise from the fridge. It's consistency and stench make my stomach flip-flop as she reaches in with a butter knife and scoops out globs of it onto the bread. She stuffs endless amounts of meat between the two slices; cheese too. She slides the plate to me when she's done, setting one of the apples next to it, and taking a crunchy bite out of the other one, herself. She smiles at me, and my body almost wants to give in, eat the sandwich and the apple. My hand even reaches for it, like a reflex, squeezing the two slices of bread together until the mayonnaise drips to the clean table. Mom wipes it up with a napkin and gestures to the sandwich again.
Sometimes the voices in my head argue. They fight and bicker more than they should, keeping me up at night and making every decision into a huge internal conflict. My soul is torn down the middle. It's like there are two different Mia's that are forced to live inside this disgusting body. One of them wants to destroy it. That Mia would rather be dead that continue to reside in such a trashy place. The other Mia knows she should be grateful to have the home she does, even if she has to share it with a suicidal roommate. She knows that she should clean it up and take care of it, but it's so hard for her, when the other Mia is extremely overbearing and always gets her way. My body is becoming quite a broken household. Every time I spot food, they really go at it.
"Mia," Mom tells me, both of her hands resting on the opposite end of the table, "Eat, please."
I want to so badly. I just want to feel something squirm down my throat and satisfy the queasiness in my stomach. My forehead sweats just thinking about it, though. That sandwich must contain tons and tons of calories, ones that will stuff my legs like pillows. I see my reflection in the apple, tinted stop-sign red. It's safe, I guess, healthy and all, but who am I to care about what is healthy? I just want to be thin, and eating healthy is like taking the long route to somewhere. I like taking short cuts. I lift the apple and nibble a little bit on the skin, letting it peel off and fall tastelessly onto my tongue. I don't chew it, my teeth always feel too weak these days. I choke on it a bit, but end up swallowing. Mom reaches into the cupboard to fetch a tall glass that once belonged to Dad. I know because she uses it every time she's thinking of him, and once screamed at me for not washing it well enough. She sticks it under the tap and fills it to the brink with water, handing it to me. We lock eyes, and I wonder why she's giving it to me. There are plenty of other clean glasses in there and she usually would rather jump off a bridge than let me use this one. My lips curl around it and the warm water trickles down my throat.
"I'm full," I let her know once I set the glass back down on the table.
"No, you aren't. You didn't even take a bite of your sandwich yet."
I'm really uncomfortable under her watch, like when a teacher stands over you while you're completing your final exam in class. I squirm around on my chair, hear the wooden legs slowly snap beneath me. Her eyes stare like they're hypnotized, caught in a trance. If lunch time is this difficult to get through with her on top of me, I don't know how I'll survive the rest of the night. Will she sleep in my room? I can't imagine her perfect little body lying on my floor under a sleeping bag or something. Mom sleeps so peacefully, lips rested in a neutral position, eyes locked shut tightly, breaths even. I'm as restless as you can get, tangling myself into my sheets, sleepwalking to the kitchen and back, waking up from terrifyingly bad dreams. Mom would have to shove in a pair of earplugs and hang a, "Do Not Disturb," sign on a chain around her bony neck. She'd tremble in her sleep every time I'd move around, afraid that I'd flee to the bathroom, gagging myself until I'm dead.
The thing that she doesn't know is that I'm already dead. I'm living the luxurious life of a zombie right now, minus the flesh-eating and the Bath Salts. I don't feel like a human anymore. I'm numb, just a beautiful skeleton with rotting fat draped over my bones. I won't feel like this once I get it all off. It's the only thing that's weighing me down. I swear I like myself, just not the part of myself that's shown right now. The pretty part of myself is down there somewhere, under all of this sludge that that dances around it.
When I wasn't a zombie-girl I had so much more. I liked sports, felt a real adrenaline rush every time I'd kick a ball or take a lap around the pool. I can never make a commitment to a team anymore; too much work. I can barely get myself out of bed for school, much less make multiple practices and games a week. I liked art too, my hand always holding something to sketch with. I'd doodle on my notebooks and on canvases and would hang my work on our fridge until I realized Mom never gave a s*** about any of it. I had a few friends too, ones that I'd talk to on the phone and go over their houses. A few of them moved, some of them gave up on me. My mood swings were difficult for them to handle. I read, lots of books. I still have stacks of them in my closet. The words comforted me when things first started to get rocky, but now I feel like they are mocking me. All normal writers document the crazy people like me. They have no idea. I've not only lost my mind, but lost the entire girl I was. My mind is too busy to deal with silly stuff like that now. I'm really only focused on my food. Anything else that gets my attention must be pretty darn special.
"Dad would have wanted you to eat," sneaks from the corners of Mom's lips. This sentence crawls like a bug onto the table and sits on top of my sandwich.
"You're kidding me, right?" I sneer. "If Dad cared at all about what I've been doing, he'd be standing here in the kitchen." It's true. I'm the last thing on Dad's mind. Mom doesn't even know who he is anymore. He's long gone; out of our lives. He wants nothing to do with me. "Why is it all of a sudden okay to bring up Dad? We've never talked about him before!"
I know nothing of my father. What I've pieced together has always dropped from the mouths of Grandma Lynn or Grandpa Eric. His name is Matthew Parker. He's five years younger than Mom, light hair and a pale complexion; I've seen pictures. He was supposedly really funny, and he used to work at a shoe store, back when they were dating. I wonder where he is now. He could live right around the corner, for all we know. Maybe, he's in a different country, having tea with a lovely British wife or jetting around a big city like Tokyo with a spunky woman. He might have kids, ones my age or younger. He might devote his whole life to them, driving them to and from daycare, chanting at their gymnastics meets. He could be the head of a multi-million dollar corporation, suit-and-tie. He could be a cop, a teacher, a doctor, a salesman. Who knows? The only Matthew Parker that my mother remembers is the college student that spent his days with his arms around her frail shoulders.
Mom picks apart her apple until just the core is dangling from the stem, then she shoves my plate at me again. "Eat," she grunts, her teeth clenched so tightly that I begin to wonder how she's still breathing.
I shove the plate back. We go at this for a little while, the soggy sandwich flopping around on top. My stomach is doing a lot more than growling. It feels torn apart, scratched up. I'm in serious pain and discomfort. It would be so easy just to feel normal again, to have three meals a day, wear the clothes I like, smile. I just can't bring myself to do it. If I'm any bigger than I am now, nobody will give a s*** about me at all. I'm getting close to my goal weight. I have to keep this up. The roaring sound radiating from my abdomen is a cheering crowd reminding me to keep goinggoinggoing. I push the plate back to Mom one final time and head to my room before she can stop me.
I'm almost to the finish line.
School is weird. Everybody pays far too much attention to me, like I'm some freak placed in our district for a science experiment or something. They whisper about my chubby arms and thunder thighs. I see them. They think I'm stupid. Sometimes they even talk right in front of me. Mom drives me in, so I don't see Summer and Elle on the bus, but Summer greets me with a pained smile in math second period. She even asks if I want to sit next to her, since Noah is out sick, but I decline, retreating back to my usual spot next to that snotty nosed kid. He shows me his collection of Pokemon cards before Mrs. Gallanti starts the class, like he's trying to impress me. I snort at him and stare at Summer's long hair braided down her back. She looks different without Noah; less whole. There are various wet leaves stuck to the window, behind a few, "Math is Awesome!" posters that students from previous years decorated. The whole room is warm, but not in a good way. It's really muggy and sticky. It doesn't even feel like summer time is approaching. Rosie insists on standing in the alto section during Chorus, parked right next to me. The whole class gossips about why, but I assume word has already gotten around to Whatever-The-Teacher's-Name-Is. I feel embarrassed singing next to Rosie, like my sour notes might make their way through her ears and pollute her pure ones, so I mostly keep quiet, dramatically mouthing the words so I still get participation points. Rosie's voice feels so comforting next to me. It reminds me of those mother's in movies who sing their children lullabies before bed. My eyes feel heavy with sleep by the time we exit the class. Rosie doesn't say a thing to me, just twirls around in another one of her pink dresses and smiles graciously at everyone who stares at me like I'm insane. I don't want to face Mr. Dixon's class, but Art flies by so fast that I'm at my table with the girls in the blink of an eye. Elle doesn't make eye contact with me. Summer makes too much. Rosie just smiles, pretends that nothing is a bit different. The hands on his big classroom clock inch past each number slower than they ever have before. Mr. Dixon's face is slightly more crumpled today, not as jolly as it usually is. He paces back and forth in the front of the room, his right hand stroking his bright blue tie, situating it just right over his sky blue collared shirt. Summer asks if any of us can come for a sleepover this weekend, but is responded to by the bell ringing, and Mr. Dixon hushing the class, while writing something on the board. Sleepovers are so normal. They're for the regular kids, who have secrets to spill during Truth or Dare that won't make everything more uncomfortable that it already is. My head collapses onto my desk as Mr. Dixon sets the theme for today's lesson. I brace myself; his nervous pacing and wrinkled forehead making me nervous. "Self image," he bellows, "is often an issue with many teens in our society. Adults too." I want to run, take off out of this class room and bolt as far away from all of this as I can. I want to abandon everything I know, my parents and home and friends and teachers. I want to run and run until nothing looks familiar but the sunset, then I want to puke and starve and shrivel myself up, decay in the corner of an empty shed or barn or something. I want to return as someone unrecognizable; razor thin, like those dolls I used to cut from magazine's at Grandma Lynn's house when I was little. I want to be beautiful; visible collar bones, skinny neck, graceful arms. I want my smile to be natural. I want Mom to stammer when she sees me. I want hundreds of people to flock to me, die to be my friend. I don't want to sit here and be lectured to. "What are some things you guys are insecure about?" Mr. Dixon says, the words rolling off his tongue. The class is eerily silent, and I feel Rosie's eyes on me. My hands are so clammy that it feels like we're out basking in the sun on a sandy beach. "What does this have to do with English?" this short girl with glasses asks from the back of the room. "Just answer the question, somebody." Mr. Dixon demands, rolling his eyes. He's only asking to find out about me. He knows that everyone else in this class is fine with the way they are. I would be too if I looked like them. He's getting under my skin, trying to dive into my business like this. I really thought he'd be my favorite teacher, being so relaxed and paternal, but I can't stand this side of him. "My nose," Steve says. What the hell is he talking about? His nose is perfect, as is everything else about that boy; his smirk, wandering eyes, shaggy hair. I don't get it. "I think your nose is kind of cute," Elle tells him, batting her eyelashes. He high-fives Tyler and exchanges smiles with her. She giggles, and turns back around to us, blushing ever-so-slightly. "I'm insecure about my voice, sometimes. I want to be a singer, but I don't know if I'm good enough," Rosie says, softly. "Of course you'll be good enough. You're incredible," I whisper. "See, everyone has insecurities and, sometimes, they're things that other people love them for," Mr. Dixon says, gesturing toward Rosie and I with a flattened palm. I shake as everyone's attention is diverted to me. The thing is, I don't think there is really anybody out there who likes the things I'm insecure about. I don't think there is anyone who swoons when my elastic skin jiggles as I walk. I don't think anyone admires the bulging fat caked on my forearms. I'm not like Rosie or Steve. I excuse myself to go to the bathroom and Mr. Dixon appears to be thoroughly annoyed. I pay no attention to the look he gives me as I make my way out. The halls are quiet and the school lights seem dimmer than usual, although everything in my life seems slightly dampened. My footsteps echo, the soles of my sneakers slapping the tiles. I feel so lonely out here, in the midst of so much activity, but separated from all of it. I take my time on the way to the bathroom, which I know will be deserted and will act unfriendly toward me. The bathroom is grimy and cold from to many amplified gagging noises and muffled cries. Those stalls can only hold so much madness. I stop and admire a few pieces done by art students hung up, proudly, on a nearby bulletin board. I run my peeled fingertips over their attempts at watercolors and rough sketches. I study the way their brush or pencil strokes happen, finding my hands in a familiar position, cradled up against an imaginary paintbrush. I glare into the eyes of a self-portrait of someone who I don't recognize, take in her sky-high cheekbones and slanted nose. I cross my fingers behind my back when I hear someone making their way up the closest staircase, thinking it could be a snitch of a teacher anxiously waiting to turn someone in for lingering in the hallways. It's not; just a cute boy in a button-up shirt and a new pair of jeans. We're both aware of each other, but don't exchange glances. The boy passes, makes his way to the front office, where he drops off something. I take a few steps forward and am faced with hundreds of newspaper clippings; headlines and photographs documenting Calloway High's athletes. I see a few seniors in football uniforms and two girls smiling behind pink tennis racquets. I see Elle too, standing side-by-side with the members of her undefeated field hockey team. I sigh, touch each smiling player's face, the musky print leaving residue on my fingers. Some actors are posted on the next board; boys and girls dressed in different costumes hitting the final pose of an opening number or something. They're bodies and voices and minds are so brilliantly displayed for all to see, a packed audience inside our school's auditorium. Playbills from their most recent shows are pinned up. I remember Rosie, that one day in lunch, telling us how she had a part in the last one, but I can't remember which it was. I shrug and keep walking toward the bathroom. The last board is decorated with splendid candids from the halls of the school; a crowd of boys circling the camera, one of the smaller freshman waving delightfully, a couple holding hands, a kid discussing an exam with Mr. Crandeen, that old teacher I have. One thing all of these nameless faces have in common is that they're all so happy to be here, between the walls of Calloway High School. I wake up each day and repeating one mantra, while they're repeating another. I remind myself that each day will be over soon, that I just have to get through it, and soon enough it'll be summer and I can stay out of the way of all of this. They consume every weekday, eat every little bit of each one up, like all the food that I'm deserting. They make the most of their lives, do the things they love, enjoy the time they're given with their friends. They put their teenage years into their own personal history textbooks, while I throw each one of my days into the trash when they're done. High school is just a collection of insignificant moments for me, while they cradle each day with the greatest care, love each conversation, adore every game they play, every show they put on. They waste all their energy on the little things. They're happy. There is a scurry of footsteps from my English classroom, and I attempt to dart toward the bathroom, but see it is Rosie, Elle, and Summer, so I stop. "We wanted to make sure you were okay, since you've been out her for a while," Elle sputters. "I'm fine. I like this picture of you." I tell, pointing my index finger at the field hockey picture she was in. "Thanks," she replies, turning to it and pointing at the beaming coach in the corner of the picture, a stocky man with dark facial hair a whistle hung around his neck, "Our toughest game. We almost lost, but I scored a goal last minute, and we beat Parker High's team. My teammates went crazy." Rosie and Summer nod. "The crowd too. We were there. Everyone was chanting her name. It was one of Calloway's biggest sports moments," Summer says. "I felt amazing," Elle reminisces. "It was so cool. I'm so excited to watch you play again next season," Rosie tells, smiling at a clipping of a cute boy in a blue baseball cap, chanting in the stands. Elle laughs, leaning her back against the bulletin board and letting the silence envelop us. "I had this doll when I was growing up that was my absolute favorite thing in the world. I brought her everywhere. My mom gave me her after the Olympics one year, where I fell in love with the sport of field hockey. She had long blonde braids and a painted on smile. She wore a miniature version of the USA team uniform, and a tiny, glistening gold medal dangled from her little plastic neck. I pretended she was me in the future, and I'd play with her all day, imagining that one day I'd be an Olympian, that I'd be an incredible player that everyone looked up to. She was awesome. This may sound super cheesy and all, but whatever; that day, when I helped my team win that game, I felt like that doll." Elle's smile is heartwarming and she clasps her hands in front of her body and lets us all stare in awe over the whole story. "I know how you feel," Rosie lets out, checking out another picture of a few senior boys sitting, in their jerseys, on the torn-up turf. "Huh?" I ask. "My grandparents live in England, and we visit them every summer, something I spend all year looking forward to. They have this picturesque little cottage, surrounded by billions of flowers and birds with sing-song voices. Most adorable place ever. I swear. Anyway, my grandfather has this little room with really old vintage things; like, knick-knacks and stuff. There's this music box in there that I adore. It plays this same tune over and over, but it's really beautiful, and there's this little doll-girl that sits on top, twirling around in a circle. She has pig-tails and this huge smile and I'd always hum the tune back to her each time I played with it. I'd always sing over there, with my grandparents, since they love music as much as I do. The first time I sang solo at a performance, back in elementary school, I held my head up high, just like the music box doll did, and sang my heart out. I felt like her. I felt incredible," Rosie whispers. I imagine her as a young girl, missing teeth and all, singing like I was about to at my Kindergarten show. She probably had parents in the audience, their faces streaked with pride. The audience would be awestruck, stunned by the big voice coming out of such a small girl. She'd be humble as usual. Her tiny feet would take her running around with the other kids after the curtain call, like she was just another one of them. She'd wear a smaller version of the dress she's wearing now, sky blue with flowers dotting the hem. "I think we all have those moments in our life when our lives are so lovely that we feel like a doll. Noah makes me feel like that everyday. I used to play with Barbie and Ken for hours growing up, throwing pretend weddings, taking them out on dates. I fantasized about having a relationship like the one I built for them. Then, Noah came along and made me feel like the happiest girl on the planet. He makes me feel beautiful, doesn't just tell me I am. I feel like a true doll when I'm in his arms." Summer swoons. We all giggle, and she blushes, her pale cheeks flushing red in an instant. "Oh boy, I'm such a romantic." "Don't worry. I'd be the same way if I had someone like that," rolls off my tongue, even though I'm not sure I agree with what I'm saying. I don't know if I could ever fully fall in love. People have to love themselves just enough before they let other people love them. It's a fact. I already get defensive every time someone compliments me. I don't feel I'm worthy of it. "You will, one day," Summer replies. Everyone is really still, and our voices seem so loud in such a quite, enclosed space. It's crazy how easily Mr. Dixon lets all three of them leave class now that he knows my secret. "I doubt it," I mumble. My words crumble and fall like ashes to the floor. I stomp on them with my sneaker. Sometimes I hate saying stuff about how I'm feeling. They must all see me as a big attention seeker, like Mom always is convinced I am. Elle's munches on her lip, and Summer diverts her attention back to Elle's team's picture on the wall. I swallow gulps of air like I'm helplessly drowning. "Well, I think there are plenty of people out there who will like you. I sure do," Rosie lets me know, and I shrug. She takes a few steps back and they all stare at me, like I'm a delicate object high-up on a shelf, ready to come crashing to the floor. They're afraid I'll shatter into millions of pieces, break completely, but I'm numb to my behavior. This is definitely not the worst of been. I've hated myself a lot more than this. I've hated myself so much that hearing my thoughts would make them sick. The worst thoughts come when I'm all alone, shivering in my room late at night, or when I'm hunched over the toilet, barely able to breathe. They sneak up and attack me, spit into my ears, when I see my weight on the scale; flashing digits that have no idea how much they haunt me. 150, 130, 110. I chop the numbers apart, struggling as they get smaller. The relentless voices slur at me every time I see my body in front of a mirror. They take punches at my insecurities, choke me until tears swell under my eyelids. The worst thoughts come when I think of my parents. Dad doesn't care, and Mom doesn't truly care. She was probably instructed to torture me about my habits for one night, by that pesky school nurse with the freaking big mouth and brown nose. The thoughts are so horrible sometimes; morbid, terrible thoughts that I gargle each night and every morning. They tell me to beat up this body and put it through hell. I give in. Anything to make the voices go away. "I would always make paper dolls when I was younger. I liked them cause I could decorate them any way I wanted to, dress them up in Crayola-fashions or scribble on their paper-flesh with a #2 pencil. If I didn't like the way they turned out, I could crumple them up and toss them. There's always enough paper for me to start again," I begin, coughing on each word a bit. They all are timid to respond, wide-eyed, with mouth's gaping. "I wish I were a paper doll, like that, sometimes. I wish I could shape myself the way I want to and create the way I look. I hope and pray to be a razor thin paper-girl. I wish I could throw myself away without it being so rough; just a simple belly-flop into a garbage can to do the job," I finish. The words are sneaky, and clot the girls' throats. I'm stoic, my hands hung at my sides and my body lifeless. I don't know if I'm breathing anymore. I can't tell if I'm even alive; just dreaming, in a coma; something. Summer's lip quivers a bit. "Paper's not strong enough to hold you," she gushes. "What?" I stammer. Is she seriously cracking jokes about my f*ing weight right now? "Paper is thin. You can tear it to shreds in seconds; throw it in the air and it drifts off right away with the wind. I think you have so much more to you than you think you do," she whimpers. "I was completely infatuated by you since the day Elle and I saw you on the bus. You're interesting, Mia. You always have these big eyes, scoping out the scene you see. I always wonder what you're thinking about, what you're opinions on me are." "My mom always tells me that all the bad things that happen to us are just parts of our stories. We have to have lots of things to tell our kids when we grow up! We use the storybooks filled up with our experiences to help them write theirs. Scary stories always have a moral, some how. All of the hard stuff we go through makes up the interesting, edge-of-your-seat chapters. Every book needs of few of those," Elle tells. Usually, I hate being lectured to, like this, but they're saying different things than what I usually hear. They're not preaching to me about how I shouldn't be starving myself, or about how wanting to die is selfish, or about how I'm fishing for compliments. They're letting me know that what I'm going through is giving me worth; self-worth is something I haven't felt in a while. Rosie sits down on the floor and pulls me down with her, clasping her fingers around mine. Summer and Elle fall beside us, and I'm reminded of the day before; the whole meltdown I had outside the classroom, but it doesn't seem embarrassing or painful anymore. It just seems like it's part of my history. "Paper dolls aren't worth anything. I remember playing with paper dolls in daycare; tossing them out, tearing them up. You can't do that to yourself, Mia. You mean so much to me now. I know we've only known each other for a few weeks, but I agree with Summer. You're one of the most incredible people I've ever met. You're insightful. You've been through so much more than any of us," Rosie says. "I bet there's so much of you on the inside that you don't even let us see. Your body is just a shell to hold all of that. There's nothing wrong with it. It's a shell. Crack it open. Let us all in. Don't shrink it down so none of us can fit," Elle sputters. "That was deep," giggles Summer. I smile. The bell rings, causing us all to jump out of our skin. I swim in mine for a few moments more, before it begins to lock around my malnourished bones, fit me correctly. The halls flood with people, seven hundred other beating hearts. "I can't wait for the sleepover tomorrow," my voice says, clear as glass.
Three Months Later...
"Alright, everyone, I know that you're all feeling anxious about summer approaching in less than three hours," Mr. Dixon bellows, pausing for the class to cheer in excitement, "but I'm going to ask you guys to do your presentations now. I hope you've all showcased your best writing in these papers, using all the skills I've taught you. This does count as your final exam, you guys, so make sure you're all focused. Speak loudly, make eye contact, deliver these as real speeches; but have fun. This is the last day of school after all."
He walks over to his desk as Summer takes two of her pens and drum rolls on her desk, her long hair tied up in a swingy ponytail behind her. "The first victim is Mia Duncan," she jokes, and all three of them send grins my way.
"Hey!" I yell, and laugh. There is a sense of lightness in the room. Everyone seems airy today, billions of balloons ready to float away and desert the school in exchange for the sweltering heat taunting us from behind the room's windows. We're on the brink of trading in these school supplies for beach towels and sunscreen. We're so close, and each hour that passes by prompts a simultaneous cheer from all of the students. Even the teachers are anxious, checking their watches and giving up on lessons all week long. Mr. Dixon has had this planned for a while, though. This project has been something that we've all dreaded, but soon accepted. All other work has winded down, so it wasn't too much of a big deal for us all to prepare.
"Wonderful idea, Summer! Mia, you're up first!" Mr. Dixon smirks. I laugh and stand up, making my way toward the front of the room.
"Thanks a lot, girl!" I call, waving to Summer. Rosie giggles, a hand floating over her pale, thin lips. They all look really pretty today, pastel colored tank tops and tan shoulders. We've all tasted hints of summer time and it's been beautiful so far. I'm stoked for the full thing. The type printed on my paper becomes fuzzy as I stare hard at it. A million thoughts come rushing back to me, memories that I'm nervous about recalling, but I face them.
"Sure, I've learned two hundred literary devices this year, and the symbolism in Of Mice and Men. I've slaved over a handful of essays, learned the meanings of words like 'auspicious' and 'usurp.' Mr. Dixon has made me a better reader, made me interpret every last word out of anything I glance at just for fun. I've come a long way since I moved here back in February, but not from these reasons. To answer your question, Mr. Dixon, the most important thing I've learned this year was that every little mistake I make, every little imperfection I have makes me important. I feel so much more significant now than I did back then," I begin.
Rosie and Summer exchange glances, and Elle smiles big at me. There is some gasping from the back of the room and I see Mr. Dixon bite his lip, run a hand over his head. He's nodding, though. He doesn't know everything that has happened, but he has a good idea.
"There was a time, before I got to Calloway, that I felt helpless. I hated myself, every inch of me. It wasn't just that I thought I was ugly, or that I was fat. I was actually repulsed by myself. I thought that if I starved myself and became thinner, then I'd be happier. I know, it doesn't really make sense, but, I don't know, it's how I thought. See, my father left my mother when I was born. He was super young and not ready to become a dad. He left before I even existed, it had nothing to do with me, but somehow I switched things around in my mind so I would believe that he left cause he didn't want someone like me as a kid. My mom never paid attention when I was unhappy, so I vowed to myself that I'd loose ten pounds. That soon became twenty, thirty, forty; so on. I became addicted to loosing weight, obsessed. It was all I thought about. I'd stay up all night, exhaust my body, doing crunches on my bathroom floor. I skipped meals so much that I learned how to control my hunger pangs; big glasses of water always expand your stomach and make you think that you're full when your not. I got depressed, shut myself away from everything I once enjoyed. I refused to let myself have friends for a while, slurred at myself every night that nobody in the whole world will ever love me. I almost killed myself. I got scarily thin, you guys all saw me. I was like a walking Halloween skeleton. My teeth are rotted away, my nails too, from making myself throw up so much, which, by the way, is not at all a fun experience. It gave me results, though. That's all I cared about. Thin was in. There was a time when I was striving to be the weight of an average fourth grader. At my height, that's a recipe for disaster. There was something that was soon told me. I was told that I was not worthless, because all of the trouble that I was dealing with would soon make me a stronger person. It would be something in my past. This turned out to be very true." I stop and exchange smiles with the girls and then with Mr. Dixon. My heart flip-flops under my ribcage. "Today marks the thirtieth day I've gone, consistently, without starving myself in any way, shape, or form." The class applauds, and I'm absolutely overwhelmed by the feeling of all those hands clapping for me. The silence any voices still left lingering in my head. They squash any monsters still spilling from my throat. That clapping makes me feel so proud of myself, for I have overcome something, something that not many people can.
"Over fifteen percent of Americans suffer from some kind of serious eating disorder. Think about that; fifteen percent. The scary thing is that diseases like Anorexia and Bulimia are usually secretive, so there's probably many, many more cases out there than we are aware of. Imagine all the poor little girls who's souls are shaking under their bones. Imagine all the people who constantly scold themselves for eating breakfast, or the ones who slit open their skin as a punishment for gaining a pound. It makes me sick to think of how many people truly believe that they're worth nothing."
The class is stunned silent. There are tears in the corners of Rosie's eyes. She probably remembers me, on the floor, crying into her lap. She doesn't know the half of all the torture I put myself through. That's terrifying to me. "It wasn't like I got better overnight; definitely not. Oh boy, even after I made this sort of revelation that I am worth something, I still went about my normal routine for weeks. A little bit over a month. Things got really bad. Some friends eventually brought me to the doctor one day," I say, looking down at the girls. Elle gives me a charismatic wave, and I chuckle. "The doctor told me my pulse rate was off, and I was on my way to the serious medical condition of heart failure; common effects of Anorexia Nervosa." Rosie sobs, suddenly, and Summer scoots closer to her, resting her on Rosie's shoulder. She's probably reliving the day she had in the hospital, crying with the other girls and I, pinky promising to turn my life around. "I have a nutritionist that works with me now, and a therapist I see once a week, which pretty much cost a fortune. My mom had to give up some of the money we were saving for when I go to college, but it was important. My health is so important right now. I went to a mental clinic for a week, slept there and was watched like crazy by professionals. I went to classes that taught me how to love my body. They got me to start journaling, writing down my thoughts, letting all the bad ones fall out into a notebook instead of tearing me up inside; and guess what? Something pretty good came out of it! I mean, other than thirty days I've spent completely healthy; cue the applause!" I joke, and the class claps again, laughing. It's so crazy how I'm able to stand up here now, so confident with who I am, so open about my story.
"I wrote a poem. It's not a rhyming poem, or a song or anything, but more a collection of all the things that make me worth it. It's called, 'Paper Doll,' and I'd like to share it with you guys today."
"I am footprints beaten into sandy beaches
and the snow that licks the naked trees each bitter winter.
I am lovestruck parents with rosy cheeks and good intentions,
nine months of preparation for an altered life.
I am blown out birthday cake candles, one through fourteen,
wishes upon wishes upon wishes.
I am the two million dancing stars that have illuminated my bedroom window,
the ones that I stung with my desire be razor thin.
Desire to be a paper doll.
I am twelve first days of school,
thirty soccer games per season,
three best friends wired to my backbone.
I was five hundred calories a day.
I am moody and judgmental and selfish.
I am a range of personalities stuffed inside a skin-bag
and newfound smiles that crack my hardened cheeks.
Paper is too thin to hold me.
Paper dolls get thrown into the trashcan once playtime is over.
I am lips parted,
forever waiting for a kiss because I programmed myself to think nobody will love me.
I am gangly arms coiled around people in need,
helping others because nobody is helping me.
I am plush toy stuffing spilled onto the carpet.
I am falling apart.
I am my father's beaming grin,
frozen in photographs but still inked to my skin.
I am memories strung together like the beads on a necklace
and the popcorn-thoughts behind my flaming eyelids.
I am so much.
I am rushing blood and a half-filled heart
that's been drained, emptied because you've taken everything from me
by sending your paper dolls out running across my train-track veins.
I am not surrendering to you anymore.
I am not part of your army.
I am the daring beats of my favorite songs pumping through my body
and the delicate words of fairytales from long ago;
heroes with capes and handsome princes rescuing each long haired, pale skinned,
thinthinthin maiden from her tower.
I am disassembled bones hung like wind-chimes on my porcelain frame.
I am not a paper doll.
I am all the people who have told me they love me.
I am the times when I feel proud of myself.
I am the pain that tears at my gut
and I am the kindergartener than was spooked by her first haunted house;
the one who's biggest fear was the fictional monsters under her bed
until she learned that the real ones slept right beneath her ribcage,
wringing her lungs each night after dusk.
I was terrified of who I had become,
but I was on a quest to love who I am.
I am infinite things,
but I am not worthless like a crumpled
The class stands up, screams and cheers for me. I fall into Elle's arms, hysterically crying and then make my way over to other two girls on the other side of the table. I return back to my place at the head of the class room and wipe the tears on the back of my wrist. These are happy tears, ones that haven't made an appearance on my face in forever. The tears wash away all the bad times and remind me how well I am now. Getting all of this off my chest feels amazing. "If you're struggling with self-esteem issues, body image problems, depression, whatever it may be; listen to me. Someone who is lost can not be found using a map they've drawn on their own. You need to reach out and ask for help. It's horrifying, trust me, but you need to do it, because I know how bad it is, and nobody is worthy of all that. Everyone in the whole universe needs to maintain their bodies, because if we don't, then nobody will have one to put on every morning. Nobody will be able to go out and experience all the amazing things this world has to offer. I, for example, am trying out for the Calloway soccer team next season, once I get my body back up to a healthy weight. I'm going to smile and laugh and love and be anything I want to be, without limitations, because I threw out all the paper dolls that were taunting me. All I had to do was look for a little help."
Mr. Dixon gives me a standing ovation, flicking the tears from the corners of his eyes. The kids join too. I clap for myself, feel so satisfied with the skin I'm living inside. "And, so, to conclude, the most important thing that I learned in class this year was," I begin, smiling at the girls, "that Summer Riley is up next." I scurry to her seat, playfully pushing her to the front of the room, the collapse into Rosie's arms for another hug. The summer sun beats in through the window and I laugh in spite of all I've just confessed. I laugh because I'm able to now. I can muster up that laughter from deep inside of me. I'm free, taken apart from all of those demons that would chew me up inside, the invisible bullies who would slander me, whisper my name. I'm free from it all.
There’s a car parked in front of our house when I return home from the final day of school. I c*** my head in confusion at how unfamiliar it looks. I burst open the door and see a presentable man dressed in a green collared shirt and clean Levi jeans. He turns around on his heels and smiles at me. My eyebrows thread and I frantically search around the house for someone I know, something normal. He laughs, deep, from his belly. Mom emerges from the kitchen and greets me at the door. “Mia, I’d like you to meet Dave. He’s a guy I work with. We’re going to go out for dinner tonight,” she says, gently. I shake the man’s hand, his cool palm meeting mine.
“Out to dinner?” I repeat, smirking at Mom.
“Yeah. We have reservations soon, so we’ll be on our way, but he can hang out for coffee once we get home and you guys can get to know each other,” she says, her voice a lot more relaxed than it normally is.
“Sounds good. Nice to meet you, Dave,” I say, so puzzled about this whole thing. They exit the door, and I watch the man lead Mom out to his car. He opens the door for her, smiles at her, pleasantly, as she jumps in. I can’t believe it. Mom’s going out on a date. After all of these years hiding away from any real form of human interaction, burying herself under lots of work, she’s finally letting someone in. She’s forgetting about Dad for a minute and she’s happy; a smile plastered between her cheeks as Dave pulls out of the driveway. She gives me a little thumbs up and I laugh. Wow. I’ve never seen her giddy like this before. It’s like she’s the person that Grandpa Eric and Grandma Lynn always tell me stories about. It’s like she’s the person that my Dad fell in love with before he ran away.
My phone buzzes in my pocket and I answer it just as Dave’s car disappears from my view. “Mia! Oh my goodness!” Rosie’s voice the room before I can even the receiver to my ear.
“What? What is it?” I say, giggling.
“Tyler and Steve!” Rosie squeals, breathing heavily. “They came up to Elle and I after the final bell rang today and asked us if we wanted to double date! Mia, I’m freaking out!”
“I knew Tyler liked you! That’s awesome. I’m really happy for you guys,” I tell her, falling into the comfort of the living room couch. The summer air flies in through the ajar door and tickles my nose. The fact that we don’t have school anymore makes me as joyful as can be.
Rosie whistles into the phone, hums some cute little song about her and Tyler. “I’ve got to call Summer! I’ll see you soon, Mia! Love you!” I hear, and then her voice vanishes.
A sense of emptiness overcomes the house, picks it up and rocks it. This is the type of thing that would make me uncomfortable and sad, back a few months ago. I’d be lonely at times like this, but now it feels relaxing. Today has been perfect; summertime things falling into place, a breezy, beautiful last day of school, everyone that I love being taken care of. I actually truly feel happy. I never thought I’d be this way a few months ago. Sometimes, you just need to give things some time, because everything works out, eventually; I swear.