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The kitchen swallows me in from the oppressive heat outside into the welcome cool of shadows. I let myself lean for a moment in the doorframe to savor the sense of relief. It’s kind of ridiculous, the seasons here. I spend the winter cocooned in blankets and cursing the ice and the summer never quite turns out to be the great thawing release I thought it would be.
After decorating the table with the day’s mail and an assortment of homework papers, I gust around the house for a while, blowing from surface to surface through the dark rooms in an attempt to find something to read. It’s not that we don’t have books; we own many, and still others are on loan from the library. But none of them are quite enough to quell the ache edging into my chest, so I finally settle on a magazine. Normally I shy away from the more flashy narratives found inside of them, but right now I need something sensational, if only to take up space in my head.
It’s also a bit of a test. Usually the cravings find me faster during my more inactive moments. Curling around my magazine on the couch, I am exposing myself flauntingly. I wedge myself backwards into the folds of our sadly sagging couch and let the words rise and cover me.
After a moment, I notice that my hand has drifted slowly up from my thigh and teased open my lips. I wasn’t aware that it was moving at all, but then my teeth shift and grind over each other with a flash of pain and I released the nail I had been chewing and let my fingers fall back down onto my lap, smearing wetly across the magazine page. Inspecting, I could not seem to find much real damage but I know, with persistence, nails can be worn down.
It’s not as if I am particularly protective of them, with the vague pink where they overlap my skin and their rounded edges. I wore them naked to school and everywhere, having discovered quickly in my early childhood that polish always chipped off halfway within days, and the scraggly remnants stuck on disproportionately long beyond that. Still, after that, I scramble up and toss away the gleaming smiles of the big names of the week onto the coffee table.
I can’t sit on my hands, or I won’t because it just seems too ridiculous, so I will clench them around a pencil. It’s time I begin my homework anyway. A few jagged fingernails are nothing to be afraid of but I can’t afford to layer one habit over another. It’s enough trying to keep myself away from the kitchen.
My English is finished after I have slogged through a chapter of our most recent assignment, answering questions as I go. I manage to make a dent in my math as well before my mind begins to slide away from my textbook. Fidgeting in my seat, I glance out the window. It’s steaming, in the way of summer, with waves of heat shimmering over the driveway. I wriggle further downward in my seat, bracing my shoulder blades against the white wood of the backing. Then, my legs, rising up like two great blue walls, erecting themselves repulsively against the edge of the table. I had known the eating was getting bad again but it takes me a moment before I can recognize these masses of denim as my own. They are too round, too wide, and they singe me with shame.
I stumble up from my chair and tug on my shoes even as I am ramming the door open with one shoulder. It is not considered correct to launch yourself into a run without warming up first but I do. I gallop down the driveway, not slowing until I am a few houses up the road.
After a while, even the trees begin to seem unreal. Cars, houses, all are shrouded in heat and they shimmer disconcertingly. Out of the haze, a mailbox takes shape about a hundred feet in front of me and immediately becomes my target. This is what I do: count or close my eyes or pick a spot and let it pull me up the road. I stretch up a damp hand and scratch my hair away from my neck. The ponytail I so carefully constructed only twenty minutes ago is gone, having slipped free into a tangle of limpid strands. I probably lost the elastic awhile back.
Unconditioned and opposed at every turn by the day’s heat, it won’t be long before I surrender again and slow to a walk. Already, I am heaving rather desperately with each breath and my stomach is twisted and sour. The only thing to do is to keep on planting my feet as hard as I can into the pavement and try to count the steps. It seems more real this way, like each one is something I can stuff in my pocket, roll out on my bed when I get home, like the way I collected rocks when I was little. I am up to 60 before the mailbox seems any closer.
I glance down at my thighs, white and bulging below the line of my shorts. The skin ripples each time my sneaker strikes the ground. Under all that, you can’t even see how they are straining. They feel as heavy as they look, too, like a chain is dragging on my heels with each step that I take. Could I really do this every day until I have molded them- whittled them down-into the slim, sinewy shape of a true runner’s legs?
There is the mailbox, finally, to relieve me. When I stop, I have to bend down for a moment and let my head hang between my knees. Suddenly, my pulse is hot in my ears and my knees have gone soft and the ground is jerking sporadically under my feet. It panics me for a moment until I realize that my stomach is now entirely cleansed of last night’s dinner and, without being filled for either breakfast or lunch today, leaves me weak. I give the dizziness time to ebb, straighten up, and keep on walking.
By the time I make it home, a mask of sweat streams over my face. When I wipe my hand against my jeans, I can feel my leg shaking. Slumping on my bed, I flick on the fan in a halfhearted attempt to drown out the sounds of dishes meeting the glass table, cutlery chiming as it is set down. My excursion has carried me past 6:00 and my parents have evidently sent Rich to set the table for dinner.
Any other day I would take advantage of this: my stomach cramped and twisted from the heat to ward off my appetite. But I know that I will have to go down there at some point. My limbs are weighted, laced with iron, as if trying to stay as inert as possible. A short jog that decelerates to a walk, even in the summer, should not make me this tired.
I can feel large, hot tears pressing behind my eyes. Always there are two tongues of poison seeping through me; one is the endless yawning of my stomach and the covetous throbbing in my lips, and the other is the fierce and exhausting frustration that I can’t just shake this off or wait it out the way you can a stomach bug or the common cold. Two parts of my mind warring over my body.
None of it makes sense. One finger lightly traces the bulge of my stomach and I wonder how long it has been like this. How much longer it will be.
I make my way downstairs, eventually, to the empty kitchen and root around in the refrigerator for a collection of my favorite vegetables. Twice, I open the cheese drawer and close it again. Once I have all I need I shred the lettuce and slice up the rest on the cutting board. My knife makes short work of the pile, guided as it is by such a practiced hand. I gather up each torn piece of lettuce and lay them down so they ring the edge of my plate, overlapping slightly. In order to keep consistency, I reach for the other flat pieces next, thin sheets of tomato and onion. I don’t mind the sting it brings to my eyes and nose since that signifies a sharpness of flavor that will serve to add distinction to the rest of my plate. The sticks of pepper must splay outwards from the center like the green spokes of a wheel and the carrot discs fill the spaces between. It should be enough to satisfy every craving within me, and now that my heart has stopped lurching and my breathing has slowed, I should be twitching to feed each piece into my waiting mouth. However, there is a small thought nagging at me and tugging me back towards the refrigerator, a small thought that balloons with each passing second. It is a thought that soon encompasses every sleepless, feverish night staring at the ceiling through moist eyes, every red mark on my arms from where I have pinched myself into distraction, every mouthful of the past few months collapsing me further into my mind even as I watch my body expand in every possible direction. And the bag of cheese, positively thrumming with its rich, full flavor. One last pull from my insatiable stomach and I have to grab some.
My hand hesitates a moment before unclenching, dribbling down my clump of shredded cheddar. I am afraid of my own logic. It took me a few minutes to decide on this addition, but eventually the corner of my mind contesting that this modest pile would have to last until tomorrow afternoon won out. What scares me is that this same corner has already firmly steered me away from the one-meal-a-day resolution of last week and however reasonable that may be, it warns of further weaknesses in the future.
I cradle my arrangement of vegetables careful and close as I make my way quickly to the screen porch where I know everyone is waiting for me. The door is shut and I have to nudge it open with a spare elbow before slipping into my place next to Mom at the table. She turns; a smile cresting on her lips from some snippet of the conversation I just missed folds back into a half-frown at the sight of my plate.
“You don’t want pork?”
I shake my head.
Mom sighs low and quiet as a far-off rustle of leaves. “I don’t know why I bother cooking these big meals if no one will eat them.”
She says this looking down on her own plate which is piled just as high with raw vegetables as my own.
After I have devoured every other piece of the salad, I can’t stop myself from meticulously scooping up the last straw-thin flakes of cheese from where they are scattered across my plate.