By Emily Ansara Baines
Today in Group, Annoying Girl talks about how fat she feels. Nearly Dead Girl sitting next to me smacks her sugarless gum and rolls her eyes. We are supposed to be taking notes in our assigned diaries so as to make Annoying Girl feel like we are really listening. I doodle a lopsided heart that looks more like a pear than a symbol of love. Nearly Dead Girl pens absolutely nothing.
And yesterday, when I ate those three bites of iceberg lettuce, Annoying Girl whines. I watch Annoying Girl’s limp scarecrow hair. It is hard to look at Annoying Girl face-on. You can see all the bones line around her neck like some sort of prehistoric necklace a kid wears for a Flintstones Halloween costume. Annoying Girl’s cheeks look like deflated balloons. The nurses here claim I look just like Annoying Girl, but really, if I looked like her, I would know. I could finally rest. I am much, so much, heavier than her. The scariest thing about Annoying Girl is that she won’t let any of us see her eyes. She always, always wears these gigantic, sixties-style sunglasses that make her face look even more shrunken and dehydrated.
I call us anorexics bobble heads like the dolls they sell at novelty stores. My little brother has a bobble-head Abraham Lincoln taped to the dashboard of his Chrysler. Whenever my little brother speeds, Abe Lincoln bobs his consent. We are just that: nodding heads. We’ve got these gigantic heads and these starved bodies. Of course, I don’t see that when I look at myself. I see my round, protruding belly. I see a Stomach. A Stomach so round and large I dream of cutting it open with a big serrated knife and letting the fat ooze out until I am as Thin and free and light as air. I would mash the greasy lard from my stomach between my fists, I would celebrate, dance even, do the motherfucking macarana, as my fat oozed between my slippery fingers. Of course, I would be careful not to let any of the blood and fat spill on the carpet. This desire is part of the sickness, or so Nurse Sally and Sister Molly tell me. Whenever Sister Molly reminds me of this she looks upwards, as if she expects a booming voice to break open the heavens and tell me I’m Crazy.
The Clinic my parents put me in is part convent, part hospital. Thus, I get to meet twice a day with a psychologist, once a day with a nutritionist, and every night with a Sister. Apparently part of my salvation involves not only feeding my stomach, but feeding my soul. I find this whole notion rather trite. However, because my parents currently pay for my Life I have to do what they ask. It’s not like I could get a job. At the bookstore where I used to work, I collapsed while stacking a couple copies of “Goodnight Moon.” My bosses kindly gave me medical leave. I told them to shove their medical leave up their bookworm asses. Then I got fired.
One of the worst things about this place is that I’m not allowed headphones. Thus, I cannot drown out the high-pitched complaints of my fellow inmates with the joyous melodies of The Jingle Cats. I love The Jingle Cats. The Jingle Cats is the name of this band of cats that meow Christmas tunes. Now, I doubt whoever came up with this utterly brilliant concept uses real cats. For one thing, it’d be inhumane. PETA would go nuts and tie the band up in legal suits before a record could ever be produced. Plus, managing a group of cats sounds like a recording studio’s nightmare: the cats would be way too busy swatting at wires to sing into a microphone. Thus, The Jingle Cats is probably a computer keyboard meowing at different pitches. Yet I love The Jingle Cats, and since my parents think me incapable of caring for a cat of my own (much less myself), I must make do with The Jingle Cats. I especially like it when The Jingle Cats meow Jingle Bells. At the start of the song some dogs bark and that gets to be a little grating on the nerves, but once the dogs go away it is both musical and technological mastery. My mother claims The Jingle Cats sound like a bunch of cats dying in chorus, but this is because my mother is a Dog Person.
I am a Cat Person. Cat People don’t give a shit about other people’s opinions. We can take care of ourselves, thank you very much. Here, everyone is a Dog Person, so desperate to be loved that they say exactly what everyone else wants to hear. Now, all I want to hear is Jingle Cats, but I’m shit out of luck. Apparently, years ago, Some Southern Girl kept asking for new headphones from her unsuspecting Southern parents. This story always changes in small ways the color of the headphones, how long ago this happened but the fact that her parents were Southern is a constant. So this Some Southern Girl gets enough headphones to fasten a noose and she hangs herself. That caused the extinction of headphones, the last of the string-and-wire civilization to live in The Clinic.
I had to give up my favorite red Keds when I checked in here because of the stupid no-string rule. In my opinion, if a girl really wants to die she will find a way to accomplish that goal with something that is allowed. But the morons who run this place don’t seem to understand that. My red Keds always had nice, shiny, white shoelaces that I cleaned daily and replaced on the second Monday of every month. No matter how dirty or misshapen my clothes were, my shoelaces were always spick and span. This was my Quirk, the one thing I’m most likely to be remembered by at my high school reunion. When the nurses who checked me in told me I had to take the laces out of my shoes, I screamed. My parents who had been sitting in the Waiting Room with nothing to comfort them but magazines with dumb names like Healthy Living and Soul Food rushed in, my dad already shouting about a lawsuit (once a lawyer, always a lawyer), my mother crying about what a mistake it was to put her beloved daughter in this hellhole, and there I was, their too-thin daughter, screaming and crying over having to untie her Keds. I couldn’t do it. I compare it to pulling out a baby’s hair. So my parents took the shoes home with them and the nursing staff found me a pair of slippers that were three sizes too large.
The look on my mom’s face that last time made me think of how she used to read to me when I was a little girl who still believed that monsters lived in her closet. Now I know monsters aren’t just for closets. Monsters hide in far more insidious and permanent places. Monsters camp out in your tents of self-esteem. Monsters drink alcohol at the parties where nobody talks to you and you end up alone on the scratchy couch that smells like vomit. Monsters tickle your bare feet while you try to have sex with the really cute guy who ends up never calling. Monsters laugh at you from under the scale and your overgrown toenails as you learn you still have ten pounds to lose.
Before I knew about monsters, I knew the many voices of my mother’s stories. Every night before bed my mom would turn the heater up and read to me from her antiquated copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. My mother had inherited Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland from her mother. My grandmother was a single parent, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was one of the few books that could successfully lull my mother, a sickly child, to sleep. The copy was so old and important (which basically means expensive and inheritable) that my mom wouldn’t even let me touch it. She just sat perched at the end of my bed like a seagull ready to fly away and she would read out loud in a voice that ebbed and flowed like the tide on a foggy day.
My favorite part of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland always involved Alice’s discussions with The Cheshire Cat. In my opinion, The Cheshire Cat is the story of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Alice is just this lame guide you follow around because you have to; the real tourist attractions are the other characters. Alice, being a pansy, complains to The Cheshire Cat perched up all high and mighty on his tree. I dont want to go among mad people, she says. When Alice says this my mom would make her voice all squeaky and high-pitched because my mom knew I disliked Alice. My mom would gleefully draw out the word mad so that it lasted for several seconds instead of just one. Maaaaaaad. The Cheshire Cat, because he is as loony as he is knowledgeable, replies, Oh, you can’t help that. We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad. This my mom would say in her regular Mommy voice that meant Eat Your Broccoli and No, Lipstick Was Only For Adults. Even as a little girl snuggled tight in floral flannel pajamas, I knew that what The Cheshire Cat said was deep. Deep and worth remembering, way more worth my time than the stupid friendship handshake all the girls in my class knew but me. They never asked me to learn it.
Annoying Girl finally stopped talking, the last word I heard her utter was calorie. I’m not sure if she said calorie or if I was just thinking it. That is what we think about. That, and whether or not our ribcage protrudes as much as it did yesterday or if that carrot really did make an overnight difference in our weight. I look up from my doodled heart, which I’ve blacked in with one of my few remaining black pens. I’ll have to write my father for more. Mom has yet to answer my letters. She has a lot on her mind, Dad explains in a P.S. at the end of all his letters under the Best Wishes, Dad. When Mom finally writes she will sign her letters Love, Mom.
I realize that everyone in Group is staring at me.
“What?” I ask. I close my diary.
“You’re doodling,” the group-leader-slash-psychiatrist-slash-recovering-alcoholic (here at The Clinic we tell everyone our faults no matter what our position) informs me. “Your neighbor pointed it out to us. We are here to learn from one another, dear, and to let the good thoughts in while we let the bad ones out. How can you heal with your group partners when you aren’t even paying attention?”
I quickly glare at Nearly Dead Girl and apologize to Annoying Girl, careful not to say her name because I honestly can’t remember if it is Cheryl or Sheanna. I know it’s something bright and perky, like the sorority house she came from. Often, when Annoying Girl talks about her sisters she isn’t talking about the nuns surrounding us like a flock of penguins in heat, but rather about the good ol’ girls back home who send Annoying Girl weekly packages of cookies. The fact that a sorority girl is anorexic is so cliché, I almost hate her just for proving a stereotype true. Maybe that’s why her sorority sisters send her baked goods, to drive Annoying Girl slowly insane or even better, fat and unattractive. Of course Annoying Girl throws out the treats, but she appreciates the thought. She told us so yesterday in Group. Group Leader congratulated her on her progress.
Annoying Girl goes back to whining. She’s on the subject of her parents. Annoying Girl worries that her parents will never love her, and Group Leader tells her that that is nonsense. Annoying Girl manages to squeeze out a tear and a hiccup. Group Leader, taking this small sign of emotion as a valid one, gets up and hugs Annoying Girl. Over Group Leader’s shoulder Annoying Girl grins big and scary like the clown of a child’s nightmare. Annoying Girl may be annoying and a bitch, but she has the game down pat. She gives the people what they want. You would think Group Leader would learn to be less gullible considering the fatality rate this place has. Whatever. In a whisper, I gently remind Nearly Dead Girl that each stick of gum has five calories. Not because I worry about the calories in a stick of gum (one hundred chews cures that problem and gives your mouth a good workout), but because I know that if I mention it to Nearly Dead Girl it will drive her fucking nuts and the bitch deserves a good scare for ratting on me. I mean, I didn’t squeal on her when I caught her vomiting two days ago. I just ignored her.
While all of us at The Clinic are in a recovery program, the girls in my particular group are in Beginning Stage. I’ve been in Beginning Stage for six months, a fact that most of the nurses and staff here try to keep quiet when parents and their sicko daughters tour. I am their “Troubled Teen.” I am just the most aware. Us girls in Beginning Stage look at the girls in Middle and End Stages and don’t want to be them. You can’t see their ribs. How can these girls be comfortable if they can’t touch their skin and feel the bone sticking out, a trophy just waiting to be petted and loved? These people, these doctors, don’t get it. I love my body. I love my body so much that I don’t love the skin or the fat, but rather the bone beneath it. The shrinks keep harping that it is what is on the inside that counts. Well, I love my insides so much I want to rid myself of my exterior. I celebrate my protruding bones as my badge, my right, my honor.
These cured girls are being lead astray. They eat all of their salad. One girl, rumor has it, ate one of the Brownie-Bites. Nobody eats the Brownie-Bites not even the Fully Recovered girls. I surmise that this girl had to be bulimic and threw it up somewhere where none of the nuns or nurses could find it kudos to her. As hard as I have tried, I cannot make myself vomit. It’s like my body is programmed against letting that happen. If I ever accidentally eat poison, I guess I’m dead unless the paramedics with their stomach pump get to me in time.
Group Leader stands up and smiles. She applauds Annoying Girl’s courage and says that we are all doing good work. We should be proud. Group Leader fidgets with the American Flag pin she wears on her red sweater. The pin is a gift from her military husband. I hate that pin, but at least sometimes I get the joy of watching it get tussled until the American Flag is upside down. I love it when the American Flag pin is upside down, it’s so innocently subversive and you just know Group Leader would feel loads of guilt if she knew her lame pin was upside down. I smile. Group Leader coughs. Then Group Leader blushes and tells us that we’ll notice a remarkable change in her appearance she’s two months pregnant! Nearly Dead Girl jumps up and hugs Group Leader. I roll my eyes and feel bad for the unborn kid. It is a known fact around here that the most fucked-up girls are daughters of shrinks. I can only hope Group Leader has a boy then he’ll just turn out gay and that’s pretty acceptable if he sticks to the coasts.
After Group Leader leaves amidst cheers from the more upbeat anorexics we sit on our plastic blue chairs. I stare at my hands. My middle finger ring tan is fading. Two weeks ago the nurses made me give up my ring, a gift from my grandmother. She gave it to me a month before she died of Cancer. Mom made me promise not to tell her where I was staying (The Clinic) so I got to enjoy a week with the family at a hospice in Florida, which meant a week of dieting because everyone was too busy dealing with Grandma’s imminent death to make sure I ate all my broccoli. After grandma died I used the ring to measure how much fat was on my hands. If I could slide the ring neatly off, I was thin. If it stuck a little, I had gained some weight. The head nurse, Nurse Sam, found this detrimental to my Recovery and took the ring. I was so hysterical two men had to hold me down while they shot tranquilizer into my arm. Of course, I moved so much even while being gripped by two burly men in green medical suits that the shot ripped the vein more than it should have and my blood got everywhere. One orderly looked so ridiculous with my blood dripping down his chin that I burst out laughing. I woke up hours later still smiling until I realized what had happened. I lost my favorite white blouse and my grandmother’s ring that day. The only good part about that day was that it rained so I wasn’t forced to spend my obligatory fifteen minutes in The Garden.
The Garden is the nuns pet project. When the nuns are not busy watering or weeding or planting some new species of rose or begonia, they are hosting cricket matches in The Garden for all interested. I am never interested. When I was in my first bedroom the nuns early morning garden chatter consistently woke me up because the bedroom’s one window (barred) looked out on The Garden. Thus, I woke up promptly annoyed at six a.m. every day for a month. It wouldn’t have been so bad if Roommate One didn’t insist on leaving the window open so she could get some fresh air. Once, I woke up at two a.m. and tried to shut the window but good ol’ Roommate One shot up from her bed looking like one of those haunted house gags where a skeleton bursts out of the grave and told me to Leave It Open. By then I had picked enough fights with the anorexic, so I let it go. My revenge came when it rained: when nobody was looking I’d dump a glass of water on Roommate One’s bed so her sheets got extra soaked or it just looked like she’d peed in her bed, something she was still akin to do during a particularly bad nightmare. I kept this up for a few months, even cutting in to my designated recreation hour so I could sneak around without anyone noticing. This was only a problem once when the rain and wind took the electricity out and we all had to gather in The Lounge. Everyone except me was in the Recreation Hall and I got lost in the dark. It was like a scene out of a horror movie, only I wasn’t killed but was rescued by one of the orderlies. I wasn’t brave like a heroine at all; in fact the orderly found me on my bed crying for my mom, but I made him promise not to tell anyone. I let him seal the deal by giving me a kiss with tongue. He tasted like strawberries. When we got back to the Recreation Hall I had an excuse all prepared for my absence, but nobody asked because a tense game of poker was happening over candlelight. So I kept this bed-wetting trick up for another two storms until one day Roommate One’s best friend in The Clinic walked by, saw, and reported me. Roommate One ended up leaving cured, though rumor has it that she’s sneaking her best friend diet pills in the bars of homemade lilac soap she sends.
I’m bored,” speaks up one of the newbies aptly named Alice. She looks like she has shrunk her way through a miniature door. When Alice entered this fine establishment she was exactly four feet and ten inches tall and weighed a total of sixty pounds. Alice loves pink and so, yes, she always wears pink. If, for some reason, she is not wearing a pink shirt, skirt, or dress, she will paint pink sparkly nail polish on her fingernails. Because Alice does not come from a history of self-violence, Alice is allowed to paint her nails without the supervision of a Sister. However, a Sister waits outside her door and takes the nail polish from Alice when she is done so Alice cannot sell it on the black market. It is the hospital’s black market that allows me access to laxatives twice a month. It is this black market that the nuns are desperate to shut down, but seeing as how I run the thing and am not going anywhere, that is impossible. I dare the nuns to try and take me down. I’m the Tony Soprano of Anorexics. I should get a show on HBO. Then my thinness would not look like a disease, but like one of the pains of fame.
I would hate Alice if I didn’t feel so bad for her. Alice came in to The Clinic after suffering through her third heart attack. It was late at night and most of us were sitting around watching The Sound of Music. Maria’s cheerful singing was overshadowed by the screams of Alice’s mother who, along with an army of doctors, came bursting in shouting that if her daughter weren’t fixed at this place she would sue. Her Nerves Could Not Handle This. Alice’s mother is a successful Public Relations Agent. Alice rarely talks about her father, but I believe he has something to do with foreign affairs because according to Alice he is always traveling on business, which affords Alice’s mother the time to throw her elaborate galas and PR events. Alice has grown up amongst celebrities and society gals. No wonder she is so fucked-up.
I shrug and bite my nails. They are getting long but I refuse to cut them in front of a nurse, as if I would kill myself with something as cliché as a nail trimmer. This is the same reason why my legs are hairy. This place does not give me enough credit. This place thinks I am unstable. Well, who isn’t? If I commit suicide, it’s not going to be some lame-ass way involving razors or shoestrings or scissors. That would make my life story perfect for some Lifetime docudrama. And come on, I have my parents to consider.
Alice stares at me as I bite-trim my pointer finger. “Relax,” I say. “There are no calories in nails.” Alice looks away. I look at Alice’s feet, which are twitching. She too wears slippers too large.
Annoying Girl glares at me. “Do you talk to your mother like that?”
“My mom is dead,” I reply, looking up from Alice’s feet. Nobody says anything. While Annoying Girl is so thin blood can barely make it to her cheeks, she does manage a slight blush.
“Sorry,” she says. I know she feels superior because now she thinks she understands why I’m sick. Why I’m in here with all of them. All us girls have these trite, easy answers to why we are the way we are. The problem is these trite, easy answers are rarely the real answers. But that’s what the shrinks want, and nobody knows better than a girl with an eating disorder how to tell people what they want to hear. So when the shrinks ask how I am doing, I don’t tell them about how much glee I get out of shitting, watching the food I’m forced to eat leave my system and float in a messy goo in the toilet. Out of body, out of mind. Rather, I discuss how it’d be nice to be okay with my weight, when really I mean it’d be nice if I shit more or, most importantly, if the world would just let me be okay with my weight.
My mom is not dead. But that bitch Annoying Girl should watch her tongue. I don’t say shit about her parents who have, let me say, not once written or called (I know this for a fact as I have befriended the mail lady by allowing her to tell me about her grandkids). While Annoying Girl’s mother couldn’t care less about her daughter, my poor over-caring mom is probably at home crying over what a failure she is to have somehow raised an anorexic daughter. My mom is a great mom, a wonderful mom, the mom who always brought cookies to the school plays even though I was never cast, the mom who always volunteered her house for PTA meetings even though she thought all the other moms were snobs. Hell, I bet Annoying Girl’s mom is one of those PTA moms who would let my mom host all the parties and not even bother to offer to help clean up. My mother is not a failure. I told her this hundreds of times, every time the Dean of College Affairs called my mom about several professors concerns about my weight, every time I fainted when driving, every time my mom caught me trying to throw up. She Is A Great Mom, regardless of how sick I am. But my mom cannot understand. Somehow, she manages to make my sickness about her. And it’s mine. Like my body. It’s mine and I wish people would stop trying to take it away from me.
“You know what?” I say, interrupting the silence in the room. I make my voice jovial, even happy. I always do this when I’m pissed: it hides the anger and makes people want to like you. I look directly at Annoying Girl. “You look like you’ve gained a few pounds. Congrats, doll.”
Annoying Girl stares at me. Her mouth opens a little and I can see her perfect pink tongue jab at her yellow teeth. (Annoying Girl has a predilection for Diet Coke.) I know she wants to pinch her nonexistent stomach. I know she wants to find a scale (which, of course, cannot be found anywhere but in the heavily guarded Head Nurse’s Station). But Annoying Girl also doesn’t want me to know how much I’ve hit her nerve. Usually, I don’t bother to do so with these girls. It’s just too easy.
You would think Alice in Wonderland would pause and at least appreciate The Cheshire Cat’s intelligence. She sure would if he was green and small like Yoda or tall and dressed in white like God. But no, Alice is an idiot. Alice, because she’s just so stupid, has to ask: “How do you know I’m mad?” And The Cheshire Cat, with a retort so powerful I can only hope to come up with a zinger like it for some of the nutcases around here goes: “You must be, or you wouldn’t have come here.” Wow. Take that, Ms. Too-Good-For-You. Even my mom got a kick out of that part. She would giggle and pinch my shoulder while I squealed delight into my pillow and kicked my feet. Sometimes we’d be so loud in our jubilee that my dad would shout from his office down the hall for us to Be Quiet He’s On The Phone With A Client. Dad never participated in story-time because he was busy working to support our family. If I was lucky, I could even get her to read that passage twice. Usually, I would get so wound up that my mom would pull me out of my Little Mermaid covers and hug me tight. So tight that I couldn’t breathe anything but the feel of her wool sweater and heavy lavender perfume that really belonged in a jar of pungent potpourri and not on my mother’s body. This scent stayed with my mom as I grew up, and it lingered in the room long after my parents left with my Keds.
Sister Molly enters. You always smell cinnamon right before Sister Molly enters, it’s as if she walks through a cinnamon farm on her way to The Clinic. Or maybe she just has a lot of cinnamon candles in her lonely apartment that she always keeps lighted in honor of Christ or some dead pre-nunnery boyfriend. Though, I can’t really imagine Sister Molly with a man. Sister Molly looks like Mrs. Santa Claus round, white-haired, jolly. Like all the people who work here, Sister Molly has a penchant for pins. During the Christmas season Sister Molly wears this pin of a miniature Rudolph. Rudolph’s nose used to incessantly blink red until it ran out of batteries.
“Hi, girls,” Sister Molly beams. She is met with tears from Annoying Girl and a bright smile from yours truly. Nearly Dead Girl rolls her eyes again and Alice looks out the window as a pigeon flies by. It’s time to walk to Chapel, Sister Molly informs us. We stand. Sister Molly pats Annoying Girl on the shoulder and tells her to Be Strong. Oh, you can’t help that. We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad, The Cheshire Cat says. I laugh, but quietly so only Alice hears. Alice walks with me. It takes two of her steps to match one of mine. Alice likes me and wants me to like her, I don’t know why. I’m pretty sure I could get Alice to stop wearing pink if I wanted to. Alice should stay away from me like the rest of the girls. Alice asks if I am excited for Chapel and I shrug. At Chapel we will pray, begging God for assistance. We will sing hymns that sound beautiful even if they mean nothing. Just as in AA, we will leave our anxieties up to a Higher Power. While the girls around me pray, I will feel guilty about my mom. While the girls and the shrinks and the nuns and the doctors are cheering each other on to eat that one bite of chicken, I will admire my bones in the mirror. While the girls talk about how they can’t wait to get well, I will talk about how happy I am to be just where I am.