All people want to talk about is food. Is that all you’re eating? You’re not eating enough. Eat a sandwich, eat a cookie, eat some cake. Eat, eat, eat, eat, eat, eat, eat. I am sick to death of eating. It’s a damned nuisance—a necessary evil, some would say—but they would be only half right. Evil yes, necessary no. You eat, you get hungry again. You eat, you get hungry again. No matter how much you eat, or how often you eat, you get hungry again. And again and again and again. Only gluttons want to eat. Only those of us who are strong-willed enough to resist hunger know how good it feels not to eat. I am not a glutton, and I do not want to eat. I am not a glutton, and no one can make me eat. No one, not my husband, not my mother, not my colleagues who tell me I’m too thin.
* * *
I have work I must do, valuable work, meaningful work, work that can transform the lives of others and make the world a better place. And so I must do it right. It has to be right. Do the job right or don’t do it at all, said my father when I was little, such vehemence frightening in a parent—but I understand the truth of it now. There are people counting on me, and I mustn’t let them down. I mustn’t disappoint them, or annoy them, or confuse them, or frighten or anger them. I must go to the meeting, but I mustn’t go unprepared and so I must plan and make notes and strategize before I go to the meeting and then I’m in the meeting and I must hold my tongue and stop the blood from rushing to my face and smother the scream in my throat and stop the tears from thickening my voice and wetting my face and stop my nails from cutting my palms and stop volunteering to fix it. For the love of God, I can’t fix it I can’t fix it I can’t fix it. God knows, I try and try and try but nothing I do is ever enough, and nothing I do is ever good enough.
You must understand, if I eat I’ll get fat and if I get fat something really bad is going to happen. This isn’t clothes getting tight, this is certain destruction if I gain so much as one pound, bad like cancer or torture or poverty. Bad like a centrifuge, spinning and spinning until pieces of me start flying off, fingers, ears, toes, until I finally start breaking apart, bits of skin and hair, muscle, bone, mucosa, until nothing of me is left at all.
For supper tonight, I will eat a half a cup of vegetable soup and three saltine crackers.
* * *
I lie awake at night and listen to my heart race. The blood rushing through my veins makes a thrumming sound, like catgut gone out of tune. I wonder why I hear no night noises through the open windows: crickets, an owl, or a lone dog barking. I hear no night noises, not even the sound of the man lying next to me breathing, just the sound of my heart, racing to outpace my thoughts.
The summer breeze ebbs and flows through the room, but it brings with it no warmth, no scents from childhood: no fresh-mown grass, no sun-warmed slate, no salty detritus left by the receding tide. The man lying next to me stirs in his sleep, and I hold my breath for fear he will touch me.
I can see the moon over his shoulder as he sleeps, a cold, flat curve of white. The deer will come tonight to feed on the flowerbeds, making no sound as they pick their way across the lawn on dainty hooves, some singly, some in pairs. The deer will eat just enough to stay alive, no more. Just enough of the roses and rhododendron, the hosta and hydrangea, the trillium and phlox. Just enough, no more.
* * *
So there he sits across from me, smug in his maleness, his Nickness, confident in his curling colored hair and black tee shirt and muscled arms. Nick has come to tell me that I am wrong. He has come to tell me that I am wrong, and he knows what we must do. He picks up a pencil and one of my business cards to write down for me just how wrong I am and just what he has decided I must do—the role I will play not significant enough to warrant a Post-It note. He extends my card to me between two fingers, the role I will play so diminished it does not warrant an opposable digit. I watch him stand in his Nickness, not bothering to wait for my response. His back is already to me, the knapsack of a man thirty years younger than he slung over his shoulder, his curling colored hair showing signs of thinning and graying of which he, in his Nickness, is completely unaware.
So Nick has left, and I start to cry. I cry over manuscript form and punctuation, run-on sentences and parenthetical citation. I cry over commas and misplaced modifiers and my complete and utter worthlessness. I cry as if my heart will surely break. I get up and close my office door, afraid that someone will come to me for help or conversation and find me unable to control my own emotions, overcome to the point that I can’t speak, I can’t think, I can’t breathe.
* * *
I drive to the hospital in Portland alone. It is early morning, with dawn still an hour away. I listen to the radio as I drive and fool myself into believing that I have been successful in emptying my mind, as a young woman on the radio sings a song about breathing. I find the right hospital in Portland, park my car in the right parking lot, and follow a Byzantine route to the third floor, where, as instructed on the telephone yesterday, I buzz a buzzer and announce into a small box on the wall that I have an eating disorder. A voice answers, Wait for me to come and get you. The whole routine seems so theatrical, so melodramatic that I think about bolting, as I honestly have suffered no ill effects from losing a few unneeded pounds. Before I can will my legs to move, a nurse of some sort comes to get me, leading me to a room where she can fill out forms and take my blood pressure. Your heart is beating too fast, she says, writing down the number on her form. I make no response. I have no control over how quickly or slowly my heart beats, and a nurse should know that. After she fills in all of the lines and blocks on the forms, the nurse leads me down the hall to a small, drab room to wait for someone else to come and get me.
I look at the table next to my chair for something to read, but there are just pamphlets about diseases and disorders about which I would prefer to remain ignorant. After a few minutes, I look up to see a man in the doorway of the waiting room, but he doesn’t continue on down the hall or enter the room. He tells me that his name is George, and I am to go with him. I stand up, and as I gather my purse and jacket, I wonder who he could be. He is tall and overweight, but as he leads me back down the hall, he carries himself as if his being overweight were of no consequence to him.
George tells me that he is going to do my intake, and I am horrified. How could they send a man to come for me, to ask me why I hate my body, why I want to punish it, why I want to starve it? How could they be so insensitive? As I’m thinking this, I remember my inability to stop my face from mirroring my thoughts, and I’m afraid that George might be able to tell what I’m thinking. What if I’ve hurt his feelings? I wouldn’t want to hurt his feelings. After all, George has a right to have a career without being discriminated against because of his gender.
George leads me into a small brown office and closes the door. While I try to locate the chair in which I am to sit, he positions a chair against the door, so that we won’t be disturbed, and instructs me to sit. My own weight in that chair will prevent anyone from entering the room to save me. George has begun asking questions, but instead of maintaining eye contact and nodding his head as I respond, he is typing on his computer. Mental illness in your family? Click, tap, tap. Suicidal thoughts? Click, tap. Description of when the eating disorder first manifested itself? Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap? He stops typing momentarily to remark that no one has ever used the word cusp in his office before, seeming pleased to be typing this new word into his database. When George finishes his typing, he looks up from his computer and announces that perhaps they can help me. Perhaps.
Then George leads me back to the drab waiting room to wait for the psychiatrist. She soon appears in the doorway wearing a bright yellow dress with a crocheted bodice and a long gauze skirt. In her office — soothing green walls, funky artwork — she asks me few questions, preferring to hold eye contact and wait for me to respond, no matter how long I take. She has thick wavy hair that is shot with gray, and she wears it long. I admire her for that.
After the psychiatrist, it’s back to the nurse to give a urine specimen and have my blood pressure taken once again. The nurse asks me if I’m breathing. Then another nurse takes my blood and still another does an EKG. They, too, ask me if I’m breathing. Finally, one of the nurses parks me in the craft room to read and sign the usual disclaimers, my signature running off course when it hits a mound of dried glue on the table.
The craft room makes me nervous, with its glitter-marked tables and stacked containers of craft materials. I feel panicked at the thought of being ordered to fingerpaint or craft a self-portrait out of pasta. I am equally panicked by the set of rules they have given me to read: Surrender your car keys. Surrender your cell phone. No shorts. No tank tops. No water bottles. No caffeine. No exercise. No stairs. No excessive cutting, stirring, or mixing of foods. No hooded or pocketed sweatshirts during meals. No dismantling of sandwiches. After I finish reading the rules, I wonder why these people keep asking me if I’m breathing. What kind of question is that? As nurses, they should know that if I weren’t breathing, I’d be dead.
* * *
When faced for the first time with the food we must eat, the teenagers among us argue with the nurses as automatically, and with as little thought, as they would argue with a teacher who has given them detention, sighing and complaining with every bite, marking the end of the meal with abject groans. The teenagers among us argue and groan, but they eat the food put in front of them. The women among us spend their first meal looking at the tray in front of them in disbelief, incredulous that an ordinary tray could hold so much food, astounded that someone expects them to eat that food, all of it, nonplussed that they will actually be punished, with “supplement,” for not cleaning their plates, as if the children they had starved in Africa so many years before by not eating their lima beans had returned from the dead to exact their revenge. The women among us are even more incredulous that we agreed to be here in the first place, when we all know full well that there is no good reason why a grown woman should have to eat just because someone tells her to. The women among us, when faced with that first meal, eat three bites of a sandwich cruelly jammed with meat, sip enough of their skim milk to force the three bites down, and start to cry, tears running silently down their faces, even the teenagers among us moved to see such despair. Good job, the teenagers say, Good job.
* * *
The walls of the dayroom are purple, the room outfitted with upholstered furniture a darker purple. When was this room done? Ten years ago, twenty? I recognize the style, but I can’t seem to place it in time, which is fitting, I suppose. Sitting here in this room, knowing I’m sick, but not really believing it, I can’t seem to place myself in time. How old am I, anyway? I weigh the same as when I was fourteen, seventeen, twenty-seven, thirty-three. Nevertheless, my body has taken a different shape that no amount of restricting my food can change, my pelvic bones still engulfed in fat.
The clinicians are talking about “too much not-good-enoughness.” I wonder why they’re called “clinicians.” I haven’t heard that term before. They have the social worker look to them, Birkenstocks, handmade jewelry, smarmy affect. One of them is going on about “good stuff, good stuff,” and I feel I’ve fallen into a Saturday Night Live episode and these “clinicians” are the female equivalent of Stuart Smiley. I’m sorry, but I’m smarter than Stuart Smiley, I’m better educated than Stuart Smiley, and, goddamn it, I don’t like me, and it’s not okay.
I can’t stop looking at that one wall by the window. We’re in an old building, and the plaster must have sustained some water damage at one point, from a leak in the roof or perhaps from the window. The repair was very poorly done, with no attempt to smooth the blobs of spackle that are so lumpy it looks as though the spackle was not applied with a putty knife, but with two thick male fingers. What kind of person would spackle walls before painting and then not sand them? Had he no pride of workmanship? Had he no self-respect, knowing how other people would view his shoddy work, evidence of a careless work ethic that bordered on contemptible?
I can’t stop looking at it.
* * *
One by one, the girls get up to look out the window, the anorexics pale and languid, the bulimics tanned and grumbling that they should be at the beach on a day like today, and how could their parents cheat them out of precious days of their sixteenth summer? All their friends will be at the beach, and it’s just not fair. When it’s my turn to get up, I’m not sure what I will see out that window, only that what I see will not be the same as what they saw.
There is a cruise ship docked at a nearby pier, gleaming white against water and sky such a brilliant blue I can’t tell where water ends and sky begins. That brilliant blue is the blue of my childhood summers, spent at my grandparents’ cottage at Hannaford Cove, the cottage furnished with the painted pine of my grandmother’s childhood home in Nova Scotia, the walnut and marble of my grandfather’s childhood home gracing the house in Lexington. We ate all of our meals in the cottage’s dining room overlooking the water of Hannaford Cove, water so breathtakingly cold and clear that only a child could swim in it. As soon as breakfast was digested, I could go to the beach and climb on the rocks, every water-worn variation in their surface felt with the soles of my feet, not seen with my eyes, which were too busy looking ahead of me to see how much further out on the rocks I could go and still make it back to the beach before the tide cut me off.
* * *
I awake terrified at two in the morning. My heart is pounding, I’m sweating; my breath is choking in my throat. It’s a primal terror, the terror of freefall or drowning. It takes me several moments to remember where I am and several more to understand that the nightmare which woke me wasn’t real. I have dreamt I was on a cruise ship. The start of the dream, what I can remember of it, was innocuous enough: It had me reclining in a deck chair, the wind off the water cold but pleasant on my face, a blanket tucked around my legs keeping me warm. A steward appeared with a menu card and asked me to choose my food for the day, which I did willingly enough after seeing that there was nothing in the choices before me that was unduly fattening. Having made my selections, I handed my menu card back to the steward, who had been waiting patiently for me to finish. He disappeared and the scene changed, the way it does in dreams, with no clear transition. I was still on the cruise ship, but below deck now, and I could hear people talking about me, talking about my face, and I couldn’t understand why. The more they talked, the more disoriented I became, until finally I had the thought to look in the mirror to see for myself why people were talking about my face.
When I looked in the mirror, my face wasn’t there. In its place was a grotesque rendition of an anorexic’s face: prominent eyes, hollow cheeks, disproportionately long upper lip. Thinking it was a mask, I tried to pull it off, but I couldn’t. I went from person to person on the ship asking for an explanation as to why I couldn’t get the mask off. I finally found an Argentine, who explained to me what had happened. He and his group had noticed some similarity between my face and that of an important and beloved woman from their country who had died. Shortly before her death, she was sitting for her portrait; however, she died before the artist could finish it. The Argentines surgically altered my face to look like hers, so that her portrait could be completed. He went on to tell me that he and his group had altered my face so drastically that it would be impossible for further surgery to restore it to its original state. That hideous face was mine for the rest of my life, and there was nothing I could do about it.
After the dream replays itself, I stumble out of bed and turn on the light to look in the mirror, relieved to see my own face unchanged.
I am so frightened by such an urgent message from my subconscious that the next day I ask to see the psychiatrist so that she can decode the dream for me. Usually, other people in our dreams represent different parts of ourselves. Your dream is trying to tell you that your eating disorder doesn’t want you to recover, and it is fighting that part of you that is trying to get healthy. She goes on to tell me that, if, after leaving the hospital, I lose so much as one more pound, the eating disorder will ultimately kill me. I think the psychiatrist is overstating the case, and I tell her so.
* * * * *