Dr. Sherry's office is clean and painted light blue. There is no receptionist, just a tall man reading the newspaper at the other end of the small waiting room. He glances up at the fishtank near him, mutter something that I can't hear, and turns the page of the article he's reading.
My mother ushers me in, sitting us down near a door with a gold plaque that reads Dr. Karen Sherry. Immediately my mother pulls out her cell phone and chatters away with her boss, Mr. Cheap-Ass. At least, this is what she calls him behind his back.
The room is cold, but from lack of emotion rather than lack of heat. It's bareness is foreboding, an impersonal testimony to personal problems. My mother hangs up with Mr. Cheap-Ass and tells me quietly to stop biting my nails. I look down and I'm surprised to see a thin, copper-red line of blood on my cuticle. I stuff my hands in my pockets and stare at the wall instead.
"Make sure you use your time well, Ruby. This is costing your father and I a fortune, you know," she says. She winces- even she can hear how awful that sounds. An apology is out of the question; it's substitute is a shaky smile and a Tic Tac. My mother thinks classy people always have good breath.
The door opens, and two women shake hands. I wait for the doctor to come out behind them, but one of the women turns and leaves and the other lends out her freshly-grasped hand to me.
"Nice to meet you, Ruby," she says. "I'm Dr. Sherry."
I was wearing a blue sundress when Michael asked me out. Girls don't really wear sundresses anymore, but this one was short and strappy and covered in lavender flowers- I loved that dress.
We were standing in the school gym, slow-dancing. I remember the smell of the room- sweat and romance and latex yellow balloons and drama. Michael's hand was dangerously far from my waist, his lips dangerously close to my waist. He didn't look brave or suave; he looked like the gangly, nervous fourteen-year-old that he was- but he was still my Michael.
I remember the look on his face when he asked me. He looked like one of those yellow balloons floating around, ready to swell or deflate depending on my answer. I smiled and nodded my head, and I think he started to breathe again. After a minute, he remembered to smile too.
It wasn't romantic or movie-perfect, but it was sweet anyway. And when I placed a tiny gift on his cheek, a little kiss, I thought that I had just crossed a line into Coupledom, and that I would never go back. The crepe paper and the DJ and the three hundred other nerve-wracked, glammed-up freshmen were witness to the beginning of the rest of my life.
Dr. Sherry is a small, curvy woman with glasses and blonde hair. I can tell right away that she's smart- she has that air about her. Usually, I can't stand people who are smarter than me, but she doesn't seem conceited so I let it go.
I sit down in a big, squishy green chair. I curl up like a sphynx but then I feel like she's reading my body language so I let myself go loose, limpid. She stares at me expectantly.
"How are you, Ruby?" she asks. I can't tell whether it's a simple greeting or a loaded question, a launching point for my eighty-dollar-an-hour treatment. A mosquito bite on my leg itches; I scratch it through the cotton of my pants.
"I'm ok," is my reply. I can tell already that talking to Dr. Sherry will be like playing chess- complicated, always perilously close to being trapped by a tall bishop or a two-sided question.
"What do you like to do in your spare time?" she asks me, innocently enough. Round, naïve eyes stare at me. I think they teach shrinks how to make that face in med school.
"Read, mostly. I guess. And sketch." I'm silently losing this battle of willpower. I've receded back to my sphynx position.
"What kind of books do you read?" she probes.
"Mostly classics and thrillers." I try to make my answers sharp, my gaze steadier. I feel as if I'm inching my pawns forward.
"Do you have a favorite?" Her eyebrow arches up.
"To Kill a Mockingbird, maybe." I've read that book twelve times.
"What about your sketches?" she asks, trying another piece on the invisible checkered board.
"What about them?" I block.
"Well, what kinds of things do you like to draw?" I think for a minute, and use the opportunity to glance around the room. From a photo on her desk, I can see she has two blonde daughters, about 2 and 5.
"People," I answer. Tall people, thin people, busy people, dark people. Every kind.
"Tell me about your family," she says. This is a knight- a majestic, deceiving piece with hidden agendas. I tread carefully.
"I'm an only child. My mother sells insurance and my dad's a manager at the mall," I say. Perfect- descriptive, but formal.
"What do you want to be when you're older?" she asks, charging forward.
"A pilot." This time my answer is no pause or hesitation, I'm certain.
"Interesting. My friend's son is a pilot," she says, writing something on her clipboard. It makes her seem arrogant. I pick at my cuticle again.
"So Ruby… that's an unusal name," she says. A pawn moves tentatively forward.
"Ruby Rose. My mother's name is Ivy and my cousin's name is Violet. My family has a thing for colors or plants or something, I guess," I reply. She makes a note. I roll my eyes, but she misses it. I tug at my shirt because suddenly the room feels boiling hot- she doesn't miss that.
"It's hot in here. Let's take a break and open a window." I can't see where she's going with this. I watch her with cat-eyes as she makes her way across the office to open a shutter, bumping her hip on a table. Once the window clicks into place, she reaches down for a box of donuts on the table beside her.
"I'm famished. Would you like one too, Ruby?" she asks. The question hangs in the air like an electric current.
"It's not fair," she said. Me and Meghan, my best friend, lay on her bed, outstretched in the dark of the night. Her mother thought we'd been asleep for hours.
"What's not fair?" I asked her. I was mesmerized by the Day-Glo stars on her ceiling, half-listening to what she was saying.
"You and Michael," she said. She had my attention. I rolled over, propping my arm up with my head, and faced her.
"Again, what's not fair?" I asked her. Her face looked dark and beautiful, mysteriously goddess-like in the faint lighting. I reached over and brushed a piece of her hair off her face.
"I mean… I'm happy for you guys, you know that, right? But, like… I don't know, I guess I just wish I had a boyfriend too. You and Michael have liked each other forever," she said, her eyebrows furrowing.
"Two years, I guess." Had it really been that long? Michael and I had known each other since the beginning of middle school. Seventh grade seemed to be just last week and ages ago at the same time.
"Tell me what it's like," she said wistfully. I knew what she meant.
"It's not any better than having really great friends who you lovem" I said. My breathing was slow with the shadow of drowsiness, but I was trying to stay awake, for Meghan's sake.
"I know, but what's it like to have someone you can hug and kiss and who does sweet things for you?" she asked. Suddenly, I couldn't look over at her- she sounded too vulnerable and open. I rolled onto my back and talked to the ceiling.
"You had Tom," I pointed out. Tom, the only boy who ever asked Meghan out. They were a couple for three weeks before she dumped him for makin out with Emily Stoneham at a party.
"Yeah right," she sighed, "you know that wasn't love." There was a brief silence. Meghan stared at the wall, stroking her teddy bear's plush fur. Pensively, she opened her mouth as if to say something else, but her lips closed again.
It's wonderful, when it is. And when it's not so fun, it just isn't. It's not all it's cracked up to be," I said, choosing my words carefully.
"How come?" she asked.
"Well, it's not fun when they skip a date to go hang out with their friends, or when they forget that you're allergic to daffodills, or when they don't ask what's wrong even though you're obviously upset," I explained. Meghan lay with one arm under her head, absorbing my words.
"No boy will ever like me," Meghan said. A tear rolled down her face, hardening my heart.
"That's not true, Meghan. You're so pretty," I said in what I hoped was a comforting tone. She was, too: Latin-brown skin, dark hair and eyes, perfect figure. Boys were intimidated by her.
"Thanks, Ruby," she said, a weak but encouraging smile playing across her face. The conversation drifted towards school and the gossip mill, but Meghan's words kept rolling around in my head till the sky was pink.
"No thank you," I say. I look at her hatefully. I hate people who play mind games. It's better to just come out with something, rather than to play mental jumangi with someone until they cave from exhaustion.
Dr. Sherry puts down the box and returns to her chair. She stares at me again. I can't take the pressure of the moment; I get up and pick up a Rubix cube from the bottom of a plastic crate on her floor. She says nothing.
"I can't help you unless you want me to, Ruby," she says. Shrink-talk, which is no more than lip service if you ask me. I twist a pink square until it is lined up with two other pink squares.
"I don't want to talk about it. I'm sick of talking about it," I say.
"Alright. What do you want to talk about?" she asked. Another seemingly innocent yet obviously loaded question. I sigh. She makes a note.
"I have a cat," I say. This catches her off guard. She still doesn't say anything, but looks at me quizzically. "He' s the craziest cat you've ever seen. He's orange and white and about 17 pounds. The thing is though, he thinks he's a dog. He waits by the door for me. He wags his tail. He won't eat the Fancy Feast my mom buys for him, only Puppy Chow."
"What's his name?" she asks, tilting back in her chair and smiling knowingly. I hate how she looks at me, like she knows what I'm about to say even before I say it. It makes me want to stop talking, but I continue. My parents are paying eighty dollars an hour, remember.
"Sammy. Sammy Sosa," I say. I think of how I haven't seen Sammy in almost a month. It's hard for me to sleep without that seventeen-pound weight on my chest each night.
"Do you like cats?" I ask her. Her eyebrows are lost in her forehead; an expression of surprise. She asks questions all day long; I wonder if anyone has ever asked her one.
"I had one when I was little," she says.
"You didn't answer my question, though," I shoot back. A silence passes between us, a submission of will on her part. She knows now not to address me as a child or some psycho patient of hers.
"Yes, I like them," she says. The moment is sealed. I say nothing, it's her turn. I'm beginning to enjoy this now that I'm steering the conversation.
"Are you tired? I imagine you must be, after sitting in bed for so long," she says. I roll my eyes openly, now that all of our cards are out on the table.
"I was only in bed for a week. I've been walking around since then," I say bitingly.
"I'm glad to hear that. Have they been treating you well?" she asks.
"Yeah, but I don't want to talk about it, ok?" I remind her.
"Alright. Let's talk about something else. Tell me about before all this started," she says. My mind wanders as I pluck away at the Rubix cube.
"A C?" My mother asked. Her tone was astonished, like getting a C was the worst thing a fourteen-year-old ever did.
"I'm sorry. Geometry is impossible," I said looking down at my navel. I couldn't look at her.
"Ruby, this is not like you. How did this happen?" she asked, her voice getting louder.
"I don't know. I got in the 70's on a couple of tests, and I missed a homework," I said. I could feel my stomach clenching and releasing itself, rolling over in nervousness and shame.
"How did you miss a homework?" she asked. My mother glared at me as if I missed homework to deliberately defy her, to hurt her.
"I was out sick a day and I forgot to make it up," I said quietly.
"Ruby, you know you're supposed to check all your homework when you're out. That's no excuse," she said, her words sharp and cutting. She stared at the C as if willing it to change before her eyes. How could her daughter, a 3.9 GPA, get a C?
"I'm sorry, Mom. I'll go in for extra help after school. I promise this will be a B by next semester," I pleaded. My stomach waged war on itself- nervous stomach, they call it.
"It better be. Colleges don't like C's, Ruby. This needs to be better," she said. Her words were merciless and cold, and they left the wind knocked out of me. Try as I would, I was not impervious to my mother's every mood and whim. Not then, anyway.
My mother got up and huffed from the kitchen, dramatically sighing and clinking the ice of her Bloody Mary loudly just in case I didn't feel guilty already. I breathed in and shut my eyes, breathing out an indifferent air. My face, stone still, my heart stone cold.
"Before? Before what?" I asked. There was no black and white, only shades of gray that rolled and mixed and overlapped one another. There was no beginning.
"How about before you were sick?" She asks. Her voice is lower now, more real. This is conversation, not poking and prodding.
"Alright. My life before I was sick. I was a regular girl, I guess. Kinda quiet, vulnerable. Three real friends- Meghan, Michael, and Sammy, my cat. I read books by the fistful. Everything- Dickens, JK Rowling, Margaret Mitchell, Salinger, Sharon Creech, Shakespeare. I went to high school and came home every day and did my homework and drew. I went ice skating or to the movies on the weekends. That's about it," I say, opening up just enough. This lady doesn't need to know any more than necessary, even if she finally has stopped talking down to me.
"Sounds pretty normal. Were you happy?" she asks. Was I? I shrug and nod, and give the Rubix cube three twists. Now there are four pink squares on one side.
"Were you a good student?" she asks. I shoot her a look. She would make a good lawyer- she doesn't ask questions she doesn't already know the answer to.
"Yeah. Except for geometry," I say.
"Geometry is difficult," she agrees.
"Not particularly. It's just that there's no art in geometry. Everything is explained, nothing is left to the imagination. It's not open to interpretation. It's ridiculous to have a subject like that- I mean, people's brains don't think uniformly like that," I explain. Click-click-click goes the Rubix cube. Nothing-nothing-nothing says Dr. Sherry, so I continue.
"I mean, take the Rubix cube. There's a thousand different ways to get to the end. None of them is more right than the other, and it leaves room for personal style and ability," I say. The ninth and final pink square clicks into place and I hand it to her. Her face is amused, and she tosses the Rubix cube around in her hand pensively.Present
Doctors are crazy about numbers, let me tell you. If they could, they would catalog and sort away your entire life into numbers, labels, and lists. It helps them micro-manage their world, I think. I had this one doctor, Dr. Townen, who kept a record of everything about me- height, weight, blood pressure, heart rate, levels of meds, everything. Sometimes when I was around Dr. Townen I felt like I was covered in stickers, a statistic rather than a person.
If I could list myself in numbers, this is what it would look like:
Number of friends: 2, maybe
Phone number: 555-8345
Times I have been called neurotic: countless
Sketchbooks hidden under my bed: 14
End of October
It was seventh period French when it hit me. The rain was pouring, sliding down the glass windows rhythmically. My pencil tapped against my desk, tap-tap-tap. The room was bitingly cold for spring. I wrapped my hoodie around my arms, but I couldn't shake the faint, empty feeling.
"Excusez-moi, Madame? Puis j'alle a la toilet, s'il vous plait?" I asked politely. My voice shook almost as much as my legs as I stood.
"Es tu malade, Ruby?" Are you sick? she asked me. I shook my head no as my knees gave out from beneath me and I sank to the floor. Relief, not pain, spread through me. I let go, gave up, allowed myself to be picked up like a little girl and rushed towards the office. I hung my head back and breathed in deeply, allowing a dark calm to wash over me.
"I think you're smarter than you let on," Dr. Sherry says. She eyes me cautiously, expecting me to throw a fit. I nod vaguely.
"I guess that depends on how smart you think I act," I say cooly. Boy, this woman is quick.
"Do you think you're smart?" she asked me. It was an open, honest question.
"Smart enough not to answer that," I respond, putting her in her place. As much as I hate to admit it, I'm starting to like this Dr. Sherry character.
"Fair enough," she answers.
"What are your daughters' names?" I ask her, If this question catches her off guard, she doesn't show it.
"Emma and Jess," she says, smiling. She fingers the photo on her desk.
"Those are nice names. If I have a daughter, her name will be Diana. It means goddess-warrior. I like that. If I have another daughter, I'll name her Indigo. Got to carry on that color tradition," I saywith sarcasm. She catches it.
"Do you want to get married?" she asks.
"I guess. As long as guys improve. Frankly, fourteen-year-old boys are morons," I reply.
"It gets better," she says. I know what she means.
"Look at this," Meghan said. She grabbed a fingerful of hip and stretched the skin out. "That is so gross. "
"Shut up, skinny," I joked. She laughed, but the worrisome look returned to her face.
"Ruby, let's go on a diet together. We can support eachother. Like if I want a candy bar, you can convince me not to eat it, and vice versa," Meghan said, looking in the mirror.
"Why do you want to go on a diet. You're beautiful," I said.
"Whatever. I'm still fat. We could both use to lose a few pounds. I mean, you have a great figure, but wouldn't you love to be a little thinner?" she asked. Her words, arrows, pushed through my heart. I tried not to let my shock show through.
"I guess," I replied dully. She was too busy looking in the mirror to see that all the color had drained out of my face.
"Ok, let's do it. Don't tell Mike. Wait till he sees how hot you look," she said, winking at me. I laughed weakly and laid back on my bed, pretending to be suddenly infatuated with the window near my door, so as to avoid eye contact
"Are you ready to talk about it yet?" she asks me, very gently, as if her words might break my fragile psyche. I decide to show her I'm stronger than she thinks.
"Alright. But I call the shots. No funny business, ok? Let's forget the BS," I say. She looks taken aback, then her expression is unreadable. Finally it softens and she nods her head.
"Sure, Ruby. No BS," she says. The mood of the room changes suddenly and I sigh, waiting for it to begin.
"Those are my scissors," Margaret said. Her plump, short figure stood in the doorway, hands outstretched.
"Yeah right. Blue bracelets aren't allowed to have scissors. Get out of here," I said. I went back to cutting and pasting pieces of letters into my scrapbook: letters from Michael and Meghan and my parents, plus a card from my nana.
"I want my scissors," Margaret said, but this time her voice was softer. She walked over and sat tentaitively on the end of my bed. I didn't know her that well- she was in the Blue Group, first of all. The cutters. They weren't allowed to have anything sharp- pens, staples, scissors, none of it. I was in the Red Group. We could have sharp stuff, as long as we didn't share it with the Blue Group.
"Tough. I'm making a scrapbook here," I said. I ignored her, gluing in Meghan's ninth grade picture to a blue page.
"Who's that?" Margaret asked. She leaned forward and I caught a whiff of her breath. It smelled like peppermint gum.
"My friend," I said. I pushed picture down, and glue bubbled up slightly over the edges.
"Don't try to talk to her. She's a bitch, that one," a voice from across the room interrupted. Ella, a seventeen-year-old who'd been in the Red Ward for as long as anyone remembered, sneered at me.
"That's right," I said. "I'm a cold, hard bitch."
The room was quiet as I leaned my head back against the green polyester of the chair.
"Ruby, what's our goal here?" Dr. Sherry asked me. She waited for me to answer.
"I guess for me to get better, right?" I said. It was a rhetorical question, but she answered anyway.
"Yup. But in order to do that, we have to confront it head on. I want you to remember one thing. This disorder is not who you are. It's a disease, but you need to separate it from yourself. Make it your enemy. Declare war on it," Dr. Sherry said.
"Uh-huh," was my diplomatic reply. Dr. Sherry walked across the room and picked up a mirror, handing it to me.
"What do you see when you look in the mirror, Ruby? Not the effects of your disorder, but who you really are. Beneath that."
I pick up the mirror and stare at it. My reflection stares back at me. It's the first time I've looked in a mirror in a month- there are none in the Red Ward. I look different. Hard, like I have armor over my eyes. My hair is thin and clumpy, my skin dry but smooth. But those are all effects- I look past that, like Dr. Sherry says. I see two lips, one thin and one round. A broad nose and ragged eyebrows, and two deep brown eyes. They stare out at me, like two wooden doors with secrets and stories locked behind them. I wonder if I will ever find the key.
1,150 calories. Crap, I thought, I went over my limit by 150. I recalled everything I had eaten that day. Slice of whole wheat toast, glass of juice, eighteen french fries, pickle, apple, cupcake. I sighed to myself. I have no willpower, I thought. I sped up my steps and ran hard against the wind. Tears blurred in my eyes, but I couldn't tell whether they were from the guilt or from the wind.
Meghan ran with me, chattering on about her lastest crush, Bryan. I looked at her, jogging along, smiling, pretty even when she was sweating. She had lost five and half pounds. Her goal was ten- to weigh 125. I had already lost twelve.
At first, the diet was hard to stick to. I cheated all the time. But then one day I stepped on the scale and I weighed 128- three pounds away from my goal. I felt elated, empty, thin, perfect. It was a feeling I lived for.
I pushed against the dirt harder, breathing in and feeling light, weightless. I heard Meghan calling after, struggling to keep up. My sneakers pounded on, and I was invincible, my endorphins propelling me further from the edge of reason.
"Anorexia is not about numbers," Dr. Sherry says to me. This catches my attention- I wonder what Dr. Townen would say if he heard that.
"Explain," I ask simply.
"Anorexia is not about numbers or food or what a person looks like. Food is weapon in eating disorders, but control is the motivation. Do you understand, Ruby?" she asks me. I chew my lip.
"Yeah, but if you talk a little slower I might follow better," I say, challenging her. She catches on. This woman is sharp.
"Sorry. Let's try again," she says, but I cut her off.
"I'm not in denial. I have anorexia. But I'm back to my goal weight: 120. That's up from 104, you know. They pumped me with fluids and made me eat," I say.
"That's great, but it's not enough. We need to figure out why you have anorexia in the first place, and how we can beat it. Otherwise you'll relapse as soon as you leave," she says to me kindly.
"You can't make me gain weight. I'm not allowed to go below 120 but I'm not going above it either," I say defiantly.
"No, I can't make you do anything," Dr. Sherry says, but she smiles. She picks up her doughnut and takes a small bite. I blink my eyes, opening them slowly and looking at Dr. Sherry unsurely. The chessboard has been wiped clean and suddenly am I naked and vulnerable.
They say Jonathan Richter, a junior, carried me to the infirmary. I was out cold. They called the ambulance and it arrived a few minutes later, piling me onto the stretcher. I hadn't eaten anything in 18 hours. My skin was yellowed on the edges, my pulse sluggish.
I woke up two days later. My hospital room was white and smelled like linoleum and Clorox Bleach. The first thing I noticed was an IV in my arm. I pulled it out, sure it was pumping vitamins into me. An alarm went off and two nurses rushed into my room, inserting the IV back in my elbow. The next week was a blur of sleeping, being weighed and tested, and poked and prodded by doctors at all hours of the day and night. They made me wear ugly johnies that you could practically see through until my mother brought me silk blue pajamas. They were so big, they almost fell off. They had fit a few months ago.
Two weeks after I arrived at the hospital, they sent me to a different one, White Pine Residential. I'd heard that said no one ever came out of that place. The loony bin, people said.
"Do you wish you had more say in your life, Ruby?" Dr. Sherry asks me.
"When you're in the Red Ward, you have no control. They tell you what to eat, when to sleep, what to wear. You get used to it after a while," I say quietly. Dr. Sherry makes a note.
"Can you tell me when you realized you had a problem?" she asks me. I think for a moment, then open my mouth and begin to speak.
My stomach was rumbling, thundering, complaining, and that pizza looked so good. So I did it. I took a bite, and once I started, I couldn't stop. I let the cheese melt over my tongue, eating so eagerly I hardly chewed before I swallowed. I didn't think, I just let the blissful feeling consume me. I was three and half slices through when I stopped in horror. I ran upstairs and threw up from eating too fast. I flushed the toilet, ridding my body of calories and guilt. The tile of the floor felt cool against my hot skin, so I stripped off all my clothes and laid down.
I hardly recognized my body anymore. My stomach and my eyes sunk in hollowly, my hips barely noticeable. I looked beautifully thin and disgusting at the same time. I examined my thighs- gross. I pinched my left leg, trapping the fat between my fingers. A purple bruise formed as I started to cry. Deliberately, I grabbed every ounce of fat on my body, pinching each one at a time, bruising my skin. When I was done, I laid on the floor and let insomnia wash over me.
"How did it start?" Dr. Sherry asks me.
"My friend Meghan thought we should both go on a diet," I say.
"Were either of you overweight?"
"Not really. I mean, Meghan's really pretty. But she was into it, so I went along with it too. It became kind of a competitive thing for me," I say honestly.
"What do you mean?"
"Meghan's always been prettier. I thought maybe if I could get thinner than her, it would be some kind of victory, I guess."
"Ahhh. Control," Dr. Sherry says. She makes a note and smiles at me.
"What did you do to try and get thinner?" she asks.
"Well, first I just ate better and exercised more. It was fine at first. Then I started eating less. I dropped down from a size 9 to a size 3 in like three months," I say.
"And no one noticed?" she asks me, her eyes wide.
"No," I say, "no one."
End of September
It was two months before my appointment with Dr. Sherry. It was my size 5 period. That's how I remembered things looking back, what size I was when it happened.
I lay on the daybed in my room with Michael. There was a movie on the TV screen but the darkness was distracting. I lay half on him, half on the bed, my head on his chest. I could hear his heartbeat, Ba-boom-ba-boom-boom.
Michael's blonde hair felt fuzzy and soft beneath my fingers as I stroked it. He gave a small groan of appreciation and pulled me closer to him. His hand found the small of my back and he rubbed little circles over it.
"I love you, Michael," I said. He knew I did. I had for a long time. We were best friends before we started going out, which always makes for the best couples.
"I love you too, babe," he said. He kissed me softly and deeply, and I felt it all the way through my body. Slowly, his hand inched over my legs.
"Michael," I said warningly. I pulled his hand away playfully, and he took the message. Thank God.
What if he felt me and figured out how fat I was?
"Do you know why no one noticed?" she asks.
"I'm good at hiding it," I say.
"How do you mean?"
"Well, my clothes got kind of baggy, so you couldn't really see what I looked like. And I wore my hair in a bun so you couldn't tell if it was falling out. If it was dinnertime, I'd cut up my food and push it around or tell my mom I ate on the way home or something. It gets easy after a while," I say. Frankly, I'm proud of how well I hid it.
"I see." She makes a note.
"Ruby, why do you think you didn't stop once you reached your goal weight and became thin?"
"I don't know. I felt like… like no matter how thin I was, I would never be thin enough. I was addicted to the feeling of my pants getting looser, the numbers on the scale getting smaller. It was the best feeling in the world," I say.
"Did you think your life would get better if you were thinner?"
"Initially, but later on it wasn't really about that. It was just about getting thin, testing my willpower, seeing how long I could go without eating," I say. I look outside and notice that it's starting to rain, and the soft droplets lull me into a sense of security and comfort.
"Alright, Ruby. Alright."
The Blue Ward is for the cutters. The Red Ward is for the eating disorder girls. The Green Ward is suicide watch- you never see the girls from in there. Yellow Ward is druggies and alcoholics.
I learned this the first day I arrived at White Pine Residential. I also learned that I would be rooming with Ella Williams, I would be monitored while I ate, and that I was excepected to make a full recovery. Every girl at White Pine Residential was expected to make a full recovery, it said so on the pamphlet.
The first day was terrible. A nurse in a blue uniform watched me eat two meals- a stepping stone. My stomach stuck out with unfarmiliar fullness, protesting the food within it. Doctors came in and asked me incessant questions. I didn't talk through First Meal, school, break, group therapy, Second Meal, or free time. By the end of the day I was exhausted. I fell asleep, the bleeps of monitors and the hums of heaters my twisted lullaby.
The next few days got easier and easier. They weighed me every day, but I wasn't allowed to look at what the scale read for the first week. When I was finally given a peek on day eight, I weighed 117 pounds. I started crying and couldn't stop for hours.
I went to individual therapy once. The doctor was a complete quack whose only interest was prescribing me pills, and I told him this. So instead, they decided to send me to Dr. Sherry.
"Are you happy with the weight that you're at now, or do you wish you were thinner?" Dr. Sherry asks me. I count raindrops: two, six, eighteen. I lose count.
"I'm at 120 and I'm not budging," I say.
"Ruby, when you graduate from White Pine there's not going to be anyone telling you to stay at 120. I worry that you may slip below it again, without the disciplined regimine."
"I can control it. I'll stay at 120," I say confidently.
"Yes, but you're going to grow taller, and you'll gain weight then. I'm afriard you might see bigger numbers on the scale and panic, and it will send your eating disorder out of control again," she says. She's right. I go back to counting raindrops.
"You need to forget about 120 pounds, Ruby. You're holding on to something that isn't real. Your feelings are what's real, and only they will truly determine how you're doing, not whether you're above or below your personal goal weight." Her words dig into me, nestling within my brain and bumping against the sides of mind. She's right, and it stings. This kind of thing used to make me cry, but there are no tears. That armor in my eyes has frozen them over, numbed them out.
"You make it sound so easy. Like I can just never step on a scale again and I'll be cured," I say in a voice that breaks with vulnerability. Her expression softens. She's broken through.
"Not at all, Ruby. This will be the most difficult thing you ever do," she says. And I know, again, that she's right.
"The moment of truth," Meghan said. We were lined up in her bathroom in our panties and camis. The white of the scale on the floor was blaringly honest. Meghan stepped on; I looked away out of respect. This memory stands out in my mind throughout my appointment with Dr. Sherry. It's the last time I can remember being happy.
"129! More than halfway there," Meghan said with a satisfied smile on her face. She high-fived me as I stepped on. The scale spun and spun, deciding my fate. I held my breath. Finally, the red dial stopped. I grinned.
"118," I said, beaming from ear to ear. Every negative feeling drained out of my body: the fight with my mom I'd had the other day, the empty feeling in my stomach, the guilt over the frozen yogurt I'd eaten the other day, all of it disappeared. That number elated me. I lived for that feeling. I glanced at Meghan, expecting another high-five, but she was frowning at me.
"Don't you think you're taking this a bit far, Ruby? I mean, you're seven pounds lower than you thought you would go. That's kind of a lot."
I looked down. My arms were tight and smooth, my thighs jiggle-free. My waist was narrow and my butt was flat and shapeless. I felt gorgeous.
"Meghan, I though we were supporting each other," I whined. She hesitated, but then smiled at me.
"You're right. And you look great. We both did really well this week. Let's go reward ourselves with a little kettle corn and some Josh Hartnett," Meghan said, flashing me a wicked grin.
We popped the video in and I watched Meghan become engrossed in it, slowly inserting fat-free popcoren kernels into her mouth. I played with a few in my palm but none of them made it to my mouth. I had to hang on to my beautiful feeling for as long as possible.
"I think it would help you to find something you love to do that makes you feel good about your body," Dr. Sherry says. "Something that makes you think about what your body can do, not how it looks."
"Like what?" I ask dejectedly. The breaking of my defiance has drained me. I should be nervous- I've given up on blocking Dr. Sherry's every question. But I'm simply too exhausted.
"Something like pottery. Or dancing. Or playing an instrument, perhaps," she suggests.
"They have Occupational Therapy at White Pine. They do stuff like that in there. I start next week," I say.
"How long will you be at White Pine?" she asks.
"Minumum eight weeks, but I've already done two. There's no time limit except they chuck you out when you're eighteen," I say. I make it sound like I could be stuck in there for years. I know this isn't true.
"Tell me about your friends, Ruby," she says. She sure likes to use my name a lot, and the question is kind of random, but as weird as she is I still like her.
"I'm not great at making them," I say.
"Well, tell me about the ones you do have."
"Well, there's Meghan. She's been my best friend since third grade. She's smart and Latina and she plays soccer. Then there's Michael," I say.
"Michael?" she asks. My mind begins to drift…
Beginning of October
"Are you coming out with us?" Michael asked me. He held me close and rubbed my back, like I love. He made me feel like I was the only person in the world that mattered, but I pulled away from him anyway.
"Not tonight," I said. I was tired and weak and all I really wanted to do was crawl into a hot bath. Pretending to eat pizza and then sitting through a two-hour movie and continually swatting Michael's hand away from my butt and my blouse felt like too much effort.
I felt him stiffen. This was the third time I'd turned him down in a week. He looked down at me. His eyes were not angry or sad, they were hurt. It shattered my heart into a million facets of confusion. Let it go, Michael, I thought. Please, just let it go.
But he didn't.
"Why not?" he asked, not unkindly.
"I'm busy," I said offhandedly. I was always a bad liar.
"Uh-huh," he said, nodding to himself like he wanted to believe me. His sandy hair looked windswept and his smile faded. He didn't look different, but I hardly recognized him. Suddenly, I felt something pull within me. I needed to get away. From everything.
"You don't want to go out with me anymore, do you?" he asked. His voice was cold and hard, drained of love.
"Michael. It's not that. I'm just… it's hard, is all."
"You've changed, Ruby," he said. "You look tired all the time. You pull away when I try to touch you. You don't pick up the phone anymore when I call. I don't know what I did wrong," he said. A slither of emotion slipped through his guarded words. I recognized it- resignation.
"I'm sorry, Michael," I said. There was nothing else to say.
"I am too," he replied. Three words, six letters, but only one meaning.
"What about your mother?" she asks me. It's stopped raining out and the sun peeks through the clouds.
"My mother is… my mother." I wish it would rain again.
"Do you enjoy spending time with her?"
"Not really," I reply. Obviously. What teenager enjoys spending time with their mother? No one I know.
"She's neurotic," I answer starkly. It's the truth, after all.
"How so?" she asks. I take a minute to gather my thoughts.
"Don't get me wrong, I love her. She gave birth to me and all. But she's a few screws short of a toolbox." Dr. Sherry cracks a smile. "She expects me to be perfect, and to respect her even though she doesn't respect me. The only way you can talk to her is by calling her on her cell phone practically. She's the kind of mother that shrinks dream of, salivate over. Your typical AWOL, non-maternal type," I say.
"How does she expect you to be perfect?" Dr. Sherry asks. I know what she means, but I don't answer that way.
"I don't know, but somehow, she manages."
"It's time, Ruby," Dr. Townen said. He came into my room and looked at me cautiously, unsure of whether I would indifferently oblige or put up a fight.
"Not today," I said. He knew.
"Ruby, this is not a choice," he said, sighing and rubbing his glasses on the cotton of his white robe.
"I'm not going, and you know you can't make me," I said. I laid down on my bed, skechbook in hand, page blank. I hadn't been able to draw anything since I'd arrived.
"Let's make this easy on both of us," he said, pleading with me.
"Agreed. So you can go, and I'll stay here and draw." I don't when my heart hardened over. Every adult was out to get me, to shove me in a box and throw the key away. I would be damned if I was just going to stand by and let it happen, but the poor guy looked like he'd been on his shift all night.
"Ruby…" he said, trying again.
"Fine," I conceded, and dramatically rolled my eyes. I tried marching out with dignity, but my knee buckled slightly and I slipped, just barely. Dr. Townen caught me, but I shoved him away and marched as well as I could down the hall to the Check-Up Room.
Nurse Edna sat on the chair, smoking a cigarette. No one would ever tell her to stop. Edna's been there longer than most of the doctors, anyway. I like her.
"Hi, Honey," she said, "Jump on!"
I climbed on to the scale and looked down. It was a digital one, so there was no agonizing spinning of the dial. The red digital numbers clicked into place: 120.
"Congrats, sugar! You reached your goal weight!" Edna said to me, scooping my frail figure up in her arms. I tried to smile encouragingly, like I was happy too. This was the least I was allowed to weigh, the limit of my thinness. I wasn't worried, though. I could play by the rules. I would be 120, and not an ounce over, till the day I died.
"Ruby, let me ask you something," Dr. Sherry says. Here we go. I stop her.
"I know what you're going to ask me. It's a shrink trick, the same one they teach to lawyers. It's a statement disguised as a question, something you already know the answer to," I say matter-of-factly.
"Oh?" Her eyebrow arches.
"Sure. You're going to 'ask' me if I internalize my problems. If I feel the need to be perfect, and use anorexia as a measure of control. If I feel like the only thing I have a say in is my food intake," I say. Her silence informs me that I'm correct.
"Dr. Sherry, I live at White Pine now. I hear this psycho-babble stuff day in and day out. I eat, breath, and sleep it."
"You're half-right. I was going to ask you something like that, but more in the direction of why you feel the need to be perfect," she says. Half-right- that's a half-indulgence, but she knows I took the words right out of her mouth. Shrinks don't like it when you start playing mind games with them.
"I don't feel the need to be perfect. No one is. But I like things to be right, to be as smooth as they can be," I say.
"Like what do you when someone gets mad at you?" she asks. Easy question.
"Fix it," is my reply. "You figure out what you did wrong and apologize. It's pretty simple."
"What if you weren't wrong?" she asks hypothetically.
"You apologize anyway."
"Dr. Sherry, in my house it's easier to just apologize to my mom than to fight with her. I refuse to fight with my mom. She's a guilt-tripper," I say. Dr. Sherry makes a note- shrinks adore neurotic mothers. There are books about it.
"Alright. But what if you do nothing, let it go because that's what feels right to you?"
"But that doesn't fix the problem," I say. This woman's a shrink? They're problem-solvers. I would be a good one, if I wasn't so screwed up myself.
"But you have to do what is right for you, Ruby. Even if someone else doesn't agree with it," she states gently.
"But then they'll be mad you," I rebut, confused.
"So?" she asks. The question rings through the air as it begins to rain again.
"She's still unconscious, Mrs. Sariletti," a doctor said to my mother. I didn't know whether he realized I could hear him. I'd been hearing scattered fragments of conversation over the past few days, but they were senseless blurbs. Now, finally, I was piecing it all together. I tested my eyes, but they wouldn't open. My fingers and toes didn't move, but my lungs did, breathing in tainted air.
"How much longer until she wakes up?" my mother asked. Her voice was drained and melodramatic, always calling attention to herself. I couldn't tell how far she was from me.
"We don't know. A day or two, hopefully," the doctor said. He sounded young but tired.
"I need some coffee," my mother announced, getting up and walking out of the room. I could hear her footsteps plodding down the hall towards somewhere. I still had no idea where I was except for I thought maybe I was in a hospital.
Someone got up a few minutes later and tucked the covers under my chin. I thought it might be a nurse until I felt fingers run across my cheek. I knew that touch, and I recognized the smell, too. It was my father. Steady, quiet, and dependable.
My tongue felt like it was wrapped in cotton as I tried to talk. It took a few tries. I think my father could tell I was muttering something, and I didn't feel him move away. My eyes stayed glued shut but my weak voice grew clearer.
"Daddy," I said softly, barely audible. I felt two strong arms wrap around my torso. I breathed in the scent: fire ash and men's cologne. It was the safest smell in the world, and I finally knew where I was.
A buzzer rings on Dr. Sherry's desk. It's a baker's timer shaped like an apple, and it vibrates softly and calls out a little humming noise.
"I hate to say this Ruby, but our time is up. You're going back to White Pine but I'll see you again in three days, ok?" Dr. Sherry says, standing up and brushing doughnut crumbs off her pants. I stay seated and blink.
"That was 50 minutes?" I ask. It went by astonishingly fast. I look out the window and the sun has broken through the rain, shining defiantly.
"Yes, but I think we made good progress. We're going to beat this together, Ruby. I know we will," she says. She walks over and offers me her hand, standard shrink closing. I shake it dazedly.
"Thank you, Dr. Sherry," I say. I open the door and walk out, marching right past my mother on her cell phone in the waiting room. I open up the white door that leads to the parking lot and flop down on the ground. It's been ages since I smelled grass.
I look up at the sky and smile, a real one that feels unfamiliar. Everything in me feels changed, new. The sun smiles back at me and blesses every inch of me. I can feel a ruby-red ray of sunshine beat down on me, and for a moment, I am perfect.