You know that feeling you get after you've done something really, truly terrible? I'm not talking about the stomach in knots sort of guilty feeling that sets in after a few seconds or a few minutes. I'm talking about numbness. Like there's suddenly ice going through your body and time seems to stop or slow entirely. Your vision might start to blur, like mine does. I call it the "stuffed animal world" because the edges of everything become all soft and fuzzy. All I can hear is the steady thrum behind my ears, sort of like waves pulling sand in and out and in and out again.
If I stay in the stuffed animal world long enough, I can almost ignore the candy wrappers littering the floor like pieces of confetti. It seems I can always find something to celebrate. Today, it's my last day at home before I start residential treatment for God knows how long. The admissions lady with the pencil tucked behind her ear and infuriatingly toned legs said it would be for no more than three weeks, but she wasn't a very good liar. She held eye contact for too long.
I could get up to write that observation in my purple notebook, but right now my stomach is going to explode if I move an inch. A groan rumbles through me and I have to bite my lip to hold it back. Footsteps shuffle outside my door and I know it's Evie, trying to decide whether she can come in and pester me about borrowing a sweater or a question on her algebra homework. With all the strength my brain has left, I silently will her to stay outside. Just until the After. I never talk until the After.
Now that Evie's feet are heading down the stairs, I now I have a tiny window of time before I'm called downstairs for dinner. It's enough. I hit the ground running, despite the heaviness in my limbs and belly, and run across the hall to the bathroom we share. I drop to the tiled floor so quickly that my knee will probably end up bruised. Deep breath in. Deep breath out.
Here is the thing about control. Its effects are fleeting, but god are they strong.
When I stand to brush my teeth and wash the bitter aftermath from my tongue, the edges of the room seem sharper. More in focus. I rest a hand on my stomach, previously pushing stubbornly outwards despite the confines of my elastic waistband, and it feels flatter now. Finally, I can exhale. I am Marie again, not some bloated and distorted and completely out of control tornado of a human. I don't know how I could live without this. Would my already chubby, stretch-marked thighs expand further? Would my curves continue to grow forever? My body is like those ivy vines Dad planted a few years ago. No one could control them and they just spread and spread no matter what we did. Our whole yard is covered now. So tomorrow, tomorrow I find out.
The whisper threads its way from the back of my mind.
But there are ways around their rules. Think. You are smart. You know the tricks.
And then I see it. A piece of vomit, caught in the wild thick black mess that is my hair. I can't hold back a sigh of disgust and before I know it, my seats and baggy t shirt are on the floor in a heap and I'm scrubbing my body raw in the shower. Trying to get rid of any trace of that sick, visible or invisible. I did that I think to myself over and over. Jesus Christ. I did that.
I would have showered longer if I hadn't heard my mother's voice calling me for dinner. This one I can't avoid, as it my "Last Supper," after all. And I would never avoid dinner, period. My every waking minute seems to revolve around when I can next eat. I'm hoping dinner is Mom's lasagna because she knows that's my favorite and who knows when I'll be able to eat decent food again? But when I get downstairs, my nose isn't greeted by the familiar scent of tomato sauce and spiced ground beef. Instead, there's just a big bowl of salad.
Mom flashes me a tight-lipped smile.
"I wanted to make something healthy tonight. You know, to celebrate the beginning of your journey to health."
She wrings her hands nervously. Behind her, Dad scoops some lettuce onto his plate and tries his best to look enthusiastic. Evie gives the cucumber on her fork a death glare.
"Sorry," I mouth to her.
She rolls her eyes in return.
There's so much I wish I could say to all of them. I wish I could tell my parents that feeding me a low-calorie dinner is only setting me up for failure. I don't want two binges in a day god I really don't. I wish I could apologize to Evie, who has had to suffer through all the tight-lipped dinner table conversations the eating disorder causes.
As soon as I sit in my chair, I feel a familiar tinge of regret for choosing to put on shorts. Yes, it's June and already hotter than hell in Maryland, so I'd be stupidly uncomfortable if I didn't wear them. But every time I look down, the sight of my thighs spread wide on the chair makes my chest feel heavy. I try to focus on my plate instead, pushing vegetables around and imagining the feeling of cheesy lasagna, warm and comforting, filling my mouth. The tomato sauce would give juicy bursts and the ricotta filling would be soft and smooth….
"Marie? Are you even listening?"
Dad peers at me from over his glasses. He's giving me what he thinks is his reassuring smile, but I know it's not sincere because it doesn't reach his eyes. His eyes just look concerned. He knows where my head is. It's right where it always is. I mumble an apology.
"Your mother was asking if you've finished registering for classes."
At this, I feel a familiar flutter of excitement that, just for a moment, takes my mind away from the trapdoors of food and self-hatred. NYU! I just have a few months until I can relax in a dorm room with a view of Manhattan, textbooks strewn around me and a coffee in my hand as I study what I love.
"Yeah I have. I can't take any classes in forensic psychology yet, but I do get to take an intro to behavior class, so that's good."
Dad actually gives me a genuine smile. I bet it's the smile he reserves for those few AP Bio students who actually get excited about what he's teaching.
"Fantastic, Marie. So tell me, have you read anything else about the CIA internship?"
Just like that, I forget all about tomorrow. I forget about residential treatment, the clothes I've left unpacked, and the sick feeling still churning in my stomach. I can lose myself into researching programs at the CIA for hours. Especially the one I have my eyes on. Anytime I think about taking the dozens of tests required to become a psychology intern, my heart races in my chest and it feels like every muscle in my body is just twitching and itching to move. To begin something incredible.
My head fills with images of the interview process, the personality testing, and the lie detector test that I'll have to ace. I get all flustered and excited when I talk about it to my family, not even noticing the salad I'm shoveling into my mouth between bursts of explanation.
"You see, it doesn't really matter to them what my qualifications are, exactly." I tell them. "I just have to be the right sort of person for the job, you know? Like the kind of person who would do anything the job requires."
Mom nods, though I can tell her mind is elsewhere. Her brown eyes, shared by Evie and me, look dark. "You know," she says slowly, "You always have been so determined. I really think you'll do so well in treatment with that kind of—"
"Do we have any family members or close friends with ties to foreign governments?" I blurt out quickly. In my hurry to say something, a spinach leaf falls out of the corner of my mouth and Evie snorts behind her hand.
Dad gives a sort of sigh. "Um, no. No we do not."
"Well, that's a relief. Because then they couldn't hire me."
The rest of dinner is mostly silent. I don't lift my head once, afraid my parents will see my burning red cheeks. Because of my unbelievably pale skin, when I blush, I blush violently. I'm aware that Evie is looking more sullen than usual, but my parents' eyes are locked on my plate. They'll be watching me like hawks for the next hour, trying to catch me making a beeline to the bathroom.
When I am finally allowed upstairs to finish packing, night seems to fall incredibly slowly. It's less of a falling and more like an inching. I keep checking the glowing red numbers on my alarm clock, but they seem to stubbornly stay the same. Now I'm starting to feel it again. The heaviness starts in my chest and seems to pull my body down towards the ground. I'm painfully aware of my heart thud thudding in my eardrums, my fingers shaking and pulsing with the rhythm. I can't make out a single thought in the haze, but I do know that images are flashing behind my eyelids. The feeling in my chest is a magnet to memories I have no intention of revisiting.
No, not memories. Memories tell stories like beads strung together to make a necklace. My beads are all over the floor. Blurred images I must have stuffed animaled flash in waves. There is no control. No trigger. It just happens.
A boy's face? Is it familiar? I can never make out the eyes, the nose, the defining features. The one constant is a silver cross, dangling over my face and swinging back and forth and back and forth and I try to reach up to grab to stop the swinging because the earth and the bed beneath my back are swinging too. But my arms are so, so heavy….
And then the scream begins.
Not a literal scream. Just a rush of icy cold AHHHHH through my head, real and loud as any scream outside of it. If my heart could beat any faster or expand any more, it would break through the wall of my chest.
I stand up on shaky legs. I have to have to make it stop. Have to clear my body of the scream, the images blurred behind my eyes, the itching beneath my skin that never seems to stop. My dinner churns and burns in my stomach, already making the trip up my throat. My body always knows what it has to do to quiet the scream.
My bedroom door flings open and Evie walks in.
I can't help the sinking, the deflation like a balloon leaking helium that turns my legs useless. I sit down on my bed and attempt to look at ease. If I sit on my hands, maybe Evie won't notice that my fingers are still fluttering.
"What is it?"
My voice sounds hollow, not like mine at all.
Evie crosses her arms, popping her hip like any other thirteen year old girl. Her gaze falls to my clothes that are strewn all over the floor.
"I'll be glad when you leave, you know." She says flatly.
"Why?" I ask. Though I know. She's my sister and I know.
Evie shrugs. She plays with one of my favorite baggy t shirts with the toe of her shoe. Evie is usually fiercely outspoken. Her words can come out like little pins, poking Mom until she throws up her hands in exasperation and gives into demands for sleepovers and more cell phone data. It's strange to see Evie looking at the ground, afraid to meet my eyes.
"No one even asked me about the game today."
It is only then that I notice that Evie is wearing her soccer uniform. Her hair is still sweat-stuck to her forehead. I can tell by the steel-proud look in her eyes, which even disappointment can't hide, that her team won.
After I watched all those videos on eyes and emotion, I've gotten pretty good at reading people through their eyes. But I can't read anyone nearly as well as I can read Evie's.
"I'm sorry," I start to.
"Don't bother!" Evie's voice is sharp. "It's been like this every single night for months. Mom and Dad can't take their eyes off of you for a second. I could be smoking a cigarette right in front of them! I could be doing drugs"
I want to roll my eyes at her. My sister has always leaned towards the dramatic side. But the words stop just short of my lips. She's not all wrong.
"And I'm not stupid, Marie!"
My stomach churns red-hot. "I never said you were!"
Evie rolls her eyes. I have never seen eye rolls as masterfully executed as hers, I swear.
"I heard you in the bathroom before dinner. Don't think I don't know what purging sounds like. You do it all the time now! I mean Jesus, Marie. It's like you want the attention. You're so messed up, you want us all to worry!"
Her words push my heart up into my throat. My whole body feels hot, burning warm like a sunburn spreading beneath my skin. I can feel my face turning bright red. Evie! Why does she have to say shit like that?
Why does it have to hurt like this?
I want to say something bac. To fight and argue and carry on into the night like we do sometimes. But this isn't a sweater borrowed without permission or a teasing word. My mind is blank and numb and just all red-hot.
When I feel the first tear fall, it comes out hot too.
I feel the bed creak as Evie sits beside me. But she's too thin to make it move much. Not like when I sit on it. Her thighs hardly even spread and now my tears are falling faster.
"I never asked for this."
My words aren't coming out above a whisper because damn it I don't know. I don't know what's going on I don't know if I want people to worry if I should be worried. I don't know what I'm doing and I haven't known since I first came out of a stuffed animal haze with candy wrappers all over the floor. That was five months ago.
Evie plays with a ring on her finger. She looks uncomfortable, but I don't think she regrets saying what she did. It just needed to be said.
"I know," she tells me solemnly. Her eyebrows furrow like when she can't understand her math homework and I know she's concentrating. Trying to figure things out . "It, um, it sounds like it hurts when you do it." She says this slowly.
Oh god, Evie. She's not supposed to understand this sort of thing. Evie, with her golden brown skin that always seems to send out warmth and her perfectly athletic body and her pink banded braces that she hates so much. She's supposed to be worrying about passing her algebra final. It's hard to describe the rush of affection I feel towards her. I really do hate her sharp words and know it all attitude. And I can't stand her current obsession with her ratio on Instagram.
But if I could go through life following her with umbrella to shelter her from rain and girls' stupid comments and boys with bad intentions and the sounds of an eating disorder, I would.
"Yeah," I finally say. "It hurts."
And Evie understands. She is not like me at all, not good at solving equations or writing reports. Evie will not get straight As in high school or go to NYU. But that doesn't matter. Because Evie always understands.
She looks up at me and I think she's trying to look all tough and commanding. But now her eyes, the same brown as mine, are welling up. Her voice comes out shaky.
"Just get better, ok?"
And then she suddenly grabs the t-shirt. " Marie, you obviously need my help packing. You're going to show up to that treatment place looking like a homeless person. Don't you want to bring just one cute outfit?"
She gets on her hands and knees and sifts through piles of t shirts and leggings, the only clothes I've let myself wear lately. I join her and we quietly fold clothes and put them into my suitcase. It's not like packing for vacation in Florida, like we usually do this time of year. The air feels heavy. But not so heavy as it was when I was packing alone.
I watch Evie, who hums quietly to herself and a memory floods my mind. This one isn't comprised of scattered beads. This one is welcome.
"Evie, do you remember the summer when I was maybe ten? And I went off to sleepaway camp? Remember how scared I was on the night before I left?"
Evie leans back, sitting on her heels. Her eyes light up. "Yeah! You were crying for hours. I think I remember it was because you thought you were gonna have to pee in the woods!"
"Oh shut up. It wasn't just that! I was scared cause I'd never been apart from Mom and Dad for so long. Or from you."
At this, Evie smiles a little. Her braces flash pink. "I was scared too. Yeah, I remember I was crying a lot. And then Mom told us we should have a sleepover in your room. So we wouldn't feel so upset." She shrugs. "It was all nice and everything until you had to go and tell me a stupid ghost story."
I can't hold back a laugh, now that I'm remembering that whole night. "Yeah and you pissed all over my bed!"
Evie throws my purple notebook at my face and I retaliate with a sock. I'm expecting Evie to grab the pillow next to her (easy ammunition) but instead, she reaches over and pulls me into a sudden hug. I'm so surprised that my arms stay limp by my side. Sure, Evie and I can be close. But we don't really hug.
"Can we have a sleepover tonight?" Evie asks, her voice suddenly sounding like a little girl's. She is a little girl. I forget that sometimes.
"Ok," I nod. "Let's have a sleepover."
When we wake up the next morning, I find my arm wrapped over her shoulders.