The hospital windows gnash together like God’s overbite, the rain tapping her long fingers against the industrial glass. Sixteen girls and two boys sit cross-ankled on a stained sofa, heads bowed over their books as if in prayer; quiet enough to keep our misery immaculate. I, seventy pounds of gossamer and syncope knot my legs, thin as embroidery floss, in tattered children’s tights, search for my sternum beneath the grey shag sweater my friend outgrew in the third grade. One of the women who watches over the ward, Maria, an English major with a Spanish accent, lines us up by the dining room’s double doors for the second snack of the day. She snatches my scapula before I reach the patient refrigerator, pulls my brittle hair back into a braid, several strands slipping through her fingers towards the floor.
“Miss Laura. You know the rules. Don’t think staff has forgotten how much peanut butter you can shove under those pretty little fingernails. Sleeves up, hair back, hands on the table-top,” Maria says, toppling me into a chair at table one. I push away the plate of boost pudding and banana slices, appeal to the faint fluorescent lights for the apocalypse of my flickering pulse.
The doctors here worry I will fall and break my hip. I worry my friends will find out I am just stress fractures and semicolons and stop sending me cards covered in curves of cursive. Although on chair rest I’m not allowed to check the mail tray, Maria hands me a pastel paper stack every afternoon. Today there are eight envelopes; my grandmother detailing her Saturday of shelling butterbeans, several sets of haphazard heart sketches from my bespectacled boyfriend, thick packets of Harry Potter fan fiction from my friend Sorena, printed in ten-point Times New Roman to take up as little space on the page as possible.
I read over the wrinkled sheets curled into the coral couch cushion, small and displaced as a comma splice, tuck the hem of my sweater between my teeth so no one can hear me cry. Someone else cries in the rec room. It’s always someone else. The throw pillows are swirled with mascara stains. I don’t recognize the pitchy pleas I’ve plucked from my skull until the echo from the other room ends. I sound like a newborn, pink velour tongue velcroed to teeth, cries from my empty mouth almost inaudible, every hour bringing about the harshest hunger I’ve ever endured, yet live without words for.
Weigh-ins are Monday, Wednesday and Friday, just like the literature summer camp for high school students I’d been accepted into three months ago and now couldn’t attend because my parents had driven me to Durham two Tuesdays ago, a city grey as cardiac arrest, kept alive by the constant mumblings of machines, plastic clouds dripping down to the injected intersections like a normal saline line.
“It’s my body.” I said as my parents pull into patient parking. I don’t try to run, just cross my arms, ringing my forefinger and thumb around my bicep, fingertips touching, clasp and unclasp the Hello Kitty watch I wear just over my elbow. “I destroy it.” They popped the trunk anyway, pulled out swathes of chiffon from the children’s department of J. C. Penney and ushered me into the foyer with its fake blue fire where a freckled receptionist photographed my faded face for the patient portal system, the computer program where they log all our ugly numbers in pixilated, parallel lines.
We took the elevator upstairs. I watched my mouth not move in the shiny silver surface above the control panel. Dr. Stu, a Yankees fan with chapped cheeks tipped us toward the armchairs scattered across his cramped office. He sent my parents away with Jennie, my therapist, He steepled his fingers then, elbows on his knees, and told me that, according to my lab-work, my liver enzymes were elevated, a harbinger of multiple organ failure in anorexia nervosa, my neck cracking, eyes narrowed.
“You’re dying.” He said.
My chapped lips cracked and bled around chattering teeth. A half-smile. “I know.”
Weigh-ins are Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, after we’ve pissed in a cup and before we’ve lined up for breakfast. A nurse with stained teeth and spotless scrubs smooths the backs of our green gowns as if she’s testing the temperature in a claw-footed tub. She’s checking our underwear for coin rolls, half pound weights, or even the neon magnets provided to each patient for the posting of printed Pinterest quotes and family pictures to the white boards in our Technicolor rooms, each with only one wall painted, doors propped open even we dress and undress, clasping our dresses and fists, always clenched, crouched, floral fabric covering the air-strike zones dog-eared on our skin, blue and marked as tattered atlas pages. I wait until the child psychiatrist calls my bulimic roommate to swap her pink pills for purple suppositories before I curl into the carpet, seeping across the floor like a coffee spill, do as many crunches as I can before I hear Maria’s wooden clogs clacking closer, no—closer, her acrylics clutching the pilling of my pink sweater. “That’s enough.” She says while I turn away, hollow cheek pressed against the ground, rug burn reddening as I let her roll me over, help me stand. Still, I shake my head.
It’s never enough.
Jennie, the therapist with hair the color of Nagasaki’s shroom, calls me out of art therapy, pulls the lump she snatched from my throat last session out of her pocket.
“Dr. Stu wants us to send you over to the ER.”
My hands, replaced with moths, flutter, light on my throat. I know completely that she means I’ll be strapped to a stretcher, that doctors who would never let me use their first names will snap their fingers, ask a nurse for a tray with a tube to thread through my nose and down my throat to feed me, revoke the sole, primal power shared between anorexics, suffragettes, and other wrongly imprisoned protestors—refusal. The roof of my mouth itches and my ears ring. “No.” I say, imagining uncooked eggs tossed between gleaming prison bars, Saint Catherine’s assertion she could live off the seven sacraments alone.
Jennie wraps a wisp of hair around her right ring finger. “You have the ability to stop him, not me.”
I stare at my hands, turn my palms up to watch my pulse waver at the wrist. “I can’t—I can’t eat. It’s like at school, I’d have a juice carton in the cafeteria, one with a little striped straw, or a single spoonful of ice cream straight from the container when I got home because yeah—I was hungry.” The syllables make the wrong shape in my mouth, isosceles. I start to cry. “I was hungry, but it didn’t matter! This is just who I am! Some girls have acrylic nails and chipped teeth, others have high ponytails and higher GPAs, or spiral notebooks and straight bangs. I have hungry.” I think I say, ears ringing, rubbing the fuzzy lanugo hairs on my arm the wrong way. Health class textbooks told me they grow in tufts to keep anorexics warm, but I shiver. I am so sharp. I am so cold.
Jennie uncrosses her ankles, eyes the box of colored Kleenex but doesn’t reach for it. Jennie thinks handing someone a tissue is asking them to clean up their mess. My parents think she is too liberal. Jennie has too many bumper stickers, is probably bisexual, and definitely swears a lot. I take two tissues unprompted, put them in my skirt pocket. I always keep things I think are pretty, usually whatever my mother would want to throw away from my school bag.
“Helen Keller could see that you’re anorexic, Laura. But Jesus, I’ve worked with teenage vanishing acts my entire career, and you aren’t just hungry. You have a vocabulary taller than World Book and Britannica combined. You save pink tissues and patterned paper scraps. Your mind is a mountain range. Your hands are paper cranes. You are starving for information, ravening on your knees for a world where the physics of absence is better understood, where you aren’t locked in a freezing hospital ward with a gang of girls who cry over soda crackers, or measuring yourself by how much space is left over after you scoot into the school bus seat.” She says, or maybe doesn’t say—everything’s stopped and static as a tornado watch, and I wilt, bones scattered like a jigsaw puzzle shaken onto a rug before it’s pored over and put together.
I know the theory of light and matter, the distance formula, at least three of Edgar Allen Poe’s poems, how to say “shit happens” in French and German, but I don’t know how to respond to this neurotic, weepy woman, so odd and determined. I spend the rest of our hour drawing wilted flowers in the dollar-store journal she gave me the day I admitted, hair hanging half-mast. She demands nothing else, walks me to my room with her fingers closed around my shoulder, heels clacking as she trots the other way.
I draw the blinds, cover my eyes with my hands and crawl beneath the quilt my mom made although it’s four in the afternoon.
I sleep through supper, chew my charred dreams.
Laura Ingram is a tiny girl with big glasses and bigger ideas. Her poetry and prose have been published in forty-three literary magazines, among them The Cactus Heart Review, Forest for the Trees, Teenage Wasteland, and Gravel Magazine. Laura is a creative writing student. Harry Styles once gave her his water bottle.