The Disappearing Game
I can’t breathe. My elbows press a white indentation on the padded seat, pressed down from holding the sides of my face still. I can feel the cool of the blue tiles beneath my shins through faded jeans. The air is buzzing and a high-pitched ring reverberates in my inner ear.
This is the first time I’ve made myself sick.
I can hear the muted rumblings of my parents downstairs, talking over the clanking of dinner dishes in the sink. The liter bottle of diet soda I stole from the church kitchen sits behind my left knee, half-empty. My trembling fingers reach for it again, shiny and wet. The cap unscrews easily, and my burning throat is flushed with saccharine bubbles that wash down broken particles of rice and broccoli. I let it sit there in my confused stomach for a moment. Let it soak in the pieces of regret I swallowed forcibly with a smile fifteen minutes ago. I grimace, trying to avoid the smell of myself as I bring my hand up again.
Splotchy rivers of brown bile flow from my mouth, chunks of sodden bread and what looks like tofu catching a ride upstream. It moves faster and faster, rolling with regularity as the soda does its job. Unlike the first time, the course doesn’t break, doesn’t stop for me to catch my breath and whiffs of pungent processed food bobs in the bowl. I cough, sputtering. I get up, my cotton-footed grip sliding across the porcelain floor in panic. The sink, thankfully, is within arm’s reach. Gripping the ceramic edge, I stand, turning on the faucet. I gather the cold water in my hands and drink. I swish it around my mouth, catching all the lost bits that I had struggled to reject. I spit and dark pieces of green, white, and brown slide down the drain, cyclically circling the white basin before disappearing entirely. I take more water and splash it on my face, avoiding the mirror. My nose is burning more than my throat, so I reach for some tissues and blow. This is the most painful part of the process. It feels like strands of my brain are being torn out, each leaving a bitter bite behind my throat and eyes. I look down at the tissue. It mirrors the toilet. I toss it in and squat down again, reaching for the soda. Between heaves, my shoulders slump with effort. I gag again, refusing to stop until I can see the orange flag of carrots, signaling the first food I ate. Until I am clean. I’m midway between a breath and another release when I hear footsteps. My heart seizes. My empty stomach lurches. There’s a knock.
“Amanda?” Another knock.
“Amanda? Are you okay? It sounds like you’re puking in there. What’s going on?” The door handle wiggles as my mother tries to open the door. I pause, my hand still dripping by my face.
“I’m fine, I’m just using the bathroom. Really, I’m okay.”
“Let me in.”
“What? No, I’m using the bathroom. I swear, I’m not sick. I’ll be down in a second.” My mother is silent. From behind the door I can feel her resistance diminishing.
“Okay. I’ll be downstairs.”
“Alright, I’ll be down.” As she walks away, listening to her fading footsteps, I breathe in a deep, sour breath. I stand again, satisfied, and wash off my sticky hands and teary cheeks. I look at myself. My small eyes are swollen, the skin around my nose rubbed red. I brush my teeth carefully, making sure to cover each shiny surface, thinking to myself, I should have turned on the shower.
Most anorexics will say their eating disorder began at a specific, distinguishable point. My boyfriend of four months, Mark, said I could shed some after the first time we had sex. I always loved fashion and thought the models were so beautiful, so thin. I saw myself after wrestling practice, sweating sides pudging over tight, red, spandex. For me, it happened gradually, unknowingly, like slipping into sleep while watching TV late at night. My motions, though different, felt natural. My body welcomed the lightened load. My mind surged on my newfound control. I think the real connection in each of our stories is in our ability to assess the self. We felt the hollow dissatisfaction that plagues the average human once or twice a month, causing them to weep in bed at night, to cower under the covers. To drink excessively in hopes of finding elation and importance after a monotonous week spent in front of a screen. To stare at walls, blank-faced, feeling insignificant, expecting some God to reach down and remind them that they are okay.
We felt ugly.
Losing weight is simple. Don’t eat.
Breakfast means coffee, black. Gum. Throw away your bagged lunch. Water. Diet Cola. Water. Gum. Slip dinner into napkins under the table. Drop pieces down gradually. Kick them to the far corners of the kitchen. Don’t ask me about snacks. If you have free time, get a yoga mat. Water. If you think you don’t have free time, you do. All it takes is a month, just one month. The rest is just routine.
Wednesdays are weigh ins. Mama says it’s a good day to determine weight—not too early for progress to be made, like on a Monday, and not too late to slip back by Sunday. We never had a scale before. I had to rely on a yellow slip of measuring tape and the ease with which my jeans slid down my shrinking thighs to measure my progress. Sometimes, I feel bad for my mother, who continues to do things in an effort to bring the color back to my cheeks and my secretive chandelier of bones out of the upstairs bedroom. She is unaware that she feeds my habit, nursing my sin with the ignorance of a parent who keeps taking their child to confession, oblivious to what goes on in the dark uncertainty of the enclosed booth. I can tell she’s confused when I slink onto the scale and the numbers flash consistent despite the hollowness that continues to deepen in my cheeks. She hasn’t taken to making me strip before her, exposing the source of my same-weight-surprises. My heart stills with fear at the thought of when that day will come.
Upstairs, my spine presses into the hardwood floor of my bedroom as I curl in motion, legs bicycling wildly, breathing even and determined. Tonight was good. I had been able to stow piles of food away in my cheeks, running to the bathroom to spit them out between bouts of feigned chewing. Everything else on my plate disappeared between white folds and fabric. Thank god for napkins and pocketed hoodies. My empty stomach welcomes the clenching curls as I lift my torso off the floor. It almost makes it feel occupied. I’m halfway through my workout when Mama calls to me, “Amanda, get down here.” Letting my limbs lay flat, agitated, I reply, “Why?” I know the answer, but I make her say it anyway.
“I’m weighing you.” I sit there a moment longer, waiting to see if she’d forget, caught up in a phone call or the spilled mess from some sister. This time, Daddy bellows up, “Come down, now. Come on. We’re not playing games today.” I know the scale is unavoidable when Daddy gets involved. He rarely does. I think I terrify him. He doesn’t look at me directly any more—unable to stomach the image of his oldest growing in reverse. I say “Okay.”
My feet fumble as I move to get ready before one of my parents comes up. I run to my closet and feel beneath a pile of clothes for my blue ankle weights. I strap them tightly to my translucent legs, slipping socks on overtop to keep the sand from rustling too loudly. Pulling my sweatpants down to conceal my secret weapon, I stumble out of the room, wearing three layers of shirts, feeling chilly.
Mama is already in the bathroom when I get down. “Get on.”
I hold my breath, willing my weight to press harder today onto that shining scale. Hoping to slowly bring me back to a normal weight, Mama will accept anything above ninety. She knows we can’t afford a therapist. This is her way of implementing discipline. This is a routine I can follow and become “normal” again. I stare at her weapon, the scale. Give my mother her numbers. Just today. The numbers flash in illegible swirls within their small, metallic box and I swear minutes pass. My thumb nails press against my clammy palms as I try to stay still. Try to keep my ankle weights from whispering and revealing my secret. My mother sighs. The metallic box is still.
“94,” she says. “Good.”
“Can I go now?” I ask, feeling the cool relief of passing the only test I am ever unsure of.
“Yes. You can go. Same time next week.”
I trudge off, making sure to shuffle in a way that makes the shaking grains of sand sound human. The sounds of Mama’s sewing machine and Daddy’s television show fill the living room as I walk upstairs. I am safe. Settling back on the yoga mat Mama bought me, I keep the weights on long enough to finish my leg lifts.
Three hours later, the house is still. The TV is off. The sewing machine is silent. The muted snores of my father trickle through the wood-wrought cracks of our rooms. My mother turns over in her sleep, the bed squeaking slightly. With steady and practiced steps, I slink down the stairs, careful to make each footstep sound as if they were nothing but the house’s customary creaking, brought on by quiet and the wind. Using my palms to guide me in the blackness of the hall, I feel my way to the bathroom and shut the door. I turn on the light. Slowly I strip, shedding my clothes like soft layers of skin. Beneath the fluorescent gleam of the bathroom light, I look at myself.
I hate this mirror. My arms. My face. So corpulent. So soft. I bend to move the scale. My back aches, my spine lined with bruises from pressing into the floor while working out. Again, my stomach lurches as I hold my breath. This wait is worse because it’s real. The number belongs to me. Feeling at my sides with anxious, searching hands, I know I have nothing else to lose. The number is quantifiably, measurably, unmistakably me. These number are the only ones I can trust, to show me if I’ve made progress, if I’m beautiful. The metallic face whirls, weighing—my heart lurching headlong with it.
Smiling, I slide my legs back into my cotton sweats, my arms into sheaths of white plush.
Smiling, I nudge the scale back with my thin toes, back to its designated waiting space. Smiling, I flip the bathroom switch and open the door.
Feeling somewhat lighter, I float upstairs, a dwindling wraith, finally ready for bed.
About the Author: Amanda Gaines is a recent graduate of West Virginia University's Creative Writing program, a poetry reader for Calliope, WVU's literary journal, and a poetry editor for Mind Murals, the Eastern Region's literary journal for Sigma Tau Delta. Her poetry and fiction have been published in both. She paints, cooks, and knits sporadically, though not in that order.