“I shall never get out of this! There are two of me now:
This new absolutely white person and the old yellow one,
And the white person is certainly the superior one.
She doesn't need food, she is one of the real saints.
At the beginning I hated her, she had no personality--
She lay in bed with me like a dead body
And I was scared, because she was shaped just the way I was…”
— “In Plaster” by Sylvia Plath
It’s an unspoken truth that the moment you lie down, there’s a chance you’ll never rise again.
The edge of an instrument table cuts deeper and deeper into my bare ass. I refuse to get any closer to the bed. It’s erected in the center of the room, surrounded by a cage of blinking screens and tangled wires. The sheets are perfectly folded, just waiting for a frail body to make its permanent indentation. The stench of disinfectant beckons me.
A nurse sporting a “Children’s Hospital” patch on her breast stomps toward me. A pudgy hand reaches for my goose-bump riddled arm. I scurry to the bathroom and slam the door. Safe. I scan the room for a mirror, but only find tawdry wallpaper. I run my hands down my body, mapping every bony curve in my mind’s eye. Bones are the product of starvation. With every one that comes into view, the closer you are to perfection. I’m so close I can taste it.
I haven’t had a drop of liquid since my pediatrician admitted me here. He called it an “inpatient program.” More like the opposite of “fat camp.” My ties with him should’ve been terminated a year ago on my eighteenth birthday, but he’s been monitoring me since I was a crying, shitting sprout of human being. I trusted him, I suppose. The day before, we had our last appointment together. Just one below-average heart rate and a dizzy-spell called for automatic deportation to this place. I trusted him.
I bang the faucet knob up with my elbow and cup my hands underneath it. They remain unfilled. “Why’s there no water?” I yell, spinning the knob around like a jack-in-the-box. The nurse’s agitated voice from the other side tells me it’s shut off. “Why?” But I know why. So I won’t binge on water before the weigh-in.
My throat releases something that sounds like the mixture of a hoarse laugh and a scream. For years doctors have been telling me to give water a chance. I would just brush it off and down a liter of Diet Coke. Now, I deliriously pry at the nozzle. For the love of god, just a drop.
The voice commands me to come out. “Not until you turn it on,” I try to bargain. No can do. “Turn. It. On.” She’s just doing her job. “Bitch.” I scowl at the dry basin and yank open the bathroom door. I’m not sure why I gave in. No matter the reason, I did, and now the bed once again taunts me with its cold metal arms.
The nurse wheels in a screeching scale and haphazardly slams it against the wall. With its jagged frame and white sheen it looks like a revamped medieval contraption. I glide over to it as if by instinct. The nurse’s commands commence. Turn around. Step backwards onto it. Arms to the side. Relaaax.
I’ve done this so many times the past two years that it has become second nature. Every week my nutritionist would give the same sullen response: “Down,” with a disapproving flick of the head. Then we’d brainstorm the best way to shovel mounds of grease down my throat. We’d conclude with a mini-lecture on fat absorption rates, payment for her services, and a halfhearted “Have a good week.”
Five months earlier when I started college in Florida, I weighed 116 pounds. I sneak a peek at the number behind me: “99.1” I’ve turned “Freshman 15” on its head. The nurse curtly asks me why I’m smiling. It has become a natural reaction to seeing the numbers plummet. I immediately drag the corners of my lips down.
“Did I break it?” I jokingly ask the nurse, hoping to shatter the tension between us. Her lips twist into a scowl. I find my feet shuffling backward, as if they’re being coaxed by some invisible force. I’m swept up into the bed. As hard as I struggle, I can’t summon the energy to get back up.
The nurse fumbles through a drawer, keeping her lips mashed into a stern slit. A tourniquet leaps from the drawer and coils around my stringy bicep like a ravenous snake. “Do I have to get an IV?” I groan. The nurse replies by jamming a needle into my bulging vein.
A tube is hooked up to the needle to take a sample. It remains empty. My body must be refusing to part with the precious amount of blood it has left. The needle sinks deeper into my arm and sends a sharp pain up my humerus. Blood spurts from the punctured point and paints my gown red. Vial by vial my veins are run dry. The nurse hooks me up to an IV bag and leaves me to my blood-loss-induced-euphoria.
I notice a flicker of movement out of the corner of my eye. A petite woman is curled up into a ball on a pleather chair. Some call her my creator. “Mother” will do. My father drowned in smoke at a house fire when I was fifteen. Mother assumed both parental roles afterward, pulling fifty-hour weeks at her job. It shows in her sunken face and the way she hobbles around like a resurrected mummy. She wires me money monthly to buy food. Little does she know it goes straight to cigarettes and new clothes.
Mother’s shut eyelids manically flutter like larvae struggling to burst through their shells. Perhaps this place has conjured memories of the beginning: a bloody bundle of flesh being torn from a gash in her abdomen. Do the screams sound the same after nineteen years? I try to say something to wake her up, but my tongue is wedged between my cheek and gums.
I idly turn my wrist around in front of me, as if studying a tagged artifact. The wristband reads: NAME: Jacob Allgeier. DATE OF ADMISSION: 1/27/11. They can’t keep me here; I’m finally the commander of my life. I couldn’t control my parents’ divorce. I couldn’t control my father’s affair with alcohol. I couldn’t control countless coffins being tossed into holes. But I could control food. Now these people at the hospital want to strip me of this title I labored so hard for.
I dig my fingers under the wristband and try to yank it off. Almost immediately every ounce of energy seeps from my pores. When did I become so tired? I try to fight the veil of darkness slowly being drawn over me. The sheets passionately embrace me like an assassin.
A shrill beeping jolts me from my sleep. The heart monitor to my left is going haywire, wildly flashing numbers and lights. Something’s wrong. A nurse scurries in and pounds on a few buttons. The machine dies with a hiss.
“What’s happening?” I scream in terror. Apparently my heart rate dropped to the caution level: 45 beats per minute. “What’s normal?” 90. Am I only half alive?
Before I can ask more questions, to get some momentary sense of reassurance, the nurse splits. The seat to the side of me crackles as Mother rolls off of it. She places the back of her hand on my forehead, as if checking my temperature like she did when I was a child. I should appreciate her ditching work to be here with me, but instead I am consumed by fury. She’s actually letting her son be tortured right before her eyes.
“I want to leave,” I snarl. Mother says she understands. She was hospitalized as a teenager to fight the same demon. This little bastard that crawls into your mind and plucks at the grey matter; twists your eyes until every reflection of yourself is a funhouse mirror; hisses in your eardrum, “Fat fat fat…” It must have been passed down to me like a genetic mutation, one far more malevolent than the widow’s peak and piss-poor eyesight. If anyone should’ve seen this coming, it would be Mother.
The fluid in the IV bag drops into the thin tube beneath it. Plop. Plop. Plop. I imagine Old Faithful, that gaping hole in the ground that spews a colossal fountain of water every 91 minutes. I want to lean over it, unhinge my jaw, and rapidly expand by the rush of water like a balloon. I can already smell the stench of rotten eggs curdling in my nostrils.
Thirst keeps me from dozing off. I impatiently surf news websites on my laptop to pass the time. Seven protestors have been killed during the riots in Egypt. Charlie Sheen has been rushed to the hospital after being coked out with a porn star. The American Psychiatric Association claims that five to ten percent of people with an eating disorder die within ten years of onset. Chills ripple over my flesh. I skipped my first meal eight years ago. I try to convince myself that it’s all skewed data, but this feeling of unease only intensifies.
A nurse slips into the room with a battered wheelchair. It’s 8 a.m. Time to eat. The phrase sounds as foreign to me as “Timendi causa est nescire.” After years of emptiness, my stomach has become a petrified fossil. There’s no restoring it back to the state it once was.
“I’m not hungry,” I say with a wave of my hand. She points a fingernail down to the wheelchair and sternly says it’s part of the program. I heave off the bed and listlessly patter to the door. The rusting wheels block the exit. “Excuse me.” Sit. She’ll push me there. “Seriously? I can’t walk?” I retort in disbelief. Are they going to feed me breakfast choo-choo-train-style as well? Sit. I obey.
The “dining room,” which is nothing more than an unused office, is occupied by a teenage girl. She sits hunched over the bare table, her spine rippling under her skin like a snake skeleton. Her sagging face quickly sneaks a glance at me. It looks like the head of an old woman has been screwed onto the frame of a nine year old.
The girl’s brows furrow as she scoots her chair to the opposite end of the table. I can sense what she’s thinking: What’s a guy doing here? The moment the pallid gowns were tossed over us, we were deemed comrades in the useless war against ourselves. The sexual organs beneath them are irrelevant. A mirror is not bias to gender; it seizes whoever stares into it for long enough. Perhaps if I were a girl, people would’ve noticed my deterioration sooner. Instead, I was labeled “scrawny.”
Two covered plates are ushered in by a nurse and plopped in front of us. The girl stares down at the mystery dish; her eyes bulge from her skull. She tucks her hands as far as possible between her needle-thin legs.
An unopened bottle of Evian swings from the nurse’s hand like a pendulum. The sloshing sound wrings the emergency supply of spit from my salivary glands. “Do I get something to drink?” I ask, my lips trembling. A small bottle of clear fluid is tossed to me. I hastily twist off the cap and take a swig. An overpowering taste of grimy sweat consumes my mouth. I immediately spew it onto my plate and begin to dry heave.
“What the hell is this?” I ask, holding my breath to stifle the rank taste. Pedialyte—nectar of the false gods. I’m told I must finish every last drop. If this nurse had a clue what it tastes like, she would cherish that water of hers like the entire Earth is in an irreversible drought.
We move onto the main course. The nurse, like a warden, looms over the girl and me. Our weights combined are less than hers. I practically inhale the food on my plate, hoping the faster I eat, the sooner I can leave. The lukewarm slop leaps over my tongue and down my throat, not even registering with my taste buds. I throw out my arms in presentation at the licked-clean plate. I’m told I can’t go until the girl finishes. What more does this sadist want me from me?
I scowl in impatience at the straggler. A shaky knife slivers off a piece of beef and reluctantly places it in her mouth. Tears well in her glassy eyes. She pulls her knees up to her chest and whimpers like a lost child. The nurse has given her the almond granola bar. She hates almonds. We all know it doesn’t matter what nut is put in there. After a drawn-out scene of whining and tantrums, the girl gives in. She plucks one oat at a time from the bar and reluctantly drops it on her tongue. Her jaw grinds so slowly it feels like time is at a standstill.
I recognize the look of dread in the girl’s face. It has stared back at me in the mirror for years like an old enemy. Those eyes overflowing with infinite hopelessness and torment. No matter how many lenses you try to filter your skewed perception through, you will never truly see reality with clarity. That distorted portrait you have created of yourself has become more real than your physical being. It is the companion who will lead you hand in hand to the grave. It is the ultimate submission. It is…
A crippling feeling of unease suddenly crashes over me. This lifeless shell of a girl has plummeted into a deep hole, one where all she can do now is dig. She flicks her eyes up at me. They seem to be screaming, “Run!”
I can’t become her.
I burst out of my chair and make for the door. The nurse lunges at me like a bloodthirsty beast. I evade her grasp and propel off my heels into a sprint. A voice bellows for me to come back. Never.
Grime clings to the soles of my feet as I bolt down this labyrinth of halls. Left. Right. Left. With each turn, my surroundings look even more foreign to me. I occasionally risk a glance into one of the rooms. Blurry figures lie stiff on beds, entangled in coffins of fabric and wire.
After what seems like an eternity of dead ends, I spot a sign dangling from the ceiling that reads: E.D. UNIT. I stumble to room 414. My heart rapidly beats my ribcage like an out-of-control engine. It may be atrophied, but it’s far from broken.
Mother’s head springs up from the book in her hands. “I’m leaving,” I wheeze. She says I’ve only been here for two days, that I need to give it time. “They won’t help me. I can do this on my own.”
“You’ll die!” Mother cries. The words pierce me with the precision of a chilled scalpel. She’s right.
“But not here,” I say with conviction. Mother’s pallid arms shoot up in the air like a flag. She might have brought me into this world, but I’ll decide how I’m taken out.
Doctors speak with false concern. Try to convince me to stay. Pretend like they don’t need the bed. Warnings: dangerous heart rate; osteopenia in the lumbar spine; elevated liver enzymes; just words mechanically read aloud from a frayed notepad.
I swing a backpack with my belongings over my shoulder. “I’m ready,” I reply. I take one last look at the bed. The mattress is perfectly flat. It’s as if no one has ever lain there. I own my silhouette.
The soda machine in the lobby slurps up a dollar bill from my trembling hand. I run my finger up and down the numerous selections, examining each caffeinated drink with a scientist’s eye. My tongue clacks against the roof of my mouth. I’m so parched I can’t even begin to decide which drink would be the most refreshing.
Lurking at the very bottom of the row is a button concealed by a strip of paper. “H2O” is scribbled on it in nearly illegible chicken-scratch. My breath hides in my lungs. Do it. Save yourself. You are flesh and blood, not a statistic.
For the next two years I will relentlessly fight and struggle to recover. At times, I will wish I’d just taken the easy route and let myself wither away in the hospital. This demon will continue clinging to my shoulder, coaxing me to fall back into my destructive habits. It feeds off weakness. But I will persevere. With every bite of food I take, the demon will starve. One day, I will banish this disease.
My foot darts back and pile-drives the button. The machine grates and roars like a metallic beast. I snatch up the bottle of water, tear off the cap, and throw my head back.
Jacob Allgeier is an undergraduate student at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla., and working on a double major in creative writing and literature. His work has appeared in decomP magazinE.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: I have never spoken openly about my eating disorder, so the biggest surprise was realizing how cathartic writing about it was. With each revision, my understanding of how and why I got to this point in my life became clearer. Anorexia is misunderstood, so if my readers can learn something new about it, I feel like I’ve succeeded.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: A creative writing professor I had once said, “The key is to be ambiguous, not vague.” Sometimes I get so caught up in the “literary” aspect of writing that I forget that the goal is to connect with the reader on some level. If readers are confused about what they’re reading, then how can I expect them to enjoy the piece, let alone take anything away from it?
Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk, Almost Transparent Blue by Ryu Murakami, and “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates.
Q: Describe your writing space for us. Are you someone who finds the muse in a public space such as a café, or in a cave of one’s own?
A: If something’s bothering me, the only way I can get over it is to write. I will find an isolated spot outside and let the feelings completely consume me. I refuse to go back inside until all my thoughts have been dumped onto the page.