[Trigger warning for content related to eating disorders]
It’s almost time to go to Giselle’s party but I haven’t gotten dressed yet because I’m trying to do something about this cow. It’s standing there on the hill looking pretty fucked. Its legs must be bending the wrong way or something, or its head is too small for its body. I don’t know. I’ve been using a picture for reference but I still can’t see where the problem lies. My new idea is to paint a big mass of black right at the top of the canvas and let it drip down over everything and with any luck it’ll hit the cow.
Melanie comes up behind me and I can feel her hovering. When someone’s watching, even Melanie, I can’t paint a thing, so I just wait and finally she puts a mug of tea down next to me.
“Nice,” Mel says.
Mel is fresh from the shower, no towel, no nothing, and I almost don’t want to look at her but I know that I will. Her stomach is flat with the taunting outline of perfect abs, her hipbones jut out, her legs are perfectly slender—there is no trace of the fatty bulge that I’d like to cut from my own thighs, and when I lick Melanie there I sometimes cry. She’s got clavicles like a shelf, and beneath them a set of perfectly womanly boobs: large pink nipples, slightly erect, areolas that darken to purple at the edges. I’ve tried to sketch her a few times, but I had to rip the drawings up. No matter how I try to capture her, I always end up drawing myself.
“Are you going like that?” Melanie asks me. She’s looking at the billowing tee shirt I wear as a painting smock—it’s at least seven sizes too big, and I like the way it almost doesn’t touch me.
“I’ll get changed in a minute. I’m just trying to finish up.”
“Well it’s nice,” she says. “Really.”
“You’re nice,” I say, and I put my arm around her waist, her skin slightly heated, and pull her onto my lap. She’s a tangle of limbs and vanilla shampoo and perfectly red lips that pout like an insult. I kiss her hard and then bite her, first on the lip, then on the neck, and she moans as I pull her head back and leave a hickey behind her ear. Mel. My Mel. My own perfect Mel. I love her so much I could kill her, I could crawl up inside of her and die.
Outside it’s cold and the wind is blowing and Mel and I run fast to the street where Giselle lives.
The space is small and hot and feels extra crowded. We leave our coats in a pile near the entrance, near a table of booze and mixers. I pour Mel a Vodka Diet Sprite, which fizzes over and she has to catch the spill with her tongue. For me: vodka, straight. I like the honest burn.
“Trish—Giselle’s over there.” Melanie takes my hand and pulls me over. Giselle is standing in a circle of people next to her on-again off-again girlfriend.
“Mel!” Giselle says when Melanie sidles up to her. They kiss on the lips, and Melanie seems like she’s a little too into it. Giselle looks okay in this sleeveless black number that shows off her tattoo of roses and daggers. Her arm squishes though in a way that I find pretty upsetting, since Melanie even pinches my arms when she’s running her hands over me, then strokes my cheek as if consoling me in the face of my own inadequacy. Yet here she is smooching Giselle like it’s fine, like some squishiness doesn’t even matter, well fucking fuck that. I sip my vodka and focus on the sensations it makes inside me. I am so different from these people.
Giselle has been talking—asking me a question?—and now it seems to be my turn to respond. Before I can manage a reply, though, Mel jumps in.
“Trish came home with me for Thanksgiving this year. My dad took us sailing even though it was freezing and you should have seen her out there on the boat, it was like she had never even seen water! Isn’t that right, Trish? You were so sick; I felt awful. And my dad was no help, either, he just went, ‘This’ll help her to build up her sea legs,’ like it was, I don’t know, running or something where when you push yourself it’s a good thing.”
I smile, nod, sip my drink in agreement, allow Mel to create whatever version of me she wants. Giselle is listening intently, but I’m pretty sure by her little smile that she’s really thinking about how sexy Melanie is when she talks, how she gestures with one hand and then runs it through her hair, tossing her head so the blonde strands rearrange themselves, perfectly windblown, perfect to fuck. If Mel were straight I would probably hate her, but dating her has really opened my mind.
Giselle and Melanie are swapping sailing horror stories now because—surprise!—Giselle had a boat growing up, too. Gag me with a lollipop. Life is so hard. I signal to Mel that I’m going out for a smoke. I find my coat, and next to the booze are some Sharpies so I write my name on my cup and leave it on the table. “TriSH.” With a big SH like Shut the hell up.
There’s a porch out back where some people are standing and drinking, so I walk a careful circle around them and down the steps to the corner of the building. The yard is big, dark and posh, and during good weather students lounge around on it in clumps. The walls behind me vibrate with music. When the wind blows on my face I feel like I can’t exhale, like the air forces each breath back in me. I lean back against the building and then I smell pot. Looking around the corner I see five people passing around a joint. I only recognize one of them, this short girl I’ve seen around the art department, she’s a sophomore maybe, and she sees me looking and calls, “Hey, Trish!” in a way that makes me feel bad that I don’t know her name. I wave, and she gestures that I should join them, holding the joint in the air and shielding it from the wind with her other hand. Something about the way she does this makes me walk over there and take it. She watches me inhale and I pass it to someone else and go back to my cigarette, which makes her laugh.
“What’s so funny?”
“I don’t know.” She shrugs and rubs her small nose, still grinning. She has a wide face, faint eyebrows, big curly hair under a knit cap. I can feel as she smiles that I’m starting to smile back.
“I’m Trish,” I say, which is dumb because she just said my name.
“Hmmmmm,” she says, and then we’re both laughing. I stay in the circle and am passed the joint two, three more times, and I start to feel the cold in a new, good way. I feel like my body isn’t real, like the air is penetrating and moving through me in a million invisible places and if I stay out here for long enough it will break apart my cell walls and that will be decomposition. No more Trish. No more Jessica, either. Jessica. That’s her name.
“You’re Jessica, and you do sculpture,” I tell her, pointing straight at her nose.
She laughs. It goes on for a while. My eyes are starting to tear up from the cold and the full-body intensity is incredibly sexy, the way it’s numbing my nose and ears, running all through me. I feel everything inside of me: cold, air, wind, vodka.
“I do sculpture,” she says, “but my name isn’t Jessica. It’s Kim.” She looks at me like she’s considering something serious. “But you can call me Jessica.”
I shiver but it doesn’t feel bad. I look at Jessica-Kim, unable to decide which one she should be. The top of her head comes up to my chin. She steps in to me and I lift my chin just enough to rest it against her soft cap. She must have undone my coat because I can feel her bare hands against my sides. They’re freezing but I don’t recoil, waiting for them to become warm. She slides them up and down and it makes my skin prickle. I close my eyes. What are we doing here? Who am I?
“You’re so skinny.”
It takes me a moment before I decide to pull back. The vodka must be hitting me because normally this withdrawal would be automatic but right now I have to make myself do it, because I am just so tired.
I close my coat and I can see now that Kim is looking at me with pity. I’ve already lost her. We could have maybe been friends, but she probably likes brownies. Pot brownies, with extra pot and extra chocolate. She would try to feed them to me, would be hurt when I didn’t want to eat them, would tell me things like, You’d look even better if you gained a few pounds.
“My girlfriend is waiting,” I say, though in reality she’s probably still talking about boats with Giselle. I walk away through the ice-crisp grass and it dawns on me: this is symbolic—me, striking out on my own in the cold night.
The vibrating walls, the low light from the lamps, the rhythm of the beat in the floor, in my feet, and a wave of heat—the house full of dancing.
My cup…where’s my cup? It was right here, and now…oh, here it is. I drink what’s left and add more vodka. Object permanence. Even when you can’t see something, it continues existing. Usually. I don’t see Melanie or Giselle, so I meander around the room, threading my way through groups of people until I arrive at the tiny kitchen. It’s separated from the main room by a low barrier wall, atop of which an array of food is laid out. There are tall plastic stools, and I sit on one, observing the expanse of cantaloupe, watermelon, strawberries, pineapples, grapes, red and green, the skin taut with dull shine, the flesh beneath juicy, sickly sweet. I imagine how it would feel to eat one grape and then another, and keep on going, grapes for ages, grapes forever. I pluck a grape, one of the medium-sized ones, not too small and not too big. It rolls in my palm like a marble. I close my eyes and run the skin against my bottom lip, and when I open my eyes I see Melanie’s long hair and shoulder blades and the bulk of someone bigger wrapping themselves around her, dancing with her. Oh, hi there, Giselle…What’s that? You want my girlfriend? Sure, go ahead. It’s your birthday. Hope you enjoy her. I throw the grape across the room and it hits someone in the back. They turn around, not knowing where this missile came from.
I am about to go and find somewhere to be that is not here. Maybe open relationships are just not for me. I mean, Giselle? And without asking? And when I’m right fucking here? But then the singing starts and there is no chance to get away, because behind me emerges the cake.
On second glance, I realize it’s not a cake but a tart. Four people are carrying it, making their way into the main room where Giselle is standing next to my girlfriend, looking entirely pleased with herself. It’s a polished confection, clearly made by someone who slices and arranges fruits for a living, coating them in sugar so as to slowly poison us. I struggle to calculate the calories in such a beast. Because it is a birthday tart, of course there are candles: inserted directly into the flesh of fat ripe strawberries that cuddle against the flaky crust. The whole thing is unnaturally shiny, glazed to prevent decay of the colors.
Giselle is leaning into the candlelight, the glitter on her eyelids psycho dazzling. Her lips are glutted on Melanie’s kisses—happily bit up, birthday girl red.
Someone has given Giselle a long sharp knife and she points it at the tart like a woman in charge.
“Where in the world did you get this? Guys. It’s amazing.”
She makes a gash down the middle and the fruit parts in nice clean slices but she cuts the pieces unevenly, some grossly larger than others in a way that makes me think of the lottery. Someone is going to give me a piece. Someone is going to give one to me if I don’t leave the room right now.
Melanie stands next to Giselle, taking the plates and passing them around. Some people are pushing forward, trying to get their share first. People are revolting. I feel sick.
Things that I could do:
Jump over the counter and land in the middle of the tart, destroying the problem by force. Call it “spontaneity.” Wooo! I am so wasted!
Get sick. Run to the bathroom and close the door until it’s over. I can feel it already—the nausea, the urge to run.
Take a piece quietly. Keep it there in front of me, fork poised, as if I am always just about to take a bite, but never do.
I tip back the rest of my vodka. The burn is reinforcing. From the other side of the table Melanie looks right at me like she knew I was here all along. She’s holding a piece of tart. There are three whole strawberries on top, along with kiwi and blueberries. It’s a long edge piece, heavy on the paper plate. Mel picks up a fork. She’s going to eat it. This is some kind of message.
She holds the plate out to me, fork balanced on the edge.
“Here, Trish. I saved this one for you.”
I don’t move. My skin is buzzing. Melanie’s eyes flicker through a series of emotions: vindictive, caring, oblivious, apologetic. I can’t figure it out, what she’s thinking. She’s waiting for me to take the plate, so I take it.
Her eyes remain on me so I spear one of the strawberries from the top and put the whole thing in my mouth—a too big bite, hard to chew, and for a moment I feel the fruit in its entirety, sticky and big between my tongue and the roof of my mouth, an incomprehensible foreign object—and then I bite down and the juice squirts out. I have to close my eyes; the feeling is sickening and orgasmic—for fear of what’s happening I try to get through it fast. I make myself chew and swallow, feel the flesh still stuck in the grooves of my teeth. By the time I’ve finished with the bite Melanie is no longer watching me, but now that I’ve started I’m going to finish. I cut a big piece off the corner, not even dainty, and shove it in my mouth. The crumbly softness of the crust, the moist layer of fruity gel. It’s amazing and disgusting and I eat and eat. The berries on top and the last of the crumbles, smashed to the bottom of the plastic fork—I lick them off.
By the time I’m finished I notice that a few people are looking at me from where they stand in the corner of the kitchen. And now the feeling of just how much, how many calories I’ve put into myself is hitting me, my fingers find the skin of my stomach, stupidly bared for the world to see, and I can feel the gross softness there, the folds of humiliating extra flesh.
I get out of there. Somewhere there’s a bathroom. I find the hallway, push past people with drinks. I need to throw up. I need to throw up now. If I can’t get it out of me something else is going to happen, some explosion from inside, maybe my chest, maybe my head, I will literally die if not by accident then by force, by rage, by plea. I’ll scream hard enough and be gone.
The world gets darker, the floor tilts, and the wall has tiny bumps I can feel against my palm as my body moves by itself down to the floor. I am sitting, somehow, and then…
There’s the smell of pancakes in the kitchen, and I walk in, looking for him. He’ll pile them high on my plate and tell me to eat them all and so I will, believing, trusting that he knows what’s best. He’ll say, “There’s my girl,” and my mom will smile through a frown, and we’ll grow larger, still trusting, and then he’ll leave and not come back. I’ll blame her instead of him. I’ll blame myself. I’ll blame the food. I’ll search for bone beneath my skin but never find it, not enough, never enough.
The world flickers and I spin without moving. My head feels cotton and full and I open my eyes. I’m lying on the floor and my head is on a pillow. No, not a pillow. A lap. Whose lap?
I figure it out before I can really see her. It’s Kim. Her name comes naturally this time. She’s stroking my hair with one small hand, the other holding my arm where it curls against my body. The tears are almost immediate because I understand at once that I’m not going to get to throw up now and what I’ve done is going to stick with me and becoming Melanie-sized will never happen because I have never been that good. The tears are hot and slow on my cheeks, a feeling I don’t want to stop.
“You’re okay,” says Kim. “I saw you fall down. What happened? I thought maybe we should call someone, but I had a feeling, but maybe I should have called, but I thought you wouldn’t want that and you’re okay, right? Just nod if you’re okay. Are you okay, Trish?”
My head moves in her lap. I want to just lie here. I try and tell her this with my mind because I don’t think I can speak.
“That’s right. You’re okay.” Kim nods and her hand moves from my hair to my cheek. Her fingers are so warm, full of blood, full of life. “You’re just fine.”
Dalena Storm holds a BA in Asian Studies from Williams College and an MFA in Creative Writing from Bennington. Her short fiction has appeared in PANK. She recently finished her first novel manuscript and is at work on a second. Learn more here.