Being and Becoming
I look different now.
That sounds strange, I press backspace.
How about: I look slightly different now. I lost a bunch of weight since high school.
No, it should sound less casual than this. I delete everything.
Oh, also I lost a bunch of weight so I hope you still recognize me.
I add a smiley face, the one with the tongue sticking out.
Okay, this looks sensible. I press send and close Facebook.
Golden tongues lap at my bedroom walls and mark the gaps between plastic blinds: this is the light that carves out shadow. I close my computer, fold my limbs, and heave myself up from the bed into a terrible head rush. The room gives out to shadow. Opalescent shapes drift before me. Then everything comes back, settles down; furniture reassembles itself, curtains reclaim their space, soft bristles of the carpet reemerge beneath my feet. I pull up the blinds. Sunlight swallows the room with a vengeance.
I stammer into the bathroom, pee, take off my pajamas. I don't wash my hands: water weighs. My toes tap the scale and I wait for the 9's to turn into 00's. Then I exhale, and with breath suspended, I step on. The scale flashes back: 42.6 kg. I smile, 0.5 grams less than yesterday morning. A sudden thrill shakes my body, bold and lethal like lightning. I step off.
In the full-length mirror I seek, but never see, myself. At first it's hard to say what hovers there, in the glass before me. A monster, a mermaid, a repulsive topography of tendon and bone, of gaps between limbs: a paper cutout. Pale, my cheekbone face folds into birdlike angles, skin thins out, pulls itself painfully into a smile, distorting the glass image. I am blind. I can see all that is before me, but I cannot see my self. My eyes burn like stars with last night's tears, its leaden conversations, the pained faces of my parents. Their fear crystallized into a sharp little shard of glass: will she eat?
I wash my hands and get dressed. The day ticks into its monotonous routine. Breakfast cannot exceed 300 calories, and that's being generous. So I cut up a hard-boiled egg (72), put it on top of a rice cracker (10) and add two tomatoes (45). I arrange the items on the plate so that tomato slices surround the white and orange surface of the egg rice cracker. I pause, and add a slice of watermelon (50). Then I input everything into the fitness tracker on my phone. The total comes to 177 calories. That's 123 bonus points. I'll eat them later, I lie to myself.
In the full-length mirror I seek, but never see, myself. At first it's hard to say what hovers there, in the glass before me. A monster, a mermaid, a repulsive topography of tendon and bone, of gaps between limbs: a paper cutout.
This is the façade of "getting better." This is what keeps me going. This is how my parents agreed to the trip. I slither round my family members, remembering to wear a loosely fitting shirt—not too loose, otherwise my mom notices I've lost more weight. My bones grind together as I walk, tendons rise, flesh pulls itself into painful shapes, muscles all but tear. It hurts to move. It hurts to walk.
I slide down onto the carpet and proceed to eat my breakfast from the coffee table, shielded by two sitting chairs from the breakfast table, around which my parents and my brother converse loudly. Noises disturb me. I lean against the wooden table but something bends beneath my left elbow. The distal edges of my body—fingertips, toes, the top of my head—lose feeling. I feel the natural borders of my skin suddenly give way. Things dissolve. Particles dissociate. Wood begins to quiver. Mesmerized, I lean into its form. I touch this force, this thing we call energy. I uncoil, spilling softly out of myself. Atoms come undone, borders surrender.
This is this morning but it is also every morning. But no, today is different. Today my bags are packed; today we all climb inside the car to drive to the airport. The sun burns the fields we pass, blinds us from glaciers as Mont Blanc unfolds her many spines. What a strange place to call home. After wet-eyed goodbyes at the departure gate, I wave my family goodbye. Thrill ricochets down my spine as I walk away.
Plastic, stale air, shiny wrappers, fluorescent lights, endless shelves of food: a dream. An airport. But it's real and it's all right here. I go out and purchase what feels like a feast: a packaged neon-orange slice of cheese, a slice of banana bread, a pack of M&M's, a pack of Maltesers, and a Coke. I haven't allowed myself as much as a banana in months. Bananas are the calorie densest fruit. On the thirteen-hour flight to Denver I nibble on everything in neurotic bites until my stomach protrudes like a balloon and I self-ignite into hatred. My backbone grinds into the cushion of the seat. The rest of my body melts away, shivers of ants crawl up and down my spine. I begin to see violet bruises in the sky, I see quivers of light falling down. I see gold. I see faces of strangers. I hover, suspended in that opalescent mirage, until time unglues itself and the plane begins its descent into Denver airport. Shimmering beams break through random patches of sky. A sign, I say. But nobody hears.
The doors of the arrival hall slide open and I spot Kate in the crowd. Her face layers into a familiar expression: a nervous smile masking a gasp of fear, the instinctive recoiling from what is dying. I notice Kate's body takes up more space than it did in high school but her smile is still the same: sharp, maternal. We hug. Outside the terminal, the bus to town is nowhere in sight so we slouch onto my bags, and begin to talk. I missed her; it's been nearly a year since graduation. We sit there on the sidewalk, one almost touching the other. Kate begins to tell me about Boulder, watching me carefully. From her sight I try to grasp what she sees of me, what I have become. I get nothing.
Kate tells me how disappointed she is with the University, the classes, the people–the majority of whom are either addicted to drugs, alcohol or exercise. Then she asks: "And you, how long have you been so… thin?"
"A few months, six or seven."
She waits for more.
"I don't know," I say, "I can't stop. I can't stop losing weight. It's starting to scare me. I know I have to–to stop."
Kate looks upset. She seems to understand something I don't. "And how has your gap year been otherwise?" She asks.
We exchange smiles.
A bus swings around the corner and we haul my bags onboard. Out the window, horizon props itself up, pale mountains glint in the heat, the road a massive trail of moving dots that are cars. A senselessness slips by.
Kate asks about my family and I tell her. I tell her how my thinness first sent ripples, then storms down my familial ties. I tell her how my father still thinks I am "making all this up" because "I've had a good life," how my mother cries and suffers over her starving daughter.
I ask about her but now I ask differently than before. My tone wants truth, which only now became possible in my bare honesty, in the air that is suddenly magnetic. I can almost taste it.
"It's been–I've been…Can I tell you something?" Kate looks me in the eye.
"Yes, of course," I say.
A stone drops somewhere.
"Someone raped me."
My heart sinks, air stops. I clench my teeth.
Tears begin to roll down Kate's face. I throw my arms around her and hold her as she gasps, and speaks the horror, the blood, the pain, the torn flesh, the broken nights, the bruises that won't go away, the flashes of his face. I want to murder the monster. I want to rip the world apart. I cry with her all the way to Boulder.
At night when I can't sleep, I want to hold her.
Some party's heavy bass punctured the night, and morning slides into the room with the relief of silence. I pick up my bones from the thin blow up mattress beside Kate's bed. We eat granola for breakfast. I dump half of mine out when no one's looking. Today Kate is working her last shift at the coffee shop. I decide to spend the time wandering around Boulder.
The coarseness and exhilaration of freedom shudder through me. I don't know what to do. I walk into a donut shop. I buy two donuts and an ice coffee. I sit on the bench beside the creek, sunlight cuts jagged lines across my femurs. I sip the coffee and eat half of one donut, half of the other. Sugar and caffeine surge through me like cocaine. My breath shortens, then quickens, then my body cannot move. I sit there. A woman dressed in rags pushes a dilapidated shopping cart bulging with plastic bags, pauses and sits down beside me. My mind reels.
I have become the comma, the transitional space between one thing and the next: life and death. My body is the sign of suffering, of wounds made manifest, of effacement and self-destruction. I signify through lack, through erasure. Bones rise up, and I become a scarecrow, a warning sign: beware. But I also begin to inhabit a fantastic new world, a world unknown since childhood: a sightless, sexless realm, where I can move freely, mostly fearlessly. Who would want to rape a skeleton? There are all kinds of cruel sadistic monsters, I remind myself. But, for the most part, I am able to do what I could not ever do before: hike alone, walk the night in shorts, hear footsteps behind me without terror charging through my veins. I gain a new freedom through this ruthless regime. Is it worth it? It is magnificent. It is as though the whole world was free, free to walk, to inhabit, free from fear, from that grotesque male gaze of proprietorship. I experience the world as men must, and I revel in it. I breathe in the air as one breathes in sacred smoke. I hold the cup of coffee to my lips like a chalice, I let out a moan: a new religion.
"What are you doing?" I hear Kate's voice. She's walking out of the coffee shop across the street, her apron hanging over her shoulder. I look around. The woman is gone.
"I was just—just thinking," I mumble, and get up.
I have become the comma, the transitional space between one thing and the next: life and death. My body is the sign of suffering, of wounds made manifest, of effacement and self-destruction.
Next morning, we rent the car. I write down my name as the sole driver; Kate still doesn't have her driving license. I press the gas, 240 miles to Great Sand Dunes National Park, where we'll be staying for the night. We stop at a little diner in a rusted mining town. Kate is vegan so all we get are two Greek salads, which without the feta are just salads. Lettuce has calories, most people think it doesn't but it does. We press on. The road unravels before me in a series of images, images so striking that they come with an almost violence: impossible to unsee, to unknow. Pines give way to sand, mountains to vague ridgelines, horizons rise and drop, we pass by honking trucks. Kate falls asleep, the window's down, my legs cramp up but I drive on. The road flattens as the sky fades into navy blue, all around us nothing but desert and deserted towns. Miles don't make sense to me. I go faster than I should. Out of nowhere, police sirens split silence. I get my first speeding ticket; I almost cry. Kate soothes me, it's all okay, it's fine, it's not that much money anyway, we drive on in bitter silence.
Past dusk we get there: blue mountains and not a human in sight. The wooden lodge we sleep in is dead cold. I shiver beneath three layers of blankets. "Is it really that freezing in here?" I ask Kate. She shakes her head, wearing pajama shorts and a t-shirt. Kate goes to the reception to get some hot tea for me, when she comes back I fall asleep with my head on her lap.
In the morning we wake to a chilly and empty sky. We get into the car and for the first time we see the sand dunes: ridges spilling shadows into the morning light. We climb the sloping sands, we sink, we jump, we laugh. Sand in our shoes, sand in our hair, we take pictures and smile. We read one of the National Park's signboards: The dunes were formed from sand and soil deposits of the Rio Grande and its tributaries. Over time, glaciers feeding the river and the vast lake that existed upon the valley melted, and the waters evaporated. Westerly winds picked up sand particles from the lake and river flood plain. As wind lost power, the sand was deposited here. This process continues and the dunes grow slowly. So there was water here. A thing is only a thing in itself once, I think. Water to sand, everything has the potential to transform into its most unlikely image. My stomach wrings itself out.
We input "Santa Fe" into the navigation and drive on.
"Can I ask you," Kate breaks silence, "what happened between you and Tim in senior year?"
The road ahead is as flat as a table, an occasional car from the opposite direction darts by.
I sigh, "He just gave up, I guess."
Kate waits for more.
"We wanted to be together, planned everything out. He would do a year abroad near me in Geneva; I would come and visit him whenever I could. We would do long distance. We thought we loved each other, we thought we would make it. But a month after graduation he left for Holland, he just disappeared. Blocked my number, deleted me from Facebook, cut me out completely. That's all I know. He gave up."
"I'm sorry Alex," Kate reaches across and strokes my arm.
"Most guys are," Kate looks out the window, "Well, maybe it was meant to be, maybe it was fate."
We drive fate insane, driving through that slaughtered American air. Burning through New Mexico, one foot up on the dashboard, we cross deserts on autopilot.
A rainstorm from hell. Windshield wipers chase each other frantically as I try to decipher car outlines through the rain. We stand in traffic.
"I started eating, after the… after he… raped me," Kate speaks over the thundering raindrops, "I hate that formulation: raped me. It renders the object completely passive, as though what? I was just there? I fought for my life. I broke his nose for god's sake."
It cuts like a blade. The terrifying pain that some man could hurt her like that, that some man can hurt us all like that. That whatever happens, we live here, in this world. The only way out is the way I've been trying to go.
"Well anyway, I just started eating. I didn't feel human anymore. And I–I wanted to be…My shrink says I am trying to take back something that was taken from me. I don't think he has a clue what he's talking about. Clearly he was never raped," she exhales, "But yeah, I binge ate, I couldn't stop. Then I got this terrible acne. I still kind of can't stop, I mean I'm better–yeah, I'm better. But it still sometimes happens." She uncrosses her legs, "I guess it's ironic, isn't it? Both of us on this road trip. One can't eat, the other one can't stop eating."
We both smirk.
"I love you," I say.
Kate smiles back, "I love you too."
Santa Fe. The man at the hostel leers at us and won't let us see the rooms until we hand him our passports. We look at one another in unwavering agreement, turn around and walk out of what feels like a bad dream– limbs moving with difficulty, as though through thick syrup. In the car we yell at each other.
"How could you think that was a good idea! A hostel!"
"I don't know, Alex! I don't fucking know!"
"Shit, shit, shit. We have nowhere to sleep tonight–"
Deafening rain pellets the car. We sit and wait. In a roadside motel potbellied truck drivers grin at us toothlessly. We lock ourselves up in a dingy room. There is mold in the shower, spiders crawl through cracks in the walls, the sheets retain a suspicious scent. I want to leave, to sleep in the car. Unwillingly, I begin to whimper.
"Alex get a grip. You're just spoiled," Kate snaps, "I have traveled through places like this, and been fine."
I am seeking refuge in Kate, which she denies me. She is fed up. Fed up with my fragility, with the blindness and collapse that starvation is. The hunger and long hours break me down. I take a deep breath and suffer my exile in silence.
Darkness gently sweeps the room aside, the walls disappear, the TV goes with them. I sleep in my sleeping bag, afraid of commingling myself with the sheets, afraid of losing my borders, of becoming them and them becoming me. I fear things, I fear the looseness of life, the unreliability of atoms; they smirk and change their mind all the time. Nothing is itself more than once, where there were rivers there is now dry sand.
"Georgia O'Keeffe," Kate says.
I say, "Okay."
In the coolness of the museum we look at flowers make wombs make clitorises. I like the bovine skulls, and let the bright colors take away my bitterness. I forgive. Whom? I'm not sure.
I fear things, I fear the looseness of life, the unreliability of atoms; they smirk and change their mind all the time. Nothing is itself more than once, where there were rivers there is now dry sand.
We wander through the adobe antique stores, the old cathedral. Drying strings of chilies pale in the afternoon sun. Rain comes and goes. It is hot. We devote the rest of the day to finding a new place to spend the night; we walk from hotel to hotel, each overbooked, until finally, a B&B has a free room. In the bathroom's full-length mirror I undress. I take several pictures of my collapsing skin, my protruding ribs: an anatomy that lay hidden from me my whole life but has always been there. I turn around and bend my back, my spine protrudes with alarming definition. I smile. I am winning. Still.
In the evening we go out for sushi; Kate eats three plates of vegan rolls, I mostly watch, chewing and re-chewing my six little cucumber pieces. I go insane trying to find wifi to calculate how many calories a roll of cucumber sushi has. I overestimate 600 kcal. I know I'm wrong.
Next morning, we choose the High Road to Taos.
We wind through the green-splattered mountains and sand. Little towns, churches. A deer carcass bleeds out onto the sizzling asphalt. I haven't bled for almost an entire year.
Sunday market. People everywhere, so many vending stands, honey, medicine drums, vases, paintings, pottery, feathers, skulls. I have never seen anything like it: everyone so alive, gleaming with such vigor, with such force it is difficult for me to perceive. That this is aliveness, I can only guess and marvel at it.
Kate wants to visit antique stores, Kate wants to go see the Taos pueblo, she wants to get dinner, drive out into the desert and watch the sunset from one of the foothills. My body limps, quivers, walls escape my touch. I try to grasp myself from within mirrors of dingy bathrooms. You can do this, I tell myself. But things begin to slide away from me. My bones refuse movement, demand rest. My mind has become weary; it ceases to comprehend words. I can't read more than a sentence. When I look out onto the world I can only see one thing at a time. The restlessness of things, the manifold shapes and shimmering colors–everything is too much. Physical things become feeling, and everything merges towards itself. I realize that by resisting food I am seeking something in myself, trying to live on my own, to find the core of things. But there is no core. It all dissolves into feeling, falls away and all that's left is the short, sharp approximation of death. This is what I am.
I hover around Kate. I slouch after her through the cool wooden innards of antique stores. But edges begin to give way. The undisputed, scientifically proven forces are shaking their heads, admitting that we were wrong to have taken them for granted. When we get back into the stale hot air of the car, I cannot do it. I cannot drive. Finally, I break down into uncontrollable tears.
Kate looks at me bewildered.
"What's happening?" she asks. Her voice is cold, unsympathetic.
"I'm so–sorry," I whimper, "but I can't. I can't keep up, I can't do it all. My body is–is weak. I just can't."
Kate sits there, jaw clenched, staring through the windshield at the parking lot.
I calm down, and wait for her words to guide me but she doesn't speak.
"Sorry," I say again like a child seeking its mother, a lost child.
"Honestly Alex… I'm just fed up. I'm sorry, I know you have a disease and I should be supportive but I also can't do it anymore. This road trip was supposed to be a rebirth, the time of our lives before university starts again in the fall, and now–now it's a shit show."
"But–," I extend my hand. She holds hers back.
"You are anorexic Alex. You have anorexia! Goddamn it!" Kate yells. She gets out of the car, slams the door and walks away.
I sit there. I just sit there.
The alcoholic Colorado couple hangs guns on their walls: cowboy boots, spurs, dim rooms. Microwave meals in the mornings, stale bread, rowdy sons and silenced daughters. We stay at their home for two days. In silence we rent canoes to paddle round a lake. In silence we buy Amish pie filling in a little pioneer town. In silence we laze through those two slow days. On the third day we pack up and drive back to Boulder.
During the drive, we barely speak. It stings that she was fed up, that she could no longer extend her kindness, her understanding, her love. I had become a burden. But still I am angry– with her, with me, with everything. I needed this trip, I wanted this trip, this freedom, this kaleidoscope of places. Maybe she needed it too. I began to love her, and she began to love me, and now we resent one another. Each hurt, each frail.
Anorexic. I think over Kate's words. I want to be angry at what she said, instead I feel grateful. She is the first person to name my pain– perhaps the first person to see my pain. She saw what my parents refused to see, let alone say out loud, lest it imply a parental failure. Nobody ever talked about it. Nobody asked, "What is wrong?" In my family denial is antidote. But now after months of starvation someone saw me, someone recognized my suffering, and that was Kate. A star explodes across the galaxy, unknown and unnoticed. On a little blue planet across the universe the first bacteria begin to evolve. Dim metamorphosis.
We arrive back at Kate's apartment as the sun slouches towards late afternoon. In the evening Kate orders a vegan pizza and we sit together on the porch in her hammock. Sun burns gold into trees. She takes a slice of pizza from her lap and hands it over to me: armistice. I look down at the triangle of sodium, carbohydrates, and fat; withered tomatoes and olive slices look back at me. Hunger hollows out my stomach. I take a bite, then another one, and another. Something moves. I look up.
Nobody ever talked about it. Nobody asked, "What is wrong?" In my family denial is antidote. But now after months of starvation someone saw me, someone recognized my suffering, and that was Kate.
A yellow finch lands on the banister. My bare toes scrape against the wooden floorboards of the porch. We swing back and forth, two bodies, like two weights, suspended in the white hammock. There is something in the swing, in the tint of the falling sun, in the curious face of the finch, and the humid scent of the earth turning up dusk. The commingling of all those things throbs through my heart.
"Tim is gone," I realize.
Kate looks at me frowning,"Tim? Your Tim? High school Tim?"
I nod. Tears.
"Oh, Alex," Kate pulls me into her arms, "Oh love, there, there."
I cry into Kate's shirt. He's gone, I say in my head. It's over.
When I calm down I look up from Kate's embrace. The finch is still there, shifting foot to foot. It looks at me. Its wet round eyes recognize my wet eyes with a fervid, fertile force. I look at the bird, then at the sun, the thin, green surface of shaking leaves. This whole time my body knew. I realize my body knew before I did. It was mourning our relationship.
I release my grip. Kate loosens her arm. I sit up, and wipe the tears from my eyes. The finch flies away.
"I'm sorry," Kate looks down.
"I know," I say, "I'm sorry too… for, for everything."
Kate smiles and puts her arm around me. I open my mouth to speak but then shake my head.
She raises her chin, "tell me."
"I don't know, I shift in the hammock, "this– this anorexia… numbed me, suffocated me. Before this I wanted good things for myself," I turn to Kate, "I wanted to burn, to be light."
Kate smiles at me, "you are light."
Ania Mroczek is a fourth year English Literature and Creative Writing student at the University of British Columbia. She was born and raised in Poland, where she spent her time listening to the silent chants of fields and rivers. She spent her life in the saddle, riding and competing in Dressage. Her fiction has previously been published in Glasgow University Magazine, and her nonfiction piece will soon appear in filling Station. She is currently the prose editor of The Garden Statuary.