Brooklyn comes downstairs while I am cutting my waffle into bite-sized pieces.
“You look like shit,” she says, giving me a quick side-hug before sitting down at the table. “Welcome home.”
I stab my fork into a piece of watermelon and take a bite. The juice bursts from the fruit as my teeth sink into it. Across the table, Brooklyn pours syrup onto her waffle and takes a huge bite. When she swallows, she looks down at my plate and raises an eyebrow.
“Do you think you can cut the pieces of your waffle any smaller?” She says. She knows this trick of mine far too well by now.
“Don’t encourage her, Brooklyn,” Mom says from the kitchen. With her back turned, she thinks Brooklyn is just being sarcastic, but she doesn’t see the pleading look on my sister’s face.
I take another bite of my fruit and Brooklyn goes to the kitchen for a second waffle.
“Are you free today?” I ask her when she sits back down. It would be nice to spend the day with my sister, talking like we always used to. Maybe we could go to the mall, pick out back-to-school clothes for her. She’s starting eleventh grade in two weeks.
“I’m pretty busy." She shakes her head. “I have soccer practice today, and tonight I’m going to Katie’s house for a bonfire.”
I bite my lip, hopeful. “Maybe we could go out for a cup of coffee before you have practice?”
“Sure,” Brooklyn says, draining half her glass of milk. “That would be nice.”
She finishes off her second waffle and puts her plate in the sink without rinsing the syrup off. “Good breakfast, Mom,” she calls while running up the stairs.
Mom turns around, analyzes the contents of my plate. “Drink your milk, Rosie,” she says, her voice controlled.
I look down at the glass, troubled. It’s two percent milk, over a hundred calories in the glass. “Don’t we have any skim?” I hear my voice asking.
Mom sighs, the waffle in the griddle behind her starting to smoke. She stares at me for a few more moments, calculating my weight with just her eyes. She’s been through this once before; she’s able to do that. Then she turns around and removes the burned waffle, tossing it immediately into the trash.
I scrape my waffle and the remaining fruit into the garbage when Mom has her back turned again. Then I pour myself a large cup of black coffee, giving her a long hug before I leave the kitchen.
“Please don’t worry about me,” I whisper as I hold her tightly. “I’ll be fine.”
Brooklyn insists on driving me to the coffee shop, wanting to flaunt her newly-obtained license. I crawl into the passenger seat of her tiny car without complaining. I never really liked driving, anyway.
There are several coffee shops in town, but Brooklyn takes us to our favorite without even having to ask. The building is cozy with its faded wood floors and burning fireplace. There’s always soft music playing and people chatting with friends.
We walk up to the counter together, our complexions extremely different despite having the same parents. Brooklyn is tall ‒ she’s five foot eight ‒ while I am nearly five inches shorter. She’s got brown hair that sweeps against her shoulders when she moves, muscular arms and legs, and tanned skin.
I, in comparison, have messy blonde hair that’s desperately in need of a cut. I have pale white skin and very few muscles to speak of.
We each tell the barista our orders. I order a tall house brew, while Brooklyn orders their signature rocky road mocha with extra chocolate and marshmallows, please. We sit down at a table by the window because we both like watching the cars pass by.
Brooke dips her finger into the whipped cream on top of her drink, hesitating.
“What are you thinking about?” I ask, a question that we both use on each other when one of us is clearly distracted. It’s an agreement we have: whenever the other person is being really quiet, we can ask what they are thinking about and they have to say what’s truly on their mind. We’ve been doing this for years.
She sighs. “Why couldn’t you just eat while you were in France? You had such an amazing opportunity and you completely ruined it.”
“I didn’t choose to do this,” I begin to explain.
“Well, you kind of did. You could’ve just eaten. I don’t get why you do this. Just eat.”
Oh, how easy it would be if I could ‘just eat.’ If I had the ability to push away the obsessiveness, the compulsions, the dysmorphia.
“Brooklyn,” I explain calmly. “I want to. I really do.”
She looks down at her coffee. “Sorry I snapped at you. It’s just . . . it’s hard to watch. For me, and for mom and dad. We want the best for you. We want you to have a full life, to go to college, to get married, to have kids. We-” She swallows hard. “We don’t want you to die.”
I let out a long exhale, cradling the hot cup of coffee between my hands.
“I won’t, Brooklyn.”
She takes a sip of her sugary drink before smiling at me. “You know William has been worried about you?”
William. His name rolls through my mind like golden honey, reminding me of his light brown curls, his sparkling blue eyes, the warmth of his gaze on me. I would do absolutely anything to have that boy.
“He is? Has he talked to you? What did he say?”
“Oh my god, simmer down over there Miss Obsessed. I just saw him playing soccer with his friends after I had practice the other day. He asked me how you were, and I told him that you were fine, and you were still in France. He said he hadn’t heard anything from you, and that he hopes you’re doing well.”
“Wow,” I say, swallowing more coffee without even tasting it. William was wondering about me. I probably should have kept in contact with him while I was in France; would it be weird if I called him now?
I look up to ask Brooklyn more questions, but she’s moved on to telling me about her soccer friends. I make eye contact with her and smile and nod at the right times, but I really can’t hear a word she’s saying.
Later that day, I creep downstairs to find that Mom is having tea with her best friend ‒ and William’s mother ‒ Megan. Our families have been friends for years, and Megan would probably be thrilled to see me, but I don’t want to interrupt Mom while she’s talking so I sit down on the stairs to eavesdrop.
“Is William ready for college?” Mom asks.
“Oh, yes! He’s been excited. A little sick of shopping, but I think we have got everything he needs now. How about Rosie? Is she all packed?”
“No,” Mom shakes her head. “She just got back from France last night.”
“Oh, that’s right! I hope she had a lovely time there. And she still has a few weeks to pack for college yet.”
“Rosie won’t be going to college this year,” Mom says, hiding the disappointment in her voice well. “Her eating disorder relapsed while she was away.”
“Oh, Sarah. I’m so sorry. I can’t imagine what you’re going through.”
Mom shakes the tears out of her eyes. “I knew this would happen if she went away by herself. I never wanted her to take this trip. But Ryan said we had to let her travel, she’s eighteen now and needs her freedom. But I knew this would happen.”
I lean in a little closer. Megan hands Mom a handful of tissues.
“You can always call the college and let them know she has a health issue. I’m sure they would be willing to defer her enrolment. She can start after she’s completed treatment.”
“I don’t have to,” Mom says. “I never paid her deposit to begin with.”
A squeak escapes from my lips, my throat refusing to let me breathe. Why did she do that without asking me? I was going to go to college, my eating disorder was not supposed to stop me from doing that. I am a smart girl. I got good grades in high school, and worked hard to be accepted. Mom was supposed to pay the deposit, she was supposed to let me have my freedom. I’m an adult now, damn it, I can take care of myself.
I wanted to go to college with William. I wanted, for once, to be normal.
Mom calls me downstairs for dinner as soon as Dad gets home from work. She’s prepared breaded chicken, roasted potatoes, and vegetables covered in butter. Brooklyn is at soccer practice, so it’s just going to be the three of us. I sit at the table across from Dad, and he smiles at me.
“Sorry I didn’t get to see you last night,” he says. “How was your trip, sweetheart?”
“It was good.” I smile. “I got to see the Notre Dame, the Catacombs, the Eiffel Tower. All the places I have always dreamed of going.” I leave my sentence ambiguous, as if I were just listing a few of the many sights I saw. However, these are the only sights I managed to check off my bucket list, and were all visited in the first week of my trip.
Mom is staring down at her plate. I look down, cut the breading off my chicken, take a bite. Dad, uncomfortable in the silence, tries again.
“Did being there change your perspective at all? Any new future plans?”
I shrug. “No. I mean, the art there was amazing but I still think I want to go into something practical. Something in accounting or business.”
I look at Mom again as I say this, but she’s still staring at the butter melting on her potatoes.
“Sarah,” Dad says finally, trying to shake her out of her daze.
“We need to call the bank,” she says. “We have to find the money for Rosie’s treatment.”
“We have a little in savings, don’t we Ryan? Or we can sell my car. I don’t use it enough, really, to justify having a nice car like that. We’ll sell the car.”
“Mom I don’t want‒”
Mom goes over to the kitchen, frantically digging through the drawers. “I thought I put the title in here somewhere . . .”
“Mom!” I snap. “I’m not going back to treatment.” I don’t know why I say it, but I do. And once it’s out, I realize that I mean it.
She freezes, looking up at me with watery eyes. “What?”
“It’s not worth it. Don’t sell your car, okay? I’m not going back to treatment.”
The kitchen seems to freeze suddenly, the food on the table growing cold. We all stop exactly where we are, allowing the moment to pass without our participation.
Mom runs out of the room first, tears falling so fast that she can’t breathe. Dad follows her out, not looking at me.
And I, ever the disappointment, go up to my room alone. I sit on my bed, my breathing uneven.
I know that those treatments don’t work. I will go there, and the doctors will examine me. They will tell me that I am dangerously thin, that I better start eating if I want to live. They will watch every bite I take, count every calorie I eat, and threaten me with feeding tubes. Then they’ll have me sleep in a hard bed with stiff cotton sheets, and during the day I will sit in horrible group therapy sessions where someone will confess that they started losing weight because they wanted attention from their parents, or because their emotionally-abusive boyfriend asked them to. And I will sit there, quiet, because I don’t have one of those silly reasons. The reason I can’t get better is because I don’t want to. I just like being thin. I like knowing that in a country full of high obesity rates, I am not one of those numbers. I have the body that everyone wants but isn’t willing to work for.
I am good at not eating; it’s one of the few things I can truly control.
I lie in my bed upstairs for hours, staring at the lights on the ceiling until splashes of colors dance in front of me, even when I close my eyes. Brooklyn came home an hour ago and went straight to her room. Dad shut off the hockey game and went to bed. Mom shut herself in her office.
The house has quieted down now. Every half-hour the air conditioning system kicks on again, but that’s the only noise I have heard in a while.
I kick my restless legs over the side of the bed and make my way downstairs. I’m thinking about getting a glass of water from the kitchen, but I freeze once I peek around the corner. The sight sends chills up my spine.
Mom is standing over the sink, pouring a gallon of skim milk down the drain. Then she grabs a funnel from the drawer and replaces the contents of the bottle with whole milk. When she’s done, she twists the cap back on and puts the falsely-labelled milk back into the fridge. She closes the stainless-steel doors and presses her back to them, sinking down onto the floor. She’s sobbing.
I turn around and go back upstairs. I crawl beneath my blankets, tears rolling down my face. Mom’s hurting because of me. My wonderful, hardworking, caring mother is completely broken-hearted because she thinks she has failed her daughter.
No, Mom, I want to scream. You didn’t do anything wrong. You raised me perfectly.
I am the one that’s sick.
I cry until I fall asleep.
William’s sitting across the room, just staring at me with those bright blue eyes of his. I feel almost embarrassed, ashamed of myself when he’s looking at me. I know he’s seeing my messy hair, my stick-thin arms. But he chose to come here this morning, and he can leave if he wants to.
He clears his throat, brushing a strand of curly brown hair away from his face.
“Rose,” he sighs. “You said that if you went to France you would eat. You promised you would take care of yourself. You said you would try.”
“I did try,” I murmur, but he’s shaking his head.
“Look at you. You’re a skeleton, you’re a ghost.”
Both of which are already dead, I think to myself. But I don’t say anything to William. Rather, I avert my eyes away from him.
“You can get better, we can go to college together the way we planned.”
“It’s too late,” I say, tears starting to well up in my eyes. I’ve got to stop crying so much; the skin on my cheeks is starting to become raw from the salt. “Mom and Dad didn’t even pay the deposit. I don’t have a spot there anymore.”
“Then we will call them. Explain that you had to go to treatment, that you’re better now.”
“Will,” I snap, tired of hearing his desperate voice trying to make things better when they’re not. “Look at me! Do you think I can just ‘get better’ in a couple of weeks?”
For the first time since he got here, I can tell that he’s really seeing me. Not just glancing, but really taking it in: the way my skin hangs loosely on my bones, the bags under my eyes, the extra hair growing to keep my body warm.
“I’m sorry,” he whispers. “I guess I just don’t get it.”
I motion him over to me and he comes, closing the gap between us. He wraps his arms around me and holds me tight, they way he used to when we were in preschool and would pretend that we were married. I feel tiny against his broad, athletic frame, but safe.
“Go to the inpatient therapy,” he whispers.
I sit up, leaving his warm arms. “I did that last time, Will, and now I’m back to where I started. It didn’t work. Why would this time be any different?”
“What would it take for you to want to get better?” He says, raising his voice a little. “Want me to come here every day and feed you myself? Because I will, Rosie, if that’s what I have to do to get you back.”
I stare down at the bleached-white bed sheets. It’s typical of Mom: if she can’t control everything, she’ll at least make sure the house is spotless. I sigh.
“What if this one turns out the same?” I relay my worst fear to Will, and he listens intently. “My parents would be another eight thousand dollars in debt because of me, and I would still feel exactly the way I do now.”
William lifts my chin gently to meet his eyes and takes both of my lifeless hands in his alive ones. “Let them help you, Rosie. Every day, take one more bite of food. And you will come back. You can join me at college for the second semester. You can have a boyfriend and go to parties and complain about eight AMs just like everyone else.”
Tears roll down my cheeks. This would mean breaking all my rules. This would mean losing control. But this would also mean that Mom would stop crying at night when she thinks Brookie and I can’t hear her. It would mean the pitiful looks from strangers would stop. It would mean living a normal life again.
I sniffle, wiping my nose with my sleeve. “William, I want to do this. But I need you to help me.”
“Of course I will,” he smiles. “You’re my best friend, Rosie.”
I rest my head on his shoulder and he wraps his arms around me again. I think about all the hard times that Will and I have gone through together: the time in Kindergarten when another boy hit him in the head with a toy firetruck and he had to have stitches. My first heartbreak in middle school, when William ate his lunch in the back of the auditorium with me because I couldn’t face going into the lunchroom and seeing the boy. When his mom was hospitalized after having a miscarriage, and we squished together on the couch and watched movies with Brooklyn and Eloise until three a.m. to distract ourselves. When my parents had a huge fight and I called him crying late at night, thinking they were going to get divorced. At the junior prom, when his date went home with another guy so we went to Dairy Queen together and each ate an entire large blizzard, still in our formal clothes.
But if we got through all of those hard times together, there’s no reason that we can’t survive this one, too.
“I want you to live, Rosie. I will do anything it takes.” Will whispers to me, absentmindedly brushing a blonde strand of hair from my shoulder.
“Thanks for always being there for me,” I respond. Then I adjust myself a bit, feeling like I shouldn’t be in his arms anymore.
“When do you move into your dorm?” I ask, changing the subject.
“Well,” he swallows. “Most freshmen are coming on August 30th, but Shayla has swim team practice so she’s moving in on the 27th. She wants me to come then, too.”
I had forgotten that he got a co-ed dorm with his high school girlfriend. My parents would probably have a heart attack at the thought of it, but his parents have always been more easy-going when it comes to letting their children pursue love.
“So you’ll be gone in three more weeks?”
“Yeah,” he says. “But I can stay if you want, for a few more days.”
“No,” I say, a little too quickly. Then I lower my voice. “You shouldn’t stay because of me. Shayla wants you to go.”
I can tell he’s uncomfortable talking about this. He glances down at his watch, shifts his body weight.
“I should go,” he says nervously. “I still have to shower, and I work at noon today.”
“I’ll be okay,” I reassure him, and he gives me one last hug.
“Eat something, Rosie. Every bite brings you closer to healing.”
“I will,” I tell him. And for once, I actually mean it.
I walk downstairs after William leaves and find Mom sitting in the living room watching the morning news.
“Good morning,” I say softly, sitting down beside her. She does not move her eyes away from the screen. War and bombings and financial crises dance in the reflection of her glasses. “I was wondering if you’d want to have breakfast with me. I was thinking about making some oatmeal.”
She turns, recognizing what I am offering her. “Yeah.” She nods slowly. “Oatmeal sounds good. With brown sugar.”
“Okay.” I smile.
“Would you like me to put on a pot of coffee for us?” she asks.
“No, that’s okay.” I stand, moving towards the kitchen. “Milk goes better with oatmeal.”
Mom follows me into the kitchen, taking two glasses from the cabinet. “Yes,” she says. “Milk does go better.”