Today in Group Annoying Girl talks about how fat she feels. Nearly Dead Girl sitting next to me smacks her sugarless gum and rolls her eyes. We are supposed to be taking notes in our assigned diaries so as to make Annoying Girl feel like we are really listening. I doodle a lopsided heart that looks more like a pear than a symbol of love. Nearly Dead Girl pens absolutely nothing.
“And yesterday, when I ate those three bites of iceberg lettuce,” Annoying Girl whines. I watch Annoying Girl’s limp scarecrow hair. It is hard to look at Annoying Girl face-on. You can see all the bones line around her neck like some sort of prehistoric necklace a kid wears for a Flintstones Halloween costume. Annoying Girl’s cheeks look like deflated balloons. The nurses here claim I look just like Annoying Girl, but really I am much, so much, heavier than her. The scariest thing about Annoying Girl is that she won’t let any of us see her eyes. She always—always—wears these gigantic, sixties-style sunglasses that make her face look even more shrunken and dehydrated.
I call us anorexics “bobble heads,” like the dolls they sell at novelty stores. My little brother has a bobble-head Abraham Lincoln taped to the dashboard of his Chrysler. Whenever my little brother speeds, Abe Lincoln bobs his consent. Us girls are just that: nodding heads. We’ve got these gigantic heads and these starved bodies. Of course, I don’t see that when I look at myself. I see my round, protruding belly. I see a Stomach. A Stomach so round and large I dream of cutting it open with a big serrated knife and letting the fat ooze out until I am as Thin and free and light as air. I would mash the greasy lard from my stomach between my fists, I would celebrate, dance even, do the Macarena even, as my fat oozed between my slippery fingers. Of course, I would be careful not to let any of the blood and fat spill on the carpet. This desire is part of the sickness, or so Nurse Sally and Sister Molly tell me. Whenever Sister Molly reminds me of this she looks upwards, as if she expects a booming voice to break open the heavens and tell me I’m Crazy.
The Clinic my parents put me in is part convent, part hospital. Thus, I get to meet twice a day with a psychologist, once a day with a nutritionist, and every night with a Sister. Apparently part of my salvation involves not only feeding my stomach, but feeding my soul. I find this notion rather trite. However, because my parents currently pay for my life I have to do what they ask. It’s not like I could get a job. At the bookstore where I used to work, I collapsed while stacking a couple copies of Goodnight Moon. My bosses kindly gave me medical leave. I told them to shove their medical leave up their bookworm asses. Then I got fired.
One of the worst things about this place is that I’m not allowed headphones. Thus, I cannot drown out the high-pitched complaints of my fellow inmates with the joyous melodies of The Jingle Cats. I love The Jingle Cats. The Jingle Cats is the name of this band of synthetic cats that meow Christmas tunes. I love The Jingle Cats; I find them hilarious. I especially like it when The Jingle Cats meow Jingle Bells. At the start of the song some dogs bark and that gets to be a little grating on the nerves, but once the dogs go away it is both musical and technological mastery. My mother claims The Jingle Cats sound like a bunch of cats dying in chorus, but this is because my mother is a Dog Person.
I am a Cat Person. Cat People don’t give a shit about other people’s opinions. We can take care of ourselves, thank you very much. Here, everyone is a Dog Person, so desperate to be loved that they say exactly what everyone else wants to hear. Now, all I want to hear is Jingle Cats, but I’m shit out of luck. Apparently years ago, Some Southern Girl kept asking for new headphones from her unsuspecting Southern parents. Now, this story always changes in small ways—the color of the headphones, how long ago this happened—but the fact that her parents were Southern is a constant. So this Some Southern Girl gets enough headphones to fasten a noose and she hangs herself. That caused the extinction of headphones, the last of the string-and-wire civilization to live in The Clinic.
I had to give up my favorite red Keds when I checked in here because of the stupid no-string rule. In my opinion, if a girl really wants to die she will find a way to accomplish that goal with something that is allowed. But the morons who run this place don’t seem to understand that. My red Keds always had nice, shiny, white shoelaces that I cleaned daily and replaced on the second Monday of every other month. No matter how dirty or misshapen my clothes were, my shoelaces were always spick and span. This was my quirk, the one thing I’m most likely to be remembered by at my high school reunion. When the nurses who checked me in told me I had to take the laces out of my shoes, I screamed. My parents—who had been sitting in the Waiting Room with nothing to comfort them but magazines with dumb names like Healthy Living and Soul Food—rushed in, my dad already shouting about a lawsuit (once a lawyer, always lawyer), my mother crying about what a mistake it was to put her beloved daughter in this hell-hole, and there I was, their “too-thin” daughter, screaming and crying over having to untie her Keds. I couldn’t do it. I compare it to pulling out a baby’s hair. So my parents took the shoes home with them and the nursing staff found me a pair of slippers that were three sizes too large.
The look on my mom’s face that last time made me think of how she used to read to me when I was a little girl who still believed that monsters lived in her closet. Now I know monsters aren’t just for closets. Monsters hide in far more insidious and permanent places. Monsters camp out in your tents of self-esteem. Monsters drink alcohol at the parties where nobody talks to you and you end up alone on the scratchy couch that smells like vomit. Monsters tickle your bare feet while you try to have sex with the really cute guy who ends up never calling. Monsters laugh at you from under the scale and your overgrown toenails as you learn you still have ten pounds to lose.
Before I knew about monsters, I knew the many voices of my mother’s stories. Every night before bed my mom would turn the heater up and read to me from her antiquated copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. My mother had inherited Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland from her mother. My grandmother was a single parent, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was one of the few books that could successfully lull my mother, a sickly child, to sleep. The copy was so old and important (which basically means expensive and inheritable) that my mom wouldn’t even let me touch it. She just sat perched at the end of my bed like a seagull ready to fly away as she would read out loud in a voice that ebbed and flowed like the tide on a foggy day.
My favorite part of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland always involved Alice’s discussions with The Cheshire Cat. In my opinion, The Cheshire Cat isthe story of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Alice is just this lame guide you follow around because you have to; the real tourist attractions are the other characters. Alice, being a pansy, complains to The Cheshire Cat perched up all high and mighty on his tree. “I don’t want to go among mad people,” she says. I have this whole exchange memorized because I used to have my mom read it over and over again. When Alice says this my mom would make her voice all squeaky and high-pitched because my mom knew I disliked Alice. My mom would gleefully draw out the word “mad” so that it lasted for several seconds instead of just one. Maaaaaaad. The Cheshire Cat, because he is as loony as he is knowledgeable, replies, “Oh, you can’t help that. We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.” This my mom would say in her regular Mom voice that meant Eat Your Broccoli and No, Lipstick Was Only For Adults. Even as a little girl snuggled tight in floral flannel pajamas, I knew that what The Cheshire Cat said was deep. Deep and worth remembering, way more worth my time than the stupid friendship handshakes none of the girls in my class had ever asked me to learn.
Annoying Girl has finally stopped talking; the last word I heard her utter was “calorie.” I’m not sure if she said calorie or if I was just thinking it. That is what we think about. That, and whether or not our ribcage protrudes as much as it did yesterday or if that carrot really did make an overnight difference in our weight. I look up from my doodled heart, which I’ve blacked in with one of my few remaining black pens. I’ll have to write my father for more. Mom has yet to answer my letters. She has a lot on her mind, Dad explains in a P.S. at the end of all his letters under the Best Wishes, Dad. When Mom finally writes she will sign her letters Love, Mom.
I realize that everyone in Group is staring at me.
“What?” I ask. I close my diary.
“You’re doodling,” the group-leader-slash-psychiatrist-slash-recovering-alcoholic (here at The Clinic we tell everyone our faults no matter what our position) informs me. “Your neighbor pointed it out to us. We are here to learn from one another, dear, and to let the good thoughts in while we let the bad ones out. How can you heal with your group partners when you aren’t even paying attention?”
I quickly glare at Nearly Dead Girl and apologize to Annoying Girl, careful not to say her name because I honestly can’t remember if it is Cheryl or Sheanna. I know it’s something bright and perky, like the sorority house she came from. Often, when Annoying Girl talks about her “sisters” she isn’t talking about the nuns surrounding us like a flock of penguins in heat, but rather about the good ol’ girls back home who send Annoying Girl weekly packages of cookies. The fact that a sorority girl is anorexic is so cliché, I almost hate her just for proving a stereotype true. Maybe that’s why her sorority sisters send her baked goods, to drive Annoying Girl slowly insane—or even better, fat and unattractive. Of course Annoying Girl throws out the treats, but she appreciates the thought. She told us so yesterday in Group. Group Leader congratulated her on her progress.
Annoying Girl goes back to whining. She’s on the subject of her parents. Annoying Girl worries that her parents will never love her, and Group Leader tells her that that is nonsense. Annoying Girl manages to squeeze out a tear and a hiccup. Group Leader, taking this small sign of emotion as a valid one, gets up and hugs Annoying Girl. Over Group Leader’s shoulder Annoying Girl grins big and scary like the clown of a child’s nightmare. Annoying Girl may be annoying and a bitch, but she has the game down pat. She gives the people what they want. You would think Group Leader would learn to be less gullible considering the fatality rate this place has. Whatever. In a whisper, I gently remind Nearly Dead Girl that each stick of gum has five calories. Not because I worry about the calories in a stick of gum (one hundred chews cures that problem and gives your mouth a good workout), but because I know that if I mention it to Nearly Dead Girl it will drive her fucking nuts and the bitch deserves a good scare for ratting on me. I mean, I didn’t squeal on her when I caught her vomiting two days ago.