by Jill Clingan
Laura turned her car into the church parking lot and sighed. She hated coming to church alone. When her husband Paul was by her side she could always have someone to talk to during the dreaded “turn-around-and-have-a-very-smiley-conversation-with-someone-you-don’t-know!” part of the service. Just standing during the singing and holding his hand made her feel more grounded to earth, to the community around her, and to the alienated God she had come to try to worship. But Paul had to work today. And she knew she couldn’t be trusted to spend the morning home alone.
Already, she had failed. Laura reeled with self-loathing at the memory. She had intended to wait until the last possible moment to have breakfast. While she was in the shower she carefully planned the meal: small bowl of oatmeal made with ¼ cup dry oats and ½ cup skim milk, a swig of juice only big enough to swallow her vitamin. Nothing more. She repeated her instructions over and over to herself: ¼ cup dry oats, ½ cup skim milk, one drink juice; ¼ cup dry oats, ½ cup skim milk, one drink juice; ¼ cup dry oats, ½ cup skim milk, one drink juice. She recited this mantra as she stepped out of the shower. As she dried her body with her towel she rubbed with agitated disgust, wishing she could scrub off the fat. According to her doctor, she was slightly underweight, but she knew he was lying. She didn’t even look down at her body as she wrapped her pink robe around her and walked to the kitchen.
This isn’t the right order, Laura’s brain screamed at her as she entered the kitchen. She was supposed to get dressed, put on makeup, fix her hair, and then have breakfast, right before she had to leave. If she could just wait until it was almost time to walk out the door, she might not mess up. But I’m hungry, she thought—lying even to herself—and she walked numbly to the cabinets. Preparing her breakfast started well. She dutifully measured the oats and the milk into a bowl. Seventy-five calories for the oats, forty-three calories in the milk, she calculated. Then she placed the bowl in the microwave and set the timer for one minute and thirty seconds.
One minute and thirty seconds. That’s all it took. Laura thought about it now and disgusted tears stung her eyes. In one minute and thirty seconds she had emptied the cookie jar of chocolate-chip cookies, stuffed fistfuls of mustard-flavored pretzels in her mouth, and finished off the vanilla ice cream. In one minute and thirty seconds the microwave beeped, but she was already heading down the hall. She wanted to cry. She felt the angry, shameful, anguished tears well up inside of her. But she couldn’t cry. She had forgotten how. Instead, she tied her hair back, bent over her porcelain god, and cried the only way she knew—in racking, violent purging that left her spent, weak, and shaking. As she was doubled over in the bathroom the telephone rang. Paul was calling to check on her, she knew. She couldn’t answer. She couldn’t face him, even over the phone. She would tell him later that was she was in the shower when he called. He would know that she was lying.
Now, it was time for church. Before walking into the building Laura checked her reflection in the rearview mirror. Her cheeks were puffy and swollen, but there were no broken blood vessels in her eyes today, so that was good. No one would notice her puffy cheeks, except to think that she was getting fat, and the only outward signs of her inner torment were the angry, red, blistered scars on the knuckles of her left hand, which she usually brushed off to people as a burn or a scrape. She cringed as she imagined the humiliation she would feel if they knew the cause of her scars, if they knew the damage that sharp teeth could cause to the knuckles of fingers jammed down the throat. Again, she shuddered with shame and self-loathing.
But Laura walked into church. She smiled. She sang the hymns. She pretended to take notes on the sermon, when she was actually making a detailed list of allowed foods for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the next week. She felt like a hypocrite. When she was anorexic, her wasted body reflected her wasted soul. Now, she was no longer painfully skinny, and she longed to crawl out of this body that had betrayed her, this body that now had no control, this body that could devour and then purge thousands of calories. She wondered what these people sitting around her would think if they followed her around for a day. She stood for the last hymn, plastered on one last smile, and walked out the door.
As she drove out of the city and back to her little college town, she mentally chanted the foods she would allow herself when she walked in the door: 1 piece light wheat bread, 2 slices fat-free turkey, 1 Tbsp. mustard, ½ cup grapes; 1 piece light wheat bread, 2 slices fat-free turkey, 1 Tbsp. mustard, ½ cup grapes; 1 piece light wheat bread, 2 slices fat-free turkey, 1 Tbsp. mustard, ½ cup grapes.
She chanted these words even as her car turned off into the grocery store parking lot, even as she parked, walked into the store and came out with chips, ice cream, and frosted flakes. She repeated these words even as she walked up the stairs to her apartment. Even as she placed the boxes and bags on the counter. Even as she started to open them. Paul wouldn’t be home for another hour. She would be sitting on their couch studying when he got home like nothing had happened. Both of their aching hearts would know otherwise.