Taste of Truth
“When did it start?” Amelia asks, looking down at her clipboard instead of at me. Isn’t she supposed to look at me? Make eye contact or something?
When I don’t answer, because I am preoccupied by all of the things she is doing wrong, she finally glances up and at me, curling the tips of her too-pointy red fingernails over the edge of the clipboard until they tap into the other side and then pulling them back up to rake them through her blonde bob. The blonde bob, no matter how many times it is raked through, does not move. Not even a fraction of an inch. I have no idea what this woman has done to her hair to make it so utterly un-hair-like, but I can feel that same product creating a barrier between me and her, the same way it is created a barrier between each follicle. I simply cannot relate to this woman. We are not in the same boat in life. My boat will eventually move on from this room and this moment and this temporary weakness. Her boat will be here forever, I think, stuck like a seal in an oil spill.
“Anna.” She says this impatiently, a statement dragging me back to her, to her precious time in this office. Are psychiatrists allowed to be impatient? Are they allowed to make statements? Statements feel like judgments, especially when they are made impatiently.
“When I was in second grade,” I begin, because I have to begin sometime, and I tell her the whole story while watching the hypnotic circles of the ceiling fan, imagining I can feel the recycled air bearing down on me, pinning my shoulder blades to the couch so I cannot move until I am dismissed, until she snaps me back to reality with some atrocious code-word that will forever render me a lobotomized mess. Hypnosis is one of those quirky things that always seems to work at the time, or maybe doesn’t seem to work, when the pre-teens try it, goofing around at a slumber party, laughing it off, and casting the yo-yo aside like some dramatically ironic foreshadowing orchestrated by the director of thumbs-down movie, but then twenty years later when the poor sap is thirty-five and working a real job, he’ll hear the word bamboozle (no one in the movies ever bothers to question why the word bamboozle has cropped up in an accountants office) and all the sudden he’s walking around his cubicle quacking like duck.
When I was in second grade, we had half-days on Thursdays, and my mom would pick me up from school in her little white Toyota, so old and rusted that the trunk didn’t open. In retrospect, this car was probably a death trap. It’s really quite a wonder that my mother was not flagged by social services every time I hopped into the car. The fact that I was allowed to ride in the front seat of the car, where extra dangers are present, is just poor parenting. She sent notes to the teacher every week, every Thursday, asking them to send me to the office at the end of the day, instead of out onto the number eleven school bus that I usually rode sitting next to Abby. Abby lived on the same street as me and we were in the same play-group even though she was two years younger. This meant she was in kindergarten and only went to school for half-days, in the afternoons, which is another reason I didn’t mind not taking the bus on early Thursdays: I wouldn’t have had anyone to sit next to. I could not be trusted to go to the office on my own, so every week she sent the note in my pink-pocket folder with the unicorn on the front, even though I didn’t believe in unicorns or Santa Claus, which should have lent me some credibility, but clearly did not.
One week, it snowed on the Thursday; so on Friday, the note was still in the pocket of my folder. I remember deliberating over it when I saw it there Friday morning. I never got picked up on Fridays. But then, eventually, trust in my mother won out over logic. I haven’t made the same mistake since. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.
I turned in the note and at the end of the day I went down and sat on the wooden bench, scarred with the carvings of a million naughty children waiting to be disciplined and a million more simply waiting, until I began to wonder if they weren’t the same children, not two million, but one million counted twice: once waiting for attention and once demanding it.
It was Valentine’s Day and we’d passed out candy and Valentine’s to each other, dropping them into heart shaped envelope-baskets we made by weaving two sheets of construction paper together. Mine was light lavender and magenta, perfectly symmetrical, a design so clever I couldn’t duplicate it now if I tried. There were assorted stickers on it, glossy red hearts and cupids that sparkled in the light, like holograms, like maybe he was actually flying, firing. This was back when teachers used to take up whole weeks focusing on the traditions of holidays without ever teaching kids the history of them. This was back when if you brought a candy or a card for one classmates basket, then you had to bring some for everyone. This was back when they believed that if you coerced children into sharing, they would automatically absorb the lesson on caring. We didn’t.
There were twenty-two kids in my class, so that’s twenty-two fun-size packets of sugar. I ate them all.” This is an understatement. I chewed until the motion of crushing skittles made my jaw hurt, until the rough sand-papery coating of sour patch kids had worn my tongue and cheeks down to a throbbing rawness, until so many chocolaty M&Ms and Hershey kisses made my saliva thick and hard to swallow. I ate until the wrappers were stacked up, bright wax papers and shiny foils, to keep me company instead of my mother.
It felt like hours later when the office secretary drove me home. We lived in the sort of smallish town (white suburbia with a zero-percent crime rate) that prevented this from raising any eyebrows. When I got home,” I stood in the kitchen waiting for my mother to exclaim over me, to hug me and kiss me and tell me how worried she had been, “my mother told me I shouldn’t have eaten all my candy. I would never be thin and pretty enough to have friends if I did things like that.
I am ready to leave. I have confessed the whole pitiful tale and now I want to go before this impatient woman with a buck teeth bulging over glittery lip gloss who probably just graduated at the bottom of her class at a second-rate college can pretend to offer sound psychiatric advice. Listen, I want to tell her, you’re doing it wrong. You need dark lipstick, not gloss, dark tones, opaque tones are professional. You are not professional! You need to get rid of the fish tank in the corner of your office with your beta fish fluttering around and occasionally splashing because fish belong in aquariums which this is clearly not. You need to buy some fucking closed toed shoes because flip flops are what care-free teenagers where to the beach. Do you know any carefree psychiatric patients? No, I didn’t think so. Shouldn’t they have taught her these things? Surely even second rate schools must teach you these things.
“And that’s when it started?”
“Okay. So you were in second grade the first time you made yourself throw up and when did the-”
“No. No, I-”
“What do you mean no? Did you or did you not begin to make yourself throw up after this… this incident in second grade?” Amelia has taken her glasses off and now holds them with the edge of one slender black ear-hook tucked into the corner of her mouth, her unmasked eyes studying me.
“Did not.” I say this curtly; she did not ask me the first time I made myself throw up, she asked me when this started. Amelia, the unobservant twit, doesn’t notice my anger. Instead, she puts her glasses back on, clearly satisfied with herself for having gotten to the bottom of this mystery. There are rhinestones on her shiny black glasses, three small ones on the far corners of the frames, just up and above each lens. I think about walking over to her and plucking the rhinestones of her glasses, situating the plain ones on my own 20-20 eyes, which would not be affected by what I’m sure are trick lenses anyway, designer glasses that don’t add anything to her visual abilities. I base this deduction on the fact that they certainly haven’t helped her see me very clearly. Why did you start with this story, then, if it wasn’t the origin of your bulimia? I would ask, with my legs crossed and my hands folded attentively in my lap, my attention on her not a clipboard. Oh. She would say. Now I see. And she would sit up and begin to do it properly, listening raptly while I explained: because you asked when it started. Because that’s when I began to hate myself. Because that’s when I learned, only pretty girls have friends. Because only skinny girls are pretty.
Instead, I let Amelia ask the next question. “Anna,” she says very firmly this time, “when was the first time you made yourself throw up?”
“When I was twelve.” I say, because just because you have asked a question firmly, does not mean you have asked it correctly.
“And what motivated you to do that? Why did you feel you needed to make yourself sick?” Clearly, Amelia thinks we are moving in the right direction.
“I was already sick. I figured if I made myself throw-up, then I would feel better.” We are not moving in the right direction. Amelia, miraculously, seems to sense this as well. She sighs with exasperation.
“Why don’t you come back when you’re ready to talk about this.”
I shrug, and leave. On my way out I notice three more things wrong with Amelia’s office. One, the potted plant on top of the bookshelf is dying, which does not give me great faith in Amelia as a psychiatrist; shouldn’t she have noticed something was wrong? Two, it only has one door, which means all the patients leaving the office have to traipse back past the ones in the waiting room, so that both people are forced to make awkward eye contact as they are exposed for the nut-jobs they really are. I am terrified, briefly, of who I will find on the other side of the door: friends, classmates, ex-boyfriends? Ha, I will laugh, I was just here to observe- I’m studying to be a psychiatrist one day! And then I will squirm awkwardly out of the office, half-jogging, so I won’t have to look at them and instead can pretend they believed me. Three, she has forgotten to frame her degrees and hang them on the wall, although, I suppose, if I went to a second-rate college maybe I wouldn’t frame it either.
There is a book store a few blocks from Amelia’s office, a quintessential new-age city place that’s open 24-hours and has little café attached to it in the back: Kramer’s Afterwords café. The lights are dim in the café and there’s usually music playing, not too loud and never the top-40, and in the summer they open up the back patio so the seating extends to outside, under a small black awning with cast iron chairs and tables. I meander awkwardly through the rows of wooden bookshelves, always crowded with people who’ve just dropped in from outside to see what all the fuss is about, loving couples and ostentatious groups of college friends waiting to be called and seated at Kramer’s and lonely folks with too much black eye makeup sprawled on the floor reading whole books instead of buying them. I subtly check to see if any of these black-clad figures have stumbled upon dangerous reading material: The Anarchist’s Cookbook should probably be removed from the shelves, for example. This one, though, is reading a book called Nineteen Minutes, by a woman named Jodi Picoult who I’ve heard of and trust even though I can’t pronounce her last name, seems safe. Comforted, I move on.
I am searching for a cookbook. Something simple, that will teach my how to transform the six or seven staple ingredients of my college dorm- pasta, instant mashed potatoes, easy mac, etc.- into delicious, nutritious meals that won’t make me want to stick my fingers down my throat twenty minutes after I eat them. If the cookbook could teach me all that in less than twenty minutes, it would be perfect. The cookbook was Abby’s idea; she framed it up nicely “why don’t you buy a cookbook and we can start making dinner together? I’ve always wanted to learn how to cook.” This is a lie. Abby sustains herself mostly on apples and apple by-products (applesauce, apple juice) and the most adventurous thing she’s ever done in the kitchen is separate the break-and-bake cookies. What Abby really wanted was for us to eat dinner together, so she could keep an eye on me and make sure I left all the food in my stomach after eating it. Coincidentally, she is also the one that booked all these appointments with Amelia. I make a mental note to look up what chemical in apples have made my best friend go crazy and come to the immediate conclusion that we’re going organic. I add that to the list of qualifications for this cookbook. I see a sign advertising the nutrition section and stumble my way over.
I peruse the books on display: if they are on display, then surely these are the best ones, right? Most of the covers are offering up ways to slim down quickly, how to lose ten pounds in two weeks, how to drop three jean sizes. I already know how to do all of those things, so I walk out of the store without buying anything, one hand self-consciously over my stomach, the other sending a quick text to Abby: stopped at Afterwords to buy a cookbook, couldn’t find one but grabbed dinner from Kramer’s- I couldn’t resist- we’ll cook tomorrow.
On Wednesday, I arrive ten minutes late to my hour long appointment with Amelia which I figure is a win-win strategy since, one, it means I don’t have to cross paths with whoever is leaving after the four o’clock session and, two, it means I have to spend ten minutes less with Amelia. Although, considering that first win, I’m skeptical of how full Amelia’s schedule really is: the woman is basically incompetent; there’s no way her schedule is completely full. But I so digress.
“You’re running a little late today, Anna.” Nothing gets by you, does it?
“Anna.” Oh, sorry, was I supposed to answer that absurdly obvious question? I nod and glare at the same time, which Amelia does not seem to appreciate, but decides to ignore, for now.
“Are you ready to talk about your bulimia?” I am not ready, so I leave.
Three weeks later, when I am still not ready, Abby drags me back to Amelia’s office. She sits in the waiting area, blessed with the truth, that she does not belong here, as an excuse to wait unashamedly; I can picture her there, a petite strawberry blonde, barely a hundred pounds, legs crossed and one flip-flop bouncing as she reads “the sexy issue” of Cosmopolitan and drinks ice coffee. Are there any issues of Cosmo that aren’t sexy? It’s Cosmo for Christ’s sake.
It is a distracting mental picture: Abby is out there living a life that I will never have and I am in here, thinking of ways to deceive my incompetent psychiatrist and wondering if I brushed my teeth this morning or if the stomach acid is currently eroding the outer layer of enamel. Hmm. I run my tongue along the inside of my top teeth. It feels smooth. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? It doesn’t taste particularly minty like my toothpaste, but it doesn’t taste like orange juice either which is the only acidic food I can think of at the moment and therefore the basis of my comparison. I decide that my teeth taste more like mint than orange juice and move on to worrying about my esophagus. It is short lived worry since I can think of no real way to protect my esophagus; I do spend a few brief moments weighing the pros and cons of flat stomach versus healthy esophagus, but I end up siding with my stomach. There is, at this point, the small chance that Amelia is asking me a question. There is an even greater chance that she has been asking this same question for several minutes now. I want to continue to ignore her, but I glance up at her blonde bob and think of Abby and her own blonde-ish hair and the way it brushed against my cheek as she hugged me in the waiting room and whispered straight into my ear “I want to help you, but you have to want to help yourself.” For a fleeting moment I think maybe I do want to help myself; it is a moment filled with the memories of soft blonde hair and strawberry conditioner, of nights spent dancing to top-40 songs and 3am soul-baring conversations fueled by an unjustifiable amount of coffee. But then, just as quickly, my mind makes a leap of faith to cups of coffee that have never been drank in quaint cafes with boyfriends I’ve never had: Alex, tall and muscular, with broad shoulders and arms I have to believe without any proof that I would have fit into perfectly; Chris, who was older than me and understood the world in powerful and profound ways that made me want to lie beside him in the early morning silence and know he loved me without anyone ever speaking it, the only truth in that was the last part, the unspoken and unfelt emotion; Mark, with dark, curly hair and six-pack abs that speak for themselves, I wanted every naked inch of him, but couldn’t have it.
The first time I tried, the first time I really tried, not when I was already sick, I couldn’t do it. I had eaten too much; if I told Amelia this she would resettle her glasses on the bridge of her powdered-up nose and tell me that’s called binge eating, but Amelia wasn’t there to diagnose me and I just knew, in lay-men’s terms, that I had eaten so much my stomach bulged out over the top of my jeans and I could feel the food inside me. I turned the faucet on in the bathroom so no one would hear me and then I knelt on the floor, my knees balanced on the black plush bath mat and bracing each side of the toilet. I reached my hand, my right hand, down as far as I could and when I felt myself begin to gag I pulled it out and leaned forward, prepared, over the toilet bowl, but nothing came. I coughed up phlegm and saliva, snot dripped out my nose with the force of being unable to breath with my hand down my throat and tears clouded my bloodshot eyes for the same reason. I took deep, bracing breaths and then leaned over and tried again. Nothing.
I tried repeatedly in the weeks that followed, but to no avail. Maybe I didn’t have a gag reflex. This apparent realization made me laugh: the number of things I could do with a boy if I didn’t have a gag reflex; the number of things I would never do with a boy because none of them ever noticed me. Paradox, I could tell Amelia, is an apparent contradiction that is, nevertheless, true; see, Amelia, I know words, too.
I didn’t tell Amelia about any of the words I know. Instead, I was bombarded with accusatory and insensitive questions like “what happened to your wrist?” and “are you okay?” Amelia, you tactless bitch, I thought, but, because I am so much more tactful, I said, aloud, “Oh, that’s a heat rash.” Amelia, lousy psychiatrist that she is, seemed satisfied with the lie. She patted herself on the back with a smug little smile for having gotten to the bottom of things so quickly.
It’s the bracelets that trick them. Strings and ribbons and old shoelaces that mark every place I’ve been, everything and everyone I’ve loved or believed in, I wear them all on my left wrist, close to my heart like a stupid cliché for a middle school love affair. Oh well.
On the night I see Chris dancing close with his ex-girlfriend, his arm linked gently around her hips pulling her close while he speaks straight into her ear, on that night, I go home and stand in front of the bathroom mirror and notice all of the ways that I am not her. She is, at most, a size two. I am size six. She has curly blonde her and mine is a straight, frizzy shade of brown. I turn the water on in the sink and wet my wrist so the blade will slide easily across it, push the bracelets up and out of the way where they will lie in wait like the perfect alibi. This is what no one tells you about cutting: the blood doesn’t come right away, at first, nothing shows up at all. And then you glance away for just a moment and when you look back the blood is there, not seeping out in the line of the cut, but flowing out in a pool of red. It doesn’t hurt. Diluted with water, blood doesn’t look pink; it looks the hazy orange color of brake lights reflected on a dark road the moment before you hydroplane. The blood clots dark and thick behind multiple bandages and can be washed away in rusty clumps the following morning; it’s harder to hide bandages, but harder to explain a heat rash that forms in parallel lines.
Amelia has given up asking me questions and is now just waiting in ignorant anticipation of an eventual breakthrough. She has re-painted her nails a hideous purple color and is wearing a cardigan that matches them. I approve of cardigans. I approve of nail-painting. I do not approve of matching your nails to your cardigans in obnoxious shades of purple. Amelia coughs, impatiently. I clear my throat; this is a tease since I have no intention of actually speaking to Amelia. She leans forward. I smirk, silently. When Amelia leans back her face has rearranged itself into an unwilling glare. I smirk so hard I almost laugh. And then I do actually laugh. Amelia is displeased with this and kicks me out of her office for the third week in a row.
I buy a milkshake on the walk home; it’s chocolate and so thick I can barely drag it up through the straw, but I do, every last drop and then I push the empty cup into a black metal trash can outside my building. Abby isn’t home, so I slip inside and straight to the bathroom. I turn the water on and crouch on the floor and reach the middle three fingers of my right hand as far down my throat as I can. My teeth cut deep into the knuckle of my index finger, I can feel the bruise forming, but the skin doesn’t break: I could taste the blood if the skin broke, it would taste rusty and metallic the same way it smells when I cut it loose from the veins of my wrist.
I can feel the epiglottis in the back of my throat, that’s another word I would tell Amelia, that tiny flap of skin that feels strong as my fingers push past it. The trick is not to pull your hand out when you gag, if you do, nothing will come: your body fights regurgitation until the last moment, only then, with your hand still down your throat, will the vomit come. I catch it in my hand and fairly throw it into the toilet bowl, it is thick and mucus-like, it clings to my hand even after it should be gone and I have to rinse my hand before slipping it back down my throat. I begin to identify the foods I’ve eaten: I can tell if I’ve rid myself of dinner or lunch and when I see enough come back up, I let myself stop.
It comes out from everywhere, from my mouth and my nose and sometimes I swear it could be coming out my eyes, but in the end that always turns out to just be tears I’m crying from the pain of it. I wash my whole face afterwards and take deep calming breaths, trying to regain control. That’s what I would tell Amelia, more important than the words I know or the hatred I have for her purple cardigan, I would tell her that it feels like control. I’m not sick, I would tell her, I just need some control.
The same force that creates tears makes my eyes bloodshot, laced with red lines of guilt. That’s what Abby notices when I step out of the bathroom. “Intentional or unintentional?” she asks, giving me the benefit of the doubt. I lie. I blame it on the three glasses of wine I just drank, shrugging it off. Two nights later, once more under the influence of alcohol, I confess. I sit cross legged on her bedroom floor and just say it: “I lied.” And Abby, perfect best friend that she is, doesn’t pretend to misunderstand, doesn’t ask, like an innocent doe-eyed dear, “about what?” She nods and says, “I know,” which is the truth, I realize, or maybe I always knew. She sits on the floor, then, and I tuck my head against hers and, for once, I willingly give up control to a petite blonde girl who wants to help, but I’m not ready to help myself.