When I was growing up, I was always the girl everyone said would make a great mom. It made sense; I love being around kids. I was a babysitter for the neighbor’s children when I was ten, and they liked the work I did so much they recommended me to their friends. When I finished high school, I was one of the few people who knew exactly what she wanted to do after college: teach! What better way to enjoy children than being a formative presence in their young lives?
After I got my Masters, I was lucky enough to get a job as a kindergarten teacher in the city. Growing up on a farm in the Midwest was something I’ll always be proud of; great people, strong faith, meat and potatoes meals, and all that, but I really hoped I’d end up in a big city. Lo and behold, my prayers were answered. Continue reading “Great Potential”
When I was a kid, I used to play games like “The Floor is Lava” with my brother, Greg. I didn’t like it too much. Greg was far more athletic than I. Older, too. He’d do all these graceful steps and great, balletic leaps that were way beyond anything my pudgy body could do. When I’d fall and lose the game, he’d gloat for a while and then we’d go off and play something else.
My neighbor, Mr. Clayton, would always watch us from the other side of the fence that separated our backyards. Mom said to stay away from him, but she couldn’t stop the guy from watching us play. He seemed harmless, if not a little weird. We didn’t pay him much attention. All afternoon, he’d watch us run races or throw the football around, only leaving his place behind the fence if he wanted to refresh his drink. Every so often, Greg would say, “hi Mr. Clayton” and give a big, exaggerated wave. Mr. Clayton just smiled awkwardly and looked down at the ground. To be honest, I felt a little bad for the man.
On an afternoon in late June, right after we’d gotten out of school and the day after Greg’s 15th birthday, he and I were roughhousing outside. We did that often. Even though he was older and taller, because of my extra heft, we were roughly the same weight. He was still much stronger and more agile, though, so he always got the better of me and pinned me down. After another win by Greg, he had me helpless on the ground while he crowed over me. While I waited for him to get off, I glanced over to the side. I could see Mr. Clayton watching us with rapt attention. His right shoulder was moving back and forth. Even though I was 11, I had a pretty good idea what he was doing.
The best part of starving to death is the knowledge that, right before I die, the person I see in the mirror will be the most beautiful person I can possibly be. No extraneous fat; no extraneous skin; no extraneous me. Just a pure distillation of my soul before it’s freed from the body that imprisons it. It’s what I look forward to more than anything in the world. But I can’t celebrate yet. There’s still too much of me. I have a lot of work to do.
Elaine was my ana buddy. We both knew I was better at it than she was. She told me how much I inspired her, and I believed it. It felt good to help my friend. That’s how it had been for the last couple years. When she started ranting and raving about this amazing girl Aida she met online who’s the most inspirational person she’d ever met, though, I felt a twinge of betrayal. Who was this girl and what was she telling my friend?
Elaine said Aida was a new member on our pro-ana message board. She likes to hang around in the “Every Step Makes You Smaller” fitness section. A runner, apparently. I’d never needed to visit that section of the site, so I never noticed her. When Elaine started running, I only found out a week later when she arrived at my place unannounced. I was surprised. I live 30 miles from her. She didn’t have a car and would refuse to take public transportation for some reason, so when she told me she ran, I believed her. Plus she was covered in sweat and panting like she was about to keel over.
You have to realize something: I’m better than Elaine. I’m lighter and more dedicated. I run on my treadmill three times a day until I make sure I burn every single calorie I’ve eaten, plus another hundred. But never 30 miles. And Elaine was huge compared to me. Over 100lbs. She’d just burned 2300 calories in one run. That’s more than I eat in four or five days. She couldn’t tell how jealous and angry I was through her exhaustion, which was good, because I needed to find out how she managed to do that.
This was the point Elaine mentioned Aida. She said Aida not only gave her amazing advice about how to run, but told her how to make a supplement that gave her so much energy and made each step feel like an amazing accomplishment. Like I said, I didn’t know who Aida was, but when I heard this, I hated her. I hate shortcuts. I don’t take supplements. Every pound I’ve lost was through sheer determination and willpower. Shortcuts make you soft. I’m not soft. I’m not.
I am soft. If I’m going to be honest, I’ll admit to one shortcut. Mia. There are days I can’t control myself and I’ll eat a whole bag of gummi bears or two yogurts. Both fat free, but still too much. I could feel the space between my ribs filling in like canyons during a flash flood. There’s no worse feeling in the world than becoming more when all you dream about is being less.
My index and middle fingers would manipulate the dime-sized, scarred spot on the back of my throat. It took so, so long. I’d have to push hard and claw at the spot with my fingernails for ten straight minutes. It felt like I was reaching in and pulling the food up and out of me. Elaine was the only one who knew about it. She’d been doing that long enough to notice my Russell’s sign and even though she hadn’t said anything to me or asked for tips, I was fairly certain she took some comfort in the fact she wasn’t alone with mia.
That’s something I hated about her. I bet it sounds like I was a bad friend, doesn’t it? But I can’t help it. Elaine thought she was like me when she wasn’t. I’m pure. My successes are through restriction. Through the abnegation of pleasure. I’m an ascetic. Strong. Pure. Holy.
Elaine… Elaine was a disaster. She was corporeal and weak; she couldn’t control her urges. After she stuffed herself, if her fingers weren’t down her throat trying to tickle the food out of her belly, a handful of laxatives were splashing in so she can s**t everything out. Her teeth were brown and her cheeks were swollen with fluids. She thought we were the same. I am better.
And then she ran to my house. 30 miles. When the doorbell rang, I was washing multicolored jellybean vomit from my hand and wrist and forearm. 30 miles. I’d scratched the surface off my scar so the back of my throat was bleeding and the cut was coated with stinging stomach acid. 30 miles and 2300 calories. I hadn’t s**t in 13 days and my disgusting, fat belly was distended like I was pregnant even though it’d been two years since my last period. 30 miles, 2300 calories, and more excited than exhausted.
Elaine was winning. I had to let her tell me all about Aida and the supplements.
Aida was very private and didn’t post progress pics. To me, I assumed that meant she was fat. That alone made me skeptical of any advice she’d have to give. But 30 miles. Elaine and I browsed through Aida’s post history and I learned a few things like how to run to minimize impact so you could run farther without injury. More running meant more calories burned. I made a mental note to incorporate that change into my running style. I also learned about sugar. I’d been puking up all the extra sugar I’d eat, but Aida said to run it off. If I made the changes to my running style and ran off the extra sugar rather than throwing it up, I’d burn off what I’d eaten, plus extra that would have just stayed as fat if I’d thrown it up instead.
There were a few other, small tweaks. But the supplement was what I wanted to hear about. The shortcut. And I hated myself for it. But 30 miles. The supplement was pretty simple. It was a certain kind of mushroom mixed with caffeine powder and ephedra. Aida provided a link where we could get the chemicals online. We’d have to find the mushroom for ourselves. Elaine, however, already had all the stuff.
Elaine was beaming with pride and self-satisfaction. I knew she was delighted to finally be the one to provide inspiration. She’d followed me for so long. But now she was in the lead. Even though she was 100lbs to my 85, she was winning. Even though her cheeks were bouncy and fat while mine were streamlined and gaunt, she was winning. I asked if we could go back to her place so I could try the supplement. She grinned and said yes. We got into my car and headed over.
Elaine’s apartment was a disaster; food containers everywhere, photos of models and singers stapled to the walls, dishes piled on the counter next to the full sink, and the unmistakable, cloying scent of old vomit. I didn’t care. My focus was on the supplement. I sat on her couch and waited while she went in the kitchen.
She emerged with two spoons perched on a plate. Inside each spoon was a paste of the mixture Aida had taught Elaine how to make. Mushrooms, caffeine, and ephedra. I asked her if she was going to run with me. She nodded. I didn’t know how to feel about that. Elaine was going to do more than 30 miles and I had no idea how far I’d go. I hoped I’d be able to outrun her.
We swallowed the awful-tasting concoction and Elaine let me borrow some running clothes. They were extremely baggy. It wasn’t long before I felt the effect of the supplement. It was not altogether unpleasant, but it was speedy. Like I’d had too much coffee.
Once she felt it kick in, we headed out. We ran at a brisk pace, keeping up with one another and not talking as we went. The effect of the supplement grew stronger. The speedy feeling remained, but another started to come in alongside it: satisfaction. Every step felt like it was making a huge, positive difference in my life. It reinforced my drive to take more and more steps. The sensation was wonderful.
My knee, which had been bothering me for the last few months, was perfectly fine after I’d adjusted my stride to fit Aida’s recommendation. Elaine chugged along next to me, staring straight ahead, with a trace of a smile on her lips.
We’d planned to run all the way back to my place. I figured if we couldn’t make it, I’d take the subway or a bus to Elaine’s to get my car and then I’d pick her up. But I could tell, after the first three or four miles, we wouldn’t be needing a car.
Our feet slapped against the pavement and we picked up speed as we went. It was a powerful stride just like I’d been capable of back when I ran track in high school. Before I realized I had to get smaller. Before I realized how much space I took up. But now, as the wind whistled by my ears, I knew this was how it would all end for me. This was the key to the success that had eluded me as I hovered pathetically between 83 and 86 pounds.
I was all energy. I could feel my flesh clinging to my ribs and hips and collarbones and drawing ever inward; each protrusive bone an indication of my hard work and dedication. I was lost in my head for countless miles. I imagined running forever as my skin melted away and left a trail of useless waste behind me. I’d be a perfect girl if I ran far enough – a creature of bone and momentum. Perfect, perfect me. And once I couldn’t run anymore – once my body had given everything it had and I’d traversed the world and shown every living person the power of my will – the last fragments of bone would splinter away and my soul would finally rise. I would be free.
A hand on my arm brought me back into reality. Elaine had grabbed me. We were in front of my apartment. I looked down at myself. My body was still there. Hatred and disappointment danced in a peristaltic wave through the sweating meat that trapped me. I plodded up the steps, took my key from around my neck, and we went inside.
Elaine stayed with me that night. As the days went by, we would run a lot together. When our feet ached and our shins felt as if they’d crumble from the relentless pressure of our motion, we’d consult Aida, who was always there. Always online, as if she’d been waiting for us.
Over time, the word got out to other ana girls in our city who used the forum. Sometimes there would be six or seven of us running together, all clattering bones and grim determination. All rushing toward our goal of zero.
When Elaine and I weren’t collecting our disability checks, we were running. Every day, we would meet up and run together. My disdain for her began to evaporate as I watched her working as hard as I was. We inspired one another to go farther and farther, harder and harder. I was 74lbs. Elaine was still 100. The knuckles on her right hand were always freshly scabbed.
Today, the morning my scale hit 70 for the first time since I was 11 years old, I drove to Elaine’s. She didn’t answer the door when I knocked. When I called her cell phone, she didn’t answer. I let myself in using the key she kept hidden. I found what I’d long anticipated.
Elaine’s gray face was hanging onto the toilet by her chin. The rest of her was curled in a loose ball. Vomit and dark blood covered the toilet and the floor around her. Textbook gastric rupture.
I felt very little while I looked at her corpse. She wasn’t wearing clothes, and I found myself inspecting the curvature of her ribs and hips and comparing them to my own. Mine were more angular and obvious. She’d lost.
I headed over to Elaine’s computer. The pro-ana forum was onscreen. I clicked over to “Every Step Makes You Smaller” and found Aida there messaging with some young teens about how to run really far without their parents getting worried. When I interjected the news of Elaine’s death into the chat thread, the subject predictably changed to her. The teens made a big show of it, the older users said they’d pray or send positive vibes; all the obvious stuff.
Aida, though, sent me a private message. All it said was, “don’t call the police yet – watch what happens.” So I did.
I went for a run. 45 miles. When I came back a few hours later, Elaine was different. Her skin was deeply porous and thin, wiry stalks pushed themselves from the center of each hole. Stringy, white stuff was growing out of her mouth and butt in thick clumps; one clump dangling in the bloody toilet water, the other pushing out across the floor.
I messaged Aida. The reply was instantaneous. “Cut off the stalks and eat them. Don’t worry, there are no real cals. Then you can go for a run. I promise, by the time you’re done, you’ll be the person you want to be.”
The last sentence was the most beautiful thing I’d ever read. I cut the clumps, which I discovered were mushrooms, out of Elaine. I washed them, sliced them up, and ate them. I did my best to believe Aida that they didn’t have calories.
Now I’m going to do the next part. I wrote to the people on the forum and told them what I was going to do. They told me good luck and be safe; the default reply of the jealous people there who haven’t reached the point they dream about. I’d given that reply before many times. All the while, though, I knew I’d get there eventually. And now I’m here.
I feel more energy than I’ve ever felt in my life. My skin is different; it’s sticky and delicate. It’s almost like it wants to come off. And that’s what I’ve worked so hard for. A girl of bones who runs away from the skin that traps her. By the time you read this – by the time I’ve gone the hundreds or maybe even thousands of miles I know I’ll be able to go – I’ll be who I’ve always wanted to be: no one at all. Perfect, weightless zero.
As Andrew got sicker, he’d point to perceived smudges on our bedroom window. Nothing discernible to him. Not at first. But the decline in my partner’s health brought with it a growing realization. “It’s a face,” he told me. “It’s someone’s face.”
I saw nothing.
I sat with Andrew through it all. Every sleepless night. Every shriek of terror as nightmares tore through him. Every sobbing declaration that he wasn’t ready. In the mornings, the smudged face would be there, ever clearer to him. He was terrified of it. Still, I saw nothing.
Last Halloween at 11:25 pm, the doorbell rang. I’d just gotten into bed. Thinking I could ignore it and go to sleep, I clicked off the TV and pulled the covers up. The doorbell sounded again. And again. And again.
I threw off the covers, put on my bathrobe, and stormed out of the bedroom. If it was a group of kids playing a prank, I told myself, even their parents wouldn’t be able to identify their bodies. I unlocked and opened the front door.
On the doorstep was a young boy wearing a Native American headdress and an ornately-beaded leather vest and pants. He was clutching a bag of candy to his chest. No one else was around.
It was unseasonably cold that night, and without any adults around, I couldn’t let the kid stay out there and freeze. He looked miserable. I held him by his shoulder and guided him inside, then I picked him up and placed him on the couch. I didn’t know what to do. Calling the police seemed like the only safe bet, so I dialed the non-emergency number. While I waited on hold, I heated up some water to make the kid a mug of hot chocolate.
The kid stared at me while I stood in the kitchen. He didn’t say a word. I felt bad for the little guy.
The receptionist at the police station answered and I told her what was going on. She said she hadn’t heard about any missing kids, but as soon as a car was free, one would be sent over. She cautioned it might be a while, though. Apparently Halloween’s a busy time for them over there.
With the water boiled and the instant hot chocolate made, I went over to the kid and sat down next to him on the couch. I placed the mug on the table across from us. After cautioning him that it was hot, I figured I needed to talk to him.
“Nice costume,” I told him. It wasn’t really that nice. Pretty culturally insensitive nowadays. But whatever.
“Thanks,” he replied.
“So, um, did you lose your parents?,” I asked.
The kid shook his head.
“How about your brothers or sisters? Or friends?”
“Want to try the hot chocolate? It’s really good.”
“I don’t like chocolate.”
“Oh, okay.” I picked up the mug and started drinking, wondering if the kid was slow or something. Who doesn’t like chocolate?
We sat in silence for a little while. He kept his eyes on the unpowered television while I did everything in my power to not appear creepy. I never know how to act around kids.
“Did you have a good time trick-or-treating?,” I asked, then realized it was a stupid question. He’d gotten separated from his family or friends, for f**k’s sake. How good could it have been?
The kid, to my surprise, nodded. “I got what I wanted,” he said.
“Oh? And what was that?”
The doorbell rang and I hopped off the couch and answered it. Two officers. I invited them in and they saw the boy on the sofa. They greeted him and asked the same questions I had. He had nothing to say to them, though. In fact, he looked angry – almost like he hated them.
After a few minutes of getting nowhere, the officers said they were going to bring him back to the station. There still hadn’t been any reports of a missing child.
As they were about to leave, there was a call on the police radio. Something about a murder on 113 Chestnut Place. The three of us stood very still for a moment. I live at 115 Chestnut. My neighbors, Paul and Lynn Chesney, had lived there for decades and were the curators at the local museum.
The officers answered the call on their radio said they were nearby. They were told backup would be there shortly.
“Wait here,” the cops ordered, and the kid and I just looked at each other while the two men left the house and headed next door.
“Don’t worry, it’s okay,” I promised the boy. He looked flat. Unaffected. Then he turned and looked straight at me.
“Bring this to the MTIC. It all belongs to them.” He handed me his bag. I was extremely confused for a second, wondering why the local Mohegan tribe would want Halloween candy. I opened the bag and gasped.
A bloody, stone knife sat atop a pile of beautiful, beaded vestments, ornate carvings, and other, old-looking artifacts.
“Your neighbors have been keeping these from us. We tried to get them back, but they just laughed and mocked our efforts. But they’re too important to give up – especially after we’ve been forced to give up so much.”
I stood like an idiot, holding the bag as sirens approached and the commotion outside grew.
“Give it to them,” the kid shouted with a deep, adult voice that was entirely out of place coming from his small body. And with that, he vanished. The headdress and pants and vest dropped in a pile on the rug. I spent a good 45 minutes convincing myself I hadn’t gone nuts.
Hours later, an officer came back for the boy. “What happened over there?,” I asked the cop. I already knew, but I needed confirmation.
“Looks like the couple got killed in a robbery attempt,” he told me. “Their daughter came home from a Halloween party and found them with their throats cut. I’m sorry.”
I let out a long sigh and nodded.
“Where’s the kid?,” the officer asked.
I had an answer ready. “There was a family going door to door with a picture of him. I guess he’d run away. But he’s back with them now.”
The cop shook his head. “And they didn’t even call us? Christ.” He paused. “Well, okay. Goodnight. I’m sorry about your neighbors – we’ll have officers in the area until whoever did it is found.”
I thanked him and closed the door. It was almost 5:00 am. It was too late to go to bed; I had work in a couple hours. So I sat down at my computer, and with the kid’s bag on the desk next to me, I mapped out directions for my drive to the MTIC.
In February of 2004, I was employed as a housekeeper for a wealthy real-estate developer. I’d been gone for a few days; my uncle had died and I’d traveled from New York to Florida on short notice to help with the arrangements. I came back one day earlier than I’d planned. My boss was quite irate when I told him I was leaving in the first place, so I thought an early return might help put me back in good graces.
I got to the penthouse around 3am, ready to get a jump on the day’s work. According to the schedule my boss had given me, he’d be home later the following day and expected the place to be spotless. “I don’t care if you’re still in your funeral clothes while you scrub the toilet,” were his final words to me before I left for Florida.
When the private elevator reached the residence, I was surprised to see all the lights were on. Like I said, he wasn’t supposed to be back for almost 30 hours. None of the other staff were scheduled, either.
A strange sound caused me to jerk my head in the direction of the dining room. I couldn’t identify the noise at all. It was like a mewl and a groan and a gasp all at once. Whatever it was, it was very unsettling. I waited and listened. There was a voice. A familiar one. My boss’s adult son.
I couldn’t make out what he was saying, but I felt a little better. At least it hadn’t been a burglar. I put my supplies on the counter and headed toward the dining room.
The doors were shut. Almost shut. One was slightly ajar, and I could see movement on the other side. That strange sound came again, this time quieter. More like a sigh. Gooseflesh rose on my arms and neck. I tiptoed over to the doors and peered inside. Had the son not coughed the moment I stifled a gasp, they would’ve heard me.
My boss sat at the head of the table with his face between the legs of a dying girl. Her throat had been cut. The sounds I’d heard were her pained, gurgling breaths. The son, whose back was to me, held the girl down as her flailing tapered off. Her head came to rest with her eyes fixed in my direction; eyes that locked onto mine. Eyes that screamed “help” with silent desperation.
She didn’t move after that. I swallowed a scream.
I heard my boss grunt, “bring her mother out to clean it up.”
His son crossed the room and unlocked the gold and black-glass cabinet that’d stood in the corner for as long as I’d worked there. I couldn’t see him opening the door, but I heard a terrible, howling wail as the woman trapped inside was released and saw the remains of her daughter.
“Oh shut up,” my boss yelled at her. Then he chuckled. “My boy’s going to put another one in you soon enough.”
The whole scene had lasted less than two minutes, but those minutes were indelibly etched on my consciousness. On my psyche. On my soul.
I left the residence as quietly as I’d entered. In the lobby, I saw the lone, overnight security officer who’d let me in. Abdullah. He’d always been kind to me. “Please, please, please don’t mention I was here,” I begged. He looked bewildered, but then he nodded. He hated our boss as much as anyone.
The moment I exited the building, I called 911 from one of the few remaining pay phones and told the dispatcher what I’d seen. I didn’t give my name and I disguised my voice as best as I could. Then I waited by the subway entrance until the police cars and ambulances arrived.
I got home where I tossed and turned and cried for sleepless hours as I pictured the poor girl, who couldn’t have been older than nine or ten, bleeding out as she was so hideously violated. Even now, 12 years later, the scene is as sharp in my mind as it had been that night.
The next day, I got the newspaper, ready to see his awful, smirking face on the cover with a headline declaring him a murderer. But there was no such thing. I flipped through each page, poring over the stories and looking for his name. Nothing. I rushed to my computer and searched online. Headlines about his TV show and his business dealings were all over, but nothing about an arrest; nothing that even hinted at an investigation.
Sickness washed over me as I realized his money and influence had certainly kept his crime quiet. I sobbed at home all day.
The following morning, after I’d somehow slept for a couple hours, my phone rang. “Why the f**k aren’t you at work,” a voice screamed. It was him. I couldn’t speak at first. My mind was blank. After nearly a full minute, I stuttered, “I…I’m sorry. I’ll be in as soon as I can.” He hung up.
Everything went gray as I realized I couldn’t leave the job. If I did, he’d know it’d been me who called the police. If I even momentarily showed fear or uncertainty, he would figure it out. I had to go to work. I had to do what he told me until I was absolutely sure he’d never learn I’d discovered his secret.
So I went to work. I went like nothing was wrong at all, aside from how I claimed I was still mourning the death of my uncle. It was an excuse, but it was one he bought. “Get your s**t together,” he demanded. And I did. My first order of business was to clean a stain on the dining-room table that he said had shown up out of nowhere.
As I scrubbed and held back a scream of indignant anguish, I did everything I could to pretend I was somewhere else. Anywhere but where I stood. And, for the most part, it worked. All I had to do was lie to myself and pretend I didn’t hear the nearly-inaudible sound of muffled crying coming from from the gold and black-glass cabinet in the corner.
“Elective surgery.” It’s a term that makes people think of botox injections and liposuction. Maybe facelifts. Breast implants, too. Well, purely cosmetic breast implants; never the implants given to people who’ve endured cancer and mastectomy. “Elective surgery” is too pejorative a term to describe the procedures undergone by those who’ve suffered. It seems suffering is a requirement for the surgeries to avoid having a negative social stigma. That same suffering determines the insurance companies’ willingness to pay for the procedures, too. When you realize they’re the ones who determine who’s suffered, then you can see there’s a problem.
My husband’s name is Brian. From the moment he was capable of self-reflection, he knew he was a man. He had to keep this knowledge to himself. It took 20 torturous years before he could safely declare himself to be the person he knew he was. When we met in 2010, Brian was four years into hormone therapy. I fell in love with him during our first conversation. He was extremely open about his transition, but I worried he felt he needed to explain himself to me, which wasn’t the case. I got the impression he’d been hurt in the past. Continue reading “Elective Surgery”