She sits impossibly skinny, twelve years old, bones for legs, and she watches World Vision commercials and sighs, jealous of the children. They’re so lucky, my young friend murmurs. They don’t have to eat.
What she’s not saying is they get to die.
I am 30 now and I stare at this little girl, remember what it’s like to lie purple on a hospital bed, smelling old man shoe and steamed milk, hearing the nurses wonder why I’m not dead, for I haven’t eaten in days and I’m mad because I can’t seem to lose any more weight.
When my young friend walks, her bones make noises and she’s the oldest looking child I’ve ever seen except for that photograph of me standing beside my grandfather days before they forced me into the hospital. I was 13, but my sunken face and knobs for knees said I was in the grave.
The little girl curls up on a couch upstairs and I wonder, Is this all we’re going to do? Reposition ourselves? Until I remember there’s no life in the dying. I would walk, thinking I was running, and I couldn’t swing a bat and parents made their children look away.
My friend says she likes art but she never picks up a paintbrush because when she does, her pictures have to be perfect, so she practices the art of sitting. She has to conserve energy for her exercises. She does 100 sit-ups every night before bed. I would do papier-mâché with my grandma and skip rope and go to bed at seven after a spoonful of corn. I would walk for hours down gravel roads, alone with my skeleton and my next meal.
I show the girl the photo of me with my grandfather and she hesitates, but I urge and then she says, You looked better then, and I don’t feel ugly, only sad for the way she sees.
The way I saw, until the lady ran by, the lady with the muscles and the smile and she looked pretty but she wasn’t skinny and it was somehow okay, and I realized maybe I could be pretty and have strength to run again, too.
And this was on the way to the hospital, the day the nurses found me purple on the table, the day they marvelled and I got mad, the day my body yelled stalemate and I cried and then picked up a fork and ate. I can still remember the meatloaf, the bumpy beef on my tongue, the smell of onion soup mix and Worcestershire sauce, the way my stomach sighed, for it was good and I knew this, with every bite of mashed potato and peas and then, meat again, and my only mission was to finish this plate. I didn’t have to worry about how much, nor how many calories. I just had to eat. And everything inside of me sang, and I wanted to cry for this new way of living.
I still feared ballooning, but months passed and nothing really changed except my hair stopped falling out and my nails stopped cracking and my stomach stopped keeping me awake at night.
The way it did for my friend the day she picked up a fork and no one knew why, only she, whose skin had felt the damp of tomb, and she wasn’t ready to die.
And now she eats and she dates and she dances and her parents applaud the way mine did, and they worry for fear she’ll stop again, for fear the dance and the food and the music will end, the way it did for me when I got married.
I touch my friend’s arm. We run fast, because together we can.