She used the sharp edges of her fingernails to scratch my stomach.
Her nose pointed toward the mirrors which were everywhere in the studio, surrounding us like sound does, in an amphitheater.
“Tuck that tummy in!” She’d scream. The heat rose into my face and my heart pounded hard.
Ballet class. Seventeen of us in eleven-year-old bodies. Flat chests, knobby knees, sweaty cheeks, and arched feet. We pointed and flexed our toes. We lifted, extended and bent our legs. Sometimes I fantasized we were a swarm of gossamer wings. In this gaggle of young girls, I am a part of and separate from, those I so desperately want to look like. I stand straight. I am short. Most of my friends are tall. My fingers and knuckles hold tight to the barre and I stare momentarily at my profile that looks more like an apple than a scarecrow.
I watch the girls in front of me and I watch myself in the mirror doing plie and degage as Chopin plays on an old vinyl record in time with our turns and our toes. Miss Sandra doesn’t know I had a giant rootbeer before class today- which went perfectly well with a warm, soft cinnamon roll but I can imagine she sees it under my skirt.
We lunge and we jump. I land on my feet and on top of the bunions my mother blessed me with. Large bones that stick out on either side of my toes.
There are so many things I wish my body didn’t have! So many things I don’t want that my parents handed down through their biology.
A few years later, I find ways to let my stomach go empty, many days at a time with no food, only cherry apple juice that the milkman delivers and spoonfuls of vinegar at night. Still, my belly defies me. In front of the mirror, I still see an apple. I still see my father.
I stop eating for three months and end up in the hospital, watching, and listening as the doctors and nurses decide what to do. They’ve never seen a case as bad as this. A 14-year-old who can’t eat. Yet so hungry. The other girls on the ward don’t care about flat stomachs or tight hair. One has just been admitted for burning her clothes on her front lawn, Another has schizophrenia.
Schizophrenia? I wonder what the voices tell her. If she’s good or bad, thin or fat. I wonder if she too has scratch marks on her skin.
My voices tell me I am fat. Even though I am the size and shape of Halloween ghost. I am given a cold piece of toast with butter and a banana for breakfast (and five minutes to eat it.) No one understands that we must take time with our food! So using a fork and knife, I carve it into a hundred pieces. It seems to last longer that way! By the time it is cut, breakfast time has passed.
“You won’t be able to gain weight doing that!” Says one of the girls.
I don’t pay attention to what the other girls say, but they laugh. At least my ballet friends understood, the less we eat the better we feel! Now I watch nurses who eat pizza for lunch (and don’t need it) then put tubes in my nose when I can’t eat what they serve.
At night I eat the cookies my mother made for me, that the nurses don’t know I have. With nowhere cold to keep them, they are now going stale. I hide them in my linens so I can think about her at night. I lay very still, with my eyes closed but stay awake until the nurse with the flashlight goes back to her desk.
I dream about the rows of flat, flat tummies against the pink and black of tights and shoes. I hear the piano and clutch my ribs to see if I can still count them. “Oh God, please let me be able to count them!” I plead to an entity that I no longer believe exists.
One night, one of the girls plant matches in my suitcase and get me in trouble during a room search. So I am put in the quiet room.
Here, there is nothing to observe except my own thoughts, my own body. I am next to a plant and I have to go pee, but no one lets me out. I knock, I cry. No one comes. So I pee in the plant. When I am finally let out, I sneak from my bed and climb the stairs to the baby’s ward. There are phones for happy parents, who I imagine, like me are sitting outside the windows to see the tiny bodies, wrapped in warm blankets, waiting and crying for food. I dial my mother’s phone. She answers.
“Mommy,” I say, with the words shaking in my throat.
“Please get me out of here.”
“They are saving your life,” she says.
I sit in the corner, staring at the babies- the little ones that get to go home.
Artwork by ©2016 Jasmin Dwyer