Jasmin Aviva Sandelson | Longreads | June 2019 | 28 minutes (7,121 words)
I loved being one of your girls. I wasn’t your favorite, but I didn’t need to be. What we had was different.
I found you on that hiking trip to the Spanish mountains. At first I was wary — at our all-girls’ secondary school you were never alone. But in the thin air we climbed together, lotioned each other’s backs, and hand-washed our socks side-by-side. By the end of the week we felt joined, invincible. Remember how we made those campsite boys pitch our tents? That’s not character-building, the male teachers sneered. We just laughed. We were girls: 13 and power-thrilled. While the others hauled their packs up the dusty hill, we lay together on sleeping bags. Your hazel eyes beamed noise and mischief, and I had found my place.
Back in London, I came to you each day, bounding to your classroom after lunch in the cafeteria. The others were with you, but that didn’t stop me. It made me want you more.
Before all the danger, we dashed about, frantic. We sprawled on desks or piled in a corner. You whispered about our classmates — plain girls, weird ones — and the four of us laughed in sly peals. It was both cruel and loving.
Five sounds like an unstable number, but it wasn’t. It was safe. Maybe because there was one of you, and four of us. We gathered at your house each Saturday, and I passed the journey — the bus, two tubes, and the uphill walk — listening to those songs you liked that I’d Limewired onto my iPod: Death Cab for Cutie, The Arctic Monkeys, Coldplay.
The others lived far away, too, some farther than me, but we all hauled our clothes and makeup across the city to get dressed in your bedroom for whatever we had planned: Smirnoff Ices in the park, a lax-bouncered bar, a house party with boys from our brother school.
We shook out our stuff on your big bed, which had space on either side like an adult’s bed, like my parents’ bed, not like my bed, pushed against a wall. We tried on each other’s things and crowded your full-length mirror as Jack Johnson sang through your iPod speaker.
“Pass the panox!” Ashley said, and you tossed the thumb-sized tube of medicated zit cream that you could only get in America, where your mom was from, and where you went every year. In the drawers that pulled out from under from your bed, you stored the things you brought back from New York: moisturizer with fake-tan, spray deodorant, and panoxyl.
We called it panox because we abbreviated everything.
“Emma, your skirt looks beaut,” I said, as you smoothed the white denim.
“Oh em gee, totes,” Ashley said, dabbing her chin with the pad of her pinky.
We all spoke the same way, rhythms charged and exclusive like an electric fence.
Ashley was your best friend. She didn’t need panoxyl. Her skin was clear and framed by gold hair that reached the lean arcs of her waist. But even though she had all that I didn’t envy her. She didn’t crackle and sparkle like you did; she couldn’t combust into cackles like you and me.
As Ashley capped the cream, I sprayed the air around myself with your perfume and pulled on your leggings. I’d liked my legs covered since I was 6 or 7, back when my friends in gymnastics learned back handsprings while I was stuck with walkovers. In the cool gym, my thighs stayed pink when chill laced theirs with that wine-colored mottle. Mine touched all the way up. Theirs didn’t. To practice, I wore shorts over my leotard.
But you didn’t need leggings. Your legs were firm, cut with muscle down each thigh and behind the knees. I liked your legs. I also liked your straight white teeth — American teeth — and your full, flushed cheeks. I liked your honey-colored hair, the way the thick drape glinted in the light like amber. You were insecure about your stomach and hips — a little bigger than mine and the other girls’ — so I pretended not to notice when you tugged your shirt off your skin so it didn’t cling. To me, all parts of you, hard and soft, were lovely.
Once we were dressed, spritzed, and painted, the five of us — you, me, Ashley, Kat and Kay — trooped down three flights of stairs. In your kitchen, we piled around one corner of the wooden table that could seat 12, and ate whatever your mom cooked, something like pasta with tomato sauce, because she, like you, was a vegetarian. Your mom perched as we ate, not eating herself, but watching you chew with bird eyes, hard and blue. I was usually still hungry because she didn’t cook that much, so I’d buy a chocolate bar from the shop at the station. I always shared it around, but you never took any. Neither did Ashley. The two of you linked arms as Kat and Kay and I ate it up, square by square.
We also bought drinks at the station shop. Kat was 4’10 and looked even younger than 14, but she flashed her older sister’s passport and heaved our low-shelf vodka onto the counter. Glenns or Kirov tasted fine with enough Diet Coke. Kat and Kay bought regular Coke — “full fat Coke,” we called it. You glanced at them and clutched your own bottle closer.
At house parties, we’d flirt limply with whoever, but then you and I would run off. We peeked in bathrooms, jumped on boys’ beds, had swordfights with baguettes grabbed from bread bins, and gave each other hickeys. We looked each other in the eyes and laughed — laughter like a fist around our stomachs as we shook with devilish synchrony.
When we left one party for another, staggering down the sidewalk and dodging the cracks, I wanted to walk all night instead of going to some boy’s preened Hampstead house. I liked the in-between times best, and the befores and afters.
The afters looked like this: when we’d banked enough fun to last the school week, we all turned to you. We caught the last tube or you called a cab from Addison Lee, which we called Add Lee or just Add, and we lay our heads on each other’s shoulders as we waited to pull up at your front door. At the top of your house, in the “upstairs living room,” we flopped on those couches big enough to sleep four. The fifth, usually Kat, who was small and unfussy, lay on the carpet so thick she didn’t even need a sleeping bag. At home it took me hours to fall asleep. But beside you, my body unclenched and I slept deep and dreamless.
Before the hiking trip — before lunch breaks became our time — I ate in the cafeteria with Dalia. Dalia and I had shared a homeroom since the start of secondary school three years earlier, and every Thursday we went together to the “Jewish Assembly,” when everyone else got to sing all the verses of the hymns, not just the ones our red, crested hymn books marked as Jew-appropriate with a little Star of David. Sometimes they brought in speakers for Jewish Assembly, but mostly we lay around unsupervised in the upstairs auditorium and shared vending machine chips for breakfast. Through mouthfuls, Dalia told me stories about her weekend life, stories that prickled with danger — of boys she let do things to her, and girls, too. Our friendship was Monday to Friday.
I found you on that hiking trip to the Spanish mountains. At first I was wary — at our all-girls’ secondary school you were never alone.
At 14, Dalia was voluptuous, more than you or me, with a woman’s full mouth and wise eyes. Dalia got bad grades. This riled the teachers, who cared about rankings and league tables and couldn’t grasp why Dalia did not. She only laughed when one of our test-crazed teachers flung her against the lockers and said, “You’re drowning! But I’m going to save you!” Dalia didn’t need saving. She needed more time in the art rooms, where the clay-smeared staff fawned over her. But our school made no space for that; creativity didn’t win spots at the best universities.
Teachers never thought I was drowning. I loved A’s and praise, so nobody suspected me when I cheated with Dalia in the fitness test where they made us run a timed mile. We ducked out of the six-lap course; hid, giggling, behind a stone column; and rejoined the class on the last round. I didn’t want to run a mile. I didn’t want to please the wan gym teacher who pinched the skin over her taut abs and said, “You should all do sit-ups so you don’t get fat like me.”
Each day at 12.50 p.m., I met Dalia in the lunch line up on C Floor. Sometimes we sneak-rode the elevator, which was reserved for disabled students. There were no girls in wheelchairs, but some hobbled temporarily on crutches with a netball or lacrosse injury. The lunchroom was next to the labs so it was the science teachers who screeched if we were caught. You’re so inconsiderate, girls, they scolded. Someone might be waiting who really needs it.
Lunch ladies ladled hot food onto our blue plastic trays and we ate in big bites around yellow tables with built-in stools. After our lasagna or cottage pie or jacket potatoes with cheese and baked beans, Dalia and I each bought a Dubble bar from the vending machine for 30p. We ate them down in our classroom, one of us on the teacher’s chair, the other cross-legged on the desk.
As we worked through the purple foil, letting the slick chocolate melt on our tongues, we rolled our eyes at the girls who’d discovered dieting. We wore pants, not skirts, as they did. Who cared if we had skinny legs? Men don’t like skinny anyway, we said, feeling smug. Those girls are so dumb. So oppressed.
I believed what we said, but I did wish I looked different. I imagined a clear plastic tube sucking out flab from shoulder to elbow, the way they did on those shows like Extreme Makeover or The Swan.
After the field trip to Spain, I spent fewer lunch breaks with Dalia and more with you. One day, as she and I ate Dubbles in our homeroom, Ashley peered in.
“Is Emma here?” she asked, looking at Dalia and me, at the chocolate and our stomachs.
I shook my head.
“I’ll come look for her with you,” I said, hopping down from the desk. I walked to this girl I barely knew — the two of us trying to find our way to you.
“What were you guys talking about?” Ashley asked as we kicked down the outside stairs.
“Clothes sizes,” I said, flush with our body-positive pep talk. “Like, I’m not going to freak out if I have to buy a size 8 every now and then, you know? Like, the average woman is a 12.”
“Yeah, totes,” Ashley said, not looking at me. “Sometimes I’m like, ugh, when my jeans feel tight, but like, I could just size up to a 4.”
“Right…” I said. “Exactly.”
You called me Jazminda and Jasmeen. I called you Emmeline like the suffragette from history class, and Elsinore when we read Hamlet in English. Everything became an inside joke — our laughter told us who we were.
In class, we clutched our phones under our desks, thumbs jumping as our eyes stayed locked on the board. We texted each other through our journeys home, texted until we logged onto our parents’ computers to instant message on MSN until bed.
We clicked each other into our Myspace Top 8; we were each other’s first Facebook friends. Our wall posts were a coded language, a love moan: what hav u been up 2 mon sweet? hope uve had a fun packed few dayizzles- anything to telle?
I loved being tangled up — five girls linked like a cat’s cradle. The weave of our safety net held us firm, and we belonged. When Saturday nights weren’t enough we started “Vue Crew” — Friday movies at the Vue theater after school. In House of Wax, we clapped when Paris Hilton got poled through the head. In Christmas with the Kranks, we laughed with the movie, laughed at our laughter, laughed until it hurt. Ashley smiled blandly as you and I thrashed.
After the movie we filled a booth at Yo! Sushi. Kat and Kay and I pulled hand-rolls and tempura from the conveyor belt. I never asked why you took so little. Since we were similar enough sizes to share clothes, I figured you must be eating later. It seemed like you got a lot more allowance than the rest of us, but maybe you just didn’t want to spend it.
I wanted you to myself. When you asked me if you should have another friend — girl number six — join your birthday, I told you she’d ruin the night but in a way that made you think it was your idea. In our five, I knew my place. You and Ashley were closest but I came next. Besides, out of everyone, you and I were the most alike: the sharpest, the alphas.
Maybe that was why things went wrong.
Or maybe it was the falafel. After a Saturday night at Backpackers — the bar with sawdust on the floor, bouncers who hardly glanced at our fake IDs, and barmen who poured £1 Malibu shots straight into our open throats as we lay back on a sticky leather chair — we caught the tube back to your station and stopped by a kebab shop open late. Kat and Kay and I ordered falafel. The three of us squatted on the curb, too-big heels thrust out as we licked tahini and tomato sauce from our fingers.
I loved being tangled up — five girls linked like a cat’s cradle. The weave of our safety net held us firm, and we belonged.
Earlier that day, when I’d called your house to ask when to head over, your mom had picked up. “Emma’s at the gym,” she’d said. It’d sounded like she was smiling. We didn’t go to the gym. In P.E. we messed around in the “multi-gym,” the closet by the gymnasium, where we climbed over the three resistance machines and laughed about the gym teachers fucking each other. But we didn’t work out. I’d hung up and texted you, Call me when you get back from the gym, and you’d replied, I was just having a leisurely swim! One of you was lying. I hoped it was her. I knew what she wanted for you as she watched you eat. But what if it was you? What if you wanted it, too? What if you were trying to get it?
As we chewed down on the sidewalk, you and Ashley turned your backs to us. I looked at your folded arms, and, somehow, I understood. I saw what you thought was good. You did want what your mom wanted for you. I wrapped my half-eaten falafel, stood, and walked over. You peered at the oily mass in my hand. I chucked it the trash.
I said I was going to become a vegetarian, just like you.
Anorexia was something to do. I was bored on study leave, the month before those national exams when our results-driven school sent us home to cram. I had no problem memorizing the quadratic formula, or chemical equations, or displaying what the examiner wanted to see that I understood about symbolism in a short story by Chinua Achebe. I sat on different cushions, worked in different rooms. I walked around the house. I peered out all the windows.
It was sort of an accident, at first. I weighed myself with a lazy curiosity on the bathroom scales, the ones my mom had despite pretending not to care about her body to set an example for my younger sister and me. Each morning, identical red numbers beamed as my feet pressed onto the glass. One day, for no clear reason, I weighed a pound less. I liked it. Online, I learned that my body mass index was 22, midway through the “healthy” range of 18.5 to 25. I found the weight that matched 18.5 and made that number a goal, along with “memorize mitochondria,” and “master the pluperfect tense.” That would still be “healthy.”
It was ordered, safe, fun. I ate every three hours because women’s magazines and websites said that would keep my metabolism “fired.” Breakfast, lunch, snack, dinner. I studied in three hour blocks, and as I ate alone at the kitchen table, chewing each bite forty times, I leafed through cookbooks and learned a whole new language: calories and kilojoules and monounsaturated fat. I took long walks.
After the exams, we went to Newquay. Our hostel dorm had bunk beds and a three-foot, fetid damp patch by the door that made us leap, squealing, in and out of the room.
For breakfast, I took a paper cup and mixed a tablespoon of cereal I’d packed — a gluten- and sugar-free muesli from the health-food store — with some unsweetened soy milk. Kat and Kay ate chocolate croissants from the supermarket and faced away from me and you and Ashley.
On the beach, magazines shielded our eyes from the sun. We loved reading the “it happened to me” stories — “Killed by her teddy bear,” “A Snake bit MY BOOB!” — and laughing at the fat, burned, English people cavorting in the surf. We didn’t eat lunch. Instead, we picked up snacks from the produce stand. You ate your nectarines using the clear plastic bag as a glove to keep your hand clean. I bought tomatoes and ate one like an apple, every three hours.
At night, we dressed up to go out. You looked at my body a lot and I realized that you always had. I was down 15 pounds, enough to wear skirts without leggings, and I wanted you to look at me. I bloomed under your gaze. I felt proud and expansive in my new smallness and my difference from you.
“How’s this shirt, Emma?” I said, hands on my hips to right-angle my elbows.
“It’s reals cute,” you said, closed-mouth smiling.
Newquay bars were strict on ID’s so we drank on the beach with boys we met at our hostel, playing spin the bottle with someone’s empty Corona. Ashley didn’t play. “Not me,” she said, combing fingers through salty hair. It was the same tone as when she said she’d never let a guy go down on her: a brag, all edge.
I didn’t like kissing the other girls, but I liked kissing you. I liked your warm mouth and body. I liked your small, darting tongue as I lost my hands in your hair. I liked the smooth of your bare legs and the soft of the sweaters you wore to cover your stomach. We held each other’s heads and knelt in the sand until our knees burned. The boys grinned as we fell back laughing.
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Once the sky cracked violet, we scuffed our sandals through the empty streets. We strode in the middle of the road, basking in the risk. At the hostel we leaped over the damp and loosed into a few hours of clammy sleep.
After Newquay, you went away with your family, and I went away with mine.
“I’m a vegetarian,” I said, haughty, when our tour bus pulled into roadside restaurants.
“A what?” the guide asked.
I watched the others gorge on oil-slimed beef and bits of pig, as I chopsticked through some grains of rice. When my mom glared, I shrugged as if to say, “I know, right? Too bad.” She looked away.
The next time we saw each other was Results Day, when we went to school in August to get our exam scores. I chose a white tank with a deep V-neck to show off both my tan and my summer achievement: those new bones I’d dug up that laddered the front of my chest.
Our whole class had done well, broken some academic records, and the senior staff milled around, pleased. I had done well, too, the best in the year, so they took my photo for the front page of the school newsletter. As I posed with my certificates, the two vice principals stood by the photographer, looking at me and then each other.
I liked their faces, all pause and doubt. It wasn’t as good as your grimace though, that smear of something — alarm, maybe, or envy.
Once school started, our grade was finally allowed out for lunch. Most girls went to the deli or sandwich place, but we trooped to the grocery store. That earned the five of us a nickname: “Salad Crew.” We got it from “Balco Crew,” the girls who left to smoke on a hidden balcony, before piling into the common room to drown their sugary cereal in whole milk. It was a stupid nickname because we didn’t even eat salad. We bought cartons of soup — tomato or carrot — and shared them along with a mango that we slivered with a blunt knife.
On Fridays we still went to Yo! Sushi. Kat and Kay ate fried rice as you and Ashley and I sipped miso soup and picked at pickled ginger. Pride puffed my chest. I had excelled. You and Ashley were both the same size you’d always been. If we were going to be hungry, at least I was getting something from it. Long below my 18.5, I’d nudged my goal down five pounds, then another five. I feasted on the dwindling red numbers each morning. And at night, I slept better than ever.
On Saturdays, we packed into your room, where I shared your makeup, but not your clothes. We no longer drank in parks but strutted into fancy West End clubs, where bald men in button-downs bought us pink drinks. We let them watch as we marked each other’s necks with our mouths. We stopped when you started dating Gabe, a slight, pretty guy in our grade at one of the nearby boys’ schools. I didn’t mind Gabe traipsing around with us — he laughed at our jokes, though he didn’t make his own. But he didn’t match you. He didn’t shine. Still, Ashley, Kat, Kay, and I giggled as you two made out in a doorway before he went back to his parents’ house, and we giggled as you told us all about it when we lay on your sofas and mopped off our makeup with disposable wipes.
I wanted you to myself. When you asked me if you should have another friend — girl number six — join your birthday, I told you she’d ruin the night but in a way that made you think it was your idea.
You always invited me out, even when I became too weak to stay up past 9 p.m. Each Saturday you texted me, and each Saturday I texted back that I was tired, or claimed I had plans you knew were fake. Instead, in my living room, I pushed around a 202-calorie diet-range microwave lentil moussaka as my mom pretended to focus on the TV and not on me.
But you kept asking. I always had a place. That meant a lot.
I wasn’t the only one. Dalia also cut herself in half. After the summer, she’d come back to school trim and flat with pleading eyes and shadows where those soft, domed cheeks had been. Actually, it was everywhere. In the gossip magazines we hate-read at lunchtime, Lindsay Lohan and Nicole Ritchie sloughed off their womanhood like snakes shedding skin under headlines like, SCARY SKINNY and THE RACE TO SIZE 00. They reminded me of Dalia and me. Dalia was fine-boned, like Nicole, with curved little clavicles you could snap with your fingers. I was bigger-framed, like Lindsay, so although Dalia was smaller, parts of my skeleton stuck out more.
When I couldn’t make it to the store at lunchtime, Dalia and I resumed “eating” together in the lunchroom. Girls watched us wheeze up the stairs, grasping the rail with our outsized hands, all tendon and knuckle.
Though we looked alike, she kept her periods 20 pounds longer than me. Her mother admired her withering, but my mom sometimes cried when she hugged me, saying, “You feel like a little bird.” Dalia trusted mechanical scales. Mine were digital, and the point-twos and point-fours were so crucial I peed and stripped before I stepped on. She also ate in public: lunchroom yogurt and passionfruit coulis, with a big spoon not a little spoon. People looked away, placated. When they stared at my undressed iceberg, I had to let them since I refused to pay in added point-twos.
I envied her; you envied me.
So did Ashley, whose sea-glass eyes gleamed with want when her gaze flicked up and down my frame. Sometimes Ashley joined Dalia and I in the lunchroom, and pretended not to eat. Ashley poked showily at her plate of sliced cucumber sloshed with vinegar. But then she bought a bag of yogurt-covered raisins. She popped them into her mouth one-by-one through the afternoon, sucking off the yogurt and depositing the sticky, spittly raisins into a side pocket of her backpack. I guessed she thought the raisins were too high-sugar, but she must not have known the yogurt coating was not in fact yogurt, but sugar mixed with oil and powdered milk. The 100-gram bag had 400 calories, at least 250 even without the raisins, I calculated. I liked to let my eyes land on her fingers as she snuck the wet blobs from her mouth. She’d shift in her seat, the way women do when they’re being watched. I felt powerful, like the little boy I once saw run into a flock of pigeons in Trafalgar Square, squealing at his own marvelous efficacy as the birds sprayed into the sky.
Ashley also acted cold, wearing her coat in class even on hot days. Don’t you know we can all see your body, unchanged? I thought.
“Can you move?” I said one afternoon when Ashley fake-napped against my locker as if she was too tired to last the day. I had to get my half carrot. It had been three hours.
It wasn’t just the girls. Remember Miss Miller? Instead of teaching us about Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement, she told us what size she wore from Topshop. On Wednesday afternoons, she made us read the textbook out loud as she teaspooned through her Weight Watchers, 1-point, 60-calorie, aspartame-sweetened toffee yogurt.
I still believed what Dalia and I had talked about over Dubbles. Dieting was sexist. Thinness was a myth made to snatch the threat from women, to busy and drain us. That Miss Miller — a grown-up, a history teacher — so openly cared about her body made me hate her. I stared at the fat bulge spilling over the waistband of her blue jeans, and thought, Buy a bigger size, you embarrassment.
On Monday mornings, Miss Miller brought no yogurt, just a liter of Evian, something you and I also placed on our desks. The three of us silently raced through our bottles. I’d win, and when I had to pee, I made a show of it. As I spidered over your chair I hiked my shoulders, which made my collarbones strain against the thin skin. Sometimes I gave a flashy tug up on the waistband of my gaping skinny-jeans.
Everyone watched. I loved the covetousness in your gaze and in Miss Miller’s. Your desire nourished me.
Dalia and I started something. Teachers tried to blame us as the dominoes fell, but we were so tripped out and lightheaded we just stared at their gnashing teeth. There was Clara, my soft-spoken physics lab-mate, whose breath grew rank with ketosis as her pants sagged from her hipbones. There was May, who bragged about her bulimia, which sounded vivid and foul, and an admission of defeat. There were others.
They didn’t know what to do with their school of hurting girls. One morning, they summoned our whole grade — ninety 16-year-old girls — to the assembly hall for a guest speaker. We filed into auditorium seats and looked down at a short woman on the stage. She was 26 or 27, a whole life away, and she spoke too close to the microphone as she told us that once, she was anorexic. She stood awkwardly in her long denim skirt and she had ugly hair and a horrible voice. “I have a life now,” she screeched. “It’s not a perfect life, but it’s my life, and I like it.”
Girls peered at me and Dalia. Teachers did, too.
When the bad hair woman finished her story, she said she would wait around in case anyone wanted to talk. After limp applause, girls lounged in their seats but I was done. The first to stand, I shoved myself up from the folding seat, letting it bang behind me as I sauntered down the aisle. Glares needled my spine. At the bottom, near the stage, I rolled my eyes and turned my back on her dowdy skirt. Then I rode the elevator up to the lunchroom; teachers had stopped telling me not to.
That afternoon, you asked why I didn’t talk to the woman. I met your eyes and said, “Why would I?”
You tried again a few weeks later. I slept at your house the night before a field trip and in the morning you cooked oatmeal. When I said I’d make my own, you watched me make it as I usually did: two tablespoons of oats and water. You kept staring until I added more oats, but then I couldn’t eat any at all as I couldn’t tally the calories in the bowl. I peeled a clementine.
At noon, we broke for lunch, filing to a grocery store. Girls unwrapped chicken sandwiches and cous-cous salads. I ate my packet of raw baby spinach with my fingers, leaf by leaf, keeping it hidden in the plastic bag. You watched me. I sensed it wasn’t envy any more.
After the field trip we stopped by Topshop, where I bought a baggy blue jumper and another V-neck shirt.
“Are you okay?” you said, after we left.
“Yeah, you?” I said.
“You haven’t eaten all day.”
“What do you mean? I’ve had two meals.”
“Jas,” you said.
I didn’t have the strength to run.
“Look, it’s okay,” I said.
“Aren’t you going to gain some weight?”
“I guess, yeah. Everything is fine.”
“If you’re going to gain weight then why did you buy all these new clothes?” you asked, pointing your shopping bag at mine.
I didn’t understand. I needed clothes.
Weeks later, when you texted to invite me out one Saturday, I said I had a “family thing,” then set off on a walk. As I burrowed through residential streets, heading away from home, goosebumps stung my skin beneath my coat. The bones of my feet crunched with each step so I tried to tread softly. Suddenly I couldn’t breathe — my lungs felt half-filled, like blowing into a pierced balloon — and as terror pulsed in my temples, I wished I was home and warm but there was no way back other than the two-mile route I’d just walked. Panting, I lay my palms on the low fence of someone’s front yard. When my breathing settled I pushed myself up and started walking, one crunching foot in front of the other.
I turned up my iPod to drown out my ringing ears. It was Death Cab for Cutie:
“You may tire of me as our December sun is setting, ‘cause I’m not who I used to be.
No longer easy on the eye, these wrinkles masterfully disguise the youthful boy below.”
We’d played that song in Newquay as we’d laughed and leapt over the damp. I could no longer do those things. My eyes welled but I lacked the abdominal strength required to cry.
A man my father’s age with a sweat-stained shirt and a cigarette tucked behind his ear gestured at me to take off my headphones. I squinted for recognition — it could take longer, these days.
Girls unwrapped chicken sandwiches and cous-cous salads. I ate my packet of raw baby spinach with my fingers, leaf by leaf, keeping it hidden in the plastic bag.
“Cheer up, love,” he jeered. We’d never met.
I hobbled home, thawed in a hot shower until my skin pinked, and slept for 12 hours.
That summer, we were separated again, when you left for six weeks at your parents’ house in Marseilles. Ashley went with you. You invited me, but I was busy with blood tests and EKG’s and outpatient therapy from that brunette doctor I hated.
I’d been going for a couple of months, since a family trip when my parents and sister had watched me eat for four days as I gripped my fork like a weapon. In our hotel room, they’d cornered me and told me they thought I could die. I felt like the stray cat my dad had once trapped in the kitchen to take to the shelter. Backed into a smaller and smaller space, the cat had hissed and yowled and bared his teeth. Then he sprung straight up, high enough to clear my dad’s head. But it was no use. The tom was caught, and he was taken. I was taken too, to the doctor then the hospital then the treatment center.
It was every day at first, then three times a week. I grinned, at the start, all hubris and tenacity, as the therapist weighed my un-growing body. There was family therapy, too, in a different room at the same place; red chairs in one, gray in the other. That was where I learned my sister hadn’t spoken to me for a year.
“That is not true,” I said. “I would have noticed.”
“Well, when was our last conversation?” she asked me, looking straight at the brunette. I couldn’t remember. My sister continued, “It just seems like such a selfish thing to do.”
Sadness flattened me — the weight of it like a hand on my chest. I looked down. I saw the thick spread of my thighs on the gray or red chair, and the sadness was gone. I didn’t see how any of this concerned her.
But all summer, I dragged myself up those concrete steps several times a week. I waited in a room of little ghouls whose mothers patted their scapulae. I tried new things: half a banana, orange juice, noodles. In August, my family went away again, and I spooned out a little more from the buffet each dinner. I nibbled dates, halva. Food on my plate made me dizzy like I’d been on my walks. But when I ate, I could read again, and swim, and wash my hair without that pain from holding up my arms.
Every night I checked your Facebook with hotel Wi-Fi, scanning photos of you and Ashley riding bikes and chopping tomatoes. I looked your body up and down, squinting at your wrists and collarbones. You looked only a little drawn. I blamed the lighting as I clicked to close the browser.
Days before senior year began, the five of us reunited at your place. On the bus and two tubes to your house, I thought how proud of me you’d be. I’d gained only a few pounds, but that was still a victory. My feet had stopped crunching, my teeth lost that gray hue. I felt powerful.
We all giggled down to your basement and took our spots at the table.
Your mom hadn’t cooked.
You stood to get a glass of water and I looked at you. I really looked, and I knew.
In the fine jut of your jaw and your triceps’ new prominence, I knew what you’d started. I knew what would come. We were on different paths, with different goals, and in one twisting instant, I knew that for my own survival, I could no longer be your friend.
It wasn’t all at once. There was still school. When you chugged your Evian, I tried to leave my bottle in my bag and let you win. When the bell rang, I dodged your eyes, snatched my stuff, and fled.
We wrote on each other’s Facebook walls, long messages to make up for all that was unsaid in all the time we didn’t spend together, because being near you made me want to grab the new flesh over my ribs and tear it off.
One afternoon Dalia and I stood by the library. She sipped a smoothie, I drank tea with milk, the two of us trying to find our way back to ourselves.
“Wanna go out on Saturday?” you asked, coming up close. Dalia stood still.
You’d strived for what we had. You had earned it. But now we didn’t want it — or we didn’t want to want it — so you had become dangerous.
“I… can’t,” I said, stiff-necked.
You waited for an excuse; I said nothing.
“How about next weekend?”
“I can’t do that either, but soon!” I pulled Dalia by the elbow and left you standing there.
I made plans with other girls, gentle girls whose welcome humbled me. We liked the same books, and when they ate chips and chocolate like it was nothing, they offered me some and never looked me up and down. They made me laugh again. The first time, my thighs clenched with fear — I must have overeaten, over-fueled my swelling body. But then they made me laugh again, and though I still felt repulsive, it helped. I let them help me.
Sometimes I saw you at parties, me with my new girls and you with your old ones. I gave you a one-armed hug and it felt like I was holding something not quite human. I’d watch you all night: the way your shoulder blades pushed out from your back like wings trying to unfurl; how your sinewed hands looked like talons as they curled around the cup you filled with water since you said you no longer liked alcohol.
Envy filled my belly as I gazed at the sickness of you. My jeans felt suddenly tight as the new dig of seams sliced my hips. Period cramps twisted my grotesque abdomen.
Eventually when I saw you out, there was no one with you but Ashley. The other two drifted off, knocked out of your orbit by the shift in gravity, perhaps. Kat and Kay hung out with girls who lived near them. They didn’t come to your house. Nobody did. Gabe had gone. Everything fell away.
We graduated and left for different colleges. Before orientation, I scrolled through the hundreds of photos we’d once uploaded, week-by-week: our flushed cheeks and damp bodies pressed close, arms wrapped around each other. I untagged every skinny picture of me. I told myself I wanted a fresh start, but really, I didn’t want people to do a before and after. I didn’t want them to think I’d failed. I didn’t want them to react like my first boyfriend when I shared my past the day after we lost our virginities. When I showed him a photo he said, “You were anorexic?” with such awe that though I got his shock at seeing me fifty pounds lighter, I still felt like a sow beside him, big and pink and naked.
In my dorm room I stayed up late writing papers, eating bowl after bowl of Special K, and Facebook stalking you. You were always with the same people in your photos. I didn’t know if they were your girls or if you were theirs. I wondered if they made you eat more oatmeal, or urged you not to buy new clothes for your brittle little frame. I wondered whether someone did the things I didn’t.
I looked you up every few months through college and then through graduate school once I’d moved to the States.
I still do.
We left high school 12 years ago, but you look the same: frozen, tiny, worn.
Now when I look you up and down, I feel no envy. I feel guilt. You always tried to care for me, Emma, even when you didn’t know how, even when you were probably doing it wrong. I didn’t try. When the cage door opened, I bolted, and let it slam behind me. I didn’t help you to safety.
In the fine jut of your jaw and your triceps’ new prominence, I knew what you’d started. I knew what would come.
That’s why I feel guilty when Dalia and I share crumbs of news about you from friends of friends. We roll our eyes at you and at our pasts, which are funny, now, in that way of every tragic thing that doesn’t leave you dead. Our laughter keeps you out, holds you back, along with that hum of danger we’ll always hear, however quiet. We laugh to shield ourselves. And yet.
I also feel guilty for making excuses when you Facebook-messaged me that dinner invite after you moved to a nearby Brooklyn neighborhood two years ago. You asked a second time, and a third. I stopped responding.
Part of me wanted to meet: to thrill with connection and bask in that old bliss of you.
I pictured us together — a mug of green tea in the clutch of your veined hands.
“It’s been a long time,” you might say.
“It has,” I’d reply.
But then what? What would we say? Would we recall being 14 and magical? Would we talk about fake IDs and spin the bottle on the sand? Would we work out our roles in each other’s decimation?
Would we laugh?
Maybe I’d explain how good it felt to belong to you. Tell you our togetherness felt like so much safety — even when we were both at risk. Maybe I’d say I don’t know why you had such power over me, but I loved it, and loved you. That although leaving you might have saved my life, the loss and guilt still cut me jagged. It’s one more wound from all those years. It hasn’t healed. Perhaps it won’t.
I can’t see you, Emma. But if I did, I’d say I hope your life is not always like this. It can get better. It really can. It might not be a perfect life, but it will be your life, and you might like it.
* * *
Jasmin Aviva Sandelson is a writer and sociologist living in Brooklyn. Her writing also appears in Hobart and Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, and her first book, Looking Out, is under contract.
Editor: Sari Botton