it's two am, and i'm awake, but i'm not writing a song. a pair of white earbuds connect me to my purple ipod, tucked into a front pocket of my shorts. i almost jump out of my skin when michael jackson begins wailing "thriller" into my eardrums. it's bad enough that i spent the night before this early morning excursion watching televisions shows about psychopathic serial killers. irrational fear tingles up my spine, causing every fine, blond hair on my arms to stand up and taste the air for danger.
my feet pound the pavement. this morning i have chosen to take mercy on them and give them the protection of a pair of expensive white and red running shoes bought for me when i began cross country. by now, i've put so much mileage on them that their formerly padded soles are worn thin. when i first began my running, i did it barefoot, both because it made me feel hardcore, and for the experience of having my own naked skin contact the hard cement. my shoes release a rank odor of sweat and urine and other things i cannot name. it's well into the summer, and my sweat glands are no longer functioning, but back at the end of junior year when all this started i would finally skid to a stop at the end of a workout and be so drenched that i looked as though i'd been dunked in my family's pool. and yes, in the name of being hardcore and because it was far too painful at the time contemplating having to start my run over from the beginning if i interrupted it to use the toilet, i once let warm liquid trail down my legs as i counted out my laps.
the glaring crimson headlights of vehicles as they roar along the road, beyond my backyard with its grass and wicked iron fence, beyond the downward slope of untamed vegetation that is still recovering from the scorching it last received from wildfires. my mind conjures images of enormous trucks mowing down the fence, scruffy faced men in cowls, wielding power tools, leaping down to stalk me quietly. i cannot run fast enough to leave my imagination behind. there is a scream caught in my throat, which is totally irrational since i have only seen beautiful things since here, during my runs. i have seen frogs, and a huge furry spider, and a white feathered owl perched on the framework of our swing set. the exception being the day my youngest sister was born. the peach colored dawn snuck up on me before i had a chance to wonder about its coming. i turned the corner on my run, passed the swing set and a queensland palm tree and traced the line of the pool gate where it met up with the white concrete. that's when i it happened. a ghostly white figure, materializing in my path. one minute it wasn't there and the next it was.
it wasn't much of a relief when my brain caught up with my eyes and i realized this wasn't a shimmering phantom but my mother in an overlarge tee shirt that served her as pajamas. my heart skipped several beats, and my mind immediately jumped to the worst case scenario, but it turned out that my mom was blocking my way for reasons that had nothing to do with me at all. her stance was contorted because, as she explained with a distant, inward focused smile that glowed almost as much as her white garment, during the night she'd gone into labor. dad was going to drive her to the hospital and i should let my siblings know about this when they woke up.
but that was then, and this is now, and today my mom isn't pregnant or in labor or waiting behind a bush to jump out at me and catch me in my sin.
i have chosen this hour for my run for several reasons. first, but not most important, it's much more pleasant to be out and about during the hot summer months while the sun still slumbers. i enjoy the cool night air with its lingering moisture. second, if i begin at two am i can be done by seven. after a five hour workout, i can limp inside the house, coat my legs, which are screaming, the joints creaking as though i were a robot and not a person at all, with icy hot so that i'll actually be able to walk for the rest of the day, pour two liters of water down my throat, and then crawl back into bed. usually when i wake up for the second time, that's when everyone else in the house has just begun to stir. which brings me to my third point: my dad may possibly be awake and emerged from his man cave to witness the last half hour or so of my run. but my dad is generally not suspicious, and is unlikely to confront me with the question of how long i'd been at it before he woke up. because my mom has imposed a limit to the number of miles i am allowed to run: no more than five miles per day.
as you can probably imagine, i have had a lot of practice at running, by now. at my absolute worst, i ran eighteen minute miles. even at that glacial pace, in five hours i could have run about fifteen miles. but i am not so slow anymore. the path i run, the elliptical bike path that surrounds the large (plastic) grass field in our backyard, has been measured by my mom to stretch one seventeenth of a mile in length. so i count aloud as i go, adding another mile to my roster every time i reach seventeen laps. because i'm extremely obsessive compulsive, i often repeat laps or even whole miles because i become confused about what number i'm actually on. nevertheless, in the five hours that i run i always accomplish my minimum goal, twenty six miles.
it is one of the most dishonest things i've ever done, planning my workouts so that i appear to be following rules while in reality i've flagrantly ignored them. there have been, and in the future will be times that i am totally banned from running. i never dare to sneak out when i'm given an outright ordinance against running, because somehow my mom will know. she'll suspect i'm doing it even when i'm not. but adding extra miles when i am supposed to be running in moderation is different, somehow, at least in my mind; i never really visualize the rage or the consequences that will inevitably follow once my secret is revealed, as all my secrets eventually are, but i am intimately familiar with the psychological pain that results from not fulfilling my compulsive rituals. it's as though i'm being torn apart from the inside out, my internal organs squeezed and twisted and rent apart, every time i'm forced to take a day off from exercising, or have to stop short of completing the full marathon. i'd rather endure the sharp, splintered agony from bits of fractured bone lodging themselves in my tissues, keep on pounding a toe that's broken and turning black inside my sock against the cement, than listen to the voices inside my brain shrieking at me all day. they know how truly weak and worthless i am. they know that if i allow myself to ease up even a smidgen on my regiment, i will slip back into being that flabby, unloveable piece of shit i was when i gasped and wheezed my way around the perimeter of a football field, straggling behind teammates who were sleek and slender and all around superior to me.
i never intended to become a serious runner, or to continue exercising at all after i was done with the single torturous cross country season to which i was subjected because of my high school's physical education requirement. i talked scornfully of exercise as useless and repulsive whenever it was brought up in my vicinity, because i'd never successfully abused it in the past as a means of weight loss. but jimmy, who was at the end of his senior year very obviously shedding pounds from an already trim frame, could not be persuaded to subscribe to my opinion. he continued to endorse exercise, describing his workouts on the treadmill or elliptical and celebrated with other friends who had more sense than i did achievements such as beating old time records.
at first, i was satisfied with myself for just getting out of bed and walking around the path in the backyard. i spent a great deal of time curled up beneath my covers my junior year of high school, because i had persisted on my all liquid diet. when jimmy's influence over me really took effect, i substituted my usual frozen chai tea lattes i made as my meals for smoothies comprised of protein powder, crushed ice, and soy milk. to keep me motivated in walking, i made it my goal to complete a whole mile, seventeen laps. then i began running a few laps before my walk. then i was running a mile and walking a mile. then i ran two miles with the walking mile between them to help me recover my stamina. then i ran two miles back to back and walked afterward to cool down. then i ran three miles and did away with walking all together. three miles became five. five became seven. seven became nine. nine because thirteen. thirteen became twenty six. almost overnight, i went from being the girl who could barely hobble up the driveway to identifying as a runner before all else.
i maintain a pretty steady pace throughout my run, which i'd guestimate somewhere between five and six miles per hour. i always sprint the last few hundred feet of my final lap, however, because i need to be sure that i don't have any unused energy reserves left. my velocity builds up, fast and faster until i cross whatever crack in the pavement i've determined as the finish line today. now, when i transition from breakneck speed to a trot before slowing to a walk that will take me back into the house through the clear glass door beneath the patio, i feel a violent pain pulse upward through my legs. i do not have even an ounce of cellulite left on my calves or thighs; my muscles and tendons are all clearly visible through my skin, and my legs angle sharply upward from my knees. no matter how i sit or stand, there is enough blank space to fit both my hands between my horrifically overworked adductors. these things i make sure of, watching my reflection in the darkened windows, but even the satisfaction i feel at the shape of my legs does not diminish their pain. i know that if they cramp up badly enough, i will be in serious trouble. i try to stretch them out, goose stepping and plie-ing like i'm back in my beginner ballet classes. by the time i reach the french door, the worst pangs of pain and of fear have subsided. i try to convince myself that my anxiety is totally irrational; i'm not going to end up on crutches or in a wheel chair just from long distance running. plenty of extremely healthy people run marathons as a hobby and everybody else looks up to them and wishes they could be that dedicated; if there was joint damage in my future, surely the envious would have pointed this out as a reason not to become a triathlete or marathoner.
my shoes come off, and lay where they fall, landing on their sides, stinking like a pair of dead horses in august, atop the charcoal colored doormat that protects the wood floors from the dirt and grime of people's entrance and exit. with the unwavering faithfulness to ritual of a religious fanatic, i oil my legs to keep them from rusting stiff, and chug my two liters of water. i have to pause a few times, to breath deeply and center myself. to fight back the overwhelming impulse to retch and instead keep pumping water into my already achingly distended belly. then it's back to bed. i curl up under my covers, still wearing the same ragged tee shirt and shorts in which i ran. it never occurs to me as odd that there isn't a sheen of sweat slicking my skin, soaking into my blankets.
i do not have to worry about oversleeping, because, though i'm thoroughly exhausted, in precisely an hour my bladder is screaming at me to wake up. i bound out of bed with an urgency that defies the complete lack of energy my body remembers as soon as the insistent torrent of water has gushed out of me. the next thing that i do, after peeing, is check the breakfast table. my mom and sisters might be planning on going for one of our walks, and i of course wouldn't want to miss out on that.
walking does not count as a workout, but i also have a post run regiment that i began at the end of my junior year, in order to try to focus on my "problem areas." this meant spending approximately two hours every other day inside the one of my dad's two garages which he'd carpeted and filled with workout equipment. the first time i visited my dad's garage with the intention of using it as a home gym, i was trying to follow the advice of a volleyball training self help book. later, sessions in the man cave filled hours in which emptiness and despair stalked me. i was grounded the entire summer i was seventeen, the reason being my grades. they'd soared up above even those of my oldest sister, who graduated as valedictorian of her class my freshman year, for about the first year and a half of my high school career. then they started to falter. i always had a sense of impending doom, that i had built up beneath my feet a pedestal made of sand by starting off as such as academic over achiever. even at its absolute height, i felt my tower of glory crumbling under my soles. my first "b," stamped onto my report card at the end of my first semester as a sophomore, got me grounded for thirteen weeks straight. grounded meant very little in my family of origin, considering that we barely ever left the house, anyway, but it did bar me from going to the movie theater with my mom and siblings, and attending trips to the mall. it was also a source of public humiliation.
after that, waking up late, texting too much, and even writing poetry became reasons for me to be grounded or to lose my cell phone privileges. when my grades at the end of the year were finalized, i knew even without asking that i was in up to my neck in hot water. because i was grounded, during june and july when my family took trips to the county fair, and would be gone for up to eight hours at a time, i was the only one home. so, i worked out in my dad's garage, building my biceps and melting the fat from my inner thighs. i remember throwing down my dad's jump rope, during one such afternoon, and screaming at the top of my lungs at the empty house and at god. begging him for help. getting only silence in return, and deciding, for the first time in my life, that it was because there was no celestial being to hear me. if there were a god, how could he ignore my pain? how could he fail to hear the over one thousand complete rosaries i'd painstaking offered to him since october, asking him to make jimmy return my love?
whatever day this is, that i'm remembering, it is a gym day, so i go through my motions of weigh training. afterward, i try to delude myself into believing that it is a transcendental experience of the beauty of nature, to lie stretched out atop my family's trampoline. the black, rubbery material beneath my frozen body at least imparts a degree of warmth, which makes up for the chilling breezes blowing across me, slicing like a knife through layers of subcutaneous fat i don't have. the truth is i can't get up. i don't have anything else better to do with myself, anyways, but also i'm a worm that's caught in the bright sun after a rain storm. i'm on my way to being reduced to nothing more than a flattened, dried up husk of myself imprinted into the ground. i listen to my mom and the golden child tease my eldest sister about her boobs, which could easily swallow both of theirs.
my other daily activities consist of a bike ride and some furious pumping at the swings after dinner. i can't let any of those calories linger, unused in my being. on this particular day, my siblings decide to go for a swim in our pool. i cannot possibly miss a chance for physical exertion, despite the fact that i very much dislike our pool. it's black bottom makes it impossible to really keep clean, so it's not uncommon to find myself swimming amongst leaf litter and dead or dying insects, and the occasional bobbing corpse of a drowned rat. besides this, my lack of body fat also means that swimming is extremely uncomfortable for me; i become chilled to the bone in a matter of minutes, and end up having to get out while everybody else is still enjoying him or herself. at least swimming gave me an excuse to make an appearance in my bikini. i have never been able to wear a two piece bathing suit without crippling insecurity before this summer, but now my hard, flat, tight as a drum belly practically begs to be shown to the world.
i eat spoonfuls of peanut butter and chat cheerfully with my mom, doing something or other in the kitchen, as i watch my siblings splash about in the water. they are able to live in the moment, and enjoy their time in the pool, which is something i cannot fathom.
most of the rest of the day is lost in a blur until i am curled up in a fetal position in my bed, staring at the lit up screen of my cell phone, now serving as a conduit to relay jimmy's ultimatum.
what did i say to provoke that text message from jimmy? i do not remember. however, what's clear in my mind is that he insisted, "you have to tell your mom." i told him that i could not do it. i wouldn't. she'd never understand. she'd only get angry, like she always did, and yell at me. she'd send me away like she sent the boys away, make good on her threat not to pay for my college education. jimmy's texts started to convey his frustration and worry. he wasn't taking no for an answer. it was unfathomable to him that a mother could refuse to help her sick and suffering offspring. he could not take any more of this, and if i wanted him in my life as a friend i needed to do the right thing for myself and convince my mom to get me treatment. jimmy had already researched rehab facilities for my particular disorder, and had given me the name of a good one with assurances that my health insurance would pay for it therefore and it shouldn't be a burden to my parents in any way.
you had to be there, in my shoes, to understand that talking didn't do any good. i couldn't explain it, the dance i'd danced so many times, well enough to penetrate his conviction that underneath it all mothers always love their daughters. she must be just scared for me, right? he wasn't the one who got called in to the counseling office or the nurse's station, over and over again to be asked the same unanswerable questions. he wasn't there to witness me holding out at first, keeping my silence and maintaining adamantly that i was fine and everything was fine and my family had no problems. it didn't work because there had been so many eyewitness reports of me, puking my guts out in the school bathrooms. he wasn't the one who had his defenses broken down, gradually, under relentless pressure. he wasn't the one who ended up sobbing into his hands, huddled in a ball in an unfamiliar chair while a counselor or nurse tried to explain to him the seriousness of his condition. he didn't have to beg anyone to go against their legal obligations as a mandated reporter, to just hold off on calling my parents about my bulimia. he did not receive their solemn promises that as long as i check in, every day, so that they could monitor my health and reassure themselves that i wasn't going to drop dead on campus, they wouldn't call my parents. because my parents would just be angry and would never understand; so if they did eventually feel they had to talk to my parents about this, they swore they'd warn me that it was going to happen first. i just wanted to be able to prepare. he wasn't the one who got in the car after school, to learn that the nurse had called my mom and told her everything and tried to persuade her not to let me know i'd been betrayed. he didn't sit rigidly, staring out the windshield into an unforgiving void. as my mom bent over the steering wheel and screamed, the tears running down her face, "how could you do this to me? i have so much to worry about already. do you think i wanted this? to have no life for myself? to be a taxi driver to teenagers who just want to get to where they need to go and don't care how i feel? nobody even talks to me. nobody cares who i am, as long as you get what you want. dad's always telling me who i am, and he's completely wrong. is it too much to expect that my older children will help me with the younger ones instead of causing more trouble? you should be helping me carry this burden, instead of adding to it. don't you think i care how i look too? i want to be skinny. i want to go to the gym and work out. but i can't because i have to sit in this care and take you to school and pick you up and shuttle everybody around all day. i can't believe you could say those things about me to people who don't even know me, that you can't talk to me because i'll just be mad. i'm here at home taking care of your every need and you're out there smearing my name." and on and on and on. he did not have to tiptoe around my house for weeks afterward, never speaking above a whisper until i could be sure the storm had blown over. he did not have to sit in the same school offices, in the same, perpetually new smelling chairs, and be pelted with the same questions, the next time my dieting got out of control and i lost noticeable weight. he did not have to walk into a room expecting to just see the nurse or a counselor or the principal, and instead have my mom waiting for me. chatting cheerfully and reasonably with whatever official was speaking to her, pretending to take note of their concerns, while i just hung my head and stayed silent and tried to numb myself to whatever torrent of violence was about to be unleashed as soon as my parent and i were alone. he did not have to listen to people who knew nothing about it explaining to him how lucky he was, how he'd been born with a silver spoon in his mouth. he did not have to hear refuted his testimony that my mom would never get help for me, not in a million years, because she'd seemed so sincere and understanding and open to suggestions when they spoke with her. he did not have to come to the realization that they'd never had a shred of faith in his word, because if they did they wouldn't have taken the risk and called my parents instead of cps. he did not have to sit with his mom in a car as she vented her pain instead of showing the least bit of concern for that of her sick daughter. he did not have to live in that fear. no. that was me.
i stuck to my line. i couldn't do it. nevertheless, the idea that i would lose jimmy as i'd lost sunshine and so many other friends before her, for that moment was actually scarier and more painful than anything my mother could do to me. so after staring at the lit up screen of my cell phone for several long moments, i slid off my bed and quit my darkened bedroom.
it was early, yet, so my mom was in the kitchen. the lights were on and she was seated at a bar stool in front of the large granite topped island. i do not remember who, if anyone, was with her or what they were doing or speaking about exactly. i interrupted merely by walking in and standing in a state of palpable agitation before my mother.
"yes?" was it just my imagination, or was her voice cold and hard? earlier in the day i'd been standing before the mirrors attached to her closet's doors. by opening them up and angling them just so, i could see reflected at the same time both the front of my body and my back. i had just completed a post run session in my dad's garage, where i lifted weights and rode a stationary bike, and did pull ups and hefted a medicine ball. i was admiring in the mirror my back, which was dotted with purplish black bruises like fingerprints in plum juice, from my vertebrae pressing through my dissolving flesh. and bloody patches where the friction from my hundreds of repetitions of push ups had worn away my skin altogether. i'm not sure but i thought she was disgusted when she asked me if i was planning on being a model, if that's what all this was about. the way she spat the word, she might as well have asked if i was going into prostitution.
i told her everything, or at least i tried.
"i know you're still throwing up. i saw you eat all that peanut butter today and i knew you were going to throw it up. you don't think i've know what you've been doing? i see the way you spend all day collapsed somewhere because you have no energy. all you think about is the way you look. i don't understand it. i know i couldn't have raised you to be so superficial and shallow. you don't care about your family at all or the trouble you're causing everyone else. it's embarrassing, to have to go in public and see people's stares, and know they're wondering what's wrong with you and judging me for not fixing it. and yet you act like you still expect i'm going to pay your tuition for you to go off to some college and make a train reck out of everything. you are a horrible, mean, insane, vane selfish witch and i would never waste the money on sending you to one of those rehab places. and no, insurance does not cover it. the only reason you're here right now, where i have to watch you kill yourself and disobey me, which is a terrible example for your younger siblings in whom i'm trying my hardest to instill good values and priorities, is because your dad and i are already paying huge tuition bills every month for your brothers to stay at their military schools. we can't afford another bill like that right now. all they'd do in a treatment program is keep you from exercising and force food down your throat and have you whine to therapists. i'll give you a treatment program; from now on, you'll eat exactly what i say all the time, and no more running or lifting weights. you're going to be a part of this family again and act like a normal person whether you like it or not."
sometimes, i still miss that seventeen year old girl who stared back at me from the other side of the mirror, in those days. i remember the huge, dead eyes sunken deep into her gaunt, cadaverous face. the long, bronze, dry hair that crackled as though it were composed of dead twigs preparing to fall from a tree. the vulnerability of two knobby knees pressed together without any layers of thigh fat to bridge the gap between themselves and my torso. the dramatic parenthesis of my iliac crest, visible through my skin, and the way my belly button got so small and so high, my flesh stretched paper thin over a washboard stomach. my face had lost all its embarrassing roundness, and the only real bulk i had besides my wonderfully pokey bones was that of my trapezius muscles, which looked so nice framed by an spaghetti strap shirt that left my upper back bare.
my attempt at bravery really accomplished nothing. i continued to be sick, only now i spent my time curled up on the couch sobbing, sullenly refusing to speak to anyone, unable to pry my eyes from the mirror, in which reflected surface i watched the body i'd spent so much time shaping and carving away balloon back up to its pre-running size. my mom continued to treat me like a pariah. my calves stopped cramping deliciously and my hair didn't fall out anymore. jimmy refused to speak to me or exchange text messages for more than two months following this incident. i was all alone with my disease.