The week after my senior prom, I lay in my bed staring at the wall. I hadn’t eaten much in four years, and in the week preceding prom, I drank nothing but Gatorade. Disjointed memories were pushing in, of prom and after-prom. My dress was so lovely. Blue taffeta! Short. All that dancing! Acid hits in the woods. Jumping off cliff ledges. Mudslides. Funny faces. French-kissing! Tequila!
My mother knocked on my door. “Cassandra? Are you talking to yourself?”
“I’m a little feverish,” I said. “I think I may be hallucinating.”
She came in an hour later with my father and sat on the edge of my bed. “Cassandra,” she said. “Things have gone too far. We’re admitting you to a treatment center for young women with eating disorders.”
“Mom,” I said. “I already told you. Everyone I know is bulimarexic. The girls throw up en masse after the cheerleading potlucks, right before the game.”
“We’re leaving tomorrow,” she said.
“O.k.,” I said. I was too weak to protest.
We drove to the clinic in Philadelphia together, the three of us. My dad sped and swore. He was pulled over an hour from our destination. “Did you know how fast you were going?” asked the highway patrolman, thumbs in beltloops. I unrolled the window in the back seat and leaned out.
“You are insouciant,” I said. “I find that very sexy.”
“Officer,” said my father, “my daughter is dying.”
“Dying,” yelled my father. “Dying!”
My father received a two-point violation. “Cocksucker,” he said, burning rubber as we peeled away.
The center was a three-story Victorian mansion painted the color of a fresh bruise, whose ground floor accommodated a makeshift ICU, offices, and conference rooms; the second and third floors were sanctuaries, devoted to the holy vigil of insomnia.
I was assigned a dietician and given a white paper gown for daily 6 a.m. weigh-ins. The three of us met with the director of the facility, Carol Shields, a powerhouse with a big blonde bouffant. “I just want you to know,” said my father, “that Cass is a bad apple. Ours is a happy family. We regularly enjoy leisurely four-course meals; she did not learn this behavior from us.”
“It’s society,” said my mother. “All those waify models.”
The director turned to me. “Cassandra?”
“I want to die,” I said distinctly. My neck felt very limp, like a noodle, and my head, very heavy, like a brick. I could feel it starting to bob.
Carol nodded to my parents. “We’ll be in touch.”
The Center cost 5,000 dollars a day. This information was presented to me in my first letter from home. “We’re fighting your insurance company tooth and nail,” said the letter. “They don’t seem to think this treatment is imperative. Not imperative? You’re a walking corpse! Hugs and Kisses, Mom.”
I saw right away how this operation worked: the anorexics ran in one pack, the bulimics in another. Those of us who crossed over were special, like marked lambs.
I made a friend the second day, during breakfast. She was devastating, but a real All-American, with a little ski-jump nose and a Marc Jacobs pullover. I set down my tray.
“Do you play sports?” I asked.
“Varsity tennis and soccer,” she said.
“Varsity track and soccer,” I said. “Cassandra.”
“Jill,” she said, reaching out her hand. We shook.
By week two Jill and I were inseparable. Her roommate had died the previous week from a lethal potassium deficiency, so we did clandestine sit-ups and push-ups together in her room for exercise, as walking the grounds was forbidden. That was our bonding ritual, after which we shared tricks on how to outsmart the staff and gabbed.
“My mom hates me because she thinks I tried to seduce my father,” Jill told me, while we chain-smoked one night on the roof. “That’s been going on since I was ten.” I had never heard someone admit that out loud before. Was that why my mother beat me? “I was born skinny,” she said. “I was skinny even before I got sick. I could eat so much, my family thought I had a wooden leg.”
“All the girls have always hated you,” I said.
“Are you looking at my boyfriend, you whore?”
“If I could kill you without anyone knowing, I would,” I said. “Someone stuck that note through the slat in my locker.”
“And the boys,” she said.
“Ogling,” I said. “Leers.”
“You think you’re so perfect? I can smash your body. Boom!”
We reminisced in sadness. “How are your grades,” I said.
“I earned every A,” she said. “Contrary to rumor.”
“Are you a cutter?” I asked.
She rolled up her sleeve. “Earring-backings.”
I peeled back my shorts. “Broken glass.”
She stared off into the distance. Her profile was delicate, like an Egyptian queen. I didn’t want to smash it. I wanted to trace it with my hand, like a wax doll in a museum.
“It’s not my fault,” she whispered. “I shit gold.”
The schedule at the Center was relaxed, overly so for those among us with OCD. I had already read all the books in the library: Reviving Ophelia, Reinventing Eve, Wasted, and I soon grew restless. The doctors hated me because I wasn’t gaining, and a lesbian bulimic named Tracy was trying to woo me by playing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on her guitar. She had a terrible voice. When she realized her ardor was not reciprocated she got desperate. “You like Nietzsche’s Daughter?” she asked. “I know all their songs.”
Every morning Jill and I played Monopoly in the activities room; every afternoon group therapy and art therapy were conducted, the latter of which was optional. One afternoon, bored to tears, we ventured into an art therapy session, held in an adjoining building. Sun streamed through the windows and played tricks of light on the limp arms of the anorectics, which were covered with downy fur: the body’s last-ditch attempt to generate heat. The patients were gathered together in the middle of the room, tracing the outline of their corporeal forms onto white paper.
“Mild body-image distortion is common in the quote unquote ‘normal’ population,” the therapist said. “But for you ladies, it’s extreme.”
“Reality!” exclaimed Jill. “Not a moment too soon.” She laid down on the paper and extended her arms wide, like Vitruvian Man. “Get every edge, Cassandra,” she said. “Fingers, too.” After I faithfully transcribed her contours she stood up and turned to the therapist. “What am I supposed to do now?”
“It’s not about doing,” she said. “It’s about how this activity makes you feel.”
“Fine. How am I supposed to feel, then?” The therapist clucked. “Most bulimic women have an eroded sense of interiority. They look to the world to develop response-patterns instead of trusting their own instincts. Look at the drawing, Jill. Is that how you see yourself?” All three of us looked at the drawing. It looked like a chalk etching after a drive-by. Jill looked worried.
“Is there supposed to be a picture of me, in my head?”
Group therapy occasionally unearthed bad memories. One afternoon the therapist left to get a drink of water; when she shut the door Jill said “Date rape! Show of hands!”
“What she means,” I said, to the glassy-eyed girls, “is psychological rape, by anatromic simulations of human beings. It’s very traumatic.” Jill looked hurt.
“Cassie,” she said, “that that not what I meant.”
“Really? Sorry. How old were you?”
I did a cost-analysis after that session. “Someone has paid $60,000 for me to be here already,” I said. “Even if my parents can get the insurance to pay half, that’s still a lot of money.”
“Isn’t it worth it?” said Jill.
“Isn’t what worth it?”
“Healing,” she said. We laughed.
Individual therapy was not very helpful either. My psychiatrist was a very old German woman, Dr. Hausmann. To Jill I referred to her as Frau Cunt.
“This whole thing is just so stupid,” I said. “This whole retinue.”
“Are you referring to this facility?” she asked. “Or your disease?”
“This whole panorama,” I said. “It’s a wasteland.”
“I think we should up your dosage of Zoloft,” she said. “By five milligrams.”
“Do that and I will fake a seizure every morning in the breakfast room,” I said. “On the table.”
“Cassandra,” she said. “Did you have a favorite subject in school?”
“I like paleontology,” I said. “And owls. Owls are cool. They hoot.”
“Don’t be lippy,” she said. “This is serious business.”
“I know,” I said. “But I don’t want out. I want in.”
My nutritionist was also ridiculous. “Fiber,” she kept saying. “We’ve got to up your fiber and your cruciferous vegetables.”
“I like crunchy things,” I said.
She got all excited. “Which ones? Because you know, Cassandra, this is a dialogue! You are an active participant in your own recovery!”
“Rutabaga!” I said. “Endive!”
She wrote them down with a happy flourish.
On the days we did not receive mail, we storm-trooped the administrative offices. “Where’s the love?” I crooned. “Where’s the love?”
“Don’t hold out on us, Tina,” Jill said. “We are in pain. We need our daily affirmations.” Tina was jokey and diplomatic at first.
“Ladies, ladies!” she said. “Don’t kill the messenger!”
I slammed my fist on her desk. “Where. Is. The. Love.”
She called Carol, who conferenced with us in private. We were issued our first official warning.
“This is the big leagues,” said Carol. “Three strikes you’re out.”
“Batter up,” said Jill.
“Thin ice,” said Carol. “Very thin.”
“Wrong cliché,” said Jill. “Bitch.”
The letters weren’t all that great anyway. What were we expecting? My mother complained about having to take out a second mortgage on our vacation home; my aunt, a religious fanatic, wrote me whole pages of Christian drivel. “Trust in the Lord,” “Beneath are the Everlasting Arms.” I wrote back: “In my unborn soul, I am a Jew.”
My ex wrote me one month into my residency. “Cass,” his letter said. “I had no idea you were struggling so much—I always thought of you as a happy-go-lucky girl. You had a smile for everyone! I hope you feel better soon. Steve.”
Girls were dying left and right. A few bulimics had heart attacks; the anorexics just wilted away. It was wild, to be confronted daily with reminders of one’s mortality, however self-induced. I had been in a serious auto accident the previous year, a high speed car chase. Someone’s leg had to be amputated. Someone else walked away from the crash unharmed and went on walking and talking for a week, in a blackout. Wasn’t me!
That was scary, not this. This was a bad, lifelong dream.
The highlight of month two was our talent show. Jill made posters with the help of Olivia, who was hooked to an IV, in her room. The writing on the posters (TALENT SHOW! COME ONE COME ALL!) was, therefore, a little wobbly. Jill and I wore evening gowns to the performance, held in the parlor where we received visitors and pretended to be sane. I went first. “I would like to preface my recital,” I said, “by saying that I was born into the wrong century, and that I wish to be interned beside John Keats.” I sat down at the piano and got through eight pages of Moonlight Sonata before breaking down. “A flower betwixt two abysses,” I sobbed. “That’s what Liszt called the second movement.” After a smattering of applause, I dragged my piano bench back to the front row and knelt on it, like a cat.
Mo began by taking off her beret and exposing, to a sea of gasps, a completely bald head. Her head, the previous morning, was covered in a forest of dark curls.
“Mo!” we cried. “Mo!”
“What do you get,” she said, “when you cross—”
Suddenly Katie, wheelchair-bound but dexterous, lobbed an unopened can of Tab at Mo’s head. She ducked, barely missing it. “Original material only,” said Katie.
Jill presented herself to us in a full-length black cocktail gown, with gloves that stopped at her elbow. Mother of pearls dotted the eyehole opening at the wrist. “O Rose,” she said, “thou art sick. The invisible worm that flies in the night, in the howling storm, has found out thy bed of crimson joy, and his dark secret love does thy life destroy. William Blake.” She sat back down, prim. Katie nodded approvingly.
“Original material only, unless the copyrighted work is better,” she said.
Katie went to meet her Maker the next morning, making our talent show a heartfelt, if inadvertent, funeral rite.
I knocked on Jill’s door that night. She came to the door and pointed to her mouth. “White strips?” I said. She nodded. “I was ambitious once,” I said, entering. I burrowed my face into her scented sheets then sat up, flushed. “Now I just want to get to ninety-nine pounds. Just to see if I can.” She waved her hands: too low, too low. “Maybe,” I said. “But I like when my clothes hang on me like rags. I feel free.” I glanced at her window. She shook her head violently: oh no.
“Oh yes,” I said.
We staged a small insurrection to the local gas station the following night at 10 p.m., when the only people left in the facility were the sick girls, Tina, and a narcoleptic security guard. All the cutters came and three bulimics. The anorexics, naturally, stayed behind. They were too good, too afraid of breaking the rules. They lived the rules, like Sapphic goddesses of Platonic ideality, trembling in their sheets, speechless with fright.
Jill and I led the group up the hill, where we bought cigarettes and Diet Coke for the team. We trucked back down and were promptly busted by Tina, who was standing on the lawn with a flashlight, ranting into a cell phone.
The next morning Jill and I met with Carol.
“Please explain,” she said graciously. “Please explain to me why you are thwarting your recovery and attempting to sabotage the recovery of other young ladies who are here making valiant attempts to survive a deadly disease.” We stared at her.
“Strike two,” she hissed. “I’m watching.”
Afterward our reprimand, we sat on the lawn. Jill’s skin was turning a sugary shade of brown. Her scars looked exotic in the sunlight, like precious stones.
“I was voted Most Likely to Succeed,” she said. “You?”
“Most Likely to Be Famous,” I said.
“Oh, that’s good,” she said. We watched a ladybug ascend a stalk of grass, then hang over the top, balancing precariously.
“I need medical attention,” I said. Just then Earl the electrician exited the center, headed for his pick-up truck.
“Earl!” called Jill. “Do you know any good doctors? The ones here suck!” Earl sallied over; when he got close we flinched. Earl was one-hundred percent man.
“I tell you girls a secret,” he said. “The Western model of medicine is a load of bull.”
“We’re worse now than when we went in!” said Jill. “They treat us like amoeba!”
“You know what you need?” he said. He glanced around, then leaned in. “You need a nice boyfriend who knows how to treat a pretty lady, and some fresh air.”
“We’re already, as you can see, enjoying some fresh air! And the boys we know also suck. So you might as well just walk away, right now, before you say anything stupider.” Jill’s eyes followed him as he left. They were brimming with desire.
“Jill!” I said.
“What? He’s cute.”
“He’s also, like, thirty-five years old.”
“Yeah,” she said. “Med school takes time.”
After that, Jill and I were the models of decorum for a month. We volunteered for beautification projects and kitchen duty, and I expanded, with the help of my dietician, my list of “safe foods” to include black licorice and Junior mints. “I like white wine,” I said. “I feel super safe with white wine.” My dietician demurred.
“Maybe when you turn twenty one,” she said. “And if then, not here, but in an upscale restaurant with your closest friends and family, on a break from exams, to celebrate your incredible accomplishments!”
I also expostulated openly with Frau Cunt, chiming in at all the right moments. “I’m afraid to take up space,” I said. “Do you think eating disorders are symptomatic of land territorialization? And if so, am I the open plain, or the tree?”
“Don’t get too abstract,” she said. “Stay in your lived experience.”
“My crisis is ecological,” I said. “And permanent. I am the subject, in crisis.” I clawed the sofa. “I’m so hungry,” I wailed. “But not for food. I hate food.”
“Do you want to talk about your mother?”
“Not today,” I said. “Today I want to talk theory. Derrida said God created the world through projectile vomiting. Fuck the big bang! Do you read him?”
“This is not about your intelligence, Cassandra. Eating disordered women are notoriously well-spoken and intelligent.”
“We’re readers. The text is very erotic.”
“Are you trying to get a reaction out of me?”
“No,” I said. “I’m trying to get a reaction out of me.”
On the evening before the first day of week twelve, I was awoken at three a.m. by a shadowy figure, at the foot of my bed. “Who’s that?” I asked sleepily.
“The day hasn’t even begun, and it’s already over,” said the Voice. The Voice was crying, hard. I sat up and turned on my nightlight. It was Jill.
“What?” I said.
“I’m a realist trapped in the body of a realist,” she said. I turned off my nightlight.
“Our problem has always been metaphysical,” I said. “Go back to bed.”
The next day Jill and I were caught cutting, on the roof. She was cutting me; I was cutting her. It was very careful cutting, very loving and scientific. Minimal blood. The orderlies carted us off, the director issued strike three with a nasty gleam in her eye, my parents were out gazillions of dollars, and I was still dying. During my outtake interview, I watched Frau Cunt write “Treatment Resistant” across my file in red magic marker. “You are being discharged Against Medical Advice,” said Carol.
“Today is my eighteenth birthday,” I said. “I would have left anyway.”
“Do you have any last words?”
“Bring on the brandy sniffers! Tune up the Victrola! Where are the girls with daisies in their hair, for crying out loud? I am a dissident of an unromantic age, in which lovers are not equal to terror.”
“Goodbye, Cassandra. And good luck.”
My first week back home, I packed up my things and split town, for Idaho. A few
of my friends were living in Boise; their letters were positive and life-affirming, and in the group picture from the annual agricultural convention, they wore matching shirts that said “Ag is the Bag!” The morning of my departure, I received a one-line postcard, from Jill.
“Just remember,” it said, “I knew you before the fall of Rome.”
Virginia Konchan’s fiction has appeared in Joyland and Story Quarterly, her poems in The New Yorker, Best New Poets 2011, the Believer, and The New Republic, and her criticism widely. A recipient of grants and fellowships to the Vermont Studio Center, Ox-Bow, and Scuola Internazionale di Grafica, she lives in Chicago, where she is a Ph.D. candidate in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago.