Each morning at the chemistry set of our breakfast table I watched her measuring her feelings meticulously and by the drop: 1/3 cup, 1/2 tbs, one serving, strictly by the box. When she eats she nibbles, ‘like a bird,’ they say. But stealing another furtive glance over my coffee mug, I thought I’d never seen a bird eat so slowly and regretful, one tiny mouthful at a time.
I imagined her then, neatly folding her emotions and subsequently tucking them away into a tiny bottle inside her belly. I pictured it in my mind, a lovely antique thing made of misty looking glass of the palest sea green with a little cork. It sits in her abdomen, wrapped in soft linen—concealed perhaps, but not forgotten, where her food would go under different circumstances.
One thousand seven hundred and eighty three— the number of calories per day allotted by someone who knows better. I considered those numbers that held so much sway over her life as she, piece-by-piece, teaspoon-by-teaspoon, swallowed them down. I knew how they stuck in her cheeks, in her eyes, in her mind, yet always refused to stay where she needed them most.
Her spoon clinked back into the bowl. As every morning, with a sigh and not a glance in my direction she steals out of the kitchen, sweeping the leftovers of her sorry breakfast into the trash as she walks by. Today like yesterday, like tomorrow, she continues to lose at this game of fractions—I supposed the impossibility of so many bites exhausts her. Methodically, she seems to work through the pages of a life riddled with fudged numbers and shady arithmetic, always rounding up. ‘Wise beyond her years, an old soul,’ or so they've said, and her weary eyes and wan cheeks seem to speak to the truth of that sentiment.
Never consuming, always consumed, or always consuming, but only herself. Over the weeks I’d slowly watched her shrink away, hoping to go unnoticed, hung in oversized sweaters, trying to blend into the peeling blue wallpaper of that drafty kitchen where I watched her organize her fate. Our chemistry kitchen, where I sat helpless with my coffee, never understanding her resolve. Silent.
Today, as every morning, I felt myself pooling, furious at my helplessness even as the realization of her blank space broke over me. I knew then that some things cannot be understood from the outside in; certain sicknesses have to be sweated out. It seems there are wounds that can only be licked alone and in the dark.
I remembered the last time I’d hugged her. The icy touch of her long fingers seeping through my shirt blurred the need to reconcile how one so mild and tender could be held erect by nothing but a beating pulse— a thudding chest and a razor spine, sharp enough to cut the palms of those who dared hold on too tight. Yet, even as I winced I held her, because holding on was the only way to share that burden, to help her navigate the hurt. Then I tucked those emotions away, concealed perhaps but not forgotten, along with the realization that this was never about food but some desperate quest for control and self preservation. Hers was a battle that could not be fought in chemistry kitchens, but in hearts and heads alone, alone.
And so I stayed, but in my mind I followed her out of the room, set my mug aside and pulled her reluctant into my arms. “I love you anyway, any way,” I’d whisper.
Instead I sat immobile, a spectator in my chair, blinking at the distance between us—like molecules, close but never touching, the gulf of her pain remaining in the space between us, filling us both up.