I cradled the small box in my right hand, the label faced down. The man in front of me wore a windbreaker with a pixelated, camouflage print, and the woman behind the counter smiled at him—a crescent moon, ear-to-ear kind of smile that revealed paralleled dimples on her cheeks. The cigarette boxes behind the register framed her in multicolored rectangles with hidden golden words of health warnings. The line behind me grew like a game of Centipede; every time I looked behind me there was another person, and then the line started to wrap around the aisle. I felt the sweat under my hoodie.
“Hello. Are you in our rewards program?” the woman asked me once I stepped forward.
“Is this all today?”
She scanned my item. “Would you like a bag?”
I slid my debit card and began answering more questions: Is this amount correct? Cash back? Would you like to donate to St. Jude’s today?
Yes. No. Not today.
I took the bag from her and tried to smile. “No receipt, thanks,” I said, already walking toward the glass doors.
“So how many do you take in a day?” she asked me.
“On average, then.”
My arms remained crossed. This was our third session together. “Maybe three or four.”
“Three or four per day?”
I nodded. She wrote something down on her yellow notepad.
Everything in her office was beige, the color of coffee with just enough cream—the walls, the rug, her hair. Reruns of The Office circulated in the waiting room, but inside, it stayed just as bland as I remembered from my visits weeks prior.
“And you sleep more than normal now,” she said. “So you don’t exercise a lot?”
“Sometimes.” The light sliced through the curtains, creating a white line against the bookshelf behind her.
“What kind of exercise do you do?”
“Sometimes I run.”
It felt like the lights were getting brighter. I returned to my dorm, shaking, with sweat damp against my hoodie. Today was a good day—three miles in twenty-seven minutes. I made sure to drink enough water to flush out any leftover sodium in my body that might be bloating. I had been trying to drink a gallon per day.
Shakiness was normal after a run, but today it felt different. I couldn’t focus. My tiny dorm seemed smaller, closing in slowly, trapping me in this place I called my body, like a cage without bars. Words became deceptive puzzle pieces that I couldn’t quite fit together, and my thoughts were external rather than from within, floating around me like cigarette smoke before it gets lost in the air. My heart rate increased, pumping like music with a steady bass, blurring my vision. I paced.
“I think there’s something wrong,” I told my mom over the phone. Five minutes in, my throat felt like it was closing, my trachea moved in on itself like a fist.
“Just breathe,” she said. “You’re having a panic attack.”
“No, something’s wrong, Mom,” I said. I was convinced I was dying. She didn’t know I hadn’t eaten that day, or anything since lunch the day before—a carefully calculated garden salad (220 calories) with three tablespoons of balsamic vinaigrette (120 calories). I told myself that after the run, I deserved something bigger to eat.
“Ryan, you’re stressing yourself out,” she said. She told me that this time in my life is hard because of the transition and something about prioritizing what I wanted.
She stayed on the phone with me until my breathing steadied. Before we hung up, she added, “Maybe you should talk to someone.”
I didn’t want to talk to anyone, but I promised her I would. I didn’t want help. I wanted to be skinny. I wanted to be thin like I used to be. But after the panic episode, all I wanted was food.
I walked into the gas station with the usual goal. I had to make sure I got enough food to fill me up without making it obvious it was just for me. The more food and the more diverse the snacks were, the more it looked like I was buying for other people. I preferred salty, but often would buy a couple candy bars filled with dripping caramel and cloudy chocolate to round out the cravings.
The best parking spots were on the sides of the building, away from the glass fronts. I put my car in park and chugged Coke Zero. With the nutritional facts facing away, I opened the bag of Flaming Hot Cheetos, an appetizer that left red, fingertip scars as a savory, lingering reminder of the taste. I scraped each fingertip with my teeth, biting and digging under each fingernail for every last taste. The Fig Newtons were easy to get down, followed by the Peanut M&Ms. When I opened the bag and poured a handful of the colorful beads in my hand, he was already at my window. He nodded, as if to say hello. His beard was the same color gray as the hair that stuck out under his wide-brimmed hat that shadowed most of his face.
“Excuse me,” he said with the window between us. I rolled it down just enough to hear him.
“Hello,” I said, the M&Ms in my hand. The heat had already made the pieces dot rainbow colors on my palm—green glazed against my life line.
“Spare change?” he asked. “Anything? Just trying to eat.”
“I’m sorry, I really don’t have anything.”
“Then what’s that?” At first I thought he meant the M&Ms, but I saw him pointing at the cup holder filled with coins. I grabbed a fistful with my free hand.
“It’s not much, man,” I said. I rolled the window down with my elbow, just enough to fit my hand through.
“It’s something,” he said. “‘Preciate it.”
Before he could ask for more, I rolled up my window and told him to have a nice day. I drove away, watching him, through my rear-view mirror, walk around the corner into the gas station, wondering what his lunch would be. I drove back to my dorm, eating the candies one by one.
“Let me ask you something,” she said during one of our sessions. “Are you controlling the food? Or is the food controlling you?”
I smoked cigarettes on the fifth floor of the parking garage near my dorm. It was usually empty there. I sat on the edge of the concrete wall and flicked my cigarette, watching the ashes burn out into the night. I created constellations from embers the size of dust. The star systems I studied told me I was smaller than I thought, while the drifting ashes reminded me I was bigger.
I felt better when I left because I allowed my body to feel something other than hunger. My neck was sore from staring into the sky, my lungs tired, and I walked back to my dorm passing signs that warned of alligators.
“Stand here.” Her hands felt light on my shoulders like the straps of an empty backpack. She flipped her notepad to a new page and handed it to me with a pencil. I gazed into the full length mirror on the other side of the room. She stood behind me and spoke softly. “Draw yourself,” she said. “I’m going to step out of the way so you just see yourself. I want you to draw what you see.”
I looked at myself. My eyes were greener than usual that day, and my striped sweater hung loose around my torso, hiding the imperfections. My beard was longer than usual. I hoped it would hide my cheeks.
“Whenever you’re ready,” she said.
The more I looked at myself, the more I didn’t want to recreate my body on paper, the more I didn’t want to eat.
But I did. I always did. That’s why I needed the pills.
I sat in Modern European History during the spring of my freshman year, and I couldn’t feel them through my jeans. Usually I would make sure to carry one in my pocket, two if I knew I’d be gone a while.
I searched my pockets while the professor discussed World War II. “Now, from our reading, who can list some of the Axis powers?”
I took out my wallet and opened it in my lap, searching through old receipts and a condom, hoping to find a small hint of blue.
“Germany, Italy, and Japan,” someone said.
I know I have one. I placed my keys, wallet, and phone on my desk as my peers began to watch. I sat up and searched my back pockets.
“How ‘bout the Allies?” the professor asked.
I moved in my confined space, the desk too small, the plastic chair too hard. I turned my front pockets inside out. The pill, about the size of a pinky nail, fell to the ground. I picked it up, knowing others were watching. They probably wondered what I was on or what the pill was, and if it was the reason for acting frantic. They would be right.
“And what year did the US enter the war?”
I looked down for the rest of the class, pretending to take notes, not knowing what I was writing.
The word lingered between us. It sounded heavy. The bulbous, round B fell like balloons without helium, the long Es screeched like rubbing Styrofoam. I protested.
“That’s not it,” I said. I told her I was trying to look better, that I was health conscious. I worded it that way, too. Health conscious.
“Bulimia isn’t about throwing up all the time,” she told me. “Your system is becoming dependent on the laxatives.” She said something about taking probiotics and drinking kombucha to help my system return to a normal rhythm. I tried kombucha once before. It tasted like feet.
I still didn’t understand. I was a guy. I was trying to lose the weight I gained. That’s all.
“It’s not always about throwing up,” she said. “Using laxatives is a bulimic tendency, Ryan. It’s the same thing, just from two different ends.”
I promised her that I would throw out my laxatives. And I did. “You should try something small in the morning, too,” she told me. “Like a banana or yogurt.”
I’ll admit, it helped a little. Starting the day with something healthy made me promise myself to continue this way. The 500 calorie days became fewer, but on those days, when I was left with my brain screaming at me in hunger, my organs churned and begged for something other than water and emptiness.
One night I returned to the same spot in the McDonalds parking lot and parked my Toyota 4Runner under the yellowing hue from the light above. I could almost see where the ketchup dripped from my hamburger onto my center console. One burger down. One large fry. Another burger. A kid’s meal. Three chocolate chip cookies for a dollar.
I returned to my dorm and needed a laxative. I searched my medicine cabinet only to find sample packets of face wash and travel-size hand creams. I could feel the food inside me, growing, turning into an entity of something other than myself—the grease and fat mixing into my system, claws forming from whatever chemicals smeared my stomach lining. It spread like a virus. I looked into my refection, at the sink, at my toothbrush resting in its gray holder. I flicked the bathroom fan on. The hum of white noise filled the room.
It’s the same thing, just from two different ends. I heard it clearly.
The grout in between the floor tiles dug into my knees, creating X and Y indentations in my skin. I held the toilet with my left hand and looked into the water shaped by a broken ring of mold. I gripped my toothbrush in my right hand, the bristles digging into my palm.
I started slow, seeing how far I could go before I gagged. Gagging. The end of my toothbrush tasted like leftover peppermint candies as I guided it slowly into my mouth, onto my tongue, grazing over my taste buds, jamming it into the back of my throat.
My eyes turned glossy and I released a broken howl from within. A roaring croak. My back arched, spine curved, nose filled with the same liquid—bitter, pungent, hot and creamy. It felt like an exorcism. Looking down, I watched it hit the water, landing and sinking under the surface like a feather in midair until it touched the porcelain bottom. The taste lingered until I used the same toothbrush to clean my mouth.
I looked down into the toilet, my eyes pink and wet. The pile of gristled fluids rested against the white like a child’s smeared finger painting. Below me sat everything I was scared of, and yet, I felt relieved. I felt accomplished. I stood there mesmerized, my throat gritty and dank, until finally I flushed. The water invaded in a rushing spiral, breaking apart the settled pieces from their resting places and taking the hot liquid and broken parts down into the toilet, to a place I could not see.