SHORT STORY CONTEST
by Kate Selker
I like to think of all the girls at Resi as my family, because they understand me more than my real family ever has. The Resi family makes no pretensions: of course nobody wants Thanksgiving or Christmas; let’s cancel. Of course nobody wants to chat after dinner. Your Resi family gets it when you cry first thing in the morning, and then again later, and again later, and again later, and they don’t try to fix you, because there are Trained People for that. And anyway we’re all like, Stay Strong Oh My God You’re So Brave Stay Strong Oh Baby Darling Sweetheart You’re Beautiful I Wish You Could See It It’s Like You’re So Much More Beautiful Than Me and Also Look at My Cellulite I Have Worse Cellulite, and then, Sorry Sorry I Didn’t Mean To, Oh My God I’m Here For You, and then finally if we cry loudly enough—or don’t cry at all (repression is a problem) —one of the counselors comes in and hands us the Sheets About Feelings to fill out so that we feel better.
Our Resi family sits down to dinner at six o’clock each night, except you’re allowed to give or take five minutes, depending on when Group ends, because they don’t want us getting too rigid. Like dinners, still living at home with Mom and Dad and Shira. This one time, Mom said we’d be eating at five and so it was okay that I hadn’t eaten lunch, because it was three when she told me, and three was basically four, and four meant there was only an hour until five, so it was really just lazy of me to want a snack when all I had to wait was an hour. But then Dad didn’t come home until seven, so I was actually uncomfortably hungry, but I didn’t want to eat anything when six came along, because I knew I’d have to eat later and I didn’t want to waste my chance. So I starved until seven fifteen, which is when we finally actually sat down, and then I ate three beets, a bite of chicken, and one spoonful of rice, spread out across three smaller sparse little spoonfuls. I couldn’t have much because I’d be asleep by ten and sleeping is lazy and doesn’t burn calories.
But our Resi family sat down this Wednesday at actually six o’clock on the dot—and though it wasn’t supposed to be so exact, the precision was totally satisfying.
You have half an hour. Dinner will be over at six thirty p.m. Do not engage in Behaviors while eating. Refrain from Food, Diet and Weight Talk. If you are having trouble, please notify a Counselor. You are required to finish your meal.
The counselors reminded us about the food groups. Tonight it was rice (2 Starch Exchanges), chicken (3 Proteins) with this disgusting (2 Fat Exchanges) weird sticky some sort of sauce, broccoli thank God (2 Vegetable Exchanges) and chocolate pudding for dessert, which doesn’t even fill an official exchange other than Cruelty Exchange 2 billion. (The worst part is, I love chocolate pudding.)
We usually play games at dinner to distract ourselves. Tonight we did epithets—I thought I could be Careful Carrie, but then Alexa suggested I was Caring Carrie, and Alice agreed. Sarah was Silly Sarah, which I thought was funny, because everyone had to be thinking Skinny Sarah, but we clearly couldn’t use that. Skinny is not a feeling. Fat is not a feeling. We made Lizzie Loveable and somebody said Tall Trisha for Trisha but then Rachel piped up “no body comments” so Trisha became Thoughtful Trisha instead.
Alice was Awesome Alice, but I thought “anorexic Alice” in my head. Alice is my roommate, but she’s worse off than I am—as in, she’s probably going to be in Resi forever. Alice was scraping the sauce off her chicken with the side of her fork. This is never allowed, but Rachel, our dinner counselor, hadn’t noticed yet, and none of us were going to say anything, because otherwise Alice will just think we’re trying to make her fat. And let’s be honest—we always are. In the meantime, I scraped the sauce off my chicken, too. It’s only fair. It formed a little puddle of orange goo, and it reminded me of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the one that killed all those nice whales.
My Wise Mind looked at me and Wise Mind was like Whoa, your stomach wants the Exxon Valdez inside it, Bitch. Except it doesn’t say Bitch, because it’s Wise Mind. It’s me who says Bitch to me inside my head, because I’m not so much a fan of me, because my normal mind isn’t Wise. But Wise Mind’s some evil magic, and she’s got eyes that see right through to the lunch that isn’t in my stomach anymore, and she’s like this: Carrie, just because Alice isn’t going to eat her sauce doesn’t mean you can’t eat your sauce. Alice’s body isn’t your body. Eating the sauce will make you get better, even if it is two Fat Exchanges, and Fat Exchanges can be okay—
I didn’t let Wise Mind say anything else, because she had said I’m fat—because Alice’s body isn’t my body, and Alice is skinny. By the transitive property of fatness, then, I’m fat. Besides, I love Alice and she’s like my sister, and she loves me so if I didn’t take off the sauce in solidarity with Alice it would be like I was abandoning her. Of course if we got caught and Rachel made us drink an Ensure, which is 500 calories of chalky vanilla Not Worth It, then I’d rather not be in solidarity with Alice any more. (To be honest, I’m wanting it less and less.) You know?
I would never tell Alice this, though. We named ourselves the Rosewood Sisters the second night we were here. We both came on the same day, and they set us up as roommates and we bonded because Alice and I both didn’t have anything to decorate the room with. You sort of forget, when you’re going off to Rosewood Residential Treatment Facilities at the Trent Alternative School, that it’s actually home. You feel like it’s maybe a hospital because people have been using the word “recovery” so much and “treatment” and talking about the strong support staff and the doctors on-call 24-7 and the expertly trained team of social workers and therapists and that kind of thing—you forget it’s going to actually be your home for a while.
Since we didn’t have posters or anything, we snuck downstairs to the waiting room and pretended to look at the magazines—all super-calm ones like Real Simple and Garden Life and National Geographic (the copulating lions aren’t calm!) and West Coast Home. They were boring to read, but they’ve got great pictures, and no diet tips, and no skinny celebrities (just greyhounds). Alice distracted the old overweight lady at the front desk by asking if she had a copy of her birth certificate. “To hold at night,” Alice said, when the woman asked what it was for. Where did she get these ideas, I wondered.
While the desk lady looked for the certificate in back, Alice made a motion for me to slip the magazines into my purse. I rolled them up and zipped it shut. The desk lady came back, and I felt all sorts of shivers all over my body. Did she know? I’d never stolen anything before. Alice was so chill. When the woman handed her the birth certificate, she took it, and didn’t forget to say “Thank you. I’m Alice.”
“I’m Elise,” said the lady.
“Hi, Elise,” Alice said, sweetly. I felt very illicit.
We went back up to our room giggling—we used the elevators, because Resi girls aren’t allowed to use the stairs unless they’re explicitly permitted, and we weren’t going to break two rules in one day—and when we got back, we shut the door right away. I poured the magazines out on the floor, and out fell the toothbrush and toothpaste I keep in there just in case, and the little Altoids box in which I keep my laxatives, which opened all the fuck up and spilled everywhere.
“It’s okay,” Alice said. I must have looked scared. “Do you want to keep them?” she said, bending down, picking up the pills slowly, then putting them in her fragile pink palm one by one.
I thought about that question. I thought about what Alice wanted. Would she keep the pills for herself if I said no? Would she throw them away? Would she throw them away and the counselors would find them in the trash and get us both in trouble? We could flush them down the toilet, but then would all the turtles and fish in nearby ponds get the laxative water and die? I know that if you eat too many laxatives, you die. Take too many laxatives, I mean. You can’t eat them. They’re not food. They don’t count, not like that.
If I said yes, would she hate me? Would that make her eat less if she knew I got to get rid of my food every time? Would she get skinnier and know I was weak because I needed the pills for help? If I said yes, I’d get to keep the pills. I remember thinking how necessary that seemed—now it’s not such a big deal, because I know that laxatives only make you feel lighter. You just lose water—you don’t lose calories. (Same with throwing up—useless). If I kept the pills, I’d use the pills. If I used the pills, I wouldn’t get better.
“Yes,” I said.
Alice looked at me and I guess I thought she looked disappointed and like she didn’t want to be my friend and I thought something along the lines of OH GOD I NEED A FRIEND HERE, so I changed my mind.
“Okay!” she said, and smiled. She blew her nose in a tissue, then put all the pills in the tissue, too, and wrapped it up, and threw it away, and covered the trashcan with three more tissues. “Now they won’t look,” she explained. Right from the start, Alice and I were a team.
Then she put on Taylor Swift and we sat on the floor together and ripped the best pictures out of the magazines. We did it really carefully, by folding the pages and licking the crease and then ripping them, so it would come off in a straight line. We weren’t allowed scissors at Rosewood unless we were around Staff Members. That was one of the rules we signed off to right at the start, in a packet Elise had handed us, before we had known she was Elise. When I had signed that sheet, I felt like crying.
Alice and I ripped up the magazines, and it felt good. I liked the sound it made and I liked to see what types of pictures Alice ripped out—boats, flowers, animals, stable-looking men. I’d been ripping out flowers too, and fields, and trees, and also pretty table settings. When Alice saw my pile of table settings was growing, she looked upset.
“Can we not put those up?” she asked. “They make me hungry.”
I got upset that they didn’t make me hungry, too, because at that point I thought that when you’re hungry you’re burning calories (not true). In a way, though, it felt really good—it let me know that Alice was messed up too.
“Sure,” I said. I blew my nose in a tissue and crumpled up the table settings and threw it away. “Destroyed the evidence,” I said, and we laughed. It was really nice that night.
We moved from Taylor Swift to Dar Williams, and Alice brought out some tape (in a week, they’d find the dispenser and take it away—too sharp) and we made our walls beautiful. My bed was in the flower-forest, and hers was by the ocean. We’d even found some planets from the National Geographic and stuck them up on the ceiling by standing on the dresser and jumping a little (5 calories). It looked great. I felt safe. Also lonely—it was only our second night. The first night Alice and I hadn’t spoken much. We had both arrived, said little “hellos” and nodded, and brushed our teeth near each other. Now that we had helped each other out, we were safe. We got close, those next few weeks. We kept helping each other. For a while, I thought we’d both get better at the same rate. I really did. We were getting to be really good friends.
On week two, maybe, Alice got into bed with me in the middle of the night, holding her birth certificate against her chest, all wrinkly and soft (she had been keeping it under her pillow). She was shaking. I didn’t notice her walking across the room—I’d been asleep—it was maybe four o’clock in the morning. I noticed her little body shaking—as soon as I opened my eyes, I could feel her shoulder bones against my arm. I wanted to know if she could feel my shoulder bones, too, but I didn’t ask. Instead I hugged her, and I could feel her ribs. I counted five across my palm, maybe more. She was crying. I didn’t ask what was wrong for a long while. Or it was the third week, maybe—we’d had some heart-to-hearts about boys and things, nothing that mattered too much, like what we wanted to be when we grew up (she a neonatologist, me a social worker), and how annoying our parents were, (but how of course we loved them anyway). In all the group therapy sessions downstairs, I noticed that the big deal thing to do was to listen, and so I listened, even though Alice wasn’t talking, just crying. I let the little heave-heave of her breaths and the snorts of her nose all fill my ears and my mouth stayed silent so they could fill up all the air and then finally Alice said something.
“Yesterday I let everyone down,” she sobbed. “I want to be a speck on the wall.”
“Okay,” I said. “Okay. You are the best speck.”
Alice breathed in.
“Lisa asked me if she could have the stress ball while we were in Group last night, and, I…” It was hard to hear her through the sobbing.
“You…?” I asked, leaving space for her words,
“I didn’t give it to her. I told her I needed it for a little bit longer.”
I thought back to how Group had gone the day before. Alice had been upset—she’d had to eat the cheese on top of the chicken patty. It was not only fried, but it was cheese. And Alice said she really didn’t like cheese and could she please please not eat the cheese could she please just pick the cheese off and they said no, unless she would rather have a PB&J with equivalent calories or an Ensure. So Alice had, grudgingly, tearfully, munched down her cheese and chicken patty in the allotted thirty minutes and grabbed the orange stress ball the moment we got into Group.
“But you did need it longer,” I said. “It’s good to express your needs.”
“I am a bitch,” Alice said.
“No you’re not. You just needed the stress ball.”
“Lisa needed it more. Lisa’s mom died last year. Her mom, Carrie. Her mom. I was just fucking freaking out about the fucking chicken patty.”
“You know the chicken patty wasn’t just the chicken patty,” I told her, getting used to the language of therapy. “You know it…it…represented things, and….”
Alice squeezed my hand tightly. We were two skeletons in one coffin holding hands. “I hate Lisa,” she said. “She makes me feel like a bitch.”
“I hate her, too,” I said. I did not and do not hate anyone. Alice knew this.
“Good,” she said. And we fell asleep there next to each other.
Before I came here, I rarely felt safe. Anything could do it to me—I never knew when an opportunity to eat would arrive, who would force a cupcake on me next, or offer me a soda. I never knew when the treadmill would break or when it would be too rainy to run outside. But I know that I’m safe here at Trent School, because they promised their goal is not to make me fat. It’s true—they really understand the whole thing at Rosewood. It is the only specialized building at Trent. I assume this means we are of a special variety of Messed Up, but I try not to think about it too much. I want to be here—I didn’t at first, but now I do. They’re here for me, after all. They told me this right away. I thought they were lying at first but then I kind of knew I was lying, too, and had been for sort of a while, and I was tired, you know? I’m still tired, though, even though I’ve stopped lying so much.
Luckily, we sleep a lot in Resi. They make us go to bed at ten thirty, which at first was really frustrating because I could have spent way more time studying for my tests and writing my essays, but the truth is, I always have first drafts done by then. That’s the point. They don’t want us to be perfect at Resi. All of us finish our homework on time. We just want to stay up late and re-do it, which we realize is anal-retentive, or, as they call it downstairs in session, obsessive, and we can’t be that way any more. Either way, we always get better grades than the girls from the other buildings. Anorexic girls are always the smartest. Bulimic girls are also smart, but sometimes give up. Often they were anorexic first and then gave up, too. Hence the eating. Hence the throwing up. I don’t really want to think about that right now. Unfortunately, it’s a lot easier to purge food than to get rid of bad thoughts. One’s quick and painless; the other is long and slow and hurts. Which would you choose? Obviously!! People outside of Rosewood always say they don’t understand why anyone would do that, but they’re just naive. It’s just that they haven’t figured how easy it is to throw up. I wish I’d never started. It’s the worst easy thing there is.
Anyway, on Wednesday at dinner, at six, I was reminded how sick Alice really was. We were so over scraping the sauce off, I thought. And there I was doing it. Alice was making me sicker. Bitch. I didn’t say that. I felt terrible after I thought it, like I was going to be nauseous for being so mean. I might have even felt a little nauseous. I’m often nauseous. Watching Alice was really difficult for me, to be honest. I’m getting better all the time, and I worry she holds me back. The counselors say I am insightful—they say I am starting to understand my motivations and my traumas. Last week I cried about the time when I was eight and my parents got in a fight and I heard my dad tell my mom he wanted a divorce, but they never got one. Though I am not all that great at avoiding Behaviors (I still count out exactly twenty-four peanuts for my Fat Exchange, and I still sometimes purge), I can understand why I do the things I do (I feel like I am smarter if I don’t eat too many peanuts, and I feel less guilty if I vomit after a meal, even just a little). This is what the counselors have noticed, mostly in our therapy sessions. They might move me down to Day Program next week, which is downstairs, and you don’t have to sleep in the ward—you get to sleep in the Main Trent buildings, but I can’t imagine what it would be like to go there without Alice. Alice doesn’t know her feelings, yet. Day is for girls who know their feelings. Resi’s for the ones who are still too numb.
If I lived in Main Trent, I would have a new roommate. Someone who might decorate their room with punk band posters, or Audrey Hepburn shots. I don’t want a new roommate. Alice didn’t know that I was going to be moving away until last night. She saw the “residential discharge” papers on my desk. She shouldn’t have been snooping. But she saw them, so I told her I was doing really well—hadn’t she noticed? She said she hadn’t. I didn’t cry and I tried not to feel hate because she’s just sad she’s not better. I told her that I would still get to see her when I lived in Main Trent. In a quiet voice, she said she would miss me. It wasn’t vindictive and it wasn’t mean and it wasn’t jealous. It was flat. The hate came, even though I didn’t want it to. The hate is what made me do what I did, I think, when it came to the sauce.
Tonight at dinner, when Alice scraped off the sauce from her chicken, Rachel finally saw. She walked over quietly—we don’t do public confrontations at the dinner table. I saw her put her hand on Alice’s shoulder, I saw her say something into Alice’s ear, and Alice looked up at me, briefly, and we locked eyes. I couldn’t stop watching. I hoped Rachel wouldn’t see my plate. Alice could see my plate.
Alice breathed deep—I saw her chest rise; it was embarrassing, all the girls were looking, everyone knew—and scooped up the sauce with her spoon (she didn’t get all of it, but mostly) and put it back on the chicken, and began to eat, bravely. I ate my scraped-off chicken quickly and put my napkin on my plate to signal I was done, and also to sop up the sauce I didn’t eat. They didn’t see me. I washed my plate quickly in the Group Sink (they are teaching us to live on our own).
When the five-minute post-meal bathroom ban had passed, I went. I hadn’t eaten the sauce, but it wasn’t the sauce that made me do it—it was the betrayal. I did it quietly, between the counting (they make us count aloud to the person outside the door so that we don’t have time to purge between numbers; it’s entirely demeaning). I did it, though—because who doesn’t figure out how to beat the counting by day four? I walked out and Alice was there, even though I’d specifically asked Julia to be my Bathroom Buddy.
Alice handed me the stress ball the moment I got out. I felt like a bitch. I also felt like she was a bitch. But a bitch that understood me, I guess.
“Here,” Alice said, straight faced. The ball was orange. I smooshed it in my hand. If it were a real orange, it would have dripped.
“Thanks,” I said. “I was feeling bad.”
“I know,” Alice said. “Do you feel better now?”
“No.” I wondered if she was going to try to go to the bathroom, too, in retaliation.
“I know,” she said. “I know someday you’ll feel better, Carrie—I mentioned to Rachel that you’ve been struggling.”
“Struggling? You told Rachel?”
“I know that with your boobs and your hips coming back, it’s been hard. I think that your hips look so great but I think you probably can’t see it.”
“I’m fine. You told Rachel?”
“I just want you to know that I’m here for you. You’re my best friend.”
I looked at Alice and I took five pounds off her in my mind. I imagined them all going away and her cheeks sucked in. Then I took ten more pounds off of her. She was in a concentration camp. Then I took off ten more. She was the weight of a dead child. She was the weight of a breeze. After that I took off five more pounds from Alice in my mind.
Kate Selker is a writer and former teacher living in New Orleans. Her writing has been recognized by both Boulevard Magazine and Yale University. She hopes her stories can help people feel less lonely in the world. She is currently working on a collection of short stories and hopes to continue writing in ways that are meaningful to others.