Thin James P. Hanley
Ray stood at the screen door watching his daughter Emily run in place at a corner of the yard; her shorts and tank top were flat against her and she moved her legs in desperate motion like an image in dreams being chased and unable to propel. On the kitchen table, a bowl of dry cereal was half-finished and the small pitcher of milk unused. Ray watched his daughter vomit in the small row of bushes.
“I’m leaving,” he called out as he collected his briefcase from the den. His wife Eileen was dressing in the bedroom and answered, but his daughter’s soft words through the back window screens, “Goodbye, Dad,” was all he heard.
Emily showered, turning the spray to full force and pointing the harsh, hot water toward her thighs and waist; stepping out of the tub, she dabbed at the droplets on her skin, pulled out the scale from under the sink with her extended foot and stepped on. Fifteen, and in her sophomore year of high school, Emily’s body, naturally emerging from the fits and starts of cyclical growth, was developing the distinct shapeliness that would set the physical pattern for maturity. The return image she saw was different: unattractive flesh and roundness in her sallow cheeks and slight body. Pictures from magazines that lie on her bedroom floor were imbedded in her mind: photographs of flat-stomach women with slender legs and chiseled-feature faces in languid poses projecting sexuality and confidence—a constant reference as fixed as the growth chart her father had nailed on the basement wall. She wiped the beads of water from the tiles and brushed the rim of the toilet seat to clean any remains of vomit from dinner. Moving into the bedroom, she opened her closet and stared at the row of clothes lined in segments of pants, dresses and jackets, each with a slight separation. She took out a pair of jeans, which hung like strips of denim from the edge of the hangar, remembering her parent’s conversation:
“Where did she buy those pants?”
“In a children’s store; she’s a child’s size.”
“Doesn’t she see that’s not normal?”
After she dressed, Emily pulled another scale out from under her bed to weigh herself fully clothed. Stepping on, she looked down as the circular dial spun. Frightened for a moment as the weight indicator passed one hundred and five pounds, her anxiety diminished when the scale dial moved slowly back. She wrote in her diary before she left her bedroom: one hundred two pounds, still above the hundred pounds, still fat.
On her way out, Emily gathered the dollar bills left on the counter for lunch, and placed them in the fold of her wallet with her other cash to later buy replacement clothes in the same style as the ones that hung loosely on her. It was early so Emily let the bus pass and walked briskly to school, conscious of the strain on her stretched leg muscles. At school, she endured the stares of concerned teachers and almost weekly was called to the counselor’s office and questioned, in varying, sometimes creative, ways: are you all right? She suspected that they’d called her parents to ask if they knew that she sat in the cafeteria sipping on bottled water while other girls gulped down sweet soda and bit into thick sandwiches. Emily reasoned that she couldn’t predict interest by the hormone-inspired boys, or be certain of her place among moody girls who rotated gossip, leaving no one immune. But she had control of one significant element of her life: her weight.
“How do boys react? You know how guys her age are, all they see are breasts. Emily’s a beautiful child but not voluptuous. Doesn’t being attractive to boys matter?” Ray asked his wife one Saturday morning after Emily left the house.
“She thinks she is attractive, or on the way to it.”
“I just don’t know how you get a mirror to lie. Does she ever look at herself?”
“All the time; that’s not the issue—it’s what she sees. I read it’s an issue of self-esteem.”
“Does that mean it’s our fault, we didn’t encourage or compliment her enough? Is it genetic?”
“I could guess it’s for the obvious reasons. It’s just something she feel she needs to do—that’s all I’m certain of.
Eileen prepared her shopping list for an afternoon trip to the supermarket. She went upstairs to Emily’s bathroom and searched through the medicine cabinet to check for items running low: toothpaste, hairspray. She blanched at the nearly empty box of laxatives. Looking underneath the sink, she saw that the box of sanitary napkins that she recalled buying them several months ago was unopened. Later when she spoke to Ray she told him that their daughter’s period had likely stopped.
“My god, is she pregnant?”
“No, I don’t think so. It’s just another manifestation of anorexia.” Eileen realized that was the first time she’d used the word.
“Can you be sure? Call her home now,” Ray shouted into his cell phone as he walked to his car.
“No, she’ll get defensive and we won’t get through to her.”
“Eileen, this isn’t a failing grade. I don’t care if she gets in a snit; we have to talk about this—now!”
“Trust me, being summoned home is not the way to start this.”
They spoke little at dinner until Emily, in a joking tone, asked, “Ok, what am I in trouble for now?”
Eileen started to speak but was stopped by the smile on her daughter’s pretty face and the bright eyes that seemed recessed in her sinking cheeks.
Ray asked abruptly, “Are you pregnant?”
Eileen saw the answer in Emily’s expression, which turned rapidly from shock to fury at the accusation.
“I haven’t had sex with anyone. I don’t even have a boyfriend.”
“Honey,” Eileen said softly, “you know I check for toiletries before I go shopping. I found the unused box of napkins.”
“I didn’t get my period; it’s no big deal.”
“It’s unnatural,” Ray said.
“No, it isn’t. I asked my gym teacher and she said it happens to girls.”
“You talked to your gym teacher about this…” Ray started to ask.
“Your gym teacher,” Eileen interrupted with forced calmness, “is referring to top athletes, not you. But I’m glad you are talking to someone, we just need to find the right person, with experience.”
Ray and Emily looked at her. Emily was the first to comprehend. “You mean a psychiatrist.”
“A person trained in teenage girl problems—you know, with eating disorders.”
“First you ask me if I’m pregnant, now I have an eating disorder? Why do you think so poorly of me?” Her voice shook.
Ray answered, “Emily, we understand the pressures on a young girl to conform, to be accepted and to be fashionably thin. But there are lines, and crossing them can be dangerous, even fatal. Over ten percent of anorexics die.”
Emily was angry. “You can’t know what it’s like, and you can’t give me a label that you think will help you understand me better because you can read about it on the internet.”
When Eileen went into the bedroom late that evening, Ray was lying on top of the bedcovers and listening to a female singer’s sad voice pouring out of the speakers at the edge of the room.
“Do you know who that is?” he asked her.
The voice was familiar but she couldn’t remember the singer’s name, “no.”
“Karen Carpenter; the Carpenters. Rainy days and Mondays always get me down,” he sang softly. “She died of anorexia. They found her in a closet.”
“Emily’s not going to die.”
“To see her waste away is difficult enough, but she’s pulling away from us. I accept that these are the years we don’t understand each other, but I see other fathers with their daughters and there is a loving truce. They have occasional expressions of exasperation and impatience, but you can sense there is an undertone of enjoyment, of appreciation for the ritual and the drama. I don’t have that with Emily. She’s a good kid. I don’t know what I did wrong, or what I can do to fix it.”
“You didn’t cause this, and it’s not something you fix.”
On Sunday afternoon, Eileen bought groceries for the week. She grabbed a wire shopping cart from in front of the supermarket and went inside. Walking down each aisle, she was crossing off items on a list when a neighbor came up behind and softly tapped Eileen’s arm, “Do you hate shopping as much as I do?”
Eileen smiled but was mildly irritated by the disruption of her routine. The woman moved alongside her and chatted, stopping on occasion and backtracking to gather something missed while Eileen moved in an orderly procession. Eileen walked faster through the aisle of cookies and fresh-baked cakes, but the woman’s high-pitched voice slowed her. “I have a girl the same age as yours and this is the section I spend the most time in.” She reached for the red-wrapped box of sugar cookies and read the side label, “These put fat on my thighs by just holding them, but my daughter loves them.” The neighbor looked at the bag of salt-free pretzels and diet soda in Eileen’s cart, items on the list in Emily’s handwriting.
As she drove home, Eileen wondered if she contributed to Emily’s fixation on weight. She recalled telling her daughter that she was glad her baby-fat was gone, that she was developing into a slender young woman, how at her age-forty two, she was worried about her own weight gain and loss of attractiveness. She’d once suggested they join a gym together. Did Ray contribute when flipping through channels with the remote, he would linger on commercials and clips of programs with trim women in revealing clothes? Wasn’t all that normal?
Late in the afternoon, Eileen was preparing dinner when Emily came in; she called out to her daughter, “I’m making your favorite: chicken with dressing.”
“Ok,” Emily said and grabbed the portable phone from the hallway. Eileen set the table and went upstairs to wash her hands. As she passed Emily’s room, she heard her daughter’s high voice: “Don’t be mad at me, just don’t be mad at me!”
At dinner, Emily scrapped the dressing from the chicken breast and cut the meat into small pieces. While slowly chewing, she moved green beans around her plate and hid a few under the mound of dressing. She looked up and saw her father staring at her.
“You’re going to get weak, you’ll miss classes, your grades will go down, and you won’t get into a good college like we planned. In a few years we start the trips to campuses.”
“I’m just not hungry; can’t it be that simple?”
In the living room after dinner, Eileen told Ray about Emily’s phone call, and he said, “Why didn’t you ask about it?”
“You can’t ask about what you overhear, or unintentionally find. She would believe it was deliberate, that I was snooping, and then I lose connection for a while.”
“Girls have disagreements all the time. It’s probably nothing,” he said.
“It’s just the panic in her voice that bothers me, even if it is nothing.”
“Can’t you talk to her friends to get an idea of what’s going on in her head? What about her Facebook page?”
I don’t know who she’s close friends with anymore, except maybe the one down the street. Girls grow up and away, sometimes from each other. She won’t give me access to her page, says it would like reading someone’s diary when we grew up,” she added smiling.
Later Eileen asked Ray, “Are we going to your mother’s this weekend?”
Ray answered, “Angie will be there, but it doesn’t seem like a good time to go.”
“You haven’t seen your sister in a while. I thought you’d be anxious to see her.”
Ray thought about his mother pushing food in front of his lanky, adult sister when they were young. His elderly mother still had a trace of an accent even though she’d left Italy as a teenager--too skinny, mangia! She’d shout to his sister at the dinner table when they were growing up. “They’ll ask about Emily, make comparison to Angie. They’ll press for details. What do I say? Mom will never understand; she’ll tell Emily to eat and won’t accept refusal. Then what will happen?”
“She could eat and then fret like an alcoholic who’s fallen off the wagon. I’ve seen her that way when she eats well.”
Emily ignored the alarm the following morning. Finally, her mother’s persistent calls forced her out of bed. Dragging her bag of schoolbooks, she used her lateness as an excuse for skipping breakfast. “Take a nutrition bar,” Eileen said as she handed the bar to her. Emily looked past the vitamin listing to the fat content and shoved it into her jacket pocket. In history class, Emily’s head slipped forward and her teacher commented, “Out partying last night, Miss Sorencia?”
After school, Emily changed to her soccer uniform, pinning the waistband from the inside. As the team lined up for laps around the field, Emily moved to the front so she could be ahead of the slower runners and she charged into a run and the other girls moving in a leisurely pace, looked at her quizzically. In the practice game, she continued to aggressively move across the field but tired midway through, until the coach let another player in the game. After the game, the coach walked along side her and said, “I admire your intensity, but you’re burning yourself out. I’m thinking about dropping you to junior varsity, as much for your own good as for the team.”
Later, when the others were inside changing, she ran laps in wide circles until she felt they’d all changed clothes and left. Alone in the locker room, she showered and dressed.
Emily was upset, feeling she was losing her grasp on the pieces of her life. Dinners were unappealing enough but the disagreement with her parents each night added to the churn in her stomach. There would be a time when the fat would disappear, and she—her life—would stabilize, she thought.
In the morning, Emily found a note with a business card on top of the lunch money left on the kitchen counter; “Honey, this woman was highly recommended, you can talk to her.” The card read Dr. Evelyn Steward, Psychologist, and in smaller script, specialist in eating disorders. Emily suppressed the urge to crumple the card and leave it on the counter; instead sheput it insider her bag. Several times over the next few days, she took the card out and looked at it.
On Tuesday, Emily grabbed an unbuttered slice of toast and walked to school. The sunlight caused her to squint and she felt warm. Unbuttoning her sweater, Emily put her hand under her blouse and felt drops of sweat on her chest. Across the street, the traffic light blinked yellow and a crossing guard stepped into center of the avenue. The woman, wearing a white band diagonally across her orange sweatshirt, was reaching out to stop traffic when she saw Emily drop to her knees. Emily put her hands out to break a fall, pushed herself up, and said loudly to the crossing guard walking quickly toward her: “I’m fine, I tripped.” The concerned woman looked at Emily’s pale face, and said, “You don’t look good, sweetie.”
Emily lost six pounds in the next few weeks. Her clothes felt large but the image in the mirror seemed unchanged. She felt tired and dizzy more often.
The dinner table had become a time of confrontation or seething silence; Emily looked for excuses to avoid being home in the early evening. “I’m going to Monica’s house; I’ll be back later.”
“What about dinner?” Eileen called out to her.
“Her mom’s making something.”
“They’re just down the street and you can go after you eat. I’ll have everything ready early.”
Eileen heard the door close.
At the table Ray said, “You know she’ll tell Monica’s mother that she’d eaten already.”
“I don’t know what to do. We can’t force her to eat, and if we watch her finish her meal, she gets sick afterwards. I’m frightened. I don’t know how long this can go on.”
“We may have to have her hospitalized or put into a special facility.”
“Yes,” Eileen responded weakly.
After dinner, Ray went into the den to read the newspaper. Eileen placed the cleaned dishes in the cabinets. She thought about calling Monica’s house and asking if Emily was having dinner there, but decided against it.
The siren seemed to suck in sounds, suffocating the night air into stillness and then releasing a sickening shrill in the vacuum to warn and frighten. The blue and white hospital van hurried by, splattering blood-red light against the lintels of wide doorways and through the open windows of houses, penetrating and momentarily coloring bland walls, preceding tragedy like a service trumpet. Eileen, like most mothers who heard the siren would wonder, is it someone I know, feeling a seed of dread, until the sound disappeared, moving further from the house, from the neighborhood. But this was different, Eileen knew, and she began to shake as the siren’s sound grew louder, then stopped abruptly a short distance way. The phone rang.