Charlie the Lopsided Cat

Sara Tickanen

The movie playing on the television is “A Christmas Story.” Staff is surprised that I have never seen it before and try to goad me into remembering. Little boy named Ralphie. Pink bunny suit. BB gun. Shooting out of eyes. I shake my head, because I can’t recall something that I have never known. Staff sits in a chair across the room. There are three patients; they give us each a small present to make the fact that we are here better. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s Christmas. It doesn’t make it better that we are trapped in the RED unit, the place where they hide the eating-disordered teens from the rest of the world. Staff likes me; she tells me that I remind her of her daughter.

I worry for her daughter.

I unwrap my present. It is a small stuffed creature. I think it might be a cat. Its left eye drifts slightly to one side, making its entire face seem lopsided. Like me. I am lopsided and wrong. The cat fits me. I name it Charlie, and I decide that Charlie will be my friend.

On the television, Ralphie finally gets his gun and ends up almost shooting his eye out. I am sixteen years old, but even I see the irony. At this moment, I would shoot my eye out to stop watching the damn movie. Staff changes the channel. The new movie is “Mr. Holland’s Opus.” It was just released the previous year. Much more up my alley, and I have never seen this either. There is music, and I get excited. This is a mistake. One of the other girls complains, which results in the television being shut off all together. I trudge back to my room holding Charlie by the paw, my slippers soundless against the institutional carpet. I am alone in the world, except for Charlie. If only he could talk.

I sit on my bed in my room; my roommate had been released the day before. I remember when she first came and we hid under the beds and scribbled our names and dates and all sorts of fun things onto the mattress with crayon. Crayons were the only writing utensil we were allowed to have unsupervised. We couldn’t stab ourselves with them or tear our skin with the erasers. Apparently, that was a danger in these parts.

I prop Charlie up on my pillow. His crooked eyes are angled just right so that he always seems to be staring at me, like a demented Mona Lisa.

Down the hall someone screams. I’m reminded of the horror movies I love. I’m also reminded that I haven’t really spoken in the past few days. It’s easier, not talking. From my spot on the bed, I can see out into the snow-covered courtyard. The view is scenic and Christmas-y, marred only by the vertical bars that stripe across the window.

I am sixteen years old, and I am a failure. It is Christmas Day, 1999, and I am behind bars because I can’t make myself be normal. I can’t make myself fit into my life anymore as it is. I can’t make myself better.

Staff comes to my door. It is time for dinner. I do not want to go, minus the novelty of the event—because there are so few of us and so few Staff, we are allowed to eat in the dayroom instead of making the voyage to the cafeteria. I walk back to the room I have just left. The television is back on, at the scene in “A Christmas Story” with the leg lamp. The movie must be airing again.

I sit at the place with the tray that has my name on it. I asked for this food from the special Christmas menu. Macaroni and cheese and mashed potatoes with extra gravy. Broccoli, with cheese. Oh, and a chocolate chip cookie. It isn’t dinner without a cookie, especially on Christmas. We will sit at the table until our food is consumed or there will be consequences. I unwrap my silverware from my napkin—linen instead of the normal paper. They brought out the good stuff for the holiday. I drape the napkin across my lap. I know how many calories are each and every item on my plate. I can’t eat all of it. I won’t.

I can’t make myself be better, this is true. But no one else is going to do it for me. This means that I will never be better. Ever. I will be trapped in this hell-hole with “A Christmas Story” playing on a loop and bars sealing the windows. I will fail all of my classes. I will flunk out of high school and end up joining the circus somewhere because no one else will take me. I lay my head down on the table. Staff gives me a gentle reminder. Sit up. It’s dinner. We’re eating.

Correction. They are eating. I am staring at my food. Poking it with a fork. Separating each thing to a different side of the plate to make certain that they aren’t touching. I will never be able to eat them if they are touching. I move the food back and forth, trying to make it seem like it’s disappearing. I wonder how many noodles there are. I count them, separating them through the slowly congealing cheese. Too many. I start over.

My food grows cold.

I know what I need to do to go home. Staff needs to be assured of my ability to eat on my own, like a normal person. My ability to be sane. My ability to fit in the carefully crafted box that is life.

I cannot do it. I don’t fit. I never have.

I fail. There are consequences. No more “A Christmas Story.” And no television tomorrow. I am okay with that; it doesn’t matter. I wander back to my room without a word. I have managed to procure myself a magazine, and I flip through it and study the pictures. Tall, skinny, beautiful women litter the pages. Women that I will never succeed at becoming. As I take in their image, I realize why we aren’t supposed to have these.

It is Christmas Day. I look out the window again at the snow and picture myself in another world. If I picture it hard enough, it might come to be. I might find myself ice skating on a pond with my new hat and my gloves and my happiness and my life that I will never, ever have. There will be a cute boy to hold my hand and hot chocolate to drink after. The good kind with the extra chocolate and mini marshmallows because eating them no longer matters and never will again.

I have removed the staples from the magazine binding. I don’t remember doing it, but they are in my hand and the pages of the magazine are scattered everywhere. The ends are bent out. Sharp. I hold my arm out in front of me. I make no secret of what I am doing. I am, after all, a failure. I can’t do anything right.

Charlie watches. Laughs. The stuffed cat with creepy eyes, my only friend, revels in my failure to be human. I shouldn’t be here; I shouldn’t be allowed to exist.

I am quickly caught. Saved.

There will not be any ice skates. No boy to hold my hand. No hot chocolate; I will not taste any marshmallows. I will not be outside today; I will not feel the snow on my face or the cold biting into my nose.

Instead, it is Christmas Day and I find myself in the “quiet room.” Solitary confinement. No people. No blankets, no pillow. No slippers. No window. No bars. Just padded walls and a cushioned floor.

But I do have my abandoned food tray, complete with globby lumps of cheese.

Happy flipping holidays to me.

I am certain that back in my room, Charlie is laughing. But he does not know I will grow up to discover I don’t need ice skating or a boy, or to be skinny, just some time to figure out who I was.


Sara Tickanen recently obtained her MFA in creative writing-nonfiction from The New School in New York City. Her work has been featured in The Rectangle, Gravel, and Brain Child: A Magazine For Working Mothers. She is currently working on a full-length memoir.

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