James Keith Smith
I’d lost twenty-five pounds over the summer, so much weight, in fact, that when I returned to school for my junior year, many of my former classmates and teachers no longer recognized me. That’s what I told myself, anyway.
“You look great,” my friend Tracy said.
We were sitting in the back of AP English, drawing vaginas. Tracy was the better artist. She drew a vagina with a briefcase and fedora. It looked like it was waiting for a train. My vagina was walking a dog, and the dog had stopped to smell some flowers. The dog and the vagina were indistinguishable, according to Tracy.
“You need to have the vagina saying something, so I can tell them apart,” she said.
“Or the dog.” I was more comfortable with dogs.
We sat a few seats behind Ben, an emo kid who came from another high school. Tracy said he’d been kicked out of his old school for selling fentanyl patches, but he was cuter than the other boys we knew. Really, what we liked most about Ben was how thin he was. Cheekbones thin. When he raised his hand to ask to use the restroom, hipbones poked out from his lowrider jeans.
“I’m going to give my vagina to Ben,” Tracy whispered.
She folded up the paper and put it in her oboe case.
After class, we followed him down the hallway. Polished concrete floors, locker doors clanging shut, cocoanut-honey scented shampoo. Ben had the slow, loping gait of a criminal walking into a courtroom. In the cafeteria, he pulled an object hidden from his book bag.
“Fentanyl,” Tracy said.
But no, it was a sandwich wrapped in foil. We watched him consume his lunch, one item at a time, at a table by himself. Cheetos. A sandwich with reddish meat. An entire sleeve of Oreos. We couldn’t turn away.
Like me, Tracy had lost weight. Over summer, she’d gone from a size twelve to an eight. Her parents were finalizing their divorce any day now; my mother was in the psych unit at Henry Ford. We didn’t talk about these things so much as talk around them.
“How many calories are in a bag of Cheetos?” she asked after Ben had gotten up, moved away.
The cafeteria began emptying out. A giant from the football team was walking around eating an entire large pizza from the box. His biceps flexed, neck muscles strained. A walking Adonis in Adidas activewear. Tracy had a glazed look in her eye. “Would you ever consider eating a bug?” she asked.
“What kind of bug?”
“I don’t know, a bug.” She seemed annoyed that it might depend what kind.
“You’re getting so thin,” my mother said when I visited her at Henry Ford. A tray of food sat uneaten by her hospital room door. Green Jell-O with a dollop of whipped cream. Egg noodles in butter sauce. I was aware of food like alcoholics are aware of booze—I always knew where I was in the room in relation to it.
We sat in the common area. Sterile prints of lonely seascapes. Two middle aged men in sweater vests played backgammon. A girl not much older than me sat beneath a muted television, knitting. This wasn’t like the last hospital, where everyone blurted out the answers to Jeopardy. It was quiet, orderly.
Whenever my mother was inpatient, it was all anyone talked about, but then once she was home, we were never quite sure what to do with her. There’d be an adjustment period, new medications, daily check-ins. She’d need to re-acclimatize to her environmental stressors. That’s what we were, my father, sister and I: environmental stressors.
“So, are there any boys?” my mother asked, stirring honey into her chamomile tea.
“There aren’t any boys,” I said. “Just Maxwell House.” Maxwell was our family cat, a skittish piebald who lived beneath a lounger in my sister’s bedroom.
“Not even one you like?”
Every conversation was the same, a rehearsal for a deeper, more authentic one that never came. “No comment,” I said.
A nurse came by and gave my mother her pills in a plastic cup. Mom seemed embarrassed.
“How about Sam? How’s your sister?”
“Sam is good,” I said. “Kevin’s still an idiot, though.”
Before my mother’s hospitalization, my sister’s boyfriend Kevin practically lived with us, but since she’d been in the hospital, he’d officially moved in. Each day, a new object appeared—a pair of wool slippers at the bottom of the staircase, a coffee grinder, a rain jacket.
“Do you want to know a secret?” my mother asked before I left. The nurse was back again, this time to lead me through the security doors.
“I think that guy playing backgammon over there, in the sweater vest, has a crush on me.”
The guy actually looked up and waved.
Mr. Roth, our Algebra teacher, had a big nose, and weak chin, but he also coached boys basketball, and liked to work out with the players. Thursday morning, he wore gym shorts to school. Tracy and I couldn’t stop starring. Shoulders, biceps, and pecs; the little ski jump of the calves; the contours of his butt, even.
“What do you think it’s like?” Tracy asked. “I mean, to have a penis. Don’t you ever wonder?” Mr. Roth circulated the room, handing back quizzes.
Over summer, Tracy made it to second base with a freckled tuba player named Thomas Pinkerton. She would’ve gone to third, except she was babysitting, and the bathroom door wouldn’t lock.
I hadn’t kissed anyone since Bradford MacIntosh in seventh grade. Bradford had gone on to great things: co-captain of the tennis team, editor-in-chief of the Arrow, our school paper; treasurer of French club —when we passed one another in the hallway, I no longer existed.
Back in seventh grade, I knew Bradford MacIntosh liked me. I’d been waiting months for him to work up the nerve to go for the kiss, but when the moment came, against the backstop fence on the baseball diamond, I turned away. A week later, he was dating one of the Schroeder twins.
Mr. Roth took his shoes off and began rubbing his feet together beneath his desk.
“I think I want Thomas Pinkerton to be my first,” Tracy said.
“You know what they say about horn players.”
I wondered if Tracy and I would be friends next year. Senior year was different––so everyone said—that’s when you became your true self. It was only a matter of time before she’d tire of me, find new friends.
“Try not to upset her when you visit,” the New Doctor said. There was a KitKat in his shirt pocket. “Don’t rock the boat. We’re at a crucial point in her treatment, and we’re finally making progress.”
Dad nodded. “I got the book you recommended. It’s on my nightstand. I read it every night before bed.”
“That’s good,” the New Doctor said.
“And I joined a support group.” My father wore the same brown leather jacket every day; it smelled like cigarettes and perspiration.
“Keep it up. I’m sure you’re learning valuable coping skills.”
We all felt guilty. It was my mother’s sixth hospitalization, and it wasn’t becoming any easier. Guilt covered the walls of our three-bedroom ranch home. It crept in from the baseboard heaters, spilled over the porcelain tub and onto the bathroom tiles. We could have powered our father’s lawnmower with it.
“What about you, Sam?” he asked my sister. “How are you holding up?”
“I think I’m going to write a screenplay.”
“That’s good. That’s a good start.” The New Doctor scribbled in his notebook. Maybe he’d misheard her.
Outside of Mr. Roth’s classroom, in the hallway, Ben stood at his locker. We closed in on him. There was a dimple on his left cheek. The bell rang, we all stiffened a little. A janitor in a Grateful Dead shirt clicked opened a trophy case and dusted off the swimmers.
“So, what do you think?” Tracy asked.
“It doesn’t look like a dog.”
“You have to squint. See, that’s its mouth. And ears.”
“I’m not much of a pet person.”
We drifted down the hallway, out the double doors, into the sunlight; a crow ca-cawed at us from a gray branch. We walked through the creaking maples, beyond the school boundary. Mulched grass, brown leaves. I stepped on a crushed paper cup from McDonald’s.
“Want to smoke some fentanyl?” Ben asked. A folded sheet of foil, packet of powder, and a cigarette-sized glass pipe. Ben held the pipe between his teeth.
I’d only ever smoked weed before; plant matter combusting, metal and carbon.
“The first time makes you nauseous,” Ben said. “It usually takes two or three tries to get used to the high. Do it like this.” He flicked a lighter, drew smoke into his lungs, exhaled.
“I remember you from middle school,” he said, turning to me. “Seventh grade. We had English together. I out was sick a lot, in the hospital.” A patchy brown squirrel scratched up a tree. “Do you remember me?”
I shook my head no.
“What about me?” Tracy asked. “I was there. You definitely would’ve remembered me.”
“No,” Ben said. “I don’t.”
We walked in silence. Tracy shuffled a few steps behind. The seniors were playing a game of flag football. I heard a whistle, laughter, and had the distinct feeling one shoe was larger than the other. With each breath, my body expanded, contracted. I closed my eyes, and when I opened them again I was a cuttlefish drifting along the current: yellow, green, then blue.
“So, tell me, why are you here?” The school counselor pushed the tortoise shell glasses up her nose. “What’s going on at home?”
“Well, my dad was electrocuted plugging in the toaster again.” It was true, for the second time in a month, my father had been badly shocked. It wasn’t a real electrocution—he didn’t even pass out—but it was enough to turn his finger powdery black and make the power go off.
“Okay. What else?”
There was a cup of coffee on her desk. I wondered how many calories were in it.
I told her about Kevin, how it was hard to focus on schoolwork with him around. It seemed to placate her, and we came up with an action plan that involved an egg timer and moving to another room.
“You look thin,” she said before I left. “What did you have for lunch?”
“Pizza,” I said.
When we were little, Mom used to make pizza from scratch. She’d knead the dough, chop onions, garlic and bell peppers. It always came out perfect, the cheese evenly browned, crust thin, but chewy. Then one day, she stopped. Occasionally, my father tried to replicate the recipe, but he’d leave the sauce on the range too long, forget to add oregano.
The counselor sent me away with an orange and a Ziploc full of Club crackers. Some people will do anything to make themselves feel like they’re helping.
What I didn’t tell her was that, after my dad was electrocuted, I wrapped the frayed toaster cord with thin plastic tape so it wouldn’t happen again. My mother had been in the hospital for a few weeks and everything seemed to be held together with Scotch tape.
I weighed myself every day. I was under a hundred and ten pounds for the first time since middle school. If anyone was worried, they weren’t saying so, not directly.
“What you really need when you graduate is a job with good insurance,” my sister Sam said. She’d graduated a few years before and had an assistant manager job at an Outback Steakhouse. Cream soups. Piles of powdery dinner rolls in a basket. And insurance. Our father used to take us there when he had bad news.
Sam concerned me. Since my mother had been hospitalized again, nonspecific household errands occupied most of her free time. “I’m going on errands,” she said whenever she left the house, regardless of what he was doing. She’d come back a few hours later with a two-liter of Diet Coke and a lamp from Pier 1 imports.
Sam and her boyfriend Kevin sat on my parent’s couch watching Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. They devoured bags of Lay’s potato chips, medallions of beef, and rubbery coconut shrimp from Outback. I watched too, not the show, but them. It was hard not to. In third grade, I saw a documentary about the meatpacking industry: chickens pulled apart by machines, conveyor belts, cattle parts hanging from big steel hooks. I became the token family vegetarian.
“Have you ever been to a slaughterhouse?” I asked, as though I’d just walked in off the killing floors, my boots tacky with the blood of a half-grown calf. “The cow you’re eating now was probably dragged off a truck, shocked with a cattle prod, and then forced down a shoot to have its throat slit. Does that sound ethical to you?”
“They’d eat us too if they could,” Sam said. “It’d be us or them.”
“Not all animals are carnivores, genius. Horses, rhinos, wildebeest—they eat grass.”
“Pass the wildebeest, babe,” Kevin said. “I’m starving.”
I couldn’t stand Kevin. It was mostly his voice—high-pitched, whiny, Muppet-like. I couldn’t do my homework without noise canceling headphones. “When you’re both dying of colon cancer, I’ll visit you in the hospital,” I said.
“Bring chips,” Sam said, rattling an empty bag of Lay’s.
I went to bed early, took a Tylenol, brushed my teeth. In the hallway, Sam’s door was open. Her bedroom was like a secret room at Pier 1 imports: wooden elephants, glass spheres, furniture made from reclaimed shipping pallets. I laid on her bed and closed my eyes.
Sometimes, when we’d visit my mother, she was the warm, happy person we’d always known. On others, she was irascible, dark, and spoke in a monotone. It was the medications. Without them she was susceptible to mood swings, with them she was a walking mummy. Nobody could decide which was better.
“Your mother will be home soon,” my father kept saying. A month went by, two months. Soon it was December. There was no end in sight. Tracy was sent to a treatment center in Naples, Florida, which meant I’d be spending my lunches alone. “Anorexia,” her mother said, teary-eyed, when I went to see why she’d missed four days of school. She invited me in, but I said I had schoolwork. Her little brother, eight or nine, followed me down the driveway. “Tracy will be okay, right?” he kept asking. I was already feeling the sting of my new friendless existence.
Now, instead of lunches in the cafeteria, I went to the school library and looked at magazines: Muscle & Fitness, Women’s Health, Cosmopolitan. “Ten Workouts To Do On Your Lunch Break.” I crossed and uncrossed my legs in the big wooden chairs.
But no matter how many calories I burned, how few I consumed, there was still a discernable ring of pudge around my waist, a pinch-able amount of fat beneath my arms. It never occurred to me that I might be the only one who could see it.
I became a runner. I ran three miles a day. Four miles. Five. I’d wake up energized, feet ready to move, our neighborhood still dark. I’d run past the twenty-four-hour Safeway, Burger King, the Forever After Funeral Home. I ran through backyards, parking lots, overgrown trails. I’d come home with scrapes on my ankles, burrs in my shoelaces. On the days when it was too cold to run, I ate even less. I weighed ninety-five pounds. Ninety-four. Ninety-three.
Soon it would be Christmas. There would be no star-shaped cookies, no colored lights, no shiny wrapped gifts under a glistening tree. No tree. My mother was about to start ECT—electroconvulsive therapy. According to the New Doctor, it was safer than ever. We braced ourselves, but when the day arrived, there was a problem with insurance, and treatment was delayed.
On the second week of December, my father went on a business trip and forgot to tell anyone. I assumed he’d given up on us, moved on, changed his name. A few days later, he called from Minneapolis. “There’s a note on the counter,” he said. I saw a few unopened two-liters of Diet Coke, and a pamphlet for a new antidepressant. No note. “Did you know that, in downtown Minneapolis, the buildings are all connected by tunnels?” he said with a little too much enthusiasm in his voice.
Christmas Day, Mom called.
“So, how’s school?”
She might as well have asked How’s the moon? but still, it was good to hear her voice. It turned out to be one of the longer conversations we’d had in recent months. She told me about the chess players, how one had left and now the other spent all day waiting for a new opponent. The girl my age was teaching her to quilt. We talked about Sam, sugar cookies, and my father’s electrocution. She asked if we had a tree, if we’d put up lights.
“You know,” my mother said before she hung up, “I’m worried about you.”
“There’s nothing to worry about,” I replied.
As we spoke, I kept thinking of Tracy and me, working on being thinner. If I kept going, there wouldn’t be much left of me.
There’s a thing that happens when you stop eating. Your senses begin to deaden, first to the pleasures of food, then to many of life’s other pleasures. But after talking to Mom I had a craving, a real one, the kind starts deep in your chest.
In the pantry, I found everything I needed: flour, baking soda, granulated sugar, little metallic sprinkles, two kinds of frosting. I broke an egg in a blue ceramic bowl, stirred in the flour. I didn’t substitute apple sauce for butter, or use stevia instead of sugar. I made a heart, a snowman, a family of four, even.
James Keith Smith’s writing has been published or is forthcoming in Split Lip Magazine, Typehouse, and the Sierra Nevada Review. He was born in Detroit, Michigan. He lives in the Pacific Northwest.