Journal Entry: January 1996: “How to Throw-Up Properly”
1. Go into bathroom
2. Lights on
3. Shut door
4. Lock door
5. Tie back hair
6. Take off glasses, if wearing
7. Take off shirt
8. Take off rings on right hand
9. Turn on water in sink
10. Lift up toilet lid
11. Lift up toilet seat
12. Bend over
13. Start with two fingers in throat
14. Hand in throat, if necessary
15. Picture dicks ejaculating, if necessary
16. When vomit is half the volume of toilet water, flush
17. Wipe hand with Kleenex
18. Blow nose
19. Wipe face with Kleenex
20. Wipe toilet with Kleenex, check under seat for splashes
21. Drink water
22. Repeat 13 through 21 until throw-up is only clear water
23. Repeat 17 through 20
24. All Kleenex in toilet
26. Rinse mouth with lukewarm water, spit in sink
27. Double-check for vomit splashes: toilet seat, lid, rim, floor, and throw carpets
28. Wash hands
29. Put shirt back on
30. Put rings back on
31. Touch up makeup: lipstick, eyeliner, under eye concealer, powder
32. Untie hair
33. Perfume, just a little
34. Double check appearance
35. Water off (in sink)
36. Lights off
37. Pause, hand on door handle
38. Unlock door
39. Open door
40. Step out
I am still bothered now, fourteen years later, not that this list exists or even that I deemed it necessary to write when I was 20 years old— but that it ends with an odd number. Us anorexics are obsessed with numbers. I like evens.
I fiddle with the radio stations, bypass music and search for talk radio or commercials, mimicking the voices—practicing my Yankee accent. Crossing into Pennsylvania from Ohio in my Volvo Wagon, time is running short before I will arrive at my parents’ for a weekend visit from Kent State. Oil stains from my beater car that runs on diesel are welcome in my parents’ pristine driveway, but my Georgia drawl is not welcome inside their front door.
Leaving Kent, Ohio, for the weekend is still a relief. Small town, enormous university, and I just don’t fit with either. Choosing a college because Neil Young wrote a song about it might have been a bad idea, but I hate to admit my parents were right. “Kate, it’s a song about murders. What good comes of that?” My mom reiterates, every time we speak. Her point is made; even my art classes aren’t working out. Freshman metal sculpture major. My art professors complain because they see words in my metal, not art in my sculptures.
I’m rereading some Alice Walker poetry and I think of those poems when I weld my sculptures; they’re just stuck in my mind because they’re beautiful. Up on a 6-foot ladder clad in a nonflammable faded grey mechanic’s jump suit, I burn metal. Dreadlocks covered in a fireman’s hat, the only hat large enough to cover all my ropey twists. Cherry red sparks fly as the metal melts and the welds hold. I picture Walker’s poems, how they would look as an aerial view, and my professor, Dennis, says I make them visible in hundred pound beams of metal: rape, truck, cry, soul. Those words aren’t deliberate, but I’m not surprised either. Like a word hoarder, I read continuously and write stories in secret notebooks that I cram in the spare tire compartment of my car. Someone finding my stories is inconsequential because no one knows I write them. But they’re still hidden.
“I wonder where I can get the least expensive butter?” asks the clipped women’s voice during a radio commercial for Giant Eagle, one of Pennsylvania’s chain grocery stores. I practice: I wandah where I can get the least expensive buttah? My way: 19 syllables; the commercial voice: 14. Too long. I try again. And again. All the way from the Ohio/Pennsylvania border to Peters Township, the suburb where my parents live. Two hours of talking like a crank-smoking lunatic and I still can’t Yankee-up my sentence to less than 16 syllables. My mother and I will have to agree to disagree, or as is our way—just not mention the difference. A compromise of uneasy silence once again.
Subconscious twitches resurface as I pull into my parents’ driveway. Running my hands over my hair, long grown into tangled, blonde ropes with seashells tied through, an attempt to smooth what was cultivated as unruly. My stomach twinges, cramps, before I get out of the yellow wagon. Not sure of the last time I ate an actual meal, a zero calorie breath mint was last night’s dinner. The blue-flecked white orb fought back when I halved it, but I couldn’t afford to take chances. That label’s promise could be a ruse. At 5’1” and 80lbs., I was sure I teetered on clinically obese.
I ran down my checklist in my mind: hair in bun as an attempt to mainstream dreadlocks, my mother doesn’t approve; Visine for red eyes, sleeping cuts into four-hour-long nighttime runs; three pairs of jeans worn on top of thermal underwear, hides my child-body and helps alleviate tailbone pain when I sit; absence of southern dialect, I wonder where I can get the least expensive buttah? Close enough. I don’t have the energy to fight battles I know I can’t win.
Greeting me in the laundry room doorway that’s off of their two-car garage, I’m swept up in my mom’s arms, rounded soft body, her familiar sweet smell.
“Kate, it’s so good to see you! I miss you when you’re far away.” Her words hang heavy like an accusation.
“Kent isn’t even three hours away, mom.”
I’m careful with pronouncing my r’s. Dropping them at the end of words is classic Georgia drawl. No matter how much I practice to quicken up my speech, I abandoned my r’s at the Mason Dixon line. Late to talk, I wrote first. Catholic school was taught by Georgia nuns, impatient with my silence, my dialect cemented in third grade with unyielding rulers across the tops of my hands.
“Why, you’re right. It just feels like forever,” my mother replies. Hard emphasis on “forever.”
I’m nevah good enough.
Hours later, my step-dad Bob returns from a late tee-start golf game in time for dinner. After customary hugs and small talk, panic sets in. Family dinner—show time. At 18, I was already out of tricks, no ways left to disguise starving. My mother caught on four years ago and banished me to my first eating disorder unit of an adolescent psychiatric hospital, Southwood, when I dipped to 90 pounds—fat. Learning that lesson the hard way, I now devour eating disorder memoirs for tips, searching for inventive ways to mask not eating in front of people during meals. The smaller I become, the more difficult I am to hide.
Plus, I couldn’t let the fork touch my teeth or mouth. Unsafe. I felt dirty when a tiny ting of metal fork touched my teeth or grazed my tongue. If I misjudged where either were in a moment of haphazard laziness or frenzied hunger, the dish had to be emptied; the utensil washed; my teeth brushed; my face washed; plate refilled; and the process began again. The more convoluted eating became, the less I ate. My rules were my trap. Eyedroppers of vegetable broth were safe, as were cranberries dropped in my mouth. I couldn’t eat cranberries, though. Too tart.
Resorting to old, faulty methods in front of my parents, I decide to chew my food, pray I don’t accidentally swallow any saliva that contains chewed up food particles, and then spit it all into my napkin when no one’s looking. Trouble is, they always look now. Watching me like I’m a card hustler, searching for my tell. I try to control my panic because I need my rules, but I need them as solely mine. If my mother speaks of my “restrictive eating habits,” as she says, it taints them and I’ll need new ones again. Until the newer edition of DSM, my eating disorder handbook and all psychiatrists’ reference book—The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders—came out, I wouldn’t have new slights of hand. At four years food deprived, this all made sense.
My mom and I are watching “Golden Girls” reruns in the downstairs den, while Bob’s upstairs watching the late-night sports recap in the master bedroom. He’s a guy’s guy and we don’t know how to talk to each other. I sit by my mom, on the overstuffed, blue toile couch with a shared blanket bridging the gap. TV droning, I hear three women with accents and one without—Blanche. Her character’s southern, Texas maybe. She’s drinking sweet tea and talking about someone named Big Daddy.
My mom takes my hand, over the knitted aquas of the afghan, squeezes it and smiles at me.
“This is nice. Just you and me, together.”
I adjust my posture, sink into the couch, and relax. Exhale.
“Yeah. It is.”
I squeeze her hand back.
We have the same hands. Square palms and small fingers.
“I don’t want to go upstairs yet. You don’t mind if I just close my eyes for a bit, do you?” she asks me.
“Of course not. I’ll wake you before I go upstairs to bed.”
Another hand squeeze.
She nods in agreement and her curly-haired head leans back against the high couch cushion. Her breath steadies, slows, deepens. I watch my mother sleep. Her head tilted back, she looks like she’s grinning. Like she knows a secret.
Turning back to the TV and Blanche’s accent, I try, but can’t remember why my mother hates mine. It feels like she hates me. Maybe Georgia recalls memories of her and my father divorcing, since we moved there right after my father cheated on her. Alone in a new state, knowing no one, in the middle of a divorce, with a new job, and a three-year-old. I felt for her and how scared she must have been. I admired her bravery. Her audacity to pick up and leave the only home she ever knew. Stroking her hand while she slept felt like I was taking care of her. A debt I felt was owed.
Comfort eventually dissolves my will and I disengage methodically from her hand, the blanket, and the couch. Tiptoe through the den, into the kitchen. Checking behind me—still asleep. No light, can’t chance it. The one from the open refrigerator is enough. Sweat tinges my forehead at the sheer array of food. Cheeses. Rolls. Mashed potatoes. Soda pop with calories. Thousand Island dressing. Sour cream. Frenzied, I grab and shove. Into my mouth. Teeth scraping skin off my fingers. Pulse racing. Reeling from tastes I had forgotten. Pale wallpaper flowers spinning. Dizzy, I pull a baker’s box of butter to the floor. Sit hunched over on the hard tile. Socked feet flat on floor, balancing my body and curling protectively around the food. Like a feral animal. Shoving. Savoring. Sweating. Swallowing. Paper and all, I eat seven sticks of butter.
I wish I were dead.
Too nauseous to stand upright, I crawl out of the hard-tiled kitchen, over the thick grey den carpet, down the dark slate hallway, grip the stair railing with both of my scraped hands, hoist myself upright, and begin the long trek upstairs to my private bathroom. Food is poking at the back of my throat already. I have to get it out of me. Hearing movement downstairs, I pause and wait. Ashamed. Again.
“Kate? Flush the toilet in the morning. It’s late. Don’t wake Bob.”
Shutting my eyes for a minute, I let it all spin around me. She knows. I’m not fooling her. Don’t wake Bob—she doesn’t want him to know. Nodding to myself in the dark staircase, agreeing, and the keeper of both of our secrets.
I bang through the thick security doors, my right arm smacking open the cold metal. Delicate silver bracelets slide from my narrow wrist to my elbow, over dark stitches and buffering gauze, and then back down as I bolt through the loony bin hospital doors and into the beige flecked linoleum-paved hallway. Stark white walls with evenly spaced room number placards blur as I pick up speed, lost in the maze of Robinson Memorial Hospital. Thin-strapped azure sandals squeak on the floor because I’m rounding corners desperately, trying to lose the security staff and the nurses trailing me closely, attempting capture. They know the layout of this Kent, Ohio hospital, and certainly this mental ward they work on, but my 19 year-old stubborn is rabid and fierce.
I strolled in with my parents, nonchalant, with hopes of a 28-day vacation from my life. I knew I wasn’t “right,” but I didn’t know exactly what was wrong. Really, I just wanted a break. My boyfriend called my parents after he found me shoving sharp arrowheads under the pale skin of my forearms in bed—where I had been for days. I smelled like rancid chicken soup. My mother’s tears, and her sobs of please, Kate, please tugged at me. I wanted to calm her, rectify myself in her eyes. So I agreed to voluntarily commit myself to the loony bin.
We enter the ward. Frozen patients with distant stares—skin sack puppets, really—and steel-barred windows scare me. Flee. These people are tamped out. I stand where the admitting lady told me, by the Nurses Station, and look at my new home for the approximate next month. I waiver. Maybe I’m not so willing. I survey the red-dot blinking video cameras, the massive-armed security guards, the pink and yellow sprinkled pills in Dixie cups, overhearing nurses disbelieving that I packed my own suitcase because it was so organized, hearing the muffled thuds behind windowless doors—I make up my mind.
Fuck this time and place.
And now I’m lost in the hallways, grasping for direction, grasping for a plan.
Skidding around a corner, I spot a fire door. “Only open in case of fire. Alarm will sound when opened.” I stop running and look around. Security officers, nor nurses with panicked faces, are behind me. Hospital patients’ TV’s dimly sell denture cream and ask Pat to buy a vowel. Is this the life I want? Is it even possible to resign myself to this for 28-days? Resigning myself and not resigning myself are the only choices I see and that decision is made by if I stay or if I run. It only takes me a second.
I tuck my blond, waist-length dreadlocks into the back of my yellow t-shirt with blood splotches ringing the half-sleeve cuffs, I sprint toward what I hope lays beyond the fire door—the freedom of the parking lot. With each resolute pumping of a leg whose knobby knee is bigger than thigh, I decide I’m not crazy. Escaping lunatics don’t factor in aerodynamics.
After running the twelve miles back to my boyfriend’s and my apartment, I spot my parents’ white Cadillac in the parking lot. Looking up, I can’t tell my apartment from the other hundred in the building. I don’t know if my lights are on or if anyone is inside waiting for me. Recapture is not an option.
I slow my pace, and walk normally. Like I am regular person who just happens to be looking for their car in a large apartment parking lot—who also just happens to be dripping in sweat from a 12-mile run in the dark, in sandals, with bloody shirt cuffs and heavily bandaged arms. Nothing to see here, folks. I find my Volvo parked out back, where I left it a week before. My parents would never believe it, but I do listen to them sometimes. Kneeling in the gravel, I hunt around under the front wheel well for the spare key, same place I’m sure that Cadillac out front also harbors a spare key. I’m out of here.
A horn blares and I start—awake. Jolting upright, I hit my head off my steering wheel. Shaking my heavy, dreaded head, I remember I slept in the local Kent bank’s parking lot. Natural light is the kindest, but my rearview mirror tells me I look like warm shit. Dark circles ring my eyes and my skin is bad, pimply. Funny how I eat nothing and my own skin revolts—traitor. I grab my school ID out of the glove compartment and a long-sleeve jean shirt out of the back, from the accumulated pile of dirty clothes I wear to sculpt and weld in the art studio. Best I can do.
This is one instance when living in a small town just might pay off. I walk into the bank and up to an open teller.
“Can I help you?”
“Yes, Ma’am. I need to withdraw from my checking, but I forgot my ATM card.”
“That’s okay. Do you have your checkbook?”
“No. I left that at home too. I have my school ID, though.” As I remove it from my jean-shirt pocket, I think she catches a glimpse of bandaged arm. I don’t know if my parents would have filed a police report yet, but I bet they will. I finger my biological dad’s arrowheads, still in my pants pocket. I bailed before the strip search at the loony bin. Nervous habit, clicking the arrowheads together.
“Oh honey,” the teller starts to say.
“It’s nothing. Really.” I hold up my left arm, so the loose sleeve flaps down below the gauze and stitches. “I’m a sculptor and I cut myself on some metal yesterday.”
The teller’s eyes widen in surprise. She looks closer at me now, at all of me.
She never saw the gauze in the first place. My armpits start to sweat.
I hand over the Kent State University ID. Please, I beg silently. Please let me get out of here.
Her eyes flicker back up to my face with a small smile. Great—I take her non-threatening look to mean we’re agreeing to not mention my gauze debacle of too much information sharing.
“Uh, alright. I was just going to say that I also need your Social Security number and how much you would like to withdraw.”
I smile so wide at her that my chapped lip splits. I’m a goddamned freak show.
Quickly, I lick the blood away. Like that’s normal.
“All of it. Can I just close it? I’m leaving for the summer and I don’t know if I’m coming back next fall.”
“Well, sure, we can close it. But would you rather leave one dollar, just in case you do return? That way, you won’t have to go through the trouble of opening a new account.” Her hopeful look makes me sad, like I’m disappointing her too.
“No, ma’am,” I say, scuffing my sandal on the shiny floor. “I doubt I’m coming back. Thank you, though.”
I stroll out with all the money I have in the world: four hundred and twenty-seven dollars. As I slide back behind my Volvo’s black wheel, I say out loud with a bloody smile, I’m not fucking stopping ‘til I hit the Pacific.
This was terrifying. I look forward to the nonfiction novel.