Beautiful Trouble

"Darkness Visible" by Catherine Price Slayden

By Catherine Price Slayden

She is wasting away, they tell her, but she can’t afford to hear them. She is on to something, something amazing that will make her everything she’s always wanted to be. They don’t understand. They don’t look in the mirror and see what she does.

When she was little it was one thing. She was all long hair and thin limbs, running wild and smiling in the sun. But when her center of gravity moved it was like the whole world shifted. All her angles turned round, but not just curvy. Soft.

Soft and mushy and pale and round. Like dough.

Her wardrobe of skirts and dresses in bright colors and lace was traded for a few drawers of bulky tops and bottoms, designed to hide every inch of her body. Each day was spent in the same uniform: big sweatshirt, baggy jeans, tight ponytail.

And even though time has passed and the pudgy dough of her flesh has smoothed into gentle curves, the memory of the years of elastic waist pants and oversized sweatshirts hangs heavy in her mind, like wet blankets on a line. And every time she looks in the mirror she sees the reflected image of herself at eleven, and it makes her sick.

It also makes her strong, makes her a machine.

Each pounding step of her feet on the track reinforces her new mantra. I am a machine, I am a machine, I am a machine. She doesn’t need a break, doesn’t need a day off, doesn’t need anything but her water bottle, her tennis shoes, and the firm rubber of the track, pounding back against her, pushing her forward.

And she needs her rules.

Every day is the same – a strict routine designed for optimal weight loss. There is the water bottle she carries with her everywhere, constantly draining and refilling it. One bottle must be drunk each hour from 9:00 to 4:00. This is easy during class periods. She simply takes a swig anytime her fellow students say something irrelevant or stupid. Some days the water bottle is empty before class is half over, and she has to clench the muscles in her stomach and legs to divert attention from her aching bladder.

At noon she allows herself her first meal: half a low fat bagel with three quick sprays from the Parkay bottle. The lack of fat makes the bagel tough and hard to chew, so she warms it for fifteen seconds in the mini-microwave she shares with her roommate. She takes slow, tiny bites of the thick bread and chews it until it has dissolved into nothing on her tongue.

She likes this feeling of complete consumption, of simple destruction. One moment the bagel is there in her hand, the next it has disappeared. It has served its purpose. It will fuel her through the afternoon’s classes, social time, and workout.

At 4:00 she will return from the gym and eat the other half, which until then will wait in the cellophane wrapper, torn from its mate, jagged edges beckoning for her to put it out of its misery.

Photo courtesy of Darryl H. (flickr.com).

After lunch until 2:30 she follows her schedule, drinking a bottle of water an hour as she attends classes, reads her assignments, works on her papers. She is always at least a week ahead on her reading and homework. She likes to know what is coming, likes the feeling that if she wanted to she could take a full week and do nothing as far as school is concerned.

Not that she ever would. The idea of that much free time fills her empty belly with a sour feeling.

At 2:30 she changes into her gym clothes. Until recently she couldn’t wear the cute, form-fitting workout wear that the perfect gym bunnies could. But that last ten pounds marked the change from average to skinny, and she is now proud of the tight black pants that cup the join where her legs meet her buttocks. She wears a fitted shirt now, too, and leaves her hair down while she exercises, even though the sweaty strands sometimes get caught in her mouth or on the dampness of her cheeks. She has never mastered the messy bun, and refuses to put her hair in another tight ponytail as long as she lives. Besides, she likes the way her hair bounces on her shoulders when she climbs the stair-stepper, how it flows out behind her as she runs the track, exposing her sticky neck to her own self-created breeze.

She works out hard for an hour: running, climbing, cycling, rowing in a repetitive circuit of machines until the hands of the clock point to 3:30. Then she hauls her aching limbs to the pool and swims in long, fluid strokes.

She pulls her weight behind her through the water, no longer ashamed to see herself in a bathing suit.

At 4:00 she pulls her body out of the pool, relishing the drag of the water that slides off of her hips and chest as she climbs the shaky metal ladder. Each drop reminds her of a pound she used to carry, and she imagines the doughy flesh of her youth overheating, melting off.

In the dressing room she rinses off, sucking her stomach in tight just in case someone walks in. No matter what she does, the flesh of her belly remains soft and round. She yearns for the ridges of muscle the other girls have, but after thousands of crunches she has accepted as reality that her future consists of sucking her belly in, not showing it off.

After her workout it is time for a snack, and the other half of the bagel rests where she left it – lonely and ragged in her dorm’s mini-fridge.

Somehow the second half of the bagel is never as satisfying as the first. Maybe because it is the bottom half, the side with the flattened base. Or perhaps it is because the cold air of the fridge has seeped through its torn edges into the chewy flesh – something that couldn’t happen when both sides were joined, protecting each other.

She heats it in the microwave for twenty seconds this time, and gives it four sprays from the Parkay bottle. She gags it down as fast as she can, and this time she doesn’t enjoy the act of eating, the way the bread melts on her tongue. For now she is tired – both physically and mentally – of waiting for food, and something as plain as this bagel is far from what her stomach cries for.

As soon as the bagel is gone she regrets it.

Regrets having eaten it, because it wasn’t good anyway, and instead she could have had a mini chocolate bar or something equally tasty, if not as filling.

And she regrets not having enjoyed it more, because after all it was food, and food has always been the way she rewarded herself.

But she will put it out of her mind for the next few hours. If the gnawing at her belly starts again she can always down another bottle of water or chew a stick of sugar free gum. The water will fill her stomach and the chewing will fool her into thinking she’s actually eating. She will flip through magazines or read a book or watch something on TV to take her mind off the constant hunger, the unceasing dissatisfaction.

At 8:00 he arrives – the boyfriend – and they drive away from campus in his car.

Photo courtesy of Felix le Chat (flickr.com).

His car is his life, or at least so it seems. He washes and waxes it religiously, even in the winter when temperatures are so cold the locks freeze. He dusts the dashboard and wipes the windows, polishes the leather seats and the glass that covers the gauges.

He can control this machine, he tells her, and she knows he is right. Knows the comfort of having something to control.

They drive to the grocery store, as they do every night, to pick out their dinner. This is another ritual – the hunting and gathering of previous generations distilled down the years into this mindless perusal of packages and cans, freezer bags and cartons.

Although their funds are limited and her diet strict, the couple enjoys their slow walk up and down each aisle. The colorful products lining the shelves stretch out like bright ribbons of light, and the girl can’t help but reach her hand out to touch every once in a while.

A bottle, a can, a package of beans.

Touching, smelling, seeing this paradise of food almost makes up for the lack of tasting, and for a few minutes she entertains the idea of buying whatever she wants, of piling it into the cart and taking it home to make and eat until she is full to bursting. But as always that is just a dream, and she manages to control her cravings and select one of two options: a can of light soup or a frozen diet meal.

The boyfriend, meanwhile, chooses an array of cheap but mouth-watering snacks. Ho-Hos, pretzels, M & Ms, a twelve pack of Cherry Coke. He doesn’t eat real food, unless it’s from a restaurant. But despite his gorging on artificial flavors and monosodium glutamate he remains slender – wiry, really – with shaded outlines of muscle punctuating his flesh.

On the way back to his house he sings along with the radio – some angry alternative song – and she studies him.

His face, like his body, is lean and sculpted. He is handsome, although it is a young beauty. Not for the first time she wonders how his face and body will change over the years. And how hers will, too.

This boyfriend is so different from the other men she has loved, and sometimes she can’t remember why they are together. But there is something between them, a magnetic force that pulls them together despite their differences.

They both need the safety of control.

At home in his kitchen he wraps his arms around her while they watch her dinner go round and round in the microwave. The faint light from the appliance gives a romantic cast to the darkened kitchen, and the hum of its motor combines with the sound of the news on the television in the next room.

The girl feels safe here, almost happy.

The faint smell of noodle soup emanates from the microwave and fills her nostrils. Her stomach aches and she cuddles closer to her boyfriend.

“You look hot today, Babe,” he tells her, nuzzling her neck with his chin.

She smiles at his compliment, and for a moment the chasm in her belly is forgotten.

The microwave timer buzzes and they step apart, leaving a small gap of air between their thin bodies. A moment passes and the microwave light switches off, leaving them in darkness. He reaches his hands out to her waist and squeezes.

“I can fit your waist in my hands now, you know?” he says, his voice soft with pride. “Just don’t get too much smaller.”

Her mouth curls into a smile and she stands up straighter, sucking her stomach in tight. “Don’t worry; I don’t want to slip through your fingers.”

Catherine Price Slayden is a free-lance writer living in Saint Paul, Minnesota. She is also an up-and-coming visual artist, specializing in black and white portraiture. Catherine received her BA in Forensic Science and Psychology in 2003, and her MFA in Writing in 2010.

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9 Comments Post a Comment
  1. Monica says:

    This story really makes you want to control your own life, but it’s always good to have someone there for you. To have someone tell you you’re wrong for your own benefit.

  2. Talin says:

    This story makes you realize that whatever you do you do for your own good. However if you want to make a change you need to believe in yourself. Having someone who supports and helps your desicions plays a big role in getting to where you want to be. This story shows readers to never give up.

  3. bea b. says:

    hey! this is amazing–not only did make it through everything, but you were able to pass your story along. your account is inspiring–it gives insight to experiencing the events firsthand, &i admire your strength and courage. thanks for sharing,& keep writing! (:

  4. Chris says:

    This story tells us about the constant burdern and trouble that dissatisfaction brings to us. Many of us worry about the little things that don’t matter, and it ruins our happiness. If we learn to understand our situation and accept it, it will bring us true happiness, without a heavy toll.

  5. Garooneh A says:

    this story was really good. it got me thinking about what people go through just to have a better body. one bagel and tons of water bottles per day? thats nonsense. it shows how one little compliment can brighten your day and make you feel good about yourself. everyone is perfect just the way they are and they shouldnt accept it and walk around proudly.

  6. Mandy says:

    This story is so touching and inspiring. It really shows how hard work can go a long way and that if you want something, you have to strive to get it, even if it means you wont be happy doing work. This story admits the challenges of achieving success, but also, the satisfaction of achieving it.

  7. Sarah Kuns says:

    I thought that this story was very inspiring. I think that many girls can relate to the story. Many girls feel very uncomfortable with there bodies and are always trying to lose weight. I think that this story was inspiring for kids to get into shape and to eat healthy so that they can always be confident about there body, and not have to suffer this way.

  8. Anne E. says:

    This is a story that you can’t just read and go do some other activity right after. This is the kind of story that you stay up at night thinking about. You wonder if you could have that much control over your life, or if you ever change for others, or for yourslef. Stories like this give a great concept that can keep readers questioning themselves for days. Well done.

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