by Cynthia K. Marshall
Leslie felt it again, the familiar prickling of fear that started, well, it started in her ass and snaked up her spine. Goosebumps rose on her arms when she saw it: the empty Fudge Swirl ice cream carton on the counter, side flap splayed out flat, its lid sagging. The deflated Doritos bag was perched on the carton like a dunce cap. The Dutch Cocoa cookie wrapper had been smoothed and then rolled up to look like a flower.
Another countertop shrine. No matter where she threw the trash away, no matter how deep in the garbage can she buried it, her mom always found it and brought it home. Soon after, Leslie would discover the artfully arranged evidence of the binge on the kitchen counter.
The house was silent. Maybe her mom was asleep. Or was she out? Regardless, Leslie couldn’t face her mother right now. It was all too overwhelming: first the urges to eat, and then her mother’s relentless shaming with the shrines.
Staring at the empty food packages, a wave of nausea washed through Leslie. She felt as though she’d just finished binging, her stomach bloated, her mouth coated with the residue from sugary snacks. And then the guilt came, the crawling, cold-flesh feeling that she had fallen off the wagon again. That she couldn’t not eat. That she wasn’t strong enough to ignore the hunger.
It hadn’t always been this way. Leslie’s mom had started innocuously enough, offering to take Leslie to Weight Watchers or offering her money to lose “just a few pounds” or buying workout DVDs.
“Have you tried drinking more water?” her mom would ask. “Are you writing all this down in your food journal?”
And she had been so relentlessly cheerful. “Would you like to go for a walk with me? Just around the block?”
Leslie would grimace and take another bite of leftover birthday cake. She would slump even lower in her mom’s presence, as if bad posture could make her shrink. Leslie’s mom was everything Leslie was not: effortlessly thin, fit, confident. Leslie felt like a hulking goon beside her.
“Did you put your weight on the chart this morning?” her mom would remind her.
The weight chart hung on the refrigerator, another reminder for Leslie to control her appetites. The line meant to demonstrate her progress had flatlined.
Yes, Leslie drank water, but she was still hungry. Yes, Leslie wrote in her food journal, until a binge, of course, when she completely lost track of what she ate. It was too humiliating to figure up the calorie count of an entire bag of Cheetos. Or a whole coffee cake. A family-sized bag of M&Ms. A tub of guacamole. Corn chips. Chocolate chip cookie dough.
The pockmarked guy at the convenience store always nodded knowingly, a mean little smile playing on his lips as Leslie handed over her allowance money to buy junk food. She knew he’d laugh at her and make fun of her fat ass as soon as she left. Even he knew that ugly was better than fat.
Eventually, her mom gave up trying to encourage Leslie. But she couldn’t let the binges go unnoticed. Leslie needed reminders, to help her see the enormity of her eating. And so the shrines had begun.
Shame still coursing through her as she stared at the latest shrine to her latest binge, Leslie grabbed a paring knife from the block on the counter. She wanted to stab the empty packages and shred them into confetti.
Instead, she paused. Leslie examined the knife closely. Faded wooded handle. Pointed tip. Leslie flicked her finger over the end of the blade. The knife was sharp, good and sharp. Leslie could feel hunger rising in her again, the need to eat. But she couldn’t endure another shrine, another monument to her failure.
Pulling up the sleeve of her gray hoodie, Leslie examined the white skin on the inside of her arms. Before she ate, she tried to focus on her body, on the damage the food inflicted. But it never seemed like it hurt at the time. It only hurt days later when she felt miserable. Then weeks later, when she stepped on the scale and watched the number escalate even higher. Maybe, she reasoned, if it hurt while she was binging, she might be able to control herself.
Behind her the refrigerator loomed, tantalizing her with its stores of ice cream sandwiches and hard salami and olives. Tubs of cream cheese. Atop the fridge, a box of glazed doughnuts beckoned to her.
In her hand, the knife. She flicked the tip with her thumb again.
Its blade gleamed in the morning sun. Just then, the knife offered a solution. The tip was so sharp. Her skin was so pale, with broad expanses of flesh that now seemed to be begging for a cut.
Leslie’s hunger and shame began to subside. Instead, she realized a new sensation, like an itch on her wrists. Only the tip of the knife could satisfy that itch.
She started small, slicing one tiny nick on the inside of her right wrist. Pain flared instantly. Then she cut again, and again, until she had thirteen lucky hatch marks on her arm, each one a tidy red line. Tension washed out of her neck as Leslie stared at the marks on her arm. Her shoulders, usually up around her ears, dropped with relief. The pain from the cuts was small but insistent.
Who needs to eat , she thought, with this lovely pain? She basked in the release. And the marks would be barely noticeable. Not like being fat.
For the first time in months, Leslie felt present.
The cuts on her wrist throbbed.
Pocketing the paring knife, Leslie cleared the trash off the counter, dropping it into the kitchen garbage can. She didn’t bother to hide it.
Cynthia K. Marshall works and plays in Dayton, OH. Her work has appeared in Nexus and Full of Crow.