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Collage by Katherine Streeter

Collage by Katherine Streeter


April said that when she got healthy—if she did, she said, if—she wanted to have Julia’s body. It was the ideal, April said, curvy but still thin enough, I should know from that time I had to draw you. She had leaned over Julia and traced her outline. It was one of the activities, along with closing your eyes and picking your anchor, the place where you can go in your mind when you get triggered. For Julia this was a place in Maine, on a lake cliffed by rocks, where her grandparents had once owned a home. Each day Julia watched for the postman to deliver the mail, his hand on the outboard motor steering him toward the dock.

April hovered over Julia, who lay prone on the large strip of yellow paper, and Julia felt April’s empty rotten breath on her face, breath that has only breathed and tasted its own breath. The pencil moved along her sides. When it had traced her entirety, Julia rose to standing. April’s outlines were shaky outlines. April shook, always. The outline revealed itself to be far smaller than Julia had expected. As was the hope; the point of the exercise was to reveal the women’s body dysmorphia. Other than being young, Julia was no different. Now, the art therapist said, let’s color us in. Here is: magazines sparkles paint crayons buttons charcoal cotton balls. Now: one side is your good side, the front; this is your best self. This is your body. What do you think of it? What does it look like? Bright colors for your good self: white buttons sparkles sugar spice glitter good things good good girl things. On the back, where our negative feelings lie: newsprint black X’s Band-Aids pencil shavings magazine photographs of women’s bodies heads ripped off all our self-loathing.

Julia cried when April said that about her body. She had held her hands to her face and cried because just then she realized that they all—Ariel and Sally and April—saw her as the Other, as the fat one. She wished she’d been anorexic, in control, clean, dry, baby-powder fresh. She cried for what they thought of her and for what she thought of herself.

When the women were recovered or their insurance ran out, they left. And new women replaced them. One particular replacement who would stay with Julia long after she’d left the ward herself was a woman who came in late at night. It was as if she’d been dragged in. She was not in her right mind. Perhaps she’d been drinking or had taken drugs. Julia was interested in her because, although she was older than Julia—all the women were; her position as the youngest had somehow become important to her, vital even—still this woman was cool, the way Julia saw cool, and no one else on the ward was cool to Julia. The woman wore combat boots and her hair was dyed black and she had several safety pins in her ears, a leather jacket, broken in. She sat down in the lounge and held court. Bulimic, she said, running her hand across her chest, gesturing toward an invisible sign. Favorite food is ice cream because you get to taste it twice. She stomped her feet.

Several hours later, in the middle of the night, this girl screamed out in pain. A caffeine headache, they were told the next morning. The story went that even though there was no caffeine allowed, they had a Coke brought in for her, to ease her off it. She had been forced to choose between a regular Coke and the headache, because they wouldn’t give her Diet. The story went that she had given the nurses the finger and refused the Coke.

That was the news that traveled through the ward at breakfast, where the bulimics could barely hear for the horrible sound of their mastication, and the anorexics couldn’t listen, so focused were they on their fear. But Julia heard it, through her own chewing, and subsequently she would try to model herself after this girl. She wanted to be able to go against something. Anything. She feared her disease was a disease of complicity. She would become hard and she would change many times and then one day she would soften, but not until she had a child and she had been disarmed and forced into the care of another. A child would soften her. Loving animals would also soften her but not like a child would.

On the ward Julia was not yet tough and not yet soft because she was not yet formed. She did not yet know, for example, what it meant on those nights when she would hear the moans of the women on the ward making love to one another. She did not know there was pleasure to be found there. Often the moans of satisfaction around her were what woke her from her dreams of fishermen. Her psychiatrist was named Dr. Fisher. Julia’s main complaint to him was how she still had to do her homework while on the ward. She was reading Hamlet; she had to call her teachers to discuss the play. Which she did, in the little cluttered office saved for nurses. It was unfair, the psychiatrist agreed. Getting healthy takes time. Dr. Fisher was short and fat and redheaded and what Julia would remember most about him was the way fishermen appeared in so many of her dreams.

The drawings they did on the ward were meant as keepsakes, evidence. Discharged in time to apply to college, as her parents had insisted, Julia would bring hers home and secure it with gray putty to the back of her closet. It would hang there as evidence, even when she left for college five months later and turned to more socially acceptable forms of obliteration. Her mother cleared out most of the other things in that closet—a cut-up soccer sweatshirt, lace-up Joan & David leather boots, a field hockey stick, a yellow lion won at Kings Dominion—all to the Goodwill. She left the drawing of her daughter’s body though. She was afraid to touch it.

Other items replaced what had been Julia’s—her dead grandmother’s silver, bulging scrapbooks, hanging closets within the closet filled with mothballs—and Julia only sees the drawing years later when she returns. She is with her child. Her husband will no longer join her on these holiday trips to her parents’ house because she is divorced now. Nothing was enough for her, he said. She was never satisfied. They even quarreled on their honeymoon. This was in Paris, a city so beautiful she had felt she was always in the wrong place, that she should be eating elsewhere, walking elsewhere, seeing something better than whatever was before her. Also, she had wanted the baby with such fervency she could see little else. She had stopped at nothing.

Marriage was one of life’s innumerable expectations that would teach her how nothing is behind a person. As she trudges up the attic stairs—she grew up in the attic, smoking at the window seat for most of her young adulthood—she is out of breath, even though she has remained fit all these years, has not let herself go, never given in because that, she knows, would be the straw that breaks it. She feels it sometimes, the way she can’t stop with the cookies and sometimes the ice cream that her husband would keep in the house and then scold her for eating when he found the pint empty. I wonder why you chose him, Dr. Fisher might once have said. What do you think that’s about? On docks or boats or in huts on frozen lakes, there were so many fishermen in her dreams then. Her husband did not have a name she could dream into.

That faraway time when Julia was on the ward was as distant to her husband as his first love, his first kiss, and so, he thought, should that time be for her. Julia never found the words to tell him that his were such sweet things. Such sweet memories. All beginnings.

Winded, she reaches her room in the attic and as she opens the door to hang the dress she intends to wear for the new memory she has returned to her childhood home to make, she sees it: the young shape of her body folded in half, bowing to the weight of its own pins and buttons and burnt matches. It is impossible not to remember, not to be that girl again, the youngest girl in a room full of women—the discharges and the admitted, where are they? Where is April? Once not long ago, Julia saw a woman on the street with black stringy hair and steel-toed boots and a ripped biker jacket—but of course, she realized, that could be any young woman, and the woman Julia searched for, were she alive, would be middle-aged by now.

Here is the evidence: April’s shaky drawing, her worst self bowed toward her. What would it be like to stop wanting, Julia wonders in much the same way she wondered then. To just be able to eat it and see it and spend it and keep it and fuck it and love it. What she had done to herself as a teenager was a way around this issue, she knows. To have what she wanted and rid herself of it. It is impossible to shake that. Want is deep and big and horrible and it cannot be chased down. She wonders, shutting the closet door, as she had wondered on the ward of grim women, how she would ever manage to keep it all down, to keep it all in. Of course, that had not been want. None of this is want. She hadn’t wanted any of it. Where, Julia wonders, is her heart’s desire.

 is the author of five novels, and an assistant professor at Lafayette College.

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April 2023

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