A young girl has anorexia nervosa --"The Secret Life of Plants" was published in Thema magazine
The Secret Life of Plants
Jane St. Clair
As usual when she woke up, her heart beat fast and she felt shaky and sweaty. She put her feet on the floor and tried to quiet the dizziness in her head.Getting her footing, she walked to the bathroom and weighed herself: 96 pounds, a quarter pound heavier than yesterday.
Her hand shook as she brushed her teeth.She forced herself to get dressed and to make up her face, but all she could think about was the one egg and one-half grapefruit she planned for breakfast.But she would not allow herself to eat before dressing: such sloppiness led to overweight.
She felt nauseous and her mouth watered and her head was still dizzy as she watched her egg cook in its greaseless, microwave holder.She cut her grapefruit into ritualistic sized cubes and sprinkled one packet powered saccharin on top.
Her hands shook as she put the first forkful of food into her mouth, which exploded into sensation at the taste.Salt (egg) Sweet (saccharin) Sour (grapefruit) and Bitter (coffee) – each was a stronger feeling in her mouth that longed for food than the touch of an experienced lover on a virgin’s body.
Antoinette only ate between and – never before, never after.Lunch, always a salad with one scoop cottage cheese and one apple, was consumed between and as she sat at her receptionist desk in a swank high-rise office in down town Chicago.Dinner was at and consisted of four ounces poultry or fish, salad, and another apple. Then she ate nothing until the next morning.When she had trouble sleeping, which was most nights, she would drink Diet Coke and smoke.
The less she ate, the more love she received.
“God, you’re gorgeous.”
“It should happen to me.”
“Your waist is like Barbie’s.”
“Some girls have all the luck.”
Perhaps on some metaphysical level, the less a person ate, the less she took away from other living things and thus, the more valued she became. Antoinette did not know all the reasons, she just knew they were true .She knew that when she was sixteen years old and weighed 140 pounds, she was attracting only middle-aged married men and janitors.At 130 pounds, she attracted heavy-set young men and the other two categories.At 120 pounds, all of the above plus athletically inclined men her own age and under. At 96 pounds, she attracted every man from skinny gay high school guys who thought she looked like Hepburn in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” to old retired men, who admired her delicacy, and every other man in between.She was a little doll, a fashion queen, a ballerina, the little wisp of a girl on the cover of every romance novel and women’s magazine.
Her mother and her four aunts had heavy, Eastern European peasant bodies.They were apple-shaped with big bellies and big breasts, and they wore jackets and caftans and Hawaiian dresses ordered from catalogs.They loved Antoinette’s trim little body, so perfectly neat and sexually neutral, likea slim Lolita who belonged in seventh grade in middle school.Antoinette wore wide belts that clinched her tiny waist and then loped them over to further emphasize her thinness.She did not need big hair to balance her figure, and looked incredibly chic in a ballerina’s chignon or a teenager’s ponytail.She could wear any look from Vogue or Bazaar, and she was the ultimate petit garcon – French for both “little boy” and “young woman.”
As Antoinette became every man’s Barbie Dream Date and every woman’s fashion icon, her physical gender faded away.Her periods became lighter and lighter and then disappeared.Now she took up even less space on the planet than ever, and now her potential to increase life was gone too.
Antoinette’s boyfriend, Roger, was a medical student and a big, naturally slim Swede with broad shoulders, big green eyes and large, practical hands.He loved how strong Antoinette made him feel, how she was so dainty that she could not open jars or lift heavy books.He loved how she spoke in poetry and reacted to ballet and music like a connoisseur.She compensated for her lack of interest in food with a million small sensations of tiny physical pleasures.She would talk about the touch of the rain’s hands, the sound of snow, the magic of the sky at night, and the secret beauty of plants.
Once Roger and Antoinette stood near Lake Michigan as it tumbled torrentially in a rising night wind and then they watched the moon rise up.Antoinette shivered with her usual cold, and Roger put his coat around her thin shoulders.Then, suddenly, he put out his cigarette and ground its red light into the heel of his shoe.He grabbed the Virginia Slim from her mouth and threw it away.
“We don’t need these,” he said.
To his surprise, his delicate little flower roared up at him, a meat-eating Venus.
“I do need that!”She seemed frantic as she left him standingalone, while she tore into the grass, searching for her cigarette that smouldered in the wetness of plants and sand.She swore when she tossed it aside and angrily pulled out another one.
Roger watched as her poetry deconstructed before his eyes.Her hair, which always seemed like brown corn silk, now looked sketchy, stringy and thinning.The skin on her face was tight and now he watched it pucker into wrinkles around her mouth as she drew smoke into her body.Antoinette moved only with hesitation or mostly she did not move at all, and Roger realized she was for pictures, not for life.She absorbed her cigarette like a too big baby with a too strong suction drawing milk from a breast, and he saw the level of her addiction.He would wean her kindly and carefully and then he would miss her beauty and her delicacy and her non-demanding nature.Roger was sad for months after he left her, and he never smoked again after that strange night by the lake.
After Roger left her, Antoinette gained three pounds.She calculated that their sexual life had burned up so many calories each week and that her changed level of activity had produced a caloric shortfall.She knew menstruation burned up 400 calories each month, so after eight months without a period, that accounted for a one pound gain, if she calculated3500 calories as one pound of body fat.She gave up her apples and began to walk an extra subway stop each day and that did the trick.The three Roger pounds were lost along with two extra to spare.Now she weighed 94 pounds and wore a size one dress.
Soon after Roger left, she met Charlotte Chamber, a very rich girl who had gone to NorthwesternUniversity.Charlotte loved Antoinette’s chic in clothes, as she was strictly an L.L. Bean girl herself.Charlotte had the ultimately casual attitude toward dress: if she liked a certain shirt or tee, she would buy six of them in different colors and wear them forever.She wore these same shirts over and over with jeans or slacks and a black pea coat.Charlotte had a good haircut and beautiful white teeth, but she was helpless with make-up.She watched in awe as Antoinette would apply thirty different gels, cremes, liners, and mascaras that blended and colored and highlighted her face into a perfect rainbow study out of Renoir.Antoinette once “made up” Charlotte but Charlotte could not stand the feel of artificial cremes on her skin, just like she could not bear contact lenses in her eyes.
Charlotte knew five seasons: ski, tennis, golf, swim and boat, and she was constantly inviting Antoinette to join her celebrations, and could not understand why Antoinette always turned her down.Charlotte loved her job as a film editor at an advertising agency, and could not understand how Antoinette could stand just being a receptionist.
How could Antoinette explain that it was an effort in her weak state just to arrive at the office each day, sit behind her desk, and think about her lunch?How could she tell anyone how her legs always threatened to give way underneath her, how she loved only to come home and collapse in her chair after the exertion of her commute, how the most beautiful sight of her day was her dinner plate of carefully prepared and arranged food served at the ritual hour of 9 P.M.
Once as they were strolling in the suburban town of Evanston on a lazy Saturday morning, Charlotte, lanky, healthy and voraciously hungry, noticed a small Danish bakery.
“Oh great!They have these shops all over Europe!I miss that!” Charlotte bubbled as she pulled Antoinette inside.
There were little samples of pastry, cookies, and breads on the counter. Charlotte grabbed one of everything and gulped each down.
“Try this, Tony! It’s yum!”
Charlotte spoke happily, and was a little taken aback by Antoinette’s pulling away from her.
Antoinette’s stomach filled with juices and her mouth was watering.She was nauseous and ravenous at the same time. It was ten in the morning – three hours until lunch, three hours since breakfast.She reached into her purse for a cigarette.
“Take it outside, young lady!” the owner barked in accented English.
Antoinette put it away but she could hardly control the dizzy feeling and hunger that the bakery smells evoked.
“I forgot to have breakfast this morning,” Charlotte chirped.“So I’m getting one of this, and one of that...”
Antoinette wondered at her words.She had designed her ritual diet when she was sixteen years old, and she had not skipped a meal once in the seven years since. Indeed most of her thoughts were about her next meal.
Charlotte turned gaily to the baker.
“I’m starved!One of those decadent chocolate things – put it right here!And a strong cup of coffee! Tony, you’ll at least have a coffee?”
She turned and was surprised that Antoinette had gone outside. Antoinette’s mouth puckered around the small white paper tube of weed, and she sucked smoke as if it were nourishment.
Charlotte maneuvered her tray of sweets and coffee on to a small sidewalk table, and chatted as she did that.
“I feel like such a pig!You won’t have anything at all!You know, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you eat!”
“Oh, I eat all the time!” Antoinette said as off-handedly as she could manage.
“We’ll go to Les Bistro Provence for lunch,” Charlotte announced through chomps. “They make these deadly crepes – full of big sugared strawberries and whipped cream.We’ll eat our way through Evanston.”
Antoinette watched her friend enjoy her pastry.She saw how beautifully tanned Charlotte’s skin was, how bright and alert her eyes were behind the granny glasses, and how her body was full of energy, health and joy.
“That’s fantastic!” Charlotte cooed. “But now I’ll have to golf tomorrow for sure!You know, work it off.”
She laughed, and Antoinette knew that Charlotte may or may not golf – it was only an option, not a concern.She was a size ten and would always wear a size ten, like her mother.Food was an unconscious thing for Charlotte, and only sometimes a pleasure and an adventure as it was that day at the bakery.
Antoinette stared at the flowers in the window of the Danish bakery.They were browning and dry.
“Plants have many defenses against death,” Charlotte said, noticing her friend’s interest. “They have this cold snap mechanism, and defenses against toxins, and they can bend down and turn brown and stop reproducing – they’re very complex.Oh, I do go on and on, don’t I?Why don’t you get a Coke?You like Coke.”
Antoinette rarely ordered drinks at public places.One can never be sure if one was getting a real diet drink, or if the waiter was serving a regular drink with 180 calories.Also one has to consider that some sweeteners have more calories than others.
“You make me feel like such a pig.”Charlotte said, licking confectioner’s sugar from her fingertips.
Antoinette smiled and lit another cigarette. She felt less tension now that all the food was gone from sight.
“Well, that was so good,” Charlotte said, drenching the plants with her water glass. “Really, Antoinette, you don’t know what you’re missing.”
Good imagery in the relation of plants to humans and anorexia to slow death. The way you describe the systematic approach to eating is done very well. The one thing I don't understand is her comparisons between her wait and how attractive she is. I realize that anorexic people wrongly view weight loss as attractive (it is even more mistaken in a post-J. Lo, post-Beyonce world), but I thought that the thing that kept them going was the fact that they would never reach their ideal, which your character has. It's just a though, and I might be wrong. Otherwise, very good piece.
Beautifully written and so truthful. I have a niece who battles with bulemia and OCD. Many people don't realize the pain of this very real disease and how it controls them and the secrets they keep from others.