Variations on a Theme

I

 

There is a photograph my mother is fond of showing people whenever she explains how far I have fallen. I am insolent now, uncharacteristically so, and she is unused to seeing my anger so unhidden. “See how happy we were?” she laments, phone in hand, zooming in on the expertly cropped image. In it, we are standing soldier-like behind a table overflowing with food. The corners of our mouths are upturned in the same way. “10th grade, Thanksgiving break,” she explains. “She had just gotten back from boarding school.” And then, invariably, she turns to me and asks, “Do you remember that? What a nice girl you were? Do you remember?”

I do, no matter what I try. I do.

*

As my parents stared me down for refusing my aunt’s casserole, my sister quietly finished her second helping of Thanksgiving turkey. She was fearless where I faltered.

Hard-boiled eggs, hollowed and rinsed of any remaining yolk, were not dangerous. Neither were watercress leaves in sealed plastic bags. I carried these things in tin lunch boxes, like a child. My mother often scolded me for wasting food. She had watched girls thinner than I was wrestle over cups of flour, knobbed fingers caught in the spaces between ribs. My sister always took the rejected gray yolks into her mouth without complaint. Later, she would remark on their smoothness.

I pushed a plate of sautéed collard greens across the table. I didn’t like the way the oil glinted at me.

Of my own volition I had been hungry for almost three months. There were certain dietary staples I did not stray from, romaine lettuce and steamed broccoli chief among them. I had a fear of growth and a fear of death simultaneously. Faced with fats and starches I felt lust and disgust in equal measure. Sometimes it was hard to differentiate learned from innate revulsion. I never liked bacon before and when I began to comprehend the meaning of the grease it left on the griddle, I grew to hate it. The same went for cream cheese and bagels, whose rich blandness was best complemented by the brininess of stomach acid and the hot relief of mistakes forgiven. My tongue forgot flavor—my mind invented it in plates of naked green things.

Being home scared me but not for the reasons it should have. I had succeeded, and hating decline as much as I did made success a paranoid place. The tomatoes were too sweet to be trusted. The measuring spoons were warped from the heat of the dishwasher. I imagined my body growing withered. I imagined my body growing swollen. No salad bar safety. No dorm room hiding place. There would be lunches —matinées—and dinners and dinners and dinners.

“Audrey,” I found myself whispering, “Aren’t you afraid?” I imagined biting into the turkey’s thick roasted flesh, the gravy coating my lips with a slimy layer of fat.

“Afraid of what? Them?” She glanced toward my mother and father. “No, not right now.”

I opened my lunch box in my lap and extracted one half of an egg white. I couldn’t bear to chew it. My tongue ran involuntarily along the concave surface, picking up forgotten flakes of yolk, whose quasi-creaminess I held in my mouth for several minutes.

“Mommy, can I have some more?” Audrey gestured to the mashed potatoes. My mother gazed past her, unhearing as usual.

I stood, faced the wall, and emptied my cholesterol-contaminated mouthful into a napkin. When I turned back, I felt my mother’s arm curl around my body, watched her face contort into a red carpet smile. Before I could brace myself, I saw the flash of my uncle’s camera from across the table.

 

II

 

I tell Audrey a story on the way home, the usual one, about when we were little. Back then, she’d cry over the silliest things: smushed flies, roadkill, belly-up carnival goldfish. One day, I recount, she found a mangled feather boa on the sidewalk and mourned it too. My mother thought it was awfully white of her, inventing tragedy where none existed. Her dumb little gweilo daughter, pampered and hungry for problems.

“Funny how I’m the one who ended up vegetarian,” I say, but Audrey doesn’t laugh, just unlocks the front door and then closes it behind us, her expression inscrutable. I wonder if it’s because I’m leaving tomorrow, for the first time since the last time. If I had a sister like me, I wouldn’t miss her much. But Audrey is kinder than I am, more forgiving.

“Did you pack your concealer?” she asks. We’ve reached my room now, and she is searching through my makeup bag. “You should have one for blemishes and one for under-eye circles.” She is 14 but already beautiful, a double-edged quality in a girl so young. She colors herself in perfectly every morning. It was she who taught me to draw shadows on my face to distract from its increasing sphericity. My mother never comments on Audrey’s handiwork except when the powders smudge. You look dirty, she says. Like a cheap whore.

I nod. “Yep, the Almay and the Neutrogena.”

“And primer, too,” Audrey adds. “Don’t forget that.”

At the peak of my success, I was cruel to her. I was desperate, then, for reassurance. I sought safety in myself, in the protrusion of vertebrae, in the growth of fine pigmentless fur that spread over my skin—any palpable proof of purity. But I needed more, I needed a frame of reference, and there she was, silent and pliant as always.

“Close your eyes,” she says, and takes to curling my lashes, which resist beauty, which even now are sparse and fragile. A few casualties land atop my cheeks. She brushes them off and murmurs an apology.

It was so easy, even at that stage, to push her into the bathroom, force her onto the scale, measure the inches of her pre-adolescent body. It was my favorite game: Are You Smaller Than a Sixth Grader?

And somehow, when I met my ineluctable fate a few months later, she had found it in herself to dust my resentful intubated face with blush. How clownish I’d looked, thick paint on sallow canvas. She hadn’t been so skilled back then, it was guesswork, reverse engineering. Now she is like a doctor with those brushes, those palettes, her expert hands exacting and incapable of failure. The girl she presents to me in a hand mirror betrays no trace of her nasogastric past.

“You’ll call me every day, right?”

“Every week,” I say.

She holds the mirror at arm’s length so that we both can fit inside it. “We look like we have different parents,” she says, and she presses her tanned, dimpled cheek to my pale one. “We look like different races.” I turn and blink against her face, tickling her forehead with my matted lashes. True to form, our laughs look nothing alike.

As a final touch, she takes a tweezer to my brows, pulling the skin taut to minimize pain.

Many years earlier, when still I was indifferent to my roundness, I had made a game of dropping my possessions from our bedroom window and listening for the sound of small objects hitting concrete—the light affirmative clatter that marked the turn from cause to effect.

I wish she’d hurt me just a little.

I wish she’d show some sign.

 

III

 

My mother learned English from her grandfather. He gave her a very tattered Oxford English Dictionary, a relic of his time spent studying biology in Britain, and designed an ambitious plan of study: every morning, she had to copy a page of definitions letter by letter, and every evening, he would check her transcriptions by reading them aloud. The day he killed himself, she didn’t finish her writing practice, and she dreaded his return from work until she found out it was never coming. A few weeks later, his dictionary was confiscated and burned by Red Guards.

She would repeat this story to us every time we were disobedient. You’re going to kill me, she’d say. Just do the dishes. Come out of your room. Finish your food. Finish your food. Finish your food.

Now she is telling this story again, but for a different reason. “Can’t you see what a good project this is?” Her voice crackles in my earbuds. “A young girl teaching herself English. A small act of insurgency against insurgency. It’s just like what I tried to do as a girl. And imagine how it’ll look on her résumé!”

“But think of how much school she’ll miss.”

My mother scoffs. “One good role can launch a career.”

“I just don’t think it’s right,” I say, and I hang up so abruptly that she’ll believe me later, when I tell her it was inclement weather that interrupted our connection.

 *

Once I get back, the first thing Audrey and I do is walk to the grocery store. Though it’s hardly the most exciting activity to kick off the winter breaks of our respective freshman years, we’ll take any opportunity to get out of the house.

I’m craving macaroni today, and Audrey suggests that we make some together. “I need your help,” she tells me, holding up two boxes of pasta. “Which is healthier?”

“Whole wheat, I guess.”

She moves down the aisle, scrutinizing the rows of tomato sauce. “This one has more sodium but not as many calories.” She analyzes the nutrition labels with such intense concentration that she nearly collides with a shopper in a Barry’s Bootcamp t-shirt. I tell myself I shouldn’t be surprised. There is something about this age that seems to infect everyone with these preoccupations, albeit to varying degrees.

But I want to tell her what it felt like.

“Since when do you care about this stuff, Audrey?” I want to tell her about the hunger beyond hunger, when it is no longer the stomach begging but the entire body. I want to tell her about the wanting, and the punishment for wanting, and the endlessness of each day.

“I have to. For the part.” She lowers her voice. “For the movie.”

“Oh. Right.”

Audrey places a can of fat-free low-sodium tomato sauce in our shopping cart.

“Are you sure you want to do it? If you don’t eat enough you’ll be short for the rest of your life.” It’s too hard to tell her about the other reasons, the other consequences.

“I’m not gonna do anything crazy. Just eat better and run longer distances, that’s all.” She takes a jar of peanut butter from its shelf, then puts it back down. I think of the night before my fourteenth birthday: me and my dorm-mate in the common room swishing peanut butter in our mouths and spitting the brown globs into a plastic bag. We can’t tell anyone about this, I’d said. People are gonna think we’re pre-bulimic or some shit.

“Can you at least think about taking a different role instead?” I ask.

“I’ve already thought about it. I don’t want a minor part. I don’t want to be an extra.” She walks to the next aisle and I watch her sprinter’s legs flex in ways mine can’t. I imagine her leggings growing loose; I imagine her rifling through the sick clothes I should have donated; I imagine her trying on the jeans I wore when the infirmary nurses asked me why my heart rate was so low.

“Whatever then. If you’re so sure.”

I know that there is no way to stop this, that my mother would laugh if I told her my fears, laugh and do worse than laugh. No pain my sister and I have faced or will face could ever compare to hers. Losing twenty-five pounds to play a starving communist child is one thing; growing up a starving communist child is another.

 

IV

 

I began, in my sophomore year of high school, to devise a repertoire of meticulous tricks in preparation for every one of my trips home. I fancied myself an illusionist, pouring soy sauce on a white plate, tracing the outlines of my imaginary meal with a chopstick—it was a private comedy, a thrilling act of forgery, and I was both excited and offended that no one ever discovered my acts of deception. Perhaps, I thought, they were too distracted by my mother, who ate with a ferocity unmatched even by feral animals. She possessed an intimate understanding of hunger, told stories of catching and skinning frogs to feed her brothers. It used to embarrass me, how she would swallow her food as if someone were trying to steal it. Now I was glad her habits would cover mine.

At school it was easy to stay unnoticed. I did as I pleased, lived in a room no one else entered, and recorded my progress in dry-erase marker on the surface of a full-length mirror. Occasionally, a dorm-mate would remark on my continued absence from the dining hall. For the most part I was left in peace.

In my mind it was purely logical, the natural consequence of knowing how to count. I grew to love it, in time, the beauty of the balanced equation, the quantity subtracted, the triglyceride transformed into carbon and water. But first the simplicity of it seduced me. How easily the body could be revised, how quickly the flesh surrendered to the whims of its inhabitant. A bloodless coup, quiet as a child drowning.

I observed it sometimes in other girls, small details, the litany of mental measurements audible only to fellow zealots. No, not you too, I’d think, a sharp pang of jealousy rising in my chest as though we hadn’t all learned it together, as though the root of this special power hadn’t been offered to every one of us. Recall the sixth grade outings to Moscone Playground; recall the way we repurposed the seesaw into a scale, clever girls, always inventing. In these moments perhaps our destinies were manifest.

And still I thought my sister would be immune.

When I think I see the signs, the first real signs, I tell no one. I wonder about the cause of the sick feeling inside of me: Am I protective of my sister or possessive of my disease?

“Audrey,” I ask her finally, “what are you doing?”

She is tightening the laces of her running shoes. The window is open. It is mid-January. There are no seasons here. “I’ll be back before dark,” she says.

When she’s gone, I find the script on the dining room table. The writing is ugly. The dialogue is the kind that must be delivered with a strained third-world accent.

 

TING:

Mother! Mother! Why doesn’t she see me? Where does she go?

 

BO-TAO:

Is only us two now.

 

I wonder what the process is for a film like this. The famine begins in the second act. Will they shoot the scenes in sequence, my sister’s body shrinking alongside her character’s? Or will she be healthy one day and half-starved the next?

 

TING:

Please, Uncle. One egg. I won’t ask you tomorrow.

 

BO-TAO:

Some rice? Uncle, I beg you, my sister is hungry.

 

She returns in an hour, sweating and flushed. I offer her bread, string cheese, a granola bar. And in her face I see that awful turning, the fluctuating resolve. I almost hear the calculations, before finally she shakes her head and walks away—a fast learner, like me.

 

 

 

 

 

An earlier version of this story was published in The Harvard Crimson as "My Sister Will Be Hungry."