By: Justin Barker
At my worst, I chased a bowl of funfetti cake batter with half a bottle of Tylenol PM. I don’t recommend it. Have you ever puked up an entire bowl of funfetti cake batter? No? Well, you’re missing out. After the sprinkles mix together and are partially dissolved by your stomach acids, the result coming back up can be best described as a pea-shit-green–thick-mucus glob. (Side bar: funfetti is still my favorite cake. I’m not discouraged easily.)
Anyway, I’m eighteen. It’s the summer before I go away to college. And, I’m just beginning a long-term relationship with my eating disorder. It’s actually the longest relationship I’ve been in. Twelve years to be exact. In fact, it has lasted longer than most marriages. (I read somewhere that the average marriage lasts eight years.) Ed and I have been together for twelve, and it’s been a raucous time. We have a lot of fond memories together. Like the time I miscalculated and ate 800 calories instead of 700, so I threw back half a box of laxatives to make up the difference. Or, the time my liver started to shut down due to and “iron deficiency.”
And then there are holidays. Ed always insists that we bring our own food—his preference, pre-packaged microwavable meals. Must be under 300 calories. Must not partake in the following: turkey, ham, stuffing, gravy, sweet potato casserole, biscuits, anything fried, anything cooked in oil, anything cooked with bacon, and pie. ABSOLUTELY NO PIE. During holiday dinners, he sits close, watches me more closely. No one says anything, but they always stare. We’re a curiosity and an aberration. Even after twelve Christmas dinners, my family hasn’t warmed up to his brooding, Heathcliff-like personality and charm. Of course, they’d first have to recognize that we’re together, that he’s a permanent part of my life.
But before of this—before the bringing home to meet mom and dad and the holiday dinners—Ed and I celebrate our six-week anniversary by going out for a bowl of funfetti cake batter and Tylenol PM chasers. I suppose one would call this the “honeymoon period”—we’re just getting to know each other. We hook up six weeks earlier in Florida during my senior graduation trip. I mean, we’d been having a flirtation for a few weeks prior, but nothing serious. Just some eye batting, note passing, and shit. But then there’s Florida. Ed and I fall hard for each other. It’s the bathing suits, the lack of attention from guys, inadequacy, insecurity, and after five days, we’re practically inseparable. We’ve basically picked out our china pattern, which is ironic, I know. After a week, I return home with my new beau.
JB + ED=FOREVA.
And in a way, that’s not necessarily untrue. Remember, twelve years.
On the morning of our anniversary, I wake up, tired. Not sleepy tired, but the kind of tired where my limbs feel thick and heavy. My entire body aches, and I have a five-mile run ahead of me. It’s part of my daily routine: I wake up, eat my cookie dough (brownie, if I’m feeling adventurous) Slimfast bar (220 calories), and then head to the track. This morning, though, I can’t. Twenty laps around a high school track made from what seems like shards of car tires is too much; it’s all too much. But Ed is all about that five-mile run.
“Come on, babe, it’s just five miles,” he croons.
I remain motionless on the edge of my bed. My running shoes poised and ready on the floor by my feet.
“You have no excuse, sweetheart. You miss today, and you show what a failure you are. That’s several hundred calories converted into fat.” Ed nudges the running shoes closer to my feet.
I kick at them: one flies off and hits the closet door.
I grit my teeth. “Shut the fuck up.”
“Mooooo…” He slaps the mattress with his hands and rocks back and forth. “Moooo…”
My stomach growls—low, deep, persistent. The Slimfast bar wasn’t enough. It’s never enough, but today I can’t ignore it—the want. Today I can’t persuade my stomach that hunger is “character building.” I can’t listen to him. I pull my body off the bed and slump down the stairs, distantly serenaded by Ed’s farm animal noises.
I’m now in the kitchen, standing in front of the pantry—door open, item upon item of processed foods before me. Do I want Oreos? No. Poptarts? Meh. A box of Captain Crunch. Tempting, but no. I’m hungry, and I want something thick and sugary. Something that’s going to land in the pit of my stomach with conviction.
Then I see it—middle shelf, left of center—radiating a Holy Grail-like luminescence. The light blue box with the rainbow-outlined childlike letters scrawled across the front. The squishy, pure, huggable Pillsbury Doughboy with his arms outstretched. Poised. Ready. Calling to me. I reach out, grab hold, and delicately place it on the kitchen counter.
Bowl. 3 eggs. 1 cup water. ½ cup oil. Some kind of spoon for mixing.
The mix hits the bowl with a slight puff, and I breathe in its artificially sweet aroma. If Candy Land were a scratch-and-sniff board game, I imagine it would smell like funfetti cake mix.
The eggs, viscous, gleaming, land on the powdery mix with a subtle “schlawp.”
Then a glimmering topcoat of oil and water.
It all comes together flawlessly. An understated golden hue studded with multicolor gems of sugar.
I cradle the bowl in my arms as I walk back upstairs. Ed lounges on the bed, flipping through a Vogue. When I sit down next to him, he doesn’t say anything, just gives some side eye.
I slurp in the first spoonful and everything goes quiet. A thick silence. A vacuumous silence.
My arm moves mechanically between bowl and mouth. Scoop. Slurp. Scoop. Slurp. Nothing exists outside the bowl, my mouth, and my arm. Scoop. Slurp. Scoop. Slurp.
The batter globs together inside my mouth, coats my throat, slides down into my belly.
I keep my eyes closed. It’s ecstasy. Orgasm. Comfort. Love.
Metal scrapes against plastic and the spoon connects with the bowl’s naked bottom; it’s over.
I drop the spoon into the bowl, and press my hand to my stomach—hard, distended.
Ed quietly occupies the space next to me. Every few seconds there’s a slight rustle of magazine pages.
I press my fingers into my stomach, creating eight separate red indentations. The batter has hardened, turned into concrete. It’s taking up space, crowding my organs. I weigh a ton. I am a ton.
I am regret.
I want Ed to say something. Call me a cow, pig, fat cunt. He sighs. Turns the page. Sighs again.
I’m expanding. My thighs. My arms. I reach down and pinch a knob of fat on my hip. The cake batter fills every inch of empty space, every crevice, every dip.
My fist makes contact with my stomach. One. Two. Three times. Tomorrow a large purple flower will bloom there.
Ed senses my panic. He knows. Then, he clears his throat. “Nightstand. Top drawer. It’s what you want.”
I reach into the drawer and pull out the bottle—white with blue lettering. I fumble with the childproof cap. Simultaneously push and twist. Fuck. The cap’s ridges scrape against the undersides of my fingers as I push, twist, pull.
Plastic grates against plastic as the lid gives way to reveal a pool of oblong, blue pills. I pour them onto the bed, and they click together. Slowly. One. Two. Three. Then faster. Five. Seven. Ten. Thirteen. Fifteen. They form a tiny, blue mountain on the faded flowers of my quilt.
My arm moves mechanically between the pile of pills and my mouth. Pick up. Place on tongue. Swallow. Pick up. Place on tongue. Swallow. Nothing exists outside the pile, my mouth, and my arm. Pick up. Place on tongue. Swallow.
Each pill is bitter, sweet, metallic. The taste coats my tongue, my throat. Something sharp, acidic rises in the back of my throat; I swallow it back down. I continue.
At fifteen I stop, not by choice. I could do fifteen more and fifteen after that and fifteen after that. I need to purge myself completely. But fifteen is all I have.
And then, later, someone is stabbing me. In my stomach. Over and over. And I can’t see; I’m blind. I can feel. Again. Again. Again. I flail and reach out to push away the assailant. I push darkness; I push air.
No, it’s coming from the inside—something in my stomach is trying to rip its way out. It’s the pills—the pills are trying to rip their way out of my stomach. Hours have passed. And I remember the cake batter, the pills, and Ed. Where’s Ed? I reach out for him, and there’s nothing.
He’s there, though. Breathing—I hear it.
I’m in fetal position, and it’s happening.
I lean over and vomit into the bowl. I return to it the same contents it once held. The smell is acrid and sweet. I wretch once more.
“You think I’d let you get out of it that easy,” Ed finally says. He’s close, and I can smell him. He smells like something rotten and sweet—a banana left on the counter for two days too long.
My stomach responds with another spasm. I lean into the bowl, but nothing comes out. It’s all in there now. Every last ounce of cake batter re-delivered.
His breath is on the side of my face. Condensation forms on my cheek.
“Shhhhhh,” Ed whispers and pushes the hair from my face. His hand is warm, moist, but I want him to hold it there against my forehead. I feel repulsed. I yearn. I lean into him.
“You have to learn control, sweetheart,” he whispers. “But now you know. Just enough to make you regret, to make you remember what it feels like coming back up. It’s unpleasant, amirite?”
I want him to be proud of me, to approve, to know I listen.
“We’re going to be together a long time, sweetheart.”
And he’s right, we are. It’s our six-week anniversary—the first six weeks out of twelve years. Even though I don’t know it at the time. Twelve. Years.
All the same, I nod my head and curl up in his arms.
Justin Barker has a Ph.D. in medieval literature from Purdue University. She currently lives in Natchitoches, LA—the very town that inspired Steel Magnolias—where she teaches English at a residential public high school for “gifties.” She splits time between corralling teenagers, wrangling her cat, and binge-watching Golden Girls. She has published essays on medieval literature and pedagogy in Parergon and Radical Teacher.