Authors: Heather Topham Wood
The Disappearing Girl
A Novel by
Heather Topham Wood
THE DISAPPEARING GIRL
Copyright: Heather Topham Wood
Published: May 7, 2013
The right of Heather Topham Wood to be identified as author of this Work has been asserted by her in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in retrieval system, copied in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise transmitted without written permission from the publisher. You must not circulate this book in any format.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously.
To the girls who’ve never felt beautiful
I began to lose pieces of myself over the winter break.
I had returned home from college to spend time with my mother and younger sister until the spring semester began in January. Christmas was a trying affair; only the second one our family had endured since my father died a year and a half earlier. His stocking still hung from the mantle, his armchair left empty while we opened gifts—and his ghost ever present.
My father’s death left my mother with a permanent scowl etched into her flawless features. My mother was beautiful in a way that made strangers assume she was a famous actress or a world-class model. Her hair was naturally dark with auburn highlights, and her eyes were the color of emeralds. Jaws dropped when it was revealed she was a housewife. Pitiful expressions betrayed their thoughts: what a waste of beauty.
My younger sister, Lila, and I were a disappointment to my mother because of our ordinariness. We both had straight brown hair and the same murky brown eyes as our father. No one stopped to compliment us on our stunning looks. Since middle school, boys would ask to come over to our house to glimpse my mother sunning in the backyard, clad in a skimpy bikini and rolled onto her back with the strings left untied. The boys’ eyes would volley between my mother, Lila, and me, their thoughts leaking into their expressions: a beautiful mother didn’t always guarantee a beautiful daughter.
Dad had always been our biggest advocate, shushing my mother’s criticisms and making outrageous claims about how Lila and I were the greatest beauties that ever graced the planet. I never realized how much of a buffer he was until he was gone.
I had my own personal countdown for when I’d be able to return to my college campus, because each day brought a new barrage of insults from my mom. I tried to sympathize; she was drowning in her own misery, but all I craved was an escape. My father was the one great love of her life and his death undermined her chance of ever being happy again. Although she ate up the attention other men gave her, my father was the only man that could melt her iciness. My father would tell us about how all the boys in their small hometown were too intimidated to ask my mom out on a date—the walls around her seemingly impenetrable. My dad may not have been the handsomest man to ever ask her out, but he was the most devoted and kind.
Like most nights before, dinner was a stilted affair. My father used to regal us with stories from work. He was a veterinarian, and his tales of the wild animals he saw from one day to the next would have Lila and I laughing so hard we would have difficulty swallowing our food. But after his death, suppertime turned into an opportunity for our mother to discuss our failures and how we’d have to rectify them in order to transform from the ugly ducklings we were into the beautiful swans she deserved.
“Did you receive your final grades for last semester?” she asked me as I took a bite of the salad she had prepared for us.
“Yes, I did fantastic. My GPA is three-point-seven.” I allowed the pride I felt over my accomplishment to seep into my voice. My mother had inspired obsessive perfectionism when it came to my life, and her disappointment in my grades had promoted me from a B to an A student. I thought excelling in school would be enough for her.
But nothing was ever enough. Her reply was a dismissive nod. She used her napkin to daintily dab at the salad dressing at the corners of her lips. I could feel her evaluation move on to my outward appearance as her eyes swept over me. Her perfectly sculpted eyebrows shot up as I reached across the table for another piece of bread from the basket.
She said, “Kayla, you really need to start making more of an effort regarding your weight.” She pressed her lips together and looked at me with unmasked distaste.
I looked to my sixteen-year-old sister for help, but she had her head down and was silently eating. I didn’t blame her—it was tough to be the target of so much vitriol over the course of a single meal. The week before, Mom had Lila in tears, threatening to confine her forever if she didn’t stop running around with a boy my mom deemed inappropriate.
I didn’t reply to her remark, having learned there was no battle she couldn’t win against me. I’d never be what she wanted. My only refuge was to attend school an hour away and return home only on the mandatory breaks. I was hoping to get my own apartment off-campus in the near future, which would allow Lila to visit me more often. I hated leaving her. Guilt would gnaw at me when I imagined what it was like when Lila was the only one around to suffer the brunt of my mother’s reign of terror.
“Kayla Marlowe, I am speaking to you,” my mom said with exasperation. “Have you been watching what you eat?”
I swallowed the snide remark on the tip of my tongue. My mother was obsessive when it came to our weights. She was a size two and I’d never seen her weight fluctuate. I was only five when Lila was born, but I couldn’t even recall her being swollen with pregnancy. I imagined she popped Lila out of her womb and slid right back into her skinny jeans.
The answer was no, I hadn’t been watching what I’d been eating. Going to college had been eye opening, and I hadn’t been prepared for the freedom of campus dining after living under the strict regime enforced by my mother. My meal plan allowed me a certain amount of money each semester for food. But instead of getting small portions of salads, grilled meats, and steamed vegetables, I was permitted for the first time in my life to eat whatever I wanted without answering to my mother.
After overindulging in late-night snacks, impromptu pizza study sessions, and flat keg beer at fraternity parties, I’d gained at least twenty-five pounds. I didn’t consider myself overweight, but my mom’s constant criticisms ate away at my self-confidence. I was wearing mostly size ten clothing, but I felt obese by her standards.
I sighed. “I know you’re permanently on a diet, Mom, but that’s not me.”
“It’s your life, Kayla, but men don’t typically want girls who let themselves go. Have you gone on any dates lately?”
Her words stung me, and she knew it. I hadn’t dated anyone seriously since breaking up with my high school boyfriend before I left for college. My friends blamed my lack of a love life to my shyness; social situations left me uncomfortable, and I preferred observing from the sidelines. But once I got to know a person, I was able to open up.
I rose from my seat. “I didn’t come home to hear your criticisms about my life. My weight has nothing to do with me being single.”
Her eyes narrowed, her expression telling me she thought it was exactly the reason I was unattached. My mother’s glare made me acutely aware of every bulge under my sweater and jeans. I threw my napkin down and stormed away from the table. I ignored Lila calling out my name as I grabbed my jacket and purse and rushed out of the house.
I hated deserting Lila, but I was angry at her for not jumping to my defense at dinner. We were supposed to be a team against my mom. Whenever my mom harassed my little sister, I attempted to put myself in the middle and stop the verbal abuse. Lila was more sensitive than me and prone to teary outbursts. It roused my protective instincts.
I had a tendency to process the pain privately. Even if I was falling apart inside, I pretended to be tough on the outside. But burying the anguish deep inside was getting more and more difficult each day. An explosion was on the horizon, and I wasn’t sure I’d still be standing once it erupted.
When I peeled away from my house in my burgundy Jeep Wrangler, I was clueless about where to go. My friend Tami’s house had always been a refuge after the many fiery arguments with my mom, but she was in Florida with her parents for the holidays. Although my school was in-state, my Trenton College friends were spread throughout the tri-state area. My roommate and best friend, Brittany, the only person besides Tami I confided in about my tumultuous relationship with my mom, was two hours north of my hometown of Red Bank.
Red Bank was a mid-sized New Jersey town minutes from the beach. Years ago, redevelopment efforts in the center of town revitalized the city by adding a large number of high-end shops and gourmet restaurants. I’d lived in the same split-level, four-bedroom house a couple of blocks from downtown since I was a baby.
The disruption at dinner made me realize I was hungry. In fact, all of a sudden, I felt ravenous. I parked my car in front of the twenty-four-hour convenience store and walked inside, zombielike. My objective was singular:
Thoughtlessly, I roamed from aisle to aisle, grabbing whatever caught my eye. Boxes of doughnuts, candy bars, and bags of chips—the brightly colored wrappers looked inviting, and I reached for them like a lifeline. Soon, I was struggling to carry my loot and had to dump it on the front counter.
My face reddened as the dull-eyed cashier rang up my purchases. I was experiencing a kaleidoscope of emotions; I was giddy over defying my mother, but humiliated over my plans to eat my weight in junk food.
As I got into the Jeep and drove away, I felt my self-control slipping. Greedily, I reached for a chocolate bar from my spoils and clumsily tore at the package. I shoved a large piece into my mouth and barely had time to swallow before I was inhaling another piece. In seconds, the chocolate bar disappeared and I was licking the residue from my fingers.
But the chocolate bar didn’t provide the fulfillment I was desperate for. Driving was getting in the way and I pulled to the side of the road to continue my binge unencumbered. My hunger felt animalistic, and I was devouring whatever I could get my hands on. Before long, I’d finished off three candy bars, a large soda, two bags of chips, three packages of TastyKakes and a half box of doughnuts. As if I had come out of a trance, I gazed around at the empty wrappers in horror. My stomach ached and the residual sugar from the snacks left an unpleasant taste in my mouth. While maneuvering the car away from the curb, I became panicked.
I sped home and ran into the house. Slamming the front door, I ignored my mother’s calls from the kitchen. I took the steps two at a time to reach the bathroom in the upstairs hallway. I locked the door and turned on the faucet as far as it would go, hoping the sound would drown out the noise from inside the bathroom.
My fingers found their way into the recesses of my mouth. When my fingertips brushed the back of my throat, my gag reflex kicked in. The food slid easily back out the way it had come in and plopped into the waiting toilet. Throwing up once didn’t purge everything inside of me and I repeated the process until I was dry heaving and there was nothing left to bring back up.
I flushed the toilet and sat on top of the lid. I didn’t feel at all disturbed about what transpired. A part of me wondered why I wasn’t hysterical and disgusted over what I had done. Instead, an eerie calm permeated through me. I hadn’t only been purged of the food, but also of the awful feelings that plagued me since I fled my mother.
A knock at the door startled me. “Kayla, are you okay? I’m sorry about Mom.”
My sister’s lilting voice drew me out of my reverie. “I’m fine, Lila, I’ll be out in a minute.”
After washing my hands, I dared a look in the mirror. My eyes were red-rimmed and glassy. The bitter stench of my own vomit polluted the air and my heart began to race as I worried about my family figuring out what I’d just done. My pallor grew and I took shallow breaths to alleviate the crushing anxiety I suddenly felt. I asked myself,
Who is this troubled girl?
At first, I convinced myself it was a one-time occurrence. Throwing up to get rid of my food was sick, and I wouldn’t succumb to the pressure to take extreme measures to get thin. I knew binging and purging wasn’t healthy, and there were better ways to control my weight.
For the rest of winter break, I ate like a bird during the day, relishing the salads and raw vegetables that were plentiful at home. Diet soda and water were the only beverages my mom kept in the house; she avoided sugary soft drinks like the plague. Her health-nut lifestyle turned out to work in my benefit as I tried to slim down.