Authors: Heather Topham Wood
“Are you interested in dating?” I wasn’t overly concerned about my mom entering the dating pool. I was more concerned about the poor man she managed to ensnare.
“I didn’t think so, but I’m still in my forties. It’s awfully young to spend the rest of my life alone. And Jake is very handsome! His family comes from money, too, so he drives a fabulous-looking Mercedes.” Her voice rose to a high pitch and I could tell how excited she was. Maybe this development was a good thing. A new romance could put less pressure on Lila and me to maintain her impossible standards. To say the least, I wasn’t looking forward to a summer at home and under her thumb.
“So, did you agree to go out with him?” I unlocked the outer door to the dorm with my card and pounded upstairs. My roommates’ doors were all shut; it was still early enough they were likely still sleeping off the night before.
“We exchanged numbers, but I’m unsure. He’s handsome and he has a job at a trading firm in New York, but he’s a teensy bit younger than me.”
“How much younger?” I was automatically suspicious.
After a lengthy pause, she said, “He’s twenty-five.”
I stopped in front of my door. “Mom, that’s only four years older than me!”
“Well, it’s not my fault I don’t look my age. I’m not going to be ashamed younger men still find me attractive,” she huffed. “I was honest about my age. If he doesn’t have a problem with it, why should you?”
Slowly, I drew a breath in, feeling the air expand my lungs, taking the time to calm myself. “It’s your life, Mom, but Lila is still at home with you. How do you think she’s going to react if you introduce her to a guy that’s practically her age?”
“I’ll introduce her when I’m ready. Give me some credit, Kayla, I’m not going to simply bring strange men into my home and allow them to be around my daughter. If things get serious, then he can meet you both.” Oh lord, I thought, that wouldn’t be awkward
“That’s good to hear.”
“How’s your love life? Are you still involved with that idiotic boy?”
“Mom, you’ve made it perfectly clear you don’t like him. Can you try not to resort to name-calling?” I had a few choice names to call her after her admission of dating someone decades younger, but my obedience was still too ingrained to say them.
“I’m your mother; shouldn’t I tell you when I think you can do better? He may be marginally good looking.” I tightened my grip on the phone. “But he was rude and disrespectful to your family. Not only that, how well off could he be? I can’t imagine a credit card rep makes nearly enough money.”
I reached for the aspirin on my dresser. I kept it on hand for my headaches, and a new one was starting. “Mom, do we have to argue the entire time we talk? Can’t we have a normal conversation for once?”
My mom made an unpleasant noise, but finally sighed in defeat. “Fine. The other reason I called was to make sure you were coming home for Lila’s prom next weekend. I’d like us to take some family pictures. We haven’t had any since before your father died.”
“Yes, of course I’ll be there.”
A couple of minutes later, I was finally able to hang up. I felt spent, and the good mood that followed my counseling appointment had vanished. In my head, I had a backbone, and I imagined telling my mother to stay the hell out of my life. But in reality, I still let her put doubts into my head. It was going to be a long summer at home.
“Remind me again why I’m helping you move farther away from me?” Cameron grunted as he carried another box toward the front of my house.
“Because you’re the best boyfriend ever,” I supplied, trailing behind him carrying more of my belongings.
He shook his head. “No, the best boyfriend would throw you over his shoulder and drag you back to his place.”
I balanced the box in one hand and reached for his arm. “You know the reason isn’t because I don’t want to stay with you for the summer …”
He turned to face me, and I saw the resignation on his face. “I understand you want to be here for Lila. Your sister would be more than welcome to stay with us.”
“Cameron, first of all, my mother would never in a million years allow Lila to live with us an hour away from home. Secondly, my sister got a summer job at an ice cream parlor. She starts working in a couple of weeks.”
He set the box down on the sidewalk and moved in closer to me. His hand slid down the side of my face, causing me to shiver involuntarily. After months of being together, Cameron could still spark the strongest physical urges in me. His eyes were always what affected me most; they were brimming with electricity. My eyes were deadened, their luster lost somewhere along the way.
His voice was pained as he spoke. “You’ve been doing so well these past few weeks. I’m afraid once you’re home again, your mom will ruin the progress you’ve made.”
I put my own box down and leaned into him. I looked up at him and smiled. It felt good to be cared about. Cameron would do anything for me and I understood his concern. “I’ll be fine,” I said. “Parker gave me the numbers of therapists in the area, and I’ll make an appointment once I get settled. And it’s not like we’ll never see each other. I can come down to see you whenever I want or you can make the drive here.”
“Judging from the way your mom looked at me the last time, I doubt I’ll be welcome here. But you can stay with me as much as you want to. I’m going crazy already knowing I won’t see you every day.” Cameron brushed back my hair and teased me by brushing his lips across mine. I smiled and leaned into his mouth, pressing my lips roughly against his.
“I’m going to miss you, too,” I said as I broke the kiss. I lifted up the box and gestured for him to follow me into the house.
When I crossed the threshold, I understood it was time for the spell to be broken. The last couple weeks of the semester had been flawless. Cameron had been by my side and supportive as I continued my final sessions with Parker. Therapy was an opportunity for me to vent about my mom and reminisce about the good times with my dad. More than once, I’d been on the verge of confessing my extreme dieting to Parker, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I convinced myself it wasn’t necessary; I had everything under control.
I spent most nights at Cameron’s apartment while studying for my finals. The only time we were apart for a significant amount of time was for a final weekend of partying with my roommates before we all went home for the summer.
But the truth was that, beneath the perfect exterior I presented to everyone, the sinister side of myself had taken hold. I’d become a master of deception, so quick with my lies I could barely believe who I had become. I fooled everyone into accepting that I was no longer obsessed with my body. They’d been tricked into thinking I’d come to terms with my weight and had control of my unhealthier impulses.
Pro-Ana had made things much easier for me. The various Pro-Ana sites gave me all the tips I needed to conceal my diet from everyone else. I had stocked up on packages of bagels and muffins. They became my showpieces; I carried them around with me to put on the pretense I was actually eating them. Instead, I usually broke off pieces and shoved them into my pockets or purse. I had a close call one night when Angus attempted to rip through my purse to get to the goodies hidden inside.
At the dorm and at Cameron’s apartment, I dirtied dishes and left them in the sink to leave the impression I’d finished a meal. When we ate dinner together, I’d take small bites and push around the rest of the food to make it look like I was eating a normal meal.
Discussing my diet or how much weight I wanted to lose was off-limits. If anyone brought up my weight loss, I shrugged it off and explained I wasn’t actively dieting anymore.
My mother stood with her arms crossed in front of the stairs as we walked in. She gave Cameron a terse smile. “I’m sure we can take it from here, Cameron.”
“Mom, he’s staying for dinner,” I said, wiping sweat from my brow. I was dressed in jeans, a t-shirt, and a spring jacket. Layering was the key to hiding my body from others. I used the excuse of my shyness to keep Cameron from seeing me fully undressed.
Cameron wasn’t dumb, though; as we made love in the dark, I could feel his fingers pause for a second too long over my ribcage, hesitating like he was questioning whether my body was the way it was supposed to be.
My mother didn’t answer. Pursing her cherry-stained lips, she spun on her high heels and stalked into the kitchen. I gave Cameron an apologetic shrug.
“Don’t worry about it. I’ll carry these up and meet you in your room. Do you have any other stuff in my car?”
“I think a couple of bags. I’ll be up in a few.”
Minutes later, after I’d retrieved my belongings and started up the staircase to my room, voices carried to me from above. I crept silently up the stairs and listened to a whispered conversation between Lila and Cameron.
“Cam, she’s not looking any better. If anything, she looks worse than when I saw her before my prom,” Lila was saying.
“She’s been seeing a counselor and she’s been eating in front of me. I don’t know … maybe it’s going to take a while for her to put any weight back on,” he said softly. There was an edge to his voice and I imagined the stressed look on his face.
“Could she be puking up the food you see her eat?” Lila asked.
“I don’t think so. I think she suspects I’m watching her. She doesn’t go to the bathroom after she eats like she used to. Her counselor wants her to see someone while she’s home. Maybe if she keeps talking to someone, she’ll be able to get a handle on things and gain some weight.” Cameron paused for a second and the tension in the air thickened. “I’m afraid of saying anything to her. If I push her too much, I have a feeling she’s just going to freak out and run as far away from me as she can.”
“We have to do something! She looks like if I blow too hard in her direction, she’ll fall over.” I stumbled on the step where I stood, alerting them to my presence. “Kayla?” Lila called out hesitantly.
I stifled my emotions and plastered a counterfeit smile on my face. I made my way up the stairs until I reached my room. Lila was sitting on the edge of my bed and Cameron stood beside her awkwardly, his hands shoved in the pockets of his khaki shorts.
I dumped the shopping bags I had in my hands in the center of the floor. “I think that’s the last of everything,” I said brightly. I could see them exchange an uncertain glance, questioning how much I may have overheard. I stood beside Cameron and leaned my head against his shoulder. “What’s wrong? Did you change your mind about staying for dinner?”
I was in a make-believe world, pretending to be someone I wasn’t. I was wounded; pieces of myself had broken off and vanished forever. But I would never let anyone know it. I refused to be Cameron and Lila’s pet project—it wasn’t their responsibility to make me whole again. If I had to, I would push them all away and live by my own rules.
The walls are closing in on me here and I feel like I’m losing sight of my goals. I really need everyone’s encouragement today!
I posted the Pro-Ana message and waited patiently for the supportive replies I would soon get. I was relying more and more on my virtual friends. Faceless girls were much easier to deal with than prying sisters and boyfriends.
I could no longer remember what I was trying to achieve. I understood I had aspirations when I started dieting, but it was fuzzy inside my muddled brain. I thought I’d be content when I was thin, but happiness was out of reach. Instead, I only craved invisibility. I avoided mirrors and hid under layers of clothes.
Did you make the Thinspiration book like I suggested?
Fifteen minutes later, the reply arrived from SkinnyGirl89. She was one of the regular visitors I’d come into contact with through the website. We had exchanged email addresses and cell phone numbers, too. There’d been some bonding once we found out we both lived in New Jersey, only about forty-five minutes away from each other. We vowed to be there for each other when we struggled to stick to our diet. Pro-Ana site visitors treated virtual oaths like blood bonds.
Reaching into the bottom drawer of my desk, I pulled out the scrapbook I assembled the week before. It was a collection of magazine cutouts featuring thin models with perfect bodies. They wore skimpy clothing and bikinis, outfits I’d only wear if I lost enough weight. The idea behind making a book was to look at the pictures whenever doubts threatened to make me lose my focus.
Yes, I cut out some pics from a few fashion magazines. Should I add anything else?
I sent my reply and cracked my knuckles as I waited to hear back from SkinnyGirl89.
I like to add quotes to the book, too, and put them around the pictures. Here are a few favorites: “Nothing tastes as good as thin feels,” “The thinner is the winner,” and “Your stomach isn’t growling, it’s applauding.”
Being home for a month had given me too much downtime, and I retreated further into myself. I no longer had the distractions of school, my college friends, or Cameron. My best friend from high school, Tami, had tried to make plans since I’d gotten back home, but I’d blown her off. Running into someone I hadn’t seen in a while was unbearable; I couldn’t stand the pitiful expressions. My paranoia had convinced me that after one look at me, they’d be able to see how shattered I was on the inside.
I rarely ventured out, and despite my promises to see Cameron as often as possible, we’d only seen each other twice since I moved back. I could hear the worry in his voice when I canceled plans, but I was avoiding him since his conversation with Lila. I also dodged his questions about whether I had set up an appointment with a therapist in town. I lied and said the counselor Parker recommended had a waiting list and would not be able to see me until July, a month away.
I stopped typing out my reply to SkinnyGirl89 when I heard my cell phone ring. It was Cameron’s third call of the day. I had ignored the first two, lacking the motivation to make excuses about why I couldn’t see him later. I knew I was just avoiding the inevitable; I couldn’t keep dodging him forever.