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Vivian tosses her shirt to the side and lets her skirt sink to the floor. Icy air drifts into the bathroom from the vent above her, slicing across her bare skin. She shivers. Hugging her arms to her shoulders, she places one foot on the scale. She holds her breath for three heartbeats and then raises her other foot onto the cool plastic. She waits. The tension in her back eases as she remembers that it is only this thoughtless chunk of plastic that knows the true heaviness of her. It is only with the scale that she shares this intimate secret. It has yet to betray her.
She recalls the first time she stood here. Christmas Day, 6 AM. Seventeen days after a truck slammed into her father’s car from the side, leaving it charred on the yellow grass to the side of the interstate highway. It was the first holiday season alone with her mother, who was still asleep on her side of the bed, happily unconscious of the empty space across the mattress, the ghost in the photo on her nightstand. The turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and raisin pudding from the night before churned inside of Vivian still, pressing her stomach into her tank top. She caught sight of herself in the mirror as she entered the bathroom, feeling heavy and strange. Light from the rising sun filtered in through the window. She gazed at her reflection, taking in every bend and curve. It felt to her as though this was the first time she’d ever seen herself. Her body rippled in the glass. She felt her thighs touch.
And there the scale rested in the corner, inviting her to confirm what she had suspected for weeks.
We all have to start somewhere.
She was amateurish at the start, merely avoiding trips to the ice-cream shop down the road. Leaving the donuts she brought to Math Team competitions untouched. Spending a few extra minutes at the supermarket, scanning labels.
Then it became a game to her – chasing after the next number. Deliberate. Calculated. Vivian had always been good at math. Had loved the way numbers danced through her brain and onto the page. Ordered. Precise. Tangible. She had no trouble counting, so she counted everything. She caught each change in the mirror. However, knowing that her perception had failed her in the past, she returned to the scale after every meal. She kept a record of what behavior led to which result. A study of cause and effect.
115.30. This is because I ran two extra miles today.
115.80. This is because I slacked off and took a shortcut to school today.
113.10. This is because I skipped lunch and dinner.
110.90. Right direction, but I’m not working hard enough. Fast enough.
Every lost centimeter was a victory. Every ounce a sigh of relief. Every bite a sin. She watched her flesh shift and shrink in the mirror. Felt the dull ache in her belly sharpen as she left full plates on the table whenever her mother found the time to order in.
“Jesus. What do they feed you in school?” she asked one Friday night, eyeing Vivian’s plate from across the table. “It must be really delicious if you eat enough of it to be too full for Bertucci’s.” Her mother looked away, smiling, and continued sorting through another stack of Hallmark-card condolences.
If anyone took notice during the first few months after her father’s death, they didn’t make it known to her. But as she dipped into the once elusive double-digits, people seemed to fixate on her.
“Those early morning runs are paying off, honey.” Her mother winked as Vivian stood in front of the stove in pajama shorts, boiling a pot of water. Vivian sipped from a cup of scalding hot tea every night before pretending to fall asleep, letting the heat seep into the empty spaces within her.
“Whatever you’re doing, I have to get on it real quick,” the girl Vivian sat next to during Math Team insisted, grimacing as she poked the skin around her own biceps. “I must have gained something like five pounds so far this winter.”
“Oh my god, you’re so light!” her friend gasped as Vivian sat in her lap during a crowded home football game she’d forced herself to attend. “Hit me up any time if you need me to donate a pound or two.”
Relatives she hadn’t seen since before Christmas commented on how she’d shot up and slimmed out. How she’d lost her baby fat in some sort of last-minute growth spurt, an afterthought. How glad they were that she looked well.
“You don’t want any more rice, darling?” Aunt Terri had asked at Vivian’s birthday dinner. Terri hosted it every year, even now.
“No thanks. I’m full.”
“Oh, but you’ve hardly touched your plate.”
“She has a very small stomach,” her mother interjected, biting into another bread roll. She had arrived two hours late. “Don’t we all wish we had that problem?” The sisters-in-law laughed.
Vivian guessed that Aunt Terri had about forty pounds to lose if they were to have the same BMI. Maybe forty-five. Her mother … about twenty. Vivian glanced at her family and friends seated around the table. She spotted double chins, loose skin, sagging stomachs. Safe. She gulped down one more spoonful of rice, regretting it instantly. No one had removed the empty chair from the table.
“You’re just so lucky that you’re young enough to eat as much as you want and still be a skinny little thing.” Terri transported Vivian’s plate – laden with rice, beans, and guacamole – to the sink. Her favorite dish. “I know all aunts must say this, but I’m sure all the boys just fawn over you.”
Vivian basked in these little acknowledgements. It didn’t matter if someone intended to insult her, calling her “stick thin” or “just a little too skinny for most guys.” She thrived off of any nod to her transformation. She became infatuated with the words “tiny,” “small,” and “petite.” But she knew that was never what it was about. Not really.
It wasn’t about the media or the unrealistic expectations it imposed upon her or trying to attract the attention of some self-absorbed teenage boy. She laughed when they played the clips in Bio during Mental Health Week. There was always a boy on a basketball team. Always a woman on the cover of a magazine. She laughed at the girls hiding behind their wispy hair and cracked skin on the screen. Fools. The basketball boys would never love them, no matter how weightless.
Vivian came to laugh at everything. At the pamphlets in the nurse’s office that caught her attention when her brain felt too muddled to sit through another hour of World History II. The members of the Body Positivity Club as they stood in front of the school during assembly, smiles plastered over their lipstick, nervous arms folded beneath their push-up bras. She wasn’t afraid to laugh at her friends as they struggled to fit into her shorts when they needed to borrow clothing. She laughed as they went to parties without her, shoveling cake down their throats and saying the next day that they so wished they could look like her. She laughed when her mother asked if she needed to visit the doctor’s office after she had fainted over a plate of raspberries.
“I’m just stressed, mom,” she had said. “This is how it goes every year when finals are coming up.” Her mother never needed much convincing. She handed her a mug of lemon water with honey and ripped open another red envelope.
“You’ve always been my little hard worker.”
When she peered at her declining test scores, and the upturned corners of her mouth fell, her mind drifted toward the scale. She’d think back to what it had told her last as she sipped tap water from paper cups, bringing moisture to her dry lips. She fantasized about how much she was not going to eat for dinner. She wondered what would be left when she had finally stripped herself to the bone.
And when she lay awake in bed, doubled over in agony, she called upon the scale’s numbers to quiet the voices that said eat eat eat come on you’re starving don’t do this please eat eat eat. The voices were the propaganda of her youth, dripping from the mouths of sentimental relatives and overpaid motivational speakers at school assemblies. She railed against them defiantly.
96.00. This is where I belong.
When she had put the voices to rest, and her mind was free to wander to the why why why am I here why do I have to do this, she sprinted to the bathroom and shot back this is why. If she let herself go and shoved one strawberry too many down her throat, she let the scale remind her.
The numbers were always there. Constants in the equation. Her eyes still closed, she thought of the 102-degree fever her body struggled to fight off for weeks. Her mother had declared it merely “a bug that everyone is getting this season,” and saved her from the needles and IVs meant to nourish her, instead smothering her with sheets and blankets that still couldn’t fight off the cold. She thought of the 57%, glaring red at the top of her math test. The four mile runs. The one empty seat at her dinner table…
The scale beeps. Vivian’s mind is torn back to the now, the number waiting for her. She tries to keep her eyes closed.
“Vivian! Hurry up in there. I have to put on some makeup. I’m meeting with our lawyer in twenty-five minutes,” her mother shouts, banging on the bathroom door.
“One sec,” Vivian calls back. Unable to resist any longer, her eyelids lift and she looks down at the scale, white and plastic beneath her feet. The number lies before her, not screaming that she’s made it, that she can be happy now, as it once did. She’s stopped keeping score. She turns toward her reflection in the mirror. She knows now that she had been wrong, those months ago when she thought she had seen herself for the first time. This is who she is. The space between each rib, the dip in her collarbones, the dead air between her thighs. She steps off the scale, dresses, and opens the door.
“Thanks, Vivian,” her mother says, fastening an earring as she strolls in. She sighs. “Today’s going to be tough for me. These past months have been tough for both of us,” she pauses. “Before I head out, I want to say that you’ve handled it so well. I don’t know what I would’ve done if you hadn’t. You’ve been all I could’ve asked for. Please, I know it’s been hard, but do your best to keep it up. We’ll make it.” She runs mascara along her eyelashes.
“I’ll try,” Vivian whispers. Her stomach feels hollow.