K. stopped eating breakfast in May. In the months preceding, I watched her carefully consider which bowl would house her yogurt and granola while she pulled different handmade vessels from the careful pile: a set of Matryoshka dolls, each relying on the next for stability.
This was not a reason for alarm. Each morning I too woke up a different amount of hungry or not hungry at all, but heard an echo of my mother’s voice telling me I needed to eat something to start my day, even a handful of almonds. Besides, M. wouldn’t eat the other half my grapefruit one night when I was seventeen and the next year E. kept track of everything she ate in a red notebook in her bedside table drawer to determine her net and gross calories after going to the gym. Years later, the hollowness in E. cheeks disassociated her from the ice cream stolen regularly from the fridge in her apartment. I still think it was her: the uncontrolled part of sleep convincing her starving body to consume something other than itself.
One night, when I was first developing breasts, my mother explained that our stomachs shrink and grow depending on our food consumption. She did not provide a timeline for this growth or its opposite. Even now, I picture the stomach’s rapid change like breathing. My mother herself was always half on a diet, never in a scary way, but in a not quite satisfied with her carb consumption way, trying to replace brown snacks for green ones. I went with her to early 2000s Weight Watchers meetings in a space off of Route 1 that otherwise hosted bingo nights for old people.
K. must have continued to forego breakfast after we broke up. I didn’t see her for all of June and even in July I didn’t see her. We were meeting for the first time post-break-up. July meant everyone’s bare legs were tangled together in the gross grass of Washington Square Park and, as I sat on a bench waiting for her, I hoped she too would be letting her leg hair catch the wind. I recognized a graceful walk toward me, but she was a shadow resembling a human I had loved with my full, fat heart.
Weeks later in Cambridge I made love to her like bone china in her mother’s house and she cried. I have a photo of her from that day, naked and translucent.
This is not to say it’s anyone else’s fault that I began pulling smaller bowls from the cabinet. Later that year, B. was trying to regulate her diabetes without her insulin, and I discovered the crunchy satisfaction of raw kale and that I could feel full after two liters of sparkling water. Together we did the Spartacus workout. In photos from that fall, there are shadows under my collarbones. She went days without insulin injections. It worked.
When C. went to outpatient treatment, they told her that her bones looked like they belonged to someone thrice her age. I imagined them greying into a powder like weathered cinderblocks. She talked about her sister refusing to eat years before, as if that could’ve scared her into imbibing. D. hated outpatient too, as if it’s an experience meant to be enjoyable. She sent me a Facebook message telling me they were forcing her to drink whole milk.
I recently sat next to D. on a bus north. She apologized if she seemed distracted, she had just started recovering from a severe concussion. She explained that she had unexpectedly passed out and hit her head. It was lunchtime so I ate a turkey and avocado sandwich before we even reached Boston’s North Shore while she made progress on her liter of water.
C. paraded around, proud that her sister was one of the few fortunate to be deemed “fully recovered” from an eating disorder. Six years later, her sister began purging everything she ate. Nobody talks about it, and she cannot not stop vomiting. Last week their mother posted a picture of her sister winning a marathon in Florida, her legs bent and flimsy. She doesn’t have to fight against any wind resistance.
I think it’s safe to say nobody noticed when I stopped eating breakfast, or when I started again, it was brief and unremarkable. Grapefruit juice was a meal, and then a necessary addition to a full platter of eggs and bacon. I had carefully examined how all of the women I loved became vegetarian and then lactose intolerant and allergic to gluten. I dumped E. and her red calorie notebook. When K. and B. annihilated my heart, I ate pints of ice cream. When C. was better—nearly recovered, she pulled every fleck of white fat off of a chicken breast before she cooked it and ate the same breast for three meals. “It’s a lot of food,” she told me.
This year for my birthday brunch, H. brought grapefruit juice “because you love it” because it tastes like celebration, it tastes like another year alive. Grapefruit juice tastes like an hour before fainting, of tricking my body. It tastes like sweetness and acid burning into an empty stomach filled with only acid. That morning I forewent the juice and ate a dozen breakfast tacos surrounded by the women I love.
(photo credit: Charlotte Duncan, decisive #17: after jd)
Alanna Duncan is a writer, occasional radio producer, and nonfiction MFA candidate at Columbia University. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Five:2:One Magazine and Breadcrumbs Mag. She lives in Brooklyn with her bicycle.