I have spent twenty-five years wishing to be thin. My body perpetually aches from the weight of my fat and skin from the moment I rise in the mornings to when I roll over in bed at night, grunting as I try and find a sleeping position that doesn’t make my strained joints radiate with pain. I cannot count how many times I have had intrusive daydreams that involve me pushing a carving knife into my midsection and unzipping myself from crotch to forehead, removing the suffocating mass that holds everything inside. The image of my blood and organs spilling out does not phase me. Instead, the thought of being completely empty comforts me in a way that no meal ever could.
I found the ad on the community board that hung on the wall in Krispy Kreme. At the time, I was supposed to be eating only seven almonds a day and drinking seltzer water. It was a diet I found on Pinterest, one of the many I had been willing to try. I knew I should not have been there waiting in line for strawberry-glazed rings of saturated fat, but they had their "Fresh Donuts!" light beaming from the storefront window and I thought, fuck it. I will just eat them all in the car and throw the box away in the neighbor's trashcan so that Mother will not see. Tomorrow, I will not eat any almonds at all, and I'll bike for eight miles instead of the usual five. I was grabbing fistfuls of napkins once I had my donuts and noticed something that sparkled in the edge of my sight. A bright neon pink brochure for a cutting-edge weight loss surgery. On the cover there was a thin and flawless woman with a jawline so pronounced that I could feel it stab at my corneas. She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. She wore a black silk dress that emphasized her ribs, and her teeth were a perfect shade of white, gleaming in the delicate frame of her face like a white picket fence. I ripped it off the bulletin board and tossed it in my bag. Later in the car, I read it as I packed whole donuts in my mouth. The pages of the brochure were filled with before and after pictures of several woman. I took a deep breath and felt the button of my jeans stab my stomach as it fought for its dear life to not bust open. Soon, I will have to switch to elastic waist bands. The next page had a small diagram explaining how the surgery is done. Just a quick excision of the stomach and you are off to a life of being hot and thin. No diets. No pills. Desired and admired by everyone. One woman claimed, "Now, I can fit into my little black dress from my early twenties. It drives my husband WILD. This procedure saved my marriage!" Some of the pages started to stick together from the glaze that was on my fingers. I made sure the page with the surgeon's office phone number stayed clean.
As I take my first steps after the surgery, my guts feel like they have been sliced up with a box cutter, which is in some way a reality. When I think of the surgeon pressing the scalpel into the shiny pink flesh of my stomach, I vomit the melted ice chips I had for breakfast. My nurse holds my hair back and calls to another nurse to call housekeeping. I strain until every blood vessel in my head is close to bursting. The nurse pats my shoulder, and this somehow stops the retching. Cool relief washes over me. “It’s always hardest the first week,” she says. “Then before you know it, you’re feeling brand new and it is all worth it.” Like every other nurse in this unit, she is very thin. Her tight white dress shows off her perfect chest and legs, finished off by a crimson cardigan, white pumps and a small white nursing hat with a pink heart on it. She reminds me of a nurse Barbie doll I had when I was little. A doll I later sunbaked into a mud pie. Her name badge reads Debbie. Debbie is a lot thinner than my doll. I wipe the snot and water from my face with my hospital gown and ask to go back to bed.
After three days, I am released and sent home with a thick folder full of papers that list how to care for my new body plus a small business card with my doctor’s phone number and my first post-op appointment date scribbled in red, glittery ink on the back. I pack my bag, grab my phone, and schedule an Uber to take me home.
As I step outside, a wintry wall of wind slaps my face and takes my breath away. Needles of sleet stab at my skin and I can feel blood pooling in my nose and cheeks. When the driver walks over to grab my bag and place it in the trunk, I say goodbye to my nurse and thank her as I sit in the car and shut the door. The driver takes off and the October trees blur past my window in a dizzying, scarlet whirr.
When we pull onto my street, I see the house that was once my mother's rush towards me. It is old, built in the early fifties and the color of dirty ivory. The car creeps into the driveway and comes to a stop. I step out, thank the driver and retrieve my bag from the trunk. The leaves on the oak tree that sits on the right of the house are a bright orange. There are hollowed acorns scattered all around its partially exposed roots. Remnants of little feasts for small animals. I unlock the front door and push it open, welcomed by that familiar creaking sound that makes me wince. I pass my mother’s room on the way to my bedroom. Her bed is stripped, as it has been for over a year now. I shut the door. I do not know how it is always open. When I get to my room, I toss my backpack on the chair in the corner, take two Valium tablets and crawl into bed, letting the old patchwork quilt swallow me whole. I feel my empty stomach burning, begging for something, but I do as I was told at the surgeon’s. I wait for the slow creeping of the medicine in my bloodstream and then I sleep.
Today is six days post-op. Today is the first day I wake up without painful red marks around my waist where my clothes dig into my hips and stomach. I walk over to my mirror. My reflection has a jawline, and my cheek bones are protruding like two half-moons. I remove my T-shirt and see a few ribs. I run my finger against them one by one as if playing a decrepit piano for the very first time. I reach for my silver compact mirror and hold it up to see my backside. When I was nine, Mother showed me how I could see my back by using a small mirror. She told me how to make my back appear much thinner if I pull my shoulder blades together and avoid slouching.
"You see how much prettier that is?” She asked, cutting my waist apart with her eyes. “Now you look like a lady and not some toad sulking on a lily pad."
She handed me the compact mirror and had me practice. The times I did not get it right, she would show me by turning her back towards me and demonstrating my mistakes.
"Not like THIS. Like this."
No matter how terribly she slouched to mock me, her figure did not betray her the way mine did. She was one of those women who did not have bad angles. She was slender with long black hair that shined obsidian. The fragile bones in her face revealed themselves through her milky skin in all the right places. A structure built by God. Everything she wore complimented her body. Sometimes it was hard to believe she was even real.
Since then, I made sure to alter my posture, positioning my bones in a way that made them ache. It has always been a real war to hold up the weight of my ever-growing breasts, but worth the effort when I think of how much more flattering it is to always stand this way. In the smaller mirror I see that my spine is showing, and my back tits are gone. I remove the rest of my clothes. In the corner of the bathroom is a digital scale Mother gave me for my sixteenth birthday. I step once to wake it up before setting my whole body on it. I have lost ninety-six pounds. I turn the shower on and wait for the water to steam, hugging my naked body, and admiring its smallness. When the water is hot, I step in. I use my new strawberry shampoo. It smells sickly sweet and the scent makes my mouth feel the pricks of a dozen sharp needles as my salivary glands activate and fill my mouth with pools of drool. Tomorrow I will go to the grocery store since I have an appointment today with the doctor and one outing in one day is more than I can handle.
When I sign in at the glass receptionist window, I reach into a dish set on the counter that is filled with plastic wrapped scratch-n-sniff cards. Each card has a picture of butterscotch or peppermint drops printed on the front. I place a butterscotch in my purse as a treat for later and find a chair furthest away from the other two women in the waiting room. The chair is next to a plastic human skeleton model decorated with garland shaped like candy corns and orange and purple string lights. I am reminded that Halloween is a few days away. One of the women in the waiting room is on her phone and the other is inhaling a peppermint candy card. She holds it to her nose, her eyes closed in silent prayer. The nurse calls my name. I look up and see my nurse from when I had the surgery. When I stand up and walk over to her, she beams, smiling so hard that I see her molars. “You look AMAZING! Look at you! How wonderful!” I twirl around, stopping when I start to feel faint. Strands of my bright red hair flutter down like dead leaves at my feet. "Thanks, Deb," I say. She holds her chiseled grin and leads me to a scale in the back. When she sees the number, she shrieks.
"Look at THAT! Ninety-six pounds and four ounces. You have so much to celebrate, Shelley! There's still some progress to be made, but I promise that in no time, you will hit your goal." I force a smile because the weight of how much further I have to go makes me sink. "Is there anything I can do to make it happen faster?" She is writing down a few notes under my weight on my chart. "The doctor will go over that,” she says. “But don't worry! When I had the procedure, it felt like I would never get the results I wanted. Then before I knew it, my clothes were practically falling off me. You'll get there."
I sit in the exam room and wait for the doctor. He knocks twice and walks in holding something behind his back. He is tall like a model from one of those cologne ads. The ones with the sample strips so powerful they make the entire magazine smell like a sandalwood ocean. His lab coat is blinding white and underneath are clean and wrinkle free clothes. I can smell ironing starch when he walks over to face me. Fresh and yummy, like lemon drops. "Close your eyes and open them when I tell you to." I do as he says. "One. Two. Three. Now open them, Shirley."
I open my eyes and do not bother to correct him on my name. I see before me a huge, yellowish lump that looks like congealed chicken broth, only made from plastic. "This is how much fat you've lost since we last saw you,” he says. “Want to hold it?" I reach out and grab it. It is heavy and the texture reminds me of Jell-O that has been left sitting open for days. I turn it over in my arms and lift it up against the light like a piece of prehistoric amber with fossilized creatures inside. "It's not the most that a patient has lost in their first week,” he says. “But progress is progress." I almost drop it as I hand it back to him. He jumps and lets out a gasp as he reaches out to catch it. He cradles the fat with pristine care and places it on the shelf. He takes a step back and admires it. I clear my throat and he turns to me, reminded that I am still in the room.
"Well, far as I am concerned, the procedure will prove to be a complete success very soon. I recommend that you stay as active as possible so that the process speeds up and we see a little more progress next time. Keep up the great work and I will see you in another week." He pats me on the back and takes a moment to feel at my spine. "These are going to look so fantastic," he says in a breathless whisper as he fingers the individual vertebrae between my shoulders. He winks at me and walks out of the room.
When I get to my bedroom, I take a Valium and lay in bed staring out my window. The leaves on the oak tree are now blood red. I feel my hunger ripping me apart until I fall asleep.
In the morning, I stand up slowly out of bed. I am shivering. I walk towards the door of my bedroom to turn the heat up on the thermostat in the hallway and catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror on my vanity. My skin is gone, the fat too. Just strips of gooey red muscle web over my bones. Nestled within my bones are my organs. My heart is thrashing in my chest like a bloody fish, bigger than my fist used to be. Just below it is my stomach. It is one long tube that I almost mistaken for an intestine. I grab one of the biological hazard bags the hospital provided and shove my shed skin inside before sealing it shut. Smiling, I walk over to my dresser and dig out a pair of black lace tights and a black baby doll dress I have always loved, but which never fit me. I sit on my bed and scrunch up the tights. I try to pull them over my feet, but they keep fusing to my sticky muscles and it hurts enough to make me grit my teeth. But I have had this outfit planned out for years, so I keep trying. I grab a clean sock from my drawer, place it between my teeth, count to three in my head, and bite down as I yank the tights up my legs. The pain is sharp and hot sparks burst in my blackening periphery as I feel the surface of my leg muscles rip. Finally, they are on. I spit the sock out of my mouth and take a moment to breathe. My lungs are two leathery rabid bats flapping in my chest. I slip my dress on. It sticks to me almost immediately and I realize I am going to have to wear this same dress for a few more days.
The smells in the grocery store make my stomach dance and I feel it writhing in the hollow cage of my ribs. Rotisserie chicken smothered in butter and rosemary from the deli and banana nut muffins from the bakery. The scents sink into me the way smoke gets into your clothes. My grocery list is small. Halloween candy for trick-or-treaters, a pumpkin to carve, bottled water, and coffee. I grab what I need and wait in line. The cashier checking me out is a girl I have known since grade school. She scans my things, puts a closed sign on her register then walks around the counter to hug me. "Goddamn, girl. I haven't seen you in forever." She pulls away, pausing to pry her hair from my gooey cheek and scans me with her eyes. "You look AMAZING. Is it keto? Apple cider vinegar? Pills?" A little bit of my blood is in her pale, silky hair and I try not to stare at it. I think of something quick. "I cut out bread and sugar and the pounds flew right off." She laughs and takes a quick look at the groceries I have bought. "God you are so strong. I wish I had your discipline."
I pay for my things and she hands me my receipt. The color of rust blooms on the paper from my touch. "It was so nice seeing you. I hope you have a fun Halloween."
She smiles at me and I can taste her envy. It tastes delicious and for the first time in weeks, I feel satiated.
When I get home, I place the groceries on the kitchen counter. I grab the pumpkin and pull out a carving knife from its holder. The toasty warmth in the house soothes my frozen muscles and they start to thaw like freezer-burned meat. I turn on the TV. There is an Evil Dead marathon playing on AMC. I try to unlock my phone, but it no longer recognizes me, so I type in the passcode. A thin layer of blood smears all over my screen. I remember the aftercare instructions warned me I would need to recalibrate the face ID scanner in my phone once I hit the second stage of weight-loss. I decide to do it later and open google instead. I type “Pumpkin carving templates” in the search bar, settling on a classic jack-o-lantern face. The knife is sharp so within seconds, the hole is cut through the top. I use a large spoon to scoop out the sinewy guts one lopping spoonful at a time. When my pumpkin is perfectly hollow, I begin to draw the face before I slice out the eyes, mouth and nose. On the old television, Ash's girlfriend's naked and partially decomposed corpse crawls out of her shallow grave and begins to dance in the moonlight. What is left of her skin is rotten and grey, dangling like rags from her bones and her legs have no meat at all. She leans against a dead tree, trying her best to seduce her living lover. His eyes bulge from their sockets and he is sweating at the sight of her. I grab a tealight candle from the coffee table and place it inside the pumpkin. It glows bright orange. Halloween is tomorrow, and it is the first year I will not have to worry about finding a costume that will fit me. For once I will not just hide inside a king-sized sheet and call myself a ghost.
When I finish cleaning up the pumpkin waste and newspaper, I curl up on the couch. The creepy piano music coming from the TV lulls me into an unexpected and dreamless sleep.
I wake up half past eleven in the morning and remember I have my first support group meeting at noon. I reach into my dress pocket for the tabs of Valium I stashed there and try to swallow them. They rattle against my teeth, hit my neck vertebrae and fall inside me like candy swirling through a gumball machine. I remove the blanket and look inside my dress to see my body, but it is too dark to see anything. I take my dress off and walk to my room and look in the mirror. I am a skeleton. My bones are yellowed and stained brown in some parts from my body fluids that once resided there. I am almost perfect. I just need to take a few bleach baths like the post-op pamphlet advised me to do. I walk to the front door, not bothering to put clothes on and leave. I decide to throw my newly shed pulp away when I return.
I arrive at the meeting only five minutes past noon and everyone is already seated. The only woman who looks just like me is the one leading the group therapy. She is wearing an orange and black wreath as a crown and has small paper ghosts dangling from her ribs. The other women are in different stages. Some have skin and are still whole. Some have flesh that hangs over their bones in strips, and some sit on trash bags so that their blood does not stain the upholstery. The door slams behind me when I walk in and it makes me jump. Everyone turns to stare. I walk over to an empty chair. I sit down and my ass makes a hard PING sound when it meets the metal. I cannot figure out what to do with my hands, so I place them under my femurs. The leader of the therapy smiles at me.
"Hey there! I am so glad you could make it. We were just getting started on introducing ourselves. Would you like to be the first?”
I shake my head.
“You can start with just your name if you’d like."
"My name is Shelley,” I say, making sure to not make eye contact with anybody. The woman looks at me, expecting me to say more but when I cross my arms and look at the floor, she turns her attention back to the circle.
"That’s wonderful. We are so glad you are here today Shelley. Would anyone else like to speak next?" No one speaks. A few garbage bags rustle as the women shift in their seats. I get the urge to run out of the room. "Ok then,” the leader says. “I guess we can start with me. My name is Elizabeth, but you can call me Beth. It's been almost five years since I had the procedure, and I am so grateful for all the freedom it's brought into my life." Beth stops speaking, distracted by a woman who is patting her leg muscle to scratch an itch. The sound is wet and vile. "Anyways, I think we can get started by telling everyone here what the procedure has given you and how it has made your life better and more fulfilling." Again, no one speaks. I get ready to stand up and leave but before I do, the muscle woman who was patting her leg clears her throat and speaks. "Well. Right now, it's hard to tell since I'm a walking sack of ground beef but I guess it is kind of nice that I don't have to worry about buying clothes anymore. I think we all know Layne Bryant and Torrid aren't cheap. I don't have that problem anymore. I can finally start saving for a house." Everyone nods and the silence in the room cracks open. One woman who has skin speaks up. "I still have to wear clothes, but I can buy them from anywhere I want now. I don't have to special order anything online anymore. The other day, I was able to find a bra at Victoria's Secret that fit me. It's my first bra that isn't beige, so I feel really good about that." The muscle lady responds. "Fuck dude, I hate beige. How am I supposed to feel sexy in that shit? I’m twenty-seven years old. I need lace, I need colors. And don't even get me started on having to wear Fruit of the Loom briefs that go all the way up to my tits."
I start to laugh so hard I must hold my jaw so that it does not unhinge. Muscle lady smiles at me and I am reminded of Frank in the first Hellraiser film when he had no skin. Only she is far more beautiful. Some women are laughing, and some are crying, from joy or sadness I cannot tell. I begin to stand up, placing my hands on my knees and leaning over as if to catch my breath. “Whew. Shit. I really needed that.”
After the meeting, I ask muscle lady if she would like to meet over coffee sometime soon. She tells me her name is Sara. She reminds me that I will not be able to drink coffee anymore and asks if that is still what I would like to do. I tell her it is fine anyway.
After the meeting, I walk through town on my way home. The street is quiet. The only sounds are children laughing and the wind blowing autumn leaves all around. The leaves swirl with the grace of dancers, weightless and breathtaking in their descent. I see my reflection in every store window I pass, where coats and size double zero dresses hang on thin mannequins behind the glass. I stop and look at my reflection in the window of Mother’s favorite boutique. The first time she took me there was when we were shopping for my junior prom. After failing to stuff me into what seemed like every dress there, she grabbed my hand and pulled me out of the store. “Let’s go home. Maybe we can fix up one of my old maternity dresses for you.” I walked out of the store that day with tears beading like clear jewels on the rims of my eyelids, running my hand against all the fine silks and satins on the way out.
I looked at my reflection now and had to hold myself back from kissing the glass. Mother always used to tell me that if I were ever to be thin, I would be the loveliest girl in town because I have good bones. "You get them from me," she would say, and then she would flash a rare smile and wink. The street is filled with little ghouls and goblins. There are fairies with iridescent wings and princesses waving plastic jeweled wands. The magic in the late October air is sweeter than any treat could ever be.
When evening comes, I set the candy out next to my jack-o-lantern on the front porch and stroll down the street. I pass a house with a window that glows pink, and I walk over to look inside. There is a teenage girl looking in her full-length mirror trying on different outfits. She grabs at her thighs and stomach, tucking and pulling at her clothes. She settles on a short black dress, puts on a witch hat and maroon lipstick and walks out of her door finally. She does not check the mirror again. I decide to go to the cemetery. The moon shines in the void above me like a silver coin at the bottom of a wishing well. It is full, fat and white.
When I get to the graveyard, I find my way to the northeast corner by the concrete angel with thick moss growing on her eyes. I pluck one plastic flower from a few headstone vases on the way until I have a full bouquet. I find my mother's grave and lower myself to sit on my knees. The headstone is new and mostly bare. The name Lydia Blum sits above the blank space where her birth and death dates would have been. Before she died, she requested to not have the dates inscribed on her stone. “A lady never reveals her age. Not even in death,” she said. She wanted her own angel statue standing guard over her grave, but the only thing extra I could afford to add to it after using most of the life insurance money for my surgery was a steel oval locket. Inside it was my favorite picture of Mother. I lift it up and look inside. In the picture, she is pregnant with me and holding her round belly. Her cheeks are plump and flushed. When I found this picture in our attic when I was a little girl, I did not believe it was really her. When I showed it to her, she asked me to throw it away. I kept it in my pocket instead and looked at it almost every night before I fell asleep.
I close the locket and place the flowers I have gathered on her grave. I lay down and bury myself in the fallen foliage until I am completely covered. I try to imagine what Mother looks like right now. Do we finally look the same? I try and picture her without her skin and her long dark hair. Perhaps she looks like a shriveled-up piece of beef jerky. Maybe, for once, I am thinner than she is.