CW: This story contains content related to disordered eating and body dysmorphia.
Jane’s grandparents were intellectual, rich, and simple. They had eyes that read several newspapers cover-to-cover every day, minds that stored an archive of art and books, hands that whipped shamelessly buttered mashed potatoes and kneaded irresistible bread, feet that deftly negotiated museum exhibits. They were well-adjusted to the realities of the times but stuck in their ways. Christmas was made by Hallmark for grandparents and grandchildren, so Francine and Henry, unwilling to surrender to such a cliché, refused to indulge in the holiday’s commercialized traditions. Instead, they would wander downstairs on Jesus’s birthday at ten a.m. and slide each member of Gen Z a sizable check under a cylindrical wire sculpture that hung from the ceiling like a lame holiday tree. The act was satirically allusive to a normal custom. It epitomized Francine and Henry’s general attitude about life.
Jane woke up hours before the official happy birthday Lord moment: the placement of the checks. She opened her eyes knowing it was December 25th but did not realize it was Christmas day until minutes later, after she sprung out of bed like a lit match. She was aware of the time passing by, growing less susceptible each minute to her abuse through rules and runs, metrics and mundaneness. She put on her carefully folded running clothes. She did not need to peek downstairs to know that her parents were by no means scrambling to stuff presents under a tree. Her parents, like the rest of the house, were also, God bless their souls, sacked out.
But in the sweeping lawns outside, the holiday spirit was blindingly bright. Reindeer with illuminated noses danced around large fake firs cluttered with thousands of ornaments. Lights covered the oaks, the twinkling branches extending over the street like tentacles. Christ did not require Francine and Henry’s blessing—He was already whipping like a sprite past the fellow mansions, blowing out candles with holy gust. The lack of tangible cheer inside, in contrast with the blare of it outside, reminded her that it was CHRISTMAS. Fucking Christmas. Laces in double-knots, glass of water down the hatch, and she was off into the great, humid outdoors. A Texas December indeed.
The Houston air had not shifted since Jane arrived five days prior. Not even when she exhibited enough of whatever it was—dedication or antics or both—that got her up before the sun every morning and charging out of the air-conditioned container of modern art, did the weather make a move. The air was as heavy as an arm numbed under a sleeping body. Jane felt immobilized by the weight of that air, and so she ran angry, in protest. She was stubborn and did this often, making herself immune to the effects of things independent of her control.
After several tedious loops past the quiet, dewy lawns, absent of their usual yard and construction workers, she hoisted her legs, like limp dozing toddlers, back onto Henry and Francine’s porch. “Run” could now be crossed off her to-do list. Armadillos scurried beneath the wooden planks, hearing Jane taking off her sneakers for the fifth day in the row. She tip-toed inside, sealing the door shut behind her with deliberate silence.
Upstairs, she made her twin-sized bed, folding hospital corners like origami, and confirmed that her brother was asleep. His face was swollen and molded into the pillow. A master of rest. She proceeded to the bathroom, cranked the shower knob to its maximum heat, and examined herself in the mirror. She saw eyes that enjoyed staring, ears that indulged in eavesdropping, and a mind that ruthlessly analyzed what her senses discerned. She saw hands that took these findings and selected food accordingly, cut food accordingly, chewed food accordingly. She saw feet that navigated a buffet with the discipline of a training Olympian. And she saw everything in between: a neck that widened her to the stature of a football player, arms that grew porcupine spines, calves that bulged in a masculine way, thighs that begged for more personal space. She stared at her bellybutton, the center of her disgust. She scolded her outie. It recoiled into an innie. The mirror steamed up and she faded into a lean blur just before seeing the disturbing image of her relaxed abdominals. She stepped into the shower and felt the hard water pressure hit her like an exhalation.
Downstairs, Henry returned from his third trip to the cupboard that morning, this time with a bowl of berries and a mound of granola. He pulled back a chair from the dining table to make room for his big belly. Meanwhile, Francine was busy at the stove. She heated up a tortilla with a slice of butter and put it on a plate, put the plate on a tray, and put the tray on the table. Christmas day had begun.
The following hours would entail a series of small tests, which Jane had meticulously planned to pass with distinction. She spent that day devoted to her agenda, and fell asleep that night content with her achievements: the deliberate serving of the salad, the modest scooping of the goopy, flaky chicken pot pie, the avoidance of the polenta cake. She perfected the self-control of an ascetic; the practice seemed essential to her sanity. The end of each day, especially a celebratory day, was a relief, a liberation from her self-imposed burdens. Before burrowing under her blanket and succumbing to its weight, she remembered her clothes sitting in the washing machine, abandoned from that morning. She tossed them into the dryer and wondered if she tossed herself in the dryer would she herself shrink and come out crisp and light? Instead of waiting for an answer, she slept.
She felt tremendously relieved upon waking up. The day after Christmas, and she was still clean, guilt-free. The Lord’s birthday (thank the Lord), full of its cookies and gifts and relatives and rejoicing had come and gone. She headed downstairs to find her family doing what her family did. Her older brother Charles destroying a beautifully constructed mound of toast, scrambled eggs, and avocado. Her mother pouring coffee, her father narrowing his eyes into a classic novel. She commented on the toast creation. “Were those the last eggs?” Not because she planned to make eggs but because his enjoyment of his breakfast hung in the air like a spider web Jane had to duck underneath. She thought feigning interest would suffice but instead it backfired—there were, in fact, eggs left in the fridge. Her mother perked up, fully prepared to turn on the stove and feed her daughter . . . . what would you like dear, fried eggs? Pancakes? French toast? No, she was good.
Lisa surrendered, sitting down across from her teenage daughter and wondering when Jane decided she no longer needed the comfort of a butter-soaked flapjack, much less her mother.
She started asking this question a while back, when Jane first began to hack at the family traditions with a dull ax, getting the job done but not with much grace or stealth. Things like “Mommy Mac n’ Cheese” and “Breakfast for Dinner” were no longer in demand. Jane had unsubscribed from the Clean Plate Club, founded during childhood meals with her older brother. Charles suffered his own losses and blamed an obvious culprit. He could no longer relish the fight for the last slice of cantaloupe or the most substantial hunk of cookie in the cream. But he was not sentimental, or at least he had better things to worry about than the fleeting (certainly fleeting) behaviors of his sister Jane. Jane did not think he knew of these behaviors. Charles did not think she thought he knew. And what would asking do, if not give her the satisfaction that her struggle had been worthwhile? More attention was not what she deserved. She was an expert in the field of vanity, which, in the dictionary of her twisted habits, translated into self-destruction. Jane knew this, perhaps more than anyone, and there was a dissonance in her complacency. She thought she had to suffer some to resolve her lack of satisfaction, but in doing so, condemned herself to a constant state of needing more. She relented, anointing herself with saintly status and defeating her better judgment. Charles, stubborn as his sister, let her carry on.
The humidity persisted for the entirety of January, until the first week of February made it compress like a stone and tumble into the pit of Jane’s stomach. The cold snap arrived just in time for track season.
In order to get to her gym bag, she first had to embark across a sea of girls, girls, girls. She infiltrated the flotilla, navigating a maze of scattered jerseys and shoes and loose hairs and snack wrappers. Golden Goose sneakers that sailed from Lululemon to SoulCycle to Whole Foods. Awaiting her at the end of her tedious journey was Anna, red hair visible like a circle of pepperoni in a sea of cheese. Notoriously anxious and yet inexplicably spunky and fun, she was one of Jane’s few friends. She had once in middle school asked Jane to hold her pizza as they searched for a table, ashamed at the quantity of carbs she was about to consume.
Jane fled to her familiar spot next to Anna.
“I have such a good feeling about this season, like last year kinda sucked because of my panic attacks, ya know, but I feel like I’m so much mentally stronger now, like I’m able to deal with that and like, it’s all mental. Ya know. Running is so mental. It’s gonna be such a good season you’re gonna do distance with me yeah? Are you excited? It’s gonna be so fun.”
Jane punctuated her ceaseless stream of enthusiasm with affirmations, smiles, and “Aah”s. But her eyes that enjoyed staring were not on Anna. They were on Caroline Thomas, who in seventh grade, had once explained the technicalities of obtaining a flat stomach to a dedicated audience of girls, girls, girls. Caroline had hair that tamed itself without the aid of a straightening iron and shoulder blades that sat comfortably next to each other like two best friends. She moved with the ease of a bodybuilder lifting a two-pound dumbbell. Next to her impressively white tennis shoes, a cockroach looked at Jane with the smirk of someone scrutinizing her appearance. He scampered towards her. It was on. With her well-worn Adidas shoe, she put an end to his obnoxious perusal. The sound of her sneaker coming in contact with the scuff-stained tile floor caught the attention of Caroline’s frigid blue eyes and those of the rest of her fleet. Jane had offended them with such strikingly unladylike behavior. Wanting to escape their silent scrutiny, she was itching to run.
Jane could not keep up with the teenage boys in front of her, charming dimwits fueled by intuition and shitty school lunches. They got farther and farther away from Jane, stranding her on the endless track. Stride after stride, the monotony of each microscopic success terrified Jane. The routine was unbearable. The rubber clung to her sneakers, while the cold gnawed at her skull. Her body, formerly a loyal servant, incited a rebellion. She wanted a warm shower. She wanted her mother. With well-practiced discretion, she retreated to the locker room and dizzily and shakily searched for her water bottle in her bag. Among dirty socks and mechanical pencils were foreign objects: two granola bars that only Charles knew were her favorite and a sticky note that read, “Mom is picking you up today, she’s off work early.” A considerate omen, uncharacteristic of siblings who act like siblings. Six o’clock arrived along with her mother’s car: it was a liferaft, awaiting her with the seat warmer already on. She was lucid enough to understand the generosity of it all. She was still human enough to feel intense guilt, and child enough to feel intense longing.
Hasty greetings. Immediately tears made salty trails around Jane’s red and puffy nose like ice cream next to a warm cake. Her visible distress vanquished her stubborn nature and her vain inclination. Her stoicism failed her. And simultaneously Jane was exactly where she wished to be: at the point of no return. No decision was to be made—she understood for the first time the precarity of her sanity. And she may have been vain but she was not foolish.
“What, sweetie.” Lisa truly cared. Fuck—Jane would have to be more specific. Lisa had a knack for reading minds but was also prudent, careful not to incite defense.
“It is just, so hard… with food.”
“What do you mean,” Lisa responded with genuine concern. Overwhelming for Jane. She herself had dismissed her feelings to the point of delusion. Tongue-tied, she back-stepped.
A long silence passed as Lisa exercised her multitasking superpowers, driving the car with all her focus while rubbing Jane’s shoulder with all her love.
Jane complained about the cold and how much faster everyone was than her.
“But can you tell me.
A little bit more about what you were gonna tell me?”
“It’s just, like, I ate a lot today, but, in general… I am always thinking about food.”
“It is all I think about.”
Cicadas. And then to Jane’s relief and expectation:
“You know?” Did she?
“You have lost a good bit of weight.”
Jane could not help feeling a sense of accomplishment.
Old habits die hard. But she had initiated a compromise of some of her agency, yielding her habits to the will of doctors, family, and the Terms and Conditions of the Clean Plate Club.
After a confession that confirmed the suspicions of her mother and her brother, answered the confusion of her cousins and her friends, and shocked her father’s harmless oblivion, the mud on her sneakers began to dry and crack off until they were bare enough for her to thrust her feet above her head and do handstands in the grass. She had to become more flexible, but wondered what was left of herself without her discipline. She doubted her ability to be excellent, and also knew, deep down, that kale and almond milk did not make her excellent. She wondered if in sacrificing some of her rigidity, she would lose her whole ability to persist in anything hard, anything worth discipline. And she also wondered if there was something beautiful in her newfound mediocrity.
That night, her family sat around the dining table in the warm indoors and talked about how swimming pools are actually kind of gross and the cousins’ lake house is in shambles isn’t it and why do so many people take AP physics even though it has such a notorious reputation and remember when you kids used to do hurdles over bamboo sticks and wow Charles you really need a haircut and I’m surprised that branch where the swing is hasn’t given up yet.
Lisa called her mother the following morning. It was a Sunday. Francine answered the phone in the way she always did, sounding slightly agitated but expectant of news—the mundane kind, the good kind.
“Poor Jane is always thinking about food. We’re going to look for some help.”
Without skipping a beat, her response as predictable as an answering machine, Francine said, “Oh alright, oh good. How ‘bout that.”
“Crossword question for you. Clue is ‘Like this puzzle, an old movie, or a piano.’ Thirteen letters.”