Flesh

bythenry©

The house was built for someone wealthy, but that was a long time ago. The ceilings sag even though the chandeliers have been removed, and the molding has mildew at the corners. The floor-to-ceiling windows are bolted so we can't go out onto the porches, anyway. It's a halfway house. The Grand Central House for Recovering Women.

The windows are nice, though. Some of the panes have been replaced with newer glass, but the original ones are thick and have bubbles in them. The view out through these is my favorite part of the room.

"Honey, if you just gonna stand there, we ain't ever gonna get you unpacked," Mimsy says. Her voice is sweet, and thick. I don't think she has any real power here, and when she hugs herself inside the door frame I notice how her large breasts give her arms just enough space to squeeze before belly protrudes from beneath shirt. I imagine if she tied her purple sarong any higher it would be in danger of falling off.

I look down at my one bag. "There's nothing to unpack, Mimsy." She says everyone calls her Mimsy.

"Then we still just gonna hafta do something." She walks over and huffs down to pick up the carpet bag at my feet. She sets it up on the bed, almost reverently, before she starts tossing my clothes around the room.

"What are you doing?" I ask with my hand in front of my mouth. My hands are so thin the fingers look like insect legs when I move them.

"Well, since you don't got a thing to unpack, I just tryin to make the place homier." She flutters her hands as if that could lighten the load on her ankles. Or maybe to shake free the last of whoever stayed here before. "You wanna be called somethin besides 'Honey?'"

I can't help myself now and laugh. "Yeah, my name is Angel." Mimsy is safe.

Ms. Dorazon is the fitness and psychological coordinator of the halfway house. She is one of those who think the two are the same. I think Ms. Dorazon could bring legwarmers back in style singlehandedly if she didn't care so much about working here. She runs all of the daily activities and group sessions and is the only real supervision in the place, though there must be someone else besides Mimsy who checks up on the guests.

Ms. Dorazon is taking me on my first day tour of the facility while everyone else is enjoying reflection time outside. I nod in all the right places. I will meet the rest of the guests at the group session. She tries to reassure me about how much independence is allowed us here, but it's clearly in small packets. She taps a mechanical pencil against a black spiral notebook at a tempo suggesting her interest.

"Angela, your previous counsellor thought you were playing her to get out more quickly, but her supervisor had you promoted from the program because of the progress you had shown medically," she begins.

Because I wasn't suicidal, I think, they let me keep my hair grown out long. It's amazing what you can fit into a bun, and how much of a difference a few pounds can make when you only weigh eighty-five.

"Why are you telling me this?" I ask.

Her tapping accelerates. "Because I would like you to understand that I don't have some man breathing down my blouse who can undermine my authority and overrule my decisions." Ms. Dorazon's lips become very thin when she smiles.

"I hope you don't think that I- " I begin.

"No, no. I just want things to go smoothly, for you to get the best care you deserve here," she says.

I duck my head a smile a little bit. It makes me look twelve. She hasn't decided if I'm going to be a problem or someone she can have. Rumor among the hospital inpatients was that someone here at Grand Central wasn't above providing personal comfort and attention to a guest if she needed it. Her pencil tapping slows.

"Could I join your arobics class tomorrow? They wouldn't let me get much exercise at the hospital because they were always worrying about my weight. I feel like I'm getting out of shape.

Ms. Dorazon's lips become a bright red pucker while she thoughtfully considers my request. Why not play nice; I'm harmless. "As long as I see you eat a healthy dinner tonight, I don't see why you couldn't start some healthy exercise tomorrow," she says finally.

I smile bigger this time and duck my head again, tucking hair behind my ears. "Thank you Ms. Dorazon," I say, and she smiles too.

"I have to make some notes here," she says, tapping to indicate her notebook for what must be the thousandth time, "so why don't you wait in the rec room for group session to start?"

I ride the near edge of scamper to the door out of the room.

To one side of the rec room is a circle of molded plastic chairs, some green and some yellow. I sit on one of the ends and watch the rest of the guests file in from the yard. It's easy to identify the other anorectic. Anorexia Carrier, my counsellor told me I should call us, just like it's a disease. There are eight women total here at Grand Central, and when Ms. Dorazon arrives she takes one of the two empty chairs in the circle. Juirly will not be joining us for today's group session, she says, becasue she hasn't demonstrated herself to be responsible of the others' feelings after what happened yesterday afternoon. I do not know what happened yesterday afternoon.

"We have a new guest at the house today," Ms. Dorazon begins. "Angela, why don't you tell us all why you're here." And suddenly I'm blushing and hating myself for it.

It's not supposed to be this way, I'm not supposed to be going first. I'm not ready. I look down and all I see are stick arms and stick legs. I look to the first girl to the right, and she is hugging her long, tan, pockmarked legs and sniffing the air around me. And I look further down the circle and they are all looking at me. At me. And what they see are sticks and bones. Sticks and stones. No, skin and bones. I hate this part of me that isn't in control.

"I - I don't think I can do this, right now," I say.

"Now Angela, part of what we are trying to do here is get you used to trusting other people," she says as if talking to a child. It's not supposed to be this way. Well she is supposed to think I'm like a child, but harmless, but not this way.

"It's too soon." I'm whispering.

A woman with a red face says loudly, "Yeah Ms. Doro it's too soon. Juirly just left." The girl across the circle with Down's Syndrome comes over to hug me in my chair. I look at Ms. Dorazon and then up at the wide set eyes above me like some gorilla has decided to take me for her own child.

"I'm not a retard," the big girl says. She slurs the words with her fat tongue.

"I know," I say just to her.

"No you don't," she says and walks back across the circle.

"I can see we have a long way to go," Ms. Dorazon sums the first five minutes.

"How was your first day Angel, Honey," Mimsy asks me later that afternoon. I've been staring out the windows of my room imagining that this was my house and the windows were closed only to keep the cool air in. Other than an iron bedframe and sagging ceiling, the room boasts hard wood floors, a marble topped dresser, and a set of wrought iron table and chairs that used to live outside. The door has a mirror on its back. The mattress is thick and already had sheets on it when I arrived, but I pulled them aside to see what kind of stains are characteristic of the room's visitors. There weren't any.

"First day's always hardest," she continues as I haven't replied. "I hafta go cook, so I'll check on ya'll after dinner. It's at seven." She pulls her head and closes the door behind her, and I can hear her amble up the hallway to the stairs. Now I can see myself in the mirror. I look away.

The roots of anorexia mean "without appetite," or "without hunger." Whoever named the disorder was misguided. It's not about body image, it's about control. The sight of my own body disgusts me. I'm not short, but I have the body of a child again. I feel like a child. But I have the large bony head of a woman. On top of a stick neck it looks like a giant insect head. Or a baby chick's head with large eyes and a tiny soft beak.

I have already identified a loose baseboard beneath the bed. Anything starchy from meals will decompose quickly between the walls with no outward signs of decay. There were no signs of rodent droppings, so I will have to do something else with meat. Without a private bathroom, flushing through the toilet becomes risky. We'll see.

I still haven't spoken since fleeing here to my room following group session. I do not trust my voice.

"My name is Juirly," someone , Juirly, says behind me. I haven't heard the door open, and when I turn has already been closed. Juirly has closely shorn hair, and stands with her arms at her sides with the backs of her palms facing forward. Look at me I'm normal, she projects, but she is standing in front of the mirror and I can see the scars that line her forearms. No one trusts you if you're suicidal. I'm not suicidal.

I look at her and blink. She looks at me and blinks, then ducks her head. "They're about to let me out," she says, "because I'm cured even though I don't want to leave. What's your name?"

When I don't speak, Juirly opens my dresser and begins going through my things. I realize silent won't work.

"My name's Angela," I begin, "but -"

"Mimsy told me to call you Angel," she says. "She wanted me to come over and explain why you should want to be well."

"So Ms. Dorazon can cure me?" I ask.

"No. You wouldn't be here if you weren't cured. The hospital wouldn't let that happen. But you probably weren't ever well."

"Ms. Dorazon can make me well?"

"No. But she will release you from here when she thinks she has." Juirly has finished with the top two of four dresser drawers. Finding nothing of interest she turns to lie down on my bed. I am still standing by the window. I turn and sit at the table.

"Are you well?" I ask. She closes her eyes, and I watch her sleep until dinner time.

Mimsy has cooked a feast. A country feast, which would be my least favorite kind. Fried chicken, garlic mashed potatoes bathing in butter, melting robin eggs with blue pupils, chilled beetle bodies in tartar sauce, crunchy fingernail tuna salad. I look again and can't find the fried chicken anymore, but crispy mashed worms. I know this isn't real. I know this is real to me.

Juirly had woken herself and said, "I'm hungry on schedule. Let's go to dinner." I am sitting between her and the wide eyed Down's Syndrome girl now.

The Down's Syndrome girl looks more like a gorilla the more I watch her. "I'm not a retard," she says.

"I know," I say.

"Yes, you do," she says, and I feed her ants one at a time throughout dinner.

Juirly watches my hands carefully all evening. She sits next to me with her leg touching mine beneath the table. I don't mind. I have control.

I have so much control I am not thinking about what I am eating. Lift, chew, swallow. I do not hear the crunching, I do not look at what I am eating, and I am in control. Occasionally I look to Ms. Dorazon, smiling shyly, seeking her approval. She likes that I have taken to the gentle gorilla. She doesn't like that Juirly has taken to me, but it's alright because I'm new and don't know any better.

Juirly's leg rubs my own, and I look at her and smile. With her left hand she points, frightened, at a small roach crawling around her plate. Maybe. She is still careful to keep her scars from view. I hold her other hand beneath the table.

Originally the house was constructed with a ring of rooms on the second floor, all of which have been converted to single bedrooms, around a center of closet space and two bathrooms. All of the divisions within the center have been removed, and the space converted into a public bathroom. Another step in trusting other people, it was explained to me on the afternoon's tour, but really I think it some kind of twisted safety measure. The hospital had private bathrooms.

But at least the showers are divided. There are only mirrors over the sinks. If the disease is not about body image, it should not worry me if anyone might see some part of my body. I don't know what that says about how many times I have to check the curtain behind me before I can take off my robe in the shower. I don't look down. I do not touch myself except to wash my hair and then let it cover me. Hair is safe. I am safe here.

I haven't needed a bra in a long time, but I still wear one even to sleep. It's the indelible mark of womanhood I've clung to. I haven't had a period in two years.

Sleep comes slowly in a new place. The air is still and heavy. I half wish for someone to talk to, like Juirly, but then I would be needing her. I do, I think, need someone. It's been a long time, since anyone, but back then maybe there were too many. I do not touch myself.

"Come in," I call when someone knocks at the door. I think I'm tired. It's Ms. Dorazon.

"Were you sleeping, Angela," she asks softly.

"No, really, please come in, Ms. Dorazon."

She seems uncertain about something. "No, that's alright," she says. "Will you come and see me tomorrow morning, after breakfast?"

I make some general shy and uncommittal noises as if asleep already. She seems satisfied. I do not know what I want. I want to be away from all of this.

When I dream I am in control, of everybody I've met here. I'm bigger than everyone else. All of the girls I've seen are sitting in a circle around with big wide eyes. Mimsy brings Ms. Dorazon in on a wheelchair.

When she speaks, it is with an old and creaky dream voice. "Angela, will you tell the girls what you are really afraid of?"

I look at Mimsy, who is making eating motions. So I pick up Ms. Dorazon and eat her. She crumples up like tinfoil. She tastes like spearmint.

I look around at the girls. Juirly is there. She has a large penis that moves like it's breathing. It has a shining head. Something is happening to me. Inside me.

I look up at Mimsy again. I don't know how, but she is motioning that I need to throw up like a mother bird and feed all the babies around me. It feels like there are ants crawling around inside of me, and then I am throwing up. But I can't give it to anyone, because there are worms in it.

I am throwing up, I realize, awake. Someone is there and I am clinging to her. It. Flesh, pounds and pounds of it like I can climb inside. Mimsy. I'm just heaving up nothing now. It feels like ants are crawling in my throat.

"I threw up all over you," I say softly when I am able.

"Shhhh, now, its alright," she says back. When she hugs me I feel completely covered. Safe. Sometimes the human need to touch is irresistable. Sometimes my need to touch is irresistable.

Touching, being touched, I am falling back asleep when I hear a voice. I lift my head out of Mimsy to see Ms. Dorazon in the light of the hallway. I don't listen to what she is saying, and I don't mind the smell or wet at all.

When morning comes, I don't go to breakfast. I don't go to see Ms. Dorazon, and I don't go to her arobics class. It's not a real class, anyway, just her exercising alone in a black leotard and pink legwarmers while three of the girls stand and half follow. You're supposed to take the legwarmers off, I want to tell her. She wouldn't like that. Someone changed my clothes overnight. Someone touched me, saw me naked.

When I don't go to lunch, Juirly brings me some food and asks me if I want her to stay. I don't, I say, and after she leaves I put the food into the wall behind the floorboard. During the afternoon Mimsy comes in with some new sheets for my bed so I have to move. While she's changing the bed, she passes on a message from Ms. Dorazon that group session is mandatory.

I do go to group session. When I arrive everyone is looking at me. Even Ms. Dorazon.

"You don't have to say anything today if you don't want to, Angela," she says to me, but it's too late. Today I'm crying. Big retard girl hugs me again, and I hate her, too. I was so close to being out of all of this.

Later, Juirly comes to my room again. She knocks this time, but comes in anyway when I don't say anything. Juirly's wearing a green t-shirt with horizontal stripes, a black skirt, and tennis shoes. Her head is fuzzy and soft.

"Ms. Dorazon asked me if I thought you needed to go back to the hospital," she says after awhile.

"Yeah?" I ask.

"She wants to send you back to the hospital," she says. I sit up in bed, and she comes to sit next to me.

Juirly starts talking again. "My Dad was a history professor. One day before the crazy got too bad and he killed himself, he came to me and asked me to remember something for him. A quote. 'I tried to imagine martyrdom running backward like a broken clock. How sweet to abdicate divinity, to climb down from the cross, to travel from transfiguration to simple wisdom and arrive at last at innocence.' Robert Charles Wilson. I never forgot."

"What's that supposed to mean," I say, tired.

"It means that it might not be bad to go back," she says. "Maybe you can go all the way back."

"I don't want to go back, I want to go away."

"You don't want to go away," she says, "I've been there. You want to go back." She puts her arm around me, and I put my head on her shoulder. It's alright when she touches me.

I realize I can see her nipples. She holds her breath when I touch one of them lightly, releasing it only when I put my hand back in my lap. I do not touch other people. Maybe.

"Do you want me to stay?" she asks.

"I don't want to go back," I say. "I want to go somewhere new."

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