Dappled sunlight spilled across Amy’s bedroom floor through her half-closed lace curtains, the shadows of tree limbs swaying in the breeze. Her window was cracked open just a slit to allow the refreshing air to overtake the stifling, stale air within the bedroom. Everything felt foreign to her still, the smells of her home–warm and inviting smells–somehow familiar and strange at the same time. She observed herself in the full-length mirror beside her dresser. Her reflection, at least, was beginning to look familiar again. Traces of the Amy of old, youthful and happy, began to appear once more. There was light in her eyes again, where once they were dull and bleary. The dark circles under her eyes were beginning to subside, and they were almost unnoticeable beneath a layer of concealer. Her cheeks, once sunken, were beginning to fill out. When Denise pointed this out with innocent joy, Amy smiled, but kept quiet. “Fill out” still meant “fat” to her. Looking “healthy” meant being plump.
“Amy? Are you ready? We have to go soon,” Amy’s mother, Denise, called from the hallway.
“I’ll be down in two minutes!” Amy replied, twirling this way and that in the bright yellow dress she selected specifically for her sister’s tea party, celebrating her engagement to her long-term boyfriend. She had insisted, upon returning from the clinic the previous month, that she was willing and eager to go to June and Peter’s engagement party. Her parents thought it would be too soon, but she insisted. She and June were close in age and had always been more like friends than sisters, and she found Peter to be a kind, funny, and easygoing fellow–the kind of man she would pick for anyone she loved.
In the days and hours leading up to the tea party, however, Amy increasingly filled with dread. People would stare at her, judge her, whisper as she passed by. There goes the sick one. Of the three Stewart sisters, Christine was the oldest, and the most put-together by all accounts. A successful attorney living with her wife–also a successful attorney–in a pristine apartment in Potomac, Maryland, the only minor splash Christine made was when she announced that she was a lesbian. Even then, she didn’t announce it so much as show up at Thanksgiving dinner one year hand-in-hand with her girlfriend, daring anyone to make a big deal out of it. No one did.
June, the middle daughter, would be the focus of the tea party, and rightfully so. All of the attention on her would be positive. Even if it weren’t her day, no one would have a negative thing to say about June, who in turn never had a negative thing to say about anyone else. Always smiling, always joking and having a good time, June was the most upbeat and positive of the sisters.
Christine was the smart one, June was the funny one, so what was Amy? The sick one. The troubled one. The one who was twenty-eight years old and still living with her parents. The high school teacher who had a disorder that would more appropriately fit her teenage students. That one. The yellow dress she had thought looked so nice on her the week before suddenly appeared garish in the mirror’s reflection. It didn’t fit her correctly; the bust was too large, the skirt hit too low below her knees, making her look old and frumpy.
“Amy?” Denise knocked lightly on the door. When Amy made no reply, Denise opened the door a crack. “May I come in?”
“We have to go. Oh, you look gorgeous,” Denise said. Amy resisted the urge to roll her eyes. Denise had fawned over her ever since she returned from the clinic, congratulating her on eating an apple, on emailing her boss to discuss going back to work, on looking for apartments. It made her feel like a baby, being cheered on for the most trivial of matters.
“I don’t think I can go.”
“People will look at me.”
“No one will look at you. Well, I mean, of course people will look at you, but not in a malicious way.”
“No, of course not. Just in a curious way. Like rubberneckers at a car crash.”
“Amy,” Denise twirled a lock of her daughter’s hair around her index finger.
“Why do you care? You didn’t think I should go in the first place.”
“I didn’t, but I think you do want to go. You’re just nervous. That’s okay, you know.”
“I know it’s okay,” Amy snapped, yanking her hair out of Denise’s tender grasp. Denise looked hurt, but Amy didn’t apologize. “Stop coddling me.”
“That wasn’t my intention.”
“Everyone will watch me eat,” Amy muttered, examining the split-ends in her brittle raven hair. Once long, thick, and supple, it was now stringy and damaged, refusing to grow past her shoulders. It was, perhaps, a silly thing to care about, but care about it she did.
“No, they won’t.”
“Yes, they will! Or, rather, they’ll be watching to see if I do eat or not.”
“So, ignore them.”
“Easy for you to say. I’ve always hated people watching me eat. Long before I had anorexia. I hate being watched in general. It puts me on edge.”
“Okay. Well, maybe it’s too big a step, then. We’ll start smaller. Maybe go grocery shopping tomorrow, hmm?” Denise stroked Amy’s hair.
“I don’t want to put pressure on you, but I do think we need to start integrating you back into society.”
“Yes, I know,” Amy said, hating how much she felt and sounded like a disdainful teenager.
“Okay. I’ll send Peter and June your regards, then, shall I?”
“Yes, that’s fine. Give them my love,” Amy moved past Denise to sit on her bed. Denise left the room, but, after a moment’s thought, Amy called out to her. She returned, a look of strained patience on her face, strained no doubt because she was already late and she, like Amy and Christine, was extremely uncomfortable arriving late to anything. June and their father took a more laid back approach to life; in fact, Amy thought, it would not be the least bit surprising if June and Peter both arrived late to their own engagement tea party.
“It will look worse if I don’t go, won’t it?”
“For goodness’ sake,” Denise let out an exasperated sigh. “Amy, darling, I mean this in the nicest way possible, but this day is not about you. Okay? It is about June and Peter. People will be focusing on them. Not you. I would love for you to come, and so would June and everybody else. We all love you and want to see you happy. If you would be uncomfortable coming, then don’t come. But please make up your mind, because your father and I were meant to be there twenty minutes ago to help set up, and, at this rate, Peter’s parents will have done all the work.”
Amy hesitated for a moment before saying “I’m coming,” jumping up from her bed, hastily cramming her feet into a pair of white wedges, and following Denise downstairs and out the door, where Amy’s father, Roy, waited with a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye. He joked to Denise that it must have been the first time in their thirty-five years of marriage that he managed to be ready before she was. Denise, unamused, slid into the passenger’s seat without a word, answering her husband’s joke with a scowl.
During the drive, Amy huddled in the backseat, hugging her stomach and watching the world go by outside her window as her parents bickered. If her sisters had been with her, Christine with her nose buried in a book and June trying to stop her parents’ arguments with jokes or amusing anecdotes, it would have been just like a road trip from her youth. Now she was the last in the nest, too old to be there, too scared to flee. Amy closed her eyes and rested her forehead against the back of the driver’s seat, hearing her therapist’s voice in her head.
Food is not the enemy. You can eat and still be in control. Stop letting your disease dictate your life. You are stronger than it.
She imagined people watching her, wondering what she would do. Would she eat a piece of cake? A sandwich? Both? Would she take her tea with some sweets, or drink it on its own? Would she add sugar or milk, or drink it black?
They would notice if she didn’t eat anything, and they would notice if she did. Once, in her childhood, she had seen a man at the park with a fake leg. She had never seen one before, and she couldn’t help but stare. She and her sisters were running around with some friends playing tag, but Amy continued looking over her shoulder to see the man with the fake leg. People are voyeurs of the strange, the different, the other. It was one of the less charming parts of human nature. Although she looked okay, physically, they all knew what had happened. They all heard the gossip. After all, that’s what families did at gatherings like this tea party. They feigned excitement at seeing one another, joy at the mere sight of their relatives, when in actual fact what they really wanted was to hear the latest gossip about their family members. Amy knew they had spoken about her for years. People always told her she was too thin, which she used to take as a compliment. Then her grandmother mentioned that she had a round face, like Denise, which led her to connect “round” with “fat.” After two years of a continual spiral that went relatively unnoticed, she finally collapsed at work. She was in the middle of leading a class discussion about The Scarlet Letter when she tried to stand up from her seat and lost consciousness instead. Thus came the clinic, where she had been for six months before returning home uncertain about her job and her future. Now, here she was, facing her family for the first time since her anorexia nervosa diagnosis.
Denise practically leapt from the car as soon as her husband shut off the engine, racing off to greet Peter’s parents and other guests, apologizing profusely for her tardiness. Amy and Roy walked along together, Roy breathing in and exhaling with satisfaction, commenting on the pleasant spring air.
“A beautiful day for a garden party,” he said.
“What even is a garden party?” Amy asked.
“A party in a garden,” Mr. Stewart nudged his daughter playfully. She smiled to humor him.
“Hello!” June sang out as she hurried toward them, stumbling awkwardly over the grass in her heels. A strong breeze caressed her dress, sending her long black hair flying around her shoulders and her full, cream-colored skirt dancing around her legs. Amy was struck by her sister’s beauty, not for the first time in her life. She could never believe it when people said they looked alike, but Amy was learning not to give credence to her inner voice so much anymore, at least not when it came to her physical appearance. She smiled and embraced her older sister, who seized her shoulders and complimented her dress.
“You don’t think it looks a bit frumpy?” Amy asked, looking down at her dress, vibrant in the bright April sunshine.
“No, not at all! It fits you perfectly,” June said, moving on to kiss Roy’s cheek and lead them both to their table. The table, identical to all the others, was small and round, draped with a lace cover and bearing a centerpiece of lilies and baby’s breath along with decorative anchors and airplanes, a nod to June’s career as a marine archaeologist and Peter’s as a commercial pilot. Around the table were nameplates, bearing the names of Amy, her parents, Christine, and Christine’s wife, and resting in front of each nameplate was a small menu listing types of tea, finger sandwiches, and desserts. On the back of the menu was a poem that read:
When you’re under the sea
Seeking shipwrecks below
And I’m up in the air
You’re on my mind
I think you’ll find
And in my heart
Though we’re apart.
You’re my sweet, darling girl,
My diamond and pearl.
And I’m your guy–
Though I don’t know why!
Hand in hand we’ll face this life
I’m so proud to call you my wife.
A note following the poem explained that Peter scribbled it on a napkin the morning after he proposed, and gave it to June with her breakfast. She loved it so much that she decided to type it up and include it on their engagement party menus for their families to enjoy.
“Help yourself, sweetheart,” Amy’s father returned to the table with a cup of tea and a plate of sandwiches, fresh fruit, and cookies. He nodded toward the table at the far end of the garden, where the food and tea was set up for guests to take at their leisure. Amy glanced at the table, tightness in her chest. Sensing her discomfort, Roy asked if she wanted him to accompany her or pick something out for her. She declined, and ventured off on her own. Denise was mingling at a table with distant relatives vaguely familiar to Amy; June was doing the rounds as the hostess and bride-to-be; and Christine was sitting at a different table, sipping her tea and watching as her wife played with some of their cousins’ children.
No one looked at Amy. If they did, it wasn’t as glaringly obvious as she had feared. Taking a deep breath, Amy walked across the garden to the table, where she got in line behind someone she didn’t know. He turned and nodded to her, and she did the same.
“You must be one of the Stewarts,” he said. No hidden agenda behind his words, no malice or curiosity. Simply cordiality.
“Yes. I’m June’s sister.”
“Ah, I should’ve guessed. You’re the picture of her,” the man chuckled as he poured himself a cup of tea. “I’m Peter’s uncle, Richard.”
“Nice to meet you.”
“And you. Beautiful day for this, isn’t it?”
“Enjoy,” the man nodded again as he left with his tea and plate of food. Amy smiled at him, then turned back to the table, her cheeks flushing as she looked at all the food in front of her.
“Find anything you like?” Peter’s voice rang out behind her, chipper as always. She smiled at him, trying to hide her consternation about the food. For Peter’s part, he showed no signs of thinking of her as ill. He met her eyes with his usual bright, confident smile, and his voice held no notes of nervousness, pity, or judgment. He was just Peter, as he always was, and he spoke to her as just Amy, his almost-sister-in-law. Amy hadn’t realized how tense she had been until she felt her body relax upon Peter’s approach.
“There’s so much to choose from,” Amy said, laughing a bit to deflect her nerves.
“Well, I highly recommend the fruit. We got that fresh from a local farmer’s market, and, let me tell you, it’s the best fruit I’ve tasted in my life, all right?”
“I’ll bear that in mind. Um…sorry, could I ask you a ridiculous question?”
“Go for it.”
“Is there any way I could just have some plain bread? Just, I don’t really want a sandwich. I’m not very hungry. And please don’t read anything into that, I just–”
“I wasn’t reading anything into it,” Peter shrugged. Unlike Amy’s mother, he sounded believable. Whether he was being genuine or whether he was simply a good actor, Amy didn’t know, but she chose not to question it. He made her feel comfortable, and she would focus on that.
Peter grabbed a plate for himself and put a couple of finger sandwiches on it. With his fork, he opened up the sandwiches and scooped the meat out, then held his plate out so Amy could take his bread. “Is that okay? It still has some residue from the meat and the condiments, but–”
“That’s perfect, thank you,” Amy took the bread with her own fork. “Hey, I didn’t know you were such a poet.”
“Oh,” Peter chuckled, embarrassed. “Yeah, and I didn’t know June was going to make that public knowledge, either.”
“Oh dear,” Amy laughed.
“Nah, it’s fine. It’s utter shit, but I’m glad she liked it. I was worried she’d laugh and throw it in my face.”
“I could see her doing that, to be honest.”
“Right, well, you all set here? I’d love to chitchat, but I have to make the rounds.”
“Yeah, go ahead. Listen, Peter. If I can be sappy for a minute, I am really pleased you’re marrying June. I’ve always thought you were a good guy.”
“Can you have a word with Christine, then? Because I’m fairly certain she hates me.”
“She hates most people. It’s nothing personal.”
“Right,” Peter laughed. “Well, enjoy the tea and bread and all. June and I’ll come by your table in a bit.”
“Okay, see ya in a bit,” Amy said.
“ And, hey,” Peter pointed at the fruit tray, raising his eyebrows at Amy. “I was serious about that fruit.”
After Peter walked away, Amy grabbed some fruit and took her plate and a cup of tea and headed back across the garden toward her table, smiling with the realization that she felt good. She was comfortable in her shoes and her dress, and, more importantly, she was comfortable in her skin. As she ambled toward her table, she glanced down at her plate of food–a few pieces of fruit and a few slices of bread–and she was not afraid.