I stare at myself in the mirror on Laina’s door. The black frame contrasts with the white wood, making it look like some sort of portal. I’ve been trying to break the habit, but everytime I pass her bathroom, I catch a glimpse of myself and decide something’s wrong. What exactly, I haven’t figured out yet. I tuck my shirt in, then pull it out, lick my palms and flatten my hair, then ruffle it up again. I look at my profile the best I can, then throw my shirt off, analyze the acne on my chest, back, and shoulders. Suck my belly in then let it bulge out. Adjust the straps on my bra so as to not make things look too big, too uneven, too flat. I throw my shirt on before she comes out of the bathroom, let her walk in front of me, step back when she’s not looking, catch one more anxious glimpse of my face, and then catch up from behind.
When did this habit develop? I don’t remember. All I remember is the panic of perceived change, and the relief when there was none. One day, Laina walked in on me, my shirt off, my neck lowered, my nostrils so close to the mirror that my breath fogged the glass. I didn’t even realize she was standing there until I heard, “What are you doing?” from behind me. I thrust my head upwards so quickly, I could’ve given myself whiplash. She stood with her hip against the wall, lips pursed and arms crossed waiting for a response. When I refused to give one, she led me out of her room and onto the front porch, pulled out two lawn chairs for us to sit on and asked, “When was the last time you did this?”
I ignore her question and look away towards the oak tree in the middle of her yard. On the thickest branch hangs a tire swing, ebbing back and forth as the wind blows. During the summer we’d take turns pushing each other and trying to drain the previous night’s rainwater that accumulated in the tire. Her voice fades into the back of my mind as I watch a mockingbird balance himself on the knot that secures the rope around the branch. He begins to chirp. I look back at Laina. Her mouth moves but I don’t pay attention to the words. It seems as if she’s the one chirping. “Kat!” she says. Startled, I draw back in my chair, “Are you even listening to me?” I blush and look at my feet because no, I am not. She explains that she’s trying to help me out and give me advice, but then rambles about how I never act serious when it comes to important issues, especially my eating issues.
She reminds me of the time we swam together in the summer after ninth grade. We were at my father’s house on the lake, and she had just gotten her period. She came into my room with an extra box of Tampax she got from CVS, in case I needed some. I said I wouldn’t be needing any, because I hadn’t gotten mine yet. She said, “You’re 15 now, that's not normal,” and I said that she wasn't a doctor and should probably shut up and stop talking about things she knows nothing about. There was also another incident where I used to throw my lunch into the school cafeteria’s garbage cans. I’d meet Laina at our designated table and she’d ask me where my lunch was. I always said I ate before the bell rang, but was caught red handed one afternoon when Laina came to the cafeteria first and saw me dumping my PB&J. I was so surprised and panicked that I accidentally threw it down the recycling bin instead. She reminds me about how every day after school she’d watch me on the bleachers at track practice and do her homework, noticing my gradual deceleration from the front of the pack, to the middle, to the back, and eventually as an outlier. I’d approach her out of breath and ask if I could use her water bottle. We’d chat in between breaks and I would complain to her about how I was getting slower. She told me it was because I didn’t eat enough for lunch. I told her she wasn’t an athlete and shouldn't talk about nutrition, a subject she knows nothing about.
Laina continues to talk about such events and I uncomfortably squirm in my seat. She knows too much information. Too much about me and my problems that she might actually want to solve them. But then again, how could she do that? She doesn’t know what I’m going through. She doesn’t know body dysmorphia. How can you solve a problem you know nothing about?
Actually she did know a lot. My behavior was becoming dangerous. For the longest time I refused to admit that restricting my food intake and overexercising was harmful, or that I had an “addiction” because addictions are for people who have lost control and I could stop this and eat again any time I wanted to. I tell Laina this and she gets up from the lawn chair and slides open the porch door to make us lunch. Shit, I think to myself. I shouldn’t have said that. I wait, tapping my leg until she emerges with pimento cheese sandwiches on white bread with cranberry salad on the side. The plates clink against the glass coffee table in front of us. I look at my plate. It disgusts me. She disgusts me. Why would you get me food without even asking me first? My face gets hot and my throat closes up. I wonder if that’s a biological instinct to keep us from saying all the stupid things we think of when under emotional stress? Who knows? All I know is that I don’t want to eat this right now. Laina turns back to look at me. Her eyes on mine and then my plate, still untouched. She watches me to make a move with the food, so I pick up my fork and tackle the salad, aggressively stabbing it with a fork as the metal teeth clank and scrape in protest against the porcelain circle.
Her eyebrows bow disapprovingly as I continue to stab at the lettuce. “You know,” she says, releasing her hand from her mouth, “your dysmorphia is kinda like a salad” I look at her with my eyes squinted. She chews the last of her pimento cheese on white bread and then places it down, crossing her legs in my direction, “You don’t really even like salads that much” she says, “You only like the way it makes you feel, just like the way you always look at yourself in the mirror. You know deep down it doesn’t change anything” I stop stabbing and look up at her. Wanting to rebuke her, wanting to say something back, wanting to silence her. But instead I buffer in silence at the painful realization that no, I don’t like salads. And that yes, she is correct. My body begins to unpause. I reach down for the sandwich, take a bite, and swallow my words and pride along with the beautiful combination of bread and cheese. Laina looks at me and smiles. “Exactly,” she says. And we continue to eat the rest of the meal in silence.