K. was a sweet tart.
He gave me a paper valentine in the hallway—red construction paper folded into a makeshift box, patched together with scotch tape. He kept his head down as I opened the little box, plucked out a candy and broke it with my back teeth. We pivoted on our sneakers and returned to our friends.
The girls cupped their small palms. He likes you, they chimed as I filled their hands with sour hearts. Then we opened the rest of our treats, split them among us even-steven, and remembered we didn’t like boys.
D. was pizza, doughy.
Someone turned twelve, so we were at the roller rink. He was clammy and reeked of pre-pubescence. I was eleven years old, hippy and soft. We held hands for only one lap around. My friends giggled and clung to each other, all bones on wheels.
In the bathroom, standing on our tiptoes to keep from rolling backwards into the stalls, we reapplied what little makeup our mothers allowed: some sticky lip gloss, cover-up for those first bursts of acne. I teetered into a stall and soon emerged with a wad tucked in my sleeve.
No way, someone said. I locked eyes with the girl in the mirror as she pointed at me, her mouth parted in a shimmery oval.
You got your period, she said. Didn’t you?
My friends braced themselves, gripping sink counters, stall doors, their feet wobbling beneath them.
I didn’t, I told them, pulling paper towels from the dispenser, wiping my hands raw.
You did, they said.
And you’re wearing a bra.
B. was jungle juice. Heard of it? A cheap bottle of vodka bought by an older sibling, fruit punch, soda, jagged ice cubes, a few shots of whatever you can steal from your parents’ stash, a splash of cough medicine. Bright red in a big orange plastic bowl. No ladle, just dip your blue plastic Solo cup right in. Get some on your fingers, stain your face.
We played spin the bottle. Everyone kissed everyone. We were all light pink.
Bags of potato chips. Gooey s’mores. I ate nothing, just kept scooping liquid.
B. had been my date to the dance, so I owed him. I let him kiss me, urgently, behind the shed; when we all gathered around the fire pit, I let him pull me onto his lap. I didn’t let his hands find my new hips; I pinched his fingers, moved them to my thighs. I watched through fuzzy eyes as my friends swallowed handfuls of salty snacks, as their laughter grew louder, mouths so wide I thought their jaws might snap. And those tiny, tiny waists—those flat, flat stomachs, taking it all in.
M. was hot tea, at 2 a.m., in a fast food restaurant. He waited at a plastic table while I went into the bathroom to examine my new self.
I waddled back out, my abdomen aching.
You’re okay? He asked, rotating the chain of his dog tags.
I told him yes, I was fine. I sipped tea, scalded my insides. I assured him it was only a little blood. We should try it again, I said, because we both wanted each other and, geez, wasn’t that just something?
A. was too much beer the first week of college. Then he was mounds of wilted salad from the dining hall, pushed around with a dishwasher-hot fork.
In his dorky dorm room, we’d lie in his bed and talk for hours about nothing, really. We were mostly a mess of short, tangled limbs on navy sheets. He liked being the big spoon, though we both knew I was the big spoon.
He was six months of painless sex and guiltless meals.
One night, I told him about the before: the painful sex, the guilty meals.
Two weeks later, he broke up with me. I blamed the meals.
T. was ice cream, from the local parlor, back in my hometown.
We knew each other from high school, when we worked summers at the grocery store. He had been a bagger, a shy one; I worked customer service, selling scratch tickets and refunding spoiled meat.
I ordered nonfat vanilla; he got Rocky Road. We shared a bench and watched the rest of the line move—all the smiling children. We talked about our upcoming junior years, our families, our would-be careers.
He said I looked good, like, really good these days. I said thank you, and he said no really, you’re so fit.
Eventually, he finished my ice cream for me, sipping the melted mess like soup.
Z. was my roommate’s glass of champagne, gulped down on a hidden staircase.
She found out and cried a lot. I swallowed the bubbly lightness of knowing he had chosen me—me, with my thinner arms. I cried too because, couldn’t she tell I needed him more?
T. was also a poorly stocked fridge in a sticky all-boy apartment. He was smoke and harsh coughs. When he passed out, at last, on the crumb-covered leather futon, I thought he was it.
I snuck to the musky kitchen and finished a crinkled bag of French fries, which I wouldn’t touch earlier; I stuck my index finger in some hard cream cheese, gnawed a stale sandwich, guzzled a neglected flat beer. T. snored.
I grabbed my toothbrush from the bedroom and slipped into the bathroom, my stomach extended. Everything came up, loudly, over the rim of the toilet. And everything was gone in the swirl of a flush.
I pressed my lips together and listened. When I heard T. snore again, I sat back on my heels, ears thumping. I brushed my teeth and remembered the pickles I’d watched T. eat earlier, each one dropped into his mouth like a worm. The vinegary smell had lingered hours later, when he’d brought the joint to my lips and told me to just inhale.
When T. crawled into bed later that night, I told him no. I didn’t feel like it. He said, I’m your boyfriend, shouldn’t you always feel like it? And I thought yes, yes that’s probably right.
Y. was spices. Cumin, turmeric, garlic. He was oils, avocados, good fats.
He liked me healthy, so I liked me healthy. I put on a little love weight. We shared books, which were so important to us; we watched a lot of soccer, which was so important to him.
I graduated college, found a job in the city. We talked about moving in together, but decided to break up instead.
To him I had seemed so beautiful, so seductive, so different from ordinary people.
Bing boom, a couple of years. It all runs out, doesn’t it?
L. was a secret. You can’t know anything about him, except maybe that he stole a lot of coffee from Pret A Manger.
K. (a different K.) was a very expensive cocktail on the Upper West Side, followed by a handful of almonds from Trader Joes. Then he was a few more fancy drinks spread out over a couple of months.
He had a long, beautiful mane of dirty blond hair, and a compelling South African accent. In bed, propped up on our elbows, we’d speak in hushed tones. On three occasions, he looked into my eyes, hard, and said: Don’t ever let anyone tell you you’re not beautiful.
Does he think, I wondered, that people are going around telling me I’m ugly?
Yes, K.’s an actor.
Before he went off to film a movie down south, he said, You can reach out to me, too, you know. You can initiate conversations and plans. I didn’t believe him.
I saw a picture of him recently, sporting a buzz cut. I stalked his co-star a little—and, yes, she’s stunning. I felt proud.
Y. was air, for so long.
I joined a recovery group—for the restriction and the emptying—and I talked about him all the time. It felt good to let it out. And then I just got sick of it, and that felt even better.
Z. (another Z.) was cheap tequila.
C. was also cheap tequila.
J. was some whisky, to seem cool. Later in the evening, he was cheap tequila.
D. was a hearty bowl of pasta that didn’t kill me.
He was 6’7”, Dutch, stupidly handsome; I was 5’0”, weight stabilized, and very confused.
One night after dinner, I asked him to be rough, wanting to feel the full weight of him. With a hand bigger than my head, he pressed down on my chest; all the air came out, a rib splintered. I thought I had died.
For two and a half months, I couldn’t exercise. My fellows in program said it was good for me—I hadn’t eaten pasta in years. What’s next?
L.: still a secret, stop asking.
M. (a different M.) was almost a whole meal.
I was really getting into my work—there was a lot of it, and, funnily enough, I was beginning to think I was pretty good at it.
M. invited me over to his apartment a lot. I said yes, a lot, even though it was out of the way. I’d bring a bottle of wine and he’d cook to my liking. He chopped vegetables into thin slivers, dripped sauces with artistic precision.
He read books because I read books.
He liked me so much and I hated him for it.
I flailed my arms during one of my support meetings, looked desperately into the eyes of my fellows. Why, I asked, why can’t I just like M.?
There, there, they said. There, there.
S. was a tour of my new neighborhood: the dive bar, the ramen joint, the sports bar, the other ramen joint, pho, a string of coffee shops, some sushi restaurant, used book stores, the non-pretentious brunch spot, the real dive bar, the diner, a couple of rooftops.
Eventually, he was just a lot of late-night deli sandwiches in my bed. I swallowed them down, swallowed them down. But I felt like a secret, and I was so sick of secrets.
So L: not a secret anymore. And it wasn’t just the coffee—he stole salads, bananas, wraps, grapes, yogurts, and sandwiches. Nothing was off limits. He grabbed everything, greedily, with no repercussions. In my support meetings, I said: Me too.
My fellows asked, Hasn’t it been a while since you’ve made yourself sick, longest time in seven years?
S. was also the promise of dumplings when the weather warms up. I’ve never had dumplings but I’m open to trying them now. I just can’t stress about flour and water.
And you—I can tell you now—you’re not it either. None of you are.