On cool girls, middle school, and hunger
Something miraculous happened to Ella Tillman one summer. She was popular before; she had always been popular. She had always been the blondest, the prettiest, the coldest. But that summer, the doughy, pliant child her parents had kissed goodbye beside the bus to camp returned lithe and tan, two inches taller and twenty pounds thinner. Her thighs and hips had assumed the sharp elegance that had been promised by her slender fingers. Her lips had tasted boys and cigarettes. She was in seventh grade and she was beautiful and she knew it.
I never spoke to her in elementary school. Even if my frizzy hair, pigeon-toed gait, and irresistible urge to talk to myself in public hadn’t exiled me to the ranks of children afflicted by vaguely bionic orthodontia and mothers who slipped medications into their fruit loops, I wouldn’t have joined Ella’s group. I didn’t want to. I didn’t understand what was so thrilling about passing notes to boys in class and making up rumors just to watch them spread.
I only went to her twelfth birthday party because it was at an amusement park. Inviting me had obviously been her mom’s idea. (Her mom had become friends with mine the year before, when both Ella and I began sixth grade at the same Catholic all-girls school in the Hollywood Hills.) I was prepared to spend the day keeping Mrs. Tillman company, sitting next to her on rides and walking a few feet behind the giggling pack of girls.
Ella and her friends hardly looked at me when I arrived. But I couldn’t stop looking at her. It wasn’t just her shinier hair and her longer limbs and the way she swung her hips when she walked. Something else was different about her. It was in the way she looked at her mom, like she might idly gaze at a zit—bored, and faintly repulsed. I saw it in the contortions of her face every time we passed a good-looking boy and again when her mom urged us to smile for a photo. She seemed distant and mysterious, like she knew something I didn’t. She had found some special, privileged knowledge among the trees at that summer camp. Something that made her powerful. Something I wanted.
I wasn’t pretty and I wasn’t mean, so I got funny. “Honey,” I growled when we stopped beside a cotton candy stand, throwing my arm around some poor soul getting paid minimum wage to sweat inside a Shrek costume all day. “You’ve really let yourself go. Just the thought of your naked body is driving me to drink!” I said, in a twanging growl. It was the same voice I had cultivated to assuage the fears of my younger siblings after looking one too many tracheostomy holes in the eye on visits to my grandparents’ trailer park.
“Who knew you were so funny,” Ella said to me at the end of the day. “We have to hang out more.”
A month later, we had become inseparable. Two months after that, Señorita Stevens, our Spanish teacher, banned bathroom breaks. The week before, two eighth-graders had excused themselves from Señorita Stevens’s class, ostensibly to use the bathroom. In the hallway they had attacked each other, screaming and spitting and scratching at each other’s tear-stained faces with the sharp acrylic fingernails everyone shoplifted from the Rite-Aid down the street.
While we never resorted to physical violence, my friends and I also abused our bathroom privileges. We made faces at ourselves in the mirror, standing side by side in order to determine whose legs were thinner, or used the stalls as an obstacle course of sorts, scrambling over the upper ledges and hanging by our knees from the swinging doors—all things that shared the peculiar quality of being enjoyable only when one is a fugitive.
The first time I almost shit my pants we were learning to conjugate Spanish verbs in the future tense. Ella had become obsessed with keeping off the weight she had lost over the summer. She carried a small square of black velvet soaked in her mother’s Burberry perfume because she had read on a pro-anorexia website that smelling it would kill her food cravings. Soon the smell of middle age wafted from the pockets of everyone in our group of friends. Rubber bands were suddenly in fashion because Ella wore one around her wrist, snapping it against her skin to punish herself every time she thought of eating. Our latest experiment, pioneered by Ella, was with laxatives.
Repeat after me, said Señorita: “Yo voy a ir.” I am going to go. Having taken four times the recommended dose of Ex-Lax forty-five minutes earlier, I certainly was, whether I wanted to or not. I sat, rigid, on my blue plastic desk chair, bowels trembling, ass cheeks clamped together and eyes glued to the clock.
“Hey, are you okay?” the girl sitting next to me asked. She was a pretty blonde named Maddie who wasn’t part of my clique. She and Ella treated each other with the forced deference of diplomats during a détente. The girls in Maddie’s group played sports and thought “cute” was a compliment. They knew the best-looking boys at St. John’s, the closest thing we had to a brother school, from years of dinner parties and barbecues and afternoons at the tennis club, arranged by fathers who worked at the same investment firms and mothers who were in book club together.
Excluding myself, Ella’s group was composed of similarly attractive girls. But while Maddie and her friends were experimenting with body glitter and purple eye shadow, we were testing how many unwashed days and nights a single application of heavy black eyeliner could withstand. Maddie asked the St. John’s boys to put our names beside hers on invitation lists to their school dances because we had older siblings with cars who drove fast with the music turned up loud, and Parliaments stolen from our divorced mothers’ sock drawers stuffed in our bras. We brought the half-drunk bottles of Bacardi and Tanqueray for all of us grimace over in the parking lot. I looked at Maddie, barely able to speak. “I just really need to go to the bathroom,” I said, forcing a mangled smile.
Maddie laughed under her breath. “Just ask!” she whispered. “It’s totally unfair, she can’t force you not to go.”
I shrugged. Afraid to raise my hand, I bolted from the room and spent the rest of the class period losing and regaining my composure in a bathroom stall.
Most days, we took our laxatives when we arrived at school in the morning. Ella, who kept a stockpile of blue pills in her makeup case along with a half-full pack of clove cigarettes, was always there earliest because her father dropped her off before going to work. She would distribute the pills to each one of us as we arrived, and we would swallow them with a sip of orange soda from the vending machine. There was nothing worse than being the last to arrive. It was like joining a group of people laughing at a punchline you didn’t hear.
During lunch hour, we sought nourishment in the sun. We lay on our backs on the softball field, pressing our pleated uniform skirts tight against our hips to determine whose hipbones protruded the most. Ella usually initiated these comparisons, saying, “Ugh, I’m so fat right now,” as she sucked in her stomach and grabbed her bones. She had the biggest hipbones, so she always won. We groaned about our stomach pains and exchanged stories about the trials of our overactive bowels: Cassy left ballet class early because her stomach had betrayed her; Lily didn’t study for her Pre-Algebra quiz because she had spent the entire evening on the toilet; my stomach emitted a defiant cry so loud in History class that even my teacher chuckled. Ella listened, and laughed. The more abject your humiliation, the funnier she found it.
Maybe, by emptying ourselves so thoroughly, we were making room for Ella, and for each other. Or maybe we were just making room.
I often felt pangs of guilt about damaging my body—though they could have been stomach cramps. We were fiercely secretive about our laxative use. If other girls discovered that we were suffering from chronic explosive diarrhea, how could we continue to ridicule them for their unshaved legs and period stains? What would become of us? We existed in a state of mutually assured destruction, where no one dared expose anyone else’s use for fear of being outed herself.
When Ella wasn’t eating, everyone else in the group went hungry. I’m not sure why this was the case for the other girls, but for me it was about feeling close to her. If neither of us was eating, we were linked by our hunger. If both of us were eating, we were linked by momentary pleasure that quickly gave way to self-loathing. It was a form of togetherness infinitely stronger than physical proximity.
A few months into the school year, I befriended a girl named Audrey, and invited her to have lunch with us. We sat in a circle on the field, and she pulled a tuna sandwich from her lunchbox while the rest of us sipped Vitamin Water. Ella wasn’t eating that day. Audrey joined us on the field again the following day, this time with a thermos of soup. The next day, she brought only a small bag of pretzels, and the next, nothing. Eventually she stopped appearing on the field. When I found her in class and asked her why, she replied, “I’m sorry, I was starving.”
For a long time I didn’t understand how Audrey could choose food over an opportunity to be in the “cool” group. We were beautiful and powerful. Our presence struck fear and envy in the hearts of our peers. Didn’t she know that no one was having more fun than we were? I now realize that at the heart of this confusion lay a different question: How could the fulfillment afforded by a sandwich or a handful of almonds match how it felt to experience the same physical sensations of pain and pleasure, and the same concurrent emotions of satisfaction and self-loathing, in perfect tandem with another person?
The problem with laxatives is that they don’t stop working once you’ve expelled all the contents of your stomach. When you’re empty of food, you sit doubled over on the toilet as yellow acid tears its way out of your body. When even the acid is gone, you ache for hours with cramps so excruciating you can barely move. But, no matter how much you wish the pain would stop, you know you will do this again tomorrow, and again the next day. You know you will give in. Because giving in, together—isn’t that everything?
More in this series
If I collect Oma’s memories, if I truly remember my grandmother, I too can retain what is slipping away.