Age: 17, Grade: 11
School Name: Abraham Joshua Heschel High School, New York, NY
Educator: Sammie Smith
Category: Personal Essay & Memoir
It didn’t start with a navel piercing, but the story sounds better if I tell it that way. Most probably, it started with my grandmother’s fourth grade gym class, where the girls had to wear nylon exercise shorts when war rations made sweatpants an impossibility. This recollection is told and retold like a campfire horror story over tea and coffee cake sliced into slivers of a moon that never waxes, only wanes. My grandmother was a soldier before she was a woman. To her, everything could be described in terms of battle.
“Those shorts made my legs look like two Panzerkampfwagen!” she’d laugh, the polythene sheen of her wrinkled face rippling to the rhythm, cackles exploding and reverberating in my ears like shrapnel. At the time, I had grown keen to saying I have a mermaid body, because when I put my feet together and squint my eyes I can imagine iridescent scales up and down the tail that is my thighs. I am naive and foolish, too young to know there is nothing magical about my softness.
It didn’t start with a navel piercing, but the navel piercing started when Vanessa Hudgens wore low rise acid wash jeans and a “Peace and Love” cropped sweater to the October 2007 premiere of High School Musical: High School Musical 3: Senior Year, a jewel in the center of her flat torso radiating an effortlessness I failed to aptly describe with the sparse number of words I knew at six years. It didn’t start with a navel piercing, but if I say that it did I won’t have to say that it started when my stomach turned into a Jagdtigers, when I stopped seeing myself as myself and rather as a compilation of hamartias conveniently packaged in layer upon layer of fat. My grandmother raised me to be a soldier before I am a woman. Waging war upon myself was not merely an option, but an inevitability.
For many years I believed it started when my mother taught me to calculate calories in the back of a graph paper composition notebook so the numbers looked like simple arithmetic, nothing worth noting. Some days I am inclined to believe it began with my eighth, ninth, tenth birthday wishes for thinness, the prayers I whispered over candles stuck to cakes I wouldn’t eat to wake up smaller. My therapist tells me beginnings don’t matter, “it’s the journey that counts.” She’s a liar.
You are thirteen years old when your hair starts to fall out in fat, heavy clumps on your pillow. You read in “The Cool Kids’ Trivia Book” that humans can smell death from thirty-seven kilometers. Your breath smells like bile perpetually, to an extent that no Altoids or Febreeze can mask. You wonder if this is what death smells like. Dying, you learn, is as ethereal as it is everyday, a casualty of casualness. When Dumbledore dies in the sixth Harry Potter book, you reread the description as if every mental reiteration of the words is one step closer to an understanding, a grasp of what you are in for. Sylvia Plath, you decide, is a deceiver. Dying is not an art, it is an existence. Dying is the repetition of a promise to whittle yourself down to bones, a task at which you are successful but never to a satisfactory extent. You try to romanticize, will yourself to fall profoundly in love with the metallic emptiness of water making its way deeper down into the vacant caverns of your stomach, the novelty of shivering in a warm room. At Thanksgiving, you keep a mental tally of every Great Aunt who shrieks with joy at the disappearing act you managed to perform upon yourself.
“You look so healthy, dear!”
You wonder how many calories you consume from breathing in their dollar store Vanilla body spray, then faint on the linoleum tiling of a suburban bathroom when you go to wash your hands. When you come to, dessert is being served.
You turn fourteen reeking of death more than you always had. That day, Cosmo’s Special Body Edition! Tells you Kim Kardashian’s navel ring was an “Underweight BMI” present to herself. Your mother says a jewel in your stomach would be like a crown on a piglet. She’s laughing. It’s funny, you figure. you faint on the dining room carpet that day and dream you are diamond-encrusted, protected by layers of gemstones.
For my seventh birthday, my brother bought me an entire pint of mint chip ice cream. I cried from utter enamoration of chocolate chunks interspersed in a vast expanse of unbridled sweetness, fat dense tears that fall with a thump, the sound of wounds that make themselves known and demand to be felt. Now, he alleges that this is ‘tradition.’
“I scream! You scream! We all scream for-”
I think about what it would feel like to stab him, just slightly, enough so it hurts but not past that. Perhaps with a butter knife.
“Ice cream! Come on, let’s get going.”
The Häagen-Dazs has twenty-seven flavors of Gelato, thirteen kinds of frozen yogurt, six varieties of citrus sorbet, and no caloric information. For my eighth birthday, my brother bought me a Hershey’s kiss the size of my face. I fasted for four days then went up to the attic and ate it all at once, alone in the company of out of use Easy-Bake Ovens. After, I exhale sweetness for weeks.
The boy at the counter wears a puka shell necklace that nestles itself between his collar bones. I doubt he gets paid enough to have to deal with me.
“Hey, are…are you alright?”
Twenty-seven flavors of Gelato, thirteen kinds of frozen yogurt, six varieties of citrus sorbet, and no caloric information. For my ninth birthday, my brother baked me a blueberry pie. My mother submerged it in dish soap it to keep me from being a glutton. I thanked her.
“Can I call someone? Is there..is there anything I can do?”
Twenty-seven flavors of Gelato, thirteen kinds of frozen yogurt, six varieties of citrus sorbet, and no caloric information. For my tenth birthday, my brother puts a Kit Kat bar under my pillow. I daydream about it for seventeen weeks. When I choose to be ready, the wrapper was faded and dull. I decided it wouldn’t be worth it.
“Listen, whatever happened, I’m sure it’ll turn out okay.”
Twenty-seven flavors of Gelato, thirteen kinds of frozen yogurt, six varieties of citrus sorbet, and no caloric information.
My voice is demonic and guttral, buried deep beneath layers of bile and congealing affliction.
“Do you know how many calories are in a kiddie cup?”
“You know what, just…take it.”
The boy at the counter thrusts a waffle cone overflowing with concerningly neon green gelato into my frigid fingers.
In my memory, he has the same forehead wrinkle my brother does, the mark of a youthful face overburdened with maturity. My memory lies to me sometimes in strives to make my past seem more poetic. I’d like to think this time it is not so.
I’ve never been one for deities, but I swear the spirit of a flat-torsoed October 2007 Vanessa Hudgens was looking upon me and my concerningly neon green gelato. I wished she’d look away. It tasted crisp.
This is no victorious story. I have no before and after to bestow upon the world now, just a freezer full of low fat mint chip ice cream and the ambuscados I’ve inflicted on myself. I write this non-conclusion with a pink crystal jewel reflecting light from my navel. But this didn’t start with a navel piercing. It won’t end with one either. This much, I know, is true.