The Punchline by Alexandra Mendelsohn
I’m grateful to Cameron. It hits me in the morning. Four months into recovery I am peeling an orange by myself in the dining hall and I realize that I’m grateful to him and that this gratitude is the problem. The problem is that I will not keep him. I have been convinced of this since we first started dating but now I pinpoint the reason it is true: I am grateful. Which means that he’s served his purpose. And that his purpose is to inadvertently salvage my health, not to make me happy.
I outrun anorexia because I want to keep my breasts. Obviously it is more complicated than that. Obviously there are other facets of the because, like my parents, who threaten to pull me out of school, and my friends, who teach me to say some things I mean, like I don’t want to be sick, and some things I don’t, like I am sick, probably. But if any part of my fight is my own initiative it is my desire to defend my breasts. I want my breasts. Everything else can go.
I ask Cam once, in bed, “Are they still the perfect size?”
He keeps playing with them. “The fuck does that mean?”
“Like, they haven’t changed?”
The perfect size is just barely more than a handful, just enough so they spill out between his fingers. He thinks it’s cute.
“Yeah,” he says. He tests them. “I think so. Yeah.”
I stretch. He catalogues my ribs with his fingertips.
“You think they’ve changed?” he says.
“I don’t know. No reason.”
There is a change in the texture of his finger pads. Almost as if the curves of his prints have elongated somehow, and I can feel it, just barely, just enough to know it’s different. “You know. Yes reason.” He doesn’t bother to grow tense. We both know I know. It’s funny.
“I want them,” I say. I run my fingertips over my chest, to make sure. “Really.”
Thankfully he doesn’t understand what that means. He doesn’t share in the weight of my sincerity. He says, “Great, baby,” and grins, “me, too,” and I thank God that he doesn’t get it, that he thinks boobs are obviously something to want, that I share with him my most hideous hopeful shame and he laughs it out of the dark. He has given my breasts meaning. He has saved and violated my life.
The only thing to do, ultimately, is to dump him, but I don’t want to deal with that yet. I finish peeling the orange. Its skin curls on the table like the molting of a snake. Describing food with snake imagery is a bad habit: I edit: its skin curls on the table like the skin of an orange. I go to work.
My Saturday job is standing behind a counter and exchanging food for money, small things, packets of peanuts, roasted almonds, chocolate bars. Classmates dig mutilated dollar bills from their pockets and unravel them with bashful smiles and in return for their embarrassment they leave with seven bags of Emergen-C, Pretzel Crisps, two Lindt truffles, a water bottle. I agree to work here because my parents tell me to get a job and because the irony of working in food distribution appeals to me. The irony wears off. I work out of habit.
At first I pass time wondering which of my customers have eating disorders but I am better now and more in recovery than I was and I have progressed to more productive thought patterns such as mentally breaking up with my boyfriend. There are lots of places I could do it. I could do it at the Intercollegiate Penitentiary Conference we’re staffing in a couple hours or at the art house movie I told him I do not have time to go to (I will tell him, first, that I actually do, he will be glad) or at a strip mall, because Cam hates strip malls, so he will expect something. I could do it at the café where we had our first date, because circular symbolism be damned he will expect nothing. I am not sure whether it’s crueler to shoot him blind in the face or to make him wait for it. I am also not sure how cruel I want to be. And of course I might be feeling egotistical, the appropriate metaphor might not be a bullet at all.
A girl from Russian Historiography puts Pringles on the counter and offers me her credit card. I think about refusing it, because I am bored, not because it would be interesting. I take it. It’s declined on the first swipe but accepted on the second. Disappointment. I hope to uncover money-laundering schemes in troublesome Visas. I could do it at a Chase; it’s freeing to realize, I could do it in a place with no significance at all, I could do it at a bank.
I text Daniel first. He thinks it’s a great idea. He hates Cam from the moment he lays eyes on him (he considers him pretentious (Kayla comes around more slowly)). “Yes?” My phone has buzzed. It’s squished between shoulder and jaw as I take somebody’s dejected five-dollar bill and sort out change and I assume Joanna is giving me the silent treatment until I realize I have muted her with my cheek. I unmute her. She’s talking about him.
“Give me a sec.” I hand the kid Nutella and change. “What?”
“Do it in an amusement park.”
The store is thinning out, just one girl in the corner, contemplating animal crackers. “What?”
“I’ve been thinking, I think you should do it in an amusement park. If I were getting dumped that’s where I would want to be dumped.”
“You could go on rides afterward. Soften the blow.”
“I’ve discussed it with Kayla—”
I hang up. I call Kayla. “Joanna thinks I should break up with Cam in an amusement park.”
A pause. “I thought she wasn’t speaking to you.”
“So did I.”
She says, after a moment, “Six Flags. He can get Dip’n’Dots.”
I shake my head. On the phone, this is not an answer.
“He likes Dip’n’Dots,” I say.
She doesn’t get that this is a problem.
Daniel suggests I do it in a supermarket, for the irony, though irony is no longer something I’m invested in, and this is more like the opposite of irony, it is exactly what any of us would expect, and then I am out of friends.
I am not out of friends. There is a time when I am, except for Joanna, who is more like a warden and who stays and who for that reason now that I’m no longer out of friends occasionally does not feel the need to speak to me. She says dumping Cam is a shit idea. I imagine breaking up with him in a supermarket. We go to the vegetable aisle and I assess the eggplants and when I find a nice one I pick it up. I remember I am not actually here to go shopping. I put it back. Joanna and Kayla and Daniel are watching from the yogurt (Joanna watches even when she doesn’t speak) and I could say, “I’m not about this.” He could be hurt. “What?” He could be sarcastic. “The eggplant?” I might still be holding the eggplant. It might still be in my hands. I might look at it.
Cameron and I meet in a politics seminar with two hundred and ninety collective pounds and I court him as I court my eating disorder, with caution and compassion and acute interest. We get naked together at two hundred and sixty. This isn’t his fault. It has been suggested to me a couple times that perhaps one set of behaviors encourages the other, but that is not how it is, and even if it were, as I tell Kayla, you win some, you lose some. She considers hitting me. By the end of our first month you can see the span of my every rib including the little jutting bones on the bottom that some people never have the pleasure of meeting and he says he likes that, it makes me look edgy. I laugh, on account of the pun. He didn’t want to hurt my feelings.
We go to Six Flags twice. The first time is in May and a couple days later I eliminate meat. The second time is in September and I pass out, for an instant, on the Tower of Terror. This is not necessarily because I’m not eating. We are very high up. Cam is talking animatedly about this shot in last night’s movie where the camera sits on top of a building and watches the busy road below for about six whole minutes before plummeting downward into a random waft of dialogue and how that is a lot like this, like being suspended in a tracking shot, at the top of a giant metal ride made for people who want to feel their bodies smash into the ground and shatter into a million pieces and I am one of those people, I am dizzy with hunger, this ride is made for me and it seems like an appropriate time to pass out. I do.
Other than that the trip is great. We like Six Flags. Cam asks me, a couple hours later to make what’s he saying offhand and unurgent, whether I fell asleep on the Tower of Terror. I laugh and confess yes. It’s a bonding moment. He gets mint chocolate chip Dip’n’Dots and we sit on a bench near the parachutes and he eats them and I eat seven because what the hell I want to be good to myself. Next week he asks me whether I have an eating disorder. I tell him no; anorexia isn’t sexy anymore.
Near the parachutes anorexia is not on the table. We watch tiny people fall to ground, two by two, in swings, graceful, spared from their fight-or-flight mechanisms by the giant fabric devices ballooning over their heads. There is an occasional scream but mostly it’s quiet.
“It would be cool,” his mouth is full of Dip’n’Dots, “to design shit like that.”
“Shit like what?”
I don’t follow his eyes. I like hearing him name the things he’s looking at. “Like two girls in a harness attached to a partial balloon,” he says, “who fall and don’t die, because of the partial balloon.”
“Stick to your senatorial ambitions.”
He looks at me. “I don’t have senatorial ambitions.”
“Yes you do.”
Surprised is etched onto his face, in raised eyebrows and parted lips, without cause. Cam frequently maintains emotions he knows perfectly well he has no reason to feel. It is one of the things that first draws me to him, this frivolity with feeling. The brightness of his eyes softens into conspiracy as he clarifies — dictatorial ambitions. Senate is a pit stop.
I picture the parachutes as partial balloons, the rush of wind which marks their descent becoming the escape of helium, only partially contained. Which for helium is no containment at all. I decide this is why they fall; slow.
“You’ll make an interesting dictator,” I say.
He kisses my neck. “I like that future tense.”
I explain. “I commit to my hypotheticals.”
The parachuters make their touchdown. The ground grows restless with wind.
This is where I’ll do it, should I listen to Kayla. I will sit on this bench.
There are an inordinate number of chairs to be unfolded and only a handful of us to do the unfolding, me, Cam, some others, they aren’t so relevant. The chairs are optimistic. This many people will not attend the Intercollegiate Penitentiary Conference. This many people do not care about the state of the US penitentiary system. Still we have them. In case they do.
Cameron finishes a row at the other end of the courtyard and mouths something at me, I don’t catch it, he is sixty feet away. I snap another chair open and with some effort stick it wobbling onto the ground. Cam’s shadow wraps around one of the poles of the tent. They’re having the conference outside this year because we have decided to discuss mandatory minimums and sentencing inequality and the war on the war on drugs under the sunset and it is nice here in February. I suspect, sometimes, that I lose my appetite because the climate is confusing. I tell myself that I cannot reduce extreme sentences for nonviolent drug offenses while I am hungry.
Cam is smiling at me. His childhood was shit and mine was not and I diagnose myself sometimes with a sympathy disorder, like a cramp, the disorder he could have had, many eating disorder patients are victims of child abuse, and he is smiling at me and although he is a little bit of an asshole and two-thirds my friends (I am not out of friends) hate his smile it is a nice smile, it is. We meet in the middle of the row.
“We really shouldn’t call this the Intercollegiate Penitentiary Conference,” in my ear.
“Why not?” though I know.
“It sounds like it’s about an intercollegiate jail. Like we’re all in jail. Or trying to figure out a more convenient way to incarcerate other college students, who are in jail.”
It occurs to me that I will have to do it now. I will not have the courage, tomorrow, to lose his sense of humor. “Funny,” I say.
The seats for the guest panel are already set up although their occupants aren’t here — a county judge, an ex-con, and a political analyst; a fourth for the interviewer. I hear they write good papers. They will talk about nonviolent drug offenses whether or not I am hungry. My friends will not be sitting on these chairs tonight but I sit them there anyway, for now, for efficiency. They sit Daniel and Kayla in two and Joanna one chair over, because she is on Cam’s side and therefore not on theirs. Since Joanna’s shunning me she has to speak through them to speak to me. Makes the arrangement redundant. Cam would say pointedly so.
She tells Daniel to tell me this is lunacy but Daniel is busy listing supermarket aisles (still vying for irony). Not the vegetables — I was okay with many of those — but then he reconsiders, there could be something in that, in doing it (Cam laughs at the phrasing) in my safe zone. Would I call the vegetable aisle my safe zone? He asks questions like that for strictly artistic purposes, which makes him easy and useless to talk to. “Well,” I say, “no,” it’s an aisle. Kayla stares at me. “Six Flags,” she says, like it’s obvious.
My friends like talking about my problems. It’s a task. First it was to teach me to eat and now it is to teach me to love, or not; they’ve been talking about this all day; I don’t feel guilty for giving them chairs. Kayla says Cam is the eating disorder and at best a symptom. Joanna says I was fucked up long before I met him.
"Would you just tell her, like, don’t,” Joanna says. Kayla doesn’t. They’re equally convinced. Joanna uses the word self-destructive, a word I have heard a lot but still makes little sense, because it sounds like it should be systematic, a word with so many syllables, a word that ends in ive, like a condition, and while what I do used to feel systematic it is difficult to identify any system at all in its recovery. In a philosophical sense, Cam would say, if there’s no system in the ascent there is likely no system in the descent (don’t call it a system, he’s said, don’t give it compliments).
“It’s just idiotic,” he says. “From a marketing perspective.”
“It’s funny,” I say.
What is funny, though, in the unjust sense of the word, is that nonviolent drug offenders come out of prison more violent than they go in. They say that it isn’t enough, on the inside, to stick it out through your fear — you have to get rid of it. You mutilate it malleable and you mold it into something else, thought by thought. You come out without it.
“I don’t think we should do this anymore,” I say.
Cam looks at me in bemusement. “Fuck that.”
He takes the folding chair from my hands and drives it into the ground, a succinct motion, an assault on the dirt.
He tells me he expects this and he is prepared. I tell Kayla Cam drills the chair into the ground like a weapon. She will see it as a flag. She does. She tells Joanna on the phone while I am in the bathroom that he has pissed all over me like a big cat and Joanna says this might be a slight exaggeration, she thinks he is a narcissist, she does not think he is a lion. Daniel finds the comparison too flattering. Kayla rescinds the analogy.
The second time I break up with him it occurs to him to ask why. We are at a panel with one of our favorite directors, a Harowitz who makes obscure short films about people who watch birds, and there is a break, and his hand is on my knee and he does not flinch, does not remove it, when I bring it up. He asks for a reason.
My knee is bony. Unusually so, perhaps, for a knee. I don’t know.
“I wanted my breasts,” I say. I laugh. “Isn’t that stupid?”
I am underweight but I am never hospitalized, though my hair does fall out, in passive-aggressive tufts that settle around my shoulders, on the sleeves of jackets. I escape anorexia by the skin of my teeth, comically unscathed, my exit fee only two dozen pounds, a couple friends, some hemoglobin, and part of my scalp. Cam (I do not tell them this) keeps the hairs that catch on his fingers and peel away from my head. He says this is to keep them here, so I can earn them back.
Twenty-seven people attend the Intercollegiate Penitentiary Conference, two of whom are Cameron and myself, sitting side by side in the second row. The panel is good. Very compelling while I am listening to it. The ex-con talks about explaining his absence to his children and I drift into the unshakeable question of why they don’t talk about this part in the memoirs, why during all the weeks I spent living vicariously through the accounts of other, sicker people I never read about the segment of recovery where I realized I no longer want to be one of those people. I don’t feel sick anymore. I don’t throw away my orange after I peel it. I don’t lie on my back and watch the ceiling for fifteen minutes after dinner. I don’t remember what it was like to do those things. I am never hospitalized. I wanted my breasts. It is a joke.
Cam eventually clarifies, “Your tits shrank after that conversation, you know. Weeks.”
I try to remember whether he is right.
He gets around to adding, “They came back.”
I place my spine against his chest. I look in the mirror to make sure.
Alexandra Mendelsohn is a Comparative Literature major (and aspiring novelist) at Princeton University.