I was primping in the mirror. Our roles were reversed; my hair wasn’t behaving, and I was very focused on the task of taming it. Her steps were so light, I didn’t hear her approach. Her face said pain. Her voice had a new gravel to it, a last-words lilt.
"Hey," I responded, setting down my styling tools.
“The dean is kicking me out. Because my heart might stop. I’m a liability.”
Both of our necks worked visibly, swallowing undignified grief. And what was this grief? It confused me. Should I even care? Why did she come tell me goodbye? What did it mean? My head was a swirl of dirty air coming through windows, paper clips placed awry, nocturnal escapes, everything in sharp focus as truths were clarified, as the reality of what she had become stood before me, trembling, fragile. I had never seen such a thin person, nor have I since. Her skin was papery, flaking off in areas, the epidermis of a corpse. Her lips were grey, she wore no makeup, and her bones jutted out at abnormal angles.
“I’m sorry,” I breathed, and let it float.
Sorry for my immaturity, my insensitivity, my ignorance of the monster you could not fend off or contain. Sorry that you never felt pretty enough, thin enough, shiny enough, lovely enough. Sorry that your parents divorced, sorry that boys make you nervous. I am sorry I did not see the person inside. Sorry I didn’t tell anyone sooner, or ask if you needed help. Sorry I opened the window and let the dirty air in the room. Sorry I ate so much junk food mindlessly, and didn’t realize why you watched. Sorry I didn’t hug you more often. Sorry I didn’t take up for you when the boys said you were becoming strange. Sorry I didn’t wash your stinking bedding and tuck you in and kiss your forehead and say, Shhh, I am here, and tomorrow will be a new one, and maybe we can do it better, if we let each other help.
I am sorry your heart is an erratic bird fluttering in your chest. I am sorry your elbows stick out like broken wings.
All this beauty, but none of it could save her.
We hugged. I was very careful, she could split in half. It was the most troubling embrace I’ve experienced; it stays with me years later, my hesitant arms around her ribs like sharp needles, Lego brick spine poking my wrists.
I was the only one who helped her move out. All the boys vying for her affections during orientation week, all the glamorous girls who sought her out as a party companion, all the slender attractive bodies that had orbited around her warmth in the beginning, they were all gone. Into her father’s car we loaded the prodigious wardrobe, all of it many sizes larger than her body now. The pink décor, the shimmering accessories, the princess bedding. My own mismatched room was a stark contrast to her elegant furnishings. All this beauty, but none of it could save her.
Her father hugged me hard before he turned to leave. Thank you for everything you’ve done for her, he murmured, tears in his eyes. You’re welcome, I replied automatically, but then thought, what? What have I done but shun her and forget about her? Do I think moving a lamp and a couple of boxes will absolve me of this crime? I was filled with guilt that day, and many afterwards, reflecting on our friendship and how it went sour, and how I didn’t care, left her to fight her disease alone. Left her to die. She hugged me one last time, frail arms, breakable girl. I walked on strong legs back inside. The dormitory building was silent, everyone off campus or taking weekend naps. My current roommate was elsewhere. I sat on the floor and cried. Deep, choking, animal crying.
For months I didn’t hear from her, I didn’t know if she was even alive. It wasn’t unusual for girls being treated for anorexia to cease contact with friends as part of the rehabilitation. The next semester, a girl at school approached me, told me Belle had contacted her trying to get my phone number. “I have Belle’s email address, she wants to hear from you, she misses you,” she told me. I kept seeing this girl around campus, at events, in classes. “Drop by my room,” she would encourage. “Come get that email address.”
She must have told me five, six times.
I never went to her room. I never contacted Belle.
Anorexia is not contagious. It cannot spread from girl to girl. But she got in my head. Her skeletal body, her self-hatred, her OCD-driven actions. It could all be me, and I was acutely aware of that. I was a girl with a past, a girl from a bad home. A girl who spent her young teens dabbling in self- destruction and beauty obsession. It could all come back. It could ruin my future. It could cause the dean to say to me, Leave. We don’t want you here. You are a liability, because you could die any moment.
I could be the girl with the broken wings.
Call it selfishness, call it self-preservation. We can never really look at the sun, never see the truth of its form or the quality of its existence. It blinds. Far better to be the moon shimmering into the darkness, residing among stars and instilling hope in the night. I walked away. I chose life, my own. My heart beat heavy and strong in my chest. (Alive. Guilty, but alive.)
We arrived at college with such dreams. The boys we would date, the events we would attend together, the classes we would sign up for at the same time. Graduation was years away, it seemed an endless expanse of fun and stupidity lay between now and then, but even on that day, we would be together. As I dressed in my black robe, I thought of her. I walked up and received my diploma. I succeeded at finishing college. (But, Belle, I failed you, and that’s the secret we both hold.)