By Gilian Foley
Pigeon Press (Portland, Oregon)
Evelyn is only thirteen, but an eating disorder has rendered her ageless. She doesn’t look like a girl with a Tumblr obsession, who likes Nirvana and writes poetry. I barely even notice her mop of pink hair. All I can see is her anorexia.
We’re in the second hour of Christmas dinner. Beyond our little corner of hell, my dad’s whole family is having the time of their lives. Everyone comes to our Christmas reunion. It’s a special time of year, the only time that my dad’s whole family, scattered across the country, can join together. I can hear their laughter ringing from across the room; it nearly drowns out Evelyn’s cries.
I narrow my eyes at the back of dad’s head, trying to read his thoughts. Dad loves family reunions. He looks forward to them all year.
“Come on, Evelyn.” Aunt Carol hisses. “You have to eat.”
All of my aunts are very pretty, each tall and thin. They share the same dark hair and large, perpetually widened eyes. I couldn’t tell them apart until I was eight.
Aunt Carol is the scariest one. She’s over six feet, and she seems even taller than that now, towering over Evelyn’s shrunken frame. Evelyn mutters something in response. She pokes a fork in her mashed potatoes, twirling the white globs.
Evelyn has been anorexic for six months. Yesterday we picked her family up from the airport. My cousins Finn and Annika tried to warn me about her appearance. We gossiped about it on the long car ride over. She’s lost a lot of weight, Finn, a beanpole himself, whispered. She doesn’t look healthy.
It’s always hard to identify people at an airport. They’re reduced to blots of color, to just another body among thousands. I scan the crowd for Evelyn and Terry, squinting. What do they look like, again?
My sister Katy gasps, quick and sharp.
“What?” I ask.
Evelyn isn’t skinny in the way that healthy people are. She’s not small-boned or athletic; she looks like she’d break if she touched a ball. Her smallness is horrifying. All I can see is her skeletal body, bones protruding, skin stretched tight.
I’ve seen anorexic people before, but only across the street, or through a computer screen. Strangers, from a safe distance. It was unreal; I couldn’t look at Evelyn for too long.
My dad calls it going ‘Cold Turkey’ when he stops drinking. Others call it detox, or alcohol withdrawal, and it’s supposed to be incredibly painful. The body is reduced to one giant ache. He loses control of himself–cranky and shaking, his brain throbbing and fuzzy. He has trouble falling asleep, but when he finally does, he has very vivid dreams.
The last time dad detoxed, he dreamt that he was a Kennedy. He was wearing a Brooks Brothers suit, he said, and someone was chasing him. He didn’t know who, or why; all he knew was that the world was after him, and he was wearing a really, really expensive suit.
I told this story to my mom, whispering into the phone. She laughed loudly. “Of course he did!” Her voice was triumphant. “That whole family think they’re Kennedys.”
Mom attributed this to their egos, of course. The Foleys are middle-class people who like to believe they’re more important than they are. The Kennedys are a family of senators and presidents.
But there is similarity there. The Kennedys are Irish-Catholic. They’re attractive and funny, and they all have dark hair. They’re famously secretive.
I’ve always thought of dad as a magical creature. I only see him once or twice a year, and that makes him even more special. He’s rare, like a unicorn or a phoenix. Dad exudes an aura of laughter and light; it’s impossible to be sad in his presence.
The summer after seventh grade he went into a coma. It wasn’t his first such health scare, or his last. Mom would give us the periodic updates every few months or so; dad’s sick again. We were used to it. I’d always thought of these occasional hospital stays like hangovers. A pounding head, an upset stomach. A temporary discomfort.
Katy and I were sitting in the hammock when Mom walked over to us. “Gadds, we need to talk.”
She explained the whole story to us in that overly gentle tone she uses with bad news. Her words blurred together; kidney failure, damaged esophagus, possible dialysis. She’d found out this morning, through old friends. Dad’s family didn’t tell her.
“But he’s awake now, honey. You don’t need to worry.”
Katy cried. She’s a very empathetic person. She always gives money to homeless people. When our fish died, I told Mom to just flush him down the toilet. Katy staged an elaborate funeral.
I squinted up at the sun, trying to picture my dad in a coma. Little tufts of his dyed-blond hair would be peeking out from under tubes and bandages. His mouth would be open but not his eyes.
Katy sniffled next to me, and I dug my fingernails in my palm, I knew I should’ve been sad, sickened by this image, but I didn’t feel anything.
I always call the Foleys my dad’s family. In reality, they’re mine as much as they are his. I like reading, just like them. I have dark hair; I have their name. We share the same blood.
But I’m an intruder. It’s an unspoken truth; the elephant in the room. My mom and my sister are my real family. They’re the people I fight with when I have a bad day, a part of me, like an arm of a leg. Something so inseparable that I take it for granted. Around dad’s family, I’m a perpetual guest, just waiting to return to my home.
I have a recurring dream that I’m attending my dad’s funeral. The dream is in black and white, like an old movie. I’m sitting in the front row, wearing a little black dress.
Then I get up to speak. I’m beautiful in this dream, the best parts of me amplified, and I absolutely glow. I lean on the lectern and blot my tears with a handkerchief.
My speech is wonderful. I never remember what I say. I’ve even tried to write it down once or twice, right after I wake up. I don’t remember my exact words, but I remember the feeling I create. My speech is like a song. By the end of it, everyone is sobbing and clapping. I’m beautiful; I’m recognized. I’m brave and articulate.
Mom always tells Katy and me to be ready. Dad could die any time. What would I say at his funeral? I’ve thought about it many times. I know that he’s funny; I know that he makes people laugh and always means well. He’s like a fun uncle. But I don’t know anything beyond that. I don’t know anything substantive, certainly nothing you can say to sum up a whole life.
“You promised you’d eat,” Aunt Carol hisses.
Evelyn moans in response. She’s been incapable of words for the past few hours. She just sits there, sobbing, with her head in her hands.
I’m staring at her; I can’t help it. All of us cousins are. We nibble on our food, watching Evelyn out of the corners of our eyes, and pretend we’re not looking.
I’ve known Evelyn since before I could talk. I’ve spent every summer with her for as long as I can remember, but we’ve never been very close. She’s only two years younger than me and very introverted. Whenever the rest of the cousins went swimming, splashing each other and screeching, Evelyn would just read on the shore. Aunt Carol always waved it off. “Eve just likes to be in her head.”
I bite down on my turkey. It tastes dry, like chewing on a cotton ball. I mash it around in my mouth slowly, contemplating spitting it out.
“Delicious, isn’t it?” Finn doesn’t really care about my answer; he isn’t even looking at me.
“Mmhm.” I agree.
We continue to stare at the mother and daughter, as if they were an art exhibit. Through Evelyn’s thin shirt, I can see the bones you’d expect to see. A hard elbow; a defined clavicle. An outline of her ribs. A lump that must be a breastbone. I can see bones that I didn’t know existed. She’s a lesson on human anatomy.
Last night, when I couldn’t sleep, my cousin Nora told me all about Evelyn. We turned the light off and huddled up in our covers. “It happens every meal,” Nora said. “She cries and cries and cries. Aunt Carol tries to force her to eat, but Evelyn refuses.” Her whisper rises with excitement, with the power of knowing. “It happens at school, too, you know. Her dad has to come and force-feed her three times a day.”
When I was younger I used to call my dad many times a week. It was a promise I made to myself and I didn’t break it for years. He’s an insomniac, so I would call him at all hours of the day. He’d pick up eagerly on the second or third ring.
These conversations would last for at least an hour. I would lie on my bed, eyes closed, listening to his voice. Dad’s a talker; most of the words would be his. I would turn on speakerphone so he could listen to my newest piano song, describe my soccer games, and he would read me stories. We would laugh hysterically about nothing. He knew the names of my friends, even if he’d never seen their faces.
This worked out for years. He could do most anything through a phone. A voice without a body, I thought, could still be a dad.
I don’t call him anymore. Our relationship consists of a slew of unanswered texts. I lie to him. He thinks I don’t talk on phones, that I barely even use my phone.
It’s so easy to completely write him off. I do it to my friends a lot. Dad would be horrified to know the things I say. He’s a bum, he’s not there for me. Most of the time, I believe them myself.
But I know that if I pick up, his voice will tell me otherwise. I’ll hear him sing, “Hello” and I’ll smile, and maybe I’ll even tear up a bit. I’ll be a little girl again, desperate for my dad.
Photo Credit: Pigeon Press