Birthday, Lani DePonte
Anya, the temperature is dropping, and we’re not doing very well. At night we eat dinner in the cafeteria, and our friends watch every bite you put into your mouth. We smoke cigarettes on the patio beforehand, the uncomfortable outdoor furniture embedding diamond patterns into our arms and legs. Most nights, your eyes fill with tears. You tell me that our friends are all so obvious, that when we sit down to eat, they don’t even try to hide the fact that they’re watching you. I can tell, as you talk around exhales of smoke, that you don’t think I watch you. I can tell that you think I’m safe.
I know you need to smoke at least one, maybe two, cigarettes before you can bring yourself to stand up and walk into the dining hall. I know that when you reach the kitchen, you freeze up, and when you pretend to be deliberating over what to put on your plate, you’re actually trying to determine how easily whatever you choose will come back up. I know that no matter how many times you circle the kitchen, sizing up every single menu option, you will always end up with a plateful of green lettuce, piled four inches high with carrots, onions, raisins, hard-boiled eggs, peppers, and a small amount of those hard Chinese noodles you use in place of croutons. I know that you eat quickly, shoving forkfuls of salad into your mouth without looking at them, because if you can’t see the food, maybe it isn’t real. I know that when the rest of us fill bowls of ice cream for dessert, you grab a dish the size of a grapefruit and add a scoop of granola. You spoon about half an ounce of pudding on top, and then you cross over to the condiment section, where you add two saltines, one spread with peanut butter and the other spread with jelly.
I know that once you’re done eating, you begin to fidget, your fingers roaming to your bag over and over again, absentmindedly snapping and unsnapping the clasp until your hands are a blur. I know that on the nights when our friends leave the cafeteria before us, you breathe sighs of relief that give me goosebumps. To me, you don’t have to make any excuses. You just have to smile, shrug your shoulders, say you’ll meet me outside for a cigarette in ten or fifteen minutes. I know that some nights, you don’t get so lucky. Some nights our friends don’t have anywhere to be, and they linger at the table long after your plate is empty. Those nights make you feel panicked, like the food you ate is an anvil in your stomach, threatening to push you through the floorboards and all the way down to a place where you’re stuck so full you can’t get your lungs to fill up.
I know that lately, since it’s gotten cold, you’ve come up with a solution. You carry your salad to the table, eat it, make lighthearted conversation. You’re very social. You stand up, all smiles, gesturing with one hand, holding your empty plate in the other. You turn away, walk across the dining hall, and place your plate on the conveyer belt. You pull your used fork off your plate and drop it into the silverware bin. And then, I know, you bolt out the side doors, the ones students aren’t supposed to use, and as you walk down the hallway toward the women’s bathroom, I bet sometimes you smile. I bet sometimes you’re so relieved you got away with it that you feel genuinely ecstatic. I know that after you’ve thrown up your salad you feel okay about eating some dry cereal, and when you burst back through the cafeteria’s side entrance you feel pure and empty, like your insides are the way they should be, just bone and blood and flesh. I know that when you come back to the table with your grapefruit-sized dish of granola, you believe we have no idea that you left the cafeteria. For the most part, you’re right.
It’s getting cold outside, and we’re starting to wear jackets. Our fingers turn white and stiff while we’re smoking. I’m slipping into a depression so deep I can’t muster the energy to talk some days, and you’re watching me carefully. You play with my hair at night. You buy me things, cigarettes and bottles of soap and boxes of tampons, because I’m too frozen, too immobile, to remember to buy them for myself. You think I can’t see you, but I can. We’re spending less and less time alone together. I love you because you can tell I’m getting sicker. You love me because you don’t think I know you are, too.