A Stellar Flare of Young Adult Writing and Visual Art
BY EMILY BURKE
Emma looked at her plate. Full. It had exactly 15 green beans, 5 ounces of chicken, and 2 scoops of mashed potatoes exactly. Even though she had planned out her proportions just so, she knew she wasn’t going to eat a bite.
Doctors liked to tell her what she already knew.
They liked to tell her that she was ‘anorexic.’
They liked to tell her that she was going to die.
They liked telling her that she was killing herself. She didn’t listen when they got to that part.
In all honesty, that part scared her.
Emma didn’t want to die. She wanted to live. But she wanted to live skinny and pretty. And the only way–for her–to do that was to not eat.
Emma walked through the hall, struggling with her bag. It was heavy. It shouldn’t have been though, she hadn’t put a lot in it. Maybe she was getting weak. No, she thought. That wasn’t it. Maybe… maybe… She couldn’t come up with any excuse for the extra weight she felt.
She walked into her first class and sat in her assigned seat. It was in the middle of the classroom, and it made her feel protected, yet insecure. She was in the middle of everything, but… that was where everyone probably stared. They probably stared at her already. Skinny wrists, baggy clothing, piercing eyes in hollowed sockets. She was certainly a sight to see.
Her peers liked to pretend that she didn’t exist. So did her teachers.
Sometimes new kids would try and talk to her, or make her crack somehow, but they would always get the idea: Emma would never fight. She wouldn’t even talk back. So what was the point? Why would you fight someone who wouldn’t fight back?
At dinner the next night, Emma sat alone. She always put something on her plate and sat at the dinner table for 45 minutes before getting up and putting her leftovers in the fridge. She did it no matter what. Tonight, her parents went out to eat on a ‘date.’ But still, Emma would pretend to be good and have dinner. Or at least stare at it.
They liked to pretend that Emma was still eating.
They liked to say that she was healthy, and didn’t go to the doctors every week for her condition they called ‘nothing.’
They turned a blind eye. Frankly, Emma couldn’t care less about what they did with her.
Everyone around Emma liked to pretend. Sometimes, it felt like she was the only one that was real. They pretended. And so they of course didn’t have problems. But Emma was real, and she thought, that’s the only reason I have problems. It’s because I’m the only thing that’s real. She couldn’t have been further from the truth.
Light diffused from the city below, giving it an aura of happening, and wonder. Emma looked at it with hope from the car window. She was going there tonight. The big city.
Her parents were taking her to a ballet in the city for her birthday. She had dreamed of it since she had started dance.
It was The Nutcracker, and no one in the car looked forward to it more than Emma.
As soon as they got into the parking space, Emma manually unlocked the passenger door and ran out into the cold night. Vapor slid from her breath, and she huddled closer to herself in her jacket. The family walked silently in awe to the entrance of the venue. Signs were strewn around the entrance to the theater, advertising shows coming soon. Emma’s parents smiled to themselves as they got tickets from will-call and went into the theater.
Emma skipped, not noticing people eying her for a moment, then looking away from the seemingly pudgy-for-seven girl. Her parents had always told her she was growing, so her belly didn’t matter. And it didn’t.
Her mother heard people muttering as they passed by, things like,‘That kid should lay off the muffins’ and told Emma to stop skipping, but she didn’t listen and continued to skip down the velvet walkway. Emma heard one man say a bit too loudly, ‘Mmm, too fat, hope she doesn’t want to dance.’ Emma looked down, and stopped skipping. She suddenly felt aware of herself, and looked down at her round stomach, suddenly ashamed. Her mother handed Emma a ticket, and she pushed down her shame to enjoy the show.
They sat down, the lights dimmed, and the curtains opened as the show finally began.
The beginning of Act II came. Clara and the Nutcracker found themselves in the Land of Sweets. The young woman who played Clara danced onto to the stage by her toes and awed at the confections, with all the grace and beauty that Emma hoped to have some day.
The family watched the show eagerly until admission came.
Emma’s parents whispered to themselves, looking at Emma, then exchanging words.
“Do you think she’ll like it?” her father asked.
“Dear, she’ll love it. It’s all she’s dreamed of doing. She loves dancing; she wants to be one of them. You did good, honey,” her mother said reassured, patting her hand on his. He smiled, and the lights dimmed again.
After the show, Emma’s parents took her hands and led her, not back to the car, but backstage. They were met with a line of around 40 parents with their children, and at the front were the lead dancers in the play.
Emma glowed, shocked by the surprise. When it came her turn, the ballerina who played Clara smiled warmly at her.
“Welcome to the theater, we’re so glad you came,” she said genuinely.
“I’m so happy to be here, I want to be just like you one day!” Emma smiled up at her hero, and the ballerina knelt down to Emma’s eye level.
“Well, I love your enthusiasm, and I hope to see you one day on this stage. But you’re going to have to work very hard to get here, harder than you’ve ever worked before. You have to look a certain way, be full of grace and poise. I hope to see you up on this stage one day, I really do,” the ballerina said earnestly, and hugged Emma.
That night, Emma couldn’t sleep. She had work to do. She had to be skinny like the ballerina. She had to be graceful like her too. And poised. And kind. She couldn’t wait to get it all done.
Emma had been about 7 then, and she thought she had been pretty pudgy, even for a small child who still had room to grow. She took the ballerina’s words to heart, and started with her weight first.
She ate smaller portions at 7 years old.
She ran every day at 7 years old.
She skipped whole meals at 8 years old.
She liked that negative space in between her thighs, cutting a clear line from arm and chest. She liked seeing this, she liked when it grew bigger. It showed that she was progressing into what she had always dreamed of becoming like after that night at the theater. But she never liked it enough to stop where she was.
She was never satisfied.
Her parents worried that she was going to die, but they assured themselves that she would fix herself when she saw what she was doing.
But the thing was, Emma saw the problem. She just didn’t want to fix it.
Hannah walked through the halls of the college campus, looking for her dorm room. She found it and fumbled with her key a bit before getting it into the keyhole. Jink. Shunk. Click. She paused, and sighed. She should make this moment count. She swung open the door, smiled, and walked in.
“Hello?” she tried to sound enthusiastic but it came out as more of a question.
There was no one there.
“Oh,” Hannah mumbled. She went into an empty bedroom, and put all her stuff away, looking at everything before she put it into place. She couldn’t help the feeling, which she had felt so many times before in her life… of being… alone.
She had met another freshman, Emma, who was one of her roommates. They bonded instantly, over… food.
Hannah didn’t really eat anymore and Emma had never started.
Hannah had always been pudgy in her childhood, but it got worse when her parents divorced. It had been a hard time, and her best friend had been food when no one else would be. That’s why she enjoyed Emma so much: she was her first best friend in a long time. But Hannah had since made food an ex-friend. She rarely ate anymore, just so she could become thin for once. It was dangerous, but Hannah needed the body she had wanted for so long. Just like Emma.
You could see Emma’s forearm bones, separated by a hollow space of skin and a bit of muscle. Hannah had always struggled with weight, it was always up and down for her. Hannah loved being near Emma, despite her physical appearance. They… accepted each other.
They walked to English together, and everything was normal. They went to lunch, and everything was somewhat routine too. Hannah ate a nibble from a plate they were supposed to share, but Emma didn’t eat a bite. She hadn’t had breakfast either. All through the school day, nothing bad seemed to happen. It was like every day before. No food.
Hannah went into their dorm after the school day was over. She had gone out for coffee and had a cup holder for four with two small cups of coffee. One for each of them. Hannah unlocked the door, and stepped inside.
It was deadly quiet. This was nothing new, but it seemed off this time. The room was dead.
And so was Emma, Hannah would find.
Hannah put the cupholder on the table, and walked around the dorm. “Emma?” she called.
“Emma! No messing around! And I mean it!”
Still no answer. Hannah thought that Emma was playing a game. Hide and seek or something stupid like that. Hannah peeked around the corner of the entrance into the ‘living’ room. Nothing.
She tip-toed into the kitchenette.
No one there but Hannah.
She went to Emma’s bedroom. She pushed the door in slowly, looking around the door’s corner.
Emma. Face-down. The bed.
Hannah rushed to Emma’s side.
Pulse? Fingers. Neck. Wait. Nothing. Wrist? Nothing. Press harder. Still nothing.
Hannah started to get frantic.
Breathing? Fingers. Nose, mouth. Nothing.
Hannah racked her brain for a way to make sure that Emma was alive.
There was only one thing left to do.
Take Emma to the hospital.
Still no answer.
Hannah couldn’t think. Everything was a blur. Emma… she couldn’t possibly be… dead. No. She couldn’t be. Please not dead.
A doctor walked around, and Hannah prayed that he wasn’t coming to her.
“Yes… that’s me.”
“You were close friends with Emma?”
“Yes, her roommate.”
“Okay… well… that makes this harder for me to tell you.”
“What is it? Is she gonna be okay?”
“I’m sorry, Hannah. She — she died.”
“How? She wasn’t sick, or anything.”
“Hannah, she was always sort of… sick. Her weight was only normal when she was about 7. Her records show symptoms of malnourishment and anorexia after that. She starved herself every day. She didn’t have to do that, she could have lived a normal, healthy life if she hadn’t started starving herself at 7. She died from self-starvation. She killed herself. There was nothing you could do to stop her. We tried. She didn’t listen. And now all the things she’s done to herself have caught up to her. I’m so sorry for your loss.” The doctor squeezed Hannah’s forearm and left her to mourn.
That had been about 6 years ago. Hannah was out of college now, and applying for jobs. Her weight didn’t matter to her anymore. It wasn’t about what she ate, or how much. She ate until she was full. She ate what was on her plate and didn’t really get seconds. She wasn’t skinny. She wasn’t fat. She didn’t look at food and see feelings. She saw nourishment. Something that kept her alive. Not complacent.
Hannah saw food as something she would eat when she needed it, not for when she wanted it. Emma had seen it as a curse, not something that could keep her alive.
She couldn’t let what happened to Emma happen to her. She couldn’t keep food from herself to look the way society wanted her to look. The way she wanted to look like to fulfill her dreams. But she couldn’t waste herself on food either and die, from food. It couldn’t take her. Not like it did Emma.
She wanted people to look at her character first, and give her a chance, because she was more than just a body. She wasn’t just a body against all the negative space. She had a personality. And she wanted people to see that.
Hannah wanted them to see her.
Emily Burke is sixteen years old and lives in Cumming, Georgia. She wrote this piece because she believes people need to know about eating disorder and hopes to help people relate with those who suffer from it.