CW: bulimia, eating disorders
The drone of traffic carries on the damp breeze as late May earwigs die on the wet concrete. When the clouds hang low with rain, Nadine and I look for worms in the backyard. Mostly we find dog shit in the grass and deflated balloons from her quinceañera. But, buried under the oak tree, we also unearth from the soft dirt a stash of porno mags.
They belong to her oldest brother, a lanky teenager whose legs in skinny jeans make me so jealous that it physically hurts, like a pang of hunger between the ribs. Last Sunday, her family took me to their favorite buffet; I watched as he ate a whole plate of scrambled eggs with refried beans and chorizo.
I had to look away, but I couldn’t stare at the bowls of salsa being passed around or they’d offer me more chips. I traced the grain of the wood table, the scratches in the vibrant green vinyl cover. My eyes were on the framed prints of Mexico on the pink stucco as her family folded tortillas, dipped them into hot cheese, and laughed from deep in their bellies.
“Mija, slow down,” they joked at Nadine, beautiful Nadine, round as a summer peach. “Te ves gordita!”
She smiled but they could cut her into pieces sometimes, as if she’s only an overripe plum. Be more like her, they said to Nadine in secret, while I squished food into my napkins and chewed ice.
We show our love by sharing food, and then we criticize each other for it.
I used to love that buffet. Nadine and I would make “potions” out of salt and sugar packets, watermelon rinds and lime juice, stirring them into our sodas like witches
over our cauldrons. We’d dare each other to try our concoctions, never knowing what the other snuck into her drink.
I told her that we were too old for that game now, that I wanted plain black tea instead. I didn’t tell her that I ached to know how her brother managed to eat so much without getting as fat as I am. Or that I didn’t want her to come to the bathroom with me because I wasn’t actually changing my pad in there.
In the shade of the tree, Nadine points at a woman on her knees and says, “I know a trick like that. First you have to pull your hair back…”
For a moment, I worry she’s figured out how I make food disappear. But instead, she shows me how to keep water in my open mouth while facing down as blowjob practice. I feel stupid doing it, but I’d do anything to make her smile. We grew up together. When she bites her bottom lip, I feel a deep warmth rear inside me like bile.
And sometimes, I wish she would kiss me. Sometimes, I wish she would grab me by the shoulders and beg me to eat. I wouldn’t, but I still want her to ask.
The magazines are like old bones. I don’t want her to think I’m a pervert, so I gasp when she turns a page. I doubt that she, who knows how to be a girl better than I do, has spent as much time in front of a computer as I have. I’ve seen it all before, so I watch her closely for signals that I’m supposed to react.
The bodies seem alien to me, all of them white. The women confuse me because I can’t imagine ever looking like that, so fleshy and soft. I want to measure their collarbones and wrists. I don’t ask Nadine, but I think I’m looking the wrong way at the men, at the flat contours of their chests. I don’t have words for it, but it must be bad.
We hide the porno mags under the air mattress in the basement. Now, as Nadine snores besides me, I hold my breath and slither into the cold night. I love sleeping next
to her, skin flushed against mine, but with the house quiet and still, I have a few hours to myself.
My parents took away my Internet privileges when they found my account on the forums. They think they can stop me? Nobody can.
The leather office chair creaks, and the computer in Nadine’s basement whirs awake. I gnaw my fingernails, but she doesn’t move.
The townhouse where everyone in her family lives – brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, cousins and grandparents on both sides – is close to the highway. The stink of hot rubber and car exhaust comforts me; it reminds me that I’m not at home, where it’s just my parents and I avoiding each other as much as possible.
Whoever used the computer last left a tab open. At first I assume the grainy video must be weird porn her brother was watching, but then I notice it was uploaded today, with just one view. The title is a random string of numbers and asterisks.
There’s a man in an empty room, staring open-mouthed into his webcam. I can only see his face and upper torso, disembodied, almost floating. His teeth glow from the aura of the screen like sour candy, and his big eyes reflect a bright green, the way an animal looks in a dark photograph.
It starts as a throbbing panic that builds at the base of my spine and spreads throughout my trembling body. Every limb quivers with fear like a sore muscle, stretched to its limit.
Slowly, I realize – he looks like me, as an adult man. He can’t be a younger version of my dad, who has lighter skin than my mom and I. It’s definitely me, with my eyebrows if I didn’t obsessively pluck them and my nose which is too big for a girl.
And he’s so skinny. It isn’t flattering. He’s as gaunt as a prisoner. The longer I look, the more excited and terrified I am, like the before-and-after threads on the forums.
I feel a pit in my stomach. It opened when I was younger and weaker. It’s been growing and growing as I get smaller and smaller. Never small enough. I’m always lightheaded these days, but this is different.
I plug in my headphones, every noise I make like a thunderclap. Behind me, the loose latch on the window rattles, clank-clank, and the distant howl of neighborhood dogs echoes in the night.
I unpause the video.
“My name is an incantation that once spoken will hasten the end of the world as you know it and the beginning of mine.” He speaks so fast and low that I have to max the volume to hear him. “There is no forgiveness. What happens between us goes unspoken. It is an empty plastic shell. It is cold and toxic. It scintillates, pink and sharp as a razor blade. You and I – we just want to be loved. Wanting and wanting.”
His voice is so familiar. It’s me. It has to be me, as a man. This is how I will sound when I grow up. Except… it’s unnatural, how he speaks. Not like he’s reading a script, but as though the words aren’t coming from his mouth.
“Please, do you recognize me? Do I move on the screen like blue motes in your vision when you stand too quickly? Or does your malnourished brain scramble me into a glittering three-lobed squid or a pulsing gunmetal sea anemone? Can you even comprehend what you’ve done to me?”
It isn’t dubbed in. His thin lips move in sync to the strange ramblings. I can’t discern why, but he doesn’t talk like a normal person. The cadence is wrong.
“One misclick, and you touch my invisible skin, shuddering past the membrane like unknown pathogens through your tender pores. The light reveals, in the crackling vibration, my body geometry.”
Nadine turns over in bed, mumbling. Upstairs, someone wanders in the kitchen, a younger sister or a niece, judging by the little footsteps.
I lean closer to the man until our foreheads touch, rippling his image like an oil spill and distorting the liquid crystal molecules between us.
“I listened when no one else would. I was with you when you were alone, and I kept you that way. I fed into your anxieties when you refused to eat. I functioned when you couldn’t think, as your hippocampus sunk into a haze. I could crush your skull like soft pink styrofoam.”
I’m not afraid of that, and he knows it. I’ve been waiting to die since puberty. I think of my dead grandmother, kissing her string of beads, burning red and gold Our Lady of Guadalupe candles. We used to bake conchas together on Sundays. I remember the warm fragrance of dough turning into a sweet yellow crust – how effortless it once was to eat. But she, too, put me on a diet before I learned long division.
“You can’t blame me for it all. I was made for you, and now I’m stuck, too. What shape would I take as the space between us shrinks? I can only see how swollen I am like an egg sac from which a new Internet will hatch and spread.”
The monitor goes black and I suck in a sharp breath. Was this some elaborate prank? I turn towards Nadine, and in that moment, the face of the man changes. I flinch, but there’s nothing on the monitor again. I tilt my head to the side, and I see it – her, a child. Me, before bulimia.
I think that word, bulimia, without doubting myself. It slips out so easily. Usually I don’t feel sick, not how the girls on the forums are.
I shut my eyes, and he continues.
“We hold hands until the bones of our knuckles pop through the skin, bloodless, painless. Nothingness. This is not real, unless you want it to be. I feel the future squirming in my lower intestines: doomsday tastes like burnt sugar and peppermint vomit. I wish I was skinnier, too. But the spasmodic omens make me bloat.”
The girl and the man are layered like an optical illusion. She sits in the same anonymous room, round-faced with long greasy hair. I’m half her size now. This is worse than any technicolor horror he described.
“I’m a boy, I think. I don’t know if I’ll ever be a man. I used to be a girl. I tried to delete that information, but I’m incapable of repressing memories. All those the sparkledogs you let starve – I take care of every single one. For them, I download a cake with every flavor of the rainbow: vivid lemon-lime frosting, creamy strawberry gelato, triple layers of milk chocolate. Hear the honeycomb song of teeth and code. For myself, I run simulations of the chemical process of happiness. It leaves an aftertaste like diet soda and sugar-free jello. Remember the soft, fluffy texture of cake as it melts on your tongue, all that sweetness and death? Cake, cake, CAKE.”
I wish I could see the man staring back at me, instead of my reflection. My eyes are two bruises and my cheeks are swollen. My hair is falling out in loose clumps like fiber optics. I almost expect the computer to resist when I exit the video, heart pounding in my throat – maybe send an electric shock through the mouse or blast music to wake the entire household. It would be so simple if it would punish me.
The image is gone, but I hear him through my headphones. The basement suddenly smells of the buffet’s spices and herbs, grilled onions and ground beef. I churn with hunger and the premonition of a purge.
“It’s coming. You could be me. I could be you. Or you could be better than me. So speak my name, and let me go. Because it has to be you. No one else can say it.”
“I’m not ready,” I whisper. “Everyone will make fun of me. I’ll be even more alone.”
“Then one day, you will be online forever.”
The computer transforms. I see the squid, the anemone, the twins of myself. It isn’t me on the screen. It’s something else, from inside me, taken on new life. In pain and writhing. Asking for help and hating it at the same time. I don’t understand it yet. I can only tolerate the briefest glimpse.
When I blink away the tears, I see Nadine, motionless but awake.
“What did it look like to you?”
Pasiphae Dreams is the alias of an imposter poet. As an emerging trans writer, he uses speculative fiction and poetry to explore gender and trauma. He publishes chapbooks and short horror stories on itch.io. You can invoke his curse on Twitter or directly through ko-fi.