When you are bulimic in 1985, you lose a lot of jewelry in public restrooms. Rings mostly, bracelets and watches, all carefully removed in bathroom stalls and placed on any available flat surface, like the lid of the trash receptacle for feminine hygiene products or, if you’re lucky enough to find a large stall with its own sink, the built-in soap dish. In the moments before you make yourself throw up you are focused and careful, listening for others to leave the restroom, making sure your jewelry won’t be damaged or in the way. Just one more time, then no more today, you promise yourself. You break a lot of promises. And somehow in the breaking you become less careful, less attentive. You forget. It’s hard now to remember what was lost, though you feel certain your grandmother’s wedding ring went missing this way. When you think about the missing jewelry, you imagine so many precious things, piles of sentimental objects tossed aside in haste and then forgotten about. You do not forgive yourself the losing or the forgetting. You remember only one lost object—a small gold heart-shaped ring, your favorite at the time, gone forever because of your carelessness.
You forget so much—trains of thought, appointments, names. Your eating disorder is made of forgetting. You can’t even remember when, exactly, you started making yourself throw up, or why, only that bulimia is the natural next step in your dysfunctional relationship with food and your body. You are ready for it. You are expecting it. It is part of your story as the daughter and sister of alcoholics, so you march right into your first 12-step meeting as soon as you say to yourself I am bulimic now. But you can’t remember what made you decide to do it the first time or when the first time was. It is as if you have always been this way. You picture your reflection in the bathroom mirror—the look you gave yourself when you knew, your eyes red-rimmed and wet from gagging yourself—was it the first time? There have been so many such encounters with yourself in the mirror. Every time is the same.
1985—a year after we first met. He agreed to meet me. I don’t remember the details, though I imagine we must have spoken on the phone. Someone must have given me his number or given my number to him. I’d heard that he was in town, that things were not good with him. He was depressed, doing a lot of running, either taking a break from law school or a year off. The information pushed against what I knew, made me think of questions I did not want to ask. I thought I could rewrite us. I thought that if I could do that, if I could make him fit into a new story, then what went before wouldn’t count. It would be a first draft, full of mistakes, now revised. I did not expect him to be real. I did not expect to see him damaged.
I remember walking with him along the sidewalk near the sorority house where I lived, coming back from wherever I’d gone with him. Did we get coffee? Have dinner? Did we just take a walk in the dark night? He said very little. I did not recognize him this way, though I tried to conjure a feeling I may have had before, some idea of him I believed in once. I was committed to my revision plan, but it wasn’t going well. I began to feel uneasy.
He asked Why didn’t you answer my calls? Why did you just cut me off that way?
He knew what had happened. He understood what he’d done. I recognized and refused to accept this. I could not have him knowing. I could not have him saying it. I told him that I was bulimic, that I’d been struggling with eating disorders for years, that it wasn’t him. It was me.
He was skeptical. My story did not fit with the facts as he knew them, did not take into account what he remembered and I wanted to revise. He did not say what he remembered, however, and I did not say that I was revising. I just kept talking about how messed up I was. I told him I’d lasted only a month at Duke before bulimia caused me to give up and return home. I told him I was already damaged when I met him, that he had nothing to do with it.
My reassurance did not comfort him. He wore the same tired expression he’d worn all evening. I tried to salvage the fragments of my new narrative of us, but he wasn’t having it. He did not want to kiss me goodnight. He was lying to me about what he feared he’d done. I was lying to him, too, having removed myself entirely from what had happened. Neither of us found closure that night. He made it clear that I would not be seeing him again. There would be no new story to erase the old. Not only did my plan not work, it confirmed and deepened my selfcontempt. I didn’t want to know what was true, but it was clear that I would rather betray myself than say it.
We’d met at a graduation party at the large suburban home of one of my classmates. I remember cars snaking down the curved driveway and along the street in both directions, the house loud and crowded with teenagers. Having graduated from high school that week, I felt the familiar exhale of a school year ended, tinged with the promise of something new. He had come to the party with Stuart, a CMU student I’d met the year before at the Junior Prom after-party. That time Stuart had crashed the event with a different friend—Tommy—and later that night, just as the sky began to glow with dawn light and Tommy and I were fumbling around fully clothed in the front seat of his car, Stuart and my friend Colleen had fucked in the back seat. After that Stuart became the focus of many earnest conversations on the phone, in the cafeteria, huddled around open lockers and over slices of pizza on Friday nights. He never called Colleen, never wanted to see her again it seemed, and as friends consoled her and word got around, we learned that Stuart made a habit of trolling high school parties, that he’d slept with dozens of girls in our class and elsewhere, that all this time he’d had a steady girlfriend at another high school who knew nothing of any of this. I often wondered about her with a mixture of indignation and pity: I heard her name was Lisa, this clueless person who was both the cause of Colleen’s distress and the most wronged of Stuart’s many conquests.
So here was Stuart again, this time with another one of his friends, both of them done with their college semesters, back home in time to cruise some high school graduation parties. I don’t know what drew me to him, though I expect it had something to do with Tom Cruise. Risky Business had just come out, and this friend of Stuart’s shared Cruise’s tousled brown hair, short stature, sharp eyes. And maybe I was also looking for romance, scanning every crowd for the one boy who might see me, too. It did not occur to me then, as it does now, that he was too old to be at that party, his late arrival timed to coincide with the highest probability of finding a drunk teenage girl. Instead he found me. I remember worrying about Colleen’s inevitable reunion with Stuart, and perhaps that was the reason I ended up getting high in a car outside the party with Colleen, Stuart, and Stuart’s best friend from high school.
I’d never smoked a joint before. In the stuffy half-light of the car someone said something about how people never get high the first time they smoke. I wondered if I was doing it right. He was watching me, amused and perhaps just a little impatient. He’d supplied the pot, after all. I surveyed myself for signs that did not seem to appear. At some point he and I left Colleen and Stuart in the car and stood outside. He asked for my number and I understood that things had not worked out the way he wanted them to that night. Somehow this came across as chivalrous—he was willing to wait, to invest some more time in me. He kissed me there on a dark June night by a parked car outside a graduation party and promised to call me soon for a date.
I don’t remember what kind of car he drove—a Saab or a Volvo, not brand new but new enough to suggest it was his car, not one he shared with his parents or brother, a car given to him because he needed his own now, an indication of his place in the world, his promise. He walked up the steps to the front door and rang the bell. It felt official—real—not at all like the group flirting, the crushes, the occasional kisses that comprised most of my experience with the opposite sex. I’d had one high school boyfriend in 10th grade, and even then the closest we’d come to a real date in his late model station wagon included two other couples, one in the back seat, the other in the very back, all of us awkwardly eavesdropping on each other. This was different. He opened the passenger-side door for me. We must have gone to dinner, maybe to a movie. I remember only how it felt to sit next to him in his car, to be his date, the one he chose.
At some point in the evening he took me back to his parents’ house. It was large and modern, with expansive windows and sharp edges, tucked into the corner of a hidden cul-de-sac just off a boulevard lined with the stately homes of former industrialists. I remember the silence. No one was home. The tiled hallway was dark, only a few dim lights coming from the adjacent rooms. Did he offer to give me a tour? We must have gone upstairs because I remember how strange the industrial design of the staircase seemed, the stair treads floating up the wall to the second story. Was I looking at something when he disappeared into one of the bedrooms— family pictures on a hall table or museum-quality art on the wall? He had been there, and then he wasn’t, and I knew where he’d gone, and I knew I was supposed to follow him.
He was lying on his back in the middle of a large bed, relaxed, his hands behind his head, his ankles crossed. I thought Is this his room or his parents’ room? He said something I have forgotten, something about what was going to happen next. He had a plan. He thought it was my plan, too. He had undressed when I was in the hall. Was he naked? In his underwear? Nothing comes back but a surge of shame. I thought no, no, no, no, no—did I say it out loud? I left the room. I told him I wasn’t ready. I said Not tonight. Embarrassed, frustrated, he got dressed and drove me home. What’s wrong with you? he said.
You value yourself only as a body. For as long as you can remember it’s been this way. You are expected to get good grades, so when you get straight As they seem to have nothing really to do with you. You never think of yourself as smart or kind or fun. You are too thick around the middle. Your shoulders slump. You should cover your legs, your ass. You spend a lot of time not eating or pretending to eat. You lose a lot of weight, and when you are thin you feel better but also afraid of being found out.
He never mentions your body. When he finds fault, it is with you. He recognizes the person no one but you has ever seen, and he agrees with you. Something is wrong with her.
He did not come to my graduation ceremony, though he’d said he’d try. Afterward, I scanned the crowd in the large marbled foyer, hoping to see him there. I imagined him arriving late and out of breath, a last-minute bouquet in hand. This did not happen. Instead he called and offered to take me out to an expensive dinner to celebrate. I wore the nicest thing I had—a two piece dress with an elaborate lace collar—the same dress I’d worn to the Father-Daughter Dinner Dance earlier that year, where I’d practiced my table manners and danced for the first time the old fashioned way, learning to follow my dad’s lead while I stumbled and laughed and he said See? You’re a natural. The expensive restaurant was small and French. There were white linen tablecloths and silent busboys with crumbers. I understood that he wanted me to appreciate this. I felt briefly like an adult, on an adult date, in a social world my upbringing had prepared me to navigate. When the waiter asked if I’d like pepper on my salad, I said yes, please. I picked up my fork and felt something under the table. He’d taken off his shoe and was pressing against my crotch with his outstretched foot. I looked across the table at him, mortified, frozen. His toes kneaded me. Did I say anything? Scoot my chair back? I remember only that he compared me to Jennifer Beals in Flashdance, saying You’re the one whose supposed to be doing this to me.
Every encounter was a debate. He wanted sex, and he was not going to stop demanding it. Really? You’re 18 years old. Most girls your age have done it. What are you holding out for? I never had a good enough answer. I’d say not yet, meaning someday and eventually and not necessarily with you, and he’d detect weakness, doubt, malleability. These debates were not playful. There was no seduction. He was insistent, pressing his case every time we spoke. I never questioned the foundation of his argument, never considered that he had no rights to me. I dreaded seeing him yet never once thought to break up with him. It got so that he was always dissatisfied with me, but he kept calling, kept taking me out in his car. It never occurred to me to wonder why he did this when he didn’t even seem to like me; instead I thought only about how to hold him off. Eventually I agreed to give him a blow job, reasoning that it was not that different from the hand job I’d given to a summer boyfriend once and that it might satisfy him or at least buy time. This is how I thought about things then. He drove me through the park to a section of the public golf course where teenagers had parties on the weekends. We walked just far enough away not to be seen from the road. No one was around, but we were out in the open, the grass course stretching out in every direction. He stood over me. I did not know how to do it. All I could think about was my awkward and uncomfortable position on the grass. He was not happy with my performance. He grew more and more frustrated and annoyed until finally he pulled away from me. He masturbated the way someone might angrily finish someone else’s job, muttering about my incompetence as he zipped up his fly.
After the night on the golf course he seemed even more determined to convince me to have sex with him. Instead of recognizing my inexperience he was more skeptical of me. He doubted my motives. He suspected that I was lying to him, that no girl could be this inept. I understood that something was wrong and accepted that I was to blame. I don’t remember hating myself then, but I do remember his complaints like burdens I could not put down. I just wanted them to stop.
You forget the details of the things that happen to you as they happen. You understand that remembering matters, that telling helps, but forgetting is easier and self-contempt feels right. The bingeing and vomiting start to consume and define you. You joke in therapy that you’ve been majoring in Bulimia for three years. You turn 21. On your therapist’s advice, you check yourself into an intensive eating disorder treatment program in Cincinnati. You try to get better. You think that if you can remember the details, if you can just say the right words, the reasons why will be clear. You begin framing a story you can tell, and then you try to tell it. But you cannot make yourself understood. You are telling the wrong story. You tell it many times. No one can hear you, and eventually you stop telling it.
I thought it was a story about losing my virginity. My therapist said You did not lose anything. My closest confidant said What an asshole. Time to move on. I had agreed to it. There had been no physical struggle. I’d even changed my clothes first, gotten back into his car, gone to the golf course. It wasn’t like what happened to the girl in group therapy—her experience resonated with everyone in the room, all of us silent, listening. I recognized something in her words and tried to tell my story once more. What happened to you wasn’t rape, the group leader said, You’re just trying to get attention. Everyone around the circle agreed, including me. There had been no assault that night. Did I tell them about the burden of his disappointment in me?— that when I let go of my resistance and finally gave in to the pressure to have sex, I let go of my last good reason not to accept everything he’d ever said about me? Did I tell them I bled a lot?— that I didn’t realize what had happened until I saw a bloody hand print on my white shorts?—that I wrapped my sweatshirt around my waist and sat on my heels in the passenger seat of his Saab all the way home—that he said So you really were a virgin? I forgot to explain this to them—or I did not do a good job explaining—or they did not understand me.
I thought it was a story about betrayal, but not about me. When I asked him why Stuart cheated on his girlfriend with so many others, he shrugged and laughed and said that Stuart was different and special and had very particular needs—more than the average guy. I was skeptical but could find no good reply. Was this just the way of men? Was I naïve to expect anything different? No, this couldn’t be true. I held on to the conviction that Stuart was a no-good serial cheater whose day would come. And when Stuart walked into my sorority house over a year after I’d last seen him at that graduation party, when our eyes locked and I realized that my new friend and fellow pledge Lisa was the Lisa, Stuart’s clueless Lisa, the girl everyone in my high school felt sorry for, the girl who didn’t know, I knew I was going to make sure she did. And later, when I called Stuart to demand that he tell Lisa the truth, when he didn’t get angry or try to intimidate me but instead charmed me into forgetting why truth mattered, when I hung up the phone laughing at something funny he’d said, I hated myself. I got up, walked into her room, and told her everything.
I thought telling the Stuart story would make things right. It didn’t. Lisa broke up with Stuart, but nothing was better. I kept talking anyway. For years I told people this story about Stuart, drawing out his cavalier and sexist behavior, adding to the number of girls he slept with, emphasizing the fated coincidence of Lisa and me joining the same sorority at the same time. Every version of this story erased a detail, closed a door, locked it. Time passed, and the Saab disappeared. The house with its angles and windows faded, and the name of the private drive slipped away. I stopped saying his name, stopped identifying Stuart as my boyfriend’s best friend from high school, snipped the threads between the Stuart story and what happened to me until the last one broke. Later, after Stuart became a locally and then nationally famous visual artist, I’d offer the story as gossip, but the more I told it, the more it stuck in my throat. No one seemed to share my indignation anyway.
Despite your lack of remembering, you stop making yourself throw up in 1987. You do not forget the date, your first PIN number, an anniversary you mark every year. Your new life begins, and the story you tell now is about recovery and self-acceptance. You build a life with someone, a haven, and as long as you’re in it, you believe in revision. For a while you don’t even worry about what you are forgetting. When being around other people makes you hate yourself, you blame your eating disorder—you call it persistent body dysmorphia and retreat to your safe haven. You tell the mirror that you do not see yourself clearly. You don’t remember that you forget.
Nancy Quick Langer is a writer and college English teacher. Her essays have appeared in Flying South2017 (Winston-Salem Writers) and Watershed Review (2018). Her writing on family life with autism includes the blog series “not a man of words” (bethelcong.org) and “Sunday Morning” (Broken and Woken / August 2016). She lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with her family.