Nil by Mouth

From The Los Angeles Review of Books:

WHEN I WAS 13, I was a skinny girl: a brittle frame of seagull bones, all bluff and bluster, cliffs and cartilage, and thin skin woven tight as a fisherman’s net. I was a skinny girl. I took small bites.

This is what I told the school nurse who pulled me into her office and questioned me about my bones. I take small bites, I told her.

I take small bites of the world, so it won’t notice that I have teeth. When I was a little girl, I would bite myself on the arm, when I was bathing, just to see the half-moon indents of my molars. To bite — to leave my own mark upon my own skin — was to know I was real.

But I did not tell her this. I knew nobody wanted to hear that. Just like nobody wants to see bones.

You need to eat, she said.

But I do, I said.

You are an anorexic, she stated.

But I’m not. I wasn’t.

Oh yes, you are.

And that was the end of that.


The psychiatrist asked me if I ate. Yes, yes, I said. I eat all the time.

Do you, she asked. It was not a question.

Yes, I said. I put food in my mouth, and I chew and chew and swallow it all down. Good girl that I am.

Do you, she asked.

Yes, I do, I told her. I can prove it if you like.

She raised an eyebrow in challenge. So, I opened my mouth and bared my hidden teeth.

Do you like chocolate? she asked me.

No, I don’t like sweet things, I replied.

Hmmm, she said, and made a note of it in her little black book.

. . . .

I was sent an appointment for surgery as if it were an invitation to a sleepover. I packed a small bag with my toothbrush and my department store makeup. I packed a new pair of pajamas and some fashion magazines.

The ward was suffocating in its ordinariness. Hospital-issued beds of iron with flaky paint. Above my head, a sign: NIL BY MOUTH. But when they wheeled me into the theater, the taste of garlic was in my mouth.


After they sliced me open, I was not just a skinny girl without a period anymore.

I was a rare skinny girl with no womb, a living sympathy card, there to be studied. The fresh-faced medical students filed into my room with their sturdy clipboards and fish-like smiles. They looked at me as if I were a bug in a jar. The aroma of grief was leaking from my every pore, and they leaned in closer to get the scent of me.

But I would not let them near.

No, I said. You cannot examine me. I am not a curiosity. I am not yours to see.

The students were disappointed. Their fat cheeks expelled their heavy breath as they filed out of my room. I did not care. I have a hole inside where everything maternal should be, I thought. Don’t come looking for comfort here. I am nobody’s mother.

I never will be, so don’t ask me for understanding. I am too busy devouring my own pain.

Link to the rest at The Los Angeles Review of Books