44. ‘You’ve Got So Far to Go’ by Alkaline Trio
by Mariah Stovall
I finally found Fiona on a Monday. It was after the last bell. I grabbed her hand. The scabbed-over pockmarks on it didn’t faze me. Let them migrate onto mine. White-flowered trees were in bloom, diffusing the scent of fish, or was it come (not that I’d smelled it yet), all around us. I withdrew my knuckles from hers and shielded my nose. She mimicked the gesture without mocking it. I bypassed introducing myself and begged her to tell me she wasn’t like everyone else.
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wearing leggings for pants, if that’s what you mean,” she said. “But your shirt isn’t very nice.”
Her russet eyes matched her dark orange hair and she would not stop blinking. I didn’t understand Morse code.
I folded my arms over Bad Religion’s logo and smiled for the first time on school grounds. “It’s just a band, I’m not a fascist or anything. Anyways, a few weeks ago I think I saw you at this doctor’s office on Fullerton I used to have to go to. So I thought we should talk.”
I glanced over my shoulder to catch the rest of the eighth graders gawking at its resident freaks coalescing. None of them were.
“Are they gaslighting you too?” she asked.
I nodded. She could tell I was bluffing. I wound an aqua strand of hair around itself to keep from grabbing the highlighter and dictionary I kept in my bag, where gaslighting might join the vocabulary I’d picked up from Bad Religion lyrics: abated; bucolic; elan; manacles; lascivious; obsequious; supplicate. I didn’t need to.
Fiona’s definition was succinct. “I’m not a psychopath,” she then assured me. Her slew of office appointments was due to her health.
“I might be a bad person,” I said. “Do you really have cancer? You don’t look that sick.” It was just as likely, I’d decided, that she was waiting on puberty.
“Are you afraid of anything? Like heights or spiders?” she asked.
I froze. She made a quarter turn and threatened to go. I took a step toward her and confessed to dreading new people, present company excluded. Later, I would tell her I was afraid of myself.
“I’m afraid of food,” she said. The admission was outlandish, each word punctuated with a blink. “Or eating it, anyway.”
Which was to say she was afraid of snacks and the mundane and making decisions and chewing and tasting and birthdays and choking and weddings and taking the most basic care of herself and funerals and burning her tongue and comfort and indulgence and guilt and holidays and disgust and home. Which was to say that she had to reckon with evil at least three times a day, though I understood none of that at the time.
I held her gaze to keep from inspecting her body.
“That sucks. You know what else sucks? We don’t have any classes together.” I said, not caring how eager I sounded.
We could laugh, we didn’t need to smile.
“See you at lunch tomorrow?”
She looked both ways before crossing the street. Her only visible muscles were in her calves—like chicken breasts straining to escape their cellophane wrappers. To me, she was perfect.
We reinvented our lunch hour—the only school-sanctioned time we had together—in all sorts of ways. It’s not like she could eat. One day we guessed, in unread bets on secret scraps of paper, how long it would take everyone to forget we were apparitions. I was a silent specter, she a small shade. Or we were witches. We cast spells on each other and even the curses were blessings.
She would braid my hair during the few minutes it took me to finish my apple and my peanut butter and honey sandwich on spelt bread. I taught her not to comb through the curls. I didn’t bother with her hair, which was too slick to grip and bound to unravel as soon as you wove it into anything of note.
Her whiteness, which I tried not to look at for fear being blinded, was dappled with primary colors. Sickly biological yellows, blues and reds. When I got a bruise, the brown blended in. I cut letters out of camouflage fabric to spell the names of defunct bands and used dental floss to stitch them on dollar t-shirts from the Salvation Army that tendered her cableknits and tea dresses. That wasn’t enough. I had to contrive more of a likeness to her tissue paper skin.
“I tried to make myself throw up once, before we ever met,” I said. I’d forgotten until that moment. She yanked my hair and steadied me before I could choke on a glob of peanut butter.
“Olive, swear to me right now that you will never do that again.”
I was relieved to find she too was full of anger so I swore it to her. I couldn’t ask her to do the same for me. She’d already opened for me like a book: Her sickness became serious two years prior. Treatment came at the end of the previous summer. My arrival coincided with the tail end of the bad, and enough of the good that she would credit me with helping cure her.
She was not entirely out of her right mind. I was determined to find the rhyme and reason. When my streaked braid was complete, we sat side by side, minimizing the distance our voices had to travel. I’d stored up so much speech it came out in probing, thoughtless projectiles. I asked if it was the number zero she was after.
“The concept of zero is part of it, but there’s more. Zero pounds. Zero everything. Zero me. Even bones are going to weigh too much eventually.”
My grades were perfect but her logic was inscrutable. Now I envy the way she eluded the trap of thinking she could stop after one more pound.
I had my own realms of mystery: the places music took me. Still, I brought her souvenirs. I remember playing a song for her early on: God is a place you will wait for the rest of your life. I’d heard the words first but she’d beaten me to understanding that there is no such thing as enough. A few years later, there was another: American girls, they want the whole world. They want every last little light in New York City. I wrote the verse on her arm. Why shouldn’t we want it all?, she asked.
Knowledge was another thing to lust after. It was imperative that I get it, or that she protect me by fooling me into thinking I could. If I could learn how to be wholly with her and for her, everything would be okay. But my reality turned out to be debatable.
“You have no body fat,” I said.
“I do. I have too much.”
I learned my lesson and moved on.
“Which boy do you like, then?” I asked, the words thick with presumption. She didn’t like anyone. She didn’t have to. She was beautiful. Her face was, at least.
Fiona had never been in love. The distinction it marked between us blistered like betrayal. I told her I always had. I had to. If I let love stay inside me, something bad would happen. Strangers were the best to fall for. If I imagined them just right, they weren’t scary anymore. She opened and closed the curtains on her eyes and started on her umpteenth piece of gum without offering me one. She didn’t ask how I’d imagined she would be.
“Sounds like a lot of pressure.”
I told her it was easy. It was so much easier than being loved.
Pieces of her nails flaked off as she picked at the paint on her flip phone. “I’m jealous of your ability to fall in love. Who do you love, exactly? Someone from your old school? He must be lovely if you love him.”
I made her promise not to laugh. “His name is Matty. He’s not from my old—Well you’re right, he’s far away.” I’d never said his name out loud before.
“Matty. Would you love Matty if you didn’t have to?”
“Of course I would.” There was something in the way she said his name. She breezed through it in a single syllable. Such blithe desecration.
Before we met, she split her lunch period between forcing down meal replacement shakes in the nurse’s office and smoking on the sidewalk around the corner. Now that I’d shackled her to the basement lunchroom, she made puny efforts. She tapped the grease off a slice of cafeteria pizza like she was ashing a cigarette and set it back down. The bell rang. I threw the plate away for her. She held my hand as we made our way back above ground.
My mother Eleanor took it in stride when I informed her I would no longer take Cedar for walks with her on weekends. I would do it alone, or with Fiona, which were one in the same, as Fiona was an extension of me and I of her.
The three (or two) of us slipped through alleys and side streets. Tree trunks muffled our words. Fiona rattled off plant names along the way. She approved of Cedar’s name as she was obsessed with being prepared to survive in the wilderness. Just in case. The Bradford Pear tree released the springtime sex-scent overtaking the school parking lot.
We traversed all six square miles of town and delighted in hiding all manner of things. I lifted mascara from CVS while she kept disapproving watch. Secrets were secrets. Like how appeasing her doctors was starting to take its toll. After the horror of being discovered had worn off, there was nothing left to gain or lose. But she played at doing the right thing. I nodded like I knew but I hadn’t ended up in therapy for keeping something under wraps. I’d broadcasted my silence. She turned that around and made us the same again.
“I know you not talking at school wasn’t a secret, but your mom didn’t know. Or your dog. I was hiding from everyone, but you were just lying to the people that matter.”
I laughed and scraped an imaginary spider off my neck, a hallucination and tic that still haunt me. I thought her blinking was meant to help shoo it away. But it was not for me. The flicks and flutters were all she could do to stay awake. She had to turn the world on and off to stay in it. I slipped the tube of makeup out of my sleeve and back onto the shelf. We left and reunited with Cedar, whose leash was secured to a parking meter. He panted with separation anxiety.
“Even my eyelashes look fat,” she sighed, watching me untie him. Then she laughed, a dry sound like flint waiting to ignite. In her therapy session the day before, she’d been reluctant to be introspective. She’d answer the professionals’ questions, and mine, but not ask them herself. She fretted to me afterwards in a text, How do you know what you’ll find? Or if you’ll like it?
She’d finally scared me. I loved nothing more than contemplating myself. I should have run but unlike me, she was brave enough to say the things that made her impossible to abandon. I tightened my grip as Cedar strained towards some invisible prey. Between the two of them, they could smell everything. I insisted she learn to love thinking about herself.
“I already hate myself to the extent where I have to make a list, every day, of reasons that I deserve or want to live. Pathetic, I know.” She pinched my shoulder. “I don’t generally tell people when they make the list because they don’t know how to take the news. But you made it.”
We were stopped at a red light the first time I told her I loved her. I didn’t care who heard. She traced a loop around her wrist and told me that wasn’t a good idea. As if I had a choice. Halfway down the next block we silently agreed to sit on the edge of someone’s lawn. Cedar stood guard between us. The sun shone off his teeth.
He and Eleanor made the list too. My mother’s brazen friendliness was disturbing—the opposite of my secret crushes—but I didn’t want to deprive Fiona of anything. I’d contemplated telling Eleanor that Fiona was on a diet or had life-and-death allergies, but when she suggested I invite my only friend over for dinner, I told a sanitized version of the truth.
“I told you, it’s okay that you told her. It was going to come up eventually. I just don’t like people to feel like they have to worry.”
“It’s hard not to,” I said, and regretted.
“I don’t do it on purpose,” she snapped at me for the first time since my self-induced vomiting confession weeks before.
I told her that wasn’t what I meant. I didn’t apologize. We were volatile in a way I mistook for normal, as if the same would happen to any two people trying to disappear into each other. As if that were a thing other people tried to do in the first place.
“My mom is more annoyed than worried,” she said. “We hate each other but I can’t remember who started it. Sometimes I wish we could take it back. That might make everything else easier.”
“I kind of like that boys don’t notice me, but I don’t know what I would do if my mom didn’t love me. Or if Cedar didn’t.” I raked the fur on his back as he stood up. “No offense.”
“You’re too good for the stupid boys in this town. You have Matty,” she said. I blushed. “And don’t bother being sorry about me and my mother I. We’re not.” She sprung up and inched backwards as Cedar prepared to take a shit. I scanned the street and decided to leave it. Fiona pulled out and lit a cigarette between her lips. She leaned into the flame, motioning with her free hand for us to go ahead without her. We did.
I prayed for her to yell it, Olive, wait, I love you too. Only she would slice the last letter from my surname and make me into a five-calorie snack. Only she would love me back.
Her house was tony and enormous, full of things but uncluttered, and lacking her parents more often than not. I couldn’t grasp the difference between the study and the den, the guest room and the spare bedroom, the main oven and the convection oven. She baked brownies that I was not allowed to mix or pour or beat. The week before, it had been chocolate-filled crepes. Scones, soon after.
I loved watching her parents, plural, when they did appear, because I just had the one. Mr. and Mrs. Davies moved around each other from opposite ends of the room, like their muscles misremembered how they used to dance. How it was before Fiona. They hid their exhaustion from me at first, perhaps to stave off mine. They kept track of the pounds of flour and perfect prisms of European butter that always needed replacing. I watched them key shopping lists into their Blackberries before descending upon the liquor cabinet, the wine cooler, the spirit rack, to unwind. She and I weren’t interested in sneaking sips of their alcohol. Her, for fear of the calories, and me for fear of the addictive tendencies snaking through my family tree. She instilled it in me that like an alcoholic, someone with an eating disorder isn’t ever really better. In that case, I could never accuse her of lying. She could never let me down.
Another lesson: an anorexic, anorectic, technically, could be bulimic, but a bulimic could not be anorexic. Like squares and rectangles.
At times our noses would point up the stairs towards the airborne splinters of her parents’ bickering. We cocked our heads and shushed each other to discover her mother loved her father more than she loved their daughter. It was okay, Fiona assured me, because her father loved her more than he loved his wife. I believed her. When we tired of them, I asked how she was doing.
“I’m not vomiting up everything anymore but it’s still a constant temptation. It’s an always debate. Like suicide. I’ve gotten too comfortable with the idea.”
“Hmmm,” I said. She kept thanking me for staying calm. My placidity sprang eternal. There was no need for alarm. My gut told me I would always have her. “I don’t want to believe that you can get to a point where nothing at all is worth it anymore.”
“You can only live for other people for so long,” she said, maintaining a measured distance between the brownie batter and her skin.
I was given a spoon to lick, only after she was sure it wouldn’t drip during the handoff. Sugar sanded my molars. I’d long ceased worrying about whether I was fat. With her it didn’t matter, though she still took the time to proclaim that I was perfect—my shoulder a good one to literally lean on: slender but sturdy. She would knead it and make me promise never to straighten my hair or pluck my bushy eyebrows. She sounded like my mother. Their pronouncements did not move me. They were not men.
“Who cares if living for other people is the only way to buy enough time to find your own reasons?”
“I can’t live my whole life trying not to hurt someone,” she countered.
The frosting came together. Powdered sugar loitered on her cheeks before she wiped away the white freckles and stashed the bowl in the fridge. She held her measuring spoons upside down when she scrubbed them in the sink, lest the divots fill with water and splash it back at her face. I’d never had pumpkin pie before I met her. We ate sweet potato at my house on Thanksgiving but in all the years we invited her over the next day for leftovers, she never took a bite.
“Aren’t you someone?” I asked.
“Who knows. There are so many debates going on in my head, constantly.”
“That’s good. It’s good to think, I think?”
She put the square glass dish in the oven and set a timer. It looked like mud and smelled like heaven.
“It’s so strange that I can tell you this and it’s only been a few months. Usually I have to force things out like I’m punching myself in the stomach, like it’s—”
“Puke,” I said.
She knelt to peer through the oven door. “But I think it’s okay to be silent sometimes. I think it means more.”
Before I could figure out if that was meant as a rebuke, we descended to the wood-paneled basement. She insisted we watch an old VHS of Gone with the Wind for the third time. I rewound one of the two tapes and settled on a random moment: Rhett carrying Scarlett up the stairs.
We watched on the brocade couch without speaking until I announced that I’d never fainted. When Fiona did it (I’d only heard about it, never seen it), I said, she seemed classic.
“Fainting doesn’t make me seem classic. It hurts. I could crack my skull open. What if no one found me? It makes me seem like a weak, helpless female, thank you very much.” She seethed and she softened. “Which if I’m being honest, I suppose I am.”
I was the only person to whom she could say these things of her own volition. Her parents were not paying me to listen. It wasn’t that she only wanted to talk about herself. She knew how much it drained me to be the center of attention. So I kept asking and she kept answering because that was what friends did.
I marinated in her scolding until the timer sounded. “Wait, you’ve really never binged?” I asked, but she’d already ascended to the kitchen. I titled my head back and imagined a sound I’ve still never heard. Was Matty’s voice coarse or cream or hollow?
The platter she placed in front of me upon her return boasted nine perfect squares, intentionally underdone. She hadn’t snuck a crumb. I grabbed the center brownie and pressed play, smearing grease on the remote. We were not to be intertwined until I was done dining. I ate the other eight brownies before the movie ended. The next time, I took one meditative bite of a scone. Three weeks later I crammed half a dozen cupcakes down. A lemon square. Two cinnamon rolls, a pint of rice pudding. She never commented on what I did or didn’t disappear. She just grabbed hold of anything leftover and mechanically scraped it into the trash before putting her head on my shoulder. It all evened out. Both our body weights held steady. She wasn’t gaining, but she was maintaining. Not a cure, but close enough.
I clenched my jaw in the middle of art class a month later to keep from trembling at her latest text. I was supposed to be unshakable.
I have this awful sharp ache in my <3. It’s unbearable. Idk what’s making it. I’m going to be sick.
On my front porch the night before, she’d promised me, I don’t not eat. I mean, I do eat. Duh. Otherwise she’d be dead. Just not as much. And I can’t always keep it down. It’s not so bad, though. You don’t need to be scared for me. I don’t want you to have to be.
It must have been the hundred thousand sips of coffee keeping her alive. That or some stray ounce of cream. The heavy kind. The brain needs fat to function and she said she’d rather be fat than stupid.
It took until the next morning to get a real answer about what was happening. It was folded into a note covered in letters that, like her, were too slight to read. She tucked the paper into my fingers in the minutes between classes, the blood vessels in her eyes flaring like the veins in a leaf. Red maple. The trees from which she could coax sap. Just in case. No, a different kind of nature was trying to kill her.
I was sick in the second floor bathroom. Why am I like this? Something inside of me might have burst. I feel gross my hand is shaking. I wish I could sleep forever. I cannot steady my hand and I don’t know why. God I feel so disgusting. If I go home my mom will ask why and if I tell her the truth she will bring me to the hospital. I wish you could come to my class now. I came back. Everyone is being too loud and there is a screaming in my head. I can’t make anything be still. I think I need to maybe eat something because I feel a bit dizzy but later my brain will have made my stomach full. It can do that you know. I don’t think the shaking is too bad but I can’t see the lines my eyes are blurring I’m going to get some water or maybe I might faint. Which would be
If I could have run to her, I would have crashed into rules and walls and all the reasons things had to stay secret. I connected our first initials, F—K, on the lid of the box I keep her letters in now, not meaning to be vulgar but trying to remember how it felt to be anchored to someone.
Something kept her in the world. I don’t think it was me. I learned to live with her ups and downs as if they were the seasons. Suddenly it was summer and she was still there, imperceptibly more solid. My heart skittered the first time the humidity tipped to one hundred percent and ripped open the clouds on an otherwise sunny day. The rain came in sheets with halts of fleeting thunder so different from the dull Pacific drips I used to know. We ran in the water, walked on it, because she was in remission and that was our miracle.
How did I ever forget that she could get better without me getting worse? Once upon a time, we were both alright.
In a few months, we would be in high school. I ripped the grass from where we sat in her backyard and sucked the dirt from my nails.
She said, “I don’t feel like I’m in the right time, or place, or body,” pointing and flexing her toes. “I feel too romantic for right now. You can’t have a real adventure anymore.”
She was meant to have held her own alongside Didion and Capote. I should have been there when the Dead Kennedys played their first show.
“Fiona, do you think people can change?”
She tapped her fingers on my shin. “Of course people grow. But you decide how you’ll let things change you. Your true character always stays the same.”
“So, no? What about—are you still positive you’re going to die young?”
“There’s no way I couldn’t.” She said it so fast. “Do you think I will kill myself? How do you think I’ll die? Is that too odd of a question? I don’t think it is. I find it rather fascinating.”
I don’t know what I expected when I asked her to think about herself more. I never did ask why she got sick in the first place. I waited for her to tell me and then we never spoke of it again. With that, I thought, I knew about everything about her.
When I met Fiona her blonde hair was dyed dusky orange. I spent years thinking the ginger version of her was the natural one. I have yet to unlearn my first impression. When I see her now, dirty blonde ponytail swinging behind her, I have to stop myself from complimenting how natural the illusion looks.
Maybe no one who met her after she got sick really knew her. It’s possible that she was gone by then, or at the very least, irredeemably different. I know as soon as I left her that I was too. Some people say anorexia is a play at Peter Pan. But no matter how clumsy or imperfect our maneuvers, we never tired of forcing our hands into what felt like independence.
Back then, I would’ve rather died than never grown up. Fifteen years later, here I am, — pounds down and counting.
Mariah Stovall‘s fiction and nonfiction have appeared on Literary Hub, Hobart, Joyland, HelloGiggles, and more. She is working on her first novel, from which this story is excerpted. Follow her @retiredpunk.