By Tayler Osborn
When I was fourteen, I learned your voice.
With my stomach pressed down into the threads of a green duvet, I watched delectable delicacies unfold frame after frame within the whirling colors behind the screen. Your voice, sweet and sharp, slipped between the pauses in the metronome of my own breath.
Just what do you think you’re doing, sweetheart?
Pressing my face into the mattress, I inhaled memories of sleepover popcorn and spilled ice cream. You curled my fingers into the white skin of my stomach feeling it bulge, distort. You left red fingerprints that faded to blue then purple; mottled reminders triggering long walks, longer runs.
Do you remember how you taught me to stop and listen? To hear the groaning of bones entombed and to feel sorry for them?
Don’t you want to feel the graceful dip of your skin stretched thin over the jutting bones of your hips, darling, or run your fingers down the elegantly studded slope of your spine?
Lifting my face from the green duvet, the whirling colors behind the glass slowed into stillness then black.
When I was sixteen, I learned your rules.
I learned to angle my fingers to sink them into the empty space behind my collarbone, finding inner beauty in this most logical progression of self-control. I learned to scratch numbers on empty straw wrappers and scraps of napkin that we tucked into hidden pockets until they could be smoothed out and counted again and again. I eroded beneath the guilt that came with every miscalculation.
How could you, love, after all I’ve done for you?
So I memorized assigned numbers for each morsel that passed through my fingers. You showed me how I could be redeemed by the acidic atonement of Ipecac, how warm water stopped the gnawing that ached in my core, and how to wrap my body beneath my clothes. Layers of saran, elastic, and cotton held my body where we wanted it and eased the shivering I couldn’t stop.
For your own good, love.
We coveted jagged edges, the gaps that made me better than human. I saw how the most alluring parts of my body could only be seen when I was good, when the plate of bone in my chest was so heavy I had to fight, feeling my breath slow beneath its weight until I wondered if it was easier to just let it rest.
When I was eighteen, we learned to dance.
Do you remember the words you’d whisper in my ear to keep my feet moving when they were so tired, so tired.
Never stop, you crooned
Until we wore treads in the carpet into the early hours of the morning; Until the bottoms of my feet were worn and blistered; Until I could log 200 burned, finally smiling when the room tilted and whirled. I learned to love the familiar way you’d curl yourself around the spinal cord at the base of my neck.
Never stop, darling.
Do you remember the shopping cart? The one with the wheel that insisted on pulling right, lined with cartons of ice cream under bright wrappers with zipper-cut edges. I watched a pair of hands clutch package after package faster, faster, making aisles warp and circle around me, the fluorescent lights humming louder and louder.
You left me in the produce aisle with those hands over my mouth, pressing bruises into translucent skin and staring at plastic cups of grapes lining the shelves in neat little rows. I found rest in the hollowness that made my body shake so hard it purpled the skin between my knees.
What good does it do, love, to hide the only thing that makes you human?
So I took up phrenology searching for forgiveness in the imperfect bones of strangers, whittling away at the tissue that smothered my own.
When we were twenty, we learned our name.
On vacation in a private suite, we heard it slip past the lips of White Coats as we drifted down sterile hallways. We shuffled our cloth-wrapped feet to ease the shock of bone on tile and got room service in Styrofoam cups. We timed our rituals to be together always.
What good are we, darling, if we can’t be perfect?
We lived carefully, precisely. The unknown never excited me. Before you, I lived with chaos like a battering ram and you connected bruises like constellations, quelled childish games in measured tones, carved out order in exquisitely thin lines of self-restraint. We only wanted to fit the world beneath our skin, to learn to become everything by becoming nothing; hooked on the corrupt ecstasy of the illusion of control, insane and driven and dying.
Once, buried beneath the crowd on the outside, I swam in the words of a poet from under layers of cotton and wool that were still not enough.
“You cannot believe and be immortal,” she said.
But we don’t. We don’t believe in anything.
This is why, my love, we will never die.