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Sugar Makes You Stupid

 

People have told me that excuses only prolong consequences.  That they will burrow in your conscience like a red fox, waiting for the perfect moment to prey on you, and end your streak of good intentions.  Excuses gather in groups and build up and crash onto you like a Hawaiian wave, each one larger than the last. I hate excuses, regardless of how they define the way I live.

I call my mother’s cell phone number, my fingers automatically tapping the screen, her digits engraved in my mind’s speed dial.  The call goes straight to voicemail, as it always does now. Hi! I am not available right now, probably out in my garden!  Please leave a message, I know I would love to hear from you! I hear her say on the other end of the line.  I must dial this number at least ten times a day.

***

On the Christmas of 2004, I barreled down the stairs, my fully grown, 15 year old limbs bumping off the stairwell, in a race to the tree.  My breaths were short and strained with the fatigue of the morning hours, but also filled with excitement.

My mother sat on her chair, letting a smile crowd her otherwise exhausted face, calling to me to come place the annual Christmas kisses on her cheeks.  I fell onto the maroon colored leather love seat, my eyes focused on the towers of gifts, piled nearly half way up the prickly blue spruce tree.  My father came out of the kitchen, carrying a large red and green platter stacked high with thick buttermilk pancakes: mine with chocolate chips, my father’s with blueberries, and my mother’s made with Splenda.  Mom, are your pancakes made with real sugar today? Enjoy yourself!  It’s Christmas!  I call out.

She settled her faded light blue eyes on me for a moment, her face flickering an emotion I cannot describe, and just before I could ask what’s wrong, she answered me with, No, Hollis, sugar makes you stupid.

I stopped chewing.  The fluffy bread and sweet maple syrup tickle my tongue, the taste reminding me I shouldn’t be hungry, ever. She’s joking Hollis, my father stuttered, looking from me to my mother, gaging the tension in the room.  Now, open your first gift.  It’s the big one in the corner, from us, and of course Santa, he told me, his hands pointing toward the large gift, and away from the previous conversation.

***

My fifteenth Christmas is just one example of how my mother’s condition ruled my life.  Excuses guided her life and mine for fifteen years. She would tell me that the reason she drank calorie free flavored water for lunch was because she had a stomach ache, or that she was allergic to bread, and all lunches had to contain sandwiches to be a proper lunch, so why have a lunch at all if it isn’t proper, right Hollis?  I would wake up to her making noise at 4am, to slip on her muddy running shoes, and seemingly stalk out of the house for her morning trail run into the Holloway Woods. That was only one side of her.

My whole life, I knew two mothers.  When she wasn’t in a relapse, she was a woman full of energy, always trying new recipes that involved pumpkin, because fall was her favorite season.  I’d come home from Blue Ridge Middle School, and there would be hundreds of burnt pumpkin pastries lining the small, granite kitchen counters, one failed cupcake or truffle after another.  I lost track of time, you know me and Gilmore Girls, best friends who lose track of time.  Try the ones to the far left, they’re just a bit crispy and almost add to the effect, she would tell me, a smile breaking over her face, a beautiful scene.  So I’d take a treat and fake a smile as the carcinogenic truffle spread its burnt taste over my tongue, they’re great mom, you should have one. She’d look at me with a childish grin, averting her eyes from mine. Oh no, Hollis, I’m too full from lunch.  I looked at her from across the counter, my expression confused. I thought you don’t believe in lunch?  She began to bring the spatula and batter bowl to the sink, then paused and turned to look at me.  Everyone cheats, sometimes.

When I was even younger, in Holloway Elementary school, she would pick me up most days at 2:45pm.  I could always pick out the dented, grey pickup truck splattered with mud from the corn fields turning in, and her bright smile, waving me toward her.  The days Dad picked me up in his Jeep were “visit days.”  It meant that Mom was visiting her friends at the big hospital in the city a half hour away.  As I got older, I started to notice her clothes fit differently in the weeks leading up to her visits.  When she came home, she wore tight blue jeans, and form fitting shirts.  Then, weeks would pass, and she would wear what looked like the same jeans, but they were baggy, accompanied by big sweatshirts.  One morning, before I headed to the bus stop on the corner, I asked, Mom, why do your lighter blue jeans fit differently on the first days of the month, and the last days of the month?  She replied with It’s natural for a woman’s body to fluctuate, Hollis. You’ll learn. Another excuse that blinded me, keeping me comfortable, satisfying my curiosity for the moment.

When high school came around, I had sprung to be 5’10, and still weighed 115 pounds.  I hated every second I went to school in my jeans that were always too short, and when I passed by girls in the hall I heard whispers following me to my locker.  When people asked why I was so thin, I always replied with the same answer: it’s genetic, you should see my mom. Regardless, I was called into the counselors office on multiple occasions, questioning my low weight.  I told the truth each visit, that I eat like a horse and even have extra sweets when my parents weren’t home from work yet.  For me, it really was genetic, for my mom, I started to not be so sure.

Back to school nights, career days, or football games, my mother and I were like a circus act.  Heads would turn, focusing on our bony legs and even slimmer waists.  Boys didn’t notice us, due to our lack of breasts and over abundance of pointy corners that were our hips, elbows, collar bones, and knees.  What I didn’t understand, was that I was forced to look this way, and my mother chose to.

She would study me as I tried on new clothes from school in Target, her eyes settling on my thighs and waist. What is it? Does it look to big? I turned around so she could see the back as well, my eyes settling on my front, in the red rimmed mirror.  Yes, Hollis, somehow an extra small is too big. We are leaving.  She then would slam the dressing room door, waiting for me outside the fitting room area.  I scrambled into my clothes, putting the unwanted clothes in the corner. What did I do? I’d ask as I met her, wondering what I could have said to make her unhappy. Nothing Hollis, you’re just a lucky girl. Lucky?

***

I was never allowed into her study.  It was in the basement, and always had a deadbolt on the door, forcing my curious eyes to focus on the oak details instead of its contents.   One day, my mother left the door unlocked unintentionally as she left for her daily “bootcamp” workout class.  I remember my palms resting on the golden doorknob, the devil on my shoulder egging me on.  Come on now, you’ve always wanted to peek in.  Just one look, just to see what she studies so much in here, he teased.  Liam was upstairs, watching music videos on MTV, so I felt safe enough to venture inside alone for a couple minutes, as my mother would not be back for at least another hour.  When the door creaked open by my gentle push, my breath hitched at the scene.  There were pictures of naked women crowding the walls, their bones large details, protruding from their pale, translucent skin.  I stepped into the room unconsciously, my brain too curious to step back.  There wasn’t a chair or a desk, just an unfurnished room, the floor crowded with magazines and black and white computer printouts.  The walls were labeled in sections, each dedicated to a particular body part.  The west wall facing our pool was titled “legs,” the east “tummy.”  Then, on the ceiling, was a large sign, hand painted “before” and “after.”  I saw pictures of my mother from before I was born, her hair long and blonde, her face full of light and her skin tan from the Florida sun, the sun she grew up under.  The photo that began the sequence was titled “1984.”  Then, in six month increments, until now, nearly 20 years later, were photos of her body from four angles, naked.  Her flesh grew whiter with each photo, her bones more visible.  She would praise herself in handwriting that read “5 pounds down this half-year!”  I collapsed to the floor, my body crumbling as I felt my hot tears hit my bare legs as I read the largest script in the room: Goal weight, 92 pounds.  My mother was 5’11, she would die when the scale hit 95. I sprinted out of the room and slammed the door behind me.  Sprinting up the stairs, I didn’t see my father and slammed right into his chest as I reached the last step, screaming with the surprise. Hollis, your mother is a great woman. She is troubled by imaginary people telling her that she is not good enough…thin enough. This is not true, and I promise I have it under control. Do not go in there again, do you understand?  All I could do was nod, because I was 100% sure my hands would never touch that door nob again.  He stepped to the side to let me by, and I remember the look on his face as my eyes left his, it was the same look he gave me each time I asked where mom went on her “visit days” to the hospital when I didn’t understand as a young child, his “lying” look.

***

The day I stumbled upon my mother’s study will never leave my head.  The pictures, the “inspiration” she gave herself, the bizarre excuses for the way she lived her life, the way she seemed to be absent for half of mine, in mind and body, all flooded together in a tsunami of memories.  When would she reach her dream weight? Why am I so thin, why does she look at me like that?  Questions loomed over my thoughts, distracted me from school, made me a victim of my mother’s condition.  Her excuses guided our relationship.  They used to build and build, a brick of lies piled on top of a brick of a stuttered reason for why she was never there.  The pumpkin pastries stopped flooding the counters, too burnt to eat.  Every second of my life I replay, and I see the truth that the red fox revealed after he preyed on the lies, leaving me a carcass of a mother I never knew until I saw inside her heart, inside the study.  My father never brought up the study again, and each time I noticed her walking down the steps with a pile of photos in her frail hands, I glared at him through my side glance.  As the months passed, he stopped trying to keep her upstairs. It’s her life, Hollis. 

Six months before she died, she would run at 8am instead of 4, when I was getting ready for school, forgetting that I needed breakfast or my lunch packed, forgetting that she is my mother.  When the excuses stopped, so did she.  She stopped doing anything.  She stopped going to “visit” the hospital.  She weathered away, and when I asked why she had to be so thin, why she didn’t love me enough to eat, she would answer with, It has nothing to do with my love for you.  You are my life, but I cannot control how I live.   I blamed myself.  Why was I so thin?  I could give her my body, and take hers, I could make her happy by giving myself away.  Giving her my bones, so that she could see her goal fulfilled, and smile every morning while I came downstairs wearing her figure, paired with my mind, the perfect combination.

When I held her hand in the hospital on September 24th, my 16th birthday, with her cold bony knuckles on my warm flesh, I knew she still had one excuse left to give me, one the clever red fox had yet to find. I took in the room my mother was to die in.  It’s light blue curtains and matching sheets, the old TV that hung on the wall playing reruns of Gilmore Girls, and the thin shape my mother took under her heaps of blankets.  I tears falling onto the sea of blue, blending into the light tone, eventually absorbing into the fabric, giving it polka dots. It was the first time I had cried since I was a child, years of memories and clues concluding in front of me.  I love you Hollis.  I am sorry, but nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.  I heard the long tone.  I saw the flat line. I kissed her sunken, hollowed cheeks, like always.  I held her hand until they peeled me away, forgetting to notice my father had been there the whole time, cowering in the corner as his wife faded away.  The whole scene seemed appropriately familiar, which is why I ran.

My father and I hardly speak, my mother’s life insurance funding my college experience, anything to get me away from the place I grew up in.  We have nothing in common, no words that are left to be said.  He let her die, and so did I, allowing her imaginary voices guide the way she decided to leave this world.  I lost my strong gut, my willpower, my motivation to keep going.  My mother was dead, and the only thing that took her from me, was herself.

Light as a feather, thin as a rail, I am exactly what she wanted to be.

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