The library is only a little bit out of the way from the apartment. Everything in Arizona is flat and packed close together, so even though it’s halfway across town it would have been a ten minute walk if Ben hadn’t had to keep stopping to cool down in the shade every time his head started to throb.
His brother, Michael, had left for work bussing tables early after Ben had assured him several times over that a little more cash never hurt anyone, he was planning on sleeping all day anyway, and no, he didn’t need someone to come watch him while Michael was working.
Michael had shuffled out the door slowly, probably waiting for Ben to change his mind and demand Michael stay in bed with him all day like he used to do when he was young and believed that if he was feeling something then Michael, as an extension of himself, must be feeling it too.
He’d waited ten whole minutes to get up and pull on some jeans after Michael shut the door behind a, “I’ll check up on you on my break,” in case Michael changed his mind and doubled back, punching a new hole in the leather of his belt to keep them up around his hips. The collar of his shirt hung low on his collarbones in a way he doesn’t remember it doing for Michael when it used to belong to him.
He slings his backpack over his shoulder and hauls out to the library.
Ben’s not stupid. He knows that there’s something not right about him or how he’s dropped enough weight in the past few months to make his blood pressure a joke.
He gets to the library, slips the plump elderly woman sitting behind the desk a smile before making a bee-line towards the row of clunky PCs lining the back wall.
He’s not actually sure what to search first, so just types in ‘dizziness blacking out vomiting’ and gets back articles about low blood pressure and arrhythmia.
Ben huffs a sigh and tries to narrow it down.
Dizziness, blacking out, vomiting, water.
Results include tips on not throwing up while exercising and Ben scoffs and rolls his eyes. Lower down on the page is an article about aneurisms that scares him petrified for three straight minutes until he figures that he’s not old enough, not alcoholic enough, and doesn’t smoke enough cigarettes for an aneurism to be at the top of his list.
Dizziness, blacking out, vomiting, excessive water, diet.
He hesitates over the word ‘diet’, not liking the shape of the word, but hits the blocky search button anyway.
He scrolls through pages unsatisfied for a quarter of an hour, mood growing darker with each page he sorts through until he stumbles across ‘water intoxication.’
Ben rips through the article and then the article’s online sources so quickly his head spins, which makes sense because he’s reading about electrolyte imbalances due to too much water and too little everything else.
The words ‘potentially fatal’ stick out and Ben sits back and laughs because what if he’s been poisoning himself with water? The laugh turns bitter and the woman at the front desk shoots him a concerned look.
Of course he would poison himself with water, why not? He over-hydrated. Who does that? What kind of idiot drinks too much water? So much water that they mess up their brain. He could have killed himself, without even knowing. He could have had a seizure, passed out and fallen, broken his neck. He could have done it in front of Michael.
He reaches for his water bottle for comfort but jerks himself away, careening closer to hysteria with every labored breath he pulls in, making himself dizzy. He needs… he needs something, he doesn’t know.
Ben stands up swiftly, only stumbling slightly, and staggers to the vending machine he passed on his way in. He sits back down with a package of Skittles that he doesn’t really want and the urge to reach for his water bottle that he heroically resists.
He tears open the package and Skittles go sprawling everywhere, clattering against the desk and bouncing against the ground and Ben picks them up and adds them back into the pile. Like he cares; he’s not going to eat them.
He sorts them out by color first and then by perfection of the printed ‘s’ in the center, by shape determined by denting caused by the machinery, where the dents are in relation to that ‘s’, and then lines them up in rainbow order down the desk. The idea that they’re there, under his hands and smearing dyes all over his fingers as he handles them is intoxicating. He could lick the flavor off, pop one in his mouth and crunch down on it to feel the tangy sweet explode across his tongue, but he doesn’t, and the fact that he resists makes him feel even better than eating one could have.
By the time he’s finished his hands have stopped shaking. He reminds himself that he’s not a doctor. He reminds himself that he’s overreacting.
Breathing for a moment, Ben turns back to the computer.
He gets to ‘eati’ before he deletes it all and has to start over, and then gets all the way to ‘eating dis’ before backspacing and re-arranging the Skittles in a line of alternating colors.
He closes his eyes and hits search.
The first site is too bright with too many advertisements crowding the sidebar and Ben backs up quickly, put off. The second is too bland, why would he want to read a bland article?
By the sixth website he deems unworthy he acknowledges that he’s procrastinating.
The seventh website has everything.
Ben reads through with a sense of detachment, leaning his full weight against the back of the chair and absorbing the definitions and conditions like he’s doing research for an essay.
He’s not concerned with his body weight that much, he doesn’t restrict his eating. He’s just not hungry. He doesn’t revolve around his body image.
“Christ, this is stupid,” he mutters under his breath and clicks to the next page just to really assure himself that this isn’t his problem so that he can go home and crawl in bed with the lights off and wait for Michael to come home to see if he can coerce his brother into making him soup that’s mostly broth.
Only there’s a picture on the next page and Ben’s heart stops dead in his chest.
Of course she’s thin; she’s being used as an example of a body affected by anorexia.
But she’s so thin.
Her stomach is concave, dipping up underneath her ribs. A flimsy white bra hangs loosely over her chest. Her collar bones stand out like they’re being pushed through her skin. The other side of the figure is her from the back and her backbone looks like someone could play the xylophone on it.
Ben’s eyes track all over her body so quickly he feels dizzy again, like there’s not enough air in his body because this picture’s taking up so much room inside of him.
He sees himself in that picture.
He knocks over the chair, scattering Skittles all over the floor when he sprints out of the library.
The burger glistens with juices that seep down into the thin bun and make it soggy. The pickles are peeking over the side to say hi, ridges coated in smears and swirls of ketchup and mustard that’s smudged all over the inside of the wrapper. The onions flop over the edge or the meat, either too large or too slippery to stay smashed between the bread and the patty. The French fries smell like salt and hot oil still. The outside of the cup is sticky from where Ben’s trembling hands had fumbled the soda when he first ordered ‘to go.’
The entire meal is laid out in front of him like sacrifice on the kitchen table and the smell alone makes him want to go take a shower and wash himself clean.
Afternoon sunlight slants right through the venetian blinds and Ben peels the bun off the burger and nudges the onions back into place, puts the pickles in formation again and resets it. He dumps the fries out onto the wrapper and figures since they’re already out he could lay them flat so he could see them all, maybe arrange them in order of height. The condensation on the outside of the paper cup clings to his fingers when he sets the cup at the diagonal corner of the wrapper and smoothes out the outer edges of the wrapper so that it lays flat.
He puts his hands in his lap and stares.
The McDonalds had been on his way back from the library, golden arches rising high above the other buildings on the street like a gateway and he’d slunk in, determined.
He does not have an eating disorder.
And he’s going to prove it.
He grabs the burger and warm ketchup and slick burger grease seep between his fingers. Ben’s eyes burn so he forces them shut tight. He takes a deep breath but all he can smell is grease and salt, thick and viscous like he’s swimming through it.
It feels like he’s wrenching his jaw open but it doesn’t matter because he’s going to eat it because he doesn’t have a problem.
The first tears slip down his cheeks when he gets the burger on his tongue and can taste savory meat like he hasn’t in months and his stomach clenches. He clamps his teeth, traps the food behind his lips and he tries, he tries so hard, not to spit it out again.
Chewing is like tearing out his fingernails. He salivates too much and works his jaws too hard, breathing heavily through his nose in hitching breaths.
The flavor sours on his tongue as he lets it sit in his mouth.
Swallow, he thinks actively as tears drip down his chin. Just swallow and everything can be over.
He shakes his head like he’s telling himself no even as he forces his throat to work. The food slides down his esophagus, mucking up his throat along the way, and hits his stomach like a lead brick and he already feels like his blood’s thick with everything he just put inside of himself, heavy sludge coursing through his veins and he wants water, he needs to scrub his insides clean. It’s in his skin like he’s sweating oil.
“Damn it!” he screams, swiping the entire assortment off the table. The cup bounces off the floor, lid popping and sticky sweet soda spilling a flood across the cracked yellow linoleum, the burger splats, the fries scatter, and Ben fists his hands in his hair and retches out sobs because he’s so weak.
He’s still there, hysterical, when Michael unlocks the front door and steps in.
“Ben?” Michael calls and Ben tries to suck down enough air to calm himself but he’s too far gone to save any face by the time Michael rushes into the kitchen.
“Sorry,” Ben stammers preemptively, knowing he should be apologizing for something. “Sorry, sorry, I’m so sorry.”
“What the hell did—you went to McDonalds?” Michael demands, staring around the mess of the kitchen and looking overwhelmed. “You told me you were staying in bed all day, Ben!”
“I know,” Ben hiccups. “I’m sorry, I was just so hungry.”