1783 or Our Chemistry Kitchen

by Charlotte E. Wilde

Each morning at the chemistry set of our breakfast table I watched her measuring her feelings meticulously and by the drop: 1/3 cup, 1/2 tbs, one serving, strictly by the box. When she eats she nibbles, ‘like a bird,’ they said. But stealing another furtive glance over my coffee mug, I thought I’d never seen a bird eat so slowly and regretful, one tiny mouthful at a time. I imagined her then, neatly folding her emotions and subsequently tucking them away into a tiny bottle inside her belly.

I pictured a lovely antique thing made of misty looking glass of the palest sea green with a little cork. It sits there in her abdomen wrapped in soft linen, concealed perhaps, but not forgotten, where her food would go under different circumstances. One thousand seven hundred and eighty three— calories per day allotted by someone who knew better. I considered those numbers that held so much sway over her life as piece-by-piece, teaspoon-by-teaspoon, she swallowed them down. They stuck in her cheeks, in her eyes, in her mind, but refused to stay where she needed them most.

Her spoon clinks back into the bowl. With a sigh and not a glance in my direction she steals out of the kitchen, sweeping the leftovers of her sorry breakfast into the trash as she walks by. She continues to lose at this game of fractions; I supposed the impossibility of so many bites exhausts her. Methodically, she seemed to work through the pages of a life riddled with fudged numbers and shady arithmetic, always rounding up.  ‘Wise beyond her years, an old soul,’ or so they said, and her weary eyes and wan cheeks seemed to speak to the truth of that sentiment.

Never consuming, always consumed, or always consuming, only herself. Over the weeks I’d slowly watched her shrink away, hoping to go unnoticed, to blend into the peeling blue wallpaper of that drafty kitchen where I watched her organize her fate. Our chemistry kitchen, where I sat helpless with my coffee, never understanding her resolve.

I felt myself pooling, furious at my helplessness even as the realization of her blank space broke over me. I knew then that some things cannot be understood from the outside in; certain sicknesses have to be sweated out. There are wounds that can only be licked alone and in the dark. And that, that’s the hardest part.

I remembered the last time I’d hugged her. The icy touch of her long fingers seeping through my shirt blurred the need to reconcile how one so mild and tender could be held erect by nothing but a beating pulse— a thudding chest and a razor spine that cut the palms of those who dared hold on too tight. Even as I winced I held her, because holding on was the only way to share that burden, to help her navigate the hurt. Then I tucked those emotions away, concealed perhaps but not forgotten, along with the realization that this was never about food but some desperate quest for control and self preservation. Hers was a battle that could not be fought in chemistry kitchens, but in hearts and heads alone.

In my mind I followed her out of the room, set my mug aside and pulled her reluctant into my arms. “I love you anyway, any way,” I’d whisper. Instead I sat immobile, a spectator in my chair, blinking at the distance between us; like molecules, close but never touching, the gulf of her pain remaining in the space between us.