The Act of Vanishing
Illustration by Abi Watson
Tomorrow we can say, tomorrow we can say, tomorrow we can say, tomorrow is VISITING DAY! Kendall sings, skipping up the hill from the dining hall after breakfast, where I gobbled a wretch of watered-down eggs, half a multigrain English muffin, and the ironically named Red Delicious apple, which is, definitively, the least delicious apple. The kind of apple you do a double-take on, to ensure you didn't just bite into something decorative. Kendall got a banana and peanut butter.
It's her second year at fat camp, so she's got it all figured out. In real life, Kendall is allergic to nothing, but on the intake forms she claimed anaphylaxis to anything she knows she can get a better substitute for at camp. A spoonful of smooth Skippy instead of scrambled slush. A perfectly freckled Chiquita in lieu of an apple that's possibly wax. Plus, she's not fat anymore. Not at all. Last week when we got weighed in, she was eighty-seven pounds.
The dining hall is situated at the bottom of what I am certain is New York State's rudest hill. On the first day of camp, Kendall shared a theory: Look—you either go down the hill to eat your meals and burn all the calories back up, or you stare down and decide it's not worth it—and don't eat at all. Win-win! She advertised this like some kind of demented infomercial, then grabbed my hand and started running us down the mountain toward her favorite meal of the week—chicken patties and as many servings of salad as you like! Before dessert (sugar-free Jell-o that jiggled not unlike a Camp Shaner running downhill toward it) I had a new best friend.
Kendall is not winded at all, Sound-of-Music-ing toward the summit, belting her Visiting Day song like this hill is alive and not the death of me. She's been doing this for weeks now. Each crisp camp morning pops open for Kendall like an advent calendar, counting down to some July Christmas, where Santa is replaced with parents and our gifts include going to the mall, chowing down at a food court, new jeans two sizes smaller than our last.
My parents won't be coming up together this year, mom told me in a letter. She's the only person I get mail from, since nobody knows where I am. I told all my friends I would be in Florida for the summer, which is a thousand miles away from Ferndale, New York (and from the truth).
Dad will be coming up for something called Alternate Visiting Day, which takes place the following week on a Wednesday. It's for divorced parents. You are not allowed to go to the mall on Alternate Visiting Day, you can't even leave camp. Instead, you act as tour guide for whoever won less of you in the custody battle. Show them the tennis courts, the aerobics gazebo, the zip line that cuts through the trees. You eat camp food lunch at the bottom of the hill, or maybe decide not to eat at all. Kendall doesn't have any song to sing about that.
This week in nutrition classes, Bonnie, head nutritionist, talks to us about making good choices on Visiting Day. There will be a lot of options out there for you in the real world. She's not wrong. On the literal road before the turnoff to camp, there's a McDonald's, Burger King, Taco Bell, and a Pizza Hut, all there in a row like bam bam bam bam.
Bonnie has a printed stack of papers and we have to take one, pass it down around the circle in the nutrition building, the same sweaty office where we go to get weighed. The room is without air conditioning. There's a big box fan in the window that might do the trick but is so loud Bonnie turns it off when she is speaking. The room is decorated with posters I am learning to memorize: the ancient pyramid of food, pictures of hands that correlate to serving sizes (two fingers is a serving of cheese, one is chocolate. Two open palms, the portion for berries. Meat and fish are your hand. Pasta, a fist.) Bonnie's handout has a list of restaurants on it, with all the items on the menu, and rather than how many dollars each item costs, it lists the calories, the fat. Another kind of price.
Let's look these over and discuss which foods would be a bad choice, and which would be a healthy option. She's trying to teach us that we can make responsible decisions, even at McDonald's. I raise my hand. Wendy's has salads! I say, enthusiastic to have the right answer until I remember that the right answer tastes like dirt.
That's true, Bonnie says, but look at the calories on that dressing! She lets out a girlish gasp as if surprised, as if she is not a blonde actress who has rehearsed these very lines all week. Does anyone know a neat little trick to do with dressing?
When Kendall speaks, all of us listen. There are rumors that some kids return for their second year with all their weight gained back, sometimes more. I used to have nightmares about a murderous red-headed doll, but now it's this.
Kendall's body is somewhat of a legend around here. People don't even bother to pretend not to stare, eyes stalking her outline as she passes, making her way down Lover's Lane, down to the pool—in a two-piece. It's like God herself has arrived right here in the Catskills in the shape of Kendall Whitman.
Well, ALWAYS ask for dressing on the side, she offers, so you can control how much goes on. Everyone nods, says, Mmmmm, as if a point has been made.
And even better than that? Bonnie adds, whispering now, so we all have to lean in. Something about how she does this makes me think she's offering a different kind of tip, from Cosmopolitan, a magazine I'm not yet allowed to read because I'm not even twelve. If you dip your fork in the dressing and THEN your salad, rather than pour the dressing right ON, you hardly use any of it—but the dressing is the last thing you taste! I feel like I just stumbled into a Secret Society Meeting for the Beautiful and am waiting to be shown the door.
This is BULLSHIT, Destiny says, standing up from her chair, fast. The sound of it screeching against the linoleum stings like a curse word too. You mean to tell me even SALAD is dangerous now? She pivots on her sneakers, walks to the screen door, lets it slam behind her before Bonnie can say BMI.
I am thinking of following after her, but before I can, Bonnie reorganizes her papers in an uppity shuffle, leans in and says, I swear, sometimes you can tell who will gain the weight back and who won't precisely by how they act in this room. And if you want another indicator of your success with your journey, winning our attention back, look no further than the choices you make on Visiting Day.
According to the Gospel of Kendall, there are just three days left in her countdown. But this morning we have weigh-ins. Last night, Kendall lay down in the middle of the bunk floor and made me massage her stomach. Two hands, mostly my three middle fingers, pressing into her belly with increasing pressure, then traveling around the clock of her center with her flat little belly button as the axis—the still point of the turning world.
What are you doing THAT for? Lindsay asked.
You know, Kendall answered, somehow above everyone even down there on the floor, To get things moving! In case there's anything extra in your body you want to—expel! (Expel is the word she used. The same word when someone does something so bad they get kicked out of school.) Lindsay's eyebrows formed a question, but before we could answer, Destiny barked from her bottom bunk a few rows over—it makes you have to shit—without even looking up from her book.
Once Lindsay understood the arrangement, she sat down behind Kendall, as if to claim she was next. Within minutes, a line formed behind her. Even the counselors waited for my hands. Even Destiny.
The next morning, Kendall wakes me up before reveille is played over the loudspeakers with a peck on my cheek. I open my eyes and there she is, smiling like she's saying cheese. She still has some baby teeth. What? I ask. She opens her eyes wider, juts her chin a little forward, as if it's obvious. And then it is. Kendall is pleased with me. I gave her the gift of shit.
We line up before breakfast on the stairs outside the nutrition room, wearing the lightest clothes in our wardrobe so as not to sway the scales against our favor. I pick out my Mom's CrystalLite t-shirt that she only wears to dye her hair in, because it's old and threadbare and weighs as much as a whisper. Bonnie calls the girls into the office one at a time, scale tucked in the corner of the room like something misbehaved. Your weight is a private thing, you need not share it with anyone, she remarks. Her voice sing-songy, like how people talk on Broadway. A voice that wants the whole audience to hear. Bonnie gets to know our weights, because she's the one with the clipboard. She's the one who pulls out our progress charts from the filing cabinet that stays locked. The key to the cabinet is on a string, around her neck, safe, under her shirt. Sometimes she fidgets with the key—pendant of the world's worst necklace—slides a nail along its teeth, tastes the metal in her mouth, then tucks it back in, next to her heart. Next! Bonnie rings, and I step my left foot through the threshold first, which I learned is how you should step on airplanes if you don't want to crash.
Inside, Lindsay puts her shoes back on with a smile that means she did well this week. Maybe my massage worked. When she writes a postcard home during rest hour, she will have something good to say.
Getting weighed at Camp Shane is not as bad as it is at the Doctor's office back home. When I remove my socks, the studs in my ears, even a tissue from my pocket, Bonnie does not tap her foot or consult her wristwatch or sigh. She is patient. She wants the number as low as possible, too. Here, each time I step on the scale, I weigh less. No one has a talk with my mother after. No one in a white coat ever pulls out a percentile chart, points to normal, then points to me.
In science class, Mr. Chavez told us that matter is not created or destroyed, so I have no idea where fat goes when you lose it. Maybe it leeches on to someone else who is not working as hard as you, doesn't want it as much. Maybe the fat flies through the air like a ghost until it finds another body to haunt. Someone like Destiny.
I step on the scale and Bonnie slides the lever down, which is good, which is the right direction.
We're not really supposed to brag about our numbers, so I hold three fingers (to indicate three pounds) out and down by my side and poke Kendall's ribs with all three as I pass her on the stairs. I wait for her at the bottom. Pearls of dew on the fresh-cut grass and a sky blushing lavender reinforce that today will be gorgeous.
But when Kendall returns through the screen door, mascara blackens her cheeks. It's 7:30 in the morning—she put make-up on for this. She runs down the stairs and then past me as if she's forgotten we're surrounded by fences.
Ken! Kendall! I call after. Trying to keep up. After maybe a quarter of a mile, somewhere past the main office, she turns. The trees are green like it's been raining forever. Point! Eight! Point eight! Not even a full fucking pound! she charges in my direction like a tiny glass bull.
I am looking at her body now, four foot ten, and for the first time I can really see. I'm not sure how much more she could lose. And from where? She falls into my arms. To hold her takes no strength at all. What am I even DOING here? she asks, bleeding her eyelashes into my chest.
We walk down the hill together toward breakfast, but Kendall does not sing her song. I tune my inner FM radio to her station and try to cheer her up: Tomorrow we can say, tomorrow we can say, tomor—but she cuts me off—Don't.
Standing in a long line snaked against the wall, we wait to be served our breakfast on portioned-out plastic trays. Today it's a turkey sausage patty, a hairball dose of cottage cheese, a dry smile of cantaloupe or, from where I'm sitting, I guess it's a frown. Kendall's plate is untouched. She looks down at it like it's a science test she thought she got an A on, but instead sees a red F. I get an idea.
Ken, I say, Kendall Marie Whitman, because I mean business. How much would you say this weighs? Her arms are crossed, definitely a frown, but I manage to move her eyes up from her tray. Impaling the excuse for meat on my plastic fork, I hold it up to her like the specimen that it is. I don't know, she shrugs. A pound?
Exactly, I say, though I'm only guessing. I place the turkey back down on my tray, take the plastic knife and begin sawing through it at the mark I imagine would be eighty-percent I lift up the larger half again. I've got her attention. This, I say, shaking the gelatinous patty across the table, this is eight-tenths of a pound. If you lost THIS MUCH off of your body in ONE week, that's kind of a lot.
The girl who woke me up with a kiss this morning reenters the room. Something comes back behind her eyes. The knot of her arms unravels. You know, that actually makes me feel better. She picks up the melon rind, bites.
TODAY WE SAY IT'S VISITING DAY! Kendall wakes us up in the morning, with her incredible shrinking song.
My cubby is a mess as I pull things out and shove them back in, trying to find the perfect outfit for when I see my mom. I want to wear something that shows off thirteen pounds gone. I don't care what anyone says. That number is lucky now. Show off what I've lost and conceal what still needs to go. I want to wear something too big so I can pull the waistband from my hip and display how much room I have in my pants now—but not so baggy that I look sloppy. I want her to gasp at the magic trick of my body, the vanishing act. By the time I get home at the end of the summer, I want to be a girl cut in half.
Waiting outside my bunk for her, I am not exactly sure how to stand. When she comes into focus, a red-tipped woman bobbing through the green, I consider running toward her but instead stay still. I want to extend the moment of becoming beautiful in her eyes. Like a picture developing in a dark room, held down underwater.
My mom does a whole, Where is she? Does anyone see my daughter? bit, before she lets down the act and breaks into a hug. I wonder if she thought to do that in the moment, or if she planned it on the car ride up. Let me get a look at you, she says, hands on my elbows but leaning back. Give us a twirl!
We need new clothes for your new body, Mom says, and we drive to the Galleria Mall in Middletown.
It's only forty minutes away but it feels like entering a new world. A museum of smells. The real butter of popcorn, the fake leather of Payless shoes, the chicken teriyaki samples held out on tiny toothpicks and offered to everyone who passes, the Vanilla Cupcake Yankee Candle that makes the air edible, makes me dizzy with want. At camp the oak trees are a hundred years tall and there's a bird for every camper. Here, the palm trees live indoors and are studded with light. A single pigeon flies from window to window, beating its wings before the glass, either unsure how to escape, or unaware that it's trapped at all.
I run my fingers through the racks of fabrics at The Gap, admire the mannequins like I might one day count myself among them. I stare through the gaps in their thighs all the way to the other side of the store. I don't reach for the bottom of the pile of jeans, where they hide the bigger sizes. My hand hovers somewhere toward the middle. Everything is so perfectly folded and creased it appears the clothes are better without a body in them. I pick up a bottle of body splash, bring it to my nose, and decide it's good enough to smell like. Rather than spray it directly on me, I spritz it three times in the air and walk through. A trick I learned in a magazine. The perfume is called, Dream. And then I hear a familiar voice.
Hey, Amber! What do you think of these? And there she is. Amber's mom is holding up a pair of pink glitter jelly sandals—the kind of thing that Amber would totally love.
There's Amber, flitting through a circular rack of capri pants, arranged by color. Her horse camp must have the same visiting day as us. I grab my mom's hand and yank her into a dressing room. I stand on the little bench so that, just in case, Amber won't recognize my ankles. I crouch low—a move I learned with my sixth-grade class so we could hide under our school desks in an active shooter drill.
What on—Mom begins to say.
I have always despised the crack in the dressing room door, through which someone might see my unclothed body, but right now I peer through it, scouting Amber in the sliver's crosshairs. I point her out to mom—Look.
This is ridiculous, let's just—she reaches for the metal lock and I jump from the plank to slap her hand away. I press my back against the door and lock us both in. I lift one foot off the ground so Amber only has one ankle to potentially recognize. Mom. Please, I say, through my tears, through my teeth. Please. I'm supposed to be in Florida.
Everything okay in there? the dressing room attendant asks through the plywood. Do you believe in life after love? Cher asks through the speakers. I am only asking to disappear. I watch through the crack for Amber like a woman behind a door in a horror movie, holding my breath until the killer leaves the room. Once her chlorine-tinged ponytail passes through the metal detectors and the threat of her walks out without a beep, I exhale. Mom, put your hood up, follow me.
We run through the mall like women dodging rain. We run past the sale signs, the teenage boy in his boxers whose job is to just stand outside Abercrombie, we run past stores that sell handkerchiefs as shirts, we run past the girls air-brushed blemishless and happy, the bras that promise to turn our bodies to Heidi Klum's, we run past what could have been my first truce with a dressing room, past the opportunity to peek my head out through its curtain, ask a clerk, Excuse me, do you know if you have this, one size down? Down, down, down a flight of spiraling stairs, we run past Claire's who will pierce your ears with a gun. We bypass a security guard who does not consider us dangerous. We run past Cinnabon and its scent chases after—faster, I say, testing my new legs, I have been training all of July to run like this, so fast I can be invisible. We run past the food court and the choices I might have made inside it, where I could have learned what kind of woman I'll be on the other side of summer. We run out of the air conditioning, off the waxed tile floors, we run on the hot asphalt that glitters like it has diamonds trapped inside it. Really, it's just broken glass.
When we get to the car, I recline the passenger seat all the way down and pull the drawstrings on my hoodie tighter to shrink the surface area of my face, still convinced that someone might see me.
Mom looks over at me, out of breath, out of answers. Do you want to—
She shifts the car into gear and peels out of the parking lot without leaving a mark. We drive through forty minutes of growling silence, back the way we came, back to camp, back to where I am safe.