I met Emma when I was in the first grade. We were both enrolled at the Ivy School, which we, as children, assumed was named for the prickly, invasive vines that covered the beige stucco of the small, three-room schoolhouse. Years later, as adults, we would visit the school and imagine how the advertising executives must have laughed their asses off over caviar dinners and champagne lunches funded by the overeager parents, who happily paid the ridiculously high tuition as soon as they associated the word “ivy” with “ivy league.”
It was a sunny October morning and the San Diego sunshine was beginning to pierce through the cool Fall fog. I was crouched over my lunchbox, searching for the small Ziplock bag of red and green gummi bears that my mother had packed for me to share with my new classmates, whom I could not yet communicate with, when a hush fell over the group of students and young teachers who were waiting by the door for the school to officially open for the day. At first, I thought that the sudden cease of activity and noise was due to my successful acquisition of said gummi bears, but soon realized that everybody was pointing and staring at a long, black limousine that had quietly pulled into the driveway. A door at the end of the car opened and a girl in the school uniform of a grey skirt, forest green argyle sweater, knee-high socks and black patent maryjanes jumped out. A pair of bare legs, their dark orange color emphasized by a neon pink mini-skirt, soon followed and hobbled slowly on white, pointy high heels to the group of teachers whispering nearby. The pair of bare legs was topped off by a matching hot pink shirt that dipped very low in the front and crowned with a huge head of feathered cotton candy hair, which my teachers later snickered and described amongst themselves as “cheap bottle blonde.” The few dads who were waiting in the schoolyard had unconsciously drawn together, each taking turns to ogle openly at the bare legs before turning to one another and smiling. The little girl stayed near the car, her eyes fixed on the ground.
A rough, grating alarm suddenly burst through the playground air and my schoolmates immediately dropped basketballs and plastic shovels in a rush to be the first through the open blue doors that led into the classroom. I remained standing outside, watching the little girl whose mousy brown ponytail and bespectacled eyes looked nothing like her loud, animated mother, who somehow was able to speak all the while flashing her brilliant white teeth. Her mother was now conversing with the principal, whose own beady eyes and greased back locks bobbed up and down in tune with the woman’s low-cut shirt. A few minutes later, the international teacher who was fluent in five different languages and had been assigned to teach me English grabbed me by my right hand and walked over to the new girl. The teacher leaned down and shook the little girl’s hand, then positioned me in front of her. I didn’t understand anything the teacher said, but the little girl’s eyes soon wandered down to my left hand, which was still gripping the bag of gummi bears. She said something quickly, excitedly, then began to rummage through her leather book bag, all the while pointing at my bag of gummi bears. A few seconds later, her eyes opened wide in triumph and she yanked out her hand, revealing a Ziplock bag containing yellow and orange gummi bears.
Fourteen years later, I said goodbye to Emma. She had been hospitalized for the third time, for another relapse into anorexia nervosa and her family eventually felt that a change of climate might be better for her mental health. I saw her for the last time at her parents’ majestic country estate in a remote area of town. We sat, facing eachother, on the beautifully carved hardwood floors that her parents had imported from Italy. With my finger, I traced over the nicks and lines in the wood that seemed to echo our friendship: a dent there, from when we accidentally dropped her mother’s pageant queen trophy, which we were forbidden to touch; a scrape here, after we both purchased our first pair of high heels then promptly slipped on the waxed floor; a slash there, after Emma’s father, hearing my screams of panic, ran into the room in his dress shoes and discovered Emma choking on tissues that she was trying to eat to calm down her hunger, a “tip” she said she learned from a pro-anorexia website. Through the bay windows, I saw the “SOLD” sign pasted diagonally across the realtor’s post, and I knew that this would be the last time, in a very long time, that I would see her. Emma, whose mousey brown hair had turned a rich, chestnut brown during adolescence, then fallen out when her eating disorder worsened, gripped my hands with her cold, bony fingers. Her nails were blue, her lips were pale and fullness of where laughter and happiness had once shone so brightly on her face were now replaced by a gaunt emptiness. She smiled, then sighed, as if it pained her to do so. Reaching into a nearby cardboard box, she pulled out a white wooden picture frame with fading gilded edges.
“Remember this?” she asked. I did. It was a photo of us during Halloween the first year we met.
“Yes,” I whispered, trying to hold back tears. “I was a princess and you were a beauty queen and we got mad because people didn’t seem to get that there was a difference.”
She laughed. “How easy life was back then.” She placed the frame back into the box and looked around the room.
“What do you think living in Texas will be like?”
I shrugged. “Big hair, big hats, big buildings.”
She sighed again. I tried to be optimistic. “You’ll have a great time there! Just think of it as like a new adventure.”
She didn’t say anything, so I continued. “And there will be fewer distractions so you can concentrate on getting better, then you can move back here for college.”
She looked at me and laughed, “Yes! And we can be roommates.”
I nodded encouragingly.
She grew quiet, pensive. She learned in. “You know, you have to get better, too.”
Emma was referring to my eating disorder, the one that I managed to hide from people for years by wearing baggy clothing and claiming allergies to the food items offered to me. She was the only one who knew.
I cleared my throat. “I’ll try.”
“No, you really have to.” She grabbed my hands again, digging her nails into my palms. “You really, really have to. This isn’t about being perfect anymore. Perfection doesn’t exist. Look at me–I hit my lowest weight, but that still didn’t make me happy. Being thinner than everyone else doesn’t make you happy. You have to get better. Promise me, OK? If not for me, then at least promise for yourself.”
“OK,” I whispered. “Ok, I promise.” I knew she was right. I didn’t want my life to consist of a pursuit for a lower number on the scale. I didn’t want to miss anymore important social events for fear of eating. I didn’t want to make anymore excuses for why I wasn’t hungry. I didn’t want to end up in the hospital one day and have to see my family’s reaction to my self-inflicted torture. I hugged Emma tightly and mourned for our foolishness as I watched the moving van pull slowly out of the paved stone driveway.
Pearl Lee | San Diego, CA | USA
Pearl is a writer and a devotee of fine cuisine and wine. She spent the early years of her childhood in Taiwan, immersed in a culture of food, before moving to California where her mother and grandmother made elaborate meals every single day. Despite an early (and healthy) appreciation for food, she struggled with an eating disorder for years before finally re-discovering her own balance. Pearl graduated with a Literature degree from the University of California, San Diego and spends her days writing, laughing and cooking.