You learn in elementary school—second grade, in the Mr. Popper’s Penguins unit—that mother penguins regurgitate their food to feed to their young. You’re not quite sure what “regurgitate” means, but you gather that they eat and then throw it back up so their babies can digest. Gross, you think. You’ve only thrown up once before, because you were carsick, and you can’t imagine ever wanting to do that: it hurt, and it tasted bad, and it made your eyes water. Ew, you whisper to the boy next to you, and you stick out your tongue.
Later, you’re in sixth grade, and a woman talks to your class about things you’ve never heard of: girls who don’t eat, who eat a little but exercise for hours, who eat but then make themselves throw up. You see pictures of ribs sticking out, of straw-like hair, of yellow teeth. Weird, you think. You’ve never worried about your weight. You look at your friends, transfixed by the images on the projector, and you wonder if they have.
Then, you’re nineteen. You just finished your first year of college, and your boyfriend from home broke up with you, and you don’t have a summer job, and nineteen is nothing like you thought it would be. One night, your mom makes a cake and you eat it, almost the whole thing, because you’re bored, and then you realize you didn’t want it at all. It’s like a lump sitting in your stomach, a lump of lemony, sugary, frosted guilt, and you think about it for a few hours as you watch Netflix and read and wander around your house. You think, maybe I can just get rid of it, just the once.
You’ve never made yourself throw up before, and you don’t really know what to do. You go into the bathroom and you lock the door. You crouch in front of the toilet, the tile floor cold on your knees, and tentatively slide a finger down your throat. You gag a little, but nothing comes out. You stick your finger down farther, coughing. Your knees start to hurt, so you sit down. Frustrated, you jam your finger farther, as if you could reach the fucking lemon cake of guilt and pull it out. Finally it works, and you heave into the toilet, a barrage of bright yellow that spatters on the seat and your shirt and the walls. It didn’t hurt, like it did when you were little, and your eyes watered, but not in a bad way. You stand up, and wash your hands, and use a handful of toilet paper to wipe off the seat and the walls, and change your shirt. Just the once, you think, but you feel better. Your stomach feels empty, and you feel accomplished, somehow.
You start to make yourself throw up every time you eat a little too much, every time food feels like a lump in your stomach again. You told yourself it was only once, but it’s too easy to not do it. You start to feel like you have a purpose. You excuse yourself quickly from the table every night, going upstairs and locking the door and emptying yourself of chicken, burgers, fajitas, spaghetti, whatever, until you nothing but sour liquid comes up. When you go out to dinner, you say you have to pee and walk quickly to the bathroom, where you thrust your finger down your throat quickly and violently, careful not to take too long. If there’s someone in the bathroom, you go back to the table, and you feel the food you just ate expanding in your stomach until you get home.
You start throwing up every time you eat, and you learn better ways to do it. You learn to twist your finger around in your throat and to press it up against your uvula. You learn to drink a little bit of water beforehand to make it come up easier, but not so much that it makes it messy. You learn to eat bland foods because spicy ones hurt. You learn to flush the toilet twice to get rid of all the evidence. Your mother asks you, once, if you’re throwing up. You wipe your mouth on the back of your hand and say, something in my throat, sorry! and walk out and smile.
You get a scab on the middle knuckle of your right hand from where it knocks against your teeth. Your voice is always hoarse, and your friends ask if you’ve started smoking. You tell them you have. It wasn’t about losing weight at first, but you like the empty feeling in your stomach and how your shorts settle lower on your hips. Your father tells you it looks like you lost weight, and you say, I’ve been running. Sometimes you remember what the frizzy-haired lady said in sixth grade, and you wonder if you have a problem. You think of the b-word. I could stop anytime I wanted to, you think.
You go back to school in the fall, and you realize it’s harder to throw up in a bathroom that you share with twenty-one other girls. You make yourself vomit if there’s no one else in there, and sometimes you do it in a plastic bag in the privacy of your room and take it to the trash at the end of the hall, shoving it deep underneath the paper towels and instant noodle packages. Your roommate looks at you funny, sometimes, but you avoid her questions about what you had for lunch. It becomes more of an effort than an activity you enjoy, and the constant lack of food in your stomach starts makes you hungry.
You forget about your boyfriend, and you kiss boys and worry that they can taste the vomit on your mouth. You join a club and make new friends, and you don’t have time to throw up everything you eat, so you only do it once a day, and then a few times a week, and then hardly ever. Your friends talk about eating disorders, and from the back of someone’s car, you say, finally, I was bulimic, once. Was and once aren’t really true—you still do it sometimes, when you feel too full, when you know you ate too much, when you need to get a little control back—but they’re almost true.
You throw up once when you’re at home over winter break—Christmas morning, after you’ve eaten too much French toast—and your mom walks in on you. She cries, and calls for your dad, and the three of you sit in the living room in your pajamas and they talk at you, and say things like rehab and problem and disorder and unhealthy and scared. You tell them it was just once, and you won’t do it again, and they hug you and make you promise and threaten to take you right out of school and send you somewhere if you do it again. You nod, and think of how bad—how much worse—it used to be and how they didn’t notice or want to notice then, and think of how ironic it is, but you humor them.
You don’t throw up very much anymore. Once every now and then, only after you know you’ve eaten too much, and you feel guilty, not accomplished, afterward. But you’re always reminded of how easy it once was, how light and empty it made you, and how it felt to have a secret.