CW: Eating Disorders, Self-harm
The doctor’s room smells like fake leather and old people. I wake up on my stomach, heels fused stiff by broken skin. The doctor mumbles. What-is-it-with-this-town-and-ballet. Between his eyebrows are the deep shadows of a man that frowns a lot, probably because he can’t fathom how he ended up in our shithole of a town. I imagine the bulging skin pushing his glasses down his nose. I imagine him glaring at my floundering mother.
When you’re a kid, you just accept their truths. Gravity roots you to the ground. Beauty is only skin deep. Hard work brings rewards. Of course, they’re half-truths. But you think they’re governing laws. You don’t know you’re pushing against them. Because you don’t know they can be broken.
I guess the difference between being a teenager and being an adult is knowing you’ve got through it all. But I also think there aren’t that many adults.
Ballet was like Weetabix. You ate it because you were told to eat it. Then you ate it because it’s all you’d ever eaten. And the only time you stopped was when you ran out of milk.
Miss Cora was the Principal and only teacher of the Lower River Dance Academy. She was known for her tight waist, cutting gossip, and high-heeled teacher’s shoes that announced her arrival with a metallic whip crack. But her two greatest weapons were her long, manicured fingernails and that she could scream with a terrifying lack of control. Stepped a millimetre out of line? Scream. Forgot to rewind your tape? Scream. I once turned the wrong way during a routine and she screamed so much I wet myself. I saw the dark triangle of urine on my stockings, and the suede bottoms of my shoes got so sticky I could barely turn, but I kept dancing. God knows what would’ve happened if I’d stopped.
Her fingernails were worse, though. The way they scratched at the pale undersides of my arms or poked any excess skin on my stomach. She was always close, her sour breath pressing against me, always pushing and prodding my body into some frustratingly unachievable form.
The truth was, I idolised her.
The doctor sighs at Mum in the way Dad does. It’s like a cough and a laugh and a growl. ‘Why would you make her wear shoes that are too small for her?’ he asks.
‘I didn’t realise. She’d been practising in her old ones but Cora said they weren’t good enough for the exam. You know what Cora’s like. But we couldn’t afford new shoes for one exam.’
Sometimes Dad whispers stuff like this into his newspaper. Backwater-hillbilly-hole. Idiots-squabbling-to-be-queen-of-the-redneck-float. I feel the doctor’s breath on the back of my heels. He whispers as if his words might make the injury worse. ‘Didn’t she try them on?’
‘She said they were fine.’
‘She’s nearly at the bone, but it’s too wide for stitches. Why on earth didn’t she stop?’
‘She said she didn’t notice. Not until after.’
‘How long was the exam?’
He whistles and it sounds like a scream behind glass.
When I started ballet, Miss Cora told Mum I had good turnout and flexibility, both vital for a good ballerina. That half-truth stuck with Mum even though I was always placed in the back. I knew I was a good dancer—Miss Cora’s methods were effective—I just didn’t look like one.
My parents never thought to put me on a diet because I was never overweight. But even as a four-year old I didn’t have a flat belly. So I had to take matters into my own hands. I ate whole heads of iceberg lettuce between classes then told my parents I’d eaten.
‘I had a really delicious ham and salad bun from the bakery, Mum, and I had a cold custard tart as a bit of a treat. The nutmeg on top really makes it, doesn’t it?’
The key to lying is the details. I saved the money for laxatives. And if I sucked my stomach in, I could almost see my ribs.
The doctor tears the perforated edges of the prescription from the printer. It sounds just like the sticky stockings peeling from my heels. Blood and pus and plasma soaked into the nylon looking just like that time I pissed myself. ‘Obviously, she won’t be dancing for a while.’
Mum sucks air through her teeth like there’s nothing obvious about this statement at all. I think of going straight home from school. Of having time to do my homework. Of not having to look in the mirror unless I want to.
‘But there’s a competition next week.’
I can’t tell the difference between loose skin and fat anymore, but, in my head, Miss Cora can. Those nails, that scream, her sour breath. It cuts right to the fat.
Mum will make me tell Miss Cora the news, but we both already know her response.
‘The prescription’s for antiseptic cream and some painkillers. I don’t have any adhesive bandages that large. You’ll have to get some at the pharmacy. And you’ll have to get her some backless shoes.’
Mum gives a kind of strangled noise, like a bird with a broken wing too weak to fly away but too stupid to realise you’re trying to help it. ‘She doesn’t have any. And the damn school fees are due. If I’d known I’d have to buy new shoes anyway—’
The doctor makes a distinct huff. ‘Maybe she can borrow her cousin’s.’
Mum doesn’t react, but I can’t help it. I laugh into the vinyl bed. And when I sit up, their eyes are wide.
Concern. Concern, far too late.
In the glass of the doctor’s bookshelf, I catch my skull-grey reflection. My smile is the snarl of a wild dog prepared to fight for scraps. Because I’m hungry. Bone-showing, uncaged hungry.
Kinneson Lalor has both a PhD in Physics and an MSt in Creative Writing from Cambridge. She's Australian but lives in the UK. Her work has appeared in various places including Tiny Molecules, Reflex Press, Ghost Parachute, and Ellipsis Zine, and on various shortlists including the BFFA. She was the 2021 winner of the 1000 Word Herd competition and placed in the 2021 streetcake experimental writing prize. Find her on Twitter (@KinnesonLalor), Instagram (@kinneson.lalor), or via www.kinnesonlalor.com.