Anorexia My Love

Excerpt from a work in progress
By Smaro Kamboureli

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He peeled an orange, letting the juice run onto her naked belly. He rubbed the orange peel in her vulva and sucked the broken peel, sniffing.

Yiota bit at his fingers as he fed her the juicy segments of orange.

"Ci Ci Ci," Andreas mouthed without sound. Vitamin Ci. It's good for you, but I'm not good for you."

That was their sixth evening together. Yiota measured their relationship in evenings, beginning in June.

She would continue to count until nine months later when it was all over. Meeting twice a week, that made seventy-two evenings. She never stopped counting. Forty-two in his garçoniera, five on the beach in Kalikratia, nine in The Swings bistro in Panorama, that made fifty-six evenings. The remaining were spent in tavernas, in the car driving out of town, in Seih-Sou, that little pine forest outside Kastra. She had by pure instinct found consolation in numbers. They came to her with the ease of first-spoken words. With the same ease that Andreas read her lips. She cherished the solidity of numbers as much as she did the abbreviated messages he wrote in capital letters on scraps of paper, on restaurant napkins, sometimes on the inside of her palm, the shank of her bared arm, her thigh. It took Yiota a while to learn to read his lips. It was not so much a matter of understanding what he said but rather of concentrating on his mouth alone, localizing her desire for him in the shapes his lips made. Andreas wasn't completely mute, but Yiota could not always comprehend the sounds he made. They reached her untrained ears as inarticulate cries, sounds of a foreign language. Yet, his deafness and muteness did not stop them from talking. She learned to speak slowly, and after a while she eliminated the sound of her words altogether. They talked through their silently moving lips, their hands, their scribblings, their eyes.

Still, sound was an important element in her relationship with Andreas. She could recognize the noise of his Citroen engine, could even tell where he parked. His comings and goings from his parents' penthouse altered the air around her, changed her breathing. Unconsciously, she registered his movements, a knowledge she did not do anything with. It was just there, a natural register of her days and nights.

Andreas was an endless source of little pleasures and riddles.

She never asked herself if she loved him.

Her body thought: palmed belly, licked nipples, sweat pearls, arched neck, dry mouth, flesh rippling on flesh, spooned back, clutched legs, eyes yoked, head snapped back, stark still. Her belly full of his words.

With eyes bulging, her left hand on her stomach, her right holding her mouth closed, Yiota pushed the bathroom door further ajar with her foot, and with a groan she could not suppress emptied her mouth and everything her belly held into the toilet bowl. She stood directly over it, her head bent as if in supplication. Water from her eyes streaked her cheeks, saliva dripping from her lower lip.

The beef cooked in her mother's delicious fresh tomato sauce, served with fresh peas and artichokes cooked in virgin olive oil and fresh dill and fennel, was now a slimy substance floating in the bowl.

"Oh Panayitsa mou," Yiota sputtered, as she flushed the toilet and wiped off her mouth.

Her parents were at the door, immobile, staring at her. She collapsed on the tiled floor, her chest heaving, elbows resting on the toilet seat.

Her body felt hollow.

That was how it all started. That was why she was crossing the AEgean, leaving los behind, going to the Lourdes of Greece. That young girl on the Naias, that girl with the bruised lips, with the bony arms, with the shoulder blades sticking out of her fuschia T-Shirt, did not want the journey to end. Did not want to lay eyes on Tinos. No miracles for her, Oh no. There was nothing to cure. Didn't the doctor say there was nothing wrong with her body? She had agreed to come on the trip because she could no longer stand her mother's whining—eat, eat, eat— her bringing home the priest for holy unctions, the parading of family friends whose services were sought in the hope of seeing her fed. Orders for bedrest. Threats of intravenous feeding. She was overwhelmed by all that, occasionally a little scared.

Same old story—that was what disturbed her most often. Her loss, her pain, her completed longing were clichés. Yiota couldn't bear that. She felt abandoned and shattered because of Andreas' disappearance from her life, but there were days too when it was her suffering itself that troubled her. Déjà vu. She viewed herself as a stranger, a character walking in and out of her own life, someone vaguely familiar who prowled in the maze her mind had become. Through her cool analysis of those permutations she came to believe that she had no choice, she was acting out someone else's script, she was the bereaved heroine of many scripts. At times this was a consoling thought. Locating the culprit of her story in all those other stories, she felt lighter if not cunning. There is an other, and I'm like her, and I'm other to others, she often muttered to herself with haughty satisfaction.

She came to realize that destiny was a matter of repetition, not the absent and ruthless Moira her mother blamed for all her calamities. Moira is not unlike Mary, Yiota sometimes thought, she's a callous creature we create because we're afraid of reckoning with repetition. Moira and Mary, Mary and Moira—they are the name of chasma, the figure of chiasmus—she couldn't recall what chiasmus meant but it felt right in the context, a slant rhyme teasing her arduous logic. Yes, Marcella had it all wrong. Most first loves ended tragically, Yiota was sure of that, she didn't read for nothing. For some reason, still unfathomable to her, she knew that the ending of first love was already what its beginning desired the most, at least in Greek literature—unless, unless of course one mistook one's emotions. She'd read something about that but couldn't quite remember what or where. Armed with those thoughts, she developed a smugness about people's reactions to her body or her temperamental approach to food. She was precocious or aloof depending on whom she had to deal with. For she felt obliged, owed it to herself, to take care of her abjection.

The more weight Yiota lost, the ghostlier she looked, Her body offered itself as the rival of her loving. It fed on her flesh, on her complexion, the lustre of her hair, the firmness of her buttocks, her memories. It cannibalized itself. She had never known such gluttony.

Only her throat inflamed from the vomiting fits and her anus sore from her exacerbated constipation reminded her that there was a kind of reality that might go around undercover, wearing a second face. Her constipation distressed her a lot. Logically, she surmised, she shouldn't have to shit, since she ate practically nothing. Nothing made sense any more on her worst days she felt doomed to spend her life either leaning over the sparkling whiteness of the toilet bowl her mother washed after Yiota's each visit, or sitting on its oval ring, elbows on knees, straining, sometimes lifting a foot off the floor to push harder, her face red from the effort.

Marcella kept the toilet bowl so clean Yiota could often see her face reflected in it as she held her long hair against her nape to keep it out of the way when vomiting. It became the mirror Yiota spent most of her time in front of. Her mother used a disinfectant that turned the water a cobalt blue. Yiota couldn't stand that glimmer of a sky, yet she seemed drawn to it.

Her mouth moving like that of a marionette, Yiota sat with both elbows on the table to test herfather. But he didn't say anything. No Yiota-elbows-off-the-table-when-eating!

Instead, her mother pointed her fork and knife at Yiota's still full plate.

"This is your favourite pie," she said, avoiding her daughter's name. At least eat just a piece. You've hardly eaten anything since yesterday morning."

"Leave the girl alone," her father replied on her behalf. "She'll eat when she feels like it. Besides, there's too much nutmeg in this pie."

"Is that right?" Marcella said sarcastically, her fork working furiously at her plate.

To put an end to what might have led to yet another ugly argument, Yiota picked up with her fingers some bits of the pie's golden crust. She chewed them as quietly as possible, for she knew the one thing in the world her father couldn't abide was noise, especially unwarranted eating noise.

It had been almost a week since her first bout of vomiting. She had eaten sparingly since then. She didn't feel hungry. Even when her stomach reminded her of its emptiness, she couldn't eat much. Nausea overpowered her when she forced food down. The ominous silence in the apartment when she was around and her parents' muffled angry words that she heard at night from behind closed doors did not help either. Her belly made fun of her. Thou shalt not eat, it commanded. Her tongue complied, grew lazy, developed a yellowish white film. And her mouth, also obliging, was perpetually bitter and dry. Yiota managed to pulverize the phyllo crust and swallow it without gagging. Feeling her mother's eyes on her, she made another effort. This time she used the fork to eat some of the spinach filling.

She concentrated really hard. Her jaws moved mechanically in an almost circular fashion, her tongue disentangling the spinach threads. When she tried to swallow, though, not a morsel went down. She chewed a little longer. But every time she began to swallow the food, something stopped her, and she choked. The silence at the table was so thick she could cut it with her knife. She emptied her mouth into her paper napkin.

"Too much nutmeg for her highness?" Marcella screamed at her. "I've had enough, enough! You won't leave the kitchen until you clean your plate, do you hear me?"

In her rage Marcella overturned her glass of water as she got up from the table. The glass shattered on the marble floor into three big pieces and many little ones, gleaming here and there around their feet. Tiny stars, wee little glass stars, Yiota thought. But she too was shaken. She watched her father bite his tongue, a sign of pent-up anger. His face grew red. No words escaped his lips.

She was the cause of their turmoil, she knew that, but she sat there without compunction. What was done could not be undone— Grandma Amalia's motto every time a disaster hit the family. Besides, she wasn't sure what she'd done in the first place. She wanted to plead innocent but, after Marcella's initial explosion, she'd decided she wouldn't argue with her. She had her own rage and pain to deal with, her longing, as inexhaustible as her sleepless nights—and a dread, a fluttering of her heart far different from the pangs of love, when her parents spoke of her in the third person as if she must be deaf, invisible.

There was nothing she could do really, except do as her mother told her. She cleared her plate of all the mashed-up food. She spooned the two wedges of spinach pie and the shredded lettuce salad into a napkin, got up quietly, disposed of it in the garbage bin, and presented the clean plate to her mother.

"Here," she said calmly, and walked out of the kitchen.

She closed the door of her room to keep out as much as possible of her parents' shouting. She resolved, without any mediation, to never again try to make out what they quarrelled about. She would seal her ears. Let them fight as hard as they pleased.

She looked at the Zoro poster on the wall, an old gift of Loula's. She was riveted by his impromptu plans to expose the schemes of bad guys, the graceful undulatings of his black cape against a mauve sky, the way he jumped on or off his horse, lassoed with an incredible speed. But the best moment, the climax of every Zoro film, came when he removed his black mask to show his face.

She imagined she was draped in a cloak of invisibility. She willed herself to become spider woman afloat in her black cape, clinging to the medieval walls of the city, keeping an eye on teenage girls' parents.

Her withered appetite the penumbra of her virtue.

Yiota could swallow nothing. The idea that something might flow into her, through her mouth, down her throat, trickling in a messy mass of unrecognizable substance through the obscure parts of her body which she could not see, which she could not make diagrams of even if her life depended on it, caused spasms in her pharynx. Just the tinkling of pans and pots in the kitchen was enough to turn her stomach upside down. She held her nose when she went into the kitchen, averted her eyes from the plates when she joined her parents at the table. Everything that had to do with eating had declared war against her. Just the sight of a recipe book, of a bowl covered with a tea towel, the crispness of lettuce that she could feel when she opened the fridge for a glass of cold water, and she would cringe, a tight fist in her throat. Her windpipe contracted, her head turned away, her eyes wanted to leap out of their sockets. She spent what seemed hours kneeling over the toilet bowl. Emptying an empty stomach. Her nose, mouth, glottis, and throat perpetually sore from all the retching.

From where did that svelte body draw the bitter bile that burned her oesophagus? What kind of orgasm was taking place in the dark of her mouth? Her heart was a festering wound, polluting her body.

Yiota's body, with a will entirely its own, began to reconstruct itself, redesigning its curves, carving a new life by consuming itself.

Dr. Fostieris declined her mother's request to give Yiota an internal examination. He said that her amenorrhea was not a sign of pregnancy. He was a wonderful doctor. Dr. Fostieris also told Marcella there was nothing organically wrong with her daughter, she was anorexic because she was distraught, and all that was normal under the circumstances.

Dr. Fostieris chuckled and his eyes locked with Yiota's. She enjoyed that conspiratorial gaze immensely. She had come to anticipate these visits.

Yiota loved the dimples on either side of Dr. Fostieris' mouth. They matched the dimple in his chin. But his hair is too thin, she thought.

Dr. Fostieris had told Marcella to leave the examination room before he asked Yiota to undress.

Tap, tap, tap.

"All is fair," he said as he turned his back to let her dress. When Marcella was ushered into the room again, he told her that the reason Yiota's psychiatrist had refused to continue their sessions was that it was entirely inadvisable that Marcella stay in the same room with Yiota and the doctor, which Marcella had insisted on doing during the first session.

"It is just not done, Mrs. Vergini. It defeats the purpose of the whole enterprise."

Marcella blushed. Yiota was thrilled by her mother's embarrassment.

Dr. Fostieris had also declined to renew her mother's prescription for Librium.

"You must still have some left, Mrs. Vergini, no?"

"Six of them, I think, Doctor," Yiota volunteered eagerly.

The more weight Yiota lost, the ghostlier she looked. Her body offered itself as the rival of her loving. It fed on her flesh, on her complexion, the lustre of her hair, the firmness of her buttocks, her memories. It cannibalized itself. She'd never known such gluttony, such boldness. She felt trapped in that circuit of her body and flesh. Her physical needs (hunger, sleep, bowel movement) became superfluous. Her appetite was her body's instrument that cancelled out her will. She didn't recognize her eyes. They were those of a voyeur, their gaze mocking her in the mirror. For the first time her body became a body in and of itself. It asserted its shape, while she went to pieces. So, the two of them assumed the form of a diptych. She was not sure who spoke when her mouth opened. Sometimes she had difficulty remembering herself. Andreas had consumed all her memory cells.

Eat—Marcella's only word. There were days when it seemed she shunned all language around Yiota except the imperative form of the verb— eat eat eat—and those wordless gestures of substance of course, her silent offerings of Yiota's favourite sweets, mandarin tarts, parsley sauce, cheese and zucchini souffles, spinach pies, green salads. Every nook and cranny in the kitchen smelled of fresh butter cookies, crisp watercress sandwiches, home-made mayonnaise, jambon, delicacies all soon to be turned into mushy, putrid, noxious things. Inside Yiota's belly. Yiota's laboratory of transformation.

Her face turned to the side, Yiota saw through the corner of her eye the freckled hand coming towards her mouth holding a tablespoon of milk with a tiny morsel of bread floating in it. She kept her jaws tightly shut against the persistent hand. She took in some of the milk, but began retching, rage swelling inside her as Marcella wiped off with a napkin the white liquid running down Yiota's chin. There was a vehemence in that gesture. She despises me, Yiota thought, and I hate her, I surely do hate her.

"I'm not a baby. I can do this myself," she snapped at her mother. Marcella refilled the spoon. This time Yiota made no effort, milk and moistened crumbs trickling down Marcella's arm.

"You've lost your mind entirely, you have. You'll be my death. Do you hear? My death," Marcella yelled, and she ran out of the room.

Yiota used to love to drink chilled milk, or milk with cocoa and a dash of sugar, but she could no longer tolerate its smell. Her reaction became even more acute when Marcella tried to force her to drink goat milk. It was impossible to get such milk in the city, but Marcella knew some neighbours who came from a dairy not too far from Thessaloniki, and managed to negotiate delivery once a week. She paid an arm and a leg, but that was the third month of Yiota's condition—Marcella's word— and she was at the end of her rope. Fresh milk was supposed to be more nourishing, but Yiota could not abide its strong smell and creamy consistency. The thick yellowish crust that formed on top of it when it was boiled disgusted her. Of course, if it had been her own milk...

She cupped her breasts and squeezed them lightly. Took the left breast out of her bra and held the nipple with her fingers, raising it a little the better to see it. It's not fair, she thought, not fair at all that a woman produces milk only for someone else. Why not have milk all the time? Why not have a longer and more pliant neck, a giraffe neck, to reach down, take that nipple into my mouth and suck, fresh milk, my own milk.

Marcella bought a little notebook and made two columns in it, one in which to record Yiota's intake of food, the other the times she threw up what she'd eaten. Soon Marcella became quite bold about her project. She made her jottings in front of Yiota, sometimes reading aloud what she wrote.

Mond. 14, 8:30 a.m.: a quarter of a glass milk, a few morsels of bread soaked in it, two orange sections (first in a week), a few grapes—12:45 p.m. a small sliced tomato, two squares of melba toast, a thin wedge of kasseri cheese, half a pear (peeled), a glass of water with half a lemon squeezed into it and a dash of sugar. 8:15 p.m.: a few okras (no sauce at all), the tender heart of a lettuce head, and glasses of water throughout the evening with lemon squeezed in.

Didn't throw up but spat cheese and fruit in napkin, also the tomato skin—refused to take pills—no bowel movement. Nausea over dinner. She says she's not taking vitamins but there are four missing from the bottle.

Yiota didn't mind. She was fascinated by her mother's fascination with her stomach's behaviour. Her body had taken over. It had become a naughty child, and Marcella cared for it more than she did for Yiota. When Yiota showed signs of going under thirty-six kilos, her mother gave up accompanying her to the drugstore to witness her weight's fluctuations.

Marcella bought a scale instead.

On the afternoon her mother had placed it under the sink in the bathroom, Yiota approached the scale with caution. She looked at it with a smirk on her face, her right eyelid batting uncontrollably. She took off her right Scholl clog and with it smashed the glass surface of the scale. Then she got into the tub and gave her legs a perfect shave.

She carried it all with her, Yiota. When she shut her eyes she could see it inside her, when she shut her ears she heard it. That it defied naming, for it was all and nothing.

It was what had made her stomach her foe.

She did not understand the war inside her. She wanted to leap out of her body, abandon it, uncover the enigma feeding on it. When she looked at her pale-lipped face in the mirror, when she traced the blue veins in her wrists and legs, felt the thinning circle of her waist, dwelt on the black rings under her eyes, on the interruption of her menses, she saw a cipher.

The body Yiota went to bed with, that body was hers, but it did not want her, and she found both torment and delight in that uncanny feeling. In her bed at night she felt strangled, yet there were no hands on her throat. She spent most of her time being still, her body tense, waiting for something as yet undetermined.

Her fingers wanted to locate the shape that held her, to trace the geography of her diminishing self. She tried to seduce herself but to no avail. She would touch her cunt, her fingers wet with her saliva, but nothing would happen. Not the slightest response, only fear stirring inside her. And Andreas' image, fading day by day.

She began to avert her eyes from her bare skin until it became an unconscious habit. Her body threatened to become its own garrison (stingy with itself as it was), lest she forget that it was by its own negation that she produced her knowledge of it.

She did not know that pleasure, any kind of pleasure, was unthinkable without Andreas. That he had already become artifice, that his absence was present in the immolation of her body, that her memories of him were now the bait of her specular loving.

Lacking an appetite sometimes gave her a kind of freedom.

She was fully aware by then of her body's plurality. She delighted in its inconstancy. Her blackouts were epiphanic, her belly's gurgling and growling noises became a foreign language she couldn't understand, her fragility her strength. She no longer paid heed to her mother's nervousness, her father's sorrow. She spent more and more time flipping through her Tin-Tin and Asterix collections, reading the books that Loula brought over, watching late-night TV.

Andreas was at ease, buried as he was deeply inside her. The bruises on her arms and legs from pulling at her skin when she came restless, her sagging bum, her dry skin, her listless hair— all were haloed by the scars his presence had left behind. Love proved to be a matter of biology, sin the name of her passion.

Four months after Mr. Varezis proved the efficiency he advertised, almost a year after Yiota's first date with Andreas, Marcella decided that it was time to try for the rarest and best cure of all—a miracle. She announced her decision to Yiota on a rainy August day.

Yiota was on the balcony, with an electric-blue silk scarf wrapped loosely around her head. It was an hour or so after a heavy thunderstorm that threatened to flood the city. Marcella had asked her to close the window shutters, but Yiota lingered on the balcony impervious to the heavy rain that rushed into the room. For a few moments she had forgotten herself. She grabbed the broom from a corner of the balcony and started to sweep, all the while enjoying her sense of the soaked scarf becoming one with her scalp, her hair falling on her face heavy with the rain. And then she saw Andreas running across the street to get into his car, parked in the usual place. She froze for an instant, but continued cleaning the balcony with greater speed, using her fingers to help the rain wash off the dirt collected in the wrought iron of the rail. Her legs were shaking, and she began retching, having nothing to throw up since she'd hardly eaten all day.

That was the last time she saw him.

It continued to rain for another hour. Then the rainstorm turned into a hailstorm, the hardness of hail pounding her body, the cement of the sidewalks, the mosaic floor of the balcony. She gathered a handful of hail and stuffed it into her mouth, her teeth crushing the hailstones before they had time to melt.

Frieze and handprint design by Sherazad Jamal.
Redux Handprint
Smaro Kamboureli
Smaro Kamboureli has published short fiction, a long prose poem, in the second person, and a lot of criticism on Canadian Literature.
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
Britannia Art Gallery
Britannia Art Gallery
Bookhug Press
Bookhug Press
Plantation Memories
Plantation Memories
Alternator Centre