2016 Fiction Contest, Second Prize Winner: Skin Deep

Claire Marie Lim

I frequently wonder if the line between unwavering persistence and unhealthy obsession is finer than I deem it.

Squinting at my reflection, I conclude that my face today is puffier than it was yesterday. You had too much water last night, I scold myself sternly. You won’t get anywhere if you keep cheating on your diet. I’ve been trying to get in shape for so long, and no, round doesn’t count as a shape.

In this moment I feel pathetic, desperately trying to bring out my non-existent cheekbones with final touches of makeup before school starts. Everybody already shuns me. I’m the classic example of a stout introverted nobody who belongs in a corner of the classroom. I shouldn’t give my peers any more reason to hate me by gracing them with my less-than-desirable looks. It also doesn’t help that the mirrors in the girls’ bathroom are consistently dirty, smudged with God-knows-what others put on their faces. Streaks of eyeliner, flecks of foundation, prints of lipstick. I try to see beyond the stains to look at myself properly because I need to know whether I look decent enough for class, for the world. Perhaps said stains are not-so-secretly conspiring against me to make my pursuit of happiness more difficult.

The tip of my powder brush skates across my neck in the hope that the dust will hide the creases below my chin. Since I’m not particularly defined, I should at least be making an effort to appear as such. I can’t remember when I started caring this much about my body, looking to face-painting and dieting and exercising for solace. But I don’t plan on giving up any time soon. Putting my foundation away, I give the girl in the mirror a onceover and can’t help but stare accusingly at her round face. It’s definitely me. I wish it were someone else. It’s disappointing how everyday, after twenty-four hours of working hard to shed those pounds, I’m still the same pudgy misfit I was the day before.

Anna looks over at me from the neighboring sink. She brings a slender finger to playfully poke at the chub of my right cheek, something I would only let my best friend do. “It’s alright,” she says. She has always been good at reading my mind, especially when I’m moping about my looks. “Try again today. You can do it. It’s about taking baby steps. It’s about the endgame.”

Thanks.” I say it quietly but I mean it. I need someone who has faith in me, who can see the good in me, who will still be my friend despite the fact that she’s everything I’m not – skinny, tall, beautiful. Anna never has to deal with the fat that bulges out over her stockings just above her knees, or the stretch marks that lie between her thighs, or the jawline that hides behind baby fat which never went away. And yet she is such a loyal companion. She’s my closest confidante, my personal cheerleader, the sister I never had. She is the epitome of loveliness.

I smooth my dress down, ignoring the fleeting feeling of my muffin top over the elastic of my underwear. “Another day, Anna. Here we go.”

“Excuse me?” A girl I haven’t seen around before glances at me through the mirror as she washes her hands in the adjacent sink. I must have missed her coming into the bathroom. “Did you say something?”

I shake my head. I hope she doesn’t think I’m crazy, because I’m not. “Sorry. Talking to myself.”

I hate having so many eyes on me as I sprint around the school track, heart feeling like it might burst out of my chest any moment now. But I know I’ll be fine. If my body couldn’t take it, Anna would have stopped me already.

It pains me to imagine what the other students must be saying about me from the bleachers. The entire situation is comparable to one of those circus shows – voyeurs taking pleasure in watching various animals and oddities foolishly fumble around. Here, I’m both the animal and the oddity. The others must be laughing at me, jeering at the poor kid who keeps struggling to get fit. I could’ve sworn that I felt my ribs through my skin last week, but what I’ve done still hasn’t been enough.

Perspiration drips down the side of my neck and my clammy skin tingles in its wake. Running so fast like this, I almost feel weightless; it’s a wonderful feeling, one that I want to memorize forever. The greatest challenge at this point is to ignore how the cotton of my shirt sticks to the small of my sweaty back. That itself is the worst possible reminder of the hours I’ve spent working out in vain, attempting to slim down. The flab just doesn’t disintegrate. It stubbornly refuses to go away.

I hate this. I hate it. Every inch of my godforsaken body.

Finally, I slow to a stop. Wiping the wetness off my forehead with the back of my hand, my eyes search for Anna. Instead, I feel her behind me, a comforting hand on my shoulder.

“Good job,” she comments encouragingly. “You ran longer than you did the last time.”

I move to turn around so that I can face her, but instead I’m met with the face of a young man. He’s an upperclassman and I’ve seen him on the field before. He must be involved in a sports team of some sort. My legs tremble as he flashes a charming smile down at me.

“Wow, you’re fast. Have you thought of joining the track team?” he asks. I search for a hint of insincerity in his voice, but I can’t find it yet.

“No way.” I’m flattered by his polite attempt at making conversation. And with me, prime oddball of the season, out of all people.

His boyish grin doesn’t fade, it only widens. “Maybe you should. We could really use a runner like you for the female division.”

I try not to think of how awkward if feels to meet his eyes. “It’s not really my thing,” I mumble. I mean, I’m not running because I enjoy it. I’m running because I need to detoxify myself, purify myself, make myself a better person. That’s the endgame that Anna always reminds me of.

A chuckle leaves his mouth. “Suit yourself. Let me know if you change your mind. You won’t have to run alone if you join the team.”

I’m not alone, my friend is here, I want to say, thinking for a second to look around for Anna and introduce her. Instead, I merely offer a sheepish smile. “Thanks. I appreciate it.”

He tells me his name and it’s only polite that I tell him mine in response. But I forget his words the moment he turns away and walks back to the bleachers where he came from. His friends are shouting silly things and whooping and clapping. They must have arm-twisted him into daring to talk to me. How could it possibly have been a genuine conversation? I resort to running back to the locker room, as if it’s my safe haven. It’s really not. Nowhere is.

I grab my backpack, heavy with the weight of books and of the notion that I’m so far from perfection. My stomach growls too loudly. I tried to ignore the hunger as it built up but I can’t anymore, not when my knees are weak and my cheeks are hot and my entire body is drained.

“I think I need something to eat,” I confess with a hint of guilt. My stomach makes another rude noise. I clutch at it shamefully, but only half-shamefully; a part of me is proud that I managed to get this far into the day without eating a single crumb.

Anna raises a well-plucked eyebrow at me. I nearly forgot how she had come into the locker room with me. I peep at her out of the corner of my eye and she’s far from impressed. “Really? Are you sure?”

I nod. “Just a bite. A small one.”

“If you say so…” she shrugs, voice trailing off.

A little spot of food will suffice. Maybe a plate of fries. Or two. Or three. Perhaps a full pizza to boot? Oh, and a bottle of soda too, straight from the vending machine. Don’t forget the tub of chocolate ice cream waiting in the freezer. My tongue tingles in excitement as I start to salivate, anticipating the taste of the delectable rubbish I’ve come to know and love. I need satiation.

It is ten in the evening now. Someone once warned me of how inner demons loved lurking in the darkness of night, but I disagree. I think they’re everywhere, all the time.

I am not bulimic, I swear. I know I’m not. But Anna is such a good friend that she never lets me lose track of myself, never lets me slack off on this weight loss regiment. She reminds me to begin with the end in mind – pain now, prettiness later. I’m going to be perfect, and Anna will help me. She had patiently watched me eat my fill up until a few minutes ago, and once I had finished a meal big enough for a family of three, she reminded me to use the bathroom. Just one moment before, I had felt incredibly full. Now I know that I’ve emptied myself out, but the feeling of fullness somehow lingers on, the ghost of delicious junk still hanging around my belly.

Standing on shaky legs so that my knees no longer press against the cold tiled floor, I wipe a smidgen of vomit off my chin. The taste of acid on my tongue has already become second nature. Instead of worrying about it, I clean the toilet seat thoroughly enough that it returns to its default sterile white. As I wash my hands with antiseptic soap and rinse my mouth with the strongest kind of Listerine I know of, my eyes flick to the mirror over the sink. In the reflection I notice how Anna stands behind me, a twinkle in her eye. She looks proud of me.

It is the norm for her to follow me as I return to my bedroom, preparing myself to carefully step onto a weighing scale that I keep tucked under my dresser. Fingers crossed, my heartbeat picks up as I watch the numbers of the digital display materialize. Ninety, it reads. I smile. That’s a pound less than yesterday. Well done, you. I gaze at the numbers down by my feet and pray to God that they will get even smaller tomorrow. And even if God doesn’t hear my pleas, I know I’ll make it happen by the strength of my will.

“Thank you.” My words sound unbelievably loud, reverberating in the emptiness of the room. I lace my fingers with Anna’s lovely elegant ones. Her hand is cold but holding it makes me feel so warm on the inside. “Thank you,” I repeat, not expecting her to answer. She doesn’t have to speak for me to feel her presence.

Someday, I will finally be beautiful. I can see it in the future. Anna will be there by my side, embracing me with arms that easily encircle my thin waist. Her grip won’t be suffocating, but it will be strong enough to remind me of my place and that I owe my soul to her. She’s a part of me, embedded in my skin– No, she runs deeper than my skin. Without her, how could I possibly strip the ugliness away? I need her.

I’m not obsessed, I swear.

I’m just persistent.

Featured Artwork: FORTEPAN / Korenchy László [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons