Circus Freak

Bruises on the Fruit

I stare up at the staircase. I have five floors to climb; two flights for each floor. One hundred steps in total. I've counted. Students bypass me, all rushing up the stairs to their first classes of the day. None of them give me a second look. They all talk to each other loudly, calling out to friends to hurry up. Nobody stops to tell me to hurry up.

If they did, they would say, "Hurry up, Everly, five minutes till class! You don't want a late slip!" But no one does. And that's fine by me. I don't want or need someone intruding. All these people are just clocks to one another. Just passing time.

I've now got four minutes until my first class of the day starts. It's never easy, going up to that art classroom on the fifth floor, knowing I'm about to be judged on what comes from my very soul. Having someone view your art is like having them critique you. Naked. I try to avoid that as much as possible.

I figure I'd better start the arduous climb, so I put one foot onto the first stair. I get lost in the contrast my black boot makes on the honey-coloured wood. The school is pretty old, and the stairs are creaky and made of wood. I wiggle my toes, feeling my thick wool socks against the leather interior. I take another step. Then another. Fifteen steps in is when I feel it. I knew it would happen. But that's just the way things are, and so I keep going. Twenty steps. Twenty three. I've lost count, but I'm on the third flight so it's somewhere around… I can't figure it out right now. My head's too swimmy. I check the watch strapped around my ankle (it was too big for my wrist) I've got thirty seconds. The only people around are the stragglers and those who never intended to be on time for class, let alone in class at all. In the next ten seconds, both are gone, either to class or the smoker's yard. And here I am, on the third flight of stairs, unable to continue.

The bell signifying the start of the school day rings, oddly muffled to my ears. Usually, I'd hate being late. Today, I just can't find it in myself to care. My head is spinning, little black dots rimmed with white starburst are swimming in front of me, like black amoebas single-mindedly trying to ruin my life . I'm exhausted to the bone from climbing two and a half flights of stairs. I pinch the skin on my wrist to bring me back to earth, and I feel my head slowly stop spinning. I force myself up and take another step, my hand tightly gripping the bannister. I focus dully on my fingers desperately clutching the banister, and I manage to keep climbing as long as I do. Suddenly, a feeling of vertigo sweeps through me and next thing I know, I'm sitting down, with only half a flight left to go. I close my eyes and lean my head against the wall. I just can't do it. Climbing five floors is too much to ask in the morning.

Suddenly, I hear the squeak of sneakers coming up the stairs, skipping every other step, if my calculations are correct. I envy their energy. I hear them stop next to me. I can't find the will to look at them. They'll just pass on by, and I'll collect myself, go back down, get my late slip-obligatory to get into class-and come back up.

"Need a hand?" says a male voice. I turn my head to look at the boy standing on my step. Leaning against the banister is a curious sight: blue hair flopping onto glittering brown eyes, laugh lines the only thing marring the otherwise flawless olive skin, and tie-dye jeans flaring out over sneakers. The kind of sneakers you begged for when you were five, with race cars that light up when you walk. The kid has actual light-up sneakers.

"You look ridiculous," I mutter, turning back to the wall. It's cold, but I'm taken hostage by inertia. Next thing I know, the deceptively lean boy has lifted me up from under my arms. My legs scramble to hold me up, but my mind gives strict orders to stand. And stand they do, albeit like Bambi on ice.

"Thanks," I murmur grudgingly, running up the last five steps in a burst of energy coming from my will to get away from the ridiculous-looking boy. I don't want to talk more than necessary. I'm embarrassed that he found me in so vulnerable a position, not to mention completely weirded out by his circus freak exterior. Of course, he follows me effortlessly-I'm not exactly a long distance runner at the moment. As I turn left to go to my Art class, so does he.

"Why are you following me?" I ask, put out by the effort it takes to have a conversation with someone. Interactions aren't usually so taxing for me. normally, it's just the required small talk, if that. Enough to get people out of my face. This guy is just exhausting.

"I'm going to my class. 5A.6," he replies mock innocently. I wrinkle my brow in confusion. That's my classroom, and I don't remember him being in it. I'm usually in my own world, but I would have noticed blue hair.

"That's my class, and you're not in it."

"Yes," he chuckles, laugh lines fitting perfectly around his grinning lips. "I am in your class. You've just always got your head down."

"But I would have noticed blue hair."

"It wasn't blue yesterday."

"Oh."

"So, Everly Whittling, aren't you going to introduce yourself?"

"Everly Whittling," I say bemusedly, holding out my hand. He grasps it in his own, his warm, firm grip shaking me a little. His brow furrows slightly as he feels my cold, weak fingers against his strong, sure ones, but he doesn't say a word.

"Chase Pif," he says genially, making a little curtsy. I can't help laughing at the ridiculousness of watching his little multi-coloured legs bending in the antiquated female tradition. "Let's go doodle!"

I struggle to keep up with him as he skips down the hall. He makes me want to join in, to feel the joy he seems to feel at everything, but I'm so tired. I put all my energy into putting one foot in front of the other, relying more on instinct than on my sense to tell me where to go.

Just five more seconds, then you'll be sitting, I tell myself to get through the ordeal. But when did skipping down a hall or climbing up the stairs or meeting a classmate become an ordeal? I ask myself. I shake my head at my thoughts, arriving at the door. Peeking in the little window in the door to see the class already in session, I turn to Chase Pif.

"We don't have late slips. We have to go back down to the main office."

"Silly," he says, ruffling my dirty blond hair. "You don't need a late slip. Just limp."

He opens the door in an overdramatic gesture before I can get out a "what the hell". All eighteen students gape at the spectacle he makes of gripping me around the waist, supporting my weight as I catch on and start limping.

"Sorry we're late, Miss Gai. Everly tore a muscle or something climbing the stairs, so I had to help her. That's why we're late. Nothing serious or long-lasting, she should be better by tomorrow."

"Well, sit down then," says the young art teacher, returning to her desk to resume taking attendance. Luckily, my last name starts with a W and she hasn't gotten that far on her list. After raising my hand at when my name is and taking my customary seat in the back corner, I realize Chase Pif has taken the deserted seat beside me. However, I get even more of a shock when Miss Gai reads out, "Chase Zahakos," and he replies with an overzealous "present!".

"You said your last name was Pif!" I hiss accusingly at him while the teacher bustles over to the storage room adjacent to get supplies.

He shrugs. "I liked Pif better in the moment. Zahakos is such a mouthful, I didn't think you were up to it."

I stare daggers at his cheeky grin, still managing to admire the stark contrast of his white teeth on his dark skin. I don't like being lied to, even if it is on a silly little whim. I don't like not knowing things.

Miss Gai bustles back in with a bowl of fruit. Placing it on an empty desk in the middle of the class, she asks us all to turn towards it.

"I want you to put this bowl of fruit onto your page. Paint, pastel, charcoal, whatever you want. Just draw what you see," she instructs.

My throat constricts. I stare at the bowl. The wooden container is pretty harmless in itself, but it contains something that terrifies me. My eyes dart like prey over the two bananas, three apples, two oranges, and one pineapple resting in the middle of the class. There are one hundred and five calories in a banana, eighty in an apple, sixty two in an orange, and two hundred and thirty six in a pineapple. And though no one is forcing me to eat it, I'm still panicked at coming into contact with one thousand and eighty two calories. That's more than I can eat in a day. I stare at them, deaf and blind to anything happening around me, my skin crawling at the thought of those evil things trying to kill me.

But Satan is handsome; the fruit looks delicious. The fluorescent light gleams off of the orange, the banana curves so perfectly, the apple looks so crunchy. The pineapple is a sheer work of art, like a sculpture made by Mother Nature herself. I run to get watercolours and begin to paint feverishly. I'm so absorbed by my work I don't notice that Chase Pif has left until he returns. I glance at him, but he turns his easel away from me, hiding what he's doing. I'm not offended, since he periodically peaks out and makes a silly face at me.

When I'm finished, I take a step back to see my work. I made the bowl bigger, and put it on a red and white checkered cloth. There's a roast chicken on it, along with a ham, a freshly-baked baguette, and Swiss cheese. All the things I could never eat. The bowl is full to the brim with countless apples and oranges, bananas spilling out onto the ground. I didn't do the pineapple: it seemed much too difficult. It's kind of nice, with sunlight gleaming off the food and all the colours complementing each other. But my eye goes straight to the mistakes I've made. The second-to-last apple is less than perfectly round; I made one of the banana's spots a little too big; the chicken's leg is a little bit crooked; there's some errant paint crossing the line of the cheese. Chase Pif bounces over to me, asking to see my painting. I show him reluctantly, afraid he'll think it's stupid or ugly or imperfect. I breathe easy when he doesn't seem to notice the mistakes I've made.

"It's really cool. Makes me hungry. Speaking of which, we should go out to dinner sometime," he says, smiling confidently at me. I gape at him as he turns around, fetching his work to show me. still stunned by his last words, it takes me a moment to see what he's done.

A plain charcoal sketch, absent of any shading, captures the fruit bowl exactly. But I finally realize what he'd left to do when I see that he's cut out actual fruit peels to add colour to it. There's wafer-thin apple peel glued onto the apples, and orange peel stuck to the oranges. The banana peel hanging weighs the page down comically and, in the absence of an actual pineapple, he's cut out little yellow triangles of paper, edged them with dark green, and stuck them on the pineapple. Grass comes out of its top instead of leaves.

"Wow," I state slowly, looking from Chase Pif to the paper to Chase Pif to the paper. "That is ridiculous. You're insane."

"Thank you," he curtsies again, goofy grin still in place. I notice there's a tiny gap between his two front teeth. I usually can't stand flaws like that, but his is endearing; I associate it with his smile.

"I like it," I say tentatively.

"So, what have you two done?" asks Miss Gai, coming over to our little corner. She looks at mine first, frowning a little. I twist my fingers around each other, nervous about what she'll say.

"Technically good, Miss Whittling, but way more than I asked. I said to draw what you see, not food porn."

I swallow back tears as I pack up my bag, waiting for the bell to ring in two minutes. I barely hear her complimenting Chase Pif's weird assortment of compost and découpage. When I hear the bell ring, I bolt before Chase Pif can say anything. I make it to the bathroom before he can catch up to me. I try so hard at everything, and it's never enough. I hate Chase Pif for being so perfect. Staring at myself in the mirror, I hate the girl there who isn't good enough for anyone. Isn't good enough for teachers, for peers, for parents. Isn't good enough for me. After one more glare sent my way, I fish the painting I worked so hard on for the last hour out of my bag.

I crumple the paper, and then smooth it out so it's perfect again. Then, I run turn on the tap and run it under the water, watching the colours weep into each other until there's nothing left but a soggy grey mess clogging the drain. Before anyone can see the mess I've made, I turn off the tap and hurry to my next class. Thankful for the fact that it's on the third floor, I make it downstairs and into my seat. I watch the door anxiously as people reluctant to learn about math file in. I pray that Chase Pif won't be one of them; I overlooked him in Art class; I could just have easily have made the same mistake in Calculus. But, as the bell rings and all the seats are occupied with normal-haired people, I breathe easy. Mr. Garner, an unfortunate man balding on top and overcompensating everywhere else, begins to write equations on the blackboard. I copy them down and begin solving them. This is what I like doing. Not being forced to stare at a bowl of rotting fruit, but being able to find concrete answers. Where everything can be right and in control on a pristine white paper, all the numbers and symbols lined up in perfect columns and rows, nothing out of place. I feel relief here, a sanctuary from chaos.

But as the clock ticks on, my elation fades, replaced with exhaustion. I'm so low on energy, and the stupid black spots have made their return. Hello old friends, nice to see you again. I dig my nails into my wrist to try to maintain my grip on this reality, but it's getting harder and harder. I feel a clawing in my stomach, and I want to scream. I look around at all the other students. They're either actually paying attention, or staring blankly, daydreaming. None of them feel the way I do. None of them feel like shit every day. None of them are unable to look at their bodies in the mirror without wanting to die, none of them are unable to eat without wanting to die, none of them are unable to walk up a fucking flight of stairs!

I stand abruptly, needing to get out of here. I don't know where, but I need to get away. Before I can take a step or answer Mr. Garner as to why I've suddenly gotten up, I feel so lightheaded that the black dots overwhelm my vision entirely. Next thing I know, I'm in the nurse's office. The nurse looks at me, eyes narrowed. I slowly get up.

"How long?" I ask.

"So it's not your first time, then," she says, filling out a piece of paper I can see has my name on it.

"My first time what?" I answer quickly, realizing my mistake.

"It's not your first time passing out. If it were, you'd have asked what happened, or where you were. Two of the boys on the hockey team brought you in here. And to answer your question, just ten minutes."

'Oh, good," I mutter, sinking back down. I had passed out before; the black dots of doom were no stranger to me. But this was my first time in front of people. Usually, I'd just be exercising in my room, then wake up on the floor, the clock having moved on without me. Sometimes you fainted when you were on a diet, it was pretty normal. But I still know that others don't see it that way, and I know to hide it.

"So when was the last time you ate?" she asks. She looks over my body. I cross my arms over my stomach, bunching the large wool sweater even more around me. My jeans are pretty loose on me so she shouldn't be able to see anything. But her eyes still linger on my back, on my wrists, on my cheekbones, on my knees.

When's the last time I ate? That's such an interesting question. I know exactly when. It's Wednesday today, and the last time I ate was when my father insisted on eating dinner with me Sunday night. He demanded that I eat mashed potatoes, and wouldn't take no for an answer. I hadn't been able to hide them away, and so I had to. After that, I couldn't bear to eat anything else. I was wracked with guilt over eating a forbidden food, and terrified of gaining weight and getting fatter. I hadn't been able to eat for the last two days, and I felt good, being so hungry. I felt powerful and in control. But today is different. It doesn't feel so good anymore.

Today, it hurts.

I almost tell her. I want to tell her how I haven't eaten like other people in months and months and months. I want to tell her how I feel so miserable hating myself. I want to tell her how I'm scared I'm not okay anymore.

Then I look at her. She's healthy by normal standards. But all I see is fat fat fat. Chubby arms, chubby fingers, chubby thighs. I want to be perfect lines, straight around my bones. If I tell anyone, they'll make me fat. They'll make me eat. I can't do that.

"I don't know," I say, buying time. As if I don't know. I could tell you exactly what I've eaten for the past month, even if I didn't have a little journal under my mattress recording it all.

She gives me a look. I decide to feign normalcy.

"I don't know, breakfast, I guess. I had a yoghourt." Is that what normal people eat? She gives me a reproving glance, and so I try to think of what normal people would eat. "Eggs and toast, too." There. Depending on what type of bread and egg and yoghourt, I'd have had maybe two hundred and fifty calories. That should be normal, right? That was a full day's allowance, and I'd apparently spent it all in the morning. I hope she won't think I'm a glutton for eating that much. I'm paranoid over what she thinks of me for eating so much, even though I haven't touched eggs or bread for over a year.

She rolls her eyes, not believing me, but unable to do anything.

"The school will have to phone your parents. They'll need to pick you up. There's nothing more we can do for you here. But please, for the love of God," she says, exasperated. "Just eat a sandwich."

I nod mutely, not bothering to tell her I can't. I can't, it'll make me fat. I need to be thin. If I were thin, everything would be better. I need to stay in control of my diet. I need to be better. I need to be perfect.

I wish I could tell her and everyone else off. All those people that tell me to just go eat a sandwich. They don't understand how it's not that simple. It's really not that simple.

I can't.