“In the Basement” by Stefanie Freele

In the Basement
Illustration by Morgan Maurer, 2011

You do your thing, in the basement of the dorm, under the guise of doing laundry. It is but a ruse; the laundry pile consists of four shirts and a pair of pants, barely enough for a load. You’ve been invited to two parties on the eighth floor, but instead, you’re underground.

The elevator rarely sinks to the basement. The only people traveling to this depth are the janitors and the paltry few who don’t have weekly visits from prudent parents who arrive bearing neatly stacked piles of fresh clothes. Those would be the same parents who leave waving, whisking away bags of dirty laundry. Like your roommate’s parents, who are upstairs right now, writing your roommate another check while she complains of her struggles in Art History. You know the struggle has to do with the fact that the class is at eight am, far too early for her and her boyfriend to get out of the top bunk. The parents don’t know anything about the guy. She’s really a virgin. Sure.

Devouring caramel corn, you sit on a washer, suck down a vanilla milkshake, drinking as fast as possible, unafraid of the looming cold headache and try not to think of the girls at the upstairs parties. Other girls can have a few handfuls of corn, dress for the party, and enter the room laughing. Not you. You can’t stop now.

Underneath the dirty laundry, and inside the basket, juts out the yellow letter that arrived this morning: FALL 1985 MID-TERM GRADES, indicating “D” in three courses, an unopened box of mint cream cookies, the thick kind with a half inch of white soft yuck in the center, a bag of peanut butter chocolate squares, the cheap generic kind you buy by the pound, and a carton of sugar glazed donuts. A quart of milk sits exposed, atop the towels; no one gets weird over the presence of milk.

You pull out one item at a time, but not all at once. That would be giving yourself away, wouldn’t it? You imagine one of those lucky, skinny, and mind-boggling girls, who can eat a half a turkey sandwich and wrap up the rest for later, holding their tummy I’m so full. One of those girls might walk in to see you surrounded by food, shoving it into your face with both hands. But, you’re careful; anyone walking in will just see a package of whatever the current consumption item and a drink.

You stash the empty caramel corn bag behind the detergent and bring out the donuts. They’re softer and the stomach needs the softness to go with the rough of the nuts. Coming back up should be as smooth as possible; clumps stuck in the throat hurt and often make your eyes feel like bursting, like trying to vomit up a bowling ball.

You really should have drunk more liquid and chewed slower so this would be easier, but there is always this time element – an overwhelming need to become filled, quickly as possible. The high, if you call it a high, doesn’t start until the stomach feels like bursting. The cookies come next, and the milk is gone, so you snag a Pepsi from the vending machine and gulp it in four swallows with peanut butter squares. Not the best for downing; stickiness is hard to puke.

One has to heave everything, every drop, every pea size morsel; there cannot be anything left; the stomach must be absolutely empty when all is over.

In your haste to gulp the Pepsi, you fail to put away the boxes of cookies, both sit atop the washer, when a student walks in with an orange plastic crate of laundry. You swat the boxes right off into the garbage, instantly realizing it is a mistake, not to empty those boxes; now you’ll have to dig in the garbage to retrieve them when no one is around. The same garbage full of blue-gray wads of dryer lint. The girl smiles briefly, tosses her ponytail, and heads efficiently toward an empty machine.

Your stomach distends, but you can still stand up straight; there is room; not quite there yet. The student drops in her clothes and picks up a book. She doesn’t pay any attention, so you grab cookies out of the box in the garbage and high-tail it to the hallway, where just around the corner, you stuff your mouth. Why didn’t you buy ice cream? That always makes for the easiest purge.

On your way back in, she passes with that faint smile, the kind of smile that indicates she’s not really there, probably still in that book she was reading. She walks down and opens up the bathroom door. You need more liquid, but water isn’t gluttonous enough. You’re out of quarters for the machine.

But, there is a pile on the student’s dryer. You swipe one for a Mountain Dew  – too much Pepsi with chocolate makes for a foul tasting barf – dump it in the machine and swig.

She comes back to resume her studies, leaning over a washer and highlighting in a textbook, something you should be doing, but never ever do. You don’t even own a highlighter. Instead, you rely on common sense and a bit of natural smarts to get through college; lately your concentration level is minus zero.

With the student’s back to you, you resurrect the rest of the peanut butter squares and ditch back in the hallway again. This time you pace slightly as you eat, feeling the end coming. The burst of energy courses through your arms and you wish you could keep it- could take this energy to the gym. The surge won’t last.

At the water fountain, you swallow about a cup of water and stand up for it all to mix together into a mass for easy expellation.   If only the student doesn’t need to use the bathroom at the same time, doesn’t interrupt the big production, you’ll be safe. The best part about the bathroom in the basement – you know where every single toilet is on the college campus, which are the emptiest and least likely for interruption – is that it’s a single and it can be locked. No chance of disruption. Also, it’s down the corner, so the chances of someone hearing are slim. The empty hallway echoes as you unsteadily walk toward the bathroom. Your distended belly stretches painfully and you hold it up with your hand like a pregnant woman might do.

You lock the door and assume the hated position. Left hand holds the stomach and right hand is used for purging. Your pointer finger is cut up from rubbing on your teeth, it stands aside, healing. Middle finger for this one. At the sight of the toilet, you begin to cry and retch. How did I end up here again? It started ages ago on a quest for gorgeousness, for thinness. Tears blur the pieces of donut and caramel corn. The peanut butter squares catch as expected, too bad, they taste so good, so forbidden. As you choke on a hunk of peanut butter, the tears drain and you press against your stomach to help the vomit flow. Gagging, then a big hunk comes up, of course smaller than it felt in your throat. The roughness of it scratches the esophagus. Whisper and beg to stop. Please let it all come out, I’ll never do it again. You can’t keep any of the calories. More remains in the stomach. The shake and mint cookies. Your stomach feels as if someone punched you in the gut. Legs shiver as sweat dribbles down thighs.

The longer you do this activity, the harder it is. You don’t know if it gets easier for others, as you don’t know any, the habits are secretive; for you, it just gets harder and harder to vomit.

You lean your sweaty forehead on the back of the toilet, conscious of the fact that your face presses onto a toilet seat where who knows what kind of ass last sat. You rub the coolness of the toilet forward and back while whispering. Please stop me please stop me. The last of it comes up, complete with acid and bile. You slink against the door of the stall to quell dizziness. At the sink, you wash your hands over and over again with soap and scrub the outsides of a raw mouth. You rinse several times until the sharp taste is only at the back and then stop at the mirror to see red bloated eyes, and an ugly face.

You lift up your shirt and hold in your stomach to check the fatness. Disgusting. You creep into the hallway, as always prepared with a flu story, in case anyone heard. A dryer buzzes in the distance. You step weakly toward the water fountain, eager to put something in a tender stomach.

You don’t look at the garbage can as you fold the laundry, the remnants of the binge are right there, a few feet away, but you fold and then give up, dumping all the clothes into the basket and walk out. The cold sweats start – the shakes are but minutes away. The student is still highlighting, oblivious. She is highlighting.

The stairs would be fantastic for the thighs, but the legs are flimsy. Where is that previous energy? Your hands tremble toward the elevator button as a wisp of a voice says, “Excuse me.” It could only be one person, the student you’ve stolen from. The student who is about to confront. Quickly, you try to think of a story, when she says, “I’m diabetic. I’m sorry to trouble you, but I’m out of quarters and I noticed you have cookies. Could I have one?”

The cookies gone. Everything is gone. Her quarters are gone. “I think there are some left, but I threw them away.”

The girl rushes to the can and finds the carton. With her mouth full she grins, “Thanks, you are such a life saver.”

You hurry as much as possible for someone who is faint. In your room, you lie down on the bed, wishing for a couple of oranges and a salad, healthy non-binge items. You’re too powerless to get them, knowing that the depleted state will soon lead to an overwhelming urge to scarf down everything in sight.

Like it always does.

You curl toward the window, hugging the pillow and cry sideways, ignoring the roommate when she comes in to get her pass for dinner, pretending you’re asleep. She rustles around with papers, humming, and then leaves.

You roll over, stomach sucked-in and empty; if only you had the smarts to set yourself up with healthy food afterward and a big glass of water. You’re tired, but so hungry now that the stomach felt like its eating itself. You find your dinner pass, an extra sweater – you’re always cold lately – and stolen gum from the roommate, and head for the cafeteria where the all-you-can-eat buffet would be great if you could quit after one plate, if you could just have that salad, but you can’t. Impossible. You used to make promises to yourself to fill up only once, have four squares etc. Now you don’t even kid yourself. The buffet will be filled with starches, a table of desserts, an unlimited supply of ice cream.

So you walk slowly toward the door, down the hallway, ignoring energetic dorm-mates who laugh and bumble down the hallway, shouting after each other. With your head down and clutching the hot acidy stomach, you push the heavy door with a limp arm. A blast of cold air hits you and for just an instant, you’re glad, because you love windy winter weather.

If only someone would stand in the way, but no one notices as you pace toward the cafeteria. No one obstructs – you: the lifesaver. You: conscious of weary knees walking in the direction of more food.



Stefanie Freele was born and raised in Wisconsin. She is the author of the short story collection Feeding Strays (Lost Horse Press) and the Fiction Editor of the Los Angeles Review. She recently heard some superduper news: one of her stories has won the Glimmer Train Fiction Contest. Recent and forthcoming fiction can be found in The Florida Review, Word Riot, Glimmer Train, American Literary Review, Whitefish Review, and Night Train. She has an MFA from the Northwest Literary Arts – Whidbey Writers Workshop. www.stefaniefreele.com

Read our interview with Stefanie here.

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