“Botanically Seen” by Penelope Breen
I had to adjust the sharp points under my ass because when I sat down next to him, they poked me in places that made me jump back up. I met him on a school hayride, a thin boy whose sweet eyes and sparse facial hair contradicted a deep voice and big hands. He was two grades older than me and I liked looking up at those tangled brown eyebrows.
It felt like a magic cure. He snuck along a plastic water bottle filled with vodka and he passed it to me. It was my first time with a drink. It was homecoming so everyone was there, taking turns on that squeaky wagon as it bounced along the dirt path behind the football field in that cold air. The leaves on the trees were changing from green to yellow and red. He jabbed his tongue in my ear and I pretended to like it. I had to resist the urge to wipe away that wet spot that got colder and colder as we rode along. I could tell he wanted my virginity, but I let him know I wasn’t eager to give it up by squeezing my knees together for that whole bumpy ride. He made sure the bottle spent most of its time in front of me, in case I changed my mind. Then I passed out.
When I came back to life, the yellow hay poked me everywhere and had weaved its way into my hair. My friend Kaitlyn shook me awake and took me to the girls locker room. The rows and rows of lockers mixed with the stench of old damp sweat made me dizzy. We passed the warped wall mirror and I looked a sight—would’ve even without the carnival image. Kaitlyn told me to stick my fingers down my throat and push. She said I would sober up.
I washed my hands first because I knew where they’d been. My hair smelled like cows or horses did their business in that hay.
At first I put one finger on my tongue but quickly realized I needed to push two in deep to get the job done. I felt better after, like magic. Kaitlyn drove me home and my parents had no idea. They didn’t notice because they’re more like grandparents who only show up for the fun stuff. My mom is 60 years old and my dad is 70 with their loose clothing and squirrely Einstein hair. They had seven kids. On purpose. Who even does that?
Kaitlyn said the thin boy with a deep voice left after he got tired of picking at the drool crusted on my face at the hayride. I went looking for him next Monday at school and in front of the science lab he kissed me right on the mouth. He had on these ripped Lucky jeans and an Adidas t-shirt, and he said, “Hay, you.”
I laughed, and we became a couple just like that. His name was Jake, but I looked at those tight jeans and started calling him Lucky, because anyone will tell you that a senior going with a sophomore just doesn’t happen. I was lucky to have him, and the tag told me so.
We went to movies or hung out at my house. He always had one of those clear water bottles so I ended up puking a lot. Two fingers instead of one. My six siblings were never home and even when they were, they didn’t notice us. When I was ten my parents decided they didn’t like us anymore, so they took off on road trips in their new convertible. I think it was gray.
The day they left my mom made dinner for us and left it on the kitchen table while we ran around the neighbor’s yard playing Ghost in the Graveyard with our friends. The kitchen—that’s where we all used to eat breakfast together.
There was a note. My older sister, Rachel, read in a chipper voice as if it were good news, “Finally taking that vacay! Be back in a few days. Lots to eat in the fridge. Love, Mom and Dad.” Though Rachel read the note cheerfully, in my head I heard a sarcastic sneer.
The food was lukewarm and covered with flies. It was in the summer so the heat was unbearable. They hadn’t shut the screen door in their haste to get away. Over the years when they had talked about that “vacay,” I thought they meant for all of us—the whole family. Not just them.
Joey is the youngest. He was nine then. I could tell he was trying not to cry and when Nick, the oldest, said, “We can’t eat this shit now,” and started to dump the food into the trash, Joey grabbed one of the plates filled with that toxic dinner and ran into the bathroom, locking the door.
Rachel pleaded with him not to eat it, “You’ll get really sick! C’mon, we’ll order a pizza with all the stuff you like.” He wouldn’t come out.
Chloe is the annoying middle sister who looked it up online and said Joey was going to get TB or typhoid or leprosy. She said house flies transmit 65 diseases to humans. So we waited for Joey to die while our parents were livin’ it up on their vacay.
I had dinner at Lucky’s house, a stiff mansion straight out of The Great Gatsby, which I’ve watched a hundred times with Kaitlyn—the Leo version. The thought of going to senior prom with him, as an underclassman, was awesome. His family of four, older sister included, wasn’t free-spirited like mine. These were proper people with manners and a Pomeranian. Before dessert, I excused myself and locked the bathroom door. It was next to the dining room and I didn’t realize they could hear me hurl. I didn’t drink that night, but the food was so good my stomach felt huge, gross and ugly. It wasn’t a big deal. But the next day Lucky came to my locker at school and said, “I know you’re bulimic and you better cut that shit out.”
I shook my head and tried to change the subject, “I saw this pretty blue prom dress in Seventeen. You can get a matching tux.” He rolled his eyes. He said his sister used to be bulimic and she knew the signs. He seemed annoyed that she told him he should help me, maybe get me started in a program called BA. Whatever.
When I was little, we used to have these big family hugs in the mornings before everyone went to school or work. After my mom sizzled sausages and my dad flipped pancakes, someone would yell, “Bring it in!” No matter where we were in the house, everyone came running into the kitchen and squeezed together, like a football team after a big win. We never knew where we would end up in the pack. I always tried to wiggle in the middle, because there was nothing to feel but the bodies of my family.
Lucky said, “You embarrassed me in front of everybody. Don’t do it again.”
I suppose I had been throwing up a lot. It had been six months since the hayride and it was happening almost every day. I knew I had to do something because I still had my virginity and Lucky was losing patience. Senior prom was still weeks away. The idea of going with him felt important, as if proving to the world I was loved.
After my parents started their road trips, I used to wish I had cancer. I thought that would keep them home. I imagined them hovering above my sterile hospital bed with gifts and sympathetic smiles. I guess if I told them I had an eating disorder they would just tell me to stop. After all, I was doing it on purpose, wasn’t I? You can’t get cancer on purpose.
I didn’t want to lose my boyfriend. Kaitlyn suggested, “Stop drinking, then you have no reason to yuke.” It sounded so simple. So easy. So I tried. But Lucky was good at sneaking that vodka into the library at school and he liked to share it with me. Then we’d make out and I would let him feel me up in the Student Life Center. But after, I would always heave, and then at home I would heave again after frozen food night, which was all the time since Mom and Dad left.
Then we got caught at the football field under the aluminum bleachers by the vice principal with Lucky’s hand down my pants and grass stains on my cotton shirt. She grabbed his water bottle and smelled. Lucky smirked, so she stuck her finger in and put a drop on her tongue. Then she smirked. Detention for a week. Detention and community service for Lucky.
My parents happened to be in town and they actually showed up while I sat and waited in the VP’s office. On the car ride home they said the sex part didn’t bother them and my dad, no lie, pulled out a package of condoms. I said I wasn’t there yet and could he please put them away. Gross. They seemed relieved but they wanted to talk about the alcohol. Then they wanted to talk about the throwing up. They said Chloe knew.
Later that night the whole family came together in the kitchen, even the oldest ones who had moved out. All nine of us were there. They had organized an intervention, and they wanted to help me. There weren’t any gifts, but there were eight sympathetic smiles.
At first it was awkward. No one knew what to say. Then Chloe spoke up, “You don’t have to make yourself sick.” She liked to get right to the point. “You could die from doing that.”
My mother asked why and I said I didn’t know. But when my dad reached over and held my hand, words came spilling out as if I had put my fingers down my throat and threw them up. I told my parents they’d abandoned me. I told my siblings they’d forgotten me. I said we didn’t do things together anymore and no one was ever home. I said I didn’t understand how we could have such a big family, yet I felt so alone.
My mother cried. Rachel and Joey rubbed my back. Chloe was already on her computer. Nick punched me in the arm, and I pinched him back. When I asked if we could have some fresh food once in a while, like we used to, Mom grabbed a pad and pen and we all put a grocery list together. She wrote down things like vegetables and fruit, flour and sausage. Nick said he would come by and drive me to Eating Disorders Anonymous meetings on Saturdays. And according to Chloe it was called EDA or ABA for Anorexics and Bulimics Anonymous—not BA. Or AA.
Then my dad asked what they could do to help make us feel like a family again. What would make me feel better, less lonely. They all wanted to know.
My parents said they were done with road trips for a while. Then I asked for that big family hug we used to do, and my dad said, “Bring it in!” I got to be in the middle without even trying. My heart blew open, and as I peeked through the cracks between our bodies, I saw our reflection in the kitchen window and there we were. A family.
Karin Aurino is an American writer of essays, short fiction, and a first novel, which draws on her former career as a fashion model. She worked in the entertainment industry for ICM, Paragon Ent., and was a Longform and Series Television Producer with Alexander/Enright. She is the recipient of residencies at Hedgebrook and Bread Loaf, and her fiction has received recognition from Glimmer Train. She is a member of The Woolf Pack, founded by the Humanitas Prize Foundation—empowering and nurturing writers. Karin lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two children. You can follow Karin on Instagram and Twitter @KarinAurino
Read an interview with Karin here.