Biology | Sarah Brokamp
Updated: Sep 21, 2021
CW: Eating Disorders
Today during biology lab Bridgett Keeley busted her chin. She had one palm pressed onto Steve Ridge’s desk and the other on Christie Packer’s. She was swinging back and forth, her Nikes lifted from the laminate floor. As she gained more and more speed, her palms started to jump from the desks, unable to keep up with her momentum. No one saw her flip, but she did. We all saw the blood. Flat on her stomach, a wobbly puddle spread. Molly Grace screamed because she’s kind of a wuss. At first, Bridgett stood up, unaware of the blood dribbling down her white polo. She started to laugh, and that seemed a little manic. But she only laughed because she had no idea her chin was gaping, her skin split. When she looked down at the ugly pool of blood, the horror sunk in. She started to cry from embarrassment more so than from pain. Mrs. Cohen took her hand, which was limp and pale like a freshly caught fish. The cries got louder as she was escorted out of the lab room. Steve quickly got up to shut the door once Mrs. Cohen and Bridgett were far enough down the hall.
Our class was suddenly left alone with no instructor. What a thrill, to sit there and think, “What if an instructor never comes? What if it’s just us?” During lab that day, we were regenerating worms. They squirmed in the plastic cups placed at the front of our tables. We had each been given an exacto knife. We were supposed to cut them in half before Bridgett bled all over the floor. I watched my little worm writhe in its inch of soil. It made me think of being in bed for a really long time and wanting to get up but not knowing how. Wondering when in the night my limbs had been pinned to the mattress. And why it felt like the darkness hadn’t left, like it was still lingering behind my eyeballs. I always had a problem with hating sitting still but sitting still anyway. Was it laziness? I wasn’t sure. I prided myself on being able to run on the treadmill for two hours straight. I could eat only a small stack of saltines a day and still have the energy to lift weights late into the night. No, it wasn’t laziness. It was something else. My worm rolled towards the plastic wall of the cup, pressed its slimy body against it. I watched it stick out its middle, become bloated. I looked away, disgusted.
It was then that Steve Ridge flipped over his cup, sprinkling dirt, the worm falling out and sticking to the table, shocked at the sudden expansion. Ryan Gossamer thought that was hilarious. He laughed stupidly and then flipped over his cup. Molly Grace had a crush on Ryan, so she did the same thing right away. Soon everyone was flipping their cups, watching their worms shimmy out. When Patrick Hetter saw that I hadn’t flipped mine, he reached over to do it himself. I found myself slapping his hand away, which was odd because I wasn’t sure if I had meant to. “Okay psycho,” he said. He sounded angry, as if I had taken a toy away. “I didn’t mean to do that,” I said. He shrugged, pushed his worm around with the eraser of his pencil. Other kids had made a game of flinging their worms against the wall, seeing who could cause the biggest splat. I could feel Patrick’s eyes crawling over my body, inspecting the pinch of fat that hung above my skirt, the crunchy ends of my hair that I had fried with a flat iron. I couldn’t stand it. I tipped my cup over, the worm tumbling out first so the dirt piled on top of it. I watched its little pink head sword out of the soil. I felt bad.
“Nice,” Patrick said. His eyes moved to the bare part of my right thigh. I felt him rest there. He took the sharpened end of his pencil and speared my worm, the dirt covered most of the carnage. When he removed his pencil, the point was clean. I felt my face suddenly become hot with anger. My worm flicked its tail a final time, its puncture wound big enough to almost sever its body in half. I reached for my exacto knife, ran the pad of my finger over the blade. Patrick had gone back to pushing his worm around with the eraser, instructing it to move. His worm started to inch close to me. I took the knife and pulled it swiftly across the worm's middle, feeling it pop like a grape. The two halves wiggled. Was it still alive? I guess I didn’t care. I watched the two halves curl back and forth into tiny c’s. “What the fuck did you do that for?” I was shocked I even had to explain it to him. It was so simple, it was what we had always learned in school. From the TV. From our parents and their parents too. “You hurt mine, that means I get to hurt yours.”
My mother had this mentality. She gorged on everything around her and bit back if anything was taken from her. She ate and ate but somehow stayed slim. When I was really young, I perceived this as magic. It wasn’t long though before I learned the real trick. I tried it once myself, but vomit was not for me. No matter the reward. My mother spent her evenings situated in front of her makeup mirror, a glass of wine beside her. She plucked and poked and popped for sometimes hours. If I ever interrupted this ritual, she would grab me by the shoulders and shove me out of the room, slamming and locking the door. I still remember the sound of the lock, the click that sealed me from her. We continued our rituals in separate spaces, her in the bedroom, me in the kitchen. I avoided food for as long as I could, but in moments of weakness, I allowed myself fruit. I snacked on papayas, grapefruits, and watermelons. If I got really hungry, I would chug ice water until my belly was hard and round. I’d wear my bikini around the house, staring into the mirror, waiting for something to change. Nothing did. One unusually rainy morning, I sat at the kitchen table and sliced strawberries. I didn’t use a cutting board, letting the juice ooze onto the table.
I heard the slap of flip flops on the floorboards as my mother walked into the kitchen. She looked over at me, staring at my stomach that hung slightly over my bikini bottom. There was a faint pink, sticky mark on the table from the strawberries. “Fruit has sugar too you know,” she said, tearing off a paper towel, “and sugar doesn’t help a damn bit with that.” She pointed her eyes at my stomach. She came over to the table, bending in front of me to wipe up the juice mark. I got up from the table and locked myself in my bedroom. I stood in front of my floor length mirror and began counting my ribs frantically. I pinched at my waist. My thighs. My horrible cheeks. I was bigger. I was sure of it. The following week, my mother left. She provided no note or warning. She called my father and said she was in Texas and would not be coming back. She did not ask to speak to me.
Almost all the worms were dead now. They were painted across the walls, squashed into the floor, burned to a crisp from magnifying glasses and flashlights. Everyone was starting to get bored. Some had taken to trying to light their Bunsen burners with their flint, an act many of us had yet to achieve. Others were leaning over their worm guts, talking about what was going to be for lunch today. The overall consensus was jello and beef Stroganoff. The art kids were drawing on the white board, scribbling dragons and trees into existence. I noticed no one had bothered to clean up Bridgett's blood. It was a bright red swatch on the white tile that people danced around. It reminded me of a Rothko we looked at in art history. “Stark'' would be the word our art history teacher would use to describe it. Patrick caught me staring at the puddle of blood. He got up from our shared lab table, whispering “psycho bitch.”
I was left with our two dismembered worms. I thought back to this morning, to the eggs I had refused to eat. I told my dad it was because I knew the eggs weren’t organic. I told him it was because of “environmental reasons,” that I was trying to be vegan for the day. My dad shoved the eggs towards me. “You can’t live off of granola bars. You’re going to be starving by second period.” He was wrong, I could live off of nothing if I wanted to. I had tried it, and it had worked many times before. I looked at the worms, rolling their faceless heads in the dirt. What a snack, what a thing to only need dirt to live. I didn’t feel hungry, instead the opposite. Like I had swallowed so much air it was extending my belly more and more by the second. I looked down at my waistline, my stomach becoming a globe. I thought of my mother, who would or would not one day return to me. I wondered what she would say, if she would think I had gotten smaller. That was always the question — am I smaller? Am I slimmer? Did I shrink enough for you? For me? I folded my arms over my stomach, covering myself.
Ryan Gossamer was fishing around in the supplies closet. Kids kept glancing at him, wondering what he was doing. He was the prankster in the grade, so we were expecting explosions or silly string. He pulled out a slender glass test tube. “Let's spin the bottle,” he announced. Everyone perked up, I slouched forward. Ryan paraded the test tube around, dangling it between his fingers, winking at the crowd as if it was something phallic. He placed it delicately in the center of the room. Kids started to circle up like it was storytime, like we were in first grade again instead of eighth. I remained at my desk along with a few others that were excited by the premise but too scared to show it. We sat like birds on a wire, staring, our wings fidgety but glued down. Ryan spun the test tube, and everyone held their breath. It was the first time since Bridgett had been pulled out of class that the room was silent. No chit-chat, no worm splats. Ryan's spin landed on Molly Grace, who lit up like a damn Christmas tree. “Oh!” she said, as if someone had pinched her. Ryan looked to his left at Christie Packer. She moved a lock of hair from her collar bone, slightly glistening from the Victoria's Secret body glitter that she had rubbed in after gym class. “I’m going to spin again,” he said. I could feel Molly Grace's stomach drop even from three seats away. “You can’t do that! It’s not how the game works,” shouted Steve. “Fine.” Ryan said, lifting his gangly body from the ground. He put the drawstring of his hoodie in his mouth and looked at Molly. “You coming?” Even though I could only see the back of her head, I knew she was about to cry. Me and the other quiet kids, the birds on the wire, sat there observing the devastation.
Molly and Ryan walked towards the supply closet as if they had both been sent to the gallows. It was like a triple dog dare: the rules of spin the bottle were unchangeable and non-negotiable. If anything, I could tell that the misery they were feeling was adding to the enjoyment of the other players. The door clicked closed, and we waited. A thin rail of light went out under the closet door. There was some muffling and a hushed no. The squeak of Ryan's sneakers and then another barely audible no. “First you wanted to, now you don’t! Fuck, whatever, I didn’t want to anyway.” I heard Molly Grace’s nervous giggle. Ryan yanked open the door, leaving Molly in the dark.
“Go,” he said to no one in particular. Everyone looked at each other, hesitating on who would spin next. Patrick slanted his eyes at me and scooched over a little, making a person-sized space. I looked at him, confused, and shook my head. He rolled his eyes, but I didn’t care. Molly was still in the closet, and that bothered me. The kids were still debating on who would go next. I got up quietly and beelined towards the supply closet. I could feel Patrick’s eyes on my back. I knew he would say something, point me out. I tried to be quick, leaned into the closet looking for Molly Grace's long frizzy braid in the darkness. She was sitting in front of a shelf of beakers. The glass clinked behind her as she tucked her knees in. “Molly?” Right as I said her name, I felt a soft push on my back. I took a half step into the closet, and the door slammed behind me. “Alright, have at it, lezzos!” Patrick yelled from behind the door. The other kids roared. Out of nowhere I felt my hunger, its pang and unwieldiness. The suddenness of it caused a panic that spidered through my body. Molly looked up, her eyes carrying a small glint like they were made of glass. “It’s okay, someone will come in soon…” She didn’t sound too sure. I wasn’t either. I could hear Patrick scooting a chair underneath the door handle, everyone laughing, applauding. My stomach growled. I crossed my arms over it. Covering it, punishing it. Sometimes, I liked the hunger. It meant that it was working. Nothing was in there for my body to devour, I could shrink. I could turn into whatever I wanted — porcelain and fragile like the dolls that lined the top shelf in my bedroom. The ones I wasn’t allowed to touch.
I could hear Ryan puckering his lips, making loud, wet smacks with them. “How’s it going in there, dykes?” More laughter. Molly Grace had started to sniffle, small tears scooting down her cheeks. “It’s alright,” I said, “he doesn’t mean it.” I knew that wasn’t helpful. I wasn’t great when it came to comforting others. I felt dumb and mean for saying something so false. “You don’t get it,” she said. “Patrick likes you, you know what it feels like to be liked. I don't.” I wanted to say that it didn’t feel great. And that I didn’t care. But I knew that this was a plea, that she wanted to know how I did it. How I made him want me, even though most of the time it felt like he only wanted me to shrink away. “It helps when you don’t want them.” She straightened her posture, leaned in. “How do I do that?” My stomach growled again. I felt angry by my constant need, disgusted by it. “Think about something else. Think about what you need to change. Do that.” I said. She fingered the jelly bracelets on her wrist. “I don’t know what I need to change.” I looked at her, inspecting from sneakers to hairline. Her legs were fine. Her thighs touched too much, and when she moved her arms, I could see a slight jiggle of flab. Her stomach was flat enough, unlike mine. Her nails had been chewed to nubs.
“Have you done the ring test?” I asked. She shook her head. I cuffed my wrist with my thumb and pointer finger. “It’s simple, you just see how far up you can go until your fingers don’t touch anymore.” I watched her clamp her fingers together and slide up her arm. She only made it right below her elbow. I smiled as mine inched past my elbow to the middle of my bicep.
“Is that why you don’t eat at lunch?” Molly asked, trying the ring test on her other arm.
“Does it work?”
“Sometimes, but you can always improve.”
I looked down at my thighs. I could feel the seam of my jeans tight around them. I hated the way they stuck together when I sat.
“My goal is to be able to do the ring test on my thighs.” I said.
“What should mine be?”
I looked her over again. The arms were definitely the biggest issue, but now looking at her stomach a second time, I saw how it slightly protruded.
“You should work on your arms. And your stomach, try crunches every night before you go to sleep. Maybe every morning too.”
“Oh, okay.” She seemed fixated yet overwhelmed.
“I can help you. We can sit together at lunch?”
“Yeah, sure.” She started a ring around her ankle.
We heard the front door of the classroom swing open. Everyone had gone silent. I could tell it was Mrs. Keller from the click of her shoes, the only teacher in the building that wore heels. I heard her gasp, dry and quakey. I pictured the carnage outside, the pools of blood, the dismembered worms, the two girls locked in a closet. Mrs. Keller rescued Molly and I. Because we were locked in the closet, we were seen more as victims rather than partners in the classroom crime. Mrs. Keller had sent everyone down to Principal Carlisle's office. Molly and I sat outside the office, swinging our feet, listening to the other kids getting yelled at. We could hear Principal Carlisle calling Ryan and Patrick “masterminds”. We laughed and laughed at that. Principal Carlisle wrote a note to all of our parents. When my dad came through the carpool after school, I handed him the note. He seemed horrified, looked at me like I was a trauma patient. He asked if I wanted ice cream. I shook my head no, and before he could protest, I said, “I made a new friend.” He immediately brightened. No more questions about food. He yammered on about how important friends are, that he was proud that I was finally “opening up”. I nodded my head slowly, starting to feel dizzy, like I was finally light enough to float up and away. I had felt like this before, as if stars were circling around my head like in the cartoons. My vision became staticky like a TV. I banged my head gently against the headrest to snap out of it. “You alright?” my dad asked. I didn’t say anything. I started to count the fast food restaurants we passed. The same ones my mother went to, moving through one drive thru into another like a circuit. I would sit in the back and watch the passenger seat load up with greasy paper bags. She would scarf down apple hand pies, chicken tenders, double deluxe cheeseburgers. She gave into every desire and then disappeared for hours, purging each morsel of want. I pictured Molly and I being placed in front of a table, in front of Wendy's frosties and McDonald's happy meals and Sonic slushies. We wouldn’t eat any of it. We would be winners.
Sarah Brokamp is a fiction writer, poet, and collage artist living in Brooklyn, New York. Her work can be found in Runestone and 34th Parallel. She received the Jerome Lowell DeJur Award in Fiction for her short story collection, The Brighter Ones Are Deadly. She is currently completing her MFA in Creative Writing at The City College of New York.