India’s home was sinking. It was as if the walls were made of marshmallow paste that had been sturdy in the refrigerator, but now that it was exposed to the shamed heat of Alaskan summers, had begun melting away into noodles of string cheese. India used to love eating string cheese. The mozzarella itself was okay, but the act of eating it was simply exhilarating. She could crunch the cheese down like a carrot and then grab another, as she knew her mom wanted. Or, she could daintily disembody the pitiful stick, savoring it by slowly peeling back the threads one by one. But India never had the patience such a performance required – especially when it came to eating. She put food in her mouth for the sake of chewing, to feel the warmth melting into her gums, staining her teeth. She ate so that her mother would say, “Michael, look at India’s plate. Look at her!” And so while her little brother maintained his existence within a neat skeletal framework, which, as the years passed, began lengthening exponentially, India grew the other way—wider, thicker, stronger. Stronger. But only in the physical sense.
India’s mother, Nicole, had always loathed her body. It would have been one thing if she had just stared in disgust at herself in front of the mirror as she jiggled her bare legs, watching the little rolls of fat shake in the reflection. But it was an entirely different situation to get breast reduction surgery on her eighteenth birthday just so the number on the scale would slip down, and then become a vegan because she felt that egg yolks had too much saturated fat in them and egg whites were simply pointless to eat. A staple for all diets—white rice—was one she had always enjoyed eating. However, she was always revolted by how she felt after forcing the moist blobs of mush between her lips—so bloated, so round, so big. She attributed the feelings to rice’s high glycemic index. And so she was reduced to cucumbers, to celery, to spinach. Her meals were becoming even less exciting than those she prepared for India’s rabbit.
All excitement aside, her work was producing results. The skin around her stomach was tightening, her limbs thinning. Her husband, Carl, had not commented on any change, but when had he ever noticed her body, its shape, its functions? He called her beautiful, lovely, sexy, even, but they were just empty words, weak bullets shot out across the tablecloth on date nights. The words meant so little to her because the same adjectives slipped out from between Carl’s thin lips regardless of the way that evening’s dress held her body. Even on the difficult evenings, the ones on which she struggled to finish just a bowl of miso soup, he claimed to find her attractive. On those nights, as they lay beside each other in the large bed overlooking the frozen lake, Carl’s lanky body drifting off, Nicole would tremble despite the heat of the raging flames in the fireplace. Feeling her thighs rub against each other, she would grab the soft, damp skin between her fingers and squeeze the fat as if the force—as if the steely sensation of her sharp nails etching a pained alphabet into her flesh—would make the extra just disappear. She wanted to disappear.
India was going to be a sophomore in high school. She had asked her mother to take her back-to-school shopping, because she wanted to buy more of those corduroy skirts that made her legs look less like overwatered tree trunks. She also needed black tights, since some of her other stockings had holes in them now. She also needed ankle boots with more of a heel – a few more inches might balance her out.
On the way home from the mall, India wanted to stop at Starbucks. It was convenient, so Nicole had no reason to hesitate – or so her daughter assumed. Nicole was always tempted in coffee shops to buy one of those nice new lattes or matcha drinks, but she knew that she didn’t need the extra sugar. It was all just so damned triggering! India chose a white chocolate mocha Frappuccino. Nicole bought an earl grey tea for herself. No, of course not. I already told you, I want no milk, no sugar.
“How about some whipped cream, honey?” Nicole asked her daughter before the idiotic ginger at the cash register could say anything else. “And maybe a scone? The blueberry ones look simply delightful!”
India hadn’t wanted anything else, and couldn’t refuse now. “Oh. Um, sure. I guess.”
She never refused her mother when it came to food, her food. It had always been a little game they played, though neither of them ever acknowledged the rules. Nicole fed herself through India: she was so careful to ensure that the child was eating well that she often over-fed her daughter. She made up for the sustenance she denied herself by creating elaborate menus for the housekeeper to work through. For her children. The pantry was stocked full of every one of her children’s favorites, anything they could ever want. The kinds of snacks that Nicole dreamed about as her eyes slipped away in a trance as she showed her clients slides of the design plan of their new penthouse. She loved to watch her children eat, their lips swimming around tootsie pops, wet and sticky. Nicole ate through her children.
During the parent-teacher conference that November, India’s advisor, Ms. Tina, told Carl and Nicole that the school guidance counselor strongly suggested that their daughter see a therapist.
“A therapist?” Nicole felt her breath dash out of her lips. She twisted the long, curved part of the nail on her right index finger, the brittle keratin soon giving way.
“Yes, Mrs. Sronson. In health class, India has been making some…disturbing comments. About her body. About the dynamic at home. You know, the support network.” The advisor eyed Nicole and Carl expectantly, as if waiting for one of them to burst into tears and confess something terrible.
Nicole was beginning to feel aggravated. Was this fat blonde suggesting that she and her husband created an unsafe home environment? But it was the other comment that had sent a chill through her stomach. “What has…what has my daughter been saying about her body?”
Ms. Tina chewed her lip, as if wondering how to best filter what she was about to say. “Well, India apparently said that she was looking into liposuction. And she said that you weren’t against the idea.”
“Oh my god, Carl, how can you listen to this?” Nicole cried out. Her husband flushed, immediately apologizing to Ms. Tina. He was such a pushover. Always submissive to those in any position of authority, even though he ran his own hedge fund. Nicole wanted to slap him. She and India often joked about liposuction, looking at the before-and-after pictures of random celebrities. Some teacher must have overheard a joke India made in class with her friends. How ridiculous.
But it was the next thing Ms. Tina said that made Nicole shiver.
“Look, Mrs. Sronson. We were not planning to worry you with that comment. In isolation, we, as an institution, may have been able to ignore it, perhaps cast it aside as some sort of…quip, perhaps. But only a few days ago, India, who was in tears, mind you, sat in class moaning about how hungry she was. The poor child has been all over the place in the recent weeks, apparently. Her teachers have begun sharing that given her consistent record in the past, the drastic change in her personality and the quality of her work has been, quite frankly, frightening. Your daughter shared that she has stopped eating at school because, and I quote, ‘mom is trying to fatten me up at home.’ And then—” Ms. Tina eyed both parents’ blank expressions before continuing. “—then she said that she wondered how much weight she could lose if she just sliced her body fat off.”
Carl had become so ashen that Nicole thought that if she just blew some air in his direction he would simply disperse, a stream of gray snowflakes. “Of course, I sent India straight to the guidance counselor, Dr. Barbara Linnie, later that afternoon after speaking with Barbara. After school finished a few hours later, and the students had all been dismissed, Barbara came to speak with me. She said that she had noticed scars along India’s wrists.” Ms. Tina’s voice was rising. “So, as I’m sure you can see, Mr. and Mrs. Sronson, we, as an institution—” She paused as she looked at Nicole, whose eyes were glinting like arrowheads. Nicole was convinced that Ms. Tina was pleased with herself as she went on, for the third time, to slur the same ridiculous preamble: “We, as an institution, cannot possibly allow India to continue to attend Saint Mary’s Academy unless we are assured that she is getting the help she so desperately is calling out for. We ask only that she see a therapist, and that the therapist be in direct communication with Dr. Barbara.”
Carl inhaled shakily, trying to find his voice. “Ms. Tina, when you said…what did you mean when you said that India is…calling out for help?”
“Oh.” For the first time that afternoon, the woman turned toward the husband. He looked so small, so meek, so frightened. She pitied the little man. His blond hair was so pale that she wondered whether he had had his head bleached or if he was aging prematurely. She gave a little smile. “Oh, Mr. Sronson, it is quite common, I mean, sometimes children India’s age struggle, you know, with body image, or personality disorders. These behaviors are likely signals that your daughter needs help.” Ms. Tina rose, trying to indicate that the meeting was over. She was tired of these parents—especially the woman, who was tapping her heel impatiently against the sticky plastic of the classroom floor.
“Mr. and Mrs. Sronson, it was a pleasure,” Ms. Tina lied, smiling awkwardly, trying to keep her lips over her wide teeth. She tucked a strand of auburn hair behind her ear. “I will be in touch next week to discuss India’s therapy.” Neither the husband nor the wife made a sound. They simply nodded their heads, blinking deliriously, and shook her limp fingers lightly. The man’s hand was moist and clammy and was oozing a thick liquid. The woman’s hand was gelid. Ms. Tina couldn’t be sure, but when she looked down, her nails appeared to have a bluish tinge.
Carl didn’t say a word to Nicole as they climbed into the inky Mercedes. His shoulders were trembling, and he was afraid that if he confronted her while his eyes were on the road he would get into an accident. So instead he thought about his car and its name. As he gazed into the late afternoon sunlight, he could not surrender to the irony of the situation—in his mind, he was screaming for mercy—from God, from Ms. Tina, from his darling India. His Mercedes offered him none.
As he meandered along the driveway, in awe that he, Nicole, and the car were still in one piece, his heart began to throb in his throat. He didn’t know how to begin. He refused to open his lips until he had successfully parked in the garage, turned off the engine, and unfastened his seatbelt. Then he turned around. His wife was staring into the vanity mirror tucked into the sun visor, making little semicircles with one of the Chanel lipsticks she kept in her purse. As he examined her profile, he noticed her sunken eyes, rimmed with red, and how sharp the hollows of her cheeks were.
“Nicole.” She didn’t turn to face him. She made a few more semicircles, this time on her bottom lip, and after a few moments, smacked her lips together, checked her teeth, closed the lipstick, pushed up the sun visor, returned the black tube to the pocket, and zipped the purse closed.
“Darling, I think we should separate.”
Nicole was looking at him now. He felt himself cowering, now, in the corner of the driver’s seat. There was one person he had forgotten to beg for mercy from—his own wife. Her eyes were big and bright. A lump had appeared in her throat, swollen and red. He watched as the skin of her neck began to ripple, the lump vibrating. She parted her lovely red lips and a shrill stream of cackles burst forth. Her breath on his flushed cheeks was hot, sharp.
“Separate, Carl? If anything, I will divorce you.”
Her husband didn’t react. He held his sweating palms face down against his kneecaps. He knew that he was not to react. He inhaled deeply.
“Nicole, listen. I have observed your behavior these last few months—” As soon as these words escaped his lips, he knew they had been a mistake. He sounded like a psychologist. Or a member of the CIA.
“You have observed my behavior? Carl, sweetie, you notice nothing.” Her voice was rising.
“Nicole.” His voice was firm, cold. “Your food intake has been decreasing exponentially, and your dress bills increasing.” He paused. “Exponentially, as well. I don’t know what is going on. Maybe you no longer fit into your other clothes?”
He waved her raging protests into silence. “It’s gotten so difficult to sleep with you. You are so cold, Nicole. Every night. Your toes feel like ice. Last night, I was trying…” He looked away, as his cheeks flushed. “I tried to hold you in my arms, Nicole. But I couldn’t. You are…you’ve become a sack of bones. I think I bruised myself.”
Nicole opened her lips, dazed and confused. Her heart beat unevenly. Sporadically. She quickly realized that she was livid. But when she opened her mouth to spit out the insults she had been forming into a collage in her mind, only a gust of hot air emerged. She tried again. She heard a dull squeak in her larynx, her throat hoarse.
“Nicole, I think you have had undue influence on your daughter. On our daughter. She must have—” He was crying now, his shoulders heaving. “India must have picked up some of your habits.” His breath was heavy. “She needs some time away from you. I am calling in a social worker tomorrow.”
He opened the car door. He slipped out of the seat quickly, and was about to slam it closed when he tucked his head back inside.
“Nicole, you are ill. You need help. Please, please take this time to take care of yourself. For your daughter.” He inhaled a long, shaky stream of crisp air mixed with pungent gasoline. “For us, too. When you’re better, when India’s better, we can see how we feel about each other—how you feel about yourself.” With that, her soft, little husband slammed the door shut and walked into the house.
It was past eleven by the time Nicole made her way inside. She wasn’t sure where she was going to sleep. She couldn’t even imagine making eye contact with Carl. Just the thought of his name made her cheeks flush with shame. She never blushed—ever. But for the first time in the two decades in which they had been married, Nicole had to admit to herself that her husband was right. But tonight, it was not about being right or wrong, or about the blue Gucci dress she had stained with salty, mascara-infested tears.
It was about her daughter. Her wretched baby.
India had left her door open. As Nicole tucked her head into the room, a gust of dark, gelid air sizzled over her décolletage. She slipped out of her pumps and drifted over the threshold toward the open window. She forced it closed, fighting with a squall of driving rain. The window frame thudded against the wall.
“Mom?” India’s voice was loose and warm, oozing dreams. Nicole felt tears streaming down her cheeks as she approached her child and knelt by her bedside. She caressed her daughter’s forehead, pushing the thin strands of hair away from her half-closed eyelids. India’s eyelashes fluttered.
“Mom, do you want to come in the bed?” Before her daughter had finished forming her question, Nicole found herself slithering beneath the sheets, wrapping her skeletal legs around her daughter’s warm, snug hips. Her body was begging for heat.
Nicole gripped India, pressing her bare toes against her daughter’s shins. As her daughter held her, warmed her, her mother whispered, “India, I love you.”
The child didn’t respond. Her breathing was slowing, thickening. Nicole thought that she had fallen asleep. But then she heard her daughter mumbling something.
“India, what is it?”
“You can’t possibly. It doesn’t work that way.”
Nicole suddenly felt like she was suffocating, drowning in warmth, in understanding. She ripped away the sheets and stumbled out of the bed. Her dress was suddenly stifling her, and she desperately tugged her body out of the XXS creation she had purchased over a month ago but had only just started to fit into. She heard a sharp tear. The dress was ruined.
Once she was freed, Nicole stood before her daughter. She felt her breasts tremble, her heart palpitating between her protruding ribs. Despite the cloak of darkness, despite the tickle of lingerie against her skin, Nicole had not felt so naked in years. She continued to stand before her daughter, a statue of ice, until India’s small, sore voice broke through the undulations of her own misery. “Mom, if you don’t love yourself, how could you ever love me?”
Divya Mehrish is a writer and student at Stanford University. Her work has been published in or is forthcoming in Coastal Shelf, Prairie Margins, PANK, Ricochet Review, Blue Marble Review, Polyphony Lit, Tulane Review, and Amtrak’s magazine The National, among others.