Table of Contents - Vol. V, No. 3
A woman who long ago lived below us, a single mother of one, once found an unfamiliar folder hidden away in the program files of her family computer. Inside were photos of her daughter, arranged and labeled by weight---111 lbs., 104 lbs., 92 lbs.---along with assorted pictures of runway celebrities collected from entertainment sites and before-and-after photos of other teens, friends the girl made through online thinspiration forums and chat rooms, labeled as low as 63 lbs. And there were other images---reverse triggers, her daughter calls them---of pregnant women and the grossly obese.
After, when she searched her daughter’s room, she found the jars of vomit in the closet, the diet pills in the drawer, and the misspelled entries in her daughter’s diary journaling her food intake:
Three cigaretes. Two cups coffee. Water.
Sugarless gum---half a pack. Jello---two cups. Skimmed milk. Frosting from one cupcake.
Four cigaretes. No coffee. Half bag Doritos.
She read on, finding other entries graphing weight changes, expressing the ‘geeniusness’ of eating ice cubes and lollypops for dinner, and quoting the morbidly misunderstood conceptions of history’s finest:
“Things sweet to taste prove in digestion sour.”
“Quod me nutrit me destruit” (What nourishes me destroys me)
The woman realized then how little she knew her daughter. She confronted the girl, who denied and cried and retreated to the bathroom to calm her nerves in bubble bath---and later, when her mother returned to try again, failed to answer from behind the bathroom door. The woman assumed the worst, popped the lock with a bobby pin, and found her daughter in the tub, wrists sliced with a bread knife and sticky with blood. She pulled her out through the hot and pink bubbles to find that her daughter was fully dressed---a hooded sweatshirt and jeans, the cotton waterlogged and steaming---and that she was several pints lighter.
Her mother’s blood saved the girl, and afterwards she found help: group therapy, psychiatrists, inpatient facilities. And years later the girl was happy and plump, tattoos of butterflies over each of her scars: a Cranberry Blue on her left---Vacciniina optilete---a Mourning Cloak on her right---Nymphalis antiopa---the raised and jagged cut marks hidden in the veins of blue and black wings, imperceptible to all but the two who know them best.
But the single mother of one saved the photos from the hidden folder she found in the program files of the family computer, and she kept them as reminders---reverse triggers, things to be happy for---changing only the file names, replacing the churlish weights with random letters: asjkl. jkljp. dsagdu. tyadsj. risjdf. iosdgj.
Dr. Jian Hsing (邢 健), a Chinese professor of history, used to sit out on his back deck in the morning light and work on his manuscript, a memoir about growing up in Nanjing decades after the massacre. He'd sift through photos of disemboweled women, young girls bayoneted through lower orifices, charred bodies left without remorse, and he'd read through transcripts of an American reporter who described the streets so strewn with bodies that one had no choice but to drive over them to reach the safety zone; an interview with a woman who survived days of near-constant gang rape and nearly a dozen bayonets through her chest and neck before being found, nearly lifeless, by passersby and nursed back to a state of health checked by scars, disability, and venereal disease.
When he was finished with his fourth draft and sitting on a growing pile of rejection letters he asked the administration if he could read a chapter in the central quad, and they set up a podium twenty yards from a group of sorority girls selling raffle tickets for an all expense paid trip to Cabo. But few looked and fewer listened. The sorority girls' solicitous screams drowned out talk of rape and mutilation and Japanese denial and omission from history books, and a circle of friends joked behind cigarettes while cell-phoned students crossed the professor's back and front on their way to class.
The professor returned home and fell into a depression. He stopped going to work. Stopped going anywhere. And several weeks later, when his neighbors mailed him a letter asking him to mow his lawn, he responded by distributing his collection of transcribed notes and postmortem photographs to their mailboxes. When they didn't respond he distributed the full manuscript, and when they mailed a second letter informing him that his use of their mailboxes was a violation of federal law and asking him to please mow his lawn, the professor took a machete to his bushes, a hammer to his mailbox, rocks to his windows, and a crowbar to his roof---where he lost his footing trying to peel up shingles, and fell beside his mutilated bushes.
He came back from the ER with a line of stitches, a concussion, and a leg cast---but not before making friends with the physician who treated him: a Japanese man called Chiyuu (ちゆう) whose wife, Susan, a fledgling assistant at a New York publishing house, got her first break weeks later with the acquisition of Jian Hsing's memoir: "The Broken House of Nanjing."
© Matt Siegel