I signed up for voice lessons when I wanted to learn how to sing in high school, and my mother purchased the Carpenters Anthology.
She thought my voice range had the potential to be similar to Karen’s.
I think she wanted to hear the music she liked sung around the house.
I knew none of the songs.
My knowledge of the Carpenters was limited to my mother playing their Christmas album every year, usually when our family sat down to eat, and of course, the story of Karen.
The DSM –
“The Diagnostic and Statistical Manuel of Mental Disorders”
allows anyone to diagnose away their sadness,
so long as they have a computer
with a functioning PDF reader.
I highlighted more of its 970 pages of answers.
then half of my textbooks.
The best pages in the fifth (most recent) edition start
at 338 and continue.
I wake up two hours into sleep. James Corden is on the television I forgot to turn off. The awkwardness in my stomach overpowers the awkwardness in my head. Maybe they started working with the pain in my side at that time of the month when kidney pain also with uterine pain. My organs collude, I figure.
I vomit into a gallon-sized Ziploc bag usually used for storing food. It holds mutilated stomach bile and the half-bottle of berry-flavored Children’s Motrin I consumed to fall asleep.
Dinner fell off my daily priority list long ago, and frequently lunch as well. I zip the bag, get out of bed to toss it into the trashcan in my kitchen. It’s after one in the morning. I open the refrigerator to get water and start to make a mental list of its contents: clementine, pepperoni, French onion dip, leftover Rice-a-Roni, boozy chocolates from Europe I never feel accomplished enough to enjoy. I’ll let it all go bad and feel guilty.
The bathroom light hurts my eyes when I re-brush my teeth. I never call my body fragile (so carefully beautiful) even when I cry in the mirror, (covered in washed out skin stretched over bones) trying to figure out what comes next. Instead, I focus on what remains of the body I rejected for its inability to conform. Fleshy limbs filled to the brim. The burgundy squiggles where my stretched skin permanently mark my back and stomach and thighs as if I’ve given birth to something beyond myself, beyond a disaster.
I start to sleep with a pillow pressed against my chest to feel as if something else, someone else, could want to be so close to me.
… many individuals with ________________ have depressive signs
and symptoms such as depressed mood, social withdrawal, irritability, insomnia…
Obsessive-compulsive features, both related and unrelated to food,
are often prominent. Most individuals with ________________ are preoccupied
with thoughts of food.
Some collect recipes …
I kick aside my stash of cookbooks.
My voice teacher selected the first song.
Why do birds suddenly appear
Every time you are near?
Just like me, they long to be
Close to you
Sing it with feeling. He said.
I didn’t understand the feeling.
We have sex for the first time on his sectional couch during the last day of my period with the Masters Tournament on in the background. “No one really watches golf.” I said when he invited me. I straddle his lap; his red blanket drapes over us. Neither of us fully undress. His blue chinos fall around his ankles, and I leave on the dress I bought last year to celebrate finally getting paid for writing. There are no shades on his picture windows, so the sun shines in and the Freedom Tower gets a curious view of our tangled bodies. We use a condom nearing its expiration date from the box he purchased for another person. He focuses on the parts of me that I mostly like. His scratchy mouth kisses the blush off my cheeks, the moles freckling my left breast, the hollow spaces in my clavicle. I take off his tortoiseshell glasses and grab his perfectly overgrown hair. Dark strands tickle my knuckles and dandruff oil rubs into my skin. His brother walks into the living room, wearing a t-shirt and boxers, asking to borrow a couple of bucks, then leaves.
Afterward, he holds me for a bit before we leave for work. He’s been bidding on properties in New Jersey all week for his small development start-up. I am his relief. I help him get dressed picking out a bright plaid shirt and taking my time doing each of the creamy colored buttons. His skin is warm and tanned against my shaky fingertips. I slide on my tights and insert a tampon. I notice a pink toothbrush and color-safe Pantene shampoo in his bathroom. On the way out, he leaves his apartment key under the doormat. He tries to drop it delicately, but it misses the fabric and smacks loudly on the tiled floor. I stare.
Megan will be coming over in a bit. He says.
His foot scoots the key over while he asks me to call the elevator.
His pants were already unzipped when I came over, his boxer buttons, too. No one watches golf. Megan is much prettier than me.
I learned to hit the notes and shape the phrases, all that stuff.
Most of my practice took place in the bathroom, in the shower, because no one could hear or see me, and the echo wasn’t half bad.
I started to get better.
One song, in particular, I liked because it was short.
There was something ironic in the slightly religious tone; a feeling I assumed that only came from sex, so the song also had to be about sex, in spite of its god-like symbolism.
It was too sappy to be about anything else.
Everything I want the world to be
Is now comin’ true especially for me
And the reason is clear, it’s because you are here
You’re the nearest thing to heaven that I’ve seen
Point A: Restriction of energy intake relative to requirements…
Point B: Intense fear of gaining weight or of becoming fat, or persistent behavior that interferes with weight gain…
Point C: Disturbance in the way in which one’s body weight or shape is experienced, undue influence of body weight or shape on self-evaluation…
These are the
essential features of
the illness, ________________
so I do these.
I can never meet what follows these features essential features.
the ultimate, end goal.
I only end up sleepless and beige,
or with a brand new kidney stone.
I started at 235 this year and reduced it to a measly 203
depending on the week, the food,
but never lower,
never what I should or want to be,
and my stupid pediatrician just smiles and tells me to take it easy,
“take a break,”
like I have something to be proud of.
My mother likes midday online sales. She purchases an entirely new wardrobe for me for my upcoming week with him on the French Riviera. She presents me with two dress bags from Lord & Taylor.
If they don’t fit, it’s not a big deal. She says. They only had these in a 14.
I’ve been a steady size 14 for the last year and a half, sometimes even a 12. I mention this, proudly. I mention the recent weight loss.
Well, I figured with your chest. My mother says.
My chest was the first saddening thing to deflate this year, followed by my morale.
I step into the dresses nude. The first is navy lace over pink tulle. The second is a black Nicole Miller with a high neckline and a tightened waist. Both fit, almost perfectly.
You can bring a little jacket with you. My mother says.
And I tell her I don’t need to cover my arms (but I do). She asks if he is renting a tuxedo for the red-carpet events at the film festival we’re attending, and if he’s getting contacts or wearing his tortoiseshell glasses, and if he will be able to help me zip things up. She doesn’t question who will be sleeping where in our rental apartment, but she pulls out a pair of lacy pajamas.
You’re almost twenty-one, Rachel. You deserve this.
I don’t deserve him. I don’t even have him. I don’t have or deserve anything. I don’t want to go on the trip at all.
The 12-month prevalence of ________________ among young females
is approximately 0.4%”
“The onset of this disorder is often associated with
a stressful life event.
Like a new job,
or a broken relationship,
or falling in love.
And that stuff also causes kidney stones and depression,
and I guess everything else.
But “everything else” can’t be easily located in the DSM.
Karen Carpenter dated a number of famous men: Mark Harmon, Tony Danza, Steve Martin.
She married Thomas Burris, just a real-estate developer.
Wikipedia calls their time together a whirlwind that involved lies, theft, and abuse, or the worst thing that could have ever happened to her.
Some blame Burris in part for the rapid escalation of Karen’s ________________, for her shrunken, poorly functioning cardiac muscles, and others blame her mother.
The couple was together a little over a year when Karen filed for divorce during a hospital stay.
They were still married at the time of her death.
Burris took off his wedding ring and laid it in the casket at the funeral.
He’s been happily married for thirty years.
People always talk about ________________, but it was Karen’s heart that killed her.
I downloaded Venmo through Facebook, so I can see all of my “friends” and their profiles, what they’re paying each other for, and how often they’re doing it. When I try to explain the app to my mother, she doesn’t understand.
That sounds like it’s just going to give people another thing to worry about. She said.
I scroll through people charging each other for Uber rides and coffees, rent and date nights. I end up far enough back that I find his profile with reimbursement from a girl I’ve never heard of. It just says “thanks.” Sitting alone in the corner at work my eyes investigate his entire transaction history. Maybe it’s because money is the language of his future, of his goals, of the things we have a hard time relating to. Most of his activity is for beers with his friends, or bad bets wagered on the Mets. I see transactions with Megan, one accompanied by the unamused face emoji, and I wonder if it’s for a bet, or dinner, or sex, and why he has never charged me the same.
As an MFA student at Bard, Todd Haynes made the short film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, and it became a “minor art cult hit.”
The film deals with the final seventeen years of Karen’s life – she died at thirty-three.
All of the characters are modified Barbie dolls, made to look like the Carpenter family, with the “Karen” doll being mutilated, whittled away, to show her worsening ________________.
Karen’s brother filed and won a lawsuit over Haynes’s use of the Carpenters’ music in the film.
He was also angry about the portrayal of the family, and the insinuation that he was gay.
Any bootleg copy you might now find of the film on YouTube is blurry and soundless, which critics feel reconstructs the artwork into something entirely new, forbidden, and alluring.
I think it takes away Karen’s voice.
It leaves you with only Haynes’s sculpted image.
Occupations and avocations that encourage thinness,
such as modeling
and elite athletics,
are also associated with increased risk.
Megan was a gymnast. Google it.
Pre-Olympic level stuff.
Then ________________ happened. He calls it,
the young, L.A. girl curse.
I call it a side effect of female puberty that neither she nor I was strong enough to fend off.
Every few months, Michael Koch, a boy from my high school who ran sort of adjacent to my social circle, sends me a Facebook message. He makes the same bad jokes – attributing to me a fascination with Jews, England, and blazers – and casually questions my love life. He always mentions how thin I was in high school. I always correct him. And then he talks about my body.
You could be a model. He writes. Do you go to the beach? You should show off your beach body!
I weighed a steady 245 most of my teenage years and eventually ran out of places in town to buy non-elastic waist pants. I was the person who got a phone call or a text when a guy was high off drugs or cold medication or something else and wanted to fuck or needed attention. My body fine for the night, for the darkness of basements and back seats, but not worthy of sharing with anyone in the light.
My friends from high school are always surprised when I tell them I usually answer Michael’s weird messages. Michael was almost as surprised when I pointed out his reiteration of my false thinness.
I do? He wrote me. Huh. It’s never something I thought about.
Individuals who develop anxiety disorders
or display obsessional traits in childhood
are at increased risk of developing ________________
I get red in the face when I talk to large groups of people,
or when someone looks me in the eye.
I still arrange my pens by color
in coordinating containers on my desk.
He shows up to the staff meeting at the place where we work together. He is eight minutes late with his pants unzipped and half of his dark hair cut off. I make nothing of his putting his tanned hand on my shoulder and asking how my day was, nothing of his immediate addition to the inquiry, saying he has somewhere he needs to be by nine o’clock.
Your hair? I ask.
Do you like it? He asks.
I counter. Do you want me to be honest?
He sighs and explains he just couldn’t deal with it anymore that it was getting out of hand.
I left some of the length on top. He says.
Megan, I think, likes touching it when it’s short.
I go home upstate for the weekend to get my haircut by the woman who’s been doing it since I was seven. She was shocked when I turned twelve and asked for bangs. She is equally taken aback this week before I turn twenty-one when I ask her to cut it short. I’m told I’ll regret it, that I won’t like it, that I’ll miss something. Two inches are cut, then three, and she stops with four, saying it’s enough. It must weigh half a pound, I hope.
I can’t tell the difference until I wash my hair and brush it out. I pull it into a ponytail with the hair elastic I took from his apartment, the one that likely belongs to Megan. It is far too small to comfortably stretch around my thick wrist, leaving a ripe, red indentation. The mark resembles Megan’s hair, actually: crimson, straight, and smooth. I am all blonde, kinks, and frizz. The haircut is a change, but I still feel so much like myself. I make a coloring appointment at a different salon, scheduled right before my trip with him to France.
One of the top ten most played Carpenters songs on Spotify wasn’t in the anthology.
And if you’re only using me
To feed your fantasy
You’re really not in love
So let me go
I must be free
Honesty and happiness occupy opposite ends of the sales market.
Being . . . is a prerequisite for the illness.
The last time I was thin, I had a closet full of easy-fit clothing,
and a working knowledge of the Disney Channel.
I didn’t think about my body –
just about where it could take me and what I could accomplish.
But all I think about now are my illnesses.
If you’re upset with me, you’re going to need to tell me what it’s about. He says.
He’s been calling and texting for three days. He mentions work, school, his teasing jokes, and other small things. Things notably left out are the way he likes to mumble when leaning on me and watching television, or our future – where we’ll stand after France – and of course, Megan. He doesn’t bring up why I’m upset.
You can tell me anything. He says. You know that.
He takes my shoulders in his hands on the corner of Third Avenue and 11th, towering over me in my two-inch heels. His thin, warm fingers press into my bones, and his dark hair (now growing out) pushes into my bangs with our touching foreheads. My body groans toward him in hunger and in comfort, in the feelings I’ve been avoiding.
I can apologize for screwing things up, but you’re going to hold it over me forever if we don’t talk about it. He says.
I want to fall out of love with him. I want to have control over my body and my mind. He hugs me for a long time and whispers in my ear about my birthday. I’ve spent three days preparing myself for his forgetting. I’ve spent three days being okay with having the voicemail message he left me last year and nothing else.
You should wear a dress. He says.
I should be happy, I think.
The DSM is updated (on average)
every nine years.
The next edition will be out around the time I’m thirty-three,
and I can’t wait.
I understand my problems through reading guidebooks better than I understand contentment.
RACHEL A.G. GILMAN is a writer based in New York whose writing has been featured in Adelaide Literary, Minetta Review, and TV Guide Magazine. She is the producer of the award-winning podcast, “The Write Stuff” on WNYU-FM, as well as the Creator/Editor-in-Chief of the feminist arts journal, The Rational Creature. She is also a columnist for Popdust and WSN’s The Highlighter. Find out more at rachelaggilman.com.