Cinthia Ritchie writes and runs mountains in Alaska. Her work can be found in New York Times Magazine, Water-Stone Review, Under the Sun, PMS:poemsmemoirstory, Memoir, Sport Literate, Evening Street Review and others. Her first novel, Dolls Behaving Badly, was released Feb. 5 from Grand Central Publishing/Hachette Book Group.
My sister’s body lies on a steel table in the basement of a funeral home in northeastern Pennsylvania, a sheet pulled up to her shoulders, one toe stubbornly pushing out the bottom. Her face is hard and unresisting, her eyes closed, her mouth sealed tight. She looks tired and defeated, though of course people will say that she looks good, they will offer up this kindness. Thin bands of white streak her hair, the only part of her that still feels real, though it is scratchier than in life, as if I am touching not a person’s hair but an animal’s, a horse or a dog, something familiar yet strangely unrecognizable.
My sister died of a heart attack. She was forty-three. It wasn’t what she ate, all those foods they warn us about: fried chicken, cheese, biscuits dripping in butter. My sister ate none of that. She didn’t eat at all. She starved herself until her bones popped out of her skin, her elbows and knees jutting sharp and dangerous. She languished in her ability to refuse food, in her keen, transparent hunger. It was as if she were caught in a love affair so consuming that she couldn’t break free, lingering until her weight dropped so low that she almost couldn’t catch herself again.
Then she pulled herself up and began eating again, slowly, and only certain foods: dried oatmeal, crackers and the soy-based protein powder she bought in canisters at the health food store. She allowed herself these stingy calories, chewing and swallowing as if it were a penance. When she wore pants and long sleeves, her bones camouflaged beneath colorful fabrics, people often complimented her. “You’re so thin,” they marveled. “You must barely eat.”
My sister gave a smug, satisfied nod. It pleased her, I think, that she could look this way. I doubt it was what she truly wanted and I’m sure it didn’t come close to being enough but still, she could do this one thing. She could be the skinniest.
A white plastic body suit covers my sister’s upper half. It looks like one of those old fashioned swimsuits from the Twenties, with bloomers attached to the legs. This, according to the funeral director, is to keep the fluids from draining through. I resent this suit, and the noise it makes when I lean down to touch my sister’s arm and accidentally nudge a corner. It sounds like a grocery sack shoved away in the cupboard, a leftover noise of things we don’t want to see.
Her legs are still tanned, her calves unnaturally puffed and rubbery from the embalming fluid. I run my hands over her knee, which feels thicker and more substantial than it ever had been in life. Tiny hairs itch my palm, and suddenly this seems the worst thing, that my sister had no way of knowing, as she dressed for work that night, that she would be rushed to the hospital without doing or saying all those things we all know, in the back of our minds, we would do or say to prepare for our own deaths.
Growing up, my sister was large-boned and chubby, her movements slow and languorous. Her shoulders were broad, her hands capable. She looked like what she was, a country girl, someone at home around horses and cows, who could swing a bale of hay over her shoulders with barely a thought. In another time she would have been revered for her beauty. She would have been the milkmaid in one of Vermeer’s paintings. In another time, in another family, perhaps she could have been all that.
Instead, she declared war on her body. She did this slyly, intentionally. Perhaps she thought that she didn’t need to eat, that she was better than food. But really, she was none of these things. She was only dying.
An oily, chemical smell emits from my sister’s body. It’s the smell of disinfectant, slow rot and the cloying scent of old ladies’ perfume. I can feel this smell invade my nose, squatting thick and heavy around the tip of my tongue. Her skin is pliant, almost soft, yet when I grip too hard there is a denseness that reminds me of wood or concrete. She could be a rock, a boulder, the side of a mountain—that’s how inert she’s become.
It’s a paradox, a God-awful irony that this is my sister, who tried so hard to reshape her body, who fought and counted every calorie, every morsel of food that slid between her lips. Who hated and feared and secretly glorified in herself a little too much. How ironic, how true and hideous that this has happened, that she has finally gotten what she wanted. That her body has finally won.
I don’t know when my sister began to slide, whether it festered slowly or came on quickly, heaving down with a weight so startling and immense that she had no choice but throw it back up again. By high school, she was already caught, hurling toward a future we all anticipated but refused to acknowledge. That we did nothing to stop her, that she did nothing to stop herself, says more about our lives than her death.
My sister and I came from a family of secrets. We didn’t know how to touch gracefully, and the small hugs and touches we exchanged were just that: small. The last time I saw her, I held her hand aw we walked through the overgrown pastures of the farm back home in northern Pennsylvania, my son skipping along behind us. Her fingers clasped mine tightly, almost painfully, with the desperation of someone who hadn’t been touched in a long time. Even then she was dying, I could see it in her eyes, that lack of anticipation, that weary dullness of having to wake up, day after day, to the same set of problems, the same gnawing desires. We spent a few days together and before I left I touched her face with the back of my fingers, slowly, lingeringly, the same way I touch my lover. Such acts of affection weren’t encouraged in our family, so maybe I knew even then that this would be the last time I would touch her.
Though probably I didn’t. Probably I wasn’t even thinking of her, probably as I hugged and kissed her goodbye, I was already worrying about the flight back to Alaska, if I had mailed my son’s summer camp application, if we needed to stop and buy dog food on the way home from the airport. Even then, that last time together, as I folded my arms around her thin back, her ribs crushed sharply against my breasts, even then I was securely locked inside my own weight, the surges of my own blood and muscle. Even then I was blessedly unaware of how thin my sister’s life had become.
I trace my fingers over my sister’s scars: a small mark over her forehead from when she jumped off the bed as a child; deep, jagged lines about her wrists from her teenage years, when she cut herself out of anger and defeat. There are pale scratches across her chest, and an old scar from an injury, years ago, and right on top of it, like an image superimposed on a photograph the marks from where they tried to revive her in the hospital. These are fresh and redder, angrier. Down lower is an array of scars over her legs and the twisted mark around her knee from where she was hit by a car while walking her dogs years ago.
I can’t stand looking at these scars, all the broken-down stories of my sister’s too short life. There are other scars, of course, the ones I can’t see over her heart and inside her throat and stomach, the nicks and grooves of almost twenty years of bulimia and anorexia. I wonder how many nights she dug her fingers in her thighs, holding herself back from eating. Even now, in death—even now she looks hungry.
My sister and I used to steal tomatoes from the garden, both of us sitting out in the dirt in our shorts, no shirts, chest flat and tanned as a boy’s. Feet bare, toes digging in the dirt, a stolen salt shaker in my sister’s pocket. The tomatoes were so red that they were almost purple, drooping over the vines with such abundance that we felt intoxicated. We couldn’t stop eating. Not even when our tongues ached from the acid, when the roofs of our mouths numbed dull and sore.
We were rich back then, young and silly enough to believe that we would always be nourished. We sat filthy with tomato stains, the smells of rotting cucumbers and peppers behind us, and we didn’t talk or tough. Still, we were close then, closer than we would ever be. Later that night the acid would inevitably hit our stomachs and we would be sick, but we didn’t worry about that. We sat in the dirt, our eyes closed, our faces held up to the sun.
Before I leave this room, this basement rooms with no windows, this room with concrete walls and floors and no adornment, not one damned pretty thing in it. Before I leave this room, I dress my sister. I lift her hips and slide on a dress, and it’s dreadful how awkward her body is, how it doesn’t give or lean toward me; how motionless it remains. I want to smack and shake her: “Wake up. Wake the fuck up.”
Instead, I struggle with the underpants, the silk twisting against my fingers, the body suit crinkling as I pull up the waist and smooth down the legs. Then I move down to the end of the table and pull on thick socks. Her toenails are long and ragged, and I think of dressing my son when he was small, his chubby feet, his round, domed belly and how his skin smelled of milk and grass.
I tug the last of the wrinkles out of the dress and comb my sister’s hair with my fingers. She doesn’t look the way I had expected. I had imagined making her beautiful, but she’s not. She’s dead and cold. She’s not my sister. She has nothing to do with my sister. Still, I can’t leave. I stand by the table clutching my hands to her arm.
I stand there a long, long time.
Finally I gather my things and walk out of that ugly room. I close the door; I don’t look back. Outside, the sun spreads across the parking lot. I lean against my car, close my eyes.
“Hail Mary,” I pray. But my mouth waters and instead I think of food: peaches, cold milk, bread fresh from the oven. I imagine the pink insides of beef, butter sliding off muffins, corn on the cob hot from the pan. My hands shake, my knees feel weak. I can’t stand it. I am so hungry, Jesus Christ, I am so hungry I could fucking die.