Nil by Mouth

I packed a small bag with my toothbrush and my department store makeup. But I knew I could eat the earth and all the stars above it and still the blood would not come. You must eat more. A great, black hole that was so very hungry, it could never be filled. No. she asked me. I have a hole inside where everything maternal should be, I thought. They looked at me as if I were a bug in a jar. ¤
When I was 16, my body turned traitor. Yes, yes, I said. But when they wheeled me into the theater, the taste of garlic was in my mouth. Never? When I was a little girl, I would bite myself on the arm, when I was bathing, just to see the half-moon indents of my molars. You cannot examine me. Above my head, a sign: NIL BY MOUTH. I examined myself in every mirror I could. This is what I told the school nurse who pulled me into her office and questioned me about my bones. I am not yours to see. ¤
When you’re 16, if you’ve never had a period, they send you to a doctor. She raised an eyebrow in challenge. Have you had a period? But I do, I said. Oh yes, you are. JANUARY 21, 2021

WHEN I WAS 13, I was a skinny girl: a brittle frame of seagull bones, all bluff and bluster, cliffs and cartilage, and thin skin woven tight as a fisherman’s net. You are an anorexic, she stated. Blood won’t come when you’re so skinny, they said. I was a rare skinny girl with no womb, a living sympathy card, there to be studied. But I would not let them near. I take small bites, I told her. The fresh-faced medical students filed into my room with their sturdy clipboards and fish-like smiles. ¤
Zara Potts is the author of A Talent for Shipwrecks, an essay collection published by Saddle Road Press. I take small bites of the world, so it won’t notice that I have teeth. No. They hoisted me onto scales, like I was a fish. You’re anorexic, the doctors insisted. I observed and measured and looked and found myself wanting. For years I had been swallowing dead babies. ¤
I am too old now to mind about imaginary dead babies. I am too busy devouring my own pain. Good girl that I am.   ¤
The years passed on and I ate all my meals, good girl that I am. I have filled it with many things throughout the years: solitude and stitches, bouquets and bruises, rings and regret. Softly, hotly, their unopened mouths cried out with hunger, but I, skinny girl who needed to eat, had nothing to feed them. Eat, they said, and it will come. They sunk their hooks into my cheek and weighed me and measured my bones. So, I opened my mouth and bared my hidden teeth. He kept his back to me while he wrote notes on his big white important pad. No. He ushered me into his office without asking my name. I slept each night on a bed stained with the ghosts of those unborn children, the fragments of their unformed bones splintering my sheets. I was not like the other girls; I had no blood in my underwear. I crammed the birthday cakes into my mouth, and I choked down all the anniversary dinners. I packed a new pair of pajamas and some fashion magazines. Do you, she asked. Every one of them, breach or premature, or fat and healthy, delivered from the womb of my imagination. I was every possible mother, beloved, sweet, and domesticated, or absent and unkind. Always, it comes back to this. No curves to be discovered, nothing to see here but pure trigonometry. Have you had any spotting? I birthed so many phantom children, but I never received so much as a Mother’s Day card from these ungrateful infants. I can prove it if you like. Eat, they said, and you too will be a woman. But I did not tell her this. The doctor they sent me to talked fast and didn’t look me in the eye. I drink down the vinegar, always taking care to avoid the milk. And you’ve never had a period? How much do you weigh? I knew nobody wanted to hear that. I am careful to keep my mouth closed so the world does not notice my teeth. No, I don’t like sweet things, I replied. Their fat cheeks expelled their heavy breath as they filed out of my room. All those lost children, all of those daughters and sons. And I am too old now to mind about the hole inside me. I put food in my mouth, and I chew and chew and swallow it all down. But I never finished a full meal, for there was no room left inside me. But still, I am a skinny girl. Instead I keep the bitter taste on my tongue hidden, as I eat the thistle and the rose, the flower and the thorn. Do you like chocolate? ¤
The psychiatrist asked me if I ate. I never will be, so don’t ask me for understanding. Sixteen. Do you, she asked. You need to eat, she said. I took small bites. I eat all the time. I fill myself up with every taste in the world. I sustain myself with my small bites. No. Yes, I do, I told her. It was not a question. Hmmm, she said, and made a note of it in her little black book. How old are you again? ¤
I was sent an appointment for surgery as if it were an invitation to a sleepover. And that was the end of that. No, I said. I did not care. Hospital-issued beds of iron with flaky paint. I knew it because there was a ravenous, greedy hole in me. The students were disappointed. Yes, I said. But I’m not. I had suffered miscarriages and stillbirths and ectopic pregnancies. The aroma of grief was leaking from my every pore, and they leaned in closer to get the scent of me. I observed my traitorous body. Though nameless, I could trace their breath with my fingertips in the air. Don’t come looking for comfort here. ¤
After they sliced me open, I was not just a skinny girl without a period anymore. To bite — to leave my own mark upon my own skin — was to know I was real. She has been a contributing writer for The Nervous Breakdown and a contributor to the Mapping Me anthology. Every possible birth, every possible scar. I wasn’t. I am not a curiosity. Just like nobody wants to see bones. I was a skinny girl. I am nobody’s mother. The ward was suffocating in its ordinariness. Eating them like ashes.