I chew the Mars bar down into a dangerously smooth liquid. At this consistency it could easily slide down my throat without me intentionally swallowing. I realised then that I should have added a dry food to the sweet mixture in my mouth, like a Digestive. It’s too late now, I’ll know for next time. I’m already in the toilet with the solid mass of chocolate and caramel pushing at the back of my throat, begging to pass Go. I let it swell in there for a moment longer, brushing the top of my pallet and massaging my tongue, before I realise that my body may think I’m choking and just swallow without my permission. I’d then have eaten a king-sized Mars bar! I quickly wrap a reel of toilet paper around my palm; four times is not thick enough, odd numbers are not okay, six is not okay, and eight times is too thick. I go for four knowing the urgency of the situation. I quickly spit the huge ball into my toilet paper covered hand. Once it’s safely out of my mouth I take a moment to enjoy the sweet residue that still lines the back of my teeth.
I look at the sugar mountain in my hand and lick it. I use tiny bites to eat around the edges, swallowing this time. I can’t go too far into the centre so when it looks like the ball is getting too small, I spread my legs and let it fall between them, into the toilet bowl with a splash. The toilet paper left in my hand is wet and broken, leaving my skin slimy as if a snail has just read my palm, paying close attention to the heart line. I scrape what’s left of the toilet paper into the loo and lick my palm clean, enjoying the final taste of sweetness before I flush, wash my hands, tilt my head under the tap for a few sips, and join Mum and Dad back on the lounge.
“We paused it for you, love,” says Dad, “we know you love this part.”
“Yeah right, you both just wanted a smoke.” They laugh together.
“Well, that too, but all’s well that ends well, right.” He presses play and I lay back on the couch with my feet stretched over Mum’s lap. “Am I too old for a foot hold?” She doesn’t answer, just cups my right foot with one hand and takes a gulp of coffee with the other.
That weekend we cleaned the tiles. Mum’s coffee-tobacco combo was still able to reach me over the bleach. It was the smell of home that nothing could overpower, not onions cooking on the barbie, not paint for my mauve feature wall, nothing. And as she bent at the waist, using a toothbrush to tease dirt out of the small scratches in the tiles, I realised Dad wasn’t around.
“Where’s Dad?” I asked, throwing my new phone onto the kitchen table and firing up the kettle for my fourth green tea of the day.
“He’s just gone to the Moon for a Guinness with Sandy and the boys.”
“Oh, right. Back on it then I assume.”
“It’s just one drink, Cara. He never stays on at the pub like the rest of that Irish crowd. He just needs a little taste of home every now and then.”
“So, what’s your taste of home then? Is this how they clean the floors in Finland?”
“Hey, it’s your high heels that cause this mess,” she teased.
I got down on my knees and took the toothbrush out of her hand. “Break time for you. The kettle’s just boiled.” She stood up tall and stretched her long arms into a peak above her head, bending side to side.
“Why don’t you just mop?” I asked, finding it instantly soothing to dig the bristles of the brush into the floor revealing white where there once was grey.
“It doesn’t get the dirt in the scratches and I was just sick of looking at it.” She stood at the kitchen counter and drank her coffee slowly. We continued in silence for a while, so I used the time to count how much I’d had to eat that day. While Fallon knew calories, I knew categories. It was crucial to stick to three or four foods in one day. If there was too much variety, there was too much chaos. I’d had a banana and fat-free yoghurt for breakfast with green tea. Green tea and fat yoghurt for lunch.
So, if you have another green tea in an hour, you can have a normal dinner. But if you have another binge of Dad’s fat yogurt, you’ll have to get rid of it.
“I think Dad’s a lot happier at the new school,” Mum said, breaking my cleaning-categorising trance.
“Yeah, he loves making his little packed lunches and the stories he comes home with are insane. Did he tell you they had to cancel the disco because the kids kept having sex behind the shed! They’re in year six!”
“Yes, he told me that one. He’s talking a lot more these days, it’s a good sign.”
“Yeah, the silent treatment’s the worst part,” I said. Ask her if she wants a divorce and you won’t binge tonight.
“Did you ever want to just leave him?” I asked, walking in a crouch to the next section of stiletto punctured tiles, head down. “Like surely you thought about divorce before the first time he went to rehab.”
“I don’t know, Cara. I could still see him in there. Even through all the shit. And you kids were so young.” She paused, flicked on the kettle again as she passed it, pouring the cold dregs of her cup into the sink.
“But did you love him?” Before she could answer, I continued. “I sometimes think I hate him, like he just gets to control the mood of the house with his mood. ‘If I’m pissed – literally – you all have to watch out. But if I’m happy, you had all better be stoked with my happiness.’ I’m just over it. I want to move out. You can come too.” She gave me a half laugh.
“I felt like that with my dad too. But your dad’s got his good sides,” she said.
“Didn’t your parents get a divorce?” I asked.
“Yes, and my dad chased your mumu and all us kids through the field with a shotgun. We had to hide in the farm’s bushes. That’s when she finally left him,” Mum said casually between the two rooms as she went to get another old toothbrush.
“Um, what the actual fuck? Are you serious?” I stopped what I was doing and looked at her as she knelt on the floor beside me. “How did I not know this before?”
“I guess I never told you. But in those days, you didn’t divorce without a reason.”
“Well a game of shotgun chasey is certainly a reason. Fuck me.”
I gave up on the floors before Mum did, her stamina was comparable to the poor donkeys you see carrying fat tourists around the Greek islands. She kept going well into the night and well after Dad stumbled home, walking straight from the front door to his bedroom without a word, using the walls for stability. I made a dinner of steamed veggies and soy sauce for us, steaming strips of cabbage so that it would feel like we were having noodles. It had been a good eating day, not to mention a day that I learned my mum was a real human who’d had a real life before I existed, so I thought I could have a spoonful or two of yoghurt. It was a category from that day already, so when I counted my inventory, I wouldn’t have to add anything new: banana, yoghurt, green tea, and steamed veggies. But as I soon as the teaspoon of creamy apricot hit my tongue, I couldn’t stop. Exchanging teaspoon for desert spoon, I shovelled it into my mouth watching the litre tub empty as if someone had pulled the plug. I felt sick and that gave me comfort. The quicker I did it, the sicker I felt, and the easier it would come up. Mum had gone outside for a smoke so I kept shovelling it in counts of four until I heard her start walking towards the back door. I put the mostly empty tub back in the fridge, opening the door and exposing myself with the bright light that flooded over the food and onto my body. I quickly moved towards the toilet in a hunch, pushing on my stomach as if I was massaging a stress ball. I leaned over the toilet and shut the door behind me. There was just enough space for me to kneel down even though I was knocking my knees on the ceramic bowl and scratching my back against the door frame.
You have to get rid of it. That was so fucking gross. You binged a litre of full-cream yoghurt and it’s all swirling around in your guts. Why did you fucking do that? You had a good day. Each second it stays inside it’s turning into fatty mould. You’ll get so fucking fat and Mum will know. Get rid of it NOW.
I used my stomach muscles to roll my insides on top of themselves, still massaging with my fingers. It wasn’t coming up, so I went from crouching to standing and back again as quick as I could, careful not to knock my spine too hard on the door and make a noise. I stood, crouched, stood, crouched, massaged, rolled. The smoothness started to rise through my chest. I bent forward and gagged into the empty bowl. Nothing. I went back to the routine, moving my waist in circles this time trying to turn nausea into regurgitation. I felt some of the apricot chunks sting the bottom of my throat as I leaned forward again. A few small orange jelly squares covered in white spit made it up. I spat them into the bowl and could tell the rest was stuck. I was furious. It was over. The day was ruined and there was no recovery from this. I flushed the toilet and went back to the lounge, passing by the kitchen on the way and grabbing four Kingston biscuits out of the tin.
I sat next to Mum and ate them one by one as she drunk her umpteenth coffee for the evening. Once they were gone, I made two pieces of jam toast, then I filled up a mug with Milo and poured cold milk over the top. I finished that and then made another. The sickness was overwhelming now, like the food was digging into every cell of my body and if I sneezed, my eyeballs would pop out leaving chewed Kingstons in the sockets. I was standing in the kitchen looking for what was next. Sweat ran down the length of my back causing me to arch my spine in reaction, as if someone had run the tip of a dried gum leaf across my bare skin. The rivulets sped up as each drop reached the middle of my spine where my bra strap was meant to be. I knew I was going to be sick. I skipped to the toilet, sweat covering my forehead now. I barely shut the door before a rush of heat moved through my body and out my mouth. I watched the chocolate Milo and milk come up first, grateful that it wasn’t just dry Milo because I remember how much that hurt. Then the biscuits and clumps of toast. One roll of my stomach and chunks of white yoghurt silked into the bowl, covering the rest of the food with its thick blanket. I was free. I had done it. And I vowed never to do it again as I looked down at the milky occupation.
It’s just a nasty habit and it only takes 21 days to break a habit, starting now. If you make it 21 days, you’ll get married and have kids and an awesome house on the beach and be normal.
“Everything okay in there?” Mum knocked on the door and I quickly sat on the seat so that my reply came from the place I was meant to be located. “What’s happening in there?” she continued.
“I’m playing basketball,” I said with a snap.
She laughed awkwardly and walked away. I flushed and went to bed.
I woke up to a text from Fallon just a couple of hours later.
[come over] was all it said. I looked at the time, 11:03 p.m.
[what’s wrong?] My eyes tried to adjust to the blue screen.
[just come over. I’m fucked.]
[okay, on my way]
I put a hoodie over my singlet, looking for my keys. Mum was still awake watching news in a language I didn’t understand. “I’m going to Fallon’s. She needs to talk.”
Mum just gave me a nod and said to text her if I was sleeping over.
I took the coast road there, watching the black waves smash against the rocks as I drove by. I could feel my stomach on the seatbelt and as I sped over the speed bumps I checked for a jiggle. Nothing. Then I craned my neck to look in the rear vision mirror, scrunching my chin towards my chest and then stretching out my jaw like a runner trying to nod her way to victory. While the jaw was clear of fleshy pockets, I saw puffy cheeks and pressed on them until I could feel the outline of teeth meeting hard gums.
If you reverse down her street and back up twice, The Habit will be over before you graduate.
I looked behind me and went back down the hill with my foot on the brake, back up, back down, and up again. Fallon lived in a three-storey house with just one more house between hers and Trigg beach. When I knocked on the door it took a while for anyone to answer.
“Hi Cara, bit late is it not?” Her mum asked, a port sipper in her hand and smudged makeup accentuating the cracks around her red eyes.
“Yeah, sorry. Fallon and I kept texting so I thought I’d just come over.”
“Fair enough, those phones you kids use now will be the death of us. Come in, love. I think she’s down there in the theatre room.”
I tried three different rooms downstairs before I found her in the ensuite connected to her bedroom. She was just in knickers, lying on her back, with her belly ballooned out like the body of a bloated dead cow; an image that had become the mascot of Australia’s drought that year.
“Hey,” I said gently. “What’s happened?” I sat next to her and started playing with some of her hair that had escaped to the side.
“I just fucking ate a whole stash of Easter eggs and like half a loaf of bread. I just couldn’t fucking stop. And now I can’t move,” she started to sob the words out, draping her forearm over her eyes. “I don’t know what I’m doing, it hurts so much. I can’t even spew it up.” Of course she couldn’t get it up, there was no liquid in the mix.
“Can you stand up?” I asked. “Let’s lie on the bed.”
“I can’t fucking get up,” she yelled. “My stomach is about to burst. And I fucking wish it would.” The sheer size of her private bathroom meant that we didn’t need to hush our conversation, unlike the coffin-sized bathroom I shared with my whole family.
“Come on, Fallon. Let’s go to your bed. You’ll feel better once it all goes down.” She took my hand and I helped her onto her bed, pulling the covers back so she could get in.
“He broke up with me,” she said crying.
“I’m sure it was just a fight. You guys fight all the time and never actually break up.” She handed me her phone and I navigated from inbox to outbox, trying to piece together the conversation.
“Fallon, he said he’ll be over in the morning,” I said, showing her the screen as proof.
“Yeah but he won’t come. He’s such a dick.”
“Is that why you did this?”
“I don’t know why I did it. I was just so hungry and Mum and Dad are pissed again, Bri’s gone out with her high school friends and I just had nothing else to do. I know that sounds crazy.”
“No, not at all. I think you just need to sleep it off, talk to Liam tomorrow, and text me when you wake up. Okay?”
“Please don’t leave yet. I might do it again,” she said, holding onto my wrist. I shuffled down the bed and nooked in next to her. She clicked on the TV and we fell asleep together with the Buffy boxset playing in the background.
When we woke up, Fallon’s mum had made us both a cooked Irish breakfast. It smelt so good that I could imagine the fat dripping onto the hotplate and crawling along the walls.
“Right, the pair of you girls are too skinny, you need to eat up,” she said as we came up the stairs and into the kitchen. “I’ve got potato bread, bacon, fried eggs, and fried tomato. Grab a plate there, Cara. You too, Fallon—no arguments.” I took a plate and hoped to God we could serve ourselves.
If you get away with eating one piece of potato bread and a half tomato you’ll get the interview at Agency 1.8 after this semester.
“Muuuum. No. I’m not hungry. I’ve never liked breakfast,” Fallon groaned, her stomach completely retracted now and glued to her ribs once again.
“Fallon, I don’t want to hear it. It’s getting embarrassing seeing you all skin and bones. You’ve got to eat and I’ll be sitting here watching you take every bite.” They locked eyes and Fallon began to cry. She ran back down the stairs and away from the forced feeding. I looked at her mum and said that I had to rush to class but I’d call Fallon from the car. She just nodded and turned off the stove.
I didn’t have class till midday, so I went home and got my iPod ready for a run. I had gotten everything up from last night, avoided breakfast and could start the day fresh on my terms. I planned a run, an apple, my Consumer Behaviour class, and then a Diet Coke on the way home. I was even contemplating allowing myself a few strands of spaghetti in the evening.
Just as I was about to leave, my mobile rang showing a private number.
“Cara, this is Diane Jane here from your International Advertising class,” she said in a formal tone I wasn’t used to. “I’ve got you on speaker phone with an Account Manager from Agency 1.8, Tessa Stone.” Well that explained the formality of it. “She’s an ex-student of mine and I’ve been telling her about the pitch you spearheaded in class last week. She wants you to come into the Agency office this week for an interview with her AD, okay.” There was no question to be answered, so I just reminded them that I hadn’t graduated yet.
“Yes, I know and it’s no problem. They just want to meet you for now and see how you may fit into the team in June.”
“Okay,” I said smiling. “Thank you, that’s really exciting. I can’t wait.”
“Great. I’ll chat to you about the details in class.” I left for my run feeling like it was all falling into place and nothing could get in the way now.
When I got home no one was there. I was starving and felt like my head was stuffed full of cotton wool. I took out a bowl and splashed one handful of Just Right inside. I added half a cup of light soy milk and ate a spoonful in the kitchen. Each chewy sultana felt like it had the power to mop up the fog from my brain. I took another spoonful, feeling the milk soak into my sandstone tongue. I free poured more cereal into the leftover milk. I ate until there wasn’t enough milk left. I added more milk to the leftover cereal. And so, the cycle continued until I felt the familiar pain under my diaphragm. With no one home, I used the sink to try and get rid of it. I ran the tap and sipped little bits of water from my cupped palm, pulsing my belly in a rhythm The Habit demanded. It came up sharp and fast, leaving a pool of eaten wheat in the sink. I tried to push it down the drain with my fingers but another urge waved through my stomach. I opened my mouth and it landed on top of the previous pile. I dug and dug at the mass blocking the drain. It started to go down slowly, and when it was all gone, I turned on the tap to clean the residue from the sides. The sink filled with water and chunks of food started to reappear, not just cereal from this time but other things like small strips of carrot and grains of white rice. I panicked and ran to the kitchen to boil some water.
If you don’t get this down, you will go to hell. And Mum will know that you’re there and she’ll kill herself hoping to join you, but she’ll go to heaven.
I took the kettle into the bathroom and poured the scolding water over the mouth of the drain. It sounded like a chunk of cement was slowly disintegrating as I continued to pour, watching the steam fog up the mirror in front of me. I swatted at the opaque glass and looked at myself in the mirror. I couldn’t tell if I was me. I no longer understood what ‘me’ meant. I kept trying to remember that this body belonged to Cara, the one who just got an interview at one of the best agencies in town. I moved my arm, and sure enough the mirror arm moved too. But it didn’t make sense, the whole thing was an illusion. I shook my head and squeezed my eyelids tight, knowing I should turn my back to the mirror or, better yet, walk out of the bathroom. But I stood in fright, staring at the stranger.
“Yo, anyone home?” Brody’s voice broke through my reflection as he jetted through the front door.
“Hey,” I yelled back from the bathroom, feeling the weight of the kettle in my hand once again.
“What the fuck are you doing?” his sunken face suddenly over my right shoulder.
“I’m trying this home facial thing I read about in Women’s Health,” I stuttered. “You pour boiling water into a bucket and put your face over the steam.”
“But we have a sauna you dip shit.”
“Thank you, Captain Obvious but I don’t have time for a sauna. I have class at 12.”
“Where have you been all weekend anyway?” His fingers tapped a speedy tune across every surface of the bathroom before landing on my spine for the crescendo. “Ouch, get off. Who’s that happy on a Monday morning?”
“People who are still in Sunday night. Or, Saturday night for that matter,” he said between mouthing lyrics to a song I didn’t know. I squeezed past him and out of the bathroom, careful to look at the sink one last time and make sure it was clear of debris.
“Well do you want to ride together to uni seeing as you’re here for a change?”
“Nope. I’ve gone to all the mandatory classes for this unit so I’m done.”
“No wonder you’re four years into a three-year degree,” I said into my neck.
“Well, not all of us can be top of the class like you, Cara.” He gave me a tight hug around my shoulders; with no forewarning I didn’t have any time to raise my arms in protest or reciprocation so they just hung by my side in disbelief.
“What was that for? Are you drunk?”
“I can’t give my little sister a hug after her sink facial?” The words ran out of his mouth so fast that I barely had time to catch them. I stood and watched him for a moment drumming his hands and feet around the kitchen, pulling out all the pots and pans to find our old milkshake maker. If it weren’t for his shoulder length hair, I may not have been able to recognise this newly slight frame digging around in the pantry.
I threw my uni bag onto the passenger seat and looked in the rear vision mirror, expecting to see that the stranger had followed me there. But it was me. I could see myself and it felt real.
If you check the mirror before class and you’re not just a shell, then you’ll never feel that outside-ness again.
If you get a park in the free bays you won’t have to check the mirror before class.
If you get two green lights in a row, you’ll get a park in the free bay without the jacaranda trees.
If you get four green lights in a row, Brody won’t try to use the sink and see your Habit bubbling up.
I turned the radio up to 32 but adding up to five wasn’t okay that day. 33 was odd and added up to six. Never okay. Everything in the 30’s added up to odd. I had to go to 44. It was so loud that I pressed my left ear to my shoulder trying to dull the noise as I drove into the campus carpark. It was near empty but that night I didn’t sleep.
Clare Reid lives in Western Australia and is a writer fascinated by the commonalities of this human experience. Long-listed for the 2019 Fish Anthology short story prize, Clare is a first-time published author who began her writing journey as a copywriter. In an editorial capacity, Clare has written for the likes of Capture Magazine, Campaign Brief, Zen Mama, and The Perth Collective. She holds an MA in Transnational Creative Writing from Stockholm University.
Featured image: Photograph of Clare Reid by Tyler Brown.