I brought the girls cigarettes and magazines. Everyone told me not to; the doctors were quite clear. They’re dying, I said to the orderly who saw me slipping these treasures out from beneath my oversized black smock. She shook her head. I dressed now under the influence of the girls, everything too big for me. Tunics and flowing pants that a drawstring only tentatively secured. Hair pulled back tight, bright lipstick. The girls were not fooled. Underneath I was nothing like them. Tunic descending not in a wide line but hugging my breasts, and when I sat my pants’ legs taut with the muscle and flesh of my thighs. Even my hands were unlike theirs, when I pushed magazines across the table or took out my voice recorder, my arm seemed exaggerated, slim as it was there was a softness to it the girls did not share. The bones of their wrists and elbows pronounced enough to construct a landscape in shadow, lines of sinew and vein straining the skin. As though these women abhorred the concealment in which the ordinary body endured.
Tell me why you’re here, was my first question in every interview.
Some shrugged, or looked at me scornfully, their appearance its own explanation. Some, like M, told whole life stories: teen rebellion, heroin, sex, a band whose name I recognized but which I was surprised anyone could have taken so seriously, the clichéd reactions of Mom and Dad, and then—her hands thrown wide to encompass the tasteful institutional room, the sounds of television and whir of the one feeding-tubed girl in her purgatory in the corner—and then they sent me here. To recover. With this last phrase she made air quotes, a twin twitch of her red-polished nails, and snapped her gum. Her breath was terrible, which she must have known.
This is my boyfriend, one girl said—I call her L, very sweet—and showed me a photo. It was an artifact, in the photograph her face still rounded like the recent child she was, so that she looked bobble-headed, her hand pressed to a boy’s chest and her hips turned toward his in a pose normal enough but which her childlike body made look obscene. He was a regular-looking boy, frosted hair, graphic T-shirt, athletic shorts. She too was wearing a sort of high-school basketball outfit, the waist of her mesh shorts rolled over into a thick rope that sat low on her hips. This was junior year, she said. You guys look so cute, I said. Does he come to visit? It was too far for visits, as it turned out, a five-hour flight from her home to the center. She was not alone in this, the girls here came from all over—the center had received so much attention recently, its star in ascendance, as I myself had written, that the waiting list for admittance was now well over a year long (though with exceptions possible for those in medical crisis). Unlike other treatment programs, the director had told me, we radically remove women from the family environment.
Arriving in the leisure room I surveyed the girls playing cards, listening to iPods, watching TV (its offerings pre-filtered, the center’s own channel, as it were), or even, though many were old enough to vote, attend college, have families, drawing quietly, sharing boxes of colored pencils that one girl took it upon herself daily to sharpen. The girls bickered and were in moments, I knew, very cruel. But looking at them it was natural to think that they must in some way have birthed one another, arose together out of a mythic sea, surf and light masking their spectral forms, salt glistening in the hair that furred down their arms. All my girls stay in touch with me, one of the psychiatrists had told me, pointing to the bulletin board behind her, which was indeed lined with postcards and snapshots. Skinny women sitting implausibly in front of birthday cakes; a girl embracing what must have been the family dog; and two perfectly normal women at the beach, in oversized sunglasses and matching orange-and-white-flowered bikinis, and I searched their faces for a hint of which one might have been a resident here, in a body now left behind, disappeared. Thirty to forty percent recovery rate is the norm, the psychiatrist said, we have hopes that we’ll improve on that drastically, and so far our results are encouraging. But it’s too soon, of course, to say conclusively.
I toured the grounds, the riding stables and ring, the vegetable garden, a badminton net billowing in the wind. There’s no pool, my guide, Dr. Harrison, said. Harrison treated the medically urgent cases, those patients who were transferred here directly from hospitalization elsewhere; the center had five fully equipped rooms. Several of the girls you have met came to us in that condition, he noted. Two sprites with half-braided hair, their knees as large as apples, walked past us, lugging between them a bucket of carrots presumably meant for the horses. The two youngest, Harrison said, fortunately they get along very well.
At all the centers I’d been to thus far for my feature I’d asked to observe mealtimes, and this was the only institution at which I’d been refused. We take a strict disciplinary approach, they said, and engage in direct therapeutic intervention, I’m sorry. The girls told me little more when I asked. I was provided several weeks’ worth of menus so I could assess nutritional values, as well as the CVs of everyone involved in the meal planning and food preparation. I returned to my interviews with the girls, determined to speak to each one of them. I like your bracelet, B said, her fingers following the filigreed silver. The girls were, I’d discovered, unexpectedly tactile, always touching one another, the orderlies, even me. Often just to cross the room they threaded their wrists through one another’s elbows, or walked down the hall to mealtimes holding hands. When the feeding tube broke out in its wretched beeping, a girl sprang up to massage its blockage clear, the girl to whom it was hooked up only murmuring a thank you from her doze on the couch. B’s fingers were cold on my wrist; and her clavicle, I thought, extraordinary, a pool of shadow dark enough one could hide a coin in there, pull it forth as a trick to amuse children. Thank you, I said, touching the bracelet myself—It was my grandmother’s.
Really? All my grandmother’s jewelry is so ugly, T said, from where she was sitting at the far end of the table, playing solitaire and listening in. Oh, mine too, I said, this was in a box of things she never wore.
Hilary Plum’s first novel, They Dragged Them Through the Streets, is forthcoming in spring 2013 from FC2. “Kin” is one in a series of pieces on journalists and journalism; others have appeared in DIAGRAM, The Collagist, LIT, and Route 9. She is a contributing editor with the Kenyon Review.