The girl stood at her desk, shifting uncomfortably. Her friend looked over from the next cubical.
"How are you today?" the friend asked.
"Ok. I feel a little tired. I think I need to eat something," the girl said. This last admission was made with what was not quite embarrassment, but definite sheepishness. And perhaps a little guilt.
"Oh," said the friend, looking annoyingly blank. "Well, why don't you eat something?"
The girl rolled her eyes, like isn't that obvious. "Well," she said with an expression indicating if you're really going to make me say it, "it's so I can be more thin."
The friend - who was on the plumper side and who had on several occasions tried to establish a weekly Weight Watchers meeting at the office, going so far as to prepare low-sugar, low-fat snacks for these meetings to encourage new and existing members to keep coming back, only to watch as attendance petered out anyway, leaving her alone with her demons - this friend looked unsympathetic.
"But you're already thin," the friend said.
"Yes, but I want to be more thin. More thin," the girl said, as if this should have been obvious.
She resented that she was being made to say such a thing out loud. Yes, she was already a size 6 (and sometimes a 4), this was true, but this meant nothing in today's society, nothing. She might as well have been labelled a cow.
Besides, it wasn't enough to be thin, everybody knew this. The question was, could you be thinner still? Not that she expected her friend with the ample waistline and failed Weight Watchers meetings to understand.
"Oh," said the friend, continuing to look blank. "Well, that's one way to do it." She looked at the screen in her cubical, indicating that as far as she was concerned, the conversation was over.
The girl went back to her typing, feeling half-annoyed, half-guilty. Well, maybe more than half-annoyed, and a less than half-guilty. She didn't expect her friend to understand, but thought they were close enough for her to respond honestly when confronted with the question "How are you today?"
Apparently, this was not the case.
The truth was, she was conflicted in more ways than one. She felt hungry, but wanted to be thinner. She wanted to eat, but wanted the effects of not eating. And she felt guilty about wanting any and all of it.
There were children starving in Africa right now - isn't that what her mother used to tell her? And it was still true, wasn't it? It was as true as it had been 30 years ago; even now, there were still children starving in Africa. Except now (and probably even then), they were starving on other continents as well.
Meanwhile, there she stood feeling faint but putting up with it because she wanted to be thinner. But that wasn't even the worst part of it.
The worst part of it was that she cared so much about being thinner, spent so much time thinking about this very thing. It had taken up about 20% of her thinking so far that morning, and the more faint if she felt, the more it consumed her thoughts until by lunchtime, it was up to 90% of everything she thought about.
90% of everything, when the solution to her hunger sat in a fridge in the break room or in the vending machine. That was 90% of time that could be spent thinking about many other worthwhile things, such as current events, or learning a new language, or how to be a more charitable neighbor, or where she could go on her next vacation that would awaken and inspire her, or how to be a better friend and cubical neighbor.
90% of everything. All so she could look that extra bit thinner.
And this would not just be one morning. She knew from experience that if she was to actually get thinner, this would not just be a one-morning deal. She would have to do this every morning and every afternoon and every night for the foreseeable future - perhaps until forever.
Wait - forever?
"Well," a small voice inside her said stoutly, "if that's what it takes."
She recoiled with horror, then heard another voice within her pipe in, expressing the same shock. "If that's what it takes? If that's what it takes?!" the other voice said, sounding shrill. "What exactly are you saying? That it's ok to feel this way every day, just so we can look a little bit thinner? Is that what it takes?" The second voice paused for emphasis, letting the words sink in. "And when exactly when did we decide that looking thinner was the most important thing, anyway?"
"Oh, like any of this is news to you," the first voice said dryly, but sounding contrite.
"No, it's not new," said the second voice. "Maybe that's the problem. But we are not going down that road again. Not this time. We are better than this. At least," the voice wavered, "I thought that we were."
"None of us are better than this," the first voice said evenly.
The second voice shrugged, if a voice can shrug. "Well, we'll just see," it said, but there was a lack of conviction that betrayed confidence in the statement.
The girl went back to work.
She continued to feel faint, but managed to put off eating until lunchtime, when she had one small apple and two slices of bread with a thin layer of hummus in between. See? she reasoned. She couldn't be unhealthy, she was still eating hummus. People couldn't be unhealthy and also eat hummus, it was unheard of. She ate the apple, then the bread, then the hummus.
She continued her diet for the rest of the week, then the month. She continued to lose weight. She didn't feel any better during the daytime and actually started to feel worse, probably as she was now consuming even fewer calories than in the beginning.
At least, she reassured herself, she was continuing to look thinner.
And she was looking thinner. Her friends had noticed, and some had even paid her compliments. A few others were concerned, but not enough to say anything - it was really none of their business, they decided. And she really did look quite thin - was that a size 2 she was down to? Most of them could not even imagine getting down to a size 2, not without having the flu for several weeks or contracting some kind of gastrointestinal disease or something.
A few of her friends were even jealous - but not really. With her thinness had come an angularity not only with regard to her physical appearance, but also to her personality. There was a snappiness now, an unpredictability, and not the fun kind. It was the unpredictability you would associate with a neighborhood dog, the one you don't really know but that sits outside looking not quite dangerous but not exactly friendly, with a penchant for lunging at any stray fingers, limbs, or small creatures that might make their way over to the wrong side of the fence. Her unpredictability had a raw, hungry aspect to it. Everything about her had a raw, hungry aspect.
The next Monday, the girl stood at her desk again. She felt hungry - she always felt hungry. Thinking about this and how she looked now took up about 92% of her time, increasing to about 97% the closer it got to lunchtime. She leaned against her desk and rested one hand against her throat in a way that she hoped would make her look both vulnerable and exquisite, though really all she felt was tired.
She didn't know how to find her way back from there. Even if she wanted to go back, she didn't know how.
"You don't look well," her friend on the other side of the cubical said.
She glanced over, slowly. It took energy to gather, direct, then cast her glance. She gave a faint smile. "But do I look thin?" she asked. She emphasized that last word - thinnnnn.
The friend sighed. "Yes," she said, looking once more at the girl, then back at her screen. "You look thin."
She brightened for a moment (as much as anyone whose only sustenance each day consists of three rice cakes with only the faintest whisper of hummus can brighten, which is to say, barely perceptibly) then looked exhausted. But also, she hoped, thin.
But her friend's suspicion was correct - she didn't feel well.
She wondered randomly what they put as the cause of death on the death certificate for people who died from not eating. Starvation, perhaps? Or would it be malnutrition? That seemed a more proper term. Starvation - like one of those children in Africa. She frowned then, but only slightly, with just the middle part of her forehead and not her entire face. Was she really the same as a child in Africa? In her case, maybe the death certificate would say something like "Willful and purposeful neglect of self... and also, starvation."
She wondered how many people actually die of starvation every year when they are actually surrounded by food, with the means of purchasing it. Not that many, she decided. If she died, she would be one of the few. She considered how much will power it took to be a member of such an elite and specialized group and felt the tiniest surge of pride, then felt ridiculous.
She waited for an inside voice to protest, to argue her position. There was none to be heard. They had all fallen silent weeks before.
The girl tried sitting down, then standing up - it was really hard getting comfortable. She was just so tired. Suddenly she slumped over. Then she fell.
The girl died on a Tuesday. They held her funeral on a Wednesday. They all stood around and looked at her body, made up and lying neatly in her casket, then commented on how thin she looked.
It's what she would have wanted, they decided.
They agreed upon cremation. She could no longer be thin - she could no longer be anything - but they could still make her as light as possible. Her body was burned into a thousand cinders, possibly more, until all that was left was a pile of dust and bone, and then the bone was pulverized into a million pieces so it truly was dust, and this is what they were presented with.
It was shocking to see a person reduced to something so small, but it also seemed fitting for someone who had sought to become smaller and smaller in life.
It's what she would have wanted, they decided.
At first, they didn't know what to do with the ashes. There were no relatives to speak for the girl, no loved ones, so they wracked their own memories for the answer. Wasn't there a time when each of them had known the girl, known her before she became consumed with the idea of being thin? There had been more to life that she had wanted. Each of them struggled to recall the time when this was so.
There was that time she shared some pictures of a trip to a nearby mountain, one friend offered. The girl had been happy there - climbing to the top until she was higher than the clouds, and she felt like she was dancing on top of the air.
They thought about this a bit, then stopped. Then they went home that night, had dinner, then thought about it some more.
The next day they met in the parking lot at the base of the mountain, then started climbing up. One of them carried the girl's ashes in a pack, and as they hiked they told stories about the girl they used to know, before she cared about being thinner, stories that came more easily now they were bothering to think.
They spoke of her smile how she would make them laugh, how she would chew on the ends of her hair when she was trying to figure something out (which they all agreed was gross, but also somehow endearing). They talked about her kind heart and frequent offers of help, no matter how busy she was, and how she was funny. And also gentle. And also smart.
They talked about all of these things as they hiked, never once remarking upon what she looked like or if she was thin, and when they arrived at the top of the mountain they just stood there for a moment, not even crying, not even saying anything, as there was nothing really left to say.
So they got out the ashes and started to say goodbye, and then they did cry (which was unexpected, as they thought they were all done crying, but apparently not), and they said their final goodbyes to the kind girl with the beautiful spirit who had made them laugh, and about whom they did not care one bit if she was thin.
And they released her ashes into the wind (being careful to stand on the upwind side of it), so she were swept along with it, and this time it wasn't so much about being lighter than air as it was about dancing on top of it. And she sailed in whirling, swirling, intricate currents that flowed and fluttered, going higher and lower then higher still, over the flowers and trees, clouds and clifftops, over towards the sunset and the horizon.
Then they hiked down the mountain and got in their cars and drove home, then slept a good night's sleep in their beds and they didn't think about the girl anymore, except perhaps once, and that was simply to remember her face, and to smile.
It's what she would have wanted.