Cora was hunched over a child-sized desk at 11 that night, fumbling through some algebra when her father’s knock sounded at the door. She blinked stupidly at the sound, stumbling in her attempt to admit him. Her eyes had to adjust to the darkness that always seemed to herald her father—black jeans, leather jacket, his hair in his eyes.
“Daddy,” she squeaked, groaning as she reached her hands around to hug him. Bryce extended one hand, losing in the flesh of his daughter’s back. With the other, he presented her with a box of cookies. “Got them from—“
“—I know,” Cora finished for him, blushing. Bryce nodded, looking down and scuffing his toe against the floor, a habit Janet detested.
“I—I could have picked you up,” Cora said uncertainly.
Bryce shook his head, his eyes fogging as he remembered another place, another time. “It was late,” he said to his daughter. “I didn’t want you driving this late.”
Cora nodded, such images also playing in her mind. As if privy to her thoughts, her stomach rumbled loudly, and she clutched at her latest treat. “H-have you seen Mom yet?” she blurted out.
Bryce shook his head again, his insides feeling like lead. His mind snapped shut on his hazy memories and he shuddered slightly.
“She’s—she’s hired me a trainer.”
“Now why would she want to do a think like that,” Bruce murmured, staring into his daughter’s wide gray eyes, and cupping her face. “You’re beautiful.”
Cora looked down bashfully, suddenly able to imagine herself as someone else. Under her father’s gentle palm, it didn’t matter that she had three chins or a stomach, which kept her body at bay. The cookies tingled in her hand, and she closed her eyes forcefully, trying to distance herself from this tableau.
“I—I know she’s right,” Cora stammered to the darkness inside her head. “She showed me the latest statistics on obesity in Cosmopolitan.”
“Those magazines are about as shallow and vapid as she is,” Bryce insisted. “You need to get out of this house, and experience the real world. You know I wish I could take you on my—trips—“
“I can’t keep doing this,” Cora blurted out, her eyes snapping open.
Slowly, Bryce pulled his hands from his daughter’s cheeks. “Doing what?”
“Lying.” The word felt like cotton in her mouth and hung as thick between them as her silence with Janet earlier.
“And what do you think you are lying about?” Bryce asked in a low voice. Cora swallowed to keep the words and tears at bay. Slowly, she moved her hand to her stomach, shoving down a sudden flashback to the first time she’d seen her father get out of a strange woman’s car. “A—about my weight,” she finally said. “She’s right about me; I just… need you to talk to her.”
“What is it you want me to say to her?” Bryce spat, looking away.
Another flashback. Janet on her treadmill, running, pumping, sweating, pounding for over five hours. Cora brought her a toasted bagel on a china plate, and Janet glared at her, snapping her head up so fast Cora could almost hear the crack. “Don’t you see that I’m trying to maintain good habits?” Janet hissed. “Don’t play devil’s advocate, Cora.”
Cora turned away, her chest heaving as she wondered if that look in her mother’s eye was that of fear.
“Tell her to stop,” Cora whispered, “tell her not to diet anymore.”
Bryce sighed, moving away from his daughter. “You know I have no control over her,” he said, trying to hide the bitterness. “But—I’ll try. For you, sweetheart, I’ll try.”
Cora nodded, smiling in gratitude. “T-thank you.”
Bryce returned the gesture, a quirk that did not reach his eyes, and stepped out of his daughter’s room, closing the door behind him. Once it was safely shut, she allowed her face to fall, wondering if he’d really make an attempt to talk to her. If she’d make an attempt to change. Questions, which certainly couldn’t be answered tonight, Cora reasoned, abruptly shutting her algebra book and turning to the bed. If there was one thing this house offered, it was a stockroom of tomorrows.
Cora took a deep breath at 11 am the next morning. Her hands sweated as she balled them into fists, walking timidly down the school corridor. People stopped to regard her, and Cora was grateful that her body didn’t clench into the stress it did when she first came to high school.
Most of the glances were tinged with emotions Cora came to associate with for the last decade—sarcasm, pity, shock, disgust. She walked past her algebra classroom, unseeing. Her father’s cookies burned in her pocket.
She imagined Janet running. First on her treadmill, then around the block, and finally popping a workout video into the VCR. The house was too quiet when she was all alone, like a polished museum that she cultivated for no one’s use. She’d stop the tape, Cora realized. She’d drink big gulps of water, but even they wouldn’t help. She ‘d glanced towards the kitchen.
Pulling a snack out of one of the cabinet drawers, she’d feel as reckless as Cora did when she reached behind her pillow. Her favorite protein bar would be heavy in her hand. She was technically trying out the Atkins’ diet, Cora knew, but was too afraid to try actual meat. She hadn’t eaten meat in over three years.
With a sudden flash, Cora remembered her father, stumbling home last night, attempting to see her, not Janet. Cora wondered again if he had kept his word that morning, or had ducked out of the house that at the first sign of light.
Cora knew that he hated this place. Everything from the floor to the décor seemed to gleam with an artificial light, brought on by excessive cleaning. The house smelled of Pine Sol to cover up that musky odor of disuse, an order he was certainly contributing to by staying away so often. But being in that place always must make him wonder if anything was real—or if he was just living in some high school fantasy—red BMW, big screen TV, trophy wife. “Only one thing in this life seems real to me,” Bryce had told her once, and Cora paused, wondering if he really meant her, or if he was referring to the situation he had just left, another plane ride away.
“Miss Williams!” the algebra teacher barked and Cora blinked, suddenly finding herself squeezed into her desk in the corner, the class looking at her and snickering. “If you would be so kind as to join us.”
“Sorry,” Cora mumbled, staring at her meaty fingers splayed across the cool wood.
“You will never get far in life if you don’t pay attention,” the teacher lectured, lapsing into rhetoric. “Tell me; do you want to make something of yourself? Do you want a future? Who are you in life without your education?”
“I don’t know,” Cora whispered, and was shocked to discover she said it aloud when the class started giggling. “Well, if you are what you eat…” a voice to the left said.
“That’s enough,” the teacher responded. “Since Miss Williams is otherwise preoccupied, Trisha, would you like to answer question 13?”
Cora imagined that Trisha opened her mouth, but she had no idea what she said. Her ears were pounding, like the rushing of blood to her brain. She suddenly felt on the edge of a precipice she had never experienced before. Briefly, she surmised where her parents were—Janet, at home, exercising, Bryce at work (and hopefully working.) Everything was in place, wasn’t it? She looked up to the class being conducted in front of her. She swallowed hard, willing herself not to get lost in the dreams about her parents’ lives. She wondered if it was too late to take her book out of her backpack.
Janet was waiting for Cora when she got home from school. Shocked, Cora’s shoes squeaked dangerously on the floor and Janet winced. The woman next to her looked at the young girl critically, taking in her awkward stance, bulbous stomach, labored breathing and spasming hands.
“Cora, this is Patty,” Janet said, gesturing to the woman. “She’s here to help us train.”
For what? Cora wanted to be obstinate, and the feeling scared her, as if she was losing her grip. “H-hello,” she rasped instead.
The woman, Patty, nodded in response and Janet continued to speak. “Get dressed. I laid your sweats on your bed.”
A sudden chill set into Cora’s bones and she fumbled to climb the stairs. In her doorway, she sniffed at her mother’s scent—the sweat and the water—and glared at her pink sweats, billowing out from the bed. Slowly, she approached her loveseat and grasping the frilly pillow, closed her eyes. She slid her free hand underneath, and bulked at the empty nothingness she found. Her eyes snapped open and she gasped, hyperventilating, her fingers sliding into her pocket and around her father’s latest gift. There was only one cookie left.
Downstairs, Patty tapped her hand across her thigh, a practice Cora saw in her mother often, like the equivalent of Bryce’s abuse to the perfect floor. She tried to imagine her father as the trainer began to talk— Bryce laying his coat over his shoulder and shutting his office door, sighing at the thought of returning home. Already he could feel the oppressiveness of the house, gleaming like an eerie beacon in his mind. He’d wonder if Janet was polishing or exercising. He’d wonder if Cora was snared into her latest craze. Perhaps he’d pick up some licorice sticks for her.
“Mr. Williams—Bryce?” From his left, his secretary would speak nervously, twisting a strand of hair around a manicured finger as Bryce turned to her. “Are you busy tonight?” she’d ask, eyes riveted to his. “I wanted to welcome you back from… your trip.”
Would her father close his eyes, uttering a private thank you to whatever powers that be? The tension easing from his shoulders as he answers, “No. No, I’m not busy.” He’d lay his coat around her shoulders and with a hand at the small of her back, guide her out of his office. Would it once enter his mind to question, has this gone too far?
Cora was thinking it, suddenly, as she squeezed and crushed her body into crunches, the woman, Patty, sharply egging her on, Janet standing in the doorway. She was 16-years-old. She was going to college in two years, and had no idea what she was interested in (besides food) or what she was good at (besides eating.) And secrets… Cora was good at keeping secrets. But the balance was shifting, she realized, gasping for breath, rivulets of sweat streaming down into her eyes. She could not keep a hold of her food, her fat, her life. A sudden twang sounded at her heart and she flopped to the floor, immobilized. I have no life, she admitted, the two women moving hazily above her. She was just an extension of her parents’ lies, fabricating lives for them based on her own fears…nothing more. Tears mixed in with the sweat when she realized there was no Cora.
They sat in the dining room a few hours later, Janet and Cora, a bowl of untouched carrots like a spotlight in the middle of the table. Janet fidgeted as usual but Cora was unusually calm, still as a meditating Buddha and looking inward. Her body ached in new places and she wasn’t hungry; it was like she didn’t know herself anymore.
“You did well today,” Janet finally spoke, as if gasping into a vacuum. “But you’re going to have to do a lot better if you want to lose 20 pounds by the end of the month.”
“Who said I wanted that?” Cora mumbled, tracing patterns into the ornate tablecloth.
But Janet heard her. “This is serious, Cora!” she insisted. “Do you know what damage you’re inflicting on your body? What your father is doing to you? Can you not see?”
Can you see? Cora wanted to challenge, her fingers going slack against the table. Inside, her muscles seemed to turn to lead and her tangled hair pressed down against her scalp.
Janet churned, wanting to hit something into motion. She detested the apathetic silence of her daughter, of her house. “Where is your father…” she muttered.
“Where he always is,” Cora said, deadpan.
“Work? But he just got back from a trip. He always eats his first meal with us.” Janet clapped a hand over her mouth, perhaps mortified at how much she’d revealed as to missing her husband’s presence.
Cora swallowed past bile, remembering. Bryce’s secretary when she was 14 was named Wanda. She used to leave Hershey Kisses on her desk for the girl like entreaties. Cora came to her father’s office often that year during her lunch hour. She wanted to make sure that for that time, at least, nothing was going on. But eventually, she stopped caring. The chocolates worked their magic and she could easily be bought. Anything to ensure that Janet was still blind and happy.
“I can’t take it anymore!” Janet shouted, shaking Cora from her reverie. “This insufferable stillness all day long—speak, dammit! Surely you have something to say.”
“Y-you’re losing it,” Cora quavered, her body beginning to rumble.
“Oh, I’m losing it?” Janet asked, incredulous yet relishing in the emotion. “I’m not the one who can’t bother to take care of her body! I’m not the one who spends half his time away from this family! So tell me, Cora, how exactly am I losing it?”
“Because you have nothing to lose!” Cora screamed, her eyes suddenly wide open. Jumping up from the table, she stumbled back until she felt the firm wall behind her. “You exercise and you starve yourself and yet he still doesn’t want you. You think that by being a supermodel housewife in a suburban neighborhood that you can have this dream life, but you have nothing! You can’t see—you can’t even see that he—“ She broke off, gasping, and her vision grayed. Her body lay open like Pandora’s box, but she clutched tightly to that last truth. “You’re just killing yourself,” she said quietly. “We’re all just killing ourselves.” Suddenly sick and dizzy, feeling a weightlessness to her bulk, Cora stumbled up the stairs and slammed her bedroom door shut.
She sat alone in her room long after she heard the front door slam. Janet couldn’t handle the stillness, Cora knew, she’d have to… pound.
The bed creaked dangerously below her and she ran her hands over her stomach. She wondered how much of her mother’s message was true—that she was killing herself with this excessive eating. But what Janet and Bryce didn’t comprehend was that their daughter’s habits kept them alive. She ate for every meal her mother missed. She ate for every time her father was absent. She ate to be the glue, holding her family together.
The cookie bulged from her discarded clothes, thrown onto the floor in an act of defiance. Desperate, Cora reached for them, falling to the floor with an earth-shattering rumble, wincing as she plunged her hand inside, digging around until she found her prize.
Slowly, Cora got up, the cookie crumbling in her hand. She took a deep breath to compose herself, and then methodically ate. The cookie seemed to set her insides on fire, righting her upside-down world and by the end, Cora was chomping on her fingers in an effort to lick up the crumbs.
Gasping, she fell onto her bed, ignoring its groan. Eyes closed, she waited for the sound of Janet’s keys, Bryce’s BMW. A disgruntled trainer, a veiled reference to a mistress, something to tell her she was doing her job right—and the diet of her family was firmly in place.