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elizabeth dobbin

New Nonfiction


by Elizabeth Dobbin

Canned Mushrooms

      They’re not slimy, exactly, but blanched in a way that makes them unnaturally tender, like chicken cooked after a lifetime of sitting around in its own refuse. (And full of maggots, if you believe the Internet.) I think that was my middle school Atkin’s endeavor, sometime before the South Beach Diet and sometime after that diet pill, whatever it was called. I was never fat exactly, but I weighed more than other people my height. Of course, most people my height are less than ten years old. I’ve never really figured out if it was the muscle that weighed so much, or if that fat—that seemed to materialize on me whenever I looked into a mirror—really existed.
      Of all the foods I ate on these skewed plans, the mushrooms are what stick with me—that semi-sterilized odor, like formaldehyde preserving the fungi corpses—I think I even asked for them. As much as they disgust me now, they used to be one of my more appealing options. Better than celery anyway.
      I remember sitting there at the long table outside the lunchroom, unzipping my hunter-green, 2-piece lunch pail. The mushrooms were nestled in a Tupperware container from which I unleashed their subtle stench on my classmates nearby … I’m sure there were comments about my food, but it was the unspoken word that bothered me. Freak. Of course, maybe it was a voice within me uttering that accusation.

A Dignified Way to Lie

      “Stand tall; it makes you look thinner.”
      “Hold your stomach in. You won’t have to do as many crunches later.”
      I was told I had poise, but the way I held myself didn’t seem all that strange. Observing my classmates, though, I started to notice that the way I held myself was different than the others. Weird.
      I taught myself how to slouch.
      It didn’t matter if you had a bad day; you had to move past it, channel as much of those feelings as you could for fuel, and shove the rest away, compact them inside you. Stretch farther, push yourself harder, stand taller. Don’t let them see how you really feel. Mask the fury inside you with the unrippled mask of poise. It was an act, so that’s how I learned to live. No matter how you feel, you just have to act. You can fool them easily. It’s a dignified way to lie.

Afraid of an Apple

      The other day I imagined opening my fridge, considering the current contents, figuring what I could eat for a meal. I gazed at the small, shapely, gala apples and decided I couldn’t eat one.
      Too many calories.
      Warped, I know. And futile. Inevitably I end up eating that many calories in some other type of food, or more. It is a constant battle that I constantly lose, just by choosing to fight it. And it’s not just apples. I cannot eat a cup of pea pods or a raw carrot without thinking about how many calories I’ve already eaten and how many I have left.
      Pathetic. Afraid of an apple.

Wall of Mirrors

      Sounds like a horror flick. I can imagine the story…
      I hit one last extension, falling into a deep lunge as the lights go down. The lights return, but dimly, so that the flicker of the mirrors is replaced by satiny, black shadow. I wait for the music to return. It doesn’t. Pivoting on my back foot, I gaze at the corner where I know the CD player sits with its mini subwoofer, over by the barre. But it isn’t there, and neither is the barre. The entire wall, painted white and pink with little dancers is gone, and all I see are my own dark eyes searching for me.
      I must be turned around; it would make sense with all the twirls. But as I look around, I realize the walls are all gone, the dance studio is gone, replaced only with the mirrors. They correct me, demanding perfection, taunting me because they know I cannot attain it. In the mirror behind me I see myself convex, expanding, my black leotard and skirt blending with the shadows. I whip around and I glimpse the beauty I have always sought at the edge of my vision. Halting in mid-spin, I stare at her, can’t help but drift toward her. She is perfect, so beautifully thin that she looks long, though she can’t be an inch taller than I. Her eyes and lips are the perfect shade of darkness and the hints of childhood pudge are gone from her, replaced by an angular jaw, hips, shoulders. And just when I thought she was perfect, she grows thinner, still so beautiful. Thinner, I’m still so happy to be her. Thinner, I know the others would worry. Good, that means they’re paying attention. Thinner, they find me disgusting. Thinner, my bones are protruding. I’ve always had a fascination with being able to see my ribs. Thinner, grotesque, carved from stone to look like human bones. Thinner, I am no longer human, but I cannot hate myself. It is beautiful. Thinner, someone screams from behind the glass. They can’t stand the sight of me. I can’t tear my eyes away. Thinner, the screaming intensifies, won’t stop.
      I hurl myself at the glass to silence her, severing my own arteries with the shards.

Thank You, God, for the Stomach Flu

      Never buy a dress when you’re on a diet. Ever.
      I must have been near the end of either the Atkin’s or South Beach phase, and I found the most beautiful dress for my eighth grade graduation. I remember the rush of elation when I was asked if I was buying a dress for prom. Back then, I always wanted to be older; now I just wish I was a kid again. Anyway, I bought this black satin dress with two sets of white lace on the skirt—kind of a Lolita look—and I convinced myself the six was great, when it was a TINY six. But I was so proud to have that dress, until the day or week or whatever before my graduation when I realized I couldn’t fit into it anymore.
      Suck in, Lizzie. Don’t panic.
      I’ve always heard God works in mysterious ways … and something was sure working for me the day of my graduation. I woke up with something like the stomach flu, puked my guts out until all I could hurl up were wads of yellow phlegm. And that’s exactly what I hurled up right before I walked out to get my slip of paper, the diploma or whatever. Somehow, though, being sick wasn’t so bad. I sipped a soda during class, grossed out the popular girls lounging near me.
      And thank the Lord, my dress fit.

Believe It or Not, There’s Water in Hell

      Halfway through one of my recitals, I ripped the skin off the side of my foot when I leaped offstage. I guess you could call it a blister, one of those nasty open ones with flames writhing under the very last layers of skin left—all because I didn’t remove my pointe shoes and re-wrap my toes with medical tape between the back-to-back performances. Too afraid of my feet swelling. It was right after my fast solo, and I still had to dance the Arabian number—before I knew exactly what I’d done to my foot. So I made myself a deal: whenever it hurt, I had to smile.
      I beamed through the whole performance.
      After re-wrapping my toes, which I should have done before, I braced myself for the pas de deux at the end, the last duet where the girl and guy dance and everyone in the audience pretends to be moved before they rush to their cars to avoid the parking lot traffic. A love duet. On my foot.
Thankfully, my turns were all on the other foot, and I made it through the performance only to burst into waterworks in the car. Seriously, I can’t even remember if we went out for ice cream because I was such a wreck. Anyway, when we got home my mother set a large, white footbath in front of me on a towel, and I plunged my injured feet into the heated Epson salt solution.
      It burned like hell, so I can only imagine hell contains that type of water for the sole purpose of pouring it lavishly on the flayed flesh of the spirit.

Clothes Make me Claustrophobic

      I’m not a stripper. So what if I’ve gone to the bank more than once with an excess of one-dollar bills. It’s from playing my viola on the streets, I promise. But clothes really make me claustrophobic.
      Anything that’s tight all over isn’t a problem, like leotards or corsets, but as soon as there’s a band that’s tighter than the rest of the clothes, something snaps inside my brain like a frosted twig in late winter. Any sort of band, especially if it fails to stay in place. That means tights, skirts, jeans, halter tops etc. are all taboo in my drawers. I wear them because I have to, but sometimes that twig snaps in one too many places.

Under the Influence

      They say I’m influenced by Hollywood, but my version of beauty even Hollywood is hard-pressed to love. They say curvy is popular now, and that’s just fine. But I’d be happy if I were curveless. I like the way my ribs show. But they expect perfection.

Cracked Reflection

      All of a sudden I want to dance; I miss being a ballerina. I miss the line of a pointe shoe and the invisible wire stretching from the end of my fingertip to the tip of my foot in extension. I can almost forget about my arches, so low that they held back even the most inventive pointe shoes, wearing out the expensive satin at the ends, short and stubby. But they were strong. I can almost forget the horrible costumes, stretched over me like a bloated lava lamp, the bloodsucking tights that rolled down when I drove home in the car, the bursts of rage as I learned to put up my hair in a bun and the pile of bobby pins when I took it out: the reason I could never have bangs. I miss the pain—forcing my ankles farther over my toes, fighting the pointe shoes, knowing that the resulting curve was beautiful. The loveliness of an arm curved around the body, a thin wrist and delicate fingertips, the gentle whoosh of air in a grand jeté across the room—I could move far across the stage; we called it traveling—all glitter in front of my eyes. But my retinas are too jaded to let in the flecks of light from those sparkles. I may be momentarily lured by the memories of triumph—solidly-executed turns and rapid footwork I could implement so crisply—but I cannot forget the small, lumpy mass among the dainty girls, hair pulled back, wearing black shorts, cover-ups, anything to disguise the fact she was at least two inches thicker than the others; to be as flexible as the other girls she had to work over that extra layer. I cannot forget the child who could barely breathe when she had to wear another dancer’s tutu, who was chosen to wear the most loosely-fitted costume in the foreign studio’s Nutcracker, who couldn’t abandon her love of chocolate and coffee and cheesecake but tried so very hard. I cannot forget that she could never be that tall, thin muse that was her learned definition of beautiful. I cannot forget the girl who gained weight when she turned anorexic and couldn’t make her disobedient body throw up.
       I am reminded all over again, every time I look into a mirror.

Elizabeth Dobbin has over 10 years of experience in dance and is pursuing a degree in music performance at Concordia University in Irvine, California. She writes fiction and poetry as well as nonfiction and works as a writing consultant at Concordia University.

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