Nil by Mouth

January 21, 2021   •   By Zara Potts

WHEN I WAS 13, I was a skinny girl: a brittle frame of seagull bones, all bluff and bluster, cliffs and cartilage, and thin skin woven tight as a fisherman’s net. I was a skinny girl. I took small bites.

This is what I told the school nurse who pulled me into her office and questioned me about my bones. I take small bites, I told her.

I take small bites of the world, so it won’t notice that I have teeth. When I was a little girl, I would bite myself on the arm, when I was bathing, just to see the half-moon indents of my molars. To bite — to leave my own mark upon my own skin — was to know I was real.

But I did not tell her this. I knew nobody wanted to hear that. Just like nobody wants to see bones.

You need to eat, she said.

But I do, I said.

You are an anorexic, she stated.

But I’m not. I wasn’t.

Oh yes, you are.

And that was the end of that.

¤

The psychiatrist asked me if I ate. Yes, yes, I said. I eat all the time.

Do you, she asked. It was not a question.

Yes, I said. I put food in my mouth, and I chew and chew and swallow it all down. Good girl that I am.

Do you, she asked.

Yes, I do, I told her. I can prove it if you like.

She raised an eyebrow in challenge. So, I opened my mouth and bared my hidden teeth.

Do you like chocolate? she asked me.

No, I don’t like sweet things, I replied.

Hmmm, she said, and made a note of it in her little black book.

¤

When I was 16, my body turned traitor. I was not like the other girls; I had no blood in my underwear.

You’re anorexic, the doctors insisted. They hoisted me onto scales, like I was a fish. They sunk their hooks into my cheek and weighed me and measured my bones.

Blood won’t come when you’re so skinny, they said. You must eat more.

I observed my traitorous body. I examined myself in every mirror I could.

I observed and measured and looked and found myself wanting. No curves to be discovered, nothing to see here but pure trigonometry.

Eat, they said, and it will come. Eat, they said, and you too will be a woman.

But I knew I could eat the earth and all the stars above it and still the blood would not come.

I knew it because there was a ravenous, greedy hole in me. A great, black hole that was so very hungry, it could never be filled.

¤

When you’re 16, if you’ve never had a period, they send you to a doctor. The doctor they sent me to talked fast and didn’t look me in the eye. He ushered me into his office without asking my name. He kept his back to me while he wrote notes on his big white important pad.

Have you had a period?

No.

Never?

No.

Have you had any spotting?

No.

How old are you again?

Sixteen.

And you’ve never had a period?

No.

How much do you weigh?

Always, it comes back to this.

¤

I was sent an appointment for surgery as if it were an invitation to a sleepover. I packed a small bag with my toothbrush and my department store makeup. I packed a new pair of pajamas and some fashion magazines.

The ward was suffocating in its ordinariness. Hospital-issued beds of iron with flaky paint. Above my head, a sign: NIL BY MOUTH. But when they wheeled me into the theater, the taste of garlic was in my mouth.

¤

After they sliced me open, I was not just a skinny girl without a period anymore.

I was a rare skinny girl with no womb, a living sympathy card, there to be studied. The fresh-faced medical students filed into my room with their sturdy clipboards and fish-like smiles. They looked at me as if I were a bug in a jar. The aroma of grief was leaking from my every pore, and they leaned in closer to get the scent of me.

But I would not let them near.

No, I said. You cannot examine me. I am not a curiosity. I am not yours to see.

The students were disappointed. Their fat cheeks expelled their heavy breath as they filed out of my room. I did not care. I have a hole inside where everything maternal should be, I thought. Don’t come looking for comfort here. I am nobody’s mother.

I never will be, so don’t ask me for understanding. I am too busy devouring my own pain.

¤

The years passed on and I ate all my meals, good girl that I am. I crammed the birthday cakes into my mouth, and I choked down all the anniversary dinners. But I never finished a full meal, for there was no room left inside me.

For years I had been swallowing dead babies. Eating them like ashes. All those lost children, all of those daughters and sons. Every one of them, breach or premature, or fat and healthy, delivered from the womb of my imagination. I had suffered miscarriages and stillbirths and ectopic pregnancies. Every possible birth, every possible scar.

I was every possible mother, beloved, sweet, and domesticated, or absent and unkind. I slept each night on a bed stained with the ghosts of those unborn children, the fragments of their unformed bones splintering my sheets. Though nameless, I could trace their breath with my fingertips in the air. Softly, hotly, their unopened mouths cried out with hunger, but I, skinny girl who needed to eat, had nothing to feed them.

I birthed so many phantom children, but I never received so much as a Mother’s Day card from these ungrateful infants.

¤

I am too old now to mind about imaginary dead babies. And I am too old now to mind about the hole inside me.

I have filled it with many things throughout the years: solitude and stitches, bouquets and bruises, rings and regret. But still, I am a skinny girl. I sustain myself with my small bites. I am careful to keep my mouth closed so the world does not notice my teeth. Instead I keep the bitter taste on my tongue hidden, as I eat the thistle and the rose, the flower and the thorn.

I fill myself up with every taste in the world. I drink down the vinegar, always taking care to avoid the milk.

¤

Zara Potts is the author of A Talent for Shipwrecks, an essay collection published by Saddle Road Press. She has been a contributing writer for The Nervous Breakdown and a contributor to the Mapping Me anthology.