The last thing my mother does before supper is put on the string of pearls she stole from a pawnshop when she was fourteen. She wears them when she’s expecting company — when she’s in the mood to entertain. She runs her fingers over the beads while I eat, sits up straight with her shoulders just so, her elbows off the edge of the table, always calm, never flustered. My mother is perfection, she is grace incarnate. These are the qualities I must embody to be successful. To be loved.
She keeps my jars of vomit underneath her bed, lines them up on the kitchen table when she catches me taking seconds, says, this is how you stay thin, this is how you get a man, this is how you’re going to be happy, and plonks them down in front of me one by one. I dislike the way her face twists into fury when I disappoint her, the way she dismisses me with the flick of a manicured hand. I need to be more disciplined, need to embrace my hunger. My mother says she knows it’s difficult, she learned the hard way, too. Suffering, she says, can be a beautiful thing.
My mother holds my hair when I stick my fingers down my throat. I wince as my teeth scrape the calluses on the back of my hand, but, beauty, my mother says, doesn’t come without sacrifice. Her latest orchid was stolen from the corner store. It sits beside the sink looking dainty and pretty, and I can’t help wondering — what did it sacrifice?
My mother rubs my shoulders, blots my lips with a dirty dishrag, says, that’s better now, isn’t it, there, there, my dear, there, there.
I nod as I sip a little water, as I swish it around my mouth, but my stomach is rumbling. My stomach is always rumbling.
Mr. Garcia knocks while I’m washing the dishes, just as he does most nights, unless it’s Mr. Harriott or Mr. Nickerson. I take my seat outside in the cold next to my mother’s discarded orchids, their lush green leaves spilling over the edge of the containers, their delicate flowers already fallen. I watch my breath light the air with wispy white plumes while I wait for my mother to invite me back in, and I wish the cold would shock me into something beautiful.