At six o’clock, a dozen women sit in a circle of chairs. Their purses, backpacks and briefcases are on the floor near high heels, hiking boots, sneakers. This is how the women are different. This is how the women are the same. They have bony wrists, sharp shoulders, screaming collarbones. Their clothes are too loose, their bellies extended. Some bulge with it, weeks away. Some have four months or more.
The women talk in low voices. This is a temporary classroom at the community center, and next door there are children cooing offkey songs in Spanish. The women bounce the conversation around the room. Sometimes Barbara, gray-haired with spectacles and whiskers on her chin, stirs the settling silences with questions. She asks specifics, as in, “Shelby, how many times did you purge last week?” The answers are never proud, accompanied by self-loathing and hand-wringing. Often the women shake their heads and clear their throats and whisper, “Pass.”
Barbara advises the women to name the entities growing invisibly inside them, to make them real. Barbara recommends they relocate scales to the garage for now, avoid reflective surfaces. She begs them to stop the diets and the pills and the marathons, if only for a few months. Barbara cares and says please with an age-spotted hand pressed to heart. Everyone has her home number and everyone knows Barbara checks her email past midnight, just in case someone needs her.
In this room, the women have no last names. Besides their complexions and accessories they are unspecific, skeletons and shapes shrouded mysteriously in clothes. Their stories are similar, if differently worded. When one woman says, “I bought a girdle to hide it,” the others nod. When another says, “I ate only two blueberries yesterday and still feel disgusting,” the rest sigh. They talk numbers, pounds and inches, they relay their phobias of stretchmarks and varicose veins. When Barbara’s tone gets sharper, warning of her experience as an RN and a midwife, warning of blue babies and stillborns and miscarriages, begging these women to be strong, reminding them they are mothers and not supermodels, the room quiets and stills.
At seven, the women stand and stretch and drive their cars home to their partners, children, homes. Dinner is the day’s darkest hour. Some starve through it, others gorge or force themselves to swallow, a few puke it up in their toilets without even having to press their fingers to the backs of their throats. All fear their mirrors. All love their babies. Like everything that hurts, it’s beyond understanding.