(This is old, and I am still not sure if it’s a good idea to share/post it. Please treat the subject matter with the gravity it deserves. Thank you)
It hurts to watch someone I love hurt herself, and it hurts worse to know I can do nothing about it. It also hurts physically to be darting through the musty, drab-carpeted hallways of the Sports Dorm right in-between two 5k races when all I want to do is rest. But I have to find her, make sure she’s okay, make sure she knows she’s important, knows we care if she’s missing.
I find her huddled against an eggshell wall, looking pale and gaunt drowning in my dad’s 550 Down Fill jacket. My dad hovers over her, pensive and uncomfortable, not knowing what to do. The worst is looming below, though. Her mom kneels right in front of her, trying repeatedly to press a bottle of orange juice into her tiny, pale hands that so blatantly don’t want it.
“You need to finish this RIGHT NOW,” her mom barks. Despite her puffy cocoon, my friend shivers. She has a defiant spark in her exhausted blue eyes. Doesn’t her mom realize that the more she forces food and drink upon her daughter, the more she presses love disguised as rules, misinterpreted as ruthless thirst for control, the less her daughter will be willing to take? I needed to intervene. I traipsed slowly over in my wool socks and knelt down next to my shivering friend.
“Hey, you,” I say, trying for friendliness but just achieving bleakness. I fake a smile, but then she looks up at me and smiles for real. Her tired eyes light up and glow warmly.
I look her mom in the eye. “Hi, um,” I hesitate, “I think we should go back to the team room. We race in half an hour and we still need to have our team talk.”
Mom looks sternly down at her shivering child. “Now, you need to finish your whole sandwich, and this whole juice. I’ll come to check and see in-“
“Um, I’m really sorry, but our coaches don’t let parents come in the team room,” I have to interject. Oh, misguided love. “I’ll be sure she eats.”
I help her stand up. She’s extremely light inside the illusion of her puffy cocoon. With my arm around her shoulder, we walk slowly back to the team room. As we creak the door open, we’re greeted by the accrued body heat of five of the best female skiers in the state, and five of our best friends. All the girls are curled up in their bunks, asleep. We pad across the room and sink slowly to a sit under the curtained windows.
She pulls out her lunchbox and begrudgingly digs out her sandwich. As she sets the bag down, I can see the contents of picked-apart granola bars and smushed orange wedges. The lies she didn’t eat for breakfast on the bus. Now comes the hard part for me. I have to tread the fine line between pointing out her falsities to help her and becoming the bad guy: becoming another force-feeding, towering authority figure in her life. I have to make sure she eats so she doesn’t pass out during the second race.
She takes a false sip, and I give her what I hope is a stern but caring look. “Come on,” I say softly. “You can actually drink it.” She takes a small but honest sip. She opens a granola bar and picks a few oats off the top, popping them in her mouth and forcefully chewing the false mouthful. I give the sandwich a pointed glance. Uncomfortably, she picks it up and peels back the plastic bag.
She finished the second race without any dizziness or accidents. After a drowsy bus ride home lit only by yellowing headlights, I climb into the passenger seat of my mom’s car. “I don’t know what to do,” I confessed after some small talk about my race. “I don’t want to say the wrong thing and lose her friendship, but I can’t just watch her hurt herself like that.”
She had always been thin, but a couple summers ago she’d turned absolutely gaunt. Her cheeks were tight to the bone and gray hollows hung below her eyes as her sticklike limbs propelled her, ever faster, up the hills in her running shoes. “I can do twenty pull-ups,” She told me cheerfully. Always cheerful. I can do three, but I have a large muscle mass for my height. Let’s just say I have a bit more to pull.
My mom stared out pensively into the street ahead of us. “Well, just by being there for her, you’re doing the right thing. Just by caring about her. It’s not your job to fix her problem, even though it feels like it is. Your job is to support her, and you do a beautiful job of it.”
At home, I check Facebook before I go to bed. In my profile picture, she and I have our arms slung comfortably around one another’s shoulders, and big wide grins. We’re holding a cake it had taken us an entire day to make, including a marathon trip to the grocery store. It was a Tres Leches cake, and we discovered nothing feels weirder than pouring milk over a cake. But that was what made it delicious, along with the fact that we used raspberries from her garden on top because we forgot to buy cherries.
As I laid in bed, staring up into the dark, it wasn’t blackness I saw. It wasn’t “nothing,” whatever “nothing” is. It was the most beautiful, radiant smile I had ever seen, beaming from under blue eyes that were no longer weary. They glowed with gratitude. With love.