Rainbow Like Early Learning
Encounters with anorexia & recovery
On the loose in Adelaide, standing dead center of a sweet little bridge in botanic park, I honor the urge to look up. I’ve been in hospital the past 12 days, in subsection F-1 of the summit floor. In the green again, I am quivering like a taxidermy exhibit, stuffed with restless spinifex. And the toddlers licking coffee fog off the museum glass know I’m harboring life, but their parents don’t pay attention.
Dizziness sweeps across the park and explores my sensitive spots; my sternum throbbing like a lost battle. Pulsatile. Percussion. And the toddlers follow my lead, with 12 tone metallophones, maracas, and tambourines. In my culture, they teach us dizziness is an obligation, not an urge. Early learning.
It starts to rain. Politely, in the corner of my vision. The trees don’t pay attention. Their branches droop, weighed down by rows of pendulums. At first glance, they play wood, pretend acorns. A camp of bats, precisely spaced like gear teeth. Well behaved in their hour of photosynthesis. Though, more bats than I remember ordering. The tree keeps offering, a full court to put families and their picnic spreads on trial. Bat bellies; modesty gown of orange hair, going brown for attention. Everyone wants to be wanted. I search synonyms for ‘vanity’. The higher they hang, the harder their bodies are to read. Cursive. Legs clipped to ankles clipped to claws. Seatbelts with quick pop buckles for emergencies, but there’s no hurry to drop, or start the prescribed day. They stay put. People love telling me to stay put. I imagine my nurses burrowing a thermometer into furry ears at 5am. Barcode, name and in emergencies, a kaleidoscope of pronouns. I do not cry.
The living room is within reach. Achievable. I make sure each footprint is happy before I settle another. It’s the first time since the surgery I’ve stood shirtless before my Nan, the towel sits at my waist. She laughs like her hearing aids are broken. Loud in my flat chest. Then she lifts her two breasts from where they dangle at her waist, one in each hand, as if deciding which is her prize winner.
“I wanna be rid of mine, they’re a…”.
The left breast, flops from her hand, dips to the floor and back up like a slinky. If you pay attention: the sound of cards shuffling in her sick lungs, when she picks “nuisance” from the deck. The selfless shuffle of her slippers. No, when she breathes it sounds just like peeling a cucumber, I think, preparing myself dinner. On the menu is cucumber, as much as I can stuff in. Aloe vera tea, with a tablespoon of ground chilli. And ice. Nana won’t let Christmas breathe. Not till her sorry business is done. I’ve been quietly decorating, testing my luck. Yesterday I bought a second-hand set of ceramic reindeers for her display shelves. One of them bolted. I counted this morning again. Sorry business is sometimes like counting. Other times, it’s a permanent pile of soiled funeral blouses, on the bathroom’s honeycomb tiles. Sorry is rigidity. And other times, risk-taking.
“You don’t need boobs to be a woman”
I hear my deadname. It’s a name with plenty of flavour. I rinse her dinner plate. A boiled carrot and a smear of fibrous phlegm. Like a shepherd crab guiding a flock of seaweed to the tide. Daylight hours, Nana spends them all cooking. When she cooks I go outside with my pink skipping rope and jump until she stops. The rope is stiff. I walk to the foreshore. I jaywalk. I jayrun across multi-lane roundabouts. Atop every mouldy house, is a crooked antenna, shouting dizzy spells. Domestic splinters, an argument about electricity, masturbating every time a yellow car passes, every time the limestone cliffs shiver, every time you lose the keys or the cinnamon. Losing the key-caps, and no one in the family learned to touch-type, so the word “help” is a blind guess. And you wouldn’t chose “help” even if the card pounced. This sentence will end, but not yet. The dust possessed by brick-red and brick-shape. The red glows like brake-lights. I have run past every house in this town and now I ache like a crooked antenna. I decline the Sunday roast. Sunday is brake lights, is rest. I chose to be: the very last room to receive rest.
Memories of the coach trip stay put, and wait for me to index them.
Mum’s voice, beside me.
“Pinkie swear you’ll eat properly when we get there?”
I braid her head of silly-string, “I promise you, this is the way out”.
When I finally brave the onboard toilet, I find it guarded by a boy with a week-old beard of chocolate ice-cream. His fists, sealed tighter than his nappy, there must be someone crying in there. Or maybe that magnum wrapper has collapsed into a singularity. The palmar reflex disappears as a baby rapidly develops. When anyone asks how I came out as trans, I tell them I opened my hands for the first time.
I point to the river on the right, I point to the blisters of moss on the surface. “That’s Tiddalik. That’s his body right there”
“No way” he laughs.
“You know Tiddalik? Back in the day, when he was young and swollen, and hunting down the last few lakes, I used to come here after school with my friends. Climb up onto his back. You could see it all, up there. The great, empty, dry. I scraped saliva from dog bowls.”
“I drank cold mud from a leak in the ceiling.”
“And when the bushfires crept in to clean the carnage, like hospital janitors, we hid under his tongue. That frog could never swallow tablets”
“But why was he so thirsty?”
“Maybe he wasn’t thirsty at all.” I whisper, crouching down to his level.
“Hungry can feel like thirsty. You can’t fix hungry with water. No water will ever be enough to cure hungry”
He returns to his window seat, intimidated. Steals a corner of his sleeping brother’s blanket, and wipes the ice-cream crust from his cheeks. Across the aisle from my seat, a young girl announces its her birthday, offers us plum cake. A monstrous burnt plum of a mountain spares her soft skin from the invisible frenzy of UV. I’m almost Tiddalik. There’s not enough water for me either. Not enough to distract me from the chicken salt in the driver’s beard. From all this talk of food.
We stop at red hill for petrol.
I ask the driver how they named this place. Two twin freckles on his forehead like kangaroos rising from, twinkling in, tanned grain.
“You’re a funny young lady” he replies flatly, “There’s a hill. Red last I saw”.
I cross my arms and remember; carrying the blood drains in a Woolworths bag, touching my healed nipples for the first time, twin freckles, twinkling. I remember numbing cream. I remember crying a final time, and the creamy smell of going numb. Binding is my strongest habit still. Back on the road, I fall asleep reading Lemons in the Chicken Wire by Alison Whittaker, the book open in my hand. Thumb over on the words “gasp it, eat it”. Because I’m queer, there’s always family in my dreams. Or at least the sorry business. The historical remains. Tiddalik, a deflated bouncy castle, decaying. In the dream, Whittaker chooses me, her prize winner. And whispers “I’m not passing. Is it how I’m walking, talking, dressing? Is it the way I’m being?”
This morning I made weet-bix. Crushed two brittle biscuits over a deep pool of milk. Watched the crumbs parachute into the bowl. They blew kisses to me as they sank, into the unknown. It was all very romantic. Then I tipped it out. I’ll stop, but not yet. Behind the canned spaghetti, I stumbled upon my Sunday school workbook. “And with the sword Jesus will kill all of God’s enemies. Should we be surprised that God would destroy all badness?”
Each time we visit my Nan, I tunnel further into her photo cupboard. Wishful thinking. Like checking the fridge when you’re terrified of pleasure. When there could be someone crying in there. Jesus, wiping his snotty tears with a sword. Each time I find the same photos. My childhood, homeostatic pink. Neurons reclining in a pink web of tinsel. Anorexia is my new homeostasis. Numbing cream. Memory, pleasure, pink; demoted. But I’m queer and because I’m queer, they strike back in my dreams. Inside each gloomy tomb of my advent calendar is something or someone precious to me. I binge, rabidly, festively. For survival, autophagy. I can’t remember the last time I yawned. Or had my period. Or smiled with dimples. I can’t remember the first time I was sliced in half, and left oxidising in a chalice. Purging is homeostasis, pink, granular. Pose for the flash.
Crinkling in my unforgiving grip, is a very precious photo. My cousins, the full set, all loaded onto a billiards table, squeezing the queer out of each other. And me, on the sofa. Buried safe under pillows and plush toys like a worry doll. My left hand peaking out, throwing freddo frogs into the frenzy. Fuel to keep the soldiers strong. People love telling me to stay put. Maybe if I stay put, the fridge will grow worried, and check on me. I tear the photo up, pleading. Bury the bright crumbs under my pillow like a worry doll. They blow kisses to me all night.
Week by week, ECGs, weight checks. And this sentence ends with a Hobson’s choice. “Ambulance or police car?”. Mum attempts a monologue. “I raised you all on my own, and this is how you thank me?” “Police car” I reply. The 9thfloor, is the meeting place of general med and geriatric. In here, where eating is an obligation, not an urge, I oblige my hunger. I adopt a chose your own adventure attitude, seduce my daily weetbix with drool. I dissect banana peels, excise the fluffy inner lining from the yellow wax and post it to histology. Toss chicken, corn and lettuce into my tub of chocolate custard and mash.
Nurses are assigned to special me. They watch me eat at each meal and for an hour after each, documenting the order and the disorder. Some hover at a distance, avoiding confrontation. “What a coincidence! my sister’s marrying one of you, a transgender”. Others, get naked. “I hate it when my husband hits my son, its not discipline, it’s generational reflux”, “The senior nurses use my accent as an excuse to pick on me”, “I work so I can rest”. This is a lattice forming. Eating, becomes an act of solidarity. My choice. I chose adventure. Round the clock, sugar and ketones. I swatch the blood on my jeans. “A journalistic instinct” the psychologist scribbles. The ashy denim left blotchy like borlotti beans. A anonymous note appears on my whiteboard under the header “patient needs”: get well, go home. The ward has a grief space called the sun-room. It boasts a grand view of the River Torrens. My tiny friends, foam through the streets below like pins and needles. I scoop them up with a ladle. Sorry business overdue.
I’ve been here long enough to spot other patients by outfit. A woman in saggy sweatpants, spawns in my doorway. She asks me if I know the way out. I tell her I’m as lost as she is, and offer a spritely orchid from my jug of sympathy flowers, my prize winner. “Liar” she spits. “They’ve don’t want me to leave cause when I leave I’m gonna find my husband and fucking kill him”
Light from the window wanders across my blood brain barrier. The PVC strip door swinging like windchimes, but silent. At first glance, there’s nothing to look at or touch. You wouldn’t know it was my brain. Abandoned and unremarkable, a lone latex glove in an operating theatre.
I meet her halfway “My friends brought lollies but for now, the dietician won’t approve anything beyond the meal plan. Do you like espresso drops?”
She laughs, “Consider yourself lucky, they’re probably poison. I’m gonna poison my husband, and donate his motorbike to charity”. Her husband was here less than an hour ago. They played snakes and ladders.
She points to a laminated flow chart on the corridor wall; dementia vs delirium, pathways to community.
And mutters, “There are some loonies in here”
At midnight, she trips the manual fire alarm with another patient. “You like espresso drops?” I ask a passing security guard.
“Plug your ears and go to sleep”
A woman bursts into the ward on a mission. In pork-mince grey, platform pumps. Composure and hawk glare. It’s my dietician, the mastermind. She thrusts a booklet into my hands. Starvation syndrome and the Minnesota experiment.
“In the 40s, the pressure of war and brutal human curiosity, combined forces. A group of volunteers agreed to eat in a substantial caloric deficit for 6 months. And it got very strange. Many of the symptoms we associate with anorexia, might also be symptoms of malnourishment” she summarises, almost excitedly.
(hyperactivity, agitation manifests as extreme exercise)
Resistance bike in front of the TV. Mariokart marathon. A torture cycle through the Triforce Cup from Wario’s Gold Mine to Hyrule Circuit. A recipe for nausea. Tender, subject. Tender, on the phone, in the shower. A flight of stairs dilating as I climb. One final stitch of the city, spinning out. Behold, the blue shell, you take away the sin of the world.
The texture of pale biohazard bins. Asking dead cats for their card number and security code. My eyes leave fine scratches on your rear-view mirror. My eyes carve trenches. Cockroaches lazing about in bubbles of ultrasound gel. Even on lazy days, I browse the aisles, tempted by the sins of the world.
(loss of self-compassion) Because I’m queer.
(loss of self) Never
On Sundays, hungover after roast, I rest in the shower. Cross-legged on a doughy gel mat. My thighs, androgynous, as in magazine gloss. Muscle and cellulite, more than co-habitants, more than collaborative performance art. Androgynous, as in shared memories. Of sex, of violence, and the liminal; healthcare. Androgyny as in choreography. Thighs that stretch like jelly snakes, that stretch and never fail.
The soap: an ultra-mild formulation suitable for high frequency use. It makes leather of me. Makes my pubes crispy. After dinner, the struggle starts, and it lasts until breakfast. Every hour, I strip a blanket like a layer of badness and peg it along one of God’s sickly eyelashes. Each blanket spaced precisely like gear teeth. And the night slime, my sweaty signature, is rung from the cotton, harvested. Sip. For a moment, it’s angry but then you swallow and it’s more androgynous. Numb and creamy. Like the wind when it blows in the wrong direction.
God is good at forgetting. I am forgotten and then I introduce myself. Pulsatile. Percussion. I take this dynamic as permission, to open my hands, for the first time and never the last time. Expanding forever, the big trans death of the universe. Rainbow like early learning. Learning who I am now, well-fed. Sugar is a reason and it hurts to have reason. But still, every Sunday on the ward, I expand my definition of dessert. Nana would be proud.
Morning always arrives in knots. I always spend the night combing through the hair of my ancestors. Gender, over time, becomes a stress injury. On some Sundays, my body reeks of caffeine and procrastination. Empty mugs in clusters like mushrooms, like doctors gossiping.
Nana sports gingham in a creaky fold out chair on the porch. I never learned to touch-type, so I blind guess my way across the yard. There are two kinds of bird. They sing either knife or fork songs. My Nan is an incredible sensory organ. She smiles at every lick of movement.
A shimmering ribbon of butterflies swirl. They show her respect, as both an elder and a roundabout. Ripe in the epicentre of this ethereal audience, she is all smiles and no teeth. She stands up suddenly and the butterfly chain breaks, gold beads bouncing. My bottle of coke zero, her copper earrings, hissing back and forth in a language of lamb-white light. She marches toward the post box. Her frail frame enveloped in a padded biker’s jacket. On the back, embroidered in a punk blockbuster script, with neon green thread, the tag “nuisance”.
Without warning, she pitches something very solid at me. Bullseye. My forehead, bruising blotchy like borlotti beans. “You have a journalistic instinct” she mumbles. I lie on the lawn in shock. She plucks large ceramic shards from the clutch of grass roots and bolts the puzzle back together in front of me, with masking tape. It’s the missing reindeer, from the set I never told her about. She lays it on my chest. And my sternum bursts open, throbbing like a lost battle. “Get well, so you can go home”.
I grab her leg before she walks away. A fistful of her sock, crawling with polka dots and bordered with puffy satin lace, spirulina blue. “I’m not passing” I sob. “Is it the way I’m being?”
“Dreaming about old people means you’re getting too skinny. When grannies get skinny, they go to heaven.” Nana pokes
“You’re…old” I say, losing my train of thought.
She reheats her soggy scrambled eggs.
I run all the way home to Whittaker, “…while the microwave drones on, like a drawn-out heartbeat, an elongated punctual clap, vibrating through my knee, now until the end of time”