Counting

Photo by Rebekah Schnaubelt

Photo by Rebekah Schnaubelt

One By One.

A boy at the fragile age of sixteen stared at the woman sitting across from him. A plaque at the edge of her desk identified her as Sarah Thompson. He watched her through lidded eyes, sprawled out across a chaise lounge

“What are you writing?” he asked. “I haven’t even said anything.” The woman looked up and stared right back at him, her eyes searching his.

After the clock had loudly clicked away, she said, “I’m preparing for sessions with my other patients because they are willing to help themselves. I can’t help you until you want to be helped, Jayden.” There was not even a twitch in recognition in Jayden’s face at that remark. She looked down at her paper once more before saying, “The faster you talk, the faster you can get out.” He pushed himself into a sitting position with an exasperated sigh and stiffly squared his shoulders, staring down his councilor. Being stubborn was not going to do him any good, and he knew it. She was right about him not going anywhere. He had already been here for three weeks, in this room every single day; he would go somewhere worse if he did not talk, but that did not mean he could not control when and what he said.

This lack of control in his life was killing him, more so than his problem, he thought. Another minute passed before he began. “It’s not as if I didn’t know that it was bad for me. I’ve thought about it…in moments of…clarity, I guess. But the reward was worth it, really worth it, for a long time.” Jayden felt his finger at his lip and pulled it away, examining the torn tip of the nail. Ms. Thompson wrote something down on a new sheet of paper. “Clara was the first one to figure it out. She’s my best friend.”

.

Jayden set down his Styrofoam tray, giving it a vaguely uninterested look before searching the crowded lunch room for Clara, who was pushing through a group of girls at one of the doors. He caught her eye and grinned, tipping his head slightly. She huffed and rolled her eyes, balancing on the balls of her feet to twist between two boys standing at the end of one table and a trash can.

“God! It’s such a hassle to get here!” she exclaimed as soon as she sat down. “Why don’t we move to that table?” She asked, gesturing to a table near another door.

“Because,” Jayden said, answering the same question for the tenth time that year, “the arrogant jerks sit there, and they would annoy you more than getting to this spot does.” She hummed and opened her lunch bag. “Why do you eat the same thing every day?” Jayden asked, giving the sandwich a curious look.

“Why do you not eat?” The question caught him completely off guard.

“What? I eat.”

Clara gave him a dubious look. “No. You nibble. You peel the skin off of your apples and then write down a number in that mysterious notepad of yours. And then you push a few things around until the bell rings.” Jayden froze, his blood going cold. She knew. She knew, and now she was going to leave. She would notice the fat, and the lack of muscle, and she would realize exactly how disgusting he looked before leaving.

“I…” He stuttered “I, um. I just.” He could feel sweat forming on his hairline. Clara’s brow was furrowed now. “I’m trying to lose weight. It’s nothing though. Just a few pounds,” he lied. Maybe she would not look at him too closely if he said less.

Confusion broke across Clara’s face, her brow staying furrowed. “Jay…. You’re not fat. Not even close. Why are you…Is that what you’ve been doing? Counting calories?” Relief flooded through him. Assuming was good. Very good. She wouldn’t be over thinking it…She didn’t think he was a freak for counting calories, and she wouldn’t be finding new friends because of it. He would go with it, if that’s what she wanted to think.

“Yeah. But don’t worry,” he said, trying to brush it off. “It’s like a diet.”

She looked concerned, but seemed to drop it when the next thing she said was “Well, did you see the new play the drama department decided to do? It actually doesn’t look half bad.”

.

The next time the topic came up, it was worse. Jayden and Clara were leaving school and he reached into his bag to find his keys. He sighed in frustration when he could not find them right away and then set his bag on top of his car, looking inside for the keys. He saw them after only a second, but when he pulled them out, his hand caught on a small notebook, and it fell out onto the pavement. His heart jumped when he saw that it had flipped open and darted down to grab it, but Clara’s hand reached it before his.

“Clar-“

“What’s this?” she asked, regarding him while holding the book near her chest.

“Clara. Give it back. Please,” was the only answer he gave her.

“Jay. I’m really worried about you. I’m not gonna look at it. Not if you really don’t want me to. I won’t break your trust like that, but I want to look at it. I need to know what’s going on with you.”

Jayden took a deep breath, trying to make his heart stop beating so fast. “I know…” he stopped, looking at the ground. “Listen…I know you wanna help me or whatever.”

“Not whatever, Jayden! You’ve been off for the last few months, and I don’t know why! No matter what it is, I can help. I can be here for you, if nothing else!”

“It’s not a problem!” He was yelling now. Looking back up at her face, he could see the tears forming in her eyes. “Aw, Clar. Don’t cry.”

She set her jaw and looked at him seriously. “I want to know.”

He took a few more deep breaths and closed his eyes, forcing his shoulders to relax and leaning back against his car. “Okay.”

She watched his face closely. “Okay?”

He nodded at the book. “Okay. Read it.” A million thoughts, all bad, flew through his mind as she pulled it back and flipped to the front. She was going to know. Someone was going to know exactly how obsessed he had become with counting calories and losing weight. How would she react, though? How was this going to play out? He watched her expression as she read through the first page and then the second.

“Jayden…” she said softly. “Do you… Do you know how many calories you’re supposed to get every day?” He should have expected it, really, because Clara was always more interested in facts, numbers, and logic rather than emotional breakdowns.

She must have not expected his answer either because she looked surprised when he said, “Yeah.”

“Alright. How many?” He didn’t want to tell her. She would know details then, and she would want to try to fix things; things that did not need to be fixed. But now that she had seen the numbers, she would want to know everything.

“Because I run everyday, and with lacrosse practice, about 2500.” She nodded slowly.

“So you’re getting…” She paused, looking back at the book. “Less than half of what you need every day.”

Jayden swallowed. He had known that, of course, but it felt strange, raw, hearing it out loud. “Yeah. I’m just… It’s how people lose weight.” He felt at a loss of how to make her understand. This was going downhill fast. She

“Jay. You’re not just losing weight. You’re losing too much. You’re already so skinny. Why are you doing this?” It figured that she would not understand. She was just lying to make him feel better. He unlocked the car, tossing his bag into the back seat.

“I’ll stop.” He said. He would say anything to make her lay off of it at this point. He didn’t want to talk about it anymore. Her face fell at the answer. She knew he was lying.

“Okay.” At least she knew when to push him, and when to let it go.

 “Okay.” he said. This drive was going to be tense.

.

Silence filled the room as Jayden trailed off. “Where is the book now?” Ms. Thompson asked.

He let a few seconds pass before saying, “I burned it.” She nodded promptly, as if she got that all the time.

“As thrilled as I am with your progress,” Ms. Thompson began, “I’m afraid that we’ve run out of time.” She did not smile at him. She never smiled at him. He stood up and rolled his shoulders before sauntering out the door. He did not feel relieved or like he had lost some of the weight that settled into his mind. He didn’t feel anything.

Where is the relief, he thought angrily. But it wasn’t that simple, was it? Nothing was ever going to lessen his burden. That was fictional crap.

He pushed open his door bitterly, letting it slam into the wall with a bang. His roommate jumped, his legs uncrossing as he continued lying back on his bed.

“Whoa man! You alright?”

Jayden gave him a glance, muttering a quick “just fine” before making his way to his own bed. He grabbed a book, ‘Enders Game’ off of their shared desk and pushed himself against the wall. A few minutes passed and he had to have read the same sentence ten times in a row, and he still did not know what it said. He felt pent up anger and frustration and threw the book at the wall. It didn’t help, but it did disturb his roommate again.

“Dude!” he exclaimed, sitting up this time. The only thing he got in response was a glare.

“Just get out, Scott.” Scott looked slightly offended, but partly understanding too.

“Alright. It’s lunchtime anyways. I’d bring you back food if I didn’t know you’d just throw it out.” Jayden scoffed but was already feeling a little better. He would usually be offended at the insensitive remark, but he knew that Scott did not mean anything by it. It was just his type of humor, and the banter was nice. It was a shadow of normality in this place.

“It’s the thought that counts!” Scott tossed over his shoulder.

“Consider it counted.” Jayden called after him as he disappeared around the doorway. Two hours passed while Jayden sat on his bed and stared at the wall, but soon chatter filled the hall and drifted into his room and his thoughts.

“Yo, Jayden! It’s time for group,” one of the boys from his group therapy called into the room before dashing away.

“Got it.” he acknowledged the empty space. Group therapy passed normally, and Jayden said nothing.

No one noticed him, except for when the therapist took a look at him and said, “Jayden? Do you have anything to share?” He shook his head no like usual, and the attention passed on. By the time the next day dawned, Jayden’s thoughts were centered around therapy and about whether anyone could actually help him if he just told them his problems. How did that work? In what way would telling a stranger his life story destroy this mindset of feeling like a failure every time he ate? Regardless, that afternoon found him back in Ms. Thompson’s room. He sat down, and instead of pulling out her paper and writing down unknown information like she habitually did, she patiently waited for him to talk, folding her hands in her lap. Jayden took his place on the chaise and began.

.

It had not started out quickly, not at all. One day, he had looked in the mirror and saw his baby fat in his face and on his stomach; he had not really cared, knowing that it would go away on its own. A week later, he had been changing for gym class and noticed that most of the other boys were already gaining muscle and a lot had lost most of their baby fat. It only bothered him a little, and it crossed his mind that he should start running outside of school so that he could look as good, be as good, as those other boys. He did, but running a mile every day was not cutting it close to what he wanted. He began weighing himself once a week, and that was when he started paying attention to what he ate. Eating less everyday worked for about a month, but then he stopped losing weight again. When he consulted the internet, he discovered a method of losing weight that seemed to work for everyone, and so he began counting his calorie intake. He researched the average weight and calorie intake of boys his age and always set the counter to the most allowed amount of pounds he wanted to lose. The counter only ever let him go to two. He was always making up for what he ate with running to burn them off. A year passed, and it was easier to run a lot during the summer. His family thought that he was just preparing for applying to lacrosse on his first day of high school, and he never told them otherwise. Once high school began, so did lacrosse. Jayden began wearing baggy clothes to hide his body, and changing in the bathroom so that no one saw how he looked. Being hit and tackled during practice and the games hurt more than he thought they should, but it was worth it to play. One practice, he was tackled to the ground by a boy named Luke. He was new, like Jayden, and not as used to the padding, and as such he was having difficulty rolling off of him. The moment Luke found his balance, he noticed just how thin and fragile Jayden felt underneath him. He climbed off of him and held out a hand to help him up, but Jayden saw a strange look in his eyes. He looked back at him, immediately guarded.

“Hey, man. Are you okay?” Both of his hands were still in front of him, held out slightly as if he wanted to check Jayden for injury. Jayden warily pulled further back, not sure what the situation was but not liking it.

“I’m good,” he said, shifting from one foot to another. Luke’s eyes were a deep brown, and they reminded him of a puppy. They shone in the afternoon sun, and it was like looking straight into his heart. He looked worried, and curious, but mostly worried. The coach called them both back to the game, and Luke spared him one last troubled, intense stare before turning back to the field. It was the next day that Jayden realized that because he could not run as much, even though he had lacrosse practice for an hour three days a week, he should lessen his calorie intake. After all, he would never get anywhere if he only lost two pounds a week; suddenly, three pounds sounded better, and then four, and then five. He learned the equation for weight loss based on calories and did it himself, writing it in the top of a leather-bound journal that he had gotten for Christmas. Soon, he was weighing himself every day and always eating few enough foods that he could lose weight without working out, but he continued to run at least three miles every day. He tracked his calories and weight in the notebook, looking back at it every time he was invited to a restaurant with the lacrosse team. Soon after that, the idea of eating at all started making him anxious and slightly nauseous, but most of all it made him feel like a failure. Another summer passed, and his parents began the process of divorce. Nobody really noticed him or what he did at all.

.

Ms. Thompson closed the meeting with a few things she asked him to think about, and right before he left, she said something that no one had ever asked him before.

“Jayden…” She stood with him by the door. “You’ve recognized that this is a problem, but do you really want to get better? Do you want it for yourself, regardless of what anyone has ever said to you?” It was surprising, how much that question meant to him. Someone was asking him to not think about anyone else for once, and to be completely selfish. As he thought about it, he really did want this. For the first time, he wanted to get better so that his life could get better. He nodded, knowing that something had changed since he arrived.

“Yes.” He told her. “I want this.”

Ms. Thompson smiled at him and her whole face lit up, as if he had just made her whole day. “Off you go, then.” And with an afterthought, she added, “Try eating a strawberry.”

.

Jayden mindlessly got his hospital lunch and sat down in the cafeteria with Chris. He pushed his hotdog around and stabbed a strawberry, examining it, before he lifted the fruit to his lips while determination fought with disgust. When he bit down into it, the sweet taste flooded his mouth, and he was reminded of a few summers ago, before this whole ordeal, when his family had gone strawberry picking. He had eaten every other strawberry he found because they were so sweet and fresh and juicy. A new level of determination came to him then, and when a lesser amount of depreciation filled him, he found himself picking up a second strawberry and biting into it. He blanched. The second strawberry was tart and sour, and he immediately regretted swallowing the small piece. It wasn’t even worth the calories. Chris was staring at him, wide eyed, but grinning. Jayden narrowed his eyes at him.

“Shut up,” he spat out before turning his head away and hiding his smile beneath his hand. Chris’s shoulder bumped into his

“I never said a word.” He said through his smile. A man in scrubs walked up to them and turned to Jayden.

“Jayden Traverse?” He asked.

“Yeah.” Jayden stood up.

“You have some visitors.”

.

Clara’s face was the first one he saw when he walked into the visitor room. Behind her stood his mother and sister, who were both looking anxious but also excited. He smiled at them and was pulled into a hug as soon as he was in range of his friend.

“Jay!” Clara exclaimed, passing him off to his mother who held him tightly. “They finally let me, well, us, come see you! Oh my god, it’s been awful without you! And I’ve been so worried, but they said you were making a lot of progress! How are you? Is it terrible in here? Do they keep you in a strait jacket or force feed you or make you talk to therapists all day?” Jayden pulled back, grinning at the flow of questions.

“Hey, Clar. Mom. Stacey.” He smiled at each of them in turn. As they sat down in the large chairs and settled in for updates about each others’ lives, Jayden felt sure for the first time in three years that everything was going to be alright.