The Cost of Loving
By Lucy E.M. Black
“This is the cost of loving. Sometimes you get hurt.” My mother’s words. She shrugged her shoulders and raised her palms in the air for emphasis. I was still in my nightgown, curled into a tight knot of inconsolability. I knew that I must have fucked up, but wasn’t sure how. I was clearly deficient. Not attractive enough, or smart or interesting enough. And he wasn’t coming back. I was too stunned to plead with him, to react in any way. His words slapped at me until my face burned red and the skin on my arms pimpled. Blisters formed on my back and set off pin-points of fire. My mother left my bedroom, her slippers shuffling softly on the worn carpet. It was a familiar sound in the midst of hazy bewilderment.
I have no clear recollection of the meals missed. I do remember a generalized feeling of powerlessness. Knowing that I couldn’t draw him back to me. There is some memory of my mother clawing the phone from me, insisting that I have some self-respect. And loud sobbing, which must have been mine. Weeping until I was exhausted and lying on the floor, while my mother held the phone out of my reach. The days passed in a sad blur.
People began to comment on my appearance. You look thin. Are you dieting? Feeling okay? I assured everyone I was fine. But I couldn’t eat. Food lodged in my throat. My clothes began to look sloppy and over-sized. I tightened belts until there were no more holes to use. I rolled up my sleeves and wore multiple layers.
“Your knees,” said my mother, “they’re just knobs. Your collar bone shouldn’t stick out like that. You need some meat on your bones.” She took me shopping. “A pretty dress and you’ll feel like new again.”
I’d worn a size ten since adulthood. She passed me a size eight dress. The extra fabric hung on me. My mother’s expression was stoic, but her shoulders drooped while she sat on the bored-husband chair.
“Maybe pants,” I said trying to cheer her. “Pants will fit me better.” I pulled on a light blue pair of size-six slacks. I walked out of the small cubicle to show my mother how well they looked. I stood in front of the mirror, and we both watched as the pants slowly slid down my hips and continued downwards past my offending knees. I grabbed at the pants and pulled them up to cover myself. Mortified by the exposure.
My mother burst into tears. “You have to eat. You’re starving yourself.”
I stood inside the changing room and stared at myself in the three-way mirror. I pinched the flesh on my thigh. I could afford to lose another ten pounds, at least. Maybe twenty. There are no pictures of me at that time. Skeletal. Dark shadows under my eyes. Bones jutting out at awkward angles.
A clump of hair attached itself to my brush and came away from my scalp leaving a bald spot. Handfuls of hair were on my pillow most mornings. Craning in the mirror, I saw that the ridges in my spinal cord were pronounced, and that there was a mass of scarring from the blisters. None of these things troubled me, particularly. But losing my hair was different. I made a hairdresser’s appointment and had what remained of my shoulder-length style cropped into a close-fitting pixie cut.
“It’s really dry and thin,” said the stylist. “Are you sick? There’s a couple of bald patches. Is it cancer?”
My own body was betraying me. It was one more thing in my life over which I had no control. I continued to have trouble swallowing. Nothing was appetizing. I would gag when I smelled the aroma of cooking food. I continued to lose weight. The blisters on my back continued to form intermittently.
What was most disorienting was trying to exorcise him from my thoughts. When I began to dress in the morning, it had been to please him. When I thought about my day, it had been about when I might hear from him. I had refused to make plans with friends in case he changed his mind and needed me to be available. I had stopped listening to my favorite music because he didn’t like it. I tottered on three-inch heels because they made my legs look longer. I had taken to wearing full pancake make-up with an airbrush-finish to hide my blemishes, and heavy eyeliner to accentuate and enlarge my eyes. This was what I had believed was the cost of loving: submerging myself in a torrent of actions designed to please him. And I could not break free of those thoughts or the deep sadness and listlessness.
My mother appeared in my bedroom one night with a pan of chocolate fudge brownies. She brought a butter knife with her. Delicately, she scraped a tiny smear of icing onto the knife. “Just taste this, it will melt in your mouth.”
I didn’t need to swallow. She sat with me for hours, smearing icing on the knife and watching me put it to my lips. Eventually she added a few crumbs of brownie. The crumbs slid down with the icing. She eyed me steadily, assessing me carefully while piling on more crumbs before passing me the knife. I was faint and too tired to resist. I watched while she cut me a Lilliputian piece. Her fingers, swollen with arthritis, held it to my lips until they opened. I let it dissolve on my tongue before swallowing. She nodded at me and I parted my lips for another taste.
Feeding people has become an act of love for me, as was my mother’s once tender example. Her words come back to me in times of sadness. “This is the cost of loving. Sometimes you get hurt.”
Art by: Ukraine artist Tanya Paperniuk. You can see more of her art and videos at @tanya_paperniuk
Lucy EM Black is the author of The Marzipan Fruit Basket (Inanna Publications), Eleanor Courtown (Seraphim Editions), and Stella’s Carpet (Now or Never Publishing). Her award-winning short stories have been published in a number of literary journals and magazines in Britain, Ireland, the US, and Canada. She is a dynamic workshop presenter, experienced interviewer, and freelance writer. She lives with her partner in a small lakeside town north-east of Toronto. The Brickworks (Now or Never Publishing) will be released in the Fall of 2023.