“Sum of Her Parts”
My sister Jenny was always skinny, but now she is a waif.
“It’s not a diet, Diana,” she says. “Just priorities.”
I’m back in Tallahassee for Thanksgiving and in the three months since I’ve seen her, she’s grown paper-doll thin. When she turns sideways in front of a broom in the corner, I can see the green wooden handle on either side. “Liquid meals,” I guess. “Buddhism?”
“Better,” she says. “Follow me.”
Her room is neat and spare as I remember it. My room is an office now.
There’s a row of jars on her dresser that used to house mustard or relish, marmalade, diced garlic, non-fat mayo. In their murky depths float fistlike chunks of human tissue.
“I just wear my stomach at mealtimes,” she says, tapping a Mott’s Applesauce lid. “And if I’m not digesting, the gall bladder and pancreas come out, too.”
Oversized plastic tubs are stacked on the floor for her large and small intestines. Some jars are empty, like the one Sharpie-marked “brain.”
“This is healthy?” I ask, planning my own collection of jars and labels, picking out evening dresses for my new, slimmer life.
“Healthier than smoking,” she says, one sharp finger stabbing me in the chest.
At dinner, over cranberry sauce and dry turkey, our mother raises a toast to Jenny’s twiglike limbs. “May it rub off on the rest of us,” she says, but points her fork at me.
My father’s cheeks burn while he spears his peas, and I study my plate where my reflection is pale and gravy-streaked. In three days I’ll be back at M.I.T. and the rainbow-colored brains on my printouts won’t care about my jeans size.
Meanwhile, Jenny blushes and squirms, speechless. After dinner she shows me why, holding up her larynx in a baby food jar. She faces the mirror and pops it back in discretely.
“Don’t listen to Mom,” she says. “It doesn’t work for everyone.”
“Don’t you ever need all your parts at once,” I ask. Her clothes are all size -10.
She sits on the bed without creasing the comforter, ghostlike. “Not so far,” she says. “The brain comes out during sex or chick flicks. The heart during algebra.”
“Sex?” I ask. She is two years my junior and I’ve never had a boyfriend.
“Oh, Diana,” she says, pulling me onto the bed, riding the resulting jounce. “You’re so beautiful on the inside.” She taps my head, which has been compared to a graphing calculator, an almanac, the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, but never once to a summer’s day.
My heart is heavy, my stomach full. “Show me,” I say. “Call it professional curiosity.”
“I don’t know. You have to have the stomach for it.” “Or not,” I say, to make her laugh, which she does, holding her empty middle.
But maybe she is right. The science I study deals with pictures and graphs, not bodies and all their messy possibilities. I get lightheaded at the sight of blood.
Jenny squeezes my hand and goes to her closet, sifting through skinny jeans and sheath dresses until she emerges with something slinky and green. It looks like one leg from a pair of nylons, and as she shimmies into it, I see that’s what it once was.
“Thin isn’t all it’s cracked up to be,” Jenny says, smoothing nonexistent wrinkles over what’s left of her hips. “You wouldn’t believe the trouble I have finding clothes.”
“Try me,” I say, but after telling me to turn around so she can take her boobs from their foam-lined lockbox and slip them on one at a time, she is already on the way to her date, promising to answer all my questions in the morning.
With Jenny gone, I join my parents in front of Everybody Loves Raymond. In this one, Ray can’t tell his wife he loves her. He tries, but the words just won’t come out.
“I’m going to bed,” I say before the show is over.
“Goodnight,” my mother says, though it’s just past eight o’clock. In my old bedroom, I plant myself in front of the mirror stuck to the wall it used to share with a life-sized Eddie Vedder. My face is round and full as a moon, but if I smile with my jaw held up, I can sort of hide my double-chin.
A good scientist needs all five senses, so I need my ears, eyes, tongue, and nose. Brain too; its 1,400 grams are mostly water anyway, and everyone knows water weight won’t stay off.
It’s the redundancies that make me a coward, though: my useless appendix, full set of kidneys, both tonsils, and all four of my wisdom teeth. Even these spare parts I can’t let go of.
“It’s mind over matter,” Jenny says the next morning. Her speech is slushy since she hasn’t put in her tongue.
We sip steaming cups of her favorite breakfast—hot water spiked with Splenda. I take a sip to be polite and lick the sweetness from my lips.
“Brainpower,” I say, tapping my head, worried she’ll pull a muscle hefting her mug.
She nods as if she’s heard me, but I can see by the smooth fall of her hair her ears are missing, too.
With that same crooked smile, though, and the same lovely laugh, it’s hard to believe that most of her isn’t even here in front of me, and that back in her room, hundreds of firing synapses light up an industrial pickle jar as her brain plans the day’s organ rotation without her. If I thought she could hear me, or that hearing would make any difference, I would ask her why she really wants to disappear. Instead, we sit across from each other at a table bare of food and fill ourselves with nothing, swallowing everything we really want to say.
Katie Cortese is the author of Girl Power and Other Short-Short Stories (ELJ Publications, 2015). Her stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in such journals as Blackbird, Gulf Coast, Wigleaf, The Baltimore Review, and elsewhere, including the Rose Metal Press anthology, Family Resemblance: An Anthology and Exploration of 8 Hybrid Literary Genres. She holds a PhD from Florida State University and an MFA from Arizona State University. The former editor-in-chief of The Southeast Review, she now serves as the fiction editor for Iron Horse Literary Review, and she lives in Lubbock, Texas, where she teaches in the creative writing program at Texas Tech University.
Beth Couture currently serves as both a Board Member and an Assistant Editor at Sundress Publications. Her work can be found in a number of journals and anthologies, including Gargoyle, Drunken Boat, The Southeast Review, Ragazine, and Thirty Under Thirty from Starcherone Books. Her novella, Women Born with Fur, was published by Jaded Ibis Press in 2014 as part of its Blue Bustard Novellas series. She is currently working on her Master’s in Social Work at Bryn Mawr College, and she lives in West Philly with her husband and five cats.
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