It’s that time of year again. Everyone is going back to school and so is Alyssa Sheinmel’s Sethie from The Stone Girl.
She feels like a creature out of a fairy tale; a girl who discovers that her bones are really made out of stone, that her skin is really as thin as glass, that her hair is brittle as straw, that her tears have dried up so that she cries only salt. Maybe that’s why it doesn’t hurt when she presses hard enough to begin bleeding: it doesn’t hurt, because she’s not real anymore.
Sethie Weiss is hungry, a mean, angry kind of hunger that feels like a piece of glass in her belly. She’s managed to get down to 111 pounds and knows that with a little more hard work—a few more meals skipped, a few more snacks vomited away—she can force the number on the scale even lower. She will work on her body the same way she worked to get her perfect grades, to finish her college applications early, to get her first kiss from Shaw, the boy she loves, the boy who isn’t quite her boyfriend.
Sethie will not allow herself one slip, not one bad day, not one break in concentration. Her body is there for her to work on when everything and everyone else—her best friend, her schoolwork, and Shaw—are gone
Sethie’s High School Reunion
The Stone Girl follows Sethie Weiss’s experiences during the first semester of her senior year in high school. It’s a particularly dark time in her life and even as I wrote it, I was thinking of the person she would become when this part of her life was behind her. In fact, I even toyed with the notion – very, very briefly – of having passages in the book from Sethie’s perspective ten years after the book takes place. I wanted readers to know what I knew – that this girl would be okay, would be happy, would be at peace with her body and herself, given the time she needed to recover. So, for my contribution to “School’s In,” here is Sethie at her ten-year high school reunion.
The first thing Sethie notices is that the lobby smells the same: cleaning solution, bagels from the dining room, a hint of something sweeter; maybe the principal is still wearing the same perfume, ten years later.
The reunion is in the cafeteria, which the school administrators always referred to as the dining room, and which Sethie always wished they could refer to as “the mess” since that’s what she read they call the cafeteria in The White House, and since “the mess” always felt like the most accurate moniker for it anyway. To get to the dining room, Sethie has to walk past the nurse’s office, and even though it’s 8 o’clock on a Friday night, even though she knows that the nurse won’t be there, Sethie can’t help stopping at the door. It isn’t locked, so she steps inside and closes the door behind her. The only light is from the small lamp on the nurse’s desk; Sethie remembers the lunch periods and free periods she spent napping in this room, the way the nurse always turned off the fluorescents overhead and clicked on that small desk-lamp so that she could work while Sethie slept.
The same bunk bed is in the corner; Sethie can’t help herself, she climbs up into the top bunk, that bed where she spent so much time. She’s wrinkling the dress she picked out special for this occasion, but she doesn’t care. She kicks off her shoes and lets them drop to the floor beneath her, plop, plop. Lies down on the bed, the paper sheet over the pillow crinkling beneath her head. She has to squint in the darkness, but yes, there they are. All the same articles she read day after day; articles that blamed eating disorders on Kate Moss, on over-protective mothers, on absentee fathers, on Barbie dolls and bullying.
Articles in which still, after all this time, Sethie cannot find her diagnosis. In college, her therapist called it “eating disordered behavior,” a phrase which always made Sethie feel righteously indignant because it implied that she’s never actually had an eating disorder herself, only adopted a few of the behaviors that the really sick girls exhibited. The therapist her mother sent her to, after months of arguing over whether Sethie would go to therapy at all, called it body-dysmorphic disorder, a phrase Sethie liked a little better, because at least it allowed for the possibility that she had an actual disorder herself.
I should tell the nurse, she thinks now. I should call her on Monday and tell her that she needs to update the articles on this bulletin board to reflect the spectrum across which eating disorders occur. She doesn’t know if that’s technically, medically true, or just her own opinion: that eating disorders occur on a spectrum. She doesn’t care. It was true for her, which means it’s probably true for at least some other girls, too.
Through the walls, Sethie can hear music wafting in from the cafeteria. The songs they played at her senior prom: the fast ones she danced to with her best friend Janey; the slower ones she danced to with Ben. Sethie smiles now, remembering; Ben was the tallest boy at prom by far, and one of only two college students who’d been dragged there by his girlfriend who hadn’t graduated yet. Come to think of it, Sethie corrects herself, Ben wasn’t her boyfriend yet, at prom. It wasn’t until half-way into her freshman year at Barnard that they finally got to that place.
Sethie sits up. She’s ready to join the party now; she’s actually excited to reconnect with the girls she hasn’t seen in years, beyond Facebook photos and alumnae updates. She lands on the floor the same way she always did, with a slight stumbling bounce, slips on her shoes, and stands on her tiptoes to straighten the sheets on the bunk bed. As she opens the nurse’s door, she twists the ring on her left ring finger, the ring that’s been there for a couple months now, smiling as she thinks of the man who gave it to her. He’d offered to come tonight but she shook her head, explaining that no, her high school wasn’t like that. No one would be bringing their husbands, fiancés, and boyfriends tonight. It was an all-girls’ high school, she said, it’ll be an all girls’ reunion.
He’d smiled when she dragged out her high school yearbook before leaving the apartment they share downtown, paid attention as she pointed out the girls she was excited to see. That’s Alice, she’d said, pointing to a painfully thin girl who’d been on yearbook staff with her. She was the class’s real anorexic. Her fiancé had nodded and turned the page. He didn’t ask what that made Sethie, if Alice was the real anorexic, and Sethie noticed that she’d referred to Alice without jealousy, that she’d said the word “real” without longing, even without emphasis. In high school, she’d hated when she was in a classroom with Alice; she could barely concentrate for staring at the girl who’d succeeded at what Sethie had tried and failed to do. Back then, she’d gazed at Alice’s skin and bones like they might provide some clues. Looking at her yearbook tonight, for the first time in ages, the girl she’d spent so much time staring at looked suddenly, starkly sick.
I’ll seek out Alice first, she thinks now, twisting the ring around her finger. I want to know what her life is like now. I want her to know what my life is like.
She pulls the door shut. Click, the door snaps as it goes back into place. She turns toward the cafeteria, and she doesn’t look back.
Meet Alyssa Sheinmel!
I was born in Stanford, California, and even though I moved across the country to New York when I was six years old, I still think of myself as a California girl. When I was little, I pretended that I didn’t like to read, because my sister loved to read, and I wanted to be different. (I also pretended that I didn’t like pizza, because it was her favorite food, I still get sad when I think of all the delicious pizza dinners I missed out on.) By the time I was eight, it was too hard to pretend I didn’t like to read, because the truth was that reading was my favorite thing in the world. I loved it so much that when there was nothing to read, I wrote my own stories just to give myself something to read. And when there was no pen and paper to be had, I made up stories and acted them out by myself. I played all the parts, and I was never bored.
Please help spread the word: Tweet: Go back to school with 30 authors while #giveaways ensue during #SchoolsIn (Sept 1-30) http://tinyurl.com/LESchoolsIn – #paranormal #contests #UF