Sample Chapter from Skinny Boy

Chapter Nineteen
Let’s Play Hide the Tunafish—Twice



It’s 9:00 p.m., time for my nighttime snack. What’s this? Look at all this tuna slathered with mayonnaise. I specifically requested that my sandwich snacks not include mayonnaise. Can’t anyone follow through with a simple request? There must be a sub on duty.

“I understand you need to eat this with staff supervision,” says Dora, the nurse working a last-minute fill-in for Bob.

This has potential. Do your job.

“Well, as long as they can see me, it’s okay. They don’t have to sit right next to me.”

She pulls up a chair and starts throwing questions at me. I employ my five generic responses to keep the conversation short. I need to unload some excess mayonnaise from this sandwich. Dora continues rummaging in small talk. I persist in my goal of getting rid of her. I need a plan. Oh, I know…

“Could I have some ketchup please?” I ask, showing my dimples.

“Ketchup? I, uh…”

“They usually keep it in the kitchenette room behind you.”

Good, she’s gullible.

I don’t know about this. It seems like an underhanded trick to play.

Those are the only ones that work. Now be quiet and do your duty.

Dora opens up the kitchenette door while continuing her barrage of questions in an attempt to bond with me. I’ve succeeded with the first part of my mission: Operation Tunafling. I place a napkin on my lap and wait for my cue to strike.

“Where did you say they keep the ketchup?”

This is too easy.

“I think it’s in the refrigerator,” I reply, hands perched at the ready like a tiger prepared to pounce on a poor unsuspecting gazelle.

She pulls the refrigerator door open and bends down to scan its contents.

Now!

I take my plastic knife and scrape at least two tablespoons of mayonnaise off my sandwich and mash it into my napkin.

She’s slow with her investigation. Keep going.

I cut off half my sandwich and stuff it—Oh no! I have no pockets.

Quick! Do something before she sees!

I frantically shove it down the front of my pants.

Wow, creative.

Crumbs fall into my groin. Whoa! Now that feels weird.

“Here you go,” says Dora, handing me two small packages of ketchup. Is two enough?”

“Plemfy. Fank fooo.” I make like I stuffed the entire half of the sandwich in my mouth, puffing out my cheeks like I’m playing Chubby Bunny. Ketchup goes on the other half. Ketchup on tuna? Nasty! I should have asked for mustard. But I must follow through now.

After downing the other half of the sandwich in front of Dora’s watchful eye, I scurry back to my room and bury the evidence deep inside the wastebasket under a wad of crumpled paper to keep housekeeping from discovering it.

I hope there’s more gullible staff like her up here.

I get to sleep much faster this evening knowing I have fewer tuna calories settling under my skin. That means fewer calories to figure out how to burn between now and tomorrow’s breakfast.

The next morning brings day thirty-three at the Unit 13 Hilton. I have memorized the three-week menu rotation. It’s gotten to the point where I am mentally scheduling two, sometimes three days of meals ahead of time. This brings comfort and security to me. I know exactly what to expect for calories and can spend my energies elsewhere.

The staff is getting more intent on “getting me out of here.” They encourage me to take advantage of more passes, particularly with friends my own age. I don’t want to. It’s too risky.

I’ve gotten the okay from Dr. Buckmier to roam downtown during the day. It’s only a twenty-minute walk and gets me off the unit and out and about with people. That’s what they want me to do, hang out with more people, improve my social skills. I prefer the hermit life.

What’s wrong with it anyway? Why do we have to be around others so much?

You are not okay the way you are.

My weight is up to almost 125 pounds. The experts say I’m supposed to be feeling happier by now. But I don’t believe the experts ever had an eating disorder. Staff and patients allude to the idea that I must be getting excited about going home soon, or how happy I must be over how well my recovery is going. I can’t disappoint them, so I agree. Cows will serve tea before I express a sincere opinion of mine that might constitute a debate. But I crave what Unit 13 has to offer—good food, consistent structure and follow through, safety from real world responsibilities and pressures, and people who listen to me.

 

Rick has a basketball game at the high school. He’s really good—he won all-conference MVP last year and led the league in scoring and rebounding. His presence is feared by pretty much anyone in the league.

Usually, my brother doesn’t say much to me and stays to his own business, but once in a while he’ll let out a “What the heck is wrong with you? Just eat and have it over with.” I feel two inches tall during moments like that. Mom told me that, at one time, Rick admired me. Not anymore.

You’re such an embarrassment to the family.

We get to the gymnasium for the big game. My classmates are at the other end of the bleachers. I’m packing a Unit 13 snack under my sweatshirt—a tuna fish sandwich and an apple. How humiliating is that? Hadie sniffs at me on my way out the door before my parents picked me up, and says, “It’s unit protocol, Gary. You must eat it at your regular night snack time.” I tuck my plastic hospital identification bracelet under my sweatshirt sleeve. My parents sit next to me.

“Hey, Gary,” says Mom, “aren’t those your friends over there? Why don’t you go say hi?”

Now there’s a thought. Maybe you could share your tuna fish with them.

“Naw. That’s okay.”

Gaa-ry! You can’t stay by yourself all the time.”

Why not? It works for me.

“You should mingle with kids your own age.”

Should, should, should…

I stay put and silent, losing myself in the action, occasionally glancing over to my former posse.

Lizzy notices that I’m watching her. She turns and spots me hiding behind my mother and throws a hearty wave. I pretend not to see her.

It didn’t work. Oh no. Here they come. Half the crew gets up and meanders their way through a packed crowd. Crap! Crap! Crap! I’m not prepared for this again. I think I’m going to wet my pants. I need to quit sucking the water fountain dry to satisfy my hunger.

A roar erupts within the home bleachers. Someone shouts, “Way to go, Rick! What a play!” I turn to see a swarm of ponytails bopping up and down around my brother. He must have—

“Oh, hi, everyone!” I exclaim.

We do this again…

“Hey Gary. How’s it going?”

“Hi buddy. It’s good to see you.”

“Whazzzup?”

“So they let you out of solitary, huh?”

One of the boys reminds me of Mark Ponchkin, the grade school bully who used me as garden rake.

You’re such a cream puff.

Would you please quit reminding me?

They do some minor interrogation as to my presence here this evening. To avoid having them invite me somewhere after the game, I inform them I’m out on pass and need to go back to the hospital immediately after the game. They hover for a while and tell me they miss me.

How touching. I think I feel a sniffle coming on.

Shut up!

So shoot me.

My body feels like it just fell into a campfire, and I want to get out fast. Seconds later, the group—all except Lizzy—shuffles to the concession stand, after which they return to their original bleacher section with enough sugar to rocket a dozen three-year-olds to the high-wired level for a month. How can they eat all that stuff and still have bodies like they do? Don’t they ever feel guilty? I wish I could do that.

Lizzy nestles herself between Mom and me. “It’s good to see you again, Gary.”

“Yeah, you, too.”

“You know, Gary, I really admire your courage. It must be hard to come back here and face everyone.” Her knee bumps mine. My stomach does a somersault.

“Thanks. It’s nothing, really.”

We sit in silence, watching the game. I have no clue what to say to her. I love being around girls, but they make me feel uncomfortable, like the times I’ve had to give a speech in front of class.

“What’s it like up there?”

I turn to look at her momentarily, then back to watching the game. “Well, it’s not a picnic, but it’s alright. The people are really nice, and it’s helped me so far.”

She squirms and looks at her watch. “I better get going. It’s great to see you again, Gary. Maybe we’ll talk again soon.”

She gets up and works her way back through the bleachers to meet up with Gordon Zietminster, her boyfriend.

Nice going, jerk. You ruined someone else’s evening. Girls and you just don’t mix.

I sigh, regretting ever opening my mouth. I’m such a clod with girls.

Another cheer blasts around me, taking my mind off the stress. The game is exciting. It goes down to the last minute, with my brother sinking the last shot with ten seconds left on the clock. This puts the team ahead for good, causing a monstrous uproar from the packed crowd. My folks and I wander down onto the court to congratulate Rick on yet another brilliant game. What’s he going to think of my being here? Will I disgrace him in front of his friends? He has no clue I came tonight. I stay hidden behind Dad. Rick is mixed in among a mob of well-wishers. Suddenly, his proud eyes meet my bony exterior, but only for a second. I better make the first move and get it over with.

“Nice game, bro.”

Rick’s face changes, from hyperexhilarated to surprised and stony, but only for a split second. Then it’s on to indulge in the surrounding fanfare. Maybe he didn’t see me.

Yes he did. He’s ashamed to call you his brother.

How do you know that?

Looks speak more than words.

I’m beginning to question that philosophy.

I am so proud of my brother. He’s so talented, funny, popular, and smart. I use to rove those hills at one time.

I sigh. I can’t wait to return to the hospital. We slowly amble our way back to the car. I take one bite of my apple and a few crumbs of my sandwich. I pitch the rest into a nearby bush.

At least you won’t have to lie if staff asks you if you ate your snack.

We discuss my brother’s game for a few minutes, until my dad gets this far-out idea.

“How about we go for ice cream?”

“Ooooh, now that sounds like a good idea,” says Mom, rubbing her hands together. “Where do you want to go, Gary?”

Give an excuse.

“The staff said I have to get back home as soon as the game ended.”

“Home!” exclaims Mom, whirling her head around at me so fast I thought she broke her neck.

“Oh, uh, I mean the hospital.”

“That place in not your home, Gary! Your home is with us! I can’t believe you like it up there so…”

I feel like a two-year-old before being sentenced to a time out. Dad stays quiet and keeps driving. Icy silence infiltrates the car.

You are such a miserable, pathetic, wretch. How dare you upset your mother like that?

Dad passes by the Dairy Duck.

At least I don’t have to suffer through eating ice cream.

“You know, Gary,” says Mom, “other kids would jump at the chance to get ice cream right now.”

Yeah, I know. I’ve heard that song before.

Your parents do so much for you.

Get off my back.

You know, Gary…

Shut. Up.

You’re worthless.

We pull up in front of the emergency-room entrance. I get out of the car and say good-bye to my folks as if I’m going to a friend’s house for dinner. My parents wish me a pleasant evening with a disappointed look under their brows. I hate that look. It’s death to me.

They’re ashamed to have you as a son.

They drive away as I enter the emergency entrance and greet familiar personnel as I do every time I come back from a pass.

It feels good to be home again.