“I thought you’d be asleep.”
“Why would I be asleep? We said we’d Skype at 8, so I woke myself up.”
“Am I in trouble?”
“When a person wakes themselves up to speak to you and you assume they are asleep, yes, I guess you’re in trouble.”
“Anyway, how are you?”
It is, it turns out, Jonny who is still asleep, or rather, wishes he was. It is four in the afternoon and he is nursing a hangover, the product of a Christmas party and birthday party on the same night. I am sympathetic as I listen. My life now may be far removed from the all-night parties of Hong Kong, but it is not so long ago that I cannot remember. Neither of us, it would seem misses it much, only Jonny still to all intents and purposes living it, has to suffer for it the next day. I, on the other hand, am chomping at the bit, ready to go the library. It is 9am on Sunday morning and our lives could not be more different.
“Has the magic gone?” he mock-wails down the phone.
It is three weeks since he was here, but it feels like much longer.
“No….” I reply, with wavering conviction, “it hasn’t gone completely, but….”
We are talking about sex. Or more to the point, text-sex. In the beginning, like most couples, we were up for it – one or the other, one as a precursor to the other – all the time. But now…
“It’s the time difference. Two o’clock in the afternoon when I’m in the library is really not a good time for me.” How can I explain? It sounds like an excuse. “I am just not thinking about that at the moment…” Not thinking about Jonny, or just not thinking about sex? “I think about it in Lucretius, Sidney, Spenser…” My work, in other words. “But that’s different. It’s intellectual.” Sex in the head, DH Lawrence called it. I shudder at the thought of this. Am I turning into a dry and dusty academic? A sexless entity merely reading about sex? But I’m not sure I should even be apologising for this. “What’s the point?” I ask. “It’s not like you could do anything about it. It would just be teasing.”
“I would love that! I want to be teased,” he moans.
“Aiya! Okay, well, over Christmas, in between work and applications and driving lessons I’ll be sure to schedule time for some naughty texts and photos and try not to send them to King’s College London or Cambridge by accident instead of you. How about that?”
Pause. I think he sees my point.
But the truth is, I am not – nor have ever been – highly sexed, and when work comes in my mind is easily diverted to that. In times of boredom, yes, I can idly daydream about it like the best of them, but my Protestant work ethic rarely allows me to get that bored. It is just not in my nature.
“Plus,” I explain, “I am underweight. My libido is going to be low.”
This is something I hate to have to admit to him. It was one of the fears I had about going out with Jonny in the first place, one of the reasons I thought that, for his sake, I should not attempt to attract his interest.
We had been sitting in the staffroom one day – I don’t recall what the conversation was: something general probably about ex-partners – when he mentioned that he had gone out with someone with anorexia and it had been terrible. My heart had sank. I can well understand how it might be. Jes’ even I struggle to put up with myself at times, let alone inflicting that on someone else. So, when he said that, I knew I couldn’t. It would be like lying to him – tricking him. Better just to leave the guy alone. Once is more than enough for anyone.
Still, we did end up getting together, and at the time, it – the eating – wasn’t really an issue. I was in recovery. I was in control, in good health – mentally and physically. But times change. Nothing stays the same and now I am here, doing this, trying to make a go of things, and it remains the crutch I unconsciously lean on, the crutch that, feigning to help me, ends up crippling me.
And so, ten years on from where it all began, I find myself back there, restricting my portion sizes, counting calories and obsessing over food, practically starving myself until I do not even recognise me anymore: body or mind. In the mirror – in the mirror of other people’s, in the mirror of Jonny’s, eyes – I am emaciated, scrawny; in the shops, nothing fits. And yet I cannot blithely go for that slice of cake as anyone else might, cannot take a second helping of chips. Heck, I don’t eat chips, don’t even allow myself a full slice of toast, but cut everything in half and half again until it is – like myself – almost portioned out of existence. Why? Because I don’t deserve it. I haven’t earn it yet. And besides, wouldn’t it be better to wait till later, after you have done this, that and something else? Wouldn’t it be interesting to see how little you can survive on? Wouldn’t you get a sense of power and achievement from knowing you’ve eaten nothing?
The voices in my head egg me on to compete, first with other people, then with myself. If only I can just get this done, if only I can just do that…then maybe I’ll be safe, secure, perfect, happy. It’s a kind of magic – dark, morbid, suicidal. Yet it says it loves me and makes me think it does everything for my good. But I am losing myself, losing the battle with my self.
Yet this is not ten years ago and I am not that person who cannot even put food in her mouth without bursting into tears and I know I can win. I have come out of this once, twice, however many times. I am losing track. And while those voices frighten me, they frighten me only to fight back, to laugh and answer back: “You want to know what it would be like to die? I’ll show you.”
This frightens them – those voices – and I know they will try to cling on all the harder. They will try more insideous ways at control. But I’ve done it before and I’ll do it again. I can make them go away, perhaps not for good, but for better and for worse – they are a part of me and I will own them.