Warning: this piece includes the theme of eating disorders.
Waves rolled around my body. Small spurts of water leaped into the air and the droplets sprayed across my face. The cold water cooled me down, relief from the scorching sun. Along the beach, I could hear the sound of children laughing and adults gossiping under the shades of umbrellas.
I was lying in a shallow pool, my back against the sand, salty water up to just below my ears. I must have been there for an hour, eyes closed, listening to the wind and water, to children and adults having fun. As the water crashed over my body once more, my sense of sound disappeared, lost to the ocean.
A shadow fell over my eyes. Nathan, my little cousin, smiled at me as I opened my eyes, and he heaved me up, holding my hand and pulling. I am quite skinny, but he is only small, so I had to do a lot of the heavy lifting myself. I could see that Nathan felt like he contributed though, so he was pretty proud of himself for being so strong.
I got a dizzy spell from getting up so quickly, and needed a moment to regulate my body, to get used to not being horizontal on the ground anymore.
“What were you doing, Alex?”
I smiled at my little cousin, admiring his cute dimples. “I was just in the water, relaxing. What’s up?”
“Parents want us.” Nathan rolled his eyes and I supressed a laugh. He was learning to be a teenager much too early. About five years too early actually.
I followed little Nathan to where our parents were sitting on crumpled beach towels, sunglasses and hats on, soaking up those UV rays. I remember thinking about sun cancer for a moment before my parents realised Nathan and I were hovering above them.
“Oh, you’re back,” my mother said. “Did you boys want lunch?”
“No thanks,” I said, wanting to return to my relaxing spot.
“You didn’t have breakfast either. You have to have something.”
I don’t like eating very much. Not the regular types of things, anyway.
“I’ll have some chips then.”
Mum wasn’t happy with that response either, but she wasn’t going to get into it with her sister and nephew around too. For that, I was thankful. We’ve talked about my peculiar condition at home so many times, but she’ll never understand.
“Fine. We’re going to the deli. Did you and Nathan want to come up with us to order?”
Nathan looked to me expectantly. I knew he’d do whatever I said. I also knew that if we didn’t go, he’d join me when I returned to my shallow pool.
“Is it okay if we stay here? I want to show Nathan something.”
Mum looked to her sister to make sure that she was okay with it. Auntie Paula nodded. She took Nathan’s order and then they were off.
Nathan and I walked down the beach and I directed him to a rock pool I’d spotted when we’d first arrived at the beach. In the rock pool, Nathan spotted a starfish immediately. His childhood curiosity told him to pick it up and inspect it. My skin crawled. I might like the beach, I might like eating strange things, but I do not like the feel of things like starfish, insects, lizards, or pretty much anything small that I can squish.
“Look at it!” Nathan said, laughing. “It looks like Patrick.”
It did too, I guess, but I can’t say I’m an expert in starfish appearances. This particular starfish was pink, and that meant it looked like Patrick.
Nathan pretended to throw it at me when he realised I didn’t feel comfortable getting too close to it. I may have shrieked, but I’ll never admit it out loud.
“Why don’t you eat much?” Nathan asked innocently enough.
I shrugged. “Food doesn’t taste very good.” I thought that’d quiet him. I like Nathan well enough but he’s young and explaining myself to adults is difficult enough. I couldn’t imagine a child would understand much better.
“Not even chocolate?” Nathan looked dumbfounded.
“Chocolate is nice,” I admitted. “So is ice-cream.”
Nathan nodded. “What’s your favourite flavour? I like chocolate.”
“I used to like chocolate. Now my favourite’s mango.”
Nathan made a face that made it clear that he didn’t think mango tasted very good. “So what foods don’t you like?”
“Most others,” I responded.
“What do you eat then?”
The dreaded question. It’s a question that leads to people looking at you like a freak, like a lunatic. I hate that feeling. It makes you feel less than human, an animal.
I didn’t know how to answer my cousin’s innocent enough question, but I was taking too long to respond, and it was making me feel anxious.
“Grass sometimes. Soil too.”
I waited for the judgement, waited for that look that I know so well to appear on Nathan’s face. The first person I ever saw give me that face was my mother. She told me there was something wrong with me. My father had recently died, and so Mum thought it’d be a good idea to send me to therapy. My therapist made the same face my mother did when he heard that I eat grass and dirt regularly. I’ve hid it since then, but people do find out.
“My friend Benny ate grass the other day. He said it didn’t taste too bad.”
And that was it. That was all that Nathan said. He started talking about the starfish again because one of its legs moved. He placed the starfish back in the water and kicked his feet in the water softly while he sat on the rocks, hands under his backside.
I looked out to sea, looking at nothing in particular, smiling. Childhood innocence is a beautiful thing.
Not five minutes later, we were ushered back to our umbrella, where our parents had left all their stuff. Mum and Auntie Paula distributed the food. I took my chips and ate them slowly. I got a few looks from Mum but she didn’t say anything. She was content. I was at least eating something.
It’s not that I particularly dislike chips, it’s just that I never really feel like eating anything other than grass, soil, chocolate, ice-cream, or the other few things that genuinely excite me. I can’t help it. It is what it is.
Nathan didn’t bring up my food preferences, although I’m sure Auntie Paula knows anyway. Sometimes I see her gaze linger on me. I can see her eyes focus on my thin arms and bad posture. Since Dad’s passing, Mum’s really relied on her sister.
The day was a long one, but it was mostly pleasant. It was shaping up to be the best summer since Dad died, and that talk with Nathan kept replaying in mind. The conversation was a highlight for sure.
After lunch, I managed to get some more undisturbed time in the shallow part of the ocean. I closed my eyes as I had earlier, soaking up the rays. I relaxed to the sound of the ocean and seagulls, of children playing and laughing. I became one with the tide, swaying gently back and forth.
I let the waves wash over me.
Words by Jonathon Pantelis
Illustration by Youjing Zhang