Content Warnings: eating disorder, animal cruelty.
Mum always offers tea or coffee when I arrive. I know it’s less a courteous gesture, more a question with a correct answer. Tea means milk, sugar, and a wafer on the side. Coffee is an appetite suppressant.
Like always, I choose to appease her for today. ‘Iced coffee, please.’
She gives a satisfied hum before flitting into the kitchen. The couch is still hard from lack of use. The only time she ever uses the lounge room is when I visit. The TV is gathering dust at the head of the room. It hasn’t changed, only aged with time.
There’s a ceramic bowl on the coffee table. I made it in primary school; it’s lopsided and crude with hand-painted rainbow dots. It looks almost like a hollowed-out birthday cake, juxtaposed by the fake fruit sitting in it.
I watch as a fly lands on the waxed-over pear. It rubs its little hands together and eagerly crawls on the wax. Each step glues the fly, imprisoning it on the pear until it makes a getaway with its wings.
‘Here we go,’ Mum announces, walking back into the room with one glass, always one glass. The ice cubes clink against each other as she moves a coaster onto the coffee table, just out of arm’s reach. The instructions are clear to me: don’t drink.
‘Now,’ she sits and begins, ‘you haven’t visited me for a while. What have you been up to, lovey?’
She folds her hands in her lap and smiles with her teeth. I can see the way she eyes me up and down, observing how my stomach rolls over my pants while I’m sitting and how my thighs flatten out on the couch cushion. I can’t help but shrink in on myself, to sit straighter and flex my legs just to make myself look even a little smaller. A flower of trepidation blossoms behind my ribs, petals unfurling as I clear my throat.
‘I’ve been seeing my GP lately.’
Her eyes light up and the corners of her smile curl up further. She even claps her hands in delight and stands to grab the glass of iced coffee, passing it to me. I accept her reward for doing as she asked, taking a sip. It’s weak and tastes more like bitter water.
‘You’ve been discussing weight loss?’ she asks. ‘You should let them know that I can put you onto my diet-’
‘No, uh, they actually think that I have an eating disorder.’
She reaches to remove the coffee from my grasp, smile fading. Her gaze slowly rakes down my body, then up, settling just below my face. She scoffs. ‘Please. People with eating disorders are thin.’
The flower in my ribs disintegrates, petals shrivelling and dropping off in disappointment. The energy to explain myself escapes me in an exhale. The word “bingeing” would fly over her head.
‘Your problem is that you don’t know how to control yourself,’ she continues. ‘You just eat and eat and eat…’
Mum stands up, hands on her hips. She is silhouetted by the light of the lounge room. She still holds the glass of coffee and talks while taking it to the kitchen.
‘You need to find a GP that is willing to help you lose weight. I can make some calls to a girlfriend of mine for fibre shake powder to be delivered to your apartment. She’s a lovely lady; she knows exactly what to put in those things to make you shed kilos in days.’
I can hear the clink of the ice cubes in the sink as she pours the coffee down the drain.
‘I’ll book you into my spin class. Oh, and my Pilates class. This morning, I ran seven kilometres-’
A loud yowling interrupts her brainstorming and she tsks. I push myself up from the couch and enter the kitchen where Mum is bent over making a shooing motion with her hands at a cat. It’s emaciated, bug-eyed, and pawing at a plastic food bowl on the floor. It has eyes only for Mum, whimpering at her even as she straightens.
‘Oh, my god. Is that Ollie?’ I ask. I can only watch in horror as the skeletal cat begs for something to fill his food bowl.
Mum sniffs in disdain. ‘He was so fat, and I can’t let him go outside to walk around since he would just eat a bird or possum if I did. I feed him once a day so he’s just being greedy. He can wait until dinner time.’
Just being greedy. Ollie’s big green eyes look so desperate. There are clumps missing from his tabby fur, almost none on his tail.
I look around. ‘Where’s Vera?’
Her silence is enough of an answer. For the first time, Mum can’t meet my eyes.
I fly to the cupboard, hinges squealing as I wrench the door open. Organic almonds, spirulina powder, stevia. No carbohydrates, nothing of substance, no canned food. At the back, hidden in the shadows, I see a bag of dry cat food. I snatch it and turn.
‘Vera was old and sick,’ Mum is saying. She quickly shuts the cupboard door behind me. ‘She died of old age.’
I ignore her and crouch down. The blood pumps so hard in my ears that I can barely hear her. My fingers tremble and struggle to open the packet, but I eventually pull it open and pour the bone-shaped biscuits into the plastic bowl. Ollie doesn’t hesitate and wolfs them down.
I grab the counter for support and slowly rise again, trying to control my dizziness from moving so fast. I look at Mum. She stands by the sink, arms crossed and watching Ollie eat with a disgusted curl of the lip. I can’t find the words to speak to her, but I don’t need to. She always has something to say.
‘Wonderful. Now he will expect two meals a day. I had him on my diet, which is perfectly reasonable.’
I eye her. Mum’s always been thin, but now I see how gaunt she truly is. She looks as much a skeleton as Ollie, with sunken cheekbones and bones visible at her décolletage. She sighs and lifts her hands, rolling her eyes in exasperation before leaving the kitchen. She continues complaining from the hallway.
‘I hope you’re happy with yourself, pushing your excessive eating habits onto my cat.’
I linger in the kitchen, the silence filled by the sounds of Ollie scarfing down his meal. My fingers grip the cat food tighter. There’s still plenty of biscuits inside.
I’m affronted with a soil-like smell when I pull open the fridge. The contents are more promising than the cupboard. Some vegetables, pre-packaged salads, no dressings, of course. There’s a box of vanilla-flavoured wafers on the top shelf.
I flick on the kettle, and make myself a cup of tea with milk, sugar, and a wafer on the side.
Author: Kyrah Honner is a Wiri Luritja writer based in Meanjin. She likes to write disturbing fiction. You can find more of her previous works on ScratchThat.
Artist: Irene Liao is a visual art student from Taiwan who aims to present figurative human art through her watercolour pieces.
Editors: Bea Warren and Fernanda Bustos Venegas