It was hard to notice at first. I had a lot of practice in avoidance. I dodged mirrors and slept with a pillow folded between my knees like my weight was intangible; but really, my actions were just routine. A routine so very tangible, you’d realise halfway through the day that your school skirt had twisted around your waist. Your zipper sitting on your naval and a heat rising from your torso, up to your neck and cheeks, and forehead where sweat beads formed. A constriction in your lungs that never really went away.
It was Christmas Eve when I first saw a video of myself. My dad connected his iPhone 6S to the television in an attempt to prove his tech savviness. He’d been filming us during the day; my brothers opening presents, the video spanning across the room, until he caught me. I was limping towards the kitchen to grab a ham and cheese croissant.
My back was to the camera, a spine on stilts. I knew something, maybe everything, was about to give. The girl in the video didn’t look like me, didn’t feel like me. It was a relief to look away. For her to fade from memory. I watched Mum blow her nose into a few squares of toilet paper. There was a streak of blood in her snot. She saw me staring, and she quickly folded the toilet paper into her sleeve, turning her attention back to the next video on the telly.
I wore a shapeless mauve sweater to my all-girls Catholic college. While most girls complained about the school’s severity in uniform policy, I was secretly glad for the opportunity to blend in. When it came to school picture day, the teachers often ignored the lank curtains dangling around my cheekbones. The cheekbones that also happened to be blushed, contoured, and dusted with highlighter. At the age of fifteen, I thought I was a part of their fenced elite, a form of favouritism from my teachers. I worked hard, I received rewards, I was special. I felt less controlled by this force that I was supposedly fighting. But I hadn’t realised this brushing off of the rules set me further apart from my peers. With side-eyes and eye rolls, they were all too often marched up to sick bay to strip their faces off with micellar water and a fistful of cotton wool balls.
It became common to see clusters of teenage girls flitting through the hallways. They’d quickly disappear through various doors, but not before casually raking me with a head-to-toe scan that communicated animosity. They’d toss their luscious, salon-dyed ponytails behind their shoulders as if to say theirs were more genuine than mine and I’d pull down my saucer-pan hat over my drawn-on brows. Hunching my shoulders, I continued on, hoping my hairline hadn’t creeped back.
Despite my distortion from the girls, I noticed after a three-week absence, they’d give me gifts. Cinema vouchers, flowers, and one time, a glass jar of handwritten notes. A Tiffany-blue ribbon was tied around the jar like it was trying to court my affection. Rope me in. The afternoon of the Creative Spectacular – a competition of drama performances between school houses – I hopped around on my crutches, receiving hugs and gift bags, and an apology from a girl I had German class with. Apparently, she started a rumour about me two years ago, one I had never even heard of until then.
Millie and I had known each other since grade eight modern history class. We used to sneak tuckshop lollies like Wizz Fizz and Sour Straps into the double with Ms Osterio (or Oscario, as we liked to call her). I enjoyed Millie’s hilarious frankness and apparent lack of inhibition, and she took to me with a sort of older sister fondness. She had an unwavering commitment to insubordination, vowing to rid me of my intensely studious and soft-spoken demeanour. She was also the one who convinced me to join the school’s aerobics team, despite my lack of coordination and flexibility.
Our drifting was subtle, yet anticipated. We were separated by a new class timetable, and she became a seasonal friend. The next winter I was diagnosed, and Millie drifted in the breeze back to me.
One lunch time, I met Millie on the boardwalk alongside D Block. It was white-shirt territory and all purple-shirt middle-graders were refused entry to the views of Brisbane’s brown snake. The hierarchy was embedded into our school culture, and even the senior school principal enforced it when it came to calling dibs on the back of the bus. The only downfall to the city views was that it was infested with water dragons, which often led to high-pitched squeals and leather shoes jumping on tables. It also had a ridiculous number of stairs to get there.
Millie bought me the Nutella muffin our school was famous for. I pinched at it slowly, playing it off as if I was conscious of getting any chocolate squished between my teeth. But really, I was still trying to slow my heartrate. My calves were burning, and I could already feel tightness in my ankle like I was being dragged in a tug-of-war between trying to impress her and dropping all pretence. After a few swallows, my chest tightened, gut rolled. I tongued the hollow in my gum and felt the whole universe bloom and die in the new space in my mouth. I wished I could remain stuck. Stuck in a mid-sentence, the in-between of life. Salvage the norms that so desperately needed salvaging.
“My mum says you’re on a good week now.” She inflected the last word, more a question than a statement.
“I still have to go in on Wednesday for another round,” I said.
“Well, you better finish that muffin then.” She pointed to my palm that was covered in chocolate. A fistful of mud. “You need to fatten up, you’re as skinny as a twig these days.”
I nodded, and she resumed her conversation with herself about unnecessary schoolyard antics: snide remarks on people’s choice in semi-formal partners, and an oblivious step-by-step guide on how she plans to burn her hair until steam rises. It would be the tightest curl with every hairspray under the sun, sticking like glue ‘til dawn. “You should totally try it,” she said, and I sighed.
I rolled my ankle in a clockwork motion, trying to get rid of the numbness in my toes. I took big breaths, then small ones, and swallowed the last of the Nutella muffin.
“It’s all pointless,” I said.
Millie looked up, perching on her seat, ready for a gossip drop. She dangled and twisted her feet in the air. “What is? Come on, tell me.”
Static leaked into my skin, rose the fine hairs on my arms. I rinsed saliva around my mouth.
“I – I’m too numb,” I choked, “to feel anything.” I dug my fingernails beneath the netting of the wig. Scratching an itch, then pulling the wig back into place.
She said my name and I walked away.
Madison Blissett de Weger is a writer, poet, and editor, living on Turrbal and Yuggera land. She is currently working on a memoir on her childhood cancer, where she explores the vulnerabilities of family, friendship, memory, and love after trauma. She is in her final semester of an undergraduate degree in Creative Writing at the Queensland University of Technology, where she’s been an editor for ScratchThat Magazine and QUT Literary Salon. She is a Project Officer and Workshop Coordinator at Queensland Writers Centre and a volunteer supervisor for Brisbane Writers Festival. You can read her work in Glass and ScratchThat Magazine. Follow her writing journey @words.with.bliss on Instagram.
SaBelle Pobjoy-Sherriff is a third year visual arts student minoring in film. Her art practice has an in depth focus on ideas of narrative and mythology, and tends to border on the obscure. She utilises illustration and sculpture to create vibrant worlds and creatures. You can find more on her Instagram @SaBelleeee.