Sam liked to keep busy. As a 21-year-old pre-law student, working part-time as a waitress to stay on top of her bills, Sam had mastered the art of penciling in every meeting, homework deadline, and work hour into her schedule. Every minute of every day was carefully accounted for. Even her personal time with friends and her boyfriend was written into her smooth, leather-bound planner, down to the very hour.
Her drive for structure grew stronger once she left her parents in Tennessee to go to a university in California. Her life was now completely her responsibility. So, Sam kept detailed plans. Graduation was on track, next would be law school, career, and, hopefully, marriage and kids. By the looks of her relationship with her boyfriend, Tom, and her grades in school, Sam had no worries that she would reach her goals.
At the same university, Tom was working on prerequisites for medical school. In fact, that was where they met. The schools they planned on applying for after graduation were within close proximity of each other, so Sam knew there would be no bitter fights over long distance dating or jealousies built on the inability to see who the other was spending time with. No, all that drama would be avoided. In fact, Tom was incredibly supportive of Sam’s goals and hardly questioned her strict schedule.
“So, what are you doing tomorrow at five?” Sam asked Tom over dinner at her small, one-bedroom apartment. Sam lived about thirty minutes from campus, while Tom lived closer to the school with his roommates, Jeff and Ben. But during Sam and Tom’s two years of dating, they usually spent time at Sam’s to be alone.
“I’m not sure,” he replied, sitting across from her at the table, eating his pizza. On the small T.V. in her den, the sounds of a comedy show’s laugh track periodically drew their attention.
“Well, I’ll be out of class then so do you want to get together?”
“Yeah, that’s good with me.”
“But I can only stay till six. I have a meeting with the honor society.”
“I figured,” he sighed, staring across the table at her. “I can never have you as long as I want.” His hand reached under the table for her leg. She pulled at the edge of her shorts, covering the skin he touched. She hated the way her thighs spread when she sat down and she didn’t want him to feel it. But she didn’t want him to know that either.
His eyes narrowed. Sam recognized the look in his eyes. She knew he could never understand why she would make certain moves.
Her muscles tightened and she gripped the metal fork.
“So…what about tonight? Do I need to leave?”
“No, tonight I’m okay,” Sam responded, picking at her chicken salad. “I got up early this morning and did my proposal before work.”
Tom smiled. “If I were half as productive as you—”
“Well, you just wouldn’t be you, Tom,” Sam smiled back, feeling herself settle and untighten.
Sam’s eyes glanced toward the T.V. A commercial played, an ad for Victoria’s Secret underwear. The models pranced along, their bodies winding and curving. Not an inch of flesh revealed a scar, stretch mark, or even a freckle. Did they really look like that?
Sam put her fork down and glanced at Tom. He was finished with his pizza and checking his phone. She scooted closer to him. His eyes met hers and he smiled.
She initiated the touch and covered his lips with hers.
For a few moments, Tom helped her forget, took up another slot in her planner. His touch, their entanglement, fleeting and effective. In the dark, she forgot who she was, pretended she was someone else, someone worthy, someone who could experience life to the fullest.
For a moment, the sweat, the heat, the pulsating passion completed her world and there was nothing else.
But then it was over.
They laid in bed together, her head on his chest. He stroked her arm. “That was great, Sam,” he breathed with contentment.
But she was anything but content. “Yes,” she said, eager to put her clothes on, be completely from his sight. “Do you need to get back home though? It’s getting dark out.”
“I was thinking…maybe I could stay?” he kissed her forehead.
“No, no, I…I have too much studying to do tonight, Tom.”
“Are you ever going to let me stay over?” he asked. She could hear the slight crack in his words. His hand moved gently along the soft lines of her stomach.
She slipped from his arms and put her clothes on so quickly he could never have seen an inch of skin even if the lights had been on. “Yeah, Tom, maybe during the holiday break. It’s just too busy for me right now.”
She hurried into the bathroom to allow him time to dress and to get away. She looked at herself in the mirror. Her eyes drifted over her slightly mussed, dark blonde hair. She lifted her shirt and stared at her stomach as she did every time she came in front of a mirror. It didn’t matter how much she refused to eat junk food, how much she exercised. She would always see what she didn’t want to see. She pulled at her skin, poked and prodded, turning herself red from the force and violation.
“Sam?” Tom called from the other side of the door, muffled. “You okay?”
“Yes,” she dropped her shirt over her stomach. “Yes, I’m perfect.”
“You threw him out after sex?”
Sam shifted uncomfortably on the couch, staring across at her best friend Joy. She had stopped by an hour after Tom left. Straight from her shift, Joy had her hair in a bun, wearing the same black shirt and paints that all the waitresses wore at the restaurant they both worked at, Cliff’s.
“I didn’t throw him out…”
“What’s wrong?” Joy laughed, her dark eyelashes fluttering closed. “You have a really sweet guy; sweeter than the ones I end up with. Honestly, he’s as innocent as a puppy! Why aren’t you happy with him?”
“I am,” Sam defended herself. “I am happy with him. I don’t want to be with anyone else.”
“Then why didn’t you want to keep him? Sleep in bed with him? Have him cuddle you to sleep? Damn, most girls love to be cuddled after messing around. I know I do.”
“I don’t mind cuddling,” Sam said. “I just don’t really like where he touches me.”
“What do you mean? Sexually?”
“No, I do, I love it. It’s after, when it’s over and he touches my arms, legs, stomach. It makes me…cringe.”
Joy nodded. “Ah, yeah. I see.” she paused. “Well, Sam, I don’t really know what to tell you except that you’ve got to just try and get over that. You’re a gorgeous girl. You shouldn’t feel bad about your boyfriend touching your stomach out of love. Just let him, okay? He’s not thinking you’re fat. He’s thinking about how much he loves you. Okay? Just understand that, because that’s a very nice thing to have someone think about you. Okay?”
“No, you better mean it when you say it!” Joy grabbed Sam’s hands tightly. “You’ve gotta believe that he loves you and thinks you’re beautiful,”
“It’s just hard,” Sam settled her head against the couch. “I know I sound ridiculous. I’d never admit this stuff to anyone but you because I sound like an idiot.”
“Of course,” Joy let go of Sam’s hands and stroked her hair like a mother might to comfort her child. “And I would never judge you. I know, we all feel like this from time to time. But it just sucks the life out of us, you know? You’ve got so much going for you. And you’ve gotta believe that you deserve every bit of it.”
Sam nodded, unable to commit.
“Just try, okay? Because if you can’t love yourself, it’s going to be really hard for you to love anyone else.”
“Wow,” Sam cracked a smile. “You’re going to make a really good shrink.”
Joy rolled her eyes. “Yeah, yeah. Well, at least I’m not going to be a slimy lawyer.”
“Hey!” Sam smacked Joy’s arm, tension fading.
“Hey, you’ll be the one good lawyer in the world! You’ll save the entire species.”
“So, how was Cliff’s tonight? Was Cassie in?”
“Yeah. God, I swear she lives there. If you were a restaurant manager, I swear you’d be just like her. Always working. Not that I’m complaining! She’s the best boss. Always letting me sneak bites here and there.”
Sam rolled her eyes.
Joy slid her finger over her phone and the numbers 12:05 lit up brightly. “Well, I need to head home now. Kat’s probably wondering where I am.”
“Text me in the morning before we meet for our run?”
“Oh, yeah…running. You want to do that tomorrow?”
“Yeah! If we don’t we’ll gain the freshman 15 or whatever.”
“Except we aren’t freshmen anymore, Sam!”
“Still. So text me!”
“Well, you know I wouldn’t call. You know our one rule.”
“Of course,” Sam laughed. “Never call. Only text!”
“Right,” Joy winked moving toward the door. “’Night, Sam. And remember what I said, okay? You deserve everything you have, so stop thinking otherwise.”
“I’ll try,” Sam nodded. Though she knew it was easier said than done, talking to her best friend had really helped her mood. “Goodnight.”
The door closed.
That night, as usual, Sam tossed and turned in her bed. She stared at the blinking red numbers on the alarm clock on the nightstand: 2:15 AM.
They taunted her.
If I go to sleep now, she thought. I’ll at least get three good hours…
Morning began at 5:20AM with the screeching buzz of Sam’s alarm clock that startled her out of a REM cycle. She felt tempted to remain in the safety and comfort of her warm bed. Her body ached and her stomach lurched from the lack of sleep. But she needed to workout.
She texted Joy. Still on for the run?
She changed into her clothes in front of the mirror. She watched as her body bent and moved as she placed her sports bra over her breasts and covered her white stomach with a tank top. She pulled her eyes away from the mirror to look at her phone.
Sam scoffed. “Figures. She slept in.” So she went without her.
She ran along the road, through crosswalks, and made her way to the beach. One mile down. She kept to the sidewalk, careful not to run into the sand, but enjoyed the sound of the light waves and the image of the dark blue water before the sun touched it. She embraced this for a moment before sprinting. She ran, taking in deep breaths, pushing until her stomach cramped and threatened to empty itself of last night’s salad. Two miles down. Three. Four. Once her legs were shaky enough, she went back home, satisfied with her burning lungs.
After showering, getting dressed, and eating a grapefruit for breakfast, Sam caught the bus at sunrise. She flipped through her planner and started adding in her green and pink sticky notes. Pick up fruit. Write essay on bureaucracy liabilities.
As she was about to add, ab workout after shift at Cliff’s, her phone buzzed in her bag. Grabbing the phone, Joy’s picture blinked on the screen and large bright letters spelled out her name.
“Calling me?” Sam answered with a small laugh. “You know our rule. Text—”
“Sam?” the words broke out with a whimper.
“Who is this?”
“Joy’s roommate, Kat. Sam, I’m really sorry, I called you as soon as I got a chance. Joy’s in the hospital today…”
Sam’s vision blurred and her ears buzzed. “She’s what? Why? What happened?”
“I found her passed out in her bed this morning. Her parents are on their way. They only live an hour away so they should be here soon, but I knew you would want to know since you’re her best friend. How soon can you get here?”
“I can come right now. God, what happened? How could she just be passed out?” Sam cut herself off. “Just tell me what hospital it is and I’ll be there right away.”
“It’s Saint Peter’s Medical Center.”
It took her two hours of switching bus routes and stops along the way, but she eventually walked through the sliding doors of the hospital. She breathed in the smell of antiseptic, like the air itself had been scrubbed clean.
At the waiting room sat Joy’s roommate Kat. She looked up at Sam, dark circles under her bloodshot eyes. They were swollen, Sam knew, from crying.
What happened?” Sam approached Kat.
“I…” her voice was as cutting and sharp as fingernails scraping along a chalkboard, back and forth, back and forth. “I found her,” she continued. “She had swallowed a bunch of pills last night and I called the ambulance, but I wasn’t sure how long it had been since she took them. She was still breathing, but wouldn’t wake up and—”
“Joy’s not suicidal,” Sam spat. “She must have taken them by accident or something, there’s no way she would have done that on purpose.”
Kat grimaced, new tears squeezed out from her swollen eyes and Sam recoiled. “I’m sorry, I’m just…you must have been wrong. Joy’s the happiest person I know. She would never kill herself.”
She wouldn’t leave me without telling me goodbye.
Kat nodded. “Yeah, maybe…Well, her parents are in the room with her. No other visitors are allowed, but I’m sure they’ll come down to update us soon. I think she’s still unconscious…”
“Okay,” Sam said, taking a seat to wait.
Tom sent her a text about 30 minutes after Sam talked to Joy’s parents. Her parents didn’t offer much information. Joy’s mother, worn and ragged, explained that Joy was still unconscious but should wake soon. The doctors were doing everything they could. Her father said nothing.
“Where are you?” Tom texted.
In that instant Sam remembered that she and Tom usually met for lunch at the cafeteria on Thursdays. She imagined him sitting alone, watching for her as he always did with that brown hair curling at the nape of his neck. She felt her stomach tense. She didn’t know what to text. Every sort of explanation felt empty.
“I’m at the hospital,” she eventually responded.
“What? Why? Are you okay? Can I come see you? What do you need?”
These texts came at such a fast rate that Sam sighed and dropped her phone onto her lap as it buzzed incessantly. She rubbed her temples and breathed in deeply.
“I’m fine. It’s Joy. You don’t need to come, I’m just going to be here for her.”
She then silenced her phone and placed it into her backpack. She couldn’t keep texting. The feeling of the screen beneath her fingers, the constant vibrating, was making her stomach hurt even more. She wanted to throw up.
She needed to throw up.
Sam stood up and moved to the bathroom. It was rather large and it smelled a lot better than the rest of the hospital, in fact. It smelled like lavender.
Her ears buzzed and her vision blackened and spotted before her. She wobbled to a stall and shakily shut the door behind her. Panting, she fell to her knees, gripping the toilet seat with her hands.
She leaned over the seat, taking in one deep breath after another. She wanted to throw up. It would make her feel better. She needed to get it all out.
But it wouldn’t come.
She backed away from the toilet as her vision cleared slightly. She stood up and walked out of the stall, making her way to the sink. She stood before the mirror and felt her hands instinctually move to the bottom of her shirt.
She grasped the tip of the cotton and lifted it slightly, revealing flesh. STOP!
She dropped her shirt and stared directly into the eyes of her reflection. Her eyes stared back at her; black and dull. So void of feeling. Void of life.
Had Joy felt this way? No power? No nothing?
“She woke up,” Joy’s dad told Sam and Kat as they stood together in the waiting room. “Her mother’s still with her,” he continued. His eyes were worn, his shoulders bent and drooped.
“Is she okay?” Kat asked quickly, her voice still scratchy. Sam cringed.
“Yes,” he said. “Uh…she’s gonna need to be in here for a while and…uh…she’s under a watch for a while.”
“What kind of watch?” Kat asked.
Before he could open his mouth, Sam supplied, “Suicide watch.”
Kat gasped in pain.
Sam cringed at her lack of tact. Why had she blurted that out?
“Really?” Kat asked. “So, she swallowed her pills on purpose? Why? Why would she want to kill herself?”
Sam saw Joy’s father tense up, the veins in his hands and arms raising up like mountains. She could see him breaking.
“You should be with her,” Sam said. “We’ll be okay. Just, please let her know we’re here?”
“Can we see her?” Kat asked, hopeful as a child.
“Not today…uh, perhaps tomorrow?”
“Okay,” Sam replied. “That’s fine. Just let her know I was here, please?”
“Of course. Here, I’ll give you my number so we can text if anything happens.”
“What happened?” Tom asked Sam that evening. He stood at the door of her apartment. She had just gotten home a few hours ago before. The sun had disappeared from the sky, and she was ready to just go to bed. But then Tom had knocked on the door.
Once she opened the door, his words stumbled out in a stampede. “You wouldn’t answer my texts,” he said. “What happened?”
Sam tilted her head against the door. “Tom, I’m really tired. Could I explain tomorrow? It was a long day and I missed my classes so I’m going to have to figure out what I’ve got to do to make up for quizzes and—”
“Could you forget about school for just a second!?” Tom suddenly outburst. Sam was shocked. She wasn’t used to Tom getting upset with her. He barely raised his voice when he got frustrated over a football game.
“Please,” he pleaded. It shocked Sam when she realized his eyes shone with tears. “You can’t do everything by yourself. Let me help you? I want to be here for you, but you’re always shutting me out. See, even now you won’t even let me in the door.”
Sam blinked and her throat tightened. Her fingers gripped the doorknob. “I’m sorry you feel that way. It’s not like that I just…”
“Don’t try to make excuses,” he sighed in exhaustion. “You can’t. You’ve treated me like this for a long time. I thought if I gave you some time it would get better, but It’s not.”
“I’m so sorry, Tom.”
“I can’t do this anymore,” his shoulders slumped. “I try to be there for you but you never give me the chance and…Look, I know something happened with Joy and you don’t want to talk about it. But if you can’t trust me enough to talk to me when you’re upset, what am I to you?”
She had nothing to say. She didn’t know what to say. She slowly backed away, feeling sick and horrified. She shut the door.
The next day Sam woke at 5:15 AM, but didn’t go for a run. She laid in bed, staring into the darkness around her as her stomach twisted and ached.
Did I eat yesterday? She wondered. Do I even care?
Her nausea answered that question as her stomach lurched and bubbled with the emptiness of acid and bile.
Not eating is going to throw off your metabolism. It’ll make your body hold onto fat. That’s what all the health magazines say. You’ll end up looking fatter than if you had eaten a donut.
Sam sat up in bed and shuffled into her kitchen. Looking for something to eat, she opened the refrigerator, met with the cold spill of brightly lit air.
Bagel. That would work.
She grabbed out a bagel from the bag and stood at the fridge, eating the cold, plain, breakfast. The bread stuck in her dry mouth, scratching its way down her throat.
You’ve got to eat. Force it down.
She swallowed. She thought of Joy. She thought of Tom. Her stomach revolted, the bread came crawling up her throat faster than it went down.
A few hours later, on the bus to Saint Peter’s Medical Center, Sam emailed her professors letting them know she was not going to be making it to class due to a family emergency. She also texted their boss, Cassie, who told her to take as much time as she needed. “Of course, Sam. I know this is a hard time for both of you.”
Joy’s parents had of course alerted Cassie of what happened.
Soon, everyone will know.
Sam breathed in deeply, remembering the day she met Joy, two years ago. They had both been hired at the restaurant the same week. They spilled drinks, screwed up orders, and suffered the humiliation of being the newbies together.
At the hospital lobby, she pushed these memories away and instead texted Joy’s father.
“I’ll be in the lobby today. Just in case I can see Joy.”
After she sent the text, she sat down in a chair and waited. She flipped through the outdated magazines on the tables, read an article in National Geographic about mummified children and felt her stomach twist and turn again.
After half an hour, Joy’s mom walked up.
“Sam,” she said.
“Hi,” Sam tensed in her seat, unsure if she should offer to hug the woman or not. She had only met her a couple times. But Joy’s mom made the decision for her, wrapping her up into an embrace.
“How are you?” Joy’s mom asked, gripping Sam tightly.
“I’m fine,” Sam responded as the hug loosened. She then looked at Joy’s mom. Helen. Right, that’s what her name was. She had those same dark eyelashes, deep brown hair, and fair skin. Around her eyes were wrinkles that sang of a lifetime full of laugher and liveliness, but now her eyes were cold and still.
“Let’s sit down,” Helen motioned to the chairs. Sam dropped the National Geographic magazine back onto the table.
“So, she’s doing better. She is awake today,” Helen said. “I mean to say—she’s doing better physically. It’s going to be a long road to recovery.”
“So she really meant to…” Sam couldn’t finish.
And Helen couldn’t say it. Her eyes leaked tears, but she didn’t cry. “It’s something she’s dealt with for a long time, Sam. Something we’ve been trying to help her with.”
“I never knew. She was always so stable. She was the one, between the two of us, who had stuff together.”
Helen nodded. “She was good at hiding it. When she would come home to visit she would smile and laugh. She’d be the life of the party. But, it just wasn’t what she felt on the inside. The inside was hurting her.”
“She’s going to be a therapist,” Sam said. “How? I don’t understand. I mean, she knew about depression and suic—”
She couldn’t finish the word.
“And I think part of her reason for that major was because of how she felt,” Helen spoke gently with a sharp bite of clipped pain on her tongue. “It just wasn’t enough to help.”
“Why though?” Sam asked. “We were best friends and I never knew. Was there something she wasn’t telling me? Did something happen to her? I don’t understand.”
Helen’s tears then did more than leak, but started pouring down her face. “I’m her mother. And I honestly don’t know.”
Hours passed. Helen came and went. Sam sat diligently in the lobby. When the time finally came that Joy’s parents spoke the words, “She’s asking for you,” Sam wasn’t ready.
Her heart beat against her ribs on her way to Joy’s room. But when she finally saw her, she was shocked. Joy looked better than she had imagined. In her mind, she thought Joy would be hooked up to machines with a tube down her throat like the people always did in Grey’s Anatomy. But she wasn’t like that at all.
She sat up in bed, she had no hook-ups except for a single IV in the top of her hand. Her eyes were dark and her lips and skin were pale, but other than that, she looked like Joy.
“So, how’s it going?” Joy asked with a slight smile.
“How are you?” Sam deflected. She noticed a slight edge in her voice. She was angry without even realizing it.
“I’m okay. My parents finally left me for a bit. It’s nice to be out of their judging eyes.”
“They were just worried about you,” Sam said. “Don’t be like that…” she trailed off and stared down at her feet. She couldn’t look at Joy.
“Hey,” Joy called. “Why are you here?”
Sam forced herself to look up. “What?”
“You heard me,” Joy said, her voice rough. “Why are you here? You come here to judge me too? To tell me I’m an idiot for trying to do it?”
She paused. “I don’t know what I came here for honestly.”
“Then why are you here?”
“I just said I don’t know,” Sam raised her voice slightly before pulling it back down. “I mean…you tried to kill yourself, didn’t you?”
Joy stared at Sam. Unflinching. Unfeeling.
How could she be so unfeeling?
“You tried to kill yourself,” Sam’s voice began to build. “You’re my friend, Joy. My fucking friend. WE ARE FRIENDS!”
Joy’s face held strong, no emotion, no reaction to Sam’s screaming.
“You saw me that night and you just…just left? Did you have a plan? Did you know then that you were going to try and kill yourself? Are you going to do it again? What the hell!? I thought we were friends! I thought I could fucking trust you! And what you just—”
She stopped. Joy wasn’t even looking at her. She was staring out the window at the bright sky. And that’s when Sam realized the truth.
Nothing she said would matter.
Nothing Joy had ever told her in their years of being friends had ever made her see the world differently. Joy could tell her she was beautiful and strong and deserving, and yet Sam would still have complained about the fat on her stomach and cringe at Tom’s touch just as intensely as though Joy had never said a thing.
You can’t change the unchangeable.
“Okay,” she whispered to her friend. “Alright. It’s okay. It’s okay, Joy, just…You be okay, okay?”
And she left.
She stared at him from across the living room on her couch. He was sitting at her little table, near the kitchenette, doing work on his laptop, some sort of math quiz. His eyes went back and forth from typing in numbers on the screen and scribbling math equations on the scraps of paper to his left.
She sighed with a smile.
It hadn’t taken long for Sam to hear from Tom. It wasn’t like him to stay away from her and this time wasn’t any different. He wanted to see her and she let him.
But something was different this time.
“Yes!” he exploded from the table. “Got a 98!”
“Good job,” Sam grinned at him, leaning her head against the couch.
He hopped up and landed in the seat next to her. He grabbed her around the waist and she abruptly gasped before settling in his embrace.
“I don’t want to look at numbers anymore for a long time,” he muttered into her hair.
“Well, how does T.V. sound instead?”
She flipped the channels before settling on a rerun of Friends.
A swimsuit commercial played during the break, and the models walked along the screen. Sam pulled her eyes away and looked over at Tom. He was still holding her.
He wasn’t comparing her.
“I don’t have to,” she whispered as her muscles began to clinch. He isn’t. Why should I?
“You don’t have to what?” he asked her.
“Compare myself to those models,” she admitted, shocking herself.
“Of course not,” Tom said. “God, why would you even want to? You’re perfect.”
“Sure,” she laughed.
“Damn,” Tom said. “I hope you don’t compare me to the guys on T.V. though. I don’t think I’ll ever get those six-pack abs.”
Sam laughed, unclenching. I’m okay. And she was going to make sure she stayed that way. Just like Joy had told her, she deserved what she had. She was worthy of it.
“I’m gonna run to the bathroom,” Sam kissed his neck and hopped up and out of his arms.
Shutting the door behind her, she stood before the mirror. In the bright light, her face shone; every freckle and the green of her eyes stood at attention. Her eyes glanced down at the bottom of her shirt.
Would it hurt? If I just look? Would it make a difference?
Shoving away from the sink, Sam ran out of the bathroom. She flew into the den and rifled through her purse for her phone.
“What’s wrong?” Tom asked.
She dialed Joy.
“I have to tell her,” Sam broke out breathlessly, phone at her ear. “If she can tell me—”
Someone picked up.
A chuckle. “Sam. You know our rule.”
Victoria Ramirez obtained her BA in English with a minor in technical and professional writing from Texas A&M University Corpus Christi, Texas where she is now attending graduate school while working as a writing consultant and freelance editor. Victoria finds writing is a release from her anxiety, a platform to expose injustice, and a way to celebrate life and beauty.