I died the morning I met Sarah. I ordered a latte from the campus cafe because she did the same. To make up for it, I starved myself until that night. Luckily, it was made with skim milk, not whole, so I was allowed to have dinner.
With a pandemic raging around me and anorexia screaming inside, I needed Sarah. She is lightly personified – auburn eyes, dangling earrings, a star on a t-shirt, dimples. She texted me after our second date to call me “nice” and “cute.”
I decided to trust her because I knew I would die if I didn’t.
I didn’t get better all at once. We meet in the spring, and the summer lasts. I keep up the habit of running five miles a day. I stick to my vegetarianism. I sat in my bedroom before going to bed every night.
But Sarah kept telling me that I was beautiful, smart, and funny. She kept reassuring me that she wouldn’t mind if I gained weight. She lured me into the resuscitation pool, where she had been swimming for over a year. In the fall, I assembled a rehab team of qualified professionals. By winter, I had regained my weight. By the spring of next year, I felt my whole body.
As I recovered, it was all the room in my life that startled me the most. For years, I dreaded taking up too much physical space in the world, but once I lived in a body the size it wanted, the emptiness stretched in all directions.
Eating disorders consume your entire life. I spent every waking moment thinking about food, my body, and exercise. When the voice of my anorexia calms down, I can think about whatever I want. I can fill that void with dreams. The possibilities fascinate me.
During that time, I fell deeply in love with Sarah. She is the most fiercely kind person I have ever met. She gets up early every Sunday to watch me sing in church. She works in a nursing home in her spare time. She made a shell necklace for my mother. She knitted mittens for me when I told her that my hands get cold in the winter. She remembers everything I told her. She always puts me first.
My recovery culminated in the production of Lerner & Loewe’s “Camelot,” in which I played Lancelot, the strongest knight in all the land. I slaughtered a bunch of men on stage. The queen loved me. Any audience member would have laughed if I had tried to play this role a year earlier when I was at my sickest. Instead, they believe it. The performance marked the beginning of my restored existence.
But “Camelot” also ended my relationship with Sarah. Through playing Lancelot, I got to see who I am for the first time. I also met Josh, who plays King Arthur.
I said I had a “friendship” with him, but it was more than that. That’s how he talks about art, as if each movie, painting, and play is a cloud for him to decipher. That’s how he talks to people; Unaffected by the plague of Gen-Z apathy, Josh will tell you exactly how much he cares about you without a smile. That’s how he hugged me on closing night, didn’t melt into me but met me where I was.
This is a partner, I think. I’m ready for a partner.
It was during one session that I realized why Josh is so important. I said, “I think I have a crush on this person.” And my therapist said, “You need to ask what those feelings reveal about the relationship you’re in right now.”
It’s not about being with him. He had a girlfriend of four years. I never understood being with him. It was about what he showed me – that my healed self needed a mate and that my current relationship was not a partnership.
Even after I recovered, Sarah continued to bathe me in the light. She made me long romantic playlists, painted me flowers with watercolors, kissed my knuckles in turn. In short, she adores me. But I gradually realized that being worshiped was not what I needed anymore. It’s also not fair to Sarah. I needed to be challenged and Sarah needed to find someone who could revere her to the same extent. The hard irony is that I can only see it because she helped heal me.
I was close to death when I fell in love with Sarah, but I was still alive when I broke up with her. I no longer get dizzy when I stand up. My hands don’t turn blue when I sit still for too long. I ate chocolate whenever I felt like it. I see cellulite in the mirror and feel nothing.
But it almost killed me to hurt her.
It took me two tries. The first time we both cried, then we kissed, then I was sleeping next to her with our fingers intertwined. She was so kind. She kept throwing lights all over the dorm room. It’s dazzling.
In the morning we drove past Dunkin’ Donuts. When I gave the cashier my credit card, Sarah said, “If you’re going to break up with me, I need you to do it sooner rather than later.”
I took donuts and parked outside a dorm building. This time, there isn’t any perception to do. I knew I needed to end things. I let go of the inevitable, hoping I could get through it until graduation, but it didn’t do her justice. She has a lot to give. I don’t need to, and she deserves more than that.
I didn’t do a good job breaking up with her. I don’t think she understands. I kept saying, “We’re different,” and she kept saying, “I know. That’s a good thing.” I kept saying, “I love you so much,” and she kept saying, “So why are you doing this?”
We ended up hugging each other. She melted into me in all the places where Josh held his ground, and I knew I did the right thing. This time is different, more final. After that, we thanked each other, but let me say it again here: I am very grateful to Sarah. She found me when I was dying. She loved me when I felt unlovable. She told me that I too was sunlight until I believed her. Until I was.
Then another drive. A week after breaking up with Sarah, Josh and I received a milkshake. We are good friends who want to strike up a conversation. We parked our car outside a dorm building. I turned on the overhead light so his face was painted gold. He’s so handsome. He sucked his too thick milkshake through the too thin straw while I realized two things.
First of all, I love this man. I don’t think I’m capable of falling in love with a man, but now there’s so much more space inside of me, and this is the man who gave life, very ordinary, in the front seat of my car. He bursts with humanity. His masculinity feels fortuitous.
Second, I will never be with him. As my therapist emphasized, my love for Josh merely fills in the gaps in my relationship with Sarah, and that makes it too disjointed to form a foundation. for something new. I love him for all that she is not, more than for what he is.
It’s not about Josh. It’s about me and Sarah and the things we couldn’t do for each other now that I’ve recovered. I have never been a healthy adult. Josh, even though we’ve never been romantically involved, showed me the kind of partner I absolutely needed, even if he’s not that person to me.
I’ve always thought that the purpose of love is to find your forever person, and every breakup is a failure in that search. But what Sarah and I had remained unbroken. It is a place for me to come back to life and later a place to bloom. I hope the same is true for her. I hope we grow up together until we have to be apart.
I spent four years of my young adulthood as an anorexic prisoner, trapped in a darkness I intended never to return to. My plane of existence is packed with dietary rules and exercise routines, a lack of confidence, and self-loathing. Then came Sarah, who shone her light in every dark corner of the world that my illness had created to kill me. Then there was Josh, who stunned me with his shadowy self and showed me that I didn’t need pure light anymore.
And now it’s just me and all this glorious space.