Piper Gourley

“Stolen Grapefruit,” Chelsea Welsh

 

Ziggy Stardust is in the Walls

1/
My mother says a prayer over my shaking body. I do not join her. God kisses the sad children, the good ones. I am not a good one.
I am preparing to be swallowed. I am apart from the belly of the institution—from the clinic’s yellow bricks, the withering garden, the cigarette butts littering the welcome mat. I am apart from the concrete walls—from the golden slabs of stone offering an obstructed path to the sky. It is here that I will learn how to survive the same way a baby learns to consume solid foods. It is here that I will refeed my decaying body.
I am fourteen—a fetus in utero of my disorder, waiting to be strangled by the umbilical cord. Anorexia makes me look younger, and, in the same breath, deader. I wonder if the other patients will match my strained youthfulness. My ghostly disposition.
My mother walks me into the ward, scribbles her initials on my intake forms, and leaves me to be p-i-c-k-e-d apart by the dietitians, the therapists, the patients. They all flock to my rotting body. In this psychological war zone, my peers in tribulation mutter phrases of comfort and gratitude.
They say: We are glad you are here.
They mean: We are glad you are alive.
Try as they might, no one provides me any peace of mind. Keeping track of this chorus is like trying to mince apart meat from the bone. At noon, their sympathies trickle off. Lunch spurs silence. Everyone falls quiet as our food is prepared. We stalk the table for our nameplates. One girl curses. Another cries. One prays. We congregate around our loaded dishes, glowering at each calorific course.
During the meal, my carrots gnaw at my fingers. My oranges acidify my fork. My ham-and-cheese sandwich, its pulpy bread—each bite swells on my tongue like stones. I chew until there is nothing left to swallow. An older patient asks if I am okay. I smile and nod, play hospitable. As the staff clears away our plates, I sit in the corner of the room, reading a battered copy of Gatsby for sophomore English, despite being on medical leave.
I pretend I am a good one.
 
2/
This is not Anorexics Anonymous. We have names. We have labels. We are People.
There is Krista, a twenty-six-year-old mother. Rae, a nineteen-year-old AmeriCorps teacher. Clark, an eighteen-year-old college student. Ellie, an eleven-year-old infant. A collection of brutalized body parts, the remnants of a stunted soul, desperate for a soma to call home.
Days consist of group, and snacks, and meals. They consist of copious amounts of food, of bawling our throats raw. Rae cradles the sobbing in her arms, consuming our pain when we cannot swallow it ourselves. Clark tickles the teeth of the kitchen’s piano—sings a Western song about a dishonored man who walks into the desert to die. Ellie laughs. Krista sobs.
We say mantras before meals. They feel too much like prayers, but there is a holiness in the air. The oxygen is cultured with grief and becoming, neither of which can exist without the other. And the shelves are stocked with the blood of Christ—bottles of liquid food supplement. If we do not eat, we are given one, two, two-and-a-half of these canisters.
I eat. Through headphones that I string up my sleeve, I listen to Heroes and Space Oddity by Bowie, searching for solace in Major Tom’s drift into the ether. When the staff realizes, they confiscate my phone.
They say: Be present.
They mean: We are glad you are alive.
Rehab rushes in, invades my autonomy. We are tucked away. Bubbling and burning in this clinic, a greenhouse of emotions. It is here that I realize that everyone is addicted to something. Television and music and lottery tickets and gum and Diet Coke and video games. But we are the wrong ones. We are the unacceptable.
There are thousands of ways to say delicious and hungry in the South. There are recipes haphazardly measured by memory; a collective sensation of nostalgia induced by oven-born scents, by panko-baked macaroni, by ambrosia salad, by moist brisket, by honey-glazed bread. I resent every facet of Southern flavor. I am a failed Texan.
 
3/
The oncoming weeks fracture my new reality. Clark goes home, then to residential. Krista runs outside and throws her plate into oncoming traffic. At one Sunday breakfast, Ellie slips into hypothermia. She complains of a migraine, asks for her mom, then stops responding altogether.
Within minutes, an ambulance arrives. Ellie is so light that a paramedic retrieves her with one hand, whisking her away like an empty briefcase. I feel ill. I still must eat my cherry muffin.
We pray for Ellie. Our fingers Bible-bend around our spoons, yet we do not believe in being saved. We are deathly, pining for the daughter, the sun—so holy ghostly. We are dehydrated disciples, fumbling for our Messiah in the twelve steps it takes to reach the table.
 
4/
I miss a meal. I am depressed, then ecstatic, then inconsolable. My psychiatrist puts me on Prozac, and I am so beautiful, I see the Creator. When she takes me off Prozac, the mania is gone. I know that I will never believe in God again—or Heaven. That verses of holy adversity will slide from my mind like Teflon, like my warm bile into the cool, porcelain toilet of my Methodist church after Sunday communion.
I sing: And may God’s love be with you
Bowie never subscribed to God. Never identified purpose beyond his stardom, exceeding a facade of absurdity, a perversion from purity. I am not pure. I am faithless. I am a Starman in training, drifting into the ether. There are only the downs, the ups, the tailspins.
I spiral. I skip a second meal, nurse my supplements in silence. Water and sugar, a thick, powdery syrup—a micro-dose of my disorder’s euthanasia. Or my own.
Bowie says: I am an instant star. Just add water and stir.
And a star, a nebulous, a nova—it is nothing more than a failed projection of death.
 
5/
I stop eating a month after my admission. Lunch is a battered body laid to rest in a porcelain casket. Death is more appetizing than this slaughtered sustenance. I enfold my meal with my fork. There is no way to give the dish a proper burial.
After lunch, it is too late to eat dinner, or breakfast, or any meal, ever again. My treatment team wants to ship me to a hospital equipped to deal with my non-compliance, to a snowy landscape out-of-state, as if a change in scenery will save me. Insurance will not pay for higher care. They tell my therapist that I am not yet sick enough, not yet dead enough.
I write an appeal. I scrawl malnourished hymns to insurance agents. I barter for a slot at survival, promising that I will become someone worth saving in exchange for their intervention. I try to make myself sound affordable to the suits on the other end of the phone line.
I write: Please. I think this is killing me.
My appeal is denied.
 
6/
The therapists try a new means of coaxing out my will to digest: isolation.
They place me apart from my peers to mull over my rebellion. I am in a plastic chair in an empty hallway—no books, no Bowie. The air is cold. Colder than an empty church pew or an empty prayer. Colder than a vacant bless your heart from strangers, leeches. No one can speak to me now, or look at me, or love me. I am their guinea pig, their first intensive isolation case, an initial attempt to starve out anorexia from its owner. They hope they can devastate my disorder by giving it what it wants—solitude.
Within hours, I am dissolving. The beige walls, the brown carpet, the pale ceiling, the fluorescent bulbs like glowing caskets above my head—the coffin of my sanity closes in around me. But it is too late to go back. In uncertainty, we go forward. A new recipe—the madness of malnutrition mixed with the inhumanity of invisibility. They wait for my boiling point to witness the disastrous product of their union.
I sing: Planet Earth is blue, and there’s nothing I can do—
Within days, my mind is swallowing itself. My memories leak from my ears. I do not remember my birthday. My voice is a foreign language. No one else notices.
 
7/
Reality distorts to help me survive. See, now, how the light bends against the wall like a current, like the airbrushed vision of a projector? This is because the world is projected, a simulation. The wall is not real; the world is not real.
Ashes to ashes; dust to dust; plaster to plaster.
I imagine my cells committing suicide. My veins are nooses. My arms, split currents, bleach rivers. How long have I been dead for? I know—I walked up the yellow bricks. I am in Heaven. Rehab is a fever dream. Maybe it is Hell.
This resembles life, but it is not.
I sing: I am stepping through the door—
Bowie’s greatest fear was losing his mind. Becoming a hollow figure of a sane man. He used drugs to cope, but they didn’t pardon him from life. They drained him. Turned him to sap, to poison. The supplements are full of his blood. Cocaine, calories, thinners.
But don’t you see? I do not want to be thin. I want to be empty.
 
8/
They say: Are you ready to eat?
I say: Let me go to group. Please. I want out.
 
9/
I see my psychiatrist. I tell her I am trapped in Gatsby’s unreality of reality. I am tumbling through layers of a multi-dimensional dreamscape. I tell her I am terrified. I am within the grandeur of delusion. I see the light in her emerald eyes—taunting me from the other side of sanity—as she writes me a prescription for anti-psychotics.
The next day, I wake up face-down in a pool of my own sweat.
Fifteen milligrams of Latuda means my limbs are crammed with concrete and my head is filled with nonsense. I see visions of my dead body everywhere. I am stabbed into the carpet. I am hanging from the ceiling. I am draped across the secretary’s desk. I do not tell my doctor because the cadavers interrupt my loneliness. Even if I am in Hell, I am here with the corpses.
I can still hear Clark’s piano wailing through the walls.
And the walls. They’re singing—
Though nothing will drive them away, we can beat them, just for one day—
 
10/
I talk to the walls. They are my cage, and I am their animal. I muse over their gapless bars—run my syllables across their cool, secure plaster.
To the walls, I say: Did you know that when David Bowie was the Thin White Duke, he lived on nothing but milk and red peppers and cocaine for several months?
If not several years?
In this hallway for years, starving for years. Hungry—never for food, never for sustenance. For a connection. For a kind word. For a bless your heart. For a new identity.
Bowie never said he had an eating disorder, and it wasn’t because he didn’t. It was because he was a star. A visionary, a vision, a blistering comet, dissolving as quickly as he was spotted.
My illness sees me.
The corpses see me.
The walls see me.
 
11/
I am in pieces. I am in parts and I am apart.
I will rename myself. David Bowie was not David Bowie’s real moniker. He stole the title from a weapon: an All-American Bowie knife. My name will be something Texan, something beautiful, something holy. A wildflower. A raven. A succulent. Something assembled in iotas. Or a weapon—a hallway. An illness. A gun. A pill. The pyrrhic victor can decide.
 
12/
I go to the bathroom and cry on the floor. My skin is colder than the tile. The secretary lets me lay there until I am done heaving, then walks me back to the hallway. She pauses—stares at me like I am a fish she forgot to feed. She dims the lights. She taps her pen on her palm.
Morse code—I see you.
I fall asleep in the chair, in the arms of the walls. I do not escape the visions. I dream of my tongue being cut out. Rocks being slipped into my ears. Flesh escaping from my bones, fugitive putty from a lifeless skeleton. I wake up screaming. I stand up and bang on the wall with my frail fists. Because it is not my friend, not now. It is too loud and too much a part of me. It is stealing my identity—for all that its failings are worth.
I yell: Ziggy Stardust lives in the walls! He’s in the plaster!
 
13/
When I said I want out, I did not mean through a portal. Now, reality is no destination in my vagrancy. There is no burning bush, no sign of salvation, no green light beyond the lake. I am drowning in my life.
This is no longer torture. This is a funeral. There is no death—only a vanishing.
When is the viewing? Better hurry—soon, there will be nothing left to mourn.
I sing: We can be heroes, just for one day
 
14/
They say: Are you ready to eat?
 
15/
David Bowie said that the Thin White Duke almost killed him, but that it was not his most dangerous personality.
He said that was Ziggy Stardust—the lightning bolt, the legend. The man who stole Bowie’s identity, ground it up, and fed it to his audiences at the cost of his sanity.
I did not understand how Ziggy could be worse than the Duke. Not until now. I cannot think of anything more violent than robbing someone of their identity, their personhood. If you take their humanity, you may as well kill them.
I say: I think that you are killing me.
 
16/
I meet with my dietitian. Her office walls are coated in a skin of silent portraits—fruit bowls, martinis gagged with olives, slaughtered meat. She asks why I am not eating. I tell her I am liquefying, holy—hollow with cavities. I tell her I’m diffused enough to melt through plaster.
I say: I’ve been taking my final breath over and over again, waiting for death to stick.
She tells me she feels bad for me. Her pity is worthless, if not unsettling. I do not want to be treated like a human. Once I am human, it will be another privilege they can revoke.
 
17/
I meet with the head of the hospital. She asks why I am not eating. I tell her that I do not want to be alive anymore.
She says: Why don’t you just eat now and kill yourself later?
She says this as if suggesting an item to retrieve from a store. Like asking me to grab eggs or milk or cheese. She says my sacrifice will save us all some time.
Kill—yourself—later.
The first time I acquired a definition for the word “suicide,” I was eight years old, mixing soda flavors at Cici’s. Dr. Pepper. Coca Cola. Sprite. Fanta. Sprite again. More Coca Cola. The origin stories of my suicides were delicious and spastic and erratic, and I drank the mixtures down, choked on the sugary amber of chaos.
How can she not see that I have ended my life countless times?
I am suspended above her head, blue, choked. I am spitting up blood on her desk.
Kill myself?
You cannot slaughter a ghost. You cannot kill a phantom.
I tell her: I once heard of people so ashamed that they walked into the desert to die. That is what I am doing.
 
18/
The walls are a body. The hospital is a body, a fiberglass skeleton housing the skeletal. I am a body, one made of walls of arteries and tendons and bone, a body that will return to walls—six walls, six feet under.
Ashes to ashes; dust to dust; plaster to plaster.
Everything has walls. The most notable of these: i. People. ii. Hospitals. iii. Coffins.
I touch my chest, palm on the sharp corner of my ribs.
I say: Bless your heart.
I sing: I am floating in the most peculiar way—
 
19/
We try new cocktails weekly. Zyprexa. Risperdal. Abilify. Thorazine. Fruitless alphabet soup.
When I am finally hollow enough to consume food without consequence—one month and eleven days later—they take me out of isolation. They take me off my initial regimen of antipsychotics after twelve months of psychosis. Another, after fifteen. Another, after eighteen.
I am sixteen. The world remains a simulation, but the bodies—they are finally gone.
Ashes to ashes to ashes to ashes.
I pine for an apology for the trauma of isolation. For the corpses, absorbed into the cage. For my missing God, my missing selfhood. For Bowie’s fractured body—his poisoned blood, his swollen voice. I wait for months, for years, for an email, a letter, an ode.
Silence.
I am free, but I am confined. The walls are silent, but not always solid. I perform healthy, sensible, sane. I do not listen to Bowie. I do not change my name. I do not scrap my verities, reinvent my persona. I am not sufficiently human. I eat. I add water and stir. I try to repair the circuits between purgatory and reality, adrift in the ether. At least I am alive.
 
20/
On my eighteenth birthday, Ellie meets me for dinner. She is whole, developed, responsive. We are alive—no longer raw throats or pill bottles. We are People. For the first time, I am honest. I tell her that I am eating again, but taste nothing. I tell her I am splintered—part vision, part invocation, part astronaut. I tell her I do not feel human.
She says: I remember when they put you there.
She says: That must’ve been so dehumanizing.
She says: I’m sorry.
I cry. I have been waiting for an I’m sorry for so long. It comes from the wrong person. Somehow, it provides more peace than a prayer ever could.
 
21/
There are boxes in my brain where the ramparts of my split psyche reside. There is a box for the talking walls. There is a box for my extracted tongue—for the rocks in my ears. There is a box for the projector. One for the yellow paint. One for my corpses. There is a box for Ziggy Stardust’s flesh. All gathered together like family heirlooms. They are my legacy.
 

Piper Gourley is a professional ghostwriter from Houston, Texas, studying fiction at the University of Houston. Their work has been published in The Interlochen Review, Thought Catalog, History 101, Living 101, The Mighty, The Sun Magazine, and more. As a ghostwriter, they have published over 650 creative works across the web.