Daniel Garcia, “Playing Dead”

Playing Dead

“I do it so it feels like hell.”

– Sylvia Plath, “Lady Lazarus”

The Virginia opossum, species name didelphis virginiana, is the only marsupial indigenous to North America. Known colloquially as “trash kitties” on social media for their hissing, panic-stricken faces, and propensity for scouring dumpsters for scraps, the stereotypes aren’t that far removed: opossums are scavengers, and their diet often consists of fruit, snakes, ticks (sometimes over five thousand a season!) and even roadkill. Female opossums, jills, are known for carrying their offspring, joeys, on their physical person, like humans.[1] Opossums spend much of their time in trees, hidden from the world despite being in it.[2] Stereotypes aside, because opossums store food sources within memory, they are superior at locating food—and therefore nourishing themselves—than other animals.[3] Given their near-immunity to rabies and other wildlife illnesses, opossums are also incredibly healthy mammals, notable for their proximity to death by what’s called thanatosis or “playing possum.”[4] In thanatosis, opossums enter tonic immobility, a state wherein an animal’s motor skills temporarily stall. They lie on their sides or backs, rigid, mouths agape. It seems unproductive, certainly, to lie inert, aware of what promises to extinguish you; however, it’s not without purpose: opossums, in mimicking death, release a subtle scent through their anal glands akin to decomposition.[5] This plays at a wildlife predator’s instinct to avoid rotten meat, which may result in abandoning the opossum, giving it a chance to escape.[6]

My body delivers to me the news that it’s dying a few weeks before I turn nineteen, near the end of my freshman year in college. Nearby, the alarm clock on the desk glows green like an exit sign, somewhere around three, four. My mouth, dry like stale bread, is heavy with the weight of sleep.[7] The lake is what lures me from it, the marshiness beneath my placid legs. Night sweats aren’t uncommon for me, but confusion stirs my eyelids anyway. I pass my hands over the front of my thighs (they’re a drought) and when it hits, what’s happening, what’s already happened, I stall.[8] Then, heart slamming, jaw dropped as if to scream, the terror briefly lifts, and then I’m tearing everything off—the blankets, the sleeping bag I placed in lieu of sheets, the soaked, squelching clothes pried from skin—and passing fingers over the bed, oh God oh God did it soak through tell me it didn’t soak through, and then I’m flying towards the mirror hanging over the bathroom door.[9] Later, in the stall beside the toilet, I’m hiding under soap and water; I’ve yanked the curtain shut like it’s a coffin.[10] I’m pretending the laxatives didn’t rip through my guts, I’m playing like I didn’t just purge in my sleep, like nothing’s wrong, nothing’s waiting outside the bathroom.[11] If I remain long enough, I can strangle down the panic, rinse away the proof of my body’s compromise, and pretend there’s no rancid elusive stench; thin, rising in the dark.[12]


[1]        Though I’m not a cis woman and have never desired to be, there’s no denying the influence cis womanhood had on me, particularly its cultural proximity to thinness, motherhood. Months and months before this night, in my senior year of high school, during the week we read Eat (It’s Not About Food) in my tech theatre class, I was stressing over the caloric quantity in the scraps of a granola bar I’d just eaten, and a classmate, Breanna, snapped at me. “Oh my God, you sound like a girl!” Maybe that was the point; how, despite my inability to experience pregnancy, I’ve always wondered how it would feel to hold a piece of yourself and think, I made this, I brought this here.

[2]        To be clear, it was never so much that I truly wanted kids, but more that, at the time, I held interest in how cis women were supposed to look: the slip of a shadow, practically see-through, immediate and then gone; elsewhere. Bodies like mine, with excess between the legs, weren’t supposed to look like that. Not in a mirror, not in the eyes of the world.

[3]        In high school, because the fridge at home was always sparse, I wasn’t a stranger to hanging around the cafeteria after the bell for first period rang, just before the custodians came in to clean up. I snagged anything I could get my paws on—unopened milk cartons, an apple, a snack sized bag of baby carrots, the tiny food boats I’d fill with untouched French toast sticks from other abandoned food boats. Sometimes a cinnamon roll or chicken biscuit if it was a good day. A better one if I didn’t have to go spelunking in one of the trash cans.

It was too much—I hated being hungry but loved fitting at seventeen the t-shirts I used to wear when I was ten. It started innocuously: the hoarding thinned after I got a job at a Subway up the road from the trailer park where I lived, and I, suddenly having consistent access to food, started filling out. My clothes got tighter. I grew used to being full. I decided this wouldn’t do. I yearned for that elusive feeling of strength I had whenever I saw my willowy arms, my slender hourglass frame.

[4]        Experientially, “playing” is inaccurate—it implies fun, enjoyment. Rather, thanatosis and tonic immobility are precipitated by intense, uncontrollable fear. I’m no opossum, but I know that kind of helplessness, that last ditch effort towards self-preservation. At any rate, I’m hurrying down the stairs to my dorm’s laundry room; I’m carrying detergent and a small canopy of blankets, swaddling what came from me. It feels poetic somehow.

[5]        Pharmaceutical name bisacodyl, 5 milligrams per tablet. This is the other way I used to purge, rolling my tongue over them, sucking the artificial sweetness off until they were white as bone before swallowing. The bottle promised kindness: gentle overnight relief. Bright orange happy pills, ready to take me away, out into wonderland.

[6]        My reason for doing this—what was it again? What was it that brought me back to that place of worship, that altar of porcelain I poured chunks of myself into, day after day? To say it was solely a threat of living in the world feels insufficient. Thinness, too, seems incomplete. Something about freedom, I think, something about leaving myself. But what sky was I so desperate to greet, what cage did I yearn so heavily to escape from? It’s been eight years now since that night, and I’m trying to remember, but I keep coming up short.

Stuffing everything into one of the washers, I’m trying to look away from what’s happening. This illness I nurtured with my flesh like a newborn—I’m killing myself to keep it alive; there’s only so long I can play at death before I crush under the weight of it.

[7]        As I write this, “faith” is what I keep coming back to. I think that must be it—the reason for those months I went rabid in Kerr Hall; how, post-binge, I’d bend over porcelain in the tiled cell on the other side of Kerr’s lobby, dizzy and whirling and wide awake like a dying man searching for God, foraging my esophagus with my fingers and hissing while I spewed back two, three, four plates from the cafeteria, believing that sad voice in my head asking my body are you gone yet, have I finally gotten rid of you?

What I can come up with is a day at the mall in childhood. My mother’s curvy frame, her tight jeans, her black and neon lime green jacket loose enough to get on but not button up. It didn’t matter if she felt confident, that she was beautiful not despite her body but in tandem with it. It mattered only that she had a body, one she was failing to be properly seen through, that she’d enticed the world’s bottomless appetite for cruelty: the apprehension of strangers, the weight of whispers and condemnation and eyes marrying her to insufficiency and excessiveness, the realization they found her unworthy, that she had a body which somehow thieved the world of space and therefore must’ve agreed to be shamed for it. I wasn’t old enough to recall much else from that day, but standing beside my mother’s leg, holding her hand for dear life, I knew I didn’t want to be apprehended. Anything, I must’ve figured, to spare myself the agony of the world’s purview, to save myself from its teeth.

[8]        Here is when I knew I was starting to come apart. Is it obvious?

[9]        I’ll take, “Gentle Overnight Relief, My Ass” for $500, Alex. Gimme a fucking break. More like hot razors liquifying your guts. I’m taking what I said earlier back: killing isn’t accurate, either. Kill is clean; it implies quickness, simplicity. It doesn’t encompass the degree of intent I’m referring to. No, I’m talking about an eating disorder, I’m talking about consent to the deadliest degree: full-on self-murder, total annihilation.

[10]      Plath, I’ll give her that much, was right: It’s easy enough to do it [dying] in a cell. The difference, I’m certain, is that I wanted to prove I didn’t need anything at all—not food, not a body, not a life. Of course, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t also want to see what would happen, if I said it wasn’t fun at first, playing both tortured and torturer, the dreamy tumbling I made of bathrooms, in and out, the unseen terror cinching my acid-battered esophagus, clogged like a pipe; the swallow-mute of my desperate screams.

But when did I let it get this bad? I swore I’d stop one day, that this wouldn’t be forever, just long enough to get away. This is what I believed: that if I could just fit inside the mirror, springboard from scale to safety, then nothing could touch me, nothing could hurt me. Let me be neither flood nor drought, I must’ve figured. Let me be just gone.

[11]      Getting to wonderland wasn’t supposed to hurt this much.

[12]      If I look over from where I’m sitting in the dorm’s laundry room, I might catch the barest hint of my face in the window of the washer door. I might catch a pause in the spin cycle. The dampness oozing down the window, a reason to turn back, that I’m still me no matter how I try to disappear. In truth, it won’t be long before I start getting better, and soon the body will erupt with the revenge of recovery—the bloating, the bile-laced hiccups, the expanding thighs—over what I’ve done. The washer’s starting up again, but if I listen, I might hear the buzzing fluorescents buried beneath my stomach, the pains thumping in waves like tiny feet, the ravenous snarl looming from the inside out.

For now though, I’ll keep inhaling and flushing, wheedling for skin so fine it splits into a white smoother than porcelain. I’ll keep dreaming the mirror as a glossy egress into a distant unlife where home and hungry are variables of an equation to solve for happy, where I’m gliding into nowhere: full, thin.

Daniel Garcia’s essays appear or are forthcoming in Slice, Ninth Letter, Guernica, The Kenyon Review, Passages North, The Offing, and elsewhere. Poems appear or are forthcoming in The Arkansas International, Zone 3, Gulf Coast, Ploughshares, Pleiades, Electric Literature, and others. A recipient of awards, prizes, grants, and scholarships from Bat City Review, So to Speak, Tin House, PEN America, and others, Daniel currently serves as a memoir reader and InteR/e/views editor for Split Lip Magazine. Daniel’s essays also appear as Notables in The Best American Essays.

Categorized as Issue Seven