amber-lane2Amber Lane is a writer who happens to be a chemist.  During the day she writes technical pieces and during the evening she moonlights as a creative nonfiction writer.  She has performed her creative nonfiction pieces at conferences, creative arts events, and most recently at A Night of Short Stories, which featured four of her pieces.  She holds a BA in Biology with Chemistry and Theatre Arts from Alverno College, Wisconsin.  She is currently a member of the American Chemical Society, as well as serves on the leadership team for her faith community The Refuge.

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Barbie and the Boa
by Amber Lane

It was a great blazer.  I had bought it at Talbot’s.  I wore it with gray slacks and a mint green shirt, both of which were too small.  I buttoned the blazer to hide the gaps between the buttons on the shirt.  Hidden too by the blazer was my protruding lower abdomen, which was amplified by the tight slacks.  I was uncomfortable but I couldn’t think about comfort. The Barbie smile, which I had previously perfected, was summoned, and through the door I walked.

It was a fairly typical interview with fairly typical questions and awkward silences.  I walked out the same door I had entered with the same pseudo-confidence.  I received a phone call with an extension of an offer of employment within the next couple of days…that great blazer had worked.  Based on a conversation and a piece of paper three men had decided for some reason that I was something they wanted to invest in.  It’s an odd process if you think about it, you put your best foot forward and you’re rewarded if that foot fits the company slipper.  Here’s the problem…the foot that fit into the slipper that day was not really mine, it belonged to Barbie.

barbie2The issue is that Barbie is not a person, she is a character, and in my case I would soon learn that I could not stay in character very long.  Two months after beginning my new job I was asked to move to California.  The original agreement was for six months.  It was an adventure…or maybe I was just running away before anyone figured out that I wasn’t a very good actress.  I had one week to move to California, find a place to live and settle into my new job.  I was scared, I really had no idea what I was doing, and I was supposed to be some kind of expert.

Fall in San Francisco.  The rain didn’t stop and the mold in my tiny little bathroom was mitigated weekly with bleach and water.  Everything was damp all the time, the gray skies settled in the south bay, beginning a four-month-long hibernation.  If there had been any break in the clouds I never noticed.  Coiled around my chest during this time was a huge boa constrictor, which made breathing difficult and sleeping even more difficult. He liked the environment though, it was moist and warm and threaded with fear.

boa2Picture Barbie with a boa constrictor coiled around her chest, suffocating her. She knows he’s there but she is stunned; she can’t do anything about him, except make him as comfortable as possible so that his grip does not tighten and squeeze the life out of her.

And so there I was.

I had no friends.

I had no family.

I was in a new job.

I was in a new place.

I was lonely, scared, hurting.

And it was about to get worse.
~
It was a protocol, an instruction manual of sorts.  The track changes feature on the word document had produced a long column of rectangular boxes along the right side.  In each box was a comment…no not a comment, a knife.  As I read it I could feel the quick stab and then the pain.  He was supposed to give me feedback, instead it seemed to be a running commentary with hints of sarcasm and ‘you are so stupid’ streaming through.  The next time it was a verbal thread along the same lines, and the time after that the same, finally culminating in an explosion of anger that I will not likely forget.  I could feel the boa constrictor tighten and my chest begin to cave under the pressure.

During those months I would leave my apartment in San Mateo by 8:00 am and drive across the bay to Freemont.  Arriving between 8:30 and 9:00 am depending on the traffic.  I would sit in the parking lot fighting back the tears that had only subsided a few hours before, at which time I had finally become exhausted enough to fall asleep.  I would pull it together, take a deep breath and get into character.  Barbie had a way of turning into  Xena as soon as my badge unlocked the door to the building.  Xena got me through the day.

As the warrior princess I had to stay five times ahead of my opponents.  In order to be so far ahead I couldn’t experience the present, missing out on many opportunities to enjoy my life in California.  It was difficult work being the warrior princess, but for me I didn’t know any other way to survive.  I was once again surviving my life instead of living it.  Between Barbie, Xena, and a character from Girl Interrupted, I lost me, completely.
~
Once my chest had caved in and the life squeezed out of me, I could no longer be anything, not Barbie, not Xena, and especially not me.  As I lay dying the boa constrictor began to swallow me whole, and I did nothing about it.  Then he slowly slinked off to his den for his winter hibernation with me inside of him.  I honestly don’t remember too much during my stay in the boa.  My tissues began breaking down; daily I died a little more.  Some days I remember wishing that it would happen faster, but mostly I was so numb that I didn’t feel much.  Whenever there was a moment, even the briefest moment, when I felt something, I would take in more toxins to make it all go away.

Food.  That was my toxin of choice.  It may seem odd to some that something usually used to nourish could be so deadly, so let me explain.  When I’m eating I don’t think about anything else, there are chemicals released in my body when I eat that cause me to feel good and my brain associates food with feeling good.  Those factors, plus years of practice on how to use food as a tool to cope, equal toxic.

I would feel…nothing for the three or four hours while I was eating…then physically uncomfortable, shameful, guilty, gluttonous, sad…very, very sad.  Not able to sit with all of the discomfort I would walk into the bathroom stick my finger down my throat and throw-up.  My stomach hurt all the time, all day long, into my throat, always leaving a sour taste in my mouth.  I couldn’t sleep because my stomach and throat were always on fire, so I stopped throwing up, kept eating, and started taking laxatives.  At first one, then two, three, four, five…  The thing with this method was my body still absorbed most of the calories of the binge.

Ten months after driving to California I drove back to Colorado.  I had arrived as an adventurer and was leaving as an empty carcass.  I was not too unlike the pioneers traveling with the Donner party, with my spirit lost on the journey and doing what I had to do to survive.  Survival meant living in the lies, believing them because the reality of my rotting flesh was far worse.  The lies: you’re a fat lazy slob…get off your fat butt and do something…go away I don’t want to see your fat face…you’re worthless and can’t you do anything right!?…get out of my face you disgust me…I hate you.

I had allowed that boa to swallow me, head first, keeping my hands to my sides, and without kicking.  Moving back to Colorado stirred a desire inside me to fight.  I killed the boa with a knife that I had been holding the entire time, and cut my way out.  As I pulled myself up off the ground gasping for air, my raw flesh burning, my vision blurry, I realized that Barbie had melted away. What was left stunk and was utterly repulsive. Knowing this I kept my distance from others, not wanting to offend them.

A few people didn’t seem to notice my stench, and they kept coming close to me.  They would come and clean away the dead skin, apply salve, and redress the wounds.  I had been playing a character for so long that as my skin began to grow back it was foreign to me.  I was so uncomfortable in it, and sometimes the itching was so intense, that I would retreat back into the lies, the food, and the laxatives.  The following day as my wounds were being treated, someone would inquire about the new sore that had appeared.  Without the Barbie skin I couldn’t look at that person and tell them anything but the truth, and when I tried to avoid the truth the sore would only fester.

It was a bad day.  Followed by a good pizza. A medium pizza. Followed by four laxatives.  My last binge purge.  I have been walking in my new pink skin for many months now.  The lies have not stopped, they remain, but after I stop and listen and sometimes even agree with them, I put on my shoes and start walking again.  I remember Barbie and the Boa everyday as I put on my shoes. Unlike Barbie, I wear a size 10, and boa constrictors make beautiful shoes.

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