Since returning home in the middle of the spring semester, I’ve been living in my family’s attic. We don’t actually have enough space in the house for all of us to be home at once, so we converted the cramped attic into my de facto room for my indefinite stay.
Every morning, I must overcome the obstacle of descending a flight of stairs to do things like brush my teeth, change my tampon, and see another human face. Then, I take one more flight down to feed my frog and have breakfast. If I want a can of Pepsi, I go down yet another floor to the basement. “Woe is Emma—living in her tall, lavish home,” you say.
The stairs, barriers as they are, ask me to exert physical effort to make an appearance in my kitchen. As I climb down, I blame the stairs aloud for my mental exhaustion. Our kitchen is a minefield of stress, memories, and a strange combination of organic kale and unhealthy snacks. Littered across the counter is a hodgepodge of ingredients: an unbalanced food pyramid of starchy lemon squares, bright red berries, and freezer-burned greens. Everyone in my family fights for the five square feet of space to cobble together our individual meals, as we don’t (never have) eat meals together. We don’t eat the same food.
There are five people in the house at once now. Unusual. It would be six, but the oldest of my younger sisters (she’s now 19) has been in college for a year and rarely returns home. We think she’s afraid of us.
Dragging myself downstairs is already hard. I have to pass my brother’s pull-up bar on the way down, and I’m reminded that I should probably work on my physical strength. Having to travel an extra flight is just the reason I need to stay in bed.
When I do enter the kitchen, there are chips and chocolates and buttery crackers. I start to make tea and an egg, but I’m so hungry (it’s 1 p.m. at this point) that I end up eating a bowl of cereal while waiting for the pan to heat up. Disgusted with myself, I put the egg away. I let the hot water boil and drink the tea with plantain chips I find underneath an open bag of semi-sweet chocolate chips. I’m reminded of the time I begged my sister not to throw away her breakfast. It was also a single egg. How many hours until it’s acceptable for me to try eating the egg again?
The youngest of my two sisters jauntily enters the room and goes to the cupboard where she hides her Twix bars. She, unlike my high school self, excels in sports and is naturally svelte. She eats one giddily, calling it her daily Twix. My mom laughs while my dad frowns.
“Why do you buy her those things?” he asks my mom. “She’s going to get fat someday.”
“She’s a growing girl and she loves them! I don’t want what happened to [other sister] to happen to her—if we tell her she can’t eat sweets, she’ll get … a complex.” My mom still can’t talk about what happened to her second daughter without crying.
“If she keeps eating those sweets, what happened to [other sister] will happen to her because everyone will call her fat.”
My mom stirs her appetite suppressant multivitamin into her Greek yogurt without another word. I trudge upstairs.
Going downstairs feels like I’m falling, but each step catches me against my will. My brother eats two meals a day at exactly 4 p.m. and midnight. I think it’s so no one sees him eat; my dad thinks it’s because he doesn’t like us. But I like him. One night, I watched him fill his cup with protein powder. “Apparently, it’s bad for your liver,” he joked. We worry about him. He worries about how tall he is compared to the other boys at school. When my dad brought the scale home at my brother’s request, my mom gave him 24 hours to get it out of the house.
My boyfriend got me a can of Pringles as a gift for finishing my junior year. They’re the first thing I see when I come downstairs. The can is blue and it catches my eye. I snack on a couple of chips, indulging in shame while I throw kale and bananas into a Nutribullet. Walking out of the kitchen, I accidentally come upon my father eating beans and rice on the sofa. I pretend I don’t see him so as not to be rude.
When I’m upstairs, I organize my desk, take care of my work, go online, and talk to my friends. The ceiling caves in a little, but I’m just short enough to stand upright without hitting my head. On all of my Zoom calls, the background is the weird hexagonal shape of my ceiling. The door to my room is a flat cellar door, and to get it open you have to squat and lift it. My mirror stands upright, but I can only see from my belly button to my feet. My clothes are in piles underneath my bed. I live like a little gremlin, but I’m nicer to my body than I would be any other summer.
The world where I stand up straight, greet others face-to-face, and wear tight-fitting clothes doesn’t really exist anymore. All I have are the downstairs and the upstairs: the place with food and the place without. The place with questions and the place without. Would anyone really notice if I lost weight? I go into the kitchen, black out, and come out with … turkey bacon, dried apricots, and lychee juice? What the hell is in my fridge?
My 19-year-old sister is in college, but she still calls. She’s worried about boy problems and asks for feedback on her TikTok videos. I got her an eyeshadow palette for Hanukkah, and I see her using it on Instagram. She looks beautiful. We’re happy for her because we saw a future where she didn’t make it this far. We remember when her hair was falling out. We’re glad her period has come back. She’s coming home next week. My mom prepares an unassuming box of junk food for her so she can prove her strength and show her growth. I hide my cauliflower rice. While my mom is giving me a head massage, she wonders aloud if my sister will sit in the passenger’s seat of the car as my mom drives.
“Do you think she’ll let me touch her again?”
My sister calls me one more time and sees my mom in the background. She asks, “Can we talk? It’s kinda private. It’s about that … guy.” I go upstairs.
One night toward the end of the spring semester, my Wi-Fi runs dry as I finish a paper in the attic. I stare at the stairs leading me to the Internet router in my parents' room. It’s midnight. I lug myself down the steps and knock on my brother’s door to ask if I can use his mobile hotspot because my phone is at the repair shop. He grunts and obliges, sitting silently on the floor of my room while I log on to send my essay to my professor. Seemingly out of nowhere, he asks me a question.
“Do you think if I don’t take in enough protein for how much I’m exercising, I’ll lose body fat and not muscle? Will that work?” He pinches at the skin on his stomach.
“And don’t say this is just skin! This is skin!” He stretches the skin from his bicep out to show me how only a golden potato-sized muscle exists underneath.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” I say.
The essay goes through, and he goes back downstairs. I remain upstairs, in the attic, on a different plane than everyone else while they sleep. If things continue to go the way they’re going, I’ll graduate into adult life from my inner sanctum above the attic stairs.
Enjoy leafing through our second issue!