When Ma asks if you’re hungry for dinner, tell her you already ate, then remain mute, even if she protests and wags a wooden spoon in your direction and flicks red sauce across the white linoleum. Your father will continue to read the newspaper. The next morning, announce a newfound love for animals, and refuse every meal by ensconcing yourself in a new vernacular: lacto-vegetarianism, lacto-ovo-vegetarianism, pescatarianism, veganism. At night, in bed, fantasize about a visit to the pediatrician and the sterile occultism of percentiles and growth charts and rubber mallet taps and scales and levered beams that click-clack in the rhythm of a mantra: I can shrink to perfection. During geometry, resist the urge to thumb the ribs beneath your shirt, because someone is always watching. In the cafeteria, when all your friends gorge on Chicken Cordon Bleu—velvety cheese oozing from plastic knife wounds—treat yourself to a Coca-Cola and revel in the carbonation and how it fizzes inside your abdomen and makes you feel full, sated. In the hallway, there are some girls who wear low-slung jeans and crop tops and hustle to and from class, the bulbs of their hips roiling beneath their smooth skin, and there are some girls who overburden themselves with textbooks and a grim determination to sail out of town on a college acceptance letter, and there are some girls who search for their own shrinking perfection, and, still, there are some girls who defy categorization, delimited not by your sight, and you envy them all and ask: why does everyone tell me to be a big man? Every few hours, attempt to encircle your left wrist with the thumb and pointer of your right hand—this is the way to check that you are the right size, even if you curse your bones while you squeeze: if I weren’t big boned I would be thinner. After school, walk to the edge of town, to the trees, maples and birches—you are alone and you are sad, and you call the feeling boredom, but that’s not quite right, because the feeling is too sharp, too painful, like kneeling bare-kneed on grains of rice, but you’re only sixteen and don’t know any better, and later in life, when you’re older, you find out that you never will. Inspect your body in the bathroom mirror—suck your belly in, push your belly out, and pretend you’re pregnant. With one hand shroud your sex, which, in the endless days of puberty and hormonal development, has revolted: feel feral; hate the feeling. Worry your thoughts like an itchy scab: why have I not transformed? Listen to your mother and apply to college, because you’re a smart boy, she says. An institution accepts you, the letter arrives in the mail, a confirmation of your mother’s belief. At the University of Vermont, your roommate shares your name, and his breathing is heavy, labored, gummy, like he drinks too much milk. One floor below your dorm lives Lisa from Ohio, at least according to the oversized shirt that swallows up her body and laps at the top of her thighs. Cross your heart and make a wish: if only I had what she hides. Lisa from Ohio pulls open a desk drawer, removes an orange pill bottle, rattles out a few Adderall, and her hand touches yours, just the edge of her palm, soft: is this what love feels like? The pills supply energy and suppress your appetite: is this what love feels like? Flunk a class, go home for the holidays. When your dad, drunk in the stairwell, hollers don’t be a pussy, cry into your pillow: don’t be a pussy, don’t be a pussy. Go for a walk to the edge of town, and stare at the skeletons of trees, maples and birches, the bare limbs like bony fists thrust up from the frozen ground; hold your hand against the forest belt and compare, strain, spread wide your fingers, pink and cold, nipped with frost, and repeat: I could be perfect if I tried, and I am trying, I am trying, I am trying.

Francis Walsh is a writer from coastal Maine. Their work appears in East by Northeast and the Gateway Review. They can be reached on Instagram @walshfrancis.

Photo by Kim Adrian