“Dr. Fuller, can we have a minute, please?” Joel asked. “This is a big choice that we need to make, and I think my wife and I need to talk about this alone.”
Joel fought the desire to emphasize the words we, and alone. He didn’t want Winnie to think he was trying to take away her freedom of choice, but this was kind of a big deal to him. They had miraculously created life inside her body and that wasn’t something to dismiss as merely a medical choice.
“Take as much time as you need,” Barbara said with a curt tone. She pursed her lips and snapped her laptop shut, rose from her desk and pulled the door closed on her way out.
“Winnie, I want us to give this baby a chance to live.” Joel dropped to his knees beside her chair and gently reached his hand out to place it on her flat stomach. There was no outward sign of life, and she wouldn’t have felt any maternal fluttering yet. If anything, she probably felt horrible. Her already ravaged body was now nauseated and tired. Her mind racing with all possible scenarios. Her hormones and emotions were likely on a roller coaster ride.
“It’s not really a baby, yet Joel.” Winnie placed her hand over his. “It’s probably the size of a peanut.”
“A peanut with a spinal column and possibly a heartbeat,” Joel said. “And maybe even a little soul, or spirit, or whatever it’s called. That little spirit chose your body as a place to live for nine months.”
“If it stays in there nine months,” Winnie said, pulling his hand away from her abdomen but not letting go. “I might not even be able to carry a baby.”
“Don’t we owe nature a chance to work?” Joel asked. “If the baby is not meant to live, then you’ll have a miscarriage. But I find it hard to believe that a baby would go to so much trouble to form inside you if that baby was not meant to live.”
“People have miscarriages all the time, Joel. Not all babies that are created are meant to live.”
“I just think that it’s not our choice to decide if the baby should live or not live.”
“This wasn’t exactly a planned pregnancy,” Winnie said.
“No such thing as an accidental pregnancy,” Joel said. “You either have sex, or you don’t. And if you have sex, there’s always the chance you could get pregnant.”
“When did you become so philosophical?” Winnie brushed Joel’s hair off his forehead and met his gaze. “Do you really want to have a baby?”
“Doesn’t matter what I want. We’re pregnant. We have a baby. There is a baby inside of your body, created using my body. We have created a baby.”
“But do you want a baby?” Winnie asked more pointedly. “Like if I had asked you yesterday, ‘Hey, sweetie, do you want to have a baby?’ what would you have said?”
“I would have said, ‘Yes, whenever you’re ready.’”
“Joel… I’m not ready.”
Joel’s heart sunk into his stomach, and he sat back on his heels, shocked. He didn’t know what to say, what to think. He stared at his wife’s midsection, where his baby was growing and developing, cells splitting and dividing and specializing and becoming tissues and organs, a little heart was in there somewhere, maybe even beating a tiny little rhythmic flutter. Maybe if they did an ultrasound, they’d be able to hear a heartbeat.
“Joel, talk to me.”
“I don’t know what you want me to say. Do you want me to beg? To try to change your mind?”
“I don’t know…”
“Do you want me to give you some sort of permission, or my blessing? To sit back and say, ‘It’s your body. You can do what you want with it?’ Because I’m never going to say that. That baby is half mine. He or she may be growing inside your body, but our baby was created using my body too. I love you. And I already love that little peanut sized baby we created.”
“It’s not a baby yet, Joel. It’s an embryo.”
Joel was tired of arguing. He was going to need to haul out the big guns. He didn’t want to have to take this drastic of a step, but she was leaving him no choice. He pulled his cell phone from his pocket, dialed his mom’s phone number and put it on speaker phone.
When she answered, Joel used his most excited voice to tell her, “Guess what, Mom! Winnie’s pregnant! You’re going to be a grandma!”
Winnie had never thrown up after a meal. Purging was a concept she found revolting. Even with a full-blown eating disorder as severe as anorexia nervosa, she had never considered puking as an option. Which is why that morning took her by surprise.
The day hadn’t started out well. Celeste never took, “I’m tired” as an excuse. “I don’t feel good,” “That food doesn’t look good to me,” “This doesn’t smell right.” No excuses. When Winnie described Celeste as her drill sergeant, she wasn’t being facetious. Celeste was militant.
But there was a difference between defiance and illness, and Winnie was sick.
For weeks, things had been going well. Because she’d had a taste of freedom, she’d been diligent with increasing her caloric intake, and reintroducing new foods and new experiences. Instead of taking each day pass as an excuse to waste away the afternoon like honeymooners, Winnie and Joel had walked the thousand steps down to the beach, played frisbee, found a dance studio, driven up the coast and back, and visited the Santa Barbara Zoo. One thing they had yet to do was visit any restaurants.
Winnie was gradually learning how to prepare and cook food in the correct quantities for a healthy professional athlete and learning how her body should feel when properly nourished.
When she visited the Anderson’s home she helped Lynnette in the kitchen, discussing how much food would be prepared for the whole family compared to just her and Joel and compared to feeding just herself. Once they returned to New York City, they would have to live in an apartment on the nineth floor of their building in Manhattan. There wouldn’t be a fruit stand down the street with fresh strawberries. Come fall, Joel intended to resume classes full time in Michigan. There were so many things to take into consideration in planning for their new future.
That all came crashing down with one startling revelation that began with nausea so severe that breakfast wound up in the trash can halfway down the hall on the way back to her bedroom and culminated when a blood test revealed the worst news a devastated anorexic body could ever receive. Winnie was pregnant.
“How is that even possible?” Winnie asked. “I haven’t had a period in almost two years. Ever since I developed anorexia.” That still seemed strange to say out loud, but she’d been practicing embracing her illness and acknowledging her involvement for many years. Through therapy she had come to recognize how long she’d been limiting her caloric intake. She’d likely been clinically anorexic since early college.
“When your body started healing after being so sick, you must have ovulated and not known about it and then gotten pregnant before ever having a period.” Dr. Denise Fuller, director of the eating disorders treatment clinic, the woman who had first evaluated Winnie the day she entered the treatment center, had been called in to decide how best to handle the situation.
“You can get rid of it, right?” Winnie asked, panicking at the thought of getting fat enough to carry a baby inside her.
“We don’t recommend that necessarily,” Denise said. “I mean, it’s your body. The procedure to remove the embryo is usually noninvasive but because of your condition, we’ll probably have you spend one night in the hospital, just for precaution.”
“Procedure?” Joel asked, taking Winnie’s hand. “Are you suggesting we abort our child?” They sat together in the director’s stately office discussing the available options.
“Joel, the embryo is less than six weeks gestation.” Denise sounded as if she were speaking to a child rather than an adult in his first year of medical school. “There’s not even a heartbeat this early in a pregnancy.”
“Heartbeats have been detected in children as young as five and a half weeks gestation,” Joel said. “You’re not talking about removing a tumor. You’re talking about killing a baby.”
Winnie folded her arms and pursed her lips then sighed. “Joel, my body is not physically strong enough to carry a baby to term. Either the fetus will miscarry, or my life could be in danger. Are you more concerned about killing a sack of cells that has barely developed or keeping me alive?”
“I will do anything in my power to keep you both alive,” Joel said definitively.
“The embryo is inside Edwina’s body,” Denise said, turning to her. “Ultimately the choice is hers.”
“I… um…” Winnie glanced over at Joel then back at Denise, confused about what was going on. She and Joel had never really discussed having children, and they’d certainly never discussed opinions about abortions.
“Fathers have rights,” Joel interjected. “I believe I have a say in this.”
“Do you want to have a baby?” Winnie asked, incredulous that he thought she was strong enough.
“Of course, I want to have a baby,” Joel said. “I mean, I figured you were on birth control pills or something because we never got pregnant before. I thought all college girls were on birth control.”
“That’s a pretty big assumption, Mr. Anderson,” Denise said.
“This isn’t about me,” Joel said. “It’s about our baby. A child created in love by a husband and wife who love each other and love the life we created.”
“A life you’ve known about for fifteen minutes?” Winnie raised her eyebrows.
“Time is irrelevant in this case,” Joel said. “A baby is a baby.”
“She won’t be allowed to stay in this facility while pregnant,” Denise said. “We’ll need to find a treatment center more equipped to deal with high-risk pregnancies.”
“Then she’ll come home.” Joel raised his chin with defiance in his eyes.
“She has not been fully trained to care for herself,” Denise pointed out. “How is she going to maintain her health while attempting to keep a fetus alive?”
“I’ll take care of her,” Joel said. “She’s learned a lot in the eight weeks she’s lived here, and I’ve learned a lot, and my mother has learned a lot. We can handle this. And if we have to, we’ll admit her to a hospital for constant monitoring.”
“Edwina, what’s your opinion on this?” Denise said, turning to her again.
“I’m not sure what to think right now,” Winnie admitted. “I don’t feel ready to leave the center, and I could die trying to bring a fetus to term. My body’s not healthy enough to support a pregnancy.”
“We have to at least try,” Joel said, his words laced with devastation and his eyes pleading with her.
“I need some time to think about this,” Winnie said. “One way or the other, I want to be sure I’m making the right choice.”
“Gee, Winnie, why’s your hair wet?” Cheyanne asked after Winnie finally peeled herself away from her husband at the door to the eating disorder inpatient treatment center. “Did you go swimming?”
“Does snuggling in the hot tub and then taking a shower together count as swimming?” Winnie asked. Her whole being felt as if she were in a dream state. She flopped onto the sofa in the large open space common area at the treatment center.
Other girls who had been sitting around playing board games, or talking, or watching television, gathered around her.
“Must be nice to have a husband come whisk you away for a romantic afternoon,” one girl said.
“I haven’t been outside these walls in six weeks,” another said.
“My boyfriend dumped me as soon as I got admitted.” They were bouncing around comments.
“My boyfriend dumped me the first month of college. He said he didn’t want to be tied down by a girlfriend.” She actually used air quotes.
“How was it being able to choose anything you wanted to eat?” Brea’s eyes lit up with excitement.
“My mother-in-law was in charge of food,” Winnie said with a smile. “My only job this afternoon was to lie in bed and let my husband do all the work.” She let out an exaggerated sigh.
“I am so jealous.” One of the girls settled back onto the floor and stared at the ceiling. Other girls leaned against the couches or sat on the arm rests.
“Excuse me, ladies,” Ulysses interrupted from the doorway of the common room. “May I borrow the newlywed for a few minutes? We need to do some evaluations.”
“Coming, Boss,” Winnie said, rolling off the couch and pushing herself off the floor. She still felt a little stoned from the euphoria of spending the afternoon in her husband’s arms.
As they walked down the hall toward his office, Ulysses asked. “How was it? Being home?”
“Amazing.” Winnie sighed.
“I don’t want a play-by-play of the honeymoon,” he grumbled as they entered his office. “How was your eating, body image, temptations to binge or purge, did you feel in control, did you look in a mirror?”
“You know, I never did look in a mirror,” Winnie said in awed contemplation. “I’m really surprised I never did, or if I did, I didn’t register that’s what I was doing. How weird.”
“Well, that’s good in a way.” Ulysses waved a hand toward the chair beside his desk. “You weren’t obsessing over your body image. I want you to know that I did not authorize your release, nor did I agree with the timing.”
“You didn’t?” Winnie gulped as she slumped into the chair.
“If it hadn’t been your wedding anniversary, and Lynnette hadn’t agreed to be in charge of food, I would have put my foot down. You’re not ready for that.”
“Well, if it’s any consolation, I’m more motivated than ever to get healthy now. My head is clear, my body feels strong. I feel like I could take on the world.”
“That’s endorphins, not reality,” Ulysses said, looking over the tops of his glasses. “The next time you leave this building, you need to do something that would be a normal part of your daily routine. What do you normally do?”
“How often are your dance classes? Once a week? For how long?” Ulysses was writing something on a notepad.
“Every day,” Winnie said, incredulous that he hadn’t figured that out by now. They’d known each other for two weeks. “Eight to ten hours every day.”
“Every single day?” He looked up at her and his jaw dropped.
“That’s my job, Ulysses. I’m a ballerina. For a living.”
“I guess I thought that was a metaphor.” He scratched his head.
“Just like you’re a dietician,” Winnie said. “I’m a ballet dancer at the Ajkun Ballet Theatre. I perform on stage at least once or twice almost every day, depending on if we have a matinee.”
“No wonder you’re in better shape than all the rest of these girl. Did I say that out loud? That was wrong of me. Forget I said that. It’s just that, some of these girls are wasting away, skin and bones. You’re more like muscle and bones.”
“Yeah, I guess I am.” Winnie marveled as she and Ulysses stared at each other across the desk from each other. She could almost see the gears working in his head.
“How much are you willing to increase your caloric intake?” Ulysses asked, looking her up and down. “If I let you do any type of exercise, we need to drastically increase your calories, gradually, of course.”
“I will do whatever you tell me to do.” Winnie was serious about this. “I want to get healthy. And I want to dance. And I want to spend time with my family. And I want to sleep in my husband’s arms every night.”
“Let me mull this over a day or two and recalculate some things, and we’ll find you a dance studio that will allow you to dance there for a couple hours a day. For now, you’re only allowed to do some stretching and nonaerobic exercises in the yoga room here at the center.”
“That’s wonderful. Thank you so much.” Winnie wanted to cry she was so happy. “This has been the best day of my life.”
When she finally left Ulysses’ office, Winnie practically floated down the hall to her bedroom, even though it was hours earlier than bedtime. She flopped herself onto her bed, staring at the ceiling and contemplating this turn of events.
She whispered to herself, “Happiest day of my life,” closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep with a smile.
Book Club Discussion... you know, just about the time everything is falling into place, expect the unexpected.
Forewarning: Hidden Swan is a mature love story with sensitive subject matter and nongraphic marital relationships.
“Why am I covered in feathers?” Winnie teased Joel in a whisper. She’d been awake for several minutes but he was just stirring for the first time in hours.
“Not funny,” Joel mumbled, pressing his face into the pillow beside her.
“I thought it was.” Winnie giggled at her humorous continuation of the story about Edward and Bella that Joel had referenced on their drive over to his parents’ house. In the iconic Twilight story, Breaking Dawn, Edward had tried so hard to be careful on their wedding night that he destroyed a feather pillow in the process. Bella woke up the following morning covered in feathers. That was one of the best lines from the book.
“Did I hurt you?” He propped himself up on his elbow, gazing down at her face, darkened by the late-afternoon shadow streaming across their bedroom. “Be honest.”
“Not even a little bit.” She snuggled closer and he wrapped her in his arms breathing into her hair, which she’d left down out of the braids this morning and let air dry. She knew Joel loved her long hair down and flowing across her shoulders. “I’m pretty sure I’ve never felt this good in my life.”
“Really?” Joel had a smile in his voice.
“I feel healthy, Joel,” she said in a much more serious tone. “My mind is clear, my body is strong and nourished, and I’m pretty sure I will never forget in a million years whatever the heck that was that you just did to me, with me.”
“Promise me you’ll see this treatment process through to the very end, no matter how many days we’re apart,” Joel said, his pleading tone almost pained. “You’re healthy now but you haven’t been taught yet how to stay healthy.
“I promise.” She pulled back and looked him firmly in the eye. “Like I said, I’ve never felt this good. I don’t want this feeling to ever go away.”
“I almost lost you, Winnie,” Joel whispered, leaning forward to kiss the tip of her nose. “You were so sick. Your heartrate was irregular, they couldn’t get you to wake up. I was really scared.”
“I won’t let that happen again, Joel, I promise. I’m sorry you had to go through that.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make you feel guilty. I shouldn’t have said anything.”
“No, Joel, look at me.” She sat up and looked down at him. “We need to be able to talk about this. We can’t tiptoe around my illness. If one of us had cancer or asthma or something we wouldn’t try to pretend we weren’t sick. We wouldn’t pretend we didn’t need chemotherapy or an inhaler. We would meet this head-on with civility and determination. Maybe a few days ago when my brain wasn’t thinking right, yeah, we had to be careful. But I’m healthy now. Okay, I’m healthier than I was. I have a long way to go.”
“You’ve come a long way in two weeks, though.” His voice had taken on a playful tone and he reached up to handle one of her now exposed breasts.
“Oh, boy, you’re distracting me,” Winnie said, whimpering.
“Well, you sitting there naked is distracting me,” Joel said. “I’m still a man, you know?”
“I’m very aware of that.” She closed her eyes and got lost in his touch, completely forgetting the point she was trying to make.
Joel’s phone rang on his bedside table, and he rolled away from her. He answered on speaker phone, “Hello, Mother.”
“I’m bringing down food,” she said. “Are you decent?”
“Nope. Not even a little bit.”
Winnie giggled at his teasing grin.
“Well, Winnie has to eat. If she doesn’t eat the right amount of food at the right time, we’re all going to get in trouble and lose privileges. So, get dressed and meet me in the family room, pronto.”
“Slave driver,” Joel said. “See ya in a minute.” He hung up the phone and reached over for one more kiss.
“I’ll eat fast,” Winnie told him, then slid away to find her discarded clothing.
“Not too fast,” he warned. “I don’t want you to get a stomachache.”
“That’s the last thing we want,” she agreed. “A repeat of our wedding night? I shudder.”
When they were mostly dressed and stumbled out of the bedroom into the family room, Joel’s mom tsked at them. “You two look drunk. All glassy-eyed and stumbling.”
“Hi, Mom,” Winnie said, ignoring her observation. “Thank you for taking such good care of us.”
“You’re welcome, honey. Now, come sit down.”
“What culinary surprise do you have for us?” Joel asked, pulling out a bar stool for Winnie to climb up.
“One graham cracker and half a glass of milk,” Lynnette said with a satisfied smile.
“Gee, ma, don’t overfill our plates.” Joel’s words were laced with sarcasm.
“This is why I’m in charge of food,” Lynnette said, setting the two servings onto the bar in front of them. “What looks like a morsel to you is twice as much as what she would have eaten a few weeks ago. I’m providing exactly the number of calories required. I do not want to be on the wrong side of Ulysses’ wrath.”
“I’ll second that,” Winnie said, taking a nibble off one corner of her graham cracker. Then, remembering that one of the rules at the center was that they not cut their food into tiny pieces, she took a decent sized bite. She was taking this refeeding seriously, especially after the experience she’d had earlier in the afternoon.
Now that her head was clear and her body was regaining health, Winnie wanted to experience every good sensation the world had to offer. She wanted to run on the beach and let the tide roll over her bare feet as they sank in the sand. She wanted to ride a roller coaster with the wind in her hair, arms lifted and screaming in fear. She wanted to taste every taste and smell every smell and feel every feeling imaginable.
Winnie glanced at her husband and a question popped out before she remembered that her mother-in-law was sitting across from them. “You want to take a shower?”
Lynnette coughed to hide laughter and Joel nearly choked on his bite of graham cracker. He took a drink of milk and then turned to Winnie with a grin. “Heck, yeah.”
“Snack first,” Lynnette scolded, as casually as if they’d suggested going out to play on the beach.
Joel shoved the last two bites of his graham cracker into his mouth and made a show of chewing quickly then slammed back his glass of milk and thumped the glass onto the bar as if asking the bartender for another shot of whisky. “You ready?”
“I’m going to finish my graham cracker first.” Winnie took a purposely small bite with a flirt in her expression.
“Okay, you two. Enough of that,” Lynnette said. “You’re grossing me out. Finish up and I don’t want to see you again until dinnertime.”
Winnie ate the last two bites in one mouthful and washed it down with the remainder of her milk, then turned to her husband and wrapped her arms and legs around him as he carried her to their bedroom, barely saying goodbye to Lynnette.
Forewarning: Hidden Swan is a mature love story with sensitive subject matter and nongraphic marital relationships.
“I can’t believe it’s only been two weeks since you dragged me in that door kicking and screaming.” Winnie’s voice was playful so Joel knew she was just teasing. Knowing that didn’t make it any easier for him to hear.
“Pretty sure you walked in on your own free will, my darling.” Joel clicked his seat belt into place and started the ignition on his Mustang. He enjoyed having his car back since his brothers-in-law had driven to California from Michigan.
“Barely.” She turned her face away from the eating disorder inpatient treatment center where she’d been locked away for the past fourteen days. She met his gaze before he backed out of his parking spot. “You know… my mom would have caved when I begged for you to take me home.”
“I know.” Joel braced his hand across the passenger side headrest and looked behind before backing up.
“How did you stay so strong?” she asked with awe in her voice.
“I bawled like a baby once I got in the parking lot,” he admitted.
“Why did you stay so strong?”
“Because I love you more than my own life.” He thought that was obvious but apparently he would need to do a better job showing her that. “And I knew the only way you were going to get healthy was if you stayed.”
“You probably saved my life, Joel.”
“You’re the one doing all the hard work.” He picked up her hand, kissed the back, and then laced their fingers together. She still hadn’t regained the weight she’d lost since the last time he’d been home to their apartment in New York City, so her hand felt very thin. He’d made a promise to the center’s director, and her drill sergeant, and his mom that he wouldn’t talk about her size, and that he would be extremely careful with her. Physically and mentally.
He needed to be her safe person. He needed to be the person who wasn’t in charge of food or making decisions. He needed to be the person who walked with her on the beach picking up starfish and sand dollars. He needed to be the one to cuddle with her and goof off and laugh. He’d accomplished the hardest feat of all of them. He’d walked away and left Winnie crying in the lobby of the treatment center.
His parents’ home was now to be her safe place. A place where she could relax physically and metaphorically and not have to think about her illness. A place where she would lie in his arms and look into his eyes and know that he’s not judging her.
And the most important thing he needed to do was be her person and create her safe place without her realizing that’s what he was doing.
They barely spoke as he drove down the coastline to his parents’ house and she gazed out the window at the ocean. He was nervous and wondered if she was also. Although he claimed he’d be fine with just snuggling and kissing, they both knew that wasn’t true. The minute they were in bed together and kissing and touching, his body was going to take over and muscle memory would pull him in the direction his hormones wanted to go. Which meant he had to have superhuman strength to resist what would come naturally.
“I wonder if this is how Edward felt taking Bella to Isle Esme.” The thought popped out of Joel’s mouth before he realized he’d thought it.
“What?” Winnie laughed hard and Joel wasn’t sure if she was laughing at him or with him. “Did you seriously just make a Twilight reference?”
“Yeah, I guess I did.” He shrugged, only a little embarrassed. “You gotta admit, that’s a good comparison.” In the final Twilight novel, Breaking Dawn, the vampire, Edward had married a human named Bella and had been afraid to make love to her on their wedding night because he was afraid he’d break her delicate body.
“And, like Bella, I’m not afraid.”
“You should be,” Joel said in his best Yoda impression.
“Are we having a movie marathon today?” Winnie asked in a playful voice, “Or lying in bed all afternoon naked?”
“You want to watch movies naked?” he teased as he pulled his car into the driveway and wound his way around the back end of the house near the entrance to the lower-level walk-out basement. He was thankful the lower level had a separate door so he and his bride wouldn’t have to walk down all those stairs. One, he didn’t want her to feel obligated to walk that far, and two, he didn’t want to see anyone else.
Joel was glad his parents and sister recognized his and Winnie’s need to be alone. There would be time for family another day. This day was for the two of them. Their first wedding anniversary. Their first time alone since Winnie’s diagnosis and start of her treatment. He vowed to be careful and not force this to be the first time they made love since her body had become so fragile. He vowed to be willing to wait, hoping his body got the message.
Later in the afternoon his mom planned to bring them a romantic meal and make herself scarce and then Joel would take Winnie back to the center. All he wanted was to tuck her into their bed and keep her there every night from now until eternity. Taking her back to that place would break his heart.
After leaving the car there in the driveway, Joel lifted Winnie into his arms to carry her over the threshold into the main family room then closed the sliding glass door behind him. He carried her into the bedroom, his eyes never leaving hers. She reached up and smoothed his creased brow. “Relax, Joel. I’m your wife. The same wife who made love to you a few months ago. The same wife who’s going to make love to you today.”
“I don’t want to hurt you,” he choked out.
“You won’t,” she said. “I trust you.”
He pressed his lips to hers slowly, carefully. She pulled him closer with more strength than he would have thought possible. He laid her down on their bed and climbed up next to her, propping himself on one elbow and gazing down into her eyes before lowering his face for another kiss.
She deserved his absolute best today of all days. There were many things he could do with her, and to her, that would feel amazing but not hurt her, and that’s what he focused on. Forgetting himself and his wants and needs, Joel focused on his wife, giving her every part of himself other than the one thing he wanted most. Until the very last second when she was ready, and he was ready, and they connected in one powerful moment that was almost spiritual. Afterward they fell asleep in each other’s arms content to do absolutely nothing for the rest of the afternoon.
Three days was a tortuous amount of time to wait for her next surprise, but she’d been very busy while she waited. Winnie had tried unsuccessfully to convince Joel’s mom to tell her the surprise, but she’d held firm. Their time together had been otherwise productive. Lynnette was learning to cook for Winnie, learning what to say and what not to say, learning how to help her transition back to the real world, because it was going to take time and a team effort.
The plan was to have Winnie come visit the Anderson’s home a couple times for one afternoon, have dinner with the family, and then immediately bring Winnie back to the treatment center. They still didn’t trust her not to go into the bathroom after dinner and puke her meal back up, not that she’d ever given them a reason to doubt that. Rules were rules and strict supervision after meals and snacks was one rule the center wasn’t willing to deviate from.
Lynnette was being trained how to cook and serve exactly the right amount of food for Winnie’s refeeding plan. There had to be the exact number of calories, servings of protein, vegetables, fiber, carbohydrates, and fats. Since Winnie hadn’t started learning to cook for herself—that part of her therapy didn’t start for another couple of weeks—anytime she went to visit the Anderson’s house, Lynnette was in charge of food, and she had to come “home” to the center immediately following the meal. Winnie felt like a little kid who couldn’t be trusted but recognized that this was for the best. She wanted to get healthy, and this was the best way.
Their first trial visit was going to be on she and Joel’s wedding anniversary and Winnie could hardly wait. But first, her surprise, which coincidentally fell on Christmas Eve.
Winnie waited by the lobby after dinner, watching the door as if that would miraculously bring Joel into the center with her surprise in a big box wrapped in Christmas paper and a large, floppy bow. Instead, two guys in Santa Claus costumes came in with bags of presents for all the girls. Winnie reluctantly left her sentinel at the front door to follow the two Santa’s into the great room where a tall Christmas tree stood decorated.
Everyone gathered around as the two guys called out “Ho-ho-ho,” with obnoxious, fake voices. They were obviously too young to be Santa but were trying to make themselves seem older. They started passing around gifts, soft packages a little larger than a softball. They felt like fluffy socks.
Before Winnie had a chance to rip open her package, a girl from across the room called out, “I think I got Winnie’s by mistake. These are University of Michigan socks.”
“Mine are too,” another girl said. They held up their identical pairs of fluffy socks with gripper slippers on them. Everyone else held theirs up as well and they all looked over at Winnie with confusion.
It was then that Winnie realized the two Santa Clauses had grins under their fake beards and gleams in their eyes.
“Marshall? Gage? What are you doing in California?” Winnie launched herself into her brothers’ arms in a three-way hug full of happy tears. They hugged and kissed each other’s cheeks and laughed and hugged some more before the boys finally answered her questions.
“We brought your husband his Mustang,” Gage said as a way of explanation. “He told me to take care of it for him, but we figure you guys might want it while you’re out here visiting his parents for a few months.”
“Plus, it gave us an excuse to come visit our sister,” Marshall said, pulling one of Winnie’s braids.
“I’m so glad you’re here.” Winnie couldn’t take the smile off her face.
All around her girls were sitting on the couches, chairs, or even right down on the floor to don their new slippers. They were giggling like little kids and thanking Winnie’s brothers. Some of them were openly flirting with Winnie’s brothers. She had a feeling her new friends would be begging Winnie for her brothers’ phone numbers after the guys left.
“Fun surprise?” Joel asked from behind her, sneaking up and almost whispering in her ear.
“Joel!” She turned and leapt into his arms just as she’d done three days ago. She kissed him over and over before telling him, “You come up with the best surprises!”
“I have more gifts,” Joel said, setting her down on the floor and holding up a handful of red and green envelopes. “Come on. Let’s hand these out. They’re more from you than me.”
“What do you mean by that?” Winnie let Joel take her hand and lead her over by the Christmas tree.
“Ladies,” Joel called out, holding up the envelopes. “Can I get your attention?”
They all gathered round with excited eyes.
“These are incentive for Winnie—and all of you—to get healthy enough to use these by next Christmas.” He started passing out the envelopes. “Wait and open them all at once.”
When everyone had an envelope, he gave them permission to open them, and Winnie couldn’t wait to see what he’d gotten them. They looked like tickets to a Broadway show.
“These are vouchers,” Joel said. “Tickets to see The Nutcracker at the Ajkun Ballet Theatre in New York City next Christmas season. I want all of you to come see Winnie dance next year. And I want Winnie to be healthy enough to show off her skills on those toe shoes.”
Winnie had tears streaming down her cheeks, emotion from his love and confidence in her. She threw herself into his arms again and just held him. They clung to one another for a long moment as the girls around them talked excitedly, thanking Joel and affirming their promise to be healthy enough to go to New York City by Christmas of next year.
“I have one more gift for you,” Joel whispered, pulling back from their hug and holding up a sprig of mistletoe. “A kiss and a promise. You have to kiss me first before you get the promise.”
“Gee, if you insist.” Winnie reached onto her toes and met Joel in a chaste but firm kiss. When she pulled away she grinned with excitement. “Now tell me my promise.”
Joel pulled her away from everyone else and spoke quietly and close to her ear. “I promise you an afternoon alone together on our anniversary, lying together on our bed, even if all we feel up to doing is kissing and snuggling and talking. I want to celebrate life with you.”
His words were so sincere and comforting, she pulled away and met his gaze. “I promise you that I’ll be healthy enough by then to do way more than kissing and snuggling and talking.”
“I’m not pushing you to do something your little body isn’t ready for,” Joel said. “I just want us to be together.”
“I want us to be together also,” Winnie said, reaching up to kiss him one more time. “Thank you for making this the best Christmas I’ve ever had.”
They kissed for several long, incredible minutes before disentangling themselves to go hang out with Winnie’s brothers and all their new friends around the Christmas tree.
“Joel!” Winnie came running toward him with the biggest smile on her face. He’d never seen anything so beautiful. She had color in her cheeks and adorable braids in her hair. He barely had time to set his bag on the floor in the lobby of the eating disorder clinic before she leapt into his arms, wrapping her arms around his neck and her legs around his waist and pressed her lips to his with vigor and passion.
Dang, he wished he could take her home with him, but she’d only been at the clinic a week and he was pushing the boundaries showing up this soon into her treatment anyway. He’d cleared the visit with the center’s director before arriving and even got permission to bring her a surprise. He barely pulled his mouth away far enough to mumble, “I love you, I love you, I love you,” and then his mouth was occupied with hers again.
“Ahem,” a woman’s voice interrupted. “Winnie, would you care to introduce me to your husband?”
“No, go away,” Winnie said, barely taking her lips off his.
“You don’t want me to lose my job, do you?” The woman sounded playfully impatient.
“Joel, this is Celeste,” Winnie said between kisses. “Celeste, this is Joel. Now go away.”
“Can’t do that,” Celeste said. “Mr. Anderson, if you’d like to stay for an evening visit, you need to disentangle yourself from the monkey clinging to you and maintain a G-rated distance between you.”
“You’re no fun,” Joel said, but set Winnie on the floor. He turned to Celeste and found her to be a friendly girl in her mid-twenties. He stuck out his hand and kept his voice light and teasing. “Hi, I’m Joel. This monkey is my beautiful wife so technically I have a marriage license that says I’m allowed to make out with her any time I want.”
“Celeste is my drill sergeant,” Winnie said. “She wakes me up at the crack of dawn, force feeds me gourmet food, makes me go to group therapy appointments, and braids my hair.”
“You look beautiful, by the way.” He turned Winnie around. “Let me see the back. Dang, how long did that take you to do?”
“She’s really fast,” Winnie said. “It helps that I’m nearly catatonic at five-thirty in the morning.”
“You got her to wake up at five-thirty in the morning?” Joel asked Celeste. “Amazing.”
“Five, actually. But she forces me into a shower before doing my hair.”
“I want to be your drill sergeant if that means I get to watch you shower.” Joel leaned down and kissed Winnie’s neck.
“G-rated, Mr. Anderson,” Celeste reminded him.
“Yeah, yeah,” Joel waved his hand dismissively, then crouched down and picked up his bag. “I brought you a gift.”
“What is it?” Winnie bounced on her toes with excitement, which was a good segue into the gift bag. When she opened the bag and unwrapped the tissue paper, she collapsed to the floor and pulled the bag to her chest with happy tears that were more like sobs. “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
“What’s in the bag?” Celeste asked, as other girls gathered around.
“What did he bring you?” one girl asked.
“Show us!” another demanded with playful excitement. This was probably the most fun they’d had in days.
Winnie pulled aside the tissue paper to reveal a pristine but broken-in pair of toe shoes, the pink ribbons on which were wrapped around and around just the way she’d left them the last time she’d held them.
Joel lowered himself to the floor and sat cross-legged in front of his wife. “Nice surprise?”
“The best surprise,” she said through happy tears. “Thank you so much.”
“I have another surprise but it’s not going to arrive for three more days.”
“Thanks a heckuvalot,” Winnie said. “Now I’m dying to know.”
“Worth the wait, I assure you. Now try them on and then introduce me to all your friends.”
Without further discussion, Winnie pulled off her socks and dug something fuzzy out of the toe of her shoes, which she wrapped around her toes and then stuffed the whole foot inside the satin. She moaned in the kind of ecstasy that he wished he was able to provide but was glad he was able to give her this little bit of pleasure if nothing else. “You are the best husband I’ve ever had.”
“I’m the only husband you’ve ever had, but I’ll take the compliment.”
She leaned forward and reached for a quick, chaste kiss. “Thank you, so much.”
“You’re welcome, sweetheart.”
“Everyone, this is Joel, my incredible husband.”
“Hi Everyone”—he waved playfully—“I’m Joel, her only husband.”
People said hello and then gradually went back to whatever it was they were doing before he arrived. Joel and Winnie sat on the floor cross-legged with their knees touching. He tried to keep the conversation light and playful. “My mom’s going to come visit tomorrow, if you’re up for it.”
“Heck yeah,” she said. “I’ve been dying to see her. Speaking of, I talked to my mom on the phone the other day.”
“Seriously?” He couldn’t fathom why they would have talked. “Did she call you?”
“No, I called her. And we talked about when I was a little girl and she gave Ulysses her old chocolate chip cookie recipe and we made cookies together.”
“Who’s Ulysses?” And why am I suddenly jealous of this guy who is able to make cookies with my wife?
“He’s our dietitian. He makes me vegetarian food and smuggles strawberries in and makes strawberry shortcake.”
“I’ve never seen you so excited about food.” Joel chuckled. This was such a welcome change.
“Celeste challenged me to learn to like food again.” Winnie turned to her friend, who was also sitting cross-legged on the floor a polite distance away. “Come closer, Celeste. Celeste has the most adorable three-year-old little girl. She showed me pictures.”
“Well, Celeste, you are my hero because you seem to have waved a magic wand and considerably improved my wife’s mood since the last time I was here.”
“It was a group effort.” Celeste dismissed his praise, but Joel suspected otherwise.
“Other than braiding hair, eating gourmet food, and baking cookies, what else have you been up to?” Joel asked.
“Group therapy, individual therapy, music therapy, art therapy, yoga, meditation, snacks, meals, more snacks, more meals, journaling, more therapy.”
“That all sounds very therapeutic,” Joel said, then lowered his voice. “Are you glad you came?”
“Yes, thank you for insisting I get help.”
“Thank you for getting help.” He felt emotions prick his eyes and knew he needed to pull himself together. “Hey, they won’t let me stay long so come kiss me for a minute before I go. We’ll keep things as G-rated as I can force myself.”
“There’s nothing G-rated in your eyes right now,” Winnie said, glancing sidelong at Celeste, who took the hint and moved a few feet away.
“I’m doing the best I can.” Joel leaned closer to her ear. “One week until our wedding anniversary.”
“I am seriously going to try to get a day pass,” she whispered back. “If I’m a good girl between now and then maybe I can convince them.”
“I already talked with your director and they’re going to have me come in a few times next week to work with me, preparing me to have you home for a few hours at a time. They want you to transition home gradually and not leave here cold turkey.”
“Bad pun to use with a vegetarian at an eating disorder clinic,” Winnie said with a gleam in her eyes.
“You know what I mean.”
“Yes, I’m just teasing you.” She pushed his shoulder lightly and Joel took her closeness as an opportunity to pull her onto his lap.
He kissed her for several long, careful minutes, trying not to get carried away and failing miserably. He knew he’d failed worse than miserably when Celeste cleared her throat and reminded them to wrap things up.
“Enjoy those toe shoes, okay?”
“Thank you so much for bringing them to me.”
“I will bring your next surprise in about three days, and my mom will be here to see you tomorrow. She’s going to be working with the staff here to get some meal planning going.”
“One more kiss?” She leaned forward again and he pressed his lips to hers.
Such a difference from the last time he left her here. There wasn’t a sobbing fit begging him to stay. She even smiled and told him to drive safely. She was still too thin but making obvious progress. Joel left the building with a spring in his step and hope for their future.
“Heard you had quite a fun morning…” Ulysses let his statement hang in the air. Winnie didn’t know how to respond or if he was even expecting a response. They were sitting across the desk from each other in his immaculate office, which surprised Winnie because she would have thought a dietician who cooked vegetarian Pad Thai in his spare time and smuggled strawberries into the center would somehow be more disorganized. “So, as far as a long-term refeeding strategy goes, fake sausage is off the table, pun intended. Am I right?”
Winnie wasn’t sure if he was teasing or angry. She shrugged.
“We need to start somewhere,” Ulysses continued. “What was your favorite meal growing up? What was the food your mom made you for your birthday dinner?”
“Pizza,” Winnie said without hesitation. “We always went to Chuck E. Cheese for my birthday.”
“That sounds like fun.” He nodded. “When was the last time you went to Chuck E. Cheese?”
“Probably my younger brother’s tenth birthday party. We got too old after that and I refused to eat anything fattening about that time.”
“What made you decide pizza was fattening?” Ulysses leaned forward and put his elbows on his desk.
“I gained some weight when I reached puberty and my mom made a comment about how we needed to be careful not to eat our way out of our leotards.”
“I find it curious that you use the collective ‘we’ when talking about your mom after that tirade this morning about not including yourself in our collective ‘we’ here at the center.” His statement wasn’t a question, but Winnie sensed that he wanted an answer.
“You heard that?” For some reason knowing Ulysses learned about her outburst made her embarrassed. She felt her cheeks warm, and she lowered her gaze.
“Could you explore that for me?”
“What are you, my counselor?” She folded her arms across her chest and scowled.
“Kind of.” Ulysses steepled his fingers. “We’re a team here at the center, and pretty much everyone from the custodial staff to the owners and directors have all been trained to care for our guests.” His statement implied she couldn’t get away with anything anywhere with anyone as long as she was living there.
“I’m not going to blame my mother for my eating disorder if that’s what you’re trying to get me to do,” Winnie said. “I control what I put in my mouth and my condition is not her fault.”
“I understand your desire to take responsibility for your actions, but you need to realize that you are greatly influenced by the people who were with you during your formative years. Just like people don’t wake up one day and decide to rob a bank. You didn’t wake up one day and decide to become a ballerina. Your husband didn’t wake up one day and decide to become a doctor. You didn’t wake up one day and decide to have an eating disorder. There’s always a catalyst. There’s always something that influences your choices. Do you remember the moment you decided to become a ballerina?”
There was weight to Ulysses’ speech, as if whatever he was getting at was huge and deserved deep reflection. Winnie thought hard. “My mom took me to ballet classes when I was really little and always seemed so proud of me when I danced. She bought me little princess outfits with skirts that swirled around when I turned in circles. She clapped and smiled and told me I was beautiful and special and talented.” Winnie didn’t realize a tear had escaped until it fell onto her cheek.
“Special memories?” Ulysses asked.
“Yeah.” Winnie wiped the tear from her cheek. “I was her only daughter and she spoiled me, and dance was our thing. I wasn’t a daddy’s little girl. I was my mommy’s princess.”
“Did she want you to grow up to be a ballerina?”
“Maybe. I don’t know. I wish I could ask her.”
“Call her,” Ulysses suggested.
“Right now?” Winnie wondered if he was serious. “Am I allowed to do that?”
“Sure, why not?”
“Aren’t I supposed to be in some sort of isolation therapy thing?”
“Our philosophy here at the center is to use whatever methods work to help our guests break through to becoming healthy. If talking to your mom right this second helps answer a question, then call her.” Ulysses handed Winnie his own cell phone.
“Are you sure?” Winnie looked down at the phone, confused. She tried to remember her mom’s cell phone number. It was plugged into the contacts list of her own cell phone. Then she remembered her childhood phone number and realized they still had a landline at the house. She wasn’t sure if anyone would even answer. The only people who called that line were telemarketers and her grandparents. She dialed and waited, almost hoping no one would pick up. Hearing her mom’s voice brought fresh tears to Winnie’s eyes. Where the heck did all these tears come from? “Mommy?”
“Edwina? Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m okay.” She brushed the tears from her cheeks. “I’m sitting here with my friend Ulysses and we had a couple questions for you. I’m going to put you on speakerphone, okay?”
“Okay… what’s going on?”
“Good morning, Mrs. LaFleur,” Ulysses said. “How are things in Michigan?” He mouthed to Winnie, “Michigan, right?” Winnie nodded.
“Um… fine, I guess.”
“Mommy, we were just talking about all the special memories I had of ballet when I was a little girl and how much I loved being a princess and spending time with you.”
“Oh, sweetheart. I loved spending time with you, too.”
“Do you remember what made me decide to become a ballerina?”
“You do?” Winnie’s heart raced with excitement.
“I took you to see The Nutcracker when you were nine.”
“I remember that.” Winnie’s shoulders relaxed. “The Moscow Ballet Company came to the Fox Theater in Detroit.”
“That’s right.” Her mom sounded like she was smiling through tears. Winnie wished she could see through the phone and thought maybe one of these days they could do a video chat. “Your eyes lit up with excitement and you were enchanted. That night as we drove home you declared, ‘I’m going to be in The Nutcracker someday.’ And I just knew you were going to make that dream come true.”
“Mommy, you helped me make that dream come true.” Winnie felt like a vulnerable little girl as she sobbed along with her mom, two thousand miles away and connected by a memory.
“Your hard work and determination made that dream come true, my sweet princess.”
“We were a team,” Winnie said.
“We were a great team,” her mom said. “I’m so proud of you, sweetheart.”
“Thank you, Mommy. For everything.”
“Are they treating you okay, sweetie? Are you getting healthy?”
“I ate pancakes this morning. And I’ve made a couple of friends.” Winnie laughed and wiped her cheeks.
“Were there blueberries in those pancakes?” her mom asked.
“Not this time.”
“Does she like blueberries in her pancakes, Mrs. LaFleur?” Ulysses asked.
“When she was a little girl, she did.”
“What other foods were her favorites?” he asked. “We’re trying to make a list of foods to try.”
“She used to love pizza,” her mom suggested.
Winnie and Ulysses laughed lightly. They were on the right track.
“And my homemade chocolate chip cookies.”
“Can you send me the recipe?” Ulysses suggested.
“Sure, I can do that.”
“We’re going to do our best to help your girl get healthy while she’s staying with us,” Ulysses said.
“Thank you. And, Edwina, I’ve been thinking a lot these past few weeks, and… I’m sorry if I haven’t supported your eating preferences all these years. I’ll try harder to be understanding about your desire to be a vegetarian.”
“Thanks, Mommy, that means a lot to me.”
“I’m sorry if anything I’ve said or done has contributed to your… eating disorder. And I’m sorry if I was blind to your condition. I’ll try to do better.”
“Thank you.” Winnie nodded, even though she knew her mom couldn’t see her. “I’m gonna go now, Mom.”
“I love you, Edwina.”
“I love you, too, Mom.”
“See you soon.”
Winnie hung up the phone and handed it back to Ulysses, grinning across the desk at him. “Can we have pizza for dinner?”
“I think pizza is a great idea.” He returned her grin. “And I think tomorrow you’re going to teach me how to make your mom’s homemade chocolate chip cookies.”
“That sounds awesome.” Winnie felt more positive than she had in months, maybe years.
“That is more food than I could eat in a week.” Winnie’s stomach clenched and she pushed away from the table as if the plate of food they’d set in front of her was going to reach out and take a bite out of her. “And there is sausage on my plate!”
“It’s vegan sausage,” Cheyanne said, spearing a piece off her own plate and talking around it with a full mouth, “It’s really good.”
“Does it taste like sausage?” Winnie asked, disgusted by the way her new friend was eating.
“Is the texture the same as real sausage?”
“Yup.” Cheyanne speared another piece.
“The texture of sausage would make me puke.” Winnie shook her head and pushed her plate away.
“Do not throw up,” Brea said from across the table. “They will send you right back to the hospital if you throw up your food.”
“I wouldn’t throw up on purpose,” Winnie said a little too loud, catching the attention of people several tables away. “But sausage is gross. I am not putting that in my mouth.”
“What’s going on over here, ladies?” Celeste asked, sitting beside Winnie and setting two glasses of juice on the table. “I leave you alone for two seconds and you’re hollering at each other?”
A different staffer at the other end of the six-person table interrupted. “I realize Edwina is new here, but we need to go over some rules. We don’t describe food as gross, nor do we talk about purging during meals. We have counseling sessions to discuss those kinds of behaviors.”
“I do not have a problem with purging,” Winnie said, again, a little too loud. “I have a problem with sausage.”
“That’s not sausage,” Celeste said. Having missed the original conversation where Cheyanne explained to Winnie that the little hunk of texturized vegetable protein was actually not sausage.
“But it smells like sausage and it tastes like sausage and it chews like sausage and it’s disgusting.” Winnie realized she had now drawn the attention of everyone on the room.
“We don’t use the word disgusting to describe food.”
Winnie stood suddenly. “I don’t care what we do. I am not part of your collective we. I don’t care what the rules are. I don’t care what the rest of you do or do not do, I am not eating that.” She pointed at the little hunk of fake meat. “If you’ll excuse me, I’m going back to bed.”
She stomped from the room with her nose in the air, then took off running down the hall to her bedroom, flopped down on her bed and cried. Hard. Worse than any other crying she’d done this whole week, even when Joel left. This was the culmination of every negative thought she’d ever had about food since she was a little girl coming out in a torrent of emotion. This was tears that soaked her pillow, sobs that racked her body to the point that she was dry heaving and coughing.
Curling into a ball, Winnie clutched her knees to her chest and held herself in the fetal position. The thought occurred to her that these people would force her to go back to a mental institution if she didn’t get her emotions under control. Maybe that’s where she belonged, in a mental institution. Maybe she should just let them shove a feeding tube down her nose. That would be easier than choking down fake sausage.
“Winnie? It’s Celeste. Can I sit beside you?”
“Sorry, I can’t do that. I’d lose my job.” Celeste pulled up a chair beside the bed. “You don’t want me to lose my job, do you?”
“I don’t care what you do,” Winnie said. “If the only reason you want to talk to me is because you’ll lose your job, then I don’t care.”
“Well, my three-year-old daughter would care, and she’s the most important person in my life. If I don’t pay the bills, we’ll lose our apartment. So, get over yourself. There are people and issues in this world that are more important than sausage.”
Winnie was shocked into silence. This was the first time anyone had called her out for her tirades. She rolled over and looked at her new friend. “You’re a single mom?”
“Yeah, my deadbeat ex-boyfriend took off when he found out I was pregnant. Good riddance except it’s hard to keep the lights on with one person’s salary. You live in a sheltered, perfect world full of millionaires who can afford to send you to place like this. You have no idea how lucky you are.”
“You’re probably right,” Winnie said with compassion. “I’m really sorry I was insensitive.”
“I’ll forgive you if you drink this protein shake and don’t do anything else that would give them a reason to fire me.” Celeste handed Winnie the can of Ensure.
“I would be willing to drink that under one condition,” Winnie said.
“You’re not exactly in a position to negotiate,” Celeste said. “And I’m getting tired of trying to convince you to get healthy. If you’re not interested in getting healthy, let them take you back to the hospital and force feed you. I guarantee they’ll let you wallow in bed all day long if you’re locked away in a mental hospital.”
“You promised me pancakes,” Winnie said, ignoring Celeste’s sarcasm. “So, my one condition is that if you take that hunk of sausage off my plate and sit beside me to eat a gourmet meal of pancakes, syrup, and butter, then I’ll drink this protein shake as a substitute for the disgusting sausage and be a good girl for the rest of the day. Or at least I’ll try.”
“And your only condition is that I remove the sausage from your plate?” Celeste raised her eyebrows.
“And sit beside me,” Winnie said, then lowered her voice to a near whisper. “I could really use a friend right now.”
“Hey, they pay me to be your friend. Does that count?” Celeste teased.
“Yeah, that counts.” Winnie swung her legs off the bed, then stood and offered a hand to Celeste. “Now, come on. Our pancakes are getting cold.”
Book Club Discussion: Amazing how someone else's problems can humble us to put ours in perspective.
“Good morning, Edwina.” A soft voice pulled Winnie out of her restless sleep. “Time to wake up.”
After crying herself to sleep the night before, Winnie had nightmares and had woken up multiple times in a panic trying to make sense of her surroundings, then remembering where she was and crying again.
“What time is it?” Winnie grumbled and rolled toward the wall. “Need more sleep.”
“It’s five o’clock,” the voice said. “We need to get your vital signs and get you weighed, then breakfast is at six.”
“I never eat breakfast,” she insisted. “Need more sleep.”
“Sorry, that’s not an option. While you’re staying here with us you will be waking up at five, and you will be eating breakfast.” Although the woman spoke in a polite tone, the words were stern. Whoever she was, she made for an annoying alarm clock. Winnie already decided she wasn’t going to like her.
Winnie sat up and glared at the girl, who wasn’t much older than Winnie. “I never eat breakfast, and I’m not starting now, so you might as well let me sleep another hour.”
“Hi, I’m Celeste.” The girl smiled.
“I really don’t care what your name is,” Winnie said. “I’m still not eating breakfast.”
“I’m going to be in charge of making sure you have everything you need for the duration of the time you’re staying with us.” Apparently, Celeste wasn’t taking the hint to go away. “Do you need to use the bathroom before we take your vitals and get your weight?”
“Do you have to come into the bathroom with me?”
“Pretty much, yep.”
“That’s not okay,” Winnie grumbled and swung her legs down from the bed. “None of this is okay.”
She padded over to the bathroom and left the door open, just like in the hospital. This was one thing she looked forward to after treatment, privacy in the bathroom. She’d never been a person who would get sick or use laxatives after meals, so she wasn’t sure why they insisted on this. Having been in the hospital for several weeks, she’d lost her inhibitions and was no longer afraid to use the toilet in front of whatever nursing assistant thought it was necessary to listen in.
They wouldn’t let her see the numbers on the scale and she’d learned not to ask. All Winnie wanted to do was go back to bed, but she figured asking for that would get her nowhere, so she allowed Celeste to poke and prod and do whatever other assessments she wanted to do, blood pressure, pulse rate, and blood oxygen level. Neither of them spoke much and Winnie was glad Celeste wasn’t trying to make small talk.
When she’d completed her round of vitals, Celeste smiled and said, “Let’s get you into the shower, shall we?”
“Do I have a choice?” Winnie folded her arms across her chest.
“No, not really.” Celeste maintained her smile but shook her head.
“Then why phrase the sentence as a question?” Winnie smirked when Celeste cocked her head and creased her brow. “Just tell me to get in the shower.”
“I find it more polite to ask someone to do something rather than demand they do something,” Celeste said.
“For the past month I have had zero choice with pretty much everything,” Winnie said. “Why make pretenses? Let’s not pretend I have a choice, shall we?”
Without waiting for an answer, Winnie crossed the small room to her dresser and pulled out a pair of yoga pants and a soft T-shirt along with underwear and socks. She headed for the bathroom, again leaving the door open, stripped down to nothing and got in the shower. At least she had her own shampoo, conditioner, and body wash. Sometimes it was the little things that pulled her through the bad days.
She stood under the hot water longer than necessary, enjoying the steam and relaxation, wondering how much longer she could endure this life and still stay sane. Maybe she was already insane and she just didn’t know it because she was insane. Did insane people know they were insane? Good question. She had no answer.
“You almost done in there?” Celeste called from right outside the curtain.
“Do I have a choice?” Winnie’s rude question was accompanied by her turning off the water and reaching for her towel.
Celeste must have ignored Winnie’s rude rhetoric because she didn’t say anything else, just leaned against the doorframe with her back to Winnie. At least the staff in this inpatient clinic as well as at the hospital politely turned away when she was without clothing or using the bathroom.
Winnie took her time getting dried off and slipping on her comfortable clothing, dreading the next part of her morning. Almost before realizing she was talking, a question popped out. “What if I refuse to eat?”
“They’ll give you a nutritional shake,” Celeste said without emotion.
“What if I refuse that?”
“They might make you go back into the hospital and put a tube up your nose to feed you forcibly.”
“Oh… no, no, no. I’d rather drink the nutritional shake.”
“That or get over your fear of eating.” Celeste turned around and met Winnie’s gaze with firmness but compassion. “Start to enjoy food again.”
“I don’t know how.” Winnie’s quiet voice wavered, and she felt tears prick her eyes.
“That’s why you’re here, Winnie.” Celeste offered a soft smile. “We’re going to help you learn how to enjoy food again.”
“Okay.” Her response was barely a squeak.
“Be gentle on yourself. Day one is not the time to break down about the food they serve you. Try to eat a little bit but realize that right after breakfast you’re going to start working with a counselor and some therapy groups and the nutritionist, and before you know it, you’ll be eating foods you love without anxiety.”
“I don’t even know what foods I love anymore,” Winnie said.
“Here’s your chance to try a little of everything, a few bites at a time.”
“I guess I could do that.” Winnie shook her towel down from her hair and started finger-combing the thin locks. “I need to get past you so I can go find my comb in my suitcase.”
“Oh, sure, sorry about that.” Celeste stepped out of the way and Winnie pawed through her bag, looking for her comb.
When Winnie entered the bathroom again, she realized what was missing. “There’s no mirror.”
“We try to avoid anything that could be triggering,” Celeste said.
Winnie turned around to gape at Celeste. “How am I supposed to do my hair?”
“Would you like me to braid it for you?” Celeste held out her hand and Winnie considered the offer. Why not? She’d lost control over everything else in her life. What’s one more thing? She handed the comb over and sat in the chair next to her desk.
Never having a sister meant never having someone comb and braid her hair. This was a new experience for Winnie and for some reason that brought fresh tears to her eyes.
Ever since she was a little girl, she’d had her hair in a bun almost daily. She wondered if she’d recognize herself in a mirror with French braids on either side of her head. Not that she’d ever have the chance to see herself while living here since there were no mirrors. That also brought tears.
Mirrors were everywhere in Winnie’s life. Every ballet studio had at least one wall that was completely mirrored. She was in a ballet studio every day. That brought more tears.
Celeste never called her out for crying the whole time she was doing Winnie’s hair, but she did take a quick second to bring a box of tissues over to place on Winnie’s lap. Then she calmly went back to combing and braiding.
Winnie wondered how there could be any more tears inside her, yet they kept coming, and coming, and coming. The whole time Celeste was working, Winnie kept crying.
“How does that feel?” Celeste asked, patting the sides of Winnie’s head.
Winnie reached up and found tight little rows of braids, almost small enough to be corn rows. She marveled that time had stood still long enough for Celeste to complete this masterpiece. “I wish I could see them,” Winnie whispered.
“They look beautiful,” Celeste told her in a soft, compassionate voice. “But how do they feel?”
“They feel… beautiful,” Winnie said, looking up at this girl who had spent the better part of the past hour enduring Winnie’s wrath and tears. How she still had the patience to show her compassion was beyond Winnie’s ability to comprehend. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” Celeste reached out a hand to help Winnie from the chair. “Now let’s go eat some breakfast. I’m hungry.”
“You’re going to eat also?”
“Yeah, best part about this job is all the food they give me. I get paid to eat gourmet meals three times a day plus snacks. Plus, a paycheck at the end of the week. Can’t beat that.”
“But you have to put up with cranky girls who want to sleep in and refuse to eat,” Winnie said. “How can that possibly be fun?”
“Eh, give it a couple days. We’ll get into a routine and become best friends and you’ll wonder why you ever hated me.”
“I don’t hate you,” Winnie grumbled.
“You hated me an hour ago, admit it.” Celeste raised her eyebrows.
“That’s only because you forced me to wake up.”
“Wait’ll I force you to eat breakfast.” Celeste patted Winnie on the shoulder. “Then you’ll really hate me.”
“Gee, I can’t wait.” Winnie wrinkled her nose.
Celeste threw her arm around Winnie’s shoulders. “Good thing you won’t have to wait long. I can smell the pancakes from here.” With that, she led Winnie from the room.
“Here goes nothin’…” Winnie grumbled, but allowed Celeste to lead her.
“Joel, please don’t leave me here!” Winnie called out to the locked door behind her where her traitorous husband had just left. She resisted as hard as she could but the two staffers from the eating disorders clinic pulled her gently back into the building where she would be held captive for who knows how long. “You said I could come home, Joel! Please come back!”
“Edwina, you’re going to stay here for a few days,” Barbara said in what she probably thought was a soothing voice. “Joel wants you to get healthy so you can go home to your family. Remember how you want to spend time with Lynnette, and go back to your job in New York City? You want to dance, right? Get some toe shoes and go to a ballet studio?”
“I want toe shoes now! Get me my toe shoes! Don’t make me stay here without toe shoes!” Winnie slumped to the floor, completely without the energy or willpower to stand or walk. She almost pulled Barbara and the other staffer down with her. She bent forward, pressing her arms across her center, holding herself together, sobbing uncontrollably.
Barbara sat down in front of her and placed a box of tissue on Winnie’s lap, but she didn’t say anything. Eventually Barbara pulled a tissue from the box and placed it in Winnie’s hand. Like an involuntary gesture, Winnie wiped her eyes and nose but continued sobbing, rocking back and forth.
“I wanna go home,” Winnie whimpered. “Please let me go home.”
“Let’s get you healthy and then you can go home, okay?”
“I don’t want to get healthy. I just want to go home.”
“Nope, you have to do both. You have to get healthy first, and then go home.”
“I want Joel to stay with me. He won’t take up much space. I promise. He can sleep in my bed with me.”
“Joel needs to finish his classes.”
“He can study here. I’ll help him study.”
“What kinds of classes is he taking right now?” Barbara asked softly.
“I dunno. Exercise physiology or something that involves cutting people open or something.” She didn’t want to think about that right now. She needed to figure out a way to get out of this place.
“What kind of doctor does he want to be?” Barbara asked.
“Sports medicine.” Winnie grabbed another tissue and blew her nose then grabbed another one. Someone brought a garbage can and Winnie picked up her growing pile of tissues and threw them away.
“Did he play a sport in college?”
“He was on the football team at University of Michigan,” Winnie said. “They went to the Rose Bowl last year.” Why was she allowing herself to get distracted by this? She needed to focus.
“Wow, he must have been a really good football player. What position did he play?”
“Do you mean quarterback?” Barbara asked.
“No, cornerback,” Winnie explained. “It’s a defensive position. He stole the ball a lot and got lots of touchdowns that way.” A tiny smile lifted the corner of Winnie’s mouth as she remembered how he’d purposely made touchdowns for her.
“You seem to know a lot about football,” Barbara said. “Was that just from knowing Joel? Or did you like football before you met him?”
“My dad and brothers always watched football and we had box seats at The Big House every year.”
“What’s the big house?” Barbara asked.
“The University of Michigan’s football stadium is the largest in the United States or something like that.” Winnie waved her hand dismissively and grabbed another tissue, this time wiping the smeared makeup from under her eyes.
“Is that where you went to school also?” Barbara nodded as if to answer her own question. Winnie found herself nodding along. “What was your major?”
“I majored in dance and specialized in classical ballet.”
“And now you dance in New York City at a theatre, right? What theatre?”
“The Ajkun Ballet Theatre.” Winnie’s sobs had lessoned to a few sniffles.
“That sounds prestigious,” Barbara said. “And you’ve been performing in The Nutcracker? What else?”
“Ooh, I love Swan Lake. Did you have one of the lead roles?”
“No, this is my first year in the company. I won’t be a principal for a while.”
“You must be pretty talented, or you wouldn’t have even made it into the company. Those are pretty competitive spots, aren’t they?”
“Yeah.” Winnie nodded. “I’m a really good dancer.” At least I was, she thought.
“I’d love to see you dance sometime.” Barbara sounded sincere rather than placating.
“There’s a YouTube video out there somewhere with my senior showcase.”
“I’ll have to look it up.”
“Ladies—” a man interrupted them. Winnie looked up to see a middle-aged man with his hand out. “Dinner’s just about ready. Can I help you off the floor?”
As if she knew the guy and they did this every day, Winnie tucked her hand in his and let him lift her to her feet. “Thank you,” she mumbled.
“I’m Ulyses, by the way. I’m the nutritionist here at the center.”
“He’s the guy you want know in order to get the good stuff.” Barbara lumbered up from the floor. “He even sneaks in locally-grown produce picked this morning.”
“In December?” Winnie raised her eyebrows in disbelief.
“You’re in California now, Dorothy,” Barbara said in a perfect Wicked Witch of the West impersonation.
“What kind of produce are you talking about?” Winnie said through the corner of her mouth, getting in on the teasing.
Ulyses leaned closer and said in a conspiratorial whisper, “I smuggled in fresh strawberries.”
“Way,” he confirmed. “You’re a vegetarian, right? I put you at the table with Cheyanne and Brea. They’re also both vegetarians. I think they’re about your age, too. What are you, twenty-two?”
“Yeah.” Winnie nodded. She had to hand it to these guys. They succeeded in distracting her enough to stop crying and maybe join the land of the living for a few hours before bed.
“Come on, I’ll introduce you.” Ulyses held out his arm like a gentleman escorting a lady and Winnie slipped her hand in the crook of his arm.
As close as the dining area was to the main entrance, Winnie had no doubt in her mind that every resident in the center had witnessed her complete meltdown. From their empathetic expressions, Winnie got the impression that she wasn’t the first, nor would she be the last, person to have a crying fit on the floor in the foyer.
Before leading her over to an open seat, Ulyses wrapped an arm around her shoulder and called out to the dining room, garnering attention from several dozen residents and staff, most of whom were already seated with a plate of food in front of them. “Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to introduce Edwina”—he stopped and glanced down at her—“or do you prefer Winnie?”
“Winnie’s fine.” She shrugged. “I like both.”
“Winnie’s going to be staying with us for a few days, so I hope you’ll help her to feel welcome.”
Everyone in the room had soft, friendly smiles. Some people waved or said hello. Ulyses led her over to a table where two women in their early twenties sat with plates of noodles and chopsticks. After introducing them, Ulyses held out her chair and Winnie slid into place.
“Do you like Pad Thai? I made it myself with seasoned tofu stir fried with a little bit of olive oil.”
“Sounds delicious,” Winnie said. “Thank you.”
To her surprise, Ulyses sat at the table beside her and someone placed a plate of food in front of each of them. Winnie’s portion was much smaller. “You and I will meet tomorrow to discuss menu options and talk about what you like and dislike and determine caloric intake to help you reach your goal weight. But for tonight, just eat as much or as little as you want to eat, even if you only take one bite. I won’t be offended if you don’t like it.”
“Smells really good,” Winnie said, picking up a pair of chopsticks. “Looks really rich, though.”
“No pressure,” Ulyses said. “Just eat what you’re hungry for and stop when you’re done.”
“Okay.” Winnie took a bite of the decadent noodle dish and almost moaned out loud it tasted so good. She’d forgotten how yummy real food was. She’d been living off soup and protein shakes for so long she couldn’t remember the last time she had a sit-down meal like this.
Her social anxiety made it nearly impossible for her to eat at restaurants anymore. This felt like a safe environment. As she took a second bite, she decided this might not be the worst place in the world to live for a few days.
As long as they brought her some toe shoes. Soon.
“You tricked me,” Winnie accused. Joel wouldn’t have been surprised if she stomped her foot. “You said I could come home.”
“No one tricked you, sweetheart.” Joel tried to wrap her in a hug, but she shook him off. He didn’t resist. She’d had enough trauma already and she hadn’t even moved into her room yet. She’d halted in the doorway, probably realizing a dormitory sized room with a bed, dresser, and attached bathroom wasn’t part of the evaluation. The tour was over. This was where she was going to sleep tonight. “You knew there was the possibility you’d be asked to stay for a couple of weeks. That’s why we packed the suitcase.”
“We didn’t pack my toe shoes,” she said with panic in her voice. “We need to go home. I can’t live here without a pair of toe shoes.” She turned around and tried to leave the room, but Joel was right behind her blocking the doorway.
“Honey, you’re not going to be dancing while you’re here.” From the research Joel had conducted, he realized that her eating disorder would cause her to say very irrational things. Her brain was starving and not functioning normally. “I’ll ask the staff if I can bring you a pair of toe shoes when I come to visit.” He looked up at Barbara, who was already inside the bedroom.
“We don’t encourage the residents to exercise while they’re here,” she said with a soft shake of her head.
“I’ll lose the calluses on my feet if I don’t wear them every day,” Winnie insisted. “I usually have toe shoes on for eight to ten hours a day. I need my toe shoes.”
“You’ll gradually earn privileges and toe shoes could be one reward.”
“Privileges? Rewards?” Winnie’s voice rose. “I am a grown woman. I should not have to earn privileges.”
“We have certain regulations we follow while we’re living here,” Barbara said without emotion.
“Do you live here?” Winnie asked, taking a step toward Barbara. To her credit, she didn’t even flinch. “Why do you keep using the collective? You don’t even live here.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, Scrappy,” Joel held Winnie’s shoulders firmly. “No reason to get testy. Hey, have you seen this bed? It’s almost big enough for two.” Joel left Winnie’s suitcase near the door and led his wife over to her new bed. He lifted her into his arms and gently plopped her onto the bed then climbed up next to her and tucked her into his arms.
“What are you doing, Joel?” Although her tone was panicked, she didn’t pull away from him. She did glance over at Barbara. “You’re probably not allowed to be in my room.”
Good sign that she had already taken ownership of the room. “I just want you to be able to picture me here with you tonight when you rest your head on your pillow. Snuggle with me for a minute. They won’t mind.” He raised his eyebrows at Barbara, who took his nonverbal plea to let him help.
Barbara smiled and turned her head away, not leaving the room but not interjecting herself into their private conversation.
“You’ve got my hoodie to sleep in tonight, so the bed will smell just like me,” Joel whispered. “You can just snuggle right down into that sweatshirt and imagine me right here with you.”
“What if they have to wash the sweatshirt?” She looked up at him from the crook of his arm, vulnerability in her sad eyes.
“I’ll bring you another one in a few days.” He leaned closer and kissed her lightly on her lips. “And in a few weeks, we’ll get to sleep together again. This will be just like when I go to Ann Arbor and you stay in New York City.”
“Why can’t you just stay here with me?” Her voice was almost a whimper. “Like you said, this bed’s big enough for two.”
“You’re here to focus on getting healthy and that requires you to be here by yourself. Besides I need to concentrate on finishing my incomplete classes. That was one of your goals, remember?”
She nodded but didn’t speak.
“I’ll focus on that goal and you focus on getting healthy so you can come home with me and work on our number one goal.”
“For you to make love to me on our anniversary.” She giggled. What a beautiful sound. She hadn’t laughed in days.
Joel’s throat closed with emotion and he couldn’t even answer with words just pressed his lips to hers in a kiss that was probably a little more passionate than what he should have done with Barbara still in the room. He pulled away after less than a minute and choked through tears, “I’m gonna miss you.”
“I’m gonna miss you too.” Tears flowed down her cheeks. “Please don’t leave me here.”
“I have to, babe. You know that. I don’t want to, but I have to. Be strong for me, okay? Get yourself healthy so we can be together.”
“Okay.” She sobbed and held him like she’d never let go.
But he had to let go. After letting her cry for a few minutes, he sat up with her still in his arms and held her for a minute more as she continued to sob. Then he set her on her feet. With tears still flowing down his own cheeks, he took her by the hand. “Walk me to the door, okay?”
Winnie stumbled along with him practically holding her in an upright position. “Joel, you can’t leave me here. Please don’t make me stay. I’ll do anything. I’ll force myself to eat if I have to. Just please take me home. I want to go home.”
When they reached the outermost door, which would be locked behind him, Joel pulled her in for one more hug, pressed his lips to hers one more time, then handed Winnie to Barbara and another staff member. “I love you, Winnie. Please get healthy so you can come home with me.”
He opened the door and left the building, hearing the lock engage behind him. He somehow made it out to his car and slumped his head against the steering wheel, sobbing. After several minutes of crying, Joel used every ounce of willpower he had left inside him to start the ignition and pull out of that parking lot.
Book Club Discussion: Be honest. Did you cry? I did.
“Congratulations on getting through the first stage of treatment,” Barbara said. So far, she hadn’t kicked Joel out of the exam room, and he was thankful for that but confused, especially after Winnie raised her chin and smiled as if she’d done something monumental.
Joel had basically forced her into staying in the hospital and forced her to walk in this eating disorder treatment center. Her heartrate was barely above fifty and fluctuated when she tried to stand up. They’d used a wheelchair to get through the airport and had special handicap accommodations everywhere they went. He had to carry her up and down any set of stairs, she slept most of the day and needed help to shower.
“What stage of treatment is she through?” Joel blurted out, trying to keep his voice monotone and not show his frustration.
“She was medically stable enough to leave the hospital,” Barbara said in a pleasant, upbeat, comforting manner.
“Barely,” Joel said, shifting in the tiny chair, at least the chair felt tiny for his football player sized body.
“Well barely was enough to get her out of the hospital and into our residential phase.” Barbara’s voice had taken on a warning tone as if Joel needed to pull back his frustration in support of his wife. “Here we’ll be able to focus on the underlying psychological aspects of treatment, to go beyond just medical stabilization. We have support groups, individual therapy, and an entire treatment program dedicated to working on some of the possible precursors to the eating disorder. It’s like a medical stabilization program in combination with a psychiatric program.”
“Psychiatric?” Winnie interrupted. “Do you think I’m insane? I don’t need a psychiatric treatment center.”
“We don’t think you’re insane, Edwina.” Barbara turned her attention back to Winnie. “Psychiatric is just talking about things pertaining to your brain and thoughts rather than the physiological aspects of your treatment, your heart, lungs, stomach, intestines, that kind of thing.”
“I’m just fine.” Winnie folded her hands across her chest. “I don’t need any of this.”
“I’m glad you feel fine,” Barbara said with a smile. “Our treatments are focused on helping you feel even better than just fine. We want you to feel great.”
“I’m never going to feel great,” Winnie grumbled.
Joel took her hand in his and winked at her. “I’d like to help you feel great.”
“Take me home and make love to me,” Winnie said through clenched teeth. “That will make me feel great.”
“You’re not quite healthy enough for that, babe.” Joel leaned forward and kissed her lightly. “But maybe we can make that our goal by our anniversary, okay?”
“How long have the two of you been married?” Barbara asked. “When’s your anniversary?”
“Not quite a year,” Joel said. “We were married last year on December twenty-seventh.”
“Two weeks from now?” Barbara’s voice squeaked and she looked Winnie up and down. “And you think she’s going to be ready—” She must have realized what she was saying in front of a patient who was in complete denial of her severe medical condition.
“Let’s make that our goal.” Joel glared at her, trying to convey with his pointed statement that he realized the thought was preposterous. But Winnie needed to believe she would be healed quickly. Once she was locked safely in this facility, time would be irrelevant.
“Right.” Barbara wrote something down on the pad of paper in front of her. “I’m glad we have a goal in mind. Edwina, I heard you mention something about a dance studio. Is that another goal you have? Do you like to dance?”
“I’m a prima ballerina at a prestigious theatre in New York City.” Her statement, combined with the lift of her chin, came across as haughty but confident. “I’d like to get home to my job as soon as possible.”
“Wonderful, now we have two goals.” Barbara wrote that on her notepad also. “Anything else?”
“I want my husband to be able to return to medical school.”
“I’ve already decided to take classes remotely for a few semesters, so don’t worry about me.” Joel squeezed her hand. “Let’s get you healthy before we think that far ahead.”
“Still, it’s another goal.” Barbara wrote that on her list. “Also, something about spending time with your mother-in-law?” She raised her eyebrows and smiled.
“I want to spend time with Lynnette,” Winnie said. “She understands me.”
“That’s wonderful to have a family support system,” Barbara said. “Perhaps Lynnette will be an integral part of helping you transition back to full independence.”
“We’re staying with my parents right now,” Joel said. “They have a full lower level that they keep referring to as our honeymoon suite. It has a family room with a wet bar, a bedroom with a Jacuzzi tub and a sliding glass door that walks right out to the beach. And my mother can do all the cooking upstairs.”
“That sounds like a wonderful place to spend your time in recovery,” Barbara said. “As soon as we’re ready to begin a transition to outpatient treatment, we’ll bring your family in so they can all get involved in the treatment plan.”
“Lynnette’s wonderful,” Winnie said with a sigh. “You’ll love her.”
“I look forward to meeting her.” Barbara smiled at Winnie. “For now, let’s focus on getting you medically stable and feed that brain of yours so we can dig into the mental and emotional aspects of cognitive work.”
Wow, this woman’s good at her job, Joel thought. “Thank you so much for your help, Barbara.”
“Yes, thank you,” Winnie said, following his lead, as he predicted she would.
“Let’s get your vital signs and start into the exam, shall we?” Barbara stood and walked to the sink to wash her hands. “Are you afraid of needles, Edwina? I need to draw your blood.”
“No, I’m not afraid of needles.” Winnie sat up and held out her left arm. “I am right-handed, though so we should draw blood from the left.”
“Great idea,” Barbara said, grabbing a paper towel.
Joel sat back and let the woman work her magic. This treatment plan was going to help his wife heal. He just knew it. His smile faded as he realized that for Winnie, the worst had yet to begin.
Book Club Discussion Questions: What do you think Joel's referring to by "the worst"?
“I don’t belong here, Joel.” Tears sprung to Winnie’s eyes as she walked in the door to the clinic and tried to walk back out. Joel was in her way and turned her around to keep walking forward. “I want to go home.”
“We’re just coming here for an evaluation,” Joel said in a soothing voice.
“Then why did they make me pack a suitcase?” Winnie panicked. “They wouldn’t ask me to bring a suitcase if they weren’t going to force me to stay.”
“If you’re healthy enough to come home and get treatment as an outpatient, then we’ll bring the suitcase home with us,” Joel said. “But if they do want you to stay, at least you’re prepared.”
“I want to come home with you,” Winnie begged. “Please don’t make me stay here. You can take care of me. And your mom can take care of me.”
“I’m not a doctor or a nurse.” Joel shook his head with a sympathetic but insistent firmness to his eyes. “And neither is my mom. You wouldn’t want a chemistry professor teaching you how to do a pirouette, would you?”
“That’s a silly comparison.” She continued to pull her husband back toward the door, but he was a million times bigger than her, and he kept her moving forward.
“Hello, you must be Edwina,” a friendly voice said. Winnie turned to see a woman in a normal blouse and slacks. She didn’t look like a nurse or doctor. “I’m Barbara. I’ll be taking you through the evaluation today.”
“I don’t need to be here,” Winnie insisted. “I want to do treatment as an outpatient.”
“Great, let’s get you home as soon as possible then.” Barbara smiled.
“Okay, good.” This woman was going to let her go home. As soon as they did the evaluation, Winnie would be allowed to go home.
“Mr. Anderson, I’m glad you’re here to support your wife, but there will be many parts of the evaluation where you’ll need to sit in the waiting room.”
“You’re welcome to call me Joel,” he said then held up his smart phone. “I have all my textbooks downloaded to an app on my phone. I’ll get lots of studying done.”
“What are you going to school for?” Barbara asked, cocking her head with sincere interest. Winnie decided either Barbara was a very nice person or trying to distract her.
“I’m just finishing my first semester of medical school, actually.”
“I thought the semester ended in early December.” Winnie’s heart panicked with a fear that he was somehow suffering because he was with her. “You should be on Christmas break now.”
“I took an incomplete in my classes so I could stay with you in New York City.”
“But I was in the hospital for weeks.” Tears spilled from Winnie’s eyes. “You could have gone back to Ann Arbor to finish your semester.” Why was this just now occurring to her? Was she so self-centered that she didn’t remember he was supposed to be at the college, not sitting in her hospital room?
“You are way more important than my silly classes.” Joel pulled her gently into a hug. “There’s no other place I’d rather be than with you.” He kissed the top of her head.
“But medical school is your dream.” Winnie felt terrible. “You can’t give up your dream for me. We should go back to Michigan. We need to be in Michigan.” She tried to pull him toward the door, but he resisted easily, bringing her back to stand in front of Barbara.
“Like you said, it’s Christmas break. I would have wanted to come home to California this time of year anyway.”
“We should be in New York City.” Winnie tried again to convince him to leave. “I’m important as the understudy for the Sugar Plum Fairy. They need me there. What if someone gets sick or injured?”
“There are five other understudies for that part,” Joel reminded her. She was surprised he even remembered that. “The chances of all five of them getting sick or injured at the same time is probably less likely than getting struck by lightning.”
“But nothing,” he said, turning her around again and holding her shoulders firmly, forcing her to face Barbara. “Let’s spend some time with this nice lady and see how your evaluation goes. The sooner we get done with the treatment, the sooner we can go home to the city.”
“But I want to spend time with your mom first,” Winnie whined. “You promised I’d get to spend time with your mom. And you promised me a dance studio.”
“We can stay in California as long as you want,” Joel said in a soft, placating voice. “But we need to get through treatment first.”
Winnie scowled and realized she was fighting against a brick wall. She had agreed to come here and now she was stuck here. They’d had just a few nights alone together in between the time she’d gotten out of the hospital and the moment she walked into this building, an inpatient treatment center near the beach, overlooking the Pacific Ocean a mile away from her in-laws’ beautiful home. She stopped arguing and lifted her chin with a confidence she didn’t feel. “Fine,” she told Barbara. “Do your stupid evaluation.”
“Wonderful,” Barbara said. She must have an unnatural amount of patience in her petite frame because she didn’t even look annoyed at Winnie’s complaining and rationalizing. “Follow me, please.”
Barbara turned and walked into treatment center with Winnie and Joel right behind her. No going back. Winnie instinctively knew she wasn’t leaving this building any time soon.
“Absolutely not.” Winnie’s body was feeling much better after the hospital staff forced her to drink some sort of thick, sweet liquid. She considered puking it back up until she realized she could almost feel the nutrients absorbing into her body. Why Joel had to show up with his ridiculous ideas about flying to California, she didn’t know. “I need to get back to work. I have a show tonight. How soon can they get this IV out of my hand so I can get back to the studio?”
“See this number right here?” Joel pointed to the monitor that blinked and beeped and kept her up half the night. She wanted to knock the metal rod on its side and crash that stupid thing to the floor to make it stop blinking and beeping. Thankfully she realized in time that the thing was attached to the tube that was pumping fluids into her hand and would rip from her skin if she knocked it across the room. “Until that number gets above fifty, they won’t let you leave the hospital.”
“Okay, so how can I get that number above fifty?” she snapped at her husband.
“Do whatever the doctors and nurses tell you to do,” Joel said. His patience seemed unwavering. He kept his voice steady and calm even though she was aggravated and rude.
“What do you think I’ve been doing?” she asked, frustrated with the way her skin seemed to itch from the inside out. “I even drank that chalky, nasty, sticky sweet baby formula they gave me.”
“Baby formula?” Joel chuckled. “When was the last time you drank baby formula?”
“This morning, apparently.” She folded her arms across her chest in defiance. In a quieter voice she stated definitively, “I’m not leaving New York City.”
“Well, you’re not going back to your job as a dancer until you get through with treatments.”
“That’s ridiculous,” she said. “I’m just fine.”
“You collapsed yesterday and they couldn’t wake you up for ten hours.”
“That’s not a reason to quit my job and move to California.”
“No one’s asking you to quit your job,” Joel said. “You just need to get through treatment before they’ll allow you to dance again. We might as well do the treatment in California where we can walk the beach and watch the sunset over the ocean and pick up starfish and build sandcastles.”
“I prefer to hang out indoors,” she said, annoyed that he wouldn’t let up. “Give me a dance studio and maybe we’ll talk.”
“There are plenty of dance studios in California,” Joel insisted. “As soon as you get through the treatment, we’ll find you a dance studio.”
“What is this treatment you keep talking about?” Winnie narrowed her eyes at her husband.
“The doctors want you to have a couple of weeks in inpatient residential treatment after they get you medically stable.”
“Residential? Inpatient? As in live somewhere in a mental institution? Are you trying to get me committed to a loony bin? Are you trying to lock me away? Are you trying to get rid of me?”
“No one’s trying to get rid of you,” Joel said. “Just the opposite. We’re trying to keep you alive.”
“What if I don’t want to stay alive?” she asked with sarcasm in her voice. “Have you ever thought about that? Maybe I’m ready to die.”
“I’m pretty sure they don’t have dance studios in heaven,” Joel said. “Dying would be kind of the opposite of helping you get back to your job. Besides, am I that difficult to be married to that you’d rather die?”
“What a stupid question.” She lifted her chin and pursed her lips.
“Dying would be a stupid answer,” he said. “A permanent solution to a temporary problem.”
“I don’t have any problems,” Winnie said. “Except this stupid tube in my hand and the fact that they won’t let me even go to the bathroom without someone helping me. Why can’t I even go to the bathroom? And why can’t I leave the hospital.”
“See that number right there?” Joel pointed to the screen again. “As soon as that number gets above fifty, they’ll talk about letting you go home. Until then, you’re just going to have to be a good girl and do what the doctors and nurses tell you to do. And if you need to go to the bathroom, I’ll carry you there myself. We’ll just pretend we’re back on our first date.”
“Very funny.” Winnie tried not to let a smile creep onto her face. She wanted to stay angry. Still, just mentioning the stupid bathroom made her need to go. She’d been fighting the need out of embarrassment and humiliation. “You’d really do that for me, wouldn’t you?”
“I’ve seen you naked before. It’s okay.” Joel held his arms open with a mischievous gleam in his eye. “Besides, if I can hold your head while you’re puking on your wedding dress, I think I can handle carrying you to the toilet.”
For that Winnie couldn’t help giggling. “Good point. Fine, take me to the stupid bathroom.” She leaned forward and reached her arms around his neck. She’d forgotten how good it felt to hold him. They hadn’t seen each other in weeks.
Maneuvering around all the wires and tubes was not easy but they managed. True to his word, Joel carried her right over and set her down in front of the toilet.
“Get that stupid plastic yellow thing onto the seat.” Winnie pointed to the insert they made her pee into. “I’m not allowed to just pee into the toilet. They measure every ounce of liquid that goes in and out of me. It’s embarrassing.”
“They’re just doing their job and trying to get you healthy,” Joel said. “Do you want me to stay in here with you? Or step out into the hall?”
“Does it matter?” She asked. “You can probably hear me peeing from the hallway, so it’s still embarrassing.”
“The walls in our apartment are thin,” Joel said. “I hear you peeing every day.”
Joel leaned against the wall and folded his arms patiently then with a softer voice said, “Come to California with me. We can have a second honeymoon.”
“Yeah, ’cause our first honeymoon turned out great for me,” Winnie said with sarcasm. “Not something I want to relive, thank-you-very-much.”
“Not relive,” he said. “Re-do. As in do over. Do it right this time.”
“But I want to dance,” she whispered.
“Honey, they’re not going to let you dance right now. If we stay here in the city, we’d just be stuck indoors with snow and ice and cold. If we go to California, we can enjoy a few months of warmth while you’re in recovery.”
“A few months?” Tears pricked Winnie’s eyes. “Why is it going to take that long?”
Joel crouched down beside her right there on the bathroom floor and wrapped her in his arms. He sounded like he was close to tears also. “Sweetheart, your body’s really sick. It’s gonna take a few months for you to get healed.”
“What if I never get healed, Joel?” The words slipped out before she realized she’d vocalized one of her deepest fears.
He pulled back and smoothed the hair back from the sides of her face. “Then we’ll take healing one day at a time for the rest of our lives.”
“You deserve a wife who’s not sick.” Winnie choked on a sob.
“Yes, I do. Which is why I’m going to stay by your side in sickness and in health and hold you and love you and be here for you as you heal.”
“I don’t deserve you.”
“Yeah, you do. You deserve all of me. Forever.” He leaned forward and kissed her lightly on her lips.
Winnie allowed her emotions to get the better of her and she forgot everything else as she pulled his face closer, deepening his kiss, wishing they could do more.
“What’s going on in here?” a nurse said from the doorway. With her hands on her hips and a disapproving smile she tsked at them. “Did I mistake your hospital room for the honeymoon suite?”
“Hey, technically we’re still newlyweds.” Joel chuckled as he disentangled himself from her and stood, shaking out the stiffness from his legs. “You never know what might happen when you leave a couple of newlyweds alone.”
“Yes, well, Edwina’s not allowed to be in the bathroom alone. You should have rung for a nurse.”
“I was with her the whole time,” Joel told the nurse. “And we used the little seat thingie so you can measure her fluid output.”
“Do you think you two could give me a minute so I can finish going to the bathroom and get my hands washed?” Winnie asked.
“It’s my job to stay in here with you,” the nurse said.
“I’ll be in the hall,” Joel said. “Let me know when you’re ready to be carried back to bed.” He chuckled and walked out the door.
A moment later as she was washing her hands, she glanced at herself in the mirror. Someone had removed her makeup and she looked gaunt. She could use some sunshine. California would have sunshine. And wind in her hair. And the moon and stars over the ocean. And Lynnette there to help take care of her. That made her smile. If anyone could help her heal, her mother-in-law could. That decided it. She turned away from the mirror and left the bathroom to go find her husband.
As she climbed into Joel’s arms, she wrapped her arms around his neck and quietly answered his original question. “Yes, I’ll go with you to California.”
“Thank you, my love.” He kissed her softly while walking toward her hospital bed then set her down carefully.
“But you have to promise you’ll find me a ballet studio,” she said.
“I promise.” Joel helped her get settled and tucked her into the bedding then kissed her again.
“I’m really tired.” Winnie closed her eyes. “I’m gonna to take a nap now.”
“I’ll be right here when you wake up.” She felt him lift her hand in his and fell asleep trusting that he would indeed be right here with her when she woke up.
Book Club Discussion Questions: Can you discern the real reason Winnie's cranky?
“I want to start by letting all of you know that we’re a team and Edwina’s health is our number one priority.” Dr. Sunil seemed to be directing his communication to the large monitor screen where Joel’s parents had joined on a live feed from California and Winnie’s parents had joined them from Michigan. “These are my colleagues, Dr. Gundry, and Dr. Nardi. If you don’t mind, I’d like each of you to introduce yourselves and tell the team how you’re related to Edwina. Mr. Anderson, would you go first?” Dr. Sunil turned to Joel.
“I’m Joel Anderson, Edwina’s husband.” Joel turned to his brother-in-law.
“I’m Marshall LaFleur, Winnie’s older brother.” Marshall looked up at the screen, passing the floor to his parents.
“My name is Warren LaFleur, and this is my wife, Teri.”
“I’m Edwina’s mother,” Teri said, her voice cracking at the end. Joel wasn’t sure if Teri was truly worried or a good actress.
“And I’m Winnie’s younger brother, Gage.”
“Nice to meet you, folks,” Dr. Sunil said and then directed his attention to Joel’s parents. “And you must be the Andersons?”
“Yes, I’m Joel’s father Dean, and this is my wife Lynnette, and our daughter, Emilie.”
“Thank you all for joining us,” Dr. Sunil said. “I’m going to turn the time over to our dietician, Dr. Gundry and then Dr. Nardi, our psychiatrist.”
“Good morning, folks,” Dr. Gundry said, standing and mostly addressing the parents on the monitor. Joel would be connecting with the dietician every day and this was good to have the woman explaining things to his in-laws, so he didn’t have to. “I’m going to be focused on getting Edwina through the process of refeeding and then transitioning back to real food.”
“Are you finally going to convince her to eat some meat?” Teri interrupted.
Dr. Gundry looked down at her clipboard. “I was under the impression Edwina was a vegetarian.”
“She is,” Joel grumbled, glaring at his mother-in-law. “Dr. Gundry, I hope you’ll forgive the interruption. Continue, please.”
“Thank you, Mr. Anderson.” Dr. Gundry nodded politely. “As I was saying, refeeding takes time and right now we’re really focused on acute crisis stabilization and returning her body to health. Edwina won’t be allowed to leave the hospital until her heart is stable enough for her to go home and receive treatment as an outpatient or to enter an inpatient residential facility.”
“That’s where I come in,” Dr. Nardi said, raising his hand. “After the medical stabilization program, we’ll design a psychiatric program focused on coping skills, relaxation, and addressing the eating disorder thoughts while she’s still in an inpatient setting.”
“You need to keep her in the hospital in order to teach her coping mechanisms?” Joel’s dad asked.
“In a psychiatric setting we’ll have support groups, individual therapy, and an entire treatment program dedicated to working on some of the possible antecedents to the eating disorder.”
“I don’t know what you mean by that,” Gage said. “What the heck’s an anti-seed-something or another?”
“An antecedent would be a root cause of the disorder,” Dr. Nardi explained. “Something in her past that caused her to have unrealistic thoughts about food.”
“Are you implying this is our fault?” Teri asked, her incredulous tone showing guilt rather than disbelief.
Joel almost laughed out loud. He wanted to answer her but instead he glanced at Marshall and they both rolled their eyes.
“That’s not what we’re saying at all, Mrs. LeFleur,” Dr Nardi said. “Although things may come up in therapy that show events from her youth that have a direct correlation if not blatant causation. There are several different points in time when these problems are likely to emerge. Junior year of high school, for example, tends to be a very vulnerable point in a teenager’s life. Between college preparation, a difficult load of classes, separation anxiety while transitioning from a child to an adult, etc. There are a lot of risk factors during that time.”
Teri lifted her chin in response. She pursed her lips, and pulled her gaze away in defiance.
“Within the next few days, we’ll be transferring Edwina upstairs to the psychiatry and behavioral medicine unit,” Dr. Nardi continued. “That's our inpatient psychiatry unit. She’ll have intensive management not only from a medical standpoint but also from a behavioral and emotional standpoint. An eating disorder is a medical problem, but there is also a big component of the mind. This disordered relationship between the patient and food is something that is rooted in a patient's psyche.”
“I have a question”—Joel’s mom interrupted—“Once she’s stable and can leave the hospital, then what?”
“With a condition as extreme as hers, we strongly recommend an inpatient residential facility,” Dr. Nardi said. “For now, we have her admitted directly to a medical bed because she needs the special monitoring that’s only available in a medical unit.”
“Does she have to remain in New York City for the next phase of treatment?” Joel’s mom asked. Her eyes were alight, and Joel considered what she was up to. Puzzle pieces fell into place in Joel’s mind before the doctor even answered.
“She’s welcome to go to any inpatient residential facility,” Dr. Nardi said.
“What if they were to come here… to California?” his mom said. “We have one of those facilities about a mile from our home.”
“If she’s going to leave New York she should come home to her own mother,” Teri butted in. Joel wanted to say something like, over my dead body, but didn’t think that would be a good phrase to use when his wife is literally clinging to life.
“You’re coming up on winter in Michigan,” Joel’s mom said. “In California, Winnie could walk on the beach and watch the sunset over the ocean. What could be a more relaxing environment to encourage recovery?”
Teri couldn’t argue with that. None of them could.
Joel’s heart raced with excitement at the prospect.
“That’s not a bad idea,” Joel’s dad said, nodding in contemplation. “We still have their honeymoon suite available.”
“They are not on their honeymoon,” Teri snapped.
“Well, they should be,” his dad said. “They haven’t even been married a full year, and half of that year they’ve either been apart or sick.”
“I agree,” Winnie’s father said. “California sounds like a great place for them to go.”
Dr. Nardi interjected. “Let’s see what Edwina thinks before we all make decisions on her behalf.”
“Sounds like we’re on the right track with planning,” Dr. Sunil said. “For the next few days let’s focus on getting her stabilized enough to leave the hospital. Between now and then we’ll ask Edwina to decide where she’d like to go.”
They wrapped up the meeting a minute later and Joel felt a sense of optimism for the first time in days. This could work. They would get through this. If only he could talk Winnie into leaving New York City.
After kissing Winnie goodnight, Joel and Marshall started down the hall but didn’t make it all the way to the elevator before Joel broke down in sobs. His brother-in-law wrapped his arms around Joel, and for a moment they clung to each other in tears.
Joel sensed a person approaching and pulled apart from Marshall.
“Mr. Anderson, I was hoping to talk to you before you left for the night.” The man was wearing a white lab coat and had a stethoscope around his neck. “I’m Doctor Sunil. We spoke on the phone earlier.”
“Dr. Sunil, thank you so much for calling me.” Joel dried his tears with the sleeve of his shirt. “I guess I thought you were the ER doctor.”
“I was acting as intake physician, actually. We were in the process of admitting her as you and I were talking. What time will you be back up here tomorrow morning? We’d like to have a team meeting.”
“A team meeting?” Joel asked. “What do you mean by that?”
“The inpatient medical stabilization team will have representatives from all three essential departments. The doctors will evaluate Edwina from a medical perspective, conduct a psychological assessment, and determine dietary needs.”
“That sounds intense…”
“Your wife is very sick.” The doctor nodded with a sympathetic frown. “Her first stage in treatment will mostly consist of refeeding her body.”
“Refeeding?” Marshall butted in. “What does that mean?”
“We can’t even tackle the underlying causes of her illness without first getting her body some nourishment,” Dr. Sunil explained. “So far today she’s only had fluids and electrolytes intravenously. If all goes well between now and tomorrow morning, she’ll be given just a little bit of Ensure to see how her body responds. If she keeps it down, we’ll give her a little more, and a little more. The initial stages of treatment will seem very slow to the outside observer, but when a person has starved her body for as long as Edwina has, giving her too much food right away will cause more harm than good. As it is, her stomach will probably hurt the first few days.”
“Do you have any idea why she’s done this to herself?” Marshall asked. “She used to be so healthy. She’s a professional athlete.”
“At this stage, I doubt she’s fully aware of the catalysts for her disordered eating. Women feel a lot of pressure to be thin, especially in her line of work. Anorexia is quite common among dancers, unfortunately.”
“That’s so sad.” Joel shook his head and lowered his gaze to the floor. “I should have been here for her.”
“Please don’t blame yourself, son.” Dr. Sunil put a comforting hand on Joel’s shoulder. “She’s likely been hiding her illness for years. Her body’s just had enough.”
“Is it true that I may have to authorize her being forcefully admitted?”
“That’s a possibility.” The doctor nodded his head. “Hopefully she’ll recognize the need for treatment, but in reality, her brain is not firing on all cylinders right now. Irrational thoughts and behaviors are likely.”
“You said this is the first stage of treatment. What are the others?”
“Inpatient residential treatment will probably be the next step and then gradually she’ll be able to rely on outpatient treatment and then long-term maintenance. She’ll tackle this illness one day at a time for the remainder of her life.”
“I read on a blog post earlier today that having an eating disorder is like being an alcoholic,” Marshall said. “Except an alcoholic can quit cold turkey. A person can’t exactly quit eating.”
“That’s a decent comparison,” Dr. Sunil agreed.
“Okay, what time did you want us back for the meeting?” Joel asked.
“Can you be here by ten o’clock?”
“Yes, we’ll get here.” Joel nodded.
“Thank you, doctor.” Marshall extended his hand to the man. Joel did the same.
“I’m glad you’re here,” the doctor said. “A support system is an essential part of recovery.”
They said their goodbyes and headed down the elevator and toward the main entrance of the hospital. “You call your parents,” Joel said. “I’ll call mine. Perhaps we can get everyone on speakerphone tomorrow morning.”
“Great idea,” Marshall said, pulling his cell phone from his pocket.
Joel lifted his hand to flag down a taxi and called his mom while they were in the car. By the time they made it back to the apartment building both families were on board for a conference call. Some big decisions would need to be made at that meeting and Joel wasn’t sure he was ready.
In the silence of night Winnie gradually became aware of her surroundings. A soft beeping registered somewhere nearby but far enough away that she knew the sound wasn’t in her room. An unpleasant antiseptic odor assaulted her, but the smell was familiar enough to not bother her.
She was in a bed and she knew it wasn’t her own bed but she didn’t know how or why she could tell this wasn’t her bed. Her left hand was uncomfortable like there was a needle stuck inside, and her right hand held something warm. She squeezed lightly and the warm thing moved, causing her to jerk away.
“Winnie?” Joel? Was Joel here? She squeezed her right hand again and a hand squeezed back. Joel! Joel was holding her hand! “Winnie, can you open your eyes, sweetheart?”
No, opening my eyes would require too much effort. I’m just going to lie here and hold your hand. Okay?
“Winnie? Can you open your eyes?”
I just told you I didn’t want to open my eyes. Didn’t you hear me?
“Winnie, can you hear me?”
I just asked you that.
“Winnie, babe, open your eyes. I want to see your beautiful green eyes. Look at me, Edwina.”
“Green?” She whispered. “My eyes are hazel.”
“Your eyes are gold with green and brown speckles,” Joel said with a smile in his voice. “They’re captivating and mysterious and intriguing.”
“You flatter me, Mr. Anderson.” She still hadn’t opened her eyes, but her head turned in the direction where his voice originated.
“I’m in love with you, Mrs. Anderson. Now open your eyes and look at your husband.”
“Kinda bossy, aren’t you?” Winnie sighed and allowed her eyes to flutter open and Joel’s face came into view. “You look tired.”
“I am tired, baby. It’s late.” His five o’clock shadow looked more like a midnight shadow.
“What time is it?” Winnie asked.
“What day is it?”
“Still?” Winnie tried to wrap her brain around why he was here. “Itz beena long Monday.”
“Sure has.” Joel leaned forward and kissed the tip of Winnie’s nose. “Do you know where you are?”
“Smells like a hospital.”
“Do you know why you’re in the hospital?”
“What’s the last thing you remember?”
“Spinning.” Even that was foggy.
“You collapsed in ballet class,” Joel said. “They brought to the hospital because you wouldn’t wake up.”
“Thought I was better at spinning than that,” she said, suspecting they both knew there was more to the story but neither of them wanted to vocalize their suspicions.
Joel looked up as someone approached her bed. “Your brother, Marshall’s here with me.”
“Hey, l’ill sis.” Marshall carefully lifted Winnie’s left hand in his and she cringed because there was an IV tube sticking out of the back of her hand. “Sorry, does that hurt?”
Winnie gripped his hand, not wanting to let go even if it did hurt. “Yes but hold me anyway.”
A tear ran down Marshall’s cheek. “How are you feeling?”
“Tired,” Winnie said.
“Me too,” her brother said.
“You should sleep,” Winnie said. “You can move my costumes.”
“Huh?” Marshall raised his eyebrows.
“She uses our extra bedroom as a costume room. She’s always sewing things. You’ll probably get to sleep with some sequins, and you might find a pin that escaped the pin cushion.”
“I’m careful,” Winnie defended. “No pins escape my cushion.” She yawned.
“We’ll come back in the morning, okay babe?” Joel’s sultry voice pulled her attention away from her brother.
“Okay.” She smiled at her husband; thankful he was here in the city. Everything was better when he was here.
Joel leaned forward and kissed her lightly on her lips, stirring emotions she wouldn’t expect to feel when she felt this sick. He whispered, “I love you, Edwina.”
“I love you, Joel,” she whispered back.
“Goodnight, Sis,” her brother said.
“I love you, Marshall.” She gripped his hand one more time while he leaned over and kissed her forehead. “M’so glad y’er here.” Her eyelids were growing heavy, and she didn’t try to fight.
She felt her hands rest onto her bed and somehow knew her boys had slipped away. They would be back in the morning. She thought maybe she smiled as she drifted off, but she wasn’t sure.
“Your flight leaves at four thirty so you’ll need to hurry,” Warren said before Joel had even taken his suitcase out of the trunk of his Mustang. Both of Winnie’s brothers and her mother stood in the driveway along with her dad.
Without wasting pleasantries, Joel transferred the suitcase from his trunk to Warren’s. Another suitcase was already in the trunk and Joel’s heart sank. No doubt her mom wanted to come. Of course she did. Teri was probably distraught that her daughter was in the hospital. Still, Joel didn’t want her to come. Winnie needed to heal, not be encouraged in her quest to lose more weight. Joel took a deep breath and steeled himself to face her family.
Winnie’s older brother, Marshall stood beside the car and Joel tossed him the keys to his Mustang. Marshall looked down at the keys in confusion.
“Will you take care of my Mustang for me?” Joel asked, frustrated to leave his prized car behind. “Maybe you could drive her to New York for me in a few days and have an excuse to come see your sister.”
Marshall tossed the keys to his younger brother, Gage and smiled softly at Joel. “I’ll see my sister this evening at the hospital. I’m flying to the city with you.”
“You are?” Joel glanced at the suitcase in the trunk, thankful he’d been wrong about Teri. Without considering his actions before doing so, Joel pulled Marshall into his arms in an emotional hug, fighting tears. “Thank you, my brother.”
“Let’s not get all sappy, now,” Marshall said, patting Joel on the back. “She’s been my sister a lot longer than she’s been your wife.”
They pulled away from each other and Joel quickly went around to give hugs to Teri, Warren, and finally twenty-one-year-old Gage. With a playfully stern voice, he told his youngest brother-in-law, “No drinking and driving, and bring my baby to me in one piece.”
“You have my word,” Gage said, then pulled Joel in for another hug. “And please, take care of my sister.”
“I promise,” Joel said.
“Alright, boys, let’s go,” Warren said through husky emotions, striding over to the driver’s side of his Lincoln. “You have a flight to catch.”
Joel climbed into the front seat of the Lincoln, and Marshall sat behind him.
“Travel safely,” Teri called to them, waving with a smile on her face.
With a slack jaw, Joel waved lightly back. Travel safely? Was the woman heartless? They weren’t leaving on a vacation. They were hurrying to Winnie’s bedside, hoping she didn’t slip into a coma or cardiac arrest or something. Travel safely?
“My mom’s clueless,” Marshall said from the back seat, as if reading Joel’s mind.
“She means well, son.” Warren’s voice was still heavy with emotion as he chastised Marshall. “She’s from a different generation and social class.”
“She’s part of the problem,” Joel blurted out without thinking, turning to his father-in-law. “She’s constantly criticizing Winnie’s eating and encouraging her to be thin.”
“I know that,” Warren said. “I’ve tried to talk to her, but she’s stuck in her ways.”
“Well, she needs to get unstuck or stay away from my wife,” Joel grumbled.
They were mostly quiet during the half hour drive from Farmington Hills to the Detroit Metro airport. Joel and Marshall made their way through security and barely made their flight in time. They settled into their airplane seats and both sighed at the same time.
The flight would only take an hour and a half which didn’t provide enough time for a nap, so Joel didn’t know what to do with himself once they’d risen above the clouds and there was nothing else to see out the window.
“I did some research this afternoon,” Marshall said, breaking the uncomfortable silence. “I wanted to know what to say and not to say to someone who has an eating disorder.”
“What did you learn?” Joel asked, suddenly alert and attentive.
“Most important is that we don’t try to fix her,” Marshall said. “We should offer love and support, but only she can fix herself.”
“What if she doesn’t want to be fixed?” Joel voiced the concern he’d had for a while. “She doesn’t seem to think she has a problem.”
“Well, it’s not up to us to tell her she has a problem,” Marshall said.
“Waking up in the hospital might provide her with a clue.” Joel sighed.
“You need to be her husband, not her caregiver,” Marshall continued. “You’re her advocate, but ultimately the decisions are hers for now.”
“What do you mean ‘for now’?” Joel asked.
“There is such a thing as involuntary admission to a psych ward if a person is a danger to themselves or others.”
“She would hate us for admitting her without her consent.” Joel shook his head, hoping it didn’t come to that. “She’s stubborn and tends to get what she wants.”
“That’s another thing,” Marshall said. “A large part of an eating disorder is trying to feel in control. If people are trying to strip away even more of that control, she could push herself further into her illness. She won’t want to feel attacked or backed into a corner.”
“That makes sense, I guess.”
“A person with an eating disorder can become very sensitive and on edge and just the tone of your voice could set her off.”
“So, zero sarcasm, is that what you’re saying?” Joel asked.
“Exactly. You especially need to be her safe person. Let the medical professionals do the medical stuff. You need to help her transition back into regular life.”
“I’m afraid that’s not going to happen for a long time,” Joel said, suspecting this would be a marathon and not a sprint.
“Try really hard not to sound judgmental or show her that you’re uncomfortable with what she’s talking about that. She shouldn’t be made to feel guilty or ashamed in any way,” Marshall said. “Don’t push her but let her know you’re ready to listen as soon as she’s ready to talk. She may not want to talk at all, or she might want someone who will listen to her thoughts and feelings. Allow her to get some things off her chest and put aside the secrecy.”
“Good thing I got some practice being sappy earlier when I gave you a hug,” he joked, feeling helpless. “What am I allowed to do?”
“Let her know you’re there for her and that you have her back. Offer support and love but not a bandage. And remember that you’re her advocate. There may come a time when you have to make the call.”
“What do you mean by that?” Joel’s heart plummeted but he wasn’t sure if the reason was because of turbulence or foreboding.
“You may have to intervene and physically take her to be admitted,” Marshall said.
As Joel mulled that around in his head, he decided that the reason for his discomfort had nothing to do with turbulence. As the plane descended toward LaGuardia International Airport Joel grew more and more anxious to get to Winnie’s side. He shuffled in the aisle of the cabin wishing he could push the other passengers out of the way.
“Calm down, buddy,” Marshall said. “We’re almost there.”
They hurried through the airport, waited an insufferable amount of time at the baggage claim and then hailed a taxi. Rush hour traffic caused the taxi ride to the hospital seem never-ending, then they hurried to the information desk to locate her room number, and hopped on the elevator dragging their suitcases with them.
What Joel saw in that big hospital bed was a skeleton with skin. He whispered, “Edwina,” in a pained voice and left his suitcase by the door, hurrying over to take her hand in his. “Sweetheart, I’m here. I love you. Please come back to me.”
“Sir, you can’t be in here,” a nurse said from the doorway before pushing past Marshall, who still stood with his jaw gaping.
“I’m Edwina’s husband,” Joel told her. “Has she awakened yet?”
“No, not yet.” The woman pursed her lips with disapproval at the men who had barged into her patient’s hospital room. She held Winnie’s wrist between her fingers to test her pulse, turned on the mechanical blood pressure cuff, and glanced at the bag of fluid hanging on a pole with wheels. “She comes in and out of consciousness but makes little sense when she mumbles. Maybe you can get her to wake up. She’ll recognize your voice.”
“Winnie?” Joel leaned close to his wife, so his mouth was near to her ear. “Can you wake up, my love? Will you come back to me? I’m here now.”
The speed of her breath increased and the muscles in her face twitched. She seemed to be trying to open her eyes.
“Winnie, it’s Joel,” he said. “I’m here. Can you wake up?”
She moaned quietly and mumbled something that sounded like, “Izit Wenzday already?”
“No, sweetheart. It’s still Monday.” Joel chuckled. “I flew here as soon as I heard you were in the hospital.”
“You have fast wings,” she said with a soft smile. She still hadn’t opened her eyes.
“Only when I’m flying to come to you.” Joel kissed her lips lightly.
“Y'ull miss class,” she slurred.
“I’m not leaving your side, my love.”
“Mmm… kay.” Her breathing evened out and she fell asleep with a smile on her lips.
Joel glanced at his vibrating phone, knowing that answering a call in the middle of Dr. Nehan’s immunology lecture was beyond rude. He was so startled by the caller ID that he read the words out loud as he rose from his chair, “Mount Sinai Hospital.”
His professor stopped mid-sentence and all eyes turned to Joel as he started side stepping down the row of desks toward the door of the small lecture hall. A foreboding sensation entered his heart, and he knew instinctively that something must have happened to Winnie.
“Hello, this is Joel Anderson,” Joel said breathlessly into the receiver, bypassing the need for them to ask to speak with him. “Is my wife okay?” Joel hadn’t even made it to the door of the lecture hall yet.
“She’s stable.” Thank goodness for the intelligence of an emergency room doctor to give Joel the most important bit of news first. “I’m Dr. Sunil. Your wife, Edwina was brought in by ambulance after collapsing during a dancing class. She is very weak and in and out of consciousness. We’re admitting her immediately to transfer her to a more specialized medical ward.”
“Medical ward?” Joel turned back toward his lecture hall full of classmates and spoke directly to the guy who’d been sitting to his left. “Grab my bag and laptop for me. I’m flying to New York City. My wife’s in the hospital.”
There were a few gasps and whispers of, “I hope she’s okay,” and “Safe travels,” and “I’ll pray for her.” Joel thanked them and turned his attention back to the emergency room doctor. Not a full minute had passed since the phone had begun ringing.
“For now she’ll be moved up to the medical ward, but in the next few days we’ll want her admitted to the psychiatric ward.”
“Why the psychiatric ward?” Joel asked. “She’s not insane… is she?”
“Mr. Anderson, are you aware your wife has an eating disorder?” the doctor asked.
“Yes…” Joel gulped, guilt washing over him because he was in Michigan at all. He picked up his pace down the hall, wishing he could run to his car, pack a few things and get to the airport. He should have left three weeks ago when he realized she was sick. He was still in denial about how sick she was.
He glanced at the closed doors of the lecture halls as he passed, knowing he wouldn’t be coming back. At least not for a long time. He wondered if they’d hold his spot in the program but realized he didn’t care anymore. Medical school could wait. He didn’t need to be a doctor for the trial he was about to face; he needed to be a husband.
“I knew she’d gotten really thin and that she needs to get some treatment, but I thought she could wait until after the season was over and then take some time off work.”
“She won’t be leaving the hospital for several days, possibly even weeks,” the doctor said.
“Weeks?” Tears sprang to Joel’s eyes and his voice cracked.
“Edwina has anorexia nervosa. She’s dangerously thin, severely dehydrated, malnourished, her blood sugar is too low, her heart rate is too low, and she’s not aware of her surroundings.”
Joel crouched to the ground and pulled his hair with the hand that wasn’t holding his phone. Tears flowed unabashedly down his face and sobs wracked his body. Someone’s arms wrapped around him. One of his fellow medical school students, probably. Someone who cared about him enough to hold him at a time when he was too weak to hold himself together. He knew he needed to be strong for Winnie, but he needed just a minute to break down and digest the information he’d just been handed.
“Eating disorders are a psychiatric condition as much as a medical condition. They’ll get her stabilized up on the medical ward and then have the psych consult there before taking her upstairs.”
“I thought you said she’s stable now.”
“There are varying degrees of stability, Mr. Anderson.” The doctor sighed as if frustrated talking to an ignorant child. “She’s not in cardiac arrest, but her condition is life threatening.”
“Life threatening?” She wasn’t that thin, was she? Joel hadn’t seen her in three weeks. Apparently, she’d gone further downhill than when he was in the city for her performance. He needed to hurry. Standing suddenly, Joel shook off the comforting arms and wiped his eyes. He turned to nod a quick smile of thanks to the man who had provided support. Joel didn’t even know the guy’s name, nor did he take the time to ask, just hurried down the hall. The only reason he hadn’t taken off at a full run was so he could hold a conversation with the doctor.
“Mr. Anderson, you’re the only person listed as next-of-kin, and the only person I’m authorized to speak to, so if any of her family or friends wants additional information, they’ll need to come through you.”
“I’ll call her mom and dad,” Joel said. “And I’ll be on the next airplane from Detroit. If she wakes up, please tell her I’m on my way and that I love her.”
“Travel safely, Mr. Anderson.”
“Thank you, Dr. Sunil. I’ll be there and soon as I can. Thank you for taking care of my wife.” Joel couldn’t have said another word if he needed to because his voice choked with tears. As soon as he disconnected with the doctor, Joel dialed his father-in-law. “Mr. LaFleur, I need a ride to the airport and I’m leaving my car at your house. Winnie’s in the hospital and I’m flying to New York indefinitely.”
“What’s wrong with our daughter?” Warren asked. “Hang on, I’m putting you on speakerphone. Teri, come here. Joel’s on the phone. Winnie’s in the hospital.”
“Oh my gosh, what’s wrong with my little girl?” Teri cried out.
Joel was glad Warren had thought to bring his wife into the conversation so he didn’t have to repeat himself. “She collapsed during ballet class.”
“Has she been drinking enough water?” Teri asked, her tone more dismissive than Joel would have expected. “She always gets lightheaded when she forgets to drink enough water.”
“Mrs. LaFleur, Winnie has an eating disorder. She’s anorexic, dehydrated, malnourished, and her condition is life threatening.”
“I’m sure she’ll feel better when she gets some fluids in her. Are they giving her Gatorade or something? She needs some Gatorade.”
“Gatorade?” Joel stopped short. “I’m sure they have an IV in her arm. She’s not conscious, Mom. She won’t wake up. She’s very sick. Very sick.” Joel realized for the first time that he was in denial how much Winnie’s mother was part of the problem.
“Are they going to keep her in the hospital overnight?” Teri asked.
“The doctor said she’ll probably be in the hospital for several weeks.”
“Several weeks? Why?”
Joel was done dealing with his mother-in-law and spoke directly to her husband. “Warren, I’m heading over to my apartment to pack a few things and then driving to your house. Could you get online and find me a flight from Detroit to NYC this afternoon?”
“Of course,” Warren said. “Drive safely, son.”
“Thanks, Dad, I will.” Joel hung up and took off at a full run.
Winnie raced down the last few steps knowing she would be late again if she didn’t hurry. She bumped into the wall at the bottom of the stairs as she tried to take the corner too quickly, ignoring the way the movement gave her vertigo. She dropped her bag in the corner of the practice room and hurried to the bar.
The company had already begun warmups and Winnie received a pointed look from across the room from Madame Audrey. Winnie already felt like she was under a microscope and fought a yawn, not wanting anyone to know how tired she was. She’d only been with the company a few months and wasn’t sure how long she’d feel like the new kid. She had to be perfect for now.
She and Joel had been on the phone late into the night planning for Thanksgiving break. Having performances with Nutcracker and Swan Lake gave Winnie the excuse to stay in New York City over Joel’s holiday so he was flying here. As an added bonus, Winnie had an excuse to miss Thanksgiving at her mother’s house for the first time since she was born. That made her smile as she bent her legs in grand plié.
Down, and up, and down, and up, and relevé, and return to demi plié. Winnie could do warmups in her sleep and got lost in the stretching and bending and reaching, warming her body from the chill outside the studio.
Her body craved the soup she’d planned for lunch and she fought against her hunger, knowing the sooner she warmed her body, the sooner the soup would seem less desirable. She wouldn’t need to drink something warm because she’d already be warm. She would though. She would force herself to drink the warm, vegetable soup with savory broth. Her stomach growled but she ignored it. Not time for lunch yet.
In the back of her mind, Winnie could hear her former ballet mistress, Madame Jocie asking her every day, “When was the last time you ate?” No one asked her that anymore. In the company, she was responsible for her own health. She had control now. As long as she showed up on time, put in the work, and performed at her best, no one paid any attention. Not that they didn’t care. They did. They just didn’t know. She wasn’t going to tell them.
After forty-five minutes at the barre, the members of the company split up into various practice rooms to begin rehearsals. Winnie would practice for three ballets that day in addition to a performance that evening, a total of about eight hours of dance. She had to reserve her energy in order to peak at nine-thirty that evening. Her performance had to end even stronger than it began, or she wasn’t satisfied.
Winnie was one of six understudies for the part of Sugar Plum Fairy but unless five other girls, all of whom had been in the company a year longer than she had, all suddenly couldn’t dance for whatever reason, she would be dancing the part of one of the Spanish dancers or Flowers. She needed to be ready at a moment’s notice to step into whichever part she was needed.
At University of Michigan, she’s been the elite dancer, at her performing arts high school she’d been the best of the best, but in her first year at the Ajkun Ballet Theatre company, she was lowest on the totem pole. That was okay. Everyone had to start somewhere. She was honored to have this opportunity.
Throughout the morning she threw herself further and further into her head, focusing on feeling the dance rather than remembering the steps. She knew the steps. She’d studied them all her life.
If the ballet masters or mistresses told her to perform a fouetté rond de jambe en tournant, she could extend her working leg to the front, whip it around into a spin, retract the toe to the knee of the supporting leg and complete the turn before they told her how many rotations.
Unfortunately, the number of rotations that morning was infinite, or so it seemed to Winnie’s increasingly fatigued body. She didn’t want to admit weakness and request an early lunch, so she kept spinning. They would make some correction. One of the dancers in the front row was out of time and they’d start the whole sequence over. Someone else had their arms in the wrong position, someone else had the wrong facial expression, someone else started too slow, someone else started too fast, someone else didn’t spot in time with everyone else, someone else… someone else… someone…
Someone said her name softly amidst beeping and darkness and haze and she tried to force her eyes open because she recognized that voice except Joel wasn’t scheduled to fly to New York until Wednesday afternoon and it was only Monday. She let the darkness pull her under again. The world was more peaceful in the darkness.
Joel lay in bed watching Winnie sleep, saddened and frustrated about her appearance. Yes, she was as beautiful as ever, elegant even. But how had she done this to herself. Why had she done this to herself? What was wrong with the culture of the theatre that made women think they needed to be thin in order to be beautiful?
He loved her curves. There weren’t many curves left.
The blanket draped over her naked form wasn’t fully covering her and Joel lifted the blanket just little more and took a moment to examine her in the moonlight. Her breasts were smaller, her ribs were more visible, as were her hips. She was starving herself. Tears sprung to his eyes.
For the first time Joel allowed himself to admit what he’d probably known all along. He almost said the words out loud as he thought them in his head. My wife has anorexia nervosa. My wife has an eating disorder. My wife needs to get treatment. Immediately.
He was in medical school. He should have identified this a long time ago. If only he’d allowed himself to admit the signs that had been there all along. He blamed himself. If he’d followed his gut instinct months ago, she could have been in treatment all this time. She could have been getting healthier instead of wasting away like a skeleton.
How was he supposed to leave her on Sunday evening? How was he supposed to go back to college and pretend he didn’t know what he knew? How was he supposed to abandon his wife? He had made a vow to care for her in sickness and in health.
He was failing as a husband. He’d brushed off his responsibilities, justifying that he’d already proven his ability to care for her in sickness and wanted all the spoils of her health. He needed to take a step back and realize his vows were about to be tested again.
Joel took another silent vow that he would find a way to help his wife. She deserved his commitment. She deserved his willingness to set aside his own needs, set aside his own education and career if that’s what it would take.
He would set aside his life to save hers.
Book Club Discussion: What would you do to save the love of your life?
“What is your problem?” Winnie tossed her keys in a little dish just inside the door of their apartment.
She’d been here alone for two months and realized the place was a mess. Here she was bringing her husband home to New York City after he’d been stuck at medical school in Ann Arbor for the past eight weeks and she hadn’t cleaned. There were sewing supplies on the table from when she’d been sewing ribbons onto her new toe shoes and fixing the hem of one of her costumes. None of his favorite food was in the cupboards and she’d thrown away any meat that had been contaminating the refrigerator.
“You were scowling the whole time we were having dinner with my family.”
“Did we have dinner with your family?” Joel asked with sarcasm, slipping off his dress shoes near the door and hanging up his sport coat in the hall closet. “Because you barely touched the bowl of soup you had in front of you.”
“I was too nervous to eat.” She lifted her chin in the air, frustrated that he’d somehow forgotten her aversion to eating in public.
“Winnie, you’ve lost too much weight.” Joel sounded like he was going to cry. “You don’t look healthy.”
“If I weren’t healthy, I wouldn’t have had the stamina to dance nonstop for two hours this evening.” She pushed past him and headed for the bathroom where she washed the makeup off her face and pulled her bun down from her hair, shaking her once thick curls down over her shoulders. Years of pulling her hair into a bun had weakened the brittle stands but she still looked beautiful. She still was beautiful, more so now that she was finally almost thin enough to fit in with the other professional dancers.
She turned to where her husband was leaning against the door frame of the open bathroom door. “And just to prove my level of stamina, I plan to spend the rest of the night showing you just how much energy I have left.”
“I’m afraid if I make love to you, I’ll break your little body,” Joel said with concern and darkness in his tone.
“You’re not getting out of it that easy.” Winnie practically shoved him out the door and redirected his path toward the bedroom. “I have been missing you to the point of frustration and you are going to make love to me whether you want to or not.”
“Trust me, I want to.” He chuckled softly. “I’m just… nervous.”
“I’m fine, Joel. I’m better than fine.” She stood in front of her husband and started unhooking the buttons on the front of his white dress shirt, seriously considering ripping them off to gain easier access to his incredible body. Finally, when she had them all undone and could touch the skin of his defined chest muscles, he responded with a soft moan. Still, he didn’t reach to remove her clothes and she whispered with desperation, “Joel, please make love to me.”
That woke him out of his stupor, and he gently pushed her back toward their bed. She climbed up, shoving pillows and blankets out of the way and pulled him down on top of her. Finally, his hormones overpowered his rational thinking and instinct took over.
Winnie couldn’t fathom how they’d allowed themselves to be away from each other this long and couldn’t imagine letting him get back on an airplane Sunday evening. The three weeks between now and Thanksgiving were an eternity and then two more weeks of torture until he’d be with her for all of Christmas break. Her prize would be nineteen days of bliss over the holidays where she didn’t intend to let him out of her sight.
Gone was the pain and difficulty from their honeymoon. Their bodies knew how to love one another’s, and they did. With abandon. With passion. And finally with tears.
The same tears that racked Winnie’s body with sobs after a particularly exquisite dance performance flowed through her body now and Joel’s tears mixed with hers as they clung to one another.
They’d experienced this several times over the course of their marriage when the passion of their lovemaking had led to mutual sobbing, pouring out their hearts to one another without words, just holding each other and never letting go.
She held him for countless minutes afterward and never wanted to let him go.
“I still don’t understand why we can’t stay at your apartment?” Teri LaFleur wasn’t taking a hint and Joel decided he was going to need to be more direct. “We’re hardly going to see our daughter the whole weekend other than while she’s on stage. There’s no reason for a hotel when you have an extra bedroom at your apartment.”
“Winnie and I have been apart for eight weeks.” Joel wasn’t sure how her mom wasn’t taking a hint. “We aren’t going to want anyone with us at our apartment tonight or tomorrow night. And be surprised if you see us for brunch tomorrow morning.”
“Please, it’s not like you’re still on your honeymoon.” Teri rolled her eyes and kept shuffling down the row of seats. Joel was starting to regret inviting Winnie’s family to New York City to see her first official performance as a professional dancer. The theatre was getting crowded, and Joel was losing his patience.
“Teri, leave it alone,” Winnie’s father, Warren, grumbled to his wife. “We’re staying at a hotel.”
“Trust me, we don’t want to be around them tonight.” Marshall, Winnie’s oldest brother reached over and offered Joel a fist bump and an eye roll. They’d come a long way in a year. Last Thanksgiving, Marshall had tackled Joel in a fierce battle over his little sister’s virtue. Amazing what a wedding ring and a mutual understanding can do for a relationship. Now, in early November of the following year, he had a kindred brother-in-law who had his back.
“Thank you,” Joel said, glancing down at his ticket. “I think we passed our seats. They’re right here.”
“Were these the best seats we could get?” Teri asked, turning around and getting settled. “They’re practically nose bleeders.”
“Mom, they’re the first balcony, front and center,” Gage said, looking down at the elegant velvet seats lining the floor of the theater below. “That’s hardly nose bleeders.” As the younger brother, Gage was barely out of his teens.
“She said all the costumes are identical and we probably won’t be able to tell which swan is which,” Joel said.
“We can play ‘Where’s Waldo’ Swan Lake style,” Gage suggested. “We’ll call the game Where’s Winnie?”
“The first person to identify the correct swan gets a free drink on me,” Joel said. “As long as you point her out, because I am dying to see my wife. Just being this close to her gives me a… uh… feeling of excitement.”
“You do realize you’re sitting two seats away from her father, right?” Warren glared at Joel.
“And in between her brothers,” Marshall said through gritted teeth.
“All of whom empathize with my frustration.” Joel leaned forward and put his knees on his elbows trying to hold in a snicker.
“You’re lucky none of us threw you over the balcony,” Marshall said, failing to hold in his own laughter.
“I don’t understand,” Teri said with a blank stare. “What are you upset about?”
“Never mind, Mom. It’s a guy thing.” Gage reached over and patted his mother on the shoulder.
“Oh look! The lights are dimming!” Teri bounced with excitement and turned to face the front of the stage.
Joel’s frustration increased when the first half dozen dancers were all guys, and they took way too long making way for the women to finally dance their way onto the stage. Winnie had been correct. All the costumes were nearly identical.
“There she is,” Joel whispered. Maybe because her skin was a lovely olive tone just a shade darker than the other pasty, white dancers. Maybe because he’d memorized every curve of her body in the months since they’d gotten married. Maybe he was a moth and she was the only flame in the world. There was almost a spotlight shining over her. She was there, dancing for him. As if he was the only person in the audience.
“Which one?” Gage asked. “I can’t tell the difference.”
“That’s because she’s not dancing for you.” Joel wasn’t sure if his words were loud enough to answer his brother-in-law or, like this dance, his words were meant for him alone. “I’ve never seen anything more beautiful in my life.”
Two hours passed as if mere seconds and then the curtains fell, and the audience rose from their hypnotized state. Joel could barely move until suddenly he realized the quicker he left the balcony, the quicker he’d see his wife up close. Then he couldn’t leave the balcony quickly enough and nearly plowed over his family and fellow patrons of the theatre.
What felt like hours passed before dancers began emerging from backstage to greet friends and family in the lobby. The principles and leads appeared first, which caused a bottleneck of well-wishers.
Lesser cast members pushed their way through the throngs until suddenly there she was, twenty feet away, still dressed in full costume and makeup.
Winnie must have seen Joel almost the same time he saw her because her shoulders fell, and her expression changed as soon as she met his eyes from across the lobby.
“There’s my girl,” Teri called out with excitement, hurrying forward. Joel wanted to shove his way past his mother-in-law and tell her to take a hike back to Michigan so he could take his wife home to the apartment he hadn’t seen in eight weeks.
Winnie graciously hugged her mom and accepted the bouquet of flowers her mom handed her, all the while gazing at Joel over her mom’s shoulder. Joel crept forward as if in a daze.
When he was within a few feet of her he held out a single burgundy rose so dark it was nearly black. Joel knew Winnie would understand. Burgundy roses signified deep passion of the strongest kind. Combined with the black ribbon he’d tied around the stem of the rose, this gift represented the passionate black swan with whom he intended to share a night alone.
Winnie’s eyes smoldered and barely left his to take the rose from his hand. She shoved the bouquet of flowers gently back to her mom and draped her arms around Joel’s neck. He picked her right off the ground and she wrapped her legs around his waist and clung to him like a monkey. He wanted to rip off the stiff tutu that encircled her waist, hindering his ability to feel every inch of her body. Their mouths connected in a kiss almost too passionate for the lobby of a ballet theatre.
Someone whistled, probably her younger brother, Gage. Someone else pulled at his arm, trying to get his attention, probably her mother. Someone cleared their throat with impatience, probably her father. Finally, her brother, Marshall said, “The sooner you let us say hello to our sister, the sooner you can say goodnight to her family.”
That got Joel’s attention and he pulled away, setting Winnie back on her feet. It was only then that he realized what was wrong. The words slipped out as if on the own volition. “You’re so thin.”
“Thank you.” Winnie beamed with pride and Joel didn’t have the heart to tell her that he hadn’t meant that as a compliment.
“You look beautiful, darling,” Teri said. “My goodness. Look at that figure.”
Joel was looking all right. He was looking at a skeleton of the woman he married. Her muscles were still toned and defined but there wasn’t much else on her bones.
Winnie spun around as if to show off her new body and Joel took a step back in shock. He saw the same shock in the eyes of her brothers. She’d lost too much weight for eight weeks. She wasn’t healthy.
His physical desires for his wife were placed on hold while he gaped at her receiving affection and praise from her parents.
“Is she okay?” Gage asked Joel quietly.
“I don’t know,” Joel answered. “I sure hope so.”
“I got a job!” Winnie burst in the door of their apartment to find Joel leaning over the dining room table which was spread with colorful anatomical drawings.
He’d been pouring over study materials for weeks memorizing things he knew he’d need once med school officially started in the fall. His dedication and preparation were inspiring, but Winnie needed to interject herself into his evening. This was too exciting.
“Remember the Ajkun Ballet Theatre that I auditioned for three weeks ago?” Winnie asked.
“Uh…” He lifted his shoulders and creased it brow. “The one you really liked?”
“Never mind, you don’t have to remember all of them.” Winnie waved her hand dismissively. She hurried across the room and threw herself into his arms. “I’ve been training with them for weeks and they invited me to join their company!”
“That’s amazing, Edwina. I’m so proud of you.” He wrapped her in a bear hug. “What part will you have? Will you have a lead?”
“No, no, it’s not like that. The company does lots of performances throughout the years. We’ll be constantly preparing dozens of shows. I have to be ready at a moment’s notice to be a lead or a supporting part. The more ballets I know how to dance, the more useful I’ll be to the company.”
“I’m sure you’ll do a great job.” He seemed at a loss for what else to say.
“What’chu working on?” Winnie had to understand basic anatomy and physiology in order to be a dancer and a strong athlete. But most of what she had studied was macro level. Muscles, bones, tendons, ligaments. She had no interest in veins and arteries or the inner workings of the brain, stomach, liver, and heart.
“The first exam for my kinesiology class is tomorrow and I’m studying the neurobiological effects of physical exercise on adaptive plasticity and how it relates to enhanced cognitive function in older adults. I think this could really help me apply the techniques to healing sports injuries.”
“Umm… when did you start taking a class in kinesiology?” Winnie picked up one of the colorful anatomic drawings.
“Couple weeks ago.” Joel took a step back and tucked his hands in the pockets of his jeans. “Probably about the same time you auditioned for the Ajkun Ballet Theatre.”
“I’ve been pretty absent the past month, haven’t I?” Winnie felt bad that she’d been neglecting her husband.
“That’s why we came here, right?” He leaned against the kitchen table. “I’ve been trying to stay out of your way so that you can do whatever it is you would have done this summer if you’d never met me.”
“Honey, you didn’t have to do that. You could have come with me.”
“To a dance studio?” He scoffed. “Thanks, but I’m happy with my study of neuroplasticity. Like you mentioned a few months ago, med school’s gonna be intense and you’d be bored staying at college with me.”
“I don’t want to be apart from you though.” Winnie’s heart plummeted into her stomach, realizing what today meant. She was now a professional dancer. And Joel was starting into medical school. He would be leaving for Ann Arbor in a few weeks.
“I’ll fly over here every time I have a long weekend or something. And Thanksgiving. And all of Christmas break. We’re both going to be so busy.”
Winnie couldn’t tell if Joel was trying to convince her, or himself. Maybe both. He opened his arms and she tucked herself up close to him, the excitement of the day muted by reality.
“I am so proud of you, Winnie,” Joel whispered into her hair. “You are achieving your dreams. Nothing is holding you back. No one is holding you back.”
She pulled away and looked up at him. “I’ve never thought of you as holding me back.”
“I hope you never do. I hope we’re able to support one another.” He reached up and smoothed the hairs that had come loose from her bun. “In sickness and in health, right?”
“You’ve already proven that.” She leaned forward into another hug.
“Shall we do something fun tonight to celebrate?” Joel asked.
“Don’t you have a test to study for?”
“I can be done for the night.”
“How about we go over to Juice Press, get some smoothies and take a walk in Central Park?” Since Winnie was the one celebrating, she figured he wouldn’t mind going to her favorite vegan restaurant.
“That sounds like the perfect date.” He leaned down and kissed the tip of her nose. “And while we’re walking you can tell me all about your new job.”
“And you can tell me everything you learned this afternoon in preparation for your quiz tomorrow,” she said with a teasing lilt to her voice.
“I’m liking this date more and more,” Joel said, grabbing his wallet. “Let’s have a great summer and let the fall wait until autumn.”
“And let autumn give way to winter,” Winnie said, sashaying toward the door to leave their apartment.
“When I will watch you dance in Swan Lake.”
“And I will wear the black swan costume,” Winnie said in a seductive voice.
“Okay, let’s take a quick walk in the park and come back here for the rest of the night so we can talk more about that black swan costume.”
“I’ll be the black swan if you’ll be the prince.” They held hands as they walked down the hall to the elevator.
“Let’s just bring the smoothies back to our apartment and skip the park…”