A slightly different version of this story appears in issue 5 of Medium Chill. Buy it here.
Before everything became so horrible, before the things that happened happened, there was a time when it was all actually pretty funny. Obviously, I’m not trying to make light of tragedy or the embarrassing international incident it became, but it was comical at first. At least in our little social circle of expat international school kids, it was.
I mean, it was Trisha. Trisha had been eccentric anyway as long as we’d all known her, since her family had moved here from Canada, so her evolving dietary preferences, as extreme as they were, were fully in character. Plus, a lot of other people had begun behaving like religious ascetics at the time and giving up certain foods and going on these bizarre cleanses and detoxes, so Trisha didn’t seem aberrant at first. Even if we did think it was all silly and delusional, it wasn’t hurting anybody yet.
I remember she was always thin. Not yet gaunt but at least slender. I don’t exactly remember what her diet was like to begin with because I was aloof by nature and generally oblivious to the habits of other people, but I do remember her giving up meat at some point and then dairy and gluten and then a lot of other things I’d never heard of. And then just sort of wasting away. Maybe it was just red meat at first followed by poultry, fish, eggs, etc. I guess it doesn’t matter other than to explain that it was a gradual process from a probably-normal, balanced diet to…well, everyone knows by now how it ended up.
Trisha stopped talking to me over a comedic performance I wrote and staged for our grade 12 theater class. She interpreted it as a personal attack on her beliefs and practices, but I was really just having some fun with the irrationality I was seeing all around me, especially among the foreign kids living abroad for the first time. Not just dietary practices but increasingly outlandish conspiratorial beliefs. But that was the last time Trisha and I talked, so everything that happened afterwards I just sort of observed from the periphery and heard about from friends we had in common. I realize this sounds like I’m letting myself off the hook, but I’m not sure what I could have been expected to do.
The piece I wrote was about a vampire who could only feed on hemophiliacs because of a self-diagnosed intolerance to the clotting factor in human blood. The humor of it came from how personally slighted he felt by his vampire peers for not providing him with fresh hemophiliacs to feed on when they invited him over to spooky vampire castle get-togethers. And how the other vampires had all grown tired of him going on all the time in graphic detail about his probably made-up condition and all the digestive distress it supposedly caused him. In one scene, the vampire ranted and raved about nausea and diarrhea and how he now had nothing to feed on while the rest of the vampires enjoyed themselves on the assorted naked humans strung up and dripping blood down the stone castle walls, and everyone sort of rolled their eyes and exchanged knowing glances. This guy? Again?
OK, yes, I was making fun of Trisha and her weird swearing-off-of-foods thing. I’ll admit that. I imagined I was being opaque and played it totally indignant when she confronted me, but I figured if you’re going to jump on some dubious health-myth bandwagon, you should at least have a sense of humor about it. So, although I was persona non grata to her after that, I still remember her getting thinner and looking sunken-in when I saw her in the hallways, where she made a point of snubbing me every day as we passed between classes.
Of course, I started hearing the rumors, but I didn’t take them too seriously. I mean, how could you? If she had sworn off eating animal products, then it was unthinkable. I mean, meat is meat, right? It also didn’t make sense that anyone would do that. I remember reading something once about Victorian women who swallowed tapeworms to keep themselves thin. I’ve heard about people who abused laxatives or consumed vinegar or even small doses of poison for weight loss and general nutritional health. But even these stories, as apocryphal as many of them almost certainly are, are less outlandish than the rumors about Trisha.
I remember that she had followers, a group of five or six equally frail young girls—some local and some expat—who appeared all at once and then, over a few months, dwindled away one by one. The girls wore baggy clothes and flowing skirts so you couldn’t really see what was going on underneath, but they limped and winced as they moved awkwardly through the hallways and then were eventually gone.
I still don’t get the mechanics of all of it, like whether or not it was strictly self-inflicted or something they did to each other. Or together as a group. Even the rumors were unclear about this, and the official postmortem investigation hasn’t shed much light on this particular detail either. Of course, no one wonders anymore what happened to the unaffiliated victims, longtime friends and classmates of mine as well as local shopkeepers and even host-country school cleaning staff who’d gone missing in those final months.
There was another girl I knew around the same time who used to slash herself with a razor blade and then hide the damage under shirtsleeves and long pants. I remember when she finally took her clothes off in front of me in her bedroom after school one day before her parents got home that I saw the network of white intertwined scars and fresh reddened scrapes all over her stomach and breasts and down along her arms and legs. I remember the shock of that as I sat there naked and erect on her bed waiting nervously for her to reveal herself to me. And the revulsion I now wish I’d hidden better.
Once everything more or less came to light, there was a lot of accusation and remonstration. Teachers and administrators lectured us about personal ethics and community responsibility. Diplomatic parents got out of the country quickly and everyone basically kept their heads down. As for us, we obsessed over the signs we’d all missed and the times we were too complacent to question what was becoming increasingly troubling. I wonder how many lives we might have saved if we’d just stopped minding our own business and started meddling instead.
Truthfully, I know why we didn’t. It’s because everyone has something to hide, some hideous scars underneath their shirtsleeves or some ritual or behavior we know would make everyone else flee in mortal terror if it were revealed. We know this and we tacitly accept it as a pact never to be broken.