She chose a physics major for fun, studied religiously between big party blow outs and a million dates with a million boyfriends, one in a wheelchair.
At night she’d get plastered with her fellow-physicists in the old Washburn Observatory under the star cover she could identify name by name, blindfolded, because she knew their formations like the back of her hand.
By age ten she’d mastered German all by herself, just so she could sneeze out funny phrases for comic relief and end up a language minor, along with Spanish, to the tune of a 4.0.
At fifteen she modeled on demand and toiled years for minimum wage at the West Towne record store, with a sharpened yellow pencil wedged behind her ear in case a lull afforded her homework time.
But sales were always brisk when she worked, so she scraped and bowed for horny customers who hit on her so hard she’d have to shoot them with her finger when they shuffled out the door, their hairy arms burdened with albums they had to buy to show her their cash. The walking wounded, rejected, shot again, staggering out with myriad additions to their burgeoning music collections.
The night before I left we ate on State Street. Lots of red wine, a little pasta, and non-stop laughter. She turned heads like falling dominoes.
We ended up writing almost every day for two years, to the point where my mailbox became the center of the universe. Finally, it drove me crazy enough to tell her I’d be back in August, just two months away.
And then she mentioned her sixteen-year-old sister who suffered in Memorial Hospital, the anorexia ward. In and out for over a year, they force-fed her, gave her therapy that would make her more comfortable with food in her stomach. She’d lost fifty pounds. Skin and bone.
At home, an outpatient, she haunted the bathrooms after every meal, filled them all with a permanent smell and gray-green mold that thrived on the white porcelain. The entire worried family would watch her walk away from the table, hear her vomit repeatedly, purge herself of everything she’d swallowed to try to please them.
That August back in Madison it was impossible to see her. She was always out. So I went to the pretty gingerbread house beyond Vilas, knocked, and her sister, healthy, beautiful, opened the door.
I walked in surprised she’d recovered so well, sat and chatted with her mother, who kept looking past me while her sister ran upstairs to tell her I was there.
I finally saw her.
She walked down slowly, clutched the railing with her bony hand to support herself. She tried to smile with her drawn face, her dark, sunken eyes that she’d made up heavily for my special benefit.
“Here I am, you see. It hasn’t been overwhelming.”
“Then it hasn’t been love,” said May Bartram.
THE BEAST IN THE JUNGLE