Laura Matlaw joined our sixth-grade class at the school I went to in New York City. She had thick brown hair, the thickest and straightest hair I’d ever seen, and she was of medium height for a sixth-grader, and medium build. That changed, as you will discover, but this was her condition when she arrived. What was most notable about her at first was that she was from Hawaii. She was a pale girl, neither ethnically Hawaiian nor a sun-worshipper. It surprised us, too, that she had never learned to surf.
Laura loved Simon and Garfunkel. On weekends we walked around the city singing Homeward Bound and other S and G favorites, harmonizing in front of the Alice in Wonderland statue in Central Park, or outside the Plaza Hotel which was Laura’s favorite place to go. Often we hung around the Plaza, waiting to see famous people arrive by limousine, and just as often we were disappointed by the poor showing. But at least once our patience paid off, when Charlie Chaplin, white-haired yet still balletic, stepped out of a black car and made his way up the steps to the hotel’s front door. He wore an old raincoat, much like my father’s, and the grace was unmistakably still with him.
Yes, we were best friends, Laura and I. I don’t remember how it happened but it happened quickly and naturally. She was a funny person. Most of my friends were funny, but she brought out the humor in others. And the wickedness. It seemed just right to spend an hour on a Saturday afternoon shoplifting from a store on Lexington Avenue called Paper East. We took pencil sharpeners and little notepads—things you could stick in your pocket—and left with a wave to the unsuspecting ladies behind the counter. “Thanks,” we said as we waltzed out the door, then doubled over with laughter out on the sidewalk.
My mother always thought Laura was a bad influence, and she was right, but I wanted a bad influence that year. I needed a little excitement in my life. Laura Matlaw, my mother always called her, as if her full name gave her more of an outlaw air. “That Laura Matlaw,” she would say. “Laura Matlaw made you stop eating. Laura Matlaw made you anorexic.” Everything but Laura Matlaw made you a thief.
Laura Matlaw looked like a walking skeleton by the time seventh grade began. She was a frightening presence with sunken eyes and band-aids on her knees. The malnutrition did something to her balance and depth perception so she stumbled and fell a lot, and every fall bloodied her knees. Her hair thinned and took on the texture of straw. Her lips were so dry they cracked every time she smiled. She stopped smiling. And singing. And shoplifting. I was still in her thrall at this time, and at school I began to skip lunch and instead headed to the gym to practice my foul shots. When my mother noticed my new aversion to food, or at least to eating, she sat down across the table from me after the rest of the family had finished, and she read to me from The Joy of Cooking the nutritional value in a hotdog bun. I was impervious and felt a terrible sense of satisfaction in seeing her cry—in making her cry. I wish it had been short-lived but it wasn’t. For a year after that I led an ascetic’s life, leaving the dinner table after a few miserable bites of whatever was put in front of me, and floating off to my room with my nightly indulgence: a cup of black tea.
Anorexia leaves its mark long after the complications of eating have been resolved. Every day I pay attention to a certain self-discipline that is punishing and not productive. I pay attention to moments of withheld generosity, especially to myself. I pay attention to states of want, states that seem to enhance experience when in fact they rob me of life’s richness. I pay attention to my undermining of success, in my career, in my intimate relationships. I pay attention to my attraction to having less, in case it’s a way of being less. When I put on raggedy clothing, I’m starting to ask myself why.
Years later, Laura Matlaw was the second in our class to die. The first was Sue Sanders, my best friend before Laura came along. She died, and the baby inside her died also, when her car was hit by a drunk driver. And Laura, she died not of starvation but of Lou Gehrig’s disease, a terrible death for an outlaw mind.
A place to discuss writing or anything on your mind. All visitors are invited to join the conversation by commenting on posts, asking questions, and joining the newsletter below for even more opportunities to connect and converse!