My mother is praying to a new god. This one bestows points per bites. She prints out the dietary canon, makes highlights, tapes pages to the refrigerator door. Half-bowl of oatmeal with blueberries, fifteen points. White fish with lemon and broccoli, thirty-five points. A teaspoon of honey, twenty.
I am sixteen years old and praying to the gods of want. In biology class, I tap a pencil against my wrist bones whilst a creamy substance drips down my thighs. We are learning about bones, how they are made of living tissue: osteoblasts and osteoclasts. Builder and destroyer. But my bones feel hollow, and I want them filled with something I cannot name. I am a vibration of undifferentiated want.
My mother is praying to the treadmill god. Every Sunday she dons the athletic garments: neon orange wristbands, black sweatsuit, gold sneakers. She marches out the door with a plastic water bottle and returns from the gym euphoric, her cheeks blooming pink watercolor, sweat soaking the neck of her t-shirt. She finds me lying on the couch, earbuds in. Michael Stipe is losing his religion and I am filling the spaces in my brain that want. You need exercise, my mother yells, opening the package of a fig-filled energy bar: one hundred points.
I want my boyfriend’s penis inside of me, but I don’t want to get pregnant, so I squeeze my legs shut and we make love through our jeans. I want my mother to stop talking when she tells me the creamy-white discharge staining my underwear is normal, and I shouldn’t be embarrassed, and I tell her the biological term is leukorrhea, and she tells me a story about herself at sixteen, praying to the gods of want, the gods of stupid mistakes, and when I ask her if I was a stupid mistake she hands me a stack of my folded underwear and goes back to tallying her god’s points: cookies and wine, too many. I want a Christmas morning like I remember as a child, when Santa Claus was my god, when he caused my trillions of cells to tremble as I crept down the stairs, peeking around the corner to find a hundred twinkling lights, silver tinsel and a landscape of perfectly wrapped presents, the smell of candy and pine needles and tape. I want to travel the world with a sketchbook, sit cross-legged outside the Louvre, watch prim mothers drag their slim daughters towards culture. I want to swallow Guinness in an Irish pub pounding with fiddles and banjos and tambourines. I want to ride my bicycle across New Zealand and sleep in a field, beneath a mountain with a turquoise alpine lake.
My mother is praying to the grapefruit god. Her mother is praying to the grapefruit god, too. They contemplate this new god on the telephone: how many grapefruits did you eat for breakfast, for lunch? How many pounds has the grapefruit god forgiven you? Our fridge is full of grapefruits. Followers of the grapefruit god tell a parable about a righteous enzyme. Partake of grapefruits, but not apples. Partake of grapefruits and your hunger shall be glorified. My mother’s Sunday sweat smells like citrus, like rind.
I want life to course through my veins like a galaxy blazing through me. But this is not happening, because I am sixteen and my hormones are firecrackers one day, mud puddles the next. My mother says, Let’s go shopping. She says, Let’s get you a gym membership. She says, My God, how you’ve grown. I yell at her to go away, she can’t help a girl like me. I am seeking a true god, the one who made me by starlight, isn’t that it? But when she’s sleeping and the house is dark, I tiptoe into the kitchen and read her god’s gospels by flashlight. I memorize the lists on the fridge door: bagels and butter, sixty points. Grapefruit, only five. I breeze through her stacks of books, observing the details like a disciple: energy, calories, fattening, fat-burning. I do not want to pray to this god. I want to be turned away. I want a god who will cradle the echoing insides of my body and whisper in my ear: You are not your mother’s child. You will always be a child. But I hear nothing like this, so I do ten pushups in the dark, and in the morning it’s half a pink grapefruit for breakfast.
My mother prays to the gods of hunger. The gods of hunger count days, not points. One day of soup. One day of juice. One day of water. Our fridge is empty but for jars of baby food and cottage cheese. My mother’s carpal bones cannot sustain her wristbands and they fall to the floor. She says the gods of hunger clap thunderbolts in her stomach, and she presses my ear to the concave of her belly: hear that, hear it? The gods of hunger are pleased.
I want to go back in time ten years. I want to be six years old, stuffing watermelon into my face on a summer’s day, running from bumblebees and the sprinkler. I want to go back further, when I was the size of a summer watermelon, a slumbering fruit inside my mother’s womb. Zygote, embryo, fetus. I pass my biology exam, gold star on the page. But ‘baby’ is not a scientific term, the teacher says. One point lost.
What is the definition of a baby? Infant, offspring? I ask my mother: how did she hold me, soothe me, when I was all writhing, wailing want? How many points for a breast full of milk? But now she is praying to the gods of dust. Even when I moisten her lips with ice chips, even when I fill her ears with stories of a million other things to want.