A Women’s Disease | Catherine Haines

A Women’s Disease

Catherine Haines

The First Rule of Nabokov Award

I was sitting at the desk in my college room, doing nothing. It was very noisy because there were pigeons fornicating on the parapets and undergraduates pre-dinner drinking in the corridor.

Max’s voice said, “Knock. Knock,” and then he rapped on the door. Twice.

“Who’s there?” I said.

“Macbeth’s porter.”

“Ha. Ha.”

The door opened, and Max put his head in. He wore his academic gown over his shirt and had a glass of red wine in his hand.

“Come to dinner,” he said.


“You can’t possibly be working.”

“I am.”

“What on?”

“Eve’s decision making in Paradise Lost.”

“Rubbish. That was the essay last week. What really?”

“Kafka’s Hunger Artist.”

“Oh.” He inhaled, made a noise – tongue-click-and-sigh – and then said again: “Come to dinner.”


“Why not.”

“I’m not hungry.”

“Come anyway.”

“I already ate.”

“You haven’t been to Formal Hall at all this week,”

“Max, I’m trying to work. Please shut up and go away.”

There was a pause.

“I can’t think of a good exit line,” he said, and closed the door. “Let’s go to the JCR!” he continued outside my room, addressing the world at large, “Some people are trying to work.”
I closed my eyes and pressed on them with my fingers. Their voices faded along the hallyway. When the door to the quad finally slammed shut, I exhaled, and went back to doing nothing.

An hour or so later, there was another knock at the door.

“Who’s there, in th’ devil’s name?” I asked.

“Me,” said Daniel, and came in. He was wearing a yellow ball gown, and a tiara. He had a glass of champange in one hand and two pamphlets in the other.

“Where were you at dinner?”


“Even God rests on Sundays,” he said, handing me the champange flute.

“God didn’t go to Oxford.”

“Then how come I know him?”

“You don’t, not personally.”

“I’m acquainted with Him.”


“Through Jesus.”

“Very droll.”

He put the pamphlets on the desk in front of me.

“Thought you might find that ironic,” he said, indicating the first one. It was a flyer advertising an Oxford City literary competition on ‘the subject of food’. The second was a brochure for the university counselling centre.

“Come to G&Ds for brunch tomorrow,” he said, “and afterwards we could…”

“Can’t, sorry.”

“Why not?”


“Doing what?”

“I have to go to the gym.”

He opened his mouth, for a moment resembled a fish out of water, then closed his mouth, and sighed.

“Suit yourself,” he said, and left the room.

I sipped the champange while I read through the terms and conditions of the writing competition. Then I began to sketch several different possible versions of a story:

1. Focuses on family dysfunction, which psychologists believe to lie at the heart of the illness.

2. Depicts the bluestocking offspring of an upper-middle class family, who becomes sick due to hetero-normativity/social conditioning.

3. A bildungsroman, dealing with a writer’s formative years and spiritual education.

4. Compares the protagonist’s experience to the religiously inspired cases of anorexia mirabilis, which refers to women who starve themselves in the name of God. (but anorexia mirabilis no longer exists, not because the motives of those who starve themselves have changed, but because the paradigms for coding these behaviors have shifted.)

5. Highlights the spectacle of a thesbian determined to starve to death.

Etc etc ad infinitum.

There was another knock on the door.

“Who is it?” I said.

“It’s Julia.”

“O. Come in.”

Julia was wearing paisley pajamas and unicorn slippers. She was carrying an apple, which she had cut into pieces and put on a saucer. She placed it on the desk in front of me.

“What is this…?” I said.

“It’s an apple.”

“… Some sort of interven… I know that, but why are you giving it to me?”

She sat down on the bed.

“So you can eat it,” she said.

I looked at the apple. It had begun to wrinkle and go brown.

“It’s just an apple,” she said, “It’s not going to kill you or curse the future of the human race.”

The room went black for a moment.

“I talked to Daniel and Max at dinner,” Julia said, “We’re worried about you. You’re always studying or at the gym… ”

“No, I’m not,”

“… and you seem kind of dazed.”

“I’m just tired.”


“You’re spending less and less time with us and you never come to meals any more.”

“That’s not true.”

“Maybe you should talk to someone about the things that are stressing you out… not eating doesn’t isn’t the best way to handle whatever it is.”

“I’m not not eating.”

“Would you like me to come with you, like, to the college counsellor… or to make a booking at the doctor’s…”

Julia reached out and put her hand on my knee.

“You’re freezing” she said, then took the quilt from the end of the bed and wrapped it around me. “I love you,” she said.

“I love you too.”

“We all love you.”

“I know.”

“Have you told your parents?”

“What about?”

“About how much weight you’ve lost?”

“I’ve been to the Doctor.”

“What did he say?”

“They’re doing some tests. I might have Chrone’s disease. Or an over active thyroid.”

She ran her fingers through her hair. “An over active thyroid? Did you tell him you never eat anything?”

I looked down at my hands. The nail beds were slightly blue.
“I don’t know what to do,” she said “None of us know what to do. What’s wrong? Why don’t you eat?”

“I don’t want to.”

I wanted to break something or hit something but I was afraid to move so I started to cry instead, silent tears, which I hid by resting my forehead on the palm of my hand.

“I’m sorry,” I said, then, laughing through the tears, “Boys aren’t meant to cry… it’s… it’s… you know… it’s supposed to be a women’s disease!”