New York |

Lisa Is the Water

by JoAnna Novak

edited by Brian Joseph Davis

“The worst toy for a bulimic is a garbage disposal,” you say.

Saturday afternoon on the balcony, flattened out in bikinis with pink rosettes kissing the waist, glasses of Perrier and a bowl of limes on the towel between you and Lisa. Summer physics ended yesterday, and you’ve been fasting since the final to be angles and elbows for back-to-school.

Lisa flips. Her blonde hair drips down her back and her shoulder blades jut like wings. 

“No way,” Lisa says. “All-you-can-eat buffet.”

“You’re cliché,” you say. “Everyone says that.”

“Who’s everyone?”

“Every girl in every hospital.” You think Lisa may be getting a little dippy, to lift one of your mother’s favorites. All that time she’s spending with Chris: Semen kills brain cells. You’re a little light-headed evaluating the situation through sunglasses, trying to clench your transverse abdominals, peeved, like when you clogged the drain in the bathtub and needed to pour a whole Drano down and didn’t want to call your father to get the window—that was last month. Always with those windows that stick. Why are they so hard to open?

The fast is new; the summer, the same. You and Lisa have committed to summer school to rid yourselves of requirements, but you’ve never seen Lisa let a boy eat up so much of her time. Before you were high schoolers, you sat next to each other in a chilly lab relearning home row and business letter blocks. And chemistry: you burned peanuts and calculated a calorie—nothing but energy enough to heat one measly gram of water.  

Now you picture yourself in the white lab coat you borrowed from the teacher every day; that summer you were so cold and pale you called your hands prayer candles. 

Mottled, lit, blue. 

Half a day you laze away while maintenance buzzes below. Big green trucks from Crown Disposal stink gasoline across the lawn and snatch grass from the cul-de-sac; men prune and trim, roses and hedges. Beneath your balcony, a crew of gray jumpsuits tends to a bed of impatiens with handhelds like weaponry, engines revving—eight men, burnished and sweating. 

“I think we should be done,” you say. “I’m really…from the sun.” At the club, you almost passed out during spinal imprints. Long legs, the instructor crowed through her puffy bangs. Remember your powerhouse, ladies. Pilates is what stays still!


“You don’t feel good? I feel totally good, just like…chill,” Lisa says. She props herself on her elbows, wipes a hair from her forehead. Picks up a lime and dunks it in her sparkling water.  Sucking the fruit lights her eyes. “Mmm, do this. Fizzy.”

Lisa. You glare at your watch. 

“We’re not eating until five.” Move the band up your elbow and lust on the bracelet of pale flesh, the brindle brown hair sweat-plastered. If you were alone, you’d nose the skin, inhale animal and wood chips and sun. “It’s quarter after two.”

Your body leaves a long, dark oval on the towel when you sit and reach for your robe. Coward. Viscera of soul. You avoid your stomach: bending forward or reaching down or craning for the alarm or right after you’ve eaten—fine, all food bloats your belly just the same; sometimes, you stare yourself down in the mirror and think, you’d be fine—for a pregnant bitch. 

“It’s a lime,” Lisa says. She cracks her neck. Tendons, striae, pretty, slack. “Ten calories.” 

You stare. 

Lower: “So, what else doesn’t count?”

Lisa’s face shrinks, a sucked-out prune. “Nothing, nothing else—all right? Re-lax. I just think, the point of the fast is to not eat. A lime’s not really eating.”

“I’d say ten calories is like…eating,” you say. 

Mocking you learned from your mother. Smog in air. Nothing but summer. It’s you and Lisa. So Lisa’s not your best friend anymore, no problem. Maybe, she can collect your assignments when you head back to the hospital. 

“It doesn’t matter,” you say. No one’s making you eat a stupid lime. You imagine displacing the blood racing through your body with a stream of bubbling water until you feel nothing, maybe benevolent, mostly dizzy. Sleep. Breathe: let your blood pressure tumble. Out: wafting neuro-trauma. 

“What should we do?”


Lisa slips into the bedroom, past your vanity, all clothing and charts, your diaries, one for tracking and another, blank, waiting for recovery to clutch your stupid shoulders and douse you with fat, and Lisa grabs her clothes from the back of a chair and disappears into the bathroom to change while you wait. 

You’re alone in your space, bedroom of caprice: you don’t dream or sleep. You’re so ethereal from fasting you want to wear something with a skirt to usher air in and out, but all your dresses look like they’re waiting for someone else. A silhouette better than you. 


Reframe, Reframe, Reframe—so, okay, maybe there’s no such thing as better. 

Loose in the bust, looser in the hips, scoop-necked and white. If you keep your swimsuit on, who will judge if your swimsuit shows through the fabric—halter branding your neck, a floral peek and a floppy bow tipped with shiny gold charms. 

You sit on your bed and stare at the television, mute. Scoot to the edge. A million music video countdowns, junk food, and trash. No wonder your parents tried the cable ban: Kurt Cobain is lambent, cheerleaders’ braids are swinging; a crowd swells, a janitor mopes with his bucket.

“Wanna go to the mall?” you say.

You picture Lisa on the other side of the door.   

Legs: scalpels, ice picks, bone. Bone and more bone, nuzzled under Lisa’s golden, sun-kissed flesh. Nothing hungry in her eyes. Breasts: plump. Buoyant, even. What would she do with your mouth?

“The mall is freezing.” 

“It’s like a hundred degrees out,” you say, swiping a finger behind your knee where sweat gathers in a thin stripe like the moistened seal of an envelope. Barely a secret. You’re overheating and Lisa’s freezing? 

No way Lisa is thinner. 

“I’m sick of shopping,” Lisa says. “Let’s go to the V.”


You don’t just suspect this has a lot to do with Chris; the V means Chris, head lifeguard who keeps Lisa at the pool late, way after close, to kiss her long, ballerina neck beneath a sky blistered with stars. This is your favorite way to think of Lisa—though you’ve heard about hot tub parties, flirty drinking games and fingerprint bruises—no, not jealously. Envy you buy from a counter. Lisa’s always inviting you, calling you, offering to pick you up or bring you out, but you’re convinced your parents just pay Lisa to help you maintain normal teenage life—like they know you that well, like they get that you’d rather be studying your ascetic saints than cruising the cul-de-sac with Lisa; that, every night, after you pray to the Virgin (for the unwavering love of your parents, for Lisa to survive the next few years with a dash of purity), you wrestle yourself into believing that God will cradle your consciousness like a worry stone when you finally win, with a clavicle gnash and your pulse’s ultimate curlicue, when you wear your body down.


The matching strap around Lisa’s neck? One velum valentine after another floats through your body, your heart shaved on a mandoline. Your breath quickens, your stomach growls: inside, another continent, where everything graspable drowns.   

Lisa stops a foot from the television and gapes. Kurt Cobain’s twiny hair slaps his forehead; her face is still pink-blushed, flushed. 

“He was so hot—so hot, such a freak…”

“Where are we going?” you say. 

Stanch your want with gravel, sand, clay, dirt. 

“The V, yeah?  Chris is working.” She pulls her pinky across her teeth. “We get stuff free.” 


Lisa drives to the pool listening to a station playing upbeat pop. Top down, windows down, air conditioning blasting your feet. Pool bags in the backseat. In yours—towel, sunblock, a roll of Necco wafers to ease you from the fast. What’s inside Lisa’s tote? 

You look at your nails, try to rename polish. Appointments. You have these. You have, also, a manicurist. Trainer, nutritionist, doctor, shrink. Who else do you see other than Lisa and your parents, the cook and the landscapers, the men who occupy the gatehouse? When was the last time you even went to the pool? All you remember is your final summer with the diving team, a few months before your twelfth birthday—normal as ever, when you did a one-and-a-half and slammed into the ice-blue board. Three rectangular gouges: forehead, chin, the bridge of your nose.

Charred meat and lilacs. Suburban trap of traffic and stop signs. Lisa sings along to every single song and some jingles. When the light turns red, Lisa stops too close. You turn into your mother: gasp and shrink, pump an imaginary brake. And whenever there’s a man on Lisa’s side, she lowers her heart-shaped sunglasses and looks. Bats her eyes, licks her lips, hi. 

“You do it,” she says. “C’mon.”

“I’m not flirting with some old man, Lisa.” 

“Make his dreams come true,” she says. “Every father wants a sixteen-year-old.”

“Sick,” you say. “Nausea.”

Three dreams. Your father: dead; your mother: banished. You unbuckle your nerdy chemistry teacher’s belt with your teeth. Wake up and wait for your wanting to quit.  

“Okay, look,” Lisa says. “Red bug, on your right.” She glances and, from behind your glasses, you follow her eyes. He’s wearing a white tank top and aviators, gold. “Oh my god, those arms.”

“Are you hungry?” you say. Lamb-spit arms. Chainsaw guns. 

“No. Remember? That lime? Kidding.”

“No,” you say. He’s drumming the steering wheel to the dance music blaring and you wish you could apologize for catching him in such a pathetic pose. 

“Seriously, if you don’t, I will,” Lisa says.

“Do it,” Lisa says. Sun sparks her lips. Her mouth is one fat wish. “The light’s about to change.” 


Lisa cranks the radio and he turns. “Now!”

You don’t think. You pivot in your seat, little smile, wave. His eyebrows appear over the top of his glasses. He grins: perfect canines. 

And green, zoom, onward, he’s gone. 

Lisa eyes you, her mouth open wide—a gob of neon gum and her silver filling (second molar, lower left). She laughs and throws her hands up, accelerating past the park district. 

“Now, what about that was so bad?”


By the time you reach the pool, you’re picking off your polish. Trying to fleck it between the door and the seat. There’s not much to get excited about when therapy teaches you how to manage all your epiphanies. And Lisa gets out of the car, yawns, and stretches her long thin arms above her head. You’ve never seen any drastic weight changes—in fact, Lisa’s always been slender—now she’s just grown into it like a starlet—and, here she is, fasting for fun. Poor Lisa, you think. She got gorgeous, she got lazy.

“What are you going to eat first?” Lisa crouches, reapplying her lip gloss and pouting in the side mirror. “I feel so gross, but I know I want a pretzel. Or, like, frozen pizza—you know? Or, sickest—oh, I’m nasty: Chris has me hooked on churros in cheese.”

Your decision is instant, the way it’s always been. Before the edge of a cliff, dash your fears. 

“I’m extending,” you say. Catherine of Siena ate flesh and herbs; Beatrice bound herself with cords. For the first time in weeks, you’re feeling good: the ticking of devotion.

“Till tomorrow.”

“I don’t really think that’s a good idea…” Lisa says, but you’re already walking to the gate. 

A grove of weeping willows tuck away the V. The parking lot is a wash of gravel, a couple basketball hoops near the fence that wraps around the pool. A picnic pavilion with benches and grills, a bulletin board behind glass where swim practice schedules are posted along with Swimmers of the Week. A picture quick: gaping green, forehead post-latex-cap, eyes ringed red from goggles. From the lot, you hear screams, splashing, music tinny over the loudspeaker—everything in the distance glistening and candy. As you walk, small stones crack like teeth against the soles of your sandals. 

Lisa jogs over in her sequined flip-flops, her tote banging against her hip, electric tangerine. Is the rubber strap digging pink into her shoulder? Water, aloe, neon gel: a salve for any sore. She catches up with you before the locker room. 

“Would you wait, or are you going to be a bitch the rest of the day?”

“I’m not a bitch,” you say, letting your own bag dangle off your wrist. You put your hand on your hip, thumb the bone, breathe in, glance at Lisa and look down. You’ve gotten good at shaking away her face. 

“How am I a bitch?”

Two boys in saggy trunks and mesh water shoes tear past you, through the beds of red geraniums that line the sidewalk up to the front desk.

“You’re it,” one of them screams, pointing at you and jogging backwards before he disappears. 

“Hon,” Lisa says. “Can I give you a hug?”

Brace yourself. Hugs happen whether you like them or not. Lisa’s a few inches taller than you and when she hugs you it’s not two clanging skeletons—Lisa’s breasts press into your chest. Things you don’t have. Her hands rub your back. Hip bones, spine, the fine hairs glistening above her lip. You’re drowsy off contact. 

Up close, Lisa smells like coconut ice cream. 

Up close, you peer, finally, into her bag: towel; light-weight novel; a bag of pink-frosted animal crackers; the harsh blue condom wrapper, square and foreign. 

You pull away, tuck your hair behind your ears, stare hard and try to say something, not just anything.

“It’s not good to full-on fast,” Lisa says. “You told me that.”

“I know.”

“So, stop at five. Like the plan.”

“I don’t really want to,” you say, licking your lower lip, tasting your skin, dark as blood blisters. 

“Chris will give us food. At least get a diet Coke.” 

“I’m fine. I just need a swim.”


You take five minutes peeing so you don’t have to rinse off in the communal shower. You’ve seen it before: water beads Lisa’s forehead like a veil, the drops cling to Lisa’s nose like fleet piercings. When you’re sure she’s gone, you’re alone in the steam. There are no mirrors, no curtains, no cover for tears. The water pelts your back. The floor tires your feet. 

Lisa is on deck, beneath the guard’s chair where Chris scans the diving well. Chris can give her food. Lisa is so aimless; Lisa needs to eat. You settle between a woman asleep in a black one-piece and an old man with breasts like soft triangles. You spread your towel out and sit down; you rifle through your bag until you find sun block. From here, Chris is a bright blue nose and sunglasses, tousled honey hair and a runner’s concave chest. Rarely do you admit yourself: you’re so hungry that you’re not. You’re so hungry that, when you rest a hand on the slats of the chair, you watch your fingers float off, one by one, lifting toward Lisa. And Chris is twirling his whistle. Chris, who feeds her. And the woman in the black suit snores. The old man clears his throat. You squirt lotion onto your palm and feel your face. Ridge of nose, plum-skin eyes, stupid mouth. The line up the high dive is deep. 


When will you find yourself at the V again? 

Each summer will be less-Lisa than the last.

Each summer: another step away from turning back.

Two more summers: independence. The freedom of choosing when and how to end.


Your turn to climb the ladder. You grip each rung tight, and just feel, just deal, bear it, it makes you want to vomit: the sloughed-off skin of other people’s feet, the moisture clinging to the metal, and then, at the top, that dirty plank. So you think, okay, two minutes, give yourself two minutes because bodies have amassed, queued, and you’re not even nearing the edge. Just think about it. Just think. Just your friend and a thin slice of skin on her back, what the strap leaves light, and the rest of her body—soft caramel—and the tuft of hair between her legs sequined with saliva, so it’s Lisa and Lisa, just Lisa.  Lisa in the water, Lisa in the kiddie pool, Lisa inflating dolphins, Lisa your flotation device, Lisa licking, it’s too slippery, Lisa saying well yah I said yea when he, as in ohyea, like ohyesbaby, Lisa in a car pinkying Xs and Os, Lisa as your mirror, Lisa’s hands and knees—, it’s no biggie, whatever, Lisa in the shower, Lisa skipping class, Lisa in the hot tub in her basement, above ground in the dark, Lisa and the Coke can, Lisa and the lights, all night Lisa, and the handcuffs tight, Lisa and the what, so I liked it, Lisa and donuts or batteries, melon!, Lisa drinking tons of water and fuck, nails Pacific Blue, picking out a pearl thong, purchasing the Pleasure Pack, Lisa in the future, Lisa with a football player, Lisa horizontal, Lisa saying multiple, we’re talking three or four, holy holy fuck, Lisa Jesus Christing through getting eaten out, Lisa and her ankles, Lisa to the wall, Lisa on all fours, Lisa on her back on her front with her legs straight in a V two fingers on her lips with her tongue touching her chin with her eyelashes with her hair with her stomach sticky and flattened and toned and teased: parenthesis. 

“Hey!” The whistle blows. Chris is pointing at you from his perch. His neck is bruised from Lisa lips.

He lifts his sunglasses. He squints.

Inhale and swallow. Your saliva tastes like beeswax. You turn around, where walking off means backing down the ladder or a peerless concrete drop. Your heart’s pounding, your stomach’s stinging; you grip the rails and feel for the rung, your gut level with the board.

You smell her, her sun-soaked blonde hair, her candy-sweet wrists.

“Babe,” Lisa yells.

And you look down: nothing but Lisa—her kiss-pink lips eating up the sun.