It meant eating past the point of comfort. It meant not letting yourself feel that high, that addictive strength that filled your stomach when you kept it empty of everything else.
Your fingers fumble to find the key to your front door. Your breath is ragged, tired from climbing the three flights of stairs to get here.
It took you 12 minutes to bike back to your small and pointy two-by-two apartment from the university, where you teach two English courses to 50 first-year students who care as much about writing as they do about their parents’ sex lives.
Finally finding the right key, you open, walk through, push shut your front door and switch on the dining room light to find the box of a greasy, half-eaten frozen pizza and two empty bottles of diet Coke on the table. Wads of dirty napkins are crumpled and scattered across both the table and floor beneath the mess. Your roommate’s caffeine-induced chatter wafts from down the hall, she’s on the phone with her boyfriend again, as you slink off your backpack and take two steps into your tiny kitchen. Bits of crumbled sausage and cheese strings stretch across the stove’s burners.
The smell of hot meat and milk still linger in the air. You pull them from the stovetop in an effort to clean the mess and turn towards the laundry room, which holds your trash bin. It’s overflowing, which pisses you off. In fact, you’d sworn to yourself that you’d let the mess keep piling until your roommate might finally notice that there is, astonishingly, no such thing as a trash fairy. You don’t know yet that before you go to sleep tonight you’ll have emptied and replaced the bin, grumbling the whole time about people who never clean up their messes. But now you only toss the scrapings of cheese and stale sausage into the sink behind you before reaching for the second cabinet from the fridge.
You’re tired, hungry, and looking for something to make for dinner. You look into the cabinet, one hand gripping the silver metal knob you’d pulled to open the door, the other pushed up against a corner’s edge. You lean into the structure, arms raised slightly higher than your head, and stare at the boxes inside
bland bran cereal
whole wheat pasta shells
light tuna packed in water.
You’d paid for these things with small handfuls of change you’d found squirreled away in secret spots across your apartment, as if you’d been preparing for a harsh winter back in central New York where you grew up.
When you were eight, maybe nine years old, you’d save your coins from doing chores, searching between couch cushions, found under pillows after losing a tooth the day before. You’d tuck them in between the slats of cedar wood that held your twin bed up off the floor. Behind stacks of messily folded socks and underwear in your top dresser drawer. Between the pages of your favorite Dr. Seuss books—savings you’d use to buy green eggs and ham or a wocket for your empty pocket. You’d learned to hide your money from your brother, who’d once used the two dollars you’d gotten from vacuuming the living room to buy a deck of Pokémon cards from the Indian gas station in town; you never stopped stashing your fortunes since.
Seventeen years later, in Texas, you continually hide your change in new places. Some in the right breast pocket of a jacket you hadn’t worn in weeks. Some folded and stuffed into a back zippered pouch of the fading brown leather purse you stole from your mother back in high school. More still, wadded up somewhere in the depths of your backpack, amidst the books and pens and folders, almost forgotten. The bills and quarters, dimes and nickels and pennies you pulled from their spaces like hidden treasures elated you at first, but within minutes an unease would set in.
When you were eight and your father, on Sundays after getting home from golfing with his buddies from the Legion, asked if you wanted to head to Buell’s Fuels before dinner, you’d collect your coins and clench them in your tiny hands the whole drive to North Bay, anticipating mouthfuls of Skittles or Jolly Ranchers, shaking with excitement as if you’d already been on the sugar rush. Your father wasn’t driving you these days though. Now, your trips were only made when your cabinets got so bare, your fridge so empty, that your roommate might ask you if you were going away for the weekend.
A Higher Level of Care
You knew you needed to make a trip soon. At the thought of it alone, you could feel the anxiety bubbling into the base of your stomach like acid from a science experiment gone wrong. The acid burned harsher though when, three days ago, your nutritionist called to tell you it was time to consider a higher level of care. I don’t think we can continue to see you, she said, not after seeing so many abnormalities in your bloodwork. Your psychiatrist had taken your weight before your last meeting, asked you more questions than usual, looked at you longer after each of your answers as if she was searching for things left unsaid. She suggested increasing your meds, sent you home, then reached out to your doctor.
The next morning, he called you to discuss your alarming drop in weight and the dangerous condition he believed you were now in.
These people suggested taking a leave of absence from work, from school, after you lost another eight pounds over the past month. Their words made you feel smaller than you already were. Their concerns, meant to help, made you feel lost, unsure of yourself, desperate to get back in control of the life you’d begun here, before they could force you out of it.
You worked too hard to get here. Left behind your last job, your home, your friends and family in upstate New York to come here. You wouldn’t let them take that away from you, so you stopped answering their phone calls, replying to their emails, and promised not to keep making excuses to not eat. You’d get better without them. Getting better meant getting bigger. It meant eating past the point of comfort. It meant not letting yourself feel that high, that addictive strength that filled your stomach when you kept it empty of everything else. In your mind, it was all about control: the less you ate, the more power you had.
It was glorious, going without, but no one seemed to understand that. Maybe not even you.
You couldn’t afford to feel that way anymore, though. You couldn’t afford to keep saving your change in tucked-away corners and worn pockets like you did when you were eight. You were 25 now and sat in the driver’s seat of a black SUV that you paid $200 a month for, as you drove four minutes down the road, money clenched in hand, to the bulk-foods store where you walked down aisle after aisle, admiring the rows of temptation. Finally, painfully, you surrendered to one box of pasta, one of cereal, a can of beans and a tin of tuna.
Life or Death
Opponents, you think, staring back at the food now sitting inside the white-wood cabinet. Enemies challenging you to yet another battle, to life or death. Your head drops, eyes close, and you breathe out a sigh of exhaustion. Your stomach’s growling, a pestering nudge from the audience egging you on to face the attack and adding to the tension held within your unsettled gut, your sallow skin, the crease between your tired eyes that’s grown two-fold over the past year from moments like this.
Focusing in on the dingy gray tiles of the kitchen floor, you think about the last phone call you had with your father. When he answered after three rings with a throat-deep ghuh-hemmm to clear away the beer-induced phlegm that had collected there before bringing up the most recent bill he’d gotten from the eating disorder treatment center you’d stayed at over the summer.
Another couple hundred bucks, he said. Guess I won’t be getting the truck fixed this week. A joke. A laugh. Not from you.
Herrr-hummm. You’d be staring out your passenger seat window, watching rows of tourists’ summer cottages whir by, while your father tapped his construction work-callused fingers against the steering wheel. Winding along paths paved alongside towering oak trees, driving down dusty dirt roads on a lake’s shore in central New York, you looked out at the passing arbors and breathed in the sickly-sweet smell of hydrangea bushes dotting the lawns. One bush after another of their hazy heated blossoms; some wedding-dress white, others a soft cashmere pink, still more in robin’s-egg blue. The smell of summer, of eight years old, of drives with your father to North Bay for lottery tickets and candy.
You loved the 12 minutes it took to get from his house to Buell’s, loved to walk up and down the aisles inside looking at the brightly-colored bags of Sour Patch Kids, Slim-Jims, or tropical Skittles before he’d yell to you to come pick out a ticket at the register. You’d grab a bag of Cheetos and skip to his side, glance up at the man behind the counter, then spot the six-pack of Milwaukee’s Best sitting next to the ticket case. You’d look away from the beer, knowing the two men were waiting on your decision, and silently imagine choosing a scratch-off that could win you a night without your father’s drinking. Number four, you’d say, perhaps subconsciously, as you knew this would be the number of cans finished by the time you ate dinner. You’d never choose ticket five, because that’s the number when things started to get messy.
Back in the kitchen, you notice your grip has tightened on the cabinet’s side panel. Your knuckles are white around bones that jab out like sticks, and you’re thinking about how much you hate that this is what dinner on an ordinary Thursday night has come to.
Food wasn’t always so difficult for you. You remember the way you used to sprint down the staircase and bolt out the front door when your grandpa asked if you wanted to go get ice cream from Harpoon Eddie’s, how you’d look at the list of flavors and wonder if you could ever choose between cookie dough or moose tracks, until eventually deciding to get both for good measure. You remember when you could eat an entire box of Kraft macaroni and cheese, the kind shaped like Scooby-Doo or Spongebob, that your grandmother would make in her kitchen when you stayed home sick from school. You remember licking off the streaks of butter, cheese, and whole milk until your green plastic bowl was spotless. You remember when you could look into a cupboard filled with boxes and tins without thinking about the calories listed on their labels.
What you don’t remember is when you started to think this way. It seems now that life without these thoughts would be impossible, as if they always were and always would be a part of you, a part of your anatomical structure passed down through generations of grandparents or great-aunts, or maybe fathers.
With your arms still flanking the cabinet in front of you, maybe you’ll start to wish that you’d been an alcoholic instead, like your mother always warned you about when you were 16 and starting to drink shitty, watered-down beer in your best friends’ basements after soccer practice. Maybe you’ll wish you were more like your father, who could glug down a gallon of beer without a second thought. How easy that would be, to be able to escape the stress of reality by simply sipping. You might be thinking it’d be an easier addiction to have, one that could be abstained from, unlike yours that ran solely on abstaining itself.
Your father faced cabinets filled with beer cans: ones that could be bought or not, drunk or not, their taking in a nice but unnecessary addition to life. His high came from the insides of cans, while yours came from depriving your insides of cans. His addiction, like yours, helped him escape, to separate himself from who he was in reality. With every beer he became the man he wanted to be: powerful, strong, in control. By not sipping or slurping or swallowing, you’d found you could do the same. Not eating was one choice you could always make, one way to feel in control when everything else seemed to be accelerating without you.
Still staring at the food before you, you might think about the years spent driving to Buell’s and strolling down aisles of Doritos and M&Ms, picking out lottery tickets, listening to your father’s drunken comments and targeted jokes, and remember how small you felt then, too. How his big voice bellowed even louder after a couple beers, and you sat in silence next to him. You hadn’t understood then, sitting in the bucket seat of his truck in Buell’s parking lot, that he drank to feel bigger himself. He craved the burning, trembling, passionate power that came when he was in control of something, of you. But you wouldn’t understand that until years later when you felt the same thing after not finishing your food or avoiding the cabinet that you stared into now.
Instead, you’ll find yourself cursing your father between labored breaths, as you look at the boxes and tins in between your skinny, raised arms, trying to just make dinner.
Your stomach growls louder, hungrier, so you ease your grip and raise your head, hoping to forget about him. You shake back brittle strands of auburn hair from your cheeks, unclench your squeezed-shut eyes to stare once more into the rows of boxes and cans you’ve collected over the past week, hoping to see something that you can fathom choking down but find, instead, a cabinet filled with nothing but Milwaukee’s Best. Your eyes dart between cans. Confused. Panicked. Desperate. You squeeze them shut once more and reach blindly inside, grab whatever you can with two hands, and close the door before you open your eyes to see a box of spaghetti and a can of tuna in your grip.
You grab your roommate’s small saucepot from the back burner, fill it half-way with water from the sink behind you, and turn the stove’s dial to HIGH without bothering to clean out the stuck-on ramen noodles she’d made the night before. You toss a handful of pasta strands into the pot before waiting for the water to boil because you know if you don’t, you’ll never bring yourself to put them in at all. And while your pulse slows back to its usual 48-per-minute beat, you’ll notice that your roommate has stopped talking.
You hate the silence, partly because it makes you feel alone, but also for making you feel like you’re parked back in Buell’s parking lot with a box of beer and a couple scratch-offs in your lap.
It’s All Crap
Your father refused to listen to the radio when you guys took trips to North Bay. It’s all crap, he said when you asked him why. Once, when he was still cashing out inside, you turned on the local country station and bobbed your head from side to side, eyes closed, before he opened the door and pushed the power button off before ever hearing a note of Shania Twain’s twangy tune. He already had a can popped open and half-guzzled before stepping out of the store, a second one cracked as you nickeled or pennied away the colored foil from your number four scratch-off. You handed him his ticket, one of the longer crossword-style ones, and wished it could slow him down a bit; as if the speed of his scratching could parry his drinking and make less time for the snide remarks and sarcastic jabs that were surely on their way.
As usual, he scratched off the bottom section of his ticket to reveal the three letters that tell if your ticket’s a winner or not, a secret he’d taught you to save time, and you knew with those letters that you’d lose that night just as quickly as he’d lost on his ticket.
Your father tossed his empty can onto the floor by your feet and reached for a second. You bent over to wipe away a splash of beer that dribbled down your bare, sunburnt calf and, annoyed, returned to scratching. You made sure to get every corner of the foil off mostly just to spite his insolence, while he talked to some wrinkly, beer-bellied man he must know from the Legion standing outside his window.
You opened your snack pack of Cheetos, grabbed a handful and ravenously stuffed them into your mouth while staring out the window. A woman pulled empty Coke cans from a black garbage bag and fed them to a giant machine with the words “Redemption” plastered on top. While your father kept talking you grabbed the empty can of Milwaukee’s Best he’d thrown at your feet and ran it over to the woman. She thanked you, glanced past your shoulder to your father’s black truck, and turned back to the machine with a look of what you’d one day realize was pity.
Running back to the truck, you pulled your door shut and went back to your Cheetos. After a couple more minutes, your father turned to ask if you were ready to head home, never having realized you’d gotten out. Sure, you answered, noisily sucking Cheeto dust off of your fingers but quickly regretting it for the mixed metallic taste leftover from your scratch-off.
Bigger Than Everything
Your left pointer finger is in your mouth, and you’re not entirely sure why, until you realize that same taste of metal is coating your tongue. You pull out your finger, hold your hand in front of your face as the smell of tuna mixes nauseatingly with the taste of blood, and watch as a stream of red goo oozes from a two-inch slit in your skin. You don’t recall ever taking the can opener out of the drawer, clipping it to the can of fish, and cranking the knob in circles until, apparently, your finger decided to somehow get in the way. You try to think if you have any Band-Aids in your bedroom closet, assume you probably don’t, and decide that the green and beige polka-dotted kitchen towel will make a fine tourniquet. Your hands shake as you wrap the dishcloth tighter around your finger.
It’s now 7:45 and you’re starting to feel faint. The last thing you ate was half a cucumber, sliced and salted, at three o’clock between teaching classes.
You pick a brown potholder from the same drawer you’d pulled the can opener from, grab the plastic handle flanking your roommate’s pot, and drain the starchy pasta water from the noodles. You see that only a few drops of blood got on the stovetop, adding to the red specks of pizza sauce, while unfortunately, your tuna is clean. You consider accidentally dropping the dirty dishtowel into the pot of pasta, making an excuse to not eat it, but ultimately push aside the thought as your vision goes slightly hazy. You start to feel lightheaded, your mind a tornado like the kind you get when you stand up too quickly, so you grab onto the countertop to steady yourself. You normally love this feeling. You welcome it, encourage it, get off on the dizziness that you, no one else, willed into being.
Ironically, feeling dizzy made you feel grounded, powerful, an unstoppable force like the kind your father became when he drank. You became a body that was bigger than any German mustached man in a run-down corner store parking lot.
Bigger than yourself.
Bigger than everything.
But you’d made too many storms over the past couple of months; your body couldn’t handle any more.
Eat, you say, maybe out loud. Just eat, damnit.
Beat, you dump out the flakes of fish into the pot with your pasta, grind some pepper on top, and jab a fork into your dinner. Twirling a couple strands of spaghetti onto it, you bring it half to your mouth before, in one final attempt to stall your eating, you decide to clean up the mess you made. You place the pot back onto the still-warm burner, your makeshift tourniquet still intact, and push the cardboard pasta box back into the white-wood cupboard above your head, then reach for the empty tuna can still on the counter. Turning to the laundry room once more, you see the overflowing trash can sitting just inside the door.
And as you stare at the garbage spilling onto your wood-paneled floor, irritated, exhausted, despaired, the heat of the stove still in the air and can still clutched in hand, you wonder if you’ll ever find steady ground.