Summer, 2002. Seventh grade is finally over. But here I am, sitting cross-legged in bed with the Hello Kitty 3-ring binder I carried against my chest that entire endless year, open to the section formerly known as “Social Studies.” Every morning, I make a neat grid with 10 perfectly square boxes, each square worth 100 calories, and that’s what I get for the day. It’s a good plan. I can eat whatever I want, as long as I write it in one of the boxes: an apple. Three carrots. A half cup of low-fat cottage cheese. I know these are technically less than 100 calories, but better safe than fat and ugly. Sorry, Oprah, but it’s true. You can afford to be all body positivity and love-yourself-as-you-are. You’re rich and beautiful, and if you wanted, you could hire someone to follow you around your mansion and knock the snacks out of your hand. I’m on my own here.
My morning ritual is secret. Not that I’m doing anything wrong. But I’m guessing my mother, slapping makeup on her face in the bathroom down the hall, would not approve. Even my old toy horses on the shelf above my bed, staring down at me with their flared nostrils and proud, muscular chests, make the back of my neck feel funny.
By mid-July I have lost 12 pounds, which is good, but to be on the safe side I want to lose at least 10 more before school starts. I picture myself stepping off the school bus, triumphant in tight jeans. “Who’s that?” “Is she new?” Janey Rodgers and Meg Sherwin will whisper, but I’ll just smile and toss my hair. I’ll have figured out how to blow-dry it by then, not scriggly-scraggly or stiffly straight but Carelessly Tumbled, because I’m not trying too hard. I close my eyes and fall back on my bed, hunger buzzing through me. I’ll slam my locker shut and spin around so my hair flies out like a cape, feeling Richie Signorelli’s eyes on me, and I’ll hoist my books up my arm and stride off, because I’m not the kind of girl who needs guys to stare at me—but if they do, well, that’s their problem.
All day, while my mother is at her job, I keep busy cleaning the house, working out to her old Jane Fonda tapes, and walking our neighbors’ dog, Buddy. He is part German Shepherd and part Golden Retriever, and he walks with a jaunty step, like his paws are on hinges. After our walk, I grant myself an exquisite 10 minutes of rest and lie down with Buddy in a patch of sunlight on the Petersons’ beige carpet. I press my face against the good popcorn smell of his fur and let myself pretend he’s my dog, and that I live here, and a pizza delivery guy is coming up the walk. If I squeeze my eyes shut, I can see a cute boy just a little older than me with his finger reaching for their old-fashioned brass doorbell, and I can see right through the pizza box to the glistening gooey cheese sweating oil. And since in my daydream I have been safely skinny at a size 0 for two years, I imagine taking that first delicious bite with the cheese stretching and the point of dough against my tongue, so delicious a tear slides down my cheek. Buddy licks it away, panting dog breath hot and urgent on my damp face. “You’re the only one who understands me,” I tell him, and his tail thumps the floor.
I wish I could stay there forever, but when the 10 minutes are over, I get up with my head spinning, and go home to do my second workout. Every time I leave, Buddy tries to follow me, and I have to press him back into the house so I don’t catch his nose in the closing door. I hate to leave the Petersons’ house, especially their kitchen. The refrigerator is covered with photographs of their kids as babies on blankets, at my age on skis, or, older, standing in cap and gown squinting into the sun. In this kitchen, I would never have stood at the fridge gobbling cold Chinese food straight from the container while my mother lay crying on her bed with the television laughing. The sunny yellow cushions on their chairs match the ruffle on the curtains and the daisies on their wallpaper, like something from a magazine. The Petersons’ house always seems to be smiling at you. Ours always seems to be holding its breath.
One morning, my mother sneaks up behind me while I’m measuring out my half-cup of Special K. I jump and the little grains rattle onto the counter. Fine. I won’t eat those. “You’ve lost enough,” she says. “Your face is getting gaunt.”
“Gaunt” is a word I like. It makes me think of tortured artists, soulful poets, virtuous survivors of unjust wars.
Besides, I don’t want to be like my mother, sighing and scuffing around the kitchen in her work suit and house slippers. Mom is always on a diet but always the same 20 pounds overweight. When she gets home at night, she drops onto the sofa and pulls off her shoes and just sits there with her face blank, staring around our living room. When she gets ready for bed, her big soft breasts bobble under her bathrobe, and it gives me the same sick raw-egg-inside feeling I got when her sometime-boyfriend Tim looked at me last winter and said, “things are stacking up nicely.” Of course, he won’t get the chance now, because A) I wear an old button-down over my untucked tee shirt and B) I don’t have breasts anymore.
My period is gone too, but who could miss such a thing? The whoosh of shame when I stood up in class. The hot swamp of blood I woke up to because the stupid maxi pad leaked. No thank you. Things are different now. Hunger is boiling my body clean.
My friend Kate comes over on a break between going to Disney World with her mom and stepdad and going to Bethany Beach with her regular dad and his new girlfriend. She sprawls on my bed and nods approval at the jeans hanging off my hips. According to Kate, most men end up cheating, especially if their wives “let themselves go,” which is clearly what my mother has done. I look away when she says that. But Kate is a cool girl now, so it’s something of a miracle that she still likes me. She’s not super skinny, but she doesn’t have to be. She’s beautiful, with bright blue eyes and a perfect oval face. It’s average girls like me who have to work to bring themselves up to standard. Probably because Kate is beautiful, bad things bounce off her. Or maybe because her parents have been divorced since we were in kindergarten, she doesn’t seem to care.
“Look at it this way: double vacation,” she says, swinging her hair. I wish I could feel the way she must feel inside. Calm and blue like her eyes, not a cloud in her sky.
My mom tries to lure me back to eating bad food. She brings home hamburgers and French fries from the diner near her work. She doesn’t know I take in the crude meaty smells and think, death. I look at the grease on the paper and think, poison. Then I see her bent over her plate, stuffing, and she reminds me of Buddy when I put his food bowl down, and I want to collapse in her lap and cry but instead I rise stiffly and take my salad bowl to the sink and run the remnants down the garbage disposal, so I won’t be tempted to eat the last few leaves of lettuce or the chunks of tuna that fell to the bottom. And even though I barely put two ounces of tuna in, and only half a tablespoon of dressing, I charge myself the full 300 calories, just to be on the safe side.
I see Dad every other weekend. When he comes to pick me up, my mother puts on makeup and we both sit in the living room, waiting. But when we hear his car in the driveway she runs upstairs to her room and the house is so quiet I can hear her door go click before the bell rings. One Saturday, he takes me to the mall and says, I want you to meet the nice lady I’ve been seeing, and a tall woman with red hair comes walking out of one of the stores with her nametag still on. Valerie. She’s one of those ladies who knows she’s not pretty, so she just blasts ahead with the bright coppery dyed hair and brown eyeshadow like she’s going to fool you, but I’m not buying it. She takes me to a store she says her niece likes. It’s all cheap jewelry and belts and pocketbooks and she pulls some earrings off a peg. It’s a pair of owls with sparkles for eyes. She holds them out to me, but I don’t take them.
“Have your own daughter,” I say, my voice tight and mean so it doesn’t even sound like me. I watch the words go in and she puts the earrings back and turns to go to the other side of the store where my dad is waiting. Being mean to Valerie doesn’t make me feel better, but it feels like something I should be doing with all that emptiness inside me.
Later, Dad takes us to Cinnabon, and I sit perfectly still while they pull apart the gooey cinnamon rolls and ask me why I won’t even try a bite. I just sip my black coffee and smile tightly. There is an oily rainbow sheen on top of the coffee, and for a second, I think, oh my God, what if they accidentally put some kind of fattening Cinnabon oil in there and it’s not zero calories like the diet book says? so I miss what my dad is saying until he says it again, “Hey peanut, are you okay? You look really thin. Come on, take a bite.”
He holds the Cinnabon right up to my face and I say, “I’ve got to get home to Mom.” A look passes between him and Valerie and she stands up, pressing her purse to her side.
When my dad drops me off, I feel worse than ever, because we were together a whole afternoon, and I didn’t even look at him. Even then, in the car with the motor running, I keep my eyes on the gearshift and my hand on the door.
“Your mother is worried that you’re getting too thin,” he says.
I could say, “well, I’m not,” but that would start him off on the rib thing and he might try to feel them again. Or I could say, “You know Mom, she worries about everything,” but then it’s like I’m taking his side against her, which she has accused me of, even though it’s something I would never do. He’s the one who cheated. So instead, I just sit there, strong in my silence. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s to keep my mouth shut. If you never open it to put food in or let words out, you can never betray yourself. And it’s working, because Dad gives me his Automatic Smile and I can tell any second, he’s going to look at his watch. Before he does, I slam the car door and walk fast to the house through the dots floating in front of me. Two hundred calories, that’s all I’ve had all day.
When you are hungry all the time, it stops being a voice that demands an answer, and becomes a low, buzzing white noise that cancels out all the other noises in your head. When you are hungry all the time, you feel you can do anything, because you are doing the hardest thing, something even famous rich people cannot do. I look back at the days I couldn’t stop myself from unwrapping another Snickers bar and biting through the cheap chocolate to the harshly sweet, plastic-like caramel inside. I hated the taste, hated the way the caramel soldered itself to my molars until they felt knobby and thick against my tongue. But once I started, I couldn’t stop. That’s my problem: I want too much. I’ve heard Dad say that to Mom, like it’s the Ultimate Insult—you want too much! Nothing I do is enough! and I resolve I will never want too much. In fact, when I grow up, I will not want anything at all, because I will have already figured out how to get it.
Mom comes home that night with a book she bought at Barnes & Noble about a girl my age who stopped eating, which I point out to her, I have not done. I’m just eating healthy.
“All lettuce and carrots is not healthy!” she shouts.
“Oh my God,” I say, and take the book from her hands. The girl on the cover has cheekbones that stab the air, and big haunted eyes I admire. Her arms are ropy with muscles and visible veins. And I think, how did she get rid of that last little bit of fat around her middle?
My mother sees me staring at the cover and says, “Her kidneys failed.”
“Well, mine are fine,” I say, “so stop it.” And I go up to my room and slam the door.
To Mom, I’m still her fat baby girl cuddled up with her late at night when we thought Dad was working. We’d lie there watching those dating shows where girls claw each other’s eyes out trying to get the one guy, eating microwave popcorn or cheese doodles or Crunch ‘n Munch. Sometimes our fingers would touch in the bowl, and she’d pretend her hand was a big spider chasing mine, until she caught it and brought it to her lips going maw maw maw like a monster.
I want to tell my mother: you could be so pretty with your green eyes. I would tell her, Dad’s girlfriend is nothing. His apartment is in that new development by the mall, the kind of place you drive by and say, who’d want to live there? But Mom is not the pick-your-self-up-and-fight-back type. Mom is the fall-down-and-cry-for-a-week type. She’s even scared of Buddy. When I brought him to our house one day to meet her, she stayed inside our screen door and said, you’re right, I can see that he’s a nice dog, but then when she opened the door and he walked toward her wagging, she said, he’s not going to jump on me, will he?
The next day, I take Buddy for his walk, but the sun is so hot, I feel dizzy and sit down hard on the grass. I close my eyes. The sun blazes red through my eyelids, so I cover my face with my arm and fall back on the Peterson’s lawn. Buddy goes crazy licking my face. I’m fine, I say in my mind. I’m just resting. Buddy presses his nose against my cheek, then collapses on top of me, resting his big warm head on my shoulder. It’s unbearably uncomfortable and unbearably hot, yet it makes me feel calmer, and I wonder if this is what it feels like to die. A good warm weight pushing the air out of you. A loving force that tells you, that’s enough. You can stop fighting now.
I must’ve fallen asleep on my mom’s bed because it’s late afternoon when I wake up. She’s sitting on the bed beside me. The TV isn’t on. She’s not doing anything. She’s just looking at me.
“I’m taking you to the doctor,” she says.
“No,” I say, but she puts sneakers on my feet, and I let her, like I am a toddler again. She sits me up and my head fizzes. I’m not sure I can walk but I stand up and she helps me down the stairs. My overnight bag bumps against her hip.
When we get downstairs, Dad is there where he used to sit at our kitchen table. He springs up when he sees me.
“Hey, kitten,” he says. “Your mother and I are taking you to one of the doctors in that book she got.”
“I don’t need a doctor.” I’ve heard of these places. They’ll make me eat bad things, and I’ll get fat again.
“Your mother thinks—”
“It’s not what I think,” Mom says. “Look at her. Look at our child.”
She grabs my shirt and yanks it up, and I try to push her hand down, but she’s got a fistful of fabric and I feel the air hit my stomach and I close my eyes at the look on their faces.
“Jesus, Rena, you’re her mother, don’t you feed her?” Dad asks, and my mother takes one step toward him, then another, and her face is crumpling, but then her hand goes whack right across his cheek. We all stand in the silence after, and I think he might spit out a tooth like they do on TV. The sound was that loud. He rubs his face and looks like he might say something. The moment goes on and on until he takes his suit jacket off the back of the chair and Mom hands him my bag, and he says, “Okay, I’ll meet you there.”
She has her arm around me, and I think about just letting my knees buckle and falling to the ground, only I keep walking, because she is walking the way she used to when I was very little: slow and deliberate. When she gets the car door open, I drop inside, and she leans in and buckles the seat belt around me. Her knee makes a popping sound and her hair smells like the shampoo we both like. I keep thinking, any second, she’s going to stand up with a grunt, one hand on the small of her back. But she stays there, leaning in, rubbing my back and making muttering sounds. I don’t what is going to happen, only that something is, and we both sit there feeling the breeze come in the open car door, and she just keeps holding on.
Karen McIntyre is an advertising creative director and a graduate of SUNY-Binghamton. Her work has appeared in A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, The Arkansas International, and elsewhere. She is a three-time Lascaux Prize finalist.