On a day when I wanted to throttle the first therapist treating my binge eating disorder, I ran from his office and down Beacon Street as fast as my 300-pound body could fly, to a Boston taqueria called Anna’s, where I ordered the full menu from a Mexican counter man, with sides of beans and guacamole.
“All this is for here?” he asked, stuffing a pair of tacos al pastor. “Yes,” I said and earned a puzzled look. Maybe it was pity, but I didn’t care. The therapist had pushed too hard, too far, toward places I didn’t want to go. I needed a hit, could already taste the meat, could feel my arousal—teeth grinding, saliva pooling beneath my tongue.
I hovered over the Lucite sneeze-guard, the cook’s hand’s whipping across his stainless countertop. He rolled an enchilada with steak roja. Onto the hot grill at his back he tossed a quesadilla with Monterrey Jack and sliced avocado. He laid out a fresh flour tortilla, scooped in some saucy dark beef and fillings, started to nip and tuck. Can you add some sour cream to that one? The man’s fingers stopped short. My half-loaded chicken ranchero burrito splayed open. Cheese spilled out. I’d interrupted the artist at work, but he complied.
He passed that feast across on two plastic trays, and I added a pile of chips and salsa, paying cash to a stunning Latina at the register. No sense using plastic, in leaving a paper trail my fiancé could suss out. The binge was my secret.
I found a table and soaked those plates with the red juice from a glass bottle labeled Insanity. I barely glanced at the flask, just pulled the cork and poured. My mind was on that counselor, that moppy-haired fucker who called my eating “disordered.” How dare he say that? Screw him, and his argyle sweater too.
I hacked into the burrito and into the enchilada, shoveling mouthward, over and over, a bent metal fork in my left hand, a spoon in my right, oblivious to my grotesque public display. Fluorescent rays shone down from above, and for a beautiful moment I was bathed in a gastronomic, narcotic fog.
And then a flash fire ignited.
Hot sauce heat seared my mouth and lips. My sinuses broiled, my eyes watered. I grabbed for Diet Coke, super-size, but the soda only spread the spice. The carbonation provoked a coughing fit. I’d been knifed in the gullet, from the inside out. I jumped up, choking, and spewed a half-chewed and sizzling mouthful of mixed Mexican onto a college sweat-shirted guy at the next table. Lava-like.
“Asshole!” he yelled and jumped, knocking his vomit-covered jacket off the back of his chair. His friends laughed. I would have laughed as well, had things been different. I could feel only the burn. Tears poured from my eyes, and then I jumped again, for an instant, back more than fifteen years, to the last time I cried in public, in front of the other boys, at an eighth-grade lunch table in a noisy middle school cafeteria.
I was sitting next to a boy named Jon with two square slices of institutional pizza on a tray in front of me, less a few bites I’d already taken. Jon said, “This pizza’s really good, isn’t it Mike? Don’t you like it?”
“’Sokay,” I mumbled, my mouth stuffed with crappy dough and ersatz cheese. I took another bite.
And Jon said, “I’m not that hungry. Do you want one of mine?” And he passed me a slice off his tray. So now there were three on my plate, with a few bites gone and my mouth full. Jon turned to another boy. “What about you Billy? Can Mike have one of yours?” And Billy passed me a slice. So now I had four, minus the bites I’d eaten, and those in my mouth. And then Marc handed one over, and Chris, and the other Mike, the shy one, peer-pressured into going along, leaving seven piled high on my plate. Six actually. One was mostly eaten, because I’d kept going as the slice-passing unfolded.
“I guess so,” I said, my mouth refilled yet again.
“Well you better eat up. Lunch bell’s gonna ring soon.”
And I wanted to, desperately. I wanted to stuff myself with the food on that overfilled platter, fingerprinted by all of those boys. I wanted to feel my belly stretched and sore. I needed to turn my emotional hurt into physical pain, into something tangible, something I’d caused myself, something under my control, because I couldn’t control what those mean-spirited pre-teen bullies chanted as I stuffed those slices into my mouth and chewed and swallowed for them, over and over.
Come on Big Mike!
Let’s go Fatso! Let’s go Bubble!
Eat! Eat! Eat!
And I did. I filled my belly so I wouldn’t have to feel the shame they made me feel, the embarrassment of being the fat kid. It was a vicious circle, and I spiraled deep. I went on to devour calories over the confusion of growing up with a father who one minute said, “I love you, son, I’m proud of you,” and the next yelled, “What the hell is wrong with you, dumb-ass?” I ate when a prospective prom date said no and when I failed my college professors. I ate to escape horrible bosses and because I was a horrible boss. I ate because I was sad and because I was angry, and because I didn’t know what to do with my sadness and with my anger. I never ate for hunger.
I wouldn’t truly grasp any of this for another twenty years, and another 150-odd pounds, until my body weight blew way past 300, past 325 and peaked at 336, until my belt-size hit 56 inches and my blood pressure crept dangerously high. In the middle school cafeteria that day, I ate all of the pizza that landed on my tray because I was too ashamed to say no, and too ashamed to walk away. So I let Jon and those other boys egg me on with their taunts.
“Eat, eat!” they said. Except for the other Mike, the shy one, who was peer-pressured into going along. When that pizza was gone and the lunch bell rang, I ran from those boys as fast as my plodding body allowed, and I buried my tears down deep, beneath so many more pizza slices, and so much spicy Mexican.
The burning pain in my mouth eased, with time and milk, whole I believe, hand-delivered by the Latina cashier and free of charge. “Swirl it around in your mouth,” she said. “It will cool the heat.” And it did, mostly, but not the rising redness painting my cheeks. Later, I’d learn that Dave’s Insanity is the hottest of hot sauces, scoring 180,000 on something called the Scoville Scale, a measure of hot pepper intensity. At the time I just knew it was the spiciest spice I’d ever swallowed.
“Sorry about the jacket,” I told the college kid. “Can I pay for the cleaning?” I passed him a sawbuck and he stormed out with his pals, angry and snickering, the coat hanging from his arm. And to a long list of fat embarrassments—airplane seat-belt extenders, big & tall pants—I added vomiting on a fraternity stranger.
I got a replacement burrito, extra large—double chicken, double rice, no hot sauce—with chips and a beef enchilada on the side. The counter man muttered passing it over, all on one tray this time, and again I paid cash to the lovely Latina with my last few dollars. They thought I was crazy, I could tell, though my Spanish was and remains rudimentary: está loco. They were right.
I found a table in a dark corner, between the kitchen door and the emergency exit, and a left-behind newspaper to pretend-read, so I’d look busy. In no time the replacement burrito with its chips-and-enchilada-on-the-side were gone, swallowed almost whole, and so was my anger at the therapist, replaced by a shame I couldn’t yet articulate or understand. I was kicking myself. For this binge, and all my others. For vomiting on the frat boy. For hiding alone in the back of a restaurant. For letting those pizza boys do their bullying so many years before. For my secret addiction.
I was so stuffed it took a half hour to get my body moving, thirty minutes more of make-believe with the found paper, a show for passing patrons who I feared might otherwise wonder about the fat guy sitting alone in the corner. I didn’t read, just stared at the letters, though I was a newspaperman myself, a reporter, at the time. I needed the coast to clear, tables to turn. I was terrified of walking back through the restaurant, past anyone who’d seen me volcano.
“How was your day, honey?” she asked when I walked in, her face radiant, her heavy textbooks shoved off the kitchen table, the tiny engagement ring I’d recently slipped onto her left finger sparkling. The apartment off Beacon Street smelled vaguely of cat litter, and of cigarette smoke wafting in from shut-in old Mr. Rosenberg next door—and of the surprise dinner she’d cooked. Fresh spaghetti with pomodoro.
“I thought we’d spend some time together,” she said, passing me a heavy ceramic bowl, with fork and spoon for twirling, steam rising from the contents. I took a seat at the table. I poured wine. She joined me with her own dish.
She didn’t notice right away. Not for six bites, or maybe eight. Medical students work up huge appetites, learning to heal, and she was focused on her own stomachy growlings. She caught on soon enough. My dinner was hardly touched.
“You don’t like the pasta, Mike?”
I’m not really hungry, I said. Left unspoken was that I couldn’t force-feed another bite. I tried, chewed a small mouthful, nibbled at the edges, to maintain the ruse and because that garlicky sauce called to me, tugged at me, hypnotically. But it was impossible. I was stuffed.
She set down her spoon, placed her fork on the edge of the pasta bowl. She looked through me with the deep green eyes I adored, the left iris brown beauty-marked, and saw straight through to my core. “I know,” she sighed. “I get it. You’re hurting. Let me help.”
But I moved to help instead, to clear and clean dishes, to Tupperware and refrigerate the leftovers. She’d made the dinner; this was the least I could do.
She wouldn’t let go: “We need to find you some help. You need to talk to someone.”
I wanted burgers, not help, despite my full gut, despite the taste of Mexican cud behind my tongue, pushing its way up my throat. With teeth jammed shut to clamp down that nausea and my face turned away so she wouldn’t notice, I said, “I’m talking in therapy.”
“Are you?” Her question was rhetorical. I was struck-silent. She said, “There’s a place inside you I can’t reach.”
“I know. I can’t reach it either.”
And she said, “But that’s where you need to go.”
She was right. I just didn’t know it then.
Two days later, on a cold March Saturday, I mini-binged in front of her on North End pizza, after a morning of clothes shopping at the big and tall store, for super-sizes to fit my body-super. I couldn’t stop myself from a fifth meaty slice even as gentle tears welled in her eyes. This was the first time she’d seen me swallow the heartache.
“Are you really still hungry?” She’d finished after two.
“Just one more,” I said, reaching for the sixth and last. Alone I would have gone off whole-hog, scoffed down an entire pie, and another.
She’d always known I was a user. It was obvious, though I worked hard to keep my gluttonous jags hidden. I’d gained a dozen pounds in the first year we lived together, stressing under a tyrannical boss. But even as I was fat and getting fatter, my amazement grew with each pound that she stayed. Seams split and buttons popped—and still she returned every night.
For years I assumed she had no idea. But she tasted the heat on my breath, every day, with every kiss. She could see the telltale drippings on my oversized shirts, and she lay every night with arms and legs wrapped around my expanding girth. She sensed the secrets I locked up, the only real secrets in the relationship that would become our marriage—perceiving without knowing, accepting without judging.
“Our task is to de-son-of-a-bitch all this.” A therapist I’d come to think of as “the Texan” spoke these words to me not long after my fiancé brought me to his doorstep, in the basement of an old Colonial off Beacon Street. (I would always think of him as Texas, but he was more Brooks Brothers than redneck, more fatherly than therapy, with a warm but penetrating gaze.)
“What does that mean?” I asked the old man. But I knew. Bingeing was a bitch. And so were lots of other things.
He said, “It means we need to figure it out, okay?”
My fiancé had found the Texan for me—for us—because I could not find him myself, and because I’d stayed with my first therapist far too long, out of fear, and deep reluctance to face what needed facing. And because of heavy baggage—he’s just a fag, I’d thought more than once, trying to control the talk, to outsmart the analyst, by demeaning the man. I was overcome by the vestiges of childhood noise, by memories of my father’s use of that nasty word. The Texan would help slay that crazy, shameful voice playing in my head.
“Why do you binge?” the Texan asked.
“I don’t know. It’s just what I do.”
“Well, do you enjoy it? Do you like eating?”
“I don’t know,” I said, but the question stopped me cold. “Maybe. I don’t think so.” I didn’t usually consider how the binge felt. I just ate until I couldn’t eat anymore.
“You don’t think so?” he asked.
“Not really.” It would be years before I could tell him, before I’d even understand, how much I craved the self-loathing, how a bellyful of meatballs eased the hurt, at least until the digestion was done, and the hunger returned.
“What do you think about when you’re eating?” he asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Not really,” I said and thought of donuts. I need ‘em now, man. A hit. A dozen. I need a fucking dozen.
“I think you do,” he insisted. “I also think you’re going to eat after our session.” A statement, not a question.
I stared at the worn carpet, dark brown. Said nothing.
“Is that right Mike? Are you going to eat?”
I need it, goddammit. Get me a fucking sandwich. He just stared. Finally, quietly, timidly, I said: “Yes.”
“Maybe the deli.”
“Across the street?” he asked. “Barry’s?”
“Uh huh,” I said, my taste buds already savoring the only decent pastrami-on-rye in Boston. I’d get two ‘Barry-size’ with double meat, each as thick as the owner, and a pair of knishes. A black & white cookie too, and maybe a chocolate babka. I’d wash the whole mess down with Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray in the driver’s seat of my car, parked at the nearest T stop, watching the trains.
The Texan said, “That’s a lot of food.”
“How long does it take to eat all of that?”
“Not long. I just kind of tear into everything.”
“The desserts too?”
“In the same mouthfuls?”
“Do you finish it all?”
“Toss the trash out the window. Drive off.”
“You just throw the trash right out? You litter?”
“I don’t understand. Why? Why do you litter?”
“I’m too full to get out of the car.”
“Does she know you do this? Eat in the car?”
“Are you sure?”
“I think so.”
“But there must be some evidence. Trash, or grease on the steering wheel? The smell of food?”
“I drive home with the windows open.”
“It’s twenty degrees out.”
“It airs out pretty fast.”
Even now I don’t know why I told the Texan all of this, why I started talking. But he opened the valve.
“You still haven’t really told me what you think about when you’re eating like that.”
“Nothing. I just listen to the radio.”
“Listen to what?”
“That’s it? All you do is listen to the radio? There’s nothing on your mind?”
I took a deep breath. Just give me the fucking corned beef, with extra mustard. Spicy brown.
Gimme the shit, motherfucker! “I guess sometimes I’m just waiting to get found out.”
“What does that mean? Found out?”
My heart pounded into my eardrums and I said, “I’m waiting for them to discover I’m a fraud.”
“How are you a fraud?”
“I’m guess I’m just not good enough. I don’t belong, don’t fit in anywhere.”
“Is that why you binge?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well what else do you think about? When you’re eating?”
“Sometimes I think about her, why she’s with me.”
“What do you mean?”
“She’s so smart and together. I’m not.”
“Tell me what you love about her.”
My heart bloomed and the words poured out: “Oh god, she’s so sarcastic and funny. She’s warm, and so good hearted. And beautiful. She’s moved by the smallest thing, the sun shining, a tiny flower poking from a sidewalk crack. And she’s kind. And she loves me despite…”
But that I couldn’t say, couldn’t get it out. So the Texan said it for me: “Despite the fact that you’re overweight?”
A shudder moved down my body, rippled through heavy fat rolls spilling over my Levi’s.
“You’re not worthless, Mike. You just told me she loves you.”
“You just described the most amazing woman in the world. Do you think she’d love you if you were worthless?”
“That’s her one flaw,” I said, and he laughed, and then we were quiet for a minute.
“Now seriously, Mike,” he said, “tell me what else you think about when you binge.”
I looked him straight in the eye, face-to-face, man-to-man, our gazes momentarily locked, and I hoisted myself from his old vinyl chair, the spring creaking at the release of tension, the seat rebounding into my ass. I walked out.
She beamed when I showed up with twelve dozen bunches of red roses at six o’clock on a Saturday night a few weeks before our wedding, using my last few dollars to clear out the day’s-end inventory from a street vendor at the downtown Haymarket, holding back just enough cash for an ungodly splurge at a nearby fast-food joint. She said, “You’re the kindest, most wonderful man!”
I didn’t feel kind or wonderful sitting in her mother’s kitchen as they smiled and cut the fresh flowers, searched high and low for vases, stunned by my ridiculous purchase. I felt full. But I suddenly hated the feeling. I thought of lightness. I wanted to know weightlessness. And so I went back.
“Why do you eat, Mike?” the Texan asked once again. He wouldn’t let it go.
Again the quiet glare, forcing a void between us, a heavy silence.
I waited a moment, then leaped. “I guess maybe eating’s just easier,” I said.
“Easier than what?”
“Than dealing with truths.”
“What truths, Mike?”
There were so many.
The Texan asked, “Do you think it might be better to try to speak of these truths inside, than to keep them locked away, then to keep on the way you are?”
“Maybe,” I said, rocking my 300-pound body back and forth in the Texan’s office chair, the taste of Indian buffet forcing it’s way back up my throat. “Maybe.”
Slowly my walls came down. The Texan helped me find that place inside that I couldn’t reach. The place my wife couldn’t reach, where I’d bottled away all of my anger and insecurities, all of my shame and humiliation, and locked it away with meal after meal, binge after binge.
There was joy on the day it finally occurred to me, sitting in the Texan’s chair, that I ate to turn my pain physical, to drug myself, to escape the irreconcilable. I’d chosen food, so many years earlier, as the easy addiction, the safe choice. Everyone in my family was already fat. I could make the leap to binge-eater in secret, at home, in my mother’s kitchen. It was delicious. It was legal, and I was a good kid.
But on that day there was sadness too. The problem with food is the addict can’t stop, can’t walk away from the vice, can’t cleanly separate, unlike a drunk, smoker, a junkie going cold. Food is life. I was hooked, deep in the throes.
So the time came when I decided to let a surgeon cut me. My wife and I trusted when he said it would be simple and quick, an operation to end my hunger and thin my 336-pound body. But weight-loss surgery turned out to be neither simple nor quick. I almost died. I spent close to three years tethered to the hospital by wires and feeding tubes, bingeing on liquid nutrition pumped directly into my bloodstream. It was not delicious. My wife, long a physician herself by then, kicked and screamed and fought for me when I couldn’t fight for myself. In the end I became so much slimmer, and I finally stopped eating. Mostly.
Years later, my teenage daughter, strong and athletic, ordered a quesadilla with cheese from a Mexican counter-man at a taqueria named Anna’s, a suburban outpost of the popular Boston chain. “Just cheese,” she said. “Nothing else.”
“Me too! With chips and salsa!” said my young son, eager and hungry, his face pressed close to the protective glass. The table of steaming meats and beans beyond intrigued neither of my kids, so simple were their tastes.
“Sí,” said the short-order-cook. “Dos quesadillas con queso. And you sir?”
For me? It was another time and place, and I stood there wearing a thinner, middle-aged body, the body I’d fought and suffered for. I turned away, watched the kids settle onto a pair of stools near the window. I thought of my wife—of the life she’d given me, of my force-feedings, the binges I’d swallowed. The tastes remained—the textures, the chew. I’d come close to the edge, nearly eaten myself to death. I was lucky.
Suddenly I could feel the old arousal, the adrenaline release, my palate awakening. A taste wouldn’t hurt, would it? Just a taste…
The counter man’s voice shattered my reverie: “Señor? For you?” I was blocking his line.
I turned and breathed deep, savoring for an instant the velvety aromas rising between us. I craved. I smiled. I prayed.
Nothing for me. Not right now. Thanks.
Rumpus original art by Elizabeth Schmuhl.