I graduated college just shy of 300 pounds, wearing a size thirty dress under cap and gown, still trying desperately to find someone to love. No one would even hire me, let alone date me, so I temped a few days here, a few days there, in the innumerable office buildings of Washington, DC. Finally, I was hired on permanently in a trade association for chemical makers. I worked on the legal floor, taking notes and writing reports for three of the association’s lawyers. I was in my mid-twenties and hadn’t been with anyone for years and had never truly been in love.
I am like a walrus: positively thigmotactic, I move toward any touch. All I’ve ever wanted was a single person to know me, love me, and press up against me like walruses on a beach. The neighbor boy who followed me through elementary school to middle and senior high made sure I knew I wasn’t worthy of any kindness and certainly not romantic love. There were more bullies—my father, too—but this one was different. Our backyards touched. We sometimes played together. And in sixth grade, he asked me to be his girlfriend. The next day, he dumped me. Was I even fat then? No matter, from then on he called me “Mass” and pretended every day that my steps walking down a hall were an earthquake. There were other bullies but this one, he’d known me.
No one would ever love me. The world simply refused me that. But even on some of my saddest nights, I still sang “Goodnight My Someone” from The Music Man to fall asleep and hoped for my own dreamy love to find me.
I was celibate for most of my twenties. No one ever even flirted with me, so all I could do was imagine so many different someones—real and fictive—I would have gladly given my heart. I went to graduate school as a sort of neuter, dismissed from my peers’ minds as a nonentity—no threat or boon, just a rodeo clown on break.
Then, everything changed.
In the last semester of graduate school, I began exercising with Denise Austin in the mornings. I swapped olive oil for butter. I weighed 287 pounds when I started and I knew I wouldn’t lose any weight, so that wasn’t my goal. Until I did start to lose weight. I bought a fancy bathroom scale, set up a digital food scale and calculator, and a sacred notepad and pen in the kitchen. I decided 1,000 calories would be my daily limit and I worked the numbers—measuring, adding, subtracting and subtracting—recording every food’s number well before it touched my lips. Dropping weight was like crack to me, the only thing I thought or talked about.
I woke up a year later at 160 pounds. Men began to linger just a bit and smiled with their eyes. I pinned my heart to Match.com.
The very first man ran his fingers across the vertical pleats of skin hanging loose from my ribs. “You should have warned me,” he said. “I’m not prepared for that sort of thing.”
The next man was certain I’d had a baby.
I stopped sleeping with my dates, kept clothed, and shaved 100 calories off my daily total. My skin kept the memory of the former me alive, so I had to do more.
On nights I went to bed with uneaten calories in reserve from my nine-hundred allowed, I drew a giant smiley-face on the notepad by the kitchen scale. Good girl, I went to bed repeating. Good girl. I obsessed over the minutia of decimal places. Fearing their hidden calories, I stopped wearing ChapStick or swishing Scope, and on date nights I came home, tore off my clothes, and did another Denise Austin in my bra and undies. I ran in place. I jumping-jacked. I ran down to the fridge to swap tomorrow night’s sixty-four-calorie portion of thin steak thawing there with a thirty-seven-calorie portion of chicken breast. And I stood naked in front of the mirror, touching hipbones I’d never known were there.
I woke up at 106 pounds. As a size-zero woman, I dated as many men as I could, trying each one on for just the right fit. But I hated them all. And the men at gas stations, eying me from their pumps. The men holding open a door for me. The men writing their names on napkins. The men who all wanted me now at 106 pounds, when clothed, but who could never confer love to my naked body.
I interviewed for teaching jobs and the men flirted. At a candidate’s dinner, I got up to use the restroom and a member of the hiring committee followed and pinned me up against the bathroom hallway, kissing and grinding against me. He called me before the flight home boarded and told me all sorts of raunchy things he wanted to do to me.
They offered me the job.
I took it.
I moved to Erie, Pennsylvania. Packed up the kitchen scale, the notepad, the specially designated pen, the bathroom scale, and the dog. I clung to the routines of nightly weigh-ins and meals portioned out in miniature: thirty-seven calories of ground turkey, twelve calories of tomato sauce, eighty calories of pasta. No, wait, put some back. Fifty-four calories of pasta. Better.
I had most foods’ calorie count per gram memorized and took pride in flirting with the enemy simply because I could, because I was a good girl. I bought Cheetos and stretched a snack-sized bag seven weeks. I was in no danger. Calories in one Cheeto? 7.14 on average but I always went by gram weight and recorded every number. Calories in a peanut M&M? 10.333333. Calories in a squirt of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter? 1.25. Calories in yellow mustard? Purported to be zero but I always wrote down 5, just in case. I was a good, good girl.
Yet, when a date was over, when the restaurant shut down or I sat warming up the car’s engine and heater before heading back to my quiet rental house alone, what slipped easily into the bit of sadness working its way through my heart? A pint of ice cream, the cup sweating in my palm as I ran the smooth spoonful over my tongue again and again. Or a knob of cookie dough pulled from the ball of it kept in the freezer for now. Yes, now. When I came home in need of a shower but refused because I might never see him again and I thought maybe, maybe if I left the strange scent at least one more day, I could pretend like the movies.
A whisper from thirty years old, I woke up, still at 106 pounds, still alone. And I fell apart.
I drove to Wegmans after teaching one night and bought $200 in doughnuts, freezer cake, cookies, chips, cheese, and bread. At home, I unpacked the groceries, tidied everything away in the cupboards, walked my dog, and made my standard 350-calorie supper. I cleaned up and I went to bed.
In the middle of the night, I got up. Walked the long hall to the kitchen, averting my eyes when passing the mirror; this was nothing I wanted to see. I thought of what lived in the fridge and kitchen cupboards, what waited for me in there. And I owned it all; I lived here; the phone wouldn’t ring and so I would eat. I knew what was happening but I could not stop it.
I stood at the large cupboard, surveying all the foods I’d forbidden myself over the past two years. And then I tore into them, ate standing, plateless, the crumbs hitting the floor for my confused dog.
I ate from nearly everything in the house: a Little Debbie Star Crunch, a vacuum-sealed portion of 1/8 bagel with its tidy label of calories and feather of gram weight, two macadamia nut cookies and every piece of pita, a chocolate-dunked drumstick and an ice cream pint crusty with freezer burn. All the forbidden foods and all the rest, too. There was frenzy in my veins and it would not stop until the food was gone.
Pleas for precision with the numbers and a firm resolve became Please, just let me get through all this food. Then it can be over and I never have to do this again. I ate past hurting, past when my stomach grew so hard I worried it would rupture in the night. I slipped off my nightgown and touched my abdomen while I chewed. I pitied and loved my skin, my flesh, me—but that is not allowed, which hurt most of all. Even still, I ate one more stir-up of flour, sugar, and butter, a kind of mock cookie dough, all while begging for release.
I remember the glow of the street lamp that night, the fridge light, the big moon. These lit my kitchen.
My jaw ached, my bony feet hurt standing so long on the kitchen hardwood. My cheeks were summer-pink, warm and moist. Naked, I stood chewing until I was close to dead from grief. Then, I rummaged under the sink for a trash bag and crammed it full of all the crap food that was left. I slipped my nightgown back on and, barefoot in the snow, ran the bag out to the curb.
Its white plastic was too bright against the old snow. I held the bag’s drawstring, willing myself not to think about what was in the bag. Potato chips. Coconut freezer cake. Half a dozen doughnuts. Taffy. Bags of tater tots. The pastas and rice and pita bread I slathered with butter. Lake-effect air drained my face, my bare ass beneath the ratty nightgown, the nape of my neck. No matter, I could have stood there for hours.
Dogs barked once sharply, not enough to know their direction. The cold changed, a meanness I could feel bite my skin. I rushed back inside. I sobbed and called my mother who was logical—“Just don’t do it again,” she said. But I would and I knew it because there was no way around this circling but straight through.
The next morning, I stopped at the drugstore for SlimFast shakes that would prevent me having to think about any food at all. I drank a chocolate shake in my office for lunch. But that night, I stopped at Wegmans again and rebought all the food. And on the way home the next night. And on the way home the next night. $200 a night and if I could have decided it was okay to eat, I wouldn’t have had to run the trash bag out to the curb at one in the morning, when the terror of what eating meant took hold of me. I wouldn’t have to buy it all back again the next day, racking up so much credit card debt. But there was no choosing, no choice. There was only compulsion.
Two months later, I woke up at 180 pounds and hovered there a while. I interviewed for another job and took it, swearing that Indiana would be different, that I would be different. I tried to reason with myself: if you’re going to eat—and you are—be okay with that. I bought a few forbidden foods but mostly managed to eat them slowly. I didn’t join Match.com but threw myself at one of the two available teachers in the liberal arts college where I taught.
I had learned absolutely nothing, but he was different.
I’d go over to his house and open the cupboard below the kitchen sink, where the liquor was stored. He had rum and coke or a greyhound. I took Kahlúa straight. We played pool in his basement with Fela playing so loud I pretended I could hear him say, “This part—oh!” He showed me how to smoke from a one-hitter and I used up all his kind bud, saying, “I don’t feel anything. Light it again.” He picked up movies from the library, showed me The Incredible Hulk, Godzilla, and The Invisible Man. He took me to the botanical garden in St. Louis, then to Estes Park, then to Colorado to vacation with his mom’s side of his family. And when my dog got out and was hit by a car, this man dug the hole to bury her beneath a tall and wispy Bradford pear tree in his own yard.
My 180-pound body fit my skin better but I still hid certain foods and my overeating. One day this man showed up at my house and I had a freezer pizza baking in the oven. I didn’t even like Jack’s pizzas and it was three in the afternoon, not lunchtime. The second I saw his car pull in, I threw open the oven door, grabbed the hot pan, and ran it out the back where I flung the pizza down into the yucca plants below the deck. I ran back inside and let him in. The house reeked of melty cheese. The oven ticked, trying to cool itself.
“What are you cooking?” he said.
I crumbled, walked him out to the deck, and pointed down at the pizza in the bushes. He had seen pictures of me at a friend’s wedding and at my cousin’s wedding the year prior: the bony sternum, the knobby wrists, and cadaver’s cheekbones.
I told him everything about my body and about losing control. He was understandably wary. But he stayed. We married a year later and had our son one more after that. Magically, I ate like a normal person, mostly, eating with other people in the room, eating in public, eating without compulsion or hiding.
Three years later, I woke up at 212 pounds.
Five more years later, I woke up at 136 pounds, down again via obsessive calorie-counting. At night, I cried to my husband, so afraid was I of the inevitability of binging. He gave me a little silver fortune cookie necklace, bearing the fortune, You will be loved through thick and thin.
Five more years later, though, I’ve woken up at 321 pounds and I can’t help but think the love is different now. That he sees me with different eyes. That his attraction to me lives mostly in muscle memory, not current desire.
He is truly my someone, my lobster, the love of my life, and I am these for him. But would he even have talked to me back then if I’d been as big as I am now?
I am forty-three and I’ve been hiding food from him again, as if he won’t notice the additional 190 pounds. I try every day to own up to being huge and every bite that got me here, to embrace it and staunchly resist size-ism to whatever extent I am capable that day.
Today is not the day I can eat like a normal person and not tomorrow either. But maybe the day after that or the next one. No matter which body I have, I am still me and there is a fury I feel for the men who don’t hold open my door now, the waiters who don’t scribble a smiley face or a rose on the check, who have no use for me in this body. And there is a fury just as bright—no, brighter—for the men who used to hold open the door and scrawl their name and number on bar napkins.
My husband is neither of these.
That truth and his love have saved me.
Rumpus original art by Stephanie Tartick.