The M Word
No one taught me how to masturbate. I didn't need to scour outdated issues of Cosmo, brave the late-nineties Internet, or smuggle The Joy of Sex out of the library, to learn my way around the body. I knew myself like a map, knew how to work the land with my hands. Even in preschool, I was a little orgasm factory, churning out pleasure with stunning finesse for someone who believed she peed out of her vagina. I didn't have a language with which to talk about sexual things, and I didn't want one. Just like Dr. Seuss said one fish, two fish; red fish, blue fish, the situation "down there" seemed simple: one hand, two hand, WOWZA. No discussion needed.
So, one autumn evening, I toddled into the kitchen as Mom and Dad prepared dinner. Our kitchen glowed the yolky color of a fried egg, as did every room in the house, because Mom insisted that a neutral color scheme was calming. Our lives were a wash of creamy yellows, anemic in the omnipresent Pennsylvania dusk.
I ambled up to my dad, casually massaging my pubis through my pants. Shock fanned over his face, but his voice was calm when he asked what I was doing. He was used to my strange logic: I carried around a tattered copy of Red Velvet for "resurge:"; I rushed to our sliding screen door at the end of every infomercial to find "the number on your screen"; I believed ham came from a bird, misunderstanding "ham hock" as "ham hawk."
"I'm peeling," I said, kneading myself. "Like a banana."
My dad's response doesn't matter. What matters is that I don't remember my Mom reacting, not laughing or rolling her eyes or even reprimanding me. And maybe she did confront me—maybe she bent down on her throbbing, misshapen knees and explained not to fondle myself in public, and maybe we hugged afterward and laughed about my banana comment like actors in a sitcom. If so, I let that memory evaporate years ago. Like most things concerning my mother, I wanted it out of my hands.
A few years later, Mom forbade me to continue watching my favorite cartoon, Rugrats. I was turning into Angelica, she said. Angelica: the brat. The show's villain. And, apparently, the lone obstacle to us living in perfect mother-daughter harmony.
I saw a slew of obstacles, and none of them looked like a pigtailed kindergartener. The worst one, I kept a secret, letting it boil me alive. I never told anyone that when I thought about Mom, I'd burn myself all over again with the memory of the time Dad left for a days-long business trip, and I was alone in Mom's care. I'd remember her giving me one sliced pear for breakfast, because I was chubby and Dad wasn't around to curb her skinny crusade. I'd remember eating that pear in little rabbit nibbles, hungry and humiliated for being hungry, gnawing at the pulp dangling from the stem when the last slice disappeared. And I'd remember going to school with my stomach—my fat, flopping, out-of-control stomach—groaning out evidence of how disgusting I was. That grumbling hunger, stifled with a sharp punch to the gut in Mrs. Ford's art class—that's the sound of self-hatred. That's what Mom taught me.
One day later that year, while Mom did laundry, I holed up in the basement and blared Rugrats and masturbated right there on the carpet. Because of her disability, Mom couldn't get down the stairs to catch me in the act. I orgasmed repeatedly, my face pinched in ecstasy as the show's theme song plinked on.
Before I knew what being "turned on" was, I knew that humiliation turned me on. My orgasms swelled the highest, like the soaring screams of a teakettle, when I screened nightmares in my mind. Nudity, incontinence, public shaming—they made me gasp for breath.
Years later, when I became a long-distance runner as part of my personal skinny crusade, I'd find the exact opposite. To finish a challenging race, after my sides stapled with cramps and my legs started to quake beneath me, I needed to visualize triumph. The fifth-grade boy who, as a joke, asked me to be his girlfriend? He was chanting my name. The seventh-grade kid who called me fat? Blue in the face, he was rooting so loud. The girl who gossiped about me in ninth grade? She'd made a puffy-paint poster with my name in neon green. And the last person, the one stationed right in front of the finish line: Mom.
She was screaming, I'm sorry.
She was screaming, I was wrong.
She was screaming, I love you.
Whether masturbating or racing, I always finished well.
Christmas of my fifth-grade year, I unwrapped two books under the tree (in front of my father, and my sister's teenage boyfriend): The Care and Keeping of YOU, and My Body, My Self for Girls. The first book, issued by the American Girl company, was a watered-down, cartoon-illustrated volume filled with tidbits of advice such as "never shave dry!" The second book contained the juicy information. Right there in the glow of the tree's multicolored lights, I flipped to the final chapter, "The Big M." My sister, Erica, laughed as she read over my shoulder; her boyfriend found a crick in his neck that demanded his attention.
But I should give Jeremy—the boyfriend—more credit. For someone hailing from a family of conservative Indiana farmers, he'd adapted well to my family's dynamic. For instance, my Dad's hobby of making every wrapped present a "mystery": wadding up items like underwear and bras inside cardboard toilet-paper rolls, so we wouldn't know what to expect when we picked up the oblong gifts. One year, Jeremy watched Erica pop fourteen pairs of sheer Victoria's Secret panties out of fourteen Charmin cylinders.
Receiving those two books from Mom counted as The Talk, I suppose, since we never discussed anything within their covers, or acknowledged that she'd gifted them at all.
The Informal Talk—the preview to The (Silent) Talk—happened in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. I was five, sitting in our minivan with my knees jammed in the back of Mom's seat. We'd rolled the windows down, letting the nighttime humidity crawl inside. I sweated inside my khaki shorts as Erica, Mom, and I waited for Dad.
"What's taking so long?" I slouched lower in my seat. I knew Mom hated the feeling of my knees piercing her seatback, so I pressed harder. She always reclined to a ridiculous degree, even when I would reach my adult height of 5'9'' and be forced to sit with my knees pinned down.
"Must be a long line," Erica said. I knew Dad was inside buying her O.B., one of those robin's-egg-blue cardboard boxes she stashed under the bathroom sink. But I didn't know what O.B. was, or what was so special about it that we'd leave the condo for it at nine o'clock at night. So I asked.
And there we were: three women, two generations, one family, trapped in a car in the sticky summer heat. And I'd asked what tampons were. And my mom sat silent.
"Girls use them," Erica explained, her eyes darting from me, to the back of Mom's head, to me. She dragged out her syllables, as if giving Mom time to catch up and take over. "For their periods." She glanced at Mom again. "Sissy, do you know what periods are?"
I didn't. I'd seen the paper-wrapped white sticks Mom carried in her briefcase in Ziploc bags, but I'd never wondered about them. Except maybe to speculate that they looked like a pretty bland kind of candy. Not like the colorful packages I eyed in the grocery-store checkout line.
"...and you just stick it up there," Erica said, motioning with her index finger. "In the..." she grimaced, "vagina."
"The sex hole?" I asked, remembering what Nathan Erickson said on the playground. He knew all about sex, like that oral sex meant the guy peed in the girl's mouth. After listening to him, I understood why Erica was had taken a vow of abstinence.
"Yes," Erica raised her eyebrows. "The same one the boy...enters. During sex."
The corners of my mouth sagged in horror. I imagined a man thrusting himself into a woman, the way Dad stabbed a meat thermometer into roasts in the oven. I imagined the juices spilling out of the woman, red then pink then clear.
"He just shoves it up there?"
At that point, Mom laughed. Breezily, as if we were three gals gathered at quilting club, gossiping about our husbands. "It has to get hard first," she said. Erica covered her face with her hands and groaned. "Otherwise it'd be like trying to shove a piece of spaghetti up there."
Erica screamed with embarrassed laughter and I stared, horrified, as Mom laughed herself back to silence. I wondered how hard it got, still visualizing the metal spear of the meat thermometer. When Dad trundled out of the store, plastic bag in hand, no one breathed a word about our previous conversation.
I evolved into my role as the odd one out: the inevitable fifth wheel that my family couldn't do without, but couldn't do much with. Erica had Jeremy—from her sophomore year of high school onward, she was part of a They. (Peanut butter and jelly, salt and pepper, Erica and Jeremy—some pairings are just heaven-sent.) And Mom had Dad, always. Her disability required it. Anywhere we went, his hand vised her upper arm, steadying her every step.
In my favorite daydreams, I had somebody, too. Not because I felt lonely—introverted to the extreme, I preferred to be alone. But having "that special someone" would make me special, too, as special as Erica in her expensive prom dresses. Mom fawned over the custom-tailored, size-four dresses that hugged Erica's ribs tight and swished around her ankles.
When it came to prom (or anything, really, that involved Jeremy) Mom incinerated Life As We Knew It and served up a new normal. She stocked Jeremy's favorite foods in the pantry; she prepared wild-caught salmon and grilled sirloins when he ate with us; she booked vacations to Disney World, the Caribbean, California. Mom cared what Jeremy thought.
In second grade, I sulked to Mom that Elliot Vincent-Killian, an older boy I knew only vaguely, had called me fat. As I placed three slices of Kraft American cheese on my TV tray for lunch, Mom clucked her tongue at me.
"Three slices of cheese, huh," she frowned. "If you eat like that, you'll really be fat, like that Elliot boy said."
My Care and Keeping of YOU book, with its smiling cartoon teenagers, promised me that every body was beautiful. The American Girl brand cared about self-esteem. As a fifth-grader, I longed to believe it. But in the back of my mind—or sliding cold fingers beneath my belt—was Mom.
Every time we shopped, Mom insisted on accompanying me in the dressing room. Gap caused the least anxiety, because its walls were floor-length, soundproof. Nobody could hear the knives Mom threw behind those doors. Old Navy was the worst.
I would follow Mom's unsteady gait across the thunderstorm-colored floor. Every dressing room we passed, I could hear the women inside—this is too tight, that's too revealing, this is the one! I'd slam our door, but I couldn't stamp out the sound of Mom's voice as she barked her orders. She insisted we start by trying on the jeans. "Because they're the hardest," she would say, frowning, seated and staring as I undressed. If I asked her not to watch me undress, she'd get angry. I felt her eyes on my thighs. I was always the biggest kids' size—sixteen, eighteen if they carried it.
Eleven years later, I still avoid the sight of my naked body in the mirror.
So the pants ritual began: could the fabric fit over my legs? Did the buttons close? If not, a protracted sigh. If yes, the humiliation began. Could I squat down? (Eyes on the folds of my stomach.) Could I bend over? (Eyes peeled for a bulge around my sides.) Could I sit comfortably? Lift up your shirt when you sit; let's see if the waist strains.
And the final test, when I'd suffered all the others: could Mom fit her hand inside the waistband? Two or three frigid fingers, knuckles gnarled from her disease, nails sharp. She'd jam her hands inside the pants and feel my circumference. She'd touch all the contours of my body, everywhere fat laid its claim, and sit back, sigh.
Then she'd decide whether or not she liked the pants.
In seventh grade, Mom caught me masturbating. She came home early to find me on my stomach, cheek to the carpet, hands burrowed underneath myself as an after-school special blipped across the screen.
"What are you doing?" she cried, her keys like breaking glass as they hit the marble countertop. "Why are your hands down your pants?"
I jumped up and clutched my lower abdomen. "Stomachache!" I shuffled to the bathroom like someone in a Pepto Bismol commercial. "Diarrhea!"
After a few deep breaths, and a few strategic flushes of the toilet, I trudged back to the living room, cradling my stomach for effect.
"I just feel terrible," I shriveled up my face, feigning pain.
I never knew if she believed the lie. All I knew was she acted as if she did, flipping through a magazine and mumbling that I should take an antacid.
At dinner, age twenty, I ordered a grilled chicken salad—no dressing—while my date ordered a swiss-and-mushroom burger.
"Make me feel huge, why don't you?" she joked, biting off the top third of a fry.
I laughed and tried to cross my legs under the table, but my swollen knee stopped me. If it weren't for the tendonitis, I would have run eight miles that morning, not walked them. Then maybe I'd be at my goal weight.
I examined my date's body while she ate. She couldn't weigh more than a hundred and five pounds.
Loading my fork with lettuce, I avoided the croutons.
The summer before ninth grade, Mom booked our family, plus Jeremy, rooms in a towering resort at the base of Ouachita Mountain. Each morning, Erica and I ran four miles over the sinuous trails, her stride brisk, mine stuttering in time to my wheezing chest. I knew I'd never be the Cross-Country star Erica was, but since preseason practices were starting in a month, I fought to keep up.
One afternoon, punishing my sore quadriceps on a hike with Dad, I felt sweat beading inside my shorts. I attributed it to the Arkansas sun, but when I shut myself in the bathroom, I found rust-colored stains on my underwear.
"Hey," I whispered, cornering Erica as she rifled through her open suitcase. Shirts and socks rippled around her rooting hands. "Do you have any pads?"
The ripples froze as her eyes found mine. "Sissy!" Erica's voice sounded delectable, like warmed honey. "Did you get your period?"
I nodded, flushed and torn between laughing and crying as Erica pulled the familiar robin's-egg box out of her bag. Back in the bathroom, one thought itched at me: when you get your period, you stop growing. Mom had said it loads of times. I'd felt grateful that, less than a month shy of my fourteenth birthday, I hadn't had my menarche (a My Body, My Self for Girls term for a girl's first period). I held out hope that, one morning, I'd wake with my feet hanging off the foot of the bed. I held out hope that I'd "thin out," as Mom said. The blood between my legs soiled that dream, blot by blot.
Erica demonstrated how to insert the tampon as I chewed my lip. At my last doctor's appointment—the last one I would ever allow Mom to accompany me to—I'd sat on the crinkly white sheet as the nurse recited my basic information.
"You're at a healthy weight for your height," she said, holding up her clipboard as proof. She read my blood pressure, temperature, and promised the doctor would be in shortly to conduct my physical.
In the interim, I tried not to squirm. The paper beneath my thighs announced my every movement. Like a human Rice Krispy, I snapped, crackled, popped.
"Hmph," Mom grunted, brooding over the nurse's chart.
"Everything sounds good," I said, staring at the spot on my kneecaps I always missed when shaving. I formed every word as carefully as I'd shape cookie dough. "She said I'm a healthy weight."
Mom frowned. "Eighty-fifth percentile for weight," she sighed. "That's pretty high." She stretched out the "pretty" on her tongue, long and sticky as taffy. I hated when she spoke Appalachian: "sam-wich" instead of "sandwich," "yew-man" instead of "human." I longed to look into her pinched face and say I hated pret-ty much everything about her.
"...and you just shove it up as far as you can," Erica said, discarding the tampon from its plastic wrapper and fanning out one end like a skirt. Bell-shaped, it reminded me of the Jingles chocolates Dad bought every December. But bigger, and drier.
"Will it hurt?" I held the little bell in my hand. It weighed less than a chocolate. I figured I'd enjoy it less, too.
"Only if you don't get it up high enough," Erica said. She claimed inserting tampons manually—without an applicator—was easiest. Not knowing what an applicator was, I trusted her.
An hour later, Dad found me laid out on the bed, legs and arms splayed snow-angel style, focusing on keeping my lower body motionless.
"The curse of woman is upon me," I groaned, flinging my arm over my eyes. Dad's face lit up with happiness, jack-o-lantern style, as Mom wandered into the room.
"What?" she asked, looking from him to me. "What's going on?"
"Laney got her period," Dad said in a hushed voice, holding back a laugh. He looked as proud as he did when I crossed the finish line at track meets, even if I'd come in dead last (which I usually did).
Mom tensed, the way she did when our kitchen's smoke alarm blared mid-recipe. "Did you use something?" she asked me.
"Erica gave me a tampon," I said, pretending to wince so I didn't have to look at her. "But it hurts so bad."
"It's not in right," Dad said immediately. He strode over to Erica's suitcase, grabbed the box of O.B., and handed me another tampon. I wrinkled my nose at it, imagining the burning between my legs intensifying. But I took it, glad Dad had stepped up so I didn't have suffer eye contact with Mom during this conversation. Because of Mom's disability, Dad had played a larger-than-normal role in Erica's life, and he was ready to play it for me, too. I appreciated that he knew a lot more than just where CVS stocked feminine products.
"Really get it up there," Mom called as I shut the bathroom door. At the sound of her voice, I punched the lock on the handle. Then, remembering Dad's and Erica's advice, I put one foot on the toilet seat, exhaled, and tugged at the string threaded inside me. Like ringing a bell, I thought, gasping as the burning sharpened, then subsided, leaving only the echo of pain.
When sixth grade arrived and I switched from Radio Park Elementary to Park Forest Middle School, Mom switched our family from normal life to diet life. It began with a paperback volume on her bookshelf, but soon enough The Schwatzbien Principle was everywhere in our home. It was in the cupboard, suddenly emptied of crackers, pretzels, pasta. In the pantry, where low-carb chocolates roosted beside low-sugar Jell-O powder. In the fridge, where eggs, cheese, and meat abounded.
"Carbs are the key," Mom coached me, "to fat storage. It's like they open doors in your cells that tells them to store fat."
And: "Cellulite is the fluffy fat, the kind that looks like cottage cheese. You get it from eating carbs."
Handing me a lunchbox: "School lunches pack in over eighty grams of carbs. That's more than we—" broiling me with a stare—"want to eat in a day."
In middle school, I learned to keep my lunch inside in my lunchbox as I ate, only letting bites be exposed in the second it took them to travel from Ziploc to mouth. I wanted to avoid my classmates' questions, which proved impossible. Why did I eat rolls of turkey, instead of sandwiches? Why did I have low-carb faux-peanut-butter cups instead of Reese's? Why did I have diet sodas in every flavor imaginable, from orange to cream to ginger ale?
In college, when I moved out of the house, I was most exhilarated by the freedom to eat every meal alone. In my apartment, door locked and lights off, no one questioning me or teasing me or even knowing that I existed.
"Just what are you trying to do here?" Mom's voice hacked through the atmosphere at The Cheesecake Factory, butcher-knife blunt.
"Mom," Erica said, squeezing my hand under the table. I squeezed back, trying to siphon as much heat from Erica as I could. I hadn't taken off my bulky coat, even though we'd been in the restaurant almost an hour. "Calm down."
Mom's mouth curdled as she looked at my chopped salad: a small pile of vegetables, raw, bare of dressing, as I'd requested. I'd guzzled Diet Coke since we arrived, filling myself with carbonation, imagining the little bubbles expanding inside me. I planned to chug as many glasses as it took to feel full before the dreaded dessert course.
"That's not a meal," Mom said, her tone ratcheting higher.
"Laney's fine," Dad said, looking around to see if other diners were watching. "Let her eat what she wants." When Mom opened her mouth again, the muscle in Dad's jaw twitched. "Let it alone, Sharon."
I stared at my plate, eating one diced tomato at a time to prolong the meal. Since tenth grade, since my shin stress-fractured for the first time and my period disappeared and my hair thinned, Mom and Dad had been on high alert. They didn't talk about my eating disorder, but they watched.
That night in eleventh grade, skinnier than I ever dreamed, I swallowed a smile as I chewed my piece of diced cucumber exactly twenty-four times. Because even though everyone was watching me, they were glaring at Mom. I might have been sick, but I was not the problem.
In the months before my Junior prom, Mom steered the conversation toward boyfriends with her usual subtlety.
"Is Jessie still with Graham?" she asked one night at dinner, eyes on her plate.
I chomped down on my bite of chicken, hard, chewing it to mush. After a long pause: "Yup."
"You know, it might be fun to double-date. That's what Erica and Jeremy did." Mom put down her fork. "Mark, you remember—who's that nice boy that went to the prom with them? Miles? Mike something? And his date—Andrea?"
"I'm going with Jessie and Lauren," I raised my water glass to my lips like a shield. I knew to take continuous gulps while eating: to induce fullness and impede conversation. "We'll meet up with Graham there."
"But wouldn't it be fun to go with a boy," Mom said. "Surely Graham has a friend who's looking for someone."
Several nights later, I set down my fork in triumph, leveled my gaze at Mom, and told her I had talked to Graham's best single friend, Christoph Schlom.
"He had a crush on Sarah, but was too shy to tell," I smiled. I felt the meanness brighten my features as Mom's sagged in disappointment. "So I asked her to prom for him. And she said yes!"
In college, the media propagated the new holy grail of thinness: the thigh gap. Girls longed for two toned, twiggy legs that didn't touch—not even at the tippy-top, where most women's anatomies dictate that thighs belong and gaps don't. I scoffed at the trend when I read about it on the Internet, eating baby carrots alone in my dorm room. The thigh gap was nothing new; I'd been agonizing over it since middle school.
I remembered the spread in Seventeen magazine that triggered it—an article about problems "down there," as vaginas were coyly referred to. Accompanying the text about yeast infections and off-color discharge was a cropped picture of a model, from lower abdomen to mid-thigh, her underwear filling the bulk of the page. But I wasn't fascinated by her panties; my eyes shot to her pristine thighs, taut, tanned and separated by a full inch. When I looked in the mirror, I could only make my thighs separate if I gathered my fat in my fingers and pulled it out of sight.
I mentioned the thigh gap to my parents in the car one day, the magazine article seared into my mind. "But that's so unrealistic," I studied my jeans, all the bulges I disliked. "Everyone's thighs touch."
"When I stand, my thighs don't touch," Mom said from the passenger seat. She stared straight ahead as she spoke.
I didn't say anything. I didn't say but you have Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, and all your leg muscles have wasted away! I didn't say but you're not normal! I was so silent, so still, I might not have been there at all.
I defeated nature during my freshman year of college. I reversed biology's sinister march toward breasts and hips and thighs; I triumphed over hunger; I grew too lean, too strong, for any of my pants or belts. Sometimes I wandered into clothing stores and tried on small sizes, but I never bought them. Even when I slid into size-zero skinny jeans at the Gap, I left them folded on the bench in the dressing room.
Because what if you outgrow them, I chided myself.
Or what if you can get smaller.
I never got smaller than 109.6 pounds, roughly the weight of my fifth-grade self. I was never more proud than when I wrangled back a smile in the hepatologist's office as he said: "We tested for everything that could cause elevated liver enzymes, and everything came back negative. We think it's the anorexia."
I thought back to all the nights I'd touch myself while falling asleep. They weren't sexual touches—I lost the drive for those. Instead, I'd trace the topography of my hipbones, fragile as icicles; the concave of my stomach; the delicate ridge of each rib. In the morning, I'd turn around in front of the full-length mirror and watch my back as I breathed. Exhale: normal. Inhale: every rib, in sharp relief. I'd never known I had so many bones to see. As the months passed, I kept seeing more.
"This—" the doctor gestured to my body. I flexed my stomach muscles, since I had no fat left to suck in. "This is too thin."
I walked out of his office into the caramelized June sunshine, shivering but elated. I was, officially, sick—I had EDNOS stamped on my file, referrals to two more doctors, orders for another round of blood tests. Besides elevated liver enzymes, I had the low blood sugar of a pre-diabetic, a sluggish heart rate, and several vitamin deficiencies. The doctors thought I'd be infertile, at best. At worst...they trailed off, their mouths stapling shut to hold back the truth. They didn't say, outright, "you're killing yourself," but I tasted the blessing of that verdict on their tongues.
For the first time, I felt proud of myself. So proud of myself, I thought I might not want to disappear, after all.
My nutritionist, a blonde woman named Heather, who wore pencil skirts and stilettos. She was the kind of flawless my mom could respect, even when Heather ordered her not to talk to me about anything food- or body-related. No comments about other peoples' figures, positive or negative. No comments about eating, mine or hers or anyone else's. No judgments about amount of, type of, time of meals. Essentially, no communication at all. Sorry, Mom: doctor's orders.
It started with an apple. Fourteen months after that meeting with the hepatologist, and twenty pounds heavier, I watched a muscled bicep as it strained against the confines of a jean-colored button-down: apple to lips. Contact, crunch, chew. And the smell of cologne, like the cinnamony scent Jeremy used to wear, the one that had soaked into every pillow of our guest room. Jeremy had spent so many nights at our house when I was young that I associated his smell with Sunday mornings, sunlit kitchens, runny eggs and buttered toast. He and Erica left for college before the Schwarzbien craze started, so my memories of them are as inviting as Olive Garden breadsticks.
I tried to pay attention to my professor instead of watching that apple disappear, bite by bite. What captivated me most was the raw strength of that bicep: strong enough to wrap around me and hold me tight, but buttery with the scent of apple pie. In contrast, the plush thighs, held tight in corduroys. Thick where they met at the top, then lean through the legs and crossed at the ankles.
She was the most beautiful person I'd ever seen: the pure marriage of power and grace. She was someone who could fight and love, I thought. And she took up the perfect amount of space—she set the standard for the perfect amount of space. She was not a man, like my Mom had in mind. She was better; she was magic.
I didn't have any words to offer her, though I couldn't resist speaking to her. I craved her. I wanted her to hear my voice and hold me in her thoughts.
"You know," I said after class. I walked a halting half-step behind her as she moved toward the door. "You're eating that apple wrong."
She raised her eyebrows, looking from me to the apple core balanced between her thumb and index finger. Her bite marks covered the surface, illuminating brilliant spots of white beneath the red skin. "Oh yeah?"
I nodded. "If you eat it from the top down, instead of around the sides, you can eat right through the core." My face simmered in the moment my eyes caught hers.
"There's got to be a metaphor for cannibalism in there somewhere," she said, and strode out of the room.
She could cook. She danced while she fried eggs, using almond butter instead of oil and shaking her hips to electronic remixes of popular songs. She made meatballs and fajitas when she was drunk, pans sizzling under her gyrating arms, swigging malt liquor between stirs. The most elaborate meal she made for me: Atlantic salmon, baked with rosemary and apples and pine nuts, served over tri-color rotini, as we drank beer after beer. And in the morning, when we went out for breakfast, she understood why I only ordered carbs.
Over Thanksgiving break of that year, that magical year, I asked Dad to take a walk with me. We carved a mushroom-shaped path through the woods, five miles of snapping twigs and crackling leaves. Over the noise of our footsteps, I told Dad I was gay.
He said he already knew. And so, as of the month before, did Mom.
"I always suspected that your mother might like women, too," he said, as casually as he'd test for ripe pears in the grocery store. Is this one soft enough? This one might be okay. But he was talking about my mother, not a firm fruit.
"Well, she doesn't really like sex," he explained, when I gasped. Hands in his pockets, he looked unperturbed by the conversation. "And she always had very—close—relationships with women."
"But, anyway, she insists you're not gay," he said. "Though she agrees that some people are born that way. Just not you."
As we sliced through the cold, rounding out the miles toward home, I wondered what it would be like to be Mom. So defensive, so cornered. Everyone—all the doctors, the nutritionists, her husband, Erica and Jeremy—agreed that my eating disorder was not my problem. And they looked at her, silent, when they said it. I wondered my sexuality would be served the same way: cold, with a side of judgment.
The phrase "getting your just desserts" came to mind.
At my lowest weight, Heather asked me to write a letter to Mom, for my eyes only. It ended: "Don't draw attention to my food intake. Don't try to be involved. Don't even compliment me. Please, try not to see my body when you look at me."
At Mom's retirement party, thrown in April of my senior year of high school, I wore a matching dress and cardigan from a department store, plus nude heels left over from prom. My hair fell past my collarbone, and baby-doll bangs feathered my forehead. I'd painted my toenails: a subtle rose, just shiny enough to be unnatural. In a few years, I would let my hairdresser shave the sides of my head; I'd throw away my tubes of lipstick and buy pants from the men's department, sweaters from Goodwill. But for Mom's party, I dressed demurely. I smiled sweetly. I was silent.
Everyone from Mom's office, along with Erica and Jeremy and their eighteen-month-old daughter, Ella, crowded into the restaurant. My mother's assistant, Darlene, had reserved a private room for us. Plastic flowers adorned every available space, in line with the Hawaiian theme my mother—inexplicably—requested. I thanked Darlene when she draped a lei around neck, forcing myself not to fidget as the back of my neck erupted in itches.
Objectively, I knew my mom was pretty. She dyed her hair a rich auburn, kept it trimmed and curled and sprayed to perfection. Her features were symmetrical, even pleasing: button nose, not too fat; even lips, not too thin; high cheekbones. She knew where to stroke bronzer and where to swirl blush, and despite the disability that left her fingers clumsy and shaking, she applied mascara every morning. I could rattle off those facts about Mom as a food critic could analyze a dish—passionless, precise, informative. But at her party, watching her laugh with the office ladies and whisper with Darlene and hug her longtime boss, I saw Mom's beauty. I saw a woman who, without a college education, held a position that required a Master's degree. I saw a woman with friends who knew her secrets, who ate lunch with her every day, who brought her coffee on rainy mornings. I saw a woman in a tailored Talbot's suit who'd counted her calories and carbohydrates for years, just for moments like these. Just so her thighs wouldn't touch when all eyes were on her.
Because we were in a large group, we could only select from a limited lunch menu. I picked at my chicken dish, nauseous before the first swallow because I knew the entree had been cooked with cream. Two hours after the party, I would lace up my running shoes and sprint into the woods near my house. I would run several miles before collapsing to the ground, fingers down my throat, willing my roiling stomach to seize. It wouldn't; it would take me years to master the art of purging (and when I finally did, I would regret it). But before all that, I pushed the chicken around my plate, and over clinking forks and scraping knives, I heard the whisper of one of my mom's coworkers.
"My goodness," the woman said to Mom, glancing at me, Erica, Jeremy, and Ella. "Sharon, you just have the perfect family."
And I watched the smile spill over Mom's face, running free as an egg yolk broken out of its shell, and said nothing.
–Alaina Symanovich (from The Fourth River)