The way a woman eats

Her legs felt heavy, but she got up anyway. From the couch into the kitchen for the smoked albacore, a delicacy they’d brought home from the coast. They’d planned on it for dinner that night. It was eleven-thirty in the morning, and the valley was quickly warming up. A dry seventy-five degrees inside the Victorian. She stood in front of the refrigerator wearing just a flimsy, pale-yellow tank top and bright pink undies with flirt written in black on the triangle covering her mound. The fog cooled her, and she slipped her hand under her shirt, palming her stomach. Feeling around her mid-section she thought it was good. Her stomach was tight and she could feel hard bones and small abdominal muscles without even pushing in. She loved her body this way, flexed abdomen exuding hipbones. To her, this look was cut and rock hard, but really, just all lines and sunken veins. She pinched the skin, stretchy like the back of a hand. Her stomach growled and she patted it, trying to focus.

She knew it wasn’t fair for her to eat the dried fish without her husband. He always tried to share with her. Thought of him offering her a bite of his omelet this morning. Encouraging her to eat, ‘Food is your friend,’ for the millionth time, ‘You should eat what you want.’ Yah, but not the whole top layer of frozen wedding cake in one sitting. Christ, I’m a huge pig.

Last week’s ‘Binge of the Week’: the sacred top layer, by herself, right out of the freezer. Too cold to achieve full flavor, but her body couldn’t wait. She ate fistfuls like a hungry kid who’s never had a single lesson in table manners. Cold, white chunks of waxy frosting all over the floor, melting white and blue under her bare toes. Didn’t stop to wipe up because she was gone, lost in the rush. The needle in her vein, hanging there, forgotten. Relieved, her brain swirled. Light on her feet, guilty thoughts hidden around a blind corner. Her eyes were watering and she was drooling. And when it was over, when the cake was only a greasy cream film on her lips and tongue, she leaned forward at the waist. Bent over the kitchen sink, like a cat with a hairball, she pulled inward and upward with her abdominal muscles willing up a thick river of mud-cake.

She went on for about twenty-five minutes—could’ ve been an hour—panting and sweating, turning her guts inside-out, then drinking water and throwing up more until it ran clear. She was wrought with regret. Did she hate herself so much? The threat of losing her life was still second to her guilt for giving in to the cravings. She obsessed on feeling fat for a full week afterwards. Finally, today, she felt free and skinny. She’ d been controlling every bite of food for the last six days, measuring and portioning everything she ate and drank: steamed vegetables, brown rice, veggie burgers, watered-down soy milk, no sugar or fat to speak of. And as her stomach flattened, and her bones began to show the way she liked them (bye-bye boobs, bye-bye butt), away her troubles went (hellooo skinny!). Could one savory bite of this salty meat change all of that? Of course! A glass of water would make her fat. She was hopeless and cursed, but her dread was stifled. She looked down at her belly button—her third eye—and said, “Bye-bye.”

And she was hooked, god it was good. Eating felt like breathing. The pleasure, better than she’d remembered. Nothing mattered except to eat. She needed this, deserved this, and she ate it until only a few flakes remained, and that’s when the panic seized her. Body pounding—floor and counter appeared to shake like Godzilla through Tokyo. She snatched up the butcher paper, and the printout read, “1 LB Smoked Albacore.” Stomach clenched, and her last swallow felt wrapped in cotton. Her eyes darted around the inside of the refrigerator, up to the cupboards, searching for something, reaching for anything to continue feeling as though winning in a race of survival. Fringe of sweat dressing her forehead from the thrust of circulation. Violent flow of fluids like the churning of the tides. Awakening-pain from numbness too long.

She was trying to think of a way to hide her gross loss of control. Lying was habit, but seemed like part of her personality (like being an animal lover or being nice to waiters). As a teenager, when she began starving herself to lose the weight she’d gained during puberty, she hid how she felt. Thought it tacky when anyone moaned about being too fat or whined about eating the whole pint of Chunky Monkey. She stood tall. Made her bed every morning without being asked. Not a drop of ice cream on the wall behind the sink, not an empty carton in the trash habit.

She heard her husband’s voice echo, ‘Please stop dieting … Be proud of your body … Love yourself … I’m tired of skinny, it’s getting old … You need to fill in, look at your ribs.’

Walk away right now. Be done, let it happen. But she wasn’t done. She’d eat now. A vacuum sucking away shavings and leftovers ready for compost. She wanted to heave, erase this mistake. Wanted to pile food in, to chew, to taste, to fill up. Fuck it, just get fat. Wanted her husband to see that she was getting better, and trying harder to be a normal eater—like other people. She wanted to live, she wanted to die. A grown-up teenager whining and complaining just to whine and complain. She hated herself. This was her happy place.

That was his car pulling into the driveway. Had to clean up, conceal what she’d done. Crumpled up the paper and hid it under a banana peel and an empty bag of chips in the garbage can. She was washing her hands vigorously, body shaking like a kid caught stealing. He unlocked the deadbolt. She wanted to crawl underneath that banana peel and rot with the trash.

“Hi, I’m home,” he announced.

When they first met, she only ate waffles in front of him. A Belgium waffle for Sunday breakfast drowned in syrup, no butter, cup of coffee. She’d pour extra syrup into the coffee then cut the waffle into strips down the rows of small squares. She’ d eat the rows with her hands, dunking them into her coffee first, and lick her long, sweet fingers after every bite. Cheeks flushed crimson. She’d become talkative and energetic, but soon her blood sugar would drop. She’d try to ignore her lightheadedness. By afternoon she’d have a headache that, later, was a good excuse to go to bed without dinner—or anything else.

When they moved in together, she got hooked on fruit smoothies and beet juice, and he got worried. Her deflective remarks conditioned him not to offer her “real food.” Helpless, he stood by as her bones got sharper. Told her she was beautiful even when her legs were purple with bruises and her cheeks sunken. A dried-up corpse.

He walked into the living room.

“Hey. For you,” a rose.

“I don’t deserve it.” Slapped in the face by the sweetness of her man. She thought she was the most selfish bitch in the world. Too late to replace the special food they were to eat together on the carpet by candlelight, feeding bites between kisses with the scent of smoke on fingers, and wet taste of wine on tongues, a love ritual.

“C’ n give my wife a rose if I want.”

“Thanks,” she looked at him for a second, grinned with the corners of her mouth. “Wish I had something good for you,” she said burying her face into his chest.

“You’re enough. What’s wrong?” More a sigh than a question. Another bad mood.

“I ruined our night.”

“What’d you eat?” He said, rubbing her cheek against his rough face, “We can

go out, whatever.”

“Why do you think that I ate something?”

“Because your eyes are like limpid pools of lime Jell-O glistening in the sunset.”

“I’m not going anywhere or eating anything,” she pouted.

He stood, holding her hand. They touched whenever close enough, rubbing knees under tables, brushing his elbow on her breast in the checkout line.

“This needs water,” he said.

“I got it,” she reached for the rose but missed and he grabbed her around the waist. She wanted to fall into his arms, but kept her balance remembering her fish breath. Instead of kissing him, she put her chin down, head-butting his lips.

“Okay, I get it. You do it,” he said, rubbing his mouth.

“Nah, you. I’ m gonna shower,” she said. Fingertips losing their grip, she pulled away.

“Me too,” and he followed the trail of clothes.

Sometimes, folding laundry, he’d hold up her gym shorts and ask, ‘A little boy live here?’ They both laughed at this knowing he didn’ t mean it as a compliment or a joke. She knew he wondered how she could ever think she was fat. He told her frequently that he’d love for her to gain fifteen pounds. He wanted her to be happy and healthy. Gentle when he touched her. Soft when he encouraged her to gain weight. Fearful of pushing too much. A new husband. Still afraid of making her mad.

She could feel his sincerity, his love, but to let herself get fatter was too much. She didn’t think she was gross skinny. Compared to most people, she was in good shape. She knew she was thin, but not skin and bones. He would love to see less of those bones. With a look or a throat noise, she knew what he was thinking. Always on her mind, always on his mind. Is there anything else? What’s out there beyond this image bullshit? It’s like acne that started at thirteen and is still boiling and popping at twenty-six. She knew he would stand by her. To watch her body heal, build up, circulate blood and warmth into cold, purple fingers and toes— into her dizzy brain.

No matter how slow, how many cowering steps back, she was resigned to do it someday. Just not yet. She was too comfortable in her misery.

He stepped up into the tub. Stomachs barely touching, he kissed her lips.

“Mmm, tuna,” he said She didn’t respond, so he kissed her wet cheek and neck. “Did you save me some of the albacore?” he whispered into her ear.

“If you lived alone, that fish would last until the last bites spoiled, wouldn’t it?”

“If you did eat it all,” he said, “it’s okay. I tried it last night.”

“Didn’t you want more?” Eyebrows exaggerating sweet intentions.

“I’m just happy you ate.”

He brought her closer to wash her hair. Reaching around, she worked his back with the luffa, sanding away a day-and-a-half of sweat and grease. At six feet, they were the same height. Her neck and legs were longer, but his waist made up the difference. Strides were exactly the same, which was cool because they both walked fast and liked to hold hands. She admired his torso and narrow frame. Envied his muscular chest and firm hips. Tried to keep this a secret by loving every other woman’s shape. But he knew she liked the boy look. Wanted her body to have that look.

She shut her eyes, shampoo dripping down, and leaned into him, supporting her balance with his body. What would I do without you?

Thought of her living hell. Trapped. Like the circular punishments described in the afterlife of Greek mythology. She’d come a long way from days of non-stop starving and bingeing, an endless circle of self-hate with moments of euphoria. When she’d examine her body parts at every possible moment: driving in traffic she’d lift her shirt, eyes off the road long enough to see if her stomach was bloated; in the rearview mirror she’d search for a double chin or chubby cheeks; in the bathroom mirror, every time she got up from the toilet, check to see if her waist was any thicker, or her arms any fatter, turning and looking over her shoulder at her butt (she’d die if there was cellulite anywhere on her body). This dark lie was consuming all of her energy. A virus rewriting each cell until illegible. This was her life. Thought it was her.

Those nights she’d dream of strawberry shortcakes and double-triple chocolate-caramel fudge sundaes with whipped cream piled like snowy mountains. In dreams, she’d eat in restaurants: combination, deep-dish pizzas; burritos with lardy refried beans, sour cream, guacamole, and cheese oozing out of the ends; French fries with greasy cheeseburgers, extra ketchup; chilly-cheese dogs and cheesy lasagna casseroles. She would dream of cheeses.

But often she lay awake at night in a twitching fit of insomnia. Fighting voices that told her to go, eat something. She’d imagine pancakes, dinner-plate-size, hot off the greasy-spoon’s griddle, piled high, like in IHOP commercials. Thick, fluffy buttermilk hotcakes covered in gooey Maple syrup. Each golden brown disk with a deep pool of white, frothy butter—a scoop in the center of each layer. Tomorrow, she’d tell herself, go to sleep, and you can have those pancakes in the morning. But if you get up now, you’ll ruin everything.

Many of those nights did end in ruin because the more she thought about the food, the further away morning seemed. The harder she tried to squeeze out hunger, the louder its voice became. The sharper its fangs. She couldn’t bear it. Couldn’t relax for the sweaty sickness of withdrawal. He was with her, sharing her bed; affected by her addiction but asleep for his own self-preservation.

Leaning into him under the cool spray of the shower, she felt lucky. He loved her and believed in her. She was proud of how far she’d come. She was sleeping well most nights now and eating three meals most days. She knew she had the power to stop the starving, the cravings, the overeating, the puking; to end the pain and ugliness from these habits. It was okay that she ate the fish, it was good to eat. She opened her eyes—smiling—blinking away shampoo.

“What?” he asked.

“Will you marry me?”

“Well, first I’d like to take you out to dinner. I like to wine and dine a woman before I marry her. You know, you can learn a lot about how a man makes love by the way he eats. If he devours what’ s on his plate with concentration, tasting, licking, and sucking, moaning and groaning—mmmm; well, that’s what he’ll do to his lover’s body.”

“What about a woman?”

“All depends on how much of a woman she’s willing to be.”