I remember the day I decided to eat again. The morning was dewy, as if wet gauze had been draped across the trees and bushes. As I crossed the yard, I stopped at the spindly four-foot peach tree and wrapped my thumb and index finger around its trunk—just like I could around my wrist—a way to gauge progress. Though the tree trunk had thickened slowly over the years, my wrist size had lessened in a matter of months. An accomplishment on both our parts was how I had viewed it. Something to be proud of.
I gently fingered the delicate white blossoms, so frail that the one I fingered fell from its limb and into my slender hands, where I continued to stroke its velvety petals. Then the ache began. The one to which I’d become accustomed. As if my stomach was a peach pit, tiny and coarse. I knew it would pass; it had before. I put the ache out of my mind—I was strong that way—and thought of the large, round peach that was the origin of this tree, years prior—its creator. I had let its pit dry on a paper towel atop my dresser.
“It’s a peach of a peach,” my dad had said, referring to the fruit’s symmetry, so round and plump, and its pale blush. I had told him it was the sweetest I had eaten in my "whole entire life."
"Your whole entire life," he had said. "And you're all of 11."
We had picked the spot in the backyard because of the afternoon sun. Dad had dug the hole and then gently placed the pit into its dark bed before we blanketed it with dirt.
"Are you sure it will grow?" I had asked him, kneeling on the dirt.
He assured me it would, if given lots of love and water.
“Tender loving care and nourishment is all it needs,” he had said.
As I stood there that day, the blossom still in my hand, thinking about the tree’s ancestry, the taste of ripe peaches filled me, replacing thoughts of driver permits, college choices, SAT scores, and the nagging concern that I should tell my mother my periods had stopped several months ago.
* * *
It—my decline—began at my Sweet Sixteen party. My older sister, Cindy, and I were asked to be bridesmaids at our cousin’s wedding. It gave us the perfect chance to go on a diet. Isn't that what every teenage girl does?
"It's two months away. We'll have plenty of time to lose five pounds for the wedding," Cindy had said, as we sat around the kitchen table. "Plus, I'll be thin before I have to eat dormitory food."
We pored over magazines and the free diet brochures we’d found at the supermarket. We hunkered over the materials, which were spread across the kitchen table, pointing to this diet plan and that approach, like generals purveying maps for an attack. As I scanned the pages of magazines, I’d relay the important diet details to Cindy. "It says here that one or two pounds a week is safe. Also, we'll reach a plateau. We won't lose any weight as our bodies adjust, but then we'll lose weight again."
"You don't need to lose weight," Mom said, slicing potatoes at the kitchen sink. "You both look great."
"No, we're fat," Cindy replied matter-of-factly.
We never gave our mother credit. She knew we were not fat by anybody's standards—except those of a dieting teenage girl. Cindy was 5'7" and 119 pounds, and I was 5'6" at 117.
While sitting at the table, we penciled into the tiny squares of our calendars the weight loss we’d hope to achieve by the wedding. Pointing to Cindy's Marilyn Monroe calendar, Mom said, "Marilyn’s not skinny and she looked great."
"But she’s Marilyn," Cindy said. “Besides, that’s how women used to look.”
Mother sighed. There was nothing she could say or do to sway us. By August we would lose five pounds each, with plenty of time for plateaus, PMS cravings, and potato chip-filled parties. We toasted the Wedding Diet by banging together our cans of diet colas.
At breakfast the next day, I measured a quarter cup of cereal and a half-cup of nonfat milk into my cereal bowl. I poured a half-cup of orange juice into a glass. Cindy initiated her protein regime. She talked about an article she had read—“Eat Your Way to Dynamic Weight Loss”—as she stood before the stove frying breakfast steaks in a Teflon pan. That’s pretty much how it went for the first two weeks. Cindy eating her proteins, stuffing herself, it seemed to me. I started a journal where I noted my food intake for each day and the calories I had consumed. After another week and careful review of my journal, I decided to replace my thin slice of Danish ham wrapped around a pickle with lettuce wrapped around a pickle—I could save 30 calories that way. I reprioritized the vegetables further by calorie count: broccoli favored over corn, for example. I consumed diet articles, surveyed calorie charts, scanned the backs of cereal boxes, lunchmeat packages and canned goods. I became a food accountant, subtracting high-calorie foods, adding low-calorie ones.
It was well into week four when I watched Cindy devour a sandwich thick with layers of thinly sliced turkey meat. But I no longer hungered for the turkey or any of the other meats Cindy consumed. That’s because at week four, while Cindy was pleased with her three-pound loss, I was barely satisfied with having lost four. This had become a competition to me, a test of who was stronger, who had more self-control. It was that extra pound of loss that kept me going and prompted me to eliminate more foods, content to fill my plate with calorie-free carrots and celery sticks. Chewing them, I had read, burned up the calories within them. I liked that: serviceable food.
At week eight, we sat at the kitchen table again, our calendars spread out before us. Cindy wrote 114 on her calendar for that day.
“I did it,” Cindy gleamed. “I lost five pounds.”
I wrote 108 in my calendar, a loss of nine pounds. But unlike Cindy, I wasn’t pleased. The weight I’d lost wasn’t enough.
* * *
On the day of our cousin’s wedding, I overheard Aunt Martha tell my mother, "Your daughters look lovely.”
“I’m just glad that crazy diet of theirs is over,” Mom had said. “Especially Jane’s. She lost nine pounds! ‘That’s enough’ I told her.”
Then, Mrs. Myers stopped Cindy and me to say, “I'd love to be as svelte as you two."
While Cindy nodded to the compliments and responded with a "thank you," I ate them up. I grabbed onto each as if it were a brass ring at a merry-go-round—something wished for and won, something to treasure. At the wedding reception, as Cindy wiped the wedding cake’s crumbs from her lips, she told me she was done with the Wedding Diet. She was returning to her former eating habits.
“Maintenance,” she said.
As Cindy talked, I slowly untied the satin ribbon from a party favor’s netting, removed one sugar-coated almond, retied the ribbon and placed the almond on my tongue, letting the pink sugar coating slowly melt in my mouth. I stared at the guests as they stood in line for a slice of wedding cake and thought about the calories in the sugar-coated almond and the fact that I might have to go without dinner that night.
Soon after the wedding, Cindy was off to college, and I returned to high school as a senior. Popular girls wanted to know my secret, "loved" my waif look. The boys who had ignored me before, teased with "Don't put the fan on, she'll blow away" comments, which were spoken in an I'm noticing you way. The more they teased, the more I teased back, and the more popular I became.
In fact, it seemed the lighter I became, the weightier my confidence. I told my parents things I hadn’t dare mention before, like I wasn’t ready to drive yet, I didn’t know what I would major in at college, or if I would even attend college. I enjoyed the control I had over my body, my ability to trim it into whatever shape I wanted, like cutting out a paper doll. Between diet and the exercise regimes I faithfully followed daily, whether step aerobics or walking or running, I was creating a new me. And this control spilled over into my everyday activities—I not only decided what I would and wouldn’t eat, but what I would and wouldn’t do. I was unstoppable.
This control I wielded served me well through autumn, enabling me to reduce my weight to 94 pounds. But by then, my popularity had diminished as well. The attention, so sweet at first, had soured. The popular girls, who originally remarked at my thinness, now looked down at the tiled floor when they saw me in the school hallways. The boys called me “the rake,” and my friends asked, "What are you doing to yourself?"
My mom watched my every move. At dinnertime, she eyed the broccoli or carrots I placed on my plate. “Why no meat?” she’d ask. So I would put a half a slice of roast beef onto my plate. This made her smile. I never ate any of it. All I did was cut up the meat into little pieces, rearranging them into a smaller pile, but never actually eating them, although it looked like some of it was gone. Like magic.
How could my parents know I was a food magician, so adept at fooling the eye as I tore off corners of lunch meats and cheeses, even the ends of bread that no one ate, only to place them on my plate? Trick foods, was how I thought of them. My parents would see them on my plate and assume I had eaten an entire slice. In reality, celery and carrot sticks were my mainstays; they kept the stomach rumble at bay, as did the twelve glasses of water I drank per day. It wasn’t that I had intended to deceive my parents. It was just that I could still pinch flesh off of the back of my arm.
As my weight disappeared, so did my parents, behind closed doors, where they would talk in hushed tones. I’d often listen outside their bedroom door or, if open a crack, peek at them. One night, I heard my mother tell dad, "She should be blossoming, but instead she's dying on the vine.” She handed him some pamphlets. "It has gone too far. We have to do something."
Apparently, on my last visit to Dr. Redding, he had suggested to my mother that I see a specialist, maybe a psychiatrist.
I never heard my father respond. He just sat there on the end of the bed, his head in his hands, as if the weight of the news was too heavy.
* * *
The early winter winds chilled me, but I didn’t complain. The cold enabled me to dress in layers of shirts beneath my bulky sweaters and to wear leggings under my corduroy pants, mostly to keep warm, partly to convey bulk to those who seemed unnecessarily concerned about my appearance. One day as I was pushing some clothes tags into the bottom of the trash I found part of a brochure. It read: Anorexics can be very creative, deceptive. Their lens on the world is cracked, they don't see themselves as others see them. I knew I wasn’t anorexic. I just had more discipline than most. Were they all that jealous? I angrily pushed the torn brochure deep into the trash along with my clothes tags where no one could find them. You see, I was a 17-year-old buying clothes in the girl’s department.
More and more, my mother would ask, "What is that? Lettuce, carrots and celery for lunch? You need to eat more than that."
I’d point to the remaining turkey and cheese on my plate—my trick foods.
"I already had some turkey; see here? I just got full."
It wasn't until I weighed 89 pounds that my father started to watch me as carefully as my mother. My situation was now “his situation,” I had heard him tell her. He had gotten up earlier than usual one morning and found me in the kitchen, a bowl of four mini-shredded wheat in water in front of me. The milk carton was out, as it always was when he came to breakfast. He watched as I quickly poured milk into my bowl. He didn't know what to make of it. He couldn't know that every morning, after I ate the four-shredded wheat in water, I poured a teaspoon of milk into my bowl so it would be assumed that I had eaten cereal with milk. Who wouldn't assume that? But the water over the shredded wheat, my startled look and quick reaction gave him pause. He looked at my juice glass with the one tablespoon of orange juice I’d poured into it. He didn’t know that juice was a luxury I could no longer afford.
My parent’s private discussions began to go public, their concerns and questions directed at me—all prompted by what my mother had seen, so I overhead my mother tell my father. She had come home from the grocery store. My bedroom door was open a crack. She had seen my reflection in the dresser mirror as I tried on some older underwear. “The bra hung from her shoulders with nothing to cling to, her panties—it was like they were hitched to her pelvic bones” was how she described it. She had to stifle the scream inside of her, she had said, and quietly retreat to the bathroom, where she had sobbed into a bath towel. Is that how they see me?
That night at dinner it began again. Mother told me, "You need to—you must—eat more than that."
I explained about the late snack I’d had at Joni's, pulling an empty candy wrapper from my pocket; one of the empty ones I had found in the school lunchroom during the week.
My dad didn't want to discuss “the situation" at dinner. He broke in with, "How is school going?"
"Fine," I said, getting up from the table to rinse my plate. I didn't want to talk about school. The school counselor’s concerns, the teacher’s comments, the kid’s taunts.
"We need to talk," Mom said.
"Can we do it later? I need to study."
“After you study? No. We need to talk now.” My father’s raised eyebrows and my mother’s glassy stare conveyed their concern.
“I have too much homework,” I told them, and I did. I was falling behind. Unable to study because of the headaches that wrapped around my forehead like a tourniquet, tighter and tighter. They were as regular as the weakness in my bones, my fatigue and my searing stomach. My body, which had quietly acquiesced at first, had begun to fight back.
“You’ve been putting us off about this. You know we have to sit down as a family and work things out. You’re too … emaciated.”
“This needs to happen now,” my mother shouted.
I ran up the stairs to the bathroom, hearing my dad tell my mom, “Yes, I know we need to do something now. You don’t have to convince me.” He said I looked like the stick figures I drew as a child.
I remembered those pictures. Stick figures of people with houses drawn in Crayola colors of Cornflower, Thistle and Salmon. My parents would hang them from the refrigerator door with cookie and cow magnets. Those were the days when I ate sandwiches, drank milk, felt full, complete.
In the bathroom I weighed myself and did what I did every night—I looked at the 87-pound girl in the mirror and searched for improvements that could be made. But really, there were none to find. I didn’t know what else I could do.
I heard my mother walking down the hall and I ran into my bedroom, locking the door behind me. She knocked.
“We will talk about this. You need help. Jane? Jane!”
I got into bed, pulling the blankets over my head. I heard her talking outside my door. Then my dad, “Jane. Open the door. We have to talk.”
I heard them talk of my possible hospitalization until they either finally left, or I fell asleep. I don’t know which. All I know is I awoke later to see the streetlight seeping through the blinds. It lit up Cindy's side of the room, spotlighting her posters of Marilyn Monroe, her idol. Marilyn on the Florida beach in Some Like it Hot. Marilyn in a white halter dress, air flowing through the street grate blowing her dress up above her thighs. Seven Year Itch. Marilyn dressed in a red sequined gown in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. I turned away from the full thighs and plush breasts and toward the nightstand. There sat the peach blossom that I had held earlier that day. Without nurturing limbs, it had become useless, shriveled: it would produce no lush peach. And I wondered, as I held the dried-up blossom again in my palms, how I could return to a world of roundness and ripeness, of peaches ready to be plucked.