The campus seems to clear out on Friday afternoons. Students who come from New York and find themselves without weekend dates go home as soon as their last class is over. It’s only two hours away. Even the dreary girl across the hall from Molly who plans to major in East Asian Studies has already gone back to Brooklyn. Home is a place to which it has not occurred to Molly that anyone in this exclusive, expensive women’s college would want to go, given her own eagerness to get here after high school.
But now, on the fourth dateless Saturday of her first semester, she decides immediately after her meager breakfast that since she too has a home to go to, she can study there as well as here. She pulls a small carry-on from the dorm room closet, a gift from her parents when news of the full scholarship arrived last spring. All she really needs is the current reading assignment for her Tuesday Exploratory Lit class – it’s Gide’s Strait is the Gate, in translation — and a few toiletries. Still in narrow jeans and jean jacket, she just makes the 10:10 to Grand Central. From there, it’s the familiar subway out to Queens.
Molly is 5’7” and weighs 125 pounds. The 125 pounds is new, the 28” waist of her new jeans likewise, both the rewarding results of rigorous dieting all summer long so as to begin college life looking right. She may be almost always hungry, but she’s also gratified right now by the sight of her silhouette in the dark window of the subway car as it hurtles from Manhattan to Queens.
How happy Molly’s mother and father are to see her! What a surprise! How beautiful she looks! How they’ve missed having her in what her father calls her “little room!” (It’s the smaller of the two bedrooms in the apartment, a half-room really.) They’ll celebrate! What would she like for dinner? A nice porterhouse steak? Peas? Potato? Poppy-seed rolls? (Her father’s favorite.) And of course a special cake from the bakery, because it’s such a special occasion! What does Molly mean, she can’t eat potato, rolls, cake? One slice of cake isn’t going to hurt her. Now that she’s thin, she has to start eating normally again.
Afterwards, when she looks back on how it all started, Molly won’t remember the dinner, or whether there were poppy-seed rolls. She will remember the cake: a large three-layer chocolate cake with chocolate cream between the layers and thick chocolate fudge icing on top and around the sides. She allows her mother to persuade her to have a slice, her father nodding his approval. When she’s finished slowly eating every last delicious crumb while they watch lovingly, they urge her to have another. (“Don’t be silly, of course you can, what are we going to do with all this leftover cake? Actually, you’re a little too thin. You could use a few pounds.”) And on Sunday morning, the celebration goes on. Her father hurries out to bring back lox, cream cheese and bagels for a late breakfast because, “How often does this happen?”
Amazingly, the waistband still closes when Molly wiggles into her jeans again on Sunday afternoon. “Take the rest of the cake,” her mother urges as she watches Molly repack her carry-on. “Maybe your new friends would like some.” Molly doesn’t say she doesn’t have any new friends, not really. Doesn’t tell about her disappointing room assignment, at the end of a long hall, where she shares a bathroom with a plain girl from Brooklyn who studies in the library all day and every evening, comes back to the dorm at eight-thirty, takes a hot bath, and is in bed at nine. Or about the two sophomore girls in the next nearest suite of rooms who are somewhat distant. In fact, Molly tells her parents nothing at all. Why should they worry about her? Isn’t she supposed to be grown up now? Instead, she insists she can’t take the rest of the cake because it would only get squished in the carry-on. She insists although she does very much want to take the cake, one last sweet taste of home to bring back to her lonely and difficult new life. She thinks about the cake on the subway all the way into town.
In Grand Central, she has fifteen minutes to spare before her train. One of the station kiosks is near the gate. Perhaps a candy bar to tide her over until supper back at school? Isn’t that what “eating normally” is all about? She gazes indecisively at the attractive display of O’Henrys, Milky Ways, Almond Joys, Hershey bars, M&Ms; it’s been so long since she’s tasted any of them. But why decide which to buy? Now that it’s all right to allow herself an occasional treat, why not stock up, for later? Molly enters her gate with seven candy bars in a small brown paper bag, one of each kind to enjoy during the week to come, plus a second O’Henry for the ride. She anticipates the taste on her tongue of the caramel, peanuts and chocolate even when lifting her carry-on to the overhead rack and settling in near a window with her jeans jacket on the seat next to her, so she can savor this unaccustomed pleasure in privacy.
She does try to wait until the train has climbed from the underground tunnel through which it has to pass to emerge into the twilight of the Bronx. But waiting is impossible. Trembling with happy anticipation, she unwraps the O’Henry and bites into it while the train is still in the dark tunnel. She can’t not do it. She’s on automatic pilot now.
Soon the O’Henry bar is gone. And after she’s methodically eaten three more, it’s just not worth bringing the last three to the dorm. She can always buy more at the campus store. When she steps off the train at her station, only crumpled candy wrappers remain in the brown paper bag. Before getting into one of the waiting taxis, she tosses the bag. There! Evidence gone! The waistband of her jeans feels snug, but with her jacket on, no one will notice.
By the time she reaches her dorm, she has just enough time to climb the stairs to her room, set down the carry-on, unsnap the top of her jeans and walk all the way to the dining room at the other end of campus. Why should she skip supper? Calorically, the day’s shot. She might as well enjoy what’s left of it.
Meals at college are always cafeteria-style, which means you can take as much as you want, and even go back for more. Molly has never done either of these things. Sunday night supper is especially hard for the rigorous dieter; it usually consists of some kind of slumgullion that uses up scraps remaining from the previous week — accompanied by single-serving bags of potato chips, pitchers of whole and skim milk, long loaves of crusty white and light brown bread, already sliced, and tubs of peanut butter and grape jelly. Dessert? Spotty-looking apples for the health-minded and powdered doughnuts on trays, plus cocoa, for everyone else.
But tonight Molly begins with a lightened heart. She serves herself some sort of hash with an egg on it, and a generous squeeze of ketchup. She has never had it before, and therefore plans to return for seconds. She also puts two bags of chips on her tray, and helps herself liberally to the white bread, three slices of which she slathers generously with peanut butter and jelly. Allowing herself to have these things is okay, she reasons, as she plunges her knife deep into the peanut butter tub, because she’s only going to do it this one night. She chooses whole milk over skim. “I’m just so hungry!” she exclaims to the two classmates who set their own trays down at her table. “I had to miss lunch to catch the train back.”
Her classmates seem to think nothing of it. After all, Molly is thin. When it’s time for dessert, all three return to the buffet together. Molly’s classmates skip the apples. They’re for powdered doughnuts. “Mmm, they do look good,” exclaims Molly, taking two. And they are, despite all she’s already eaten. So she waits, very slowly sipping cocoa, until the others have left. Then she returns to the doughnut tray, trying to look casual, where she wraps six doughnuts in double paper napkins to bring to her room. She would take more, but can only manage to carry three in each hand. On the path up the hill towards her dorm, she meets someone she recognizes from British History hurrying to get some food before the dining-room closes. “For my suite-mate,” Molly explains without having been asked, waving the napkin-wrapped doughnuts. “She didn’t feel like coming down.”
The future East Asian Studies major isn’t back from Brooklyn yet. She must be having supper at home. Molly closes her door, unzips her jeans, and sits at her desk without undressing further to eat the six doughnuts. She might have preferred to stop after three, but doesn’t want to leave the other three around for the next day, and so manages to get them all down. Only when there’s nothing left to eat does she become aware she’s uncomfortably full.
Molly knows in a general way that during less than three hours, she has consumed seven candy bars, two large platefuls of greasy hash with egg, two bags of potato chips, three thick peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, two glasses of whole milk, a large cup of cocoa, and eight powdered doughnuts. But rather than think about it, she pushes her carry-on to the side of the room. Gide can wait until tomorrow. Then she pulls off her jeans, shirt and bra, leaving them in a tangled heap on the floor, and gets under the covers. She falls into a deep sleep almost at once, and never hears anyone come down the hall, open the door opposite hers, use the shared bathroom and go to bed.
It’s been many years since Molly’s parents celebrated her surprise visit home with a three-layer chocolate cake. Yet she still remembers with perfect clarity everything she ate on that Sunday after she left their apartment in Queens to come back to college. She has no such clear recollection of subsequent episodes of aberrational eating. Indeed, on such subsequent occasions she will sometimes make a detailed confessional list of what she’s consumed before falling, groggy with food, on her bed — so as to help her remember this other self who lives in her body and eats so desperately.
There won’t be a subsequent occasion for a while. College will get easier. She will have friends. But nobody ever said that life is fair. And for grown-up Molly looking back, here – at the gateway to adulthood — is the template for the recurrent nightmare of her future life. Here is where she discovers solace for what isn’t fair. And here too are solace’s ever-present companions: shame, falsehood, secrecy — followed by sleep so profound it resembles a little taste of death.