LOSING FIFTEEN POUNDS: PART FIVE

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[…continued from previous four posts.]

Three weeks before returning to college,  I had a long distance phone call from Maine. It was Emily, with whom I’d shared a dormitory bathroom the year before. My mother left the room ostentatiously, to show she wasn’t going to listen.

Emily — plump and until recently lovelorn like me — had probably become my closest girlfriend by the end of our sophomore year. We shared some difficult elective classes and the same sense of humor, enjoyed the same kind of movies, and on dateless weekend evenings indulged together in making up time-travel fantasies over half-pints of ice cream delivered from the town drugstore. As rising juniors, we’d even chosen adjoining dorm rooms (with that shared bathroom).

But in our third year, Emily began spending several evenings a week, as well as many weekends, with someone else:  an emaciated and chain-smoking special student who had neither waist, hips, stomach, breasts or, when she occasionally joined us in the dining hall, interest in food.  Kit’s very narrow jeans required a broad leather belt to keep them up. She wore her straight hair chopped short like a boy’s and (Emily reported) could really hold her liquor. Rumor had it she’d been on suspension during our first two years for having come onto another girl. The object of her desire had complained. Now, after mandatory therapy to address her conduct, Kit was being permitted to finish her degree, provided she lived off campus.

Emily and her new friend were always affable when I ran into them together, and occasionally even asked me along when they went somewhere. But I always sensed they were sharing something from which I was excluded and about which I tried not to speculate. Perhaps I’d been invited to serve as camouflage? They did speak mainly to each other on these occasions.

I had very much resented the entry of this hermaphroditic-looking person into Emily’s life, and still did. Emily had been my friend, always available to complain about our respective mothers, critically examine everyone we knew, faculty included, and discuss the difficulty of meeting a really nice boy. [She had also served as a kind of control on ice-cream eating in the evenings; when we ordered a delivery from town, she was inclined to ask for two half-pints, whereas I would have gone for a pint each.] My simmering hostility towards Kit achieved nothing. Emily’s father was in the foreign service and her parents were therefore always overseas; she went home with Kit for Christmas and Easter. Then she announced she’d be spending the summer with Kit too — at a country house in Ogunquit, Maine.

On the telephone, Emily now said she was sorry she hadn’t been in touch earlier in the summer but things had been a little crazy. (What did that mean?) Would I like to come up for the Labor Day weekend? I asked if that was all right with Kit. Well sure, she answered. And added she’d really like me to come. She’d mail travel instructions. And I should bring a sweater. It was already getting chilly in Maine, especially in the evenings.

“Your friend must be rich,” said my mother when informed about this sudden uptick in my social life. “They’ve got to have a big house up there, if there’s also a room for guests.” I explained the place in Maine was just a summer house, and anyway it belonged to the family of the friend of my friend.  “She’s not your friend, too?” asked my mother.

“Yes and no,” I said. “I’m not exactly wild about her.”

“Why are you going then?”

It was too hard to explain, so I changed the subject. “I just hope they have stuff up there I can eat.” Stupid of me to bring up food and dieting. She must have been waiting for weeks. Now she pounced. “What difference does it make what they have when you eat cookies?”

I tried to keep my eyes steady on hers. “I don’t know what you mean.” My face felt very hot.

“You know.”

She waited a few moments for me to say something more. What could I say? Then she walked away. I heard the vacuum start up in the living room. I hated her. Over and over I told myself how much I hated her. What did she know, anyway? Did she think I’d merely been nibbling away at her hidden treasure one or two fig sandwich cookies at a time — the way she would do it, if she’d been me? Except, of course, she wasn’t me. She had “will power.” How could she imagine, much less understand, that once I began there was no way I could keep myself from emptying an entire box — or even two, if there had been two — in the middle of the night?

[…to be concluded in next post.]

LOSING FIFTEEN POUNDS: PART FOUR

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[…continued from previous three posts.]

My nights were hungry. Often I had to drink two glasses of water to fill me up long enough to fall asleep, but then I would wake at two in the morning to pee. One night, the empty gnawing in my stomach after a bathroom trip was intolerable. Barefoot, I felt my way into the kitchen without turning on the light, opened the box of Social Tea biscuits my mother had left on the kitchen table as quietly as I could, and reluctantly put one between my lips.

But somehow I found the will to keep from biting into it, and after a while was able to put it back in the box, close the lid and drink more water before feeling my way along the wall back to my room. There I lay in the dark, listening to the tick tick tick of my bedside clock. Where had she hidden the European fig sandwich cookies? They had to be in the kitchen. Behind something, where they couldn’t be seen. And probably high up, not easy to get to. I really needed to know.

Returning again to the kitchen, I carefully lifted one of the chairs out from under the kitchen table, set it softly down in front of the grocery cabinet and climbed up to find out what was in the back of the top shelf. A very faint light that was almost no light came through the window from a street lamp around the corner, so that I could just make out oatmeal, sugar cubes, and bags of rice and coffee along the front of the top shelf. I took them all out, leaning over the back of the chair to set them on the counter. Now I could see the back row: baking soda, cornstarch, tapioca pudding, Jell-O, and – aha! – the package of cookies, unopened.

I had to do it. Had to.

Quietly I removed the whole box from its hiding place, arranged the coffee, sugar and rice so as to conceal the gap in the back row, replaced the kitchen chair under the table, tucked the box under my arm, felt my way back to my room, silently closed the door and took a deep breath. And now, quickly quickly, to bed again.

It would have been easier if she had already eaten one or two. Without prior experience in stealing crackers or cookies undetected from unopened boxes, I had to improvise. No thought now of the seven or eight pounds already lost with such difficulty or how I might feel tomorrow. There was only the box with me in the dark under the sheet, and my fingers carefully prying open the glued-together folds of paper at one end without tearing them, so as to make a paper sleeve, and sliding the sleeve from the cardboard box, and feeling for its opening, and reaching the first double cookie, and trembling as I brought it to my lips in the dark and tasted it. I chewed slowly and swallowed, and oh the pleasure of it. Then the cookie was gone. So I felt for another and then another and ate faster and was happy, and felt for more double cookies and ate them, and went on eating and eating, and then could it be there were no more left in the box?

I felt around in the paper cups. Empty. All of them. What to do now? I had to get the box out of my bed. That was the first thing. Best to return it to its original place, so that everything would look as it had when my mother reached up for the coffee and sugar in the morning.  I closed the empty paper sleeve, licked and pressed shut the folds at the end as best I could, slid it into its box and tiptoed the box into the kitchen again. Up behind the sugar, rice and coffee it went, very light with nothing in it. But it would probably look all right up there.

Back in bed for the fifth time that night, I made careful plans for next morning. I would have to buy a replacement box when I went out and smuggle it back into the apartment. Also I would have to double the length of my daily walk for the rest of the week at least, to make up for all those cookie calories. That solved, I had no trouble falling asleep.

Everything went like clockwork. I carried another package home from the A&P in a large straw handbag, and while my mother was in the bathtub after her housework had plenty of time to get it up into place at the back of the top shelf and dispose of the empty package in the incinerator at the end of the third floor hallway. And I walked so furiously and dieted so conscientiously that by the end of the week I had even lost another pound! So where was the harm if I did it all again a week later, when midnight hunger gnawed once more? None, apparently.

Wrong. What I had left out of my calculations was the possibility there would be no more packages of European fig sandwich cookies in the A&P when I turned up a second time to replace the box emptied the night before. I asked for the store manager. No, they didn’t stock those on a regular basis, he said. They were something new, which the company might or might not order again, but how about Fig Newtons? They always had Fig Newtons. Frightened, I rushed to “Alice’s – Delicacies from Around the World.” Double fig cookies in an oblong box were not anything from around the world the snooty saleslady in “Alice’s” had ever heard of.

Maybe my mother would forget about the cookies. I didn’t think so. She never forgot a thing. Or maybe she wouldn’t open the box till I was safely in school again. So as not to tempt me. Maybe, maybe. Days and then weeks passed, and she said nothing. Did she know? Did she not know? How could she not know? I lost more pounds. By the middle of August, the bathroom scale read 130. I had done it: I was fifteen pounds lighter than I’d been at the beginning of June! But there were still three weeks to go. Could I reach (and hold) 128 by the time I went back to school? Two more pounds in three weeks: why not? Now that would make the whole wretched summer worthwhile!

[To be continued…..]

LOSING FIFTEEN POUNDS: PART THREE

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[…continued from previous two posts.]

Back in Kew Gardens again after the Atlantic City fiasco, I settled into a weight-losing routine.  First, a breakfast of an orange followed by a cup of coffee with skim milk and saccharine. Then walking for at least an hour every morning, often more, from our apartment house down to the corner and then along Queens Boulevard to the Forest Hills subway stop. This was not so tedious a route as it had been when I used to walk it before I’d gone to college. In the intervening three years, several new specialty stores had come into being between the A&P, the kosher butcher, the non-kosher butcher, the one remaining dairy, the dry cleaner, the hardware store, and the bakery that sold mostly rolls, challah and poppy-seed Danish.

Now there were two more bakeries, with large windows full of trays of delicately iced cookies and lavishly decorated birthday and wedding cakes. There were also a Barton’s and a Barricini’s — candy stores displaying in their windows open boxes of dipped chocolates and a few larger boxes of interesting-looking little fruit cakes in paper cups. And four blocks after the Barricini’s, there was a place called “Alice’s –Delicacies from Around the World.”

The windows here generally featured enticing square tins of Peak Frean cookies, bags of cheese straws (what could they be?) and something called “fruit tarts” (how English!), as well as large tablets of Lindt and Tobler chocolate (colorfully packaged in sophisticated paper wrappings) that came in European flavors I hadn’t known existed — not just milk or “bittersweet” but also mocha, hazelnut, and at least three other kinds whose names I couldn’t read from the sidewalk. I would allow myself a breather in front of these windows, especially when the displays changed, but always made myself turn away and walk on after a few minutes, perspiring in the summer morning sun.

I also tried to give equal time to the “ladies’ sportswear” in the windows of the two new clothing stores along the way. Nothing I ever saw there looked really fashionable, but for at least a couple of blocks I could divert myself from the hot boredom of the walk by imagining a future me sufficiently slender to enter either of those stores and try something on without shame. At Forest Hills Boulevard, I almost always circled back towards home on Austin Street, which ran parallel to Queens Boulevard, and to fill out the hour (or more), went up and down the side streets, an area known as Forest Hills Gardens, past stately homes set far back from pavements.

I never saw another person on these streets, and only rarely a car. Perhaps everyone was away for the summer. These were what I thought of as mansions, and I wondered what sort of people lived in them and what it might be like to live in one myself. I couldn’t imagine. All I knew was here was another desirable world probably closed to me, even if I was a Sarah Lawrence girl, unless I could alter my appearance sufficiently to invite entry into its exclusive precincts.

Finally home and showered, I would read until lunch, a carefully measured repast consisting of a half-cup of cottage cheese, two Ry-Krisps and an apple, or four apricots, or two very small peaches, or some other fruit listed in the diet books as a hundred calories. I didn’t eat bananas, because one banana, a hundred calories right there, always left me wanting another. And I wasn’t sure how to count grapes (five calories a grape?), so I avoided them.

Without further agenda to occupy my days, I began to accompany my mother when she went out in the afternoons, just for something to do besides read. This seemed to please her. Her routine was invariable: every morning, housecleaning (“because the windows are open and everything gets dirty even if I just cleaned yesterday”); every afternoon, shopping at the A&P for dinner, with a stop on the way home at the newsstand on the corner for the World-Telegram and maybe a magazine; and – because she now had me with her, whatever protection that might provide from the dangers lurking outside after dark — sometimes a movie in the early evening.

At the A&P, under my supervision, she ordered round steak with all the fat trimmed away and put through the grinder just for us. She bought frozen string beans, frozen asparagus, frozen chopped broccoli – frozen was a godsend, she proclaimed, no more cleaning and cooking vegetables! She sometimes also bought a box of Social Tea biscuits, because she “had to have something sweet with her coffee after dinner.” This didn’t bother me because I didn’t especially like Social Tea biscuits. But one afternoon she hid away under her other purchases in the shopping cart a box of those new European-style cookies you could now buy even at the A&P. It was an oblong package of round scalloped butter cookies dusted with powdered sugar, sandwiched around a fig filling visible through a circle cut from the cookie forming the top of the sandwich.

Did she think I wouldn’t notice when the cashier rang everything up at the checkout counter?   “Just to have in the house in case,” she explained. In case of what? Company? She never had company. But how could I reproach her? She wasn’t on a diet. Nor did it occur to me to consider it an act of sabotage. She was my mother. The oblong package disappeared as soon as we got home. I opened all the grocery cabinets in the kitchen while she was in the bathroom and couldn’t see it anywhere.

She did try to help me. (Would a saboteur do that?) Although she had several times declared with conviction the regular whole milk yogurt in the store wouldn’t “hurt” me, she showed me how to make yogurt on top of the stove the way she had learned in Russia, so I could try to make it with skim milk. It took several days, and then turned out watery and very sour. But I ate it anyway, in measured portions, since it was only ninety calories for an eight-ounce glassful.

The summer dragged. This was the domestic life I had scorned, the life I’d gone away to college to escape, and here I was living it. I thought about my college don, who had also been my Shakespeare professor this past year; he had written a really appreciative final report based on my long “All’s Well That Ends Well” paper, calling it graceful criticism and telling me to publish it! He must really like me. We had been don and donnee for three years already, and he hadn’t suggested a change might be a good idea, as some other dons had done with friends of mine.

He was going to be on sabbatical the first term of next year, but would be back for the second and third terms.   Maybe when I was thin, he would see me in a new light. Not just brilliant. Irresistible too. True, he was married, but that hadn’t been an impediment to Amy’s exciting romance. He was about the same age as her professor-lover, too. Forty or forty-one. Wasn’t that when a man was most susceptible? Especially to a lovely twenty-year-old?

And he was taller than I was, with broad shoulders. What might it feel like for such a knowing man, a grown-up man, to put his arms around me (when there was less of me) and kiss me? Would it be with tender yearning? Or savage hunger? I wrote a hesitant little note thanking him for the report and wishing him a good sabbatical, making sure to print my home address legibly on the envelope.

I even telephoned Amy, who seemed glad to hear from me. She was having a dreary summer, too. She hadn’t heard from Him. It was too late to apply to the graduate program at Juilliard. She wasn’t practicing. And her parents didn’t like her just sitting around the living-room sofa thinking about Him. They said if she wasn’t going to continue her musical studies, she should get a job. She wished she could die. Except she wasn’t brave enough to kill herself. Also, He still might call. I said I would come in to Manhattan if she wanted to go to a movie. She said I was welcome to come over for a visit, but she didn’t think she could enjoy a movie the way she still felt. I told her I had lost nearly six pounds since Atlantic City. “Oh,” she exclaimed. “Did you want to?”  I said I’d call her back about the visit.

My don wrote I shouldn’t thank him for the report because I’d earned it. He wished me a good summer. He also said he was looking forward to hearing about what I’d been doing when he saw me again after Christmas break. I couldn’t find anything in this disappointingly brief reply that implied suppressed desire. It was because of my weight, I knew. Wouldn’t he be surprised when he saw me again after I reached goal! I didn’t quantify this goal in pounds. I would know when I reached it.

[To be continued….]