Here is a list of things you can eat that will fill your stomach, not your conscience:
Cigarettes don’t fill your stomach, they fill your lungs, but for all intents and purposes, they remain on the list. Diet Coke gives you a headache so be wary of that, but you can chew Trident all day.
I am not nearly as mean as I was a decade ago, but these tricks emerge like a well-trained reflex. Some girls are really good at being hungry, and I am really good at underlining my stomach with a thin growl of pride.
I hide my choices, frequently.
For example, you don’t notice that I suck on my steak instead of chew it, that I add water to the whiskey, that lollipops last a strangely long time in my mouth.
When I think to tell this story I am hesitant because I know I am wrong. I know the correct way to eat steak is to chew, not suck, but I am not concerned with the correct way of eating steak. I am concerned with slowing down, pulling the meat strand by strand, watching the calories fall apart in my mouth. Do you see? This is the diet, the slow-slow choices of the mind.
That is why I hate Americans. There is no choice at all, just their blind, eager fingers, reaching for the next meal. I far prefer the French, filling my glass a quarter of the way and returning only if I decide I want more, and I hardly ever want more.
But this story is not about the French or the Americans. It’s about me, and the porcelain stomach I have trained to sit, heal, play dead.
The last time I made myself throw up was the week my brother-in-law died. It was after we returned from the funeral, something nearly impossible to return from, the kitchen walls bending at the seams, and the sunlight spilling onto our faces like a damp headache. All at once you hate the drapes.
God, I hate those drapes, you think, while your body guides you up the stairs. Then you are in your little brother’s bedroom because yours is crowded with three older sisters. And you wander into his bathroom because it’s tucked into the south corner of the house, and no one looks for you here. No one has ever looked for you here. Like clockwork, you switch the lock, and the little girl from high school is there, with ripping jeans and a face as round as a pumpkin. You turn the shower on and climb gently to your knees, the cool linoleum against your kneecaps. The hypocrisy makes you sick because why would you be so careful with your knees when you’re about to be so reckless with your throat? Feeling like a hypocrite, you crouch there, rocking and foaming at the mouth until it is finished. You can’t help but feel like you’re worshipping the toilet bowl, bowing before it, giving praise. In the ceremony, you reach down into your throat, because there is a little trigger at the back of your esophagus. Once you find it, you find it for life.
The vomit is colorful, pretty even. For a moment you stare at the combination of shapes, drifting apart like an orange setting sun.
My sister found me once, hammering on the doorway, “Brenda!” She was shouting, “Brenda what are you doing?” I emerged from the bathroom, clean-mouthed and brave.
“What were you doing in there?”
“Throwing up,” I answered before walking out of the room.
If I really sat back and thought about it, I would guess it began somewhere in the winter of my twelfth year. I can remember waking in the blue-black dawn, running three miles each morning before middle school, and looking at myself in the mirror. “She’s quiet,” a family friend commented to my mother. “She’s gotten so quiet,” I remember him saying that. I remember because even I had not noticed the silence, the slow leak in my own voice, spending my lunch break at the YMCA running the treadmill or my mother’s voice inside my head. “There are non-fat ice cream bars in the outside fridge.”
I once told a friend our mother encouraged weight loss. She suggested diets and other exercise tips. “Why would your mother teach you such terrible things?” he asked. I felt a twinge of resentment. Why wouldn’t a mother teach a daughter what she knows? When I think of my disorder, I am angry at a lot of things, but I am never angry at my mother.
It wasn’t until years later that I made the connection, charted my grief like a mad scientist, said “ah-ha” at the vomit, the ups, and downs. It is pretty simple. I notice my body a lot more when I am sad. When a brother dies, when I fail a math test, I catch myself counting calories, feeling the fat against my waistband. “The anger has to land somewhere,” a therapist once told me. “I just don’t want it to land on you.” Still, that does not stop the vomit, does not stop the counting, the early morning rise to suckle the muscle to one spot.
I keep lists of most things I eat. I could walk into a grocery store, select an item at random, and tell you about how many calories I think it contains. Nine times out of ten I am accurate.
I don’t remember how I achieved such accuracy. I don’t remember when I learned a Charms blow pop is 60 calories, that Tillamook cheese is observed in measurements of eighths, what a tablespoon of almonds feels like in my hand, how ¼ cup of jelly beans is 28 jelly beans, is 130 calories. I would do this more often if people weren’t watching. I would keep tiny little measuring cups in my purse.
I’d like to thank the United States Food and Drug administration for placing nutritional facts on all items of food. I find this immensely helpful. If only produce could be so precise. If only I could measure the burst of calories in a grape.
Items need labels because food is manufactured, the land tilled and harvested. You don’t remember where the food comes from and neither do I, it just appears there, on the shelf, in the grocery store. It seems impossible to imagine every single ingredient was pulled from the earth. This plastic package of cookies was a grain in a field, a chicken’s egg. I can’t remember the last time I touched the earth with my hands. I can’t remember the last time I touched my body without demanding something in return. Sometimes, when I go to the doctor, he places two fingers against my pulse, and I want to cry from the sheer honesty of it -a touch that seeks nothing but to care.
Over the years, I’ve picked up little tricks along the way. For example, if I have one candy in my mouth, I do not hold the other in my hand, I set it on a table, place it in a drawer. Do you see what I’m saying? I try and forget, distract from the organism that is me. The body wants what it sees and I must guard against this wanting.
“Deny thyself” Luke 9:23. “Die to thyself”
If you want to be small, you must learn to be hungry, and hunger is harmless. You learn to shake its hand, place its teeth along your spine, watch the sting grow dull in the light until hunger has accompanied you into every room of the house.
Be careful because the boys will call you shallow, but I don’t give a damn if they call me shallow and neither will they, once they’re running their hand along my thighs.
When my stomach growls, I don’t always answer. I think of it as an alert, the body faxing a message, “We’re meeting our quota!”
I think my throat is a department, my legs are too, my heart, my mind. I am just a collection of parts, things to be managed and regulated. “9 belly shrinking foods,” says the cover of Cosmopolitan, “The booty vegetables for you.”
Some days I think my stomach has coiled, evolved, seized into something entirely different, hard and unmoving like the cauterized feelings after a lovers’ fight. She hardly ever gets hungry anymore, hardly ever makes a peep. And this is just the way I like it, you see?
There’s an art to this. My body believes that we are on the same team. My body is kind to me, tells me every day that it needs food. And every day, I do not feed it. It’s for the greater good, I think, I know what’s best for us. And I do.
Brenda Ray is a writer, singer, poet, and pushcart prize nominee (2020) from Brooklyn, New York. Her work has appeared in Entropy, Brooklyn Magazine, Cirque Journal, Cheat River Review, and many others. Recent honors include winner of the Arksey Essay Contest and guest of honor at England’s Glastonbury Festival. She has taught at The New School’s Eugene Lang College and BASIS Independent. Brenda is working on a memoir, God was in the Room. In her free time, she likes to ride bikes.