By Melissa Mark
The discontent of my parents’ house is palpable, yet everyone stays.
My dreams of getting an out-of-state scholarship were thwarted by my teenage rebellion, so I moved to Tucson to attend U of A with my best friend. Both of us worked to pay the rent on a crappy off-campus apartment, a sagging and faded building in front of an alley littered with stray cats. We fed them and wondered why they swarmed our front porch.
The discontent followed me. I moved back in with my parents after a year, the loneliness and homesickness a humiliating betrayal to my resolve to show them all how I could escape.
Defeated, I commuted back and forth to ASU, dodging the hawking eye of my mother when I dared to eat a late-night snack in the kitchen. My hunger was insatiable, something that carrots and celery could not satisfy, no matter how hard I tried. “Yes, Mom, I know that tortilla chips are poison.” She nestled closely with my thin sister to live vicariously in her popular high school clique. My brother suffered panic attacks and pretended to attend his community college classes. My dad mellowed with age, fading into the background with ESPN on. Miserable, my finances dictated that I live there for another year until I could graduate and get a real job.
While finishing my degree, I worked part-time at a nearby gym. My manager wanted to date me, and although I felt nothing more than friendship toward him, I needed a friend. Topped off by the notion that someone older and world-wise wanted to be with me, I took the leap. He lived in rundown house on the other side of town with peeling paint and dying shrubbery, but I welcomed the escape.
My mother’s disapproval was vehement: “he’s too old for you; he’s such a loser”, and this only strengthened my determination. My brother and dad wrapped up in their world of sports, my sister and mom in their sugary high school bubble…there was no room for me. I packed my clothes, my journals, and asked my mom if I could take my old, white dresser, the one that stood in the corner of my bedroom since I was four.
“No. We need it here.”
Two years slugged on, peppered with my college graduation and my first ‘real’ job in behavioral health. I was busy applying a shiny coat of indifference to my appearance, trying on different looks that seemed adult-like. I tried on being in love with my boyfriend. I wore the delusion that he would one day suddenly grow the motivation to help me clean or take care of the yard. Go back to school and settle into a career. Deep down, I knew I was fooling myself, but where else would I go? Who else wanted to be with me? I was resigned to my life, the depression washing over me in waves, but it was what I knew. Why did I deserve to be happy? I’m not special. Everyone I know hates their job, their life.
An invitation to my friend’s wedding in Texas shifted my path into what I later believed to be divine intervention. A whisper of impending change fluttered within me as I packed my suitcase. Suddenly, I felt sentimental and reluctant to leave. I hugged my boyfriend and left with three of my girlfriends to be bridesmaids, to partake in the festivities of young love. Once I crossed the state lines, I discovered that I’d forgotten to pack my phone charger.
I met him in a bar. I was drinking rum and diet coke out of a phallic straw at the bachelorette party table. His dark eyes and confidence drew me in, his persistence and humor kept me there. My youth came tumbling out of my carefully crafted pseudo-adult shell. I couldn’t believe that he chose me, liked me, wanted to get to know me. Me, still carrying 8 of the extra fifteen pounds in my eyes (and my mother’s) even after my latest crash diet. He called me later and I giggled, agreeing to meet him at my hotel after my friends were asleep. We talked all night at the pool, dipping our toes into the coolness, his syrupy voice lulling me in and surprising me with humor so sharp and safe all at once. His interest was intoxicating.
All the while, my phone somehow stayed charged enough to talk several times a day and plan our meetups. His call, his draw, a lure that led me to leave the wedding early to be with him. Uncharacteristic of me…but it felt so good to not be like me.
“When can I see you again?” The urgency pulled at my heart as we made plans that promised a future. We told each other it was a connection that geographical distance could not touch.
Divinely orchestrated. Magical. A miracle.
Whatever it was, I bowed in gratitude. I couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, simply living off the energetic pulse of our chemistry. For first time, I felt alive, electric, in love, as though I was living in someone else’s body. Was this what happiness felt like?
Guilt sickened my stomach once the plane landed. The hot dry air of my desert home redirected me back to reality, to what I had to do. Move out. Break up. Leave. I tasted freedom and life on the other side, and I longed to dance in it again, to live in it.
I confided my dalliance to my mother and sister as we walked to the drugstore to develop the wedding film. Their eyes lit up and approval shone through as they excitedly lapped up the details. My mother oohed and ahhed over my “tiny little waist” and “beautiful cheekbones”, a byproduct of my new long-distance love diet. Her attention and love came with strings, but to be blanketed in such warmth after her perpetual freeze out was irresistible to me.
“Now you can come back home,” my mother told me. “I’ll buy you a plane ticket to visit him.”
He couldn’t watch me leave, he said, so he went out, presumably to a bar. My dad and brother loaded up my desk, my clothes, the few pictures I’d bought in a half-hearted attempt to brighten the walls. I purposely left the photographs behind, the few photo albums I’d made of the two of us. A bit of sadness came later, the knowledge that I’d hurt him, but I never missed him.
My heart belonged in Texas.
My anger was layered and hidden, lurking deep in my psyche where the light didn’t touch. I never knew it was inside me, most likely because bulimia helped me to drown it and spew it out efficiently. It works until it doesn’t.
My sister was always the angry one, I was the “nice” one, my internal dialogue self-loathing and depressed. Two sides of the same coin, not unlike anorexia and bulimia. I beat myself up for not being able to be more on the anorexic side of things, as it seemed cleaner, more regimented and respectable. Bulimia was messy and represented a loss of control and an insatiable appetite that I hid in shame. I was only able to restrict for long periods of time without bingeing when I was taking my Metabolife diet pills.
Never a smoker unless I paired cigarettes with alcohol, my social smoking status shifted when I was high on my diet pills. The glorious feeling of not being hungry, not being even remotely interested in food, so powerful and pure in my pursuit. Control was restored, there was not one extra ounce of fat on my body. My compulsivity manifested in my drive to constantly exercise and smoke, work out and then indulge in the feeling of a calorie-free release. I began smoking in my car on the way to work, even though I previously deemed my sister and friends gross for smoking cigarettes in the morning.
Dizzy on legal amphetamine, I was as close to carefree as I’d ever been, high with the knowledge that I hadn’t eaten in days. My diet of cigarettes, Kellan, and wine at night kept me fed just fine, thank you very much. Today I brought half a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to work on my mother’s insistence, which made me laugh since she had basically tried to eliminate all fat and calories from my diet since I was six years old.
The freeway in the morning took on a sunlit glow, filling my Honda with sparkly, golden light that enhanced my floaty feeling to the point of euphoria. I’d never felt this good. Meeting Kellan in Texas last month had emphasized how depressed I had been living with Bryan. It scared me that I would settle for that existence, that I thought I was living a normal life.
The gratitude and sexual attraction I felt for Kellan bordered on obsession. Maybe he was my new obsession.
Who cares? This is living, this is what I’ve been missing out on. I was so hot for Kellan that my entire body took on a juicy feeling when we spoke on the phone. This was love.
Where am I?
My route to work, the one I’d been driving for close to two years now, seemed completely new. I must’ve driven right past my exit. Uncharacteristically, it didn’t really bother me. I didn’t care about being late. In fact, I didn’t care about anything at all except for Kellan. What an amazing feeling.
Come at me, Ruthanne Drexler. I don’t care anymore.
After backpedaling and looping and finally finding my way back to familiar streets, I arrived at the West Phoenix Behavioral Health office at almost 9am. Jeannie and I were the only ones who were supposed to be there at 8 every day. With Jeannie’s receptionist job, it made sense, but I was the only clinical employee who wasn’t allowed to come in at our opening time of 8:30 “in case Jeannie needs backup”, Ruthanne told me, a condescending grimace on her face.
Jeannie didn’t need backup.
Ruthanne took pleasure in making my life miserable for the two years I’d been working under her management. As apple-shaped up top as her legs were skinny, her face resembled a frog’s, complete with buggy eyes and a double-chin. Her voice sounded consistently crackled and hoarse from years of smoking. I deduced she was probably in her early to mid-forties even though her wrinkled neck and baggy eyes looked much older.
Yes, Ruthanne’s cigarette-ravaged appearance concerned me, but I figured I would quit smoking as soon as I arrived at my goal weight.
The office was empty except for Jeannie and Nancy, one of the founding therapists who came in early just because that’s who she was. They were going over the psychiatrist’s schedule together at Jeannie’s desk as I moseyed in the door. Jeannie looked up at the jangle of the bells. “Nicole!” she mock admonished. “You are late!”
Nancy, a trim, no-nonsense grandmother in her early sixties peered at me from over her glasses. “You’re also getting way too thin.”
Since Ruthanne was nowhere in sight, I went outside to smoke, reveling in Nancy’s weight comment and marveling that my hipbones jutted out in the coveted way my sister’s did in her low-slung jeans. My hands shook in a pleasant adrenaline rush as I lit my cigarette and called Kellan. My upcoming trip to visit him in Texas was helping to keep my appetite at bay as well. My heart raced with an intensity that hopefully burned as many calories as my daily run.
“Hey, sweet thing,” Kellan answered on the second ring. He’d specifically told me to call him at 9am my time, which meant he’d be on his lunch break in TX.
“Hey, how are you?” I never knew what to call him. Pet names didn’t roll off my tongue like they seemed to on his. He called me baby, babe, sweet thing, gorgeous, beautiful girl – so many lovely names with ease. I felt stupid for even trying. I could barely utter his name without fear of coming across to him as too familiar or assuming.
I still could not believe he was with me. I didn’t want to say ‘mine’, but he called me ‘his’, and that felt so right. My mom had photocopied the picture he’d given me when I left, the one with his stupid stick-thin ex-girlfriend on his back. Mom cut out a fitting sized picture of my face from another photo, then superimposed it on the photo so that it looked like it was me riding piggyback. After I laughed and told her she needed to find more to do at work. It now occupied a supreme spot in my over-the-hill dorm room, as my brother called my room at my parents’ house. It was framed and sitting on my dad’s computer desk. I’m sure he appreciated it while he logged into his email.
“So, five more days!” I continued brightly, trying not to inhale into the phone.
“I still can’t believe you’re finally coming,” Kellan murmured, his sexy tone causing me to drag deeply on my cigarette, forgetting not to. His sexiness was insane. My attraction to him was insane.
My sanity never did me any favors in the past, so I would happily ride this crazy train until it crashed and burned.
“I don’t know if you’ll like me when you see me, though,” he said warningly. “I’ve been eating like a truck driver. You’re gonna see me all chunky and turn around and fly back to your house.”
“No way,” I laughed. “You’re crazy.” If he only knew how obsessed I was with him. Didn’t he know?
“Seriously, though.” His voice went even deeper. “I told you how I was depressed awhile back, right?”
“Yeah, you did.”
We’d both shared so many deeply personal details that they ran together intertwined in my mind, proof of how solid and binding our connection was. He’d confided that he was on medication for his depression, how awful his parents’ divorce had been, how he was the emotional support for his sisters, how his mom was more a friend than a mom and how he never felt like he lived up to his dad’s expectations.
He paused. “Shit, they messed up my sandwich again.” In a low voice he continued, “The sandwich girl dropped my lettuce on the counter and then just scooped it back up and put it into my sandwich like it never happened. This is going on my list of places to never eat at again.”
I snorted. “Be careful so that they don’t do anything worse next time.” I shifted my weight to balance on my other foot. I felt compelled to balance like a stork on one foot whenever I smoked in the parking lot. I had to be burning more calories that way.
“You know you’re the only person I’m ever nice to, right?”
I delighted in this, knowing he was tough to please. It occurred to me that if I could pass his test, I must mean something.
To be fair, it was my fault. I started the whole thing by wearing black lacy thong underwear under my white cuffed jeans. In my excitement, I hadn’t packed very carefully, and I was out of underwear by my last full day in Texas. I almost wore my teal sundress, but it was wrinkled, and Kellan didn’t own an iron.
Thinking my black cotton tank top covered enough of my tight white pants, I wore it out to the bar where Kellan and I were meeting his buddies. Apparently, I was wrong because Kellan almost punched one of his friends when I was ordering drinks at the bar. Hearing raised voices, I turned around in alarm to see him heatedly threatening Marco that he’d better “stop looking at her ass!”
The trip wasn’t going as I’d pictured. The romantic, smooth-talking Kellan who lavished me with romance on the phone all those weeks was now consistently cloaked in anger and jealousy.
Even so, there was a twisted part of me that always thought I wanted to be with someone who was jealous. Someone who loved me so much and found me so attractive, he couldn’t stand seeing other men look at me. However, the fantasy I’d concocted in my head was much more flattering and pleasant than reality. I was constantly stressed out and walking on eggshells as to not upset him.
The night before, he grew furious at me for talking to one of his roommates for too long. I had no idea I’d done anything wrong until I looked over and he was sitting in a lawn chair, smoking a cigarette and staring straight ahead. Trying to be playful, I walked over with my beer and sat on the edge of the armrest. I smiled down at him. He looked straight ahead.
Cold pooled inside my stomach. “Hey, what’s wrong?”
Now having confirmation that I had indeed upset him somehow, I self-consciously looked behind me to see if anyone was watching, but his friends all scattered, most likely sensing the storm that was about to hit.
“Kellan,” I tried again, twisting off the armrest and kneeling in front of him. “What’s the matter?”
He blinked slowly and made eye contact. Cold. “Oh, now you remember who you’re here with? I think you and Jesse were getting along pretty well. “
“Kellan, I wasn’t ignoring you. I’m just trying to get to know your friends, too, since I’m here and we’re all hanging out and …” Notes of desperation crept into my voice, unsteady and crackled.
“You’d think I wasn’t even here.”
“I’m so sorry.” I pleaded with the blankness of his stare, trying to salvage the night. “We were just talking, and I asked him how long you guys had been friends and he was telling me stories about when you guys were younger. I swear. I’m so sorry if you felt like I was ignoring you.” My eyes filled with tears despite my best efforts.
Kellan met my eyes and seemed to soften at the sight of my tears. “Baby,” he whispered. He reached out to stroke my hair. My entire body began to relax. “I just can’t stand to see you flirt with another guy. Even if he is my buddy.” He enveloped me in his arms and pulled me into his lap.
I was so relieved that I forgot to worry about how much of my weight was pressing into him.
Dad was sitting in the kitchen at the small round table when I came downstairs at 6am. His hands steepled over his temples, his eyes closed, his breathing deep. I rolled my eyes as I poured the coffee he’d made earlier into my silver travel mug. Where had this calm, meditative dad been when we were little? The one who pounded the washing machine with his fists to create an intimidating boom when we were too loud for his liking?
“When I come home, all I want is some goddamned peace and quiet!!”
I snapped on my coffee lid and slid a thin slice of bread into the toaster. Dad rubbed his eyes and looked up at me. “Hey, kid. Do you have an early meeting?”
“No, I just need to finish some paperwork.” Anxiety gurgled in my stomach as I hurriedly spread my fake peanut butter on my diet whole wheat bread, both marked with purple Sharpie to let my brother know he wasn’t allowed to eat them. “Not PB” the label said. I didn’t care what it was as long as it was half of the fat and calories. I’d eaten more in the week returning home from Texas than I had in the past six months, feeding my fear of what would become of my long-distance relationship.
Dad snorted as he picked up the newspaper, shaking it open with a snap. “You want to hear about stress?” He set the paper down flat and rose to get his coffee cup from the cupboard. “World’s Best Dad” stood out in white enameled lettering against the pale blue ceramic mug, a Father’s Day gift from years back.
Dad launched into a description of his latest trials and tribulations at work, I bit into my toast and tried not to gobble it down in two bites. I wiped a dab of “Not PB” from the corner of my mouth and felt a tenderness right under the skin. It felt like a deep pimple was sprouting right in the corner of my mouth. Just what I needed.
I flashed back to shoving tortilla chips into my mouth at lightning speed in the walk-in pantry last night while looking over my shoulder to make sure no one in my family would come downstairs and discover me. The three glasses of wine I’d consumed lubricated my willpower to the point of nothing and I gave into my deep hunger. Tortilla chips, stale Ritz crackers, fig newtons from who-knows-when, fingerfuls of real peanut butter…my stomach turned now as I thought of all the unappetizing and probably expired food that I’d binged on in a panic. It didn’t even taste good.
This morning, I’d carefully applied my concealer to try to disguise the broken blood vessels that scattered underneath my eyes from the purge last night, but I knew I still looked puffy and haggard. I tried to drown out the voices telling me how disgusting and worthless I was with sips of the strong black coffee.
A tornado of suppressed screams inside me demand to know why this still affects me, still haunts me, still influences how my days begin and end. After all these years, this shit still controls me. My mood depends on what I ate, how much I ate, if I threw it up, how much of that I think I got up, and how bloated and puffy my face and belly are reflected in the mirror.
I’m a smart girl. Why can’t I stop eating?
Some people like to begin their day with a cup of coffee. I like to rehash everything I ate the previous day, tally up the calories and set a cap on the amount of calories I can ingest today to make up for any slip-ups yesterday. Then I pinch my stomach, feel my ribs, and make sure I am still thin, because there’s no way I’m ever going back to what I was.
About Melissa Mark
Melissa Mark struggled to choose between majoring in creative writing and psychology in college. As a practicing therapist for almost twenty years, she is now exploring her love of writing and hopes it’s not a midlife crisis. Melissa has been published by Scary Mommy and is a contributor to City Mom Collective. She lives in Flagstaff, AZ with her husband and two young boys, and is currently working on a novel that has nothing to do with motherhood or raising kids.