A Conscious Endeavor
Those who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained; and the restrainer or reason usurps its place & governs the unwilling.
And being restrained it by degrees becomes passive till it is only the shadow of desire.
—William Blake, “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”
I’ve just eaten two bowls of Frosted Flakes cereal. Two whole bowls.
I quickly take stock of the damage—one hundred and twenty calories for ¾ of a cup, a portion that won’t even fill half of one bowl. The sugar-sweet milk at the bottom, too, I drank that—every last drop.
This startles me awake. Was that real or just a dream? I push the covers off and look down at my thighs. Are the Frosted Flakes starting to show? I pinch my sides, inspecting for extra fat, and place two fingers between my skin and my wristwatch to make sure it fits as loosely as it did last night. Does it? I can’t tell. I sigh. Nothing but water and gum now for at least twelve hours.
A feeble voice protests—It’s just a dream. You’re crazy—but I ignore it. I’m glad to know these flakes will be parading through my mind all day, dancing in a line, furthering my will to starve them out.
I’m a senior now, and after almost four years at St. Joseph’s High School, I now despise school—despise seeing all those faces, suffering through pointless, boring classes. Today, the girls will pass notes about Friday night’s party at Rob’s, taking stock of who hooked up with whom. Lisa will ask me if I think Mike really likes her or if he’s just using her again, like last time. John will call Kelsie a whore, and she’ll laugh, click her tongue and say, “John!” while she taps his shoulder playfully. They’ll try to fill me in on all of it, as if I still care, as if I ever really cared.
But I did care. Way too much. That’s why I’ve worked so hard to get past all that. I’m focused on goals now: eating less, exercising more, perfecting my grades so I can go somewhere in life, like Boston College, where I can be free from all this nonsense, to focus on things that matter, like art and philosophy and history; to live in the midst of breathtaking Gothic architecture that makes church bells ring in my mind when I stand before it; to be surrounded by stimulating conversation with people who are smarter than me—have been more places, seen more things, read more books, who can teach and inspire me and keep me moving forward. Not like here in my little Catholic high school in little old Trumbull, Connecticut, where the girls talk about nothing but boys, and the boys won’t really talk to the girls, unless it’s about something that is ultimately related to sex.
And what it takes for me to get there is isolation—returning to the way I was before high school, when I spent Saturdays at the dining-room table writing novels about sixteen-year old-Olympic figure skating champions and San Francisco earthquake survivors, instead of hanging out at the mall, chatting with my friends about boys and gossip; when all I wanted for Christmas were books and art supplies, instead of Doc Martin boots so I could look cool in my school uniform; and, most importantly, when I knew how to control my feelings and fears, keeping myself safe and calm by praying each night for the safety, health, and happiness of every person I care about, individually, three times over (or three sets of three, when I really couldn’t sleep). None of that, anymore.
When I entered high school, I became a stranger to myself, frolicking around with the other girls outside the gym after school, giggling and gossiping and flitting around in our plaid, uniform skirts to attract the attention of boys, waiting all week for Friday night, to see which party or movie theater we’d ask our parents to drop us off at, which group of boys we’d meet up with. I talked on the phone for hours each night, in three or four-way phone conversations, about nothing that mattered.
See, I set myself up for disaster when I entered that school. I used to write in my journal about how different I felt from everyone, how no one understands me, why am I like this, I’ll be alone forever—that sort of thing. But eventually, I got sick of all that complaining and said, you know what? I have a loving family, enough food, clothing, and extras, and I need to stop whining. I wrote, “I think it would be great to fit in, be part of a crowd.”
So when I started high school and met all these new people, I assumed the role I had imagined. It felt good to be part of it all, but sooner or later, you catch up to yourself when you’re fighting your true nature, and that’s what happened to me. I had all these chaotic, contradictory feelings and wrote things like, “How do you keep from changing who you are just because it’s easier?” next to, “How do I become normal? Why can’t I be like everyone else?” I wrote, “Why are people so superficial?” beside, “Why don’t I have a date to the Spring Fling dance?” Disgusting.
Anyway, now that I’m focused on tangible goals, these types of questions fall away. The commitment required to achieve this sort of control is holistic and doesn’t allow for such mayhem. Most of the time, as long as I stay within the boundaries I’ve set, I can avoid these types of feelings. Or feelings at all.
I could skip the whole day today, but Mrs. Green, my English teacher, is giving a test second period. She’s not like everyone else; she cares about things, like ideas and poems and books and getting at the truth of things, and I don’t want her to think I lump her in with all the rest. She talks about things like “ubiquitous serendipity” and says “everything interrelates,” and I believe her, even though I don’t really care anymore. But I’m a loyal dog, so I still come to her class, though I spend most of the time planning my eating schedule for the day while tapping my foot, flexing my butt and calf muscles, and fidgeting to burn some calories.
Still, that means living through three endless hours of St. Joe’s life. And getting out of bed. How will I ever get out of this bed?
The Trident. I jump up and leap over to my sock drawer, pull it open, and grab the two pieces of sugar-free gum I hid there last night, when I willed myself to forget about them until morning. I tear off the wrappers and gobble both sticks—ten calories total, but I’ve got all day to burn them off, and the chewing alone will do it.
As every morning, I sprint in place to set the day off to a calorie-burning start. Deep breath, then I dress in my thick blue tights, my tight white tanktop, my pink turtleneck, and my yellow button-down shirt. I wrap on my gray, pleated skirt and fasten it on the tightest button—size zero, I like to note—and then stuff my arms into the navy-colored, St. Joseph High School V-neck sweater that nobody wears past March, but I do because I am cold. I don’t care that the sweater is ugly. It feels good not to care. It feels good to be warm.
I go to the bathroom to wash my face and brush my teeth, but I don’t turn on the light. I’m smart now—I know not to look in mirrors before school. If I did, I’d just think all day about how ugly I am, which is what my wretchedly vain self used to do.
The first time I realized I was ugly was a couple months into my freshman year at St. Joe’s. A few weeks in, I had, of all things, a boyfriend, which was wild to me, considering I’d always been too shy to admit to anyone, even myself, that I liked a boy.
My boyfriend’s name was Darrin, a sophomore, and he had friends who were football players, which meant he was popular. That’s what he told me—that being popular at our school meant being friends with the football players. When Darrin liked me, the other freshman girls started to like me because they wanted sophomore boyfriends too, especially ones that were friends with the football players. But after a while, Darrin and I ran out of things to talk about on the phone, and I was much too timid to do anything more than that with him, so one day I asked if we could just be friends. The next day, at school, word got around. When another freshman girl, Jill, asked me what happened, I told her we agreed to break up, that it was mutual. He was a nice kid with a reputation to preserve, and I wasn’t looking to mess with that. “That’s not what I heard,” she said. “I heard he dumped you because you’re ugly.”
Ugly. I’d never thought about ugly. I’d thought about fat, because my hips and thighs and chest were starting to grow—those “Greek curves,” my sisters called them. A nice little woman’s somataki, or body, my Greek grandma, Yiayia, said, which was a good thing, according to all of them. But ugly? That caught me off guard. And I hated being caught off guard.
I used to look forward to school pictures because I kind of liked my squinty-eyed smile, the way my hair fuzzed up above my forehead, and how I brought the photos home to hand out to my aunts and uncles and grandparents who all seemed to want them. I never wondered whether I was pretty or not. But that day, after talking to Jill, I went home and stared into the mirror until I finally saw it—the too-flat nose; the black, marbly eyes; the dark, frizzy hair; my sideburns; the pimples. She was right. I was ugly.
And there was nothing I could do about it, so I didn’t even try. No makeup, no trendy haircuts—just pull it all back in a ponytail and sleep on it to make it straight. I’m not a person who likes to fight a losing battle, so I made a choice: “They may call me ugly,” I wrote in my journal, “but I’ll be sure they never call me fat.”
At the same time, it pissed me off that I cared at all, that I could be so shallow. I expected more from myself. So I started to fight it, writing goals in my journal, like: “lose a lot more weight, read, run, and get in shape. Improve at soccer. Start painting again. Try not to care about superficial things. Who cares if you have friends? Who cares if you’re ugly? Who cares if boys don’t like you? Concentrate on schoolwork and exercise.”
I wrote mantras like that over and over until they embedded into my consciousness and, now, I don’t need them.
Well, not as much. Though the other day, when I came home feeling famished, I ate, not one but, two bananas—100 calories each, and more carbs than I wish to count—and after that I felt like a planet spinning off course—all the others in line, in the cosmic flow, and I just out of control.
Anyway, that’s why I don’t get on scales. I can’t afford to lose control like that. I know better, since the doctor’s appointment a couple months ago when I learned I weighed ninety pounds. I was as surprised as my mother, who said, “Wow, I thought you’d be less than that.” Of course, to Mom—poor Mom, who wants so badly to “help” me, though I don’t want or need any help—this was good news but, to me, it meant failure. Just moderately underweight, after all that careful planning and focus. So I set new boundaries: nothing but water past six p.m., instead of seven, and cutting down from ten unsalted pretzels in the afternoons to five. I assume I weigh less now, but it’s too risky to find out for sure; a scale is too empirical, and even I’m afraid of the tricks I’ll start playing if I find out otherwise.
This morning, I splash my face with cold water; normally I let the hot water run first but, on mornings like this, when I’ve woken up late or committed some other act of indiscipline—like dreaming of a sugary cereal that I put on my “NO” list two years ago—I force myself to deal with the jolt.
When I’m ready, I hustle down the stairs, out of the house, and into my father’s gray Jeep Grand Cherokee. When I switch on the ignition, the heat is on full blast, but I turn it off—I haven’t earned this infernalization, as I call that blissful state of warmth. Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Going to Take It,” is blaring through the tape deck. I smile; it’s funny, all that vocalized anger.
On some mornings, I stop at the local Starbucks before school. Once, when I was there with my sister, I secretly inspected the nutrition label on a bottle of sugar-free vanilla syrup behind the barista’s counter and read that it was calorie-free—a free food, in my mind, just like Breathsavers used to be until they all of a sudden upped the calorie count to five, which I didn’t realize until after I finished a whole package in one day. That crisis—all those unaccounted-for calories I took in, without accommodations like cutting something out or running extra miles on the treadmill, meant stricter control for two weeks. I dropped my afternoon portion of Special K down from a half cup to a third, which was torturous at first because eating that cereal is one of the greatest moments of my day, which I’m ashamed to admit because I like to think I’ve gotten rid of the desire for food altogether.
But back to the milk—when I estimated the loss of volume during steaming, I determined that a tall, sugar-free, vanilla skim steamer was relatively harmless—fairly low in carbs and calories, and nutritious enough to carry my body through the day.
But today, after the Frosted Flakes debacle, Starbucks is out of the question.
I pull into school three minutes late, which is good because my friends should be in homeroom already. No one will see me trudge up the stairs, and I can take breaks to rest my legs. I can relish in that weakness, that throbbing physical inability in my calves and knees and joints to move any faster.
Also, Miss Marcucci will send me down to get a late pass, which means I’ll get some exercise, even if I go slowly, and I won’t have to sit on those cold, hard chairs for a little while.
Though I kind of like that, the feel of bone against chair.
What I like is to feel empty, to feel my emptiness echoing against more emptiness. What I like is to feel my own bony fingers wrap entirely around my upper arm. I like to see the look of surprise, even horror, as others grip my wrist and see their fingers overlap. I like to lay flat and feel my stomach dip—concave, a word from calculus class: good. And I liked it when my mother grabbed my arm one day and shook it and it hurt because I could feel her gripping my tendons as she shouted, “Don’t you see? There’s no fat! No fat! Not one ounce of fat on your whole body!”
By the time I get my late pass, it’s first period. Dr. Valois’ history class. Not the worst class ever—he’s an okay guy, but it’s social hour in there half the time. Nobody cares what he’s saying about FDR, the New Deal, and the Fireside Chats, and he knows it. I guess that’s why he puts the big, cone-shaped Dunce cap on people every once in a while, but it’s hard for me to laugh when he does that, because even though I agree that we’re all a bunch of contentedly ignorant, overindulged, overgrown babies, all I can think is that maybe, as our teacher, it is he who should hold us accountable, create consequences, instead of mocking us playfully, which just ends up perpetuating our obtuseness. Tell us the secrets of the learned, Dr. Valois. But all the kids like him—they think he’s cool because he looks like an ex (or current) stoner with his long, shaggy hair and his droopy, gray eyes, and he listens to Bob Dylan and plays the guitar in class, so they laugh about the hat and pretend to listen to the lectures just enough so everyone stays happy.
And I like him too because he lets me color during class. Today, I brought my Precious Moments coloring book, and five crayons. I spend the entire period on a little boy and girl sitting side-by-side on a wooden dock. The boy is holding a fishing rod, and the girl is cuddling up next to him. I take about fifteen minutes on their hair, shading in the top the darkest brown and fading to light. Both are brunette, because yellow, like white, is a terrible crayon—it just doesn’t do what you want it to—and black is hard to shade.
When the bell rings, I’m off to Mrs. Green’s English class.
During the test, I sit nearest to the door so I can bolt out as soon as it’s over. I start with the essays, which usually help me pass these tests. Questions like, “What are Gatsby’s motivations, and how is he portrayed by the narrator?” are easy to bullshit, and I privately think of myself as the queen of bullshit these days. I bullshit my way out of classes—suddenly I’m a member of the Pep Club on the day before a rally, which gets me out of class to help decorate the gymnasium, which I don’t do because it’s really just a chance to sneak out of the building. I bullshit my way out of dinner—“I ate earlier, I promise,” I lie to my parents. And I’m rotten for it, I know, but it’s more important that I stick to my 1,200 calories a day. And I bullshit on that too. I allow myself one cup of Special K per day, but I measure it one half-cup at a time, and I only fill each half cup halfway, though I tell myself I ate a full serving. One hundred and ten calories, but I always round up, so I count it as 150, even though it’s more like fifty-five. And I count broccoli as 200, even though I know it’s only twenty calories per serving, because I convince myself a serving is so small that I’ve probably eaten ten, even though somewhere in my mind I know that can’t be true.
But when all of this goes a bit too far—when my mother or someone else scares me into thinking I might die—I bullshit myself the opposite way. I eat a little more than a serving of cereal by heaping the cups and counting them as one, so I end up taking in more calories than I tell myself I am. And when Mom asks if I’ve eaten, I say no, even if I have, so she’ll force me to eat again.
Then, they get so impressed by the way I’ve been eating that they stop asking me everyday if I’ve eaten, and I start to think I’ve gained too much weight, so I pull back for a few days, and then I wear a T-shirt—instead of my usual, oversized sweatshirt—that shows my arms, to see if they’ll react to my skinniness and start asking if I’ve eaten again, which would validate the success of my efforts, and start the wheel turning again.
Sometimes, I feel guilty. I imagine a side-by-side movie screen image of a moment in time—me driving around in my Jeep, skipping school, while my mom Googles anorexia on her lunch break, and my father works hard at his diner, yelling at a waitress for something minor like a ten-cent mistake on a check because he’s so consumed with worry about me. But if I soften with them too much, they’ll want to talk, and I don’t want to talk. I know what “talking” means. It means I have to “get better,” “start eating,” maybe even see that clueless therapist again with the hairy feet and the boat shoes, who crosses his legs like a woman and thinks I don’t like eating because my father owns a diner. That’s what he gets paid the big bucks for, I guess. He thinks that’s going to make me let this go? I’m not letting this go. Not yet. I feel more focused, more motivated, more in control now than I have since before I got to this rotten school.
Sometimes, like I said, I get scared. My mom will say things like, “Don’t you know you could be doing permanent damage to your body, your insides? Permanent?” And then I’m forced to think about that word, permanent. And sometimes she says things like, “Don’t you know what happens to people when they stop eating? They end up in the hospital or—they die. Do you want to die?”
I have no desire to die. Some nights, I lie in bed listening for my heartbeat, the time between each an eternity. I start to feel short of breath and think of stories, articles my mom clips about ballerinas dropping dead; their hearts just stopped. I jump out of bed, run downstairs to the kitchen, grab some grapes, and stuff them in my mouth to save my life.
But I prefer those nights when I lie in bed, my teeth already brushed, stomach empty, knowing I’ve been strong enough to resist and will be losing weight throughout the night, in every moment—unlike the nights when grape juice seeps through my intestines, pulsing through my arms and legs, bloating and expanding them, torturing me.
And sometimes, I do wonder if I should be living like this. Sometimes I feel trapped in a vacuous realm where I look but don’t see, touch but don’t feel, hear but don’t listen. My taste buds are dead. Carrots taste like raw potatoes. I touch the world with gloves and wrap my heart in plastic to keep it “good.” I store the sun’s rays in Tupperware instead of letting them permeate my skin.
But when I consider the alternative—a constant tightrope walk above a torrent of conflicting emotions and thoughts—I think, well, Tupperware’s the way to go.
I finish with the multiple choice, which I mostly guess on because I can never remember things like if Finny is the friend in A Separate Peace or Catcher in the Rye, if it was Wordsworth or Whitman who wrote “Song of Myself,” or if it was Emerson or Thoreau who went out to the pond and said, “I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor.” Whichever one went to the pond, I thought he was arrogant, but I did like that quote . . .
Because that’s what I’m doing. I’m elevating my life through a conscious endeavor.
More than a decade later now, I still don’t know how much I weigh. Doctors tell me that’s a good thing, but I’m not sure.
What is a good thing is that I can dine at an Indian restaurant on a Saturday night and eat oil-soaked chickpeas with Garlic Naan bread and laugh as I battle my husband for the last scoop of white rice, and then proceed with the rest of our evening—a movie, a walk through the city, a meet-up with friends—without tallying the calories from each morsel of the meal, or flexing my muscles to burn some off.
Though, I still don’t eat anything without a relative idea of how “fattening” it is, and what its ingredients are. I still have an extensive “NO” list. I still inspect, constantly and unconsciously, for extra soft spots on my body. And if I find any, it still has the power to throw my mind and emotions into a tailspin. Maybe the only difference is that, now, I follow my own rules about food and exercise as naturally as I know not to lie, cheat, steal, or hurt others.
When life gets stressful, my grip tightens. And then, my poor husband finds his diet monitored. Some deep part of me is both appalled by and in love with the way he can eat with such abandon, mouth open, voraciously heaping in mounds of food, with sounds from the world beyond his chewing dulled to a symphonious hum.
Maybe it’s the fact of him, my husband; the fact that I’ve let love, that thing which renders us most vulnerable, reflecting every day our fragility as human beings, into my life, stimulating an appetite for experience from which this young girl desperately sought freedom.
Maybe I’ve achieved my teenage goal. Maybe, as Virginia Woolf wrote, “To enjoy freedom…we have, of course, to control ourselves.”
Knowing we can control nothing more.