All You Can’t Eat
It’s 7 a.m. and the house is chilly with the business of sleep. My siblings are away at college and my father is en route to his office downtown. I’m 12—old enough to get myself up, get dressed for school, toast two cinnamon sugar Pop-tarts, and race out to catch the bus at 7:30. The slam of the front door tells my mother I’m gone. She must spring out of bed immediately, because if I ever miss the bus and return to the house—something I try very hard not to do because it sets off a steely light of rage in her eyes—I find her already milling about the kitchen, scooping coffee into the percolator, toasting her half-bagel, fishing a little tub of cream cheese from the refrigerator.
One morning, after I’ve finished my Pop-tarts and before I sprint for the bus, I take a long, thirsty sip of water from a red plastic cup on the counter. I don’t remember putting it there, but I don’t remember not putting it there either. The water is warmish and bitter, a surprise. I peer down into the cup and see the sodden butt of my father’s morning cigar, loose tobacco flakes floating on the surface like sea birds. I gag and run to the bathroom to spit and spit and spit.
How to Make Cigar Water
–1 cup tepid water.
–1 two-inch long cigar butt.
–The inarticulate loneliness of a 12-year-old on school mornings.
–Drop cigar butt into opaque water cup.
–Leave cup beside (not in) sink.
–Allow to marinate until decomposition begins, about 30 minutes.
–Fold in the essence of loneliness until well distributed.
When you get home from school, tell your mother about drinking the cigar water and watch her laugh. Though you do not want to laugh at yourself, see how accidentally drinking water in which a cigar butt is floating is pretty funny, even though you can still taste the wet tobacco/Pop-tart mash-up in the recesses of your throat, a place so deep within you that even when you gargle, you can’t reach it. When you are older, appreciate the nuance of it all: How you prided yourself on being so grown up and self-sufficient (neither your sister nor your brother got up alone on school mornings) at the same time as you felt both your mother’s presence and her absence to be dank and bitter and something else too abstract for words, at least when you were 12 and could not put your finger on the early morning mash-up of longing and disappointment.
A few weeks before I am fired from my waitressing job at Gigi’s Pizza House, I make a pizza for my mother. It is more like a canoe than a pie, with raised edges to contain the lake of tomato sauce I’ve ladled into its hull. On top of the sauce I’ve layered a heaping hill of mozzarella cheese, crowned the whole thing with pink baby shrimp, and baked it to crisp, chewy excellence in the oven at work. The pizza makes no sense for several reasons: for one, shellfish is prohibited in our kosher household. For another, my mother no longer eats bread; and as for me, I am 88 pounds and a few weeks away from hospitalization, having subsisted for my entire nineteenth year on absurdly apportioned foods like turkey measured in spoonfuls and cereal measured in flakes.
When I get home I call my mother into the foyer. Ready? I say. She smiles and clasps her hands under her chin in anticipation. I lift the warm lid of the pizza box. The sharp smell of tomato sauce mingled with the soft bouquet of the sea rides a mozzarella wave up and into our noses. Oh Dana, my mother squeals, and for a moment I think she might cry. Neither of us moves; instead we stare down at the pizza, transfixed, a shared masturbatory fantasy we can neither admit to nor deny. It is not unlike when I got my father a Playboy magazine subscription when I was 17 and had just lost my virginity and he was 50 and on bad terms with my mother. I know you’re hungry, it said, I am hungry too. When we are finished staring at the pizza, my mother looks up at me and I carry it outside and throw it in the garbage.
How to Make Pizza for Throwing Away
–One pizza. It should have toppings you yearn for; if possible, include those that are taboo and carry a risk of moral punishment over and above their caloric load.
–Longstanding hunger. If not readily available, ordinary persistent hunger pangs may be substituted, but the outcome will not be as robust.
–Anxiety, the magnitude of which should be along the lines of a near car-accident or the sound of footsteps behind you in the dark.
–Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
–Heat pizza until warmed through and cheese on top is bubbly and fragrant.
–Present with chef’s choice of heightened apprehension, near panic, or abject terror.
Invite another person to share the fantasy of eating this pizza with you. (Individuals with co-occurring eating disorders are the best option as the non-eating of the pizza will have significance for both of you, though not necessarily the same significance). Gaze longingly at the pizza and wonder (briefly, knowing all the while it’s ridiculous) whether calories can possibly enter your system through inhaling (someone once told you this, probably another anorexic, or your sister). Consider what you would give to take just one bite (really, there is nothing, so this step should not take much time). Think about people you have known who have stage-managed their food in your presence, like your friend Kelly at the Magic Pan restaurant in Atlanta when you were both 17, peeling back the top flap of her cheese crepe and scraping out the creamy innards with her knife before folding it into her mouth, or Leigh, who, when you were in your twenties, bulldozed through a Shoney’s all-you-can-eat buffet, speed-eating for a solid hour, then followed it with a gallon of Rocky Road ice cream before releasing it all into the dark street a mile from her parents’ house. Recall that she would die several years later, her body exhausted from the decades-long clash between all she could eat and all she could not. Think about how none of this could happen to you, even though some of it is already happening.
I’m at a party where I have brought a simple but elegant appetizer of heart-shaped toasts with tapenade. It’s been five decades since I stood alone in my mother’s kitchen and drank cigar water, four since my mother and I came together in the foyer over an ill-fated pizza. And it’s been over a year since I finally stopped weighing myself, in a last-ditch effort to end the relentless cycle of denying and obsessing over my body. Just before dinner I excuse myself to go to the bathroom. No sooner have I locked the door than I see, shrouded in the shadows of the toilet room like someone’s embarrassing secret, a scale. I tell myself I won’t get on it. But there blossoms in my chest a veritable buffet of thrill and remorse, all blended together like how it feels the moment before you allow the hand of a man not your husband to crawl up your skirt, knowing that nothing will ever be the same again, that you are burning down the house.
How to Make Burn Down the House Toast Hearts with Tapenade
–Bread (aka “The Enemy”). Any kind will do.
–Black and green olives, pitted, crushed.
–Olive oil (or other “healthy” fat).
–Toast the bread.
–Using a cookie cutter, stamp out heart shapes. Discard everything you’ve cut away from the heart. (There will be a lot.)
–Mix olive oil, crushed olives, and garlic to form a paste. Consider that “healthy fat” is not an oxymoron, though you really can’t see it any other way.
–Top toast hearts with tapenade, plate, and serve.
Observe that what you’ve cut away from the heart is not actually waste, but what anchors the heart before it reveals itself. Consider how much is thrown away in the sculpting. That evening, place the platter of perfect toast hearts on your host’s designated appetizer table. Announce how healthy they are, and bask in the reflected glow, i.e. because your appetizer is healthy, you, by extension, must also be healthy. This is a good time to excuse yourself and discover the scale. Remind yourself, as you nose it out of the corner of the toilet room with the toe of your boot, how important it is that you not step on it, because to do so will reawaken the sleeping beast of obsession. Step on it. Choke down your alarm at seeing a number that is much too high for your liking (at the same time that it is much too low for your height). Taste something dank and bitter at the back of your throat. Know it to be very old. Know it to be noteworthy. Ignore it. Rip off your boots and re-weigh. Rip off your belt and re-weigh. Rip off your shirt and re-weigh. Rip off your pants and re-weigh. When you are naked, look in the mirror and see the birdlike body of a 12-year-old girl you used to know.
Dana Shavin‘s work has appeared in Oxford American, The Sun, Fourth Genre, Alaska Quarterly Review, and others, and her essay, “This Strange Ballet,” is forthcoming from Garden and Gun. She has been a columnist for the Chattanooga Times Free Press since 2002, and her memoir, The Body Tourist, was published by Little Feather Books in 2014. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and inclusion in Best American Essays. A full publication history is at Danashavin.com.