Mary Gustafson (2)

The Price of Hunger


“Jesus Christ that was an expensive order.”

I take a breath and get ready to protest but my mom speaks first.

“Honey, she always gets a grilled cheese. I think she just wanted something different.”

“A little girl doesn’t need to eat like that. Right, BFGF?”

Big. Fat. Girl. Friend.

My brothers had a field day with that nickname. I was called every fat name in the book from BFGF to elephanpotomus to FATSO –you name it, I heard it.


I am 14 when I try throwing up for the first time.

I plead.

“Look, it’s just a patty melt! It’s not like I broke a law! For Christ’s sake!”

“What did you say?”

My brothers and I stop talking

My dad slams his hand on the table and stands up. “Goddammit, I have had it! Mary Alvina, you can use your goddamn allowance to pay for your fancy pants meal! I have had it!”

He shoves his chair out loudly and stomps off to smoke a cigarette and calm down. I blow out air and decide: I am a fat, broke misfit. I hate my middle name, and I never make the right choice.


When I was little I wasn’t smart enough to understand that no one meant it when they called me names or chased me down or ripped off my swim suit top while I was swimming. It was all in good fun. I thought of myself as a tough tomboy, but I was actually a little girl, with the brain of a little kid. I had no filters to reassure me that it wasn’t my fault.

I wasn’t a slut, a sinner, or a loser; heck, I wasn’t even fat.

I cringe as I write this. I don’t want you to know the truth. I don’t want to tell you about the sex too early, the pregnancies, the bulimia, the bad relationships, the money disasters; I remember slicing my cheeks with razor blades when I was ten and I want to stop the zig-zag sloppy shred of my denial and my fake dignity.


I don’t want anyone to think bad stuff about my family. I want to keep it all back there and just move on from it. No one else is talking about it. Why should I? Why march down into that filthy sewer? Why would I ever tell anyone about my slow slides down swing set poles, trying to get ‘that feeling’ back after my third grade summer? I wish I could tell you, but I can’t.

I wrestle with the DO NOT CROSS tape and I end up in a sticky mess, trying to turn back but it’s too late. The heavy metal clangs down on the wet pavement and I clomp on in with my big black muddy boots and my old fat dog. I feel dirty, but I can’t stop.

It’s so hard to keep writing out the truth. It’s like I shook out a can of Pringles and rolled over them in bed and I just can’t put them back the right way. I am crushed, but enlivened. A new, vulnerable me. I feel lighter as I write sometimes. Every now and then I can feel it. I am free.

I want to make my story light-hearted and funny and as a kid, there was a ton of that. We celebrated under the street lamps every damn night in a cul-de-sac, shouting surfs up and dancing when the lights flashed on! We got to play in creeks and forests and live in a neighborhood filled with kids our age. My dad played banjo and sang. My mom played the organ. My brother sat with me for hours while I learned guitar, recording me on an old tape recorder and saying, “And now, here is the famous Mary G!”


I am wracked by the deep sense that I am betraying an ancient trust between daughters and their mothers. I am letting something that needs to stay put, get out. I am going inside where no one belongs. My family is a total success by any measure. Why can’t I just let it go?


My best friend shakes his head. This awareness all coming now, at your age. My God.


All the pop psychology phrases make it sound so easy to get in and out of holes, but it’s a filthy dirty process and you don’t just stand up and jump out and move on, at least I can’t. I can’t steady myself on a pile of garbage. I have to clean it up. I have to stay in the hole and feel the damp walls and the muddy bottom and listen to nothing but me and my fear. I have to risk my big loving amazing successful wonderful family hating me. I already hate myself at least twice a day so they might as well join the party.

Most of the things I write about are painful. More than half the time, I am thinking this: Will I be sued, will they hate me, will I get fired, am I allowed to talk about THIS?


The hole that sucks me in is deep. If I stop writing about it, if I change a thing about the truth in my writing, I find myself in bed with a big bowl of popcorn and a glass of wine, sweaty from yoga but unable to muster up the energy to shower, trying to dull the pain of being me.


I have to twist out of the sweat-damp sheets littered with oily popcorn and spit out the dry taste of leftover red wine to taste the smell of him and write it out, again.


Mary Gustafson is a professional copywriter with Stedman Graham and Associates who wrote My Wish, The Story of a Man who Brought Happiness to America. She is currently working on Summer, a novel about a girl’s childhood in the sixties. She describes herself as an author with a long childhood and many experiences that have morphed into gifts as fodder for her writing. Her 2016 essay, Time Stops, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize by Longridge Review. Follow Mary on Twitter, @Maryswriting.