The alarm system went off at two A.M. on a school night, reverberating throughout the house. Susan shot out of bed in a silk negligé and ran towards the front door, stopping at the top of the stairs, where she could see me standing with the door handle in my hand wearing a Paul Frank pajama set.
“Where you going?!” she shouted.
“I’m looking for my mother,” I replied, eyes wide-open. A monkey dressed like Elvis on my chest.
“I’m right here!” she replied. The dogs barking like mad.
“No, my Other Mother.” Then I proceeded to slam the door behind me.
When Susan caught up to me— barefoot on brick, blossoms closed to the moon— she realized that I was sleepwalking. She never responds to Mom, just Susan. After hearing triplets scream “MOMMMY” times three, she blotted it from her brain. Which, of course, makes me look rude in front of strangers. Careful not to wake me up, she came back in the big house, turned off the alarm, then guided me back to bed.
In the sixth grade, I had just read my new favorite book, “Coraline.” The children’s novel follows a girl who falls into an alternate universe. Coraline is told specifically by her looney neighbor not to investigate behind the door that is blocked off by a brick wall. But curiosity gets the best of her, and one day, the brick wall disappears. Behind the door, in the empty flat next door that mirrors her own, she meets the better version of her real mother, her Other Mother. The only flaw: she has spooky buttons for eyes.
I related to the idea of wanting escape. Susan was on me about my weight. A singular goal, which I had no say in: lose weight. She often talked at me rather than to me. All I wanted to do was buy matching dresses and wear them in public. I wanted to be of her, enough.
However, in the book, the fantasy ends when the Other Mother is revealed to be evil: she tries to force Coraline to sew buttons over her own eyes in order to trap her in the fantasy world forever. Three years later, I would be ready to walk through a wall, even if it meant sewing buttons on my eyes.
Except instead of buttons, my Other Mother handed me 100 Calorie packs.
The palm trees that lined Colorado Boulevard cast shadows onto the steel and glass high-rise building, which was nestled between banking and consulting firms. The lobby smelled of antiseptic. My Other Mother’s tiny office was on the eleventh floor. When Susan and I stepped onto the elevator, we were joined by a man in a tailored navy suit. He made me worry about touching anything. The elevator dinged, and soon Susan bum-rushed the receptionist.
The receptionist smiled, “I’ll let her know you’re here. Feel free to take a seat.”
Waiting to be seen, I was a twelve-year-old looking at women’s magazines with headlines like “Lose Weight for Prom” smiling up at me from the glass coffee table.
After a few minutes, my Other Mother walked into the doorway of the reception room. She was thin the day I met her, though over the course of the next six years, her weight would yo-yo up and down, up and down. Much like my own would. But, of course, she never pitched a diet, she pitched a “lifestyle.” We all closed our eyes and swallowed the miracle pill she was selling because we wanted to believe.
I didn’t notice my body until everyone else did.
In the third grade, my nipples became beestings and panic ensued: I was becoming a woman. While having dinner with my family, both of my brothers would be served something delightful, while I was relegated something “healthy.” Some of the eight-year-old girls at school and all of the eight-year-old girls at ice skating were put on diets. When Susan looked away, I sneaked a heaping-fork-full of my brother’s mac-n-cheese, attempting to pop it into my mouth while no one was looking. The glint of the fork flying across the dinner table caught Susan’s eye: Though I could feel her gaze, I still inched the fork closer and closer to my mouth. When I swallowed, she sighed. “God dammit. Why do we pay for ice skating if you’re going to do that?”
A nutritionist came to our house shortly after my breasts did. The memory feels faint, but her presence in our house left an impression. My parents sat across from her in the Library, a room too formal for any other day. It was only used when camera crews came to our house to capture Daddy’s commentary. I walked by trying to act casual, but I was told to go upstairs. I was not introduced. When I asked Susan about her a decade later, she said she told them not to put their eight-year-old on a diet. Everyone had weight-loss advice. My Armenian ballet teacher told me to stop drinking soda. My Russian choreographer watched me eat a bag of Baked Potato Chips and said, “See! This is why you are fat.” Another coach told me I gain weight behind my thighs and in my face. And Susan scolded whenever I did what I wanted: eat.
The basis of my relationship with my mother was figure skating. She drove me to every rink in Southern California, whether it was 15 or 75 minutes away; she wrote the checks for my sessions, for my five coaches: Main Coach, Ballet Teacher, Jumps Coach, Spins and Moves in the Field Coach, Another Jumps Coach — plus two different Choreographers; she swiped the credit card every time I got new boots and blades, which was once to twice a year; she chose the music I skated to; she helped design my costumes with a designer who flew in from Colorado and measured my body every six-to-eight weeks; she drove me home. When I threw a fit, unwilling to get out of the car for a ballet lesson, she would say, “Fine! Don’t do it! I could have my own beach house instead!”
In the beginning, Susan would come into the rink, lace up my skates, and watch. Over the years, I laced up my skates and she tried to learn the terminology. Despite getting it wrong often— mixing up toe-loops and flips, which is the ice skating equivalent of mixing up they’re, their, and there— she tried to advise. She genuinely gave a damn. But she just couldn’t spot the difference. I always landed a jump when she wasn’t looking, so it felt like she wasn’t looking at all.
But she was just as invested as I was.
Susan had always wanted to pursue music as a kid. Her mother smoked a pack of cigarettes a day, but still had the gall to tell her daughter that only whores wear red nail polish and dance— no red nails, no dancing. The daughter of two of Disney’s Orchestra musicians, my grandma Pat ran around Hollywood in the 1920’s and saw the ways in which drink and sin grabbed those who chose art. Grandma Pat wouldn’t let Su do anything but play the clarinet when she had wanted to be a cheerleader, my grandparents would only pay for Beauty School when Su wanted to go to college. And so, my custom skating dresses that Susan helped designed still sit in a closet that no one ever opens. Her favorites, velvet bodices with hand-glued Swarovski crystals and silk-chiffon skirts, live on a stand-alone rack in her bedroom.
She was dedicated to me, to the sport.
Before each competition Susan would get up at 4:30 A.M., drag me out from under the covers, and sit me up in her bathroom. She’d wet my scalp and use a fine-tooth comb to create a bun out of my baby fine hair. She used a whole can of hairspray, which I would try to catch on my tongue like snowflakes, the metallic taste stinging my tastebuds, before I yelled that my bun wasn’t in the center of my head. I would get desperately anxious, but I didn’t recognize it as anxiety then. My obsessive and compulsive tendencies played out before every competition when I made her re-do and re-do and re-do! my bun until it was perfect. It was common for her to do it seven times before I declared it “right.” Just pre-show excitement, we all thought. Normal. Nothing was wrong. She would coat my chubby cheeks in blush before I put on two pairs of Capezio tights and a leotard covered in crystals. On the way to the rink, I would marvel at the way the sunlight hit my torso, making miniature rainbows all over the glove compartment.
But most importantly, after every competition: I got to eat whatever I wanted.
Depending on the rink, I knew the best treat. If I competed at the Valencia Ice Station, thinly cut fries seasoned in Lawry’s; at Pickwick, my home turf, the vending machines offered up Oreos, Twix, and Sierra Mist (I learned where to hurl my body at the machine to knock down the stuck snacks). If I was lucky, the cafe would be open during the competition and I could get six greasy, crispy mozzarella sticks with metallic marinara dipping sauce; at the Culver City Ice Arena, they had ice cream in their vending machines.
Competing was fun because I was allowed to eat.
The week before I met my Other Mother for the first time, I’d been shunned by all the girls in the sixth-grade class for a week— every girl had a different reason: “You walked into Casey’s bowling birthday party late like you owned the place!” “You don’t treat Sam right!” “You know why!” I had been the Queen Bee of elementary school, full of gossip and sassy attitude, but middle school would prove to be different. In the same way I pulled attention on the ice, I pulled attention in the classroom. I did not feel smart, but I knew how to flirt. And so, when middle school hit, I went from Queen Bee to Social Pariah. No one was interested in being my friend, except the new girls who didn’t know what the hell was going on, and they also needed a new friend. That’s when I learned popularity always backfires. After a week of the silent treatment served by the entire sixth grade class, I confided in my mom that I was depressed. Susan consoled me on the way from ice skating practice: “Girls are jealous.” And I listened.
I told Susan that I wanted to go to therapy, she took me to the nutritionist instead.
I know that she took me there because she loves me; shrink as an act of love.
By the time I sat in my Other Mother’s reception starring down at celebrity tabloids, it had been three years of push-and-pull between Susan and me. After ice skating practice at Pickwick every day, I coquettishly asked for a dollar. “Why?” she asked, before I lied and said it was for the gun-shooting game that I played daily while the Zamboni made the chopped-up ice smooth between practice sessions. She’d hand it over, not thinking twice, while telling me to meet her in the car. I’d crunch the dollar in my sweaty palm, nerves keeping me from acting natural. As soon as she left, I scurried over to the vending machine and bought a Twix Bar, which I hid in the waistband of my nylon tights. Stuck in Los Angeles stop-and-start rush-hour traffic during the car ride home, Susan would talk about double-toe loops when she meant double-flips as I sat in the passenger seat, taking tiny bites of my forbidden treat, the chocolate melting on my fingertips, the caramel sticking to my teeth. Her words would spin and spin and spin, while bite after bite drowned her out with the taste of caramel and chocolate. Too busy talking, talking, talking, she never caught me cheat.
Despite the scolding and the advice that I got from everyone around me, at 12 years old, I wasn’t losing weight. An intervention was deemed necessary. Dad had sent many of his own patients to my Other Mother. The ancient diabetics, the obese, and the chubbies were all sent to her. My father was a doctor and he trusted her. And plus, pressure came from all of my coaches. After seven years, it was time to commit myself more than I had before. Skating was no longer about joy it was about getting good.
The verdict: I needed to lose weight to jump higher, to be a better athlete.
So we went to my Other Mother so she could teach me how to betray my body.
Susan immediately shot up from her seat and walked by her side, leaving me to trail behind because the hall was too narrow. We turned a few corners, walking for a little too long, before we reached her tiny corner office. She opened the door, and Susan and I took a seat.
My Other Mother made income from her own weight-loss journey. After leaving the East Coast to study Biology at UCLA, she gained the Freshman Fifteen, and then some. After teaching herself about nutrition, she went from two-hundred-something-pounds to one-hundred-something-pounds. The specifics are lost because the story is not unique. Through weight loss, she found happiness. Through weight loss, she created a career.
She sat behind the polished desk— the largest and most consuming object in the room— creating a professional barrier; she crossed her hands and said, “Hi Sweetheart, I’m your Other Mother. You are too cute! Your mom says you’re an ice skater.” I smiled, as my eyes took hold of a dimpled mound of goo behind her that rattled me to my core.
There was a set of shelves teeming with empty cardboard boxes that once held reduced calorie snacks that she and her family no-doubt consumed, a bulletin board smattered in packages that said “Lite” or “Non-Fat,” and a side table just for that mound of goo that was about the size of a softball mitt. The color of snot, I could only assume it was sticky because of the tiny black dust particles that covered its surface.
She followed my fearful gaze: “Oh that?”
She heaved it onto her desk: “That’s what a pound of fat looks like. But we’ll talk about that more later. Here, stand up. I’m going to weigh you.”
I looked over to a scale on the floor. It resembled scales used to weigh cattle before slaughter. Which is ironic, since the BMI metric was created for measuring the weight of populations of cattle meant for slaughter. Even though the man responsible for the metric specifically said something along the lines of “Never use BMI to measure individual human beings,” we did.
I watch it all from the hallway. From that point forward, I was always hungry. I only remember her wisdom, not her exact words. My fingers found their way into my mouth after meals, when I felt I had made a mistake, when my anxiety became too much. My Other Mother would gift me the knowledge that would make me shrink— lean protein is good, too many carbs are bad. Only one cup of the reduced sugar Fruit Loops or one 100 Calorie Pack or one string cheese or half of a Think Thin Bar for a snack. No eating after 7 P.M.. Yes, birthdays are a treat day— you get to eat whatever you want all day long (even if you eat so much you vomit— Susan was alarmed). So is Christmas, New Year’s, and the Fourth of July. I am so proud of you, you’re doing great. You are so cute!
I was unaware that consumption could be about pleasure. I was not feeding myself based on instinct. Always hungry, never full. Only surrendering to my hunger when I lost control.
I trusted her more than I trusted myself.
I sat across from my Other Mother, the desk between us, as I had done for six years prior. The thread starting to fray, my eyes still slammed shut, I could no longer perform. She gave me advice for college like “Drink a bottle of water after every shot of vodka so the carbs don’t stick,” so that I could “be cute for boys!” I nodded to feign acknowledgement, but when nightfall came, I was shot-gunning beers and tasting what college would bring: freedom. Week after week, I would go and get weighed. No longer skating, there simply was no point. Routine. She no longer smiled after I hopped off the scale.
My body was holding onto what it could no longer lose.
Because what had I lost? My childhood. I lost my childhood to calorie counting and weighing myself three times a day and pinching my waist to see if I could make my hand a perfect “C”. I lost myself when I developed the ability to make myself purge without any stimulus. I wonder if my Other Mother ever thought to herself, “Geez, this kid is taking it too far.” Accepting checks, she continued to dole out advice. The only dissent was that my mother wasn’t allowed in the office after age thirteen. She could no longer bring herself to say, “Good job!” when I jumped off the scale, but she never said “stop”.
I continued to pick at the threads that kept my eyes sealed shut, I started to eat like I had something to prove. When I felt powerless with a plastic tray in my hands, sliding along the cafeteria’s salad bar unsure of what to consume, I relegated myself to greens and hardboiled eggs (without the yolks). But come nightfall, I became the hungriest girl in the world. I’d order Palak Paneer and Lo Mein to my dorm room just because I could. Fried pork dumplings. Crammed full, I’d eat a pint of ice cream before throwing it all up.
Breaking her rules made me feel powerful and powerless.
If I could deny her rules, what else could I deny? What else could I refute?
It’s funny, denial. The act of remaining silent can be an act of violence itself. The more I stayed silent, eyes stitched shut, the deeper I sunk into the cycle: binge, purge, binge, purge.
One night during my nightly run to the grocery store, I placed two pints of Ben & Jerry’s down on the conveyor belt. The cashier picked them up, scanned them, and asked, “Spoons?” I replied “No, thank you” because I knew that as soon as I left the grocery store, I would rip off the protective plastic and rip off the lid to sink my bare teeth right into the freezing cold ice cream during my short walk to my dorm— one block. It was then that I realized that maybe I could put words in my mouth instead of my fingers. Maybe I could eat ice cream with a spoon. Maybe I could tell myself “stop” in the way that my Other Mother never did.
I sunk my teeth into what I could no longer ignore.
“Am I always going to feel this way?” I asked out loud for the first time.
Unlike my Other Mother, there was no desk between us— I meet someone new. Silver frames with abstract art renderings of trees hang on the walls. A snake plant sits by a bay window. The first time I asked that question, she replied, “Give yourself at least the length of your eating disorder. What was it, eight years?”
I started to yank at the thread.
At the beginning, I talked about the ways in which I felt wronged by Susan, the ways in which she talked at me rather than to me. I didn’t have access to the memory of hiding Twix Bars in my waistband for years to come, it didn’t feel relevant. I didn’t get close to explaining cheat meals or the fat glob or the office on Colorado Boulevard. I told her about how I compared my body to every body I passed— college girls with tiny waists and (seemingly) normal eating habits. I couldn’t help but feel like it was a competition. I couldn’t help but feel weight gain was my only problem. What was I worth?
And then one day, years later, I remember: Other Mother.
Pulling stitch by stitch, I finally open my eyes: staring down at my palm, two round disks with four round holes. I pick them up and look through: for the first time, I can see myself sitting across from her, needle in hand. Ready to commit to her, stitch, by stitch, by stitch.
Paulina Pinsky is a writer and educator based in Brooklyn. She received her MFA in Nonfiction Creative Writing from Columbia University, where she currently teaches comedy writing to high schoolers. She is the co-author of IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE AWKWARD, from HMH September 2021. She was a 2021 MacDowell fellow and has been published in Narratively, Human Parts, Columbia Journal, Slackjaw Humor, and HuffPo Women. Visit her website, www.paulinapinsky.com, where you can find links to her socials (@mizpiggy111).