My therapist says it’s normal for people to touch themselves. Ew, not like that. I mean, not sexually. She says it’s not weird, and that feels like the permission slip I need to do it whenever I can. I touch my knobby knees. I never feel like they point in the right direction. I poke my thighs and watch the skin jiggle until I get up to my hipbones. They jut right out. My dad says hugging me is no fun, it’s like he’s getting stabbed in the gut. I wrap my middle finger and thumb around my wrist and go up my arm like that until my fingers no longer touch. I can go almost up to my elbow. Part of me wants to be able to go past my elbow, but I’ve always had big arms. I avoid my stomach. It’s this vast and kind of unruly white space that never seems to do what I want it to do. My boobs…I have no boobs. My dad has bigger boobs than I do, which is kind of embarrassing for both of us in my opinion.
That’s my dad, roaring at me from the bottom of the stairs, as usual. It’s my sister’s thirtieth birthday, so we’re going to the fanciest steakhouse in town. I whined and complained already, but there’s no getting out of it. I checked out the restaurant’s menu ahead of time and wrote down the salad I want with all the things I want them to take off of it.
You know those childhood nicknames that never seem to crawl away and die like they should?
“I don’t hear you moving!”
“That’s because I’m like a cat in the night!”
I’m pretty light on my feet, and I’m proud of that. My dad’s weight announces his presence wherever he goes.
“Hey, Miss Cat in the Night! Get down here.”
That’s my sister, Jen. Oh no, that means…
“Auntie Banana! Auntie Banana!”
The brats, I mean, my nephews are here. They refuse to call me Aunt Hannah like dignified children would. They can’t even say Banana like five year olds should. It’s baNAnnnA.
I take my time going down the stairs. I stop by the table in the hallway. It’s an antique Dad inherited from some old aunt. It’s heavy, made of real solid wood with cherubs lining the legs. There’s an open envelope lying on the top. We’re not supposed to put anything on that table, so I pick it up to move it downstairs. Then, I notice it’s from Dad’s doctor. I move back down the hall toward my room and pull out the test results inside. Dad’s cholesterol is still high. No surprise there. But his glucose is slightly elevated too. Does this mean Dad has diabetes? My chest hurts. After a couple more shouts of “Auntie Banana,” I put the envelope back and head downstairs.
It seems kind of unfair that life, or at least adolescence, is about getting away from my parents, but the older I get, the more I seem to carry them along.
When I meet my family at the bottom of the stairs, I notice my sister looks older. I guess single motherhood can do that to a person. Other than the whole looking old thing, my sister could be my twin. We have the same long reddish-blonde hair and brown eyes. We’re the same height, about average. And we both have our father’s cheeks and our mother’s nose and hips. No matter how much the rest of me shrinks, I can’t seem to get rid of my father’s cheeks or my mother’s hips. It seems kind of unfair that life, or at least adolescence, is about getting away from my parents, but the older I get, the more I seem to carry them along.
“That’s a nice skirt. A little short though, don’t you think, Dad?” Jen turns to him.
“Happy Birthday,” I say as I hug her. She grunts when my hip hits her side.
“Geez, Han. Good thing we’re going to the steakhouse. You need to put some meat on those bones. That’s the goal, right?”
That’s actually not the goal of treatment, or at least not the only goal. But Jen doesn’t get that. And pointing out the hip bones? So not necessary.
I gently run a finger along the side of her face. “Those wrinkles, babe, you really should do something about them.”
I turn away from her real quick before I see her hurt look and I start to feel bad. But I end up turning right into my father’s glare. His dirty looks never last long though. He’s basically Santa Claus. Round face, huge cheeks, overflowing girth, fat legs, and black boots. He’s always wearing black boots. He almost went to Scotland in college but couldn’t afford the trip. Ever since then, he’s collected kilts. Half his closet—what used to be Mom’s half—is full of kilts. Dress kilts, casual kilts, hunting kilts, camping kilts, dancing kilts. The only reason he’s not wearing a kilt this night is because my sister forbids it. He wears them “regimental style.” That’s code for commando. My sister doesn’t want her kids getting the wrong idea. Can’t say I blame her.
I do all the laundry for both Dad and me. He wouldn’t know what to do with fabric softener if the directions kissed him on the lips. And I’ve never seen underwear in his hamper… I try not to think about that too hard.
Dad hugs me. Whoever came up with the term “bear hug” must have been hugged by my father at some point. His hugs are tight and overpowering. It’s like he’s trying to fill me with love from the outside in. “I love you,” he says. But I hear: Fighting makes me uncomfortable.
When he pulls away, one look at Jen’s face tells me she got a similar hug, probably longer and harder, since it’s her birthday, so I shouldn’t complain.
“Let’s go!” He says, looking from me to Jen and back at me. “To the car!”
The boys, Mark and Matthew, run out the front door to Dad’s truck. “Han, you and Jen can ride together. I’ll take the boys.”
It’s a punishment, I know. I try to think of a way to smooth things over with my sister. We walk side by side, our arms almost touching. I look down and wonder exactly how much bigger her arm is than mine. When I first look at it, I think hers is twice as big, but when I look for a little longer, it’s like my arm starts to grow until I can’t really tell a difference. I just stop looking.
“I’ve always wanted to go to this steakhouse. At some point, I’m going to have to get some man to take me there on a date because I would like to actually have a drink there. They get their beer from local breweries.”
This is the first time we’ve celebrated Jen’s birthday since Mom died almost a year ago, so I’m trying to be polite. We each responded to my mom’s death in a different way. Jen got all control freaky. She’s never broken a rule, not even jay-walked. Her kids are out of control and her ex-husband is out of control, but I think that’s because she tries so hard to control them. Rebellious buggers. Dad got overly affectionate, like smothering us with love. I guess the opposite would be worse. But once you hear “I love you” a thousand times a day, it starts sounding like “I need you” or “Don’t leave me.”
And me? I got skinny. I got skinny to the point that I was passing out. And then, there was an incident at a breakfast fundraiser thing at school. I threw all the bacon into a dumpster and set it on fire. The school made my father force me into treatment. That’s where I learned bacon is a trigger food, but I don’t tell anyone that because, really, who in the real world has trigger foods?
Food killed my mother. No, wait, I’m not supposed to say that. Therapist’s “orders.” Food didn’t kill my mother. Her lack of self-control around food did. I’m not supposed to say that either, but it’s true.
Here’s the party line: my mother died from complications from diabetes involving her kidneys. She was on dialysis for three years before kidney failure tragically took her life.
Here’s my line: my mother ate herself to death. She got type 2 diabetes even without being at high risk because her eating was out of control. The diabetes destroyed her body.
Mom died less than a year ago, and she was sick for years before that. I can only remember her as a sick, fat person.
When we get to the steakhouse, I can smell grease and fat from the parking lot. Okay, I don’t really know if you can smell fat, but whatever they are cooking with smells disgusting.
When we get out of the car, Dad is sniffing the air. “Smell that, honey? Smell that? That’s what heaven smells like.”
I roll my eyes.
“I love you,” he says. What he means is: don’t act up.
Once we are sitting at the table, Mark and Matthew start fighting over the crayons for their menus. Jen manages to ignore them for a full five minutes before separating the pile of crayons into two separate camps. I’m glad she said something because I was about to snap on both boys.
I never open my menu. But I can’t help but notice the food that goes by our table: a double helping of mashed potatoes, broccoli with a slab of butter in the middle, rare steaks, huge steaks, steak strips. My chest starts to constrict. I can’t eat here. Whatever they cook will surely be dripping with butter and other unnecessary calories that could kill me.
“What are you going to get?” Jen asks. I’m thankful. Her question pulls me out of my head and reminds me that I have a plan.
“A salad,” I reply.
“Just a salad? Why don’t you try one of the small steaks?”
“No thanks.” I rummage in my purse looking for a piece of gum. Chewing calms me down.
“Oh come on, Han. It’s my birthday. We’re all getting steak. One steak isn’t going to kill you.”
Jen never went to the family meetings I had in the treatment center. She didn’t learn that she isn’t supposed to push me. Dad figures as long as I’m eating something, everything is fine and there’s no need to adjust anyone else’s behavior.
“I’m getting a salad.”
“But what about this steak right here. It’s in thin strips on top of a bed of cooked spinach. Doesn’t that sound healthy and yummy?”
I groan, look around, and spot our waitress just in time. She is one of those goody-two-shoes types who is probably only sixteen and already working to save up for college. I can just tell. The way her hair is pulled back in a high ponytail with a scrunchie. I didn’t even know they still made scrunchies. Her fingernails are all painted the same pale pink. Who paints all their fingernails the same color anymore, other than old people?
She gave us the usual spiel: “Hi, my name is Amber and I’ll be your server today. What can I get for you?” Her ponytail pops after every word, like it’s adding punctuation. She places a basket of breadsticks on the table. Each of the boys grabs two before anyone can say something. I smile and wish they will eat all of them before anyone can ask me if I want one.
I order their Garden Salad Supreme without the potatoes, the meat, the dried cranberries, the croutons, the fried onions, and with the dressing on the side. Jen glares at me. She and Dad order the special of the day: a twelve ounce steak with two sides. Jen chooses broccoli and mashed potatoes. Dad chooses two baked potatoes.
“I’d like both of those loaded, please.” Dad puts all our menus in a pile.
“Loaded?” The waitress puckers her lips out.
“Yes. With bacon, sour cream, chives, cheddar cheese, and maybe a little bit of onion.”
“Oh. We don’t have bacon.” I can’t take my eyes off of her ponytail. It has a mind of its own.
“What do you mean you don’t have bacon?” Dad asks. He asks it a little loudly in my opinion. But Jen doesn’t seem to mind. He laughs a little, like the waitress is playing a mean joke on him. “You mean you don’t usually put bacon on the baked potatoes. That’s okay, dear. Make it a special order.”
“No, sir, I mean we don’t actually have bacon in this restaurant.”
“Dad, please calm down. Or at least quiet down,” Jen says.
See? I told you he was being loud.
“Fine.” He folds his arms over his Santa belly and stares at the waitress. “Do you at least have sour cream and butter?”
“Yes, sir, we do. I’ll make sure I bring that out with your baked potato.”
Dad turns his attention to the twins, his way of avoiding his anger. Or, more likely, his way of avoiding the judgment of his daughters.
“Do you want a breadstick?” Jen asks.
“No, thank you.” I reply. My back stiffens, preparing for the fight to come.
She bristles but decides not to push it. I exhale.
She turns to me with this bounce like we’re best friends. “So, Han, what’s going on in your life?”
“What do you mean?” I’m not doing the best friend bounce.
“I mean, what’s going on in the world of Hannah?”
Was that actually meant to be a more specific question? “Nothing much. School.”
“It’s your senior year, isn’t it? Are you still making up credits?”
I can’t believe she’s bringing this up. I had to take a couple months off of school in the beginning of the year, half a year after Mom died, because of the bacon incident and the passing out. That’s when the therapist came in with her Marching Orders for Food and Life. She doesn’t like it when I call them that. But I think that’s just too bad for her. I “graduated” from treatment three months ago.
“I was never making up credits, Jen. I still completed my homework while I was out of school. Took tests and everything.”
“How’d you do that if you weren’t in school? Like if no one was teaching you?”
“I taught myself the stuff,” I mumbled. It wasn’t really something I liked to admit. I really like school. But from October through January, I didn’t need teachers to understand the work.
Jen just nods. This is why I hate telling people this stuff. It’s like suddenly people have nothing to say. But she had plenty to say when she thought I was struggling to keep up. Like just because I spent a couple months in “treatment,” I’m supposed to be broken.
“You look good,” Jen says after a moment.
I want to ask her her motivations. But socially competent people aren’t supposed to do that. I smile and pretend I’m not suspicious.
I wonder why she says it. Is she fishing for a compliment? Trying to get me to say, “oh thanks, you look good too”? Or is she confused by my eating habits? Does she think all I want is to look a certain way so somehow validating that I “look good” will make me want to eat? I want to ask her her motivations. But socially competent people aren’t supposed to do that. I smile and pretend I’m not suspicious.
“Thanks.” I say it even though I don’t mean it.
The waitress comes back with our food. When she places Dad’s steak in front of him with two large baked potatoes on either side of the meat, Dad gets to his feet.
“I’ll be back.”
I figure he’s going to the bathroom, and so I don’t look up from the salad I’m poking when he comes back.
“Dad, seriously?” Jen says.
My head snaps up, and my mouth drops open. I actually can’t keep my lips together. “What are you doing?” I know I’m loud. I know it. And the look on Jen’s face confirms it.
But you have to understand: my father came back into the restaurant with a chilled pack of bacon.
“Did you seriously go to the store?”
“I had it in my truck.” He grins, and I know he’s proud of himself. I can’t believe it. He rips the packet open and takes out seven strips of bacon. He starts ripping the bacon into pieces and mushing it into his potatoes.
My lip curls to the left. My hands start to tingle with anxiety and frustration. Bacon, seriously? What is he thinking? Is he trying to be like—
A picture forms. Mom on the couch. Her swollen ankles propped up on an ottoman.
And I am cuddled next to her on the couch while we watched some Disney movie. I had missed most of the movie because I had to get stuff for Mom. She couldn’t move around well by that point. I had just gotten her a glass of water and some gorilla in the movie was complaining about something. Before that, I got her a magazine and cookies. Before that, it was ice cream. Before that, it was her pills and a Coke.
Finally, the oven beeped. “Can you get that for me, baby?”
I was nine years old at the time, and that night for dinner, it was just me and Mom. Dad was still at work, and Jen was doing school stuff. We were having thirty-two wieners wrapped in bacon. I had prepared them myself. I took out two plates. On one plate, I set aside five small wieners for me. The rest was for Mom.
When I think back now about watching her eat all that bacon, it makes my stomach turn. I watch Dad basically doing the same thing, going everywhere with bacon in his truck, like he can’t be separated from it for a single moment. And I’m the unhealthy one?
Doesn’t he know that bacon is what landed me in treatment to begin with? Doesn’t he know that I hate it? Oh wait. I shake my head. He doesn’t know. I didn’t tell him that. And Dad’s not the kind of guy to pick up on subtle hints or clues. He has to be told stuff directly. What I told him when I left treatment three months ago is that I couldn’t be better, that I’ve been cured. I didn’t actually think he would believe me. I grunt and cross my arms over my chest. My whole family is clueless, and I’ve lost my appetite.
Dad winks and says, “I love you.” What I hear is: calm down.
I don’t say anything for the rest of the dinner. You may not believe this, but I really did try to think of something to say. I don’t want to be a drag at my sister’s birthday dinner. I mean, it’s kind of pathetic that she was spending her birthday with me and Dad instead of friends or a husband. I don’t want to make her feel any worse. Plus, she’s thirty. I’m trying to be nice, but can’t get the image of Mom and the bacon out of my head.
Dad finishes the whole pack of bacon while he and Jen sit and talk. Jen doesn’t seem bothered by it at all.
When I get home, I go straight to my room. Dad and Jen stay and talk long after Mark and Matthew fall asleep. I hear their voices murmuring and every so often Dad tries not to laugh too loud and fails. On my bed, I touch my arms, squeezing from wrist to shoulder. I reach down. I think I have longer than average arms. My fingers grab my toes and then the balls of my feet. I lean back and rest my hands on my thighs until the house is silent. I realize my hands are touching my body, but I don’t feel my body. I’m here but not here.
Then, I do something I haven’t done since before “treatment.” I tiptoe downstairs with a notebook and pen ready in my hands. I take inventory of all the food in the house, except the spices. I can’t explain why, but the spices don’t seem important. There’s nothing out of the ordinary—chicken breast, frozen broccoli, canned soup, canned peas. The list goes on and on and is three pages long by the time I’m done, and notice something’s missing.
I creep out to the garage. I know Dad has an extra freezer out here, but this is his man space, so I’m rarely in it. He’s changed it around since the last time I brought him a beer during a football game. The television is larger and flatter than before. The couch is leather and there are two overstuffed recliners, also leather. The freezer is all the way in the corner. I stare at it from across the room. I can’t tell you how I know, but I know what I’m looking for is in it.
But even though I know what I know, I’m not prepared for what I see. Every shelf, from the top to the bottom, is filled with bacon. Boxes and boxes of bacon, like he bought it in bulk from one of those discount-buy-in-bulk stores. I don’t move for a while.
I stop thinking. My therapist says this happens sometimes. People stop thinking and just end up feeling all their feelings. My feelings push me closer to the freezer. My feelings push me to grab a box off of the top shelf. My feelings prompt me to open the box and stick a whole pack in Dad’s personal microwave. Once it’s thawed, I double check to make sure it’s really ready. And then I start.
* * *
By the time the sun comes up, I feel nothing. That’s not true. There’s a mild tingling in my toe. I’m on the leather couch, surrounded by boxes of bacon. The freezer is about half empty. I shove another three slices in my mouth at once and chew slowly.
To say food is complicated would be an understatement. In this moment, I want my father to understand that I will sacrifice myself to keep him around. I can’t lose another parent. Not any time soon.
I’m surprised I’m not nauseous. Or maybe I am, and I just don’t know it yet? I lean back against the couch, and that’s when I see the picture of Mom. She’s on the beach, her toes buried in the sand, a white cover-up shrouds her body from her shoulders to her knees. She’s smiling at the camera. My mom had a pretty face. She was the only one in the family with blue eyes, and they were a deep blue, like jewels. Her round, high cheekbones naturally had a rosy tint, so she never needed blush. Her skin was clear, smooth, and radiant. It used to make me mad when people would say that, you know? Like that’s what you say about fat people: she has a pretty face. But in my mom’s case, it was true. She did have a pretty face.
I remember that day at the beach. Even though it hurt, she rolled around in the sand with us for hours. We made a sand castle that was actually big enough for me to sit in and pretend to be a princess. She would always tell me she loved me. And it didn’t sound like anything else.
I open my eyes.
“What did you do?” Dad bellows.
“I am saving you.”
“No, sweetheart. That was Mom.” He looks at me in confusion.
“But the test?” I open my eyes again and try to sit up, but I can’t. It’s like I’m stuck.
“How much did she eat?”
Oh great, Jen is here. I can tell from her tone that she’s judging me and feeling a little superior. I’m too tired to argue even in my head.
Then, the pain sets in. I start to moan. The stabbing begins, it travels from one side to the other and back again. Then it moves to my belly button and stays there, stabbing, over and over.
“We’ve got to get her to the hospital.” I don’t know who says it. I close my eyes, wishing that my body wouldn’t be my body for a little while longer.
The next hour is a bumpy one. I bump in my dad’s arms as he carries me to the car. I bump in the car as we travel over speed tables. I bump on the raised yellow thingies when they wheel me into the emergency room. I bump as they push the gurney down the hallway. After all the bumps, when it’s quiet, my body leaves again. Peace.
When I open my eyes, I feel empty. Or more accurately, I feel emptied out. My mouth feels funny. I reach up and rub against it. When I pull my hand away, it’s covered in black stuff. Charcoal. They must have pumped my stomach. Dad is sitting in the chair across from me, tossing something in his mouth but I can’t tell what it is. He’s wearing his comfy kilt. They are his equivalent of comfy sweatpants.
My voice croaks, whatever they gave me makes my throat hurt. “I love you.” But I mean: don’t leave me.