Authors: Sarai Walker
Copyright Â© 2015 by Sarai Walker
All rights reserved
For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003.
The Library of Congress has cataloged the print edition as follows:
Dietland / Sarai Walker.
1. ObesityâSurgeryâFiction. 2. FeministsâFiction. I. Title.
Book design by Greta D. Sibley
eBook design by Katie Coaster
Jacket design and illustration by Laserghost
Jacket illustration based on cupcake photograph Â© Kelly Cline/Getty Images
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, organizations, and events are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously.
To my parents,
for believing in me
and to my foremothers,
who didn't always have a voice
She waited for a few minutes to see if she was going to shrink any further: she felt a little nervous about this; “for it might end, you know,” said Alice to herself, “in my going out altogether, like a candle. I wonder what I should be like then?”
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
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IT WAS LATE IN THE SPRING
when I noticed that a girl was following me, nearly the end of May, a month that means
She crept into the edges of my consciousness like something blurry coming into focus. She was an odd girl, tramping around in black boots with the laces undone, her legs covered in bright fruit-hued tights, like the colors in a roll of Life Savers. I didn't know why she was following me. People stared at me wherever I went, but this was different. To the girl I was not an object of ridicule but a creature of interest. She would observe me and then write things in her red spiral-bound notebook.
The first time I noticed the girl in a conscious way was at the cafÃ©. On most days I did my work there, sitting at a table in the back with my laptop, responding to messages from teenage girls.
Dear Kitty, I have stretch marks on my boobs, please help.
There was never any end to the messages and I usually sat at my table for hours, sipping cups of coffee and peppermint tea as I gave out the advice I wasn't qualified to give. For three years the cafÃ© had been my world. I couldn't face working at home, trapped in my apartment all day with nothing to distract me from the drumbeat of
Dear Kitty, please help me.
One afternoon I looked up from a message I was typing and saw the girl sitting at a table nearby, restlessly tapping her lime green leg, her canvas bag slouched in the chair across from her. I realized that I'd seen her before. She'd been sitting on the stoop of my building that morning. She had long dark hair and I remembered how she turned to look at me. Our eyes met and it was this look that I would remember in the months to come, when her face was in the newspapers and on TVâthe glance over the shoulder, the eyes peeking out from the thick black liner that framed them.
After I noticed her at the cafÃ© that day, I began to see her in other places. When I emerged from my Waist Watchers meeting, the girl was across the street, leaning against a tree. At the supermarket I spotted her reading the nutrition label on a can of navy beans. I made my way around the cramped aisles of Key Food, down the canyons of colorful cardboard and tin, and the girl trailed me, tossing random things into her shopping basket (cinnamon, lighter fluid) whenever I turned to look at her.
I was used to being stared at, but that was by people who looked at me with disgust as I went about my business in the neighborhood. They didn't study me closely, not like this girl did. I spent most of my time trying to blend in, which wasn't easy, but with the girl following me it was like someone had pulled the covers off my bed, leaving me in my underpants, shivering and exposed.
Walking home one evening, I could sense that the girl was behind me, so I turned to face her. “Are you following me?”
She removed tiny white buds from her ears. “I'm sorry? I didn't hear you.” I had never heard her speak before. I had expected a flimsy voice, but what I heard was a confident tone.
“Are you following me?” I asked again, not as bold as the first time.
you?” The girl looked amused. “I'm afraid I don't know what you're talking about.” She brushed past me and continued on down the sidewalk, being careful not to trip on the tree roots that had burst through the concrete.
As I watched the girl walk away, I didn't yet see her for who she was: a messenger from another world, come to wake me from my sleep.
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WHEN I THINK OF MY LIFE
at that time,
I imagine looking down on it as if it were contained in a box, like a dioramaâthere are the neighborhood streets and I am a figurine dressed in black. My daily activities kept me within a five-block radius and had done so for years: I moved between my apartment, the cafÃ©, Waist Watchers. My life had narrow parameters, which is how I preferred it. I saw myself as an outline then, waiting to be filled in.
From the outside, to someone like the girl, I might have seemed sad, but I wasn't. Each day I took thirty milligrams of the antidepressant Yââ. I had taken Yââ since my senior year of college. That year there had been a situation with a boy. In the weeks after the Christmas break I slipped into a dark spiral, spending most of my time in the library, pretending to study. The library was on the seventh floor and I stood at the window one afternoon and imagined jumping out of it and landing in the snow, where it wouldn't hurt as much. A librarian saw meâlater I found out I had been cryingâand she called the campus doctor. Soon after that pharmaceuticals became inevitable. My mother flew to Vermont. She and Dr. Willoughby (an old gray man, with gray hair, tinted glasses, a discolored front tooth) decided it was best for me to see a therapist and take Yââ. The medication took away my sadness and replaced it with something elseânot happiness, but more like a low dull hum, a weak radio frequency of feeling that couldn't be turned up or down.
Long after college ended, and the therapy ended, and I'd moved to New York, I continued to take Yââ. I lived in an apartment on Swann Street in Brooklyn, on the second floor of a brownstone. It was a long and skinny place that stretched from the front of the building to the back, with polished blond floorboards and a bay window that overlooked the street at the front. Such an apartment, on a coveted block, was beyond my means, but my mother's cousin Jeremy owned it and reduced the rent for me. He would have let me live there rent free if my mother hadn't nosed in and demanded I pay something, but what I paid was a small amount. Jeremy worked as a reporter for the
Wall Street Journal.
After his wife died he was desperate to leave New York and especially Brooklyn, the borough of his unhappiness. His bosses sent him to Buenos Aires, then Cairo. There were two bedrooms in the apartment and one of them was filled with his things, but it didn't seem as if he would ever come back for them.
There were few visitors to the apartment on Swann Street. My mother came to see me once a year. My friend Carmen visited sometimes, but I mostly saw her at the cafÃ©. In my real life I would have more friends, and dinner parties and overnight guests, but my life wasn't real yet.
The day after my confrontation with the girl, I looked up and down the street but I didn't see her, so I set off, relieved not to be followed. A day of work at the cafÃ© awaited me, but first I would stop at my Waist Watchers meeting, taking the long route so I could bypass the boys who congregated at the end of my block and often made rude comments.
My Waist Watchers meetings were held in the basement of a church on Second Street. The gray-rock church sat between a dry cleaner and a health club, the outline of its stained-glass window a daisy shape. Inside the church I walked down the circular steps to the basement, where I was greeted at the door by the usual woman with the clipboard. “Hello, Plum,” she said, and directed me to stand on the scale. “Three hundred and four pounds,” she whispered, and I was pleased that I was two pounds lighter than last week.
At the table by the door I signed the register and collected the weekly recipes, moving quickly so I could leave before the meeting began. I had been a Waist Watcher for years and didn't need to attend the meetings; if I never attended another one I would still be able to recite the tenets of the program on my deathbed.
There were only women at these morning meetings, and most of them were slightly older than me, with babies or toddlers they bounced on their laps. They were doughy from past pregnancies, but not big. Around them I felt much larger, as well as much younger. I was more like one of Kitty's teenage girls compared to them, even though I was almost thirty. When I was around women who had grown-up lives, the kind of life I thought I should have, I felt suspended in time, like an animal floating in a jar of formaldehyde.
I made my way back up the stairs and put the recipes, which were printed on thick card stock, into my laptop bag. At home I had a collection of more than a thousand Waist Watchers recipes, which I arranged by snacks, main courses, desserts, and so on. After I cooked a dish, I rated it on the back with a star. Five stars was the best.
I tried to be a good Waist Watcher, but it was difficult. I would start off each day with the right breakfast and snacks, but sometimes I would grow so hungry that my hands would shake and I couldn't concentrate on anything. Then I'd eat something bad. I couldn't stand hunger. Hunger is what death must feel like.
Given my failure at dieting, my plan was to trade Waist Watchers for weight-loss surgery. The surgery was scheduled for October, little more than four months away. I was excited about it, but also terrified at the thought of having my internal organs cut up and rearranged and of the possible complications that might follow. The surgery would make my stomach the size of a walnut; afterward I'd only be able to eat spoonfuls of food each day for the rest of my life. That was the horrible part, but the miraculous part was that I would lose between ten and twenty pounds a month. In one year it would be possible to lose more than two hundred pounds, but I wouldn't go that far. I wanted to weigh 125 pounds, and then I would be happy. Waist Watchers could never give me that. I'd been devoted to the program for years and I was bigger than ever.
When I exited the dark church, blinking into the sunshine, I expected to see the girl leaning against the tree, but she wasn't there. I hurried across the street so I didn't have to pass in front of the health club windows, where the smug spinners could have gawked at me.
Since I hadn't seen the girl that day, I assumed I had scared her away, but when I arrived at the cafÃ© she was there. Rather than follow me, she had begun to precede me. Perhaps she could claim that I was following her.
As I passed her table, she chewed the cap of her ballpoint pen, feigning thought. I ignored her, heaving my laptop bag up onto my usual table. With her nearby it was going to be difficult to concentrate on my work, but I logged into my account and downloaded the new messages, then opened the first one:
Subject: step brother
I'm 14 and a half. I hope u can help me. My mom got married last year to this guy Larry. My real dad is dead. Larry has two sons they are my step brothers Evan and Troy. I'm rilly scarred and I don't know what to do. So many times I have woke up in the middle of the nite and Troy is in my room watching me sleeping. When he sees me awake he leaves. He's 19. I think maybe he touches me but I don't know. One time he came in to the bathroom when I was taking a shower naked and he saw me. He said he likes my boobs. I told my mom and she says I'm making this up so she will get divorced from Larry (cuz I hate him). What should I do?