Numerically Speaking: An Eating Disorder By The Numbers

Numerically Speaking
By Carrie M. O’Connor

Pounds of dark chocolate that I ate slowly that Saturday morning while analyzing the e-vite that my ex-boyfriend, Andre, sent me.
The pounds gained since I last saw him six months ago.
The ex-girlfriends on the 50-person invitation list.

After the last piece, I dialed my friend, Mattie.
“I’ve been invited to Andre’s 50th birthday party slash housewarming. His artist colony now has 15 members and is officially open to all lost Cincinnati artists with angst who need guidance and inspiration. And he’s invited several ex-girlfriends. But why am I surprised? They are ever-present.”
“Calm down. Stop talking so fast. Are you going?”
“I don’t know. I mean, I know a good many of these artists socially. I really should go. According to the e-vite, the colony is now on Facebook and in the local news. He’s become a celebrity.”
“Well, Jenn, we always knew he was a player. And you know how the song goes. Players only love you when they’re playing. How about we meet up to talk more about this? I’m meeting Jackie at Essencha Teahouse in half an hour. Bring your laptop.”
“Thanks. I’ll see you soon.”

I stared at the e-vite again. I frowned at the photo of the Bella Roma rose bushes blooming against the side of the white duplex. I remembered, with regret, transplanting those delicate pink blossoms three years ago. This followed the exhausting task of cleaning Andre’s former house the day after I helped him move. When I’d arrived home, I’d spent 30 minutes in the hot shower, trying to wash away the smells of Ajax, manure and sweat.
At that point, we had been going out for two months. We met at a gallery opening where he promptly invited me out for coffee, a discussion of postmodern art in Pakistan, and sex.

Pounds that I had just lost before meeting him that summer.
Years, prior to Andre, that I had a sex partner, because I felt ashamed of my body.
Dates before I went to bed with him.
The connection was insanely intense, despite the continual mention of his former girlfriends. I allowed him to speak the litany of names. Each time, a jealous fire burned through me.
There were

Girlfriends whom I know about.

1. Alice. “The night before Alice moved out, she walked into the kitchen in a T-shirt without panties. I rubbed her ass, and she just melted.”
2. Jana. “Jana couldn’t achieve orgasms because of her medication.”
3. Wendy. “Wendy wouldn’t let me perform oral sex on her — you’d be surprised how often that is the case.”
4. Suzette. “Suzette was my 4-foot-10 Catholic girlfriend. She got completely drunk at the first party I took her to. But we stayed together for a couple years.”
5. Laura. “Then, the investment banker, who spoke beautiful Spanish.”
6. Stella. “Stella, the book agent. It just didn’t work out. That reminds me, I need to dig a rock out of her garden for her.”

Every time a name was mentioned, I put down the feminist theory book I was reading. While I wanted to be a strong, self-sufficient, empowered woman, I was determined to make him want me.

The pounds that I lost while I dated him, to tack onto the 60 previous pounds I took off before meeting him, thanks to Weight Watchers.
Five Hundred
Dollars on clothes and pedicures to make myself alluring.
Three Hundred
Dollars in gifts for him. He liked gadgets. I found the self-cleaning electric shaver, the crepe pan from Crate and Barrel, the juicer.

Two weeks after I helped him move, over wine and vegetarian sushi in Ault Park, he told me that he had not felt any emotional connection during our two-month romance.
I protested.
“We’ve only been going out two months, and you’ve been working on your artist colony. Of course there’s no emotional connection. We’ve barely had time for one another.”
“Look, I want dazzling chemistry,” he’d said.
It was true that he’d had a singles ad once that said he was looking for a woman that would be like the refreshing river bank that he would never leave. I wondered what Freud or Jung would make of the flowing water image.
“I’ve seen a lot of growth in you the last two months, though. You know, in your weight and sexuality. Really, I just want to be your friend,” he said.
Looking at the park’s peonies and iris plants, I unapologetically cried.
“So, do you want to go see a movie?” he asked.
“You just dumped me!”
“Well, I do like to stay friends with all my ex-girlfriends. I’ve traveled with two of them. Slept with them in the same hotel bed with nothing happening.”
A few weeks later he called and invited me over. He proposed the friends-with-benefits clause to the newly-instated friend contract. I don’t want to be your boyfriend. But you know what I like and I know what you like. And if someone else comes along, we will stop seeing each other.
It was compelling. Perhaps I would be finally praiseworthy and redeemed in his sight.

Minutes before we were in his bedroom.
Nights a month, on the average.
Years before I ended it.

Sex. Silence. Sex. Silence.
I couldn’t take the silence.
I pushed the memories away and focused on getting dressed for the teahouse. I looked in the full-length mirror. I had on my standard attire — jeans, a black T-shirt, and a strand of faux pearls. At 40, I probably should have cared about makeup, but I didn’t. I slicked my hair back into a tight chignon.
I threw a bracelet at the mirror in frustration. I hated my body. I wanted to apply a paring knife to my pear-shaped body. The e-vite only renewed my discomfort with my body image. I tried to comfort myself with the fact that the corticosteroid medication I took for my adrenal problems caused weight gain.

The drive to Essenchia Teahouse and Pleasant Ridge was anything but agreeable. It was a fiercely raining day. No one was on the street except a group of Orthodox Jewish men dressed in black going to morning shul and walking on the left. The scene had a Renoir feel to it, and “The Umbrellas” came to mind. I realized that I really missed discussing art with Andre.
When I entered the teahouse, I found Mattie and Jackie sitting at a large table near a shelf displaying glass cups and white tea pots. I put my netbook down.
“I’ll have a house salad, no dressing, and iced China-breakfast tea, please,” I said to the slim server, noting with envy she was wearing a tiny, white linen Edwardian camisole, which complemented her figure perfectly.
“Only a salad?” Mattie asked, sipping her Earl Grey with lemon.
“Yes. Unfortunately, I had a date with chocolate this morning,” I said.
“Oh, dear,” said Jackie, my psychologist friend. “Just eating, right?”
She was delicately trying to ask if I had purged, as well.
“You know my M.O. I just eat. And get fatter. I can’t stop binging, but I hate how I look.”
“You are on fat-inducing meds, too, Jennifer,” Mattie said, in a comforting tone.
“Yeah, but we all know what the issues really are here. Anyway, I’m back in diet mode,” I said.
“Ah, restricting after binging. Really healthy,” Jackie said.
“I feel like I have to do something. We all know how obsessed with weight Andre is. He weighs himself every day and graphs it. He’s an obsessed athlete who hates fat,” I said.
“You’re curvy,” Mattie said.
“Fat. And in need of a butt bra. He likes slender women with nice asses.”
“They do sell lifters now. And padded panties. Quite the fashion,” Mattie said.
“Please, enough body talk,” Jackie said.
“Easy enough for you, Miss Size 2,” I said.
“So, let’s see the e-vite,” Mattie said.
I turned on the computer and promptly displayed the page.
“Nice colors considering the limited design possibilities,” Mattie said.
“And these are all the ex-girlfriends. You’ve heard about them before,” I said.
Jackie rolled her eyes. “Right. He has always been the stud wanting to scatter his seed. So, why do you want to torture yourself going to this party?” Jackie said.
“There’s still something. A connection,” I said.
I crossed my arms tightly across my chest and stared down.
“Hello? I do this for a living. I’m giving you my assessment, free of charge. He’s a narcissist. The best way to handle a narcissist is to stroke his ego and get the hell away. Stay away from him,” Jackie said.
“I think you just want to reform a bad boy,” said Mattie, who had just broken off a romance with a kinky painter who liked to be tied up with silk scarves.
“I don’t think this guy can be reformed unless he hits the therapy couch. And I’ll bet you anything that he won’t. Don’t go to this party,” Jackie said.
“I’ll think about it. I guess part of it is that I’m curious about the new place, too,” I said.
“That’s an entirely different issue. Believe me, you date him, you date the whole colony. It’s worse than college. He needs that colony to feel good about himself. He likes to have people admiring him,” Jackie said.
“And Lord knows, his women have. Anyway, no one is even curious? No one wants to see this experiment?” I asked.
“No thanks,” Mattie said.

The food arrived: cold smoked salmon sandwiches, lemon curd crepes, leafy greens, triple-chocolate brownies. The conversation shifted to the mundane — removing pet stains from the carpet, intrusive mothers, summer vacation plans. An hour passed, and the server cleared the table.
I thought about all the eateries Andre and I had visited. Italian, Ethiopian, Mexican, vegetarian. We would go home and watch DVDs. I liked foreign; he liked action. We took turns ordering on the Netflix account. We would begin making out the minute the credits hit the screen.
We finished the meal and paid the check.
“Well, I’ll be around next weekend, if you change your mind about the party,” Jackie said.
“Thanks,” I said, suddenly grateful for my friends.
Mattie and Jackie stayed and walked around the teahouse to look at the tea cups on sale. I walked outside and found that the rain had stopped. I steered my car toward the mall and Lane Bryant, which sold fashionable clothes for the woman who reached the unbearable size of 14 and above. I perused the racks and found a pretty chiffon blue halter dress. Andre liked blue. Elastic waist. Perfect. I took it to the counter and dropped $100 that I really could not spend and went home.
When I got home, the light on the answering machine was blinking.
“Jenn, it’s Andre. Just wanted to say that I hope that you can make the party. Should be a lot of fun.”
I smiled instantly. He still thought of me. Getting out the phone book, I found the number for A Salon Named Desire and set a makeup appointment for the morning of the party.
That week, I ate hard-boiled eggs, cottage cheese, grapefruit, lean meat and Diet Coke. This was the first diet that my mother gave me, when I was 14. I spent an hour in the gym every night leading up to the party.
Finally, it was Friday. I took an Ambien at night, because I was too nervous to sleep. Nestled against the white cotton down pillows, I fell asleep quickly.
Bon fires everywhere against the Irish countryside. Everyone has had their fill of ale and game. We have all been smudged and purified with juniper smoke. Andre’s ex-girlfriends and I are dancing like MTV stars around him. I walk forward and bow. “Thank you for choosing me, though I know that I am not great like the others you have chosen.” He cups his hands around my chin and smiles. He walks around the circle, kissing each woman on the cheek.
I woke up with pain in my chest. Sebastian, my 18-pound cat, stood on my torso and demanded in loud, hoarse meows to be fed. The vet wants him on a diet, too. The red numbers on the digital alarm clock told me that it was 9 a.m. I meant to get up earlier.
After preparing a strong cup of coffee, I bathed and put the halter dress on. The phone rang.
“Jenn, it’s Nat. I hope you’re coming? I haven’t seen you in ages, and I want to introduce you to my new boyfriend.”
Natalie, a print maker, had gone out on double dates with Andre and me. I always hated double dating with Andre. I felt like I needed to win the approval of his friends, so dinner was never enjoyable.
“I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
I drove to A Salon Named Desire to have my makeup done. My stomach shifted uneasily as I imagined the dialogue that I would have with Andre and others. When I got to stop signs, I practiced smiling into the mirror.
“I need to look great for a party this morning,” I explained to the young girl at the salon who called herself Zella. She had tattoos depicting jungle plants and birds around both arms. Her nose was pierced.
“I’m going to use the moss green and lemon yellow. I think these will really make your eyes pop,” she said.
“I really need to impress an old boyfriend,” I said.
“And you will!” she said.

Dollars for the makeup job.
Dollars for two eyeshadow palettes.
Minutes to be transformed into beauty.

My confidence was restored as I drove downtown listening to Pink. The rain was starting again, but I didn’t care. Andre would have to move his party inside. I turned the corner and slammed on the breaks. Cars were lined up on both sides of the road.
A man lay on the ground, his motorcycle on its side half a block ahead. I pulled over to the side. I walked over to the scene where a thick crowd was starting to gather.
“He’s in some kind of a seizure. He just came right off the bike,” a woman with a red cap said.
“Is there someone here with medical knowledge?” a voice asked.
“I’ve called 911,” an older woman with short gray hair called.
I stared at the 1980 Wide-Glide motorcycle and at the motorcyclist with his black helmet and boots. My heart started to race. I had no feeling below my knees. Heat gathered around my head. Sweat began to pour from my forehead. I kept pushing the droplets away.
“Are you all right, dear?” the older woman asked me.
“Fine. I’m just going to sit in my car.”
When I got inside, I locked all the doors. And breathed deeply. I didn’t like motorcycles.

Years ago, three guys on Harleys raped me and my two friends.
Weeks later I determined that I was pregnant.
Months later I had an abortion.

We kept silent because drunk girls partying with bad boys do.
I can’t handle the silence.
The police and medical personnel arrived to assist the injured cyclist. The sirens cut through me. I looked at the clock. I was completely numb and unaware of time. After the police let us leave the accident scene, I stopped by the nearest convenience store.

Hostess cupcakes were unraveled and popped into my mouth within minutes.
Quart of milk helped me wash them down.
Minutes later, I arrived at the intake area of the Eating Disorders Unit at Rogers Memorial Hospital.

A rail-thin girl sat to the side, rocking back and forth. Desperate Housewives blasted from the flat-screen TV on the wall. Somehow, this broadcasted display of dysfunction seemed appropriate. The nurse who handled my case finally called me into a room to interview me. She was three times my size. So much for your corporate wellness program, I thought.
“When was your last binge?” she asked, writing notes in a file across the table.
“And it was?”
“Twenty-five cupcakes.”
The other questions were fired off in succession. Year of first menses. Date of last menses. Intervals of binging. Lowest weight. Highest weight. Present weight. Height. Telephone numbers of doctors, relatives, employers, insurance companies.
Intake registered me in the outpatient program. I started the next day.

Hours with therapists and dieticians.
Times a week.
Three Hundred and Thirty
Dollars a day.

I put it on my credit card.
After three months, I went a week without binging. I stopped calling Andre. I only stole looks at his Facebook page on occasion. And I gathered my best friends to tell them about my past.
I broke the silence.

Carrie M. O'Connor earned a master of arts in journalism and communications from Marquette University. She has worked as a reporter and freelance writer in Honolulu and Milwaukee. Recently, she was a guest essayist on WUWM and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Her fiction has appeared in Bamboo Ridge, Bartleby Snopes and Auscult, a literary journal of the Medical College of Wisconsin. You can read more from Carrie at her blog, Heartland Living on a Budget
  This piece was published in Wild Violet literary magazine in September, 2011.

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