The Body Never Forgets
It was July, the summer before my junior year of high school, and I was staying up late one night, waiting to binge. Howard and I were the only two kids home for the summer. Robert and Rachel were away at camp, and Janet was driving across the country with her friends, as everyone was doing at the time.
Even though it was just Howard and me, we didn’t spend much time together. He was working at Uncle Buddy’s junkyard, wearing a hard hat, operating a crane, and coming home filthy dirty, which he loved. In his spare time, he lifted weights in his friends’ dank, smelly basements and ate as many of his meals as he could get away with at Mickey D.’s, which was what he called McDonald’s.
The previous year, when a new franchise opened up at the Turnpike interchange in New Stanton, he’d walked in, dropped to all fours like a dog, waddled to the counter, and barked out his order, just because he’d told his friends he would.
I was taking intensive German at a small liberal arts college in a nearby town because I had to do something. But I knew, and everyone else knew, that my true purpose in life was to lose twenty pounds. Almost two years had gone by, and I hadn’t managed to do it.
I’d picked German to study because German sounded like Yiddish, and I wanted to be steeped in the culture of Eastern European ghetto Jews like Dad was. When I was still in junior high, he’d given me a story by Isaac Bashevis Singer called “Gimpel the Fool,” about a schlemiel of a baker who’s tricked into marrying the town prostitute, then pees into the village bread dough to get revenge. I hated the story. I found it strange and upsetting. My idea of shtetl life was straight out of Marc Chagall, colorful and charming, with dancing cows and fiddlers on the roof. But I didn’t say so to Dad because if he thought I.B. Singer was great, then as far as I was concerned, I.B. Singer was great.
In fact, my Jewish identity was such that I took perverse pride in the fact that three of us were named for relatives on Dad’s side who died in the Holocaust. Ma didn’t have that intense connection, so it made me think of her as less authentic. Besides, she didn’t speak or understand Yiddish, except for the few words that even the gentiles knew.
That night Ma and Dad had gathered up the newspapers around 10:30 and announced that they were going to bed. “Don’t forget to turn the lights off,” Dad said, worrying, as usual, about wasting electricity.
“And leave the back door open for Howard,” Ma said. She was always looking out for him, even when he was fucking up spectacularly, although at that point, they were less mad at him than usual because he was going to Harvard in the fall.
“I’ll be up soon,” I said, which wasn’t true. Bingers have to stay up late to binge.
Every day that summer had followed pretty much the same pattern: I’d get up, skip breakfast, and drive fifteen miles to the picturesque campus of red brick Gothic buildings in our big boat of a station wagon with fake wooden siding, making sure to have plenty of chewable vitamin C tablets and Teaberry gum on the front seat to stave off the hunger pangs that set in around ten. If I got to campus early, I killed time in the cafeteria, drinking Tab and conjugating verbs. In life, I might have been a failure, but in German, I was terrific, the best in my class.
I was crazy about our teacher, Mr. Yenser, one of the lay instructors at the college, which was founded by Benedictine monks. With his stocky build, bristling flat-top haircut, and green nylon windbreaker, he looked like a football coach. But he was passionate about opera and loaned me his copy of Tristan and Isolde, which I played obsessively when I wasn’t listening to Let It Bleed.
I thought Dad would be impressed that I was listening to opera because he considered himself a classical music connoisseur, able to identify a composer within a few bars of a piece coming on the radio. But he wasn’t. He called Mr. Yenser “Yenser the Maladjusted,” like Tevye the Milkman, although he never said why. I thought it might have had something to do with the fact that he was single, middle-aged, and still lived with his mother, but Dad would just shake his head sorrowfully and say, “He’s a mudneh little man,” using the Yiddish word for strange. Since Dad knew everyone in Mount Pleasant and could tell you, besides the finish on their furniture, what kind of mattress they slept on, and whether they were deadbeats or paid their bills on time, I tended to believe him.
After class, I would drive straight home because I had nowhere else to go. In midafternoon the house was cool and quiet and best of all, empty. Betty was gone for the day. I’d change into cut-offs, a baggy T-shirt, and Dr. Scholl’s wooden sandals, which Ma’s holistic podiatrist had told me were good for your feet.
Since I’d be starving by then, I’d bake. Baking was an acceptable pastime in our family, like embroidery in Jane Austen. If you could pull off something difficult, Ma and Dad were impressed, especially if you didn’t eat it.
Janet had established herself as the No. 1 cook in the family a couple Christmases back when she’d mastered the impossible croissant recipe in Larousse Gastronomique. It called for working a pound of butter into the flour while barely handling the dough in order to keep the pastry flaky.
Rachel was no slouch either. In grade school she’d already been written up in the Mount Pleasant Journal for baking organic whole wheat bread.
And then, of course, there was Ma, who had hundreds of cookbooks and books about food by authors like M.F.K. Fisher, Robert Farrar Capon, and Elizabeth David, plus stacks of Gourmet and Bon Appetit, and binders bulging with recipes clipped out of the papers. She read it all voraciously, for instruction and pleasure, and also for one-upmanship, to maintain her status as the most adventurous cook in town. Her menus were the stuff of gossip. “The Levins are eating duck!” one of our cousins reported to her son with awe.
I told her I was going home to make cookies and would bring some by for her later, thinking that if I did so, I could stop what was coming. But I couldn’t. I still snacked on the chocolate chips while I assembled the ingredients and ate the raw dough while the cookies were in the oven.
By dinnertime, I wasn’t hungry at all because I’d eaten so much raw cookie dough. I sat sullenly at the table, with a conspicuously empty plate, while Ma, who didn’t know what had transpired but might have guessed anyway, suggested I’d have more success losing weight if I didn’t starve myself all day.
“You should eat three meals a day, but only three meals, and at regular times,” she said sternly. “And you should never skip breakfast. It’s the most important meal of the day.”
Dad gestured to the sautéed vegetables and garden salad. “If you only ate what your mother put on the table, you’d lose the weight in no time. There’s not a single thing here with saturated fat.”
The main course was broiled salmon, which we had every Monday night because that was the day when one of the men from the store drove into Pittsburgh for parts for appliances and, while he was there, picked up Ma’s weekly order from Julius the Fish Man.
When we were through eating, Dad poured himself and Ma another glass of wine, leaned back in his chair and declared that the fish was the finest Ma had ever made. “The secret is not overcooking it and letting it rest,” he proclaimed.
Howard had skipped dinner again, which really pissed me off. He spent a lot of evenings with our cousin Jack, playing ping-pong in his basement and listening to albums. He’d ad lib lyrics while Jack played the guitar and write terrible poetry inspired by Jim Morrison and his beloved Frank Zappa.
He’d also been loitering in Jack’s mother’s kitchen, learning how to bake her famous cheesecake. All the Jewish women in Mount Pleasant had tried, without success, to match the recipe, but Howard figured it out. “That son of a gun,” Vera had said to Jack. “He’s done it, he’s cracked the code.”
While I did the dishes, Ma and Dad settled into two brown leather bucket chairs in front of the fireplace to read for the next three hours. I actually liked doing the dishes because it made me feel useful, and I got to furtively lick the serving spoons and eat the fatty salmon skin they’d left on their plates, which I thought was the best part.
A few years earlier, they’d remodeled the kitchen, ripping up the old linoleum and knocking down the wall to the dilapidated playroom—not that we ever had enough toys to stock a proper children’s playroom. Ma and Dad didn’t believe in toys unless they were Swedish and made of wood. The new, combined space featured an L-shaped island in the middle, a rustic drop leaf table, and a chimney covered in cheerful orange, yellow, and blue Spanish tile. Ma matched the blue in the tile with the area rug, kitchen countertops, and refrigerator/freezer, and it had caused a brief sensation in town when the fridge had to be taken to a local auto body shop to be spray-painted royal blue.
Once the dishwasher was running and everything was put away, I sat down at the table to do my homework. But it was hard to concentrate because every few minutes, either Ma or Dad would look up from their newspaper or magazine and read aloud to the other one.
Dad had always told us that reading every word of the Times was essential, and he did, even on vacation. When they rented a house in St. Bart’s for a few weeks in the winter, he arranged to have the daily paper flown in on a little plane.
After he was through with the Times, he plowed through the Journal and moved on to the New York Review or New Yorker or one of the other magazines we subscribed to. He had a big crush on Pauline Kael, quoting her opinion every time they went to the movies.
In contrast to Dad, who was a bit of a plodder, Ma was a lightning-fast reader. She whipped through the Times, ignored the Journal, and lingered longingly over New York magazine, with its endless recommendations about the best things in the city to see, eat and do.
She also kept abreast of cultural criticism, and was currently at war with the film critic John Simon over his vicious remarks about Barbra Streisand. She’d even had a letter published in the New Leader, accusing Simon of being a self-hating Jew, to which the editors noted that Simon wasn’t Jewish.
She was a prolific letter writer, to airlines, editors, restaurateurs, and hoteliers, heaping praise or criticism on them according to her and Dad’s experience. When it wasn’t busy at the store, she pounded them out on a typewriter in Dad’s office, Xeroxed the ones she was most proud of—which was almost all of them—and mailed them to us if we weren’t at home. She typed at the speed of thought, in rolling, ornate phrases, never stopping to fix a typo or rejigger the occasional sentence that didn’t work.
I was miserable but I couldn’t figure out a way to get out. The summer before, I’d signed up to take a course on existentialism in Paris, but on the way to the airport, Ma and I had gotten into a fight, I’d started crying, and somehow, we decided that I’d be better off if I stayed at home and lost the infamous twenty pounds I’d gained my freshman year of high school.
Which, of course, I failed to do, and which was why I was still at it. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to lose weight. I did. I longed to look like the artsy girls at prep school, who wandered around the wooded campus in torn, faded jeans and oversized men’s shirts, with Nikon cameras slung around their neck. But first I had to get rid of my hips, thighs, and breasts.
Late at night, alone in bed, I devised fanciful weight loss schemes, like walking the entire length of Israel by myself. I fantasized about driving across the country in a flashy red sports car with the top down, stopping for fast food, scarfing down candy bars, and never getting fat.
After Ma and Dad had gathered up the papers and gone to bed, I slid into Ma’s chair, which was still warm from her body. From that vantage point, with my back to the fireplace, I could gaze out over the room and see if anyone was coming.
I heard them murmuring in the hallway and tried to decipher what they were saying. I noticed that they’d become afraid of me ever since I got fat. When we were together, I often saw them exchanging glances, as if they were dealing with a lunatic.
I waited for what seemed like a long time and then, just when I thought it was safe to sneak down to the basement, I heard footsteps on the staircase.
Dad shuffled in, groggy, haggard, and in need of a shave. He was wearing his worn felt slippers and a rumpled seersucker bathrobe belted loosely over thin pajamas. Even in summer, he was deathly afraid of drafts. The moment he felt one, especially on his bald spot, he started sneezing uncontrollably, which was why he often wore a nightcap in winter, like Scrooge.
“You’re still up?” he said with a touch of alarm, because anything out of the ordinary was cause for alarm.
“I was just about to go to bed,” I lied. “What about you?”
“Grainy mouth,” he said morosely. That was the term he’d invented for a certain kind of indigestion, which he got whenever he ate handfuls of nuts in the evening.
He padded across the hardwood floor to the liquor cabinet, unlocked it, and took out a bottle of Jim Beam. They’d only started locking it after he poured himself a drink one night and realized it was mostly water. Howard and his friends had been swilling their supply, then refilling the bottles with water, leaving just enough booze at the bottom to give them an amber glow.
He went into the kitchen and rummaged around in the cabinet for one of his favorite cut crystal highball glasses. “Can I make you a drink?”
I was surprised at the gallant offer because I was only sixteen and hadn’t started drinking publicly yet. But I said yes because it felt thrilling to be asked, and I took it as a hopeful sign that maybe we’d be able to talk about something besides my weight. Like The Magic Mountain, which I was slogging through that summer because it had been so important to him.
After he made the drinks, he sat down across from the fireplace in the bentwood rocker. When we were kids, we used to play with it like a toy. Howard and Rachel always rocked the longest and hardest, pitching back with such abandon, I wondered why it didn’t tip over and dump them on the floor.
Dad was rocking gently, steadily sipping his bourbon. As he did, the furrows on his brow softened and he stopped picking at his cuticles. He looked handsome, even debonair. He asked me a few perfunctory questions about German class, but didn’t pay attention to the answers. He found small talk intolerable.
“Tell me the truth,” he said, abruptly changing the subject. “Are you happy?”
The dreaded question. He asked it of us all the time, especially when he was getting shit-faced. It was impossible to answer truthfully because if I said that I was happy, then I would have been lying. If I said that I wasn’t, then I’d be admitting I had the family disease: psychosis. There was nothing in between.
“I guess. I don’t really think about it.”
“We just want you to be happy,” he said, which is what he always said next. “And you’d be happier if you lost the weight.”
“I don’t really want to talk about it.” I shifted from side to side to loosen the backs of my sticky thighs from the leather. Then I got up to get another ice cube, sure he was looking at my saddlebags. In the blackness of the window pane I saw the reflection of my droopy right breast, which had gotten twice as large as the other after I gained weight. I fluffed out my T-shirt to hide them.
“You had such a good figure when you went away to school,” Dad said wistfully. “It’s not too late to get it back.”
“I’m trying,” I said without enthusiasm.
“If you put your mind to it, I know you can do it.”
I resented his insinuation that somehow, I wasn’t trying and noted in my most sarcastic voice that not everyone was as obsessed with weight as he and Ma.
His tone shifted, and he sat up straight in the rocking chair.
“Whether you like it or not, people will judge you by your appearance,” he said coldly. “You’ve heard the expression, `Men don’t make passes at women who wear glasses’? It should be, `Men don’t make passes at women with fat asses.’”
“What a horrid thing to say!” I opened the freezer and added a couple ice cubes to my drink.
“I hate to be the one to tell you, but it’s the truth.”
I didn’t say anything.
“Besides,” he added, his voice softening a touch, “it’s not good for you to be heavy. Believe me, honey, sometimes there’s nothing I’d rather do more than eat a big, fat, greasy cheeseburger like your brother Howard does all the time. But I don’t. Because I know what would happen.”
“One hamburger isn’t going to kill you,” I said because I knew it was the normal thing to say. But I wasn’t sure that it wouldn’t.
“I couldn’t possibly,” he sighed. “I’m trying to knock off another ten pounds.”
At 5-foot-11 and 168 pounds, Dad was the picture of health, but he wanted to weigh 158 because he’d read somewhere that that’s what Paul Newman weighed.
“I know that I’m prone to gaining weight,” he continued. “We all are. So why not have a little margin for error? One slip at night and it shows up on the scale the next day.”
Dad weighed himself constantly, as soon as he woke up, after taking a crap, and after three sets of tennis under the blazing midday sun. I knew it was compulsive, but I did it too.
“Okay,” I said, walking back to my chair. “I’ll do it. I promise. Now can we talk about something else?”
“This is important,” he insisted, draining the last sip of bourbon. “It’ll be the last thing I say. Constant vigilance, that’s what it takes. You have to watch, watch, watch. Because the body never forgets.”
I thought about my binge over the weekend, when I’d eaten a box of Stoned Wheat Thins and a pound of Monterey Jack. I imagined little bits of white cheese floating around my arteries forever like the tiny figures in the movie Fantastic Voyage.
I wished Howard were there at that moment because he would have had the perfect put-down for Dad. Then Dad would have gone to bed and I would have complained to him about their preoccupation with my weight, and he would have said, “Fuck the dumb shit.” Though then he probably would have added, “You’ll feel better if you exercise.”
Dad pushed himself up out of the rocking chair. “I’m glad we had this little talk, honey. I know you can do it, and Ma and I will do everything we can to help.” Then he put his empty glass in the sink and went back upstairs.
I waited as long as I could stand it, then got up and crossed the room to the pantry, where a door led down to the musty cellar where, when we were kids, we used to store our shiniest brown buckeyes in glass jars and I published a little neighborhood newspaper using a rubber ink stamp printing press. I opened the door, flipped on the light, and ran down the creaky wooden steps as fast as I could.
Beneath a grimy window that looked out on the driveway, a big upright freezer sat on a wooden pallet. I lifted up the lid and dug around underneath the cartons of frozen string beans from the garden until I found a long red tin decorated with sprigs of holly.
The previous winter, Rachel had started making a new kind of cookie called Texas Sheet Cake, a cross between a brownie and chocolate cake. She said the bars tasted better frozen than at room temperature, and I didn’t doubt her for a minute. She was never wrong about food.
I sat on the steps, pried open the top, and ate bar after bar until I felt sick. It was thrilling at first, then stupefying, then I wanted to die.
Upstairs, there was no sign of Howard. I turned off the lights, left the back door open, and went to bed too. But I couldn’t fall asleep, so I sat up and started making lists: of everything I’d eaten that day, of everything I’d never eat again.