Calorie-free
A Short Story by Kate Dillon
Written using the suggestion "Chaos"
Originally featured on 06-11-2009
As part of our series "The Summer of Our Hopes and Fears"

My mom calls every day to check up on me. Usually in the morning. I always answer, just because I know she’d freak out if I didn’t. She asks me how I’m feeling and what I’m doing and whether I ate something yet. She worries about me because she thinks I’m dying.

I’m not. Dying, that is. I’m perfectly fine—I really am. I don’t have any incurable diseases, I don’t drink, I don’t use drugs. I do smoke, but everyone has a few vices. Anyway that’s not what my mom is so worried about. She worries so damn much; so do my dad and my older sister. It gets painfully annoying. Every time I’m around them, the conversation always comes back to that one thing. I try to deflect their criticisms, but it still gets old after nearly seven years of dealing with it.

I wake up this morning around six-thirty. I put on my tennis shoes and do my exercises for exactly one hour— running, weights, situps, stretching, I drink lots of water so that I don’t get dehydrated. See? I’m taking care of myself. I shower and weigh myself—105 today—and drink 12 ounces of coffee with 1 tablespoon nonfat creamer while I watch one hour of TV, the previous day’s recording of Oprah. Since I fast forward through the commercials, I guess it’s not exactly one hour. It’s more like forty-four minutes, but who’s counting? After Oprah, I go outside to smoke half a cigarette and then I cut up my banana into fourteen pieces, eating it while I read the morning news online. 105, 105, 105. The number echoes in my head, thumping along with my heartbeat. Should have been 104. Today I will do better. I smoke the last half of my cigarette.

My mom calls at eight-thirty on the dot. She asks how I’m feeling and I say fine. She asks what I’m doing and I tell her that I’m about to leave for work. She asks what I’ve eaten and I tell her about my banana and she sighs.

“I don’t want to argue,” I tell her.

“Neither do I. I just want you to me healthy again. What did you weigh today, Jessica?” She asks.

“Two-hundred pounds. I gotta go, Mom. Love you.”

She sighs again. “Love you, too,” she says and we both hang up.

I work at a bookstore from nine to five every day but Friday. I’m so tired by the end of the week that I just can’t work Fridays, and my boss understands. So I guess I work part-time, which would explain why I am barely able to pay my bills week to week. I go work today and stock shelves from nine-thirty to noon, then take my lunch break. 105. I eat three slices of turkey, some carrot sticks, and drink lots of water. I go back to work feeling a little less dizzy and ready to survive the afternoon. When I almost tipped over while I was organizing the books on the shelves earlier, my coworker Donna had asked if I was OK. I think that they’re on to me, so I have to be extra careful.

I spend the afternoon working as cashier which is quite tiring seeing as though I have to be standing for four hours. I get weak and dizzy and my back starts to hurt. At five when I’m done with the bookstore, I say goodbye to my coworkers and assure Donna that I’ll be just fine. I almost tumbled to the ground again in between customers while she was stocking. Get a hold of yourself, I demand as I walk out the door and into the sunlight. I turn left, then right, walking the three blocks to my apartment. Five hundred thirty-six steps if I’m walking quickly, which I always am. Burns more calories.

When I get home, my cat Lora greets me and begs for food. I feed her twice a day, morning and evening, always at seven o’clock. “It’s not time for dinner yet,” I tell her, and she meows loudly and paws at my pant leg.

I return a call from my sister, calling to see how I’m doing. We talk for a while about her new baby, my nephew, and about her job and her new yoga class and my job and my problems. When it comes to my problems, I have to remind her that I don’t have any problems so there’s not much to talk about. I mean, I don’t like my job and I need more money and I feel lightheaded most of the damn time and I’d like to lose a little more weight, but other than that I’m really doing fine. She starts lecturing me about the importance of proper nutrition and that my lack of it is causing me not to feel good, and I begin to get really annoyed. Like, majorly annoyed.

“Fuck this, Ang, really. I am FINE and I don’t need a fucking sermon every time I talk to you, you know? I can handle my own life without everybody’s input all the time.”

She sighs, like everyone does when they think they’re not getting through to me. “I’m just trying to help. I feel like we’re losing you. You’re losing weigh by the day and you’re going to really make yourself sick. You already are sick. You need help.”

I tell her that I have to go and hang up. That’s usually how most conversations with her go. She’s twenty-nine and thinks she has everything figured out. I’m twenty-three and can see that she obviously doesn’t. I go into the bathroom, grab the scale from the corner, undress and weigh myself. 106. 106. FUCK.

I panic and pace around the living room. I run into the kitchen and then to the bathroom and then back to the living room. I hate it when this happens. I know logically that weight fluctuates throughout the day, but why does it have to happen to ME, when it is SO DAMN IMPORTANT that I do not gain even an ounce. Still panicking, I smoke a cigarette and try to catch my breath. I am so hungry, but I can’t eat. I can’t eat anything until tomorrow, because tomorrow is a new day and I can work out extra hard and walk a little bit faster to and from work and eat a little less. Just a little. Just enough to get rid of that extra fucking pound. Or two. Or three.

I sit on the couch, petting Lara, staring at the TV but not watching it. I couldn’t even tell you what was on. I know it was the food network but I don’t know which show. All I know is that it made me very hungry. Very hungry. Food. I need food. My stomach wrenches with hunger that I simply can’t fill. I drink more water, take a sleeping pill, and dose off to sleep in front of the TV, I think while watching Iron Chef. Before I fall asleep, I dream of cupcakes and pancakes and brownies and sugary cereal, dancing like sugarplums in my head.

 

The next day I follow the same morning routine as the day before, and the day before that. I drag the scale out and weigh myself 104. Better. At nine my mom calls, asks how I’m doing, how I’m feeling. See? I told you it gets old. I tell her I’m fine, that I’m going to be late for work if I don’t leave now, and she wishes me a good day and I wish her one back and that’s that. No arguments, at least for today. No accusations that I have a “serious problem” and that I need treatment. I know that’s what she’s thinking, but I appreciate it when she can keep her mouth shut. I DO NOT have a problem, and treatment would just be a waste of money.

I’ve been eating only dinner for the past two weeks. It seems to be working. I just drink lots of water throughout the day and wait until around seven, when Lara eats, to eat a small turkey sandwich and some celery sticks. I’m down to 95; I almost peed my pants when I passed the 100 mark. All this hard work and sacrifice is really paying off, I tell myself as I finish up another long day at work. It’s a Thursday, and I’m thrilled to start my weekend. First stop, the grocery store.

Now I go in there intending to buy just a few things—nonfat milk, fruits and vegetables, nonfat yogurt, raisins, bread, turkey. This is usually my weekly list. But today, for some reason, I am super hungry going into the shopping trip, and I slip. Big time. I buy muffins and doughnuts and cereal and chips and dip. I forget to buy anything on my list. I go through the self-checkout so that no one will see the hideous food I am buying, and make sure to put it in paper bags so that nothing can be identified. I walk home, quickly, this time not only to burn calories but to get the food in my mouth more quickly. A wave of excitement rushes over me as I open my apartment door, lock in behind me, and spread the contents of the bag on the table. I drink a big glass of water and start to eat. And eat. And eat some more, until there is nothing left but one doughnut that my stomach literally can’t ingest. It is bulging, twice its normal size.

I drink more water and wait. I watch the Dr. Phil that I wasn’t able to watch this morning because I slept through my alarm clock and obviously chose exercising rather than Dr. Phil. After about ten minutes of the agonizing pain of a completely and utterly stuffed stomach, I make my way to the bathroom. Put toilet seat up. Stick finger down throat. Puke. Puke some more. Puke until there is nothing left to puke up. If I feel like there is more in there and I can’t get it out, I just drink more water and try again to puke. It is horrible and I’m crying while I do it but there is nothing I can do now, I ate the food and I have to deal with the consequences. When I finish, I put a rinse out my mouth, wash my hands, put a warm washcloth on my face, and lay down on the couch to finish Dr. Phil. I drink lots of water so that I don’t get dehydrated. I smoke a cigarette indoors, not giving a damn about the no smoking policy.

 

A week after the binge and I’m feeling a lot better. Just had a slip up. Everybody does. When my mom called on the day after the incident and asked how I was doing, I told her that I was doing just fine, no problems and nothing to worry about. I was doing fine. I didn’t tell her that I did it, of course, because she’d only worry more. After all, it was just a little slip up. It’s not like I’m about to have a heart attack or anything. I only do it once in awhile, anyway. Now I’m back to restricting what I eat, usually only eating dinner but sometimes eating a banana midday. I weigh myself. The scale reads 92. Ninety-two pounds. That is nearing my goal weight of 87 pounds. Only five more to go, I tell myself. Five more to go.

My friend Carey stops by in the afternoon and asks if I want to go get something to eat. I can’t. I don’t know what to say except that I just eaten and am not hungry, but maybe we could get some coffee? I haven’t just eaten, of course, but I can’t stand going to restaurants where I don’t know what they put in the food and how much fat they use in cooking it. I can’t stand for others to prepare MY food, the food that I have to put into MY body, because I need to have control of every aspect of it. Carey agrees to coffee and says that maybe she’ll get a scone or something to hold her over.

“What kind of scone?” I ask.

“Umm…I’m not really sure yet. I’ll see which ones they have.”

“You should definitely get a scone. It’ll be good.” I love watching other people eat, especially when I’m not. It gives me a sort of high.

“Why? Are you getting one?” She asked skeptically.

“No,” I replied. “I’m not hungry. But I do think you should get one.”

Carey does end up a getting a scone, a white chocolate macadamia nut scone, and it looks delicious. I pride myself on only ordering a tall black coffee with just a splash of soymilk and some sugar-free sweetener. Carey looks at me. “I’m worried about you!” She exclaims. “Look at you! Look at how thin you are. You are pale and bony. You look sick. You need help.”

My heart starts racing and my mouth gets dry. I don’t know what to say. Carey had confronted me about this years ago, but that was, well, years ago and she hadn’t said anything for a long time.

“Carey! What? No! I don’t have a problem! I’ve just been a little, uh, sick lately and have lost a few pounds. I really am eating. I really am, swear to god.” I look at her with my big, sad, puppy dog eyes. “I would come to you if I needed help.”

“Well,” she starts. “I would like to think that, but you just aren’t doing well at all, be it the flu or your eating disord—“

“SHHHHHHHHHH!” I whisper-yell. “Don’t say it like that. I don’t have an EATING DISORDER I just have a hard time eating, that’s all. Nothing more to it. I DON’T need help.” I look away.

“But a lot of times the person does realize they need help,” Carey replies. “It can be used as the first step in realizing you need help in the first place. Shit, just give it a chance. There’s a place right at the hospital about fifteen minutes away. I looked into it. You could go there and they even let you come home at night instead of being locked up like a crazy person.”

“I am NOT getting HELP because I DON’T NEED IT!” I yell not-so-quietly, get up, and walk out of the coffee shop.

On my way home, I stop at the local bakery and pick out some doughnuts. Then I stop at the convenience store and pick up some chips and candy bars and some overpriced Pop-tarts. Finally, I get some French fries at the nearby fast food restaurant. I eat it all, then throw it all up. In and out, easy as that. Just another slip up, but I’m still doing OK.

March, five weeks later. 84 pounds. I’ve reached my goal, but I still look fat. In my thighs, my stomach, my arms. I decide to set my goal at 80. 80 seems like a nice, even number, a nice round number easily divisible by ten. My mom is now calling twice or three times a day. She tells me I’m going to die, that I’m going to have a heart attack or a stroke or that my organs are going to fail, but I don’t believe her. My weigh may be low, but I am in no way too thin. Hasn’t she seen the way my stomach looks when I sit up? Hasn’t she seen the rolls of fat? Hasn’t she seen the way my thighs jiggle?

I’ve started only working three days a week; it’s as much as I can handle right now. I just get so tired and sore and weak by Thursday that there’s no way I can work. My parents are helping me pay some of my bills while I get better. I swear, it’s the damn flu or something. I just can’t get to feeling right. I eat a turkey sandwich for dinner with either some carrots or celery sticks. It’s plenty to get me through a day. Plenty.

By noon each day I am shaking. When I go to the bathroom my hands quiver as I wash them in hot water to try and warm them up. I wear layers, even as the summertime approaches. Seventy, eighty degree-days and I’m still in my big wool cardigan and thick, baggy blue jeans. My hair is falling out and I am growing a thin layer of fur called lanugo, which I learned on Wikipedia. I also learned that a woman my age and activity level should be eating around 1800 calories a day. I am eating about 900. I don’t know if I have a problem, per se, but there is definitely something wrong with me. I can barely walk to work without getting dizzy. My mom calls every morning to make sure I am OK. I tell her that I am a little lightheaded but I that I think I just have a touch of the flu. I can almost hear her shaking her head dubiously, but she only says that she really hopes I am taking care of myself. I tell her that I am and that there’s no need to worry.

80 pounds. The number is music to my ears. I’ve continued with my regimen and have not binged in nearly two weeks. This makes me very proud of myself. I have rigid self-control, unyielding power to ward off any cravings that may come my way! I eat a banana for breakfast—I ended up needing it to get through the mornings without passing out—and a sandwich for dinner. Usually turkey. Sometimes low-fat chicken breast. Ten carrot sticks, sometimes five apple slices. I like the keep things the same for consistency’s sake and also because it makes it easier to keep track from day to day.

Today I decide not to binge but to drink. I haven’t drank in a very long time, probably three years, but tonight I decide to buy some vodka—only 70 calories per ounce and a half!—and diet orange soda. I drink four shots and get wasted. 280 calories, damnit. But at least I feel good. I polish off the rest of the orange soda and have a light dinner, only 3 slices of chicken breast and some tomato slices. My stomach is too full of alcohol and red 40 and yellow 5 and aspartame and whatever else they put in diet soda to even realize that I might be hungry, so this is a good thing. I turn on the TV and settle in, turning on MTV and petting Lara.

Around eleven I pass out, then wake up at midnight still laying on the couch. I feel like shit. The shittiest I’ve ever felt. I call my friend Carey and she realizes that I’m drunk and she rides her bike over to my apartment. When she knocks on the door I am laying on the floor crying, long, exaggerated sobs that hurt her ears. She rolls her eyes and pulls me onto the bed.

“Stop crying, Jess,” she orders.

“I…sniff sniff…can’t…breeeaaathe!” I bawl.

“You’re breathing right now just fine!” She pours me a glass of water. “Here, drink this. It’ll help you feel better.”

I drink the water. It tastes good and cold and a lot better than that orange soda. We sit on the couch and watch TV together, me occasionally nodding off and Carey occasionally rubbing my head to help the headache go away. The headache is so bad. It pierces my temples and blurs my vision. We watch Cribs and Pimp My Ride and I don’t remember much of it. I just remember Carey leaving, telling me goodbye and that she loved me and hoped I felt better tomorrow. I try to tell her that I don’t want her to leave, that I need someone there with me to watch more TV and be my friend and take care of me, but the only thing that comes out is a gurgled “OKthanksbye.”

The next morning, I puke. Not because I make myself puke, either. I puke because I’m so damn hungover. The only thing that comes up is vodka-flavored orange liquid mixed with water, which makes me want to puke even more. I rinse out my mouth and weigh myself. 79. I actually jump up and down briefly. I am UNDER my goal weight, and feeling GREAT. Well, mostly great. Still got a little bit of that shitty flu that I can’t kick, but other than that I’m just fine.

My mom calls and wants to meet up for coffee. We meet up on Sunday morning. When she steps into the shop, she takes one look at me in my baggy blue hoodie (it’s supposed to be 80 degrees out) and loose jeans and says, “Jessica, we need to talk.”

“Mom, isn’t that why we met up? Isn’t that what we’re about to do? Talk?”

“No,” She whispers loudly and sternly, grabbing my elbow. “I mean yes. I mean we need to talk about you, about this, about everything. LOOK at yourself!”

I shake off her grasp on my elbow and tell her to leave me alone. We drink coffee in silence and leave after a cold hug. I cry. I can’t stand when my mom is mad at me, and it seems like she is mad at me most of the time lately.

I break down. The whole way home along 1-5 South I sob uncontrollably, thinking about what I am doing to my family and myself. I know that what I am doing is not quite right, but I don’t know how to fix it. The coffee is making me jittery and I’m not thinking clearly. My leg starts twitching. I haven’t eaten anything yet today. I become dizzy and confused and next thing I know, I’m crashing into the cement barrier on the side of the road.

I wake up with an airbag smothering my face and police at the door. I’m fine, I tell them, but they insist on taking me to the hospital in the back of an ambulance. They ask me questions and I answer them as best I can. I don’t know how I crashed or why or if I fell asleep. All I know is one second I was driving and the next I was slamming into a concrete wall. I call my mom and dad to tell them about it and they are not happy.

I get out of the hospital the same night and take a taxi home. I shake uncontrollably the whole way home, afraid the car is going to crash. I can never drive again. I am not capable. I keep picturing the crash over and over but all I remember is feeling jittery and losing control. I never lose control, so something is definitely wrong.

When I get home I eat an apple and some turkey jerky. I feel better, but not entirely. I have some bruises and neck pain from the crash, but most of all I have an extremely bruised ego. I fucked up for everyone to see. I don’t know how I got into this mess, and I don’t know how I’m going to get out. I smoke half a cigarette and go to bed, hungry.

Read More By Kate Dillon

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