“I’m a big believer in that whole good calories vs. bad calories thing,” Ryan said as he picked the feta out of his salad. “I did this experiment with brown rice and a blood glucose monitor. I ate a whole bowl of brown rice, right? And then I checked my blood sugar and it was like right in the danger zone.”
With the feta and pumpkin seeds gone, he was just eating kale and quinoa topped with overcooked squash. He splashed it with a little white vinegar and shoveled it in.
Aziz chewed an enormous bite of his roast beef sandwich on one side of his mouth and spoke around it. “So did you compare the spike on a similar day after eating a bowl of white rice?”
Ryan swallowed with a slim sip of water. “No, I was afraid to.”
Aziz swallowed a bite so large that his throat bulged visibly. “That’s not really an experiment, then.”
Roxy agreed with Aziz, but she didn’t say so. She was trying to figure out how to leave in a way that was polite, graceful, and immediate.
She had walked six blocks for the best chirashi bowl in San Francisco’s Japantown. She had walked six blocks back and carefully dripped soy sauce over the whole thing. She had daubed wasabi strategically on the toro, the ono, and the salmon. She sprinkled the bowl with shredded nori, shaken from the little wax paper envelope. Her chopsticks were poised above as she contemplated that perfect first bite when the dreaded conversation had begun.
“It’s just such a drain on our healthcare system,” Ryan said. “I mean, forget people doing drugs or even smoking. It’s really just the way we eat. Even kids, now. Have you seen how fat the kids are on the playground on Third?”
Aziz nodded, mouth too full to speak. Viv jumped in. “It’s just everywhere. I feel like every January a bunch of overweight women join my gym, and I see them for like a month and then they just give up and disappear. But like, if they had any willpower, they wouldn’t be in that state in the first place.”
Eleanor nodded, her long, shiny, black hair flashing in the sun.
They were all sitting on the roof deck of their historic building. Their office on the 18th floor was all modern, with floor-to-ceiling glass and exposed copper pipe. The office was the company; very young, very agile, with every unnecessary feature stripped away.
Everyone worked long days, especially the programmers and developers. On their side of the office, the lights were kept low and the shades were drawn. The tech side was mostly men, and they all worked in t-shirts and hoodies. Coding was dead serious, so dress stayed casual.
On the other side, however, where the business team paced through their endless phone calls, things were different. Dress policy was ostensibly the same across the board, but the department heads set a tone with their suits and skirts. Everyone on that side dressed smartly, their posture yoga-straight and their mien fastidious.
Roxy was a newer employee, brought in for a communications job fresh out of journalism school. She was delighted to find such a good job, and had immediately started taking her lunch out to the rooftop deck to enjoy the wind and the view of the city. She wore skirts and heels every day. Roxy’s boss was Eleanor; tall, slim, tanned and tight absolutely everywhere. Eleanor could walk into any shop in the world and emerge looking perfect.
Roxy had not weighed herself since the first time she realized she could no longer shop in a normal people store. After succumbing to Lane Bryant and the narrow retail world that squeezed fat women into few options, she never cast a shadow on a scale again. She guessed she was somewhere between 250 and 300, but the number didn’t really matter to her. What mattered was that it was almost impossible to fit in.
She shopped every week, in person and on the internet. She returned items every time she revisited the mall or went to the post office, correcting for fit. She would not try anything on in a dressing room. The lights suspended over the mirrors seemed explicitly designed with suicide in mind.
She cobbled together a professional wardrobe that was tasteful, classic, and flattering.
It didn’t matter to her coworkers, who saw her as a slob no matter what she wore. Roxy knew that, but what mattered was that she felt put-together.
So on days like this when her lunch al fresco was ruined by yet another talk about how dangerous fatness would surely kill them all, she didn’t know what she should do. She couldn’t join in and agree with them where she thought they were being reasonable. She dared not argue with them where she thought they were being paranoid or flat-out cruel. She was too big to pass unnoticed and too solid to disappear.
She rose from her seat, listening to the groan of the metal and plastic as it was relieved of the weight of her ass. “I’m gonna go get a Diet Coke,” she said.
She did grab a Diet Coke on the way to her desk. She did not go back out.
She smoothed her frizzy red hair and ate one-handed without looking at the gemlike colors of her beautiful chirashi bowl. She was still hungry, but the experience of it had been spoiled. With her left hand, she opened up the window in which she had been working and went back to it.
Minor indignities like these had flavored half of her life. She carefully ignored them and tried to give people the benefit of the doubt. She learned to sit in seats at theaters and restaurant that bit into her body on all sides while smiling the whole time. She learned to shop for accessories while her friends tried on jeans. She accepted these moments like seeds in a raspberry; harmless and meaningless until one stuck in her gum line and had to be dug out.
On her way out of the building, she hung up her bag on a hook and slipped into a stall in the ladies room. As she sat, two more women entered.
“No, but look at this!” It was Viv’s voice,. She had a tiny bit of a Brooklyn accent, despite her adoption of all things Californian. Roxy could picture her blonde beach waves and southwestern jewelry.
“What? That’s nothing.” Jasmine said. Jasmine had Michelle Obama biceps and would not make eye contact with Roxy.
“Seriously?” Viv shrilled this word and her voice bounced off the tile walls like a handful of Skittles. “I can pinch like an entire handful over here. It’s gross. Even though I’m sweating my life out at hot yoga and I haven’t had carbs in a month.”
“It’s just skin,” Jasmine placated her. “It’s not like you’re actually fat.”
Viv snorted. “Yeah. Not like… well, you know.”
Roxy was cold all over, but her face was hot. She had her skirt rucked up around her waist and her panties down around her ankles. She wondered if they had noticed her hanging bag.
The other two women were silent for a minute and Roxy imagined them peering into the pitiless mirror, seeing their flaws magnified and thrown back at them. Everyone did that. Didn’t they?
“Do you think we should invite her to that cardio barre class?” Viv’s voice was carefully modulated in that faux-concern that Roxy knew all too well.
Jasmine snorted lightly. “She’d never come.”
Viv clucked her tongue. “Mmm, true. God, can you imagine?”
Jasmine’s voice was throaty and Roxy figured she had her head thrown way back so she could fix her undereye. “If I ever get that out of control, just promise you’ll kill me, okay?”
Viv snickered a little. “I’ll just hang an OUT OF ORDER sign on the elevator door downstairs and let nature take its course.”
They both laughed again and the sound made Roxy duck but she didn’t dare say a word. When they were gone the silence rang in her ears. She waited a minute for her heart to stop hammering and then collected herself. She pulled up her seamless panties back up without her everyday enjoyment of their smoothness. She fixed her skirt, flushed, and stepped out to wash her hands.
She avoided the mirror as long as she could, but in the end the Roxy in the mirror demanded her attention. Their brown eyes met and Roxy uttered a tiny, short laugh.
She dried her hands and tried to be as square as her roundness could be, shoulders straight and head high. She waited for the elevator to return to their top floor. When the receptionist said goodbye, Roxy didn’t even hear her.
At home, Roxy sat alone at her kitchen table. When her orange cat jumped up in her field of vision, she petted him absently and eyed his food bowl. She did not take her usual pleasure in his silky fur, nor in the smell of the oily salmon she portioned carefully into his bowl. He ate purring and snorting, his own enjoyment undiminished. Roxy remembered when this diet had made poor Detangelo so fat that his belly had dragged the ground when he walked.
But that was before.
Roxy wasn’t hungry and she wasn’t going to bother about dinner. She stood on tiptoes to reach her special cookbook, then laid it down carefully on the fake granite counter.
The cookbook had always been hers. Her mother had put it into the cedar chest that contained all the things a girl would need for her first apartment. After college, Roxy’s mother had driven it out to her in San Francisco and dropped it off.
Roxy looked just like her mother, Rose. Well, all the details were the same. But the delivery was a little different.
Roxy’s red hair was frizzy and would do nothing she asked of it. Rose’s hair was deep auburn, thick and shining and absolutely obedient. Where Roxy’s freckles looked like dirt flecks in her cheesy skin, Rose’s looked like cinnamon sprinkled on cream. Roxy’s eyes were an utterly unremarkable shade of brown but Rose’s were a luminous amber and brimmed with humor and intelligence.
Despite this diminishing of genetic fortune, Rose doted on Roxy. She had opened the cedar chest on the day Roxy had moved out, pulling out this cookbook to put it in her daughter’s hands.
“Roxy, darling. I want you to listen carefully. This book only contains one recipe, and you can only make the dish one of two ways. It’s like that Robert Frost poem about the two roads in the wood, do you remember that one?”
“What, like I chose the casserole with more cheese in it, and that has made all the difference?” Roxy’s laugh was goofy, but her mother’s answering chuckle was smooth and musical.
“Something like that. Listen to me. I used to make it for you. You can make it for yourself, or for others. And you can change your mind anytime. Remember that. I always have.”
Roxy looked at her mother with her head cocked to the side, but she didn’t know what to say. When Rose was gone, she had looked at the leather cover of the brown book. It didn’t have anything on the front, but it was covered in greasy handprints and smears. Down the spine, Roxy could make out the title FEAST AND FAMINE in very old writing.
When she opened it, the pages were blank.
They weren’t paper. Roxy looked closely at the smooth, blameless sheets and realized that it was scraped, unblemished animal skin. Vellum. Its color was pale butter, rich and warm. She leafed through them gently, mystified.
In the dead center, the binding was fatigued and the book relaxed like a cat in the crowded space of her lap. Across two pages was written two versions of the same recipe. FEAST on the right faced FAMINE on the left.
FEAST was illuminated with tiny gold-leafed full color illustrations of joints of meat and barrels of wine, beautiful women gnawing at chicken legs or holding wheels of cheese just below their ample breasts. FAMINE echoed the same scenes, but in black ink drawings edged in silver-leaf. Skeletons in mirrored poses stood drinking tea, gnawing at twigs and leaves, holding empty plates beneath their desolate sternums.
In her kitchen, Roxy sighed and lay her finger beside the first ingredient on the FEAST list. She bustled in the refrigerator and spice cabinet. When she turned on the gas burner below her enormous cast iron pot, Detangelo meowed and wound his way between her ankles in a feline infinity. She shushed him and cracked whole eggs into her brew.
The smell was decadent and oily, reminding her next-door neighbors of that perfect baking dish of bubbling gooey mac and cheese they had been meaning to make. A little girl on the floor above Roxy sniffed it and remembered the mashed potatoes her grandmother made for holidays, the kind with butter and sour cream. The bachelor one floor down found his mouth watering at the smell of what could only be the crisping fat at the edge of a steak, and resolved to go out for dinner that very minute. Detangelo knew the odor of fatty fish when he smelled it and loudly demanded his portion.
“No, no kitty. Not this time.” Roxy poured the reduced potion into a mason jar. It looked like clarified butter and glowed slightly after she turned out the lights.
It was Friday, and Friday meant catered lunch. Roxy worked quietly all day, only offering the most brief of polite greetings. When the caterer wheeled her cart off the elevator, Roxy rose out of her seat.
She pretended not to see the looks that passed between a few in the open office— the look that said well that figures. She walked into the kitchen with her head high.
The mason jar had sat in the fridge undisturbed for the last five hours as she worked at her desk, but it was still as warm to the touch as the body of a live animal. She unscrewed the lid and dipped the tips of her fingers on her left hand into the warm, oily substance. She replaced the lid and was careful not to touch anything en route to the lounge.
She opened the glass door with her right hand and poked her head in.
“Hey,” she said brightly to the caterer. “Could you use some help?”
The woman was harried and sweating beneath her branded cap. “Oh gosh I’d love some. Thank you so much for offering.”
Roxy smiled as she unloaded huge chafing dishes and laid them out on the table. Surreptitiously, deft as a stage magician, she traced her oiled fingertips across the surface of the food. It was a build-your-own-burritos set up, so she touched the beans, the meat, the tortillas and the grilled veggies. Her fifth finger was still oiled, but she drew back from touching the rice. Not the rice.
Her oiled pinky finger brushed the filter in the break room coffee pot instead, on her way to wash her hands. That should cover everyone.
When the announcement came that lunch was ready, people made their way toward it lazily, no one wanting to look too eager. Roxy took her place near the end of the line. She made a huge, bursting burrito full of everything and topped with salsa. She ate it greedily out on the deck while people talked about CrossFit.
“It’s just the only thing in my life worth committing to,” Lena said over her lunch of bottled green juice. She paused for a moment to accept a single tortilla chip, dipped in refried beans.
Roxy’s laugh caught her by surprise and she choked a little on a bite of burrito. She excused herself and ate the rest of it with gusto at her desk. She enjoyed everything sensual that day, filtering the wind through her fingers as she walked to the train station, and petting Detangelo as she fell asleep.
That weekend was a glory of gluttony. She took herself out for three meals a day; chicken and waffles in the morning and tall stacked club sandwiches with extra avocado in the afternoon. At night she parked herself in the corner pocket of a conveyor-belt sushi buffet. She visited the best BBQ she knew and inhaled pulled pork. She accepted every recommended wine pairing and agreed to cheese plates. She said yes to every topping, every upgrade, every sauce. By Sunday evening she was ready to burst. She ate antacids like candy and moaned every time she moved.
As midnight approached, she sighed heavily and hauled herself off the couch. She huffed trying to reach the book on its high shelf and finally had to knock it down using her longest set of tongs. She tiredly dragged out the eggs and herbs, sweating as she stirred her iron pot. The rich vapor that poured off nauseated her. It smelled like bechamel sauce and maple syrup. Like cheese fondue and the skin off a hot piece of fried chicken. She gagged as she poured it into the mason jar.
In the morning, she put the first knuckle of her right forefinger into the still-warm refrigerated jar. She touched the oil to her tongue and waited for the change to begin. She was naked, so when she sat down hard on the kitchen floor, the sound was more slap than thud.
When she awoke again, she was glad she had started early. She had been out for nearly an hour, and it was time to get ready for work. She padded back into her room and opened her other closet.
These clothes were from college, from back when her mother was still feeding her. They were nothing like the professional wardrobe she had struggled to put together. But the office was casual, after all. She slinked into a pair of skinny jeans and pulled a sweater down over her head after fishing out one of her old black lace bras.
In the mirror, she was the other Roxy again. Her long red hair rippled and curled against her perfect creamy skin. The bones of her hips suggested themselves just above the waistband of her jeans, and her collarbones would hold a roll of quarters if she wanted them to. She sighed and sat down to do her makeup.
As she filled in the hollows of her cheeks with a delicate bronzer, she knew that this Roxy would not laugh hard when something was funny. She wouldn’t care what she ate or what was in it. She would have no favorite song and would be bored with whatever movies she saw or books she read. When her face was perfect, she shrugged at it and stepped into her boots.
This Roxy would have to tell three different men on the train that she was not interested in them, and ask them to please leave her alone. She had forgotten to put on her fake engagement ring. It had never fit the real Roxy, so it was in the bottom of the jewelry box somewhere.
Before stepping on to the elevator, she taped an OUT OF ORDER sign to the door. When she got to the 18th floor, she pulled the huge switch that shut the elevator off.
They came slowly, starting at a quarter past nine and shuffling up heavily at intervals after that. Roxy sat yoga-posture upright in her chair, tapping away at her keyboard.
First, it was Eleanor. Eleanor was always early. Her full cheeks were bright red and sweat had plastered her dull hair to her forehead.
“Oh… good morning… Roxy.” She was still too out of breath to speak. “Weirdest… morning. I’m like… bloated… or something. And the damned… elevator is…” Eleanor waved her hand in the direction of the entrance.
Roxy’s rosy lips quirked in something like a smile. Eleanor did not look upset or particularly shocked. Eleanor looked guilty.
Slowly, she heard their excuses. Their allergic reactions and PMS. Their sudden fear for their health. Their slow realization that they had all ballooned over the weekend, forty pounds in some cases, and that it must all be related somehow.
Inquiries were made. Gym classes were arranged and a health consultant was brought in. Roxy sat in their lectures about calorie counting and self-control.
A few told her how great she looked, and hadn’t she lost weight?
“Oh sure,” she told them. “There’s really nothing to it.”
Weeks later, she heard Viv crying in the ladies’ room because she had gone to buy herself some new sweats and could not find any in her size.
“It’s so unbelievable! I just want them to take my money and they looked at me me like I’m some kind of monster. I’m going to have to go to one of those special stores.” Roxy almost felt sorry for her. Almost.
One day, Roxy knew, she would take home her jar of FEAST and bring in her jar of FAMINE. She would wait for their catered lunch on Friday (now always a selection of salads with no-fat dressings) and trail her lightly oiled fingers over the dewy leaves. She would dose herself and Detangelo at home, and she would once again swell into the pleasures of the world, feeling delight in something better than just fitting into a chair.
But not this Friday.
No, not yet.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Meg Elison is the author of THE BOOK OF THE UNNAMED MIDWIFE, a post-apocalyptic feminist speculative novel, Tiptree recommendation, and winner of the 2014 Philip K. Dick Award. The sequel to MIDWIFE, THE BOOK OF ETTA, will be published in early 2017. Elison is a high school dropout and a graduate of UC Berkeley. Find her online, where she is always saying something: