8th grade Nikki: Winter rental dweller. Fancier of hair bleach. Lover of The Cure. Riding the high of prolonged hunger. Purges with Extra Strength Ex-Lax, ipecac, and/or cap-fulls of liquid methadone.
There are nine calories in one serving of Rite-Aid chewable antacid. Two pills to a serving, four and a half calories per pill. I pop one into my mouth, typing zero point five into MyFitnessPal as I chew. I plop the phone into my gym bag and pull off my dress, careful not to rip its weakening seams.
On the locker room bench, a swimcapped woman with a tub of antifungal cream sits spread-eagle. She massages thick white medicine between her toes, then across the bottoms of her feet. As she aims another scoop at her groin, I look away. I step free from tights and underwear, weakly covering my stomach while I search my bag for shorts.
And then I realize I am naked.
Usually I put on shorts before taking off my dress. The locker room conversations I’ve overheard are enough to make me want to stay clothed. The day before Thanksgiving, one woman told another to do two hours of cardio if she wanted gravy with her turkey. The recipient of said advice didn’t ask for it. And the advice-giver is here today, strapping on her waist trainer post-workout. And here I am, naked before her, thrown off by a little antifungal cream.
Though I’ve always experienced disordered eating, I wasn’t diagnosed with an eating disorder until I was 34. I have EDNOS, which stands for Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified—a catch-all term for disordered eating that doesn’t fit the diagnostic criteria for anorexia, bulimia, or binge-eating disorder. It’s a smattering of all three. At the height of my behavior, I was so afraid of being seen that I hardly left my house. As a part of my two-year intensive therapy program, I had to ditch both the food tracking apps and the compulsive workouts. The food tracking apps were the hardest to quit—once you become addicted to weighing your food and tracking macronutrients, you can’t unlearn the numbers, the weights and sizes. You can’t un-see serving sizes, or, in my case, half-serving-sizes—nothing was more satisfying than entering a number less than 1 as a serving size.
The swimcapped woman squeezes more cream from her tube, smears it under each breast, beneath both arms. She springs up and lobs across the tiled floor unclothed, medicated, smiling.
I’d chosen this gym above others because of this online review: “If I tour a gym and see greasy fatties panting on level 3 on the elliptical, the place won’t get my money. I don’t pay to commune with swine.”
A tiny photo of a white man’s abs, presumably those of the author, appeared alongside his words. Despite that review, most of these ladies look different than me. Like they’ve been going to the gym the whole time. Like they didn’t have these breaks for drug use or bulimia or abusive relationships. Panic sets in and I’m digging furiously through my gym bag. Did I not pack my sports-bra? Where is my t-shirt? I pull everything from my gym bag and stack it in my locker, a locker I’d grabbed because of its proximity to the showers. I don’t like to walk far in wet flip-flops after my elliptical pig-pant.
But being near the showers also means being right next to the scale. A thin, somewhat twitchy woman with a silky ponytail is running back and forth from the scale to the exit. I mean, she’s actually running, like exercise running, in the locker room, ponytail flying behind her. After several laps, she gets on the scale and moves the little weight bar around. Fuck fuck fuck, she says. She stomps her little Reebok and a metal-clank echo bounces from every locker. All of the women in the locker room stare.
All except for the swimcapped woman with the antifungal cream, who’s humming that song “Happy” as she pulls on her underwear.
These women and I share many of the same fears. The fear of eating, of not eating, of being too much, of not being enough, or being seen by people with eyes. Of catching a fungus. Our bodies are up for scrutiny no matter their size. But as I scan the room, I realize, as I do sometimes, that I’m the fattest in the room. I look down at my gut hanging over my pubic bone. I grab a t-shirt and pull it over my whole situation, but not before the woman on the scale not only sees me watching, but watching with my stomach meat just hanging there.
She steps from the scale and we make eye contact. I smile apologetically, because what else do you do? Her smile back surprises me, the warmth of it. She was so frantic until now and I can’t tell if it’s because my smile brought her back to reality, or because she saw someone fatter than her at the exact right time.
I find my shorts and slip them on. The swimcapped woman with the antifungal cream uses sink soap to clean behind her ears, tits-out. Thin naked women with great posture pad between shower stalls and lockers. I contemplate level 6 on the elliptical, maybe level 7. I pull my hair into a ponytail, grab my water bottle, and hit the floor.
We have the same fears, I say to myself. And then I repeat it so I don’t accidentally hate other women, which has always been important, but is especially important now.
When I was nine I was this little fat kid wandering the West Side wondering what moms were for, where moms would go, what needles were for, whether everyone rinsed their own shit from a bucket in the kitchen sink, in kitchen sinks where goldfish die.
I’ll tell you how I found out I was fat. I was drinking fruit punch and it tasted all wrong, like chemicals. I spit it out, confused. My mother had been watching from the hall. I said, “There’s something wrong with it!” and she just cried. And I cried too because my mother was crying. She pulled out a magazine, pointed to a diet pill ad in the back. She’d hoped they’d have no taste. Her mother’s idea. Grandma said? I kept asking. I barely knew Grandma, or my mother, or anyone. My mother said I was beautiful, just fat, that it was her fault, not mine.
I hugged her. It’s okay, I said, I’m not mad, I said, over and over. I’m not mad, no, I won’t tell.
When I was ten my nightmares were about fires and my nightmares were nightly. My mother got a mainstream job for a few months. Overnights at a hospital. We got an apartment down the shore and her new job meant I’d sleep in it alone every night. I tried to be brave, but those fires. I’d call her ward every night, There was a fire, tell my mom to come home! So she had to start taking me to work. I loved it there because the nurses would give me Styrofoam cups quarter-full with fruit punch before bed, not spiked with diet pills. I slept on a soft red couch next to a coffee maker, soundly, only waking when the speakers spat Code Blue.
In mornings my mother drove me to school, high on stolen Demerol in a car with no front-end. Me with my bad teeth and matted hair and fat 10-year-old body, hungry, fat, and hungry. Most nights I ate Chef Boy R Dee straight from the can with a fork because it was delicious, and because it didn’t need to be cooked. I also ate school free school lunch. Lunch tickets are great for moms, but not for kids when you’re the only kid who qualifies, or the only fat kid, or the only new kid, or all of those kids combined. I always tried to get my lunch ticket quietly but the teacher didn’t get it. Nicole, come get your lunch ticket, she’d shout. The kids in my class whispered Oink under their breath, like Oink Oink, quiet enough that only I could hear it as I walked back to my seat, ticket in hand.
Sleeping at the hospital didn’t last long. The boss caught on. The nightmares returned. One night I dreamt my school exploded with everyone who ever oinked at me inside. They were melting and I woke up laughing.
My mother came home earlier than usual that morning and said I’m going away. She’d been caught stealing medicine from patients, and someone else would pick me up after school. And she wasn’t sure whom. And it would be my last day there. And she forgot to tell me the rest.
When the teacher called me up for my lunch ticket I marched proudly, grabbed it from her hand, and waved it in the air.
You’re all going to die in a fire, I announced to the class. I was sure of it.
The image of my school in flames kept me warm all night as I slept beneath an outdoor payphone, waiting for someone, anyone, to remember to pick me up.
So I do an hour of high-intensity interval training on the elliptical. Level 7. And everything hurts because of the white abs that wrote that review. And the women cursing at scales. And the pills from magazines. And the 750 calories I’m committed to burning, exactly how many calories I’ve consumed today. I don’t know if I am weak or strong.
I catch a glimpse of my reflection in a darkened window. When I look in a mirror after a workout, I can’t believe how thin I am. I see ribs and cheekbones, some sort of glow. Give me two Rite-Aid chewable antacid tablets instead of one, however, and I’m seeing someone else.
I refill my water bottle and hit the weight machines in an area where my phone lacks reception. Nicki Minaj, my workout muse, goes silent as I huff through shoulder presses, headphones still buried in my ears.
Chad and Brad stand in front of me drinking Muscle Milk, waiting for my machine. The smell coming from one or both stings my eyes. I end my final rep and let the weight fall into place. And I guess Chad or Brad thinks my music is still on because, barely audible over the clank, I hear exactly what he says.
My sweetheart asks me what’s wrong and I’m say “Everything is great!” because confidence is sexy. But I’m driving her nuts. She says, “You have to show me all of you.”
I’ve shown her the side of my face, the Levantine nose that dwarfs my chin, my knobby nipples that stare at the floor. Does she really need to know about the night under the payphone? The spiked punch? Chad and Brad?
I stay quiet. Remember: Confidence is sexy.