Excerpted from MOOSE: A Memoir of Fat Camp by Stephanie Klein. All rights reserved.[Tweet “Love is an amusement park & food its souvenir.”]
I can trace every romance of my life back to a meal. My memories are enhanced by the tender morsels had at tables across from lovers, on blankets with friends who’d eventually become more, in banquets, barbecues, and breakfasts. And the seasons of these romances followed an intricate blueprint through fat and thin.
In the spring, afternoons were spent in New York museums and movie theaters, roving through parks where tulips peeked up through narrow beds of snow. I’d feel his fingertips for the first time. He’d hail a taxicab but convince me not to get in. Our afternoon would often extend into evening, an impromptu dinner at a local bistro. “So do I!” and “Wow, me too!” said in smiles between bites of young Bibb lettuce, wax beans, and golden beets. Linen napkins and polite talk and touch. Seared salmon with morels, blanched fiddleheads, petite peas, and a basic beurre blanc. White Burgundy. That first kiss as good as the last bite.
In the sweet summer of a relationship, brunch toasts were made “to us,” the clinking of mimosas over peekytoe crab cakes Benedict, gravlax, and ceramic cups of coddled eggs. Strong coffee. A ruffle of skirt, coral accessories, freckles, and sunblock. He’d reach across the table to tuck a stray twist of my hair behind my ear. Fragrant strawberries presented with a shallow bowl of fine sanding sugar. The rest of our day planned yet lazy. Salty prosciutto with melon eaten from his hands in a rowboat. Our feet over the sides, making ripples in the water. He’d say, “I love you” without meaning to.
We’d meet at my apartment, before dinner with friends, noshing on hard wheels of salami, white grapes, aged grating cheese. He’d use the word “girlfriend” when introducing me, his hand on the small of my back.
I’d be surprised and excited and would order razor and cherrystone clams on a bed of wet linguine with a touch of cubed tomato and a scatter of parsley. I’d ask the waitress for more bread. I’d offer him a taste, secretly hoping he’d decline. And I’d watch as he twirled his fork in my food, bringing his mouth to my plate. Not that much! I wanted to shout. Instead I smiled when he said, “Good,” his mouth full of what should have been mine.
Come Labor Day, we’d have our first big blowout fight. I wouldn’t remember the details of it, only the midnight peace offerings made barefoot in my kitchen. We foraged the cabinets, finally composing tomato sandwiches with wobbly mayonnaise and crisp white toast. “Wait,” I’d say, adding kosher salt. “Okay, now.” We’d make up by the light of the open refrigerator. And I’d swear to myself that I’d never forget that moment.
We’d come home drunk some nights. I’d change into sweats, wash my face, turn on the television, and he’d lie in bed, still dressed, one foot on the floor. “I’m not going to be able to sleep here,” he’d say, and for a moment, I’d worry it was his way of distancing himself. “The room won’t stop spinning.” I’d get dressed and walk with him to the diner for grease.
“This will make you feel better,” I’d say, but really I’d feel better because I’d still be with him. We’d sit in the diner and order chocolate malteds, cheese fries, and hamburgers. And I’d love it—that refrigerated rotating pie life, lived behind glass doors beside plastic-wrapped cantaloupes filled with red Jell-O. Everything felt safe and preserved.
In the fall there’d be football games and foot massages. Tailgating and tagliatelle. A warmed bowl of parsnip pear puree swirled with roasted garlic. “So what’s for dinner?” wouldn’t be a passing comment; it would become our evening activity, our plans, along with a TV Guide lineup. Battened in layers of his clothes, we’d play dirty Scrabble, drinking shots of Irish whiskey. Parts of the Sunday paper would be read aloud while we feasted on navy bean stew and a loaf of toasted peasant bread. Nurturing our relationship with food. Pumpkin, potatoes, potpies. So my pants no longer fit; he still wanted to get into them. “Stephanie,” he’d whisper, “I sometimes forget how beautiful you are.” After sex, he’d need to rush to his front door to pay the delivery guy. He’d grab jeans off the floor. We’d picnic in bed. Hung over. Half dressed. Have the last bite, baby. His hand wiping my chin. Kissing me, food still in my mouth. Those jeans he was wearing, I’d notice midbite, were mine. I spit out the rest into a napkin, silently declaring that my diet started now.
But in his boxers come morning, I’d scoop apple pie filling from a flimsy baking tin, eating hunched over his kitchen counter. Drinking milk from the carton.
A glass of wine after a long day, his hands on my hips, fingers near my mouth. I’d drink too much, and we’d argue over plans and friends and parents. He’d fall asleep angry. I’d eat quiet foods straight from the fridge. Custard. Whipped potatoes. Lemon curd. In the morning there’d be soft-boiled eggs, strips of fried bacon, and apologies.
As real as it all felt, that’s all we’d be: a few seasons. A morning. A wakening. A couple who were courteous, who asked each other if you’ve had enough fish and would you like more rice, but really, that’s all we were. This couple that wouldn’t be there tomorrow, for the bacon he liked a little chewy or the grapefruit juice I preferred to orange. The memories would taste like burnt coffee. And that’s when I’d stop living my life in meals. We’d be over before the official start of winter.
And by February, I’d be thin again. Thin, single, and miserable. These patterns would cycle through seasons for years. The men and menus would change slightly, but the archetype was the same. I spent my whole single life trying to be thin just to find someone who’d love me once I got fat.
As an unattached adult with no “So, what are we having for dinner tonight?” it was far easier to be slim. My cupboards could remain barren; there were no complaints about my desolate fridge. The take-out menus I kept were limited to sushi and the health food joint down the block—because even then I was still too lazy to walk there. I was despondent, but at least I was skinny. Of course once I found myself in a secure, loving relationship again, I’d gain it all back, finally at ease.
“You let yourself go, is what you did.” People who say this should get their eyes gouged out with a carrot. They’re the very same people who believe most overweight individuals are fat because they’re miserable. “You’re trying to suffocate your emotions, eating from stress and out of depression, because you cannot stand your life.” They believe when a person is trim it’s because they’re content. In my case, it was just the opposite.
The times in my life when I’ve been my thinnest, I’ve been a walking psycho wreck. Forget the fact that I was basically starving myself; skinny was usually due to some kind of loss. Death. Rejection. Divorce.
When I was married to a man whom I now refer to as The Wasband, I slipped into a cozy life. For the first year and a half of our marriage I remained quite slim at 123 pounds. But then I became more domestic, trying to please him with fresh baked goods and his food favorites. Miniature cheesecake brownie bites. We gained weight, sharing food and the guilt of overeating it, together. He baked me a carrot cake from scratch. I even checked the garbage for carrot shavings in disbelief. I was impressed and knew he loved me. I licked cream cheese frosting from his finger.
And then one day, when I was probably up twenty-five pounds since being married, he said to me, “I’m not as attracted to you as I once was.”
You’re a real shit, I would have thought if I were . . . I don’t know, sane! But I’m sure I asked for it. Yeah, you read that right. I bet I wouldn’t let up until he admitted it. That’s the answer I was looking for, and I wasn’t going to stop until he gave it to me. You know how you suspect something, but until the person actually admits it, it isn’t completely true? I was secretly hoping he’d never admit it, preferring instead to believe that maybe I was just sensitive; maybe I wasn’t as fat as I thought. Or even if I was, somewhere inside I wished it wouldn’t make a difference, despite knowing men are visual. Because hopefully he wouldn’t see me as fat or thin; he’d see me as me. Stephanie. His wife, the woman with whom he chose to spend the rest of his life.
I went three days without articulating a word to him, a habit I’d perfected since my camp days with Adam. Despite his pleading e-mails, attempts to convince me what he’d said was taken out of context, that he’d love me no matter what I weighed, I didn’t believe him. I was wounded and felt it so deep in my chest that I clutched at it, reminding myself to breathe. And then my hurt turned toward anger. That’s when I went on a hate diet.
Ah, the Hate Diet.
I realized its effectiveness while filling out a personal progress journal, one of those fill-in-the-blanks self-help journals, Mad Libs for the manic. I purchased it the afternoon following his admission. Not as attracted, I kept repeating to myself. I hid away in the bookstore, sipping water in the upstairs café. I borrowed a pen and did some of the exercises within.
In a short paragraph, the journal instructed me to “identify one person in your everyday life who is taking positive steps to be healthy and control his or her weight.” Oprah was first on my list—not exactly in my everyday life, but certainly a person who’d broadcast her weight-loss successes. I paused, biting my inner lip in thought. Then I scrawled the name of a woman from work who was quite possibly anorexic. As far as I could tell, the only calories she consumed came from the milk in her coffee. And as fucked up as it is, there she was in blue ink on my role model list. I added a childhood friend I’d heard lost a lot of weight. Then Michelle, another coworker. And then the list changed.
I scribbled the name of an ex-boyfriend who once said, “You’re bigger than the girls I usually date.” Another who when we returned from winter break in college had said, “Well, someone’s mother fed her well.” I added the name of ex–friends, including the slurs I could remember. “Jordan,” I wrote, “and the case of the fat pants.” I added my motherfucker-in-law, and then my husband.
I’d get thin and stylish and look better than ever, and my motivation was never “so he’ll love me more.” It was “so the ass-hat will regret ever uttering those words.” Healthy marriage, I know. That’s a different book.
It was just as it had been at camp all those years ago. I was still motivated by hate. Take that, judgmental windbag. I’m thin. I suppose it’s along the same lines as “the best revenge is being deliriously happy.” My best revenge was being thin. Because you can’t really see happy; people can fake that. You can’t fake thin.
So I would begin, as we all do, a diet. A crash and burn bitch of a diet. But how? What would work this time? Hadn’t anything I’d learned from Fran or fat camp prepared me for this? No, there had to be something easier.
I resolved to follow the advice in the journal and ask the thin people on my list how they did it. Oprah had personal trainers and private chefs and wasn’t, if you can believe it, returning my phone calls. I hadn’t actually seen the childhood friend on my list, so it would be quite awkward to phone her out of the blue. “Hey, it’s been forever, but I heard you’re no longer a tub. What’s your secret to staying motivated?” I decided to ask my waif coworker how she did it.
“Don’t do anything that makes you sweat,” she confided, quite eager to divulge her secrets. “It’ll make you too hungry. Do yoga if you have to, but not the hot kind. And don’t keep any food in the house. Just turkey. That’s it. And drink lots of coffee,” Waif Worker said, raising a fresh cup of it.
“But I’m hungry,” I’d whine over our cubicle divider.
“No, you’re not. You just think you are. Let’s go tanning.” Instead of using our lunch hour to eat, some afternoons we’d zip to her favorite tanning salon. “Seeing yourself naked should be enough motivation to keep your mouth shut,” she’d said. “Well, I don’t mean you,” she stumbled, “just in general. Besides, tan conceals cellulite.” Yuh-huh.
I liked how bossy she was. It was almost as if she personified my own self-control. My willpower was power-walking around the streets of New York in her Nike trainers. When I was around her, I didn’t have to regulate myself because I knew she’d do it for me.
When I wasn’t with her, I did all I could to keep my mind off food. I knew my motivation to lose weight would wax and wane, so I needed a plan I could stick to whether I liked dieting or not. I couldn’t just wake up and decide I was going to eat healthfully; I’d actually need to do it. I knew myself well enough to know my patterns. Usually, I’d feel hopeful that I’d made it through the first three days of whatever diet it was. Then the diet seemed easier. “Hey, I can do this!” I’d feel proud of myself for doing what my mind was urging me to. I respected myself more and wanted less. “I will not fail at this” became my mantra, and I believed it. But after a few weeks of success, I’d slip into my old ways again, thinking I was immune to weight gain. So this time I thought all I really needed was to get out of the house, away from food, as often as I could. I scribbled ideas into the journal.
At night go to Barnes & Noble.
Hide in movie theaters.
Wake up early & get your tan cellulite to the gym.
When out for dinner, order only a small salad & an appetizer, not an entrée.
After work, instead of rushing home to prepare dinner, I’d go to Bloomingdale’s and try on clothes two sizes too small. On purpose. If I chose clothes that actually fit, I might start to feel okay about myself. And that wouldn’t do. See, I’d say to my stomach as it toppled over, you’ve still got a long way to go. The very words, by the by, Poppa had uttered when I was twelve and just starting to lose weight again with Fran.
After a few weeks, Waif Worker asked me to grocery shop for her. “It’s just that Kyle Peck is coming over, and you’re so good at all that domestic stuff.” And? “And I don’t have time to do it all myself. I have to go out and buy plates.” Of course she didn’t own plates. She didn’t eat. Still, who doesn’t have plates? I blinked at her. “I have to put food in my cabinets, or he’ll think I’m a freak.” You are a freak. “Can’t you make me seem normal?” It would be a miracle at the 34th Street supermarket.
I food-shopped for her apartment because it never occurred to me to say, “Are you fucking kidding me? Why you gotta send the fat girl for the food?” It never crossed my mind to say no. So I went to the market and spent too much time analyzing not my own behavior, but what items would say about her.
What exactly would cornflakes seem to convey about Waif Worker? Wholesome, with an appreciation for the simpler things. I strolled amid the colorful rows of food products looking for other statements. The red and navy canister of Quaker Oats declared that she had patience. Microwave popcorn: the girl appreciates technology. I added a pound of Bavarian old-fashioned pretzels to the shopping cart because girls are always snacking on pretzels. Lorna Doone shortbread cookies. I paused. No, men like to eat Mallomars. Impressive, he’d think upon seeing the yellow box. I bet she likes sports. I’d buy nothing low fat or low sugar. She wouldn’t want him to think she ever thought about her weight. Instead the goal was to wow him with her genes, a girl who can eat and still look like that! A six-pack of Dr Pepper and a tub of Jif and I was done.
I retraced my steps to the Lorna Doones despite having decided on the Mallomars. Screw it. I filled the cart with everything I wanted. Nacho-flavored Combos, potato skins, frozen miniature hot dogs, and a red bag of Tater Tots. A jar of Cheez Whiz. Tostitos. A half-gallon of Moose Tracks. A canister of Pringles. The cart brimmed with all the things I could never have. A tub of icing. Now we’re talking. A box of cake mix—no, not just cake mix. Mix with pudding in the batter. Ooh, what else? How extraordinarily freeing. Go on and giggle, Doughboy. Oh, yes I can! How delicious to pretend I could be this free from food.
When I reached the checkout counter, I picked at my nails. People are going to think this is all for me. Well, it’s no wonder, they’ll think as they eye my arm lard. What am I doing? Just look at yourself. You have no control. But she gets to. Yeah, but she doesn’t eat it. For her it’s just decor. Go home to your husband, the one who thinks you’re too fat to fuck.
I abandoned the cart in the checkout line, pretending to double back for a forgotten essential item. I left the store empty-handed.
I went home and filled my empty hands with folded slices of white pizza. I annihilated the pie and wondered how her date would go without the props that told the story of a life she didn’t live. I ate until I felt ill. I stepped on the scale and became afraid of myself. That was it, my moment. That moment you have when you know you’re out of control. I didn’t want to undo all the summers I’d spent at fat camp, all the times I’d exercised and suffered. I didn’t want to become Moose again. In that moment, everything stopped spinning and I was left with a quiet truth that wept and hung on my insides.
I couldn’t continue to live like this anymore. Like Waif Worker, I too needed someone to make me seem normal.
That someone, I hoped, would be Michelle, the second coworker on my list. Maybe she’d have an answer. If she could do it, then so could I. I demanded she share with me her weight loss secrets.
“Oh, I just eat right and exercise,” she said.
“Bullshit. Tell me.”
“What? It’s true.”
“No it’s not. You love food as much as I do.” She’d gone from a size 12 to a size 2 in approximately eight months, and now she had sculpted arms—guns, really. A woman with chiseled triceps is never hiding fat elsewhere. It’s the telltale sign that she probably even looks better naked. I wondered who’d pissed her off; that kind of thin only came from hate.
“Why are you asking me this?” Why? Because I’m fat and miserable, and that never happens.
“Because you look so great.” Because I need help.
“Well,” she softened. I leaned in. “Okay, so you have to promise not to tell anyone.” I shook my head quickly, my left hand in the air.
Buy the Book You can order Moose at these online retailers:
amazon.com or barnesandnoble.com. You can also find
Moose and Straight Up and Dirty at your local bookstore.
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