by Eleonora Balsano
I started hating food on my twelfth Christmas, when Dad first included me in his annual review. We were his most valued team members, he used to say, before reading from a three-page document he’d spent a week drafting.
Anne, the eldest, was always the first to be assessed. Despite being an accomplished pianist and excellent student—excellency, though, can never be taken for granted—she tended to disappoint in many other areas of her life. She had come second in the tennis tournament, for the third year in a row, and she didn’t show any interest in the painting class Mum had enrolled her in. These classes costed money and we all had a moral obligation to do our best.
I watched Annie closely while Dad read aloud. She nodded and filled her glass with water. She smiled as well, although without showing her teeth. I felt for her hand but when I tried to squeeze it, she yanked it off. Peering under the table, I saw that she was shredding a bread roll. Hundreds of crumbs coated the tip of her Mary-Janes like snowflakes.
Going over the meagre successes and vast disappointments of four children always took a while so that by the time my turn came, the turkey had landed on the table, glistening from hours of devout basting. Carrots and Brussels sprouts were neatly arranged in concentric circles around it, satellites to a giant planet. The smell of cabbage and melted butter filled the dining room. Mum heaped the vegetables onto our plates, while Dad painstakingly carved the turkey.
I didn’t know who I was then, but my father was helpful in pointing out what I was not. I wasn’t a remarkable student. I obviously wasn’t good at sports, the only middle-schooler who never qualified for the cross-country tournament. I couldn’t play an instrument. I didn’t have any hobby that he found interesting. I didn’t have any hobby at all.
While he spoke, I scratched my leg with my fork, until it pierced my white tights. I pulled on the nylon thread and watched a wide run reach my ankle and slip under my heel.
Do you have anything to say for yourself? It’s not always about the results, but I’d expect you to make an effort.
My lower lip quivered, as I stared at my plate. Dad had shoved two slices of meat over the vegetables and what minutes ago had looked like a feast now appeared for what it had been all the way, morsels of a dead bird over equally defunct plants, both fashioned to please people’s whims and rituals.
My stomach shut, as though someone had stitched it close. The turkey’s chestnut farce, sweet and dense, filled my nostrils and made me sick.
Aren’t you eating? Mum said.
I shook my head and murmured, I think I had too much for breakfast.
You always had eyes bigger than your stomach, she replied.
That evening, once my brothers and sister had disappeared into their quarters, I sneaked out of my bedroom and into the kitchen. The fridge was bursting with leftovers, neatly stored in labeled glass containers. Barefoot on the tiled floor, basking in the cool neon light, I pulled each container from its perfect spot and emptied it down my throat. I wasn’t picky. I could do treacle pudding with a side of gravy.
In the beginning, I thought it was hunger that drove me but then my nightly raids became a ritual. I was insatiable. When I got a bad mark, or someone made me doubt myself—a comment about my hair, or clothes, or my handwriting—the yearning would awaken me in the middle of the night, pushing me out of my bed and into the kitchen.
I was a hollow log waiting to be filled with life. I was a flawed being, wishing to gorge my stomach until it burst at the seams and exploded, swallowing me up and sparing me more emptiness.
On one of those nights my brother Ed saw me. He’d come for a glass of water and found me on the floor, eating lasagna with my hands, tearing the sheets of pasta inside the tray and rolling them in a ball I then pushed into my mouth. He said I had tomato sauce dripping down my night dress. He said my eyes were open but I couldn’t see him. He said I looked like a nightwalker in a horror movie.
I don’t remember any of it. What I do remember is that the following week my parents drove me near Park Avenue to a doctor whose secretary wore a purple silk blouse and spoke with a German accent. He asked me about my feelings for food, my friendships, my school results. I said things I’d heard on TV but I hoped for a moment that he’d interrupt me.
He never did and then one day, he let me go.
A lock appeared on the fridge and Mum sat beside me at every meal, a prison guard in pearls.
In the cavity above the downlights, I hid food. Chocolate under my bed, crackers under the sink. Sometimes ants got there before I could. Together, we marked the days off, waiting for the school year to be over, for college to start, for my life to begin.
On the last Christmas I spent at home, I poured vodka in my water glass. Dad felt his pockets and fished out a crumpled sheet of paper, a far cry from the glossy annual report of my younger years. He skipped Anne’s eighth defeat on the tennis court but commended Ed and Paul’s latest achievements.
To my great surprise, I was spared a thorough evaluation because of my unfortunate circumstances. The more Dad talked, the smaller he became.
As I walked out the front door on New Years’ Eve, my belongings in tow, he was the same size as the ants feasting on crumbs under my bed.
Eleonora Balsano is a writer living in Brussels, E.U.