I dialed the number seventeen times before I got through that’s how determined I was to join. The ad said: Eat three meals with us. Earn $100 dollars. I ran to the medical building, no make-up, wearing my worst shoes. Here was God picking me up on a bad calorie day and saying: How’s this for reclaiming your life?
The Obesity Center is quiet as church. If they knew my thought processes, I’m the last person they’d want for a scientific study. A woman with beautifully manicured squared off nails fills in my name, address, age. She takes a survey of my preferred foods. Preferred, that is, as long as they are on her list.
What’s your favorite yogurt? Soft or regular?
Soft or regular?
Strawberry, banana, apple, blueberry?
Meat or fish?
Potatoes or Rice?
Carrots or string beans?
Ice Cream? Flavor?
When you’re hungry, how do you feel? Anxious, depressed, neutral or happy?
Do you know when you’re hungry?
How do you feel after you eat?
While you’re eating?
If you overeat?
If you eat just enough?
If you leave food on your plate?
(yeah, right) Anxious.
Yes, anxious. Anxious.
She gathers up her materials. Come back tomorrow at eleven.
Next morning, I’m put in a narrow cubby enclosed by velvet curtains. There’s a table with a cardboard bucket (the 36 piece size they use at KFC) the top of which is covered with foil. An oversized straw is sticking out. A voice from beyond says: you may begin at any time. Signal you are finished by putting your straw on the napkin.
I know there’s a load of soft blueberry yogurt in the bucket. My psyche is already in disarray. I’ve just called a potential date that refuses to drive. He wears a shirt that says: one less car. One less bottle of Johnny Walker is more likely. The two events make me rebellious. I was bullied into choosing the yogurt and now I’m sure as hell not going to sip a gallon and a half of it. I can leave.
In the depth of my psyche I hear Sister Francisca from my convent school: You’re about to ruin a serious study because, young lady, even though God has allowed you to have three children, you are still not a serious person.
This place is for people like Walter Hudson, the morbidly obese who eat two dozen eggs at a clip. My throat seals shut. I feel the kind of insulin rush that produces cold sweat. I think of the previous day with nostalgia. Twenty-four hours ago, I was just sitting around, almost carefree. Eventually, I fill my mouth to the limit, sprint to the bathroom and spit out. All done, I tell Ms. Square Nails. She administers the after dinner questionnaire.
How did you feel before you ate?
Disappointed in myself.
You must choose from anxious, depressed, calm or happy.
We go through the litany. She tells me to return the next day at 12:30.
The following day…Oh, my God, anybody, help me. In the velvet-enclosed cell, a banquet spread the likes of which I’ve only seen on the AMC Channel in Sampson and Delilah or Henry the VIII. Excess. A cubic foot of rice, a yard of overdone frozen fish fillets, a trough of iceberg lettuce, a small mountain of Oreo cookies – frozen string beans, a sheet cake with blue icing (when did I choose the sheet cake?). The voice says: Eat as much as you wish. Signal you are through by placing your fork on your napkin.
I stash eight Oreos in one pocket, a fistful of undressed lettuce in the other. Four fish fillets wrapped in the napkin go in the change pocket of my purse. I can carry it all safely to the receptacle outside the building. I wait five minutes so as not to arouse suspicion.
Sorry about the fish, says the attendant. My limbs are rubbery with relief. She might not know. I choose “neutral” for some of the responses.
One p.m. tomorrow, she says sweetly.
Next day, three gallons of Breyers chocolate ice cream cut in inch squares and piled in a perfect pyramid are in a bowl large enough to bathe a six-month-old child. My subsequent behavior is possibly exactly what’s expected of a demented overweight person. I’m probably a textbook case. Without dawdling, I make it to the bathroom with 12 squares of Chocolate ice cream with hardly a stain in my handbag.
When we’re done with the questionnaire, the woman extends her hand. “We’ll be doing follow ups,” she says. Something about her tone creeps me out.
“I won’t be around,” I answer. “I’m moving.”
“Oh, you won’t need to come in,” she says. “We are after all a psychodynamic facility. We can track you in many ways.”
The next morning, as I’m getting ready to leave for work, my handbag feels very heavy. I look inside and neatly nestled in the generous inside pocket are a dozen fish fillets.