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Excerpts from Chapter One
I have neither a therapist’s diagnosis nor any scientific literature to support the following claim, and I can’t back it up with more than a cursory level of detail. So you’re just going to have to go with me on this: I was a baby bulimic.
Maybe not baby — toddler bulimic is more like it, though I didn’t so much toddle as wobble, given the roundness of my expanding form. I was a plump infant and was on my way to becoming an even plumper child, a ravenous machine determined to devour anything in its sights. My parents would later tell me, my friends and anyone else willing to listen that they’d never seen a kid eat the way I ate or react the way I reacted whenever I was denied more food. What I did in those circumstances was throw up.
I have no independent memory of this. But according to my mother, it began when I was about 18 months old. It went on for no more than a year. And I’d congratulate myself here for stopping such an evidently compulsive behavior without the benefit of an intervention or the ability to read a self-help book except that I wasn’t so much stopping as pausing. But I’m getting ahead of the story.
A hamburger dinner sounded the first alarm. My mother had cooked and served me one big burger, which would be enough for most carnivores still in diapers. I polished it off and pleaded for a second. So she cooked and served me another big burger, confident that I’d never get through it. It was the last time she underestimated my appetite.
The way Mom told the tale, I plowed through that second burger as quickly as I had the first. Then I looked up from my highchair with lips covered in hamburger juice, a chin flecked with hamburger bun and hamburger ecstasy in my wide brown eyes. I started banging my balled little fists on the highchair’s tray.
I wanted a third.
Mom thought about giving it to me. She was tempted. For her it was a point of pride to cook and serve more food than anybody could eat, and the normal course of things was to shove food at people, not to withhold it.
But she looked at me then, with my balloon cheeks and ham-hock legs, and thought: Enough. No way. He can’t fit in another six ounces of ground chuck. He shouldn’t fit in another six ounces of ground chuck. A third burger isn’t good mothering. A third burger is child abuse.
I cried. I cried so hard that my face turned the color of a vine-ripened tomato and my breathing grew labored and a pitiful strangled noise escaped my lips, along with something else. Up came the remnants of Burger No. 2, and up came the remnants of Burger No. 1. Mom figured she had witnessed an unusually histrionic tantrum with an unusually messy aftermath. But I’ve always wondered, in retrospect and not entirely in jest, if what she had witnessed was the beginning of a cunning strategy, an intuitive design for gluttonous living. Maybe I was making room for more burger. Look, Ma, empty stomach!
It became a pattern. No fourth cookie? I threw up. No mid-afternoon meal between lunch and dinner? Same deal. I had a bizarre facility for it, and Mom had a sponge or paper towels at hand whenever she was about to disappoint me.
As I grew older and developed more dexterity and stealth and more say, I could and did work around Mom, opening a cupboard or pantry door when neither she nor anyone else was looking, or furtively shuttling some of the contents of a sibling’s trick-or-treat bag into my own, which always emptied out more quickly.
I wasn’t merely fond of candy bars. I was fascinated by them and determined to catalog them in my head, where I kept an ever-shifting, continually updated list of the best of them, ranked in order of preference. Snickers always beat out 3 Musketeers, which didn’t have the benefit of nuts. Baby Ruth beat out Snickers, because it had even more nuts. But nuts weren’t crucial: one of my greatest joys was the KitKat bar, and I couldn’t imagine any geometry more perfect than the parallel lines of its chocolate-covered sections. I couldn’t imagine any color more beautiful than the iridescent orange of the wrapping for a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup.
And the sweetest sound in the world? The most gorgeous music?
The bells of a Good Humor truck.
Every summer evening, just before sundown, one of these trucks would come tinkling down Oak Avenue, a narrow road near the shoreline in Madison, Conn., northeast of New Haven, where my father’s parents owned an extremely modest summer house. I knew the options by heart. There was the Strawberry Shortcake bar, coated with sweet nibs and striped with pink and white. There was the cone with vanilla ice cream and a semi-hard hood of nut-sprinkled chocolate over that. An argument in its favor was the way the eating of it had discrete chapters: hood first, ice cream second, lower half of the cone after that.
And then there was the Candy Center Crunch bar, which was vanilla ice cream in a crackling chocolate shell, with an additional, concealed element, a bit of buried treasure. When you got to the middle of the bar, you bumped up against a hard slab of nearly frozen dark chocolate, clumped around the wooden stick. You had to chisel away at it in focused bites, so that chunks didn’t tumble to the ground — lost, wasted.
The eating of the Candy Center Crunch bar lasted longest of all. Almost without fail, that’s the bar I got.
I remember almost everything about my childhood in terms of food — in terms of favorite foods, to be more accurate, or even favorite parts of favorite foods.
Age 6: homemade chocolate sauce over Breyers vanilla ice cream. Mom used squares of semisweet chocolate, along with butter and milk, and as the chocolate melted in a saucepan in the galley kitchen, it perfumed the entire first floor of our Cape Cod in northern White Plains, a 45-minute train ride from Manhattan, where Dad worked. Mom made chocolate sauce every Sunday night as a special weekend treat, and my older brother, Mark, my younger brother, Harry, and I got to eat our bowls of ice cream (three scoops each) and chocolate sauce in front of the TV set while watching Mutual of Omaha’s ‘‘Wild Kingdom.’’ I always volunteered to carry the empty bowls back into the kitchen, because Mark’s and Harry’s were never entirely empty. There was always some neglected sauce hardening — like fudge! — at the bottom. I would sweep it up with a finger en route to the dishwasher.
Age 7: I discovered quiche. Quiche Lorraine. Mom baked it in the upper of the double ovens on the south wall of the eat-in kitchen in our Tudor on Soundview Avenue in a section of White Plains that made believe it was part of ritzier Scarsdale, which it bordered. The quiche needed to cool for about 45 minutes before it could be eaten. I knew because I’d often kept count.
Age 8: lamb chops. Mom served them to us for dinner at the table in the Soundview kitchen about once every three weeks. I ate not just the meat but also the curls and strips of fat at the edges of the meat. Mark and Harry winced when I did that and merely picked at their own chops, wishing aloud that it were steak night or hamburger night or pork-chop night. We were a meaty family, the chops, strips, patties and roasts filling a separate freezer in the garage. Wherever we lived, we had a separate freezer in the garage, a testament to Dad’s belief, instilled in him by his Italian-immigrant parents, that an abundance of food — or, even better, a superabundance of food — was the best measure of a family’s security in the world. Mom absorbed that thinking from him and made sure that wherever we lived, we had a separate freezer in the garage. She was mystified by, and censorious of, families who didn’t. How could they be sure to have enough kinds and cuts of meat on hand, enough varieties of ice cream to choose from? Was that really any way to live?
All of us could eat, but Dad and I could eat the most. I took after him that way.
During the Soundview years, he frequently took Mark, Harry and me into the city to watch the Yankees play baseball, the Knicks play basketball or the Rangers play hockey. Mark and Harry loved those games. I loved the peanuts, pretzels, hot dogs and ice-cream bars with which vendors roamed the aisles, looking for takers.
‘‘You’re getting another hot dog?’’ Dad would ask when he saw me waving down one of these vendors. He wouldn’t be opposed — just surprised. Mark and Harry would still be on their first hot dogs. Dad too. The game seemed to distract them.
I was only a year and a half younger than Mark. Harry trailed me by just two and a half years. And as in so many families with children of the same sex clustered so closely together, the three of us defined ourselves — and were defined by Mom and Dad — in relation to one another.
Mark was the charismatic and confident one, most at ease with his peers. Had there been fraternities in elementary school, he would have pledged the most desirable one and might well have ended up its president. He was also the agile one, adept at just about any sport Dad foisted upon us.
He ate steadily but boringly: plain bagels with butter, cheeseburgers with ketchup but no other adornments, slices of cheese pizza instead of the pizza with sausage, peppers and onion that Mom and Dad preferred. I ate both kinds of pizza and I ate Big Macs and I ate pumpernickel bagels with cream cheese. And for every bagel Mark ate, I ate a bagel and a half.
Harry had an extraordinary ability to focus on one task or thought to the exclusion of all others, and could spend whole days putting together the most intricate models, whole weekends building the most ambitious backyard forts. As an eater, too, he fixated on a single object of interest and lost sight of much else. For a while his fixation was French fries, and if Dad was working late and Mom took us to Howard Johnson’s or Friendly, he would get two orders of fries for dinner, then a third for dessert. He’d still be eating fries while I’d be eating the most rococo sundae or banana split on the menu. But if none of his special foods were around, he merely picked at what was in front of him, not so much disappointed as uninterested, never complaining of hunger or, as best as I could tell, experiencing it.
I was the one who got the best report cards and who preferred mental to physical activities, in part because I was so uncoordinated — the klutz, as Mom often called me.
‘‘How’s my big klutz?’’ she would say — tenderly — as she mussed my hair and investigated a bruise on my cheek that I had received from losing my balance on the way up the stairs and falling.
‘‘Watch it, klutz!’’ she would yell — testily — when I plopped an empty plate on the counter in a way that made a plate already there plummet to the floor and shatter. ‘‘How can you be so klutzy?’’
I didn’t know, but I suspected it had something to do with my weight. That was the most obvious physical difference between Mark and me, between me and Harry. By the time I was 6, I was bigger than Mark: not just taller, but heavier, by a good 10 to 12 pounds, only a few of them attributable to the then-slight discrepancy in our heights. I wore pants with a waist size two to three inches greater than his, and I sometimes had to be taken to the husky section of boys’ departments to find them. Husky: I knew that wasn’t a good thing, a flattering thing. Other kids made sure of that.
They joked that my initials, F.B., stood for Fat Boy. Mom told me to ignore it, but there were moments when she herself reminded me that I was larger than I should be. Frustrated by my failure to fend off an older girl at school who regularly taunted and shoved me until I gave her my lunch money, Mom said, ‘‘Next time, why don’t you just sit on her?’’ Mom had never seen her but made the safe assumption that I outweighed her.
Whenever I went to the doctor for a routine checkup, I hurried off the scale, trying my best not to hear him tell Mom, yet again, that I was more than a few pounds above the recommended weight for a child of my size. I could see, in the Christmas-card pictures that Mom took every year, how much fuller my cheeks were than Mark’s or Harry’s, how much broader my waist was, and I knew that in one of these pictures, I was holding Adelle — the last of us, born four years after Harry — because I had volunteered to, figuring that it was a way of obscuring the whole middle stretch of my body.
I wasn’t obese. I didn’t prompt stares or gasps. I was just chubby, and sometimes quite chubby, with a hunger that threatened to make matters worse and a gnawing, deepening self-consciousness that Mom picked up on and that she decided she might have a solution to.
Mom was a sucker for fad diets. Like Dad she was always heavier than she wanted to be, though her range was smaller — she’d be, at any given moment, between 5 and 15 pounds over her goal weight — and her resolve to do something about it was more frequently renewed.
She did some diet that required the consumption of a half-grapefruit at a half-dozen intervals during the day — it didn’t work, as I recall, but it certainly kept her safe from scurvy. There was a popcorn diet, and for a while the sounds that most frequently escaped the kitchen were the vacuum-like whirring of an air popper and the crack-ping-crack of the kernels. My mother believed that somewhere out there was a holy grail of weight loss, and she would be damned if she wasn’t going to find it.
But the diet I remember best, because I joined her on it, was Dr. Atkins’s low-carbohydrate diet. People who became wise to it only in the 1990s tend to forget that it made its initial splash back in the early 1970s, which was when Mom and I first gave it a whirl. Here was Dr. Atkins, saying that someone with an appetite that wouldn’t be tamed — an appetite like mine — didn’t have to tame it. He or she just had to channel it in the right direction, away from carbohydrates.
Of course I had never heard the word ‘‘carbohydrate’’ before, but I was thrilled by all the consonants and syllables in it. To me they meant that something terribly scientific — something nutritionally profound — was at hand. I interrupted whatever latest Hardy Boys mystery I was plowing through to crack open ‘‘Dr. Atkins’s Diet Revolution,’’ which Mom had bought in hardcover, anxious to get her hands on it, convinced it was a keeper. I read about blood-sugar levels and these chemicals called ketones and this charmed metabolic state in which you began to generate them or expel them or swirl in them or something along those lines. I didn’t exactly understand it but knew that my goal was to achieve this state, called ‘‘ketosis.’’ Ketosis was my preadolescent nirvana. It was what I wished for: ketosis, along with a new five-speed bicycle.
The Atkins diet prohibited certain things I loved, like pretzels and ice cream, but it let me have as much as I wanted of other things I also loved, like cheddar-cheese omelets with pork sausage at breakfast or hamburger patties — three of them if that was my desire, so long as I dispensed with the bun — at dinner. It allowed snacks like hunks of cheddar and roll-ups of turkey breast and Swiss cheese. I could even dip the roll-ups in mayonnaise and not be undermining the Atkins formula. According to Atkins, it was important to stay sated, because any empty crevasse of stomach was nothing but a welcome mat for a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. So I left no crevasse unfilled. And I felt relieved — liberated. Silencing taunts and getting into smaller pants wouldn’t mean going hungry.
For lunch on most days I had tuna salad. Mom tried to make it seem more special and eventful by presenting it in geometrically interesting and colorful ways. She used the largest dinner plate she could find. She covered the plate with several overlapping leaves of iceberg lettuce. She molded the tuna salad — always Bumble Bee solid white tuna, never chunk light, never Chicken of the Sea — into three large scoops, which she put over the lettuce, within a ring of cherry tomatoes. Three scoops looked prettier than one or two. Besides, there wasn’t any doubt I would be able to finish that many.
‘‘Aren’t you going to have some?’’ I would ask.
‘‘Maybe later,’’ she’d say, and then I’d hear the crunch-whoosh of the metal peel coming off another bright pink can of Tab, the worst diet cola ever made, the diet cola Mom never betrayed, her diet cola, its distance from sweetness and its metallic taste a way of patting herself on the back. When it came to beverages, was anyone more virtuous and penitential than she? Tab was her rosary, and she said it as many as eight times a day.
I drank Tab on Atkins. I drank Fresca too, and sugar-free iced tea of various kinds. I was concerned less with my choice and range of beverages than with the little paper strips in the medicine cabinet of the bathroom off my parents’ bedroom. The strips went along with the Atkins diet, and they were clustered in a tiny, cylindrical container, the way toothpicks might be.
In the morning, in the late afternoon and just before bedtime, I would slide or shimmy one of the strips from the jar, hold it in my left hand and get ready to pee. Then I’d pass the strip through the stream of urine and wait to see if it changed color. If it changed color, Mom had told me, the diet was working. If it changed color, I was in ketosis, and I was melting the fat away.
It didn’t change color on the second day. Or the third. But on the fourth, it did, going from white to a pinkish purple. And after just a few more days, I noticed a loosening in my pants. A tightening in my stomach. I was shrinking every second!
I stayed on Atkins for close to three weeks, losing something like seven pounds: enough to land me on the slender side of stocky. Then . . . well, Mom hadn’t really worked that out. The idea, I suppose, was that I’d be so encouraged by the change in my weight that I’d safeguard it with less gluttonous behavior, and I’d revisit Atkins for a tune-up from time to time.
But Atkins hadn’t been so easy to pull off, not with so many others at the dinner table eating different, less monochromatic meals. Not with the occasional naysayer outside the family questioning the wisdom of such a restrictive fad diet for an eight-year-old and saying I’d just grow out of my weight. And not with Grandma Bruni around.
At one point during the diet we went to see her. Except for the summer months, she and Grandpa lived in White Plains, just a ten-minute drive from us. Mom ushered me, Mark, Harry, and Adelle, just a baby then, into Grandma’s kitchen, where Grandma had a platter stacked high with hunks of fried dough—frits, she called them. The word, rhyming with treats, was an abbreviation of fritti, which in Italian meant “fried things.” Grandma served frits with nearby piles of sugar, which you dragged them through. They weren’t Atkins-approved, so I didn’t reach for one.
It took Grandma all of two seconds to notice.
“What’s the matter for you?” she asked in her thickly accented, preposition-challenged English.
“It’s fine, Ma,” said Mom, who addressed Grandma as if Grandma were her own mother. Grandma wouldn’t have it any other way.
“He’s not eating!” Grandma bellowed. That was a shock in and of itself, on top of which it was offensive. Not lunging for and mooning over whatever fried, baked, boiled, or broiled offering Grandma put before you was a violation of the unspoken covenant between her and anyone she cared about.
Mom and I held our ground, neither of us eating frits. Grandma glared at us and banged pots and dishes and utensils loudly on the counter and complimented Mark and Harry more than usual on their own consumption.
“You love Grandma’s frits?” she checked with them.
“Then you love your Grandma!” she said, throwing another big glare at Mom, and then a small one at me, whom she blamed only partly.
To her thinking, Mom and I had done the equivalent of turning our faces away when she went to kiss us. We’d resisted the most heartfelt gesture she could make. We’d denied her the form of expression at which she was most fluent.