[TW: This short story discusses eating disorders and body dysmorphia]
The place was just as Melanie remembered it, but maybe slightly kitschier. The first thing she saw were the gold plastic dragons perched over the doorway. Even from across the street, she could tell the white paint on their ferocious canines was chipped and stained. The smell of stale grease and sesame oil brought her back to times of laughter and gluttony, soul-baring over chicken fried rice and fortune-cookie-optimism, the euphoric embrace of steaming wonton soup on a snowy night. Even in the din of a Michigan winter evening, the peeling paint under the garish, flickering sign reading “CHINA PALA E” burned Melanie’s eyes and made her feel as if she were a freshman again, a world of independence and opportunity unfurling in front of her. It made her sick.
Waiting for the light at the crosswalk to change, Melanie yanked on the shoulder of the shimmery scoop-necked sweater she bought for the occasion. She wanted to make sure that her newly-unearthed collarbones popped. Melanie had spent an hour in front of the mirror before she left, picking and prodding the two inches of exposed midriff between the edge of the sweater and her dark-wash skinny jeans. She loved the way they accentuated her round but firm backside and highlighted the way her ankles winnowed away from her calves. The shoes were a hard choice. As a middle-schooler, her mother had forbade her from wearing the clunky, patent leather combat boots she had pored over in issues of Seventeen Magazine. “ABSOLUTELYNOT,” she would frantically whisper in the shoe section of Macy’s during many depressing and humiliating back-to-school shopping trips, her eyes bugged and darting. “They make your legs look like elephant legs. Like you have cankles. You just can’t wear shoes like that.” She would always say the “cankles” part under her breath, in the way one would say “drag queen” at an Evangelical potluck. Melanie would sigh as she unlaced them, and sulked with her mother to the plus-sized juniors section.
Today, Melanie owned three pairs of the coveted combat boots but laced them up with the same uncertainty as her almost seventh-grader self. Standing in the mirror, Melanie analyzed with mathematic precision the distance from the top of her shoe to the bottom of her calf, pulling and tucking her jeans until her newfound lack of cankles was glaring. She had tried on about five belts until she had found the one that made her waist look the tiniest. After she had undone the painfully tight braids she left in overnight to give her dark-chocolate hair perfect, beachy waves and had redone her makeup three or four times, Melanie felt as ready as she ever would be to meet Callie and Tara at China Palace.
Staring at the dragon’s dead, black eyes, Melanie yearned for a way out. The girls had been planning this dinner for months. Or, at least, Callie had been planning this dinner for months. This wasn’t the first time Callie had wanted to hang out since she transferred, but Melanie had always come up with a crafty excuse to avoid meeting up with her. Some weekends she had to cram for a test, other afternoons she had to train for the half-marathon she had signed up for at the end of this summer. But every time Melanie thwarted seeing Callie with feigned regrets, Callie would just pick another date to drive up to campus. Maybe this time Melanie could have a dental emergency that required immediate attention or pretend that she had forgot to mention a newly-discovered allergy to MSG that would make eating at China Palace impossible. But Melanie knew Callie would see past this excuse like she saw past all of her other pathetic excuses. She would offer to drive Melanie to the dentist’s office or suggest they hit the burrito joint next door. With a squint of her bronze-flecked blue eyes, Callie could see everything about Melanie. She knew Melanie was avoiding her and knew that Melanie would never be brave enough to say it. Just like freshman year, when Melanie would lie about eating her Cheez-Its or going to class when she was really locked in her dorm room researching gastric bypass surgery, Callie would poke and prod until she got the truth she wanted. Callie was inescapable.
The sharp ding of her phone jolted Melanie from her scheming. Callie’s text read, “WHERE ARE YOUUUUU????” By this time, Melanie had crossed the street and was steps away from China Palace’s crimson wooden door. Before Melanie could finish typing a reply, Callie messaged again: “Were waiting by the front and we’re STARVING.” Melanie braced herself as she grasped the blackish-gold handle. She hadn’t seen Callie in over six months and, more importantly, Callie hadn’t seen her. Even though Melanie had become exhaustively active on social media since her weight loss, constantly posting selfies in revealing one-piece bathing suits during the summer and showing off her hard-earned thigh gap in leggings once the weather had turned cold, Melanie supposed she was eager for Callie to really see her, in the flesh, and for Callie to feel jealous and small. Deep down, deeper than Melanie could perceive, she was afraid Callie wouldn’t even recognize her.
She opened the door and immediately spotted Callie and Tara taking up the entire bench by the hostess stand with their unrelentingly wide asses. Callie’s belly ring popped out from under her shimmery sweater, obscuring the waistband of her billowing silk pants. Tara was aloof, as always, with her black sweatshirt and leggings doing nothing to conceal her rotund stomach and monstrous thighs. Callie’s eyes widened when she saw Melanie walk in. Melanie winced in embarrassment but faked a smile and hugged the people who used to be her only friends, wishing that she had run the second she saw the restaurant’s decrepit exterior.
“OHMYGOD I MISSED YOU SOSO MUCH!” Callie squealed as she enveloped Melanie with her chubby arms, her heaving breasts practically suffocating her.
“I missed you too,” Melanie said, almost a whisper. Tara smiled in the corner, greeting Melanie with a hesitant yet sincere embrace.
“Let’s get going, I’m fucking starving,” Callie said, gesturing to the hostess with the number three. The hostess glared at Callie and barked “Booth. In the Corner,” before looking away.
China Palace had been the girls’ favorite restaurant during freshman year; they’d been weekly regulars. The staff had always sneered at the girls’ lengthy orders and pursed their lips at their loud laughter, but the food was so good that they couldn’t help but return. The staff’s judgment never bothered Callie, but Melanie and Tara always blushed as waiters slapped down their bills and took two trips to clear their plates. All three girls hated their large state school with its rowdy football games and pervasive Greek Life. But Melanie and Tara persevered, determined to get a degree from one of the top computer science programs in the country. Callie, artistic and brilliant, was desperate to transfer and had been accepted at a liberal arts college an hour away. At the time, Melanie had been as depressed as ever and begged Callie not to leave.
Melanie and Callie were closer with each other than Tara was with either of them. Even though Callie and Tara were roommates, Callie and Melanie did everything together. They spent nights wandering around campus, smoking joints behind trees and drinking slurpees on the steps of the language arts building. They did each other’s makeup and popped each other’s pimples before dates that always went well for Callie but fizzled for Melanie. “You only like douchebags,” Callie would point out. She was partially right. Melanie pined over sculpted frat boys while Callie stole the hearts of philosophy majors and thoughtful baristas.
But what everyone knew, particularly Melanie, was that Callie’s luck with men (and the occasional woman) wasn’t a product of her preference, but of the radiant, seductive confidence Callie exuded from every pore. She wore crop-tops despite her protruding belly and showed off the tattoos spiraling up her chunky limbs. A winking spider, flourishes of peonies and naked aliens smirked from her olive skin. Meanwhile, Melanie hated her plump tummy, the rolls on her back, only wearing dark clothes and long-sleeved shirts, even in the height of summer. Constantly failing one fad diet after the next, Melanie’s self-hatred was as intrinsic and apparent as the mole on her right cheek.
Tara, perpetually shoved into the corner during Melanie and Callie’s emphatic discussions about the politics of reality TV or cute boys in their French Lit seminar, still shared a lot with Melanie. When Callie was busy, Melanie and Tara would spend hours primping for frat parties that they would never get into and then spend the nights on weight loss blogs, reading stories of people who dropped a hundred pounds in six months eating nothing but steamed salmon and asparagus or reading articles that compared the efficacy of SlimFast to Weight Watchers. While Callie guffawed at diets, workout plans, and motivational speakers, Melanie and Tara indulged in fantasies of dramatic weight loss, being unrecognizable to the sorority girls who sneered at them and the boys who snickered as they walked past. To them, weight loss was their beacon of hope, an escape hatch to a life filled with anonymity and disappointment.
One time, Callie had come back to her dorm to find Melanie and Tara doing sit-ups on the floor, their sweat making the entire room humid.
“Melanie! Stop indoctrinating Tara with your diet shit. You two have been fat your whole lives. You might as well accept it and accept the fact that no one gives a shit,” Callie had said. “Like, I wear cute clothes and have good sex and you guys could too if you weren’t putting your lives on hold until you reached some kind of ideal female form that you’re never going to reach. Instead of stinking up my dorm room, go to the gym. No one is going to stare at you. ”
This made Melanie laugh and Tara blush.
“Yeah yeah yeah, some of us want a social life that exists outside of lesbian coffee shops, Cal,” Melanie had said.
Melanie watched in glee as Callie’s eyebrows converged at her retort. But as soon as Callie’s offense surfaced, it melted back into her cherubic face. A placid smile soon emerged.
“You ladies want China Palace?”
Melanie remembered how excited she had been to demolish her plate of Kung Pao chicken that night and how she fought her sore, spasming stomach muscles to eat every last peanut on the plate. That feeling felt as far away as modeling combat boots for her mother did. The girls slid into the booth covered by yellowing plastic with its slipshod duct tape repairs. Melanie glanced at the faded watercolor tapestry on the wall. There was a NO SMOKING sign at every table, despite smoking in restaurants having been outlawed at least a decade before the girls had ever come to college.
“You got a new piercing,” Melanie remarked as she nodded at the purple ring in Callie’s left nostril. As Callie ranted about the piercing studio and showed off her new tattoos, Melanie passively nodded as she analyzed Callie’s every feature. In addition to the septum ring she’d had since high school, Callie had an eyebrow ring and at least seven piercings per ear, each adorned with a different dangling fixture. Melanie always hated Callie’s exuberance, which she perceived to be a desperate cry for attention. How could Callie make herself so big, when all Melanie ever wanted to be was small?
Since transferring, Callie had shaved off her purple hair, which infuriated Melanie. What a pathetic attention whore. Callie had also gotten some new tattoos on the inside of her arm, one of a dripping, decaying rose and the other of a skull with vines slithering from its eyes. Gross and unoriginal, Melanie thought. Tattoos are for people who need to make themselves feel special.
“You like them? Joey and I got this one together,” Callie gabbed, gesturing at the rose.
Joey was the lanky, menthol-smoking boyfriend Callie had acquired within a month of starting her new school. They had met at a Young Anarchists of America meeting. He had chided Callie for wearing Nikes (which are apparently made in sweatshops) to which she replied that they were purchased at the Salvation Army, and that thrifting reduces the environmental impact of consumerism. This rendered Joey speechless, so Callie asked him on a date. True love, Melanie thought.
Joey was on probation for LSD possession and had a knife tattooed on his upper lip. “I know he’s kinda weird, but I’m telling you guys he’s sooooooo sweet. And, like, hot,” gushed Callie.
Melanie stared blankly as Tara nodded along.
“You should totally come to one of his slam poetry readings. He’s so brilliant. Listening to his poetry is like…it’s like watching the Mona Lisa get pissed on. I’m obsessed with it.”
Somewhere around Callie’s generous assessment of Joey’s penis size, Melanie tuned her out and fixated on the paper placemat before her. A Chinese zodiac chart lay in its center, complete with pictures and descriptions of each year’s respective animal. 1993 was the year of the chicken. “Bold and hardworking,” read the Asian-style font below the cartoon rooster. 1994 was the dog, loyal and friendly. Next was 1995, the year in which all three girls were born. Melanie’s eyes widened as she saw the smiling cartoon pig perched above the description which read “Gracious and Courageous.”
I’m so much better than this, Melanie thought. I don’t fucking belong here.
A waitress who had served the girls many times before marched to the table and growled, “Whatcha want,” jolting Melanie back to the present moment.
As Callie and Tara rattled off their usual litany of appetizers and entrees, Melanie scoured the feebly-laminated menu for something that wasn’t deep-fried or dripping in oil.
“Tofu and Vegetable soup, please. No noodles.”
The waitress scribbled the order without looking up and sped to the kitchen.
“We’re celebrating, Mel,” squeaked Tara. “You can indulge a bit. We haven’t seen Callie since last year.”
Melanie frowned at the table, fingering a chip in its laminate.
“Anyway, what have you been up to, Mel? You never respond to my texts,” Callie interjected. “You seem to be constantly working out.”
Callie was referring to the daily selfies Melanie posted on her Snapchat in front of weight racks at the university gym or in the mirror at the local spin studio. Melanie always made sure to stuff tissues in her neon sports bra so that sweat stains wouldn’t prevent her from getting the most flattering shot.
“Yeah. I like it. It’s a good way to blow off steam, I guess,” mumbled Melanie
Callie paused. “Sooo…have you been doing anything else? Did you apply for that coding team you always talked about?” she asked.
Callie was talking about the university’s top-ranked computer science team which brought back award upon award each year from nationwide hacking competitions. Membership guaranteed a post-grad internship at Google, Facebook, or some boutique Silicon Valley start-up destined to make billions. Both Melanie and Tara were talented enough to pass the team’s grueling entry exam, but the girls had convinced themselves and each other that the team’s all-male executive board would reject them on sight. Early this year, Tara had decided that the prospect of being unqualified for a coding job after graduation was slightly more terrifying than male rejection. She took the test and made the team, and changed her Facebook profile to a picture of her beaming next to a “Best Code in the Midwest” trophy, double chins rippling from underneath her cornsilk hair. Melanie, on the other hand, could barely keep up with her classes, let alone a rigorous club, now that she spent the majority of her time in the gym or grocery shopping.
“I actually switched my major to Nutrition Sciences. I’m gonna try to shadow a dietician after the half-marathon this summer,” Melanie mumbled.
“Nutrition Sciences…” Callie sounded out the syllables quizzically. “You hate bio,” she said.
“Not anymore, I guess. Biology is no longer the enemy,” Melanie chuckled.
Over tear-tainted tubs of ice cream, Melanie used to sob about her ‘slow metabolism’ and ‘shitty genes.’ Tara assured her that anyone could outplay a bad genetic hand and that one day they would conquer the unruly fat deposits that had been stuck to their thighs, hips, and asses since each of them hit puberty while Callie would roll her eyes.
Her now-tiny ass barely making an indent in the plastic booth, Melanie thought she should have felt victorious. Here she was with her shrunken tummy and snatched jawline, a certified ex-fatty. An annihilator of adipose tissue. But as Callie moved on to a rant about the recent midterm elections, Melanie glared at Tara’s eye-obscuring cheek fat and jiggling forearms. She reminded herself of what could happen if she ever became complacent with her new body.
The only thing that the girls did as a group during freshman year was food. As in food, a verb. The girls languished in food as an activity unto itself, constantly texting each other recipes and watching videos from the Food Network’s Instagram on repeat. Late-night study sessions were spent huddled over capacious pizzas, grease pooling in each piece of pepperoni. Off days were spent prancing from coffee shop to coffee shop in search of the perfect almond croissant. Tara’s weakness was donuts, Callie’s salt-and-pepper potato chips, and Melanie buckled at the sight of a Taco Bell sign. China Palace was simply the lowest common denominator, an amalgam of salt, fat, and crunch they could all agree on.
After each of their collective Sunday binges, Melanie would scurry back to her dorm and dust off the scale beneath her bed. Weighing herself conjured images of the diet clinics to which her mother had dragged her as a child and it made the artificial sweetness of strawberry-flavored meal replacements bubble in her throat like bile. But Melanie always stepped on the scale anyway and always saw a number that would make her knees weak with terror. She’d promise herself that tomorrow would be the day that she’d make a change and the next morning she would skip her 9am Monday lecture to catch the bus to Whole Foods, where she would stock up on brussels sprouts and bone broth, brown rice and cabbage, or whichever foods her fad diet of the week required. When the next weekend rolled around, Melanie would inevitably falter at Callie’s behest and follow the girls to 7/11 for chips and candy and then to China Palace for their weekly feast. On Sunday, Melanie would return to the dreaded scale and clean the rotting, oozing vegetables out of her mini-fridge.
Somewhere between a diarrhea-inducing juice cleanse and a feeble attempt at the Atkins diet the summer after Callie left, Melanie decided she no longer needed Callie or Tara’s friendship. She decided she was going to lose weight once and for all and to do so she must divorce her friends and their gluttonous pastimes. Melanie shopped every doctor within a twenty-mile radius of campus until one of them prescribed her Ephedrine, an amphetamine known for its ability to induce weight loss and heart failure. She bought a membership at a spin studio and stocked up on protein powder and skinless chicken breasts. Between April and August, Melanie had lost sixty pounds and had promised herself she’d never go back.
In the middle of August, Melanie returned home for the first time since her transformation had begun. Her father beamed with pride as her mother reluctantly congratulated her.
“Wow, Mel. I mean, wow. You’ve really done it. After all these years,” she forced out, the corner of her lip twitching with envy.
As a child, Melanie’s mother treated her obesity with frantic desperation, as if it were a debilitating, terminal disorder. Melanie’s first memory of the doctor’s office was of her mom tearing up at the foot of the examination table, the pediatrician patting her shoulder.
“Some kids are just big. The best thing to do is to make sure she’s healthy and happy at any size,” the doctor assured her.
Melanie’s mother did not see this as an adequate response. She consulted pediatric endocrinologists, eating-disorder psychologists, even the occasional sage-wielding naturopath with Melanie in tow, engrossed in her GameBoy as her mother pleaded each doctor to fix her poor, sick daughter. Her mother would come home defeated, Melanie unfazed, her father waiting at the kitchen table with a freshly-baked lasagna.
“There are my beautiful girls!” he would cheer as they walked through the door.
Later on as a middle-schooler, Melanie’s mother would call Melanie into her closet and demanded that Melanie help her zip a too-small dress over her voluptuous back or squeeze into the SPANX she wore every day to work.
“Y’know, I wasn’t like this until I got pregnant with you. For someone your age, there’s just no excuse,” She would remark as Melanie held down her folds.
Back at the restaurant, their food had arrived. Baskets of steaming pork puns, fried sesame balls, and crab wontons filled every inch of the table. Melanie remembered how the pork buns tasted like clouds of barbecue sweetness, how the sesame balls melted on her tongue with their seeds dissolving in the blissfully saccharine bean filling. The wontons were the best, with greasy scallion cream cheese eagerly bursting from the fried shell as if they were begging to be eaten. Melanie gulped and swallowed the saliva that had been welling up in her mouth. NO, she thought. While Callie and Tara beamed at plates of glistening orange chicken and fried rice, Melanie pushed the plate with her egg roll away from her barren soup.
“C’Mon, Mel. It’s one fucking egg roll. It’s not going to kill you.”
Callie was right. Although it had been months since she had so much as looked at anything that was fried, Melanie knew, at least logically, that a singular egg roll would not set her back in any measurable way. But it was forbidden, and it was dangerous, to even entertain the idea. She laughed and said she didn’t want it.
“Bull. Shit. I know you think you’re better than we are now that you wear a size 6 or whatever the fuck, which, by the way, doesn’t make you look any better than you did before, but you can’t tell me you don’t like egg rolls. You love egg rolls,” Callie insisted as Tara smirked.
Fuck you, Melanie thought. She pretended to ignore the insult, and after soaking about six napkins with the egg roll’s grease, she picked it up and raised it to her face. She examined it, imagining the explosive crunch of its fried exterior and quivering at its tantalizing smell. As she salivated, Melanie turned the egg roll over and dunked it in sweet-and-sour sauce with the desperate uncertainty of a high-school boy touching a naked woman for the first time. Melanie took a bite, and all the comfort, pleasure and joy China Palace once meant for her came rushing back.
“There we go!” Callie exclaimed, triumphant.
Seeing Callie’s emboldened smile, Melanie spat the delicious bite into her napkin, slammed a ten dollar bill on the table, and stalked out.
Tara’s eyes widened in disbelief. Callie stood up and screamed, “Melanie! What the fuck is up with you?”
Melanie bolted to the door, the stares of the other patrons boring into her back.
Back at her apartment, which stunk of dirty workout clothes and roasted broccoli, Melanie stripped off her leggings and the sweater, realizing that the price-tag was still intact under its collar. Standing naked in the mirror, Melanie stared at the pockets of her hip bones, the loose skin dangling from her armpits and thighs, her breasts like crumpled socks.
She looked at her kitchen, the food scale next to the stove and jugs of protein powder piling in the recycling bin. In her bathroom, the scale was front and center while bottles of laxatives and green tea metabolism-boosting capsules littered the counter.
Later that night, Melanie lay in bed, eyes burning the ceiling. She tried to fall asleep, but every time she closed her eyes, all she heard was Callie’s laughter, ringing like a bell.
Finance Staff, What The F Magazine