By Scott F. Parker
I was sixteen and skinny, and I’d never been skinny before. And I was happy, and I hadn’t been happy in a long time. I was happy because I was skinny, and I was skinny because a year before I’d decided to lose a few pounds and one thing had led to another until there I was: skinny, happy, and headed to the gym for two hours of cardio.
Sunrise Saturday, week after week, sunrise Sunday, I was in my element. Get to the gym early and I could politely ignore the thirty-minute-per-machine rule and spend a full hour watching the calorie counter click higher on the elliptical after half-hour stints on the more demanding stair and rowing machines. But get to the gym too early, I knew from experience, and there would be nothing to do but sit and shiver on a metal bench down by the river as I hugged myself and waited for someone to unlock the doors.
I never thought about food more than when I wasn’t eating very much of it. Food was the first thing I thought of every morning and the last thing I thought of every night and the main thing I thought of the rest of the day. At night, I dreamed of food. I dreamed of pizza and ice cream and cookies. And when I woke the dreams went on uninterrupted: pizza and ice cream and cookies. But I was lucid; it was a fantasy more than a dream: dressing on my salad, peanut butter on my bread, chocolate in my mouth. I thought of food and everything I wanted to eat and how happy I was and how happy I would remain as long as eating remained something I dreamed about more than something I did because what made me happy was not just being skinny but also having the will to refrain from temptation and remind myself that every skipped snack was power and that power was good and I was happy.
It was true, after all. I was happier than I’d been. Restriction seemed to favor my well-being. I was as sure of that as I’d been sure of anything in my life. My 135-pound body was who I really was, who I was always supposed to be, who I could be, who I had made myself. That 165-pound person I had been the year before, that was someone else, someone I’d done away with, exhumed myself from, someone whose shame and sadness and hurt were better forgotten. Good riddance. The world belonged to me now.
Could it, I wonder now, have been as simple as this: that the more of myself I erased, the less of me there was left to erase? And that the closer I got to non-existence the closer I thought I was getting to non-suffering? Is it possible that the sixteen-year-old boy on the stair machine was trying the only way he knew how to climb his way out of pain?
I tell you that the boy who starved himself and eventually lost thirty-five pounds and saw his ribs stick out and knew that he was responsible for those pounds and for those ribs felt very good about who he was and what he was capable of. I tell you that twenty years later that boy became a man who sometimes catches himself thinking that if life really goes awry for him he’s only the decision to stop eating away from getting it back under control. I tell you that not eating can be, as suicide was to Nietzsche, the consolation that gets him through a dark night.
I tell you that. But I tell him—and how I wish I could tell him—that by no amount of climbing could he have ever escaped himself. There was no lookout point he was approaching, just the grueling, endless slog of one step after another getting him nowhere he wasn’t already. Had he trimmed every ounce of fat from his body, still his pain would have found somewhere in him to live. He could have climbed indefinitely. As long as he was trying to get somewhere he would find that he hadn’t arrived.
At lunch that year, I sat in fast food restaurants day after day chewing on rice cakes and dry salad and coveting the food on my friends’ plates: pizza, fries, chips, cola; whatever there was, they were eating it. I fantasized about eating this way (tasting each bite of donut on my own tongue as they chewed), savoring the exquisite pleasure of self-denial—self-denial, my palate for it had become refined from a year of not eating. Every bite of junk food they took was a credit in my favor. They were skinny like I was skinny, but the similarity was superficial; they knew nothing of what I was capable.
Eventually, though, more than the food itself I began to covet my friends’ disinhibition around food. How thoughtlessly they ate. How naturally. My recurring fantasy of eating as my friends ate was no longer just about tantalizing myself. Part of it was now sincere. I fantasized not only about how a donut would taste but about the mindset of someone who could eat a donut without hesitation or regret. I fantasized about being so careless. I fantasized about somehow unlearning the definition of a calorie and everywhere in my life one was hidden. That clumsy, thoughtless grace of teenage boys I saw all around me, that, I allowed myself to imagine, was happiness. It had been a year of not eating and I was tired. I was so damn tired.
Let me go back to the gym for a moment and look in on myself. I’ve put in my two hours of cardio; an old man has employed old-man humor to caution me against overdoing the sit-ups (“Careful. Too many of those and your pants won’t fit!”); I have admired and been ashamed of my reflection in the mirror approximately ten thousand times; I have wondered abstractly about limits, numbers like 132, 130, 129 arising at my mind’s horizon; and now I am changing into swim trunks that do, in fact, appear to be a size too large. I will swim laps and I will succeed in wearing myself out this day. I will succeed once again in wearing my body into submission. This is happiness as I have come to know happiness: the will triumphing.
It will be years before I know firsthand the deeper happiness of a being aligned with itself. Years before I stop feeling like I’d be better off without me. Years before I can look back and say I was sixteen and I was skinny and I was happy, but I was tired and I was starving.
Scott F. Parker is the author of A Way Home: Oregon Essays and Being on the Oregon Coast. He is the editor of several books, including Conversations with Joan Didion and Conversations with Ken Kesey. Scott’s essays “Off Experience” and “Your Legacy, My Boy” appeared previously in Watershed Review.