I saw the sign for the Cara Cara oranges as I strolled through Central Market last Wednesday, picking up a bulb of fennel and a few stalks of celery for the pork ragu I had planned for later in the week. Five pounds for five dollars. A buck a pound. I picked out three oranges, weighing each in my hand to determine juiciness, before wrapping them in a bag and tossing it in my cart.
My Thursdays begin before dawn and lately I haven’t been getting home until much later in the afternoon. My Thursdays are my Fridays and my body knows it. As if on cue, my muscles go limp once I’m home on Thursday afternoon. Flopping on the sofa with just a hint of drama, I kick off my shoes and feel the drop of adrenaline snake through my veins. That invisible force that keeps me moving forward through all my classes promptly exits, stage left, and I’m a slug.
A body in motion tends to stay in motion unless acted on by an outside force.
Sofa = outside force.
Over the past month I’ve had a strong craving for citrus on Thursday afternoons. Vitamin C deficiency? With no oranges or grapefruit in the house, I tear open a pack of Emergen-C and mix the powder into a glass of water. It’s refreshing and quenching, but not quite satisfying. It’s happened enough on Thursdays that I pay attention now.
A decade ago, I faithfully followed the Atkins diet. It’s surprisingly healthy–not the bacon and eggs diet that the news likes to paint it as, but mostly vegetables, protein and fat. Fruit was prohibited, especially in the early stages. More than the crusty bread or bowl of pasta, it was fruit I craved the most. The crisp-tart-juicy crunch of a fresh apple. The soft yield of a ripe honeydew melon, giving way to a wave of sweetness. A just-right Bosc pear with a slim knob of cheddar. And the citrus–grapefruit and oranges, in all their varieties. It didn’t seem right to abolish all this natural fruity goodness, but I’m a rule-follower. Years passed without me ever biting into an apple or pear.
The springtime of eighth grade was when I began bringing a single navel orange in a thin, brown paper sack to lunch everyday. Ever since my best friend had unceremoniously disowned me earlier that year, I dreaded lunch time. I’d enter the cafeteria, scan the room for an empty seat, ideally far away from my ex-friend and her new, drill team squad. Someone would usually welcome me over and I’d sit, pull out my orange and start to dig my fingernails into its bumpy skin. Oranges were the perfect foil for a lonely lunch break. It took a good amount of time and focus to peel off the thick skin of the fruit and then, the careful stripping away of the papery membrane beneath. Once the white pith was removed, the sectioning began. I’d section as I ate, elbows perched on the table, holding the remaining orange in one hand, nonchalantly slipping the sections in my mouth with the other. If I timed it right, it would take the entire lunch period to fully peel and eat my orange.
I can’t believe all you eat for lunch is one orange! a classmate wrote in my yearbook that June.
Rule #3: Let them be astonished at your discipline.
The bag of Cara Cara oranges sat on the kitchen counter, untouched. It was Thursday evening and I was already in pajama pants and fuzzy socks. I looked at the oranges and felt the familiar craving for citrus, right on schedule. I pulled one from the bag, held it in my hand and contemplated how to eat it. Cut into neat wedges and torn from the skin with my teeth? Or the more primal, skin-ripping, oil-squirting method I used as a teenager?
My fingers dug deeply into the skin–so deeply that I punctured the delicate flesh underneath. I kept on, though, splitting and ripping orange peel, until the brilliant rubied-flesh of the fruit was fully exposed. The Cara Caras seemed more fragile than a traditional navel orange, so I gave up trying to neatly section the fruit and instead, shoved the jagged pieces, dripping with juice, into my mouth.
A waver of guilt, leftover from my Atkins days. Disobeying the rules. A flashback from junior high. The safe silence of me and my orange.
Fingers, sticky, messy, covered with pith and pulp. Unkempt.
My best friend in seventh grade, Kathy, had a kitchen full of illicit goodies. Cases of Coke and Dr. Pepper, boxes of Milky Way candy bars, multipacks of Cheetos, Fritos and Lays to drop into lunch sacks and always, a large, brown, waxed cardboard box filled with old-fashioned donuts from the day-old bakery across the street from Bowlero Lanes.
My own family’s paucity of comparable snacks made Kathy’s stash all the more beguiling.
My favorite after-school snack at Kathy’s was one of those old-fashioned donuts and a tall glass of whole milk. By this time, skim milk was all my mother would buy and the thick, rich whole milk tasted like sin and goodness. The very best of the worst. But it was the crispy crunch of the outer crust of the donuts that I loved the most. The sugar glaze, spread and nestled into uneven crags. The cake-y insides, not as sweet as the rest, but soft and welcoming. Sometimes my teeth ached in response.
Later in seventh grade, Kathy and I shared a paper route. Dutifully mounting the heavy canvas bags of carefully folded Tacoma New Tribunes on our Schwinn Varsities, we rode through our neck of the woods, tossing papers on porches and stuffing others in narrow boxes at the end of long, gravel driveways each evening. It was a good job for a thirteen year old. My paper route paid for my first pair of red-striped Adidas Superstar sneakers and my bright orange Schwinn ten-speed I named Nigel.
And on Sunday mornings we ate donuts.
Not the slightly stale, old-fashioned donuts from Kathy’s kitchen, but fresh, hot, raised and glazed donuts from the Original House of Donuts.
Our route crept through our sleepy suburban neighborhood and always emptied out right before Gravelly Lake Drive, where the traffic got busy. The Original House of Donuts, with its iconic A-frame shape and unmistakable bouquet of yeasty delights sat on a quiet corner of Gravelly Lake Drive and would lure us in like a cat to catnip. After delivering our hefty load of Sunday papers at the crack of dawn, our appetites were primed and ready. We’d shake out a few quarters and dimes on the counter and pick and choose our favorites. Maybe a cinnamon twist or a simple chocolate-glazed? Maple bars were always good or is today the day we splurge for the pink frosted with sprinkles?
With our bikes perched on kickstands, we’d sit on the curb outside and inhale our sweet reward before cycling back to our respective houses and burrow back into our beds.
I moved away from my hometown in my early twenties. Donuts loosened their grip on me, partly due to my ever-increasing litany of food rules, but mostly because all the grocery store varieties and Krispy Kreme versions were sorely lacking. If I was going to bother having a donut, it might as well be the best.
Growing up and having a couple kids brought with it frequent trips into nostalgia. Usually once a year, my daughter’s gymnastic schedule took us to Lakewood for a meet, a mere five minutes from the Original House of Donuts on Gravelly Lake Drive. Extolling the virtues of the finest donuts in the world, I’d insist we stop in and fill a pink box with a dozen or so. Once, I brought a box in for the gymnasts to share after competing. Most of the girls–all preteens or just beyond–gazed sadly at the selection and shook their heads no, thank you.
I recognized that gaze. Longing. Resolve.
It was just last month that I took a Friday to travel down to Tacoma to visit my new great-nephew and my sister, Karen. The rain was insistent and cold, the freeway a constant blur of gray spray. Like a homing pigeon following its instinct, I took the Lakewood exit and dropped into my old neighborhood. I’m always startled by the change–how this once bustling place I spent my life growing up in now seems like a ghost of its former self. I turned onto Gravelly Lake Drive and saw the familiar red neon “donuts” sign beckoning down the block. Pulling into the parking lot, I exhaled and sat in my car for a few minutes, surveying what used to be everything I knew. The red-brick building of the bank my parents used, remembering the silver coins my mother would drop in my palm after cashing her checks at the drive-through window. The shoe store next door, with its giant “Shoeland” markee, now a vacant skeleton of a business, the sign disappearing decades ago. Across the street, a flat, freshly razed lot where the vacuum cleaner repair shop used to sit. The beauty parlor, demolished and scraped clean as if it never existed.
Inside, the warm, familiar scent of yeast and sugar. My Sunday mornings, bottled up in one whiff of that perfume.
I choose four pastries–a cinnamon twist, a chocolate glazed, a maple bar and one filled with Bavarian cream. I paused, as I always do, as I paid the counter clerk and debated whether or not to regale her with tales of my Sunday morning paper route and what this shop had meant to my formative years in this town. As I always do, I took my change and left with a simple “thank you.”
Back in my car, windows streaked with raindrops, I pulled out the cinnamon twist, brushing the shards of sugar from my lap. I took one bite and set it down. That’s enough, a voice told me. I paused and closed my eyes and felt my breath. I picked the twist up again and took another bite. And another. I sat in my Prius and finished the entire thing.
Rule #17: Never, ever eat an entire donut.
Little victories. Sweet victories.
FISH AND CHIPS
I sat in the therapist’s office and silently judged her. Probably fifteen or more years older than I, slim and conservatively well-dressed, she seemed more cold than warm. I had found her listing on the back page of the Seattle Weekly, advertising counseling for eating disorders. Her last name–Erlandson–seemed strongly Scandinavian and thereby trustworthy to me. Although I was newly married and years beyond the most extreme of my anorexia, my anxiety over food had skyrocketed. Body dysmorphia cast a dark, looming shadow over every important relationship in my life. Sometimes, I still resorted to hundreds of frantic leg lifts behind the bedroom door.
What you see is not always what you get.
This therapist and I worked together for several months, meeting once a week or so. I was in my late twenties and portrayed a pretty picture of tangible success–good, interesting career, stylish and relatively slender. But as soon as I opened my mouth, a cavalcade of jumbled emotions tumbled out. We talked about food and the hold it had on me. We talked about food and the power I gave it as I freely abdicated my own power away. We talked about food until I hated talking about food anymore and insisted we stop. When we stopped talking about food, she led me through a guided meditation, the vivid images of which have stayed with me throughout all these years.
What scares you the most? she asks me. Eating, I tell her. Eating what? she presses me. I stop in my tracks, overwhelmed at the list of things I’m too afraid to eat.
She sends me on my way with an assignment. That evening, I am to choose something I’ve forbidden myself to never eat and eat it. Just do it. No rules.
For the rest of the day, my breath is shallow and a thick ball of nerves sets up shop in my belly. The assignment hangs over my head, dark and forboding. I could lie, I think to myself.
I hate lying. I choose fish and chips.
I choose an Ivar’s Fish and Chips where I won’t run into anyone I know. Sitting in the parking lot, I watch as families and singles go in, order, sit at the tables inside, seeming to enjoy their food. I am in awe. It seems like too much. I fantasize about leaving and going to the gym instead. Finally, I get out of my car and go inside. The young girl at the counter seems friendly and not judgmental at all.
Three piece fish and chips to go, please. Tartar sauce? Okay, sure.
Rule #22: Never eat in your car. It is gross and gluttonous and looks like you have no control.
I sat in my car and took out the small cardboard tray that held my assignment. It smelled like failure and despair. Hot grease and crispy, fried things.
Rule #12: Never eat anything deep fried.
I draw the first piece of fish to my lips, hot and steaming. I nibble. I stop and put it down. There, that’s enough. I let it cool a bit, then take another bite. The next piece I dip in the tartar sauce. I pick up a french fry and eat it. How long has it been since I’ve eaten a french fry? Years. A decade, maybe. I finish eating and crumple the bag and take it outside to the trash at the restaurant. I drive home with my windows open, airing out any evidence of my indiscretion. I feel sick to my stomach and full of shame and self-loathing.
Baby steps, my therapist consoles me as I report back. It gets better, she says.
My Thursdays are my Fridays and my body knows it. With three yoga classes taught and under my belt, I had just finished my last physical therapy appointment. The sun was out after a sprinkling of snow the night before. From my therapist’s house, I can see Puget Sound and hear the distant horn of a ferry boat crossing from Whidbey Island. I had forgotten my little bag of nuts I carry in my car to keep my blood sugar and hunger in check when I don’t have time to eat. My stomach rumbled and growled in response to the six hours since my last meal.
I turned right instead of left and headed down the hill towards the ferry terminal. An Ivar’s Fish and Chips sits at the bottom of the hill.
The sun was shining, but the air was full of ice and frost and the driftwood still speckled with spots of snow nestled in their nooks and crannies. I took my order of fish and chips to my car and parked in a space right in front of a glistening water view. I pulled out the familiar cardboard tray and gazed at the pieces of fish, still hot from the fryer. Funny, they don’t look that powerful. I glanced up and saw a few hearty souls, bundled up to their ears, briskly walking the picturesque waterfront. For a fleeting instant, I felt the familiar shame and embarrassment of eating in public.
See rules #3, 12 and 22.
I finish my lunch, satiated and content. The bag and a few leftover, soggy fries, tossed in the garbage can at the end of the beach. I breathe in the salty, frigid air and take a short walk, my exposed calves in my yoga tights stinging from the cold. I snap a photo or two, always and forever in awe of the natural beauty I live so close to.
Back in my car, heater on blast, I brush a few crumbs from my t-shirt before backing out and heading home. I look down again and notice the word, printed in white capital letters, emblazoned across my chest: