Thursday, March 29th, 2007
When we asked Abby Ellin for an excerpt from her debut book
FINALLY, I’D HAD ENOUGH of America and its discontents and decided to spend my junior year far, far away from Ithaca and all of its pain. As Suzanne Vale, the main character in Carrie Fisher’s “Postcards from the Edge” puts it while sitting in a bombed out bus stop in Jerusalem: “I wanted to go somewhere where my insides finally matched my outsides.” I, too, longed to be somewhere where the chaos around me mirrored the chaos inside me. I chose to do a semester at the University of Tel Aviv, which seemed far enough away.
I met my best friend for the year, Sue, on the plane to Israel. We were both from the Boston area, both aspiring hippies, and had both been to the Dylan/Dead show at Foxboro Stadium over the summer. After spending 14 hours in a space the size of a soup can, we felt as if we knew each other and decided to room together.
As soon as we reached the dorm, we unpacked our stuff. Clothes, Grateful Dead tapes and other American luxuries—Maxi Pads, Marlboro Lights—were strewn about the room. Sue was the neater of us, and it took her twice as long to fold her clothes and store them in the faux Formica shelves. I vaguely tossed mine in: T-shirts on the top shelf, shorts and long pants on the next, aerobic-wear on the bottom. Bras, socks, bathing suits and underwear went in one drawer; beneath them I placed my shoes. I threw mismatched sheets on my bed, which was really a narrow foam mattress on a rickety wooden frame. Yet I took a sort of pleasure in this; this was, after all, my year to “rough it.” Giving up futons and queen-sized beds seemed the least I can do, a hardship I should be able to endure.
I unzipped my duffel bag and removed the cardboard box hidden in a tangle of sheets and blankets. I peered over at Sue, who was methodically stacking tapes on a shelf. Quickly, I tore open the box and took out an oval-shaped white scale, which I’d bought especially for this trip.
I didn’t know what to tell Sue, how to explain the addition to our room; I tried to slip it beneath my bed and hoped she wouldn’t notice. But I wasn’t quick enough.
“You brought a scale?” she said, a pair of Janis Ian and Suzanne Vega tapes in each hand.
My face flushed, and I folded the box in fours. “Well, uh, you always hear about people gaining weight here, so I decided to, you know, make sure I don’t. You can use it whenever you want,” I added.
She said, “You don’t look like the type of person who would care about her weight.”
I glanced down at my ensemble. I was sheathed in a wraparound skirt decorated with psychedelic peacocks, a flowing embroidered shirt, and Birkenstocks. A crystal the size of a small egg dangled from my neck, and my hair gave new meaning to the term “windblown.”
“Well,” she said, turning back to her stacking. “At least airport security didn’t think it was a bomb.”
We laughed, even though I didn’t find it particularly funny.
Over the next few months our room became increasingly popular once people learned about my scale. The women shyly asked if they could slip in and borrow it; the men jumped on it irreverently, as if it were a trampoline, which caused me terrible anxiety. What if they broke a spring? Eventually, I cleared space for it in the closet so people wouldn’t come in and abuse it when I wasn’t around. I set it down beside my crunchy sandals and Chinese slippers, but I always felt its presence: taunting me, glaring, alive.
Two months later, in October, Sue and I headed to Europe for our Fall Break. Our friends planned exotic trips—Istanbul, Kenya, Tangiers—but we were tired of sun and Semites. We wanted culture, art, images of mountains and cowbells. With this in mind, we made reservations for a three-week trek: arrive in Amsterdam, depart from Rome, take the middle part as it comes. We bought Eurail passes, validated our student ID’s, took out hundreds of dollars in traveler’s cheques. I briefly considered bringing the scale, but ultimately vetoed that idea. Yes, Sue was supportive and understanding, listening when I moaned about how fat I was, turning away when I stepped on the scale, but I didn’t want to push it.
By the time we reached Italy we had been traveling for nearly three weeks. I’d eaten space cakes in Amsterdam, potato pancakes in Bonne, chocolate bars everywhere in-between. In Florence, I gave up.
“I’m fat,” I said, collapsing outside of the Uffizzi. We had just finished admiring David, who, in his marble splendor, moved me more than any man I’d ever known. For a moment while gazing up at him I could almost forget about the flab bulging over my belt buckle, about the three cannolis I’d inhaled the previous evening. For that moment, I could almost enjoy traveling. “I can tell I’ve gained weight. My clothes are tight.”
“You didn’t,” Sue said calmly, although I knew her nerves were shot. “But maybe you should stop eating so much chocolate and eat more normal meals.”
I examined a postcard of David, a view from his backside. His shoulder muscles ripple like a body-builder’s, his ass rock-hard. “Don’t watch what I eat,” I mumbled, running my finger along his calves.
“How can I not? We’re together all the time.”
I looked at Sue, my best friend, the person stuck dealing with my food problem. In a sense, she was a guinea pig: the way things went with her would determine how open I was with others. I never talked about the food thing with anyone; it was mine. “Maybe we should split up,” I said, though that’s not what I meant. What I really wanted to say is, “Let’s go back to Israel where it’s safe and I know what type of food I can eat and I can weigh myself whenever I want.”
“Don’t be stupid,” Sue said, and she was right. Instead, we reached a kind of compromise: she would ask me if I really wanted that extra cannoli, and I’d promise not to get mad. We spent the remainder of the trip talking like this.
When we returned to Tel Aviv I stepped on the scale. I was down two pounds.
AT THE END OF THE SEMESTER Sue went home to the University of Vermont, but I stayed in the Holyland. I’d planned it this way from the start: the minute I saw the silver wings of El Al glittering in the sunlight I knew I’d be gone at least a year, and I was right. I was a writer, after all; clearly, I needed to Experience Life. My goal was to take the semester off to find myself (or, ideally, someone else.) I’m sure part of me hoped I’d be less obsessive about food, as if distance and space might somehow transform me.
My mother was convinced I’d fall in love with some Israeli soldier and spend the rest of my days on a Kibbutz in the Negev. This was unlikely; Israeli men, with their machismo, arrogance, and eagerness to voice unsolicited opinions, enraged me. Once, at the beach a few months earlier, I said in Hebrew, “I’m hungry.” And the man to my left—an Israeli I’d never met before –felt free to say, “Well, you don’t need to eat anything.”
Then my mother came to visit me in the old country, a move precipitated, I believed, by her desire to take me home with her. I wasn’t budging. Instead, we traveled through Israel and Egypt, and by the end of the week she’d given up any notion of my returning to the states and bought me a backpack.
When her trip came to an end, I plied her with things to take home, keeping only items of utmost importance: my Walkman, my Dead tapes, my journal. And of course, the scale, which I buried deep in the pit of my pack. It was at least three times heavier then it should have been, but this didn’t bother me. I felt comfortable with it, safe, as if an old friend were traveling alongside me.
Backpack in tow, I ended up in Eilat, a nomad-populated resort town in the south of Israel. I refused to take any money from my parents; this was, after all, my year of independence. My plan was to work a few months, save some cash, then let the wind blow me where it would. I saw myself as the proverbial Rolling Stone, beholden to nothing but a scale.
After a few days I landed a job at the King Solomon, the only four-star resort in town and the place where Sylvester Stallone allegedly stayed while filming Rambo 2. The manager took pity on me, the Bohemian American Jew; he hired me even though I had no working papers and no experience. He gave me a room, too, in the employee housing complex, but it was musty and cramped and my roommate, who worked in housecleaning, fell asleep at sundown and I didn’t get started until after dark. I decided to store my backpack and scale under the bed and spend the rest of my time at the beach.
I worked as a waitress in the hotel lobby, plying international guests with cafe au lait and tuna platters and carrot cake with non-dairy whipped topping. At the end of the evening shift the waitresses were allowed to order as much food as we wanted. And so we did: shrimp salads with creamy dressing and strawberry shortcake and as much pie as we could handle. There was always a girl (that’s what we were called, “girls”) who’d pinch her stomach and groan, “Oh, I shouldn’t be eating like this at such a late hour.” Everyone would agree, but no one stopped eating. I considered telling the other girls about my scale, offering it to them, but I never did. I was afraid they’d think I was just another American with misplaced values, and frankly, I was afraid of the traffic.
After work I’d head to the beach, to the row of tents where my friends lived. We were a veritable United Nations, wanderers from Spain, Argentina, Italy, Germany, Denmark, South Africa, Canada and Brazil. I moved into a tent with a man named Francois, a 28-year-old French Canadian who squeezed oranges and grapefruits for a living. Francois was a health-fanatic: he’d biked all over the world, ate a diet of fruits and vegetables, played volleyball for two hours each day. He espoused Eastern philosophy, claiming a tranquil and balanced existence was the key to inner peace. Sugar, he believed, caused imbalance. “Me, I don’t eat dat stuff,” he said. “It’s no good, evil.”
Every day after work he carried back pounds of fruit in a string sack and we piled them in a pyramid in the rear compartment of the tent. The sweet scent wafted through the tent; I could smell it while I slept, while I dreamt, while we had sex. My fingers were raw from peeling so many.
Besides me, there was one other American at the beach, a Los Angeles-born woman named Pamela who worked as a cake decorator at my hotel. Occasionally Pamela brought bakery leftovers or rejects down to the beach—half-baked cookies, too-sweet pies—cut slices with her pocketknife, and passed the pieces around. Pamela was a recovering anorexic, although she looked normal, even chubby. She had gained fifteen pounds since she’d been in Israel and talked incessantly about getting rid of them. I told her about my scale and together we made a pact: we would work out, watch what we ate, and weigh ourselves three times a week.
And so it went. With clasic anorexic restraint, Pamela consumed less than a thousand calories a day. She ran four miles on the beach, did leg lifts in the sea. Sometimes she lost control and stuffed brownies and cheesecake into her mouth, but when that happened she slipped her middle finger down her throat and got rid of the food. Within a month, she was ten pounds lighter.
I, on the other hand, was a different story. I was a failed anorexic, a failed bulimic; I had mastered the binge but couldn’t perfect the purge. My weight hovered, for the most part, around 140. One day, after a particularly sugar-laden and maniacal food orgy, Pamela led me into the bathroom and offered to teach me to throw up. “Watch me,” she said, leaning over the toilet. She stuck two fingers in her mouth, jiggled them for a minute, then let out a giant “Aaaaagggh.” Brown chunks flew out of her mouth and into the toilet. I looked away. Three minutes later she was done. “Your turn,” she said, dabbing her lips with some toilet paper.
I flushed the toilet. “I can’t do it.”
“Sure you can.” Pamela was very encouraging. “Just do what I did.”
“I’m telling you, I can’t,” I said. “I’ve tried before-” Which was true. I’d spent many an evening scrunched over a toilet bowl, my finger poised in mid-air, desperately trying to rid my body of whatever poisons I’d consumed. I could never do it, though, but I figured I’d make Pamela happy and give it the old college try.
I positioned myself the same way she did and stuck my two fingers so far down my throat they touched my tonsils. I jiggled them for a minute or two, feeling partially digested chocolate rising in my throat, struggling to move upward and out. I jiggled and wiggled and made the same “aaaaagggh” sound. “Good!” Pamela coached. “Keep going!” And I did, but just as the food hit my esophagus I let out a whooping cough and pulled my fingers out. Everything rushed back, like a pinball.
“I don’t think this is going to work,” I coughed, my throat scratchy and raw.
“Wow,” Pamela said, handing me a towel. “I’ve never met anyone who can’t do it.” She brightened. “But if you keep trying I’m sure you can.”
A few weeks later, I quit my job at the hotel and moved all my stuff into Pamela’s room. I spent more time with Francois, until I tired of him and his citrus. Soon, I took off, by myself, for Egypt; when I returned three weeks later Francois was gone, the tent was gone, and I was ready to leave Israel for good. Pamela weighed herself one last time before I took the scale away. 110.
Buy Teenage Waistland here.
Visit Abby Ellin’s Web site here.