I was eight years old the first time my mother called me fat. I was living with my mother for the summer, as a reward for her being clean and sober. This is the term my grandmother and the social workers used when we went to court, when we signed papers, when we had boring meetings that I napped during: reward. Though I loved my grandmother, I was envious of my friends who had mothers: mothers who baked cake on their birthdays, who brushed their hair before school, who cared if they stayed out past dusk, hiding in the backyard. Before the summer I was eight, I rarely saw my mother, and more than anything else, I remembered her bones: I hugged her often—too tightly, she’d say—and relished in the crisp lines of her hips, the knots of her vertebrae. With months between visits, I sometimes forgot her face, but her bones reassured me she was who she claimed.
The afternoon my mother called me fat started inconsequentially. We were at the gas station buying lunch, and I asked her for a slushie. Lunch was my favorite time of day because with my mother, it was the only meal I came to expect. We hadn’t yet qualified for food stamps, and she was always low on money. The biggest slushie cost one dollar and ninety-nine cents. I whispered this to my mother as the cashier scanned her cigarettes. I said it again, a little louder, when the cashier asked if there was anything else we wanted. “I think the princess wants one,” he tilted his head to the slushie machine and grinned at me. My mother smiled real wide at him and shook her head. No. She handed me our purchases: two bananas, one a little bigger than the other, a honey bun, and her cigarettes. I stared up at her, but she continued smiling at the cashier. She took my free hand and squeezed it, hard. I did not ask for the slushie again.
That summer, I learned many of my mother’s bad habits, and it was years later when I recognized them all as manifestations of an eating disorder. At her apartment, we sat on the back porch to eat. Eating inside was one of the many things my mother hated; she also hated eating in the morning (though not as much as she hated eating at night), eating when it rained, and eating in the company of men. Our meals, though small, were rituals in themselves: she unwrapped the honey bun and used a steak knife to cut it into four quarters. Over the summer months, I learned she ate the honey buns exclusively from one plate: white porcelain, with big pink and purple peonies. As years passed, I realized this plate was also her preferred vessel for snorting painkillers, but that particular summer, she remained clean.
“Precision is important,” she declared, waving the knife in the air. I leaned back a little, and nodded slowly in agreement. She licked a fleck of icing off the tip of the knife. I shivered. I watched gnats circle around us and wanted to eat inside, but said nothing. She caught my eye and explained we had to eat very quickly, so the sugar didn’t attract the bugs. She crammed both quarters of her honey bun into her mouth at once, and I watched icing melt on her bottom lip. At my grandmother’s, we rarely ate sweets, and certainly not for lunch. I was still daydreaming about the slushie as I absentmindedly picked up a banana and bit into it. Here, I committed my error: I bit into the bigger banana, longer by a few inches. When I took another bite, my mother snatched it from my hand.
“That’s mine,” she snapped, and I choked on the mush in my throat. “That was my banana.” My eyes watered and I nodded. My mother squeezed the banana in her fist and we both watched the banana leak out of the peel, congealing between her fingers. I closed my eyes and felt my stomach twist. When I opened them, I watched my mother pick up the remaining food and throw it away.
When my grandmother called a few hours later and asked how I was doing, I did not know what to say. Come get me, I wanted to beg, please, drive over here and pick me up. But I saw my mother pacing in the kitchen, arms wrapped around herself, and when I held my hand over the receiver and blocked out my grandmother’s voice, I could hear my mother’s crying. I missed my grandmother, and I wanted to go home, but more than anything, I wanted my mother to like me.
So I lied. “Everything is so good, grandma,” I said, and I could hear the relief in her voice when she answered.
“You’re eating, right? I am so glad, baby. What are you eating?”
“Oh.” I paused. I was not a good liar. “Um… Soup. Like at your house. And salad.” It was more of a question than a statement, but my grandmother accepted it.
“I’m so glad,” she said again, and we said we loved one another, and hung up.
I walked to the kitchen to tell my mother the good news: grandma thinks we’re fine! I don’t have to go home! We don’t have to tell the court anything is bad! My mother didn’t look up when I walked in the room, and I couldn’t tell if she knew I was there or not. It took me a few seconds to understand her words, mutterings which had been inaudible from across the apartment.
“Fat little bitch,” over and over, a quiet chant. “Fat little bitch.” At first, I was confused: who was fat? Who was a bitch? Eventually, I spoke. “Mom?” She halted in her pacing and when our eyes met, I knew exactly who the fat little bitch was: me. Her face was fluid and quick: surprise, anger, sadness, shame. I ran to her bedroom, slammed the door, and cried on her bed for hours. I’d never been called those words before, and in truth, barely understood what they meant, but I knew they were bad things, words we weren’t allowed to use in school. I knew these words were not rewards.
That night, my mother left without speaking to me. I huddled in blankets on the couch, waiting for her to come home. From the window, I heard fisher cats scream and howl in the distance. Part of the weasel family, fishers are easily mistaken for large house cats or small dogs at first glance. Fishers, I learned in school, often attack porcupines by flipping them onto their backs, clawing open their throats and faces, and eating their soft underbellies. The noises fishers emit are frequently mistaken for babies crying or women screaming. In second grade, we had a park ranger warn us about fishers.
“If you hear them screaming, don’t go outside. Get your parents. They’ll bite you and eat you up, if they get the chance.” I had nightmares for weeks, convinced I heard them howling beneath my window.
That night, my mother brought a slushie home with her. It was bright blue with a long red straw. She sat next to me on the couch and handed me the slushie. I knew it cost one dollar and ninety-nine cents and that was one dollar and ninety nine cents my mother wasn’t going to have to buy lunch tomorrow. The plastic cup felt cold and wet in my hands. “I got this for you,” she said, and I stared into the cold blue mush. Though I was relieved to have her home, I was afraid to meet her eyes. Then, she whispered, “I’m sorry about lunch.” I pressed my face into her bony arm. “I’m sorry I called you fat.”
I nodded and sipped the slushie. It was my favorite flavor, and I smiled up at her as I slurped. I counted three long ones and handed it back to her. “I only wanted a little bit,” I said, and she smiled. “Good girl,” she said. She hugged me, then threw the rest away.
Several weeks later, I went to a pool party at my friend’s house. It was mid-July in Massachusetts, and we hadn’t had rain for a week; everywhere we went, I saw old men with their bellies out, covering the tops of their swim trunks, and babies running naked through sprinklers. My friend, Lindsay, was turning nine. She was tall and broad and a little bit fat.
Everyone was wearing a bathing suit. It was, as the adults kept joking, too hot to wear anything else. I wore a bright pink bikini my mother borrowed from her friend’s daughter, who was eleven, which made me feel extremely sophisticated. It had tiny bows between the cups which hung slightly from my very flat chest. Lindsay came out to the pool in a black one piece, which clung to her stomach. “She looks pregnant,” one of the boys whispered, and all of the kids laughed. We made jokes until Lindsay jumped into the pool with us and everyone got quiet.
“What were you guys talking about?” Lindsay asked, and everybody looked down at our legs beneath the water.
“Whatever,” Lindsay said, and she swam across the pool to her older sisters.
We played for a while longer, and when the burgers were ready, Lindsay’s parents called us up to get our lunch. There were bowls of foods I had never seen before: pasta salad, potato salad, hummus, spinach and artichoke dip. Everyone around me piled their plates high, grabbing food at random: there were no rules. I was terrified. I put two pickles on my plate and watched with wonder as the people around me ate their meals. Lindsay, smiling, slipped in line in front of me and took two burgers from her mother. They both had cheese on them. I was stunned.
“But aren’t you fat?” I said, and as soon as the words left my mouth, I knew I said a very bad thing.
Lindsay’s mother put down the burgers and brought me inside. “Come on,” she said, and as she slid the glass door shut behind us, I waited for her to smack me. Instead, she yelled. I kept my head down and stared at my legs, wondering if my thighs looked fat. After I was silent for a while, she brought me to the phone and told me to call my mother so she could pick me up. I dialed and when my mother answered, Lindsay’s mom snatched the phone from my hands. I bolted to the porch and sat on the steps, covering my stomach with my knees, and cried until Lindsay and her mother came outside. “You need to apologize to my daughter,” she said, but I stayed silent. Half an hour later, when my mother came to pick me up, Lindsay was back at the pool, and her mother was still yelling at me, asking where I learned to talk like that. I knew this was not something I would get a reward for, and I didn’t want Lindsay’s mother to tell the courts where I learned to talk that way.
My mother did not leave the car. She waved at me from the driver’s seat and rolled the window up when I started running down the hill. I left my shirt and shorts at the side of the pool, which made me sad, because that was the only new outfit I got that summer. When I got to the car, Lindsay’s mother yelled after me that maybe that damn junkie shouldn’t have her kid, if she teaches her little brat to talk like that. I didn’t know what a junkie was, but I knew it was a bad thing. I knew it was not a reward. When my mother and I drove away, I saw she was crying.
“I’m sorry she called you a junkie,” I said. My mother shook her head and wiped the snot from her nose with the back of her hand.
“Don’t talk like that anymore.”
“Like what? Like junkie?” The word felt funny on my lips, and I wondered what I was saying.
“No,” she said, taking a corner too wide. “Like fat. Don’t say that anymore, okay?”
The drive back to our apartment was short, but the town changed considerably as we moved east to our neighborhood. At first, we passed big houses with green grass and pools in the backyard, then big condominiums with men who stood in the front, waiting to hand you your mail. My mom said that was a dream of hers, to live in a building where someone was holding a package for you when you came home. A few sharps turns later, and we were in our neighborhood: smaller buildings, smaller yards. My mom pulled into the gas station and told me to wait in the car while she bought another pack of cigarettes. I was hungry, but I did not ask for dinner. Dusk was coming, and I was starting to get anxious, wondering when the fishers would come.