I was hungry when I was 18 and 19. I had just moved to New York City for the first time, had chosen a college there only because it would give me a place to live in Manhattan. I chose the school also because a friend of one of my friends wrote letters about how much fun she was having there.
I moved in in the middle of the school year, in January with thick heavy snow and dark grey skies. I slipped into Manhattan and into this school with nobody noticing, no fanfare, just an unpacking of boxes, the placing of books onto shelves. And then I was there, absorbed into the silence.
Two weeks before my 15-year-old sister swallowed a bottle of pills upstairs in her bedroom while we were all at home. It happened in the middle of our little marooned family, in our house into which so few ventured. She survived and we were all left just kind of awkwardly looking at each other with no language for this new territory. We basically ignored it. I mean, my parents got her a shrink. The hospital probably suggested it. I don’t think my parents would have thought of that on their own. But as far as what we talked about in the kitchen or at Sunday lunch, nothing changed.
I was glad to get away, or so I thought. Away from the family house I thought I’d soar.
Instead I fought to pretend that the life I actually had in New York City was the one I had imagined.
When my boyfriend called after 11 at night when the rates went down, when he called on the black dial phone that I had had installed in my small room at the end of the corridor, the room I’d been sitting in all evening with the door closed, trying to fill the hours, when he called I pretended whatever I could – that there were people in my life like there were people in his. He liked his life. He liked where he lived, he liked his friends, he liked his record collection, the food he cooked, his ex-girlfriends, his TV shows, his family. He even liked his own writing.
He got up after noon, got high and didn’t eat until night when he’d cook a big rich meal and spend most of the night eating and snacking before falling asleep before dawn. I liked the uniqueness of his habits, so much more interesting than getting up in the morning and having breakfast.
I still got up in the morning, but I stopped eating breakfast. And if I tried hard I could skip lunch too. I did not want to eat. Eating seemed a horribly banal weakness. I didn’t need to do it.
There was a tiny Apple supermarket downstairs from the skyscraper in which my small cement block room was suspended. I liked having my own neighborhood supermarket. there was something adult about it. It was one of the things my boyfriend had introduced me to – going supermarket shopping without parents.
So this would be my supermarket. Its 4 or 5 short narrow cramped and dusty aisles. But I must not spend money. What a waste. I set an amount. $5. That should be enough for the week. I bought a box of Grape Nuts. Jeffrey had them in his messy New Haven studio. We ate them sometimes late at night. I’d never had snacks late at night before. I’d never had cereal any time except at breakfast and not even then. I should be able to get by on a bowl of Grape Nuts a day. I always broke down, ran to the Chop Full O’Nuts for a doughnut.
I read up on calories. You were supposed to consume about 2,000 a day. I tried hard not to go over 1,000. I weighed myself. 127. 120. 115. 110. The charts all said I should weigh much more, but I scoffed. They were wrong. How huge I would be if I followed their direction.
On Wednesday nights I had something to do. On Wednesday nights I dressed up as if I had a date. I felt pretty in my long red corduroy skirt that flared over the tops of my leather books, pretty in the white blouse embroidered with bright flowers. For once I had a reason to get on the subway and I moved with purpose, enjoying how I’d learned to navigate the underground warren to Grand Central, then up the escalator and across the street.
My father would be waiting in his club, upstairs at the bar. He’d be sitting in an armchair in a suit that had originally been such good quality that its age now didn’t matter. His head would be back against the high back of his chair, eyes half closed, a scotch and soda in his hand.
His eyes light up when he sees me. I know I make a good picture and savor the moment of success. There is a buoyancy to our first few sentences that I work to sustain as we move to a table weighed down with heavy linen, silverware and glasses.
My father asks a question or two – what are you studying, what are you reading – in his Hungarian accent with its innate respect for words like “study,” “professors,” “interests.” None of these words apply to me. I am not “studying.” I don't have "interests." I am panicking because my boyfriend wants to fuck other girls. I have a paper due tomorrow that I will scribble in the morning. I spend too much time alone and silent in an empty room, fighting off a monster who leers at me, threatening, “You are nothing. You are not an artist. You are not a writer.”
After two or three chipper sentences I fall flat and lose my voice somewhere in the folds of the heavy linen. My father picks up the slack, shaking open the huge menu with satisfaction and telling me how he has organized his office, charting the prices of commodities on special charts with magnets and magic markers. Every Wednesday night I eat with abandon. Roast beef. Potatoes. Rolls and butter. And something huge for dessert. I can have anything I want.