I’ve asked Cathy out to coffee because I’m writing a book about Diets, and I’ve noticed that she’s recently lost 14 pounds but doesn’t look any better. Her face I mean—her eyes still pinch together in worry, as if to squeeze the correct way to live from between her eyebrows.
“My doctor says my cholesterol has gone down” she brags, and takes a sip of her coffee. As she pulls a bunch of celery from her purse, leaves on, she tells me that she’s been on The Diet for 3 months, that she is getting through it by sheer domination of will. She bites into a stalk of celery and tears a chunk away indelicately, crunching on the fibrous threads in a way that bears little resemblance to eating. She offers me a stick and I accept. My new food mentality is to put food out of my mind.
“So the diet is…you can’t enjoy any food?” I ask, my pen poised on the blank sheet of my notebook.
“Right. I’m trying to undo all of society’s conditioning that food should taste good.”
“And you’ve lost weight?”
“Every time I eat a salt free Wassa cracker with low-fat, no-garlic hummus, I lose something.” She breathes loudly through her nose, chewing on a glob of celery cud with her mouth open. I have known Cathy a long time, she and my mother sort of grew up together. Her brand of benign hopelessness was a big part of our household when I was young.
“How much do you want to lose?” I ask carefully.
“I’m going on a cruise in March. I want to be Kate Moss by then.” She turns her head towards the window, gazing wistfully out. The lines under her eyes have doubled and tripled. She starts to drift off, her chin dipping towards the applique heart on her purple sweatshirt.
“Cathy, are you OK?” I ask.
“Wake me up when I’m a size five,” she says, and sets her forehead against the window. I clear my throat.
“So you’ll enjoy yourself on the cruise? You’ll eat the buffet?” She jumps awake and turns towards me. The pupils of her eyes move in to touch. Little drops of exasperated sweat leap from her head.
“ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!?” she croaks. “One bagel with cream cheese and I’ll bloat up like Shamu! All my hard work for nothing!”
“So after the cruise then?”
“Well, no, after the cruise I’m going to a destination wedding.”
“Mine. I’m hoping to meet the man of my dreams on the cruise.” With a dreamy smile Cathy clutches her hands together under her chin. Her naked egg eyes suddenly grow lashes as vaporous hearts rise and float around her in a corona of misguided lust. She can’t control herself, the thought of Mr. Right sends her right back to 1989.
“And what if you don’t find him?” I ask.
“Well, then, I’ll find a pan of brownies that loves me.” When I was a kid, I didn’t know that love was so hard; I thought Cathy’s perennial failure was just a side effect of her desperation, a cruel catch 22. Then I turned 30.
“Cathy, you seem tired, are you sure you’re alright?” The doom of cloud cover begins to thin outside, and the sun lights up Cathy’s face through the window. It is pale and crinkled and hollow. Cathy is old now, and she has spent her whole life yearning. She has spent her whole life believing that she could become a myth if she could just gain some control and change herself.
“I’m fine,” she whispers. “I just need to eat a little protein.”
Ellen Donnelly is a writer, performer and video artist currently living in Seattle, Washington. She is an MFA candidate at the University of Washington Bothell. “Aack” is from her thesis collection, entitled Bag of Flesh.