I took the bowl out of the cabinet for my yogurt, paused for a moment, put it back again. I poured a cup of coffee. I didn’t put any food into my pack. I knew what I was doing.
There’s something about moving without eating. Something about making the ask of your body without paying up. It works until it doesn’t: feeling yourself thread motion on the needle of innate energy. Letting the body quiet its signals, resign itself to burn.
Burning is the goal. That or to simply not need.
Once you start, the gnawing disappears and the lightheadedness turns to euphoria. I twisted my earphones in, cranked reggaeton, and ran. It was muddy; it was still raining. I didn’t fall until I was almost all the way back down the hill, on a flat piece of trail near the bottom.
It was a tree root or something. I was less than half a mile from done. I didn’t hear a pop when it happened, but the world veered sickly and shimmered toward darkness. I tried to keep moving and physically couldn’t. I thought I was going to throw up and shit myself at once.
I sat on a tree stump for a few helpless minutes, then staggered back to my feet; I told my legs straight but zig-zagged across the trail, my whole body bent on emptiness and the pain pulsing up from my right ankle. I made it back to the car mud-slicked, still dizzy, and swollen, but mostly intact. And now, I could honestly say I wasn’t hungry.
I laid down to bed with my partner that evening, joking about my beat-up body: a puffed-up ankle, a sebaceous cyst coming in behind my neck.
“Is there anything I can do for you?” she asked me.
“I don’t know — get me a new one,” I said.
“But I like this one,” she responded, pulling herself more tightly towards me.
It was instinctual, the way I didn’t believe her. Immediate. Like translating a learned language into the native.
That’s what she says, but here’s what she means, my brain interpreted.
She means: you’re not what I want — or what anyone wants. That’s obvious. But this is what I know you want to hear.
In the history of my eating disorder, I’ve rolled my ankles literally dozens of times; I’ve had stress fractures, shin splints and plantar fasciitis. For years, I’d be back on my feet the next day, finding a way to work out regardless, terrified of the flesh I’d accumulate with even one day’s stillness.
But in this context, I had to concede to being cared for. She used those words, even, when I came to her house the day I got hurt: “If you’re going to be in a relationship, you’re going to be cared for.”
So I sat on her couch and iced my ankle with a bag of unshelled edamame; I let her wrap me with an ace bandage, careful and slow. She sent a photo of me with my leg up on a pillow to my mother, who replied, “Poor baby.” I was scolded when I tried to do the dishes. We watched Up.
By the next evening, I was well enough to be up and hobbling around the house, such as I could. I took a shower despite my total lack of activity, let clean water run off my body in rivulets. I pulled back the curtain and stepped out and saw myself in the mirror: clownishly hanging belly, small breasts, pressed-together thighs. I saw the jiggle of me as I moved around the bathroom. I tried, consciously, to keep looking, to ignore the screaming impulse to cover myself up.
I spent some time with my head pressed into her lap as she played Hearthstone on her phone, running her free hand back and forth along the small of my back. She ended a match, and I turned to ask her: “Do you genuinely like the way I look?”
“I do,” she said, looking down at me directly, soft and solid. “I do. I think you’re gorgeous.”
It didn’t quite take, but there as nothing for it. So I decided I was going to bake a brioche. It was intentional, a coup: stuff the mouth of the disorder with handcrafted carbs. Build a bread of butter, watch it inflate.
I moped for half an hour or so before I got up and put on my apron to begin pulling the bread together. Flour, yeast, milk; wait a while. Then eggs, more flour, sugar and salt. I traded half the sugar for thick, local honey, ground out the two teaspoons of salt from the grinder of pink Himalayan.
Brioche has to be kneaded for longer than other types of breads. The dough is heavy with fat, making it more difficult to develop gluten. I didn’t sink my hands and arms into it directly, but ramped the stand mixer up from slow to medium, stopping only occasionally to scrape the sides. Ten to thirteen minutes, the recipe specified, until it grows shiny and elastic. The wet mass gradually pulled away from the bowl, eventually slapping around so hard the entire mixer danced on the counter.
The engine was steady under its lime green finish, but it was growing warm. Still, the dough wasn’t done. The evening had progressed through dinnertime into bedtime territory, and my partner was coordinating the nightly dance party she holds for her four-year-old daughter to expel the ends of her energy. They’d moved from Katy Perry to “Let it Go” from Disney’s Frozen. I stood watching in my apron, leaning my arm against the mixer to keep it from vibrating off the table. I was feeding softened butter, tablespoon by tablespoon, into the dough: about thirteen more minutes, the recipe said.
The dough absorbed it slowly, would not be rushed. It took every one of the twenty-six minutes specified, and then some, before it passed the windowpane test. I thought about how different this looked from how I’ve treated my own body, from how I’ve starved and scraped and tried to quiet the hum of myself on broccoli and vinegar; instead, I was steadily and decadently building a soft mass with spoonfuls of fat, giving it the time it demanded. I thought about how much it felt like bringing a woman to orgasm — but not like the times I’d jammed a vibrator against myself, eyes squeezed closed, hoping I could just get there before I had to look at or acknowledge my body.
The warmth beneath my hands felt different, now. Like the opposite of acquiescence. Loving. Substantial. Leisurely. Like later that night, when I pulled back; she’d gotten close too fast, and I wasn’t ready to be done.
I’d set the dough to rest and rise and followed them off to bedtime, read the requisite stories and left the room. Once her daughter was asleep, she came downstairs in the same clothes she’d put on that morning: basketball shorts and a loose-fitting tank top, her overgrown mohawk casually slicked down. I asked her if she was going to take a shower, and she said yes. Then I asked her if I could fuck her first.
When we’d been crushed together on the couch earlier, she’d said, “You know, I feel the same way sometimes. Like, don’t you want a real girl? One who shaves and wears makeup and dresses?”
But I couldn’t imagine someone who could make me want as thickly and instantly as her — the way she makes me water with just a look or the brush of her fingertips. The way sometimes I sit on the couch across from her and watch her small movements; the arches of her feet pressed together on the ottoman, feminine in spite of the hairy legs they connect to; the pale curve of her thighs when her gym shorts ride up. Almondine eyes that betray her under the close-cropped hair and glasses. And then, in her bed, spread apart, falling back — the gentle heft of her. The honey of her dripping when I split her open: a real girl, alright. A woman.
And so I believed her that night when she said it, when she repeated it over and over, her head thrown back, her mouth in a perfect O as I rode her. Or when she paused over my belly on her way down, leaned back to look at all of me; the way she groaned when she got there: “You’re so sexy. You’re gorgeous.”
I felt the truth of it rise in me and bubble. And then I went downstairs to keep working the dough.
Jamie Cattanach is a full-time freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. Her work has been featured in media outlets like CNBC, HuffPost, Ms. Magazine and SELF as well as journals like DMQ Review, Nashville Review, Sweet: A Literary Confection and others.