Featured Fiction Writer — Spring 2021
Fish You Can Feel Good About
by Elizabeth Steiner
I was supposed to be starting my freshman year of college.
Instead, I was selling my underwear on the Internet.
My high school friends were up in Gainesville and Tallahassee, pickling their livers and pledging sororities and earning useless degrees in communications and hospitality management.
They were turning into cold, well-marbled meat.
I was carving myself out.
I’d shed twenty-three pounds in four months.
I wasn’t exactly “fat” before, just generally overfed. In high school, I had the same cellulite-stippled thighs and muffin-y midsection as the other girls in my friend group. Our feeding habits were mostly to blame. We carpooled together in the mornings, stopping at the Starbucks drive-thru for creamy, calorie-laden frappuccinos before first period. At lunch, we congregated at the campus-adjacent Quiznos, trading morsels of gossip while downing spicy mayo-slathered Baja Chicken Subs.
In my senior portrait, my face is round and puffy with health. Now, I was mostly edges. It turned out I had actual cheekbones beneath all that Chick-Fil-A padding.
As the months passed and my college-bound friends accumulated course credits, hangovers, would-be boyfriends, sorority “big” sisters, and the freshman fifteen, I sloughed off layers of myself. I watched my ribcage emerge. Hip bones and clavicles rise out of evaporating flesh. My breasts, just this side of squeezable before, were now virtually nonexistent: two tubular mosquito bites pointing in due opposite directions.
When I wasn’t trolling adult chatrooms, I surfed medical websites. I learned the names of bones I didn’t even know I had: the manubrium and acromion. The iliac crest, or the flared outer ridge of the hipbone. The xiphoid process, a spongy cluster of cartilage at the base of the sternum. It ossifies into hard bone during adulthood.
I liked to massage my xiphoid process with two fingers.
When my parents cut me off, I started selling underwear.
The situation I had found myself in, my parents believed, was unbecoming of someone of my age, stage, and qualifications: nearly nineteen, AP Scholar with Distinction and National Merit Scholar Semifinalist, salutatorian of my graduating high school class. It was bad enough that Tony Mazzarelli, whose name sounded like a B-movie mobster but actually belonged to a card-carrying AV Club member with a perpetual case of the sniffles, beat me out for the top spot.
I wasn’t where I was supposed to be.
Where I was supposed to be was 1,051 miles away, on a picturesque New England campus, with Tony Mazzarelli of all people (What are the odds! If I’d done what I was supposed to, the grand total of mine and Tony’s shared schooling years would be fourteen), reading Sartre and Foucault and having all the “life-changing” experiences befitting of a first-semester college freshman.
Instead, I was at home, living with my parents in the semi-detached condo they’d traded in for my childhood home (they’d upgraded after I aged out of the school district), squatting in the spare bedroom room that was supposed to be my mom’s new study.
The condo was cheaper than our old place and within walking distance of the third-rate university where my parents were both professors. It even had a pool! Before, we’d had to live out in the mind-melting suburbs.
Back then, my parents had to drive to work. They hated driving. Both had spent time in New York. Living in Southwest Florida was a necessary evil, one birthed by the ultra-competitive, tenure-based academic job market, the same one that allowed them to teach in the same department at the same university (a relative rarity for married couples) and gave them generous health benefits. The new condo was in the city itself, if you could call the third largest city in Florida an actual “city.” (My parents and I did not.)
I wanted out of the condo. I wanted out of the entire state of Florida.
That’s why I started selling underwear.
It wasn’t like I had a lot of other viable employment options.
I was a recent high-school graduate. My only work experience consisted of “research assistant” positions with some of my parents’ colleagues from the university English department.
I applied for a few restaurant jobs within walking distance of the condo, but none of them wanted to take a chance on someone without prior service experience.
When a part-time receptionist position opened at a personal injury law firm, I was actually excited. They had a satellite office within walking distance of my parents’ condo. I’d seen the firm’s ads on TV! Low-budget spots featuring suit-wearing, bat-swinging men standing in front of “The Trop” (a.k.a. Tropicana Field, home of the used-to-be-bad-but-now-apparently-good? Tampa Bay Rays). “We’ll go to bat for you!” was the firm’s slogan.
I knew absolutely nothing about the law. Or, rather, everything I knew about the law came from TV. Based on my Law & Order J.D. and the bare-bones job description, the receptionist gig seemed like a cross between flight attendant and transcriptionist. I envisioned myself tending to mangled-beyond-recognition car accident victims, serving them cool beverages in the waiting room and typing up heartbreaking testimonies to be read at court.
I scored an interview with the bat swingers.
When they learned I wasn’t actually in school, that I was taking a gap year, they were less enthused about my candidacy. They were looking for a “college girl” to fill the position, preferably a “pre-law” major from the local university.
More importantly, they felt I had misled them. Because my parents were university employees, I had my own university email account, which I had used to send in my application. While I indicated in my résumé that I had taken courses at the university (I’d been doing some sort of dual enrollment since my sophomore year of high school), I did not explicitly state that I was not, in fact, a university student.
When the HR person brought this to my attention during the interview, I pled my case. I was good at filing! I could brew a mean cup of coffee! My typing speed was 60 WPM! I even knew my way around Excel!
I didn’t land the job. My “research” experience probably wouldn’t be of much use to the bat swingers, anyway. It consisted mostly of printing out JSTOR articles for my parents’ technophobic colleagues and showing Sol (a.k.a. Dr. Solomon Sokoloff, professor of Early Modern and Renaissance Lit) how to navigate the university’s “byzantine” new email system. He believed it had been designed precisely to baffle older faculty members like himself and bully them into early retirement.
I wasn’t actually interested in pursuing a career in academia. I’d seen what it had done to my parents. Plus, I’d never subject myself to the possibility of ending up in a fly-over state (who could say no to tenure at the University of Kansas—Mediocre Plains?). The only reason I helped out Sol was for my college applications. It was important to show the colleges you were interested in and capable of “serious research.”
Nowadays, the only “research” I did consisted of figuring out where I could buy panties of reasonable quality in bulk. My customers didn’t want any old pair of Hanes. They preferred soft, silken pieces. Girly little confections with ribbons and sequins and expertly placed peep holes.
At first, I ordered my underwear on the Internet (the price of the underwear was included in my fee), but I switched to brick-and-mortar buying when I discovered XTC. The same retail plaza that housed the personal injury law firm’s satellite office was home to XTC Adult Supercenter, a combination adult video/apparel/sex paraphernalia store. They sold lacy thongs in pre-wrapped plastic packages. $5 for a variety 10-pack.
I started out with underwear, but I soon branched out into other services. The Internet was glutted with people hawking their pre-worn undergarments. You couldn’t sell a discharge-sodden G-string for more than a few bucks these days. Plus, wearing the same pair of underwear for days on end made me itchy.
Pictures turned out to be more lucrative.
There was a whole internet subculture of dudes who got off on counting girls’ bones. I’d encountered these types in the chat rooms before. Guys who populated the chat window with missives seeking “anorexic chicks” and “sexy skeletons.”
Clients sent me picture requests (“Do one of just your hip bones,” “How about a black-and-white picture of you doing a backbend, but make sure I can really see your ribs. I want to be able to count each and every one of your ribs,” etc.) and I created custom porn designed to their exact specifications. I didn’t do videos. Not at first. It seemed too close to actual porn.
Why had it taken me so long to monetize my new look? I was an idiot for thinking I could make it big in the oversaturated market of underwear sales.
You had to spend money to make money (or so I had heard), so I bought a profile on a “private modeling” website and stocked up on upmarket finery from XTC. I stored my bustiers, corsets, garter belts, and stockings in a box labeled “Baby Clothes.” It was just a box left over from the move. Whatever baby clothes it may or may not have contained at one point were long gone. My parents weren’t the sentimental type.
I worked hard to establish a stable of regulars. My regulars were mostly guys, though I did have one woman! I liked her a lot, actually. Her name was Renée, and she was a divorced tax accountant from New Jersey. She knew how to use commas properly and gave very sound financial advice (I could write off my XTC purchases as business expenses.). If I ever found myself wanting to visit New York City, she would be happy to host me. She had a spare bedroom in her Bergen condo.
Another reason I liked Renée was because her requests were mostly softball things. Me in my nice new XTC lingerie (Renée helped me pick it out), lying upside down with my head hanging off the bed. A close-up of my hip bones or bony ankles. No backbends or headstands or anything like that.
Some of my other regulars were more demanding than Renée. I wasn’t always able to live up to their expectations. For example, one guy had a thing for ultraflexibility. He wanted me in all sorts of life-and-limb compromising positions. He’d send me pictures from gymnastics and contortionist magazines along with instructions of how to recreate the positions.
“Do this,” one of his more challenging requests read. The attached JPEG showed a leotard-clad girl with her legs pretzeled behind her head, mouth positioned precariously close to her pubic mound. “Except not wearing anything except for lip gloss, not that really shiny stuff you wear sometimes though, it makes you look like u just ate a tub of petrolium (sic) jelly lol”
I checked my impulse to correct his comma splices. One thing I had learned working in sales: the customer is always right!
“I’m not sure I can do that,” I wrote back. Exclamation points were essential. They showed the customer you were an upbeat self-starter. “But I’ll try my best! I can’t promise I’ll be able to bend the laws of physics!”
I re-read my reply after I sent it. Bend the laws of physics? What kind of inane cliché spouter was this work turning me into? I liked to think of myself as immune to making the sorts of linguistic missteps that befell other people. I was, after all, the daughter of two English professors. Was all the time I was spending not in school turning my brain to mush?
The resulting photo looked, well, not at all like the original.
My legs were behind me. Sort of. The real problem was my face. No matter how many times I took the picture, I couldn’t unstitch it from its permanent grimace. I looked less like a sexy underweight gymnast and more like what I imagined the clients of the private-injury law firm would look like in the immediate aftermath of their accidents.
It took me nearly three hours to get a decent picture. I had to keep running back and forth to reset the self-timer on my camera.
The customer paid me, but I never received another photo request from him.
I was genuinely sad when I lost a customer. I worked hard for these people! I felt I had failed them somehow.
It wasn’t just about the money. It started out that way (and I’d saved just shy of $1,600 in the six months or so since I’d started my career in sales), but soon, my interest in the work morphed into something other than money.
With all the overhead costs, upkeep (tax write-offs aside, tweezing, waxing, and bleaching is pretty time consuming), the trips back and forth to XTC Supercenter and the post office (I knew so much about postage rates and media mail at this point, perhaps the post office should hire me), the emails back and forth with customers, dealing with customers and their very specific needs, etc., the job wasn’t exactly cost effective on my part.
I kept at it, though. I liked the feeling, the one I got when I sent a batch of photos or video chatted with a client (by the end of summer, whatever misgivings I had about doing video had vanished.) It was buzzy and electric. It was addicting.
Tony sent me a message in October. I didn’t open it until three weeks after he sent it. I didn’t know about it. We weren’t friends on Facebook, so I didn’t see the message until I was cleaning out the “message requests” section of my inbox.
At that point, I weighed 108.6 pounds. On my five-foot-four frame, I was just at the precipice of underweight.
I hope all is well with you.
Why did people insist upon starting messages with “I hope all is well with you”? Was the assumption that things wouldn’t be well? Where did all this well-wishing come from? Did someone like Tony Mazzarelli, whom I knew in an academic context only (we’d been on the same AP-Plus honors track all through high school) actually wish me well, or was he merely saying so out of formality?
This is kind of awkward, and I’ve gone back and forth many times in my head as to whether I should reach out to you, but I decided, given the circumstances, that I should. I found something I think you should know about. Well, actually, my roommate found it, but he showed it to me. It’s a video. I found it on a particular kind of website.
I don’t know if you’re in some kind of trouble, but I think we should talk. Do you have time this week?
So, he’d found one of my videos on a porn site. No way was I buying the roommate story. I’d considered this very possibility, that a client would post one of my custom videos to the seamier side of the web. I was less interested in which video it was than which one of my clients had posted it. It definitely wasn’t Renée. Maybe the pretzel lover guy?
I closed Tony’s message without replying. I had a 4pm with Renée.
The last time I saw Tony was in June, at the Scholars’ Brunch. The brunch was supposed to be held two days before graduation, but a scheduling glitch at the Greenwood Acres Country Club meant that we nerds descended on the banquet hall more than a week after we donned our caps and gowns.
I still remember the buffet: a mix of “fancy” breakfast food and “classic” All-American fare. Dribbling Eggs Benedict and oily swirls of smoked salmon. Mashed potatoes (a small sign declared them “puréed”) and butter-wilted spears of asparagus. There was even a roast beef station, complete with a heat lamp and man donning a chef’s hat.
The Scholars Brunch was supposed to be a “big deal.” Only the top ten graduating seniors and their parents were invited. The brunch was on a Saturday. My parents had discovered the truth about my college plans (or lack thereof) the Thursday before.
By the time the brunch rolled around, my parents and I had already been through the whole song-and-dance routine: calling the admissions office of the school I had supposedly been accepted to; confirming that yes, indeed, there was no way that I would be packing my bags for New England seeing as I hadn’t actually been accepted; tracking down my high school guidance counselor and confirming I hadn’t sent in a single other college application; my father slamming the door on his way out of house; the sound of the car engine as he peeled out of our garage, no doubt intending to cloister himself in his English department office at the university. His posters of the Brontës, Virginia Woolf, Edna St. Vincent-Millay, and Mary Shelley would never disappoint him in the way that his own flesh-and-blood daughter had.
When I first received the rejection email (and I was rejected outright, not even waitlisted, which was something of a feat considering the fact that not many Floridians applied to this school in the first place), I immediately deleted it. The admissions system had long migrated online (no more “fat envelope” vs. “skinny envelope” guessing), so there was no chance of my parents seeing the email.
When my parents asked after my decision status, I stalled. I hadn’t received anything yet. I’d let them know as soon as I did.
I reached out to the admissions office to see if there had been some sort of mistake. I didn’t want to go to any other school. I couldn’t picture myself at any other schools. I didn’t know yet that Tony Mazzarelli had been accepted early decision to the same school that had rejected me.
At the Scholars’ Brunch, my parents and I were seated with Tony Mazzarelli’s family. It was customary for the valedictorian and salutatorian to sit together. Both of us would make short speeches at the brunch, Tony first, since he was the valedictorian.
My mom wrote my remarks for me. After the whole college debacle, I couldn’t be trusted to formulate coherent sentences.
“Isn’t this so exciting?” Tony’s mom said as we all settled in together at the brunch table. Little name cards dictated where we were supposed to sit. We’d arrived long before Tony’s family (we were perpetually, chronically early.) My father took the opportunity to rearrange the name cards so he wouldn’t have to sit next to me.
“Can you imagine, both of our kids at the same college?” Tony’s mother said. “What are the chances!”
She turned to my mother. A whiff of Mrs. Mazzarelli’s funeral-smelling floral perfume pierced my nostrils. “You must be so proud of Emily.”
“Yes,” my mother said, her mouth sealed in a tight smile. “We are so proud of Emily.”
I looked over at my father. He brushed invisible dirt off the sleeves of his houndstooth jacket, readjusted his wire-frame glasses, and turned his head to look out the broad bay window at the golf course. He hated places like this. Golf—all sports, for that matter!—was an utter waste of time.
“What are you thinking of majoring in, Emily?” Mr. Mazzarelli asked. He’d taken off his blazer and rolled up the sleeves of his button-down shirt, revealing meaty forearms thick with hair. I wondered how someone so robust and hairy could have fathered a creature so newt-like and hairless as Tony. “Tony’s thinking of mechanical engineering,” Mr. Mazzarelli said.
Tony nodded his assent by meeting my eye. My father issued a soft but not entirely inaudible grunt. Of course, “my” spot would be taken by an unimaginative person with no regard for the beauty of the humanities. The last thing the world needed, in my father’s opinion, was more STEM people.
“I’m not sure yet,” I said. “Probably something involving books.”
Tony’s parents laughed. My mother squeezed the edge of the table.
My dad shot me a look. His ultra-magnifying glasses revealed eyes narrowed into angry slits.
“Well, there’s no need to rush,” Mrs. Mazzarelli said. “You still have plenty of time to decide.”
If only she knew the full truth of her words.
Tony’s parents were nice enough, but not the kind of people my own parents would ever interact with apart from these sorts of obligatory functions. Mr. Mazzarelli owned a tiling business for which Mrs. Mazzarelli “kept the books.” My parents’ friends, on the other hand, were other people from the university, faculty members who fancied themselves cultural expats of a sort, exiled to Florida by the unchangeable, ultra-competitive machinations of the academic hiring system.
Tony’s parents were the blameless ones in this whole situation. They were born-and-bred Floridians who didn’t know the difference between Harvard and Williams. The fact that these utterly normal people had birthed a genius like Tony was probably just as baffling to them—if not more baffling—as it was to other people.
Tony, on the other hand (in my father’s opinion, which my mother always went along with by default), was the conniving arch-villain in this story. He was the reason my application was rejected. The admissions office had decided they could only take one person from Tropicana High School, and Tony was it.
The principal rose to the makeshift podium (really just a music stand and a microphone) and began his own remarks. He discussed the etymology of the word “honor.” My dad clucked his tongue at the principal’s mispronunciation of one of the word’s Old French cognates.
The principal knew about my situation, of course, as did the school guidance counselor. They had reassured my parents that no one else would be informed. It was a “private matter,” after all. They (meaning my parents) didn’t want any news of my failure filtering back to their colleagues at the university.
How had I pulled such a thing off?
How had I spent four months convincing my parents that I had been accepted to an elite university when, in fact, I hadn’t?
It wasn’t exactly difficult, especially when you had parents like mine who prided themselves on their lack of technological literacy.
A few days after I received the rejection email, I created my own fake acceptance email using digital school letterhead I whipped up on InDesign. I showed the “acceptance email” to my parents. A few days later, I sent myself an “accepted student’s packet” full of materials I created myself. It wasn’t hard. I was on the yearbook staff. I knew my way around the Adobe Creative Suite.
I told my parents I would take care of all the enrollment details.
My dad gave me his checkbook, and I (ostensibly) used it to put down a deposit. I opened a random bank account and deposited the money there, just so my dad would see that the check had cleared.
For four glorious months, I basked in the post-acceptance glow. We had regular family dinners for the first time in years, my dad giving up the perfect solitude of his English department office to spend time with me. He was revising an article about Muriel Rukeyser, but that could wait. He’d soak up as much family time as possible before I left for college.
I thought many times of telling my parents, but I couldn’t. I also considered applying elsewhere but didn’t.
I let the deadlines to apply to other schools pass and told my guidance counselor I would be taking a gap year. She didn’t ask questions. Ours was a massive suburban public high school. She had a caseload of over 700 students. I was one more name she could cross off her list.
The principal had long since left the podium, and Tony had taken his place. Tony’s speech was basically a word-for-word replay of his valedictory remarks from our graduation ceremony: various run-of-the-mill “inspiring” quotes combined with vacuous truisms on the nature of achievement. He was a science guy, after all.
“If John F. Kennedy wouldn’t mind,” Tony said, “I’d like to tweak his phrasing just a little bit.” This earned some lukewarm tittering from the generous audience. “‘Ask not what your school can do for you, but what you can do for your school.’ I believe the scholars in this room have lived up to this piece of advice through their academic contributions to Tropicana High School.”
As the audience applauded, Tony caught my eye. He raised his prodigious eyebrows (the only apparently hairy thing his father had passed on to him) and worked his mouth into a half smile.
Did Tony know? Had he figured it out, based on my dodgy responses to his questions about the upcoming semester, that I wouldn’t be joining him up North this fall?
As my senior year wound down and my academic obligations dwindled to basically zero (I was taking mostly AP courses, for which I’d had my final exams in May), I started staying up late.
Food became my nighttime companion. During my final weeks of high school, I couldn’t stop stuffing my face.
One night, I downed an entire tub of Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food ice cream. My dad (like most men, according to my mother) had a weakness for frozen desserts. After cramming the last gloppy spoonful past my lips, I ran to the bathroom. I was ashamed I’d stuffed that much high-calorie shit into my mouth.
Getting it up was so easy. I used a combination of pushing on my stomach—hugging myself really, in a self-inflicted Heimlich, just like the one we’d learned in health class—and cramming my fingers down my throat. Tickling the place my tonsils would be if I hadn’t had them removed at eight.
I started with soft things. Yogurt. Jello. Cottage cheese. Worked my way up to solids. Before long, I was eliminating pretty much anything I put in my mouth.
I became addicted to the feeling of emptiness. The way my thighs grew wobbly after enough time spent crouching in front of the toilet bowl. I puked until everything I’d eaten came up and then puked some more. Sometimes I puked until all that was left was bile and water.
I loved downing an entire meal while imagining what it would look like later on. Sludgy and half-digested. Liquefied morsels swirling around the toilet bowl.
After Tony finished his speech, I made a beeline for the roast beef station. I loaded up my plate with two huge bloody slabs, on top of which I put two full servings of Eggs Benedict.
When I returned to the table, my dad took one look at my plate and shook his head.
“My, that’s a lot of protein!” Tony’s mom said with a nervous laugh.
“I’m a growing girl,” I replied.
My dad stood up and left the table.
By the time I’d finished crafting my reply to Tony’s message, it was nearly Thanksgiving.
I’d been busy.
For one, I had my clients. Also, I had to deal with my parents. They’d mandated twice-weekly sessions with a university-affiliated psychologist. (I was still on their health plan, after all.) On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I made the five-minute trek from the new condo to the suite of health offices abutting campus.
At first, I was able to conceal the full extent of my weight loss from the psychologist. She was young, a newbie who had just finished her PhD. She knew I had “eating troubles,” but I lied to her about the extent of them. I wore bulky sweatshirts to all of our sessions.
My parents knew something was up with my food, but their concerns (and the whole reason they’d sent me to the psychologist in the first place) were centered around “The Lie,” what my father had taken to calling my four-month long deception.
The way the whole house of college cards had toppled, by the way, had to do with my mom trying to send me a present. She called the school to ask what my new mailing address would be (she wanted to have a surprise care package waiting for me in my mailbox when I arrived on campus), only to discover that I was not an enrolled student at that institution.
“You know,” my mother said the first time she dropped me off at the psychologist’s office (My father insisted that she chaperone me. I couldn’t be trusted to get myself to the places I was supposed to be.) “You’ve gotten very thin. Do you like being that thin?”
I did, in fact, like being that thin. I liked being able to fit my hands around the entire width of my waist. I liked it when my clients praised my sharpening hip bones. Renée said with a pixie cut and pair of massive earrings, I’d look like Edie Sedgwick.
I wouldn’t have been able to get this far if I were just throwing up. I’d started restricting too. If throwing up was the only tool in your arsenal, you ran the risk of overestimating the number of calories you were eliminating.
My dad never said anything to me about my weight. Instead, he spent more and more time in his department office at the university, deep in Rukeyser edits.
During our first session, the psychologist said I needed to “get outside of my head.” People with interests and hobbies (school, she informed me, was neither an interest nor a hobby) tended to be healthier, psychologically speaking. “Purpose-driven activities,” like volunteering, would “help me heal.” Also, I could put them on my college applications, if and when I decided to actually apply.
At the psychologist’s behest, I spent a few weeks volunteering at a cat-only animal shelter. My responsibilities involved emptying litter boxes and letting underweight kittens climb up my ropy arms and slink between my ankles. I abandoned the position after a run-in with a nasty calico named Milo left me with an infected bite. I liked watching the doctor drain pus out of the wound. The thick yellow stuff resembled the bile that sometimes came up after I’d vomited out all of my stomach contents.
While I wasn’t ready to apply to school just yet, my parents and the psychologist decided that taking a class or two at the university might “smooth the path to normalcy” (the psychologist’s words, not my parents’).
I enrolled in an Introduction to Marine Science course. I wanted to be as far from the English department building as possible.
The class took a field trip to the local aquarium, where we watched tan-armed graduate students tend to a host of sick and dying sea creatures. One of the graduate students slathered pink medicinal goo over the cracked-up shell of a sea turtle named Shelly. She’d been rescued from an off-brand Sea World in Pensacola, where she’d developed a shell infection after being kept in an ill-cleaned tank for too long. The goo was supposed to repair the pus-filled fissures in her shell.
At the gift shop, I purchased a tin of the aquarium’s sustainable Siberian sturgeon caviar. (Renée had sent me a $100 check for my 19th birthday. She told me to buy myself something nice.) The side of the tin read “Fish You Can Feel Good About.” Its contents were produced in-house at the aquarium’s sustainable aquaculture park.
During our tour, we’d been allowed to peer into the sturgeon larval room, where schools of translucent, tadpole-looking sturgeon were kept in large vats. Our tour guide explained that upon reaching maturity, the female fish were “ethically euthanized,” then slit open for removal of the ovaries. The ovaries were sanitized and then “gently rubbed” against a separating screen, allowing the eggs to drop into a collection bowl below. Aquaculturists cleaned and rinsed the eggs five times, plucking out any broken or bad ones before sending the batch to the caviar-processing zone.
I imagined myself being cut open, my ovaries snipped out and scraped for harvest. Caviar was supposed to taste like the things the fish ate. The farm-raised girls at the aquaculture park spent their entire lives rotating between a series of identical tanks, bumping against mirrored glass and growing fat on ultra-nutritious pellets. I wondered what my caviar would taste like.
That night, I devoured the entire tin. I didn’t eat the caviar the way the tour guide had instructed us: slowly and deliberately, taking the time to slide the beads across our tongues and puncture them with the edges of our teeth, to release the briny “ocean spray.” Instead, I shoveled the whole mess of mini pearls into my mouth in three quick scoops, grinding them with my back molars. The tour guide informed us that these farm-raised berries wouldn’t have the same pop as their wild, non-pasteurized cousins, but that was the price one paid for a clean, safe, eco-friendly product.
The beads came up in one thick, sludgy mass. An $85 offering to the toilet bowl.
It didn’t take long for the psychologist to figure out I was weird about food. She was smarter than she looked.
“What are you getting out of all this?” she asked me at what was probably our sixth session. “No, really.”
She’d just gotten me to admit the full extent of my weight loss, the way the last six months had involved me chasing the numbers down the scale, parading my progress in front of an audience of Internet strangers.
This wasn’t the first time we’d talked about food. Session by session, she’d chipped away at the issue, getting me to admit to all the restricting, bingeing, and purging in bits and pieces. The last thing to go was all the stuff about the computer.
“Well,” she said, after I’d unspooled the last of my tale. I’d just wrapped up the part about Renée. I half expected the psychologist to storm out of the room. Say something about my being fundamentally, incurably sick. Beyond help. A disturbed, weird girl obsessed with her own bones and bodily fluids. I’d even admitted I’d started dabbling with heavy-duty laxatives.
I felt embarrassed—but light somehow too. Not unlike the way I felt after a good throw-up session.
The psychologist stood up and walked to the whiteboard. We’d used the whiteboard a few times. I liked the sort of academic vibe it lent to our sessions. Like we were getting real work done.
“Three meals and two snacks,” she wrote in red dry erase marker on the whiteboard.
“Can you do this?” she said, pointing to what she’d just written. “Sorry,” she said. She shook her head and capped the marker. “What I mean is, can you try?”
I was honest with her. It would be difficult. I wasn’t ready to give up my food stuff yet. Throwing up had become more or less of an impulse. I’d reached the point where after I ate, I started to feel the food coming up even before I ran to the bathroom. I still loved the feeling after a good, long vomiting session. The empty, light-headed buzzing that accompanied a day-long bout of starvation.
“Good,” she said. “Thank you for being honest. We can start smaller. Work our way up to three meals and two snacks.”
She said I didn’t have to tell my parents about my Internet side gig (I was, after all, over eighteen), though she thought it might be a good idea to stop seeing clients whose interest in me was predicated upon self-starvation. If people like Renée truly cared for me, they wouldn’t want me to keep hurting myself.
“God, that sounds so cheesy,” I said. If my dad were in the room, he’d probably faint from the use of such a ridiculous heat-and-serve cliché.
“Good,” she said. “We can work with cheesy.”
Hi Tony, my reply read.
Thank you for your message.
(Thanks to my time in sales, I’d mastered the cool tones of customer service.)
I’m not sure what you saw, but yes, I have, as of late, embarked upon a new career path. You could say I’m in the entertainment business. I create and curate custom content.
How is college, by the way? Did you end up sticking with mechanical engineering? I’m taking a few science classes myself, right here at the university.
Who cared if Tony knew about the state of my academic career? That I’d wound up attending the same third-tier university where my parents taught? Most of my parents’ colleagues knew about my crack-up already. The English department was small and gossipy.
Did you know that starfish aren’t actually fish? They’re echinoderms, which means “spiny skin.” You probably already knew that. Didn’t you take Latin? Anyway, sea stars are in the same family as sea urchins and sea cucumbers. All that stuff about them being able grow new limbs is actually true. As long as something called their central disc is intact, they can do it. At an aquarium in Bristol, England, one starfish limb (as in a single disembodied leg) that still had part of its central disk attached was able to grow a whole new body.
Imagine that: being able to grow a whole new body.
Are you home for Thanksgiving? Do you maybe want to meet up?
It was the day before Thanksgiving, a holiday my parents, as card-carrying members of the liberal academic establishment, didn’t celebrate. We already had a plan in place, thanks to the psychologist. (We’d had our first family session with her last week. It was a start.) We’d order in Chinese food (family time, like volunteering and throwaway classes at the U and three square meals and two snacks a day, was all part and parcel of my “healing process”) and watch something as a family. A Merchant & Ivory film most likely, something like Room with a View, to appease my dad.
I re-read my message. It sounded stupid and juvenile. Who cared about starfish?
I didn’t erase anything, though. I just added a signature.
I hit send.
Elizabeth Steiner is a writer and teacher from Sarasota, Florida. She graduated from Wesleyan University and has an MFA in fiction from Columbia. She currently lives in NYC, where she is at work on a novel.