Chapter 2: January 1
small grapefruit (no sugar)
chopped salad (one tablespoon low-cal Ranch)
4 oz. cod filet (no butter)
small baked potato (no sour cream)
instant oatmeal (no milk)
4 oz. chicken breast in pita bread
3 cans Diet Coke
small roll (no butter)
Lite-line microwave entree (didn’t eat peas)
roll (no butter)
one chicken breast (skinned)
canned peaches (rinsed)
Snack During Colbert:
16” sausage-mushroom-green pepper pizza from Cirelli’s
one Snickers bar
one jelly donut
four-day supply canned peaches (unrinsed)
So much for losing weight before the holidays, before the trip, before the new year. I will see Naples fat. I will shop Milan fat. Stroll the Via Condotti fat. And climb aboard the homebound Alitalia 747 even fatter.
I kick my scale under the sink.In the kitchen, I discover another jelly donut.
I smash it down the garbage disposal.
I celebrate the New Year with pasta, seafood, pastry, cake, and chocolate.
Reaching for cannoli, I split the seat of my pants. Brand new two-hundred dollar pants I bought four days ago in Rome. Undaunted, I fill my plate with chilled fruit frosted with coconut, glazed almond rings, jumbo shrimp, and a double scoop of orange sherbet. After the last toast, I discreetly back out of the dining room.
Now waiting for dinner, I sit behind my great grandfather’s massive rococo desk, belt undone. My Levis show no signs of bursting. The rivets are holding. But I
have popped the button and eased the zipper down a bit under my sweater for
I gain a pound a day on Italian soil. Two weeks in the motherland means
ten added pounds. Every year the family returns to Italy, and every year I
gain weight. Every year my aunt gives me a new diary, a handsome leather bound volume with gilt-edged pages. Every year I am inspired with resolutions. I swear I will finish my dissertation, get a man, get over a man, write a book.
This year my aunt also gave me a gold-nibbed Mont Blanc fountain pen, a Thomas Mann kind of instrument, weighty with phallic authority. Convinced I am going to be the next Danielle Steele, my aunt bestows me with pens, notebooks, and novels each Christmas.
My aunt has transformed her conservatory into a study. The train of post- menopausal self-enrichment programs has carried her through macramé, wildlife photography, gem cutting, and nouvelle cuisine to creative writing workshops at the American University.
This year the house is strewn with books. Black Penguins and Dell reprints spill from Gucci shoulder bags. Hardcovers in three languages are neatly arranged
on coffee tables like objet d’ art. Limited editions of Italian classics bound in
leather and stamped in gold line shelves once devoted to cat statues. She carries her Kindle in a monogrammed designer bag. Alas, I have never seen her read anything but fashion magazines or write anything except a shopping list. Nevertheless, she keeps her crystal palace conservatory heated at tremendous cost. She pulled Grandfather Giacchi’s monstrous desk from storage, the drawers still stuffed with wartime trucking contracts and gas ration cards. Semi-literate, Mario Giacchi initialed freight orders in red crayon. Now the re-felted drawers are stocked with pens, pencils, reams of embossed stationery, books on writing, and a guide to wanna-be romance writers. The laptop and laser printer remain untouched and unconnected, their user manuals still shrink-wrapped in cellophane.
Aunt Maria, unfortunately, never bothered to clear away the remains of former passions. The room is littered with half-stitched wall-hangings, bags of potting soil, sickly plants, and an ambitious astrological chart predicting nothing.
Her devotion to snob chocolate endures. And she is generous, the Mother Theresa of mocha crèmes. I have been overdosing for days. Atop the desk is a nearly empty gold box of Godiva. A two pounder. My new purse already bears a crease from carrying Swiss bars the size of Gothic novels.
I began eating as soon as we got off the plane. On the way to baggage claim I loaded up on mints, peppermint sticks, Christmas candy, and those little aluminum foil bags of highly-addictive smoked almonds. Once at the hotel I ordered ice cream. I probably consumed fifteen hundred calories before taking off my coat.
Returning to the old country thrusts me into a cauldron of family politics, in-law conflicts, and feminist debate. To my Old-World relatives, I am something of an aberration -- an unmarried woman. I am nearly thirty, still in school, still single, still fat.
The last doesn’t count much with them. Fat is family legacy. My Neapolitan cousins marry at eighteen and waddle into hefty middle age at twenty-five. Slim brides, they rapidly swell with pasta and pregnancy, settling into comfortable rotund domesticity.
I fight the programming. But it’s tough. Food is omnipresent. Food is family. Religious holidays, weddings, graduations, even daily business meetings are choreo-graphed around massive buffets.
The Giacchis welcome my mother home each year with a party. In the old neighborhood she is still something of a celebrity -- a bistro waitress who met a rich Milano and moved to Winnetka. Measured in terms of plumbing, a favorite reference point, she is a dead bang success. She left a cold water flat for a two-story colonial with four bathrooms and a Jacuzzi. At family gatherings she moves about like an evangelist inspiring poor nieces and cousins with dreams of becoming The Real Housewives of Napoli.
This year the party originated in a sister’s narrow, high-ceilinged dining room. Food was set on makeshift tables. Doors had been thrown across saw horses to provide space for platters of cheese and pasta. Aunt Isabella spent her tredicema on shrimp and beef. After we arrived, there was no more room in the house. It was a warm afternoon, so plates were passed through open windows to late arrivals who ate in the garage. More relatives appeared, jamming the street with white Fiats. They brought wheels of cheese and ropes of salami.
The party moved down the street to cousin Nicolo’s bar. We crowded into the back hall, setting up the buffet on the empty band stand. Neighbors dropped in, contributing pink cartons of pastries and buckets of ice cream. Greek bartenders opened jugs of wine and passed around bottles of chilled Munich beer. Bottles of Johnny Walker and Jameson, frightfully expensive in Italy, lined the bar. Rummaging through his CD collection, Nicolo blasted us with wartime Sinatra.
Since the late Nineties, various branches of the family have prospered. No longer cigarette smugglers, they have graduated to hustling jeans, mopeds, and bootleg DVDs. They manage night clubs and own tenements where old women earn their rent sewing fake Pierre Cardin labels into knockoff dresses trucked in from Turkey in oil drums. Energetic goodfellas, they wear furs and drive Cadillacs while their grandmothers go without dentures.
In Winnetka my mother adopts a Melania Trump hauteur that carries her through Marshall Field’s with regal disdain. But in Naples, she’s sixteen again. She shook out her hair, loosened her blouse, and danced with old boyfriends and their sons. Aerobics and liposuction have paid off, making her the hit of the party. Drinking Hennessy from the bottle, she told ribald whore stories with Old World gestures never used at home. My father, ever tolerant, sipped Cutty Sark and questioned Nicolo about the upcoming elections. My brother Jimmy found girls to dance with.
Seated between teenage cousins laden with child, I took monster portions of everything in sight. The local studs, razor thin in rump-tight jeans and leather jackets, strolled in to check me out. Casually nuzzling me, they squeezed my buttocks like butchers testing suspect pork.
I smiled and chewed.
Life with the Giacchi’s is manic. They spend days eating and lazily watching
TV. Then an email or a text sets them into frantic action, making sales calls, holding late night conferences, printing stacks of contracts, and faxing messages to be destroyed after reading. The only constant is the burdensome midday meal, a two-hour dinner prepared by grumbling grandmothers. Meals are dedicated to business, occasionally taking on the air of board meetings. Deals are struck over steaming mounds of pasta. Debts are paid. Money flies across the table in angry gestures. Wads of five hundred Euro notes spill into soup bowls or get lost in the salad. Mistresses and employees make appearances. Submissive guests, they accept lectures, grudging payments, and pasta with bowed heads.
Older Giacchi men are enormous bull-like creatures who pound the table with meaty fists and adorn themselves with weighty gold chains. Their sons, educated abroad, are slimmer, spending afternoons pumping iron and playing handball. The women pass through the predictable stages of wifehood. After bosomy youth comes middle-aged obesity that lasts forty years. When their husbands die, they shrink to nothing and are regulated to KP duty. Toothless, bent-over, these bony creatures toil like Macbeth’s weird sisters, muttering over cauldrons of boiling linguini.
And I ate a lot. Under stress, I eat. I had to defend myself between spoonfuls.
Why am I still single? Why am I still in school? Why do I want a Ph.D.? Why no man?
Faced with questions, I shrugged and chewed.
I was on the defensive in Milan as well. I have never felt comfortable with my father’s family. Especially at meals. Ghirardellis devote themselves to the Nordic values of career, money, and physical fitness -- all on a diet of broiled fish and cold vegetables. They live on salad. Salad free of blue cheese dressing, bacon bits, croutons, or anything else that make lettuce palatable.
Their house is a nineteenth-century industrialist tomb. Family portraits go back to 1720. Merchant princes. Bankers. Export barons. Art dealers. They have spent two centuries courting the Brits and Germans, despising anyone born south of Rome. They bleach their hair and drive BMWs. Their Swiss cook never prepares pasta, and the wine is never red.
There were no house parties, no noisy celebrations, just a procession of staged events -- factory tours and client receptions. Ghirardelli men are stiff and self-conscious around their Scandinavian buyers. Talking, they fold their arms. None dare use hand gestures when speaking.
In order to face dinner with them, I stuffed myself with strudel and cake. I can’t handle them on an empty stomach, especially my cousin Gina. She’s the kind of wasp-waisted torpedo-titted full-lipped hair-always-perfect bitch I love to hate. I would kill for her thighs. Whether jogging in the Bois de Boulogne or Central Park, she never appears in less than full makeup. She does not walk, she slinks, placing one strappy Jimmy Choo Lance directly in front of the other. Seated, she thrusts her boobs forward, extending one silken leg. A walking centerfold, she is always on display. At ten she invented a series of nicknames for me, the least offensive of which was Blimpo.
Fortunately, she spent most of her time posing for Jimmy’s Nikon.
Beginning a new year, I determine to lose weight. My annual resolution.
I am adept at promises. I have concocted grand schemes. Eisenhower was less meticulous planning D-Day. I have vowed to lose weight to find love, to fit into French jeans, to prolong my life, to spite Gina, to rid myself of my chubby loser past.
This year I finish my dissertation and turn thirty. Time to face the world.
I have been hiding out in grad school too long. I’m sick of libraries, part-time teaching, being broke, blind dates with married men, and solitary Saturday night pizzas.
I pause, the Mont Blanc seductively heavy in my fist. My weight is the one thing I control. I cannot will myself a tenured job, a best seller, a decent man. But I can -- by sheer will power-- sculpt a new self.
I peel back the gold foil of the last Godiva. The afternoon sun dazzles on the ancient Roman hills. Rooftop icicles shimmer like crystal. I grind an almond mocha into the dry soil of a sickly fern.
I will make it this year. I will lose thirty, no thirty-five pounds.
There is no reason, of course, that a diet has to start today. Diets take control. They require thought. And room service does not supply nutritional labels.
But I try.
I have a single light crepe for breakfast. I take a brisk walk. Espresso instead of hot chocolate with cream at the corner bistro. I manage to place my order and collect change without looking at the pastry display. Back in my room, I pack. The television offers a badly dubbed Baywatch rerun. Oh, to have a killer bod.
I limit lunch to soup and a small salad with light dressing. Phones ring now and then with belated New Year’s greetings from Salerno and San Francisco.
My stomach rumbling, I eat half a Milky Way -- then do five semi sit-ups in guilty penance.
Drinking Diet Coke at 35,000 feet, I vow to lose forty pounds.
So far I am not doing well. In pre-flight panic, I ate an orange, two slices
of airport pizza, a Kit Kat, and the rest of my Milky Way. Flying terrifies me. I’m too imaginative to be blasé about jet travel. Airport security reminds me 9/11. Being sealed in a metal tube and shot across the ocean at six hundred miles an hour is simply not normal. And all the Time magazines and mini bottles of Patron and Johnny Walker can’t dispel my fear of plunging into the sea. The possibility of sudden death makes me crave life-sustaining calories.
Four hours into the flight and my ration of smoked almonds is still intact. Evidence of commendable will power. I stretch my legs among the packages wedged under the seat. Passengers nod over iPads. No one seems intrigued by the technological miracles keeping us aloft and entertained. A few people chuckle. I glance up at the screen and watch a soundless Ben Stiller. I turn to say something to Jimmy, but he has fallen asleep over his Maxim. The window reflects a rosy collage of boobs.
I cross and uncross my legs to maintain circulation. I open a book but am too restless to think about my dissertation. I leaf through Jimmy’s magazine, checking out the slim models. If I only I could be photoshopped.
I think best at night. Late hours rouse my consciousness and appetite. While others dream, I deconstruct Susan Sontag over Dagwood sandwiches. I pull out my laptop and revise a syllabus. Another semester, another syllabus. Plotting out assignments into the future gives me a sense of professional control. I am dictating the destiny of fifty undergraduates who will read “Bartleby the Scrivener” and study apostrophes at my command.
And on May 15 when the final exams fill my inbox, where shall I be?
Airplane lavatories can convince anyone to lose weight. Opening the door I feel like a pregnant Rosie O’Donnell squeezing into a phone booth. Seated, my legs brush the wall and a roll of flesh presses against my thighs. Disgusted, I purge my handbag. Digging to the bottom, I pull out a Nestle bar and a small bag of Italian mints. I shove the candy down the chute aeronautical engineers have designated for sanitary napkin disposal. I hesitate, then cram in the smoked almonds.
A lemon sun burns through gun port windows. My back aches, my hair feels greasy, my teeth are film covered, and there is already a line in front of the lavatories.
The flight attendants are up and about, friskily distributing coffee and sweet rolls. I drink airline coffee black. The winter Atlantic slides under us like a plate of rippled glass.
I love New York as only a Midwesterner can. I was seven years old when my mother told a cabbie to slow down, so we could catch a glimpse of Jackie O. stepping out of P. J. Clarke’s. But I was hooked before then. I wanted to live on “the tippy-top floor” of the Plaza with Eloise. I made my mom take me there for ice cream. And I insisted on wearing white gloves.
I just adored the Plaza and Central Park. We took carriage rides and went to the top of the World Trade Center. I’d never been to the top of the Sears tower. I had no desire to get a bird’s eye view of my hometown. Chicago was gross. Chicago meant Dailey and meatpacking and the mob. New York was all Broadway and Rockefeller Center skaters. Breakfast at Tiffanys and Miracle on 34th Street. I collected Gotham trivia, impressing Illinois friends with my intricate knowledge of the subway system I would never use in real life. I love Bloomingdale’s, soft pretzels, MOMA, mounted cops, the Guggenheim, cabbies with sitcom accents, chic rip-off cafes, and submarine sandwiches. Since the seventh grade all I dreamed about was moving into the Chelsea Hotel and writing great novels.
I can actually lose weight in Manhattan -- if I don’t stay too long. Engrossed with shopping, matinees, and bookstores, I get too excited to eat -- at least for the first day.
Despite jet lag, I was on the go all day. Up early, I ran in place for a full minute, showered, then headed to the Gotham Book Store. Finding an out-of-print anthology I’ve wanted for years, I celebrated with a cup of coffee, then toured a photo gallery. I caught a French film in a small cinema. The grainy Indie movie was noir with undergraduate woe. Absent dialogue mixed with WWII newsreels. Mushroom clouds superimposed over a woman’s face in orgasm. “It is over. Finished. The end,” the nude heroine bleakly repeated to her chain smoking lover. Brushing her hair, the slope-titted brunette mused, “Everything ends. Life. Love. The oceans. This planet.”
Shit. The movie lasted an hour and a half, and I was trapped, wedged between eager filmies taking notes and digging all the metaphysical metaphors. Sophomores.
My stomach grumbled. I guess I am too old, too Midwest for this. I have outgrown my
undergraduate intellectualism. I’d rather be eating a Big Mac and watching Jimmy Fallon.
It was snowing when I awoke. By eight, mid-town traffic was a snarl of stalled cabs and stranded buses. I headed to the Museum of Modern Art and spent the morning with the Van Goghs.
Fortified with Starbucks Dark Roast. I walked several blocks to a book store. Along the way, Fifth Avenue cafes tempted me. Sweet shops with rotating displays of elegant chocolates. I longed for an egg cream. Rich yellow New York vanilla ice cream. Authentic burritos. Carnegie Deli (Alas, RIP the Carnegie). Coney Island foot longs. Sardi’s steak and Le Cirque soufflé.
Chomping Trident, I found the book store and later binged on fat free goodies at Bloomingdale’s. Black lace lingerie and a new shoulder bag.
On the street Manhattan women were on the march. Armed with attaché cases and leather portfolios, they strode confidently. Intense, stair-mastered firm, hard-makeupped New York women with killer eyeshadow and blood red lips. Amazon war paint. Intense, stylish, ready-to-fuck-or-fight Manhattan bitches. And nothing slowed them down -- not the lofty spires of St. Patrick’s, not the homeless, not the grabbing wino in beat pants with the sadly open fly, not swearing Third World cabbies, not the “can-you-tell-me-where-the-Empire-State-Building-is?” tourists.
I passed the Hilton, site of last year’s MLA Convention. Each January hundreds of fresh PhD’s descend on major hotels for job interviews. Last year I sent out forty applications and received forty rejections. I went to the convention anyway to see Susan Faludi and check out the last-minute openings. The ballroom holding the job postings looked like a recruiting station the day after Pearl Harbor. I managed to glance at the listings and tossed vitas into overflowing boxes marked UCLA, LSU, NYU, Temple, and USC. No dice.
Chilled and demoralized, I got back to the Marriott at five. I had avoided thinking about graduation for two weeks. Now I was depressed. Even the rocket ride up the atrium elevator failed to cheer me. I dropped off my packages, then descended to the lobby coffee shop. Cheery music spilled from hidden speakers. Cheery women smiled behind marble counters. The whole hotel was cheery. The hotel was one big seduction, a lure to spend, buy, indulge, eat. Cheery rent-a-car girls. Cheery health spa studs. Cheery photographs of oversized baked goods, artfully illuminated. I was falling like a horny sailor on shore leave. And soon, against all my will, my determination, I was seated under the yellow tent and ordering hot chocolate and donuts. Fat, glazed, jelly-injected pillows of sugar and flour. The cruller was good, too. As was the wedge of chocolate-covered cheesecake.
I couldn’t help myself. I really couldn’t. Rude doormen, icy sidewalks, aphasic cabbies eroded my resolve. The Manhattan bitch parade had intimidated me. The whole job situation bummed me. And I was lonely. Not one card or phone call from Eric. I needed escape. I needed a hug. I needed a boost. And you don’t get a boost from grape-fruit or granola.
I went back to my room and watched Jerry Springer lecture a lineup up of pierced, tattooed “I-don’t-use-no-stupid-condoms” teen hookers. I took a nap then called room service for a sub.
Nibbling M&M’s somewhere over Pennsylvania.
Fat is anger. A continual slow burn. Anger at my lack of control. Anger at Vogue. Anger rather than feminist rage at Victoria’s Secret, strippers, and porn. Anger at women with tight asses. Anger at men. Anger at what turns men on. Anger at the roles society assigns me. In college I was a highly desired roommate. Every girl in Paglia Hall wanted to room with me. I was a grind who took good notes and had a cupboard full of chips and chocolate. When you are fat, you share, so you won’t look piggy -- like the alcoholic always eager to buy everyone a round.
For years I wanted to believe that I would outgrow my “babyfat.” In high school I thought my fat would melt magically at eighteen. In college I assumed graduation would liberate me from dorm pizza and study snacks. Eight years later, I’m still waiting. Still trying every diet that comes my way. I’m a dropout from Scarsdale to Beverly Hills.
The jet arcs over Lake Michigan, frozen over and snow-blown like the Russian steppes. On the horizon, Chicago emerges from the whiteness -- stark office towers, gray apartment blocks, grim factories, the vast suburban wastelands. The thought of descending to live here depresses me. I break open a fresh Kit-Kat.
But I only eat half.