by Briana Wingate
I stared at the plate of chicken alfredo. This had been my favorite dish once upon a time. I loved the way my dad always made the chicken just the way I liked it when he’d come to visit: cut into tender cubes with just enough sauce. He’d come just in time to have it on the table by five, so that he and my mom could have their time alone for an hour or so after we’d eaten. It was a tradition my parents continued for years. My mom let it slip that he’d tell Sheila, his wife, that he was required to put in extra hours at work on Tuesdays. That’s what we were to him, extra hours, a side project. I’d asked him once what he put in it that made it taste better than when Mom made it. He’d answered, “Chicken teeth.” I’d known that chicken didn’t have teeth, but my dad had said it, so to me, it was true. That was before he stopped coming around.
“Eat, Nema,” he said. The three of us—Mom, Dad, and I—were sitting at the restaurant table where I looked at pasta made by a stranger. It had been my dad’s idea to bring something so personal to such a public place. It was as if he believed everything would work out better if people were watching. Still, I sat, staring past him with my arms crossed, fingers running back and forth over the individual bones. What business was this of his? Did he feel as though a check every month bought him the right to share a dinner table with us at this fancy-shmancy restaurant? Did he think that his visits every time he wanted to caress my mother as if he loved her—before we became inconvenient, that is—made him deserving of a reserved spot with his second family?
It felt as though we were sitting directly in the middle of the small, expensive restaurant—center stage—for our not-quite-family’s drama. Around our table, customers hummed with a mixture of pleasantries and business talk. Except for my dad’s demands, we sat in silence, sticking out like a sore thumb.
It was never about hurting myself. I just wanted so badly to be perfect, to be beautiful. I’d been doing so well, one small, healthy meal every 24 hours. Everything went wrong when I got home from school two days ago. While looking in the fridge for the spinach I just knew we had, I saw it. An iced honeybun tucked in the back corner behind the orange juice. I was good about avoiding temptation when I knew it was to be expected, but the way that 500-calorie pastry stared me down was ungodly.
I inhaled it. Every bite (though there were admittedly only about three) tasted like musical notes accompanied by ballet dances, the blushes of angels with pearls and feathers in their hair, long-lost love reinstated. God, it tasted like everything right in the world. But, it was wrong. So wrong. Feeling the need to assess the damage, I desperately ran to the bathroom, shedding my clothes and saying a silent prayer as I stepped onto the scale. I’d gained a half-pound. A half-pound after I’d worked so hard to lose weight.
Suddenly, I could see it all. My hair had begun to shed everywhere. My body began to sag and hunch as if I were up in age. My eyes looked tired and dead. My face, frail and skeletal. Worst of all, that honeybun caused my thighs to jiggle when I moved. I was the gauntest whale I’d ever seen in my entire life. I was hideous.
You can’t do anything right. Just look at yourself. You’re nothing.
The mirror taunted me with words that eat away at you until you have no choice but to give in and believe them.
You’re hideous. Fat. Stupid.
You’re pathetic. A little girl who’s lost control.
Disgusting. Unworthy. Inferior.
I launched the scale against the mirror, breaking them both. The mirror became a mosaic of reflections, each more distorted than the last.
That’s when I heard her worried voice outside the door. “Nema?”
“Nema? I said eat! Did you hear me?” my father asked, careful not to cause a scene by raising his voice. Why do people feel as though repeating themselves gets their point across more? “Did you hear me?” Of course I heard you. You’re sitting no more than three feet away from me.
“Vince, I don’t think getting angry with her is going to help right now,” my mom said to him, finally speaking.
“What else am I supposed to do, Gloria? I don’t even know why you called. I’m putting my marriage on the line just by being here and she won’t even acknowledge me.”
I was ten when I realized I was a bastard. Before then, bastard had just been a word I’d heard on TV, but never dared to repeat and had never had used against myself. My mom and I have lived on Musket Court, a quiet suburban street filled with married parents and horrible children, for as long as I can remember. So, in all of my memories, I’ve had Taylor Carrick as a next-door neighbor.
Taylor Carrick and I have never been friends. Now that we’ve grown older, we’ve gotten to the point where we no longer have a reason to interact, although we still live close enough to watch each other grow into walking disasters. She’s got a kid now and never lost the baby weight. So she’s fat as hell. Her skin would hang like a cloak on me. I think about that sometimes.
We were playing tag one day with some of the other kids from our neighborhood and Taylor had been it. For anyone that has never played tag before, it is the worst thing that you can possibly be. After the game is over and kids begin to be picked off separately by parents beckoning them to dinner, being the last one to be it is like being a leper until the next day.
I remember it being around dinnertime. Only four of us remained, two boys whose names went with them when they moved five years ago, Taylor, and I. The unspoken rule of the game seemed to be “always tag the person you dislike the most,” because Taylor ran after me. I’d gotten to the tree, the safe spot, just as Taylor tagged me.
“You’re it!” she said.
“Am not!” To this day, I stick by the notion that I’d touched the safe spot before she’d tagged me.
“You’re cheating, you liar!” she’d answered. Just then, Mrs. Carrick called her in for dinner. “You were so it, you ugly bastard,” she told me as she walked away with a look on her face as if she’d smelled something horrible.
After dinner, I grabbed the dictionary to look up the word bastard and realized why I live in a house with no father. I was illegitimate. I was inferior.
Instead of crying, I looked up another word I’d heard before, but knew nothing about it besides that it could get me in trouble. Taylor Carrick was a bitch.
“She needs help,” my mom said.
“I can’t do anything, Glo,” my dad said. “And, Kennedy’s got a basketball game in an hour. I told Sheila I wouldn’t be late again. We need to wrap this up.” He flagged down the waitress for the check.
I’d never met Kennedy, but as the years went by, I put together enough information to know who he is. Kennedy was the reason my dad stopped seeing my mom and me. Sheila, his wife, had finally gotten pregnant despite being told by the doctor that she couldn’t have kids. He was born May 22, 2007, a day before the last time my father ever stepped foot in our house. After he was born, my dad told my mom that Kennedy looked just like me before following it up with “I’ll send you a check bi-monthly.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me. We haven’t even finished our plates and you’re already rushing back to Sheila? You have a daughter that needs more from you than just money, Vince,” my mom said. She let two tears fall and no more. Perhaps they were tears of anger that slipped through the cracks of her composure. Perhaps those tears were the last two left over from personal heartbreak. Either way, she never raised her voice, only wiped her face almost as soon as her eyes welled up.
“What did you expect, Gloria? I have a family. I have a little boy that needs me around and a wife that I’m going to have to spend the rest of my life making up with because of you,” my dad answered, almost losing his cool. He looked around as if to make sure that no one had heard enough to judge him. The waitress returned to take his card. She seemed to smile a lot, completely clashing with the mood of our table. “Maybe Sheila smiles a lot, too,” I thought to myself.
I thought of how lovely Sheila must be. I imagined her having long, flowing hair and the type of lips that always begged to be kissed. I imagined her knowing how to cook five-star meals and dance the merengue, tango, and waltz. Her voice must sound like smooth jazz, and her touch must heal all pain. I hated her.
However, as I looked over to my father, new questions arose. Why did I exist? How did I, an illegitimate child born out of lies, come to be? Why would he want to hurt her? How could I be so bitter towards the woman that he’d originally hurt? Sure, he’d left us, but in order for him to do that, he first had to hurt someone that, to my knowledge, hadn’t done anything wrong.
“I’ll look up one of those eating disorder clinics when I get home and send you the money, alright?” my dad said. The look on my mother’s face told me that she hadn’t given up. The waitress returned with his receipt to sign, and I wondered if she could tell just by looking at us that we weren’t a happy family. Whether she did or not, she smiled politely and wished us a good night before walking away.
“You can’t do this to her, Vince. This is more important than some basketball game,” she said angrily as he stood to leave.
For the first time since we’d sat down, I spoke. “Mom, just let him go. I’m fine.” He looked at me and sat down.
“So you do talk?” he said to me with a bit of an attitude.
Attitude or not, I didn’t answer.
“Why aren’t you eating?” he asked.
Why haven’t I spoken to you in years?
I looked at my mother, wishing I knew why she’d made the choices she’d made in her past. Were they in love? Were they different people then? “Nema, please talk to him,” she begged, tears welling up in her eyes.
They both watched as I picked up the fork and took a bite of the pasta. By then, it’d turned cold and disgusting. Thinking of the calories made it hard to swallow. Still, I did. “Good enough?”
My dad rolled his eyes. “So, she’s fine?” He turned to my mother with an accusing glare. “If this is your way of trying to get my attention, you’re sick,” he said before standing, once again, to leave. This time, no one begged him to stay.
We sat in silence for a few minutes, existing in each other’s space, but never saying a word. I closed my eyes and pretended to be legitimate. I imagined my mother had chosen someone that was available and willing to love her like she deserved. I imagined we were out for a nice family dinner. We’d sit and talk about our days and our upcoming family vacation. Maybe my imaginary father would tell me to order whatever I wanted. The waitress would come with the best chicken alfredo ever and sit in front of me and I’d pick up my fork and…
My daydream was interrupted by a loud, angry growl erupting from my stomach for the first time in who knows how long. The painful emptiness in my stomach began to set in.
Feeling her eyes on me, I looked over at my mother. Her eyes were cloudy with the pain of loss. She blinked, clearing them, and looked at me with the type of worry that I imagine can only stem from caring for someone intensely. To her, I’d never been a bastard. I’d been mirrored features and the focal point of all the love she had left to give. I was sick. I knew I was sick. But I realized then that, if I ever decided to get better, it would be for her.