by Melody Warnick
Amy says that chicken sandwiches are okay as long as you know what you’re getting into. For instance, always order the grilled chicken. Never get anything that has been breaded or fried. Ask for mustard, and say no to mayonnaise or secret sauce. Get extra lettuce if you can because lettuce is a bonus food: you burn more calories eating it than it has in the first place.
“How is that possible?” I say.
Celery’s like that, too, she says. But if you hate celery you only have to eat it once in a while, and maybe you can eat a couple jelly beans afterward to block out the fact that you’ve just eaten something that tastes like wet blades of grass. Peanut butter on celery is out of the question. Peanut butter, Amy says, is pure oil. “You can see grease on the top, and you should avoid anything that shows
grease. Kind of like Ronnie Harkness. Het greasy, too.”
Ronnie Harkness didn’t wear deodorant in seventh grade when everyone else did. I was wearing deodorant in sixth grade, though I practically had an aneurism the first time I put it in the shopping cart at Sav-On and Mom saw it and felt the need to say, “Did you put that in there, Karen?”
“No, Mom, I’m pretty sure that just dropped from the sky and landed there but since it’s in the cart already and since I’m kind of worried about reeking it up at school, you can feel free just to buy it for me as a little gift.” I didn’t say that. I said, “Yes, Mom.”
“You really think you need deodorant?”
“Mom, would I be putting it in the cart if I didn’t?”
She just smiled, like she was sharing some huge secret with me and the rest of the people wheeling around the aisles of Sav-On. “My little girl’s growing up,” she said. Hello, embarrassing. Like she hadn’t noticed that I’d been wearing Lisa’s worn-out training bras since I was eleven.
Lisa turned sixteen this summer and got a job working the grill at Tommy’s. Her job is to ring up customers, take fries out of the deep-fat fryer when the buzzer rings, build hamburgers, and fill fountain drinks. They gave her a manual to study before her first day of work, but she’s been filling her own fountain drinks at Carl’s Jr. since she was seven, just like the rest of us, and probably didn’t think it would be too challenging. The cash register is the cool part, popping it in and out all day, patting the money down in its slots, putting the twenties under the tray. Amy’s older sister Robin works there, too.
Amy and I talk about how we’re going to work at Tommy’s together when we turn sixteen, which is three years away but still seems like the beginning of everything important in life.
By the middle of summer, Amy and I go to Tommy’s every day, which is only a little better than Crown Burger, where we used to go in seventh grade and where wilty flecks of lettuce are always plastered to
the tabletops. At least Robin and Lisa sometimes give us free Slurpees. Amy and I always feel grateful that we have older sisters and not older brothers, who would probably throw moldy floor-fries at us if we ever came within five feet of where they worked.
Robin, Amy’s sister, was the one who gave her the food list, xeroxed out of the back of some diet book she got at school. “It’s just a preliminary list,” Amy tells me. “You can get whole books that tell you everything—fat, calories, cholesterol. But this will be okay for now.”
“So what about cheese?” I ask. “Can you have cheese on a chicken sandwich?”
Amy doesn’t even have to look at the list. She says, “You can never eat cheese again. Cheese is bad.”
“What about if it’s low-fat cheese, like cheese that they make with 2% milk instead of whole milk?”
“I guess that’s okay. It’s better than regular cheese, anyway, but I don’t recommend it.”
She also says that we are never to eat burgers or fries again. Or chocolate chip cookies. Or donuts. Or popcorn at the movies. Diet sodas are okay. Regular sodas are bad.
“What about, like, crackers?” I ask.
“Like Ritz?” Amy says.
“Karen, have you ever put a Ritz on a napkin? It is like the biggest grease-fest on the planet. It leaves a total trail.”
I feel stupid. “Guess that’s a no, then,” I say.
“If you ever want to wear a bathing suit in public, it’s a no.”
We don’t wear bathing suits so much anyway. There is one municipal pool in Santee, on the other side of town, nowhere that our mothers would let us walk by ourselves. Sometimes Amy’s mom drives us over in her Volvo and lets us off at the gates, and we scavenge for empty lounge chairs and go tanning. We do not go in the water, which we know has probably been peed in a million times. It’s not a really good reason for never eating Ritz again.
“If you ever want Chris Edmonston to like you, then,” she says and points her chin down like she knows she’s got something on me, which she does. Amy is probably the only person on the planet who knows that I am madly in love with Chris Edmonston. She’s also probably the only person on the planet who could point out to me the fact that Chris had a big crush on Allie Hoffman all seventh grade, and she’s never weighed over 100 pounds. I could probably not eat Ritz for Chris Edmonston.
“Here is a good daily menu,” Amy says. “An apple for breakfast, a couple of pieces of bread for lunch.”
“Plain bread with nothing on it?”
“Maybe regular jam, I don’t know. No butter for sure.”
“Maybe carrot sticks. Then you skip dinner.”
“You’ll starve to death.”
Amy rolls her eyes. “This is exactly how Robin does it.”
Amy’s sister Robin is a lot like her name: birdish, all skinny and frail like she’s walking around on two wobbly sticks of wood. She does not eat grease ever, even though she works six hours a day frying burgers and making ham sandwiches that are butter-grilled and gooey with cheese. I ask her how Robin does it. Amy says that Robin drinks a lot of diet soda.
So we decide to do it this way, and Amy, who is the self-appointed president of our diet club, tells me that we need motivation. We cut out pictures of models from Seventeen magazine—which Amy finally convinces me that we can buy even though we’re only thirteen—and we each tape a few girls above our beds so that they stare down at us with their wide-open eyes and flaunt their gawky arms while we sleep. Amy calls this learning by osmosis, which is a word I had never before heard. She says it means that the picture burns into your brain while you sleep so when you wake up you remember that you want to be exactly like that skinny, tall model on your bedroom wall, and that being like her will be better than eating chocolate donuts for breakfast.
Amy also says it would be a good idea to have one of the thinner models on the refrigerator door as an instant reminder every time you start hunting around in there. Mom says, “You want to put that girl on the refrigerator?”
“It’s diet incentive.”
“I hope you realize that this girl is not normal, Karen. She’s a skeleton.”
“I’m doing it with Amy. We want to be skinny for eighth grade.”
Mom places her finger in the gutter of her library book and looks at me with lowered eyebrows. “If you ger any skinnier you’re going to disappear.”
“Not even, Mom. I have total rolls.” To prove my point a grab a handful of flab from beneath my shirt and squeeze tight. “Look at this. I’m gross.”
“You’re not gross—you’re beautiful.”
“You have to say that. You’re my mom.”
She looks back at her book. “It’s true, Karen. You’re a very slim, attractive girl. I don’t want you to get carried away with this.”
“I won’t get carried away,” I say, and slap a magnet onto my Kate Moss cutout.
After this, Amy and I decide that we have to enforce an exercise regimen, which sounds like being in the army only you have Buns of Steel as a drill sergeant. I hate the exercise, all the butt-squeezing and leg stretching and stuff. I was always the worst at laps in soccer practice and the only sport I’m even sort of good at is tetherball because I have strong fists. But this is important, Amy says—you never lose any weight unless you work out, so we do it and end up in sweaty heaps on the Jensens’ living room rug. “Can we go to Tommy’s yet?” I say.
“Yeah, sure. But remember our rule: no Slurpees.”
“No Slurpees, no Slurpees,” I say, pretending that I hated Slurpees in the first place.
The weight comes off pretty easy once you have the routine going. Not like I ever really like Buns of Steel, but you start to think it’s okay, that it’s worth it, at least. Amy always shouts, “Feel the burn!” and “No pain, no gain!” while we’re wagging our buns (more aluminum foil than steel) and it’s kind of funny how serious she gets about it. Every once in a while she yells, “Think Chris Edmonston.”
On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays we take turns in the Jensens’ bathroom, stripping off all our clothes and standing naked on the scale. The first Monday I’m 113, then 111 on Wednesday. Friday I’m 113 again, but Amy says don’t worry it might just be water retention. Her weight goes 105, 104, 102 in four weeks. We both have goals: Amy’s is to weigh less than 100 pounds. Mine is to weigh maybe 101 or 102, which isn’t so unreachable, just ten pounds, though Amy just wants to lose five or six.
Every time I step on the scale I hold my breath and try to make myself weightless while the needle rocks back and forth and registers. I can see myself just floating right up and bobbing naked against the Jensens’ bathroom ceiling. It never happens, though the rolls are starting to go away. When I suck in hard I can feel my ribs. They feel like the ruts in the bike path to school.
By the end of July it gets harder. Popsicle season is in full-swing and we don’t eat popsicles. Strawberry shortcake season is at its height and we don’t eat shortcake. “Load up on fruits and vegetables,” Amy says, even though I’m already downing peaches by the dozen. Mom calls me “the fruity one” in the house. My older sister Lisa says that I’m turning into a freak.
One day I’m waiting in the Jensens’ hallway for my turn on the bathroom scale, leaning up against their towel closet in my jean shorts and my butterfly thongs, and Robin walks by. “Where’s Amy?” she asks.
“Amy’s weighing herself” I say.
Robin knocks hard on the door, and after a few seconds Amy’s head pokes out. She’s wrapped in a bath towel. “What?”
“What’s with the group weigh-ins?”
“‘We’re slenderizing,” Amy says.
“You haven’t even gone through puberty yet, Amy; you’re going to mess up your whole body.”
Amy gets angry. “I have too gone through puberty, moron, only you’re too busy freaking out about your own body to notice.”
“I don’t do that anymore,” she says.
“What’d you eat yesterday, two carrot sticks?”
“I don’t do that anymore and you know it.”
“Wow, a whole apple, you better watch it.”
“Shut up, Amy.”
“You’re going to get fat. You better watch out.”
Robin’s face gets weird: her eyes narrow and she starts rubbing her left arm with her right hand like she’s going to wind up and throw punches, or like she’s having a heart attack. Amy watches her, half-scared, half-crazy-angry, waiting to see what happens. I wait, too. Finally Robin stops rubbing; she leans her face into the doorway and says, “I don’t do that anymore.” Her words hiss. She says, “Mind your own business, anyway, Amy,” and rushes into her bedroom.
Amy slams the bathroom door hard and I can hear her stomping around on the other side of the door like she’s breaking the mirrors or something, and I want to leave because I know how it feels to be that angry and all you can do is clench your fists and throw something breakable. Finally Amy comes out, dressed in a tank top from the Gap, her arms poking through the sleeve holes like straws out of a drink box. “Come on,” she says, starting down the stairs. “Let’s go jogging.”
By the time I get home, Lisa’s showered and made up like she has never worked and would never work at a place like Tommy’s Burgers in her life. She’s sitting in the kitchen, feet propped up on the table, watching a Friends rerun when I come in. “Where have you been?” she asks.
“Amy and I went jogging. We’re slenderizing.” I say it exactly like Amy said it, like I’m reading it out of Seventeen magazine and proud of it. I half expect Lisa to say something annoying: “Why are you doing something stupid like that?” or “Don’t you know you’re too skinny as it is?” But she doesn’t say anything at all, she just stares at the TV.
So of course I have to say, “Why do you want to know?”
“I don’t. I just think it’s lame.”
“I know what you’re doing, Karen. You think you’re so cool, and really it’s just the same old game of being skinny enough that the boys will like you so you can be popular and happy and live a fabulous life.”
I want to say, “No, you big idiot, that’s not it at all!” but I guess that’s basically it. I grab a peach out of the basket on the counter and start to gnaw at it; chunks of peach flesh lodge in my teeth. Lisa says, “I just want you to know that it doesn’t work. The boys aren’t going to like you no matter what.”
My fists get tight. I am filled with a sudden desire to run at her and push her down, and it makes me sick to my stomach how Lisa doesn’t even care, how she just sits there like a huge beached whale, stuffing her face with potato chips, not even caring that they leave like the hugest trail of grease everywhere. Big-shot sixteen-year-old with her stupid burger job and her stupid burger body. “You’re just jealous, Lisa.”
“If you turn into one of those disgusting Jensens I will be so angry. Robin Jensen is too skinny, Karen. No one at school even thinks she’s pretty.”
“So how come she goes to Homecoming every year and you’re never gone?”
Lisa snorts. “Go away, brat.”
Kate Moss smiles at me from the refrigerator door as I pass.
In August, Mom takes me back-to-school shopping at the mall. I am wearing a size four, which is one size down from what I was wearing when school got out in June. Amy is wearing a size two. We have our last official weigh-in Friday before school starts, and Amy wins because she not only reaches her goal, she passes it: 97 pounds. I’m still 105. I guess by the end I just wanted strawberry shortcake more than I wanted anything else in the world. Amy doesn’t make me feel bad about it, though, like I thought she would.
“You did super-good, Karen,” she says. “We’ll do better next summer.”
On the first day of school I have a class with Chris Edmonston—life science. This is good, Amy explains. Lots of opportunities to ask for help, like “Will you turn on my Bunsen burner?” We laugh hysterically during lunch, me with my plain bread sandwich, Amy with her bag of baby carrots. We
are both wearing new Old Navy tank tops and jean shorts as short as our moms would let us buy them. There is no cellulite on my thighs. I know Chris was looking at me in class. He’ll like me this year for sure.