Excerpt from Hot Dog Between Fear and Desire, a memoir by Debbie Merion
From far points, Bob, Rachel and I fly into the same city—Los Angeles. We have no idea how long we will be in L.A., how much underwear to pack, the big or the small toothpaste, but we are there on a mission: to help our Abigail fight her anorexia. Unfortunately, that’s not Abigail’s agenda. It rarely is for the anorexic. She’s not so sure she wants to let go of her creepy new best friend of an illness, so we are not exactly welcomed. Abigail and Daniel live here, but since we’ve flown in yesterday from Ann Arbor, Rachel and I haven’t seen them. For all I know, they’ve driven by our hotel window already. Highway 405 snakes by the hotel, but even with a hotel room on the 10th floor, the hum of the cars rises up from the tarmac like heat off of a summer pavement. A constant drone of cars accompanies the constant buzzing of worries in my brain as I try to sleep.
Bob, too, has flown to L.A. from his curtailed trip to India, which ended up being merely six hours in Mumbai—three making arrangements for his emergency flight home, two spent buying gifts of writing journals and cotton embroidered shirts for his wife and daughters, and one spent trying to cross the street, where unruly Indian drivers avoid pedestrians by honking their horn, rather than slowing down, or heaven forbid, stopping. Not unlike Highway 405 here.
But finally Bob is with us, and we’re relieved he’s here. I see his wan smile and drooping, tired eyes from the long flight. But I know from experience that he can stay up for twenty-four hours and still remain alert, the extreme tiredness rendering him sweet and boyish. All of us are efficient and deficient in so many quirky ways. If you are lucky you get a spouse who is one way when you are the other. With Bob, I am often lucky.
He’s still sleepy with jet lag, so I drive our rented jeep through L.A. to Abigail and Daniel’s apartment. I’m trying to breathe evenly and stay calm to maintain my stamina, as Bob does. I know he’s doing the right thing, because I remember the advice I received from my friend Sam, who is the director of the student health clinic at the University of Michigan, “Even though this is an emergency with Abigail, think of this situation as more of a marathon than a fifty-yard dash. Burnout is the danger, so try to do what you can to keep working the problem for the long haul. That’s what I’ve noticed with parents of girls like Abigail. They have to find something within themselves to keep going and going.”
To our surprise Highway 405 is flowing today, and it’s a quick hop to Abigail and Daniel’s. We pull into the driveway, and my heart starts to pound as I get out of the car. I knock, their front door opens, and I step up into their dimly lit entrance. As soon as I see Abigail, I reach out, wrap my arms around her coat hanger shoulders, give her a hug, and my irritation at being ignored vanishes. I step back. Her skin is pale and slightly translucent, her arms look bony, her cheek bones more prominent than last time I saw her. My nose rubs her dreads, which are like soft steel wool. She hugs me back tentatively and quickly, a body language recipe made up of one part “I love you Mom,” one part “don’t touch me” and one part “I hope you will be leaving soon.”
The day is sunny and warm, but Abigail is wearing her heavy black hoodie. Her computer is in the living room on a table, the room is neat but dark, curtains pulled shut, blocking out the view of the sidewalk and of the other small houses across the street. At least anorexia hasn’t crippled Abigail’s productivity. In the last six months she’s graduated college, worked as a freelance automotive photo journalist, and even had a picture of a rubber-belching skidding car in a drifting-type car race published in Playboy magazine. She’s a mover, a doer. We are proud of her. But her next achievement needs to be outside her areas of expertise, and certainly outside of mine—though I am gaining skills quickly. She needs to recover from her anorexia.
Abigail’s tangle of emotions is caught in a net of anorexia, a thin attempt at order, a sketchy, inadequate attempt at control. It’s as unnatural as Abigail really putting a hairnet on her dreads— yeah, like that would ever happen, or could ever happen. Her dreads are down to her waist. I suspect they weigh about two pounds, including the brown and blue clay beads. Which probably means she actually weighs less than she sees when she ogles the lowering number. What is it today? 110? 109? 108?
I want to circle my arms around her, to drape my muscle over her bones. If she was more of a rag doll in my arms rather than a stiff broom, I’d give her a long hug and breathe. But I know how odd long hugs can feel, even from your mother, especially from your mother, and she’s never even liked massage.
This whole meeting today is complicated by her sister? Rachel’s eighteenth birthday. On special events, our family life centers around eating. We always had family dinners at home when the kids were growing up. Over dinner, I remember saying “what did you do today?” and we’d all talk about our busy days, like in the Berenstain Bears books. Any big event, any Jewish holiday, Thanksgiving, birthdays, Fourth of July all center around feasting.
So whenever eating is stressed, our family is stressed. The anorexia has created a bizarre aspect to food, turned food’s inherent goodness on its head, so it has become some sort of enemy to be wary of (to Abigail) or medicine to help us cure Abigail (to us). I realize that I won’t settle for food as either of these. Food is nourishment, it’s good, it’s life.
In some ways to consciously appreciate food is ridiculously simple—I try to simply notice the food as it goes into my mouth. But in some ways doing this is embarrassingly new and difficult, because it requires a focus on taste and smell rather than hearing—the talking at the table—or sight—the reading at the table when I’m alone. I take the time to taste my food. I try to slow down and pay more attention, though neither comes easy. At home, I’ve gotten a little more religiously observant at meals, using a traditional prayer to pay homage to the food that keeps my heart beating—what others might simply call “saying grace.” Before meals, we try to remember to say the Hamotzi—the Jewish prayer thanking God for bringing forth bread from the earth: Baruch atah adonai, eloheinu melech holum, hamotzi lechem meen haaretz. Maybe the old saw about people finding religion when the plane is going down is true.
But here, we’re not doing that with Abigail. Though food and prayers were once as familiar to Abigail as they are to me, we’re walking on eggshells, not blessing the eggs. I don’t want to give her one more thing to alienate her—organized religion, or even the spirit of it. We’re keeping faith on the down-low. It’s there to help hold us up while we hold up Abigail.
We are here to help Abigail eat, and that we will do. I scan Google for restaurants for Rachel’s birthday.
“Rachel, do you have any preferences?”
“Why don’t you find some choices Mom, and I’ll look at the menu,” she says.
“Does the restaurant need to be vegetarian?” I ask Abigail.
“No, can you just find one with some healthy, low-fat food?”
“Sure. Bob, anything you want?”
“Any place is fine with me,” says Bob.
Today, our L.A. choices are:
World Café—Santa Monica
World Café gets the nod from Rachel and Abigail. And so we go, preparing to play the roles that anorexia has assigned us. When we enter, it’s dark inside, with hanging fabric instead of dividing walls and doors. The air smells like onions and tarragon, the napkins soothe with soft purple cotton. I rest my knuckles on the table so the stiff paper menu doesn’t shake, because there is a weakness in my hands that I can’t quite control. I scan for an entree that leaps out with a seductive flavor like ginger—my tangy, sweet comfort flavor, developed from my childhood love for ginger snap cookies. But fear is bubbling up within me like an evil volcano. I haven’t eaten for hours, but even after all this time, this food has no appeal.
My lack of appetite fills my belly. My raison d’être for this journey is to help Abigail eat. I tell myself I must be a model of good eating habits, which eliminates the juvenile subterfuge of pushing food around on my plate, hoping no one will notice. I realize Abigail is watching me like a hungry hawk.
This is a test. I’ve never had a great appetite and Abigail knows it, and she is similar, or used to be, before she learned how to ignore her hunger pains completely. I remember having a 3:00 lunch with her one Saturday afternoon at the Olive Garden when she was about sixteen. We both ordered their big salad with crispy croutons and their spicy minestrone soup swimming with tubes of pasta and chunks of carrots.
“I’m hungry, finally!” I said. “Sometimes it takes me this long to get hungry for lunch.”
“Me too,” said Abigail, amused at our slow stomachs. “We suck at eating!” We laughed at this realization that we shared, and then we ate.
That sharing seems long ago, and I long for it again. It seems so different from what I can expect at this birthday dinner. Will we ever be able to laugh again while sharing a fun meal?
Tonight we order the pot stickers for an appetizer. Abigail orders the veggie Parmesan casserole with zucchini, green beans, carrots, and broccoli. I order the blackened salmon with mashed potatoes. Bob orders veal piccata. Rachel orders roasted chicken. All of us order full entrees, deliberately, acting casually like this order is standard, like it doesn’t matter, when it does. Abigail’s role is to pretend she’s hungry, and eat. But smells don’t entice her, don’t cause her tongue to water, don’t make her hand reach for the fork, don’t cause her mouth to open, don’t make her bend forward so her nose can inhale deeply from aroma and steam that is just inches away, don’t compel her to dig into the veggies in sauce lightly flavored with cheese and caramelized onion and just a hint of oregano. She can’t bend that elbow forty-five degrees, can’t cantilever the moment so that the wrist leads the fork to reach the mouth and the lips part, the tongue extends, welcoming, anxious, excited, quivering, curious, groping, hoping.
You have to fake it until you make it. Yes, there is the stress of being together, going out and eating, but there is something real and deep underneath. There is something there saying we are really screwed up but this is the very best we can do right now. There is something saying at least we have all shown up, and we know that showing up is part of the solution. We flew across the world, goddamit, to eat these pot stickers. Doesn’t that count for something? We’re trying.
I see Abigail is watching me carefully, staring. I raise my fork, she raises her fork. I sip my water, she sips hers. I stare at my plate and know that I’m being imitated. In some ways it’s a good thing, because Abigail is trying to eat. Her inner signals aren’t working, so she is using me as a role model to learn how much she should put in her mouth. But I hate this expectation to perform at the table.
Eating on cue has never been my strong point, even as a child, especially as a child. My mother knew it. Dr. K. knew it. I know it. Can I change?
Here and now, Abigail is matching me bite for bite. I want to go home but there is no end to this in sight. I’m nauseous with fear, I’m regressing to being a rebellious child who won’t be told what to eat, and to make matters worse, I’m a poor actress.
And suddenly my grandmother Bessie is with me and I hear her saying her words: “Ess, ess, mein kihnd” in a Yiddish accent. Eat, eat, my child. She always hoped I’d be a good eater, which sounded like “gut yeater” from her lips. I’m trying, like my life depends on it. Or someone else’s.
I’m lifting the fork, chewing. I’m swallowing. I’m eating.
And then Abigail lifts her fork too, slowly, and we keep going, like we are an exhausted couple hanging on to each other in the twenty-third hour of a dance marathon. I wash down the last of the salmon with my Kendall-Jackson chardonnay. She eats about half of the food on her plate, but it was a big American serving that was easily twelve ounces of food.
I put my napkin on the table, and say, “Excuse me.” I pretend to go to the bathroom, but detour into finding the hostess.
I whisper that it is my daughter’s birthday. “Can you bring her some cake and a lit candle?”
“No problem,” she says.
No problem? She has no idea.
When the chocolate cake is delivered—one huge slice, easily four inches tall with three layers of icing in between—we sing “Happy Birthday” to Rachel as she blows out the candle. I’m smiling, and although it’s not a fake smile, I’m guessing it looks more like a Mona Lisa smile—subtle, thoughtful, guarded. What a beautiful family this is, I think. I’m so happy we can all be here for Rachel and Abigail. How fortunate our family is to be together in this nice restaurant. But dear God, I feel like shit.
One meal down, how many to go? Six months or six years? It’s got to get easier. It’s got to help.
Debbie, some people write to inform, others to move us emotionally, you have succeeded at both. I found your essay informative, emotionally moving and beautiful.
Thanks for such a real ending to a fine personal essay.