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A Novel Diet
Cheryl stared into the undersized dressing-room mirror. Tears welled up in her eyes, blurring her vision and slowly sliding down her cheeks. All five gowns she’d tried on might as well have been burlap sacks, not designer dresses.
Cheryl yanked off the last dress and stared angrily at the sweaty rolls of fat glistening in her reflection. She grabbed her sides as though she were wearing a spare tire, desperately trying to shed it. When the stubborn mass wouldn’t budge, she started to sob aloud and collapsed onto the worn dressing-room bench with her face in her hands. In utter frustration, she kicked one of the garments from underfoot, causing it to land in a heap in the corner.
From a few stalls over, Cheryl heard her friend, Teresa, call out. “Hey, Cheryl. Hurry up, we’ve got to get going. We’re supposed to meet the gang in five minutes at Friday’s. We’re going to be really late. Cheryl? Hey, Cheryl!”
Cheryl silently tried to catch her breath and regain enough composure to respond. Suddenly, Teresa was banging on the dressing-room door. “Come on, we’re gonna be late!”
“You go ahead,” Cheryl managed to choke out, hiding her distress. “I’ll catch up with you.”
“Are you sure? I can wait.”
“No, no, you go ahead. I’ll be there in a bit.”
“Well, if you’re sure it’s okay.” Seconds later, Teresa was gone.
Cheryl sat for a while, drying her tears and trying to figure out what had gotten into her. She had never felt such despair before. Hell, she’d been fat for almost fifteen years—why was today any different? So what if she was going to someone else’s wedding and not her own? That was nothing unusual. Thirty-two years old and still single, she’d watched most of her high school friends get married without such an emotional reaction.
But now, she finally felt like giving up on her appearance. Why bother buying a new expensive dress? Anything that didn’t highlight her big belly just looked like a tent on her. Why not just wear something old? Nobody’d know the difference. No one looked at her anyway. She thought about not going to the wedding, but Wendy had been a good friend for many years. It would be more work explaining her absence than going. Maybe she’d just treat herself to a new pair of shoes and handbag, and wear the dress from Carol’s wedding party.
Cheryl hadn’t always been fat. Up until age seventeen, she had been almost too thin. She’d always been active and loved to dance. With her bubbly personality, she had been the life and soul of the party. She had really known how to dress, too, and had enjoyed showing off the latest fashions. With her then lithe body and athleticism, she had been a shoo-in at cheerleading tryouts.
It was safe to say that Cheryl was probably one of the most popular girls at school—before tragedy wiped away that cheerful girl everyone had known. Cheryl’s little sister, Joy, was hit by a car and killed, and the person Cheryl had been disappeared with her.
Cheryl had been babysitting her sister one day after school while her mother was gone grocery shopping. She sat outside on the front stoop, watching Joy play with a basketball. Joy, who had decided she was going to be the first famous female basketball player, was practicing her dribbling, bouncing the ball every which way. She frequently shouted, “Cheryl, watch this!” or “I bet you can’t do this!”
The phone rang, and Cheryl jumped up and ran inside the house to answer it, thinking it might be Teresa calling her back. No, it wasn’t her closest friend. It was an annoying telemarketer, and it only took Cheryl a moment to realize it and hang up. As she walked back outside, she heard an alarming screech of tires and a sickening thud. Frantically, she glanced around for Joy, who was no longer on the sidewalk. Cheryl looked up just in time to see a nondescript car take off like a bat out of hell.
She heard a shrill cry of pain, not realizing it was her own as she viewed the crushed body of her adored little sister lying in the middle of the street. She ran into the street, still wailing, still hoping. Blood oozed from Joy’s ear, and her little body lay at an odd angle to her head and neck. Her basketball was a few feet away, under a car across the street from their house. Cheryl felt the sudden urge to vomit and instinctively turned away so she wouldn’t throw up on her sister. She collapsed to her knees, puking and sobbing next to Joy. One of the neighbors saw what was happening and called the police.
The officers arrived at the same time that Cheryl’s mother, Charlotte, appeared back from the grocery store. Cheryl was so hysterical that she wasn’t making any sense at all. Charlotte took one look at what was in front of her and become equally distraught. The police tried in vain to calm them down. An ambulance came, but everyone knew it was too late for Joy.
Although Cheryl had gotten only the briefest glimpse of the escaping car, she had enough wherewithal to note the license-plate number, which she related to the police between sobs. The police put out an APB with a description of the car, which was found the next day, abandoned not more than twenty-five minutes from the house. Although investigators were able to get several good DNA samples from the stolen car from cigarettes in the ashtray, they never did find a match in any of the databases. It was still an open case.
In the months after, Cheryl tried to avoid thinking about Joy. But reminders of her little sister were everywhere. Cheryl began avoiding friends. Their good-intentioned inquiries about how she was doing would simply cause her to burst into tears. Even a friendly question like “What’s new?” upset her. Because she couldn’t talk about what had happened, conversations became stilted. Cheryl really didn't understand that her own silence contributed to the distance she felt. Although everyone said that they didn’t blame her for what happened, she blamed herself, so she could only assume that her failure to protect her sister was the reason for their detachment.
She found herself staying at home more and just watching TV. She spent many sleepless nights soothed by midnight snacks and many daytime hours in front of mind-numbing TV shows with bags of potato chips, bowls of corn chips, gallons of ice cream, and oooh, those Snickers bars. By the time she started paying any attention to school again, she’d gained thirty pounds and had nearly failing grades. But she really didn’t care. Nothing was all that important.
Although very bright, she just couldn’t get interested in school during her entire senior year. Her friends encouraged her to try, but they finally gave up. After reducing her impressive academic record into a mediocre high-school career, she graduated weighing almost two hundred pounds. She still had a pretty face, but it was buried in her chubby cheeks, and her once lustrous, thick, light brown hair became dull and limp through lack of care. Her sparkling blue eyes lost their glint and turned the bluish gray of an ocean on an overcast day. Cheryl did go out on the occasional date, but as her girth grew and her wardrobe shrank, she stopped going out altogether, figuring that nobody would want her anyway. Why bother?
After graduation, she looked around for a job. Her lack of employable skills led her to an entry-level job at Wal-Mart. She really didn’t need to work, since she still lived at home. Her dad had died prematurely at age forty from diabetes and heart disease, but he had made certain that they were well provided for financially. Cheryl, only seven , had been devastated at the time, but her mom, Charlotte, had done a reasonably good job filling the void. But now Cheryl was spending most of her time taking care of her widowed mother.
Unfortunately, Charlotte had smoked two packs a day for about forty years and was in and out of the hospital with obstructive lung disease and heart failure. She was tied to an oxygen tank. Although her legs were capable of walking, her lungs wouldn’t permit it. It was only four or five years after Joy’s death that Charlotte had become disabled. Mostly, her mother was tied to a wheelchair, and Cheryl was tied to her. Charlotte ate next to nothing, and as a result, Cheryl never really learned how to cook. So she ate mostly junk food, fast food, and the occasional “gourmet” TV dinner.
Charlotte’s disability had an odd effect on Cheryl. Rather than bemoaning her fate, burdened by her mother’s dependency, she became empowered by it. Taking on more responsibility at home had spurred her to do more with her own life. Once deciding to become a dental assistant, she flew through the coarse work with ease, finishing at the top of her class. Cheryl landed her first job without effort and was very happy doing something more useful than manning a cash register at Wal-Mart.
While at Friday’s, Cheryl’s mood gradually improved throughout the evening. She always had a good time with the girls—Wendy, Susan, Carol, and Teresa. Their friendship, forged in high school, was still as strong as ever, which was a testament to Cheryl’s own worth. No matter how much she had rebuffed them during difficult times, they remained true. Cheryl’s good-natured, easygoing attitude and sense of humor always made for pleasant company, even when she wasn’t at her best. Though she was no longer the life of the party or a fashion plate, she was still their best friend.
By the time Cheryl returned home, she had a smile on her face. She wasn’t surprised to find her mother asleep in the wheelchair in front of the TV, snoring loudly. Cheryl wheeled her into the bedroom and helped her into bed. She gathered pillows to prop her up, but as soon as Charlotte lay down, a coughing fit ensued. Cheryl hated feeling so utterly helpless. Her mother would turn several different colors, none of which seemed humanly possible, before settling back down to a very pale white with tinges of blue. Cheryl was happy that at least she had never started smoking. Okay, she thought to herself. I may be addicted to Snickers, but that’s a helluva lot better than cigarettes. At least Snickers can’t kill me.
Having settled her mother in, Cheryl began her nightly routine. As she put on her nightshirt, she avoided the mirror at all costs, hating to look at her naked body. Once between the sheets, she couldn’t help thinking about her breakdown earlier in the day. Why had she been so upset? She couldn’t really come up with an answer, but the unpleasant memory of her reflection prompted her to consider giving dieting one more try. But the very idea of giving up her Snickers bars made her anxious. In an effort to let those thoughts go, she concentrated on her mother’s wheezy breathing in the next room and fell asleep.
Just as Cheryl was leaving the house for work the next morning, her mother had another one of her coughing fits, which delayed her. When her mom was finally okay, Cheryl talked with their neighbor, Mrs. Curtis, to make sure the woman would check in on her mother a little earlier than usual. Her mom and Mrs. Curtis usually had coffee together each morning and played a few games of gin rummy, but Cheryl was a little more worried about Charlotte today and didn’t want too much time to pass before someone checked on her. Her mom wore one of those panic buttons around her neck in case of emergency, but Cheryl couldn’t be too careful.
All of this made Cheryl late for work. As she entered the first procedure room, her boss, Dr. Weiner, glanced up at her with a brief but stony stare.
“Good afternoon,” he said sarcastically.
Cheryl quickly took Janie’s place on the stool opposite him, almost knocking over the instrument table in the process. The new girl, Janie, was actually quite slim, so the setup hadn’t allowed for Cheryl’s girth. Cheryl saw the look Dr. Weiner gave her and tried to ignore it. He had warned her just last week, after a similar incident, that if she continued to put on weight, she might be out of a job. He had pointed out to her that he was unable to enlarge his procedure rooms to accommodate her 230-pound body.
“Adjust the light please, Cheryl,” he said tersely.
“Better?” Cheryl asked. Dr. Weiner nodded. She picked up the suction rod, anticipating her boss’s needs every step of the way, handing him just the right instrument before he asked. She was good and didn’t want to be fired. She wanted to make him feel that she was indispensable, fat or thin.
Hours later, the office receptionist, Tina, stuck her head into each of the procedure rooms. “I’m going to the deli—anyone want anything?” Cheryl ordered a tossed salad. Tina looked at her strangely. “Is that all you want? Who are you kidding?”
Cheryl was thinking about maybe starting her diet, but looked at Tina and said, “Yeah, you’re right. Just kidding. Get me a corned beef special with a side of potato salad, and a large Pepsi.”
Later, as the two women ate their lunches in the all-purpose room, Tina looked at Cheryl quizzically across the table.
“Are you thinking about going on a diet again?”
“I don’t know. One minute I think I should, and then the next minute I think it’s pointless. I’ve dieted so many times in the past, and I lose some weight, but then I just put it all back on again and then some. Ugh, it’s so frustrating! But I don’t know … maybe this time it could be different. I was thinking of going to my doctor and getting some diet pills. Maybe if I could just get a jump start, I could do better. It’s just so hard, and I’m really not up for failing again.”
“I have a friend who went on that South Beach Diet, and she’s doing really well. She’s lost over thirty pounds already,” Tina interjected.
“I’m not sure I can face another supposed miracle diet.” Cheryl said forlornly. “I really hate being fat … but I love eating. I’m just not sure I can do it, you know?”
“I know this guy … he’s a waiter, around food all the time. He used to be really big. About two years ago, he lost over a hundred pounds and started playing ice hockey again. Now he plays three and four times a week, he looks fabulous.”
“How did he do it? Do you know?” Cheryl asked, anticipating a diet she’d already tried—and failed.
“Well, I asked him, and he told me he owed everything to his family doctor. I asked him if his doctor had prescribed some pills or something, and he laughed. He said, ‘She didn’t give me a prescription. She gave me a new attitude.’ I really wasn’t sure what he was talking about, but maybe I could get his doctor’s name for you, if you’re interested.”
“That might be an idea. God knows I don’t have anything better to try.” Cheryl polished off her drippy corned-beef special, licking the mayonnaise-like sauce from her fingers as she contemplated seeing this doctor. Of course, Cheryl already knew that attitude wouldn’t be enough, but maybe the woman would be willing to provide medication to help her succeed.