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The Lie

Anna Tennis Saturday EssayThere is something about a Hardee’s buttermilk biscuit; you have to admit it. Even the ones that have been cooked for too long, left hot and dry under the culinary equivalent of a tanning lamp until they surpassed deep golden and arrived at dusky caramel, sitting puck-like on the stainless steel rack. You can eat them until your lips crack and curl, until your mouth puffs biscuit crumbs like sandstorms in a desert, they’re so tasty.

Regina simply could not resist them. Which was unfortunate, really, because she was already a big woman — more than six feet tall, and built to comfortably support her more than 200-pound weight. When she got hired as the morning biscuit baker it was a pretty good promotion, and one she had sorely wanted. But now she was alone with those biscuits every morning from 4:45 to 6 a.m., when Hardee’s opened, and a person could eat a lot of biscuits in that amount of time.

Regina came from Bartholomew, Kentucky originally, but she had moved to Lexington before her 18th birthday because she had her eye on the assistant manager position, and when one opened up in Lexington, she applied right away.

Regina had really been living on her own since she was 13, since no foster care situation lasted longer than her parent’s drinking spells, and back she’d go, until they’d get all liquored up again and then she’d get put back in somebody’s house for a couple of months until they dried up. Regina would have been the first to tell you that it wasn’t an ideal way to spend your teen years, but she’d balanced things out okay, quitting high school because there was just no point in going for a while, only to stop and transfer, and stop again.

When, at 16, Regina had turned up pregnant at foster care, she had been removed from her parents’ home once and for all and her father was locked up for doing things a father should never do to his daughter. Regina’s mom gave up sobriety for good. The pregnancy had miscarried, mercifully, and Regina was permanently remanded to state custody.

She ended up getting a job at Hardee’s where at least, for nine and a half hours every day, people only wanted her to bring them food.

With everything that had happened, Regina had pretty well finished growing up, and was as tired of talking about her bad situation as she could possibly be. She knew what had happened to her was horrifying, and tragic, and talking about it just kept it that way, like it was happening over and over and over again. So she took off, and found herself an efficiency apartment, and worked hard until this job came up in Lexington.

She thought occasionally about finishing her diploma, but she didn’t need it at Hardee’s. She could advance all the way to regional manager without it.

The promotion to assistant manager was a good one in a lot of ways. She was making more money, for sure, and she could get herself a one-bedroom apartment, which was nice. And she liked the early mornings. It was so dark and chilly when she first arrived at 4:30 or so, and when those ovens would heat up, the whole kitchen would slowly fill with a sort of round warmth, the smell of baking biscuits carried right into your bones, shepherded by the first pumpkin-orange hints of the sunrise. It was a perfect way to spend your morning.

The only drawback, if you asked Regina, was that she loved biscuits so much. She simply never grew tired of them. She’d have a couple, fresh from the oven, then a couple more as they cooled. The thing about those biscuits was the flavor changed as they cooled, the subtle iterations of salt and lard mutating in their relationship to one another with every incremental alteration in Fahrenheit. They were literally different pastries every minute.

Regina would eat 12, maybe 20 of them before the restaurant even opened.

She gained weight. She gained so much weight she had to buy a full-sized bed. She gained so much weight, she had to special-order her uniform from a uniform shop in Louisville. She was, at her best guess, a little over 300 pounds. She knew she had to do something, but she just couldn’t seem to control herself. She reasoned with herself that if she couldn’t control the number of biscuits going in, she’d just increase the number coming out. It took a while to learn how to make herself retch, but she was glad she kept at it. After a while, it was easy. In fact, it was easier than any other alternative available to Regina in the situation, and she was grateful for that.

The purging took some of the heat off Regina for resisting the biscuits, and, inexplicably, she started wanting them a little less. Knowing she could just force them right back out of her again gave her some power over the situation, and she felt like she was in control of herself again. She started to lose the weight she’d gained, slowly at first, and then, inspired by her success, she started purging everything she ate, and taking a small handful of laxatives with every meal. That sped things up quite a bit.

Only six months into her new diet plan, Regina had lost nearly 150 pounds, more than half her body weight.

At her height, she was rail-thin and sunken, but she thought she looked magnificent. She loved the feel of her ribs beneath her apron, the way her belt hung on her hip bones. She loved the feel of her jaw, angled and well-defined under the soft pad of her palm. She loved the way her fingers rested like spiders’ legs on the hollow circle of her waist. She was finally skinny. To her, it was the most beautiful she had ever been.

If you ask any fat girl who’s gotten skinny what she’d do to stay that way, she’ll tell you crazy things — cut off a finger, get a tattoo on her face … anything to keep the weight off. She’ll burn her clothes like they were covered in plague germs, like the fat will jump off them onto her again in her sleep. She’ll have fat nightmares, where she wakes up and is even fatter than before, standing naked in front of a mirror and bawling like it was the saddest thing in the entire world. Because it is, when you’re that girl. It is exactly the saddest thing in the world.

Regina was no exception. She stuck to her plan with the same rigor and attention one might devote to carefully crossing a river on a slippery log.

However, as with most bad solutions, there were some hiccups in her plan. Namely, she felt lousy most of the time, sort of dark and shaky on the molecular level, like her cells were little old women, doddering around her veins, leaning into her arterial walls to get their balance. She couldn’t concentrate well, and often forgot what she was doing from one end of the restaurant to the other.

Her regular patrons (most of whom were senior citizens who came for coffee and biscuits at 6 a.m. sharp), had become accustomed to seeing a more robust Regina, and speculated extensively about the causes of her wasted figure. Could she be sick? Pregnant? On drugs? Drugs, they agreed. She was definitely on drugs.

It was at this point that she met John.

He was skinnier than Regina, and taller too — but he was that lanky, wiry, bouncy kind of skinny that won’t ever allow for so much as a flap of skin to grab him by. He was very, very quiet — alarmingly so; shy to the point of seeming mute. Sometimes he came into Regina’s Hardee’s to get a bacon, egg and cheese biscuit and black coffee. He was tan, and very handsome. One morning, around 9:30, John walked up the register to order his breakfast, and Regina had her head bowed over the counter, her hands supporting herself on either side of the till.

“Y’okay?” John asked.

Regina thought she said, “yeah,” but it turned out no sound had come out of her mouth at all. She was trying to look up, trying to focus back in on the room, but it was like she had taken one step back from herself and accidentally gotten onto a moving sidewalk, and she was whooshing further and further away from the husk of her body, the apertures of her eyes. “Y’okay?” he asked again, louder than before, much louder than he customarily spoke. Regina willed her head to the left, to tell him she was fine, to ask him if he had any interest in trying the new Sante Fe Omelet Biscuit, but the sidewalk was moving much faster now, and she could see herself far away, and the distance between them deepened, darkened, until it was everything.

She split her lip and broke her front tooth passing out.

She’d have done worse if it hadn’t been for John literally leaping over the counter to keep her from crashing her head into the cement floor. Regina’s eyelids fluttered, but did not open. John held her close to his chest, and her breath was hot against his face. It smelled, because of the purging, and the constant bile, vaguely medicinal. John called an ambulance, and the restaurant manager came in to cover. While they all waited for one or the other to arrive, the patrons got John up to speed on Regina’s drug problem. Maybe he could talk to the doctor about it, they said. Maybe he could talk to her about it, since she obviously carried a torch for him, they said. They liked her better heavy like she used to be, they said.

As Regina’s unconscious form rose and fell gently in John’s lap, he felt a crushing sympathy for her, for her pain, and her addiction. John was a recovering drug addict himself — only ten months clean. His body trembled at the thought of what she must be going through — the kind of pain she would be in soon. He had never felt so strong a connection with any human being in his whole life, and he loved her. Suddenly, and truly, and in his skin itself.

They put Regina into a coma, in response to what John said about her drug habit. They couldn’t tell what drugs she was doing, they said, but they found a lot of an amphetamine derivative in her blood, so maybe she was a pill popper. Either way, best for her palpitating heart if she slept out the withdrawals, since she might not live through them.

John stayed by her side for two whole weeks. When they brought her around, it took a while for her to get her bearings. She recognized John from the restaurant, but she was all murky and slow, and couldn’t understand why he was there. “Hey, Regina. You been sleeping for a while. You passed out at the Hardee’s, and I caught you,” he said. His voice was soft. Regina’s fog dissipated, but did not dissolve. “I’m in the same boat,” he said, “I struggle with some of the same things you do.” Her breath stuttered in her chest, and she coughed just as tears crushed her windpipe.

John shook his head, and enfolded her in his arms. It was nothing he had ever done before, even with his own family.

Regina started to cry really, really hard then, crying and crying — for the whole thing, all of it at once. It felt like her head would crack open with the force of it, all the terrible things and now this beautiful man, so warm and so close.

“I’ve been quit for ten months. I’m probably strong enough I can show you how to quit, too. If that’s okay with you. We can be friends, or whatever.” He laughed nervously. “I might have shown my hand a little already.” Regina stiffened, and her heart felt like it had fallen like a brick in a river to the bottom of her rib cage. In a moment, she knew what he thought, what it meant.

She didn’t say a single word. John thought she must be nervous about his intentions.

They were married three months later, after much careful courtship. John became a lay pastor for his church, and they bought a house in the suburbs. It was the happiest Regina had ever been, even if it wasn’t real. It felt real.

They never talked about it. They talked about everything else. John seemed to think everything about Regina was delightful. He never tired of her chatter, and watched her with a gentle appreciation that felt like sun on her skin. She knew their relationship depended upon a complicated misapprehension, one that Regina sidestepped by playing to John’s quiet nature, by saying she didn’t care to discuss it. John attributed this to the depth of her addiction, and loved her even more. But it wore on her. And as all untruths, it got more and more complicated to maintain. John wanted her to help him with the church’s Youth Council Drug Education, and she could hardly refuse. She spent a whole ten-day course pretending to be too upset to talk, telling John this was too much for her and would he please take over? She thought it would never end.

And she was getting fat again, which made matters a whole lot muddier. She tried not to, but she started throwing up again, just once in a while, if she ate so much she could feel her stomach stretching and groaning with how much she forced into it. It was hard to find a place to do it; John was always with her now, so she had to work much harder than before. She ran into gas station washrooms, the restrooms at grocery stores when she shopped. If it got too bad, she’d go down into the laundry room and lock the door, and throw up in a paper bag while the washer ran to cover the sound.

They had been married two years, almost. The worse it got, the more she needed to eat. It felt like everything was falling apart.

John came home early one Sunday afternoon, when Regina had just finished eating a whole pizza, a one-pound bag of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, four jelly-filled doughnuts, and a 16-ounce bottle of Powerade. He had come in just as she finished the last of the peanut butter cups, and she had enough time to stuff the bag under the couch beneath her feet. He sat down next to her on the couch, and flipped the TV on to ESPN, checking to see how basketball was coming along. Regina began to panic. If she didn’t throw up soon, her body would digest all that food. It was all she could think about, and she began to itch and twitch with anxiety and discomfort.

“What’s wrong with you?” John asked. She said it was nothing, nothing — just she was keyed up for next week. She had a job interview with a law firm, she said. Why did she say that? John turned to her, his eyebrows angled in. “Really?” was all he said, but Regina could tell he was confused.

The food rumbled in her stomach, and she said she had to go check the laundry. John told her he got it this morning, why didn’t she sit with him for a while and tell him about this new job she was thinking of? Regina was about to crawl out of her own skin. She said she needed to run to the gas station for a candy bar. John asked what was wrong with the ones in the pantry? John asked her was she really okay?

She couldn’t stand it. She stood up and marched out the door, practically racing down the stairs to the basement. She whipped the laundry room door shut behind her and locked it. As fast as she could, she vomited once, twice, three times into the trash can. There was a loud knock on the door. “Regina! Are you sick in there? Regina?” She shoved the trash under the metal shelf and pushed an old can of paint in front of it. She wiped her mouth on her hand, and stared at the door.

The knocking continued.

“Regina! Regina?” What had she done? What had she done? Oh Jesus. She flipped the lock, and opened the door. She walked out, and past her husband, who followed her up the stairs. “What is going on here, Regina? What is happening? Why won’t you tell me what’s going on here?” Regina reached the top of the stairs, and turned to face him.

She found, staring at his face so close, that she couldn’t find a single word to say. They just stood there, staring at each other.

John sniffed, and finally, he said it. “I can smell it on your breath, you know. Just that same smell as when you overdosed. It’s drugs again, right?”

She stood there, and her whole back couldn’t keep her head up anymore.

“I never was on drugs, John. I never did any drugs at all except laxatives to make me lose weight. I made myself throw up to lose weight. That’s why I was so sick. That’s what I been doing again. There never was any drugs.”

It was a terrible, terrible thing.

“Jesus.” John said. His eyes peeled into her, searching her face so hard she could feel her skin turning red from it. He rubbed his forehead with the heel of his palm. “Jesus, Regina.”

Regina thought of a hundred things she wanted to say to explain, but she couldn’t. She just stood there and watched him disassemble the past two years, rewriting their history with the truth, the corrected information.

Regina felt like the whole house had been emptied of everything, like they had moved all their stuff out and the place was all echoes and furniture dents in the carpets — no other evidence they had ever been at all.

Regina wanted to ask him everything — catch the disappearing threads of all the love, all the close moments as they unraveled, flitted away. Everything just caught in her throat. She had no right to ask him anything, now.

John watched her. He took forever to move an inch. Finally, he shook his hanging head, his long fingers fluttering weary protest. He nodded, squinting at her. “Don’t be silly.” He stepped up next to her on the riser and rested his arm around the curve of her shoulders.

His inscrutable face warmed, and a slow smile started in his eyes and moved to his lips.

2 Comments

bhall

about 3 years ago

You've done it again, Anna.  Thank you for taking me on a journey with your story.

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