Helena sat at her kitchen table. It was a dreary day in the middle of July, the sort of day that leaves you wondering if summer is ever going to arrive or questioning if that single day of sunshine that appeared last week was the only summer happening in this car crash dumpster fire of a year. She was hungry. She’d forgotten to have her lunch and the afternoon had grumbled on until the deafening rumbles of her stomach reminded her that it needed to be nourished and filled. So she had prepared a salad.
She had lovingly peeled the leaves from the living lettuce, gently washing the remnants of soil away under the tap. She had cut the small rubies of the cherry tomatoes into perfect, delicate quarters. She had pitted the olives and sliced them in half. She had carved the cucumber into disks and arranged them in a concentric circle around the edge of the bowl, as if a halo or headdress on the lettuce. She had mixed tuna with mayonnaise and cracked black pepper over the combination. She had spread the tuna evenly amongst the leaves and olives and tomatoes. She had picked her favourite fork from the drawer and taken herself to the spot at the table that the sun hit perfectly at this time of day. She wished for the sun but the grey day saw no signs of abating. So much for the Great British summer. Cars rushed along the road outside, breaking the speed limit in their hurry to travel from mundane point A to mundane point B, the rain on the tarmac a percussive soundtrack to their journey.
Helena looked down at the tiny portion of salad she had lovingly prepared. Feeding herself was one of the small pleasures in life, but in truth she longed to eat the “bad” foods the internet told her would add weight to her thighs, to her bum, to her stomach. The “bad” foods would make her less attractive as her body softened and eased into a bigger space.
She had been told for many years that she should be small, that she should stay small, because the bigger you are, the more invisible you are to prospective husbands, and every woman is looking for a prospective husband. A prospective husband with whom to live in a hetronormative relationship, to procreate with, producing two perfect children who would never cry, never act up and, of course, who would always eat their greens. But oh how she longed for a thick beef patty, nestled between the halves of a brioche bun, covered in melted Monterey jack cheese, laced with mayonnaise and tomato ketchup. A meal where a salad is an afterthought, a nod to health, rather than the whole meal itself. But no. A salad was what she should eat and so it was what she ate. She told herself she loved salad. She always said she didn’t miss carbohydrates and the crunch of the lettuce was satisfying enough. She told herself she enjoyed the way it left her belly feeling as if there were room for more. She absolutely did not miss the feeling of being pleasantly filled she remembered from her old life, when she used to eat bread and potatoes. Absolutely not. She definitely didn’t miss that feeling. No Ma’am.
She laid a napkin out tenderly over her legs, picked up her fork and began to eat. But with every mouthful, rather than feeling her hunger satiate, she was getting more hungry. More and more hungry, until she was hungrier than she had ever been. She was suddenly ravenous, light headed, uneasy in her chair, as if her body had just expelled all of it’s nutrients in her last exhale. She wolfed the salad down, forcing the fork, laden with leaves and their accoutrements into her mouth faster than she could chew, faster than she could swallow. She cleaned her plate of every last crumb of food, then raced over to the fridge, throwing the door open. The glass bottles in the door jangled as aggressively as her nerves were jangling. What was going on? Her stomach felt hollow, so hollow she looked down to check it was still there and there wasn’t just a hole where her gut used to be.
She took every piece of food in her fridge and laid it out on the table in front of her. Salad leaves. Low fat cottage cheese. Vegetables – broccoli, green beans, more olives and tomatoes. Not a carb in sight. She ate them all, one after the other, consuming food like she was the Very Hungry Caterpillar about to turn into a chrysalis. She emptied the fridge of everything she could eat without cooking, forcing it down her throat and still she was unsatisfied. She was dizzy and feeling the hunger in every part of her body. Her toes were hungry. Her fingernails were hungry. The hairs on her head and the back of her neck were hungry. She raided the cupboards, cramming dry Ryvita crackers into her mouth and washing them down with gulps of water grabbed before each insertion. She had eaten everything ambient in the house and was still excruciatingly unsatisfied.
And then she saw it. She had made a cake for her colleague’s birthday. A rich, decadent chocolate cake with a chocolate ganache and filled with a light and fluffy buttercream and topped with gold leaf. It was pretty as a picture. Could have fallen from the pages of Good Housekeeping. Absolute perfection. She had made it earlier that day and resisted even licking the bowl because cake was the worst of all the bad foods, even uncooked cake mix was forbidden. She had told herself she could not afford to even taste the mixture because that would be calories she needed to take care of later and her whole life was a careful balance of calorific intake and calorific burn. In perfect synchronicity.
But, somehow, she knew the cake was the thing that she needed. It was the thing her body needed most. She took a knife from the drawer, her mouth watering as she pushed it gently through the resistance of the ganache and the sponge. She slid the knife underneath and eased the slice gently from the rest of the cake. Her head stopped spinning at the smell of the sweetness. She felt more solid as she carved her fork through the sharp end of the cake and moved it, full of sugar and fat and chocolate and calories and G O O D N E S S to her mouth. As soon as the cake touched her lips, as the concoction of chemistry danced on her tongue, the hunger vanished, as if it had been a figment of her imagination. It was as if the hunger had been years of unfulfillment in the making and her body could no longer tolerate the restricted, sad and soluless diet she had been enforcing on it. She ate another mouthful of cake, relishing the taste of it. She couldn’t remember the last time she had eaten cake. Or anything with sugar in it. Or a carbohydrate for that matter. She had been restricting her diet since she was a teen, surviving on salads and health foods alone. But it was as though this hunger had arrived to tell her that a little bit of what you fancy does you good.
The hunger had passed but she ate the whole slice of cake. And when she had eaten the cake, she ordered a burger. When she had eaten the burger, she vowed she’d go back to salads tomorrow. Salads and health food. But she was done with denying herself the things that she wanted. Life was too short for that.