My oldest daughter, Mara, makes a big pan of it for me every Christmas. She knows I like anything she makes — like most parents, I’m shamelessly sentimental — but my delight over the fudge is especially keen. It doesn’t matter that this year it’s no “surprise.” In years past, we’d conspire to create some mystery until it was time to open gifts, but this Christmas, when I pick up Mara and Sara at their mother’s house for our holiday visit, the secret’s out. She’s made two pans this year, and they’re too big to hide. Besides, she’s nearly eleven and too old, alas, to be excited by her Dad’s feigned surprise. Standing by the car, she hands me the aluminum foil-wrapped pans to put beside her suitcase. She shrugs and says, “This is the fudge.” Then she glances at me uncertainly and sighs. “Is it OK I told you?” “Sure,” I say, hoping it doesn’t sound like a lie.
The fudge is, properly, “Elyse’s Super Fudge.” My sister Elyse created it and passed the recipe along. It’s hard to believe there’s not a spoonful of sugar or a sliver of chocolate in it. Fifteen years ago, when sugar had risen to the top of my list of “don’ts,” my sister, with a good-natured wink, handed me my first slice. It looked so rich and dark; she assured me it would make my sweet tooth quiver while leaving my conscience unmolested and at peace. “You’re kidding,” I said, turning it over as suspiciously as a rabbi inspecting his salad for bacon bits. I was being ludicrous, I knew, but refusing to eat sugar — an austerity which, for me, was just this side of giving up sex — was only my latest and most fanatical attempt to stave off that old and unrelenting foe: my appetite.
It hadn’t always been this way. According to family legend, improbable though it seems, at one time I wouldn’t eat at all! I was a “bad eater,” they said — so bad it took two of them, my mother and my grandmother, to convince me to open my tiny mouth and swallow. One would push me on my toy horse, the other would follow with poised spoon. If my father happened to be at home, he’d help out, too. “Take a bite for President Truman,” he’d croon. “Take a bite for Joe DiMaggio.”
What dedication! What imagination! What patience! Of the latter, though, I can only guess, as they never included in their reminiscences the inevitable disappointments and failures, the food I must have spit back at them, the anger, the napkin run across my lips. . . . How old could I have been? Probably, I was at the age when children learn to say “no.” How perplexing this is for parents — yet what an appropriate response “no” is for most things we’re asked to do in this world. Still, I had to eat. What point was there in developing normally — in building a strong ego and mature sense of identity — if I proceeded, spitefully, to waste away?
In their minds they were, I suppose, being kind. They were all overweight — my father extravagantly so — and associated food with well-being and security and love. Even so, when I look back at the photographs taken of me then, I don’t understand their alarm. A bad eater, you’d think, might look a little scrawny or frail, but there’s no hint of boniness, nothing gaunt in that chubby-faced smile. The baby fat never melted away: my tummy kept getting rounder; my milky soft arms were the kind grown-ups loved to squeeze. At the age of eight, I was put on a diet by the doctor to lose twenty pounds — a rite of passage which made me fully a part of the family, in which everyone was either dieting or pretending to.
I lost the twenty pounds; for years afterward, my parents praised me for my “will power” during those few months, though my restraint had more to do with fear and shame. Anyway, I promptly put the weight back on; in my school pictures, I’m one of the biggest kids in the class. Since I was, thankfully, tall and big-boned, I was never as grotesquely fat as the really fat kids, a distinction that seemed terribly important at the time.
The main thing is, I lived. Because of their commitment to my little life, I made it. Whatever had at first possessed me to refuse their food, their love — to refuse them — had been driven away, to make room for this new thing, this hunger, this willing mouth.
Forty years later, a grown man with children of my own, I’m still struggling with my appetite. Like my parents, and their parents before them, I’ve made food into a symbol, so that eating has become a way to satisfy needs that have nothing to do with food — which is, of course, impossible. As impossible, for me, as taking just one bite. As impossible as the feeling I’m reaching for when I reach for something sweet, for the brief joy, the flowering happiness that’s never really reached. So I reach again.
My daughter’s fudge, this generous gift, this gift of love meant to last for days — I wonder, will it last an hour? Will I reach for it, as I’ve always done, as if I’m reaching into the past? Will I keep on eating, even after the sweetness cloys? Why haven’t I ever been able to eat just one piece without eating the whole pan?
I have a friend who, like me, used to be a fat kid and, like me, has struggled all his life to keep from being a fat adult. One day we were talking about our eating habits, the way two generals might discuss the strategies they’d used in the same intractable war. I asked if he ate any snacks after dinner. “No,” he said. “Don’t you get hungry?” I wanted to know. He smiled ruefully. “I’ve been hungry all my life.”
Was my friend being melodramatic? When I told him I knew exactly what he meant, was I? Here we were, two good-looking guys — healthy, well-built — milking the drama of having been fat years before. But looks, like nearly everything else, deceive. We’re all wounded in different ways, and we’re all experts at hiding our pain, denying our fear, guarding our vulnerability at all costs. We refuse to tell the truth about our brokenness — like North and Poindexter taking the Fifth — because it might incriminate us. I don’t know anyone who isn’t hungry — for food, or power, or security, or romance. All that’s different about our hungers is the nature of our woundedness, our winding scars.
At 175 pounds, I could stand to lose some weight, but I’m six feet tall and run and exercise every day. I’m not fat in the eyes of the world. But I think of myself that way. Being fat is an inner reality, an emotional landscape I still wander through; I’ve moved from there, but I don’t live far away.
I crave food the most when I deny what I’m feeling — when I’m hurt or bored or lonely and don’t want to acknowledge it, like an ideologue dismissing facts because they get in his way. Feelings can’t lie, but I can lie to myself about my feelings; the more I lie, the hungrier I get. How odd, for the heart to be buttressed against its own sorrows, a fortress built of tears I might have wept. How odd, these endless diets and ridiculous struggles and jailhouse rules meant to save me. Instead of real hunger — self-regulating, responsive to the moment, as subtle as the body’s other whisperings — here’s this beast, howling to be fed.
I’ve weighed a few pounds less than I do now, and I’ve weighed more — nearly fifty pounds more, when I was an unhappy graduate student. But no matter how much I’ve weighed, no matter how many push-ups and sit-ups I’ve done each morning, no matter how many calories I’ve counted and miles I’ve run, I’ve never liked my body. Even today, when I’m in better shape than ever, I feel guilty about the way I look.
I’ve known women who have reviled themselves for not resembling Playboy bunnies. Just so perversely have I regarded myself in the mirror, always falling short of my imaginary ideal. Oh, the unkind thoughts and withering looks — as if only my head were me and everything below it an accident, some other guy’s body, a mistake.
I know — intellectually, anyway — that seeing myself this way is wrong. Just as feelings don’t lie, neither does the body. My body reflects back to me the exact shape of my thoughts and feelings, so that the image I see in the mirror is itself a mirror, an uncanny reflection, in flesh, of all my joys and longings, all the things I’ve accepted or fled from, the ceaseless strivings of my heart. The extra pounds merely tell me how much protection from myself I’ve thought I’ve needed. They’re insulation from the pain of living — hardly a mistake. The only mistake is hating myself for still believing I need protection, for condemning the part of me who’s still terrified of emptiness and scrambles back from the abyss, wanting to be fed.
A year ago, I wanted to write about feeling fat but couldn’t. The subject was too painful. Being at the typewriter is difficult for me on the best of days, but this was terrifying. I realized I didn’t have the courage to face such a dark and haunted part of me. I wound up in front of the refrigerator instead. . . .
This year, I thought, things might be different. I had, after all, surprised myself during Christmas: I didn’t sit down with my daughter’s gift and eat both pans. I showed some moderation. I didn’t binge, or punish myself. I didn’t make something as innocent as eating fudge into a sin. To eat something sweet, and not feel guilty! For me, that’s a miracle. How long we stand knocking at the door to ourselves, hoarse from calling our name out, before the door opens, and we let ourselves in.
Heartened by my seeming progress, I thought I’d try again. But writing this has been harder than I’d imagined: one memory leads to another, a pain that’s deep leads to one deeper still. Yesterday, staring at he blank page in the typewriter, I panicked. Here I was, summoning ghosts — and the ghosts arrived, but with such howls and tears! My triumph over a pan of fudge suddenly seemed pathetic; the abyss was still there, and I was afraid to peer in.
It was a bad moment. I wanted to run — from the typewriter, from myself, from the scorn and failure of having been a fat kid. But I wanted, too, to take a step closer, to hang over the edge, to reach down into the abyss. I wanted to reach for the smiling, chubby boy in the photograph, to reach across the years and draw him near, to hold him and tell him about the hunger, tell him that we eat and eat and eat but the hunger never disappears. I wanted to reach for my parents, my parents who were wounded, too — who didn’t mean to hurt me, though they did. Lied to by their parents, who were lied to by their parents — how far back does the lie go? Not loved the way they needed to be, they blamed themselves for being unlovable. What did they see when they looked in the mirror? Did they finally stop looking, because the mirror couldn’t lie to them, but neither could they see in it the truth?
I want to embrace the world’s pain, but I can’t even embrace this small pain of mine. It’s so deep in me, the vacancy of love in it so horrifying, that yesterday, when it really bore down on me, I stopped writing and just cried: for myself, and for this ghostly world; for the hungry who have nothing to eat and for the hungry who do; for our hearts so famished and so bloated — always, in these oh-so-human lives, too much of what we don’t need, not enough of what we do.