By L.C. Spoering
I spent a lifetime dividing myself into portions, into parcels I could explain and dissect, remove from the concept of myself and analyze, as one would under a microscope. It was easier to do than one would expect—scarily so, as precise and clean as a scalpel and forceps, plucking away parts to smear on a slide for observation.
It’s a learned skill, one girls pick up with the ease we should throwing a ball, or riding a bike. I don’t know where it began, the first dissenting thought brought on about my intelligence or my appearance, but it landed, and festered, and by thirteen, I was somewhat of a master of proving those accusations correct.
For years, there were zits to be popped and hairs to be plucked, clothes to be arranged and skin to be smoothed. There was nothing about me that couldn’t be changed, I was sure, and there was nothing about me that shouldn’t be changed. I was given a lumpen piece of clay, and it was my lot in life to fix it into something manageable, something appropriate, something not me.
The starving was as easy as looking in the mirror, which you do, for what amounts to hours every day, when you’re in that state. It’s a hobby, in a way, approaching a career: self-assessment, self-criticism. You work at it like you would hone a knife, making observations ever shaper, and more prone to cut right to the bone.
Every morning, every night, a step on the scale; sometimes many times in between, for the fluctuation of a quarter of a pound, three pounds over hours, water shifting from organ to skin and back again, bottles drunk and then flushed out just to see the numbers waver on the scale, slide down. Any number smaller is better than none.
You can fake it. I could fake it, and I did, for years. There is something insidious about a number that doesn’t reflect on the outside, not for a long time, and so you can fake it: I was thin, but not too thin, not so thin that anyone worried. A doctor told me not to gain any weight. I spent years on a diet of white rice, diet soda, and cigarettes. Pale skin is in, don’t you know? Your fingers should always meet around your wrists.
My convictions wavered, and the numbers crept up. You meet a person who thinks you’re beautiful, and, sometimes, you see it, too. I married young, maybe because I wanted to keep that sensation of being beautiful to someone—not the world’s best plan.
Pregnancy was like a reprieve, and my weight climbed, first a little, and then a lot. I was carved open like a fish and a baby girl was born, round and pink, and that protective desire took its first footing: I did not want her to feel the same. There is a suffering in being female, and I was determined to cast a net that would catch her, save her from the numbers and the parceling, the bits and pieces to carve away by word and deed.
It comes back, it always does, biting at the backs of the eyes and digging into your scalp. One evening I got lost in a grocery store, heart pumping in my ears as though I’d gotten lost in a jungle instead. The brain starts to starve at some point, loses its mooring in reality.
We had another child, a boy this time, and I moved like a truck through the pregnancy—strangers thought I was due months before my son arrived. I wanted my daughter’s lessons to be his, too, and this time I dug my heels in, bit my tongue, and then I learned to cook.
Cooking is what saved me. It was a task I’d spent years holding my hands up against, shaking my head: I can’t cook. My peculiarities prevented me from eating what others prepared, and, in that, I’d created my safety net, guarded those diminishing numbers and the bones that jutted out against skin.
I learned to cook, and then, learned to bake. It’s said that cooking is art and baking is science, and science is another theory I’d spent my youth pretending I didn’t understand. Science, baking, involved preciseness and patience, two things I had never thought myself to have in large supply. I was—am—a demander of instant results: echoes of the gallons of water and steps on and off the scale.
Yeast takes its time. Recipes tell me to let it stand in water for ten minutes, but ten minutes later, it has not started to foam. I worry, and I wait, I wring my hands and peer into the bowl, cursing the bad package I must have bought, or the temperature of the water coming from the tap.
It fails, sometimes: we all fail. The yeast is dead, I spend an afternoon worried about the shape of my shadow and how much space I must fill. We all fail, sometimes, but the failing can space out, can work itself into manageable moments that can be pocketed, and trickle out over the course of days, until they’re forgotten.
The yeast reacts with the sugars, and a foam is created. I add salt and flour, a tablespoon of oil. With each turn of the mixer, a sticky mass is formed, adhering to the side of the bowl before pulling away on the next pass. The clunk of the mixer paddle and the grind of the mixer engine are my music, and I peer into the bowl to watch the product form: a musky, sticky, sweet mass I turn onto the counter in a pile of flour, like snow.
I dig my fingers into the dough; it’s warm, and it gives, and I am reminded of human skin, of the sensation of a body under my fingertips, like a massage. The dough sticks and pulls away, and I dump it back into the bowl, cover it, wait.
It rises, doubles, puffs like a mushroom. Pans are greased, ovens warmed. The ritual is soothing, the wait turns divine. The sense of accomplishment, in a way, comes from the process rather than the product, and I feel heady and warm even before the loaf is slipped into the oven.
The bread is brown on top, slick with butter, and, when cut, steam rises to the surface. I wonder what I would smell like, feel like, if I were to split open at these moments, but it’s not the same dissecting sensation of my youth. I believe I would open up, now, open with a sigh, warmed with the wait.
The act of baking feeds the soul as much as it fills the belly. There is a struggle to accept this hunger, this need, but I give to it now, hard-won under my own fingers. I am not bread, but the wait has made me whole.