I was 5’1 and weighed 140 pounds when I was eleven years old in 1983. We ate well at my house, the one thing we could do together as a family. Meatloaf, salad with Italian dressing from a packet, roast beef, baked beans, broccoli with square pats of butter dripping through the branches. That 140-pound year we ate dinner at the kitchen table every night with the ceiling fan on, Mom, Dad, me, with tall glasses of milk at the top right of each Corelle plate. At six o’clock sharp, dinner time, the phone calls began. I’d stand to answer it. “Don’t,” Dad barked. “Leave it.” My mom would be the one to pick the receiver up after the tenth jangle and slam it back into its cradle. I’d eat a few more bites of mashed potatoes, roasted chicken thigh, my nerves tight. Then it began all over—ring, bark, slam. Finally, my dad, his eyes giant and bulbous behind his eyeglasses, quietly took the phone off the hook and left it on top of the microwave. After the off-hook warning, silence like magic. No one said another word as we ate cold food until our ugly plates were clean.
That summer we went to the same low-budget resort we went to every summer for one week, a collection of A-frame split houses in Michigan called, “Chalets on the Lake.” Each room had sharp angles so it felt like we were in the attic of a much larger house. It had a tennis court, a wild deer in a 10 x 10 cage I could feed hamburger buns to, and a thick strip of lakefront beach with an expanse of dunes behind it. On vacation, my parents didn’t know their roles or how to act, except when it was time to eat. We ate huge pancake breakfasts with bacon and sausages and long lunches with grilled meats and containers of deli potato salad, coleslaw, rice pudding. We bought lobsters at the local grocery store for dinner. Dad dropped them in boiling water while I arranged holly hocks in empty glass coke bottles. Mom melted butter in a small saucepan on the stove, drinking white wine from a water glass filled with ice. The water smelled like eggs and mattresses were hard, but I had my own room where I could dance in the mirror and listen to pop songs on the local station. No wall phone to interrupt any of it.
Chalet on the Lake was happy families and Hawaiian tropic tanning oil, me in a black one-piece that made me look like a giant licorice jelly bean. It was reading Cosmo on my stomach until I was dizzy and then running with my skin on fire into the lake, diving beneath a good cold wave and body surfing back to the beach. Sometimes my dad joined me, running like a crazy teenager into the water, where he’d pick me up, all 140 buoyant pounds, and toss me like no big deal into the water, again and again until we were so exhausted we could barely trudge back to Mom and our towels.
When it rained, it was bad. There was no TV, just a radio, grocery shopping, and one bowling alley in St. Joseph, the nearest town. “Let’s bowl,” Dad said. He was desperate for any distraction. A swim, a food run, a walk down to see the caged deer as the moon came up. Mom didn’t say yes or no to anything that week. She did whatever was suggested without gusto or reservation. I had joined the 7th-grade league and needed practice. I also wanted chips and kiddie cocktails from the bowling alley bar, to dry my greasy fingers in the fan on the ball return as my mom sipped a bottle of Budweiser, making silent wishes before her ball cannoned down the lane.
Getting ready to go, I put the radio on, and the hit of that summer, “Abracadabra” by the Steve Miller band, came on. The song was all about hot adult sex. Silk and satin, thighs, black panties with an angel’s face, leather and lace, burning desire, all things I’d read about in Cosmo, oozing from the holes in the radio’s speaker as I tried to find any clothes that fit me to wear to the bowling alley. Without me as a diversion, my parents snapped under the tension and began to fight downstairs. It rarely got physical but it always got vicious, my mother’s martyred silence so hot and sharp it filleted you to the bone. My dad bellowed like an affronted bear, holding his heavy glasses in one hand and rubbing the deep red spots on each side of his nose with the other, sometimes pounding a wall with a fist to make the famed wall art jump.
The sherbet-orange jumpsuit I was pulling up my legs and shrugging my shoulders into had a retro 1950s car and giant hibiscus silkscreened on the back and a hidden zipper from bottom to top. I couldn’t get the zipper to close over my stomach, which had gotten even bigger since the dinner phone calls started, increasing from one snowy white log of fat, to three. Kiss me baby, Steve Miller sang, as sweat slicked my forehead and sluiced in the creases between my stomach rolls. They were screaming now but Steve Miller drowned them out, ray guns blasting, a crawling bass line, panting.
“Mom?” I called, panicked. The zipper had gotten stuck and had taken a bite out of my torso skin. I couldn’t get it open enough to wriggle the top off my arms. I was dripping now with sweat and self-loathing, trapped in my body and in the jumpsuit, thinking about the magic between my thighs and the touch of a velvet glove, my parents, and those menacing phone calls. Who was calling? What did they want? Mom marched up the cheap metal stairs, took one look at me and said, “Oh for Christ’s sake,” disgusted. There was blood on the zipper now, and black tracks down her cheeks from crying. We were all suffering. “It hurts,” I whispered, so she’d remember who she was talking to, me, not some girl, but her girl.
“Stop getting so fat, this is no way to live. Lay down.” I did. “Put both hands in the air, stretch out.” The song was over and now it was commercials for car dealerships, True Value Hardware, local fireworks. “Suck in your stomach.” She tugged the fabric down toward my knees with one hand. “Push the two top parts together, hold it.” She eased the zipper down with the other. The fabric ripped, but I was free, torn open like a tamale.
They divorced two years later, after the secret paternity test, the undisclosed settlement, before I started high school. But that was the day I knew it was over, that what we were as a family, their marriage, who I was and the people I came from, were all an illusion. At the time, the song seemed to contain the reason for it all like an enchanted box, the burning desire that can’t cool down, the deranged want that keeps you spinning. My own lust was for food, for being filled up and I understood that wanting could ruin us, even if what we wanted was delicious, or beautiful, or forbidden. The sorcery in that song was what made my dad forfeit us, that remorseless yearning for what he didn’t have. It was why we weren’t enough.