Empty: My Journey at the Spanish Table

by Jessica Weiss
The belly rules the mind. -- Spanish proverb

Until I went to Spain, I did not think much about the concept of mealtime.  My grandma once told me how she used to place dinner down on the table for my grandpa and my dad and his two brothers, and then stand back to avoid the chaos of feeding time.  To some extent, I guess, those habits found their way into my parents' house.  Like in many American homes, we didn't race through meals, but we didn't exactly relish our time together either, at least as far as I can remember.  Meals were for eating.

Junior year of college, during my semester study abroad in Spain, I realized mealtime could mean so much more.  My first night in Seville, in January 2004, I figured the three-hour conversation with my host parents Maria and Pedro was an anomaly - a first night formality.  But before long I realized two or three hours per meal was pretty standard.

The kitchen table was my first window into Spanish culture - a culture, I quickly learned, deeply rooted in family and community.  Where sons and daughters live at home until their mid-30s, in many cases, and where missing a meal means missing a family obligation.  A culture that takes it slow, and that enjoys life.  In Maria and Pedro's house, meals were for eating, but more so they were for relaxation and connection.

There was even an electric heater specifically for placement under the table, called a brasero, to further lure us to the kitchen.  Seville's winter was too brief to invest in central heat, Maria explained, and heat too expensive.  So in my first two months in Spain, without any other source of heat in the house, the table was a refuge.

During those winter months, after we arrived home in the evenings, my roommate Steph and I would cocoon ourselves in layers of blankets until Maria called us for dinner, around 10:00 pm, when we would sprint down the stairs of our carriage house, through the garden, and to our chairs around the table.  There we'd sit for hours, with Maria and Pedro, discussing politics and school, or telling stories in our best Spanish.

January 16: Meals have been one of the best aspects of the home stay so far for me.  I sit for hours with Maria and Pedro, in no rush to get anywhere.  It's been such good practice for my speaking and I think we're all really starting to warm up to one another.

Also fascinating was the citywide mandate to sleep after meals.  Seville's transformation after the mid-day meal, especially, was remarkable.  All morning, the streets pulsed.  Then, at around 2 pm, they cleared out.  Everything closed, and people flocked home for lunch and rest.

When, 20 minutes or so after Pedro's plate was clean and his eyelids grew heavy and his head bobbed, Steph and I would make eyes and giggle, and Maria would nudge Pedro and point him towards his bed.

"Tome una siesta," she'd order.

Try as I might, I was never much of a nap-taker.  As Steph would lay down with a book or her journal, I'd often sneak out of the house alone, whispering a goodbye to Maria as she finished cleaning up from lunch.  I reveled in the day - the air and sun, and colors, sounds, and smells, and, in those first weeks, the oranges.  Before the big trucks would come and shake Seville's thousands of orange trees free of their fruits to make marmalade in February, the city literally smelled of citrus.

For hours on those afternoons, I got lost on Seville's seductive, colorful streets and alleys, and in its parks and plazas.  When I felt like it, I'd sit beside a fountain or on a park bench.  On my way back from my afternoon revelry, I would stop to sip café con leche and document my adoring observations in the pages of my journal.

January 25: The people here have no worries.  They don't rush through life and they certainly understand there's more to life than work.  Even when you go to a cafe, you never see anyone take anything to go - this idea may not even exist.  People would rather sit and enjoy themselves, chat, visit with friends, read a book or newspaper, or stare out the window.  For this reason, among many others, I would characterize everyone here as simply content.  They're living life and don't care to make it difficult.  I find myself trying to soak up this mentality at every possible moment.  I am so lucky to be here.

One afternoon during the siesta, a tired jogger sat down to share my park bench.  I had decided, at the last minute, to bring along my running shoes to Spain, I told him, but I hadn't yet used them.  Running didn't seem common in Spain, like in the U.S., and I laughed as I told him I was weary of being pinned as an American tourist.  Within a half hour, we'd made plans to run during the siesta two days later.  We'd meet there, at the park bench, at 3:30 sharp.

The day of the run, I ate a light lunch.  Ever since freshman year of high school, when I retched my afterschool snack during cross-country practice, I didn't eat much before running.

"Mas?" Maria motioned, lifting a spoonful above my plate. "More?"

"No, no gracias," I responded, waving my hand in refusal.

* * *

For all these years I've been running, I wonder if I really enjoy it.  My family and friends would probably insist that I do, but I don't think they really know the whole story.

I know for certain I like the feeling of finishing a run - sweaty, adrenaline and endorphins pulsing, calorie burn complete.  I like the hours afterward, when my muscles feel worked, and my body asks to be replenished.  When I feel like I deserve to relax.

Some days, when the weather is right, and when I need to clear my mind, and get outside and sweat, I know I do enjoy it.  But more often, running has come with reasoning or explanation.  Namely, to counter last night's meal.  Countless times, that motivation has driven me out of deep slumber, even on cold, dark mornings, and delivered me to the pavement.  It has sent me running during rain and snow, and on vacations, and even in places where it wasn't safe to run alone.

When I was really trying to lose weight, I'd actually recite to myself, during runs, what I'd eaten the day before.

The extra roll, I'd remember.  Dessert.

It helped pass the time, and the reminders actually made me go faster, or opt for hilly detours I wouldn't otherwise take.

Running without motivation makes it much harder.

* * *

I must say: I give Spaniards credit for sticking to tradition.  For all the time they spend at the table, it's quite amazing how unappetizing their food is.

I never considered myself a food snob, but in just a little over a month, amidst my love affair with Seville, I began to hate Spanish food.  I loved mealtime, but my stomach could not handle Maria's calorific taste.

After a few weeks, the boiled meat and fried seafood became hard to swallow.  We rarely saw vegetables besides fried potatoes.  Mayonnaise came with ... everything, and I hated mayonnaise.

I stocked up on fruits, vegetables and nuts, and hid them in the cupboard in my room.  And on weekend trips, away from the fryer, I ordered Spain's signature salad, the ensalada mixto (olive oil on the side), at every chance.  It just felt good to eat something fresh.

Many nights, hungry from my runs, I'd eat Maria's dinner.  But some nights, I just couldn't.  When, again, she'd lay tortilla, the fried potato omelete, down on the table, I'd give Steph a look of disgust.  I felt guilty, I did, but Steph didn't much care for it either, which made me feel more comfortable vocalizing my disdain.

"No gracias," I'd tell Maria, as she begged me to eat seconds.

February 10: I'm missing certain aspects of home, especially with the food.  I eat so shitty here and everything's fried and greasy.  I just don't want it sometimes.  I just want fresh veggies, fish, etc.  The food has definitely been the hardest part of my abroad experience so far I'd say.

I couldn't understand how Spanish women stayed so thin.  They certainly must stray from the traditional Spanish diet, I figured.

Before the start of literature class one morning, I heard a few girls in my program talking about the very topic that had been on my mind.  They all agreed they'd packed on the pounds, already.

Ali, a cute blonde, laughed about it. "I'm going to be fat by the time I leave," she said, "but I just don't care."

Don't care?  I wondered.  How strange.

With this on my mind, I walked out of the classroom and into the hall, to the bathroom.  I locked the door and stood before a small square mirror hung over the sink - just big enough to frame my face.  I didn't think I looked chubbier, but it was impossible to catch a real glimpse - Spaniards weren't big on mirrors.  Come to think of it, I hadn't looked farther down than my neck in a mirror in over a month.  My clothes actually felt loose, but I figured that was because I repeatedly re-wore everything between washes, and because Maria air-dried our clothes on the patio.  Dryers shrunk things, right?

That day, I told Steph to tell Maria I was meeting a friend for lunch.  I grabbed a yogurt and sat in the park, with my journal.

February 13: This food is threatening to make me really fat.  Can't let that happen.  Must run more.

* * *

I wonder if I will ever understand what about my wiring renders me so self-critical.  I'd like to know what drove me further than other girls with the same skewed hopes.

Before it was the desire to be thinner, it was any number of other qualms.  In fourth grade, I recoiled in horror as two boys in my class teased me for being hairy and then went home and secretly trimmed my leg hair with my mom's sewing scissors.   In middle school, I struggled to find reasons to convince my mom to buy me a training bra, when "bra snapping" became the trend among pubescent boys.  They'd walk up to the cool girls, the girls with boobs, snap the backs of their bras and run away.  That seemed fun to me, but I was just so flat, and awkward.

In high school, despite my athletic frame, my body began to occasionally disgust me.  Once, my grandmother motioned disapproval when I reached for seconds of dessert, and, by sixteen, the childhood ease of eating without repercussion had all but ceased.

It was easy to stop accepting cheese on my pasta, sour cream on my tacos, and butter on my popcorn, if I reminded myself that those things would make it harder for me to have a beautiful, feminine body like other girls.  I lost 15 pounds for a senior spring break trip to Mexico, by refusing seconds at the dinner table, drinking Slim Fast shakes and adding miles to my runs.  Really, it wasn't that hard.

In college, away from home, meals confounded me.  I didn't know how or what to cook on my own, and often, my body would shun food, as if the thought of eating was just too much of an added burden.  Beer and smoking pot were fun, but they came with a price, as did late night pizza or meals at the dining hall.  Always, I countered the damage at the gym.

But despite the struggle, my body was healthy, and - annoyingly - average.  Slowly, I learned to cook - always healthfully and mostly vegetarian - and by junior year of college, I had a boyfriend who loved me, and my body.  Even though I wasn't always satisfied with what I saw in the mirror, I knew plenty of women weren't either.  Unfair, sure, but what about life is fair, right?

As I arrived in Spain, an increasingly activist spirit, curiosity and a passion for learning far outshined any of my body woes.

Or so I thought.

* * *

In late February in Seville, my right knee started to hurt.  For a few days, I ran through the pain, but then it started to throb, so I had to start limping.  At night, I'd lie on my back and repetitively bend and straighten my knee, listening to the grinding noise it made.  The noise was so loud Steph would hear it too.  I reasoned my injury was the combination of old running shoes, cobblestone streets and overuse.

I was relegated back to my initial Spanish routine: taking it easy.

This, of course, shouldn't have been a bad thing, but I'd really liked running.  With so much free time, little in the way of school obligations, and my perceived gluttony, running was the one thing I did that made me feel disciplined.  After getting into the running routine, eating lunch without post-meal exercise seemed unappealing.  Without running, I was sure I'd gain weight. I would go back fat - I just knew it.

So a few days into my mandatory indolence, I took the pastry Maria left for my breakfast and wrapped it in a napkin, and then, on the way to class, tossed it in the garbage.  Then, at the market next to school, I bought an apple in its stead.  Much healthier, and filling enough, I reasoned.

From then on, an apple was my daily breakfast, and all I would eat until 2 pm.  It was actually pretty easy.  To my delight, apples satiated me for quite a few hours.

* * *

In spite of my gastronomic qualms, I was having a great time in Spain.  It was hard not to enjoy my hedonistic lifestyle, which included such components as traveling, sun, cafes, men, fairs and fútbol matches.  Steph and I traveled almost every weekend, and by the end of February, I had visited Madrid and Barcelona, and skiied the Sierra Nevadas.  A late February trip would take us out of the country for the first time, to Lisbon, Portugal.

I did, however, begin to feel guilty spending money - my parents' money.  My family was, of course, financially stable, and they wanted me to have a good time.  Certainly, they wanted me to eat - and eat well - but it felt selfish to be in Spain when they were in the U.S., working.  It felt selfish to do something they were never given the opportunity to do.  It felt selfish to be so self-involved.

On our trip to Lisbon, I isolated myself from my travel companions during mealtimes under the pretext of being short on money.  I bought some wheat crackers that I nibbled on throughout the weekend, but that was about it.  Back in Seville, I felt proud of my frugality; I felt a sense of accomplishment that I was unaware had anything to do with restriction.

March 1: At lunch in Lisbon, I stuck to Seafood soup for 1.5 Euro.  Speaking of which, I was so frugal this weekend.  So proud of myself - I didn't spend more than 5 Euro on food.

(EU€5 = US$7.50)

Years later, I read about the "Mathematics of Desire" in the book Appetites, written by long time anorexic Caroline Knapp, and my calculations in Seville made sense.

The Mathematics of Desire: A system of self-limitation and monitoring based on the fundamental premise that appetites are at best risky, at worst impermissible, that indulgence must be bought and paid for.

On our weekend trips in Spain, I noticed Steph didn't suffer from any of the same guilt.  She always indulged at meals and in clothing stores.  And in Seville, she belonged to the nicest gym I'd ever seen.  It had saunas and a pool, tons of weights and equipment, and complimentary soaps and shampoos.  The showers were tiled with beautiful stone and the showerheads were big and sprayed water of the highest caliber and most perfect pressure.  And the bathrooms had mirrors - tons of mirrors.

On a few Saturdays, I used Steph's guest rate and joined her for workouts at her gym for EU€5.  The first time, after I changed into my workout clothes I walked to the mirrors and stared at myself, as if looking at a long lost friend.  My eyes ran over every part of my body - my face and neck and arms, thighs and calves.  How strange not to have seen myself - my whole body - reflected back at me for so long.

And I was surprised.  After all that "bad" food I ate, I actually looked slightly thinner.  I surmised it was all the walking I was doing, and those weeks of running.  But the weight would probably come back, I told myself, now that I wasn't running anymore.  To preempt my imminent weight gain, I worked out hard that day - cardio, weights and abs.  I wanted to feel thoroughly exhausted when I stepped into those luxurious showers.

After my workout, I stripped down and wrapped a towel around me, for a quick sauna. And then, before my shower, I stopped at the scale in the corner.

I'd lost weight, 18 pounds of weight.

Nowadays, I don't own a scale. Come to think of it, I don't think I'll ever own a scale again.

Ode to the Scale

Oh almighty scale.  For all those months, you were both friend and foe, a bearer of good news and bad.  How you tricked me, silly scale, changing all the time like that, measuring water weight and such.  Making me wonder why?

How mercurial you were.

How I loved you in the morning, when I was empty.  You were the first thing I saw, on the bathroom floor.  You were so honest.  You were always there, all day, and then you were the last thing I saw before bed.  I was so obsessed with you.

But oh scale, I can't lie, I wasn't always faithful.  In fact, often I hated you.  Like after a slip-up.  And how I hated you more when I finally succumbed.  How it pained me to watch your pin tick higher.

Why, scale, why?


On March 11, 2004, terrorists bombed a commuter train in Madrid, just a few hours away from Seville, making international headlines.  Class was canceled and we spent a good part of the day around the table with Maria and Pedro, watching the news and trying to make sense of the attack.  I didn't know, at first, just how serious it was, but I could sense, from Pedro's tears, that it was bad.

It happened to also be my birthday - my 21st birthday. And even though the day had taken a horrific turn, Maria insisted she'd carry on with preparations for my birthday meal.  She made my favorite: salad and garbanzo bean soup.

At the end of the meal, a nervous feeling welled up in my stomach as Maria placed a large cake in front of me.  Even Pedro mustered a smile and the table sang to me, as I blew out a candle.  As sweet as I knew this gesture was, I didn't want the cake.  In fact, the cake made me anxious.  This was weird, because I loved cake.  But this particular cake, of the pineapple variety, seemed big and dangerous.  I'd never been so nervous about a food item before, but I wanted to run away.  I wished she hadn't made the cake.

As Maria got out plates and forks, I realized I couldn't, in this instance, say "no gracias," as I'd gotten used to saying.  Not on this day.  Not at this moment.

I was freaking out.

And Pedro could tell.  With a grave expression and deep, demanding voice, he looked me in the eye, and, without Maria hearing, told me sternly to eat the cake.

Grudgingly, I listened.

* * *

I first wrote down my secret in January 2006, at a warehouse gallery in Georgetown, in Washington, D.C. The Post Secret exhibit, inspired by a book of the same theme, invited postcards from anonymous senders, who had marked and decorated them with their most private admissions.  One woman hated her kids.  Another got pleasure out of stealing people's parking tickets off their windshields, scheming to get their tires booted.  There was incest and closeted homosexuality.  "Every day I'm asked to be a magician in a world where magic doesn't exist," one read.

At the exhibit's end, I took the cap off a black marker and picked a blank note card off the stack left for willing visitors.  I realized then it was almost exactly two years since I had arrived in Spain.

And I wrote:  After recovering from the hell of anorexia, I still wish, more than anything else, to be thin.  Even after I isolated myself from my family and friends and everything special in the world, when my hair fell out in clumps and when I was so weak that once I fell down the stairs, part of me thinks being thin is worth all the pain.

That day, at Post Secret, was two years after I left Washington, D.C., for Spain, a happy, 135-pounds.  It was 18 months after I returned from Spain 39 pounds lighter.  Ninety-six pounds.  And a year after I stood in front of the full-length mirror that had encouraged my months-long infatuation with myself and admitted, behind tear soaked hair, that I needed help.

During anorexia, I'd hit rock bottom.  Depressed, listless, malnourished.

Fainted on the stairs.

Sickened by my isolated self-obsession.

And I'd been through the drugs and therapy and grueling portion control of recovery.  I'd worked so hard to gain weight, learning to eat a whole granola bar, and then cubes of cheese, and slowly, even bread and butter, and sweets.  I'd shared meals again with friends.  I'd learned to care again about others.

How then, after all that, could it be worth it?

Part of me thinks being thin is worth all the pain.

I put the cap back on the marker and threw my post card into the bin.

* * *

As a belated 21st birthday present to myself in Spain, I decided to go shopping.  My go-to jeans kept slipping off my hips, and many of my shirts felt loose and threadbare, after so much wear.  And my parents insisted I treat myself.

I hoped the Spanish clothes would help me look and act ... well, Spanish.  How beautiful the women were, in their airy tunics, bright patterns, flowing scarves and funky pants.  They looked as though they hadn't tried even for a moment to look so incredibly perfect.

And they were, of course, so unlike the American girls in my program, who continued to wear their American fashions to class without seeming to think twice.  The black North Face fleece and those stupid Ugg boots looked even more ridiculous in Spain.  Some, to my horror, even wore their sorority letters to class.  I couldn't understand the rationale behind wanting to remain so outwardly American.

So on the day after the terrorist attack, as the city of Seville grieved, and people marched through the streets in mourning, I walked to Calle de las Sierpes, to the Zara, to go shopping.

I was on a mission.  I didn't dawdle around the store, or meander through the racks.  This wasn't about the outing.  I grabbed a few shirts, and a pair of jeans.  Size 4.  And 2.  Just in case.

In the dressing room, I threw down my purse and stood before the mirror.  Assessing, thinking, sizing up. Face and neck and arms, thighs and calves.  There was something different, more confident maybe, relaxed.

I grabbed a turquoise v-neck shirt, with pink trim, and threw it over my head, threading my arms through the sleeves.  It felt loose, and looked unflattering, like a t-shirt.  Better too big than too small, of course.  In fact, I loved the feeling of it being too big.  And myself too thin.

Victory.  A feeling of gratification.  Achievement.

I took it off and stood in my bra.  Then I took my pants off and grabbed the size 2 jeans, and slipped them onto my legs, buttoning the waist.

Again, loose.   In fact, very loose.

Victory.  A feeling of gratification.  Achievement.

I turned around to catch sight of the rear.  There was no real contour around my ass, just denim fabric hanging there.  In fact, where was my ass?  I did have an ass, or at least I used to.  In middle school I won "best rear view" after all.  They fit, more or less, through the thighs (damn thunder thighs), but the waist was too big.  The waistband under my belly button was two inches away from my skin.  In a size 2.

I turned back around, and examined myself.  I looked thin.  I looked good.

Achievement.

Standing there, shirtless in front of the mirror, I felt something new.  Something good.   A sense of marvelous lightness filled my whole being - a sense of being numb with bliss.

As the city grieved.

* * *

When I think back, I wonder when I first "got" anorexia.  Maybe it was in the Zara dressing room.  Or staring at that cake.  Or when I began skipping meals.  Or it could have been earlier, in February.  Or maybe those experiences were just watering the tiny seeds of the real deal.  Maybe it was months later, after I got home to the U.S., when the marvelous feeling was harder to come by and achievable only through more extreme means.  And when I began to count every last calorie, weigh myself no less than ten times a day, and cut up my food.  I wonder if it was something I did, or if my brain was just hardwired anorexic.  I wonder if it was my fault.

It's hard to know when scientists don't really know either.  The current criteria for anorexia nervosa as defined by the American Psychological Association in their Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) are: refusal to maintain a minimally normal body weight, intense fear of gaining weight, and significant disturbance in the perception of the shape or size of one's body.

But nowhere do they say why.  There is no scientific explanation of why my brain suddenly refused to operate rationally.  For a while, this bugged me.  How could no one understand what was wrong with me or why?  How could I exhibit these symptoms of a disease but not understand it or be able to cure it?

With the help of other sufferers and other survivors, I came to realize my scientific explanation is in the stories.  Scientists may be skeptical of anecdotes, but with anorexia, there's no other way.  To help understand my affliction, I consult my scientist: the late Caroline Knapp, who died at 42 after a long battle with anorexia.

Starving, like all disorders of appetite, is a solution to the wide variety of conflicts and fears, or at least it starts out resembling a solution: Something feels perversely good, or right, or gratifying about it, some key seems to slide into place, some distress is assuaged, and the benefits of this are strong enough to outweigh whatever negative or painful feelings are aroused, such as shame, confusion or physical hunger.
-- Appetites


Her scientific method is her story.  Which is my story.  Which is millions of other women's story.

So screw science.

* * *

By late March, I was lying at least twice a week about having lunch plans, to avoid having to eat Maria's food. I eased my confusion and guilt by reasoning that I was eating (fruit), so it didn't matter where. Deep down, I did miss the camaraderie when I skipped meals. I missed Steph, and Maria and Pedro. I missed the table I'd loved so much. I even missed the Spanish soap operas that Maria was obsessed with.

But it wasn't enough to make me force the food down.  Missing meals was far more gratifying, and the more I felt the gratification, the more resolute I became.  The less I cared about the pull of the table, or about the sacred relationships being ruined by my absence - and by my lies.

These, I now realize, were my demons - the demons that screamed above any voice of reason, and that demanded I continue to starve myself for months.

April 16: It's hard to have to schedule my day around these obligatory meal times and eat what I'm given, despite the fact that I might not have a taste for that that day.  Maria thinks I don't eat enough and frankly I'm sick of hearing it.  I am 21 years old and I'll eat what I want to.  I think it's become a sour point between myself and Maria and Pedro.  I think they view me differently because of it and I did really care but I am so not going to let myself.

Even today, in 2010, I hear the demons sometimes - though thankfully not as often - when I'm having a bad day, or when I overeat.  The difference now, though, is that I can shut them out.  I can tell them they're not going to win.  I can almost convince them now that the euphoria I experienced in Spain was just a hoax.   An anomaly.

* * *

In April, I began to prepare for my family's weeklong visit.  I spent hours researching hotels, car rentals and plane tickets, and planned us an itinerary I was sure they'd like, which included time in the city and the mountains, and at the beach.  "Driving through the Spanish countryside" had quite a romantic air to it.

They had fair warning that the food was my challenge, but they didn't have any sense of how far I'd come by my mentions of it being "too greasy" or "too bland" or with "too much mayonnaise."  I figured they'd sympathize; we were a health food family, after all. We rarely had fried food or ate excessive starches or sugars.  It wasn't anyone's preference.

But turns out they wouldn't understand - at all. They had no idea what was coming, and neither did I.

From the moment they landed, my mom couldn't stop commenting about how much weight I'd lost.  I hadn't prepared for how noticeable it was going to be, and I hated that it was a topic of conversation, as if they were trying to suggest to me that my looks weren't normal.  That this wasn't who I was, and that this wasn't sustainable.  Those things, I'd convinced myself, were not true.

I tried, at first, to just ignore them.

We had one day in Seville before we hit the road, so after putting their bags down, I took them by Pinzones 5, to meet Maria and Pedro for a brief visit.  My mom brought some American jams and chocolates as a gift.  As the six of us sat around the table and exchanged greetings, I served as translator.  As most people do, Pedro took a liking to my affable family, and poured us all a glass of wine to indicate this honor, even my 16-year-old brother.

The wine was heady, and my cheeks burned as I translated stories, exhibiting my near mastery of the Spanish language. It was about time to leave when Maria turned to me.

"Diga a su mamá que usted no come nada," she ordered. "Tell your mom you don't eat anything."

I was startled.

"Diga," Pedro followed, as my face burned more.

"No," I responded, cocking my head, expressing my confusion.

"What did she say?" My mom asked.

"No es verdad," I told Maria and Pedro. "It's not true. I will not say that."

"Usted es una chica agradable, pero usted no come," Maria said. "You are a nice girl but you do not eat."

I told my mom Maria said I didn't eat enough of her food because I was always eating meals outside the house.   A compromise.

My marvelous lightness felt shattered.  My secret uncovered.

Immediately after we left, my mom assured me we'd get me "some good food."  I tried to reach for my usual lines, but to my dismay my excuses were invalid now.  I couldn't lie about having lunch plans, or having just eaten.  I couldn't say I had no money, or even that I didn't like the food, because my mom, with her trusty guidebook, managed to find Americanized, health food and even vegetarian restaurants, all with options I would have eaten just a few months ago.
So as we headed towards a restaurant, I realized the hard truth: that I had to eat, at least a little.

And with every bite, I grew more aggravated.

That week, we'd walk a lot, and I'd do sit-ups every night in the hotel rooms I'd share with my brother.  On at least three mornings on the trip, I'd get up before anyone and quietly sneak out to run on my healing knee as fast as I could, for as long as I could, without them knowing.

But even with these instruments, it maddened me that they were trying to control me, and that I had to eat meals with them, civilly.  It maddened me that they were trying to make me fat.  It maddened me so much that finally, after a few days, I didn't care to salvage any last shred of the harmony or normalcy my family had always operated under.  For this trip, I was going to be, plain and simple, a wretched bitch.

I couldn't roll my eyes enough, and I made fun of each of them, brutishly, for mispronouncing Spanish words.  I didn't laugh at my mom's jokes, and, whenever possible, I made sure they knew they embarrassed me.

This was my punishment to them.

Denial is a strange thing.

In August, after Spain, I'd go to my childhood doctor, just skin and bones. And tell him I had a problem.

"Why am I losing all this weight?" I'd ask.

"You're eating, right?" he'd ask. "You haven't changed your eating habits at all?"

"No," I'd say.   "Not really."

I'd make him test me for thyroid problems.  That was it, I'd declare.

He'd say, "I'll test you for everything."

"Good," I'd say. "Thank you."

Denial is a strange thing.


With my family finally gone, I got back to my routine.  I had just a few weeks left before I would board a plane to close my European semester with independent travel.  The spring weather was beautiful, so I spent a lot of those weeks outdoors and away from the house.  I ran again.  And I visited every last place I wanted to see in Seville, as if my life depended on it.

On my last night in Spain, the university hosted a boat party on the Guadalquivir River. I wore a red strapless mini dress I'd bought at Zara.  The size 0, even, was loose, so I asked Steph to secure the back with safety pins.

That night, within a span of four hours, I'd get so incredibly drunk I'd have to be escorted out of the bar we went to after the boat-ride, because I couldn't stop crying.  Sobbing.  Heaving sadness.

I cried because I didn't want to leave, I told Steph.  I cried on her shoulder.

But I knew I did want to leave.  To where, I didn't know, but I did want to leave.

So I cried, really, for the realization that I didn't get even a fraction of what I could have out of my once in a lifetime Spanish experience because I was so obsessed with something else.  Something new and confusing, which felt so right and that I was getting so good at, that maybe it was becoming even a bit scary.

In my drunken sorrow, I'd write Maria and Pedro a note and leave it on their table.  Our table.  I'd apologize for everything and tell them they were two of the most special people I'd ever met.

I'd board a plane to Italy the next morning still drunk, and too overwhelmed to eat a thing.

* * *

In Rome, I bumped into two acquaintances from the University of Maryland.  A week and a half later, when I finally made it to a computer in Leuven, Belgium, I checked my email to discover a note from my best friend Daniela.

"Can't wait to see you soon.  Jared and Matt mentioned they saw you last week in Rome, and that you are way too skinny.  What is up?"

The maddening feeling came again.

I had one more week of travel, but then I'd leave to reenter my life.  Would everyone talk about this? Some part of that sounded appealing.  I wanted to show them how good I looked now.  I wanted to startle people.  But I wouldn't be able to handle all of these inquiries.  All of this judgment.

To buffer any forced eating I'd have to do when I returned, I vowed to finish my last few days in Europe on my "best behavior."  My plan: Minimal calorie intake and a ton of walking.

In London, I was torn.  For the first time in five months, there were actually foodstuffs that were somewhat similar to in the U.S., and that I'd liked before I left.  Such as sandwiches, smoothies and one of my favorites, Indian food.  It had been days since I'd eaten anything of substance.  So I decided I'd eat Indian.  In the small cafeteria-style restaurant, I stood in a corner and went over every item on the menu, contemplating how each would feel.  That was the real test.  Things with cheese or meat were immediate nos.  As was any starch.  A salad sounded OK, but seemed too blatant.  When I got to the Chana Masala, I paused.  I could potentially do that.  I'd tell them to hold the rice, of course, but just the garbanzos couldn't be too bad, I figured.

I walked a few steps closer to get a look of the dish behind the glass.  It glistened under the bright lights, a thin film of grease floating atop the deep yellow sauce.  

And then I remembered why I couldn't eat that.  The garbanzos were swimming in an unknown sauce, which I assumed was made with large amounts of butter and salt.  Because there was no way to know what was in the sauce, I assumed the worst.  It would make me bigger, and set loose my fine tuned rigidity, and bloat and depress me afterwards.

So I got some nuts from a market.  Just nuts.

Nothing extraneous, nothing saucy.

The number of calories there on the bag for me to see, for me to figure out what to do with.

* * *

And then on May 20, I left Europe from Heathrow Airport on a six hour flight back to Washington, D.C., largely unaware how much five months had changed me.

As the stewardess came by, I told her to please take my tray.  My untouched tray.  I wrapped a blanket over my cold body, and put on my headphones, and an eye pillow.  Only vaguely aware I was starving intentionally.  Only beginning to understand the fleeting and fickle nature of the marvelous lightness.

Completely and utterly Empty.
Jessica Weiss is pursuing a Master's in Journalism at Georgetown University. She works at the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ), an organization committed to training journalists across the globe, especially in the developing world. In her free time, Jessica enjoys fresh air, yoga, guitar, reading and being silly.

© 2010, Jessica Weiss