©1990 L.Timmel Duchamp

Precisely one half hour before the guests were due to arrive, Anne opened the refrigerator and got out the loaf of pat\'e she had spent a good part of the previous day preparing. Lovingly she removed its waxed paper wrapping and--- sliding her best Sabatier knife over a whetstone--- inspected and admired its perfection. Four couples, four slices. (Unless they want seconds, the pigs.) Carefully she positioned the knife one half inch from the end, then slowly and evenly pressed down on it, producing a clean, smooth slice she then arranged on one of the nasturtium-garnished plates she had ready. The texture, she noted, was perfect, the color--- pink and brown dotted with green peppercorns--- inviting. And the fragrance... Anne swallowed the saliva flooding her mouth and placed the knife for the second cut.

Somewhere upstairs a door slammed. A child's voice--- undoubtedly Jenny's--- shrieked. (They always act up before dinner parties. What is it? Do they somehow sense the tensions involved?)

Anne shut the sounds of escalating fracas out of her mind. After all that work she didn't want to botch the job now. She cut and laid the second slice on its bed of garnish. (Perfect.) Then, moving her eyes back to the cutting board, she saw the tiny crumb that had unobtrusively come loose from the second slice. She pressed her lips together and positioned the knife for the third cut. Her tongue tingled, though, and her mouth again filled with saliva. (Don't even think about it, Anne Louise Archer. It's not a legitimate taste. You know there's no correcting the seasoning at this stage. Just leave it.) Her hands trembled as she placed the third slice on its plate--- and found that a second crumb had appeared on the cutting board.

A crash (somewhere upstairs) rattled the windows. And then came sounds of Jenny crying. (Goddam it, Jenny, crying just makes it worse. Won't you ever learn? All those A's in school, yet still she tortures herself so needlessly... )

Anne cut the fourth slice and wrapped the loaf without looking at the crumbs (but then cheated by licking her fingers).

"Girls can't eat chocolate, girls can't eat chocolate," Dickie taunted in singsong.

"You promised you'd give me a taste!" Jenny sobbed. "You promised, Dickie. You're so mean. You're such a pig. Look how fat you are. How can you eat chocolate like that when you're so fat?"

Though dizzied by the violent rush of blood to her head, Anne bounded for the stairs. (Always the same thing, always always always. God I'm so sick of it.) Predictably they settled into a contest of outshouting one another's taunting litanies. (Jenny: "Dickie is a pig, Dickie is a pig... " And Dickie: "Girls can't eat chocolate, girls can't eat chocolate... ") "That's enough!" Anne bellowed as her foot touched the top step. Rounding the corner, she caught Dickie waving an eight-ounce bar of chocolate under Jenny's nose. "Richard Alan Martin!" Anne quivered with barely suppressed rage. "How many times have I told you not to tease your sister with food?"

Both of them stopped their singsongs and stared at her.

"You promised," Jenny said in a voice so small and forlorn that Anne knew she had realized any chance of getting a taste had vanished.

"Dickie, have you been giving your sister food?" Anne grabbed his arm and shook him. "Answer me! Have you?"

Dickie's lower lip pushed out; his eyes defied her. "I can't make her control herself," he said. "When she pesters me like that, what can I do? She keeps calling me a pig, Mom, which just isn't fair. It's not me who has a defective metabolism!"

Anne swallowed. "Go to your room, Dickie. Where you'll stay for the night." She snatched the chocolate bar out of his hand. "And without dinner. And when you start getting hungry you think about what your sister must feel like when you tease her about food."

"Aw, Mom," Dickie whined, fidgeting under her grip. "You know I've got to eat! Just because you don't have a good metabolism doesn't mean I don't. It's not fair!"

(Fair! Can anything to do with metabolism and food be fair?)

Anne marched him to his room and locked him in. "And if I catch you yelling to your sister tonight even once, there'll be no more candy or ice cream for a month, young man," she warned him through the door--- and then turned on Jenny, who stood leaning against the wall with her fingers in her mouth. "As for you, young lady. Just what do you think you were doing, begging him for chocolate?"

Jenny began to cry.

"Jennifer Joan Martin you get those fingers out of your mouth!" Anne grabbed her daughter's wrist and pulled it away from her face.

"It's not fair," Jenny said to the floor. She swallowed hard, then lifted her tear-swollen eyes to Anne's face. "He's tons fatter than me. He should be the one not allowed to eat food, Mom. Everyone calls me skinny-bones. They make fun of me at school cuz of my toothpick legs." Her hands balled into fists and beat against the wall behind her. "It's not fair, Mom. My metabolism is too okay!"

(Philip is right. I'm going to have to take her to a therapist. This envy problem is completely out of control. She should have been past all this by now, she should long ago have accepted the physiological difference between boys and girls. Yet here she is at the age of eight, still fighting it... ) Anne sighed. "How many times have I told you, Jenny, it's not what your metabolism is now, but what it will be after puberty. It doesn't matter how skinny you are now. You could still get fat. Which is why you have to develop the right habits from the start." She had worked so hard, she had been so careful with Jenny, never once giving in to the temptation to disobey doctor's orders, she had been determined to keep Jenny from the hell she herself had had to endure because her mother had not only breast-fed her, but had sneaked her snacks and tastes and sometimes even (when her father had been out of town) meals all through childhood, up to puberty, all because she had been such a skinny child ("anorectic-looking," according to her mother, using one of the terms common at the time of her own childhood). "Look, Jenny, we don't have time to talk now, the guests will be here any second and I've loads of things to do to get ready." She bent and kissed Jenny's forehead and stroked her soft, fair hair. "I want you to promise me you won't take any more tastes from Dickie. He only does it to torment you." (And probably to blackmail her.) "Will you promise me, Jenny."

Jenny's eyes brimmed with tears. "Really, Mom," she whispered, "it isn't fair! I don't want to be a girl!"

Anne swallowed against the lump rising in her throat. I don't want to be a girl: Jenny would have to see a therapist, the envy was eating her up, she was just too old to be saying such things. "I have to go downstairs," she said. "Why don't you go to your room now and see if you can't find one of those nice interactive games--- the ones for girls, sugar--- on TV."

Jenny's hand plucked at Anne's waist. "Can't I help you downstairs, in the kitchen, Mom?"

Anne shuddered. Now that would be needless torture. "No. I'm too much behind schedule. Go play."

Fingers jammed again into her mouth, Jenny ambled slowly off to her room. Aware that she still had a lot of last minute work to do for the dinner party, Anne returned to the kitchen, awash in guilt for not having taken Jenny to a therapist two years before when Philip had first suggested it.

On the Monday following the dinner party Anne could hardly wait to get Philip, Jenny and Dickie out of the house. On the days she didn't teach at the city's two-year college Anne worked at home in her study, preparing for her doctoral exams (scheduled for the end of the following term). For the last week and a half, however, she had done nothing on her days home but dig around into what she hoped would become her dissertation topic. Her advisor of course assumed she would find a topic in the area of Sino-American relations during the last two decades of the twentieth century (his area of expertise), but Anne now hoped that if she presented him with a substantial amount of work done on her new passion he'd change his mind. (The new topic did, after all, fall within the same frame of time.)

Jenny, the last to go, for some reason became uncharacteristically clinging. Standing behind Anne's chair with her arms twined around Anne's neck, Jenny cooed straight into Anne's ear, "I wish I could stay home with you, Mommy."

"You do?" Anne said blankly, struggling against her daughter's baby-thin arms to turn her head to look at her. When she saw that Jenny looked only vaguely unhappy, she grew suspicious. "What, do you have a test?"

"Mommy, could I skip fitness after school today? I get so tired by the end of the day, I really hate going. You'd just have to send Ms. Thomas a note. Please, Mommy?"

Anne sighed. "Give me a kiss and then off with you, peanut. You know you have to go. Don't give Mommy a hard time." Jenny would never, of course, raise the subject with Philip. She knew he'd have a fit if she skipped even once.

Closing the door after her daughter, Anne didn't stop to make the usual second cup of coffee, but raced up to her study, switched on the terminal and keyed in first the code to the system used by the library Sally Datchett worked for, and then Sally's code. She hadn't seen or talked to or even exchanged messages with Sally for two weeks. Which had been hell. Of all people, she was dying to share her secret with Sally, for she knew her friend would be just as fascinated as she at the possibilities of the new topic...

Sal--- are you back? If so, I've got news. BIG news!

Seconds later, Sal's reply appeared on Anne's screen:

Yes, I'm back. It's a crime for vacations to be so short. Wait until you see me. I'm so svelte you won't recognize me. But what news could be that big? I hope you aren't going to tell me you're pregnant?

Anne shuddered. She would never get pregnant again, not even if someone offered her a million dollars to do it. What could be more hideous torture than having one's body constantly swell up at the same time one craved food every second of the day and night while the ob-gyn never gave one anything but a little "supplement" to eke out the usual vitality drinks and snacks? Some women went berserk, seeing their bellies grow uglier and grosser while all the time they suffered the most horrendous pangs of desire for the forbidden; and almost ten percent (if the statistics cited in Time were correct) went off the rails, especially the second time around, giving in to the addiction and losing all control--- and afterwards taking years to recover...

Don't be obscene. My news is that I've found a new dissertation topic. (This is classified information as yet. You're the first person I'm telling.)

Instantly Sal replied:

I knew you'd get sick of reading billions and billions and billions of pages of government documents. Any living, breathing human would. So what's the hot new topic to be?

Would Sally be as excited as she? Or would she be repulsed? It wasn't exactly the kind of topic anyone could ever feel comfortable with... But still...

Look, let me tell you how I got onto it before I explain what it is. I've told you, I think, that I've been reading a lot of women's novels lately. Well I got into this jag of gobbling up everything written by this one late twentieth-century novelist I could get my hands on, and as I was reading one of her books it suddenly struck me how obsessed she was with "eating disorders" (a phrase from the twentieth century) and attempts to control weight while still consuming food. Now this is just plain counterintuitive--- that this woman novelist (& her characters) would be so obsessed. & not for health reasons, either. But because of the mess such problems made of their sexual identity (not to mention the men's responses).

The way it's always been explained, Gilbert Stevens discovered the Female Metabolic Dysfunction as a sort of spinoff from his work in a so-called "disorder" of the twentieth century called Premenstrual Stress Syndrome. (Honest, I didn't make this up, Sal!) It seems they used this so-called P.M.S. to account for women getting depressed & socially dysfunctional at certain points in their hormonal cycles. Well of course then Stevens came along & discovered that the so-called P.M.S. was merely an epiphenomenon of F.M.D. (Don't get impatient, Sal, I'm getting to the fresh part now.) When I started to think about how many novels there are about women obsessed with weight & so on, it occurred to me that maybe the historians haven't been giving women enough credit in this whole affair. I mean we don't come off very well, Sal, do we, having floundered for millennia until rescued by Dr. Stevens' fabulous scientific discovery.

What I think, Sal, is that it was women's realization that their bodies couldn't handle food that made it possible for Stevens to discover F.M.D. What I'm saying is, though the discovery of the scientific facts was his, F.M.D. had become unconsciously known before then. & even more to the point, I think, is that women began to see what the answer must be. Even if they had to wait for Stevens' Laboratories to produce the optimum vitality formula, thousands of women had already realized that even one taste of food was death to their systems. They called such women `anorectic'. Others made themselves vomit after eating. But of course since they didn't have vitality drinks these women were doomed (though not to obscenely fat bodies). Anyway, their unconscious awareness of F.M.D. without understanding its physical basis or having a viable solution to it caused a lot of hardship (which is why I can't knock Stevens--- I only think he shouldn't be given so much credit for imagination & brilliant creativity as he currently is). & then of course once he did discover it, everyone then understood that food to the modern female body is like alcohol to the alcoholic's body...

Anne sighed. She had probably written too much, in too confusing a fashion. But really, it was important that women had been trying to do something about the problem for years before Stevens discovered F.M.D. Talk about suffering, though--- all those poor women not understanding that it was a physiological, not a psychological problem...

Are you sure you want to study this topic? Stites is going to have a stroke, you know. There's no way he'll let you do it. Do you think you can switch advisors at this stage in the game?

Aye, there lay the rub. Anne's fingers flew over her keyboard in response:

I'm hoping that if I have enough done on it he'll be so overwhelmed by my brilliance that he'll have to let me do it... But seriously, Sal, I'm going to wait until I have something substantial to show--- to try to win him over. I know it won't be easy... But I've never been so excited about any research project before. That must count for something, don't you think?

Sal replied within seconds:

With someone like Stites? I don't know, Anne. But look, I've got to get back to work--- my sub did only the bare minimum to get by day-to-day. Will I see you at the usual Monday evening session tonight?

Anne flashed on that moment Saturday night after all the guests had left, when Philip, watching her undress, had given her bottom The Look. Nothing said, only The Look. Just thinking about it made her cheeks hot.

Yes, I'll be there. But I'm planning on working out an extra half hour tonight. If you could come that much later we could still do the sauna etc together.

Sal replied that she could stand an extra half hour herself, and that if Anne were going to do it she might as well do it too. Sighing, Anne keyed in the code to the on-line Index of Psychological Abstracts. Sal didn't know how lucky she was, not ever having learned to cook. Anne didn't know anyone as safe from temptation as Sal was. And after her two weeks away, she'd probably be even healthier and fitter looking than ever...

Deliciously and virtuously exhausted from their workout, they lay sprawled on a pair of benches in the sauna, sweating, sipping mineral water and chatting in the intimate way that only women who shared the same workouts and gyn-consultants could. (Among the pleasurable moments of her day-to-day life, Anne rated highly what she and Sal called "The Sauna Sessions.") Sal started by telling her (in whispers, so that women in other parts of the sauna would not hear) that it hadn't been her sub's lackadaisicalness that had made the mess at work, but her boss's going off the rails. She had had to admit herself to a detox center, and would be absent from work for at least two weeks. "It's dangerous living alone," Anne murmured. "What was it that she ate, do you know?"

Sal's eyes rolled in her dark red, sweat-slick face. "I don't know, no one seemed to have the gory details. What I do know, though, is that she ended up with diarrhea, hives and all sorts of other unpleasant reactions." Sal stretched her head towards Anne to breathe: "And she gained six pounds in one weekend!"

"Six pounds!" Anne's bowels clenched as she imagined what the poor woman's stomach must have felt like. "Six ounces in one weekend would have been painful enough!"

"They said that because she vomited like crazy she thought she could continue eating, that none of it was getting into her system," Sal continued.

Anne shook her head--- and gazed upon Sal's near perfection, every inch of her body smooth and streamlined and natural. "I think I must be having problems retaining water," she said, her voice resuming its normal talking tone.

Sal's eyes frankly examined her. "Why, have you been gaining?"

Anne stared up at the simulated woodbeam ceiling. "Half a pound since last Monday. But I've been religiously following my monitor, so I know I can't be messing up there. I guess I'm going to have to see Sheila and have her run some tests." She thought again of Philip's giving her The Look. (It can't have been the tastes I took during cooking, could it? It's not as though I don't spit out everything afterwards.)

"I'm seeing Sheila on Thursday, for my routine bimonthly," Sal said. "But I can tell by the way I feel that everything's in beautiful shape. My iron and blood sugar levels must be optimal given the way I bounced out of bed this morning, even though I wasn't thrilled about going back to work."

"I'll never be able to thank you enough for putting me on to Sheila," Anne said, remembering the horrors of the nine tormented years she had endured with her previous gyn-consultant.

"Half the battle is that she's a woman, and has a matter-of-fact approach to F.M.D.," Sal said. "She understands. Because she's a woman herself."

All this sweat pouring off her should surely be getting rid of that half pound. Maybe if she took care to cut down on the amount of tea, coffee and mineral water she drank... ? "I have a theory about male gyn-consultants," Anne said.

Sal snorted. "So do I. They feel like vets do treating animals. Our difference in metabolism makes us an inferior species to them."

Anne recalled now that Sal had had a traumatic experience in adolescence with her first gyn-consultant. "They're in it first for the money, and second because they have inferiority complexes which they salve by spending every professional second feeling superior to and dominating women," Anne said.

Sal said, "Even though we pay them, they act as though they're doing us the favor. With the kind of guilt they lay on their patients, it's obvious they're still subconsciously hanging on to the old psychological explanations."

Anne brushed sweat out of her eyes. "Maybe I'll be able to take a good shot at them in my thesis, Sal. I spent most of the day reading psychobabble about women's pathological relationship to food." She shook her head. "All of them kept repeating the same thing about how abnormal it was for women suffering from what they called `eating disorders' to be so obsessed with the poisonous effect food had on their bodies."

Sal nodded. "I see what you mean. When all along those women were on the right track, in touch enough with their bodies to know better than the experts." She slanted Anne a cheeky grin. "So you're going to vindicate them?"

Anne grinned back. "Damn straight."

"Well then give those experts hell, woman, give 'em hell."

Laughing, Anne lifted her head to sip the last of her tepid mineral water. The sweat collecting in her navel and in the hollows formed by her hip bones and breasts had begun overflowing. Soon she would have to get out. At the thought of it she closed her eyes and visualized how lovely an icy shower would be, how pristine she would feel for the rest of the night. When properly attended to, the female body, though primitive in comparison with its male counterpart, was surely a wonderful thing.

"I don't want to alarm you, Anne," the therapist Sheila had recommended warned when Anne had finished telling her about Jenny, "but I think it's more than simply a problem of self-control." The therapist leaned forward in her chair. (What a splendid body. But of course as a therapist she has to look nothing less than perfect. I bet she has the kind of vertebrae Philip longs for me to have.) "I can't know until I see her, of course, but it sounds to me as though she hasn't yet resolved her sexual identity. And considering how late it is for her to be still resisting it... " The therapist frowned. "Aversive behavioral treatment would probably simply shift her symptoms into a different form of expression."

Anne's heart sank. "That's what I was afraid of," she whispered. Just last night on the news they'd heard of another fifteen-year-old girl with a diagnosed sexual identity complex who'd killed herself. Anne shivered; she gazed earnestly into the therapist's cool gray eyes. "I don't understand it," she said, willing the therapist to empathize with her plight, to ease her growing burden of guilt. "I made sure I had her after Dickie, so she wouldn't have to go through the agony of watching him being raised differently. I didn't breast-feed her (the way my mother did me, damn her), I've never ever given her food of any sort, and when I cook I'm careful never to taste when she's in the kitchen with me." Anne suddenly remembered how she had tried to get Jenny interested in preparing the lovely flower arrangements for the ladies to nibble on during the dinner party [a stray burst of rage momentarily suffused her as she recalled the men gobbling down the food she had slaved to prepare, while she and the other women toyed with their nasturtium leaves and flowers and took small sips of lemon-water] but had met with obstinate refusal from Jenny, who swore she would never eat flowers at a dinner party when she was grown up.

"That's precisely my point," the therapist said. "It isn't a question of her having a real problem with addiction, but of her sexual identity itself. Food envy really has little to do with the desire for ingesting food, you know."

Anne swallowed. Then Jenny's case was more serious than she had imagined. (How will I live with myself for not having taken her to a therapist earlier if it proves too late to help her? God, how could I have been so blind?) "What should I do?" Anne--- now blinking back the tears that had sprung up in her eyes--- asked in a breathy tremolo.

The therapist leaned forward and took Anne's hands between her own. "It's too soon for you to be getting so upset, Anne. I'm sure we've caught it in time." Her smile offered reassurance Anne could not help but clutch at. (She is an expert, I know she wouldn't just be saying it to make me feel better.) "I'll need to see her a few times before I can form a meaningful diagnosis. But apart from bringing her to see me there are a few things you can start to do at once."

Anne sat up straighter in her chair. "Yes, tell me, so that I can start tonight," she said eagerly.

The therapist nodded--- in approval, Anne thought. "First, I suggest you and she do a fitness session together on a weekly basis. There's a mother-daughter class I can tell you about." Anne had the impression that the therapist's clear gray eyes were measuring her. "And that you include Jenny in every gender-specific activity you engage in at home. It is you she needs to be identifying with, Anne. She needs to be able to see herself becoming you. Instead of envying her brother's masculinity."

Anne nodded. (Does she think I've been a bad role model for Jenny? Is it really my fault? What is it that I have or haven't been doing right?)

"What kind of relationship does Jenny have with her father, Anne? Are they close?"

Anne bit her lip. "Not as close as they used to be. Oh, they're close as fathers and children go. But I sometimes have the feeling she envies him--- almost as intensely as she envies Dickie. Except... " Anne flushed. "Except that she desperately wants his approval, which I don't think she does with her brother." (Or even with me.)

The therapist rose gracefully to her feet. (Sleek, is the word for her. Surely just looking at her for an hour a week Jenny will know that's what she wants to be like when she grows up?) Anne watched her cross to the file cabinet near the door, open the third drawer, and remove a manila envelope. "I want you to take this home and read everything in it," the therapist told Anne. Anne stood up, slid her bag over her shoulder and moved towards the door. The therapist handed Anne the envelope. "Oh, one other question," she said.

(That slinksuit must be a size three, max.) "Yes?" Anne asked, relieved the session was almost at an end.

"Have you explained to her yet about the wrist monitor and so on?"

Anne shook her head. "No, actually, I haven't. I thought I should wait until she was twelve or so. She seems too young to understand it yet." Anne could still remember how frightened she had been when her sixth-grade teacher had told the girls what they would be facing on their thirteenth birthdays.

"Well I think you should," the therapist said. Absently her hand glided over the slinky fabric covering her breasts, waist and belly. (Look at those ribs!) "It's more likely you can get her to look forward to it if you tell her about it in the right way than if she hears about it from somebody else. Attitude about such things is everything." She nodded at the envelope she had given Anne. "You'll find some suggestions in there."

Anne suppressed a sigh. If she had to do it, she would, but...

The therapist opened the door. "So I'll see you with Jenny next Wednesday afternoon."

Anne nodded glumly. If only she could share this burden with Philip. But that, she knew, would be impossible. Bringing him into this would only make matters worse. And never in a hundred years would he understand, either. Men just never did.

As the weeks crawled by, Jenny grew more openly defiant (belligerent, even)--- and adopted forms of misbehavior new to her, such as bed-wetting (at least once a week) and baby-talking, tantrums and extraordinarily lengthy bouts of sulking. Anne grew to dread Thursdays, the day on which she and Jenny regularly attended the mother-daughter fitness session that had been recommended by the therapist. The first Thursday Anne took Jenny to the session the little girl deliberately embarrassed her by following up her usual sweet act before the session got under way ["Oh what a darling, adorable girl, you can just see by looking at her she's good," several of the women had gushed, enviously feasting their eyes on Jenny so thin and feminine in her pink satin shoes and leotard, utterly unlike most of the other little girls present] by shrieking "I want chocolate!" when the leader started directing them in warmups. The adults tried to ignore her, but the other little girls did not, and one of them actually joined Jenny in screaming for chocolate. Anne had wanted to grab Jenny by her silky blonde braids, but had settled for whispering in her ear a threat to inderdict the entertainment nodes of her terminal if she didn't behave. That had worked for a few minutes--- until Jenny began jostling and kicking the little girl next to her...

As if these problems with Jenny were not enough, Anne grew depressed by her researches into pre-Stevens inklings of F.M.D. The closer she came to the date of Stevens' discovery, the more contemporary descriptions and analyses she found suggesting that women had been growing increasingly alienated rather than attuned to their bodies. The overeaters anonymous movement had mushroomed and anorexia rates had risen exponentially, true, but more and more women had been treated by psychiatrists for behavior suggesting a severe cult of shame about their bodies. The most common symptoms had included a fear of being seen in public, strange (and sickening) self-mutilations, vast amounts of liposuction surgery, increases in non-anorectic suicides by women, and more and more secret eating. (Anne suspected her own mother had been--- and still was--- what the literature called a "closet eater.") A little more than ten years before Stevens discovered F.M.D., restaurants had begun providing women with separate menus listing near zero-calorie food. But since no substitute for food had been available back then, one could conclude that of all those women who ate out in restaurants, only the true anorectics did not go home afterwards and consume in secret what they could not openly eat in public.

Though the whole topic had begun to depress her, Anne felt driven to continue with it. Her hypothesis might be wrong, but now that she had begun uncovering the misery of so many millions of women, she felt as though she couldn't turn her back on it just because it upset her. It seemed to her that by calling anorexia pathological instead of searching to see what physiological basis it might have had, the psychiatrists had been responsible for further alienating women from their bodies rather than encouraging them to listen to what their bodies were telling them.

The combined stress of Jenny's worsening condition and the results of her research had the unfortunate effect of making her irritable, particularly with Philip (and especially during sex. So bad was her depression and irritableness that she went several weeks without an orgasm--- which she naturally did not let him know). "I wonder, sugar, if you've had your hormones checked lately?" Philip several times asked her. "My hormones are fine," she always snapped back (while really wanting to belt him one). "Just leave my hormones to me, will you? I know a hell of a lot more about them than you do." Anne understood that such exchanges simply made both of them testy, but could not help herself. She knew very well her hormones had nothing to do with her irritability, and that Philip inevitably attributed her every mood to them sent her up the wall.

The longer this state of affairs continued--- of Jenny's bad behavior, of working feverishly to amass a good enough case for persuading Stites, of pretending (and failing) to be the perfect mate with Philip--- the stronger grew her dread that she was hurtling forward, without control, into disaster. She laughed and cracked wild jokes about it with Sal, but the sense of runaway momentum that could end only in a mad crash made her sick with anxiety.

The crash came the day she presented Stites with a prospectus and bibliography for the new topic. Frowning, he skimmed the first two pages of the prospectus, then handed it back to her. "What you're proposing to do here is history of science. If you want to do history of science, fine, but if so you'll have to change your major area of concentration." He glanced at her without meeting her eyes. "Which just happens to be--- in case you've forgotten--- U.S. Foreign Policy from 1980-2015."

And that had been that.

Upset that he hadn't even bothered to read the prospectus, Anne went home and finished baking the apple tarts (sweet ones for Dickie, lemony sugarless ones for Philip) that she had started preparing before her appointment with Stites. Though she felt like climbing into bed, crying and sleeping the rest of the day, she forced herself do the tarts because she didn't want to make it harder on Jenny by baking them later, when the little girl would be in the house. (The very smell of tarts baking would suffice to make Jenny unbearably cranky and whiny and likely to fight with Dickie.) And so with the greatest housewifely discipline she rolled and cut the dough, inserted the two fillings, sprinkled everything with cinnamon, closed up the tarts and crimped their edges, set the timer and popped them into the oven to bake.

While washing the dishes she started to cry. She couldn't switch to history of science. She barely knew the difference between a quark and a neutrino. How could she possibly do history of science?

She couldn't. And Stites knew she couldn't.

(Sino-American relations. Christ!)

"And what about those poor damned lost women?" Anne suddenly said aloud. "What about them? Who's going to write their history?"

The timer chimed slowly, delicately, persistently. Anne's thighs and calves started to shake. "Shut up!" she screamed at the slow chimes as a wave of rage swept over her. "Shut up shut up shut up!" She slammed her fist into the little square white button, and the chimes ceased their slow, pinging march. Swiftly Anne bent and opened the oven, releasing the smell of apple, cinnamon and butter into the room. Aggravated, she grabbed one of the baking sheets--- but then cursing and screaming recoiled with pain. (Idiot, you forgot to use a potholder. How stupid can you get?) Anne rushed back to the sink and ran cold water over her hand. Trembling, sobbing, raging, she stood tranced, watching the water stream over her palm and down into the sink---

Until she smelled the tarts burning.

Anne pressed her lips tight and held her other--- still unscathed--- hand to her wildly bucking stomach. "I can't stand it," she announced to the kitchen. "I just can't. Everything's gone wrong, I can't seem to do anything right."

Smoke poured out of the oven. Any second now, Anne thought, the damned smoke alarm will start buzzing. If there was one thing she hated, it was the contentious blatting of the kitchen smoke alarm.

Anne snatched up a potholder and dragged the smoking baking sheets out of the oven. Sure enough, seconds later the alarm went off, making her jump. "No No NO NO NO!!!!" she shouted, hands pressed to her ears.

The buzzer ignored her command. Teeth clenched, Anne retrieved the potholder from the floor, tore a steaming tart off the baking sheet (ignoring the burnt bottom that stuck) and flung it across the room at the alarm. It hit the ceiling, but missed its target by inches. Furious but determined, Anne grabbed another tart and hurled it. Bull's eye! And then another and another and another. The damned thing did not of course stop, oh no, it expected Anne to use the broom to push the smoke out of the kitchen. But it had another thing coming if it thought she was going to do that today. One after another Anne threw tarts at the white plastic circle, sometimes hitting it, more often not.

The thing still hadn't stopped buzzing when Anne ran out of tarts, so she opened the refrigerator and pulled out every morsel of food in it. Continuing to aim at the alarm, she hurled first the butter, then the jar of mayonnaise (it made an especially satisfying smash and splatter that managed to reach most of the walls and surfaces of the kitchen), and then another of Dickie's favorite brand of peanut butter, and then Philip's raspberry preserves and strawberry jam and Dickie's grape jelly... and later carrots and peaches and tomatoes...

The buzzer fell silent at just about the time Anne had finished emptying the refrigerator. But though she noticed it stopping (how could she not with all that air and silence suddenly rushing into her ears?), she did not herself feel like stopping. Instead she opened the freezer and headed--- arms laden with frozen food--- for the dining room. She loathed and detested the dining room, she had always hated it with a passion, hated sitting there watching those pigs shovel food into their faces, hated the niceness with which she and "the ladies" nibbled daintily at their floral arrangements, hated the mirrors reflecting all their eating and non-eating faces and bodies... A manic surge of elation rushed over her as she pitched a big hard frozen hunk of steak and watched it sail right through the window; she paused only to watch it crash into the hydrangeas, then dashed a package of chops into one of the mirrors. Conscious of a rhythm now pulsing through her entire being, she dumped the half-melted carton of Philip's gourmet lime sherbet onto the carpet and--- without missing a beat--- smashed all of Dickie's ice cream bars flat over the table, pounding and hammering her fists into his preferred treats until the chocolate coating and vanilla ice cream had become one indistinguishable mass spread melting and dripping over the polished oak, and only the thin wooden sticks remained to identify what they had once been.

Anne held one of the sticks to her nose and drew in the fragrance she could still remember from childhood (Mother, how could you?), then lowered the stick without so much as touching her tongue to it, not her, no, not even a taste, for she, Anne Louise Archer, had transcended food.

Anne stared at the stick for a few seconds longer, then broke it in two and giggled. Her giggle trickled into a cackle, her cackle cascaded into a roar. Tears streamed from her eyes as the laughter poured out of her. Still whooping, Anne bent and plucked the package of chops from the shards of glass blanketing and cradling it. A sliver of mirror had lodged in the packaging, thrusting out of it like a knife stuck quivering in wood. Anne glimpsed her mouth in it, and stared, mesmerized, at her mouth's orifice-ness. Her hilarity died. "My body, myself," she murmured, still staring at her mouth in the jagged fragment of mirror. "My body myself."

Anne wheeled to face the French doors, raised the chops above her head and slung them through the spotless panes into the living room. The splintering of glass tinkled pleasantly in the silence. Then, after a quick survey of the food littering the dining room, Anne scooped up what remained of Philip's tub of gourmet sherbet (quite a lot, actually) and

sent the thawing chartreuse mess the way of the chops. "TRANSCENDENCE," she threw back her head and shouted--- "I AM TRANSCENDENCE!"--- and rushed back into the kitchen for another armload to prove it.

This story first appeared in Storshore in Fall, 1990.

back to homepage