By Trish Cantillon
He’s just round. He’ll grow out of it. We need to leave him alone.
I was twelve when I had an electrode strapped to my arm to administer shock. It was all part of the Schick weight loss program my parents had signed me up for in 1977.
Jeff, my counselor, was a handsome, cheerful man who made me want to do whatever he said to please him. He was tan, dark hair, and a smile like someone you would see on a toothpaste commercial.
Jeff sat me down at a small metal table, making sure my chair faced the mirror that ran the length of the wall. He was to my left, a big machine with dials in front of him on the table. There were several wires extending from the back of the machine to the electrodes encased in a white plastic sleeve. Jeff was chirping about how great it was that I was doing this now, at my age, because it’s so much harder the older you get. He winked as he slipped the plastic sleeve on my left arm, just above my elbow, pulled it as tight as he could.
“Did you bring the items?” he asked. I nodded and reached into the paper bag I carried in with me. “A good food and a bad food?” I nodded again. I set a Nestle Crunch Bar and nectarine on the table between us. “Super! Now, I want you to take the wrapper off the candy bar.” I tore a piece of the wrapper off the end and slid the Crunch bar out carefully. I held it in my hand and looked at him, confused. “Okay. I want you to take your time. Look at it. Smell it. Feel it in your hand.” The smell of the chocolate reminded me of Easter baskets and Trick or Treat bags. Jeff turned a switch on the machine. “Make sure you are facing the mirror,” he pointed to my chair. I scooted a bit to face completely forward. “All right,” he said, “take a small bite.” Zap! A brief stinging sensation on my arm as I chewed. I didn’t flinch. I took another bite while he read the ingredients from the back of the Crunch Bar wrapper. Hydrogenated vegetable oil. Zap! Sugar. Zap! Milk chocolate. Zap! He turned the dial up on the machine. I wondered if I said ouch, if he would stop, but I didn’t want him to be mad at me or think I was a baby. Cocoa butter. Zap! Milk fat. Zap! He asked me to take another bite. Jeff turned the dial up and as I chewed, he told me why this Crunch bar was “bad.” No nutritional value. Rots your teeth. Makes you fat. Zap! Zap! Zap! He checked the dials and then made some notes on the pad of paper next to him. The machine made a faint whirring sound as he turned it off.
Jeff reached across the table to remove the electrodes from my arm. The plastic sleeve scratched my skin as he tugged at it. He carefully folded the wires into two neat piles. He then took what was left of the Crunch Bar, which was still in my hand, and pushed his chair back to stand up. He wrote on the mirror with the candy. He settled back into his chair and put the nectarine in front of me. “Just like with the candy bar. I want you to hold it, smell it, and then take a bite.” I rolled it around in my hands once, put it to my nose and looked at Jeff before I took my first bite. I chewed slowly and listened to him tell me how “good” this nectarine was. All natural. Juicy. Tasty. Satisfying. Sweet.
I went back every Thursday for eight weeks and repeated this scene. Presenting Jeff my “good” and “bad” foods, along with my checkbook-register-styled food diary for his review. He would initial each day’s entry with a smiley face or a frowny face, depending on what I ate. I lost sixteen pounds in those eight weeks, with some help from the stomach flu (a ‘blessing in disguise’ my Mom had said). I was a superstar. An emblem of perfect will power and control. The pride of my family.
It’s a typical weeknight at my house. I am clearing the dinner dishes with my husband. He says he worried about our son’s weight.
“He’s fine,” I say, a little too quickly, hoping he’ll drop the subject.
“I don’t know. Maybe we need to do something, talk to the doctor?”
I cut him off.
“He’s just round. He’ll grow out of it. We need to leave him alone.”
My husband considers this for a moment.
“I’m not sure that’s right.” His tone is now serious. He’s not buying my explanation.
Just then, our son walks in, fresh from his shower, wearing Batman pajamas. He plops down on the chair across from me, gives an exaggerated smile so I know he’s brushed his teeth. In that moment I am back in the little room with Jeff. Staring at myself in the mirror, sporting my new short haircut that made me look like a fat little boy, the letters “B A D” written in candy bar above my head, eating a nectarine.
Trish Cantillon lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two kids. Her work has been published in the Berkeley Fiction Review and in the upcoming issue of Gold Man Review.