For the last 4 years, I’ve measured my success in designer coats.
January of every year, the suppressed monster of unreasonable reinvention rears its head and makes me buy a coat. Last year’s coat was orange, it’s predecessor was pink; lavender, white, leather, fuzzy, double-sided, windbreaker, even sleeveless-- some even bought through the year, different in every way except for one: they were all two sizes too small.
I’m an avid believer in corporate America despite its reputation, the reward and punishment system really does work, I’ll stand by it. The failure margins come from those sluggers at home, devoid of self-discipline and motivation. I can talk about them how I wish, I’ve been there far too long. How many times I’ve been mid-hip in cherry strudels and emotional breakdown ice cream, I sincerely couldn’t say. I could blame it away too if I wanted, but the facts remain the same-- no matter how hard I tug, pull, and suck in, the coats I’ve bought never zip.
It was the most important thing in the world to fit them, I remember clearly a year before I had been disgusted in myself as I bought that orange coat, a feeling familiar to me through the years. I hadn’t fit my prized rose fuzz from the year before that and the despair was tangent on my tongue as a hateful, bitter aftertaste. It wasn’t that I’d spent my money poorly-- though quite the savings were caught up in my money-- it was that they were proof of growth. I had made those coats a symbol of triumph over my long-term dysphoric body issues and when I failed, it worsened them two-fold. I didn’t need two-fold, I needed two sizes down.
At least, that’s what I thought I’d needed until about 5 months ago. It was on my way home from my job at Fashion Flaunt Business and Co. that my daily routine and perfectly satisfying life philosophy was abruptly interrupted. Jogging in the city subjects you to a wide variety of vulgar calls and taunts, which I was used to being both a long-term resident and also, a really bad jogger. Most blew by me like the wind-- of which there is not much in July-- but sometime around a week after the 4th, I was captured into the oddities of street life by a small whine coming from the trash bags in the alley.
I was hesitant at first to stop, as I would be jeopardizing my workout and my safety, but the alluring whines made it impossible to ignore. Upon approach, the trash began to wrestle faster. Anxiously, I edged toward the disturbance. My mind dawdled on a freak of a man preying upon maternally gullible women, or a rabid raccoon with only inch deep cuts to offer, perhaps a swarm of rare infectious beetles rattling…
“Yip!” The helpless call rang out. Out of nowhere it jumped from the rubble and I screeched, tensing for an attack, but there was no horror to be greeted by. It was a simple puppy.
The little thing was far from rabid, on the contrary, it was docile and friendly. Hesitantly, it approached me with a tender trot and sniffed once to acquaint me. It climbed the heel of my leg as I bent down and picked it up to cradle in my arms. The tag read a street number not far from the display sign, so I sighed a final farewell to my rigorous routine and searched for the corresponding home.
The home I found was quaint and modest, surrounded by a growing ivy and cracked sidewalk. I approached the door and knocked with the puppy in my arms. It cracked open slowly and out emerged a thin girl slightly under my height. At the sight of each other, both the puppy and the girl leaped with joy to be reunited. “Thank you so much,” the girl said through her wide smile and laughs. Then she stepped back and looked mindfully into her home. “We don’t have much, but we could give you a small reward if you like? I know where a few dollars are.” I stepped back shyly, “No reward needed, I should be on my way.”
Just as I was stepping off the porch, a voice rang out from the back. “Jeda, let that girl come in outta the sun before she burns up!” An older lady exclaimed, appearing with crinkles in her cheeks as she offered a polite smile. “I apologize, I wasn’t expecting company,” she said more chastely towards the smaller girl than me. “Mom, this girl brought our Reggie back-- I told her we could give her a little money but she said she didn’t want none,” the girl explained. Both their attentions were turned to me, “Well it is good you don’t want no money ‘cause I haven’t got any for giving,” the mom said, her southern accent seeping through. “But, you’s welcome to come in for dinner! I can cook you up something in the fry, that can be your reward,” the lady insisted.
I was stunned in the moment. Eating… food? It was fried as well, the thought turned my stomach in a million directions. I wanted to say no, more than anything. I was searching-- the walls, the ground, the tips of my sleeves-- anything that could’ve given me a reason to go on my way and not come off huffy and rude. It did not come in time, though. As Jeda took me by the sleeve into their house, I knew that it was too late for an excuse. I would find a way to fix my actions later-- whether by vigorous workouts or less physically demanding reversal actions, but for now, it seemed I’d be staying for dinner.
As I was pulled through their house into the living room, I realized the temperature did not change. It was as hot here as outside, and even more, I noticed the children on the couch. There were three in total with their hair damp on their foreheads and gathered around a fan. Jeda took notice of my observations. “Ashar is the one in the middle, on his left is my little sister Myria and on his right, the youngest-- Xadrien,” she introduced them with a practice that implied she was used to being in charge of her younger siblings. I nodded and introduced myself, “Cara, by the way.” I stuck out my hand and Jeda shook it with a smile, then completed the trip to the kitchen.
I could feel my afro gather dampness inside its scrunchy as I stood. Jeda’s mom lined up a box of rice, a can of beans, and some flour. After she was through with the preparation, she turned to me, “Do you want to help us with the cookin’ or you wanna sit and hang in the living room?” Now was my chance to speak up, hey, not to be rude but I’m on a pretty strict dietary routine and I can’t eat this stuff, thank you for the offer but I should probably go-- “So, what you want to do sugar?”
It was now or never, I was going to feel awful if I said nothing, I already felt sick. The baby hairs on the back of my neck got slicker as I took a breath in, “I… I can’t eat tonight.” The air in the kitchen was suffocating in that moment, I was even more anxious than in the alleyway. Both pupils in the kitchen gazed at me in confusion until finally, Jeda spoke to accommodate me. “Is it because you're Jewish, or Muslim? If that’s the case we have some family like that and we can prep for whichever you need us to,” she said. She was impressively mature for what looked like 15, and I was awed at her hostess manners-- but that was not the case. It seemed embarrassing now to admit to my seemingly flimsy reasons for opposing the meal, I felt my face burn hot with a crimson only hidden by my dark complexion. I knew I had to speak, so I came out quick and honest.
“No, I--” this was going to be uncomfortable, so I just blurted it. “I’m not religiously affiliated, but I do have some serious dietary restrictions.” I tried to speak faster to quicken the duration of my shameful confession. “I know this is a bit inconvenient and I should’ve spoken before, but you guys were being so nice and I didn’t want to jeopardize being rude to you so I--” Jeda’s mom cut me off with her hand in the air. I felt the lump in my throat. “You’re saying you don’t enjoy my, southern style?” It sounded so much worse when she said that. I wanted to turn back the clock and find a way to say something less offensive, but I couldn’t. The embarrassment burned me further, I only nodded to answer. Neither seemed to register my discomfort, they… were chuckling? “Well sweetie, we got some yams and green beans-- ain't got nothing fancy for vegans and no organic honey mustard in our cabinets, but veggie stir fry I can do, if you like.”
It was disbelieving to hear her coated voice of kindness, I simply stood for a moment. I knew it wasn’t over yet. The truth is, I wasn’t planning on eating anything that night. How was I going to explain that I planned to starve? I always did, until I broke and I’d hate myself. Then came the running until I was heaving too loud to hear the hateful thoughts, and working overtime at my job to get myself past the dinner hours. How was I going to explain that process to these nice people?
One more time, I tried to decline. “I’m… I’m just not hungry.” The awkwardness was definitely felt by everyone that time. How could I apologize for this one? I was going to leave out the front door, that’s what I was going to do. Tell them I was glad that I could return their dog, but that I remembered I had important paperwork due at work and I simply couldn’t afford to stay. It was almost a plan in action, but Jeda-- aged far beyond her years, she knew what I was thinking and she wasn’t going to let things unfold like that.
“By the time dinner is ready, you might have an appetite,” she spoke dipping a cup into the flour. She walked over to the counter and opened the cupboard to a few Ziploc bags. There were a few poking out of the box, she grabbed three. One she gave to her mother, one she kept for herself, and the last was given to me. With a little flower in each, I had one command-- shake.
- - - - -
Dinner was ready.
The gourmet of a southern prepared banquet wafted through the room. I was willing my stomach to not growl and tattle on me that I was hungry. Jeda was off prepping her siblings to be present at the dinner table with clean clothes and washed hands, and I had been appointed to set the table. Not much conversation took place, at this point, the awkwardness had settled, it was only because of one thing. I didn’t know how to address Jeda’s mom. I was twenty-three, so the simple sliding by with multitudes of ma’ams like a teenager would be awkward, but again I was too young to address her like a friend. Not that I knew her name anyway.
One by one, the children appeared in the kitchen, Myria-- about nine, Ashar-- eleven, and little Xavien-- only about four, cradled in Jeda’s arms. I had learned their ages from Jeda in a small conversation before she had left to get them ready and I was relieved she was back. She walked over with a smile and pulled out a chair, “The little munchkins have it from here.” I nodded, then sat and watched as food was brought to the table in a frenzy from the little ones, Jeda watching their steps carefully to be sure the rolls wouldn’t tumble.
Slowly the chairs were pulled back and occupied until only Jeda was left standing after ensuring the comfort of her mom. When she sat, they prayed-- small and quick, a simple thanks. I managed to tack on the ending amen, and the meal began.
“Thank you for getting Reggie back!” Myria exclaimed, she was hushed down. After her plate was fixed she gazed at my empty one. Then with no warning, gathered some rice and plopped it down in front of me. It had been flavored with a variety of spices and cutlets, no one could deny it looked amazing. They pretended not to pay attention when I poked the rice around, I wanted to eat it so bad. I knew that I’d feel horrible if I did, so I fought with myself to go a little longer.
It took the better part of the meal, but with my eyes closed, I broke. One bite, it was the hardest thing to do. I told myself ‘if you don’t eat now you’ll eat later, might as well not be rude.’ The savory taste coated the bitter one that was trying to pile up on my tongue, I paid little attention to everyone as I ate. The brief relief of food to my hunger pains mixed with the tangent dread creeping from the back of my throat was too consuming to register anything else. My plate was newly empty with only the remnants of orange spice as I came to my senses again. Ashad spoke of his day at school, but his mother seemed to be only halfway there. He spoke of his homework in tongues of despair, but despite his obvious discontent, his mom had a smile creep up from the corner of her mouth.
Jeda seemed to be satisfied as well, I knew both their smiles were aimed at me and my give to temptation. It felt good for a moment, to have someone concerned for your well-being. The sneaking monster of toxic dysphoria bayed itself as dinner was dismissed and I bid goodbye. The hug was long, I still knew not of what I should call Jeda’s mom, so I asked.
“Excuse me, ma’am, I was wondering… how would you like me to address you?” She was amused. My shame followed hotly up my neck again, but there was no reason. “Well, I suppose you’ve eaten a good meal o’ mine, you should call me momma. I know you ain’t one of my children, so why don’t you call me…” She pondered. Then it came, “Momma Rice,” she chuckled. I chased her laugh with my own, the cut-ups went on for several minutes. Casual speak of what to call her mixed in, but despite the comedy in it-- Momma Rice was perfect.
I jogged home, not because I needed to burn out the hate, but because I had the energy. I had been invited back, I’d be taking them up on it. As I slept the demons scratched, but they never reached the surface. A peaceful sleep was rewarded that night, and I never got up to get rid of the rice.
- - - - -
Many days I spent with Momma Rice, almost as many spent obsessing with the strangling demands of self-hate. I learned quickly that dinners like my first rarely occurred, they were not a privileged family capable of providing these meals weekly. When I learned of this, I spent money on food where I could and pretended I’d want it cooked for me. Every time I bit into a meal, it killed me inside-- the loathing, it burned me straight through like paper over a candle. I was envious of Jeda’s slim figure, how she kept so well to it without fighting tooth and nail for self-acceptance. As I grew to a slight complacency, I realized that what was actually deserving of my envy, was her radiant virtue. Of course, envy reared its head less and less with time spent at Momma Rice’s house.
It had never disappeared, though. So now, here I stood at the frontier of my devils-- face to face with the worst of my vulnerabilities, weak on their turf. It was January, once again and I was back at the coat store. Normally, I would’ve had an array of candidates by now, but my orange jacket had been the last one for the year. I swallowed nervously and browsed the section, taking time to caress each one. Pick one! The urges screamed at me inside. Do it! They pulled me to the edge, one stumble and I’d fall right back. Would it be easier? It felt like it could be so much easier. Would it be worth it? Satisfaction with myself would most definitely be worth it. One more time…
I picked a coat, I took it to the register. Beep… it was mine.
For the last five months, I had been dying inside, suffocating between temporarily floating to the surface for joy and the worst thing is that those had been the good months. I was used to it, but not accustomed, it still hurt just as much as when it had started. The pain wasn’t numb, it was chronic. However, I realized that the part of me that had been dying… was exactly what I had wanted to kill. The fire that burned in me had reached the darkest parts of myself, and while I felt like I was dying, I was cleansing. The ashes were always there, they were alive. I had to be careful.
At this moment though, Jeda was beautiful in her brand new coat. It brought out her smile.