Ian Livesey CC
A Hunger Artist
I’m happiest when I’m angry.
That’s because I get angry at myself when I get hungry, but being hungry pleases me because I know I’m doing it right. I go to the grocery store at least twice a day and spend hundreds of dollars. The clients usually reimburse me, so I don’t think too much about my dad’s money being relinquished to the fluorescent void. The food isn’t for me, anyway. The only thing I buy for myself is peanut butter, and sometimes bulk oatmeal, which Omar — the curt bodega man — gives me for free at this point. I eat inordinate quantities of peanut butter. It’s all my brain allows me, which doesn’t make much sense because it’s still caloric and high in trans fats. I know that from studying biology in school. I actually dropped out of school last year. Not because I decided to pursue a career as a private chef, or because I was lazy, but because studying biology was always a means of self-flagellation. I do that in other ways now.
I’ve been cooking for my dad’s golf club friends since last summer. They’re obscenely rich, with a score of pre-war properties in the Lower East Side and an armada of Scandinavian culinary appliances to match. My dad was never as present as my mother — he was always off erecting hypothetical medical offices in the Midwest. Still, referring me to such “friends” was more nurturing than anything my mother ever did. It was around that time I discovered that if I just chewed food and spat it out, I wouldn’t have to go to extreme physical measures to expel it later on. That’s also how I make sure everything I cook tastes good.
The first thing I prepared for the Donnelleys (the first in a string of gentrifying club friends) was charred octopus with pink peppercorns on a bed of marinated white beans and a passionfruit-watermelon gazpacho. I garnished it with microgreens and edible flowers. It resembled a Fibonacci spiral, or some sort of marvelous snail. Carol-Ann Donnelley said she could tell my parents took me to expensive restaurants. I told her she was right, but didn’t dare admit I’d suffer from a two-week long neurosis if I ordered and ate such a thing. Carol-Ann Donnelley invited me to eat with them, but I declined with a disingenuous smile. Then, she paid me and said she would refer me to another family needing a caterer for their daughter’s cotillion in several weeks. She handed me a thick pink slip of paper. Beneath the letterhead, in her spherical cursive, was a phone number, a dash, and the words please call my psychiatrist.
The new family — The Van Cotts — owned the exact car used in The Graduate and a vineyard doubling as an art gallery, both symptoms of their generational wealth. They wanted me to come for a brief consultation to discuss what I’d cook. The day I was supposed to go to their estate, I had a stomach ache. The recurring gut pains started right after I bought twelve sweaters and initiated my Trident habit. I’d lost so much body weight that even a quiet breeze would render my body into shivers, and the gum-chewing became a mechanism to stave off craving anything of substance. I walked to my desk, which stunk of the Fruity Pebbles I chewed and spat out the night before. They were concealed in a dark plastic bag because I didn’t want my roommates to see what I’d done. Inside, the cereal flashed like rainbow-colored pixels, mauled by my saliva. Next to the bag was the phone number of Carol-Ann Donnelley’s psychiatrist, whom I never called.
I knew recovery would unravel into relapse. I reached 99 pounds last week and I was still miserable. If I spoke to a psychiatrist, I’d be expected to eat and gain weight, to heal. The process of getting to this weight was already so much to bear that I didn’t want to repeat it after being disgusted with my “recovery.” The worst part is that it wouldn’t be my choice. I was sick.
Besides Carol-Ann, the only person to explicitly address my problem was my ex-boyfriend Tynan. Under the pretense of being a caring person, he mused on the paradox of being a chef with anorexia, then mailed me a printed out copy of Kafka’s A Hunger Artist. The next week, he fucked a wide-waisted park ranger from his hometown. I never read the Kafka story.
Before taking the train to the Van Cotts’ estate, I drank three cups of black coffee and ate a quarter of a serving of instant oats with a spoonful of peanut butter. I like to drink a lot of coffee because it makes me active and lively. That’s one of the lies I’d tell Carol-Ann Donnelley’s psychiatrist, if given the chance. I made the oats particularly watery that morning, watching the earthy flecks make spirals along the surface of the beige liquid. After that, I took out two pieces of Trident and folded them into my mouth at once. I’d have to buy another mega-pack soon. I was almost out.
There’s a massive disparity between how I “cook for” myself and how I cook for others. Tynan once told me I was a nurturing person, and that was why I cooked for “other” people with such fervor. I think the truth is that food has hurt me, and by manipulating it, I’m the one who has power. That’s another lie I’d probably tell a psychiatrist. Not a day goes by that food doesn’t hold me hostage.
The Van Cott residence in Connecticut felt geometric, marked in suedes and 70s-style furniture that was probably made last year. When I rang the doorbell, I was greeted by a woman with a sartorial elegance like that of some kind of museum curator.
“I’m Madeleine Van Cott,” she said. “It’s a delight to meet you.”
I quickly learned that Madeleine spoke in glittering generalities, but seemed like a warm enough person. She led me through a cavernous hallway to a green glass table. At the head sat a blonde girl, probably around fifteen years old, wearing a choker.
“This is the one we are to celebrate! She is our hope!” Madeleine beamed as the girl slumped, leaning into the phone in her hands. “This is Rosewater Van Cott. I expect you two will forge a great alliance as we organize the festivities.”
There was something despairing about the daughter. Maybe it was the perpetual shame of having a name like “Rosewater, or perhaps having a jewelry store advertisement for a mother. Rosewater had a gaunt, sullen face and her sweater hung from her protruding collarbones like a velvet curtain. There was already an air of mutual embarrassment between us.
“Ro’s going to do the consultation. The party is for her after all!” Madeleine chirped. She squeezed the nape of Rosewater’s neck and walked out of the room.
Rosewater put her phone face down on the table and looked up at me.
“You’re really skinny,” she said. “You could model. You look like Taylor Hill.”
“I eat too much to model. I laughed, partly because it was a lie and partly because I thought Rosewater knew it was, too. I’d gotten the Taylor Hill comment a lot. “What kind of dishes were we thinking for the cotillion?”
I tried to be vegan in high school. I even tried to be militant about it, staging protests at meatpacking plants and handing out pictures of bloody livestock. As if I would change my diet for any other reason besides over all discontent with my body.
“We could do, like, a charcuterie board with black pepper crackers, endive, and an almond brie. Then cauliflower heads laden with white truffles, puffs with lemon-honey ricotta and a cake with cashew rose cream?”
“Okay, do whatever,” Rosewater scoffed. “I really don’t give a shit.” She took out a stick of Trident gum. The grooves on it made it look like the flattened-out tire of a tiny Hotwheels car. “Do you have a tampon?”
I hadn’t had a tampon in two years. My period completely disappeared when I reached 107.
“Not with me,” I said, taking out my notepad. “So are you going to eat what I cook? It isn’t all for nothing. Your parents are gonna pay me a lot of money and it would make them really sad if you didn’t eat.”
“Don’t get it twisted. It would make them sad if everyone else didn’t eat. I can bet right now my mom’ll have a seizure if she sees me anywhere near a slice of cake.”
“Ok, yes, but the party’s not for your mom. She might be paying me but I’m not gonna do it if you don’t eat. I don’t need the money, I have a rich father.”
Rosewater blinked rapidly and rolled up the sleeves of her sweater. I saw a small, stick- and-poke tattoo of a milk carton on her bony wrist.
“I’m chill with whatever you said. I seriously don’t give a shit.” She looked back down at her phone. A minute later, a chubby redheaded boy kicked a soccer ball into the room.
“Ugh.” Rosewater cracked her knuckles. “This is my brother. His name is Henry but with a tilde over the “n,” because god fucking forbid we go our entire lives without getting bullied.”
“Shut up, fat bitch!” Henry ran out, hugging the soccer ball to his protruding belly.
Completely uncharacteristically, I started to tear up.
“Please eat,” I begged.
“Oh my god, are you crying? Jesus. What’s wrong with you?”
“I’m going to die so early. Do you want to die early? Do you want to die hungry?”
“Hell, I want to die now.”
“No you don’t. I can tell you don’t. It would make me so happy if you ate.”
“I’m going to tell my mom to hire a different caterer who isn’t a fucking psycho.” Rosewater opened her mouth slightly as she said this, revealing the folds and small wrinkles in the piece of gum by her uvula.
“Nobody is going to give you what you want,” I said and pushed in my chair. I exited the estate without saying anything else and got on the train back to Manhattan.
That afternoon, Madeleine called me. Rosewater had agreed to follow through with the menu I planned.
It started when I was in seventh grade. I’d always suffered from insomnia because of a childish worry that my eyelids would stick together if I slept. I hated the feeling of closed eyes, of consciously choosing to not see. My parents kept late hours, watching Ken Burns documentaries steadily into the night. This was before they separated, before my mom never spoke to me again. The first time she told me I needed to lose weight was during a family vacation in Portugal. I was seven years old and wearing high-waisted denim shorts which stuck to my thighs in the Portuguese heat. A gift shop employee remarked to my mom that I was “cute and tiny” As we walked out of the store, my mom laughed.
“Maybe if you tried harder.”
When we returned home, I bought a body-length mirror at a garage sale. I would position myself in front of it, standing sideways, devising ways to make my stomach dwindle. Soon, instead of watching films with my parents, I would go back to my room and do crunches until I fell asleep on my yoga mat, taking advice from pro-Ana websites as though they were biblical.
The day before I started preparing the food for Rosewater’s cotillion, my roommate forced me to go to the doctor because I fainted when we were watching The Bachelorette. The doctor — a brusque woman named Dr. Fül — immediately referred me to an in-patient eating disorder facility upstate. When I politely refused the treatment, and told her about my demanding job as a private chef, she told me I was making a mistake.
“To be candid, this isn’t something you can medically sustain,” she said. “You’re decaying.” On the day of the ball, I borrowed a friend’s Prius. I placed the foil trays of food in the backseat, the ridged bottoms warm, like a human ribcage resting on my fingertips. On the drive, I thought for a long time about seeking therapy. I thought about my mother and what she might have said. She would have told me I didn’t need therapy. I might have been dying but I’d tried hard and maybe even looked beautiful now. I never felt beautiful. And if I said I’d developed fawn-colored spots on my sternum, my mom would have been silent.
When I got to the Van Cotts’, I was met by a disaffected Rosewater, who was wearing a black satin dress and tiara. She looked fragile but elegant.
“My mom is only letting me wear the dress if I wear this ugly tiara,” she frowned. I thought it was maybe a good sign that she so openly spoke to me.
I took the trays of food one by one into the grand ballroom. It had been adorned with round, lilac-colored paper lanterns that looked like glowing pearls. Rosewater marched away to deal with adomestic crisis, something about the gardeners blowing hash smoke in the family Afghan Hound’s ears. Madeleine approached me.
“Thank god you were able to make it all vegan,” she said, and then transitioned to a harsh whisper. “I really wish she hadn’t worn that dress. You can see her flab under that atrocious fabric.”
I laughed. Then I opened the container with the vegan ricotta puffs and shoved one in my mouth.
“I think it’s cute,” I said, with my mouth full. I thought about spitting the food out, but swallowing it felt more vengeful. I decided I just wouldn’t think about it. Madeleine scowled in confusion and walked away.
Once the festivities began, I was invited to stay. Rosewater’s parents would pay me once it was over. I changed into a pink chiffon dress with puffed sleeves and ventured to the garden to read.
Against a background of discussions of which Middle Eastern countries had the best golf courses, and a quartet of violinists playing Brahms, I curled up in my seat. When I checked my phone, I saw that Carol-Ann Donnelley had texted me, asking how the cotillion was going and whether or not I’d called the psychiatrist. I hadn’t. I put my phone back in my bookbag. After that, somehow, I fell asleep in the garden. I dreamt that my mother told me I ate too many eggs. I awoke, startled, to the sound of Simon and Garfunkel’s Cecilia.
I walked into the ballroom, where the dinner had already begun. I saw the food I’d spent hours preparing, placed on small, modern-looking displays, served by tall men with sideburns who Madeleine had hired. I looked for Rosewater.
Finally, I saw her across the room. She was speaking with animated gestures to a large group of girls her age. They looked almost cherubic, like a Raphael painting composed of debutantes. Her tiara was still on but she was smiling widely. They all were. A boy came over from another table and gave Rosewater a drink. She blushed. My food was spread across their table like a mosaic. It was marked by bites of varying sizes.
They were eating, and they were happy.
Lisa Cochran is a third-year undergraduate at New York University studying politics with minors in creative writing and French. Though she grew up in Ames, Iowa to an American father and Russian mother — making her sympathetic to both sides of the Cold War — she currently resides in the East Village in Manhattan. She likes borzois, walking around aimlessly, and art in any form. This is her debut fiction publication.
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