by Rachel Vogel
The summer I turned sixteen, my mother drove me to a fat farm in the desert east of Los Angeles. We didn’t call it a fat farm. The place’s name, Aunt Addie’s Health Retreat, saved us that embarrassment. But there was little mystery to our purpose as we sped through the dry land. The windshield grew battered with bugs and we flattened a couple of snakes. Every so often, a blooming yucca would startle into view like a white flag waving in the breeze.
Eventually, my mother turned off the radio. She’d been listening to a story about the death of Indira Gandhi’s son in a plane crash.
“I couldn’t bear it,” she said to no one in particular. Her L’Air du Temps perfume drifted my way, and I remember thinking there couldn’t be two women more different than my mother and Indira Gandhi. Each wielded power, but Indira did it boldly. Draped in colorful saris, she quashed rebellions and ruled a people. My mother disdained boldness, or, at least, its untidy appearance. She valued soft voices in a room, neat hospital corners on a bed. She wore fitted clothing that revealed her slender form, proof of her self-control, which signaled good breeding. I was forever trying to clean up my messes, both the physical and the spiritual kind.
But the thought of losing a child must have shaken my mother because she said, with sudden urgency, “I’m proud of you no matter what. You know that, Jolie, right?”
I don’t remember answering, but I know that when Aunt Addie’s terra-cotta roof appeared in the distance, shimmering like a mirage, I felt excited. My life was about to change and it could only be for the better.
When we pulled up to the registration building, my mother kept the engine running and turned to me with the solemnity of an abbess steeling a novice for divine trial.
“I’m not coming in,” she announced. Heat rippled visibly outside, but I shivered in the air-conditioned car. “This has to be your journey, Jolie. I’ve signed all the paperwork. Just introduce yourself and be a good girl.” This would prove harder than either of us could imagine.
When I knocked on the arched slab of teak that separated Aunt Addie’s from the surrounding desert, my knuckled fist looked very small. A woman with a teased helmet of hair and a clipboard opened the door. Her name tag said “Nurse Ida,” but she wore a floral smock over jeans with silver sandals. The nurses I knew from daytime soaps wore strictly white from their caps to their shoes.
“You must be Jolie.” She stuck her head out the door and waved to my mother. Behind the car, dark mountains pressed against the horizon, robed in a lavender haze.
Nurse Ida led me into an office containing a spartan desk, a leather couch, and a pair of potted palms crying out for a drink. Autographed headshots hung on the walls. I recognized a soap opera actress whose character had famously married seven times. She’d scrawled, “To Addie and Her Land of Hope and Dreams—You’re the Best!” Until that moment it hadn’t occurred to me that Aunt Addie might be an actual person.
“Let’s weigh you, shall we?” Nurse Ida smiled brightly, as if cheer could ease the tension. A physician’s scale hulked in the corner. When I stepped onto its platform, she worked the weights like abacus beads. Her breath smelled of coffee and peppermint. I cringed when the scale finally balanced, but Nurse Ida simply took a pen from behind her ear and noted my weight on the clipboard. Then she pulled a yellow tape measure from her smock pocket and encircled my arms, chest, waist, and thighs with it, marking these measurements down as well. When she finished, she said, “Tell me what you hope to achieve during your two weeks with us.”
“I want to weigh 110 pounds.” This number, listed as the weight-of-record for my favorite supermodel, held a talismanic power for me.
Nurse Ida’s brow furrowed. “Aren’t you a little tall for that? Some people just have bigger bones than others. Here at Aunt Addie’s, we’re about health and well-being from the inside out. For you, the goal should be inches rather than pounds. A good fitness routine is all you need.”
My body appeared to me as if through a funhouse mirror, so I couldn’t hear what she was saying, could only absorb the part about my bones, which mortified me. Big bones seemed inferior to any other type. I felt an urge to water the wilting palms.
It was time to preselect my meals. Nurse Ida handed me a form and one of those stubby pencils used to mark the score in miniature golf. Scanning for the least caloric items, I circled tomato juice and poached eggs for every breakfast, salad for every lunch, and steamed fish with vegetables for every dinner. I wanted results, and deprivation was my ticket. Less would be more. In fact, less would blow way past more. Less would be holier than a mountaintop in ancient Samaria.
Then Nurse Ida went over the rules. No smoking. No drinking. No using the pool after ten p.m. “Most guests gather by the pool between activities, but don’t let the regulars intimidate you.”
Next she handed me a weekly activities sheet. There were cardio and weight-training classes, yoga, and lectures with names like “From Thinking Thin to Being Thin” and “Firm Your Mind with Guru Greg.” The word “guru” made me think of Indira Gandhi.
“Who’s Guru Greg?”
“You’ll like him. Everyone does.” Without elaborating, she showed me to my room.
My window had a view of the Coachella Valley, which spread to nowhere like the set of an apocalyptic film. I changed into a bathing suit and cover-up, which I had no intention of removing, and went to explore.
The fat farm felt abandoned save for a handful of geckos doing cobra pose on the corridor walls. I passed a gym where a wrinkled man lay on a bench press, looking too exhausted to lift the bar. He stared at me with bloodshot eyes. I scooted by without smiling.
A series of signs and arrows finally landed me at the outdoor pool, which explained the quiet everywhere else. Like desert animals drawn to a source of water, Aunt Addie’s guests had massed around this cerulean kidney. The smell of Coppertone hit me hard. Oiled bodies were sprawled on chaise lounges, stretched out on the decking, standing in clusters, abuzz like cicadas. The people looked old, though not gray. The women sported blond coifs and the men had bald pates like greased skillets. Everyone was deeply tanned.
I examined their bodies for fat. I always found people’s soft spots, their hidden paunches and cellulite, but this group made it easy. They had more fat than I’d ever seen, rolls of it hanging off their frames like gobs of glue oozing from a kindergarten art project. I almost felt thin.
Nearly every chaise was occupied by a body, a beach bag, or a strategically placed towel. At last I saw an empty chair by the lifeguard stand and strode toward it. That’s when I saw her, lying on an adjacent lounge. A girl who had no business being at Aunt Addie’s.
This goddess lay greased up to her eyelashes in baby oil, bikini bottoms as tiny as a Barbie’s, breasts pushed up over the bralette top. River reeds for legs. She wore big sunglasses and a floppy red hat that crowned her long blond hair like a maraschino cherry. Beside her lay a plump brunette with her body angled toward the blonde, but the blonde kept her nose to the sky. There was a glory about her, as if the world were a bore. I sensed her ambition, and it made my skin prickle.
I lay down and arranged my coverup. The two girls were chatting with the lifeguard, a muscular boy in mirrored aviators who looked like he played water polo or logged hours for a swim team. Even when she was speaking, the blonde lay motionless in glamorous apathy. The others called her Lindy.
The plump brunette began to complain. There was nothing to do at Aunt Addie’s, everybody was so old.
“That’s the point, Krissy,” Lindy said, sounding exasperated. “We come here to get away.”
“I’ll show you girls a good time,” the lifeguard said. He never took his eyes off the pool, probably in case one of the guests sank a raft.
“What’d you have in mind, Romeo?” The way Lindy said this, I wondered if Romeo was really his name.
“How does a college party sound?”
So these girls were in high school like me. Or maybe they just didn’t go to college. I had never met a college-age person who didn’t go to college.
“I’m not sure Todd would like that,” Lindy said.
“Todd’s coming tonight?” Krissy asked.
“Apparently he can’t live without me.” With this, Lindy hoisted herself onto an elbow and looked around. She caught sight of me and peered over the tops of her sunglasses. Her eyes were glacier blue.
“Did you just get here?” she asked.
She eyed the tote I had looped over the back of my lounge chair. “Is that a Pierre Deux?”
I nodded again, braver now because I could tell she was impressed.
She asked my name. When I told it to her, she said, “That sounds French. Do you know French?”
“Mais oui,” I lied. I took Spanish, but in a pinch could whip out a handful of French phrases. I was feeling daring.
Krissy glared at me in a territorial snit.
“Let me guess,” Lindy said, “you’re a first-timer.” She checked out my body.
I tugged the coverup down my thighs and asked if she was, too, which made her laugh. Her laugh came out as a snort.
“Hardly. I live just over in Palm Desert. Whenever I save up enough cash I come here for the weekend.”
“But you’re not fat,” I said.
“Every woman’s fat. Besides, it gives me a break from my boyfriend, especially when we’re fighting. Plus, I give Krissy here moral support. We always come together.” Krissy’s cheeks turned bright pink, but Lindy didn’t notice. She asked where I lived.
I had learned never to say “Beverly Hills” because it elicited strong reactions, usually ones that made me uncomfortable. I would say “Los Angeles” instead, or “West LA.” When I went to sleepaway camp in Maine one summer, I only needed to say “California.” The East Coast kids didn’t ask for details. But now I fixed Lindy with a probing stare and said it. “Beverly Hills.” Her eyebrows shot up.
“Do you want to go out with us later?” she asked.
“Todd’s driving over. We’ll probably grab a few beers and snacks at the 7-Eleven. There’s no decent food around here.” So much for moral support for Krissy.
I swallowed hard and imagined calling my mother at the end of the week, as we’d planned, and having to confess a Twinkie run. But Lindy didn’t wait for my answer.
“Meet us outside the back gate at eleven. They never lock it.”
Six months earlier, my father had grown concerned about my low mood and come to talk about it during my break at work. On Sunday afternoons I sold women’s sportswear at Lucy Shand’s, a small but solid competitor to Bonwit Teller and Saks. It was the first job I’d ever had, and I took it after my history class studied the Russian Revolution because I wanted to show solidarity with the proletariat. Hawking Liz Claiborne cardigans might be a far cry from plowing fields or welding iron, but I did what I could.
I had a thirty-year-old coworker named Jane who was single but wanted desperately not to be. She would tell me stories about her dates, which never ended the way she wanted them to. I couldn’t understand this because Jane was very slim, the thing I most longed to be.
Jane had dark hair that fell to the middle of her back and a crooked, pointy nose that might have looked witchy on someone else but was beautiful on her. Inexplicably, for I was a late bloomer who had only recently experienced my first period, Jane saw me as her peer and confided intimate details. Once, she told me that she might be falling in love with a Porsche salesman who had salt-and-pepper hair. It was the first time I’d heard hair color described that way. It struck me as terribly vivid.
As Jane told it, the Porsche salesman lived in fear of impregnating her and insisted on pulling out before ejaculating, despite her reassurances that she took the pill. I didn’t fully understand why Jane held this against him, so she explained it sotto voce while we cleared five thousand dollars’ worth of merchandise from a dressing room where the customer had tried on clothes for two hours and then left empty-handed.
Being treated as Jane’s equal accelerated my desire to partake in the mysteries of womanhood. But having her as a role model came with its own set of miseries. Could I ever look as good as Jane? Would my troubles ever be as glamorous as hers? I felt uncomfortable in my body and couldn’t imagine it performing as required. So when my father came to see me that afternoon and asked why I seemed sad all the time, I burst into tears and named the only reason I could think of: because I was fat.
My father expressed his love by solving problems for the people he cared about. Thus, upon learning the source of my unhappiness, he acted swiftly to consult the best expert he knew on the subject of fat. My mother, a woman neither as blameless nor as guilty as I have found it convenient to believe over the years, could conquer a diet as easily as Indira Gandhi could vanquish the opposition party. She kept a careful vigil over me. If I piled cottage cheese too high in my bowl, she would say, “Remember, Jolie, quantity matters as much as quality when it comes to food.”
My mother helped me conceal my body in flattering outfits. Once, after I’d tried on seven different ensembles for a holiday party, we stood before her dressing room mirror admiring the burgundy velvet tunic dress she’d helped me settle on. Glowing sconces cast a soft light on my transfigured form, but still it dwarfed my mother’s.
“You look wonderful, Jolie,” she said, hugging me. Then she squeezed a little tighter. “If only there wasn’t so much of you.” I have friends who find those words so shocking they don’t quite believe she spoke them, but at the time I found them neither cruel nor odd. I took the superiority of my mother’s waiflike form for granted, just as I did her fairer coloring and calmer demeanor. Towering over her in that mirror felt like a form of aggression that needed to be contained.
After my father’s visit to Lucy Shand’s and the consult with my mother, we formulated a plan: when school let out in June, I would jumpstart a new me at Aunt Addie’s, which my mother had heard about from her friend Dot at the country club. There was nothing wrong with me, my parents promised, that couldn’t be fixed.
My heart beat furiously as I slipped outside Aunt Addie’s that first night. I half expected to get stopped, but the place was asleep. A white pickup truck rumbled in the otherwise deserted road. The passenger door opened.
“We almost left without you.” Lindy wore a tube top and micro shorts despite the cold night air. She spoke to someone in the truck, then Krissy clambered into the back of the cab, glaring at me. I slid into the front beside Lindy, and the truck skidded onto the highway.
I glanced at the driver. He was blond and rawboned with a growth of fuzz on his chin. He didn’t acknowledge me. He drove with his left hand out the open window, which let in a howling wind that pounded my eardrums. I studied the sky through the windshield. The stars shone a billion times brighter than anything you could see from the city.
Lindy fiddled with the radio until she found a song she liked. She cranked it up and sang over the wind until Todd closed his window and turned the music off.
“What’d you do that for?” Lindy said.
“You didn’t call for two days.”
“I called today.”
“Why do you always get to decide?”
“Decide what?” Lindy acted innocent, but even I didn’t buy it.
Todd sped up the truck. The cab grew thick with tension. I guessed they were having one of their fights, which struck me as very sophisticated.
Twenty minutes later we pulled into an empty parking lot in front of a 7-Eleven. The store’s neon sign glowed on the asphalt but the desert all around was black. We could have been on the moon.
When we piled out of the truck, I got a better look at Todd. He wore stiff jeans with cowboy boots and a flannel shirt. A boy dressed like a man. He walked ahead of us, sulking.
Inside the 7-Eleven, Lindy cruised the aisles with Krissy, putting food items into a basket and taking them out again. Todd selected a six-pack of Bud from the refrigerator case and said he’d meet us back at the truck. I watched him pay the clerk and leave.
Lindy and Krissy agreed on a bag of Doritos and a liter of Diet Coke but were arguing about whether to get Red Vines or Milanos. Lindy wanted the Milanos.
“You shouldn’t be eating this crap anyway,” she told Krissy, who teared up.
I doubted my own willpower and returned to the truck.
Todd was slumped in the driver’s seat sipping a can of the Bud. He ignored me when I slid in beside him, but after a minute he extended a beer.
“Want one?” he asked morosely.
I shook my head.
The radio was playing Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” and Todd began drumming the downbeat on the steering wheel. Then he turned the music down and said, “Who’s Romeo?”
“He’s just a lifeguard at Aunt Addie’s.” I regretted how I said this, like Todd had nothing to worry about. It wasn’t my job to protect Lindy.
“Why does she always do this to me?”
The guy was in agony. It was sweet. He was handsome, too. I liked how he could be wiry and rugged at the same time and wondered if Jane’s Porsche salesman had this quality. I wanted to reach over and touch him but the girls came back then.
“Slide over.” Lindy wanted me between her and Todd. He handed out beers and this time I took one. I resisted the chips and cookies that Lindy passed around.
They started gossiping about people and places I didn’t know, but I pieced certain facts together. Lindy and Krissy had just graduated from high school and held part-time summer jobs. Lindy worked at a realtor’s office. Todd sometimes helped her hammer “For Sale” signs into customers’ lawns. She was considering junior college, while Todd, three years older, worked construction. His friend had recently married and Todd didn’t think it was a bad idea, but when he said this Lindy just stared out the window.
When they got tired of talking, we headed back. Sitting next to Todd, I could smell him. Over time, I would learn that if you get close enough, every man has a unique scent, as subtle yet unmistakable as a thumbprint. But Todd’s was my first. He smelled musky with an undertone of oatmeal.
Todd slammed the brakes. Lindy and I lurched forward and Krissy hit the back of our seat.
“What the hell,” Lindy yelled. “You’re gonna get us killed.”
“Look,” Todd said.
Visible in the glare of the headlights, a snake lay on the road with its diamond-shaped mouth wide open.
“Gross,” Lindy said.
“Look what’s in its mouth,” Todd said.
“Let me see.” Krissy thrust her head between Lindy’s and mine. “Gross!”
Filling the snake’s mouth was the stunned, furry face of a dying mouse. Or maybe it was already dead. I couldn’t tell.
“Now that’s cool,” Todd said.
“There’s nothing cool about it,” Lindy snapped.
“It’s swallowing a fucking mouse.” Todd said that we were lucky to see it because usually snakes eat their prey head first.
“Holy crap,” said Krissy. “You can see its little eyes. The snake’s so mean.”
“Mean is right.” Lindy poked me. “Don’t you think?”
I said I agreed, but in truth the spectacle fascinated me. Years later, when I broke off an engagement to a man who accused me of cruelty, I remembered how the snake had captivated me and thought the man might be right.
When we got back to Aunt Addie’s, Krissy and I got out of the truck but Lindy nestled into the crook of Todd’s outstretched arm. He kept his eyes trained straight ahead.
“I’ll catch up with you guys later,” Lindy said.
As the pickup took off down the highway, I trembled in the cold confusion of the night.
Lindy and Krissy must have returned to Palm Desert the next morning, because I couldn’t find them anywhere. Without their companionship, I focused on my routine. I ate my meager meals, took aerobics class twice daily, and worked on my tan at the pool while reading, alternately, a Barbara Cartland romance novel and A People’s History of the United States.
On Friday afternoon, Guru Greg was holding a meditation session in the west atrium called “Fill Your Soul Instead of Your Stomach.” I arrived early. The atrium turned out to be a regular conference room stuffed with baskets of silk ferns. Guru Greg was also disappointing. I was expecting Indira Gandhi’s piercing eyes, possibly a turbaned head, but he looked like a high school wrestling coach with beefy limbs, a bushy blond mustache, and a heather gray T-shirt that said “Gym & Tonic.”
The session began in a circle on the floor, which elicited complaints from the dozen other participants. Guru Greg told us to find the pulse in our wrists.
“The feel of flowing blood lends courage to the soul,” he said. The soul was as much a muscle as our quads or biceps, he said, and like them it needed exercise to stay strong. Meditation through chanting was the soul’s best exercise. Then he lit a stick of sandalwood incense and led us in a series of Sanskrit chants that no one could follow.
After the chanting, Guru Greg let us move to metal folding chairs while he talked about the mind, which he said was the soul’s handmaiden. While the soul needed exercise, the mind needed to be filled with good things like love, generosity, and gratitude. Filling the mind with goodness kept it from craving cheap substitutions like junk food. I stayed after class to ask more about this.
Guru Greg straddled a folding chair. “What can I do for you, young lady?” Up close, he seemed bearlike.
“Do you think the soul is inherently good?” I asked.
“Let’s start small. Tell me your name.”
I told him, then repeated my question. I really wanted an answer.
“The soul is complicated, Jolie. It’s important to take baby steps.”
“Can the soul help us become thin?”
“The soul can help us make good choices.”
“But how?” I explained that my whole life, I only ever wanted to be thin. If a person wanted something that much, how could they keep failing unless they were bad?
Guru Greg laughed, not unkindly, and told me to come to his weekend lecture on the unconscious mind. Then he looked me up and down. “But I’ve got to tell you, Jolie, I can’t see a damn thing wrong with you.”
I didn’t know whether or not to believe him.
Nurse Ida forbade daily weigh-ins. She said that water made our weight fluctuate, and people got discouraged. But I could see results each passing day. I still wasn’t skinny, but I felt leaner and fitter and stopped noticing the gnawing hunger in my belly. It was a heady feeling that I hoped would last forever.
On Sunday morning I called my parents from the telephone in the registration office. My mother’s voice sounded far away, possibly due to the desert phone wires, though it could have been the fault line just beginning to divide us. In time I would understand how different she and I were; it would take longer still for me to learn that no one could be blamed, and that there was more than one way to be in the world.
Just then her questions flew at me like bullets on a 3-D movie screen. I deflected them with monosyllabic answers.
“How’s the food?”
“What are the other guests like?”
“Are they at least nice?”
I sensed her straining not to ask what she most wanted to know. Was I becoming thin?
When my father got on the line, I teared up at his booming voice saying he missed me.
The day before my mother was scheduled to collect me, Lindy and Krissy turned up at the pool and greeted me like a long-lost friend. Krissy told me I looked great, which significantly elevated her in my estimation, but Lindy seemed distracted.
We found vacant chaise lounges by the lifeguard stand and stretched out like the triumvirate of goddesses we were.
Romeo was on duty.
“You never came to my party,” he told Lindy.
“You never gave me the address.”
“There’s another one tonight,” he said.
“In my room.”
“Is Todd coming tonight?” I asked Lindy, trying not to sound eager.
Her smile dimmed as she confirmed he’d be there. “You’ll come out with us, won’t you?” Beneath her invitation she sounded worried, even frightened.
“Of course I will.” I reached over and squeezed her arm. It felt like a bird’s bone.
That night I wore a tank top and shorts. I broke out in goosebumps when my skin hit the air. Lindy was wearing a cotton sweater and jeans.
Krissy climbed into the back of the truck, and Lindy secured me between her and Todd. He acknowledged me with a grunt. I smelled him again, the musk and oats. When Lindy closed the door, he accelerated so quickly the tires screeched.
“Jesus, take it easy,” Lindy said.
“What the hell are you up to?” he asked her.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Like hell you don’t. You were with Romeo last night.”
“The lifeguard, Romeo.”
“That’s not even his name. We just call him that as a joke. You’re such a moron.”
He slammed his hand on the steering wheel. “Don’t lie to me.”
“She’s not lying, Todd,” Krissy offered from the back. “She was with me last night.”
“Who asked you, Krissy?” Todd said. “I can’t keep doing this, Lindy.”
“Waiting for you.”
“I told you, I’m not getting married.”
We drove the rest of the way in silence.
When we got to the 7-Eleven, I stayed in the truck.
“Aren’t you coming in with us?” Lindy asked.
I shook my head no. I didn’t want to be tempted on my last night.
“Suit yourself.” Without a second glance, she followed Krissy and Todd into the store.
Minutes later, Todd came back out and got into the truck. “Bitch!” he said as he started the engine.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
He backed up the truck.
“What about Lindy and Krissy?”
He shifted the gear, lurched the truck forward, then rolled onto the highway. The other girls were stranded, and I still had to pack, but I didn’t care. I felt Lindy’s power over this boy and wanted it for myself. I inched closer to his body.
“Bitch!” He slammed his left hand against the driver’s window. Then, noticing me, he said, “Not you.”
“I know.” My confidence surprised me. “Just keep driving.”
We opened the windows and flew with the wind. White stars clustered like spilled milk in the sky.
After several minutes, Todd suddenly stopped the truck. I half expected to see another snake in the road, but he said, “Maybe we should go back.”
A ripe moon illuminated the mountains ahead.
“What’s your hurry?”
He faced me. “Why can’t Lindy be nice like you?”
I didn’t feel nice. Heat was building in the cab. I reached over and brushed some hair off his forehead. He touched my cheek.
“You look hungry,” he said. “Are they starving you over there?”
I leaned in and kissed him, amazed that I knew how. He kissed back and ran his hands over my breasts and down my thighs, squeezing as he roamed. A half hour passed before we turned the truck around and drove back to the 7-Eleven.
Lindy and Krissy were sitting on a parking bumper passing a bag of Cheetos back and forth. Todd screeched the pickup to a halt and rolled down his window.
“Let’s go,” he said.
“Where the hell have you two been?” Lindy demanded.
“Wouldn’t you like to know,” Todd said.
“Screw you.” Then she looked at me. “It’s Krissy’s turn to sit in front.”
I felt myself flush. Todd didn’t say a word. I climbed into the back, feeling their eyes on my lumbering form.
Lindy and Todd bickered the whole way back, but they didn’t sound as angry as before. When Lindy passed a box of Ho Hos around, I took one and washed it down with a swig of Diet Coke.
When we got back to Aunt Addie’s, Krissy and I got out of the truck but Lindy snuggled up against Todd as I knew she would.
“I guess this is it,” she said to me.
“I guess so.” I probably owed her an apology, but she was a selfish girl, and her bony ass pissed me off.
She looked me over. “Have you even lost weight?”
Before I could answer, Todd pulled the truck onto the highway.
The next morning I met my mother in the registration office. I knew she felt awkward because she rushed over and hugged me too tightly. Then she pulled back and examined me. I don’t know what she saw, but I felt good. Even last night’s Ho Ho couldn’t obliterate all my hard work.
Nurse Ida lavished her usual cheer. “We had a successful final weigh-in this morning!”
My mother smiled, but her green eyes were embattled seas.
“You look wonderful, Jolie,” she said.
Looking back, I feel certain that she wanted to believe it.
Published on October 3, 2019