In Diana Spechler's new novel Skinny, twenty-seven-year-old Gray Lachmann has been compulsively binge-eating since her father's death a year ago. A series of events, including her desperation to stop eating and gaining weight, leads her to take a summer job at a weight-loss camp. In the following excerpt, she is waiting to ride a roller coaster with her teenage campers, including Harriet, the heaviest kid at camp.
When the seven of us reached the front of the line, Whitney and Miss ran for the front car, Eden followed Sheena to the back car, and Spider ran to the second car to sit with a stranger. "This isn't even a giga-coaster," I heard her tell her seatmate. "It's way under three hundred feet. I'd put it at two hundred. Two fifty. But I love all roller coasters. I want to go on the environmentally friendly roller coaster. It's in Europe somewhere. You have to pedal to make it go. In fact," she said, leaning forward toward Whitney and Miss, "it's probably good for weight loss. I should tell Lewis. We could take an all-camp trip to Europe next summer. We could make it into the newspaper. ‘Campers at Weight-Loss Camp Pedal Pounds Away.'"
"Where would you like to sit?" I asked Harriet.
With both fists, Harriet clutched the hem of the black sweatshirt she wore over her red camp T-shirt. Her lips were pursed and she wheezed angrily through her nose, fogging her glasses, ignoring me.
The Scorpion was shiny black. Each car had two bucket seats, separated by a metal divider; a metal lap bar; and a harness that came down from the top to lock in each passenger's upper body. I walked to the third car and sat in the far seat. A few seconds later, I felt Harriet swaying above me. I looked at her legs. The hair on her shins was full-grown, the skin peppered with tiny red scabs.
When the attendant, a skinny teenager with a bowl cut, wearing black leather cuffs around his wrists, came to lower my harness, he paused, scratched his ear, and pointed at Harriet.
"She's not gonna fit," he told me.
I turned my head to look up at Harriet, who was standing on the metal floor of the car above her seat, turning in tight, frantic circles, like a dog assessing a patch of grass.
"How much you weigh?" the ride attendant asked. His voice rang through the air, echoing as if he'd yelled inside a canyon.
I got to my feet and looked ahead of us, behind us. But all of the other cars were full. Sheena and our other campers were strapped in. Everyone was waiting for the Scorpion to inch and jerk up the tracks. Only Harriet was too big. "Come on, Harriet," I said. "I don't want to ride. Let's sit this one out. Will you go back down with me?"
Other passengers craned their necks to see us. Ahead, I saw Whitney and Miss laughing, their fingers splayed at their mouths.
I thought Harriet would step out of the car, back onto the metal platform. I thought she would run down the ramp to escape. Instead, she bent abruptly into a lumbering squat, trying to force her hips between the door of the car and the seat partition.
But the attendant had gauged the size difference correctly.
"She's not gonna fit," he said again. He tapped my shoulder.
I wrenched away from him. "Stop it," I hissed. "We're getting off. Just go away."
The attendant raised his hands as if I might shoot. "No need to get your Wranglers in a wad. Not my fault she's over the weight limit." He moved on to the next car and started lowering the harnesses. "But get on out," he called back to me, "so I can let the next two people on."
Harriet had switched tactics. She had turned sideways and was trying to wedge herself into the seat like a thick coin into a slot. I thought of her in her bed at home, eating an Entenmann's cake under the covers. I had done that once some months before, alone in the apartment after work: eaten an entire Entenmann's All Butter French Crumb Cake in bed. Then I'd gotten out of bed, gotten dressed, and run to the store for another one.
"Come on," I said again to Harriet. I was suddenly very tired. I did not want this cameo in someone else's trauma. I took a step back from her, out of this flashbulb image that would become an indelible memory; one she would, two decades down the road, relay to a blank-faced therapist, or to a lover while sharing a cigarette in the dark.
She paused in her efforts, looked at me with hate all over her face-in her slightly crooked glasses, her vaguely quivering lip, her clenched forehead-and then stood, finally, and fled. She ran to the ramp where she had to squeeze past the line of people, who would move aside, watch her pass, and imagine her eating under her covers.
"Excuse me," I said to each person. "Excuse me. Sorry. Excuse me."
What was I apologizing for? I wasn't fat. I had been acting like a fat person for just over a year. I had gained fifteen pounds. Okay. Sure. But I had fought it. I had gone for long runs by the East River. Some days, I had fasted, taking in nothing but water. I had shown some self-control. I touched my stomach. I touched each of my arms and felt the lightness in my step.
"Coming through. Please step aside," I said like a security guard, or a person carrying a beer keg aloft.
At the bottom of the ramp, I followed Harriet to a bench. She sat with her legs spread, her elbows on her thighs. She took off her glasses and put her face in her palms. I sat beside her. The glasses sat between us, reflecting a cruel sun. I squinted up at the roller-coaster-car-size people screaming through the sky.
"Do you want to talk?" I touched Harriet's coarse hair. It was so hot, I curled my fingers in.
When she didn't answer, I understood. It was like times I'd lain in bed, sick, knowing I'd feel better if I ran to the bathroom to vomit, but too afraid of vomiting to do anything but lie there, squirming, hot and tangled in synthetic sheets, comfortable inside discomfort.
For more, check out Skinny, on sale tomorrow.