Hazardous Cravings

Alex McElroy

Ours was a Dairy Queen of the old style, a classic DQ: shaped like a gambrel barn, a mural of Dennis the Menace eating a cone on an outside wall. Our DQ had no indoor seating and closed every winter—in rural New Jersey, nobody wanted ice cream after November. Customers placed their orders through small sliding windows as high as a grown man’s waist. The only cooked food on the menu was hot dogs, which we stored in a vat of vinegar brine and reluctantly microwaved for those customers who couldn’t be dissuaded from ordering them—usually truckers who’d gotten lost off the highway. I started working there a month before my fourteenth birthday, a month before I was able, legally, to work. I lied on my application and a friend on staff vouched for me. I suspect, now, that he hadn’t done this out of loyalty, but self-preservation: he was chubby and feared being teased about his weight. But next to me he looked smaller, even normal. That summer I weighed 230 pounds.

I learned early to revel in DQ’s greatest perk: eating the ice cream. Our franchise never adopted the strict Taylorist principles of most chain restaurants. We were free from the restrictions of measuring spoons, cones sized by the ounce, scoop rubrics for Blizzards, fudge pump limits on sundaes, and, most importantly, there were no records of how much employees ate. The rule was one treat every shift—no one followed this rule.

I would start my shifts with a small Blizzard—some unfamiliar flavor, under the guise of mastering the menu—and, throughout the day, periodically eat small cups of soft serve loaded with syrups and candies, mixing the concoctions together with spoons, creating rustic, miniature Blizzards I could easily discard should the boss come downstairs from her office. I always volunteered to chop the frozen peanut butter cups because the task let me sneak whole cups with impunity. Whenever I passed the hard ice cream freezer, I’d slide open the lid and use my finger to scrape off a chunk of cookie dough or mint chocolate chip, slip it right into my mouth.

And then there were the mistakes. A titanium freezer housed a little city of toppled cones, ugly sundaes, undercandied Blizzards, and shakes. Though our boss, Stasia, had no way to measure the number of treats we made for ourselves, she did keep track of mistakes. She threatened to dock the cost from our paychecks. So whenever coworkers made mistakes, they offered the ice cream to me.

I liked protecting our paychecks with my eating, but eating in front of people carried an inescapable shame. Being fat was a sign of a spiritual shortcoming, I believed. To combat these feelings, I ate with enthusiasm in front of my coworkers, spooning the ice cream and saying, Mmm and This is amazing, embodying the gluttonous fat boys we all knew from TV. Performing my fatness let me control it, flatten its fangs. It was safer to orchestrate the laughter than to be mocked unaware.

At fourteen, I already had fixed ideas about the value of my body and understood how to exploit my size to entertain others. At DQ, I served as a prop comic, my stomach my prop. Lifting my shirt, regardless of context, could add levity to any situation. My ass served as a copious target for goosing. Often I held my head under the soft-serve machine, pretending to pump a rope of vanilla right into my mouth. This wasn’t a unique joke—other employees had tried it—but my weight made the scene funnier. Just as my weight made mundane tasks like hauling out trash or scrubbing benches hilarious. Sometimes I talked about the girls I liked, which spurred pitying chuckles. I spent a rainy, customer-less Sunday repeatedly singing No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak” into a spoon for a coworker getting over a breakup, attentive to how the gap between my gelatinous figure and Gwen Stefani’s lithe femininity enhanced the performance—two years later, after I lost sixty pounds, this coworker would tell me I was no longer fun. Near the end of my first year at DQ, I learned to make a face with my stomach. Though I performed this trick mostly for upperclassmen at school, when my coworkers told my boss about it, she called me up to her office. From behind her desk, she said, “Let me see it, this face,” her tone soberly eager.

We were alone. Two freezers hummed at my back; behind her, calendars, photos of Athens and Thessaloniki, and aged dollar bills hung on the wood-paneled wall. It didn’t occur to me to feel nervous or strange. Lifting my shirt gave me purpose. This, I believed, was what I offered to people. I lifted my shirt, folded my flab into lips.

I spent my first two summers as Dairy Queen’s obese clown. But in my sophomore year of high school, I fell in love with a girl who did not love me back. I thought she might love me if I were skinny. I was fifteen, 245 pounds. A friend agreed to lift with me after school. He’d spot me and say, “You wanna be a pussy all of your life or just half?” I’d think of the girl I loved and say, “Half.”

I started jogging in the mornings, accompanied by my heavy breathing and thumping, dinosaur feet. As cars approached, I sped into sprints, proving how fast I could run—but once they drove out of sight, I slugged back to a panting, pause-ridden walk. I played basketball through sweltering afternoons. I bought Lean Cuisine meals by the dozen and even carried one like a cross whenever I went to a friend’s house. As the other boys mowed through pizza and chips, I’d stand in the kitchen watching a plastic tray spin in the microwave. At first, my friends supported this habit. They were not immune to the feel-good story of fat loss. But as I continued to order salads in public, to sneak low-fat Wheat Thins into movies, to snap sugar-free gum, they grew unnerved by my dieting. Ex-NFL players like Dan Marino and Lawrence Taylor weren’t yet hocking Nutrisystem on TV. Dieting remained shameful for men. It betrayed a time-honored masculine truth: men succeeded despite their appearances. By losing weight, I challenged this truth, disturbing the friends who took it for granted.

“When are you gonna quit it?” my friends would say. “Aren’t you skinny enough?” We all had something to lose from my loss. They feared they would lose the uncomplicated entertainment of mocking my body, and I feared losing my reason for being invited to parties. But the skinnier I became, the more my friends called me fat, the humor born out of incongruity—like heavyset me imitating Gwen Stefani—and a reminder that they would never forget who I had been. No matter how much weight I lost, I would remain a fat kid in their minds, just as I would remain this way in my own. Fatness was a permanent psychological state. I could not thin my way out of the mind-set—the paranoia that people were judging me, assuming me clumsy, mocking what I had eaten, mocking that I had eaten, blaming me for noxious smells, itching to slap my stomach, assuming my body disgusting and gross and good for nothing other than entertainment—but I tried.

I quit eating dinner with my mother and stepfather. They were both overweight and I considered their bodies a threatening vision of what I might become. As they ate creamy, meat-heavy pastas while watching the Food Network, I sat in my room poking at skinless grilled chicken breasts. My mother had dieted for most of her adult life. She treated my distance with a mix of pride and relief: maybe her son would find a way out.

At first, Dairy Queen’s offerings hardly tempted me. The obvious rules of dieting simplified my behavior. Dieting Alex didn’t eat S’mores Blizzards or coffee-banana shakes or handfuls of Heath bar bits straight from the bag. I replaced the desire for sweets with thoughts about spinach or the girl I loved or being a pussy for only half of my life. Working around female coworkers made restraint second nature. I absorbed phrases like I can’t and I shouldn’t and Only a little and Just for today. They praised me for bringing microwave meals to my shift. If I did eat ice cream, I ate what the women ate: baby cones topped with a dollop of soft serve, rolled in a carnival of rainbow sprinkles.

By the end of my third summer at DQ, I was sixteen and 181 pounds. I stopped loving the girl I loved, out of convenience. She still had no interest in me.

Near the end of my junior year, my weight fluctuated between 177 and 186 pounds. I weighed myself twice every day. I performed complicated workout routines alone in the back corner of the school weight room. I avoided all cheeses and sauces, most mirrors. I began drinking coffee. I spent hours roaming grocery stores, committing calorie counts to memory. I pinched my stomach every few minutes, disturbed by the slightest hint of excessive flab. One evening after dinner at home, while showering off the crust of exercise sweat, I felt bloated from eating a little too much and lodged my finger in my throat until I expelled a few hunks of dinner. I was surprised by how easily the food came up, how much better I felt seeing the soggy chewed-up bits on the floor of the tub. I removed the drain plug and toed the food down. Rationalizing what happened was easy: I had eaten too much. I felt uncomfortable with so much food in my stomach. It would be stupid to live with discomfort. Throwing up in the shower seemed too anomalous to cause harm. I could not possibly have an eating disorder, I reassured myself—not only that night, but also in the nights that followed, as I continued to purge in the shower.

In the midst of this, I started my fourth summer at DQ. Stasia now considered me a trusted employee. This was rare for men at our DQ. I’d outlasted a dozen others who’d quit after a few weeks to earn real money bailing hay or installing stone walls around pools. The masculinity required to perform manual labor always seemed beyond my abilities. My dieting had transformed me into a paradox of masculinity and emasculation, making me perfect for DQ. I could just as easily lug a refrigerator up the steps as I could ice flowers onto a cake. I performed no single job especially well—but I did everything competently. For this reason, I was often the last employee on shift as Stasia sat upstairs in her office counting receipts. I felt unique in this position.

That all changed, however, the night Boots showed up at DQ. Seconds before I could shut off the Dairy Queen sign, a slick red Civic swung into the parking lot. I had just finished sweeping and mopping and scrubbing the floors. Stasia had promised to do one of those jobs, but she was four months pregnant. We both understood her promise as strictly rhetorical. I shut off the lights. The driver, I thought, would get the hint.

But the driver approached the employees’ entrance and hammered his fist on the aluminum door. I squeezed my face between an upright fridge and the window, studied the man. I would come to know him as Boots, Stasia’s twenty-one-year-old cousin. He lived in the smoky, congested part of New Jersey, the New Jersey people imagine when asked to picture New Jersey. Starting that fall, I would later discover, he would move in with Stasia and her husband and serve as a manager during the day, since the other employees would be at school, letting Stasia stay home with her son.

He paced beneath a spray of yellow light, meanly smoking a cigarette. He looked bored but flickered with anger. He wore straight leg jeans and scuffed loafers, a blue button-down shirt unbuttoned one button too deep. Dimples dented his cheeks. A cross necklace nested in the mossy hair on his chest.

I walked to the door, planning to tell him we were closed.

“Let him in!” bellowed Stasia from upstairs.

I opened the door.

“Can I get a vanilla?” Boots asked.

“The machines are shut off.”

“A small would be fine.” Boots thumped up the steps.

His presumptuousness annoyed me. Sure, I made him the cone—I felt like I had to—but later that night, as we were leaving DQ, I sprawled on the hood of his Civic like a pinup girl. I resented him for the cone, and I wanted to make Stasia laugh—even thinner, I had a habit of excessive displays for attention. Boots yanked me off the hood, his face red with baffled rage. “I don’t even know you,” he said. He pointed at a spot on his hood, claiming I’d dented it. He demanded I pay. “For what?” I asked, embarrassed and offended by the suggestion that I weighed enough to damage his hood. Stasia agreed. “There’s nothing,” she said. My ride pulled into the lot. I slipped into the passenger seat, assuming that Boots, like the rest of the cousins who visited Stasia, wouldn’t show up again until some future holiday.

All service industry jobs instill disdain for customers. Disdain makes the job bearable. You might get paid less than minimum wage, might survive off measly tips, but at least you’re not one of those dopes wanting food. At Dairy Queen, this common disdain was intensified by a hatred of fatness, which made being fat at DQ differ greatly from being slim. My coworkers now seemed comfortable mocking overweight customers in my presence. During shift overlaps, I’d hear stories of chubby children and adults audacious enough to order large Blizzards or large shakes or triple scoop cones. The servers never thought of themselves as cruel. They never said cruel things to a person’s face—they had never said anything to mine—but these conversations terrified me. As a child, I’d plowed through large cookie dough Blizzards and Oreo shakes, and I winced with shame wondering whether past employees had ridiculed me. This didn’t lead me to defend the husky kids who came to DQ. I was desperate to distance myself from the child I’d been, so I adopted the ethos of the restaurant: I mocked, I disparaged, I teased, convinced that doing so prevented me from becoming the subject of coworkers’ insults.

Stasia sometimes said she could only hire skinny employees. I was an exception, of course, but she insisted she’d known I would take off the weight. She grasped at practical reasons for privileging thinner employees. The corridors were slender and employees needed to slide past each other in these halls during rushes. Thinner, I learned to contort myself, to squeeze, to scrunch, to shrivel my shoulders, to twist myself into a sliver. Thinner, I discovered how often employees touched one another. During rushes, hands slid across shoulders and backs, down the length of each other’s arms, creating connective tissue between every employee—never erotic, merely reaching and touching to indicate, I am here, I am with you, when we were too busy to talk. Over my first two years, coworkers waited at the ends of halls for me to pass, and no one touched me during rushes. I was validated by those hands on my back, the contact suggesting I wasn’t disgusting.

I constantly feared I would lose this community. Dieting had been simple. It had given me rules, structured my life. As I lost weight, people supported me, but they owed me nothing now that I was skinny. Why did I still eat Lean Cuisines as others ate pizza? Why was I always bringing Olestra Pringles to parties? I resembled a normal sixteen-year-old boy and was expected to eat like one—ravenously, carelessly. On occasion, I gave in to this pressure, then spent the following days flinchy with guilt, restricting myself to fewer than one thousand daily calories. I understood the precariousness of my size. Every few years, my mother would stick to a diet, take off weight, then put it back on only a couple months later, growing depressed in the process. I feared the same would happen to me.

Over the course of that summer, as purging in the shower became routine, clogged drains made my mother suspicious. I moved to the toilet, purging while the shower ran to mute the sound of gagging. I grew skillful. I sucked down four glasses of water before starting, fastidiously wiped the splatter from walls, washed my face to prevent pimples from forming where my ring finger rubbed my cheek. I never brushed my teeth afterward—online, I had read that bristles scraped off acid-weakened enamel—but I rinsed with watered-down Listerine. Purging allowed me to live two lives simultaneously: the insatiable and the restricted. I could maintain my weight while partaking in the gluttony expected of me. It helped my body stay relevant, and employed.

That fall, Boots moved in with Stasia and began working full-time at DQ. Stasia tapped me to train him. She liked the entertainment this promised: Boots complaining to her about me, me complaining to her about him. Perhaps she envisioned the training devolving into Springer-like fits of drama. The outcome proved emotionally draining for both Boots and me.

During his training, I came to envy Boots, the way I envied most men. He was free from the belief that his body demanded constant attention. Boots wasn’t fat—not like I had been fat—but he did have a paunch, some flab under the chin. Residuals from playing offensive lineman in high school: a position that championed ample flesh. I thought of flesh as an enemy. I spent shifts wondering whether I deserved a pinch of Butterfinger or whether I could get away with purging the chocolate cone I’d eaten in a moment of weakness. Boots ate with unselfconscious abandon, the way I had eaten in my early days, concocting with a mad scientist’s frenzy, mixing hard ice cream with soft serve, marshmallow topping with cherries, mint syrup with Heath bits—flavor combinations be damned—just to test how it tasted. It was hard for me to be around this, but I fulfilled my duty to train him nevertheless. We barely spoke for the rest of the year.

Come March, I was seventeen, a senior, and broke, ready to start my fifth year at DQ. Stasia asked me to help prepare for the opening. When I arrived, an unfamiliar silver sedan idled in the parking lot. Boots stepped out of the driver’s seat, weighing forty fewer pounds.

“Big Al,” he called me, which nobody called me. “How was the winter, Big Al?” His smile rattled in the center of his face. He moved stiffly, his arms advancing with cautious intention, as if his body were a rented tuxedo. He puffed his chest, sucked in his stomach. His shirt rippled curtain-like in the breeze. He pulled me in for a back-patting hug.

His kindness made me uneasy—but a sense of kindness swelled in me too. Weight loss seemed to eclipse everything we had disliked about each other. We were so desperate for dieting to transform us on emotional, even spiritual, levels—we longed to have become new people, not merely thinner forms of ourselves—that we immediately assumed we had the makings of friends. Boots isn’t so bad, I thought. I’d just never seen his true self.

After backing out of the hug, Boots squeezed my biceps. “You been lifting?” he asked. His fingers plunged into fat. “Why don’t you flex?”

I twisted out of his grip, feeling insulted. Of course I had been lifting.

Boots flexed for me. His muscle looked like a tennis ball zipped under his skin.

Stasia arrived. After I worked all day lugging boxes and cleaning machines, she paid me seventy dollars in cash, ten dollars short to account for the pizza she’d bought us for lunch, the pizza I hadn’t touched.

On the ride home, I stopped at the supermarket for chips, cookies, peanut butter, and cereal. I’d been bingeing more frequently over the winter, and seeing a skinnier Boots spurred my desire to binge—I feared I seemed fatter beside him. It was also the first time in weeks that I had enough money to waste on food. I needed to put it to use, and as I roamed the aisles, I twitched with a sense of nervous delight knowing there’d be more money to come. I drove home with a box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch buckled into the passenger seat like a date. I reached into the box between shifting gears, driving with my body angled to the right, the car veering onto the shoulder. By the time I got home, only sugary dust remained. I regretted not buying a second box—they were on sale.

Once my mother was sleeping, I retrieved the food from the car, opening the bags outside to reduce the crinkle of plastic. I ate in the living room, lying on my stomach—which let me delay the pain of my stomach expanding—as late-night TV muted my munching. I always balanced the salty with sweet. That night, after a few minutes of chocolate Turtle Chex Mix sugared my mouth, I reacted with a tower of Pringles before pivoting over to yogurt pretzels, then into the Ritz Chips, ending the binge with spoons of creamy peanut butter. I cycled through the foods, salty-sweet-salty-sweet, until the bags were just about empty—I never ate everything—then stood, punched by the sudden enormity of my gut, and stumbled off to the downstairs bathroom. Here, I abandoned the hasty practicality of purging while the shower was running. Downstairs purges were ritualistic, often beginning with ten minutes of listening to indie pop bands like Mates of State or The Go! Team or Arcade Fire to pump myself up. The downstairs bathroom connected to the laundry room, and I normally stood shirtless in the doorway between the two, laundry room lights at my back, the bathroom unlit, and flexed for the mirror. The lighting enhanced my musculature. Abs bubbled out of my stomach. Clavicle piped into my chest, balanced above cinder-block pecs. I manically flexed as music blared through my headphones, swallowing glasses of water, dancing a little, waiting to find the rhythm of this particular purge, the way children wait for the rhythm of double Dutch before jumping in. When it hit me I’d strip off the headphones and slide down to the toilet, drape a towel over my head to muffle the gagging, and press two fingers into my mouth. Afterward, groggy and empty, a fleeting high would cloud my head. I’d grope back to the living room, where the TV continued to play.

Dairy Queen opened on the fourth Monday in March. Stasia stayed home with her son, leaving Boots in charge. As a high school senior, I was granted early release from school to work. I showed up at 1:00 PM on weekdays to relieve Boots for an hour during the slowest stretch of the day.

Whenever I worked alone, DQ transformed into the Zone of Hazardous Cravings. Refusing to eat in front of people was easy. Alone, however, nothing could distract me from my scooped-out, rumbling stomach and the desire to eat everything in the restaurant. The terror I once felt about losing the community of the slender had evolved into the terror of spending an hour alone surrounded by sweets. It had become clear I was hurting myself. Blood now speckled my vomit. My throat crackled and burned. My heart sputtered when I lifted. I did not want purging to kill me—but I still dreaded putting on weight. If I ate at DQ, I couldn’t throw up. Doing so meant abandoning the register. The only safe option was refusing to eat. Or stopping after one serving.

In the Zone of Hazardous Cravings, I harbored romantic notions about being satisfied by one small cup of plain vanilla. I imagined letting a single peanut butter cup dissolve in my mouth. I circled the restaurant, lifting the lids on the Reese’s Pieces or Twix, slamming them shut, sliding open the hard ice cream freezer, sliding it shut, only to lift the lids two minutes later, letting my hand hover closer this time, closer next time. Sometimes I performed push-ups and crunches on the thin stretch of floor between a chest freezer and the wall, standing up to find dirt flaking the sticky parts of my palms. I wished for a stream of customers to distract me, but at this hour, customers rarely showed. There was only me and my desire and candy and ice cream and the threat of my heart ready to quit if I burdened myself with a binge. On rare days, I withheld from eating until Boots returned. But my defiance tended to flatline after a few minutes, and the hands hovering over the candies would plunge into their tubs, the fingernails tapping the soft-serve handle would grip it and twist, freeing a tube of vanilla.

I was always relieved when Boots returned from his break. I looked forward to the hours we spent together talking about food. “You know the Big Star vanilla has twice as much fat as DQ vanilla?” Boots might say, noting the knock-off soft serve in our machines. “That’s why I never eat it—it’s delicious, but like eight grams of fat in an ounce. Come on.”

“I feel bad for the customers thinking it’s four,” I’d say.

“I think that’s illegal,” he’d say.

No one else at DQ cared so much about not eating food. Especially not the one other male employee, a varsity linebacker who ate two large Blizzards every shift, plus the meals his parents delivered. He ate the way men were supposed to—and the employees marveled at his consumption, pleased to see it feeding his football performances. The female employees spoke of their body anxieties with bored reluctance, on the few occasions they discussed them around me.

But for Boots and me, the only topics worth discussing were getting thinner, the bodies of athletes we admired, the varsity linebacker’s body, the excessive number of calories in our soft serve, how to make our bodies appealing to women, and morning workout routines. An exasperated vulnerability crept into our voices. “I worry it isn’t enough to walk on the treadmill for an hour,” Boots would say, then put a hand on his stomach. “What matters are miles,” I’d reassure him. “I run three miles, you walk three miles. The difference in calories burned is negligible.” Our openness made us feel grateful but embarrassed. Discussing food and body anxieties—such womanly topics—suggested we had failed somehow as men. Alone, we could talk for hours about these anxieties, but with coworkers near, we became stilted and distant, like lovers trying to hide an affair.

During our shifts, we sat on the counter axing plastic spoons into freezer-burned fat-free sugar-free vanilla hard ice cream. We convinced ourselves we loved this flavor—despite its chemical taste and crystal consistency. I hid its flavorlessness under sprinkles; Boots doused it in strawberry syrup.

Many days Boots rambled on about “getting big,” which differed greatly from becoming fat. Big meant Schwarzenegger, Lou Ferrigno, The Rock. His admiration for bigness served as a corrective to conversations about slimming down. It was natural for men to discuss body anxieties if they wanted a muscular build. Boots stood four inches shorter than me and concluded, somewhat wistfully, that his body couldn’t become meaningfully big. So he pictured the muscles on me. “You could be huge,” he’d tell me. “You’ve got the perfect frame to stack on some muscle.” He envisioned my neck thick as a tire, deltoids like basketballs under my sleeves. I always told him to quit it. I was so committed to thinness, so obsessed with reduction, that bigness, even as a masculine vision of health, seemed threatening. Muscle did not last forever, I knew. Muscle devolved into fat. Getting big set you up for obesity. Though I lifted regularly, I always kept my reps high, the weight far below my maximum, and gave great attention to core exercises I discovered in online videos meant for and performed by women. Boots’s insistence that I had the frame to stack on muscle seemed like an attack: no matter how much weight I lost, my body would always be big.

On other days we picked at our sugar-free ice cream, debating the best types of lettuce. I championed romaine and believed in the indefatigable power of spinach. I loved eating it straight from the bag, piling greens on top of baked barbecue Lay’s. Boots preferred iceberg.

“It’s like eating water!” I’d tell him, as incensed as if he’d insulted my mother.

“Exactly,” he said. Nutrients never mattered to Boots. He just wanted to keep off the fat. To emphasize this, he slipped out to smoke every hour. During those five-minute windows, I’d consume as much as I could: soft serve, peanut butter cups, Heath bits, butterscotch dip, waffle cones, messing it together and shoveling it in too quickly to chew. The intensity of these binges exceeded how I had eaten when I started the job. These were pure expressions of shame, absent of performance, my desire uncorked and emptied onto the floor. Once I finished, I’d trash the cup, then fold more trash over the top before taking a swig of mint syrup to reset my breath.

I constantly worried Boots would discover me eating. To him, I was proof that someone chubby could keep off the weight. I was a testimonial, the most minor of gods. My thinness offered him hope. Whenever he caught me plucking Snickers bits out of their bin or licking a baby-sized cone of soft-serve vanilla, he’d say, “Big Al, what’re you doing?” meaning, Big Al, don’t let me down, or, Big Al, you’re a fraud, or, Big Al, I’m watching you. I’m paying attention. And today I’m winning the battle.

Thinness became a competition between us. We never compared ourselves directly, but when Boots said, “I ran on the treadmill for an hour this morning,” the implication was “You ran for only twenty-five minutes.” I loved to point at his dinners—salads avalanched in creamy white dressings—and remark that dressing defeated the purpose of salad. We kept each other on track. We considered our competition an expression of love.

The myth some overweight people believe—the myth we believed—is that losing weight will strip the world of its cruelties. Like all myths, this is based in fact but largely untrue. Sure: People might smile at you more in the street. Sure: Grocery clerks might let it slide if you’re a few dollars short of the bill. Sure: People might look at you eating in public and not think, Look at that fat motherfucker fucking eating again. More likely—in my case, at least—is that you internalize those callous, external voices after losing the weight. The ridicule does not disappear; it merely migrates to the mind and becomes even crueler, incessantly present.

For Boots and me, the myth of losing weight was amplified by a second myth: all men deserve beautiful women. Boots and I saw that myth play out in any number of sitcoms, movies, in front of our faces at work: Stasia’s husband, who owned our DQ, was pudgy and balding, a chain-smoker, with a voice like a slab of steak. Stasia loved him nevertheless. It seemed not to matter whether a man was ugly, dumpy, stupid, testy, ignorant, tiny, funny, furry, courageous, or bland: that man still deserved a beautiful woman. Did Boots and I deserve women? Probably not. But we had believed that once we shed our heavier frames women would swarm our bodies, begging to love us. The women didn’t arrive. This baffled us both. And we refused to consider the obvious reasons: we were shallow and temperamental and mean. I could be cruel to people I believed were stupider than me. Boots lived with a classically masculine anger, his aimless wrath always one inconvenience away from replacing his happy-go-lucky demeanor. Our personalities sucked. But what, we wondered, did personality have to do with being loved?

Perhaps nothing. In May, Boots started dating a woman he met at a bar. He showed me a grainy photo on his flip phone. “She’s hot, right?”

I told him sure but didn’t elaborate. I enjoyed withholding approval from Boots.

“You don’t think she’s hot?” He zoomed in and out. “I mean, she’s pretty. You gotta admit that, Al. She’s not banging—but those banging girls you see on TV don’t really exist.”

As I mixed a milk shake, Boots squawked in my ear.

“I don’t care what you say, Al. I think she’s hot.”

“Yeah, yeah,” I told him. Men like Boots seemed to date women exclusively to show other men who they were dating. I believed myself more civilized, though I had no way to know for sure. Only two girls had kissed me up to that point in my life. Neither had wanted to date me.

“But you just gotta get what you can. I bet you could get somebody banging, Al, but it takes so much work. You gotta be smart.” He loaded a small cup with vanilla soft serve, took one bite, and threw the rest out. “I think you’re too picky. A meathead like me can’t really be picky. I gotta get what I can—and she’s great, that’s not what I’m saying. But if you want a girl, Al, take it from me, you gotta stop being so picky. You run and you lift and you’re funny—it shouldn’t be hard for you to find a girl.”

I told him okay. He’d given me the same pep talk any number of times. I could have taken it as a compliment, proof that Boots believed in me, but after weeks of being reminded that no woman would date me, the puzzled tone of his support seemed insidious, potentially cruel. Perhaps I was damaged in irredeemable ways.

“I mean, if I can get a girl, then you totally can,” he said. “What is it? What are you doing?”

Rankings were given on a scale of 1 to 5, with the easiest foods to throw up ranked number 1, and the hardest 5. Wheat Thins, for reference, were a 3—though they were easy to expel they were often eaten too quickly without receiving sufficient chews and emerged from the throat angled and sharp, leaving cuts that did not heal for days. All heavily spiced corn chips, like Doritos or Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, were 4s. Though similar to Wheat Thins in their ease of emergence, they burned going down and burned coming up—however, the store-brand snack mix, which contained knock-off versions of Doritos and Cheetos, was a 3. The mix could satisfy an entire binge for under five dollars. Peanut butter was a 5 and all but impossible to throw up but I loved the taste too much to avoid it. Normally, after I emptied out all the Wheat Thins and cereal shards I continued poking in search of the peanut butter. The effort rarely ended successfully. Lettuce and spinach were 1s, which was a bummer. Some things I didn’t mind keeping down. Ice cream was difficult to rank. It always came up immediately—smoothly coating the throat—but I never trusted that what I threw up included everything I had eaten. Semiliquid foods raced through the intestines, I decided. Ice cream turned into fat the second it crossed the glottis. Had I been serious about staying thin, I would have avoided it at all costs.

Boots sucked down a four-pack of Red Bull every day. He chain-smoked, emptied thermoses of coffee during his shifts. And, one afternoon, he returned from his break wielding a grocery bag glutted with packs of green pills.

“They’re totally natural,” Boots told me, holding a diet pill in front of my face. It looked like clipped grass squeezed in plastic. “Try it,” he said, begging for exemption by association.

I declined. Vomiting blood and erratic heartbeats may not have stopped me from purging, but I did draw a line at stimulants stronger than coffee. Stimulants screamed: I can’t do this on my own! I preferred the nonsynthetic process of purging. I needed nothing but willpower to purge.

Boots washed down two pills with a long swallow of Red Bull. “I don’t even need to work out. Just sitting here, Al, I’m burning fat. Take one,” he said. He patted the pooch on my tummy.

Again I declined. I was terrified that the pills would work. Taking one would become taking them regularly, then obsessively, until they snuffed my heart like fingers pinching a flame. But I couldn’t confess this to Boots. Perhaps we weren’t, as I’d liked to believe, enacting some vulnerable version of masculinity but applying its worst expectations—sacrificing our bodies, refusing to care for ourselves—to a traditionally feminine project: becoming thinner. Because as open as we were with each other, we nevertheless refused to acknowledge the damage we caused to ourselves. We couldn’t. We lacked the language to see our sickness as sickness. He could not be “anorexic,” just as I could not be “bulimic.” For men, those words were locked houses.

After taking the pills, Boots loaded a spoon with vanilla, then threw it away. “Stasia doesn’t like me taking them, but I gotta. My girl needs me hot. I don’t have enough to keep her around if I’m fat.” Like me, he defined himself exclusively in terms of his body. He couldn’t fathom his girlfriend liking anything about him but his thinness.

I knew he needed a compliment, like the ones he gave me, but I was envious of Boots. He didn’t deserve to date someone before me. I’d lost weight before him. It should have been me frightened of losing someone—but instead I feared remaining alone. “I won’t tell her,” I said, meaning Stasia, meaning, You need to keep taking the pills.

“I need a smoke,” he said. He looked disappointed.

When he left, I slipped a pack of pills into my pocket. After work, I hid them under the spare tire in my trunk. I debated taking them just about every day. I’d feel too sleepy to run and think, Maybe a pill. I’d binge enthusiastically at work, fail to throw up, and think, I’ll just take a pill. After hours of watching TV? In the morning before school? Before dinner with friends? But pill popping would have undermined the narrative I’d created for myself: I was healthy; I threw up only on occasion; Boots was the sick one. I needed him to be sicker than I was. Taking pills would’ve collapsed the distance I had contrived between our disorders. After two months, I threw the package away.

The summer proceeded as expected. Boots and I held the same conversations about getting big, women, and food. Sometimes I told him I loved him, because it made him uncomfortable, but also because I meant it: I was grateful for Boots. Most men mocked me if I talked about food or my body, but Boots and I had discovered a way to be open with each other without the threat of ridicule lancing our feelings. Sure, there were limits to the vulnerability we shared. But those limits exceeded the boundaries I kept with other men. At the end of the summer, I started college in Queens, all but abandoning Boots to his life at DQ. We promised to keep in touch, but I didn’t truly talk to him until the following spring.

During my first year of college, I frequently ventured into Manhattan to visit a friend, Hannah, who was studying at the Fashion Institute of Technology. She had also worked at Dairy Queen, and midway through March, she told me Boots was coming into the city. We made plans to go clubbing.

He came in on a Friday. That night, I subwayed into Manhattan wearing the finest clothes I owned: a tight white Ben Sherman T-shirt and dark baggy jeans. I had been exercising compulsively leading up to Boots’s arrival. That morning, I spent three hours in the gym, working out until I emptied my body of sweat, continuing until I was drowsy. On the subway, I tensed my abs for ten seconds, stretched it to twenty, to thirty. I had added eleven pounds of flab since coming to college. Hannah was too kind to confirm this. But I feared Boots had grown skinnier and would look at me like Somebody’s off the wagon.

I walked to Hannah’s dorm clenching my stomach and arms. I did push-ups against a light post in front of her building. Boots and Hannah found me in the middle of a set. He did not appear any thinner, a relief. The sight of him, though, blanketed me in nostalgia. Despite putting on weight, I had only gotten sicker at college. The last five weekends, I’d hid in my dorm bingeing on Pop-Tarts and Entenmann’s donuts. Boots presented a portal back to the safety of DQ, where bingeing had felt like less of a problem, something I could control. I raced over and jumped into his arms. He caught me, spinning a little as we patted each other on the back. We had never done anything like this before. I was pleased that Boots played along.

Hannah led us to a friend’s dorm suite. On the short walk we talked about Stasia, then her son, then new Blizzard flavors. Then we ran out of topics. “Big Al hitting the club,” Boots kept saying, though I worried I wouldn’t get in wearing my baggy jeans, with my chipmunky face, lacking a fake, and I thought of myself as a burden. But Boots assured me that as long as we went with women, we would be fine. I trusted his expertise.

At the suite, he and I stood in the kitchen sipping from a bottle of schnapps. I hadn’t eaten all day and the liquor loosened me quickly. Hannah and her friends, by comparison, knew how to drink. They measured their shots and followed each with tall glasses of water. After Hannah and I took a shot she told me to cool it.

Boots and I settled into a corner where no one could see us continue to drink. We discussed his aspirations and worries. He didn’t want to start work at DQ in a week—but there were no other options. Stasia was pregnant with her second son. She needed his help. He wanted to go back to school—his girlfriend wanted that for him—but he had no idea what to study. Plus, Stasia gave him a raise when she heard he wanted to go back to school. “What should I do, Al?”

Listening to Boots, I twisted with a mix of pity and guilt. I had defined myself as the smart one between us. Now he expected me to fix his problems. But his question exposed both my ineptitude and the limits of our relationship. What we had shared existed exclusively at Dairy Queen. Here, in this Manhattan dorm, we shared only shame: mine for being unable to help, his for needing my help. “That’s tough,” I told him. I suggested we take a shot.

Hannah caught us sipping from the bottle. “What are you doing?” she asked. I was too slurry to tell her I had to throw up. But she already knew. She fed me slices of white bread that our host reluctantly offered. Boots cheered me on as I ate. “Get it down, Al. You’re a trooper.” I drank two glasses of water, stuffed bread in my mouth. “We’re hitting the club. Al’s gonna pick up a lady.”

I echoed him: I’m a trooper. I’m hitting the club. I’m gonna pick up a lady.

The other women watched me wobble, embarrassed for Hannah and Boots and wondering when I would leave. Hannah apologized. The bread rocketed up my chest.

I woke up groggy in Hannah’s bed with bread jammed in my pockets. Hannah snored on the floor. Under the covers beside me was Boots, our faces facing each other’s feet. I tensed, thinking about the previous night. Boots had come into the city to escape his life and instead he’d spent the evening watching me vomit. I wished I could give the advice he needed, that I could compliment him, at least tell him everything was going to be okay. But I didn’t. I wouldn’t.

What was the cause of my silence? What was the point? During those years, I had no words for harming myself. Nobody did. Even at our most open, Boots and I spoke in code to each other, because code was the only language we knew. It came closest to the truth of our condition. But we had no desire to speak in this language again. We had exhausted its purposes. This wasn’t the last time we saw each other, but it may as well have been. The following summer we would share a few shifts, though never alone, never under the conditions our friendship required.

In Hannah’s bed, lying next to Boots, I decided that I was a problem for people. This insight alighted like a butterfly on my finger, before fluttering into the pulping beak of a bird. I pinched my stomach, thinking, Don’t be a problem to people. I squeezed the bread in my pocket. I dragged a hunk of it to my tongue. The rustling roused Boots from his sleep. “Al?” he said, leaning up to look at me. “Are you eating?”

There were only so many ways I could lie. I could have pretended to be sleeping. I could have mumbled, “Nah,” as if I were too sleepy to properly answer. I could’ve waited for the bread to break down into mush. I could have waved him away, raced to the bathroom, chewing the rest of the bread in the hall. Instead, I looked at the ceiling. “Yeah,” I told him. “I’m starving.”

Alex McElroy‘s writing appears in the Atlantic, New England Review, Conjunctions, and elsewhere. He is the author of the chapbook Daddy Issues.