This is a True Story

Our stories are stock: they hold the disparate parts of ourselves together—our desired flavor, how we want to taste, how we wish to be known.

Sarah Gerard is the author of the forthcoming essay collection Sunshine State and...

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Mouthful
 is a monthly column about the author’s relationship with food, ten years into recovery from anorexia and bulimia.

I recently spent four days in my home state of Florida. Usually, the first thing I do when I get to Florida is buy a jumbo Styrofoam cup of boiled peanuts. I do this even before I arrive at my parents’ house, at a seedy convenience store at the top of the street where all the registered sex offenders live. The peanuts are found in the back near the lotto tickets in two crock pots labeled “original” and “Cajun”—I don’t know why you would go for the original when there is Cajun. Next to the crock pots and the sleeves of Styrofoam cups is a white plastic Thermos with a red handle and two ladles in it: one regular and one sieved. I use the regular ladle because, though I will eat the peanuts, what I’m really spending five dollars on is the salty, spicy soup the peanuts have been cooking in for days, without which the peanuts are useless to me. I don’t like peanuts if they haven’t been fried or boiled.

I grew up in the vicinity of boiled peanuts but I didn’t embrace them until I moved back to Florida at the age of twenty-two, on a medical leave from college to address my anorexia. Soon after leaving rehab, I abandoned my meal plan and began the process of settling into the slowed-down, southern, sun-baked St. Petersburg lifestyle. At my most anorexic, I had subsisted on a diet of sugar-free Red Bull, Starbucks iced coffee, and David’s-brand pumpkin seeds, which rode always in the cup holder of my champagne-colored Chevy Cavalier. Now boiled peanuts took up residence in my cup holder. Like pumpkin seeds, they are a salty finger food that possess a certain grittiness. Eating too many gives me a stomachache but this doesn’t stop me. I was the only person I knew at the time who ate peanuts the way I did.

Boiled peanuts are easy to make: green peanuts and seasoned water, brought to a boil and left to simmer. I never make them, though. I prefer the kind found at the gas station or convenience store, or sold from a truck on the side of the road. They’re humble, like all comfort foods—delicious because they make no claim to health-consciousness, classiness, or even quality. They’re specifically southern, so that’s how I feel eating them. The Styrofoam cup rides sticky next to me as I turn toward my parents’ house. I lean over the island counter in the air-conditioned kitchen and shovel boiling-hot legumes into my mouth, catching up with my mom, who asks me if the peanuts are my dinner.

*

There is a version of me who steers with one hand and feeds herself boiled peanuts with the other. This person grew up in an area of the world populated with trailer parks and yards piled with discarded appliances, furniture, children’s toys. She smokes weed out the window sipping sugar-free Red Bull like Courvoisier. She is glamorous in the manner of Future: “I turn the Ritz into a poor house…/ ‘Cuz I’m always reppin’ for that low life.” She has overcome hardship. She is a survivor. She does not give a fuck. This is a version I’ve designed in my subconscious, a story I tell myself about myself.

It’s connected to the version who orders two eggs over-easy with bacon and hash browns, no toast, coffee with cream, no sugar, while she brunches during this trip to Florida with an estranged best friend she hasn’t seen in six years. This person was my first love. We’ve only recently acknowledged this. She knows a version of me who betrayed her in ways that aren’t easily uttered, not because they’re too horrible, but because like aquifers they flowed so deep beneath the surface of our shared ground. That is a story she tells me about me.

We sit beneath a blue umbrella. It is ninety degrees but we smoke cigarettes in silence. She orders French toast. She asks me why we’re splitting brunch; in her opinion, I owe her. She later takes this statement back. She asks me if this is all narrative for me or if I’m really here with her right now, experiencing this moment. I tell her: both.

*

There’s the version of me who talks to her estranged husband on the phone for the first time since February, to discuss our divorce. The estranged husband was always the one to cook in our home. He was anxious about money because he didn’t make any. When he bought groceries, he would tell me how little he spent. When I did the shopping, he would point out my perceived overspending by even a few cents. He is allergic to everything. When I happened to cook, he micromanaged even my way of fixing eggs. When I didn’t cook, he assumed the role of the sacrificial husband to the more successful wife. His version of me inhabits our shared story like a person falsely accused of a crime.

This version is connected to one who recently saw her ex-boyfriend outside a bookstore. We broke up six years ago because I began sleeping with the person I later married—not that it matters, but I ultimately pulled the plug on our relationship, not him. My ex-boyfriend always finds ways to insult me when we see each other and this encounter was no exception. When I told him that I’m in love again he said, “Don’t fuck it up,” as if I always fuck things up with people I love. As if six years haven’t passed since I broke up with him, and we haven’t both grown since then; as if people are the same versions of themselves forever, fixed and unchanging.

Here is a story I tell about my ex: When we dated, his idea of cooking was to boil together whatever happened to be in the cabinets in a large pot of water with no seasoning, maybe some salt and pepper. He called this “goulash.” He once bought a bulk bag of textured vegetable protein in Chinatown because that’s what he felt he could afford after having been fired from the single job he’d held since we moved to New York together six months beforehand. Textured vegetable protein was thrown into the goulash. He’s sensitive, so I told him I liked it.

When we first started dating, he worked at a teashop. I was newly out of anorexia rehab and soon afterward had sustained a near-fatal injury that disfigured the left side of my face. This was ten years ago. I was desperate for someone to show me I was wanted, that I was worthy of the life I was trying to rebuild, even after having ruined it.

I would visit him at the teashop once or twice a week, and sit in the corner reading my book, or writing in my Moleskine. At the time, I was writing very cryptic poetry. Sometimes I would read it to him and ask him what he thought, and he would tell me.

I was accustomed to relying on validation from outside. That’s where anorexia had taught me I could find it. I didn’t know yet who I was when I wasn’t starving. I hadn’t yet learned all of the ways I could feed myself.

My ex had no formal education in tea, but, being in a position to serve it to the general public every day, he considered himself an expert. He enjoyed educating others about the different types of tea, whether or not they desired to be educated. I would overhear these conversations. I learned a little bit about tea this way. I began drinking it.

He “infused” loose leaves in old, browning yogurt containers in his refrigerator and would serve them to me in jelly jars. He washed his dishes with an old rag. The water that appears in my memory of these early days of our relationship is dingy, with particles floating in it. It smells sweet like a rotting forest floor.

I didn’t consider myself an artist, but I wanted to be one, and he seemed to me to be one—this was the image he projected about himself. It took me months to convince him to be my boyfriend. Something in me compelled me not to give up in my pursuit.

For his birthday gathering, shortly after we began sleeping together, I made stuffed peppers with couscous, black beans, corn, and cilantro—this took me hours. I had learned how to cook while I was in rehab and wanted to practice loving this way. I wanted someone to want my love. I was proud of the peppers. He didn’t seem to notice.

Two years later, I got into an MFA program in London. I’d been working in an elementary school, and then a children’s museum, but I’d decided I wanted to study writing, and accepted the school’s invitation. I asked my boyfriend to come with me. At first he said yes, then he dragged his feet about it. Months went by and he didn’t file his paperwork, didn’t make plans, didn’t tell me that he wasn’t coming, so I began to feel nervous that he’d be left behind, or that he wasn’t being honest with me about what he wanted.

In the meantime, I got into another school in New York. This looked more feasible: if he wouldn’t come with me to London, perhaps he would come to New York, which was closer. I needed him to come. He was the only partner who had ever fixed me breakfast. He made fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches with honey. He introduced me to kombucha. He told me to send my work to McSweeney’s.

No lover had shown me this version of myself: the one who deserved to eat, the one who deserved to be heard. Two weeks before we were set to move to New York, he compared me to a barnacle clinging to a boat—which is to say that he was the boat, and I his barnacle, riding his success. I couldn’t understand how these two versions of me could coexist in my lover’s mind: the version who should be fed, and the version who should be scraped off. So, I chose the one I preferred.

*

We place so much stock in stories. Or, our stories are stock: they hold the disparate parts of ourselves together. We choose them according to our present hunger, our desired flavor, how we want to taste, how we wish to be known. Before my ex and I moved to New York, my estranged best friend and I—before we were estranged—traveled to Plant City, Florida, where your strawberries come from. We visited an astrologer who told my friend we were cosmic twins, that we’d been traveling together for thousands of years and had known each other in infinite forms. Each night, while we slept, we would find each other, no matter where we were in the universe: no matter if I was in New York, no matter if she was in Florida. We were always together, even if our bodies were far apart, and I believe this story because I want to believe this story, because I trust my friend’s stories of me, even after six years of silence: we have changed a lot, but we know each other.

The other day, after I wrote the above paragraphs about boiled peanuts, another friend tagged me in a photo of boiled peanuts on Instagram. I hadn’t told her about my column. She didn’t know that I’d lately been thinking about boiled peanuts, even Googling the best places to find them in New York City. I didn’t know she even liked them; I think we’ve never discussed them, despite growing up in their midst. But there they were on Instagram, perfectly timed, the very same day, as if boiled peanuts were ebbing on the flow of our common ether.

This friend has known me since we were two years old. For three years beginning shortly after my stint in rehab and the near-fatal accident, we were also estranged. We were both in bad places. In the heat of our stress, she said things to me that cut deep. They were mean, unforgiving things, intended to wound. They showed me the stark reality of who I was at that time: an anorexic, self-harming drug addict who had fucked up her life in the most humiliating ways she possibly could—and on top of that, I was being allowed to work in a school, a fact she couldn’t believe. Now I couldn’t believe it, either. I felt lesser than shit.

But I wanted to be someone who was allowed to work in a school. I was trying very hard to be that person, to change my story. It is hard to change a story once it becomes myth. A myth is a story that is scaffolding for every other story we tell. This friend knows about the power of myth. She knew how hard I was trying to change mine, but she left out that part of the story because, in that moment, she wanted to hurt me. I wasn’t going to let her hurt me. I was trying not to hurt anymore. I told her never to call me again.

Three years later, she showed up outside the art gallery where my boyfriend worked when he wasn’t at the teashop. I was hosting a party there for the first issue of a literary journal I was editing. She didn’t tell me she was coming. She didn’t know I was moving to New York in a matter of days. She’d just heard about the event and felt it was time to apologize. To set our story straight.

*

The other day, I was drinking sugar-free Red Bull on my lunch break in the woods. For the next several weeks, I’m working at a summer camp for artistic children, teaching writing. My ex-boyfriend had texted me the night after we saw each other outside the bookstore. He said it was [sunglasses emoji] running into me and it would be cool to get coffee or a drink sometime. I hesitated. I had left our encounter feeling insulted by his advice not to fuck things up in my new relationship, as well as some other things he’d said that I found irksome. But I was feeling generous, so I agreed to have coffee. People change, I told myself—certainly I had. Perhaps he had, too.

But the more I thought about it, the less I believed that story. The pattern of our recent encounters suggested otherwise: each time we interacted, I parted ways feeling bothered. Recently, I had told him about my garlic allergy and he insisted the symptoms were all in my head. Garlic is antiseptic and thus good for me, he said. This had come out of an invitation to meet for ramen and kimchi. As if he knows things about kimchi, he informed me that it doesn’t include garlic, which it does. He then told me that he hopes I’ve been tested by a real physician about my garlic allergy, which I have. This still bothers me.

In the woods with my sugar-free Red Bull, I decided to cancel our plans for coffee that Sunday. I explained the reasons why in a text message. What I didn’t say was that we shape reality with our stories. It is because a large number of Americans believed a story about Hillary Clinton’s email that Donald Trump is our president. It’s because people believe hard work will be rewarded that we have capitalism. It’s because I worked hard to change my story that I didn’t die before I turned twenty-three. I reframed my philosophy and established new paradigms. I repaired relationships with people who show me a version of myself I want to claim. They challenge me in ways that encourage me to grow, and they don’t tear me down. My ex responded to my text with a slew of insults. He dragged my character under his boat. He took credit for my success and called me immoral. He said I’ve never cared about anyone but myself. Meanwhile, I finished my lunch and proceeded to teach a class of twenty youth how to think about conflict. While they wrote from their lives, I texted my ex back. I invited him to kiss my ass. Actually, he can eat it.

Collage by Sarah Gerard.

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