Chekwube O. Danladi
The summer before we started 9th grade, a month after we were both finally fifteen, Georgie and I decided that we would stop eating.
We made resolutions. Georgie wanted to stop eating so that people would no longer make fun of the thick rolls that coated her belly, chin, arms, and thighs. I wanted to lose weight so that I could fit into a too-small yellow thrifted bathing suit that mama bought me, because she couldn’t return it.
The day we decided, we were on the swings at Towanda Park, behind the Metro station. Georgie and I were competing with each other to see who could swing higher. Her thick legs were tucked behind her, woodchips gathering in the ridged toes of her beaten Adidas every time she came down into her inverted arch. Competition was always the game with Georgie: who could swing the highest, who could use the biggest words, who could read the most books in one week.
Our competition was always about self-improvement and self-preservation. We were each other’s only best friends. We hid together in the school library during lunch breaks because we were too shy to eat in the cafeteria.
Compared to Georgie, I was spared. The same kids who picked on me for my overbite and big glasses got on Georgie almost exclusively for her weight. I was too tall for my age, built like a box, marked with a foreign name that made kids mouths’ gummy and creative. “Ijeoma? What kinda name is that?” “Youse an African booty scratcher!” “More like, Ewww-jima, ha!” People didn’t realize that Georgie was half African booty scratcher herself, if not they would have also clicked their tongues and scratched their crotches in her direction. I always blamed my overbite for providing me a permanent delay of proper retaliatory quips, so I would just draw my lips over my prominent teeth and keep quiet.
We were always about the same height, if you measured us below our hair, but she was much larger. Her body seemed to curve and ripple at every angle, heavy sections of her flesh falling in waves over one another. Since elementary school, Devon Jones would come up to her in between throws of a basketball, separate his legs as wide as he could, pull up the waist of his khakis as high as possible, and smack his lips like Bill Cosby. He’d close his eyes in flutters and wiggle his neck from side to side before saying to Georgie, “would you like a puddingggg pop?” His goons behind him would bend their spines in new directions, flexed by laughter, and Georgie would squeeze her eyes tight against tears.
We formed an early alliance in fifth grade. It was safer to walk home together as a force against laughing bullies who threw eggs at us down Reisterstown Road.
We sat on the swings, gliding softly on our toes while the sun went down. The sky turned dark orange. Georgie had a far-off look in her eyes, and her mouth contoured into a tight pucker.
“I think I gotta stop eating, Iji,” she spoke first, her eyes unmoving.
“Whadda you mean?”
“I mean, I gotta stop eating. Cause, look how fat I am.”
“Georgie, you ain’t fat.”
“Yes I am.”
“I mean, well, you ain’t that fat.”
“Yes, I am. I’m the fat girl everywhere I go Iji, don’t lie to me.”
“Well, I think you’re beautiful.”
Georgie’s eyes tightened to slits.
“I gotta stop eating. That way I can lose some weight. That’s the best way to do it.”
“Well, if it’s cause you wanna lose weight I guess that’s okay.”
“Will you do it with me? We can stop together.”
“You mean like, stop entirely? Can’t you die from that?”
“We can wean ourselves, little by little.”
I was skeptical. I thought immediately about my favorite snacks: hot Cheetos, ice cream sandwiches, French vanilla cokes, all the stuff we shared with the spare change our mothers gave us to keep busy in the summer. I smiled at Georgie.
“Well, I guess it’s worth a shot.”
“You ain’t as big as me, you ain’t really big at all, so it’ll be easy for you.”
We jumped off the swings and picked up the jump ropes we’d abandoned by the sidewalk.
“And besides, when we get skinny enough, we can start eating again, okay?”
I laughed and squeezed her hand as we walked back to my mother’s apartment.
Deciding that we would not eat anymore meant more than just minimizing or cutting out meals. We had to remove every food-related memory we had stored away. That meant everything from memories of Georgie and I pouring even amounts heavy cream and powdered sugar into a bowl and mixing until the whipped cream became thick enough for us to scoop up in handfuls, to those like mama’s goat head stew she made where the eyeballs floated to the top.
The first day of not eating was excruciating. It was a Saturday in June. By 3pm, my belly and bowels tightened, searching for anything that could nourish me. Georgie had forced us to go to the library on Edmondson Avenue, because she said there was no way we’d be tempted in a place with no food. But even that was a trick, because on Edmondson, there were at least three chicken and trout spots, and it being summer, there were countless people sitting outside, eating from chicken boxes as they waited for the bus, or tearing apart fried fish and jojos to share with each other. The divine, greasy smell of summer in Baltimore coated the block, and I couldn’t keep my mouth from watering. By six o’clock, I thought I was going to cry. I looked up at Georgie, who was focused on a book about self-improvement for the modern American teenage girl, on the cover a white girl in a light blue dress in a mid-air hop.
“Georgie,” my voice quivered. She didn’t look up.
“Don’t say anything to me, Iji. I know it’s hard.”
“Georgie, I don’t know if I can do this.”
She slapped her book against the table and glared at me.
“If you can’t, then you’re letting the fat win. Are you saying that fat is stronger that you, Iji? Come on,” she pleaded. I slumped down in my seat.
“Listen, we just have to make it ‘til eight tonight. Then, we can have some crackers, ok?”
Three weeks before Georgie came to our resolution, she and I went with our mamas to the Korean grocery store on Liberty Heights. Mama always said she hated going there because of how the Koreans looked at her like she was a rat in off the street, but she went because they were the only ones who had the vegetables she used to have access to in Nigeria. While she and Aunty Janet searched for cocoyam leaves for palaver sauce and callaloo, Georgie and I ran to our usual section looking for Pocky or fruit jellies. We ran past the tea aisle and Georgie stopped in front of a row of light green boxes, skinny but muscular women dotting the fronts and sides. GINSENG WEIGHT LOSS MIRACLE and GINKGO BILOBA POUND KILLER stood out in red letters, offering to shed five pounds a week for those who’d drink it religiously. Georgie picked up a box from in front of her.
“Do you think it really works?”
“I dunno. I feel like a lot of things say shit like that. ‘Lose weight fast with pills’, or tea, or whatever.”
“That’s what I need, to drop all this fast.” She grabbed her stomach with her free hand.
“I bet it tastes like shit, Georgie.”
She put the box back and shrugged, leaving the aisle to find our mamas.
Georgie’s mama and mine had known each other since they went to Catholic mission school together in Owerri. They told us how lucky we were that we didn’t have to suffer that as a means of bonding. They told us how the burned-red Irish nuns would wake them up at five and make them take freezing bucket baths outside while fishmongers looked on as they set up their stands. They told us how they had to scrub themselves until the black came off their skin. They told us how the nuns wanted to teach them to be ashamed in the presence of men.
Georgie’s mama came to America first, in the mid-eighties, to DC. She married a Jamaican man from August Town, who was a janitor at the senior home in Georgetown, where she washed and coddled old White people for minimum wage. They had Georgie and named her after her paternal grandmother, who her daddy hadn’t seen since he left August Town.
Georgie’s mama ran into mine at the U Street Station in DC when I was seven, where mama had been selling generic African statues, jewelry, and incense to the White folks who were settling into the then-cheap apartments nearby. “It was like I had found my long lost sister,” mama always said. “Yes, we could have been anywhere in this country, big as it is, but we found each other there. That is the true Grace of God.”
Mama, who had no husband, only me, couldn’t afford to stay in the area and moved to Baltimore a year later. Soon, Georgie and her family moved up this way too, ditching DC for an affordable place where nobody wanted to live. Georgie and I had been inseparable ever since our first day of fifth grade.
As far as I knew, she had always been big. When we were younger, it didn’t seem to bother her, as if she didn’t notice. I didn’t either. It wasn’t until we were in 7th grade that the comments began. At Nigerian parties, all the old men would poke Georgie’s belly and rump and call her “fatty bum-bum.” They’d giggle like children. Kids at school would pull their lunch trays closer towards themselves when she walked by, saying, “don’t let that big Black bitch take your lunch, yo!” or “daaaammmn, that’s why there’s so many starving kids in Africa; she ate all they food!”
I had less to gain from our new resolution and I only lasted two weeks. In those two weeks, I had willed myself to ignore the gnawing pangs in my belly by dreaming about boys. If I could transform from a box to a coke bottle, maybe someone would kiss me. Like Arvon Grimes, the copper-colored boy with muscles like a grown man, from my social studies class. At some point, Georgie had found her mother’s dust covered Tae Bo videotapes, and in between nibbling on crackers or sliced bread, we’d spend hours in her basements miming Billy Blanks’ every move as best we could. Georgie would grunt with him and offer forceful punches in the air until she was dripping with sweat, looking more liquid than flesh. I thought about Arvon while swinging my legs left to right or turning my fists around each other in rapid circles. We weighed ourselves everyday, marking every real or imagined drop in pounds with toothy smiles. In two weeks, I lost four pounds to Georgie’s ten. Georgie said we were doing good.
But then I lost. One of our fake uncles was going back to Nigeria for good and threw a going-away party at his house in Columbia. Georgie’s mom and dad drove us down. Uncle Nwokedi’s party, like every other Nigerian party, was brimming with food. Everybody downed bottle after bottle of Guinness. There were four tables covered in food: meat pie, grilled beef, eba, pounded yam, fried yam, amala, egusi soup, nsala soup, okra soup, plantain, jollof, and coconut rice. Beer, Malta, and Sprite sat in coolers at the end of every table, and the adults and embarrassed teenagers danced to P-Square and King Sunny Ade.
At some point, Georgie and I got separated. She chose to sit with her dad, the only non-Nigerian at the party, in the living room away from the festivities: an excuse to avoid temptation. One of my fake grandmothers, Uncle Nwokedi’s mother, asked me to bring her a Guinness. I had hoped to just swoop by a cooler and run before the smell of food could delay me, but just as I grabbed the bottle, someone’s mother came by with a tray of freshly fried chin-chin. I could hear the grease sizzling on the golden skin of it all. It was the kind of chin-chin I loved most: cut into long strips and coated in ginger and powdered sugar.
My body moved against my will. With my free hand, I swiped as many chin-chin as I could. My hand burned as I brought the pieces to my mouth. I nearly dropped fake-grandma’s beer from the joy of it. I rushed the beer to her and came right back to the table, piling a paper plate high with more food than I needed. The adults were too drunk to notice my lack of politesse. I sat under the table, shielded by the long edges of the tablecloth, and devoured my meal until my belly was painfully swollen.
In the car as we were leaving, with Georgie next to me in the backseat, I confessed.
“I couldn’t do it anymore. I ate something.”
Georgie almost looked pleased. “So I won then?”
“Yea, I guess you did.”
“If it means anything, I did lose some weight,” I said in a whisper. Georgie rolled her eyes.
After that, I only dabbled in attempts to be thinner, mostly at Georgie’s request. By the end of summer, Georgie, who had already lost thirty pounds, wanted to practice throwing up with me. Her arms and face already appeared much thinner. She kept saying, “Thirty pounds isn’t a big deal when you’re as fat as me. Wait ’til I drop fifty.” First, we stuffed ourselves with leftover white rice (“so that in case we can’t do it, we don’t consume too many calories,” Georgie had said). Then, we gathered around the toilet and took turns dipping our heads into the bowl. I tried my hardest to force myself to throw up, but despite putting increasing numbers of fingers into my mouth and stretching my lips at their creases, I could never muster up more than a mouthful of viscous spit that would just dribble down my chin and swirl in the toilet water.
Trying to puke just made my head tight and turned my eyes into painfully bright twinkles of light. The empty gagging sounds we made were nausea inducing. But Georgie wanted to master it. She stuck the bottom end of a toothbrush into her throat as if she was swallowing it, and just when I thought the whole thing would disappear, an outward flush of orange-yellow rice came back in pulverized form. That’s how Georgie learned that she could eat in front of people and throw up when they weren’t looking, if she had to.
At first, Georgie’s mama was happy to see her daughter trim down. Aunty Janet confided in me when Georgie wasn’t around how I was having a positive influence on her daughter, bringing her down to size. To Georgie she would laugh and say, “well, don’t get too skinny oooooh.” Georgie’s mama, whose skin looked withered and crinkled after years of bleaching soaps and creams, would pat Georgie on her ever shrinking belly, and smile.
As far as everyone was concerned, Georgie didn’t have a problem. High school started and the boys who made fun of her since middle school did so less and less often. Georgie went from fat, to chubby, to skinny in what felt like no time. We spent less time together, though our lunchtime meetings in the library continued. By mid-November, she was wearing layers of sweaters so people wouldn’t comment on how small she was getting. On the last day of school before Christmas break, she pulled me into the girl’s bathroom after the last bell and removed three sweaters of varied sizes, revealing herself in an old t-shirt. Her elbows jutted out as she planted her palms akimbo, smirking. The early breasts she had developed had shrunk back down to pre-teen stage and through the shirt I could see the start of too-prominent ribs.
“Holy shit Georgie, I didn’t realize you had gotten this small!”
She opened her smile to show teeth.
“I’ve been doing the Tae Bo tapes still, everyday, two 90-minutes tapes a day when I can. And I wake up early everyday to do three hundred sit-ups. And I’m down to one meal a day.” She revealed that she’d been giving away the free school breakfasts and lunches since we started back in August.
“Now, I don’t even think about food as much. And when I do, I just shake away the thought.” She rotated her neck from side to side, her braids swinging limply, slapping against her shoulders.
“Damn. It’s a good thing it’s cold, so you have a reason to hide under those sweaters.”
“Yea, right?” She pulled her sweaters back on. “I still haven’t lost enough weight. I wanna lose ten more pounds in the next two months. I have to exercise more.”
We didn’t see each other again until Christmas day. Georgie’s mama and dad were hosting dinner at their house, complete with Nigerian and Jamaican food alike, with Nigerian and Jamaican family and friends drinking Guinness and Red Stripe from beginning to end. Her dad made rum punch and even let the older kids try some. And we all did, except for Georgie. When it came time to eat, all of us around the same age sat together in the living room, just out of earshot of the adults at the large cedar dining table. Everyone’s plates were filled at least two times, except for Georgie’s, who only had one helping that she barely ate. At some point, Georgie’s mama must have noticed how her daughter pushed around the same piece of curry goat around a small mound of jollof over and over. How she ate just a few grains of rice at a time.
“Nawa, Georgie, did I give birth to a rabbit? Will you stop playing with your food and eat it?” Aunty Janet walked over to Georgie with a piece of fried chicken in her hand, hovering it by her daughter’s lips playfully.
“Go on now, have some chicken.”
Aunty Janet laughed liltingly, the rum made her body easy. She nudged the chicken closer and pushed apart Georgie’s lips. “Eat the chicken, biko.”
Georgie moved her face to the side and pushed at her mother’s hand. We all stopped to look at them.
“Ah ah, wetin be this now? You no wan eat am? You love fried chicken.” Aunty Janet made one more attempt to push chicken into Georgie’s mouth, and that’s when she began to heave. At first it sounded like Georgie was about to start laughing, and then Georgie burst into thick sobs. She sounded as if she had been punched, her wailing so heavy that it sat on the whole house.
Aunty Janet turned angry. “Ah ah! What is the meaning of all this? What is wrong with you, girl?”
In between sobs, Georgie uttered, “I don’t want to eat the goddamn chicken mom, Jesus!”
“Chineke me ohhh, have mercy!” Aunty Janet slapped Georgie across her cheek, chicken still in hand. A line of gleaming grease coated the left side of Georgie’s face. She stood up and ran into her room. Aunty Janet stood still, bewildered. In the corner of the room, I saw Georgie’s father turn a knob on the radio, raising the volume of the Christmas music.
Some days later, after Christmas break had ended, Georgie found me in our usual spot in the library during lunch. We hadn’t seen each other since that dinner and she’d refused to answer my texts or calls.
“Are you ok?”
“Yea, I think so.”
“So, what happened? Why didn’t you answer me?”
“I dunno, my parents were stressing me out.”
“But, what happened?”
“Shit, too much. That night all they did was yell after everyone went home. First they yelled at me, then each other.”
“The last couple nights my mother keeps looking at me and tearing up, as if I did somethin’ to her. Every morning it’s ‘Georgina Chinyere Halworth! Chineke-meeeee! What is happening to my daughter?’ Honestly.”
“Yea. She needs to get a grip.”
I cleared my throat.
“So have they said anything to you?”
Georgie turned away from me, picking at the dirt under her fingernails. “I heard my mom and dad talking a couple nights ago.”
Georgie placed her palms flat against the table. “I think they wanna send me away.”
My eyes widened.
“What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean Iji. Where our parents always threaten to send us if they don’t like somethin’.”
According to Georgie, she had come out of her room at midnight for a glass of water and overheard her parents at their dining table. Her mother was crying softly.
“My daughter. My sweet Georgina.”
“Woman, settle down, nah, settle.”
“Langley, do not tell me to settle down. Our daughter is dying. Chi, give me strength.”
“When do you think it started?”
“Hmph. I can’t even say. Who can know when or why or how these things start? Ah ah! Surely this girl must be possessed! Why will she purposefully starve herself? Does she know you have family back home starving? Does she know what starvation is? During Biafra, my family and I had only mud and leaves to eat!”
“Janet, she needs help. She needs our help.”
“Which kind help? Hah?”
“Uh-uh! You want to send my only child off to a hospital or something? God forbid! I will not put my daughter in one of those asylums. Over my dead body!”
“Ok, fine, settle. We have to do something. Dis ting beyond my reach, dear.”
“Humph. I know what we can do. She has to go home. I will send her to Enugu.”
“Hah! Enugu? Why not Jamaica? She can stay with her grandmother.”
“To do what, live on that farm? Your mother can not even feed her own chickens. How will she make sure my daughter is fed?”
“And you wan send her to dat wicked sister of yours, jah? Is just more punishment.”
“If she goes to your mother, all she’ll have to eat are bean pies and plantain. That’s not substantial. In Enugu, she will eat yam, and fufu. And goat. It’s heavier. It’ll make her put on weight!”
They eventually decided.
“Mom told me this last night. They want to send me to Nigeria.”
“Can you believe it? I haven’t been there in five years. And I hated it then. I don’t know anybody there.”
“For how long?”
“Mom said at least a year.”
“What? No! You can’t do that.” A month made sense. Maybe even two. But an entire year without Georgie sounded insufferable. It sounded like torture for both of us.
“I’m trying to fight her on it, Iji, I am. I don’t want to go.” Georgie’s voice started to shake. I took her hand and shook it gently.
“Maybe I can get my mom to convince them?” I wanted to come up with anything to keep her.
Georgie’s voice lowered. “I dunno. I dunno if that’ll work.”
“We have to try. I don’t want you to leave.”
Georgie sucked her bottom lip. “I don’t wanna leave. I haven’t done anything wrong.”
“Georgie. I thought you said you would start eating again. After you lost weight.”
She dropped my hand quickly.
“Maybe if you did that, your parents would let you stay.”
Her eyes roamed over her arms as she flexed her fingers, hesitating before she spoke.
“I don’t think I’m done yet though.”
“Well…when will you be done?” I couldn’t understand what would keep her from making the easiest decision. “All you have to do is eat more.”
Georgie closed her eyes and didn’t respond. I couldn’t think of what else to say. We sat together in silence. She let me take her hand again. After a couple minutes, she spoke.
“We should get ready, the lunch bell is gonna ring soon.”
I opened my mouth to speak and then closed it. I nodded and picked up my books.
Born in Lagos and raised in West Baltimore, CHEKWUBE O. DANLADI is a writer and poet currently working towards an M.F.A. at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.