It's almost time for the 2022 ToB!

It's almost time for the 2022 Tournament of Books, presented by Field Notes. Check out the short list today!

Personal Essays

George Eastman House Collection

The Dinner Party

Your roommate, your girlfriend, and her (and your) boss: It’s a tough table, and they’ll scrutinize your food—and your dwindling frame.

When I was anorexic I had a dinner party for four. It was my girlfriend’s idea. She wanted to fix up my roommate, Aaron, and her boss, Fiona. She thought they would get along because they were both former New Yorkers.

“They can relate to each other,” she said.

I had moved in with Aaron in the summer of 1982, after answering his ad in the Pennysaver. The ad, like Aaron, didn’t mince words. “Roommate wanted,” it said. “No one need not apply.”

We agreed to live together within minutes of meeting. It was a natural fit: I needed a place to hide out and starve myself and he needed someone to take care of his cat—Zappa—when he was on the road. Everything else was gravy. We shook hands.

Aaron drove a van for a courier service. He delivered paintings and prints to galleries and museums in California and Arizona and New Mexico. Once he went to Minnesota. Before he left he told me he was going “out West.” I think he said this because he still had that New York mindset. I reminded him that we lived in Los Angeles and that he was actually driving east, but he wouldn’t concede my point. We had different world views.

He was moving a lot of Dalí lithographs at the time. He bought one himself—for a song, he said. He hung it on the wall outside our bathroom. It was a picture of Don Quixote in front of the windmills. This was in the days before the story broke about all the forged Dalís. Owning a Dalí—or thinking you owned a Dalí—still meant something.

I wasn’t an animal person, but I didn’t mind taking care of Zappa. There were only two things I didn’t like. The first was that Aaron kept the litter box in the kitchen, so I had to smell Zappa’s poop every time I prepared my food. The second was that Zappa ate tuna fish. Not the tuna fish that people eat, but the tuna fish that cats eat. It just so happened that I ate a can of tuna fish every day to make sure I got enough protein. I would stand at the kitchen counter, using separate but identical can openers, one for my tuna and one for Zappa’s, but both cans smelled the same, and both can openers smelled the same, and I began to feel like I was eating cat food, and the thought of this nearly put me off tuna entirely. It would have been really risky if I had stopped eating tuna. I was already down to 100 pounds. The tuna was keeping me alive.

Zappa was named after Frank Zappa. Aaron was a fan and had all of his records, even the bootlegs. He had over two thousand records in all, everything from Captain Beefheart to Captain and Tenille. He kept them on the floor in the living room, in alphabetical piles. I used to sit on the couch and stare at them. It comforted me, the way being in the stacks at the library had once comforted me. I couldn’t read books anymore because I couldn’t concentrate. All I could think about was what I had eaten or what I was going to eat. But I could still listen to music.

Sometimes I pulled out Weasels Ripped My Flesh and looked at the cover. It cracked me up. It had an illustration of a guy in a suit holding an electric razor that was actually a weasel. The animal was clawing and biting the guy’s cheek, but he kept on smiling.

To be precise, I should say that Aaron had once been a Frank Zappa fan, because by the time I started rooming with him he had stopped listening to music. All he cared about was the Mets. They had started to put together the team that would beat Boston in the World Series. They didn’t have Gooden yet, but they had Wilson and Strawberry and Hernandez. Aaron could sense the gathering storm and he was getting ready. He kept his Mets cap on a Styrofoam mannequin head that sat on top of one of his speaker cabinets. He was keen to keep the cap in mint condition. He wouldn’t bend the brim and he wouldn’t pull it down to his ears for fear of stretching it. Before a game he’d put it on and sit on the couch and psyche himself up. Then he’d walk across the room and turn on the TV, step-sliding like a tightrope-walker, balancing the cap on his crown like it was a glass of water.

 

* * *


Fiona looked like the kind of girl the name Fiona had been invented for. She looked like the kind of girl you’d see coming across the Lowlands, or the Highlands, wearing a cape and bearing a basket of muffins for her neighbors. She had russet hair and coffee-colored freckles.

I thought of her as my girlfriend’s boss, but she was my boss too. My girlfriend and I worked at a record store in the Valley and Fiona was our manager. The reason I thought of her as my girlfriend’s boss and not mine was because I hated her. The reason I hated her was because she hated me. I was first tipped off to this fact when my girlfriend said, “Fiona hates you.”

But there was another, perhaps more important reason Fiona hated me: I didn’t like Bob Dylan. Fiona hated me because she thought I was selfish and controlling and withholding. It was true. I was all of those things. But there was no way she could have known this. At the record store I behaved like a model citizen. When an elderly gentleman came in looking for a Bing Crosby album, I walked him to the proper aisle and bin. When a teenage girl was searching for a single that she knew only part of the melody to, I let her hum it to me. When a woman who looked like a vampire wanted me to recommend something for her boyfriend, I asked her what kind of music he liked but I also asked her related questions like “What’s his favorite book?” and “What’s his favorite movie?” I wanted to form as detailed an impression of him as possible. I wanted to make sure I suggested a record he would like rather than a record I thought he should have.

The only way Fiona could have known I was selfish and controlling and withholding was if my girlfriend had told her. But I didn’t get that at the time. I didn’t understand that my girlfriend was using Fiona as a trial balloon, to voice feelings she didn’t feel comfortable expressing to me directly.

But there was another, perhaps more important reason Fiona hated me: I didn’t like Bob Dylan. Every day at the record store the employees pitched a battle over who would get to play their favorite albums over the stereo system. It was a battle I never engaged in. It was a battle Fiona won whenever she wanted because she could pull rank. And when she pulled rank she played Dylan.

I was working the cash register one day when I saw her putting the Gaslight Tape on the turntable.

“Not Dylan again,” I said.

She looked daggers at me.

“You listen to this record,” she said. “He’s a 21-year-old white kid from Minnesota and he sounds like an 80-year-old black man from the Mississippi Delta. He sounds like he’s lived a thousand lives. Now you show some fucking respect.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

She shook her head and closed her eyes and let Dylan transport her to another land and another time.

 

* * *


As the day of the dinner approached my anxiety kicked in. I had read that some anorexics liked to prepare elaborate spreads for friends and family. Cooking was a vicarious pleasure for them; they got to watch other people eat the food they denied themselves. But I wasn’t that kind of anorexic. I was the solitary kind. I was the starve-in-private kind. Watching other people eat made me nauseous.

I knew I shouldn’t cater a dinner party. Unfortunately, I had no one but myself to blame. I was being controlling again. My girlfriend had offered to do the cooking, but her repertoire in the kitchen was limited to toaster waffles. If she made dinner it would be something frozen and it would have cheese in it and I wouldn’t want to eat it and then my anorexia would be exposed. I couldn’t let that happen. I had to prove to everyone—and to Fiona especially—that I wasn’t anorexic, that I was just preternaturally thin. I could see myself sitting at the table, stuffing my face with food, defying all expectations. Oh yes, I thought. Oh yes.

I needed to figure out what to make, and it had to be something I could eat. At that time my daily consumption consisted of a bowl of millet, my one can of tuna fish, and a lemon, which I sliced into quarters so I could suck out the juice and the pulp, so I could feel the citrus burning through me. I imagined it eating away the fat, the excess flesh, stripping me down to the bone. I imagined it spreading through me, filling my tissues, disinfecting me. I had little imagination for anything else.

The only thing I could think of was chicken. It had been a long time since I’d eaten chicken, but it was the leanest of all the animals and it seemed like a reasonable entree. I could make chicken breasts with broccoli florets. The florets could do double duty as both a side dish and a garnish. That made a lot of sense to me. Maybe I could pull this off after all.

 

* * *


I left work early the night of the dinner. I was freezing when I got home—I was always cold when I was anorexic—so I turned on the heater and stood in front of it. As I waited for my body to warm and the purple to leave my hands I expelled all the flatus I’d been holding in at work.

My anorexia made me flatulent. I think it was because it threw my digestion out of whack. Even though my stomach was empty most of the time, it kept producing acid, which went to work on the lining of my stomach, causing symptoms of gastritis. I started to salivate more to neutralize the stomach acid, but the more saliva I produced the more I needed to swallow, which meant I swallowed more air, which meant there was more gas in my lower intestine, which meant I had more flatus events, as I had taken to calling them, since the word fart had always sounded uncouth to me. Since I was eating a can of tuna every day my flatus was raunchy. And when I stood in front of the heater it concentrated the stench.

The worst part was I didn’t know how bad I smelled. I had grown used to it. So had Aaron. When we first started living together he’d jerk his head back when he came through the door and that served as a reality check. But he didn’t do that anymore. This concerned me.

I couldn’t take any chances with Fiona coming over, so I turned off the heater and opened a window in the living room, hoping the fresh air would cover the stink. It was the middle of winter, which in Los Angeles was still pretty warm, but I was shivering so I put on my parka.

My teeth began to chatter. I pulled the hood of my parka over my head and zipped it up to my chin. I was in the kitchen when Aaron got home. He had a bottle of white wine tucked under his arm.

“Just a little something,” he said. “Why is the window open?”

“You know.”

“What?”

“The aroma.”

He nodded. He picked up Zappa’s litter box and brought it into his bedroom. Then he came back and set the table. He put out some plastic tumblers. They were made of a super-shiny shatterproof blue polycarbonate. They looked like glass.

I had decided to broil the chicken breasts and steam the broccoli florets. I removed the skin from the breasts to make them as lean as possible, then I seasoned them with a little salt and pepper and stuck them in the oven. Then I started on the broccoli.

Everything was ready when my girlfriend and Fiona arrived. Aaron showed them in. Fiona was stunned when she saw his record collection.

“You should come work for me,” she said.

My girlfriend turned to me.

“What’s with the parka?” she said.

“I’ll tell you later,” I said.

“Fiona thinks we should break up,” she whispered.

“What?”

“On the way over here she said she thinks we should break up.”

“OK,” I said.

I wasn’t saying OK to breaking up; I was saying OK to acknowledge that Fiona had said this and that she had a right to her opinion but it had no bearing on us. I hoped my girlfriend understood but I couldn’t take the time to find out; I was too worried about the dinner. I ushered everyone to the table and pulled out a chair for my girlfriend and Fiona. I served the food and poured the wine. When I sat down Aaron made a toast.

“To the ladies,” he said.

“To the ladies,” I said.

We clinked our cups.

I looked down at my plate. The chicken looked forlorn. The broccoli hadn’t dressed things up as much as I’d hoped.

I took a bite of both. The chicken was cold and dry and the broccoli was cold and hard. I hoped no one would compliment me just to be polite. No one did.

“Would it be rude of me to ask for some ketchup?” Aaron said.

“Of course not,” I said.

I got up and went into the kitchen and opened the drawer where Aaron kept all the little packages of condiments he collected from the fast food restaurants he went to when he was on the road. I grabbed a handful of ketchups and brought them back to the table. Everyone took a few.

“Aaron’s from New York,” my girlfriend said.

“What part?” Fiona said.

“Yonkers,” Aaron said. “But I lived in the city for many years.”

“I grew up in the Bronx,” Fiona said. “Then I moved to Manhattan. Thirty-third and Third.”

“So that’s interesting,” my girlfriend said.

My teeth began to chatter. I pulled the hood of my parka over my head and zipped it up to my chin.

Zappa came into the kitchen. He paced the floor in furious circles, looking for something.

“Is he hungry?” I said.

“I think he’s looking for his litter box,” Aaron said.

“He doesn’t know where it is?” Fiona said.

“We usually keep it in the kitchen,” I said.

“No, Zappa, no!” Aaron said.

Zappa reared back on his haunches and went number two on the kitchen floor.

“Poor kitty,” my girlfriend said.

“You can’t just move the litter box on them,” Fiona said. “They don’t know where to go.”

Aaron got out of his chair, grabbed a paper towel, scooped up the poop, and dropped it in a Ziploc bag, all in a single fluid movement, like he was fielding a ground ball for the Mets. He put it in the garbage can under the sink, cleaned the floor with Ajax and a rag, washed his hands, and was back at the table in under a minute.

“That was impressive,” I said.

“I had two cats when I lived in Manhattan,” Fiona said.

“Cats are great,” Aaron said.

We all looked over at Zappa. He was lying on the couch now, pawing the cushions.

“Have you had him declawed?” Fiona said.

“Yes,” Aaron said.

“It’s inhumane,” Fiona said.

“They gave him a painkiller,” Aaron said. “When I brought him home I gave him tuna fish straight for a week. Not cat food but the real deal. He seemed happy.”

“I had a dream the other night,” Fiona said. “I was riding on the back of a dolphin. Every time he breached I threw my arms over my head and filled my lungs with air. Then we went back under the water and I held my breath. I could see angelfish and clownfish and sea fans and coral. I could see turtles and rays and sharks and manatees. I realized I was the scout for this school of dolphins. I was the one who determined whether the passage was safe or not. We were swimming along when all of a sudden I saw a net and I let out this screeching sound. Then I woke up.”

I was shoving morsels of chicken and florets of broccoli through the opening in my hood. I wanted to make sure everyone saw how much I was eating.

Fiona interpreted her dream. She told us that tuna fishermen were killing hundreds of thousands of dolphins every year. It’s common knowledge now, but it wasn’t then. We were shocked. She told us we shouldn’t eat tuna until the fishing industry changed its practices. And we shouldn’t feed our cats tuna either. They had no natural desire for it. You didn’t see the great cats of the jungle eating it, after all. It was another one of those needs manufactured by humans.

“You eat a lot of tuna, don’t you?” she said.

“I eat different things,” I said.

“Starving and thirsting while the silos are bursting,” she said.

“What?” I said.

“That’s Dylan,” she said.

I looked over at my girlfriend, but she had turned away. She was looking out the kitchen window, at the jacaranda tree in our courtyard. It was festooned with white lights. The landlord had put them up for Christmas and never taken them down.

“Was Dylan on that dolphin with you?” Aaron said.

I imagined Dylan on a dolphin, which made me laugh, which made me expel a flatus, and then another, and then another, until there were too many flatuses to count. I sounded like a Chinese New Year, and I smelled like one too.

“Excuse me,” I said, my words muffled by the lining in my hood.

Fiona stood up. She tugged at my girlfriend’s sleeve.

“We should go,” she said.

 

* * *


In the following days and weeks Fiona made my life as unpleasant as she possibly could. She made me work the graveyard shift for our store inventory. She wrote me up for putting the Asia album in the novelty section. But she couldn’t fire me and she couldn’t convince my girlfriend to leave me. That would take another year and another 20 pounds.

That night after they left I tried to get Aaron to listen to records with me. He wouldn’t do it.

“I’m not into music anymore,” he said.

“How can you not be into music?” I said. “How can you just turn something like that off?”

“I didn’t do it on purpose,” he said.

I lived with Aaron for eight months, but I was never able to figure him out. I think he was never able to figure himself out. There were great tides moving through him, but he was like the moon.

He put on his Mets cap. He turned on the TV and we watched the Lakers beat Golden State. When the game was over he took off his cap, put it back on the mannequin head, and said good night.

“Sorry about the dinner,” I said.

He picked up Zappa and started petting him behind the ears.

“So what’s wrong with you?” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“Why are you so thin?”

“I don’t know.”

I looked down. My hands were purple again. I turned them over in my lap.

“You saw how I ate tonight.”

Zappa stretched. He nipped Aaron’s hand.

“Maybe I should have made more for dinner.”

“Don’t worry about it,” he said.

He carried Zappa into his room and closed the door behind him.

I sat on the couch for a while, staring at the records. Then I pulled out Weasels Ripped My Flesh and looked at the cover. Something had happened to rock and roll music, I thought. At some point it had become ironic. But I no longer felt like laughing.