"Portion Control" from untitled novel

by Lynda Wayne

Author’s Note: Portion Control is the first chapter of a novel about the weight loss struggles of Francis Altamont Talbot. Sure Frankie carries around a few extra pounds but it is the wallowing mass in her head that holds her back. She tries, how she tries, to diet and exercise but her repeated efforts are no match for a family that takes pride in achieving mediocrity, an arrogant boss who is part swamp rat and part professor, an ex-boyfriend inspired by his new skinny girlfriend, and a culture where food, love, and joy are co-dependent. Convinced that forty pounds is the only thing that stands between her and a happy life, Frankie embraces Dr. Pryor’s Zen-ful Weight Loss Guide as a manual for living. Applying each of Dr. Pryor’s Ten Sacred Weight Loss Sutras to her own life, she finds herself leading an odd following of friends, and foes, on a journey of girth, growth, and grit.

Dr. Pryor’s Zen-ful Weight Loss Guide heralded the bento box as the model of portion control. Sitting alone at a table for four, Frankie stared at the small ebony tray with its interlocking rectangles, each sized to house an appropriate serving of vegetable, protein, and starch. Frankie’s rectangles were filled with seaweed salad, teriyaki chicken, and a mound of brown rice the size of a melon ball. She pushed down a wave of disappointment, remembering Dr. Pryor’s instructions:

Pause and admire the glossy wood finish,
the craftsmanship of the box,
the balance of the chopsticks.

She ran her hand along the edge of the box to feel the fine wood grain and slid her finger into a sticky glob. She prayed it was teriyaki sauce. Jeez, she thought, leave it to me to find the goo rather than the chi.

Portion control was number one among Dr. Pryor’s Ten Zen-ful Sutras. The objective was to:

Achieve grace in consumption,
a greater awareness of your body’s need for nutrition,
and crave only that which sustains and nourishes.

Frankie’s body was definitely craving something, though it was not to be found in the bento box. She thought of her mother, father, and sister sitting down to their dinner of country-fried steak smothered in gravy, buttery mashed potatoes (Mother despised margarine), and snap beans cooked down with side bacon until any vestige of “snap” was silenced.

As she pictured their plates—laden with shades of white, brown, and sage, and an occasional blue cornflower peeking out from the decorative border—she caught herself smiling, looking quite the fool, all alone and grinning from ear to ear. She lowered her eyes, and the corners of her mouth, then surveyed the room, taking in the slender, stylish diners with their sake tokkuris and demure postures. Nobody appeared to have noticed her; they seldom did. Even if they had, perhaps they would have thought she was reminiscing upon a day well spent, a colleague’s witty remark, or an intimate and pleasing moment. No, none of those things, she was thinking about country-fried steak and gravy. How sad was that?

Frankie had always been “chubby.” She was average in height but always bigger, thicker, than most of the girls in her class. She felt as though her normal body was covered by an outer body, a fleshy mass that had somehow attached itself to her and now utilized her as infrastructure. On occasion, she was able to reduce the mass, once losing twenty-five pounds, but eventually, the mass would rebuild, bigger and stronger each time. She supposed it was a symbiotic relationship, like moss on a tree, though it was entirely unclear as to what benefit she derived from the relationship.

More significant, however, Frankie was fat of mind, conscious of her weight with every encounter, every movement, every slightly labored breath. Her thoughts were consumed by what she could, should, or shouldn’t eat. She spent hours mulling over and filling out the little blank pamphlets handed out at her weekly Fatty Patties meeting. The pamphlets were scored off with different colored lines used to record your daily food intake, exercise, and personal motivations. There were also eight small boxes you could check off each time you drank eight ounces of water, though she mostly fulfilled those with coffee. She tended to spend far more time researching how she might fill the pamphlet with low-carb eating and twenty-minute workouts than actually doing either.

Even Frankie’s victories seemed mired in food and weight. The debate pin won for defending the merits of vanilla ice cream as not plain but a most exotic flavor collected from the pods of rare tropical orchids. The community league softball team Best Play in a Clutch award created just for her when she tripped and accidently hurled herself into the path of a potentially game-tying line drive. And her highlight, being voted Patterson High School’s 2005 Senior Class Funniest Girl—in most part due to her wicked ability, and constant need, to self-deprecate.

She returned to the Zen-ful Sutras, trying to retreat to her mindful place.

Portion control.
Take only what you need to be fulfilled.

Fulfilled…what a mystic and foreign concept. She had had a small taste, while in college, when she’d been intrigued with her studies and encouraged by her instructors. She reveled in science and math, where facts and numbers were King, and you were admired for your test scores more than your waist size. Academic success, however, had failed to translate into a successful life.

Returning home to live with her family didn’t help. It was a strange existence, living as both child and caretaker. She was responsible for the grocery shopping, yet scolded if she returned with the wrong brand. Her father was unable to drive but still did his best to set the route and speed limit when she took him to his weekly bridge game. When her sister, Sandra, returned home after a failed relationship and a successful pregnancy, she assumed her role as elder, taking the larger guest room and relegating Frankie to their childhood bedroom.

Frankie’s love life was equally unfulfilling. She and Ted had been on again off again since high school. They were currently off and Frankie hoped that it stayed that way. Ted worked the night shift at the power plant so on the rare occasion they were able to schedule a date night, he was usually tired and miserable about some injustice at work. The last time they had gone out, he had droned on about a co-worker’s new chair.

“I’ve had the same chair for seven years. They were supposed to give me a new one when I started but Mr. Phillips found some piece of crap in surplus. The seat cover was worn through in a couple of spots and the right arm falls off when I lean on it, but does anybody think to get me a new chair? Hell no. I guess they expect me to use it until it collapses. It’ll probably break my leg or ankle and then I’ll sue them and they will wish to hell they had thought ‘hey, maybe Ted needs a new chair too.’”

Frankie wiped her hands on the small white napkin and returned her attention to the meal. Dipping the chopsticks into the salad, she lifted a small amount to her mouth and chewed slowly, tasting the salty earthiness of the mild greens dressed in soy and sesame. She was relieved that the texture was firm and not slimy. She had feared she might gag, making grace completely unattainable. Moving to the chicken, she struggled to cut a large piece into the smaller bites that Dr. Pryor encouraged. She used the left chopstick to pin the chunk then worked to bisect it with the opposing chopstick. The teriyaki sauce made the surface smooth and slick and worked actively against her. After nearly launching the chicken across the table, she gave up, speared the entire chunk with the end of the chopstick, and shoved it into her mouth.

To crave only that which sustains and nourishes

She knew it could be done. The book had numerous testimonials: “The thought of a cookie now sickens me”…“A small pear is my most satisfying dessert”…“I awoke during the night with an overwhelming desire for chard.” She desperately wanted to achieve this enlightened state but with her mess of a life, it was all too much. Where did she start? Dr. Pryor, as always, had the answer:

Pare it down,
choose wisely,
maximize satisfaction.

Even when she managed to prepare a healthy meal, her family poked fun at the alien ingredients and meager portions, chiding that she would be “face down in a half gallon of Rocky Road before the evening ends.” The comment stung all the more when she would, inevitably, prove them right.

Frankie was still gnawing on the chicken chunk when they walked in: Ted, and a woman. Not just any woman, a thin woman; a woman who moved easily between the diners’ chairs without bother or apology. Frankie was stunned. Was it really Ted? Ted who could not be bothered to get off the couch to get his own beer much less put on a decent shirt and take her to a restaurant, and a sushi restaurant at that. How many times had Ted joked that sushi was for “yuppies who would rather fake good taste than eat something that tastes good.” And yet, here he was, at a sushi restaurant, with another woman.

She sat dumbfounded until a wave of panic took control. She had to get out of here. She could not face Ted or, worse yet, stomach an introduction to his new, slender girlfriend. Scanning the room for her waiter, she realized she was clueless. She had been so focused on the selection of satiating foods and the fine wood grain that she hadn’t taken notice of the individual who took her order and served her food. Was this a good thing? Had she achieved some level of food consciousness or was she simply a self-obsessed idiot? Idiot was most likely, given the situation. She began to smile effusively at every waitperson that came near, anxious for some measure of recognition. One after another they attempted to fill her overflowing water glass until she was finally presented a check. Cash in hand, she left the money on the table, slid out of her chair, and slinked toward the door.

She was within a few feet of relief when the waiter called to her.

“Do you want your food? Do you want change?”

She hesitated, the polite young lady in her wanting to turn and respond graciously, but a stronger instinct prevailed and she bolted out the door and down the sidewalk. Slowed by the weave of Friday evening pedestrians, she crossed the street midblock and ran along the bike lane, her feet pummeling at the seams of her new black flats, her eyes filled with tears. She didn’t look back until she reached the parking lot and slumped against her car, the words of the waiter still ringing in her ears. Did she want her food? Always. Did she want change? Desperately.

Lynda Wayne is a mom, wife, information scientist, fly angler, knitter, and aspiring novelist. Tired of boring others with technical documents about geospatial metadata, she would like to use her writing skills to do good by entertaining, enlightening, and most important, encouraging others to find their passion.