Creative Nonfiction: The Counter
Thalia Bardell is a senior at Emerson College pursuing a BFA in Writing, Literature, and Publishing. Her primary focus is non-fiction and personal essay. Although she is extremely passionate about writing her one true love in life is the Boston Red Sox. This is her second piece to appear in Write From Wrong.
“I can help the next group in line that’s not already being served!” Emphasis on group and already. I shouted to the line that snaked its way through the open door, around the divider and up to the counter.
“Yeah! Hey! I haven’t been helped yet!” she snapped as she waved her French- manicured acrylic falsies at me, “Right hea!” All thick Rhode Island accent. Fantastic. Smile.
“Hi, what can I get for you?” My fake cheerfulness was as sickly sweet as the strawberry syrup that we kept behind the counter, and a headache-inducing ear-to-ear grin was plastered across my face.
As she spoke, she pulled maddeningly up and down on the “J” charm that hung from the zipper of her navy velour hoodie. The bright silver caught the overhead lighting of the shop and bounced it in quick flashes off the reflective glass divider that separated her and me.
“Yeah, I wanna know…” she said. I wasn’t listening, distracted by the charm; I assumed the J stood for “Juicy,” like Couture. Or perhaps “Juvenile,” like the rhinestone studded t-shirt that peeked out from underneath her hoodie. Or “Jarring,” like her voice and chunky blond highlights, embedded in a mass of dark hair. “I wanna know if I can get a sample of the banana peanut butter cup.”
She knew what the banana peanut butter cup tasted like—she ordered it from me yesterday, and two days before that, and last week. She ordered it every time she came in, but because the customer is always right. So I made my way to the bucket of white plastic sample spoons. Three long steps. One. Two. My feet dragged a little on the gray-flecked white plastic floor tiles. It was only 8:30 and I was already exhausted. Three. I grabbed a spoon and hauled open the lid of the dipping freezer.
“Is it loaded?” she barked at me. “Is it loaded?!” I leaned heavily on the freezer and looked at her, sample spoon in hand. She winked at me. I knew what she meant; she wanted to know if the banana ice cream was “loaded” with chunks of peanut butter cups. She winked again. I didn’t find it funny.
I hiked my sagging khakis up by the belt loops and leaned into the open freezer. Carefully I extracted a sample from the side of the tub heavy with peanut butter cups and handed it to her. She closed her lips and loudly sucked the sample off the mini spoon.
“Oh God!” She let out a little moan. “This stuff is so good. I’ll have a single scoop—but not a huge scoop. I shouldn’t really be having any at all. It’s just that, oh my God, it’s so good.”
I grabbed a metal scoop from where it rested, rinsing in the dipper well, and reached down into the tub of ice cream. I rolled around the circumference of the tub until the ice cream formed a perfect ball. Extracting the scoop, “loaded” with peanut butter cups, I went to place it in a Styrofoam bowl and as it moved through her line of vision, her eyes widened.
“Oh my God! Is that one scoop! That’s enormous, oh my God; I couldn’t possibly eat all that. I mean I really shouldn’t be having this at all, it’s just that, oh my God.”
“Did you want me to make it smaller?” I was so tired; gravity was pulling especially hard. I wished I could close my eyes; the overhead lighting was soft, but its reflection off the silver metal of the freezers created a razor sharp glare. Or maybe it wasn’t the lights that were the problem—maybe it was the heat that made my throat feel like dry sandpaper. Or maybe I had just forgotten what it was like to feel sensation and everything was magnified, intensified in my body’s consciousness. I wished I could close my eyes, just for a second, and rest, but I could never rest. “We have a kiddie scoop if you like.”
“Oh well, no, I mean, you’ve already got it in the bowl and everything.”
I jammed a plastic spoon in the cup and started to hand the bowl over the glass divider. So close, so close. Get her out of here. Waves of fatigue crashed over me. That summer I repeatedly worked forty-hour weeks while my parents worried and my doctor told me over and over that, again, I had lost more weight. “The Daily Scoop: Homemade Frozen Treats” had become the only place where I didn’t feel like I was being constantly monitored. Nobody knew what had happened, nobody looked at me with sad eyes or pursed their lips in worry when they spoke to me. My boss only admired my unwavering work ethic. “Look at Thalia,” he would tell the other employees, “she is never just standing around.” I swept the floor constantly, performing an awkward dance with the broom and dustpan. I made multiple unnecessary trips to the basement, up and down the stairs, up and down with heavy boxes. I became possessive of changing tubs. “No, you go help that customer; I need to do that heavy lifting.” Now I had no energy; it was pure adrenaline that was keeping me standing, as it had for the past seven months and that quickly was running out. I gripped the edge of the silver freezer for support, white knuckled. Keep standing, keep smiling. She reached out for the cup, and even before she had fully taken hold of it I shifted my body in the direction of the cash register.
“Oh, keep your big spoon; I like to eat it with the little spoon. It makes it last longer. It’s just, I really shouldn’t be having any at all, so I want to savor it. It’s just that it’s so good, I just, you know. I can’t resist, oh my God.” She licked the spoon with relish. “Hey! Do you happen to know how many calories are in this?”
I dug my palms into the bony edges of my hips where they jutted out beneath thin skin. I had to make sure I was still there. Stand. Smile. Stand. Smile. “No,” I said.
She was at the register. Single scoop, subtotal, nearly there. I’m drained. That summer I always felt as though my head was floating just slightly above my body.
“That will be thr – ”
“Hey! How do you stay so thin working here? You must not eat any ice cream!” She was grinning. Something hurt my hands, and I realized that I was gripping the edge of the cold metal cash drawer with all of my might. It dug deep pink indents into my palms. Stand and smile. I am surprised that I didn’t bleed. Stand and smile. Stand and—
You want to know how I stay so thin? I’ll let you in on all my diet secrets. It’s simple, really. All I did was slowly cut out foods that had any substance until I subsisted solely on vegetables, water, and the occasional hunk of tofu. Then, I starved myself consistently for a period of two months until I dropped twenty pounds, dropped any semblance of breasts, dropped out of college, dropped to the floor, and dropped into a hospital bed.
Stand and smile. Stand and smile.
I ran, a lot—an hour would not suffice. I went until I was so dizzy that the gym spun around me in sharp shades of silver, black, and white. I ran until I felt like I might vomit and saw bright white spots pop behind my eyes and tasted the metallic of the machines on my tongue. I did this every day, but most importantly on days when I cracked and ate Shredded Wheat. I did an extra thirty minutes because it was frosted, and sit-ups and push-ups too. It wasn’t just my legs that needed work. Had I looked in the mirror lately?
I drank loads of green tea because I had heard that it speeded metabolism. I chewed gum—the movement of my mouth tricking my brain. I took laxatives. I told my friends “no, it’s fine, I always walk for hours on end,” “no really, I’m just not that hungry,” “no thank you, I had pizza for lunch.” I wandered around grocery stores, but didn’t buy anything. I searched the Internet obsessively for restaurant menus and pored over them religiously, just in case. And I didn’t sleep.
It really wasn’t hard to stay so thin. The hard part was staying alive, staying engaged, staying standing up. If you wanted to have a body like mine, you’d have to give up more than ice cream. You’d have to give up any semblance of a life.
Shortly, I’ll tell you that because I serve ice cream for a living, I get so sick of it that I can’t eat it. This is a lie. I love ice cream. I haven’t eaten it in at least six months. Some days I went home after work and cried because all I wanted was a single scoop of vanilla on a wafer cone. But I couldn’t let myself have it.
You thought you were giving me a compliment. You didn’t mean anything by it. You didn’t know—or maybe you were more like me than we both realized. I served a food that brought out people’s eating neuroses. How many people had I seen stare at the flavor board, weighing the options? How many people switched from singles to kiddies, or gave up the whole thing and ordered a brownie sundae with hot fudge and peanut butter sauce, and wasn’t there something a little disordered about that too? “How do you stay so thin?” It seemed so innocent, but there was nothing innocent about nearly passing out on the subway, about having IV’s stuck in my arm, or about screaming at my mother over a piece of cheese. This is not what you want. My ribs stuck out and my spine was visible through my back. This isn’t beautiful.
I smiled tiredly. “I work here so much that I’ve gotten sick of ice cream. That will be three nineteen.” She handed me a five, I handed her the change.
“Have a good night,” I said to her navy rhinestone-studded back as she pushed open the door. And as much as I hated her, I wanted to hug her, to tell her that she’s beautiful as she is, that her body looked great, and if she wanted to have a scoop of banana peanut butter ice cream every single night for the next three months then she could, and that she could eat it with a big spoon. I wanted to tell her everything that I couldn’t tell myself.
“Can I help the next group?”