Rating Food I Purged in Sydney as I Walk Three Miles to Weigh Myself
Cara Lynn Albert
Lord of the Fries is on my right when I pull my phone from my back pocket. I don’t have to search long to find Kyle’s number. Of the last ten calls I have made or received, his name occupies seven slots. This morning, as I boarded the train that delivered me to my internship between Green Square and Waterloo, we chatted while he prepared dinner. Other straphangers like me pressed into the train car, and Kyle’s metalware chimed.
Through the window of Lord of the Fries, employees flare red beneath grease and sweat. Kyle knows it’s my favourite fast-food franchise in Australia, more than Macca’s or Hungry Jack’s. Veggie patties hiss on the griddle. Behind me, the front door opens, and I hear them sing.
Lord of the Fries. Shoestring fries, Parisian Sauce, and a Spicy Burger. 1115 Calories. Consistent, layered flavour. My first time purging, though, and it took three tries. I made a “W” with three fingers—the middle one tickled my uvula while the index and ring fingers balanced in my cheekbone hollows. The first attempt resulted in a soft gag. After the second, lava boiled in my chest, but I had come too far to surrender now. I erupted with the third stab. Bits of undigested jalapenos lingered on my oesophagus, burning holes through the tissue. The Parisian Sauce mostly contained vegan mayo, and it reappeared as milky syrup. I smacked my lips together, tasting vinegar, and blinked back water in my eyes. Some difficulties, but overall a decent first experience. Still hoping this franchise expands to America. 9/10.
“I’m thirty minutes away,” I tell Kyle. In Central Florida, where he lives, it’s a quarter past three o’clock in the morning. In Sydney, I have under fifty minutes to reach Target before they close, find the scales, weigh myself, and possibly weep in despair or sigh in solace.
“Are you alone?” he asks.
“Is that safe?”
He says this because the first time I was alone in Sydney, the night ended with me sobbing in the back of an Uber, interrupting Kyle’s work shift to tell him I kissed another man on the rocks near the Sydney Observatory that overlooked the Harbour, because the stranger wouldn’t leave me alone until I did.
“Safe-ish,” I say. “There are people around me.” They stare at their phones or chat with other locals. No one pays attention to the dull American.
“Well, do what you gotta do and get home safe. Maybe you can take the train back.”
“I’ll be fine. I could use the exercise.”
I currently weigh 152.8 pounds. 69.3 kilograms. The lowest in my life. Or at least that’s what my mother’s twenty-year-old scale told me when I stepped on it the day before I left for Sydney. The skinny red arrow trembled between numbers marked by fine black lines like millipede legs. I wanted to punch through the glass and turn back the dial myself.
In high school, I was at my largest. 220 pounds by senior year. I’ve deleted most photos of myself from that period. I didn’t exist before the age of eighteen. Occasionally, a memory will surface on social media, or long-time friends will send me a snapshot I didn’t know they’d taken. The pink-tinted girl with the soft, protruding belly and ill-fitting jeans is a stranger, of whom I’m an expert. I know her favourite flavour of pie and what her fourth grade teacher wrote in her yearbook, but she is a ghost.
“What’s your plan when you get there?” asks Kyle. Like me, he used to be chubby. On the dresser in his bedroom is an old picture of himself from early college. I like to study it while he showers in the mornings. His long, curly hair with flaxen highlights spirals off his face, so unlike the crew cut man I’m falling for now. This version of Kyle also has a small belly that mushrooms over jeans and a belt. I don’t tell him that I find this picture unattractive. That I wouldn’t be with him if he looked like this now.
Some of the most fatphobic people are those who were once considered “fat” themselves and have since lost weight. They believe every overweight person should seek to achieve similar goals, and they don’t consider physical limits, health issues, or that people are capable of loving their own bodies no matter the shape. I know this because Kyle openly complains about obesity. I know this because I sometimes privately agree with him.
Kyle doesn’t challenge my hunt for a scale. I will only begin to question his lack of concern in the years following our split.
The sun set twenty minutes ago. A glass building on my left fractures the chromatic clouds, each plane now its own watercolour. Wind carves through the bare skin around my collarbone, and I zip my hoodie up until it chokes my neck. Today may have held a high of ninety-five degrees in Central Florida, but it’s the middle of winter in Australia. I tell Kyle I’m giving myself ten minutes to find the scales, no asking for help, and when no one is watching I’ll weigh myself on three different machines and average the numbers, converting them to pounds from kilograms.
“Smart,” he says.
Harry’s Cafe de Wheels. Tiger Pie. 635 Calories. Four Harry’s pie carts dot the central neighbourhoods of Sydney, and I hit all of them in two months. Same order each time: Tiger Pie with curry chicken, Pepsi, and a chocolate chip cookie. Mashed potatoes and a neon-green scoop of mushy peas melted over the flaky crust. Warm gravy surged down the perimeter, etching trails. Coming back up, they rendered into a thick, greige slurry. Something caught in my throat. A bit of chicken, crumb of crust, or fragment of underdone pea. I choked into a toilet bowl at the Capitol Square shopping mall next door to Harry’s. My pants for breath sounded like teary wheezes. Maybe I was crying, too. When I finished hacking, a gooey voice echoed from the stall next to mine. “Are you okay?” I lapped the briny sweat off my top lip. “Yes.” Her footsteps faded, and I waited five minutes before exiting the restroom. Extra points for convenient locations. 7.5/10.
I reach Target at a quarter to six.
“It’s…weird,” I tell Kyle. Targets in America are carbon copies of each other. I can enter one in rural Iowa and feel at home in Orlando. This one is inside a large mall off of Broadway—just one of many shopping options, not its own entity. I see the familiar red bullseye, but it lacks comfort with congested aisles and polar lighting.
“How so?” Kyle asks. He yawns again.
“Getting tired?” My shoulders brush stuffed rows of winter coats. The aisles offer no labels or numbers, and I sweat knowing I might not find the scales in time.
“Yeah, I am,” he says. “I’m sorry, sweetheart. It’s almost four in the morning here. I can’t even keep my eyes open.” I picture him kneading his corneas until they glow pink, purple bags like bruises staining the skin beneath them.
I’m barely listening as I tell him to get some sleep. Chrome shower caddies and toilet brush holders fill the shelves around me. I know the scales are close. My feet feel tethered to the nearest one.
“Let me know how it goes. I’ll call you tomorrow on your way to work,” Kyle says, and he hangs up. I’m in Sydney for an unpaid summer internship, which is really just a privileged excuse to live abroad for two months. Monday through Thursday I work from eight o’clock to four o’clock because the sun sets at five and my boss doesn’t want me walking home in the dark. Friday through Sunday I jet around Australia and New Zealand, or I frequent overpriced nightclubs in Sydney that, at twenty years old, I wouldn’t be allowed entry to in America. But indulgence has a price, and now it feeds off of my mother’s wallet and manifests as the fat swelling in my stomach.
Or am I imagining the extra weight? I’ll know momentarily because I’ve found the scales. They are on the bottom shelf beside too-green rubber trees, leaves flaccid and waxy. Hidden, as they would be in someone’s home—stacked beneath magazines and newspapers or perched behind a toilet. Most of the scales are packaged inside boxes, and opening one might draw too much attention, but one, matte black and slender, floats freely above the others.
I rest the scale gently on the vinyl tile so slick it looks wet, breathing in my gut out of habit. An intercom voice tells shoppers that Target will be closing in five minutes and to please make our way to the cashier registers. My eyes peer up as I step on the scale, and I don’t allow them to look down for four or five seconds, until after it settles on a number.
Café Portman. Vegan Coconut Donut and a Surprise Cream Pie. Calories unknown, which means too high. On the final day of my internship, I purchased a vegan donut from the cafe next door to the office—the one I ordered coffee or tea from every morning. Inside the display case next to a row of pies, they were dressed in pastel icings and ribbons of fudgy drizzle. I pressed my index finger to the glass above one that was dusted with coconut shavings. No purging today. I was going to gift myself this luxury, just this once. Coconut flakes were still fixed between my teeth when my boss called me to our conference table two hours before I was meant to leave. My co-workers were gathered around it, and in the centre was a small, wrapped gift, a card with my name in red marker, and a vanilla cream pie. My boss portioned the dessert, also sold by the cafe next door, and distributed a wedge to each of us. It was armoured in sliced almonds, toasted like mud cracks in the desert. Its insides were whipped and vaguely sweet. Everyone finished and returned to their desks while I paced to the restroom, which didn’t receive heat, and my skin prickled as I thrusted my middle finger onto my uvula, expelling smog. Translucent clouds suspended in the toilet water. I flushed and scrubbed my tongue with rose-scented soap, appreciating the variety of flavours that had graced my palate that day. 10/10.
There’s no time to open another box and test if the scale is lying. Other shoppers shoot past me, like popcorn in a microwave, and I can’t wait for the three second break between them. I want to purge right now, over the polished tile and plastic plants and into trash cans beside the registers as I exit Target. I want to empty everything in my stomach, even though I haven’t eaten since my quinoa salad at lunch. Let my skin turn to jelly so that I may rake my nails through it, shredding the pulp until I reach bone.
I don’t tell Kyle about my purging. I never will. I’ve only relapsed twice since that summer in Australia.
I wait to cry until I’m outside. The night is void, and I hold my stomach as though it were carrying something heavier than a few extra kilos. Walking the one and a half miles back to my apartment, I watch myself in the reflection of glass buildings. My silhouette is deeply blue and always taking up too much space, and I think about how much better the world might be if we were born vampires. Sickly thin with minimal cravings. Mirrors would become obsolete. And if I wanted to, I could wait twelve hours until the sun rises again and finds my skin, splitting me into fine dust that might forgive all hunger and desolation.
Cara Lynn Albert is a writer and educator from Florida, and she is currently completing her creative writing MFA degree in fiction at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her work has also appeared in Catapult, Puerto del Sol, Baltimore Review, and elsewhere. She serves as the Editor-in-Chief of TIMBER Journal.