THE STRONG ONE
I run to the toilet.
I can feel it inside of me. I can feel the food turning into a knob of fat, sliding down to my already too large love handles.
I need to get it out. Get it out before it turns to fat. Get it out before it reaches my hips, thighs or backside.
To get to our toilet, I can't avoid the mirror. As I pass it, I catch a glimpse of the other girl. The one trapped inside the mirror.
She's telling me not to do this.
No. She's screaming at me not to go through with this.
I can see the desperation in her eyes, and I can tell that if she weren't bound so tightly by that silver glass, she would jump out and pin me to the floor, so I couldn't do whatI'm about to do.
But she is held captive, thank God, and I'm the strong one.
As I take one final glance in the mirror, I manipulate her body into the one I want to see. Her features become slightly drawn, losing their roundness, and her eyes become more pronounced. The bulge around her middle is sucked away, and her thighs narrow. Then I slam the door on her.
My hands hit the cold slate floor and I start heaving silently. I once tried sticking my fingers down my throat, but it makes too much noise, and I can't risk that. If they knew, they would make me stop.
I conjure up images that tug the switch on my gag reflex: the grease soaked sausage I've just eaten, the rolls of my stomach, the cellulite accumulating and leaving its gross pattern on my thighs, my brother calling me 'fat'.
The rancid stench of the toilet bowl makes it easier for me to heave... and heave... and heave...
Eventually, I empty the contents of my stomach.
Once it's over, there are tears in my eyes. I slump to the ground, resting my back against the wall. For a few brief seconds, I let myself fall apart.
But I need to keep moving. I flush the toilet — disposing of the evidence — and hope to God that my eyes aren't too bloodshot when I step outside.
On the way out, I avoid looking at the girl in the mirror. Because if I look, I know she'll be pestering me with questions like, 'Who are you?' or 'Why are you doing this to yourself?'
I just can't handle those kinds of questions right now. Because if I ask myself those questions, I'll find myself wanting to figure this out. Wanting to get better. Wanting to be cured of this disease. And that means I won't achieve my goal.
To not be fat.
I work at Wolfgang's, a small Austrian restaurant in a town about a ten minute drive away from my house in the Adelaide Hills. It's run by a short, fat man named Wolfgang who speaks in a thick accent and is drunk every night by 6.00. I don't know why they hired me. I had never had any waiting experience, but I got the feeling that someone had quit the same day I put my résumé in and they were desperate.
It's not a cheap restaurant. On a scale of 'restaurant classiness' — low being pay at the counter when you order to high being silver service — it's closer to the higher end.
After three months, I'm a veteran. The staff turnover is unbelievable. Most people can't hack it, and I don't blame them. With a constant stream of ungrateful customers, abuse from the chefs, awful hours and double shifts, most people find new jobs. Usually ones that don't require customer service. Thanks to my dance background, I'm used to unfair abuse being hurled my way. It's probably why I've been able to stick at it for longer than the rest.
That, plus I have nowhere else to go.
I walk in the back door, ready to start the dinner shift. I'm immediately hit by the rich smells of duck, sautéed mushrooms and smoky bacon. Zaid, one of the kitchen hands, gives me a wave as I enter.
'Yo, Jo! What's up, habibiti?'
Zaid is Palestinian. He took me under his wing when I first started. He would cover my arse if I stuffed up an order and he taught me how to carry three scalding plates without burning myself. We have this 'brother-sister' thing going on.
'Ya akhoui,;' I call him 'brother' in Arabic.
'Sister, you usin' some of my language! I love it, girl.' He pulls me into a big hug. 'Ready for the onslaught?'
'Ready as I'll ever be.' I scan the kitchen. 'Where's Wolf?'
'Havin' a ciggy out the back. He's in a bad mood tonight. Watch out,' Zaid warns.
'When isn't he in a bad mood?Is the new girl here yet?' I ask.
We always have a newbie. They only ever last a couple of shifts. Sometimes less. I was the last one to survive more than a week.
'Yeah, her name's Meagan. I'm betting ten bucks she won't make it to the next shift,' he laughs.
'Ten bucks says she does,' Mark, the second chef, calls out across the kitchen.
'You're on brother!' They shake on it.
I walk into the restaurant, which will soon be crawling with greedy little piggies. Aly walks past with Meagan in tow.
'Jo, can you go around and check that all the tables are mis en place, please?'
Alyson Henley is the Front of House supervisor and skinnier than me. At first I thought she was a bitch, but now that I've proved I can handle the job, she's become nicer to work with. I'm in awe of Aly; she's worked here since she was fourteen and is the only one who can put Wolfgang in his place.
I double check all the tables — the serviettes are folded perfectly; the cutlery is placed equidistantly apart, one centimetre from the edge of the table; the water glasses are smudge-free.
It turns out to be a quiet night, although we have some pole-up-the-arse customers in. That always makes a shift more entertaining. I have a table of five ladies — one borderline anorexic, two skinnier than me, one my size, and one larger than me — with their tag-along husbands and a newborn baby. They look like identical quintuplets what with their bleached, platinum blonde hair, orange skin, Gucci sunglasses, Bettina Liano jeans and loose fitting tops, which are an 80s flashback piece that, God only knows why, the fashion industry has decided to resurrect.
As I hand out the menus, one Barbie says to another, 'Darling! You look fantastic! I can't believe you gave birth eight weeks ago!' Neither could I for that matter, because the one holding the baby looked almost emaciated.
'Don't say that Monica! I'm so fat. I feel revolting.'
With skin taut across her bones, she obviously does not know the meaning of fat. I roll my eyes. One of the husbands sees me and suppresses a snigger. Their conversations don't get any deeper than that.
I take their drinks order and head to the bar where Nick, the barman, looks utterly bored. Nick is as long term as Aly. He started off as a dishy when he was fifteen and therefore knows it all. The only waitress he likes is Aly because she's faultless. He talks to the rest of us like we're imbeciles and gets a kick out of our stuff-ups. I swear, one time, he purposely shook up a bottle of champagne before handing it to me so that when I opened it at the table it exploded all over my customers and made me look like a dick. I suspected he was to blame when I saw him doubled over in laughter behind the bar as I apologised profusely to my table. He's also one of those guys that when he talks to you, you're not sure if he's taking the piss out of you or being genuinely friendly. It's too much of an effort to figure him out, so mostly I just say 'hi' and keep conversation strictly work related.
'Nick?' I ask tentatively. 'I need a bottle of '06 Cab Sav and the Billecart.'
'You sure that's all you want?' he asks, winking at me. See, comments like that just confuse me, and I'm sure he knows too well that it does. I ignore him and walk back to serve my tables.
As I pour the wine for the Barbie table, one man is bragging to the rest about his new promotion and how he doesn't want to go to France for the week because it would mean missing out on some car show where he was hoping to view the new Maserati. If I got a dollar every time I heard the words 'Maserati', or 'Jaguar', or 'Porsche' in this place, I could make poverty history. A little voice in the back of my head reminds me that the amount of food I've vomited could have fed half of Africa by now.
I suppress the thought. I'm nothing like these people.
'Oh, excuse me, darl.' Anorexia Barbie calls me over after I finish taking everyone's order.
'With the lamb I ordered, how is that done?'
'Medium-rare.' The only way it should be done.
'Oh, honey, can I get it well-done? I just can't stand blood!'
'Certainly, that won't be a problem.'
It's going to be a problem. I walk to the kitchen and place the order above the chefs' benches.
'Order up!' I shout, so all the kitchen staff know. Wolfgang walks over to take a look, and I wait for his reaction.
'FUCKING WELL-DONE! Tell them to get out of my restaurant if they want their lamb well-done!'
Once all the customers have rolled out the door like barrels of French oak wine, their stomachs full of chateaubriand and béarnaise sauce, I reset the tables for tomorrow's production. As I'm folding the napkins into fancy shapes, Wolfgang blasts classical music over the restaurant's sound system. This is how he winds down after a shift and I think it must be an Austrian thing because when my grandpa wants to relax he listens to Slim Dusty. I hear some choice words of disgust from the hip-hop-b-boys in the kitchen who have no appreciation for such a fine genre of music. As the strings pull into the full-bodied melody, I recognise it as Bizet's Carmen. The Spanish sounds curl around my heart and pull my head into memories of lilac tutus, sticky red lipstick and a voice over the speakers saying 'Joanna Saffell, this is your curtain call. Joanna Saffell.’
When I was a dancer, I came home one night after class in tears and screamed at my mother that I hated ballet, that I hated my teacher, Ms Voloshin, and that I just wanted to throw it all in.
I detested Ms Voloshin with a passion because she always picked on me. Nothing I ever did was good enough for her. Under the Royal Academy of Dance method, it was common for a dancer taking their exams to attend the class above their ability, as well as their normal class. It was meant to help improve our technique.
It was hell.
That particular day, I was in the advanced class, feeling terrified as it was my turn to perform a faille, the new jump we had learnt, in front of the whole class. I just couldn't nail the damn thing.
My neck flushed bright red, my palms sweaty. I tried again and again to get it right. Each time I messed up the step, she would yell for me to start again. I got so angry with her for humiliating me in front of all the older girls who could all perform the faille with perfect grace. I could hear them all laughing at me from the side of the classroom where they watched me fumble over my own feet.
Once I had finished telling Mum this, she said in her mother-matter-of-fact tone, 'Well honey, you can't quit until the end of the term because I have already paid the full fees and you'd be wasting my money.'
But she knew me too well. She wouldn't let me quit because she knew I was a fighter — that I'd stick it out.
And she was right.
From that point on, I got up every morning at 6.00 to practice, and the fire that drove me to excellence was the desire to prove my teacher wrong. It was to shut her mouth as she watched me dance — as she realised that I was far better than she thought I was. When I reached the age of seventeen, I eventually learnt to love Ms Voloshin.
Yes, it was a hate-love relationship.
It was the hate that made me the best, and I loved her for that.
Her slightly unorthodox ways of teaching were the reason that I successfully auditioned for the dance program at the State Centre of Performing Arts. I was over the moon. Firstly, because I beat Ms Voloshin at her own game. Secondly, because I was going to be a dancer.
A real dancer...
'How did you go tonight, Jo?' Aly asks me as we polish the crystal fish bowls that Wolfgang has the nerve to call wine glasses. This is the first time all night we get to talk to each other. The only other time we communicated this evening was when we had to deal with their Royal Highnesses (aka customers) making changes to their meals after they were ready to be served from the kitchen.
'Did you see who I had to put up with this shift?' I ask.
'Yes! The Blonde Brigade!' She rolls her eyes on cue.
This begins our bitching session. It's part of the job. A full debrief of customer antics is required for a waitress to calm down and return to her next shift as sane as possible. We usually end up trying to beat each other with horror stories from our tables. Aly beats me hands down tonight.
'I had those three ladies on A3, you know?'
'Yeah,' I nod. They were unquestionably the snobbiest customers of the day. Aly puts on her fake British accent to recount the conversation between the ladies. It turns out that one of them didn't know what to get her daughter for her 21st birthday. Daughter wanted a handbag, because 'a handbag would be an investment', but Mother didn't think a handbag was an investment. But they still discussed what brand of handbag Daughter might like, throwing names around like 'Gucci' and 'Verscace and 'Handbag-brand-that-would-cost-six-months-of-my-pay-as-a-waitress', and then they asked Aly what type of handbag brand she would like, so Aly said 'Tarjaay'.
'Get it? Like Target.' She finishes her story.
We're both in hysterics.
'WHAT ARE YOU FUCKING LAUGHING AT? GET BACK TO WORK!' Wolfgang kills the moment. We get back to polishing the glasses. I decide that I genuinely like Aly. I should ask her if she would like to catch up sometime outside of work. I need a friend.
She beats me to it. 'Hey Jo, you wanna go for a Macca's run when we knock off?'
I panic. I want to say 'yes', but I can already smell the deep fried goodness that lures you into that store. I can already see myself ordering fries and a burger. I can taste the crisp salt and smoky fat. I can see myself gulping down water then excusing myself to go to the toilet. I can see myself wrenching my guts up.
'I'd love to, but I can't tonight.' I can't handle it tonight. Aly looks dejected.
'But hey, we should definitely hang out sometime,' I reassure her. She smiles, she's happy with that. I know I've made the right choice — even if I had thrown up, it's better to not to eat it anyway.
I'm never sure if I can get it all out.
'You know that guy I told you about last week?' Aly interrupts my thoughts.
'Yeah, Brendon. Was that his name?' I vaguely remember.
'I think we're official now!" she says excitedly and launches into an explanation that involves reading aloud and dissecting five text messages from Brendon.
'So, Jo, you got a man?' she asks once the topic of Brendon has been exhausted.
I'm immediately uncomfortable. This is new. Usually we bitch about customers and I listen to tales of Aly's love life or family life. We never talk about me. In fact, except for my ex-boyfriend, I've never really had any friends to talk to before. I never had any close school friends. Dancing every night of the week and all weekend tended to limit friendship possibilities. People at my school never invited me to anything because they knew I always had some dance thing on and wouldn't be able to come. I had a few friends at my ballet school, but being life-long competitors generally puts a dampener on a relationship. We certainly didn't talk about the men in our life.
'No. Not anymore.' I decide to keep it simple and hope she doesn't quiz me further.
'Come on, spill!' she pushes.
'I don't really want to talk about it.' I try not to sound rude, but I don't think I quite pull it off. Aly looks as though she's about to ask again when Wolf storms out the kitchen door, bottle of red in one hand and a full glass in the other.
'You should have both finished an hour ago!' he slurs. 'I'm not paying you to chat, so fuck off!'