A Negative Number

By Rochelle Germond

I.Breakfast (150)

Banana: eighty. Half of an English muffin, no butter, no strawberry jelly, no cinnamon sugar or peanut butter or Nutella: seventy. Thirty minutes on the elliptical, thirty on the treadmill, fifteen on the arc trainer, and fifteen on the stairmaster: negative nine hundred and sixty seven.

I add constantly. Add, subtract, and divide. I never liked math, found all the equations in high school algebra confusing. Now math is all I do. Each breath I take burns almost one calorie. One M&M is thirteen. An accidentally swallowed handful of sunflower seeds equals twenty-six calories. A normal ejaculation of sperm contains five to seven calories. I never swallow.

II. Lunch (120)

I meet my friend Kelly at this new restaurant in town. I look up the menu online days before and know the salad selection is extensive. A salad of iceberg lettuce, topped with carrots, celery, and peppers, no cheese, and dressing on the side: less than seventy-five calories.

Kelly is already sitting at a high-top table by the windows on the right side of the restaurant when I get there. We've been friends for eleven years, since the first day of sixth grade. The difference in our sizes is that much more apparent now. When I went to the mall a couple of weeks ago and couldn't find any jeans in my size, I asked the woman at the register if they carried anything smaller. The woman looked me up and down while she told me anything smaller than a zero would have to be a special order done online.

Kelly looks at me the same way now. We order, Kelly choosing a full sandwich layered between thick slices of rye (two hundred and forty calories) with three kinds of deli meats (one hundred and twenty calories for six slices), mayonnaise (one hundred and fourteen calories), two slices of American cheese (one hundred and sixty), lettuce, tomato, and mustard (zero calories, and the only condiment I'll eat). I ask for a salad and a bowl of chicken noodle soup (one hundred and twenty calories), the soup quickly added to my order only because of the comment Kelly makes.

"You look like you could hang-glide from a Dorito."

Doritos: one hundred and forty calories.

Lunch is quick; I'm distracted by the errand my mom has asked me to do on my way home. I haven't been in a supermarket in seven months. The amount of calories in each aisle, let alone in the whole store, is overwhelming. I'm terrified that I'll start counting the calories on the shelves and won't be able to stop.

I never thought I was fat. Even during puberty and my freshman year of college, times notorious for added pounds, I didn't struggle with my weight. It started with a dinner of Goldfish. I was rushed, getting ready to go out bar-hopping. Skipping a real dinner in favor of additional eyeliner, I grabbed a handful of Goldfish crackers before heading out the door.

At first, people asked me how I got so skinny because they wanted to know what to try themselves. As I got thinner the question became more rhetorical, a passive commentary on my size while staying within the realm of polite conversation. Now, no one asks.

The bright green lettering of the grocery store looms before me as I walk up to the automatic double-doors from where I parked at the very back of the lot. Five minutes of swift walking: negative fifty calories. Past the columns of shopping carts was the industrial looking scale, a cousin of the grandfather clock with weight where the time should be. When I was younger, my dad would weigh himself every time we came to the store. He told me it was always the most accurate reading, even better than the doctor's office. If I was patient and let him step on and ponder where the red needle landed, our next stop in the supermarket would be the bakery to get a cookie. My favorite were sugar, perfect rounds sprinkled with the color spectrum. I walk quickly past the scale and the bakery counter now. Sugar cookie with rainbow jimmies: one hundred and five.

I glance at the first few items on the list. Tortilla chips: one hundred and forty calories for seven. Peanut butter: two hundred for two tablespoons. I used to put peanut butter on everything. Apples, celery, sandwiches, toast, waffles. I would scoop globs of it out of the jar like it was ice cream and eat it straight off the spoon, raisins scattered on top. Cereal was next on the list: three-quarters of a cup, one hundred and twenty calories. Most people I knew didn't bother with a measuring cup for cereal, but I did. The chance for error while measuring by eye alone was too great a risk.

My cart is barely filled, but it feels heavy as I wheel it into the freezer section. Frozen pizza: three hundred and sixty calories per slice, unless you were my mother and cut the pie into quarters instead of sixths. It isn't even October yet, but my sweaters and jackets have been out of their storage bags for weeks. It always feels like winter now.

III. Dinner (175)

I arrive home to find my mom placing a banana cream pie on the kitchen counter. I could gulp down the entire pie in one shallow breath. Whole banana cream pie, topped with Cool Whip and thin slices of fresh banana: two thousand and seventy calories.

"Hi honey, how was the store? Was it busy?" my mom asks as I drop the bags down onto the laminate floor.

"It was fine, not too crowded."

"Great. Thanks for stopping there for me. Have a piece of pie, I made banana cream. I know it's your favorite," my mom says.

"That's ok, Mom, I'm not hungry."

"Melissa. Please. Have a slice of pie. Please."

"Mom. I'll have some later. I need to go for a run first."

We never talk about the weight I lost the past seven months. My mom serves me more food than she did before, and I run an extra three miles to make up for it.

"We're having chicken quesadillas for dinner. The food will be ready when you get home," she says while I lace up my sneakers.

Chicken quesadilla: three hundred and forty nine. I'll only eat half. Three times around the neighborhood: negative three hundred and eighty three calories.

IV. Total (445)

I grab for my alarm to stop the annoying beeping, but my arm catches in plastic tubes weaving in and out of my skin. My mom is asleep in a chair next to the bed, a blue blanket draped over her. I reach over the plastic bedrails and nudge her awake.

"You passed out when you got home from your run," she tells me. "The doctors want to keep you for a few days, admit you to rehab. Your heart rate was thirty-six beats a minute when it should've been at least sixty."

The most calories are burned during physical activity when the heart rate peaks, reaching anywhere from eighty to one hundred beats per minute. If mine was only thirty-six, I wasn't burning as many calories as I could have been.

Later, when my mom goes back to sleep, I add one last time for the day, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Separately, I tally the calories I burned working out, but don't bother subtracting them from the total amount I've taken in. I would be subtracting hundreds more than I've added. And all that matters is that it's a negative number.

Rochelle Germond is currently pursuing her MFA at North Carolina State University.  Her work has appeared in The Battered Suitcase, Third Wednesday, Polaris, and Torrid.

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