"Or Maybe It Was Just a Time Lost to Me"
An excerpt from Melissa Broder's new book, "Milk Fed," out in February from Scribner.
It didn’t matter where I lived—Mid-City, Mid-Wilshire, or Miracle Mile. It didn’t matter where I worked; one Hollywood bullshit factory was equal to any other. All that mattered was what I ate, when I ate, and how I ate it.
Every day at 7:30, my alarm went off. I’d remove the night-soaked piece of nicotine gum from my mouth, put it on the nightstand, and replace it with a fresh piece. I’d begun smoking at sixteen and was never without a cigarette. But when I started working at the talent management office, I was no longer able to smoke all day. I switched over to nicotine gum, which provided me with a way to “chew my cigarettes” and always be indulging. Now I was never without a piece of the gum. It helped me skillfully restrict my food intake, providing both a distraction for my mouth and a speedy suppressant for my appetite. I bought the gum on eBay, stale and discounted, so that I could afford it. At market prices I would have had a $300-a-week habit.
After popping a fresh piece, I’d get in the shower and drink a little water from the spigot, letting it mix with the coating from the gum. I preferred the coated varieties, Fruit Chill or Mint Blast, and did not count the coating in my daily caloric intake. Some days I worried how many calories the coating was adding. After the shower, I popped another piece of gum. Two more followed as I drove to work, heat blasting. This procession of gum was Breakfast One.
Between Breakfast One and Breakfast Two there was a stretch. Sometimes my blood sugar dropped so low that I’d feel dizzy and panicked. It was still worth it to postpone Breakfast Two, my first real food of the day, until 10:30 or 11. The later I started eating, the more food I could hoard for the back half of the day. Better to suffer now and have something to anticipate than to leave a big chunk of my day’s food in the rearview mirror. That was a worse kind of suffering.
If I made it to 11 with no food, I felt very good, almost holy. If I ate at 10:30 I felt bad, slovenly, though any negative feelings quickly gave way to the rapture of consuming Breakfast Two. The meal consisted of an 8-ounce container of 0% fat Greek yogurt with two packets of Splenda mixed in, as well as a diet chocolate muffin top that could only be purchased at Gelson’s supermarket. I was so emotionally dependent on these muffin tops that I feared what would happen in the event of a shortage. I bought six boxes at a time and stored them in my freezer.
The muffin top was 100 calories, and the yogurt was 90 calories: a perfect one-two punch of creaminess and sweetness, a symphony of flavor that couldn’t hurt me. My fondest time of the day was that instant I first put my spoon into the yogurt, just after having sprinkled half a Splenda packet on top. In that moment, there was so much left to eat, the muffin top not even touched, only a promise of chocolate. Afterward, I always wished I’d eaten more slowly, so I could still have something left to look forward to. The end of Breakfast Two was a sad time.
I ate Breakfast Two seated at my desk, directly across from another assistant named Andrew, who enjoyed NPR, natural peanut butter, and obscure Scandinavian films for the sake of their obscurity. Andrew’s head was one size too small for his gangly body. He had pinched nostrils, poised for disapproval, and he styled his hair in an ornate, indie-rocker shag that sat on his tiny head like a fright wig of cool. I knew he judged my use of chemical sweeteners, so I built a blockade with file folders, Ikea cacti, and a battalion of coffee mugs at the front of my desk to block his prying eyes. I at least deserved some privacy to fully enjoy my ritual.
Lunch was even trickier. At least two days a week, I was forced to join my boss—Brett Ofer—for lunch with clients, agents, and other industry people. I didn’t like eating with others. Lunch was the crown jewel of the day, and I preferred to savor it solo, not waste it on foods I hadn’t chosen. Ofer always made us go to the same restaurant, Last Crush, which shared a parking garage with our office. He insisted we get a bunch of small plates and split everything, “family style,” as though sharing a meatball made our clients feel like brethren. Who wanted Ofer as a relative? He acted like family was a good thing.
At Last Crush, I was forced to contend with macaroni and cheese, sliders, veal meatballs. Even the vegetables were tainted by interloping fats: Brussels sprouts choked with butter, mushrooms fried in bread crumbs, cauliflower lost to a shiny glaze. The arugula salad that I requested as my contribution to the smorgasbord was but a slippery cadaver: death by oil, goodbye.
On these outings, I would eat tiny portions of three of the dishes, assigning 100 calories to each portion and then adding an extra 100 to the total for anything I’d missed. While the algebraic formula was imperfect, it allowed me some illusion of control. But Ofer was always trying to haze me into eating more.
“Who wants the last slider? Rachel, I know youuu’re thinking about it,” he taunted, before breaking into chant. “Do it! Do it! Do it!”
Ofer was an eternal frat brother. He believed in loyalty, community—not because we had any real connection as individuals, but because we were part of the same something. As he extolled the virtues of our “collaborative office culture,” his bald head gleaming, a fleck of veal meatball on his lower lip, I imagined him delivering the same spiel to the Alpha Epsilon Pi pledges two decades prior.
“Do you know how lucky you are? You could be working at Management180, where nobody shares a goddamn lead on anything! You could be in Delta Upsilon, drinking your brother’s piss!”
Ofer had started in the mailroom at Gersh and worked his way up to agent. Nine years later, he’d left the cutthroat agency world to open a talent management company—The Crew—which made him think he had a soul. Worse yet, his wife had just given birth to twin daughters and he now identified as a “feminist.” Ofer was acquiring a perfunctory knowledge of social justice, as dictated by thinkpieces on diversity, inclusion, and equal pay in the Hollywood Reporter. He made constant references to his “privilege,” also our privilege to be working there. It bothered him that I didn’t feel lucky to be part of the family. Talent management was not my dream, and this hurt him.
When I wasn’t forced to go to Last Crush with Ofer and the clients, I was on my own for lunch. These were the good days. First, I would go to Subway, where they listed the calories for everything online. I would get a chopped salad with double turkey, lettuce, tomato, banana peppers, pickles, and olives. It was a magic salad, packing explosive flavor into a modest caloric total of 160. Most of the time, my sandwich artist was a cute USC kid who piled his dreadlocks on top of his head to give him four inches of extra height. He always asked if I wanted “sauce,” the word for dressing at Subway, and I always told him no. Thankfully, he never questioned my choice. But sometimes he failed to incorporate the abundance of lettuce that gave the Subway salad its crucial bulk.
Occasionally, I had another sandwich artist, a ginger-haired teen with Invisalign. This guy made a mean salad, the lettuce really flowed, but he was far too interested in connecting with me as a person. The moment I walked in the door, he would call out, “Hey! Double turkey!” and I’d be like, “Hi, thanks, no photos.” I didn’t have to tell him that I wanted no sauce, because he always remembered, muttering, “No sauce, no sauce.” But every few salads, he felt the need to interrogate me, asking, “Yo, why you don’t use the sauce? It’s free!” to which I would say “I just don’t like it.” “Too spicy? Too wet?” he’d ask. “Just salt and pepper, please,” I’d say.
I always ate the salad at one of the little outdoor patio tables outside Subway, though that wasn’t ideal. On the one hand, there was no way I was going to eat inside the restaurant with the sandwich artists watching me. But when I ate outdoors, I became prey for any of the passersby, including people from my office.
It wasn’t that eating a Subway salad was inherently shameful. But I liked my food rituals to be protected—fully differentiated from my work life as much as possible. This was mine and mine alone. It was not to be shared. So I ate outside facing a stucco wall. I ate hungrily and greedily, sometimes shoving forkfuls of the turkey-pickle-pepper mixture in my mouth, other times seeking out a single ingredient, like just one olive on my fork.
The triumph of my lunch was that it contained two courses: the grand salad and then frozen yogurt. I loved food that came in multiple parts, prolonging the experience. If I could be infinitely eating, I would be. I had to restrict my intake, or I’d never not be putting something in my mouth.
Subway was flanked by two frozen yogurt shops, Yogurt World and Yo!Good. At Yogurt World you got to serve yourself. No one manhandled your yogurt or toppings, and checkout was even automated. The grace was zero social interaction. At Yo!Good, you had to order through a server, but their yogurt made it worth it. Yo!Good had banana, caramel, and cake-batter flavors that were fat free, sugar-free, low-carb, and just 45 calories for a half cup. This meant that I could get a 16-ounce serving for 180 calories. At Yogurt World, the lowest-calorie yogurts were 120 calories for 4 ounces. I had to get the kids’ size to rival Yo!Good’s numbers. So I sacrificed privacy for mathematic soundness and quantity.
I was grateful that the counter boy at Yo!Good had little interest in talking to me. He was an Orthodox Jewish boy who looked to be about nineteen or twenty. He was very quiet, polite, and wore a blue yarmulke and curly peyos. His gentleness made me feel sad—also, the way he pronounced the word yogurt as yuh-gort. I felt like I could cry between the two syllables. There was an innocence there, an earnest desire to please the customer, a recognition of yogurt as a substance of great import, a calculated precision with the yogurt machine that felt like care. You didn’t find that kind of focus in food service every day. He also possessed a contained isolation, never handing me the yogurt cup directly, always placing it on the countertop in front of me, pointing to the counter to receive my money, no hand-to-hand, our worlds not to touch. It was as though he were a ghost from a lost time. Or maybe it was just a time lost to me.
Melissa Broder is the author of the forthcoming novel Milk Fed (Scribner, Feb 2021), of which this chapter is an excerpt. She is also the author of the novel The Pisces, the essay collection So Sad Today and five poetry collections, including Last Sext and the forthcoming Superdoom: Selected Poems. She lives in Los Angeles.