The night before our Nutcracker auditions, Julianne stayed overnight. Her mom was picking us up after the auditions ended, but mine was dropping us off, and my mom didn’t want to worry about driving to Julianne’s house at seven in the morning on a Saturday and honking for Julianne to come out and waking up the neighbors.
“I’ll be managing my anxiety,” Mom said when she presented this plan to me last week after ballet, “and you girls will get to have a slumber party!”
I wasn’t even very good friends with Julianne. She went to a different school, but she was in my ballet class. A few of us had been practicing for these auditions and twittering about the possibilities of dancing on stage in between exercises, to the annoyance of our teachers. Dancers were meant to be seen, not heard, they told us.
Mom got up early and made a breakfast that looked like Christmas morning. Cinnamon rolls, scrambled eggs, bacon, juice, and water. It was all laid out on a red checkered tablecloth, the table set with multiple forks at each plate like a fancy restaurant.
“Drink plenty of water, you need to hydrate,” she reminded us, watching us eye the tableful of food while bouncing a bit on the balls of her feet.
“I might just have a piece of toast,” Julianne said. “I feel a little nervous, and if I eat too much it upsets my stomach.”
I suddenly felt like I was in the middle of something. I watched my mom’s eyes narrow a little bit.
“You’ll need your strength to dance, though.”
Like we were going to an all-day workshop intensive in New York City, instead of the local community ballet theater’s open-to-the-public auditions for kids.
Mom looked expectant, and I knew the food would be delicious. So I ate a little bit of everything, and it sank to the bottom of my stomach and sat there like a stone — alongside the uncomfortable roiling I felt that I chalked up to butterflies, nerves, just like Julianne had said it would. I felt like I had honored my mother. But when we got out of the car and safely into the studio, Julianne leaned over to me and said, “Obviously your mom doesn’t understand a dancer diet.”
We were already in our pink tights and black leotards, buns severe and hairsprayed. The layer of sweatpants and a comfy flannel shirt that I’d worn into the studio, along with my dirty pink Converse, into the studio, had given me a false sense of security about my breakfast choices.
Taking the clothes off, I knew my stomach looked round. Like the little girls, the pre-ballet toddlers and their round tummies with little sticks for arms and legs. I didn’t want to feel like a pre-ballet baby, not when I was finally tall enough to audition for the coveted role of Party Girl.
The shorter girls were Buffoons and the taller ones were Soldiers, but the perfectly-in-between girls got to put their hair in ringlets and wear dresses with lacy pantaloons underneath to revel with Clara and her magical uncle at the Christmas party.
I longed to be a Party Girl, and spend the entire holiday season performing for my neighborhood of semi-cultured suburban Christmas enthusiasts. I hoped especially for a pink dress, and that I wouldn’t have to dance with any boys.
Julianne had already taken off her street clothes, and she looked the same as always — her slim, Party-Girl-height-frame ready to dance thanks to her toast breakfast. I tried to suck in my cinnamon roll belly, but it was hard to disguise in my tight black leotard. I looked around at the other girls, and it seemed they too had all decided on toast. I tugged at the fabric, trying to stretch the leotard out, but it snapped right back into place. I hoped nobody would notice.
“I’m so nervous,” another girl, Gina Marie, told me in a whisper. “I feel like I have bats in my stomach.”
All through the barre warmup I concentrated on my own tummy, not free of Gina Marie’s bats, exactly, but certainly more full of breakfast than any flying creatures. My toes weren’t as pointed as they could have been. My kicks weren’t as high. We moved to the center to learn choreography and I realized I was two steps behind everyone else.
In a studio made mostly of mirrors, surrounded by other dancers, I started to feel a little dizzy. There was a horrible moment after some turns where I wondered if I was about to throw up all over the wood floors of the studio. The woman teaching us the dance seemed like the type who would disapprove of such a human action, since she kept telling us to behave like ladies. I wasn’t all the way sure, but I didn’t think ladies ate a giant breakfast before their Nutcracker auditions, either.
Before I could stop it, I felt the saliva pooling in my mouth. Hands outstretched, I ran through the other girls to the bathroom as fast as I could, and I lost my entire breakfast into the toilet bowl. One of the moms who was checking in dancers when we arrived knocked on the door and offered me some water and a mint.
I called my mom to come pick me up, after all, rendering the whole sleepover useless. We eventually agreed that I could quit ballet after such a humiliation, and she signed me up for the cake decorating class she was taking with the neighborhood ladies.
Julianne got the part of Party Girl. And the next year, when I knew the other girls were going to auditions for The Nutcracker, I was too tall to be a Party Girl anyway.
The end of the summer was my favorite time of the year. It meant we were going back to school again. That the horrible lonely days of air conditioning and popsicles and a stack of novels on the porch were over. My friends had all agreed to meet at the Onion Days carnival, our big reunion after the separation of family vacations and summer camps.
Everyone seemed to have grown up over the summer. They had all figured out that perfect low-rise-jeans and slightly cropped shirt combo that meant they had two inches of summer tanned skin showing. I was cautiously hiding my own pale stomach with an unfashionably long tee shirt that said, “Books are our friends.”
Elena was the tannest and the blondest of us all now. Her t-shirt didn’t say anything except the name of the store where she’d purchased it for what my mom called “an exorbitant amount of moolah.” We all circled around her in the parking lot, slightly less tan, blonde, and belly-shirted by degrees, as if we were creating a gradient spiral. The Fibonacci sequence of teenage girls.
We made a plan, democratically so there wouldn’t end up being fallout like the year before (we still hadn’t made up with Gina Marie for causing factions last year with her suggestion that we “split up”). Rides, food, games, rides again. Nobody wanted to get sick from the fair food on the Tilt-A-Whirl and stumble off it like a drunk uncle and vomit in the bushes. Those were the mistakes of yesteryear, when we were mere children.
The rides were always the same. They were greasy, clunky, scary in that a bolt might fly off, destroy the ride, and kill us. We loved that possibility, because it was too absurd to be real. It was fun to pair off in different duos to ride the rides with each other, to see how the summer had changed our relationships.
When it came time for food, I had worked up an appetite from all the adrenaline. There were so many delicious possibilities in the hall of food trailers. Popcorn, corn dogs, funnel cake, fried Oreos, cotton candy, slushies, churros. We decided to start with Sno-Cones as an appetizer. Tiger’s Blood was my flavor of choice, but when it came Elena’s turn she just ordered ice. No syrup.
“That stuff is just sugar,” she said with a shrug. We knew that. That was the point of a Sno-Cone. But she had ordered last, and none of us could re-do ours now. Jenny wanted popcorn but asked for it plain. I had wanted fried Oreos until the Sno-Cone, now I couldn’t figure out how to make that any healthier. I settled for a large diet soda, which was met with a nod of approval by Elena.
We moved as a group through the trailers, floating food ideas with a question mark at the end, waiting for approval from everyone else. Then we took our sad fair food to a table, and Elena pulled a little notebook out of her purse. She noted her ice-only treat.
“I started writing down everything I ate this summer, and it’s amazing, just keeping track of it has really encouraged me to watch what I eat. I feel great.”
Petra asked her where she got the notebook. Louise wanted to know if she’d lost weight. I drank my disgusting diet soda in tiny sips and daydreamed about Oreos.
We finished lunch in less than ten minutes, because nobody had eaten much. Petra’s unsalted pretzel was virtually untouched, and I was tempted to ask her for it, since my stomach was grumbling.
But Elena clapped her hands together and suggested we go to the bathroom to check our makeup before going to play games. I laughed a little at the mention of makeup, but she wasn’t joking. We were all sweaty and slimy from the rides and the nibbles of food we’d eaten. Everyone had piled their stuff in one communal backpack and I was pretty sure nobody had brought a bag of cosmetics. I had a Chapstick in my pocket, but that was it.
And the mirrors in the park’s bathroom were basically a reversed tin pan.
Who knows how we looked when we approached the game alley, with the chaos of bells and yells overwhelming us. I knew I would spend all my money at the shooting gallery, where I stood a chance to win for real, and Jenny opted to stay as my cheerleader. The second we were alone, leaned close to whisper in my ear.
“I’m going to get some real food now that those skinny bitches are gone. Do you want anything?”
“I want everything,” I said.
We gorged on a funnel cake, two pretzels with cheese, cotton candy and one of those big lemonades that comes in a boot for some reason. We giggled conspiratorially at our enjoyment of the once-a-year feast.
When we met back up with the group, Elena was gone. Louise regaled us in great detail with the epic romance between Elena and the carny who was running the balloon popping game. He was apparently a hottie with a body, who ignored all the kids trying to play the game in order to coach Elena to a big win. Then he took his break and went on the Ferris Wheel with her. We all whipped around to stare at the slowly turning romance machine, waiting till Elena’s blonde hair came into sight alongside a guy that made us all weak at the knees. He had his arm around her, and we all knew it was because of the flavorless Sno-Cone because starvation is beauty.
I had splurged on a professional conference for the first time since opening my own business, and I was feeling a little shaky. Traveling alone, being in my own hotel room, making small talk and networking over mixers … none of this came naturally to me. I’d had to keep reminding myself that owning a bakery was my dream, that I deserved to be among these people, and learn from them, and that I could do this.
Standing by the silverware, holding my moderately full plate, I scoped out the ballroom where we were eating our catered dinner. I had developed eagle eyes for this type of thing — I spotted a table featuring only salads, water, and since I didn’t see any sugar or cream, black coffee. Everyone seated there had bright manicures punctuated by glittering minimalist jewelry on their hands, ears and throats. They were probably talking about whatever article had been popular on The Cut that day, or discussing their therapists, and I couldn’t handle that level of performance after a long day of putting on a show.
Another table was laden with plates that seemed to be a family style effort. The people at that table were making a lot of noise, and most of the chairs were full. They seemed like the kind of people who looked forward to seeing each other at the annual conference, but only then. The nearest table was discussing politics over dessert, and I caught a few angry outbursts that made me step away from them in case their fervor was contagious.
Finally, someone I’d seen in the branding workshop earlier in the day came up next to me. She touched my elbow.
“Do you want to sit together?”
I recognized her as the snarky girl sitting next to me who had kept a hilarious running commentary going under her breath as the presenter had advocated for the use of the girl boss hashtag.
“Oh god, yes.”
She lifted her plate by way of a wave and said her name was Rachel. I felt instantly bonded to her.
We found a place near the back with a couple of other women. We introduced ourselves. Then, immediately:
“I had the smallest lunch,” Liza from Wisconsin, who owned a cheese store, explained, waving at her three plates of pasta, salad and a miniature slice of pizza.
“I actually went to yoga this morning, would you believe it?” This was Helen, who was older, and ran a general store, as she took a huge bite of garlic bread.
I had a bit of veggie lasagne and a salad. It was flopped all over the plate after a fight with the spatula, smearing sauce into the brightly green, crisp spinach.
“I’m literally just eating lettuce so I can have a slice of pie,” I laughed. We all laughed. The ritual of explaining our meals had been completed. Unspoken, but expected, it had to be the first thing we did — like a religious family blessing their meal.
Each of us owned a small business selling products we believed in, created ourselves, and sold and marketed to relatively few, but enthusiastic customers. Liza had an old, grouchy supplier who refused to let his son take over even though he was well past retirement age. Helen’s staff was a revolving door of unreliable teenagers. Rachel, my workshop friend, told a story about hiring a graphic designer who was 22, talented, and suddenly disappeared without doing a trace of work. I told them about a customer who asked for “Happy Birthday Asshole” on a pink cake, which turned out to be for his boss. I got a call, since my sticker was on the bakery box.
The five day gathering went a lot better after that initial dinner. We spent every meal together for the rest of the conference, justifying our food choices off the buffet and abusing our jobs. Rachel gave the tutorial on email newsletters in the big ballroom on the third day, and we sat in the front row to cheer her on.
I posed for a number of cheesy Instagrams, though not cheesy enough to be labeled #girlboss, and felt at once feminist but also unbeholden to that ideal. I joined Liza on the hotel treadmills one day, and we were practically bursting to explain our exercise to the other women when we sat down to cheesy pasta later that night.
It felt like summer camp, or how I imagined summer camp feeling when I had watched The Parent Trap. They ate Oreos smeared with peanut butter in that movie, and I made a note to make a peanut butter Oreo cake upon my return. Maybe I’d call it “Camp Confection.” Maybe not.
Over soups, salads and sandwiches on their last night, we had started to share plates and dishes like the group I saw at the beginning. We were a conference clique now. Then Helen laughed to herself, prompting us all to demand she share whatever was amusing.
“This is what my son calls ‘girl food,’” she laughed. “He was just complaining to me about how he wants to spend lunchtime with a girl he thinks is cute, but she always wants salads and sandwiches. I’m a man! He told me. I need substance in my meals! Like I’m feeding him rare steak every night or something. I have no idea where he got it from.”
I knew Helen was brighter than that. Even among these peddlers of food and delight, we were all conscious of our intake. We were afraid. I thought sadly of the girl her son had a crush on. Maybe she preferred rare steak, too. But how would she ever be able to explain that appetite to her girlfriends?
It was sheer bad luck that I was in my hometown visiting my parents on the day of Louise’s baby shower. I was going to send a belated gift and card once I got back to my apartment in LA, a few hours away, but then Petra spotted me at the grocery store with my mom while we were stocking up on baking supplies. She cornered me and reiterated the invitation.
So I went.
My best friend Kay, who was running the bakery while I was gone, herself a talented pastry chef, called them “girl functions.” The somewhat dumb things we did only as women where we’d get together and eat finger foods on tiny plates and play embarrassing games and watch someone open gifts. Where we’d feel pressure to buy a new dress or at least a pair of earrings to look like we were up on the latest fashion trends, even at our age.
“I’m so glad you came,” Petra squealed when I entered. “I know you’ll actually appreciate this spread.”
I knew what she meant. But in the present company, I was reminded of a horrible incident at the senior breakfast where I ate a muffin in front of Petra, Elena, and Gina Marie, and Elena had dubbed me the Queen of Pastries. I bet she wished I’d named the bakery that.
I put four pieces of cantaloupe on the small clear plastic plate Petra had thrust at me and smiled at her.
“I’m on a diet,” I lied.
“Good for you!”
Louise was huge. She had blown up to the size of a balloon, the Violet Beaureguard of pregnant women. She had three small plates surrounding her, loaded with orange rolls from Shirley’s Bakery, and a mountain of yogurt and fruit, and enough mini quiche to accuse her of absolutely hoarding them.
“I am, of course, eating for two,” she’d say, rubbing her stomach with one hand while shoving fruit into the other with an overloaded plastic fork.
She said it so many times I was tempted to innocently ask her to explain what she meant.
Everyone assured her she looked fantastic. She was glowing. Body positivity was in.
I went back in the kitchen when Petra wasn’t looking, to get some actual food — I wasn’t passing on an orange roll and I hadn’t been on a diet since my freshman year of college when we all agreed to eat nothing but Chaco Tacos for 48 hours — and hovered around some of my old friends’ moms, eavesdropping.
“She has really let herself go.”
“There’s no other word for it: she’s fat.”
“I’d never let Elena eat like that if she were to get pregnant.”
“I know, it’s bad, but I can’t resist these rolls.”
They hadn’t aged gracefully, these moms who had driven us to the mall and football games so many times. They were all squeezed into their sixties like it was their old prom dress — things bunching and poking out in the wrong places. Lots of hair dye, some definite Botox. I though of my own mother, not invited to this function, and her wispy gray hair and oversized sweater collection. She looked fabulous at 62. These women made me sad.
I ate slowly and furtively. One of them — my old pal Jenny’s mom, who looked alright on closer inspection — dramatically spotted me, making me feel cornered and caught.
“What on earth have you been up to?”
“Why don’t you come around more?”
“Have you abandoned us for the coast? I heard you were on the coast these days.”
I continued to chew, knowing they didn’t necessarily want answers. They just wanted to descend upon me and rattle me around a little.
Elena stepped into the kitchen in three-inch wedges, her blonde hair the exact same shade it had been at graduation. She looked at me like I had risen from the dead.
“The shop is actually called The Sweet Tooth, but I’m so flattered you remembered that I’m a small business owner!”
The moms stared. Elena smiled without teeth.
“I would’ve catered for Louise if I had known,” I said, reaching for a delicious orange roll, my mouth watering. I took a huge bite. It was just as good as I remembered. But I knew Shirley would let me drag her name for the sake of a little revenge. “These old Shirley’s rolls just aren’t what they used to be, are they?”
“I wouldn’t know,” Elena’s eyes narrowed and crinkled as she held her phony smile.
“You own The Sweet Tooth?” Jenny’s mom shrieked.
“But you’re so thin!”
“I buy your cake pops every time I drive north, they are absolutely addictive. I can’t believe I haven’t seen you in the store!”
“Well,” I grinned. “I have a few locations now. Just really trying to fatten up the whole region, honestly.”
We all laughed, like that wasn’t everyone in the room’s ultimate worst nightmare.
My phone rang, like it had been cued up in a staged version of this moment of my life. It was Kay. I excused myself, explaining that it was work. Everyone looked impressed, except Elena, who looked hungry.
“Hey! Just spitballing here,” I told Kay, standing on the front porch of Louise’s two-story brick home. “But do we need a peanut butter Oreo cake? And should I try to get the best local baker down here to give me her recipe for orange rolls?”
I still had the roll in my hand, and took another heavenly bite. I remembered some meme I had seen that said something about skinny tasting better than food and grimaced. I wondered if I should move to France, where you could choose to both eat food and have friends who wouldn’t shame you over it.
I posed that idea to Kay also, and she said she’d join me.
“Can we change our tagline?” I said by way of the final word. “The Sweet Tooth: Tastes better than skinny feels.”