Michelle Bracken

Creative Nonfiction

Michelle Bracken is a fiction candidate in the MFA program at California State University, San Bernardino. Her work has appeared in Litro Magazine.

Eating Together

August, 2005

I am a vegetarian now, have been one for two years. My mother asked me, the last time I saw her, a month ago, if I found that my diet causes me to be depressed. I shrugged this off, said no, not at all.

If my diet were hurting me, I told her, I’d be real thin by now. I’m healthy. I then proceeded to dig my fork into a veggie burrito, the tortilla covered in cheese and red sauce.


I can go back, year before year, and recall the feeling of starvation. Though I do not live with my family, have not lived with them for years, whenever I feel closest to them, whenever I feel that even though I am away, I am really there, I have not eaten for hours, sometimes days.

I starve.

But before that, before anything, there is the time that I binged.

I am eight years old. I live in San Leandro, California, in a two-story apartment, with my mother, my five-year-old brother, my four-year-old sister and my two-year-old brother. We do not have a father, but fathers. My father lives in Nevada and sees me once a year, if I do not beg too much to stay with my mother. Their father, my siblings’ father, is gone, in the Navy, overseas. Though my mother says he will be coming back for Easter, I know that is not true and that she is just saying this for our sake.

My mother works for the San Francisco Chronicle; she is awake at one in the morning, in jacket and jeans, and leaves for her job, delivering the daily paper. I used to go with her, used to sit in the bed of her truck and toss and toss and sometimes run for my life from barking dogs.

But I must stay with the kids now, especially with the two-year-old, while my mother goes to work.

And so I am awake at one and two and three and four in the morning. And to stay awake, I take a gallon of Mint n’ Chip ice cream from the freezer, sit on the stairs, and binge. I am half done when my stomach boils over, when my mind is swollen. I hide the ice cream behind frozen vegetables, hoping that no one remembers it. And I sit on the stairs, in the dark, crying and bloated.

I do this for two years.


I think back now and remember that when I was eight, my mother made lots of money. Perhaps the most money she ever made at any job. The kitchen was always stocked, my closet full of dolls and I even had a thirteen-inch, white television that sat on my dresser. That time would not last, though.

I would gain, in those two years, enough weight to haunt me for the rest of my life. Chubby, I was called. Chipmunk cheeks. I hid behind men’s shirts and baggy jeans, wore shorts and sometimes shirts over my bathing suit, constantly assessed my appearance in the mirror. I was, even at the age of eight, a dedicated participant in Richard Simmon’s Sweatin’ to the Oldies.


I am ten now, almost eleven. We no longer live up north, but down south in Hemet, California. Our apartment lacks furniture; we sleep on the floor, covered in blankets my mother bought from the thrift store. Sometimes, in the morning, when she can afford it, my mother makes rice and raisins for breakfast. This slides sweetly down my throat and I tell my mother that if she needs it, I can stay home, do not really need to go to school.

Sometimes she says no, sometimes she gives in with a sad smile, and sometimes she says nothing at all. When we are hungry, when my siblings cannot take it anymore, the free lunch of school long gone from their stomachs, my mother and I make Rice Krispi treats. I slice the squares for my brothers and sister and watch my mother on the carpet, belly bulging with another baby, eyes hungry.


We live in Modesto when I am twelve, in a gated community. We live with a man named Joe, the father of my baby sister. I have a room to myself, a bed to lie in, and a dog that shits all over my new thrift store clothes on the first day of school.

I don’t eat much of anything. My Halloween candy sits in the freezer and when my mother is crying in her room, when the house is silent except for that crying, when my eight year-old brother is slapped and forced to stand in the corner, I reach for that candy. I swallow the Snickers and the Milky Ways, chew and chew until I am swollen again. And after that, I eat nothing for days.


I am still twelve but no longer live in Modesto. We are in the desert now, in Twentynine Palms. We live with my mother’s sister, in her house, with her four boys. Space is cramped and food is tight. My mother fries potatoes and I smother them in barbecue sauce. My mother makes macaroni and cheese and I also smother this in barbecue sauce.

When I can afford it, when my grades are high and the teacher allows us to buy candy with our fake money, I purchase five Fireballs, red jawbreakers that explode in my mouth. I lick them, in the kitchen, and when they get too hot, when I feel my tongue squirming, I place them in the freezer, saving them for later.


Months later and we are living in a trailer. My mother cannot afford groceries and on occasion, my uncle, her sister’s husband, comes by with bags of food. My mother tells him to take it away. Her face is tanned and beautiful and she is ashamed.

I sit on the floor and watch her push the food away.

Please don’t, I say.

My uncle sets the bags on the table, and touches my mother’s arm.

When he leaves, she bakes a frozen pizza.


There are those who will say my mother is an awful mother; lazy, stupid, ignorant. There is birth control, people have said to me. My father, my uncle, my aunts, my teachers, even certain friends, have all told me when I was eight, when I was ten, eleven, twelve, every year of my life, how worthless my mother is. Doesn’t she know, they say, doesn’t she know that kids come from sex? Doesn’t she care that you go hungry? Doesn’t she know what she is doing? Yes, we were hungry, yes we were poor, and no my mother was never lazy. At every point in my life, at every empty house, at every overdue electric bill, my mother was out there, in the day and in the night, working. She cleaned houses, fed and bathed the elderly, cut hair, sold burial plots, delivered papers, printed business cards. And there are those who will wonder, why then, why were you hungry? And I will say to them: one woman, seven kids. You figure it out.


I am thirteen. We are on welfare, food stamps. This allows us to eat just fine. We live in a house now, with another man. In a few months my mother will bear him a son. He does not like me, thinks I am rude, fat, and trouble. He does not like my mother talking to me, is jealous of our relationship. When he is at work, on the Marine Base, and when I stay home on days I am too sad for fractions and the War of 1812, my mother and I sit outside and watch the quails run. At noon, his lunch break, I hide in my closet while he eats in the kitchen.

“Why’d you make so much?” he asks, his voice booming. My stomach moans and my body aches. “Is she home again?” He is angry.

When he leaves, my mother feeds me steak fajitas.


When I’m in seventh grade, I am thin. I spend the previous summer starving off the weight, wanting to make a new me for a new beginning. But by eighth grade, the weight is back. I have, over the course of the year, discovered the snack bar. Chocolate chip cookies are thirty cents. I buy three. There are ice cream bars and nachos and turkey sandwiches and cheese popcorn. I try my best. I eat the free lunch. But then I think of after school, when I will be home and sad and afraid. When I will hear my mother’s boyfriend beat my brothers and scold my mother. And so, before catching the bus home, I stop at the snack bar and buy as many chocolate chip cookies as my change will afford.


I knew girls who purged, who took their toothbrushes with them to the bathroom and vomited up everything they had just eaten. And I wished it could have been that easy for me. I did try, once, purging cookies and Coke. But I thought it too disgusting and instead opted for suppressing my hunger with cherry cough drops.


Fifteen is good for me. My mother’s boyfriend is gone and in his place are a new brother and a new sister. I am their other mother, and raise them while our mother works. We live in a big house out in the desert, far from town. During the summer, during the heat, while my mother is scrubbing floors and scrubbing ovens, my brothers and sisters and I dance in the living room. We play on the stereo a CD that my mother received free in the mail. It is by a group named Cake, and every afternoon we dance to their music. For lunch I pour honey in the middle of a tortilla, and fold it over. We eat this for days. Usually my mother brings dinner home, but her paycheck is always late and so everything is stretched.

She meets a man who owns an auto shop in town, and because my mother is beautiful and because my mother sometimes goes out at night to play pool with him, he stops by while she is at work and unloads boxes of beef sandwiches wrapped in aluminum foil. We are hesitant at first, open the fridge day after day to see them staring back at us. With no choices, we eat these beef sandwiches. We eat them cold, the gravy sliming over the bread, warming our mouths.


My mother once told me that she never loved the men she was with, only the children she had. My mother was abandoned by her mother when she was eleven, and left alone with an alcoholic father. And when she was nineteen, she had me. I can only speculate that having children somehow filled her emptiness.


I am twenty-two now.

My mother calls me every other week and gives me updates of her daily life.

I listen and I give advice and I laugh and tell her that things will be better. They must get better. And when her voice is gone, when the phone is on the hook and I am left with a tight throat and wet eyes, I never feel more alone.

I’ve not eaten much over the past two days: two slices of bread, a graham cracker. This is the feeling I’ve been longing for. My arms quiver, typing this. They are hungry. I am hungry. It is like waiting, this feeling. By eating what little I did, I am back to long ago. I am back beside my mother. I can feel the sun on my face through the window, can hear the desert wind howl. I am back to my sisters and to my brothers and to the comforting feeling of knowing that sometime soon my mother will be home with dinner.

I am back to the comforting silence of poverty.


Last month, I was home. And I sat on my mother’s couch, in the stench of dog, and watched my mother race home from barbering to shower, and then leave again for a seven o’clock night class.

“Oh, you’re home,” she had said, smiling, exhausted. There was no time for a hug, for a touch, for a word. When she left, when my nine-year-old brother and eight-year-old sister trudged into the kitchen, staring at the fridge, looking for dinner, I stood. They wanted pizza, hot dogs, bread, soda. And my nine-year-old brother asked about tofu.

“I want to be a vegetarian,” he said, staring up at me.

And I said that was great.

“But my dad,” he murmured, looking down, “my dad said no.”

And I thought of his father. I thought of him and of steak fajitas and of my brothers crying and of myself crying in a closet over his insult to me: fat cow.

I opened the kitchen cupboards and scanned. Black beans, scalloped potatoes, rice, canned corn, green beans. “You’ll eat vegetarian with me,” I said.

For seven days I cooked. I boiled, fried, chopped, sliced. My other brothers and sisters turned up their noses at my food, said there was nothing to eat.

“But look,” I told them. “Look at how much there is.”

We sat together on that couch, and ate. The emptiness was there in my stomach, pulling me back, saying, aren’t you glad to be home?

And I was.

'Eating Together' was written to explore a connection between memory and food. I was an undergraduate creative writing student, and trying to come to terms with my childhood. What came to the surface was a truth I had always been trying to deny, that I did in fact have an eating disorder. Even then, I didn't quite realize it. Nine years later, I finally do.