Five months after arriving in Los Angeles, and at a club just a few blocks from my new apartment, I threw my head back to take a shot at the bar, something I hadn’t done in years. Tequila trampled down the tracks of my throat and burned in my chest. I set the glass down and sucked out the last juices of a lime and closed my eyes tight and opened them.
A long mirror hung across the back of the bar and I tried not to look at my reflection. I’d spent the day at the shelter and looked like it, too. My cheeks were sunburnt, eyes tired, hair in a wet, messy bun since I didn’t have time or desire to dry it.
Beautiful women with thin and busty bodies were all around me in short dresses and high heels. The comparison started automatically. This one was prettier than me. But I was prettier than that one. She was fatter than me. But I was thinner than that one. The best-looking person in the room also became the safest, the happiest, the one with a perfect life. Once again, my brain kicked out a song that hadn’t played in a while: “Thin plus pretty equals happy.” I still knew all the lyrics. My head started to nod. I almost got up to dance. Secretly, a voice said yes.
I ordered a beer for Danny, and a water for Julie, who had recently moved from Connecticut to a studio apartment down the street from us. Kanye West’s new song came on the speakers and a few girls screamed. It was midnight and there were enough drunk people around to crowd the dance floor. Danny and Julie were somewhere behind that dance floor sitting at a small table near the DJ booth. We were celebrating the fact that after seven years and three thousand miles between us, my sister had finally moved to the West Coast.
While waiting for the drinks, I leaned on the cool, silver bar and peeled off the Band-Aid on the back of my wrist. The cut was about an inch long, still raw and pink, but also damp from the antibacterial ooze Danny rubbed on it when I got home from the shelter.
Mama, a three-year-old red, Rhodesian–pit bull mix, hadn’t meant to scratch me. She had meant to scratch the dumb, suicidal pigeon who flew into her kennel right after I slipped inside and clanked the door shut behind me.
Mama leapt onto her hind legs to swat at the bird, who flailed against the barbed wire at the top of the cage. I screamed and crossed my arms in front of my face to block Mama’s lunges while the dogs all around us went wild. Feathers fell. Mama snapped her teeth in the air, snarled, and revealed her black gums. Shelter staff came running. They restrained Mama and freed the bird, while I tried to hide the gash on my arm so Mama wouldn’t be put on “bite quarantine” and potentially move up higher on the euthanasia list.
The drinks came. I sealed the Band-Aid over my cut and squeezed through the crowd holding beer and water. The song changed to Rihanna. A champagne bottle with a sparkler lit from inside moved past me on a tray. Dim bodies reflected in the floor-to-ceiling mirrors. I moved through the smoke and fog, past girls and guys holding hands, glossy lips, a girl with a cherry-red leather jacket and a long white dress. Another girl with an obvious boob job and plunging neckline made me walk around her. There were clinking glasses and vinyl padded chairs. There was Julie, somewhere, dancing. This was pure Hollywood. Glamour. The allure of feeling important.
Danny wore a black polo and sat on a pleather white couch, typing into his BlackBerry and nodding his head to the beat.
“That took a while,” he said. Under a pink strobe light, I noticed a part of his black hair that was thinning by his ears. I kissed his forehead and inhaled a strong whiff of his cologne. Then I stood at his side and scanned the crowd for my sister, my fingers on his arm.
Danny put his hand on my hand and kissed me. Then he pointed to the corner of the dance floor and said, “Your sister has been getting down.”
Under a yellow spotlight, Julie danced in her own little circle, doing some sort of scooping motion with her hands. She reminded me of the first time I brought her to the shelter, how she reached both of her tiny arms up to her shoulders through the bars, her right cheek pressed against the metal to reach even farther, lifting small dogs into her hands and off the ground. Poodles, terriers, shih tzus, and Chihuahuas: “They don’t want to be touched, they want to be held,” Julie had said. Later, she told me there wasn’t a worse feeling in the world than letting the dogs go, than putting them back down.
I came up to Julie and grabbed one of her hands and spun her beneath my fingers. The red highlights in her hair shimmered. When she blinked her eyes, I could see the gold eye shadow over her lids, purple in the creases. She wore hot pink heels, a black dress, and a locket I’d given her. She smelled like the fruity perfume our mother had given us last Christmas.
I dipped her in my arms and we danced like we did as kids, before we ever cared about trying to be sexy, before sex had anything to do with how we saw ourselves.
But at some point while we were dancing, I looked down at my stomach and then I couldn’t stop looking down. My stomach was too round, too fat, too full. Shame and resistance erupted deep in my belly and traveled up my throat. My mind swelled. A voice said, “Why did you have four pieces of pizza for dinner?”
And then came the familiar doubling of myself. Part of me was on land, dancing with my sister, pushing sweat back into my hair, snapping pictures with my iPhone, laughing hard, keeping the guys who could never have Julie off her.
Then there was that other part of me stepping onto an old boat, untying the ropes that connected me to the dock. I was leaving, drifting, letting that strong wind take over and blow the focus off my sister and onto the pizza I had for dinner, a meal I’d had dozens of times in the past few years without any trouble.
“Get empty!” screamed the voice that only I could hear. I tried to ignore it, the fact that my insides were reorganizing, something both subtle and massive happening beneath my skin. I felt heat, nausea, a jittery sensation. The more I tried to turn my attention outward, the louder and deeper the voice seemed to get.
No, stay present.
“Get empty,” the voice said again, without hesitation, as if it already knew I was in its grip.
I tried to reenter the state of playfulness that my sister and I were in just moments earlier. I spun Julie around but the urge persisted, this urge that had been gone, miraculously gone, for almost three years now.
“I’m gonna go pee,” I heard myself say to my sister. Then I pointed to Danny. “He has a water for you if you need it.”
“Good, I’m dying!” she yelled over the music. She headed to the couch where Danny was sitting, and looked back once, smiling.
I moved through the crowd to the bathroom, where women primped in front of a long gold-rimmed mirror above a black marble counter with three sinks. A Hispanic woman, perhaps in her fifties, sat on a bar stool at the end of the counter. Beside her was a tray filled with perfumes, mints, hairspray products, and neatly folded white towels. She smiled at each woman who barely noticed her, these women primping and chatting and sometimes slurring at their reflections in the mirror.
When it was finally my turn, I went into the middle stall. I knew that I couldn’t get all the pizza out of me since it had been hours since dinner, but at least I could get something. I could feel a little less full, a little less disgusting.
I pulled my jeans down and sat on the toilet. I figured I could throw up between my legs, quick and quiet like I used to back in the college dorms. The music was blaring, a Lil Wayne song now, and women were nearly shouting over each other outside my stall. No one would know. And this would just be one time. I’d get back on track tomorrow.
I put four fingers in my mouth. Girls outside the stall talked about a picture they’d taken:
“Do I look fat in this pic?” one said.
A heel stomped on the tile floor. “Jesus, you’re a twig. You’re a sexy mama and you know it,” said another.
It was the last thing I wanted to come into my mind right now, but there she was. My mama. Her blue eyes. How she visited me in rehab and used the bottom of her gray T-shirt like a tissue. “Don’t you understand?” she cried. “We are all the beautiful things we say we aren’t.”
My fingers partially came out of my mouth so that my nails rested on my front teeth. Then I set my hand down on my thigh. I pulled some paper out of the dispenser, wiped the spit off my fingers and chin. I dropped the paper into the translucent bowl, pulled up my jeans, and walked out of the stall.
Excerpted from Pound for Pound: A Story of One Woman’s Recovery and the Shelter Dogs Who Loved Her Back to Life. (William Morrow — October 6, 2015). Copyright © 2015 Shannon Kopp
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