My fifth-grade biology teacher used to eat a different lunch every day and repeat her menu in the exact same order the following week. Every Tuesday for example, she had a chicken burger. And almost every Tuesday that year she sent me to buy her one. The place was a dirty rotisserie joint, ten minutes from our school. The twenty minutes I had to walk to and from the rotisserie and the ten minutes I had to wait for the burger were the happiest moments of my week. The reason I was always happy to buy my teacher a chicken burger from a dirty rotisserie joint wasn’t because I could escape from school for half an hour. It was because I could eat bits of it on my way back.
My family wasn’t poor, I wasn’t raised vegetarian and there wasn’t anything that would make stealing bits of chicken burger an illicit activity. I didn’t have a puppy I wanted to feed and I wasn’t playing any made-up games that involved collecting tiny morsels of food. My only motive was hunger. As a ballet school pupil, I was always hungry. From the very first day I got in I was nicknamed “doughnut”, and it wasn’t because I really loved the glazed pastry rings too much, but because according to the admission board, I looked like one.
I knew from the beginning that ballet school was going to be a serious affair. I loved dancing since age four, so it had been my idea to enrol. There were sacrifices to be made, and I was ready to do whatever was asked of me. But starting a diet at nine years old turned out to be tougher than I had expected. I was living on carrot sticks and salad leaves that made my stomach rumble all the time. Most foods were off-limits and I was only allowed treats on very special occasions, like my birthday, Christmas or Easter. Had I been a fussy child, staying away from food might have been easier. But I loved to eat, and so I had to learn to live with the guilt.
Every Tuesday on my way to the rotisserie, I experienced a mixture of feelings ranging from shame to excitement, fear, remorse but most of all, pleasure. Guilt not only increased my appetite, but it also intensified all the sensations associated with food. Inhaling the smell of the burgers while being cooked was enough to transport me in a magic land, where delicious foods were floating everywhere and where I could feast all day long, without gaining a pound. The ten-minute wait was spent reading the menus and pausing over every word as if spelling the ingredients could help me taste them. After a while, I had already become friends with the guy who prepared the burgers and I loved listening to him explain his technique, over and over again. I was also very curious to see what other people ordered, so every week I tried to catch glimpses of their take-away bags.
Once the chicken burger was ready and paid for, I would hold it with the utmost care, as if it were alive. I moved slowly, and allowed the weight of it to fill my hands, the texture of the wrapping paper and the warmth from the freshly cooked meat to ingrain on my skin. I never asked for a bag, because that would have ruined my ritual and made it more difficult to eat while walking. There wasn’t much to eat, because I could only have those bits flapping out of the edges of the burger, but over time, I had improved my skills and could extract a few extra bites, without raising any suspicion. The chicken patty was always wider than the buns, so I munched on it until they all stacked and fit evenly. The burger was also filled with cabbage leaves and fries that always pointed out, so I could have those and anything else that would have fallen out of it. By the time I finished eating, the burger looked so neat, as if prepared by someone who suffered from an obsessive-compulsive disorder.
I mastered wrapping the burger back on the go, and every time I gave it to my teacher, it just looked untouched. I would then resume my classes, spend all day sniffing my smelly fingers and dream about the following Tuesday. Because I was always on time and always brought her change back, my teacher trusted me, so she never sent anyone else to buy her lunch. But towards the end of the year, I made a foolish mistake.
I was bragging to my sister about how much the teacher liked me when my mother heard us and asked what made me think I was the teacher’s favorite pupil. Without hesitation, and with great pride, I told her it was because I bought her a chicken burger for lunch every Tuesday. The next day my mother came to see my biology teacher. I eavesdropped on their conversation and was shocked to hear that my mother was upset. She thought the teacher was evil to send me buy her lunch while I was on a diet, and also irresponsible to leave an unsupervised ten-year-old alone on the streets. Needless to say, I never went to buy a chicken burger again.
During the following summer, my father got a promotion and came home one evening with some take-away chicken burgers to celebrate. There were three burgers in the bag, as my sister and I were only allowed half each. Mum laid the table, but just as we were sitting down, my father had to take a call. My sister went back to playing, my mother returned to her half-smoked cigarette in the kitchen, and I stayed put at the dining table. Half a burger was more than I had ever dreamed of, and I couldn’t believe my family did not share the same excitement. Ten minutes later, my father was still on the phone and I was too hungry to just nibble at the edges of my portion. By the time everyone was ready to finally sit down and eat, there was nothing left on the table but the wrapping paper.