Runner’s High

Birthday celebrations aren’t all easy. Graphic Felix Muxwahl

TW: This story discusses themes relating to eating disorders.

“It’s probably not as bad as I think,” I said, fumbling with the belt in the bathroom.

The knife kissed the hard, tacky leather and made a notch next to a line of roughly carved holes. I thought of a comment a paunchy customer at work made earlier that day. He'd grabbed my belly and given me a steely, bitter grin: "Don't forget to eat." The blade punctured the leather—it was done. I wrapped the belt around my bony hips and yanked until the buckle sat shut within its new dimensions: still a little loose. My shirt stayed tucked in this time, but the hold was anything but firm. It would have to do. 

I looked in the mirror again and found it spoke well tonight. I was the beautiful thin wisp I’d always dreamt of—a single cigarette crammed into a pair of black skinny jeans. Slim and supple, with only a slight rounding of the gut. Typical, but was it enough to circumvent by sucking it in a little bit? I tried. 

Anxiously, my eyes slid to the photo collages that plastered my walls like posters of LeBron in a basketball player’s college dorm. A shirtless Chalamet playing guitar on the beach; Bowie mid-performance—spandex stretched taut as a drum against a completely flat abdomen; Cillian Murphy cut like a ruler in a suit. I didn’t have to meet their eyes to know the answer. Unsettled, I turned to go.


My paper plate held six slices of celery and a delicate portion of skinless turkey. The past couple Thanksgivings had gone this way. Everything else on offer was unknown territory: a minefield of hidden calories in sauces, spreads, and archaic roasting techniques. That it was also Gramps’ 90th tonight meant an even more abundant display than usual. As I was being stared down by the horde of pies, roasts, and baked apples, a decorative silver spoon shot out from the right and drenched my plate in blood red cranberry sauce. Battle had been joined.

“How could you forget your grandmother’s secret recipe?” implored my aunt Mary-Ann. 

Fuck. Cornered. I grimaced as more foes were swiftly marshalled onto my plate by a pair of unforgiving iron tongs. The orange flesh of a weighty sweet potato burst from its roasted skin, pats of butter already gushing down its sides like fountains of lava. Of course. Who wouldn’t want butter on their sweet potatoes?

I flashed Mary-Ann a queasy smile, blood draining from my face. Hungry adults pressed in around us to share conversation and praise. Gross acts of indulgence commenced. Chubby arms shovelled in spoonfuls of these dangerous, delightful mixtures, and beer bellies quivered as hot stuffing was scarfed down. 

Everywhere one looked the horde laid waste. Just standing there was far too conspicuous. With as nonchalant a movement as I could muster, bracing as if about to drop from the summit of a roller coaster, I delicately raised a tiny scrap of stained turkey to the back of my throat. My mouth made chewing motions, teeth clamping down on metal as I strained to keep the bleeding white flesh where it could not be tasted. A morsel slipped off, brushing my tongue like a single sugared snowflake, melting into a spring flood of saliva. I kept my mouth shut and cheeks puffed until an opportunity presented itself to slip away and jettison the intruder. 

Immediately, I scraped the contents of my plate into the garbage, leaving just enough to give the impression that something had been hastily devoured. Jittery satisfaction filled me as this labour of love unceremoniously slid under piles of waste paper. I had gained the upper hand. My opponent was pinned to the ground—the life fading from its veins as my shaky hands clamped around its throat.

As the evening endured, I mercifully began to slip into the runner’s high. I hadn’t eaten since my religiously observed breakfast of a half cup of oats and exactly 28 almonds, but with each screech and clamour of hunger beaten into submission, my compulsions to devour everything in front of me subsided. My body trembled and my stomach felt small and flat. I shivered under my shirt despite the warm bodies around me. My head cleared and nagging shouts of “shovel,” “scoff,” “slurp,” “demolish,” and “devour,” evaporated into nothing. I was buoyant, my head lighter than a feather. It felt fantastic. I laughed loudly at uncles’ repetitive stories, received hugs warmly from fleshy aunts, and eagerly told anecdotes about shitty, paunchy customers. 

Sublimely arranged plates passed by almost unnoticed, the stimuli was losing its initial vigour. A great hill had been mounted and the road appeared to flatten out. I was an athlete in peak performance, a coked up supermodel breezing down the runway on skates. I was Bobby fucking Sands, and to wither away was victory. Nothing could stop me. 

“I hope everyone’s enjoyed the appetizers,” Grandma said, cutting through the patterns of Thanksgiving talk. “But as I think we know, this isn’t the only holiday of the week. Lucile and Mary-Ann have made something rather special at Gramps’ request.”

The lights switched off and the room began to burn from dim candlelight. All eyes turned to the kitchen doorway where two masterchef aunts carried a cake adorned with a flaming wax ‘90’. This was a very special request indeed: a New York Cheesecake with a lovely, simple chocolate ganache–a dish sacred in its simplicity. Memories of past birthdays resurfaced. This was not only Gramps’ favourite dessert—it was mine. 

A photograph of us from years ago sat prominently on the dining room wall. In it, we sat side by side, spoons filled with creamy goodness en route to our open and grinning mouths. This visitor from the past was set down in front of Gramps’ honoured place at the head of the table. Cheers erupted as he blew out the candle and the lights flared back to life. The clink of cutlery and china rebounded—the party eagerly assembling into formation. I was armed with a fork and tiny china plate and thrust into the vanguard. 

“Let the cheesecake monsters have the first bite!” a family friend sounded from the back. Agreement was shouted, and I found myself side by side with Gramps. He beamed up at me with the kindly smile reserved for his grandchildren. 

“My God. Looks good doesn’t it, son?” 

“Oh God, yes. There’s no better food on earth,” I said mutely.

“Well, let’s put some flesh on you,” he shakely leaned over and, with considerable effort, sliced first through the dense ganache. Having pierced this layer, the knife disappeared into that mysterious milky sea before anchoring itself into graham cracker crust. 

“There you go. Try not to eat it in one bite!” He gave a gentle chuckle and handed me the rattling, delicate porcelain with a tenderness only possible in the act of bestowing a gift. I thanked him and turned to let the next relative through when Mary-Ann caught my arm. 

“Let me get a picture of you two! What were you, nine and 79 in that photo? Now 20 and 90! Oh, this is so special!”

We were enthusiastically arranged into a reenactment of our iconic cake-devouring pose, both of us noticeably more skeletal than 11 years prior. The cake gazed up at me. There was no strong smell, no visceral stimuli; it was completely unassuming. My grandmother turned fondly to the old photo on the wall and sighed. I looked right at Gramps who flashed me another warm smile. His skinny arm wrapped around my shoulder and his grin turned to the camera, cake-adorned fork already surrounded by false teeth.

Could I do it? Could I spare a slice of cake for my old Gramps? I bit down and the camera flashed. The taste came slowly; it cracked like an egg on my tongue, and the warm yolk of years gone by began to leak into my veins. Slowly at first, then like lightning. My eyes widened.

“Oh,” sighed Grandma. “You used to be such chubsters!” 

All warmth evaporated and the shaking resumed. The morsel never made it past the back of my throat. Excusing myself as politely as I could, I made a hasty exit for the bathroom.


I walked home despite the cold. Not much of anything had actually been swallowed. Still, I could feel even the momentary pleasures I’d indulged in dripping down my body like a thick sap waiting to form fleshy, panic inducing deposits of fat around my waste. Nauseated, I clawed at my belly to assure myself against these phantom apparitions. It didn’t seem visibly rounder. I’d retained control, I told myself. I’d been good.

A weary smile crept across a gaunt face. As I marched airily on, my shirt untucked itself again and started flapping in the wind. I yanked the new notch across the buckle as far as it would go, the pin sticking out comically far away from my waist. The leather bit into my bones, but I could already feel my clothes fluttering away like dust in the wind. 

This article originally appeared in The Body Issue, published February 1, 2022.