The Spiritual Path at Fat Camp
I look around the pool as I kick my leg backwards. I wonder how I found myself in a swim cap and a full-piece bathing suit doing water aerobics with eight ladies over sixty at a health retreat that turned out to be an upscale fat camp.
Why is it that we never tire of talking about love? Of analyzing all angles of heartbreak?
No Uber driver’s English is bad enough to deter us, no stranger on an airplane too disengaged for it to all come spilling out, the same story, again and again.
Filling the void, my therapist had said. I always hoped that when I inevitably fell apart, at least I’d be original about it.
The previous day I had rushed down to the waiting taxi, stalling outside the high gates of my apartment building in São Paulo.
I was late, throwing clothes onto the bed and settling for stretchy workout pants and an old blue sweater that was too tight on the arms. The flight was smooth, the two hours going by quickly as I stared out the window in the dark sunglasses that covered most of my face.
On the other side, I shuffled through the airport with my head down and bought sweet and salty peanuts after I couldn’t talk myself out of it. I walked outside, the muggy heat was relentless but I kept my sweater on, joining a group of elderly women next to a van stamped with a logo I recognized from the website. This should be good, I thought, making eye contact with no one and finding a seat.
A friend had recommended this place, deep in the countryside of southern Brazil, a short flight from my place of birth and home for the last ten years, having moved back after falling in love and dropping out of school in Canada, where I had grown up with my immigrant parents and privileged life.
I was always looking for something. For love, for adventure, for a story worth telling. I shifted happily from a good kid with a scholarship to a bartender in shorts and knee-high boots without a plan, chasing the drama.
And then I fell in love with a man in that way you do when you throw yourself into something so hard you don't even recognize yourself when you take a step back. Fully, entirely consumed.
He had green eyes and skin that actually glowed. I saw him for the first time from the side, across a cheesy wedding dance floor. I remember feeling short of breath. I hardly saw his face. Yet I recognized him like I had known he was coming.
The van bumped along. I watched a series on Netflix on the drive out about an artist from Brooklyn and her many affairs. I noticed how everyone on it was thin. Something I would have never realized a few months ago.
We drove onto the property, a long winding driveway with cornfields on either side, the sky was a rich shade of blue and the sun peeked out from the clouds, hot and unforgiving.
A purple and yellow butterfly flew next to my window as we drove up. I hated butterflies. Always thought they were the mean girls of insects.
We arrived to a welcome drink of green juice, the glass only filled halfway, hinting at the moderation that was to come, and I noticed I was the youngest person there by at least 15 years.
They showed me to my room and instructed me to turn up for my doctor’s appointment at 3:15.
Everyone was in white robes. I put mine on, noticing gratefully that it hid everything that needed hiding. My thighs chafed in the heat.
The nurse was gentle, especially when asking me to step on the scale.
“That’s a good girl.” She said, making a note on her clipboard.
The doctor put me on a diet of 850 calories a day, which sounded absurd. “What caused the weight gain?” He asked.
I shrugged. “Wish it was a more original reason than heartbreak.”
What is it about the comfort from strangers that is so soothing? That makes us feel like our uncertain futures are less terrifying if their apparently inevitable brightness is confirmed by people who could not possibly know? And yet.
“Do you think I’m going to be okay?” I would ask. Ask anyone who would listen.
I missed him. I could feel his hands, the callouses on his palms. The softness of the finer hair on the nape of his neck. The smell of his shirts. I could see the wrinkles on the side of his eyes when he laughed. I could hear his voice. My chest on his. Could feel him pinching my side when he thought something was funny. I’d say his name aloud.
They say our brains label pain, give it a face. He had a beautiful face.
How do you determine the difference between love and fear? Should it feel so similar?
The love had been there, at some point. Perhaps it was passion. It faded. The fear was constant. I was afraid of the fights, I was afraid of staying, I was afraid of leaving. I was afraid of being alone, of regretting it, of missing him, of realizing there’d be nothing better, of regret.
We introduced ourselves at the welcome address, our names, where we’re from, why we are here. I sat in the back.
I didn’t even like chocolate, and suddenly I needed it, obsessively, constantly. Nothing brought the same comfort. Preferably with peanut butter. How horribly cliche.
“Now you know how most of us feel.” My sister said. “Took you long enough.”
Eighteen pounds in 90 days. Even here, must be some sort of record. The other inmates were impressed.
They assigned each one of us a table that we’d sit at for the week. Mealtimes clearly required military level control. I looked down at the sad six grapes in front of me, tried to concentrate on chewing whatever absurd amount of times was recommended by one of the many (thin) doctors who gave a painfully slow speech before we could eat. Was it forty times?
We used to get kicked out of bars for our screaming matches. He was jealous, I was hysterical. I thought it was romantic.
I ended it after almost ten years. It was my decision. Courage and strength showed up suddenly like unannounced dinner guests to an otherwise lonely affair.
He loved me. But he was terrible to me. We were terrible to each other. I plotted and hoped for my freedom for years.
Yet the loss, the gaping hole felt like it was only getting bigger.
Love or fear?
They gave a tour of the grounds, the clinic, the vegetable garden, the main house.
I set my stack of books on the bedside table. I looked at the clean, neatly made single bed and sighed. I listened to Miles Davis.
Dinner was pea soup.
The 6AM wake-up call seemed like a joke. I went back to sleep.
Breakfast was at eight, I was relieved to see a slice of bread along with the expected minimalist fruit platter at my assigned table.
I went to water aerobics. I went to yoga class, a light, tailored-for-the-overweight elderly version. I had a strange massage.
I swam to the edge of the pool, looked out to rolling hills that looked like Tuscany. Cows dotted the field, orderly rows of vegetables growing under the too bright sky. I thought about how enjoyable this would be under difference circumstances, perhaps if I recognized any part of myself.
Heartbreak is such a selfish state of being. We are completely unable to see outside our bubble of pain, anything can trigger a new burst of sorrow or anxiety and we dip into it easily, used to the waves by now, letting them wash through us, showing no resistance.
“You just need to get over it.” My sister would say.
Yoga, meditation, long walks, pottery class. We were all trying to occupy our minds. All running from something.
That afternoon a heavily overweight lady in red glasses and a great black and white printed dress introduced herself.
“I’m Elaine” she said, holding both my hands in hers as I tried not to squirm away, “You’re going to be okay, after my divorce it took a year, but it passes, sweetheart.”
She hugged me too tightly. I looked down and mumbled my thanks, embarrassed at how good it felt.
I sat on the grass in my robe, my newly acquired belly rolls uncomfortably sweaty. I read poems on impermanence. I thought about his laugh. I thought about my freedom. I thought about how the pain has become a companion I don’t remember ever being without.
Ricardo, my table neighbor, is 74.
“I’ve been here over forty times.” He said, amused at my shock, his shaky hand holding his fork delicately.
We talked about daily caloric intake. We talked about how beautiful Lisbon is. We talked about his daughter, who got divorced, but is happy now. Everyone seems to have a story like that.
His bright eyes twinkled.
“You’re so young”, he said, I rolled my eyes. Everyone seemed to say that.
“I've never felt young, Ricardo.” I said. “Even less so now.”
My room was simple and clean. It looked like rehab. I read a lot of poetry. I fantasized continuously about calling him. About what I would say. I tortured myself with different versions of his reaction. I ran through the conversation over and over in my head. I tried to step off the hamster wheel. Usually, I failed.
I’d kill for a peanut butter cup.
The human experience, as they say. Looking around to this group of people, all in search, all in process of something. Ricardo hugged me, held my face with his soft, wrinkled hand.
“You’ll be okay.” He said. “Don’t move backwards. Leave it where it lays.”
Dinner was pumpkin soup.
I managed to get myself up for the early morning hike that day. It was Tuesday. The rain came down softly. Rolling hills, crunchy gravel beneath my feet, the ladies panting beside me.
If you make a decision driven by something that wasn’t real, was it still the right decision?
Love or fear?
There was a little room in the clinic building that had heated seats painted sky-blue and twinkling lights in the ceiling that mimicked stars. My favorite spot.
I laid on my back and stared up at them, thinking about New York, about the other guy, about the catalyst. I had committed the first sin of love, confusing beauty and a good soundtrack with knowledge and truth. Nick was nothing like my ex. He idolized me, we’d known each other for years. He was a man of words. Big words, good words, words you could turn over in your hands, delicately. I tried to place together all the things he had said that night, wishing I remembered exactly so I could play them back to myself and bask in them, like that little square of sunshine on your bedroom floor in the dead of winter.
I ate it all up, desperate, thirsty, for someone who paid enough attention to give me what I needed. Searching relentlessly for something to give me the bravery necessary to get the fuck out.
It did the job, but it quickly fell apart.
'You're a little dramatic.' He had said, somewhere around three in the morning, in his bedroom with the exposed brick wall on Mott. I wore his shirt.
I laughed, pretending like I didn't think that was both grossly untrue and the biggest understatement I had ever heard.
I tried to force it, halfheartedly, but he was never what I needed, and my gaping hole scared the shit out of him.
Yoga class was at three. It was painful. I had never had problems with mirrors. I’d enjoyed them all my life. Advantages of being naturally thin.
How naive it was to not have realized the struggle that most women, most people face. How shocking it is, when you find out how much of your identity lies in your body, your vanity.
I looked to the side at my body, at my belly, at thighs, at arms that did not resemble my own. Who is that?
The dining room played classical music. The dietitian made the rounds, her overly made-up face frozen in a stoic smile. Light pink lipstick and pearls.
I dreamt of him all night. Ten years we were together and I wouldn’t dream about him then. A friend told me that I was assigning the pain of loss to him, giving him an importance he didn’t actually possess. It made sense, in the way that abstract facts you can’t actually confirm do.
They played a gong at mealtimes.
The ladies told me about Kiko, described as an “oriental” with healing prowess. I flinched at the misuse of the word. Apparently it was intense, and you either loved or hated her.
I swapped out my shoulder massage for an appointment that afternoon, and after a lunch consisting of an elaborate salad expertly designed to distract you from its salad-ness, I walked over to the right building.
She summoned me from an attic over a winding staircase. I looked up near the top and Kiko stood in the door frame. She was petite, wore white, had salt and pepper hair cropped close to her head, silver glasses and a thin, knowing smile.
As I walked in the light shone softly through the white curtains.
“You so young!”’ She said, “What’s wrong with you? Why you here?”
I went through the familiar story, as she told me to lie down on a mattress on the floor, proceeding to crack my back and neck in creative ways, all the while telling me about her arranged marriage that ended badly. Another story for my collection of heartbreak tales.
She talked fast, tiny hands kneading.
We moved to a bed next to some odd-looking contraptions I was trying not to look at.
I had never tried acupuncture before, it wasn’t so bad - the first few pricks. Then she moved to my hands, told me to take a deep breath in that this would hurt. When she placed the needle on the base of my thumb, inside my palm, the pain was brutal, sharp and surprising.
I cried, immediately and uncontrollably. She asked if I had cried since, I realized I hadn’t. Only the night of, if that.
“Point of sadness”, she said. “Breathe through it.” I closed my eyes.
“How could this possibly be the right thing if it hurts this bad?” I had said those few yet long months ago, desperate, shaking, the memory stuck with me forever, watching his face looking up at me as the elevator doors closed, the man I knew, unrecognizable in his shock.
He fought hard for months, but his numbness in the critical first days were just enough to set me free. By the time I fell apart he was long gone. In hindsight, we got lucky. But at the time, it was pure torture.
“On your back!” Kiko said.
I kept my eyes closed, but still noticed a flame on my right side. I squeezed them shut tighter.
Cupping - hot glass cups suction on your back and belly. She moved swiftly.
The suction was so hard it felt like they were lifting me up. “Breathe through it.” She repeated.
When she was done she gave me a swift slap.
“You find God. Stop taking it out on your body.” She instructed.
“I’ll do my best.” I said, as she looked at me skeptically. “On both counts.”
I walked out lighter than I had felt in days. It might all be in my head. It didn’t matter.
The cups left nine neat round bruises on my back.
I painted a wooden box at the arts and crafts hut, led by a lady who looked to be about 130, shuffling about. I meditated in the garden. I ate watermelon at the 3:30 snack time. A generous three pieces. I forgot to chew slowly.
Ricardo had told me he snuck in some red wine, and was surprised to hear I didn’t bring my own treats. That minx. We drank it in the library, giggling between small sips.
I took a bike out on the trails, enjoying the poetic satisfaction of the wind in my face on the downhill after beads of sweat poured down my temples and down my belly as I pedaled the uphill.
I felt a slight turn that day, a step towards something resembling freedom.
I was wary of these, from experience each step forward accompanied two that dug back in, but was grateful for it all the same.
“It’s not an upward trajectory out of heartbreak, you know.” My friend Ashley had said one day.
I thought of him less, although I still heard his laugh.
I laid in the sauna. I said my own name aloud.
Dinner was vegetable soup.
“Who is that bitch?” I thought to myself in yoga class that morning, a newcomer among us.
She was tall, model thin, gorgeous, with ramrod straight posture and a perfect messy bun.
I had woken up sweaty and confused before class, overslept by three hours.
Missing breakfast is blasphemy around these parts. I grabbed my robe and rushed down, relieved to see the designer fruit plate was still on my table.
I took a survey, cautiously, of my emotional state. Mornings were always worse.
They say that with grief, you have a split second of numbness when you wake up in the morning, until you start wondering what the horribleness is.
Then you remember.
But I felt okay, I massaged the point on my palm that was still sore from Kiko’s needle the previous day.
After breakfast I had an appointment with the dietitian. She had red hair and wore too much eye makeup. She had a funny accent and a kind smile.
She told me about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, she told me to eat a piece of fruit during meals to avoid sugar cravings. She told me she’s been through something similar, and the mantra they all say, that it will pass.
I took a shower, trying not to obsess over my naked body and how unrecognizable it was.
Yoga class was better that day, I felt a small sense of progress. I tried to avoid the mirror, but after the inevitable glimpse changed my tank top to a t-shirt after class.
They said prayers before lunch. I closed my eyes and thought about garlic prawns.
Love or fear?
I walked down to cooking class, where the plump chef’s demonstration was already under way. She taught us how to make bread out of sweet potato, a low-calorie vegetable pie.
At the end, she made peanut ice cream.
“I’m on your side,” she said, making a sweep of the area in search of any looming dietitians.
She let us all have a scoop. I looked up at the too-bright sky as I moved it around on my tongue, it was bliss. I considered taking the leftovers of the insane individual who left half of theirs. I managed to get a hold of myself. Barely.
The Bitch wore a flowery dress with a flower crown in her hair and had toned arms and a beautiful smile. She refused the scoop, and when I looked at her in shock she laughed and said “I’m saving my calories for the 3:30 fruit time!”
I could have slapped her.
I checked my email on the shared computer, having handed in my phone when I arrived.
“Has your body forgiven you?” My best friend Jess asked in a carefully worded email. A valid question.
“I think it’s trying.” I said.
That day’s massage was to improve blood flow, the therapist hugged me before and after. I fell asleep. My blood seemed to flow the same way, but it felt nice.
I fantasized about the nougat chocolate I would devour as soon as I got to the airport. I didn’t think about him as much. I ran four kilometers on the treadmill. I read the teachings of an American Buddhist nun in my room.
The sunset was shaping up to be a good one, I took a bike out past the gardens to the lake, set it down on the gravel path and walked towards the bridge, insects and birds buzzing around me.
I sat down in the middle of the bridge, looking out onto the lake and watching a fish jump up out of the water. I thought of how much he loved to fish. I let the tears flow down my cheeks, dripping onto the wood.
I closed my eyes and told him I loved him. I thanked him for his kindness, for his cruelty, for loving me, for the decade where we shared our lives. I thanked him for all the times he made me feel safe, I told him that at times, he had made me happy. I told him I deserved better. I apologized for breaking his heart. I told him I was letting him go.
The lake was still, green. Moss covered branches reaching for each other.
I told him he was free to be happy.
I walked back to my bike and pedaled hard uphill, back to the building, forcing myself to push through, my thighs burning, sweating and gritting my teeth.
Dinner was cauliflower soup.
“You look like a different person. Your eyes, they’re brighter.”
Two of the ladies said to me, shuffling up the drive after breakfast.
“Thanks.” I smiled, embarrassed.
The early morning hike was invigorating. Ten kilometers through the farmlands around the property.
I dreamt of him again. Only this time he was there, and I didn’t want him around. I kept thinking of butterflies, of cocoons. An unoriginal, yet accurate analogy.
The Bitch was having tea, her blond hair glowed in the sunlight as she threw her head back and laughed as a group listened to her every word. Turns out she was a famous model. She wasn’t really a bitch.
I went to the gym, did weight training for an hour. Was relieved to see my body retained muscle memory. I felt stronger than I had in weeks.
I walked through the orchard and greenhouses. Lettuce, potatoes, tomatoes. The birds chirped relentlessly.
I went to yoga, faced down the mirror.
Love or fear?
There was a commotion - a group had gone missing. The staff was rushing about in their boxy light pink dresses and orthopedic shoes, making calls.
Turns out they had escaped down the road and were having fried rice and hot dogs at a bodega a few blocks up. A dispatched van headed out to bring them back. They looked pleased with themselves, if a little red faced. We laughed and laughed.
I took a nap after lunch, in awe of the view of the fruit trees from my window that I hadn’t noticed before. I read a bad fiction novel about a girl who made shoes.
I went to arts and crafts class where the teacher, Miss Ingrid, told us it was her 49th wedding anniversary that day, and that her husband left her a rose when he left for work every day of their lives since they met. Lucy, sitting next to me, told her story of how her husband left her, she was here to try and lose the 30 pounds she gained since and work on her anger and anxiety. She had sad, unfocused but bright blue eyes and wispy blond hair, and wore a loose fitting t-shirt that said to “Be in the Moment”. Gratuitous capitalization makes me crazy. She painted a wooden box black with an old, dry brush.
Miss Ingrid hugged me when I left, told me I was beautiful and that I did a great job.
I watched the ladies gathered, drinking tea.
The stories we tell ourselves and each other, the fabric that makes up our suffering and our joy and our lives.
Roberta, 50, tall, chic as anything, bright eyes with long, full eyelashes and a wide, smiling mouth. Told dirty jokes and had the perfect meditation stance. 12 pounds up, healing from a violent breakup of a ten-year relationship.
Bruna, 50, a dermatologist from the city, a kind smile and deep-set eyes. She was short, had strong, stocky legs. 26 pounds up, healing from a divorce of a 22-year marriage. They were getting back together, and she didn’t know if it was the right thing.
Elaine, 47, had a black bob and great red glasses, 62 pounds up after the breakup of a twenty-five year marriage. Gave solid advice on compulsive behavior. Asked me how I was with intense sincerity every time she saw me. Went to the gym every day and walked slowly but purposefully on the treadmill next to the oxygen tank.
Ana Maria, 66, wore red lipstick and blow-dried her thin blond bob every morning. Loved the hikes at dawn, four kids, had a son who was a judge. Showed us photos. 18 pounds up, healing from her late husband’s death. “Cancer.” she said.
Dieter, 72, German immigrant. Respiratory disease. Gave frequent warm, albeit awkward, hugs, loves poetry and stoic philosophy. 17 pounds up, managed to walk the entire property without his oxygen by day four.
Ricardo, 74, engineer and horse enthusiast, 8 pounds up, comes every few months to find peace and work on new business ideas. Speaks four languages, sneaks in wine.
Fatima, 42, wore sunglasses all the time to hide the dark bags under her eyes, had thick auburn hair and a deep sense of insecurity. 22 pounds up, trying to impress the wives of her husband’s colleagues, lost control.
Ellen, 39, model, nature lover, honey-colored eyes that blazed right through you and very thin arms. 6 pounds down, trying to find inspiration to carve the next steps of her career and control a lifelong eating disorder.
An eccentric, dynamic and loving group of people. Each with their own battle of love and loss and calories and struggle and joy.
They listened to my story, I listened to theirs. We swapped favorite hamburger joints in the city and stories of the people we loved and the men who hurt us.
I will never forget any of them.
Dinner was carrot soup. It was
I was leaving today. I’d be getting weighed that morning.
I woke up early, grabbed my robe and bounced down the stairs. “Good morning ladies” I said to Ana Maria and Yvonne who were drinking tea in the lobby. Tea was the one thing we could consume freely, so we had a lot of it.
“Good morning!” The replied.
I waited anxiously in the clinic. The calming sound of flowing water was coming from somewhere as I tapped my slippered foot on the marble floor.
The same kind nurse from the first day smiled. “Ready?” she asked, infuriatingly chipper.
She measured my upper arms, my thighs, my butt, my belly, my chest.
My face looked different. My skin looked better. I looked less pale.
I glanced back to the mirror on the wall. It still didn’t look like me, but perhaps was starting to resemble a new version.
I stepped on the scale like it was no big deal, holding my breath. I had lost 7 pounds. I let it out.
I felt relieved, I felt guilty for feeling such relief. I felt relief.
I had shed more than the weight. I took off my shoes and walked through the woods, I ran into Ellen hugging a tree.
“I’m absorbing its energy!” She said.
I thought, why not, and hugged along with her. Looking up into the branches. The dew drops falling on my face.
The last lunch was a treat, two courses and dessert. I tried to chew slowly, enjoying every second of it.
I didn’t want to leave.
The driver was waiting outside, I couldn’t find the ladies to say goodbye. I retrieved my phone grudgingly, not wanting to turn it back on.
They packed me a snack for the road - a homemade granola bar and an apple wrapped in a pale yellow napkin. I vowed not to eat it as soon as I got in the car.
As I walked down the driveway with my bag Lucy called my name.
“Are you leaving already?!” She asked
“I am, I could only afford the five days” I said, smiling.
She rushed to me and hugged me like my mother would have.
“Look at you. You’re wonderful. Who wouldn’t want you, sweetheart.”
She looked me in my eyes and held my gaze until I looked down, uncomfortable and deeply touched.
Ana Maria walked by and kissed my cheek, told me she would introduce me to her son the judge.
Ellen told me to have a blessed flight home, that my aura was brighter, and took my number for us to have dinner sometime. Roberta gave me her card and told me I got this. Ricardo patted my arm and returned my poetry book, his email address and a note wishing me good luck scrawled in pencil inside.
I got in the car, tired, elated and free. Heart full of the stories I had collected, my notebook bursting with lessons on nutrition, sleeping patterns, spa recommendations, massage therapists, real therapists, acupuncturists, poems, phone numbers.
I thought of the cheesy quotes I had read about bravery, about journeys and new beginnings. I thought of the stupid purple butterfly I saw on the day I arrived.
Love or fear?
I think the answer was there all along, under the fog.
I turned on my phone: 166 messages.
I thought about how hard it would be to keep up the eating habits I had learned, how scary the world looked and how freeing it was to be able to have anything I wanted, even after just a few days of practicing control.
The driver looked at me through the rear-view mirror.
“First time?” he asked.
“Yeah, first time.” I said. First breakup, first love, first time I lost control, first time I got it back.
I thought of him, carefully. It still hurt, and probably would for a long time. It still felt unreal, ten years gone in a flash, the path of my life altered completely on a cold night in August. A huge, brutal, bright, terrifying future ahead.
Dinner was tomato soup. I made it myself.