“Joel, please don’t leave me here!” Winnie called out to the locked door behind her where her traitorous husband had just left. She resisted as hard as she could but the two staffers from the eating disorders clinic pulled her gently back into the building where she would be held captive for who knows how long. “You said I could come home, Joel! Please come back!”
“Edwina, you’re going to stay here for a few days,” Barbara said in what she probably thought was a soothing voice. “Joel wants you to get healthy so you can go home to your family. Remember how you want to spend time with Lynnette, and go back to your job in New York City? You want to dance, right? Get some toe shoes and go to a ballet studio?”
“I want toe shoes now! Get me my toe shoes! Don’t make me stay here without toe shoes!” Winnie slumped to the floor, completely without the energy or willpower to stand or walk. She almost pulled Barbara and the other staffer down with her. She bent forward, pressing her arms across her center, holding herself together, sobbing uncontrollably.
Barbara sat down in front of her and placed a box of tissue on Winnie’s lap, but she didn’t say anything. Eventually Barbara pulled a tissue from the box and placed it in Winnie’s hand. Like an involuntary gesture, Winnie wiped her eyes and nose but continued sobbing, rocking back and forth.
“I wanna go home,” Winnie whimpered. “Please let me go home.”
“Let’s get you healthy and then you can go home, okay?”
“I don’t want to get healthy. I just want to go home.”
“Nope, you have to do both. You have to get healthy first, and then go home.”
“I want Joel to stay with me. He won’t take up much space. I promise. He can sleep in my bed with me.”
“Joel needs to finish his classes.”
“He can study here. I’ll help him study.”
“What kinds of classes is he taking right now?” Barbara asked softly.
“I dunno. Exercise physiology or something that involves cutting people open or something.” She didn’t want to think about that right now. She needed to figure out a way to get out of this place.
“What kind of doctor does he want to be?” Barbara asked.
“Sports medicine.” Winnie grabbed another tissue and blew her nose then grabbed another one. Someone brought a garbage can and Winnie picked up her growing pile of tissues and threw them away.
“Did he play a sport in college?”
“He was on the football team at University of Michigan,” Winnie said. “They went to the Rose Bowl last year.” Why was she allowing herself to get distracted by this? She needed to focus.
“Wow, he must have been a really good football player. What position did he play?”
“Do you mean quarterback?” Barbara asked.
“No, cornerback,” Winnie explained. “It’s a defensive position. He stole the ball a lot and got lots of touchdowns that way.” A tiny smile lifted the corner of Winnie’s mouth as she remembered how he’d purposely made touchdowns for her.
“You seem to know a lot about football,” Barbara said. “Was that just from knowing Joel? Or did you like football before you met him?”
“My dad and brothers always watched football and we had box seats at The Big House every year.”
“What’s the big house?” Barbara asked.
“The University of Michigan’s football stadium is the largest in the United States or something like that.” Winnie waved her hand dismissively and grabbed another tissue, this time wiping the smeared makeup from under her eyes.
“Is that where you went to school also?” Barbara nodded as if to answer her own question. Winnie found herself nodding along. “What was your major?”
“I majored in dance and specialized in classical ballet.”
“And now you dance in New York City at a theatre, right? What theatre?”
“The Ajkun Ballet Theatre.” Winnie’s sobs had lessoned to a few sniffles.
“That sounds prestigious,” Barbara said. “And you’ve been performing in The Nutcracker? What else?”
“Ooh, I love Swan Lake. Did you have one of the lead roles?”
“No, this is my first year in the company. I won’t be a principal for a while.”
“You must be pretty talented, or you wouldn’t have even made it into the company. Those are pretty competitive spots, aren’t they?”
“Yeah.” Winnie nodded. “I’m a really good dancer.” At least I was, she thought.
“I’d love to see you dance sometime.” Barbara sounded sincere rather than placating.
“There’s a YouTube video out there somewhere with my senior showcase.”
“I’ll have to look it up.”
“Ladies—” a man interrupted them. Winnie looked up to see a middle-aged man with his hand out. “Dinner’s just about ready. Can I help you off the floor?”
As if she knew the guy and they did this every day, Winnie tucked her hand in his and let him lift her to her feet. “Thank you,” she mumbled.
“I’m Ulyses, by the way. I’m the nutritionist here at the center.”
“He’s the guy you want know in order to get the good stuff.” Barbara lumbered up from the floor. “He even sneaks in locally-grown produce picked this morning.”
“In December?” Winnie raised her eyebrows in disbelief.
“You’re in California now, Dorothy,” Barbara said in a perfect Wicked Witch of the West impersonation.
“What kind of produce are you talking about?” Winnie said through the corner of her mouth, getting in on the teasing.
Ulyses leaned closer and said in a conspiratorial whisper, “I smuggled in fresh strawberries.”
“Way,” he confirmed. “You’re a vegetarian, right? I put you at the table with Cheyanne and Brea. They’re also both vegetarians. I think they’re about your age, too. What are you, twenty-two?”
“Yeah.” Winnie nodded. She had to hand it to these guys. They succeeded in distracting her enough to stop crying and maybe join the land of the living for a few hours before bed.
“Come on, I’ll introduce you.” Ulyses held out his arm like a gentleman escorting a lady and Winnie slipped her hand in the crook of his arm.
As close as the dining area was to the main entrance, Winnie had no doubt in her mind that every resident in the center had witnessed her complete meltdown. From their empathetic expressions, Winnie got the impression that she wasn’t the first, nor would she be the last, person to have a crying fit on the floor in the foyer.
Before leading her over to an open seat, Ulyses wrapped an arm around her shoulder and called out to the dining room, garnering attention from several dozen residents and staff, most of whom were already seated with a plate of food in front of them. “Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to introduce Edwina”—he stopped and glanced down at her—“or do you prefer Winnie?”
“Winnie’s fine.” She shrugged. “I like both.”
“Winnie’s going to be staying with us for a few days, so I hope you’ll help her to feel welcome.”
Everyone in the room had soft, friendly smiles. Some people waved or said hello. Ulyses led her over to a table where two women in their early twenties sat with plates of noodles and chopsticks. After introducing them, Ulyses held out her chair and Winnie slid into place.
“Do you like Pad Thai? I made it myself with seasoned tofu stir fried with a little bit of olive oil.”
“Sounds delicious,” Winnie said. “Thank you.”
To her surprise, Ulyses sat at the table beside her and someone placed a plate of food in front of each of them. Winnie’s portion was much smaller. “You and I will meet tomorrow to discuss menu options and talk about what you like and dislike and determine caloric intake to help you reach your goal weight. But for tonight, just eat as much or as little as you want to eat, even if you only take one bite. I won’t be offended if you don’t like it.”
“Smells really good,” Winnie said, picking up a pair of chopsticks. “Looks really rich, though.”
“No pressure,” Ulyses said. “Just eat what you’re hungry for and stop when you’re done.”
“Okay.” Winnie took a bite of the decadent noodle dish and almost moaned out loud it tasted so good. She’d forgotten how yummy real food was. She’d been living off soup and protein shakes for so long she couldn’t remember the last time she had a sit-down meal like this.
Her social anxiety made it nearly impossible for her to eat at restaurants anymore. This felt like a safe environment. As she took a second bite, she decided this might not be the worst place in the world to live for a few days.
As long as they brought her some toe shoes. Soon.