“That is more food than I could eat in a week.” Winnie’s stomach clenched and she pushed away from the table as if the plate of food they’d set in front of her was going to reach out and take a bite out of her. “And there is sausage on my plate!”
“It’s vegan sausage,” Cheyanne said, spearing a piece off her own plate and talking around it with a full mouth, “It’s really good.”
“Does it taste like sausage?” Winnie asked, disgusted by the way her new friend was eating.
“Is the texture the same as real sausage?”
“Yup.” Cheyanne speared another piece.
“The texture of sausage would make me puke.” Winnie shook her head and pushed her plate away.
“Do not throw up,” Brea said from across the table. “They will send you right back to the hospital if you throw up your food.”
“I wouldn’t throw up on purpose,” Winnie said a little too loud, catching the attention of people several tables away. “But sausage is gross. I am not putting that in my mouth.”
“What’s going on over here, ladies?” Celeste asked, sitting beside Winnie and setting two glasses of juice on the table. “I leave you alone for two seconds and you’re hollering at each other?”
A different staffer at the other end of the six-person table interrupted. “I realize Edwina is new here, but we need to go over some rules. We don’t describe food as gross, nor do we talk about purging during meals. We have counseling sessions to discuss those kinds of behaviors.”
“I do not have a problem with purging,” Winnie said, again, a little too loud. “I have a problem with sausage.”
“That’s not sausage,” Celeste said. Having missed the original conversation where Cheyanne explained to Winnie that the little hunk of texturized vegetable protein was actually not sausage.
“But it smells like sausage and it tastes like sausage and it chews like sausage and it’s disgusting.” Winnie realized she had now drawn the attention of everyone on the room.
“We don’t use the word disgusting to describe food.”
Winnie stood suddenly. “I don’t care what we do. I am not part of your collective we. I don’t care what the rules are. I don’t care what the rest of you do or do not do, I am not eating that.” She pointed at the little hunk of fake meat. “If you’ll excuse me, I’m going back to bed.”
She stomped from the room with her nose in the air, then took off running down the hall to her bedroom, flopped down on her bed and cried. Hard. Worse than any other crying she’d done this whole week, even when Joel left. This was the culmination of every negative thought she’d ever had about food since she was a little girl coming out in a torrent of emotion. This was tears that soaked her pillow, sobs that racked her body to the point that she was dry heaving and coughing.
Curling into a ball, Winnie clutched her knees to her chest and held herself in the fetal position. The thought occurred to her that these people would force her to go back to a mental institution if she didn’t get her emotions under control. Maybe that’s where she belonged, in a mental institution. Maybe she should just let them shove a feeding tube down her nose. That would be easier than choking down fake sausage.
“Winnie? It’s Celeste. Can I sit beside you?”
“Sorry, I can’t do that. I’d lose my job.” Celeste pulled up a chair beside the bed. “You don’t want me to lose my job, do you?”
“I don’t care what you do,” Winnie said. “If the only reason you want to talk to me is because you’ll lose your job, then I don’t care.”
“Well, my three-year-old daughter would care, and she’s the most important person in my life. If I don’t pay the bills, we’ll lose our apartment. So, get over yourself. There are people and issues in this world that are more important than sausage.”
Winnie was shocked into silence. This was the first time anyone had called her out for her tirades. She rolled over and looked at her new friend. “You’re a single mom?”
“Yeah, my deadbeat ex-boyfriend took off when he found out I was pregnant. Good riddance except it’s hard to keep the lights on with one person’s salary. You live in a sheltered, perfect world full of millionaires who can afford to send you to place like this. You have no idea how lucky you are.”
“You’re probably right,” Winnie said with compassion. “I’m really sorry I was insensitive.”
“I’ll forgive you if you drink this protein shake and don’t do anything else that would give them a reason to fire me.” Celeste handed Winnie the can of Ensure.
“I would be willing to drink that under one condition,” Winnie said.
“You’re not exactly in a position to negotiate,” Celeste said. “And I’m getting tired of trying to convince you to get healthy. If you’re not interested in getting healthy, let them take you back to the hospital and force feed you. I guarantee they’ll let you wallow in bed all day long if you’re locked away in a mental hospital.”
“You promised me pancakes,” Winnie said, ignoring Celeste’s sarcasm. “So, my one condition is that if you take that hunk of sausage off my plate and sit beside me to eat a gourmet meal of pancakes, syrup, and butter, then I’ll drink this protein shake as a substitute for the disgusting sausage and be a good girl for the rest of the day. Or at least I’ll try.”
“And your only condition is that I remove the sausage from your plate?” Celeste raised her eyebrows.
“And sit beside me,” Winnie said, then lowered her voice to a near whisper. “I could really use a friend right now.”
“Hey, they pay me to be your friend. Does that count?” Celeste teased.
“Yeah, that counts.” Winnie swung her legs off the bed, then stood and offered a hand to Celeste. “Now, come on. Our pancakes are getting cold.”
Book Club Discussion: Amazing how someone else's problems can humble us to put ours in perspective.