“Heard you had quite a fun morning…” Ulysses let his statement hang in the air. Winnie didn’t know how to respond or if he was even expecting a response. They were sitting across the desk from each other in his immaculate office, which surprised Winnie because she would have thought a dietician who cooked vegetarian Pad Thai in his spare time and smuggled strawberries into the center would somehow be more disorganized. “So, as far as a long-term refeeding strategy goes, fake sausage is off the table, pun intended. Am I right?”
Winnie wasn’t sure if he was teasing or angry. She shrugged.
“We need to start somewhere,” Ulysses continued. “What was your favorite meal growing up? What was the food your mom made you for your birthday dinner?”
“Pizza,” Winnie said without hesitation. “We always went to Chuck E. Cheese for my birthday.”
“That sounds like fun.” He nodded. “When was the last time you went to Chuck E. Cheese?”
“Probably my younger brother’s tenth birthday party. We got too old after that and I refused to eat anything fattening about that time.”
“What made you decide pizza was fattening?” Ulysses leaned forward and put his elbows on his desk.
“I gained some weight when I reached puberty and my mom made a comment about how we needed to be careful not to eat our way out of our leotards.”
“I find it curious that you use the collective ‘we’ when talking about your mom after that tirade this morning about not including yourself in our collective ‘we’ here at the center.” His statement wasn’t a question, but Winnie sensed that he wanted an answer.
“You heard that?” For some reason knowing Ulysses learned about her outburst made her embarrassed. She felt her cheeks warm, and she lowered her gaze.
“Could you explore that for me?”
“What are you, my counselor?” She folded her arms across her chest and scowled.
“Kind of.” Ulysses steepled his fingers. “We’re a team here at the center, and pretty much everyone from the custodial staff to the owners and directors have all been trained to care for our guests.” His statement implied she couldn’t get away with anything anywhere with anyone as long as she was living there.
“I’m not going to blame my mother for my eating disorder if that’s what you’re trying to get me to do,” Winnie said. “I control what I put in my mouth and my condition is not her fault.”
“I understand your desire to take responsibility for your actions, but you need to realize that you are greatly influenced by the people who were with you during your formative years. Just like people don’t wake up one day and decide to rob a bank. You didn’t wake up one day and decide to become a ballerina. Your husband didn’t wake up one day and decide to become a doctor. You didn’t wake up one day and decide to have an eating disorder. There’s always a catalyst. There’s always something that influences your choices. Do you remember the moment you decided to become a ballerina?”
There was weight to Ulysses’ speech, as if whatever he was getting at was huge and deserved deep reflection. Winnie thought hard. “My mom took me to ballet classes when I was really little and always seemed so proud of me when I danced. She bought me little princess outfits with skirts that swirled around when I turned in circles. She clapped and smiled and told me I was beautiful and special and talented.” Winnie didn’t realize a tear had escaped until it fell onto her cheek.
“Special memories?” Ulysses asked.
“Yeah.” Winnie wiped the tear from her cheek. “I was her only daughter and she spoiled me, and dance was our thing. I wasn’t a daddy’s little girl. I was my mommy’s princess.”
“Did she want you to grow up to be a ballerina?”
“Maybe. I don’t know. I wish I could ask her.”
“Call her,” Ulysses suggested.
“Right now?” Winnie wondered if he was serious. “Am I allowed to do that?”
“Sure, why not?”
“Aren’t I supposed to be in some sort of isolation therapy thing?”
“Our philosophy here at the center is to use whatever methods work to help our guests break through to becoming healthy. If talking to your mom right this second helps answer a question, then call her.” Ulysses handed Winnie his own cell phone.
“Are you sure?” Winnie looked down at the phone, confused. She tried to remember her mom’s cell phone number. It was plugged into the contacts list of her own cell phone. Then she remembered her childhood phone number and realized they still had a landline at the house. She wasn’t sure if anyone would even answer. The only people who called that line were telemarketers and her grandparents. She dialed and waited, almost hoping no one would pick up. Hearing her mom’s voice brought fresh tears to Winnie’s eyes. Where the heck did all these tears come from? “Mommy?”
“Edwina? Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m okay.” She brushed the tears from her cheeks. “I’m sitting here with my friend Ulysses and we had a couple questions for you. I’m going to put you on speakerphone, okay?”
“Okay… what’s going on?”
“Good morning, Mrs. LaFleur,” Ulysses said. “How are things in Michigan?” He mouthed to Winnie, “Michigan, right?” Winnie nodded.
“Um… fine, I guess.”
“Mommy, we were just talking about all the special memories I had of ballet when I was a little girl and how much I loved being a princess and spending time with you.”
“Oh, sweetheart. I loved spending time with you, too.”
“Do you remember what made me decide to become a ballerina?”
“You do?” Winnie’s heart raced with excitement.
“I took you to see The Nutcracker when you were nine.”
“I remember that.” Winnie’s shoulders relaxed. “The Moscow Ballet Company came to the Fox Theater in Detroit.”
“That’s right.” Her mom sounded like she was smiling through tears. Winnie wished she could see through the phone and thought maybe one of these days they could do a video chat. “Your eyes lit up with excitement and you were enchanted. That night as we drove home you declared, ‘I’m going to be in The Nutcracker someday.’ And I just knew you were going to make that dream come true.”
“Mommy, you helped me make that dream come true.” Winnie felt like a vulnerable little girl as she sobbed along with her mom, two thousand miles away and connected by a memory.
“Your hard work and determination made that dream come true, my sweet princess.”
“We were a team,” Winnie said.
“We were a great team,” her mom said. “I’m so proud of you, sweetheart.”
“Thank you, Mommy. For everything.”
“Are they treating you okay, sweetie? Are you getting healthy?”
“I ate pancakes this morning. And I’ve made a couple of friends.” Winnie laughed and wiped her cheeks.
“Were there blueberries in those pancakes?” her mom asked.
“Not this time.”
“Does she like blueberries in her pancakes, Mrs. LaFleur?” Ulysses asked.
“When she was a little girl, she did.”
“What other foods were her favorites?” he asked. “We’re trying to make a list of foods to try.”
“She used to love pizza,” her mom suggested.
Winnie and Ulysses laughed lightly. They were on the right track.
“And my homemade chocolate chip cookies.”
“Can you send me the recipe?” Ulysses suggested.
“Sure, I can do that.”
“We’re going to do our best to help your girl get healthy while she’s staying with us,” Ulysses said.
“Thank you. And, Edwina, I’ve been thinking a lot these past few weeks, and… I’m sorry if I haven’t supported your eating preferences all these years. I’ll try harder to be understanding about your desire to be a vegetarian.”
“Thanks, Mommy, that means a lot to me.”
“I’m sorry if anything I’ve said or done has contributed to your… eating disorder. And I’m sorry if I was blind to your condition. I’ll try to do better.”
“Thank you.” Winnie nodded, even though she knew her mom couldn’t see her. “I’m gonna go now, Mom.”
“I love you, Edwina.”
“I love you, too, Mom.”
“See you soon.”
Winnie hung up the phone and handed it back to Ulysses, grinning across the desk at him. “Can we have pizza for dinner?”
“I think pizza is a great idea.” He returned her grin. “And I think tomorrow you’re going to teach me how to make your mom’s homemade chocolate chip cookies.”
“That sounds awesome.” Winnie felt more positive than she had in months, maybe years.