Work in Progress
Is there a recipe for happiness when a mother can’t eat, and a daughter can’t stop? In this brave, funny novel a 12-year-old girl searches for acceptance when being bite-sized seems the only choice.
Eden Sterling is a talented chef who is starved for her mother’s approval. A mother who thinks body shaming will keep her daughter out of the kitchen until the tables turn. Mom is diagnosed with anorexia and Eden hopes her cooking will save her. First stop is a kid’s culinary school to better her skills only to meet a fat-phobic rival who knows how to sharpen a knife… and her tongue. Now Eden must prove food is not her enemy. Unless it is. While binge-eating trays of food sent for the family she discovers she must defeat that rival in a cooking competition. But when an already anxious Eden is accused of sabotage, will she fight for her sweet ending or watch her dreams go up in flames?
Sleepaway camp was such a major part of my life my parents told everyone, “Eden lives ten months for two.” Exactly. Nothing made me happier than hanging out at the lake, sharing secrets and laughing so hard my stomach hurt. For some reason everything was funnier at camp.
Until the summer of seventh grade.
The girls I waited all year to see acted as if their memories had been deleted like files on a hard drive. Instead of wanting to be Gaga Ball champions again they were flirts in skirts. Instead of spending rainy afternoons tie-dying hoodies they practiced gluing on eyelash extensions. Also, someone decided boys were the only thing we cared about and by someone I meant Ava Zelinsky. When she unpacked her trunk, I counted three kinds of mousse, a case filled with makeup and enough outfits to dress the fourteen of us.
But that wasn’t why I was miserable.
It was the whispering behind my back when I changed clothes and my so-called friends leaving for activities without telling me. Plus, how many times did I have to ask them to make room for me at our dining table? Pretty much the only times everyone was nice was when they wanted to use my flat iron or borrow a book.
After a week, I couldn’t take the rudeness and begged my two besties to tell me why I was being snubbed. Had I forgotten anyone’s birthday during the year or posted a photo that hurt one of their feelings? At first, Olivia and Hannah said they had no idea. Then one morning on the way to breakfast they spilled the truth.
Hannah looked around to make sure no one else could hear. “So, Ava started a group chat before we got here and said we should ghost you.”
My stomach somersaulted. “Why?”
“We thought it was dumb,” Olivia said. “But she said you’re not like us…you don’t care about your looks.”
“Because I think fake eyelashes look ridiculous?”
“Because she thinks you should go on a diet,” Hannah blurted.
I kicked a pebble so hard it ricocheted off a tree. Camp was the one place I never had to worry about being judged.
“Don’t worry,” Olivia said. “We told her you want to be a chef so, of course, you have to try everything.”
I did want to be a chef. What I didn’t want was to spend the summer feeling bad about myself. “Do you think… should I lose weight?”
Hannah shrugged. “Maybe like five pounds.”
“But only if you want to,” Olivia said. “We’re not all supposed to look alike.”
“Thanks,” I replied. “Could you also tell Ava I’m going to be a famous chef with my own TV show? If she wants tickets, she has to stop treating me like dirt.”
The warning worked! That night, Ava asked me to hang out on the porch with everyone and I felt super smart for problem solving on my own. Then I discovered the invitation was a set-up so our bunk could play “You’re Hot! You’re Not.” It was a stupid game where the girls voted on which parts of you were good and which parts needed help.
Guess who lost points for having a baby belly and boobs that didn’t fill a bra?
When it was Ava’s turn, I wanted to point out her eyes were two different shapes, but I was afraid of being sent back to Lonelyville. Instead I told her she was fine the way she was, that we all were, and our looks should be the most boring thing about us. It was a lesson I had learned from my grandmother, “Glamma”, who had won a bunch of beauty contests and used the prize money to pay for law school.
Oops. Team Ava didn’t appreciate this important tip because the next day they left the sweetest note on my pillow. Eden!!! We think you should wear a bathing suit under your clothes so it holds in your big stomach !!!
I did what any girl would do. I searched for a bathroom away from our bunk and quiet-cried into scratchy toilet paper. I knew all about being humiliated because I had a big brother who called me names, a mother who pressured me to be perfect and friends who teased me about wearing the same outfit twice in a row. But none of that stung as bad as this. The girls I had spent five summers with, the ones I had trusted with my secrets and sat with when they were homesick were willing to throw away our friendship for Ava Zelinsky.
If only I had known being twelve was so much harder than being eleven.
As I sat atop the toilet, I wondered what the trick was to being an influencer with a million followers so everyone would beg to be my friend. The bad news was I was terrible at sports, singing and knowing which clothes went with what shoes. My only talent was making sourdough grilled cheese sandwiches though I doubted they would make me famous.
Wait, I thought. When we were younger, we loved styling each other’s hair. What if I gave everyone a chance to tame my crazy curls before evening activity? So fun! But when even Olivia and Hannah didn’t volunteer my phone calls home sounded like this. “Why can’t I leave? Please, please, please let me leave.”
“Sorry, Eden,” Mom said. “I’m swamped with cases and I have a trial starting.”
Dad was even less help. “The city is stifling, and at least camp has a lake and a pool.”
Then my fifteen-year-old brother, Jayden, closed the case. “No one misses you.”
What hurt worse than my family not caring about my happiness was worrying Ava was right about my loser looks. Was I doomed to be the girl nobody envied? If only I had been lucky enough to inherit Mom and Glamma’s model-thin bodies instead of the short, round Sterling genes. Thanks Dad.
By the last day of camp, I had leftover sunscreen to pack but zero self-esteem. So, when it was time for our final friendship circle, I bolted for the bus. No way was I watching the hugging, crying and phony farewells. Love you… I’ll text you every day. But when I snuck on, Shauna Becker was already sitting by a window clutching her phone.
Like me, she lived on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and loved animals. Unlike me she was brave enough to pick up spiders by their legs and rescue Chico, the camp owner’s cat, from huge trees.
“Okay if I sit with you?” I asked.
“Totally okay,” she said. “Just like last year.”
Guess I had forgotten. “Good summer?”
“Worst one of my life,” I said.
We high-fived and checked our phones knowing as soon as the bus left camp the cell service would improve. Then I waved to the Pennsylvania mountains and closed my eyes. It was time to dream about sleeping in my comfy bed, seeing my actual friends and cooking with our neighbor, Mrs. Adler. She lived down the hall and had been giving me cooking lessons since I could stand on her kitchen chair and stir.
I also needed to rehearse a speech in my head.
Mom hadn’t come up on visiting day because of a bad cold and even though she had recovered by now I hadn’t! How could a mother abandon her only daughter on the one day she was allowed to see her? Also, I hadn’t believed a word of the story about her nasty cough and the antibiotics that hadn’t helped. One time she won a case in the middle of having the flu, so no way would a cold have kept her home.
“Mom never cancels when she’s sick,” I cried to Dad that day. “Did she decide work was more important?”
Glamma clucked my chin. “Eden, darling. It’s the truth. She didn’t feel well.”
Jayden shrugged. “Mom never bailed when I was at camp. Told ya she loves me best.”
Sadly, it wasn’t a family secret Mom thought Trophy boy was her winner child. It was also no secret arguing a case in front of Lori Sterling was hard because arguing was her job, and no one was better at it. But maybe if I dropped the charges, she would grant my one wish.
Last year I had begged to go to culinary school with my friend, Talia. “How can I be a good cook if I don’t learn proper knife skills?” Ugh. Mom’s defense was so good it sounded like a rap song. Classes are expensive. Your schedule is full. They use butter in their dishes which goes against my wishes because food should be nutritious…
“Using butter is not a crime,” I tried. “It’s an innocent dairy product.”
“Nothing innocent about high cholesterol,” she replied. “Or the extra calories.”
Suddenly Shauna nudged me. “Earth to Eden. Last year we talked the entire ride home.”
I opened my eyes. “Because last year was awesome.”
“What was the worst part?” she asked.
“Everyone changed,” I said. “And change makes me a nervous wreck. What about you?”
Shauna pressed her nose to the window and sniffed.
“Things were that bad?” I asked.
“They called me Insect Girl and put bugs in my bed… spread a rumor I had a contagious rash…cut my bangs in my sleep…”
I reached into my bag for my last good tissue. “Sorry you had to go through that.”
“It’s fine,” she said. “I’ll never see them again.”
“Yeah,” I said as my phone shook. It was a text from my best friend, Faith Feldman, who was also headed home from camp. She had sent a GIF to celebrate our annual family reunion dinner and woot, woot, we were only hours from eating the best garlic knots on the planet.
Finally, the bus rolled into the parking lot of our pick-up spot in Queens and Shauna rolled her eyes. “Someone’s parents showed up with a stretch limo.”
“So dumb,” I said. “Why do rich people have to be such show-offs?” Fortunately, my parents drove Glamma’s old Buick, so I had no worries about getting dirty looks.
Soon we were bounding down the steps and searching for our families. Mom was easy to find in a crowd because she was basketball tall and Dad insisted on bringing balloons even though I told him I was too old. Then I heard my name called and turned to see a frail looking woman waving beside the long, black limousine. A woman I barely recognized.