Work in Progress
Is there a recipe for happiness when a mother can’t eat, and her daughter can’t stop? In this brave, funny novel a 12-year-old girl searches for acceptance when being bite-size 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. Then 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. Now Eden must prove food is not her enemy. Unless it is. After binge-eating meals sent for the family, Eden hangs up her apron and Googles the latest diets. But when asked to compete against her rival in a cooking contest it is game on. Or game over if Mom gets her way. Will Eden get a sweet ending or watch her dreams go up in flames?
Some days my life felt like a YouTube channel without subscribers. I had friends, but nobody who was bored enough to follow me. Even I didn’t want to follow me. Every Sunday, Mom gave out the new family calendar and it looked identical to the one from the week before.
Until the weekend something crazy happened. Something unimaginable.
It was the Saturday of Labor Day and my family was doing their “thing.” Mom was stretching before her run through Central Park. Dad was mapping his bike ride to Brooklyn. And my fifteen-year-old brother, Jayden, was dribbling a soccer ball because Sir Clueless thought he had practice. Wrong again, bro.
But other than binge-watching the Food Network and collecting yummy recipes, I didn’t have a “thing.” Or at least one that took much time. So, when Mom asked me to pick up a package in our lobby, I said sure. I couldn’t wait to catch up with our doorman, Alonzo. Maybe run into my building besties (the ones with cute kids and dogs). I missed everyone after spending the summer at camp and visiting my grandparents in Florida.
“Thank you, Eden,” Mom said. “By the way, it’s a back-to-school gift for you.”
“Sweet. Is it a new phone because mine keeps dying?”
“It keeps dying because you’re always on it.”
“I’m always on it because that’s what influencers do.”
Mom blinked. If through some unexplained miracle I had become an internet sensation at twelve, it would call for a congratulatory hug. Instead she checked the time. “Please hurry back. It’s our special day with Glamma.”
Define special, I thought. We were going bra shopping with my grandmother at the store she brought my mother to when she was my age. “Do we have to go today?”
“It’s on the calendar.”
She always made it sound as if our schedules were decided by higher powers in some distant galaxy, and only they could change it.
“Why can’t we shop on-line like normal people?” I said.
“Because we don’t know your size now.”
“It’s the same as before.”
Mom lowered her glasses. “I’m afraid you’re bigger everywhere.”
Welcome to the upper east side of Manhattan where skinny daughters were as valuable as penthouse apartments. If you had one you were the envy of those who didn’t. But instead of reminding her how puberty changed girls’ bodies overnight and it wasn’t their fault, I tore out the door and raced to the elevator. At least I wouldn’t have to hear more lectures on healthy snacking (“Read labels!”) and good hydration (“Drink more water!”).
Or as I called it, The Lori Sterling Method of Tortured Living.
Alone in the hall, I could stand in front of the shimmery gold mirror and have our millionth invisible fight. Do you think I want to be like you? What’s next? Intermittent fasting?
Trouble was sticking up for myself required courage which sometimes I had but mostly I didn’t. It was more fun to look in the mirror and pretend to be a YouTube star. Hand on hip. Lips puckered. “I’m Eden Sterling, Greystone Academy’s latest influencer. I used to be a classic underachiever until…”
Joking. My snacks would get more followers than me. In the mood for Twizzlers? Ask Eden. Thirsty? Eden has coconut water. I hoped this wasn’t the reason this boy told my best friend, Faith, he liked me.
I found her text.
FAITH: Doesn’t matter why Henry likes you. Don’t you want your first GOOD kiss?
EDEN: With Corey Boxer!!!
FAITH: Practice on Henry so you’re good at it with Corey
EDEN: Or I could get a kissing tutor
FAITH: They have those???
There should be an emoji for people who didn’t get jokes.
Finally, the elevator opened.
“Welcome home, Mademoiselle,” Alonzo bowed as I walked past his gleaming desk and plopped into my favorite red leather chair. I had forgotten how much I loved the glass sculptures and tall vases filled with rose-colored bouquets.
“Alonzo! What is up?”
“The sky is up. The stock market is up and…”
“The ratings are up.” I finished his sentence because it made him happy to talk about his son, a TV actor.
He high-fived me as if I was still playing junior doorman. “Are you here to pick up your package?”
“And to hang so my people know I’m back.”
Voila. The elevator opened and out walked our retired neighbor, Mrs. Adler, with her miniature poodle. “Millie! Give me kisses.” I nuzzled her nose and hoped she didn’t think I needed a tutor. “Did you behave for the groomer?”
“She did,” Mrs. Adler said. “And I’m so glad you are home because I’m baking apple pies this weekend. Care to join me?”
Hmm. Organize school supplies or spend the day turning squishy dough into a mouth-watering dessert? Hopefully Mom wouldn’t turn the invitation into a teaching moment. Studies show that butter is one of the leading causes of coronary heart disease.
“Can’t wait,” I said. I adored Mrs. Adler and her gourmet kitchen, but mostly I was obsessed with her lucky measuring spoons. For some reason they made my hands tingle as if there was magic tucked deep inside the wooden handles.
Mrs. Adler smiled. “Come after lunch on Monday and bring your new recipes.”
“They look really hard.”
“If anyone can figure them out it’s you. You’re the next Rachel Ray.”
In a gazillion years I wouldn’t have thought about having my own cooking show. Maybe a fan club? Love you, Mrs. Adler.
She hugged me goodbye as Alonzo returned with my package. The box was big and therefore promising. I had begged for these white jeweled sneakers Faith thought would be perfect for my first-day outfit. Or maybe Mom was surprising me with the puffy purple bag I added to her Amazon cart. Shhh. It had secret pockets for snacks.
Could they both be inside?
The possibility that Mom wanted me to be happy filled me with hope. Maybe this year we would hang out more. Fight less. But as I juggled the box while opening our front door my good mood fizzled like a cheap sparkler. Would I ever get used to our apartment’s new look? My parents mentioned something about doing a renovation while I was at camp. They failed to mention they would throw out half my childhood and donate the rest to Goodwill.
Buh-bye front closet where I used to play hide and seek. Adios dining room table, my homework headquarters. See ya comfy couch that was perfect for trivia night. Now we had a powder room with lighting bright enough for night games, stiff black leather seating and a granite table that looked like it had been ripped from the side of a mountain. Fortunately, the wooden bar stools in our cozy kitchen were spared the dumpster.
I placed the box on the counter as Mom walked in. “What took so long?”
“Alonzo asked me to save the planet, and I couldn’t find my cape. Can I open my gift?”
“Eden, we’re late. And please go change. Those shorts are…”
“Tight,” she said. “Do you want people to judge you?”
“By people do you mean you?”
Huge sigh. “Please put on the cute romper Glamma bought you.”
Ewww. The romper’s bright floral prints were not my style and if it was also snug Mom, the lawyer, would hold it up as Exhibit A. “The defendant is not drinking enough water.” But if I did cooperate, maybe she would agree to my terms. “If I change can we stop for bagels?”
“Let’s have yogurt instead.”
“Yum. Yogurt. Says no one ever.”
“Fine,” she said. “Open the box.”
I wasn’t sure what my dream sneakers had to do with starvation, but I punched a hole through the center of the carton and ripped open a flap. The anticipation made my pulse quicken as I imagined how many likes I would get when I posted my fashionable feet. Then I peeked inside and felt my eyes sting. No sneakers. No bag. Just rows of squishy containers with names like Very Vanilla and Strawberry Sundae.
My old friends, Sad and Frustrated, returned from their summer vacay. “Mommm? Do you remember seventh grade?”
“So, you remember wanting adorable high tops and getting protein shakes instead?”
She folded her arms. “Must you always overreact?”
“I’m asking what they have to do with school. Do they taste like science experiments?”
“Studies show that students who start the day boosting their metabolism perform better on tests.”
Again, with the studies. Were there any showing what daughters of carb-deprived mothers knew? Boosting metabolism was code for losing weight and mine thought I was fat. I ran to my room and slammed the door so hard my dresser mirror shook. But when I gazed into it, I didn’t see a girl who needed renovating like our apartment. I saw one who was tired of acting tough while dying inside.
Why can’t you accept me as I am not who you need me to be?
“Eden!” Mom yelled. “Glamma is waiting and you need bras.”
“Yeah, Eden,” Jayden mimicked from his room. “You need bras.”
“Knock it off,” Dad called from the kitchen. Then he lowered his voice. But when you are in the next room in an old building, the heating vents tell all. “Go easy on her, Lori. She doesn’t even know yet.”