My mom had insisted we take pictures on the Pont Neuf Bridge, assuring us that it was a famous spot, especially renowned for Vogue Magazine fashion shoots. In the pictures, we’re hamming it up for the camera, sucking in our cheeks and bending our heads back at angles so unnatural they must be glamorous.
I was very careful about what to bring along in terms of clothes, only choosing those objects which might distance me from my inescapably pedestrian American-ness. In the pictures, I’m spinning in a new dress, bought just for this trip. It was rayon, with a black and white floral print—simple, but not quite geometric, and a full inch above my knee at least. I could pair it with any color I wanted, but that day I kept things really simple, with black opaque tights and flats, cat’s-eye glasses and a slash of burgundy lipstick.
My mother was thrilled to bring me shopping just before we left. “You’ve worked so hard,” she gushed, “it’s nice to be able to show off a little.” Looking at myself in the window of the Métro as we zoomed around Paris, I stood out in monochrome contrast to all the men wearing Easter-Egg-colored suits all around us. The way they looked at me made me feel like I’d been singled out by a director in every frame—the opposite of that music-video trick where only one thing is in color, but with the same effect of my being marked, special, set apart.
At Jenny Craig, they measured us every Thursday during our Personal Counseling sessions. After weigh-in, my counselor, Ms. Carlson, brisk in her off-brand Talbots jacket, wound a tape measure around my waist, between my shoulder blades, around my hips, unspooling a yellow ribbon for the total inches lost since I had started. By the time we left for Europe, the record of my steady dwindling was as long as my arm.
At the end of this meeting, I got the print-out of my weekly meal plan to review before we stocked up on all the microwave-ready boxes to bring home, then we talked over how I would cover the extra dairy and fat exchanges I got since I was under sixteen.
“Be mindful of these extra exchanges,” Ms. Carlson warned me, “these choices are where you build up your muscles for later, when you’ve reached your Goal and can transition to your Maintenance Plan.” Every day after school I would have a bowl of rolled oats and skim milk and raisins—I could already taste the copper zing of the raisins two block before the bus reached my stop.
Since almost all Jenny Craig food came in boil-in-the-bag pouches, like the MREs you get at sporting-goods stores for camping, I had to go to the teachers’ lounge to cook it almost every day. My English teacher was my sentry, standing next to me as I used the microwave, a visual reminder that I wasn’t out of bounds, not really.
On the Métro, there was a guy in a yellow suit sitting across from us. He should have looked silly, I suppose, like Dick Tracy or Jim Carrey in The Mask, but Europe lent everything a touch of glamour, even candy-colored menswear. His black hair was slicked back, and he was openly staring at me. At first I felt embarrassed, but then I realized I could just stare back, so I did, challenging him to look away. But he never did, not for two straight stops. I felt giddy, like when I leaned up against the window at my grandmother’s high-rise apartment building and willed myself to gaze down at the concrete twenty-five stories down. And when our stop arrived, leaving was even better. I was heady with the knowledge that I could just get off the train whenever I want, take myself away from him and garner more jewel-toned admirers across this weird city, with its arty subway stops and tiny winding streets.
We alit at a park, with the cathedral we were planning to visit laying just on the other side. I made sure to speed ahead so there were about ten yards between me and my family—I could hear them if I ended up going in the wrong direction or if they wanted to stop for ice cream (my mother assured us that we were on a break from our Plan while on vacation), but maybe the people around us would just think I was an average French lady, in my stylish minidress and ballet flats. Maybe they’d think I was a dancer.
There was a group of men playing some kind of lawn bowling off to the side. I took longer steps, as if I were on my way to an important meeting or other engagement. I could feel my purse sway as I walked. I pretended not to notice them looking at me, except for a quick, weary smile, as if I got this all the time.
But moments later I heard them hooting after me like sirens. I couldn’t understand the content, but the form was familiar enough. My cheeks burned as my pace wavered, and I could hear my dad storming up behind me before feeling the weight of his L. L. Bean barn coat on my shoulders and his hand gripping my upper arm, hard.
“What the fuck were you thinking, dressing like that?” His voice was a low hiss, but anyone looking on could tell what was happening, and the burst of laughter from my boules-playing audience only confirmed my transition from heroine to punch line.
“That skirt is ridiculous—I’m not surprised that this is what people think of you.”
He sped up, leaving me to hang back so my mother and sister could catch up with me. When we got to the church, my dad was taking pictures of flying buttresses. This is the first cathedral where they could build tall stained-glass windows, my mom informed Kate and me as we entered the cool, dark foyer. Before this architectural innovation, churches could barely let in any light at all. The walls had to hold up all the weight of the structure, so the buildings had low ceilings and tiny windows like the kinds in a basement—close to the ceiling and barely big enough for someone to squeeze through if there were a fire or something.
We walked into the chapel while my dad surveyed the outside of the building. A tall window before me reminded me of one in our church at home—it must have been St. Francis, because he was surrounded by animals. The sheep sidled up to his hand, shy and deferential as he scattered grain around them.