BY EMMA BURGER
This is an excerpt from Emma’s novel Spaghetti for Starving Girls. Copyright is held by the author.
THAT NEXT morning, the train rolled into Donostia — San Sebastián station at 8:00 am. My body hot and head pounding, I stumbled out of bed and dragged myself to the station, getting there right as the train pulled in. Daniel and the owner were having lunch at one of San Sebastian’s many famous all-male gastronomic societies that day before heading off on their three-day wine tour across Getaria. I hadn’t told them anything about my trip. I planned to let the owner know what had happened when I touched down and it was too late for him to do anything about it. If he fired me, so be it. At least I’d never need to face Daniel again. For now, I was off to Rome.
I settled into a window seat with an empty table in one of the first few cars, staring out at the rolling green country side, face pressed against the window. It felt rather meditative after the hours of wallowing in psychic pain. As much as I had loved the vacuum of activity and consciousness that was the trans-Atlantic plane ride, there was nothing I loved more than sitting on a train cutting methodically through mountains and fields. The soft rumble of the tracks, the European countryside speeding past. I could stare at it for hours, unthinking. The night before had drained me mentally and emotionally, lulling me into a sleep deprived stupor. For once in my life, my mind felt totally still.
As we roared out of Pamplona station, a beautiful, somewhat frazzled looking woman threw open the car door and walked down the train aisle, the movement of the train beneath her feet throwing her occasionally off balance. Three large bags hung awkwardly over her skinny arms. She seemed to be looking for an empty row of her own to settle into, but most were already full. At the end of the car, she stopped at my table and asked in a posh British accent, “Mind if I sit here?”
“Of course,” I replied, kicking my bag beneath my seat to make room. She looked to be in her early 40s and looked wealthy if not a little disorganised. She wore large, heavy framed glasses that looked too big for her delicate face. She had high cheekbones and wide set green eyes, framed in jet black liner. She wore a strappy black silk cami with a studded leather jacket and skinny jeans that looked one size too big.
The woman threw two of her bags haphazardly overhead and tucked the third, an overflowing Louis Vuitton, on the seat next to hers. The latest issue of Harper’s Bazaar poked out the top of the bag. She set her large Nescafé cup that must’ve come from the cafe car down on the table, drumming her red manicured nails rhythmically against the lid of her cup. I adjusted my things. Suddenly self-conscious, I pulled my bright pink copy of My Year of Rest and Relaxation out of my bag, flipping it open to the dog-eared page in an attempt to busy myself. I’d thought for sure I would finish the whole thing on the flight to Spain, but I’d somehow dozed off for most of it to the ambient hum of Notting Hill.
“What are you reading?” She asked. I thought about how to explain what exactly it was without sounding completely batshit. She didn’t strike me as the type who would totally get it. “It’s kind of about… sleeping? For a year?”
“Oh interesting. My kind of girl,” she laughed. She had a nice, endearing nervous laugh. “Where are you off to? Visiting Barcelona I suppose?” She asked, speaking quickly. Everything about this woman exuded energy, which I tried to match. I didn’t want to seem lethargic by comparison.
“Actually I’m flying to Rome. I was just in San Sebastián,” I replied.
“Oh, San Sebastián! How marvellous – and Rome – you lucky girl. What brought you to Spain?” She asked.
“I’m here for work,” I responded. “I’m helping to open a Basque bar-restaurant in the states so we kind of came out here for research but really just to travel and have a good time before we open, you know? Probably won’t get another vacation for a while.”
We got to talking and I told her all about the situation with Daniel, about this last year of life post-grad, about the restaurant, the hospital, and the girls. If it had been anyone any less charming than she was, I probably would’ve politely shut down the conversation, not feeling in a particularly talkative mood. She was warm and empathetic though – something about her made me feel like I could spill my guts. She was my posh fairy godmother, appearing when I needed a friend most. It was certainly a welcome distraction from the depressing sequence of events the night before. She told me she was a publicist now working in fashion, but as it turned out, had been a model back in the 90s at the height of heroin chic.
“I just hope you realise the impact of the work you were doing with those girls in the hospital,” she said, staring out at the blurry countryside whizzing past. “There were plenty of girls I worked with back in the day who ended up in the hospital and worse. All of us were trying to look like Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell back then. We were made to, really. At the thinnest I’d ever been my entire post-adolescent life, my agent threatened to drop me if I didn’t lose a stone in four weeks leading up to Paris fashion week. And that was when I was tiny. At the time I never saw it that way of course, but I already was really, really tiny. If I’d gone through with losing the weight, it could’ve been a death sentence.”
She paused, both for sympathy and effect, but I didn’t know what to say. I should’ve, with everything I’d seen in the hospital, all the girls I’d known, my very own experience with an eating disorder. Everything I could think of though felt reductive and trite. Finally, she broke my silence, asking, “What do you say, would you get a drink with me, sweetheart?”
We walked down the length of the train, me following her to the snack car, staring ahead at the backs of her well-worn Frye combat boots. The two of us bought a chilled bottle of Sancerre to split and brought it back to our seats along with two plastic cups. She was a fascinating woman and sweet, endearing really. Something about her intent gaze and the way she laughed made me trust her almost immediately. She poured us each a cup. “Salud!” She toasted, “to my new American friend. Fuck that cheating bastard!”
As we drank, we chatted some more. She was especially interested in hearing about the girls and what it was about them specifically that I’d found had allowed this insidious disease to take root. “I lost a dear friend to anorexia, you know,” she sighed, shredding a spare napkin mindlessly into a neat pile on the table. “She had it bad for years and years, and finally her heart gave out at 28. It shouldn’t have been surprising, but it was such a shock, you know? I mean, we were all modelling. She was actually my roommate in my first model flat when I’d just moved to London. We were only seventeen. Such a gorgeous, kind-hearted girl.”
She looked down, suddenly aware of the pile of torn napkins that had been accumulating in front of her before continuing, “We’d all read about girls in the industry dying in their twenties, yet somehow we ourselves felt totally invincible. No clue why of course, we treated our bodies horribly. Dieting, over-exercising, popping pills, partying, cocaine, whatever it took to stay in the game. We’d try just about anything to keep up with that lifestyle. That set of expectations put on us, you know?”
“I’m so sorry,” I said, looking down at my drink. “I can’t even imagine going through that.” I thought back to the girls – hoping more than anything that the ones I’d met would all be the lucky ones. The ones who’d eventually just grow out of it. Of course, I knew that statistically, they wouldn’t all be.
“Thank you, you’re sweet,” she said. “Anyway, losing my dear friend so young was a real wake up call for me. After that happened, I just sort of dropped off the face of the earth for a few years. I moved out of London up north to the country. Stopped talking to just about everyone I knew in the city. I just couldn’t bear to be in the industry that killed her anymore. In a lot of ways, it had felt like a game or some sort of competition up until that point, but as soon as I’d heard about Maria it all just became real.”
“What did you do, all those years up in the country?” I asked.
“I’m not kidding when I say all I did for those three years was garden, cook meals from my garden, and take care of my dogs. It’s all I did, seriously. In many ways, it was that experience that healed me from my own eating disorder. Learning to grow and make my own food – I just saw eating in a totally different way. Suddenly the accomplishment was exactly the opposite of what it had been for me before. It was all about the food I could grow and prepare for myself with my own hands rather than what I was capable of denying myself.”
She scrolled through her camera roll to show me some pictures of her home out in the country. Her garden was bursting with fresh, abundant produce. Squash, cabbage, carrots, onions, and chard brightened the entrance to a cozy looking red-roofed cottage. “Course now I’ve been back in London for ages, but I still keep my place up north and try my best to live like I did back then, as much as I can. Simply. Without restriction. It keeps me from moving backwards,” she said, tucking her phone in her purse.
“You know,” she added, “Since you’re on your way to Rome and you’re interested in this stuff, you should really check out this book called Holy Anorexia by Rudolph Bell. Have you ever heard of Anorexia mirabilis or the fasting girls?”
“Never,” I responded, “What is it?”
“It’s Latin for a miraculously inspired loss of appetite. It was an eating disorder common among wealthy Roman women during the post-Pagan Christian Era. They’d starve themselves to emulate Jesus’s suffering and to demonstrate their contempt for their own bodies, which were considered evil.”
She continued, “In fact, the first known case of anorexia was in a religious upper class Roman woman. These ancient women really believed their anorexia placed them on a higher plane of spirituality. They believed that by starving themselves, they could become closer to Jesus. These Catholic women were known back then as the fasting girls.”
The fasting girls. Like the girls at the hospital, they were so motivated to starve themselves, to punish themselves, to stop their adolescent bodies from growing from children into women. The fasting girls and my girls alike would’ve done just about anything to prove their ability to overcome their most basic bodily needs. Apparently the impulse to project morality onto thin bodies was as old as antiquity. Among young women, it seemed, thinness always felt in one way or another like a spiritual pursuit.
We chatted for the rest of the ride to Barcelona. She was on her way there for a fashion industry conference, as it turned out, and had decided to spend the weekend before at a friend’s place just outside Pamplona while she was in Spain, anyway.
It was years, she explained, before she could return to London and to the fashion industry after losing her friend. “I knew that I’d have to go back one day though. The industry was my life. I was too drawn by the energy, the creativity of it. It’s what I was meant to do. Being on the other side of things rather than on the runway made a world of difference for me though. The industry’s been slowly changing, thank goodness. They’ve started regulating minimum BMIs for runway models in Spain and Italy and France and everything, but it’s never gonna go away completely. It’s just too much a part of our culture.”
I hadn’t told her anything about my issues around food but she’d probably picked up on it from the way I talked about the girls and my work with them. The way I got quiet when she’d told me about her friend. She seemed like an intuitive person – she must’ve sensed that these issues were personal for me too.
She’d travelled a bunch throughout Rome during her time away from London and had gotten deep into learning about Roman Catholic history. She was particularly intrigued, she told me, by the fasting girls. It was an illuminating lens through which to view her own background with anorexia, so she read about them extensively.
She wrote down a long list of museums and sites for me to go see in Rome as well as a few of her favourite restaurants. “You must go to Felice a Testaccio before you leave. Best cacio e pepe in all of Rome,” she told me.
By the time I looked at my watch, I realised we were almost all the way to Barcelona, and I hadn’t even caught her name. “It’s Charlotte,” she smiled, punching her number into my phone. “Text me if you run into any troubles in Rome. I’ve got quite a few nice Italian friends who I’m sure would be more than happy to look out for you.”
“Thank you so much,” I responded. “It’s been so incredibly nice talking to you. You’ve had such a fascinating life.”
As we parted ways on the platform in Barcelona, she leaned in and gave me a tight hug. “What I wouldn’t give to be your age with a weekend alone in Rome ahead of me. While you’re there, you’ve got to promise me you’ll experience it all. Mangia bene, ridi spesso, ama molto. Eat well, laugh often, love much.”
Emma Burger is a writer and healthcare professional working in oncology research. She splits her time between Ann Arbor, Michigan and New York City. You can find her work in Schuylkill Valley Journal, Across the Margin, Idle Ink, Memoirist, The Whisky Blot, Potato Soup Journal, Bewildering Stories, The Chamber Magazine, or on her website, emmaburgerwrites.com. “The Train Ride” is an excerpt from her debut novel, Spaghetti for Starving Girls, originally released in September 2021.