Ina is breaking her first diet. She’s walking up Nostrand Avenue on her way home from school. She’s spent her carfare on sweets, so she’s hurrying, trying to jog along nearly as fast as the bus. Meanwhile she’s stuffing candy in her mouth, feeling guilty and driven as well as half-starved. There’s a trail of silver paper behind her on the sidewalk, and malted milk duds are falling through her shaky fingers into the gutter. She doesn’t stoop to pick them up. She’s fallen low, but not that low.
Edna has put Ina on something called the Josephine Lowman Nine-Day Diet, which she cut out of the New York Post. Ina is only eleven but she wears size 13, the largest size there is. She’s now taller than all the other girls in the seventh grade and at the rate she’s going she’ll soon be the biggest teenager in the free world. She’ll also have the biggest breasts—she’s already a B cup.
When Ina came out of the Avalon with her parents last Saturday night, pretending she was Ava Gardner, a grown up man lurched toward her in the lobby, and Edna grabbed her wrist. “If I ever see you staring at a man that way . . . . ” Sol looked at Ina sadly, and she’s still confused about what had happened. Ina knows she wasn’t staring at anyone in particular, but imagines it must have something to do with her breasts, which stick out so presumptuously. She’s already heard loud wolf whistles on the post office steps, whistles that filled her with delirious joy.
If she loses weight, she thinks, she’ll look more like a fashion model and less like the prostitute she undoubtedly will soon become.
Ina’s diet works. Each day’s menu is printed in the newspaper. She eats only what’s printed and in nine days she loses five pounds. Ina feels grateful to Josephine Lowman, whoever she is. Then Edna suggests that Ina try for ten pounds, so Ina starts the whole cycle again; Edna’s saved the newspaper clippings. This time Ina is promised something extra as a reward—a baggy, all-covering crew-neck sweater.
Edna is perhaps unduly conscious of breasts. Hers are enormous. She wears bras like girdles with five hooks down the back and little puffs of lambs wool under the straps to ease the pressure on her shoulders. Whenever Edna takes a photo, she stands sideways holding her pocketbook in front of her, or else sits down behind a vase of flowers.
On her way to school at eight in the morning, Ina is already hungry. In the basement lunchroom she opens the meal that Edna has prepared. She’d risen early to chop radishes and green peppers and mix them into a container of fat-free cottage cheese. She’d wrapped it all up in a pretty flowered paper napkin—which Ina can’t eat—along with a plastic spoon. In the thermos is some bluish skim milk. Ina forgets that she wants to be a flat-chested size 9 and that she wants her mother to love her. She thinks about taking the pennies out of her penny loafers to buy a chocolate mint.
Although she’s sinned mostly in thought, at the end of the second nine days Ina has lost only two measly pounds. Edna isn’t discouraged. One more cycle, she promises, and we’ll hit the ten pound jackpot. Okay, Ina says, without making a fuss. I’ll do it.
Ina never makes a fuss. She always seems to be thinking about something else when her own fate is being decided.
Before long Ina is getting up in the middle of the night and sneaking down to the kitchen for some peanut butter. Heart pounding as she eases open the cupboard, she hastily licks the spoon and hides it in the back of a drawer.
A few days later she takes the money for a library fine and squanders it on a dripping slice of pizza. Worst of all, she abandons the library books, like an unwanted baby, on the floor of a telephone booth. By the twenty-seventh day, after diligent stuffing, Ina has gained back four pounds for a net loss of three pounds.
Scarlet-faced, Ina swears that she’s never broken her diet—no, not even once.
During the following argument, Sol, who is away most of the time in his linen supply business, appears to learn about the diet for the first time.
“Diet? Who needs a diet? She looks good the way she is,” he proclaims. He wonders why Edna is so angry.
Edna returns Ina to regular family rations. No more poached egg white on protein bread, thank God. She also installs a lock on the kitchen cabinet holding the bread, cereals and the peanut butter. Without a diet, she says, she is afraid of what Ina will become.
Now something thrilling happens in the family. An Israeli girl, a distant relative, is coming to America for a heart operation. Nineteen-year-old Lenka, Ina’s second cousin once removed, will live with the family for several months.
Edna makes elaborate preparations for Lenka. Whenever Ina arrives home from school, she finds her mother cleaning and polishing, shifting furniture, upgrading every possible household article, hand towels, napkin rings, magazine rack.
When Lenka finally appears on the dock of the Greek Line, Ina is disappointed. Her second cousin once removed is only a tiny mouse of a girl, pale and unresponsive. Her intense mouse-eyed stare makes Ina uneasy.
“My only surviving relative,” Edna says proudly, though it’s not really true. Jenka, Lenka’s mother is alive in Haifa. And of course there are a few other relatives who left Europe before Hitler arrived. Lenka is quickly whisked off to the hospital, where Ina is too young to visit. After surgery, Edna devotedly visits Lenka every day, carrying, in empty cottage cheese containers, special tidbits she’s cooked.
When Lenka finally returns to the Ziff household, she’s no longer wan and washed out but bright and vivacious. Although she looks delicate with her little cherry mouth and translucent complexion, she’s a powerhouse of energy, greedily cramming a lifetime of pleasure into her few weeks in New York.
While Ina is in school, Edna and Lenka go sightseeing: They catch the show at the Radio City Music Hall and climb the steps of the Statue of Liberty. They go off to downtown Brooklyn, to Fulton Street, where Edna buys Lenka a new outfit—a dainty silk organza dress with puffed sleeves and a sweetheart neckline. It’s size 3 and has a swooping ruffled hemline. Lenka also buys ballerina shoes with ankle straps, nylons, and a narrow black velvet ribbon to wear around her neck. She tries on her clothes in front of the full-length mirror. Boxes and tissue paper litter the room. While Lenka twirls, Ina stands nearby like a fence post. “Terrific!” Edna says, eyes gleaming.
Later on, Edna comes into Ina’s room while she’s finishing her Social Studies. “I’m completely knocked out. She dragged me all over Fulton Street, Namm’s, Loeser’s, A. & S., the whole shooting match. Did you see the stuff she picked out?”
“Nice, but don’t you think she has a bit of goyische taste? Still, it’s a pleasure to shop with someone so easy to please.”
While Lenka and Edna are gadding about, Ina spends more time with Sol. She has to give him supper while the two are off seeing a Broadway show. Instead of reading The Post while he gulps his food, Sol talks to Ina, inquiring after her schoolwork. “I don’t always ask because I know you’re doing well,” he says. In the same spirit Ina asks after the linen supply.
Lenka and Edna go to Washington for the weekend. Ina will get her turn during Easter vacation. On Saturday Ina gives herself a treat of her own—a trip to the Grand Army Plaza branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. In the handsome reading room and the space of an hour or two, she devours a sexy forbidden book by Pearl S. Buck about a concubine.
“Actually, it was boring,” Edna reports when she returns home from Washington. “I only ran here and there for Lenka’s sake.”
Soon Lenka grows more annoying. Her incomprehensible chatter, her sharp little nose, her high squeaky voice, her small, always-moving mouth enrage Ina. Their exchanges never lead anywhere because Lenka speaks so little English.
“You go to the Freak Museum?” Lenka asks.
“Freaks? Coney Island, you mean? You want to go to the boardwalk?”
“No, Freak Museum.” She jabs a skinny finger at Ina’s chest. “Artist.”
Ina won’t learn about the existence of The Frick Collection until she is grown up.
A few days before her departure, an unexpected check arrives from Jenka, and Lenka’s out on a final buying orgy: more nylons, Woolworth knickknacks, lipsticks, earrings. She’s learned to take the Avenue R bus to Kings Highway and disappears for whole mornings by herself. One day she comes home with a fancy box of Barton’s chocolate. Again Ina hears words of adulterated praise from Edna.
“She could offer to share the candy,” Edna says with a frown. “She’s been eating our food night and day.” The truth is, Lenka eats far more than Ina—whole quarts of chocolate ice cream, for instance, but she doesn’t appear to have gained an ounce. She’s always moving. Her trim hips sway fetchingly as she ascends the staircase with the candy. She’ll loll on the four poster bed that takes up most of the guest room. With her feet up on the white snowflake comforter, she’ll eat her way through truffles, chocolate cherries, coconut kisses, caramel creams.
Another thing upsets Edna: Lenka hasn’t brought a house gift. The day before she leaves, Lenka produces a hideous purple china peacock to put on top of the piano.
After staling at the plate and lifting the napkin, she wanders over to the closet to take a last look at Lenka’s pink organza dress—it will be packed first thing in the morning. When she glances at herself in the oval mirror, the face above her white terrycloth bathrobe has a funny, pinched look.
Quickly she snatches one small chipped cookie and rushes back to her room to munch it. Then she returns for a larger, perfect cookie and stands by the bureau dreamily ingesting it. These cookies seem crisper than the one she was given. She selects another large cookie. After successfully rearranging the whole pile for greater bulk, she eats it. Then she takes another large one and eats it.
When Ina takes a second look, she sees that she may have gone too far. The pile looks shrunken. She may be able to get away with it, though. A person who can eat an entire box of Barton’s chocolate by herself and consume whole quarts of ice cream is not going to have much feeling for the slight calibrations in a pile of cookies. Ina brushes her teeth, gets into bed and turns out the light.
After several minutes of restless tossing, she realizes that she is still starving. She sneaks back into Lenka’s room, grabs a cookie at random and nibbles it neatly around the edges. When it is a normal-looking albeit much smaller cookie, she replaces it. Then she tiptoes back to her room, closes the door, and falls into a light, troubled sleep.
In the middle of the night as Ina is dreaming dark vengeful dreams, her door opens quietly. As her eyes fly open, she sees Lenka’s slender figure in the light from the hallway. She is carrying a plate. Ina quickly shuts her eyes and breathes deeply. Lenka places the plate on Ina’s bedside table and tiptoes out.
As soon as Ina is alone, she reaches out to examine the plate, although she already knows what it is.
She is filled with deep humiliation and hatred.
So she has contaminated Lenka’s cookies. Lenka will not eat what Ina has defiled. Ina feels like jumping out of bed and flinging them back in her face.
In a few moments, however, the smell of cookies begins to soothe her. As she lies back on her pillow, holding the plate on her breast, she devours the whole pile, down to the last little grainy crumb. They are very delicious. She feels tranquil as she puts down the plate and drops into a deep sleep.
When she awakes at dawn, the plate is gone.
At the breakfast table, Ina examines Lenka face closely. She is her usual vivacious, insensitive self. Her eyes give no hint of midnight happenings. It was all a dream, Ina pretends.
After Lenka left town, Edna was depressed and bored, so she took a trip to the mountains. When she turned the spotlight of her attention back on Ina, everything had changed. Elected editor of the school magazine, Ina was busy choosing her staff and convening meetings. Cookies were the last thing on her mind. Ina felt she’d been lucky to live for a time neglected in her own home.
The family heard little of Lenka after her return to Israel. She became a nurse and married a pediatrician. According to Edna, she is unfailingly kind to her mother and has two handsome sons. She has also become extremely stout.
Sondra Spatt Olsen’s first book, Traps, won the Iowa Short Fiction Award. She lives in Manhattan, where she is at work on a collection about a Jewish family in Brooklyn.