The Iowa Review

Hunger Pangs, Part 1

On my twenty-first birthday, friends took me out for the first actual meal I had had in several months. We went to a restaurant whose name I have forgotten, a fancy place that had won many of Florida's Golden Spoon awards. I remember what I ate in vivid detail: an appetizer of oysters on the half-shell, a salad of mesclun greens and citrus, an entrée of crabmeat au gratin, and finally a slice of cake with a candle in it. We also had white wine.
     Because I had not eaten in so long, the food made me nauseous and dizzy. My friends still joke about how they had to walk me up and down the street afterwards, as I groaned and staggered. They did not know my situation. "She ate too much!" they laughed then. They laugh about this still, remembering. They are even now unaware of what my circumstances were at the time, unaware that I had not had food in a long time. But they are right about one thing—my shrunken stomach and atrophied digestive system were completely incapable of handling such a large and rich meal after months of deprivation.
     For several years after that, my weight dwindled. There was a time, in my mid-twenties, when I weighed less than seventy pounds, less than a young dog I sometimes cared for. I should hasten to add that I was not suffering from anorexia or bulimia or any other terminal or wasting disease, nor was I living in the aftermath of a famine or earthquake; neither was I incarcerated or otherwise being victimized by institutional or interpersonal abuse.
     No: I was, quite simply, starving, because I did not have enough money to buy food.
     It was the first time in my life I had found myself in such a predicament. I had grown up in a middle-class family (father a research scientist, mother a schoolteacher) and had never before experienced any lack of nourishment, nor of anything else, as my life with them had been festooned with modest luxuries of all sorts. I recall that, in my early adolescence, I had even been a tad on the plump side, a development my brothers had teased me mercilessly about. Learning to subsist without food—or rather, with very little food—was therefore an acquired skill, like swimming or needlepoint. Paradoxically, it was a technique of survival, although I realize now that I might have perished in the learning process.

I do remember being ravenous, at first—eyeing menus with desperation and longing and then ordering the cheapest thing I could find, like a roll or a small paper bag of French fries; making lemonade with the free water and lemon slices at cafeterias; drifting through grocery stores with five dollars clutched in my fist, fiercely calculating how I could make it through the week. Most vividly, I remember how much my stomach hurt. There are clichéd words for this pain, like gnawing and throbbing and paroxysmal. Those work. After a while, though, the pain subsided, and with it, my appetite. I could no longer eat very much. I am told that this happens to starving persons: the stomach shrinks. In one clinical study of long-term starvation, the subjects developed intense hunger pangs, and even though "they were aware that they would suffer from abdominal pain or vomiting if they ate . . . their appetite sensations were so strong that they were prepared to suffer the consequences," as I was the night of my birthday. Some chewed and spat out food to try to relieve their hunger less disgustingly. About two-thirds of them lost their hunger over time. This is what happened to me.
     Before my appetite faded completely, I improvised cheap ways to trick my body into thinking it was eating. Like many poor people, I discovered junk food—food-like fare that cost very little and served to satisfy my hunger in the short-term. This was the first time I had ever tasted such forgeries. My parents, who are Indian and strictly vegetarian, had insisted on fresh and local ingredients long before such quibbling became trendy. My mother is an accomplished cook, of the sort who whips out complex and delicious dishes without apparent effort or guidance. For a variety of complicated reasons, mostly involving misdirected feminist zeal, I had never learned this repertoire from her—never ventured into the kitchen when I lived at home. So when I found myself on my own, only preprocessed and packaged goods could meet my need for basic sustenance.
     I remember that for breakfast, I would have half a Pop-Tart (breaking it carefully, to make sure the box lasted longer) and a cup of instant hot chocolate, the powdered kind that you make with water. I usually skipped lunch, and for dinner I boiled up ramen noodles, which at the time cost ten cents a package. (I have since read that the inventor of these instant noodles actually manufactured them with the intention of making affordable food for poor people, and I remain abjectly grateful to this man, Momofuku Ando.)
     As a result of this nutritionally bankrupt diet, my clothing started becoming looser. I cinched my pants with makeshift belts and layered my T-shirts, because I was always cold, even in Florida's calescent summers. At some point, I discovered I could buy children's clothes at the Salvation Army for pennies; once, I remember fitting into a camisole in a toddler size. No doubt it was designed for an average, chunky, American three-year-old. But it was fine on me. Later, I spoke with a friend about this, and she exclaimed, "So that's why you always wore baggy clothes! I thought it was some kind of fashion statement." It is interesting that the physical marks of my starvation were invariably interpreted as volitional, even as chic. My cheeks were hollow, and my collarbones protruded, and people told me I was beautiful.
     A professor asked me to dog-sit his large and enthusiastic Labrador puppy, who outweighed me by at least a stone. Jogging beside the dog, clutching his leash, I knew there was something wrong with the algorithm. Adult humans are not meant to be outweighed by young dogs.


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Founded in 1970 and edited by faculty, students, and staff from the renowned writing and literature programs at the University of Iowa, The Iowa Review takes advantage of this rich environment for literary collaboration to create a worldwide conversation among those who read and write contemporary literature.
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Meenakshi Gigi Durham's essays and short fiction have appeared in a variety of publications, including the Chronicle of Higher Education and Harvard Review. A former newspaper and magazine journalist, she is now a professor in the University of Iowa's School of Journalism and Mass Communication and an Associate Dean in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Her essay "Grieving" was selected for inclusion in Best American Essays 2011.

"Hunger Pangs" originally appeared in The Iowa Review Volume 42, Issue 2 (2012). This is Part 1 of 4.

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on January 01, 2018

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