I stopped eating meat when I was sixteen years old. It was more or less an instant process. Many of my friends were espousing the benefits of tofu, and one of them even cried when she thought she smelled pastrami during her school bus ride one morning. I wanted to cry, to cry with her. I wanted to fold myself into her sympathy for dead animals, but my god was bacon good. At home I would cook an entire pound of bacon and for every two I cooked I would eat one. Often the hot grease burned me.
The exact moment I decided to stop eating meat happened, perhaps unsurprisingly, in a cafeteria. My too-big ass on a too-small round seat bolted to the scuffed linoleum floor of my high school cafeteria in Pennsylvania and I remember the clamor of five hundred fellow students braying like chained beasts into their backpacks and their lunch sacks. My spongy chicken patty, the batter an unhealthy wet white-yellow, the meat a composite of breasts, a Franken-patty. I bit down into it while Diana cried over pepperoni and my teeth encountered something they could not saw through. I jammed my fingers into my mouth and pulled it out. It was a long, stringy blue vein and although I tried to be discreet the girls around me began to bleat into one another’s hair and I started to cry over chicken.
The summer between high school and college I worked in dairies along the border between Texas and New Mexico. I was a milk tester with my sister. For three months I smelled like misery.
For my job, I wore an apron with three-dozen rings of canvas sewn into the front of it. I would fill small, empty film canisters with milk from each cow for twelve, twenty-four, or thirty-six hours shifts. The only time we got breaks was when the cows were put “out to pasture” and the next shift was being herded toward the milk barn by roaring four wheelers. The only other time was during a terrible thunderstorm that knocked out the power; that night, I’d slept on the floor of the dairy’s basement because I was desperate and exhausted from too many two-hour naps between shifts.
For this, I was paid twelve an hour. I spent most of it at Hot Topic two weeks before I started college.
On my first day I almost quit. I was shown what to do but I was slow and my sister was working in a different barn. It was June in West Texas. It was hot and the sky was filled black and buzzing with flies. I was yelled at by our boss, Jimmy Don, because I became distracted by an immigrant worker ripping a dead fetus from a heifer out in the lot.
Milk testers aren’t a permanent feature in dairies. We were contract work. The regular employees, the milkers, never usually spoke to us but they smiled all the time. I remember at Axtell, during the month of July, one of them cornered me in the dark trailer used as an employee lounge and spoke to me in Spanish and handed me a hot can of Pepsi. He smiled under his mustache and I opened the can and grimaced when the hot fizzy hit the back of my throat and he turned around and left and in the moment I was sure we were now married.
That first day when I almost quit was only a 12-hour shift. I was three hours into it, just becoming fast enough to not hold up the line of sad shit-splattered cattle, when the heifer went down. See, when cows are milked on an industrial dairy they’re loaded into metal shuts and the milkers scream in Spanish and hit the cows if they don’t cooperate and then the milkers take these big bundles of hoses and plug them on iodine stained udders. This girl, this big sad girl, I think she slipped. She got scared and she slipped in all the shit and she went down, half in and out of her shute and I remember being so shocked and anxious in that moment I spilled warm, slightly pink milk all over my wrist.
Our barn stalled—we lost almost two hours of productivity time because they could not get her up. She brayed rasped bellowed and sobbed and I left the barn and my sister who had come to see what the deal was and then I stood outside sweating with this milk crust on my wrist and I looked down at the shit on my jeans and then went back inside and this time they had the chains. Clean shiny silver wrapped around her hind legs, fed through the concrete lip of the big glassless window, connected to a gurgling tractor outside where the dead fetus had been. And then the chains were tight and she screamed and then snapped and then it was quiet except for her fleshy hide scraping across shit-covered concrete. She went across the floor, up the wall, through the window and then she was gone.
The big refrigerator units in the basement hummed back to life as the next batch of cows was herded in except first they washed away the blood so as not to spook them. When I cried I was made fun of so I stopped crying for three whole months.
Three months into college I got a job in fast food. The managers knew I didn’t eat meat when they hired me so I became a novelty. Lots of jokes. I laughed at them too. I stood in the first window for hours, taking money and orders. I was not allowed to lean on the wall or sit down. Sometimes they took my cell phone away if I checked the time and music was not allowed so I’d sing under my breath but I was obstinate and slow.
Eventually they put me in Grill and I remember a manager laughing cackling and snorting because of how funny she found the whole thing. I wanted to cry when I smelled the meat melting and shrinking and crisping under hot sheets of Teflon and little boys with pimpled faces scraped the dead flesh from the concrete I mean the grill and I had to do it too for exactly $7.25 an hour.
Eventually I came to really enjoy working in Grill because the symmetry the science, the efficiency of the whole thing compressed hours into minutes. I don’t know why, but after a few shifts in Grill I began to eat everything but the meat. Buns ice cream cheese slices hot cookies pies croutons and mustard and ketchup smiles. It was like a game, stealing scraps from the table and cramming them into my mouth before anyone saw. I guzzled Dr. Pepper to push it all down my throat. I hated soda but I drank it anyway. Once the sun set I would excuse myself to the bathroom and stand in front of one of two toilets with my regulation black work shoes clearly visible I mean clearly, clearly visible and when the bathroom emptied of squealing children and the grandmas with their dried up little farts I would vomit. I would make it all come back up and afterwards I’d wipe the tears that squeezed up out of my eyes and look down into the toilet bowl. I did this for three years and nobody ever knew.
Now I’m in my last semester of graduate school and I have a job as a teacher. For this I am paid $15 an hour. Order is very important. If you asked me what I value most in a person or an object or an event I would say order. My students (because they are mine) are respectful to my face and even though I know they roll their eyes when they think I’m not looking I still like the feel of a veneer of order. I like that they are quiet when I say quiet and I like that they take out their paper when I tell them to take out their paper and I love that they write when I tell them to write.
The best part about my life now is that I do not smell like shit and I do not cry over sausage and I keep down everything I eat because it’s mine and eating for me now is very purposeful. There is greek yogurt and rice wafers and soy this and that and mycoproteins I love the science of it all the crunch of five calories. But my favorite part is the fact that my phone helps me eat. I have a program that tracks every little calorie and I love the groupings, the pie charts, the change of font color from blue to angry, inflamed red when I’ve gone four calories over it’s the exact color of my raw throat after purging, of the color I imagine.
So on Tuesday afternoons you can see me in my office so happy doing my favorite thing. I finish teaching and sort stacks of scribbles on paper into neat little piles and secured with binder clips I place them by the phone that never blinks and I remove from a drawer a small cup of unsweetened organic apple sauce and pack of crackers and a water bottle and I log them each in my phone and then I eat them slowly, during my office hour with the door open my conservative black heels visible I mean clearly, clearly visible from the hallway and when a student wanders in I chew a cracker slowly as they look at what I’m eating and I remind myself I am no longer sitting on that too small stool bolted to the cafeteria floor.
Alexandra Itzi is currently pursuing an MFA in Fiction from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. After braving the wilds of New Mexico for the past eight years, she currently resides in Western Massachusetts with her fiancé, a corgi, and a cat.