''If you want to diet,'' she said, ''why don't you do low-carbohydrate?''
''I don't want to do Atkins,'' I said. ''I need to purify myself.'' I imagined these little bubbles, each carrying a sign that said ''Fat-Making Toxin,'' cascading from my body, oozing from my pores.
''We should go to Weight Watchers,'' Mom said, my own madness pushing her closer to sanity. ''I'll pay for Weight Watchers. I'll do it with you.''
''It won't cleanse me the way a fast will,'' I argued. I had gone without food for only about 18 hours at that point, but I was suddenly an expert. A messiah.
''I'll broil you some chicken,'' she said.
''I'll take off the skin,'' she offered.
''Just eat the white meat,'' she pleaded, ''not the dark meat.''
''I'm only going to have some hot water with lemon. I'm allowed to have lemon.''
On Day 2, I struggled. The novelty of the experiment had worn off, and my stomach gurgled and seethed, like lava in an active volcano. I also began to feel lightheaded but chalked it up to euphoria, to the purge of those toxins from my sugar-racked body. I resolved to fast like this once a month. It would be the cornerstone of a thinner, better life.
At school I quizzed Beth. ''You really haven't eaten anything?''
''Nothing,'' she said, but I wasn't sure I believed her. She didn't have the winnowed midriff that I was determined to believe I had already achieved.
I saw her steal a bite of a cuticle. Hmm. Was that cheating? Was it tasty?
At the beginning of Day 3, I slipped.
I snuck a few crackers around breakfast. I drank some milk around lunchtime, because my stomach-volcano was poised for its own Pompeii. At dinnertime I accepted that I'd strayed from the plan and rationalized that I might as well stray some more. I ate a burger. But I didn't put the beef on a bun. I had to preserve some shred of dignity.
Although my clothes felt looser at the end of three days, I knew I couldn't do this fasting thing again. It was too grueling. I told Beth, confessing in the process that I cheated a little, and of course she had a Plan B.
''Protein powder,'' she said, producing a new paperback filled with recipes for fat-burning shakes.
Beth was like a mysterious witch doctor with a stock of potions that never ran out. Pills too. She'd found someone in her dormitory with a pipeline to amphetamines, these tiny pale blue ovals with dark blue flecks. They looked like shrunken robin's eggs.
I swallowed them to stay up all night in advance of important exams. I swallowed them before some swim meets, along with capsules of bee pollen, which I'd decided was another energy booster. And I swallowed them to keep from eating. They did the job nicely. I was slimmer senior year than I was junior year.
But neither Beth nor her little bird eggs followed me to Chapel Hill and the University of North Carolina, to which I'd won a free ride called a Morehead Scholarship. And I decided before arriving there that I would abandon competitive swimming, which had become too monotonous and time-consuming.
So I had to find some other antidote to my eating, some other protection from my appetite.