Watching a cage fighter starve himself.
“Four eggs,” I instructed the waiter at the finest restaurant in the Palms Casino Resort.
“Egg salad?” He was in a starched suit, pouring water into a delicately lipped glass.
“No, four hard-boiled eggs.”
The waiter returned with four eggs huddled in the slight depression of a sizable dinner plate, as if to further diminish the sad feast through a trick of scale. Each egg had been deshelled, which was, I supposed, the benefit of ordering hard-boiled eggs at the finest restaurant in the Palms. Erik was a few flights up in his hotel room, showering after a workout, but he had asked that his meal be ready when he descended, and I feared displeasing him.
Though his mentor Duke, his roommate Pettis, and his manager could be found dispersed among the card tables and slot machines, not a single member of Hard Drive, Erik’s fighting collective in Cedar Rapids, had ventured with us to Las Vegas. Following a momentous schism between him and his brother, Erik had been “banned for life” from the gym and its environs.
Banished, Erik had returned to Milwaukee, to his warm, fast-talking Italian American coach, to his potential as one of the youngest men in the most prestigious promotion open to men who weighed in at 155 pounds. From their offices in Vegas, connected people continued to call him in Milwaukee, and it was as if he had never made the mistake of going home. Would he like to be in the official UFC video game? They would fly him out to LA, take measurements, and then boys everywhere would fight their friends in the avatar form of Erik “New Breed” Koch. Pettis was asked to be a judge for the Miss Wisconsin USA pageant and, in declining the offer, sent Erik in his stead. Erik met, at the event, the manager of a Jersey Shore cast member. Would Erik like to be on an episode of DJ Pauly D’s upcoming reality spin-off show? He said he very much would like that. He was unattached, alone, free to make commitments to as-yet-theoretical reality shows as he pleased.
Erik at last arrived at the restaurant, sat across from me without a word, unrolled from the napkin his knife and fork, and began the surgical egg procedure with which I was, by then, familiar. I would have liked to discuss our surroundings, as it was my first encounter with a professionally run promotion and I had many astute observations on the subject, but he ate with an air of sacral solemnity I did not wish to desecrate by speaking. It was my twenty-ninth birthday and I had not told a soul in the world.
You may think that a starving man on rations, faced with the few calories he is allowed, would proceed with survivalist immediacy to incorporate whatever was laid before him. But the rationed man is all precision; he sees, in his allowance, fine nutritious distinctions you do not; and so when Erik finally raised his knife to halve his egg, he did so with great deliberation. With his knife he hollowed the half yolk from its white skin and deposited the caloric yellow mass onto his plate, where it sat uneaten like a pat of butter. He scraped offending yellow flecks from the egg’s gelatinous walls. He slid the flat of the knife against the plate, shedding shavings of yolk onto the porcelain, put his knife down, and placed the white in his mouth. He approached the second half of the first egg. This would be Erik’s last watery wisp of permitted food before weigh-ins; he would not eat again for thirty-five hours. Erik’s frame had already cratered into a landscape of shadows and white skin stretched tight over bone.
It would not have occurred to most 180-pound fighters that they might, through force of will, gain admission to the 145-pound weight class. Certainly the Californian Cisco Rivera, a full two inches shorter than Erik, would not be losing a fifth of his body weight. Erik had, back in Cedar Rapids, informed me that he could lose thirty-five pounds, weigh in, binge like a feral Labrador, and feel ready to fight a day later simply because he was twenty-two years old. Self-starvation was the biggest challenge of his chosen vocation, every prefight diet was more painful than the last, and two years hence, Erik said, the drop would be impossible. His ability to boomerang from 180 to 145 and back up to 160 would diminish unalterably with age; he would be impelled to fight among a slightly more substantial group of men, the “lightweights,” which included his roommate Pettis, and so was something neither of them deigned discuss. Thus it was that one of the youngest fighters in the promotion saw only days slipping away. Two years he had in which to get a title shot and win the opportunity to fight the invincible Brazilian José Aldo, who would probably still be champion at 145. This was, of course, absurd, given that Erik was nowhere near title contention. But thoughts of the title pushed Erik through the long days of his weary yolk-scraping existence.
After the eggs, Erik opened his eyes a little wider, and we took the casino elevator up to his room.
“This is what you got?” I asked.
“This is Whole Foods peanut butter, they make it in a machine there,” Erik said. I had been talking about the branded T-shirts and laptop bags and hats, but did not interrupt him as his focus shifted back to food. He pulled a plastic tub out of the shelf under his bedside table, where it lay next to bananas and a loaf of bread.
“This is chocolate peanut butter from the machine. This granola,” he said, holding a plastic bag of cereal, “is sick.” He replaced the granola and seized on a bag of chips. “Cheddar and Sour Cream Ruffles. These are the shit.”
I eagerly assented to their excellence, as if I were quite familiar with them. I very much wanted Erik to feel buoyed by the fact of my company. Erik had had a succession of best friends he’d cut off suddenly and without explanation, inventing supposed slights he would never forgive. It was part of a pattern integral to his personality, and quite likely attributable to his sociopathy as diagnosed by the Internet.
The thought that Erik might at any moment terminate our relationship so thoroughly haunted me during our trip that even now I associate casinos with insecurity. Should he decide to stop answering my calls and requesting my presence, I would have wasted five months on a man of no use to my project, a project of importance not only to me but to future students of descriptive phenomenology. And I simply could not abide the idea that some other space taker—someone larger, and more given to Midwestern colloquialisms—would take the space I had so carefully reserved for myself by Erik’s side. That someone else would be sent to order his eggs, someone else privileged with the knowledge that the old Vedepo-induced injury in his elbow hurt more intensely as he grew more slim; this was enough to make my stomach turn, which was in itself a silver lining, because it allowed me to share, on that trip, something of Erik’s distance from the possibility of food.
I had arrived in Las Vegas the day before, anxious to see the American city considered most fighterly, but underfed Erik did not want to see the Cirque du Soleil or the Hoover Dam; he wanted to go to Walmart, and so to Walmart we went. Outside, on the mountain-edged expanse of pavement cooking in desert sun, Erik was all angles and shadows, bounceless, frail, a dusting of hair over his shaven head. Walmart fluorescence added a yellow cast to his white skin, turned olive those undereye pockets of gloom. Raccoon-eyed and ravenous, Erik slothed through each aisle, his gallon jug of the day’s permitted water consumption hanging low at his side, dragging him down, slowing his advance. He needed baby oil, he’d said before we left. But then I followed him into the hardware aisle, walled in by dozens of varieties of sandpaper, and we did not appear to be progressing toward the aisle marked “baby” at the far end of the store. He hitched up his jeans with his free hand as he walked; they slipped again down his sharp hips. He was walking away from the baby section and toward the chip aisle, where he stood for a moment staring at the Cheddar and Sour Cream Ruffles. While he described the slow throb of his esophagus I imagined the whole pipeline glowing as in some educational film about the digestive tract. He picked up the Ruffles and made it halfway to the register before remembering the oil for which he had come.
“What,” Erik asked the taxi driver on the way back to the Palms, “is the best buffet in Las Vegas?”
Back in Milwaukee, Erik told me, the Hyundai Elantra he’d been borrowing was papered with oil-stained wrappers: Burrito Supreme, 100% Beef, BK Stacker, remnants of forbidden foods vicariously enjoyed.
“I’m buying you a burrito,” he’d say to Pettis. “Eat it. I want to smell it.”
Friends ate the fast food Erik purchased slowly, wafting ground-beef steam toward their skeletal driver, leaving the paper crumpled and the scent hovering. This seemed to me deranged culinary masochism, but Erik insisted that he could not possibly starve himself so effectively were he to take his mind for a moment off of food. And in this, Vegas was cooperative, for to the starving man Vegas offers comforts one does not necessarily associate with the city. At the Rio Resort and Casino, for instance, if you can see past the seamlessly linked rooms for poker and keno and slots, past a singing girl in sequins, a stream of light, a wisp of smoke, if you can see past plastic neon-lit flames leaping over paisley carpet and the “future Chippendale fan” pink onesie featured in the gift-shop window, past the spiraling staircase up to the heavily curtained Italian restaurant meant to evoke fine dining but suffering in that regard from its direct adjacency to Wetzel’s Pretzels, if you can gaze beyond the gargantuan goggle-eyed head hanging from the Masquerade Room, or if you are, like Erik, quite literally starving, you will notice that this city is not merely a purveyor of monetary risk but a purveyor of food. You will notice that this food is marketed chiefly through the promise of quantity, specifically through the provision of casino buffets. It is these buffets that interest Erik, their promise, their hideous abundance. For $39.99 one can in fact purchase an all-day pass to many buffets, a package known as a “buffet of buffets,” inclusive of seven—as in wonders of the world or deadly sins, but pertinent to only one sin, that of gluttony—in-themselves-perfectly-adequate self-serve experiences: Le Village Buffet, the Emperor’s Buffet, Spice Market Buffet, Flamingo’s Paradise Garden Buffet, Lago Buffet, Harrah’s Buffet, and the “world’s most acclaimed buffet,” the Carnival World Buffet at the Rio.
“The best buffet in Las Vegas,” said the Taxi Driver, “is the Rio Buffet.”
Erik smiled and leaned back into the pleather. He had never been to the Rio Buffet but nevertheless qualified as a Rio Buffet expert, having taken the virtual tour but more importantly having spent many hours visualizing his sublime deliverance from self-deprivation. In the twenty-four hours between weigh-ins and the fight, Erik would gain twenty pounds, and he took great pleasure in imagining of what those pounds would consist. The Rio Buffet, he informed me, offered three hundred distinct dishes, seventy varieties of pie, an array of “bars,” including a sushi bar, a taco bar, and a stir-fry bar. He knew its small army of friendly spoon-holding servers, its fifty yards of curving black countertop, its unaccountable progression from sausage pizza to cocktail shrimp to scrambled eggs to lentil soup to crab legs to fried fish to sushi to green salad to gravy-slathered pork chops to honeyed ham to flank steak to barbecue ribs to burritos to tacos to waffles to spring rolls to dumplings to sweet-and-sour pork to eggs Benedict to bacon to one giant vat of ketchup to croissants to cubed mango to green-bean salad to seven kinds of lettuce to the gelato-and-pastries bar whose delights are too many to enumerate but which Erik would attempt to enumerate if given the chance.
The Rio was only one part of the plan, which also included spaghetti and meat sauce and an entire loaf of garlic bread from Battista’s, subs from the local Jimmy John’s and twenty-four German chocolate cupcakes being mailed overnight from Milwaukee by a pair of baking groupie sisters who had arranged for a courier to hand cupcakes to Erik the moment he stepped off the scale.
“I am a fighter,” Erik told the taxi driver. “I am planning what to eat before the fight.”
“You shouldn’t overeat,” said the driver.
“Anderson Silva eats two Big Macs before every fight,” said Erik. “It doesn’t matter that much.”
The conversation paused as traffic crawled past the MGM Grand, hulking and soot-stained in the midmorning light.
“Have you tried the NASCAR six-pound burrito?” Erik asked. The NASCAR Café’s six-pound, two-foot burrito was also part of the plan.
In the hotel room that night, watching the Food Channel and fiddling with his phone, Erik shivered, skeletal, in his hoodie. “Let’s go to Rio,” he said, heavy-lidded, grim. “I mean just to see it.”
It was ten P.M. I would have voiced a preference to take in a late film at the casino’s movie theater, but I did not want to risk being on the wrong side of Erik’s Manichean inclinations.
Erik and I left the room, descended in an elevator with Erik’s picture hanging in it—TICKETS ON SALE WEDNESDAY—passed a young crowd at the blackjack tables and a not-at-all young crowd at the slot machines, exited into the pedestrianless abyss that was the space between off-strip Vegas casinos, and walked to the Rio. Beyond the Mahjong and Keno tables, the poker-tournament competitors in cowboy hats, Erik pointed to a sign: THE CARNIVAL WORLD BUFFET. We passed through swinging doors into a vast shellacked cafeteria.
“It’s closed,” I said.
The food had been vacated. What was left was all fluorescent light, clean steel, and frosted glass. The only person in the room was a man behind the counter, wearing what looked to be a gas mask and pouring steam out of a tube. Erik attempted to penetrate the mask by shouting.
“I am a fighter,” he said, pointing to himself. “I want to come here tomorrow.”
The man in the mask nodded a quick, deferential, non-English-speaking nod.
Affixed to all fifty-feet of the gleaming counter were black plaques etched in white. Erik began at the north end of the room.
“Pizza,” he read off the plaque, and paused, staring at the aluminum heater and readjusting his grip on his jug of water. A light on the far end of the room flickered.
I walked into the expanse of rag-wiped tables and sat down to endure Erik’s fantasy with what I think to be commendable patience.
“Poached eggs,” said Erik. His face had regained its yellow pallor and seemed to recede into his hoodie. “Scrambled eggs.”
Twenty minutes later Erik reached the gelato. The steam cleaner had left.
“Let’s go,” said Erik, and we padded back through the casino, where, at eleven P.M. on a Tuesday night, only the committed or addicted remained.
This is the first of a two-part excerpt from Kerry Howley’s new book, Thrown. Part two will run tomorrow.
© 2014 Kerry Howley. Reprinted with permission of Sarabande Books.
Kerry Howley’s work has appeared in The Paris Review, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, The Wall Street Journal, Slate, and Bookforum. She holds an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa, where she was an Arts Fellow and the Provost’s Visiting Writer in Nonfiction.