By Janelle Ward
My husband Sam has a difficult relationship with food. He doesn’t talk about it, and you would never guess, unless you’d seen his weight fluctuate and how this in turn determines whether his hair is falling in his eyes and over his ears or it’s cut short with military precision. He’s a pleasant person at any stage, but harder to live with at the extremes. To soothe him as a baby, his mother, Gabrielle, dipped his pacifier in honey and filled his sippy cup with three parts juice one part pure white cane sugar. Now she doesn’t interfere, except to invite us to social gatherings we’d rather not attend.
It’s Thursday evening and I’m at the bar preparing for my shift. It’s mid October and we’re gearing up for Halloween. Tiny pumpkins decorate the tables. I’ve perfected our cocktail of the week, a Caramel Apple Martini. I’m wiping down the bar and chatting with a couple of regulars. Today it’s Mark and Alexandra, both freelancers. For Mark, it’s always beer on tap. He drinks the first one quickly, orders the second and heads out the front door to smoke a cigarette and stare at the passing traffic.
Alexandra is a gin and tonic woman. She watches me prepare her drink, makes sure I don’t short her on the pour. She drinks with slightly shaking fingers and chatters about meaningless topics – the weather, her neighbor’s cat, a trip to the dry cleaners. By the time she’s finishing her third, the bar is filling up and her eyes are at half-mast.
It’s always when the bar is getting crowded that my mother-in-law checks in. I hear the ding as I’m hunting for a new bottle of gin. I glance at my phone.
“How are you dear?”
It dings again. “We’re having a dinner party with some friends next Saturday. Can you two make it?”
I start a reply. Already my mind is creating excuses to avoid an event that involves food. Our discomfort in those situations is palpable. But Alexandra wants extra ice. Her brow is wrinkled. She doesn’t take kindly to being ignored. Sam would scoff at her impatience, if he were here. But he never visits me at work. He doesn’t drink. Says he doesn’t like the feeling of losing control.
I shove my phone in my pocket and deliver Alexandra’s ice. The bar gets busier. Drinking is always a solitary activity. Customers differ in their selection, but their requirement is always the same. I see the hunger, a darting look across the bar until they’ve located their drink of choice, a silent impatience until their order is filled.
They take the first sip and the lines around their eyes soften a bit before they turn back to a friend or colleague. That’s my job – to provide a passage to sociability, to soothe a deeper, mortal need with booze and ice and flavors and tiny straws. I can’t imagine a better job than this, giving people exactly what they think they need.
Tonight, it’s really humming. After the rush things get quiet, and I wrap up around midnight. I drive home and find Sam sitting in front of the TV in a dark room. I glance in the kitchen and see no sign of food preparation, no hum of the dishwasher or green light indicating it has just been run. I’ve learned not to ask if he found anything to eat.
I kiss his cheek and snuggle up beside him.
When Sam and I first met we were both fresh from the battlefield. At that particular moment the adversary had manifest itself in the same way, in the form of fat. When we first met Sam was winning and I was losing. Six months before we met I’d shed 20 pounds and hooked up with a guy, Chris, who was obsessed with my body.
It was a great relationship because I was obsessed with my body, too. Obsessed with the way my jeans would fall off my hips after I buttoned them. Obsessed with mounting the scale, nude, and watching the numbers plummet. After a few months Chris moved away, and we found the distance was too great to continue. I started to gain weight. It was not a mysterious process.
Instead of marathon sex sessions I would spend my days stuffing myself with cookies and M&Ms and self-loathing. Chris would call, pining for my form, saying I had ruined him for other women. My terror during those conversations made me nauseous. His physical distance relieved me. I could only imagine the disgust in his eyes. He’d leave me, if he saw. He wouldn’t want me anymore.
I’d never battled an eating compulsion. My cravings were worse than they ever were for cigarettes. I found myself digging in the garbage to retrieve the remaining brownies from a package. I contemplated smoking again in order to rid myself of my preoccupation with sugar and carbs. In the midst of this turmoil, I met Sam.
In our earliest days, Sam was slim and trim and full of nervous energy. For the first few dates I never saw him eat more than a handful of nuts, though he drank diet soda with a vengeance. The first time we got naked it was impossible to avoid a discussion about the loose skin hanging from his stomach. He thought it would be something I wouldn’t like about him. But I did like it. It meant that he would understand me.
Food issues were just the temporary focus of my anxiety. For Sam, food issues defined his whole life. We based a major life decision on a similarity that was a mirage.
It’s Monday and I have the night off. I enjoy my job but the Monday night football crowd is overwhelming. Drinking on a Friday or Saturday is standard practice for many. On the weekend, we have a routine: We know the bar will be humming by 11pm. We work steadily to keep drinks filled. We play popular songs.
To create a sense of community, we get everyone to cheer about something, arms outstretched, hands grasping drinks and new friends’ shoulders, eyes glassy and content. Things get messy at the end – there’s usually a group of men pushing their way in before last call, for obvious reasons – and sometimes a few punches are thrown. But it’s predictable.
Monday nights are different. People have to work the next morning, so you’d think they’d be more responsible. Yet it has the opposite effect. Many people, it seems to me, must lose their jobs on Tuesdays. Bosses don’t take kindly to excuses for last minute absenteeism made from the drunk tank.
Sam doesn’t like to watch football, and I can take it or leave it, so we stay home and watched a documentary about religion, featuring the notorious evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. It was called The Root of All Evil? Sam is always educating me about something. I admire this about him, his hunger for knowledge.
I wonder where the drive comes from. He rarely socializes, so it’s not to raise his intellectual capital with others. He’s an erudite, but a private one. He doesn’t need to show off. But he likes to collect facts. Explanations of historical events. Theories about how the world works.
We arrange ourselves in the living room and watch an interview with Richard Dawkins. Sam’s posture is relaxed. He flings an arm over my shoulders and squeezes when Dawkins says something particularly controversial. We are both entertained by Dawkins and his propensity for offensiveness.
Dawkins has strong, rigorous beliefs about how the world works and has no problem expressing them. He does so with his head held high, a believer in the scientific method and contemptuous of anyone who lives on faith. It’s empowering, in a passive sort of way, to watch someone willing to offend on our behalf. He has the amazing career and the hate mail and the invitations for documentary interviews, and we sit on the couch and observe.
We go to bed early. I snuggle Sam because he won’t snuggle me. He says it hurts his back. That’s our typical posture, Sam lying flat and staring at the ceiling, sort of like a corpse, and me winding and tangling myself around his body. Sleep takes us and I wake up on the other side of the bed, turned away from him.
It’s Tuesday afternoon and I’m at the bar. Alexandra walks in, half an hour earlier than usual. It looks like she’s been crying. She orders a Scotch, neat. I reach into my pocket and switch my phone to silent. I keep my manner casual as I speak to her.
“Whiskey today, huh? Feel like shaking things up?”
Her lips turn up but her eyes remain downcast. I ease away from her and select our finest single malt. If her eyebrows go up when she sees the bill I’ll pay the difference.
I set the drink in front of her and she nods, picks it up, and sips. She swallows and grimaces slightly. That’s a normal reaction from someone used to mixers and ice.
“Did you catch the game last night?” I ask. This is a reach. I’ve never seen Alexandra at the bar during football, especially Monday night. Alexandra shakes her head no and pulls out her phone. I reach into my pocket and peek at mine.
I remember the first time Sam shut down. He was dressing for a night out to meet my girlfriends. We both knew it was an important relationship hurdle yet he was doing a dismal job of picking his attire. When I saw what he had chosen – a bright orange sweater with a hole in the sleeve, a worn, once-white t-shirt peeking out around the neck, too-tight jeans that ended precariously above his brown hiking boots – I winced. He saw it. I saw that he saw me, and I saw his face, his anticipation of my reaction, but I couldn’t keep the words from leaving my lips.
“You’re wearing that?”
Let’s first agree this sounds like a pretty normal fight. The more fashion conscious of the couple makes a comment about the other’s attire. The less fashion-conscious member shrugs it off, indifferent. Or perhaps, feeling a significance, he gets angry because he sees the comment as part of a larger strategy to dominate and control his behavior. He pushes back. Defies her. Engages in the debate, productively or not. There is a power struggle, the dominant partner wins, the other simmers.
Sam did not simmer. Instead of engaging me, he shut down. The color left his face. There was a slight rise of his shoulders followed by a feeble slump. His lips became fixed. He broke eye contact with me, and did not resume it for five days.
The night with my friends was less than pleasant. We chose an unbearably loud bar, so his lack of sociability wasn’t particularly detectible. What was detectible was the steel wall he’d erected between the two of us, his back tense, neck at an odd angle, his legs rigidly crossed away from me. My friends, Clara and Lisa, were friendly and curious, and laughed at the absurdity of the blaring techno, but when they hugged me goodnight they squeezed tighter than normal, their brows furrowed.
I still married him.
A few months before Sam met my girlfriends, we’d gone shopping. He’d splurged. He pulled me into a trendy men’s clothing store and picked item after item to try on, in what we thought was his current size. He’d emerged from the dressing room, a navy dress shirt hanging loosely on his frame. He was flushed and wild-eyed as he wondered about the possibilities.
I offered to swap his remaining pile for the next size down, but he wouldn’t let me. He put on each article and threw open the curtain to show me. He wanted me to stay, to watch, to share in the incredulity of his shrinking form. The sales assistants ran back and forth from the dressing room, all bright smiles and enthusiasm.
He bought all of it.
They packaged it up, on hangers with garment bags, and we walked back to his place in the mild winter air. He was like a child, talking excitedly about a trip he was planning, his face nearly hidden from the clothes in his outstretched arms. Is it how falling in love always happens? When a previously masked vulnerability reveals itself?
After we returned home from meeting my girlfriends I realized the new clothes had been shoved to the back of the closet. Only after I’d insulted his outfit of choice and he’d closed off did I realize he had started gaining. It can be hard to observe these things in the people with whom you are the most intimate.
Thursday morning, 8:13. A ding from my phone wakes me. I read a message from Gabrielle.
“Dear, are you alright? I haven’t heard from either of you about dinner.”
I realize I had forgotten to get back to her. In my mind I begin to compose a benevolent refusal, but the phone dings again.
“I included you two on the reservation for Saturday. Our anniversary is coming up so we’ll celebrate that too.”
I stare at the screen. Shit. And La Bourgogne, of all places. A five-star French restaurant with a compulsory five-course menu.
I check my calendar. I’m off on Saturday and out of excuses. I text Sam with the news, and he writes back in agreement. He never protests these invitations, just readies himself for the battle.
La Bourgogne. The host, a tall, thin man with a starched tux and turned down lips, seats us. It’s one of those big, round tables in the middle of the restaurant. A posh arrangement to make those eating at a posh restaurant feel even more posh.
I am seated on Sam’s left. Gabrielle is to my left, and Richard, Sam’s father, is on her left. The rest of the party, friends of Gabrielle and Richard’s, take up the remaining six seats. I would have preferred sitting at the periphery of the family, where Gabrielle could whisper in Sam’s ear and I could look outward and pretend not to hear them.
The waiter is discussing the first wine pairing. His voice is loud enough to carry to the adjoining tables. Other guests turn to watch his performance. Sam stares at his napkin, still folded in front of him. The buttons on his white dress shirt strain in their effort to remain secure.
The waiter finishes with a flourish. He fills my glass with a Côte d’Or Chardonnay and then turns to Sam. “No, thank you,” Sam says. The waiter’s eyes widen.
“What is the problem, sir?”
“No wine for me, please. I don’t drink.”
The waiter stands motionless for several seconds then continues around the table. When he returns he is holding a glass bottle of sparkling water. Sam gestures his approval. The waiter pours, his jaw still tight from Sam’s rebuke. I want to lighten the mood, show my solidarity with a fellow service worker.
I turn my body away from Gabrielle, nudge Sam, and say, “Come on, that Chardonnay sounds so delicious. Maybe just a sip?” I speak loud enough for the waiter to hear but not the rest of the table. The waiter’s eyes soften with acknowledgement.
Sam shrinks, ever so slightly, then reaches for his water glass and drinks deeply. His hair half covers his eyes, masking his expression. I grasp my wine glass and wait for the toast. Richard delivers a short praise of long marriages. I raise my glass then swallow deeply.
Each of Sam’s unfinished plates of food produces a sigh and a cluck from the waiter. The conversation flows, oblivious to the battle raging between Sam and the waiter, between me and Sam, within Sam. I finish my third glass of wine and realize my head is spinning. I need to step out, just for a moment. I place my hand on Sam’s left thigh, the wool stretched tightly over his leg. His thigh stiffens at my touch.
“Sam?” I say, speaking in a low voice, squeezing gently as I speak. “I’m going to the bathroom.” He won’t look at me, doesn’t even nod. I release my hand, pick up my purse, and rise unsteadily.
I find the hallway leading to the bathroom. It is heavily carpeted, the atmosphere soft and muted compared to the hardwood, glass and porcelain dominating the dining room. Two plush chairs frame a small table lit by a lamp.
I sink into a chair and think about the next day. Sunday. We are both free. We will spend the day in silence. We will not touch. Sam will go about his business, his face blank. I will make some queries, about lunch or a movie or a walk around town. He will shake his head.
I see my life stretching out in front of me and I can’t bear it. I rise, turn toward the bathrooms and nearly collide with a man coming in the opposite direction.
We reach for each other to soften the impact, laugh, apologize. His presence is light, his words friendly, his gaze searching. A humming fills my ears. He presses a card into my hand and excuses himself, striding back out to his table. I glance at the card. His name, his number. His occupation.
Love presents limitless possibilities; circumstances confine us.
I get back to the table and see Sam’s chair pushed back, vacant, his napkin thrown across his full plate.
December arrives. The sunlight disappears earlier and drink specials have changed to dark beers and winter cocktails. It’s last call. I’ve been working the back room tonight for a corporate event. When I return to the front the bar is nearly empty.
Alexandra remains. Her eyes glitter and she stares into her phone. If I had to guess I’d say she’s past her fifth drink. A man sits next to her, hair closely cropped, tastefully dressed, a navy dress shirt hugging his slim frame. He also stares into his phone. They seem completely unaware of each other. The man raises a gin and tonic to his lips.
It takes me a few moments to realize the man is Sam.
I haven’t seen him since the Sunday after his parent’s dinner party, when I’d gathered some things and fled to a friend’s. He hadn’t turned his attention from the television when I told him I was leaving. Hadn’t returned my calls or texts in the months since.
Sam takes the last swig of his drink, ice rattling as he tilts it back. A few drops dribble out the corner of his mouth and land on his shirt, turning the navy a darker hue. I observe his stiff posture, lips turned up but eyes unsmiling. He stares at me with a defiance that is missing when he’s losing his battle.
He stands and throws a twenty on the bar. He turns and walks toward the door, his right hand steadying his gait as he passes the booth section. I follow his movements. He looks back just before leaving, and in the half darkness I cannot read his expression.
When I turn back around, Alexandra is holding out her phone.
“Look at this picture of my dog. Isn’t she the sweetest?” she slurs her words, smiling brightly.
I take a breath and look at the picture, murmur kind words about the fluffy dog clutched in her arms. Then I hand the phone back to her.
“It’s last call, hon. Can I get you anything else? Or shall we call it a night?”
Alexandra hiccups slightly and glances down at her half empty drink, measuring her internal state against what remains.
“One more. You don’t have anywhere to be anyway, do you?”
I pause, then shake my head and mime a smile. She’s already lost in her phone again.
I make Alexandra’s drink, place it and the bill gently at the edge of the bar and excuse myself.