“Dieting insanity gets suspended in a global crisis,” he declared.
This winter, nearing our 25th anniversary, I was sure we had a perfect modern marriage. That was when he was still going to his Manhattan office early every morning and returning late, so we often missed having breakfast and dinner together. Both of us were workaholics and neither cooked well, marking special occasions at Nobu (light seafood, no bread basket). We’d sometimes meet for lunch — both ordering an egg-white omelet or steamed salmon with broccoli — knowing that later, he’d indulge in the fattening goodies he’d stashed at work. Our rule was: what happened in the office, stayed in the office. He could consume whatever he wanted, just not in front of me. For many couples, love meant sharing daily meals, cooking and baking together. For us, eating separately was sexier, enhancing our independence and our relationship’s allure.
Because of my past struggles with disordered overeating, it was also safer.
Then the shelter-in-place order forced us into co-consuming three squares daily. It was a disaster. I wasn’t tempted by the meatballs, pea soup, pickles and smelly cheeses he usually kept in our fridge. But during this crisis, my beloved (already a pack rat who saved all his childhood baseball cards and bar mitzvah yarmulkes) became a food hoarder. Worried about shortages, Charlie brought home dumplings, noodle concoctions, matzo ball soup, peanut butter, tuna salad, half pounds of cold cuts, rolls, pita bread — enough to feed a family of 12 in a bunker for months. We were two, one on a strict 1,200 calories a day. This felt like a jarring invasion, ruining the careful strategies that shielded me from my urges and had taken me years to cultivate.
“No crackers,” I snapped. “I can’t do bread products.”
“Triscuits are your gateway drug?” he joked. He didn’t seem to understand that food addiction wasn’t cute. Unchecked, my 3 a.m. binges could screw up my body, my head and our happiness. When I tossed the box, he protested, “Are you nuts? People are starving in this country.”
“It’s not the Great Depression! The supermarket’s packed,” I observed. “The deli’s still open and delivering 24 hours.”
My husband viewed this calamity as a time to relax restrictions, let up a little and have a treat. For me, the upheaval threw off my meticulous routines, making my manageable problem explode.
Because he was older than 60, with medical issues, I soon insisted on getting our groceries by myself. I felt wildly protective of him, but also tried to protect myself by controlling the deluge of delicacies into our kitchen. He started emailing me lists of provocative provisions. I accidentally forgot his bagels, rice cakes and Haribo ginger-lemon gummies.
When I found half a bag of chocolate-covered pretzels in his closet, I polished it off and accused him of flagrant insensitivity. “Your mom sent me those last year,” he said in his own defense. “I have one a month.” Bad enough my beautiful Jewish mother (an orphan whose famous cooking and overstuffed pantry may have inspired my insatiable hunger) had sent Charlie secret treats. But I’d wed someone who could eat just one chocolate-covered pretzel per month? We were clearly incompatible.
I flashed to our first blind dinner date. He was cute, 40 years old, and 6-foot-4, schlepping an extra 60 pounds and devouring whatever he wanted (which reminded me of my beloved brothers, back in the Midwest). At 29, I was 5-foot-7, 123 pounds and a gym rat. He offered me shrimp tempura on chopsticks; I shook my head. Back then, I walked miles daily, proud to be the most in-shape Shapiro. I hadn’t yet realized that drinking, toking and smoking more than a pack a day were suppressing my appetite.
The night I accepted Charlie’s marriage proposal, he ran out “to pick up something special.” I envisioned roses or a Tiffany ring. He returned with Sammy’s Noodle Shop egg rolls, scallion pancakes and General Tso’s chicken — his idea of a joyous celebration.
Months later, after we exchanged vows, he said, “You have to quit cigarettes, alcohol and partying.”
“If you’d said that while we dated, I wouldn’t have married you,” I told him.
“That’s why I waited,” he admitted.
Could your mate demand that you stop being self-destructive? My first instinct was to leave. But I’d just said “I do” in front of his father (the judge), a rabbi, friends and relatives. I’d given up my old apartment. Plus, I loved him.
Therapy with a substance abuse specialist helped me quit pot, alcohol and my 27-year cigarette compulsion. Yet as with many addictive personalities (who might switch from drugs to gambling to extreme sports), my obsessive tendencies didn’t go away. They gravitated toward food — the hardest substance to conquer, because you couldn’t ever just quit. I had to choose what to digest, thrice daily. For me, ceasing entire categories (candy, refined carbs and anything processed) proved easier than moderation. Meanwhile, Charlie maintained his greasy fried fetish, refusing exercise.
I decided that if I had to stop my bad habits, so did he. He shocked me by quitting beer and pizza. Within weeks, he modeled old Levi’s that now fit, and within months, his hideous plaid blazers from college. Down 60 pounds, he’d constantly ask, “Am I looking thinner?” He was — while still consuming twice what I did. Then I tore two ligaments in my back and had knee surgery for a torn meniscus, leaving me unable to do any aerobic activity. He’d lost weight; I found it, feeling like we were Jack Sprat and his wife. When his wedding ring loosened around his slimmer finger, I worried. “Susan, if I ever cheat on you, it will be with pizza,” he reassured me.
I finally had luck with an all-out assault: a nutritionist, intermittent fasting, a personal trainer, speed walking and a weight-lifting regimen. My careful plan toppled three years ago, when Charlie was hospitalized for neurosurgery. The morning after he returned home, I offered him his old favorite breakfast (a cheddar omelet with bacon, and a toasted bagel with cream cheese and lox), But he surprised me by preferring lighter fare and by embarking on vigorous physical therapy, developing buff arms and tight abs in his 60s.
Two years ago, visiting my retired parents in Florida, I heard Mom ask Dad, “What do you want for breakfast, honey?” — followed by lunch, snack, dinner, dessert. Their lives revolved around the dishes she fixed for him. “Let’s never be like that,” I whispered to Charlie, who nodded in relief. We felt sure that our usual mealtime sovereignty was sustainable.
Then the close quarters brought on by the coronavirus crisis collapsed all separations, disintegrating our food boundaries and bringing my hunger back with a vengeance. And yet, nervously watching the news on TV, mourning friends who died and reading a colleague’s harrowing account of caring for her deathly ill spouse who could no longer eat, I saw how blessed we were to (metaphorically) break bread daily. I felt grateful that we could feed each other.
“What do you want for breakfast, honey?” I asked him this morning, echoing my mother, realizing that I could do worse than emulate her blissful 63-year marriage. Rushing out to get Charlie’s favorite whitefish and cheese sticks, I vowed self-control, respect, staying out of his space.
When that faltered, we found a solution to maintain the mystery. Last night, he said, “I’m picking up my prescription downstairs” — a code, I gathered, for “I’ll finish my Snickers in the elevator.”