Whenever her husband announced he was going on a diet, Alison became gripped by the fierce urge to eat. Sam would declare he needed to lose six pounds. Not five. Not ten. A mysteriously calculated six. I’m not feeling comfortable, he’d tell her. Or, my pants aren’t fitting, he’d say. And then the next day he would call her on his way home from work to say he was hungry, but that he had not eaten anything during the day. A half pound a day, he promised himself as he slipped into bed next to her that night. He would drop off consciousness with the gracelessness of a four-year-old doing a cannon-ball, entering sleep with a loud splash of breath, sinking after some initial flailing into a gentle, rhythmic snore.
At these times, she would push back the covers, pull on her pajama bottoms, and make her way down to the kitchen where she would open cabinets looking for crackers, nuts, anything salty. She would pour handfuls of sunflower seeds and raisins into her palm, and consider the wooden bowl on the countertop filled with tiny heirloom tomatoes in all their oil-color gradations of smoky red, yellow, mottled green. She’d wonder absently if there was any Stilton cheese in the fridge to crumble on top of tomato slices.
He was a man of his word and Alison knew that once he had said he’d do it, her husband would lose the weight. She also knew that she would not be allowed to miss one detail of it. He would keep her abreast of every moment of it: the single cup of coffee and half pack of Mentos candy that he powered through the day on; the ingredients in the salad he’d had for lunch; the pointed way he’d lean back from his underutilized dinner plate while the rest of the family leaned in for seconds of the chili, rogan josh, potatoes that waited on the table. Alison would murmur the noises that signaled she was hearing him, even as she heard in the litany of his willpower her own failure. In bed later, she would touch the belly fat that squished as she rolled onto her side and wonder how so much substance could make her feel insubstantial.
And this time was no different. Just as she did every time Sam began to log what he was eating, she felt the compulsive pull to the kitchen. So now, she turned on the dimmer light and waited for the hunger to direct her. In the fruit bowl on the kitchen island, the rough-skinned Haas avocados were cradled in the smooth geometry of the glossy bananas. She closed her eyes and imagined the content of each cabinet and pantry shelf. After a moment of reflection, she went to pull down the pasta. She stood over the boiling water, and, after that, over the spaghetti in the metal colander, letting the steam caress her face. Even as she watched the wheat-yellow strands melt through the pat of butter and listened, semi-hypnotized by the calabash rhythm of the parmesan cheese as she shook it over her bowl, her mind sought out and categorized the other food available to her. With the empty bowl in her hand, she opened the pantry door and considered the colorful boxes of breakfast cereal, all-natural cinnamon apple sauce, even the dull green of the canned lima beans. She chose whatever was nearest that didn’t disgust her. She ate with weird determination, feeling the food on her tongue, but not really tasting any of it. She ate until the hunger was an idea instead of a feeling.
Afterwards, she climbed the stairs and lowered herself gently onto the bed so as not to awaken Sam. She pulled the covers up over them, tucking her arm tenderly around his diminishing waist. She counted his breaths, and as his chest swelled and ebbed under her arm, her pride in him filled her up as the food never did. Tomorrow she would be able to speak the words of encouragement he was seeking, but tonight, she filled the time between his inhalations with a mantra: sweet pickles…smoked ham…pumpernickel…peanut butter…
Elizabeth Rosen’s current obsession is ghost-hunting shows. Past obsessions include, but are not limited to, Victorian fashion, artist’s books/paper art, and hip hop dancing tutorials, even though she doesn’t dance. Her obsession with dogs never goes away. Her fiction has appeared in Ascent, The MacGuffin, Litro, Revolver, Stoneboat, Referential, Xavier Review and other places. Her story “Tracks” is the first place winner in this year’s Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition, and she has just returned from a residency with the Cuttyhunk Island Writer’s Residency. She is also a former children’s television writer with Nickelodeon and an academic who writes about apocalyptic story-telling.