The Divorce Diet


Day One

Thad’s left for work already and Rosie’s asleep. I know this even before I pry my eyes open. He finally understood that taking care of a baby is exhausting and he let me sleep in. Yay, Thad. I feel whole and rested and strong enough to reach under the bed, fish out Losing Weight the Natural Way, and open to the first chapter:

“You are embarking on an exciting and important Life Journey, the book says. By taking control of what you eat, you are taking the first step toward becoming the person you want to be. Before you begin your journey, weigh yourself, unclothed, so that later on you’ll be able to see how far you’ve traveled.”

Right. New person. Control. Journey. Today is the first day of whatever. Step one, then: Get myself out of bed.

I toss my nightshirt on the bathroom floor and stand frozen in front of the scale like a furless and hefty squirrel panicked by an oncoming car.

Go on, a voice in my head says. Knowing what you weigh won’t make you one ounce heavier.

It’s the voice of my diet book, like a wise and kind friend who has no problems of her own to distract her from mine.

I step on the scale.

Now open your eyes, my new best friend says. And look down.

I look. And because I have a new friend to support me, I don’t even scream.

Starting weight: 168.5.

It’s okay, my invisible friend says. This is only your starting point.

Yeah, I tell her, but my starting point used to be a hundred and goddamn twenty.

And whose fault is that? she says.

Sorry, I mumble, but she’s already gone.

I toe the scale back into place—Thad won’t care but even so I don’t want him to know I’ve been weighing myself—and I get dressed. Already my new best friend hates me and has gone out somewhere. Without me. To a no-breakfast meeting, where she doesn’t even want to eat. Where she doesn’t care that I need to talk to her.

To hell with her, then. I invented her anyway.

I open the diet book.

“It’s okay,” I read. “This is only your starting point.”

Freaky. Didn’t I just make that up?

“Remember,” the book says, “you’re going to become the person you want to be. Take a minute to think about who that person is.”

I take a minute, since Rosie’s not awake yet, but all I can come up with is a memory of Thad yesterday morning, saying I was turning into a bit of a pudge.

Never mind. We’d over-discussed our relationship. We both said things we shouldn’t have. It was my fault as much as his. He didn’t mean it to sound like it did.

And besides, it’s true. Ever since I got pregnant.

See, that’s a beginning.

My invisible friend is back. She’s forgiven me.

Already you know you don’t want to be a pudge.

It took me nine months to put the weight on, I say, so I get nine to take it off. Right?

She doesn’t answer, so I fill in for her.

Sure you do, I say in my chirpiest voice. You’ve used up seven, but that still leaves two luxurious months, so there’s no pressure at all.

I wait for her to say no, we count from today and I get the full nine. When she doesn’t, I take it as a sign that she’s not really inside my head.

I’m relieved.

I’m disappointed. I was enjoying the company.

Where do you disappear to when I want to talk? I ask.

There’s no answer, so I turn to her hardcover self.

“Following the Natural Weight Loss Plan takes time and energy at first,” she says. “Soon it will become second nature, but right now you need to focus on two simple things: Follow the meal plans conscientiously and keep an honest and accurate log of everything you eat and all the exercise you get.”

That’s all. Just those two things.

Fine, then. Meal plan; log. Soon it will all seem natural. The person I want to become is not a pudge. The person I want to become finds it natural to write down everything she eats and does.

I’m not sure I like the person I want to become.

This is not a helpful thought and I put it aside, which is easy to do since Rosie just woke up.

I lift Rosie from the crib, change her, and set her on the kitchen floor to whack at the linoleum with a plastic duck. This gives me a minute to check my meal plan.

Breakfast is one slice of whole wheat toast, one poached egg, and a banana. I’ve never poached an egg in my life, not because I can’t but because poached eggs are disgusting. Still, if I’m going to follow this diet I want to do it right.

My mother’s ancient Settlement Cookbook says to add salt and a touch of vinegar to the poaching water. I break the egg into a saucer and when the water boils I slide the egg in. The kitchen smells like Easter eggs.

No, more like Easter eggs with dirty diapers.

“You didn’t,” I say to Rosie. “Not when Mama’s cooking herself the most beautiful poached yuck.”

She did, though, and she did it thoroughly, dirtying her diaper, her sleeper, the floor, and the plastic duck, defying the laws of gravity, physics, and probability, all in one shot.

I hold her at arm’s length and rush to the changing table. I rinse the diaper—if there’s one thing I believe in it’s cloth diapers—the sleeper, the hind end, the middle end, and a fair portion of the legs, along with the hands, the wrists, and the duck.

The smell of burnt egg overpowers the smell of diaper and the smoke detector shrieks. I diaper Rosie, wash my hands, turn off the burner, and yank the battery out of the smoke detector.

The house goes very, very quiet.

I wash the kitchen floor while Rosie whacks her plastic duck against the tile.

Even when I’m running a soapy mop across them, I love the tiles Thad and I chose. I love this kitchen, this house, this baby.

I kiss Rosie and scrub my hands.

Calories burned: 27; maybe even 28.

I scrape burnt egg into the trash.

Soon I will become a person who loves poached eggs, but since it will happen naturally I don’t have to force it. In the meantime, I’m happy to cut myself a slice of bread, grab an old notebook, and write down what I’m about to eat.

Breakfast: Coffee, black; 1 slice of dry multigrain toast from a loaf I bought yesterday at this great little neighborhood bakery that doesn’t use preservatives. I believe in bakeries that don’t use preservatives. I believe in neighborhood stores.

Exercise: I promise myself and my new best friend that I will be meticulous about keeping my food and exercise log, but first I slot Rosie into her highchair and hold a spoonful of baby cereal in front of the spot where her mouth was just a second ago.

I say, “Mmmm.”

I move the spoon to the new spot where her mouth used to be and she moves her mouth to a third spot.

I pretend to eat the spoonful of cereal.

I say, “This is so good.”

I hold the spoon out.

Rosie turns her head toward the window. I move the spoon. She blows a raspberry. She learned to do this a couple of weeks ago. At the time, I thought it was charming.

Snack: 1 spoonful of baby cereal.

Exercise: I say, “Mmmm.”

I hold the spoon out. Rosie turns her head toward the doorway.

Snack: Remainder of baby cereal.

Exercise: I place the bowl in the sink, turn on the Food Channel, and nurse Rosie.

Calories burned: 780. I admit I’m making up the numbers, but creating milk does burn calories. Why else would cows spend so much time eating?

Okay, that’s a terrible comparison and I hope my invisible friend didn’t hear it, because I don’t want her to think I’m the kind of person who’d say a thing like that.

I spend the rest of the morning cleaning the house, playing with Rosie, reading my diet book, fitting the battery back into the smoke detector, and watching the Food Channel. I love the Food Channel. As much as I believe in being a full-time mother and as much as I love Rosie, I’d have lost my mind by now without it.

I check my diet book to see what I get for lunch.

It tells me to eat a “beanadilla.” This is one small whole wheat tortilla wrapped around a quarter cup of non-fat refried beans and one ounce of low-fat cheddar cheese, topped with a tablespoon of non-fat sour cream and a washtub of tomato salsa. Plus a half cup of baby carrots. Not adult carrots. You have to catch them before they develop calories.

Why, I ask my new best friend, does the beanadilla have to go in quotation marks? If the name embarrasses you, call it a burrito. Call it a taco. Call it anything that comes from a language spoken by some actual group of human beings living on this planet.

Does my new best friend answer? She does not. She’s not that kind of friend. And I haven’t even gone into the question of how something refried can be non-fat. Do you not-fry it twice? Do you fry more than once in non-fat?

I check my cupboards and refrigerator for the carrots and the ingredients for the—oh, come on, I can’t even think that word. Beanadilla? What kind of person comes up with a name like that?

I don’t have the ingredients. I knew that before I looked, but checking seemed like something I owed my invisible friend.

Make a shopping list, my invisible friend says. Read the week’s food plans and stock up so you won’t be tempted to substitute.

Right, I say. List. Stock up. Substitute.

No, she says. Don’t substitute.

Just wanted to see if you were listening.

She’s not, though. She’s gone again.

I substitute two slices of multigrain for the whole wheat tortilla. I substitute part-skim mozzarella for the low-fat cheese, and two slices of hydroponic tomato for the salsa. For the beans, the carrots, and the non-fat sour cream, I substitute air, and I grill it all in just the tiniest hint of unsalted butter. It makes a lovely little substichilla, and I leave out the quotation marks because they’re fattening.

I sit at the kitchen table with Rosie on my lap.

Lunch: ½ grilled part-skim mozzarella sandwich with sliced tomato on multigrain bread from this great little neighborhood bakery that doesn’t use preservatives.

Exercise: Rosie smacks her arm into my plate, launching it off the table. I grab at the sandwich in midair, breaking it into pieces.

Be sure to eat everything listed in your meal plan, my invisible nag says. Otherwise you’ll get hungry later on and overeat.

Everything, I echo to show her I’ve understood. Overeat.

I set Rosie on the floor and reassemble the sandwich.

Snack: ½ grilled part-skim mozzarella sandwich on multigrain bread with sliced tomato and dust rolls, which have re-emerged from wherever they went to hide while I was washing the floor. Dust rolls are full of fiber and not the least bit fattening. They contain healthy bacteria that will boost my immune system, which is more important now than ever, because I have a baby to take care of and I pass my immunities on to her.

Exercise: I look at Rosie and say, “Mmmm.”

I make a multiple personality grocery list, half dictated by the me who’s on a diet and half by the me who’ll cook Thad’s birthday dinner for tonight.

And don’t think of it as a diet, my own private guru says. Diets are temporary. Diets are self-denial. What you’re engaged in is a Life Journey, a profound alteration in your lifestyle. You’ll be losing weight the Natural way. You’ll be—.

Got it, I say. Lifestyle. Journey. Starting point. Natural.

She gets huffy at being interrupted but she leaves me alone to finish my list, which—I can hear this just under her silence—she disapproves of. She wants Thad to Lose Weight the Natural Way too. As far as I can tell she hasn’t seen him—she doesn’t know if he needs to lose weight or gain it—but she doesn’t care. This is a belief system. You don’t have to be fat to commit to it.

What I want, on the other hand, is for Thad to know nothing about my diet. I want to lose weight so naturally that he’ll forget I ever was a pudge. I want him to start running his finger across my shoulders again when he walks past, just because he likes to touch me.

I can’t remember when he last did that.

I buckle Rosie into her car seat and drive to the grocery store. On the way home, I phone a neighbor who also has a baby.

“Can I ask a really big favor?” I say, steering with one hand so I can hold the phone to my ear, which I shouldn’t do with Rosie in the car, or even without her, but it’s only this once and I’ll be off in a minute and I’m not driving fast.

I explain about Thad’s birthday, the dinner, my diet—“Okay, it’s not a diet it’s a—you know, one of these non-diet things, with, like, stuff I don’t eat and—. Listen, do you suppose you could watch Rosie for a couple of hours? I should have thought this out ahead of time but I really want to make him a nice dinner. We need some good time together, and I would be so—.”

“Of course.”

“Grateful. I’d be so grateful.”

I drop Rosie off at the neighbor’s and carry my groceries in. It feels odd not to have Rosie in one arm—kind of lonely and off balance.

It also feels free. Light. As if I’ve lost weight already. I’ve been planning this dinner all week and want to give it my full attention.

Step one, then: the cake.

In the double boiler, I melt bittersweet chocolate imported from Belgium, which I’ve been saving for a special occasion. When the last island of solid chocolate gives itself over helplessly to a liquid state, I stir in unsalted butter and they wrap around each other like lovers. I would drown in them willingly.

More than willingly: ecstatically.

I pour in crème de cassis. I’ve never used this before and it’s gorgeous stuff, jewel red and glowing as if it was made of light.

I add egg yolks, espresso powder, flour, thick shavings of white chocolate. When I fold in the egg whites I’ve beaten with salt and sugar, the batter looks like velvet.

Or like sex.

Okay, not exactly like sex, but it does make me think about sex.

Everything makes me think about sex.

Which shouldn’t surprise me, really. It’s been a while.

I set the cake in the oven, melt semisweet chocolate and brush it onto some small, perfect leaves I picked in the back yard, and I balance them in the freezer. I melt more chocolate for the frosting, stir in more butter, and watch them wrap around each other like—can’t I think about anything else this afternoon?—lovers. I stir in the sugar, the cream, the vanilla, and imagine painting Thad’s belly with it even though he doesn’t go for that sort of thing.

I cover the frosting so it won’t harden while I run across the street to pick up Rosie.

She flaps her arms at me and coos.

I pick her up and say, “Are you Mama’s gorgeous baby?”

She says, “Mmm ba ba ba ba.”

“And I missed you too.”

I thank my neighbor and carry Rosie to my kitchen, where I put a fingerful of frosting on her tongue and one on my own.

Snack: 1 fingerful of chocolate frosting.

Exercise: Rosie says, “Mmmm.” True, she follows it with “ba ba ba,” but she did say it.

Before my guru has time to scold, I swear I’ll take the leftover cake to my neighbor first thing in the morning to thank her for watching Rosie.

My guru keeps her opinion to herself. Or maybe she’s out again and doesn’t notice. I’m not sure how I feel about that. Hurt, I think. Or relieved. Possibly both.
I take the cake out of the oven and put Thad’s potato in, and I nurse Rosie and wash Rosie and walk Rosie and lower Rosie into her crib. I put clean sheets on the bed, turn down the corner on Thad’s side, and arrange candles in a romantic configuration on the bedside table.

By the time I’m done, I’ve completely seduced myself. How could he not feel the same way?

My food plan says I should eat Italian chicken. This doesn’t come in quotation marks and is three ounces of boneless, skinless chicken breast marinated in non-fat Italian dressing and fried in non-stick spray oil. It sounds godawful but I want to do this right. And my guru says it’s natural, so it must be okay.

I open the package of organic, free-range chicken breasts I just bought and I override all my instincts. In other words, I pull the skin off one and marinate it in chemically enhanced non-fat Italian salad dressing, which I also just bought. It smells like the kind of industrial residue that’s responsible for lowering the reproductive rate of the North American frog, but my life journey guru told me to eat it, and it is part of a recipe, so my guru must have cooked it at least once and eaten it and lived to write about it.

That means it tastes better than it smells.

I wonder if eating it kept her from reproducing.

I wonder if I really do want a second child.

I rub Thad’s chicken breast with olive oil, lemon juice, oregano, and basil, and I cover it so the smell of mine won’t contaminate it, then I put them both in the refrigerator while I toast cubes of French bread with—aw, c’mon, it’s only a very little bit—unsalted butter, oregano, and basil. I toss these with romaine lettuce, set them all in the refrigerator, and peel the real leaves out from under the chilled chocolate, leaving unbelievably professional looking chocolate leaves. This is the first time I’ve tried this, but I’ve seen it done on the Food Channel.

I spread the bottom layer of the cake with raspberry jam imported from the shores of a loch somewhere in Scotland and I imagine dotting Thad’s belly with this too, even though he doesn’t go for that sort of thing. Maybe I just haven’t found the right way to suggest it.

I sprinkle a few flattened fresh raspberries on top of the jam, sandwich the layers together, frost them, and decorate the top with the chocolate leaves and more raspberries.

I’ve never made anything this beautiful before. Except Rosie, of course, who’s sleeping like a basket of drugged kittens, leaving me free to fry Thad’s chicken breast in unsalted butter and mine in non-stick spray oil, which will make me into the person I want to become. Whoever that is.

At seven-thirty I light the candles on the dining room table so they’ll be burning when Thad walks in. He’s had to work late a lot recently; it’s no wonder he’s been cranky. Starting today, I will be more understanding.

By eight I’ve blown the candles out so they won’t burn down too far.

When he gets home at nearly eight-thirty, I relight them.

Dinner: For me, marinated skinless chicken breast that may or may not weigh 3 ounces; salad with no dressing; slice of cake no bigger across than the width of my thumb because it would be rude to make Thad eat birthday cake by himself, and besides, I don’t want to insult the cook. For Thad, chicken breast with sour cream gravy; baked potato; sort-of Caesar salad with homemade dressing; French bread with unsalted butter; slice of cake.

Exercise: I pick at my chicken breast, which tastes remarkably like industrial residue. My reproductive possibilities are dropping each time I chew and I still haven’t decided about that second child.

By contrast, the bare-naked lettuce tastes great.

Thad looks miserable and picks at his food, and he doesn’t ask if the sour cream came from organic sour cows.

Keeping my voice casual, I ask, “Is something wrong?”

He shrugs dismally.

Okay, this isn’t the time for casual. I lean forward and say, “Thad, tell me. What is it?” I sound so understanding that it’s a wonder I have to ask. I would tell me anything.

He mashes cake into the plate with his fork and looks into the mess he’s made. He looks at his napkin, his coffee spoon, his watchband. They’re all easier to look at than I am.

“Sweetheart,” I say. “Whatever it is—.”

I can’t seem to find the end of my sentence.

“It’s not you,” he says. “Really. It’s me.”

I have a very bad feeling about this.

He looks up. He says, “Okay, I’m going to come right out and say this, okay? I’m just going to say this. It’s this whole marriage thing. It doesn’t work for me.”

I review what he said to be sure I understood: Marriage thing. Doesn’t work. End fattening quote.

I know things aren’t perfect, but there is no way this can possibly mean what it means.

I stare at Thad blankly. My mind shuts down and my body stands up. It walks to the window and looks out. The tree outside has leaves. Each leaf is separate and perfect. I have never seen leaves as purely as I see them at this instant. I never knew they were so beautiful.

I turn around and see Thad, who is separate but not perfect and who has chocolate smeared on the corner of his mouth.

I have to say something. My marriage depends on me saying something.

I say, “But why?”

Which is not the thing I need to say. I know that.

“It’s not you,” Thad says again.

I say, “What do you mean it’s not me?” and I know this isn’t the right thing either but it says itself. The words coming out of my mouth have nothing more to do with me than the way Thad feels about this
marriage thing. They wandered in from the conversation every couple in the country have when they split up, tagging behind It’s not you, it’s me like a pesky little sister.

Any minute now, he’ll ask if we can’t still be friends.

Except that we can’t be splitting up. Other people do that. The two of us, we’ll be fine.

“It’s just—. I’m having trouble with the whole idea of marriage,” Thad says.

Oh. Well. Of course. Imagine my relief.

Thad’s staring at the table. At the dishes, actually, so I snatch them away and hustle them off to the kitchen as if all of this was their fault.

I set them down harder than I meant to.

It’s okay, I tell myself. None of this is really happening.

Thad’s plate is thick with mashed-up cake and I scrape a finger through it.

Snack: Mashed-up cake Thad didn’t eat.

Exercise: I tell myself to go back out there and fight for him.

I wipe my fingers on the dishrag, blow my nose and march into the living room, ready for battle.

Thad’s turned on the TV.

“You can’t just end the marriage and not tell me what’s wrong,” I say.

“Nothing’s wrong. It’s me. It’s all me.”

“Please,” I say, “just tell me. Whatever it is, I’d rather know.”

He stares at the floor. Somebody on the TV laughs.

“Will you talk to me?” I say. “Don’t you owe me that much?”

He tells me again that it’s all his fault. I’m sure he’s right about this, but it’s not the point.

I stomp into the kitchen and wash dishes, then stomp back to the living room.

“What about Rosie?” I say. “You can’t leave Rosie.”

He tells me what a shit he is.

I don’t try to convince him that he isn’t.

I stalk back to the kitchen and cut myself a slice of cake.

And you shut up, I tell my guru, who hasn’t said a word all evening.

Snack: 1 slice of cake the width of 3 fingers.

Exercise: Rosie cries and I nurse her. Calories flow out of me—I count them as they go—and already I’m thinking about cake again. Which is not what I should be doing. I don’t need my guru to tell me this.

As soon as Rosie’s asleep, I wrap the remainder of the cake and hide it in the now-cold oven, where I’d never think to look for it.

By the time I get back to the living room, Thad’s making a bed on the couch. The TV’s still on.

“You’re better off without me,” he says. “It hasn’t been much fun for either of us lately.”

“It hasn’t?” I say, sounding as if this was news to me, which in a way it is. Yes, we’ve been snappish and critical and less than ecstatically happy, but that happens to people. It doesn’t mean we have to end our marriage thing.

I take the cake out of the oven.

Snack: 1 slice of cake the width of my palm.

Exercise: I double wrap what’s left of the cake and hide it in the laundry hamper, where even if I do think to look for it I’d never eat it, and I take myself to bed.

The empty side of the bed stretches out beside me like the Gobi Desert. Even in the dark I can make out the unlit candles on the bedside table.

He could at least have told me what a nice meal I made before he said he was leaving, I think.

Abigail Marie, I think, you are such an idiot.

He can’t leave me, I think. He has the only income.

I roll over and try to stop thinking.

I am twenty-five years old, I think, and my world is ending.

I lie awake for a long time, wishing I was asleep, and at some point either I wake up or else I stop trying to sleep, I can’t tell which, and I walk to the living room, where I listen to Thad snore.

He’s sleeping, I think.

I’m not sleeping, I think.

That is so not fair, I think.

I cut a slice of cake the width of my foot and drop it on his face.

He flails around, then sits up, yelling, “You bitch! You want to know why I want out of our marriage? This is why I want out our marriage.”

I stand in the dark and listen to him yell but he might as well be someone else’s husband yelling somewhere down the street.

I rewrap the cake and hide it in the trash, where—I really mean it this time—I wouldn’t touch it if my guru had baked it for me with her own 99.9 percent non-fat hands.

I take myself back to bed and lie in the dark, making a list of everything Thad’s done wrong in my life. This does not help me relax.

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