The guide extracted a wedge of cheese and a thick slab of bread from his rucksack. He pulled a large jackknife from his pocket, cut three wedges from the cheese and three slices from the bread, and solemnly handed cheese and bread first to Jena, then to Frank.
— David Michael Kaplan, b. 1946, American fiction writer
from “Tombs,” in Skating in the Dark
Skating in the Dark is “a novel in stories,” a popular form right now. The components are standalone short stories, but they are all about the same set of characters and, read together, give a narrative arc more complex than each has alone. I plucked it from a stack of unread books three days ago because I wanted to read some fiction with my morning coffee, but the book I was part way through was in my study and on Day 9 of The Cold That Won’t Bow to Zi-Cam I could not face going upstairs again just for a book.
It was a good choice. It’s held my attention and entertained (the primary purpose of fiction) as well as given me insights and ideas about craft (the other reason I read anything). In the passage above, Frank (the main character) has returned to the village in Greece where he spent (or misspent) the summer he was twenty-four trying to write a novel and trying not to make a commitment to his girlfriend, Jena. Neither endeavor was successful, and now he and Jena are vacationing there about five years into their marriage (which will itself prove not successful).
When I got to the passage above I immediately stopped thinking about how certain I am that Frank and Jena are headed for heartbreak and started thinking about the cheese and the bread. I copied the passage into my journal. Wow, I wrote underneath. They ate wedges of cheese and hunks of bread, no counting points, no weighing portions, no checking off on their food diary the amount of milk and carbohydrate they’ve consumed. They just ate it.
It was exactly one year ago that I wrote about joining up with Weight Watchers again. “I was so not going to do this, ever again,” I wrote, but I did, posted four more pieces about my adventures (and annoyances) with Flex Points and Activity Points, and then abandoned the project once more. Without benefit of weekly meetings and little silver Bravo! stars to stick on my 5-pound award bookmark (which I didn’t get anyway because I didn’t even lose five pounds) I just lived what turned out to be the best year of my life, turned sixty, won a writers’ residency, gallivanted about Vermont and Wyoming and did everything I wanted to do there. Or did I just do the things I could do, given my physical condition?
Just after I came back from Wyoming I found myself once again yearning to get serious about weight loss. Wouldn’t I look better, feel better, be able to live this wonderful life I have better if there was less of me? The day I joined was also the day Maria, my best girlfriend from eighth grade, joined, and, just like last year, the leader greeted us by name, and that sealed the deal.
Today was my Week 5. When I finished the Kaplan story I went out to the meeting Maria and I have been attending, even though I knew she couldn’t be there this week. I learned that I’d gained .2 pounds (that’s less than four ounces). The woman who weighed me consoled me over those scant four ounces, said I probably needed whatever comfort foods I was shoveling into myself as I wrestled with The Cold From Hell.
In the meeting I sat behind a young mother whose short spiky hair had a first-rate color job. She had pretty hands that she was using to distribute snack bags (apple wedges and celery sticks) to her two little girls, about four years old and two. The older child had on some well-worn sparkly ruby slippers not unlike the ones Lynn had at that age, and looking at the two children I thought wistfully about what an adorable big sister Lynn would have been. The young mother didn’t appear to be overweight, although it would be hard to tell with only seeing her sitting down in jeans and a gray hoodie. She was studying her materials carefully (she’s on Week 4), and as I watched her and her daughters I listened to the leader encouraging us to establish an eating plan for the week and eliminate thoughts of deprivation while you are measuring out exactly fifteen miniature M&Ms for a point value of . . .
And I thought, miniature M&Ms? You can miniaturize something that is already barely an object? I looked around and saw that I was sitting in a room full of beautiful beautiful women who don’t like their bodies, don’t like their lives, who maybe don’t like themselves. Here was this beautiful young mother wrangling her wonderful little girls to a Weight Watchers meeting instead of sitting in the kitchen with them finger painting.
And I felt very very sad. Because after I went home from the Weight Watchers meeting (after stopping at the market for a hunk of Armenian string cheese and a loaf of French bread), I had to get ready to attend a memorial service for the former teaching colleague who died so suddenly in December. She had been overweight all of her life, and in the thirty years I knew her we had talked often about weight loss and appearance and strategies for coping with each. There is some mystery and drama surrounding her death, and rumor has it that she underwent gastric bypass surgery not long ago, that people were saying how good she looked. We don’t know, of course, what contribution, direct or indirect, this expensive and dangerous surgery made to her fate. All I know is that I attended a memorial service for her today instead of wishing her a happy birthday. She would have turned fifty-six today.
The string cheese and the bread? I didn’t write down a bite of it.
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