THE TREE—a towering sugar maple on the strip of grass between sidewalk and street—had been dying for years, and now, out her living room window, Eve Adams was watching two men take it down. Or one man, really: the younger one, his dark hair pushing out below his hard hat, the rim of his boxers peeking from the waist of his jeans. He had shimmied up the trunk an hour ago, all leather straps and ropes and work boots, while the older guy, cigarette glued to his lip, held the lines that guided the pieces of tree to the ground after the boy detached them. (He was a boy, Eve thought; nineteen or twenty if he was a day.) After securing the rope around the next section to go—first the branches, long and unwieldy; then the trunk, massive and contained—the kid would rev his chain saw and cut with precision, a surgeon amputating a limb, until the wood fell away, hitting the ground so hard that Eve literally felt the earth shake. A thrill would shoot through her, briefly dislodging her mind’s contents until all that remained, other than a hint of sadness for the tree, was awe and wonder. She loved watching men cut down trees. Especially when, as now, there was a sapling nearby that would thrive without its expiring ancestor to steal its sunlight and root space.
But the final thrilling moment she could afford to watch ended, as all moments must, and now—Monday morning, just past 8:35—Eve’s dark thoughts flooded painfully back. Eric was gone. And while other women’s worlds might go on hold when their husbands ran away with the babysitter, she did not have that luxury. For one, there were bills to be paid, bills piled on the desk awaiting money that very well might not yet have been earned. For another, her clients were counting on her, and she would not abandon them just because Eric, as all signs seemed—unfathomably—to indicate, had done just that to her, not to mention to the kids. One family member indulging in some wacko retro-adolescent Jack Kerouac escapade was more than enough. She grabbed her purse and files and hurried out to the car, snapped on her seatbelt and turned the key. But checking the rearview mirror, she paused to look at herself for the first time since she’d dressed to go out, with Eric, on Saturday night.
Admittedly, her face was not exactly the one he had married sixteen years ago. Her eyes were puffy pillows with purple crescent moons underneath (though this she blamed at least partly on her lack of sleep the past two nights). Worse was something she’d noticed only this year, in not just herself but other women screeching into their forties: that slight loosening and drooping of the skin, like a cake not fully baked. Eve forced herself to sit up straighter. At least her irises were still bright blue—even age couldn’t steal the color from those—and her cheeks had always held a rosy year-round glow. And she’d dressed well today: black pants, crisp white blouse, red stone choker made by a friend of Eric’s. She shook out her hair, which she hadn’t had time to dry, having driven eight-year-old Danny to school (and, okay, taken time to watch the tree men). Eric had been driving him lately when she had morning appointments, and she’d gotten spoiled by it, she realized. Well, she’d just have to get unspoiled now.
She put the car in reverse, turned the heat to full blast, and pulled none too slowly away from her house and around the corner. This morning’s very early phone calls, to the police and to Visa, had yielded two obnoxious new pieces of information. First, the babysitter, Dria, had still not been seen or heard from by her housemate or at the library, where she worked. And second, two tanks of gas and a hotel room in Pennsylvania had been charged to the credit card Eve and Eric shared ($62 for the hotel—at least he was traveling cheap). Clearly he wasn’t lying in a gutter, as she’d worried sick about all yesterday and last night. In fact, she had told the police, once she’d regained her composure enough to talk, to leave it alone at this point—not, they’d made clear to her, that they could do much anyway if he was away by choice. Still, she was not one to chase a husband who didn’t want to be home. After all, she had enough to do managing the lives and household of the three family members, herself included, who remained.
Danny, anyway, had seemed fine with the explanation she’d provided last evening, casually, at Burritoville—this before she knew anything, really, but she’d had to tell the kids something, and why worry them before there was reason to? “Daddy’s gone away for a little while,” she’d said, after they were settled at the tiny terra-cotta table with their food and utensils and drinks. “He needs some space and time to collect himself and replenish.” She forked grilled chicken salad into her mouth, even though she couldn’t imagine swallowing it. “He’ll be back soon,” she’d added, then wished she could reel the words right back, because honestly, she had no idea.
The boy had listened, nodding thoughtfully, politely chewing his bean and cheese taco, his ears protruding like perfect little jug handles, his eyes an impossibly pale blue against his even paler white skin, which was just starting to produce the smattering of spring freckles that appeared, regardless of sun, like a perennial plant. Fourteen-year-old Magnolia, predictably, was more belligerent. “What do you mean space and time to replenish?” she’d demanded, pushing her mop of black curls out of her face, then shaking it back to exactly the same place so she could hide behind it. “Did Daddy tell you that? Did he legit say those exact words?”
“No,” Eve said patiently. “He didn’t actually tell me anyth—”
“Then how do you know?” she’d yelled. “How can you possibly know what he needs or why he left?” She’d stood up, leaving her quesadilla, along with the two extra sour creams she’d ordered, and stormed off to the bathroom, yanking down the overly large sweater she wore lately to hide the ample new curves on her suddenly towering body. Eve and Danny glanced at each other, then went on eating, or at least trying to. When Magnolia came out nine minutes later—Eve had already put the quesadilla and sour creams into a take-out container—it was clear she’d been crying. “Oh, sweetie,” Eve said, instantly filled with sympathy. “Don’t worry. It’s okay.”
But even as she’d said that, Eve thought it was anything but. At that point, all she’d really known was that Saturday night, after what she’d thought was a lovely, wine-filled dinner out to celebrate her first and likely only book—Feast on This: How to Eat Right, Feel Good, and Look Great in a Time of Nutritional Chaos—going into a small second printing, Eric had gone to drive Dria home and hadn’t returned. Calls to the police had yielded nothing—no reports of nearby violence or wrongdoing, no local accidents. A call to Eric’s cell phone revealed only that he’d left it on their kitchen counter. (He had always hated the thing; took it places only when Eve insisted.) Calls to Dria’s cell went unanswered, voice mails to her unreturned, and if Eve had had to hear the girl’s voice say, “I can’t answer right now, but have a beautiful day!” one more time, she might have gone ahead and slit her wrists. And after contemplating and deciding against calling Eric’s mother, in Arizona—why worry Penelope, or humiliate herself, until she was sure he wasn’t hiding out locally?—Eve had floated through the rest of the weekend in a fog of alternating panic, anger, and even optimism. Maybe he’d somehow gotten inspired and was off creating the brilliant sculpture that would restore his career to its former success, and their bank account to its former robustness! Until this morning’s calls to Visa and the police set her straight.
“I’m not worried, Mom,” Magnolia had shot back in the restaurant last night. “God, if he’s rude enough to leave without even taking his phone or telling us where he’s going, why should I worry about him?” Eve knew her daughter was worried, of course, but still, she’d felt a secret stab of righteousness at Maggie’s words; that’s exactly what Eve had been thinking too. “Anyway, that’s not what I’m upset about,” Magnolia added.
“Well—will you tell us what you’re upset about?” Eve had said. “Maybe we can help you.”
“Yeah, I guess my eight-year-old brother has a lot of insight into fourteen-year-old relationships,” Maggie snapped.
Eve had thought then of a riddle another mother recently told her: How many teenagers does it take to screw in a lightbulb? One: She holds up the bulb and waits for the world to revolve around her. “Do not take this out on your brother,” Eve had said sharply, but Danny just looked away. “And you may not speak to me that way either, Magnolia. Apologize!”
“Sorry,” Maggie said, ungenuinely, but then her eyes filled with tears. “I’m really sorry, Mom. Sorry, Dan man. I’m just—I had a stupid, sucky day. Can we go now, Mom? Please?”
She had been struggling, Eve knew—her strange new body, the veritable tsunami of hormones that washed over her every day—and though Eve was sometimes truly stunned by the rage and snottiness that spewed forth from her daughter’s mouth, she also, like other mothers she knew did their own ill-mannered teen offspring, cut her mountains of slack and forgave her the second she was remotely contrite. Plus, the girl was funny as often as she was rude, and Eve loved a good laugh. Laugh at life or life will laugh at you, was the motto she tried to live by.
Anyway, Magnolia had seemed better this morning, eating her grapefruit and oatmeal (piles of sugar on each) and even bantering a little with Danny. (“Hey, Dan, my main man.” “Hey back, my main Maggot.”) One less thing to worry about. Not that Eve actually would worry anymore about Eric, now that she knew what the hell he was up to. At the thought, she turned a little too fast onto Main Street, passing the beloved, if almost obsolete, Bramington video store and the slightly seedy piercing place; the recently arrived handmade organic chocolate shop and cozy Bramington Books and the newest restaurant, Dharma (“locally grown lactoovo vegetarian fare”), which had replaced Angelo’s Ristorante in her western Massachusetts town, known for its diverse population of artists and musicians, lesbians, aging hippies, earnest trust funders, and recovering (and nonrecovering) alcoholics, drug addicts, and transients. Around the corner, past Nirvana Yoga, which succeeded George’s Gym, and Bramington Kung Fu, where Danny practiced, the soon-to-open franchise porn shop had its usual line of women—mostly large and middle-aged, sporting frizzy graying hair and caftans—protesting its opening (“Porn hurts men as well as womyn,” one’s sign said), while nearby, three scruffy guys in jeans and work boots posed with their sign: “Honk If You’re Horny!” They waved and smiled at Eve as she drove past (in a chorus of honks and cheers from several cars), and she might even have smiled back—Laugh at life and all that—if she hadn’t been so pissed off at Eric.
She pulled onto the highway, accelerated to 70, and set cruise control, then dug blindly for her cell phone. Normally at times like this she called Eric, interrupting him in his studio to update him: where she was going, what they were having for dinner, what activities the kids had today. She’d talk and talk, filling up the space, the miles, while he laughed or said “Uh-huh” or told her some news about the world (another country gone to war, another male politician who’d had some career-ruining affair) that she wouldn’t have known otherwise, having pretty much given up reading the paper after Danny was born. (It was all she could do to get through her e-mail, her nutrition journals and e-Blasts, and the occasional novel.) Of course, she probably could have turned on the radio and heard the same news, but it was much more fun to hear it from Eric, who would explain the history of the war or, in the case of lighter news, sometimes editorialize for her in a funny way.
But today she obviously couldn’t call him. And her hands were trembling again: one on the wheel, the other holding her phone. Annoyed, she shook them out, one at a time. She took some deep breaths—in through the nose, out through the mouth, the one thing she’d retained from her brief yoga phase—then turned on the radio, loud. Both NPR stations were in the midst of fund drives. After flipping around a bit (rap music, or hip-hop, whatever kids called it now, rude and tuneless, featuring hos and bitches and lady lumps and sluts and junk in your trunk, jizz in your pants, dicks in yo face, dicks super size, dicks that need no introduction), she turned off the radio in disgust. She glanced at her hands—good, all better now—then, after checking traffic, opened the phone again and dialed her best friend, Loretta. The voice mail came on. “Hey, it’s Howard, Loretta, Ben, Josh . . . and Edie, born 1/25!” said Loretta’s voice. “Leave a message, but I’m not making any promises.”
Eve hung up. She had sent Loretta a long e-mail yesterday and hadn’t heard back—no surprise, given that her friend had a seven-week-old—but still. Eve missed the daily, if not hourly, e-mail they’d shot back and forth for, what, almost two decades now? Since graduate school, anyway—even after Loretta married Howard just over a year ago. In the e-mail yesterday, Eve told her she had both good news and bad. The good was that her book was actually selling, at least enough to earn out her small advance and maybe even make some royalties eventually. The bad was that Eric seemed—ha-ha!—to have left her. “At first I figured, Oh, something probably just caught his eye for a sculpture,” Eve wrote. “A dilapidated pile of wood, or some half-melted snowman. I imagined him standing in the dark analyzing angles and shadows—and Good, I thought, maybe he’ll actually make something this time. Even later, when I woke up at 3:00 AM and he still wasn’t home, I told myself to relax, he’s probably just at the studio.” But later, Eve told Loretta, she had gone to the studio and found it dark and locked. No Eric.
Now she wanted to update her friend. He really was on the road with Dria, going west! All evidence pointed to it. “Can you believe it?” she would say, attempting a laugh. “I’ve become the worst sort of cliché.” And Loretta would know exactly what to tell her.
With a sigh, Eve dropped the phone back into her purse. She glanced at the files on the seat next to her, which she hadn’t had the time—or the wherewithal, anyway—to review in the chaos of the weekend. Maybe at a stoplight she could take a quick look. Otherwise she’d have to wing it. That would be hardest with her first client, Michael Cardello, since he was the most at risk of the three. She remembered now that she had planned to call her old New York boss over the weekend for advice. (That, like everything else, had fallen away after Eric didn’t return on Saturday night.) The middle client, Keisha Williams, was new, and the third, Nancy Kalish, was easy; she seemed to keep Eve coming purely for motivation to stay at her current weight, if also to catch each other up on both of their lives, which was just fine with Eve. In fact, Mrs. K was her oldest client; she’d been her first serious case when Eve went out on her own, and Eve would be forever grateful to her for that.
She sped up to pass a dawdling car, then reset cruise control. In fact, she sometimes wondered if she’d have made it on her own if it weren’t for Nancy Kalish, especially since it was so much simpler and more prescribed to just work for a company—or had been for a long time, anyway. Eve had come first to New York, fresh B.S./M.S. dietetics degree in hand, to work at the original of the now ubiquitous Beardsley Nutrition Center, on East 34th Street, and she had been happy there for years, embracing the center’s philosophy of “nutritionism” and food innovation: the idea that the public needed someone—a whole industry, in fact—to help it eat right and to continually create new foods, bars and drinks, supplements and extracts. She had worked there full-time and then switched to the center up here (conveniently, there was one just twenty minutes away) when she and Eric, whom she’d met along the way, departed Brooklyn; Williamsburg was getting more expensive as the well-off hipsters swarmed in, and Eric had been established enough at that point to leave the city and buy their house here.
When Magnolia was born, Eve promptly quit to raise her full-time, a decision Eric had happily supported. And when Maggie was two and Eve wanted “a little something outside the home,” Beardsley took her right back, first to fill in now and then for a woman on maternity leave, then to stay on for fifteen or eighteen hours a week. The job paid little, but back then, with Eric doing so well (and working nonstop), Eve needed flexibility more than income. And the women at the center, most of whom had children and also worked part-time, understood if you had to e-mail your work from the Happy Tykes hallway or fax it from the pediatrician’s machine. They covered for each other flawlessly, no questions asked, and for years it worked perfectly for Eve. (They’d graciously given her a year off when Danny was born, and another to ease her way back up to fifteen hours.)
But when Danny was three or four, something distressing happened: Eve found herself questioning the center’s philosophy. She didn’t want to. Why rock the boat when the boat was a cushy yacht with a complimentary bar? But she saw the country getting fatter and fatter, and not just the people who wolfed cheese fries and Big Gulps and tubs of buttered popcorn, but the ones who followed the advice of people like her and her colleagues: low-fat diets, energy bars and drinks, chemical substitutes replacing real food. Her clients were hungry, so much that they couldn’t help but gorge—on food low in fat, yes, if not downright devoid of it (“Nonfat cookies, doughnuts, cream cheese, sour cream!” their packages screamed), but loaded with sugar and carbohydrates and preservatives instead. They lost weight at first, but they gained it back, and then some. And in the meantime, along with the rest of the country, they got cancer and diabetes and heart failure.
Worse, new studies constantly appeared that completely contradicted earlier ones, many of them funded by the very industries they came out advocating (tofu makers insisting on the virtual necessity of soy; dairy marketers who could “prove” that calcium reduced menstrual cramps), and some downright alarming, like the one that linked grapefruit to breast cancer. The media loved it, of course—Who wouldn’t pay money for the story that their favorite, formerly healthy breakfast food would have them in the hospital on chemo any minute now?—as did the center, since they were quoted prominently as the stories broke. Eve and her colleagues were expected to get behind the studies, as well as to enthusiastically embrace and tout each new miracle food. One year it was folate: it did this, it did that, it prevented birth defects, which was all well and good until suddenly it was added to bread, to multivitamins in megadoses, to breakfast cereals and bars, the products now marketed on its presence—“Folate-enriched snack cakes, frozen pizza, cookies!”—right up until they discovered that too much causes cancer. Oops.
But no matter, because by then, they were on to lutein: great for the eyes, for the skin. And then fish oil, and then flaxseed, and then chocolate, of all things, and its “antioxidants.” Her clients, who were overweight already, were stuffing their fridges with pounds of Godiva chocolate and cases of red wine in between the Balance Bars and PowerBars and soy bars and “yogurt”-covered everything (which, Eve knew, often had little or no yogurt in them). Their drawers were filled with bottles of quercetin and resveratrol and grapeseed extract. Meanwhile, and despite also having fancy gym memberships and working out hard and often, they got bigger and fatter—and not just her clients, but everyone else too, many of whom were taking their cues from people like her at Beardsley.
It was a culture of fear and constant change and insane complication, she realized, one the industry needed to propagate to keep itself from becoming obsolete. But whenever she mentioned it to anyone at the center, they looked at her like she was nuts. So she turned to alternative magazines and Web sites on her own, which tended to add the environmental element: low-carbon footprint, organic only, meat is bad bad bad, not just for the animals (who are, of course, horrifically treated), but for the environment, for the planet. For a while she bought into that, and even got a little crazy with the whole thing: the vegans, the gluten intolerant, those who claimed milk is no more than cow pus from the ever-infected udders of machine-milked cows, those who believed in only local and hormone and antibiotic free, in not eating fish that was overfished. Really, what could you eat anymore? She got the kids off dairy and onto soy before reading that soy caused children to develop too early; she had them taking a multivitamin and an overpriced vitamin D until she read of “mounting evidence” that a vitamin taken separately from the food it occurs in does “absolutely nothing.”
At that, she had screamed and thrown the magazine across the room. She was so sick of reading contradictions, of having to start over every year believing that all the supposed good things—the things she’d worked hard to prepare and coax on the kids—were now dangerous and bad. She was sick and tired of worrying about food. She liked food, and she liked to eat, and she wanted to just eat, for God’s sake. And she wanted to help other people learn to eat in a way that was pleasurable yet wouldn’t make them fat and sick and desperate and hysterical and neurotic.
She thought of the way her mother, pragmatic and unhistrionic, had taught her to eat: wholesome, tasty, home-cooked meals, neither too little nor too much; a treat here and there—a real treat, as opposed to something devoid of sugar or fat free. And then she got an idea. She found a pad and wrote on the top: “Eve’s Simple Ten: ALL You Need to Know and Do to Eat Right, Feel Good, and Look Great. She contemplated for a second, biting her pencil, then wrote:
1. Eat a variety of foods, in sensible portions.
2. Exercise for at least an hour a day when possible. (A brisk walk is fine.)
3. Avoid anything that says “diet,” “low fat,” “reduced,” or “lite.”
4. Realize that if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. (There’s no such thing as a healthy doughnut. Which is not to say you should never eat one.)
5. Walk when you’re able to. Including taking the stairs.
6. Don’t skip meals, especially breakfast, or go to bed very hungry.
7. Cook at home when you can. When you can’t, order the smallest size. If it’s still more than you really need, have only half or a third.
8. Don’t substitute a packaged bar or a drink for a meal.
9. Eat an apple every day.
10. Treat yourself to something you really want. But not too much of it.
Voilà, she thought, and she tossed the pencil back on her desk.
The next morning, she brought the list to her director, Marge, who glanced at it agreeably. But her brow furrowed as she read. “It goes against a lot of the things we advise,” she said. “We sell our own low-fat packaged meal bars, after all. And we believe in sugar substitutes, which many people would say are ‘too good to be true.’ After all, look how much less sugar people are consuming since Splenda appeared.”
“But they’re not losing weight,” Eve said. “They’re getting fatter. And in three years, Splenda will likely go the way of aspartame, and saccharin before, and be found to cause cancer.”
Marge smiled politely. “Everything causes cancer.”
Eve blinked. “But not when people are thirty, or even forty-five. My grandparents lived on cheese and sausage and fruit, and they lived until their nineties. They died of natural causes.”
“Sausage? We could never advocate sausage.” Marge wrinkled her nose, then discreetly adjusted her bra strap. “Though, actually,” she said, after a second, “I think I did just read that Beardsley is developing a fat-free breakfast link.”
So Eve decided to start a little business on the side, one in which she could try out her Simple Ten and see how far she got. Calling herself a nutrition and weight-loss coach, she would visit her clients to advise about diet and lifestyle, with an emphasis toward taking off weight. Then she’d be available around the clock, or as close as possible, to answer questions and give moral support. In return, clients would sign an agreement saying they would stick to the Simple Ten. If they didn’t lose weight and keep it off, she’d refund their investment.
It was risky, she knew—she had no idea whether it would work—but she put up flyers around town and crossed her fingers. For two weeks, nothing happened. Then she got a client, a thirtyish coke-head named Regan who had no apparent interest in changing her diet (which seemed to consist of Diet Pepsi, Smartfood popcorn, and Grand Marnier) or in breaking her drug habit, but did want to talk to Eve, shrink-style, about the string of addict boyfriends she was sleeping with. Regan employed Eve daily; Eve would rush to meet her in the hour between finishing at Beardsley and picking up Danny at preschool. What am I doing? Eve thought on the fifth day of spending her lunch hour with this strung-out nutcase. She knew she should be compassionate—and the extra money was most welcome by then—but she missed having time to do errands and, okay, leaf through People magazine at Stop & Shop, and after a week of Regan, she’d had it. You’ll just have to continue to advocate what they say at the center, she told herself as she drove around town and sadly removed her signs. Eric’s work had fallen off too much for her to quit without something else. And she’d never find another part-time job with enough flexibility to be home whenever the kids were.
That night, as she picked up the crumpled pants and random socks from Danny’s floor, her phone rang. It was Nancy Kalish. She had seen the sign at the library, she told Eve, and was intrigued. She had been a “big girl” all her life, but lately had gotten downright obese; she chuckled as she said this. She had tried “literally millions of diets” and always just ended up heavier. She was done with dieting, she said. But she was always open to ideas. Maybe Eve could help her.
Nancy Kalish didn’t get thin—she wasn’t built for that—but she did lose thirty pounds in six months, twenty-three of which she kept off, with a lot of hard work and counsel from Eve. She was thrilled. At sixty-six, she was wearing clothes she hadn’t worn since college. Her blood pressure dropped, and her doctor, who was heavy himself, asked for her weight-loss tips. Nancy no longer was constipated or had indigestion (due, Eve was sure, to no longer drinking coffee with nonfat nondairy creamer and four Nutra-Sweets per cup all day long). At year’s end, she gave Eve three crisp hundreds inside a card that said “Happy Hanukkah to My Guru!”
Newly renovated, Nancy asked if she could introduce Eve to her friends, most of whom also had “a few extra pounds it wouldn’t kill them to lose.” Thus began the self-named Big Bad Bubalas, a monthly group of women, led by Eve, who for years had done all the “right” things—eaten nonfat yogurt and put nonfat margarine on their fat-free, sugarless oat bran muffins—only to find their hips and stomachs expanding, their bra sizes and number of chins increasing along with their appetites and blood pressure. This led them to feel duped and disgusted, which led them to give up and shovel in lasagna and chocolate cake and greasy, delicious garlic bread in staggering amounts. At the end, tubbier than ever, they slunk back, panicked and humiliated, and restarted their diets.
Eve ran the BBB sessions the first Tuesday evening of each month, alternating at the homes of Nancy, Reenie Stedman, and Gracie Flynn. The women liked her, she knew, because she wasn’t puritanical and she wasn’t anorexic. (And she liked them—not surprisingly, as many of them were Jewish, and she liked most Jewish people she met. She thought this must be because she had a thing for their culture—the passion, the love of food, the gushiness and bluntness, the talking and whining—though, interestingly, the half-Jew she’d married talked less than anyone she knew. But she made up for that herself.) She never forbade a muffin or a spoonful or two of sugar in coffee, only suggested they start with a quarter of the muffin—“since most muffins are basically cake without the icing,” she told them—and then walk around the block and see if they still really wanted another quarter or could get by instead with an apple, a banana, or a nice cup of apricot tea.
Of course they could have chocolate, she told them, as they squealed with delight, but: they had to have a healthy meal first, because otherwise they’d eat too much of it. So they made big, lovely salads, not too heavy on the dressing (“And please,” she begged, “real dressing, not that ‘lite’ crap”), and slices of whole-grain bread. Though if they hated whole grain, no biggie, just have white; no one was gonna die from a slice of Wonder bread now and then, just realize what you’re eating. (“Read the ingredients, for starters. All twenty-three of them, including potassium bromate, which causes tumors in rats, and alpha amylase, which is often derived from swine pancreas. Yum!”) And a slice of cheese, or a handful of nuts—“a handful, not a bagful”—or a slice of lean meat on the bread. Fill up on all that, because “the trick to not overeating,” she told them again and again, “is not letting yourself get too hungry.” And then, when you’re good and full and maybe craving a nice little sweet, have your chocolate—a square or two, not the whole bar. Savor it as the delicacy it’s meant to be rather than wolfing it like a feral animal. (They laughed at that one; they loved it when she made fun of them.) Awareness, moderation, simplicity: that was her message. And compromise without complete sacrifice. “Meet your body halfway,” she told them. “Never ignore your desires. But be aware of your needs.”
And have fun. Yes, she told them, they did have to exercise—humans were not bred to sit at screens and steering wheels all day, believe it or not—but neither did exercise have to be some horrible thing that involved jogging till you barfed or staggering through ninety minutes of boiling hot yoga or some god-awful step class. That was fine if you liked those things, but if not, hey, watch Law & Order while skipping rope, or take a walk with a friend. So they picked each other up at 7:00 AM and trotted faithfully around the neighborhood, Geri’s white sneakers gleaming, Winnie’s coiffed yellow hair bright as the icing on a butterscotch cake. Soon a couple of them also wanted personal counseling, moral support, menus, and recipes.
Eve didn’t love giving the specifics; she wasn’t a recipe person herself, just threw good food in a pan with olive oil or butter and whatever herbs she had growing that year. But she aimed to please, so she bought a cookbook or two and found some recipes she could share. The women were thrilled, thanking her profusely, showing up week after week. It amazed her. So much of what she told them seemed like simple common sense, but to them—many of whom had been on diets since they were children—it was revelatory. Almost immediately, they ate better and felt better. Most of them lost weight, some a lot. And most, with her help, kept it off.
At first, Eve was high as a kite. But her work, which used to fit easily into the hours when the kids were at school, now spilled over into nights and weekends, since afternoons and evenings, as always, were spent grocery shopping, getting the kids to doctors and dentists and haircuts, and cooking dinner for the four of them. Soon she was tired and stressed out, not to mention resentful about doing household things she used to not mind or even to like. But she didn’t want to ask Eric to come home and help out because, well, if he couldn’t see for himself what was needed, she wasn’t about to spell it out for him! And anyway, who knew if he was just on the verge of pulling out of his slump? So no. She would handle the home front, as always, just as he’d always handled the bulk of the income earning. But after briefly consulting him for approval (which he gave immediately; he’d always encouraged her to do whatever she wanted work-wise), she quit her job at the center and took on a little more personal counseling, working it around the kids’ needs. It was a gamble, but it worked, and soon she was making as much as she had part-time at the center—which, for the first time ever, was almost as much as Eric pulled in that year.
That’s when she’d gotten the idea to do the book. It took her six months to write—the information was all there, waiting to spill from her brain onto the page—and another year of much harder work with her editor to get it to sound good and make sense, since she’d never been much of a writer. But now, miraculously, here it was, in bookstores. Eve still couldn’t believe it. And she owed Nancy Kalish, who had called this train into the station and walked Eve right onto it.
* • *
Eve would have to thank her again later. Now, though, she pulled into Michael Cardello’s neighborhood, two towns over from her own, passing blocks of small but tidy houses filled, Michael had told her, with Irish and Italian Catholics, some of whose children—particularly the wealthier, more progressive, or less straight and narrow-minded—had grown up and moved to Bramington. She passed a woman talking on a cell phone while absently pushing a toddler on a plastic swing dangling from a tree, and then, a few houses down, an elderly man sitting in a lawn chair, towel draped over his shoulders, while a younger man stood behind him cutting his hair. She drove onto Michael’s block, parked on the street, took a deep breath, and got out.
Michael’s wife, Diane—a smiley brunette in white nurse’s pants and shoes and a light leather jacket—answered the door. “Good to see you,” she said, ushering Eve in. “I wish I could stay, but I have to get to work. Isabella is plugged into a Sesame Street video. Hopefully she’ll stay out of your way. James will be home in an hour. A car pool is bringing him.” She glanced toward the kitchen, then lowered her voice. “I’m trying to set up more of that, since it’s so hard for Michael at the school—the halls are crowded, and the kids’ cubbies are tiny. He can’t get around there, he blocks the hallway, and I honestly worry he’ll trip on a kid or fall onto someone. Plus, he can barely fit into the car anymore to get there. And of course he feels awful about all of it.” She pulled one thumb, cracking the knuckle, and then the other. “He’s not doing well this week,” she said. “He’s lost control twice with the eating, and it’s worse each time. I really don’t know what to do anymore. Neither does he. It’s—it’s horrible, I have to say.” Her face wavered, as if she might cry, but she composed herself. “Anyway,” she said. “I hope you can help.”
Eve nodded, feeling tense, wishing again she’d called her old boss. Really, she was in way over her head here. The family had already tried the standard routes their insurance plan allowed—their primary care physician and a psychiatrist. They had even paid for a hypnotist. Still, they got nowhere, and bills they couldn’t afford had added up. Michael hadn’t liked the psychiatrist, and Eve, having spoken to him once, could see why. So he’d stopped going. As a last resort, the Cardellos had called Eve a few weeks ago, after a friend recommended her. But she hadn’t made much progress either. Not that that surprised her; her job was to educate and hand-hold, and Michael was probably ill beyond the sort of help she could provide. As for the hand-holding, she was trying, but . . . “Don’t worry,” she told Diane, disingenuously. “I’ll talk to him.”
She found Michael in front of the stove, his massive form cloaked in tent-sized jeans and an enormous black T-shirt, blocking the oven and all four burners. He turned to Eve and smiled, holding out his hand. “Thanks for coming,” he said, and his huge hand, warm and slightly sweaty, engulfed hers. “Would you like coffee or tea?” He wheezed when he spoke, as if the effort of talking, if not simply standing, left him out of breath. At slightly under six feet tall, Michael weighed, he had told her, close to 500 pounds, with a body mass index in the 70s. Normal weight for a man his height, she knew, was below 200 pounds, with a BMI of less than 25. He was what her industry termed “super morbidly obese”—a BMI over 50—which put him at risk for everything from heart disease to diabetes (both of which Eve suspected he already had, the latter doing daily damage to his eyes, heart, kidneys, and nerves), as well as osteoarthritis, acid reflux, sleep apnea, and more.
In fact, at their last visit, Michael had told Eve about his problems with sleep. When he lay down, he had trouble breathing, since his huge stomach hindered the function of his diaphragm. On the nights he was able to breathe well enough to fall asleep, his throat often became constricted and eventually blocked, and he’d stop taking breaths. This, of course, woke him again—not always consciously, Eve knew, but Diane had told him, when she slept in the room with him (rarely anymore, due to his snoring and fidgeting and size; he mostly slept on the living room carpet now, for the sake of both Diane and the bed), that he’d startle awake and doze back off. This went on all night—sometimes as often as twenty-five or thirty times an hour. He was exhausted in the morning—exhausted all the time, really—but it was hard to know how much of that was the sleep apnea and how much everything else: the overeating, the stress, the effort of simply functioning at that weight.
“Tea would be great,” Eve said, answering his question. She smiled. “Thanks.”
He poured two mugs, and they sat. Michael used a special bench—his weight would likely break the chairs—and he sat several feet from the table because his legs no longer fit under it. Eve wondered what he did about eating meals with his family. But then, she didn’t think he ate most of his food at mealtime anyway. Michael was a binge eater—had been all his life, he’d told her when they met. But in the past four years—since James was born, and then Isabella eighteen months later—it had gotten much worse. Before the kids, when he’d had more sleep and time to walk a little, he had kept it somewhat under control, but once he became a parent, it had all gone to seed. Then, to top it off, last year he’d lost his job as an associate editor at the city paper. They had told him they were eliminating the position, but a few weeks later they’d hired someone else.
When Michael found out, he was destroyed. He had loved his job and was good at it, but his weight, he knew, had become a real problem. He couldn’t fit at his desk, and he overwhelmed the staff room when they went into meetings—not just his size, but also his odor. He showered every morning, but just the effort of getting to his office made him smell by 10:00 AM, no matter how much deodorant he used. He barely fit into the stalls in the bathroom, and he blocked the hall when he walked down it. It was a respectful, humane office, with several employees with special needs, but Michael’s presence, even though he had good friends there, had become increasingly uncomfortable for much of the staff. After they fired him, they had given him some writing and editing to do, freelance, from home, but the new work paid much less and isolated him from longtime friends. It also left Diane with no choice but to go up to full-time at the hospital, where she was a pediatric nurse; they needed the health insurance, not to mention the money. Michael, now home all day, took care of the kids when she wasn’t there.
Eve knew that Michael deeply loved James and Isabella, but he was limited in what he could do with them. He could barely bend down to walk with them, let alone run and play; he couldn’t sit on their beds to read to them, worried he’d break the furniture. There were few places he could take them. And the combination of caring for the kids while trying to work from home, along with the humiliation of losing his job, had left him tense and unsettled—which, of course, had led to more binges.
“So, how are you?” Eve asked, blowing at her tea.
Michael took a deep breath, and Eve smelled his body odor and the soap-scented powder he used to cover it, his slightly sour breath and the spearmint tea he attempted for that. He held his mug on his massive lap, where it practically disappeared into the folds of his shirt-covered flesh. “I could be better,” he said.
Eve nodded. “What’s happening? Are you sleeping?”
“No. But really, that’s the least of it.” He paused for a few seconds, perhaps trying to decide where to start. “I’m completely out of control,” he said. “I think—no, I know—it’s the worst it’s ever been. And it’s getting harder to hide it from James. He’s starting to catch on.”
Eve nodded again, wondering what the hell she could do to help him.
“About a week ago, Diane was at work one night,” he said, “and I felt a binge coming on. I had eaten a normal breakfast and a normal lunch, so it’s not like I was starving. And I tried all the things—deep breaths, meditation . . . whatever. None of it worked, as usual. I couldn’t stop the cravings, and I couldn’t handle them. It’s like—how can I explain it?”
“You don’t need to,” Eve said gently. “I know it’s not in your control.”
He nodded, looking grateful. “It was around 8:00 at night, maybe 8:30,” he said. “I should have been putting the kids to bed, but I knew that once I did, I’d be trapped here. Not that I’m not anyway, to some extent, since I can’t really drive anymore.” He shook his head. The cat wandered in, a little calico, meowing loudly. Michael put his mug on the floor and snapped lightly to summon the cat, who jumped into his lap.
He scratched gently behind her ears. “Anyway,” he said. “So, I decide we’re gonna take a walk to the grocery store. James is all excited, you know, like it’s a big adventure.” He smiled sadly. “I put them into their coats. It was freezing out. I put them in the double stroller with some blankets, and off we went—me knowing, of course, that if James told Diane, she’d kill me.”
“How far is the store?” Eve asked.
“Quarter mile or so. Which is just about my limit these days. So I get us there, and I put the kids in a cart—Jamesey is helping me with Bella, we finally get into the aisles. I’m sort of insane by this point, just dying to get some sugar, anything. I wheel them around, and I get ice cream, and cookies, and popcorn, and cereal—all the usual junk—and James, who’d never paid much attention before, turns to me and says, “Daddy, who are all those treats for?” I felt so guilty and pathetic, and I couldn’t really think by that point, so I did the stupidest thing on earth, I told him the truth. I said, ‘It’s for me, buddy.’ My God. What the hell was I thinking?”
“You were trying to be honest,” Eve said.
He shook his head. “Idiotic, that’s what it was. So Jamesey says, ‘Why do you get to have all those treats and we don’t?’ And I said, ‘Well, James, it’s because I have a problem, and I’m trying to work it out, but I don’t really have it under control.’ I said, ‘Do you see how big I am?’ and he said, ‘Do you mean fat?” and I nodded and said, ‘Yes. Fat. Well, I’m like that because I have a disorder, an eating disorder, and the thing in my brain that helps me stop eating is not working right.’” On his lap, the cat purred loudly. “I swear, Eve, I don’t know what I was thinking, telling him all that,” he said. “But I was out of my mind that night.”
“That was okay to tell him,” Eve said, going with her gut. She would have to find a shrink, too, to consult with about this, if not one who would actually go to his house. But who would do that? And Michael couldn’t afford it even if she did find someone.
“Well, predictably, James says to me, ‘Daddy, I have that disorder too!’”
Eve smiled, and he smiled back, funny as it wasn’t.
“Then he says, ‘And Bella too! She has it too! So can we get some ice cream?’” So I say, ‘Listen, James, you don’t have this disorder, and I pray to God you never will. But it’s not a disorder to eat ice cream, and of course you can have some. We’ll go home and all eat ice cream, and then you have to go ‘nighty.’ And he says, ‘And brownies?’ because he sees I have a box of brownie mix. So I said—in a stunning act of sacrifice, I might add, though only because I knew Diane would kill me, she’s so nervous about the kids around all that crap—I said to him, ‘You know what, James? Let’s put back the brownies and all this stuff, and just get ice cream. And we’ll each have one small bowl, because that’s the healthy way.’ And he says, ‘Okay, Dad.’”
He sighed. “Poor sweet kid. Do you know, he told me one night that I smell like stinky shoes? He wasn’t saying it to be mean, just matter-of-factly. He doesn’t even know how to be mean. Well, he’ll learn. He also told me his friend’s big sister said I’m a cow, and he asked me what she meant by that.”
Eve shook her head.
“Anyway,” he said. “So that night, I’m thinking, how can I get more of this stuff out of here without him seeing, because I know the mere half-gallon of ice cream isn’t gonna do the trick. So we go around and put everything back, but when he’s not looking, I sneak the brownie mix down my pants.” He looks at her. “I stole it, Eve. I’ve never done anything like that.” He was sweating, and panting a little, and his face had turned red. Eve felt a flutter of panic. What if he had a heart attack? She had learned CPR at some point, but that was years ago.
“So we buy the ice cream,” he continued, after a minute, “and I steal the mix, and we go home—no easy task, I can barely fit through the grocery checkout. I can barely walk anymore, my feet and knees are so sore. At home, I’m trying to take off the kids’ coats, I can’t even breathe. I get out some bowls, and Jamesey says, ‘This is the one mommy uses,’ and he gets out a different one, and then he says, ‘She gives us one scoop each. Here’s the scooper.’ And I realize that he’s nervous to have me feeding him this—like maybe, you know, if he lets me feed them, they’ll get this disorder, too, or somehow look like me.
“But I give them each a scoop, and I give myself a nice little scoop, too, just like theirs, and we all eat them up, and then I put them to bed—not calmly, I’ll add, because I was desperate to get back downstairs—and when James asked me to read him a story, I snapped, which was maybe the worst part of the whole thing.” His eyes teared up, and he blinked them clear again. “Once I’ve got them in bed, I go down and eat the rest of the ice cream, which takes about ten seconds, and then I make the brownie mix and eat half of it raw while the other half is in the oven, and then I eat the oven half, which is still mostly raw. At one point James called down, and I yelled up at him to go to bed. I never yell at him. But it was ten by then, and Diane was due home in an hour, and I was panicked because time was running out.
“So I finish the brownies, and I want more, of course, but I can’t go out, I can’t leave the kids. So I start scouring the house. And there’s nothing much in the way of sweets, because I eat them as fast as she buys them, not that she buys much anymore. But I make the rest of the eggs in the fridge, maybe eight. There goes our breakfast. I scramble and eat those, and then . . .” He stopped.
Eve’s heart was in her stomach.
“I ate whatever I could find,” he continued, after a second. “The hot dogs—a whole pack, raw. All the cereal in the house. All the bread. I found a lasagna in the back of the freezer, something Diane was probably saving for a quick dinner. I microwaved it for as long as I could stand to, then ate it half frozen. I wanted sugar after that, so I scoured the pantry, and I found an old, stale box of teething biscuits that had been Isabella’s, or maybe even James’s. I ate it.”
She swallowed. “And then?”
“And then I was done. I’d eaten pretty much everything.” He shifted on the bench. “That’s about it, I guess. But it was horrific. That’s the worst I’ve ever felt, and not just physically. Diane came home and—”
“I was in tears. I told her, ‘I’m so sorry, I’m so, so sorry.’ I told her I couldn’t control myself, and I don’t know what to do. I told her that if I wasn’t a Catholic, I’d have killed myself by now, and I may still. I mean, merciful God, right? He’s really looking after me, let me tell you.” He laughed bitterly. “Diane forgave me, more or less, or at least she tried to. She’s as sympathetic as anyone could ever be, but she’s losing patience with me. Like they did at work. There’s only so much you can forgive in a person.” He let out a breath through his lips. “So of course I was sick all night. I didn’t throw up, because I never throw up, as you know.”
Eve nodded. He had told her early on that vomiting terrified him, to the point that he’d trained himself never to do it. Whatever went in had to stay in—or come out the other end.
“But I was sick in every other way,” he said. “I’ll spare you the disgusting details. After a while I couldn’t bear to stench up the house anymore, so I went outside. But I couldn’t walk around out there, because my feet and knees couldn’t take it. So I just lay down on the grass, which was cold and wet, and I stayed there. All night. I lay on my lawn, burping and freezing and doubled over with pain. It was the worst night of my life.”
Eve reached out and took one of Michael’s hands; the other still cradled the cat, now asleep atop his stomach. “I’m so sorry,” she said.
Michael nodded. After a few seconds, he let go of her hand. “I can’t go on like this, Eve,” he said. “I really—I would rather be dead. I hate myself for saying that—how can I even think that when I have two little kids? But I swear to God, I can’t live like this anymore.”
“Of course you can’t,” Eve said.
“So what can I do, then? How can I stop this?”
She sat still for a good thirty seconds, racking her brain. Finally, and with great relief, she said, “Have you thought about bariatric surgery? Gastric bypass?” It was a last resort, true—a difficult, unpleasant operation and recovery. But Michael was ready for a last resort. And it had a better success rate than anything else for dramatic weight loss and maintenance.
But he was shaking his head, looking terrified. “I can’t afford it,” he said quickly.
“Most insurance will cover it if your BMI is over a certain number,” Eve said gently. “You just have to show that you’ve tried and failed at other weight-loss methods.”
“But you throw up,” he said. “Right? They make your stomach really tiny, and if you eat more than a few crumbs of food, you throw it up.” He was breathing hard. “I couldn’t do that.”
Eve stood up. “Listen,” she said. “Before you say no, let me find out more about it. I’ll call you in a few days and tell you what I’ve learned, and we’ll talk about it. Okay?”
Michael nodded, but he didn’t look happy.
“In the meantime,” Eve said, “if you feel a binge coming on, will you call me?”
He nodded again, but she knew he wouldn’t. He never did.
Michael stood then too, setting the cat down as gently as he could with his heft. He held out his hand. “Thank you,” he said, but he looked completely unsettled now.
Eve shook her head. “Don’t thank me,” she said. “And do me a favor? Don’t pay me yet either. I didn’t do a thing today but listen, and I wasn’t as prepared as, as—”
He raised his eyebrows, watching her.
“—you know. As I’d have liked to be.”
Michael smiled now, the anxiety momentarily disappearing. “See, you’re like me,” he said. “Overly moral. Lucky for you, I’d never let you walk out of here without pay. Then you’d have the moral upper hand.” He reached for his back pocket, extracted his wallet. “Please,” he said, holding out some bills. “Just to have someone make me feel like they care is worth ten times this.”
Eve frowned. She felt lousy about the way the session had gone, and she knew she didn’t deserve that money. But her next client was pro bono, and then there was just Mrs. Kalish. She had to go home with something. And mess or no mess, Michael had a spouse out there working—a spouse who would come back at the end of the day.
She reached for the cash. “Thank you,” she said, and then, “I’ll call you. Don’t worry. We’ll figure this out.”
He nodded. “Thank you,” he said.