The first thing I ate in 2020 was a multigrain bagel with cream cheese from Dunkin’ Donuts at 6:15 a.m. The bland mass of bread food was especially insulting because I was at JFK, a few miles from New York City, where I’d just spent New Year’s weekend eating real bagels with friends before flying back to Los Angeles. My breakfast was a choice of circumstance, or at least that’s what I told myself then. It’s what I’ve told myself almost every day since, as I made slew of impulsive decisions: moving to an apartment so expensive I had to borrow money from my sister; seeing a Reiki healer who made pained-chimp noises as she circled her hands above my heart; telling a Citibank telemarketer who asked how my day was going, “Well, Reginald, I’m seven months pregnant and my husband just cheated on me.” (To his credit, Reginald took five seconds and then responded, “I have an offer that will make your day even better.” I signed up for it.)
I didn’t realize I was loudly sobbing while eating until a woman passing by with a roller suitcase put a hand on my shoulder and said gently, “Be careful honey, you’re going to choke.” Just the day before, New Year’s Eve, to be exact, I’d cried to a friend in a Crown Heights coffee shop while simultaneously inhaling a raspberry zucchini muffin with a glob of cream cheese baked inside. “It’s actually so good you’re not one of those people who can’t eat when they’re sad,” she said. I nodded, unoffended. I’d always prided myself on two things: being funny and a good eater. (Which is probably just being Jewish, but still.) And while humor seemed to have vanished from my presence as fast as doughy treats usually do, at least — at least! — I was still capable of eating.
But two weeks after returning to Los Angeles, I went to an OB/GYN appointment and learned that I was five pounds lighter than the month before. “Have you been eating enough?,” my doctor asked, which under other circumstances would have been the highlight of my life. I had done everything you’re supposed to do when you’re 27 weeks pregnant and going through heartbreak and can’t exactly drink or fuck yourself into oblivion. Not that there’s a handbook. I couldn’t handle staying in my apartment—“our” apartment still — and spent nights shuffling between my friends’ and my sister’s beds. Cried daily in showers and Los Angeles restaurants. Listened to the audio book of Meryl Streep reading Heartburn at least 12 times. Inadvisably downloaded Tinder, messaged with men, then disappeared when they asked to actually meet. Binge-watched Cheer. (Therapist recommendation!) But somehow, in all of it, I had forgotten to eat.
That morning I had woken up at 7 a.m. and downed a gloppy orange fruit punch for my gestational-diabetes test, which was probably the most calories I’d had in one sitting for maybe three days. I think in my panic there was a perverse part of me that hoped abstaining from food might make what’s inside me magically vanish. Instead, she seemed to be frantically kicking the walls of the empty chamber I normally filled with three square meals plus 19 snacks a day. I asked my doctor if not eating was damaging the baby. “No,” she reassured me. “They’re like leeches. They’ll just take what they need from other parts.” She gestured ever so slightly toward my arm fat.
My husband and I didn’t have a perfect marriage, but like everyone in any marriage ever, I thought it was good enough. Dayenu. So what if he liked 14-hour black-and-white Polish film anthologies and I liked watching Love Island on my laptop in the bathroom — it was our differences that made us stronger or whatever. We rubbed off on each other: Like a freshman film-studies major, I got really into Eric Rohmer. He binged Nailed It and Great British Bake Off with me before bed. We both liked games, escape rooms, reading, and, maybe most of all, food.
People don’t necessarily think of Los Angeles first and foremost as a food city — it’s more of “a walk into any organic deli and get an unlicensed guy in an apron to give you a B-12 shot in the butt” city — but there’s lots of great eating to be had here. When we first moved west from New York five years earlier, we came with only three suitcases and a list of 40 restaurant recommendations from my friend Susan, who’d moved out the year before. We put her list on the fridge, and in less than three months we’d tried them all.
Here’s a story about my husband and me that I love (loved?): It’s our engagement story, which took place on a birthday trip to Big Sur, and it sounds basic because it is, sorry. Apparently, he traveled to the area with his best friend the weekend before to bury a ring on a hiking trail. When the two of us arrived, he handed me a book called 99 Great Big Sur Hikes and told me to pick one, thinking I’d somehow pick the one he’d buried the ring on, even though my odds were literally 1:99.
I did not pick the trail where he had buried the ring for our first hike. I didn’t pick it for our second hike either. By the time we’d finished, it was late afternoon, but he started insisting we do one more hike — the “famous” waterfall hike. He couldn’t fathom how I hadn’t picked the “famous” waterfall hike from the book in the first place; I couldn’t even remember seeing the “famous” waterfall hike in the book. Anyway, I was tired and refused. But he was unrelenting — and he was never unrelenting about anything — so I acquiesced to a third hike on one condition: we bring food.
We picked up a baguette and a triangle of brie and a pack of salami and stuffed it in our mouths while we walked the trail. The whole way up, he was spouting some nonsense about how prospectors buried treasure on these trails during the Gold Rush because it was too heavy to carry back with them. When we reached the cliff overlooking the Pacific and the fabled waterfall — which, not complaining, was really more of a trickle — my husband got down on his knees and started digging up the ground beneath us with a stick. “You’re tearing up the ground!” I yelled. He ignored me. He reached in the hole he’d dug and pulled out a ring box. Then he stood up, looked at me, and said sweetly, “You have some bread crumbs on your face.” He tenderly wiped my crumby upper lip with his thumb, which, let me tell you, if you’ve never had food wiped off your face before, tenderly is the best way to have it done. Then he proposed. We got married four and a half years ago.
Despite not eating for almost two weeks, I failed that first gestational-diabetes test, which meant I had to go back a few weeks later for a three-hour test, which required fasting and then drinking the orange gloppy liquid again and then getting my blood drawn four times in a three-hour period — basically the worst thing to ever happen to me if I wasn’t already going through the worst thing that had ever happened to me. My parents flew in to help, and while I lay comatose in bed, they would walk to the local diner and bring back soup. “Drink the soup,” my dad said more times than any other person in the history of human existence. My best friends flew in to visit in shifts and made me feel like I was in a different time and place for incredible 72-hour periods. I passed the second diabetes test. At my next checkup, my weight had gone down another two pounds. This time, the doctor suggested I try drinking some extra calories during the day and recommended the high-protein variety of Ensure, the same kind my grandma was told to drink when she was dying of lung cancer.
The craziest thing about being skinny-pregnant is people actually compliment you. I couldn’t finish half a sandwich and what I heard was “You look incredible” or “You can’t even tell from behind!” And, honestly, it didn’t not feel good? To be able to pretend for a moment my compact pregnancy was due to remarkable willpower and a devotion to the temple of wellness, not just emotional devastation. When I was 32 weeks, my mom took me to the mall and helped me pick out a crib and a changing table. I gave the saleslady my credit card, but before I could sign, I ran out of the store and puked in a garbage can by the water fountain as Frank Sinatra music played somewhere nearby. A woman with a J.Crew bag stopped and told me that she had crazy morning sickness well into her second trimester. She recommended I try ginger chews.
In retrospect, the demise of my marriage came in courses. It was so expertly spaced out, like a meal at the nicest of Michelin-star restaurants, I didn’t even see the bill coming at the end. Or maybe I did at times and I’m forgetting now. Things were good for what felt like a long time. And then things were less good. And then things were at the point where my husband would say things like, “How do you know when I say ‘I love you’ I actually mean it?”
At some point during our time in Los Angeles, my husband became a super-fit guy. Like one of those guys you drive past in West Hollywood with their cinched waists and tight muscle tees and think, Wannabe actor. He had never been fat per se, just sort of dad-bod–ish — I liked to say “accessible” — when we first moved out. He joined a gym and started lifting weights. He walked everywhere because he was unemployed and hated L.A. driving culture. I got a job writing on a TV show, where I sat sometimes for upwards of 12 hours a day and snacked on random Trader Joe’s junk, the stuff you’d never actually buy for yourself but gladly eat when it’s in front of you — mochi rice nuggets, dark chocolate orange peels, raspberry marshmallow puffs. I gained 12 pounds and my husband lost 30. Most of his meals were frozen chicken patties with a slice of melted cheese and no bun. After five years of sharing dessert, he announced that he didn’t actually like dessert all that much. I used to joke to my friends that the only way he could orgasm during sex was to look at his own arms, which now both looked like the snake that swallowed an elephant from The Little Prince.
Sometimes it felt that with every pound he dropped, he became a little crueler — a lean, mean machine, emphasis on the mean. There were days I felt like the excess fat he was trying to shed. When we went to therapy, he revealed that actually he had never felt like himself during the times in our marriage I was the happiest. He hated Los Angeles and never wanted to move out here in the first place. He needed more solitude than I did. He didn’t like physical touch from me all that much. Kissing on the lips, he told me, reminded him of kissing his grandfather.
I spent over a year trying to give him the things he needed to be himself. I stopped touching him and waited for him to touch me. I stopped asking if he wanted to go out together, see a movie, or take a walk. I stopped asking what he wanted for dinner or if he wanted to eat with me. I stopped asking for anything at all. And, strangely, it worked. He became happier. He would hug me because I didn’t hug him. He would want to see a movie with me because I hadn’t asked him to see it with me first. He would kiss me because I hadn’t kissed him. And he would cook big elaborate meals for me because I had pretended the concept of having dinner together had never even crossed my mind.
I’m embarrassed to say I embraced this paradox like a monk. I just had to abnegate my own desires to get what I desired. Not ask for what I needed to get what I needed. I felt enlightened. I told myself I was a genius who had cracked the code, who had managed to get more by living on less. But you can only starve yourself for so long.
Gnocchi was what I was thinking about right before my life blew up. Specifically, butternut-squash gnocchi with brown butter and an apple balsamic reduction. It was the night before New Year’s Eve, and I was on my laptop already looking at the menu of the fancy Italian restaurant we were going to that night. A reservation my husband had actually booked for us as my holiday present. It was weird. For Christmas, he had flown back to his childhood home a week before me, and during our time apart, he had somehow morphed back into the eater he was at the beginning of our relationship. He was snacking constantly on cheese and crackers. Having a huge bowl of chocolate ice cream with fudge sauce every night. Still, I figured he would get a protein. I decided my choice was between the gnocchi and the spaghetti with blue crab, when I heard him say in a shaky voice, “I have to tell you something.” I turned around, and he buried his face in his hands.
There are far worse foods to be thinking about than gnocchi the moment right before a car crash. Far worse pastas to be rattling around in your head when your husband tells you he hooked up with a stranger from the gym the previous week. Macaroni, for one. Angel Hair.
As the weeks went on, I got better at eating. There wasn’t a ton of joy in it, but I could go out with friends and family and get enough food in my mouth to make them not worry about me. To make me not worry about me.
By 34 weeks, my weight stabilized. It didn’t go up, but at least I wasn’t losing anymore. I was 12 and a half pounds up from my pre-pregnancy weight. My doctor did an ultrasound to make sure my daughter’s growth was on track.
“Look at that!” There my future daughter was, up on the monitor, not flipping away from the ultrasound wand like she had three months earlier but instead looking straight at us with a huge grin. She looked like a joyful version of The Scream.
“Let’s take some measurements,” my doctor went on, moving the wand to get clear images of her legs, her arms, her torso, the circumference of her head. Everything was right on track. Her weight was estimated at a little over four pounds, apparently just fine for this juncture.
“She must be a good little eater,” my doctor joked. I laughed, and for the first time in months, I was excited to meet her.