For the record, Doreen was anti-diet. “Weight loss is a scam, Liz,” she told me. “And this diet is weird as hell.”
That attitude worked for Doreen. She was five eleven, maybe six foot. She was thin. Me, I couldn’t afford to feel that way. I’d always been dumpy, even as a kid. I’d always been sick with something. Had hips like a perma-figure-eight but when I tried to carry us a baby, I’d lost it. So I argued. I argued with my lawyer wife, like a rube.
“Dr. Johansson says the point isn’t for me to lose weight,” I said. “The Alpha Diet is about healthier eating and developing better habits for when we try to get pregnant again. And I only have to do it for thirty days.”
“Find me one nutritionist who says you should eat this much raw meat,” she said. “Or any raw meat. Shit. Find me one, and I’ll drop it.”
What did I tell her? Well, what should I tell her? The Alpha Diet, so named, Dr. J had said, for the habits of wolves, had made so much sense when Dr. J had been explaining it in her office. But everything made sense there. The lights were fluorescent, the posters printed with those skin-peeled-off models of human anatomy, I mean, goddamn, she had a model of a human stomach right on her desk. In the unmedical light of our apartment, it felt silly to suggest that I spend a month eating raw meat, uncooked vegetables, and nothing else. But you couldn’t just admit you were wrong to Doreen.
“I’m just saying, this would be easier if someone else tried it with me,” I said.
“You can pry hummus out of my cold, dead hands,” Doreen said. “Tell your doctor I said that.”
By day two, I felt dizzy. Every time I had to watch Doreen crank open a jar of raspberry preserves or push a granola bar through the foreskin of its wrapper, I despaired.
“You don’t have to do that in front of me,” I said one night when she plopped down at the dining room table with a mixing bowl full of spaghetti.
“Yes the fuck I do,” she said. She wafted a forkful of noodles at me. “Maybe this way you’ll see sense.”
I bit into a clove of raw garlic and said nothing.
Dr. J had met Doreen once, a year ago. I’d just lost the baby and we had admin work to do, forms to sign, alternatives to explore. Dr. Johansson smiled and complimented Doreen’s socks, a particularly festive pair dotted all over with hot pink donuts. I always thought the smile was the mistake. Whenever Dr. J smiled, it was like she had more teeth than the average person, or more rows of teeth maybe, like a shark.
Well, Doreen had been grieving—we both had. But I never forgave her response to the compliment. “Don’t butter me up, Doctor,” she’d said, fingering a brochure about reiki with a disdain I could smell. “Just help my wife stay pregnant next time.”
From then on, Doreen had refused to accompany me to my visits with Dr. Johansson. Her official position was that I should have these appointments to myself, because our attempts at getting pregnant were such an unrelentingly shared experience. I never got any space from her otherwise, she explained. And that was true, I never did. But then again, whenever I mentioned one of Dr. J’s recommendations, for an acupuncturist or a new brand of kombucha, our conversation would find a sudden lull, and it would never recover.
On day three, I summoned the courage to get Dr. J on the phone about the headaches.
“Describe the headaches,” she said. “Where in your head is it? Would you call the pain sharp, dull? Does anything relieve it?”
I loved this part of our conversations like I’d always loved math problems that asked me to show my work. Together, we’d pinpoint the answer to the problem, between the shrewdness of my evidence and Dr. J’s expertise. And when we solved for X, it would feel good like it always felt good. This is Liz’s problem; this is the fix.
Once I’d described the headache—towards my forehead, dull, throbbing, no relief except when I slept but, yes, I could sleep through it, I don’t know, a seven out of ten I guess?—I heard those teeth in the doctor’s smile. “Yes, Liz, that’s normal,” she said. “Your body’s detoxing off those sugars. Think of it like, I don’t know, delirium tremens. You’re doing such marvelous work!”
“That’s great,” I said. “Do you know when the headaches usually stop, or…?”
“Not everybody gets them,” she said. “I know your diet was heavy on the sugar and bread, so your ‘hangover’ may be especially tough. But you only have to do this for thirty days before we can reevaluate your diet. I’d give it a week of headaches before we have to worry.”
“Is that a week from when I started the diet, or a week from today?”
Dr. J chuckled. “Embrace it, Liz! Think of the pain as your body’s soldiers fighting off the sugar demons.” When I didn’t respond, she elaborated. “The battle is raging today, but think of how much stronger your body is getting for that baby you’re going to have!”
“Right,” I said. Doreen waved a spoonful of coffee ice cream in my face. “Thanks for taking my call, Dr. J. I know it’s late.”
“Hang in there, Liz,” she said. “You’re doing marvelous work.”
“I’m gonna need the bathroom sometime today,” Doreen called to me through the bathroom door. This would’ve been day five.
“Just one minute,” I called back. I peered between my legs into the toilet. The water was scarlet, dotted with oil slicks. I’d been in the bathroom all morning.
“Babe, I’m going to be late. What the hell are you doing in there?”
“My stomach hurts.”
“I told you to quit this stupid diet.”
The revolt in my stomach had subsided for the moment. I decided that I could let Doreen shower and brush her teeth while I called Dr. Johansson.
When I emerged from the bathroom, she stopped me and held me at arm’s length. “Whoa,” she said. “You’re not going to work today, are you?”
I wiped the sweat from my face with my arm.
“Liz, how is this going to help us conceive? Can you answer that?”
“I feel fine,” I said. My stomach lowed: hnnnnngggghhhh. Doreen’s eyes turned to it, but I continued. “Dr. J said the first few days are always rough.”
She released my shoulder, but didn’t move out of my way, still studying my tummy. I pushed past her into the bedroom and let my body drift forward onto the clothes I’d set out on the bed for work that day. After a moment, I heard the bathroom door click shut, the whooshing of water in the pipes.
At work, I could distract myself with the endless Excel spreadsheets, plugging numbers into cells where I could watch them turn into other numbers at the far side of some equation. But the train ride home was thunder and lightning. I felt every bump in the train plug itself deep into my stomach.
In an effort to quiet the rumbling, I chugged my juice. Dr. J had recommended that I juice a batch of oranges every morning, core apples and blend kale, and she’d written me a prescription to accompany the sand-colored cocktail. “Nothing special,” she’d said while writing it. “Just a simple probiotic. But it’ll help your stomach get in the rhythm of your new lifestyle.”
At every stop, a new person tried to offer me a seat. I waved off every offer, white-knuckling my juice with both hands and surfing over the train’s shivers all the way home.
“You’re drinking your juice?” Dr. Johansson said when I called her two days later.
“With the probiotic I prescribed you?”
“Yes, but it’s still every day. And—” I paused, sure that Doreen was approaching the linen closet where I’d barricaded myself. When I heard the sound of the hairdryer in the bedroom, I relaxed. “And when I go, it’s bloody, Dr. J, like almost all blood.”
“Is it painful?”
Actually, it wasn’t. It reminded me of period blood: viscous and bright like from a fresh wound, but not attended by any feeling, as if it somehow weren’t any part of me as soon as it came out. The headaches were worse. “No, but that much diarrhea is bad, isn’t it?”
When Dr. J spoke again, her voice was easy. “Liz, do you want to try for another baby?”
“And you trust me?”
“Of course, Dr. J.”
“Just do me a favor and stick with it for another week. You’ve finished week one. The worst is over. This time next Monday, you’ll be stronger than Hercules. And you’ll be halfway done!”
I considered it when we hung up. Another week.
As I left the linen closet, I walked right into Doreen.
“Jesus, Liz!” she said. “What are you even doing in there?”
“I was just…” I grabbed a towel from a shelf. “Needed a clean towel.”
After a beat, she stepped aside so that I could get to the bathroom, where I stood running the sink for a minute. In the mirror, I noticed the appealing porkiness of my cheeks, the deep red in my tongue marbled by white flecks.
When I lost our baby, I felt awful for Doreen. I mean, I’d had my boxes of baby booties and books of names with significant dog-ears, sure. But I’d signed up for the whole project in a way that Doreen hadn’t. She was supposed to be the one who stood by eating soft cheese and lox while I morning sicknessed, and yet her eyes were the ones to zero in on the most obscure dangers in our apartment that needed baby-proofing. I lost the baby and wished it had been Doreen’s to lose.
If she wished for a less sickly wife, I never knew it. We developed a bit in those days, something to comfort me whenever I needed it: I’d curl into a ball, and she’d wrap those chiseled arms around me and lift the ball of me up into her lap, rocking me back and forth until I uncurled. Rock-a-bye-Lizzie. But one day I fucked up, said, “It’s like I’m your baby and you’re rocking me to sleep.” Later that day, I curled into my ball, but no arms came to meet me.
On day nine, I woke up to my stomach searing. This wasn’t the toothless urgency that had driven me to the toilet the last several days. I had claws digging into my stomach lining, acid spattering out of the holes they left. I stumbled into the bathroom and squinted at the clock on the wall. 4:17am.
From the toilet, I called Dr. Johansson’s office and left a voicemail. I was ashamed to realize that I was trying to sound sickly, hoping that she’d call off the Alpha Diet once she heard how pitiful I was. When I hung up, I crouched on the floor and keened into a balled-up towel, unable to even flush away the viscous blood in the toilet.
Nothing changed til morning, real morning, light and birds. Doreen came in for her morning shower and I realized too late that I hadn’t locked the door. “Oh boy,” she said.
“I’m okay,” I said, casually folding the towel I’d been sobbing into. I hoped she hadn’t heard me.
“What’s going on?” she asked, crouching to my level. “You look like garbage.”
“Full offense, Liz! You look like you’re dying.”
I didn’t want to begin the next thing I said with ‘Dr. J says.’ “If you could grab me some of that raw breakfast sausage…” I said, and curled into a ball.
“Unfuckingbelievable,” Doreen said, stepping around me to the sink to grab her toothbrush. “If you aren’t going to talk about it, then you can get out of my way.”
Later that day, I heard her on the phone in the bathroom, but couldn’t make out much. My lawyer wife. I heard “working from home” and “some kind of disorder, I guess.”
When she finished her call, I was sitting on the floor in front of the bathroom, waiting for her. I wished that I had the momentum to peel myself up, scared that the sicker I looked, the sicker my wife would think I was.
“Have a nice chat?” I asked.
“Listen to me,” she said. “You’re ending the Alpha Diet today.”
I remembered the party where I’d met Doreen all those years ago, the low-rise jeans that had been in style back then, the crag of each hip bone riding off the surface of her torso like outcroppings of rock. It was her body those garbage jeans had been designed for and I told her so. But I worried I’d sound jealous, like she wouldn’t know from my voice that the sight of those hip bones had me counting up how far they had to go into her waistband, and where they went, and what was there.
“I’m glad you understood me when I said the thing about the jeans,” I said.
“I’ve got a call with Dr. J,” I said. “I’ll get back to you about the diet.”
As I prepared my steak ration that evening, I saw that the juicer was gone. “I have a bunch more juice left,” I told her as she stood cross-armed against the oven, watching me open all the cabinets. “You’re wasting your time.”
“You’ll run out,” she said.
“Can I ask why you get to have like forty beers in the fridge and I can’t have healthy fruit juice? Or even the means to make healthy fruit juice?”
“I threw out your powder, too.”
That was no good. The juice I had left hadn’t been turned into my Alpha Diet cocktail yet. But I figured Dr. J could prescribe me more powder.
As I searched our pantry, I felt myself braced by Doreen’s arms. “Stop looking for the juicer,” her voice said into my neck. “Let’s get a couple burgers at Hurley’s.”
“That’s not happening,” I said.
“Or L’auberge? I’ll buy you anything you want from L’auberge.”
We’d gotten engaged at L’auberge. I had to excavate my No from deep in my chest for that one.
Her arms fell from around my waist, and I felt the chill of my back unmanned suddenly by her front. “Okay, Liz,” she said. “If that’s how you want it.”
I checked my work email, wanting to make a token effort to work from home like Doreen had been telling people I was doing, but realized I no longer had access to it. In my personal email was a note from my boss. I read as far as “terminating your employment” and then shut my laptop.
I went to bed that night figuring I had another long night in front of me, but no—I slept right through. For the first time in days, I woke up in the morning and Doreen had already gone to work, her side of the bed primly made. Right away, I checked the pad in my underwear—I’d taken to wearing maxi-pads every night, since otherwise I had a bloody surprise waiting for me most mornings. But today I only found a couple rust-colored flecks.
I called Dr. Johansson as soon as her office opened to tell her the good news.
“Really? Awesome,” she said.
“And the pain is gone, too—my stomach feels almost normal now. Like it doesn’t hurt, it’s just bloated, like it gets when I eat too much grease.”
“But you haven’t, right?”
“What? I’m just saying the pain isn’t as bad.”
“You’ve been drinking your juice?”
“I have,” I said. “I’ve only missed last night’s so far.”
Dr. Johansson said nothing.
“Oh, I guess I haven’t had a chance to tell you,” I said. “Doreen hid the juicer. Or threw it out.”
“Have you replaced it yet?” Dr. Johansson asked.
I was beginning to worry. Dr. J never went this long without praising my efforts. “I haven’t had a chance since I’ve been feeling so sick, but now that I’m better…”
“It’s imperative that you drink your juice with your probiotic,” she said. “I’m sorry, but I think we’d better restart you from day one, given that you’ve backslid.”
“Backslid?” I hated that I could hear myself wanting to cry before I did cry, and that if I could hear it, Dr. J could hear it too. “My wife hid my juicer. What should I have done?”
“You need to drink your juice.” When I didn’t say anything, too busy swallowing the wave of tears that was breaking in my throat, Dr. J warmed up her voice. “Liz, I know it’s hard. But it’s only a thirty-day commitment. After thirty days we can reevaluate.”
When we hung up, I went into the kitchen to prepare my breakfast. One raw sausage patty. One bunch of massaged kale. One egg yolk. But when I saw all my ingredients spread across my counter, their packages bragging about NATURAL and PALEO and HORMONE-FREE, I swatted the eggs to the floor and grabbed as many sausage patties as I could fit in my hands, stalking off to the bedroom with them.
I’d told Doreen on the phone that I wanted to meet at L’auberge, after casing their menu to find anything I could eat there. I’d decided on my order before even making the reservation: steak tartare, entrée-sized. Ice water. No wine, no dessert.
I’d prissed up as much as possible for the occasion, but it was tough. Clothes hung off me now, and make-up didn’t want to cling to my oily, ruddy cheeks. I’d picked a black shift dress, which disguised my frame some. I could have been my usual hundred and eighty pounds; I could have been less. Dr. J had forbidden me from stepping on a scale during my diet, saying I shouldn’t nickel-and-dime my progress, so I really didn’t know how much I’d lost. When I saw Doreen’s car in the lot, I threw the plastic cup of probiotic’d juice in the grass. I’d had to buy a bottle from the health food store, cash, no receipt.
I was embarrassed to see my wife in a button-down and khakis, same as she ever wore to work. I was overdressed for the date and underdressed for the venue at the same time.
“Don’t you look good enough to eat,” Doreen said, grazing my cheek with her lips.
“Thank you,” I said. I decided not to return the compliment—she didn’t look any particular way except fresh from work—but it left us with a quiet lingering like an unanswered question. So I took her arm and led her inside.
When the maître d’ sat us at our table, I said, “Ice water and an entrée portion of steak tartare, please.”
He coughed. “Your server will be right over.”
“Easy there, quick draw,” Doreen said, removing her coat and settling into her seat. “Is that really what you want to eat? A pound of raw beef?”
“I like the steak tartare here.”
When our entrées arrived, Doreen ladled a heaping spoonful of her mashed potatoes onto my plate. “These guys make the best mashed potatoes,” she said. “I don’t know how they do it.”
I knew they did it by loading the potatoes with butter and cream, and left them at the edge of my plate. “So listen,” I said. “We have to talk about my diet.”
“I’m just glad you saw sense is all,” Doreen said. “I hope this means you’re not going back to that Dr. Johansson. Is she even a real doctor?”
“Because of what you did, I have to start over from day one.”
“Wait a second.” Doreen put her fork down. “You’re off the Alpha Diet, aren’t you? That’s why we’re here. To celebrate.”
I gestured to the raw steak and the water.
“That’s why you’re eating a plate of cow for fucking dinner?”
“Dr. J says that any of these common trigger foods could be the thing making me miscarry,” I said. “Legumes, dairy, sugar, grains…”
“Do you think the cavemen never miscarried? Or fucking…vegans, do vegans never miscarry?”
I said, “A lot of vegans eat legumes. Grains, too.”
“Baby, I’m begging you to go to a real doctor for this. Go to a gynecologist.”
“These are normal and common trigger foods,” I said. “There’s research.”
Our server approached the table and Doreen gave him a check-signing gesture without looking at him. She said, “And how much of this research have you actually seen?”
“What’s best,” I said, “is to eat true proteins: steak. Pork. Venison. Bloody lamb.”
She looked like she had lots of thoughts fighting to be the next thing she said. But when she slumped, I knew I had her.
“I can’t live under the same roof as this shit, Liz,” she said. “I mean it. It’s sick.”
“That’s fine,” I said. “In thirty days, we’ll reevaluate.”
The next morning, Doreen’s half of the closet was stripped to bare bones. Her toothbrush, toothpaste, body wash, everything was gone. Sitting on the kitchen table with a bow on it was the juicer.
During our call that day, Dr. J couldn’t praise me enough. “You could’ve backslid, you could have gotten chicken in wine sauce, steak bearnaise,” she said. “But you were marvelous at that restaurant, Liz.”
“You’re back on the juice?”
“With the powder?”
“Marvelous, Liz. Twenty-nine days to go.”
It was good to spend the whole day on the toilet without worrying about what Doreen might need and when, leaking now and then a little blood. For lunch, I heaped cubes of stew meat onto my plate. Anytime gristle proved unchewable, I swallowed it.
On the twenty-ninth day, Doreen came home. I opened my eyes to the sight of her by the bed, and closed them again.
“I wasn’t going to come back, but you’re ignoring my calls,” she said. “I wanted to make sure you were okay.”
“Phone’s shut off,” I mumbled.
“It’s only a thirty-day commitment,” I said. “After this, Dr. J—”
“If you say that bitch doctor’s name again, I’m walking out of here and leaving my key on the mantle,” she said.
I rolled over in bed.
“You know you have literal shit in your hair?”
When I touched my hair, it did feel slick. I wouldn’t have been able to say slick with what.
She pinched my plate of ground chuck between her thumb and forefinger and lifted it off what had been her side of the bed so that she could sit, resting her other hand on my hair despite whatever was in it. Every neuron of my body lit up at the invading touch. I reached for the ground chuck and loaded a fistful into my mouth. That helped.
I’d never before noticed how Doreen’s muscles glided under her skin, the shimmering of fat in her thighs. How the hip bones of her youth had given way to flank steak, juicy and robust.
“So I guess this is day thirty, huh?” Doreen said, watching me roll the meat around in my mouth.
I swallowed. “Day twenty-nine. Because you hid my juicer.”
“How’s the Alpha Diet working out for you? Feeling better? Ready to carry a baby?” She patted the cavernous gape of my stomach, looking the angry way she looked whenever she didn’t want me to know she needed to cry. I reached for a second handful of meat, but she pulled the plate out of my reach and I dropped my hand, unable to stretch my arm out to meet her.
“I feel,” I said, “like a new woman.”