Jon Reiner is the author of 'The Man Who Couldn't Eat,' a memoir of his months spent without ingesting any food - a "nothing by mouth" order - due to a ruptured intestine, a rare complication from Crohn's disease.
“Look at the bright side. I won’t have to worry about Don undercooking my burger. Cooking over an open flame is tough to regulate, I grant you, but you’d think that after thirty years he’d have it down.”
Artie starts to chuckle, but stops himself awkwardly and swallows the laugh I’d hoped for. I want a comeback from him - “that’s in poor taste,” “you get what you pay for” - a softball I can connect with and knock out of the park, but his eyes are anxious and shift down to the full plate of food on his lap. The conversation stops. It’s hard for my old friend to laugh at a science project.
We’re sitting on the screened porch of Don and Tina’s Maine lake house for their annual end-of-summer party, but I’m not eating today. I won’t touch the red hamburgers and the potluck covering the picnic table: fruit salad cradled in a watermelon shell; marinated cucumbers and fiddlehead ferns; cole slaw; pasta salad; baked beans; and my wife’s deviled eggs.
For now, I get basic nutrition through a heavy-duty IV line that’s ported into my upper arm and is juiced by a battery-operated food pump 18 hours a day. I lug the motor in a backpack slung over my shoulder, and Artie is trying hard not to stare at the noisy hump. The damn thing whirrs as loud as the speedboats cruising past, an uninvited guest that came empty-handed. You can’t miss it.
The menu here is basically the same every year, unaffected by the changing fashion of food, and I love it. Summer isn’t complete without this party, without the red plastic plates loaded with food, without Tina’s funny stars-and-bars sheet cake, before we pack away our bathing suits and go back to reality.
Ritually, my mother brings the sugar-and-gold corn, picked this morning and presently going uneaten on Artie’s plate. The sweet taste of mowing through the steamed yellow-and-white kernels defines summer, like swimming in the fresh water we’re overlooking, and there’s an emptiness to being here that I didn’t expect. I depend on the party food to mark the calendar and balance the rhythms we all rely on to steady our lives.
I smell the char from the grill and the sulfur of the deviled eggs. With taste taken away, my body has amplified the other senses, and my nose leads the way. Every meal is like walking past a pizza oven when you’re hungry - the aroma is so alluring I’m ready to jump in. Without food, I’m out of sync. So, I talk about it.
“Steamed for exactly two minutes. Not a second more.”
However, Artie’s still not giving me what I want - the diversion to ditch this 800-pound gorilla in the room for the afternoon. Arthur and I have known each other since college. We’re bluntly honest on the tennis court. He’s a lawyer, and I don’t imagine he shuts down from clients like he’s doing with me. He’s stopped eating. The ear of corn lying across his plate is crying out to be buttered and salted and devoured.
Artie’s wife Helen, sitting next to him, and Marcia who’s settled across from me, have stopped eating, too. What an impact I’m having on people. If you consider the stream of chemical mother’s milk pumping into my vein to be food, then I’m the only one eating. It’s absurd.
“Artie, please, get to that corn immediately, or I will.”
“You sure?” he asks, looking at me uncertainly. His hands are dropped to the sides of the folding chair, away from his plate. “Won’t that make it worse?”
You can’t be angry with someone for speaking the truth. He’s trying to spare me more misery, and I’d be a lousy friend if I didn’t appreciate his concern. But, I need to rejoin the living, to be with them, even if it’s only by watching them live. Despite the heavy machinery on my back, I did decide to come to the party today.
“Believe me, nothing would make me happier.” That’s a lie, and we both know it. I want to bite into that sweet corn, and the deviled eggs, and even Don’s dangerously undercooked burgers. Soon, I hope. However, if my friends and I can’t share the flavor of the food today, at least we can talk about it.