The Man Who Couldn’t Eat

By Jon Reiner

This feels so illicit. And stupid. But really, I must lick this french fry. I’m not asking to eat it, mind you, that wouldn’t be good. I just want to lick it. Taste its salt. I cower in the kitchen, hiding from my wife and boys, who are out there, on the other side of the door, enjoying a sumptuous dinner, like eaters do — devouring what’s delicious, picking at what is not, saving room for dessert — while I starve.

Yes, I’m starving. There’s been nothing for two months now. No food, no drink, nothing in my mouth except the air I keep sucking. It would be plain to say the hunger is driving me mad, because it is. I crave food more than sex. The smell and touch of food can drop me to my knees. Food left me suddenly, in the chaos of emergency surgery, and, empty of food, I think about it constantly, an obsession that magnifies the ordinary into the surreal. A simple french fry is a wonder, an uneaten crust of bread salvation; something as unattainable as a fried egg, life itself. This trance is not healthy, or normal, but then those two words have also left me suddenly. Nothing I can do will fill my empty gut and conquer the hunger, and, equally, there is nothing to be done by anyone else. There is no way to share the pain or accept relief, which has a way of driving away people and their best intentions, discouraged by the frustration of their uselessness.

At mealtime, tonight for instance, I unpack bladders of laboratory-made nutrients that substitute for food and fill syringes, priming the pump that shoots the food bag full of fortifiers into my vein to keep me alive. But nothing in that bladder relieves the hunger.

Meanwhile, for the eaters in my house, my wife cooks a plate of minihamburgers and french fries. The apartment’s windows are shut against a chilling rain, and the place is overpowered by the smells of the local diners I dearly miss. She and our two boys eat at the dining table at one end of the living room. The table is set with candles and a blue glass bowl of precious winter fruit. My customary end chair is unoccupied; I sit on a worn leather love seat at the opposite end of the room, keeping company with the food pump. For the first meals after I was home from the hospital, I tried joining them at the table, a happy-meal family, but my starving presence disturbed the kids, and I’ve been marooned on the love seat or exiled to the bedroom ever since. The silver-dollar-sized burgers and petite seeded buns excite the boys, and they yammer with mouths full of food, their speech garbled by chewed meat and bread soaked in warm juices. One after another the patties fall, cutting down the pyramid of sliders, and I can only watch and listen as the plate gets swept clean. Our six-year-old kneels and turns on his chair. He has taken a momentary break from the carnage, his mouth a juicy mess, and he trains me with a severe look. “When will you eat?” he demands in a voice complicated by vulnerability, the worry that afflicts all children whose parents get sick. “Soon,” I lie. “Tell me about the burgers.” It’s a lame attempt to take his mind off the skeleton before him. “Do they remind you of White Castle?” I ask. This is met with silence, and I realize the boys have never been to White Castle. There is nothing for them to be reminded of. Nothing for them to miss. They look at me blankly and then go right back to savoring the food like lions on a carcass. The plate’s empty.

“Mom, these are so good. Can I have more?” our ten-year-old breaks in. He’s generally a picky eater, but not tonight. On her way to the kitchen to replenish, my wife regards me with a silent, sorry look. After everything they’ve had to put up with, their lives frightened and made insecure by my health, I should be pleased by the sight of their shared simple pleasure. But I am too far withdrawn into the abyss of my gut, plagued by the dismal reality of moment-to-moment desperation. When she comes back, I slip into the kitchen and leave the carnivores to their assault. Pressing out of view, tight against the warm stove, I touch a fallen nest of fries scattered on a baking sheet with all ten fingertips. They are crisped and stinging hot to the touch. I pick up a handful, bring it to my nose. Food has not passed my lips for sixty days, and the oiled, salty fries make me dizzy. I bring one to my mouth. I lick it. The texture is bewitching — coated and crunchy as I had fantasized — but the salty taste that should open in the mouth is frustratingly absent. I lick again. Nothing. I bite off a piece and nestle it into my tongue, sucking for salt. Absolutely nothing. My tongue is as shiny smooth as a porpoise.

My taste buds are gone.

I spit the mangled potato into the trash. Just then, my oldest walks in, catching me midspit. “Dad, you’re not supposed to eat,” he scolds. The food police, they come in all sizes. “I didn’t eat!” I say, aware of my brittle and defensive tone. “Really, sweetheart,” I say, softening, trying to sound more dadlike, more like the man I was before the hunger came to stay.

This excerpt of The Man Who Couldn’t Eat originally appeared in Esquire. The book is an engrossing and candid memoir by award–winning writer Jon Reiner who tells of his doctor’s orders following a diagnosis of a torn intestine: eat nothing. Reiner, who at age 46 had a history of Crohn’s disease, gets even more bad news when emergency surgery results in a severely infected abdomen, among other complications, that force him to get his nutrition intravenously. The bulk of the book is given over to the singular experience of not eating at all and the graphic details of his treatment, while chronicling its impact on the author, his wife, and his two young sons. Published by Simon & Schuster, the book is available from Amazon and other online retailers.