When Darla and I had our first real conversation, she was so delirious from hunger that she had passed out behind the self-help section where she had been pretending to shelve books. I found her lying on the dingy store carpeting, propped up on one pencil-thin arm, eyelids fluttering, trying to focus on me.
Months later, she would tell me that she hadn’t been able, in the moment, to distinguish between me and one of our co-workers, an acne-covered teenager who might have vaguely resembled me, I guess, in the eyes of someone as starved as she was. I was neither acne-covered nor a teenager but a 22-year-old aspiring writer who was working at a chain bookstore in Minneapolis for lack of any better ideas.
“Are you all right?” I asked.
She nodded and took my hand. Hers felt so cold I had an impulse to rub some warmth into it.
“Did anyone see me fall down?”
I shook my head no. “What happened?”
“I haven’t eaten in days. I’m anorexic.” She said this in such a matter of fact, unashamed way that I accepted it as if she were telling me her birth sign.
“Do you want me to get you something to eat?” I asked.
She smiled, maybe recognizing me for the first time in the conversation. Although we had worked together for a few months, we barely knew each other.
“It doesn’t work like that,” she said. “Just sit here with me until I get my strength back.”
So I did.
After that, we talked a lot. I told her about my plans to drive my old Chevy Malibu to Kansas City, where I was planning to crash on the sofa of a friend of a friend, once I had saved enough money. She told me about the poetry she was writing and the crush she harbored on our assistant manager. We discovered that we shared a love of Jack Kerouac. I told her that my Kansas City adventure was supposed to be my “On the Road” moment.
“Did you know that the Walker Museum has a Beat Generation exhibit right now?” she said. “You can see Kerouac’s typewriter with the actual scroll of ‘On the Road.’”
We went to the exhibit and saw the scroll. She talked about all the places she hadn’t been, and I told her how badly I wanted to see the world, to have an adventure.
“Maybe you’re having an adventure now,” she said, taking my hand. Hers was warmer this time.
Soon she stopped talking about the assistant manager, but she didn’t stop starving herself.
I didn’t try to help her with that. I’m not sure why. It’s as if I accepted her struggle as a given, as a fact of her. I was struggling myself after a recent heartbreak and was trying to teach myself how to do basic things again: to think for myself, to walk properly, to hold myself upright, to sleep and to breathe.
To see her struggle to force down solid food, to watch as she spread a thin layer of butter on a saltine that she would chew to a paste before it would go down (this was her only meal some days) seemed not natural, of course, but also somehow unremarkable to me. I watched her starve and held her while she did it.
Some people might call that enabling. I called it love.
Maybe I wasn’t so wrong. A few years ago, I read about a study in which the researchers suggested that kissing may counteract anorexia. I’m sure there’s a healthy and deserved skepticism about such claims, but wouldn’t it be nice if it were true, that love could cure a dangerous illness? Anyway, what a scientific experiment that must have been!
When Darla and I kissed for the first time, it didn’t cure her of anything, but it did cure me of my dream of going to Kansas City. I still have never been there, all these years later. I have no desire to go.
To anyone observing us then, with Darla being so dangerously thin, I must have looked like a bystander who had come upon an accident victim in a burning car and asked her about her favorite music instead of pulling her from the flames.
It’s not that I didn’t want to risk burning my hands. It’s more that my instinct was to burn along with her. A better person, I realize, would have driven her to the nearest rehab center, but doing so never even occurred to me.
Instead, Darla and I engaged in our own private version of the kissing cure. What were the results? It would take a long time to find out.
Those first few months were our adventure. We quit our jobs at the bookstore. Instead of driving alone to Kansas City, I sold my Chevy Malibu and used the money to buy us tickets on an Amtrak train headed west.
As we stared at the map of America at the station, she said, “Where will we go?”
I told her to pick the most romantic-sounding name along the Empire Builder line, which led to us buying two tickets on a sleeper car to West Glacier, Mont.
For participants in the kissing cure, I would recommend a berth on an Amtrak sleeper car, where you can seal yourself away from the world, rattling through the night and swaying together under the blanket with each curve of the tracks. At every station, we would put on our glasses (we had the same prescription and sometimes would wear each other’s) and look out the window at the smokers on the station platforms hurrying to get in their last inhales before the “All aboard!” sounded.
Before the train pulled into West Glacier, the sleeper car attendant had convinced us not to get off. “This is a summer resort town, my dears,” he had said, “and it’s November. Unless you want to sleep at the station, you had better stay on until Whitefish.”
It was good advice. We hadn’t booked anyplace to stay in West Glacier, thinking we would just find a hostel when we got off. The truth is we likely would have fought, cried, frozen and headed back home, with our adventure prematurely ended.
Thanks to the attendant, though, we stayed on until Whitefish, spent a week taking in the mountain views and then, longing for our sleeper car, boarded the Empire Builder again, this time for Seattle, where we spent another week at a hostel before taking the Coast Starlight to Sacramento. From there, we took a bus to San Francisco and then to Flagstaff, Ariz., where we used the last of our remaining savings to rent a trailer in a trailer park where we had our first Christmas together.
Darla was eating a little more by then. Not much, but a little. She seemed to have more energy. We stayed for a few months, supporting ourselves with temp work, driving a $500 car the owner of the trailer had sold us — until it stopped running.
When our money ran out, we ran back home to the Midwest and got married soon after. Recently we celebrated our 23rd anniversary. Last year, our son turned 18.
For those interested in the kissing cure, I will say this in support: Darla has gained enough weight over the years that she was actually thinking about going on a diet until the pandemic lockdown trimmed us both down (many people put on pounds during this time, but our instinct was to limit trips to the grocery store, which had a slimming effect).
We have been together long enough now that those early versions of ourselves seem like children. In snapshots from those times, I see her in overalls and T-shirt, skeletally thin but beaming with the happiness of new love and the promise of adventure.
Our married life has not been without conflicts. I have taken her for granted, put my needs ahead of hers, indulged my weaknesses. But I never have regretted the fact that I did the possibly irresponsible thing back then by not acting alarmed about her anorexia, by not pressuring her to do anything about it, and instead just loving her for who she was. She never wanted heroic intervention from me or from anyone else. She triumphed over her issues with food on her own terms and is happy for me to be sharing our story now.
This is the confession of an enabler, I suppose. Or maybe I simply don’t know the difference between enabling and loving. What I do know is that I never would have wanted to be a participant in any experiment other than the one Darla and I unwittingly enrolled in all those years ago.
For resources and information about anorexia, visit the National Eating Disorders Association. Their helpline is 1-800-931-2237.