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The PRH (Personal Responsibility for Health) Chronicles, Part 2: The Way We Are

02/09/2013 12:27 pm ET | Updated Apr 11, 2013

Please also see "The PRH Chronicles, Part 1: The Way We Were."

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This particular morning in mid-April was quite chilly, although clear. In fact, the early suffusion of sunlight was promising a day of great beauty. Not that Michelle was listening to such promises. Far too busy. And besides, the climate inside was always perfect, and that's where she was. Just stepping out of the shower.

Her mood was unusually buoyant. The stresses of many months had culminated in this trip of Peter's, and she was sure it would be successful. And that would mean more of everything. More money, more prestige, more control over their lives. He would get this account, and they would really be on their way. Or at least he would probably get the account. Certainly, he deserved it! He had earned it. Or rather, they both had.

It was this feeling of merit that had caught her, carried her out of bed and into the shower in its current of optimism. And so she braved a look at herself in the shower door mirror as she stepped out, shut it, and reached for her towel. A mistake. Her fleeting feeling of disgust, as she quickly pulled her gaze away, was muted by time much as the image was muted by the condensation on the glass. She was used to that image by now, as, she thought sourly, Peter must be. Not content, certainly, but reconciled.

That fleeting glance had done its damage. So as Michelle toweled dry, her eyes returned to the mirror, now quickly clearing as cool, dry air flowed in through the open window. A bit too much of that air and Michelle felt the chill, and pulled the window shut without much of either thought, or effort.

In a slip, she walked to the adjoining room, more an alcove, to sit on the cushioned bench in front of her armoire, makeup laid out before her like an artist's palette. But instead of to brush or comb or vial, Michelle's fingers followed her eyes to a band-like roll of flesh, one of several rings the pastel-blue slip outlined around her middle from her shoulders to her hips. She took the uppermost band on the left between the thumb and forefinger of her right hand, and as she, almost against her will, pinched gently against the fleshy roll, she squeezed her eyes closed.

Uncertain why, carried along by something in the particular sequence of this morning, Michelle followed her thoughts back to the move, and all those early decisions that seemed important at the time, such as where this armoire should go. She and Peter had been reluctant to relocate at the time, both because their life in the Midwest had been so settled in among family and friends, and because Elliot was already in school and attached to his routine. But Jack, Peter's boss, had emphasized the value of the move to Peter's career. A real chance to move up, a chance not to be missed. And so the move east, arduous in the attendant loss of the familiar, the need for new beginnings. She struggled more than Peter, his job as much escape as burden, although she was doubtful he would acknowledge that. She worked, too, but part-time, and at a job that required she be only partly there. With three children, that was the best they would get from her, anyway. Thankfully, the children, even Elliot, were resilient. So small, so apparently fragile, yet always so surprisingly resilient.

Just as her thoughts were running that way, Michelle heard feet running down the hall outside her bedroom door, an insistent voice in tow. Amanda, of course, all part of the morning routine. Karen would still be asleep now, and only half-awake and still in pajamas when Michelle plopped her into her car seat to get Amanda to swimming practice before school. Elliot, thankfully, could get himself to the bus stop. To practice, then home, then daycare, then work. Then school, daycare, home again. The rhythm of her routine, of her obligations. Yes, if Peter got this account, Michelle thought with a hint of that fleeting buoyancy, she would have earned it as much as he.

Nor was that all (she was giving herself a pep talk at this point, she realized, but figured she needed one and didn't resist). She ran this house, and supported her husband, yes, and while working. But she also made her contributions to the community. Member of the PTA, participant in her church group. Among the first, always, to volunteer for bake sales and field trips.

Nearly nine years like this, since Elliot was born. And 11 since marrying Peter. Michelle's thoughts turned to her husband, or rather their life as a couple. When they fell in love and married, and for some time after, Michelle had reveled in herself as well as her husband. By nature energetic and enthusiastic, she liked her personality and knew that others did, too. She made friends easily. But only in retrospect did she appreciate how much her appearance had contributed to her sense of self. The same lush, reddish-brown hair, full lips, large brown eyes, high cheekbones she knew would be waiting even now in the mirror when she opened her eyes. But a slim waist, flat stomach, and trim legs that were going, going; who was she kidding. Gone. She opened her eyes.

To find her fingers where she had left them, pinching that band of flesh that seemed more anomaly than anatomy. What was it doing there? It was not part of her. And yet, she knew, and again smiled (or frowned, even she wasn't sure) sardonically as she counted the blue bands, three per side. One pair of bands for each of the children. What damage they had done! She wouldn't trade one of them for anything in the world, not even her old figure, but the distortion of each pregnancy, and the inability to lose all the weight after, seemed now a high price to pay. She squeezed the top band: Elliot. The middle band: Amanda. The lowest band: Karen.

And, of course, it wasn't just pregnancy. Michelle was, after all, a mother, and devoted to the job. This meant many things, she reflected, one of which was living a constant, artful blend of love and discipline. It meant there was virtually no time for herself, always others needing, or at least wanting. Parties, sports, the movies, the mall, and she more often than not the chauffeur, or caterer. Her thoughts snagged on "sports." How long ago that was, that sports had been a part of her life. She actually ran track in high school! No time to exercise now, she thought. Running, yes, but not that kind of running, running around.

And then there was their food. She was intelligent enough to know the damage TV had done. Of course they all watched it, although she had been tempted to ban it. But she was no zealot, and her moderate views prevailed. And as the children watched, they were seduced. By burgers and fries, sugary breakfast cereals, chocolatey desserts, the crunchiest chips. They wanted these things. So of course, they got them. And when they did, Michelle generally got them, too.

Had she been pressed, she might have realized that her children were at far greater risk of getting fat than of starving. But she policed their eating just as her mother had policed hers, not to prevent too much (although the occasional ill-timed or ill-considered snack was banned), but to prevent too little. Michelle had never thought this illogical, nor did that thought manage to assert itself even now. Of course she wanted them to clean their plates. Of course she took pride in Elliot's stocky build, Karen's plumpness. Of course she cajoled them to eat this or that with promises of dessert. As parents had done as far back as anyone could remember.

In her own case, it came down mostly to convenience. Within 10 minutes of home were four supermarkets (of the truly "super" variety). In any one of them were prepackaged meals and snacks a tired working mother could not ignore or resist. But that was the least of it. On the way to any of the markets, she passed Dunkin' Donuts, Wendy's, and the muffin place; or Burger King, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell; or the bagel place, McDonald's, the cinnamon bun place. She would not go out of her way for these things, but there they were. Always convenient. At half of them, she didn't even need to step out of the car. Yes, she could adjust the climate of her house, office, and car to neutralize the worst excesses of summer or winter; but the man-made environment dominated her life irresistibly.

Not just convenient, all this fast food, she confessed. But good. So good. Last Wednesday, after that unpleasant exchange with Linda in the office, she carried her aggravation around all day in the pit of her stomach. It didn't really feel like hunger, but it somehow made the same demands. And those demands were satisfied by not one but two cinnamon buns. Dripping with butter. Yes, of course, she regretted it later. But it had felt so good at the time. The sweet taste in her memory worked its way down to her mouth, and even now she felt saliva flow.

At the office, too, food was constantly available, and there seemed little reason not to indulge; after all, everyone else did. So the bagel and cream cheese on the way to work were inevitably followed by doughnuts or Danish as a mid-morning snack. She cringed at this audit of what had become a daily routine. Vending machine lunches, often eaten on the run. Fast-food dinners to deal expediently with hungry kids. When Peter wasn't around, gatherings with friends meant coffee and cake. When Peter was around, there were meals to make, or dinners out, or drinks. Food, always food. How had it come to matter so much?

Peter, too, had succumbed. In their former life (as she now thought of it) before the move, Peter had managed to balance work with recreation, and maintained the lean, athletic physique she had first noticed way back in high school. Since the move, now more than two years past, work demands had mounted. He complained less and less frequently about not finding time to exercise, seemed to be accepting it. And, she thought wryly, seemed accepting of his "love handles" and the belly that now protruded over his belts (all replaced within the last year, by the way, to accommodate this very problem).

He was a good man. Honest, decent, hardworking. Nearly 6 feet tall, when fit as he had always been before, he weighed approximately 180 pounds, much of which had been muscle; she had taken as much pride in that as he. Now, Peter tipped the scales at 212 pounds, and this despite muscles slowly withering from disuse. A good portion of that weight was simply fat. Michelle shuddered involuntarily, realizing that she found Peter's weight gain somewhat distasteful, although not nearly so much as her own. Of course, sexual relations between them had cooled with time. Neither liked that, but neither spoke of it. And because of the silence, Michelle assumed that Peter found her less than attractive. Had she been able to broach the subject and probe the truth, she would have learned that Peter's dissatisfaction was more with his body than with hers, just as Michelle's was more with hers than with Peter's.

Michelle let go of Peter with her mind, as she let go of the flesh between her fingers. Time to face the day. There were places to go, people to see, always in a hurry. She began to apply her makeup, eyeing her face more critically than usual. A good face, she thought, no dark mood will convince me otherwise! She corrected her posture, straightened her shoulders, and kept her gaze fixedly above the level of those exasperating bands.

She stood up, and took one last look, turning sideways. Startled by this degree of self-absorption, Michelle glanced at the clock radio on the bedside table to discover she had been out of the shower all of 12 minutes. At least she got her self-absorption over with as efficiently as she did everything else; the attendant feeling one part smugness, one part irony. She gave in to that final look in the mirror. There was still hope, she thought, but little cause to hope. She had tried to curb the seemingly inevitable rise in her weight that, if measured that way, matched pace with her birthdays. Some 26 pounds more now than on her wedding day. Twenty-six! She had been thin then, yes, but by no means skinny. And at 5'4", she could ill afford an extra 26 pounds She was fat, and likely to get fatter.

To hell with it. She put on a loose-fitting dress she knew hid the worst and revealed the best. To hell with it, anyway. Sure enough, Karen was still asleep. She was curled partly on her side, with her left leg crossed over her right. Her head and chest moved slightly with each breath. Sweet, thought Michelle, at once completely, and more characteristically, outside herself. So sweet. She slid her left arm under Karen and lifted her from the bed, pulling her close as she did so, kissing her cheek, lingering on the scent of her skin. This is what really mattered. The thought trailed off. And then the current of her day caught Michelle, and she was tumbled along in the usual way until at last she stalled in the quiet eddy of the late evening, children asleep.

Without any good news yet from Peter to distract her, Michelle's mood (or perhaps it was more than that) proved tenacious, reasserting herself as she got into bed that night. Her thoughts went relentlessly back to those extra rolls of flesh. Damn that bagel and cream cheese, an irresistible stop on the way in to the office. She had said "why not?" then, but asked herself why now. Why? It always felt good at the time, increasingly bad after.

She felt tears welling. Enough of this already! She escaped into the pages of a romance novel and, substituting herself and Peter for dazzling heroine and daring hero, took the images of herself and her husband as they once were, as she wished they would be, with her into sleep.

-fin

-The PRH Chronicles will continue...

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