This is how I descend into a vacation of gluttony. I go to visit my aunt in Grand Rapids, Mich., who lives alone in a three bedroom condo with three TVs, three refrigerators and two cars. This side of my family is Lebanese; they show their love through food. Mostly to me.
There's nothing that makes my father seem more sane and like myself than visiting his family. He comes to meet me in Grand Rapids, and constantly we exchange sidelong glances as my aunt insists upon over-performing some menial task -- on her own, denying assistance -- for hours before and after mealtime. She becomes so overwhelmed with the logistics of performing the role of hostess that it turns surreal, almost humorous.
Every thought she has is about the food that is going into our mouths. As Lebanese, the matriarch of this family is overbearing in her quest to ensure everyone is properly fed, generally. Once upon a time that role belonged to my grandmother, Maxine. Now, since her passing in 2006, her daughter, my aunt, has taken on the role. She does it well, but constantly compares herself to the memory of her mother. "Oh, if mom were here she would've known how to do it," she says. Or, "If mom could see this she would have a fit that you're not eating enough." She says these things constantly, not just taking cues on how to be a host from her late mother but calling herself a poor substitute time after time, affirming my grandmother's place as lord of this family, even in death.
Still, despite her protests, I am eating more than enough food. It becomes obscene. It's an embarrassment of food that is served to us -- the multiple plates of vegetables, salad, olives, cheeses, bread, chicken shwarma and the Lebanese dishes of kibbeh, tabbouli, and lubie and rice last for days.
In all, it is too much food. My aunt insists upon cooking a new dinner for my father and me, fit for a family of ten, each night. A single hour does not go by that I am not offered a new snack. Often I accept.
When your body is consuming multiple thousands of calories a day, every moment spent not eating is a waste. While usually my thought process goes something like "I am hungry, therefore I want to eat" or "I am not hungry; I do not want to eat," all logic is misplaced when eating is constant. Hunger never enters into the equation. It is, instead, a marathon of food that never ceases long enough to for the stomach to process it.
And not to be crude, but my trips to the lavatory have adopted a new pattern because of all the eating. Though it could be seen as healthy, really it just heightens my own sense of sloth. I do nothing but eat and sleep.
I have stopped trying to pretend to be fit. Usually I will flex and suck in my belly when I passively look at myself naked in the bathroom mirror, to further the belief that I am more in shape than I actually am and ingrain that image of myself in my psyche. I have stopped any form of that. I slouch and let my gut hang out as I climb into the shower. I have abandoned creating a glorified image of my body for myself with the belief that this current form is temporary -- soon I will return to my regular self, when I leave this place of gluttony, and once again I will think of myself as that skinny guy with almost-visible abs that I parade in in front of the mirror. Really, though, I am nervous that the fitness I affect in the mirror for myself would not even be possible in my current state. So I don't even try.
My aunt has a strange tendency to under-heat leftovers in the microwave (with all of the food there are a lot of leftovers; each lunch consists of large sandwiches as well as a plate or two of leftovers from the nights before). She insists that nothing be heated for more than a minute and always instructs that the microwave's power be reduced down to 70 percent. I am not used to it. My food is normally served hot and allowed to cool throughout the course of the meal. Now it comes to me lukewarm and only chills more as I eat. I am compelled to eat quickly, before my food gets cold to the point that its taste is lost. It takes the fun out of it, slightly. Almost.
Yet when the moment comes and the big meal is served, the one that I flew here for, I can't do it. I pile my plate high with turkey, potatoes, stuffing, casserole and cranberries, but I get just halfway through before I fear my stomach will have its revenge. I can eat no more. My belly feels as if it will burst at its seams. This is how bulimics must feel, I think, contemplating the logistics of vomiting my dinner just so I can eat more. My plate is still half full. I had gorged too much on appetizer hummus, cocktail shrimp, honey roasted peanuts, olives and carrot sticks. I am worn out. This is the end. I can do no more.
From then on it is a series of confusing naps, football games and The Godfather on television. At some point my uncle mutters "I'm stuffed and the Lions lost. Yup, feels like Thanksgiving." I watch some of that game and some of the one after, but the rest of the day is a daze.
My aunt gives me snacks for my return trip back to Washington as I pack to leave. I manage to reduce her offerings to a bagel, granola bars, hot cocoa mix and bags of potato chips, claiming something vague about TSA regulations. She bemoans my unwillingness to take a whole sack for lunch, but I insist. This time of gluttony is over, I think. I am returning to a place where food is eaten at specific intervals according to the ritual of the day, not on an endlessly repeating loop. I am done, I believe.
My flight has not yet left the gate by the time I am digging in.