Like Meals, Everything Ends

by Nina Smilow

I met G when I was twenty and had never tried most of the food the city that I grew up in offered. I didn’t know the difference between caponata and carbonara, but I knew both went on pasta, which I never ate. I didn’t know or care about the difference between a spice and a hot sauce or that risotto took more patience than skill. I had no interest in steak at Peter Luger or pizza in Carroll Gardens.

In the years I spent with him, we traveled further than gentrification for pizza and many times, I stood over a burning stovetop, stirring rice continuously, adding stock he had taken the time to make with vegetable scraps from every other meal made by his nimble, large hands in our small kitchen.

I can taste the stories about my life with him better than I can tell them. The Korean BBQ in Gowanus, cheese plates in upscale bars, burritos eaten hastily after a day of drinking in Prospect Park, and bottles of wine and craft beers next to olives and snacks that extended into meals, into hours of eating and drinking and bodies made warm and decadent.




I met him within a month of starting an eating disorder recovery program. They often discourage dating in the first year, warning that a partner can act as a tarp that covers the loss of the ED; leaving a hole to fall in when they’re gone. Those same treatment leaders also preach community and I had none that wasn’t being paid for.

The rooms I sat in with therapists, nutritionists, and fellow women who looked at bagels with terror were rooms I was privileged to be in. We sat with mini waterfalls and stress relieving toys, echoing the loneliness that grew with every step they asked us to take away from our closest ally, towards nothing.

I believed in the company I felt around G more than I believed in platitudes thrown out at group meetings. I don’t know if my parents chose to look away when I was thirteen and started to dwindle myself down or if they were just incapable of staring directly into the glare of it, but I’d never known a steady gaze like G’s on me after we ate. When meals ended, he never let me disappear into the restroom to run the water. It was different from the women who were paid to stand in the bathroom at the center with their backs turned.




February needs comfort food. Everyone in the restaurant had removed another human’s worth of layers, which were now piled on the benches at the communal table where I sat next to G. I was doing my best to fit into the urban scene of tranquility, watching everyone else expertly whirl viscous udon noodles around chopsticks in broth-filled wooden spoons.

I had the uniform on, an oversized beanie and cuff bracelet of 2013 style, and my cheeks were flushed from the cold outside and sudden heat of the space. But my bowl was untouched. G tried to convince me that I’d love it, but I still loathed anything that sat heavy in my stomach.

He was trying to guide me through the process, gently stacking the vegetables and noodles into the spoon, filling it with broth.

Do you want me to make a choo-choo sound?

He was expanding my palate, so I came to foods that were nothing but flavor to me, until I swallowed. The patience it requires to experience food while fighting the instinct to expel it is more than I could have found on my own. That’s what he did, showing me how to twirl chopsticks so the noodles didn’t spray broth across my sweater. Actually, his sweater.

I burned my tongue on the first bite. Like the parents around us managing their children, G downed his drink fast and, once he was satisfied that I would keep eating, he turned to his own lunch. Whereas mine was slick and clear, his was a dark brown and so well-oiled by the thick slices of pork belly in it, it looked creamy.

That’s why I have lager with mine and you need stout with yours.

G knew things like this, not only because he was a decade older than me, but because he was an expert in food. He’d worked in restaurants since college and now managed high end bars in a borough full of them. Food and alcohol were a second language he was fluent in.

I hadn’t even known the difference between the beers, except for their colors. I was alarmed when mine arrived, inky black and thick. He’d explained to me that Guinness was actually low in calories and alcohol. I sipped it disbelievingly. It was light and sweet, with an unexpected acidity.




Weeks prior, I told him where I disappeared every other day from ten to four. We were sitting in the coffee shop around the corner from his apartment. They knew him there and had his whole milk cappuccino waiting as soon as we walked in. Soon, they would place my non-fat version next to it.

I figured it was something like that. You eat strangely. 

I eat strangely?

Yeah, you hardly touch your food, or you shove it all in like you’re afraid someone will take it. You eat like an animal. Like a feral cat. 

The refrain became familiar. I would come home hungry, cramming his carefully sorted ingredients for dinner in my mouth before he could turn on the stove.

Here kitty, kitty.




Caretaking was familiar to G. His mother was the one who taught him; she had been in and out of drug treatment for years. She’d even stolen huge amounts of money from him, all his savings gone and left debt in his name.

How do you stay close with her? I was too young to understand how much forgiveness parents require.

The only other choice is to not have my mom. G didn’t know that a person can be untangled from anything.

We were lying in a knot of covers and limbs. It was snowing and just outside the door to his room, the carnage of dinner remained on the table. The terrine, similar to a lasagna, with seasonal vegetables and homemade cheese, a salad of white beans and kale in an anchovy vinaigrette. When I kissed him, I tasted dinner and the red wine he’d been given by his boss which was tannic and rich. His beard scratched my face. I felt like I was being consumed, which is like being held.




Here, kitty, kitty.

At a dark restaurant on a warm spring day, the pierogis arrived on the table. He insisted we get the pan-fried ones rather than boiled because they never maintained the flavor as well. He moved them towards me.

Fuck off. I was trying to laugh. It had been months of G and the program. Everyone said I was doing better. Everyone said it was a process.

Just try it.

He pressed a dumpling against my lips until I opened them.

See? It’s better. The bottoms need to be crispy.

He was right, but I was angry. I took a sip of beer. My shoulders were creeping higher, meeting my ears. He was halfway finished with his plate, always eating with abandon, but never rushing through a meal.

He caught me staring and placed his utensils down and then took mine out of my hands. He interlaced our fingers. The intensity elicited nervous giggles from the couple at the table squeezed too close to us.

It’s okay. He said it to me, but it seemed to relax them too. Everyone dropped their shoulders.

You don’t have to finish it, but we can stay until you do.

When we walked out of the restaurant, he reached to hug me. I threw my arms up, like I was being attacked.

I could feel the blood rushing to my stomach to digest everything in it. I couldn’t take my head outside of the dissolution of beer into my body, which felt like it was coming apart in the acid too.

Do you want dessert?

I still had my hands in fists held up against me. I looked at him with wide, terrified eyes and saw that he was smiling, almost laughing. He approached me slowly.

I recognized he was taking on an enormous task. I think he did too and for a second, he faltered. Then moved quickly, arms around me.




The summer passed and during my last day at the center, everyone gave warnings. They knew I was jumping from my parent’s house to G’s.

My family was filled with thinkers, and love lived in words. In my new home, it was actively clattering in a series of pots and pans clanking on stoves, the sounds of stirring and whipping, of drinks being poured, and touch. I knew what care tasted like now, how it felt to be hugged when I needed it, not when I asked.

We were having bagels. Just like they’d served on my first day, when I walked in and saw the skeletal frames around me, the scarred arms, and tattoos, all these admissions of pain I kept so secret it was confined to the bathrooms no one used.

I am nothing like these women, I thought. Then they told me I’d have to eat a whole bagel and I cried.

For the last time, the group leaders asked how I felt about the breakfast option.

I said, I’m in the mood for a bagel.

The therapist smiled. I thought only G should be taking the credit. He was the one who held my hand when I graduated from whole wheat flat with light cream cheese to thick dough.

You did it yourself, they said, but I never would have without him.

That night we went out to celebrate. When they sent out extras, pasta covered in shaved truffles and greens so well buttered they became a cream, I felt familiar terror rise. G pressed his lips to my neck, so I took a bite.




All love stories are tragedies waiting to happen.

A woman in my ongoing recovery support group said it to me, but it’s echoed all over. I’d been getting weighed every few months as part of an accountability strategy. Two summers went by until my weight started dropping again, the center’s leader suggested I join the assembly.

It’s all people who have finished the program. It’s just a place to talk about the struggles of handling your ED in the real world.

The biggest difference between the group therapy during treatment and here was how we talked about love. In treatment, love was seen as another way the ED could get control. We fretted about our desirability and the therapists would have us turn back to whether we could be desirous of ourselves. At this stage, we weren’t discouraged from partnership. Everyone brought their relationships into the room with them.

I was there because of weight loss, but I’d only agreed to go because I was realizing that, after two and a half years, I couldn’t ask G to be my sole caregiver anymore. His father had been diagnosed with stage four cancer. He was also a caregiver and a jack of all trades. And he was the only person who ever took care of G.

His impending death left a vacuum for a patriarch. G’s mother had relapsed, stolen money from his father, and gotten herself kicked out of the house by the youngest brother, who lived there with his girlfriend and child. She would still call G daily. He always picked up.




Once a week, I sat with two women and a therapist, discussing what it meant to continue to fear something everyone else did all day naturally. Only I felt the last part was a lie.

I don’t know anyone who eats normally, I said to the group after a weekend away with my family. G had cooked for everyone. All the women I was related to would lick the pan of his homemade shepherd’s pie clean while discussing how they avoided eating all day in preparation for the meal or the cleanses they’d start tomorrow to atone.

What does normally mean? These are the kinds of annoying things therapists ask.

I mean, most women I know are always on a diet, so I don’t like to eat too much bread, how is that different?

Who says you eat strangely? 

I don’t know, people.

My family already had too much of the things a person wants in it: people and money. G’s, by contrast, was constantly in disarray, but possessed endless patience for each other. He was as baffled by our ability to turn a blind eye and settle for ignorance as I was by his devotion to people who gave him so little.




G was reaching the end of his rope. We were visiting his father, or a part of him, mostly breath, ragged and fading. In the Piggly Wiggly, the only store for miles, we were about to fight over milk. I was trying to find nonfat or, preferably, almond milk. So far, I was shit out of luck and becoming frustrated and frustrating to G.

Honestly, you only have it in your coffee and coffee’s acidity doesn’t get cut by almond milk or skim milk, which is basically just water, so all you’re doing is diluting the taste…

These lessons used to mean everything to me. G would hold me and whisper the secrets of eating. Sardines are meant to be eaten on Ritz, he’d say, and the combination would force my broken logic against the crackers to fall apart. Now, he stared at me under the fluorescent aisle. I could hear the question over his rant, asking how I could add stress to today, to any day, while we waited for his father to die.

I just want one thing that I want if I have to be here. I snapped, hating myself immediately. On our visits, I lived on popcorn and craft beers. It was too hard to ask G to cook separately for me or comfort me about what he was making when he was preparing food for his family. They wanted sweet barbecue and fried vegetables, things I couldn’t eat without needing to be held and G was too tired to do all the holding.




Recovery is ongoing. Eating normally doesn’t look the same to everyone and especially not early on in the process.

Back from the trip, I was being told to find sympathy for myself, my needs.

You’ve only been in recovery for about a year. How can you be expected to operate at 100%?

I hated the woman saying this more than I hated myself. I hated the woman next to her for nodding wisely. Or maybe I did hate myself most of all, for having to sit in this room and be told these comforting things when I had thrown a fit over milk.




Well, I fucking want my dad not to die. Then he walked away. I followed him to the car. I sat on his lap, blocking the wheel. When we held each other, it was chaotic and fragmented, reminding me of the way I used to come down to the kitchen in my mother’s house, after everyone was asleep, and eat entire cartons of ice cream, tasting none of it. The aftermath, our bodies prone and sweaty, like mine on the bathroom floor.

We should talk about your weight. It wasn’t even said by the therapist, but by one of the women in my group.

Honestly, I’m not doing anything differently. It wasn’t a lie; without G around, I never ate most of the foods I used to consider dangerous. What had changed was that he was never around.

Have you spoken to G about what’s going on? This woman was newly married. Her husband was in the dressing room with her when she discovered she no longer fit into any of her clothing. He took her shopping for jeans, telling her how beautiful she looked. I sat comfortably in my jeans from high school— tighter on my hips now—and resisted the urge to scoff.

He has a lot on his plate and again, nothing is “going on.”

I think, she said, you are either choosing to ignore something or hoping we will.

Ignorance was the only other thing in my life I could count on with certainty.




I was lonely, but I had no right to be. I was graduating and scared. People were sick and then better or sick and then dying. All my childhood dogs died. I held my banal griefs and tribulations against my bones, squeezing them the way G would have on some corner years before.

In loneliness, we turn to old friends. Mine was waiting and sneakier than I remembered. My eating disorder used to announce itself. Now, it lived in loopholes. It was so soothing; a soft lover’s hands taking their time on me. I could avoid certain foods easily with G always working. When he was home, he was too tired to notice. I shifted to take care of him; it was my turn. To do it, I reunited with the most stable caregiver I’d known




The married woman was saying that she couldn’t see herself ever leaving some kind of therapeutic group setting. I thought she was greedy, the way people who gain weight and are comfortable with it get to be. By all accounts, her husband never tired of holding or comforting her after meals. It seemed ludicrous to me that she sought so much support in every aspect of her life.

I’m just not sure it’s doing anything for me right now. I need a break. I tried to be careful with my words; I no longer spoke freely anywhere. It took a year for G’s father to pass and his death had turned G into the sole caregiver of his whole family; there were people who needed him more than I did.

It wasn’t all bad. We had each other and I’d decided when I was twenty that if I had him, I would be fine. Everything I did now, I told myself, was in the service of keeping him.




G was bleeding at 6:30 in the morning.

Will you just SHUT THE FUCK UP? After he shouted, he stared at me, wide open eyes and mouth, trying to create a vacuum to suck the words back in. We were babysitting my little brother and J insisted on doing Belgian waffles before school, despite the hour of prep work.

You won’t get home until what, one? Two? Are you sure you want to promise that? I’d suggested, softly, when G had made his vow.

I’m fine. He’d shrugged me off and went to work.

Now, dawn cracked itself open and G’s knife had slipped. The second I heard his intake of breath, I panicked.

Are you okay? Should I get a band-aid? Do you need stitches?

He’d shouted and silence took over. I don’t think in the four years we’d been together G ever really screamed at me. He walked out of the room to clean his hand. I walked over to the dough. It glistened with butter and blood, not much, but enough to make it inedible.

I remembered, scraping the cutting board clean, a morning in Williamsburg. It had been blazingly hot out and we both called in sick from work, because if some days were too cold to do anything, the inverse must be true. G said we’d make brunch. We spent three hours snacking and preparing food, drinking Bloody Mary’s. When we were done, the table was covered with eggs, waffles, smoked fish, toasts, and other foods, 90% of which I wouldn’t have touched even a month before being with G. We ate slowly; I think that was our only activity of the day, interspliced with TV and each other.

But I’m sure I spent most of that day counting the calories of each item and trying to gauge how to avoid certain things on the table. Had we fixed anything or simply given our days the same seeming perfection of a restaurant’s dim lighting?

Some thoughts become watershed realizations. The first time I saw blood in my vomit, I knew I would never be able to ignore the damage being done, no matter how badly I’d want to. Here it was again, shining against butter and dough.




Love stories are tragedies waiting to happen. It’s easy to ignore a slow separation, like milk in the fridge going bad. Years before, I set alarms for three AM so I could stumble, half asleep, to wherever G was working and sit, waiting for him to close the place down. I would sit in the office with him while he finished paperwork for the night, sharing remnants of opened bottles.

I texted him to ask if I should do it again, for old times’ sake, and he said it would just keep him later—he’d rather come home to me, but I knew I’d be asleep when he got there and awake before him. We were never there at the same time, but he always left food, something that had taken all day and heavy cream. Since he wasn’t home, I would take a bite and throw the rest out, covering it in the trash so he’d never know how far I was from being able to be on my own.




When we were breaking up, G and I saw a couple’s therapist who said: All relationships are built on a foundation. Yours has crumbled and now you have to decide if it’s worth it to rebuild.

Months after I moved out, I saw the therapist again on my own and begged her to tell me if I had done the right thing. She was hesitant. Therapists can be unwilling to give straight answers, but something in my desperation must have touched her because she said, I think you did the right thing for you. I think you would never have been able to be what he wanted now, and he could never go back to being what you needed.

So, were we always going to fall apart?

She had used up all her candor.




What does “worth it” mean when something has to end?

Early in 2020, my friends and I went out for a long dinner. The middle of the table had a tray which we kept in constant rotation. Salads that were mostly seeds complimented by noodles covered in fish flakes. We drank martinis and then wine and when we signed the bill, we poured ourselves into the bar next door. We all went home with a stomach-ache.

The meals I’ve had with friends sustained me when I couldn’t see them. The memories rose out of my gut to a comforting place in my mind when I fried rice for myself. Now, I could take my friends to the same restaurant and order the exact same things, but it would never be the same.

Perfect things can’t continue—they would cease to be so—but they do live in you, awakened by the smell of peppers tossed into a hot pan, caramelized onions slowly stirred, or buttery dough fresh from the oven, and you are transported back to the table.




Does it matter in the end that people were right? Every meal ends. We return to the best ones in our memories. Even if I can eat a bowl of noodle soup now without wanting to cry, I remember the ones I had with him as the ultimate. Like shucking oysters with his hand guiding me or learning how Coca-Cola can become barbecue sauce and barbecue itself can take even longer than risotto. All the times he expanded my world in food became the premium versions.

That Christmas, I watched an entire roasted pig be set down on his friend’s dinner table while I thought about how oracles had pulled animals apart to tell the future. I wondered if they just did math and called it magic. If they simply added up the numbers, the soldiers, and looked at who was likeliest to win, then tried to sell a version of that story with a glowing certainty.

Like how a therapist will tell someone that someday they will have to take care of themselves and when the person thinks, I have always taken care of myself, they will only later realize they never took any care at all and that someone can take care of everyone else to avoid taking care of themselves.

It’s messy, which doesn’t make the food consumed less delicious. It still matters that I can pour oil in a pan to cook without being overwhelmed and it matters even more to me that I know which pan to use for what dish. It is important that I no longer need someone to follow me after dinner because someone did it for so long.

We forgive endings that still give so much.




Alone, I gained weight for the first time in my life, weight I would lose eventually, slowly when I stopped drinking myself to sleep every night, but it cushioned me for a time. I learned to take care of myself and the dog who became mine. For a while, both of us were larger and lazier than we are now. Slowly, I started learning how to eat alone. I’m still learning.

Eating disorders are a tragedy, but they are also a gift: company. Mine is still with me. The strangest, most unexpected part of recovery is that because it is so ongoing, it offers a kind of permanence. I cannot remember the last time I ended a meal with my fingers down my throat, but I don’t know when I’ll eat without thinking about it.

I know what I like. I can eat a whole bag of cherries in one sitting, my hands and lips stained red. There are things people call weird: sardines on Ritz, sea urchin on seeded toast, and creamy cheeses on crisp apples. So much of what I love is from G. Tragedies, yes, but presents too.

Nina Smilow is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence’s MFA and a writer of all genres. Her work can be seen in Porridge MagazineLiterary Mama, and upcoming in Black Fox Literary Magazine. She splits her time between New York City and Portland, Oregon.