By Karen Beaumont
“The cure is next to the wound.” African Proverb
Dedicated to Pierre Lioni Ullman, who, with me, began to learn what this meant.
After breakfast, Eli made his daily trip to the natural foods co-op a block away from his home.
Once there, he measured out enough oatmeal from the bulk bins for the next day’s breakfast and couscous for lunch and supper. He picked up a can of pinto beans off the shelf like he always did and a jar of tomato sauce. Next he found two medium sized apples and then went to the refrigerator to buy a quart of almond milk.
They were out of quart sizes. There were only 64 once cartons. He stood there looking through the glass, hoping that maybe he'd missed something.
“Are you looking for something?” asked the clerk who was there most of the days he came in.
“A quart of almond milk.”
“The delivery was delayed.”
Eli didn’t answer and stood looking at the glass of the refrigerator.
“Have you tried oat milk? We have quart sizes. It’s a lot the same.”
“Have you tried it?”
“Will you get the almond milk tomorrow?”
“We’re supposed to.”
Eli completed his shopping with the quart of oat milk and left.
The next day, he arrived at the usual time to buy the usual provisions for the day.
“The almond milk arrived!” said the same clerk.
He smiled a little, picked up the same items, and went to check out.
He noticed that she never commented on his routine purchases. Her name tag said “Lili”.
“Why is there an “i” at the end of your name and not a “y”?”
“My family is Armenian. That’s the way they spell it.”
“My name is Eli, also ending in an “i””
She nodded her head and handed him his bag of groceries.
Eli lived one block away in an attic efficiency. It had a very small bathroom and no kitchen. He had a microwave, a cube sized refrigerator, a plastic plate, a glass bowl, a cup, and a few utensils. He worked as free-lance website designer. When he wasn’t working, he took walks on a nearby bike path and read books on the history of World War II.
“We’re trying a new iced tea today.”
“The staff here. Would you like to try some?”
“I don’t know. What’s in it?”
“It's caffeine free and has some stevia in it.”
“How about a sip?”
Lili poured a sip’s worth of tea in a glass and handed it to Eli.
“Do you like it?”
“It’s nice. I’d better check out and go back to work.”
“Where do you work?”
“What do you do?”
“I’m a website designer.” He looked up at her eyes, always curious and wide. “Is this your only job?”
“My paying job. I’m in school.”
“Why social work?”
She looked at him with the same wide eyes. “I’ve been through things, and I know I can help others because of this. But to be able to do that, I need certification.”
“Oh,” he answered, paying for his purchases and handing back the glass. “I’m sorry I dirtied a whole glass for a sip of tea.”
“I’m not sorry.”
“You tried something new.”
On July 1, he went to the coop after breakfast as usual. The door had a sign:
We will be closed for the fourth of July.
His hands shook, and he thought maybe he couldn’t breathe.
He went into the coop for the usual list, picking up the items as fast as he could.
“Lili, you really are going to be closed on July 4.”
Eli stared at the counter. Then he looked up at her ever curious, wide eyes and dared the question, “what will I do?”
“Can you buy two days' worth on July 3?”
“Do you not have enough space?”
“Something like that.”
Lili tilted her head and then nodded.
“Hmmm...Well, what if you bought two days’ worth on July 3 and left July 4’s here. It seems like you live close. Maybe you’d let me deliver that day’s food?”
“That’s really kind of you. Do you mind?”
“I wouldn’t offer if I minded.”
“Thank you. We can make plans that day.”
Lili took Eli’s July 3rd purchases home with her after work and, at 8:00, the time Eli normally came to the coop, she walked a few blocks to his address.
Eli was sitting on the front steps of the porch when she arrived.
“It’s a hot day to be waiting in the sun.”
“I live in the attic unit, and there isn’t a doorbell.”
Lili handed him the bag.
“I really appreciate this,“ Eli said, taking the bag and then adding, “Lili.”
“I am glad to help when I can.”
After July 4, Eli resumed his grocery shopping schedule.
One day, when Lili was ringing up his purchase, Eli cleared his throat and began to speak.
“How did you end up working here?”
“The short answer is that I live nearby, and the hours are good.”
“The long answer?”
Lili laughed a little. “Well, maybe you should tell me why you shop here?”
“The short answer is because I live nearby.”
Lili looked at him for a moment with those big, curious eyes that he had come to look forward to seeing.
“Have you ever walked to the top of Reservoir Hill?”
“If we did that together, we could each tell each other the long answer.”
Eli was quiet and looked down and then looked up.
“Sunday after lunch?”
“You don’t mean having lunch together.”
“No, just after.”
“You know where I live. Could you meet me on the porch at 12:30?”
It was August, but the weather that day cooperated. It was a little cloudy and cool.
Eli was waiting on the steps of his porch and, when he saw Lili approaching, went to meet her on the sidewalk.
“Let’s take the direct route,” she said, “and if we have energy, we can take the scenic route back.”
The walked south down a side street lined with old flats and houses of various sizes and shapes and levels of upkeep.
“So,” Eli said, “why don’t you start.”
“You can tell your long story first.”
She looked at him and then looked ahead and took his hand.
“My family is Armenian. Both sets of grandparents were born in Armenia and were children who survived the genocide and had to flee. They survived, but they saw a lot of violence, experienced a lot of deprivation, and bore the wounds of exile: arriving in a foreign culture, unable to speak the language, and penniless.”
She paused and then continued, “My parents were raised by people who were damaged human beings. You can’t see that kind of violence without becoming suspicious. You can’t experience that sort of deprivation without having anxiety about food, and they communicated this effectively to their children. Am I talking too much?”
“No. This is interesting.”
“I’ll explain when you’re done.”
“Okay. Well, the food insecurity thing was a big deal. My parents overstocked our kitchen pantry with food, and they also rationed everything we ate. So, there’s all this food, and we were hungry a lot. Sometimes I would be so hungry, that I would sneak food, but they always found out because they kept track of everything. It would feel good not to be hungry, and then this good feeling was followed by some pretty bad punishments.”
“Let’s just say I can’t imagine inflicting that kind of punishment on anyone.”
He squeezed her hand.
“Then when I left for college, everything exploded. There I was in the dorms, with a cafeteria filled with food, and no one watching my every bite. I ate and ate until I threw up without trying. And then one day, I threw up so badly IN CLASS that I blacked out. Once revived, someone took me to the health center. The doctor, my angel, listened to my story and got me into therapy. You sure I’m not talking too much?”
“No. Your story will make it easier to tell mine.”
“So, one of the things we did is help me to reframe food: food is for health. That’s when I found the coop. Perfect. There was a sign on the bulletin board for some other women needing a roommate. Perfect: no more dorms and the dreaded cafeteria. Your turn.”
“You’ve made this easy.”
“Because our stories are similar.”
“I’m sorry. But tell me, if you can.”
“I come from a family of holocaust survivors. Complicated family tree, but let’s just say it was a huge cloud over our lives. My parents responded with food, as well, and in opposite ways: my mother was morbidly obese, and my father was, in today’s terms, anorexic. I was an only child and grew up between these confusing poles. When I was in college and still living at home, my mother died of diabetic complications. This completely unmoored my father. He died a year later.”
This time Lili squeezed Eli’s hand. “Then what?”
“I was alone in a house whose pantry was stuffed to the gills, and I ate and ate and ate until I developed an emergency bowel obstruction. I’m sorry. Maybe that’s too much information.”
“No, that’s fine. We’re almost to the hill. Should we take the steps?”
“No, let’s take the longer, winding path. I’m not ready for this walk to be over.”
“Should I continue?”
“So, after they did what they had to do, the doctor came to my bedside and told me I’d better get help before I caused irreversible damage. I tried OA groups, but I was the only male attending. The thing I got from them was the idea of a food plan, but I couldn’t implement it. Supermarkets overwhelm me. That’s when I discovered the tiny coop. And, since I had to move out of the house, I found my attic room, set up my work, made my food plan...”
They reached the top of the hill and, holding hands, looked east to Lake Michigan.
“There’s a lot of research,” Lili said, “about trauma being passed on to at least the third generation.”
“I could have told them that, and they would have saved a lot of money.”
She laughed. “Let’s walk back.”
They walked back, changing the topic to mundane things like school and work and the weather.
When they reached his place, they hugged and made plans for another walk.
They talked some every day when he came to the co-op and she was working. On the weekends they would take walks along the river or to the lake, holding hands, talking about their week. The topic of their first walk was never mentioned.
On September 1, there was a sign on the co-op door, saying that they would be closed on Labor Day.
“Lili, could we do what we did on July 4?”
She leaned over the counter and kissed him. “Of course, but this time, why don’t you invite me up to see your place?”
Lili arrived at 10 a.m., and Eli was waiting for her on the front steps.
“It’s three flights up.”
The attic efficiency had slanted ceilings and enough room for his bed, a dresser, a two-person kitchen table, his work area, and a cart that served as a pantry and kitchen counter.
“It’s good you aren’t too tall.” Lili said, giving him a hug.
“I’ve never had anyone up here.”
Lili nodded, “You keep it very neat.”
“Helps with a small space. Though I wonder how OCD it is.”
“Maybe a little. Helps keep the chaos at bay.”
“You know a lot about this.”
“I’m studying social work. “
They became lovers and established a routine: see each other most days at the co-op, walk together on the weekends, and, when her schedule permitted, she’d stay at his place for the night.
In December, there was a notice on the bulletin board at the co-op for a church thrift shop and their holiday sale.
“Let’s do something different,” Lili said, and Eli, who was learning to trust, agreed.
It was an overcast December day, hovering right around freezing, and the sidewalks were, thankfully, still dry.
The sale was crowded, and Eli clung to Lili’s hand.
“We can leave whenever you’d like. I don’t really think I’ll buy anything. It’s just nice to have a change of scenery.”
While they walked past the tables, Lili stopped.
“Look, a soup tureen! We used one growing up. I bet you might have, too.”
Eli was silent.
“You know, Eli, it isn’t expensive or big, not hard to carry back. I’m going to buy it.”
She bought it, put it into the backpack she’d brought along, and they left.
“Eli, did your mother have one?”
Lili stopped and looked at him. “Your voice sounds different.”
He looked at her and then at his feet and then away.
“Please tell me, Eli. Please.”
“I’ll tell you while we walk.”
After two blocks, he began.
“After my mother died, essentially, of overeating, my father, who had never eaten enough anyway, stopped eating. It was terrible to watch and really did a head trip on me. I felt like he was watching and counting every bite. And, actually, it might have been more than a feeling. It’s likely he was. So, anyway, I felt awful watching this and awful thinking that I might lose another parent. I thought of the thing my mother cooked that he liked the best and that was her borscht. So, I looked up recipes and made a batch of borscht and served it to him in her soup tureen. He took a bite and grimaced. Then he took a bite and spit it out on the table screaming that it tasted like you-know-what.”
“And then he picked up the soup tureen and threw it across the room. Bright red borscht staining the white walls, the beautiful little tureen shattered. It was the last time he ate anything.”
Lili stopped to hug Eli on the street corner and began to cry.
“Oh, my dear, sweet Eli.”
It was exam week for Lili, so they planned to talk on the phone each day. Her work schedule was reduced that week, too, so they knew they wouldn’t see each other at the co-op until Wednesday.
Eli came in at his usual time and went to check out.
As Lili checked him out, she noticed he only had one apple.
“Are we out of apples?”
She looked up at him but didn’t say anything.
The next day she was working, but Eli didn’t come in.
After work she called him, but he didn’t answer the phone.
He didn’t come in on Friday, either. This was the last day of her exams, and they had planned an evening together at his place.
She called, and he didn’t answer. Lili decided to pack her things as usual and go at the usual time. One of the other tenants in the building let her in, and she climbed the stairs to the third floor and knocked on the door.
“Please, Eli, please answer. Please let me in.”
He opened the door for her to come in but didn’t look at her.
She set down her things and turned towards him, taking his hands without looking at his face.
“You know, your life isn’t just yours. We are entwined now. What happens to you happens to me.”
She finally dared to look up at him, unshaven and wan.
“I know it's only eight o-clock, but let’s just lie down together and go to sleep.”
This is what they did, and she cradled him in her arms.
The next morning, she made them oatmeal in the microwave like she always did and set a bowl in front of him.
“Just try two bites and see how it goes.”
He ate two and put down the spoon.
Lili got up and, from behind, embraced him.
“How about if you do it for us? How about if you do it, so we can walk up Reservoir Hill again?”
“Eli,” Lili said over the phone, “I just found out all my roommates will be gone on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Why don’t you spend the night with me at my place? You could come over early. I want to make an Armenian soup that my mother used to make and use the soup tureen. Then, before the sun goes down, we can walk up the hill.”
On Christmas Eve, Eli walked to Lili’s flat.
“I have most everything done, but you can stir the soup while I get some tea made and set the table.”
Eli had recovered some of his weight but not all. He was still quieter than he had been before the day at the thrift shop.
Lili handed him the wooden spoon and gave him a kiss.
After stirring and standing at the stove for five minutes, he called Lili back into the kitchen.
“I think I need to take a break. Can I lie down.”
She led him to the couch.
“I’ll come when everything is ready.”
They sat down at the table, two bowls, two spoons, cups of tea, and the soup tureen from the thrift shop sale in the middle of the table.
Lili scooped out some for herself and then handed Eli the ladle.
“Why don’t you serve yourself? I’m going to put on some music.”
Lili put on a recording of Vivaldi.
“No holiday music?”
“I have to hear it at the co-op all day.”
Eli tasted the soup. “This is nice. Do you make it often?”
“No, I’ve never made it before.”
“Not all my memories about this soup are good ones.”
“Then why did you make it now?”
“Well, it’s healthy. I wanted to make you something healthy. And I wanted to do something brave.”
“I’m asking you to do something brave, right? Eat something different, eat somewhere else, try to eat enough to stay alive because, honestly, I don’t want to lose you or your love. So, if I’m asking all of that of you, I damn well better do my part.”
Eli put down his spoon and reached his hand across the table to hers. He looked up at her, and she could see he was crying.
“That might be the kindest thing anyone has ever said to me.”
After they cleaned up the kitchen and bundled up to walk to Reservoir Hill.
“It’s a little too early for sunset”
“This is called ‘the gloaming’”
“Is that another word for ‘twilight’?”
“Yes,” Lili said, “But 'gloaming’ has more emotional weight.”
They walked up the hill and looked east to Lake Michigan, which already seemed dark beneath the partly cloudy, December sky. Then, with arms around each other, they faced west, looking at the city skyline and the pink sky.
“What will we do for the New Year?” asked Eli.
Lili answered, “It is already a new year for us.”