EXCERPT from BITTER ICE
I don't remember exactly when he—my husband, Tom— started eating ice. At first I really didn't notice because it was infrequent, but gradually it became constant and the crunching grated on my nerves. Ice was a substitute for food, and frozen water gave Tom the illusion both that he was eating and that he wasn't drinking the liquid he feared would make him bloat. At the office we shared, I turned around at my desk while he was sitting across the room from me, at his desk. I tried to avert my eyes, but I always saw him slip the melting ice, wrapped in a ragged dish towel, into his top drawer. While I was working, while I was on the phone, all day long he would pull ice cubes out and suck and crunch. I heard the crunching constantly, like an ice cutter cutting through the frozen Arctic, a thousand cicadas underfoot, squeezing Styrofoam—a sound like suicide as he substituted frozen water for food.
To rid himself of fluid, he spat. He spat into towels, new colorful tea towels, our bath towels, old or new, it didn't matter—baptizing them as his own. He left them in soggy heaps in his desk, thrown against the wall near the hamper, stashed in unexpected places, so that often when I was cleaning, my hand unwittingly wrapped around a grimy wet mass tucked in a drawer or thrown on a closet floor, even worse when it held chewed food.
He spat on the floor, in the office, too, but mostly at home, so that sometimes, if I forgot and walked around barefoot, my toes squished in the cool slime on the Mexican tile in the front hall or on the oak stairs. Sometimes I looked down in time and saw the silvery stain, like a slug's trail, across the blue-and-orange Oriental rug we bought in Jerusalem or the flowers of the Kashan in the front hall. The slate-blue carpet on the floor next to his side of the bed and the bed ruffle above it were stained reddish brown from spit, a stain I could not remove. Eating ice—spitting out the fluids that tried to nourish his body—he attempted to fool the cycle of living into a slow process of extended dying. Alcoholism, anorexia: an obsession is exactly that. An addiction warps not only the life of the one who is addicted but of everyone around him. He saw life through a monocle, his vision one-dimensional, focused on food, his body, purging, and his fear of bloating.
Tom never raised his hand against me, but he had beaten me down with relentless complaining and his desperate need for ritual, which made deviation from his patterns intolerable. Always the same schedule, never able to accommodate anyone else, not for business or friendship, not for his family. Always very early, a run followed by a plunge into a bathtub filled with ice and water, a sauna, another plunge, work from eight or so until two or three, then another run, a plunge, a sauna, another plunge, supper of a small bowl of food so covered in ketchup, mayonnaise, and mustard it was impossible to know, or even want to know, what it was, then another sauna and plunge. In bed by eight-thirty.
He wanted the bath to be very cold and would fill the tub with buckets of ice so it would feel like the brooks running from the mountains in the Adirondacks. "It feels so clean, so pure," he'd say. When we built the house we determined that each of us would have our own bathroom, which was less a luxury than a necessity. At first Tom just used his own bathroom, but then, when Stephen was away at school, he commandeered his as well. I asked Tom to stop because it was just one more room to clean, and he made things very dirty. But he replied that the water was colder in the downstairs bathroom and insisted that he use both. Then he started filling the kitchen sink with cold water and ice to sit while he was running so it would be ready when he returned. Sometimes when I came home, all the sinks and baths were full of ice and water except my own bathroom—which he never used.
The ice maker couldn't keep up with his demands, so he filled the Calphalon pots with water and put them in the freezer. The bottoms distended from the pressure, so the pots would roll over and were useless. Again, I begged him to stop, to buy cheap plastic containers in which to freeze water or just buy ice, but he couldn't stop, and he ruined most of the good pots I had bought for cooking.
Tom could no longer really run because he had injured his foot. He dressed in layers of sweatclothes to force his body to eliminate water as he stumbled down the road. Sometimes he became overheated and his nose erupted in blood. The blood mixed with the sweat and dirt, spreading over his chin and neck and down his clothes. His turtleneck was stained pink, the blood dripped crimson over his maroon Groton sweatshirt, one he requested from our children for Christmas each year and wore until it was discolored from Clorox, threadbare and frayed at the edges. His once gray ski jacket was held by safety pins and duct tape—blotched with dirt and sweat. He had sliced his running shoes to accommodate his deformed foot, and then bound the flaps together with more duct tape. He wore a green wool ski cap over layers of other caps—an orange, a yellow—each stained and dirty. In winter, the frost collected on his beard and eyebrows, a frost created by exhaling. Young men in trucks used to throw cans and apples at him as they drove past, and when he collapsed against our fence along the driveway or tried to do push-ups by the road, people stopped because they thought he was ill and needed help.
"Some people stopped to ask if I was all right," he would report to me. "I told them I was fine, just running." He could not see himself as he was seen.