Nonfat love in a big-box store

The wife and I take separate carts in the land of bulk peppermint patties.

Published January 8, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

Our seventh anniversary is still eight months away, and my wife and I have arrived at a critical juncture that can challenge the best marriage: shopping side-by-side in a big-box/bulk-food store. This is the ultimate test of a relationship. So many temptations can confuse the heart: California merlot is on sale. Starbucks is marked down. Next to a murky tank of manacled lobsters, a weary retiree offers samples of fried turkey bacon. Awesome containers of laundry detergent that only an SUV could safely carry home vie for one's attention. A mile-long aisle of chocolates beckons like a taut 20-year-old on spring break.

Muzak's seductive sounds of James Taylor on the P.A. system do not help. In his mind he's going to Carolina and we're stuck in dairy products with Egg Beaters and tubs of bobbing tofu: firm or soft. Nonfat yogurt is what we say we desire, but what about those other, deeper longings? A tender round steak. New red potatoes smothered in garlic butter. Apple fritters. Does she feel what I feel -- worn out from low-moisture, part-skim mozzarella?

After all our time together, is this what we are reduced to? Watching the months pile up like the endless boxes of sugarless bran flakes we consume each morning with our fat-free milk? We seem so far away from those exciting first-blush days of havarti, pastrami, San Miguel dark and Lay's chips. Can a daily helping of four ounces of sugar-free grape juice really cure what ails our hearts? (Evaluating my cholesterol, my doctor says there's a slim chance. Some exercise might help, too.) What happened? Where was I when our love turned lite?

We are left with but one drastic alternative to escape the doldrums and put some spice back into this union: go shopping, but this time with separate carts and two lists. Our mission? To test the marriage vows against the backdrop of a box store known as Meijer -- a store so immense as to have its own shoe repair, key shop and bank.

Half the store is food, the other half is merchandise: Tampax to Timex, with ample supplies of furniture, plants, lamps, clothing, CDs, televisions, stereos, pet toys and plastic containers of every known dimension to store all this stuff. If Meijer had a hotel we would never have to leave and return home to another evening of couscous and boiled yams. (What I wouldn't give for a fistful of salty fries!) It is here we must test our love -- in a public arena with 24-hour shopping, marked-down brand names and two dozen cash registers.

Despite this seven-year itchiness, our commitment to this marriage is strong. We really can't split up. Besides the legal fees, how would we break it to the cats? As a practical matter (my wife's favorite saying), shopping together in this mammoth store always leaves us exhausted. So, as scary as it seems, it makes sense to divide up the task, as long as we keep our eyes on the goal: to supercharge our coupleness, increase our good cholesterol and avoid peppermint patties.

We enter Meijer to the heartfelt greeting of a senior citizen, who has dressed her oxygen tank up like a rag doll and named it "Tammy." "How are you today?" she asks sincerely. My wife and I grab our own carts and head in opposite directions. She disappears into the organic produce display and I'm left in front of a pyramid of Top Ramen. I suddenly feel as lonely as I've ever felt. The first six notes of "The Long and Winding Road" blare out across the multiacre store, followed by Elton John's forgettable "Alligator Rock." I realize I have no one to complain to about how all American public places assault us with the same six songs from the early '70s. This was always our complaint.

Without my wife's nutritional guidance, my future flashes before me -- 40 pounds heavier with a cholesterol level approaching that of a professional bowler's best score; shopping at 2 a.m. so as to not be judged; my basket brimming with deep-fried jo-jo's, chicken wings, pork rinds, Junior Mints and corn dogs. Shopping solo is a one-way ticket to a triple bypass. My life, my ambitions and my underwear -- all soiled in saturated solitude.

I stare out into the 40,000-square-foot store and see all the other couples who have chosen to stick it out -- the stern men steering the carts, the efficient women juggling the lists, coupons and sales fliers. What are their secrets to tandem consumer bliss? In their carts are stacks of rib-eyes, cases of Australian lager, gallons of whole milk, German chocolate bars, roasted cashews and supersize bags of Cheetos. They look so happy in their obesity. While they forage for New York sharp, I search for virgin canola oil and lard-free refried beans, but my thoughts are elsewhere -- in the ice cream case. A pint of mint chip certainly can't hurt. But I spot my wife at the far end of the aisle. Is high fat content a sign of infidelity? I can't take the chance. I duck down the ethnic foods aisle and finger the piñatas.

After 20 minutes of unfocused high-fat shopping that includes trembling like a wet Chihuahua before the choice of half and half or nonfat dairy creamer and almost succumbing to Oreos, I am frantic for a reconciliation. I look for the assistant store manager to negotiate our reunion. Just my luck: He's out front with his cigarettes and his favorite checkout girl, also named Tammy. I will have to take marital matters in my own hands.

I track her down in legumes. "I miss you," I tell her. "I can't shop sensibly without you. I'm afraid of additives, high-fructose content and red dye No. 5. Let's make up. I promise no more Doritos or Eskimo Pies. I'll eat rice cakes."

She takes me back like she did the week before. We merge our items into one basket then embrace to the voice of Karen Carpenter. "Why do birds suddenly appear ..." We place our hands together on the cart's germ-laden handle, our gold bands picking up the fluorescent light that gloriously rains down from above. Finally, it's just the two of us united forever in weight control and modified starvation in Aisle 3 surrounded by the heavenly sight of angel hair. "Lentil burgers and Spanish rice tonight, followed by animal crackers?" she asks. How can I refuse? "I can hardly wait. I am so hungry," I answer. And, like every other day, I really mean it.

By Stephen J. Lyons

Stephen J. Lyons is the author of "Landscape of the Heart," a memoir of single fatherhood. He lives in Washington state.This week he received a rejection letter that described his writing as "unfocused and full of broken glass." It actually made him feel good.

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