Like Mom, Like Me

9.2.2009

By Frank Bruni

As the influential restaurant critic of The New York Times, Frank Bruni has used his finely calibrated palate to help make or break reputations since 2004. But food has also held power over him. In Born Round, Bruni offers a frank account of his yo-yoing weight, his battles with bulimia, and the double indemnity of being gay and fat.

I received a visit from Mom and Dad my sophomore year. Mom had seen Carolina before, when she'd dropped me off freshman year. Dad hadn't. Mom had probably made him feel guilty about it, in accordance with one of the tried-and-true dynamics of their marriage. She would volunteer to relieve him of some burden concerning us children, then make him feel guilty about not being as attuned to our lives as she was. He would snap to, and she would gloat about having made that happen.

In a telephone conversation before their visit, she said to me, 'Don't mention it to him, but I told your father.' She didn't need to be any more specific. This was the latest chapter in an ongoing and, by this point, comical saga titled, 'Mom takes control of Frank's being gay.'

She had figured out the truth about me shortly before my high school graduation, or rather she had read the truth about me in a letter from [my friend] Ann that I had made the mistake of leaving out on my bedroom desk. ('I was cleaning your messy room because you never do,' Mom said, turning the tables so that she was the aggrieved party, 'and the word gay just leapt out at me.') After her discovery she had told me that while she could deal with it, she wasn't so sure about my siblings and father. She made me promise that I wouldn't test them with this information just yet.

Then, during a phone conversation about a month into my freshman year, she announced: 'I saw a window of opportunity, and I told your brother Mark.'
A few months after that, she had an update.

'There was a good moment,' she reported, 'so I told your brother Harry.'

But she remained steadfast: Dad must not-not-not be told. Until, that is, she simply went ahead and told him, after which point she instituted a new rule. I must not-not-not force Dad to engage in an actual conversation about what he now knew.

In any case, Mom's main alert in advance of their visit to Carolina sophomore year wasn't about that. It was about her and Dad's diets. They'd lost a lot of weight, she crowed.

They both looked significantly slimmer than when I'd seen them months before, and they had brought with them some of the little snacks and props to which they attributed their progress: that edible cardboard known as Wasa bread, which Mom convincingly pretended to enjoy, and some weird yellowish powder that the diet center they were attending recommended as a seasoning for vegetables and skinless, fatless meats. It was supposed to emulate salt and butter without transmitting their sins.

'Salt is terrible for you,' Mom said. We were in a restaurant on Franklin Street, a nicer, more expensive restaurant than the Chinese place or Sadlack's or my other usual hangouts. She made a grand gesture of pushing the salt shaker to a far corner of the table. Dad's eyes followed it as if he were watching a golf putt go astray or noticing that one of his stacked television-time Eskimo Pies had melted before he got to it.

'Just terrible for you,' Mom reiterated, and then she elaborated, as if answering a question I had not, in fact, asked.

'One, salt bloats you,' she explained. 'Two, it makes you thirsty, and thirst can be confused with hunger, and in any case you wind up drinking or eating more than your body needs or even wants to. That's why they have pretzels and salty nuts on bars. That's why there's so much salt in McDonald's food.'

So she had banished salt. Well, she had mostly banished salt. This diet center she was attending also prohibited diet colas, on account of their sodium content, but telling Mom she couldn't have diet colas was like telling an aardvark 'no more ants.' It just wasn't going to fly.

She had also taken up aerobics. This I'd seen firsthand during a recent visit home, because she'd lassoed me into going to a class with her, no doubt wanting an audience for the various leg kicks and abdomen crunches, at which she'd become shockingly adept. Even so, she was closing in on 50, had carried and delivered four children and had ridden her own roller coaster of weight gains and losses. It showed.

Mom and I were very close, and she was a sharer. When I was 13 and 14 and 15, she passed along steamy Sidney Sheldon novels and lurid serial-killer books as soon as she finished reading them, raving about what page-turners they were. When I was 14 and 15 and 16, I made her take me to R-rated movies, and sometimes, during the sex scenes, she'd nudge me and tell me what she found plausible and what she didn't.

We always argued over which movies we'd go to, she wanting something melodramatic and escapist, I wanting something gritty and 'slice-of-life,' as the reviewers said.

'I don't need slice-of-life,' she'd protest. 'I live slice-of-life.' Her particular slice wasn't one of noteworthy hardship, though Mom had always taken on so many volunteer assignments, done so many favors for our school classes and swim teams, typed up so many of our term papers and handled so much of Dad's personal business that her days were crammed with obligations and deadlines. In fact she usually had to limit herself to five hours of sleep in order to get her pulp fiction in.

During her and my father's trip to Chapel Hill my sophomore year, she and I breached a new frontier in sharing: She actually tried to get me a date. She stayed on a few days longer than Dad, and she and I had lunch one afternoon at Pyewacket, a vegetarian restaurant where I'd been introduced to the glories of hummus. Mom and I ate a vegetarian lasagna. As we did, she noticed the way I was looking at our waiter.

She leaned across the table, motioned me to lean in, too, and whispered: 'You think he's cute, don't you?'

I nodded.

'Me, too,' she said. Mom loved stuff like this. She loved entering into conspiratorial modes and confidential pacts about topics normally outside the bounds of a parent-child relationship.

I started to lean back, figuring we were done. She motioned me forward anew.

'Is he?' she asked.

I played dumb. 'Is he what?'

'You know,' she said. Although we were whispering, she was nonetheless wary of speaking the word gay. She may well have thought she was respecting my privacy; it would take her a long time to understand that I really didn't care. But she also had objections to the way gay had become a synonym for homosexual. She occasionally complained that a once-innocuous term had been hijacked and turned into something freighted. And she sometimes refused to participate in that.

I thought about pressing on with my charade of confusion and making her utter the dread syllable, but I relented.

'I'm pretty sure he is,' I told her.

'How do you figure something like that out?' she asked.

'There are signs,' I said. 'The sway in his walk. The floppy wrists.'

'Stop it,' she said.

'There are telltale birthmarks,' I said.

'I'm serious!' she protested. 'How?'

'Every time our eyes met,' I said, 'he held the gaze for a good four to six seconds. I figure anything over three seconds can't be an accident. I figure the odds are very, very good that he doesn't have a poster of Farrah Fawcett in a swimsuit on his bedroom wall.'

'But you once had a poster of Farrah Fawcett on your bedroom wall,' she reminded me.

'That was when she was an icon,' I explained, 'and that was about her hair.'

Mom shook her head and sighed. Her children's world confused her. My world in particular.

At the end of lunch, when she was about to pay the bill, she noticed that the restaurant's credit card form had not only a line for a signature but also a line for a phone number -- some sort of security measure. She pushed the form, the credit card, and the pen toward me.

'You sign it,' she said. 'That way you can write in your phone number. And he'll have it, in case he wants to call.' She said all of this in an excited voice, immensely proud of herself.

I rolled my eyes, as if the possibility of a call from the waiter was immaterial to me and I deemed her little scheme ridiculous. I didn't. Signing the form and writing out my number, I grew exhilarated at both the prospect that he might get in touch with me and at the goofiness of Mom having a role in it.

Postscript: He never called.

Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater by Frank Bruni to be published in August 2009 by the Penguin Press.
Copyright ' Frank Bruni, 2009.

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