The extent of her eating issues opened up to me like a big, empty cabinet: Everything was gluten-free, wheat-free, dairy-free, taste-free.
In our Dealbreakers series, exes report on the habit, belief, or boxer brief that ended the affair.
Maybe I intentionally ignored the signs. The way she'd pop a little pill before we went on simple dinner dates. The out-on-the-town tummy aches. When Queenie, my girlfriend, poured orange juice over her cereal during our first few morning-afters, I dismissed it as a New Zealand quirk. I even had a couple bites. Not too bad, if you caught it before it had time to settle and sog.
But when I lost my job and moved into Queenie’s place after five months of dating, the extent of her eating issues opened up to me like a big, empty cabinet. Her kitchen was gluten-free, wheat-free, dairy-free, protein-free, taste-free. I tried them all. And then I complained. The hemp milk went down like liquefied paper pulp, and the bean curd tasted exactly like the word “curd” sounds. Even when we skipped dinner, an evening featuring more than a couple of drinks left her with splitting headaches.
For a while, we managed our different appetites. I loved a big Sunday brunch, but Queenie could never stomach all the hot sausage links, buttery pancakes, and cheesy omelets. Still, she would cheerfully cook up my special meal with her own lifeless dish on the side. When a night out brought on her familiar headaches, I’d take Queenie home, tuck her in, then sit on the porch drinking and smoking for just a bit longer. The stomach pangs, the empty pill boxes, and the constitutional issues only increased after I moved in. So did the collection of beer bottles, fast food wrappers, and cigarette butts.
A few months later, I found a job. In a town on the other island, hours away by plane and most of a day by land and ferry. I missed her, even if my new kitchen was occasionally filled with lamb, beans, and whiskey. In the evenings, I'd often stumble home alone from all-night fish-n-chip shops then pass out under a sheen of my own grease. That was my taste of culinary freedom.
The move itself set off a wave of conversations about Our Future. Queenie and I started charting seasonal plans, framing our relationship as a series of romantic getaways. Queenie said we could go anywhere together. But when we hopped in an RV for a week across the island, she was always disappearing into the van’s matchbox-sized bathroom. Once, she came to see me in my new place, and the only open restaurant was a Chinese buffet. It was an ugly night, and one of the few we had together. I began to regret building something with a woman who had to watch everything she ate.
Over time, Queenie’s quirks became shorthand for the deeper problems in our relationship. Queenie had ten years on me. With all of her maladies, it was too easy to picture us a few years older: Her, wedded to eating in, and me, still vomiting after marathon meals and night-long benders. I wanted to travel hard, live hard. I expected to be a poor and unappreciated writer for years to come, getting my dinner however it came. Although not above having a sugar mama, I had never really pictured one that required a substitute sweetener.
We lasted about a year. I never had the guts to say anything to her about any of it. When my visa expired, I just left. I could say it made me sick to do it, but I had already filed the relationship away in my mind as a case of physical incompatibility. I’m not the first to connect the dots between food and sex—there’s no other plausible explanation for edible panties—but it was comforting to blame everything on stomachs rather than people.
When I returned to the states, I kept up my culinary pretenses. I tried rekindling things with the girl who introduced me to sushi. She’d shaved half her head to reflect her eco-militant feminism. I could look past her half-cooked cultural theories on post-modern hairstyles, but her veganism did us in. After her, I went out with a woman with a very strict, very lean daily diet. I bristled at her egg whites and salmon filets, until she dumped me. My next relationship boiled over after the first date. We made spaghetti from scratch and did it on her floured, hardwood floor surrounded by dirty dishes. I ended the relationship shortly after a particularly unsavory Ethiopian meal.
Of course, the injera had nothing to do it. Queenie was the first nice girl I let get away. If our incompatible diets weren't entirely my fault, I figured my other failed stabs at romance weren't, either.
Queenie recently sent me a note to tell me a friend of ours had passed away. She wrote it in capital letters, so I couldn’t miss it: “Liver Cancer.” She also told me that she's engaged now, to the nice guy she started seeing after me. They travel everywhere together. I still miss her whenever I eat stuffed olives—she introduced me to them, the one item that sat well with both of us. But I get it now: Queenie ate the food that didn’t make her feel bad. And then there was me.
Illustration by Dylan C. Lathrop