2000s Archive

Tough Love

Originally Published May 2000
Ann Patchett tells a tale of friendship, taxes, and smaller portions.

This story is no Ultra Slim-Fast ad campaign. There will be no before-and-after pictures so completely disconnected from each other that the only logical conclusion is that two different people were photographed. This is a story about real life. The triumphs of the characters are quirky and small. Their failures are discouraging. What appears at first to be a moving display of altruistic love for a friend turns out to be something less generous in spirit. There are cigarettes in this story, and Scotch, and Kentucky Fried Chicken. It’s best that you know this going in.

I am a novelist. Debbie is a certified public accountant. We were close friends long before Debbie started doing my taxes. I never wanted to ask her, because I knew she wouldn’t charge me, but then my finances got complicated and she’s been there to straighten things out ever since. And she never takes a dime.

Most of the time we get together we don’t talk about money. We talk about cigarettes. While we talk we usually smoke. I’m the kind of person who doesn’t smoke unless someone hands me a cigarette and says, “Here, smoke this.” Since all my other friends have quit, it doesn’t happen very often anymore. But Debbie is always smoking, and, slipping her lighter from her purse, I tell her that she has to stop.

“I know,” Debbie says, “I know.” She fires up another. She smokes two packs a day, so there are a lot of cigarettes to get through.

We have this conversation for about five years. It isn’t the only thing we talk about, but sooner or later our conversation usually comes back around to different ways to quit smoking, to start exercising, to lose weight. I am a bastion of good habits, vegetables, and long jogs—and I want this for my friend. She has three clever children, a fine husband, her own thriving accounting firm, and asthma.

As morbid a thing as this is to say, it often occurs to me how miserable we’ll all be when she’s dead. Hanging around with Debbie, it’s not hard to imagine such a thing. Her color is bad. She needs to lose weight. She wheezes. She holds on to the railing when she walks up steps. When we are together, we daydream good health. I come up with plans, and she listens intently. Unlike other smokers who tell you to mind your own damn business, Debbie seems genuinely interested in the notion of health. She promises to cut back, at the very least, but the years go by and nothing happens.

Then something happens: Debbie’s mother, a champion smoker from an entire family of full-time smokers, gets lung cancer.

The next week Debbie stops smoking.

This is the silver lining, the triumph out of the tragedy, but I’m used to badgering my friend, and even without the cigarettes, I don’t miss a beat. I start to badger her about exercise. She tells me soon. She tells me next week.

I see this as my big chance to make my move. “I’m coming over tonight,” I tell her.

Debbie meets me at the door with a bottle of sake. “It’s the cold kind,” she says. “I’ve never bought sake before.”

“Put your tennis shoes on.”

She looks at me nervously, like maybe she misunderstood our agenda.

“Aren’t we going to talk about exercise?”

I tell her we’re going for a walk.

It isn’t much of a walk, less than a mile of suburban streets with one gentle rise and a slow descent. My accountant walks very slowly. She says she will listen but can’t really talk. I give her the outline: We will meet every morning at 6:30 in a little park, and we will walk. I have other plans, bigger plans, but I keep them to myself.

By the time we get back to the house, it is all agreed. Debbie has always agreed with me, but this is the first time the agreement has shown any sign of action. “I didn’t think I could walk that far,” she says happily. “I didn’t know if I could do it.”

Without the cigarettes to hold us back, progress at the park comes quickly. One day we lengthen the walk; one day we speed it up. I bring two sets of weights to lift from the park bench as we lap past, first five pounds, then ten. Then I introduce the smallest amount of jogging, something Debbie claimed would not, under any circumstance, be possible. But she had said that about the weights and the walking. “If you tell me to do it,” she says, “I’ll do it.”

By now we have passed through the unbearable humidity of August and are enjoying the cool mornings of late October. We are doing a slow, shuffling jog, but we are doing it for two miles without stopping. While we run, Debbie saves her oxygen for breathing rather than talking, so I take the opportunity to tell her how she needs to scale back to two cups of coffee a day (she drinks six or more), reserve Scotch for the weekends, and avoid eating at any place that has a drive-in window. She nods and pants while I tell her to try and pick up the pace.

I get an awful lot of credit for what we’re doing; the people in the park, my family, Debbie’s family, they all praise me for my tenacity and compassion. They tell me what a good friend I am.

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