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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.

We go out in the rain. We go out when it’s dark and there’s frost on the field. Even when I come down with a midlife case of the chicken pox we go, because Debbie has already had them and by now it’s too cold for anyone else to be in the park that early.

We run and we lift, and when we simply can’t, we just show up and walk. But I am not such a heroic friend. Even though I long for the right to sleep until 7:30 every now and then, I know that this is the relationship I’ve waited for my whole life.

I like to give advice. How much of my life has been spent listening to friends complain about their miserable relationships, their miserable jobs?

They wish they could quit school or go back to school. They want to lose weight, take up painting, move west. I listen. I advise. I have a reputation as someone who gives especially level-headed advice, and for that reason I am the person many people call. But the simple truth is, people make up their own minds. They change their lives when they’re good and ready, not when they get a sensible tip. And certainly this is how it should be, but it’s hard not to feel like all those phone calls received in the middle of the night were a giant waste of time. Why do people so fervently seek out counsel and then neglect to take it? It was one of the mysteries of life until I became my accountant’s personal trainer. That’s when everything changed. When I say run, she runs. When I say lift one more set, she bites her lip and pulls up her weights. Does this make me a good friend or just another person with control issues? I can’t say for sure. All I know is that it feels great.

And Debbie is starting to lose some weight. She has taken on an oxygenated glow that makes her friends praise her beauty everywhere she goes. She passes the compliments on to me. Other people begin to ask me if I will work out with them, and for a few minutes I consider dumping the book I am writing and changing careers.

Hard winter sets in, and Debbie picks up a couple of colds from her children. She coughs violently in the morning, but I blame it on grade-school germs. We give up running for walking. We slack on the weights. She wheezes. I decide it’s time to consult the professionals. I book us a trip to Canyon Ranch Health Resort.

Three days before we leave for the spa in Arizona there is a message on my answering machine. Debbie is crying.

“I’ve been cheating,” she says. “I had to tell you before we left.”

Debbie’s mother has done phenomenally well with her chemotherapy and radiation treatments, and the massive tumors in her lungs have shrunk down to nothing. She has quit smoking. Meanwhile, Debbie has started to backslide and is up to five cigarettes a day, which accounts for her recent return to hacking. She has her reasons. The stress in her life at this time would make most people turn to heroin, much less slip back a little toward a 20-year habit. When I pick her up to go to the airport, she tells me she had put a couple packs of cigarettes and several travel-size bottles of Scotch in her suitcase but then, at the last minute, had taken them out again.

I want to tell you that I act with compassion, sympathy, that I reach out to help. Clearly my dear friend is struggling. Instead, I open up my newspaper at the airport and stick my head inside. I am sullen. Smoking!

The rule is supposed to be that I get to make all the rules! I start to resent those cold mornings I dragged myself out of bed. If I had known she was going to smoke, I would have just as soon slept in.

Still, it’s a long flight once you factor in a change of planes in Dallas. By the time we arrive in Tucson, I adjust my attitude back to one of friendly support. We are in the desert now, with no gas station or liquor store in sight, and I know Debbie isn’t the type to set off on foot.

Canyon Ranch is a good place to go if you want to start all over again. It’s an even better place if you’ve already started over again and just want a little shove to get back on course. We are given water bottles and tote bags and tours. When they take us to see the nurse after registration (it’s all part of the check-in routine), I ask if we can go together. Our request is declined.

“You’re not joined at the hip, you know,” Debbie’s nurse tells her sharply as I’m led away. “You don’t have to take her everywhere you go.”

Debbie explains that we are friends.

“If you ask me, that girl needs to get a life of her own.”

I wonder if the nurse is onto something. Do I need to get a life of my own?

We meet with the exercise physiologist, who gives constructive advice on how to improve our morning park workout. We meet with a nutritionist who makes Debbie come clean about every single thing she eats. If there had been a food component to the Spanish Inquisition, I can only imagine it looked something like this. While taking copious notes, the woman gets more and more specific. “And when you go to Captain D’s and order the two-piece fish dinner, what do you get with that? Do you eat both of the hush puppies? How many of the french fries do you think you eat? Do you put ketchup on them? At KFC, do you get the original recipe?”

Two days later we go back to see her again. She has come up with a brilliant reconfiguration of all the food, including the KFC, adding and subtracting things within the realm of what is reasonable to make Debbie’s diet healthy.

Between these counseling sessions, we go to exercise classes, sit in the steam bath, and hike up a mountain in the desert. At every moment I am filled with admiration for Debbie. Though she is at the back of the group, she never complains or asks to be excused. She simply pants and presses on.

“Look at the view,” she says, taking an opportunity to stop and marvel at the desert from our new, high vantage point. Three of the people on this outing have decided that enough is enough and have turned back with one of the guides. “I would have been with them,” Debbie whispers. “Six months ago that would have been me.”

“Six months ago,” I remind her, “you wouldn’t have gotten out of the van.”

We live from meal to meal. We are served delicate portions of steamed vegetables and grilled fish, which we fall on like bears just up from hibernation. When Debbie orders a sweet potato on the side, what arrives is about three inches high and sits flat on the plate like a small, brown stocking cap.

“Can I get you anything else?” the waitress asks.

“The other half of her potato, maybe,” I say.

The young woman laughs as if I have just said something especially clever, but the rest of the potato never arrives.

In the restaurant, nutritionists with clipboards wander from table to table, asking if there is anything we want to talk about. In the gym, a whole host of genetically engineered young men and women are available to show us the proper form for biceps curls and triceps dips. In a cold neighborhood park at 6:30 in the morning, I am a perfectly respectable personal trainer because, let’s face it, I am the only thing available. But at Canyon Ranch I get to see what a personal trainer looks like, and it shows me up for what I really am: a moderately fit novelist.

After five days of having completely too much attention heaped on us (Would you like your massage firm? How well do you sleep? What vitamins do you take? Did you drink eight glasses of water today?), we are both thrilled to crawl back into the van for the airport. The visiting sexologist (who knew there even was such a thing?) is heading home as well. She leans over the back of her seat and says that if we have any questions, we should just fire away.

There are no 10K races at the end of this story. Our progress remains small and regular, and we’re proud of what we accomplish. Or I should say, I am proud of what Debbie accomplishes. Mostly, that she hasn’t had a cigarette since the morning we left for Canyon Ranch. She got rid of all ten packets of the Hawaiian Iced Tea mix she loves, which is something like 97 percent sugar, and the four jars of extra-creamy blue-cheese dressing. We are still at the park every morning. I am still telling her to breathe more deeply and step it up on the next lap. I know I need to keep my personal investment in her good health at a reasonable level, but really, what’s reasonable when you love your friend and want to make sure she’s around for a long time so she can do your taxes?