Empty Calories

I remember the only time Mariah and I ever went to the supermarket together. It was July 2009. We’d been together for a few months by then. We both worked pretty close to one another so she’d basically been living at my place for the last month. I was real happy about that. We were still honeymooning and in love with new love to the point where we didn’t see flaws in each other. Just little challenges. That was how we saw them. You’d teach yourself to love the stuff most people wouldn’t. I’ve come to learn that’s how it always is in the early days.

We’d stayed up talking the night before, having sex to end each chapter of conversation, and starting a new one on the pillow, wrapped up in one another. I loved the way we talked back then. We would bounce words and compliments and laughter back and forth between one another, on and on for as long we could. I don’t think either of us really felt that we’d met someone we could really be ourselves with before. That night we talked mostly about each other and the future and stuff, but we also spoke about the supermarket. We’d been building up to that for a while. She finally agreed to come with me. But I knew she didn’t want to. But she knew how much I wanted her to. We both knew it was one of those little challenges.

We didn’t sleep well that night. We kept each other awake, tossing and turning. I knew we were both thinking about the same thing. In the morning we were both pretty quiet. We had coffee for breakfast and watched the news together. I was really hungry. But I decided to wait, chain-smoking, like her. I wanted to make her as comfortable as possible. I wanted us to be the same. I wanted us to be two little pinkies, wrapped around one another.

As we walked down the street I could feel how tense she was. She held my hand really tight and seemed really distant in conversation. Every time she spoke it was like she was on automatic. Every time I spoke it was like my voice snapped her out of a daze. Or not a daze, but somewhere else maybe.

“What do you want to do tonight darling?” I asked. It was a Saturday.

She turned her head to me and smiled.


“Tonight. What do you want to do tonight?” I asked again, giving her hand a little squeeze to remind her I was beside her.

“I don’t care baby. I don’t want to go out. Maybe we could watch a DVD and get a couple of bottles of wine.”

She looked away again.

“That sounds perfect. Shall I cook something?” I asked, gently, trying to make it sound as casual as I could.

She turned back to me.

“Let’s see how I feel. I’m still feeling a bit sick.” I imagined she could see my heart sink a little. “But maybe. I might manage a wee something.” She smiled a little and squeezed my hand again.

“Okay” I said, smiling back. I had to be happy enough with a ‘wee something’.


As we got closer to the doors of the supermarket I could feel her tense right up. I could feel her hand tighten more around mine. She’d brought me things from the supermarket before when she came over to my place. And we would be buying things for me here too. But we both knew that this was her shopping trip. And that she would have to buy things for herself. To eat. I was nervous too. But I tried to be as casual as I could. I didn’t want her to know how delicate I was then.

I racked my brain for something to talk about that would distract her from what we were walking towards and what we would do there.

“Do you want me to get us tickets for that Beirut gig? Rory reckons he could get us on the guest list.”

“Yeah.” she said, staring in front at the automatic doors opening and closing in front of us, like jaws. “That’d be great.

“Okay.” I said, trying to keep talking, “Great, I’ll send him a text when we get home. I’m really looking forward to the gig.”

“Me too” she said.

“This will be better than the Lemonheads gig. I promise.” I said, laughing, nervously, as we stepped closer and closer to the jaws of the supermarket. We’d gone to see the Lemonheads the month before. It was awful. I was a big fan. She hated them. But she went for me.

She didn’t say anything. She didn’t even turn to me. She just kept looking at the jaws opening and closing.

We normally laughed about that gig. It was so terrible that it became one of those funny things you have in a relationship. Something you drag conversation towards to ease the tension. But she wasn’t listening to me anymore. I knew that nothing I could say at this point would distract her.

I watched her breathe in and close her eyes as we walked through the doors.


I walked over the trolleys and started to pull one out for us. She quickly came over to me with a basket for me and a basket for her.

“We don’t need a big trolley,” she said, looking down at the little bare basket, “I’m skint.”

I looked at the big trolley. And then at the little bare basket. And then at her. I understood. I smiled and took mine from her.

“Yeah, you’re right. I’m skint too. I just wanted to piss about on a trolley and wheel around the supermarket.”

She didn’t smile or laugh. She just looked around the big white supermarket, clutching her basket to her chest. I pulled mine up too. I was so hungry.

We started walking around the aisles, picking things up and putting them back. Looking at labels. Looking at the cost. Not talking. I watched her try not to walk quickly. Trying to be like everyone else in the supermarket. I had thrown some beef, some onions, some tomatoes into my basket. I was going to make some bolognaise for the fridge. I could feel my stomach rumbling. I looked at her basket. She had some nuts and some celery. I sighed a little. But I kept looking, trying to focus on pretending to look.

I wanted to fill my basket. Mum told me that I was looking too thin. She told me she could see shadows under my bones. My friends from home worried I was taking loads of drugs. Mum knew though. She would send me back to Edinburgh with food she’d cooked and boxed up for us. Mum’s a nutritionist. She would give me packs of almonds and boxes of cereal. She’d tell me to give them to Mariah too. She always said it carefully though. Just like I did. She’d assure me that they were healthy calories. I didn’t know much about calories. I’d heard Mariah talk about ‘empty calories’. But I never really knew what they were. Food was food, to me. I just knew that we needed to eat more, empty or not. Mum would always tell me to make sure Mariah ate some too. She didn’t need me to tell her to know the score.

“How about some soup?” I said, holding up a can of broth. I looked at the price. £1.49.

She looked at me. She wasn’t smiling. Or frowning. She was concentrating. She looked at the can of soup in my hand. She came over to me. I handed it to her. She spun the can round in her hand and looked at the label on the back. I could see the numbers going in and out of her head. Going in as calories and out as inches. I could see her lips moving slightly as she counted.

“No.” she said, handing the can back to me. “I don’t really like broth.”

“Okay.” I said, putting it back on the shelf. I held onto the can, looking at the numbers on the back and trying to work out the formula. I closed my eyes. I tried to work out how they all added up to broth tasting bad. I watched her go back to looking around. She looked smaller surrounded by all this food. All these healthy calories, empty calories. All those inches that would go on someone else’s waist. She looked lost and scared. I looked down at her basket. She hadn’t put anything else in it. I could see the thin bars. Celery and nuts and bars. It looked hungry too.


I followed her round to the next aisle. I stood at the end and watched her walk slowly down, getting further and smaller with every step, deeper into the food that surrounded her. I watched her try to look like she felt she should. Slow steps. Browsing eyes. Picking something off the shelf, looking at the label. Then putting it back. I watched her move what she had in basket around, making it look like more. I could feel her wanting to put something back on the shelf, and leave it, far away from her. She got to the end and stopped. She turned and looked at me. I felt her look through me and away. She smiled softly. She looked so hungry for something. I knew this was progress, but at that moment, it didn’t feel like it.

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9 thoughts on “Empty Calories

  1. To me this is different from everything else I have read of yours. It was unexpected. Very well written and realistic. You compliment this style of writing.

  2. eonluna says:

    I also think this writing is very good 🙂

  3. VG says:

    This is just great, the speaker definitely highlights those awkward feelings that are usually hard to express in these difficult situations. And you haven’t gone as far as too make such a big deal out of the eating disorder, so reading it didn’t make me feel uncomfortable but instead more thoughtful.
    The personification of celery nuts and bars was good too 🙂

  4. eringoing says:

    Loved this one Ross. And the new video is looking good as well.

  5. Judy says:

    I like this. Love Beirut, I heard he suffered from stage fright for a little while. The new album is wonderful, too.

    Was this based on someone you knew? Hope she is fine now and has found what she was looking for. Hunger in your tummy, puts hunger in your soul.

  6. Thoughts Of Me says:

    Wow. This is really insightful to read how another person experiences someone elses pain when they are suffering with an eating disorder and how it can hurt them just as much as they are hurting too…
    I really like this piece Ross. Its a shame that the girl was in this place.
    The suffering and confusion of wanting to get better but then at the same time having something else (in your head) telling you no and everything is just too much…I totally underatnd that feeling.
    I hope the girl is better now. Thank you for sharing this story 🙂 X

    • I’m really please that you enjoyed this.

      I’m honestly not sure about the girl. We were once very close but we haven’t spoken in a while. Not in a negative way, it’s just one of those things that happens. I think she’s certainly better, but whether she’d consider that to be the case I’m not sure.

      I’m really looking forward to reading more of your stuff x

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