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Payal Nagpal

If you ask Sheila Gupta-Malone what gets her out of bed in the morning, she might say that it’s her children. They must be ready for school by eight o’clock, and it’s her responsibility to ensure that they’re brushed and fed and bathed, and ready to conquer the day. Or if she’s in a romantic mood because her husband brought her flowers on his way home from work that week, Sheila might tell you it’s him. She wakes up early to make him  balanced, nutritious breakfasts—steel-cut oats with berries and raisins sometimes, or eggs cooked in extra virgin olive oil. She likes to sit with him while he eats, so if he has a meeting that day, he can practice his advertising pitches on her.

But that’s misconstruing the question. Sheila Gupta-Malone is a pragmatic woman. If you ask her what gets her out of bed, she’ll give you a list of early-morning responsibilities. So, you’ll prod. Ask her what compels her to wake up and keep living the life she’s living. What does she look forward to most during the course of her day?

Sheila would not tell you this, but the answer lies in apples. 

When the weight of her blanket presses down on her chest and she contemplates the drudgery of her impending day, what gets Sheila Gupta-Malone to confront the next twenty-four hours of existence, is the thought of her afternoon apple.

At four o’clock every afternoon, Sheila eats an apple—the whole thing, down to its core; the crunchy cartilage, the thick stem on top, the little brown fibers that sprout out of the bottom. Sometimes, she even swallows the seeds. She’s been doing this for years, eating apples ritualistically; slowly yet voraciously integrating the fruit into her being. Like a more elegant version of a trash compactor, maybe. Or a blood cell engulfing a protein.

She’s been doing this for years. After she eats it, she writes down the calories in her apple in a little red notebook on the kitchen counter. She does this with everything she eats. The notebook sits next to a hardbound white diet encyclopedia, the one her mother-in-law bought her for Christmas in 1984, as part of a rather passive-aggressive display. This is the book that tells her how many calories live inside every edible thing. It contains the secret to losing weight: really, it’s a simple task outlined in Chapter 1. You take your height and weight, plug it into an equation, and the result is the number of calories you need to eat in a day to maintain your weight. 

If you eat less than that, you can get thin. The book suggests eating about 300 to 500 less than that number, so you can lose lots of weight. But not more than 600. Then you might lose your period, too. So Sheila Gupta-Mahone eats 400 less than that number, and she weighs herself on the first of every month, on the scale at the supermarket, to ensure that the book is keeping up with its promises.

The book lists foods that are good for weight loss. It says these are Level One Foods; you can eat large volumes of them for a relatively small amount of calories. Apples are at the top of the list, and there’s even a picture of one at the bottom of the page—in black and white and on a fine china plate. It’s captioned cheerily: “Apples are nature’s superfood! The average apple contains 80 calories, but it can keep you full for hours. Some scientists even believe that apples take more calories to digest than they provide.” 

When she saw it, a little voice in Sheila’s head exclaimed, “A negative calorie food! How wonderful, then if you did nothing and ate nothing but apples, you’d lose weight.” She didn’t quite believe such an optimistic promise, but that’s what began her apple-a-day habit. 

Sheila Gupta-Malone goes to the supermarket every Thursday night for the weekly grocery run. She spends at least ten minutes in the fruit aisle; she finds the largest, most voluptuous apples in the produce bins, holds them close to her nose, and breathes in their scent. She knocks on them lightly with her knuckle, to make sure they’re crunchy, and then slips seven into a produce bag. She hasn’t committed to a type of apple yet—she cycles through ambrosias and Honeycrisps, granny smiths and red deliciouses, and even the occasional Pink Lady.

Right now, she’s on an ambrosia kick. At four o’clock every afternoon, she goes to the kitchen, retrieves an apple from the fridge, and dices it on her chopping board. She fills a bowl with the pieces, walks over to the TV, taking a break from her part-time sweater-knitting gig to spend half an hour with Oprah and her apple. She takes little bites; chewing the fruit thoroughly, taking care to register what her teeth are gnawing against; whether it’s flesh or skin, trying not to swallow before each bite is masticated thirty-two times. Then, when she finishes her apple, and commercials for motorcycles or car insurance or Disneyworld start playing, she washes her hands, turns off the television, and writes in her little notebook: Apple—80

Every once in a while, she feels a pang of guilt. An average apple has 80 calories, she remembers, but none of the apples she eats are average. She eats glorious apples, girthy ones, some double the size of runts at the bottom of the produce bin. But then she tells herself that she deserves, at the very least, to eat apples without thinking too hard about the calories in them. 

She doesn’t eat added sugar anymore, or any form of dairy that isn’t yogurt. Added sugar is sugar in things like cookies and cakes and coffee, which is different from natural sugar—sugar in fruit. Natural sugar is good. Added sugar is bad. It’s an intuitive distinction, but the Atkins people confused her for a while.

She doesn’t eat added sugar or dairy in anything other than yogurt. She’s been doing this for years. She deserves to eat her apples with reckless abandon, she thinks. They’re one of the few little joys she has in her life. Then she reprimands herself—your kids are your joy; she forces the voice in her brain to say. How can you think about apples more fondly than you do your children? 

But late at night, when her children are asleep and her husband tosses and turns beside her in bed, she does what Oprah told unhappy people to do to be less unhappy; make a list of things you’re grateful for and thank the universe for everything on it. On top of her list, invariably, is apples. Apples, apples, apples, is all she can come up with when she tries to think. It’s only once she’s thanked the universe for apples that she moves on. My children, my husband, my house, my good health, my bank account, emigrating to this country, and the new TV in the living room, she thinks. And she knows she’s reached the end of the list when her brain loops back to apples.

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