I met Cheryl at the Weight Watchers headquarters in Hollywood. When my boyfriend Danny and I walked into her meeting, she was drawing food on her dry-erase board and showing us that we could eat all-white chicken meat as big as her fist. But only once per day. More than a serving would be too many points.
She asked the class what we liked to eat -- what really made us pack on the pounds? “French fries,” one woman with purple hair called out. “Mhm,” said the mom behind me. “Chocolate,” yelled the size 16, 20-something girl. The room filled with whispers, “Oh yes, chocolate.”
One bubbe raised her hand. “I’ve been struggling really hard with limiting my portions before bed.”
Cheryl said, “Then just go to bed. Don’t eat.”
A collective “oh” from the chorus of the desperate.
Danny and I snickered to each other, and then Cheryl pointed at me. “You, what do you like?” “Challah,” I said. “Lots of challah.”
She crinkled her nose and thought for a second. Her expression showed that maybe she was reflecting upon nuclear physics or the meaning of life.
“I see. Carbs. Not good. You gotta cut that out. Don’t worry, we’re here to help.”
She took a swig from her Diet Sprite and cued the video, which showed how the tracking system worked. I was 190 pounds, 5’8, which means I got 33 points a day. I could eat however much fruit I wanted. I could drink diet soda until it bled out of my eyes. Zero-calorie salad dressing complete with xanthan gum, red dye 40, a slew of other ingredients I couldn’t pronounce? Totally OK.
After the class ended, Danny and I approached Cheryl.
“Hi, we’re new,” he said.
“Oh, splendid,” she said. “You’ve come to the right place. It’s all about tracking here, and limiting your portions. No more challah for you, missy!”
She pinched my cheek. I was immediately endeared to her. Cheryl made it seem easy, and like we were going to be OK. She was a damn good motivational speaker.
“I’ve struggled for so long with my weight,” I told her.
“Well, not anymore. This program is guaranteed to work. Look at this.”
She pulled out her before photo. In it, she was 30 pounds heavier, smiling, wearing khakis and a floral top from Chico’s, that store your mom just adores.
“Look at me. I was a mess. Now, I’m feeling great. Fabulous. Better than ever. It’s because I don’t put anything in my mouth without tracking it first.”
It seemed like an opportune time for a blowjob joke, but I stopped myself. I smiled.
“We’ll see you next week, then. I’m here Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays.”
“Great,” said Danny. “Thanks Cheryl.”
She turned around and erased her corn on the cob and hamburger from the board. A bubbe who wasn’t in the last class took a seat. Another show was about to begin.
The next week, on the scale, I clocked in at 192; Danny had lost a pound. We took our seats as Cheryl spoke to the class about binge days.
“Now, once a week, when you go out and get drinks, go wild. Have a margarita or two. After your hard work, you deserve it. That’s why we get cheat points.”
Cheat points are the delight of every Weight Watchers member. It’s the PG equivalent of having an affair with your pool boy. For the bubbes, a sinful little treat. The moms could binge on their kids’ Lucky Charms, thanks to the gift from God, the cheat points.
After the class ended, Cheryl found us in the lobby. We were picking out Weight Watchers products to eat. I didn’t hear her come up behind me. “Those are really good,” she said a little too close to my ear.
“Oh yeah?” I said.
Danny was already eating one from another box. “Holy crap, these taste like a birthday cake. Try one.”
I looked at the wrapper. Only three points. The ingredients: All produced in a laboratory. What the heck, I thought. I took a bite. Damn.
“I told you,” she said. “These are a great dessert. Now how are you guys doing?”
“Good,” I said.
Danny asked where she lived. She was close by. A lunch invite was quickly dispersed.
When I got home that night, I ate all five of the remaining birthday cake bars. 15 points. Whoops.
We were sitting at Cheryl’s table with her husband Robert, who looked like a Catskills comedian. He was funny; she was sassy. We laughed all afternoon. She proudly showed us another before picture, which prominently sat on her windowsill like a med school degree in a doctor’s office.
After lunch, Robert and Danny sat down in the living room, glasses of Scotch in hand, while Cheryl and I strolled through her backyard.
“How’s it going?” she said.
“Good, just writing for the Jewish Review and getting settled into LA.”
“That’s nice. What about the program? Do you like it? Is it working?”
We rested on her lawn chairs.
“Yeah, I guess. I’m just beginning so I know it won’t happen right away. I’ve only lost four pounds in two months.”
“Hm, I wonder what you’re doing wrong.”
“Yeah, I don’t know.”
“Try eating more fruit. And cut back the carbs.”
“Okay, I’ll try.”
“Now, when are you and Danny getting married?”
“I don’t know. It’s up to him. I think it’s too expensive. That’s why he’s waiting to propose.”
“What, that’s ridiculous. Have a wedding in our backyard. Isn’t it nice?”
There were roses and an old palm tree and oranges dangling from vines. Yes, it was nice. I contemplated it, and wondered if she was being sincere.
“Anyway, let’s get back inside. You don’t want Danny drinking too much Scotch. Too many points.”
I followed her in and the back door slammed behind me.
Over the months that followed, she had us back again. We became fast friends, and felt like we had a mother figure to guide us through the rough terrain of a new city.
My weight reached a low of 188, and Danny couldn’t lose more than four pounds. In the meetings, I started to feel suffocated.
I ate out of spite of the system and because I felt trapped. I thought how stupid it was to say you can eat all the fruit you want -- isn’t there a ton of sugar in it? -- and how processed the Weight Watchers foods were. On top of it, we were spending nearly $100 per month between the two of us on the program.
After six months, only three of which we actually stuck to the method, I cut it off. We stopped showing up to meetings.
This was not the LA we envisioned. We already felt like we were imprisoned by the city’s lack of movement, and the inability to swiftly get anywhere. In the meetings, that feeling was amplified. Cheryl was always checking in, which was nice. But I couldn’t help but think in the back of my mind that we just might be numbers to her. She was obsessed with seeing weight loss goals reached, and we were letting her down.
A few months after we stopped going to meetings, I noticed that Cheryl had unfriended Danny and I on Facebook. I was shocked.
“Can you believe that?” I said to Danny during pillow talk.
“I’m going to write to her,” he said.
After that, she replied, “Come back to the program.”
That was it. We felt hurt. It’s not like Cheryl was the CEO of Weight Watchers. She was a meeting leader making $10 an hour. It was a fun hobby for her. We thought that she was our friend, but it must have only been if we were tracking, just like her. Her love was conditional.
I saw Cheryl and Robert at my gym one Sunday, a few months later, while I was sweating on the treadmill. He was slightly hunched over, and she chugged a Diet Snapple and followed their trainer.
It was hard to say what happened. My guess is that we were her adopted Weight Watchers babies, and her babies let her down. Maybe she felt slighted that we hadn’t tried hard enough. But we should have known right from the start that she was a person who would not tolerate failure. From the moment we stepped into that first meeting, we could tell she was a dietary drill sergeant.
It only took one strike, and we were out of her phonebook. We were dead to her, as they say in the mob.
At least the story ends well for me. I got my butt into the gym, and I cut out soda, and I got into shape. I didn’t diet, I didn’t track, and I didn’t count calories. And I never touched a birthday cake bar again.