Is there anything that can overcome an evil companion?
1. My Companion Roman
The Jersey shore has an uncanny allure during the dark winter months. Stare at the ocean long enough and I’m reminded of the dog days of August, when I can walk the boardwalk shirtless and let the searing sun bake my belly. Or as I like to call him, Roman.
Roman is a true friend. Acquired a few years ago and now a trusted companion as I enter the twilight of my 20s, Roman isn’t merely accumulated fat cells wrapped around my abdomen, nor a pouch of blubber generated by a petite man with every genetic advantage when it comes to being skinny. He’s a way of life. A mentality. An existential orientation, but most importantly an indispensable partner helping me endure long winters down in Ocean County.
Just like the seniors inhabiting the Barrier Islands during the frigid days of January, I have a companion to share activities with. Roman and I are attached at the hip, or better yet, attached at the waist. My buddy Roman is always dragging me out of the house to grab some local cuisine. Oh, Roman loves to go on dates. His destination of choice: the OB Diner in Point Pleasant.
Like a pair of old lovebirds, Roman and I make our pilgrimage to the diner. It is a custom mastered after many dates. I dare not risk upsetting Roman by departing from this ritual. A crabby companion means a tumultuous evening of abdominal rumblings.
I once heard an expression, ‘happy wife-happy life’. Well Roman is no spouse; if anything he’s the antithesis of a spouse. His primary objective is to quell the machinations of my libido. Roman doesn’t like competition. He’s a jealous beast. Upset Roman and I incur his wrath. He enacts vengeance in the form of jonesing for the syrupy goodness of a Belgian waffle, or a towering stack of pancakes.
Naturally, I don’t take our diner excursions lightly. There are preparations to be made. Like a little old lady, I get all dolled before hitting the town. My attire: matching sweat pants and shirt. It’s the highlight of our day and we always dress to impress. Tucked away and warm under layers of grey cotton, we exude comfort and confidence as we stroll into the diner.
At 7pm Roman and I arrive, ready to annihilate our favorite diner delicacies. The laminated menu is bound by a plastic spiral, more of a manual than a menu. As I begin to read the different omelets Roman gets angry, pulling me back to the pancake section. An image of hotcakes topped with melted butter drenched in brown sugary syrup fills my mind. I feel like a dog salivating beneath the kitchen table. The thought of breakfast for dinner is almost too much to bear. I breathe deeply and examine the menu.
Finally, the waitress arrives. Roman, like some malevolent demon clinging to his host, orders us a Belgian waffle, bacon two scrambled eggs, white toast and an orange juice with home fries. For all of his flirtations with hot cakes, Roman is helplessly smitten by the waffle. Crisp, fluffy and golden brown.
The waitress shows no emotion as she quickly scribbles our order. I glance at her pad, which appears as an alien form of diner hieroglyphics. Indiscernible, but as the waitress bolts away I have faith my order will be executed flawlessly. For all her indifference she’s a member of the diner elite, always on call to deliver us a breakfast extravaganza no matter what time of day!
I have already emptied a glass of oj when the food finally arrives. The waitress delicately balances the many plates as they come to a clank in front of me. Just as I carefully organize the plates around me for the impending feast, Roman takes hold. I enter a food trance and cede power to my companion as he ravenously devours my breakfast for dinner. By the time my own agency is restored, we’re peeling open a packet of jelly and spreading it on a piece of buttery white toast, the only surviving item. I’m appalled.
The meal concludes and I ask for the check. As I get up to pay the bill, Roman lurches forward. Extending from my waist, Roman hangs over the top of my sweat pants. In full view round and proud, he gloats all the way home. Basking in the glory of his waffle conquest, he emanates alien sounds and smells. A great symphony of gurgles and gas.
At home I approach the mirror and pose like a mother with child. There’s an entity growing on my midsection. Hands on my hips I distend Roman forward and give him a slap. The sound bounces off the bathroom walls. My companion has morphed into a monster. A physical manifestation of winter gluttony, he has reached dangerous proportions. No longer a buddy, Roman has become a nemesis. Roman must die. His demise begins tomorrow.
Up on the Lavallette Boardwalk my calves start to throb. Bearing Roman’s full weight is like towing an anchor every time I break into a jog. Two blocks and I’m back power walking. Conquering Roman won’t be an easy battle. It must be won plank by plank. After 30 minutes of stop-and-go jogging I resort to walking. I adjust the music on my phone. My pace is steady as house music delivers heavy bass straight to my eardrums. The headphones an IV to my brain, invigorating my body with the right mood. A Roman slaying mood.
Just a mile away in Seaside Heights the Aztec and Bamboo lie dormant. In the summer orange-faced people will be lined up around the corner trying to get into these landmark clubs made famous on MTV. Weekend warriors from all over Jersey and New York making their summer pilgrimage to Seaside Heights. I proceed to walk home, crossing Route 35 and passing the Ocean County Library and town baseball field. There are people playing soccer in the field below my uncle’s new house, which towers over the scene below. Roman flashes back a memory of Thanksgiving at the house, but I corral him in and repress imagery of a family feast.
Arriving home, I collapse on the couch, not caring if my sweat stains the pillows. I’m too exhausted to move. There’s a sense of victory over Roman, one small conquest with many more clashes to come. Peering outside, I see it’s dark. My eyes look to the cable box and note it’s barely 5 o’clock. In June the sun would still be beaming through the window, enticing me to come back out. I close my eyes and begin to drift off and wait for the summer to come. A summer free from the tyranny of Roman’s rule.
2. Roman Strikes Back: A Battle Against the Bulge.
Roman rules with an iron-fist and isn’t willing to relinquish his power. With the blizzard of January 2016 approaching, I’m driven right into his clutches. A weekend with nothing to do but sit on my ass and wait out the storm, a perfect opportunity for Roman to stage a coup. As the storm barrels toward the East Coast, I’m driven out of the shore far from the boardwalk, a place where he knows only defeat. In order to avoid the potential havoc of an angry Atlantic Ocean I leave Lavallette and head back to my parents’ house in Mountainside.
Finding the kitchen devoid of anything resembling a snack, I feel Roman begin to rumble. The sight of Almond milk and low fat yogurt enrages him, sending me into a state of panic as I confront a weekend alone with this feral monster. With a massive snow storm only hours away and the prospect of eating nothing but cereal and frozen grapes, I jump into my brother’s old black Toyota Prius, and we go to pick up some food to see us through the storm.
I walk into Chrones Tavern and pick up a pizza and my very own Chicken Parmesan dinner. Forty-somethings are getting hammered as I wait for my food. Instead of Friday night revelry with watery Coors Light and shots of warm Jameson, melty chicken parm will see me through the evening. Roman is a virtuous glutton and prefers me sober. Booz is a reminder of last summer on the patio drinking cold Yuengling and listening to the Allman Brothers. All seductive memories Roman quickly discourages as he steers me onward to assemble his cache of snacks.
Heading back to the car, I feel the warm hot pie under my arm as the snow begins to fall and the impending storm becomes a reality. I place the pizza carefully in the back of my brother’s car, preventing the hot cheese from sliding off the pie. For all Roman’s savagery he is careful when it comes to the things he loves, directing me to take care of the vulnerable pie.
Now we hit the 7-11 across the street, where Roman—like a bear preparing for hibernation— begins scavenging through the aisles to complete his mission. Passing the old decrepit hotdogs, we head straight for the candy isle, taking our time and carefully browsing. Some things are selected on a whim, like a Wild Berry Skittles. Others are reliable and trusted, like a Twix bar and a bag of Fritos. I head to the cashier, balancing an armful of candy and chips. The beep from the barcode is a mocking taunt from Roman as the cashier sorts through the mound of snacks collected by my brother and me. Bags in hand, we head home in the pizza-scented car and begin waiting out the storm.
By Saturday night there’s more than two feet of snow on the ground, and I’ve already exhausted most of my snacks with the exception of the Wild Berry Skittles. Fully distended, I untie the string of my sweatpants and let Roman bask in his victory. I start watching Rocky I. While Sly Stallone is driving his fists into the carcass of a cow, training for his fight with Apollo Creed, I’m shamelessly eating Skittles off the carpet. Roman in his quest for power leaves no Skittle left behind.
Sunday comes around and my driveway is covered in 25 inches of fresh snow. I lie in bed watching the sun come through the blinds, knowing it will be my charge to dig out an exit for the garage. Heading downstairs, I make a large cup of coffee and try to kill the sugar-induced hangover caused by Roman’s shameless binge.
I trade my sweats for ski pants, tuck my disheveled hair under a nylon skull cap, and tie on some boots. Firing up some music, I put in my ear phones and start shoveling, but every time I drive the shovel into a bank of snow, they fall out. I give in to clearing the snow without any distraction, just a bloated Roman who becomes more conspicuous as I labor with every shovelful of heavy snow.
Exhausted, I change into my sweats and head down the shore. Off Route 37 in Toms River I stop at a local burger place and resign myself to eating like a pig, as this weekend is already lost.
I pull off my skull cap, aware my hair is in full Kramer mode-like I just stuck my finger in a socket, or woke up after a bad night in Atlantic City.
As Roman and I enter the burger joint, starving, I’m ambushed by the sight of a raven-haired beauty. No other customers are present as she looks my way, ready to take my order. I quickly glance downward out of shock – trying to conceal the surprise on my face and aware of my ragged appearance. I’m relieved to know Roman is tucked away, but soon become embarrassed as I notice yellow signs indicating the floor has just been mopped. Looking up I meet her eyes. I apologize and smile – tell her I’m sorry for tracking in wet snow. Smiling back, she tells me not to worry about it.
She must be in her early 20s. As I gaze into her large piercing eyes a dormant force begins to sir. Like a 13-year-old boy experiencing his first crush, my chest is heavy – ready to explode like there’s a grenade lodged behind my ribs; a detonation of desire in Roman’s backyard. I proceed to make small talk—ask about the menu and God knows what else. My mouth moves, but her beauty paralyzes every other part of my being.
There’s a lapse in the employer-customer pleasantries. As my take out is being prepared, I pace around the room thinking of something to say. I pretend to read framed reviews from newspapers and even feign interest in football highlights coming from a mounted television.
Walking back to the counter, I don’t look at her right away. I open a menu and pretend to examine it again. Usually the sight of different burger amalgamations, wings and exotic fried food would make Roman sing, but now he sits silent. All sense of time is loss, I could have been staring at the menu for 10 seconds or 3 minutes, but I finally glance up and take her in completely, her dark hair complimented by fair radiant skin and her body lacking nothing. Sensory overload.
I try to keep my composure as my head begins to swim and my stomach flutters, but in a state of complete transparent vulnerability, her eyes meet mine, sending a jolt that permeates my body and drags me out of the Roman-induced haze like someone snuck up and shocked me with 100 volts from a defibrillator.
When my take-out is ready I grab the wings and disco fries and walk back to my car. Roman isn’t grumbling and gurgling in anticipation for a feast back in Lavallette. He’s silent. The food is merely a prop as my head is filled with snapshots of the girl running on loop in my mind. I cross the Toms River bridge and eventually pull into my driveway.
It was capitulation to Roman’s rule that was responsible for my detour into the burger joint. But as I lie on my bed staring up at the ceiling, I’m left with a sense of victory. A long-awaited liberation. There will be battles fought. Occasional insurrections and uprisings, but as I think of the Raven-haired girl, I know Roman has been dealt a decisive blow. Forever relegated to the dark days and nights of gluttony down the Jersey shore. Roman has been usurped.
Photo: Getty Images