Benjamin Kessler


Lately there's been a lot of rodeo over eating challenges. Scrolling through my phone I see thumbnail after thumbnail of handsome young people renouncing gluten, renouncing dairy, renouncing red meat and corn syrup and artificial colorings. My favorite of these features an attractive couple who forsake caffeine. At first, in their beautiful white living room, they complain of headaches, of lethargy. "Frankly," the husband says, "I'm no longer regular." Their confessionals, a series of grainy phone camera vignettes, show the progress of their withdrawal: depression, cravings, irritability, envy, and then, finally, the two of them recap with a sort of veiled optimism about the future. "We turned into different people," the wife says, looking directly into the lens. It's though she is speaking directly to me. All told it seemed a rather miserable experience. "Don't be cynical," my mother says after I send her the link. "They're glowing!"
     Perhaps they are. After all, the views are boffo and their page is flanked on all sides with endorsements from celebrity chefs and social media celebrities. Their candid photos are glossy and expensive-looking. They are reblogged. They are viral. In the comments section of their videos companies eagerly pander: You think you could go a month without a juicy Wendy's bacon cheeseburger? DM us!
     It is on my fifth watching of the A Month(?!) Without Caffeine Challenge *NOT CLICKBAIT* that I decide I want in. Though I've never been one for depriving myself. There are many people who can attest to that fact, attest to my obsesses. Luckily there exists an inverse to these videos where people choose instead to eat only one particular food: a month of simply donuts, a month of simply broccoli, a month of simply oatmeal or of blood orange or of foie gras.
     I take a red felt-tip marker to my calendar, outline thirty days in the meaty thigh of summer. Whatever I eat will simmer and sweat inside of me. But what to choose? Pawing through my cabinets and fridge I find little I can imagine eating exclusively. Everything is either too light or too salty or too rich. How long have I had this milk? How many half-empty canisters of paprika do I own?
     I'm confounded until, on impulse, I pull open the junk drawer. There, like barrels on an unsteady ship, roll hundreds of batteries, all different brands and levels of freshness. Yes, I think. These will do. I write the blog posts in my mind. A photo of my newly trim body sits beside platitudes. It was hard, yes, but worth it. We just take so much for granted, you know?
     Maybe, and I only entertain this notion for a moment, I will die as a result of this trial. Though even in death there is notoriety. Separate articles will be written and a different photo of me will emerge, tuxedo-clad from my high school yearbook, perhaps. My mother will hug it to her breast over my freshly dug grave. People I have known will emerge and mourn. Well, some will, anyway.    
     But I'm already here, portioning out the batteries into individual plastic baggies and marking upon them consecutive dates. It is decided: I will eat only batteries for one month. I will document my progress and then, if my body has not been irreparably irradiated, sell the story to some flashy web company that specializes in posting photos of celebrities without makeup.  
     This is my solemn vow. All are invited to bear witness.


DAY 1: Dawn of a new life. I start small: watch batteries, flat button cells, the kind that slot into greeting cards equipped to play a tinny song when opened. I stand before the sink, listening as the dishwasher cycles on and off, and count the discs in my hand. Five, breakfast. I take them into my mouth as a child takes first communion; cold metal on my tongue. For the rest of the day I am hungry, and before bed, looking down at my stool, I notice the batteries have passed completely through my body.

DAY 2: Sitting in the breakroom at Rosen & Rosen, I watch Lynn Klepfer slowly eat a meatloaf sandwich. There is a piece of caramelized onion stuck to the edge of her mouth, and as I am working the small A27 battery from my car's remote fob, I fantasize about licking it off her face.

DAY 3: I'm bad-tempered. As I fail to remove the battery from my smoke detector, my hands shaking, I stop to rest my head against the wall. I drum my fingers against the plaster and gnash and gnash. Later, when my mother calls, my speech is curt. "How's the new job?" she asks. "It's not a new job." "Oh." "It's just a new position." "And you like it?" "It's fine." I tell her I am busy, though I am not, and that no, don't put dad on, I'll call him later. She doesn't bring up the finalization of the divorce, so either she doesn't know or is sparing my feelings. Either way I don't tell her. Using a butter knife I am finally able to pry out the smoke detector battery and pop it into my mouth where it clacks against my teeth. It is unsatisfying.

DAY 5: Everything south of my sternum is warm. It is as though a lightbulb has been switched on behind my guts. At my desk I untuck and roll my shirt to cool my stomach. My boss enters and, after I explain myself, he asks if he can feel. I permit him to place his hands on my midriff and his palm is a cool veil of skin on my own. When I arrive home that night I find I am not hungry, and force down a few triple-As with tap water. Browsing social media in front of the television—Jack Tripper has just taken a banana-cream pie to the face—I see that my ex and her new husband have posted photos from a trip to Mexico. In the smear of my thumbprint they smile and compare the length of their arm to the length of liquor in a tall glass. I think about commenting. I don't, but I think about it.

DAY 8: Things are changing. My urine is orange. I am crying at random. Rashes, like the outlines of countries on a map, have appeared around my groin. I think about going to a doctor but I know they will tell me to stop eating batteries. And no one writes listacles about people who only eat batteries for eight days. Or if they do, I haven't found them. During the day I crawl through the internet when I should be working. I confirm I am the first to attempt this challenge, a trailblazer. For dinner I cut a 9-volt up with a steak knife. I swallow and it navigates the tunnel of my throat.

DAY 10: Checkpoint. I am one-third of the way there. That is thirty-three percent. I am able to remember this because, as a child learning fractions, I was intrigued by the repeating digits. All those threes like an infinite trail of footprints. I'm onto B-batteries now, special ordered from the UK, and as I absentmindedly whisk them against one another in a glass bowl, I think that a B looks a little like a 3, were it amputated a bit.

DAY 13: A story. Nevermind.

DAY 14: A story. I am in Manhattan with the wife, now ex-wife, for a wedding. It begins to rain and we take refuge beneath the awning of a newspaper stand beside a cart selling roasted nuts. "Look at this," she says, pointing at the glossy cover of a magazine. An admittedly attractive woman stands before a pyramid of filled champagne glasses, a golden statuette in hand. My wife traces the woman's toothy smile with her finger. "Look at this," she says again, but not to me. She says it to the world. "I can't even imagine. What a life." When the rain finally ceases we walk thoughtlessly through Central Park without speaking. Back at our hotel we become engrossed by a home renovation show on television.

DAY 15: Don't even talk to me until I've had my D Cells! 

DAY 20: I've lost weight. No, I've gained weight. The number on the scale fluctuates. The dial's slender finger sways from side to side as though in strong wind. My spontaneous weeping has gotten more frequent and the tears are yellow and numerous. I collect them in a glass jar as they drip from my face. My co-workers have noticed contradictory changes. They tell me that I am filling out and also that I am gaunt. They tell me I look tired and energized. My boss stands at the urinal beside me and says I need to stop missing so much work. He zips up and walks by as I stare at myself in the mirror, pulling the skin around my eyes taut and watching as the wrinkles slowly wander back into place.    

DAY 23: I'm on my phone a lot. I'm looking for representation. I will need it, I'm sure, for when I am asked to go on daytime television. While picking at the remnants of the battery from the cordless drill my father-in-law—now just some man I know—gave me as a birthday gift, I swipe and swipe. Though I soon realize that the images on the screen are moving even though my fingers only hovers above the glass. I pull my hand away farther and farther to test the range. My fingertips are heavy, the skin that houses my fingerprint distended. I gesture toward the light switch and it flicks off without contact, leaving me illuminated only by the faint glow from the phone screen piquing my face.  

DAY 28: My boss asks me into his office. He tells me that I've been late to work an unacceptable amount of times. "My car isn't working. I've had to start taking the bus." Though this is only a half-truth. My car isn't working because its battery is sliced like bread on my countertop. People on the bus give me space. This is because I smell terribly. The water in my shower seems to float above my body, never making contact before spiraling down the drain. Deodorant melts before it can touch my skin. New strength in my fingernails has broken the hinge on my clippers. I have begun to bite my cuticles, but the bandages that cover my gnawings no longer adhere. I don't tell my boss all of this. "Consider this a formal warning. Next time will result in termination." He waves me away and on the walk back to my desk I can feel my co-workers looking at me. I smell every eye.

DAY 29: Every night, lying in bed before I go to sleep, I watch the video that kicked this all off. I start and stop, frame advance the movement of their faces, husband and wife, betrothed. I think the word, then I say the word. I eat it, split it with my tongue. Be-tro-thed. Despite their suffering they are happy. What do they have that I do not? Batteries in their stomach, acid coating the lining of their intestines. Their loss, I suppose. I watch this video until I fall asleep. Or what I approximate to be sleep. I no longer can slip fully into dream, nor am I tired in the morning. I am powered by my own carbon divinity. Instead, my eyes seem to list in my skull until memory floods my vision, plays itself on the wall in the light of the phone screen. Shadow scene. My wife, ex-wife, stirs red sauce on the stove and I am behind her, idly wrapping a lock of her hair around my finger. I will go through hundreds of these visions each night, little moments. Every time I close my eyes the story of our marriage advances. I try not to blinky too quickly.     

DAY 30: I have something special planned. Through the internet I've acquired the battery from the radar panel of an old Soviet submarine. It is slated to arrive today. I call out sick from work. That is a lie. I simply don't go into work. For this I will be fired. That doesn't matter. I linger at the peephole, wringing my hands in anticipation for the mailman. I don't even leave to use the restroom, which is fine because I no longer urinate. My phone charges from the palm of my hand. When the package finally arrives I haul the great wooden shipping crate it is housed in onto the kitchen table. I haven't had to do dishes in a month and the tabletop is painted with dust. There are small metal clasps across the crate and I snap them open with one finger. I think about my face. I think about my face in a magazine. I think about cancer and ice cream and the smell of someone else's shampoo lingering on my pillow. I place my hands beneath the lid. This is the inhale. Hold it as long as you can.





Mark Haub, a professor of human nutrition at Kansas State University, once subjected himself to a ten-week diet consisting of mainly junk food to test the hypothesis that it was the quantity of calories, rather than the quality, that led to meaningful weight loss. Every three hours, in place of traditional meals, he would consume some high-sugar snack (Oreos, Twinkies, Swiss Cake Rolls), totaling about 1,800 calories a day. At the end of the experiment his vending machine diet left him 27 pounds lighter, with a 20 point decrease in bad cholesterol and a 20 point increase in good cholesterol. "I'm not geared to say this is a good thing to do," Haub has said. "Does that mean I'm healthier? Or does it mean how we define health from a biology standpoint, that we're missing something?"