THE THINGS A FAT WOMAN WILL DO FOR HER LOVERS: THE NIPPLE TWISTING, THE SAFETY PINS, THE CUCUMBER-MADE-DILDO SNUG INTO ITS CONDOM. But Harvey sends me a cassette tape and says he is coming in a week. He wants to see progress.
When we were on our fourth date or so he told me liked big women. But he said it in an inverse way. We were having dinner in some cheap Italian place that dims the lights in an attempt to create a romantic atmosphere but the chairs were uncomfortable, the waiters sullen, stains on their shirts. The table was too small, a forced intimacy, and our knees touched when we didn’t want them to. You had to wonder then if the lights were dim because the owner wanted to save a buck on electricity. But Harvey didn’t seem to notice any of this. He ate his dinner slowly, first cutting his chicken into little pieces, then raising each bite towards his mouth, his eyes watching the food en route, considering it. His jaw moved cautiously. In between bites he looked at me, snatching glances at my bust which, for someone my size, is surprisingly inadequate.
“I don’t like skinny women,” he said sheepishly. The top of his head reddened where his hair is starting to thin.
“Oh yeah?” I said and picked up my wine glass. I’d heard this before, usually from people who didn’t really mean it.
“Yes,” he said, leaning forward. Suddenly his eyes seemed to open wider; their color
in the dim light was shrewd. I saw a flash of what this man, successful in his business, must be like at work. His nose protruded brazenly, aiming at me. This was a man, I realized, who was used to getting what he wanted. I pulled at my napkin in my lap.
“In fact,” he said, “though you’re beautiful—lovely—you’re a bit small for me.” Then he leaned back in his chair and smiled. One incisor had an edge, tapering, as if it had been filed to a point. He placed his hands on his stomach, a slight swell.
I held my wine glass, filled my mouth, then continued to hold onto it. He saw this and reached for his own glass. “Cheers,” he said. He angled his glass towards mine without touching it and took a drink. He looked at me through the goblet, then squeezed his eyes shut for a second as he swallowed. When he opened them again I realized that they were two different colors: one blue, the other gray, silvery. I stared, forgetting that he could see me.
The waiter appeared, frowning at us. “Would you like some dessert?” he asked flatly, looking at me.
“Yes she would,” Harvey said, and grinned.
He took me home and fucked me hungrily, grabbing fistfuls of my flesh, seeming to want to touch all of me at once, pushing at me, his mouth open, sucking at mine as if he wanted to enter it, to hold my jaw open and clamber inside.
It went on like that for a few weeks, maybe a month. He would call me at work and say, “Meet me for lunch,” in a whisper, as if he was saying something illicit. I would blush, cross my legs beneath my desk. I work for a small-circulation magazine called Big Sista. It is a magazine made by and for fat women who are big and beautiful and lead big, beautiful lives. The women I work with have made careers out of fatness. They have sour mouths. Their clothes are often too tight. They cannot afford to shop at the stores we feature. The single ones, like me, carry hefty plastic bags full of celery and carrot sticks.
“You gotta boyfriend?” they asked me, watching me hurry out to my lunches.
I smiled, shrugged in response and jogged to the elevator.
But soon something changed. The mid-day calls ceased. During our dinners out he seemed sullen, his knees withdrawn. One evening, sitting on his couch watching a movie, the hand I held was flaccid, indifferent.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
He sighed at me, rubbing my arms. “It’s not your fault.”
Instinctively, I thought, I’ve gained weight. Panic rippled like hunger in my belly.
But with all the sex and the skipped lunches, I’d actually lost a few pounds. The difference was imperceptible to me, but not to Harvey.
He gave me a hurt look, his hair wispy on top of his head, his hands folded in his lap, like a child who thought he was getting a new toy but has actually been tricked into going to the dentist.
I rubbed his shoulder. My heart was galloping in my breast. Really, I have to admit that I started the whole thing. The blame is mine. I am the one who said, my voice trembling slightly, “Let’s order a pizza,” and he beamed.
“Good idea.” He pinched my breast. “There’s a nipple in the air,” he said and leaned forward to kiss me, his hand sliding over my neck.
Now, a month later, he is in Michigan. A temporary displacement. A business trip that was unexpectedly extended. Without him, I go to work as usual. I eat apples at my desk, editing articles on 250-pound women weight lifters and plus-size maternity wear, my glasses resting low on my nose, my feet clad in comfortable shoes.
“Where’s your boyfriend these days?” Shar, the woman in the next cubicle, asks. Her hair is in a permanent bun, a knob at the back of her head. On her desk are framed pictures of skinny, aggressive-looking boys. There are little bows glued onto the frames.
“What boyfriend?” I say flatly, removing my glasses so I can see her.
Her frown folds outward from the middle of her face. “Mm hmm,” she says.
At night I listen to the tapes he’s sent me. He doesn’t like the phone, nor will he write letters. He says he can release his thoughts best when talking to himself. That’s what the tapes sound like, a record of someone’s inner dialogue. He talks in a muttering hush that I sometimes can’t decipher. Occasionally he says my name, but he sounds like he is talking about me, not to me. At times his voice is distorted, crunchy, and I think he might be eating something.
In the last tape he sighed and said, “I am almost out of here.”
I sat up. I was lying on my bed in my fuchsia bathrobe, a cup of decaf coffee on the floor beside me. “In a week,” he continued, “I’ll be home. And, oh, how I can’t wait to see my honey bear.” I had begun to think he had lost interest in me, that he was choosing not to come home, that the tapes would come less frequently until I got one that said, “I’m staying here forever.”
“I bet my honey bear is gonna look so good for me.” He made a smacking sound.
I jumped off the bed and furiously pressed the “stop” button on the tape recorder.
I am not an over-eater by nature. A chubby child my portly, good-natured parents wistfully named “Willow,” my body blossomed into fatness in adolescence. Now, in my thirties and a size eighteen, my metabolism has begun to slow. I do not get enough exercise, it’s true. But in my despair I have allowed myself to go without meals, to leave unopened bags of low-fat cookies in the cupboard. I am not a woman who stuffs her face when her boyfriend goes on a seemingly never-ending business trip. Rather, depression fills me with emptiness and the hunger—a meek pang—feels satisfying, a kind of dull companion. Really, I would have made a fantastic anorexic.
Consequently, I have not gained an ounce since he has been gone. When he was here, he stuffed me in bed, a veritable buffet on the nightstand. He poured honey on his own body until it dried in his chest hair and became painful to remove. Boxes of expensive chocolates appeared in my mailbox. Together, we shopped for new clothes for my body. “Something that shows a little leg,” he said to the saleswoman, hitching up his pant leg slightly and laughing. He bought me big, pointed, lacy bras with cups I can’t fill.
And now he’s coming back a week from the day he sent the tape, which means, since I have already received it, that he will be home in a few days.
I go to the grocery store and push the cart like a bull, my head down, feet stomping heavily, my face turned towards the shelves. I collide with other women, thin women in heels that look too heavy for their ankles.
“Watch it!” they shriek.
I turn my face to look at them. Quickly, their eyes run over me, appraising instantly the way only women can. If their boyfriends are in the store somewhere, they are not worried. But when their faces meet mine, their expressions drop. I am scowling but is there something else there, beneath my hair, that is actually naturally blond or in the points of my green-brown eyes? Some over-confidence that could mean I am crazy, that I am capable of anything? Perhaps. Quickly these wafer women turn, their heels clicking as they move away from me, pushing along their near-empty carts.
My cart is full to the brim. The check-out woman, her belt long enough to strap her to the roof of a car, belly voluminous, shaking slightly with each motion she makes, mechanically rings up the ice cream, the boxed cakes, crinkly bag after bag of chips, then looks me in the eye, her mouth thrust forward by the robust push of her soft cheeks. I chose her over the skinny adolescent in the next row. Now she’s looking at me, fatty-to-fatty. She nods at me and her nostrils flair. Then she asks me if I want all this delivered.
“No,” I say. “I can manage myself.”
At home the going is tough. Fifteen pounds, I thought at first. By the time he gets back he’ll have been gone for almost a month and a half. Fifteen pounds is the very most you could expect someone to reasonably gain in that amount of time. Now, sitting on the couch before the TV that is laughing at its own jokes, I am beginning to think ten is more reasonable. He can’t expect more than that. I am a busy woman, after all. I don’t have time to just sit around all day and eat. Ice cream and chips roll over in my stomach. I am full, very full. Still the spoon moves to my mouth.
“No pain, no gain,” I say to myself then swallow hard against a gag. There is still a boxed cake waiting for me in the kitchen. “Oh God,” I whisper, and let the mostly-melted carton of ice cream fall between my knees to the floor. It tips over, spreading its milk over the carpet.
I see Harvey’s face in the television, watching me, the colors of his eyes reversed like a reflection in the mirror; now the left one is gray, the right, blue. “Come on, baby doll,” he says, furrowing his brow, his mouth puckered into a pout, “Just a little more. Just for me. Wouldn’t you do this for me?”
“Yes, yes,” I say, and flub backwards against the couch cushion. My throat feels thick. “Of course I would.”
I dream of biology tests involving live, convulsing frogs.
“They’re having seizures,” the teacher says. He’s tall with round spectacles and paces the aisles of the lab. “You must fix them. The procedure was covered in chapter seven of your text book.”
But I have forgotten about the test. I haven’t studied or even read chapter seven and now my frogs are hurling themselves against the glass sides of their fish tank, their tongues rolling out of their mouths.
I glance at the other students but they are quietly at work with their tools that look like pens and tweezers. Their frogs have stilled.
When I wake up, it takes several minutes for the numbers on the VCR clock to come into focus. When the message does finally get through, I mumble, “Shit.” Even if I leave right now, I will still be late for work. In my mind’s eye, my body has already jumped off the couch and is hurriedly rushing around the apartment, panty hose attached to one leg, a hairbrush in hand. But in actuality I have not yet risen. I feel anchored to my flesh, which overnight has somehow merged with the couch so that now, if I want to get up, I must take the couch with me as well. But I can’t carry the weight, so instead I sink into it. The cushions fold over me like my own soft flesh, additional buttocks and foamy breasts I have nurtured and grown with processed flour and preservatives.
When I finally arrive at the office, it is past noon. In my panic, I have confused the food suitable for the office with the stuff I am eating at home, and stuffed my bag full of cookies and greasy chips and dry packets of hot chocolate.
Shar watches me hustle to my desk. “Well,” she says with one eyebrow raised, “good morning to you.”
“Yup,” I say and turn on my computer. It makes slow, laborious start-up noises.
“Late night with your boyfriend?”
I see again the image of Harvey’s face on the television screen, the deliberate slump of his eyebrows. Oh God, I realize, I have been hallucinating. I have ODed on sugar and
“I’m not feeling so well,” I whisper to Shar as I slide my glasses over my face.
She looks away from me, mouth pursed with disapproval. “Mmm hmm,” she says. Then adds casually, “Jenny came by looking for you. She wants that article about the weight lifters on her desk a-sap.”
“Shit,” I say. Though her face is turned away, I can feel Shar smiling.
It is the same thing tonight. I am eating a cherry pie, fork in hand, but I can’t finish it. I can’t even get half way. My mother raised me to always leave something on my plate. “That’s what ladies do,” she said. She had a fat, buttery face.
I don’t dare weigh myself.
He will come back and find me the same, perhaps even slightly smaller. Then he will dump me.
I slump forward in my chair at the kitchen table, pushing the pie away. My tongue is coated with crust. I lean my face sideways on the cool table and cry into it, the gaping, doughy mess of my mouth.
I have not had a lover in a long time, it is true. I have never had a lover like Harvey.
I could call in sick tomorrow and spend the day filling myself up. Then I would not have to rush. I could drink milkshakes. Yes, I think, Milkshakes!
Instead I leave work in the early afternoon.
“Doctor’s appointment,” I whisper to Shar and shrug.
She stops typing and rolls towards me in her swivel chair. “What, going on the pill or something?” she hisses.
She shakes her head. “You better watch yourself, Willow. You don’t look right these days.”
I stiffen, my back arching. “I’m fine,” I say. “I’m great. Butt out.”
Shar raises one penciled eyebrow then swivels away, self-consciously patting the bun at the back of her head.
My entire life my body has rebelled against me. Things are no different now. I kneel over the toilet and vomit steadily a lumpy, sick-sweet mixture into the bowl. This is how the milkshake experiment ends. Since I got home from work I have been lying on the couch, eating. Eating stale croutons and a can of olives after I finished off the provisions I bought expressly for this purpose, drinking powdered milkshakes all the while like water, one after another. Now I think of the Greeks and their Vomitorium. What a lot of fun that must have been.
At the grocery store I sway through the aisles. The bodies beside me are quick-moving blurs, their voices distant, distorted as if coming from on high. But I don’t understand what they say. I push my cart and fill it up, pulling boxes haphazardly off the shelves. My body is heavy, slow. An invisible barrier encases me, like a cocoon made of sheets of plastic, an alternate universe.
When I get home I find that the door to my apartment is unlocked. Did I forget to lock it? “It’s the landlord,” I think, my heart a rabbit. “Please God, let it be the landlord.”
I step gingerly into the kitchen as though trespassing. I grip the bags in my hands, though I have ceased to be conscious of their weight, swinging slightly beside my calves. Everything looks the same.
“Hey, baby,” a man’s voice says. It is a familiar voice. Is it coming from somewhere within the apartment? A voice with a body attached, certainly. I put the bags down on the floor. I often hear the people next door talking and moving; it sounds as if someone is in my apartment, clomping around in my bedroom closet. But then I hear another step and the floorboards creak. I suck in my breath.
When he sees me, the smile will fall from his face, breaking into an open mouth, the one sharp incisor protruding slightly, his eyes like zinc. “What have you done to yourself?” he’ll want to know. “What did you do?”
And maybe I will answer with something sharp like, “Eat me,” only more clever and dignified, that will not speak to the things I have done but will say without saying, “I am my own. I’m fine, Harvey, I’m fine.”