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Love for a Fat Man


Rhoda B. Stamell

Runner-up in Boston Review's Sixth Annual Short Story Contest

She was not beautiful; she was out of place. For one, the soles of her shoes were too thin. Any piece of broken glass could cut through such thin soles. She knew that. She picked her way delicately among the broken bottles in the parking lot, the pot holes puddled with muddy water, the cans and the newspapers. She held her skirt as if it might sweep across the filthy pavement. This was in the beginning, anyway, because she changed so much that sometimes I think I am remembering someone else. In the beginning she seemed fragile but not broken. Broken was what she thought she was, but I wouldn't have started up with her if that had been true. Broken women are too dangerous. They don't care enough to be cautious. The women who worked in the clinic-City Health and Social Services-talked about her in Spanish. The nurses speculated about the cost of the buttery leather satchel that she carried. The clerks envied the paisley folds of her skirts, the ruffled silk of her blouses. Even the pediatrician, who was from Pakistan, remarked on the gold ring that she wore: "True gold, twenty-two carat, and the diamonds are not of glass, I tell you." I preside over this world of women. Aside from them there is only Xavier, who drives the van, and the medical residents who are assigned here for rotations in pediatrics and obstetrics. The residents cause me the most trouble because there aren't any barriers here between their medicine and the malnourished children; no way to separate themselves from the junkies in Prenatal, from the women who come up pregnant every ten months; from the tea-colored babies brought in by pasty-faced girls. These residents have a lot of flat tires and incidences of the flu, and I report them to their chiefs. "Medicine is about people," I tell the chiefs. It is an effective argument. I drive here from my home at the farthest edge of Detroit. The people in my neighborhood consider themselves cosmopolitan: Blacks with solid incomes, Mexicans like me who are professionals, Jews with liberal tendencies. It took me a long time to get there, to the boxed-in area bound by Seven and Eight Mile Roads, Livernois and Woodward, to the two-storied houses with three bedrooms, shuttered, with lawns that spread out like aprons. My wife drives a Volvo so that no harm will come to our sons, Rafael, Miguel, and Luis, in the event of a collision.

When I was growing up down here on 23rd Street, one of those poor streets numbered in haste, too unimportant to be named, there wasn't any clinic. My grandmother wrapped my chest in flannel, gave me tea brewed from ancient memory, and prayed in the Spanish of Indians. And I survived, unlike my mother, who was murdered by her boyfriend-probably my father-in the Jalisco Bar just a half a block from here on the corner of Fort and Junction; unlike my brother, who slammed a stolen car into an abutment on the Lodge Freeway; unlike my uncles, who died of pneumonia, undiagnosed cancer, mistaken identity, and jealous women. "Roberto," my grandmother would say to me, "Eat, Roberto. Eat what I make for you. Eat to live. Live, my baby."

And so I ate. The beans, slow-baked in the fat of pork; the soups, red with tomatoes, thick with meaty bones, dense with onions, corn, and rice. Tamales, greasy in corn husks. And I ate. Coney Islands from Duly's, hamburgers from Top Hat, chop suey from Ho Ho Gardens, baloney and white bread bought at A&P, wolfed down in Clark Park after school.

It is all the same here as it was when I grew up on a numbered street, but I don't approach it with any particular bitterness because it's not my home anymore. I can stand at the window of my office and sever the connection between me and the litter of the street. So what did she see when she came to my office that first time, up those steps that winded me to walk? What did she see that she thought she could love? A fat man whose eyes were lost in cheeks like bags of candy. A man who grew up in the streets he looked down on from a streaked window of a squat building, cold in winter, hot in summer.

I am trained to be suspicious. There was law school, but I didn't stay long enough to benefit from mistrusting what I heard and saw. There was the M.S.W. program. And always there were the numbered streets whose lessons added up, like the cross above our bed taught me suspicion, believing as I do that my wife lay beneath me during nights of love to please her Lord and his insatiable appetite for children. Once, in an argument, I called her a whore for Jesus, and the way she looked at me, not angry, but as if she understood something about herself, hurt me. For this tidy box of a house, real brick; the sturdy blue Volvo; three pale boys spared the dark Mexican sun, she would suffocate under the rolls and weight of flesh and close her eyes against the sight of my body, sloping down in cascades of fat.

So I had my reasons to be suspicious of a woman whose hands were quick, little birds that flew about her words. The delicate color of her eyelids was taken from a subtle palette. Her earrings were little pearls, irregular and starch-white. Such a woman would wear little pearls. She talked of the program she had been assigned to administer. Yes, she was new at this kind of thing, not used to the subject matter, but didn't doubt that she could work it out. Her goals were realistic, always open to re-evaluation. When her hands came to rest on the fine, woolen weave of her skirt she said, "I am in terrible pain."

Because she had eyes that didn't see me, I could do what I did. I came around my desk and took her small hands. I tasted the grief in her kiss, felt loneliness in the coolness of her skin. I thought-I remember thinking-this is like the movies. But not really-there was too much pain in that embrace. And I was afraid.

I didn't think that she would ever come back up those stairs. She wasn't like the social workers or the board members of the clinic or the R.N.s. They were people like me, from the tall houses and the narrow driveways. Thin, ravening dogs had chased them home from the bus stop after a day of work, a night at school. Women like that I could kiss in my office and not be afraid that I had dared to hold them, to touch them, a short, fat man with small features, lost in pouches and caches of fat.

I can talk about the fat now, but then, I wouldn't think about it. What I did think was that she would wipe her mouth with a quick movement of her hand as she went down the worn and waxy steps. She would shake away with little shudders the memory of my small hand, my ludicrously small hand that lifted the hem of her skirt.

Then I thought she was crazy in the way that some people are off balance all of their lives, responding to something in themselves and not to what is happening outside of them. I thought she was one of those people who came at things from an angle intensely her own.

She would hang on the door frame, wearing, for instance, a black corduroy dress with a high neck closed with jet buttons, a dress fitted to the hips and falling in rounded pleats. I loved that dress and paid compliments when she wore it, but I always thought that polyester and rayon were the materials of this place, that she offered us too rich a diet for our starved appetites. At that time she was thin, very thin, and I could imagine her pushing away a plate after a few forkfuls because she was not present enough to eat. But we never ate together.

So I took her to bed, and then I turned her away. The room was dirty, I am sure. It had the sense of too many people lying on the thin, bluish sheets; too many naked feet padding across the rough carpet, damp like moss; too many feet on the cold, sticky tiles of the bathroom. It cost twenty-eight dollars for the rag of a wash cloth and the cardboard towel, the bed where no one would go for sleeping, a lamp that crooked its neck like a malignant goose. It cost twenty-eight dollars, and she gave me twenty of it. I took it as if I expected her to pay, to make the choice hers and not mine. She sat in a chair, wearing her slip. The only light came from the bathroom, but that was too much light for me. If it had been dark, I could have pretended that we were there because we wanted each other. But as long as she could see me, I couldn't believe that she was there for me. "We don't have to do this," I said, because she looked at me for the first time in that twenty-eight dollar room. An enormous undershirt, sleeveless with a rounded neck, stretched and shapeless. Shorts-they can only be bought at Big and Tall-and my thin legs and the thin bones of my feet. Then she wasn't crazy or jittery in her high-strung way. She was solemn. Her hands lay quiet where she sat in the brown chair, the white slip shining like moonlight. She said: We came here for a reason, and we don't have much time. How you feel when you are a fat man, struggling for air on a flight of stairs, whose sacks of thighs push out your feet in a splayed, duck-like walk, and how you feel when you have disappointed a woman are very much the same. You can't think about it. You say things like, "No one messes with a big man." Like "I am going to fuck you to death." But you can't do either: protect yourself from the quick and the strong, or get close enough to a woman to fill her as she desires.

I was tender with her. I kissed the soles of her feet, and she paid me back in pleasures. But I knew.

Still, on Monday, she appeared in my office, as always pausing in the doorway so that I could see the picture she was presenting to me, a picture she had prepared for me. She wore a gray silk blouse that was almost blue with a tunic collar, one that she favored at the time, and gray slacks with a lizard belt. There were little heels on her boots, and the leather satchel hung from her shoulder. Her earrings were silver discs intersected with black lightning. I thought she looked elegant. I loved her for how she looked. I would have gone back to that mossy, humid room with her at that very moment and would have found the right way to love her. But for what she did. She kissed me like a mother kisses her child in a moment when love compels her to press her lips on that child's head. Standing above me where I sat at my desk, she kissed me in this way. It was a kiss too intimate, too tender and too kind. It was a kiss I could not accept because it had to be a lie. "You know I am married."

"Yes, but still. . . . "

"There will be too much talk, and my wife comes here."

"Then it was just to get me for that once."

"I didn't mean to do it at all. It was a mistake."

She did not come upstairs after that. She ran her classes on the first floor at the back of the clinic, and we only spoke about the security guard's duties or when the men in her groups bothered the patients. I saw her all the time even when she didn't know it. I saw how she changed. There were the thick-soled boots, orange-tan, and jeans; soft, open shirts, and the parka whose collar lay against her cheek, rosy with winter. I heard her laugh, touch kindly someone's hand, open a door for an old lady. And I wanted to be with her.

But I couldn't go to her. Could not lumber down the narrow stairs, catch my breath before I reached her door. I couldn't believe that she would want such a man as I was.

Then I fell into myself, into the maelstrom at whose center was my failing heart. I rose and fell and sank. When I knew where I was, when I knew what had happened, then I thought of nothing but the beat of my heart and its echoing pulse, the circuitous journey of my blood. I thought of nothing but rising to the moment of waking and sinking to the instant of sleep. In the night I imagined the intravenous bead poised like a bird about to drop in a downward plunge. I could hear it fall in the dark. Then, in the time of full awakening-when the bed was cranked up, and day filled the single hospital window like a painting: false sky, cardboard buildings, trees bent like wire hangers; and my wife was seated in the beige armchair as if she had been there forever-they brought me food. A small piece of chicken, a scoop of rice, some beans, deep green and soggy from the steam cart. Food for the heart patient, but I refused it. I refused the oatmeal and the unbuttered toast. The tuna and the bowl of greens. The nurse told the doctor. My wife folded her hands this way and that, imploring me in a low voice so that no one would hear.

"Roberto, how can you live if you do this? Roberto, if you die, you bring us down. Roberto, I have children. Roberto, don't do this."

I didn't want to die. I saw that food was my death, my way of dying. A different kind of death from my pretty-girl mother's and her violent brothers, but really no different from other deaths we will upon ourselves, the deaths that the nameless streets intended for us. The social worker came, and she had a name that was Greek. Her hair was black and smooth, and her eyes were innocent and kind. I could hear the accents of another language in her words. The folders she gave me described the diet of heart patients, the benign food that nourished, that would not bring you crashing down in the middle of an ordinary day when your desk was filled with messages, and the intercom called your name. But you could not answer. For her kind eyes and the foreign language at the core of her words, I ate: small forkfuls, tentative spoons lifted to my lips. But I was always afraid, not the simple fear of dying but the fear of a person so purely instrumental in his own death, so deliberate in the arrangement of his own end. I had never understood this before falling into the wide pool of pain. I had never understood the devouring monster that lived in me, intent on my destruction. Now that I knew that he-it-was there; I could not please it with my easy dying.

From the woman I received a card, humorous, impartial, no words that would alarm my wife as she arranged the plants and cards on the window ledge. "We heard you were ill," cartoon figures, and her signature. When I left the hospital and the trays of food, the small portions that never satisfied the hunger, only the need to survive, I was afraid again. Afraid of the breads, the margarine, the eggs in their top-heavy ovals. The chicken bleeding on the counter-top; the stew filling the kitchen with the rich smell of bay leaf, beef, carrots and onions. The wedge of cheese covered with plastic wrap. The cookies for the boys; the boxes of mix in the pantry; the unopened cans stacked one upon the other, red for soups, green for vegetables, yellow for fruit thick in syrup. They were menacing, tempting, everywhere in my home.

I would walk because I was supposed to and because I had to escape the murderous food. At first, it was just two blocks and home again, past the square lawns beginning to green, the doors brown and creme, shutters flown open to light and the voices of the neighbors. The sidewalks were dark with rain that had fallen in the night. I had never looked at these streets before, but now I saw them foot by foot, yard by yard, roof by roof, gray and luminous, dark and light.

One afternoon, I toasted a tortilla on the burner, flipped it over and back again, filled it with beans that had been cooked in the oven with pork fat and cheese. I wrapped the tortilla around the beans, thinking, "I am cured of this madness." But with the thought came the fear, coupled and fused: yearning and aversion. I threw the tortilla in the sink and ran from the house. The Greek social worker arranged that I join the program sponsored by the hospital for people suffering from extreme obesity. There was apology in the way she said the words, 'extreme obesity,' but I did not need her apologies or her delicacy. I was terrified.

The way it works is that you don't eat anymore. The food for your life comes in sealed packages, choice of five flavors: chocolate, vanilla, pineapple-banana, orange-lemon, and strawberry. Five times a day the packets are mixed in a plastic container with the measure of water. There are vitamins and herbal teas. That's all. After a lifetime of eating everything, whether it tasted good or not, whether it was raw or cooked, whether you wanted it or not, the only choices were five flavors. Beyond that, there was hunger. The walks became miles of streets and extended into another season. Other journeys were made on the stationary bicycle, the degrees of difficulty determined by a single lever. While my family ate their meals, I would peddle at number two and try not to hear the fork sing against the plate, the spoon vibrate across the bowl.

When I went back to the clinic, she was preparing to leave. Xavier was carrying boxes of materials to her car. The posters were rolled into cylinders to be spread out, flattened, and pinned up with bright, new stick pins in another place. She had been offered another site and a permanent position. She was wearing slacks of soft cotton and a white shirt with the collar open.

"Why, you look wonderful," she said. "We were so concerned." She would not say "I." That was her revenge on me, a way to take away the room, the white slip, and the hurried, clumsy moment she could not have wanted to happen to her. "I had hoped we might talk," I said.

"There isn't time anymore."

A man can wait as women wait. A man can walk the pleasant streets of the life he has made. He can go each week to his support group and tell other men and women how he felt when he ate twelve doughnuts in the alley before going in the house for dinner under a dim light in the kitchen, his grandmother filling his plate. He can decide what flavors he will mix with water at 8:00, 11:00, 1:00. He can buy two pairs of trousers until the next forty pounds are lost. He can see a thinner man emerge but never lose the outlines of the man and boy he was. He can grow thinner and thinner and still be afraid. He can be afraid even when he is as thin as he is ever going to be; when he dresses in the morning in trousers with a thirty-six inch waist and a shirt with a size fifteen collar; when he eats the oatmeal measured and sealed in a package, a safe, preordained portion. He can still be afraid. And he is afraid when he calls her after so many months, more than a year: that she will not come, that she will never know what he willed for himself against the devouring other self that lived in him. She came, herself another person. She was not the woman who stood in doorways, afraid to enter. She was a woman who hung up her coat-"Thinsulate," the label on the lining read-and who took a seat at the side of the desk. She wore her glasses and smiled when she was amused.

"I can't believe this. I would never recognize you if we met on the street."

"Most of the time I don't believe it either. I have to think about it all the time. It's like being an alcoholic. That's how it's treated."

"Meeting and confessions?"

"Doctors and diets."

"Has it changed you?"

"In a lot of ways. But not about you."

She stood up, and even in her sensible clothes, a dark dress, washable, and flat shoes, a watch with a broad band, a beige purse of sturdy leather, she was still the out-of-place woman who had picked her way across the glass-littered parking lot. Ten pounds heavier, two years older, she was still delicate. She looked out at the filthy streets, the dirt-covered windows of the low buildings, housing pawn shops, junk shops, resale shops, diners.

"Before we were like people in a play, wearing masks, saying our lines to go with the parts we were playing. No sense and no consequences. We were just outside of our lives like on a stage. And I was outrageous. I don't know who I thought I was."

"So it didn't count?"

"No, it didn't. Now, you are just a man who wants to sleep with a woman who isn't his wife, maybe once or twice a month. That's all. Just a regular man with a modest salary and a family to support. And I don't want that."

"You wanted that fat man, the man I was. Is that right?"

"I liked the play acting, the inappropriateness, the thrill of it."

"You can have it again. We can."

"It would just be sordid. Before it was dramatic. I could make you up, bigger than ordinary life. I could find reasons to love you that no one else could think of. It was romantic, even creative. Now it would just be adultery. I don't have time for adultery."

I should have known that, too. About what there is time for and when that time is over. I should have known from the brief lives of the people on this street that stretches east and west in misery. For every wretched girl who comes here with a child in her arms and one opening up like a flower within, there had been a moment when she was lovely; when she and her man were poised on the exquisite brink, a place where only falling was possible. We should have gone to the room as long as it was the place for us, but there were too many things to be afraid of. And they stood in my way. I can imagine what we would be like now: two ordinary people in a bed, making love, saying too many things, and then the anger that springs from such meetings. I should be content with the memory of her quiet posture and her folded hands. I shouldn't know any more about her.

Originally published in the February/March 1999 issue of Boston Review



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