“What is it with you and these people?” my husband says. He is standing in the archway to the family room. The kids are asleep and I am on the floor fenced in fresh clothing. After the weekend, it’s back to folding laundry. He nods at the TV. It’s a cable program on the housebound obese. The show features people—real people—on their journey to weight loss: from doctors’ visits and therapy couches, tearful fits and ultimatums, to the final, begrudging agreement that they’ll do it, if for no one else than for the kids (it’s always for the kids), at which point experts descend upon the scene in khakis and pressed polos to sweep up tubs of fried chicken, bags of chips, and jumbo cups as the terrified, wide-eyed subjects—sweating, red in the face, brace themselves against metal strongholds, ladders filched slick from the deep end, and slowly, huff by labored puff, stand up.
“They’re inspiring,” I say. “Look how they turn their lives around.”
“They’re sick. It’s a freak show, a goddamn circus.”
Steve shakes his head. I shake out a shirt. Whenever I do housework I dose up on reality: Hoarders, pregnant teens, interventions. Watching other people is a distraction. It takes me out of myself. I tuck one sleeve, then another. Time passes. I press and smooth. The pile rises.
Steve calls them garbage humans.
He says, “Have they no shame?”
And yet, Steve believes in free trade. What does anyone sell? Organs, options. It’s all the same. I ball a pair of socks. I ball another and another. I arrange them into a little ammunition pyramid. He runs the edge of a business card between his lacquered front teeth.
We’d gone upstate with Steve’s college buddies. It was a July 4th tradition: to rent out an arts and crafts cabin on the Delaware with a bright expanse of windows facing the river, prize stags’ heads on display, tapestries of the American flag. To eat and drink like royalty, play Frisbee and gin, to get wasted and act out charades. Over the years the rentals have been upgraded, as have the wives. Periodically it rains, everyone’s hair is thinning; otherwise the weekends are interchangeable, equally pleasant and dull.
It started out fine. When it comes to Steve, there are a few rules. Follow them and you’re in business. My husband likes routine, results. Tangibility. Discover what works and stick with it. You’re either out or in. To psych himself up for the trip, he whipped a jump rope, wiggled chin-ups on the bar. He made playlists and custom T-shirts, unearthed his college dugout and bat and packed it tight with quality weed in the front seat. On the drive, we smoked one-hitters, his arm out the window, my scalp burning with the top down until he dropped a hat in my lap. It smelled like his head. We said things like “Pass the peace pipe.” We punctuated with “hon”—the way you do with intimates or strangers. Life was easy. We were in, in, in.
We arrived at the house first. If nothing else, Steve had a heavy foot and an unflagging sense of direction. A carved eagle and whittled Sioux greeted us, the kind sold at outposts by the side of a country road. I unpacked the car. Steve went on a beer run. We chose the largest room, wood paneling with a private bath, plastic coated like the one I gave birth in. This was the extent of our advantage. Next came Kelly and Chris with matching luggage and snapshots of their newly renovated home, followed by Smitty and his young wife, Daphne; Rodger with Sue’s pumped up boobs. Harlan and LeAnn pulled in last, after completing their 6th triathlon with new personal bests. Muscles bulged through their clothes, which hugged their bodies like superhero costumes.
Competition is human nature. I understand. I watch Survivor. I watch The Bachelor. I appreciate a steady lens. It’s normal to keep score. Striving is the engine of desire. Life is not a dress rehearsal, shiny hosts say. No time for losers: these were his bros, his Sigma Chi brothers. Still, maybe I should have tried harder to puff him up to scale. That first night while we sat around the porch with drinks and fancy pickles, I could have been more sympathetic as the sun set and Steve’s face fell like a sad pup listening to the litany of everyone else’s wild successes. I admit, it was hard to take. I could have squeezed his hand, trailed my fingers along the slope of his mediocre neck as it blotched red with envy. I could have strummed the unremarkable lobe of his ear and said: You are plenty. You are more than enough.
But I’m his wife.
Steve was on his own. When he sprang up, he nearly knocked over his chair, pacing like a think tank hotshot who’d hit upon a big idea. His big idea: to place bets. Who could out-shit, out-cook, out-fish, out-canoe, who could drink the others into oblivion. The man needs an audience. Otherwise, he is a tree falling in the woods. Even our five-year-old throws fart contests with playmates, which is to say, you’re never too young to join the rat race. A beer bong and egg timer materialized, for kicks. The guys—Steve, Harlan, Smitty, and Chris—they were laughing so hard, tears streaming, foreheads bulging, they couldn’t come up for air. As for the wives, we chuckled along with them because we had cemented no bond of our own, yet didn’t want to feel left out, like we were missing something, depth or experience or wedge of common ground.
We refilled glasses. Sue pulled a vaporizer from her purse. It was iridescent blue, the word INHALE stamped on the side, the name of her yoga studio. It occupied our hands. The night was beautiful, warm yet crisp, the bats flapping from tree to tree in search of familiar newness. Bourbon bombs, Moscow mules. The hot tub bubbled away. Within hours it came to fucking. Steve devised a code word to keep it polite. The code word was checkers. Under the super moon the men high-fived. Steve lit the grill and boasted his culinary skill. Feasted offerings included steaks, lobsters, and octopi in their entirety, face down and prostrate, tentacles charred and all.
“An octopus has three hearts,” I said. I learned it from our kid’s Weird But True book. Heads turned.
“A lobster mates for life,” Daphne chimed in.
Like I said, she was new.
The air went still for an instant. Freaking glass. Then, broke into laughter.
The games began.
“Shall we whip out that board,” Steve said, trailing me into the bathroom. I turned on the faucet. He came around from behind, his arms in Heimlich position. The room had mirrors on all walls. It felt more communal dressing room than country décor. I shut the tap, dried my hands and backed into him. I’d made a life out of backing into things.
An hour later he pounced again. “King me,” he said. I smiled wide enough to break my face. Smile, smile, smile. My teeth blotched red with wine. No one noticed. They were playing, too. It was a holiday weekend, our great nation’s birthday. Let freedom ring! Harlan and LeAnn stormed the open-area loft, gymnastic with the bunk beds. Daphne and Smitty plunged into the outdoor Jacuzzi. We huffed and puffed and padded around the ground floor in clammy bathing suits. My navy one-piece had a ruffle that draped like a bib, making me feel both infantile and old.
“Does it turn you on?” Steve says now of the show. This is not dirty talk. I have not been punished adequately. I am sorry but not sorry enough, not sorry for what he wants me to be sorry for. When did his desires ever warrant apology?
He says, “It’s amazing how they live with themselves.”
How does anyone? I want to say, but stop myself. We’ve been married ten years. We live in a split-level with stapled carpet on the commuter line in the wrong school district. Our TV is a disgrace by today’s LCD standards. Bodies stretch beyond the modest screen.
I fold a negligee—once pink, now gray. Lace unravels. It’s leftover from our honeymoon. Steve loosens his tie. I get it. He works. I breastfeed. I play Chutes and Ladders while the life is sucked out of me, but at the end of a bona fide day, he’s beat. The show breaks for commercial. Winged models announce a runway special. They leg in satin and pink. Steve hooks his finger in his knot, leans against the molding. An ad pops on for bleach.
We met at state college. Lab partners in a biology course designed to weed out the slackers from the premed majors, we mapped the Krebs cycle. Neither of us committed to the sciences. Statistics became Steve’s calling and I—well, I dropped out before declaring. At the time it felt temporary. I had my sister Kate to take care of, but otherwise I was around, working shifts in the coffee shop off-campus—mopping spills and steaming lattes, scraping the edges from frozen tubs of espresso into glasses for overpriced granita. Students came by, students like Steve, students who sat with their legs out as if the world belonged to them. I let them take me wherever they deemed fit. At Steve’s winter formal we hovered over a bag of drugs in the bathroom until I popped the hand dryer by mistake. I wasn’t thinking. Blow blew, frosting our noses and lids.
Everything was expendable.
Honestly, it’s hard to remember. Before all of this, who was I? My long-term memory is solid, my short-term even, save for the four-year spell during which my parents died in rapid succession—one by accident, one by despair—the supposed formative years, where there’s tar over this pit. Only so much room in the prefrontal cortex before you run out. I heard that on talk radio. I saw it in a movie my kids were too young for but to which I dragged them anyway: booster-seated, at my breast. Experts agree: Outings break up the days. Eventually, they’ll learn. The brain purges nonessentials. Such as, but not limited to, feelings, moments, other loves.
Kate and I opened canned sauce, cooked meals in a plug-in, dove beneath blankets when we had no heat. At the college people talked about themselves emphatically and in all seriousness. Kate chewed pencils while doing her homework. She was 10, 12, 14. She was going to be just fine. I was a gullet. My cheeks puffed from whatever I could muscle down my throat. I stood in line before parked trucks idling for a hot sub. Once Steve took me to a concert, philharmonic, he knew someone who played the French horn. He wore a bowtie spattered in curly snails. I cried through the entire score as he patted my hand—caressed it. Of the music I am sure; you never forget the music, but I’m not positive about Steve, the tie or the caress. They easily could have belonged to some other guy.
Here was checkers: a game we all could rally behind. The spirit was contagious. It made joiners out of us. By Saturday, the cabin began to smell accordingly. We cranked ceiling fans, fried eggs and bacon over the chlorinated funk, then opened the windows and rushed to the river. Downstream, the color of a bottle. I shivered. Boulders jutted like headstones and I held out, careful not to be carried by the current. When clouds rolled in we pulled ourselves onto the bank, spent, half-naked in the grass. Guys stood around dripping. Wives served lunch: cold cuts beneath wire nets designed to keep out insects. Toothpicks turned into mini-duels, snapped into useless weapons.
We were hungry.
Steve said, “Pass the mustard, hon.”
Slender arms reached for the jar, a veritable web of gooseflesh.
“You’re the best,” he said, squeezing my thigh.
Who doesn’t appreciate attention? We’d arrived at the age of irrelevance, the lot of us—except for Daphne, who was not yet 30—so it was important to acknowledge we were still alive, among the living. Earlier in the week, Steve had grumbled he’d been kept off email chains at work until he realized that email chains themselves were a thing of the past. I felt bad. It was beyond Steve’s control. The world was moving. Our idols, dying. There was not a hip hairdo in sight. When had we been left behind?
I made a bologna sandwich, sawed it in two.
Tonight’s episode focuses on enablers. It is a Valentine’s special. Lovers fatten and feed. “The bigger the better, the more to love,” partners say of their 800-pound spouses, boyfriends and girlfriends. Enablers curl into the warm contours of bodies. They relish plenitude. Reap comfort from excess. But the experts aren’t having it. They barge into basements, snapping clipboards. Break it up. They trade the word love for abuse. Fetishization. They pull apart couples melded like two halves of grilled cheese with clear instructions to stop the madness. A vicious cycle. It’s like a crackdown from Cops only the enemy is devotion. These are the world’s leading professionals issuing a warning: The morbidly part of obese means death is around the bend. People need to know emptiness in order to feel full. As if misers of the heart are any better off.
“No wonder you feel the way you do,” Steve says, although I haven’t mentioned feelings. He’s opened his collar, revealing a sliver of undershirt, a soul patch of chest hair. “Dogs, left to their own devices, will eat themselves to death, too.” He says this as absolution. Lashes going. As if to say: all species grapple with impulse control. The struggle is real. I open my mouth but this is Steve softening. He is coming around. We’ve been together long enough to anticipate patterns. Say nothing and Steve will retreat, like a pet whose pleas for attention has gone untended. Animal, vegetable, mineral. It’s all related. Everything is forgotten. I move on to the kids’ clothes: tiny undershirts with block prints and snaps in the crotch. I make neat, satisfying stacks. Upstairs, my baby cries. I freeze, alert where I’m needed, but it’s only a night terror. My daughter settles herself. On screen determination takes root. Welcome to reality. Thighs weep in high definition. Pleats of flesh bow to knees.
Sure enough, Steve backs off. It’s not entirely passive. He has this way of walking like he’s stomping on grapes, like he’s rolling up his pants and really going for it. We honeymooned in Napa. Sunshine and green, but I stayed in bed beneath a pouf of white eyelet, trying to stitch the parts together. Here I was. Not that it was bad. How different would it have looked with someone else? Steve took care of my wine headaches. I liked the idea of being taken care of. If it hadn’t been what I’d imagined, I stopped imagining. Steve framed it for me. My husband, he moves around like he needs to be heard. I hear the pop of the fridge in the next room, I hear the slide of the crisper—Steve searching for something healthy, fresh, and wholesomely balanced—but he will not find what he’s looking for. I haven’t bought what he wants.
Last weekend, we tallied our chips on a kitchen chalkboard, fingers dusted in pastel the color of Easter eggs. Slashes crossed, multiplied by the bundle. Our numbers rose. My ambition grew. I liked this game. I was a go-getter.
At first Steve was into it. He dealt me a squeeze, called me “insatiable.”
But the thrill soured quickly. My advances were smothering him. This was not what he’d intended.
“Okay, hon, we’ve clinched it. Let’s take a break.”
Only I was just getting started. I’m not sure what came over me. Victory, I could taste it. My lips tingled. Was it terrible to want this one thing?
Lest I get carried away, Steve reminded me: The guys. They’re why we’d come. Before checkers, after checkers the guys shot-gunned beers. They carried canoes. They went cliff jumping. I felt stricken. People break their backs on rusty stoves sunk at the bottom of rivers. My mother had drowned. I’d watched her clear as July from the jagged slip of Watkins Glen: what happened to free spirits, to those who believed they had wings. Come back! I urged. Wives tossed their triangle tops to the sky. Men became boys in mid-air, measuring their splashes. They sat phone-to-phone enrolling in Tough Mudders, Spartan marathons, Steve paling as he watched video feats through livewire, as he calculated his chances and adjusted for loss, as he assured himself better to be with the guys than back down.
I was not backing down either. As the sun dipped I watched Kelly take out her hat, her paperback, and her progressive lenses, Chris shuffle his deck. Daphne returned with a platter arranged in sliced fruit. If we were lucky, I was told, when night came, strangers on the other side might set firecrackers off their docks.
“Pussies!” I shouted.
“Hon,” Steve said. “What’s gotten into you?”
I can’t say I planned it. But I couldn’t sit around talking about what’s for dinner. Or secondhand bursts. I was tired of nice. How was it that other people could snap their fingers and move onto other things?
I grabbed Steve by the wrist.
This time, I had the guys on my side.
“Your wife has some appetite.”
“Fill ’er up.”
In the bedroom, I arranged a makeshift tripod, propping my phone against the bosom of a life-sized whittled duck. I pressed record. The camera beeped.
“Hold still,” Steve said, taking me in the mouth. I’ll give him this: He understands love even when his heart’s not into it. I tilted my hips. He traced the alphabet with his tongue. Textbook: uppercase, lower, but zilch. Standard methods no longer applied. I felt nothing. Not even numb. The red light blinked. When he was ready, I shut my eyes. Blinking bore into my lids. Beneath him, I squirmed. I twisted. I was restless, all right. There had to be something else. Cinch my wrists; clamp my throat, I wanted to be berated.
Steve popped up. “Say what?”
“I AM YOUR GARBAGE HUMAN!”
With that, the duck decoy fell over.
“Everything okay?” The guys poked their faces in the door. Steve reddened.
“You try to satisfy her,” he said, brushing past them, which is what they did.
Later, we watched the clips—Chris dropping his towel, his pecs like half-risen dough; the gathered slick of Smitty’s back. Harlan, with his armored jaw, yanked my hair and twisted. In the shower, we slipped and slid. Soap filled my eyes. I teared up. I knew these guys. My body is no longer young but it is a body that has served me, as much as a body can, as a repository for memory. It is a body whose want knows no limit. In spite of its frame. We watched together. Images jumped and blurred but there was a discernible look on my face, a curl in my lip. Neither pleasure nor despair. Nor was it resignation. A taut line, halfway between. It was a start. Here I was: winning. I almost won. I would have, too. No one had mentioned monogamy. Still, when Daphne caught sight of it, bless her bleating heart, the whole game was thrown out. The party dispersed.
Steve and I drove home in silence.
Plot twist: without food, love loses expression. Relationships suffer. The couple on TV goes into mourning for what they once had. Which makes sense. When you’re used to life being one way, how can you suddenly shift? Failure to adapt – that’s our planet’s biggest downfall. It leads to the extinction of species, of people. I picked that up. Darwin. Oprah. Martin Luther King. To make up for this lack of codependency, the husband tries to stuff himself instead of his wife. He throws up a million chunks. The woman wails from her bed that she is starving. She is still the same size but a hole is bearing into her. This goes on, etc. Eventually, the wheelchair disappears. The housebound wife learns to walk again. Music twinkles: The husband throws a party with balloons and a sheet cake.
Do I feel bad? Of course I do. I mean, all the time.
My sister Kate says it’s natural. Forget about he said, she said. Binaries don’t work. We are only what we allow ourselves to become. She is younger but wiser. She breaks up via text. She stays with us sometimes, when she is between people or digs. She is my only family so I listen, although sometimes I wonder if she and Steve are in cahoots. Her recommendations feel outdated: costumes, karaoke. She sends me a link for adult toys. Would we be any happier if I folded and fluffed bare-assed in tube socks? Topless vacuuming apparently is a thing. People pay money for this service. Everything for the right price, but I don’t know. Neither of us has much of an imagination. I wear yoga pants when I’m not doing yoga.
“Haven’t you had enough?”
Steve is back now with his snack, hovering. I don’t know what he’s found but I hear food sounds, breathing. I mute the TV. The frames march on silently. It can’t be easy, what he does. Providing. Home, marriage. Kids: the haunt of mouths. Mine, wired as if by spring. Some mornings, I don’t bother making the beds. They just get messed up anyway, but Steve says—if only you took more pride in small things.
One small thing I remember: Steve and I on the couch those early days. Maybe we were high or maybe we were just into each other, but either way we were sitting there, laughing and talking and snacking. Now he has his rules about what he’ll put into his body (his temple) but I’ve always been indiscriminate.
He held up a cracker.
“You can tell a lot about a person by how they eat.”
“That so.” I grabbed the box.
“Some take everything at once, like communion.”
He slotted the cracker through his lips.
I nibbled my edges in reckless, methodical fury, flaking bits on my jeans, crumble in the cushions, round and round, until eventually my circle disappeared.
The happy ending does not end there. Contrary to belief, health problems don’t vanish with weight loss. Empty flaps of skin remain, wide and winged like stingrays, presenting a new burden.
FUPA, the plastic surgeon calls it. His nose pointy, sharp as a pin. The camera zooms into his white teeth as he translates the acronym, poorly suppressing a laugh. The surgeon is accustomed to Beverly Hills housewives; he’s a recurring guest of multiple reality shows.
He clicks his pen. “When was the last time you saw yourself pee?”
Her body no longer fits, but the celebrity surgeon shares good news: “FUPA can be tailored and shaped, trimmed off like the grist around a good steak.”
Lovers weep in paper gowns. Afterward, the camera cuts to the operating table, marbled heap of skin. It looks like pudding. I think about letting go of weight. Still, side effects persist: flesh eating bacteria, necrosis, burning welts. The episode wraps on a cliffhanger, with the future, unknown. The postscript rolls: after multiple procedures and new bodies, the couple has split. They have found love in others.
“Well,” Steve says, “At least that’s over.” His speech is garbled, as if his tongue is pushing around marbles. I listen to him suck thickly then chew. I feel better already.
I click off the TV. “What have you got?”
He pops a grape into my mouth. It is icy green, frozen, meant to last.