A Fat Man
As soon as I step into my apartment, I start peeling off clothes like a snake shedding skin. I undo my belt; it slides through the loops of my jeans until the metal buckle clinks against the kitchen floor. No longer constrained, I wiggle free from denim, slither out of 75% cotton and 25% polyester. In ten quick seconds, I am free and comfortable--my clothes scattered across the floor, crumpled, like hollow, twisted bodies.
I feel skinny. I feel light.
All the curtains in my small apartment are drawn shut. I keep the lights off. I like dwelling, naked, in the gray. I switch on the ceiling fan in my bedroom. My body cools, though there are areas that remain warm and moist, where fat folds over fat, where friction is constant--the inside of my thighs, where the leg meets the hip, the back of my neck, the area between my chest and my stomach, between my stomach and my crotch. The many equators of my body.
I walk into the bathroom, taking up half the space, and study myself in the full-length mirror. I am not in a funhouse; the reflection does not lie. I pose. I flex the muscles hidden underneath layers of flesh. I try to look seductive, puckering my lips and narrowing my eyes. Alone, I am the GQ of fat.
I turn my backside to the mirror. My back reminds me of gentle hills, undulating down from my shoulders into a mid back swale, then gently climbing and flattening out. Where the lower back ends, my butt begins. Unlike the rest of my body--curvaceous, spherical--my butt is flat; it blends into my thighs. I flex it, but it looks no different.
I smile. My body, its freedom.
I run my hands across the deep welts on my stomach. In the mirror, they look like train tracks that meet and disappear into my bellybutton. The welts are a product of the belt cinched too tight. My stomach becomes divided at the bellybutton like a deformed and flabby hourglass. I puff it out. I shape and mold it. In two hours, my stomach will return to normal, round like the curve of a globe.
My right nostril is slightly wider than the left. Both nostrils tilt slightly up. I like to think the width of my nose holds smells in longer: the combination of sweat and rich earth after Katie gardens, her gardenia-scented soap, the aroma of a home cooked meal, of sizzling garlic and black bean sauce.
After two weeks without a clip, my nose hairs try to blend with my mustache. If I am clean-shaven, they look like insect antennae poking out.
My mother is glad I don't have a "white nose." A white nose is pointy, she says. It would look strange on my face, whose features are dulled by chubby cheeks and a big oval head. My flat Thai nose seems to blend with my narrow eyes, with my small elastic mouth that expands when I smile. My nose is comfortable being fat.
As he looks through the Cracker Barrel menu, he scratches his nose.
"Oh my god. He is so fat. Look at him."
"How 'bout it. He can't fit in the booth. You see his stomach? Half of it's on the table."
No more than five feet away, two girls, one about nine and the other a little older, sip lemonade from straws, giggling and stealing glances in his direction. They sit at the end of a long table, apart from the rest of the family--the grandparents who chew slowly, the father who ignores the crying baby, the mother who has detached herself from the scene. The two girls wear proper church attire on this fall Sunday morning--pink and frilly blouses and light blue skirts that go to the ankles. They are dressed like twins, except one is blond and the other a brunette. Barbie and her kid sister Skipper, he thinks.
He sees them in his periphery, never raising his eyes off the menu, ears wide open.
"Look at the girl he's with," says Barbie. "She's pretty."
"And little," says Skipper. "Why is she with him?"
The girl he is with is not skinny, but not fat either. Pleasantly plump, she describes herself. Pudgy is another way. She wears his blue windbreaker over a cream V-neck sweater. The clothes hang loose on her body, sleeves over her hands, the sweater down to mid thigh, making her look small.
When the waitress comes over with pen and pad in hand, Barbie says, "Shhh. I wanna know what he gets."
He feels their eyes. He wants to hide behind the menu.
"Ready?" the waitress says.
"Two pancakes and bacon," says the girl he is with. "Orange juice." She closes the menu.
He orders. "Uncle Hershel's Big Breakfast with the ham," he says softly. "With an extra order of the casserole."
"How'd you like your eggs?" the waitress asks.
"Over easy," he says.
The waitress nods and begins to turn away, but he isn't done.
"And extra links of sausage, please," he says. Sausage gravy to go with the biscuits. An order of Vandalia onion rings."
"Oh my god," Skipper whispers.
"That it?" the waitress says.
He says, "Yes."
The waitress walks away.
"Did you hear that?" says Barbie. "What a fatty."
"Totally," says Skipper.
The girl he is with sips ice water while flipping nonchalantly through the Southern Illinoisan. He is sure she hasn't heard the two girls five feet away. She hears nothing until after breakfast. "Hungry?" she asks, without lifting her eyes off the paper.
"Yes," he says.
"Good," she says, putting her hand on his.
You have fat hands. Unlike other people's hands, there are no veins, no hint of a skeletal structure under your flesh. Your hands are plump and soft all around. Like a blown up latex glove, there is no contour, no lines for a lover to run a finger along. There is nothing but an even smoothness.
Katie adjusts the temperature of the shower. She sticks her left hand into the spray of water, finding the perfect degree of hot and cold. When she's content, she disrobes and takes the clip out of her brown hair. She steps gingerly into the shower and stands under the stream for a couple of seconds, soaking her hair before moving back and making room for me. I follow behind her, grabbing her butt as I walk in.
Warm water runs down my back. The initial sensation makes me sigh like the first bite of strawberry cheesecake. I pull the curtain shut, separating us from whatever else is out there: the sleeping dogs on our bed, the phone calls, the TV I never turn off, the dishes that are never done. The shower curtain lets in little light, but seems to make Katie's skin look whiter, and mine darker brown.
The bathtub is not large. Standing up, our bodies fit in it perfectly. Katie's bath stuff is lined along the edges of the tub. Mine is in a bright, teal plastic basket directly behind her, held up by suction cups. We reach over each other to get our shampoos, our bodies touching. My left arm grazes her neck and shoulder. Her arm brushes against the side of my stomach. I scrub in my shampoo, my hands working vigorously back and forth on my scalp. She applies hers slowly; her languid movements contrast with mine.
I wait until she's done, putting my hands on her arms and feeling her goosebumps.
I say, "Time to trade."
"Yeah," she says. "I'm cold."
We embrace. One of her hands clutches my elbow, the other around my neck. My arms wrap around her waist while we switch positions--she travels via wall, I go by way of curtain. Our round stomachs press hard against each other. We kiss in the interchange.
Katie rinses the shampoo out of her hair, tipping her head back into the stream of water. She continually runs her hand through the long strands, being thorough, making sure to get all the suds out. While she rinses, I reach for her washcloth and dab gardenia-scented soap onto it. I wait until she finishes rinsing. She clumps her hair to one side and wrings water out.
"Ready?" I ask.
She smiles. Beads of water run down her chest and off her nipples.
I wash her arms and shoulders and in between her breasts. When I run the washcloth over the breasts themselves, she covers her nipples. "Be gentle," she says. I smile and lift up each breast, making sure to clean underneath, commenting on how each one weighs ten pounds.
"I'm a lucky guy," I say
"Naughty," she says. When I get to her stomach, my favorite part of her body, I blow into her bellybutton like a tuba. She says, "It's not a tuba," and giggles. I do it again and she squirms away from my lips.
"I can't help it," I say. Her stomach is so smooth and warm, so soft to touch.
After I finish washing her, we trade positions again. Her stomach, slick with soap, allows us to slide easily to the other side. It's like a game. I ask her if we can do it again.
"OK," she says. I grab her hand like in a tango and slide. She laughs.
Katie gets my green sponge ready, squeezing out old water from yesterday's shower. She puts liquid soap onto the sponge and kneads it together. It froths in her hands.
She begins to wash me: first the shoulders and arms, then down and across my chest. When she gets to my stomach, she moves the sponge in a small circle around my bellybutton, working outward, the circle growing in circumference. She washes my stomach without pausing at the pink lines all over the front and sides, my stretch marks. She doesn't hesitate at the dark purple spot the size of a quarter, a broken blood blister acquired by wearing pants that are two sizes too small. She works herself further down my body, squatting on her knees to wash my legs and calves, my butt and penis.
After she's done, she kisses my stomach and rises to her feet.
Let me say this about a fat man's penis: When the rest of your body is big, you sacrifice in other areas.
My pediatrician, a stout Polish man who did more harm than good, who spoke without consideration, is responsible for my fat right ankle, an ankle now sensitive to cold weather, an ankle he should not have broken during an examination of a sprain by twisting too roughly. Although he is a man with many shortcomings, I cannot deny his astute observation of my lower extremities. "Ogre-like. I've never seen so much hair on feet. And your nails! Good god, cut your toenails." They are indeed ugly and large--size 13 on a good day. Dark squiggly hair grows in patches, on the top of the foot and at the base of each toe. My toenails are long. They are thick and turning a shade of yellow. I find it difficult to bend and trim. Hunched over, I lose my breath; my stomach gets in the way, my fat an obstacle. In the shower, for the same reasons, my feet are neglected. Grime collects around my thick ankles and my insteps. The skin there is mottled, light tan and dirty gray.
Though my feet are not of Cosmo quality, I find simple pleasures in them. I like to wiggle my toes. They look like a little bearded family, waving from the large deck of the ship that is my foot. I like to roll a golf ball underneath my feet, massaging my lack-of an arch, my callused heel. I move the ball in between my toes. The golf ball does what Katie's hands can't. My feet are too big and thick for her fingers. They are the appropriate feet for a fat man--broad, sturdy, untamed.
Ask to feel a fat man's calves. He will let you. Ask to poke his stomach, expect a fist.
Leg workouts for the fat man: rising from the recliner, pushing up and off the bed, squatting down for a penny. There is no need for a gym. To be a fat man, load yourself down with 100-200 pounds and see how far your legs can carry you.
For the fit fat man--what an oxymoron!--his legs are the only source of vanity. He adores them. He runs his fingers along the back of the knee and the curve of the calf. He whispers to them when alone. "If only the rest of me could be like you guys."
For twenty-five years, my heart has never missed a beat. This, of course, is a good thing. I ask a lot from my heart. I ask it to work twice as hard, to keep every heavy limb moving. I ask it to sustain this 300-something pound body.
On some days, however, it complains. I feel it when I climb the stairs--the rapid beating in my chest like a musical crescendo. I hear it echo in my ears, this tremendous symphony of rushed wheezes, gasps for air, snare drumming in the chest; it is all I hear. I feel my heart beating in my fingertips and toes and temples. I lean against a wall, close my eyes, try to catch my breath. In its quickened rhythm, my heart speaks: C'mon guy. Work with me. I can only do so much. After a minute or two, my heart gathers itself, slows down.
For twenty-five years, my heart has taken the fat jokes, the stares, the rejection. "The rest of you looks fine. It's just the . . . you know . . . the fat." Only a fat heart can take such ridicule; a lesser heart would stop to shed tears. Mine, mine keeps on beating, as if saying, "I am too big for your shit." If the size of my heart is the size of my fist, then my heart is roughly equivalent to a standard sized softball. I imagine it looks like a heart drawn in the hands of a four-year-old--misshapen, imperfect, distorted, unbreakable, a heart Hallmark can never replicate. My heart knows how to forgive, to love again, to move on.
For twenty-five years, I have lived. Still am living. Will continue to live for, hopefully, more than twenty-five years. I am in the greater risk column. I have survived heartache, heartbreak. What about heart attack? What happens if my heart, the engine of my body, stalls? I think about this. Katie thinks about it. "I love all of you," she says. "Every fat inch," though she is thinking forever between us and occasionally tells me to stop eating and take the dogs on a walk with her. Once, when the subject of my heart came up, she looked down and talked to her hands and all I could think about was how I have this wonderful woman who wanted me to think about my future, who wanted me to change my life. For her, I will think about it, I will try. For now, my heart beats and beats and beats, steady, sending blood through every vein, every artery, feeding my brain, sustaining my body, my life, without a thought of ever stopping.
Ira Sukrungruang is a first generation Thai-American born in the
southside of Chicago. His work has appeared in Another Chicago
Magazine, Witness, Fourth Genre, and many other literary journals. Currently, he
is co-editing What Are You Looking At? The First Fat Fiction and Poetry
Anthology, slated for publication by Harcourt Brace in summer 2003. He
teaches creative nonfiction at SUNY Oswego.