Friday, December 11, 2009

Tubby or Not Tubby

In a time-honored tradition called "re-frying the beans," I'm going to share an essay of mine that was first published in 1996 in Network magazine, "a monthly publication for progressive Utah women." They paid me fifty bucks, and won my heart by not changing a single word of the original manuscript (including the title). The table of contents describes the essay as tragicomic, which also pleased me. Is it wrong to want to make you laugh and cry? Here it is (enjoy the 90s pop-culture references):

Blame nature, blame nurture, blame Hostess, but, at 38, I glanced down and was horrified to find myself...not thin.

I distinctly recall losing weight during the Carter administration. I was motivated by the desire to...facilitate romantic relationships (although we used a shorter, more vulgar phrase in the '70s). But now, with a romantic relationship (well, a marriage) in place, I was forced to root around for another motivating factor, another way to trick myself into eating less and exercising more.

I began by dividing journal pages into two columns and labeling one Not Morbidly Obese and the other Morbidly Obese. Every morning, I imagined a situation and filled a new page. For example:

An elderly aunt dies, and, if I'm to collect my inheritance, I must attend the funeral. I look like a wistful French schoolgirl in black tights and flats. My large green eyes are moist, my clear skin is pale. Chestnut hair tumbles to my shoulders and frames my face, so lovely, so vulnerable. A 12-year-old niece cuddles up next to me on the pew and admires my dress, congratulates me on completing my surgical residency, and asks if I'm still dating the Grammy Award-winning folk guitarist. Later, a handsome cousin (whom I haven't seen since our 20s when he moved to San Francisco with his Siamese cat, Babs) hugs me tight, tells me I look good enough to eat, and asks where I work out. During the service (in fact, while we sing "Abide With Me"), I'm overcome with grief, and a young man who lived next door to my aunt when he was a boy holds me in his arms and gently strokes my hair. Later, he and I have coffee and stay up late talking about deforestation.

Or: I'm late for the funeral because I can't get the crotch of my black tights past my knees. By the time I stop at the store for anything queen size, and rush to the church, I'm flushed and tense. When a cousin asks when my baby is due, I laugh nervously and tell her I'm not pregnant. As I'm backing away from her, and--for some reason--apologizing, I bump into an arrangement of chrysanthemums and knock it to the floor. During the service (in fact, while we sing "Abide With Me"), I sob loudly, damply, convulsively...feeling sorry for myself, for my aunt, for her unfriendly little dogs that no one wants. I hear a child say, "Mommy, what's wrong with that fat lady?" and I flee to the restroom. I blow my nose and stare at this person in the mirror, at her blotchy, swollen face and hideous rayon dress, and think, "When did I stop liking myself?"

Okay. Wasn't that fun? It truly helps to add rich detail, even dialogue. Next:

I'm home alone when the doorbell rings. I pause the Cindy Crawford exercise video and take my pulse on the way to the door. When I open it, I see a six-foot, bearded stranger with a boyish grin. He introduces himself as my husband's college roommate, Tim, on his way to L.A. for a job interview. We sit cross-legged on the floor, chatting. We sip jasmine tea, and I peel and section tangerines. We flirt casually, and he plays Beatles' love songs on my guitar. I'm thinking about touching the dark curly hair at his open shirt collar, when I hear a car in the driveway. After kissing my husband, I excuse myself to take a shower. I slip into a pink cotton sundress, and the three of us go to dinner, then dancing.

Or: I'm lying on an unmade bed, wearing sweat pants and a men's XXL Save-the-Whales T-shirt that my mother-in-law sent for my birthday. I'm rereading a Mary Higgins Clark novel and eating frosted animal cookies. I leap up when I hear the bell, hoping it's a truant teenager selling overpriced peanut brittle door to door. But it's a very handsome man, who--after rechecking the address--claims to be my husband's college roommate. "Does he still live her?" he asks tactlessly. I invite him in, but my heart's not in it, and he opts to come back that evening. The two of them go out for beer and pizza, and I stay home and watch a Susan Powter infomercial.

You can imagine how inspiring this can be every morning before breakfast. A favorite:

My son and I eagerly enter the IMAX theater in San Diego to watch a movie about the Grand Canyon. I take a seat and pull my knees up under my chin, ready to enjoy the magic that a 40-foot screen offers. I'm comfy in old jeans, a white cotton T-shirt, and Deja Shoes from the Real Goods catalog. Before the lights go down, I feel a tap on my shoulder, turn around, and recognize David, a man I dated briefly in high school. I squeal with delight, stand, and throw my arms around his warm neck. We gush over each other's children, and I shake hands with his wife, who seems shy but sweet. I can't stop smiling and touching him: his hands, his clean-shaven face, his well-pressed chinos. After the movie, we walk out together, arm in arm, sharing private jokes and memories. Right before we make his wife cry, we embrace and part, but not before I slip my business card into his shirt pocket.

Or: I'm exhausted after a day of wandering through museums, and I feel like a tired old cow as we're herded into the auditorium. I collapse into the uncomfortable seat, its armrests digging into my thighs. While sitting quietly with my eyes closed, I feel a tap on my shoulder and ignore it. When I feel it again, I look behind me and recognize David. I stare at him, his pretty wife, their golden-haired daughter. He says, "Polly?" I say, "No." He persists: "Polly Nelson?" I see my son, confused, a little worried. "You've made a mistake," I say, my voice breaking. After the show, we leave quickly, but not quickly enough. I see David watching me as I file out in too-short polyester slacks with elastic at the waist, a color-blocked tunic, and extra-wide brown leather slip-ons from Naturalizer. He puts his arm around his wife's slender waist, and they head for the other exit.


There it is, minus a sappy one-paragraph conclusion. And, of course, now I want to indulge in a post-menopausal version:

I'm stranded at the airport in Colorado Springs. A blizzard led to the unscheduled landing, and now all flights have been canceled, and all ground transportation has been shut down. I'm surrounded by weary and frustrated strangers, in the middle of a moonless night. It's chilly in the airport, but I'm comfy and cute in boot-cut jeans, lug-soled shoes, a red cashmere cardigan over a white cotton tank, and a chocolate-brown wool coat that hits right above the knee. People probably mistake me for Olivia Benson's self-possessed aunt.

I sip tea from a styrofoam cup, and notice--several rows away--a Spanish-speaking woman and her three small children, including an infant. I speak fluent Spanish (after completing an immersion program last year), so I head on over, after buying an armload of SunChips and Juicy Juice. (Phone lines are down, and vendors are unable to accept credit cards, but I have plenty of cash.) I introduce myself to the mom, we chat briefly about the lousy weather, and I offer the treats. Soon, I'm holding the baby (it was inevitable). The toddlers busy themselves with the spiral notebooks and colored markers that fill my carry-on (I'd been on my way to a cabin in Telluride where I was going to write a surprisingly good novel). Later, after much storytelling and a song or two (I manage--on the fly--to translate "Puff, the Magic Dragon"), they fall asleep, and I cover them with my coat. A handsome gray-haired man sitting nearby dog-ears his Bill Bryson paperback and asks if he can be of help. I send him for diapers, and he also brings back a four-cheese pizza. We talk for hours, and I fall asleep with my head on his shoulder. By the following afternoon, the storm clears, and we continue on to our destinations, after a lot of hugging.

Or: During the rough landing in Colorado Springs, it occurs to me that I should have carried on a coat, my blood-pressure medication, something to read, and more than a couple dollars in cash. As we deplane, I say a silent prayer of thanks that it wasn't necessary to use the emergency slides, because someone might have captured my descent on video, posted it on youtube, and labeled it "This looks like the birth of a baby whale...he he." Eventually, I find a seat and plop down, feeling angry and lonely. My clothes and shoes fit poorly, and I yearn to be stretched out on the sofa at home in oversized PJs and no bra. I want to visit the restroom, and get a drink of water, but I'm afraid someone will take my seat and I'll have to sprawl unattractively on the floor. People probably mistake me for one of Marge Simpson's lesser-known sisters.

My husband is under the impression I'm on my way to a cabin in Telluride to begin writing a novel, but my plan all along has been to hole up at the Holiday Inn, watching "Office" reruns and ordering room service (novel writing is best left to smarter and more tenacious folks). While rummaging around for a piece of unwrapped gum in the bottom of my purse, I notice--several rows away--a Spanish-speaking woman and her three small children. They look as miserable as I feel. I regret my failed attempts to learn Spanish, because I'd like to befriend the woman and hold her fretful baby. Instead, I try to make out the title of the book being read by the middle-aged man sitting across from me. Sure's "A Walk in the Woods," a book I recently enjoyed. The man looks up, catches my eye, and quickly turns away. I wrap my arms around my carry-on, and stare into the middle distance, trying to ignore a persistent ache in my left shoulder and a vague tightness in my chest. It's going to be a long night.


Well. Not quite as much fun as it was fourteen years ago. Right now, I feel a little hypertensive, a lot depressed, and not at all inclined to "facilitate romantic relationships" with my husband or anyone else. But I'll rally: I'll have a cup of tea, and shop online for the perfect chocolate-brown wool coat that hits right above the knee. That's how lives get turned around. Really.