The Shot and The Draw

I still remember the feeling of my first heartbreak. I’m not talking about –you’re over there and I’m way over here-heartbreak, I’m talking about the heartbreak sitting right here on my chest, the looking over my shoulder, breathing in my ear heartbreak. The heartbreak that holds you and never lets go.

I’m thirteen and bus 62 is a cauldron of teen angst. Some boys light cigarettes and hang out of the partially descending windows, some girls scribble the names of bad boys onto books, others carve words into the skin of their ankles, and the driver drives, ignorant to it all. I initially sit near the front, but am soon pulled to the back by older girls and the promise of their friendship. Tammy is mentally unstable, and even at 13 I can clearly identify this trait. She wants to be my friend, yet threatens to beat the shit out of me on a daily basis. This has been happening for months.

Me at 13. Quite the fox, I might add.

Today, she and her crew call me to the back for some arbitrary reason. Maybe they ask to borrow money, or need someone to laugh at. Those are the details that fall into the street with the traffic, because at this point Ollie is all I can see. A regular, brown-haired boy sitting behind Tammy and her friends. He’s cute enough, with a nice smile and a freckled nose. But I can’t recall what drew me to him. I only remember the after. It’s like I can remember the shot but not the draw.

Here is what I do remember:
The autumn light in his hair and on my shoulders and the way he smelled, like motor oil and Marlboro Reds, like freedom to a 13-year-old girl whose parents won’t let her leave the front porch with a boy. He smiles, he calls me something cute like “sweetie” or “honey,” and I melt into my seat and burn with the sun against the cheap upholstery.

Ollie was older than me. 15-which is an entire universe away in teenage years. He knew things I didn’t, like how to get a homeless guy to buy us beer, how to light a smoke with a match in a wind storm, and which woods were the safest to drink in. His parents were absent, I think, I don’t remember ever really seeing them. His house seemed full of mismatched car parts and brothers. He went to school like one goes to church, sporadically at best, and only if it was really important. But he protected me, held me against him in the storm of middle school drama. When Tammy and her friends started upping their game and really scaring me, Ollie was there. He threatened anyone who looked at me wrong. He  beat the shit out of anyone and everyone who bothered me. To a 13-year-old girl, this was kryptonite.

Here is what I do remember:
His hands, calloused and small, traversing my virgin skin. A worn mattress, red curtains, and Ozzy Osborne. I have lied to my mother. I have lied to this boy. I have lied to myself. I have lied to everyone. The candle becomes a nub and I bury myself under his worn blankets. It will be decades before I dig my way out of that cave. I imagine the 14-year-old ghost of me forever roaming that small basement.

We broke up, and some of that is fuzzy. He left me, I can’t remember if it was for another girl or if a defect of mine inevitably rose to the surface.

At 37, I can confidently say that there was no reason on earth to love him the way that I did. But at 13, 14, 15, 17, 19, 23, 24, 28 and all of those years in between, loving Ollie was as natural as breathing. At 26, 27, obese and stuck in a bad marriage, that feeling-being tucked tightly against Ollie’s chest-was a feeling I’d swim back to over and over again and hope to drown.

The Universe Between Us

Alone, I am a star burning against the night sky.   I am lost in a blanket of darkness, a heaving illuminated mass threatening to collapse in on itself.  But together, Timmy and I are a galaxy, a vast wonderful world of possibilities.  We are bright and organized, burning into one another with fire and fever.  We are celestial.  We are so fucking fantastic together that I know deep down inside, it is only a matter of time until we fizzle out, or at least until I fuck it all up.

Things have been going swimmingly thus far.  Timmy has all but moved in, staying six out of seven nights at my apartment.  In the mornings, he crawls out of bed and makes coffee for the two of us.  In the evenings, he sits and listens as I play my guitar.  We talk constantly.  We make love almost every day, in every nook and cranny of the apartment.  We orbit one another in perfect harmony.  But I am terrified.  I have yet to tell Timmy about my addiction to food, about my daily uphill climb.  I know I shouldn’t be embarrassed, but I am.  I’m ashamed that I am not strong enough to be thin on my own, that I need assistance.

Then, there’s an element of insecurity.  I know that if I just let myself, I could fall madly in love with this man.  But I wonder if he could ever really fall in love with me.  This thought is an aftershock from my divorce.  This is what happens when someone leaves you for real.  This is what breaks inside of you when someone walks out on you and earthquakes your foundation.  When the person who is supposed to love you the most in the world, flips a switch and chooses another.  And you are not enough, not good enough, anymore.  That betrayal reverses something in your brain.  It makes you doubt your market value.  Because whether I ever want to admit it or not, there is a small sliver of truth to the idea that Jack left me because I let my body balloon into obesity.

And now, I cannot act like a normal, untainted, self-assured woman.  Because I will never be that.  You can carve every ounce of fat from my body, and I will still never be able to walk around naked in front of you, trust whole heartedly that you are where you say you are, or sleep at night basking in the calmness of our union.  No matter how beautiful I look on the outside, I will always feel like I am selling you a used car that I know has been in an accident and will never again drive the same.

I wasn’t supposed to be insecure anymore.  Like swallowing a pill, losing weight was supposed to instantly fix all of these neurotic, self-conscious thoughts swelling inside my brain.  But I’m beginning to realize that being fat for so long has created a gushing wound that may never truly heal.

“Take off your shirt,” Timmy whispers and I freeze.

“No,” I answer.  No, no, no, a thousand no’s.

“Why babe?” he wonders.

Why?  How do I explain away the ripples of extra skin hanging below my belly button like rings on a tree, only instead of telling of my past, they tell of the future, the potential for thick ankles and triple chins?  How do I explain to someone who has never stepped foot in the land of heavy that the weight of belonging to such a place comes at the cost of sanity?  Timmy has never been fat, in fact he has spent his entire life underweight.  And that, right there, that fact is the vast expansive universe between us.  My insistence on lights off during sex, my one too many “checking in” phone calls, or questions about late night bar visits, all combine to comprise the wormhole through which Timmy will have to plunge if he ever hopes to really understand me.  A wormhole so vast in size and density that it would take someone solely dedicated to the cause to get through and survive.  I don’t know yet if Timmy has the resolve to hang in there.  I hope he does, but I don’t need him to.  And that, right there, is the big difference in my life from a year ago.  I don’t need him to.

While I still cling to my shirt, a size medium that I stole from my sister, Jennie, during a visit to Brooklyn, a clingy white cotton tank that maintains enough elasticity to shave an inch off my belly, Timmy quietly extends an arm and clicks off the lamp.  And in the safety of the darkness we are once again stars in our galaxy, burning and bumping our way into one another’s hearts, unsure of what will come next.

Sex with Whales? Anyone?

After watching Kjerstin Gruys on 20/20 the other night talking about the year she spent without mirrors, I’ve been reflecting a lot about the role outside comments, opinions, stares, etc play in our weight loss and how we feel about ourselves.  I struggled with how to articulate my feelings on this topic, then I remembered a trip to Brooklyn that just about derailed my weight loss efforts.

At one point during my weight loss journey, I had reached a loss of 80 pounds, yet, according to most I was still a fat girl.  This story, taken from my memoir, is probably about the best single representation I can think of to demonstrate how society can pervert our self-image.

Setup:  At this point in the book my sister has moved to Brooklyn, I am newly divorced, and having lost 80 pounds, I’m feeling pretty damn good about myself.


The walk to the bar is long and cool.   The early spring air lays on our backs like satchels full of wet, damp blankets.  I pretend not to feel it.  I am on a mission to start over, again.  I am also here to show off my new body.  I have lost almost eighty pounds.  I have shed a whole person, or at least a very hungry supermodel.  And now, I’m walking down Greenpoint Avenue in the middle of the night with my sister, Jennie, and for the first time in my life, I am within reach of her weight.  I am normal.  The last time I weighed this much I was in ninth grade, just off a bout with mono, which helped me drop a quick forty pounds.  I feel sexy, desirable, and for the first time in a long time, I feel like a woman.

 “Two Hefeweizens please,” Jennie whispers to the bartender.

“And a shot of Jager,” I add.

We are in a bar called The Pencil Factory.   It’s a small space with only candles to provide the lighting.  The tables, of which there are only four, are large slabs of unfinished wood.  I run my hands over our table repeatedly, almost consumed with trying to get a sliver.  There are no chairs only benches.  The floor is dusty and dirty and looks like it belongs in a western saloon.

Jennie and I sit and watch the people around us.  I am fascinated by their casual nature.  One girl wears what looks like pajamas as she leans in and whispers to a man wearing shorts and no shirt.  A couple by the door have brought their dog.  A large white mutt who sleeps with his slobbering mouth on the girls sandaled foot.  They are at ease in this space.  Two or three girls sit at the bar chatting with the tall thin man behind it.  The bartender knows their names, their drinks, and probably their marital statuses.   Glasses clank, feet shuffle across the barren floors, an occasional chuckle wafts through the air, but it’s not loud.  It’s a smooth rhythmic noise.

Twenty-five minutes later the room is beginning to spin, my legs are starting to feel warm and fuzzy,  and my lips long for the taste of a menthol cigarette.

 “I’m going for a smoke,” I say and leave Jennie, her face illuminated only by the screen on her Blackberry.

My shoes are flat and worn out, and they flip and flop across the floor like bedroom slippers.  I have been working on my walk.  I’ve heard from some friends who have traveled to Europe that American women do not know how to walk like real women.  The proper way, to saunter back and forth, is not conducive to our hurried nature or slouched posture.  But on this night, in this low lit bar, I walk like my hips are twirling a hula hoop.  I pass the couple near the door with the dog and the man glances at me from the corner of his eye.  I feel his eyes on me as I walk, my thighs burning together under my short jean skirt.

The Pencil Factory is on a corner with a stop sign right in front.  I am the only smoker, ostracized to the street by the smoking ban that has made New York City bars breathable.  I am not fearful as I stand here by myself with a thin line of white exhaust leaking from my lips.  I do not flinch when a group of young men, strong and imposing, walk past me with their eyes locked on my breasts.  I do not care that the nearest street light is a block away, and the only illumination I have comes from the neon beer advertisements in the windows behind me.  The door to the bar stays open at my back, another oddity you would never find in Scranton.  It’s inviting and warm.

Before I can finish my smoke, a large black SUV pulls to the stop sign in front of me.  The four guys inside wear bandanas drenched with sweat and are talking over loud music when they spot me standing on the corner in my short skirt and tight top.  For what feels like five whole minutes, I enjoy them looking at me, objectifying me, imagining me naked, having their way with me.  I imagine if I was more daring I might go home with one of them, let them ravish me, and sneak out in the morning before daybreak.  I imagine if they were in the bar behind me, I might let one buy me a drink, or pretend to be too drunk to notice their hands on my breasts.  I stand there, eight eyes on me, feeling as sexy as I have ever felt, when the passenger in the front sticks his head out the window and, with the whole bar listening through the open door behind me yells at the top of his lungs.

“WOW!  That’s a whale even I would fuck!” 

Then, just like that, they are gone.  My cigarette falls to the ground, and my stomach becomes a void of nothingness.  I suck in the night air and attempt to regain my composure.  And when I do, I am pissed.  I want to chase after them, to explain to them that I have lost weight.  I imagine I could show them a before and after picture.  “See?  See how fat I used to be?  265 pounds!  That was fat!  This, 185, this is not fat!  Trust me!”  I would force them to look, hold a gun to their heads if I had to.  I would show them my stomach, the stretch marks, the hanging skin, the proof of a once fatter existence.  Then, maybe I would kill one of them, stab him to death with a shard of glass after I bust their windows out.    Maybe I could light their fancy SUV on fire, or find out where they live and kill their pets.

 “What happened?  You okay?”  Jennie asks emerging from the bar.

“I’m fine,” I answer choking back tears, and walk a straight line back to our table without a wiggle in my hips.

The next night, I am on a bus cutting through the Pennsylvania mountains like a yo-yo being sucked back onto its string, heading towards Scranton.  The mountains surrounding the Delaware Water Gap are like the breast implants of Pennsylvania.  Huge, imposing, and unnaturally large, they dwarf the soft subtle bosom of the rest of the state’s worn down peaks.    The Water Gap is the entrance to Pennsylvania from New Jersey, and also marks the halfway point of my bus ride home from New York City.

It’s pitch black around me and all I can think about is how I don’t belong anywhere.    I don’t belong in the enormous city behind me, and I don’t belong in the small city in front of me.  I don’t belong in my marriage and I don’t belong in the single life.  I don’t belong to fat, and according to four boys in an SUV, I don’t belong to thin.  I’m suspended in time.  Stuck in a moment.  Lost.

Fifteen Years and Thirty Pounds

When I was in high school and just mildly overweight, I used to think that if I lost twenty pounds my life would change, that boys would really see me, the popular girls would talk to me, I would ace tests and be invited to parties, and that the ache in the center of me would dull.   I would lie in bed at night and dream of a place where I was thin and happy, and wonder how on earth I would ever get there.

Fifteen years later, I’m in a bar, having lost almost 70 pounds, and I am feeling fantastic about myself, a feeling that tastes new in my mouth, and I savor it on my lips.   A blonde-haired boy who sometimes sleeps with me when he’s had too much to drink on Saturday nights looks into my eyes and says “If you lost thirty pounds, you’d be a knockout.”  His words are elastic, snapping me back to that place once more, the place where I am an outsider and everything good happens around me like I’m standing in the eye of something.

That night, I lie alone on my queen bed and dream of a place where thirty pounds doesn’t matter, and where the person who loves me the most is ME, where the hollowness in the center of me is plugged up, and I wonder how on earth I will ever get there.