Natalie Lima | Longreads | October 2018 | 16 minutes (4,165 words)
Yesterday I woke up and looked at my body in the mirror. My nightgown was tighter on my stomach, the folds in my skin forming a silhouette of my shape on the fabric. I’d put on more weight over the summer. Panicked, I gathered all the visible clothes in my bedroom, pulled them off hangers and out of drawers, and threw them into a hamper. I carried the hamper outside. The sun was out and directly overhead, but the desert-winter air was cold, and I could see each puff of my breath in front of me. I tossed the hamper onto the driveway and some panties spilled from the top. A white cat sitting across the street, licking itself, scurried off. An elderly man with a Fitbit on his wrist speed-walked directly in front of me, past my house, but didn’t acknowledge me, which was perfect, as I was still in my very snug nightgown, braless, and standing over a laundry basket with panties spilling out onto my driveway.
I looked up at the bright sun (only briefly because it hurt my eyes) and I lit a cigarette and burst into tears, chunky black eyeliner from the day before streaking my face and running down my chest like wet soil. After a few puffs, I dug out the nail polish remover that I’d thrown into the basket during my frenzy, and I emptied the liquid onto the mound of clothing. Then, without a moment of reassessment, I flicked the remainder of my burning cigarette onto the hamper and watched one of my favorite maxi dresses slowly ignite. And everything else in the basket followed. Before long my driveway was a summer bonfire against a Tucson mountain range. A car alarm went off close by, but I didn’t know whose it was; I didn’t care either. My knees buckled and I fell back against the garage door and slid to the ground. Sobbing, I watched my now too small clothes burn into ashes right in front of my house. I eventually lifted the collar of my nightgown and hid my face underneath. “Oh my god, when did I get so fat?!” I cried and cried into my chest. After who knows how long, I leaned over and blacked out.
* * *
Everything you just read was a lie. But as I was writing that opening scene, I did imagine the deep satisfaction of being able to take all the crap in your life that upsets you and burn it up. However, despite my fondness for melodrama, there’s no way that story could have actually been fact because I’m a broke grad student and I have neither a house nor a garage, and I don’t really know anyone else my age (31) who does. My mom owned a house at my age, on a housekeeper’s salary, which I see as a testament to the present economic state in this country, but hey, that’s another essay.
So let’s start with the truth now.
Yesterday I woke up to the song of a lesser goldfinch outside my window (I think that’s what it was, but I’m not one of the Irwins). I announced to my sleeping dog, “Today is going to be a good and productive day!” then leaped out of bed and started a pot of coffee. Eventually I walked into the bathroom and looked in the full-length mirror and I saw myself — my chin was sagging a little lower, my nightgown with a cartoon bunny and the word “friends” printed across the front was snug on my body. It was clear that I’d put on a significant amount of weight in recent months (that part was true).
This happens sometimes, that we actually take a sincere look at ourselves in a mirror and maybe spend a few minutes — probably because of untreated anxiety — picking at some old blackheads populating our nose. But if you’re like me, after excavating some of the grime, you continue on to examine all of the changes in your appearance, notice how you’ve aged, think about your mortality, and remember the cross-country drive with your mom the summer your dad left and you turned 15, and how she made you leave your dog behind with a stranger, and how you didn’t see the point in existing anymore — not without your sweet pitbull who used to lick your eyeball without warning. And in the middle of this musing, you finally pause and tell yourself: Stop thinking about your childhood traumas before 8 a.m. Then you lean further into the mirror, as much as your back will allow, your nose almost touching it, and you think: Every day I wake up I’m another day closer to my imminent death.
This is when you know it’s time to turn away from the mirror.
Any sort of unwanted bodily change can make me want to sink into myself; it can prompt me to want to cancel all of my commitments for the day so I can brood over a salad and question my current self-care practices (or lack thereof). But usually this is not the case. In reality, things are busy and there is a hot cup of coffee that needs to be drunk, emails that need to be sent, a dog running in circles around my living room who needs to go out (and poop, or things will get ugly and I have carpet). In those first moments of the day, I am quickly reminded that life is in session and the weight is there, whether I like it or not. I know that the fat on my body is part of me, and I can choose to carry it like a backpack weighing me down, bruising my shoulders by the end of the day. Or I can carry it like a fashion accessory that is a key part of the outfit I slipped on that morning. Most days, I make an effort to carry mine like an artsy tote bag that bears an edgy photo of Joan Didion or Frida Kahlo smoking a cigarette.
* * *
How should we actually carry ourselves anyway? I don’t know the right answer to this, but I think about it often, especially since adopting a dog a few months ago. The skin on her belly hangs low, due to overbreeding, due to nature and circumstance. When I walk her, strangers point out how much her stomach sags, how it makes her look much heavier. Sometimes, they even point out the largeness of her uneven nipples. My dog doesn’t care, of course. I watch her move the tiny limbs attached to her sausage-shaped body fearlessly, in a way that I wish we all moved about in the world. I also think about our place as humans in the animal kingdom: our supposed superior intelligence, with our big Homo sapiens brains (though the brain of the sperm whale wins for biggest). Yet we worry about the aesthetics of extra flesh. We worry about how we carry everything around.
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* * *
When I was growing up, my mom used to tell people that my excess weight was baby fat. I’d run into the kitchen after dinner, during Fresh Prince commercial breaks, and ask her for a second slice of flan. She’d groan, then cut me a slightly smaller slice, with less syrup drizzled on the plate, and hand it to me. I’d smile and leave the kitchen. She’d instantly turn to her friend Kristina, the wife of my father’s best friend and an aerobics instructor. “It’s just baby fat,” my mom would say, sincerely, as she placed the remaining flan in Tupperware. “Hopefully she loses some of it when she goes through puberty. You know, your body changes then.” Kristina would smile and nod. It was evident that neither of them believed the baby fat theory. I didn’t believe it either (I could hear the whole conversation from the next room; our house was, um, compact). After a silent moment, my mom would finally change the topic to the less stressful O.J. Simpson trial.
Presently, I’m the heaviest I’ve been in years. My mom lives across the country now, and I call often to check in and ask about my nephew and sometimes about my brother. My weight occasionally creeps into conversation. It’s never to shame me, not anymore at least. Often it’s me complaining about how I need to get active again, and she listens and agrees. She reassures me that I’ll lose the weight again. Sometimes I’m tempted to say, “Mom, what’s the problem? It’s just baby fat.” But I don’t want to make her upset.
* * *
I’ve spent my entire life in a large body. I have chosen “large” as the most accurate adjective to describe my body because the word is vague, and my weight fluctuates from year to year — 100 pounds lighter one year, 50 pounds heavier the next, 115 down the year after that. Sometimes my body is on the smaller side of large, more Queen Latifah in The Last Holiday, that movie where she’s told she only has three weeks to live so she jets off to Europe, eats caviar, and falls in love with LL Cool J. And sometimes my body is closer to Chrissy Metz in This Is Us, and I eat comfort food late at night, shove the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos wrappers immediately into the trash can, and ask myself, Why is this my life? — all while dressed in fashionable prints and versatile shrugs.
Because of the current body I occupy, I have to acclimate to everything that comes along with it — larger clothes, tighter chairs, and by far the most unpredictable component: people’s reaction to it. Last fall, I ran into one of my former professors who I hadn’t seen in more than a year. We were at a reading, listening to a well-known poet discuss palm leaves and the rhythm in his lines. My professor did a double take when he spotted me across the conference room, his eyes wide open but blank as he sized me up, unsure if it was me or a stalker who was staring too hard at him. Ultimately he turned away, deciding it wasn’t me. I called his name twice, “Charlie! Charlie!” and his eyes finally widened in recognition.
“I knew that was you!”
“Of course you did!” I said but didn’t actually mean it. I gave him a hug and almost added: Maybe I should become a spy since I’m virtually unrecognizable now. In the moment, I thought this joke was funny, but I figured it would have embarrassed him so I refrained.
* * *
My current bodily state is, of course, mostly of my own doing. Bad habits, things I’ve been trying to kick my whole adult life. Then, last spring, I fractured my ankle. I was walking across the University of Alabama campus in Tuscaloosa one day, watching the squirrels run about and bury nuts. I had just finished my tutoring shift in the Writing Center, where I’d spent the past hour copyediting a male student’s paper, an argumentative essay for why abortion is murder and should be made illegal again. To decompress, I stopped in front of the campus library and watched the squirrels for a while. One squirrel sprinted across the grass into a little hole it had dug itself and popped back out with a nut in its hands like a magician. Two other squirrels wrestled near a large tree (at least I think this is what they were doing; I don’t know a ton about nature without Google). After a stressful afternoon, watching these animals do their thing — watching life in motion — soothed me immensely.
A few minutes later, I continued my walk back to the parking lot to play the “Where did I park my car this morning?” game, and I looked up at the cloudless blue sky. Every existential thought I’ve ever had filled my head: Wow, life is so beautiful/Why don’t we all take time to slow down more often?/We’re all glued to our smartphones/We don’t appreciate the simple things anymore/I remember a time when I used to pick up the phone and call all my friends/Maybe this is why our society is sick and full of broken people, because we don’t take time to pause/I wish I could play the cello/I think I’m lonely/What is connection in this world anyway?/Nobody connects anymore, except to send nude photos/I can’t believe Snapchat moved past the era of sending temporary nude photos to strangers/When all my religious friends started using Snapchat to send photos of their weddings and babies, I knew I was getting behind the times —
Then I tripped. Not on something blocking my path that shouldn’t have been there — like a rock or a fallen tree branch after a springtime windstorm. I simply fell over nothing. Which has become the most unimpressive ankle fracture story anyone has ever heard. Sometimes I have to share how I fractured it; I actually have to say it aloud. “Can you slow down?” I plead with a friend as we walk to a class together. “I messed up my ankle a few months of ago.” They always reply with a sympathetic “of course” and proceed to slow down because my friends are decent people. But, invariably, the follow-up question is: How did you mess it up?
“I tripped. That’s it.”
“Over something? Was it during sex?” they joke.
“No,” I chuckle. “I tripped, just walking. There was no sex. Well, there were squirrels. What I’m saying is: My life is horrible.”
My friend laughs and pats my shoulder in consolation.
* * *
Wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t live in a body? Or if we all lived in ones that looked exactly the same? I imagine us like Flubber, a green goo-like substance bouncing around a lab and happily jiggling all day. All of us green and unwieldy and free. However, I have considered how this sameness could eventually get boring. Sometimes we might have the desire to pair up with someone less green and more blue, or someone less gooey. Sometimes we might not appreciate the ordinariness of our own gooeyness and sink into a depression and chronic self-loathing. But this concept — of what life would be like untethered to a body — never leaves me.
* * *
A few weeks after tripping over air, after some squirrel-watching and ankle-fracturing in Tuscaloosa, I left my program and moved home to South Florida. It was for the summer only, before driving out to Tucson to try out a new grad school and a new, larger, more progressive city that seemed like a better fit. The move back home made for a good kick to my ego. Not only was I less mobile and speedily putting on weight, but I was also in my thirties and moving into my mother’s three-bedroom apartment — an apartment she shares with her husband, my younger brother, his girlfriend, and my 3-year-old nephew, Mugen.
I spent those weeks hobbling around, and because there wasn’t much space, I slept on a small daybed in the living room. Each morning I awoke to the song of a screaming toddler who, for some reason, was always fed in a high chair placed two feet from my head. At night I often cried into my pillow, distressed about the current shape of my life, regretting that I quit my full-time job and gave up my crappy-but-cozy apartment in Los Angeles to attend graduate school — for the financially lucrative dream of writing short stories. Though I slept in the middle of the living room, and though I was the largest person living in my mom’s apartment, I remained essentially unseen. No one knew of my daily weep-fests. Everyone else’s life, too, was in session.
The night before my cross-country drive to Tucson, my mom returned home from work and cooked my favorite meal — garlic chicken, red beans and rice, and avocado salad. She was calm as she stirred the beans, and it calmed me to watch her. My mami, nine inches shorter than me and less than half my size, mothered me that night. I decided to ignore the past few weeks so I could enjoy this last meal with her. I forgot about my screaming nephew and the tiny daybed. I forgot about my body and my messed up ankle, and decided — for just that evening — I didn’t have a body because bodies didn’t exist anymore. That night I was a glob of green goo.
My mom handed me the avocado salad and sat down. “Mi’ja,” she said. “Wasn’t it nice to get to spend these last few weeks with little Mugen?”
Before I could answer, my brother stepped into the kitchen. He rested his hand on my shoulder.
“What are you two talking about?” He asked.
“Natalie was just saying how much she’s gonna miss Mugie.”
“Aww,” my brother said. “Isn’t he the sweetest?”
“I think I’m getting a dog,” I said, then shoved some rice into my mouth.
* * *
What’s great about relocation is that everyone in the new place is unfamiliar with your body. They’ve never known its shape any bigger or smaller; there are no emotional attachments to the way they assume its size should be, like the disappointment when you see the plate with your favorite recipe come out of the kitchen with too much cilantro on top. People fasten themselves to what they’re used to, including bodies they don’t live in. A perplexed glance from a friend or loved one at a party, and you’re instantly reminded that you showed up covered in too much cilantro.
* * *
Once I had driven past miles of endless cacti, after listening to all the available X Factor auditions on YouTube and every mediocre cover of Whitney Houston in existence, I eventually reached Tucson, Arizona. I quickly moved into a modest apartment (and by “modest” I mean it had roaches). When I noticed the the bugs zigzagging across the bathroom floor one night, I called the apartment manager to complain. “We don’t have roaches here,” she said. For me, this translated to: Natalie, move out before you wake up with roach eggs lodged in your ear canal.
By this point I had acquired some furniture — a new bed, some tables, a reading chair — and I needed a truck to transport everything to the new pest-free apartment I’d found. However, I was nearly broke from traveling, and my parents failed me by never teaching me any practical moneymaking skills, like carpentry or identity theft. This left me having to brainstorm creative ways to secure a truck without landing myself in jail — in a city where I had no one to bail me out. I could:
(a) spend the last bit of my travel money and commit to never eating ever again;
(b) sell my voice to Ursula the Sea Witch in exchange for Prince Erik to come help me move my stuff with his royal carriage; or
(c) sell my kidney.
I settled on the only realistic option — (c).
Okay, I’m kidding. I decided that before making any hasty decisions, I’d sleep on it.
A couple of days before I was scheduled to move out, I found myself at Circle K, wearing a raggedy dress that should have been relegated to pajama status, pumping gas and buying a Chaco Taco to help me cool down from the Arizona heat (but who doesn’t love a Chaco Taco in the winter, too?). On my walk back to my car — ice cream–filled taco in hand — a tall, lumberjack-looking dude stepped out of his truck to pump gas. He sized me up with the eagerness of a dog who has spotted the can of wet food instead of the kibble.
“I like your dress,” he said.
I offered a half-hearted “thanks” and quickly licked up the vanilla ice cream running down my hand. He walked into the store, and I looked over at his truck. I stared it down just as he had done to me. It was a giant, white Ford F-150, definitely big enough to transport all my furniture in a single trip. It was perfect. When he came walking back to his truck, I appraised him. I quickly decided that I wasn’t picking up on any serial killer energy, based on nothing except that he was smaller than me and I felt I could take him in a fight, if it came to that.
“Hey! Sir.” (Don’t ask me why I called him sir, I already hate myself.)
He turned to face me, with the jolly, wide-mouthed smile of a 13-year-old who just met his favorite Laker — which just so happens to be the same exact smile of a man who thinks he might be able to stick his dick in you.
“Any chance I could borrow your truck to move some furniture?” I asked, eyes twinkling. “I’m new here.”
My lumberjack’s smile wilted. “My truck?” What?” The confusion on his face was unexpected. Wasn’t he used to people in his life asking to borrow his big-ass truck? Isn’t that what trucks are for?
“No,” he huffed. “What I’m looking for is a date. With a big, sexy lady like you.”
If this had been the first time I’d been told something like that, had it been the first time a man I’d never met announced how much he likes big women — like it was suddenly my lucky day — I might have clenched my pearls. But this wasn’t the first time, because I’ve been in this body for more than three decades — and all of those decades fat. After a big sigh, I looked over at his truck again and, in my mind, kissed it goodbye. “I understand,” I said, nodding. “But I can’t go on any dates right now. I need a truck to move my crap.”
I jumped into my car and sped off.
* * *
There’s a scene in the series finale of Sex and the City where Carrie walks around Paris, sad music playing in the background, wallowing in her sorrow. She has recently abandoned her life in New York to be with her artist lover in France. However, upon her arrival, her lover is busy preparing for his upcoming show at some fancy art gallery and has no time for her. This leaves Carrie exploring the City of Love alone. During one of her solitary, daily walks she passes by a busy cafe and, through the window, notices a group of women sitting at a table, laughing hysterically together. The women remind her of her own best friends, back in New York, and suddenly her face falls and she sinks into a deeper state of melancholy.
Anyone who has moved to a new city can, to some extent, relate to Carrie’s loneliness (though we haven’t all been invited to Paris by Baryshnikov). Now take that loneliness and compound it with the inherent loneliness of living in a large body, of having to navigate the world in a body that is often stigmatized, made invisible or hyper-visible at any moment. A multilayered loneliness.
* * *
The next day I rented a U-Haul and moved into the new apartment without trouble, just an achy lower back and some sweat stains on my shirt. I slunk down onto the carpet, then lay flat on my back and attempted some stretches I saw on YouTube. Mid-stretch, my phone buzzed. It was a text from a good friend, a meme:
Dear Big Girls:
Don’t be afraid to get on top
If he dies, he dies
I cackled. Which hurt my back a little, but the laugh helped me relax. I let my body unfurl on the floor right then, let it just be for a while. I rubbed the (supposedly new) carpet with my fingers and thought about every awkward romantic encounter I’ve ever had (which I blame on porn and the patriarchy but that, too, is another essay). The text from my friend was a magical moment of big girl solidarity, where I was reminded that I am never alone in this complex existence inside of a body. Everyone has to deal with living in a body and, some of them, bigger bodies like mine. So the next time I find myself climbing on top of a man, laughing because of the meme, I know he likely won’t die. But if he does, there are certainly worse ways to turn up one’s toes.
* * *
Natalie Lima, a 2016 PEN America Emerging Voices Fellow and VONA/Voices alum, is an MFA candidate in creative non-fiction at the University of Arizona. She is currently working on a collection of essays about the absurdities of living in a body.
Editor: Danielle A. Jackson