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Mona Kirschner
Mona Kirschner is a Brazilian writer and linguist. She is working on a collection of non-fiction essays and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

The Spiritual Path at Fat Camp

George Peters / Getty, Illustration by Homestead Studio

Mona Kirschner | Longreads | November 2019 | 20 minutes (5,102 words)

Day One

I look around the pool as I kick my legs backwards. I wonder how I found myself in a swim cap and a full-piece bathing suit doing water aerobics with eight ladies over 60 at a health retreat that turned out to be an upscale fat camp.

Why is it that we never tire of talking about love? Of analyzing all angles of heartbreak?

No Uber driver’s English is bad enough to deter us, no stranger on an airplane too disengaged for it to all come spilling out, the same story, again and again.

Filling the void, my therapist had said. I always hoped that when I inevitably fell apart, at least I’d be original about it.

The previous day I had rushed down to the waiting taxi, stalling outside the high gates of my apartment building in São Paulo.

I was late, throwing clothes onto the bed and settling for stretchy workout pants and an old blue sweater that was too tight on the arms. The flight was smooth, the two hours going by quickly as I stared out the window in dark sunglasses that covered most of my face.

On the other end, I shuffled through the airport with my head down and bought sweet and salty peanuts after I couldn’t talk myself out of it. I walked outside; the muggy heat relentless, but I kept my sweater on, joining a group of elderly women next to a van stamped with a logo I recognized from the website. This should be good, I thought, making eye contact with no one and finding a seat.

A friend had recommended this place, deep in the countryside of southern Brazil, a short flight from my place of birth and my home for the last 10 years, having moved back after falling in love and dropping out of school in Canada, where I had grown up with my immigrant parents and privileged life.

I was always looking for something. For love, for adventure, for a story worth telling. I shifted happily from a good kid with a scholarship to a bartender in shorts and knee-high boots with no plan, chasing the drama.

And then I fell in love with a man in that way you do when you throw yourself into something so hard, you don’t even recognize yourself when you take a step back. Fully, entirely consumed.

He had green eyes and skin that actually glowed. I saw him for the first time from the side, across a cheesy wedding dance floor. I remember feeling short of breath. I hardly saw his face. Yet I recognized him as if I had known he was coming.

The van bumped along. I watched a series on Netflix on the drive out about an artist from Brooklyn and her many affairs. I noticed how all the actors on it were thin. Something I would have never realized a few months before.

We drove onto the property, a long, winding driveway with cornfields on either side. The sky was a rich shade of blue and the sun peeked out from the clouds, hot and unforgiving.

A purple and yellow butterfly flew next to my window as we drove up. I hated butterflies, always thought of them as the mean girls of insects. All colorful, flashy wings on the same old insect body.

We arrived to a welcome drink of green juice, the glass only filled halfway, hinting at the moderation that was to come. I noticed I was the youngest person there by at least 15 years. They showed me to my room and instructed me to turn up for my doctor’s appointment at 3:15. I let my bag drop off of my shoulder.

Everyone was in their provided white robes, the blue logo embroidered on the left side. I put mine on, noticing gratefully that it hid everything that needed hiding. My thighs chafed in the heat.

The nurse was gentle, especially when asking me to step on a large, rectangular scale.

“That’s a good girl.” She said, making a note on her clipboard. The doctor put me on a diet of 850 calories a day, which sounded absurd. “What caused the weight gain?” he asked.

“Heartbreak.” I shrugged. “Wish it was a more original reason.”

What is it about comfort from strangers that is so soothing? That makes us feel as if our uncertain futures are less terrifying if someone promises they won’t be? Someone who couldn’t possibly know? And yet.

“Do you think I’m going to be okay?” I would ask anyone who would listen.

I missed him. I could feel his hands, the callouses on his palms. The softness of the finer hair on the nape of his neck. The smell of his shirts. I could see the wrinkles on the side of his eyes when he laughed. I could hear his voice. My chest on his. Could feel him pinching my side when he thought something was funny. I’d say his name aloud.

They say our brains label pain, give it a face. He had a beautiful face.

How do you determine the difference between love and fear? Should it feel so similar?

The love had been there, at some point. Perhaps it was passion. It faded. The fear was constant. I was afraid of the fights, I was afraid of staying, I was afraid of leaving. I was afraid of being alone, of regretting it, of missing him, of realizing there’d be nothing better.

We introduced ourselves at the welcome address, our names, where we’re from, why we were there. I sat in the back. They assigned each one of us a table that we’d sit at for the week. Mealtimes clearly required military-level control. I looked down at the sad six grapes in front of me and tried to concentrate on chewing whatever absurd amount of times was recommended by one of the many (thin) doctors who gave a painfully slow speech before we could eat. Was it 40 times?

My ex and I used to get kicked out of bars for our screaming matches. He was jealous, I was hysterical. I thought it was romantic. I ended it after almost 10 years. He was my first love, all I knew. It was my decision. Courage and strength showed up suddenly, like unannounced dinner guests to an otherwise lonely affair.

He loved me. But he was terrible to me. We were terrible to each other. I plotted and hoped for my freedom for years. Yet the loss, the gaping hole felt like it was only getting bigger.

Love or fear?

They gave a tour of the grounds, the clinic, the vegetable garden, the main house.

I set my stack of books on the bedside table. I looked at the clean, neatly made single bed and sighed. I listened to Miles Davis.

Dinner was pea soup.
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