Susannah’s fingertips press and burrow down between her breasts and over the doughy flesh of her middle. She brushes her fingers through her soft pubic hair, smoothes it over her labia, massages her inner thighs, and then slides and caresses her way over the tops of her legs to arrive at her buttocks. She lifts and spreads her cheeks and slides her hands back up to her breasts. Yes. Again, she says, as though to a lover. Blood surges through tiny vessels and her inner lips moisten. She inhales. Her breath travels down into her pelvis. She reaches beside the bed for her electric massager, presses it against her swollen groin, grinds against it and rides the wave of a deep and resonant orgasm. This morning there are only two but often there are more. Afterwards her flesh hums. She rolls in the sheets, enjoying the softness of her belly squished against the mattress, maximizing the contact of her skin with the sheet. She visualizes her slight skeleton and musculature protected within all of its enveloping flesh. The time Susannah spends in her bed upon waking can stretch into hours. Her doctoral thesis exploring desire in Virginia Woolf and Kate Chopin can wait for one more orgasm, one more blissful snooze. Being alone like this in the soft sheets is easy.
It’s getting up that is difficult. 212 pounds is a lot of weight to lift for such a small person. Getting up brings the world into focus and the dreaded evening alone that much closer. Her bare foot lands on the slimy cold inside of a chip bag on the floor. She cannot deny in this moment that there is something wrong, that she shouldn’t be this fat, that she is endangering her health. She knows that women eat too much because they are lonely, scared to take emotional risks, to let someone close, to get hurt. I know!! She knows that she is probably numbing herself. Keeping intimacy at bay despite it being her deepest desire. Or maybe she is one of the many addicted to carbs. Fucking talk shows. Fucking TV. Boycott the damn thing. Disgusted, she unplugs and lifts the heavy box from its place on her bureau and lowers it to the closet floor and shuts the door. She turns and bends to gather up the empty bag from the floor and then unsticks the soggy cardboard ice-cream container from her night table. The mirror on the wall rattles with her quick heavy steps down the chilly hallway all the way to the garbage can on the porch.
Evidence hidden, she can face the day with half a chance. She scurries back to the front of the hall holding her unruly breasts in place and pausing at the mirror to admire her face. Nods her approval. Perfect skin and teeth. Deep brown eyes and silky black hair. She is beautiful and she knows it. When she was thin she was a knockout. When she gets dressed up, she can still turn heads, but the last time she was naked with a man was four years ago. After the first time they made love, she waited six weeks for his call. It never came.
It’s ten-thirty and sunny. OK what’s the plan?, she says to herself. Shower, cereal, thesis at library for three hours, to the Y for a swim, and then the cafe for, hopefully, some chatting. Tonight she will have a healthy supper and feel filled with her good day. Then do another hour or two of writing. Tomorrow the scale will say 210.
Susannah ties her housecoat closed and opens the drapes. Across the street, Evie has just stepped onto her front porch. Smoothing her thin leather coat cinched at the waist, she pauses to soak in the sun. She takes out her phone, and dials. The exchange she is having makes her smile, she looks up into the late September sky, runs her hand through her long hair and then laughs so loud that Susannah can hear her through the closed window. Evie slips her phone into her purse and Susannah is assaulted by the clop-clop of the fabulous new suede knee-boots, offset by Evie’s bare legs and short skirt. It’s unmistakable. The vibrant auburn highlights, lipstick colour, clothes. The smile. All the signs are there. Susannah knows the look of a woman in love. She is startled as she notices that Evie is waving wildly from her side of the street. She mouths “Hi!”, points to her watch, and then “la-ter, OK?” . Susannah lifts her hand feebly to wave back through the black iron bars on her window and feels sick.
Just last May, the two women had bonded. Every year Susannah held an annual purging porch sale when she released to the world the clothes that made her feel bad about herself. Her therapist suggested that she do something decadent with her earnings, like get a funky haircut, a pedicure or an expensive face cream. This time, her eight-year old graduation dress was the star of the sale. Deep pink, form-fitting, sequined. She had worn it for one of her last good nights with Steven.
The shimmering dress swaying amongst the demure plus size sweaters and chinos beckoned Evie from her own porch to Susannah’s.
“That dress is sooo fabulous!” said Evie.
Laughing, Susannah replied, “Yeah I know, I’ve had it for years, I couldn’t let it go but I think it’s time. I’d have to lose at least fifty pounds to be able to pour myself into it! You want to try it on? I mean, you could take it over to your place. Hey, I’m Susannah—I’ve seen you around the neighbourhood.”
“Yeah, me too.” Evie is transfixed by the dress. “I don’t think it would fit me either but it would be a hot ticket in the window of my shop Mont-Royal. 40 bucks, wow.”
“You actually run one of those stores?! I love it! So what do you do, just sort of shop around garage sales and church bazaars making finds?”
“Exactly! That’s exactly what I do. The mark-up can be like, 1000%. In the case of this dress though it’ll be a lot less. 40 bucks. I guess you like it a lot.”
“Well, you know, it is kind of unique. Check out the sequins—-they look like fish scales and each one has its on tiny bead. You sure have to be in the right mood to pull off wearing it though.”
“And have the right body!!” They both laughed. “Sold!”, exclaimed Evie.
“Hey, do you want a beer?”, Susannah asks. Evie nods and smiles.
“I wonder if I’ll ever see the woman who buys it from you around the neighbourhood. That would be so wild!”
For hours, they commiserated about being thirty and single and living in a quasi-anorexic city like Montreal where size ten is considered chunky. They gleefully ripped apart the jerks that had fucked and left them and they consumed a six-pack and a large bag of Lays with a shared defiance. On the third beer, Susannah found herself talking about her writer’s block, her depression, and feeling lonely. She listened to Evie talk about her recently broken heart, her adoration of swirl cheesecake, and her over-achieving parents who thought that being a thrift shop owner was beneath their daughter. They both confided their desire for a baby. Together, they joked with a group of three mothers, annual regulars from the next block over, who get excited about Susannah’s cast-offs. They envy Susannah’s life of solitude and time for clothes shopping. They have no idea, laments Susannah to herself.
It was dark and chilly by the time Evie got up to leave. The dress in her hand shimmered and winked at Susannah as it crossed the street to enter her new friend’s house. “Good night!” “‘Night!”
Once inside, Susannah pulled down the shoebox from her closet shelf. Inside were letters and photos from her four years with Steven. There she was, sultry and gorgeous at graduation wearing the dress. She looked fabulous. Steven is grinning, proud of her looks, glad to show her off. They were a good match. Everyone approved. Susannah assumed she would stay with Steven forever. When they were 22, the summer after graduation, Steven shocked everyone and left for Latin America to work for a small NGO. He told Susannah that he had outgrown her and their relationship and he needed a new challenge. He wanted something different. He was still in Guatemala as far as she knew. When Steven left her, so did her life.
In the first months she barely ate. Her stomach clenched and refused everything but the smallest morsels of food. When the sharpest pain subsided she discovered that she could feed herself into oblivion. Unfortunately there were consequences to this solution. Seventy pounds to be exact—about ten per year. She has tried therapy, yoga, exercise, journalling and Weight Watchers. Everything helps a bit. She understands what she does with food. She can see it happen. She watched herself choose food instead of contact with people virtually every day, for years. Sometimes she has a good week. She feels compassion for herself, she writes in her journal, she allows her pain to emerge, she even cries. She exercises to feel her flesh alive, she makes eye contact with strangers, she invites some other graduate students over for supper. She does what the therapist suggests. And for a few days at a time, she has some hope.
But when she isn’t paying attention, the evenings get to her. When the terrible ache of loneliness strikes, no amount of daytime determination and progress can hold a candle to her hunger. In those moments, she’ll find herself putting on a coat over her pyjamas and scurrying to the dépanneur for supplies. On the way back home everything falls away and she becomes united with her purchase. She feels the stack of chips knock the edge of their cylindrical box and she hurries. In the soft shelter of her bed , the Pringles fit perfectly on her tongue and the salty flavour makes her mouth wet. She pushes the sandpapery chip against the room of her mouth for the satisfying crack of the dry chip or she allows her saliva to soften the chip and she sucks, nursing the oil from the moistened potato. She makes them last, one small stack at a time. She barely notices the TV noise filling air of her room.
Her food-loves are varied and numerous—-the slow melt of coffee Hagen-Daas, the springy chew of Nibs, the varied textures in a row of President’s Choice Decadent cookies. She loves them all and they ask nothing of her. After eating, she drifts and sleeps. And then she wakes up, like this morning, thoroughly disgusted with herself and rushing to clear away the evidence.
The night she met Evie, after the porch sale, Susannah took the graduation photograph, the one that still had a home in a frame in her parents’ family room, went into the backyard and lit it on fire. As she watched it burn up on the patio stone, she told herself that she would be free of all of the expectations and hopes of that times and that she no longer needed to judge herself in relation to the dress. Her therapist was very proud of her letting go ritual.
Since the porch sale, she and Evie had not seen each other much. Susannah had worked hard on her thesis all summer, and Evie had not been around, from what Susannah could tell when she lifted her head from the page, or took a break from her writing to stretch or gaze out the window. Her life has been full of work on the dissertation, therapy appointments, trying to go to the gym and to stop eating at night. She was doing quite well but the loneliness, when it hit, was just as intense as ever. It would have been nice to spend the summer evening with a friend. At least she was moving forward in her work. One thing at a time. But it’s so damn difficult to flirt with men with this loneliness so acute. I feel like it’s obvious in my flesh!, Susannah laments to her therapist.
On this particular autumn day, Susannah hops in the shower to wash away the sick envy induced by seeing Evie on her porch, so happy and in love. And, as promised, she sets out to have a productive day. On her way home later from the gym, the library, and the cafe where a man actually flirted with her (so what that he was over fifty!) Susannah feels good. She has even brought home ground cherries and babaganoush from the market to celebrate her good day and to transform her evening alone into something lively. Perhaps she will phone an old friend. Yes. And read some poetry before sleep. Tomorrow will also be a good day. Maybe the old guy will be at the cafe again. She could use the boost of his attention. There is something appealing about him, she thinks.
“Hey gorgeous! Check me out!” Evie is yelling at Susannah opening her door from across the street.
Startled, Susannah turns around to say hello. Oh, no. The sinking feeling. The tightening. The hatred. The nerve! Evie sparkles.
“I kept it after all. Couldn’t bear to watch someone else walk away with it. It is sooo fabulous! I can’t believe that it fits me!! I have so much to tell you. I’ve got to go…in a rush. Let’s get together soon, kay? How are you?” Evie scurries down the block in the dark sparkling like snow on a December night. Winking at her.
Susannah, relieved for the dark, sits on her porch steps and drops her bags. The sounds that emanate from her body, her mouth stays almost closed, are muffled sobs—not unlike the sound that her childhood cat used to make when coughing up a hairball. Before she knows it she is wiping the wetness from her face and her mouth opens to make another sound. Susannah laughs. For a long time. And it feels just as good to her as her morning orgasms.
Evie looked funny in the dress. Really funny. Weird. Like she must be joking.
Susannah realizes that there is a fine line between fabulous and ugly which can take eight years, or one moment, to cross. As her laughter subsides, Susannah takes a ground cherry and delights in the smooth round fruit that emerges from its papery covering. It tastes good.