Jessie stands before me, a circus mirror image of the woman I married ten years earlier. Slight and shriveled, the sight of her furthers my longing for the plump blonde that used to laugh with me, that same woman who would not hesitate to shear off her top and slacks before crawling into bed with me on a Saturday afternoon, would let me stroke her skin until we could take it no longer and gave in to all of our desires — sex, dessert, marathon viewings of Friends reruns watched while curled around each other in half-sleep. Now Jessie uses her afternoons to run the trails in the park behind our house or lift weights at the local gym, coming home sweaty and spent, her cheeks rosy. She looks the same as if we’d been making love.
“Are you coming?” she asks. “We’re going to be late.”
I am wearing the only suit that fits me now, a navy model bought from a big and tall shop a year before for this same office function. The buttons strain against my stomach, the top one coming undone as I scratch out a mustard spot from last year’s party. When it is sufficiently eliminated, I move to refasten the button.
“Leave it,” she says, “it makes you look less fat.”
It all started with a skirt that wouldn’t zip, Jessie refusing to don something else to attend a New Year’s Eve party. Instead we rushed to the grocery in our sweatshirts, socks and sandals, picked up a cheap bottle of champagne. We spent an hour in the store, pestering the fish man for the plumpest shrimp, sorting through to the ripest, greenest broccoli, taking our time deciding what to have. The clerk gave us a dirty look as we checked out. We were the last ones in the place.
Mid-way through the evening, between episodes of Top Chef, Jessie stopped watching and looked at me calmly, seriously; looked at me the way people do before they tell you something terrible.
“It’s time,” she’d said, “to do something about this weight.”
I remember shrugging my shoulders, not wanting to upset her but not wanting to urge her on. She’d smiled at me and rubbed her stomach, then leaned her head on my shoulder. I turned the channel so we could watch the ball drop, our conversation punctuated by crostini with herbed goat cheese, peppercorn boiled shrimp dipped in Cajun remoulade, bites of perfectly steamed broccoli drizzled with Mornay sauce. A Dick Clark wannabe counted down the final ten seconds and Jessie turned, her eyes wide, smiling at me as we leaned in, our lips finding each other as they’d been doing for seven years.
“You look fine,” I said when our eyes had opened again. “I like you the way you are.”
“I don’t,” she returned without hesitation. “I want to try, at least. I feel like I’ve given up on myself.” She paused, looked down at the soft purple robe that she wore, the fuzzy slippers. “I don’t want to look like this anymore.”
“Okay,” I said, then took her hand.
“And it’s healthier, you know? They’re saying now that obese women have more complications during childbirth. I don’t want that to be me someday,” she said, looking at me earnestly.
“Of course not, Jess.” I tried to soothe her. We’d been talking about kids, but this was the first real planning we’d discussed. “But you’re healthy now. I’m sure it’ll be fine.”
“Still,” she added, “diet starts tomorrow.” And she reached for another shrimp.
One Christmas, two pant sizes after Jessie and I had wed, my father told me that getting fat was the married way of life.
“You’re happy, you get married, you get fat,” he’d said, laughing. “At least women get pregnant and fat. We’ve got nothing to show for all the weight. Good thing is, it’s all part of the process.” I think I’d laughed at the time, didn’t really think much of it. I could look at Jessie’s and my expanding waistlines, our enlarged pant sizes, and think about the nights that we’d stay up until sunrise, walking the darkened streets of our little town before retiring home to cheesecake in bed, large glasses of whole milk, our soft flesh pressing together as we made love with full stomachs, the warmth of Jessie next to me while the early-shift cars rolled by outside. On our honeymoon, we’d tried to taste everything that Italy had to offer—sharply aged parmesan cheese and fully matured Burgundy and salty cured prosciutto; made-fresh pasta with every kind of sauce, seafood and lamb, each meal topped with fresh cannoli. It seemed we would always be lovingly full.
For the next year and a half, Jessie dieted. At nights and on the weekends, times when we shared our meals, I joined her, forcing down cabbage soup and numerous salads, beef stroganoff made with lean meat and fat free sour cream, a blackened vegetable stir-fry, more rice than I’d care to admit, and, during the low-carb phase, more meat than was reasonable. Many of them worked for a few weeks – two months at most – Jessie’s face glowing as she stepped out of the bathroom in the morning. She recorded her weight on a calendar fastened to the refrigerator, each month marked by a different pin-up picture. She purchased smiley face stickers to mark the days where she’d lost. Whenever there were five blank spaces in a row, I knew our cuisine would be changing again.
Everything revolved around weight, not just Jessie’s weight on the bathroom scale but the weight of every piece of food we put into our mouths. We bought measuring cups marked with cups and milliliters and ounces. We bought food scales whose boxes featured pictures of the scale filled with apples. Nothing was cooked or dressed or plated without having its weight taken and recorded. Everything was documented, regimented, prescribed; spontaneity was deemed dangerous. I longed for one high-risk meal.
Together we learned how to weigh food without scales or cups: three ounces of cooked meat is the size of a deck of playing cards, a quarter cup of nuts is the size of a golf ball, a tablespoon of oil, mayonnaise, salad dressing, butter is equal to the size of a poker chip. When we went out to eat, everything was on the side, dry, low fat, fat free, healthy choice, low calorie. Jessie packed her purse with a cheat bag: a deck of playing cards, poker chips, a golf ball. If she’d been mugged, someone might’ve guessed she was a rabid poker player with a stress-reducing hobby or a greens keeper with a gambling problem. She would order the smallest sirloin – no oil, no butter – then pull out her deck of cards and cut off the excess. Her steamed vegetables always came dry, her salads with the dressing on the side, a golf ball’s worth of oil and vinegar destined to grace the lettuce.
After about a year of dieting, losing then regaining, Jessie had lost a total of twenty pounds. She excitedly tossed out her old work suits, shrieking with delight as she slipped them on one by one and wiggled, seeing if she could slip the skirts and pants down over her hips. If they slid down significantly, she would strip them off and toss them to me, gleefully skipping back to the closet and rubbing the outsides of her thighs. I remembered those dimpled places, the firm deposits of flesh that I would caress with the tip of my fingers while we watched television in the mornings, before Jessie was fully awake. They were noticeably smaller, not nearly as shaky as I remembered them, and I could feel her disappearing into this new, smaller self.
As we make our way to the party, I find myself studying my wife through the corner of my eye. She is tall for a woman, with dirty blonde hair that she regularly highlights at the beauty salon, and a pinkish complexion – one that is easily flushed. Where she used to be shaped like a sturdy hourglass, she now resembles a long box with a bit of bulge in the center because of all the excess skin she still has from the 100 lbs. of her that is gone. From the side, before, she was a series of curves: out for the breasts and then in again and slanting back out for the pouch of her lower stomach, the backwards leap of her butt, then the slope of her thighs that would flatten out so that her calves could take the last hurrah. She was beautiful.
Sometimes I see her, the Jessie I once held and loved and knew, in the sagging around this new Jessie’s middle. It haunts me in its own silent way, like when an ex-lover comes to a party that you also attend. It reminds me of the duality of our lives now: separate cabinets for our foods, two sets of pots and pans in the sink after each home cooked meal, two schedules, and I wonder if it’ll ever go back to being just one again, if our house will shed the weight of an extra life.
We would take day-trips on weekends to some of the local sights: Thomas Edison’s winter home, the Salvador Dali museum, the Ringling property, sometimes even venturing the four hours to Orlando to parade around all day in one of the various amusement parks, our fat selves t-shirt clad and sandal-wearing, our hearts bubbling founts of mirth. Often, though, we would settle for the ten minute drive to the beach followed immediately by the arduous rub-in of sunscreen, the time it took to set up our lounge chairs and towels, homemade roast beef sandwiches with thyme-infused aioli, shaved slices of sharp cheddar cheese, fresh arugula. After lunch, we would strip off our clothes and head into the water. Jessie would be gloriously pale and fresh in a swimsuit – black, of course — and she would splash and play and I would hold myself against her, feeling her solidity in the ocean surrounding us. When we came home, we would strip ourselves bare in the laundry room and, full of sand-grit and sea-stickiness, we would make love in our soft bed, our skins fresh with sunburn. I remember her laughing and naked, a pink box on her chest where her swimsuit did not cover her.
Jessie sits behind the wheel of her new Jetta, a car that she had always liked but had not felt she fit into. Tonight she has her hair pulled up into a curly ponytail, something that she has spent hours perfecting with a curling iron, and is dressed in a close-fitting black skirt that cuts off below her knee. The bright red top she wears to hide those folds of skin has a ribbon below the bust that ties in the back. Two years ago, she would have asked me to tie it for her, kissing me gently after I’d done so. Tonight, I did not see her until moments before she told me to stop fussing with my jacket and get in the car.
We ride mostly in silence, the radio tuned to some channel that appears during the holidays to repeat the same twelve Christmas songs over and over. Jessie hums along as we cruise through Bonita Beach, looking for the turnoff to her boss’s large home, and I wonder what she is thinking about, whether she is really so absorbed in her own thoughts or if she simply has nothing to say to me, a man that she knew so well once. I find myself gazing nostalgically at the lump in her top that sits at her waist, wondering how many card decks of herb buttered ribeye would fill that space, how many golf balls of salty, creamy pistachios or poker chips of chunky, tangy bleu cheese could bring her back to me.
Jessie came in from the salon with a smile spread across her face.
“You love it,” I said to her, “I can tell.”
“It’s not the hair,” she’d said, sliding onto the couch beside me, “it’s gastric bypass.”
I remember feeling a drop inside my torso, like the tissue holding my heart and my stomach had simultaneously given way.
“See, they take your stomach and staple it closed so that only the top portion is—”
“I know what it is,” I said. “Don’t you think it’s a little drastic?”
“Jim, this weight is never going to come off if I don’t do this.”
“And what’s the problem with that?” I asked, my voice wavering.
“Losing weight will be good for my heart,” she said, “and my cholesterol. It’ll prevent diabetes. All that stuff.”
I could see hope in her face, present mostly in the gloss of her eyes, the pink rising up in her throat and cheeks.
“I didn’t know that you had problems with any of that.”
“Well, I don’t right now. But I could! The doctor is always saying I need to lose weight.”
“Isn’t this the same doctor that told you to lose weight when you went in for a sinus infection?”
She sighed at me and I could tell she had already made up her mind.
“Becky at the beauty salon says that her cousin got gastric bypass and lost like 200 pounds. Imagine what that would be like for me.” She stood up and twirled as though showing off a new dress. “Can you see it?”
“First off,” I started, “you don’t have 200 pounds to lose.”
She rolled her eyes.
“Secondly, I think that having surgery when nothing is wrong with you is silly and over-the-top.”
Jessie crossed her arms, her newly tinted blonde hair slipping over her shoulders.
“And thirdly, I like the way you are now. I don’t want you to change—you’re beautiful now, Jess.”
But her face had changed. Instead of giddiness or the sarcastic rolling of the eyes while a hint of smile still played on her face, Jessie looked disappointed and angry.
“What about the obese pregnancy thing? I’m more likely to get gestational diabetes because of my weight!”
“I didn’t know we were planning to get pregnant yet. I thought you wanted to wait a little while?” I was being honest. We’d agreed to wait until Jessie got a hold on her career, until we’d saved enough money to give our kid what we felt it would deserve.
“I don’t think you get what this feels like,” she said to me, blonde eyebrows pressed into a straight line above her green eyes. “Do you know what it’s like to be me every day?”
“I must know a little,” I said, waving my hands down my own robust figure, “it’s not like I’m Brad Pitt.”
“No,” she said, shaking her head, “it’s not the same for men as it is for women.” She loosened her hands from her crossed arms and gestured with them, a sign that I was in for quite an argument. “You all dress in pants and shirts and that’s it. There aren’t a lot of different styles or shapes to wear, it’s just shirts, sweatshirts, jackets, trousers, and jeans.” Her mouth hung open slightly as she paused, waiting for her point to sink in. “I have to go shopping for a different dress for every party or for work or to hang around the house in or whatever, and it has to be in style, in the shape that whatever person decided looks good this season. Do you understand how hard that is for me? Do you think I like having to sort through every plus-sized section to find something that doesn’t look like a tent?”
Her face was flushed and her breath was ragged, sure signs that she would cry. I moved to stand up but she put her hand out, keeping me in my place on the sofa.
“I want to look normal,” she said, tears sliding down her rosy cheeks, “I want to feel like a regular person.”
I pulled her down to me, sat her soft body on my lap and held her while she cried, my hand sliding down her back.
“Shh, shh,” I cooed, “it’ll be alright. If that’s what makes you happy, then we’ll look into it. But you don’t have to do this.” I sucked in a breath, held it in my lungs for a moment. “You don’t have to do this for me.”
Jessie could not eat real food for almost three months after the surgery. For the first few weeks, at very regulated times, I would feed her liquids — chicken and beef broth, juice, water, melted popsicles when she craved something sweet. Even then, she couldn’t keep certain things down, her new walnut-sized stomach rejecting items that were too sugary or salty for its momentary tastes. After a few weeks she graduated to mushy foods and I shopped in the baby food aisle, a task I thought Jessie and I would perform together, hungry child in tow. She would gobble down pureed carrots and creamed peas, didn’t much care for squash, and she never ate more than a jar full. It seemed sad, to need so little to sustain her. I remembered Jessie piling her plate with mashed potatoes and gravy, thick slices of turkey and spoonfuls of stuffing and cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving, the way she seemed so robust, so full of life. Lying on the sofa or in bed, her once plump body slowly withered underneath her blanket, slipping further away with each teaspoon of mashed peaches or applesauce.
She lost weight rapidly at first, her cheeks and arms loosening, it seemed, by the day. When she could get up and move again, she slowly built up her exercise routine – first walking around the house slowly, then more quickly, then buying a new pair of tennis shoes and walking around the neighborhood. She eventually built up to a jog, then a run. She would log long hours as though training for a marathon. When she came in, her face dripping with sweat, it would startle me to see this flaccid woman walking around as though she belonged there, her legs lean underneath her running shorts.
After a while, her weight loss plateaued and I got used to seeing her in her new form — the leaner version of herself, this dimmed image of the woman that used to glow with life. Jessie did not necessarily look sickly, but I could not help but think of her that way when comparing her with the old Jessie, that beach goddess in the large black swimsuit, her blonde hair shimmering in the afternoon sunlight. But she was still my wife, this other woman dressed in my wife’s ill-fitting skin.
I found myself examining her attitude and manner, the way that she would say things. I could find offense in her many side comments, but did not want to start a fuss. Instead, I ignored them, hoped that she would neglect her running for a day and come to sit with me. I tried running with her, but she easily passed me by, trotting backwards to tell me she would meet me back at the house when I was through. I’d gone out on my own, starting with a brisk walk and moving up to a slow jog in an attempt to be able to go out with her. Each time I tried, I would have to stop and gasp for breath, and after a while I stopped trying so much, thought that maybe she would tire of all of this newness and look for me back in the things that she seemed to have left behind.
We stand on the front porch under the soft white lamp swarmed with moths and the mosquitoes that have withstood the South Florida winter. Jessie faces forward, her hands fussing with the bottom of her blouse. I reach to put my hand on her waist but she pushes it away, looking at me sternly for a moment, then softening.
“Please don’t,” she says, her voice sweet, “it makes me self-conscious.”
I nod to her and face forward, too, waiting for her boss to open the door.
Inside the party is as usual — Jessie’s coworkers stand about holding drinks and gossiping with one another, men and women separated mostly into their own groups. Jessie looks at the men’s group and smiles at me, waves me over with her hand. I muster a smile back and make my way to the men, greeted by handshakes and pats on the shoulder.
“Jim,” they say to me, their faces ruddy with scotch, “Good to see you!”
“Jessie looks great,” her boss, Frank, leans in to me, his breath a mix of liquor and something sharp. “She’s really taking it off, huh?”
“She always looked great,” I say, “but thank you.”
“Must be a big change,” he says, ignoring my response, and nudges one of the other men in the group, causing him to break out in an awkward laugh. I excuse myself and make my way over to the hor d’oeuvres table.
I skewer a few cheese cubes and place a finger sandwich on my plate, followed by two slices of rolled salami that I dot with Dijon mustard. After snagging a can of seltzer water from an open cooler, I seat myself at the counter, notice that I am the only person staying in the kitchen. A few people come in for a moment, pick up a drink or a small plate, then vanish back into their groups.
Last year, Jessie was here with me, the flesh of her face slightly melting, sipping on a glass of iced water with lemon, the seltzer too much for her post-op stomach at the time. I think of the smile that she gave me, the pathetic look from her ice water to the food on my plate. I sat a piece of salami in her hand.
“Just chew it,” I told her, “don’t swallow.”
She’d smiled at me and kissed my cheek and I’d flushed with pleasure at her touch.
We spent this Thanksgiving with Jessie’s parents in Orlando. Jessie’s mom had gone all out despite Jessie’s previous warnings that she wouldn’t be able to eat much of anything and that rich food upset her stomach. I don’t think Regina was being contrary — the spread was typical of their Thanksgiving meals — but Jessie was unnerved by it. She reluctantly dabbed teaspoon-sized portions of everything onto her plate: a dollop of mashed potatoes, the tip of a yam, a few green beans glistening with butter and studded with chips of crispy bacon, half a slice of turkey, a fluffy ping-pong ball of stuffing. At the table, her father laughed, asked her why she was eating like a bird. When she sighed, frustrated at his questions, he turned serious and put his hand over hers on the table.
“I didn’t mean to upset you, honey,” he said. “I’m just kidding with you.”
Regina nodded and glanced at me, my plate stacked with items like a map of food nations set in a gravy ocean. She gave me a look that said she sympathized with me, our relationships to Jessie all strained by food. We were all big people at that table, save for Jessie. She used to be one of us.
“At least Jim can still pack it in,” her father said, smiling. “There’s a man with a good appetite.” He chuckled and patted his round stomach. “A man after my own heart. Or stomach, at least.”
We all laughed at this.
“It’s a good sign to see a man eat,” Jessie’s father said. “I don’t know how we’re gonna get no grandbabies out of you though, honey, if you don’t get back to being a little robust.”
Jessie smiled dimly at this and we all kept eating, but the world on my plate seemed less appetizing. I found myself choking down the last bites of turkey and yam and mashed potato.
After dinner, Jessie’s dad and I sat in the living room, watching the last dregs of football drain out of the television while Regina and Jessie washed up in the kitchen. I was gluttonously full, but it didn’t feel the same. Instead of warm and loved, I felt disgusted with myself. I thought about Jessie’s meager plate, her gaunt face half-smiling at her father’s remark. I made my way into the bathroom.
I splashed my face with cold water and fought the nauseated feeling in my stomach. When I shut off the faucet I could hear Jessie and Regina talking in the kitchen, their words punctuated by the clanking of dishes, the sound of rinsing.
“But he’s right,” Regina said, “you look so thin! Are you even able to have children with this surgery?”
I could hear Jessie sigh.
“Yes, Ma. I can still have kids. Jim would have never agreed to this if we couldn’t.”
“Well thank Jesus for that,” Regina said. “So are you thinking about it any time soon,” she asked. “Your father is just dying for grandkids to spoil. We’re the only one at the VFW with no photos of fat grandbabies.”
There was a pause then and I could almost see Jessie’s face. We hadn’t talked about kids since Jessie asked the doctor—at my urging—whether or not she should have the surgery if we were planning on getting pregnant. After that it just hadn’t seemed relevant.
“I just want to focus on one thing at a time,” I heard Jessie say. “I feel like I’m finally getting the life I wanted and I want to enjoy it for a while before thinking about a baby.”
Dishes clanked in the sink. The dishwasher door closed and the knob ratcheted its way to the proper setting. Before the machine hummed to life I heard Jessie’s voice.
“Besides,” she said, “I just lost all this weight. I can’t imagine turning around and getting fat again.”
From the other room I can hear the co-worker’s wives oohing and aahing over Jessie.
“You look so good,” one says, “you’re so much smaller! How much have you lost?”
“About 100 pounds,” Jessie returns, a polite but giddy tone to her voice. “I feel like a new person.”
“So what now,” another asks. “Do you have much more weight to lose?”
“Not really. I’m going to the gym and running so that I can tone up, but the biggest problem is all this extra skin.”
I close my eyes and try to block it out. I’m tired of this change, tired of hearing about the old, unacceptable body and what was wrong with it, how she wants to fix it.
“So I guess the next thing is to get it removed,” she says, and I hear the women nodding and murmuring their approval.
“Won’t that leave a scar?” someone remarks.
“Won’t it hurt?” says another.
“It’s the last thing,” Jessie says matter-of-factly. I can imagine the look on her face—her eyebrows lifted, eyes bright, mouth set in a smug smirk. “After that, I’ll be a totally different person.”
“Then you’ll be just like the rest of us,” another woman says, her words sloppy, “the only dead weight you’ll have is your husband!”
The women laugh, the tinkle of their high voices like flames dancing inside my gut. I stand up from the table and make my way outside, my legs moving quicker than my mind understands. I think I hear Jessie behind me, but am not sure if that is her voice saying my name or if it’s someone else’s voice, someone else’s name.
Outside the cars roll past on some nearby highway and cicadas rattle in the palm trees. The Florida night air is cool and balmy and, in the distance, I note the sound of an infant crying or a cat mewling its laments. I button and unbutton my jacket, take it off, toss it on top of the Jetta. I walk down the suburban street, past the large houses with soft lighting glimmering through tall French doors. I can see families sitting around the TV, parents and kids illuminated by the blue glow. I pass a house where a child is playing with a toy truck in front of the door and he presses his face against the glass, watching me walk by. I must look like a man on a stroll, enjoying the night air, a man taking account of his life, a man looking to remove some worries, or drop a few pounds. Inside, this new weight is unbearable.