I wake up to the clatter of metal hitting hardwood and a thump. Next to me, my boyfriend is on the floor. Our metal-woven platform bed has partially collapsed. My side of the mattress remains on its perch, but the other half makes a lean-to against the floor. Broken bits of metal peek out from the mess underneath Alex. A deep moan rises from his belly and grows into a wail.
"Come on," I say. "Let's get up."
I stand and wait for him to join me. He's coming from a lower depth, and he moves slower than I do.
"Come here." I hold open my arms. He falls into them and cries. "It's okay," I tell him. "It's okay."
We pull the mattress off the mangled frame. We bought this "Better than a Box Spring" about ten months ago, one of many bed-related purchases since we've been together. It takes a lot to support us. When we first met, Alex weighed about 500 pounds to my 215. Since then, we've made and lost more progress than I can comprehend -- gaining, losing, and regaining. We have a way to go.
I'm stuck in traffic, trying to keep my patience. Bored, I imagine how I must look to passing drivers. I see myself with a scarf on my head, fabulous vintage clothes, big sunglasses, driving a shiny boat of a car. I'm Janet Leigh from Psycho.
Then, of course, I realize that I'm not. I'm plain and tall. I wear glasses. I'm fat and redheaded. When I wake up in the morning, I look through a tossed-over room for the cleanest shirt to wear with my black pants.
And yet, in my mind's eye, I'm glamorous. Most of the minor actors I cast to play "Cate Root" in my head are at least based on some version of me -- green eyes, red hair, curls and curves. But they're all stand-ins, waiting for the "true me" to emerge.
I feel like I've already been so many people. There's me, nine years old in a B-cup bra and taller than most of the boys in my class. Me at 13, fidgeting in a swimsuit, already self-conscious about stretch marks, a red web that quickly formed between my pale breasts and freckled shoulders. Me at 15, shrouded in an oversized flannel shirt.
Me at 17 trying on a new personality in New York City, hoping all the black would be slimming. Me at 25, feeling graceful and lithe at 215 pounds, slipping on a pair of size 14 jeans and partying on a French Quarter balcony until dawn. Me now, 28 and noticing every back ache, every exacerbated hangover, every extra second it takes to push myself out of a low chair.
I met Alex in the outskirts of the French Quarter in April 2008, when we both attended a garden party hosted by one of his co-workers. Romance was not in the air. By midnight, most of the party guests were gone. Patrick, Alex, another guest and I were the only ones still sitting under the moonlight. Our conversation grew silly, talking about Patrick's childhood tours of Prince Edward Island and his family's obsession with "Anne of Green Gables."
At one point, we broke out in laughter, and Alex fell backward, taking the chair down with him. I laughed even harder but hoped my mirth wouldn't be construed as cruelty. My heart went out to Alex in his embarrassment, but then again, fat people falling down are pretty funny.
Alex didn't hit on me that night. By the time we were both available, about six months later, I'd convinced myself it was a bad idea. I'd spent my summer with a Jerk, and I wasn't ready to move on.
The summer that I spent with the Jerk, at 24 and 215 pounds, I felt like I was on the verge of something. The Jerk was very attractive, and part of me thought being associated with him made me more attractive. This thing that I was on the verge of -- it was something more than popularity or validation. It was the idea that maybe, when people looked at me, I wouldn't be fat anymore. They would see me next to a man, six feet tall, well muscled, the type whose attractiveness couldn't be questioned -- and I would fit.
Maybe I was a bit larger than they thought appropriate, but still, appealing. They would know there had to be something there. I would be beautiful, whole.
As late fall turned to winter, Alex and I began spending more time together. One night, under the charm of many drinks and quick-witted conversation, I took him home with me, even though I didn't want to pursue a romantic relationship. That decision was colossally misguided.
Alex and I spoke every day; he was becoming one of my best friends. But I couldn't commit to him. I had to shut him down.
Somewhere in my black heart, I questioned my own motives. When things went south with the Jerk, I had found comfort in cardboard-box pizza and ice cream. I had already gained back 15 or 20 pounds. I feared that if I got together with Alex, more would follow. If being with the attractive Jerk made me more attractive, would being with Alex make me fatter?
On our occasional short walks through the Quarter, Alex grew sweaty and began to pant. He couldn't keep up with me. And so one afternoon in December, staring out at the Mississippi River, I told Alex that I couldn't be with him. I just wasn't ready. I was afraid of getting hurt again. And I couldn't deal with the fact that he was really, really fat.
Most of my family battles with weight. The women are what fashion magazines call "pear-shaped," holding all their weight around their hips and bellies, swollen like upright eggs.
Over the years, my mother, father, sister, brother, aunts, uncles, and grandmothers waxed and waned in their sizes. I remember their faces growing pudgier or thinner, and that my hugging arms couldn't always reach around someone's midsection.
I have no memories of what made people get fat, no giant bowls of cheese dip or faces smeared with chocolate cake. Life alone seemed to be fattening: ice cream in the summer, beers on the porch, cheese and crackers on the kitchen counter while Mom and Dad make dinner.
What made people thin? Running 10 miles a day. A diet of chicken and green vegetables with twice-a-day workouts. Mixing canned tuna with mustard and eating it off a Wasa cracker.
You would think that this family history would foster commiseration and compassion. But no one in my immediate family has been fat. Fat like 330 pounds fat. Fat like you can't reach to clean yourself properly in the shower. Fat like you're winded going up one flight of stairs. Fat like your joints hurt at the end of the day, every day. And when we started dating, that's where Alex was.
So fat that his mattress had a cavern down the center. After a few nights of sliding into one another, we had to replace it. The second was no better, leaving us with backaches and joint pain. We switched to my mattress. Within a few months, the box spring broke. We bought a new bed frame. Within a year, it broke. Now we sleep on a mattress that rests on the floor. That there's nothing more to break should give me comfort. It doesn't.
The handful of men I slept with before Alex were well-muscled, hard frames. I loved the way it felt when they held me, almost like furniture. I loved that they were like walls or coat racks that I could hang on. I marveled at these men's bodies as if they were machines.
But Alex, Alex is soft. When we first got together, I imagined him as a great bear sprawled on the bed, and I scampered from one corner to the other, like a forest nymph, some playful, dainty thing. His solidity is different from the others. It's not that he's capable of lifting me or twisting me into positions; it's not his ability to manipulate my body or to handle my weight. It's that he makes me feel weightless. Our sex life is outside the rest of my experience -- incomparable, private.
Almost a year after I seduced and rejected Alex, I realized that I was in love with him. I loved his stupid jokes, his encyclopedic knowledge of language and trivia, his grasp of geography and world history, and his jocular, casual acceptance of almost any feeling I shared. Alex and I have been sharing an apartment for almost three years. He is my first boyfriend and the only man I've ever lived with.
It's never glamorous. He bumps into the shelves in our narrow kitchen and breaks the dishes. The box springs collapse, and our bed frames splinter. Sometimes his pants rip. We overeat ice cream. I get angry because my pants are too tight. I worry about our future, our finances, and our fitness. I worry deeply about our health. Alex tells me that he'll never leave me. I don't want to say, "There are other ways besides a breakup."
One year after the breaking of the bed frame, on a restless night, Alex comes to bed. There's a crack as he enters the room, adjusting the fan. I awake from my position on our new king mattress and box spring, only about a month old. We bought a bed frame, too, black, three-beam, labeled heavy-duty. It warped beyond usability within a few weeks. I meant to return it, to call it defective, but I missed the window. It leans against the wall in the corner, waiting to be thrown out.
I'm upset. Alex asks why, and I can't tell him.
I think about his three pieces of toast at breakfast, his two sandwiches for lunch, or his decision to eat a quesadilla when I want taco salad for dinner. It takes effort to not audibly police his food intake, even though I know that tactic doesn't work. I think about my mom admonishing me for eating too many oranges, my dad eyeing my third piece of bread, my brother nibbling on a handful of almonds while the rest of the family demolishes a spread of cheese and crackers.
This is a choice, I remind myself. Loving Alex is a choice. Loving myself, fat and all, is a choice. It is minute and mundane, a series of efforts and setbacks and some truly excellent progress. Still, we have a way to go.