When I meet the father of my children, he is muscled and brown-skinned with freckled shoulders from swimming in the ocean in the midday California sun. I am a protozoan. Soft and open. Absorbing everything. When I change, we change. This pattern will repeat. By the time our children are born, my husband is shaped like the Buddha. I don’t mind the change in his shape. He doesn’t mind the change in mine. There are other things that will come between us and end us, but the shape of our bodies is inconsequential. Later there would come the confusion of how my body would be regarded as it aged, what my shape would telegraph to the next person who loved me. When our marriage ends, I am lean and shrewd. An apex predator.
I read somewhere that a woman should gain 25 to 35 lbs when pregnant. I read somewhere that the actress Kate Hudson gained 70. I gained 27 with the first and 13 with the second.
My first baby boy weighed 6lbs 2oz when he was born, long limbed and long fingered and long eye-lashed – perfect in every way. Becoming his mother placed on me a weight I’ve been unable to lose. I don’t remember my first moments with my first son. I remember watching my husband across the room with the baby as the nurses cleaned him and swaddled his flailing limbs and someone smashed a striped hat on his hairy pointy head. I remember being ravenous in those moments, after 20 hours of confusing and difficult labor. I remember asking the nurse – asking anyone who came near to my bed – to order me pancakes from the cafeteria. And when the pancakes arrived, I remember dousing them in syrup and devouring them.
Two years later, the second boy came out exactly the same size as the first. I remember, when they put him on my chest, looking into his grey eyes for a moment. I remember marveling at his ginger hair and touching his puffy little face with my fingertips. It was only a few seconds before they took him from me and another hour before they whisked him to the children’s hospital a few miles down the interstate. During the last months of my pregnancy with my second son, as I incubated the broken-hearted baby in a stew of terrified fight-or-flight hormones, I lost weight – my body did. I was diminished, dragged down, a stone tied to the leg of a drowning woman who was also me. When I went back for my first check-up after giving birth, I was smaller than when I’d become pregnant with him. The roundness of the pregnancy was erased instantly. While pumping milk to feed him during his months in the ICU, I could never eat enough or drink enough. I ate cheeseburgers and piles of salty, greasy fries and double-fisted water and iced tea out of twenty-four ounce cups that never stayed full. When my second son died after three years of sickness, I was bones. I was a ghost. I went with him, but I couldn’t stay. I got divorced. Sold my house. Shed the dead weight. Even in the skinniest jeans I’d ever owned, I remained heavy.
Post mortem. The first man with whom I fell madly in love was a balm. Thin and reserved, he was sparkling and gentle with me, thoughtful and genuine with my son. In every picture I’ve saved, my eyes are closed and I lean my full weight into his body, my head on his shoulder, and he is smiling. He was enamored of my dark hair and of the angled curves of my shoulder blades. He was enamored of the shimmy and jiggle and shake of me. As we fell deeper, my cleavage swelled and spilled out of the dresses I wore. I bought new and bigger bras to harness the bounty of my happiness. “I love you…” he would breathe into my ears and into my hair and into my neck and into the cushion of my belly. And I would believe him. What ended us wasn’t physical. He was enamored of my sadness, of the chasm where I was when he found me. We brought one another joy. We were no longer the night birds we’d rescued. Uncomfortable with the light, he got lost. And he would not be found. I left. After it was over, I conflated my grief at ending the relationship with the grief at the loss of my son. I missed them both at once and the same. I spiraled down and down.
Falling out of love and walking away made me skinny. Grief and loss and slow recovery made me skinny. Being thin is something that happens to me only by accident. I’ve never successfully tried to slim down, though I have tried. Instead, I wake up one morning and find myself half erased. I don’t notice it happening. I’m just gone. I’ve never been able to enjoy being thin. I can’t balance in heels when I am skinny. I have the sensation of being up too high, of wanting to come down – the sense that if I fall, I will break. What even is the point of being thin. I don’t know. But I want it.
Son (age 9): “You know, mom, that you’re not fat, right? You’re just, like, regular. You know that, right?”
Me: “Yeah, buddy. Thanks. Yeah. I know that.” (I’m lying. I don’t know that.)
You never know how you look at any given moment, though. No matter how many mirrors you check. You never quite see it. You never understand until it’s over. Until you see photos of yourself in a continuum and then you can see you were tiny or you were zaftig or you were whatever.
When I first sleep with the barrel-chested basketball coach, it’s because I feel in my bones the desire to take him to bed. He’s driven us back to my apartment in the rain after a celebratory dinner at which I’d drunk four glasses of Prosecco and filled my belly with fancy Vietnamese noodles. I hadn’t realized how small I was until that moment, how small I’d become since the last time I’d been undressed with another person. It was someone else’s body in my bed with this man, not my own. Not my shape, these bones and this skin. Not me. How strange it felt to be so puny under his fleshy body. We dated for a few more weeks, spent a few more nights together, trying to build some kind of connection that wouldn’t come. He needed the room to be pitch-black every time we were naked. I never had a picture in my head of what we looked like tangled up in the sheets, breathless.
My next boyfriend is a bolt of lightning. At first sight, I am dizzy. His version of our beginning is different than mine. From this, we never recover. Our connection is intense and odd and mercurial. We break up for several months and find our way back together. Soon after we reconnect, he meets my son.
We are profoundly physically comfortable with one another. During the first months we are back together, I exhale. I expand, easing back into a familiar shape. Heavy in love. Soon I am unable to zip any of my pants. He worries aloud about his gut and about his hairline. He telegraphs this worry to me. I take it on as my own. He worries about these things in my apartment while making faces in the mirror, while furrowing his brow in a way he does only when assessing his reflection. He wants to hear that he is beautiful, but bristles when I tell him so. He is beautiful. I tell him so.
Him to me: “You know, when we met, you were really tiny. My sister gained 70 lbs. while she was on antidepressants. Do you think that’s what’s happening to you?” I don’t remember what I said in response. But this is, in fact, what is happening to me. Over the months we are together, I take three different antidepressant/antipsychotics and I gain 40 lbs. I’d wanted to put the flesh back on my body, I’d been happy to not see the ribs in my chest or feel the bones of my hips. But I begin to panic that my breasts, once extraordinary, are now simply pendulous. My ass, once two great round handfuls, has grown flat and wide, sort of pancake-y.
One of the last times I see him is in Paris. We set our divergent itineraries to cross in the city of lights. When we meet in the Gare de Lyon, we don’t know how to be. In our weeks apart, I swished hunks of bread in shallow pools of salted olive oil; feasted on cured meats and slices of sharp cheeses with quince paste, local eggs with bright orange middles, dried fruits, gelato, pasta, tins of sardines, steak frites. My skin glows. My hair shines. My belly hangs over the lip of my pants. My feet are swollen from the salt and from the wine and from wandering the streets of the Riviera and the foothills of the Alps and the hallways of airports. He’s been in perpetual motion, walking the streets of cities and tracing pathways through ruins. He’s golden bronze and wiry. His pants slip off sharp hips I’ve not seen before. We have unsatisfying sex in the tiny cheap hotel room before dinner. We hop a train to the Quartier Latin and eat three courses of heavy food with cheese and drinks and bread and we are sated. The next day we buy perfect banh-mi from a place that could be mistaken for a dry-cleaner’s and we make a picnic with in-season raw goat cheeses and drink wine from screw top bottles. I fly out of Orly to Geneva after 36 hours in Paris. Catch a bus into the Alps. He flies back to the states that same day. I am full and happy. But I almost know that it’s almost over.
When we’re both settled back in Texas, he ends us, abruptly, on a Friday afternoon. At the start of a weekend we’d planned to spend together.
I yell and rail and cry to my friends. They delete him on social media, but I don’t. I take to my bed. I get up only to eat French food with all due irony. I eat psychedelic mushrooms for the first time. Drink all of the things. Drown it. Burn it. I text him and tell him I wish I’d never met him. He lashes back. I feel myself get heavier and heavier. I lean into my decline. I add a double chin. I buy Spanxx. I need all new fucking pants. I wear my cloak of adipose tissue as armor against putting myself in his path. Because I can’t let him see me like this. Nearly a year passes. I don’t see him. We write occasionally to one another, but I don’t see him again. I feel ruined.
Son: “Why do you worry so much about how you look?” Me: “Do I?” Son: “Yes.”
I want to say: “Because most of the time, when I catch sight of my reflection in the mirror, my first thought is: you can do better.” I want to tell him: “Because, in the mornings, when my clothes don’t fit and I come face to face with the circles ringing my eyes, I’m trying to salvage something I can live with.” I want to explain to my son: “Pressing against the insecurity of not knowing what will come or when or for what reason, realizing I can’t and don’t control anything, I seek the antidote to the weight of the world in the shimmering mirage of mahogany hair dye and Ruby Woo lipstick.”
But of course I don’t say any of this. Instead, I say something like: “Huh. Well. It’s nice to look nice.” Instead, I say something like that.
The outside protects the inside. The painted up shell is dazzle camouflage for the gooey whites and unstable yolk.
I am butter, melted. Cooled and reshaped. In love and in retreat, I am enormous breasts and wide hips, all pillows and comfort. I soak in salt baths and watch my roundness float to the surface, buoyant and gleaming. I am not fat. I have let myself go.