Originally published in Cannoli Pie – November 2010
Arlene was fat, not one of the gargantuan souls featured on the evening news that need a wall torn down to remove their corpses, just fat. At thirty-eight years old, she was resigned to never having children of her own and acted the beloved aunt to her six nieces and nephews. The wrinkles on her face and the sagging folds of flesh on her belly were regrettable but did not weigh heavily on her mind. She looked forward to leading her tour groups through the local art museum two Saturdays a month even though she got winded walking up the wide central stairs. Tight airline seatbelts did not stop her from travelling the world visiting the great art museums and enjoying local cuisines. A fresh baguette with a piece of runny Camembert eaten in the shadow of the Louvre Pyramid was orgasmic. Touring the Goya galleries then stopping in a bar along the Paseo del Prado for a glass of sherry and some squid in its own ink would be her perfect day. She reveled in trying the house specialty wherever she went be it deep fried guinea pig in Peru or bouillabaisse in Marseilles. Food was adventure. Food was entertainment. Food was fun.
Food was also comfort. Arlene’s world was unpleasant and swallowing her emotions, sumptuously coated in sugar, allowed her to function. Sweet tart lemon meringue pie soothed hurt feelings. When her boss assumed she had nothing better to do with her weekends, she reworked her married colleague’s accounts with a smile and box of Krispy Kremes. A pan full of chewy brownies enabled to put up with her sisters teasing her about being alone. An apple tart could alleviate the frustration of being ignored and fluffy chocolate cake was good for both celebrating a birthday and forgetting she was getting older.
Negative emotions were unacceptable in Arlene’s world. She had been taught that a good girl is polite no matter how offensive people are. She smiles even if she is unhappy and at no time does a good girl show anger. Eating sweets allowed Arlene to keep her rage at a slow simmer deep beneath her thick fatty crust and still be as sweet and flexible as a marshmallow on the surface.
Arlene had made a clumsy detente with her belly; she would not diet and it would not get in her way. She took pride in her appearance. She was impeccably groomed with polished fingers and toes and smelled wonderful – a blend of Chanel #5 and mocha latte. Shopping in the frumpy “women’s” department was tiresome, as if only married women wore a size fourteen or larger and everyone else were Misses, but she managed to put together a wardrobe of black pants and smart jackets that she expertly accessorized with an extensive collection of silk scarves and statement pins. She spent considerable time each morning setting her hair on hot rollers and sprayed it within inches of its life. Arlene liked herself; it was other people that had a problem with her weight.
Eating her way through life was working for Arlene, until it didn’t anymore. First she waited over an hour to take her nephews on The Big Bomber rollercoaster only to not be able to pull the restraining bar over her belly and have to wait on the platform for them to finish. Then, the zipper in her favorite pair of crepe pants let go. When she tried to replace them, she discovered they were not manufactured in a size large enough to span her girth. She went home with an empty shopping bag and a dozen cupcakes decorated like spring flowers. That night in a fit of desperation, Arlene found Adumbral Weight Loss’s website. She knew better but she was tired and sugar crazed and the website guaranteed quick dramatic weight loss.
“You must have a death wish because you are killing yourself by getting so fat,” the diet consultant said on her first visit. “You are at risk for diabetes, heart disease and arthritis. At 240 pounds, you are morbidly obese. Do you hear me? Morbid – as in deadly.”
“Oh give me a break.” Arlene snapped. Arlene knew she was overweight; her mother had reminded her of the fact every time she lifted a morsel to her lips. “I’m not so bad. I don’t smoke. I don’t drink to excess. I don’t do drugs. I’m not so self-destructive. I like to eat – so what?”
The consultant threw a folder of rules and restrictions at Arlene. “Well! If you don’t follow this diet to the letter, you will die within just a few short years.”
Philip Kista, president of Adumbral Enterprises, would defend his company’s methods as “tough love” for people with too little willpower to help themselves. He maintained his slight frame by subsisting on nuts and berries and obsessively running five miles a day.
It worked. Arlene was scared. She didn’t want to die. She had known fat people who died of heart attacks in their forties. She didn’t want to have to give herself insulin shots or possibly lose a foot to diabetes. She took the folder of restrictions, went home and emptied the cabinets.
The next morning, she stumbled into her sparkling kitchen and was dismayed by how little there was left to eat; no orange juice, no toast or bagels, no cereal, no milk, no fruit. She lifted a carton of eggs out of the nearly empty refrigerator and put on a pot of water to boil. Day One of the diet allowed her a single soft boiled egg and a handful of supplements. There was nothing special in Kista’s yellow pills. He sold his clients a standard multi-vitamin with a mega-supplement of fear. Arlene diffidently ate the egg from an antique egg cup with a tiny silver spoon while leafing through the paper.
By lunchtime, Arlene was glowing with pride. She had forgone her usual venti cinnamon dolce latte topped with whipped cream and chocolate nips for a cup of herbal tea. It was difficult to not reach for the tin of yogurt covered pretzels in her bottom drawer mid-morning but she felt virtuous as she threw them in the break room trash. She ordered a salad with no dressing and was gratified to be proactive about her health. Self-satisfaction carried Arlene through the evening and a dinner of steamed broccoli florets.
The next morning Arlene felt like a truck had run her down, stopped, and backed up. A single boiled egg would not make a dent in her hunger. Her head was pounding, her breath smelled like death, and she was desperate for a chocolate croissant. Everywhere she looked was food. There were bagels and danish at the morning meeting. Sandwiches were brought in for lunch but she was only allowed two cups of undressed lettuce on Day Two. The instructions said to drink water if she felt nauseous; she had been glugging down bottle after bottle of water and still could not drown the sensation that she was about to vomit. She opted to forsake food entirely. By four o’clock her headache had progressed to be a railroad spike driven into the base of her skull.
She may have abandoned the diet and lost the $300 non-refundable fee had she not spoken to her mother on the way home from work. Her head was pounding and her entire body was screaming for fried chicken and mashed potatoes swimming in gravy. She was fragile, just ripe for Roseanne to poke at her daughter’s weaknesses.
“Arlene? Is something wrong? You didn’t ask me how my hair appointment was.”
“Sorry Mom, I’m not feeling very well. I started this new diet and it’s making me feel lousy. I should just go to bed early and hope I feel better tomorrow.”
“Oh Arlene.” Arlene could hear the disgust in her mother’s voice. Her mouth began to water. “Why bother? You know you won’t stick with it. What makes you think this time will be any different?”
Her mother’s lack of faith in her stung. A quart of rocky road ice cream would have been a fitting balm.
“Why put yourself through all that? It’s not like you’re going to find a man now. By the time I was your age I was looking forward to grandchildren.” Arlene’s mother measured a woman’s success by her figure and her husband, neither of which Arlene possessed. Education, business acumen, social prestige meant nothing; they were in the realm of men.
“I don’t know, Mom. I think it might just work this time. This Kista guy guarantees results. I need to hang up now. I’m going into a valley.”
Talking to her mother frequently made Arlene run for a Hawaiian pizza. The sweet pineapple and salty bacon on a soft cushion of melted cheese could blunt her feelings of rejection, but she resisted. She would see this diet through if only to show her mother that she could do it.
The next morning she still felt nauseous. Arlene wanted to stay in bed but she needed to get to the grocery store before work. On Day Three she was allowed to add three ounces of roasted chicken to her salad at lunch. Never had plain chicken seemed so enticing. She ran into the grocery store and picked up a bag of lettuce and a whole roasted chicken. Walking through the grocery store was torture. Each aisle posed a trap. The center aisles had crackers or cereal or chips on them. If she went around the side through produce, she would have to pass the bakery section where the fresh baguettes and cupcakes mocked her but frozen foods had ice cream and, her favorite, the Pepperidge Farm coconut cakes. She hurried through cleaning supplies to the express check-out line, hoping to get out of the building quickly, but all the self-service lanes were in use. Arlene would have to wait. The smell of baking bread wafted over from the bakery. She clenched the muscles in her legs to keep from running over and biting the crunchy crust of a baguette and into the soft satisfying center.
The grey haired woman in front of Arlene was dithering with her wallet trying to find her shoppers rewards card to begin the automated process. Arlene itched to rip open one of the candy bars offering themselves up to her from beside the registers. Chocolate and caramel and nuts could allow her to wait patiently. The woman carefully lifted a jill of cream from her cart, slowly twirled it on the scanner until the machine let out a beep, then slowly picked up the cream as if it were a bomb and placed it in a plastic bag by itself.
Arlene turned away in disgust. Her head was beginning to pound again. A refrigerator of Coca Cola hummed a siren song. She longed for its sweet syrupy relief. How much damage would just one Coke do? But then Arlene remembered the diet instructions saying that if she cheated, she would have to go back to day one and start over. As bad as day three was, it was better than day one. Arlene pulled her eyes away from the bottles of temptation and looked up. The lane was clearly marked ‘10 items or less’ but Arlene counted fourteen items in the cart in front of her. The woman was turning a box of Bran Buds over in her hands like a new and alien object. Anger rose within Arlene like bubbles in gravy. She stepped forward and grabbed the box.
“The UPCs are on the side, you old troll. And you just wave it in front of the scanner thingie. If you can’t hack modern technology, let one of those half-wits over there check you out. Better yet, go back to the five and dime!”
Arlene threw the box of cereal back at the stunned woman, shoved her purchases in her giant purse and stormed out of the store. The teenager overseeing the self-checkout aisle let her go. He was not about to risk confronting a crazed fat woman over a bag of lettuce and a roast chicken. As she squealed out of the parking lot, Arlene saw the older woman cautiously pushing her cart across the parking lot and was tempted to turn around and squash her under her bumper. She needed a strawberry danish.
After the grocery store, Arlene had just enough time to run into the bank. Adumbral Weight Loss did not accept health insurance and insisted she pay with either cash or a cashier’s check. The skinny receptionist, Molly, had hinted that they asked for cash payments because so many of their clients had put stop payments on their personal checks. Arlene wanted to back out of the program too but she wouldn’t give her mother or Adumbral Weight Loss the satisfaction of seeing her fail.
The bank was lit up like a birthday cake. They were promoting their newly extended morning hours with balloons, chances to win a $100 gift card for opening a new account, and food. The bank manager was working the long line of customers shaking hands and offering people coffee and free pens. A door opened to the left and the assistant bank manager backed into the lobby balancing a heavy tray loaded down with apple fritters, blueberry muffins, croissants and doughnuts. The smell of freshly brewed coffee overlaid with baked apples and cinnamon was intoxicating. Arlene’s heart sank. She thought the bank, of all places, would be a safe zone away from the temptation of sweets. Her head was pounding so strongly she could not see straight. She considered leaving but she had already been waiting ten minutes to withdraw some money and was not going to be run off by a breakfast platter.
A man in paint covered overalls brushed past Arlene to reach for a sticky glazed doughnut. It was a struggle not to snatch it out of his hand. One by one the other patrons descended on the tray and reformed the line with their treasures balanced on paper napkins. The sounds of chewing and slurping made Arlene feel faint with desire.
There was still one Bavarian crème doughnut left on the tray. Cool smooth cream filling peeked coquettishly from inside its airy raised ring and chocolate frosting ever so slightly dripped down its sides. It was taunting her. Arlene wanted that doughnut. Every neuron in her brain was screaming for her to eat the doughnut. She needed to get out of that bank, soon. She couldn’t refuse the temptation much longer.
The line was long but it was moving until a baby faced boy with his pants hanging down to his knees started arguing with the teller. “I don’t want to deposit it. I want the cash!” The boy pounded his hand on the security glass separating him from the young teller. The manager put her coffee cup down and the security guard stood at attention, but no one acted. Indignation percolated up from Arlene’s belly. Wasn’t anyone going to say anything?
“I’m sorry sir,” the fresh faced teller said. “You don’t have enough in your account to cover this check. You can only withdraw today’s available balance. It usually takes three days to clear. I’m sorry.”
He leaned over the counter and tried to look fierce. “Give me my money, bitch!”
That was it. Arlene was not about to be held up by the antics of some two-bit hoodlum, not with that doughnut taunting her.
“Hey, leave the teller alone,” she shouted. The boy spun around and glared at her.
“Shut the hell up or I’ll cut your fat ass.” The painter snickered into his sticky sweet treasure.
Arlene lunged forward. “The girl said you don’t have enough money in the account.” She hit the boy with her massive hand bag. “Now get the hell out of here.” The force of her inflamed rage, and a whole roasted chicken, slammed into the side of his head.
Time stood still. She was suddenly powerful. Her splitting headache was gone. Her vision sharpened. She could see the outline of the cute teller’s tinted contact lens as she screamed but the sound was muffled by the blood beating in Arlene’s head. She felt huge and buoyant as if she were a bubble floating in a sea of satisfaction.
Then her bubble burst and, as if time sped up to make up for lost ground, incidents moved at lightning speed. The security guard pinned the boy’s arms behind his back leaving an oily smear on the safety glass. A bloody blade clattered to the marble floor at Arlene’s feet. She slumped in front of the counter like an overripe melon. The painter ran out as the police ran in. No one ran to Arlene. A woman screamed. Blood seeped from a hole in Arlene’s side like juice from a split pomegranate.
The doughnut was still there. A sweet mouthful of happiness, just out of reach.