(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser August 2013)
“Your life is the fruit of your own doing.” Joseph Campbell
Sitting on the sun-drenched beach on this first day of August, writing in my Strathmore sketchbook, the waves setting up nicely for the surfers yet to arrive, the air chill but warming, the sky void of clouds, I am here this morning to write three little tales abut love and obesity. Coincidentally or ironically or naturally, of the nine adults I encountered on my way to this place on the sand overlooking Mendocino Bay, eight were enormously fat and the ninth was a woman so entirely void of excess weight she appeared to be a member of an entirely different species than her behemoth brethren.
We recently had a visit from a dear old friend of mine, and in the course of catching up on each other’s lives, I inquired about his sister G, now fifty-six, who I have known and loved since she was ten-years-old. I last saw G twelve years ago when she came to visit me in Berkeley with her two rambunctious children. Adjectives I have used in the past to describe G include brilliant, funny, musical, beautiful, sensitive, lithe, athletic and strong. I remember going on walks with G from the time she was ten until she was in her late twenties, and how on every one of those walks, with amazing ease, she would execute a handstand and walk twenty yards on her hands, just for fun and because such limber physicality was as natural to her as breathing.
So imagine my shock when my friend reported that G currently weighs well over two hundred pounds, down from the three hundred pounds she weighed a year ago. My jaw dropped and my mind reeled. Impossible! G? Beautiful, strong, slender, vegetarian, health-conscious G?
I went to G’s wedding twenty-two years ago and thought she was the most beautiful and poised and captivating bride I had ever seen. And, yes, I was jealous of the guy she was marrying and wished I’d had the nerve and foresight to ask her to marry me instead of whoever this lucky guy was. But then, when I had my one and only long conversation with G and her husband at the reception following their wedding ceremony, I thought to myself They really don’t seem to like each other. What’s up with that?
According to G’s brother, G never has and never will like the man she married and is still married to. Yet they stay together, ostensibly for the kids, and G eats and eats and eats. “And their house…” said my friend, his eyes widening. “You cannot imagine the chaos and squalor. Uninhabitable. Yet somehow they live there.”
“But I thought they were well off and successful and…?”
“They are,” said my friend, nodding sadly. “But so deeply unhappy. Off the chart unhappy.”
“There are only two ways to preserve your freedom and individuality: saying no, and living alone.” Nicolas De Chamfort
As it happens, I can imagine the chaos and squalor of G’s house because I know J and L, the lovable, smart and gainfully employed parents of a marvelous teenager. These three seemingly sane people live in a fine house, the interior of which they have rendered so squalid and chaotic it appears that an enormous truckload of random junk was dumped therein and then trampled by marauding elephants. There is no unoccupied surface in the entire house on which to sit, the kitchen is a post-apocalyptic nightmare, and the backyard might easily be mistaken for the city dump.
Having been the confidante of both J and L, I know that theirs was only briefly a sexual relationship, that they love each other but do not particularly like each other, and that they stay together for the sake of their child. When I first met J and L, J was a strikingly beautiful woman, a magnificently fit dancer and martial artist. L, twelve years older than J, was a chubby fellow who loved to take long bike rides and was in training to become a massage therapist.
Every six months for most of their eighteen-year marriage, J has traveled five hundred miles to spend a week with her lover, a married man she has known since childhood. L unhappily approves of J’s twice-yearly rendezvous with her lover, while L does not have a lover and is no longer interested in sex. When J returns from her erotic vacation, she is always full of energy, takes daily dance and yoga classes, eats sensibly, and sheds fifty pounds in three months, transforming herself into a beautiful dancer yet again. She even tries to impose a bit of order on the chaos and squalor of their home, but never with lasting success.
After J has been away from her lover for three months, she takes on way too much extra work, stops exercising, and begins to eat and eat and eat, pizza and ice cream and pastries her primary foods, washed down with oceans of coffee and beer. By the time she zooms off to be with her lover again, she is uncomfortably heavy, her feet and back ache constantly, and she is severely cranky. Her lover, as it happens, is a big fat man.
“We are afraid of truth, afraid of fortune, afraid of death and afraid of each other.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
Sitting here gazing at the timeless sea and thinking of J and G armoring themselves with so much extra weight in order to survive the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and their painful longing for love and satisfaction, I am reminded of a brief love affair I had long ago and the shocking coda to that short-lived romance.
S was short and rather heavy, a darkly beautiful gal who hid her body in baggy trousers and oversized sweatshirts, and kept her hair extremely short. When I met her, and we were obviously attracted to each other, she told me with disarming candor that her few relationships with men had been hideous disasters, she had sworn off men forever, and she wasn’t sexually interested in women. “I’m a secular nun,” she told me in her tough-talking way. “The only decent men I’ve ever known are gay. Heterosexual males are evolutionary mistakes.”
Nevertheless, we went out for Thai food, traded books, met for coffee, and a few weeks into our friendship became lovers. Surprise, surprise. S turned out to be a zealous and imaginative lover with a large appetite for sex, we had a great time in and around the bed, and she swiftly shed her excess weight. It was as if satisfying sex negated her need for anything in the way of food other than salads and the occasional slab of meat, and ere long her body and face were so dramatically transformed that she began attracting men and women like clover attracts honey bees.
Alas, S was one of the angriest and most cynical people I’ve ever known, and she was so persistently and viciously dismissive of my writing and music and everything else that mattered most to me that I had a hard time being with her except in bed where she was one of the happiest and most uncynical people I’ve ever known. And our marvelous sexual connection sufficed to keep me entangled with S for four months until I couldn’t take another word of her verbal abuse and declared, “Enough. No more. Goodbye.”
S was stunned that I wanted to end things between us. “Oh, honey,” she said, her voice becoming the soft sweet loving voice I knew from making love with her, “I’m sorry. You know I think you’re wonderful.”
“How would I know that when you’re always telling me how shitty my writing is, how crappy my music is, how stupid my friends are?”
“I’m just teasing, sweetheart. I love everything about you. Please. Give me another chance. We’ve got such a good thing going here. How can you throw this away? Come on, sweetie. Let’s go to bed.”
But I was done. Sex, no matter how good the fit, is not love without love, and love cannot survive without trust, so…
Three years later, I arrived at a friend’s house, and my friend greeted me at the door, saying, “S is here. That okay?”
In retrospect, I wish I had said, “I think I’ll come back another time,” but instead I said, “Sure,” and entered the house and there was S, so huge she took up an entire two-person sofa with no room to spare. I would never have known that this gigantic person was once upon a time my sexy beautiful curvaceous lover. Never in a million years would I have known it was she.
“Mother, food, love, and career are the four major guilt groups.” Cathy Guisewite
As I’ve been sitting here on the windswept sand scribbling in my notebook, three women with their eight children have arrived and set up camp a very short stone’s throw away from me. Why do people do that? Twenty acres of sand, hundreds of great places to sit, nobody on the beach but little old me, and they choose to sit right beside me. Perhaps it is because they make an apt ending to this article.
I would guess these women are all thirty-something, their children ranging in age from two to twelve. One of the mothers is trim and muscular and moves with a pleasing grace. The other two mothers are massive and ungainly and clearly uncomfortable in their bodies, while all the children are skinny and wildly active. Some minutes after the mothers have settled down on their beach blankets to watch their children playing, two of their husbands arrive, huge men with gigantic bellies. These enormous fellows plant themselves several feet apart from the women—with them but not with them.