I want to see your teeth

Jennifer Spruit

 At group we are supposed to emote. Some people are excellent at this, but there’s nothing to be gained in that. I want that slippery feeling, and I want it acknowledged that things slide, they always will, and nothing we do in group will ever change that. It happened tonight.

 

           Usually there are thirteen or eight people on couches that are too soft and spaced too far apart to make a commanding circle, the kind you really need to force people uncomfortable enough to be real. We’re in the drama room of a high school: black walls, black boxes, black curtain, no windows. People get here early, mostly women, but a few men, sitting themselves down with careful attention to how their bodies are balanced, whether or not their shirts have ridden up, and what skin might be showing. After arranging ourselves, most of us drop into purposeless diversionary topics, laughing too loud until the leader, a public health nurse named Candace, calls us to attention. To make it obvious, she holds the talking stick, which gives the whole experience more cred, like we have been legitimized here as people who have found their problem and are now working to fix it. Except that isn’t entirely true.

 

           “Welcome,” Candace says, and launches into her usual intro about how she is glad to see us still here taking the right first step of acknowledging our failings and finding others of our own kind. “Today’s topic is pleasure.” She reads us some statistics about fat sex, body dissatisfaction, and average numbers of close friends instead of opening with some wrenching poem, soft-core porn, or even chocolate cake for that matter. She tells us that in her experience, fat people like us don’t know how to have pleasure.

 

          It’s not as bad as it sounds, because I know from previous meetings of this group that Candace used to be a fatty too, and it was only through grueling gym punishments and weighing food and really believing she could have more out of life that she made The Change. I don’t hate her for being misled.

 

            John talks first, about obvious things like how his wife doesn’t seem interested in him sexually now that he is so big, or how he can’t play basketball anymore, which he used to do every day, every day! and now just not ever because he can’t jump at all. This is the sort of self-flagellation that I love and seek, because these people are ripe fruit.

 

           Candace asks him how that all feels and what small ways he can train himself to feel replacement pleasures that do not involve housing calories in his fat and unjumping body while he works his way back to normal, then John gives all the right answers because he is a good student.

 

           A new lady stands up. “I’m Mandy, and I’m an overeater.”

 We nod and clap and I hold my seat, waiting for the good stuff. She’s pretty young, late twenties, maybe. Got posture like she’s been fat her whole life.

 

           Mandy talks about the pleasure of stuffing her feelings down with bags of chips and ice cream and premade frozen pizzas from Safeway and I am right with her, also how her kids eat hard too so they are both heavy and how the daughter has lately been diagnosed with diabetes, type two, the shameful kind. People shake their heads, not at Mandy, but at how tough it all is, and the injustice. There’s clearly more she wants to say, and more she wants to hear, so I edge us all on.

           “What about the pleasure of being big?”

            Candace tries to get me back on track. “The pleasure of overeating, you mean?”

           “No, the security of having a body with heft, filling up a whole space, of keeping your really vulnerable parts sheltered and unknowable.” I wrap my arms around my torso, hugging my secrets to myself, because we all have them and they are why we are here.

            There’s the shuffling of people recognizing themselves and Mandy is nodding until Candace interrupts my breach of the group’s purpose and code of etiquette.

           “Perhaps we should hear from you?”

           “I’m N.,” I say, telling my story because I want these people to know me just enough to give me that kind of clap you hear here. Because it might help me awaken. “I started making this big fat body four years ago on October 14. My lover and I had a breakup and I started eating more than I ever could before, using the drive-thru, keeping chocolate bars in my pockets. Now it’s who I am.” I get some enthusiastic yeahs, so it’s time to bring it around to what I really need. “Don’t you all feel like being fat is the best way to never be challenged or called on ever again?”

            Several people nod, putting their eyes down after, like we’re complicit in something terribly sad. Only, I’ve noticed that they all seem much less intentional than me. Shame on them.

           I’m working out my next thought, about fear, even though I’m not afraid so much for myself, when we’re interrupted. “Wait,” I say, because I’m facing the door and the handle’s moving.

           The woman is in the wrong place, unless she is reformed and all sorted out with her binging, but I want her to stay. Her hair is black like mine, and just the right kind of short. Not pixie-ish, or sheer, but windswept in a way that frames her face. She is tall, with collarbones that look right, delicate elbows and slim wrists. Her eyes are red. She’s holding a big takeout cup with two tea bag labels dangling from the side: orange pekoe at night.

           “I’m sorry,” she says. Everyone turns to stare. “I didn’t mean to interrupt. I’m looking for the gym.”

           That would be a good place for her. “I’ll take you,” I say.

           “I’m Sam,” she says. We’re in the hall and she walks as if she’s done it for years, her proud long body striding the halls like she could take catcalls and make them a compliment. I feel us walking a runway together wearing impossible clothes. She lends that kind of aura, as if the simple act of associating with her is desirable.

           “Hi, Sam.” I wonder why she’s been crying and I’m conscious of the sound my pants make as my thighs swish together, like scissors cutting paper, but not as sharp. More lazy.

           There’s a crack and she reels suddenly, the heel on her pump broken. She’s bracing herself against the wall, inspecting the damage, and starts to cry. “Shit,” she says. “Fuck.”

           I take a picture of her with my phone: heel in hand, looking at me in a soft open-mouthed way, as if this has certainly happened to her before. “I like the way you swear,” I tell her, because you can have confidence even when you’re fat. You must. It just isn’t as sexy.

           She smiles through her sad face and looks right into me: she has these long smooth lips and grey-blue eyes and I think she might be someone from a book that I’ve read. Someone who’s fiction.

           “I don’t usually swear.” She shows me the broken shoe and holds the two pieces, one in each hand like she could start over if only she had some glue. But she’s downright melancholic. I can feel it like it’s sitting on my lap. I think I love her.

           This moment will be gone when she straightens up, so I take off my glasses and lean down to kiss her in the hallway of this high school, twenty feet from the crowd in the gym watching basketball or lacrosse or gymnastics—whatever they do in September. Her eyes are surprised, and then her mouth relaxes, flattered, in a genuine way, like she had asked for affirmation and gotten a double dose. Grateful. She kisses me like a woman does, soft but sure. She drops her broken heel, reaches for me, pulls me down so I can feel the curve of her breasts, her fingertips, her nose against mine. Hungry. She kisses me like no one’s watching.

            And then she stops. “Listen, I’m not really, I mean, it’s just that I’m leaving tomorrow,” Sam says, looking up at me.

            “Oh,” I say. It’s usually this way, somehow or other.

             “First to Thailand to relax, then to China to teach English. I’m in the middle of this thing and I feel like nothing here is right, you know?”

              I do know. “Why China?”

             “Just picked it off the Volunteer World list, really—do you want hot or cold, building kids or houses? It sounded far enough away.” Her voice itself faraway when she says this and I know she is lying, just a bit.

           “I’m glad you came to our meeting.”

            She straightens, leaning on me, and I lift her. I like the feel of her, the muscles in her back, the hint of sweat under her arms. “What are you doing later?” she asks. In her eyes are little specks of sunshine, though there are no windows here to make reflections. And it’s night. I hold her with my look and she is staring into me and I feel her breath on my skin.

            “Let’s get tea,” I say, although I’ve never had it before. Too British, maybe. Too hot.

           Sam smiles at me like we’ve known each other much longer than ten minutes, slipping her other shoe off. “Let’s.”

            I let my look linger over Sam as she throws her heels in the garbage and enters the gym barefoot. She doesn’t look back and I like that about her. I will tell her later.

            Sam and all this pleasure talk has reminded me of how I used to be, so I back into the nearest classroom and close the door, leaning on it in the dark to assimilate this idea of a socially acceptable expression of desire that I participated in. It’s never really been my thing.

           People are still sad in the drama room, but also really making something of the moment and putting their best self out there or something like that. They nod at me and at each other with so much sympathy that it starts to feel aggressive. Like each story must be worse than the last. I reach for the talking stick.

            “I just kissed that woman in the hall because her heel broke and she started to cry. Her mouth tasted like toothpaste and I think I love her.”

            This tops everything, A Major Breakthrough, which I can see from the shuffling and glances at Candace is unforgivable. I picture John or Mandy or anyone here in that hallway and none of them would have given Sam an open-mouthed kiss. I wish they could really understand about hunger and taste and eating, about the sensual nature of opening oneself to pleasure, but now I see they like being afraid in a different way than I do. “We’re going to have tea later.”

            They are stalled for several seconds, but then someone claps and we all know what to do again. I pass the talking stick and head out, done with group and its anesthesia forever.