A POEM ABOUT FAT
My poet and I are having a party today. While he rubs the pans free of portabella mushroom grease, he says that computers are the gravestones of poetry. We made the mushrooms to honor our friend who has just been hired by a small literary magazine that devotes itself to short stories and poems exclusively about mushrooms. Specificity is very in right now.
They filch away romanticism, he tells me. There is a smudge of ink on his chin because he often speaks while waving his felt-tipped pen through the air and it leaves streaks on his skin. He does everything like this. A pageantry of purposefulness. Sometimes he scrambles his fingers against my bra as though he is desperate to let my meager breasts flop against my chest, unrestrained by the wires that make them look whole. Sometimes he is slow as though savoring each hook. The only thing that doesn’t change is that he first undoes my bra and I must gasp each time as though I have not expected this and am overcome.
He has written poems on my body. Now, every time I sleep, I can feel the press of pen against my hip or collarbone or shoulder blades, and it is only when waking that I may determine whether I was dreaming or he has scrawled something on my skin again. I had to scrub a haiku off my neck this morning.
I never consented to be poetry.
But perhaps that is too literal an interpretation of what it means negotiate a relationship. My mother used to complain about how literally I take things before she ran away with the cigar man who said he was from Mexico, but was really from Pennsylvania. They maybe went to Mexico together to live. I get postcards from Mexico. But you can buy postcards anywhere. Or you can visit Mexico and buy a great variety of postcards and then move to a trailer in Pennsylvania and still seem as if you were writing from Mexico so long as the people receiving your letters ignore the postmark.
We just got another one in the mail today and I have a bet with myself on how long it will take my poet to bring it up. He likes to talk about my mother with me because he knows it upsets me and he thinks that couples that talk about upsetting things have overcome something together.
She used to say she would die from this and that. Die from heat. Die from hunger. Die from boredom, which she called ennui. Oh, my big girl, so literal, she said when I began to fret.
You should not say that you feel as though you might die, unless you really might. You should not write poetry unprompted on sleeping bodies. You should not lick cigar ash or just the taste of it from behind a man’s straight teeth and tell your daughter you are going to Mexico to drink tequila in a bar at the beach. Nor should you send a postcard with that precise glossy image on the front unless you are actually doing it.
We have not had to work very hard to make our apartment presentable. It is small and dingy no matter how we scrub it, and so we do not expend ourselves. We straighten magazines so they are parallel. We put away the uncapped ingredients. We wrap in tin foil what is unused.
When we are home, my poet confines himself to his desk in the corner and scribbles parchment after parchment of inky odes. I used to prefer the paisley armchair by our teetering bookshelf, but now I read in our bedroom. These are the two areas that require the most straightening.
We open all but the stuck window to air the place out a little. My poet is noisy as he prepares. He bustles.
I am gentle with my fat like it is fox fur. With my poet watching, I would drape it over my shoulders. Oh, he would want to own it, but it would be mine to wear. He could not write on it, the ink would slide right off to the floor.
I lose the bet I made with myself when my poet brings up my mother five minutes after I had anticipated him to. He tells me we can visit my mother in Mexico when I want to, snagging my wrist when I make to go back into the kitchen to check on the soup. Whenever I want to, I am to just say the word, he says solemnly. I don’t know what word in particular he has in mind. He places a great deal of weight on words. I ask him what word, and he laughs into my neck where he likes to nest. He laughs when I am not joking and calls me his serious girl. He calls me girl. He calls me serious. Serious girl. I feel so small with him.
I was quite fat growing up, though. Everyone said so. They said it in different ways, some of them not even out loud, but they said it. My breasts were not meager then. They had to be caged back. They were loud, yelling tits that beat against each other when unleashed. Like beta fish, they fought. Perhaps my poet wouldn’t like them that way. Now they are delicate like chicken cuts under cellophane. There are angles on my body for my poet to write on.
You look more like me each day, my mother told me when I started losing weight. She called it losing baby fat, because adding baby makes a word precious and, more importantly, finite. That is when she stopped calling me her big girl, but she never took to using my name. She transitioned to darling.
My fat, gelatinous and lumpy, is tucked into a cardboard box in the back of my closet. Slightly translucent, like mucous. It is hidden from my poet as it is hidden from everyone but me, but I imagine bringing my poet to the closet and dragging the box out. My veiny arms would be almost unable to budge it across the floor. I would caress the lid like it was satin and say this is part of me, then take the lid off. I am gentle with my fat like it is fox fur. With my poet watching, I would drape it over my shoulders. Oh, he would want to own it, but it would be mine to wear. He could not write on it, the ink would slide right off to the floor.
Write a poem about fat. Write a poem about how it feels to walk to the beat of their whispers. Describe the precise sensation of eyes scoping where your thighs droop over your knees. Write about roundness instead of bones and hard lines. Write a poem using words like lard, lump, and load and do it without making things beautiful.
We cannot visit my mother in Mexico, I tell my poet while we fold napkins into bowties for a quirky twist, because she is not even there. She lives in a tin can trailer in Pennsylvania with a man that smells like cigars and has straight white teeth. They have chickens in the yard that run around squawking, pecking at corn and anything that looks like corn. He sits on the porch and scratches his belly and gloats as the sun spreads dark orange across the sky. My mother’s skin is growing loose around her bones. It is too big for her body. It is getting wrinkled. She smokes weed while looking down at those chickens and imagines Mexico. She thinks about maybe writing me another postcard today. My mother closes her eyes and in the humid late-afternoon air maybe she could be there. Mexican chickens clucking in Spanish.
You know it hurts your mother that you don’t believe her, my poet says, she says so when she calls.
Our guests arrive all at once around thirty minutes after we told them to. They are so happy to see us. So delighted to be invited. We alternate these dinner parties among ourselves, of course, and so it is no surprise that it is now the turn of my poet and me. Still, we are all so pleasant and coming into ourselves as adults, aren’t we? We have managed to keep in touch. One of our friends is even a farmer in New Jersey who takes the train up when we have the parties. He rents a plot of land from a man who hates him. He has a cow and sells vegetables at the farmers market.
Most of our guests have brought us wine. One industrious woman has made apple sangria that swills dangerously in its pitcher. No one brought food. We eat very little at these parties.
In her postcards to me, my mother slips up sometimes and mentions a lake instead of a beach. It is scummy and the bottom feels like sludge. She rolls up her jeans and stands in it. Sometimes the cigar man comes up behind her. Maybe he undoes her bra. Maybe they fuck standing in that lake and she will write to me and tell me that they made love in a hammock. She will call it making love. She, too, is possessed by making things beautiful.
They would tell me it has a certain allure. Beauty in the grotesque. They would paw at my fat. Drag it over to their plates. An adventurous few would take a risky bite of it.
My poet brags while piling what food is available onto his plate that sometimes he is so embroiled in a poem that he forgets to eat. Our parties serve to reassert to ourselves that we are all in our mid-twenties and, as of yet, unbound by the grind of adult monotony. The wine is served in mason jars. On this occasion, we have also soaked a watermelon in vodka, and the juices sluice down the skin of my arm.
My poet rummaged through the bins behind the florist on the corner of the street and scavenged some browning plants, petals a bit wilted, to use as a centerpiece. Dying things are romantic. Perfect for dinner parties. Our plates don’t match.
Our farmer friend’s biggest buyer is an old German woman who is anti-Semitic, he tells us. He told her who cut his hair and she mentioned it was a Jewish name. Well, we mustn’t discriminate, she said. He has a moral conflict now. She buys the bulk of the green things that he grows, but should he continue selling to her? We have a lively debate. We are all very modern and political. Some of us are writing screenplays.
My poet shares his latest work.
None of them know that my fat sits in a box behind the wall. I am aware of its presence like it is still nestled under my skin, but they can’t even hear it thrumming. I could bring it out and spread it on the table. Jostle the mason jars. How polished we could all be looking at my fat. They would tell me it has a certain allure. Beauty in the grotesque. They would paw at my fat. Drag it over to their plates. An adventurous few would take a risky bite of it.
I excuse myself halfway through my poet’s reading. He glances up. He uses the instant of eye contact to express how desperately hurt he is by my leaving. We will have words later. Words like support, abandon, and callous. My poet thinks me callous. That I wear callousness like a hard outer shell. He would like to crack me open.
Each and every time I approach the closet I suffer a deep, unbearable terror that my fat will be gone. At times I can’t bring myself to open it. While the door is closed, it can still be there. Schrodinger’s fat. Only upon opening it will I verify with certainty if it has escaped. Today, the trepidation isn’t insurmountable. My fat is just where I left it.
I sit there, the voice of my poet funneling through the wall, and then finally go back.
One of the other women corners me in the kitchen where I have gone to grab another bottle of wine. Her cheeks are red and flushed and she clasps one of my hands in both of hers. She has missed me. It has been too long. She is wearing a scarf woven into her hair and it winds around her shoulder. Her ears are shaped strangely, like bows. Too small for her face, they poke out in front of the scarf. We uncork a bottle of wine together and drink it leaning up against the counter, arms connected. We take big swigs from the bottle. She tells me about that literary magazine she will be working at. The coming issue will feature works inspired by chanterelles. We are having a moment.
How is your mother, she wants to know. I tell her my mother is still in Mexico and sends postcards from time to time. I thought your mother was in Pennsylvania, she scrunches up her nose attractively. I had forgotten that she was one of the people in whom I had confided about Pennsylvania. It gets hard to keep track. I make my smile sheepish. I can’t tell with my mother, I say. That is the thing about parents, she nods sagely.
First, small teaspoons that I kept in a jar. But then I grew addicted to the feeling of scooping and I did more and more. Handfuls of fat that I packed into jars, then shoeboxes, and finally it was all out of me.
What she said doesn’t mean anything, really, but I feel closer to her for her having said it. Do you want to see something? I ask her. I am drunk. It is like she has won the lottery. She talked to me at the right time, and now I am willing to show her. We will fan it out together. She will smooth a gentle hand over its slick back. It will be meaningful; it will mean something.
And so we go into my bedroom and the tension builds between us. She has no idea what I will show her, but clearly it is something weighty and crucial. She dabs her sweaty hands on her skirt. The closet door is still ajar and I drag out the box. She crouches next to me, the moment roped between us.
There is still time for me to back out, shake my head, say, now is not the time.
I unveil my fat and brush off imaginary dust, although I just dislodged it earlier and so no dust has had time to gather. What must it look like through her eyes? Radiant and vile. A clumpy blanket unfurled across my legs. A consequence. I look up, eager to read her expression.
But her eyes are dry and distant.
She says that it is interesting, in a detached way, like I have just read her a poem about mushrooms to which she has had no visceral reaction. I will receive a regretful letter in the mail thanking me for my submission, but informing me that as of right now there is no space for my piece. My fat feels tacky on my thighs where my dress has ridden up. I will have to peel it off. It will make an evident sound.
She says, that’s your fat, I suppose?
Yes it is. I pick at the box, too mortified to risk touching my fat, but unable to resist. It is soggy where the fat has soaked in. Splotchy, greasy spots mar the exterior, darkening the cardboard. I am going to have to get a new box before this one collapses in on itself.
She says, my sister did that too. She threw hers out. How interesting that you kept it.
We sit through a brutal pause. She looks artlessly at anywhere but me, and I am left staring at my fat. It doesn’t draw me to it any less now that I know it is not even important enough to be repulsive. But now my enthrallment seems stale and excessive. Now it seems uninteresting that there once was another version of me that waddled and had all of this swallowed inside of her. My fat is not special enough to linger on.
She says, we had better get back, hadn’t we?
We go back to the party without the wine and like nothing has happened.
In high school, when things finally became unbearable, was when I began to spoon out my fat. First, small teaspoons that I kept in a jar. But then I grew addicted to the feeling of scooping and I did more and more. Handfuls of fat that I packed into jars, then shoeboxes, and finally it was all out of me.
After the guests trail out, my poet heaves a long, low sigh. He doesn’t want to talk to me right now. He retreats to the rickety desk in the corner to write a poem about me. He will read it to me later. I have hurt him somewhere fundamental. He will now take that hurt and scrawl it out because he is more profound than can possibly be healthy. He will read it to me later in bed and then forgive me and undo my bra. I will wake up with his new poem scrawled all over me. Repetitions of the word ‘callous’ on the inside of my thighs.
I pad into the other room and shuffle through the postcards from my mother. They are all addressed to ‘darling.’ In this one she tells me that they went scuba diving. That actually means that he took her fishing on the lake in a rusted paddleboat. He breathed into her hair behind her while rowing. His wrists were round like beer cans and she wrapped a spindly hand around one.
I am sure he still speaks in a stupid, drawling accent just like the one he had when he introduced himself to me a week before they left. He told me all about Mexico and the feeling of sand sifting between your toes and the sound Spanish makes when it is whispered, a sound he has likely never heard. He was in the room when I finally showed my fat to my mother and he took it into his thick hands and squeezed it. He asked me if I could still feel it while she looked at the wall behind him, and I lied and told him I could. Then he ran away with her.
Her life has not gone the way she thought it would.