She was wearing shorts the color of Jersey tomatoes, her massive thighs inflating the fabric like carnival balloons. She must have weighed over four hundred pounds, and if I’d seen her on the street I’d have stared; but since this was an interview, I smiled and introduced myself. She shook my hand but remained planted in her easy chair.
“Sit,” she said, pointing to a maroon loveseat. I sank into a rump-shaped crater in the center of a brocade cushion.
“I almost called the Inquirerto cancel,” she said, “but I like your column, Alicia, so I decided to give it a go.”
Vera’s dark curly hair was pulled back, exposing a moon face. She had dark eyes, olive skin, and a mouth one would describe as sensual if it hadn’t been surrounded by all that flesh. I could make so much more of that mouth with lipstick. I was already starting to edit her.
Vera leaned back, resting her hands on her thighs as I flipped my notebook open. The heavy curtains blocking the windows and the elaborate shades covering the Victorian lamps blanketed the room in darkness. I scribbled Shut in?and looked up.
“Why don’t we get started? Would it be okay if I recorded our conversation?” I held up my cell phone. She looked at the notebook on my lap and nodded with raised eyebrows.
“Old habits die hard,” I said with a smile, turning on the recorder before taking notebook in hand. “Okay. Would you like to tell me about—”
“Cookie?” She picked up a box of Chips Ahoy from the side table.
I thanked her and took one, but she shook the box until I took another. At the sound of the rattling box, a black cat perched on the windowsill jumped onto the table, then onto her lap. Vera grabbed a cookie and delicately nibbled around the circumference before popping the rest of it in her mouth. She did the same with a second cookie. Eat and repeat. She chewed slowly, eyes closed, as if engaging a lover. I turned away.
My eyes had adjusted to the dim light, and I scanned the room, focusing on an arrangement of gold-framed photos mounted on a wall painted mustard yellow.
Swallowing the last of the cookies, Vera opened her eyes, cradling the cookie box in her arms.
“You like chartreuse?”
“That color? Yes. It’s…different, nice,” I lied. As a rule I kept my distance from chartreuse, which clashed with my red hair and turned my pale skin sickly.
“My mother hated chartreuse. She was an interior designer. Went by the name of Giovanna—changed the ‘i’ at the end of our family name to ‘a’. Ever heard of her?”
I shook my head.
“Anyway, she’d die if she saw that wall, but since she’s already dead, there’s nothing to worry about. Died when she was forty, like all the others.” I jotted Weight problem runs in family?
“It happens.” She rattled the box. “Another cookie?” I shook my head, and she reached into the box. Obscene, stuffing her mouth like that. Probably avoided mirrors. I knew all about that. I gained thirty pounds when I broke up with my first boyfriend. It took a year, but I managed to lose all the weight. If Icould do it, anyone…
“You can write this down for your readers,” she said. “We fatties get good at reading peoples’ faces when they look at us. We know what they’re thinking: Disgusting. How could she let herself get like that? No excuse. Fat as a pig, horse, elephant, take your pick. Tub of lard. Butterball.” Her voice rose.
“That’s got to be tough. How do you handle it?”
“I tried to develop a tough skin, but it seems all I developed was this.” She shook a pendulous upper arm and chuckled.
I snuck a glance at my watch as I considered my looming deadline and lack of progress on the interview. My fault for letting my own prejudice derail me.
“Why don’t I make us some tea? We can sit in there.” She pointed toward the kitchen, and I nodded. Maybe she’d be more responsive if we faced each other across a table.
“You look like the type who drinks herbal.” She looked me up and down, as if searching for clues to my hot beverage preferences. “Changed my mind,” she said. “You’re the black coffee, keep-it-coming type. Isn’t that what reporter types like you always drink?”
“Matter of fact…”
“I like it black, too, when I pour it from the pot.” She grabbed the sides of the chair to help herself up. “But then I add plenty of cream and sugar so it doesn’t taste like shit.”
I laughed, and she smiled at my reaction.
Vera didn’t make it up from her chair on the first try, and as she fell back onto the cushions, her shirt pulled up to reveal an expanse of white, doughy flesh. She caught me staring and pursed her lips. In the stillness that followed, I became aware of something classical playing softly in another room.
“This isn’t going to work,” she said. “I know I said yes to this interview, but now…I want you to go.”
“I’m sorry if I…”
Like all the women I’d interviewed, Vera was prickly about her weight; but she was different—funnier, feistier, open about her eating habits. If I could just hang in a little longer, maybe I’d be able to establish a rapport…
I got up reluctantly. “Thank you for your time.”
She said nothing as I walked to the door, passing the photos on the mustard wall. They were all shots of dark-haired women bearing a vague resemblance to each other and to Vera. One photo hanging off to the side showed a boy of about nine or ten with windswept blond hair, standing in front of the LOVE statue in Center City. He held out an ice cream cone like an offering to whoever was taking the picture.
I drove to the office, replaying the disastrous interview, wondering why I could hold my own at bloody crime scenes and suicides, even conjure up a look of sympathy when interviewing a child molester—anything to get the story—but couldn’t offer up a modicum of sympathy or objectivity when I looked obesity in the face. Today I’d reacted as if a crime against aesthetics was the worst crime of all.
When I got to the office, my message light was blinking. This is Vera. Changed my mind. Give me a call.
* * * *
Back at my apartment, I settled into a comfortable chair to start the process of transforming my notes into prose, something that usually came easy; but today I couldn’t concentrate. Something about the perpetual twilight of Vera’s apartment, the chartreuse wall, the bulky furniture that echoed the dimensions of its owner. A far cry from our sleek, modern apartment with its freshly painted walls—all white except for the spare bedroom, which Jamie and I had agreed to keep bright yellow. Six months had passed since my last miscarriage—we’d been so sure it was finally going to happen. Sadly, the room was still unfurnished. Waiting. We were not ready to give up yet, but my optimism was wearing thin.
“It was her don’t-give-a-damn attitude about her weight that got to me,” I told Jamie over dinner, “like she was actually proud of it. She joked about her weight, called herself a fatty, shook a box of cookies in my face like maracas. And she was so different from the others I interviewed—those women who never ate a crumb in front of me, all full of excuses: I eat like a bird but keep getting fatter. I never have more than a thousand calories a day, I swear. Tried every diet. Must be my thyroid.”
“Maybe she wants to be fat,” said Jamie.
“Nobody wants to be fat.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“Who would choose to be like that?”
“Maybe that’s the story.”
I thought I’d gotten a handle on the reasons people gained weight, but I hadn’t considered the possibility of people who chose to put on the armor of obesity to protect themselves against personal demons—afflictions even scarier than Type 2 diabetes, strokes, and unrelenting condemnation.
* * * *
Vera met me at her apartment door in a loose-fitting floral print dress that made her look like she was wearing a shower curtain. At least there’d be no unwelcome midriff exposure. I must have hidden my reaction well, because she smiled and led me down the hall to the kitchen/breakfast room. This time she sported long black filigree earrings with tiny bells that tinkled when she moved her head.
“Coffeepot and cups on the counter. Help yourself. Cookies too, if you’d like.”
The counter was lined with cookie jars, cracker boxes, and an assortment of Entenmann’s cakes.
I filled a mug and sat down across from her, a plate of petit-fours between us.
“Fire away,” she said.
I took out my notebook. “As you know, this is an article about weight gain. The rise of obesity. How and why people get…gain weight.”
“It’s okay to say fat. I’ve heard worse.” She picked up a pastry and pointed it at me. “And we both know how people get that way, don’t we?” she said with undisguised sarcasm, taking a bite. She finished it off with a lick of the fingers. In my face.
“But there are different paths for different people. Was yours a quick weight gain or did it sneak up on you?”
She looked at the pastries on the table between us. “Mine was sudden-onset. I can tell you exactly when I started down that path. August twenty-fifth, three years ago.”
“What happened then?”
Her attention was still focused on the petit-fours, as if they held all the answers. Piano music played softly in the background, as it had during my last visit. “Something… something they told me at work.” She looked over at the counter. “I went home and pulled a Sara Lee out of the freezer, one I’d been saving for company. It was a pecan coffee cake—you know, the one that’s shaped like a ring with icing drizzled on top. Stuck it in the oven and pulled it out before it was totally defrosted. When I broke off a chunk, I smelled the cinnamon—nothing like cinnamon to fill your holes.” She closed her eyes, saliva pooling along her lower lip. “I held that first bite in my mouth—it was too delicious to swallow—just sucked on it till it was gone. One bite and I was hooked. They should put warning labels on those boxes. I couldn’t stop until I’d eaten the whole thing.” She looked me straight in the eye. “Turns out Sara Lee was my gateway pastry.”
I choked on my coffee, trying unsuccessfully to keep a straight face. But when she threw her head back and roared with laughter, I had to join in. At that moment she seemed to genuinely enjoy poking fun at herself, but the circumstances of her weight gain told a different story.
“So what else do you want to know?” she asked once she caught her breath.
“Were you heavy as a child?”
“Maybe a little chubby, but it didn’t bother me much. The guys I dated seemed to prefer women with meat on their bones. But I didn’t eat like a horse back then—or look like one. In fact, an artist I was engaged to wanted to paint me as Aphrodite.”
Aphrodite. She must have really been something back then. I asked her about her childhood eating habits and the diets she tried. Then I asked about her family.
“Did any of them have weight problems?”
“My family.” She looked over at the living room wall. “You saw them hanging on the wall: mother, sister, aunts, grandmother. Did any of them look fat to you?”
I shook my head and waited for her to go on. The piano music in the background sounded vaguely familiar, but I didn’t know much about classical music, so I couldn’t put a name to it.
“Those pictures were taken when each of them was thirty-seven, thirty-eight, a year or two before they died.”
“I’m so sorry. Was it genetic?”
“Not unless being cursed is genetic. My grandmother died of lung cancer, Mom had a stroke, one of my aunts had breast cancer, the other had a heart attack, and my sister…my sister was hit by a car.”
I looked over at the wall. “Is your picture up there?”
“No, I only put up dead people.”
No family. All dead. And the boy?
“They were all amazing. My grandmother was an attorney, and one of my great-aunts was a psychiatrist, way before the women’s liberation movement. My aunt wrote novels. Remember A Tree in the Woods?” I nodded “And my mother the decorator had her work featured in Town and Country.”
“What about your sister?”
“Monica. She was a musical genius.” Her voice faded and she looked down at her hands. “Mom told me her grandmother had died young too, so the curse must go way back. I think that’s why the Giovanni women were all so driven. Mom was only twenty when she had Monica and me. She told us that if we wanted to do great things, we’d better do them while we were young.” She paused, closing her eyes. “You’ll be wanting to know what I do…did. I was a social worker. Used to tell people I was in the business of saving babies. Other people’s babies. Not that I didn’t want kids of my own—I think I’d have been a great mother.” She chuckled and seemed to lose her train of thought for a moment before continuing.
“But once I reached my late twenties, I decided it would be irresponsible to have a kid. The poor thing would be orphaned before he hit puberty. So I saved other people’s babies instead. What’s more important than that? I don’t know what Mom really thought about my career, but she always said she was proud of me. I wasn’t a musical genius like Monica—we were fraternal twins—or artistic like Mom. But my colleagues told me I was a damned good social worker.” She ate a piece of pastry she’d sequestered in her fist.
Filling holes. That’s what she was doing. Holes left by her dead family. I filled mine with hope, and she filled hers with Entenmann’s.
“That boy in the picture?”
She stiffened. “He…” She turned away from the picture wall. “Didn’t you want to ask me about my health?”
“Of course.” I leaned forward. “How’s your health?”
“Healthy as a horse. I don’t take meds, my heart’s strong, and I’ve got the blood pressure of a runner.”
“You’re in better shape than I am.” I smiled and leaned in toward her. “Did you ever try to lose that weight? When I gained a few pounds, I stuck a picture of a bathing suit I wanted on the fridge. Worked for me. Maybe you…”
“I studied journalism before I went into social work, so I know all about objectivity. More than I can say for my friends, who couldn’t stop offering advice once I started gaining weight. ‘I’ll go on a diet with you.’” Her voice rose. “‘Have you tried Atkins? What about the freaking grapefruit diet?’ So here’s how it’s going to be if you want to go on interviewing me. No more diet advice. No ‘what a pretty face,’ or ‘thin person inside waiting to get out’ shit.”
A cell phone rang. It was buried in the voluminous folds of her dress, and she fumbled for it before quietly telling the caller her services wouldn’t be needed today, the apartment was clean enough already. She re-buried the phone and looked at me, head cocked like a puppy. The gypsy earrings tinkled.
“When are you coming to see me again?”
I heard the need in her voice, and my professionalism unofficially went to hell, but I’d already interviewed enough people for the article. And though I’d said nothing to her about my miscarriages, I got the sense that she saw me as a kindred spirit—someone who had also suffered losses. Then again, it could have been my own neediness I was hearing.
* * * * *
By the next visit both of us knew I was no longer coming as a journalist, though neither of us was willing to acknowledge it just yet. I still brought my notebook, but it stayed in my bag, as did the recorder.
We were all small talk until I suggested we go outside for a walk to get some fresh air.
“You’re doing it again. Trying to get me to lose weight.”
“Not at all. Just thought you might be feeling claustrophobic.”
“I like my apartment. It’s cozy. Have you ever considered that some people actually prefer staying inside? And what’s with your fresh air obsession? You think it’ll make me healthy?” Her voice rose, as if she were on the verge of tears. “Maybe I don’t want to be healthy. Ever thought of that? Maybe I’m already too damn healthy.” She was breathing heavily, testing the limits of her overstretched clothing.
“I’m forty-two years old, two years older than my sister when she died. Older than every woman in my family. Maybe I just don’t want to be here anymore.” She gasped for air. This was no longer Vera the comedienne, poking fun at her weight. This was a shell of a woman, filling the void inside until there was no room left for her heart. She was eating herself to death.
How could I save her?
“What about a nice cup of tea?” I said.
I wasn’t sure she’d heard me, but gradually her breathing slowed, and she reached out to stroke the cat curled on the table next to her.
“With cookies?” she said without looking up.
Dipping teabags in hot water was comforting, as was arranging a perfect circle of pinwheel cookies on a glass plate.
“Why don’t I pull up a chair next to you?” I asked. “We can share the table.”
She shooed the cat off the table with a swipe of her arm. We sipped and dunked to the accompaniment of a tinkling piano piece that sounded like a music box.
“Do you know that piece?” she asked
“Not really, but it sounds a little like a music box I had as a kid.” That wasn’t true. It sounded like a music box someone had given me at my baby shower. The gift was still in the closet—a clown-covered tin box gathering dust in a lonely yellow room.
“You got kids?” she asked.
“No. Not yet.” Maybe never.
She dunked the last of the cookies and sucked on the mushy end. “I think some children are born into the wrong families, while the right families have empty spaces where children should be.”
She held out a tissue. “Your mascara’s running,” she said, holding out a tissue. “Fix yourself up. Bathroom’s down the hall, second door on the left.”
My grief passed as quickly as it had come on, though I knew that wasn’t the end of it. I checked myself in the mirror of a partially open medicine cabinet. An invitation. Inside were aspirin bottles, Band-Aids, mouthwash, nail polish remover, cotton balls, but no prescription drugs—nothing one would expect to see in the medicine cabinet of someone as morbidly obese as Vera: cholesterol meds, blood pressure meds, syringes for insulin. She was, as advertised, healthy as a horse.
When I got back, Vera was looking out the window. She’d opened the curtains and stood motionless, backlit by the late afternoon sun.
“I’d like to get out some time. Sit on a park bench somewhere. It’s been a long time. Used to pick stuff up at the grocery store, but now they deliver. Anything I want.”
“Are you asking me out?”
The day of our outing she wore those dangly earrings and coral lipstick outlined in a darker shade. I’d been right about her mouth—movie star quality. From the neck up, it looked like she was trying.
It took us a long time to negotiate the staircase from her second-floor apartment to the front door. I followed behind as she slowly made her way down the stairs. Halfway down, one of her flip-flops slipped off and landed on the step below. I reached out to support her, but she brushed my hand away. Leaning heavily on the railing, she succeeded in snagging the strap with her toes as she continued her descent.
Finally, we were out the door, down a few marble steps, and into tree-lined Delancey Street, dappled with afternoon sunlight. Vera smoothed her dress, which had ridden up in the back. It was a housedress, like my grandmother used to wear. I didn’t think they sold stuff like that anymore.
We slowly made our way down the block of stately nineteenth-century homes and around the corner toward a pocket park. But we were waylaid by a luncheonette. Vera paused to stare at a flyer on the wall, and by the time we sat down, her mood had changed from sunny to sullen. I fiddled with the tableware and checked the menu. “You know what you want?” I asked.
“My sister took a master class with that pianist in the poster. He’s going to be playing Mozart’s Twenty-first Piano Concerto—the one from that old movie. I forget the name. And the orchestra’s doing Carnival of the Animals.”
“I’m afraid I don’t know much about classical.”
“Well Carnival’sfun. First time I heard it was at a children’s concert. They showed cartoons that went along with the music. Every kid should be that lucky.”
I had no response.
She picked up the menu, then put it down as the waitress approached. “I know what I want,” she said before the girl had a chance to pull the pencil out from behind her ear. “Large burger, medium well with extra cheese, large fries, and a black-and-white milkshake.” Then she noticed a woman at the next table staring at her and shaking her head. “And whipped cream, honey. Lots of whipped cream,” she added in a booming voice that turned heads.
Vera picked at her cuticle with little stabbing motions, her face flushed. Though she’d never admit it, Vera did care about peoples’ reactions. The woman next to us shook her head and tsk-tsked a couple of times before turning to her friend and whispering something. Had I been in that woman’s place before I knew Vera, I might have done the same. Instead, I ordered a baconburger in solidarity, though I’d planned on a salad.
“Would you like to see it again, Vera? Carnival of the Animals?”
“Let me think about it,” she said, looking over at the grill as the cook plunged a basket of fries in hot oil.
“Don’t you just hate it when people tell you what to do,” Vera said loudly.
“That sign over there: We do not serve alcohol to pregnant women. What right do they have to decide what we can or can’t put into our bodies?”
The waitress brought the milkshake, and Vera took a long pull on the straw before answering my question. “Yes to the concert. Don’t pick me up, I’ll take a cab. We’ll need a box; regular seats are too small. I’ll pay. Don’t wait for me if I’m late. I’ll be there.” Her words came out in a rush, as if she were afraid she’d change her mind if hesitated.
* * * *
The chime announcing the start of the concert sounded a second time, and Vera still hadn’t arrived at the concert hall. Only a few stragglers and latecomers remained in the lobby. Maybe she couldn’t find anything that fit, or couldn’t make it down the steps, or found the idea of showing herself at a public event too daunting. All week I’d resisted the urge to call her and offer help, reminding myself this wasn’t a rescue mission and I wasn’t her mother. But when I’d called that morning, she assured me we were still on.
The usher showed me to my seat, and they shut the doors. Damn. I picked up the program and tried to follow the play-by-play. The music begins with a march figure and quickly moves to a more lyrical melody. She might be out in the lobby watching the monitor. The soloist plays a brief cadenza before resolving to a trill on the dominant G.I bet she knows all this stuff. Probably heard her sister practice it a hundred times. The famous andante is in three parts starting with an orchestra introduction to the solo piano in F major. She could be lying in a pool of blood or choking on a chicken bone.
Finally, it was over. Out in the lobby I called Vera. No answer. The chime signaled the end of the intermission. Another call. Still no answer. The ushers closed the doors, and I heard applause coming from the monitor as the conductor mounted the podium. I stepped outside and hailed a cab.
In the vestibule of her building, I buzzed her apartment. No answer. Buzzed again. Nothing. I was about to ring another apartment when a man opened the door and stepped out.
“Vera,” I said, as I slipped past him. “She’s my friend.”
I took the stairs two at a time.
Her door was unlocked, and I went in, calling her name softly, then louder. Silence. No movement in the living room. I headed down the hall. No one in the kitchen and only one Entenmann’s left on the counter. She wouldn’t have stuffed her face if she planned to do away with herself, would she? Unless she had planned for her gateway pastry to be her last meal. “Vera!” Bedroom empty. “Vera!” Bathroom door closed. My hand shook as I turned the knob. Bathtub blessedly empty. Then I heard it—an oooo sound coming from the living room, starting low and rising like an approaching siren. Keening.
Vera was sitting on the floor, her back against the front of the loveseat. The back of the chair had hidden her from view. She clutched a framed picture to her chest, much the same way she’d cradled the cookie box the first time we met. She didn’t look up when I called her name—just rocked and made that sound. I sat down next to her and reached an arm around her shoulder. She took a couple of deep breaths and rested the photo on her thighs. It was the blond boy at Love Park.
“His name was Robbie, and he was ten when this picture was taken,” she said in a voice potholed with grief. “I visited him at his foster home a few times. Knew from the first visit I was going to adopt him. The family curse be damned.” The words came slowly. “I got the feeling the foster… parents were in it for the money… and in the market for a younger kid. To restart the funds. That’s what some of those scumbags do.”
She stopped, and I rubbed her shoulder.
“I did the adoption paperwork. Robbie and I went on a bunch of outings together. Trying each other out. I took him to the children’s concert—Carnival of the Animals—and he loved it.” She chuckled, then sobbed. “Two days before the adoption date, I took him to the park.” She looked down at the picture. “He’d saved money to buy me an ice cream cone. It had to be peppermint, he told me, since that was his favorite. I told him that was my favorite, too, and bought one for him. I can still taste the… pinkness. I told him this is what happiness tastes like.” Her voice dropped. “The foster parents… those bastards… beat him where it didn’t show… probably been doing it for years.” She spat out the ps and ds, slashing the air with her words. “I saw him with the foster parents so many times. He never said anything. Never acted scared when he was with them. But I should have known anyway. Known they’d go too far. It was my job to save him. I couldn’t save my family and he’d become all the family I needed.”
She went on so quietly I could barely hear. “That last time they hit him so hard, something ruptured inside. By the time they got him to the hospital, he was gone. I should have known.” She sobbed, tears pooling in the folds of her skin.
“How could you know? Kids are good at hiding things.”
She went on as if she hadn’t heard me. “I should have figured out what they were doing. It was my job, what I’d been trained to do—get them out of danger, save those babies.” Long pause. “Today would have been his birthday. His twelfth.”
And in a what-if world of no miscarriages, my first child would have been two years old.
I got on my knees and twisted my body so I could put my arms around her as far as they would go. “Maybe you didn’t save him, but for the two years you knew him, he was part of your life and you were part of his. You made him happy.”
Vera’s flesh was soft, comforting as a down pillow. I buried my head in her chest and she rested her head on my shoulder. We sat there a long time, hugging each other like mother and child.