It’s disconcerting to discover that the body you thought your own has been swapped with that of another, like a changeling left by fairies. That’s the only way I can account for what’s happened to me other than taking personal responsibility, and considering that even as I write this I’m savoring a tub of vanilla frosting, such an admission would be unbearable. Ours is a blameless society, and litigious, too, though who or what I could sue, or even why, remains beyond the reach of my most wildly convoluted scheming. In the case of the vanilla frosting, I doubt a judge would hear arguments linking Pillsbury’s lusciously rich, deliriously creamy offering to a diabolical global conspiracy fomented by clothing manufacturers to sell more product. But hey, it’s a thought.
However farfetched or tenuous the connection, the fact remains that Americans are becoming grossly overweight. An article from several years back put it in perspective by illustrating how even furniture is becoming broader to accommodate our expanding backsides. While I have remained above the usual Americanisms of over-extended credit debt, overblown mortgages and instant-gratificationitis, I have unfortunately joined the ranks of fellow citizens who through no fault of their own have become vertically-challenged. Ergo, I’m too short for my weight.
And yet, friends have remained trim while I’ve slowly swelled like a tick. What’s their secret? Have they developed an immunity to the allurements of vanilla frosting, all-you-can-eat buffet, green chile cheeseburgers, french fries, batter-fried okra, enchiladas swimming in a gelid soup of melted cheddar and onions, stuffed chile rellenos, barbecue potato chips and chocolate donuts? Do they possess inhuman levels of self-control? And please don’t mention the exercise word, for whenever I hear it I’m reminded of the Wicked Witch’s reaction to water.
Great passions, great lusts, such are the hallmarks of a select group of writers, artists and chefs who transcend the ordinary to wear their appetites with unembarrassed assurance, if not outright pride. Jim Harrison, the writer and poet from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, has long been an advocate of an unrestrained life, indulging (and overindulging) in booze, gourmet food, fine wines, English shotguns, hunting dogs, farflung travels and exquisite literature to the point where his enlarged circumference regularly inhabits his poems. Unlike Harrison, however, who for all of his size looks complete, my own admittedly minor indulgences have resulted in what’s commonly known as the “beached whale” look. It looks good on him but not, alas, on me.
While in no way a surprise—I’ve taken to rubbing my belly and telling people I’m in my eighth month—my blubbery midriff proved itself even more of a detriment last week when I unpacked my summer clothes. For most of my life I’ve refused to wear shorts in public, not out of any ideology or bashfulness over my milky white legs (which, inexplicably, seem to resist tanning with remarkable efficiency), but because of something a boor told me in my formative years. At the time I was at that gangly age, all elbows and freckles and arms like twigs, when a cutting comment was enough to slice through tendons, muscle, bone and marrow and leave me gutted like a fish, the resultant gash inoperable, forever unhealed. Coming from a friend, or one who called himself a friend, only poisoned the wound further, even if spoken offhandedly or in jest. When my “friend” observed that I possessed knobby knees, the notion, whether true or false, became an inherent part of my being, as lasting as the V-shaped scar on my left hand caused by my grandmother’s door when it caught the wind and smacked me off the porch railing. No matter that my wife proclaims the shapeliness of my protrusive patellae, the damage done could never be undone.
Nevertheless, in my dotage I’ve come to the realization that what I look like is nobody’s concern but mine. Such contrarian contempt is, of course, merely skin deep, and subject to whims and fancies of which I have little control. Shorts are imminently practical attire for Kansas’s infernal heat and humidity, and I looked forward to dressing down even while grimly determined to silence the detracting voices that haunt my life. Shut up shut up I snarled as I unpacked last year’s supply of truncated pants, but the voices got the last laugh when I discovered that almost every single pair had shrunk over the winter.
Denial will take you only so far before leaving you stranded in a bad neighborhood. And here I stood in my favorite shorts, bought only the year before, sucking in my gut with Herculean might until my lungs groaned and popped and my liver wedged against my nasal passages and the room swam in dizzying circles, gaping in utter horror at an unbridgeable gap of shocking proportions sundering the button from the button hole.
It was no use. No amount of wrenching, tugging, inhaling or swearing would stretch the unyielding fabric to close that breach. One after another my summer shorts followed suit until a stack of useless clothing towered above the mattress, an undeniable, indisputable monolith to gluttony and excess.
I was undone. And recognizing the terrain as one familiar and dark, the wrong side of the tracks and night falling with implacable force, it was also a crossroads, a point of beginning. Redemption and salvage hinged upon direction and nothing more. The choice was mine.
I packed away the clothes with the vow that within one year I would slip into them unhindered. And, to celebrate my reformation, took my knobby knees in search of an unopened, virginal tub of vanilla frosting. I would need energy for the journey.