When We Were Thin
My favorite contestant on the reality show Pound Poundout is Dana from season two. She lost her husband and two lovely twin daughters, Ashley and Audrey, in a tragic fire, and then she began to gain weight. “I just couldn’t control myself after that,” Dana says.
Dana’s story is so heartbreaking. Not even the family pet, a turtle named Tortoise, survived. I discuss it with my best friend, Ally, during our lunch hour at work.
“What she’s gone through is so tragic,” I say as I chomp on carrot sticks. For the first few episodes, they flash pictures of Dana’s dead family across the screen. Her daughter, Ashley, played the mandolin. “I think Ashley would have been a great musician.”
Ally nods. We’ve both worked at the bank since we graduated high school in 1995. We get a three-percent raise each year and make enough to afford apartments and pets. Ally has a cat. I have a dog. Ally dreamed of college. I dreamed of marriage. Neither one of us has gotten what we’ve wanted.
“I know. I could never recover from something like that,” Ally says as she picks at her salad dwelling on the spinach and the breath-killing onions. Ally is constantly dieting because her longtime boyfriend, Than, likes skinny women, and, genetically, Ally tends toward the heavy side.
“Do you want to come over and watch the marathon on THN?” I ask. THN stands for The Health Network. Most of the shows on it are weight loss and diet shows. There are also old-school workouts. Sometimes, at night, before the infomercials about a hair shampoo made from rock particles that’s supposed to be so much more effective than regular shampoo, they show Jane Fonda.
“Sure, that would be great,” Ally says as she strategically measures out a quarter teaspoon of dressing onto her salad. Just enough to make it moist.
I volunteer to purchase some caramel apple rice cakes and Ally offers to pick up some Diet Coke.
I’m so glad for the days when THN broadcasts these marathons. They’re a great way to spend a night.
The marathon is supposed to start at seven, and it’s six forty-five and Ally’s not there. I look at the grandfather clock, glance at the wall phone, and debate whether or not to call and check on her. I don’t want to seem desperate. Maybe there’s traffic. It’s six fifty-five, and I’m just about to call, but then Ally’s number appears on my caller ID.
“Hello,” I say, trying not to sound miffed.
“I’m not going to be able to make it,” she tells me.
A moment of silence is warranted. A moment of grieving.
I manage to choke out: “That’s okay.”
I can watch Pound Poundout by myself. Well, Mr. Chompers, my dog, and I can watch Pound Poundout. We can sit on the couch and I can eat mint chocolate chip ice cream—screw the damn rice cakes—and he can drool over it while I lick the bowl clean not even leaving the milk-melt behind.
The next day at work, I avoid Ally. “I’ve got a lot of wire transfers to process,” I tell her.
I do have a lot of wire transfers to process. Sometimes, I come in on weekends to finish them, on days when the parkway is deserted and I don’t have to fight commuter traffic to get from the south suburbs to downtown. But this week, why kill myself? Instead, maybe I can get my work done before Friday and catch a movie at the local multiplex with butter-free popcorn and Diet Coke or watch season three of Pound Poundout on DVD.
My second favorite Pound Poundout contestant is Jules V. Jules, who says his parents named him after the famous author. He likes to read great books and had been heavy all his life. “It made relationships hard,” he says. Even though he is twenty-five years old, he is still a virgin. I can sympathize with Jules because, even though I am not overweight—I have both good genes and eat a healthy diet—I know that relationships can be hard. At first glance, guys seem to be interested, but all most of them want is someone to cook for them and clean for them. More a housekeeper than a partner, and what does the woman get? I know this though, going in, and I’m okay with it really, but I still can’t find anyone who likes me enough to stay.
Ally approaches me at lunch, bowl of lettuce and radishes in hand, but I tell her I have to go.
“Look, Tessa, we should talk,” she says.
“Yeah,” I say, but my response is halfhearted. Didn’t she know how much the season two marathon meant to me? Most of my friends from high school I don’t keep in touch with, but Ally and I were like twins. Same high school, same classes, both cheerleaders, same post-high school job. These marathons feel like the sleepovers that we used to have. Only then we ate cookie dough right out of the package and regular Coke in nice glass cups. We gossiped about the boys we liked and the futures we imagined. Now we use plastic cups. Our lives feel plastic.
Ally calls me that night and asks if I want to come over for dinner.
“Around eight,” she suggests.
What makes her think that I don’t have plans?
“I don’t know,” I say. I don’t add that the season four marathon is on that night. Ally knows this, and Than never wants to watch.
“I’m making veggie burgers,” she says. “With grilled squash and sweet potato fries.”
“Okay,” I say. I love sweet potato fries. They’re healthier than normal fries but still taste good. I can just watch the season four marathon some other time. I hope that she appreciates the sacrifice.
Really, Than makes dinner, and Ally paces around the kitchen nervously. She keeps walking in circles.
When Than goes back outside to flip the burgers, Ally says, “There’s something I need to tell you.” She pauses as if for dramatic effect like they do before the weigh-ins on Pound Poundout. “Than and I are getting married.”
“Oh, that’s great,” I say as I plaster a smile on my face.
“So, you’re really happy?” she asks.
“Yeah,” I say. “Of course, I’m really happy. What kind of friend would I be if I wasn’t?”
I tell her I don’t want any dessert, even though she’s made low-fat yogurt parfaits because they’re my favorite. “I have to get home,” I say. “Busy day at work tomorrow.”
“Okay,” Ally says. Than’s muscular arm is around her not totally under-control waist. They smile like a couple in a photo studio ad. I feel like my throat is closing up. On the way home, I stop at the Shop-All-Night and pick up a two-liter of regular Coke and a pint of Ben & Jerry’s. Then I go home and switch the TV on. The season four marathon is just winding up. It’s the makeover episode.
Al, a contestant from season four whom I never particularly liked, reminisces to his cousin, Toby (it’s the families season), “Remember when we were thin? Things used to be so much easier then.” I sympathize with him in that moment. In fact, I’m close to tears. It will never be like it was, I tell him. You can never get back to the way you used to remember. I stay up late, later than I should, until the marathon goes off, and Jane Fonda goes off, and I’m clutching Mr. Chompers to my chest like a baby, and some guy with weird hair and a deep voice is saying, “These are the most absorbent paper towels you’ll find anywhere.” For a moment, I think of calling the 1-800 number. But then I don’t. Instead, I clutch the dog and think about Dana and Jules V. and Al and Ally. I think about turning off the TV, but I don’t.
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