The Loser

Ten minutes into their blind date Robert said to Frank, “Larry was right. You have a nice face,” and Frank knew it was over.

Frank was thirty-two, with a fabulous head of thick, auburn hair that was the envy of all his friends, or so they said. Was it black, or dark brown, or dark, dark red? Nobody could decide but, coupled with his coppery brown eyes and the freckles scattered over his strong nose, everyone agreed that the effect was very pleasing. All of which was a way of saying what nobody had the balls to say to Frank directly. Cute freckles, fabulous hair, nice face: Fat.

Frank’s first and most abiding love affair was with cheese. It started before he could even walk, according to his mother. The old lady with the mildly retarded husband next door to them in Iowa got big bricks of government welfare cheese, in the days when it was very high quality cheese. Frank’s mother would cut off a square from the brick, slice it into strips, and give Frank a hunk when he cried. Once he was able to cover substantial distances on his pudgy hands and knees, he’d scrabble into the kitchen, plop himself on the linoleum, point at the refrigerator, and cry until someone gave him cheese. It was very cute, he was told.

Frank smiled at Robert’s remark, and sipped his tea with lemon. First dates were always coffee or tea, never dinner. Robert was not just thin, but clearly gym-fit. So Frank did what he always did: he clamped down, answering with slim clips of information, and directed the conversation with the strength of his silence to set Robert off his mark, to convey the enormity of their incompatibility.

Roughly once a month, Frank met with Larry to walk through a museum. They were at the Frick, in front of the Reynolds portrait of Lady Skipwith, which always reminded Frank of a drag queen. “What were you thinking, trying to set me up with one of your gym bunny friends?” he asked Larry.

“You go to the gym, too, Frank.”

“Yes, but I don’t look like it. Or at least I don’t look like that.”

“So you judged him without talking to him?”

“We talked. What did you tell him to get him to meet me?”

“You both like books.”

“It was clear from the start he wasn’t interested in anything I had to say about my books.”

Larry squirmed a little.

“What? Did he say something?”

Your books. He said you talked about books as if you were answering questions on a property assessment exam. Or the way straight guys talk about cars or sports. Facts and figures with no emotional investment.” Larry sighed deeply, and shook his head. “No emotional anything.”

Frank moved to the next room, to find the Rembrandts. “Did he say I was fat?”

“No. He said you made him nervous.” Larry grew quiet, and Frank knew if he stayed silent long enough, more would come. “He said you seemed defensive. Bitter. A type.”

“Emotion,” Frank said with a dismissive wave of his hand. He added, “My people are from a northern tribe,” as if that explained or excused something.

Emotions were for ugly people. Frank may have been fat, but he wasn’t ugly. When his mother died, he made a point of not crying at the funeral, or in front of his friends when they expressed their condolences on his return to New York. He hated weakness, and he hated weak people. He knew his weight might make people think he was weak-willed, but he felt his demeanor more than made up for this false impression.

His parents had married late in life. They were, in Frank’s estimation, too old to be having children. She was 42 when Frank was born, and his father was 55, only a year away from the coronary that killed him. By the time Frank had graduated from law school, his mother was an old woman. Her stroke wasn’t the surprise. It was her weakness in the nursing home that shocked him. She cried all the time.

“I just want to be good,” she’d said on one of his last visits. “I don’t mean to complain. I’ll try harder.”

He encouraged the doctor to increase her Valium, and to instruct the nurses to give it liberally whenever she got anxious or weepy, and he flew back to New York. He’d done well for himself as an entertainment lawyer. When his mother needed to go to a nursing home after the stroke, he transferred her from the one in Des Moines to one of the best in Iowa City. For that matter, his friends asked, why couldn’t you just move her to a nursing home in New York?

“Iowa is her home. And anyway, the Midwest is the place to be if you get sick,” he told them. “Better care. More attention. Nicer people. Ask anybody,” he’d said.

It was the flight back and forth to Iowa one weekend every month that galled him. All those people airing their dirty laundry on the phone for all to hear, chewing gum, farting, eating with their maws flapping and gulping, blaring music through earphones with no regard for the peace of the person sitting nearby, propping their filthy, unshod feet on chairs and seat rests. People did things that should only be done behind closed bathroom doors. Picking noses. Combing hair. Even clipping their fingernails and scattering their shreds of self every which way into his private space. He wouldn’t be surprised if the next thing he saw was people squatting and shitting right in the street. People were disgusting and weak. No one had any self control.

And when he got to the nursing home, there was his mother, the woman who had taken such pains to espouse the northern strength of her tribe. Her people were pioneers who braved slaughter, persecution, and disease without uttering a syllable of complaint as they homesteaded the northern American Midwest. This same woman was now blithering, weak-willed, spewing emotion everywhere like the rest of the world.

Frank wanted none of it.

Frank and Larry’s next outing, the following month, centered around the Kandinskys at the Guggenheim. They ambled ever upward on the spiral ramp, stopping occasionally to examine one piece or another. Frank usually studied up on whatever artist or movement they were going to see so that he’d have something interesting to say. He was just about to drop a comment he’d prepared about how Kokoschka’s marks were intellectually more stimulating than Kandinsky’s color experiments, when Larry blindsided him by bringing up Frank’s failed date with Robert.

And then he bluntly asked Frank, “Does the weight thing bother you?”

“No. If he doesn’t like a little extra to love, that’s his problem.”

“He wasn’t the one who said anything about your weight. You were. You mention it often.”

“I never talk about my weight.”

“You do, Frank. Maybe you don’t realize it, but you do. Robert never mentioned it. He thought you were cute.”

“What is he, some sort of chubby chaser?” When Larry didn’t answer, Frank said, “Whatever.” He was tired of all these insincere queens.

“See? It bothers you.”

Frank stared at Larry with an expression he’d perfected to shape the silence between them into an inhospitable moment. But this time, it didn’t work. Larry was too busy fiddling with his phone.

“How tall are you, Frank?”

“Five foot eight.”

Larry punched some numbers into the calculator on his phone and said, “One fifty. That’s your ideal body weight. How much do you weigh now?”

“If I weighed one fifty I’d look like a concentration camp victim. That’s absurd. I couldn’t imagine weighing less than a hundred and seventy-five without looking ill.”

Larry slipped his phone back into his front pocket, and waited. Neither of them spoke for a long time. Frank didn’t tell him how he’d stopped weighing himself after he’d topped two hundred pounds, a few years ago.

Finally Larry said, “I’d help. It’s hard to do alone. Everyone needs help now and again.”

Frank roundly, firmly said, “No.”

He was going to leave it at that, to sharply drive home his point, but he didn’t want to appear overly sensitive. So he added, “People on diets bore the shit out of me. You can’t have a conversation with them. Oh, I ate three pieces of organic spinach and a chicken breast for lunch, I did a hundred and fifty minutes on the treadmill, and then I had an apple. Everything is calories, or points, or ounces with them. Jesus. I once went on a date with a guy who’d been on one diet or another since he was twelve years old and I just about ran out screaming. I asked if he’d lived in New York during 9/11, and he said, Oh, I was in a café and I’d just ordered half a slice of toast with a thin layer of peanut butter paste, which is mostly the protein of the nut without the fat because I knew I was supposed to go to a party that night and I wanted to leave room in case I was tempted by the hors d’oeuvres. Of course, the party was cancelled.

Larry laughed.

“And have you ever met a thin dieter?” Frank continued.

“Well, that’s the point, right? Thin people don’t need to diet.”

“No,” said Frank. “There are thin people, and there are heavy people, and that’s how it has been from time immemorial, and we should all just accept it.”

“Or,” said Larry, “there are people who work at it, and people who make excuses. There’s nothing wrong with needing a little help, Frank. My offer to help stands.”

Up until that point, Frank had enjoyed Larry’s company. Frank was too busy to have many close friends, or to see them very often, but Larry would have been one of the closest, and the one he saw most regularly. Larry had gone to the New School when Frank was across Fifth Avenue at Cardozo Law. They’d never dated, but somehow they started going places together every now and again, and this had lasted for years. They shared a love of art, opera, and champagne. Frank had indulged Larry’s quirks, such as his assertion that he didn’t really like opera, that he preferred something less symphonic, could only bear string quartets and piano sonatas. Frank believed this was just another faggy affectation Larry spouted to make people think he had discriminating tastes. Larry, Frank now saw, was dispensable, and he wouldn’t feel bad about not calling him to get together again.

Frank had never needed help from anyone for anything, and he wasn’t about to start now. He was his own master, and he’d prove it. Or, at least he’d try, and if he failed again, nobody need know.

He’d been on diets before, but he knew he cheated. In those days, saying “I’m on a diet” seemed like enough, and he would eat less in front of whomever he had made his pronouncement. But there were irrefutable laws of the universe that took hold in his mind when he was alone. Like the proverbial tree that makes no noise if it falls in the forest with no one to hear it, food eaten with no one to witness it had no calories. He had to shake himself loose from his very foundations if he were to succeed.

This time he didn’t tell anyone. He bought a book by a famous doctor who had once headed the FDA, and who had struggled with his own weight. The book debunked all of Frank’s old excuses: slow metabolism, it’s better to eat six times a day, it was genetic. The book told him what he’d never wanted to face: Snacks are for growing children and fat people. Eat less for the rest of your life. Have faith, the doctor in the book said. Be patient, but not lenient. Do not give up. Your brain reacts to salt, sugar, and fat like an addict. You have a millisecond to say “no” when faced with a food temptation, and if you wait longer the craving will win. Be strong.

The no-nonsense tone of the book struck Frank just right. It didn’t suggest meals, or plans, or anything. It just laid out the hard truth: Exercise helps, but exercise alone won’t make you thin. You’re fat because you eat too much.

It was like living through another death. He had to say goodbye to his best friends, the only ones who gave him real comfort: cheese, peanut butter, fried food, fast food, sugary cereal, bacon, chips, soda, pasta, any food that came processed or packaged. He had to make new, boring friends: Fresh fish—which always sounded like an oxymoron to him—broccoli, green peppers, unsweetened black coffee, water, apples without peanut butter, apples without cheese. It had to be forever.

One of his clients was the first to notice. He was just a nineteen year-old musician who was big in the indie/alternative/folk scene and was suddenly catapulted to stardom after one of his songs played as the closer for a movie that won an Oscar. He had to meet with Frank to negotiate a deal with a new record company, and make things copasetic with the old one.

“You changed your hair. Like, grew it longer? Or you went on a sunny vacation?”

“No,” Frank said.

“Well, you look good. Rested.”

The kid had an open, intelligent manner, and Frank was inclined to concede that he wasn’t half bad, for a straight guy.

Frank’s secretary was next. Amelia was a smart, young Australian woman with a little too much energy for Frank’s taste, but she was efficient and kept everything in order. He was headed to a consultation with a prospective client when Amelia said, “Wait.” She pulled something out from her bottom desk drawer and pulled him back into his office. She plugged in the steam iron, turned him round and round pressing his jacket and pants. “Hmpph,” she said, and stepped back. “It’ll have to do, I reckon.” She pushed him from behind, “Walk there and back.” When he turned to look at her, she looked concerned, but whisked both hands at him. “Go. I don’t know why you look so wrinkly all the time now.”

He didn’t weigh himself for two months, but when he did he saw that he was two hundred and ten pounds. He was certain he’d lost about fifteen pounds, but he was ten pounds heavier than the last time he’d weighed himself a few years prior. Nothing fit right, but he vowed not to buy any new clothes until he fell below two hundred. It took another two months of baggy pants and ill-fitting jackets. At two hundred pounds, he was still fat, but now he was fat and sloppy, and he still had fifty pounds to go.

When he finally fell below two hundred pounds, he bought some new clothes. He’d made a habit of buying only expensive suits tailored to fit just so, to make him appear as if he had a better body than he did. Since the new clothes were only transition clothes, he bought them off the rack, suffering the indignities of looking lumpy and unkempt even while improving himself.

At one hundred ninety pounds—five months and thirty-five pounds less than when he last spoke to him—he called Larry, saying they shouldn’t be such strangers. But when they got together to see the Cindy Sherman exhibit at MOMA, either Larry truly did not notice Frank’s weight loss, or he was just being a bitch by not mentioning it. Or, Frank had been so fat that a thirty-five pound loss didn’t register. He understood those diet bores now. He wanted to talk about it, but he refused. He knew that in the end he’d appear stronger.

Losing weight was exhausting. It wasn’t just the planning and making of all his meals that took up his free time. It was the restraint. Not-eating gobbled up all his energy. Sometimes, at meetings, the cream cheese next to the tray of bagels and coffee occupied all of his attention. He had to force himself to stay seated. Sometimes, he’d start for the food table, then stop, pull himself back to sit in whichever chair was furthest from temptation. At one of the firm’s monthly meetings the senior partner asked a question of Frank, and Frank had had to shake his head to focus. The lawyer sitting next to him had only eaten a quarter of her chocolate donut. The fact that she might not finish it threw him into such confusion that even when the partner repeated the question, Frank’s answer was lackluster and clearly insufficient.

People Frank had once thought of as friends, now became his “fat friends,” not because they were fat themselves, but because he felt they had kept him fat, and he stopped answering their calls. Now he spent his time researching calories, shopping for fresh food, making his own meals, packing his lunches. Sometimes, to keep from eating, he walked out at night, and watched people stream past him, mostly in groups. Everyone seemed to have groups of friends. Frank had always kept those friends he’d had separate from one another, like individually wrapped pieces of cheese. Now, for company, he’d go out to a café with a book to drink tea and be among new people.

When Frank got down to the mythical one hundred seventy-five pounds at which he’d once told people he’d look “too thin” or even sick, he did indeed feel a little sick to discover that he was thinner, but still fat. He’d lost fifty pounds over eight months, and still had twenty-five pounds to go. Now, when people asked if he’d lost weight, he said, “I started walking home instead of taking the subway,” and left it at that.

Men started noticing. At first, he’d thought the lingering looks in the gym were more mockery, disgust, pity. But one day a guy Frank had once thought of as King of the Mockers approached him in the locker room. “I just wanted to say, I noticed how much weight you’ve lost. You look great.” The man felt compelled to tell Frank his own weight loss story. “I only lost twenty pounds, which, in gay terms, is equal to about a hundred,” he’d laughed. Frank still had fifteen pounds to go. His quick calculation revealed that the guy was telling him he looked 75 pounds overweight. In “gay terms” as the man put it, Frank was back where he’d started. Frank answered with a dismissive “Yeah.” He dressed quickly, and fled.

Strange things started happening. People at work listened more attentively when he spoke. He couldn’t be sure, but it seemed as if people laughed more when he made even the stupidest jokes. Now, in crowded subways, people moved their bags on the seats next to them so he could sit. Now, when he sat, he fit in the seat without pressing against the person next to him. People he didn’t know and would never see again were nice to him. He was shocked and disgusted at the superficiality of the world. Men who never deigned to look at him before at the gym now smiled, talked, made passes. With a towel strategically draped over his shoulders to hide his torso, he followed a few of these men into the blurred air of the steam room for a quick release, then left, never speaking to them or looking at them again.

To keep his mind off food, he dissolved into books in a way he’d never thought possible. The real world disappeared. This was what Larry had meant about “reading emotionally.” He no longer cared to memorize lists of characters’ names, or synthesize a witty reposte about salient plot points so other people would know how smart he was. Now he cared about what happened in the novels, as if the characters were real people. He lived through the devastating losses of Lily Bart, Seymour Glass, and Tess, and made new friends with Elizabeth Bennett, Leopold Bloom, and even with more difficult friends like Monsieur Meursault.

One night in a café, as he was reading Jane Austen’s Emma, a man at a table opposite Frank said, “I always mean to read more of her. Is it worth it?” None of the other tables were occupied, so Frank looked up to see that the man was talking to him.

“Of course,” Frank said, and returned to his book.

“I’m more of a Faulkner man myself,” the man said.

Barely looking up, Frank said, “That’ll wear off after the third or fourth book.”

The man laughed. “How weird. That’s exactly what’s happening right now, but I guess I didn’t want to admit it. I gobbled up Absolom, Absolom, The Sound and the Fury, and Sanctuary, but I just can’t get started with As I Lay Dying.”

Frank looked up reluctantly. The man was young, mid twenties at the most, tall and blond with strong features, a nice complexion, straight teeth. His eyes had large lids, which gave him the look of someone slightly sleepy, but trying to pay close attention. Frank said, “Stick with it. It’s worth it. There’s one chapter that’s only five words long. But then,” he raised the book that he had closed over his finger, “give Jane a go. It’s completely different, but it’ll be a refreshing break. Funny, smart, bitchy. She never disappoints.”

He dog-eared the page and set the closed book on the table, to continue the conversation.

Was it really that easy? Frank had heard stories of it with other gay men, but he never imagined it happening to him. The café closed. He and Nathan lived three blocks apart. A block from the café, Nathan said, “I have a confession. I love Jane Austen.” Half a block later, Nathan said, “This is my apartment. Do you want to see it?” Frank did.

Up to now, Frank had taken care of his sexual needs—he hated that they were, in fact, needs—as secretly as he could manage: in back rooms of adult bookstores. He entered darkened rooms filled with men milling around, waiting, watching. He never looked any of them in the eye, entered the viewing booth as quickly as possible, stuffed the slot with money, and waited. In the round hole carved into the wall between booths he needed to present only a part of his body. No one could tell who was fat or thin, cute or ugly, and it didn’t matter. If the man in the booth next to him saw any other part of him, it was his face, or the part of his face that mattered: his mouth, slightly agape, lips and tongue craving the act that filled him with such shame afterward that he wanted to disappear completely.

The idea of taking off all of his clothes for another man, pretending that anyone could desire him, was impossible. It was mid-March, so Nathan wore a sweater and a light down jacket, but when he leaned to gather his things, Frank saw with horror that this man was sinewy, and exceptionally well-shaped. In the apartment, when Nathan lifted his sweater over his head, his shirt pulled up to reveal the slender V of abdominal muscles framing a frilly trail of hair from his belly button down to the promised land.

Frank’s head swam. They were at it before he could think. He had never had sex with all of his clothes off. He’d always kept at least his shirt on, pretending he was too caught up in the thrill of everything to notice that he forgot he was still partially dressed. But Nathan surprised him, snuggled his chest against Frank’s back, arms completely around Frank as he rocked him and kissed his neck. And then in one swift move, he grabbed Frank’s shirt and tee shirt and stripped them off over his head. Nathan’s hands were all over him, there was no way to hide.

Frank gasped, ran to the corner to retrieve his tee shirt and pulled it back on.

Nathan laughed. “Is this a game?”

“No,” Frank said. “I’m . . . I’m not comfortable.”

Nathan’s head flicked into a questioning tilt.

“I’m sorry,” Frank said. “I’m fat.” And then, out of the blue, he started to cry. He’d have rather done anything else—bleed, puke, shit his pants—in front of someone than cry.

Nathan said, “You look great. I’m the one who should worry. I’m too skinny.” He touched his shoulders, chest, stomach, but Frank didn’t see the problem. “Just try to relax.” Nathan approached Frank slowly. They began again, continued from there, and had a grand time. Nathan asked him to stay, and seemed sincere. “I like to cuddle,” he’d said. “It makes me feel safe.” Although he was no longer actually fat, the idea of this young, tight man cupping handfuls of Frank’s loose flesh was too much to bear.

“Sorry,” Frank said. “I have to go.”

But when Frank called to set up a second date, Nathan said, “Oh. It was great. I had a ton of fun, but I’m in a playing-the-field phase right now.”

Frank didn’t blame him. He’d never want to date a crybaby either.

Frank had taught himself not to cry early in life. In school he had been beaten up regularly, as much for being fat as for being too girly. The worst times were when girls beat him up. It didn’t take him long to learn that when he cried, the abuse escalated. If he acted as if it didn’t affect him much, the bullies stopped sooner, as if slightly disappointed. His mother always dismissed the beatings with a wave or a word. “Teenagers,” she’d say, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

If his eye was blackened, or his skin was burnt with another lit cigarette while three kids held him down, she’d say, “It’ll make you tougher. Prepare you for life.” Every time he was hurt in school, he’d have to spend detention in the same room with whichever thug had walloped him.

At sixteen, they told Frank that because of his “look,” and that he seemed to invite abuse so often and so vigorously, that he was becoming a distraction for the other students in the school. The principal politely asked him to leave. When Frank refused, the principal politely told him he wouldn’t be admitted to the building the next morning, or any morning after that. He had been beaten, the principal reminded Frank’s mother, because of the way he looked, the way he walked, the way he combed his hair, or spoke, or thought. “We don’t like the word ‘expelled,’” the principal said. “You see my point.” She saw his point.

On the ride home from that meeting, she told Frank, “You have to start working sometime. It may as well be now. I’ll see if I can get you something at the Hallmark store. In the back.”

After work every day, his mother let him borrow the car. It was an hour drive west across I-80 to the Y in Des Moines, where an enormously obese, dyed-blonde, red laquer fingernailed, born-again Christian woman named Lily helped Frank earn his GED. On his first day she lay her outstretched hand on the table between them, her long nails garish and unsettling. Her knuckles dimpled in the surrounding fat. “Before we begin, I just want you to know that Jesus loves you.” Frank took a breath. He was deciding whether to gather his things and go when Lily added, “But I can see that’s not your thing. I won’t mention it again, but I had to let you know it’s true.”

Lily wore huge flowing dresses in bright, unflattering colors that no fat person should ever wear. Canary yellow with a wide purple belt. Lime green with that same purple belt. Tangerine with what was apparently her only belt, the purple one that matched her shoes. Frank loved her. She taught him how to study for each GED subject test, then the SAT, and then helped him apply for scholarships to college. With her help, he got a full ride to the state university. “But be careful,” she told him on their last meeting. “Iowa City is the Manhattan of Iowa.”

Lily had taught him well. Frank took a job in a vintage clothing and furniture store to pay for what the scholarship didn’t cover, and he graduated at twenty. He worked for two months in a cannery to make extra money for his law school applications, applying to over twenty law schools, but only on the coasts. He wound up in New York because Cardozo gave him the best financial package, and now he was a big entertainment lawyer, representing actors, singers, writers, and making more money than he knew how to spend. In this way, he felt he quietly got back at everyone who had ever called him a loser.

All the gay men Frank knew had such stories. His was nothing special, so he kept it to himself. In truth, these stories bored him. Oh, poor me, they all seemed to say. I’ve had it so hard. Please feel sorry for me. It was disgusting. The last thing he would want from someone was pity. Buck up, he’d wanted to tell people with their sob stories. Life is hard. Define your life by what you do, not by what happened to you. It was the same with weight loss stories. People would approach him as if he were part of some underground brotherhood. All Frank could think when someone started recounting weight woes was: Get away from me, Fatty.

His ability to control his emotions dropped away with the weight. Losing seventy-five pounds had stripped away his insulation, leaving him no protection from big, messy spurts of emotion.

He was most surprised by his reaction to children, who he had before endured as civilization’s necessary evils. He used to smile politely at co-workers’ pictures of their kids, but they could have easily gotten the same response had they shown him a picture of their new dishwashing machine. But now, out in public, other people’s children caught his eye, especially those with little boys between five and twelve years old. They were still sweet, goofy, smart, funny, and curious as he had been at that age. The thought that anyone would hurt a child like that clenched him with anger. He felt what it might be like to be a parent—a kind of choking love that was physically painful. He’d be in the Bed and Bath store looking for a new set of towels, minding his own business, look up to see a little boy unconsciously clutching his father’s pant leg, the father feathering the boy’s hair with his fingers, and suddenly Frank was in tears. Where had this crying thing come from all of a sudden? He hated it.

The kids he saw were fully people, but not yet adult. They were capable of full-throated affection, but not yet well-versed in shame. They’d learn that in puberty. Kids like that made him want a child. It was a strange pang, stronger than any yearning he’d ever had—more than for company, or sex, or cheese. He could adopt, he thought, but he was afraid. He knew he could provide. He knew he could bring up a well-mannered child. But Frank was afraid that, like his mother, he’d change his mind after it was too late, and realize that he hadn’t wanted children after all. That, in fact, he didn’t much like his child. Like so many things, it wasn’t worth the risk.

Frank now looks great, and even he sees it. His face, having lost the extra padding, is no longer “nice.” Now his face is “handsome.” When he got down to a hundred and fifty pounds, he hired a personal trainer, so now the slack skin left over from his fat self has tightened a bit with new muscle underneath it. There will always be slack skin and some flab, but he supposes everyone has imperfections to live with. He has called up old acquaintances in an effort to open himself to friendship, even Larry. They are all amazed. Frank likes the attention. He is still hungry all the time, and he realizes that if he is to stay thin he will have to be hungry for the rest of his life. But, for now anyway, he’d rather be hungry than fat, and he hopes he’ll get used to the hunger the way people who lived in the middle ages must have gotten used to living with the constant itch of lice.

Frank used to make fun of people who complained continually about how much they hated dating, but now, with date after date under his belt, he understands. He is learning more about himself than he ever wanted to know. So far, he has learned that he bores people who would rather talk only about pop music and television shows. That some people don’t think he’s funny, and that some people do. That he’s considered odd, cold, standoffish, touchy-feely, a snob, a freak, too liberal, too conservative, too punk-rock, too mellow-yellow, too white. That he should talk more, that he should have more of a filter when he talks, that he is too short, too tall, too freckly, that he is a prude, a slut, uptight, a filthy pig.

And alone, at night when he manages to think about something other than food, he can see that at his very core he is a liar, that he has always been a liar. His thoughts often turn to his dead mother lately, but he pushes these thoughts away and he knows there is something in this pushing away that is also a lie, or something like a lie. When he was young, he got used to lying about being gay, thinking he could avoid beatings. He lies when he pretends he doesn’t care that he doesn’t have a boyfriend, or any really close friends. He lied about graduating from high school. He’s never told anyone he was a GEDer. He has lied on every application he’s ever filled out, about his ambitions, his interests. He went into entertainment law not out of any abiding interest, but because it was a specialty at Cardozo that the smartest people went for. He doesn’t even like being a lawyer. He doesn’t know what he likes. He likes telling people he’s a lawyer. He likes the money, and tries to convince himself this is enough. He’d thought that losing weight would be his last problem, not realizing it was the tip of something much larger, much more frightening and indefinable. It’s something about himself, something else he’s lied to himself about, which he is afraid he’ll find out sooner rather than later, and even if he gains back all seventy-five pounds of his former insulation, he won’t be safe from the truth.

He has learned that there are many ways to end up alone. You could end up alone because you are fat and too afraid to date, or because you are thin and appear too desperate. Or you could end up like Frank’s mother, whose husband died and left her with a son who was strange, and sensitive, and overly neat, who nobody could seem to love, or even like very much. She washed him and fed him, and when nothing soothed him, she fed him more. Other kids beat him, and hurt him, and even the adults at his school scorned him, so when he was asked to leave, she was happy to have him all to herself so she could protect him. He learned to adopt the same reserved quality all her people had, never complaining, never expressing emotion of any kind because her people were strident people, strong people from a northern tribe, people who endured. So when her only son went away, she didn’t cry in front of him, and she never begged him to return because she didn’t want to embarrass him. But when, near the end of her life, in a nursing home in Iowa City, on his last visit to her, she told him all of this, he didn’t seem to hear her.

“I love you,” she’d said. Her eyes had a look of terror, as if she were slipping into quicksand, and he was the only one who could save her. He couldn’t save her.

She’d never said anything like that before. The stroke had changed her from stoic to whiny. “You’re my little Frankie.”

He was at his fattest then, and she was calling him her little Frankie. The ugly digital clock at her bedside said 4:13. He usually left at five o’clock, or earlier if he was lucky and she drifted off to sleep.

“I wish you would come more, but I know you’re busy. I don’t want to beg, Frank.” She started crying again. “I’m trying to be good, but I’m afraid. I miss you.”

This was unsightly. The nurse just outside her room wore an ID badge that said “Nadine.”

“Excuse me, Nadine, I think my mother needs more medication.” He pointed to the room to indicate who his mother was.

“Your mother? Ah, yes, I see it in the face.”

“She’s very emotional. Not herself at all. Can you give her something? More Xanax, or Valium, or anything? To settle her nerves?”

Nadine called the doctor, then went in to take care of his mother while he waited out in the hall. “You can go back in,” Nadine said when she was done.

His mother lay crying silently with her face toward the window.

Frank sat next her bed, and looked over her and out the window, which didn’t afford much of a view: a parking lot, where spears of sun shot off car windshields, staining the walls and ceiling of his mother’s room with tatters of light. He made a mental note to get her moved to a room on a higher floor on the other side of the building, a room that overlooked the Iowa River. It would be nice to see a wink of sun off of water in this otherwise land-locked state.

The pills had started to work. She grew sleepier and sleepier, but tears kept dripping from her blinking eyes. She raised a weak hand, and waved it about as if shoeing away a lethargic fly. When Frank realized she was looking for his hand to hold he grasped it for a moment, and she squeezed. He put her hand under the blanket, pulled the blanket up, and held his hand over it to keep her still.

She turned her face back to him, and said sleepily, “Every time you go, I think this might be the last time I see you.” Her lip quivered, a sob escaped, and seeing the exasperation on Frank’s face, his mother turned her head away. She had that sinking-into-quicksand look on her face again, and Frank looked away, too.

“I’ll try to be good,” she said. “I’ll try harder.”

It’s these last words of his mother’s that sound in Frank’s ear when he lays awake in bed at night, trying to be happy with his newly thin body, thinking of all the varieties of loneliness. Each time the words sound new, different from when he first heard them. He hadn’t known what she meant about “being good,” and he hadn’t asked. It seemed she’d wanted to draw him into a conversation he didn’t want to have, as if she were waiting for him to say something clichéd and obvious, to descend to some hackneyed level of sentimentality to which their family had never sunk.

He can still conjure the room that he’d never had time to move her from; he can almost smell the odd mixture of antiseptic and excrement that makes up nursing home air. On that last day, he’d kept his eye on a shaft of light on the wall that thinned as the afternoon wore on. He waited for the Valium to flood his mother’s senses and lift her into the deep solitude of sleep. He’d just decided that when he got her the room with the river view, he’d also get a wall clock with a second hand that he could watch tick, and in the middle of this thought, she snuffled, and sighed deeply.

“Hush, now” he’d said to his mother before he finally left. “Hush.”

“Hush,” Frank has taken to saying lightly to himself out loud in the dark before he goes to sleep, to keep from thinking too much. Sometimes, traveling through that half-solid world from wakefulness to sleep, if he draws out the end of the word with a breathy ssssshhhhhh, he doesn’t recognize his own voice. It sounds disconnected, a pillow’s width away, and he can almost believe he’s not alone.  

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