The 22nd Grilled Cheese Discussion

Others savored food; they enjoyed the act of eating and enjoying what meals meant.  I ate because I had to.  I found no enjoyment in the taste, I only found obsession with the need to eat.  Of course I enjoyed the food, grew accustomed to having variation, but it all came down to the same thing:  Eating had become second only to breathing.  When you are a captor to something that doesn’t exist, that never materializes, it becomes nigh impossible to overcome.  It haunted my every step now.

Was I hungry?

No.  I never ate because I was hungry.

Did I actually NEED to eat?

It didn’t matter. I did.

It was originally something that I loved to do, something that I found enjoyment in, however temporary that enjoyment was.  Now I woke up in the morning, first thing I had to do was eat.  Getting out of bed, instead of thinking of the day ahead, I was thinking about what was going to be for breakfast.  Would I have oatmeal or cereal?  Can I sneak two bowls before my grandma notices?  I didn’t stop to wonder if I was actually hungry, it had become muscle memory.

While other people chewed their finger nails, twister their hair, or put their right foot in their pants first, I was a habitual eater.  I had three set times in which I ate, no matter what.  That didn’t mean that those three times were the only times in which I partook in dining.  If someone else was eating around me, I would eat then to.  If food was present, I was damn well eating it, or at the very least wishing I was.  I didn’t wait to see if I wanted to eat, because I always wanted to.  That want never went away.  I had trained myself to consume, to keep doing so regardless of need or necessity.  I set myself up; put every piece perfectly in line.  I forced myself to eat, and then I loved to eat; now I couldn’t stop eating.  I gave it the power, and it was dragging me down.

Imagine if you will, being obese.  If you are chubby, rotund, jolly, or any string of happy-go-lucky adjectives you can come up with, you have a small inkling of what I am talking about.  For those who aren’t, count yourself lucky and try your best to keep up.  Imagine that every article of clothing you have on doesn’t fit or feel right.  Pants, shirts, shoes, even underwear.  Every bit of it has its downside, its point of contention.  Imagine the tightest pair of pants you own.  Now imagine that the crotch of those pants hangs about 3-4 inches below where they should be.  They constrict your movement, chafing the insides of your thighs and making you feel more uneasy.  Imagine that you have a sacred number of items, 4 to 5 maximum, that you feel…not comfortable wearing, but less uncomfortable than everything else in your closet.  Imagine looking into the mirror and convincing yourself that you look thin, or that you look like everyone else, or that you are large and proud, just so you can muster up the courage to go outside.  Imagine feeling like every person is looking at you, no matter where you go, how you act, or what you say.  Everyone believes that they are being spotlighted as they progress through life, but imagine feeling that the spotlight makes you automatically feel like you have done something wrong.  Then to top it off, add self delusion to the mix.  You have tried convincing yourself that you are the same for so long that somewhere along the line you started believing it, and now you don’t understand what is wrong.  Or at the very least knowing what is wrong, but pretending you don’t.

That is sort of what it is like to be obese.

Being fat had made me increasingly more uncomfortable with each pound I put on, but the first grader in me still looked for ways to exploit it.  I would make jokes at my own expense, dress up like overweight black women, and perform any ironic jab that pointed out my weight in a method of my own choosing.  I still fed off the fuel that my rolls provided, even if I had begun to hate them for it.  My fat was my insulation, my curse, and I turned it into my armor.  You can’t be made fun of if you are already making fun of yourself.  It worked for a time too, but only as long as I was moving and keeping the laughs going.  When I was alone, when no giggles broke the silence, I was left to the darkness of my own discomfort.

I felt that growing tension every day.  I didn’t know what to do about it, because I honestly couldn’t figure out the problem.  “You are your own worst enemy” sort of sums it up.  Then the worst test of self control happened.  Contrary to popular belief, I was being constrained, my diet was being constrained.  I damn sure ate whatever the hell I wanted, but ONLY when I could get away with it.  On more than one occasion I sat outside my grandmother’s room and waited for her to go to sleep.  Peeking in to see her eyes droop over the smooth and sultry prose of Nora Roberts became my queue to act.  In a perverse twist on the delinquent teen who sneaks out, I was sneaking a midnight eating binge.  I did it in secret; I was well versed in culinary espionage and apple turnover pilfering.  But like any successful heist it had to remain low key and unnoticed for successful achievement.  So that meant that I couldn’t steal all the time and I had to keep the amount I stole to an unnoticeable low.  I was being constrained, even if it was a desperate finger trying to plug a bleeding tide, it was still the grim optimism of progress.  Did I deserve it?  Better yet, did I want it?  It didn’t matter.  I was being kept in check by increasingly desperate attempts by my family, my coaches, and my friends.

Then, with one step, with one educational decree, that all changed.  Bonds were cut, I was on my own, the only constraints I had were the nonexistent remnants of discipline that I might have had at some point in my life.  I waved goodbye to my grandmother, my family, my life of guilt trips, and headed west.  I took the plunge and took my stomach with me.  I smiled while something inside me screamed.  I was going to College.

450 lbs.

I woke up jammed in between old pine and worn mattresses.  My face was stuck between unwashed feather pillow and the wooden slat where my box-spring should have rested.  I was on the bottom level of a fraternity house bunk bed.  I use the term “bottom level” loosely because I wasn’t actually ON the bed.  Four stacked mattresses were the only thing keeping me from tipping over by the shattered remnants of what used to be a supportable wooden frame.  I took care of that supportability the first week.  First few nights were okay.  There was ample protestation and groaning from the wood, but it held for at least a week.  I’m more erosive than acid.  Lucky for me that being on a college campus keeps extra mattresses in amply supply.

I was breathing hard, the simple act of sleeping made me out of breath.  There was always the sharp intake in that moment when I first woke up, as if my lungs were protesting the difficulties of the day ahead.  It wasn’t going to be a particularly physical day but the truth was I was always sort of out of breath.  Once my air intake subsided to a manageable level, I rolled out of bed, or at least I tried to.  Because I had a tower of mattresses as bedding, it was sort of like laying on expired Jell-O.  I had to hook my legs around the wooden supports, which only made me sink into my gelatin mold even more.  With an effort that would make anyone under 300 pounds uncomfortable I was able to pull myself up.  Without stopping, even to put on pants, I turned and made my bed.  I took pride in this daily ritual.  I was the college kid who always made his bed.  I was fat but I was neat.  I had never understood the impulse, but maybe I wanted people to overlook the fat and just see the neat.

All of my roommates were gone except one.  He was secure in the fetal, so I tried to be quiet as I moved to the other side of the confined space that four freshman students shared.  The room was set up like the letter H with its bottom legs cut off.  We all slept on one arm and entertained on the other.  Entertainment housed my wardrobe.  Efficient dormitory tile, with miles of use and miles more to go, never so much as popped as I rifled through my drawers for a semi-clean T-shirt. Most college students, with the absence of a free home service or the imperative to do so, procrastinate doing their laundry.  I was no exception to this rule.

But I was in luck.  There was a clean shirt left at the bottom of the drawer, flattened and deflated from being at the bottom for so long, but still my best option.  It was green.  I was always a big fan of that color.  Putting my arms through the short sleeves I let the full length of the shirt flow to my shoulders.  Without putting it over my head, I thrust my arms in opposite directions as if giving two simultaneous high-fives to two different people. There was a loud crack as the threads in the shirt stretched. I called this activity “Popping the fabric” and I did it with every shirt I wore that had a stretch capacity.  It made clothing slightly more comfortable to wear.  Obviously I couldn’t do it with button-up shirts (buttons tended to be under enough strain without the additional abuse of karate chops).  Polyester was stubborn and sweaters were hopeless.  I thanked God for the elasticity of cotton.

If the tightness of my T-shirts made me so uncomfortable why didn’t I go up in size?  I didn’t for a few different reasons.  The first and easiest to hide behind was that if I wore a 3XL shirt that meant I WAS a 3XL size shirt (I had lost the battle of the 2XLs with the turn of the semester).  It was that small but stubborn voice of denial still chugging along in circles in the back of my thoughts.  It kept me in a macabre state of optimism.  The second was that finding clothing of any kind in my size was approaching Sasquatchian levels of improbability.  Plus, baggie clothes made me feel and look bigger than I actually was, or at least in my mind it did.  Tight clothes were uncomfortable.  Clothes that fit made me THINK I was uncomfortable.  They made me think everyone would find out my secret, that I was extremely overweight.  I couldn’t have that.

So I popped my green shirt, 4 times, 5 times, until I knew it would be 3XL tagged, but 3.5XL loosed.  As I pulled the shirt over my head I tried hard not to glance at my body in the yellowed mirror above built in bureau.  It was hard to keep pretending when I could see what I was dealing with. So I looked at my face.

In a fit of post parental rage, I had let my hair and beard grow out.  Wavy black locks surrounding a rounded face, covered by abundant speckled red chin cushion.  Laziness had reached every part of my personal grooming.  I stared into my own eyes, rotating my head slowly from side to side, trying to find a position that I liked.  I wasn’t trying to strike a pose; I was trying to see myself as worth looking at.  It was a daily ritual, finding a look, an angle that worked for me, and then remembering that THAT was the way I really looked.  I remembered what my senior picture photographer had taught me.

“Neck out.  Act like a turtle sticking its head out of its shell.  Reach for a carrot, or a leaf, whatever the hell turtles eat.  Tip your chin down. Yes, that’s it. It tightens up the neck, makes for a better picture.”

It felt awkward, definitely not a pose that you could hold for a profile shot.  I felt like an old nag reaching for the last bit of sweet feed.  But it helped with the jowls.  That was something that I needed.  It didn’t completely hide the extra face space, more like it leveled it down to a slightly less massive double chin.  So I did the turtle neck, and found the face I needed.

I stopped letting people take my picture a long time ago.  You know those people who always hate all the photographs they are in?  The ones who say that they aren’t photogenic?  That is what I told people I was.  In reality, photographs had become so good at shattering that image of me that I held on to, that image that I worked so hard in the morning to find and focus on.  Photographs are unbiased.  They don’t show you what you want to see, they don’t sugar coat the truth or call you “Big,” they simply shove the truth blatantly in your face and make you look.  It startles you sometimes.  I spent all that time crafting this idea of what I WANTED people to see, that a simple thing of a “badly angled” photograph could completely destroy my own feeble and fictitious self-image.  There was nothing bad about the angle, I was fat, and I didn’t want to see that.  So I stopped looking.

I didn’t mention that I was thinking about breakfast.  I didn’t think I had to.  So I found some medium grade blue jeans, the kind that are tight at first but then you sort of ease into after a couple of hours.  The non-lace shoe motto was still firmly in place, so slip-ons it was.

Then I took down the track jacket.  Remember the 5-6 sacred pieces?  This was my only one.  It was the only thing that I felt a modicum of comfort in.  It was a blue and white striped number that I had gotten at Big and Tall. The Big and Tall was a store where I wasn’t the big guy.  It was a massive store, full of massive people looking for massive clothes.  I had outgrown conventional stores in both T-shirt size and pant size a long time ago.  This store was my haven.  I could find clothes that would fit, and for the first time in memory, clothes that were BIGGER than what I needed.  I was a size 50 waist, and it wasn’t the biggest they carried.  It was close, but it wasn’t all the way on the right side of the rack like in other stores.  They carried a wide range of things, basically a Dillard’s for the obese.  I had found that jacket there.  I had grown so attached to it that I hadn’t worn any other jacket all winter long.  It didn’t make me look any thinner, but for some reason I thought it did.  So I donned it, felt the familiar and day long embrace of thick polyester, and walked out.

Fraternity houses are all about fronts.  They focus on keeping up an image for those passerbies who may look and wonder.  On the outside, they all look like they would house an extremely old and fussy lady with too many ottomans and not enough bridge partners.  That appearance is only surface deep. After the first fifteen feet of facade, the true nature of the house reveals itself.  Aged wood mahogany and luxurious brass balustrades give way to white-washed cinderblock and industry grade linoleum, cheap pine and cheaper carpet.  It makes sense from a logical standpoint.  Men are destructive.  A hundred men are something else entirely.

I followed the well-worn track through crisscrossing living corridors to the dining hall.  I found our house cook Tina, with all her Asian and smiling graces, apron deep in sausage, eggs, and hash browns.  Those were the three sweetest ways to my heart.

“Hi Tina.” She smiled.  She has never replied.  I’m not even sure she knew what my name was.

I didn’t care.  My thoughts were on grease and processed animal flesh.  I grabbed the nearest plate and said a small prayer for the man who invented the All-You-Can-Eat Buffet.  I had a Denny’s in my house, and it was already paid for.  I loaded my plate down.  When I say this, don’t think of the way a normal person loads down a plate, because it is much more than that.  I guess a better verb would be “piled.”  To this day I have always emptied my plate, and I always go for seconds.  I didn’t stop to differentiate hunger from want, any more than I have ever done so throughout my life.  It was morning, it was time to eat, not time to consider if I needed to.

Matt, who has been a silent witness through everything I’ve been through with weight loss, would later tell me, in the safety of me being less than 300 pounds that I was always out of breath when I ate.  He said I would eat so fast that I would breathe in gasps, almost to the point of choking.  It was disturbing, disgusting, and he couldn’t stop staring at me when I would eat like that.  It further proves my eating oblivion when I never, not even one time, realized him looking at me when I was eating.

I was probably doing that at the breakfast table that morning, but I didn’t notice.  I never did.  Once everything on the plate was gone, once my mandatory minimum of two trips through the line was complete, it was time for class.  It was in Morrill Hall, a columned and ancient building on the exact opposite side of campus.  My morning eating was through, and I was full.  I use that term “full “loosely because I honestly don’t think I understood what it meant to be hungry in the conventional sense.  I never gave myself time to grow hungry before I was eating again.

The walking wasn’t that much of a problem.  It was just a few intersections, a manicured path surrounded by trees and ponds, and weaving between massive brick structures that subtly hinted of higher education.  I could go at a casual pace, listening to my iPod and not smiling.  It is amazing how often people don’t look at you when you are overweight and not smiling.  I didn’t want them looking at me anyway, so I often used this to my advantage.  The thing I had to watch with walking that far was the hot spot. It didn’t really hurt anything, or was noticeable in any real way, it was just uncomfortable.  Story of my life it would seem.  The hot spot was an area, right below the parts that spoke my sex, where my thighs rubbed together when I moved.  It had slowly gotten worse as I packed on more weight, an inference I would make later, not at the time.  The friction of two thighs the size of mine rubbing together generated an enormous amount of heat.  I was still a few pounds short of spontaneous combustion, but after a long walk I would stick my hands on the thinning denim and they would come away burning.  They weren’t simply warm, but desired bathtub temperature hot.  I never told anyone about it, but I bet I wasn’t the only person to experience it.

“I look better than him.” I whispered under my breath, barely understandable by my own ears.  My focus was a boy coming in the opposite direction.  He was clearly overweight, wearing baggy pants and a black pullover.  He looked despondent and his eyes were on his feet.  I was thinking about the way he looked compared to me.  It was a game I played in public.  It was neither fun, nor enjoyable.  It was a game of comparison, making me feel good about who I was by trying to objectify who they were, whoever it was that day.  It didn’t have to be true, deep down I knew most of the time it wasn’t. It is a part of hating who you are, hating someone else more.

When I got to Morrill I stopped.  Destination: third floor.  I had two avenues of travel, stairs and elevator.  I wanted to take the elevator. I needed to take the stairs.  People would expect me to take the elevator.  I like to defy my expectation, so I took the stairs.  I immediately regretted my decision before I reached the halfway point of the first flight.  I kept going anyways.

I was completely winded when I got to the oaken door to my classroom.  It was still early morning, so thankfully not many people were in the halls.  I was gasping, pretending to look at a collage of posters concerning upcoming events in the writing world. I was too ashamed to go into my classroom this winded, not when everyone would know EXACTLY why I was so out of breath.  I hated nothing more than pity looks.  So I pretended to be interested in a poster about Improv classes.  In reality, I was terrified of improv.  I like the shield of a word processor to give me time to craft my wit.  I wasn’t sure if I could rip anything creative from my sleeve.

I was still breathing hard over a minute later.  A girl came up the stairs then.  She was about my age, with freckles along her cheekbones.  Her face was unsure as she looked at me.  She smiled, knowing exactly what I was doing and why I was doing it.  It was innocuous, but within a stuttered and strained heartbeat I felt ashamed.   In between frustrated gasps self-loathing reared its head.  Two flights of damn stairs and I amount to this.  I have to pretend to do something different every day, just so I can catch my breath and pretend a little bit longer that I wasn’t an overweight piece of garbage. I almost lost it in that moment, with my head down.  My carefully crafted facade slipping to reveal the barely held together image of agony that roiled underneath.  I turned away from her, not returning the smile. I kept control, a solitary trickle of salted fury tracked down my cheek.

By then I could breathe better.  It wasn’t normal but it was to a point where I could pretend to inhale at a normal pace while my lungs screamed for more oxygen.  About half of the students were already there; I nodded at the ones who looked up as I entered and walked by those who didn’t.  I tried to act as nonchalant as humanly possible as my insides screamed.  Nobody likes a heavy breather.  Class was uneventful.  We were in the middle of Romantic Period Poetry.  It was something I enjoyed.  I remained quiet.  You have little to say when you don’t want to be heard.

By the time I had finished with my classes it was time for lunch.  I was still trying to keep myself under control as I made my way back to the big make-up deep mansion that was my student home.  I wanted to eat again.  I also hated being fat.  As stupid as it sounds, I didn’t make a connection between those two concepts and why they might be counterproductive to one another.

I wasn’t the first person back.  The dining room was nearly maxed to capacity when I entered.  I threw my book bag in a corner, already forgotten, and got in line.  The slightly burnt smell of cheese and buttered toast filled my lungs to my satisfaction more than any dose of oxygen could in that stairwell.  It was grilled cheese and tomato soup day.  A crowd favorite and an overused combination to be sure, but there is a reason it became so overused: it’s a potent blend.  When I got up to the front, exchanging pleasantries with guys I knew, but had no more than a forced acquaintance with, I loaded a plastic plate down with golden brown squares of desire.  I was never one to neglect the soup, so I poured a more than ample portion into the nearest basin capable of holding liquid.

I found a seat at the end of a row, away from the main vein of conversation.  I wasn’t there to waste time with idle chatter.  I lost track of time for a while, lost in the salty and mild tang of processed cheese and dough.  I only looked up after my third trip through the line when Matt sat down.

The guy had a Jewish nose that took up a good portion of his face.  That nose was paired with squinty blue eyes and lank shaggy blonde hair ending in a super hero curl.  Above all else he dreamed of being Canadian.  He was the weird but laid back sort, extremely intelligent but not enough common sense to spit in a bucket.  He was my best friend, and he was whistling.

“Hey man.  How are you doin’? I’m SO EXCITED…its grilled cheese day.  Beta grilled cheese is amay-zing!”  He didn’t pause for my reply but gave me his goofy third grade yearbook smile and sat down.

We talked for a while, exchanging a less eloquent and more off kilter version of typical college banter.  Weak fall sunlight filtered through latticed windowpanes, pouring across Matt’s back, giving him a two dimensional outline.  All the while I kept eating grilled cheeses.  They just didn’t seem to fill me up.  I was just as hungry as when I had started.  While I had no idea what it was to be truly hungry, I had spent enough time eating my Nachos al Carbon, and half of my brothers platter to know what extremely full felt like.  I wasn’t feeling anything at all this time.  I was intrigued.  So I decided to make an experiment out of it and just kept eating.  I was going to start counting.  I had to approximate the number I had eaten before this decision.  Around four sandwiches per trip, and I had made four successful trips.  I was only an amateur mathematician and didn’t have a calculator, but that seemed to make 16.  I had eaten 16 sandwiches, and Oliver knew how many ounces of soup.  Even I was impressed with that number.  Matt, always quick to the trigger, eventually noticed my exponential intake.

“How many grilled cheeses have you had?”

“Like seven or so.”  The lie came so quickly that I barely had time to register that it wasn’t true.

He did some brow furrowing mental math and I could tell he found something coming up short of the actual truth.  Then he seemed a little uncomfortable.

“JC talked to me last night.”  He glanced around, like he was going to get in trouble.

“That’s good; I mean it’s good that he hasn’t lost the ability.”  I was just picking on him.  It was a common occurrence, so he continued on as if I hadn’t said anything.

“He wanted to talk about you.”

“Oh? Do tell.”  I replied, interested in what he had to say.  I still loved being the center of attention, if it was on my own terms.

“He wanted to talk about your weight.  He thinks you are extremely unhealthy and he is worried about your life.  Like you might die or something.”  He didn’t look directly at me.  He had spent too much time avoiding the truth with me to feel comfortable revealing it now.

“Oh.”  I didn’t know what to say.

It was literally the first time in my entire life that anyone had been that blatantly honest with me about my weight.  It was delivered by a middle man, not aimed directly at me, but for some reason that made it more potent.  He had gone to Matt concerned with how big I was getting.  He didn’t want to bitch at me about how fat I was getting, make me run up and down lakeshores, or tell me I needed to lose weight.  He went behind my back to someone who knew me best, to voice his honest concern.  The fact that somebody cared enough about me to talk to my best friend about it was kind of strange.  I found that I couldn’t sit comfortably anymore.  The hardwood of the cheap dining chair cut into my skin, igniting the fault lines of unease where I had moments ago I had been so content.

“JC didn’t mean it to sound mean.  He was being very sincere about it if I remember correctly.”  He was looking uncomfortable, which is a big deal for Matt.

“Why wouldn’t you remember it correctly?  Didn’t it happen like yesterday?”  My voice was on autopilot, still giving him a hard time.

“…yeah.”

“Was that it, all you guys talked about?”

“Pretty much.  It was the main point of the conversation. The main…focus.”

“And what do you think about what he said?”  I wanted his honest opinion, even if I didn’t want to hear it.  It took him a moment longer than usual to answer, quick editing to salvage my feelings.

“I think you are…big, you know?  You’re just a big guy.”

There was that damn word again, “big.”  He may as well come out and said he thought I was quickly approaching morbidly obese, red alert baby whale.  It was what I had come to realize that word truly meant.  It has what the world taught me it meant.

I looked down at my plate.  I looked down at the one remaining mash up of slightly burned bleached wheat and generic processed cheddar that was left on my plate.  I looked hard at my 22nd sandwich.  I was still counting.  Over twenty sandwiches.  Roughly two loaves of bread.  40 slices of cheese.  Immeasurable amounts of margarine.  And I felt like I could still eat more.  I wanted to eat more.  I felt sick.

My skin was burning and felt embarrassment rise in my face.  I heard carnival laughter.  I was embarrassed for how much I had eaten, the way I looked, and because someone I hardly knew had to have a conversation with someone else about my well being.  That the words needed to be said at all was enough of a slap in the face.  Open honesty was a double barrel shot to the gut, but I would take it over sweet and meaningless.

With hardly a goodbye nod, I pushed away from the table and struggle to my feet.  For the first time in a long while, I noticed just how hard it was to simply stand up.  I could hear my labored breathing, as if three flights of stairs had become my level plane.  My fixed image wavered.  The one I composed every single morning, finding a pose I liked, the one that made me not absolutely hate what I was, slipped.  My stomach had become massive, more massive than I had remembered it being, as little as an hour before.  I felt how cumbersome my body was.  I tried to remember the last time I attempted to run.  I couldn’t remember even jogging.

For the first time in living memory, the six o’clock dinner call did not find me.  Something that used to be the happiest part of the end of my day had to dance without me for the evening.  I sat on the edge of my bed, balanced on two inches of wood.  I listened to the sounds of my fraternity.  I listened to the laughter, joking, and light hearted banter of young adults as they went about a normal, enjoyable night of their budding collegiate years.  Every person carries worries, but I couldn’t hear the sound of anyone else’s in that joy, just the mocking reflection of what I didn’t have.  Matt didn’t come by.  It was probably just because he still felt uncomfortable by what happened this afternoon.  In any case, I wasn’t exactly in a chatty mood.

I whiled away time.  I tried to do homework, started half a dozen movies before turning them off, searched the same 3 internet sites over and over again, and could find nothing that would hold my interest.  I felt bored, but didn’t want to do anything.  I felt lonely as hell, but couldn’t stand to be anything but alone.  If something or someone makes you uncomfortable you can just leave, you take it off.  If what is making you so dejected is your own skin, the cure becomes a little less easy to find.

It was getting late.  Most of the guys had already taken showers, gone out, or were down for the evening.  I walked into the muffled hallway.  The only company to be found was the neon glow bouncing off latex whitewash from televisions, computer screens, and various other forms of technological progression from under closed doors.  I shoved tight fists into tighter pockets and walked with my shoulder dragging along the wall.  I didn’t know where I was going but I ended up somewhere anyway.

The walls of the bathroom weren’t any different than the hallway.  They were just an aged yellow in place of the bleached efficiency of the rest of the house.  There weren’t any stall walls, just toilets and urinals.  Only males used this bathroom and men long before us decided that modesty was irrelevant.  It wasn’t something you ever got comfortable with, it was just the sort of thing you got used to.  The rest of the bathroom showed signs of the same no nonsense policy.  There was a long row of unfinished cabinets topped with faux marble countertop.  There was only one shower.  It was a big square room with 6 shower heads, stained tile, and bulging sheetrock.  A long mirror ran the length of the bathroom, pleasantly reminding you that you were currently naked with a group of equally naked men if you were so inclined to forget it.  The room was empty but for the forgotten steam of not long gone bath patrons.  Someone had left every light off besides the single bulb in the shower room.  I liked the semi-darkness the way it was and left the main light switch where it lay.

I was in front of the mirror without knowing what I was looking at.  I saw the black hair, the beard that hid the face I didn’t want to look at, and the clothes that concealed my body.  With hands grasping at porcelain, I tried to strike a pose.  I turned my head this way and that.  I flipped my hair in every fashionable way I had internalized, but I still couldn’t find it.  No matter what I did, capturing a sedating image of an acceptable me was beyond my grasp.  The house wasn’t the only thing with a surface deep façade.

I don’t know if it was what JC had said, or a culmination of everything in my life that had been building up under the surface, shouting on ears that refused to hear.  I just couldn’t find a single damn angle to make me at least marginally satisfied.  The soft glow of the single bulb highlighted my shoulders and back, but my silhouette wasn’t one to ever be two dimensional.  I couldn’t see into my own eyes, and I found that I didn’t want to.

Eventually I gave up and took my shirt off.  I threw it to the floor, stretched out and crumpled.  I thought I might as well take a shower since I was in the vicinity anyway.  I was in the midst of donning my complete birthday’s best when the walls pulsed with the repetitive beat trance of techno.  Someone along the halls was in a dancing mood, and felt like sharing.

It was a song I had heard, and one that anyone able to discern a beat could move to.  The music started getting louder, building up tempo to the clash, the height and then the release.  I never really grasped how perverted techno was until that point, but I found myself nodding my head to the music anyway.

So there I was, dancing.  Four hundred and fifty already indecent pounds made more indecent by sheer nakedness and awkward shoulder/hip thrusts.  The cracked and stain bathroom tile that had seen more naked men than Fruit of the Loom became my disco.  The great thing about dancing alone is that you are the best thing out there.  You don’t have to worry about making a fool of yourself or how ridiculous you might look, because the only person watching already has their eyes closed.  It was a four and a half minute dance number of forgetting.  Lucky for me someone had it on repeat.  I invented things that should never be considered dancing, and for a time I forgot everything.  I can’t say how long I stayed there, moving around that makeshift dance floor.  It could have been five minutes; it could have been an hour.  That is the great but terrible thing about techno, you can never really be sure when a song ends.

I felt like ending before the music did.  I stood there in nothing but a furry mask, breathing hard and thinking.    I flexed for the mirror, and watched as the fat surrounding my biceps covered up any possible change.  I looked at my round face, made rounder by protruding cheeks.  I wonder if my face was naturally that way or a product of how I had spent my life.  I looked at my heaving chest in the mirror.  There was a sparse thicket of black hair there between large and sagging breasts that should never belong to someone of my sex.  When I lifted them up I could see the line in my skin where they spilled over.  I looked further down, to the grotesque and drooping mass that was my stomach.  Jagged and crisscrossing lines ran from my forced waistline to a level somewhere all around my nipples.  Those marks went from my belly button to around my sides as far as I could see.  I can’t remember not having them, only that they had seemingly increased to the point that my body was more stretch than skin.  It was an uneven and serrated picket fence that I wore around my midriff.  A sharp mockery of suburban complacency.

The music had stopped.

I took both hands and lifted my bulging gut up.  It took hands and forearms to do it.  I let it fall.  I watched as my entire torso rippled with the movement.  I looked at my thighs, bigger than the waists of a normal 19 year old man.  I took in every ounce of who I was, and wondered in absolute awe at what I had become.  When had this happened?  Had I always been like this?  Who would let me do something like this to myself?

A strand of black hair had clung to the side of my mouth.  It tasted salty and soiled.

Why the hell didn’t my mother try harder?  Why didn’t my grandma finally stand up and say something?  If they cared about me at all they would have given everything to not let me turn out this way.  I looked at the tortured lines and the grotesque form of my own body, dirty incandescent light throwing it in sharp relief.

They had tried.  They had tried every possible avenue imaginable to get me to not go down this road, but I didn’t care.  My toes curled around tile sealant and grit.  It was me.

It had always been me.  I did this to myself.  It took me nigh on two decades but I finally realized that I was the biggest problem.  It should have been a wonderful epiphany, an earth shattering realization that caused me to jump and jiggle with joy, still nude and thankfully alone.  It should have been a million things, most of them good, but I couldn’t get one simple, bigger truth out of my head.

I had no earthly idea what to do about it.

For the first time in my life, I wasn’t impulsively hungry.  If presented with food, I don’t think I could have eaten so much as a chicken wing.  The light in the shower dimmed.  The sounds around me slowly grew silent.  Faint neon glow was smothered.  The house drifted off into the deep, untroubled oblivion of sleep all around me.  The deep and settling dark of late night pervaded.  Traffic grew quiet, even the ceaseless Oklahoma wind seemed to still.  The last sounds of humans and nature alike were extinguished, until all that was left was me.  The all encompassing silence pressed on my skull and still I stared.  I stared at my body, stared at myself, finally seeing who I was.

One thought on “The 22nd Grilled Cheese Discussion

  1. I don’t know what chapter this is but I loved this one. Well I’m not sure if loved is the right word. It made me sad. I felt the emotion as I read it. I could relate in some ways and the ways I couldn’t you descibed in way that I could imagine how that situation would have affected me. Simply, this is amazing and touching!

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