Prose: Anna C. Kelley
Marie never got the stranger’s name, but it was only about fifty minutes that they sat touching one another-his right side pressed against her left, from just below the shoulder to just above the knee-in a crowded room at a writer’s conference in Minneapolis. The room was past capacity when Marie entered three minutes prior to the start of the panel entitled Sick Humor: What’s Not Funny about Serious Disease? She’d say she chose this panel from the offerings because of her father’s pancreatic cancer diagnosis twenty-one months ago, not because she eats fewer than 500 calories a day and hasn’t had a bowel movement in over six weeks.
Just as Marie was deciding between a seat on the floor and leaving the panel altogether, she saw the stranger’s long sausage arm raised in the front row with a little corndog finger pointing down to an open seat. She made eye contact with the stranger, almost as though they were old friends, lovers, spouses even, navigating a crowded room expertly. She walked through the crowd, her eyes fixed on him, with one weightless arm hooked around an empty belly because she never knew when the next gurgle would come. When she arrived at her seat, a seat so thoughtfully reserved, she saw that it was not really an entire seat but rather a half of a seat at worst and two-thirds at best. The stranger was fat, probably clinically diagnosed as morbidly obese, and seemed uncomfortable trying to narrow his massive body with his arms propped in front of him, clutching a steno notepad atop knees buried under flesh. Marie couldn’t draw herself away from him. She smiled at the stranger, partly because she was grateful but mostly because she had just glanced at the title on her conference brochure, “AWP: Association of Writers and Writing Programs” and thought to herself: AWP: A Weight Problem? I must have the wrong conference. The stranger smiled back.
She wedged her sharp angles into his bulk and nestled in to the seat a little more than necessary making sure to touch as much of him as she could. There was something real about his weight. There was something that made her real by touching it. Marie wondered if he had a girlfriend, perhaps a fellow writer in the conference room across the hallway attending a panel called Love Stories: It’s Not the Size, It’s the Shape. She bet the stranger’s girl eats the entire batch of dough without baking one cookie and he doesn’t mind. He even loves her for it.
Marie studied the dimensions of his body and imagined herself in bed with him, his weight on top of her, her body becoming real underneath. He made her feel so small. He’d hover over her until his arms couldn’t hold him up any longer and his body would sink, slowly, his hanging flesh spreading over hers like cake batter into a pan. Her skin, drum tight, would receive him and receive him and receive him until his bones would finally find hers and they’d be bone on bone and there’d be no more weight held in his palms and she’d be broken.
As the panel ended, she wanted to ask for his name even though a word didn’t pass between them. Their time together was brief and anonymous but later, when she thinks of the sheen of sweat he left on her linen dress-from just below the shoulder to just above the knee-she’ll wonder what he’ll have for breakfast the next morning and imagine herself nestled into him at the table as he eats. But she couldn’t open her mouth to ask for his name because she knew that this closeness with people happens to him often in crowded areas where the furniture is made for someone half his size.
Four months is longer than most for Leda’s men. She meant to tell Justin last night that we’re going to want to be single for the Spring term and we’ve got to end this before my mother knows your name but got drunk, early, at Flamingo Karaoke. She serenaded him with three Phil Collins songs (“If Leaving Me is Easy” had her on her knees), and, in what can only be attributed to the sneaky power of pop song sax, she convinced herself that one more night of love making wouldn’t hurt anything. It wasn’t until she held him afterwards humming “Easy Lover” that she realized how cruel it was.
Now it’s morning and she’s not looking at the man in her bed, or at the ridiculous kanji tattoo on his rear deltoid that she begged him not to get. She sees only dust particles settling onto the quilt in sunlit columns. Every minute that he sleeps is a fresh layer of dust. He needs to wake up so she can be done with this. She pictures them entombed, to be discovered decades later like Homer Baron or 90s Phil Collins. Would her mother approve? Justin’s body tapers in all the right places: neck, waist, and ankles; his hair is thicker than hers, and his teeth are as straight and white as a member of the Young Republican Party she enjoyed in a closet at the YRP convention last year. Leda thinks she would.
Leda sings “Easy Lover” and forces air through pressed lips, which produces a very un-sax like sound, as he snores. There’s something vulnerable about Phil Collins, something that says “protect my heart and I’ll do anything for you” and Leda likes the idea of feeling needed. She’s beginning to understand why her mother likes Phil Collins so much. She would dance around the kitchen for Phil; she would be his perfect woman and promise him that she’d be good but, in the moments that he wanted all of her or wanted her to want all of him, the song would end without anyone feeling actual pain.
Movement, finally, as Justin turns away from Leda, taking her grandmother’s quilt with him. The sheets lift, releasing the faint smell of sweat, and “Easy Lover” stops. She moves closer, puts five fingertips then her lips on his shoulder in an effort to wake him. Back when she thought she could someday love him, she would wake, curl herself around his body and smell their slippery selves from the night before in the fine hairs on his neck. There was a time she could look him in the eye. There was a time when she cried in the bathroom at work because he forgot her birthday and she felt it in her bones, the fear of being unloved. They cracked every time he apologized. There was a time when she thought she would deserve him and could lie in bed with him forever but now all she can see are the items in her bedroom-the Indian lamp purchased for $3.25 at a garage sale, the annotated true-crime books next to the door, the vinyl ottoman at the end of the bed-and how, even though they are crap, they are hers and they need to be dusted.