by George Potter
May 03, 2005,
"Arrogance frowns, pride smiles."
She walked into the café not as if she owned it, but as if she had no need to own it, or anything -- being content in the ownership of herself.
As, in fact, she was.
She was a big woman, in the finest sense of that often abused word. Tall, broad shouldered, thick hipped, firmly packed into her tight denim jeans. Large breasted, and proudly so -- the not quite silk fabric of her short sleeved blouse hugged and accentuated a chest neither flaunted nor shown apologetically.
She was big in her simplest presence. The eyes of the few customer and single counter person were immediately drawn to her, and met with a smile that seemed electrically lit from deep within -- a smile that woke a slumbering beauty in a pretty face and transformed it into something almost breath-taking.
It is impossible for something so large and beautiful to move through the world without leaving a wake, and she did so as she walked purposefully through the café's small dining room to the counter. In the wake of her passage, stirred like the movement of a perfume molecules through an antiseptic room, little things happened.
* * *
She sat down easily at the counter, and the older gentlemen working there put aside his magazine and ambled up to her.
"Good morning pretty lady" he told her with the innocent flirtatiousness that only very old or very young males can pull off successfully. "What can I do for you today?"
"Good morning!" she replied, letting loose with that electric charge of a smile again. "It's the strangest thing. I woke up and the first thing I thought was -- 'I want steak. And a baked potato.' Isn't that odd? I find that odd!"
The old man chuckled. "No ma'am, not really. I always say that the first thought of the morning is a little snapshot of what the day will bring." He took out a ticket book and a ballpoint pen. "A steak? Sounds like a delicious day in the making!" He tossed her a wink. "Gimme the details."
She laughed, winked back, and complied. "T-bone, honey! Medium rare, grilled mushrooms, a bottle of A-1... hmmm... that baked potato... can you make the skin extra crispy? I love that. Oooo... and a little salad on the side. With ranch dressing. And a cup of coffee with half and half, if you have it!"
* * *
There were only four other patrons in the café that morning, two couples.
Julia and Richard were sitting at a table a few feet behind and two the left of of the counter. Richard, after pulling his eyes away from watching the new arrivals passage, had returned to the monotonous task of shoveling the breakfast he hadn't wanted into his mouth and chewing.
Julia had seen his stare, and had instantly gone from her usual bad morning mood into a black cloud of equal parts anger and jealousy.
"Dear God, is the rodeo in town?" she giggled -- an expression that fell from her tongue with the opposite of mirth. "I think one of their bulls has escaped!" Another spiteful, bitter giggle, as she picked over her breakfast of a green salad coated in a thin layer of vinegar and vegetable oil. It was very nearly the only thing she ever ate. Richard sometimes had to avoid looking at it. It made him slightly queasy.
"Jesus, Julia. Stop being so nasty."
Julia gaped. "Me? Nasty? She looks like a runaway bull moose and I'm..." she paused, suddenly nosy as the woman at the counter ordered. Upon hearing the meal particulars her face went oddly white, her eyes bulging in their black mascara cages, an utterly comical look of horror settling over her.
"Steak?! She orders a t-bone with all the trimmings for BREAKFAST?! No wonder she's a circus freak! Dear god, just hearing that order makes me want to vomit! To puke my.."
"Damn, Julia -- I'm trying to eat!"
"Steak!" she muttered again, as if she could barely comprehend the idea.
"And? So? Some people eat steak, Julia. Why is it any of your business what she eats?"
"Utterly disgusting." she continued, ignoring him when it suited her as she always did. "If I ate like that, I'd probably be as big as she is, I'd..."
Richard tuned her out. He'd only been awake an hour or so and was a slow to rouse type. A day dreamer by nature, he settled into a little free-form fantasy. He remembered the days when he and Julia had first met, both sophomores in college. Julia had been more alive back then it seemed to him -- years before she had become obsessed with her weight and her obsession with him had faded to a barely disguised boredom. He imagined her body then, in a curious reversal of most married men's fantasies, longing for the curvy blonde and happy girl she had been -- not the thin and sharply dressed figure before him, toying angrily with the wilted green mess she forced on herself.
The clink of the fork against the plate, the sudden stress lines on her forehead as she took a bite. He watched the grim lack of satisfaction in her eyes as she chewed and swallowed.
She's always angry because she's always hungry.
The thought struck him with a surprising force, the painful clarity of the vastly obvious made suddenly plain. What a shower and coffee could not accomplish was performed in an instant by that single realization: he was utterly awake, last vestiges of sleepiness blown to the wind.
She's always angry because she's always hungry.
Richard stared for a moment, somewhat dumbfounded, at the utter simplicity of the thought. It explained so much. Why meal times were emotional mine fields. Why fast food commercials brought mood swings and worse. Why Julia often resented the bowl of ice-cream he indulged himself in during a movie.
My poor sweetie. You are hungry.
But what could he say? She'd deny the fact if he were to mention it. She'd most likely explode -- or ridicule him for his obvious stupidity.
Perhaps he was thinking too simply. He was no psychologist. The real clue to his no longer happy marriage couldn't be that tiny and... silly. Could it.
Richard was on the verge of dismissing the thought. His head was in the process of what his father had once referred to as 'shaking a dumb idea off', when he heard a sound.
The woman at the counter laughed. A free and flowing sound. Full of clean happiness and innocent satisfaction. It sounded exactly like his wife's old laugh -- before the diet days. Before the hungry years.
And Richard acted. He stopped thinking and let instinct guide him, surprising himself almost as much as he surprised Julia -- who actually jumped in shock.
With one smooth, almost graceful motion, Richard swapped plates with his wife, setting the mound of scrambled eggs and cheese and crumbled sage sausage before her, and taking the sour green mess she forced on herself as his own.
He grinned at his speechless wife, struck pale at the pure surprise of his action. He fought back a shudder as he shoved a forkful of the awful drenched leaves into his mouth and chewed.
"You look pale. I think you need protein." he explained, breezily. "And I need some roughage, I think." He swallowed hard and dropped his eyes, concentrating on packing away the so-called salad with as much enthusiasm as he could summon.
"Richard! What on..." Julia started. But she stopped. Her eyes drifted to the beautiful pile of high caloric food on the plate before her, perhaps drawn by the scent -- like a character in an old cartoon.
Eat, dammit. C'mon baby. Eat it. People eat. It's a goodness. It's a happy thing. It's what life's about -- want and need. Eat. C'mon!
For a moment, it almost looked as if Julia were going to cry. Her lips trembled slightly, and Richard's heart skipped a beat. The last thing he wanted was to hurt her feelings. The last thing he wanted was to embarrass her in public...
But the tremble turned, miraculously, prettily, into a sudden smile. In an instant, the old Julia was back -- that cheerful face he'd missed without knowing it. That sly grin.
"You are so silly, mister." she almost giggled."But... you may be right. I have been feeling... a little weak... lately." She sighed.
Richard, still forcing the horrible vinegar soaked salad down, suppressed a cheer.
Julia picked up her fork.
* * *
"How's that steak, missy?" asked the old man, peering over the top of his magazine.
"Utterly perfect, hon! Just right. Thank you! And I'm picky!"
The old man, nodded. "My boy does the cooking. He's picky too."
"The sign of a good cook. You teach him?"
"No. His mother, rest her. She handled the cooking chores here from the day we opened till the day before she passed."
She nodded, polite enough to refrain from offering condolences for a wound long healed.
"You... remind me of her. Somehow." The old man said, sounding a little embarrassed at the admission.
"Oh?" she said, delighted by what she instantly took as a deep compliment.
"Not in looks, really." he explained. "She was a blonde. But... well, she was a big gal too, y'know." He actually blushed.
She just laughed, and waved his imminent apology away. "Hon, I know I'm big. I was a big baby, a big child, a big teenager and now I'm a big woman. That's the facts. To deny that would..." she tapped her fork against the side of the plate, searching for the right words. "... be denying reality. It would be the worst sort of lie. A lie told to myself." She took a bite, chewed, savored it. "And if you can't trust your own self to tell you the truth, you are asking for a life filled with lies. An artificial life. Does that make sense?"
The old man nodded. "Best sort of sense. But... I was saying, not in looks really. Not even size. It's, well, like what you just said. She was the same. Blunt. Honest. And most of all... she was confident. I see that same honesty, that same confidence, in you."
"I wasn't always confident. Far from it."
"What was it that changed your mind?"
She paused then. The old man once again considered an apology, but held back on his own. The look on her face was not one of reticence. Her eyes went a little far away, as if she were looking into another world.
"Life changed my mind." She said finally. She carefully carved and took another bite of the steak. She chewed carefully, savoring it. "Good old fashioned sneak up on you when you least expect it reality changed my mind."
Before the old man had completely absorbed those words, she spoke again. She spoke in a voice neither loud nor soft, neither arrogant nor submissive. The old man simply watched her, and listened as she spoke. He felt as if he were frozen in place as the words flowed over him and into him, as if an oracle were speaking:
"I was married once myself, for five years. I got married right out of high school to a man who said he loved me and proved every day that he hated me. It started off with insults and the simple cruelty of never ever telling me that anything I did was good. I tried to deal with that with submissiveness and increased effort. I really truly wanted to please this man who hated me but claimed to love me. It was my life's ambition almost. This only seemed to increase his hatred. His... disgust with me."
Another bite. Another moment savored fully.
"All that got me was a beating. The first time he beat me was such a shocking experience that I do not remember anything about it. I don't remember why it happened or how much it hurt. If I hadn't seen the bruises and the cuts and limped for a week afterward I think I would have dismissed it as a dream. After that first time, it was if a dam had broken in him. He beat me for any reason. He beat me once because the Raiders lost. He simply walked into the bedroom, pulled me from a sound sleep, and used me as a punching bag. I remember him grunting out the names of those he blamed for the loss. Names that meant nothing to me."
The old man gritted his teeth together. He felt frozen in place, stomach churning with a mixture of rage and sorrow.
She simply enjoyed another bite. Another moment that would never come again exactly the same way.
"And I took it. For a long time -- too long -- I took it. I finally started wondering why I took it. The reason was very simple. I took it because I was a fat girl. I was a pathetic fat girl who had found a man and was afraid she'd never find another. A pathetic fat girl who would put up with fear and pain and hate in order to not be alone."
From the dining room came a happy laugh, as Julia reacted to a fairly lewd suggestion from her husband.
"Then one night I had a dream." she continued. "I was swimming in the middle of the Caribbean. I think it was the Caribbean -- some warm and blue sea, anyway. I felt wonderful, like some sort of mermaid. Then I realized I was being chased. That my husband was swimming after me, in a horrible rage. He wanted to hurt me. The dream went all dark then, and I was swimming as fast as I could, crying, trying desperately to out-pace him."
"Just as I knew that he was right up to me, about to grab me, pull me under the surface, drown me... I felt something. Something rising up from below. Something big. Something... wonderfully big..."
The smile reappeared on her face then, and it was such a welcome smile that the old man felt tears start. But he returned the smile, all the same.
"From the depths of the sea it rose up and broke the surface of the water, between my husband and I, one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen. Do you know what it was?"
The old man didn't, but wanted to. Afraid that if he spoke, his voice would tremble, he merely shook his head.
She laughed. "It was a turtle. A huge turtle. As big as a house, like something out of a fairy tale. It's shell was... oh, turquoise and crimson and deep, deep blue. A beautiful, multifaceted thing, like a living jewel. It broke the surface of the water and soared into the air, in a long graceful arc."
She paused to sip her coffee, eyes gleaming with the dream memory.
"I don't remember seeing it hit the water or go back below, but I guess that's not important. Because the force of it's appearance had shoved myself and my husband in opposite directions at great speed. I could see him, moving away from me, cursing, eyes filled with rage but so... impotent."
"And I felt joy. This huge surge of pure electric joy. For the first time in five years. When I woke up, the joy was still singing there in my heart. The image of that turtle, and how it's passage had saved me. How I rode to freedom on it's wake, and how very good that felt."
"So, I got up. I took a shower. I ate some breakfast. Then I started to pack. My husband woke up halfway through, I think I was on my third suitcase. He was surprised, then angry, then... well, ready to beat the living hell out of me, to be blunt. For one moment, I almost gave in. I almost cried. I almost started shaking. I almost gave in and submitted. Almost."
"But I didn't, because I remembered that turtle. I felt that turtle, deep inside of me, rushing up to the surface, so huge and beautiful and powerful. I picked up a pewter candlestick holder from the dresser. I started talking. I spoke in the same voice I'm speaking in now. I told him quite calmly that to keep me from leaving he would have to kill me. That I would not let him hurt me without fighting back ever again. I reminded that I'd never called the police, but that those days were over. I reminded him that I'd never informed my brothers -- two of whom were due home for holiday leave from the Marines -- of how he had treated their baby sister. I let him know that I was leaving, and no power on Earth would stop that."
"I walked out the door 15 minutes later. He even helped me load my suitcases into the car. And I've been living my life on my own terms since then. Since the moment I woke up from that dream. I'm still riding on the wake of that turtle -- and I will be until the day I sink back below the surface."
"And I'll be smiling then, too." she said, with a wink. She patted his hand and went back to her steak.
The old man turned, ostensibly to grab the coffee pot and refill her cup. But he actually wanted a moment to wipe away the tears he couldn't hold back. Not just from her story, but because all through it he had seen the face of his own beloved, and how she had fixed the Doctor who told her she had a heart that was ready to go at any minute with a firm stare and the same wicked grin he'd fallen in love with at eighteen and said. "That may be, but I got folks to cook for and this old man could burn water, Doc."
And he remembered that when her heart had finally given out, she too had slipped below the surface with a smile on her face. That she too had rode through life on the wake of something big and wonderful.
And he figured that she, too, knew a little something about that turtle.
* * *
Lisa wished Dean would for the love of God stop humming.
He hummed all the time, and poorly. It usually took her an inordinate amount of time to recognize whatever tune he had chosen to mangle. It wouldn't be so bad, she often supposed, if he would do it quietly. But no, like everything else Dean attempted, he went about the task with gusto, volume and an arrogant conceit.
Seventeen, by Winger, she realized with sudden surprise. Dear Jesus tap-dancing Christ, is that how he thinks the melody goes?
Dean was working on his fifth sausage, with little stabs into the stack of maple syrup and butter coated pancakes that dominated his platter. The sound of his enthusiastic chewing and the broken melody of 80's hair-band pop merged with grunts of pleasure to form a teeth grindingly annoying cacophony.
Or so it seemed to her.
Lisa stared down at her own plate. One pancake. No butter, no syrup. A single scrambled egg white nestled up to it like a forlorn child seeking comfort from a mother. She would eat it, without enjoyment, and be hungry until an equally bland and unsatisfying lunch. Then more hours waiting for a plain and skimpy supper, then two hours to fall asleep and start the whole pathetic routine over again.
And all the while she'd watch Dean dine on most of her favorite foods. And say, without fail "Sorry, babe. Metabolism is metabolism. Can't fight nature! Pass the butter, ok?"
What the hell am I doing with this guy again?, she asked herself. They had met at a gym in January, where he worked as a personal trainer. Lisa was there for a new year's resolution to lose 40 pounds.
Dean was, by any one's reckoning, a damn good looking guy. He was nicely built, handsome, had always perfectly groomed and styled hair. He had a gleaming smile and a year round tan. Washboard abs.
Dean was also, by any one's reckoning, a complete and utter jerk. He was so narcissistic that he often, when wearing shorts, stopped on the street to admire the way his calf muscles flexed in store windows. On her last birthday he had gone out clubbing with his friends and refused to even answer his cell phone. He sometimes let himself into her apartment while she was at work and made himself lunch and left the mess for her to clean. He would take her out and spend the entire date talking to his friend on the phone. He would 'forget' his wallet and stick her with the check more often than not.
But most of all, Dean was the diet Hitler.
It wasn't just that he made her up a diet. Nor was it just that he rode her constantly about sticking to it. He seemed obsessed with her diet. He made large poster sized schedules and charts and graphs with detailed accounting of caloric intake, carbs, proteins, sugar grams, vitamin distribution and a dozen other painstaking details and thumbtacked them to her wall. He quizzed her on the damn thing. He did the same with menus -- poster sized, elaborate, fucking color-coded! And he never seemed to be done with the damn things. He kept tinkering with them. They seemed to fascinate him.
He also demanded her daily weight figure. As poor as he was at keeping other appointments and promises, he never forgot that phone call. Six AM sharp, every morning. And if the figure wasn't in line with his calculations she could be sure of a lecture on the importance of discipline and sticking with the program and other tiresome rah-rah bullshit.
She was sick of it. Hungry, and utterly sick of it.
So... what the hell am I doing with this guy again? she asked herself, as she asked herself a dozen times every day. As usual, the companion thought followed right behind it: And what the hell is this guy doing with me?.
She shied away from both thoughts, as she always did. She sighed and started to take a bite of the plain and now fairly cold pancake, when she heard a laugh from the counter, and the beautiful red-haired woman there say a phrase that meant nothing to her: ""It was a turtle."
And, as if sympathetic to that bit of nonsense, her own nonsense rose up in her mind, having nothing whatsoever to do with turtles: I want a piece of sausage.
And she did, suddenly and with surprising desire. She wanted a piece of sagey, salty, greasy slightly overcooked sausage. Her mouth actually watered at the thought. Exactly like the sausage on her boyfriends plate. Without hesitation, she spoke the words:
"Dean. I want one of those sausage patties."
He glanced at her, a bit dumbfounded. The humming stopped. His mouth was still full of food as he grunted out a muffled "Huh?"
"I want one of those sausage patties. They look good."
Dean swallowed heavily, and, oddly, went for something in his back pocket. It was a folded square of paper that he deftly opened up and examined.
"Well, lemme check. There might be just the tiniest bit of room, if I can remember the calories and fat grams... one sec, babe..." he said, as he pulled out a pen and began figuring in the margin of what Lisa realized, with actual horror was a miniaturized version of her god-damned diet. The sonuvabitch was actually carrying it around with him.
So... what the hell am I doing with this guy again?
This time she did not shy away from the question. And the answer was right there, where it had always been, where she had worked so hard to ignore it.
I'm with this gorgeous jerk because, for the first time in my life, it's my boyfriend that girls are glancing covertly at and gossiping about behind my back. I'm with him because, for the first time in my life, I don't have to date the guys that all my friends turned down. For the first time in my life, other women are jealous of me.
And there it was, in all it's ugly truth. Jesus Christ, Lisa. she told herself. That's pretty damn pathetic.
Oh, but it didn't end there. And what the hell is this guy doing with me?
She knew the answer to that one too, as she watched him sit and figure meticulously on the damned diet. I'm his project. I'm something he does in his spare time. Saving a poor girl from her fat. He's a hero. He's the boss. He can have total control and I just nod and do what I'm told is best. I'm ego food.
She was suddenly angry. Not just at Dean, but at herself. Before she had fully realized what she intended to do, she reached out and yanked the diet from his hand, crumpling it up into a tight little wad as she did so.
"Give me that damn thing!" she said. Another instinct, another action. "And give that damn sausage too!" and with her other hand she snagged it off his plate. She popped it into her mouth and chewed. The flavor was intense and exquisite.
Dean stared at her, goggle eyed for a moment. Then the moron just shook his head. "I can't believe you just ruined your diet like that Lisa. After all the hard work I..."
Last straws are funny things. The fact that he wasn't mad or hurt or embarrassed by her outburst was that last straw. The fact that he was only concerned that the holy diet had been compromised.
"Oh fuck your stupid diet, Dean! I don't really care about the damn diet! And I don't really care about you either..."
"Hey! Now wait a minute..."
She didn't even let him get started. "Nope. I'm not waiting anymore. You know what I'm going to do? I'm going right up the street to the Dairy Queen. I'm going to ask them: 'What's the most fattening, horribly caloric ice cream concoction you sell? Oh, and make sure it's just stuffed with fat! The more fat the better!'Give me two of those."
Dean looked stricken. "I can't believe you'd..."
"... and then, I'm going home. And I'm going to rip those stupid posters off my wall and fling them out the window! Ha!"
The man almost pouted. "I worked hard on those!"
Lisa just laughed. "Goodbye, Dean. Find another 'project'. You are a self obsessed asshole. Enjoy your life."
With that, she turned away, picked up her purse, and started to leave. Dean, finally angry, reached out and grabbed her arm.
She moved faster than she ever thought she could. She grabbed a handful of the syrup and butter soaked pancakes and liberally smeared his face with the resultant sticky mush. He let go of her to wipe his eyes and she was gone -- out the door and out of his life.
Dean sputtered as he groped for a napkin, face burning with embarrassment. He could feel every eye in the café on him.
And then the woman at the counter started to laugh.
Then someone else started to applaud. It quickly spread. Four people, laughing and applauding his humiliation, he thought. His blush deepened below the sticky layer of pancake. If he had not been the self-obsessed asshole Lisa had pegged him as, he might have realized that the applause was for her stand, not his loss of pride.
But he was what he was. He blindly dug into his pocket and dropped a 20 on the table, and -- on the wake of emotion he misunderstood -- exited the café in abject shame.
He didn't even stop to flex his calf muscles.
Things settled down quickly. Julia and Richard fell back into their own little world, talking deeper and more happily than they had in years, looking at each other in the old way. It would be a lovely day for them both.
At the counter, the old man was again wiping away tears, but this time from laughing so hard at the confused and bumbling way the young man had exited with a face full of pancake.
"Whoo!" he said. "That just made my day.".
At the counter, the woman was sighing happily -- both from the entertainment and a good meal, well enjoyed.
"And on that note," she said. "I think it's time for the check, good sir."
The old man shook his head, without hesitation. "This one is on me, pretty lady."
She raised her eyebrows, but did not argue, knowing that to do so would be rude. Instead she nodded, and smiled. "Any particular reason why?" she asked.
"Because this is my place and I say so." he told her. "And because I enjoyed your company and your conversation greatly." And because you brought back memories of the only woman I've ever loved. he left unsaid.
She stood up, and put a ten on the counter. "At least allow me to tip the cook who got my steak perfect on the first try."
The old man nodded, knowing that politeness demanded he let that slide.
On a whim, she leaned over and kissed his cheek, then grinned at his sudden blush.
"I'll be back. I'll see you soon." she assured him.
"Sooner the better!" he laughed, trying to stop the blush with force of will and failing.
One last electric flash of smile, and she turned, and moved away.
As she passed Richard and Julia, they both looked up and smiled at her; Julia rather sheepishly, remembering her initial cruel comments. They were holding hands across the table like teenagers, and that made her already wonderful mood rise even higher.
It's always the little things, she reminded herself as she opened the door, that make or break this life.
And then she was gone.
* * *
She stepped from the café, into the cool air and warm sunlight, full and happy.
It was a beautiful day. She'd had a beautiful breakfast. The blonde woman's outburst had been as sweet as a side of pie. She'd often felt like telling a date exactly that, no bones about it. She now sort of regretted holding back. The look on the lug's face had been utterly priceless.
Such a beautiful morning deserved an equally lovely afternoon, she figured.
What to do, what to do, she wondered. A movie? The bookstore? To hell with it and hit the bar for a drink, flirt with the regulars?
The street rolled out before her like a welcome sign. No need to decide now, the street whispered. Just take a walk and see what comes along.
She decided she liked the sound of that.
Before she started off, she caught a glimpse of herself in one of the café's wide, dark tinted windows. Her tall, wide, solid, real self. She studied the reflection, critically.
Hmm. She thought. I think I've lost a couple pounds.
Then she was off, moving down the inviting street's wide clean sidewalk at a comfortable pace, riding a wave that was now ten years old and still going strong, smiling at the possibilities that such a day might bring.
And all around her the world took notice.
And little things changed in her wake.