ROUND AND ROUND WITH NIKKI
“You want me to gain weight?”
“I don't understand. You actually want me to put on weight, on purpose?”
“The thing most women fight against, go on diets for, stop eating for, you actually want me to do? Deliberately?”
“Do you know how perverse this is?”
There was a pause.
The conversation wasn't going well. We were sitting on the edge of the bed. I'd been touching her, loving her, stroking her hair and all points south, and I'd made a remark about her bony shoulders sticking out like sore thumbs, well more like sore shoulders, and I'd dared to suggest that maybe she could eat a bit more and put on weight, that she'd look great, that I'd love it, words like that. And now she was staring at me, incredulous, as though I'd suggested she cut off her legs.
We were old friends and new friends, Nikki and me. For four years or more we'd rubbed together in the same social circles, shared the same jokes, the same smart black clothing (almost the uniform of the urban professional), the same tight band of chums gathered up from university and after, from advertising, publishing, the slick jobs, the smart jobs. There was Nikki, there was Dominic (that was me) -- and there was Amanda, Jonathan, Tarzan and Jane. The gang. The pack. You could always find us, in various combinations, once or twice a week, at some watering-hole or other, a movie, a bistro. People said we were just like the characters in “Friends”, except we didn't all sit around on sofas.
And that's how it was for ages, until something secret clicked between us. I had always thought Nikki looked stunning: medium height and build, auburn hair bouncing down to her neck, the face finely sculptured, brown eyes sparkling, honey-coloured skin smooth and flawless except for a cute teasing mole near one ear. Imagine Natalie Portman with a little of Neve Campbell thrown in. All this plus a slightly husky voice, as though the throat had been scorched -- by the sun, perhaps, or too many whiskies. Anyway, she wormed her way into me somehow, and vice versa. I started going back to her place. She began to come back to mine. By now we were having an affair.
It didn't really need to be secret – neither of us were married or chained to permanent relationships. But considering the pack's tangled history it seemed safer to both of us. Before, Nikki had been with Tarzan – that wasn't his real name, naturally, but with his mane of hair and brawny chest it suited him much better than Derek. He was fierce, too, possessive and jealous; and only countenanced Nikki leaving him when Jane –- that wasn't her real name either -– swung through the vines into his life, a pale thin wisp in need of a strong hand. After that, behind everyone's backs, Nikki had had a fling with Amanda, both apparently testing the lesbian waters, and when that leaked out Jonathan -- we called him Jonty for a while but he didn't have enough personality to make it stick -- Jonathan got mad because he, it seemed, behind everyone's backs, had just started a thing with Amanda too. It was a miracle they all stayed friends. But time passed. Wounds healed, or appeared to.
Even so, once a flame became ignited between Nikki and myself, neither of us felt the need, shall we say, to broadcast it to the nation. We'd been seeing each other several times a week: talk, a light meal, and then the bedroom, two trim bodies interlocked. And now we'd reached this awkward moment, the pair of us, on the edge of the bed. The disbelief. The gimlet eyes. The dropped jaw. “You actually think I'd look better heavier?” she said.
“You're already beautiful. This would just be an extra enhancement. Extra pounds, extra beauty.” I knew it sounded lame.
Had I let the cat out of the bag too soon? Quite possible. Though looking back, I'm actually surprised I'd let the cat out at all; usually my inhibitions got in the way. The fact was, though, that any woman I was attracted to I always thought would be even more beautiful if they only weighed a little more. There is something so arousing about an attractive woman filling out, acquiring a little bit extra -- love handles, a midriff roll, a bulge on the tummy, a rounder face, just something extra somewhere. It didn't have to be a lot. Twenty pounds might do it.
“Maybe want is the wrong word,” I said.
“It's an impolite word, I know that. Giving me orders like that.” She was still flashing the gimlet eyes. I felt they were boring right through me.
So I shuffled the words around in my head and tried it another way. “I should have said I would like it if you gained some weight. But I wouldn't want you to do anything you didn't want to do.”
I could see her face softening a bit. She was pondering, definitely pondering, estimating the pros and cons -- and I suppose thinking about what I meant to her, and what she meant to me, and whether it was actually worth it to do something to please me. “This I don't know about,” she said, “I'll think about it.”
“Could you think about it while eating?”
I was incorrigible.
Next time we met up was on Friday night. Thank God It's Friday Night. We, the pack, had drifted into the habit of throwing off the working week by going to one restaurant or another. Cruising the cuisines, Jonathan called it, when he spoke at all: he did some job at the Arts Council and was famous for being the quiet one. Sometimes we called him The Jonathan, in homage to his distant personality. Not all of us could make it every time. Tarzan had his sales conferences to go to, in some provincial burg or other -- he worked for a garden equipment firm. Amanda, who was in advertising, sometimes phoned in sick, especially during the hay fever season when the pollen aggravated her asthma. One day Jane, PA for a headhunter firm, well she was Phoebe really, accidentally flushed her cell phone down the toilet. So we lost track of her for a while. Maybe people sloped off here and there just because they wanted a change of routine, a different set of grinning faces and arms waving wine glasses around. It's possible.
Anyway, we were wrapped round the table, the full complement, at this lean cuisine emporium called Euphoric Eats. The walls were grey, the chairs and tables made of glass, and the food was served with such exquisite quartered radishes or dribbles of sauce that the plates looked like early abstract paintings. Nikki was eating a Kandinsky. The talk went in circles as usual, nothing worth documenting, unless you're keen to hear about Tarzan arriving in Manchester two hours late, or ten good reasons why they should have cancelled “Frasier” at least three years ago. I thought of eleven myself. Since Nikki and I had been seeing each other -- I almost said dating -- these group sessions had acquired an extra frisson as the little nods, the winks, the secret in-jokes sprung up in cracks in the conversation. Each look I threw Nikki's way I lingered over, hoping our eyes would connect, lock together, and smoulder, just for a moment. If we sat opposite, as we did that night, we tried to rub ankles under the table. Childish, I know, but sometimes growing up doesn't seem a big accomplishment.
Glancing at her, I wondered as I so often did what twenty extra pounds would make of that face, or the breasts that sat astride her chest, breasts scarcely larger than the smallest lemon, or the gentle curve of her slender hips. The pounds would beautify, no doubt about it, that was inevitable, but where would they exactly fall? That was the adventure. But I was suddenly snatched out of my musings. She was speaking to me. The voice was quiet but nonchalant, as though what she said was of no importance, certainly not to the others.
“That thing we talked about?” she said. “The answer's no, I'm afraid.” In her left hand was her fork, with half a radish speared at the end. She wiggled it. She wasn't taunting me, was she?
“Oh! That's OK.” I tried not to look too crestfallen.
“What answer's no?” Tarzan's ears had pricked up: even though he and Nikki were history he still liked to think he had monitor's rights over her life. He adored other people's gossip, and I wasn't going to serve him up this morsel on a plate.
“Oh -- ” I said, trying to keep my voice feather-light, “I'd asked if I could borrow her Harry Potter books. Not for me. For a nephew. And she said -- ”.
“I said no,” Nikki said, eyes firm, looking as though butter wouldn't melt in her mouth. “I thought they might get damaged. After thinking about it…” I gave her a look suggesting that enough was enough. I could already hear eyebrows being raised, supplementary questions forming on lips.
I asked if anyone had seen the new movie. Before anyone could reply, the waiter bustled by and gathered up plates. Further danger had been averted. To celebrate, Nikki slipped off a shoe -- I recognised the gentle thud -- and made a beeline for my left shin.
“I mean,” she said, on the phone that night, “I put in hours at the gym. Every day I try to get there before work, even if for half an hour.”
“It's alright. Let's drop the whole thing. You look beautiful at whatever weight. Do you actually have any Harry Potter books, by the way?”
“No,” she said, sounding mischievous -- I really liked that -- “so you can't borrow them even if you wanted.” But then she went on and on, about her body image, and being slim, and being 120 pounds for years, and women always needing to watch every morsel than went into their mouths, and I wouldn't understand, and what was so great about flesh anyway, and on and on, and I wished I'd never raised the whole thing. I wouldn't try that again, I decided. She'd just have to join the other women I'd had fantasies about and only get heavier in my dreams.
And that, for a while, was the end of things. Life in our little circle proceeded. Each time we looked at the world outside the world looked worse, so we gave up looking, clinked our wine glasses, and sped on our way. Nikki and I continued to see each other for hot nights -- her flat or mine -- but both of us were beginning to feel the strain of keeping the lid on and not turning amorous in public. Amanda, I'm sure, already suspected; you can't keep shooting one another secret looks or shaping the lips into pretend kisses without someone noticing. The others, I guess, must have been even more self-absorbed than I thought. If that were possible.
We eventually concocted a “coming out” plan. We would announce that we were going on holiday together, just as friends, which was plausible -- friends go on holiday -- and then, once the holiday was done, we'd announce on our return that “something happened”. Was this daft? Unnecessary? Possibly. But it made sense to us, and besides, we wanted the holiday for real. Venice was the chosen destination. It had the right romantic ring. We could come back with stories of love in a gondola, of laughter and pigeons in St Mark's Square, and that unique light over the lagoon, soft and clear, colouring everything with enchantment.
I remember the moment vividly. “Everything here is either pasta or ice cream,” she said. She was looking at the menu, at a restaurant tucked away on one of the watery fingers leading off the Grand Canal. We found it, like everything, by accident; I'd never been anywhere before and got lost so regularly.
I made no particular comment; I'd no wish to rake over old embers. Considering the fandango she'd made recently over the importance of her slim figure I thought she'd pass up the ice cream and have a fruit dessert, or no dessert at all. I was wrong.
She had ice cream the next day too. For a few meals she also adopted the Italian habit of treating pasta as a starter, then passing on to something else, something meaty, as the main course. And then the dessert. “I know one thing,” she said on our final evening; “If I lived here for any length of time, I'd have a problem staying thin.”
“Oh God,” I prayed silently that night, “move Nikki's PR job to Italy!” She worked for a company called B & F, Brilliant and Fab -- she kept telling them they should change the name. So far it had only spread wings in London. Clients included some British video labels, advertising campaigns for Levi jeans, and an association for battered wives. Nothing with an Italian connection. That's why I needed God's help.
So we returned to London, refreshed, a little sun-tanned, and we announced to the pack at the Frog and Fiddle wine bar, as per our plan, that intimacy had struck in a big way and we hoped they'd be happy for us. They all looked a little startled.
“You two, you've - you've paired off?” said Amanda.
Nikki nodded. So much for Amanda's intuition. She looked jealous, I thought; some old flame still flickering, I supposed. “I guess it was written in the stars,” I said, wanting to say something light, airy, and romantic.
“Ah, that's sweet,” said The Jonathan.
Tarzan himself gave a ghastly smile of approval, which I didn't believe for a moment. Later, zipping up together in the gents, the vine swinger gave me a slap on the shoulder, and began to offer the fruits of his own experience with Nikki. “I found she was very good in bed,” he said in a lordly tone. This I really didn't want to hear. “Except on Thursdays. No good at all on Thursdays. Don't know why. Have you had that problem yet?”
I said no we hadn't and, feeling pissed off by his condescension, suggested that one explanation might be that it was Tarzan who had the Thursday problem, not Nikki at all. He didn't appreciate that.
Anyway, life rolled on. Nikki returned to her Levis and videos, and I, at my publishing job, got my nose stuck into an utter chore copy-editing a book by some Harvard academic about invertebrates -- snails, slugs, snakes and the like. Not much happened otherwise. One Friday night Tarzan threw up over Jane -- he seemed to be having problems holding his liquor. The next night Jane threw up over Tarzan. The days passed.
It was a Thursday, as it happened. Nikki and I had been at the private opening of a new gallery exhibit at Tate Modern -- the theme was art works inspired by rock stars' underwear. We were just about to head for the sheets, giggling about whether any artist would ever be interested in our own private garments and deciding the chance was remote. Then Nikki, naked except for pale pink panties, began to play with the elastic and said in a rueful voice, “You know I've put on a bit of weight?”
“Venice?” I said, with a smile.
“Venice,” she said, not smiling at all. “I stood on the scales this morning, and discovered I've put on three pounds. Almost four. Look.” She pulled down her panties and pressed into her tummy with a finger. It didn't seem much different to me. But she was adamant: “There's a bit of fat there. It's definitely softer. Those bloody restaurants!”
“It's really not noticeable,” I said, wishing all the time that it was. How could she gain even a few pounds without me spotting? I checked her figure again; the same slimline shape, the hip bones clearly visible either side, slender arms, sculpted face framed by that gorgeous auburn hair. On the surface nothing looked changed. But then I peered a little more closely at her tummy. She was right! I realised now there was padding just below the belly-button -- not much, just a hint of new fat lying under the skin, raising and softening her figure by a few degrees, the degrees only an admirer of fat would spot, or someone copy-editing a book about tiny creatures.
She fetched a brush, sat on the bed's edge, and began to comb her hair. “You probably like it,” she said, without much relish.
As she sat, a tentative crease mark appeared across her midriff round her belly-button. I'd never noticed any crease before. It looked very cute. “I do,” I said.
She grinned, rather malevolently I thought. “Well the fat won't be here long, so you better enjoy it while you can.”
“Lead the way,” I said breezily, pointing to the bedsheets. A grim smile appeared round her mouth, but then she settled down happily enough for our favourite sport. The big SA, as the group referred to it. The Sexual Act. In preparation I stroked her cheeks, and wondered if any ounces had secretly found their way there. What would she look like with a rounder face? Mounting her body, feeling her tummy against mine, I tried to distinguish fact from wishful thinking. Was I really feeling that little cushion of flesh? Or was it my imagination? Anyway, we enjoyed ourselves. It was a good night. Thursdays always were.
Neither that night nor later did I ask Nikki exactly how she would be getting rid of her Venice pounds. I guessed she would go be going to the gym -- there was one in the basement of the new high-rise where her office was -- or adopting the diet of a rabbit. I disliked either option. So, it appears, did she. True, she made a big play once of bundling herself off early with gym gear and good intentions, but it was only once. The rest of her life -- and me, I guess -- just got in the way.
The year edged forward. Nikki thought up a cross-promotion between Levi jeans and her battered wives, but saw it shot down for reasons of bad taste. “Got to try these things,” she said, philosophically. I myself learned more about snakes and snails than I ever wanted to. Tarzan announced that he was going on the wagon, and his drink of choice would now be lemon juice. That lasted about three days.
And then it gradually dawned on me that far from losing her Venice pounds, Nikki was actually gaining a few more. Indeed, after a month or so whenever my eyes caught sight of her “au naturel” as the French say, it seemed to me there was now a little more tummy fat for her waistbands to dig into. Her face, I noticed, was beginning to fill out too; I can't say she had a double chin as she lay with her head on the pillow -- that would definitely have been an advance -- but I was certainly aware of a gradual erosion of definition around the jawline, the cheekbones, and the places inbetween. Without any urging on my part, my wish seemed to be coming true. Nikki, beautiful Nikki, had started to gain weight!
I wondered why and how. Holiday pounds, OK. Easily understood. But she'd shown such aversion to gaining before. Why was she doing nothing to lose the few pounds she'd added? I felt uneasy about raising the matter myself; I wanted to do nothing to upset the slow addition of flesh to that succulent body. Nikki said nothing either. So for a while I just observed her, what she ate, what she drank, how she spent her time, and tried to fathom the changes. They were small but significant. She was extra busy at work, that was one thing; no time now for even a token session walking the treadmill and doing press-ups. Plenty of sitting. And Venice seemed to have activated a sweet tooth. I noticed a chocolate bar on her desk at home -- most un-Nikki like. And when we ate out, away from the pack, she would linger over the menu's desserts. Most times she declined, as she always used to do, but sometimes she gave in, and had ice cream or a tiramisu. She had obviously started to eat a little more, a little more often.
Did she know her weight was increasing? Hard to be certain. The changes were subtle enough to be able to ignored if she had a mind to. Yet I found it unlikely that Nikki hadn't at some point seen what I'd seen. Perhaps she'd ran an idle hand over her stomach and found it softer, or spotted the crease mark near her belly button, both features etched a little deeper now into the surrounding flesh.
I finally came to the conclusion that she was in two minds about the business. Deep down I think she knew she was gaining, yet she wanted to pretend to herself that she wasn't. What clinched it for me was a moment on the sofa as we sat in front of a TV programme neither of us was watching. Instead of staring at the screen I had become transfixed by the far more interesting picture presented by Nikki's waist. She was wearing blue denim jeans, Levi's actually, taken home from work, and I couldn't help noticing the contrast between the roughened texture of the material and the softness and honeyed glow of the flesh that now peeped out in a little lip above the jeans and below her blouse, all along the front. The jean's top button looked to be pinching her; she couldn't have comfortable.
So I made a remark. “Would you be more comfortable,” I said, “if you undid that button?” I said nothing about whys and wherefores, about extra weight and tummy fat. But she shot me such a filthy look that I knew she'd got my drift. I'd spoiled her game, and smashed open the door to something she was trying to ignore.
“No, I'm fine,” she replied, sounding definitely peeved, embarrassed too. “What made you say that?”
Something in her eyes -- a hunted, vulnerable look -- made me back down. She needed to shatter her own illusions, not have me do it for her. “Oh, just the way you're sitting, I guess.”
“There's plenty of room,” she said, untruthfully. "Let's just watch this programme, shall we?” So we trained our eyes on the monster box -- some gormless couple, I remember, were staring in awe at the pink fright a make-over team had just made of their bedroom -- while both of us in our different ways thought about tummy fat, Levi jeans, and fear, and desire. Well, I know I did. It was a poignant moment.
Writing this down like this for posterity I suddenly realise how odd all this may look. The word unhealthy springs to mind too. I mean here I am, a guy in a supposedly intimate relationship, and I'm training a voyeur's gaze on my loved one. Why couldn't I just come out and tell her I could tell she'd gained some more weight, and it looked absolutely stunning? I didn't want to throw a spanner in the works: that I know was one reason. But there were others. After some years as a pronounced admirer of the chubbier female body, part of me was still embarrassed by my own desires, and keeping things hidden still felt safer than bringing things into the open.
And another thing, probably: I didn't want to tread on her vulnerabilities. One part of me was dying to get the matter aired, to hear her say guiltily in her smoky voice, “I've put on some weight”, or have others make the point for her. But I felt that somehow she'd feel hurt, and I didn't want that. So inertia struck. I said nothing. I just looked, and thought thoughts.
I knew this state of affairs, this game of secrets, couldn't last. After six weeks or two months it was obvious she was finding it difficult to fit into her clothes. Her t-shirts began puckering round her breasts. Blouses looked equally pinched. But the really tell-tale garments were the slacks. There was a pair of red ones she loved to wear when she was feeling especially flamboyant or celebratory -- when she had finished some particularly gruesome PR assignment, or just wanted to feel sexy. They were very red, and they were tight. She was still managing to wear them, but they were now stretched to breaking point around the tummy, and the waistband must have stayed clasped by a whisper. I never peeked, but I just knew that the zip at the front, tucked under its pleat, no longer reached up to the top. I can't tell you how enticing she looked with her little growing tummy.
Anyway. when Tarzan announced a celebratory dinner in honour of his promotion to Prestige Garden Equipment's Chief Sales Manager, I suspected she'd fetch Old Red from the wardrobe one more time. I was right.
We met up at Friar Tuck's Delight, a noisy dive famous for its excellent steaks and tasteless mock-medieval interior. The toilets were labelled respectively “Robin Hood” and “Maid Marion”. You had to have a sense of irony to survive. Nikki arrived with the red slacks -- I didn't know how she could breath in them -- and a black blouse worn loose, chosen perhaps to obscure her belly. If so it didn't work.
We'd had our starters and had just given Tarzan our orders for the garden furniture we now wanted him to get us for free. Amanda wanted a bird table, a bench, and a scarecrow in the shape of Dolly Parton -- and this was someone who didn't even have a garden. I don't think any of us did. Then Nikki got up, said “Excuse me just a sec, I'm going to visit Maid Marion,” and snaked her way through the throng to the ladies.
“Give Marion my love,” Amanda called out to Nikki's back. Without turning Nikki gave a little wave. “I don't know if you've noticed it too,” Amanda continued, “but Nikki's putting on weight! She's definitely bigger around here.“ And she cradled her hands round her own tummy, trim and flat.
“I think she's a little bigger around here.“ This was Jonathan. His hands were cradled too, but positioned on his chest. He wiggled the cradle a little, as though he were testing which grapefruit to buy. I'd noticed the breasts just the other week, seen in profile, in her little bra, with the modest cups now not quite covering, and an exquisite bit of fat oozing out on either side just above the bra straps.
“And then there's here!” Tarzan said, trying to sound girlish and failing miserably, cupping hands to hips with a grin. Jane swiped him.
“I mean it's not much,” Amanda pressed on, “but it's visible, especially with those slacks. What are you doing to her, Dominic? It's all your fault, obviously.”
“Me?” I squawked. I was pleased nonetheless. The point had been reached when other people -- these people -- had finally tumbled to the fact that Nikki was not as slim as she used to be. “I've done nothing!” I said, all blithe and innocent.
“But it's only since you two have been together that she's picked up these pounds. You haven't noticed? And you see her naked at close range!”
Amanda, I couldn't help remembering, used to see her naked at close range too, and I suddenly felt discomfort. “She has put on some weight, you're right.” I was feeling embarrassed talking about it, not what I expected. “On the tummy especially. But I think it really suits her. Makes her look more --“ I searched my head for the right words -- “more Spanish-looking.”
“Not to me,” said Amanda. “It just makes her look like she's put on weight. You've got to keep her slim, Dominic.”
“Yes!” Tarzan was leaning over with an expansive grin. Lemon juice was history; he'd already consumed one bottle of wine during the day and it was now beginning to show. “Remember, Dominic,” -- he was almost leering -- “Nikki belongs to the whole world.”
This really irritated me. “Look,” I snorted, “I know half the table has had a history with Nikki. But now it's today, and now it's me, and just let us get on with it in peace. Or -- or I'll hit you with a garden gnome.” I hadn't meant to be frivolous; the gnome just slipped out. It reduced tension, anyway.
Then Nikki came back. Everyone, I felt, was trying to hide the fact that they were either checking her figure out or, just as obviously, making strenuous efforts not to. Jonathan and Jane pretended to look at the ceiling; Tarzan wiggled a finger in a corner of an eye, while Amanda gazed slightly off-centre. But probably they all saw the same things. The tummy desperate to escape from the slacks. The larger breasts. For myself, under my hooded gaze, I caught the new undercarriage of Nikki's jaw. Soft; soft and nice.
For a while we talked about Jane's cat, which hadn't moved from a kitchen shelf for four days. Tarzan thought it needed a psychiatrist. Then somehow we jumped to Nikki's new place of work, a showy skyscraper in the City, known locally as the Gherkin for its chunky build and domed top, though it also reminded some of us of something else. The building had only been up and running for a month, Nikki said, and already there were problems. Some of the windows leaked; tiles had fallen off walls; and…
Then our main meals arrived. Nikki's slab of beef and roast potatoes glistened under Friar Tuck's artificial lights. “Oh good,” she said, interrupting her list; “I'm really starving”.
Amanda saw just the opening she needed. “That's interesting.” Her voice was bright, friendly, and treacherous. “You don't look starving. You look like you've gained some weight.”
Nikki's hands had just been about to reach for the knife and fork. They froze; they couldn't move forwards, couldn't move back. She shot me a subliminal but plaintive glance, and then faced up to Amanda. “Well I have, a little. About five pounds. Ever since Venice. Is it noticeable?”
“Not really, Nikki,” said Jane, lying sweetly. Herself, she looked like a water reed.
“It's my waist, mostly. Bloody nuisance.” Nikki retrieved her right hand from the cutlery stand-off and rubbed her midriff. She sounded bothered and sad.
Then Tarzan crashed in. “It's Dominic's fault. Has to be. You didn't gain any weight with me, did you?”
“No, I didn't,” Nikki admitted, reluctantly.
“And you certainly didn't gain any weight with me, did you?”
“No, Amanda,” she said, sighing.
Jonathan looked about to say something. My God, he didn't have an affair too, did he? I could take it no longer. “For God's sake, everyone!” I cried. “Why are you giving her the third degree? It's only a few pounds. Just let a girl eat. Let's all eat.“
Nikki gave me a grateful little smile, then looked at the food spread out on the plate. “I'm not so hungry all of a sudden,” she said with a nervous laugh, playing with her fork. “Maybe I'll leave the potatoes. I was thinking of dieting anyway.”
I felt sick to my stomach. This hadn't worked out at all as I'd imagined. I'd been looking forward to her extra pounds becoming public knowledge. But then there'd been these needling comments about Nikki and me, and Nikki's embarrassment. I hadn't liked either. And now the dreaded D-word had surfaced. Horrible. I guess it was naïve to hope that Nikki would settle into a slow, gradual gain, and carry the weight with just mild complaints; but that's what I'd envisaged. Now, damn it, she was thinking of dieting.
I swivelled a glare around the table, wishing inside that we'd never come and that Tarzan had never got his silly promotion. Then I cancelled my order for his garden furniture.
Back at her flat -- our preferred venue, roomier than mine -- Nikki acted subdued. Fewer words said than usual, and said in a flatter voice. As she stripped for bed, I noticed the waistband marks left on her skin by the red slacks, ribbed indentations stretching almost from hip to hip across her tummy. Her body had curves now, small but noticeable: the obvious one at her breasts, the new one at her tummy -- both of them complementing a bottom and hips which themselves looked slightly more padded than before.
“Is it only five pounds you've put on?” I said. Despite my fears about embarrassing her and maybe stirring a hornet's nest I had to talk about this, and try to set her straight about dieting.
“It's more than that. It's eight. But I wasn't going to admit that to those piranhas. I mean, what a time to mention it -- just when I was about to eat.” She was sitting on the bed again; I could have poked a finger into the little bulge of fat, pure fat, below her belly-button, but I guessed this was not the right time. “But it's not just them. People at work have been making comments. I'm getting a tummy, Dominic, and I just don't like it.”
“So what's the damage?” I said tentatively.
“128 pounds. Well, pretty much 129. That's up from 120.” She was standing up now, reaching her for nightgown, a shimmering beauty lightly covered with a little spare fat from tip to toe.
“I have noticed you're eating a bit more. But you look terrif --“.”
She cut in, briskly. “That's because you keep pushing food at me!”
“I don't!” I cried, my defences up.
“Oh yes you do!”
She was right. I did. A little bit. Not so you'd notice, I thought; except she had. Noticed, I mean. If we were at my flat for some home cooking, I'd always give her the larger potatoes, the larger everything. If it was takeaway pizza, which it sometimes had to be, I always carved her the larger slice. I'd fill up her wine glass, get her another beer, and if we were eating out always suggest that a dessert would be the perfect way for finishing the evening.
“I want to keep your energy levels up, love, and” -- I had to say it -- “I do think carrying a little extra weight suits you.”
“You wouldn't say that if you were a woman.”
Want to bet? I thought to myself. She was at her dressing-table now, brushing her hair before the mirror: all part of the bedtime routine.
“It's different for us,” she went on. She'd found a recalcitrant knot, and was trying to tease it out with a comb, but still she kept on talking. “Mirror mirror on the wall, who's the slimmest of them all? We're always looking in mirrors. Or in my case trying not to. A man can put on weight without anyone realising or caring. A woman can't. First there was a little bit of fat on my tummy. Then I felt a little bit more. And then a bit more. Now my bras don't fit right, or my slacks. You know I have to undo the top button after each meal? If not before.” Frankly, I was getting a hard-on.
By this time I was in bed myself, safely under the covers. Now she joined me. head leaning against a propped-up pillow, fingers running through the auburn hair she'd just laboriously combed. And still the words came. “It wasn't so bad when no-one noticed; I could just about not notice it myself. But now people do, damn it. And it's all your fault.”
Part of me was listening intently to what she said; another part was transfixed by the differences these few extra pounds were making to her face, generating two fetching creases in her fuller cheeks when she came near a smile or a grimace. This time it was a grimace. She was glaring at me.
But then her voice softened, and turned pensive. “Oh it's not your fault, really,” she said. “I just want someone to blame except myself. I'm the one who's doing the eating. And I'm not eating that much more. Maybe it's my metabolism changing. Something's happened, that's for sure. My red slacks have got really tight!” She looked genuinely confused by the new increase; confused and unsure what to do.
Now I began running my own hands through her hair -- really, she needn't have combed it -- then stroked a cheek, so soft and smooth, and let my fingers drift down round her chin -- as she sat there, propped up, it was doubling slightly -- and further down, onto her neck and shoulders. “Nikki, don't worry. You look gorgeous. Believe me.”
She slithered down onto the pillow, a tiny jowl forming along the side of her face nearest me. She looked so damned desirable. “Oh, you're biased,” she said, smiling, cheeks creasing again. She started to stroke my own shoulder. “But I'm still going to diet. I can't keep on putting on weight.”
Yet she said it lightly. It didn't sound quite so definite anymore. This was not written in stone. At the end of a tumultuous night, that was enough for the moment.
The invertebrate book became more of a burden -- the author might have known his stuff but he couldn't write for a hill of beans -- and I began to take it out on any of the slimier specimens I found creeping around in the greenery outside my flat. I trod on them. I hurled them into the street, to be run down, I hoped, by a passing car. Had to get rid of my aggression somewhere.
With Nikki, things appeared to be idling. I stopped trying to slip her the larger potatoes; I now thought it best to let weight matters lie and just see what happened. For a time nothing appeared to change; she made no noise about cutting down on calories, or indeed gaining any more weight, which she didn't appear to be doing. She had reached a plateau, and so had the gang. No more little digs or teasing remarks; we all seemed to have accepted that Nikki, beautiful Nikki, had now got a squishy midriff that hung over her waistbands just a trifle, plus a little extra in the face and breasts, and that was that. Nothing more to be said. Perhaps Nikki had accepted it too.
A month or so after the Friar's Tuck debacle, Nikki went back to visit her parents over Christmas, outside London -- the first visit for several months. I didn't go with her: she'd had so many relationships over the years that she'd long since stopped carting partners up north as well. I guessed her folks might recognise a change in her body, and wondered if they'd make any comment. They did.
“It wasn't that they were criticising particularly,” she told me in some heat and sweat as soon as she got back. “But I'd only just about got my foot through the door!”
Not only that, but a visiting cousin had prodded her tummy with a finger and said “Where on earth did that come from?” “Greed,” she'd replied smartly. A perky response, but the whole thing seemed to rile her.
Now she stood before me by the kitchen table, positioning herself for inspection. “Is it really that obvious that I've gained weight? I'm not fat, am I?”
I looked at her breasts (more oranges than lemons now), at the midriff oozing out over her jeans, and the chin that seemed undecided whether to double up or not. “No, no”, I said airily. “You've just got a little rounder.”
“Well it's finally going to stop. I didn't go through a painful adolescence, and university, and all those gym sessions, just to end up chubby. I'm going to go back to as I was before Venice ever happened. That's my New Year resolution.”
I told her she really didn't need to. But the diet got going. She cut breakfast down to half a croissant, returned to a daily gym work-out, reduced alcohol consumption, and announced after several weeks, patting her waist, that she'd actually lost three pounds. Then she said it was almost four. The outline of her cheekbones re-surfaced in her face; the waist was certainly slimmer. Jeans fitted better.
I realised now there were two things I hated about diets. One, they made the person thinner. Two, they made them boring. She kept talking about it: the pound count, the flattering comments she'd had, the merits of different regimes. Sometimes, during the Thank God It's Fridays, or Wednesdays, or Tuesdays, it seemed the only topic of her conversation. Amanda, of course, cried Hurray, and Tarzan said it was about bloody time. Jane smiled patronisingly and kept patting her on the back -- God, I hated that. Jonathan, quiet Jonathan, said nothing that I remembered.
As for me, I learned to become philosophical. At least the fat had been good while it lasted. And she hadn't really become boring. I told myself there was still enough to enjoy about Nikki without putting her on the scales all the time. One flash of those clear brown eyes, shining like lighthouse beams from her dusky face, and you were conquered. We settled down to enjoy each other, in bed and out.
As winter edged into spring Nikki's PR work load increased dramatically. The battered wives, alas, got more battered; there were new police initiatives to promote. On top of that, early in April her company won the contract from Warner Bros. for handling the DVD release of the Harry Potter films. That drove her especially frantic, fielding press calls, fending off fans. I told her that Harry Potter didn't need anyone working to get publicity for him. She said shut up, she was too busy to argue, and hadn't I ever heard of the concept of maximising your earnings?
One consequence of all this was that she now actually had the Potter books, all of them. I liked the fact that they got chunkier with each new volume. For me, even books that put on weight were a turn-on. Kind of sad, really.
But the chief result was that Nikki's dieting got squeezed out. First the daily gym visits lapsed; then her gym membership lapsed. We heard no more about pounds lost, and I gradually realised, as I watched and enjoyed her body, that the lost pounds were being regained. Lying on top of her, I sensed once again that I was resting not so much on bones but a cushion; there was that added dimension to the breasts, and that lovely softness around her tummy.
What I wasn't quite so aware of at first was the fact that the lost pounds weren't just being regained: she was actually outstripping her past peak and moving into new territory. It's hard sometimes to keep track of these things: seeing someone more or less everyday, you don't always comprehend the combined effect of small, incremental changes, week by week, month by month. The pack made no observations either, at least not in my presence -- waylaid perhaps by the fact that skinny Jane had just come back from a holiday in Tunisia with a little gut of her own.
The extent of Nikki's new gain only really struck home when the year moved into summer. Out went the heavy nightgowns at night and the chunky sweaters by day. In came skimpier, more revealing outfits; little slips, blouses and tank tops. When she'd gained before, her tummy, though softer, had still stayed reasonably toned. Now as I glimpsed her dressing or lay with her in bed it began to be clear that almost behind my back she'd picked up some definite flab. The squishy flesh on the middle of her tummy had spread and thickened into a sizeable expanse of surplus fat. I noticed now that when she got up from sitting down she always had to adjust her clothes, pulling down the blouse or t-shirt that had ridden up to reveal her midriff and revealed it again only seconds afterwards. Or she'd try pulling the jeans up, up and over the flesh barrier round another newly accentuated feature -- love handles, juicy love handles, soft and tasty as apple pie. She wasn't fat, don't imagine that, but for her medium build she was certainly getting a little bit chubby, well padded, with no slim lines anywhere.
Along the way I began to observe her wearing jeans and slacks I'd never seen before. They were the only ones that properly fitted. The red slacks by this point seemed to have disappeared from her wardrobe.
“I don't see you wearing your red pants any more,” I eventually said one hot morning as she bustled around in something loose and black, obviously a new acquisition. It wasn't particularly a leading question; I liked those pants, they were fun, and I missed them.
Her voice quietened. “They don't fit me any more,” she said, not meeting my eyes. And then came the guilty admission, in that smoky voice I adored so much. “I've put on too much weight.” She looked so beautiful as she said it; if I wasn't in love with her before, I would have fallen in love with her then. And then she added, with a note of surprise, “You haven't noticed?”
Although she'd admitted gaining herself, I still wanted to tread fairly softly. “Well now that you mention it, yes, there does seem a little more of you. But don't worry. It really suits you, Nikki. Really it does. You look luscious.”
“This is luscious?” She prodded her midriff with a finger. I was glad there was a slight smile on her face.
I wanted to be encouraging. “I think it's very sexy!”
“It's annoying!” she cried. “My tummy used to be flat as a pancake. Now it's stopping me wearing half my clothes. Ever since we got together, all I've done is put on weight. The last time I dared to look at the scales I was 138 pounds. I used to be 120! I've put on over a stone!”
“That's food for you,” I said.
“And drink. I know I've been drinking more.”
She was right there. The extra work had brought with it press functions where she had to act as hostess, pour the drinks (and hand out sandwiches). When the journalists had left or were otherwise occupied, she naturally took a drink, or two, or three, and a sandwich, herself. I'd seen her do it. And then at the end of the day she'd be so pooped from being under pressure that she'd relax with yet another drink. Sometimes wine. Sometimes beer. I guess she'd got herself the female beer belly.
Eighteen pounds gained! I felt an inner glow. Encouraged, I finally decided to put my head above the parapet, and be a little more explicit. “You're not worried, I hope. Lots of women now have fat on the tummies, and go about showing it. They're not embarrassed. I really do think it's sexy.”
“Oh, I don't know. It's a point of view I suppose. Trouble is, right now I don't have the energy to diet…” And with a kiss and a hug and a last-second hunt for some documents she was on her way, out the door, hurtling towards the Gherkin, her desk, her computer, the constant phone calls, Harry Potter, the battered wives, the drinks, the inbetween nibbles (she'd become a great nibbler too), and her pressurised but fairly sedentary job.
For me, in retrospect, this was the golden age. I had a beautiful girlfriend who in the last ten months through changes in life and some mild underhand encouragement had put on at least 18 pounds (I actually suspected it was more), and each pound had made her more beautiful. A thin girl had gradually become faintly chunky and chubby, with a soft hanging belly under her breasts, wider hips, and a shapely bottom that swayed as she walked like corn rippling in the wind. The belly swayed a little, too, at least when she ran.
Sometimes if we watched television -- some current affairs show usually, with politicians telling lies -- I would stop looking at the screen for the moment and just feast my eyes on the bulge at her waist where her midriff fat sat, almost as visible under her clothes as it was when she bared it to the air. Sometimes she absent-mindedly stroked it, or drummed her fingers lightly upon it; it had become part of her.
Or we'd be deep in conversation -- snail lore, perhaps, or some new structural disaster to report from the Gherkin -- and I'd find myself captivated not by her words but the dance of fat around her face, constantly shifting now into miniature jowls, every bit of padding delectable. On some days she put her hair in a pony-tail: I loved those days, for it made her face seem even fuller. Occasionally, at certain angles, you could still detect the well-sculpted face she used to have, the cheekbones' outline still visible. Then she'd move position, and the bones would be gone. It made her, I tell you, so kissable.
There was one day I remember especially. It was high summer, and heat had hit Britain with a vengeance. God usually gave us grey skies and rain, but for some reason this time He'd left the oven on and forgotten about it. We'd just been out to a park lying on browned grass. We were sweaty, and baking. Opening the windows in Nikki's flat didn't bring much relief, nor did the fans, which only moved hot air around. Time for a short sharp shower. Not for me, but for Nikki: she hated that sticky feeling.
I was idling on the edge of the bed, wasting my brain cells, I remember, trying to identify the last time Dan Aykroyd starred in a really funny film, when Nikki stepped out of the shower with her towel, and patted herself dry in front of me. She was a vision straight from heaven: the body bronzed, the dark hair cascading, the breasts proud and glorious, the flesh very visible on her rounded tummy, shifting and creasing as she moved the towel back and forth, the burn marks of her tight waistbands still visible round her waist. In between rubs -- oh, that sweet flesh! -- Nikki announced that she thought Aykroyd was good in “Driving Miss Daisy” -- we'd just seen it on DVD. I told her that wasn't a comedy, so it didn't count.
“Oh,” she said, and put down the towel, and moved toward her chest of drawers. “I thought it was funny.” Then she turned to face me; she'd slipped her panties back on, the tight waistband only accentuating her tummy's tendency to bulge.
I thought she was going to say something more about Dan Aykroyd, but then she paused, held her belly flesh above her panties between the outer fingers of one hand, and pressed in with her middle finger. “You know what?” she said, with the voice of an amazed child; “I'm getting really fat! I've got to rejoin that gym.”
It was the way she said it that got me. There was wonder there, and I thought pleasure too. No serious sign, anyway, of guilt or remorse: that gym reference came out of habit, not genuine feeling. Had something finally got through to her? Was she sensing at last that getting chubby and carrying a little extra was desirable and beautifying, a big step towards sanity in a crazy world? This was what I had always hoped for.
“It looks really good, Nikki. You look so sexy with a tummy.” I knew I was repeating myself, but I sensed it was something she wanted to hear. She smiled. I was right; she did want to hear it.
“You know Rebecca at work?” she went on, working her head and arms into a t-shirt. “She asked me the other day in a plaintive way if I was ever going to be thin again.”
I edged forward from the bed. “And what,” I said, almost stammering, “did you say?”
“I said it didn't seem likely at the moment.” That was good, I decided; that was good. “Maybe it was in the cards, in my genes, waiting all along. To think that I would ever weigh 144 pounds!”
Another jump in the figures. She'd now gained 24 pounds. “That's -- that's what you weigh?”
“A-ha. It's not too much, is it? You'll tell me, will you, if you think I'm too big?”
“That's not going to happen, darling. Whatever you weigh, you'll be gorgeous!”
Nikki sat on the bed with me. I rested my hand on one of her thighs, and patted her. The ring of fat round her middle peeped out from under her shirt.
“Go on, touch it,” she said. “You know you're dying to.”
Why the hell did I feel so shy? We were lovers after all; we had mutual permission to touch any part of each other. But I still felt coy. “Well, I'm moderately interested, yes,” I said. Then I poked in a finger just below her belly button. The fat felt so soft and tender, and it quivered slightly like a jelly. Then I took a thumb and forefinger and pinched into it. I picked up, I estimated, an inch or so pure flesh. “Aaaah,” I said. This was seventh heaven.
“Make love to me,” she whispered, “let's do it now.”
I didn't need any encouragement. Her succulent body lay on the sheets, one curve after another: first the breasts; then the midriff curve; then the lower tummy curve near her crotch, all of the flesh gleaming like a range of hills on a summer afternoon. I mounted; I stroked. She put her arms around me and began digging lightly with her fingernails up and down my back. We were slipping into the rhythm, moving along, both of us feeling her body shifting with each thrust, each undulation.
The juices, I felt, were just about to flow. Then Nikki, damn it, suddenly got it into her head to speak. “Dan Aykroyd put on weight too, didn't he?” I can still hear her saying it months later.
This ruined my rhythm completely. “Nikki!” I screamed. “Not now, for God's sake.” Who wanted to think about Aykroyd, fat or thin, at a time like this?
She must have sensed my body tensing. “Sorry,” she said. “Did that put you off?”
“Of course it did. You've aborted my take-off. I've got to approach the runway again.”
“Sorry. It just came to me. I'll shut up, I promise.”
We re-started foreplay: the hands, the stroking, her tummy and mine moving together, one cushion against the other. She broke her promise only briefly, and this time it didn't matter. “Dominic,” she whispered in between breaths, “it's nice being fatter.” I'd have liked to have looked at her as she said it, but my eyes were closed. Then breaths took over, turned into panting, and the heavens opened.
The hot summer was done. It was now autumn. Nikki's gain seemed to have levelled off, and she stopped acting defensive about having lost her trim physique. She started wearing hipster jeans, letting her midriff hang out for all to see and, if people had any sense, admire. It looked so utterly alluring, and I'm sure she thought so too. There was a new swagger in the way she walked -- partly a matter of physics no doubt, and the effect of tight clothes on a fattened body. But I liked to think it was also a reaction to how she felt inside. No longer embarrassed by having gained weight. Proud, sexy, and fatter: that was my Nikki.
Wearing hipsters drew comments, of course, but they now seemed to go the way of water off a duck's back. Rebecca at work, she told me, had told her earnestly either to buckle down and diet or for God's sake cover herself up. Nikki had told her she was only jealous, then Rebecca had stuck her tongue out. It was a good adult conversation.
Among the pack, Amanda was still the one most likely to make a noise. But by this time neither Nikki nor I were ruffled. She didn't need shielding or defending; she could stand on her own two feet -- two chins, occasionally, too. The noisiest exchange happened one Friday. It was a Spanish restaurant, The Bloated Bullfighter. Tarzan was out of town, I remember; looking at bird feeders, I think, in Wolverhampton. God, the life he led. Nikki had on cream hipsters and a black blouse, which really suited her colouring, and gave lots of scope for her tummy to hang out in a visible bulge.
At first, I remember, we were nattering about paintings. There was a Monet exhibit in town, and Jane expressed the idiot view that all those dreamy canvases of lily pads and things would be much more interesting if only Monet had included a frog.
“But he's an Impressionist,” Nikki piped up. She liked Monet too. “He deals with impressions. If there was a frog it wouldn't be an impression. It'd be like real life.”
Somehow this got everyone arguing. With frogs or without frogs: which would be better? And what was real life anyway? Nikki got so aerated that she had to set off for the ladies' loo to calm herself down. At this point the conversation changed.
“Such a pity Nikki's got so chubby,” Amanda said, watching her set off, love handles shaking slightly in time with the sway of her bottom. “Whatever happened to her diet?”
“Yes, isn't she fatter?” said Jane, who'd never be that assertive to Nikki's face. “I got a slight tummy after that holiday, but I went on the Atkins diet and now I'm even slimmer than I was before.”
Amanda joined in as though it was a refrain: “Even slimmer than you were before”.
I hated their parade of virtue. “There's no virtue in that,” I countered. “Women were born to carry a bit of extra flesh. They need it for babies and stuff.” Jonathan, who'd looked half asleep so far, raised an eye in my direction. “Of course Nikki's put on weight,” I went on, “but she's not bothered by it. She likes it.”
“SHE LIKES IT?” They were like two harpies, screaming. I could see a few heads at other tables turning.
“You've warped her mind, then,” Amanda said.
I probably blushed -- I felt a little colour rising -- but continued to press my case. “I've just told her truth, that she looks great. That's all. She's done the rest.”
“That's right,” said Jane. “She's eaten. And eaten. She's --“ But the words stopped. Nikki had suddenly returned.
“Too much of a queue,” she said, sitting down. Her tummy immediately spilled onto her lap. “Decided to wait. What have you been talking about?”
“Still frogs, I'm afraid,” Jane jumped in. “Haven't we, Amanda?”
I couldn't let this pass. “They were talking about your weight, darling.”
“We were commenting,” said Amanda, happy enough to kick it out into the open -- “and commenting with some surprise, I might add, that you're still carrying those extra pounds - those extra pounds, that is, that are extra to the other extra ones you gained earlier. Aren't you interested in losing anything?”
Nikki leaned back in her seat. “Not interested at all. Look around you, girls. Other women have fat tummies. It's almost in fashion. Now I've got one too. Live it with, ladies. Live with it.”
I could tell they didn't know what to say. But Jonathan did. “I think it's time we ordered,” he said.
In some ways I was glad the topic moved on, because I had some news to report, to Nikki more than the others. It had crystallised at work that day. I was given the chance of a trip to America, to confer with the snail professor in Boston, check pictures and things. Pictures! The damn words were bad enough. But it was a trip, and I'd never been to Boston.
“Oh, you'll be leaving me!” Nikki said; she sounded plaintive.
“Don't worry, dear, you're unlikely to fade away”. That was Amanda, of course: the damn cat.
“How long?” Nikki asked.
A month, I said. Then the talk got round to general amazement that Nikki and I had stayed lovers and whatnot for the time we had -- what was it, a year? We were two of the pack's success stories. That made me pleased, though it also heightened the pain I felt at leaving.
As things turned out more domestic turmoil ensued on the day before I was due to fly off. There'd been a big crisis at Nikki's high rise, the Gherkin. Overnight, in a gusty storm, a decorative spike had dropped off, crashing onto the pavement below. It injured no-one, except maybe a pigeon. But for the companies working inside this became the last straw. Operational difficulties had already been steadily mounting. On Brilliant & Fab's floor, parts of the ceiling had collapsed. People daily had got stuck in the elevators, which were always breaking down. Some people insisted the chemicals in the carpets -- they were coloured vile green -- were making them sick. The owners were fuming at the architects. The architects were fuming at the contractors. The contractors were fuming at the architects and the owners.
The decision was made to evacuate for emergency remedial work: not everyone, on every floor, but certainly everyone at Brilliant & Fab had to work from home. “Just as well you're leaving in a way,” Nikki said. “I'd have my stuff strewn all about. But where am I going to set up my laptop?”
I saw her problem. There was no desk space in the bedroom, that's for sure. She couldn't work all day sitting on the bed. Besides there wasn't a phone connection there, though I guessed she could have used her cell phone for that. Anyway, it would have to be resolved without me. I had a plane to catch.
And then a taxi. And then Boston. I liked the city, it felt kind of European. Got almost knocked down by the winter wind, though. I made contact with my author at Harvard and buckled down to the task of surveying one snail photograph after another. I know it's a cliché, but to me I must say they all looked the same. When I phoned Nikki to say I'd settled in and I missed her, she told me the only solution she'd found was to work on the kitchen table. There was space for her laptop; a landline connection for the modem was at hand. And if she wanted a drink or a nibble, the wherewithals were only a few inches away. She was feeling a bit cooped up, like a chicken, she said; but it was the only practical solution. She was now, she said, a teleworker, and how did I like that?
Brilliant, I told her, that's very fashionable. She laughed. I missed her laugh. I missed lots of things. The next time we spoke, I asked how things were going. Fine, she said; she'd just had to phone up J. K. Rowling. Talking to J. K. Rowling in the kitchen, I said: wow, that's impressive. Did you call her J.K.? I asked. No, she said, I called her Ms. And then she said she'd found one possible drawback to working at home, especially in the kitchen. She was nibbling too much. The fridge, she said, was only an arm's length away, and she kept having pep-up visits, fetching out bagels and chocolate biscuits. I thought that was sweet, even though it made me yearn for her even more.
Then after a few weeks, I got an e-mail from Amanda. She dribbled on about various pack doings, the latest from the world of garden equipment, her asthma -- that had been bad recently -- and Jane's new hairstyle (not becoming, apparently). And then she said that working from home seemed to be making Nikki even chubbier. She'd already put on four pounds, apparently, and it was still early days. Brilliant and Fab were going to be out for months; the building had to be detoxed, kind of. “I keep telling her to watch her appetite, but she won't listen to me. Could you urge restraint, my friend? We don't want to see her get really fat, do we?”
I pressed the reply button, but I wasn't quite sure what to write, or even what to say to myself. I'd never thought of Nikki actually getting fat; chubbing up was my only goal, and she'd already done that beautifully. If she continued to gain, would she be more beautiful or less? I hoped it would be more; the thought of new pounds layering her body, rounding her out still further, was definitely tantalising. I tried to imagine her in the kitchen, tapping away at the computer, or even better chatting with Rowling, tummy fat spreading over her lap, goodies by her side. Phone call done, she'd slip a biscuit into her mouth, bite down hard into the calories, and enter chocolate heaven. Perhaps she'd be sitting with the top button of her jeans undone. Working from home, who could see?
I sent Amanda a “hands-off” kind of reply. I kept away from the F word, fat, and just settled on saying, basically, that whatever will be will be. I certainly wasn't going to dictate Nikki's kitchen policy three thousand miles away; I didn't do it, after all, when I was three inches away.
Time passed. The snail book was wrapped up, thank the lord. But then something else came up. Since I'd apparently been a wow with the invertebrates, London wanted me to stay on a bit Stateside and see if I could help enliven another American professor's turgid prose and chip in a bit for a spell -- eight weeks tops -- at the company's understaffed office in New York. I had mixed feelings. I wasn't prepared for so long a time away; there were bills to pay and that sort of thing; and besides, I missed Nikki. But obviously, who'd sniff at two months in the Big Apple? Career advancement, work experience: how could I refuse?
Some organising had to be done. Nikki would take care of any financial things that came up, she said, and keep checking in at my apartment. And I insisted she came to New York for a visit. Even if only a long weekend. I was sharing the apartment of a publishing contact, who wasn't there much, and my bed was big -- it would be fine, I said.
She didn't need much persuading. Within a week there she was, at five in the afternoon, suitcase on wheels panting beside her, in the apartment doorway. I could tell immediately that she had put on more weight; there was added bulk in her breasts, I thought, and as I clutched her in an embrace there was definitely more fat to dive into round the middle. I could see that if things continued she'd soon reach the point where the pleasantly chubby turns into something else. The unpleasantly chubby? The pleasantly fat? I wasn't totally sure. She was heading for uncharted waters.
I decided not to mention she looked heavier. Let things come up naturally, I thought. Instead I asked how things were going, with working from home, and Brilliant and Fab.
“There are men,” she said, “going around the Gherkin wearing oxygen masks. They are ripping things up from floor to ceiling. It's costing a fortune. I'm going to be at home for a while longer, me and my laptop in the kitchen.”
“Next to the fridge,” I added usefully.
“Next to the fridge. You notice I've put on more weight? I just keep eating all the time. Snack, snack, snack. I'm 152 pounds. I'm sure that's overweight for my height.” She seemed concerned about it; the devil-may-care attitude had gone.
“Who cares about doctors' charts? You still look great to me.” I meant it too; well, most of it. A part of me wondered if her belly wasn't getting just a little too opulent, out of proportion with the rest of her curves. But one look at the hair and those eyes dancing around her chubby face and all reservations vanished. She was still the world's most beautiful woman.
She was also one of the softest. Or so it felt as we went beneath the sheets. Absent from her for six weeks, the difference between the trim Nikki of a year ago and the well-cushioned Nikki who lay under me jumped out in capital letters. I sensed she wanted to throw a veil over her body's present shape, but once I began stroking her tummy I just couldn't help myself. I prodded her fat like a child dipping a finger into ice cream. “You've really gained some weight, Nikki.” I sounded awestruck.
“You're not telling me anything I don't know,” she said softly. There was a little remorse tucked in there. “You should be pleased. You wanted me to gain, didn't you?”
“I know --“ But further talk was impossible. By this point in the business the heat had risen to such a degree that there was only one thing to do. So we did it.
It was a good visit. I wanted her to stay longer, but she had too much work to do, she said. Aside from Rowling, and the battereds, there was a big Levi jeans promotion coming up. I'd have liked to have seen her in Levis just then, the more tight-fitting the better. My own work kept me occupied, too. We phoned, sent each other e-mails, though not as often as before.
As the weeks went on gaps seemed to open up when we talked too, at least on Nikki's side. She grew less forthcoming about what she was doing. I'd ask her and she'd say, “Oh, the usual”. The more time went on the more I worried about what this separation was doing to our relationship.
I heard occasionally from the others. Jane sent me a “miss you” kind of a card, where she'd added a tear to a smiley face, and burbled on about things just not being the same without me. Made me cringe, actually. Tarzan kept me posted on exciting developments in his self-esteem and squirrel-proof bird-feeders. But it was Amanda's e-mails that got to me most. Nikki was now definitely fat, she said; there was no other word for it. They teased her about it all the time. Amanda said she told her she now worked for Brilliant and Flab, and Nikki just laughed. “This isn't good, Dominic,” she wrote. “Come home and save her.”
Well, four months later, I was. Coming home. Whether I could save her or not I wasn't sure; wasn't sure if I wanted to save her.
The whole business bemused me. For all the laptop/fridge proximity business, I still couldn't fully comprehend how Nikki's weight appeared to have shot up quite so much in the months I'd been away. I was bemused, too, by the tricks played by fate. There I'd been, hoping she'd gain, encouraging her surreptitiously, and she starts to do so, but slowly; only when I'm not there at all does she accelerate. Ironic, eh?
Turning the key in her door, I began to have palpitations. What would I find on the other side? The first thing I noticed was her breasts. From satsumas to oranges. And now melons. Watermelons. Since her New York visit they had leaped forward even more. E cups, I thought; they had to be E cups. As we embraced there was so much to hug and squeeze. The rest of her body had filled out to match. Her upper arms, I noticed, were suddenly much bulkier. Her belly had not only thickened; it had also spread upward into a pillow of fat, crowned by the breasts above. She was round, she was wide; she was plump.
Then there was her face. The eyes were the same, blazing away, always magnets for my attention; the auburn hair still bounced; the skin's honey glow as dazzling as ever, maybe more so. But the face looked so full, not just in the cheeks, but round the edges, where the double chin had started to take up permanent residence, and the mole near her ear appeared to have moved half an inch to the left. This was going to take some getting used to.
“I know,” she said, no doubt clocking my expression, “I've finally got fat. I've gone up to 165 pounds. I put it all down to modern architecture.”
“You do?” I said. I didn't know what to say.
“If they had built the Gherkin properly, not on the cheap, not flashily, then I wouldn't have had to work at home.”
“That's alright,” I said vaguely. “I don't mind.” But I was beginning to think I did. In all my fantasies about Nikki gaining I had never imagined she would reach this level; I'd just craved for some curves and a sexy bulging little tummy. Now she was looking more huge than curvy, with a fuzzy figure, lacking definition. Before, the extra weight had seemed part of her, adding extra beauty to her body; now it seemed if not disfiguring then certainly a burden to be carried. It didn't look natural. For the first time, in my eyes, she was starting to resemble a once beautiful woman who'd run to seed.
A day or so later, after my jetlag had faded, we had sex. I sensed some reluctance on her part, and guessed she was ashamed to reveal her new flesh in the flesh, so to speak. I felt reluctant as well, for different but related reasons. But politeness and old times' sake got us under the sheets; I was game enough, and rather liked the new way she wobbled, but Nikki kept pulling back, obviously uncomfortable.
“I can't go through with this,” she eventually said, suddenly sounding guilty.
“I guess the pack have been giving you a hard time,” I said. “With your weight”.
She looked distracted. “Amanda won't speak to me,” she said, raising herself from the bed, “until I lose 20 pounds. I mean, give me a break. I've only just put them on!”
An odd remark, I thought. “You talk as though they're a new pair of shoes, or a dress!”
“Well they are in a way, aren't they? Jonathan likes them.” She said that quietly, almost as a throwaway.
My mouth fell open. “Jonathan? Our Jonathan. The Jonathan?” I was starting to screech.
“Don't call him The Jonathan. He's not a thing, he's a human being person.” She was definitely flustered.
My incredulity mounted. “Since when have you cared so much about his feelings?” I cried.
She suddenly turned coy, and shy. I'd seen Oliver Hardy look like this in two-reelers on TV; in him it was funny, in Nikki it was not. “Since he started bringing me chocolates,” she said.
“Here? He's been coming here?” A chink in the darkness was opening up. Something had obviously been going on behind my back.
“Well -- you were away. I've been lonely. He brought me Belgian chocolates.”
“BELGIAN?” I yelled. I don't know why, but somehow this made it much worse. Jonathan had thought about this; he'd gone for the best, spent decent money. He'd been wooing her, damn it, wooing her with food.
Nikki was now looking very uncomfortable. “What difference does the nationality make?”
“Has he --“ I paused for a moment -- I didn't want to be coarse, we were adults after all. “Has he been where I've just been -- or was going to go?” I looked vaguely at her nether regions.
“Yes, he has.” She looked guilty again. “I should have told you before, shouldn't I? It was unfair not to.”
I bridled at this, and got on my high horse. “So,” I said, “it's unfair to hide it from me, but not unfair to take him into our bed?”
“My bed, Dominic, it's my bed. Come on, we've been a pretty promiscuous bunch. Everyone more or less has been in everyone else's pants. That's how we are. Except it seems you. Or have you been secretly doing something with Jane?”
“I've done nothing with Jane,” I snapped. “I don't even open a door for her.” But as Nikki pressed on, I could feel myself slowly crumpling, growing more and more woebegone as the news sank in.
“Look,” she said, “when we got together we talked about this, didn't we? About group dynamics, and tangled skeins, and didn't we say we'd take things as they came? No high hopes and expectations?”
“So the things that came for us,” I said, pausing briefly to clear my throat, my eyes for some reason fixing on the fat squeezed out in a little bulge by her armpits, “ -- have they just went?”
“I'm not sure. We'll always be friends, won't we?”
I managed a smile. “I hope so,” I said. And I meant it. Friendship was friendship; sex was sex; the two things, I knew, could be separated. “Tell me one thing, though -- ”. Sitting up myself now, I looked at her plump body resting against the bed headboard, hair awry, round arms glowing, face ringed with a double chin, tummy bulging Buddha-like below her breasts. I tried to convince myself there was still beauty there, just a different beauty.
I found my question hard to get out, but with a few stumbles I managed it. “Have you,” I said, “been putting on weight -- for Jonathan?”
She was nodding. “He likes me fat, Dominic. He really likes me fat. And he wanted to see me fatter.”
I thought back with a pang to my earlier much more modest requests and comments, the little manoeuvrings, the surreptitious bigger helpings, the secrecy, the fear. Now I suddenly realised I'd been in the junior league all along. “And you obliged?” I felt hapless.
“Some of the gain's been accidental. The laptop in the kitchen, you know?” She took a hand to her tummy fat and squeezed some of it between her fingers. “Then it started to get deliberate. Fat makes me feel sensuous. And protected. And a real woman. You wanted me to gain yourself, didn't you?”
I didn't need reminding. “Some. Not this amount. I -- “ I hated saying this, but I had to be truthful -- “I think you've put on too much.”
“I'm sorry you feel that way. Not everyone does.” She slipped out of bed into her night gown. Even wrapped up she looked big.
“Do the rest of the pack know about you and Jonathan?”
“Suspect, probably. I haven't said anything.” She looked at me warily, as though she was trying to work out what I was going to do.
And so it turned out. “What are you going to do?” she said.
“Do? I'm going back to my own flat.” She looked wistful, but didn't stop me. I dressed, gave her a polite kiss, told her I'd call her, and left wishing I'd never gone to America at all.
“Notice any changes?” Amanda trumpeted, her eyes beady, as we gathered round at the Pickled Parrot for our first reunion after my return. I sensed she was referring to Nikki's size, but I wasn't going to rise to the bait. Even now, as Nikki sat across the table, abundant in mauve, directly opposite Jonathan, I still felt protective. So I noticed lots of other alterations instead.
“The parrot's different!” I said brightly. There was a giant toy parrot by the bar, sort of a mascot. The colours looked different -- purple and green. Probably the other one had got doused in beer. “And,” I said, glancing at Tarzan's chest, “Tarzan's wearing a new tie.” I peered a little more closely. It was frankly frightening: vivid green, with a yellow lawnmower pattern plastered all over. I realised with a shudder that I was looking at a garden implement tie.
“Pretty nifty, eh?” Tarzan boasted, patting the sides of his thrust-out chest. The only things missing now were the vine leaves and the Tarzan yell.
“And Jane,” I noted, “has a new haircut!” She beamed thankfully. Amanda had been right: it looked awful. As though the lawnmower had been at it.
“Do you like it?” Jane piped.
I lied through my teeth. “Very nice,” I said. Ordinarily I might have not been so bland, but I'd just had a nasty shock. Jane, I realised, was wearing one of Nikki's outfits: a black double-breasted jacket with fluted lapels, matching trousers, a business suit. Nikki had outgrown it even before her recent advances -- buttoning the jacket, I remember, was the first problem -- but still it felt weird seeing it on someone else. Instinctively I then scrutinised Amanda too, and received an even bigger body blow. Amanda was wearing Nikki's red pants. The famous red pants. It was months, I knew, since Nikki could fit into them comfortably, and now they'd scarcely reach half way up her thighs. But once again it was a shock. Nikki had obviously been clearing out her wardrobe, passing on clothes she knew she would never fit into again. I didn't expect it to have this effect, but it did: it made me sad.
“You're both wearing Nikki's clothes!” I cried. It felt like a personal hurt.
“They didn't fit me any more, Dominic, you know that. I didn't want to throw them away. They were perfectly good clothes otherwise.”
“Yes,” said Tarzan. “I'm only sorry I couldn't take any of them on.”
“And you,” I said, turning on Jonathan, the quiet one, as always, sitting I thought with a smug smile on his face, the kind I might have given off, months and months before, when I was playing footsie with Nikki under the table. “Did you take any of Nikki's clothes?”
“No, of course not,” he mumbled, face turning a little pinker.
“I told Nikki I'm only taking care of them for her,” Amanda was saying, “until she gets back to a more reasonable size. Isn't she incredibly fatter?”
“Nikki is always Nikki,” I said. “Whatever makes her happy is OK with me.” I didn't feel that magnanimous and understanding inside, believe me, but I just didn't like Amanda stirring the pot like that. Nikki gave me a quiet, friendly smile, and the talk drifted on to other things, me primarily, and what I'd been up to 3000 miles away.
But Tarzan soon brought things round to himself. During what was shaping up to be a fifteen-minute lecture on new developments in garden sprinkler design, Jonathan announced he needed to take a leak. Seeing my chance, I announced I needed to take a leak too, left the others to silt up with boredom, and followed him into the gents' toilets.
Before he had a chance to unbutton his flies, I pinned him to the wall, hands on his shoulders. I wasn't rough, but I was not exactly playful either. “So, silent man, what's been going on?” My nostrils were probably flaring.
He got my point straight away. “It's a free country, Dominic. You were away. She was lonely. She could have said no. But she didn't.”
“She was also apparently hungry.”
“She does have an appetite, yes. But she began putting on weight the moment you two got together. That didn't seem to bother you.”
“Well, no, I kind of liked it.” I found my indignation was draining away; I felt myself in an awkward position, trying to feel outraged when all Jonathan basically had done was steal my own thunder. If you could call it thunder. I loosened my grip on his shoulders. “You're an FA, aren't you? A fat admirer?”
“And so are you, I take it. Can I have my pee now? I really have to perform.”
“I thought I was the only one around,” I said, limply, turning my back while he did the necessaries. We English are so polite.
“Oh no,” he said. I tried to ignore the faint trickling sound. “Though I appear to be more advanced than you. I never felt interested in Nikki at first, sexually I mean. Even when she started getting a little tummy. Didn't do anything for me. But then she kept going and got chubby, and I just thought she was a goddess in waiting. Now she's really plumptious.”
“Plumptious?” I snarled. “That isn't a proper word.”
“She made the word necessary. I'd like to see her at 200 pounds.”
Where did all this talk come from? I don't think I'd ever seen Jonathan's mouth move so much before. Still waters obviously run deep -- well, not really deep, he wasn't Einstein. Deeper than a duck pond anyway. But 200 pounds? That was way beyond my horizon. Nikki certainly wouldn't look like Natalie Portman then, at least no Natalie Portman that we knew.
“Do you love her, at least?”
“I like her,” he said, “I like her a lot. Come on, Dominic, none of us really love anybody, except ourselves. That's how we are, isn't it?” By now he was rinsing his hands in the sink; I don't know what made me do it, but I handed him a paper towel. On reflection this was a symbolic moment. Without realising it, at that moment I'd admitted defeat. He was going to have Nikki. I was not.
He was right about the love thing, of course; we were all pretty self-centred, bent on our own pleasures, though on my more sensitive days I liked to think otherwise. Nikki had been a great companion and playmate, especially in bed; but how deep had our feelings for each other gone? Not deep enough, clearly.
“Come on, let's go back,” he said, tossing the towel inaccurately towards the waste bin. It landed on the floor. “They'll think we've been up to some hanky panky.”
That, I admitted, would be quite another complication. So we trotted back into the fray. In the interim the food had arrived. Tarzan was talking about garden sprinklers.
“You wouldn't believe,” he was saying, “the varieties in nozzle design.”
“Time to eat, Mr T,” Jane said, jabbing him in the shoulder. Implements were taken up, bread fetched from the basket, serviettes placed on laps.
Nikki gave both of us returning men a smile. For a while I sat lost in thought, then I located my cucumber and mint soup, along with the spoon, and began the process -- scoop, sip, scoop, scoop, sip, slower than usual in this case because along the way I kept on glancing at Nikki, my paradise girl, my former paradise girl, trying to imagine what on earth she would look like at 200 pounds. With her height and build, not at all good, I thought.
But, damn it, she looked so happy. I looked at her round face, auburn hair still dancing merrily, chubby cheeks glowing, chin doubling with almost every movement. With each bite into her starter -- she had some potato and asparagus concoction -- her eyes seemed to sparkle more. Every gesture, every look, told the world that she enjoyed her food; and she now had the figure to match. She was wide, she was round; even on my scale of perception I had to admit she was now officially fat.
I'd let her be, I decided. It seemed what Nikki wanted. We could still be friends, and Jonathan I knew wouldn't last forever.
And besides, as I scooped and sipped and surveyed the table, I found myself transfixed by something new and unexpected -- a glimpse of a little midriff roll hanging over Amanda's pants -- the red ones Nikki had got rid of. Could Amanda herself now be growing out of them? Dragging my eyes away for a moment I looked into her face, and found some evidence of filling out there, the skin looking a little smoother, the hollows under the cheekbone not so noticeable. I was looking, I realised, at a beautiful and alluring virgin gain.
She spotted my gaze. “What are you staring at?” Amanda said, more playfully than anything else, forkful of salmon awaiting entry into her mouth.
“I was just thinking how well you're looking,” I said, sizing up whether it was six pounds or eight, and wondering if I could slip off a shoe and rub her ankle under the table.
“Here we go!” Nikki whispered in my direction with a smile. “Another covert operation.”
Copyright Swordfish, 2004