Tania Looks in the Mirror
By Swordfish 2000
Mirrors? She tried to avoid them, on bad days at least: days when she saw little reason to get out of bed, when her self-esteem crawled along the bottom of the scale and she felt like something you'd want to scrape off the sole of your shoe. If she looked into a mirror then, she would only feel worse about herself: she would see those sharp features, those cheekbones, that aquiline nose, so unattractive she thought, or the little signs of age creeping round her eyes and forehead. She was all of 35: old enough to be firmly established in work, love, and happiness. None of this had come about.
Some days it was difficult enough to face the bathroom mirror for the brief time it took to drag a comb across the top of her head, or to check that washing and drying her dark, bouncy hair had produced no unruly strand curling out like a question mark. But she forced herself. She knew she needed to look approximately presentable for her part-time jobs, serving at the counter every Friday and Saturday at the picture framers Frame of Mind, or sitting blankly two afternoons a week as a custodian at the Estorick Collection, the little art gallery in north London devoted to Italian art. For a former art student with dreams of creative fulfillment these were scarcely dream jobs. But they earned her some money. They filled in the hours.
What else had she to do? The gym, of course. There was always the gym. She avoided the mirrors there too, though her body was among the trimmest and tightest on display. She had worked at that. She had walked her five feet eight inches up and down the Stairmaster. She had rowed and swam distances stretching half way across the Atlantic. Along the way surplus fat, a painful feature of her adolescence, had been rigorously banished.
"Lard Tub," the other girls at school had called her. She could still hear them from twenty years before, taunting her in the playground. And she could still hear herself trying to fight back. "My name's Tania," she used to say, tears in her eyes. "Sticky Bun Tania!" her tormentors would cry. She couldn't win then; she felt she couldn't win now, even when she was in her mid 30s and had sculpted herself long ago to 125 pounds. She still saw herself as the oddball, the failure, the woman at whom fingers pointed and words were said behind her back.
Boyfriends? There had been a stream. None of them lasted. It was their fault. It was her fault. It was both their faults. Some could not take her moods. She was demanding, capricious, and for all the brightness of her mind not always fun to be with. Most of her catches, on prolonged acquaintance, had proved insensitive boors. It was very discouraging.
So far this year two of them had taken up brief residence in her flat. There had been Dermot, God forbid, first met in a pub; full of surface Irish charm but with nothing solid to back it up. "He's like wilting celery," she'd told her colleagues when they grilled her at Frame of Mind. "In bed?" they had asked, grinning broadly. "Everywhere. He wilts everywhere". She sent him packing pretty quickly. Then there was Edmund, a City stockbroker, friend of a friend of another gallery custodian, met on a blind date. Better prospects here, Tania had thought; but he was loud, often tactless, and grew fed up of her doleful days. "Oh snap out of it," he would snarl in the mornings when she told him, factually, not begging for sympathy, that she looked and felt like a pile of soiled clothes. In the event, it was he who had snapped, storming out after a flaming row, leaving part of her hurt and another part relieved.
Now there was no-one, and she was not on the prowl. She kept her head down at the gallery, reading her magazines or staring at her feet. At Frame of Mind, she did her job like a machine, taking the measurements, grudgingly helping to select the frame, dealing with payment, all the while keeping the person on the other side of the counter at arm's length.
Here she was, a qualified art student with creative ambitions, servicing other people's art: a child's daubs being packaged for granny, or a calming Monet reproduction, bound for a dull hallway or a dentist's surgery. Galling. Some came in with old photos, of parents and grandparents, of school groups staring ahead while the cameraman said "Smile!". These were galling too. These customers had family lives and a past fit to celebrate. What did she have? A broken home, two bickering parents, one of them now dead, who had barely offered any encouragement when she did well at school. Classmates who had made her life miserable whenever she wasn't making things gloomy herself. Nothing to hang on a wall there. She did not begrudge her customers' happier lives; she just did not wish to interact with them.
Not even with Gary, a hospital nurse, in his early 30s, handsome in a nonchalant way. When his budget afforded it, he collected old prints of London, and in they would come, one by one, to Frame of Mind. Tania had caught his eye: the striking profile, the bright burning eyes, the lithe physique in tight jeans and t-shirt, the dark hair with a mind of its own. He soon realized she always worked the counter on Saturdays, and came with pleasantries to prolong their conversation. It was hard work opening up Tania, but Gary persisted. He talked about his weekend activities and going on holiday; he delicately asked about her interests.
She saw his attractions, but hesitated. She didn't want to get her fingers burned. Yet he seemed unthreatening and gentle. Her stock of friends had dwindled: some had moved away, or buried themselves in married bliss. Some she had lost through fierce arguments, like most of her boyfriends, or her former flatmate Beth, who had shared too many of her own problems with mood swings, food, and self-esteem to be the best companion. There was a hole in her life. Maybe Gary could fill a tiny part of it.
"You don't need to keep bringing in things for framing if you just want to see me," she said one Saturday, with a smile. She'd awoken that day in an unusually good mood.
Gary looked bashful, but relieved. This courtship, if that's what it was, was getting expensive. "Do you have a lunch break?"
"I don't really eat lunch. We could have a quick drink if you'd like." "What am I saying?" her inner voice piped up. "I don't want this. I don't need this." But the words were out, and Gary was saying yes, yes, yes.
The pub, the Old Goat's Head, was starting to fill. They found a small table in a corner. "Oh God," Tania thought, "here we go, this awful business of making polite conversation. Nothing will come of this." But she surprised herself. The pint of lager helped, lubricating her mind and easing fears. "What do you do for a living?" she found herself asking. Awful question, but she wanted to know.
After talk about medical school and being squeamish, they moved on to parents, childhood, and what they once thought they'd be when they grew up.
"I'm not sure I'm grown up even yet," Tania said. She kept guarded about her past, and her hopes. Gary, wanting to encourage her, offered a few intimacies. A loving mother. A distant father. And he'd wanted to be a brain surgeon.
"That would have been good. You could have operated on me. I could do with a new brain."
Was she joking or serious? Gary was unsure. He searched for ways to make her more comfortable, and asked if she wanted a snack. From the way her head shook, it was as though he suggested taking poison.
"No, no. I'll eat later."
Gary thought to himself, "Two sprouts and some lentils, I bet." Sitting opposite, he noticed how little spare fat she had on her body. She was skin, bone, some light upholstery, and nothing more. In his job he saw quite enough of emaciated figures: patients too sick to hold food down, sustained only through intravenous drips. His own preference was for women with a few curves and something to grasp. This had first dawned on him at medical school when several female students, no money in their pockets, no time for anything else, had gone all out for fast food and steadily fattened up. They looked so much more attractive, he'd realized, with little bulges round their waists.
One of them, Moira, had become his first serious girlfriend; though not serious enough to stop her taking a nursing job in the States as soon as it was offered. She sent him a photo later: grown gorgeously plump, hair cascading towards opulent breasts. Paradise lost. Tania, he knew, was not his type. Yet he still was transfixed. He was drawn to her like a magnet: drawn by the things he saw, and the things she kept hidden. He was aching to see her again.
Back home, Tania kicked off her shoes, got a quick meal -- there were some lentils to heat up -- and looked around at the four walls of her living room, empty and sad. Bowl of beans balanced on her lap, she became painfully aware of the space beside her on the sofa. No company. No boyfriend. 35 years old. Saturday night. She was sharing her evening with a cushion.
She thought about Gary. Did she truly wish a relationship to develop? There were so many hoops to jump through, and she did not feel very athletic. She was also bemused. She wasn't a dolt, she knew that; she had things to say, points of view. But inside, she felt she was such a mess, and the mess had a habit of spewing out over anyone in the vicinity -- friends, lovers, colleagues at work.
"What does he see in me?" she sighed as she caught herself in the bathroom mirror, cleaning her teeth. She noticed the signs of a spot developing on her cheek. "Typical. Just what I deserve." Then it was off to another piece of sad, empty furniture: her bed.
WOULD YOU CARE FOR ANY DESSERT?
Wednesday afternoon. She sat slumped on her stool at the Estorick Collection, the morning's newspaper on her lap, eyes glazed over with boredom. The art gallery's current show, Italian still life portraits of the 20th century, was not drawing the crowds: some days only four arrived to stare at the bottles, dried figs and wilting flowers strung out on the canvasses.
A creak on the stairs signaled a new arrival. Tania focused her eyes on the newspaper's medical briefing page. How to cure hiccups. Might come in useful, she thought.
"Hello, Tania!" She jumped, and a gulp of air rushed into her throat. It was Gary.
"I thought I'd try to see what your other place of work was like. My shifts were suddenly changed."
"You paid money to see this?" Her eyes turned toward the nearest drab daub, a bowl of yellowing vegetables left out too long in the sun.
"I paid money to see you!"
She shifted uncomfortably. "Gary, that's nice, but --". She sheathed that thought for the moment. "What do you think of the show?"
Without moving a step, head swiveling, he made a rapid circuit of the room. "Terrible." He asked how many other visitors had come. Two others, she said. One had a dog collar.
"Yeah. Wholly without taste."
"Don't be hard. He might have thought the pictures boring, just like us."
"Didn't. He bought a catalogue."
Gary suddenly changed tack. "You -- you wouldn't be free for dinner tonight, would you? Or some other night?"
For a moment she looked down at her feet. Then she surfaced, eyes guarded. "Gary, don't rush me. I like you, OK, but I don't really know you very well and you certainly don't know me."
"I want to. I'm trying to."
She looked away, sighing. "You don't know what you're getting into. I'm not the easiest person to get on with. It's roses one minute, barbed wire the next."
"All I'm suggesting is dinner. You do eat dinner, don't you, occasionally? Forget the barbed wire. I'm a nurse. I can dress wounds."
"Not my wounds you can't," Tania wanted to say. Instead she smiled faintly, weighed her life in her hands, and said yes. Dinner together. On Saturday. In public. At a restaurant.
"Got it," Gary said, grinning.
On Friday Caroline noticed a new jauntiness in Tania when she arrived at Frame of Mind. When her colleague said her customary good morning and asked how she was, Tania said "Fine". Usually the response was silence, or a pained "Don't ask". "Today," Tania said, "is a good day."
Tania had started her good day with herbal tea and a slice of melon. Lunch would not exist; well, maybe a crispbread. Dinner would probably be a small bowl of pasta, with a salad on the side. Her date with Gary was over 24 hours away, but she had already thought it prudent to prepare for her meal by further reducing her calorie intake. Saturday morning, she had decided, she would go to the gym for a heavy session. If she could get away with it without becoming faint, she would prefer eating nothing at all during the day. Then perhaps she could face the menu without worrying.
"Crispbread again?" Caroline said as Tania took her lunch break.
"You can't possibly enjoy that, can you? It's so dry. Smear some cream cheese on it, for God's sake," she said, hands comfortably perched on either side of her tummy bulge, a relatively new acquisition.
"Can't. Calories. Besides, I don't eat for enjoyment. I eat to stay alive."
"You're a funny one, Tania," Caroline grinned. "Life's for enjoying, not suffering."
If Tania hadn't felt so perky she wouldn't have let that last line pass. But today she had pocketed the moody blues. She crunched down on her crispbread, and glanced at Caroline's departing bottom, fuller than she remembered it before. Maybe others could gain weight without qualms. But not Tania. Her slender body, she felt, was her one success in life and nothing was going to take it away from her. She was not going end up like her roly-poly mother. She had made this decision years ago when a holiday snapshot caught the two of them walking on a seaside promenade, her mother plump as a juicy pear, and herself alongside, a little pudgy, awkward, embarrassed. "If I don't take care," she had written in her diary, "that is my future walking beside me."
On Saturday morning hunger kicked in and she made herself two thin pieces of toast. Still, she raced to the gym, lifted weights, and managed eight laps in the pool. Drying her hair in the changing room, she braved her enemy, the mirror. Bearable, she thought. The spot near her nose seemed to have disappeared. She raced to work, cheeks a little flushed.
By eight o'clock they were sitting opposite each other at one of the local bistros, the Blue Danube, menu in hand.
"I hope you're hungry," Gary said, a nervous laugh tucked into his voice.
"Sort of." She was famished, but determined not to show it. Roaming down the menu's columns, she skipped over anything with a creamy sauce, anything fried, anything with potatoes or garlic bread. That left her, principally, with poached fish. She chose salmon, served with a selection of vegetables and few sprigs of lettuce.
Gary went for the duck a l'orange. He noticed how methodically Tania ate, the knife slowly slicing into the salmon, the fork spearing the small pink wedge towards the mouth. It was almost a mechanical process. Did this girl ever smack her lips and say "M'm"? It seemed impossible. At least her eyes appeared blazing with life. They were large, dark brown and lustrous, and he wanted to dive right into them.
"What do you think of the Government's health spending plans?" she said, knife and fork taming a clump of broccoli. Talking about the National Health Service on a Saturday night was not Gary's idea of a good time, but she sounded genuinely interested and he could not disappoint those burning eyes.
"Too little, too late. And the problem is, there's no guarantee that the money proposed will end up where it's needed, on the wards."
She looked so composed, cutlery resting on the side of her plate as she digested. Didn't she ever dig in to anything? Gary looked at her slender body, no gathering of fat along the upper arms, the chin taut, the breasts small and pretty.
They talked about politics and private health care. They talked about sports, about mothers, music, the moon and the stars; talked so much they scarcely noticed the plates being removed, the crumbs swept away. Their hands inched closer across the table. "Dare I hold her hand?" Gary thought. "Dare I let him?" murmured Tania.
Suddenly the waiter was hovering. He sensed two lovebirds mating, and spoke softly. "Would you care for dessert?"
"Not for me," Tania jumped in.
"Come on, please! It would round the meal out nicely."
"It would round me out too! I've already eaten much more than usual." Yet she so wanted to prolong their evening, and she realized food would help. Perhaps just this once. She studied the menu long and hard.
"They have fruit salad," Gary suggested.
An impulse grabbed her. "No, if I'm going to commit a sin it may as well be a big one. I'll go for the chocolate fudge log."
His eyes widened. So did hers when her order arrived. The log was so long that it hung over the plate. "I can't possibly eat all this!"
She scooped up a small spoonful. She scooped up another. "M'm," she cried. "This is actually good! I guess I was hungrier than I thought." She looked guilty and shy. It was very fetching.
Gary was amazed. How could someone who picked at salmon as though it was the devil's food suddenly wolf down a chocolate fudge log? This was obviously a girl who was suppressing a healthy appetite. What would happen, he wondered, if she ever let nature take its course? He tried to imagine her with a fuller face, a hint of a double chin, and breasts bigger than a pair of apples. It was difficult.
They walked out of the restaurant, smiling broadly, intoxicated by each other's company. They agreed to phone the next day, and make further arrangements: another meal perhaps, a film, or maybe an evening in at her place or his.
The streets were crowded with Saturday night revelers. As Gary walked her to the Underground station, they passed two women, in their late 20s, standing outside a pub, clutching the little pot bellies surging out of their slacks. They were obviously comparing their recent weight gains, and they were laughing.
"Oh that's horrible," said Tania with a shudder. "Isn't it sad when people let themselves go?"
Gary reined in his thoughts. Maybe some other time.
TAKING IT SLOWLY
For the first two months they moved cautiously. Gary himself would have been happy seeing her every night, but Tania had sustained enough bruises in relationships to know that she had to take things one step at a time. By the end of the first month twice a week had become three times, with regular stop-overs. There were meals out, meals in, drinks in the pub, evenings round the video recorder, and increasing hours under the covers, exploring and talking. After six weeks, Gary began leaving a toothbrush. After eight, his clothes followed. After twelve, only Tania's fear of commitment kept them from accepting that they were now living together, sometimes at his place, mostly at hers.
Tania tried not to think too much about how happy she felt. One puff and her good fortune might blow away. But on the occasional evening when Gary worked the night shift, she couldn't help looking at the bed's empty space, touching his pillow and whispering, "Come back, I need you. Don't get run over. Don't get kidnapped. Come back safely with the dawn."
And he did, just in time for breakfast. She had breakfast herself now; Gary always needed fuel to stoke himself up for the hard day ahead, and Tania never wanted him to eat alone. Her other meals were more regular, and larger, than before. At home by herself, she found herself having soup and bread for lunch, with perhaps some cold cuts. At work at the framers, she still had her meager crispbread, but varied it with the odd sandwich. In the evening, the two of them would buckle down to pasta or something fancier if time permitted. To offset the extra food, Tania determined to step up her gym visits, though she didn't always put her good intentions into practise.
Tania's colleagues soon noticed a difference. She was happier, more at ease with herself and life around her. Before, smiles had to be pried out of her with a blunt instrument. Now they appeared without prompting. At the framers she talked more with customers. At the gallery she stopped glaring at visitors when they disturbed her reading and asked her the time.
Not only was she smiling more. She also had more to smile with. For all her exertions at the gym, in the three months she had been with Gary she had begun to gain a little weight. Fat had crept up on her gently, silently, tiptoeing over her body like thieves in the night, nestling into its hollow crevices, settling lightly round her stomach, padding out her cheeks, blurring her jawline, slightly increasing the bulk of her breasts, the heft of her hips and thighs. The fat came so surreptitiously that at first she had no reason to notice, to fret or complain. A mirror might have given her a hint, but she rarely looked in mirrors.
In time the penny dropped. She was at the gym, in her exercise pants. Had they shrunk in the wash? They were tight, no doubt about it; their elastic ribbing at the top was leaving marks around her stomach, pressing into skin that she was forced to admit was softer to the touch than before. In a quiet corner of the changing room she pinched her sides, and found enough flesh clinging there to form a minuscule roll under her fingers. Sitting down and leaning forward, she saw how her stomach, once so flat, now formed a little bulge at the top of her pants. She fingered her breasts. She stroked her thighs. It was obvious, and at some level, subconsciously, she must have sensed it before. She had done the unmentionable. She had gained weight.
Trying to appear nonchalant, she walked over to the scales in the changing room. The needle flickered up and down, then rested at 136 pounds. Tania blinked. 136 pounds. The last time she looked -- she had no scales of her own -- she was sure she had been in the mid 120s. How could she not have noticed a gain of eleven or so pounds? Too busy being happy with Gary, she supposed; too busy eating.
She returned to her flat, thinking hard. She started to read new meaning into Damien's remark at the framers that she was looking "very well". And Caroline had said just the other day that she "seemed to be thriving". As she jostled through the street she felt relieved to be among strangers, people unaware that she was carrying eight added pounds. Relieved, too, that her gain was still sufficiently small to be dealt with. If she cut down on calories and stepped up her gym work, she'd soon have her old body back.
In the evening, as planned, she went round to Gary's. She found him in a chef's hat and apron, very jovial, saucepans simmering all around, the aroma of leeks filling the flat, chicken browning in the oven. She lifted the saucepan lids.
"Oh, no potatoes for me."
"I've --". She paused, then took the plunge. " I've been putting on a bit of weight. It's all this food we've been having."
"You can't have put on very much."
"Enough. I noticed it at the gym. Eleven pounds."
"You talk as though it was a dreadful crime. You look fine to me. Lovelier than ever."
"Have you noticed me gaining?" She touched her tummy, unaware that most of the immediate evidence was visible in her face.
Gary felt he had to tread carefully. Without hatching any plans he'd certainly hoped she might in time get some extra flesh on her bones, but now that her fat cells seemed to be stirring he didn't want to do anything to scare her off. "Now that you mention it, yes I can see a difference. It's only natural, starting a relationship, changing your domestic pattern. Besides, these are the winter months. Everyone eats more. And it really suits you. Please, have a potato, just one!"
"Just one. No more."
In bed that night, she returned to the topic. "You said you could see a difference. Can you feel a difference?" Gary was lying on top, arms entwined.
"Eleven extra pounds covering a body your size isn't a lot, Tania, it really isn't. But yes, you do feel a little softer, I suppose, a little less bony."
"Is it nice? Does it feel nice?"
She was starting to embarrass Gary. He didn't yet want to admit openly that he was aroused at even the thought of her gaining. So he ran to the cloak of metaphor. "Well it's like this. There's apple pie plain, and there's apple pie with ice cream or custard. Which tastes better?"
"Apple pie with ice cream, I suppose. What a bizarre question." She thought a bit more. "Custard can be nice, though I haven't had it since I was a kid."
"Well, Tania, you've just poured a little custard over yourself. That's what your body feels like. It's softer and warmer" -- the passion was rising in spite of himself -- "and I want so much to lick it!" He looked nervously to see how she'd react.
"Yeah, please. Lick it off." She was grinning, thank God. A small hurdle had been jumped. He started in lightly, licking her cheeks, moving down to her breasts, coming to rest on her stomach just below her navel.
"Oh there's quite a spread of custard here!" he cried, tongue caressing what looked like the early beginnings of a pot belly.
"I can see I won't need to shower in the morning!"
"Oh you must. Hygiene. You'd better shower tonight, really."
"I might get rabies? You're a mad dog? Gary, I love you!" she added, softly.
"I love you too. And please, don't think about your weight. I'm relaxed about it. You be too."
"I'm keeping it under review, OK? You don't actually have any apple pie, do you?"
ARE THEY HAPPY POUNDS?
Winter turned into spring. With the better weather, Tania dug out her sketchpad and water colours, and took off to the parks in search of inspiration. She had never done much with her painting before; there seemed little point. "Good therapy," one of her doctors had told her during a bad depression spell. But she could rarely summon the motivation; what on earth would she paint, and why? Now things were different. She felt an urge to test her skills. She wanted to depict nature growing: trees and shrubs coming into leaf after the barren months, flowers bursting forth, bold colours piercing the muted landscape of greys, browns and greens.
She continued her intermittent exertions at the gym, though once the painting bug bit her visits grew fewer still and shorter. For a while at the gallery she conceived the idea of working off a calorie or two by pacing round her designated room rather than sitting endlessly on a chair, or even, when no visitors were present, performing exercises, stretching, whirling, touching her toes. That didn't last. It was impractical. Tiring too. Far better, she realised, to sit and read, or think about her own paintings, or what meal lay ahead in the evening when Gary got off work.
By now she was taking a more active role in their culinary life. Gary had shown her there was more to food than dry toast and beans; and, in moderation, she was keen to explore. Food had for so long been something to deny herself, or at best be wary of. Gary encouraged her to treat it as a friend. "How about something Greek tonight?" she'd ask. She'd request different salad dressings, thick with spices and the more glutinous oils. She'd look through his recipe books, and ponder especially on the desserts, something of a new world for her: butterscotch tarts, pancakes, sponge puddings packed with berries and drowned in cream.
She began to gain weight faster. It was as though her body had given the green light and the fat, so long suppressed, now came roaring in, eager to make up lost time. The signs were everywhere for people to notice, if they had a mind. Over the spring months her cheekbones disappeared, and fat started to move in under her chin. Her breasts, edging outwards ounce by ounce, now caused her t-shirts to rise up, revealing in the process a delectably soft midriff bulge, which jiggled gently with the movement of her body. Her arms were plumping up, just in time to be bared in hot weather. But most of the pounds settled round her middle. Every band on her jeans or slacks now dug deep into her waist; some of her jeans could not be buttoned at all. Lower down, her pot belly grew to the point that no zip could completely scale over it; if she wore a blouse, she mostly wore it loose. When she next stepped onto the scales -- Gary had a set, tucked away in his bathroom - she found herself staring at 152 pounds. She was shocked, but not entirely surprised.
"My clothes are getting so tight," she said to Gary one night after enjoying goulash, heavy with potatoes -- not the best meal for hot weather, but she had felt like trying something Hungarian. She rubbed a hand over her stomach. "I've either got to buy new clothes or start dieting seriously. Going to the gym just isn't helping. Besides, my damn mother is coming next Sunday, or have you forgotten?"
"Of course not. It's a State visit, isn't it? She's coming to look me over as a prospective partner for her princess."
"She'll look me over, too, remember. You know I've put on over 25 pounds?"
"And I keep telling you you look fabulous. I really think you look terrific chubby." He hadn't meant to use the word; it just slipped out.
Tania suddenly felt rankled. Her adolescence came flooding back: the taunts, the jibes, the fingers pointed at the blossoming stomach crammed into her school uniform. And there was something else, something about Gary that she wanted to air.
"So I'm chubby now, am I? That's official? Next week I suppose I'll be called fat." There was no laughter in her voice.
"It's just a word, darling. I don't attach any negative meaning to it. Quite the contrary." He was struggling to pour water on the flames, and not doing a very good job.
"You know, I found a book on your shelves the other day, hidden away at the back. It was called 'Fat Girls Don't Wear Plaid'. Some kind of novel?"
"Yes, I --"
But she interrupted, her voice turning harder still. " I bet you're one of those chubby chasers. You are, aren't you?"
Gary blushed and put down the plates he had started to clear away. "I wouldn't use the term. We all have our preferences in people. Blondes, brunettes, tall, short."
"And fat. You missed out fat."
"Women nicely rounded. Healthy women. Women who know how to enjoy life." He wished he didn't sound so defensive, but he did. He'd been caught off guard: better by far, he realized now, to have initiated this discussion himself. But he never had. There had never been the right moment; with difficult topics there never is.
Tania's eyes narrowed. "You've been deliberately fattening me up, haven't you? Playing a game."
"I haven't." He heard himself sounding defensive again, almost shrill, and he cursed his timidity. "I'd never do that, not without your consent. You were underweight, Tania. You were running yourself ragged, with no real food inside you." His voice went down on its knees, imploring. "All I wanted was to give you the option of enjoying food, and maybe putting a little weight on. You could always have said "I'll just have a salad", but you never did. And I truly believe you're more attractive than ever, little pot belly and all. You're certainly a lot healthier."
Tania's anger was subsiding. She sighed. "Oh, you're right, I guess. I'm not sure about looking more attractive but I've enjoyed the meals, I won't deny it. And everyone at Frame of Mind keeps telling me how well I look. I guess I'm so nervous about my mother coming."
"It'll be fine, I know it. But some bigger slacks would help. If nothing else, you'd feel more comfortable."
She took a deep breath. "OK, OK. I'll get some bigger clothes. Guess I've got to go to the chubby racks now. But I can't keep putting on weight, Gary, I really can't, however much you'd like it. Alright?" She looked him straight in the eyes.
"Understood," Gary said, relieved that the storm had passed. There were more storms coming, he knew.
The closer her mother's visit approached, the more panicked Tania became. Here she was, making some success of building a relationship, beginning to feel she had something to offer, and here was mother about to waltz in on a day trip and blast her to bits.
She needn't have worried. "You're finally looking like a woman!" her mother cried, large and imperious, as she arrived on the doorstep on Sunday. She had felt the fat wrapped round her daughter's middle as they hugged. "I thought it would never happen. Are they happy pounds, Tania?"
"Yes," she said, uncertainly, throwing a glance at Gary, "yes, they're happy pounds."
"Good. That must mean you're finally in love. Are you?"
Tania had experienced worse inquisitions. "Yes. Definitely. Now will you stop with the questions and let me take your coat?"
During the day Tania showed her some of her water colours -- her mother grunted vague words of approval. They went walking in the local park, and had dinner out, at the Blue Danube. Her mother liked Gary. No bricks were hurled. It was a good visit.
When it was all over Tania sank back in a chair, stretched her hands upwards and yawned, her face suddenly cradled in a double chin. "I'm exhausted. It's hard work being a daughter. But you were good." She patted Gary's shoulder. "You charmed the old battle-axe."
"She wasn't so bad."
"You saw the mellow version." Gary perched on the arm of her chair as she dragged out some of her bad teenage memories: being humiliated because she couldn't swim; being grilled over poor exam results but never congratulated over good ones; being forced into shopping excursions, feet dragging, heart in her boots, desperate to say to passers-by, "This bulk in the pink coat is nothing to do with me. I just happen to be walking alongside."
Gary caressed her hair, and kissed her forehead. "Are these really happy pounds?" he said, placing a hand on her belly, looming underneath her breasts as she sat.
"I can cope with them, I suppose. It's new territory for me. I never ever thought I'd have a tummy like this. My mum didn't seem to mind. But then look at the size of hers. That's the real problem, Gary. I'd hate to end up like her. You will tell me if I get too big? I mean, you do have an upper limit, don't you?"
"Whatever your weight, I love you to bits. Really. Your size is your choice."
She looked at him quizzically. "H'm. I think I'd better read this 'Fat Girls Don't Wear Plaid'. Is it funny?"
"Not really. And it's very badly written. A big disappointment. Not like you!" he said, slipping off the chair arm onto her lap, arms enveloping, fingers starting to tickle.
"Oh, we're not going to play the custard game, are we? I don't know if I've got the strength."
They trotted off to bed.
DON'T GO INTO THAT JACUZZI!
High summer brought unusually hot weather. The ground grew parched, the grass thin and yellow. The parks were not looking their best, but Tania still spent much of her spare days outdoors, under the shade of one tree, sketching or painting another. She grew fascinated by the trunks, gradually thickening year by year, decade by decade. Some chestnut trees on Hampstead Heath were centuries old: she liked running a hand over their gnarled surfaces, pock-marked with history: a branch cut off here, a message carved into the bark there, new shoots still bursting out. She liked throwing her arms around the trunks, ears pressed to the bark, trying to feel and hear the trees growing.
Other people walking nearby would peer over her shoulder at her sketchpad and admire. "You're really an artist!" one of them said. Tania snorted. Another gave her a business card. He ran a local gallery, and was gathering material for a landscape exhibition. He'd be interested in seeing what she had to offer. Tania's eyebrows shot up.
"This must be another version of 'Come up and see my etchings,'" she said, wryly.
"No, no. Dead serious. No hanky-panky. You've got talent." His name, he said, was Crispin de Wyre.
"Crispin de Wyre," she muttered after he had sauntered off. "What kind of a name is that? Poseur. Pretentious creep." She was tickled nonetheless.
"Ever heard of Crispin de Wyre?" she asked her colleagues at the framers that week. Blank faces. "He wants to see my paintings. Says he runs a gallery in Hampstead."
"Be careful, Tania, he might just be after your body," said Damien, blushing slightly as soon as the words were said.
"What, this body? I doubt it." Over the past few months she found herself making self-mocking comments about her extra pounds; better her own remarks than those of others, she thought. Comfort necessitated the baring of flesh in the spell of hot weather; at the framers she stood for hours at the counter, breasts and tummy looming gracefully out of the few garments she was wearing, one hand or both sometimes perched on the love handles at her waist. There seemed little point pretending the pounds weren't there.
In the weeks since her mother's visit she had tried to get more exercise, and instituted low-calorie meals, salads especially. But the summer had also brought ice cream, a lost kingdom since her childhood, revisited now with a vengeance. Since she had last had ice cream years ago, so many new flavours had been invented. Pineapple. Nougat. Tangerine Miracle. Berries of Vienna (the name made no sense, but, oh, the taste!). That helped her to put on another twelve pounds, enough to just cross that magic line where apprentice chubbiness ends and serious fatness begins.
According to Gary's scales she now weighed 164. Her hips were wide, her belly full. At one point behind the counter at the framers the side of a filing cabinet jutted out, giving little room for movement; they called it Crunch Corner. Tania now had to squeeze herself in to let others pass, especially Caroline, no stick insect herself.
One morning, after letting Damien past, she overheard him whispering under his breath. "Tania's really getting fat!" he said to Mick, the shop's young apprentice. He spoke more in awe than anything else. But Tania felt she'd been named and shamed.
She looked down at her chest and tummy, tightly enclosed in a flaming pink t-shirt reaching the end of its useful life. She knew she'd got chunky, but was she now fat, officially fat? The word gnawed at her like a cancer, eating away at her limited quantities of self-esteem and Gary's words of reassurance. And it dawned on her that over the spring and summer she'd been living in a dream world, lulled by the appreciation of someone who had openly admitted, finally, that he liked her gaining weight. But here was the true state of play. Her new domestic life and awakened appetite had made her grow into a big pink heap, too large for Crunch Corner. Gary might see a goddess. Others obviously saw a blob.
During her lunch break -- she had tuna and sweetcorn on granary bread -- she decided to mention the matter to Caroline. She thought that out of all the staff Caroline would be the most sympathetic.
"Caroline, would you call me fat? Be honest."
"Well, I guess both of us have been gaining recently. And I must say you carry it very well. You've really blossomed."
Tania tried to smile in response. Caroline continued: "I prefer the term well-rounded myself, but if someone called me fat I wouldn't be particularly hurt."
"You wouldn't?" Tania looked at her in awe.
"And I've put on more than you."
Tania took in her round face, pendant breasts and vastly widened hips. Over the past eighteen months Caroline must have gained well over forty pounds. "Do you mind?"
"It was strange at first, but I've got used to it I don't expect I'll ever be thin again. This is me now." Rays of sunlight were streaking in through the shop's open back door, giving her almost a halo.
Tania was growing more and more horrified. Her tuna sandwich sat in her hands, half-eaten. ""You don't want to diet? Ever?"
"I don't see the point. Oh, there's clothes I'd like to fit back into, I suppose. But it's a fact of life, Tania. People's metabolism changes. Women naturally put on weight as they get older. It's not so bad. Thank God I've got rid of my bony bum. Funny, isn't it?"
"What?" Tania shuffled in her shoes, wondering what awful intimacy was going to come next.
"Funny how the weight gets distributed. Most of yours seems to have gone to your tummy, whereas mine has settled on my hips and bum!" She fished out a chocolate bar from her handbag and took a bite. "My dessert!" she said, giggling. "I better eat it quick, or it'll melt."
None of this was reassuring. On the contrary, the conversation left Tania profoundly disturbed. Caroline seemed to have accepted her own weight gain so calmly. No sign of struggle. No regret. A fact of life, she had said. It all seemed so shocking, almost obscene. To have the shape of their bodies compared, too: that she found invasive, and chilling. Only eight months or so ago there she was thinking critical thoughts about women who had let themselves go, Caroline included. Now she had joined the pack.
As she manned the counter in the afternoon, her slumped posture thrusting out her tummy further than usual, she felt the weight of every one of her 164 pounds. Before she had watched herself fatten up with a mixture of curiosity, amazement, and mild concern. Now she could only see her added pounds as a curse. She felt huge, unattractive, and burdened. Just when the weather was hotting up, she had this extra bulk to carry about. And there were so many clothes she couldn't get into -- she found herself thinking longingly about her Techno Garage Pants, an expensive purchase that hung in her wardrobe, helpless and unused. She winced when Caroline passed by to serve another customer, tossing her a friendly smile. "Oh God, she thinks of me as a soul sister!" Tania moaned.
After work she knew exactly where she had to go. The gym. Rushing back to her flat, she rummaged around for the backpack where she kept her exercise clothes, unused for months. She had to burn away calories pedaling and swimming. She had to stop fat taking over. Black thoughts leaped from their hiding place, rushed through her bloodstream, and overwhelmed her.
"Thank God for loose elastic," she thought as she pulled up her exercise pants over her belly in the changing room. "And thank God for people I don't know." She looked around at the svelte bodies stripping down or toweling themselves at the lockers alongside. All perfect strangers. None of them, she figured, knew she'd once been thinner. It was a small consolation.
She started off on the exercise bike, pedaling long and hard, an old Sunday newspaper supplement grabbed from a table for reading matter. She'd wanted to read the art gallery round-up, but found her brain too frazzled to concentrate on sentences with long words. She tried the show business section. A profile of Angelina Jolie beckoned. Short paragraphs. Lots of pictures. She read about Jolie's wild life, the drugs, the self-abuse, and the tattoo on her stomach that reads, in Latin, "What nourishes me also destroy me".
"Boy, that's true!" she shouted out loud, looking down at her plentiful tummy, pouring out onto her shorts. Heads were turned. She pedaled on.
Next stop the Stairmaster. Up and down she strode. A television screen suspended from the ceiling shook to the sounds of MTV. The Spice Girls were on, gyrating to some bubble-gum pretending to be heavy metal. Since they last came Tania's way, Sporty Spice had clearly gained weight, bulking up with muscle and fat, face rounded, upper arms twice their old diameter. "God she looks horrible!" Tania thought, pressing down on the machine even faster.
Panting hard as she stepped off, she considered the gym's weight room, but decided she was too out of condition to lift anything serious. She suddenly felt hunger pangs, and had a heretical thought. A hamburger. She could lift one of those, right into her mouth, right now. Damn her appetite.
Back to the changing room, a quick shower with no-one looking, and then the big question. Swimming? The physical exercise she could handle, but would her lycra one-piece stretch to fit? She tried it on. Black, skin-tight, it turned her belly into a cannon ball. But she could still move about, she decided.
"Go for it, quick!" she cried. She ran to the pool, wishing she had cover of darkness, and plunged into the water. She imagined the calories burning off from her arms and legs as she swam the length back and forth.
And then, she thought, she would give herself a luxury. The jacuzzi. Maybe she could pummel away the flab with a water jet. Careful about slipping, she watched where she put her feet as she stepped into the throbbing water, flecked with foam. She sat down on the ledge, felt a jet playing on her bottom, surveyed the anonymous faces opposite, and closed her eyes. Bliss.
"Tania? Is that Tania?" It was a man's voice. He sounded incredulous.
Tania opened one eye, and shivered in her bones. Through the heat mist and spray she could make out a familiar voice and shape on the opposite side. It was Edmund, her stockbroker boyfriend, not seen since he had stormed out of her flat over twelve months before. She squealed out some forced greeting, a farm animal before the slaughter.
"You've got so much fatter!" he boomed, tactless as ever. "I didn't recognize you at first".
Tania's blood turned to ice. She felt the eyes of every person in the jacuzzi boring into her. She felt naked to the world, her fatness exposed, laid on the slab. After being momentarily stunned, instinct kicked in. Leaping up, she streaked through the water as fast as she could, looking neither to left nor right, churning the foam into a frenzy.
"You bitch!" she yelled, running up the steps, almost sliding across the wet floor leading to the changing room. And then the howling started. The tears of a woman mortally wounded, hit in her most vulnerable spot. She wanted to leave the gym as quickly as possible. She wanted to be where no human eyes could find her, under the duvet in her bed, dead to the world. No time to shower again or towel herself dry; no time even to take off the swimming suit. Water still dripping, she yanked down her t-shirt over her head, pulled on her shorts, hastily buckled up her sandals, and ran through the building, out into the street.
"Aren't you going to dry yourself?" the receptionist cried out.
"No time, no time!" Tania mumbled. By then she was already out the door. On the pavement among the hot summer strollers she kept her head down, avoiding the eyes she knew must be staring at her: her, Tania, large and wet as a newly beached whale. She banged into elbows, and brushed against someone's ice cream. When the numbers thinned out, she began running. Tears subsided as she exerted herself, but her eyes stayed moistened and red. Out of one corner she saw the bright letters of a fast food emporium, not one of the best. Their slogan read "FAT FOOD -- VERY QUICK" -- the letter S had fallen off. "That's right, world, rub it in!" she cried.
And she was home. She banged the door shut, turned the lock, pulled off her clothes, and headed for bed. Her wet hair soon made the pillow damp, but she didn't care. The memories came back again. She remembered a school prize day. She had done well that year, top of the class. She had also hit puberty, and puppy fat stretched her clothes to the limit. All eyes were on her as she slunk down the aisle to receive her prize. Walking Death Row would have been preferable. All that was missing from the memory was Edmund yelling out "You've got so much fatter!". Head under the duvet, she lay shivering and miserable.
By the time Gary turned his key in the lock, she was asleep. He was tired and dejected. He had had a bad day. Experience had trained him for patients dying, but it could still hit him hard. One of his favourites had gone that afternoon. He had watched her shrink to skin and bone, her old body assailed by so many infections, blockages and complications. Appetite gone, swallowing powers almost nil, she had latterly been fed intravenously. She was left with no energy to fight back, and finally no will. Eyes shut, her heavy breathing had gradually eased, then fell silent. He had held her hand, felt her pulse, kissed her forehead, and drawn the curtains around the bed.
The shift over, he just wanted a quiet night in with Tania, a meal, something mindless to watch on TV, feet up, arms round each other's shoulders. It was not to be.
"Tania? What are you doing in bed?"
She peered at him through red, half-closed eyes. "I'm upset. Leave me alone."
"Tell me what's happened. Why are you damp?" He sat on the bed's edge, stroking her hair, looking at her rounded face, double chin prominent as she lay on the pillow. Even when distraught and puffy-eyed, she still looked an angel.
She told him, briefly and melodramatically, about her day. Two people had said she'd got fat. She'd been publicly humiliated in the jacuzzi. She looked awful. Felt awful. And, she added, casting an eye to the pounds round her waist, it was all his fault.
"That's not fair, Tania, and if you calmed down you'd realize it. I'm really sorry you've had a rotten day. I've had one, too --"
"I'm sorry," she said quietly.
"But it shouldn't be a matter of blaming anyone. Sure, I've made more food available to you, but you've done the eating happily enough. I've gained a bit too, have you noticed? You talk as though I'd force-fed you."
"OK it's my fault, then. I've become such a pig." She was glaring.
Gary sighed. It was battle time. "It's not your fault either. If it's anyone's it's society's, for making such a thing about being thin. Fat can be beautiful too, you know."
She snorted. "That's just your opinion. No-one else's. And you're perverted."
He felt like throttling her. "You're upset. You're hurting. I'll forget you said that." But he was hurting too.
He looked at her, her eyes inflamed. "Tania, you're at the crossroads. You have to decide what weight you're comfortable with. If you really dislike carrying a little bit extra, then go on a diet. I'll still love you, I promise. But think about this. Have you generally felt happier and healthier since you began gaining?"
She raised herself up from the bed, and looked sulky. "I'm not happier now. But yes -- I guess the answer is yes."
"Have your creative juices been flowing better since you put on weight?"
"Oh God, it's coincidence, Gary. I've been happier and more productive because I've met you. Not because I've got a bloody spare tyre."
"It's all part of the same package, I'd say. You're fulfilling yourself in mind and body, as an creative artist and a woman."
"Oh stop being so fancy. I thought you said you had a terrible day." She was snorting again, but not with the same vehemence.
His anger rushed out. "I did. Someone died. Someone who would have loved to have been as healthy as you. You don't know how lucky you are. And another thing--" -- the voice turning tender -- "would you say the sex was better since you had some meat on your bones?"
She looked at him, fuming, not wanting to say yes, but knowing that she must. "I suppose so. Yes, apple pie is better with ice cream. But I still feel terrible. Look at me, I'm a beached whale." She struggled to her feet.
"You think you feel terrible. Your past experiences are telling you to." He put his hands on her shoulders. "Look, to me you are beautiful. I will tell you that day in and day out. But you have to feel it for yourself. And to give that feeling a chance you have to shake off these black spirits from the past."
Tania shook herself away from his hands, and started towards the bathroom. "I'll show you what I'm feeling," she said, voice rising in a crescendo, eyes turned wild. Grabbing a transistor radio in transit she hurled it at the mirror above the bathroom sink. It cracked instantly. A part shattered, sending shards flying onto the floor.
"What did you do that for?"
"You know I don't like mirrors. Now I won't have to look at my fat chops and my belly." She stormed back to the bedroom, banged the door shut, and dived under the duvet, leaving Gary to run his fingers through his hair, sweep up the glass, look at the chipped enamel in the sink, discover the radio no longer worked, and sit wondering what to do.
Half an hour later he tapped on her door, and asked if he could come in. No response. He tried again, easing the door open an inch. She was still under the duvet, quiet and morose, eyes open, cheeks damp.
"You won't throw something at me if I come in?"
"No," she said. "But I'm not good company at the moment. It would be better if you went back to your place. I'll be all right."
He sat beside her, kissed her bare shoulder, and reached under the duvet, stroking her arm and breasts, trying to invest his touch with all the tenderness and love he could. "You're a really beautiful woman," he said.
"So you say. I know I'm being childish. I don't deserve you. But I need some space to think. I'll call you tomorrow."
He looked at her long and hard. "You won't do anything else stupid?" She shook her head. "You'll eat -- something? Even if you want to lose weight you still have to eat."
"I know," she said.
He found it hard to leave. "You'll call tomorrow?"
"I've said I will. Please, Gary, you're very sweet, but go."
"Think of how much I love you. Think about your paintings, and that art dealer chap with the silly name. I wish you could see yourself as I see you, Tania." He kissed her lightly on the lips and forehead. She smiled weakly. And then he was gone.
Gary hoped she would call before he started his shift at noon. But she didn't. At the hospital, work kept him busy. There was lunch to serve and clear away. After that, the medicine trolley was pushed round. The lull came once the visitors arrived. Time enough then to fret, look at the phone at the nurses' station and will it to ring.
"Are you OK? You look worried," said Dawn, one of the chubbier nurses.
"Girlfriend trouble. I don't know what to do." He looked at the phone. "Tania was really in a state last night, and wanted to be alone. It's like she was sucked into this black tunnel, with no room for me. She said she'd call today, but so far, nothing."
"Is it serious?"
"It was last night. She was --" He hesitated for a second. "She was upset about putting on weight."
"That stuff happens. I used to be thinner, remember?" Gary noticed the sweet double chin as she smiled, unembarrassed. "You diet, or you get over it."
"I'm sure she will get over it. But it's the waiting, Dawn, not knowing how she is."
"Be patient," Dawn said, touching his hand. "Send positive thoughts. Send flowers, maybe. Let her know you care. She'll be in touch when she's ready."
"I guess." He let out a long sigh.
By four o'clock impatience got the better of him. He phoned Frame of Mind. She'd phoned in sick, he was told. Should he try her at home? No, he decided. Do what she wanted. Give her space.
But the fretting, the fretting. Back at his flat, he kissed the phone lightly, and whispered to it "Please ring!". Silence. He looked out of a window, down to the street, on the remote chance that she was approaching. No-one in sight. He cooked some pasta, and sat before the television, the sound turned off. Rigatoni with a ratatouille sauce had never tasted so boring.
And then, about ten o'clock: "Rrrrr rrrrr, rrrrr rrrrr." "Hi," she said, her voice remorseful, drawing the syllable out and down. "I'm sorry. I'm really sorry. Do you want to come over?"
He found her in bed, smiling ruefully, naked under the sheet. Around her lay the scatterings of wrapping paper from chocolate bars, a pizza box, and the remains of a chocolate milkshake.
"What have you been doing?" Gary looked incredulously, stroking her unruly hair.
"I've been -- eating. I wanted to know what it felt to stuff myself with junk." She raised herself up off the pillow, heavy breasts bouncing into life.
"I'm happy you've been eating, Tania, but you could have eaten something healthier."
She rubbed a hand over the curve of her belly. "No, I wanted to do the worst thing I could think of. I wanted to stare this demon in the face and beat it down."
"How would you feel having eaten all that? I feel terrible. Guilty too. Why have I suddenly got such an appetite? Why?"
Gary swept the pizza box off the bed, and lay down beside her. "You've always had it. You've just been suppressing it. And it's been tearing you apart. You must see how your black moods have been subsiding since you've let yourself eat more."
"You're a psychiatrist now as well as a nurse?"
"God, no. It's just my observation."
"Gary?" She was quiet and urgent. "Why do you like fat women?"
He stiffened, feeling put on the spot. Then he turned towards her, ran a hand over her shoulders, felt the flesh in her rounded upper arms, and stroked the heap of her belly back and forth. "So many reasons. Some I'm aware of, some I'm probably not. Aesthetic reasons. Sensuous reasons. I love how they look and feel...."
"How I look and feel. Come on, personalize this."
He stopped stroking for a second. "These extra pounds enhance you. They make you more beautiful." He could see her wincing. "Do you know that phrase in the Bible, 'Be fruitful, multiply and replenish the earth'? A well-rounded woman is fruitful and replenishing. She takes care of her self, and others. She knows about nurturing, and pleasure, and joy. She's woman as woman was meant to be."
"God, where do you get all these words?"
"I'm talking off the top of my head. Don't know if it makes any sense. But let me ask you something. Does this turn you on? Come on, be honest." He was rubbing deeper into her flesh now, moving it back and forth, fingers seeking out her belly button, lost in an inch or more of soft golden fat.
"Yes," she said, begrudgingly, panting slightly, "yes it does."
He eased himself on top of her and began massaging her breasts, working up to her nipples, big and perky. "And this?"
She settled her head onto the pillow, and a small groan of pleasure emerged. "Oh God, those are much more sensitive since they've got bigger."
"Another question. You knew you were gaining, but you never tried to lose weight, really. Didn't you, deep down, enjoy getting fatter?"
She gazed up at him, almost afraid to answer. You could hold the atmosphere in the room in your hand, heavy with the burden of feelings long buried, tense with hope and fear.
The word came out slowly. She sounded strangulated. "I don't know. I'm confused. Yes. No. No!" She was getting shrill. And then, quietly: "Yes. I just don't want to admit it." She put her arms around him, and broke into tears.
They awoke late. Outside the sun had been up for hours, baking the parched earth, enticing people out for a Sunday stroll. This good weather spell could not last. Autumn was beckoning. The burgeoning greenery Tania had painted during the year would start to show its bones again, bare branches stark against a grey sky. But not now. Not yet.
For a while the two of them lay in bed, watching the sun blaze through the curtains, thinking, feeling, and talking. Tania was still feeling raw and vulnerable. And today was the day of Art in the Park, an annual fair for art dealers and artists held in Hyde Park. Tania always went. So did acquaintances and friends. They would meet touring the trestle tables laid out among the trees with paintings, pottery, artists' materials, books and catalogues, cups of coffee, slices of fruit cake, doughnuts...
"I can't go." She looked scared. "There's all those people that I know."
"Yes, like Cripsin de Wyre. You want to see him, don't you?"
"He's not the problem. It's those once a year people." Gary looked blank. "I see them once a year. Like dentists. Relatives at Christmas. There'll be people I once knew at the art gallery. People I knew as art students. There'll be my old flatmate Beth, probably. She always goes. They'll really notice my weight. And they'll be judging me."
"Yes, they'll be thinking how stunning you look."
"You don't know how it is," she said, almost bleating. Over breakfast, she opened up her memory box again. She talked of a time in her adolescence when she was so self-conscious about her burgeoning figure that she fancifully toyed with cutting off her breasts, galloping into fullness on her chest. She launched into another memory: an anorexic episode when she was so horrified by gaining a pound that she --
"Stop! I know these terrible things happened, but that was then, this is now. You have to put these memories to rest. Please come with me to Art in the Park?" He held her hand.
She looked into his eyes, and pulled up a sigh from deep inside. "OK. I'll try. I have to rejoin the world some day. But don't be surprised if I hide behind a tree."
At the park she walked gingerly. She scanned the people at each table from a distance. "Whatever happens," she told Gary, "I mustn't be seen eating an ice cream."
Then she whispered in panic and darted behind a large oak. "That's Millie! I knew her in college." She peered out towards a nondescript woman in a loose floral dress, examining an African tribal sculpture. "Oh, it's not her at all." She sounded disappointed, and emerged from her hideaway. Gary looked exasperated.
"Is the coast clear?" She scanned the next tables. Immediately she became transfixed by a young woman walking towards her, familiar and unfamiliar both at once: chubby face, jiggling midriff, large breasts emphasized by the strap of her handbag cutting across the great divide.
"Beth? Is that Beth?"
"Gained some weight. You too, I see. I guess even we couldn't stay thin for ever." Beth was grinning. Tania looked in awe: Beth had really filled out, but looked so confident, without a care. Where had her vulnerabilities gone? She was even wearing a halter-top, midriff fat bared to the world.
"How did it happen?" Tania asked tentatively.
"New job. New relationship. And then all of a sudden, thirty more pounds and this tummy." She clutched the bulge curving out sweetly from her jeans. "And you?"
Tania's hands patted her own, looming beneath her shirt. "Old job. But new relationship. This is Gary." She gestured.
"Hi!" said Beth, smile irradiated by a double chin. "I guess love can do it, can't it? Love and food. "
Gary liked Beth. "I keep telling Tania how much it suits her, but she's hard to convince."
"I had trouble at first. The thing to remember, Tania, is that fat is the new thin."
"Fat -- is the new thin?" Tania was still chewing on the concept half an hour later as she swept round the remaining tables, hoping to find her art dealer. "Do you think fat is the new thin?" she asked Gary, and then checked herself. "Who am I asking! Of course you do."
"Look around. How many walking skeletons do you see? And how many people with, how shall we say, ample flesh provisions?"
Tania took in the scene. Guys with beer bellies walked hand in hand with wide-bottomed girls. Pear-shaped beauties strolled in loose summer dresses. Balding art dealers with thick sideburns sat back in their canvas chairs, paunches proud and prominent. Tania thought of the other people beside herself -- Beth, Caroline -- who had suddenly got fatter. She looked bemused. "What's happening to people? Is it some offshoot of global warming?"
"If only," said Gary.
And then, finally, Crispin de Wyre loomed on the horizon, an obvious exception, tall and wiry. "Tania!" he called. "My artist! My discovery! I was going to phone. You're looking well!" Tania knew what that meant. There was business talk. The dates of his show; the number of canvasses he might want; an appointment made to come and select; a reminder about a biographical note required for the catalogue. "My little gallery isn't the big time, but it gets a bit of press coverage. You might even sell something."
Tania smiled broadly as Crispin walked off. Not the big time, maybe. But it was a start, a step towards greater creative fulfillment.
"We should celebrate and eat out," Gary said.
"I don't think food's a good idea..."
He led her to a place across the park. It was cute, he said.
"Hippo's? It's called Hippo's?" she said, blinking at the awning as they reached the side street.
"Table for two?" said a plumpish young girl, hippopotamus-shaped menus in hand, leading them to a cozy corner.
Tania began surveying the appetisers, the home-grown soups, the pasta courses, the fish, chicken and other meats, the vegetarian options, the daily specials, the puddings, ice-creams, the cheese boards, the fruit, the coffees, liqueurs. She felt exhausted. "This menu never ends!"
And then hunger and desire did its work. Tania chose the leek soup, Gary the parsnip. For the main course, they both alighted on one of the specials: partridge with roasted chestnuts and honey-glazed vegetables. And bread. Tania's hands kept reaching for the crusty rolls in the basket. As the waitress replenished them, Tania noticed the girl's plump arms and the tummy surging out of her uniform.
"Do you think they come here thin and put on weight eating the restaurant's own food?"
Gary smiled. "That's a lovely thought."
"Gary," she continued, "it's not a crime to love food, is it?" She pushed aside her plate, every morsel gone. "I think I've been denying myself for so long."
And then came dessert. Staring at the Double Chocolate Horseshoe Surprise that landed in front of her, as if dropped from heaven, Tania ran a hand over her belly, pressing tight against her slacks. "I don't know if I've got room!"
"Loosen a button. Let it come."
Tania eased the waistband. The pressure lifted, and the horseshoe began to vanish, inch by inch. "Gary?" she said gently, putting down her fork. "I think it's time you moved in properly. It's silly keeping up two flats and pretending. Let's do this relationship for real. If you can stand me and my moods."
Unprompted, breasts bouncing, the wine waitress brought champagne.
Back at her flat -- their flat now -- there seemed nothing left to do but sidle into bed. "Come on, famous artist," Gary beckoned.
They lay on the sheets, naked. Gary's fingers began fondling as she talked about the canvasses she might pick for de Wyre's exhibition: the water colours of oaks and chestnuts in full leaf, the sun creating abstract patterns of light and shade, the studies in tree trunks, round and gnarled.
He stopped her mouth with kisses. "Enough talk," he said, levering himself up and over her body, running his hands down her softened contours. "Oooh, I'm almost sinking!" he said, feeling the fat piled high on her tummy. "You haven't put on weight from the meal, already, have you?"
"Maybe," she said, sounding resigned. "My stomach really feels stretched."
"You're like a galleon in full sail, soft as an over-ripe melon. And I want to eat you! Come on, let's get down to it."
"Hang on," she said, easing herself from under him. "I just want to check something."
She went to the bathroom, naked as the day she was born, and moved gingerly towards the remains of the shattered mirror, propped up behind the sink. She took a deep breath, and drew herself upright. It was time to face the enemy.
Tania held her newly ample breasts in her hands, feeling their weight and circumference, watching them wobble vigorously as they bounced back onto her body's padding once she let go. She placed two hands on her lower stomach, heavy from the meal, curving up and out from above her crotch, thickly layered with fat. She stroked her belly upwards, downwards, sideways, breathing slowly, pondering the certainty that in future it would be bigger still. She gazed in awe at her midriff, where the fat turned tender, soft as honey, bulging out gracefully at her sides. She wiggled a finger inside her belly button, watching the surrounding fat shake in rhythm. She looked down at her thighs, sturdy as the tree trunks she loved to paint, and felt them brush against each other as she shifted one leg, then the other. She turned to the side, caressed and squeezed her plump bottom and noted how her tummy swelled out further even than her breasts. And then, after another deep breath to steel herself, she stared straight into her own eyes, sizing up the face, round and golden as the summer sun, framed by dark, boisterous, dancing hair, her cheeks glowing, the jaw rounded out with the beginnings of a permanent double chin.
And then she stopped.
"Mirror mirror on the wall," she said quietly, rocking in time to the words' rhythm, "who's the fairest of them all?"
She fell silent. You could hear the faint rumble of traffic outside, the one-note squawk of a blackbird in the garden ushering in the night hours, and, if you listened closely enough, the agitation of her own heart.
An age seemed to pass. Then she leaned forward, and whispered to the face in the mirror, with contentment, wonder and love.
"It is me," she said. "It is me. It is me."
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