A short story by Joyce Faulkner
(From her book “Losing Patience”)
“Two hundred and forty-eight pounds.” The nurse peered through the lower lenses of her bifocals. Mattie glanced over her shoulder. Perhaps no one heard the nurse’s pronouncement.
She stepped off the scale and slipped back into her sandals. “These are very heavy shoes.”
The nurse scowled.
“Guess you’ve heard that one before.” Mattie disguised her blush with a grin.
“Ten times a day.”
“I’m healthy though.” She followed the nurse down the hallway to a small room and crawled up on the examination table. “Healthy as a horse.”
The woman wrapped the blood pressure cuff around Mattie’s arm.
Mattie forced herself to relax. “I get nervous when you do that.”
“One ninety over one ten.”
“Give me your finger.” The nurse unzipped a black case.
“Glucometer. The doctor wants to check your blood sugar.”
Mattie jumped as the nurse pricked her finger and milked a blood drop onto a test strip. The glucometer beeped. “One sixty-five,” she read. “Are you sure you didn’t eat anything this morning?”
“Nothing.” Mattie gave up trying to be merry and dangled her legs over the edge of the examination table, fighting back tears. It was all beginning again.
“The doctor will see you in a moment. By the way, Happy Birthday, Mattie.”
“Happy Birthday dear Mattie, Happy Birthday to you.” The kids gathered around the table as Mattie blew out ten candles.
“Here, sweetheart. Let me cut the cake for you.” Her mother whisked the round pink confection into the kitchen.
“Are we having ice cream too?” Ronnie bounced in his seat.
“You bet,” Mattie’s dad patted her little brother on the back.
“You got it, buddy.”
The little boy clapped his hands. “With Chocolate sauce?”
“Here ya go, Mattie. Happy Birthday, darling.” Her mother sat a plate with a miniscule slice of the cherry cake in front of her.
“Can’t I have ice cream too?” Mattie eyed the syrupy dessert the other kids were eating.
“You’re getting a little hefty, kiddo.” Her father spooned chocolate drenched ice cream into his mouth. “Wouldn’t want anyone to call you Fatty Mattie, would you?”
“Fatty Mattie!” Ronnie laughed with his mouth full.
“Fatty Mattie, Fatty Mattie!” The other kids chanted.
Mattie scowled. “Stop it, Ronnie. Make them stop, Mama.”
“Shush! Stop it or I’ll take away YOUR ice cream.” Her mother called from the kitchen. “I swear, Paul. You act like a kid yourself.”
“Well, she IS a little tub of lard. Whose fault is that?” Her father belched and wandered into the den with a second dish of Mattie’s birthday cake and ice cream.
Mattie eyed the cake in front of her. It wasn’t much more than a bite. “Come on, Mattie. Don’t be like that.” Her mother sat down with a tiny slice of her own.
“I want what they got.” Mattie stuck out her lower lip.
“You know how he is.” Her mother whispered. “Don’t get him going.”
“Hello, Mattie. How have things been?” Doctor Reece shook her hand before sitting down at his desk with her file.
“I’m fine, sir.”
He shuffled through the papers in her file. “Things are getting out of hand with your blood pressure, Mattie.” He took off his glasses and turned to face her. “Did you ever consider losing weight?”
“You are beautiful.”
Mattie stood at the foot of the bed, caressing his foot. “Aw, you are sweet.”
He reached out for her. “So slim and trim.”
She crawled into bed beside him, covering them both with the sheets. “I love you, Eddie.”
“Promise me you’ll not get fat like your Mama. Promise me you’ll always be beautiful like you are today.”
She rolled away from him. “My mother is beautiful.”
“Your mother is FAT.” He snuggled up behind her.
“That doesn’t make her any less beautiful.”
He kissed the back of her neck. “No, I suppose it doesn’t. I’m sorry, baby. I didn’t mean anything by it.”
“Yes, you did.” She wiped her eyes with the corner of the sheet. It hadn’t been an easy transition from chubby little girl to tall, lithesome young woman.
“I was an insensitive clod, Mattie. I didn’t mean to criticize your mom. She’s a lovely lady. I was trying to make you feel good. I screwed up.”
She bit her knuckle and closed her eyes.
“What do you mean, consider?”
“I mean your numbers are lousy. You are fifty-eight years old and a hundred and twenty pounds overweight. Your blood pressure is out of sight and so is your sugar. When’s the last time you got any exercise?”
“Today. I climbed the escalator two steps at a time.”
“Mattie, this is no laughing matter.”
The smile faded from her face. “You think I’m heavy on purpose? Is that what you think?”
“All you have to do is push yourself back from the table.”
“Oh? Is that all I have to do?” Her eyes flashed. “You think it’s as simple as that?”
“Use more calories than you take in and you will lose weight.” The doctor’s sigh was long and wheezy. “You lose even a little bit of weight and your sugar will be easier to control. So will your blood pressure.”
She took the potato chips off of her plate and stashed them in her napkin as soon as the waitress walked away. “I’ll be right back,” she whispered.
“Are you feeling sick again?”
“You know how pregnant women are, Eddie. We have to pee all the time.” She squeezed out of the booth and waddled to the bathroom, holding her napkin against her chest.
Someone was in the handicapped stall. Mattie danced from one foot to the other. “Please, please, please.” The door swung open and an old woman shuffled to the sinks, using an aluminum walker. Mattie turned sideways to allow her to pass before hurrying into the stall.
Standing over the toilet, Mattie crushed the potato chips inside her napkin. Her nostrils flared at the smell of stale oil. Holding the bundle over the bowl, she dusted the tiny pieces into the water. Relieved to be rid of them, she pressed the chrome handle and watched the water swirl around. “Thank God!” She murmured to herself as she ripped the paper into tiny shreds and flushed them as well.
“I was about to send in the Cavalry to see if you fell in.” Eddie bit into his half-eaten burger.
“I needed to get rid of some things.” She examined the tuna sandwich trying to decide how much she dared eat.
“You’ve been throwing up for weeks. You have to eat something.” He dunked a fry into a puddle of Heinz Catsup.
“The doctor says I’m gaining too much too fast.”
“That doctor is nuts. You can lose it after the baby is born. Besides, you aren’t eating enough to keep a Chihuahua alive.”
“I know, but look at me. I’m puffed up like a beached whale.”
“You worry too much. Eat. Eat!” He gestured toward her sandwich.
She picked up a butter knife. “Maybe half.”
The flavor exploded in her mouth. She gulped down the triangle of bread and tuna, in spite of her determination to savor it. Still hungry, she drank a glass of water with a slice of lemon in it. The other half of her sandwich beckoned. Before she lost control, she peeled off the bread and poured a small mound of salt on the tuna.
Eddie rolled his eyes. “How many calories, Mattie?”
It was hard to think. A boiled egg early in the day. Some celery around noon. A glass of milk mid-afternoon. The sandwich. She added up the calories. “Around five hundred.”
“You can’t live on that.”
“I have to. I’ve gained forty pounds and I’m only five months along.”
“Oh come on, no one gains that much weight on what you eat. You must be sneaking food.”
Sneaking food? The thought was riveting, but she didn’t dare. Once she started eating, it was like sliding down an endless mud bank. She couldn’t stop.
“I recommend you see our nutritionist. She’ll get you on the straight and narrow. The appropriate number of calories. The right mix of exercise. You stick to it and you’ll see a marked improvement in a short time.” The doctor busied himself writing something in her file.
“How many calories?”
Mattie snorted. “You have to be kidding! I don’t eat that much now.”
The doctor raised one eyebrow. “Perhaps you are miscalculating your caloric intake.”
She shook her head. “I’m a pro at this, doctor. I’ve lost a thousand pounds in my lifetime.”
He backed down. “Fifteen hundred calories?”
Her laugh was sarcastic. “Get real.”
“How much do you normally weigh?” The secretary held a Bic over the form.
“Do you mean what am I supposed to weigh? Or what do I usually weigh?”
The woman didn’t smile.
Mattie gave up. “One twenty-five.”
“How long since you weighed one twenty-five?”
The woman wrote something on the paper. “How much weight do you want to lose?”
Mattie thought for a moment. “If I could get down to one hundred and fifty, I’d be happy.”
“Let’s see, that’s sixty pounds.”
Her shoulders sagged. “Yes.”
“Let’s see, with drugs and daily visits — four hundred dollars plus food.”
“What kind of drugs?”
“A stimulant to keep you going — and a vitamin shot once a week. You’ll need to be monitored every day while you’re eating less than one thousand calories.”
“How low will I go?”
“Six hundred calories.”
“Ha! No sweat.”
Doctor Reece leaned back in his chair. “How many times have you tried, Mattie?”
“I started out with Weight Watchers in the early seventies. Lost twenty-four pounds after our first baby and kept it off ten months. Then I got pregnant again.”
“Gained too much?”
“Lost too much. Ended up in the hospital. Gained too much while nursing. Then I went to a Bariatric Center and lost forty-two pounds.”
“You look GOOD!” The man kissed her lips so quickly that she stepped back in surprise.
“Don’t.” She looked around for Eddie who was filling his plate at the buffet table.
He crowded her into the corner. “Something’s different about you. I’m not sure what. New make-up? No, not that. New perfume?”
“Stop it.” She stamped her foot and wriggled away giggling, embarrassed and flattered at the same time.
“Oh, I have it now.” He held up one finger. “You are the one who used to be so fat.”
“If you go to such trouble to lose it, why do you gain it back?”
“I have to focus on it all the time.”
“It takes all my energy to lose weight. One time, I lost seventy pounds eating little packets of designer foods and exercising three times a day. It took almost two years. It’s all I thought about. It took all of my attention not to gain — and so, when shit happened, I lost my focus and it crept back.”
“What kind of shit?”
“My mother died.”
The heart monitor danced, wide sweeping peaks crashing into deep troughs. The beeping increased. Mattie touched her mother’s hand. It felt like cold butter, the fingernails turning blue.
“Oh Mama,” Mattie sobbed.
Her mother relaxed into the hospital bed, her mouth dropping open and her eyes staring upwards. Mattie backed away as her father and brother crowded around the body. Not sure if it was terror or grief that impelled her, she ran down the hall and into the courtyard — taking deep breaths, not yet ready to cry.
She found her way through the gate and jogged down the street to the park. Finding the track, she ran — her ponytail swinging behind her, her tennis shoes making soft plopping sounds on the pavement. She breathed through her mouth, pumping her arms.
Then she heard it — her own heart beating — bubump, bubump. She visualized the jagged lines marching across her mother’s monitor. Bubump, bubump. Her pulse quickened. She rounded the corner and stopped, leaning over to put her hands on her knees.
“So you stopped exercising?”
“Not all at once. I worked out until I felt my heart beating. Then I’d get scared and stop. Sometimes I’d hear it beating while I was still in bed in the morning.”
The doctor assumed an authoritarian tone. “You treat it like a project. It’s a lifestyle change. Fruits, vegetables. Small portions. Not a diet.” He made check marks in her file. “If you gain a little one week, work on losing it the next.”
“My record is twelve pounds gained in one week — that would take six weeks to lose.” Mattie laughed. “Not even Doctor Atkins can lose it any faster.”
“You can’t give up.”
His arrogant naiveté amused her. “No? Why can’t I? Why can’t I be like everyone else and eat when I’m hungry?”
Her stomach rumbled. Eddie snorted and rolled onto his side. Slipping into an XX Large fleece robe, she crept down the stairs. She’d been fasting for a week. The first two days she drank pineapple juice — then just distilled water. Her head pounded. The roast she’d made Eddie and the boys for dinner sat in the fridge. The light came on when she opened the door.
She reached for it, her hands quivering in the air. She put them in her pockets and squatted. The meat was lovely — pink at the center. She imagined how it would feel in her mouth. She closed the refrigerator door. Her longing was intense. She took a loaf of Roman Meal out of the pantry, coated the heel with strawberry jelly and sprinkled brown sugar over it. She made the second one while she was cramming the first into her mouth.
The nausea was instantaneous. She threw up into the sink, running water to hide her retching.
“Don’t think you are hiding anything from me.” Eddie was sitting at the kitchen table when she turned around, wiping her mouth on her sleeve.
She sank into a chair and laid her head on the table. “You must be so disappointed in me.”
“Mattie, look at me.”
“I’m listening.” She was too ashamed to look up.
“This has to stop. You are driving me crazy.”
“I know.” She studied her hands. Her wedding rings no longer fit.
“One of these days, I’m going to find you stretched out across the floor with x’s on your eyes.”
“Maybe that would be the best thing.”
“I know I disgust you. I disgust myself. I’m not the slim woman you wanted.”
“Did I ever say that?”
“Sort of.” She pulled a tissue out of her robe pocket and blew her nose.
He reached across the table to take her hand. “Why do you think I’m still here?”
“I’ve always wondered that. All my life, wherever we went, I was with the sexiest man in the room. How awful it must be for you to have only me.”
“Look at me, Mattie. Really look at me. I’m middle aged with my own paunch. I’m balding and my jowls sag. Hell, I even got hair growing in my ears. I’m no Kevin Costner.”
She raised her eyes. “That’s not true, Eddie. You are the most beautiful man I’ve ever known.”
“And you are still that beautiful girl I married so long ago.” He squeezed her hand. “Enough of this, Mattie. Relax. Enjoy your life.”
She wrung her hands. “I finally made peace with myself, doctor. I accepted my lot — learned to appreciate who I am. Now you are making it all matter again.”
The doctor cleared his throat. “This isn’t about how you look. It’s about your health. I can treat your blood pressure and the diabetes with medications, but I can’t help you lose weight. You have to do that yourself.”
The fear she’d known all her life knotted her muscles once again.
He wrote several prescriptions. “I don’t know why you were burdened with this condition, Mattie. You may have fought the good battle, but the war goes ever on.”
Her nails cut into her palm. “What if I don’t lose weight?”
“It makes it that much harder to control other things — more serious things. I urge you to consider it.” He handed her several prescriptions. “You’ll feel better.”
Her sandals popped against her heels as she walked down the hall. Maybe she’d try one more time. The thought of being hungry depressed her. Maybe she’d start next week after Eddie’s birthday.
He stood up as she came into the waiting room. “What did he say?”
She stuffed the prescriptions into her purse. “He says I’m fine.”
“Good.” He took her hand.
She took a deep breath. “Let’s go get a pizza.”
He kissed her fingers. “Pepperoni?”
She smiled. “That would be nice.”