Story no. 23.
She didn’t look like a stereotype to him.
“Of course, this is exactly the stereotype,” she explained, gesturing to herself. “The scarf and the jacket and the falling-down bun — ” here she touched the side of her head ” — and the skinny jeans and the Converse — all the stereotype. I fit it to a tee.”
They sat across from each other in the ice cream shop just south of Harvard Square. She had a scoop of maple walnut with wafers crumbled over the top. He had a chocolate milkshake.
“It would have been one worse if not for this stupid fucking thing,” she said, jerking her head toward the limb that splayed out awkwardly from underneath the table. Her right leg was encased entirely in black plastic and straps, a polka-dot besocked foot just poking out from the very tip of the whole mess. “I was going to make you do something quirky with me. Roller-skating.”
“I don’t know how to roller skate,” James said.
“Can you ice skate?”
“Well, we could have done something else. We could have gone up to the humane society in Somerville. They always need help walking dogs. Or cleaning out litter boxes.”
James smiled. “I’m allergic to cats.”
“I am too, but I don’t really care,” she said, staring at her hands. “I mean, you have to make choices in life, you know? And my choices include cats and . . . cat-like . . . objects.”
“You have cats?”
“No, I just volunteer every week. And you had better like dogs, or this whole thing is pointless.”
“I like dogs.”
“Good. You don’t have to have one, just like them. But yeah — I was going to go all Manic Pixie Dream Girl on your ass, haul your butt out on the Commuter Rail, make fucking driftwood sculptures or whatever. But then I hurt my knee so we’re getting ice cream. I guess it’s a stereotype, just not the one I thought I was filling.”
James didn’t know what to say to that, so he touched the edge of the red mass of fabric draped artfully around her neck. “Where did you get this?”
“There’s a shop on Newbury. It’s as expensive as fuck, but they sell cashmere, and I wanted a cashmere scarf.”
“You can get cashmere scarves at H&M.”
“Oh no, I meant cashmere yarn. I knitted it. That’s why it’s weird and lumpy. Where did you get your scarf?”
He raised his milkshake straw to his lips, and she shoveled a little hill of rapidly melting ice cream into her mouth.
James mentally reviewed their statistics: professional writer with a PhD, licensed architect with five years of experience. He could already see that they would make an acceptable and attractive couple. Her hair was red-gold, and brown eyeliner and gold eyeshadow made a soft sunset over each of her blue eyes.
“You’re prettier than the pictures you posted online,” he said.
“No.” She set down the spoon with enough force to make the table rattle.
“Really — ”
“That wasn’t a protestation of false modesty. That was a statement of fact, which is that your statement is factually untrue. I am thinner than the pictures I posted online.”
“Um — I didn’t mean to –”
“Conflating thinness with prettiness is a common error of judgment, reinforced by a capitalistic hegemony that benefits from women spending billions of dollars on weight-loss clubs every year.”
“I — well. Yes, you’re right, I guess.”
She picked up her ice cream cup and looked inside, then tipped her head back and drank the rest of it. The wafers crunched between her teeth, and she spoke very quickly, looking at his right ear, spraying little droplets of cream onto the table. “You had better not be one of those guys who makes up to fat girls because part of you recognizes their fellow humanity and wants a non-threatening and emotionally intimate friendship with someone that you of course being a thin, normal person would never actually be attracted to. You had better not be one of those guys. Those guys should be branded on their foreheads. Like Aldo Rossi — oh God, I’m a fuckwit — like Aldo Raines in Inglourious Basterds. Branded on the head with a fucking Bowie knife. I don’t know what the brand would look like, but it would designate to all passers-by: All women, every woman, know that you are no more than your body to him. Don’t trust him to see you as a whole person, ever.”
“Isn’t that kind of a contradiction, though? If guys want to be friends with fat girls because they don’t want sexual attraction to get in the way, isn’t that more respectful of her person, because you aren’t sexually objectifying her?” The exact moment she made eye contact with him again felt like a hammer dropping onto asphalt.
“No. You’re still setting yourself up as the arbiter — no. I’m not debating this with you. I’m not here to debate. My point is, fat me is real me. This — business — ” she gestured to the small body underneath the scarf and the oversized tweed blazer ” — this is a temporary condition. This is an intestinal parasite I picked up in Uttar Pradesh. If you don’t like fat me, you don’t like me. Fat is real. Lack of fatness is a lack of substantial reality.” Here she lurched out of her chair, almost falling, to grab at the crutches she had leaned against the wall.
James uncoiled from his chair abruptly, a spring released too soon, to grab her around the waist. Tears glinted in the corners of her eyes. “I’m sorry to have upset you,” he said. “Let me help you for a minute.” Then, as the thought occurred, “Are you high?”
“The doctor gave me Vicodin for my knee,” she said. “It’s good, though. It’s nice to have a tangible reason why a date failed, instead of some generic bullshit about the chemistry being off.”
Their second date was a soup party one of her friends hosted.
“This way, if you don’t like me — if you don’t think I’m interesting — when I’m not high, there are loads of other people for you to talk to, and me to talk to, and a lot of them are in architecture so you’ll have something to talk about,” she said over the phone.
When he met her at the stairs up the Central Square apartment, he looked her over. Today she was wearing a biscuit-colored knit skirt with a subtle pattern he couldn’t quite pick out.
“Did you make that too?” he said, opening his hand in the direction of her lower half.
“Yes. It took me literally a fucking year, and I’m not completely happy with it but the yarn was expensive and I’m wearing it.”
“How’s the knee?”
“Better. Look, I just have an elastic support today.” She pointed. “How’s the house on Beacon Hill?”
“Problematic,” he said, while she messaged her friend to come down and let them in. “There’s some issues with the preservation laws. The owner would like to knock out a wall on the ground floor, to make sort of a continuous living space from the kitchen to the front bay, and we argue that since you can’t really see it from the outside it shouldn’t be a problem for the integrity of the neighborhood, but the building permit is just not –”
Her architect friends were much like his architect friends, and he could see that she was holding herself at a distance from them. She sat on a bar stool and talked about the merits of the daylight in Renzo Piano’s new museum in Trento between bites of pumpkin soup.
“The thing is, it doesn’t really matter how sensitive an architect like Renzo Piano is to daylight,” she said with the force of someone who is arguing something far from her heart. “What matters is how sensitive the vernacular architecture, the regular builders, the suburbs, all those people, are to daylight.”
“Isn’t that why architecture is a profession, though?” James asked. “Because the everyday citizen is not very sensitive to issues of space and organization and light?”
“You don’t know very many non-architects, do you?” she said, and the whole room laughed.
On the fourth date, when they were making hummus in her apartment — James was a vegetarian — and he put his arm around her waist and kissed the back of her neck while she was washing the dishes, she stiffened.
“You can’t do that.” She pulled to the side. “You have to ask people before you touch them, okay?”
“Every time? That seems kind of awkward.”
“Life is fucking awkward, so get over it,” she said.
They had sex that night, and afterward he heard her laughing in the bathroom.
On the twenty-seventh date, sitting in the bubble room of the children’s museum on the harbor, she spilled an entire bucket of soapy water over them both. She had taken on a softness that she had not had when they first met, and her clothes, tailored to this body with healthy, non-colonized intestines, had started to fit her better.
“It’s called fat,” she said, shoving paper towels down the front of her shirt. “Do you want some? I’m just getting normal and fat again.”
“Yeah, give me a couple handfuls,” he said. “You should come to the gym with me and chase me around the weight machines. Look at these muscles.” He squeezed her upper arm.
They sat on a bench in front of the museum, looking at the water. “We’ll go to the ICA next,” she said.
“Do you think we’re going to be happy?” he asked.
She kicked her feet. “I think we’ll be as happy as we are honest, and as unhappy as we try to cut off the parts of ourselves that don’t fit into the idea we have of what we should look like together,” she said. “I think that I am going to Thailand for two months next year, in February, so we’ll know right there whether it’s worth it to you to not have your easy source of entertainment around. I think that I am a very empty person, and I do a lot of things to fill up that emptiness, and I couldn’t tell you which things in my life are there because I love them and which things are there because they make nicer scenery than a blank wall of inevitable oblivion.”
“I think you’re depressed,” he said.
“I’ve always been that. This is aside from that. Everything in life is constructed and artificial, and I don’t know if we can ever tell if there is real joy until it’s done and we’re away from it.”
“I don’t know if I’m up for the ICA today,” he said, and then, “Maybe we should step away from this, and see if what we have is joy.”
They did not see each other again for a year. When they did it was because he went to the shelter in Somerville; he had in mind to find a black lab like the one he had grown up with in southern Illinois. She was cleaning a bank of cat cages in a fury of shed feline hairs. Her entire face and upper chest had gone red and her body shook with sneezes.
The dog was named Henry Junior, after his own Henry Senior, who had died nearly twenty years ago. At the wedding they had the flower girl — her niece, an angelic-looking child of eleven years old — lead him up the aisle on a red leash, a camellia pinned to his collar.