Photograph by Reelika Ramot
A man is trying to sleep. The night is in the peak heat of summer, and a thick film of sweat swaddles his body. In this sticky state, he feels like a newborn. His wife is in the living room reading on the couch; some prize-winning novel she started last week. He has to work early the next day, so he shuts his eyes and splays his legs open so things can hang freely. It is too hot for sleeping.
But he has to try. A weak breeze squeezes past the window screen and pokes his shapeless body, which resembles tapioca stuffed in sandwich bags. The hairs on his skin go up in relief. The air cools him, and he sighs deeply. He thinks about the dinner his wife made—a chicken fricassee with rice and beans; it was good, a little on the spicy side, maybe there was too much chili powder—and the sauces and lumps of fowl floating in his stomach like kids in a pool.
But he's starting to feel his pores gasping, oozing grease all over his body. The sheets beneath his Buick of a back are now damp, and the space inside the folds of his fat are actually beginning to feel wet.
He thinks about the dinner he ate, and then he thinks about his wife who cooked it. These days she sits a lot in their living room, where the carpet color matches the curtain color. The house they live in is white, with black shutters. It was finally purchased last November after twenty-five years of mortgages. They almost lost it in the "economic downturn," or the "recession," or the "subprime mortgage crisis." But they'd lost a lot of things, so it wasn't shocking.
Kids, for instance. His children are almost grown up, some in college, some working their first jobs, all far away from him. The last time he saw his eldest son Randy was at an Olive Garden, behind an endless basket of breadsticks and across from his son's then-girlfriend, whose cleavage eclipsed the endless salad bowl. He was graduating college. He did not turn out tall, like his mother. He took a banking job a few months later and hasn't called home since.
But that's just what grown-ups do, the man tells himself. They get busy. He isn't sure what the official age for a grown-up is, and anyhow, he is no example of that. He quit college to chase his dreams.
"What the hell is a cinnamontographer?" his own father had bellowed at the dinner table.
The man never ended up going to film school, or working on any film at all.
Then they died. Both his parents. That was another thing he lost.
Also, erections. To say that he and his wife didn't have sex was probably untrue; they just stopped having it with each other. Once he walked in on Sally jacking something with urgency between her legs on the couch. In a suspended moment he saw her, silent, eyes beamed ahead like headlights with the focus of an archer, sprinting to some euphoric finish line on their wall.
"Is that—" he began. "Is that corn?"
She cried as he stood there, coat still on, frozen with his briefcase and sagging eyes that observed the mechanics of ecstasy from afar.
That was three years ago. Another hundred pounds later, he was here, sweating like a whale in cardiac arrest on a bed by himself.
Stop thinking, he thinks.
His wife turns the page and it makes a crinkling sound. It echoes throughout the living room and bounces into his, ricocheting off his translucent thighs and springing onto the ceiling, landing hard on his bulbous nose. It veers against the wall and pummels square into the vast, useless space between his legs. He turns over in agony and lashes the pillow across the back of his head. No, no, no, he moans. He wallows, face-down, into the mattress. The backs of his thighs are sweating. His eyeballs are sweating. His wife will not stop reading.
Suddenly he thinks of a pot roast. That's it, a pot roast, tender and moist—not unlike the underside of his arms—glazed all over with its own fat and some chopped carrots. He imagines his fork delving its glinting prongs into the sinewy chunk. It disintegrates to the touch. The saliva mills of his mouth are up and roaring, and he angles for the perfect bite. But the meat slides right through the fork like thin cough syrup, and he can't get it onto the utensil. It's like eating soup with chopsticks. He stabs at it again, but the chunk only runs down his fork—a caramelized drip right onto the plate, where it pools back into the shape of a perfect pot roast.
The whole affair makes him sweat more. The plate is a vast white sheet, just under his nose, and he chases the food around with his fork before succumbing to more desperate measures. If the meat will not come to him, he will go to the meat. He stamps his massive, doughy cheek on the plate and opens wide, a gaping hangar where the pot roast will park for eternity. The meat is a dark, sideways mound on his horizon.
With his free hand he nudges it, just to be sure.
It stays firm.
His saliva glands lose control and blast an uncontrollable highway of warm drool onto the plate, but no matter—it's going back inside anyway. His fingers prod the chunk just before his eyes.
One more shove and it's in.
He can almost taste it.
The last push is a hard one and he can hardly contain his anticipation before he shovels the meat at full velocity into his face, yes, here kingdom comes—when suddenly he arrives at the fleshy cram of his own fingers, the pudgy pointer jammed hard down his own throat and none of it, not a thing, tasting like pot roast and carrots.
It was gone.
It had left him, again.
Why, he moans. Why, why, why. He thinks he's crying, but it could well be the pond of drool beneath his face. The entire episode tires him. In five hours he would have to get up, drive twenty minutes to rot under mail room lights for the day, drive home and stare at the light beer selection in the fridge. He will talk, or not talk, to his wife over dinner. She will read her novel, likely for eternity. His children were never coming home. He couldn't remember the color of his living room carpet. He was two hundred and eighty pounds.
Two hundred and eighty. He thinks about this number. The eight does not look unlike him when he's wearing a belt. He could be the zero lying down. It all flattens out.
He counts blubbery sheep that have his face. They jump over a fence. He hits two hundred and eighty and starts over again, this time with a mustache on. He fancies himself French. The breeze is coming back. It's nice. It grazes over his skin and he turns on his side so it can hit his back, the one his wife used to caress but now tells him to wax. "It isn't that bad," he protests, but when she makes a face he's only seen right before she vomits, he nods his head and does nothing about it.
There, that wind—it's a wind now—gliding over the right plane of his body. It's as if someone is petting him, and he settles on that—the sensation of being pet.
He thinks he's asleep. Maybe not. But he feels different suddenly—his body, folded over on its right, is thinner, lighter, more athletic. His tits disappear. Everything is slim. He has difficulty breathing and puts his hand to his neck—there's a necktie there, that's why. He loosens it, and realizes there's a collar. The collar is attached to a shirt, and the shirt is underneath a jacket, and the jacket is over a pair of pressed pants. He's wearing a full suit. He looks good. At least that's what he's feeling—that he looks good. There's no way to know for sure, is there. He wiggles his toes and sees that his feet are in a pair of nice shoes. They're buffed and shining and the laces look made from silk. The shoes have an elegant shape to the toe: long, sleek, made of good brown leather. His grandfather used to tell him that you could judge a man's character by his shoes. So they're definitely not his shoes. His shoes are boxy, square at the toe, and there's a hole in the sole. Sometimes he can feel himself leaking out of that hole onto the pavement, where he steps himself all over the city's sidewalks.
What's he doing in a suit?
He's in a cold room and looks down, where a red carpet begins to form beneath his feet. At first he wonders if he's bleeding out of that hole in his shoes, but realizes he's not wearing his shoes. He's not even himself, is he? The bottom of his pants are perfectly trimmed. He can actually see his toes, which is refreshing. The carpet rolls out in all directions and the room fills with people, all dressed like him, some women in skirt suits, other men in the same crisp outfits of varying shades: blue, gray, black, blue, gray, black. They notice him. They say hello. His hand is being shaken many times over, and he finds himself smiling at their attention.
"Hey, Walter," they say, and they look into his eyes. "Good to see you again."
His name isn't Walter, but it doesn't matter. He must look really good. They are milling all over this room like caffeinated ants, walking bolted paths to where, he's not sure, but they're doing it with purpose, and that's all that matters.
He gets a cup of coffee from the breakfast spread and stirs in cream with a silver spoon. Maybe a person like him shouldn't be putting cream in his coffee. He should probably take it with soy milk. So he sets his old coffee aside and gets a fresh one, this time with soy. He stirs it with satisfaction and takes a sip, pretending he likes the flavor, which is horrid and tastes like bong water. He's had bong water before, in college, before he dropped out. His frat elders videotaped him, drunk and stoned, chugging it with a jock strap taped to his face. He threw up on the carpet, and they made him do it again.
He hasn't had bong water since.
He looks across the crowd and feels placed. He belongs here. The soy coffee is beginning to taste better, and he no longer feels the strangle of his necktie. He likes the way people are shaking his hand, even though they shake everyone else's hand the same way. A man next to him barks into phone and bats his arms around to make a point. A woman checks her blackberry, eyes hardening at something that drives her out of the cold, carpeted room.
It is suddenly beginning to feel hot again. Walter, or so they call him, tugs at his necktie. He wants to take it off. He unleashes it in the middle of the room and none of the other tie-wearing people seem to notice, so he takes off his jacket. There's a blast of air conditioning from nowhere. He turns his left side to face it and lets it run over his forearms, his ribcage, his firm buttocks. It feels so good he takes off his shirt, just unbuttons it right there amid all those people and none of them stares. Fine, then I'll take my pants off too, he decides, and he takes his pants off, letting the cool blast air things out.
His shoes are the last to go. He's sad to take them off and has the sense he'll never see them again. They were beautiful shoes, and he wished they were his. But as he loosens those laces and tugs off the heel, there's sand. It comes pouring out, as if he'd been at the beach, and he, from long ago, had buried them there. The sand doesn't stop flowing and he checks the sole.
There's a hole in it.
So much sand has leaked out that he's in fact standing on a mound of it. Something caws overhead: a seagull. The waves are just to his right. There's a little boy pounding a stick into the wet sand with a plastic shovel. It looks like someone he knows. The little boy's mother—she's also familiar, but before he can put a finger on all of it, someone calls out to him.
"Walter!" she cries.
She approaches him, her blond hair caught in the wind like a tangle of hay, a sand dusting over the bridge of her nose. Her freckles splatter high on her cheekbones.
"But I'm not Walter!" he replies.
"Oh, Walter," she says with relief. "There you are. We thought we lost you."
She looks exactly like the woman in an advertisement he and his wife passed two days ago walking past a Gap store.
"They don't actually look like that you know," she'd said to him.
He wasn't sure what she meant, so he grunted, and continued on their way. He thinks about this now as the woman from the window smiles at him, looking exactly like that. He wants to ask his wife what she meant. But his wife isn't here.
She's over at the sand pit, with the little boy. Walter squints at her and she's the spitting image of herself in their wedding photo, the one tucked behind the coffee coasters. Her brown hair is frazzled, half-up in a barrette. Her tanned breasts are spilling out just slightly from a polka-dot one piece that hangs itself around her long neck. She's radiant. She's smiling in a way that makes Walter squeeze his ass cheeks together and mush his fingernails into damp palms.
I can't go talk to her, he thinks. She's so pretty. She's too pretty for me to go over there and talk to her.
His wife is playing with their firstborn, Randy. He's shoveling sand all over her chest and she's giggling and Walter is getting a hard-on. This is wrong, he thinks.
This isn't me.
He stares at the beginning of his own family. Why doesn't it feel his? It's his wife, and that's their son, conceived the night they shared two bottles of cheap Merlot at Josephine's, on Pine Street, and came home to empty the liquor cabinet. Randy was a five-pound, six-ounce accident. Then came Lainey, then Max. Andrea was born after a miscarriage.
That had been hard on his wife. He had cupped her limp hands and felt her lungs shiver through her back each night when he cradled her. When day broke, there was the sting of warm salt when he kissed her cheeks.
He had been familiar with the nape of her neck, then.
At what point had they left themselves?
What had he done Tuesday night? Wednesday night? How long had she been reading that novel?
"Walter," comes a voice.
His name isn't Walter. But he glances up anyway. The people from the conference room are standing, blue, gray, black, on the beach. Their suits move like flags in the wind and they're arranged like props around each other, as if on set. He feels a momentary sense of relief. They know him. They had shaken his hand—with smiles, no less. If only he could get a soy coffee.
But something strange is happening, he thinks. The girl from the advertisement is standing before them, gesticulating. Walter strains to hear what she's saying. The cries of children and seagulls and waves drown out her voice.
"Walter—" she is saying. "Do you know where he's gone?"
They shake their heads. They seemed baffled. She hoists his shoe to identify him.
How does she have that?
Yet there it is, canoe-like in the way his foot had stretched it. It's his. He sees the laces, frayed like floss, the black leather more like scoffed bark gnawed by an animal. That boxy toe, fit for an oaf. He stuffs all of himself into those shoes each day, all two hundred and eighty pounds, and this day, after all this time, he wonders why he never bought a new pair of shoes.
There's a hole in the sole.
My god, that hole. Sand is flowing out it like a broken hourglass. It runs endlessly. She's holding it up and the wind is blowing the stream of manila beach westward. The crowd considers and shakes their heads.
"Do you know where Walter is?" she asks again.
There is an urgency in her voice that touches him. But he's losing track of the girl's voice. The wind is whipping sound away. He merely sees the outline of her lips, the shallow shape it makes of the name, Walter, her eyebrows pushed together in the frenzy of a mother who's lost her child.
The suits shake their heads again.
"No," they say. "We don't know a Walter."