Ghosts. Actual and metaphorical. I’ve written about them. Mostly, about how they haunt. I have not written about how they are free of their bodies. Maybe this why they fascinate me. They are no longer subject to restrictions of the body.
My foot hurt. I couldn’t put any pressure on it. It didn’t occur to me to not show up to work. It was impossible to ignore that I had trouble walking from one place to the next. This was just a few months ago in May. Customers, and co-workers were annoyed that I couldn’t move as fast as I usually did.
My boss asked me if I wanted to go home.
“No, I’ll be fine,” I said.
“Are you sure?” he said.
I went home. My plan had been to put my foot up and rest. I figured the pain would go away in a day or so. I could endure it until then. The real issue was I was afraid to go to the doctor. I’m guarded, suspicious of healthcare professionals. I’m waiting for the inevitable body shaming. The advice to lose weight as if that’s the only issue worth discussing. My BMI is 40. I am classified as severely obese.
As Roxane Gay says in her memoir, Hunger, “…when people use the word ‘obese’ they aren’t merely being literal. They are offering forth an accusation. It is strange, and perhaps, sad that medical doctors came up with this terminology when they are charged with first doing no harm.”
This is why, despite having insurance, which I know I am fortunate to have an employer that provides it, I did not want to go to the doctor. However, my roommate would not give up trying to convince me.
Use the health insurance I paid for out of my check every two weeks.
Make sure it’s not broken.
Fix it before it gets worse.
Finally, I agreed to go. I didn’t take anything to read or do with me because I figured they would tell me to rest it and send me home. I’d be gone a couple hours at best.
I felt myself getting defensive as I waited to be called back to the exam room. I figured the first thing they would want to talk about was my weight and not the actual reason I had come in. My experience with doctors had been they tried to hustle you for their own agendas.
The last time I had been to a doctor had been five years ago in Urbana-Champaign. I was fatter than I am now, just under three hundred pounds. I had gotten a new job, switched insurances, and needed a new doctor. The only doctor accepting new patients was the director of the weight loss clinic. He thought I’d be a perfect participant.
I told him that I wasn’t interested, but he insisted I think about it. He kept saying he didn’t want to pressure me into a decision. He would support any decision I made. He would run some blood work, we would talk about the clinic next time, if I wanted.
To appease him, I said I would consider it. Even as we shook hands and I headed out of the exam room, I knew I was going to say no. I had no interest in weight loss. I just wanted a doctor that I could go to if I needed one. One that I could trust to not make me feel bad about my weight.
When I went back a few weeks later, he came in and the first thing he told me was that I needed a liver transplant. I started to cry. “Not right now,” he said. “But it’s a possibility if you don’t lose weight.”
I was confused. He told me that my labs came back fine. Nothing was wrong with me. However, he saw inflamed livers in a lot of people my size, so he thought it best that I lose weight to prevent it from happening in the future.
“So you lied to me.”
“I’ve never had anyone accuse me of that before.”
He sat in the chair and looked down as if he was actually hurt by that or was trying to process it. I wish I had something about him being unethical. But I was too upset and I just wanted to leave. So I did. I never went back to that doctor or any doctor for the rest of the time I lived in Urbana-Champaign
I am fat. I am fat on purpose. I want to be fatter. This is something I have never said to a doctor, felt like I could never say to a doctor. I couldn’t even say it to my therapist. I did, however, say it to my hair stylist a couple weeks ago. Her first question, “aren’t you worried about your health?
My maternal grandmother didn’t die in our house, but she spent time with us while she was sick. She had cancer. This was the most time I ever spent with my grandmother, my mom’s mom as I called her because calling her grandma never felt right. I was in fourth grade. I remember my aunts and cousins coming to visit one weekend. My cousins had started to pick on me, call me names. My mom’s mom had heard them, had summoned me to the living room where she sat in wingback next to the bay window. She told me to sit on her lap. I shook my head. She was thin, boney, her skin leathery. I told her I was afraid to hurt her. She scoffed and told me to sit. I did.
“Don’t let anyone talk to you like that,” she said.
“I mean it,” she stared right into my eyes. “Now give me a kiss.”
She moved her face, so I could kiss her cheek.
As her illness got worse, her body betrayed her more, and she couldn’t get out of bed, could no longer come down the stairs. One day while I was at school, she was taken back to her house forty-five minutes away so she could be closer to her doctor.
I wouldn’t see her again. I remember one night, my father lifting me out of bed, putting me in the car, and driving me and my siblings to his mother’s house, my grandmother’s house. The next morning he told us that my mom’s mom had died. It wasn’t a surprise. I remember feeling sad. I don’t remember crying.
Weeks or months later, I don’t remember how long it was after she died, my family and I had all been out and when we came home the entire house smelled like the rose perfume my mom’s mom used to wear. At first, we all searched room to room to see where the smell was coming from, to see if someone had gotten into the house while we were gone. No one had. The smell was everywhere, but strongest in the room where she had stayed.
My blood pressure was high. Higher than the practitioner at Urgent Care had ever seen in the clinic, she said. I was in danger of having a stroke or heart attack at any minute. I told her about my last experience with a doctor.
“I’m not trying to scare you,” she said.
“I can’t treat you here. You have to go the emergency room,” she said. She seemed very serious. Worried. Genuine.
“I’m not lying to you,” she said. “I want you to live.”
“Me too,” I said as I started to cry.
She told me that she would call over to the hospital, so that they would know I was coming. The sooner I could get there, the better. She wished me good luck. She never mentioned my weight in anyway.
I called for a car and headed over to the hospital.
The name of the hospital was St. Mary’s, the same name as the elementary school I had attended. I thought about telling my Lyft driver this, but ultimately it didn’t matter. It was something else to focus on other than the idea that I could have a stroke or heart attack at any minute. My foot was the only thing that hurt, so it seemed like a ridiculous idea that one of those could happen. Still I felt very alone sitting in that car. It wasn’t a long drive. I kept trying to pay attention to where we were as if I didn’t want to get lost.
The logistics of being checked into the emergency room, changing into the gown, giving blood and urine samples, distracted from any worry about dying. I made jokes with the hospital staff, the nurses, and the doctors to cope. I took selfies in my hospital gown. I took pictures of the vials of my blood, the little white cups filled with pink and green pills, the wiring they hooked me up to monitor the electrical activity of my heart. It was a coping mechanism. The nurse kept coming into check my blood pressure. He asked if I had a headache or chest pains. I had a slight ache at the base of my skull.
“That’s your blood pressure,” he said as he squeezed my toes. He said my socks were cute before he told me that my body was fighting the blood pressure medications they had given me.
“C’mon mister,” he said. “You need to get that blood pressure down.”
Him being a little flirty was both a help in that it lightened the mood, but strangely made me realize how bad things were. He left the room, closed the curtain. As I sat there alone, the pain in the back of my skull getting worse, I let myself think for the first time since I had arrived that I might die. I assumed it would be quick, over before I knew what was happening. Only my roommate knew where I was. I had been updating him via text. In case, just in case, I would never have a chance to tell any of my friends how I felt about them, I posted on Facebook: Even though I might not say it, might have trouble saying it, I love you all.
Transformation. During my second year of grad school, I was the assistant nonfiction editor for Ninth Letter. This meant spending a lot of time with the faculty nonfiction editor as we discussed submissions, the direction of the nonfiction portion for the issue we were working on. Somehow, I don’t remember what triggered him to tell this story because he was the kind of guy who told a lot of stories, he told me about his first wife who had come out as a lesbian. I can’t remember if it was before or after they divorced, but what stuck with me was how he discussed how her appearance, her body changed, after she came out. He said she cut her hair short. Her body became thicker. She wore more stereotypically masculine clothes. I don’t remember him saying that the changes made him feel one way or another. He seemed more interested in being witness to the change rather than commenting on it.
I wonder if my ex-wife felt the same way when my body started to change. As I grew bigger, buzzed my hair off, grew my beard out because this more the way I wanted to look, had a need to look this way. I wonder if these were signs that I was on my way out.
The next time the nurse came back and took my blood pressure, it had gone down. They had found the right combination of medications. I was admitted to the hospital for the weekend for observation. When they moved me upstairs, pushed me down the hall in the hospital bed, I didn’t feel shamed or ashamed, I smiled at people as I was driven past them. My hospital gown kept falling from the weight of the EKG wires. Other people looked away. I would pull the gown back up because it was cold in the hallway, not because I felt bad about my body.
My fatness was never cited as a reason for my blood pressure. I was told to eat more vegetables and fruits, reduce as much sodium as I could out of my diet, but never told to lose weight. I kept expecting it. They did keep asking about my family. If my mother or father had blood pressure issues. As far as I knew, neither did.
“That’s strange,” the doctor said. “With your numbers, I’d expect they would.”
I didn’t tell the doctor in the hospital about being a gainer. There never was a reason to. I would never see this doctor again. Friends asked me if I was going to still gain or if I was going to lose weight. I told them that I still planned on gaining.
But there were moments in the hospital and after I left where I did consider losing weight or at least considered not actively gaining weight. There had been a number of other times throughout my life where I tried to escape my desire to gain, to be fat.
Mark Doty says in his memoir, Firebird: “The origins of sexual feeling don’t interest me much…doesn’t the need to understand the origins of desire arise from the impetus to control it?”
I had tried to control my desire. Denied both of them: being gay and being a gainer. About a month before I would came out as gay, I was with my wife and a another couple at the Original Pancake House. I liked how full and bloated the gigantic portions of pancakes made me feel. It was a place designed for gluttony, everyone ate a lot, so I could eat as much as I wanted without any suspicion.
About halfway through the meal, another group was seated a couple tables away from us, one of the people in the group was a man I had chatted with briefly when I discovered a website for fat men who wanted to date other fat men. I had signed up to see what the website was like. I told myself I would only look, I wouldn’t talk to anyone. It was a test, I told myself, to make sure I was actually gay, to confirm that I did like other big men. I put a picture to almost dare myself. This man sent me a message. We started chatting. I felt incredibly guilty and disappeared. Ghosted.
At first I was afraid that he would see me, recognize me, and I’d have to explain it to my wife, to him. That quickly changed to wanting him to see me. I fantasized about being at the table with him. Both of us eating as many pancakes as we wanted. Him rubbing my belly under the table. Us going home, cuddling, and napping with full bellies. He didn’t notice me. We walked by him as we left, but nothing happened. It’s for the best that way. It would have been a terrible way to come out
When I finally came out, I told my ex-wife that my gayness was a switch and once it had been flipped it was impossible to turn back off.
“No,” she said. “Not a switch, more like a dimmer. It must have always been there.”
She was exactly correct. And it was the same with gaining. I’d spent most of my life trying to turn off fundamental pieces of myself. An expectation to turn off my queerness seemed ridiculous. But fat seemed like a different matter. I shouldn’t want to be fat. However, that desire has been with me for a long time.
In third grade, our reading teacher also doubled as our health teacher. I don’t remember what the rest of the day’s lesson entailed, I simply remember her saying that if you sit at home and eat potato chips, you’re going to get fat. I’m probably the only one in the class who took this warning as a how-to guide because even then, I wanted to be fat, I wanted to be fatter
I remember my grandparents took me to see Gremlins. There was a fat man at the end of the counter. He wore a suit, his tie too short for the full length of his belly. He was alternating salting his popcorn and grabbing napkins. Before I knew what was happening, I went over and stood next to him.
I had some idea about transference. I thought if I stood next to him, somehow a little of whatever energy or force that allowed him to be fat could be siphoned to me, allowing me to be as fat as him. His belly was wondrous, round, yet it didn’t sag, it projected out from him in a most elegant way. What I really wanted was to touch his belly, to let the full power of fatness flow through me. Of course, I didn’t. I knew it would be strange to touch a stranger’s belly.
My grandmother called me back to her and my grandfather. I rejoined them in the concession line. Stay close to us, she reminded me. She was probably worried about me being kidnapped. I watched the fat man walk down the hall and disappear into one of the movie theaters. I’d go home that night and stuff a pillow under the shirt of my pajamas. I’d take the pillow case off, and stuff it under my shirt separately trying to mimic the shape of that man’s belly.
I remember enjoying the feeling of my faux belly, but also thinking that if ultimately felt unsatisfying because it wasn’t real. I wanted an actual belly. I didn’t have to think about any potential health consequences of gaining at that point. I didn’t have to think about how to tell people I was a gainer. I didn’t even know that word. I didn’t have to think about how to politely, yet firmly tell people that I don’t need their exercise or diet advice. Didn’t have to consider telling them about how unhappy, mentally distressed, I felt anytime I had lost weight. I did think about what I wanted to eat the next day. I fell asleep with the desire to be fat and the desire for other fat men building inside of me.
Ghosts. They are free of their bodies, and the limitations and restrictions that can come with them, but they are emotionally stuck. This is has never been more evident than in A Ghost Story. This movie is truly the story of the ghost, not the story of the people being haunted by the ghost. The ghost, only identified as C in the credits, cannot leave his house. His emotional attachment will not allow him. He is trapped.
The idea that I need to have a thin body, or at least a less fat body or that I shouldn’t want a fat body is it’s own kind of emotional trap. One that I am more than ready to let go. Do I worry about my health? Sometimes. But thinness is not a guarantee of healthiness. I have been thin and I have been fat. I prefer fat. I am happier fat. There has been a freedom in asserting that.
In A Ghost Story, C is able to leave his emotional trap when he reads a not that M left in a crack in the wall when she moved out of the house. We do not see what the note says. We must imagine it. My choice is that she wrote “Safe, safe, safe”. We see these words earlier in the movie when the ghost pushes some books off a shelf and one of them falls open, the camera pushes in on those words. On my second viewing, I watched M write the note, and it seemed she made three Ss. I could be wrong. I could be again trying to make sense of something that has no answer. I want to believe C found comfort in the idea that M was saying the house was a place where she felt safe.
This resonated with me because safe, safe, safe is how I want to feel when I go to the doctor and trust them to care for me.
Safe, safe, safe is how I want to feel in my body and my desires for my body and my desire for other men.
Safe, safe, safe is how I want to feel in the world.