Big Time

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Big Time by Victor LaValle          
i made it self-destruct. My body. I destroyed it.


It takes work to get as fat as I was. Not a fat child, I had to start pushing the limits in my teenage years. I’m five feet ten inches and at my most ambitious I weighed nearly four hundred pounds.


I filled out most in my shoulders, my back. I was massive; sometimes I went sideways through a door if it was slightly narrow. I liked it. It was a presence, my girth, that split crowds even from fifteen feet away. I could be benign and friendly without getting walked on like most quiet people. The only drawback was with women.


Luckily, I’m black. And because I am, being fat wasn’t the death of my sexual life. I was not quite middle class, but the pool of women I floated in as a teenager were working women: not nurses, but their assistants, secretarial trainees, cosmetologists and food servers at the concession stands of Yankee Stadium.


In the U.S., if you’re really heavy you’re probably not well off. Cheap, unimaginably unhealthy food is plentiful from Jamaica, Queens to the hills of West Virginia. In this setting even 250 pounds wasn’t beyond the realm of attraction. At 275, I was with a single mother who was considerate, kind and funny. These women didn’t find me gorgeous, but in their lives other characteristics far overshadowed my fifty-inch waist. Loyalty, consideration, a job. I coasted on their woeful expectations for as long as I could, a chunky knight in shining stretch pants.


But then came college.


Five hours upstate, I discovered another continent, one that found my fat distasteful, even offensive. And it was black women as much as any others who rejected me. I was in the middle class, the women were self-sufficient, thus the size of my ass was as important as my personality. More.


Though I made friends, socialized, I often found myself marching spitefully through a dining hall, my tray loaded with donuts and imitation Philly cheesesteaks, as if I could hide from the collective grimaces and smirks in my rising pile of candied treats.
You think I’m nasty, well watch this. That was my battle cry. The more my friends went to play basketball or jog or shotput, the more bags of Doritos, jars of peanut butter and three- liter Pepsi’s I consumed. It was self-destruction, just not as sexy as cocaine or alcohol. With liquor you become loose and loquacious, but no one has ever turned charming after downing a whole bucket of extra-crispy fried chicken.


It was a tantrum, but I enjoyed it. I like eating. When I’d swallowed half a log of raw cookie dough and my temples hurt, my stomach felt distended, near bursting, I would peel off the rest of the wrapper and force myself to eat the remains in front of a mirror in my dorm room. I was watching myself, chastising myself, saying, “Okay, if you’re going to die like this, let’s die.”


The summer before my senior year of college I was three hundred and fifty. I couldn’t get a date, but I couldn’t be quite sure how unattractive I’d become. I was still friendly, I made jokes and, in my mind, if I saw a woman smiling at me as she laughed I still had a chance.


I did not.


This became clear finally when one young woman and I spent many days together in the summer of 1994. She was slight and moved easily, always, as though she’d never had to give her body a thought. At the end of the summer she told my friend that I was “her perfect man, but he’s big enough to be two perfect men.”


It was an alarm bell, but I ignored it. I decided that all women were bitches and I returned to my dimly lit cave with a bag of Slim Jims and a forty-ounce container of Cool Whip.


My room did have a phone. A copy of the Village Voice sat on my bed. I flipped through the back pages, looking at the naked girls posed in the phone sex ads (there hadn’t yet been the boom in “bodywork” ads). Beside these I found another number, half a page high. The ad read: meet real live women in your area who are horny and dying to meet you.


It worked.


I met some.


They were not prostitutes.


The women on the line lived in the Bronx or Brooklyn. Not all the women who ever called, but all the women I ever met.


The first time, I took a Shortline bus down to Manhattan from Ithaca, then a train back up to the South Bronx. I weaved through a cracked lobby door, then climbed to the second floor to meet a woman in her thirties who, based on two phone conversations, had assured me that if I wanted, she’d have my baby. I was up for the offer. Not the result of procreation, but the act that can result in it.


At her door I was aware of that eye that every man gets used to, the eye of a woman’s appraisal. In this case, the once-over was done quickly and expertly, like a jeweler’s, though willing to accept a great many more flaws.


She wasn’t pretty, but she looked better than me. We sat on her couch in the living room of her two-room apartment. We talked, but she sat far back, like an interviewer. Which she was. I lost my charm in front of her and she decided against a night of passion. She stood, went to her bedroom, unlocked the door and let out her son. He was about six and happy to play card games with his mother and me. Eventually I cobbled together enough indignation to leave. “I’m going,” I said. She was on the phone. She said, “Yeah.”


The next time I came down to New York City, I made sure to ask first, “Are we going to fuck?”


The woman said, “If you eat my pussy first.”


I went to her apartment, also in the Bronx. She called herself Big Time. She was a grandmother and she was thirty-nine.




    Big Time met me in front of her building wearing tight pants for the same reason I did: there was no such thing as baggy for men and women like us. She was pleasant. She was business-like. I came into the apartment, she took me to the bedroom, pulled off her clothes, lay on the mattress, opened her legs and then parted the lips of her vagina.


Meanwhile I stood there so dressed I hadn’t even untied my shoelaces. She chided me. She got up to offer me a beer, but I don’t drink beer so she gave me Courvoisier.


We got loose. I turned off the light and ate her pussy. Then I ate her ass. Later she jerked me off. I left without sleeping over.


It was like that every weekend I could put such an event together. It became expensive: calling to meet more women at fifty-five cents a minute, the cost of bus tickets. But the payoff was pretty good. I very rarely had intercourse, but handjobs and blowjobs, they work. And I enjoyed going down on the women. They weren’t looking at me when I did that. Their eyes were closed. Pretty soon I was eating more pussy than a four-year lesbian.


What I found most surprising was that the women weren’t as ashamed as I was. They never wanted to turn off the lights. If I brought up the idea they were flummoxed, as if I’d suggested moving to another neighborhood — the possibility didn’t occur to them. In our couplings, I was the demure one.


I suppose this might be seen as liberating. I was with women for whom the conventions of beauty did not apply. Isn’t that the grand free space so many of us wish for? We could be blissful in our size, together.


Except that they did, in fact, find me unappealing, and told me so. They let me know that they didn’t usually like their men so “thick,” that most often they liked burly, muscled figures. I apologized a lot.


But in my mind I ridiculed them. I thought they were too stupid to know they appeared wretched and tired, that they gave off the stale odor of perspiration and nacho chips. I thought of them as animals and of myself as less than an animal, because I was beholden to them, forced to endure their mind-numbingly loud conversation the way they endured my bloated, sagging body just to bust their nut.


And every woman wanted me out before dawn. There seemed to be a general agreement amongst them that I would never be allowed to spend the night. There was great shame in being rushed to collect one’s clothes, ushered to the door, unceremoniously led out. I often felt they wanted me gone before their neighbors came out to see me lumber awkwardly down the hall. It was a dull, distant humiliation, but on the train back to my mother’s house or the next day on the bus up to Ithaca, I assured myself that it had been a good time.


At school I discovered a great love for books. In my last year I did a lot of catching up. I don’t make claims that I charted vast new intellectual territory, but I found myself very happy when I was reading, so I kept reading. Then I began to write.


I came back to New York to go to graduate school, but I didn’t call that number. I was living at home with my family so I didn’t want the phone bill coming in screaming “Fuck Line!” when my mother opened it.


More than that, I stopped wanting to go out. I didn’t have energy to go bump uglies with anyone. Like a distance runner’s coach, my mind was propelling me forward (go meet another one! another one!), but my body had given out. I grew fatigued at the sight of the green-line trains that ran service up to the Bronx. Instead I went to class. I went to work. I wrote.


I wrote a book.


After some disappointments we sold it. My agent nonchalantly reminded me there would be an author photo. She was only telling me so I’d reserve the time on my calendar, but I took it differently. There would be a photo of me. I went on a diet.


I am a creature of petty vanity, why lie? Living as an obtrusive, ungainly mess was one thing, but having it photographed, preserved, was another. I was pragmatic. I was a businessman. My publishing house would send me out to meet more people if they believed people would want to meet me. It was a calculation. It was also an excuse.


I wanted to lose the weight. When I stopped reveling in my self-loathing long enough to contemplate my situation, I had to acknowledge that it was very hard to find clothes; I had a hard time finding seats to fit me; I was out of breath when I even thought about climbing a flight of stairs. I didn’t like it anymore that people moved away from me before I’d ever met them. I was exhausted from being so large. I lost more than one hundred and fifty pounds.


A wonderful photographer took my picture. I looked good. The first time I saw it I cringed, but when I held my chest and stomach in mock humiliation there was less of me to clutch and that was nice. I thought, who better than me to try being handsome? Why not me?


At a writer’s retreat in drab, dear Provincetown, Massachusetts I met a woman. This was before the book came out, while I was editing it. She wrote fiction too. We became friends, then spent a few weeks flirting, going through town window shopping, trying not to spend our stipends too quickly. It was a milquetoast paradise. Get up and write or read. Go for a jog. Go for a walk together. Come home to read. Talk with the other painters and writers. Talk with Portuguese fishermen and the aging transsexuals living on the beach. Go home to write. Then drink hooch. Wake up in the middle of the night to write down a line or idea, then while still up pour some Knob Creek photo, when he sold his first book, he went on his first dietin a small glass and read a bit more. Do this for seven months and be content.


I was more surprised than joyous when she wanted to kiss me. It happened late one evening when I stormed out of a bar as a joke and she followed. Her face was on my chest and my first reaction was to curl up so she couldn’t feel my doughy folds, but many of them were gone.
Not all, but plenty. She squeezed me like there would be nothing else she would ever want to do with my body, and I was very surprised.


While it’s impossible to hide the learned movements of heavier years — hiding behind towels after showering, wearing a big coat even on warm days, not wearing short-sleeved shirts, no shorts, not even sandals — I consciously tried to stop those actions, to hide them away. I thought that if I acted like a slimmer person I would eventually believe I’d become one.


It worked to a degree, but like those anorexic girls in teen after-school specials, what I see in the mirror is still that weary, wider guy. My face seems puffy unless I catch it at a quick glance, before I have time to remember how it looked for so long. My body, even as my waist size plummets toward normal, never seems any more svelte. I have to touch myself with my eyes closed to feel how my stomach is flatter, how it sucks in when I lie on my back, though before it bubbled up, bubbled over. I touch my ass and it’s like I’m copping a feel of someone else’s. It’s tight as a snare drum.


I thought for years that I simply couldn’t get a date with a woman, that I had to resort to hurried, tussled fucking with someone who didn’t care to know my name. But I chose that. I wanted to be treated like I felt. And they wanted to treat someone that way. That feeling has gone for me. Or at least now when it surfaces I quickly set down to write some vile little story and get it out that way.


Only occasionally do I fantasize this plan: to run and diet and sculpt some very nice shape for myself, taking three more years to do it, until my body is perfect as it’s going to be, then swallow a grenade and send the whole damn thing to hell.


Very often my girlfriend, the author from Provincetown, tells me she finds me handsome. She loves me so I imagine she can’t say anything else. I take her words as kindness. But I don’t want to act as though I have only one face and it’s a mopey one. I have many. One day I feel like I’ve actually put on weight, like I’m six hundred pounds and this new life is the last choked dream of my heart being crushed. But then the next day I go out and am sure there isn’t a motherfucker on two feet who’s sexier. On the good days I pose for my girl like I’m Steve Reeves from the old Hercules movies. And on the really good days I mean it.



For more Victor LaValle, read:

Anniversary — Eleven Years
Our Secret
Big Time

Victor LaValle and Nerve.com