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Learning to Love in the Wilds of Our Bodies
I met you after my first breakup.
My first girlfriend was all jagged edges and sharpened remarks. She tossed off acidic judgments and curdled her relationships with my friends. She spoke with gleeful disdain about rivals who had gotten fat. Friends bristled at her comments but still congratulated me. You’re so lucky to have found someone. Thin people are lucky to find the one. Fat people are lucky to find anyone.
But for nearly two years, I stayed. I stayed when she rejected my friends. I stayed when she told me she’d been sleeping with someone else. I stayed, because that is what fat women do. Our value is fixed; we earn autonomy only when we become thin.
I stayed until she dumped me. She emailed an itemized list of reasons she was leaving, copied to our friends. It would’ve been too much work to tell everyone individually. I was doubly heartsick: blindsided by a harsh breakup and ashamed of being heartbroken over someone so unkind.
Then I met you.
I don’t remember our first date, but I remember the racing heartbeat of our second. My flimsy flats slapping on cobblestone, running to meet you. The way your warm face shattered into a smile when you saw me. Your fingertips carried a current, something electric that spread through my veins every time you touched me.
On that second date, we traced the contours of one another’s lives. You told me about how hard it was to witness your mother’s acute and steady ache when you told her you had a girlfriend. She said she loved you too much to let you go to hell. Your body, you said, felt like a home built for someone else, and you were its uninvited guest. You knew you would be the cause of your mother’s pain again soon, but the words and fortitude hadn’t quite come to you.
You smiled sadly at me as I laid my hand on yours. At 21, you had already learned to sit with pain, not forcing jokes or subject changes, never wishing it away like so many dandelion seeds. You stayed, and you grew.
Later that same night, you pressed a gift into my palm: a tube of crimson lipstick. I had told you how much I wanted people to know I was queer, but that when I was true to myself, I wore mascara and lipstick. As a fat woman, my femininity was readily tossed aside when I didn’t wear makeup. I was always on the edge of womanhood and queerness, hanging with such a tenuous grip. I kept makeup minimal, subdued enough that I could walk in both worlds. The vibrancy of that red offered a loving invitation, pushing me closer to myself. Closer to you.
I put on the lipstick. You smiled and kissed it off.
Walking home that night, a group of men called after us. No one wants to look at a dyke and a fatass. Your hand gripped mine, our fingers pale with pressure, and your current carried us away. We held on tight, the way you do when being in love means being unsafe. Your warm and tender breath was in my ear, drowning him out. He’s just never seen someone as beautiful as you.
We planned a vibrant, pulsating life for the years ahead. You’d be a photographer and I’d be a professor, though you always said I should be a playwright. We’re both artists, you insisted, eyes locked earnestly with mine. Say it until it’s true. We’d find a small apartment before we found a home in the country like you’d always wanted. I would learn when to sit and stand at Catholic services. We’d mend fences with our families, or figure out how to fend without them. We would rely on each other.
I don’t remember when you asked me to start calling you him, but I remember how natural it felt. You collapsed into my arms after you told your mother about your transition. I wanted to tell you that it would be fine, that someday she would look at you again without the shadow of pain in her eyes. I wanted to tell you that you would never have to see your own reflection in that pain. I wanted to tell you that she would return to the boundless love she held for you in your childhood. But both of us had come out, and both of us knew it was never that sunny or simple.
We lived states apart and wrote each other daily. Your letters were beautiful, tossed-off works written on the backs of used envelopes and half-finished sketches. Polaroids would spill out of the thin, white envelope: ghostly self-portraits, double exposures of your body and an empty room. You wrote stirring messages on the envelope in permanent marker: I LOVE YOU THE WAY EVERYONE SHOULD. As I unfolded each one, I could feel my rib cage crack open, vital organs spilling into daylight and warm sun. You wrote about my body the way you touched it. To you, it was not a curio, not an inconvenience, not a pitiable fact. You neither fixated on my body nor ignored it. It was part of who I was. You wrote about loving my body like you wrote about loving my jokes, or my writing, or the way my hand found yours as we walked down the street together. Your letters vivisected me so tenderly, every organ exposed and lovingly held.
That was how I loved your blooming body, too. As testosterone began to take root in your veins, I celebrated each sprouted whisker, each burgeoning muscle pushing up through your soft skin. Your body was a beautiful seedling, growing so fast. I wrote you about your body, and about your haunting photography, your lush writing, your generous heart.
You called when you got my letters, just to read them back to me. You pinned them up around your mirror. Maybe I’ll start to see myself the way you see me.
I hope you did.
After all we’d done to pull each other more fully into our beautiful, embattled bodies, I caught myself receding. As graduation grew closer, you were ready to make good on the promise of our life together. Your hand would settle in the small of my back. I would pull away, unaccustomed to such a tender, unflinching contact with my body. Sorry, I caught a chill.
But while you and I drew closer, those moments built up: the empty congratulations for finding someone. The men on the street shouting after us, a dyke and a fatass. My body cast such a long shadow that I lost sight of you.
A year and a half into loving you, I was still fat, still caught in the undertow of what that meant. I had not earned a partner as loving as you. I had not shrunk myself enough to love you back. This had been a wonderful fantasy, but I had not proven myself worthy of your electric hands on my skin. I couldn’t pry you free from the stories I’d been told about my body. Looking like me meant being unloved forever, until I could will my body to change. It meant being unhealthy, dying young. I loved you too much to condemn you to the slow-motion tragedy of my body.
Looking like me meant that the men who made passes at me did so as a cruel bet to see who could land the fat girl’s number. It meant that years later, I would be catcalled by a man who simply shouted I WOULD NOT F — — YOU. It meant I would date someone who complimented me on my confidence as a fat woman, then said, I used to feel that way too, until I realized I wanted anyone to f — — me ever.
I was certain that your love assuaged your pity for the fat girl who thought she had a boyfriend. You must have felt so bad for me, stayed so long that you dug yourself in. It was only right to give you an out. I hadn’t earned a body that would garner a love like yours. I weaned myself from your affection, taking longer and longer to respond to calls and letters. I slowed our visits until they stopped. I fulfilled my body’s prophesy. I took on a discipline of want.
I would reread your letters, censoring them as I went, rewriting them to fit the story that matched my body. Whole letters were redacted. They couldn’t withstand the story I’d memorized. The hardest line to rewrite came in one of your last letters: Everyone is becoming a stranger, most of all you. You knew I was nearly gone.
It was more than a disappearance. I evaporated. First I was solid, then liquid, then gas, then gone.
I couldn’t match the discipline of loving you to the feeling of it. It was unthinkable that you loved me as much as I loved you. I was shadowboxing, my fears outsized against the wall, their long shadows cast by your small, warm light. I’m still learning to let down my fists. I’m still getting ready for the next you, if there is one.
Because you, my darling, taught me that my body could be loved. My body didn’t need to be a secret desire to hide away, nor did I need to be loved in spite of it. You showed me that my body was worth wanting, worth loving, worth someone as deeply good and tender as you.
This is the arc of loving yourself: not a lightning bolt or a movie romance, not swelling strings or bursting fireworks, but the incremental and incomplete progress of a melting glacier, shaping the land where it once lay. Over time, I have learned to accept love in small measures. I have learned to ask for better. Some days, I am able to see the wilds of my body as you saw them: worthy of loving exploration. You pulled me beyond the narrow imagination of so nice you found someone, the damning and faint praise of friends and family for the table scraps I was meant to savor.
I’m still learning to love you back, matching the doing to the feeling. I’m still waiting for your palm on the small of my back.