Some time ago I confided to an old friend (let's call her Claire) that the protagonist of my new book
was a morbidly obese, middle-aged woman named Mary Gooch. Claire laughed, not unkindly, and asked what I could possibly know about being obese. (Claire hadn't asked what I could know about being an elderly black woman when I wrote my first novel Rush Home Road
, and hadn't wondered the same when I told her about the conjoined twin narrators of The Girls
.) She reminded me that the subject of weight had become controversial, and wondered if it wasn't time for me to write about a character closer to myself. "But I am
Mary Gooch," I said.
Answering Claire's raised brow, I described how Mary's excessive weight was real, but that it was also a metaphor. The weight is her mid-life detritus, the accumulation of burdens, grief. It's the tyranny of beauty. It's fear of the dark. It's regret. It's envy. Any affliction that robs a soul of peace. Mary refers to her hunger as her "obeast" — this powerful thing that consumes her — and she envies the drinkers and gamblers for whom addictions are not outerwear. Her fat is not so much the result of her malaise as it has caused her malaise. In surrendering to her obeast she's created a critical imbalance in her spirit. This imbalance, I reminded Claire, was something I understood, having surrendered to my share of obeasts over the years, the cigarette obeast when I was young, the starving anorexia obeast when I was a little older, the workaholic obeast in these past years. Not to mention that I have eaten several rows of cookies in one sitting and can, quite easily, take that appetite and all it might inspire to the outer edges of my literary imaginings.
My friend remembered that I'd always had an affection for and attraction to the obese female character in my writing. My first published short story was about an obese young girl falling in love with an elderly man. A character in my first film was described as obese but not ultimately cast that way because the director feared alienating the audience. Still, Claire didn't understand my affinity for the subject of obesity and was even more confused when I explained that the story wasn't about a fat person losing weight. I told Claire that I was writing a story about a morbidly obese woman who changes completely because of an opportunity in the guise of tragedy. It's not about what Mary Gooch loses but what she gains. It's about shifting perspective and finding balance. This, too, I understand.
I am Mary Gooch. Not literally, of course. Not every moment. Not every day. But I understand hunger, even if my longing isn't always for food. I have met gluttony. Felt a lack of restraint. Resisted change. I've spent at least some time in the states (and provinces) of denial. Swam in uncertainty just a few weeks ago. I've kicked myself in the rear. Taken a few hard looks. A few hard knocks. I've also felt hopeful, and inspired by small changes, and grateful for the kindness of strangers.
Claire wanted me to know that she understood and said, "So if you've ever eaten too much, even if you don't weigh three hundred pounds, you're Mary Gooch." I reminded Claire that the "too much" didn't have to be food. It could be anything. And it didn't even have to be too much. It could also be too little. "You're not overweight, though," Claire said, scrunching her nose. "People will ask why you chose to write about a three-hundred-pound woman. You can't have such a long answer. And you can't say, 'I am Mary Gooch.' Besides, it's gotta be more than that."
I pointed out to Claire that as the world's waistline is expanding the business of overweight has been pushed into our consciousness and characters like Mary Gooch are more visible, talked about, rooted for, despised, than ever before. I felt compelled to tell her story in a way that blamed the thing that had made her fat instead of the fat itself, since Mary didn't really loathe her body, and could even see "beauty in the poetry of her contours." Claire nodded but I could see I was losing her. I enthused that I also knew Mary Gooch through the circle of sisterhood ? that "You go, girl!" spirit that we cultivate with age. Claire seemed to understand the sisterhood circle but I promised I'd think of a better way to explain why I was so captivated by this overweight character. My friend wished me luck with the writing, but reminded me that she really didn't care for fiction anyway.
That conversation with Claire came to mind when recently I took my children (Max, nine, and Tashi, seven) to a family buffet restaurant near our home in Southern California. It was our first visit to the place, but no one expects gourmet from a family buffet. The rectangular islands of plenty held no surprises. Stainless steel tubs under scratched plastic sneeze-guards kept the pork fried noodles tepid at the Asian-inspired station. In the home-cookin' area, pasta and potatoes flailed in some saffron colored sauce. The tub of twice-fried chicken held grisly drumsticks that I knew my son would choose if I let him. But there was a salad bar ? fresh looking, if limited. Carved turkey. Brown rice. Even with the golf-ball-sized butter curls in the pale bread rolls, and notwithstanding the large sign over the pie shelves that urged, Eat dessert first!, I decided to stay. (The kids clamored, and I caved.)
Tashi, my foodie, decided on a Thanksgiving-style feast of turkey and potatoes with corn, using her outdoor voice to proclaim, "This is the best place ever!" My son was delighted with his crispy chicken and didn't protest the bowl of greens I brought him from the salad bar. (He didn't eat them either.) After looking around, Max whispered, "Some people here are really old." He was referring to the shuffling denizens from a nearby retirement village, crooked men with canes and bewigged women with walkers. Gesturing discreetly at a large woman in a booth behind us, Max added quietly, "And some are really fat." He wasn't disparaging old age or judging weight but making observations. And he was right. The customers who were not elderly were obese, at least as defined by current (and rightly challenged) standards. A small sub-sect was morbidly obese, more than one hundred pounds overweight. In that place, with my children, and the diminished old folks, and the embellished others, my sense of belonging was complete, if too mysterious to explain. Of course, I thought of Mary Gooch.
Our table was near the bank of machines gurgling with the unlimited soda that filled the customers' half-gallon glasses. (We moved to Southern California from Toronto three years ago. I still call soda "pop" and arouse suspicion when requesting extra serviettes for the kids.) I smiled at a man approaching the table beside us when drops from his sloshing drink hit my shoe. Tashi returned his wink. The man was mid-to-late forties, my age, wheezing loudly, perspiring from the effort of trying to settle his too large body into a too small chair, relieved when his teenaged daughter appeared at his elbow. I had to divert Tashi's attention several times since hers was the clearest view of the pair, and she could not stop herself from staring. Tashi's eyes veered as the teenager came and went, piling plates for her father, who washed down the chunks with his thrice-refilled cola. When the two were set to leave, the daughter came unbidden to her father's side to help him to his feet. "I had too much," the large man croaked. His daughter nodded, weary.
When the couple were out of earshot, Max asked if any human could get that big if they ate like that every day. Any human. I love the way nine-year-old boys make such qualifications. "Yes," I answered. "Any human could get that big."
That's when I thought of my conversation with Claire and how I'd tried to explain my attraction to Mary Gooch, describing her weight as metaphor, drawing personal parallels. Those things were still true, but I had a better answer, framed by Max's question. My connection to Mary Gooch was no different than my connection to old Addy Shadd from Rush Home Road, or the conjoined twins Rose and Ruby Darlen from The Girls, or any reader's connection to any character when they are fully invested. We share humanity. And, but for a twist of fate, a glitch in time, God's grace, I am the obese man struggling down the aisle with his daughter, or the confused old woman in search of her companion. I am the bitter mother-in-law. The lost husband. The frightened, lonely child. Mary Gooch.
Tashi saw my attention taken by the man and his daughter moving toward the door. Watching them disappear into the light, she shrugged, and said, "It's okay, Momma. He just had too much."
I've had too much. I've had too little. I am Mary Gooch.