I am watching a fat kid eat.
A girl, this time. With none of the daintiness heavy girls sometimes affect at meals, she stokes fry after fry into the glowing scuttle of her mouth, building steam against the last three periods of the day. When she giggles through her nose at something a friend has said, I root for bubbles to form at her nostrils-it seems almost likely in the humid cafeteria-but she’s a master of her technique, and I stand unfulfilled near the water fountain.
Let us consider this fat child. Her name is Haley Gill, and she is a student in my fourth-period English class. Because she has distinguished herself in no way, neither by identifying parts of speech with great acumen, nor by wearing the premature make-up of a troubled home life, nor by being insolent and forcing me to take her aside and speak in tones of quiet intimidation, I am able to think of her only in terms of her size. She plods to her second-row desk on calves as staunch and menacing as mortar shells. The shoes she props on the under-rack of the desk in front of her have been pulverized into a brown leather jelly. Wheezing patiently from the journey to class, her budding breasts heaving like two dwarfed buoys in the ocean of her school uniform, she unzips her pencil case with the dimpled fingers of a Roman emperor. The manufacturers of school desks have yet to rise to the challenge of Hayley; their product winces and squeals and threatens to unweld itself with every shift of her marvelous hams. I like to joke around in class, but God forbid I should do this on a test day because a full-on laugh maxes out Haley’s power grid and casts her into a cataleptic trance for the rest of the period. She has raging Type II diabetes. She takes anti-hypertensives for incipient high blood pressure. In her P.E. uniform, she is revealed to have all the feminine charms of Alfred Hitchcock. This thirteen year-old, this eighth grader, is doomed.
Or is she? Alan Bauer, sitting across from her and fortifying his own soft middle with a double portion of the same fries, isn’t in a position to tease her. Neither is Rod Hoffheiser, that immensity, draining his third Coke. The girl to Haley’s left, Samantha-something, a sophomore, has a freakishly barreled torso that makes Haley look shapely by contrast, yet she leads, according to rumor, a successfully active sexual life with the boys of our school. The fat-kid ostracism and schoolyard torture of yesteryear are no more. Haley’s table, a fair sample of all the tables in the cafeteria, is a utopia for the obese, a fat kid’s heaven with the gates thrown wide open. I stand near the whining fountain and fulfill my daily lunch duty at Our Lady of Perpetual Succor, a junior high and high school in a suburb of a major Southern city, and a stew of boredom, disgust, and glee is simmering and glooping inside me by the time Missy Heaton, a gym teacher I would very much like to have sex with, arrives to take over my post.
“Rod Hoffheiser has the body of a forty-eight year-old man,” I say by way of greeting, leaning against pale blue cinderblocks in the general noise. “I mean, how often do you see jowls worthy of the name?”
“You’re bad!” she says appreciatively.
“They’ll grow up and legislate protections for themselves. The protections and terminologies of an alternate reality. They’ll sue fast food and use the settlement to buy candy. There’ll never be a reckoning.”
“Hold on,” she says, nudging me to signal in advance that she is kidding, “are you criticizing my work?”
Missy is easy to flirt with because she is twenty-eight and not yet married, which qualifies as a disaster to her and means she is constantly attuned to making herself amenable to men. At forty-five, however-and as a complete alien to Missy politically, socially, and physically-I am not a realistic option, and this combination of factors makes us safe for, and irresistible to, each other. Along with her usual platonic friskiness, Missy’s words contain a reference to my position as a liaison for the Healthy Children Act, a law requiring schools to collect physical data on their student populations and to scrutinize their health, physical education, and lunch programs with a goal of lowering the national index of youth obesity, which, as I well know, stands at 15%. As a private school, Perpetual Succor could have opted out, but opting in brought us twelve thousand federal dollars a year.
“Far from it. I’ve forwarded your dossier to the President. He has his eye on you.”
Missy laughs with an energy the joke doesn’t warrant, and an expressive twist of her head sends the tip of her black ponytail wisping across my cheek. This desperate, pathetic woman with the false vigor of someone on recreational drugs, persisting in her girl’s hairdo-I yearn for her every time she rustles past in windsuit and cross-trainers. There is nothing to be gained from imagining what it would be like to perform cunnilingus on her, but that’s what I am doing when Herbie St. Germain weaves forward through a gauntlet of orange and brown chairs and obtrudes himself into my personal space.
“Are you tutoring?”
If Herbie were one of my Honors seniors, I might make an existential joke based on his verb tense, but Herbie is an eighth grader, and a very, very stupid one. Dimwittedness has made him as sneaky and feckless as an abused dog, he is a farter and a laugher at farts, an eater of inedible substances, a child who cannot mathematically pass my class; and experience tells me that he will not graduate from Perpetual Succor. I am thinking about how much of my job is spent on lost causes as I clap him on the shoulder and say, “Absolutely, young man.”
As he gets a head start toward my home room, all the things I am thinking about get twisted up in my head, and I say, “These kids are going to be great at oral sex.”
“Oh, my God!” Missy stage-whispers, enjoying the fiction that we might be overheard in the booming cafeteria.
“Look at all the practice they get. They’re continuously honing their skills. They’re masters of every possible shape and texture. They can do things with their lips and tongues that my generation only dreamed of.”
Missy’s helpless giggle confirms my role as roué.
“In the future, the fattest kids will be the most desired partners because they’ll have the most prowess.” Haley pauses, belches, and resumes chewing, squeezing her eyes shut in pleasure. The cafeteria is foggy with the frankincense of fried starch. “Somewhere in Georgia or Tennessee there’s a thousand-pound senior girl who can make boys ejaculate just by pursing her lips.”
When I was young, I pictured myself dying before I had to choose a profession. If that sounds like the cheap self-melancholy of youth, it’s not; it’s just that when I was thirteen and huffing spray chemicals from zip-lock bags, the adult world appeared so enigmatic that I could not imagine it holding a place for me-I supposed I would become a hobo or a convict or one of the other icons of failed adulthood whose uniforms children don on Halloween. I liked heavy metal music of terminal hate, adventure-based video games set in worlds of daft magic, comic books with bosomy female protagonists, serial masturbation, playing with fire, hosting basketball tournaments in my driveway where calling a foul was against the rules, and making amateur films in which everyone-everyone-dies at the end, none of which seemed to equip me for living in perpetual exhaustion (like my father) or joylessly sorting coupons into plastic boxes (like my mother). I didn’t understand why my parents hadn’t chosen to be people they liked. When our teachers gave us surveys that asked us to name our career goals, I always bubbled President of the United States, because it rendered the teachers soft and warbly and gave me a chance to shoot a retard’s grimace at the rest of the class for big laughs.
The less youth I had left, the more aggressively I practiced it. I kept quantities of pot recklessly about my person. I grafted -isms onto my inchoate hatreds, developing the catch phrases of a dickhead philosophy. My teachers I did not so much dislike as ignore, and I was only cruel to the ones who took their jobs seriously. Some bourgeois holdout in me apparently crept out of his safe house to drop a college application in the mail; I taught that little striver a lesson by writing excellent papers but turning them in a month late, daring professors to fail me, by emitting a rank undergraduate odor and cultivating a Satan goatee. I likened any authority figure who demanded something definite of me to a Nazi lieutenant, which makes it rich and remarkable, one of life’s mysteries, that I am now standing with a clipboard at the head of a column of students, checking them off as they file toward me with looks of vacant submission and their shoes and socks in hand.
“Hendry.” At Perpetual Succor, the students’ names are embroidered just above their breast pockets. “Ingargiola.”
Behind a partition to my left waits a bioelectrical impedance machine, an ingenious device with two chilly footpads that sends a mild electrical pulse coursing into one leg and collects it from the other, then prints a small receipt subdividing the body’s contents into muscle, fat, bone, and water weight, each labeled by its percentage of the total. Also waiting behind the partition is Mallory Holland, my student worker, a senior volleyball player with no sympathy for the chunky. Mallory skims and files the deadly receipts with the clinical detachment of an oncology nurse. The impedance machine spells the end of manual calipers for body-fat testing, but I know Mallory would be perfectly comfortable snatching up a rough handful of flesh and crushing it with a pre-industrial instrument.
The public imagines teaching to be a profession of the mind, but in truth it is primarily a profession of the body, and herding students toward ritual humiliation is teaching in its purest form.
Yet, it is also a profession of the mind. Mallory, whom I overhear whispering, Shut up and stand on the thing, has just earned a 92 on an essay about Flannery O’ Connor in my English V class, though she doesn’t know it yet. A 92 is a B+, a good grade for Mallory. She brought me three rough drafts and turned in an essay of depth and clarity entitled “O’ Connor’s American Gothic,” and the well-being I feel as I anticipate her happiness is pure and beautiful, and I wear a noble smile as I check off the remaining names.
“Twenty-nine point-something,” she says. We’re in the hall now, pushing through the noisy crush of students on their way to fifth period. Because Perpetual Succor enrolls five hundred students in a facility built for three hundred, Mallory has to walk behind me with the impedance machine as I forge a path through overstuffed backpacks and the informal postal system of notes thrust from hand to hand, and we are conversing in muted yells.
“Nowhere close to the record,” I say. We are talking about Zinsser’s body fat. “But he has potential. With the right program, I think we could groom him into a champion.”
“Like, protein shakes?”
“Lardsicles. A sucrose I.V. during class.”
“Sorry,” she shouts as she steps on my heel.
I glower at a sophomore with whom I share a running joke that we’re always one false move from beating each other up.
“But this hall is full of champions!” I exclaim, and a girl I taught last year smiles sweetly at me from a doorway.
Back in my office, Mallory hands me the day’s receipts, and I slip them into a 3 x 5 hardshell case. With students like Mallory, I feel an imperative to be more interesting than her coaches, to make attractive, by all means fair or foul, the alternative I have in mind for her brain and soul; and this explains why I let her hang around in my office for a few minutes before I send her to her next class, and why, away from the antic atmosphere of the hallway, I speak to her with a directness that I know from experience will flatter her.
“The time we spend on this is entirely wasted,” I say in a just-so-you-know tone.
“It’s part of my work-study hours. That’s how I look at it.”
“A pragmatist. That just might save you from cynicism.”
“Are you cynical?”
I talk about the evils of cynicism in my English V class. She is doing her best to challenge me, which is cute.
“Only about things with capital letters. The Healthy Children Act. The Patriot Act. The International Monetary Fund.” The reluctant creak of my office chair might be the doors of thought creaking open and shut in my mind. “I mean, do you really think we’re helping Zinsser? The Zinssers of the world?”
“It doesn’t feel like it.”
“Good,” I say, meaning that she is right to trust her feeling. Then something comes together in my head, and I spit it out: “A wealthy country can never be thin because money erases memory. That’s the main thing money buys, the disappearance of the past.”
“People forget what they eat?” she ventures, seeing that I’ve gotten hung up.
“And what they know about what they eat. And that there’s such a thing as death.” The neat nexus of ideas unravels a bit in my brain. “It’s the past and future that remind us of death. Food is the opposite of death.”
We sit thinking for a few seconds in my tiny office with its shelves of moribund paperwork in binders.
“Do you want to forget that I have to go to Calculus?” Mallory asks.
“Ick,” I say consolingly as I pull out a pad of passes. I begin to fill the blanks with my red pen. “Speaking of forgetting, there was someone I was going to tell that she had written a great essay and gotten a 92. . . .” I let my brow go distracted and quizzical.
“Are you serious?” Her face breaks open and radiates a satisfaction that we enjoy together. We are beaming at one another across the desk. “Omigod!”
“You’ve become a really good writer, Mallory.” I hand her the pass. “I’m proud to be your teacher.”
Words are the tools of my work. I am awash in words from bell to bell-or, rather, I wash myself in them and make them my element. As an English teacher, I interpret literary words, I purvey rules governing the use of words, and I grade the words of others. But I also know which words to choose when I speak to a student I’ve seen cheating if I want her to weep with remorse, and which words to use to blunt her remorse just enough to make its cut sweet. I know how to still the mutinous rage that accompanies the return of poor essays by expressing a disappointment that does not smack of condescension and that transforms students’ anger into regret that they have failed to produce work commensurate with my love for them. The words I need to persuade the Quiz Bowl team to work a Saturday-morning car wash leap readily to my mouth. I can be glib in the extreme in the service of a greater cause. At the end of class, my neck and cheeks are often aglow with the after-heat of speech, as if I am no more than a voice organ humming in space, and I often sense that, as an indiscriminately shaped man, I barely register as a physical presence to my students. Words are, finally, the only difference between a teacher like me, whose students sit attentively through a lesson, and a teacher like Stephanie Cable, whose students can be heard three rooms away shouting out personal questions about her love life.
This is why it surprises me when Stephanie leans across the library table where we’re grading and whispers, “I heard you called Lori Carter fat.”
“She burst into tears, is the story.”
“A double falsehood.”
This rumor annoys me less because of its blatant untruth than because I pride myself on not suffering the gossip that corrodes other teachers’ reputations, the anonymous notes to administration, the summer phone calls from parents demanding that their children be scheduled to other sections. I like Stephanie personally because she has learned that I prize feistiness and does her best to provide it, but professionally she is a shambles, a magnet for huge energies of conflict. Because a bad teacher’s every misstep becomes part of public discourse, I know that Stephanie is a high-decibel screamer, an insulter of intelligence (often tempting, never productive), a blamer of personal errors on errors in the textbook, an inadvertent classroom swearer (favoring shit), and a consecutive-day pants-wearer.
“Story is, she went to Mr. J.”
But then I have to field a phone call from a video salesman, and after that I run some last-minute copies of a bio of Gandhi for English V, and then all thoughts of Lori Carter have been scattered by the whirlwind necessities that make up a teacher’s life.
I am not unused to being a symbol. I have, for some time, been the Aging Bachelor Who Has Given His Life to the School. I have never married, and I can often be seen eating my evening meal alone in the cafeteria-style restaurant across the street from campus, and these facts are widely known. But becoming the liaison for the Healthy Children Act has nationalized my symbolism; when I walk into the faculty lunch room, I represent an American anxiety more intimate than weapons of mass destruction or gay marriage, an anxiety they put in their mouths three times a day. But the symbolism is mutual. Most of my colleagues’ food choices represent to me the stupidity, greed, and waste of our nation, and the faculty lunch room tends to fan my intolerance for humanity, the pilot light of which is always burning in the crawlspace of my soul.
“Oh, no, there’s Wilkens. What you got today, Wilkens, a bran muffin?”
This is Jason Pete, an assistant basketball coach and Earth Science teacher, a person I like everywhere except the lunch table. He is unable to withhold comment about what I eat because I am the voice of his conscience and he is trying to drown me out. There are fifteen people of various ages and delicacies at the table, but I say, without the hesitation of someone whom a twenty-year tenure has not coated with infallibility, “You need to borrow it? You sound constipated.”
Jason giggles the kind of giggle you giggle at a curiosity, a giggle meant to marshal support from the others at the table, and I can tell it has worked even though I am washing my hands at the sink, my back to him. “What’s the matter, Wilkens, your iceberg lettuce didn’t tide you over from breakfast?”
“Iceberg lettuce,” I say, taking the chair at the opposite end of the long table from Jason, “is for barbarians and idiots.” I know full well that there are, between us, five or six people eating the iceberg lettuce of our cafeteria’s salad bar. Two older ladies, counselors, adopt the special silence of disapproval, though they would never in a million years express this disapproval aloud, nor even dare to rise and leave in wordless censure. The floor is mine and Jason’s. “And what are you eating, Jason?”
“This, this is food. This is a hamburger,” he says very slowly, pointing, “and these are french fries.”
“Don’t worry,” I say, seeing five or six other teachers with fast-food bags. “One of these days you’ll get to grow up and eat big-boy food.”
“Which would be what? Figs?” I’d brought dried figs to school about six months earlier, and since he had never seen them before, they’d stuck in his mind and still popped up to frighten him from time to time.
“Oh, you know, just any food consistent with your intelligence,” I say trippingly, peeling a banana. “Food with actual nutrients that sustains rather than ravages your body. Food that doesn’t destroy the earth that you hypocritically teach a unit about preserving.” I nip off the banana tip and speak through it. “That kind of food.”
I am prepared to elucidate all my points, addressing the wasteful, unsanitary production of the beef in his hamburger, the distant manufacture and flash-freezing of his fries, the unnecessarily large portions he is struggling to finish, the shameful waste of its packaging and of the styrofoam trays of those with cafeteria food, but a moment’s silence tells me they consider my tone uncouth, so I finish my banana in the peace I have created for myself.
“You ever get tired of being grumpy?” Jason asks.
I grin to indicate that he will be allowed to keep his red herring, but that he won’t enjoy it.
“It keeps me young, Coach.”
The next day is a Mass day. The students wear their red and blue ties, and this is when I like our school best, when its halls bustle with the rigorous optimism of poorly executed half-Windsors. The ties of the seventh-grade boys, many of whom are still midgets, dangle past their crotches, and the boys wear looks of mild helplessness to inoculate themselves against embarrassment. The girls’ ties are square-bottomed and made of the same plaid as their skirts, and they look so wholesome and proper that I wish every one of them were my daughter. A teacher two doors down is gently reshaping the knot at Herbie St. Germain’s neck.
The Mass itself usually cures me of my innocent cheer. Our chaplain, Father Hank, is a lackluster half-wit whose homilies are characterized by long pauses of forgetfulness, caesurae of eight seconds, ten seconds, during which we listen to his amplified breathing and count the volleyballs stuck among the overhead ducts. Then Father Hank performs his magic cookery, intoning the recipe and crumbling ingredients into his golden mixing cup, and I direct the students forward in single file to receive their snack.
Mr. J.-Doug Johansen-works through the communion line, taking his wafer old-school, eyes closed and tongue out, then drifts over to me and whispers, “Would you mind talking with Mrs. Carter for a few minutes after school?”
“Not at all.”
Doug Johansen is a man so tall that his body defeats all trousers’ attempts to cover his ankles, and this is the detail students have latched onto as a shortcut to his personality.
“She has a concern.”
I try to read his tone, but the whisper makes it difficult. Doug is one of my oldest friends, a person with whom I have been kicked out of bars, argued about literature, gotten to the bottom of stink bombs and petty harassment, and knelt to unjam the copy machine a thousand times in the last fifteen years. But as the assistant principal, he is also the person who assigns me the extra-contractual tasks that invade my personal life and who, in his efforts to please and imitate our principal, has an insincerity unrivaled in my experience for its opacity and ability to irk. I would like to get one more sentence out of him, but any further comment on my part will reveal a weakness, and I let him drift back into the general stupor. Father Hank does the dishes, caps the leftovers, and blesses us back to class.
At lunch, I help Philip Berger with his essay on “What Does it Mean to Be an American?”, and I learn that An American obeys all laws and they don’t disagree with the government, even when it is wrong. In sixth period I teach the scene in Othello in which Iago explains that, to obtain love, one needs only put money in one’s purse. In the narrow passage leading to the faculty lavatories, I bump into Missy Heaton, and we trade lascivious innuendoes about a sexual encounter in the bathroom as we sidle past on our errands. My armpits, in the mirror, are dry, and I have no foreign matter on my face. I have watched myself age in this mirror, and I am trying to convince myself that I have done a good job of it as the bell rings to end the day.
Doug Johansen, Mrs. Carter, and Lori are waiting for me in the conference room, but so are the principal, Tom McGee, and Lori’s counselor, Claire Guidry, who doubles as the school’s lawyer, and I adjust my mood to the proper institutional seriousness. The silence that builds as I choose a seat, pull it up behind me, lay my grade book on the table, and give two clicks to my mechanical pencil might be construed as ominous or intimidatory to an outside observer, but it is actually a courtesy on the part of Doug and Tom. They are waiting for me to signal my readiness by reaching across the narrow oval table, which I do now, and shaking Mrs. Carter’s hand with a disarming smile: “Nice to see you, Mrs. Carter. Thanks for coming.”
“Mr. Wilkens,” Tom begins, “we just want to shed some light on an incident that has caused Lori some concern. I trust there’s been some kind of misunderstanding that you can clear up for us, but Lori tells us that she was singled out individually in your class, by you and in front of her peers, as an individual with a weight problem.”
“No one has the right to call my daughter fat,” Mrs. Carter cuts in, her voice glinting in that way of someone who’s been sharpening and resharpening a sentence for hours.
Mrs. Carter is exactly what I think of when I think of the mothers of our school: a wrecked, horrific version of her daughter. Her face, like Lori’s, was probably once a face that well-meaning people described as pretty, but her efforts to preserve it have become as garish and ineffectual as a mortician’s. She is, by any objective measure, morbidly obese.
“Certainly not, Mrs. Carter,” Tom says calmly. “I’m sure we can straighten this out to your satisfaction. Mr. Wilkens, do you remember anything you might have said in first period that could have upset Lori?”
Tom is using the voice he uses for parents, a rationalist muzak full of easy listening, and I borrow it to say, “Channel One was doing a segment on overweight teens.” I put on my I’m-only-guessing-here expression. “Perhaps she was made uncomfortable by that.”
“Is it possible that you commented on the segment?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Is it possible,” Doug Johansen bludgeons crudely, bruising the civil tone of the meeting, “that you said, ‘Certain people in this room ought to be paying attention instead of smelling their Wite-Out’?”
It crosses my mind to wonder whether Mrs. Carter owns a business that contributes generously to Perpetual Succor, or whether she wields any sort of social clout, but I happen to know that she lives in a sordid trailer and works as a manicurist. Experience tells me that I can pit my worth to the school against Lori’s tuition money and win, but I decide that the notepad in front of Claire Guidry recommends a less direct approach.
“No. That did not happen,” I say simply, but for the first time I sense a curious lightness on my side of the scales. “I may have requested the attention of the class, but I did not, and would never, embarrass an individual student by reference to Wite-Out or any other school supply in his or her hand.”
“You didn’t make eye contact with Lori?” Doug asks.
“I make eye contact with all my students.”
“But do you see,” he continues tiresomely, “how Lori might have been made uncomfortable by that?”
I pause and look at Doug to let him know how unbecoming his treachery is. I allow a wisp of humor to cross my face in lieu of the truthful remarks I might make at this moment, none of which, it is clear, anyone at this meeting is interested in hearing. I could allow the faint sneer my lips are making to comprise my response, but so Ms. Guidry will have something to record on her notepad, I say, “If Lori was made uncomfortable, then I have to say I think it was something from within her, something she imagined.”
“Well, the problem we have here,” Doug says, pressing forward unbelievably, “is that other students heard you say it,” and he gestures toward a potted tree in my blind spot, whose shade, I now notice, obscures a sheepishly immobile Mallory Holland. She is trying to make her long body disappear by casting her eyes away from it, toward a corner.
“Mallory,” Tom McGee asks, swooping in to deliver the death blow, “did you hear Mr. Wilkens make an individual reference to Miss Carter as regards anything to do with her weight?”
The long moments of reflection during which Mallory might test the truth of her memory and struggle to respond accurately have occurred earlier, I know, in an offstage conversation, so there is no pause now before she says, “Yes.”
Mallory Holland can, without irony, be described as Amazonian; Doug Johansen holds a position of legendary thinness in the lore of our school; Tom McGee is a former college tennis player who still stalks the halls with an athlete’s nimble grandeur; but instead of the anger I might feel as I look around the table, I can muster only sadness for the way these once-proud souls have been tamed and bested. Claire Guidry’s pen is waiting for the only thing that can save us from the embarrassment blanketing the room like a black Biblical pall-my apology-and I deliver it cheerily and without stint. Among the many skills I have learned in the last twenty years is the ability to balance an apology on the cusp of the moment so that it has no relation to the past or future, but teeters there long enough for everyone to get out of the room.
That was yesterday. Today I am back in the gym with the impedance machine, and it is, naturally, Lori Carter’s period. Mallory swabs the footpad with a vinegar towlette, and Lori steps up. Her feet are doughy and under extreme pressure from above, and I kneel before them to scan the numbers: at 5′ 3,” she weighs 202 pounds and has 37% body fat. Mallory collects the print-out, Lori tugs her socks back on, and the Healthy Children Act, like the Healthy Forests Act and the Clean Skies Act, is revealed as another piece of community theater written by industry and performed by citizen actors.
I teach the Inferno in last period, my usual energy bled away into a beautiful afternoon light. On my way out of the classroom I bump, literally, into Missy Heaton.
“I always knew you wanted to knock me down and take me in the middle of the hall.”
“Someday,” I say unconvincingly. “Better prepare yourself.”
There are no secrets in a school, so we both know Missy is trying to cheer me up, and we both know why, when she says, in the urgent imperatives of a pep captain, “Right now. Let’s go. In front of all these people.”
“At least you’d be physically fit enough to survive my onslaught,” I say, and we smile off down the hall in the warmth of our silly compliments, though mine isn’t entirely genuine. Because the strange truth is, I prefer fat women. When you are, like me, a man whose life is full of stony concerns and stony words, you don’t seek a stony refuge. You seek something soft you can sink away into. I jot wry notes to chubby spinsters at educational conferences, I lay a caring hand on the plump wrist of a divorced mother on parent-teacher night, and these are women who both appreciate my regard for their fallen bodies and have no need for larger declarations when I follow them home to bed. The day of rail-thin spinsters is thankfully gone. Even the word spinster barely makes sense anymore: its stingy morphemes belong to sharp elbows in cardigan, unpainted gray lips, thighs whittled down by years of squeezing them together. My own marrying years came and went in homeroom competitions and Christmas dances. But I have been given much in return, and I find all the comfort I need in the generous hips of our modern spinsters, in the food of their bodies, in the moment when words end and I close my eyes and eat.