I wore a red satin dress with yellow flowers in my hair. I wanted to look good, but not like I was trying too hard. Social events—parties, art openings, baby showers—are a minefield of potential humiliation. The function was a book release party in Soho, a wine and cheese gathering at a little publisher of self-help books called Tidewater Inlet. They published my first book, Obese: A Journey Back, and I had nothing better to do. These events often have smart people with good jobs and you never know, you might meet a single guy. At the hors d’oeuvres table, a short, bald guy named Bob said to me in a fake German accent, “Conjunction junction vhat’s your functionen?”
He was a producer of independent films, was making a documentary about Prince Charles of Wales. And despite the perplexing opening line, he told a funny story and was well-dressed, so I agreed to go out to dinner afterward. Dinner at a Midtown Italian restaurant was pleasant, he told some more funny stories, but when we were alone in the cab afterward, he threw himself on me, slobbering into my ear. He had such a nice suit on, it was a shame to get blood on it. A half-hour later, I was home in a hot bath. Guys are, as the cliché goes, out for one thing.
One man has ruined me for all others. I was crazy about him, fell for him as soon as he started working at the Newark shipping company where I was typing and answering phones in my early thirties. I couldn’t even wait for him to ask me out; I asked him which was something I had never done before. He was tall, barrel-chested, had a nice smile, sharp incisors. I was obese then, not the desirable middle-aged woman I am today, but sensed he’d take me out anyway, that, in fact, he might actually be turned on by my fat. He would check me out at work, licking his lips nervously and looking away as soon as I caught him looking. I have a sixth sense about men. The women in my family have always understood men.
The guy, Jason Tchen, picked me up at my house. He was very polite to Mum, told her where we would be—an East Village French bistro, a movie or walk, perhaps coffee or a little nightcap after—and promised to have me home and in bed by midnight. I was already heaving a big sigh even before Mum said, “Clara, you didn’t tell me he was a Chinese.” She had always said inappropriate things, but it had gotten worse since my father had left years earlier. This was my first date in nearly as long and I was so nervous I’d eaten a quart of pistachio ice cream just an hour earlier. Its various ingredients had come unfrozen in my guts and intestines which were working hard to break them down. I’ve been in recovery now for ten years and don’t binge anymore, but thinking about it still makes my stomach cramp. It’s something the body never forgets no matter how much the mind tries to leave it behind.
What did I want to do? Jason Tchen asked as soon as we were out of the building. I had never been asked that by a date, but was up for anything, though what I really wanted was for him to take me back to his apartment and undress me. Instead of the French bistro he’d mentioned to Mum, he took me in a cab down to Houston Street to get pastrami sandwiches at Katz’s Delicatessen. Not the most romantic spot to take a girl on the first date—even if she’s the one who asked you out—but I knew he was shy and was using the trip to Katz’s as a subtle way of telling me what he wanted to do to me. When Harry Met Sally had just come out and the “Yeah, oh yeah,” fake orgasm scene had given Katz new life. Meg Ryan was the darling of America then, probably because it was so difficult to imagine her actually able to have an orgasm.
After Katz, Jason led me through Soho where a European immigrant celebration of some kind was going on with the scent of frying meats and funnel cakes and deep-fried Oreos. Jason and I walked without touching amidst good-looking guys with half-buttoned shirts who hooked their girlfriends in sexy half-nelsons to kiss their cheeks, only briefly turning them loose so that they could pull them close again. Men with Basque complexions blew glass and whittled elaborate furniture, selling their wares at extravagant prices. Women in luxury clothing haggled with them as if a prelude to sex. When they reached an agreement there would always be a girl of seventeen—thin and aching with sexual promise—available to wrap up the woman’s purchase while the man spoke to her in French or Spanish. Always finished with the package before the transaction had consummated, the teen would wrap her button-front cardigan tightly around her and check her watch for when she might be able to sneak off to meet a boyfriend or grab a smoke. There was something so ruthless in these teenagers’ boredom that, without thinking, I said to Jason, “Take me to your place.”
He lived in a studio apartment just the other side of the East River in Long Island City. Inside, he pulled off his turtleneck and tossed it on a stool. Even though it was in the forties outside and all of Jason’s windows were open, it was burning up in the apartment because of the building’s steam heat. With his sweater and shirt off, walking around in his wife-beater and bare feet, it occurred to me that he was not just a few years older than me like I had thought, but the far side of a decade.
“Come here, Clara,” he said, popping a can of beer and beckoning with a curved finger. I took the beer from him and drank half of it in a couple long swallows. He was wearing cologne—a particularly cheap scent that I recognized as the same that stunk up my brother Paul’s room at home. Jason’s breath smelled of onions and his nose hairs could have used a trim. Despite these attributes, I was actually quite hot standing so close and I reached behind myself for the zipper on my dress. After struggling for a few seconds, he asked in a hoarse voice if I needed help.
“I’m very turned on by you, Clara Herriman,” he said, pressing against me, reaching around on either side for the zipper.
“I know, but I don’t feel safe,” I said, smiling despite the tickle of fear in my belly. The entire truth was that this potential danger—danger from what, exactly, I wasn’t sure—made me very excited, but I didn’t feel that I should open up completely to him just yet. This was a different Jason than the one I knew from work, the one who ate his lunch at his desk, who drove a Toyota, who wore khakis and wrinkled button-downs. This one was harder, more aggressive. I had the sudden fancy that these two Jasons were traveling parallel paths but that at some point they’d meet and when they did something awful was going to happen. It was one in the morning, long after Jason promised to have me back at home. I could ask the Jason I knew from work to take me home or, instead, I could help the other one lower the zipper he was struggling with. He pushed me against a wall, murmuring something which sounded vaguely of the obscene though it was in Chinese. He seemed to be getting mad. Cartoon ions floated in my head, the almost-forgotten image of a high school science class lesson, positive and negative charges warring with each other. My body tingled. My mouth was so dry I could barely croak out a No, but I was wet between the legs.
Time comes unstuck. The next thing I remember is the two of us naked in bed. We’re gushing sweat, radiator clanging. “What do you want me to do to you?” he whispers. The words come from his lips which are right against my ear and though I don’t know the answer to his question, exactly, they give me a thrill, one I’ve not had before, and I immediately have an orgasm. I’ve looked everywhere for that, for a man who can make me come by speaking the right words into my ear, but I haven’t found him yet.
A week later, Jason’s computer was confiscated by the DEA and he was quickly escorted across the employee parking lot in handcuffs and out of my life forever except, briefly, on the nightly news. He had been using the shipping company as a hub for illegal drugs, mostly heroin, from China. The feds questioned everyone at the company, but apparently he had had no accomplices. They asked the same questions to me that they did to everyone else. I stared out the window at the gray light, the pine barrens lining the buildings, and waited, but the feds never asked if Jason and I had gone out, if we were intimate, if we even really knew each other more than to say hello to, and I didn’t volunteer that information though a part of me wanted to. What would I have said though? “We had sex”? That would have been silly and sad.
They let me go and I joined my coworkers in the loading zone to smoke cigarettes and speculate on what would happen to Jason and wonder at how he could have hidden his illegal activities from all of us for so many years. I scrutinized my coworkers, wondering if any of them might know something about Jason and me, but they looked through me like they did on any other day.
I can’t really come up with a good title for this essay and maybe that means that it’s really unpublishable. I started out thinking that I might use this space to muse about why some men view me as an object, even late in middle age, and why I’ve still worked so hard to make myself an attractive object, and why so many men sicken me. But something about the smell of Douglas fir permeating the apartment, the tree in its stand in the corner not yet decorated for Christmas so not fulfilling its promise, inspired me to write about Jason Tchen who I have not seen in twenty years, although I have thought of him often. This, then, led naturally to his disappearance from my life which led me to realize that the strand of this narrative was lost. These memories are connected by the space they share more than anything else, like the ceramic bric-a-brac my mother keeps in a dusty cabinet in her living room. Jason Tchen was staring at these little fauns and dwarves and ducks when I came out of the back bathroom after trying to make myself look pretty.
It’s been a week since my encounter with Bob in the back of the cab and, as I type this, I wait for the knock at the door announcing the arrival of another man, here to take me to dinner and then a concert at Lincoln Center. I will let that knock be the end of this story whether it arrives at the beginning of a sentence or its end or somewhere in the middle. Think of this as a portrait of a woman who was fat, but no longer is. If you look closely, you can see the twenty years floating around her body like an aura, like the food she’s not eaten, the sweat she sweated, the sex that’s produced no babies, the pounds that have fallen away like touches that happened so long ago it’s hard to know if they’re simply memory or something else.