There once was a woman who turned forty-something when something happened. It happened after her shift, happened as she was laughing with her co-workers one late Friday night as she gingerly walked through the coffee station to the bar, half ran through pitch black, tripped over a mound of black rubber mats, and Splat! like that, a decade of waiting tables was over. Cracked ribs, fractures of the spine, not that a diagnosis mattered. The woman couldn’t sit, let alone lift; she could barely eat, let alone serve, though she could crawl from the bed to the ashtray. Lying in bed, ashtray to belly, the woman lay smoking and smoking, sucking down the drags of delicious poisons as if she could exorcise her pain through insufflation.
For one long week, the woman lay immobile, unable to tend to herself or her husband, the sheets needing changing. The stench of pain rose from her ribs, her loins, her pores, though her husband did not mind or notice. He was not a noticing kind of man. He was having trouble on the job and could focus only on who was doing what to whom, aware that his attempts to make a better impression, gain more respect, garner a more prestigious title, were being undermined by one slick, overly competitive, overly-after-shaved co-worker.
On the following weekend, his eyes blinked opened from this state of catatonic concentration on his standing in the world, his worth in the eyes of his brothers, his parents, his bowling buddies, and as an afterthought, his wife. When he realized his belly was empty, he asked about the likelihood of dinner.
In the early days of their marriage, she threw pots and glassware and stormed out of rooms, shaking pictures off the wall. Married now for many years, her anger turned into habitual crankiness caught in the cage of her ruined ribs. It churned in her gut, ached in her chest and lodged in her back complaining of her years of abuse. She begged her doctor for better meds and left his office clutching a scrip for a mild narcotic in her shaking hands. The new pills, small but potent, acted like magic brooms sweeping away annoyances like husbands and what was left of her appetite. Since the accident, she’d lost weight, muscle mass and strength. She would never again balance a heavy tray of plates in the air like a well-toned dancer in the Royal Ballet. But he could stand now. She could walk. She was mobile enough to ignore her husband’s ignoring her and not care.
The pills had many effects, but did not sweep away her craving for nicotine. When one day her friends from the restaurant came by to see her she found herself smoking half a pack of cigarettes in a few hours. Chubby Laura and near-sighted Paula extolled her new thinness while skinny, twenty-something Susan blew her nose into Kleenexes and coughed up half a lung, passing her cold into the chest of the forty-something woman, the bug morphing within twenty-four hours into bronchitis.
Now coughing against her cracked ribs, every movement took her breath away,a single curl of smoke like needles in her heart. Now every searing puff she inhaled gave way to visions of her mortality. When she gathered her strength, she got off the bed and hunted up the lighters, matches, and packs of smokes hidden in the house, her car, and, her husband’s car. She dumped them in the garbage and took the garbage to the dump, sitting in a state of anxiety and exhilaration as she watched the last shred of tobacco being crushed into pulp.
Now I am a non-smoker, the woman announced, and as such, her husband warned her, there were certain precautions she would need to take lest she fall back into ‘old habits.’ Old habits indeed, she scoffed. What euphemism. She was an avid reader, an active listener, an ‘A’ student in college, excelling in logic and interested in the social sciences. She knew quite a bit about addiction she liked to call it as she saw it, enough to know for instance she should stop drinking coffee and start drinking tea. There was no getting around it, she needed to stop doing everything she associated with nicotine.
Which was just about everything.
At a restaurant one night with her husband and one of his clients, the waiter offered them wine, which she brushed aside, only to turn to the client, a British man who only smoked when he drank. He offered her his opened pack of cigarettes. Refusing, she explained: her addiction to nicotine was like an alcoholic’s to booze. One cigarette would open a Pandora’s box of hundreds more.
The Brit, eying her skeptically, lit up. The woman shut her eyes, turned her head away, and breathed in the pungent smell coming from a pack that was stale from disuse. Old and welcoming, it called to her nose, her mouth, her lungs, her hands, every cell, molecule, atom standing at attention:Hello my not so old friend.Pushing down sensation, she forced herself to remember:Not smoking, her bronchitis had healed and her allergies vanished. Everything smelled better, looked better, felt better. Everything of course but the non-smoking part.
With the non-smoking part came food, for now that she’d given up one pleasure another took its place. And eat she did, until her stomach felt like it was going to burst through her skin and still she kept feeding it and still ever more, as if with no more cigarette to mark the end of a meal, there was no end.
The woman understood that the psychology of addiction to substances was as complex as the psychology of food. Instead of feeding her addiction, she fed her gut, filling her ever gnawing mouth-need as reward for abstaining from the one thing in the world she wanted more than anything else. And thus she ate and ate, all the while understanding one other thing – theory did not change the fact or the face of her hunger which seemed to swell with every passing hour. She didn’t know what would. She could not imagine what would end the miserable nagging nicotine desire, eradicate the loss she felt, or the memories of how she felt smoking – so much like herself,the self she’d always known. Who was she now?
Stepping out of the shower one morning, the woman glimpsed herself naked in the mirror, glimpsing the truth of what she’d become. She was fat.
Lying in bed, her muscles had grown soft. In a matter of a few weeks, they’d mutated into fat – fat arms, fat ass, all ten fat, nail-bitten fingers. Was it her imagination that friends who had always been fat eyed her knowingly and grinned? Seeing the bulk of her, her husband went from one pack a day to two. Quite rapidly, his face had thinned and his suits hung, the folds at his waist vanished, his feet floating in size ten shoes.
She decided to hit the malls, and hit them running, though in truth she did not intend to run. She would walk, gain her strength back, lose a few pounds and kick a few endorphins her way in the process.For without her cigarettes, or the benefit of the athletics of waitressing, her serotonin levels were low. Very low. She walked for hours, popping back pills, walking until her legs felt rubbery and her feet complained; her lungs expanding, deflating, and expanding again,she walked past stores, food emporiums, fussy children, slutty teenagers, women wearing black polished toenails and carrying Gucci bags. She walked round and round the mall until she felt something like the first flush of love. and her feet glided over the marble floors.Now, walking through the stores, strolling up and down the muzaked aisles, she fell in love with new clothes, new music, new power tools, crystals, candles, tarot cards, self-help books. Her facility at addiction-trading so remarkable that soon salesclerks were calling her by name and others had memorized her credit card.
But where to go with it all? ‘Things’ had already overtaken every closet, every storage unit, every surface, her husband silently sidestepping the bags piled around the house. Soon she herself had difficulty locating the floor, the couch, the beds, the kitchen cupboards. When her husband apparently had trouble finding his things, he took notice.
“What’s this costing me?” he asked. “Where’s my grey shirt?” She ran out and bought him ten shirts. “I can’t find my watch, my shaving cream, my shoe polish.” She ran to the mall and bought him twenty more of everything. Filling the house, she began on the attic, the garage, her neighbor’s garage….
Eventually the news that something had happened to her reached her old college friends who dropped by one afternoon, wishing to help. They stood tall, lean and robust, huddled next to boxes and bags piled everywhere, their judgments in the furrowing of their brows, the slit of their eyes. The lawyer suggested yoga, the social worker meditation, the project manager cleaning help. They all advised tofu and cucumbers for lunch. In the college dorms, they’d once sampled a few marijuana cigarettes, now her college friends worked in environmentally protected, smoke-free offices where they accumulated sick days and pension funds. What could they know of her plight? When she told them that their understanding of addiction was not what they saw on ‘reality’ TV, they soon left.
Left to herself, the woman suddenly felt older than her forty-something years. She looked at the stretch marks on her stomach and thighs, at her baggy-kneed stretch pants, overstuffed house, depleted bank account, and knew it was time to get help. Plucking a hypnotist’s name from the phone book, she stuffed all ten fat toes into a pair of boxy gym shoes and headed downtown where help was plentiful. Jesus Saves. Palms Read. Bodies Massaged. The signs shimmered in the heat.
Summer sales in full bloom, she eyed a pair of silver sandals for her swollen feet, envisioned a fitting pair of wings for her husband (would that he would fly away!) People under shady umbrellas on the patio of a café, sipping cool beverages and munching on shrimp salad and croissants: she could taste the bite of the shrimp, feel the creamy chocolate froth of a shake on her parched, peeling lips. Unable to turn her gaze away, she hungrily watched the waitresses balancing their heavy trays on their powerful, bronzed arms, their sturdy, tan legs bustling them indoors and out, and though it felt like another lifetime ago, the woman had clear memory of what it felt like to have muscle and might.
She recalled the chaotic rhythms, from kitchen to dining room, coffee to bar, station to station, rushing on strong, sturdy legs, arms pumped, trays whirling over customer heads, and a soft pad of bills in the pocket of the apron tied twice around her once tiny waist at the end of the night. She saw herself working with her friends, talking and laughing with them after their shift, her remembrance not of a job, but of a gathering of sweat laden arms, flushed hard-working faces, and a friendship, a camaraderie, fulfilling as dope.
She turned onto Main Street, the hypnotist’s office just a few blocks away, into a throng of people moving in the opposite direction, and backed herself up against the brick and mortar of an office building, fighting the instinct to turn, grab cab, head home. She was forty-something and something had happened to her, though sometimes she wondered if what happened was fate or simply folly, the universe as chaotic as it often felt. If there was a reason she fell, she could not infer it, though in time she would understand that there was one. Sometime down the road she would find a new career (women’s clothing store owner), a new love (a fine woman) a new life (the gay life). But for now, the woman only knew that she was fat and that her credit cards were maxed. That she’d suddenly become old and bloated and that her back ached as she now pushed through the traffic pushing against her, the air stifling hot and filled with tyrannical fumes, everyone, it seemed, with a lit cigarette in their upheld hand.
S. J. Powers is currently completing a collection of short stories entitled I Will Tell You This. Her stories have appeared in numerous publications such as Another Chicago Magazine, Green Flash, Happy, Khimairal Ink, Off the Rocks, SmokeLong Quarterly, StoryQuarterly, SWELL, and elsewhere. She has received two Illinois Arts Council prizes and two of her stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.