Nobody Loves the Fat Man
Anthony Swofford | Essays
The first time I was called a fat fuck by someone I loved I was staying at a five star Spanish hotel, a Parador, which had once been a nunnery or a castle; but now, this place was a five-star hotel offering five star gastronomic experiences at a restaurant just off of the lobby. The Parador also offered a totally kick-ass tennis court overlooking a valley thick with wine grapes that produced also amazingly kick-ass wine—Bierzo, if I remember correctly, but it might also have been Rioja or Tempranillo.
The spring and summer of 2004 I had spent nearly every single night in a five-star hotel somewhere in the world, and now it was August and I was in Spain with a woman I had been falling in love with since April after fucking her at a book fair in Los Angeles. We never fucked at the book fair, but at my five-star book fair hotel, where also I drank scotch for breakfast with Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens, after meeting the woman called Ava the night before, she who also drank breakfast scotch with Martin and Christopher as we waited for our cars to arrive and take us to LAX.
After Ava broke up with her live-in boyfriend in Williamsburg she convinced me that one of the best ways to part with the majority of the zeroes in my recently acquired semi-wealth was to spend it either on her or with her, preferably in Europe, in hotels and restaurants, not drinking but rather gulping two hundred dollar bottles of wine, a few or even three of them, at every dinner; having started drinking at, say noon, on a terrace, usually pink wine also called rosé but sometimes also drinking scotch, sometimes called the amber nectar of the gods, I’d then drive a moped around a European city with her on the back of the moped, she wearing the oversize Chanel sunglasses I‘d bought her at Duty Free in some beautiful European airport, probably Schiphol in Amsterdam; drive the moped drunk and from just behind my ear she would read a map and yell at me to take a left to get to some architectural gem or another—the Sagrada Familia, say—or a bar where a writer or artist had once spent his afternoons trying to find a muse; and when you drive a moped drunk in a European city it doesn’t even seem illegal, in fact, it feels like it’s something you should be doing.
• • •
I thought you shouldn’t bother to keep score for a friendly game of tennis between two new lovers. My impulse was to just hit some balls and not bother with scoring. Sure, as a teenager I’d wanted to be Boris Becker, but as a teenager I’d also wanted to be the architect Kisho Kurokawa, but despite the heroic and even saintly efforts of the great El Camino High School architecture teacher Mr. Dan Schwartz, I discovered that I couldn’t design or draft for shit. And scoring at tennis seemed so aggressive. However, Ava insisted we keep score because she had gone to private school in Miami.
Miami: where her mother was a doctor who worked for the coroner and her father tried to overthrow Castro from the comfort of his favored seat at Versailles, where once I did eat the finest ropa-vieja on the planet; however, we all agreed the flan was subpar. The political and military intrigues of the old men tended to go nowhere fast, as the decades continually tell us.
I’d once read in a lad mag that new lovers often wager sexual acts on sports matches such as tennis. But Ava and I did not. The bet today, I understood once she started doing warm-up exercises—jumping jacks and burpees—on the opposite side of the court, the bet today would be: Pride. And I had very little of it, so I figured, hey, I will probably get my ass kicked in tennis by this hot girl I am falling in love with, but then we will go to the terrace, drink some spiked lemonade or what the fuck ever it is you drink after getting your ass kicked at tennis at a Parador, and then we’ll go back to our suite and fuck—until dinner time, when I will bloat myself again.
We decided on a three set match. This seemed fair to the old folks who’d anxiously arrived at the court a few minutes behind us, looking forward to a quick set before dinner, and it also fit in well with our afternoon drinking and moped driving plans.
Ava was up four to nothing in the third set. She’d banished me in the first by six games to nil, and in the second set I’d squeaked out a six-four victory. Now she was happy. She was so sexy when she was happy that I truly wanted her to keep kicking my ass, and she had a beautiful and wide smile. I could not read the smile then but now I know that the smile said: I went to private school in Coral Gables and then I graduated Cum Laude at Columbia and in the fall I am starting a PhD in Clinical Psychology at CUNY: I will fuck my married thesis adviser, who is upstate neighbors with David Bowie, and for many years before you discover this I will Rorschach you like a motherfucker.
But then I heard the old Spanish guy say something to his wife, and I didn’t know exactly what he said, but I knew that the rough English translation was: That fat man is being beaten at tennis by that classy young Cuban woman wearing Chanel sunglasses.
I thought about those kids who played team tennis in high school and how elegant and charmed their lives seemed, and I thought of Boris Becker: all of the shame of my poor white upbringing came rushing into every muscle in my body, and I started kicking Ava’s ass at tennis.
• • •
My father had a policy of not paying more than twenty dollars for a pair of his children’s shoes. At the time I thought this was obvious further indication of his tyranny and psychological abuse. Of course, it didn’t dawn on me that he had four children who, once you counted church shoes, school shoes, and athletic shoes, collectively required seventy-five or so pairs of shoes a year.
The twenty-dollar cap meant that if I wanted Vans or Adidas I would have to kick in for the cost beyond twenty dollars. Most of my newspaper route earnings went to the enhancement of my shoes. In 1984 the Ivan Lendl Competition shoe from Adidas was released. I remember the sticker price hovering around sixty-five bucks. My father waited in his truck while I shopped at The Athletic Shoe Factory, his twenty-dollar bill in one hand, my wallet in the other. I strutted out with the Lendls on and jumped in the cab of his truck. I explained the importance and relevance of these shoes to him. And he said: You don’t even play tennis.
• • •
I will not lie and say that I gained the win against Ava by playing pretty points. It’s possible that what I did on the court that day does not even qualify as tennis. But I won the match through grit, determination, hatred of the old rich Spanish dude, and fumes of scotch and Bierzo. Everybody loves a winner; everybody except Ava.
When I exclaimed, Match point, and then served a winner down the centerline, Ava stopped in her beautiful tracks and ripped the Chanel sunglasses off of her face. She threw the sunglasses up in the air and she bashed them with a vicious forehand, and the sunglasses, now in pieces, flew out of the court and down into the field of wine grapes. She shrugged her shoulders, and then her chest rose like a powerlifter who is about to deadlift five hundred pounds. Her beautiful doe eyes were no longer beautiful and soft and deeply fuckable sad doe eyes; they were now the volcanic cauldron eyes of a girl whose dad had served multiple years in federal prison for running automatic weapons from his fishing boat out of Bimini; they were the eyes of a girl who hated to lose and whose father had possibly killed a man or two, on a boat in the Caribbean, in the Eighties, or on an airplane bound for Havana from Caracas.
She reared back her racket as if it were a tomahawk, and she yelled, “I can’t believe you beat me, you fat fuck!”
And she threw the racket at me. I dodged, and it just missed my face. The old Spanish man chuckled, and said to me, in perfect English, “Nice win, young man. Trust me, they like it.”
His wife sighed. Ava stormed off toward the terrace.
I said, “Fat fuck? Really?”
• • •
I did not then nor do I now feel exceptionally fat. I weigh two hundred and thirty-four (six, eight?) pounds and I am five feet, nine inches tall. According to some government measurements I am obese. According to others I am merely overweight. When I lived in Manhattan and dated Ava, I paid a trainer an obscene amount of money to work out with me. He got me down to 206 pounds, and I was deadlifting 400 pounds for five reps. And then the trainer left me to join the Army, and I got fat again. In my neighborhood of Chelsea, it was impossible to purchase pants with a size forty or larger waist. Sometimes I felt as though I belonged to a class of people who might be taken out to Staten Island and shot by the Bloomberg administration.
• • •
The Swofford belly: my father owned one. He was not a joe six-pack kind of guy. He might drink a few cheap beers at a neighborhood BBQ, or Mom would splurge for Corona minis on Taco Tuesday. But still, I own a beer belly: visceral fat, the most dangerous kind of fat, a family curse.
While recently unpacking my office I came across a photo from August of 1986. In a few days I’d turn sixteen. My father had just turned forty-five. He stood in the shallow end of our pool, holding my one-year-old niece. I was athletic, trim, I could bench press 275 pounds for ten reps. When I was sixteen my father’s beer belly caused me great shame. In my mind I called him fat, and lazy, and undisciplined. But probably he was just tired from raising and providing for four kids and now this grandchild his strung-out older daughter couldn’t provide for.
I am 47. I look exactly like my father does in that photo from 1986, although his hair is thicker and blacker. What does this mean about heredity, disease, the cycles of the biological family unit? What the fuck was my problem?
My father had been to combat in Vietnam, he’d lived in Seville and Tokyo, he’d travelled around the world three times. But still I criticized him for being fat.
• • •
The second time I was called a fat fuck was in July, 2015 in Provence, while ensconced in a mansion provided by a writer’s colony. During that month I worked on a book, but also I streamed American TV dramas and European pornography, and I drank a daily barrel of wine and enjoyed French butchery, and I read nearly all of Patricia Highsmith.
The scale in my room was broken, but I was eating like a fucking fiend, and I knew I was packing on some pounds. At writer’s residencies writers often cheat on their partners. I had done this in my first marriage, at my first writer’s residency, and the results were as expected. But I’d felt like such a male writer! A fancy residency before my first book was even published! An affair with a woman who had had affairs with other married men at writer’s residencies for years! I had arrived!
But in Provence, this was out of the question for me: I loved my wife and our family. But, I ate. A lot. And I drank. Sometimes I drank pink wine at eight in the morning and the two angry French maids would look at me like I was a savage, and I would tap my iPhone and say to them, “Eastern Standard Time, it’s okay,” which is the time zone my mind continued to live in even though I was in France.
My mind was in EST because my wife Christa and our daughter were in EST: all I could do was think of Josephine running around our backyard in West Virginia, laughing about the Daddy Longlegs she’d seen on a hickory tree at the arboretum the day before I flew to Paris: this Daddy Longlegs had made her about as damn happy as any three-and-a-half-year-old could be.
One morning in Provence, at eight a.m., I started a charcoal fire out on the terrace and I grilled Merguez sausage and crosscut pork shoulder rubbed with Herbes de Provence. I fried four fresh farm eggs in a small cast iron skillet on the fire, and I placed the eggs atop the mess of meat, and I ate it all. I washed it down with a few mini Kronenberg 1664s, and I watched the sun splash the hundreds of acres of wine grapes in the valley below me, and this qualified as a perfect breakfast, a top ten lifetime breakfast. The maids stared at me and said disparaging things in French, and I understood the meaning of at least two words: fat fuck.
The two other artists staying in the mansion stumbled down from their rooms. The visual artist was married, and his wife and children were staying twenty kilometers away in the only affordable summer rental he could find. The scholar poet had a video gamer boyfriend in LA, and she wrote about obscure poets and tried to finish her first novel, a book about an impoverished poet living and temping among obscenely rich Manhattan bankers and brokers in 2007. We already knew the ending of that novel: the bankers go broke, the poet gets a novel out of it.
I apologized to my fellow residents for not making more breakfast. I told them that one of the surly maids had called me a fat fuck. We all laughed. They had heard my story of tennis and Ava in Spain. The scholar poet knew French, and she asked me what exactly the maids had said. I couldn’t remember. But I knew they weren’t calling me skinny fuck.
My wife had web stalked the scholar poet and for most of my residency in the mansion she had accused me of engaging the scholar poet sexually. The scholar poet was a beautiful and fiercely intelligent woman I had no sexual interest in, but whose company and manner and mind I greatly enjoyed.
When we weren’t writing, the scholar poet and I drank wine and drove to wineries and talked about Samuel Beckett and art and sex and dead siblings, and she was my first real female friend in many years.
Most nights on the phone my wife made her accusations of sex with the scholar poet. It is one thing to be accused of cheating when you are cheating because it is very easy to lie about actually cheating: you just say, “I am not cheating.” Your lie grounds you in the safety of your cheating experience and your obfuscation. Cheating is never about the fucking. Well, it’s sort of about the fucking. But it is equally or more so about the lying and the deceit and the shame, or, the postponement of shame, until all of it wrecks your house and home. But I had no interest in wrecking my house and home. I’d done that once, years earlier.
When you are accused of cheating and you are not cheating, when you have no interest in sexing with someone other than your spouse, your truth is worthless. The truth actually sounds like a lie, even to yourself. So I would not respond to these accusations from my wife, and the silence would sit heavy on the cellular connection between Provence and West Virginia. Eventually Christa understood that the silence meant: fidelity.
• • •
One night a few years after the residency I met the scholar poet in LA at one of my favorite bars, Cinema Bar on Sepulveda. I was in town to find television or film work, but mostly I surfed and ate hamburgers and tacos. I ate tacos for breakfast, hamburgers for lunch, and tacos and hamburgers for dinner. Across the street from Cinema Bar is a skeezy hotel where people rent rooms for the night but only use them for an hour or however long it takes.
While we were drinking, the scholar poet talked a lot about my wife, and how much she loved her, and how she was happy that my wife now knew that she, the scholar poet, had not had sex with me in Provence. My wife and the scholar poet became friends after my residency, and sometimes they hung out in LA without me, and texted, and communicated via social media. Without ever directly discussing the sex question, the two had come to an understanding of what had not happened during my residency in Provence. An important aspect of my life and identity, my monogamy, had been decided on while I was not in the room.
The scholar poet had not been able to sell her novel, and her new project had to do with pheromones. She had with her multiple vials of pheromones. She stacked the vials of pheromones on the bar. She rubbed scents on my forearms and had me smell them; she put the same scents on her forearms and had me smell her forearms. I could not discern a difference between a scent on her forearms and a scent on mine. She explained the scents to me, but Cinema Bar had turned so loud, I could barely hear the scholar poet. She said something about B.O.
The crowd at Cinema Bar can get rowdy after ten p.m., and there is always live music. A rockabilly band with a female vocalist shredded it on the tiny stage. Patrons looked at us and the vials of pheromones and watched us smell each other’s forearms, but it probably wasn’t anything they hadn’t seen before. Or smelled. All of the pheromone vials smelled like sex, and they probably knew it. Everything smells like sex after ten p.m. in a bar.
It was late, and we kept drinking bourbon. Even though she was officially now my wife’s friend, I still liked the poet scholar’s company. Her father had been in Vietnam, and she had a brother with an occasional drug habit, so we had things to talk about other than Beckett. At some point, even Beckett got tired of talking about Beckett.
It was later now, and it was that moment in the evening when two people who are covered with bourbon and pheromones and who should not kiss do in fact kiss and then go fuck at the Galaxy Inn across the street from Cinema Bar, for however long it takes. I had an early morning meeting in Silver Lake: the word from my agent was I was about to be hired on a really dumb TV show, one that was bound to be even dumber and more successful than the dumb successful TV show I had worked on the year before. But TV money would afford me more hamburgers and tacos, so I was interested.
I thought about kissing the poet scholar, and going to the Galaxy Inn for a room and the two of us fucking like we might have in Provence, had I been skinny. I sensed she thought about this too. We paused outside the bar, drunk on pheromones, on bourbon, on music, on family history. We didn’t kiss. I summoned an Uber for her. We hugged, and she went home.
I walked down Sepulveda to Johnnies’ Pastrami and I ordered a full pastrami and a pitcher of beer.
In the morning I surfed Venice. I was slow paddling to the lineup: when I got up on the board and rode a wave, from the shore I certainly had to look like a whale on a toothpick. I could imagine a beach jogger looking at me and thinking, Look at that fat fuck on a surfboard.
I was a fat fuck. But in my fatness I did not hunger.
Anthony Swofford is the author of the memoirs Jarhead and Hotels, Hospitals, and Jails and the novel Exit A. His writing has appeared in Harper’s, The Guardian, The New York Times, The Daily Beast, and many other places. His next book, a biography of Carlos Arredondo, a Gold Star father and peace activist, will be published by Knopf in 2019. He will adapt this book for HBO Films. He teaches in the MFA programs at West Virginia University and Vermont College of Fine Arts.