At noon on a Tuesday in early April, I hesitated in the stark archway separating the lobby from the muted dining room of one of Seattle's downtown, upscale restaurants. Pale white silk-textured walls relieved only by shining mahogany chair rails enclosed a roomful of identical tables that held gleaming white, gold-rimmed plates and polished silverware, spotless stemmed glasses, and napkins folded like little tents—all placed just so. I sighed and scanned the room.
Why did I say yes? I hated being away from the shop during the busy lunch hour. But when Audrey called, the called rushed forth.
A hum of polite conversation ebbed and flowed around me, accentuated by the irregular tinkling of silverware against china. The civilized aroma of butter and basil drifted my way. I swallowed the saliva that came unbidden, like I was some distant relation to one of Pavlov's dogs.
I spotted Audrey seated at a table in the middle of the room. Her tailored cream crepe pantsuit blended nicely with the room's decor. Of course. She was holding court to a couple of men standing next to her table; both wore ubiquitous gray European-cut suits.
I headed toward my mother. My high heels sank into the ridiculously thick emerald carpet, making it difficult to keep my balance. My normal ponderous waddle became a graceless lurch. Struggling to maintain some dignity, I lifted my chin. But I was aware of the futility of my upright bearing.
I stopped at the right side of the nearest suited man. Glancing at Audrey, I noted the pucker between her perfectly arched brows as she inspected me. I adjusted the skirt of my teal linen suit and made sure my silk blouse wasn't gapping open.
"Tell Charlene I'm thinking of her," Audrey said, turning toward the second man. She reached for his hand with her slender mauve-tipped fingers and squeezed it—grace and warmth in concert. "If there's anything I can do for either of you, let me know."
The two men murmured good-bye and moved on, ignoring me.
"Veronica, dear." Audrey's voice was low and even. She'd waited until the men were on the far side of the dining room before greeting me.
"Hey," I said, gripping the table edge and lowering myself into a straight-backed chair. It was ridiculously small—just another example of rampant fat bias.
I love myself exactly as I am, I repeated several times silently in my head. My gaze roamed over the menu, lingered on the French Dip and the Broiled Crab and Cheese sandwiches and went obediently to the salads.
"I will have a small green salad, please," Audrey told the waiter. "With oil and vinegar on the side."
I sighed and pictured the Butterfingers I had stashed in my desk drawer back at the shop. "Same for me."
Audrey nodded. Her frosted blond pageboy didn't move. "I am pleased to see you working on your diet, dear."
I shot a glance at the hovering waiter and remained silent. The only thing I was working on was remaining sane for the duration of the lunch.
I flicked my gaze over Audrey. Beyond slender, bordering on bony, she looked like she'd been cut out with sharp scissors. By contrast, I looked like I'd been sketched in with pastel chalk, all soft edges and smudgy.
Her face was a collection of angles—flat forehead, high, prominent cheekbones, a triangular nose. She had wide-set eyes capped by aggressively plucked brows in an inverted V. Of course, her skin was perfect, nearly unlined—the result of a myriad of creams, lotions, and other potions and the services of a talented dermatologist and an even more talented plastic surgeon.
"I had an unsettling conversation with Cheryl Landing yesterday," Audrey said, stroking her smooth neck.
Though Cheryl was in one of my mother's women's groups, I wasn't aware they were more than simple acquaintances. But, then, they moved in the same wealthy circles where simple acquaintances called each other "friends," gave each other fake little kisses, and gossiped about their other "friends."
"Yeah?" I said.
"The conversation was about you—and it was not, I am sorry to say, positive."
I shifted my weight on the tiny chair. I had just spoken to Cheryl that morning. She'd popped in at Luscious Landing Large Women's Clothing Boutique, as she often did between her charity activities, to check out how business was doing in the shop she owned. That morning, Cheryl had again waxed eloquent on what a positive impact Oprah Winfrey's self-love techniques were having in her battle of the bulge, but she hadn't indicated she had a problem with me. What could she possibly have talked to Audrey about?
"What about me?"
Audrey's forehead furrowed briefly, and her eyelids slid downward. It was her sympathetic look. I'd seen it often enough. Audrey genuinely cared about people, especially people who were debilitated in some way. But she was conflicted about me. Fat, in her eyes, was debilitating, but her patience with my "refusal to live up to potential" had long since worn thin. Witness the tightness around her collagen-enhanced lips.
The waiter set two tiny plates of greens on the table without once looking at me. My stomach growled. The prominent green was endive. I hate endive. I accept myself unconditionally, I told myself, using yet another of Oprah's self-love affirmations I'd learned from her show.
I lifted my gaze from the offensive vegetable.
"I think this is going to be a positive experience for you, dear," Audrey said. She leaned forward, touched my hand for a mere instant. There it was again. That disapproving sympathy.
Audrey positioned her plate precisely equidistant between her fork and knife, then rotated it so the spray of fancy-cut cucumber slices were at the back edge. Aesthetics were important to Audrey.
Which is why my fat offended her so much.
After placing her plate just so, Audrey took a long moment to drizzle a thin line of oil over her salad and shake a liberal sprinkling of vinegar after that. When she finished, I used the oil and vinegar, in reverse proportions.
"Cheryl thinks you have gotten too heavy to be an effective saleswoman," Audrey said.
I dropped my fork.
Audrey deliberately picked up hers. She speared an endive leaf. "She thinks your size is disturbing to the clientele."
"Disturbing to the . . . The clientele," I emphasized the word, "are fat women."
Audrey glanced around. "Lower your voice, dear."
I'd fallen down a rabbit hole. Surely I couldn't be hearing Audrey tell me my boss thought I was too fat to run a fat woman's dress shop. I voiced the thought aloud.
"Well, Cheryl seems to think the smaller, ah, large women are discouraged by your size. They find it depressing and might avoid the store because of it."
"You've got to be kidding."
"I am afraid not, dear. Cheryl was quite clear. She said if you cannot lose some weight—a significant amount, I believe—she will be forced to replace you."
I stabbed at my salad. For almost three years, I'd managed that shop. Profits were up more than 50 percent since I took over.
I accept myself as I . . . Oh, to hell with it. Not even the fat woman who owns the fat women's dress shop could accept me. Who was I kidding?
I don't remember what else Audrey and I talked about that day, and I don't much remember how I got through the rest of the day either. I'm sure the Butterfingers in my desk drawer played a significant role. I do remember it was difficult to be properly solicitous of my customers that afternoon. I kept wondering if any of the women I'd come to consider friends were the ones who had complained to Cheryl.
I tried calling her all afternoon. I left half a dozen messages, but she never returned my calls.
So I called Alanna and Bonnie, my best friends, to commiserate. They both agreed to meet me the next evening for a pig-out dinner. I'd have loved to have done it that evening, but I'd agreed to meet Gilbert for dinner, and I hated to break my word—to anyone.
Gilbert and I usually walked to dinner together. He owned and managed the men's shop next door to Luscious Landing. But he'd had business in Bellevue that day, and we'd agreed it made more sense to meet at the restaurant.
A blast of noise assaulted me as soon as I stepped through the heavy brass-handled door of the restaurant. The music coming from inside sounded like jazz rap, if there was such a thing, and everyone in the restaurant seemed to be shouting. I didn't want to be there. I wanted to be home. I was starving, and I knew I wasn't going to get enough food in the damn place.
A brass railing divided the packed lobby from an even more crowded bar. Young men and women dressed in business suits jostled past me. I felt like I'd stepped into a teeming bat cave. The walls were gray with speckles of red, the furniture black. The odor of sweat couldn't mask the heavy aroma of basil. What was it with restaurants and basil? Could the chefs think of no other spices?
I worked my way through the crowd, shoving aside the eager, beautiful people with my broad hips. Who said there weren't advantages to being fat?
About ten feet from the door, I broke through the pack and encountered a huge black marble podium with a brass lamp poised on its edge. A blond woman with a flat stomach and slender hips, poured into a size four, if that, little black dress, posed delicately beside the black monolith.
"Dinner for one, ma'am?"
I spotted Gilbert on the far side of the bar. "I'm meeting someone."
The woman nodded.
Ma'am, I thought. I straightened my shoulders and did my best to lumber with dignity across the space between the restaurant lobby and the bar.
I worked my way through the cramped tables and chairs in the bar. My thigh bumped into a table and sloshed beer. "Sorry," I said.
The man at the table looked up at me, his eyes blank, then looked away.
I knocked a purse off the back of a chair with my hips. I hesitated, glanced around. No room to bend over and pick the damn thing up. Not unless I wanted to bump into the person at the table behind me. Who needed the Three Stooges? I could provide all the comic relief these people needed. A swish of the hips here and down goes a purse, a jostle of the thigh there and over goes a cocktail glass. Here a spill, there a spill, everywhere a . . .
"Did you want something?" The woman whose chair I'd jostled glared up at me. She was a petite blonde with a pert pixie haircut and a pointed little chin.
"Your purse," I said, pointing to the ground.
The woman leaned over and picked it up, folding herself easily into the tight space. I moved on. I should have just let it lie there. But then I wouldn't have been able to stand it if someone had picked it up and made off with it.
I passed a table of four men, all drinking beer from long-neck bottles, all in shirtsleeves, their ties loosened, all good-looking. I smiled. Three of them looked at me. No, make that looked through me.
I can't say that was the worst part of being obese. But it wasn't pleasant. I was invisible to them. There was an irony. I took up more room than any of the women in the place and yet I was invisible.
I love myself as I am, I chanted in my head.
Ah, forget it. What did Oprah know? And what did Cheryl know, telling me how Oprah's shows had changed her life?
Damn Gilbert anyway. Why did he have to be all the way in the back?
When I finally reached him, Gilbert glanced up from a huge burgundy menu and smiled. The smile, as usual, revealed only his top two front teeth. God, he looks like a chipmunk, I thought, for the millionth time—this time with far less affection than usual.
"Hello, beautiful," he said.
I groaned and lowered myself into the black ladder-back chair opposite Gilbert. My thighs hung over the sides of the seat, the wood pressing into my legs. I shifted, seeking a comfortable position.
"How was your day?" Gilbert asked. He placed the menu on the black lacquered table, aligning the menu's bottom edge perfectly with the table's edge.
I cringed. "Peachy."
Gilbert reached across the table and took my hand. His fingers were limp and clammy. "Anything I can do?"
I pulled my hand away and picked up my menu. "Let's just eat."
Gilbert flashed me his chipmunk smile, patiently ignored my rudeness, and tapped his own menu. "The special is pork medallions in lemon basil sauce on a bed of rice."
Basil again. "Why not?" I said.
Once the food arrived, I dived into my puny helping with my fork while Gilbert picked up his spoon and his knife. Using the edge of the utensils, Gilbert separated all the food on his plate. The pork took up residence on the right side. The rice held its ground in the middle. The asparagus spears lined up on the far left. I wondered fleetingly whether he would attempt to separate the sauce into its own little pile. I also wondered, not for the first time, why he even bothered to order things that were served on top of other things.
I studied his face while he performed his food choreography. Gilbert wasn't exactly handsome. But then what would a handsome man be doing with me?
He wasn't bad-looking though. His face was soft, like a gingerbread boy baked with too much baking soda. He had a shallow forehead, no chin to speak of, and pouchy cheeks, reminding me of a chipmunk with a bounty of nuts stored away for later. The cheeks went with his toothy smile. His face always seemed unsettled, like it couldn't find itself. The only thing solid was his nose, quite a nice nose—straight and well shaped but looking out of place in its surroundings.
What I loved most about Gilbert's face, besides his nose, were his eyes. He had amazing eyes—dark forest green, intense and unusual, ringed in thick, bark-colored lashes.
I tried focusing on his eyes while he pushed his food around. We'd been dating for six months. Gilbert loved me. I supposed I loved him. I'd told him I did anyway. He was too good for me really. He had one of those positive attitudes and the kind of great self-esteem that would never need affirmations from the Oprah Winfrey Show. He knew his weaknesses, but he also knew his strengths. When I first met him and he told me I had caught his eye because of my beautiful auburn hair, I had laughed. I weighed nearly three hundred pounds, and he noticed my hair.
Excerpted from Alternate Beauty by Andrea Rains Waggener. Copyright © 2005 by Andrea Rains Waggener. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.