Weight

(This is a work of original fiction)

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Jim closed his eyes. “Latch, dammit. Please,” he silently begged an inanimate object to conform to his will. Three ‘ride hosts’ gathered around their car, and took turns trying to force Cori’s lap restraint to close properly. ‘Madison’ and ‘Austin’ shrugged at each other, and called ‘Ty’ over as a last resort. (Jim and Cori had both memorized all their brightly colored name tags.) Ty looked like he could move an NFL tackling dummy alone without much effort. The ride hosts treated the problem as finicky engineering, and thought perhaps faulty mechanics would submit to the right man’s muscle. But the equipment was working exactly as designed.

Ty placed both hands on Cori’s disobedient safety device. The top of his knuckles burrowed into the bottom of her breasts, and his thumbs wedged between the padded metal ‘L’ of the restraint and her waist on either side of her navel. She inhaled and bit the insides of her cheeks, attempting to reduce herself, and to dismiss the mild violation of being touched in such an intimate way by a stranger with obvious disregard for her body. Ty didn’t notice her discomfort. Cori, to him, was the malfunctioning part of the machine. He pressed downward with all of his might, hurting her a bit, although she didn’t cry out or even wince. It still wouldn’t latch.

“Ma’am, I’m sorry but…” Kendall, the ‘ride supervisor,’ began an insulting apology to Cori, thinly veiled in pity.

“No. I get it. Holding up the line… I’m sorry,” Cori conceded. She’d learned the correct action, the action people expected of her, was atonement for existing in her current form.

“Cori, I’m sorry.” Jim offered an apathetic apology, as she straightened how her clothing hung, and took slow steps toward the stairs back to the wide public walkway. “I want out…” he half-heartedly told Kendall, but Cori insisted he stay.

“It’s okay, Jimmy. I’ll meet you at the exit in a couple minutes,” she answered, fighting back tears. “Don’t make it worse. Let me walk away with a shred of dignity,” she intoned with only her moistened eyes. This was the fourth ride she had to abandon out of their attempted five.

She replayed her elation when he told her his second ticket was meant for her, and scoffed at how poorly things were going. She was infatuated with Jim since the first time she spoke to him.

“Corinne with River Bend Steel. How can I help you?”

“This is Jim Atanovich from Myrtle Industrial. Who can help me with bulk orders?”

“That’s me,” she said, already so attracted to his voice she found it hard to key in on the actual reason for his call. On the phone, he was witty and kind, and she couldn’t get that voice out of her mind. She daydreamed about what he sounded like singing. She heard him in her head, narrating the male characters’ dialogue in the books she read. After months of commonplace, vision-less communication, she finally got a chance to see him.

“Company’s having a holiday event. I get to invite a guest from one of our vendors. Would you like to come so I can say ‘thank you?’ And ‘Merry Christmas?’”

“Really? But we’ve never actually met…

“Am I in danger of having to find another metal supplier if you’re revolted by the sight of me?” he teased.

“Of course not,” she giggled, but then felt impending doom about him seeing her for the first time. He clearly liked her voice and what he knew of her humor and aptitude enough to invite her out, but Cori was never considered classically lovely. The nicest remark she’d ever heard concerning her appearance was, ‘You have such a pretty face.’ It was almost always followed up with some version of, ‘You’d be even prettier if you lost a few pounds.’

She imagined how Jim looked on the other end of those calls in detail, but was still startled by her own accuracy when she saw him. He looked exactly like she thought he would based on the sound of his voice. She could see on his face he hadn’t made the same precise, sight-unseen estimation of her. To his credit, he didn’t then become crass or unfriendly. She watched him downshift to ‘just friends,’ however.

For over a year, they maintained a platonic link, occasionally met for a casual lunch, once even a dinner, and she tried convincing herself that if she lost the seventy-five pounds it would take to get into a statistically ‘healthy’ range, he still wouldn’t see her ‘that way.’ She wanted to believe Jim was above being swayed by public dictation of beauty, or others’ judgment of his choices; that he was braver and deeper than that. But deep down, she knew only her weight kept them romantically apart.

She started dieting, but couldn’t get noticeable results without a calorie burn, and her week of free trial at the gym closest to her apartment was a disaster. She felt patronized on the good days. Mostly, she felt isolated and scrutinized by a large group of indiscreet eyes, so she quit going.

A few times, Cori thought of asking Jim out on a ‘real’ date, but the likely outright rejection, and subsequent embarrassment stopped her. When he called to spend an entire vacation day together, going somewhere she hadn’t been for years, hope rose. She pictured sharing a day at the amusement park with someone like she wanted to in youth, when she went along as a third or fifth wheel with couple friends, and rode unaccompanied, watching how cute and happy they were, holding hands through the open concourses, standing staggered in line, playfully leaning on each other, laughing together.  Now she wasn’t even able to get on the rides alone. The thirty additional pounds she’d gained since high school was enough to prevent her from riding at all.

She stood in the bank of digital photo monitors in the roller coaster’s exit, watching the new shots pop up, and looked mournfully at Jim’s devastated face. All the other people on the train, even the other solo riders, were smiling and excited. She made him stand out, and not in a good way. She thought about how she’d make him stand out, and not in a good way, wherever they went. She ached to go home and cry, but to show she wasn’t ungrateful for his thoughtfulness, put on a jolly smile to greet him as he came down the exit stairs.

“How was it?” she chirped, trying to sound sincerely upbeat, like the morning’s recurrent disappointments weren’t getting to her at all.

“Not that great, really,” he replied honestly. When he earned the bonus tickets from work, he envisioned spending a day simulating the feeling of butterflies he felt when he spoke with her on the phone by way of exaggerated g-forces. Reality, however, was treating him to a day of watching her self-esteem fall to lower lows with each aborted stab at fun.

Jim loved talking to her. After weeks of exclusively dialogue, his feelings for her grew, but each time he saw her, there was always a small window of adjustment to how she looked. He always did adjust, and thought extended time in her presence would dispatch that period he seemed to need to modify his perspective. He wanted to date her, and hated the self-confession that he hadn’t already asked to take her out ‘officially’ because of her weight. He figured a day of youthful diversion with her would end his focus on it, but rather, unfortunate circumstance made it more prominent.

“I can tell. You’re the only one on the whole train not having a good time.” She turned her melancholy eyes from the photo screen to the ground, weary of herself.

“I wanted to ride this stuff with you. Riding by myself kinda sucks.”

“I know it does. I’ve only ever ridden by myself. I’m sorry. I’m ruining your day.”

“No…I guess…I’m sorry. I thought this would be fun. Dammit. They should put up a sign before you have to wait all the way through those lines and try to get in the seats and…”

“They do have signs up, Jimmy. ‘People with heart conditions, recent injuries, and fat girls shouldn’t ride.’ They’re just PC enough to print ‘pregnant women’ instead of ‘fat girls’ on them.”

“Oh, Cori, that’s not what I meant…”

“I know you aren’t trying to hurt my feelings. But you are. Saying you think they should…accommodate me is still…spotlighting it. I hatethis. I don’t feel bad about myself until other people let me know I’m supposed to.”

“This is not how I thought today would go.”

“What’d you think?”

“I thought, ‘I’ll get to see her smile for an entire day. How can you not wear a constant smile at an amusement park?’ Sometimes I astound myself with my own stupidity.”

“You’re not the dumbest one here. I agreed to come. You couldn’t know… You know what? I’ll smile the rest of the day for you. Let’s go get in another line. What do you wanna do next?”

“Something with you. Somewhere you’re happy. I wanna see the smile I can hear when I call you at work. Not the phony one I saw coming down those stairs.”

“It’s hard to wear a real one in person. Sometimes I think the real ones aren’t made to fit me. Like bathing suits and college auditorium desks and roller coaster seats.”

“I want more substance with the girl I talk to on the phone. And I want her to wear a real smile. Is that asking too much?”

“I dunno. I can’t put on authentic happiness when I watch you visibly overcome aversion whenever you see me. I can see that, you know? I think you’re asking too much of yourself.”

“But I don’t want…”

“I know. I know you don’t want it to bother you. But it does.”

“Cori…”

“Look me in the eyes and tell me you wanna touch me…kiss me…be with me…and I swear…you’ll get the biggest, most genuine smile you’ll ever see. But I bet you can’t do it.”

Jim closed his eyes. “I do wanna touch you…kiss you…”

“Open your eyes and say it.”

“I love you, Cori.”

“But you don’t wanna look at me?”

“Maybe I could help you…I dunno…”

“Become what you want? You don’t love me. You love the idea of what I could be with months of sacrifice. You love Plausibly Thin Cori. How noble of you to offer assistance with that.” She rolled her eyes at him, and her self-righteous anger adequately delayed the crying jag she felt coming on.

“You’re making me the bad guy, here. I’m not a bad guy,” he defensively proclaimed.

“No. But you’re just like every other guy.”

***

“Found a fella for ya,” Meredith sang. Cori anted up an obligatory smile, but screamed inside at the prospect of another date with what Meredith deemed an appropriate man for her. Meredith’s sole criterion for fix ups for her was ‘fat,’ with no supplemental filter. The past few years, she’d gone out with six men Meredith found for her, presuming them a suitable pairing because they were both heavier than society’s ideal. Meredith surmised fairness would dictate an overweight man couldn’t reject Cori for being overweight. She meant well, but she was more than a bit misguided. Cori felt she couldn’t refuse the conscripted outings, because she was lonely, and turning away the offers might offend Meredith. Offending Meredith would mean losing her everyday lunching partner.

The first three blind dates had been nice enough guys, there was just no chemistry between them. Guy four was Dan, whom she did appraise as a hidden treasure, as he’d become a close friend. They practiced a circadian email ritual together, and discussed everything, not excluding their subsequent lousy dating experiences. Guys five and six ended…badly. Dan even had to scare guy six away for her.

Dan referred to guy five as Steakhouse Pete. He started out like all the other guys Meredith selected. They stumbled through some heavily censored conversation during a long wait for a table. When their server came, Pete ordered a twenty ounce steak, full fat dressing on his salad, and extra butter and sour cream on his baked potato. When she ordered a smaller cut of meat, no additional condiments, but everything else the same, and reached for a sour dough roll from the basket in front of them on the table, just as he did, things turned sharply south. “You should order lighter,” he said when the waiter walked away.

“Excuse me?”

“You shouldn’t eat like that.”

“Neither should you.”

“Yeah. But normal girls will still be seen with me. Mer said you were ‘voluptuous,’ and I know what that really means, but hell…you aren’t even trying. Don’t you even care you look like that?”

“What?!”

“I’d think on a first date, you’d make some effort to make a good first impression. But I guess not.”

“’What the hell does that mean? What would me ordering an undressed salad and a water show you?”

“That you wanna change. But it’s like you wanna be The Fat Girl.”

Cori had no snappy comeback, and she picked at her meal while he wolfed his down and ordered cheesecake to finish, prolonging her torment. She forewent dessert, got a to-go box, rode home with him wordlessly, and ate her dinner reheated and alone in front of her television. Then, she polished off the remainder of a started half gallon of fat-free, no sugar added, chocolate frozen yogurt from her freezer. She cried through the last eight spoonfuls, but weeping didn’t stop her from shoveling them in.

Guy six was Steven. He lasted a few months, and she was ready to admit that maybe Meredith got one right, when the emotional mistreatment started. She remembered thinking, after permitting it to continue for a few weeks, that at least Pete had the decency to show his hypocritical distaste for her up front on their first date.

Steven presented as a perfect gentleman. They had immediate chemistry. Talking to him felt almost like talking to Jim used to feel, but unlike Jim, he seemed totally accepting of how she looked. She shared her first kiss since her first semester of college with him outside her apartment door after their third date. After six more weeks, she invited him to stay the night with her, and was nearly euphoric about it when, with her naked body against him in bed, he said, “You’re a lucky lady, Cor.”

She giggled, thinking him playfully arrogant. “I am, am I?”

“Yeah. Not too many guys would wanna tap that.”

The comment was so stunningly hurtful, she didn’t refute it, and didn’t have the strength to cut him loose, either. Those words got into her head and made a home there, and she began to believe them; that her choices were Steven, a man who made her feel ugly and unworthy, or being lonely. For three weeks, she made a daily choice for him, because ‘ugly and unworthy’ was superior to lonely, ugly, and unworthy.’

To: Corinne Gibson
From: Dan Hoffman
Subject: New Guy
So…how’s it going? Haven’t heard from you in weeks! WTH?! Are you so in love you can’t talk to your friends anymore or what? After that first month of messages, I thought you’d be telling me about ring shopping and shit by now. 😉

Re: New Guy
It’s going. No ring shopping.

Re1: New Guy
??? Being so short with me is TOTALLY out of character. What’s wrong? 😦

Re2: New Guy
Nothing.

Re3: New Guy
Uh-HUH, there is TOO something wrong. Are you mad at me? Swamped at work? Jim stuff again? Or is this New Guy acting like a douche? Don’t lie. I have like superhuman ability to spot bullshit.

Re4: New Guy
Wanna have lunch tomorrow?

Subject: I Do Not Like The New Guy
Question answered with avoidance and distraction. Lunch TODAY. 1 at Savory Sandwich ok?

Re: I Do Not Like The New Guy
I’ll be there.

“So, let’s talk about The New Guy…or is it Jim again? I know it’s not work or you wouldn’t have suggested lunch.” Dan pinched his face with concern.

“It’s mostly Steven. But I guess it’s kinda still a little bit Jim. It’s sort of the same problem.”

“What’s going on?”

“Things with Steven were going well, I thought, and so I…got involved…”

“Like…involved?”

“Yeah.”

“No good?”

“During was pretty good the first time. After is the problem.”

“You lost me. Just…say it.”

“He told me I’m lucky to have him ’cause nobody else wants me.”

“He said what?! Ok, really fucking don’t like the new guy.”

“He’s kinda right, though, isn’t he?”

“No, he’s not right! You’re awesomeThat fucker is the lucky one. He ought to get down on his knees every night and thank God you’ll even speak to him. Do not have that shit. Wait…the first time? Did you sleep with him again?”

“Yes. He’s still…around,” she sighed, exasperated with herself.

Why?!”

“Because…I’m lonely, and…I dunno. I just craved human contact. Even with a sub-par human, I guess.”

“You should end it right now.”

“I can’t end it over text.”

“Proof you’re too good for him right there.

“You’re a sweetheart, but he has a point. Jim doesn’t want me because…” She sighed heavily.

“Hey. Don’t do that,” He tenderly tapped her on her elbow. “You sound like you don’t even like yourself.”

“Sometimes I don’t.”

When do you not like yourself? When some asshole tells you you shouldn’t?”

“Yeah. And when people stare at me at the gym. And when The Man of My Dreams invites me to ride The Screamin’ Demon and the goddam lap bar won’t latch. I’m tired of the shell I’m in limiting and defining what I can do. And who likes me. Including me.”

like you, if that counts at all.”

“Aw. It counts a bunch, Dan.”

“End it with this guy.”

“I will.”

“When? Can’t be soon enough.”

“He’s coming over tonight.”

“Let me know how it goes.”

“I can do that now: shitty. Best case is I’m back to being an Obese Outcast.”

“Text me later, huh? Hate it when you’re down. You know…if youwanna try to lose some weight…I’ll do it with you.”

“You don’t need to change anything about yourself. You’re awesome just the way you are.”

“So are you. But you’re unhappy. I am too. Everybody can improve themselves, right? You and me…we’re so great, all we have to work on is the outside. We’ll just be more awesome. Unfair awesome. We’ll be all this awesome, plus fit and universally appealing. And maybe happy.

***

Steven arrived at Cori’s apartment, expectant and prepared for sex. They hadn’t gone anywhere but her place for two weeks; he no longer felt wooing her necessary. He made a not-so-subtle move for her bedroom upon entering. He didn’t touch, kiss, or even speak a sentence to her first.

“Steven?” She verbally stopped his forward progress to his blatant annoyance. “We need to talk.”

“Jesus. Did you really just say that?”

“There’s nothing for you in the bedroom. I don’t think we should see each other anymore.”

“You know you can’t do better than me.” He staunchly stood closer than her to the bedroom, and farther from the door. Although he’d not been physically abusive, she was afraid of the term ‘yet,’ and didn’t want him passing her to exit. She was afraid he would refuse to exit.

“I think you should go,” she bravely stated.

“You can think whatever you want.” He still didn’t budge, and her fear amplified exponentially.

She turned away, nonchalantly pulled her phone from her pocket, and sent a quick, desperate text to Dan.

-C- Scared he won’t leave. Please help me. 😦 –

Dan lived slightly less than five minutes’ drive time from her, which they shared a laugh about on their awkward-turned-friendly blind date. He turned his eyes from his television and Lean Cuisine to his phone with a smile on his face. R2D2’s cute set of beeps, whistles, and chirps from the Star Wars movies sounded; his specialty text alert for Cori. His text alert on her phone was Chewbacca’s growl. He revealed her new message, expecting to read, “Well, it’s over. Wanna go out for froyo?” but instead, replaced his cheerful grin with a worried grimace, and abandoned his dinner to rush to her aid.

“There’s s-somebody else,” she stammered to Steven back at her apartment.

“Yeah. ‘Jim.’ I’m sure all it took for him to get over his nausea looking at you was for you to date someone else for a while,” he sarcastically answered.

“Not Jim. Another man. A really good man that told me not to take your shit,” she honestly asserted, and a twinge of realization struck her. Dan really was a good man that appreciated her for who she was, but would accept evolution. He was willing to evolve with her. She summoned his smooth, baritone voice saying, ‘You’re awesome.That fucker is the lucky one…’ to calm herself, and her hope that he’d soon arrive became colored by more than fear.

“Yeah, clearly you hafta fend ’em off. Now you’re making somebody up to try and scare me. Pathetic, Cor. Making my point for me.”

“Please go now. I’m serious, Steven. I don’t wanna see you anymore.”

“Yeah, you do. You know what your odds are to find some other guy charitable or hard up enough to spend time with you? You’ll probably never find anyone else willing to take you to bed…”

Dan savagely knocked on Cori’s apartment door. “Cori!? You ok?!”

She said a silent prayer of gratitude and opened up to him, harried and pleading. “Just go along with me, please,” she whispered. His nod of conspiracy was nearly imperceptible, but she saw it. “Steven, this is Dan. He’s…um…he’s…”

“The better man,” Dan confidently stated, stepping between Steven and Cori. “Think she asked you to leave, pal. So why are you still here?”

***

“I don’t think so, Mer,” Corinne finally replied to her office friend, turning down a set up for the first time.

“No? I know Steven turned out to be…y’know…less than perfect for you. And I’m sorry about that. That’s not a reason to give up, though. There are good men out there.”

“I know. I appreciate you thinking of me. But I’m gonna concentrate on ‘me’ for a while.”

“I noticed you’ve lost some weight. I didn’t wanna bring it up, but now you did, so…good for you!”

“Yeah. I’ve been working on it for a bit now. I’m glad you can tell.”

Working out with Dan was paying off, and the emotional support he gave her was even more helpful. For the first time, she stuck with a weight loss strategy for more than a week. She’d lost a little each week for the last nine. Her clothes fit looser, and she felt happier.

“That’s enough for today,” Dan panted, slowing the treadmill in his basement to walking speed from thirty minutes of an unbroken jog.

“Go fifteen more minutes right there,” Cori answered. She was on stroke four hundred on his rowing machine.

“You’re a beast, Cori,” he teased her, but sped his steps back up a half mile an hour. “How many are you doing?”

“Six.”

“Hundred?!”

“Yeah.”

“Shit. Now I have to do at least seven when we switch machines.”

“Why?”

“’Cause you’re makin’ me look bad in my own house!” he kidded.

“It’s incredibly generous to let me come over so much,” she soberly replied. “Thank you.”

“Hell, my pleasure. I never used this shit until you started coming over. I’m down thirty pounds! And it’s just nice having you here. Thank you for working out with me.”

“It has been kinda nice. It doesn’t even feel like working out most of the time…wait a minute…you’re down thirty?! I’m only down twenty! Maybe I’ll do eight hundred…”

“You don’t have as far to go as me. It’s alright if I’m a little ahead of you…”

“No it isn’t.”

“I’ve got more to lose. You said your goal was seventy-five to eighty. Mine’s one twenty-five. At least. Should probably be one fifty or one sixty. You’ve got way less left than me.”

“Still. You’ve lost more so far. Bugs me.”

“Damn, you’re competitive. Like…a little crazy about it.”

“Yeah, it’s a personality defect. I own it.”

“I wouldn’t call it a ‘defect.’ I like it.”

“You do? I’m definitely doing eight now. You can stay on there for another ten minutes.”

“Eight?! Should have never said I liked the killer instinct. Now I’m up to a thousand rows. Ugh. Shut up, Dan!”

“If you keep telling me your plans to up your reps, we’ll be here all night.”

“I don’t wanna be on these machines all night. We could hang out longer, though. I mean, clean up when we’re done and go out or something. Want to? I wanna see the new Marvel movie.”

“Yeah? I guess we could do that…”

“You not wanna go out? Or you just don’t like Marvel movies?”

“No. I love Marvel movies. But I haven’t been to a movie theater in…it’s been years. The seats were always…uncomfortable.”

“Well, we’ll sit upstairs in the first class section. It’s damn near a couch. Nice and comfy.”

“Costs more, though.”

“My treat. Besides, we’ll save some by forfeiting popcorn and candy.”

“Is Tom Hiddleston in the new one?”

“He’s your fella, huh? Loki? Not Thor? You’re a villain girl! Oh no!”

“I don’t like him because he’s the bad guy. He’s just hot.”

“What’s hot about him?” Dan felt disheartened. Tom Hiddleston was a naturally slim man. Dan could see himself, with a year or more of really hard work, achieving a look like one of the other featured heartthrob actors in a Marvel movie, but he’d never be Tom Hiddleston. Dan felt drawn to Cori in a more profound way in recent months than when he’d been artificially coupled with her almost two years ago, and while he assumed this yearning was unrequited, he still valued her opinions (especially concerning what she found attractive in a man).

“He really respects women. He’s a gentleman…defends the women he works on films with when they get asked junket questions about their underwear and stuff. That is hot.”

“So it’s not even about how he looks?”

“Oh, he’s for sure handsome. But that’s not what makes him hot.”

“Huh. So who is the celebrity crush for you?”

“I have a list. It’s not just one dude.”

“Ha! Can you recite the whole thing?”

“Sure. If you tell me yours.”

“I don’t obsess over famous women.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Seriously. If you ask me if someone’s appealing, I won’t lie about it or anything, but it’s not something I actively think about. Will you still tell me your list?”

“I guess. Tom Hiddleston, obviously. Jason Momoa from Game of Thrones…”

“Which guy is he on the show?”

“Khal Drogo. Whew. Hot stuff.”

“Yeah?” This comforted Dan. That actor was a big guy that could never be considered ‘thin.’

Hell yeah. And Daniel Dae Kim, Idris Elba, John Legend. Oh! And Alexi Lalas. Mmm.”

“Ginger soccer player Alexi Lalas?” She had also named an Asian-American actor and an African-American actor and musician. She didn’t seem to have a ‘type.’ “That’s an eclectic ‘list.’ So you’re attracted by…what?”

“I dunno. Originality. Fidelity. Not being intimidated by female strength. Seductive deep voice.”

He cleared his throat and continued in his lowest innate register. “Thought there’d be more of a pattern. I mean, physically.”

“Do you only think tall, blue eyed blonds are pretty?”

“No. Of course not.”

“What attracts you to a woman, then?”

“Kindness. Courage. Honesty.”

“Bullshit.”

“Really. And a nice, pretty smile, I guess.”

She reflexively smiled at him. A real smile, unforced and organic. “I’m at eight hundred now. Ready to switch?”

“You’re gonna run for fifty-five minutes?”

“I’ll walk most of it. Are you gonna do a thousand rows?”

“I’ll do as many as I can while you’re on the treadmill. Late movie tonight for real?”

“I dunno. If the seats are really like a couch, after a two hour workout, I might fall asleep. Embarrassing.” He fantasized briefly about her dozing off with her head on his shoulder, and waking her when the show ended.

“Wanna go tomorrow instead?”

“Don’t you have a date?”

“Nope. Do you?”

“Nah. I told Mer I was ‘working on me.’”

“Haha! Nice. No fix ups for a while then?”

“Taking a little break from insufferable social interaction.”

“In favor of suffering in my basement?”

“Yeah. It’s actually pretty fun breathing heavy here with you and turning out a sweaty mess.” She winked at him, and he was glad he was sitting down on the rower and no longer trying to run in a straight line on the treadmill. He’d have been in danger of falling off.

“Tomorrow night then?” he asked, his voice raised a fragment of an octave from uncorked nerves.

“Yeah. Come over for dinner first, since you’re treating at the show. I’ll make chicken tenders and macaroni and cheese.”

He felt surge of warmth unrelated to personal exertion at her recognition of his favorite comfort foods. “Cori, that kills all this work we’re doing down here.”

“I found a recipe with pureed vegetables as cheese sauce thickeners instead of flour, butter and cream. High protein, whole wheat pasta. And I’ll coat the chicken with crunched up bran flakes and bake it. I’ve already tried it. Tastes pretty good. You can’t even tell it’s not terrible for us. And we can have dessert too. Banana-strawberry-pineapple milk shakes. It’s just blended frozen fruit with fat free vanilla Greek yogurt.”

“That sounds fantastic! But you don’t have to cook for me or whatever…”

“You let me come here to work out almost every day. You don’t have to do that. I tried going to a gym. It was awful.”

“I hated the gym too. That’s why I bought this stuff. Really, it’s no problem for you to come over. You’re making me do this every day. It’s not just good intentions anymore. You sure shouldn’t feel like you owe me anything.”

“It’s not really like paying back a debt, I guess. But you’re a big part of my success. Let me make you dinner sometimes and maybe be a little part of yours. I enjoy cooking. But cooking for one is…depressing. It’s doing me a favor.”

“Ok. Dinner and a movie tomorrow. And dinner at your place more often, too.”

***

“Corinne with River Bend Steel.”

“Hey, Cori.”

“What can I getcha, Jim?”

“Um…this isn’t an order call.”

“Ok. What’s it about then?”

“We’re having another open house vendor appreciation event, and I wanted to make sure you’ll be there this time. I mean, we still talk…for work…but we haven’t seen each other…it’s been…”

“More than two years now.” Vivid memories of riding in sticky silence for the drive back from Jubilee Acres, came to the surface. She pretended she wasn’t crying in the passenger seat of his sedan, and he pretended he didn’t notice she was crying. It was still daylight when he dropped her off, which he used as a convenient excuse to not walk her to her door, and that was that. She’d willfully passed up every opportunity to see him since. “When is it?”

“Week from Friday night. Evites go out around quitting time today. I just wanted to call and give you a heads up.”

“That’s nice, Jimmy.”

“Cori…I really hope to see you there.”

To: Dan Hoffman
From: Corinne Gibson
Subject: Guess Who Called Me…
Go ahead. Guess.

Re: Guess Who Called Me…
Here’s five guesses in descending order of probability: 1. Your mother 2. My mother 3. Douchebag Steven 4. Tom Hiddleston 5. Idris Elba
(I’ll be jealous as shit if it’s really number 4 or number 5. It sure as hell better not be number 3.)

Subject: Wrong Five Times
Jim. Only it wasn’t to order parts.

Re: Wrong Five Times
Get outta here! Did he hear how smokin’ hot you are? 🙂

Subject: OMG Dan!
Blushing now! I don’t know if he’s heard about the weight loss or not. He didn’t bring it up. I didn’t either.

Cori did have a coy rouge to her face, as she did each time Dan paid her such an audacious compliment, but she never took him seriously. She wanted him to mean what he said, but had enough cached self doubt that she didn’t believe he did. She thought he was working to restore her damaged ego, like good friends tend to do.

Re: OMG Dan!
What’d he want?

Re1: OMG Dan!
Some vendor event is coming up a week from Friday and he wants me to go. I don’t know if I’ll go or not.

Dan didn’t want her to go. Friday nights were customarily spent together. Since they’d both surpassed their goal losses, they indulged in take-out pizza and light beer when they finished working out. They’d become so familiar over the past year, that she let herself in with his secondary garage door opener, stocked his refrigerator with groceries, and cooked their pre-workout weeknight meals in his kitchen. On Fridays, she showered in his spare bathroom, waiting for pizza delivery, instead of making a needless extra trip home…he loved the easy routine they had. But Dan believed Jim was probably the major catalyst behind her weight loss in the first place. He thought she should show herself off, and gamble on the relationship she wanted for nearly four years. Even if it didn’t include him, he wanted her to be happy. He witnessed her work so hard for it.

Re2: OMG Dan!
You should TOTALLY go! Why would you even consider NOT going?!

Cori would rather spend time with Dan than do anything else. After a year of seeing each other practically every day, and achieving a hard-to-attain goal together, she’d built up level of trust and comfort she’d never had with another person, but she was still afraid to tell him how she felt. She thought she’d relinquished rights with the previous decision to be ‘just friends.’ She remembered the imminent mutuality of that decision, and it only fed her fear. His insistence that she accept Jim’s invite was, to her, confirmation that he saw her only in non-romantic terms. She vaguely confessed via email anyway.

Re3: OMG Dan!
It’s giving up a Friday night with you.

Dan wondered if he read meaning into that message simply because he wanted to see it, or because it was really there. He wanted to believe she had turmoil over a choice between him, her workout companion and Fellow Former Fatty, and her Historic Ideal, but his crisp recall of Meredith initiating their blind date cast a significant shadow. Mer began by telling him she had a friend with a ‘super cute personality’ (read: she’s a little heavy), that was ‘so much fun to hang out with’ (read: maybe more than ‘a little’ heavy), and she thought they’d ‘have a lot in common’ (read: she’s as fat as you are). He agreed to meet her, but felt sorry for both himself and the poor girl that had to spend an evening out with him because she was also saddled with the ‘fat’ label. Mer called Cori right in front of him to set it up. Her description of him contained the phrases ‘total sweetheart’ and ‘teddy bear of a man.’ He’d been exemplified that way so often by women who stopped short of intimacy, he ceased thinking of ‘sweet’ as beneficial, and began viewing it as an impediment, but never could seem to remove it from his inborn makeup. It grated him every time Cori called him some derivative of ‘sweet,’ although she did mean it as a valid compliment, because it added more weight to ‘just friends.’ Meredith unwittingly set them up to be ‘just two fat friends,’ and he’d gone with that expectation, just like Cori did, at first. They began with a wall built between them. He’d dismantled his a year ago, but he assumed hers was still standing, so he encouraged her to go after what he thought she really wanted.

Subject: I’ll live
It’ll be kinda boring, but I’ll be alright Friday night. You should go blow his mind. You definitely will. 🙂

She loved the closing flattery in his polite decline, but she was disappointed she didn’t get a request to stay with him. She swallowed the let down, and echoed his supportive praise.

Re: I’ll live
You should go out that night too. Call Whatserface. Your Lady-Jim. I wanna say ‘Emily.’ Right? Anyway, ask her out. You look just like Chris Pratt now, with that beard and your new rockin’ bod. She’ll be all over you the second she sees ya. 🙂

He re-read the words ‘your new rockin’ bod’ about a thousand times, to see if the giddiness would fade with repetition, but it didn’t. “I don’t even think about Emma anymore, Cori. I only wanna be with you,” he thought to himself. He finally clicked ‘reply.’

Subject: Ok then. 🙂
I will give that a shot, Miss Gibson. Wanna work out Saturday afternoon instead that week?

Re: Ok then 🙂
It’s a plan! Steak and veggie fajitas for dinner tonight. See you after work!

***

“You look great, Danny!” Emma squealed, upon opening her door to him. He said he’d ‘made some changes in his life’ when he called. She hoped to see a smaller waist size, but she was taken aback by the striking results. His trimmer frame allowed for more refined style in dress too, which she distinctly noted. She fingered the collar of his Oxford shirt and ran her hand partway down his chest, showing infinitely more affectionate contact than he’d received from her before, but he didn’t feel the spark she intended to ignite.

“Thanks. I’m still an ‘extra large,’ but…”

“No. You look unbelievable. You look like that guy from Guardians of the Galaxy.”

“Ha! You aren’t the first person to say that. Hell, I guess maybe it’s true,” he chuckled, puffed up and a little vain, not at Emma’s endorsement, but rather Cori’s original observation. He formerly considered Emma his ‘dream girl,’ but he couldn’t drive thoughts of Cori from his mind, in defiance of Emma’s best efforts. She talked up his sense of chivalry, his intellect, his career success and modest financial stability; all things she’d always been attracted to. Her perpetual thoughts about his new shape and image went largely unspoken, but she left definite implication that he’d now completed the picture she wanted to see. This new, improved version of Dan pleased her, and she was pleased with herself, for drawing the attention of what she newly viewed as a virtually flawless man. He read the smug satisfaction on her face, and felt more offended than when she used to look at him with mild chagrin, and dropped hints she’d be ‘all in’ with him, were he only a hundred or so pounds lighter. Then, he assumed the burden of incompatibility as an individual failing. Now, he saw his lack of unity with her for what it essentially was; what all relations between people were; a two-way street.

“I’ve had a great time, Danny,” she wistfully sighed at her entry door, and took a half step closer to him, willing him to take his hands from his pockets and place them on her. But he didn’t.

“Yeah, it was alright.” He backed up to re-establish distance.

“Was tonight not how you thought it’d be?”

“No. It went almost exactly how I imagined.”

“But you’re not happy…”

“Can I ask you something?”

“Sure.”

“The first couple times I took you out…were those great times?”

“Of course they were.”

“But before, you never told me so when I brought you home. You said, ‘Well, I’ll talk to you soon,’ or something. And after that last time…you just stopped answering my calls and texts. So what’s changed?”

“Um…”

“I’m a better match for you now because I look better. Right?” Her stunned lack of direct answer validated his guess. “Em, I hope you find what makes you happy. I’ll see you around.” He walked back to his car, and she looked after him, questioning where she’d gone wrong. She didn’t even get a goodnight kiss. He decided in that moment that he definitely wanted Cori, and had, really, since they’d met. His own insecurity made him narrowly classify her as ‘just a friend,’ and steadfastly hold onto that typecasting to avoid risk and grief. Now, she was an all consuming desire, and he had to tell her so. If she didn’t reciprocate, and he had to get over her, he’d search for someone else who would love the man he was now; the completed version, history and all, without letting the history distort their present and future. Cori taught him that’s what he required and deserved. That was his most paramount reason for loving her; she saw his whole person, not a group of parts to be added to and subtracted from.

****

“Cori?!?! Is that you?!” Jim coughed in delighted disbelief.

“It’s me. Well, actually I’m a fraction of the woman I used to be,” she wisecracked.

“You’re a knockout!”

“Well, thank you. That’s what I hear,” she said, thinking of Dan’s consistent assenting manner, not Jim’s newfound esteem.

“Wanna get something to eat? Sit together? Ditch this place and go somewhere alone?”

“Yes, I’m starving. Sure, let’s sit together. But we’ll see about that last question after we see how the first two work out,” she realistically contended. She walked along the buffet table with him, choosing small portions of the healthiest choices available, and treating herself to a small slice of Dutch apple pie.

“You sure you want that?” he warily asked.

“Um…yes. Dutch apple pie is my favorite dessert of all time,” she professed, acutely aware that Dan would never question her selection. He wouldn’t even passively suggest she deny herself a reward. He trusted her judgment. “Smell it…it smells heavenly.”

“Aren’t you…y’know…concerned about putting weight back on? You’ve clearly worked really hard…”

She eyeballed him with a mixture of authentication and defeat. “Can we talk about something?”

“Absolutely.”

“How come you were so keen for me to come to this?”

“I wanted to see you.”

“Why?”

“I miss you. We used to…and now we’re back to talking on the phone at work like before I ever met you and…”

“So were you expecting the disgust you used to have at first? You were evidently pleasantly surprised it didn’t happen this time…”

“Of course, I was pleasantly surprised! You look as gorgeous as I always knew you could be.”

“Uh-huh. You’re pretty enamored of how I look now.”

“I definitely am.”

What if it changes?”

“Do you plan to lose more?”

“No. You think I need to?”

“No. I was just…what do you mean by ‘what if it changes?’”

“Weight loss is tough. There’ll be some ups and downs. You seem really into how I look, and there’s a very real possibility that it could change.”

“Isn’t knowing I like how you look motivation to keep the weight off?”

“I dunno, Jim. If I told you I liked something new, but hard to control about you, and you knew it was a major obstacle that kept us apart in the past, would unrelenting anxiety about our relationship’s dependence on this fluid aspect of yourself be a good source of encouragement for you?”

“Cori, I loved…I still love your wit, your character, your graciousness…all the things about you that matter…”

“How I look…my body, and my image of it matter. It’s naïve and ridiculous to act like they don’t. If they really didn’t matter, you’d have… Would you be this happy right now if I looked the way I used to?”

“I’d be happy, but I don’t know if I can measure the amount of happiness I’d feel…”

“Would me taking a piece of pie bother you more or less if I was the Cori you expected to see here tonight?”

“Uh…I don’t know what the right answer is there…”

“If I eat this pie, and you can manage your not-so-secret dread that I’ll gain the weight back, what? You’ll take me out on some run-of-the-mill restaurant dates, and judge me if I order anything rich? Point out wiser choices, then order better tasting stuff for yourself? Order health food at a pasta joint or a steak house to shame me into ‘the right choices?’ You know what it’s like to have someone who’s never had to govern his choices evaluate yours? It sucks. And what if I dogain a little weight back? What if it all comes back? Then where are we? You go back to closing your eyes and swallowing hard to conjure the picture you wished went with the voice on the phone while I have to watch you do it? Would you just be unfaithful? Or end things?”

“I don’t know, Cori. You’re asking me to look into the future. I don’t know what would happen if you…”

“That dodge tells me all I need to know. I gave up plans to be here tonight, and I haven’t felt right about it the whole time…I gotta go, Jim. Bottom line…I have somewhere better to be, and we need to maintain our professional relationship for work. That won’t happen if I sit here with you much longer.”

She moved her plate to a separate table and ate alone, but assured, then walked away. She predicted a painful rebuff from Dan, as he’d gone out (at her behest) with his Pedestaled Past Potential, who was sure to be smitten with him and his contemporary, rugged good looks. But Cori would take any shot now, anyway; she had a pressing need to unburden herself. She unequivocally wanted Dan, and if he wouldn’t be her steady, she’d at least hold him up as her new standard of comparison for someone new.

***

-C- Hey! On your hot date? –

-D- Nope. Over now. And it was lukewarm at best. What’re YOU doing? Thought you’d be swept off your feet by now. –

-C- I have been. 😉 So you’re unoccupied right now? –

-D- ??? Yep. Just sitting around. –

-C- Wanna take a walk with me? –

-D- Sure! 🙂 You’re not gonna explain ‘swept off your feet?’ You’re so mean! 😉 –

-C- Meet you halfway. –

“So…things didn’t go well with Jim?” Dan offhandedly asked as they began their habitual walking route around their shared neighborhood.

“Nope. I’ve moved on. He thinks the wrapping paper’s the best part of the gift. Does that make sense?”

“It makes perfect sense.”

“I guess things didn’t go well with Emma either.”

“No. She seemed…I dunno…kinda shallow. I’m not sure what I saw in her before. I guess was shallow before. She’s still pretty on the outside, but…I’ve changed. And she only liked the exterior changes.” They took several steps in pulsating stillness, until Dan confronted the elephant in the room. “Your text surprised me. Planned on not getting to see you tonight.”

“I missed ya.”

“Used to having your Ol’ Buddy Dan around now, huh?”

“Not exactly…”

He smirked at her, faith growing with each sentence, but not powerful enough to completely overtake his apprehension. “I missed you too. You’ve made me a harsher judge of other people’s company.”

“I do have a way of spoiling people…”

“That, you do. I sat at a trendy restaurant with an outwardly beautiful woman, and all I could think about was how much better pizza and beer at home with you is.”

“Can I ask you something kinda strange but important?”

“Of course.”

“Would your opinion of me lower if I put some weight back on?”

“No. I kinda expect you’re gonna put some weight back on someday.”

“Harsh, Dan. Jesus. I mean, I guess I’m glad you’re so practical about it, but way to underestimate me.”

“That came out wrong. You’ll have to put on some weight eventually.”

“Do you think I’m too small now?!”

“No, you’re at Terminal Hotness right now. But you’ve been undeniably hot for about thirty pounds. And you were already adorable before you lost any weight at all. I just mean, right now…at Terminal Hotness…you’re at a place where it’s not healthy to get pregnant and not gain any weight. You’ll have to put on twenty, thirty, maybe forty pounds. Most of it will likely come back off after you havea baby, but…”

“You’ve thought about me having a baby?!”

“Do you not want kids?”

“I definitely want kids at some point in the future, I just…I’m surprised that’s something you’ve thought about.”

“Cori, I’ve thought about…” he trailed off, his fear shrinking, but still not obliterated. “What if I gain weight back? Would you think less of me?”

“Not at all! This shit is hard. I’d try to get you back on track, though. Not because of how you look now…I mean…you look bad ass and everything…but because, you know…you put in all that hard work.”

“What if I couldn’t get back on track? Would that disappoint you?”

“Maybe a little. It wouldn’t change anything between us…I mean…how I think of you, though. It’d just be me bein’ sad for you. ‘Cause I  know you’d be disappointed about it. What if I couldn’t get back on track after a weight gain?”

“I’d feel exactly like what you said. Plus, if yours was because of a baby…well, that doesn’t even count.” He took a deep breath, drumming up necessary valor. “Can I ask you a really serious, potentially soul crushing question?”

“I certainly hope neither of our souls get crushed, but you can ask me whatever you want.”

“You think we made a mistake when we met? You know…with ‘friends?’”

“No.”

Dammit. Not gonna lie. Soul’s a little crushed.”

“When we met, we both needed a friend. A real, true friend. Badly. At least I know I did…”

“I did too, but…”

“And Mer had such a track record…you know…she’s not the best matchmaker…”

“Well, that’s a point I can’t argue with…”

“Guys before you were just duds. And I was still hung up on Jim. I went into the dates after you ready to try, but they both ended up…”

“Being complete wastes of oxygen?”

“Ha! Yeah.”

“Damn. If I’d been Guy Number Five or Six, would we have…?”

“No. In fact, I’d have turned you down flat out if Mer gave me Steakhouse Pete or Steven first. Going out with you…ch-changed my perspective on giving someone a real chance.”

“Why didn’t I get the real chance?”

“’Cause I went in closed off. Before I met you, I didn’t know someone could treat me…on the date, you were… You had to open me up. I didn’t wanna lose you, so I put you in the nice, safe Friend Box, because I didn’t know where you stood. I knew Mer only set us up because we were both…”

“Struggling with weight…”

“What a diplomatic way to put that,” she teased. “Seriously…you’re my best friend. I think we were meant to be friends first. So, no. I don’t think we made a mistake.”

“’Friends first?’”

“I kinda…don’t wanna be ‘just your friend’ anymore.”

“You want more than friends with me now?! Really?!

“Yeah. I don’t want that to ruin ‘friends.’ I like…I love ‘friends’ with you. I’d pick ‘friends’ with you over anything else with anybody else. I already did pick that tonight…but…I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t thinking about ‘more.’ Often. Daily.”

“Beat ya. I’m at ‘more than daily…’”

“Really?!”

“Yeah. For over a year now, actually.”

“Before we even started working out together!? When did you start…thinking about ‘more?’”

“Makes me look needy and sad…or like a domineering shithead…”

“I’ll tell you when I started thinking about it…makes me seem like a helpless Disney Princess.”

“You’ve thought about it more than a couple days!?”

“Yeah. Been over a year for me too.”

“It was when you left a big gap emailing me. I mean, you messaged me about other guys, which should’ve pissed me off, I guess, but then when you quit…I dunno. I tried to be cool about it for a couple weeks, but I guess I got greedy about talking to you every day. That either comes off lame or controlling. Ugh.”

“No. It comes off sweet.” She reached out to hold his hand, and flashed her radiant smile at him. He earnestly returned it, overwhelmed by magnetism at her innocent touch, and lauded at the term ‘sweet,’ for the first time since he was a child.

“When did you start thinking about it?”

“When you came to rescue me from Steven. Never had anybody show up for me…protect me like that before. It was real ‘knight slaying a dragon’ type stuff. Childish to admit that kinda selfless heroism turns me on…but it does. And you were so understanding about the whole situation. Even the touchy, mortifying parts. Nobody…understood me…took care of me like you did. I fell in love with you.”

“You fell in love with me when I was f-…n-not the best version of myself? Seriously?”

“Yeah. Did you really wanna be with me…before I…?” He cut off her thoughts and steps, securely pulled her close, and she tightly embraced him, eagerly gazing up at him. He leaned in for the best first kiss she’d ever shared. He marginally withdrew from her, hungry for her to look at him that way again, and got his wish. They stood motionless, breathless, speechless, and enveloped with passion.

“Sorry I interrupted you. You were saying…?” he murmured with barely recovered poise.

Wow.

Yeah, wow.”

“Elaborate on your ‘wow,’” she said.

“I never wanna let you go. Elaborate on yours.”

“Are we closer to my place or your place here?”

“My place. Damn, you’re so sexy.

“You’re pretty steamy yourself.”

“Not like you. You said something to me a little after we started working out together that literally took my breath away. It’s how I knew the exercise regime was working. I’d have had a legitimate heart attack if you said it before I started training.”

“Shit, really!? What’d I say? Maybe I’ll say it again.”

“Something like you had fun breathing heavy and becoming a sweaty mess at my place.”

“That sounds like a great idea for something to do tonight.”

“Mmm. Wanna race to my place?”

“Haha! You look serious!”

“I am. I really do wanna run home now.”

“Let’s walk. Anticipation heightens arousal.”

“Omigod, Cori, for real. Good thing you got me in better condition before you started talking to me like this…”

“That’s why we needed Friends First,” she teased, as they embarked arm in arm (with markedly more swiftness) toward Dan’s. “Us together like this creates a problem, though…”

“What’s a problem? I’ll eliminate it.”

“Mer looks like a good Fix Up Artist now.”

“Ha! Oh no! She’ll use us on a resume.” They laughed the rest of the way home.

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