THIS IS A WORK OF ORIGINAL FICTION
It will be serialized over the next several days…the ending will be marked in the classic styling…
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.”
“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.”