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Claudia hung back at the entrance to the lecture theatre, as was her practice. She had learned to wait until the auditorium was nearly full before looking for a seat; if she couldn’t find an appropriate seat to squeeze into at the rear of the hall, she could always sit in the aisle. This time a stack of folding chairs against the back wall provided overflow seating. Claudia perched herself at the end of the makeshift row and settled into the Friday’s Eclectics lecture: Romance and Erotica as Literature.
There were a surprising number of boys—well, men—in attendance. Claudia tried to become as inconspicuous as possible, which was difficult given her size. She was especially uncomfortable in the presence of guys, but what could she do; she was enrolled at a co-ed campus.
“Ah, ‘scuse me?” a rather high-pitched male voice whispered gently, “Could you, maybe, pass me one of those chairs?”
Claudia’s head snapped around, and her eyes were captured by a soft gaze beaming beside her. A huge face smiled at her, and its smile rolled across fold after fold as its owner nodded toward the stack of chairs against the wall. Something in his look caught Claudia off guard. She hesitated and stuttered and fumbled before grabbing another collapsible seat and swinging it across her lap to give to him. “Here,” she mumbled, confused by her own confusion. She shuffled herself, ostensibly to make room for him, in a subtle, if unconscious, invitation to sit next to her.
He seemed as ill at ease as she felt, but he took the chair with a whispered, “Thank you kindly,” and graciously accepted her unspoken invitation by unfolding the seat right next to her, at the aisle’s edge. He settled himself onto the chair with a smoothness belying his size. The chair creaked its complaints in unison with Claudia’s. Claudia stared at him until he gave her a puzzled smile and turned his attention toward the podium. Embarrassed, she returned his smile sheepishly, and quickly pointed her eyes back to the front of the hall, but her concentration was in turmoil; she couldn’t understand the speaker. Several times, during the lecture she turned to catch her neighbour looking at her, wide-eyed—admiringly, perhaps?
“Please finish,” she silently urged the lecturer, suddenly uneasy. “I don’t want to be here any more. Let me out of this place.” She let her eyes wander back toward the stranger on her left. She wanted to escape something—escape or something. “I really can’t squeeze by him,” Claudia complained to herself. “This is so embarrassing.” And she puzzled, “But why? Why do I feel embarrassed?” She surreptitiously appraised him once again. “He probably weighs even more than me. He’s way over three hundred.” He caught her look and smiled, again. Claudia felt her face flush; her heart seemed to stumble—stumble or dance.
The lecture finally ended and the audience rose, almost as one, to leave. Claudia stayed seated and tried to calm herself. “Oh, God. Why do I feel so odd? Am I having an attack or something?” She kept her eyes aimed forward and deliberately slowed her breathing. “Jesus, I’m panting like I’ve just been up stairs or something.”
“Are you all right?”
The voice beside her startled her. It was quiet, with the same sort of stretched, elevated pitch she recognized in her own, and filled with concern. “Yes,” she answered, immediately regretting the brusque tone. “Thank you.” Deliberately steeling herself, she turned to face him. There was empathy—compassion in his eyes. “I’m fine, thanks; just…” She stopped. “Just what?” she considered wordlessly, “Just taken by surprise? Just experiencing inexplicable feelings of confusion? Just wanting to get away from you? Just wanting to talk with you?”
“Okay, then,” he concluded, saving her. “By the way, I’m Arnold.” He smiled a disarming smile and awkwardly offered a Pillsbury hand.
“Claudia,” Claudia replied, taking his hand. His shake was sincere and gentle. He didn’t try to squeeze his way down to the bone like so many men she had met. “There’s no reluctance in his touch,” she observed, letting her hand linger in his just a bit longer than usual. She wanted to say something else, but nothing came. The hall was emptying, steadily.
There was something pleasant, warm and encouraging in his gaze as Arnold continued to look Claudia in the eyes. “Er -would you like to—uh—go for coffee or something—to the caff’ or somewhere if you’ve—ah—got time?” He sounded rather unsure of himself. A touch of strength returned to her liquefied body.
“Sure,” she assented with all the nonchalance she could summon while her mind shouted, “YESSSS!”
She had never felt this way before. She wondered what it meant, although somewhere in her head—or her heart—she knew that she knew; she just wasn’t going to let herself get any hopes up yet. “Don’t hatchet your Counts before they chicken,” she warned herself.
“Is SUB all right?” Arnold asked, as they left the hall; side by side but without any danger of physical contact.
“I guess,” Claudia replied, suddenly illegal bahis succumbing to a profound apathy. She wondered what she had agreed to and steeled herself for disappointment. “Just get it over with,” she thought. She had developed, through the lonely years of her young adulthood, a fine sense of social pessimism; but if Arnold noticed, he didn’t show it.
“Well, what did you think of the lecture?” he asked enthusiastically, looking at her expectantly.
“Actually, I couldn’t really follow what he was getting at,” she admitted, still trying to carry it off with a bit of nonchalance. “I s’pose I was a bit preoccupied.”
“I don’t think anyone could really follow him. He wasn’t a very good speaker.”
Entering the cafeteria of the Student Union Building, they headed, as of one mind, to a back corner, to secure a table against the wall, more or less out of sight and generally off the main thoroughfare. Depositing their book bags, they smiled sheepishly, as if they had just shared some obtuse secret—as, perhaps, they unconsciously had.
Arnold stammered as he repeated himself, “Uh—coffee?” He wanted to say something else but was suddenly tongue-tied. Claudia saved him, this time, by boldly putting her hand on his arm.
“Thanks,” she gasped. She felt lightheaded. Still touching his elbow, she was amazed at her own audacity. Quite suddenly she understood the “emotional roller-coaster” metaphor, as her own feelings raced, once again, out of a trough towards yet another peak. “I’ll come with you,” she heard herself almost coo, “Maybe we can get a bite of something, too.” There was something warm and strange tickling her; something unfamiliar and unrecognizable swirling in an electric current through her. She was scared and enchanted, terrified yet enthralled; but mostly confused.
Grabbing a tray, they floated along the line in a haze; not saying anything; stifling unbidden giggles. Trailing a fine mist of giddy fog they arrived back at the table and sat opposite one another. Arnold could only meet Claudia’s intense, glazed gaze for a few moments before he dropped his eyes. “Here we are,” he stuttered, picking up a plate. Something was happening here, but he apparently had no idea what it was, either. “Pecan pie for you;” his lifted his eyes from the pie and as he met her gaze a touch of fright glimmered in his face; still he surprised them both by adding, “my dear.”
It was ridiculous, he thought, he had only just met this girl—this woman—basically less than an hour ago. Why had he called her ‘my dear’? “And your coffee.” He was almost embarrassed at the great pretense he made of passing her the mug—almost, but somehow not quite. It was all right. It didn’t make any sense, but it was right nonetheless.
“Thanks.” Claudia spoke vacantly. She took the mug and lifted her fork without shifting her mesmerized gaze from Arnold’s face.
He felt himself blush, even though he enjoyed the feeling, the scrutiny, the attention. He felt it his duty to begin some sort of conversation, so he started. “I’m Arnold.”
“Yeah, you said that. Hi, Arnold. I’m Claudia.” Her voice was strangely disembodied. She felt the words, rather than heard them.
Arnold dropped his eyes in an effort to deal with the wave of self-consciousness that glittered and splashed over him; although it was not so much self-consciousness as hyper-consciousness. He was more aware of her presence than he had ever been aware of anyone. “Yeah,” he chuckled, “you said that too. Hi,” then he looked at her and allowed her name to swirl around his mouth like an expensive wine, “Claudia.” Their eyes embraced, unabashedly in the ether and they sat spellbound for long moments, before he continued, “I think I’ve seen you around before, but we’ve never been the same classes, eh?”
“No,” Claudia said mechanically, “I’m sure I would have noticed.”
“I know,” Arnold put in humourlessly, “I’m kind of hard to miss.”
“Oh, I didn’t mean it like that.” In a rush of apology, Claudia was momentarily speechless. She studied his face, and, discovering traces of genuine hurt, she felt glands behind her eyes contract. She spread her arms, opened her expanse, “Hey. Look at me! Who am I to talk? I didn’t mean that…”
“I know. I’m sorry. You just sort of get used to being the target.”
“Don’t I know it?” The crisis passed; a comfortable silence of commiseration fell between them; they tasted their pies and sipped their coffees. “Yeah, it’s the pits, isn’t it,” Claudia announced, between bites, “being the butt of everyone’s jokes, the object of everyone’s disgust.” She took another bite of pie, savouring its powerful sweetness, her eyes closed, her chin held high. Arnold watched her with silent admiration as he chipped away at his own dessert. Finally she opened her eyes, and looked around the room before settling her eyes back on him. “You know they’re all thinking, ‘What a pig! She’s not even trying to lose weight!’ and it’s true.” She let her shoulders drop as she dug once again into illegal bahis siteleri the sugary concoction, heaving a sigh. She stared at the fork, addressing her remarks as much to the chunk of pie as to Arnold. “They don’t know that I’ve tried every goddamned diet on the market. Not a single bloody one of them worked. I don’t even bother anymore.” Raising her gaze to meet his, she added, “What the hell, eh? There’s no point,” and she deliberately popped the forkful into her mouth.
Arnold smiled warmly. “You don’t have to convince me. The only time I ever lost weight—the only time—was when I had some sort of stomach flu, a dysentery thing that almost killed me.” He paused to scrape up the last of his chocolate cheesecake. After a satisfied “Mmmmm,” he swallowed it slowly, then added, “I gave up trying long ago. Everyone thinks I’m a sloth—even of my family.” He sort of chuckled, wryly. “But, hey, I can’t do anything about this or that, so it must be their problem, eh? Not mine.”
“Yeah,” Claudia nodded. “Still, it’s hard when you know that everyone is watching you ‘fill your face’. I hate eating in public, but what can I do?” She shrugged her massive shoulders.
“Same here,” Arnold shrugged and nodded his agreement, eliciting a tentative smile from Claudia. “Out here among the ‘low masses’, don’t you… I mean, I know I always feel like I’m under constant inspection and never quite measure up.”
“Yeah, it’s such a drag.”
“It’s bloody depressing is what it is.” Again Arnold shrugged, defeated, almost hopeless. The roller-coaster metaphor rolled into his unconsciousness, too. “So I go home to eat, out of sight. It’s a solitary comfort in an unfriendly world.”
“That’s exactly it!” Claudia felt suddenly bright—ebullient. He had articulated a feeling that she had been afraid was hers alone. “Sometimes I think I’m a slave to my appetite, but I don’t even feel guilty anymore when I binge alone; it’s a modest enough freedom, though, isn’t it—to be able to pig out without feeling ashamed?” But there—then, all at once, she felt an ease blossom between them—a shared freedom. And there was a need, indeed an urgency, to revel in the odd emancipation before it vanished. Claudia could see it affecting Arnold as well—like a charged field causing an incandescence in his aura. “Do you want to get something else?” Claudia suggested, almost daring him to refuse.
He grinned conspiratorially. “Sure.” He stood abruptly, shoving his chair back. “Why not?” Arnold picked up the tray and turned back toward the service area. Claudia rose and joined him with a determination that she hadn’t felt in an awfully long time.
They returned to their table, with pizza slices, sticky buns and large fountain Cokes, and a deliberate, novel confidence. They both felt an intangible relief from the weight of self-consciousness that had burdened them most of their lives. After Claudia sat, Arnold swung a chair around and settled beside her—backs to the walls, rubbing shoulders. A giddiness had infected them both. “Well,” Arnold breathed, unable to suppress a confused, confusing giggle, “Dig in!”
Time, for the while, lost all relevance. They sat, swilling pop, chatting, slurping pizza, laughing, munching. They yacked about this and that, learning, wondering, appreciating, all the while continuing to eat and drink unabashedly—almost defiantly.
“I can relate to that.” “Me, too.” “Exactly!” “You got that right.” They laughed and spoke and chewed and swallowed and drank all at once. Their classes had come and gone unnoticed.
Claudia was emphatic, at times gesticulating wildly, speaking with her mouth full, and not even caring. “Intemperance,” she exclaimed, “is something I can understand.” Mutually supported in their gluttony, they felt stronger and better than either could remember; so they continued, in complete disregard for others in the cafeteria—witnesses to their hyperphagic congress.
Here was someone with whom she felt a genuine kinship—and, she realized, they had so much in common besides their size. A window, perhaps even a door, was opening into her reclusive life—Arnold’s too. Claudia felt an unfamiliar lightness of being.
But, catching sight of a clock, she watched reality insidiously reappear, looming large and ugly once again, before descending like an enveloping shroud. She felt herself pressed back to earth, the helium of the afternoon, hissing out of her balloon. Draining her drink and catching her breath, she turned and stared at Arnold with a still solemnity. Meeting her stare, he stopped—puzzled, confused, scared, waiting.
“I think,” Claudia said very quietly, “that I have smiled and laughed and had more fun—felt lighter and sillier—just now, than at any other time in my living memory.”
“Uh, yeah,” Arnold stammered, his usual insecurity threatening to blindside him once again. “Me, too.”
“Thank you.” Claudia shrugged, in a sort of what-else-can-I-say gesture. “I’ve got to go.” She stood up and shouldered her book bag. “Uh—see ya, I guess.” canlı bahis siteleri She wanted to say something else—wanted him to say something or do something—kiss her, maybe? But they were both suddenly overcome with awkwardness.
Arnold stood, as she moved from the table. “Uh—’bye.” He picked up his bag and moved into the aisle. “And thanks.”
The bubble had burst. Claudia had known that it would, still she felt more let down than she had expected. She turned, “‘Bye.” and began to plod off.
“Hey, Claudia?” She swung around to see he had stopped and called to her from across the room. His shoulders straightened momentarily. “What’s your last name?”
Claudia hesitated; a puzzled look crossed her face. “Baglioni, why?”
He shrugged, folding into himself again. “I don’t know. See you around.” He turned and moved off. There was something very sad, even pathetic in his waddling gait, as he trudged away. Claudia felt an immense melancholy descend onto her impressive bulk, pressing her down. She turned, once again, to leave, her step even heavier than usual.
Opening the door of her apartment, she wondered why she had never before noticed just how quiet and dark it was. She dropped her bag to the floor and tromped into the kitchen. Rifling the cupboards, she found a bag of cookies and collapsed with them on the couch. In the sad and lonely dimness, she sat quietly—waiting; for what, she didn’t know. Even the bag of Oreos held no attraction. She felt numb.
“Am I sick?” she wondered. But she suspected that she really knew what was wrong. “Just an adolescent infatuation,” she reprimanded herself; “if this is love, you can keep it!” Yet she sank further and further into a funk. Her plummet into the depths was interrupted by a strident electronic shriek.
“Hello?” Claudia answered the phone as if she was fighting her way through a haze. She felt she was in a rather cloudy, sort of post-ictal trance. The ringing phone had summoned her back to reality but she felt like she was being hauled through a viscous atmosphere. She was still surfacing through the thick oil—still moving toward reality; she just hadn’t quite got there.
Arnold?! Her eyes went wide. “Uh.” She felt herself striving for the surface of awareness with the thrashing strokes of one drowning; her breath was coming in short gasps; she fought to sound coherent, intelligent, cool—with only limited success. “Arnold. Hi!”
“I—er—found your number in the phone book. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Why should I?” A swirling, dreamy sensation was threatening to overcome Claudia. Her struggle was well masked by Arnold’s own disquiet.
“Me phoning, I mean.”
“No, not at all.”
“I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed meeting you and talking with you this afternoon. I didn’t get a chance to say that when we—er—parted. It was really nice, and…”
A warmth exuded from the receiver to gently cover Claudia. “Same for…” she tried to concur, but he had picked up speed; like a loaded train flying through a level crossing, he was suddenly on a roll—unstoppable.
“I was wondering,” he rushed, as if he might miss his chance, “if we could get together again—sometime?”
Claudia felt her face burn. “Oh,” she stumbled on her rent composure. “Sure, I guess. When?”
“Really? I mean, anytime. Whenever you like.”
“Okay. How about,” the swirling, swimming, burning suddenly dissipated, leaving in its place a crisp clarity of purpose and understanding, “lunch Saturday—tomorrow—here at my place.” Only lunch, her rational self reasoned—rationalized; and how much significance could be read into that? “Say, just after noon—twelve fifteen, twelve thirty?”
“Gee,” Arnold couldn’t believe it; he hadn’t expected anything really—hadn’t even anticipated that—so fast, so definite. “Twelve fifteen? Tomorrow? That’s great. Er—should I bring anything?”
“No,” Claudia was giddy with shock. She hardly knew this guy and here she was inviting him over to her apartment. It was all too weird. She succumbed to a giggle. “Just bring your appetite.”
“Well, thanks,” Arnold was dumb struck. “So,—uh—I guess I’ll see you tomorrow, then. Uh, ‘Bye. And thanks, again.”
“Yeah, tomorrow—’sa pleasure. See ya.” He hadn’t asked where she lived. “Oh, well,” she figured, “he got my number; he’ll find my address.”
Claudia put the phone down gingerly, careful not to jar it, staring at it to see what other strange tricks it might pull. She pulled a couple Oreos out of the bag, before lumbering into the kitchen to think about tomorrow’s repast.
The interim was a blur. Suddenly, in a moment, a single meal had become her life, her purpose. She skipped evening class, neglected her books, and cleared her mind of everything except her continually evolving lunch menu. Poring through cookbooks, recalling the gourmet night classes she had taken, she planned and revised. The kitchen had always been her favourite place. It had been her sanctuary, her retreat; now it became her altar. Claudia toiled among the pots and bowls, slipping out to the grocer’s and quickly back, the butcher, the deli. There was a euphoria in her determination, and a magic in her creativity. She had a grace there, as nowhere else. She blossomed.
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