The Big Pants: part five
Leon got insurance for those times he was cutting brush, crossed fingers the rest of the time, the children and her daughter needed adding to her own…and that was a lot of money from her paycheck. She got a little above seventeen hundred a month, and tried to put at least four into savings.
So it was, that if any place close to Pacifica Terrace had been a possibility for renting, her family would suffer, for having found a place to settle. Manuela would have to enroll the children in a school. Which Luisa wanted done, very much…but without a doubt, this made for expense after expense.
Then, the problem with rent was not merely whether you could afford it, whether you could save enough deposit money to secure a nice apartment, but that you might sacrifice all you’d put by, gambling on that roof overhead. If I lost my job, Luisa thought, or if—she touched her crucifix—Leon had an accident, the money would just leach away.
And if you had to find yet another place to live…well, maybe there would be no place you could hope to pay for. Having sold the pop-up, they would be left with the car.
So they camped. But that, as she’d told Toby, was not so bad if you were only sleeping. They ate at Carl’s Jr, Krispy Kreme, Denny’s, or anyplace with pizza. They took the kids to libraries, parks, shopping malls. She and Leon had figured, with their savings, to find a cheap little house. They would go to Oregon…California was too much. They would pay cash, do all the repairs themselves. Luisa could find work—nursing assistants were needed everywhere.
“But, Jackie,” she whispered. She wanted to tell this, and it would be good for the others to hear, even if she disturbed them a little, what a good husband she had. “Leon said to me, you save money for the future, and if you get sick, there is no future.”
“Now, what you think about dating?”
Absentminded, Jackie had been on the verge of giving Tom a considered answer. There wasn’t a reason she could think of not to. Date. She hadn’t been divorced before…maybe, by a premature launch, people really did get shocked. Then it occurred to her he was feeling her out. Or asking her out. She might have just managed a lukewarm acceptance.
“Well, yeah,” he said. “Maybe it’s not much of a thing for you.”
Or an unintended insult. “No, Tom…”
“My problem is,” he went on, “I don’t think I’ve ever talked to a skinny girl. Like that, I mean. At a bar, say. Or, you know, you get invited to a wedding.”
They had a free period, three to five, just before returning to the cafeteria kitchen to fix dinner (afterwards to wash dishes). There was nothing to do at this time of day but walk the grounds; and being exercise, the activity didn’t count as free, exactly. The compound had no television. The computers were in the classroom. They ate no supper, because a long fast at the end of the day accelerated weight loss, and reset, by Gerda’s estimation, the hormonal cycle. Lights out was the time darkness fell. Reveille, the crack of dawn.
They took a morning lecture at attention, accomplishing, Toby said, two tasks at once. “Time is precious. One ought always to think in these terms.”
“Yes, to stand properly, correctly positions the hips and shoulders, straightens the spine, allows the abdominal organs to uncompress. You will breathe more deeply, and your liver and kidneys will clear toxins from your body with more efficiency. This is an exercise you can do for ten minutes every day.”
They did…and Gerda’s dictum had persuaded Jackie. Her neck had stopped hurting. Paul Messerman also made them align in two squadrons, as he liked to call these, and had taught them a simple command, to pivot right or left at the sound of a whistle, in columns making for the cafeteria and breakfast.
Belinda had decamped. She had done so with a threat of legal action—unwarranted, Jackie thought. Toby hadn’t said he wouldn’t refund a portion of her money. Maybe the inmates (she caught herself using Belinda’s word) were accomplishing the Messermans’ farm and household labor, but Jackie found the week doing for her what Toby and Gerda claimed to offer: breaking her routines, teaching her what to eat and how to cook it. Or how, in most cases, to lay it out on the plate raw.
As to insults, this came to her slowly, while Tom talked on, about a friend who’d baited him with a promised hook-up, and then…
“Lamed out, you know? He was like, c’mon, ask one of the bridesmaids. Yeah, free comedy show, fat guy dancing.”
He thought this colleague, not so much a pal, had wanted less his company than his fifty bucks in the honeymoon pot…
Jackie began to think Tom was asking her opinion—if she understood him—on what he ought to say to the sort of girl he’d like to date. The skinny sort. It was their last day, and she’d come back to socializing with Tom.
She was not on the moral high ground.
Her lawyer, with a funny look on his face, and taking a sideways approach to it, had let her know he was disappointed. “Well, there are other ways of getting that information, but if you’d happened to back up those files…”
“I don’t know what that means, backing up files.”
She faced him down, when of course he was her ally, not her enemy. And she did know what he meant. Anyway, she knew how to Google. She wouldn’t call Brendan the enemy, either…but her lawyer would like it if she considered their relationship adversarial.
She had come to Toby Messerman thinking that a thirty-six-year-old fat woman, who’d never had a job outside her husband’s studio, needed to get sleek. Not that she wasn’t encouraged seeing people of size sass back…but she thought in real life the competition wouldn’t bear it. Brendan as sole authority on her skills, her only reference, might tell a caller (chuckle, faintly incredulous), “Sure, why not give Jackie a try?”
Or he might dig a little deeper in the mine of damning faint praise and say, “Oh, yeah, she’ll work hard for you.”
She needed to make contacts of her own.
But poking her nose in other people’s business, Jackie had learned that with few exceptions (and Belinda notably hadn’t warmed up to her), they were all…not poor, but struggling. Most had scrounged to pay for their stay. It seemed unlikely to her now the Messermans would, out of pity, discount the fee, return part in cash…although this would have come in almost heartbreakingly handy. She had used three cards to charge the cost of this week, months ago a done deal, and too bad for Brendan.
But too bad for Jackie, of course. He would gain from this sneaking of hers, in haggling delays, point-outable faults in her character.
How long did it really take to lose sixty pounds? Sixty, Jackie’s settle-for-it, size ten ambition. But, eighty pounds, getting down to a six? A six, good God, she could hardly picture herself…
Gerda said be slow, concentrate on habits, not calories; the life you lead, not the clothes you wear. “Because the only way evolution understands fat, is as a mechanism to perpetuate survival. You have so many more of these cells in your body than a slim person does, and the cells, by design, hormonally control your behavior. And so you see, to win, you have to starve them without their suspecting.”
The Messermans were good, but carrying on with their program…
Maybe it wouldn’t be possible. Jackie wasn’t in charge of her life right now. She’d had to beg a spare bedroom from her sister, who resented (and the conversation needn’t take place, Jen had a way already with everyday remarks: “Jackie, I hate to bother you when you’re watching TV; Jackie…oh, well, I guess we can keep the door shut if you’re not making your bed…”) that rent could be only a promise.
She had to find a job. Her scheme, her justification for Jen, had depended on her meeting the sort of people who could give her one, gaining their empathy, having a common experience to override the lack of positive reviews…simply making herself liked by them.
Tom seemed to like her. But Tom lived at his parents’ house in Pasadena. He said he was a debt collector. And had told her he wanted to get out of it.
(2017, Stephanie Foster)