Shumaila is a feminist, skeptic, and liker of labels. When not picking brains as a psychiatrist-in-training, she spends her time devouring fiction and occasionally burps out a story of her own. She can be found rambling online at bakedsunshine.wordpress.com (link)
When Aslam was four, his mother whacked him on the back of his fingers with a ruler for stealing guava chutney. Since then, the sight of long, thin fingers reaching for a long, thin implement made him distinctly uncomfortable. He couldn’t rationalize this feeling of creeping dread – indeed, he wasn’t even conscious of it; it lurked in the back of his head.
So when he met Amna with her stubby brown fingers, mannish jaw and twinkling eyes, he felt an indescribable safety that eventually translated into unbound affection. Not once did he internally flinch when she reached for the knife to butter her garlic bread at the mid-range restaurants they visited together.
Before he met her, he was in his prime, physically speaking. In his late twenties, he stood at an impressive six feet with a full head of brown hair that was becoming a rarity even among men his age. His charming smile was paired with a wonky nose that even corrective surgery could not fix.
His weight, though, that was his crowning glory. After years and years of being the fattest man in the room, Aslam had finally sweated, ran and dieted away the extra chub. Excess skin from his fat days still clung in folds to his body like a reminder of his insecurities, but for the most part he was happy. Standing clothed, he cut a broad but elegant figure that made heads turn.
And perhaps that was what had truly attracted him to Amna in the first place. Not her messed-up hair or her propensity to push him away when he cuddled her in public, but the fact that she, too, had recently lost a ton of weight through diet and exercise. Amna was unique because she understood The Struggle.
They were Soulmates of the Salad. Low carb Lovers. Bonding over beans and baked chicken.
It was a fated romance. Neither of them had much money, or much taste for high-end dining. Their dates consisted of cups of coffee, shared chicken steaks and split single cheesecake slices guiltily guzzled while counting calories. Under the watchful eyes of the diet gods, they feasted, laughed and loved together.
There is an entirely undocumented effect, though, of contentment on a person’s appetite. Although love does not necessarily translate into a love of food, love can, sometimes, lead to a burgeoning waistline.
And therein lay their tragedy.
Yet, to give him credit, Aslam did try to deny it.
When he stood for the first time in front of the full-length mirror in his room, trying to squeeze into a pair of pants that no longer quite fit, he didn’t understand. Nor did he the first time he felt, sitting down, his returning belly protrude against the front of his dress shirt, so much so that the buttons strained and threatened to pop off.
And it wasn’t just him. He watched in dawning horror as his gym-fit mistress swelled like yeast-filled dough in a hot oven. Her laugh was still the same, but it emitted from a thicker throat. Her breasts strained against the fabric of her old tops, and her arms seemed to widen like ripening mangoes under his fascinated gaze. Rings grew tight on her stumpy fingers.
Finally, after buying fat-man pants and realizing, after a few weeks, that even they no longer fit, Aslam realized the truth.
This relationship was making him fat. It was making them both fat.
He ate nothing differently. He exercised the same amount. Yet the inches were creeping upon him like specters in a bad ghost movie. He was growing, dammit, he was getting fat again.
A normal man may have reacted to this with fortitude. What does it matter if you’re a tad overweight, so long as you’re happy? But Aslam wasn’t a regular man. He had spent too much time sweating and suffering to lose weight. He had sacrificed way too much.
“Don’t do it,” she pleaded. “Don’t do it. I love you.”
He cleared his throat. He kept his eyes on her stubby, brown fingers, which fiddled constantly in their agitation. Picking up a salt cellar, dropping it, twiddling the butter knife, ripping the thin paper strip of the sugar sachet into smaller and smaller shreds. He watched her hands, and took a deep breath.
“I can’t do this anymore,” he said.
He finally looked up at her as her face crumpled, the face that was round as a beach ball. The face he hadn’t fallen in love with. He watched her as she struggled to hold back tears.
And then he left.
He was validated in his decision to end things. As the nights grew longer, the tapeworm of misery ate at his guts, emptying them of all their previous bloated contentment. The long hours alone forced him into running, just to get away from the memories of her soft, welcoming arms. He no longer felt much like eating, much less like eating out.
Calm now and free from the ballooning influence of love, he watched as the single, solitary body in the mirror turned this way and that. As the weeks went by and the fat melted away, he watched the reflection in the mirror gradually harden, much like the heart he felt inside him.