Note: Names in this essay have been changed to protect privacy.
And I’ve mapped out this moment and the ones before and after it a hundred ways, though I haven’t yet tried the alphabet. Random order for random violence?
But was it random? He didn’t seem to think so. To him, it seemed personal.
Color the scene: a November night, the post-daylight-savings sky already black as a bruise, though it is only half past six. I walk out the front door of my family’s house in the Maryland suburbs. An Impala awaits me in the driveway already purring with warmth thanks to my remote car starter. I exhale an instant sigh of relief as I enter. My car is the only place where my fat body feels perfectly comfortable. From the angle of the steering wheel to the height of the driver’s seat (with built-in heating and air conditioning), every spec has been calibrated to me. I named her Blanche, half because of her white color and half because I adore The Golden Girls, and something about the pearlescent finish and the tan leather seats feels glamorous and sexy and vaguely Floridian, like Blanche Devereaux. Driving Blanche was the polar opposite of trying on tight clothes in a stuffy dressing room or packing my thighs into a narrow concert seat. It often felt like I fit nothing in this world; inside my car was a world that fit me.
The car was a high school graduation gift from my parents. The dealership had to wheel it off the showroom floor for me—it caused a small scene. When I texted a baby photo of Blanche to my friend, she shot back: “omg my mom has the same one!!” I thought I could detect a flash of disapproval in my father’s slate gaze as he watched me climb into the car for the first time. Isn’t it a little…feminine? I could imagine him saying. But he didn’t say it. He was busy calculating future payments in his bald head.
Drive directly to the nearest gas station, dumbass Blanche tells me when I pull away from the house. I’m forever leaving her on empty. I hit play on my Spotify On Repeat playlist and feel my body dissolve into shadow and numb velocity and “Motion Sickness” by Phoebe Bridgers on a loop. I become a character in that Pixar film Cars: consciousness plus machine, my only body this fiberglass shell that sure knows how to take a punch.
Except for one left-hand turn, the path from my house to the gas station is a straight shot. I use my turn signal, like always. I look both ways, just as I was taught in driver’s ed. Maybe ten seconds into the first chorus—there are no words in the English language / I can scream to drown you out—bright light floods my vision. High beams riding my ass at souped-up pick-up truck height. Not unusual for this part of the state, where redneck cosplay is the unofficial regional sport. I try to ignore the blinding lights; the Shell station is already in sight. What I can’t ignore is the honking. No rhythm to it, just a furious cacophony. A flock of pissed-off geese tailing my bumper. I turn into the parking lot and approach a gas pump, immediately realizing my mistake. The black truck pulls up at another pump parallel to me. The passenger side of the truck faces me. I see two shadowy heads leaning to get a look. I hesitate. Do I stay in the car where I feel safe? Or do I get out where I might run away, call for help? I figure if I peeled out from the gas station, the truck might just follow me until I run out of fuel. Whoever this person is, they want a confrontation. I inhale deeply and open the door between us.
Fat is clumsy. The kinematics have never worked in my favor. I struggle to lift myself out of the car as though my body does not wish to leave its cocoon—it doesn’t. I feel four eyes search me, and the force of their gaze almost knocks me off my shaky axis. I stumble, grabbing the side of the car to regain my footing. I take a deep breath and walk around the other side of the vehicle. I keep my back turned to the truck as best as I can, but I can feel the stares boring into my shoulder blades. Maybe if I stand still enough, nonchalantly enough, they’ll go away. Maybe if I feign oblivion, they will leave me alone. But I am incorrect. Prey would be smarter than this. When has a predator ever been dissuaded by a turned back?
He backs up his truck and parks perpendicular behind Blanche, boxing me in. It is at this point that I begin gathering details. He has shaggy black hair, I might tell the criminal sketch artist, depending on what he decides to do next. He is wearing a backwards baseball cap. He is young, white, not unhandsome. He is Monster-energy-drink skinny. This recording happens swiftly and almost unconsciously as if my nervous system knows danger is circling before I do.
All the man’s attention is focused on me, turning me into a controversial sculpture. He is unable to repress his reaction to my art. He barks out his window:
“Hey. Hey! Why did you pull out in front of me back there?”
For the first time, I look at him, really look at him. He’s a car-length away, but I can see his eyes are caramel brown with long lashes. I see his friend, short-haired and mostly shapeless, next to him in the passenger seat. I turn my gaze back to the driver and notice his lips are rosy and wet. Annoyingly, recklessly, desire blooms hot and pink in my chest. I don’t know what to say.
“Back there, you pulled out of your driveway right in front of me!”
His voice would be pleasant at a normal volume—twangy and willful—but now it is shrill and spittly and salted with offense.
“I didn’t see you, man. I’m sorry if I pulled out in front of you. I wouldn’t do something like that, but if I did, I apologize. That’s on me, dude.”
His tone swells with venom.
“I know it’s on you!”
All I can do is say sorry, again and again. I wonder, what is the world record for the most apologies in one altercation? Because surely I’ve smashed it. He puts his truck into drive and starts to pull off.
“Learn how to fucking drive, you fat fuck!”
I am left with one incredibly inane thought as his taillights bleed away: I went to Yale.
Jokes break things. One day, my cousin Nina and I are hanging out in the basement of my family’s home in Maryland, nobody but us in the house. A strong knock sounds from the front door upstairs, and we suddenly recall the pizza we ordered an hour before. We bolt toward the stairs, climbing on all fours like we once did as small children (she is seventeen here, and I fifteen) to see who can reach the door first. She beats me, and I collapse into a dining chair in the kitchen, sweating, trying to catch my breath. She joins me moments later with a Pizza Hut box in hand, her face splotchy red, her huffs in sync with mine. She sits and together we breathe. Neither of us can say anything yet. Our eyes meet, and Nina catches her breath just long enough to announce: “God, we’re so fucking fat.” Her honesty stuns us both. Everything pauses.
Then we are breathless again, cackling like lemurs, and our laughter feels like falling through a loophole in the world.
Lower the pitch of your voice when you speak to him. Season your speech with words like “man” and “dude.” Pretend he is changing the oil in your car at Valvoline. Pretend he is your father. He is speaking lines to you, but you know he is in fact the audience and you are the performer. These are your stage directions. Your role is survival.
Control your lisp—that faggy whisper of air always escaping your mouth. Plug the gaps with a backwoods drawl, one he might recognize kindly. Keep everything contained. Stay in scene.
Now, your body. There isn’t much you can do there. None of these costumes will hide your riotous curves. Only one option: Submission. Roll over to expose the softness of the flesh. He wouldn’t hurt all this, would he?
Minutes pass and I am already forming a new image of him in my head, one to replace his attractive form with something less incongruous. In the new image, he is snarling, his hair is trapped in greasy clumps, and his voice is rusted out and not worth the listen. The harmony between his inner ugliness and this imagined portrait is a balm.
Now a new picture comes. The backyard of my house at dusk. I’m younger, maybe nine or ten. My older cousin Victor, between jobs, is living in our basement with his girlfriend and their son. Victor is roughhousing me; we tumble on the wet grass. I think he has come to the determination I am lacking in toughness. It was a common judgment in my family. My dad and his brothers and uncles—all carpenters and cabinetmakers—were disappointed by my ineptitude with hand tools, my downright fear of the bandsaw’s shriek. Victor’s maleness was tough like theirs, but wilder. He rode BMX on the weekends and gunned his motorbike down state roads illegal to ride on. He didn’t care about laws. He cared about speed, wind, Mountain Dew, and Robbie, his two-year-old son.
Victor has me in a bind on the ground. I holler and writhe against his hold, but it’s no use. He is taller and stronger than me despite our similar weights. It is wet and cold and hard to breathe under him. Each second I spend in his grip feels like a snare closing tighter and tighter. Eventually, something in me lunges to the surface, hot and bloody and ready to fight. I free one arm and arc my hand at his scruffy face, fingers curled into talons.
He howls like a wounded animal. “Fuck fuck fuck,” he mutters, clutching a strip of his cheek now dangling pink and raw. There is skin and blood under my fingernails, proof of my violence. Soon my mother will rush outside to cuss Victor out and tell him to pack his shit and leave. But for now he glances between the wound’s warm stain on his hand and me, the feral boy he has so dangerously freed. Robbie watches too, standing on the back deck, peering down at the scene between two slats of wood. His small eyes are blue and wide-open. Learning.
“Oh my God,” my friend says when I tell her about the man at the gas station. “That’s so fucked up. I can’t believe he said that to you. I wanna kill him.” Something about her indignation troubles me even as her protectiveness comforts me. It’s as if the rudeness of the encounter is foremost in her mind. How dare he call me fat. But I’ve known I was fat my entire life. What I didn’t know—what’s shaken me most about the whole ordeal—is how my size could serve as a fuse for someone else’s violence. His rage didn’t fully ignite; I doused it with my obsequiousness. But what if it had?
Perhaps—and this frightens me—this is as safe as it gets for fat people. I am young, white, middle-class, able-bodied, well-educated, and can pass for completely male when my safety depends on it. I’ve managed to make it twenty-two years without being harassed in public for my weight. Is there a fat woman who can say the same? What do we do with a world that statistically produces only undesirable outcomes for us?
Question 1: A fat person in public is __________.
(a) a target
(b) an artwork
(c) a zoo animal
(d) all of the above
Question 2: The best thing to do when being harassed for your weight is __________.
(a) stand in view of a security camera
(b) pray for a stranger’s help
(c) call your father
(d) ready your hands
Question 3: The night after the incident, you dream of __________.
(d) a gun
Remembering takes time. It isn’t straightforward—it moves in circles like a vulture, spiraling toward the scent of something left behind. It takes time for me to remember the other man with a pick-up truck, the one parked in front of my car at the gas pump. He comes out of the convenience store sometime during the incident. He does not intervene. He stands there with me and watches the truck drive away.
“Were those guys bothering you?” he asks. He’s in his early forties. Camo hat, work jeans, American flag bumper stickers.
“Yeah. They said I cut them off. Cussed me out too.” I hazard a laugh, but my throat fills with phlegm, turning my mouth rancid.
He sighs deeply. “People these days. Always in a hurry. No time for anyone but themselves.” This is meant to console me, I know, but instead it confuses me. If the man in the black truck had given me anything, it was his time.
Time will appear to dilate under any of the following circumstances:
- Standing under the bright lights of the Shell station, wondering if the man accosting you has a shotgun in the backseat of his cab.
- On the phone with your father that night, just after he asks you if everything is alright and just before you lie: “Yeah, everything is OK.” You never tell him what happened at the gas station.
- On the phone with your uncle, who is fat and lives in the same house as you, warning him about two angry men who may know where you live and who may be on the prowl for people who look like you and him.
- Every time you see a black pick-up truck at the same gas station and wonder, Is it him?
True or false: A fat person is safest when most invisible.
True or false: The body is a kind of weapon.
True or false: The body is a kind of wound.
Useful, it occurs to me, nearly a year after the incident. Fat people are useful. Not in armies or factories or any other context demanding constant fitness and interchangeability, but as reservoirs for rage. Deposit your anger here rather than directing it elsewhere, at whatever it is that makes your journey so urgent: the unwanted night shift, the unhappy girlfriend, the sick son, the stifling staleness of your life.
(You must learn these words.)
Who? What? When? Where? Why? These are the questions they teach me in school to help me summarize a story, to fix it in my memory.
Who? An angry man. A son, perhaps a father. Definitely a friend to somebody, but not
to my body.
What? It resists naming. I settle on “incident,” from the Latin for “to fall upon.” His
rage fell upon me. I fell upon my sword. We both fell into the space
between strangers, where everything hurts and is lonely but is not always without
When? When he needed to feel big.
Where? According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, more than half
of all car accidents occur within five miles of one’s home. But I know this to
be statistical sleight-of-hand. Most of one’s time spent on the road is within five
miles of the home; of course, incidents are more likely to occur there. In this
sense, even strangers are intimate relations.
Why? The question I want to answer. The one I still want to ask him,
You think of him in the dark place between sleeping and wakefulness. Almost two years have passed since he accosted you. You find yourself wondering what he is doing now, right now. Getting drunk on Coronas, maybe, or doing donuts in an empty dirt field. Yelling at other fat people from the window of his truck. Driving recklessly. Getting arrested.
It takes time for you to see it, the way your brain latches onto these images of brutishness and irresponsibility, of hollow justice. But maybe he isn’t doing any of these things. Maybe he is buying baby formula. Wrapping a present, signing an anniversary card with the word “Love,” and then his name, which you never learned. Normal things, careful things. You try to recall his face and you see that snarling phantom you invented after that night: the sallow skin, the skeletal frame, the sloppy hair. It takes work, but you put this nightmare away, piece by piece. Slowly his true face comes back, his warm eyes, those lips, the voice that could have made you shiver. And you try to hold him there, exactly as beautiful and as dangerous as you have wanted to be.