Six days before his thirty-fifth birthday Marshall Boyd went to his doctor’s office. His doctor was a tall and lean man with big glasses and short balding dark hair named Dr. Javitz. He looked at a computer screen while Marshall sat, slouched, in underwear and socks on a crinkly white paper covered doctor’s table. Dr. Javitz shook his head and sighed.
“You’re killing yourself,” Dr. Javitz told him. “You know that, don’t you?”
Marshall didn’t answer.
“Blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar,” Dr. Javitz said. “It’s a race, Marshall. It’s a race to see what kills you. Is that what you want? Heart disease? Diabetes? Dead by fifty years old?”
“No,” Marshall said.
“You need to exercise,” Dr. Javitz told him. “Eat better.”
“I know,” Marshall said.
“I mean it.”
Dr. Javitz nodded and typed something into the computer. “Happy birthday,” he said.
On his birthday, Marshall let his alarm clock go off for fifteen minutes before he turned it off and got up. He got out of bed and jogged in the doorway to the bathroom until he felt his heart pounding.
In the kitchen, Marshall hung a dry erase board on the refrigerator. It had a calendar you could write the days and months in and a section at the top for notes and things. He filled in the calendar. January 1.
At the top, he wrote “Resolutions: lose fifty pounds. Date more. Don’t die alone.”
He went to dinner with his mother and her boyfriend Jerry. Marshall ordered the salad.
“What you eating?” His mother asked him.
“Arugula,” Marshall told her.
“I’ve never heard of it,” she said. “Was it on the menu?”
“Yes,” Marshall said.
“I didn’t see it on the menu,” she said. She looked over at Jerry. “Did you see it on the menu?”
“Is it new?” His mother asked him.
“I don’t think so,” Marshall said.
His mother shook her head and cut out a piece of her pork chop. “It’s your birthday, Marshall,” she said.
“Yeah,” Marshall said.
She dropped her fork and stared at him. “Are you high?”
“Oh,” Jerry said. “I think I had it on a hamburger one time. Ar-oooo-gah-lah,” he sounded it out. “With goat cheese and raspberries. On a hamburger.” He shook his head. “I didn’t like it.”
When Marshall was nine years old his parents got separated. His Dad moved into a studio apartment and got a weight bench. He smoked joints on the front door stoop and told Marshall he was too young to get it. But he would. He would get it when he was older.
A few months after his dad moved out, Marshall woke up in the middle of the night from a noise out in the living room. He got out of bed and walked down the hall. The lights were on and he could hear someone saying something. He came around the corner and saw his father on the couch with his pants and white underwear around his ankles and his mother giving him a blowjob.
“Yeah,” his dad said. “Ok. Mmm-hmmm.”
Marshall made eye contact with his dad for a moment and then looked away. His dad didn’t say anything. His mom didn’t notice him. Marshall went back to his room and never told anyone about what he’d seen.
Two weeks later when they were in the parking lot at the supermarket his mother started crying and he didn’t know why. She told him to get out of the car and wait for her inside. He nodded and did as he was told. He was waiting by the check out registers when he heard the crash outside. Everyone in the supermarket froze. Marshall walked to the automatic doors and looked out to see his mother’s car backing up and crashing into a red Jeep again and again.
“Whore!” His mother screamed at the top of her lungs at a scrawny redhead wearing jeans and a denim jacket that was watching with mute horror. “Home-wrecking whore!”
Marshall stayed at his dad’s studio apartment that night on a blue work out mat his dad said were for crunches. The next day his Dad gave him two hundred dollars in twenties and tens and put him on a Greyhound bus.
“Your uncle will be waiting for you,” his dad told him.
Marshall nodded. He was gripping the wad of money tightly because he didn’t know what else to do with it.
“Buy some hamburgers,” his dad said after a moment of awkward silence. “If you get hungry. Just buy some hamburgers.”
Marshall signed up for online dating the same day he signed up for a personal trainer at a gym. The online profile asked him if he was a little heavy or husky. He left the question blank.
At the gym, he was introduced to his trainer, a former army mechanic named Rodney. Rodney was short. He was like those kids Marshall remembered that could do pull-ups in middle school without a lot of effort because they barely weighed a hundred pounds.
Rodney had Marshall weigh in on the scale. Most scales don’t go above 300 pounds. If you get fat enough, you need a special scale.
“327 pounds,” Rodney said. “How much do you want to lose?”
Marshall stared at the slide weight indicators on the scale. He felt like crying. He looked over at Rodney. “All of it,” he said.
“Alright,” Rodney said and slapped Marshall on the back. “Alright.”
They went to a small desk to the right of the weight machines. Rodney gave Marshall a blank piece of paper and a pen.
“You’ve tried to lose weight before, right?” Rodney asked him.
Marshall nodded. He’d been on secret diets since he was fourteen. He ran up and down the stairs in the basement until he threw up when he was seventeen. “Yeah,” he told Rodney.
“I want you to write down the reasons it didn’t work,” Rodney said. “Every reason. Every excuse. Whatever got in your way. Write it on that piece of paper.”
Marshall looked down at the piece of paper.
“Go ahead,” Rodney said. “Write it all down.”
Marshall wrote down that he was lazy. He wrote down that he was a quitter. He wrote that he got hungry in the middle of the night and he’d stand in the kitchen in bare feet and just eat slices of bread sometimes. He wrote that he tried. He wrote that he hated himself every time he ate pizza or fried chicken. He wrote that he hated arugula. He wrote that he wasn’t strong enough. He wrote on that blank piece of paper for ten minutes.
“Are you done?” Rodney asked when Marshall put the pen down.
Rodney picked up the piece of paper and tore it to shreds. He didn’t even look at it. “No more excuses, fatty,” Rodney told him. “Get your ass on the treadmill.”
The bus to Bakersfield took six hours. Marshall ate five hamburgers. His Uncle Gary met him at the bus station with Marshall’s twin cousins Eli and Dean. Uncle Gary, his mom’s brother, had a pointed beard and wore small circular glasses. He had balding straw colored hair and made computers in his garage that he sold by mail order. He had ads in seven or eight computer magazines.
“Look at you,” Uncle Gary said when Marshall got off the bus. He shook his head.
Eli pressed his nose up and made an oink oink sound. Eli and Dean were two years younger than Marshall.
Marshall rode in the front seat on the way back to Gary’s house. “How long am I going to be down here?” He asked his uncle.
“Until your mom’s feeling better,” Gary said.
“Is she going to jail?” Marshall asked.
“Don’t ask stupid questions,” Uncle Gary told him.
When they got to the house Marshall and the twins were told to play outside on the swing set. Marshall sat on the swing, half drooping off of the rubber seat. He kicked at the gravel beneath him half-heartedly.
“What’s wrong with your mother?” Dean asked Marshall.
“She’s upset,” Marshall said. He didn’t know how else to answer.
“I heard she’s crazy,” Eli said. He was in the swing next to Marshall. He rocked back and forth, going higher and higher with each swing. “I heard she hears voices and they locked her up in the hospital.”
“Our mom died,” Dean told Marshall. “Cancer,” he said.
“You’re probably going to go to an orphanage,” Eli said.
“Yeah,” Dean said. “Probably.”
Marshall started sending winks and messages to a woman named Tracy online. She was younger. Twenty-six. She seemed nice.
“I need to tell you something,” Tracy messaged him after a few days. They’d been talking about their jobs and apartments and movies they’d seen so far.
“Ok,” Marshall replied.
“I’m fat,” she wrote. Then she sent him a frown. “I don’t know if you can tell from my picture.”
Marshall started crying. “I’m fat too,” he messaged her.
Rodney had him going to the gym four days a week. After two weeks he had Marshall get on the scale again. The weight remained unchanged. “What do you eat?” Rodney asked him.
Marshall shrugged. He told him what he had for breakfast and lunch and dinner the last few days.
“Don’t lie to me,” Rodney said. “You’re just wasting time for both of us. If you’re going to lie to me, you need to find another trainer.”
Marshall wasn’t lying. “I’m sorry,” he said.
Rodney nodded. “Treadmill, fatty,” he said.
At dinner, Uncle Gary and the twins always said grace.
“You don’t have to,” Gary said.
“I’ve never said grace before,” Marshall admitted.
“Do you want to learn?” Gary asked him.
Marshall thought about it. He shook his head. “No,” he said. “That’s okay.”
“Well,” Gary said. “You can just stay quiet and lower your head.”
“Okay,” Marshall said.
Dean said grace. “Dear God,” he said. “Thank you for this dinner and thank you for Eli and for Daddy and for Marshall and thank you for making us and the world. Amen.”
“See?” Gary said. “It’s not that hard.”
After dinner while they all worked on the dishes, Uncle Gary poured a couple of cups of dry food into the dog bowl and watched Lady, the black lab rapidly chomp it down. “Why do you suppose Lady doesn’t say grace?” He asked Eli and Dean.
Eli and Dean laughed.
Marshall’s face turned red with shame. He ran to the bathroom and closed the door. He turned the water on hot and put his hands under it. He cried and shook and snot dripped down from his nose. The hot water started to burn. He felt like he was going to throw up. He turned the water off and cleaned off his face. He blew his nose. He stared at himself in the mirror until he stopped crying and then opened the bathroom door.
“In this house we ask to be excused from our chores, Marshall,” Uncle Gary told him. He leaned in. “I can’t fix whatever your mother did to you but I will not have you setting a bad example for my sons.”
“I’m sorry,” Marshall told him. “I’m sorry.”
“Go on up to bed,” Gary said. “Get undressed for bed. I’ll be up to check on you in fifteen minutes. Your eyes better be closed.”
Marshall ran out of the bathroom and up the stairs to the bedrooms. He stripped down to his white briefs and climbed into bed. He was on a cot in Uncle Gary’s room. He turned the lights out and stared out the windows at the lights in Bakersfield. He repeated his dad’s number over and over again in his head. He thought he could climb out the window and get to the street. He thought he could get to a payphone. He started to breathe fast and found himself gasping for air. He closed his eyes and wept into the pillow.
He didn’t go the window or run for a payphone. He didn’t move. He was still crying when Uncle Gary came up to bed a few hours later.
Marshall met Tracy at a subway sandwich shop for the first time. He waited for her inside, feeling nervous and sweaty. He got a cup of water and sat, sipping it through a straw, by a window.
Tracy sent him a text message that said “outside,” ten minutes after she was supposed to be there.
Marshall looked around the sandwich shop and then got up and walked to the door. He stepped out into the parking lot. It was just before sunset and cold. A car flashed its lights at him and Marshall walked over to it. The window rolled down on the driver’s side and Marshall walked over toward it.
“Tracy?” He asked, looking in at a familiar face from her online profile. She was wearing bright red lipstick and too much eye makeup.
“Hi,” she said.
“Hi,” he said. He looked back at the subway shop. “Are you okay?” He asked her.
“Yeah,” she said. “Yeah, I’m fine.”
“Do you want to go inside or we could go somewhere else?” Marshall asked her.
“Don’t watch me okay?” Tracy said.
“Watch you?” Marshall didn’t understand.
“Get out of the car,” she said. “Don’t watch me.”
“Oh,” Marshall said. “Okay. I can turn around.”
“Okay,” Tracy told him.
He turned back to the subway shop. With their lights on inside he could see the two teenagers chatting behind the counter. There was no one else there. Marshall could hear Tracy’s door open and heard her getting out of the car. One of the teenagers threw olives at the other.
“Okay,” Tracy said.
Marshall forced on a smile and turned around to look at her. She had her hair back in a butterfly clip and she was wearing a floral top and black leggings. She was fat, like she’d said in her message. Her stomach seemed to droop, her breasts jutted out. She had large arms and legs. She was shorter than he was and heavier.
She shrugged when Marshall saw her. Her eyes were shaking in her skull and she chewed her lower lip. “Yep,” she said. “This is me.”
“Do you want a sandwich?” Marshall asked her.
“Okay,” she agreed.
On the phone Marshall’s mother asked him how his weight loss was going.
“Good,” he lied.
“You’re handsome,” she said. “You’re a handsome man.”
“Okay,” Marshall said.
He stayed with Uncle Gary for two months and even though Gary gave him less food than the twins and never let him have seconds, he gained six pounds. He talked to his mother on the phone from the state hospital.
“I miss you so much,” she told him.
“I want to go home,” he said. “Can’t I stay with Dad?”
His mother was quiet on the phone. “Your dad moved, Marshall,” she told him. “He moved to Tacoma. You can visit him.”
“I could go to Tacoma now,” Marshall suggested.
“No, baby,” his mother said. “You’ll be home soon.”
“Are you okay, mom?” Marshall asked her.
She cried into the receiver. “Be good for your Uncle Gary,” she said. “Okay? Okay? Bye.”
“Bye,” Marshall said.
That night Marshall got out of the cot and went down the stairs quietly. He went to the kitchen and turned on the light. The kitchen floor was cold on his bare feet. He walked to the pantry and took out a box of cereal. He took out a fistful of cereal and ate it quickly. He took out a second handful.
“What the fuck is the matter with you?” Uncle Gary asked from the dark on the edge of the kitchen light.
“I’m sorry,” Marshall managed.
Gary knocked the box of cereal out of Marshall’s hand. The box hit the counter and cereal spread all over the floor. Marshall shook and couldn’t breathe. He started to hyperventilate.
“Are you crying?” Gary asked him. “Why are you crying?”
“I want to go home,” Marshall stuttered between panicked breathes.
“You can’t go home, Marshall,” Gary said. “Your mother is sick. Your father doesn’t want to deal with your shit. I’m trying.”
Gary stepped forward and Marshall stepped backward. Marshall winced and trembled. He closed his eyes. He’d never been more afraid in his life but he didn’t know why. He didn’t know what was wrong. It was all wrong. Marshall back peddled. He felt cereal crunch under his feet and Gary moved forward.
For years Marshall couldn’t be sure what happened next. Uncle Gary told him that he tripped. Marshall just remembered falling, his head clipped the edge of the counter, blood came out onto the linoleum red and sticky and Uncle Gary stood over him, looking monstrous in the overhead light. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t move.
When the blood didn’t stop, Gary had Marshall get dressed and drove him to the Emergency Room. They gave him four stitches.
Marshall was on the bus to Tacoma that afternoon. He never talked to Gary about what happened in the kitchen that night. The twins ran away from home when they were thirteen and went to the police. Dean took off his shirt and showed his chest and back covered in bruises. The twins went into foster care until they were eighteen and Uncle Gary died from lung cancer a decade later.
“Have you ever been fat?” Marshall asked Rodney after one of their training sessions. Marshall rarely spoke when he was at the gym. He just did what Rodney asked him to do.
Rodney looked surprised by the question. “What?” He asked. “No,” he said.
“I’ve always been like this,” Marshall told him. “Since I was a kid.”
“That’s a cop out,” Rodney said. “That’s you accepting it.”
Marshall shrugged. “Probably.”
“Do you have a girlfriend or something?” Rodney asked him.
“I went on a date,” Marshall said. “I’m trying.”
“Do you want her to see you naked with the lights on?” Rodney asked him.
“No,” Marshall said.
“Remember that,” Rodney said. “Remember that every time you put a piece of food in your fat mouth.”
For their second date Tracy invited Marshall over for dinner. She lived in a small house in a new, cheap sub division. She had three cats that all looked the same. She made ravioli with meat sauce and garlic bread. With every single bite, Marshall loathed himself. Tracy opened a bottle of wine and they shared the bottle and second helpings of dinner.
“Do you want to go sit on the couch?” Tracy asked and held up a second bottle. Her cheeks were red and she smiled, big and flirty.
“I do,” Marshall said.
They had another glass of wine and then started kissing on the couch. Marshall was careful not to touch Tracy when she kissed him though he didn’t know why. She took his hand and pressed it against her big right breast.
“It’s alright,” she said. “I like it.”
Marshall squeezed and kissed her more deeply. She moved her hand down onto his thigh and kissed his neck. He could smell her deodorant and taste garlic in her mouth.
“I like you,” Tracy told him and poured them both another glass of wine.
“I like you too,” Marshall said.
Tracy drank the entire glass of wine and stood up. She unbuttoned her shirt. She took it off. She was wearing a peach bra underneath. Her skin was pale and smooth. “Is this okay?” She asked.
“Yes,” he told her. “Yes.”
Tracy sat back down and Marshall kissed her more. She was cold to the touch. Everywhere he felt her, her skin was cold. He felt her back. He ran his fingers through her hair. She sucked one of his earlobes and started to pull his shirt off.
“Wait,” Marshall told her.
She froze. “What is it?”
Marshall looked around the room and looked at the lamp and looked at her three cats lounging around the room. He felt his heart pounding in his chest and ears. “Nothing,” he said finally. “Let me,” he said and pulled off his shirt. He handed it to Tracy and she tossed it onto a chair on top of one of her cats.
Marshall crossed his arms instinctively. In the locker room in middle school they pointed at his chest and laughed.
“You have tits, Boyd,” the boys reminded him.
Tracy pulled his arms away from his chest and put them on her breasts. “Here,” she told him.
She kissed him and he tentatively felt her through her bra. He moved his hands around to her back and found the clasp.
“Do it,” she told him.
Marshall managed to get the clasp undone and she stopped kissing him long enough to take the bra off. She had large nipples in the middle of big pink areola. Tracy smiled at him and kissed his neck and shoulders. She kissed down his chest and started to chew and suck on one of his nipples.
Marshall reached out for his glass of wine. The cats watched him from the chair and from a carpeted cat play structure. He could hear a cat purring under his shirt.
Tracy reached down and pried his legs farther apart. She tugged at his zipper. Marshall finished his wine. She unbuttoned his trousers.
He wasn’t thinking about her. He couldn’t think about her. He was thinking about Rodney and the lamplight. He was thinking about the broken pieces of cereal under his feet and arugula and the resolutions on his dry erase board. He still felt lonely. He still felt broken and fat and stupid and worthless. He was that piece of paper Rodney shredded at the gym.
Tracy pulled his pants and underwear down to his ankles. He felt her breath on his skin.
“Stop,” Marshall told her and squirmed to get away.
“What’s the matter?” Tracy asked. “What’s wrong?”
Marshall pulled his pants up and quickly wriggled away from her to stand up. “I don’t know,” he told her. “I don’t know.” He shook his head. “I’m going to be sick.”
He ran for the bathroom. He started crying. He felt sweat in his hair and beaded on his forehead. He pulled up the toilet seat and stuck his fingers down into his throat. He gagged and tasted acid. He held his fingers firm. He gagged again and then started to vomit. He wretched up red wine and ravioli into the toilet. He threw up until he hated himself a little bit less. He went to the sink and washed his face and mouth. He made a cup with his hands and drank some water. He looked at himself in the mirror and shook his head.
When he came out of the bathroom Tracy was dressed.
“I think I should probably go,” he said.
“Okay,” Tracy said.
Marshall put on his shirt and got his coat. He left without saying anything else and drove home. He could still taste garlic and wine in his mouth.
He didn’t call or message Tracy. She didn’t call or message him. Later that week he went to the gym and Rodney put him on the stair machine.
“Come on,” Rodney said. “Keep going. Two more minutes.”
Marshall struggled for his breath. His muscles burned. He felt dizzy and tired. He kept going.
“Pick those fat feet up, Marshall,” Rodney told him. “Come on,” he said. “Come on.”
That morning standing in his kitchen in his underwear, Marshall erased the dry erase board.
“Ninety seconds, fatty,” Rodney said. “Just imagine there’s some French fries when you get to the top.”
Marshall couldn’t breathe. He stopped.
“Why are you stopping?” Rodney asked. “You stop when I tell you to stop. Is this what you want? You want to quit? Are you a quitter, fatty?”
Marshall tried to say he just needed a minute to get his breathe but couldn’t manage it.
“I can’t hear you, fatty,” Rodney said. “Pick up your feet. Move!”
“Fuck you,” Marshall stammered.
Rodney froze. “What?”
“I said, fuck you,” Marshall repeated. He stepped off of the stair machine. “Go fuck yourself.”
“Are you done?” Rodney asked him. “Are you quitting again, Marshall?”
Marshall didn’t answer. He walked away and didn’t make eye contact. He got his things from the locker room and he walked out of the gym. He walked past his car and out into the parking lot. It was cold and windy. He looked up at the empty, white sky. He sobbed and he sweated and he panted.
He kept walking.