Six months later a thought occurred to her that the fat man had been the catalyst; her last straw, her wake up call.
“Are you open?” the man had asked. His voice had been deep and yawning like the Grand Canyon.
“Of course.” She looked up. The man was fat—even more endowed than her own husband who’d gained a mere seventy pounds since their wedding day 20 years ago. Fat oozed like soft butter from his great waistline. His black and white checkered shirt, though buttoned, gaped to his belly, revealing a matted mass of hair. She tried not to stare at it. The word “pig,” came to mind.
“Just ring me up,” he growled, scratching his unshaven face. “I have an appointment.”
If someone had said, ‘Make a wish, Susan,” she would have wished for freedom in that moment—freedom from the customer, and all those to follow; freedom from her horrible job and marriage, freedom from unavailable friends and broken down cars. She would work a bit somewhere else, and then travel to some exotic location. Perhaps Paris or Hawaii…
Susan felt the crisp dollar bill in her hand. “Sorry, sir,” she said, handing the disgruntled customer his change. She watched his back-end leave the store. Blubber, bump. Blubber, bump. Blubber, bump…
It was the fat man who had finally given her the courage to take care of herself for the first time. Perhaps it was not a conscious choice, but it was definitely a choice. She left work that day never to return, got on a bus, leaving her rotten car in the parking lot—her fat husband wondering where she’d gone. She hadn’t looked back.
Occasionally, like today, when the hotel lights burned deeply into her skull, and her eyes felt heavy from the tasks of serving, she would remember. The terrible times when she tried to get pregnant. His anger about her job, or the way she folded his underwear. She would think about the way he spoke to her; hardly, and then, harshly, as if the words he had meant to say to her long ago needed to come out now in one heated rush.
Also, the short moments of tenderness—her broken-down heap of a car that had still managed to get her to work, the doughnuts and candy bars that always made it into the kitchen cupboards and then quite naturally were fed by him into her open mouth—because he always shared what he bought for himself. All those moments that made her life one with him. And now she was left with an aloneness she couldn’t begin to understand.
“Jenny?” The pounding on Susan’s front door made her blink. She would never get used to her new name even if she lived to be a hundred years old. She stood, walked to the solid piece of wood called her door, and peered wearily out the keyhole even though she didn’t need to.
“What is it this time, John?” Tonight, John seemed to be wearing some sort of pullover sweater and blue jeans. His short, red hair was combed down the middle, and splayed to either side like the opening entrails of a fish. She might have laughed if she hadn’t cared for him. He was the dorkiest man she’d ever met, albeit the nicest.
“Cup of sugar?” She could see the white cup held eagerly in his left hand. He pushed it forward to the keyhole.
“I’m tired tonight.”
She removed her eye from the keyhole, wondering if he blushed. He always turned red whenever she spoke of anything having to do with sleep, or darkness, or her new down comforter. She wasn’t sure why unless certain words created in him a desire for something he would never get from her. Was it her imagination, or could she feel him going red beyond the door? And he was probably grinning too, now that he’d managed to breathe a little more evenly.
“Come on Jenny.”
“Oh, all right.”
The dead bolt cracked heavily, the double set of chains flicked to the sides of the heavy door, and she turned the knob of her upstairs room. The Hotel Camaro, once a manor in the town of Walnut Hill, city of Hampshire, had plenty of solid wood even where it didn’t seem needed—above her bed, on one of the walls in the living room, even above her head on the carved cornices seen throughout the building. Everything reeked of oldness and renovation—though change would probably not happen in her lifetime—if ever. The owner, Carter Childs, held his money like a tight fisted kid with his only penny; except Carter had many pennies though he told everyone otherwise. The tramps that lived at the hotel were a continuous reflection of the future of the hotel and it’s lower than life standards.
John smiled. His slightly yellow teeth reminded Susan of the eggs she had boiling on the stove.
“You don’t mind getting the sugar yourself?”
“No problem. But are you sure you want eggs?” She could hear his large feet clunking to the pantry as she stirred the boiling eggs with a spoon.
Yes, the egg bomb incident. How could she forget? What had she been doing? Oh, yes. Carter wanted to see her, an overflowing toilet in room 10, he’d said—John’s room. And she’d left the boiling eggs on the stove. When the eggs exploded an hour later she was finishing with the water overflow mishap and had just re-entered the hallway. Carter was beyond angry when he heard. Her hotel room smelled like rotten eggs for days and she’d spent weeks walking outside and breathing in the musty city of Southern Hampshire before permanently returning to her room.
“You do look tired.”
John had the sugar in his white bowl, but like always, he was not returning to the door. “What can I do?”
“I just need some sleep.”
John blushed. “Okay,” he said, looking for a place to sit on the old brown couch—her only couch in the very sparse room.
“You’d better go.”
“Maybe I can help.”
John rolled his large blue eyes. “I know,” he said, “but you need someone.”
It had taken Susan six long months to trust John with a few facts about her life; others she had made up to cover her identity. Her real name was one of them. That she’d never been married was another—a sure fire mistake she would later see more clearly. Perhaps John would have been less interested in her if he knew she had simply run away from her husband. She wondered what he would think of her if he knew of her shallow thoughts of him that had created this mess in the first place. She wondered if he’d understand that all of her thoughts weren’t shallow, that there was something else she never spoke of with anyone, the surest reason for her departure. Was he searching for her? Would she turn on the television one day only to discover her face on the small screen? Or would he be grateful? Was he pleased that she had left him? Would he want to find her simply to file the divorce papers? She wondered how long it had taken before he’d discovered she was missing. She was glad they had no children, but only for this reason; there would be no family missing her.
Except her mother of course; her father was dead, and her sister who lived in Virginia. Kate would have a fit, perhaps even look for her for awhile, and then she’d get caught up once more in the corporate life and forget all about her. Just like when they were kids and the doll collection was replaced by fake dollar bills and glittering coins purchased as a set from the grocery store. Kate would later become a teller, and then she would work her way up the company from Payroll Manager to Director of Human Resources. In addition to bossing all the people around, she would get her degree in management, leaving Susan behind to take on the menial jobs.
Susan would never attend college, would marry the first man who even took a look at her—her husband, Bob, and they would try to have children—without success of course. In the end, they would sit together, watch T.V. and he would eat and feed her what he’d bought.
Nothing stuck on her bones. But with him, it was almost like, by getting fat, he was getting pregnant instead of her. At first she’d joked about it. And then the joking made him watch television alone in the basement, sneak food at odd hours, and make excuses for his sorry life.
Susan turned to look at John. He had been silent for an unreasonable amount of time. “Sorry,” she started and then realized he was gone.