Thursday, August 20, 2009

“The Sweet Life”

These five conversations add up to a near-future sci-fi short story. Sorry, but there are no aliens or space ships. Just a response to the burning in my calves on the elliptical machine, "There's got to be an easier way". What if there were? Would you do it? And if you make it to the end of these 4000 words, please let me know what you think. I've run this by my crit group, but if anything confuses you, I'd appreciate a headsup!

The Sweet Life
By Kelly Bryson

Chrissy did a slow spin in front of the mirror, twisting in the white lace skirt as if to wring herself out. She flipped the veil down over her face, squinted through it, then flipped it back. The lace didn't hide her jowls as well as she'd hoped.

"Honey, it's beautiful. Ted will love it." Her maid-of-honor, Jordan, smoothed Chrissy's hair in front of her plump shoulders and straightened the skirt over the layers of petticoats. She stood back and eyed the bride-to-be with a tactful eye. "Princess sleeves cover better," Jordan added.

"Maybe you're right." Chrissy peeled the sheath sleeves off like squeezing sausage from its skin and crumpled the bodice to hide the sweatmarks in the armpits. Jordan tugged the gown over her friend's head and hung it on the rack with the other candidates.

"Which one? The a-line skirt with the beadwork on the bodice? Or the hoop skirt?" Jordan stood at the rack and flipped the dresses past her.

Chrissy watched her friend's effortless movement—slender arms reaching, delicate waist twisting, tight calves lifting—and made a decision. She would call Dr. Polinski this afternoon. The wedding was eight weeks away—plenty of time to redux. She wouldn't settle for camouflage on her wedding day.

"No. The one with blue ribbon and the slit to here—" Chrissy planted her finger on the outside of her upper thigh.

"That's very...fitted." Jordan raised the hanger so they both could see how slim the gown actually was.

"I'm going to be a size six at the wedding." Chrissy dropped the veil on the pale gold fainting couch. "You remember how tiny I was at Deb's baby shower last year. It will look fantastic."

When Jordan didn't bring the dress over, Chrissy took the hanger from her, waddled to the riser, and held it up.

Jordan reached under her arms and pulled at the seams to tighten the bodice against Chrissy's ample bust. She managed not to frown.

"Maybe you could work on it for a few weeks and see how close you are before the final measurements are taken." Jordan bent down and placed Chrissy's strappy white pumps on the floor in front of the dress since Chrissy couldn't fit into her shoes, either. The straps had bit into her engorged ankles and cut across her toes when she'd tried them on, but she'd bought them three months ago, thinking that losing just a few pounds would make the difference. Instead she'd gained ten.

"No, I've decided. Ted will understand."

"You're going to redux, then? Last time you said—"

"I know what I said. I gave it a shot."

"You're beautiful. Whatever your size." Jordan teased her lower lip between her teeth.

"And you're a very sweet liar."

Chrissy traced the two inch thick outline of her body in the mirror behind Jordan's trim form. She held her breath to prevent her ribs from expanding further around her friend's reflection until Jordan moved.

"My mom's lost forty pounds already." Chrissy handed back the dress. It would be gorgeous, she was certain now. And that certainty was worth the price. She would be beautiful.

"When are they waking your mom up?" Jordan asked.

"She has three more pounds, so at least another few days. She wanted to be bit underweight since she'll have to keep it off for seven weeks." Chrissy noted the pads of fat in her cheeks in the mirror and forced her eyes away.

"So, if they get you in quick, you might miss her entirely."

"It's probably easier. I've gotten the invitations out, the reception dinner selected; the band, an MC, the tuxes, and table arrangements done, and we've not had one fight. My sister said she wished the procedure had been available when she'd gotten married." Chrissy giggled, remembering the fiasco over Deb's bridesmaids' dresses. Her mom had thought the necklines too revealing. Deb finally gave in when their mother said that she wouldn't be the only one there wearing a bra. She'd go commando, too. And she could have, even at sixty-three, with the work she'd had done.

"You're wicked! Maybe a brunch the morning of the wedding? You could be decadent and have some celery." Jordan laughed and hung up the last dress.

"I'll pass." Chrissy sucked in her tummy and pulled the zipper up. Her beige cashmere sweater stretched across her shoulders and breasts.

"Well, you'll have the rest of your lives to have brunch with your mother, I guess."

After a knock at the door, the sales lady entered their private fitting room. "Have you made your decision?" Her neck bunched as she spoke, turning from two chins into three. Her hair was streaked with gray and her black skirt accentuated rather than masked her bulbous stomach.

"Yes, I have. This one by Helene Thompson with the blue sash." Chrissy ran her fingertips down the bodice.

"Yes, miss. So elegant! Your fiancé will think you are an angel." The sales lady smoothed the ribbon. "Lucky for you, we have a size twenty in stock at our sister store."

"No, this one is fine. I'll need it brought down to a size six." Chrissy stared until the sales lady dropped her eyes. Jordan stifled a laugh and packed Chrissy's veil and shoes in the garment bag.

"Yes, miss. That's a beautiful gown." The woman recovered her smile quickly and fanned her reddened neck. "We'll see you on the seventeenth for the final fitting, then?"

"I won't be available until the nineteenth." Chrissy counted in her planner, marking elongated 'X's through the weeks until all six were blocked out.

"But we need a full week to make adjustments—"

"I said I won't be available."

"My apologies." The sales woman fiddled with the tape measure that hung around her neck. "Miss, you understand there will be no refund if the dress does not fit. I'm sorry to be so blunt, but—"

"Do you think I'd pay this much money and hope to be that small?"

"We've had misunderstandings before. How about the fitting on the nineteenth at three?"

"That works fine." Chrissy jotted down the date and shut her planner. She wondered what the store owner had been thinking when this woman was hired.

Although, perhaps her generous proportions were to blame. While the woman was rude, at least the brides would have no cause for unfortunate physical comparisons.

"Ready to eat?" Chrissy asked while they walked to the car. Jordan's calves were well-defined, the silhouette of her hips and legs was smooth. Even her triceps were firm. Chrissy was sure she worked out. But Jordan's family didn't have a lot of money, so what choice did she have?

"I'm starving!" Jordan said.

"Chinese or Italian?" Won Ton Soup. Minestrone. Crab legs. Mussels in a white wine sauce with capers. General Tsou's chicken with shrimp-fried rice. Chicken Marsala with leeks and polenta. Chrissy was unsure.

"Let's see, fortune cookies or cheesecake? Cheescake?"

"I couldn't agree more." Cheesecake would be the perfect start to her preparations for an appointment with Dr. Polinski.

* * * * *

"You have seven weeks and a half weeks. We could join a gym, workout together. Two or three pounds a week is reasonable." Ted stood at the fridge as he filled his glass with water. He took his toast without butter.

"You'll be in a tux, Ted. Nobody is going to care what you look like. I'll care, of course, but everybody is going to stare at me the whole way down the aisle. I need to be in a safe environment where I can focus on losing weight. I've done this before and everything was fine." The bar stool squeaked wearily as Chrissy sat. She squirted some chocolate syrup then topped it off with a blast of whipped cream. Her shaving gel had made the same sound in the shower and inspired her breakfast choice.

"It's not necessary. You can do that here if it's important to you." Ted unfolded the newspaper on the breakfast bar next to her.

"You're wrong. My mom struggled for years. I'm not going to put us through that." Chrissy licked the edge of her lips for remnants of syrup.

"You feel better about checking out for six weeks than being forty pounds over-weight?"

"Fifty-ish." She rolled a soft ball of ice cream around her mouth.

"What do you mean, fifty-ish?"

"I figured I might as well enjoy life. There's plenty of time—"

"Plenty of time? We're engaged. You don't want to spend those six weeks with me? You'd rather eat ice cream and pie and then go to fat camp?" Ted folded the paper and stood. His lips were pursed and bloodless.

"You don't understand how hard this is." She pulled one of the cherries off its stem with her teeth.

"I'm trying to, but it seems like you've given up." He tugged the spoon out of her hand as she raised it and dumped her half-full bowl in the sink. Chrissy let him do it, but groaned internally when he ran the water. She'd been hoping to retrieve the sundae when he left.

"I know what I'm doing."

"Listen, Chrissy—this isn't about the weight for me. I'm worried about you. You seem out-of-control." Ted squeezed her shoulders in a way that was meant to express concern, but all Chrissy felt was the layer of her blubber fold in his hands.

Chrissy knew she was close. Just a few more pounds and she'd be there. It didn't matter how kind and concerned he was.

"It's fine. Really. I've got to check on some things for the wedding. I'm glad you came over to talk." Chrissy hoisted onto tiptoe to kiss him and after the tiniest of pauses—so tiny she wasn't sure if she'd imagined it—he kissed her on the cheek. Chrissy closed the door behind her and walked to the car, forcing her engagement ring to rotate on her finger in a hot circle.

* * * * *

Chrissy's dad opened the door on the first knock and let her in. She followed him through the foyer to the kitchen table.

"Thanks for doing this, Dad."

"Who else is left?" He flashed a smile with his white, even teeth. She remembered when he'd gotten the veneers. Why was it acceptable to be unconscious for dental work and not for weight-loss?

"How's Mom?"

"She's okay. They're going to keep her another two weeks. The physical therapists need to do more electrical stimulation. She's slimmed down, but her neck is flabby. I don't want them to have to put her back under. You know how your mother hates turkey neck."

Chrissy rolled her eyes, but understood her mother's point. What was the point of having a redux done if you still didn't look good?

"Speaking of half-done, I made a calendar for you, best-daddy-in-the-world." She pulled a folded sheet of paper out of her planner and smoothed it between her hands. "Here's your tux fitting." She pointed. "These are the numbers of the florist, the bakery, the photographer, and the videographer. I need you to call them two weeks before the wedding and confirm. See, I marked the day in red. And Mom needs to call Aunt Paula about the cake topper grandma used and get it to the bakery a week before."

"Anything else?" At his question, Chrissy considered her father and decided that the only word that fit was genteel. His silver gray hair reinforced his air of wisdom, and his navy slacks and white button-down hung nicely on his frame. There was nothing objectionable whatsoever about his appearance. Even in the photos, he would look slim and distinguished in his tux.

"I think that's it. I love you, Dad."

"Love you, too. I can't believe you're so grown up. So soon, you'll be married." Her father embraced her. He smelled of ginger and chocolate.

"You like Ted?"

"Like him? He's wonderful! An architect—your mother is in heaven!"

"He doesn't know what I'm doing; he's never had an extra five pounds, let alone fifty. I had to tell him I was going to a weight loss spa."

"You'll know when to talk to him. Marriage is about accommodating and accepting each other." Chrissy watched the twinkle appear in her dad's eyes. "The first time your mother went on a 'little trip', I was lonely at first. But she was so happy when she came back…Ted doesn't want you to suffer, either."

"Every time I drive by the gym, I see people trapped on their treadmills and stationary bikes." Chrissy shuddered, and her dad pinched her cheek.

"Not everyone has our advantages. They're doing their best."

"I know. I'm grateful, really. It's just so sad." Chrissy glanced at her watch and smiled when she saw how the band had imprinted itself into her swollen wrists. She was sixty pounds over, certainly. "I've got to go, Dad. I'll be late for my appointment. And I'm not coming for dinner tonight. There's too much to do before I go into the hospital."

"Go, go. Just give your father a kiss. The next time I see you, you'll be a week away from being a married woman! Enjoy your rest."

As her father pressed his lips into the bulge that smothered her cheekbone, Chrissy wondered if he really meant, 'Next time I see you you'll be my little girl again.'

* * * * *

"Chrissy, we can't wait until Wednesday. You'll have to start today if you want those results." Dr. Polinski spun on his stool to grab the calipers off the counter in the cramped exam room.

"I thought six weeks…"

"You're older and your metabolism is slower. We need an extra five days. If you start this afternoon, that's two, and we can add three at the end."

"But I'll miss my bridal shower." She lifted her shirt to bare her midriff and Dr. Polinski adjusted the calipers to measure how many inches of fat she had accumulated at her waist, then the backs of her arms.

"It's five pounds, Chrissy. Your call."

"Can't I have workouts twice a day?" Chrissy imagined a one-pound package of hamburger meat, then five packages stuffed with her into her dress, cold and squishy against her skin.

"Some less scrupulous doctors will do that, but excessive electrical stimulation can damage your muscle fibers." Dr. Polinski had the appearance of being tall even while perched on his stool, which was a blessing, since height was much more difficult than girth to control—and much more painful. But his round shoulders and paunch detracted from his professional image. Chrissy wondered if it hurt his practice to pack an extra twenty. She didn't care as long as he did a good job, but some people might.

"Is that what you'd recommend if you had a daughter? That she skip her bridal shower?" My friends. Presents. Cake. Tight dress. Flabby belly. Whispers as I walked down the aisle. Five days. Five pounds. But to miss my bridal shower...Was the decision that hard? Yes, because of Ted. Dinner with his parents would have to be rescheduled, too. But maybe I could diet after I wake up, not take the extra days.

"If I wouldn't be leaving my patients in a lurch, I'd do it myself." He looked at her with paternal eyes. "Your wedding is the most important event of your life. You don't want to regret how you looked or felt. There can be lasting emotional consequences."

"Thank you, you're right." Chrissy knew Ted would understand. It was her wedding day, after all. Way more important than Junior Prom, when she'd done her first redux. "I need to make a few calls and I'll be ready."

"Time stops for no man, ehh?" Dr. Polinski's belly jiggled as he laughed.

Chrissy wondered if it really would upset his patients for him to take a little break.

"No, it doesn't," Chrissy said. Especially if the man is a woman.

"The nurse will give you your room number and a gown to put on."

He shook her hand and tucked her file under his arm, whistling as he left.

* * * * *

Chrissy held the back of her gown closed as she climbed into bed. All three ties were secure, but that didn't stop the flapping. The wallpaper was peeling and the aqua, burnt orange, and navy curtains with their geometric pattern felt western and tacky. It didn't matter. She'd only have to look at it a few more minutes.

Her mom reclined in the bed next to hers, mouth agape and peaceful. Chrissy sniggered as she realized they'd have some time together after all. Her father was right; Mom's neck did look flabby.

She wiggled her toes under the coarse sheet and considered how nice it would be to have thin ankles, even for a few months. She'd thought the first time she'd come in for redux that once she was thin, she'd never ever do anything to mess that up.

But real life tasted good and she'd started to nibble at birthday parties and anniversaries. Then Christmas and Thanksgiving inflated her already burgeoning backside. Dessert became a fixture once again, and in no time at all she was back in Dr. Polinski's office, crying about her size sixteen slacks. She couldn't wear white or horizontal stripes. She couldn't wear sleeveless. Was life worth living?

Dr. Polinski had offered a miracle. Moderately overweight patients had to do six months time with a dietician to be eligible for a redux. But the securely obese could skip all of that, and she'd been a measly twenty pounds away. Milkshakes, chicken wings, and all the crème brulee she could contain had made the difference. Life had never been sweeter.

Here she was again, and when she woke up, she'd have the body of a dancer. The physical therapists would make it a pleasure to move again.

She'd considered taking ballroom dancing lessons after the last time, but once she'd regained fifteen pounds, it had been a race to get the other forty-five back so she could hit the reset button in time. Dance lessons would have been nice for the reception, though.

Too bad she hadn't done it—now she was out of time. Just sixty pounds and five days from the wedding. Well, five days that she'd remember. Ted didn't dance anyway.

After a quick rap at the door, the nurse entered and introduced herself and immediately began swabbing the bold crease on the inside of Chrissy's elbow.

"You'll get all your vital nutrients through this IV line. A catheter and bag will collect at the other end, if you know what I mean. You'll stop having bowel movements after a few days, anyhow."

Chrissy nodded; she knew what to expect after five reduxes. First time had been four weeks, then six for the others. Now six and five days. Thirty-four and a half weeks total. It was a small price to pay for months of being one of the skinny girls. She'd met Ted a few weeks after her most recent redux, and Ted was worth any price.

The nurse pressed the hollow needle into Chrissy's skin until it punctured through the epidermis, the layer of fat cells, and into a vein. She pulled the needle out, leaving behind the flexible tubing and taped it into place, then hung a bag of saline and connected it to the IV. She put on a blood pressure cuff on the opposite arm, a blood-oxygen monitor, and listened to Chrissy's heart.

"You're ready. Anything else?" The nurse was efficient.

"No. I'm fine." Chrissy smoothed the covers across her stomach and smiled to think that the bulk would be gone when she awoke.

The nurse pulled a vial out of her wide square pocket and filled a syringe, then injected the clear fluid into the saline bag.

"It will take about five minutes to take effect. Do you want the TV on?" The nurse regarded her with pitying eyes, which Chrissy found confusing. Why would that woman, with her roots showing and her chapped hands, pity her? Chrissy was getting everything she wanted. A beautiful wedding, a perfect body, and a supportive husband. At least, he would be. Ted would understand; she just had to wait for the right time to tell him.

"No thanks."

The nurse shrugged, gathered the IV wrappers and used alcohol swabs and tossed them, then shut the door behind her.

A minute or so later—Chrissy was getting drowsy, so it was hard to tell—another rap came at the door. Chrissy called out for whoever it was to come in, but her voice wasn't as loud as she expected. The door opened after a minute, seemingly from impatience rather than having heard her permission.

"Chrissy, what are you doing?" Ted strode towards her, then paused when he noticed her roommate. He turned from Chrissy to her mom twice before continuing to Chrissy's side. "Your mom? I should have known she wouldn't be in an ashram."

"How did you…find…?" The delay in understanding his words and then having to search for a response and force her tongue to form the words was irritating, and she wanted to close her eyes. But Ted's eyes were red-rimmed and earnest. She couldn't send him away looking like that.

"Your dad. I went over to talk to him about our conversation this morning, and see if he could help me talk some sense into you, but he said I was overreacting. He said the 'ladies'—his word—in your family all 'redux', and that it shouldn't bother me."

"But what's wrong? Is it your grandmother?"

"No. She's fine. I had to tell you in person." Ted ran his hand across his face, jabbed his finger at the corner of his eyes as if blocking his tear ducts shut.

"What? Tell me…what?" The second hand on the large clock wasn't moving. Chrissy could tell it wasn't moving at all.

"If you want to eat more than you want to be with me, I won't compete. Your choice." Ted raised his eyes to her expectantly and put his hands in his pockets.

Chrissy noticed that the pleats on his pants weren't strained at all. He was tall and thin. His hair was dark and his hairline hadn't receded even a tiny bit. She wondered how he could want to marry her when she was fat and not want her when she was about to become perfect herself.

Chrissy wondered if Ted was really here. She'd never had a hallucination before. She decided to answer, just to be sure.

"Ted, I love you. That's not…"

"Not enough, you don't. You cheated on me with an ice cream sundae this morning. You'll be gone for how many hours because you ate that?"

"I was…three…pounds light. I had to be sixty pounds…over a healthy weight…to fast-track."

"You intentionally gained so that you wouldn't have to try?"

"We'd already…set our wedding date…I ran out of time."

"What would you do if we had a baby? Check out for the first two months of the baby's life? I'm not okay with that, even if Deb's husband is." Chrissy's eyes widened and Ted continued. "Your dad told me Deb hired a nanny and went to sleep for six weeks. Is that your plan, too?"

"It's too hard." Chrissy turned her head away from him. She wanted to say more, to beg him to let her redux this one last time, ready to promise that she'd never do it again, but her body was unresponsive. She pled with her eyes for him to get the nurse to wake her up. He had to understand, like her dad understood, like her brother-in-law understood.

"I'm sorry. I can't sign up for this." She watched as he parted the curtain that surrounded her bed and walked out with his tight, muscular legs. She couldn't stop him.

Six weeks was too long. He would cancel the flowers, the cake, the pianist. He could move, change his numbers. He could fall in love with someone else. Someone with the right genes, the right appetite. Someone like Jordan.

As her eyes closed, Chrissy realized she didn't want to wake up. The fat had won, after all.

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