Self Portrait

Barbara Bernstein

It was my first date in seventeen years. Ken picked me up promptly at six. Apparently the friend who had fixed us up needed glasses--or at least a measuring tape. Already sensitive about the pounds I had added in the last few months, I saw with dismay that I not only outweighed my date, I also towered over him. Our smiles when we greeted each other were strained.

Over dinner I asked Ken what he did for a living. "I'm an insurance salesman," he said. "My cousin told me that your husband passed away last summer." I nodded and prayed that he wouldn't ask for details or offer sympathy. He didn't do either. "I hope he was well insured."

I was speechless. When the shock began to wear off, I thought about all those mystery stories and movies I had seen where a man finds a rich widow, marries her and then kills her for her money. I began to sweat.

"Because," Ken continued his train of thought, unaware of how anxious I was getting, "you'd be surprised how many young couples are inadequately insured. They think they'll live forever. I had a family, about a month ago, young man with a wife and two little children. He got hit by a car. Killed outright. Now I'd talked him into a small policy--but this poor woman, all alone with her children... " My gulp was audible. "Oh. Maybe I should change the subject?"

I nodded and searched for something safe to talk about. I was guessing we had wildly different political leanings and I wasn't foolish enough to bring up religion. Too bad I hadn't paid attention when my sons talked about sports. I decided to try movies and discovered that Ken loved all cinema. Luckily, we had each seen enough films to keep our conversation going through dessert--a delicious chocolate mousse cake with whipped cream.

After that, Ken dropped me off at my house, and once I was safely inside I headed straight for the refrigerator. Standing in front of the freezer, I finished a whole container of Häagen Dazs vanilla fudge ice cream. Then, fortifying myself with a bag of chocolate chip cookies and a good book, I went to bed.

The next few dates made that first experience look good. My worst encounter was with a balding man named George who spent the entire evening trying to convince me that he was a famous playwright and actor who worked in a shoe store to keep in touch with the little people. The next time someone wanted to fix me up, I said I was too busy. Soon the offers stopped and I spent the rest of the winter at home with my kids.

In April, I put my winter clothing in storage and took out my spring clothes. Monday morning, after rearranging closets and drawers all weekend, I started to dress for work. Nothing fit. Throughout March, the waists of my skirts had been feeling a little tight, but big bulky winter sweaters covered up a multitude of sins. Lighter clothing was not so forgiving. In fact, there was only one dress I could even squish myself into.

I went shopping during my lunch hour. Nothing at the store fit either. I hid in the dressing room while a helpful saleslady brought in increasing larger sizes. I struggled with zippers that didn't go up all the way, with buttons that threatened to pop. "There's a new shop you could try," the tired young woman suggested. "It's down the block--called 'Terrific Lady' or 'Great Woman' or something like that."

It was a fat person's shop. The prices were higher, but it was worth it. I couldn't help but admire how nice their clothes made me look. Even though I planned to lose my extra weight soon, I still needed something to wear to work. I bought myself a new wardrobe.

That kept me feeling good until the next Monday, when my younger son, John, came home from his after-school program in tears. "Frankie bragged all through arts and crafts about going to a Yankee's game over the weekend. Said his mom's boyfriend took him." My angel turned his cute face toward me and added, "Judy is living with Michael already. And she got divorced after Dad died." He might as well have said, "What's the matter with you?" I wavered between wanting to hit him and feeling guilty that I hadn't yet procured him a substitute father.

The feeling of failure stayed. I stopped going to parties filled with married couples. My sister began to scold me. "You should get out more," she urged.

"Come to the club with us," her husband invited.

"You'd better show up at our party," she threatened.

I allowed them, periodically, to drag me out with them. The food, at the places they took me, was very good.

Even though I was lonely a lot, it wasn't a bad summer. I had a good job, Ben and Jerry's came out with a delicious new flavor of ice cream, the kids were away at camp and Jay Leno made me laugh every night before I fell asleep. One of the high points in August was seeing Naomi, my hairdresser. I loved that woman; she was so caring and interested in everything that happened to me. She was the mother I never had.

But because I hadn't done much since my last haircut, I ran out of news to tell her in less than two minutes. "You know what," she said as she worked on me, "one of my customers is getting married to a guy she met through the personals. She put in an ad and got about twenty responses. Went out with a few of them and met her husband-to-be. You should try it. What have you got to lose--worst comes to worst, you get fed a few free meals."

"I'm not that desperate," I said.

Naomi shook her head. "The people who send in these ads aren't losers. Go sit under the dryer and I'll bring you a magazine. You can read them for yourself."

The ads were interesting. Many of the women were gorgeous, beautiful, and sexy; and the men were smart, handsome, and successful. But most guys wanted dates who were twenty years younger than them; and all men wanted slim women.

"Now this customer," Naomi had returned to check my hair, "says it's important to take out your own ad. So you can call the shots. She told me that if you answer a man's ad, you're just one of fifty women that he hears from. She liked it better when the men felt they had to impress her."

The idea of placing my own personal ad took root firmly in some dark corner of my brain, where it began to grow. Time after time I composed an ad in my head, only to reject it. I wanted to describe myself as smart and funny, but I mostly wanted to warn any prospective date about my size. To spare myself from meeting someone who would take one look at me and flee.

My friend from work, Martha, told me I needed to empower myself. She gave me books to read and affirmation cards with uplifting jingles to recite each night before I went to bed. One book had a picture of a goddess on its cover. Her stomach was round, her thighs enormous and her breasts were big and pendulous. In fact her body looked a lot like mine--except she was even fatter.

I read the first chapter of that book on the subway riding home from my office. Suddenly I got a new idea for an ad that made me laugh out loud. Words danced around in my head, arranging themselves to suit me. As soon as I got home, I sat down at my computer and recorded the phrases that I had practiced in my head.

Fat widow in Brooklyn with two troubled adolescent children seeks
a man willing and able to deal with me. Must have a strong sense
of humor.

My two sons walked by, arguing as usual. They noticed me and asked, almost in unison, "What's for dinner?"

I'd set out a chicken to defrost that morning, but didn't feel like cooking. "How about we order some pizza?"

Whatever they had been fighting about was quickly forgotten as they hugged me simultaneously, each one kissing a cheek. "You're the greatest," my older son, Tim, said.

"Can we have sausage on it?" John asked.

"No, I want pepperoni!" Tim announced.

I felt the warmth of their happy, loving bodies. "Get both of them," I said. "What the hell. Let's live it up. I'll just have to start my diet tomorrow. I can wait one more day to get thin-and-beautiful."

"You're already beautiful, Mom," Tim said.

I smiled at the flatterer. "Come on, Tim. You can't for a minute think I'm not fat."

His face was serious. "I didn't say you were thin, Mom. But that doesn't mean you're not beautiful."

"Come on, come on!" John let go of my arm and grabbed his brother. "Let's go call Pino's."

"No, I hate their pizza. I want to call Tony's."

I watched them race each other to the phone, smiling and thanking the stars that I was so lucky. I sure did something right, I thought. Why do I feel the need to apologize for myself and my family? As I turned back to my desk I met my laughing green goddess-eyes in the mirror and decided to add another line to my personal ad.

Fat widow in Brooklyn with two troubled adolescent children seeks
a man willing and able to deal with me. Must have a strong sense
of humor. Don't send a photo, just tell me why you are worthy of me.

© Barbara Bernstein

Barbara is a former computer programmer who now writes and makes kiln-formed art glass. She is currently working on a novel and has published stories in Woman's World and Storyteller.

Copyright 2002 Moxie Magazine All Rights Reserved