For twenty-eight years, things have been tripping along nicely for Cannie Shapiro. Sure, her mother has come charging out of the closet, and her father has long since dropped out of her world. But she loves her friends, her rat terrier, Nifkin, and her job as pop culture reporter for The Philadelphia Examiner. She's even made a tenuous peace with her plus-size body.
But the day she opens up a national women's magazine and sees the words "Loving a Larger Woman" above her ex-boyfriend's byline, Cannie is plunged into misery...and the most amazing year of her life. From Philadelphia to Hollywood and back home again, she charts a new course for herself: mourning her losses, facing her past, and figuring out who she is and who she can become.
About the Author
Date of Birth:March 28, 1970
Place of Birth:De Ridder, Louisiana
Education:B.A., Princeton University, 1991
Read an Excerpt
"Have you seen it?" asked Samantha.
I leaned close to my computer so my editor wouldn't hear me on a personal call.
"Oh, nothing. Never mind. We'll talk when you get home."
"Seen what?" I asked again.
"Nothing," Samantha repeated.
"Samantha, you have never once called me in the middle of the day about nothing. Now come on. Spill."
Samantha sighed. "Okay, but remember: Don't shoot the messenger."
Now I was getting worried.
"Moxie. The new issue. Cannie, you have to go get one right now."
"Why? What's up? Am I one of the Fashion Faux Pas?"
"Just go to the lobby and get it. I'll hold."
This was important. Samantha was, in addition to being my best friend, also an associate at Lewis, Dommel, and Fenick. Samantha put people on hold, or had her assistant tell them she was in a meeting. Samantha herself did not hold. "It's a sign of weakness," she'd told me. I felt a small twinge of anxiety work its way down my spine.
I took the elevator to the lobby of the Philadelphia Examiner, waved at the security guard, and walked to the small newsstand, where I found Moxie on the rack next to its sister publications, Cosmo and Glamour and Mademoiselle. It was hard to miss, what with the supermodel in sequins beneath headlines blaring "Come Again: Multiple Orgasm Made Easy!" and "Ass-Tastic! Four Butt Blasters to Get your Rear in Gear!" After a quick minute of deliberation, I grabbed a small bag of chocolate M&M's, paid the gum-chomping cashier, and went back upstairs.
Samantha was still holding. "Page 132," she said.
I sat, eased a few M&M's into my mouth, and flipped to page 132, which turned out to be "Good in Bed," Moxie's regular male-written feature designed to help the average reader understand what her boyfriend was up to...or wasn't up to, as the case might be. At first my eyes wouldn't make sense of the letters. Finally, they unscrambled. "Loving a Larger Woman," said the headline, "By Bruce Guberman." Bruce Guberman had been my boyfriend for just over three years, until we'd decided to take a break three months ago. And the Larger Woman, I could only assume, was me.
You know how in scary books a character will say, "I felt my heart stop?" Well, I did. Really. Then I felt it start to pound again, in my wrists, my throat, my fingertips. The hair at the back of my neck stood up. My hands felt icy. I could hear the blood roaring in my ears, as I read the first line of the article: "I'll never forget the day I found out my girlfriend weighed more than I did."
Samantha's voice sounded like it was coming from far, far away. "Cannie? Cannie, are you there?"
"I'll kill him!" I choked.
"Take deep breaths," Samantha counseled. "In through the nose, out through the mouth."
Betsy, my editor, cast a puzzled look across the partition that separated our desks. "Are you all right?" she mouthed. I squeezed my eyes shut. My headset had somehow landed on the carpet. "Breathe!" I could hear Samantha say, her voice a tinny echo from the floor. I was wheezing, gasping. I could feel chocolate and bits of candy shell on my teeth. I could see the quote they'd lifted, in bold-faced pink letters that screamed out from the center of the page. "Loving a larger woman," Bruce had written, "is an act of courage in our world."
"I can't believe this! I can't believe he did this! I'll kill him!"
By now Betsy had circled around to my desk and was trying to peer over my shoulder at the magazine in my lap, and Gabby, my evil coworker, was looking our way, her beady brown eyes squinting for signs of trouble, thick fingers poised over her keyboard so that she could instantly e-mail the bad news to her pals. I slammed the magazine closed. I took a successful deep breath, and waved Betsy back to her seat.
Samantha was waiting. "You didn't know?"
"Didn't know what? That he thought dating me was an act of courage?" I attempted a sardonic snort. "He should try being me."
"So you didn't know he got a job at Moxie."
I flipped to the front, where Contributors were listed in thumbnail profiles beneath arty black-and-white head shots. And there was Bruce, with his shoulder-length hair blowing in what was assuredly artificial wind. He looked, I thought uncharitably, like Yanni. "'Good in Bed' columnist Bruce Guberman joins the staff of Moxie this month. A freelance writer from New Jersey, Guberman is currently at work on his first novel."
"His first novel?" I said. Well, shrieked, maybe. Heads turned. Over the partition, Betsy was looking worried again, and Gabby had started typing. "That lying sack of shit!"
"I didn't know he was writing a novel," said Samantha, no doubt desperate to change the subject.
"He can barely write a thank-you note," I said, flipping back to page 132.
"I never thought of myself as a chubby chaser," I read. "But when I met C., I fell for her wit, her laugh, her sparkling eyes. Her body, I decided, was something I could learn to live with."
"I'll KILL HIM!"
"So kill him already and shut up about it," muttered Gabby, shoving her inch-thick glasses up her nose.
Betsy was on her feet again, and my hands were shaking, and suddenly somehow there were M&M's all over the floor, crunching beneath the rollers of my chair.
"I gotta go," I told Samantha, and hung up.
"I'm fine," I said to Betsy. She gave me a worried look, then re-treated.
It took me three tries to get Bruce's number right, and when his voice mail calmly informed me that he wasn't available to take my call, I lost my nerve, hung up, and called Samantha back.
"Good in bed, my ass," I said. "I ought to call his editor. It's false advertising. I mean, did they check his references? Nobody called me."
"That's the anger talking," said Samantha. Ever since she started dating her yoga instructor, she's become very philosophical.
"Chubby chaser?" I said. I could feel tears prickling behind my eyelids. "How could he do this to me?"
"Did you read the whole thing?"
"Just the first little bit."
"Maybe you better not read any more."
"It gets worse?"
Samantha sighed. "Do you really want to know?"
"No. Yes. No." I waited. Samantha waited. "Yes. Tell me."
Samantha sighed again. "He calls you....Lewinsky-esque."
"With regards to my body or my blow jobs?" I tried to laugh, but it came out as a strangled sob.
"And he goes on and on about your...let me find it. Your 'amplitude.'"
"He said you were succulent," Samantha said helpfully. "And zaftig. That's not a bad word, is it?"
"God, the whole time we went out, he never said anything..."
"You dumped him. He's mad at you," said Samantha.
"I didn't dump him!" I cried. "We were just taking a break! And he agreed that it was a good idea!"
"Well, what else could he do?" asked Samantha. "You say, 'I think we need some time apart,' and he either agrees with you and walks away clinging to whatever shreds of dignity he's got left, or begs you not to leave him, and looks pathetic. He chose the dignity cling."
I ran my hands through my chin-length brown hair and tried to gauge the devastation. Who else had seen this? Who else knew that C. was me? Had he shown all his friends? Had my sister seen it? Had, God forbid, my mother?
"I gotta go," I told Samantha again. I set down my headset and got to my feet, surveying the Philadelphia Examiner newsroom dozens of mostly middle-aged, mostly white people, tapping away at their computers, or clustered around the television sets watching CNN.
"Does anybody know anything about getting a gun in this state?" I inquired of the room at large.
"We're working on a series," said Larry the city editor a small, bearded, perplexed-looking man who took everything absolutely seriously. "But I think the laws are pretty lenient."
"There's a two-week waiting period," piped up one of the sports reporters.
"That's only if you're under twenty-five," added an assistant features editor.
"You're thinking of rental cars," said the sports guy scornfully.
"We'll get back to you, Cannie," said Larry. "Are you in a rush?"
"Kind of." I sat down, then stood back up again. "Pennsylvania has the death penalty, right?"
"We're working on a series," Larry said without smiling.
"Oh, never mind," I said, and sat back down and called Samantha again.
"You know what? I'm not going to kill him. Death's too good for him."
"Whatever you want," Samantha said loyally.
"Come with me tonight? We'll ambush him in his parking lot."
"And do what?"
"I'll figure that out between now and then," I said.
I had met Bruce Guberman at a party, in what felt like a scene from somebody else's life. I'd never met a guy at a social gathering who'd been so taken with me that he actually asked me for a date on the spot. My typical m.o. is to wear down their resistence with my wit, my charm, and usually a home-cooked dinner starring kosher chicken with garlic and rosemary. Bruce did not require a chicken. Bruce was easy.
I was stationed in the corner of the living room, where I had a good view of the room, plus easy access to the hot artichoke dip. I was doing my best imitation of my mother's life partner, Tanya, trying to eat an Alaskan king crab leg with her arm in a sling. So the first time I saw Bruce, I had one of my arms jammed against my chest, sling-style, and my mouth wide open, and my neck twisted at a particularly grotesque angle as I tried to suck the imaginary meat out of the imaginary claw. I was just getting to the part where I accidentally jammed the crab leg up my right nostril, and I think there might have been hot artichoke dip on my cheek, when Bruce walked up. He was tall, and tanned, with a goatee and a dirty-blond ponytail, and soft brown eyes.
"Um, excuse me," he said, "are you okay?"
I raised my eyebrows at him. "Fine."
"You just looked kind of..." His voice a nice voice, if a little high trailed off.
"I saw somebody having a stroke once," he told me. "It started off like that."
By now my friend Brianna had collected herself. Wiping her eyes, she grabbed his hand. "Bruce, this is Cannie," she said. "Cannie was just doing an imitation."
"Oh," said Bruce, and stood there, obviously feeling foolish.
"Not to worry," I said. "It's a good thing you stopped me. I was being unkind."
"Oh," said Bruce again.
I kept talking. "See, I'm trying to be nicer. It's my New Year's resolution."
"It's February," he pointed out.
"I'm a slow starter."
"Well," he said, "at least you're trying." He smiled at me, and walked away.
I spent the rest of the party getting the scoop. He'd come with a guy Brianna knew from graduate school. The good news: He was a graduate student, which meant reasonably smart, and Jewish, just like me. He was twenty-seven. I was twenty-five. It fit. "He's funny, too," said Brianna, before delivering the bad news: Bruce had been working on his dissertation for three years, possibly longer, and he lived in central New Jersey, more than an hour away from us, picking up freelance writing work and teaching the occasional bunch of freshmen, subsisting on stipends, a small scholarship, and, mostly, his parents' money.
"Geographically undesirable," Brianna pronounced.
"Nice hands," I countered. "Nice teeth."
"He's a vegetarian," she said.
I winced. "For how long?"
"Hmph. Well, maybe I can work with it."
"He's..." Brianna trailed off.
"On parole?" I joked. "Addicted to painkillers?"
"Kind of immature," she finally said.
"He's a guy," I said, shrugging. "Aren't they all?"
She laughed. "And he's a good guy," she said. "Talk to him. You'll see."
That whole night, I watched him, and I felt him watching me. But he didn't say anything until after the party broke up, and I was walking home, feeling more than a little disappointed. It had been a while since I'd even seen someone who'd caught my fancy, and tall, nice hands, nice-white-teeth grad student Bruce appeared, at least from the outside, to be a possibility.
But when I heard footsteps behind me, I wasn't thinking about him. I was thinking what every woman who lives in a city thinks when she hears quick footsteps coming up behind her and it's after midnight and she's between streetlights. I took a quick glance at my surroundings while fumbling for the Mace attached to my keychain. There was a streetlight on the corner, a car parked underneath. I figured I'd Mace whoever it was into temporary immobility, smash one of the car windows, hoping the alarm would go off, scream bloody murder, and run.
I whirled around. And there he was, smiling at me shyly. "Hey," he said, laughing a little bit at my obvious fear. He walked me home. I gave him my number. He called me the next night, and we talked for three hours, about everything: college, parents, his dissertation, the future of newspapers. "I want to see you," he told me at one in the morning, when I was thinking that if we kept talking I was going to be a wreck at work the next day. "So we'll meet," I said.
"No," said Bruce. "Now."
And two hours later, after a wrong turn coming off the Ben Franklin Bridge, he was at my door again: bigger than I'd remembered, somehow, in a plaid shirt and sweatpants, carrying a rolled-up sleeping bag that smelled like summer camp in one hand, smiling shyly. And that was that.
And now, more than three years after our first kiss, three months after our let's-take-a-break talk, and four hours after I'd found out that he'd told the entire magazine-reading world that I was a Larger Woman, Bruce squinted at me across the parking lot in front of his apartment where he'd agreed to meet me. He was blinking double-time, the way he did when he was nervous. His arms were full of things. There was the blue plastic dog-food dish I'd kept in his apartment for my dog, Nifkin. There, in a red wooden frame, was the picture of us on top of a bluff at Block Island. There was a silver hoop earring that had been sitting on his night table for months. There were three socks, a half-empty bottle of Chanel. Tampons. A toothbrush. Three years' worth of odds and ends, kicked under the bed, worked down into a crack in the couch. Evidently, Bruce saw our rendezvous as a chance to kill two birds with one stone endure my wrath over the "Good in Bed" column and give me back my stuff. And it felt like being punched in the chest, looking at my girlie items all jumbled up in a cardboard Chivas box he'd probably picked up at the liquor store on his way home from work the physical evidence that we were really, truly over.
"Cannie," he said coolly, still squinching his eyes open and shut in a way I found particularly revolting.
"Bruce," I said, trying to keep my voice from shaking. "How's that novel coming? Will I be starring in that, too?"
He raised his eyebrow, but said nothing. "Remind me," I said. "At what point in our relationship did I agree to let you share intimate details of our time together with a few million readers?"
Bruce shrugged. "We don't have a relationship anymore."
"We were taking a break," I said.
Bruce gave me a small, condescending smile. "Come on, Cannie. We both know what that meant."
"I meant what I said," I said, glaring at him. "Which makes one of us, it seems."
"Whatever," said Bruce, attempting to shove the stuff into my arms. "I don't know why you're so upset. I didn't say anything bad." He straightened his shoulders. "I actually thought the column was pretty nice."
For one of the few times in my adult life, I was literally speechless. "Are you high?" I asked. With Bruce, that was more than a rhetorical question.
"You called me fat in a magazine. You turned me into a joke. You don't think you did anything wrong?"
"Face it, Cannie," he said. "You are fat." He bent his head. "But that doesn't mean I didn't love you."
The box of tampons bounced off his forehead and spilled into the parking lot.
"Oh, that's nice," said Bruce.
"You absolute bastard." I licked my lips, breathing hard. My hands were shaking. My aim was off. The picture glanced off his shoulder, then shattered on the ground. "I can't believe I ever thought seriously for even one second about marrying you."
Bruce shrugged, bending down, scooping feminine protection and shards of wood and glass into his hands and dumping them back into the box. Our picture he left lying there.
"This is the meanest thing anyone's ever done to me," I said, through my tear-clogged throat. "I want you to know that." But even as the words were leaving my mouth, I knew it wasn't true. In the grand, historical scheme of things, my father leaving us was doubtlessly worse. Which is one of the many things that sucked about my father he forever robbed me of the possibility of telling another man, This is the worst thing that's ever happened to me, and meaning it.
Bruce shrugged again. "I don't have to worry about how you feel anymore. You made that clear." He straightened up. I hoped he'd be angry passionate, even but all I got was this maddening, patronizing calm. "You were the one who wanted this, remember?"
"I wanted a break. I wanted time to think about things. I should have just dumped you," I said. "You're..." And I stood, speechless again, thinking of the worst thing I could say to him, the word that would make him feel even a fraction as horrible and furious and ashamed as I did. "You're small," I finally said, imbuing that word with every hateful nuance I could muster, so that he'd know I meant small in spirit, and everywhere else, too.
He didn't say anything. He didn't even look at me. He just turned around and walked away.
Samantha had kept the car running. "Are you okay?" she asked as I slid into the passenger's seat clutching the box to my chest. I nodded silently. Samantha probably thought I was ridiculous. But this wasn't a situation I expected her to sympathize with. At five foot ten, with inky black hair, pale skin, and high, sculpted cheekbones, Samantha looks like a young Anjelica Huston. And she's thin. Effortlessly, endlessly thin. Given a choice of any food in the world, she'd probably pick a perfect fresh peach and Rya crispbreads. If she wasn't my best friend, I'd hate her, and even though she is my best friend, it's sometimes hard not to be envious of someone who can take food or leave it, whereas I mostly take it, and then take hers, too, when she doesn't want any more. The only problem her face and figure had ever caused her was too much male attention. I could never make her feel what it was like to live in a body like mine.
She glanced at me quickly. "So, um, I'm guessing that things with you two are over?"
"Good guess," I said dully. My mouth tasted ashy, my skin, reflected in the passenger's side window, looked pale and waxen. I stared into the cardboard box, at my earrings, my books, the tube of MAC lipstick that I thought I'd lost forever.
"You okay?" asked Samantha gently.
"Do you want to get a drink? Some dinner, maybe? Want to go see a movie?"
I held the box tighter and closed my eyes so I wouldn't have to see where we were, so I wouldn't have to follow the car's progress back down the roads that used to lead me to him. "I think I just want to go home."
My answering machine was blinking triple-time when I got back to my apartment. I ignored it. I shucked off my work clothes, pulled on my overalls and a T-shirt, and padded, barefoot, into the kitchen. From the freezer I retrieved a canister of frozen Minute Maid lemonade. From the top shelf of the pantry I pulled down a pint of tequila. I dumped both in a mixing bowl, grabbed a spoon, took a deep breath, a big slurp, settled myself on my blue denim couch, and forced myself to start reading.
Loving a Larger Woman
by Bruce Guberman
I'll never forget the day I found out my girlfriend weighed more than I did.
She was out on a bike ride, and I was home watching football, leafing through the magazines on her coffee table, when I found her Weight Watchers folder a palm-sized folio with notations for what she'd eaten, and when, and what she planned to eat next, and whether she'd been drinking her eight glasses of water a day. There was her name. Her identification number. And her weight, which I am too much of a gentleman to reveal here. Suffice it to say that the number shocked me.
I knew that C. was a big girl. Certainly bigger than any of the women I'd seen on TV, bouncing in bathing suits or drifting, reedlike, through sitcoms and medical dramas. Definitely bigger than any of the women I'd ever dated before.
What, I thought scornfully. Both of them?
I never thought of myself as a chubby chaser. But when I met C., I fell for her wit, her laugh, her sparkling eyes. Her body, I decided, was something I could learn to live with.
Her shoulders were as broad as mine, her hands were almost as big, and from her breasts to her belly, from her hips down the slope of her thighs, she was all sweet curves and warm welcome. Holding her felt like a safe haven. It felt like coming home.
But being out with her didn't feel nearly as comfortable. Maybe it was the way I'd absorbed society's expectations, its dictates of what men are supposed to want and how women are supposed to appear. More likely, it was the way she had. C. was a dedicated foot soldier in the body wars. At five foot ten inches, with a linebacker's build and a weight that would have put her right at home on a pro football team's roster, C. couldn't make herself invisible.
But I know that if it were possible, if all the slouching and slumping and shapeless black jumpers could have erased her from the physical world, she would have gone in an instant. She took no pleasure from the very things I loved, from her size, her amplitude, her luscious, zaftig heft.
As many times as I told her she was beautiful, I know that she never believed me. As many times as I said it didn't matter, I knew that to her it did. I was just one voice, and the world's voice was louder. I could feel her shame like a palpable thing, walking beside us on the street, crouched down between us in a movie theater, coiled up and waiting for someone to say what to her was the dirtiest word in the world: fat.
And I knew it wasn't paranoia. You hear, over and over, how fat is the last acceptable prejudice, that fat people are the only safe targets in our politically correct world. Date a queen-sized woman and you'll find out how true it is. You'll see the way people look at her, and look at you for being with her. You'll try to buy her lingerie for Valentine's Day and realize the sizes stop before she starts. Every time you go out to eat you'll watch her agonize, balancing what she wants against what she'll let herself have, what she'll let herself have against what she'll be seen eating in public.
And what she'll let herself say.
I remember when the Monica Lewinsky story broke and C., a newspaper reporter, wrote a passionate defense of the White House intern who'd been betrayed by Linda Tripp in Washington, and betrayed even worse by her friends in Beverly Hills, who were busily selling their high-school memories of Monica to Inside Edition and People magazine. After her article was printed, C. got lots of hate mail, including one letter from a guy who began: "I can tell by what you wrote that you are overweight and that nobody loves you." And it was that letter that word that bothered her more than anything else anyone said. It seemed that if it were true the "overweight" part then the "nobody loves you" part would have to be true as well. As if being Lewinsky-esque was worse than being a betrayer, or even someone who was dumb. As if being fat were somehow a crime.
Loving a larger woman is an act of courage in this world, and maybe it's even an act of futility. Because, in loving C., I knew I was loving someone who didn't believe that she herself was worthy of anyone's love.
And now that it's over, I don't know where to direct my anger and my sorrow. At a world that made her feel the way she did about her body no, herself and whether she was desirable. At C., for not being strong enough to overcome what the world told her. Or at myself, for not loving C. enough to make her believe in herself.
I wept straight through Celebrity Weddings, slumped on the floor in front of the couch, tears rolling off my chin and soaking my shirt as one tissue-thin supermodel after another said "I do." I cried for Bruce, who had understood me far more than I'd given him credit for and maybe had loved me more than I'd deserved. He could have been everything I'd wanted, everything I'd hoped for. He could have been my husband. And I'd chucked it.
And I'd lost him forever. Him and his family one of the things I'd loved best about Bruce. His parents were what June and Ward would have been if they were Jewish and living in New Jersey in the nineties. His father, who had perpetually whiskered cheeks and eyes as kind as Bruce's, was a dermatologist. His family was his delight. I don't know how else to say it, or how much it astonished me. Given my experience with my own dad, watching Bernard Guberman was like looking at an alien from Mars. He actually likes his child! I would marvel. He really wants to be with him! He remembers things about Bruce's life! That Bernard Guberman seemed to like me, too, might have had less to do with his feelings about me as a person and more to do with my being a), Jewish, and hence a marriage prospect; b), gainfully employed, and thus not an overt gold digger; and c), a source of happiness for his son. But I didn't care why he was so nice to me. I just basked in his kindness whenever I could.
Bruce's mother, Audrey, had been the tiniest bit intimdating, with manicured fingernails painted whatever shade I'd be reading about in Vogue the next month, and perfectly styled hair, and a house full of glass and wall-to-wall white carpeting and seven bathrooms, each kept immaculately clean. The Ever-Tasteful Audrey, I called her to my friends. But once you got past the manicure, Audrey was nice, too. She'd been trained as a teacher, but by the time I met Audrey her working-for-a-living days were long past and she was a full-time wife, mother, and volunteer the perenniel PTA mom, Cub Scout leader, and Hadassah president, the one who could always be counted on to organize the synagogue's annual food drive or the Sisterhood's winter ball.
The downside of parents like that, I used to think, was that it killed your ambition. With my divorced parents and my college debts I was always scrambling for the next rung on the ladder, the next job, the next freelance assignment; for more money, more recognition, for fame, insofar as you could be famous when your job was telling other people's stories. When I started at a small newspaper in the middle of nowhere, covering car crashes and sewage board meetings, I was desperate to get to a bigger one, and when I finally got to a bigger one, I wasn't there two weeks before I was already plotting how to move on.
Bruce had been content to drift through graduate school, picking up a teaching assignment here, a freelance writing gig there, making approximately half of what I did, letting his parents pick up the tab for his car insurance (and his car, for that matter), and "help" with his rent and subsidize his lifestyle with $100 handouts every time he saw them, plus jaw-droppingly generous checks on birthdays, Chanukah, and sometimes just because. "Slow down," he'd tell me, when I'd slip out of bed early to work on a short story, or go into work on a Saturday to send out query letters to magazine editors in New York. "You need to enjoy life more, Cannie."
I thought sometimes that he liked to imagine himself as one of the lead characters in an early Springsteen song some furious, passionate nineteen-year-old romantic, raging against the world at large and his father in particular, looking for one girl to save him. The trouble was, Bruce's parents had given him nothing to rebel against no numbing factory job, no stern, judgmental patriarch, certainly no poverty. And a Springsteen song lasted only three minutes, including chorus and theme and thundering guitar-charged climax, and never took into account the dirty dishes, the unwashed laundry and unmade bed, the thousand tiny acts of consideration and goodwill that actually maintaining a relationship called for. My Bruce preferred to drift through life, lingering over the Sunday paper, smoking high-quality dope, dreaming of bigger papers and better assignments without doing much to get them. Once, early in our relationship, he'd sent his clips to the Examiner, and gotten a curt "try us in five years" postcard in response. He'd shoved the letter in a shoebox, and we'd never discussed it again.
But he was happy. "Head's all empty, I don't care," he'd sing to me, quoting the Grateful Dead, and I'd force a smile, thinking that my head was never empty and that if it ever was, you could be darn sure I'd care.
And what had all my hustle gotten me, I mused, now slurping the boozy slush straight from the bowl. What did it matter. He didn't love me anymore.
I woke up after midnight, drooling on the couch. There was a pounding in my head. Then I realized it was someone pounding at the door.
I sat up, taking a moment to locate my hands and my feet.
"Cannie, open this door right now. I'm worried about you."
My mother. Please God no.
I curled tight onto the couch, remembering that she'd called me in the morning, a million years ago, to tell me she'd be in town that night for Gay Bingo, and that she and Tanya would stop by when it was over. I got to my feet, flicking off the halogen lamp as quietly as I could, which wasn't very quietly, considering that I managed to knock the lamp over in the process. Nifkin howled and scrambled onto the armchair, glaring at me reproachfully. My mother started pounding again.
"Go 'way," I called weakly. "I'm...naked."
"Oh, you are not! You're wearing your overalls, and you're drinking tequila, and you're watching The Sound of Music."
All of which was true. What can I say? I like musicals. I especially like The Sound of Music particularly the scene where Maria gathers the motherless Von Trapp brood onto her bed during the thunderstorm and sings "My Favorite Things." It looked so cozy, so safe the way my own family had been, for a minute, once upon a time, a long time ago.
I heard a muttered consultation outside my door my mother's voice, then another, in a lower register, like Marlboro smoke filtered through gravel. Tanya. She of the sling and the crab leg.
"Cannie, open up!"
I struggled back into a sitting position and heaved myself into the bathroom, where I flicked on the light and stared at myself, reviewing the situation, and my appearance. Tear-streaked face, check. Hair, light brown with streaks of copper, cut in a basic bob and shoved behind my ears, also present. No makeup. Hint well, actuality of a double chin. Full cheeks, round, sloping shoulders, double D-cup breasts, fat fingers, thick hips, big ass, thighs solidly muscled beneath a quivering blanket of lard. My eyes looked especially small, like they were trying to hide in the flesh of my face, and there was something avid and hungry and desperate about them. Eyes exactly the color of the ocean in the Menemsha harbor in Martha's Vineyard, a beautiful grapey green. My best feature, I thought ruefully. Pretty green eyes and a wry, cockeyed smile. "Such a pretty face," my grandmother would say, cupping my chin in her hand, then shaking her head, not even bothering to say the rest.
So here I am. Twenty-eight years old, with thirty looming on the horizon. Drunk. Fat. Alone. Unloved. And, worst of all, a cliché, Ally McBeal and Bridget Jones put together, which was probably about how much I weighed, and there were two determined lesbians banging on my door. My best option, I decided, was hiding in the closet and feigning death.
"I've got a key," my mother threatened.
I wrested the tequila bowl away from Nifkin. "Hang on," I yelled. I picked up the lamp and opened the door a crack. My mother and Tanya stared at me, wearing identical L.L. Bean hooded sweatshirts and expressions of concern.
"Look," I said. "I'm fine. I'm just sleepy, so I'm going to sleep. We can talk about this tomorrow."
"Look, we saw the Moxie. article," said my mother. "Lucy brought it over."
Thank you, Lucy, I thought. "I'm fine," I said again. "Fine, fine, fine, fine."
My mother, clutching her bingo dauber, looked skeptical. Tanya, as usual, just looked like she wanted a cigarette, and a drink, and for me and my siblings never to have been born, so that she could have my mother all to herself and they could relocate to a commune in Northampton.
"You'll call me tomorrow?" my mother asked.
"I'll call," I said, and closed the door.
My bed looked like an oasis in the desert, like a sandbar in the stormy sea. I lurched toward it, flung myself down, on my back, my arms and legs splayed out, like a size-sixteen starfish stapled to the comforter. I loved my bed the pretty light blue down comforter, the soft pink sheets, the pile of pillows, each in a bright slipcover one purple, one orange, one pale yellow, and one cream. I loved the Laura Ashley dust ruffle and the red wool blanket that I'd had since I was a girl. Bed, I thought, was about the only thing I had going for me right now, as Nifkin bounded up and joined me, and I stared at the ceiling, which was spinning in a most alarming way.
I wished I'd never told Bruce I wanted a break. I wished I'd never met him. I wished that I'd kept running that night, just kept running and never looked back.
I wished I wasn't a reporter. I wished that my job was baking muffins in a muffin shop, where all I'd have to do was crack eggs and measure flour and make change, and nobody could abuse me, and where they'd even expect me to be fat. Every flab roll and cellulite crinkle would serve as testimony to the excellence of my baked goods.
I wished I could trade places with the guy who wore the "FRESH SUSHI" sandwich board and walked up and down Pine Street at lunch hour, handing out sushi coupons for World of Wasabi. I wished I could be anonymous and invisible. Maybe dead.
I pictured myself lying in the bathtub, taping a note to the mirror, taking a razor blade to my wrists. Then I pictured Nifkin, whining and looking puzzled, scraping his nails against the rim of the bathtub and wondering why I wasn't getting up. And I pictured my mother having to go through my things and finding the somewhat battered copy of Best of Penthouse Letters in my top dresser drawer, plus the pink fur-lined handcuffs Bruce had given me for Valentine's Day. Finally, I pictured the paramedics trying to maneuver my dead, wet body down three flights of stairs. "We've got a big one here," I imagined one of them saying.
Okay. So suicide was out, I thought, rolling myself into the comforter and arranging the orange pillows under my head. The muffin shop/sandwich board scenario, while tempting, was probably not going to happen. I couldn't see how to spin it in the alumni magazine. Princeton graduates who stepped off the fast track tended to own the muffin shops, which they would then turn into a chain of successful muffin shops, which would then go public and make millions. And the muffin shops would only be a diversion for a few years, something to do while raising their kids, who would invariably appear in the alumni magazine clad in eensy-beansy black-and-orange outfits with "Class of 2012!" written on their precocious little chests.
What I wanted, I thought, pressing my pillow hard against my face, was to be a girl again. To be on my bed in the house I'd grown up in, tucked underneath the brown and red paisley comforter, reading even though it was past my bedtime, hearing the door open and my father walk inside, feel him standing over me silently, feeling the weight of his pride and his love like it was a tangible thing, like warm water. I wanted him to put his hand on my head the way he had then, to hear the smile in his voice when he'd say, "Still reading, Cannie?" To be little, and loved. And thin. I wanted that.
I rolled over, groped for my nightstand, grabbed a pen and paper. Lose weight, I wrote, then stopped and thought. Find new boyfriend, I added. Sell screenplay. Buy large house with garden and fenced yard. Find mother more acceptable girlfriend. Somewhere between writing Get and maintain stylish haircut and thinking Make Bruce sorry, I finally fell asleep.
Good in bed. Ha! He had a lot of nerve, putting his name on a column about sexual expertise, given how few people he'd even been with, and how little he'd known before he'd met me.
I had slept with four people three long-term boyfriends and one ill-considered freshman year fling when Bruce and I hooked up, and I'd fooled around extensively with another half-dozen. I might've been a big girl, but I'd been reading Cosmopolitan since I was thirteen, and I knew my way around the various pieces of equipment. At least I'd never had any complaints.
So I was experienced. And Bruce...wasn't. He'd had a few harsh turn-downs in high school, when he'd had really bad skin, and before he'd discovered that pot and a ponytail could reliably attract a certain kind of girl.
When he'd shown up that first night, with his sleeping bag and his plaid shirt, he wasn't a virgin, but he'd never been in a real relationship, and he'd certainly never been in love. So he was looking for his lady fair, and I, while not averse to stumbling into Mr. Right, was mostly looking for...well, call it affection, attention. Actually, call it sex.
We started off on the couch, sitting side by side. I reached for his hand. It was ice-cold and clammy. And when I casually slung an arm over his shoulder, then eased my thigh against his, I could feel him shaking. Which touched me. I wanted to be gentle with him, I wanted to be kind. I took both of his hands in mine and tugged him off the couch. "Let's lie down," I said.
We walked to my bedroom hand in hand, and he lay on my futon, flat on his back, his eyes wide open and gleaming in the dark, looking a bit like a man in a dentist's chair. I propped myself up on my elbow and let the loose ends of my hair trail gently across his cheek. When I kissed the side of his neck he gasped as if I'd burned him, and when I eased one hand inside his shirt and gently tugged at the hair on his chest, he sighed, "Ah, Cannie," in the tenderest voice I'd ever heard.
But his kisses were horrible, slobbery things, all bludgeoning tongue and lips that felt as if they were somehow collapsing when they met mine, so that I was left with a choice between teeth and mustache. His hands were stiff and clumsy. "Lie still," I whispered.
"I'm sorry," he whispered back unhappily. "I'm all wrong, aren't I?"
"Shh," I breathed, my lips against his neck once more, the tender skin right where his beard ended. I slid one hand down his chest, lightly feathered it over his crotch. Nothing doing. I pressed my breasts into his side, kissed his forehead, his eyelids, the tip of his nose, and tried again. Still nothing. Well, this was curious. I decided to show him a trick, to teach him how to make me happy whether he could get hard or not. He moved me enormously, this six-foot-tall guy with a ponytail and a look on his face like I might electrocute him instead of...this. I wrapped both of my legs around one of his, took his hand, and slid it into my panties. His eyes met mine and he smiled when he felt how wet I was. I put his fingers where I needed them, with my hand over his, pressing his fingers against myself, showing him what to do, and I moved against him, letting him feel me sweat and breathe hard and moan when I came. And then I pressed my face into his neck again, and moved my lips up to his ear. "Thank you," I whispered. I tasted salt. Sweat? Tears, maybe? But it was dark, and I didn't look.
We fell asleep in that position: me, wearing just a T-shirt and panties, wrapped around him; him, with only his shirt unbuttoned, only halfway, still in underwear, sweatpants, socks. And when the light crept through my windows, when we opened our eyes and looked at each other, it felt like we had known each other much longer than just one night. As if we could never have been strangers. "Good morning," I whispered.
"You're beautiful," he said.
I decided that I could get used to hearing that in the mornings. Bruce decided that he was in love. We were together for the next three years, and we learned things with each other. Eventually, he told me the whole story, about his limited experience, about always being either drunk or stoned and always very shy, about how he'd been turned down a few times his first year in college and just decided to be patient. "I knew I'd meet the right girl someday," he said, smiling at me, cradling me close. We figured it out the things he liked, the things I liked, the things we both liked. Some of it was straightforward. Some of it would have been raunchy enough to raise eyebrows even in Moxie, where they ran regular features on new "sizzling sexy secrets!"
But the thing that galled me, that chewed at my heart as I tossed and turned, feeling clammy and cotton-mouthed from the previous night's tequila binge, was the column's title. "Good in Bed." It was a lie. It wasn't that he'd been some kind of sexual savant, a boy wonder under the sheets...it was that we had loved each other, once. We'd been good in bed together.
Copyright © 2001 by Jennifer Weiner
Reading Group Guide
Reading Group Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. With Good in Bed, Jennifer Weiner has garnered a lot of early praise for her alternately hilarious and poignant dialogue, and also for her pitch-perfect ear in rendering the conversational rhythms of Cannie's first-person narrative voice. Looking back through the novel, what is it about the dialogue that works so well? In what ways does it serve to subtly develop each character's motivations and idiosyncrasies?
2. Discuss, in connection with the previous question, the specific tone and quality of Cannie Shapiro's voice. What techniques does Weiner employ to make Cannie's musings and descriptions come across so intimately? What sets the author's style apart from that of other contemporary authors? To which novelists would you say Weiner bears the closest comparison?
3. Cannie Shapiro is, among other things, a woman struggling to emerge from the shadow cast by her father's emotional abuse and aggressive abandonment. How successful is she, finally, in doing so?
4. In what ways do we see the painful legacy of Cannie's early relationship with her father (whom she dubs "the Original Abandoner") at work in the action of this novel, affecting the tenor of Cannie's relationships, choices, and/or motivations? To what degree can we view Bruce as a stand-in for her father?
5. "Maybe," Bruce writes in his notorious Moxie debut, "it was the way I'd absorbed society's expectations, its dictates of what men are supposed to want and how women are supposed to appear. More likely, it was the way she had. C. was a dedicated foot soldier in the body wars....C. couldn't make herself invisible. But I know that if it were possible if all the slouching and slumping and shapeless black jumpers could have erased her from the physical world, she would have gone in an instant." With these lines, from the novel's opening chapter, Weiner begins to lay the framework for the larger themes that temper, texture, and lend weight to the comedy and romance propelling Cannie's story. What are these themes and issues, and how are they developed throughout the rest of the novel?
6. The real-life specter of the Lewinsky-Clinton debacle looms in the background of this novel's fictional landscape. How does the Monica Lewinsky scandal and, more to the point, the witheringly cruel and petty reception that accompanied Lewinsky's emergence in media stories speak to the novel's portraits of male-female relationships in a body-obsessed culture?
7. How accurate is it to say that body fat has become, as Bruce writes in his column, "the only safe target in our politically correct world," the last "acceptable" object of societal prejudice? Where do we see this sort of prejudice at work? And in our advertising-drenched, consumer-driven society, where beauty and youth seem to be the chief signifiers of power and happiness, what are the implications and consequences of this prejudice?
8. How do Cannie's understandings of and feelings about her mother's relationship with Tanya evolve over the course of this story?
9. Are Tanya's cloying penchants for therapy-speak, rainbow flags, and "tofurkey" enough to justify the hostile attitude and relentlessly barbed humor Cannie directs toward her? Why or why not? In what way might the absence of Cannie's father be contributing to her animosity? What else?
10. Recalling a lecture from Psych 101 on the behavioral effects of random reinforcement, Cannie realizes that she's "become [her] father's rat." What is going on here? Unpack the meanings of Cannie's metaphor, and discuss how it relates to her subsequent relationships with men.
11. Look at Good in Bed in the context of other contemporary novels, movies, and plays about young, professional, single women looking for love and happiness in the big city. To what degree does this novel echo and reinforce certain narrative traditions you've come to expect from the genre, and in what ways does it depart from or redefine these traditions? [You might, for example, discuss Weiner's novel alongside recent works by Melissa Bank, Helen Fielding, and Candace Bushnell.]
12. "What I wanted, I thought, pressing my pillow hard against my face, was to be a girl again. To be on my bed in the house I'd grown up in...to be little, and loved. And thin. I wanted that." If we were to describe Good in Bed as the story of one woman's search for a true home, what elements would make up Cannie's ideal home? And how does this ideal change during the novel?
13. If you had to distill the themes, politics, and essential storyline of Good in Bed into three sentences for a write-up in the "And Bear in Mind" section of The New York Times Book Review, what would you say?
14. In the hospital after her fall at the airport, Cannie admits only to herself that the real source of all her anger was the fact that she "had failed Joy." What does she mean?
15. Where do you see Cannie, Joy, Peter, Maxi, Samantha, and Bruce five years after the close of the book? Outline the story arc of a Good in Bed sequel.
16. How well do you relate personally to Cannie's perceptions of life in a culture dominated by the zillion-dollar diet, beauty, and cosmetic surgery industries? How much of yourself and/or your friends do you see in the character of Cannie Shapiro? Do you agree with all of her choices? Relate to all of her motivations? Explain.