I had a doting grandmother. She came to live with us when I was still very young and helped my mother with childcare. I missed out on most of kindergarten, but I thought that was alright.
In the mornings I would look down from our balcony and see the other children in the apartment building walking off to kindergarten together. I did envy their companionship and games, but I thought that was alright.
As a child I played mostly with my grandmother. A daily game we played was hide and seek. She would ‘hide’ chocolate bars, usually always in the same place, and I would seek them out. She always complimented me when I found them. Smart boy. Such a smart boy. She was always so happy when I ate them.
For breakfast she would make me a glass of sweetened milk and two big slices of white bread with butter and honey. If I begged enough, I would get a third slice. She was always so happy I ate them so well.
When I turned five I finally went to preschool. I liked it, but I was often very uncomfortable with outdoor playtime. When we played catch, I could never catch any of the other children, but I thought that was alright.
After lunch at kindergarten I would come home, and there was my grandmother, so happy to see me. She was a very good cook and there was always a delicious lunch waiting for. I loved fried chicken for my second lunch.
I was not a very agile child. Indeed, I soon learned that I was clumsy. When I ran around the house my mother would raise her hands and wail that I was a ‘tractor’ or a ‘bulldozer’, but I thought that was alright.
After all, I was mostly a very good boy. When I sat and played with legos, or when I sat and drew, or when I sat and read a book, my mother always said what a good boy I was.
When I was six we moved to Tanzania, while my grandmother stayed in Yugoslavia.
At P.E. class I was always among the slower, sweatier children. But I knew I wasn’t fat. My mother always said I was just big-boned, and having big bones was good, so I thought that was alright.
Teatime With Fatso
Some years later my mother was having tea with a friend. They sat at the round wicker table in the west end of our terrace. The ceiling fan stirred the hot air and I flopped on a wicker couch reading a book. My mother went to the restroom and my mother’s friend finished her glass of iced tea.
The bony Dalmatian woman, all angles and pointed nose, raised her glass towards me and said, “Fatso! Go get me some iced tea!”
In a sudden flash of hot enlightenment I became aware that I was a blubbery pig.
I saw my piglike nose. I saw my fleshy cheeks. I saw my round face. I saw my doughy arms. I saw my slapping thighs. I saw my jiggling belly. I could barely look at myself in the mirror.
Every time there was a group of boys, I compared my body. I did the arithmetic. Fourth fattest of ten. Sixth fattest of seventeen. Third fattest of six. Second fattest of three.
This was the time we boys were discovering that girls existed, and I had learned that I was a fatso. My mother told me I was big-boned, but it was not alright.
Pile It On
Then we returned to Slovenia, and I was was the fattest. I was the fattest fifteen-year-old in my class. I was the fattest fifteen-year-old in my whole grade.
In Africa nobody had measured us and tracked our statistics, but now, once a year, P.E. class was about a whole battery of tests. I don’t know who needed to know how long a child could hang from a bar, how high they could jump, how much they weighed, how fast they could run 2400 metres (a ‘cooper’ they called it), or the circumference of their wrist.
I learned that I was not big-boned, that my bones were completely average. I learned that my height was average. I learned that I was in the worst shape of all the boys in my grade. That I was the slowest and fattest.
I tried to join the karate club, but the first day I went, the instructor left me sitting on the bench as he ran through katas with the class. I saw how thin everyone was, I saw how everyone had white robes while I had a blue tracksuit, so I snuck out quietly.
I couldn’t join the track team. Everyone there was fit. I couldn’t join the basketball team. Everyone there was fit. I couldn’t join any sport, because I knew I wasn’t fit enough to fit in.
My mother told me I was a good boy. A smart boy. That I would be ok. That I didn’t need those team sports. That I was so lucky I knew how to have a good time on my own.
But it was not alright.
In the first three months of university, without regular P.E. classes, I gained more weight. That January I went hiking up a mountain with a few friends. The peak was covered in deep snow, and pushing through the snow it hit me:
“I am going to die. I am going to have a heart attack and die. I am 18. I am going to have a heart attack and die.”
It was not alright.
Ever Flowing, Never Slowing
I’m fit enough today, but every man I meet, I still grade: fitter, fatter.
The woman who called me fatso died of cancer, and a twinge of satisfaction ran through me.
But was it her that made me fat? After all, a child doesn’t choose to be fat. I wanted to be loved. I liked to be a good boy. So I ate the second lunches and the secret chocolates and I was proud of my big, strong bones.
I walk through the world aware that I see myself permanently distorted. Still, could be worse.
It’s alright enough.