Roxane Gay’s women are “difficult” in that by dint of their gender, race, class or demeanor they have been so labeled. That “difficulty” manifests itself in ways expected and quite surprising. Published last month by Grove Press, the deftly crafted stories in Difficult Women show Gay, author of the Bad Feminist essays and the debut novel An Untamed State, to be knowing but generous with her subjects, men and women alike. This excerpt is from the story “Florida.” You can purchase the book at local booksellers or online at Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Gay will appear at St. Paul’s Church, 4900 Connecticut Avenue NW, Washington, DC, tomorrow, Saturday, February 11, at 7:30pm. Appearing with her will be Viet Thanh Nguyen, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Refugees, stories of exile and homecoming. Tickets for the event can be purchased here.
3333 Palmetto Crest Circle
THE ADJUSTMENT had been uncomfortable. All her life Marcy had lived in the Midwest with people who ate red meat and starchy foods, who allowed their bodies to spread without shame. And then her husband was transferred to Naples. Marcy’s mother said, “Naples, like in Italy?” and Marcy said, “No, Florida,” and her mother said, “Oh dear.”
The women in Naples all looked the same—lean and darkly tan, their faces narrow with hungered discipline, whittled by the same surgeon. They stared at Marcy’s relatively ample physique with disgust or envy or something between the two. At night, Marcy worried about her ass and thighs. Her husband always said, “Baby, you are perfect,” and she flushed angrily. His assurances were so reflexive as to be insulting.
Their community had a country club. They joined because the transfer came with a promotion and a raise. Marcy’s husband said it was important to live up to their new station. He mostly wanted to play golf with men whose bellies were fatter than his. In Palmetto Landing, the men’s bodies expanded in inverse proportion to those of their wives.
Each morning, there was a group fitness class at the clubhouse—Spinning, Zumba, kickboxing, always something different. The instructor was a young, aggressively fit woman, Caridad. The other wives loved to say her name, trilling their r’s to show Caridad ellas hablan español. Marcy stood in the back of the studio in sweatpants and an old T-shirt of her husband’s while the women around her perspired in their perfectly coordinated outfits fancier than most of Marcy’s wardrobe.
Marcy enjoyed the pleasant soreness as she drove the five blocks home after each class. She liked how for an hour, there was a precise set of instructions she was meant to follow, a clear sense of direction.
The other wives were quietly fascinated by Marcy in that she was a rare species in the wealthy enclave—a first wife. Ellen Katz, who lived three doors down, often squeezed Marcy’s shoulder with her cool, bony hand. She’d say, “We’re rooting for you,” and offered words of encouragement as Marcy’s figure slimmed. Marcy never knew what to say during these moments, but she smiled politely because she understood these people and how they existed only in relation to those around them.
1217 Ridgewood Rd Unit 11
My wife and I watch documentaries about the lives of extraordinarily fat people so we can feel better about ourselves because we work hourly jobs and live in a crappy apartment surrounded by McMansions as part of an “economic diversity initiative” in our gated community. Our GEDs didn’t take us as far as we hoped but they got us to Palmetto Landing, and sometimes, we tell ourselves that’s enough. We got our GEDs because we wanted to get married. We wanted to get married so we could have sex because back then we believed what our parents told us about going to hell if we fornicated and at that point, we had done everything but have sex and we knew that the disposition of our souls was in grave danger if we didn’t do something drastic. Our parents told us we couldn’t get married until we had our high school diplomas because we were too young and we needed a good solid education before we could make adult decisions and we thought they were delusional because we actually went to school every day and knew that they weren’t teaching us a damn thing. We showed them by going across the state line to get married but then the sex wasn’t that great and then we couldn’t find jobs that didn’t involve customer service and now we’ve accepted that this is as good as it’s going to get. We watch as the extraordinarily fat people tearfully explain how they got to one thousand pounds, how it was a slippery slope, how they tried diets, how now they’re stuck in their soiled beds and have to be cut out of their homes and taken to a special fat hospital for emergency surgery with the assistance of special fat SWAT teams with good back strength who wear latex gloves and grave expressions.
The best part of these documentaries is when the medical professionals talk about the fat people like they understand, like they sympathize, like this is all normal, when you know that when those doctors and nurses get home, they sit in bed crying, eating a tub of ice cream asking themselves how tragedies like these happen. The wife and I giggle when the doctors use the word staggering or when the fat person says I let things get out of hand. For the next week, we’ll repeat that phrase as often as we can and then laugh uncontrollably. For example, I’ll get home late from work and the wife will be at the kitchen table waiting and she’ll be kind of irritated because she took the time to bake a Stouffer’s lasagna in the oven and microwave some frozen broccoli so I’ll say I let things get out of hand. She’ll try not to crack a smile and then her cheeks will twitch and she’ll start shaking and then we’ll both laugh so hard that there’s snot coming out of our noses and we’re laugh-crying and she’s forgotten that I was late and won’t spend the next hour interrogating me about why my shirt reeks like cigarette smoke even though we both know that I’m late because I met my best friend, whom she hates mostly because he did finish high school and isn’t married, for a couple of beers at the bar he owns.
The sex between the wife and me has improved significantly over the past seven years. I think we’re starting to resent getting married at seventeen a lot less. After we watch documentaries about the lives of extraordinarily fat people, my wife fucks me like she’s auditioning to become a contract porn star and tells me that she’s so fucking glad that we’re both thin and that we have families who love us enough not to feed us to death and I tell her I’m so fucking glad we’re both thin and I lick her nipples and get extra creative and we both moan and pant and I want the moment to last so I think about the poor SOB who needs a team of physical therapists to give him a bath and how he groans in pain as they heave and shift his folds and awkward deposits of fat, all so it will take me a little longer to come. Mornings after Thank God We’re Not Fat Sex, the wife and I tend to hate each other a little so we don’t speak and make as little eye contact as possible. Instead, we move silently through our morning routines as we try to assess any damage we may have caused. She brushes her teeth and takes a shower and shaves her legs and uses all the hot water and leaves little tiny leg hairs around the drain and curls her hair and puts on her makeup and forgets to cap her mascara and the entire time, I’m sitting on the toilet pretending to read a magazine but really I’m just staring at her naked body because she’s hotter than me. She starts the coffee, makes it too strong just the way I hate it, fills her travel thermos, leaves for her job as a receptionist at a beauty salon, and I get to spend an hour or so alone in our apartment watching Home Shopping Network until I have to go to work at a copy shop where I spend my day in front of a Xerox machine pushing buttons, flirting with college girls who need photocopies and just can’t seem to work the machine while getting high on hot toner fumes.
Invariably, at some point during these documentaries about extraordinarily fat people, there comes a time when a surgeon has to cut away chunks of belly or upper thigh and the fat person is lying on the operating table, vulnerable and spread eagle, unconscious as the surgeon uses special tools to spread and pull and dissect. Then the surgeon triumphantly raises the bloody, excised body parts and shouts out how much they weigh and everyone in the room gasps frenzied-like. It’s painfully obvious that they’re all really turned on and after they’re done sewing their patient back together like they’re Dr. Frankenstein, you get the impression that one of those surgeons is going to pull one or more of those nurses into a supply closet so that they too can have Thank God We’re Not Fat Sex. The wife doesn’t like to watch the operations—she calls it human butchering and blood makes her nauseated. She doesn’t even like to change her own tampon so when we’re watching the surgical procedures the wife covers her eyes and buries her head against my shoulder, and I narrate in explicit detail how the fat is yellow and serpentine and pulpy and slick and how the excised body parts are dropped into biohazard bags and then we speculate about what happens to the dead fat deposits of extraordinarily fat people and we think it would be nice if they had backyard burial ceremonies for them the way kids do for dead pets.
One night when we’re watching one of these documentaries, the wife turns to me and says, “There’s no happy endings in these stories,” and then she swallows about half of my beer. She looks like she’s about to cry and then I feel like I’m about to cry thinking about these large people living such small, impossible lives so I say, “It’s a happy ending when they’re wheeled out of the hospital and they only weigh five hundred pounds and they go back to their special chair at home where their loved ones will feed them the same way they’ve always fed them so that in three years, they’ll weigh a ton again and we’ll have another documentary to watch,” and with tears in her eyes, my wife crawls into my lap, straddling me, and she holds my face in her hands and she says, “I love you so fucking much.”
2945 Palmetto Hollow Cir
Jean-Richard and Elsie Moreau had lived in Palmetto Landing for nearly seven years when they heard the news, by way of Ellen Katz, that another Haitian family was moving into the community—doctors, three children, two still at home, new money and a lot of it. Ellen was giddy as she delivered the news. She saw it as something of a personal responsibility to keep her neighbors abreast of such developments.
They sat on the lanai drinking wine, sweating quietly.
Ellen pointed at Elsie. “I imagine you’ll want to invite the new family over, perhaps dinner, something from home.”
Elsie took a careful sip of her wine, then twisted the heavy diamond on her finger as she sank into her seat. “Why would you imagine that?” she murmured.
A few weeks later, Elsie was driving her golf cart to the clubhouse for Ladies Golf, slowly bouncing along the cobbled street, when she saw a light-skinned brown woman standing at the edge of her driveway, one hand shielding her eyes from the sun. Elsie immediately knew the woman was one of the new Haitian doctors. Elsie could recognize her people anywhere—it was a point of pride. She stared straight ahead, the electric motor of her golf cart humming softly as she drove past.
Jean-Richard was the more sociable one, willing to do more than his fair share of maintaining their position within the community, always gregarious and outgoing at the various functions, so many functions—barbecues and theme nights and bridge and the like. If he had his way, they would spend every night with their friends at the clubhouse.
Elsie preferred more control over the boundaries of her world. She was in her late forties, she had no need for new friends.
At dinner, Elsie mentioned she had seen the Haitian doctor wife, standing in her driveway.
“We should have them over, welcome them,” Jean-Richard said, rubbing his heavy hands together.
Elsie frowned, tried to swallow her sigh. “We left that island for a reason. And you know what the neighbors would think.” Jean-Richard leaned forward, but thought better of saying anything. Instead he smiled, said, “Oui, ma chère.”
It had been twenty-five years since Elsie immigrated to the United States. What she remembered of home was the promiscuity—always people, everywhere, hot and clamoring. Elsie did not often think of the towering palm trees or the bright blue water or trips to the country to visit her grandmother or how much she loved her blue school uniform or watching her parents dance in the small courtyard behind their home. Her sharpest memories were of her eight brothers and sisters always crowding any space she tried to make for herself. She remembered small rooms and heavy air and warm concrete walls and slick skin and limbs, stretching desperately for a cooler, dry place.
Difficult Women © 2017 by Roxane Gay. “Florida” originally appeared in slightly different form under the title “Group Fitness” in the Oxford American Issue 80 Spring 2013. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.