Mass: A Solar System Essay
This is how she begins my story. “I could almost cup you in my hand,” she says. In her eyes, I see her occupying the space of this memory, a world of gas and fog. “The doctors and nurses gathered around you, as if a sun. They marveled at your size, at your hair that was full and black, at your yellow jaundiced skin.” She laughs. “Tiny. But look at my son now. What happened?”
This is how you know your body is not your body. In the laundry room of someone’s house. In the dark. The girl you crush on leans against a washing machine. She is featureless, a silhouette. You can’t make out her hair, which in the light is red and disheveled. You like her disheveled, like her with the ferocity of a sixteen-year-old, which you are. Outside the room, a party is happening with the muffled voices of drunks and bad music. You confess. Silence follows. Silence that makes you sink into the shadow of yourself. She is black mass breathing. Then, “I’m sorry.” Then, “You’re nice.” Then, “But fat.” You nod. “Thank you for indulging me,” you say. She opens the door and leaves. Light, like a slap, slivers in. You don’t move. In this room, among exposed shadows, you are fat. When you are fat you are nothing.
On Valentine’s Day 1990, Voyager 1 took a picture of the solar system from beyond the limits of Neptune. There is nothing immediately spectacular about the photo. The spacecraft has taken many pictures since its initial launch in 1979, some breathtakingly iconic like the red dot of Jupiter or the layered rings of Saturn. This photo, however, is beautiful, despite the seemingly lack thereof of a subject. What you have are pale and grainy lines of color against the backdrop of space. The photo resembles a poorly taken picture of a rainbow in shadow. But zoom in. Let your eyes fall to the right center of the frame. Look there. That blue dot. Do you see it? See? That blue dot is Earth. Cosmologist Carl Sagan appropriately titled this photo “Pale Blue Dot.” I’ve stared endlessly at this photo, the way I’ve stared at pictures of my size over the years. Here is a metaphor: Sometimes you have to search to find. Here is another one: A planet from any distance can be made microscopic.
Alien Autopsy is a seventeen-minute film of a supposed 1947 extraterrestrial autopsy. I couldn’t sleep for weeks. It wasn’t the eyes of the alien that haunted me—big and oblong. Or the bulbous head. It was the shape of the body—humanoid, weighing about 150lbs. At eighteen, I tipped the scales at three hundred. I could flatten this alien, make it part of the earth if I wanted to, but the proportions of his body, the sliver of him, put dread in me. He represented what I feared and wanted most: the skinny body, to not be from this world.
I was the typical boy who wanted to explore the universe, marveling at space, the emptiness of it, the specks of planets and stars that occupied the night sky. I wondered what it would feel like to be in space, to own it. It was an odd thought. How could you “own” space? In space there is not enough oxygen so the color blue gives way to black. In space there is no sound because molecules are too spread apart. In space—Oh Buddha—you are weightless or feel weightless, the physics of this too difficult for me to comprehend then and now. In essence, to possess space was to possess nothing, though scientists would never say space is empty. Nor would writers, philosophers, and theologians, who would argue nothing in life contains true emptiness. As Serbian philosopher Dejan Stojanovic stated: “If emptiness is empty, how can something be borne or awaken from it?” True dat, Dejan. True dat. Outer space became my obsession, and like other obsessions, I studied it endlessly. My parents would find my nose in some book about the solar system. They loved my newfound fixation because now instead of reading novels about vampires and killer cars, to them, I was learning something worthwhile. Because of this, they never tired of taking me to the planetarium in Chicago, where I sat in a domed theater that made me feel like I was part of the Milky Way flashing above me. When there was a space-related event, like an eclipse or meteor shower, my parents would drive to the darkest parts of the city so I wouldn’t miss the intergalactic show. At school, I turned in detailed reports on black holes and comets. During art hour, I dedicated my time to drawing shuttles and satellites and astronauts. I wanted to become an astronaut for the reason most boys wanted to become astronauts—this celestial venture into the unknown. But perhaps there was something else at play, something I could not yet voice. Perhaps why I threw myself into the outer realms of the galaxy was because I wanted to flee. I wanted to disappear. I was too heavy for this earth. Gravity announced itself in gym class, when my legs moved slower than the rest of the boys, when my body felt anchored to terra firma. Or when I sat in wooden chairs that creaked and cracked and sometimes splintered under the bulk of me. Or when I drew that astronaut during art hour, taking so much pride in my rendition of the helmet, my attention to the stay-puffed quality of the spacesuit, and Josh Z looked over my shoulder and said, “You’re too fat for that. You’re a planet,” and he walked away—I’m sure—with the sense of pride bullies often have at the expense of others. I knew Josh was right, though. I knew, deep down, this was a dream, and like dreams they sometimes evaporate and what is left is dust. But dust is substance. Dust is everywhere in space. Dust is why I found myself, night after night, in my backyard, sitting on the ledge of the chimney, staring at the gaps between stars, staring into a sky that seemed welcoming. I saw possibility there, the way a painter pictures his art on an empty canvas. I saw the version of me I wanted to be, a future Ira that was light years away, like those dead stars trillions of miles far still bleeding light to our eyes. Or perhaps there were several versions of me, an adherence to Edwin Schrödinger’s Multiverse Theory that states there were other Iras out there being Ira and doing Ira things and those Iras are having different Ira dreams and some of them coming true. And perhaps there were other shaped Iras, not like the Ira on Earth, who despite his big body, sought to meld into his environment, disappear into the shadows of the city, be forgotten. The Ira on Earth read books about other planets and stars and space because he saw himself there, saw himself in orbit of some other world where his body meant very little, and what truly mattered was his heart and its ability to infinitely forgive—those bullies who poked and prodded his belly and chubby cheeks with sharp fingers; those girls who scrunched up their faces and whispered “disgusting” at the sight of him; his family who said he was not Thai because Thais weren’t fat like him. The Ira on Earth was in a constant state of forgiveness. And he thought maybe in another world was an Ira who wasn’t. Who let his fists fly. Who spoke with a venomous tongue. Or maybe there was an Ira out there living on an enormous planet, like Jupiter, and he or she was a sliver of bamboo knocking in solar wind. That dot of an Ira, that speck of him, existed in a cosmic storm, and yet he did not blow away. He stood firm. He stood tall. Like the last autumn leaf clinging steadfastly to the tallest maple and refusing to let go. In that world, his body was capable of anything, even the impossible. Or maybe there was an Ira on a planet that was super fat. Fatter than the Ira on Earth. This Ira was so fat, his fat spilled over the arms of chairs and his chins had their own chins. He was so fat he was without shape, gelatinous liquid held in by skin. He was so fat his voice was a whisper because his fat tongue could not round the sounds of words. In this world, he was the fattest of the fat. And yet he was beloved. No matter how big this Ira grew to be. In fact, it was quite possible this Ira could become a world unto himself, where an Ira in another universe would look at him through a telescope and say, “Do you see that? Beautiful. Truly Beautiful.”
Twice a day I weigh myself—in the morning and then once more before bed. It is a terrible routine, one my beautiful wife tells me to stop. She’s 5’6, about 145lbs. Everything is a number. The scale—I can’t help myself. I strip; clothes can weigh anywhere from .4 – 4lbs, depending on season. I don’t step on the scale after a shower or workout, making sure I am completely dry; water (sweat) can add .3 – 1.4lbs. In the morning, I make sure to use the toilet before stepping on the scale; urine, .2 – 1.2lbs. and poop .5 – 5lbs. (No joke!) There is always a sense of dread before stepping onto the scale, and this dread feels like the anticipatory plummet on a roller coaster. To psych myself up, even when I’m alone, I step up like a boxer at weigh-in. I look into the bathroom mirror, this reflection of my naked self, and give my baddest ass smile while flexing both biceps; sometimes I give them little kisses. My beautiful wife tells me I’m a dork. I am. This dorky routine, however, injects a second of levity to something that dictates my day. On good days, I am 1 – 2lbs. heavier at the end of the day, which means my base weight will be 1 – 3lbs. lighter the next morning. On average, I am 3 – 4lbs. heavier at the end of the day, depending on what I’ve eaten or how hard I worked at the gym. This denotes little or no change to my base weight the next morning. If the number is > 5, then I’ve gained weight, and if I’ve gained weight, I am ruined. If I am ruined, there are two ways I react: 1) I say fuck it. Eat whatever the fuck I want because, really, nothing will change. I am eternally fat, will be eternally fat, no matter how much work I put into the body. I will annihilate my daily calorie count, which is 2,000 – 2,500. Breakfast: Eat two apple fritters at the donut shop (410 cal/each); Lunch: Binge eat Chinese takeout—beef lo mein (600), fried chicken wings (500), pan-fried pot stickers (400), hot and sour soup (150), two egg rolls (150 each); Snack: Steal endless snacks from the pantry, like the brownies that go into the kids’ lunches (150), two bags of chips for the kids’ lunches (150 each), the chocolate bar the kids use to make s’mores (150); Dinner: Extra servings of pot roast and potatoes (800), thick gravy made from pork fat drippings (200) two dinner rolls (50 each) with extra pats of butter (50 each); Dessert: Indulge in a pint of cookie dough ice cream (300); Bedtime: Sneak into the kitchen for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich (150), spreading a little more peanut butter (50) and a little more jelly (50), then shoving a handful of chocolate chips (50) en route to bed. On these days, I consume up to 4,500 – 6,000 calories. On these days, I gain about 5-8.3lbs. Or 2) I starve myself. I eat nothing. Drink only prune juice to purge everything out of the body. At the gym, I lift more than I should. I run farther than I need. My body begins to break because I am breaking it. I am convinced a week of this will set me right. A week of denial. I am crabby as fuck. I snap at my beautiful wife. I snark at my daughters. I am tight-lipped and rigid. My calorie count on these days is -100 – 400. These two responses dwell in polarity—extreme gluttony, extreme starvation. Moderation doesn’t compute. The middle path, as Buddha teaches, doesn’t exist. Logic tells me this is detrimental. I am made illogical. My scale is a fancy scale. I bought it after I broke the other one. It is jet black and sleek the way modern things are. It computes body mass index, 39.0. It gives me the percentage of body fat (44%) versus body muscle (37%). It knows how much (or little) water I’ve consumed in a day (40.7%). It has the magical ability to break down the nutritional components of food I’ve digested—protein (16%). So many other numbers: visceral fat, 25; base metabolic rate, 3256; 2.9% bone mass density. Some numbers I don’t understand, but most of them are in the red, which I take to mean bad. “Health is not a number,” my doctor tells me. She is kind, in her 40’s, 5’2 and no more than 120lbs. She looks 20. I am 41. My scale tells me I have the body of someone who is 53. This morning, on the scale, I am one pound lighter than the morning before. Today is a good day. But days are 24-hours long. Anything can happen.
We try to find an answer for our bodies—big or small. We try to logic them. We try to define and give perimeters for their existence. We have assumed what bodies can and cannot do. We look at a body and a narrative unfolds, based on assumption. Look at that girl. You can see all her bones. She must have an eating disorder. Or. Look at him. Oh how he waddles. I wonder if he has ever thought of exercise. The talk of bodies can be cruel. We are reduced to specimen, placed under the microscope to be examined and judged, and this judgment reduces us to dust. But here is the thing: I am a Buddhist who believes in miracles, and the body is a miracle. All bodies are. Our bodies give us meaning, tell us we are made of matter, and if we are made of matter then we are of substance. Without body, we are atmosphere. Without body, the words fat and skinny evaporate. And though I find the erasure of me comforting at times, to be able to touch and be touched is the joy of possessing breath. (Note: It is good to remain positive.) Sometimes, I look in the mirror and think the mass I carry is astonishing—my sagging arms, the chins, the stomach that hides my penis, my penis between flabby inner thighs, the stretch marks across my stomach like the rippled lines of mountains on a map. Sometimes, the mass of me contains the confidence of fat presidents, whose bellies led the way and changed the world. Sometimes, I instruct my body to bump someone and watch them repel like an opposite charged particle to understand the power the fat body wields, the space the fat body declares. I like these ‘sometimes’ days. My body, my story, does not exist in this galaxy. Look at me and you would not see someone who works out at the gym tirelessly. You would not see a man who used to run 5ks every weekend for a year before arthritis entered his knees. You would not think run. I feel, at times, I am wearing a fat suit. Unzip me and a muscular body emerges. But there is a benefit to this body. I have used the perception of it to my advantage. Younger, when I competed in tennis, I pretended I was too fat to play. My body didn’t fit the tennis player mold. It was three hundred pounds shoved into a tight white polo. During pre-match warm-ups with the opposing player, I hit balls out of the court and over the fence. I swung the racket like a baseball bat, spinning sometimes like a top. I slogged in heavy steps to the ball, pretending my body was unable to lug my weight. I said sorry a lot. I faked bending over and gasping for air. Then when the match started I transformed. I zipped around, beyond the capabilities of my body. My breath remained even, a monk in meditation. My body zoomed around the court, cheetah-like. I blasted serves at 120mph. My forehand was a vicious cannon no one could return. After thirty minutes the match was over, the score 6-0, 6-0. Fat man victory. The look on faces. It was the look of being beaten by a fat man in tennis. This is to say nothing is what it seems. This is to say the world needs to make room for the unordinary. This is to say my body is not a fat body but a body of purpose and potential.
There is a place for us, where the gravitational pull is light, strong enough to keep us anchored and orbiting around a sun that is not too hot. Everything is wide here. The streets accommodate the SUV, the big rig, the automobiles we were meant to drive, where the steering wheel doesn’t graze our stomachs, where the sound of the seatbelt clicking is as satisfying as the pop and fizzle of soda. The sidewalks and the doorways are wide enough to pass through without turning sideways or rubbing against strangers. The booths at restaurants are wide enough, so our stomachs no longer rest on the tabletop. The public bathrooms, the stalls, wide. And chairs can take our wide hips and asses; chairs that are metal and steel, that don’t creak and sigh under our weight, that contour to the slopes of our bodies. And there is no uphill here. No stairs, only escalators and elevators. No need for exertion. No health clubs, aerobic classes, no places that sell exercise videos of dancing-to-the-oldies freaks or money-wasting butt or thigh masters, no bookstores pushing Atkin’s newest diet marvel. Here, we are the cover of magazines—Cosmo Fat, Fat Man’s Quarterly, Seventeen and Fat—our bulk the centerpiece, our smiles genuine as fat smiles are. We will read about 10 favorite fat sex positions and how to win the heart of an elusive fat woman. No more suffering over beauty pageants. Now, it’s Miss Fat America, Cutest Chubby Channel Flipper. No one will tell us that our bodies are disgusting, that they need to change. Because on this planet, no rules govern our bodies. Diabetes, heart disease, weight control, high cholesterol, obesity are part of the world we left. Now it is the 5-star restaurants; super buffets; fast food joints. Gluttonous living. It is the apple-stuffed pork chop, the teriyaki porterhouse, the seared foie gras, the potatoes smeared in butter and sour cream, the thick brown sauce of an oily egg fu young, the deep fried patties of veal parmesan, creamy and moist chocolate cakes, the butter cookies that crumble in our mouths. And after we have indulged to the fullest, we let it hang out at the shoreline, taking off our shirts or getting into the two-piece we’ve always envied. And go into the water, let the ocean play on our legs, lie back and float and feel weightless, feel comfortable bearing it all. Or tan on the sandy shore, making eyes, saying how you doing? to complete strangers, unashamed of our stretch marks and blood blisters and rippled skin. We can be the person we have always wanted to be, the one with the suave wink with sparkling confidence. The things we leave behind: self-loathing, low self-esteem, self-deprecation, anger, embarrassment, sorrow, mirrors, scales, bottles of Dexatrim, six-packs of Slim Fast, the people who hurt us, taunts, excuses, memories. There is a place for us, where when we die heaven can be no grander than the life we have lived.
When I was boy, you were a planet. Then you weren’t. You disappeared from the solar system, relegated to “other,” to “dwarf.” But I remember you, distant one. You are part of a family of the forsaken. In the end, you revolved around the sun like the rest of us.
Ira Sukrungruang is the author of the memoirs Southside Buddhist and Talk Thai: The Adventures of Buddhist Boy, the short story collection The Melting Season, and the poetry collection In Thailand It Is Night. His essay collection, Buddha’s Dog & other mediations, is forthcoming from University of Tampa Press in 2018. He is one of the founding editors of Sweet: A Literary Confection (sweetlit.com), and teaches in the MFA program at University of South Florida. For more information about him, please visit: www.buddhistboy.com