You hear this story about a woman who no longer bothers with gravity. The story goes that she floated up to her ceiling one afternoon while watching television and munching on cucumber slices.
You hear the story at work because everyone is still talking about it, though it’s a couple months old at this point, the story—since it happened the same week you took your break. That’s what people are calling it. How was your break?
Your coworkers are gabbing over their cubicle walls, their eyes darting over to you, and you hear the word break whispered, and then the word fat—and you look down at your jeans, squeezing you so you get that weird lump in the front, even after two months of nothing but herb tea and Jasmine rice. But when you listen again, you hear the words floating and strange and realize they’re not talking about you at all, at least not right now, that it was only the word fat that they whispered about this weightless woman. Fat like it was a secret or a hex or worse. The poor fat woman who floated up to the ceiling and has not come down.
One of your coworkers has sent you an email link with the subject: what you missed while you were gone. You open it because it is the only one not marked urgent, and your therapist had suggested that you avoid stress. The article in the email is dated just a few days before you had left for your two-month-long mental health sabbatical, after your little breakdown in the office kitchen. The link is about the floating woman, and the article also calls her fat—though it seems to be whispering that word, too. Smaller font. A slightly lighter shade of black type. The co-worker who sent you the email waves at you from across the room. His beard is shorter now, his glasses are new—thinner, rimless. They seem to float on his face. You wave back and he starts to walk in your direction.
You dive into your email inbox so you can pretend to work. His email sits among a thousand others: announcements about the parking lot construction, complaints of fish warmed up in the microwave, questions from clients gone unanswered. You go back to the article about the floating woman.
It includes a brief interview with the subject, theories from doctors, physicists, philosophers. In the comments section you notice there hasn’t been a new post for at least a week, except for one—a link to a Craigslist ad posted by the floating fat woman’s daughter, asking if anyone, anyone at all, might walk her mother for her.
The bearded coworker stops near your desk but does not get too close. There’s a silence.
“Crazy about that floating woman,” says the bearded coworker.
“The floating fat woman,” you say.
“That’s cruel,” says the bearded coworker.
“Only if you whisper it,” you say. “Her daughter is looking for someone to walk the woman.”
“No shit,” says the bearded coworker. He leans over to see where you are pointing on the computer screen, but he does not take a step toward you.
“I’m going to apply,” you say.
“I got you something,” he says, handing you a small jar of strawberry jelly, wrapped with a tiny bow. “I wasn’t sure if I should give it to you. You know. Because of what happened. Like. Maybe you’d take it as a joke or something.”
You hold the jelly jar like a precious object.
“It’s not a joke,” he says.
“I know,” you say.
The way the fat woman floated was this:
It was a Tuesday. The fat woman had been alone, watching television in her overstuffed easy chair with the red dangly trim around the arm rests, when she suddenly drifted upward and hung there, as if she were on the moon, bouncing slightly against the dusty walls.
At the time, the fat woman was watching her favorite television show—the one about a vampire, a werewolf, and a ghost cohabitating in an apartment somewhere in a vague, Northwest town (a knockoff of a much more popular show)—so at first she didn’t even notice. She was too wrapped up in the love story between the (spoilers) vampire and the ghost, and the werewolf’s existential angst.
The fat woman’s daughter stopped by around dinner time to find her mother hanging from the ceiling lamp in the breakfast nook, drinking from a whiskey bottle the fat woman’s husband had stashed in the upmost corner of the highest kitchen cabinet, a very expensive whiskey he had gotten as an Employee of the Month gift and from which he had only offered the fat woman one sip four years ago on Christmas Eve when he was already drunk off cheap eggnog. She had downed half the bottle by the time her daughter discovered her, and was peering around the corner at the television, hiccupping and twirling drunkenly in the air, watching the episode in which the vampire and the ghost admit their love for each other, even though he had done things that he couldn’t ever forgive himself for and she had no earthly body to speak of. The fat woman hardly noticed her daughter, as she was lost in her own tears for the doomed lovers and her own deep (drunk) consideration of how the werewolf was especially lucky in all of this—he was not taking part in the star-crossed love and his condition, as it were, was only a real issue once a month, while the vampire and the ghost had no relief from their afflictions, ever. “Just like any bodies,” she said out loud to no one. “Just like mine.”
The daughter, upon seeing her mother floating, let out a strange sound—more of a whimper of casual surprise than a scream, as if stumbling upon a surprise party after she had already discovered the streamers and confetti in the hall closet days before. Her mother wiped tears from her cheeks as the ghost and the vampire accepted that their happiness was nearly impossible.
You understand this feeling, of course. Most people do.
And so the authorities were called—and the papers and the photographers.
You email the daughter through the Craigslist ad and pitch yourself as the perfect walking companion. You are a great conversationalist, you claim. A great listener. Athletic. Cultured. You ask if maybe her mother would be interested in going to a museum. You say you have a season pass to the La Brea Tar Pits and you can take a buddy for free, which is a lie, you are not a member of that museum or any museum for that matter, nor do you know their policy on bringing buddies, but you feel it makes you sound like a deep thinker, which is something you’ve always longed for.
Most museums make you tired and cranky. Your mother used to drag you to museums—she was a deep thinker—and you’d wander through echoing hallways feeling as if you were the one on display. You could always feel the paintings, the glass eyes of the taxidermized wild animals, the empty skull sockets of dinosaur bones staring at you, wanting, expecting something from you. You had once shouted, “what do you want from me?” in the middle of MOCA when a particularly unappeasable red cube in an abstract sculpture had been focused on you for a good twenty minutes, humming what sounded like the theme from an eighties movie you’d never seen. You mother had stood, shocked into stillness, watching you scream, allowing security to drag you outside, where she met you twenty minutes later, overpriced chocolate chip cookies from the museum cafeteria in hand—and never said a word about it.
And even today, in the office, after two months away, you feel it again—as if you were an exhibition on display. The fat crazy woman who lost her shit. Look at her.
Look at her.
But bringing the floating woman to a museum would be different, you think.
A walk with this woman, this amazing floating woman, is the first thing you have wanted since you went away with a stitched-up hand, since you came back to a mildew-smelling apartment, since a long, long time, if you care to admit it. You are uneasy at your desk. The chair feels bumpy, trying to support you in all the wrong places. Your lamp gives off a sicklier yellow glow than you remember, which tints the photograph of you and your mother taped up on the edge of your computer monitor, the photo that was taken outside the Rite Aid of the two of you licking up triple scoop cones of ice cream the day before her first chemo treatments. You were younger then. Lighter.
Your hair is long and straggly and breaking now, and your face is greasy from makeup you haven’t worn in two months. You do not belong here. Your body wants to go to the kitchen, the elevator, the office supply closet. You hold it down and make it type instead.
You send the email and wait.
Two months and a week ago, you took a jar of strawberry jelly out of the refrigerator at work and dropped it on the ground. You don’t recall if this was on purpose or accidental. You know your hands had been shaky, your eyes heavy, your head light and dizzy and detached, as if it were hovering above your shoulders. The jelly on the floor was bright and sticky and shiny with glass and it called to you.
You scooped it up. You closed your fists around the jelly, letting the glass cut into your skin, the jelly seeping past your fingers. You liked that you couldn’t tell what was your blood and what was strawberry. You liked the pain of it. For once your body felt like your own.
The bearded coworker found you. His face was so pretty that day. You reached out to touch where his beard cut across his face. Your blood dripped all through his beard. Strawberry jelly clung to it in clumps. The glass cut into his freckles. You don’t remember much after that.
In the weeks leading up to the kitchen incident, nothing out of the ordinary had happened. A few diets gone bad. A binge on pastries. Some lovers with names that escape you. Bruises on your legs you don’t remember getting. None of it feeling like things you did—distant, cloudy, separate. A headache. Exhaustion. Your stomach churning and churning and churning.
Your hand had to get fifty-two stitches in all. The scars crisscross the other lines on your palm. It would be impossible to get a palm reading now. There’s no way to tell the original lines from the ones you made yourself.
You were sent to a vague wellness clinic in the mountains. The clinic or center or temple or whatever they called it (depending on what brochure you were looking at) was HR’s idea and your doctor’s idea and the idea of your newfound psychiatrist.
You spent hours in a white-walled room with a springy wooden floor with the other guests or patients or crazy people. You did yoga with your stitched-up hands and the instructor or guru or camp counselor gave a breathy order to imagine yourself in the ocean, imagine yourself in the clouds, imagine you are weightless and nothing can hold you down any longer. You tried to think of emptiness, to fill yourself up with it, but some things held on. The jiggling of flesh. The itch of hair growing on your pelvis because no one would allow you a razor. The smell of mothballs and warm printer cartridges and take-out chicken gone cold. The memory of jelly.
This is how it happened, after the fat woman floated to the ceiling:
The woman was not allowed out of the house for fear she would float away forever, so she started to watch the television series over from the beginning through an online streaming service, as throngs of onlookers gathered in her yard hoping to catch a glimpse. She didn’t mind this—the attention or the TV. She had nearly been nominated for the queen of the winter formal dance her junior year of high school, so she had had a taste of attention and liked it a great deal. As for the TV, she liked to relive things many times, three times to be exact—the great Russian novels, the zombie thrillers, the war romances. She was always afraid she had missed out on something important, and rather enjoyed the extra chance to go through it all again. Often, she found, there were hidden meanings and subtleties that, she believed, were placed there just for her.
And she soon discovered that meaning was what people wanted from her as well. The woman who had defied a law of nature—surely there was a message there.
She did not enjoy being a metaphor.
The daughter responds to your email.
The daughter thinks you are the least creepy of all the applicants, and there are a great many. You wonder if she did a Google search on you, if she found that Live Journal post from college, about your drunken night with the boy from Room #104 whose penis had been a strange almost rectangle shape—sharp edges and all—who had hurt you when you let him enter you, who pinched your belly afterward and suggested maybe you visit the gym once in a while and that he had some abdominal exercises he could recommend.
You made the post public because he hadn’t stopped when you said it hurt, and maybe that was good for people to know or something, but also, partly, so someone might say that hey, you’re not fat, don’t you dare listen to him. And also, maybe, so your friends would feel bad, would call you back because your mother’s treatments hadn’t been going well. Maybe they would realize that’s why you drank so much and why you told them to fuck off, that their heads were full of empty sky, that they had it easy, and wouldn’t understand you anyway.
And then you lost your Live Journal password and so there it sat, forever etched into cyberspace. You could have tried to recover the old email address it was attached to, or petitioned the Live Journal HQ, or found a Dark Net Hacker to wipe it from memory. But you didn’t. Instead, you check it every few months to read comments that still pop up after all these years. Mostly people posting offensive photos, offering you to take a ride, and that they could make you hurt too, and it would hurt so good, so good.
The daughter asks you to meet her at the house the next morning. You agree and decide to call in sick to work on your second day back. No one will argue. Not right now, while everyone is a little bit afraid of you. Still unsure what will set you off. When they have cleaned out the cabinets of all the jelly, and all the peanut butter too—just in case.
This is what they did, when the fat woman floated to the ceiling:
Doctors and scientists were brought in. Her blood was drawn. Several reporters and talk show hosts interviewed her about her condition. There were many questions and many theories, and many people speaking all at once. Merchandise with her image showed up on her porch: a beach ball, a plush toy, a yo-yo. With her body swaying against the ceiling as if treading invisible water, the floating fat woman tried her best to watch the episode in which the werewolf thinks he may have killed someone during his transformation, that he might be digesting human flesh that very moment, and there was no coping mechanism for this kind of thing. The floating woman had to start the episode over many times, due to the phone calls.
This is what they asked:
Did she have a traumatic childhood?
Could she still be a nurse, now that she was floating?
Was she ever worried about her health before this?
How much did she think she weighed?
They asked: What does it feel like?
She said: Like a mother wolf, holding me up by the nape of my neck.
They asked: Why do you think this happened?
She said: I remember wishing real hard I could lose some weight. And I suppose that came true. Should have been more specific.
When you meet the daughter, she looks haggard, droopy around the eyelids, hair falling over ears covered in piercings. She is thin and shallow looking, empty and slightly wet, as if her eyes were perpetually underwater, like fish might swim across her pupils at any moment.
This is what she asks you:
Are you a member of the press?
Are you a psychiatrist?
Do you have a fat person fetish?
Does gravity work for you in general?
You say: No. No. No. Yes.
When you meet the floating woman, she is on round three of the viewing of the vampire/werewolf/ghost saga. Her daughter introduces you and the floating fat woman nods, crunching down on slices of cucumbers, a bag of them hanging from her belt, leaking and causing a puddle of cucumber water on the carpet below. Her belly hangs down, puckered and blotched and free. Her hair is wild, reaching at all angles to the ceiling, as if she were Medusa, as if she were a mermaid.
She is beautiful.
The daughter hands you a heavy leather leash that straps around your waist. You notice how few notches it takes to tighten it, and your belly fat rolls over the top and you wonder if the daughter notices your fat rolls the way you do.
The daughter says to just toss the other end of the leash to her mother. “She’ll do the rest, if she’s in the mood,” she says. The daughter looks at her mother and manages a smile. “Have fun today, ma. Don’t float away on me.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” says the woman.
The daughter leaves for work. The floating woman offers you a cucumber and you take it.
This is how the fat woman nearly escaped weeks before you met, before the ad and the cucumbers:
Her husband had left. “His penis was not long enough to reach inside me, all the way up to the ceiling,” said the fat woman. “And somehow that is my fault.”
“He just wanted to love you,” her friends said. “Couldn’t you at least come down from the ceiling for that?”
“I told him if he found his way up here, then he could have his way. He never did. Never tried that I saw,” said the fat woman. “What do you do with that?”
The evening after he left, the fat woman took off her shirt and bra and opened the front door.
Her daughter stopped by later that night to find her mother clinging to the highest branches of the tallest tree in their neighbor’s yard. The floating woman was staring at the moon, wide-eyed, her faced ragged and shimmery as if the moon had been shedding on her, grating itself into tiny bits to adorn her bare shoulders.
It took three neighbors and the fire department to get her out of the tree and back in the house.
That is how the leash came about.
“Cucumbers are really the dirtiest of all vegetables,” says the fat woman.
You ask her how.
“The shape, she says. “The shape of it is just gutter thoughts all over. Now throw me the rope. Let’s get out of here.”
You throw the end of the leash up to her and she attaches it to her belt, which has a picture of her face etched into the buckle.
On the TV screen, the vampire has a monologue about how it’s good the ghost doesn’t have a body. If she did, he wouldn’t be able to keep himself from killing her, especially after or during sex. The ghost disagrees. Cut to: the werewolf standing in line at the grocery store, a woman with a mound of coupons in front of him. Something in his head rumbles. He licks his teeth and sniffs the air. He growls a small, pathetic growl and stares at the fleshy neck of the woman with the coupons.
“Poor bastard,” says the floating woman, pointing to the TV. “The vampire would never stand in that line.”
On screen: the werewolf swallows, closes his eyes, tries to find himself.
His look makes you think of the moment right before you threw the jelly. Right before you drew blood.
You ask: What does fat mean if it no longer weighs anything at all?
“I need some caffeine,” says the floating woman.
You walk carefully to the door, the fat woman tethered to your waist. She bounces along the ceiling, her plump behind making pleasant scratching sounds against the popcorn-texture ceiling, and squeezes herself through the front door. You expect (read: hope) to be lifted away. Whatever is pulling her up could certainly pull you up as well, but you feel only the slightest tug on the belt, as if only a party balloon were there, ready to be set free.
This is how your day goes with the floating woman:
You go first to your favorite coffee shop for some caffeine. You and your mother frequented this shop, years ago, before her treatment, before it all ended. The baristas who worked here then are long gone. No one knows you anymore. At least not the version of you with a mother.
There were a lot of scientific theories about how cookies or caffeine or hair gel or tap water could be the cause of the floating woman’s situation, or how many eggs she had eaten a week compared to the number of Russian novels she had read, and so on.
The floating fat woman hasn’t had those things in months, so the first thing you do is buy her a cookie, a hard-boiled egg, and large dark roast brew.
You settle outside on a small iron table and the floating woman has to jostle the leash to get your attention. You were staring off at a terrible portrait of a terrier painted by a local artist, the dusty and peeling thing that your mother loved, hanging just inside the doorway.
“You know what I think started all this floating?” says the woman.
“Too much dairy?” you say.
“I don’t stare at things the way you do,” says the woman. “The way you’re staring at whatever is inside. It’s something like grief. But different.”
Several children with their parents take pictures with the floating woman, who sucks down three large dark coffees within the hour. She makes fart noises and pivots herself around in the air, pretending to lose control, bouncing against the umbrellas. The children laugh and clap. You laugh. The parents don’t know what to do.
Then you go to the hospital, where she is still on payroll as a nurse, though officially on a sabbatical, what with her condition. You hold your breath while you’re here, trying not to think of the night with the stitches, the last night you spent on the quiet fourth floor with your mother’s unconscious body. The floating fat woman notices your unease—you can feel that look of hers—but she is greeted with smiles and attempts at hugs which distract you both. Somewhere in there is a long conversation with one of the doctors about her daughter, who also works at the hospital. He says the daughter has just been a star, a real gem, never mentions you though, and have you noticed how skinny she’s gotten lately?
This is what happened after the fat woman tried to escape:
A few sad photographs of the woman clinging to the tree circulated the papers. She no longer seemed like an enlightened weightless being, even with the moon glow on her skin. People stopped showing up in her yard, peering through her windows, only sending the occasional piece of fan mail, gifts, inappropriate photos. Calls from doctors and philosophers and reporters dwindled. An old man across town claimed he could breathe underwater, and he was suddenly the feature on the evening news, and that was that. A sad, topless woman in a tree is no story at all, even if she floated herself into it.
The daughter moved in with her mother.
The daughter’s dating life had gotten increasingly complicated. Many thought she would follow in her mother’s footsteps and didn’t call her back. Others hoped she would fall in line behind her mother and sent her boxes of chocolate and coffee to help speed things along.
So she stopped eating entirely. She became a runner. She snacked on cucumbers.
While on your way to the La Brea Tar Pits, of which you are not a member, the fat woman asks what you were thinking about when you were looking at the sad portrait at the café, why you were so uneasy at the hospital. You say you’re no good at talking about yourself and she says bullshit.
So you tell her about your mother and your Live Journal and the jelly incident.
“Yeah, yeah, but what were you actually thinking about?” she asks.
The La Brea Tar Pits smell and bubble and are otherwise disappointing. You and the floating woman stand by the edge (you stand, she hovers) and stare into the tar, at the fake mammoths trying to pull themselves up and out. She takes a cucumber slice from the bag on her belt and tosses it into the tar. You both watch it sink.
“You think this floating thing is, like, enlightenment?” you ask.
“Enlightenment. I get it. That’s funny. But you’re avoiding the question.”
“There’s this thing I do, when I’m in a moment that feels important or meaningful or especially happy or something,” you say. “I pop out of it. I see it for what it is and know it’s a perfect moment and I know it’s going to disappear soon and I start to grieve for it. I start grieving for my life in the middle of my life.”
“That’s heavy,” says the floating fat woman.
You both laugh.
“I used to do the same thing,” says the floating woman.
“Used to?” you say.
“Used to,” says the woman. She closes her eyes and lifts her hands to the sky. She breathes deeply—the horrible, terrible, tar air.
This is your moment. Your heroic moment. You have a spiritual connection, you think. You understand what she wants. You start to loosen the belt and it starts to slip, slip, slip away from your waist. You let the tether glide through your hands as the floating fat woman floats up, up, up, higher, higher higher.
This feels right. You are setting her free.
The floating fat woman screams. “Don’t you fucking let go! What the fucking fuck are you doing? Are you fucking serious right now?”
You grab the tether. You tighten the belt.
The floating fat woman’s breath comes out in short snaps. She wraps her arms around her own shoulders. There is nothing else to hold onto.
“I’m sorry,” you say. “I thought I understood…”
“Shut up,” she says. “Shut up.”
Back at the house, the daughter hands you a wad of five-dollar bills. The fat woman turns on the TV. In this episode, the werewolf, having realized he’s eaten the girl he loves, chains himself to a tree in the woods as the full moon emerges.
You wait for the floating woman to tell her daughter what happened. That you almost set her loose. That you can’t be trusted. But instead, she offers you a cucumber slice.
“Imagine being so hungry,” says the floating fat woman, “that you eat the only thing you love. Damn, am I right? Don’t leave without watching this.”
At your desk the next day, a lone yellow balloon is tied to your tape dispenser with a handwritten note: welcome back! You peer across the top of your cubicle and there is his beard, and his hand, waving at you. You wave back. You daydream about the weekend, when you will be walking with the fat woman again, and if you can make up for your misunderstanding, if there is ever room for that. For understanding.
But the weekend doesn’t happen:
After her daughter goes to work, the floating fat woman feels the pressure of her body against the ceiling, its desire to go higher. She remembers the feeling of slipping higher, higher, higher off your waist. The tar pits getting smaller, smaller, smaller.
On the television, the vampire unchains the werewolf from the tree and takes him home. The ghost wants to wrap her arms around both of them, but cannot and never will.
So when the daughter comes home that night, she finds the front door open, creaking back and forth, a bag of cucumber slices spilled on the stoop. And her mother gone.
You hear about this from a text message the daughter sends you. The text comes at breakfast, and you’re shaking and the scars on your hands hurt, and you can’t respond right away.
At work, you munch on some slices of cucumber in the company of your bearded coworker, who traces the scars on your hand and pretends to read your palm. And you let him, because for once it doesn’t hurt.
That night, you think you catch a glimpse of the woman zooming across a particularly unremarkable full moon, howling out into the heavy night. You want to pull her down and wrap your arms around her, but you can’t and never will.
Cover Art by Bill Wolak