It wasn’t as if she hadn’t smelled death before.
Gladys’s wide frame waddled toward the bathroom. The hallways of the moderately priced home were surprisingly narrow. Sometimes when she wore pleated skirts, Gladys swore the crest of her burgeoning hips slightly grazed the floral-printed walls.
In the bathroom, she took a glass bottle out of the medicine cabinet, “Eau de Toilet” in gold letters that were wearing off, but the rose water spritz appeared to be getting rid of the smell. Her bulky, pantyhose-suffocated thighs swish-swished together as she marched through the house, making sure every nook and cranny was covered, ceremoniously spritzing nonstop. Her right index finger started to cramp, so she switched hands, angry at her left because it was so much slower and took greater thought to control. A purification ritual she thought was akin to how Father McMurphy had doused them all with sprays of holy water from the aspergillum, which Gladys thought looked a lot like a silver baby’s rattle.
Clark, her yellow tabby, leaped off the fridge top when Gladys entered the kitchen, scaring her half out of her wits. He landed with a thud on the small kitchen table, where she had the sunflower tablecloth she’d inherited when her mother died.
“Clark, one of these days,” she quietly murmured, spritzing in his direction. He gave her a dirty look and got off the table, headed for his scratching post. Her threats were idle. She had no plans to relinquish the “cat lady” reputation the brats in the neighborhood had so kindly bestowed on her the year she let him convince her to give out apples instead of Snickers bars.
“It’s better for them,” he said. “They’ll thank you for it later.”
They did. By toilet papering her entire front yard, stuffing her tailpipe with dog shit, and egging her front door. Apparently, kids didn’t like apples any more than Gladys did. The following year, she gave out giant-sized Snickers. She was still known as the cat lady, but they’d at least removed the “crazy” from the first part.
She grabbed a fistful of bite-sized cookies from the owl-figured jar on the counter, setting the bottle of Eau de Toilet by the coffee pot. She tossed the chocolate chip cookie bites into her mouth, one at a time, thoughtfully. It was ironic, really. Five years ago, she’d started buying the mini cookies so she could “treat” herself with one or two once a week. Now, she ate them by fistfuls, licking her hands after.
Things would be better, now that he was gone. Easier, actually. He had met Gladys after her sister Josie helped her lose eighty pounds. Gladys had practically experienced a complete makeover. She’d been carrying the weight since college. Once it was off, her skin cleared up. She let her hair grow out its boring, unflattering page boy into a lush crown of auburn waves that touched her shoulders, shining healthy and rich. Josie had convinced Gladys to stop eating so much fast food, candy and potato chips, and to stop drinking soda. “Be a vegetarian,” Josie had recommended. “It’s good for you. And the planet.”
Josie was one of “those” lesbians.
Gladys spent five years without a hamburger. Five years. Without a hamburger. Five years.
Initially, it was easy. After all, who doesn’t want to stop being an overweight frump? No one had noticed her unless she was blocking a doorway. Suddenly, she was a head-turning knock-out. She slimmed from a size twenty-two to a size ten. Mirrors, once the arch enemy, were now friends that surrounded her at every turn. She filled her home with them, astounded by the way her new body moved. Gladys quickly realized how women could become addicted to shopping for pretty, lacy bras and panties. Until then, she’d dreaded swinging into Walmart for a package of briefs. Now, not only was Gladys seeking out Victoria’s for her frilly bits, she was shopping in the slender women’s section for silk shirts, form-fitting mini-skirts, and painted on jeans to replace men’s-sized pants, moo-moos, and sweats. Gladys learned how to fall in love with herself.
It came easy. She looked like she belonged on that soap opera All My Children. The new vixen. Stealing men, breaking hearts. She would fantasize while spending hours on treadmills and stationary bikes. She would earn the envy of women who spent afternoons trying to forget their mundane housewife experiences. She would sometimes write entire scripts in her mind, eyes closed, head back, while indulging in a pedicure, a facial, an exfoliation, or a deep conditioning treatment.
The stench of something dead still tickled her senses slightly, but not wholly, because it was now muddled by rose water. She brushed the cookie crumbs off of her hands onto her back side, feeling the pits and dents of cellulite in her derriere. “No more buns of steel,” she mused to herself, with a smirk, reaching for a bag of Doritos. Tearing into it, she remembered the first time she saw him.
A job interview. Gladys had decided to finally use her degree in accounting, though she found herself wishing she’d chosen a more glamorous job, in light of her semi-rebirth. It seemed a shame to hide all of that progress behind a desk and calculator. She could have chosen interior decorating. Or advertising. A more appropriate career for a sexy, up-and-coming woman.
He owned an accounting firm and hired her almost at first glance. She was nervous. She had only been thin Gladys for three months prior to the interview. She kept worrying she would snap out of a daydream in the middle of the interview and be back to her overweight self again, only literally pouring out of the now size ten pant suit she was wearing. But he made her laugh and reminded her of George Hamilton when he was in Love at First Bite, except without the fangs. He was smart and had money and loved to travel and joked that he “had a thing for redheads.” Gladys hadn’t realized he was flirting until she recounted the experience to her sister, who confirmed this man was, indeed, interested.
He took the lead and was nothing short of a complete gentleman about it. Gladys found herself instantly infatuated, which made it quite easy for him to pursue her. Expensive dinners. Pricey bottles of wine. Soon after, lavish weekend getaways to exotic locations. Gladys was living a life she had once only dreamed about, read in books, or watched in movies. Now, this dream was hers. All of it. The career. The handsome suitor. The life of excitement and luxury. Best of all, she could look in the mirror and no longer wince at what she saw. She was perfect. The perfect woman.
Her fingers were covered in Dorito orange. She licked them, her tongue running over the nubby ends where she had already bitten off her nails. They used to be long, acrylic, polished. Sometimes bejeweled. They were also a pain in the ass and often hurt like hell when they broke.
Gladys reached a grubby, orange-stained hand into the fridge and pulled out a soda. It was next to his high end beer, which she would now have to pour down the sink. The stuff was vile and smelled like a molasses-covered skunk. Deciding she would tackle that later, Gladys popped open the soda and guzzled nearly half of it. Setting it on the counter, she belched, glad to be tasting soda and Doritos instead of that crappy tofu and broccoli. My God, what was she thinking?
They married. Two years after meeting. She had been working at the firm and everyone had seemed to be expecting the wedding. They tied the knot at the big cathedral downtown. Three hundred and eighty-seven guests, most of them his. Business clients. Family. College friends. Her gown alone had cost twenty-five hundred dollars and was from Paris, France. The headpiece had been nearly the same price as the gown. Apparently, when cubic zirconias are woven into a headpiece, it really jacks up the price. As for her shoes, well, she was still embarrassed to remember what she had paid for those. She could have fed a small country, and she’d worn them once. They’d served filet mignon and champagne and the cake was nearly as tall as Gladys and had been decorated with imported chocolates from Belgium, which she, coincidentally, couldn’t have, lest she risk gaining even a few ounces. Not one chocolate. At her own wedding.
Now, she wished she had the whole goddamned box.
Clark meowed at the back door and Gladys let him out, eyeing the lawn that nearly consumed the cat as it exited. Something she hadn’t considered. Who would mow the lawn now? He’d never wanted to hire a gardener. Said mowing the lawn and trimming the shrubs was cathartic for him.
It all went to hell shortly after their second wedding anniversary. His partner had mismanaged client funds, bad things happened, the firm was sued and lost. Just like that, the accounting firm was dissolved.
After, he wasn’t the same. No more George Hamilton smile. No jokes. Instead, he was angry, stressed, distant, and rarely ever home. He stopped touching her. Stopped talking to her. One day, she realized, he was looking straight through her. When he moved into the guestroom, Gladys cried herself to sleep. The last time she cried so hard was when a college blind date met her at the door, slowly looked her up and down, then said, “Yeah, this isn’t going to work,” and turned around and walked away.
Josie had no answers for her. It wasn’t like she had things figured out anyway; there was a different U-Haul parked outside of her place every other month. She was an excellent fashion and dietary consultant, but lousy at playing marriage counselor. Gladys considered turning to the friends she had made in the last few years, but most of them had known him first, which made it awkward. Besides, the bulk were living behind facades of their own.
He called one evening, after she had barely seen him in days, and indicated he was spending the night several hours away, in the state’s capital. He had a very promising business meeting regarding a new venture, and it would mean spending most of his time there, but he would come home every other weekend. It was the first she had heard of this new prospect, he’d never consulted her. It was a unilateral decision and, when she brought that to his attention, he replied, “Now, come on, Gladys. You know I’ve always made the big decisions.”
The big decisions. Yes. He was, in fact, the one who made all the big decisions.
So, she began making the “little” ones. Like eating “Little” Debbie Snack Cakes again. Little Debbie didn’t judge Gladys. Didn’t infer she was incapable of big decision making strategies, so she decided to buy a case. Little Debbie didn’t tell her one snack cake was enough. In fact, there were eight in the box for a reason. Most of all, Little Debbie was there for Gladys when he wasn’t. Soon, Ben and Jerry joined in the party. Gladys became a connoisseur. The devil’s food cakes went superbly with Chunky Monkey. Chocolate chip cookie dough was a stand-alone, but a honey bun heated with Chubby Hubby was truly the bomb.
Weeks went by. Her painted on blue jeans became sausage casings she continued to cram her Little Debbie inspired thighs and hips into. The buttons on her shirts began to pucker against her mushrooming stomach and breasts. She couldn’t wear short skirts anymore, so she hit the Goodwill for pleated polyester in floral prints, afraid to run into someone she might know from his social circle if she went to a department store.
He came home every other weekend and seemed to notice nothing had changed. He was oblivious to the broadening of her hips, the cellulite puckering on her thighs, the fact that her face was literally morphing from its oblong, finely chiseled features into a rotund circle of hollowed eyes, pasty coloring, and despair. Her acne was back, which seemed ridiculous for a woman in her thirties. One day, in a bout of rage after consuming a box of Twinkies, three sodas, and a bag of jelly beans, she took a pair of scissors and shredded every item of her clothing. She tried shoving her favorite red dress, the one she’d worn on their Barbados cruise, into the garbage disposal. Unfortunately, the dress clogged the disposal and she had to call a plumber to fix it. His open scrutiny would have destroyed her if she hadn’t scored three boxes of Mallomars at the corner market an hour before.
She tipped up the emptied bag of Doritos, managing to catch every crumb in her mouth, before tossing the bag into the trash and chugging the remainder of the soda. As she left the kitchen, passing one of the twenty mirrors she had strewn in the house, she streaked her Dorito-stained hand across it. It took effort, these days, to avoid the mirrors. They were everywhere. In them was a rotund, dowdy, pasty-hued woman whose hair was again in an auburn page boy, and whose T-zone was in desperate need of Clearasil.
This was Gladys. This was who she was. The body she’d adopted for roughly six years had been temporary. On loan. Like a magnificent costume from a high end rental shop that one might wear to a masquerade ball. Standing in front of the mirror now, she regarded what she saw with an odd measure of revulsion and comfort.
When he came home for the last time, she met him at the door. He looked her up and down, his features darkened by sadness, maybe even regret, and he said, “Yeah. This isn’t going to work.” She watched him pack his bags and leave, calling over his shoulder that she would soon hear from his attorney, just before he closed the door.
Gladys didn’t cry. With every snack cake she had crammed into her mouth, she’d decided her own fate. It was over. Dead. But the good news was, she would never have to substitute another Weight Watcher’s brownie ala mode for a box of Suzy Q’s again. All she had done – the daily visits to the gym for whatever prescribed torture her personal trainer might have in store for her; the planned meals that often looked like a portion for a five year old; the wraps, the peels, the laser hair removal – it was over.
She plopped onto the sofa, breathing a sigh of relief. She didn’t smell death anymore. His cologne was gone. All she smelled was rose water and whatever ingredients used to make Doritos smell the way they did.
Across from her was a mirror, and she watched her body spread, almost melt, against the sofa until it doubled its actual size. She plucked up a cinnamon ribbon candy from the dish on the coffee table, but just as she lifted it to her mouth, she paused, her stomach doing a queasy little pitch. She put the candy back in the dish and looked at the woman in the mirror across from her.
God. She hated that page boy haircut. And she was too old for acne. While she didn’t miss the acrylic nails, she also wasn’t fond of the mustache she’d grown over her upper lip. Waxing was no fun, but neither was being called “sir,” now that her breasts and abdomen had melded into one lump between her shoulders and hips. Presently, her gender seemed indeterminable to the naked eye.
Restless, she shoved up from the sofa, acknowledging the effort it took and wondering how she’d ever managed an hour on a treadmill. The last time had been almost a year ago. Ambling back toward the kitchen, she recognized that feeling in her chest, the heavy-thudded pounding of her heart over-exerting itself. “Gladdy, you’re one Twinkie away from cardiac arrest,” her sister would say, shaking her head. “I’m not enabling you.” This had made Gladys chuckle. It wasn’t like she needed Josie to buy her Twinkies. She’d made a smart ass comment back, something like, “That’s okay. They only card for Ding Dongs, anyway.”
Ice cream. That’s what she needed. Maybe a good brain freeze would stop her mind’s incessant rambling. Her freezer was stocked much in the same way Vons’ was. She plucked Cherry Garcia out from between Chubby Hubby and Chunky Monkey and bopped the door shut with her elbow.
If he were home, he wouldn’t notice. In fact, Gladys was sure she could cover herself in Cherry Garcia, fashion a hat out of Kit Kats, make a bra out of pink Sno Balls, and dance across the yard and he still wouldn’t notice. If he’d noticed she had gotten fat, he never mentioned it. Didn’t mention the haircut, the acne, or the fact that she didn’t wax anymore. He had no clue she felt useless and had taken to eating her feelings again. Most of all, he never understood that, while she hadn’t lost the weight for him, he’d been her incentive to keep it off. It was easy to forego fries for fondling. Simple to stick to a strict vegetarian diet when he bought her lingerie at every turn. Without him around to appreciate the effort, what was the point?
Then she saw it. When she opened the pint of Cherry Garcia. She stared long and hard, for several seconds, at the perfectly shaped “U” that the chocolate and cherry bits had made at the top of the frozen confection. Gladys blinked, but it was still there.
Gladys plucked a chunk of chocolate from the base of the “U” and popped it into her mouth. Then she put the lid back on the pint of ice cream and tossed it into the trash from where she was sitting, raising her arms in victory when it landed inside the receptacle with a loud thud. She pushed up from the table and raided her freezer. Everything, every container of ice cream, every soda, every can of whipped cream, all in the trash. Little Debbie’s, Twinkies, Twix bars, Doritos, Oreos, all were thrown in the trash. Gladys laughed maniacally, and when she realized she sounded maniacal, she laughed harder.
When she could catch her breath, she picked up the phone and dialed her sister.
Josie answered, and Gladys said, “Are you busy?”
To which Josie replied, “Well, Rachel and I were –“
Gladys interrupted, “Bring her, too.”
“For. . . ?”
Gladys pressed her eyes shut. Remnants of laughter spilled from her closed lids. She almost felt giddy. Death becomes her, she thought to herself, nearly bursting into laughter again.
She inhaled, resolve filling her chest, and said, “Josie. . . I want to do it again. Will you help?”
Suzanne Marie Calvin-Yim is a late-in-life student, majoring in English with a minor in Secondary Education. A seasoned wearer of many hats, she has worked as a waitress, bank teller, paralegal, and a Certified Nurse Aide, in addition to having homeschooled her son and daughter. She has three published romance novels with Amber Quill Press, and has freelanced for The Colorado Springs Independent and Out Front Colorado. Suzanne lives in Colorado Springs with her wife, Juli, her adult son and daughter, and Lily the human Schnauzer. Her hobbies include swimming, hiking, biking, reading, watching British films, and thinking reflectively. Currently, she is working on two novels and a collection of short stories.