I was young but I was never really small. At least, not during the part that defined much of my childhood. That period of my life comes equipped with an “OVERSIZED LOAD” distinction like precarious highway towing. Looking backward, I prepare myself accordingly; lay down flares, hire a small outfit, affix proper signage. The turning radius on that epoch makes for a big swing.
I was a fat kid.
Not at first, sure, but the mechanics were well established. My burgeoning interests in Nintendo and gluttony formed a symbiotic relationship of unchecked hedonism, coiled and wound tighter than knotted wood. Twisting orchid-like around my swelling frame, the incestuous marriage of internal vices grew heel-step with my prodigious bulk. Thus I was inundated.
I was rendered solid, immobile, like a boulder abandoned after a total glacial melt.
At age 11, I was 5’2” and weighed 12 stone.
But it’s not a sad story, not entirely. Although I never felt love at school like I did at home. I was never “piggy” at home. I was safe. From Sam, Curtis, Mike N., Charlie. And this wasn’t even a sophisticated jab, like a Lord of the Flies allusion suggesting that, were we to suddenly fall into martial law as a homeroom, I’d be beaten to death with sticks.
I was “piggy” because in their eyes I was nothing more than a tub of shit. And no one wants to be caught dead playing Mancala with shit.
But I maintain this is not a sad story, although it certainly reads like a tragedy.
Think, for instance, of my idol.
I was a happy child, comedic in the self-indulgent way of fools, often wearing a showman’s hat. With my childhood’s sell by date stamped for the mid ‘90s, I gravitated to Chris Farley like a fellow heavenly body.
He carried more than I did and wore it with aplomb, making it a piece of him. He upset the stasis, challenging the common dichotomy that a fat versus thin binary often conjures. Plus David Spade was never as funny.
That’s my now-speak, obviously, but back then I was his disciple. Whether I was pantomiming my favorite SNL bits or falling into a swimming pool with my clothes still on, I lived for the stage. My family loved and endured me.
Chris Farley died on December 18, 1997. He was sad and did a lot of drugs and I was swallowed by the void he left.
His death preceded one of my many bouts in the wilderness. Less untamed, say, than the expanse left to Cobain junkies, or the feeling of betrayal packaged with a major label release. I was still young, remember. But it had me metaphorically wandering.
I tried Meat Loaf for a while. His grandiose frame mixed like a cocktail with the swashbuckling sexuality of a windblown pirate left an immediate impression. The glitz and glitter of his rings and sequins. The frill of his shirts, that hair. And he had a rocking, dicks-out (now-speak again) aesthetic with the physical heft to back it up.
But ultimately his songs were too long—despite being thematically stirring, pubescent-ly speaking—and his name just made me hungry.
There were several more, after. I burned through fancies like someone on a bender. I whirled untethered, rudderless, my inner fabric stretched thin and flapping in the high winds of my destitution. The nights were dark and I snacked luxuriously.
But then I found Barry.
Suddenly I didn’t have to be manic, to over-gesticulate, to lack grace. There was a better way to reflect life back at the world around me. I could have my cake and eat it too. I didn’t have to be an accepted version of what I was.
With Barry it wasn’t about rocking; it was about the groove. I’d found my savior.
There I was, back on the stage, but this time doing my best Barry White. I had (some of) the moves, affected that baritone—funny coming from a boy with his sack still firmly planted in his perineum—and wore my shirt open so the fans would hit it just right.
In seventh grade I reached the apex of my mass. I’d expanded in such a glorious fashion, opting for clothing that stretched and breathed, nothing fitting; I walked everywhere with the audible swoosh of athletic warm-ups (i.e. clothes meant to stretch over other clothes). T-shirts from that era fit two of me now.
I was no longer in classes with those shit boys. I was no longer “piggy”—although had they been around I’m sure my status would have been reaffirmed as such. I had matured, become more adult in my pursuits.
I had fallen in love.
Hindsight being the sharp grindstone that it is, I know now I was punching way beyond my weight, but adolescent me was blind to reason. I wasn’t the type to draw hearts on my math homework, or scrawl our names out forever in whiteout pen on my trapper keeper. My ambiguous sexual longing lay tightly wrapped inside, writhing to the sound of my wrap-around headphones:
Girl I don’t know, I don’t know why
Can’t get enough of your love babe
We’ll call her Stacy.
She had all the trappings of a quintessential crush: attractive, intelligent; her presence instilled a competing flight/fight response that more often than not just resulted in perspiration. I was not without courage entirely, but it’s a safe bet, were she to comment on me then, her description would read: odd. But I digress.
Let me set the scene.
It was the first dance of that year. I had on forest green swishy pants, a black T-shirt, and a mock silk short-sleeve dress shirt with flames on the front. Motherfucking flames. I felt unstoppable. I’d pre-gamed with Barry White, letting Can’t Get Enough loop back on itself as I piled on generic brand hair gel until my dome looked like a succulent. I was ready. My dad dropped me off at the entrance to the cafeteria and I strutted into the din of voices and music.
From my revisionist vantage point I moved through those rooms crowded with my peers strutting a high quotient of affected cool; sipping a glass of something brown, moving in slow motion like the opening credits of Reservoir Dogs, smoking absently. In reality I shuffled audibly and dribbled Cherry Coke down my front in a rush to reach the dance floor to find Stacy.
The room was a mess of kinetic light. Every novelty light imaginable was mounted to the DJ booth, whirling, pulsing, like a Spencer’s Gifts on ipecac. Clustered around in the semi-lit gloam of the gym my classmates moved with a furtive excitement. There was blood in the water.
Uncharacteristically, I asserted myself to the booth and groped amid strobes and mirror-ball quicksilver for a pen to scrawl on the request list: “Can’t Get Enough Of Your Love, Babe” by Barry White.
And so I waited. I had another Cherry Coke and some Sour Punch straws to calm my nerves. I shifted my weight, sweated. Then I heard that falling guitar, and the deep buttered voice I associated interchangeably with confidence:
I’ve heard people say that
Too much of anything is not good for you, baby
I rubbed the citric acid into my gums for luck and crossed the parquet, in-bound for Stacy. I had a fanfare behind me: my man, my mentor, my Obi-Wan of rotund beauty and palpable swagger. I walked right over in time to see Stacy cozy up at arm’s length with Mike N. And I thought he was expelled! My night went into a tailspin.
Yet it was still my soundtrack they shuffled to, and I did my best to shuffle, too.
Rejection was like a fire that swept the harvest, consuming all. But below it something ancient smoldered, with more prudence. Now awake, it grew in waiting.
In route to the fireworks at Hart Park on July 4th I heard on the radio that Barry White had passed away at age 58. I kept mostly to myself that night as I buried another hero in a pyre of sulfur light and flames.
But I maintain this is not a sad story.
How one speaks about their rebirth is much in the vein of recounting a dream. The intense wonder of blinding light, unfurled explosions and arrays of color that lay textured, cushioning the sound beneath that evaporates like dry ice in the morning. The after-burn of color hanging like reverb in your mental theater.
Though I move through these memories deftly now, it wasn’t always candy.
Chris Farley taught me how to hide my pain in laughter: to be the clown. Barry White made me buoyant, and taught me not to let the Mike N.s and Stacys tarnish my rhinestones. He taught me how to carry my weight, and how to wear it well.