Robb’s Last Tape (Take Seven)

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I have fallen in and out of love with many people throughout my life, with both men and women, albeit I have never considered myself to be bisexual. There have been times when merely the perfume of a woman would send shivers through my body, mind tremors that accompanied the instant determination to shed my shyness, or whatever insecurities I had, to finally embrace that fatal abandon that the bodies of women inspired in me. One of the many instances that I can recall at the moment happened while I was on a long train trip from my hometown to the capital of my home country, and an older woman sat next to me. I cannot remember her face, I couldn’t even tell you the color of her hair, though I can distinctly remember the mixture of tobacco and perfume that she brought with her in the train compartment. This is it, I thought in that instance, this is what I’ve been waiting for. I did not speak to the woman and she had shown no interest in initiating any kind of conversation. It was a night train, after all, and words rarely desire to travel through the darkness of a moving train when all you can think of is the comfort of those who are sleeping in their own homes. I found that mixture of cigarette smoke and perfume in many of the women I’ve encountered throughout my life. At times it disgusted me, but at times it felt like an open invitation.

In college I used to visit often a former colleague of mine from high school thinking that she was the one. Just like me, she had moved away from her home city to attend university, and she lived first with another girl in an expensive apartment close to the central park, and then moved to a smaller apartment further away from the city center. We shared meals every once in a while, I bought her cakes, helped her with whatever homework she had. She was always tired, her face drawn in a constant frown, her body thin and bony. There were days when she told that she hadn’t eaten anything. I envied her for that, and thought of me as lacking the skills to go for days without any kind of food. At times it seemed as if the meals we shared were the only meals she had ever. She did not speak too much and her laughter was often silent and breathless. But she had been like that since high school. I did not have another version of her to compare it to whatever she was turning into while I made my visits. I feared that her skepticism about the necessity of eating anything was, in fact, due to a lack of financial means. I knew her numerous family was often out of money, and all of her siblings seemed frail and bony like her. Their emaciated bodies seemed to signal and reflect their financial condition.

She also obsessed over pop stars, their bodies and fashion choices. She frequently referred to Beyoncé as a role model, among others. She followed their lives on the small TV screen she had in her apartment. There was a degree of rigidity in her words, they all had a sharp edge, and when we gossiped over the lives of our former high school colleagues she made a face that, after repeated exposures to the sight of it, I had come to perceive as sweet, and even lovable. I often wished to just reach out and hold her hand, comfort her in a way. And maybe there had been times when I wanted to let her know that I could help her, provide for her, be protective of her, be the kind of man she desired me to be. Once, I paid an unexpected visit to her place thinking that we might share a piece of cheesecake, which I had previously purchased from a local bakery. When I got to her apartment a friend of hers was there, another girl, and sharing the cake was suddenly not a good idea anymore. I had only purchased two slices of cake, and I wanted to share the cake with her and her only. Luckily, I had placed the two slices of cake in my backpack, and I was able to dismiss the initial purpose of my visit by saying that I was just in the neighborhood and thought of stopping by. We’re just friends, she kept saying to her friend. And every time she said it I felt as if, somehow, I had done some kind of mistake along the way. As terrible as being friend-zoned sounds today, at that time I did not think of it as a death sentence. I did not have the mental tools and the language to think of it in that way. At the time I felt that there was nothing wrong with the way I had approached her emotionally.

I wanted her, I wanted to be there for her, that was what men felt in the presence of women, right? I felt proud when the girl she was sharing the apartment by the park with reported back to her that she had spotted me at the supermarket with another girl as if to suggest jealousy. I felt dominant when I went to her apartment once on one of my unexpected visits, only to be greeted by the kind of knowledgeable and discreet nod people give to young lovers. She wasn’t there, but while chatting with the roommate I felt as a young and inexperienced Romeo. She apologized for my friend’s absence as if she had a part in it, and that discreet nod was there, in the way she moved her arms, the way she stood by the door not inside but outside the familiar hum of the apartment. But most important, I felt as if my body was physically inappropriate. My friend couldn’t possibly be interested in a body like that. It had the wrong shape, it gave the wrong impressions, it was the perfect embodiment of my social status, of the fact that I was a loser on the sex market. It was sloppy, it was out of control, it was pitiable.

This inappropriateness has been present with me for as long as I can remember. My body has always been all wrong. I sometimes found myself watching the other boys in my class and wondering what I was missing. Their movements seemed so effortlessly performed, their faces so symmetrical, their gestures akin to elegant dance moves. In Faustian manner I often begged whatever demon was out there, hiding behind the stars at night when everybody else was sleeping, to come and give me beauty in exchange of my soul. I was willing to burn everything I had on the altar of that desire. I read books, I searched for occult websites that could teach me how to do it. I imagined myself burning wooden crosses on barren fields in the middle of the night. I performed ritualistic praying sessions at home when nobody else was around. I kneeled and said the prayers three times, by the book, I sweated, I took physical pain to be a sign of intense passion, the smell of my sweat akin to a whispered response from a series of gods who seemed too stubborn to grant me that insignificant gift. And every morning I would check myself in the mirror to see whether I had finally been transformed into something lovable. Tomorrow, I would think in those moments, tomorrow it is going to happen. The body that I so coveted seemed the solution to all of my problems. I would finally be loved, have friends, and I would no longer be bullied. And each and every day I woke up to see the same body. Every day felt like a battle between a better part of my own self and my self-loathing. The struggle became fiercer when an item of clothing I really liked did not fit me and the store did not have bigger sizes. It burned my innards when I felt that people treated me in a certain way because of my body.

It turned to molten rock when people obliquely pointed out there was something wrong with me. Some of those assertions were not so oblique. Once, on the bus, a group of teenagers had singled me out of the crowd of commuters and started talking about me as if I wasn’t even there. Doesn’t he look like he’s mentally challenged? Just look at him, they said, and I chose not to retaliate. I tried to ignore them. I kept telling myself that I did not care anyway, that those were just words. My only mode of retaliation was to remember the time I had encountered them on the bus so as to avoid taking that same bus at the appointed hour again. I didn’t think of it as a deliberate act on my part, I put no effort into it, my body simply gathered all of its resources, mental and physical, so as to avoid that bus. It was clockwork. My body was like a sponge, it absorbed all of that blame and turned it into misery. The whole process had the finality of an unfortunate metabolism inherited from distant relatives. I was living in the basement of my body and all I could hear was people shouting invectives through a half-opened door placed at the top of a long and dark row of stairs. The reassurances that I got from my friends, whoever they were, did not matter because then I would go back to that corner in the basement of my self-esteem.

This is not a story of redemption. I’m not preparing you for that final moment when I tell you that I finally rose from those self-fashioned slums of my mind. Nothing of the sort.

I felt powerless even when I felt guilty for not trying to do anything about it. I resented those who repeatedly told me that it was in my power to change. All I needed to do was act on it. And I did. At one point during my second master I started losing weight without any conscious effort. Somehow those extra pounds started to melt away. It just wasn’t fast enough. I purchased an ergometer and started to exercise daily. I drastically reduced the amount of calories I consumed daily. No more snacks, no more sugar, up to the point where my breakfast consisted in a glass of low-fat milk. Sometimes it was only an apple, or just a slice of toast, or nothing at all. Then I would have a salad for lunch. I spent more and more time outside the house so as to avoid being in the vicinity of food. I downloaded recipe apps on my phone and tablet and at night, when my hunger kept me awake, I would look at pictures of food for comfort. I salivated abundantly. I would lie to my parents when I came back home telling them that I had in fact eaten out and there was no need to set a plate for me at the dinner table. I would feel sick every time I felt the smell of fresh bread. I was constantly in search of something to do, something that would keep my mind off food. I started exercising and working out twice a day, adding more exercises every day. A sort of numb happiness would wash over me when I felt I was getting dizzy every time I stood up. I weighed myself every twenty minutes.

One more pound and I’ll be happy, I kept telling myself. One more pound to lose and my body will be lovable. I fainted a couple of times when nobody was around the house. Once I felt so weak that I simply fell over the bed in my parents’ bedroom only to wake up minutes later not knowing where I was or what I was doing there. I could only hear the voice of my neighbor talking on the phone. I avoided drinking water because I felt that it influenced my weight and at night I would wake up dry mouthed, my tongue like fish on dry land. I lost the pleasure of reading because I couldn’t follow the text for more than two pages. The sentences seemed convoluted, written in an odd grammar, the words like mute reminders of the need for nourishment. At night I slept without moving. Placed on top of each other my legs felt alien as if their weight and purpose no longer belonged to me. The days turned into strings of hours punctuated only by those moments of guilt that came with eating.

If my weight loss was at first only slightly noticeable it then became extreme, and my friends begged me to stop. I would tell them that I had in fact stopped. It was just that one last pound that I needed to get rid of. When they asked me why I was doing it I told them, jokingly, that I hoped people could see my beautiful soul that way. They told me that maybe I should stop seeing those people, when those people were the only people I wanted to see.

The guys on dating sites noticed the change as well. I got more profile visits, and some people actually replied to my messages. Those who knew me before my weight loss congratulated me on my achievement. I was asked out more often. It felt as if finally I had been offered a pass into that other kingdom of happiness, one where people actually thought I was attractive. To hear them tell me that I was super skinny was music to my ears but my insecurities did not fade. Everything felt so transparent and distant, as if they were speaking to me through a tube. Their hands stood by their sides and with each and every encounter I came to the realization that, in fact, nothing had changed. That same inappropriateness is still there even today after all this time, akin to an overgrown skull. Their interest is only momentary, marked by that inability to do something more than just consider me an interesting guy, our relationships still virtual, cold, defined by extended hiatuses and silences. At times it feels as if they’re telling me there’s nothing more they could do, and nothing more was done. My beautiful beautiful soul is still invisible, and no matter what my friends and acquaintances tell me I still find myself unable to believe them. You’re obviously too good for them, I’ve been repeatedly told by a friend of mine who has recently moved in with his boyfriend. There’s an arrogance in this statement that I deeply resent because it denies the reality of my own emotional life and replaces it with an expression that is bound to end up in the cliché cemetery. Because when I’m too good for all of them doesn’t it mean that I’m actually not enough for any of them?

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