ROSS TOOK his place in line behind another Saturday morning regular, excitement-fueled laughter simmering behind his grin. Nothing like his usual reaction. But this wasn’t a usual Saturday morning. This would be his final weigh-in.
Okay, not final-final, but after this one, he’d be a Lifer—a lifetime member of Weight Watchers.
Janet slipped behind him and poked his side, giggling. “Ready, loser?”
He had to duck around a balloon bouquet to give her a hug hello. “I guess. How about you? How was your week?” He tried to turn down his grin a little for her sake, but it wasn’t easy.
“Eh, it was a week. I may be starting my six weeks over.” She held out the Mylar balloons shaped like donuts and cupcakes and a couple of flowers.
Ross hugged her again, longer this time. When the line moved, he picked her up and took three steps backward before turning around and giving her his place in line. “You’re down two pounds.”
Janet laughed. “Want to bet?”
“You’re on. What’s the wager this time?”
“Feeling a little cocky, are we?”
“Janet.” Ross looked around quickly to see if anyone had been listening. The church’s rec room was full of ladies in various stages of membership in Weight Watchers, the line snaking out the door and under the porch roof. The line moved fast but didn’t seem to get any shorter. The ladies who hadn’t dressed in layers looked miserable in the cold mist. He’d heard it many times, but to say January was the biggest month for new memberships had turned out to be a massive understatement.
“Don’t worry. Lightning won’t strike me for saying”—she cupped a hand between her mouth and Ross’s ear and whispered—“‘cocky’ in church.”
“What do you want to bet you’re down this week?”
“Waffling on the number now?” Janet grinned, and they moved forward another three steps.
“Nope. At least two pounds. I bet you one get out of a workout free card.”
Janet rolled her eyes. “You’re supposed to be more helpful than that.”
“Ooh, they must have reinforcements up front.”
The line began to move faster, and moments later, it was Ross’s turn to enter the temporary cubby and step on the scale. He’d worn his lightest outfit for the occasion—whisper-thin high-tech running pants and a tank top—, which he promptly stripped down to, leaving his socks and shoes and technologically advanced lightweight jacket in a pile beside the scale. He even held his breath as the digital numbers bounced around, finally settling to within two pounds of his goal weight of 165 pounds. He got off the scale and pulled his jacket back on even as Piper congratulated him. Nobody else had to know he’d gained a half pound in the past week, except maybe Janet. Ross half expected Piper to point out he was only a half-pound away from not making it, but she only handed him his new silver booklet and asked if it was okay for her to announce to the group that he’d made Lifetime.
Ross carried his shoes into the meeting room and looked for the back of Janet’s head, the same thing he’d done every Saturday morning for the past eight months. Her hair was almost the same light ash blond as his own. Her hair had caught his attention that first morning when she’d sat down beside him. That, and they’d also shared the same shape on his first day at Weight Watchers. He’d been born an eggplant in a family of vanilla beans, and over the weeks and months, he felt as though he’d gained another sister—one who understood what he’d gone through his whole life, one he resembled.
He stopped at the end of her row and looked at her for a long moment. Every time he did he wondered if straight men really were as shallow as she said they were—with her clear skin, long, pale hair, and hourglass figure, she should’ve had men lining up to take her out. Maybe if she didn’t spend so much time with her gay friends.
Janet turned and waved her booklet in the air when she saw him. Ross took a seat beside her.
“An aisle seat?”
“You’re going to have to get up soon anyway. This way you won’t break any new hearts on the way.”
“Down three point two! But I want an extra workout instead of a pass.”
Ross nodded. He could use an extra workout too, and Janet wouldn’t let him get away with standing her up.
Piper strolled up the center aisle, clapping, and when she reached the front of the room, spread her arms wide over her head and shouted, “Hello, losers!” It was the same way she’d opened every meeting Ross had been to. He and Janet joined the answering chorus of “Hello, Piper!”
Ross’s face burned when Piper announced she had an extra-special member to honor that morning. He was no stranger to standing in front of a roomful of people, but he only got more uncomfortable as he stepped onto the stage and looked out at the sea of female faces—most of them unfamiliar.
“This is Ross. He’s one of our best losers. He made lifetime today after losing ninety-eight pounds in eight months!”
Everyone clapped and Janet whistled, the way Ross had at every match and tournament his brother Rune had ever been in—which seemed to be all of them. The whistle was too loud for the room, and when her neighbors gave her chastising looks, he laughed out loud. The joy he’d been containing since he woke up bubbled over, leaving him more relaxed than he thought possible, considering he stood in front of a standing-room-only crowd of women wearing frowns and sweatpants.
Piper asked if he had a “before” picture and quirked an eyebrow at him when he said he’d forgotten it. So what if he’d destroyed every one he could get his hands on—they were his pictures. He was glad when she moved on and asked him to tell everyone his secret.
“Journal, and work out. Get a workout buddy who won’t let you get away with any excuses. Janet’s tough on me, but I couldn’t have done it without her. Or my boyfriend, Brad. Don’t underestimate the importance of your support system.” Ross’s face flushed again. He’d slipped into Corporate Presentation Mode but pulled up short before he could embarrass himself any further.
Piper congratulated him and gave him a bunch of Weight Watchers swag. You could’ve heard a pretzel drop on the carpet. He returned to his seat to a polite smattering of applause. Janet smiled and patted his thigh, and Ross spent the rest of the meeting trying not to feel self-conscious. He’d never tried to hide his orientation—as the only man at all but one meeting, it hadn’t been an issue—but he stood and left as soon as Piper said she’d see everyone next week.
“Hey, today’s not a workout day and I forgot, is it?” Janet huffed a little as she ran to keep up with Ross’s long strides.
“Maybe it should be, but I can’t.” He stopped and took the balloons from her hand. “Thanks. Now I want donuts, but this was a nice gesture.”
“I expect something similar if I ever become a Lifer.” Janet grinned. Before Ross could correct her negative self-talk, she went on. “You should celebrate. Brad’s not working today, is he?”
“Nope. In fact, he said to expect a surprise.”
“Oooh, midmorning delight?”
“Janet.” Ross looked around and saw a disapproving look or two. He smiled and waved at the sour faces. “I sure hope so. Sex is such a good workout.”
“Okay, see you tomorrow.”
Ross watched her leave the parking lot and then stowed the balloons in the trunk of his car. All the way home, he thought about what his surprise could be. In the past, it would’ve been Brad-on-a-cracker or involved whipped cream or chocolate—or both—but this time, he expected something different.
HE PARKED his Volvo in the driveway beside Brad’s BMW and bounded inside. He was greeted by the rear view of a shirtless, tanned hunk wearing his red your present is under here silk boxers.
“You’re early.” Brad turned to look over his shoulder, blocking the table from view as much as he could.
“You used the magic word—surprise.” Ross smiled and toed-off his shoes, leaving them in the foyer. “What’s—”
“Surprise!” Brad turned around and spread his arms wide. On the table sat a spray of pink orchids in a new crystal vase that matched their fancy covered cake plate. On the cake plate was his favorite—what had been his favorite until eight months ago—a triple-layer chocolate cake covered in chocolate shavings, which he knew had a pecan-bourbon filling because he could smell it from halfway across the room. “You’ve worked so hard, you deserve a treat.” Brad struck a pose. He held a sterling-silver cake server in his hand, but it might as well have been a dagger plunging into Ross’s chest.
“Um, thanks, I guess, but I’m not eating that.”
“It’s your favorite.”
Ross turned toward the hallway leading to the bedroom, but before he got three steps, Brad stood in front of him.
“We can eat it in the bedroom.”
Ross tried to smile and be reasonable as he made his case for not eating the cake; he even made a lame joke about having his cake but not eating it too, but felt increasingly uncomfortable about the whole scene. Especially once Brad started gesturing with the cake server. Brad talked over Ross, countering every protest until finally Ross had had enough.
“Stop it. I’m not eating that damned cake. I’ve been working too hard to backslide now. I only barely made Lifetime today.”
“Just one slice, then—”
“No. And put that thing down. You’re making me nervous.”
Brad looked at the cake server and then looked back at Ross as though he were a small child. “I’m not brandishing it at you, I’m excited. I don’t understand why you won’t celebrate.”
“Celebrate? You want me to undo everything I’ve been doing for the past year. That’s not celebrating. I don’t understand you today.”
Ross brushed past Brad, refusing to acknowledge the pumped muscles that said he must have done a few push-ups when he heard the car. He grabbed some clothes and headed into the bathroom, hustling to make it there before Brad could catch up. The house was huge, decadent even. It had taken Brad almost a year to convince Ross to move in. They sat in the hot tub one night while soft flurries snowed down around them, which had finally convinced him. It was so romantic—the two of them and a lovely Cabernet with a bitter-chocolate molten cake. And the snowflakes.
His reverie was shattered by Brad opening the bathroom door just as Ross removed the last of his weigh-in uniform. Months ago, while on a plateau that had seemed to stretch on forever, he’d scoured the Internet to find the absolute lightest bottoms he could wear without showing his legs.
“You’re being unreasonable. Why won’t you ever let me do anything nice for you?”
Ross resisted the urge to pull a towel off the rack and hide behind it, but it was about as easy as walking away from that cake. “That’s crazy and patently untrue. I’ll let you do all kinds of nice things for me. Only now, they have to be low fat. I don’t see what the problem is.”
Ross felt Brad’s frown almost as though he’d slapped him, and when his eyes moved slowly and methodically down over Ross’s body, he froze under the dispassionate gaze. He’d always felt self-conscious about his pale skin that threatened to transform into a single freckle at the slightest mention of the sun. Not to mention the blond hair that wanted to take over his chest and seemed to be reaching out to mate with the trail creeping up from what would be his short-and-curlies if he hadn’t been so fastidious about manscaping.
“You’ve decided, then.” Brad’s tone sounded as though he asked if Ross had decided to commit murder or stop recycling.
All Ross could do was nod. He didn’t expect Brad to turn on his heel and disappear from the bathroom. He also didn’t expect Brad to stomp down the hallway and slam the front door, or to hear the BMW’s engine start. Ross ran outside, barefoot and shirtless and, before he managed to get Brad to roll down his window, was shivering in the cold mist. “Where are you going?”
“Out. I’ll send you an e-mail with the details in a few hours.”
Brad gripped his leather-wrapped steering wheel and glared at Ross. Ross couldn’t help but think how gorgeous Brad was when he was angry. He was envisioning angry sex turning to makeup sex when Brad sighed.
“You’ve proven you can do it, okay? Now you can go back to being you.”
“Being me? Come inside, let’s talk—”
“Only if we’re talking over cake.”
Ross could only shake his head in frustration.
“I’ve tried to tell you, ever since you started this. I knew it would happen, and now it has. I’m not attracted to you anymore.”
“What? I don’t understand….”
“Go explore the word ‘fetish’ and then read my e-mail. I don’t have anything more to say to you right now.”
Ross could only watch as Brad, his partner of almost two and a half years, gunned the engine of his car and sped away from him, tires squealing. Ross hugged himself and stood in the driveway, shivering and watching the corner where Brad had turned. They’d never fought, and even the hint of a disagreement always faded into sex before it could get out of hand. Neither had ever left angry before.
He went back inside. He grabbed his soft blue-plaid shirt from the closet in the foyer, the one he’d wear to go walking on days when it was cool but not raining. On his way to the bedroom, Ross saw the cake. Slowly, he walked to the table. He put out one finger—one taste won’t hurt—but then he heard Janet’s voice in his head and he quickly placed the lid over the cake. It was clear, but it was also heavy and none of the tempting chocolaty-bourbony aroma could escape.
The bedroom was larger than the living room of Ross’s last home. It even had a seating area—two matching leather wing chairs faced each other over a heavy mahogany table. He pulled on a thick pair of wool socks, grabbed his laptop, and pulled the throw his mother had knitted for him last Christmas with him into his chair. Brad had dusted that morning and cleaned the windows. For once Ross didn’t feel the combination of window cleaner and lemon furniture polish was too much, as it drove the memory of the chocolate cake from his head.
His personal laptop was fairly old, and while he waited for it to boot up, he snuggled under the blanket and looked out the floor-to-ceiling windows. The grass under the maple tree showed fresh rake tracks. Not one spent flower head marred the view. It was all so depressing, he wasn’t a bit surprised when it began to pour. Rain pounded the garden, and before long, water ribboned from the downspout near the hot tub gazebo.
Ross stared at the screen, his background a picture from their vacation in Cabo the year before. A smiling Brad goofing around, flexing his muscles on the beach, wearing black-and-red striped swim trunks. He was beautiful—perfectly sculpted with the most even tan Ross had ever seen. That picture was the one that had prompted him to think about Weight Watchers in the first place. They’d just moved in together, and even though he didn’t have any trouble keeping up with Brad in the bedroom, he wanted to do more. It didn’t seem unreasonable that he’d want to go to the gym with his man. For starters.
He quickly opened a browser, even if he couldn’t fathom what he would find about the word fetish that he didn’t already know and wasn’t exactly looking forward to Brad’s e-mail.
The wait took a few hours, during which Ross read a blast e-mail from his little brother announcing his next fight and ignored one from his older sister because he could only handle one crisis at a time.
He spent an uncharacteristically long time perusing Rune’s website, which featured what could only be described as homoerotic pictures of his baby brother. Brad’s e-mail was short and to the point. It included a link to a Chubby Chasers website and three sentences: I’ll be out of the country for the next two weeks, which should give you enough time to make new arrangements. Let me know today if you change your mind, Ross. Otherwise, best of luck.
The pictures on the landing page made him queasy. Very carefully, he closed his laptop, placed it on the table in front of him, curled up under the cream-colored cabled throw, and fell asleep.
Over the next twenty-four hours, he only left the chair to stare at the beautiful chocolate cake on his way to get more wine, and then to dump most of the wine out into the toilet after calculating what it would cost him in points to drink it.
Sunday afternoon, someone pounded on the front door, but he didn’t move. He stared out at the maple tree, watching the leaves that hadn’t been pounded to the ground by the rain hang on as long as they could before blowing away on the wind. They’d already been shriveled and dead for months but kept hanging on. He didn’t move when someone appeared on the other side of the window. Not until she knocked on the glass. He let Janet in the french doors, and she hugged him. Ross swept the blanket around her and hugged her back.
“He doesn’t love me anymore. I have to make other arrangements.”
Janet pulled back to stare, open-mouthed. “You’re not kidding.”
Ross shook his head and went to the closet. He threw a large leather suitcase onto the bed and then another. The initials were B. S. He almost laughed out loud, but instead, carefully put the suitcases back and got his own. Not as fancy, but they belonged to him, R. J. He refused help, so Janet sat in a wing chair and watched as he packed; neither spoke. She stood when he closed the second suitcase.
“Where are you going? To your parents’?”
Ross shuddered and sat on the foot of the bed, between his bulging suitcases. He shrugged.
“Come home with me. We’ll set up camp on the sofa, eat air-popped popcorn until we cluck, and watch on-demand movies. Nobody should make a big decision on an empty stomach, and I’ve been listening to yours since I got here.”
On their way out, Ross detoured into the dining room. The cake still sat on its stand, beautifully mocking him with its chocolate frosting.
“Oh, that looks dangerous,” Janet said in a hushed voice, as though afraid to wake it.
“Exactly. This was my surprise. Along with the knowledge that the only thing appealing about me was my flab.”
Relief and gratitude washed over Ross when Janet remained silent. She understood he didn’t need his self-talk adjusted right then; he needed a friend. He squared his shoulders and picked up the cake plate. It was so heavy he needed both hands to lift it, and it crashed upside-down into the sink with more force than he intended. All he wanted was to shove the cake into the garbage disposal, but instead he’d broken the plate and filled the sink with shards of chocolate-covered crystal. Before he could do more than stare at it, Janet hooked her hand around his arm.
“Let him clean that up.”
“I swear, if you start cleaning that up, I’m leaving.”
“He’ll be gone two weeks.”
“Tough shit for him, then. He should’ve thought of that before he acted like an idiot prick.”
Ross let Janet pull him away from the sink and drive him to her little house. It sat in the middle of a block that had otherwise been overtaken by one of those suburban developments that looked like every home had come from one giant cookie press. Ross loved it from the first time he’d visited. It was like Janet—warm and unconventional. In the 1920s, it had had the whole block to itself, and in contrast to its inner coziness, a large yard wrapped around the back and both sides. He realized halfway there he still wore the clothes he had on when he’d chased Brad out into the street, and gratefully took Janet up on her offer of a shower once he’d left his suitcases on the bed in her guest room. When he returned to the living room, wearing low-tech blue sweats and an oversized UFC T-shirt, she greeted him with a big bowl of zero-point taco soup and a half-dozen things to top it with. He heaped his bowl with some of everything and wolfed it down while they decided which movie to watch.
Halfway through the latest Sandra Bullock flick, which on any other day he would’ve loved, Ross slid so his head rested on Janet’s shoulder. He whined when she rested her head against his.
“You’re very appealing. There’s nothing wrong with you, at any weight. You’re a sweet, gorgeous hunk of man, and if you weren’t gay, we’d be so naked right now. And I’ll keep telling you that until you believe it, so don’t worry about arguing, okay?”
A WEEK later, Ross still didn’t believe he was sweet or gorgeous, but he still slept in Janet’s guest room. He couldn’t quite face his parents or his well-meaning siblings, but he had made another trip to Brad’s to get the rest of his things—including his car—and clean the sink. Janet eyed him suspiciously when he returned, but she didn’t ask and he didn’t tell. He whisked her away to the gym and worked off the memory of the ghosts of chocolate triple-layer cakes past on the elliptical.
He’d cried a few times over the first couple of days, and then came to the realization he was more afraid of the future than heartbroken over Brad.
The next day he went back to work.
It wasn’t easy to force himself out the door, though. Despite his lack of heartache, he barely cared about motivating corporate types to do what they should be doing anyway, like not harassing women or showing a basic level of respect to everyone in the protected classes—and, well, every other human on the planet. Once he welcomed the first group into the conference room and made it halfway through a presentation about recognizing the characteristics of a hostile work environment, he relaxed and almost felt like everything would be okay. He even picked up takeout from Janet’s favorite sandwich shop after leaving work.