I'd learned never to start talking numbers right away, so instead I dwelled on the neutral topic of summer plans. Karen stretched her arms in a trapezoidal shape above her head and told me about their upcoming vacation in the Bahamas.
"Oh, perfect," I said. "By July, you'll definitely be ready for swimsuit season."
As soon as the words left my mouth, I wished I could stuff them back in. It was too late, though.
"I happen to think I look just fine in a bathing suit," Karen said, hugging her arms across her midsection. "We just wanted to tone up a little."
I began backpedaling, but it was useless to try to un-say something by using more words. Karen walked off in a huff and Reg lingered only a moment longer to shake my hand before joining her. I never heard from them again.
As soon as I realized I was no longer going to be a personal trainer, I nearly suffocated in a plastic sumo suit. My friend Jamie and I were at the bar inside Club Firestone when the DJ sought out volunteers for a sumo wrestling contest. The two of us looked at each other and there was no question about it: we were in.
"The last time I saw you, you wouldn't have needed one of these suits," Jamie said ten minutes later, as we pulled on inflated plastic bodies that mimicked sumo wrestlers' rotund physiques. Jamie was on leave from the Marine Corps, and he had a Marine's requisite crew-cut and gaunt, sunken eyes. We hadn't seen each other since before he'd enlisted the previous year, and he had no idea that I'd lost so much weight.
I pulled my suit up by the mock-loincloth. The stiff, coarse material had the same stubby texture as the skin of a hot-air balloon. With my shoulders stuffed inside, the referee strapped a waxy hair-helmet to my head. I'd just gotten used to breathing inside the humid, claustrophobic getup when an announcer introduced us and rang the bell.
I lunged at Jamie, wobbly on my feet, and connected hard, flinging him against the rope of the boxing ring. The elasticity sent him barreling right back at me and we bumped our big fake bellies like rams locking horns. After much scrambling and grappling, I was eventually declared the winner.
I could not wait to take off my plastic albatross. It was heavy and it itched, but there was something else about it that made me uncomfortable. At first, the sitcom-irony of wearing an obesity suit made me feel definitively svelte in contrast. It had been a while since I felt that way. Then the moment passed and it seemed ridiculous to let a costume convince me that I had become who I wanted to be. My personal trainer's outfit, I realized, formed another such costume, and suddenly I felt ridiculous inside of it too.
Was I only in shape compared to my former self? I wanted to be in shape, period -- with no context needed to qualify it. I wanted the weight to be lost, not merely hidden from view. I wanted no difference between how old friends and new acquaintances viewed me. The only problem was that if I ever got my wish, there would be no way for me to know it. I would never see myself through anyone else's eyes.
I was tired and I had to work the next day, even though it was clear I had no business working at Bally any longer. After we shed our sumo suits and got dressed again, I said goodbye to Jamie.
"It was great seeing you," he said, nursing a slightly bruised eyebrow with the watery ice cubes in his glass. "I can't believe you lost so much weight."
"Thanks," I said.
"Good luck losing the rest of it."
Images: 1. REUTERS/Rick Wilking; 2. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger.