Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Reflections from Tampa: You are not a "Fat Suit"

This past winter break, my mom, dad, brother and I stuffed our lives into a couple suitcases and escaped New Jersey's icy temperatures for the warmer winds of Tampa, Florida. I'm not going to lie. As someone who much prefers icicles to popsicles, the near 80-degree weather made me a little cranky and dehydrated. It didn't seem to matter than I slathered on sunscreen as though it were pottery glaze and drank enough water to fill one of those water lorries that stops near my grandparents' house every so often. I still felt washed out. I still got sunburnt. 

The places we saw made up for it, though. I even got to further my new fascination with photography. Our photos now, as photos do, offer a pictorial chronology of our Floridian escapades.

Yet, one thing didn't make it into the photo-story of our Tampa trip: a passing encounter in a gift shop--not usually something that sets the red light flashing on a tourist's radar. But, it did mine. 

The gift shop is the place where people buy Dasani souvenir water for $5.50 only because the 80-degree heat got them too and there's no other store within walking distance that sells anything to drink. After walking through stashes of overpriced posters, calendars, handbags, and coffee mugs that said, "I think I love me some Baton Rouge" (Err...I think that company got the wrong gift shop in the wrong state...), we settled on the reasonably-priced, circular rack of t-shirts that had Tampa, Florida, or Southernmost Point painted in large letters on the front. 

In my experience, these are the t-shirts that often meet their fate as gym clothes, the t-shirts that quickly fade. But, in that very moment, they seem like the most perfect and affordable souvenir idea. It must be the fluorescent lighting of the gift shop. It must be something about standing four feet away from $105 flip flops that makes the t-shirts seem sensible.

I don't remember what was printed on the t-shirt that I purchased. Yet, I do remember that everyone in the store seemed drawn to the t-shrit rack like flies to a lamp. I do remember that for the briefest instant, I thought that the store would somehow tip sharply to the right. I do remember a woman who was perusing the racks with her toddler, talking herself down. 

"I'm so fat I can barely get through these aisles!" She pulled a t-shirt off the rack and put it up against her, spinning once in front of the mirror for effect. Her left shoulder slammed hard against a display case of flip-flops on a nearby shelf. "Blasted rack! I'm a potato sack, a clumsy potato sack too!" She suddenly turned to me,  "I need to more like you. You're as skinny as a birch tree. I'sa bet you never had to walk around in a fat suit in your life." 

I wasn't sure how to react. I didn't like to see her talking herself down in that way. I wasn't sure if she was angry or happy. Her face looked furious. Her voice sounded hurt. I looked down at the carpeted passageways in the store, as if for the first time, "It's really hard to get through here. It's so narrow!" I said. 

She laughed. It was a wry, lifeless, laugh--the kind of laugh that you laugh because it makes people think that you're okay when you really feel like a snail stuck to the side of a speed bump on a busy road. (The snail is small enough and well-placed enough such that it doesn't suffer instant death a la car tire. Yet, as the large, metal bodies of the cars repeatedly pass over its head releasing noxious exhaust and fumes, the snail probably feels sick, has trouble breathing, and would probably prefer the relief of instant death that comes with being roadkill.)

What the woman said next convinced me of her snail status, "Us fat people, we take up space: literally. It takes us double the time you spry ones can do in 5 minutes." She said something about about being a good-for-nothing, unable to find herself clothes anymore, but as my mom called me over to another rack, I lost focus and didn't quite process her words. 

I continued to watch the woman from a distance; well, at least whatever distance can be gained by standing by the adjacent t-shirt rack. She continued cursing her weight, swearing at the t-shirts that she ripped out of the rack, and glowering at the mirror every time she stood in front of it. But, in a strange way, with all her euphemisms, similes and analogies, the swearing was oddly creative, and very PG. 

Her daughter seemed amused, "Mommy funny!" she laughed.

The woman turned around, picked up her daughter and smiled. The pitch of her voice increased an octave, "You having fun? You want a t-shirt? Let's see all the colors that are there--blue, red, orange...Can you tell me?" The little girl pulled t-shirts off the rack. Mom held them up in her hand. ROY-G-BIV. "It's a rainbow! See?" the woman said. 

I looked down at my watch and realized that about an hour had passed in that crowded gift shop. I felt my cell phone buzz in my pocket and pulled it out. Voicemail. My mom. "I can't find you. At the register. We need to leave. We are running way late."

I shoved my cell phone back in my pocket. With more "Excuse me-s" and "Pardon me-s" than I could count, I navigated through an oddly structured wall of bodies and suddenly emerged from the t-shirt racks. Turning around, I could see the woman's reflection in the mirror, seeming to stare back at me. "Blasted fat suit!" I heard her growl in exasperation. She picked up her daughter. The little girl waved at herself in the mirror. 

You're not a fat suit," I whispered. That's not who you are. You're a great mom. Look again in the mirror. I hope that you see that." 

Looking back, I don't know why I didn't have the presence of mind to say that louder than I did. Perhaps it was the buzzing phone in my pocket reminding of the time, reminding that we had to leave. I wish I had spoken though, and I really do hope that the woman did, in all that time spent in front of that mirror, see a more pleasing and positive reflection of herself. 

On the chance that she didn't, on the remote possibility that that woman stumbles across this blog post, I'm telling my story--her story--now. 

-Photos courtesy Google Images

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