Devil’s Lake

Spring 2012 Issue

Sarah Sarai: Lillia

There is nothing I love so much as a fat person, or admire. The largeness of their soul demands abundant sufficiency of casing and, further, because they are so grand of psyche, so much more than those who are skinny (not I!), they need—require—that formidable heft to anchor them to our earth. I fence-sit (or would), between unmistakable plumpness and hands-on girth. Lillia Fly-Eagle was a big one too, and for that I loved her, briefly and dearly.

It was when I taught high school, a three-year venture, that I heard of Lillia, on a Sunday afternoon at a mandatory faculty multicultural retreat. My department head, Nelson P. Nelson, concluded the afternoon by showing us a video. He lived in Madrona, Seattle's Gold Coast, rising from Lake Washington. The two-story homes were solid, with waxed wooden floors, plank or parquet, woven throw rugs, decks overlooking flowering vegetation. There was always something cedar going on—a fireplace, chips in the yard. I’d learned about Northwest Indians and cedar in fifth grade social studies in California. That was the class the principal pulled me from to tell me about my parents.

The English Chairperson’s wife, Elise Anderson-Nelson, understood even private school teachers were eternally on the make for free food to offset low-pay indignation, and wisely set out an array of breads, baked ham, baby carrots with hummus, bowls of fresh fruit, three kinds of cookies—chocolate chip, homemade gingersnaps, oatmeal with cranberries and walnuts—and, get this, a two-layer lemon cake made from scratch. I’d wondered if the icing would be cream cheese, often used for carrot or spice cakes, and was trying to decide how the two would blend—lemon zest and juice and cream cheese with confectioner’s sugar—when my tongue darted (some have a reptile brain, I have a reptile tongue) to lap lemony butter-cream. Not a bad choice at all, and yes there was grated zest.

We were offered wine though that felt like a test—drinking on a work night and all that.

Cutting myself just a tiny second slice of the cake, I complimented Elise, a humble Nordic goddess with blonde braids wound around her head, and sharp blue eyes. She winked and wiped a spot of butter cream off my cheek. I have lovely skin, if I do say so, and use a Prescriptives foundation for protection. She settled next to her husband on the couch. She’d been an anthro major at the University of Washington, and worked ten hours a week cataloging at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture. The Gold Coast house was hers. Elise came from money.

We teachers stuck close to the long Scandinavian coffee table. It was our groaning sideboard. The room itself reminded me of something from Dallas or a lodge at Glacier National Park. Montana-y despite Seattle’s mix of Euro and crunch.

Pointing to the video which Nelson P. Nelson started running after, basically, apologizing to a group of mostly white people for our invasion of the Americas centuries before, Elise said, “Isn’t she a lovely woman.” Opening credits were over and there was Lillia, taking up much of the large screen.

Her eyes, which could have been hard to look at given obvious sensitivity and intelligence, were riveting in their dulled concentration. I noticed stoicism and cruelty in the mix. She had no careful curls or makeup like some fat women who go out of their way to establish femininity. Not Lillia, whose hair a shade of black I’d never before seen with my eyes open, was pulled tight into two long braids, which, but for their being on her, could have been the braids of a gloomy housekeeper in a Frankenstein sequel. Or Elise Anderson-Nelson.

A Native American weaver with work in several craft museums, and a poet, Lillia sat at a loom and demonstrated her method. The loom may have been traditional but patterns were contemporary. She collaborated with visual artists to redefine what she called the “Indian eye.” “Indian” was her choice. Later she read poems from her collection. I couldn’t repeat a phrase but they were sad. I hear you, my sister, I didn't say aloud.

There were corny shots of eagles, and the soundtrack was somber drumming as if Native Americans never laughed, which is silly because we white people give everyone else so much to laugh about. I was surprised Lillia had an MFA. I teach the Romantics—Wordsworth, Coleridge, the Shelleys, Keats—in my high school writing and English classes, along with the sentence, the paragraph, the essay with its thesis and supporting paragraphs. Logical conclusions. The Romantics didn't have MFAs. Both my English and teaching degrees are from San Francisco State.

The previous summer I’d moved to Seattle. I already knew what it was to live in a beautiful city but not a small one. I grew up in the Haight Ashbury. My parents had been post-hippie druggies. After peace and love-ins flew the coop a version of the Mafia moved in. My folks were arrested in the coke boom of the eighties for possession of some pretty hard stuff with intent to sell. My father was killed in prison for random reasons and my mom, sentenced to a women's facility, died three months later in a kitchen fire set by that mother who had slaughtered all her kids. I was raised by my grandparents, my mom’s folks, in their house on Clayton, two blocks up from Haight.

The video ended. I knew what the arrow was dipped in before it shot straight to my heart—a vat of hope. Already I was having me-and-Lillia fantasies—kissing, renting movies together, fighting about what to do with our day and cleaning the house. I already knew we agreed on race, class and gender. Elise noticed my concentration and looked at me with that annoying kind of amusement, which makes me feel laughed at and odd. She probably thought my rapture was sugar-related. I accepted her paper plate of cookies sealed in Saran Wrap and drove home.

As soon as I got back there, to Wallingford, and found a parking space for my beater, which, I loyally point out, transported me from San Francisco to Seattle without a hitch, I wrote to Lillia of the beautiful girth. Plain and simple it was a love letter. I just saw you weave your poetry! What I really wish to say is I find you gorgeous! Would it be weird to receive such a letter from someone you’lve never met? Maybe not, given artists’ egos, but I tore it up and dialed information for the university in Bellingham where she taught, a drive north of Seattle. The campus operator connected me with the computer lab by mistake. It was pretty late but some guy answered—it was a computer lab, they always stay open until midnight, don’t they? The guy sent me back to the operator who this time got it right and connected me to Lillia’s office. To Lillia’s voice. It was recorded. Mine was scratchy.

”You don’t know who I am.”

Sitting in the dark, looking out to the treetop shadows in a street lamp’s halo I talked about the video and how moved I’d been, making especial effort to establish that I wasn’t a whack-case. I taught high school, after all, and had just returned from the Department Chairperson’s house. In fancy Madrona. I’d learned about Lillia through a faculty session, not in a scandal sheet. Why so nervous? I was shy about telling her I loved her bigness and knew she and I were soul mates—not in a creepy way as if we should commit right off the bat. We both knew literature; okay we had that right off the bat. I made great coffee, which I assumed she’d appreciated, and we both liked to eat. It seemed too obvious—begging, if you will—to tell her I was big; I have a lisp, which I always assume is part and parcel of being large, though I’m not sure why I think that.

By the time I hung up I was sweating and ashamed. Was she even interested in women? Into the kitchen I went to bang my head against the refrigerator door and then the wall. My narrow kitchen was an afterthought in a second-floor apartment, in a two-story house split into two living units twenty years after it was built. That was how my grandparents’ house on Clayton was—we lived on top and two gay guys, an accountant and his long-time partner who owned a fancy stationery shop in the Embarcadero, rented the first floor. Me and my parents used to live there. A few months before my parents came under the ultimate supervision of the State of California Corrections System there was a police incident on our block, with beat cops doing crowd control and a swat team breaking into the former Ukrainian church used as a flophouse. There were rugged men in jeans, glaring. I was playing jacks on the sidewalk with my pal Leroy. Jacks aren’t easy on an incline like Clayton.

“Them’s narcs," Leroy said.

City kids.

My grandmother kept windows open as much as possible and must have heard something. She brought the narcs homemade cookies as if those raunchy yet officious men were Christmas carolers. ”I must be psychic!” she said when she returned, with only her kitchen mitts. ”I doubled the recipe when I whipped up this batch today!” No cookies were served at my parents’ arrest in Mill Valley where they were dealing to the yuppies.

To recover from my idiotic phone call I pulled together tea and one slice of cinnamon toast with real butter and Indian (Indian-Indian from India Indian) cinnamon I’d bought at Pike Place Market, returned to my lumpy couch and dialed the number the operator had given me. When the Bellingham State University voice system picked up I pressed a variety of buttons on my phone. I’d done that with Cheryl, who I was in love with in San Francisco. Her answering machine was the same model as mine and after three tries I’d figured out her code so I listen to her messages in case she was two-timing or leaving me. Neither was the case but she found out and so I moved to Seattle.

The university at Bellingham used a voice mail system I couldn’t access.

I considered suicide, but I veer towards the cowardly. Overweight people as an ethnic group are not known for our bravery, fairly or not, though without a doubt we are warm and have killer senses of humor. Next I considered driving up to Bellingham and committing homicide. Not seriously seriously but, you know, you think such things when you make a fool of yourself or believe you have and are desperate for a diversion. Maybe someone would blow up the Space Needle; that would be a distraction which would make Lillia forget my out-of-the-blue message. Please don’t think I represent the overweight community, by the way.

Lillia phoned me the next evening at seven on the dot. We talked. She was on the phone; I was on the phone; it was that simple! She was coming to Seattle on Saturday and I volunteered my apartment. People were no doubt friendlier in the great Pacific Northwest than San Fran. I hadn’t experienced it, but I surmised it was possible and wanted to fit in—and what an opportunity to get to know Lillia.

Saturday night I met up with her at an opening at Daybreak Star Gallery at Discovery Park. Multi-media artist Daniel Longnight was her friend; the network of Indian artists is tight, unlike the network of overweight people, and the two had collaborated on designs for Lillia’s weavings. She and I barely spoke to each other at the reception. She caught my sidelong glances or at least I think she did. I may be extremely intuitive, but subtlety isn’t my gift. I stole or at least borrowed another look while studying one of Longnight’s dark collages—part totem pole, part parking meter. She was deep in conversation with Horace Midge, the gallery director. I saw she was shorter than I expected, but beautifully round, and more intense, not surprisingly. Her eyes would occasionally take in the room. I’d wager she assessed everyone in the gallery, though she chose only a few to speak to. Those few were Natives or obvious mover-shaker whites such as two curators from the Seattle Art Museum.

Oh, and there was Nelson P. Nelson and Elise Johnson Nelson on their way out. I hadn’t seen them come in. Had I thus breached etiquette? I was new to the school. I didn’t want to look for a job in a public high school. I felt a tear roll down my cheek and imagined it as a droplet of Mercury. "Swift Mercury resounds with Mirth.” Wordsworth wrote that. Mirth. How fat is that! I was feeling a crawling uckiness from under my heart to my groin. Ever gracious Elise came over to me.

”Are you all right, dear? You look pale.” She didn't seem to care if I responded. ”We just got a call from the security company. Could be a break-in though my guess is a raccoon—it happened before. I tried to get the Harrises in—they live next door, but no luck, so we have to rush home.”

I was dressed in cotton, from my jeans to my sweater; my colors were dark purples and denim. Elise wore silk, linen; her colors were those of Jay Gatsby’s shirts which he showed to Daisy, ”…coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange, with monograms of Indian blue.”

”Hello.” Lillia’s slightly flat tones caught me short.

”Oh how I wanted to meet you!” Elise said, in a modulated charity-lady-with-money voice. She asked Lillia if she knew Mary Ann Tullee, a weaver in Nanaimo, on the coast near Canada. Nelson P. Nelson came over to heartily greet Lillia and collect his wife. He looked at me with curiosity as if to ask how I knew Lillia, gave her his card and left with Elise.

After we’d finished off the canap├ęs and wine we moved her bags from the car of the student who’d driven her down—she was generally driven everywhere by a student or friend (I'm not sure she'd fit behind the wheel)—to my car. Lillia slept in my bed—a mattress on the floor—classic Haight Ashbury-style, I know—while I took my nubby thrift shop couch, long enough for a man, big for a big woman.

Daniel Longnight had given her a joint which we shared in my living room. It didn’t lead to giggling. It led to after-a-long-day drowsy. We zonked out. When I returned from the store with bagels, lox, sweet onions, and cream cheese Sunday morning she was sitting on the living room floor, brushing out her hair.

As I think back, we didn’t say much. She more or less repeated her story from the video, and I listened. Here you should know that I am a good listener, a great listener, in fact. When I was in college in the nineties I thought about joining the police force or CIA or majoring in psych and having a private practice. It was my experience that anyone I met, sooner or later (sooner, to be blunt) revealed deepest secrets, and when that wasn’t the case, sooner or later I would come to understand why.

Sunlight streamed in through the leaves outside the window that fine morning. In its glow, Lillia’s black hair looked like something virtuous and holy from the Middle Ages, not maidenly but wise and faithful as Clare, St. Francis’ gal pal. That anyone would hide such a flattering feature disturbed me—ironic, given I'm a hider—and I asked why she didn't wear it down.

”I know hair is an issue for everyone, black people and like that, but yours is so pretty. I had to use Japanese straightening irons and beer to get straight hair back when I had some.” My do was close to a crew cut. Seattle is a queer-friendly town.

”It glistens in the light.” I poured coffee. I hoped she’d smell the roast—fresh-ground organic free-trade Arabica. I handed over the half and half; she asked me to pour.

”Say when.”

She whened, drank her coffee and, yes, smiled. ”Good stuff.”

Oh my I blushed.

Between bites of the New York sesame seed bagel with the works she responded. ”The last time I wore it down in public I was in college. I was walking across campus, when a professor stopped me and stroked it.” Her hair had hung down over her breasts. ”He’d done that before,” she said. “And not just him.”

I noticed for the first time—and I'm not kidding you; I hadn't so zeroed in before—her breasts were sizable. She wasn't wearing a woven poncho as she usually did to cover the planetary girth, if planets were soft enough to sink into.

”What is it with men?” I believe women are a piece of work in their own right, okay, our own right, but just then I was all about solidarity.

”My history is full of stupid people.” She pulled strands from the natural bristles of her brush and let them fall to the carpet.

I wasn’t sure if she meant her personal history or her people’s or a combo. ”My landlady has a great vacuum cleaner,” I said. She was retired and spent most of her time smoking bargain cigarettes with her sister, both from eastern Washington. She’d shown me yellowed photos of when she was in her twenties; she’d been cute as a pixie and told me about working at a bank. ”The manager explained I couldn’t get a promotion because they were giving it to a man. He said that to my face!” Things had changed some but not enough….

”I got my M.F.A. with…” Lillia listed names of three famous writers. She was tenure track and interested in her retirement plan.

In the video I’d seen the previous Sunday, Lillia was interviewed by a small press publisher who was put off by her size. He sat back straight, crossing and uncrossing his legs as if such were an aerobic exercise requiring his concentration. None of that leaning for him, one arm slung, the big watch showing, the unabashed pelvic jerk.

”People look at me.” Lillia’s voice was a little flat, to hide her passion I was sure. ”And they say, What is this?” She’d moved her hands, palms out, from her shoulders to her cushion of a stomach. A larger planet in the soft solar system Lillia Fly-Eagle.

”I think you're beautiful. I’m really attracted.” I couldn’t stop myself. She inspected me with too much curiosity. ”Hey, want a neck massage?”

She stopped brushing, leaned her head down and flipped her hair over. Her neck was cedar, smooth and strong.

”My dad’s parents came from Sweden,” I said. I wasn’t sure if she understood I was alluding to Swedish massage. My San Francisco grandparents, my mom’s folks, were a mix of pioneer stock and Italian.

I could feel the tension as my thumbs dug into her shoulders. Her muscles had been left uncovered in the fridge and needed help. Like that. As I worked from left to right, her shoulders slowly dropped, not enough, but some.

”Breathe in. Slowly. In. And out.” My stubby fingers kneaded her scalp, where skin is thickest despite the many nerve endings. That's why that one minute of massaging by the shampoo girl is worth a two-dollar tip. I worked down her arms, left and right. The room felt warm, golden.

With my 200- and her 300-plus pounds this was definitely a good place to be, full of flesh and the heat that pulsates from the hearts of big people. Lillia on the floor was a giant mound I could never get my arms around. I saw that. I considered trying and I tried, as if it were an after-massage touch.

Lillia didn’t push me away or pull me closer. She didn’t rub my forearm or gently position my head for a kiss. She simply sat. I suspected I was having many feelings and decided to explore them later. I could phone Cheryl in San Francisco. She had a new girlfriend and had probably forgiven me.

After we’d smoked the joint last night, Nelson P. called and invited Lillia to today’s follow-up multicultural session. Her round-trip mileage was being reimbursed; a small stipend had been offered, maybe from Elise’s money. That part I didn’t learn until I saw the money change hands.

We were early so I drove to Volunteer Park, landscaped by the Olmsted of New York City’s Central Park fame. We didn’t leave the car but comfortably sat and commented on harmonious groupings of trees and plantings, and how they indeed could inspire citizenry, which was Olmsted’s goal.

Elise had prepared another lick-smacking spread. Roast beef, cheeses, salmon, a lemon meringue pie. She asked if she should grind more coffee. Why not, Lillia and I said, and smiled. Elise smiled back, rubbed her husband's neck. They were tall, narrow Swede-types. His neck was one of Robert Frost’s thin birches. That woman didn’t know what challenge was.

Lillia only had to answer a few questions. Dirk Dunne asked if she was a Mariners fan; everyone laughed. Maribeth, whose last name I can never remember, Czlyczienes-something, asked if she thought more government reparations were due to Natives.

”You could all leave,” Lillia said.

Randolph White, who was black, gave her five. ”Except me. Cause I am not moving back to Africa.”

It was time to go. Lillia started to stand but fell back on the couch. Her ankle was hurting. I don’t believe we cause our disabilities but once we have them, it’s hard not to see them as metaphors for our souls, which are broken open at birth. That's what life’s about. Sealing, mending, healing the brokenness. Elise brought ice and told Lillia she was welcome to stay with them, then or any time.

It was clear Lillia was open to the offer. I wondered if she worried about outstaying her welcome with me, but admitted to myself she wasn’t thinking about me. When her student chauffeur rang the doorbell, Lillia asked if I would mind helping bring her bag to the car. Elise sent along roast beef, a pie and two loaves of bread. She’d also commissioned a weaving.

As I helped Lillia in the front seat and joked she had to buckle up, she hugged me. It was a fierce hug. My heart leapt. I waved my goodbyes, got in my car and drove down to the lake. I watched a sailboat crewed by Microsoft types. The lake’s surface was one of Lillia’s weavings. It was almost asleep.

a photo of the author, Sarah Sarai SARAH SARAI’s stories are in Storyglossia, Fairy Tale Review, Weber Studies, Tampa Review, South Dakota Review, ragazine.cc, The Writing Disorder, and others; soon in Belletriste Coterie, Pangur Ban Party, and others. She has an MFA from Sarah Lawrence. Her poems are in journals includingThreepenny Review, Boston Review, Folly, and in her collection The Future Is Happy (BlazeVOX [books]). She currently lives in New York. More from this issue >