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When Whales Fly
On the horror of your horror.
Hi, all. I know I haven’t posted in here since last summer. I just wrote and deleted a whole paragraph explaining why, but then it occurred to me that I don’t owe anyone an explanation. But I did wake up wanting to talk about something.
I just flew back from AWP, the big annual writers’ conference. I had a great time. An incredible time, honestly. I always enjoy AWP—I’m one of those rare writer-extroverts—but this one felt extra special, with just the perfect mix of making new friends and seeing old friends and great conversations and low-key hangouts and getting a little fucked up and eating so many dumplings and noodles and karaoke and perfect panel chemistry. Just a dream from beginning to end.
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But AWP was in Seattle this year. I live on the East Coast. Which means I had to take a long flight.
I am fat. If you read my work and follow me in various ways, you might already know this? In any case, like most fat people, flying is a tricky business for me. On the way to AWP, I flew on an airline I use a lot and was lucky enough to get upgraded to first class. This meant I could be comfortable and work and rest and feel like a human being. (And, since I was wearing a leopard-print tracksuit, pretend briefly that I was a hungover reality star returning from Acapulco.)
But on the way home, for scheduling reasons, I had to choose a different airline, one which I rarely use, which meant no possible upgrade, which meant a regular seat. Which meant I could not work or do much of anything—there is not enough space for me to even open up my laptop or a book, even if someone doesn’t put their seat back, which they often do. If I’m lucky, there’s an empty seat next to me. If I’m not, I always have a plan. I put on my headphones before the plane door closes, play a movie, fold my arms tightly over my chest, and move as little as possible. I have spent entire international flights like this. Unfolding my body at the end is the worst feeling in the world. Like I’m hatching out of a fucking egg.
Anyway. Before the flight, I had a great morning hanging out with an old friend, but by the time I got to the airport I was brimming with dread. (It probably didn’t help that I was exhausted. I was like, too-much-birthday exhausted.) The boarding agent got on the intercom multiple times to warn us that the flight was completely booked. I was nauseated with stress by the time I got onto the plane. As it filled up, the seat between me and a woman against the window remained empty. For a second I felt a twinge of optimism. Maybe the plane wasn’t actually full? Maybe I’d get lucky?
But then someone sat down between us. Another woman. And she had that vibe. If you’re fat and you fly, you know the vibe I’m talking about. She didn’t say anything to me directly or open her phone and type out her displeasure at being sat next to a fat person to text to a friend or ask to be reseated so she didn’t have to touch me. (All things that have happened to me, by the way.) But she did look annoyed, and she did pull down the arm rest I’d pushed up when I thought she wasn’t coming, and slam it into my thigh over and over and over. Like a weird number of times. Like my thigh was going to stop existing. Like it couldn’t feel anything at all. Like I couldn’t feel anything at all.
The plane took off. I chose to watch Smile, which I’ve been meaning to see for ages. While I was watching, I noticed someone in a seat ahead of me livestreaming the Oscars, and happened to glance away from something horrifying happening on my own screen (someone’s face being opened unnaturally against the hinge of her jaw so a demon could crawl inside) to see something horrifying happening on another: Brendon Fraser giving a tearful, muted acceptance speech for The Whale.
I wish I could describe the feeling it gave me. I wish I could articulate, clearly, the flavor of sorrow and rage that cascaded through my body. It was more upsetting and disquieting than any horror movie dragged from the deepest recesses of my nightmares.edition) and Roxane Gay. If you do not understand why this movie specifically, and the continued baffling use of fat suits in general, are so utterly appalling and indefensible, I encourage you to do some reading. I also encourage you to examine your heart, and consider that maybe there’s a reason your fat loved ones—if you have any—don’t return your calls.
Like every bisexual who has ever existed, I used to love Brendon Fraser. I have followed his return to Hollywood closely. I remember the profound sadness I felt when I learned about the reasons he left, and feeling such softness towards him as he began working again. Especially because he returned to this very image-conscious industry as a fat man. Everything I have ever read about him suggests that he a good, kind person.
So it is actually astonishing to me how all of the suffusing, gentle warmth and affection and admiration I had for Brendon Fraser has utterly vanished. A fellow fat friend called it “complicity,” and I am inclined to agree. It felt so ghoulish and frankly kind of insane to watch him stand up there and make an acceptance speech on the back of a project that participates so fully in the dehumanization of an entire category of human beings.
And it’s hard for me to say this! Because he is, by all accounts, a good and kind person, and has had a triumphant return to the industry after this awful thing happened to him. And his response to his win left him visibly overwhelmed with genuine emotion. I am not a monster. I get it. It gives me no pleasure to disrupt the comeback narrative. But I cannot live with myself pretending it is any other thing. Forget how you can’t put lipstick on a pig—you can!—you can’t put lipstick on an open fucking wound.
And if you’re going to say to me, “Well, he’s fat! You said so yourself,” save it. Sometime people with marginalized identities throw other people with (stronger? deeper?) marginalizations under the bus. The fact is, sometimes people participate in their own dehumanization. This is the cruelty of the thing. This is the horror.
My mom was fat, before she got gastric bypass surgery. I’ve written about it before, how when I was a teen and we were in a grocery store my mother saw a fat woman—fatter than her, probably about as fat as I am now—and told me if she ever looked like that, to kill her. She was buying peppers and every time I pick up a pepper I think about that woman and the way my mother’s voice sounded when she said that awful thing I have spent my whole life trying to unhear.
Don’t feel bad for me because I’m fat. I love being fat. I have a joyful relationship with food and pleasure and sex and my body. I can walk far and run gently and dance. I am—not to brag—exceptionally hot. But more importantly than that, I and every other fat person in the world are human beings who deserve better than Hollywood gives us.
Last night, I came home from that stupid awful flight and my girlfriend made me this gorgeous plate of pasta and an old fashioned and listened to me talk about my trip and fucked me to sleep. And yet I woke up thinking about how they asked him to do it, and he did it, and they applauded him for it, and he thanked them for the chance to be so cruel. I woke up thinking about the way it goes on and on.
I am also like, idk, a mid-level fat? So it sucks for me and there are people for whom it is infinitely worse.
More often than first class I’m just able to get into premium economy, but please trust that I am fully aware of the privilege of this statement. Capitalism is bullshit, airlines are the actual worst, we should all be in comfortable seats.
An act I believe is almost universally sociopathic.
By the way, if you were at my It Came from the Closet queer horror panel at AWP and heard me say that it’d been a decade since a horror movie genuinely frightened me, that had a hard reset with Smile. It was excellent and also deeply deeply unnerving and was honestly not a great choice for a flight. But too late now!
The whole thing is a banger but this is the quote that made me scream with laughter:
Obviously we’re supposed to draw some parallel between Moby Dick the actual whale and Charlie the human whale, but, like, why? What shallow fucking bullshit! Can you even map one on top of the other at all? Has anyone ever read Moby-Dick and thought, “wow, what a pathetic loser” about the whale? The ungraspable phantom of life himself????
A category that does—or at least used to—include him.
Insofar as you can, because also bodies are nightmares! But joyful nightmares.
And the healthcare system, and—you get the idea.