An excerpt from Tommy Tomlinson’s “The Elephant in the Room: One Fat Man’s Quest to Get Smaller in a Growing America.” (Simon & Schuster, $27.)
NEW YEAR’S DAY, 2017
My 2016 in six words: Gave up fast food for Lent.
This was back in February. On Fat Tuesday, the day of feasting, I got Wendy’s one last time for lunch. On Ash Wednesday we went to the evening service at our church, and I made a silent vow that I was done with all the fast-food chains — anyplace with a drive-through, ketchup packets, and food that comes in a bag. Since that day I have stayed away from McDonald’s and Taco Bell and KFC and their kin. There has been one exception: the day I took my mom to the doctor, and she decided on the way home that she wanted biscuits at Hardee’s. When your mama wants biscuits at Hardee’s, you get biscuits at Hardee’s. I trust that God gave me a pass.
That was March 9. I stuck the receipt in my billfold. For years I did that every time I ate some terrible fast-food meal, swearing every time that it would be the last one. Again and again I made myself a liar. But that Hardee’s receipt has stayed in my billfold for 298 days and counting. The ink is so faded, I can barely see what I ate.
Since Lent I have snacked on potato chips a few times, but I haven’t once emptied a family-sized bag. I have indulged in a Little Debbie once or twice, but I haven’t even glanced at a whole box. The hardest thing to kick has been sweet tea. I am a lifelong Southerner. Sweet tea is our blood type. So I am giving myself a gradual transfusion of unsweet tea and Coke Zero and water. So far, my body has not rejected these foreign substances.
I’ve had cravings, sure. One day in September I drove from Charlotte to Harlan, Kentucky, for a story. I got there late and hungry. I drove down the main drag and all the bright lights were temptations: Arby’s, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, my former sweetheart Wendy.
I just about gave in. Then I found a Food City supermarket that was open until midnight. I got a turkey sandwich from the deli and a Diet Coke. I’m not going to pretend it was as good as a Quarter Pounder, but when I got back home I was able to put an X in that box on the calendar where I am marking the days I have held to my pledge. The calendar is now a big unbroken string of X’s, and each one of those is its own jolt of pleasure.
The next day in Kentucky, I got bit by a dog. It wasn’t that bad a bite, and the dog had its shots. I went home with a scar and a story.
I’ve started thinking about my life as a fat man the same way.
I’ve got scars, and I’ve got stories. Now I just have to get home.
These days my pants are falling off for the right reason. They used to fall off because my gut was so big that it pushed my waistband down to my knees. Now they fall off because the waistband is too big. I have gone from a tight size sixty to a loose fifty-six. This is a new feeling, buying smaller clothes. My hand has always gone to the far end of the rack. Now I have to pull it back toward the middle.
A couple months ago I was in Walmart, and on the way out I walked by a stack of six-dollar sweatshirts. They went up to 4X. I thought what the hell, and took one home, and damn if it doesn’t fit. Not counting socks, that’s the first piece of clothing I remember getting from a regular store since those childhood husky jeans at Sears.
When I rent a car now, I don’t have to try out three or four until I find one where the seat belt buckles. When I go to the movies, I don’t have to flip up the armrest between the seats. My one suit — the suit I thought I’d be buried in — hangs on me now like the one David Byrne wore in Stop Making Sense. It’s going to Goodwill as soon as I buy a new one.
I have performed a magical anti-aging trick: I’ve erased some of the worry lines around Alix’s eyes. When we go out to eat, and I skip the burger for grilled chicken, she smiles and says: “What have you done with my husband?” When she hugs me now, her arms go all the way around me. To feel her fingertips touch at the small of my back is a pleasure no meal can match.