I am trying to change my dietary and exercise habits. This fact is well-known to my fiancée, as it was her idea. She has sent me to a fat farm for my birthday. (“A fitness resort,” she corrects me.)
We arrive late at night and I am deposited in a pale pink room, along with one spandex leotard and one cotton bathrobe. I am not given a kiss goodbye. I fall asleep to the sound of general discontent: a shrinking house, a strangled gulping. I dream of getting my period, only it’s thick and green and smells like the sea.
In the morning I eat a grapefruit, hacking off pulp with a dull spoon in a hapless way that makes me feel frustrated, then impotent. My first class is in the dance studio.
In the dance studio, we don’t dance. My peers roll back and forth on the hardwood floors. “This was an exercise popular in the 1950s,” an instructor tells me. A solitary one, I suspect, as several people roll into my shins at once. I try to avoid looking at the bodies, which move without any kind of synchronicity but collectively resemble the ripples of ocean water on a very windy day.
In another room men in white roll foam all over you, like you are a wall to be painted. I allow exactly one coat before I taste foreign sweat on my lips and realize I do not like this.
“Sorry, but I don’t like this,” I tell the man in charge of running the foam across my lips.
“It seems incredibly pornographic,” he admits.
I agree the whole thing seems violent and thank him for his honesty.
In the yard, campers take turns flipping a tire and yelling at each other. One girl gets trapped under the tire, but the others just turned their attention to an even bigger tire. I decide this is not the place for me.
I hear a tiny, forced noise of commiseration. It does not come from the girl, who has lost consciousness by now. I find its source behind the living quarters, a freshwater bog that feels at once familiar.
“Do I know you?” I ask. It lets out a rattle, the way one would if one’s throat was full of phlegm and they were trying to breathe in their sleep. I suppose a swamp could be full of phlegm.
It neither confirms nor denies, instead asking me to hold it, and though I know you cannot actually hold a swamp, there is something appealing about holding out your arms to the orange of the sunset and the lush greenery surrounding it. I almost want to stick my face in the swamp and drink from it. I am lured back to my living quarters by the promise of food, a move the swamp mistakes for rejection. “I was just kidding,” it cries after me, in a way that seems stuck only in my head.
That night I toss salmon around in my mouth, trying to taste its succulent belly meat, and find I cannot.
In my time at the fat resort, I see a number of weight loss techniques I am dubious of. I relate these all to the swamp, along with tales of the worst instructor, whose name is Jeanette, or Jenny, or Jean, or something of that nature. There was the time she wrapped us in seaweed, and I took on a herbaceous scent, which the swamp seemed to like. She made us jog everywhere within the complex as she drove by in a golf cart. After, she refused to tell if there was a golf course near by, or if she had stolen the golf cart, or bought the cart from some golf cart dealer. There were vibrating mats you stood on at different angles, which claimed to shake the weight away. I did notice my chest deflate slowly over time, but my hips and thighs remained intact.
“That’s good,” the swamp told me. “You have strong legs.” It wanted to see me swim. I told it that I could not, as I had told it many times before. “Just the dip of a toe,” it would plead, but I was always too afraid.
This time when I said I would not, it says, “ Don’t you think your fiancée would like to go for a swim with you?” That is, in fact, what I had just been thinking of and suddenly I felt very possessive of my fiancée, or my thoughts about my fiancée. I blush as if I am naked and turned to go. “That’s none of your business, really,” I say and the swamp rages all night.
I am stranded, but everyone says “please” or “if you don’t mind” or “thank you” so frequently, it at times feels like a vacation. I spend most of my days with the swamp, or dreaming of the swamp, or being embarrassed of what I had dreamt about the swamp. The things I dream are disgusting. I dream of kissing Jenny and vomiting mosquitos into her mouth, of sticking my fiancée’s face in its murky waters, of wading in and letting carnivorous fish nibble at me until I am bone.
In the mornings, the swamp and I never talk about it. We talk politics, how the swamps bordering Iran and Iraq hid political prisoners from Saddam Hussein, about how quickly a swamp can become a desert, with government intervention. It always, jokingly, asks for a hug.
When I write to my fiancée I am careful to avoid talking about Jean and my misery. I am also careful not to lie. Instead, I talk about how beautiful the moss on the swamp is, how tall the trees are, how cartoonish and tangible the clouds look from down here. She promises to visit soon. I feel something outside of myself throb in excitement. It feels hungry.
When Jeanette goes missing, I do not blame the swamp. It seems stupid to accuse the swamp of being anything other than a swamp. I am relieved, but quietly begin to limit my time outside. I spend most of my day in bed, trying not to dream. Another instructor, Rose, pulls me aside to discuss my dissociable attitude, a comment that has plagued me all my life. I have tried smiling in the past, but mostly it just seems to scare people.
After dinner, I force myself to try one of the resort’s holistic treatments. Medical professionals, or men rumored to be medical professionals, scrub us with luffas and pour scotch all over our bodies. It burns. Other women blow air between their lips to signify being at peace with this decision. I yell so loudly they stick a tranquilizer in my ass.
When I wake up my fiancée is by my side, her eyebrows are furrowed, and my legs refuse to move.
“What is this?” I ask the love of my life.
“Pudding,” she points to the bedside table.
“I am trying to modify my dietary habits,” I say automatically, but then I remember why I began to speak. “What about my legs?”
“They are beautiful, but need toning,” she replies dutifully.
I can hear the swamp churning from my bedroom. I wake up knowing I have had a bad dream and can do nothing about it.
“I can’t walk,” I insist. I try to demonstrate, but there is nothing to show. I flip back my covers and my feet are still there.
“Maybe your legs just fell asleep,” she suggests. I do remember this about feet, and concede she may be right.
If it is true that feet fall asleep, then mine haven’t woken up in days. Medically, this could be considered a coma. I tell my fiancée this and she says that’s not the medical definition of a coma.
Lately, she has grown crabby having to serve me tea and pudding all day. She wants to see the swamp that I write so much about. I beg her not to to go, even implying that I will learn how to crochet with her, but one day I wake up to an empty room and i know where her greedy legs have taken her.
I ask repeatedly to be taken to the swamp but the staff say they cannot find it. I have written letters to the head of the resort. A response is always promptly sent, with warm wishes that pointedly ignore my concerns. I live in anticipation of weather reports, especially ones concerning high rainfall and possible flooding.
In the interim, I shrivel away. I used to be able to cup my belly in times of distress. It was warm, whole and comforting. Now I feel nothing. The staff is delighted, and as such, I suspect no one is especially eager to cure me of my ailments.
I think about my conversations with the swamp often, especially when I am afraid to fall asleep. Once I asked what the difference between a marsh and a swamp was.
“Oh a marsh is much less dangerous.”
“A swamp can’t harm, really,” I asserted somewhat stupidly.
“Well it’s not that deep,” it said with the nonchalance of someone bragging, “You don’t know how far I go.” My fiancee is 5’9’’. I wonder if you can tell how tall a swamp stands just by looking.
It seems impossible to lose an entire swamp, I insist to the staff, as the days go by and my fiancee refuses to return. I can hear it, I try to tell them. They call me names, but it’s true. The swamp sounds like it’s right by my ear, or hovering above my bed. I feel its warmth and its viscosity, almost as if it is in my blood, thickening it, congealing, until I too am full of phlegm, until I too am rattling instead of speaking.