Cross-Heart by Christopher Green
Marcus’s obsession with yoga came on a little bit like a stomach virus: slowly at first, but then rising toward the end, a wicked stab out of the blue. For a long time he had been talking about it, quietly, at the dinner table, small mumbles that could almost be mistaken for chewing. Then one day Stella came home and he had the mat open in the center of the living room. Palms down, fingers splayed, ass in the air—a pose strongly suggesting a cat just woken from a long nap.
This isn’t the first exercise craze he’s put them through. Two years ago he brought home a bike, not a real one but the stationary kind, for men who are frightened of cars. The kind that disappear into spare bedrooms and are used to hang shirts. Before that he signed up for an actual gym membership, but quit after nine days because, he said, he didn’t like the disparaging looks he got from the other men. They still had to pay the rest of the year’s contract. No, this is hardly a new thing, but it is perhaps more insidious than the other fads, because Marcus, it turns out, is into actual yoga. Not, as he insists, that pilates shit. He’s in it all the way: the breathing control, the meditation, the tapas. There are two books on Jainism sitting on the bedside table. Hesometimes refuses to eat meals or have sex (though she never actually offers the latter). This isn’t just a fitness kick; it’s a precipice from which he seems to have taken a sudden and graceless fall.
The problem, which is obvious to Stella and their friends and really everyone but Marcus, is that he’s five-foot-nine, two hundred seventy-eight pounds. He simply isn’t built for yoga. She watches him sometimes, from the living room doorway. He’ll be in the middle of the extended triangle, maybe, or the gate pose. Legs wide, hands up like satellites in orbit. He has such stubby arms, such thick legs. He reaches out, imagining himself as a swan or a sapling, but he looks more like a T-Rex trying to do The Lord of the Dance. She feels guilty, thinking things like this about a man she once loved terribly, and she goes in search of ways to atone, fixing him a light dinner, bringing him towels, putting on that “Flight of the Soul” Spotify playlist he likes so much. But the guilt is like a cork in a leaky boat, and sooner or later the water comes rushing back in.
“Where did you learn about this?” she asks him more than once. “Where did this come from?” But he only shakes his head, and attempts to make the transition to a high lunge. His foot squeaks forward across the mat in short, clumsy spurts, the calf muscles trembling with the strain.
They’ve been married twelve years. When they met Marcus was already a little weighty, but the true shape of him could still be glimpsed through the spare flesh. Stella could often make herself believe that she found it cute, that extra padding. Like the folds on a bulldog. She would pinch him and he would make the Pillsbury Doughboy giggle, which delighted her in a way that she finds embarrassing when she thinks back on it now. Then they got older, and Marcus went from just overweight to unequivocally obese. They actually had to start being more careful about furniture shopping, not too much but just a little. Most of the IKEA catalog is off limits now. Stella herself started to get a bit of a pudge at around thirty-three, but she saw what was happening right away and just cut back on the desserts, started taking a few walks around the subdivision now and then. She doesn’t see what’s so God damn hard about it.
It’s difficult to say, though, whether this is the main source of the decay in their marriage. She doesn’t like to think so, doesn’t want to see herself as shallow. But then shallowness is perhaps an accusation best reserved for situations that don’t warrant it. If there had been any difficulty loving him when they met, when he was about two-ten, that would be shallow. But she believes it takes a pretty concentrated effort to cultivate real obesity. You almost have to want it, it seems, in order to get that bad. She doesn’t really see a lot of unhealthy habits around the house, so it must be what he eats at work. Some of his friends are fat, too, along with his mother and sister and several nephews.
And there are other problems: Marcus doesn’t like to go out very much, preferring to stay inside and read. He makes a tidy sum writing about culture and politics, and even when he’s not working these topics consume a great deal of his life. He also maintains an ever-worsening relationship with Stella’s mother, who is notably less diplomatic on the subject of his weight (Stella once remarked that he didn’t fit into the usual yoga demographic, and her mother quipped, “I imagine that’s the point—he can’t fit into much of anything”). And he doesn’t seem to want to acknowledge that their relationship has been in a slow death-rattle for the last few years. They’re more or less just roommates at this point, and he’s either oblivious or in powerful denial.
But in a way that’s also precisely what makes this so hard, because in spite of the fact that he’s not much fun, and that he’s an endless source of niggling from her family, and that he looks a bit like late Marlon Brando (if Brando wore t-shirts with Mel Brooks and Jay-Z on them), there is still this one undeniable quality to Marcus: that he loves her. God, how he loves her. He loves her the way most human beings long for but can’t ever quite bring themselves to believe they deserve. After twelve years, he is still just this big pudgy ball of awe and gratitude. They’ll be sitting on the porch together one evening, and he’ll look up from his iPad, gaze at her for a few moments, and then say something like, “I love the way your hair looks right now, with the light from the kitchen,” or maybe “Fuck the cliches—I should buy you more flowers.” Sometimes he’ll approach her, as she’s standing over the sink or dressing for work or just staring out the sliding glass door in the den, and hug her, arms crossed tight over her shoulders and chest. No words, no nothing, just the hug, and even if she didn’t expect or even want it when it began, the force of its affection will always hold her to him, remind her just enough of what used to be there. There’s a sadness in these moments, which is why she’s so sure he knows exactly where he stands, whether he’ll say so or not. These are hugs that say, I don’t know if this will be the last one I get, so I’d better make it count.
The yoga thing has been going on for six months. At the one-month mark Stella decided that it was kind of a wait-and-see. He seemed so into it, she thought. Maybe it would stick. Maybe this would be the time he would get himself into shape. Then they could talk about the other things, once he had shown her that he could really dedicate himself to a goal, to making himself better. But here they are, at month six, and Marcus is still struggling with the downward-facing dog and other relatively undemanding poses. He doesn’t look any different at all. All that time has amounted to little more than a series of disembodied grunts floating toward her as she watches TV in the den, and one shattered table lamp from the time he tried to do the eagle.
Little by little, the guilt fades. The boat is finally starting to sink. It gets harder and harder to just smile and tell him to keep at it, what with her mother’s berating and her friends’ silent skepticism and her own growing resentment. Who does yoga for six months without losing a pound? Who can spend so much time on something with no results? She can’t stay married to someone like that. She still loves Marcus in some ways, she’s sure of that. It’s impossible not to love a man who is capable of such tenderness and devotion. But whatever ways she has left aren’t the right ones, or aren’t enough.
She comes in from the patio one afternoon to find him there, on his mat, meditating. He has his legs together in something that should be crossed but isn’t, not with his flexibility. His eyes are closed, and his arms are folded over his chest, which to Stella looks like the sign language gesture for love. “What are you doing?” she asks.
“It’s called kirtan kriya,” he replies, not opening his eyes. “Cross-heart meditation. It’s supposed to be good for my pineal gland, help restore my circadian rhythms.”
“Yeah but…” The words are hot in her throat, like tears just before they’re shed. She can’t hold them back anymore. Not this time. It’s too much. “But how is this supposed to help you lose weight?”
This time he does open his eyes, and they stare up at her sadly. “I’m not trying to lose weight,” he says.
“Wh—” This throws her way off, fills her with a toxic mix of shame and frustration. “Of course you’re trying to lose weight! That’s the whole point of this!”
“No, I’m trying to achieve harmony between my mind and my spirit. The body is just a secondary benefit.”
Stella decides not to mention the lack of any benefit to his body, secondary or otherwise. There are enough points to be made before she has to resort to that one, and she’s trying to go about this at least a little bit delicately. “But this is just like the other things. This is just the new version of you getting that bike.”
Marcus tilts his head, lips parted a little in confusion. “No, Honey. The bike was for you.”
“Well, I mean I said it was for me, but only because I didn’t want to give you the wrong idea. You had been saying a week or two before that Mira Thompkins had been using a bike at her gym, and how great she looked. And I could tell you were kind of jealous of her, from the way you said it. So I thought I’d get the bike, and—well, you know, if you happened to want to use it, I would have been happy to let you. I just didn’t say anything because I didn’t want you to think I was hinting that you were fat.”
This, Stella realizes with an uncomfortable pricking feeling, might actually be true. She does remember, vaguely, telling him about Mira and her gym obsession. And sure, maybe a little part of her wanted to look like that, too. But she hasn’t thought about that in forever. She can barely recall thinking about it then.
“But you’ve done other stuff. You joined a gym.”
He looks away, jaw tensed, and lets out a long weary breath. “That’s true,” he says. “That time was to lose weight. I mean I…” He swallows, a visible act that she can watch as it slides down his trunk-like neck. “I mean I saw, you know, the way you looked at me, or didn’t look at me, and I knew I should probably do something. But that place was awful. It was like a high school locker room. All the other guys would say things when I would get there, like “Hey! Big man on campus!” And they acted like it was because they liked me, but it wasn’t. It was just this weird, ritualistic thing where they all got together and piled on the guy they used to be. It made me feel like shit. So I stopped.”
Stella sits down on the edge of the chair opposite him. The two look at each other for a few moments, each of them knowing but not acknowledging that they are headed for something very unpleasant. In a single casual remark, Stella has thrown back the cover on what they were both pretending not to see. Now a great darkness looms just ahead of them. It makes her feel weightless, like going over a steep hill in the car.
“I think I’m always going to look like this,” Marcus says, frowning down at the bright, soothing blue of his mat. “I don’t think there’s anything I can do about it.”
“That’s ridiculous, Marcus. I mean it doesn’t take that much. You just watch what you eat, you try to stay active—”
“I do watch what I eat. You see me eat. I take the stairs at work. When I play golf I make the other guys wait because I don’t want to use the cart. I try. But I’m not like you, Stella. It doesn’t just happen for me.”
She shakes her head, too caught up in her bewilderment to be especially concerned about what they say to each other at this point. “Then what the hell are you doing this for? I mean if it’s not to get in shape, then why are you so nuts about it? Like why is it so important for you to achieve Arcadian cycles—”
“Whatever! Why do you need spiritual harmony? You’re fucking thirty-eight years old. You’ve never needed spiritual harmony before. Why now?”
The room rings with this last question, Why now, and Stella instantly wishes, with an intensity that crushes all around her like deep water, that she could take it back. Because in the act of asking it, of voicing it aloud, she has realized the answer, even before Marcus can give it words. Asking was like the last little twist of the lens, and now the whole thing is in perfect focus. All the shit about self-realization and tranquility and balance, it seems not only sensible, but embarrassingly obvious, and it is this embarrassment, as much as the understanding, that makes her chest tighten and her fingers curl into little anxious fists.
Marcus uncrosses his legs, and leaves them stretched out awkwardly in front of him. Sitting there like that, on his little rubber square, hunched over with his hands hanging limp in his lap and his feet still in their socks, he looks for all his girth like a child. Small and shy and defeated. “Because,” he says, “I want to know how to still be okay when you’re gone.”
It’s as though they’ve had this exact conversation every day for six months, and only now have they both realized it, the way they might wake in the middle of the night to their own mumbled sleeptalk. Every time she stood there watching him, she was asking him this question, and every time he just kept going, seemingly oblivious, he was giving her the only answer she needed, the only one she should have ever demanded of him.
Now they sit in silence, Marcus on his mat, Stella in the chair opposite him. Outside, branches sway across the window, and the room around them, full of the things they bought together, the decade and a half they built out of fear and compromise and deep, bracing love, the love that spoils and blooms with equal power, it flickers in the afternoon sun.
© Christopher Green, 2014
Christopher is a recent New York transplant from Cincinnati, currently residing in Brooklyn with two roommates and at least four mice. He holds both a BA and MA in English, helping him to reach his ultimate goal of raising underemployment to an art form. His stories have appeared in several journals and magazines such as Burner, The MacGuffin, and The Ampersand Review, and he publishes pieces bi-weekly with ImageCurve.com. He is also currently seeking representation for a novel, which is sort of about vampires but not really and it's kind of a whole big thing and maybe he just shouldn't have brought it up.
Cross-Heart was read by Kristen Calgaro on 1st October 2014