You walk into the Chortlin’ Hog. The tavern is filled with miscreants, the kind you expect to find in a town such as this. You are far from high society, here in the Harrowed Hills, which, per its name, is a pretty hardscrabble place. The most popular occupation here is Hog Farmer. You are not a Hog Farmer. You are an Adventurer. You, Verner Ignobis, are not from such a low place as this. You come from high society, from a royal bloodline, even if you’re more second cousin than rightful heir. Regardless, you are beautiful, and you know it. So much more beautiful than the pathetic denizens of the Chortlin’ Hog.
Or so you picture it. You’re not sure how your friends picture Verner or the Chortlin’ Hog. The Game Master can only say so much. The rest is up to each player, in their head, to summon up. The only thing you were outright told by Mark, the GM, was this: “You walk into the Chortlin’ Hog, a local tavern. Before you is an assortment of locals, drinking and talking, and at a few tables even playing cards. The bar itself is busy, with only a single seat left open. What do you do?”
You are not Verner Ignobis, of course. You are you. Nondescript you, chubby you, nobody-looking-at-you you. But when you play with Mark, Ben, and Will, you are not you anymore. You can be free of you and instead be Verner Ignobis. Sexy, confident, sizzling Verner Ignobis, the flame-focused Sorcerer.
What would Verner do? you ask yourself.
Something you wouldn’t do if your life depended on it.
“I walk up to the bar,” you say to Mark, the GM. “And I flirt with the first person I see.”
He asks you to roll Charisma. You roll a d20 across the card table Mark set up in his dorm room, which barely fits in the cramped space. After clacking across the plastic surface, the die comes to a rest.
A 20. Critical Success. Rejoice, for tonight, you are kissing not one, but two buxom blondes.
* * *
“Is that true?” Brad asks you.
Brad is your therapist. You hate when he asks you this. It’s a dead giveaway that what you’ve said needs examining, which is to say, what you’ve said isn’t true, i.e., not true in the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy sense, even if it feels true—super true, oftentimes—in your body. If therapy was a game, “Is that true?” would be the GAME OVER screen. In order to continue, you must press A. A in this case being painful and markedly difficult self-examination.
Today, the thought which has produced the true/not-true prompt was: I am fat and effeminate.
It has taken you a while to even get to the point where you can voice that feeling in such direct terms. Previously, you had nervously circled around it like a boy at a middle school dance. Like you at a middle school dance. You would say, “I’m not thin, per se,” or, “I didn’t look like the other boys on the swim team,” or, “I have a little extra, so to speak, around the midsection.” So it feels frustrating to name the feeling with exactitude for once, only to have to turn it over and examine it. You feel as though you are being asked to hold your hand on a hot stove.
“No,” you say to Brad, because you know this is the correct answer to the question. No, it is not true. But “No” is not sufficient. “No” is only the door which must be opened. There’s a whole room yet to explore.
You muddle your way through. You say that while you may feel this way, fat and effeminate, it is not true, no, that you are, and that by reminding yourself of what is true and not true, you can navigate these feelings of self-hate and hyper-vigilance. The Truth Statement, the one that is actually true, which you produce with prompting and help from Brad is: “I am healthy and able-bodied, and everything else is what others project onto me.” He also adds some stuff about how fat is a healthy way that our bodies store energy, but that feels kind of twee to you. You do not yet believe this Truth Statement, but Brad writes it down on a note card and hands it to you to keep with you.
As you work through the process of getting from each Felt Falsehood to its subsequent Truth Statement, accumulating more and more flash cards to put in your backpack, you become very aware of your body in space. Specifically, your body in Brad’s office. You sit in a stout chair beneath a large pane of glass that lets abundant sunlight into the room. It pours over the top of you and onto your therapist, a middle-aged man with hippy-esque speech patterns, who sits at his desk next to the door that leads back to the waiting room. Brad always has his hands at his side and his legs only occasionally crossed. He sits in a rolly chair and takes full advantage of it, moving about the room during the session. You, on the contrary, sit with your legs firmly crossed and moreover your arms folded across your chest and sometimes stomach. You can’t decide which to hide at any given moment, but both are to be covered because neither are attractive or masculine. Both are fat, you tell yourself, even though you know that you are not fat-fat in the way some people are, only chubby, which only adds to the self hate, in that you know some people have it worse and yet here you are, whinging to a therapist because you have health insurance through the university now, which is better than your parents ever had through their jobs, and so now you can see someone like Brad, a former protestor with a Master’s degree, without even telling your mom about it, because it would hurt her to know what hurt you carry with you when you’ve spent so long pretending you were fine.
But you couldn’t hide it from yourself anymore. You couldn’t. You hit a wall. You hit a wall late one night looking at yourself in the mirror, staring at your chest and pulling at the fat that accumulates there, pinching at it, grasping at it and pulling as though you could rip it from your body like excess clay, hating your chest and your nipples in particular for their inability to lie flat against muscle that didn’t exist, feeling unloveable, feeling unfuckable, feeling unworthy, and then the panic attack came and you found yourself on your bed, stabbing breaths shaking your body like rumble strips on a highway, until the thought came to you that there were two ways to deal with these feelings, and one of them wasn’t pretty.
The depth of that thought scared you. You’d never had it before. But you found yourself here, in Brad’s office, so there is hope. You don’t believe the Truth Statements yet. You live firmly within the Felt Falsehoods. You hope some day it will change for you. You keep your weekly appointments with Brad so that one day you might feel good.
* * *
Verner is five foot eleven and, though not muscly by any means (he’s a Sorcerer, not a Fighter), he’s toned and trimmed. But his physique is not his primary means of attraction: he is charming, with high Charisma, and is a bit of a show off. He thinks very highly of himself, which is a challenge for you to role play. To play Verner is to ask yourself, continuously, What would someone who likes themselves do in this situation?
Though you didn’t know it at first, this is what drew you to playing Verner. To creating him. The previous character you played, Chovras Phynior, was an old, professorial Wizard. He was more or less a librarian with access to Lightning Damage. True Neutral—the lamest alignment. Then Chovras Phynior died to an Ooze and you had to start over again. So you went with a Sorcerer. A Sorcerer is a hit at parties. Unlike Wizards, he acquires his magic at a young age. He is a prodigy, a debutant, an attractive individual with a trimmed mustache and sex appeal for days. He is popular and well-liked. And so was born Verner Ignobis.
You like playing Verner for precisely these reasons. Yes, mechanically speaking, he’s capable of putting out big damage, which is always fun when playing D&D, versus the stodgy mitigation of playing a Paladin. But it isn’t his DPS that makes Verner fun to play for you. It’s that he is what you want to be. Confident. Sexy. Slim. And while you don’t necessarily want to be the kind of guy who makes out with two women at a bar, you don’t not want to be that guy.
“Really, Verner?” says Oira. “Really?”
Oira is a dwarf and a Fighter. He is a hard drinker, as most dwarves are, which is funny considering that Will is a Mormon, which means not only does he not drink alcohol, he can’t even drink iced tea.
Oira, bidden by Will, approaches the bar to interrupt Verner’s revelry. He pulls Verner away mid-kiss and drags him back to the table with Lena, the Cleric played by Ben. Lena clearly disapproves of the behavior, being an ascetic and a follower of Fharlanghn. To her, the road is to be worshipped, and any stop is but a diversion from man’s true calling: travel. Thus, any resting place is a kind of sin.
“We’re supposed to be gathering information, Verner. Not indulging ourselves,” Lena says. “We have seven days to find the missing priest.”
Verner smiles broadly and dabs his lips with his sleeve, looking to see if there are any lipstick stains on his silken robe.
“There are not,” Mark says flatly.
You had imagined there to be lipstick stains, but now you have to unimagine them.
“What did you think I was doing?” Verner says.
“Trying to get lucky,” Oira says.
Oira orders a round of beers for the table, but when they arrive, he pulls every pint to himself, drinking them at “incredible speed,” as Will says, which seems to come out of his lack of experience with alcohol, but then dwarfs are notoriously good drinkers, so you roll with it.
“Well, yes,” Verner says. “But not only that. Who better than the locals to help us find the trail? I was merely trying to . . . persuade them first.”
Lena points to the two women with which Verner was previously ensconced.
“Those two? You think those two have the lead on the whereabouts of our missing priest?”
The two buxom blondes wave with their fingers at Verner.
“I wink at them,” you say.
“Easily done,” Mark says. “They wink back, but one of them is bad at winking.”
Lena acquiesces and you go back to the two women, but as you approach, their attention is taken instead by a mysterious man in black plate mail.
“His pauldrons have an ornate pattern to them, which you can’t make out in detail in the dark of the tavern, but when the light catches them, you see just how black the metal is,” Mark says. “Like a starless night.”
Whenever Mark gives a description like this, you know it’s because he wants you to interact with a character. He only ever describes characters like this if he really cares about them. Otherwise, they’re just “a man with red hair” or “a man with tattered clothes” or “an elf, a standard elf.” Soon as they have any kind of specific clothing, you know they’re important. Which you suppose is how life works too, but it’s even more obvious when playing D&D. They may as well have a sign around their necks that reads Advance Plot Here!
“I go talk to him,” Ben says.
While Ben, as Lena, makes conversation with the obviously plot-critical character that Mark has introduced, you find yourself bored and disinterested, even though you’ve been playing this campaign with these guys for almost a year now and you very much like the campaign that Mark has created and D&D in general. With D&D, you get to be the person you wish you were. And so the appearance of the man in black armor should be exciting. It heralds more adventure. It heralds potential danger. It heralds a scene shift away from the tavern, which for D&D is the quintessential location of holding patterns.
In normal circumstances, you’d be excited for the next plot development. But thinking of holding patterns, you feel a twinge of sadness. Your mind drifts from the game toward your life, which is never ideal. You’re not sure what’s bothering you, which itself bothers you, when Brad’s voice enters your mind.
Name the thing, without judgment or criticism, that you feel in your body right now.
If you had to name it, you would say longing.
* * *
You think Dana is cute. Dana is in Climate Change with you. Climate Change is the agreed-upon science class for people who don’t like science. The professor doesn’t ask much of you. He’s happy if you just show up, which you do. The tests are open book. You do learn things, but you’re never challenged. For a non-major, this is the ideal scenario.
You’re not sure what Dana’s major is. The class is held in a room that feels like a theater, with several rows of slightly curved tables, each about a foot or so higher than the last. Each row is lined with rolling chairs that are chained to the floor. Some seats have electrical outlets while others don’t. You sit in the second to last row while Dana sits in the second to first row. You only know her name because the professor calls on her regularly when she raises her hand.
“Yes, Dana?” the professor says.
Then Dana says something smart and your crush deepens.
Dana has a Persona pin on her backpack. You noticed it at the beginning of the semester, weeks ago at this point, but haven’t yet worked up the courage to say anything. You want to say to Dana: “Nice Teddy pin.” At this, you assume she will say “Thank you,” and maybe she will blush. You’re hoping that she will feel that your reciprocal knowledge of the Persona series (such as it is—you started both 3 and 4, but finished neither) is enough to want to get coffee with you at the Durmand Student Center. That’s all you want. Coffee.
But you never compliment Dana on her Persona pin. Instead you imagine all the ways complimenting her could possibly go wrong. For instance, the most basic way it could go wrong is that you compliment her on her Persona pin and she finds it creepy and doesn’t talk to you for the rest of the semester. Or, worse, she finds it charming that you know who Teddy is, decides to go out to coffee with you, but finds you to be kind of a weirdo, and not in the way she likes, and then tells you that you make her feel weird and that she doesn’t want to talk to you again. Or, worse than worse, she gets coffee with you and it goes well, but when you go to kiss her, you feel that paralyzing fear, that familiar, whole-body dread, the one that made you go to therapy because it didn’t seem normal to you, the one where your whole body tenses and every nerve in your body feels like fire, and suddenly you’re very aware of your fat and how soft it makes you when you wish you were flatter, firmer, more manly, and how if, God forbid (but also God willing), Dana were to ever want to see you without your shirt, she would look sadly at you and say nothing, but the look is enough to know how she feels, which is not attraction, which is not love, which is not what you want. But really none of that could really happen, because when you went to kiss her, you’d be imagining it in the lead up to the kiss (itself imagined), and all this nervousness makes you want to run, like full-on run away, to give up, so that even if you did manage to get a kiss in, it would be weird and not great, the same way the truth or dare kiss with Bethany in high school was weird and not great, and because of that you’ll never have anyone, never have a girlfriend, least of all Dana, because you’re fat and soft, and that makes you feminine, and while Brad would say Is that true?, fuck Brad for this moment, because goddamnit Brad, it is true, it is true in your body, it is true in that moment and that’s all that makes anything true, Brad, fuck.
By the time you have run through all the disastrous possibilities of rejection in Climate Change, Dana is gone. And not only is Dana gone, but so is everyone else. It is just you and the friendly professor, who cleans up the whiteboard in silence and gives you space to think, probably believing you were pondering the contents of his class and not your romantic and sexual failings. Soon, you gather your things and leave.
* * *
The problem with Skeletons is that you can’t flirt with them. You can, of course, blast them with Fireballs, which is what Verner does. But while explosions are always, always cool, this is not the kind of hotness you find yourself wishing for Verner. The crowd of ten Skeletons is reduced to three Skeletons. The three that are left standing are higher level Skeletons that have special Skeleton powers. Oira charges in to smash them to dust. His +1 Warhammer does the job nicely. You (you-you) know that Skeletons have a weakness to Bludgeoning weapons, which is why Oira is doing so well. But you (Verner-you) only really know that bones are flying every which way, shattering into clouds of particulate calcium.
The Skeletons are not a problem with respect to the party’s questing. You are all well-equipped to fight them, and you only spend three rounds in Initiative order before resuming regular play. The previous night (in-game), after a successful night of intel gathering and a solid Intimidation roll from Oira, you managed to glean from the bartender that a group of brigands had been seen outside of town, dragging a bound man whose face was covered in a burlap sack. The man was dressed in a brilliant white robe, or a robe that used to be brilliantly white, before being dragged through the mud. So it was more of an off-white by that point. At any rate, the scuttlebutt was that the Black Knight, with his “starless night” armor, was wrapped up in this somehow. Which of course he was. He wouldn’t look how he looked if he wasn’t involved. Mark had some skill as a GM, especially with respect to encounter design, but narrative subtlety was never his strong suit.
These former-Skeletons, now piles of dust, fun as they were to topple, were by definition nonessential. They dotted the lair of the Black Knight, who was either himself some kind of Necromancer or else had someone under his employ doing the dirty work of ethically ambiguous resurrection. The undead now re-dead, the party continues on, up the stone staircase of the dilapidated tower you found in the middle of the woods outside of town.
“He’s got to be close,” Oira says.
“We can only hope,” Lena says.
“I can’t wait to get back to town and rest my weary feet,” you say. “I’m not made for roughing it like this.”
Oira laughs at you.
“You’re only happy with an arm around a pretty lady, Vern,” he says. “And I’m only happy with a cold brew in front of me!”
Will’s insistence on playing up the hard-drinking aspect of his character continues to ring hollow, and moreover, curiously performative. You wonder whether your own attempts at getting outside yourself read as transparently.
Verner flips his scarf behind his back and smirks, and the party continues up the tower. At the top of the tower is a well-furnished room. In it, obviously, is the Black Knight, as well as the priest in his now off-white robe. He wears a pair of ornate gloves, Mark stresses.
“So it was you who have been making all this ruckus,” the Black Knight says. “Very well then.”
The priest, kneeling before the knight, head still bagged, says nothing. He quivers, Mark notes, but is otherwise quiet. You had assumed he would plead for your help, but perhaps he is too proud for such things. Oira steps forward with his Warhammer in hand.
“I wouldn’t suggest that,” the Black Knight says, raising the blade of his sword to the priest’s neck.
Lena pulls Oira back then places a hand on his holy symbol, a simple wooden circle with a curved line cutting across the center, representing the road, and a slight crescent above, either the sun or the moon. She says a quiet prayer to herself.
“Enough. Your zealous mumbling won’t save you here,” the Black Knight says. “I should know.”
At this, he swings his blade and the head of the priest comes clean off and onto the floor. The party gasps, both in-character and not in-character. Will actually puts a hand to his chest at the card table. You find that your eyebrows are raised. Mark is not known for such violent denouements.
“But,” Mark says, leaning in with clear relish. “You notice something strange. The head, when it falls from the priest’s shoulders and onto the floor, does not make the kind of noise you would expect. Indeed, the noise it makes is something you’re quite familiar with. Something… you’ve heard very recently.”
Across the card table, over character sheets and garish dice, Mark smirks cooly.
“Instead of a wet plop, it instead sounds dry and brittle. Almost . . . like bones clattering against stone tiling. You notice then that the headless body does not slump over as you expect, either. It remains upright in its previous position, still quivering as before. Nor, you see now, does it bleed. The Black Knight laughs maniacally as the body rises. When it stands, the gloves fall from its hands, revealing no skin—only bone. Roll Initiative.”
We fight the Black Knight and his Skeleton thrall, cleverly disguised as the priest we were seeking. We win, though it is a close battle, Oira getting scarily close to 0 HP before Lena dropped a big heal on him. We don’t kill the Black Knight, though, not outright, because we still want more information from him. He is bleeding out, but can still be stabilized. Verner places a finger, burning red with an imminent Fireball, on his forehead.
“What have you done with him? The priest of Cuthbert?” you say.
The Black Knight laughs and goes to remove his helmet. You keep your finger leveled between his eyes but allow him to do so. As he removes his helmet, he looks far more wizened than you expected. His eyes, Mark says, twinkle with something like regret.
“You have found him,” the Black Knight says. “Go and tell Bishop Carrigan what you’ve found. And leave me to die.”
The twist is a pleasant surprise. It isn’t that uncommon a narrative trope—bad guy is secretly the good guy—but for Mark, it’s a surprisingly subtle conclusion to this episode. Indeed, it’s where he leaves you all for the night, packing up his maps and dice.
“That was awesome,” Ben says.
“Totally,” Will says.
“Loved it,” you say.
“Thanks,” Mark says, blushing.
That night you dream about the Black Knight. You are fighting him, except it’s you-you and not Verner-you. You’re woefully unequipped to fight him, lacking flame magic, and the tides quickly turn in his favor. You kneel before him in defeat. Instead of lopping your head off like he did with the priest, he uses a necromancy spell on you to dry up your flesh, which clings closer and closer to your bones until it eventually craters and you are nothing but a Skeleton yourself. You wake up in a sweat and got to touch your ribs, which you find padded with flesh.
* * *
If you had to say where it started, you couldn’t. There isn’t any real starting point to how you feel about your body. There are memories, though. Bad memories, and many. Some of them are more palpable than others. Some so palpable that you can more or less re-experience them at will. The one that comes to mind, and the one you talk to Brad about, is the thing that happened at swim practice. Or rather, one of the things that happened at swim practice.
You were a swimmer in middle school and high school. You were not a great swimmer, but neither were you a poor one. You were middling, skill-wise, and you swam distance, where the coaches usually put the fatter boys. Why is it that chubby boys flock to swimming, the sport where their bodies are most exposed to the world? Are they herded toward it, like a cruel joke? You wonder this now in Brad’s office.
Regardless, the thing that happened that you think about more than you want to think about it is this:
You are on the pool deck. You are a swimmer on the varsity team. You are stretching before practice. You are uncomfortable and anxious, feelings deeply familiar to you, though not easily named at the time. You have only a thin, lycra swimsuit on. Your chest and stomach are out, however, and you cover them instinctively with your crossed arms in front of you as you walk the pool deck. You hate that your body has not hardened in the way it has for other boys. You had hoped your middle school body would quickly become a high school body, but no such luck. At swim meets, you wear a towel over your shoulder when possible, draped over your chest like a protective breastplate. You wear a knee-length “jammer” as opposed to the regular speedo that the skinnier boys on the team wear. The reason for this is that it hides more of your thighs, which like the rest of you is just a bit too much. Your fat collects mostly along your stomach and your chest. You have a strong, hardened back, but no one notices that. You are not obese, but you are overweight. You know this from the doctors when they weigh you, but also from your own teammates, who pick on you.
A boy whose torso looks like an upturned Dorito approaches you as you stretch before practice. The boy is one of four team captains. The team voted for him, vouched for his leadership. He has won many events, while you have never won any events because there is a faster distance swimmer than you, and he only gets faster every year. The upturned Dorito boy is a sprinter and has a sprinter’s body. There is no ounce of fat on him, and if locker room talk is to be believed, the pool is not the only thing he is swimming in. You are jealous of him. You in many ways already hate him, but you will soon hate him even more.
The upturned Dorito boy walks up to you and flicks your nipple. You punch him in the arm and he returns the favor.
“Nice tits,” he says, and you scoff.
This is not the first time someone has said something like this to you. You are used to it. It is usually just a passing comment. But you know now, in Brad’s office, that passing comments accumulate, harden, and adhere over the years, becoming a mass much larger than any one comment or jeer. Unfortunately, in the moment you are reliving, this comment does not prove passing. The upturned Dorito boy has more to say.
He circles you, looking you up and down. You ignore him, because you have learned that ignoring boys like him is your best bet, your only salvation. Besides, practice will start soon, and already your teammates are coming out of the locker room, allowing you to pass into the protective anonymity of a crowd. This gives you some comfort. Your tactic of ignoring him is ineffective, however. He keeps circling you like a rail-thin buzzard, staring at your body with vague hunger.
You break. You address him.
“What? What do you want?” you say.
This is a mistake you have made, are making, will make again.
“It’s just,” he says. “Your boobs, they’re perfect. They look good. Good enough to—”
He grabs your chest then, your left breast, or what would be your breast if you were a woman, or what is your breast in that moment, what becomes in that moment a breast and for every moment after it thought of as a breast, not a pectoral muscle, not simply your chest, and not only that but sign and signal that you are not masculine enough, that your body is too soft, too womanly, too, too, too. And when you look in the mirror that night after practice (the first of many such nights looking in the mirror), long after you swatted away the boy’s hand and got on with the practice, your eyes drift down instinctively to that breast, which is still fat, and your nipple, which protrudes like a fleshy triangle instead of laying flat against a plateau of hardened muscle like you want it to. You look at it and feel shame and loneliness and hatred, not only that night, but many more to come. And while you don’t think of that boy too often anymore, you do think of this feeling most days, this feeling that, if asked, you trace back to that moment on the pool deck, whether it really started in that moment or not. Whatever the inception, you can say with certainty, yes, I felt it then, and I feel it now. I have not yet let go of it, I still carry it, I still have it.
This moment, and others like it, often come unbidden to your mind. In your dorm, as you lay your head down to rest. With your friends, over lunch. In class, while you’re supposed to be listening. You sink into your body like a lightless pit. Outwardly, you glaze over, as if you are in deep thought. From an outside perspective, you might seem meditative. But you are far from that. You are anxious, paralyzed, looping. You are on the pool deck, you are in the mirror, you are by yourself. You are never where you are. You are a painful elsewhere.
What it feels like to you, and you say this to Brad, is D&D. Your mind gives way to another world, which though not real, is so vividly imagined as to seem so. But instead of taverns, castles, and astral planes, you are on the pool deck. In both cases, you joke, Skeletons wish to do you grievous bodily harm. Brad tells you that humor is a defense mechanism but not the truth. In this case, you disagree.
* * *
“Why don’t you just talk to her?” Ben asks.
“It’s not that simple,” you say.
“Nah, it really is,” he says. “Women are people. You can talk to people.”
You laugh instead of replying. You know Ben is right, but you are also terrified of talking to Dana, and you feel embarrassment for feeling terrified, which only compounds the terror. You are not yet at the point where you can communicate to Ben why this is the case. That kind of thing is confined to Brad’s office for now. So you just laugh, which annoys Ben.
“I’m serious,” he says. “After next class, just go up to her and ask her whether she wants to get coffee. Just like this: ‘Hey, do you want to get coffee sometime?’ Boom. Done. She either says yes or no, and if you prepare yourself for the no, the interaction will either be exactly what you expect or you’ll be pleasantly surprised. That’s my advice.”
Ben took Intro to Gender Studies last semester and he recommends the course to everyone he knows. You suspect this is why he plays a woman in D&D, as a kind of virtue signaling, but that’s probably just you being salty. Still, his holier-than-thou attitude toward gender politics gets under your skin. But his current advice seems solid, you have to admit.
“Thanks,” you say to him.
You mean it. It actually did help. You like rules-based systems, and Ben knows this. It’s what you understand, so to break down human interaction like this helps ease that gnawing sense of doom that grazes your stomach whenever you think of talking to Dana. And the system he’s proposed is radically simple, more 5e than 3.5e. All the better.
“Oh, and one more thing,” Ben says. “Don’t get weird if she says no. That’s her prerogative. She doesn’t owe you anything.”
You smile and he claps your shoulder.
“You got this, nerd,” he says.
You repeat that to yourself throughout the week as you approach the dreaded hour of Climate Change. You got this, nerd. You got this, nerd. Despite the seeming pejorative of nerd, you start to identify with it, and moreover to feel confident in it. Brad would call this reframing, but his incessant need to name things exactly drives you a little batty sometimes, so for now you settle on the fact that you feel good and you go with that. You enter Climate Change and take a deep breath. You got this, nerd.
The class begins and proceeds as one might expect. The professor draws diagrams on the whiteboard that you more or less understand but still have some fundamental confusions about. But you are still doing better than the majority of people in this class, who, to the professor’s obvious frustration, regularly ask what the difference between weather and climate is.
Dana does not ask such questions. Dana, when she does raise her hand, which is more rarely as of late, asks thoughtful, illuminating questions that bolster your own education by getting at the thing that you were vaguely confused about, for which Dana found the exact wording to produce the necessary clarification. Dana is a better student than you. You don’t even need to see her grade to know this for a fact.
Class ends, and Dana begins to gather her things. Your stomach drops and you feel like you have to shit. Your palms sweat and no amount of jean rubbing helps the situation. You try to repeat You got this, nerd to yourself, but it comes out sounding sarcastic somehow, in your own head. Very shortly after this, you start to panic and consider leaving and not talking to her. You are back to imagining all the ways things could go wrong and back to thinking about all the fat that pillows your body. You start to leave. You are out in the hallway and on your way back to the dorm when something in you says, Hey, just turn around. At first you ignore that voice and just keep walking, because would that it were so simple, but then it comes back, the voice, which is your voice, and it says, Deep breath, nerd. Deep breath, then turn around. So you do. You take two deep breaths and turn around. And there, leaving the classroom is Dana, and she sees you looking at her. You blush at even her passing glance and consider running again, but to your surprise, she smiles back and walks over.
“Hi,” she says.
“Hey,” you say.
You are amazed that your mouth has produced a Hey, given that it currently feels as though every muscle in your abdomen is working to push out everything that’s in your stomach, and your mind, well, it’s doing what it does best, which is spinning in circles. But in recognizing that it is spinning circles, you can change direction, and so you do, and then surprise yourself by saying:
“I like your Teddy pin.”
This was not the plan, but it’ll do. Ben will be proud of you when you tell him later. You feel weird for thinking about how Ben will be proud of you.
“Oh, thanks,” Dana says. “I like him, too. Obviously.”
She laughs and it only occurs to you then that Dana could be nervous as well. That that was even a possibility.
“He’s my favorite character in P4, actually,” she says. “What about you?”
And like that, you are walking and talking with Dana, and it is so much easier than you would have imagined, because it turns out Ben is right, Dana is a person, and you feel bad for thinking of her for so long as not a person, but instead some unapproachable thing, which is equally deifying and degrading. You walk with her to the dining hall, but you don’t feel much like eating because you feel so much like shitting your pants. Instead, bidden by some unknowable force that may or may not be confidence, you follow through on the plan.
“Hey,” you say.
Dana looks up at you and smiles. Her face is round and eyes are green, and she has the kind of red hair that seems vaguely punk even if it’s strictly genetic.
“Do you want to maybe,” you say. “Play D&D some time?”
“You what?” Mark says.
“You didn’t,” Will says.
“For the record, that is not what I advised,” Ben says. “And doubly for the record, I think it is a bad idea.”
You frown and fold your arms across your chest. The three of you are eating dinner in the dining hall. You had not expected this reaction. You had expected them to be happy for you. To go along with it. To roll a character for her to make it easier to start playing the next time. But primarily you had expected them to be happy for you.
“Permission to provide, in list form, the many reasons why this is a bad idea?” Ben says.
You grant it begrudgingly, knowing that it would be worse to tell him no. Will stops eating and sits back in his chair, setting down his utensils, as if for a show. You become irrationally mad at Will because of this. You think nasty things about his Mormonism and how it relates to his own nonexistent dating life at the small liberal arts college you all go to, at which Will might be the solitary Mormon presently matriculated.
“Firstly, if you’re trying to get laid, there are better ways to go about it,” Ben says. “For instance, remember when I told you to ask her to coffee? That comes to mind.”
“You two convened beforehand?” he says. “Pathetic.”
“You’re pathetic,” you say, and Mark mimics the mimicry like a Gibbering Mouther.
“Secondly,” Will continues. “Your endgame is weak. Think it through: she comes to the game, starts playing with us, and then, what? You ask her out as Verner? You roll Persuasion so hard that it isn’t just her character who falls in love with you, but her as well?”
“Okay, I get it,” you say. “I screwed up. I should’ve asked her to coffee. I panicked, okay? I panicked.”
“Yeah, you did,” Will says. “But that’s what I’m saying. This is not just a failure. This is a Critical Failure.”
You throw your hands up and go to leave, but Will pulls you back down into your chair.
“Fine, okay, sorry,” Will says. “I’ll let it go. I just think you probably should’ve asked her to coffee instead.”
“Well, I didn’t,” you say. “So where do we go from here?”
* * *
“Where do we go from here?” Dana says.
She’s saying it as Urissa, her gnome Rogue. She’s 3’5” and has neon pink hair. She joined the party at (where else?) the Chortlin’ Hog and has since helped gather information on a magical item the Black Knight/Priest was seeking for use for his nefarious purposes. The party followed the map fragment that Urissa “procured” from a noble to a spot in the hills that was supposed to lead them to a labyrinth. But so far, the party wandering the woods at dusk, no labyrinth can be found.
Lena calls on Fharlanghn in an attempt to divine the way forward. If she were higher level, she would have access to the spell Find the Path, but for now she’s settling for a characterological attempt at communing with her god, which is to say, a non-mechanical means of going about things, which is to finally say, she touches her holy symbol and prays, not to Fharlanghn, but to Mark for mercy. You, meanwhile, keep touching the collar of your shirt. Your real shirt, not the deep purple garb that Verner dresses in. You are wearing a button down at the plastic card table, as though this were a date. Usually you would just wear a t-shirt. But you (you-you) are trying to impress Dana (Dana-Dana, and not Urissa-Dana), so you dressed up.
But Dana is not Dana-Dana right now. Dana is a quick-witted gnome, and she’s clearly very excited to be playing D&D. She’s not played since high school, she told you, and the last campaign kind of dissolved over some interpersonal disputes.
“You know how those things go,” she’d said.
You nodded grimly, and if there were a GM around to roll Insight for her, she might’ve gleaned more from your nervous downward glance.
Now, you sit at a table with her in Mark’s room, which only now do you think of as being messy, wondering how to get her to a different kind of table. One with silverware and maybe candles, sans grid-based map and assorted dice.
Lena leads the party further into the woods. Will, out of character, says that he wishes the party had a ranger at their disposal.
“Should I have played a ranger?” Dana says.
“No, rogue is fine,” Ben says. “We can use the extra damage, and I have faith that Mark will eventually stop dicking around and let the plot move forward.”
“Dicking around is D&D. If you want a more linear experience, go play a video game.”
He says video game like a slur, like he doesn’t also play video games outside of the time he spends preparing our campaign. Dana looks uncomfortable, and you feel a deep sense of regret. Your whole body is regret, it feels like, and again you notice (because if therapy is doing anything for you, it’s making you notice things far more acutely) that your body is closed up and closed off. You, despite your button-down, are crumpled into your foldout chair as though it were a beanbag. You try to open up, to uncross your arms and legs, so that you don’t seem cold, so that you don’t feel cold. You want Dana to like you. You want Dana to have fun. So, recognizing a Saving Throw when you see one, you make a gamble.
“Verner walks off in a random direction,” you say. “He yells back to the group, ‘I’m quite tired of all this ambling around. If we’re to stumble around blindly, I say let’s stumble around blindly.’”
Dana smiles. You see the smile as coming from Dana-Dana and not Urissa-Dana, but you have no idea of knowing. You long for a scenario in which these distinctions were not present, as if inter-human interaction weren’t already fraught with uncertainty without adding a mechanical layer of playable subtext on top of it.
“Urissa wanders off with Verner,” she says, and though you immediately judge yourself for it, your heartbeat quickens in response. You imagine the two of you wandering off into the woods—Urissa and Verner, hand in hand—starting your own adventuring party, away from no-nonsense Lena and know-nothing Oira. Together, you start an empire based on backstabbing and pyromancy. You incorporate and establish baseline rates for the industry. You corner the dungeoneering market, together.
But none of this comes to fruition, because Mark has both of you roll Dexterity Saves and both of you fail, landing you in a net that drags you both up into the trees.
The battle that ensues takes up the rest of the session. It’s a messy one, more brute force than cunning. You don’t even make it to the labyrinth, though as a tease at the end of the night, Mark offers that you see a stone structure in the distance after the Bugbear ambush has settled down. The shared imaginary space is then dispersed, and you are left with the scene before you: everyone packing up their things in silence. There is no moment of reflection, saying whether things were cool or not cool. There is no talk of what everyone is doing next. There is only the stony silence of a group of five people putting their playthings away. You want to say something, to break the Zone of Awkwardness that has been cast over everything, but it is Dana who ends up being the hero in this case.
“That was fun, guys,” she says. “Thanks for including me.”
It strikes you that Dana has not stopped playing a character. It’s not that she’s still Urissa, but rather a half-Dana, a Dana who wishes to give the appearance of not feeling sad or weird. It is a Dana who wishes she didn’t feel singled out. It is a Dana who wishes she hadn’t come.
She leaves, and everything in you tells you to follow her and apologize. But the voice that tells you that you are fat and undesirable and an absolute fuck-up is louder than everything. And it hates you for this, you stupid asshole. What did you think would happen?
So you stay put instead.
* * *
“It strikes me that this was an unfortunate situation for a few reasons,” Brad says.
You don’t even bother trying to make more eye contact with Brad today. You’re annoyed with him and his implacable ability to see things clearly. You unapologetically train your gaze on the wall to the left of Brad, which has two copies of Brad’s terminal degree, one of which has the watermark “COPY” over it, which makes you wonder why it’s up there at all. It doesn’t help that Brad is wearing a Hawaiian shirt today, which with its parrots of many colors seems especially designed to aggravate you.
“First, I might suggest that it seems like the situation was designed to make you feel unsafe. Your friends were present, but they weren’t really friends in this scenario, more like combatants. Ben in particular, it sounds like. And I mean that divorced from the D&D stuff.”
You just keep staring at Brad’s degrees as though they were Brad himself.
“Second, if I can be frank, it also sounds like the situation was designed to make Dana feel unsafe. Women are often put in spots like this, where they expect one thing to be happening—in this case, the playing of a game—but really what is happening is that some man is interested in her and is using the game to get close to her. It can be disorienting and disheartening.”
You grow angry at Brad’s degrees, which are basically Brad’s Character Sheet, if you think about it. They’re not actually him in the way that Verner is not actually you. But still, you project onto them the same way you project onto Lena or Oira your complaints about Ben or Will. You do this because it’s easier than facing the real person. You think about saying this to Brad, but instead you keep it inside.
“I’m not saying this to shame you,” Brad says after some weighty silence. “I just want us to think about strategies to make you feel safe and supported, and which make Dana, or whoever it happens to be in your life that you care about, feel safe and supported. But first, let’s talk about you. Because you are your own common denominator.”
You spend the rest of the time brainstorming ways to feel safe and supported. At first, you are resistant to the effort, because you are used to feeling scared and anxious, and while of course you don’t enjoy feeling scared and anxious, these feelings are familiar to you. You have more experience with them. You are being asked to pick up other lines of reasoning, other patterns of thought, to replace the ones you have spent your whole life cultivating. It is as though you are being asked to cross-class in D&D, which though attractive on paper is actually much harder to accomplish than you would like.
You leave the session wanting nothing to do with Brad and Brad’s “homework.” You have enough real homework to do without having to practice “creating space for reflection and radical honesty.” You think about not going back. It’s so goddamned tiring to go to therapy. The hour you spend in the office with Brad is the least of it. That passes by quickly, and you have Brad to consult at every turn. What’s actually hard is the time in between. It’s hard to walk around with your old foundation cracking and steadily disappearing, even if that foundation wasn’t really serving you in the end. Familiarity is a comfort, and therapy has taken that from you. Everything must be seen anew, even when you would rather just look at it the old way. But you can’t anymore. You’ve already taken the first step, and there’s no turning back once inside the labyrinth. You change your mind about quitting. You do Brad’s homework, and, like all Brad’s homework, it helps. You stay diligent, and keep at it, hoping to find your way out toward whatever clearing this all leads to.
* * *
The weeks speed along as though you are waiting out a plot point in D&D. D&D itself takes some major turns with respect to narrative development. Urissa is handily written out of the campaign via deus ex machina. Pursuing leads post-Black Knight encounter, you uncover a large scale conspiracy within the Church of St. Cuthbert. A death cult has arisen within it, the Black Knight just one of its adherents. Necromancy is running rampant. You have taken down a few more knights since then, and have recently heard the name Delzomen. He is their leader, a man not of the cloth, not of Cuthbert. An interloper. He is the one, you have heard, who is seeking out adherents to Cuthbert in order to flip them to his cause. As to why, that’s what’s left to solve in this particular storyline.
As to what’s left to solve in your own particular storyline, there’s plenty. You are making progress with therapy. Now, when you wake up, you don’t immediately weigh yourself, and even better, you don’t nervously weigh yourself after you’ve eaten breakfast and think to yourself that you would weigh less if you hadn’t eaten. Instead, you wake up, walk past the scale, and have your breakfast. You are working out, too. Swimming, surprisingly enough. It is weird to be back in the pool, but at the college pool, there are no upturned Doritos to speak of during open swim. Mostly just old professors who smile at you kindly as you jump in the pool in your jammer. It feels good to do laps, actually. It hurts, of course, but it’s familiar to you. Far more familiar than the treadmill, which is, you have decided, a bonafide torture device disguised as a means of self improvement.
You start to lose weight and feel better in your body, but it isn’t actually the losing weight that makes you feel better in your body. It’s more tangential than causal. What is making you feel better in your body is your work with Brad. Your work with Brad is way harder than the gym. The gym has never shook you the way that seeing Brad has. One day you were doing Felt Falsehoods with Brad and, rephrasing something you’d said, he wrote this down on a notecard and showed it to you: Any ounce of fat on my body is a sign of weakness. You looked at it, and knew logically that it was patently false. You don’t actually think this about other people. You can view fat objectively when it comes to others. In the moment that Brad showed you this notecard, you wanted to laugh and look at him and say you didn’t believe it. That of course it wasn’t a Truth Statement. But what happened instead is that you looked at it, tried to smile, but instead began to cry and shake.
This proved productive, however. After you wept for some time in the presence of this former hippy, you felt cleansed in some way, as though a poison had passed through your body. You didn’t feel cured. Therapy, you know, isn’t about being cured of anything. But this thing, this small statement that Brad held before you, was something so cleanly stated that it couldn’t be run from or lessened by avoidance. In facing it, you faced the thing it represented. And from there, you could work through and around it. A map fragment toward a better self.
As to Dana, you botched that whole situation. After the D&D debacle, you tried to apologize to her in Climate Change, but it came out all wrong. What you meant to do was admit to the real reason you invited her and say that it wasn’t cool for you to do that under such pretenses, to recognize that that must have been maddening and (as Will put it) explicitly gendered, and that what you should have done was ask her to coffee, which is what you were doing now, you would say (looking at your shoes [you planned to look at your shoes]), asking her to go to coffee.
What happens instead is that you say “Sorry D&D got weird,” and she says, “Yeah,” and then you don’t talk to her for the rest of the semester.
Then summer happens. You go home and do not play D&D. You play JRPGs in your basement instead. You play through three of them in quick succession. You avoid your hometown friends and just humans in general. You don’t read as much as you wish you did. You don’t go outside as much as you wish you did.
You don’t work, which you feel vaguely guilty about. You should probably work. That’s what the other guys do. Will bags groceries, Mark is a lifeguard. Ben is working a job where he dead-heads geraniums in a cemetery. It pays 10 dollars an hour and he gets to listen to podcasts while he does it. He’s getting a tan, too. He likes it.
Brad is too far a trip to continue seeing over the summer, but you spend most of the summer thinking about things you’ve worked on with him. He gave you homework, of course. One assignment was to stop sucking in your stomach when you’re sitting. That was something you learned to do growing up. But as Brad put it, uncharacteristically bluntly, All that does is make you uncomfortable. It doesn’t fool anybody, yourself included. One of the other bits of homework is to go to the beach and keep your shirt off for the whole time. This is something you’ve been afraid of doing for a while. But I’m so pasty at this point, I’ll turn into a lobster, you’d said. That’s avoidance and deflection, and you know it. Increasingly, Brad puts up with less and less of your bullshit.
So one day, you go to the beach and, per Brad’s instructions, you take off your shirt and lie down on your towel. The beach is not so much a classic sandy one as it is a patch of grass alongside the lake that has the same name as your town. As you soak in the sun, you feel the urge to put your shirt back on. Besides the lifeguard, it is just you and a family. A dad and two girls, probably around 8-10. Were there teenagers here, or God forbid anyone who remembered you from high school, you would have your shirt on instantly. As it stands, you’re somehow afraid of judgement from these children. That they’re over there thinking about how you look like a pale whale indigenous to freshwater lakes. You grow tense and find yourself reaching for your shirt, which is balled up in the grass next to you, beside the towel you’re lying on.
But then you catch yourself. You catch yourself not only in the act, but the thought. The shirt will shield me from judgment. And you examine it, turn it over, like you do with Brad, except it’s just you. You-you. You-you sees the thought as though it were a kind of physical material. It coats your brain like a Difficult Terrain. (You have trouble abstaining from metaphor, especially gaming metaphor. You were destined for an English degree.) Because of therapy, these thoughts are becoming less like truths and more like objects. And objects can be turned over, and examined. This particular object is easily seen through: why in the world would two little girls give you any thought whatsoever? They are playing, they are swimming. It is hot, and they have come to the lake to cool off. That is the end of it. And the father, with his own Dad Bod, clearly couldn’t care less. And like that, the Difficult Terrain is dispelled. You move your hand back from the towel and take in the sun.
When you arrive back at school next fall, Mark comments on your tan.
“Don’t think I’ve ever seen you be any color but nearly translucent,” he says.
You laugh, and the quality of it is a surprise to you. There is no defensiveness in it. There is no avoidance. It is just a laugh. And so you smile.
* * *
D&D starts up again, as it always does. The new semester is tougher than the last, and so part of you is starting to question the 4-5 hours per weekend you spend playing with your friends. It makes you anxious. You should be studying or something. But you don’t say anything, because it’s basically your one social outlet, and you’re not spending any money on it, so it’s probably still a net positive.
The new storyline has to do with a military coup that upends the political dynamics of the continent. Amidst it, the heroes are drawn into an increasingly desperate attempt to maintain the established monarchy. To be honest, you have a hard time following the political machinations that Mark keeps bringing to the dialogue. Politics are hard enough to follow without having magic and bloodlines mixed in. But that’s the story Mark is interested in telling, and you’re certainly not volunteering to GM. So you let the factions rise and fall and just try to remember your place in it.
Weeks into the semester, Verner dies. It isn’t as dramatic as you would want, which sometimes happens in D&D. You had hoped, for Verner’s sake, that he would go out swinging, making some brash attempt at heroism while, as was his wont, flagrantly mouthing off to the bad guys. What actually happens is that he gets nailed with a poison-tipped arrow and, after succumbing to the poison, bleeds out while the rest of the party finishes up a climactic battle. Death Saves don’t always go your way.
You accept Verner’s death with humility. Most people grow attached to their PCs after playing them for so long, but in truth, you feel you’ve grown beyond Verner. Whatever it was that drew you to playing him in the first place has grown stale. His bombast is not as fun to summon up as it once was. His effect has skewed past comic and toward the absurd. Somewhere along the line, you lost track of the thing that made Verner human, and with it, your attachment to playing him.
Will’s Oira also dies in that battle, so the two of you roll up new characters. Will has given up his fantasies of being a hard drinker and rolls a Barbarian, taking up his fantasies of being stronger than his thin frame allows. You? You roll a Ranger. Nothing flashy. No weird Xanathar’s race, either. Just a typical elf: a couple hundred years old and more or less a Legolas. You come up with some motivating desires for him. This time, they’re not your own. They’re his: fallen from nobility, he wishes to prove himself in the world beyond his namesake. Upon reflection, you see the connections to your own story, but that’s unavoidable in this game. You’re always pouring yourself into these characters. They’re not you-you, but they are you-something.
Meanwhile, you-you goes to class. You-you is trying to get his grades up. You-you isn’t taking Climate Change anymore and doesn’t have that easy A inflating his grade. You-you dig your heels in and work hard, and it pays off. You end the semester with a 3.75. You feel good.
You keep swimming. Over time, and not as quickly as you’d like, you lose more weight. Parts of you even get kind of toned. What surprises you is that this doesn’t immediately change how you think of yourself. The physical progress doesn’t neatly map to the mental progress. There are still the thoughts in the mirror, even with your objectively shrinking chest. It helps, of course. But it isn’t the root of things, you find. When you share this with Brad, he smiles. It is the kind of smile you’ve come to recognize as a mixture of pride in you and pride in his work. It is a kind of Win State, if therapy were a game, which of course it very much isn’t.
The spring semester is much of the same with respect to your workload. It’s busy. You’re hurtling toward that part of your time at the college where you’re supposed to be done with all the requirements, moving on to the big picture stuff you get to do as a senior. You’re a little behind, but mostly on track. You meet with your advisor to make sure you’ll be able to graduate with the plan you have. She looks at you bemusedly and says, Yes, you’ll be fine, and adds that this kind of thing can be answered over email in the future. You leave her office feeling much better and head to the dining hall. The weather is just starting to break. It is a kind of spring day that, while not warm, is certainly warmer than what you’ve been dealing with for months, and so you dress lighter than you probably should out of a belligerent sense of hope.
Then it happens. The moment you didn’t know you were dreading.
You run into Dana.
She is reading outside of the dining hall. She too is dressed aspirationally with respect to the weather. Your stomach fast-tracks its digestive processes at the sight of her. You have not spoken since the incident, not even to apologize. Somehow, despite the size of the college and that fact that everyone is always running into everyone, you have not seen her since that fateful game night. But now, here she is: arising like a plot-critical NPC out of the depths of the campaign’s lore. You think about running, which in D&D is an underutilized but often wholly appropriate strategy. Indeed, for a moment, you turn to walk the other way, even though you skipped breakfast and are incredibly hungry. But something in you tells you to stop. So you do.
“Hey,” you say.
Dana looks up from her book. She first looks surprised, then unhappy.
“Hi,” she says.
And then it spills out of you. You start by saying that you’ve owed her an apology. It wasn’t right to not talk to her after that awkward session, and you’ve felt bad about it since then but lacked the courage to seek her out and make things right. She tries to stop you and say it’s okay, but you say there’s more. You tell her that you also want to apologize for doing that in the first place, and by doing that, you mean doing that thing men do a lot which is messing with women’s minds and telling them one thing when what you’re really after is another. You say sorry so many times the meaning of it seems to lift off the word, making it into more of a textured airwave than anything with meaning. You eventually meander your way back to saying this:
“What I should’ve done is asked you out, which is what I wanted to do at the time, but for a lot of reasons, which I don’t need to burden you with, I was too scared to do that.”
At this point, her book is on her lap. She considers you, and you see that the unhappiness has receded, replaced by something that looks more like curiosity, or surprise.
“I appreciate all of that,” she says. “Really. Thanks.”
“It’s no problem,” you say. “You deserved at least that.”
She smiles but says nothing in turn. A wind whips through to remind you that winter isn’t dead, only resting. The silence gains weight, so you speak.
“Um, okay,” you say. “This is really awkward, so I just want to acknowledge that. But, uh, if you wanted to get drinks sometime, or a coffee or whatever, I’d really like that.”
She smiles again, but differently. You recognize it. It’s a Fail State.
“That’s really sweet,” she says. “But—and now it’s my turn to say ‘this is really awkward’—but I have a boyfriend.”
You try to avoid scrunching up your face in surprise, but to no avail. But you walk it back. You say you’re happy for her, and the surprising part is, you mean it. Like mean-it mean it. You go into the dining hall and eat and let the adrenaline settle down until you are back at base-level anxiousness. Today wasn’t the best, but it wasn’t the worst, either.
* * *
You walk into the Buttered Heel. It’s typically a professors’ bar. They serve charcuterie and specialize in wine. It is expensive, mostly as a way to discourage traffic from undergrads, which is to say, miscreants, which is to say, you. Just the word charcuterie alone is supposed to repel your demographic. Nevertheless, there you are. At a table for two, although presently it’s just you.
You are waiting for your date. You have a date. You met online. She is a student at a nearby college, not yours. She likes games and reading, and you like games and reading. You chatted back and forth for a bit before you suggested that the two of you meet up for a drink. She agreed and used an encouraging emoji. You replied back with the same.
You chose the Buttered Heel for obvious reasons. It would make you look sophisticated. It has nice ambiance. It would make you seem not cheap. It has the feel of a place where you could fall in love. You have only ever seen it from the outside, passing by. Inside, it matches your expectations perfectly.
You are there early. This is both to appear like someone who arrives early and also to let your nerves calm down before she arrives. You order a glass of wine and are surprised at how much it costs. You sip it slowly at your table and focus on your breathing.
As you sip your drink and breathe, the world around you starts to melt away. Whenever you breathe, you envision a very large room with you at the center. Each breath pushes the walls of the room further and further out, making you smaller and smaller and the room bigger and bigger, until your physical presence is almost a non-presence. You maintain your mental presence throughout, however. In the expanding space of your visualization, you seek to diminish your self-consciousness about your body’s presence in space while retaining a sense of your selfhood. The walls push out and out, and you are in control.
As you focus on your breath, the people at the bar, whom you imagine to be looking at you and judging you, are no longer there. They evaporate. From your mind, from your experience. The waitress, whom you imagine to be looking at you disapprovingly, returns to her phantom post. The people outside stop passing by. The street empties. The woman you imagined as your date disappears, too. Everything, everything disappears. Because none of it is real.
In truth, you are lying in your bed in your dorm room. You-you, visualizing a possible date. You are doing this at Brad’s suggestion. You told him, when he brought it up in therapy, that it seemed kind of pathetic. To imagine a perfect date. After forcing you to acknowledge that saying something is pathetic is a form of self-judgement and thus not conducive to the task at hand, he went on to say that what you were imagining wasn’t the perfect date with respect to the other person, but the perfect date with respect to yourself. How you want to feel: about the date, about yourself, and about your body. He wanted you to think of it as a kind of practice, a kind of role-play.
You weren’t sure if he was pandering to you when it came to gamifying this assignment. You have talked more about D&D with Brad than you care to admit. Regardless, you took the suggestion. Everything he’s tasked you with doing has helped, and you’ve learned to trust that.
So there you sit, in your mind, in the Buttered Heel. The scene reforms in your mind and you sit amidst it. The bar busies. Another glass of wine is brought to you. And it becomes clear to you, as you envision this, that your date is not arriving. It’s not that she’s stood you up. It’s just that she isn’t the point of the exercise. You are the point. The work you do on yourself is the point, because if you don’t do that, you can’t possibly be good for anyone else.
And so you play-sit in the Buttered Heel. You-you, as you want to be, as you could be. Upright, confident, breathing. And you feel good in your body, good for once, even if, for now, it is only in your mind.
Grayson Morley is originally from Canandaigua, New York, and is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Bard College. A winner of the 2018 PEN/Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers, his work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Brooklyn Review, the Iowa Review, and The Masters Review. He lives in southern New Jersey and will teach a public workshop on video games and fiction at the Writer’s House at Rutgers-Camden this fall.