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Keeping Time

by F.H. Batacan

The door of his hotel room is open; the porter has stowed his bags and is now hanging up the contents of his suit bag in the closet. Mike enters the room sideways, sucking in his gut. It is an old habit; even though he has shed more than a hundred and forty pounds, he still feels like a fat man. Sometimes he catches himself doing it; when he does, he backs out of the door and comes in again like a normal person.

The porter closes the closet door, stands aside with a deferential smile. Just like him, falling into old habits. Mike takes his wallet out of his pocket, fishes out a large bill, slides it into the other man’s palm. The porter is briefly stunned, then flashes him a broad smile. “Thank you, sir.”

Mike nods, says nothing. The door closes behind him and he is alone.

He is bone-tired – six countries in seventeen days — but there’s still work to be done. He unlaces his shoes, sets them aside in one corner of the closet and pads around the carpeted room in his socks. He finds his laptop bag, plugs the machine into an outlet, begins undressing as it boots up.

Having lost all that weight, Mike tends to take better care of his clothes — mainly because he now has better clothes to take care of. Although his job has always paid well, he never bothered much about his clothing or appearance until the weight started coming off a little over three years ago. He had started losing it later than most, but then again he had so much more to lose. These days he always dresses well; even after long-haul flights, he arrives at meetings immaculately turned out, as though making up for decades of self-neglect. On site — where weather, ground and even social conditions can be unpleasant at best and downright treacherous at worst — he takes great pains to dress appropriately, to remain as clean as humanly possible.

He hangs up his jacket, shirt and trousers carefully; he’ll have them dry-cleaned tomorrow morning. He strips off his socks, roots around in the closet for a laundry bag and puts the socks inside. He’ll take a shower and brush his teeth before buckling down to business.

In his bare feet, the transition from carpet to the chilly marble tile of the bathroom is a bit jarring. He doesn’t particularly care for the paper slippers that hotels provide — there is something silly and ineffectual about them. So he takes the cold floor like a man, without complaint or fuss.

In the mirror above the capacious sink, he sees a stranger.

For the better part of nearly five decades, the man in the mirror was always overweight, ballooning to some 340 pounds around seven years ago. He was tall — well over six feet — and he had a nice enough face. But he soon grew used to the cutting refrain from even the most well-meaning relatives: “You’d be so handsome if only …”.

He used to be married, but she left him when his sperm count dwindled and he broke the 300-pound mark. This, too, he took like a man, shrugging off the sympathy of family, friends, colleagues, going about his work with the same implacable precision, the same clinical detachment. In private, he ate his way into numbness, a lumbering giant laced with deep and invisible scars.

Now, at the ripe old age of 47, he is the man he has always wanted to be: muscled and trim, save for some residual fat around the belly and love handles, and under the arms. With his looming physical presence, intelligent eyes and silver hair, he looks distinguished, attractive, if a bit icy. If his wife were here, he reflects, if they had just met, she would be all over him; he is now the exact physical type she would have found irresistible. She has been dead several years now: one of the first to go.

He studies his image for a long time, not out of vanity, but with mild amusement and a healthy sense of irony.

He might as well remember himself like this. It will not last long.

***

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