“Excuse me, is this seat taken?”
The man’s heavy-lidded brown eyes regarded him for only a second before returning to his phone screen. Eric was used to that. No one ever paid him a second look.
“Uh, yeah, I mean no. It’s not. Feel free.”
He lowered himself with care behind the desk and immediately pushed back his chair to give himself room. From the time he was in college, Eric always had trouble sitting in lecture halls and classrooms; the seats weren’t made for people who didn’t have skinny, perfect asses. Like the man next to him. Whatever. He hung his jacket on the back of the chair and set a bottle of water on the desk. He really wanted a soda but felt it would be counterproductive to the class, considering he was here to discuss better eating habits and proper nutrition.
The instructor, a tall and of course, well-built young man no more than twenty-five, strode into the room, flashing a bright smile. This was who Eric was supposed to unburden himself to about his eating problem, and who would teach him proper nutrition?
“I have Pop-Tarts older than him hiding in my kitchen cabinets,” he muttered.
The man next to him smothered a laugh.
Shit. He hadn’t meant to speak out loud. “That wasn’t really nice, huh?”
“The truth hurts sometimes.”
Eric allowed himself a cautious smile, one he could pull back if the man chose not to return it.
“I mean, he’s perfect. That smile, the body…” The man chewed his full bottom lip, and Eric watched him, fascinated and a bit turned on. What he wouldn’t do to kiss that mouth, just once. Great. Food-deprived and sex-starved; the perfect personality combination. But he hadn’t had sex in so long, he wasn’t sure he remembered what it felt like, and even if the man wasn’t gay, aside from his work colleagues, it was the closest he’d been to anyone in months. He allowed himself the fantasy of this beautiful, thin man wanting an overweight librarian like him.
“I mean, what does he know about people with issues? I bet he can eat anything he wants and still look like that.”
“But you’re thin too. You don’t have a problem.”
The man’s warm expression froze, and he gave a chilly half smile. “Yeah. No problems here.” He turned away, presenting a rigid back and stiff shoulders that screamed Leave me alone, and rummaged through his jacket pockets. More than anything, Eric wished he could yank those words back and continue joking. He didn’t know how to talk to people; he dealt with silence and whispers all day. Full-blown conversations weren’t part of his repertoire.
The class started, but Eric hardly concentrated on the instructor’s introduction; he’d heard it all before. At age thirty-six, he’d gained and lost more pounds since high school than the man next to him probably weighed in total, although with his zip up hoodie over his sweater, it was hard to tell. Definitely less than him, Eric knew, from the sharp angles of the cheekbones that jutted from his pretty face and the edge of a collarbone he’d spied peeking out of the open-neck sweater he wore.
The instructor began the lecture, and Eric transferred his attention to him instead of his good-looking neighbor.
“I’m Dave. I used to be almost three hundred pounds until I found myself unable to walk up a flight of stairs without gasping for air. It was then I knew I had to change something.”
Shocked at Dave’s revelation, Eric felt bad about assuming the man had no idea what it meant to have a weight problem. He was as guilty as anyone else, prejudging based on appearances alone. And Eric could relate to everything Dave said. What saved Eric was his height. At almost six feet three, he carried his 285 pounds a bit better than someone several inches shorter.
“It’s imperative to know what makes up the food we put into our bodies and to understand that if we feed the body junk food, foods high in sugar and fat with no nutrients, we aren’t giving it the proper fuel to last us through the day. That’s why we overeat—to compensate for the empty calories. If you cut out the snack foods, the processed foods and junk, replacing them with healthy foods high in nutritional value, you’ll feel better and most likely lose weight. But this isn’t only about losing weight. You have to learn how to build a better you from the inside out.”
Despite his misgivings, Eric listened. From the time he was young, he had a propensity to be overweight. Sometimes he fought it, went on a rigid diet and lost the weight; other times he gave up and ate what he wanted, gaining back everything and extra. Neither way ever made him feel good about himself, but then he never did. His father tried along with him, but he himself was large, and the two of them had bonded over ice cream and cheeseburgers.
He snuck a glance at the guy next to him, slouched in his chair but staring intently at the instructor. Once again Eric was drawn to his soulful dark eyes and full lips, but he couldn’t help wonder what a man like him was doing here. He had no weight problem Eric could see. Maybe he was doing research for work. Allowing his gaze to wander, Eric lingered on the man’s jean-clad thighs. He wondered what it would be like to have such long, lean legs; he’d love to have them wrapped around his hips.…He slapped himself mentally. Not likely to ever happen. High, furry boots completed his outfit, and Eric smiled to himself. Normally it was a fashion statement he didn’t like, but this man could carry it off. He had that effortless style some people were born with; he’d look good in anything he put on.
Or nothing at all.
At a cough, he raised his gaze and met the man’s amused eyes, and Eric wanted to die of embarrassment. He ducked his flaming face and stared at the instructor, who had a PowerPoint discussion on the screen detailing what he hoped to accomplish in the course. Eric forced himself to listen intently.
“This will be a very proactive class. I’d like you to start a journal of what you eat in a day, and, more importantly, why you chose those foods. Food can be a comfort, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But it can also be a punishment or represent bad memories. I want you to take note of what you have in the house and write down the ratio of fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and grains to sugary foods, high-carbohydrate foods, snacks, and processed foods. We need to break through and see food for what it is: a method of fueling your body.”
A young woman raised her hand, and the instructor acknowledged her.
“Why don’t you introduce yourself? We should all get to know each other. Tell us what you do for a living and why you’re here.”
She gazed around the room, smiling, and Eric couldn’t help but smile back.
“My name’s Barb. I’m a literary agent. And I sit at a desk too much and eat whatever I can get delivered. My problem is this. Food is meant to be enjoyed, isn’t it? You make it sound so clinical. I love to eat, but I’m hoping this class will teach me to make healthy choices, and I want those choices to taste good.”
“Amen,” said Eric under his breath. If someone shoved another rice cake in his face, he’d scream. Eating Styrofoam wasn’t his idea of food.
“You’re right, Barb. I don’t want any of you to feel like you shouldn’t enjoy your food. Food and its preparation are meant to be enjoyed and shared. In many cultures, a large dinner is the way people are introduced to the family. We’re here to learn to be nutrition conscious and help each other figure out the best way to do this. That’s why I keep these classes small.”
The last thing Eric needed was someone psychoanalyzing him. He knew why he ate—loneliness, boredom, and the overwhelming sadness of his father’s sudden death. Still, his last physical exam scared him. He was too young to be at risk for a heart attack or stroke, yet the undeniable facts presented to him by his doctor were clear: his cholesterol was way too high, as was his blood pressure. If he didn’t want to be on medication or have a heart attack, he had to change his lifestyle. Immediately.
“And I’m instituting something new this time. I’m going to have you buddy up with another classmate. I think it’s easier to do this when you have someone to help you who’s going through the same thing.”
Eric’s heart sank. As the fat kid, he’d never been anyone’s first choice, except the first choice to tease. So he sat with a practiced frozen smile on his face, listening to the tumult around him as people picked partners. He figured after the dust settled, he’d approach the professor and make an excuse as to why he didn’t need a partner.
Someone tapped him on the shoulder.
He turned his head to see his sexy neighbor watching him. Between those big brown eyes and his curly golden-brown hair, Eric thought he’d died and gone to heaven.
“Yeah. You want to do this thing like this Dave guy said? I don’t know anyone here, so…” He shrugged.
Gaping, Eric couldn’t stop staring at the best-looking man to talk to him in…well, ever. “Uh, are you sure? I mean, yeah.” How foolish did he sound, babbling like a cartoon character?
“Okay. My name’s Corey. Corey DeSantis.”
“Uh, I’m Eric. Nice to meet you.”
“Any last name, or do you just go by Eric?” Corey smirked. “Just want to know where to put your number in my phone.”
“Yeah, of course I have a last name. It’s Sontag. Eric Sontag.”
“Well, Eric Sontag. Want to be my partner?”