You can change your body. You can change the way you look at the world. But maybe you can’t change yourself.

I have finally found the 21st century American dream this afternoon. The one that belonged to our old century was complicated — involved financial agreements, legally binding religious ceremonies, and an earnest commitment to lawn care — so things have become simplified and almost all rituals have been removed. I am in a Men’s Wearhouse three minutes from a highway onramp on a Saturday afternoon; I didn’t even have to call ahead.

In a week I will be at a wedding I cannot wear my usual black blazer to; my friends have informed me that the color is not allowed at daytime weddings. Maybe I can get that old one tailored, I reasoned. And so here I am, surrounded. Standing on my left is the salesman who fate has appointed to be responsible for my every happiness and while I am inside the store, who shook my hand as if we were about to enter a great business enterprise together; in front of me is a short gruff tailor who might be Russian or Cuban; and hovering a few feet away is the shift manager, who has for some reason taken an interest in the proceedings.

I am wearing my old blazer, and I look ridiculous. I could fit maybe two of me in this now; the lapels fall from my shoulders like bandoliers — but this thing once fit me.

You must’ve dropped 30 or 40 pounds, the salesman says. The tailor jabbers in snippets of English, explaining exactly why there is no hope of turning this into a wearable garment because — and this startles me — the shoulders on it are too large. Even my shoulders have turned smaller. How could that have happened?

This is the dream. To turn your body into clay and sculpt out the thing you most want in life: yourself, only better. The you that lives in your dreams, who can fly though he or she must keep it a secret from everyone else.

I try to imagine triumphant music in my head, but it won’t stick, because a few feet beyond my own little entourage of bored middle-agers stuck in sales is a young lady undoubtedly of high school age, though her face is more serene than any 18-year-old’s should be. I know she is in high school because five minutes ago I watched her boyfriend awkwardly disappear into a changing room to try on a tuxedo. Prom.

She waits patiently. She understands the boy trapped in the dressing room trying to figure out how to buckle those weird pants. He is difficult at times, has trouble saying what he feels, but she knows that someday he will grow into his body and the world and become someone no one else in the world is like. She has faith in him.

I should be happy right now, but instead I am wishing that I could be that boy in the dressing room now; that instead of being 26 and being christened a new man by a bunch of schlubs, I could be confused and scared again — if only there would be that girlfriend waiting outside the dressing room door. We would go out for milkshakes afterwards and laugh at how stupid clothes are, how dumb bodies are …

In practical terms, it means almost nothing. There’s a funny, small kind of amusement when I try putting on a shirt that once was a little too tight but now seems too droopy on me. But that’s it, really. I still feel the same. I make the same mistakes. Think the same confused old thoughts. Feel that same slight loneliness the moment before I fall asleep.

I went through my closet two months ago and put all the clothes that didn’t fit me into trash bags, to donate to charitable causes with serious names. It took me two hours and four bags to clean everything out.

I threw away all the flannel shirts I wore in college, noticed how ugly they seemed in retrospect. Five thousand pairs of jeans, all different sizes. I never really had a pair that fit me right for more than a year. And I almost threw away my Charlie Brown T-shirt, even though it fits me perfectly now.

I got the shirt close to the end of college. Almost impossible to find in stores: you know, yellow with black wavy stripes running around its bottom. I wore it under other shirts to parties and job interviews, Clark Kenting it up in reverse.

I wanted to remove it from my life because I no longer want to be that boy. I don’t want him crowding out the good parts in my life — don’t want to even remember he was there. I really do wish I had become someone different. I really wish that I could be someone different. It’s more than appearances but I can’t explain it. Just — different, please. Make me better.

The Charlie Brown shirt has disappeared into the recesses of my closet again. I’m not sure where it went but I know I will find it in a year or two, muse on it once again, and keep it without understanding why.

I will never wear it, but I will keep it forever.

You look so skinny, my mother tells me nearly every time I go to visit her now. But I’m not, I want to say to her. Feel my stomach and you’ll see it’s still soft there. She worries about me anyway, always gives me some sort of leftovers to take home. Maybe she has good cause to. I only eat two meals a day now. I remember liking breakfast so much growing up, but I don’t miss it now. I don’t feel hungry in the morning, and when I eat my lunch — a normal schoolkid’s kind of lunch, with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, potato chips, and an apple — I barely feel like eating six hours later.

This is probably not normal, and maybe even unhealthy.

Sushi is maybe the reason why. I first tried it when it was only trendy instead of the staple of urbane young adult life it has become; there was an odd Chinese/Japanese restaurant near work that we’d go to sometimes. I never figured which the owners really were, and they were good at both cuisines. They had a sushi buffet — which in retrospect is almost an oxymoron — but its advantage was being able to choose things based on their appearance, not words on a scrap of paper. It was maybe months before I figured out that the red stuff I loved was called spicy tuna.

I liked how sushi tasted, but so what? I like Funyuns, too. Sushi educated me. Really:

  1. American food — by which I don’t mean that fusion sort of stuff you can get in fancy restaurants, nor really the stuff served in diners — isn’t really meant to be eaten with your brain turned on. If you like the flavor of it, just keep eating. There’s always enough that by the time you clear your plate, you’ve almost gotten tired of it.

    Sushi takes the opposite approach: it is so small and definite that you have to eat individual piece carefully. Nigiri sushi, where a slice of fish sits atop a pad of rice, only comes with two pieces per order. Maki — probably what you imagine when you think of sushi, with seaweed wrapped round a core of rice and fish — comes with six. Chicken McNuggets, in contrast, start at six and go all the way up to 20.

  2. American food also has a preponderance of stuff in it. Adjectives get slapped on top of things to try to draw your eye: Sourdough bacon cheeseburger. Chili queso French fries. Turkey bacon guacamole sandwich. Sushi is minimalist. The ingredients are simple: Rice, fish, seaweed. And it feels clean, eating it. You know you’re doing yourself a favor. The world of honey barbecue just seems gross afterwards.

I never went on a diet, per se. I never set rules for myself, written or otherwise, but I changed what I ate. I never weighed myself, either. There were no charts or statistical analyses. I know I made it more difficult for myself that way. But then I am a stubborn person; I don’t like being measured. I don’t like setting rules for myself. I just — did things differently. When I really hunkered down, I’d only ever eat if I felt starving, and then only until I didn’t hurt anymore.

When I doubted myself, thought maybe of giving up. I’d feel my stomach. How soft it was. How much I hated that — how much I hated my body. I never thought of hating myself, not exactly. But I must have, in one way or another. I worry that I still do …

I’m 125, a pretty girl tells me at a party. I want to be 110. I don’t remember what numbers she says, exactly, but the way she phrases it seems strange, even by two-beers-and-a-shot-of-tequila standards. It’s the thought of turning yourself into a number — a ranking, even — instead of a thing made of skin and bones and blood.

I tell her: You look good. She smiles but doesn’t believe me. And — I can understand why. Once you begin to want, there is no turning back; there is only a road ever forward. A dream that cannot die. You will never really be happy with yourself. You will never feel you can rest.

You will never finish being born.

Article © 2005 by Chris Klimas