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Today's Story by Matt Stewart

For the first time since my diet started, I truly feel light. “Fair trade value,” the note reads.

Belt Buckle Love

The metal detector goes bonkers when I walk through. “Belt,” the TSA guy guesses, tapping his wand to his own government-issued waist-strap, a length of black pleather loaded with notepads and cellphones and what looks like a measuring tape.

“I only wear it for special occasions,” I explain. “My father made the buckle. And my mom picked out the jewels.” It’s also my mom who says I talk too much when I’m nervous, and thus overfed me to shut me up, which is why things got out of control. The belt is a hard reminder.

“Take it off and go through again,” he says, so I retrace my steps, hitch up my pants with both hands, deposit the belt in the conveyor belt, and shuffle back. The metal detector still sounds off, and it’s the full pat-down-and-magic-wand-and-chemical-testing rigamarole through my saggy skin folds until we identify the culprit: a pair of quarters lodged in a cargo pants subpocket.

“You’re good to go,” the TSA guy says.

“Thanks,” I tell him, and palm him the quarters with my friendliest smile. Tipping builds the best kind of karma, and today I need it.

He eyes them suspicious as a six-dollar bill. “We don’t accept tips.”

“Then I forgot it,” I insist, then grab my backpack and go for the gift shop in my new speedy power-walk before he can pull together a refund.

The gift shop’s loaded up with cactus planters and saguaro candy and Tucson t-shirts and desert-themed wine. I grab a bottle with a label depicting a racing stagecoach, scan the blurb on the back. Christine’s into cheap red wine mixed with Coke, says she had it in Spain on her honeymoon and it’s the only love that stuck. I’ve been waiting years to try it with her.

“Now that is some belt!” A sixtiesh clerk sidles over, a soft pouch around her middle and two big and purple lightning bolts dangling off her earlobes like Christmas ornaments. “Where’d you get it?”

“Homemade,” I explain. “A family heirloom.”

“Is that real gold?” she asks. “And real rubies?”

“That’s what we tell people,” I respond, with a very fast wink.

“Do you mind if I take a look?” she asks. And since she’s an aficionado of colorful accessories I make an exception to my public disrobement rule and hand over the contraption. My pants make for the floor like a getaway car, so I yank the waistband up to my bellybutton and wrap the excess fabric around my wrist.

“It is beautiful,” she says, tracing the red-rock-rimmed heart with her long gold-hardened fingernails, thumbing the diamond-tipped cupid’s arrow, prodding the hot flames embroidering the central word: LOVE. “Not something you see every day.”

“Today is special,” I admit. “I’m meeting a woman in Los Angeles.”

“Good for you,” she acknowledges, but she doesn’t know the half of it.

“I’ve lost a lot of weight,” I inform her. “More than three hundred pounds.”

“Wow,” she says, then gives me a severe once-over like a traffic cop deciding whether to issue a citation. I am still a chubby man, with four chins and a fertile belly and feet shaped like sledgehammers. Still it is a massive improvement. My cats aren’t sure I’m the same guy, until I tickle them with both hands and load their bowls with all the old Twinkies I’m trying to get rid of.

“I met her online years ago,” I continue. “I couldn’t afford two plane tickets. I mean, maybe I could’ve. But I’d rather not, you know? Also, she was married at the time.”

“Huh.” Her eyes bunch up in a fierce frown, and it’s easy to envision her at town meetings complaining for hours about sanitation services and barking dogs.

“Her husband went away on his own accord,” I rush to clarify. “I had nothing to do with it.”

“Can I help you?” she asks direct.

“I need a bottle of wine for Christine. Not sure what kind.”

“All right then. What does she like?”

Here is the issue. Chatting online for years, thousands of emails and at least five phone calls that went ok, and still there’s so much I don’t know. How well can you know anybody without smelling them or watching them close the shutters or teaming up on dishes, how they look at you when you forget the grocery list, how they smell when you kiss them in a restaurant? “She loves old movies,” I realize, “love stories. She likes her job, working at the art museum. And pets. She wants to meet my cats. I sent her movies of them eating Twinkies and she laughed for two minutes straight. She likes sushi. Survivor too. And short and powerful rainstorms.” All the facts but no flavor. It will be a strange thing to touch her.

The woman passes me a bottle of red from the bottom shelf. “None of them are real good,” she tells me. “This one’s the least overpriced of the lot.”

“She actually prefers the cheap stuff,” I point out.

“Might as well make it a double then, huh?” The point lays in like the perfect golf chip, and I haul two bottles and a TIME Magazine to the register.

She makes change in a meticulous matronly manner. “Now if you could do me a favor,” she murmurs. “How I might acquire a belt like yours?”

“None other like it. My father made it for a Halloween costume, and he passed years back.” Her chest sinks three inches, and she releases a quiet cooing “oh.” “It would be my pleasure to give it to you,” I finish.

“That’s not what I meant,” she says, coiling the belt carefully.

“It’s just a belt,” I point out. “The memories aren’t so grand for me. My parents, my weight, the bad old days. It’ll do better under new management.”

“It feels wrong,” she declares.

“Consider it a tip,” I say, then shuffle out of the gift shop fast as I can with one hand propping up my pants, heading for the one place she’ll never get me, the last stall in the men’s room. I’m in there for a solid hour working through the TIME Magazine and a load of jitters, until the final boarding call comes on and I push myself toward the gate.

She’s waiting outside with a hefty shopping bag and four lines of worry rimming each eyeball. “Had me worried,” she says. “Gone already, or bad Mexican food, or both.”

“My flight’s leaving,” I tell her.

“Take the bag,” she says, looping the braided string handle into my fingers.

“I will not,” I decide.  “I have to go.”

She squares off in front of me, shoulders set like a military Jeep and a look on her face that’s jumped past irritated and banging on irate. “I burned two coffee breaks and plenty more waiting out here for you. I may well be fired.” Her throat-waddle wavers, and though I figured she was working at the gift shop for the human interaction and reason to leave the house more than the paycheck, I can’t say for sure anymore. “Now take the bag,” she orders.

“I will accept it,” I tell her, “but the belt’s no use to me anymore. Doesn’t even fit right.”

“I understand,” she says, and it feels honest. I take the bag and scrabble on to my gate, where I procure the middle seat in the no-tip-back row by the lavatories and a joshing earful from the flight attendant.

It’s all jumpy staring at the seatback fighting down nausea until we pull in at LAX. I rush to the men’s room, brush my teeth, wash my face, gargle. Slightly calm, I grope through the bag for my belt, both to hold up my pants and serve as my identifying characteristic at the baggage claim. Though if Christine can’t pick me out from our video-chat marathons I might as well turn around and fly home. It is purely a romantic construction, something scooped from her classic movies. One of the many things I strongly like about her.

My hand swipes steel pins, back-drafts a sweet honey essence. I pull the bag open; inside my belt’s been replaced by a potted cactus and a pack of saguaro candies and a neon Tuscon t-shirt, women’s sized medium. For the first time since my diet started, I truly feel light. “Fair trade value,” the note reads, though my certainty that I came out ahead is only reinforced when I dig out a beaded Navajo replacement belt wrapped in the t-shirt.

“Relax and have fun,” the note continues. “Good luck!”

I thread the new belt, rinse my hands, place the bag of gifts in my backpack and sling it over my shoulder. Nerves pop across my back like electric rain. I breathe slow and hard until a form of quiet takes hold, then lift up the cactus like a long, slender rose and set out strong for the baggage claim to find Christine.


Matt Stewart’s debut novel, The French Revolution, is a San Francisco family saga loosely structured on the historical French Revolution. It was named a Best Book of 2010 by the San Francisco Chronicle and a Notable Debut by Poets & Writers. Matt’s stories have been published in Instant City, McSweeney’s, Opium, and more. Grab his free iPhone app at matt-stewart.com.


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