I stirred half and half into my coffee, overfilled so much that it dripped around the rim and formed a circle on the white linoleum countertops of the kitchen in my mother’s house. She was always in the middle of a remodel, and the countertops would probably the next to go. Over the course of the past few years, I’d seen less and less of them anyway.
“Sweetheart, do you really need all that extra fat?” She nodded towards the half and half.
“It’s only a teaspoon. I measured.” I sighed, “anyway, I’ve been eating a lot better and drinking more water.”
“I can tell honey, your skin is looking much nicer. Your nails too. Now you’ve just got to work on that tummy of yours. And those hips.”
“I am.” I sipped my coffee as she tended to the crying toddler in the living room.
Aidy was small for her age, but had flushed, chubby cheeks. She was sweet, and always taken care of.
My mother returned to the kitchen, bouncing Aidy on her narrow hip. They looked alike.
“I should get going,” I said, “I have to go to work.”
“You’re still working at that drive in, huh?” She asked, already disappointed at the idea.
“Milkshakes and tater tots like always, Mom.” I nodded, grabbing the sweater that the warm air outside negated any need for.
She shrugged and subsequently turned her attention back to Aidy, like she always seemed to want to.
When I was Aidy’s age, my mom looked a lot more like me. Sometimes I imagine that she liked me a lot more when she was fat, but to be honest I’m not sure if that’s really true. She cooked this homemade macaroni and cheese that was to die for. It was my favorite food growing up, among some of her other recipes. She sometimes claimed that they were passed down from her mother and her mother’s mother and all that, but I once saw a folder in the kitchen with internet printouts and cookbook pages. It was like stumbling upon a collection of pornography. It didn’t matter all that much to me, and I still loved her cooking. But it told me one thing that I would continue to see about my mother, and that was that she was prideful. It would manifest itself in many ways, but when I was nine I just didn’t know it yet.
“Hey there, vanilla bean,” said Danny.
“I have a name,” I scoffed playfully as he took a seat on the counter across from me.
“You’re so sweet that I can’t help myself,” he swept one of his long curls back into his hairnet with a lanky arm and got off the counter.
“Great, now I have to clean that off,” I rolled my eyes, still remaining playful in my tone. I came closer to him with my spray bottle and rag, cleaning the spot where his butt had just relinquished its perch.
Danny and I worked most of our shifts together since he started there the previous year. He flirted with me what seemed like every minute of the day, and even though he wasn’t particularly attractive I appreciated the sentiment and let him. I never really received genuine flirtation from anyone aside from the inevitable cat call, and it was nice to have someone be sweet to me. I even began flirting back after a little while.
“How’s life in Amber’s world, really?” He asked with a softening face. He was much cuter when he let himself relax.
“Meh. You know,” I shrugged as I cleaned the rest of the counter.
“Is the boyfriend giving you trouble?” He said, joking again, knowing full well that I didn’t have a boyfriend. He was my closest prospect, really.
“More like my mother.”
“What’s up with your mother?” Genuine concern and curiosity manifested in his brow.
“It’s nothing terrible really. I went over to her house, you know, to be nice. Pay a visit, see my little sister. Adorable, by the way, like always,” I side-tracked, “but anyway, she has the new husband and the new kid and the new body, and she won’t quit telling me I’m fat. She’s always on my case to lose the weight. Like, I know, I am fat, and she was too. That’s probably part of the reason why I’m fat now. I was raised on donuts and macaroni. But turning into Darth Vader every time I put half and half in my coffee isn’t going to do jack.”
“Jeez, vanilla bean,” he let out an outward sigh.
“Oh, god. Sorry. I’m not trying to dump all my problems on you. But you did ask,” I tried to restore the lightly flirtatious tone.
“No, it isn’t that. Your mom is sick in the head. Keep the half and half. Your curves breathe life into me!” He sang out, disappearing around the corner toward the fryers.
“And your ego boosting breathes life into me!” I stepped forward to follow him.
“And what a wonderful ego it is.” He said.
The drive-in closed at eleven, so it always felt like three a.m. by the time I returned home. I wasn’t very much of a night person, so the difference between midnight and three was hazy and minuscule, usually because I preferred to spend it sleeping. As I pulled into the parking lot of my apartment complex, I saw that our kitchen light was still on.
I trekked to the door of our second-floor walk-up, and eventually plopped my things down in the kitchen. Bag on the ground, keys on the table, water bottle on the counter. Me on the couch in the other room.
My roommate, Dana, was cooking. Well, not cooking. She was making velveeta on the stove. I had an aversion to velveeta that most people would match with a skinny girl. I’d never say anything about another person’s food choices though. I knew how it felt. I said a quick hello before escaping to my bedroom, not even bothering to change into pajamas. I simply stripped my khakis and work shirt, and let the comforter kiss my skin as I feel asleep.
I don’t remember the last day of my mother being fat, although I always feel like I should. For three weeks during the summer when I was fourteen, I stayed with my grandma. My mom was dating Dave by then, but just casually. He was coming around more and more, and he was fine, but having someone else in the house besides my mom and me felt like I had to watch out for snakes every time I took a step. I think he was the one who told me first that my mom was having surgery on her foot.
“You could’ve just told me that you were getting lipo.” I said about the incident much later.
“Dave and I just thought it might be best to keep it under wraps. We didn’t want to worry anyone,” She said, one hand resting on her narrow waist.
“Worry anyone? You mean that you didn’t want to be embarrassed. You didn’t want me to tell people that you literally got weight loss surgery.”
“Well, now that you mention it I’d appreciate it if you didn’t tell anyone.” She said quietly, as if doing so would help her keep a secret.
“I mean, people are going to know. Look at you! You dropped pounds overnight. People can’t do that by going to fucking planet fitness,” I could feel the words sticking to my throat, “and what’s this ‘Dave and I’ bullshit? It’s your body, I’m your daughter, and he’s a stranger. Why was he even involved in making any decisions about this?”
“Because he was the one who suggested it to me,” she looked down, a mouse who clearly had already been consumed by the aforementioned snakes.
“So you did it to please your boyfriend of six months.” I shrugged.
“It’s not that simple, Amber,” she pleaded, “he thought that this would make me happier with myself, and I think he was right.” She smiled, trying to catch my approval.
“Well, good for him.” My throat felt like it was ripping in half as I choked the tears down and ran to my room. I was alone in my house. I was alone in my body.
I woke up to the ring of my cell phone. It was far too early for my rise, as I still felt the weight of the previous nights’ shift.
“Mmm...hello?” I answered.
“Amber, it’s Mommy!”
“What do you want?” I grumbled, knowing that she called herself mommy as a preface to asking for favors.
“Well,” she started, clearly annoyed by my forwardness, “our sitter dropped out for tonight, and Dave booked us some nice reservations downtown. Could you watch Aidy?” Her voice nearly gave me a cavity.
“What time? I work the afternoon shift today.” I asked.
“Perfect! So you’ll be free at seven?”
“That’s a little presumptuous, but yeah. I’ll see you then.”
“Oh, wonderful. I love you!”
“How’s my snickerdoodle?” Danny greeted me as the bell on the glass swinging door chimed in my presence.
“I see we’re getting more creative with the nicknames,” I said, my tone communicating that his artistry warranted merit.
“I live to please,” he said.
“So,” I hopped on the counter this time, “What is new in the life of Danny?”
“Well, I work a dead-end job that I hate. I flip burgers, I don’t have health insurance, and I have to wear this dumb hairnet,” he chuckled, “but damn if I don’t have a perfect view all day.” He looked at me, brown eyes big and round.
“You really are sweet. But really, what’s up? You listen to me rant and rave about my problems every time we’re here and you call me things like snickerdoodle. What’s going on in your life?”
“Well,” he paused, “the weather’s been warm so I’ve been skating, but there isn’t really much news in my life. I’m sticking to my first answer.” He smiled cheerfully.
“Come on,” I pressed, “no girls? Nothing?”
“Just one, my lady,” he said.
“Well then, I’m sorry you’re wasting your charm on me.” I hopped off the counter and grabbed the spray bottle and rag to begin cleaning the workspace that someone always seemed to be sitting on.
“I’m not wasting anything,” his tone turned serious, “really. I was actually wondering,” his words dragged at the end.
I looked up from the counter that I was wiping to face him. “What were you wondering?”
“If you wanted to go out with me, or just hang out somewhere besides here. When this shift is over, maybe we can go get some food or see a movie?” There was a shyness I wasn’t used to that bubbled up to Danny’s raggedy surface.
“I’d really like that,” I started, “but I can’t tonight.”
His face dropped, and I could tell before he said anything that he thought I was rejecting him. “Look,” he said, “you don’t have to-”
“I want to. I do. I want to. Tonight my mom is making me watch her kid.” I explained.
“Her kid? So, your sister?” He asked confused, resolving his statement once I didn’t answer with, “Either way. That’s okay. We could do something tomorrow night. Or whenever you’re free.”
“Well, we work tomorrow night,” I said, and he blushed, “But Saturday we both have off.”
“So, Saturday?” He offered a small smile that I recognized as nervous.
“Saturday.” I nodded.
“Sweetheart, hi,” my mother’s voice was fake and rushed, “Aidy is in her room now with Dave, but once we leave we need you to feed her and put her to bed within the hour, okay? Great.” She didn’t wait for me to respond.
Dave buttoned the top of his collared shirt as he walked into the room and said “Hey, girls,” looking me up and down for a quick, judgmental second before turning his attention to my mom, throwing his arm around her waist and pulling her in for a peck.
“Hi, Dave. It’s nice to see you.” I said politely.
“Take good care of Aidy for me, kiddo.” He responded.
“Love you!” My Mom called out behind her as they headed for the door. They shut it behind them before I could send out a fickle response.
I headed up the stairs to Aidy’s room. It used to be my bedroom until I moved out of the house, but it was much smaller before the remodel. It was a fortress of pink toys and plushies, every curtain and wall decor piece matching the walls, a few shades off from pepto bismol.
“Hi Aidy,” I said, opening the fortress door. I recalled when the walls were painted light lavender to my liking. My mom didn’t ask me before demolishing the room to rebuild it along with the rest of her life. Not that she needed my permission to do so, but every time I saw the floral comforter that matched the Barbie colored walls, it felt more like a theft than a favor.
Aidy didn’t respond to me at first, looking up at me, then quickly back down at the pink plushy that she was swinging around in her playpen.
“It’s me, Amber. Sissy,” I said. She looked up again, this time, giggling. She stretched her arms outward, dropping the bunny-bear-thing in her hands. I responded to this by picking up her soft body into my arms and sitting on the chair in the corner with her. She was warm and small, and she felt like someone else’s kid entirely. Like I was babysitting for a friend of a friend. I imagined that she would never taste my mom’s macaroni and cheese.
I looked at her face closely, bouncing her a little on my knee, and took note of how different I knew we would look from one another once she grew into her features. She had a much more girlish, nymph-like face than I had as a baby, which I assumed she’d carry with her into adulthood. She was much smaller, too, and her outfits seemed always to be manicured, like a tiny adult or an Instagram baby of some kind. A hot tingle grew in my chest and stomach every time I saw all of the things that my old bedroom offered to her.
She packed so much of a punch for such a tiny being, and the punch wasn’t even hers. She was the messenger. She was my adorable bearer of bad news. I kissed her head and placed her back down in her playpen, offering her an array of stuffed animals. She picked up her bunny-bear thing from earlier and began to chew on its ear.
“Sweetheart! We’re back!” My mother called from the doorway as Dave followed her into the front hall. I was on the couch in the living room watching tv and slowly nodding off, as it was almost midnight. Aidy had been asleep for hours.
“Hi, Mom,” I said, ignoring Dave, like I often did.
“How is my baby?” She asked.
“I’m fine, how are you?” I joked, turning back to the tv.
Her face turned serious, “Amber, I’m asking you about Aidy.”
“Chill out, Mom, she’s fine. She’s asleep now, like the happy baby she is.” I rolled my eyes, which she couldn’t see since I still had my back to her.
“Wonderful,” She sighed, “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” The curves of my mouth faced upwards a little, and it was genuine.
“Sweetheart,” She said, coming around to face me, “Have you been eating junk again? Your skin is looking spotty,” She pouted, throwing a glance to Dave, who stood behind the couch faithfully, the creases in his face growing deeper with each uncomfortable yet firm moment with me.
“No, Mom. I’m fine.”
“You really should stop eating junk,” She persisted, “Maybe it’ll help you lose some of that extra cushion too.” She poked playfully at the rolls of my stomach to soften her truthful insults.
“It was nice to see you, Mom, as always. I have to go.” I stood up from the couch and began walking towards the door. For a second I thought I heard her say something, but then I realized that the room I was leaving contained hollow silence. It seemed even worse than having words flung at me.
I closed the front door softly behind me and stood by it for a second before walking through the front lawn to my car, parked on the street. The grass was wet with the dew that was beginning to accumulate for its appearance in the suburban summer morning. I drove away, tired as ever, but somehow still managing to steady myself.
I stared at my closet as if it had wronged me. I pulled out a white dress with red flowers. I hadn’t worn it since high school, and when I pulled it over my head, I hated the look of it. It seemed too short. Whorish, even, to my critical eye. I flung it to the floor. I then pulled a green v-neck shirt from a drawer, but decided before even trying it on that it was too casual, returning it in much more of a crumpled ball than it originally was, not bothering to fix it.
Eventually, piece by piece, my bedroom spiraled into a tornado of clothing. It was as if the entire plus section of Forever 21 was caught in some sort of natural disaster, and I purchased the real estate of the ruins. Silently, I cradled my head in my hands. Through the space between my arm and my body, head still hanging, I saw the glow of my digital clock. I sprung back up, retrieving a black tank top and a pair of dark wash jeans from the floor, and settling for them as I closed the mirrored closet door, escaping the mess to take care of the rest of my appearance. My hair was chin-length, and usually straight, but I plugged the curling iron and waited impatiently for it to heat up.
“The only thing worse than being late is being ugly,” my mother’s voice rang in my head. She said that phrase when it was time to leave for Dave’s parents’ Christmas party when I was sixteen. She was still applying blush. She didn’t even have her shoes on yet.
By the time my hair had a bit more bounce to it, though, I still had an extra fifteen minutes before I had to go anywhere. I decided to snack before we went out. As I chewed and swallowed handfuls of my roommate’s Special K, I wondered why I was even eating. We were probably going to get food somewhere, anyway. I figured that at least I wouldn’t seem like a girl with too much of an appetite. I shouldn’t. When you’re skinny, an appetite is a cute quirk. It’s sexy to watch a tiny girl devour a burger. I would have the salad, wherever we went. My mom smiled down on me.
I stood outside my apartment complex and waited for Danny under a pink sky. The parking lot was dull and industrial, and the buildings behind me, one of which I lived in, looked plain in their boxy brick stature. The magic hour blessed them with a light that they didn’t deserve.
I sat down on the curb, four minutes before he said he would pick me up. I didn’t know quite how punctual he was, but a little fresh air and precaution never hurt. I watched the sky melt into a purple tone, and he pulled up in his years-old Honda ten minutes late. It was dark blue, and had the essence of once being filled with a lot of trash. Of being littered, like the room of a teenage boy, with soda cups and fast food wrappers. Maybe a sock or two. But the fact that it was clean on the inside, complete with a little tree air freshener, made me feel special. I was a minimum wage princess.
“It’s nice to see you,” I said, my eyes not yet having floated up to look at him yet. They finally did as I prepared for him to reply.
“You too.” He stepped out of the car and pushed his long hair back with one hand. I rose from the curb, meeting him at eye level. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting besides the Danny I saw every day at the drive in. But that’s exactly who stood in front of me, deep fryer traded in for a middle-of-the-line Japanese car. It felt comfortable.
I got in the car without asking where we were going, and he didn’t bother to say. The radio played pop songs between us, and it was obvious that neither of us liked the music. But it held us back from talking, which we usually did a lot of. His bony fingers gripped the steering wheel at ten and two, as if he were teaching me the rules of the road.
We pulled up outside a movie theatre. It was old and kitschy looking, with individual black letters placed together to spell out the titles, glowing from the backlight of the sign behind them. Everything was red and dim, out of place among the drab office buildings and storefronts of the town. The old movie theatre was one of those things that everybody knew was there, but seldom went to. I remembered going once with my friends in high school, a week before prom. We saw a showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. There were actors miming the movie in front of it, goofing around from time to time. The things that the audience shouted at the screen were obscene and made me giggle. It was like a party.
I’d never gone back, though, because they never showed new movies. There were two
auditoriums inside, one of which showed The Rocky Horror Picture Show every other Friday. Besides that, they showed two movies from the same year, and changed them both once a week.
The glowing sign held two titles, both of which I recognized. Bonnie and Clyde and The Taming of the Shrew. I hadn’t seen either of them, but I hoped that Danny didn’t plan on dragging me to see a Shakespeare movie. My stomach bubbled like hot soup and I wondered if we were compatible.
“Oh, um,” He stumbled on his words, but I was happy that there was something to break the silence, “I probably should have asked you if you like old movies. I come here sometimes, and this week they’re showing Bonnie and Clyde.”
“I can see that,” I glanced up at the sign, “And, yeah, I do like old movies.” I smiled in fondness and relief.
Once inside, we were greeted by a buzzing collection of people socializing before the movie. It seemed like a club where everybody knew each other. Danny waved to a few people on our way to get popcorn.
Working at the old-fashioned snack bar was a slender teenage girl with Manic Panic purple hair. It was patchy from home bleach. “What would you guys like?” Her braces sang with positivity.
Danny looked over at me, but all I managed to say was, “Um.”
“Can we split a medium popcorn and a Pepsi?” he asked. The purple-haired-girl nodded and disappeared for a few seconds to the side of the popcorn machine, returning with our snacks. It was all so perfectly and exactly medium. While I would probably have had no qualms about finishing them off myself on a regular day, they seemed to be the perfect size for two.
I followed him to choose our seats, neither of us saying anything. There was a giddy nervousness between us. It was how people always described going on a first date would be. Soon enough, the lights dipped and the movie began to play. The popcorn was captive on Danny’s lap, forcing me to reach over to him if I wanted any. I waited for his hand to finish fishing out a few pieces before going in myself for some, too nervous to take a full handful.
My eyes were glued to the sepia projection, but I retained almost none of the plot. I was too busy wondering if Danny was also looking at the screen. If he was actually paying attention, or if he was glancing at me in his peripheral vision. I didn’t want to look over at him, so I sat for most of the film wondering.
I flinched when the movie insinuated that Bonnie and Clyde were going to have sex, and I flinched again at the end everyone knows, when they both were shot dead, bullets popping in the air and through their bodies like bubble wrap. I knew that the credits would roll soon, and that we’d have to find some semblance of conversation. I looked over as the lights rose, his face already turned in my direction.
We engaged in some small talk about the movie that rang like white noise. Everything was littered with subtext, loud enough to drown out whatever I was saying.
So, are you just going to take me home now? Don’t ask to come inside, though, cause my room is a mess, I’d say.
So, what happens to us now? His face pleads in wonder. Do we both show up to work tomorrow and carry on like usual? Do we go on another date?
That depends on if we like each other or not. Do we like each other?
By the time we pulled back up in front of my place, the subtext merged into the audible conversation.
“I had a really nice time,” He said.
“Me too,” I replied.
“So, I’ll see you tomorrow?”
“Afternoon shift.” I nodded with a slight smirk.
It was silent for a moment I waited for him to lean in. I watched for it until he sat back in the driver’s seat awkwardly, his eyes still on me.
“I’d better get going,” I said. I opened the car door, feeling unsettled as I did when the night first started.
“You’re great company, vanilla bean.” His smile was warm, urging me to relax the muscles tensing up in my shoulders.
“Thanks.” As I exited his car, I returned his smile before walking towards my door. As I watched him drive off, my insides began to feel like a ball of yarn again.
That ball of yarn jolted before I could find the time to relax with the buzz of my phone. A text message that I thought was from Danny. I knew that it would be from Danny, calling me something sweet again, but when I looked down I saw it was from my mother instead.
U work tomorrow?
I sighed and typed back painstakingly, Yes. Can’t watch Aidy.
1pm. I really can’t watch Aidy.
The phone began ringing, and I wished that I could answer it and roll my eyes audibly at her, but instead I greeted her calmly, semblance of a good mood still in my voice.
“Mom, I’m sorry. I can’t watch Aidy tomorrow,” I groaned only a bit.
“Never mind that, sweetheart,” She said, “Can you come over before work?”
“Um,” I paused for a second, confused, “I guess I can. Why?”
“Is it a crime that I want to see my daughter?”
“I… I guess not,” My voice seemed to shrug its shoulders.
“Come over at ten, alright? I love you, sweetheart!” She hung up before I agreed, like always.
As I opened the door to my bedroom, I felt deflated. Like the day had given me whiplash. I sat down on my bed, clothes from my fit earlier lumpy beneath me, but still feeling more comfortable than I had the entire day. I leaned back and felt my head meet the salvation of my pillow, resolving that I would clean up tomorrow.
I hesitated before entering through the unlocked kitchen door, wondering if I should knock like a guest. I decided it was easier to let myself through and opened it to see my mother sitting with her hands folded at the table. It was the posture of someone that had bad news. It was the posture of an intervention.
“Hi, sweetheart.” Her voice was cheerful despite the nervous position.
“Hi, Mom. Where is everyone?”
“Dave took Aidy to a friend’s house. Sit down,” She instructed. I complied.
“Is everything okay?” I asked, prodding at her fragile surface. She looked down.
“I’m alright. I just wanted to talk with you.” Her voice was sweet, but not in the way it usually was. It was soft, begging you not to kick it.
Here it comes, I thought, she’s going to apologize. She’s going to tell me that she’s sorry and that I’m not a useless embarrassment. I’m not a smudge on her beautiful new family. My chest felt like there was a hamster on a wheel inside of it, shaking at its hinges. I almost started to smile before she even opened her mouth again. “What is it?” I asked, a happy prodding this time.
“Well, Dave and I have been talking a little bit recently.” Her words crept out too slow, like they were teasing me. “You know that I got liposuction a few years ago,” She looked me straight in the face then, “And it changed a lot of things in my life. About me as a person.”
All I could do was nod my head. It was the first serious conversation I’d had with my mother in a long time, and I felt the presence of something big hovering above our kitchen, ready to drop between us on the table.
“I want you to have a good life. And you’re a part of this family, too, even if sometimes you don’t feel like it,” She paused again. “Dave and I want to offer you something. To help you.”
I wanted to ask what, but I didn’t want to stop her in her tracks. I swallowed hard, and she continued talking.
“If you want to get the same procedure done, we’d like to pay for it. I’ll come with you for your appointments and support you the whole way through.” She pulled a business card out of her pocket, so small in her painted-on jeans that it barely fit, “You should go to the same doctor that I did. I promise, he’s wonderful.”
I stared at the card on the table in front of me, unwilling to reach out and touch it. Like it was a dead fish that reeked so badly I wanted to get up and run. Eventually, I reached out and took it between two fingers.
“Thanks, Mom,” I said, “I’ll think about it.”
Jamie Kahn is an undergraduate student from Pennsylvania. Her work has been featured in PDXX Collective, Maudlin House, Yellow Chair Review, Fish Food Magazine, and Donut Factory Press. Her chapbook of poetry, Hey, was published in August of 2018 with Writing Knights Press. She also co-hosts The Everything Bagel podcast and is an editor for Crooked Arrow Press and Pitch.