Second Place Fiction
My favorite number is Zero, though I envy the slenderness of One. One stands straight and tall, independent of all its surroundings, needing nothing to lean against or prop itself up. But Zero is an infinite circle, a void of cares and ambitions and struggles--it is complete nothingness, which is how I feel right now, hungry and lifeless as dust on my bedroom windowsill. In the silvery light of early evening, I watch a fleck of lint descend, and I long to be weightless, bodiless, free to float and drift.
My mother and I painted my room Pepto-Bismol pink. The color was her choice, though she tried to persuade me it was mine. “I’m glad you picked such a cheery color, Angel--you can’t help but feel good surrounded by it.” Inside, my guts twisted. I gave her my shy smile and acted agreeable. I was hoping she’d be right.
When I’m not hanging out in my bedroom, I go to Westside Middle School out by the airport. I think it’s the worst school in the whole state of Iowa because there’s nothing but cliques and dumb girls who dress like sluts and boys who act like they’re God’s gift. Everybody thinks we’re special because we’re going to be the Class of 2000, but I don’t really care--it’s just a stupid number.
There’s a girl at school I call “Nasty Kathy,” because she’s just...nasty. Before I started dieting, she came right up to my face and pointed at my stomach. “So, when’s it due?” she sneered. I should have slapped her.
Now she keeps calling me “Angle,” but my best friend Sarah says, “Consider the source.” Nasty Kathy has a blubbery ring of fat around her waist that blips over her pants, and a full, round face like a clock. If she was a number, she’d be a Six, with a big butt and a big gut and not much upstairs. “She’s just jealous,” Sarah says. “She’ll be big as a house someday and then she’ll be sorry.”
Sarah and I compare our legs in the locker room after gym class. I can finally put my knees together and my thighs don’t touch. We’re both tall for our age but want to be slender and graceful with perfect bodies, so we’ve tried a bunch of diets. We’ve gone through eating only grapefruit, staying away from carbs, and the one where we don’t eat for three days and eat for two. That worked okay, but on the eating days I stuffed myself so much it made me throw up.
Now we’re just counting calories really careful and making sure we don’t eat anything bad, like pizza or french fries or ice cream. I’m doing really good--I’ve gone from 108 down to 93 in the past seven weeks, and I’m really psyched because my clothes are getting baggy and my thighs are rock hard.
Sarah and I usually write down our calories at lunch. “An apple,” she says, leafing through the book I bought: Count Your Way to a Thinner You. “Fifty-five calories.”
“How about pickles?” I ask, biting into a dill spear.
“Four, per slice. You can pretty much eat all you want.”
“I’ve got some celery, too--”
“Actually,” she says, the tip of her pencil poised at her lips, “celery has negative calories. It burns more calories to eat and digest it than the calories in it.”
“Awesome. What about toothpaste, then?” I ask.
“That doesn’t count.”
“But you can’t help swallowing some of it. I think it counts.”
“Whatever.” She goes down the list, adding the numbers on her calculator. As I watch her, she tucks a strand of blond hair behind her ear, which always reminds me of a little seashell. She has a perfect Cupid’s bow mouth, further enhanced by lip gloss. The boys are beginning to notice her, asking her for answers to homework and trying to sit next to her on the bus. She wants to be a fashion model. I want to be one too, but I’m afraid my face looks like a “four”--all edges and points, my big nose sharp enough to saw through a board.
I’ve got a scale next to my bed that my mom gave me for Christmas. That’s when I started dieting, after she took me aside and said, “You’re looking a little chunky, dear.” Several times a day, before I step on it, it says Zero. I don’t want the dial to move. I want to be light and thin, without all the fat around my middle weighing me down. Every morning I take off my nightgown and climb on, but I can still see the shelf of my stomach protruding above my toes. It looks big enough to set a drink on, like I’m at a cocktail party telling people I’m pregnant, even though I’m only thirteen and haven’t started my period yet.
At least my stomach isn’t as big as my dad’s. He’s short and has a round, hard belly like a bowling ball. When he laughs (which isn’t often), it sounds like a bunch of pins being knocked over. He’s part owner of a Chevy dealership, and he’s not around much. Mornings, he looks at me sideways and rattles the newspaper.
I have a sister ten years older than me, with a husband and a job teaching third grade. It’s like she’s a distant aunt or cousin who shows up at holidays. “Angel!” she always says, “I remember when you were just a little baby!” And then my mom laughs and says the same thing to her.
Mom spends hours in front of the mirror every morning, even if she isn’t going anywhere. She’s taller than my dad and has a perfect body herself, and she knows it, flaunting around in backless dresses at parties and fundraisers. She is definitely shaped like a One, and she acts that way too, like her family is a bothersome inconvenience that she’d rather not deal with.
She tells me she only wants the best for me, but we have different ideas. Like, she insisted I wear saddle shoes (which I hate) instead of penny loafers, which she claimed “will ruin your feet--they don’t have proper support.” Then the saddle shoes gave me blisters.
I love her and respect her and all that, but we barely get along most of the time. Last Saturday, we had the worst fight ever.
She made me go to this Mother/Daughter Luncheon at the French Cafe, where she and all her old high school girlfriends rented the back room, and there were linen napkins and little cups of mints and nuts by every china plate. I got stuck between Mom and Mrs. Swann, who organized the whole thing. Her daughter sat across the table, a plain girl my age with stubby blond eyelashes. No one seemed to remember her name--she was always referred to as “the Swann girl,” and she disliked me for some unknown reason.
Mrs. Swann kept peering at me through her cat eye glasses while she talked to my mother, craning her turkey neck this way and that to see around me. It was really sad to see Mom still trying to impress her after all these years, always wanting to be the most popular, most successful, best looking out of all her high school chums. Some things never change.
Mom’s eyes glittered under the perfectly drawn arches of her eyebrows, her cheeks rouged to a rosy glow. “I love your idea of a gala at the Art Museum,” she chattered. “We could double the membership by summer.” She blathered on and on while I tried to make a noticeable dent in the rubber chicken and tomato aspic.
Before we went, Mom gave me her usual lecture about eating everything on my plate, whether I liked it or not, to show my appreciation to Mrs. Swann. And I tried. I really tried.
There were about twenty women there, and I knew some of the daughters, but I don’t hang around with them--most go to a private school. As the luncheon wore on, the air got hot and close, and the lace on the collar of my dress prickled. I started to force down another bite of mashed potatoes, which I never eat, and I couldn’t take it anymore. I headed for the bathroom to purge myself of all the fat and starch.
I must’ve hung over the toilet for quite awhile, my guts gushing up in gallons. When I came out of the stall, the Swann girl was there. “Oh,” she said, lips pursed in a snooty way. “I figured it was you.”
I just glared at her and got out fast.
Word apparently spread, because as soon as the luncheon was over and Mom and I were driving home, she launched into her attack, saying I embarrassed her and that I was always trying to make her look bad in some way or another. She said I was ungrateful for all I had, and the fact that I was starving myself was full proof. As usual, I just sat silently, clenching my fists so hard the bones in my hands ground against each other.
When we got home, I went to my room to change out of that prickly dress, and she barged in without even knocking. I had my dress and bra off and she grabbed me and shoved me in front of the full length mirror.
“Do you see what you look like?” she shrieked, gripping my shoulders.
I turned my head away. I didn’t want to look at all my fat, at my mosquito bite breasts and long, limp hair. She was hurting my shoulders.
“Look at yourself, Angel! You’re a skeleton! I can count every rib...you’re all elbows and knees!”
“Don’t Mom,” I said, trying to squirm loose. But she held me from behind, her face towering over mine in the mirror. She was still wearing her hoop earrings--big zeroes that banged against her neck as she shook her head.
“Why are you doing this? My friends must think I torture and starve you...”
I twisted, the tendons in my neck standing out like tight strings. The blades of my pelvic bones stuck out above my skimpy panties; my knobby knees quivered. I covered my breasts with my arms.
“Look! You’re a slip of paper...a paper cut! You don’t know how much you hurt people...”
I started crying, hiding my face with both hands. “I’m sorry, Mom...” I choked. “I thought you’d be happy...”
“Angel...” she sighed, hugging me to her chest. “I’m just concerned. You’re wasting away to a little bit of nothing...”
I broke away and jumped into my bed and pulled up the covers. I heard her sniffling, and then she went away, closing the door behind her.
I didn’t eat dinner or come out of my room for the rest of the day. I just lay in bed and stared at the hideous pink walls, prepared to ignore my mother if she came in again. But everyone left me alone.
When I fell asleep, I had a weird dream. Mr. Warner, the school counselor, was in it. It was like he was in love with me or something--I remember him down at the football field, behind the bleachers, and he touched his lips to my forehead and smoothed my hair. He pulled a piece of folded paper like a greeting card out of his back pocket and gave it to me. When I opened it, a whole symphony of classical music started flowing out, and then this multi-colored lace banner unfurled from the middle, and a brilliant blossoming bouquet of purple roses burst open. I felt all that beauty and specialness wrapped around me, toasty and cozy, like a quilt that warms you from the inside out. And Mr. Warner smiled and hugged me close.
Why Mr. Warner? That’s what I can’t figure, because he’s fat and ugly, with red hair in a crew cut and a beard that always looks like he just started it two days ago. I’ve only talked to him a couple of times about my class schedule. My locker is next to the door of his office, and he always smiles when he sees me, but he’s nothing to me--an afterthought in the background. It’s weird I would dream of him, and I don’t know what it means--am I secretly attracted to fat, ugly men? Do I have some sort of complex? I’m horrified that I’d dream of him kissing me. Now when I see him I just keep remembering that dream, and I feel funny about it, like I did something wrong.
So today I was getting my books together and he came out and said, “Angel, have you got a minute?”
My heart jumped into my throat because it probably meant trouble and there was that dream...But I went in and sat down next to his desk, and he closed the door.
“A friend of yours came to me...” he started. “I won’t say who, but she was concerned about you and wanted me to ask you if things are going okay.”
“Sure, I guess,” I said, wracking my brains to figure out who ratted on me. Sarah? I’d kill her for sure. Some friend!
“Your friend is worried about your health. Your diet. You’ve lost a lot of weight. She thinks you might need someone to talk to.”
I just sat there staring down at my hands, my right crossed over my left and circling the wrist with my fingers touching.
Mr. Warner leaned forward across the corner of his desk. “Anything you’d like to talk about? Are you unhappy at home?”
At first, I was irritated. What business was it of his? His questions seemed shallow, like he was pretending he actually cared. I just shook my head and bit my lip. The hell if I’d tell him anything.
“How do you feel about yourself?” he asked gently. His eyes were a deep blue, wide and friendly, pulling me in.
I wanted to tell him! Tell somebody! How much I hated myself; how I couldn’t get along with my mother and father; how nothing I ever did was good enough; how I blanked out every time I took a math test; how I couldn’t remember all the dates of the Civil War; how my body never seemed to fit me, like an odd-shaped article of clothing that didn’t cover the right parts and left other ones exposed; how I wanted to weigh “zero” and vanish and never have to struggle anymore.
“You can talk to me, Angel,” Mr. Warner said. I desperately wanted to speak, but my jaws clamped tight. Tears began to sting my eyes, threatening to overflow. I felt like I was being washed off the deck of a sinking ship. I grabbed my books to my chest and ran out. I was terrified he might follow me, so I ducked into the girls’ bathroom, where I crouched in one of the stalls, sobbing.
When I finally pulled myself together, I came out and washed my hands in the sink and looked in the mirror. My mascara ran in dirty streaks from my red, puffy eyes. My smeared lipstick made my mouth look too big, as if I’d gotten punched. My cheekbones stuck out over my hollow cheeks like someone had dug into my face with a trowel. I wiped at my large, frightened eyes, whispering, “I can’t do this anymore,” without really knowing what “this” was.
It was late and the buses had already left, and the hallways were empty and quiet, the spring afternoon light filtering onto the linoleum floors and leaning against the banks of metal lockers. I got my coat out quickly and left before I could encounter Mr. Warner again. I started to walk along Marshall Avenue, wanting only to be back in my bedroom. As I kicked chunks of melting ice into the gutters, all I could think about was my empty stomach, how I longed to fill it.