It’s Friday night, and I’m at the bar with my friends for my birthday. We sit at a tall table toward the back of the green lit room. We look at menus while our drinks make rings on our napkins. My chair sits in a dip, so it wiggles. I rock back and forth and listen to the legs of the stool hit the floor.
“Feel my boob,” Cameron says after his second drink. Cameron’s short, but because he’s so compact, his personality fills the space around him.
Cameron flexes his pec and leans toward me over the table.
“I’m not feeling your man tit,” I say, but after another round of shots, I do. It’s hard and firm, like a stress ball. “Impressive,” I say.
“It has to be. It’s how I make up for being a short shit,” he says.
“I feel the same way about my boobs. It’s the only thing that makes up for my fat ass.”
“That’s not true,” he says. “You have a pretty face.”
My mom and I are grocery shopping at a small local grocery store. I’m talking to the girl bagging our produce. She has long curly hair that makes me want to gently pull the springs to watch them reform. She’s heavy, and her baggy clothes make her look bigger than she is. Her red lipstick and winged eyeliner give her a retro look I like.
I grab the bags and walk with my mom.
“She’s nice,” I say. “I like her make-up.”
“Yeah. She’s a pretty girl,” my mom says loading her bags into the back seat. I know her next sentence, and I clench my jaw before the words hit. “It’s just a shame she’s so big. She would be beautiful if she just lost weight.”
Pretty as in “She’s pretty cool.”
Pretty as in fairly.
Pretty as in “She’s pretty.”
Pretty as in attractive, but not quite beautiful.
Pretty as in almost.
I’m at work leaning against the wall waiting for a customer to finish trying on a black lace dress. I work in a plus size store. It’s hard to get a girl who’s uncomfortable about her body into a form fitting dress.
The door to the fitting room opens and the girl walks out. Her shoulders are hunched and collapsed into her chest. She’s looks at the floor instead of at me.
“You look great,” I say.
Her name is Marcy and she came into the plus-size store looking for an outfit for a wedding. She has never been in a plus-size store and she’s nervous about it. I can tell she is embarrassed because she avoids words that refer to weight.
“Really? Do you think I look pretty?” Marcy asks. She turns and looks in the mirror.
The black dress is slimming on her. It has a flattering neckline to emphasize her bust. It brings the eye up to her smile instead of down to her stomach. The fabric doesn’t cling to her body, but it gives her a nice shape and shows off her curves.
She turns from side to side looking in the mirror and after a while I see her shoulders move back. She looks even better.
“Not pretty,” I say, “Beautiful. You’re beautiful.”
My mom tells me about my friend Nora. She’s a pretty girl, but she’s big. If she would stop eating and start exercising, she could get any guy she wanted.
My mom talks about my sister, the beautiful daughter with the long blonde hair, big boobs, and perfect hour-glass figure. She was beautiful, until she cut her hair and gained weight. Now she’s pretty and could lose a few pounds.
I was jealous of my sister when we were kids. She was chunky and awkward until she hit puberty. She lost her baby fat, learned how to style her hair, and started layering on the makeup. She was gorgeous, which was why she had a boyfriend from middle school on. I don’t remember a time when she didn’t have someone chasing her.
She had friends that slept over. I kept people away, and she invited them in. Her friends would come over, and I would try to spend even an hour with them in the hope to gain some knowledge about how to be a better girl. I’d try to sneak into her room, and my sister would slam the door on me. I’d end up in my room reading another book where I would cast myself as the beautiful girl, even though I never felt I fit the part.
My parents and I wake up early and drive three hours north to Mentor, Ohio for my cousin’s wedding. I’m tired, I hate my outfit, and I’m angry because I still can’t legally drink. I sit at the assigned table with my dad and watch my mom bounce around the room. She’s off talking and mingling with people she doesn’t know. It doesn’t stop her. It never has. She has a mouth and loves to use it.
My mom’s cousin Mary is liquored up an hour into the reception. She just had both of her knees replaced, so even though she’s drunk, she’s walking better than she has in years. She’s talking to my mom as I walk over. I stare at her drink and wonder what it is. She grabs my chin and squeezes. My eyes move to hers.
“You have such a pretty face, ” Mary says.
I’m unsure what to do.
“Don’t you think you’re pretty?” she asks. I watch her eyebrows squeeze together as she realizes I’m not going to answer. I think it makes her sad that I don’t.
She lets go of my chin when a new song comes on. She runs to the dance floor. I watch her go make use of her new knees.
After criticizing other’s about their weight, my mom will start talking about me. It never takes long for my mother to mention my weight. I don’t know why she always has to tell me about how big, fat, and heavy I am. It’s like she thinks I forgot about the rolls of mush I see around my waist every day. I don’t need to be reminded. But she tells me, and she tells me often.
She took me to every doctor she could hoping that they would give her a magical cure and suddenly she would have two beautiful daughters instead of one.
At thirteen, I sat on the examination table while my mother told the doctor something was wrong with me. She explained that I didn’t eat a lot, but I was still fat. I sat looking at the floor. Tears rolled down my cheeks and made circular wet spots on the dry white paper they used to cover the tables.
On the way out of the office, I stood at the door while my mom talked privately with the doctor. “You leave her alone. She is a beautiful girl,” I heard my doctor’s wife say in her thick Spanish accent.
It was the first time I remember being called beautiful, and it came from a woman I never liked. I wanted it to come from my mother. I wanted to be beautiful in her eyes.
She tore me down without even knowing it. She made me hate the mirror because who would want to look at something less than what it could be. She made me hate buying clothes because whatever it was would look better if I lost a few pounds. She made me hate going out of the house because I thought everyone was staring at that little roll over my pants or the way my arms jiggled or my gapless thighs. She made me self-conscious before I knew how to spell it. Sometimes I hate her for that.
“You’re pretty,” the Tinder message from a guy named Dustin says.
Dustin looks handsome in his selfie. He has a strong jawline and green eyes. There’s a picture of him playing hockey and another of him fishing. I wonder why all the guys hold the fish they catch in pictures. Maybe it’s a way of comparing sizes to show girls who’s the most robust.
My phone vibrates to tell me I have another message from Dustin.
“Pretty round,” Dustin says.
I read the fat joke again. Why would Dustin swipe on my profile if he was only interested in making jokes about my double chin?
“That’s pretty creative,” I say. “I don’t think I’ve heard that since the boys in middle school were still immature jerks.”
For a moment, I consider ending my contact with Dustin, but I don’t. My night is spent telling Dustin to insult me, to tell me every degrading and vile and hurtful joke he knows. I tell him he’s not upsetting me even though he is. I tell him I can take it even though I can’t. Maybe I think I deserve this.
His jokes force a memory. I’m in seventh grade again. My classmates whisper as I walk down the hall. They giggle and move closer to their lockers as I pass.
I find out my friend made a joke in gym class. He told his friends I was so fat I took up the whole hallway. He told them to be careful walking by me. He told them they might get hurt if they try to squeeze past me.
I spend weeks with my arms wrapped tight around my books. I keep my head down and my eyes only on the floor. When I feel someone’s eyes or hear a laugh, I tell myself I’m imagining things. I tell myself it’s not about me. I tell myself it will pass.
At work, the store is empty. It’s a Tuesday night so there aren’t many customers. My coworker Sam listens to me talk about plans for my birthday.
I walk around the store staring at every article of clothing. I create an outfit in my head. These pants with that shirt? No. How about jeans and this sparkly shirt? I grab my favorite things and try them on.
“Why is this so hard?” I ask her when I walk out in the first outfit. My hands hang by my side and I lean against the doorway. “I’m going to a bar. Why do I care so much?”
“Cause you’re hoping John will come. Cause you like him,” she says stressing the words as if we are still in middle school.
My cheeks grow warm and I go back into the fitting room. I try again.
I look in the mirror. The lacey top cups my chest and then flows out around my stomach, creating a flattering line. The jeans I put on hug my curves. The jeans give shape to the right places and the shirt takes the shape away from the wrong places. It looks good, but I bite my lip.
“What about this one?” I ask.
Sam looks up from the paperwork she’s started. “Yes,” she says. “That’s it. You look fantastic.”
“Are you sure?” I ask.
“He won’t be able to take his eyes off you. You look hot, and that’s coming from a girl that’s into chicks.”
I go back to the fitting room laughing. I turn in the mirror. I feel like a girl on a magazine cover. I feel beautiful, like it might be possible for that guy to like me too.
I change. I lose myself inside my head. I hang the clothes back on the hangers and fold the pants. I fix the fly-away hairs. I look at myself in the mirror and the image shatters. I look at the extra fabric hanging under my butt because I lost a little weight. I look at my arms and my stomach and my legs and I make a list of the things that are wrong.
Michelle Boring is a graduate student at Chatham University where she is pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing, She is the Social Media Editor for Atticus Books. Her work has appeared in Atticus Review’s “Love Stinks” edition, and Pendulum, Pitt-Greensburg’s literary magazine.