My reflection in the bathroom mirror didn’t look like a fag. I didn’t really know what a fag was. My reflection didn’t look any different than before Omar Hernandez called me a fag. So, either I have always looked like one, or I have never looked like one. I grabbed fistfuls of fat above my hips and wished I could cut them off. I imagined that my skin would heal over and the fat would disappear. Maybe Omar messed up and meant to call me fat. I was a little more familiar with that insult. I let go of my body and tried to smooth out the red marks from holding my skin so tightly. Crystal and I had been playing two square when Omar had jogged over and yelled “hey fag” at us. I guess he could have been talking to Crystal, but no one talked to Crystal like that. She was only one grade below me, but none of the other fourth graders were as brave as Crystal. She yelled “fuck off” to Omar as he jogged away. I guess Crystal knew what fag meant.
My house was so old that it didn’t have a shower. The big rusty bathtub we all shared was pushed into the corner of a green-walled room, and the wall always felt slick even when there was no one in the tub. The slicked walls shined like when you threw a frisbee and it caught the sun. I didn’t mind that we didn’t have a shower. The tub was large and sometimes felt like a little swimming pool. I often locked myself in the bathroom to be alone. To float. To feel weightless.
I climbed into the tub and turned the old rusted faucet on. The heat of the water caused pinpricks of pain on my feet, but I didn’t move. Standing naked in the tub I felt the water rise to my ankles. Looking down I couldn’t see my feet over my stomach. Omar was stupid. In the cafeteria this morning he had asked me if I liked any boys. I had immediately answered no. I didn’t want to talk about that with Omar. He asked then, so you like girls? No, I answered louder, not understanding why he was suddenly so interested. I didn’t like anyone, especially not Omar.
I sat in the tub, the water burning my thighs. I loved my thighs. If I leaned back into the tub and jackknifed my knees so that my heels were almost touching my butt, then my thighs looked skinny. Or maybe not skinny, but they looked like a woman’s thighs. They were thick and had a curve around my knee that made my legs look like an M sticking out of the water. Maybe if I stopped eating and continued to grow, my body would just absorb the fat. Maybe the rest of me could match my womanly thighs. Except that when I sat in the tub right now, the redness of scalded skin made me look sunburned and sunburns were something kids got. I relaxed my legs and let the water cover them. Sliding further into the tub the water was now in my ears. The rush of water filled my head and sensitive loudness caused me to hear the rushing of the water faucet like a roar.
The water was touching my face now. I closed my eyes in preparation for the heat. I could feel my body struggling to float with all its weight. Water covered my eyes and I held my breath. Underwater I waited for my face to acclimate to the hot water. My hair floated over my face in thin, slow wisps. Crystal’s hair bounced when she ran. It was dark and shiny, I could always see it across the playground. When she ran the sunlight moved with her.
I opened my eyes. Under the water, the walls of the bathroom didn’t look green. They looked blue. It’s funny how water changes things. I heard my name being yelled from under the water. Mom could wait. I hadn’t even washed. I moved my lips to the surface and sucked in more air. My fingertips were turning to raisins and I placed them on the sides of the tub. I heard the thrum of my fingertips like drums against the porcelain walls. There seemed to be less space than normal in the tub. Maybe I was gaining more weight. I felt ashamed of myself. The voice called my name again and I ignored it. I heard the bathroom door open, which didn’t make sense. I always locked the door. Sitting up, the roar of water leaving, I looked toward to door but didn’t see my mother. A strange woman was in the doorway. I screamed.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake. Don’t be such a drama queen. Get out of the tub. We are going to be late.” A dark-haired woman exited the bathroom while my chest pounded like a rubber ball on the pavement. Thump. Where was I? Thump. No green walls. Thump. Blue walls. The thumping quieted. A showerhead. Shiny lights over the mirror. Not my bathroom. I looked down at my thighs. Thicker. Definitely woman now. I needed my mom. My eyes raced back and forth across the room, failing to land on any particular object. Seeing no other exit, I stood up in the tub, bracing against the blue walls, and stepped out. Standing tall and outside the tub, I caught a glimpse of myself. My eyes finally settled on an image. My face was less round. Older. Dark lines under my eyes. My eyes looked the same and I had the same pug nose, slightly turned up at the tip. But now it had a silver ring in it, like a cow. My eyes involuntarily wandered over my body. I was still fat. But I had boobs. The rolls around my stomach looked different, like they had dropped, or were not as full. Maybe I had stopped eating. My body looked like the time I saw Mom naked getting out of the tub when I was 5. Worn. Curved. Almost translucent to the blue veins across her breasts. Like my breasts. I traced the faded stretch marks on my abdomen with my fingertips. Canyons of skin faded a shade darker, comparable to the color of the crease covering my belly button. I was always going to be fat.
The dark-haired woman popped her head into the bathroom again and I nearly jumped, but the unexpected weight of my new body didn’t match the strength I had exerted.
“If we are late for this reading, I don’t want to hear it the next time-”
“Get out! I’m naked!” I yelled. I attempted to cover myself with my hands but there just seemed too much to cover.
“Well that’s never mattered before,” the dark-haired woman chuckled. She placed a hand on her hip and gave me a smirk.
I looked closer at her. She looked like maybe 30. She was short. Her black hair was short and she had a few freckles across her nose. Brown eyes, brown skin, glasses, big hips. She was slightly fat, but her curves made it seem worth it. She was pretty.
“Just get dressed, okay? You know I hate being late.” I didn’t know what to say. I was still afraid of this woman who was bossy but didn’t seem to want to hurt me. She exited the bathroom and left the door slightly open. I went back to looking in the mirror.
I recognized my own body. To make sure, I turned around to look at my naked back. I counted all four of my chicken pox scars from last year. Was I dreaming? Either way, this was an older me. Older me seemed cool. And apparently, I was okay with being naked around people in the future. Which seemed unlike me. Grabbing a towel from the rack above the tub I wrapped myself. I was so tall the towel barely covered my butt. I needed to put on clothes before I figured anything out. The bathroom door opened to a large bedroom with a huge blue bed. I saw what looked like a closet and shuffled toward it in my towel, my feet rubbing themselves dry along the carpet in the room.
The closet was amazing. It was huge and full of shoes and dresses and sweaters. I felt that I could live in this closet. It seemed to be divided in two, though. The clothes on the right were smaller, the colors seemed boring. Blues, blacks, khakis. The left side of the closet was full of color. High heels lined the racks on the walls and lace was everywhere. These didn’t seem like things I would wear. My daily outfit consisted of baggy shirts from Walmart with cats on them and sweatpants. I saw low cut shirts and dresses with thin straps strung on light blue hangers, the hanger tops rimming the closet like the sky. The clothes on the right side of the closet looked more comfortable but possibly too small for me to fit into. I figured I must have been thinner at some point. Or I shared a closet with the pretty dark-haired lady. But that didn’t make sense. Why would I share a closet? I rummaged through the bigger clothes and found a grey hoodie and some jeans. Going through the dresser I found purple lace underwear. They were prettier than the underwear my mom wore, much prettier than anything my mom would ever let me wear. The underwear were partly see-through and very soft, not like the cotton ones I had at home. Another drawer showed me bras. Lace see-through ones, all of them stiff. I had no clue how to put a real bra on. Beneath the fancy bras, I found a sports bra. This, I was familiar with. Last year I had gotten fatter and Mom made me start wearing sports bras to hide my nipples. No one else in fourth grade was wearing bras yet. In the closet, I changed. Pretty lady poked her head in again and saw that I was dressed.
“Oh dear. Is that what you are wearing tonight?”
“What’s wrong with it?” I asked nervously, shoving my hands in the front pocket of the hoodie. I was partly offended at her disapproval but also worried that if I didn’t play along things could get worse. I thought about the possibility of getting back in the tub. Maybe it would take me back.
“If this is another joke, I’m not gonna stop you from showing up and looking ridiculous.”
“Fine. You pick out clothes for me to wear, then.” My patience was running thin. I didn’t know what was happening or what I was supposed to do. The dark-haired lady stood between me and my tub transport. I wanted my mom. She would know what to do. Should I tell the lady I didn’t know who she was? That, really, I’m just a 9-year-old and I just wanted to go home and finish my bath? Was that even possible?
“Fine. The new pink chiffon dress and the nude heels.”
“The what?” I didn’t know what chiffon was. I glanced at the racks behind me, puzzled. The lady sighed, stepped forward into the closet, and pulled a dress from the sky-blue rack and handed it to me. It was powder pink, just one shade pinker than my actual skin. The straps were thin. It looked short. I had never worn such a girly dress. She tossed high heels at me, too. They were kinda tan and really high. I had no clue how I was going to walk in those.
“Put it on. I’m gonna put my shoes on and pull the car around.” The lady walked out of the room, clearing a path to the bathroom. Still holding the dress and heels, I power walked to the bathroom. Tossing the shoes and dress to the floor I climbed into the tub, the water now tepid. Nothing happened. Maybe I needed to be underwater, I thought. Submerging myself into the water, the water felt cool against my scalp. Holding my nose shut and opening my eyes, the walls still looked blue. I closed them underwater again and opened them. Still blue. I held myself under the water, refusing to surface until my body instinctively pulled me to air. Sitting in the cool water I stared straight ahead. Maybe there was no going back.
Getting out of the tub I pulled the sopping sweater and threw it in the linen hamper by the sink. Flinging the sports bra off my shoulders and sliding the heavy denim over my thighs, my wet hair stuck to my face. Naked in the bathroom I stared at myself in the mirror. The part in my hair exposed bright white skin, like the color of a sunburn blister. Picking up the pink dress now damp from the floor, I slid it over my head. My thighs were still exposed. I felt naked. Fat and naked. Fat and noticeable. Without a bra, my blue lined breasts hung low in the dress. I walked out of the bathroom and back into the closet, my wet feet on the carpet again. I rummaged through the fancy bras in the drawers and found a pink bra that looked like it was made of the same stuff as the dress. I took my arms out of the straps of the pink dress and then slid my arms through the shoulder holes of the pink bra. I struggled to hook the little clasps behind my back, it felt like my arms were not supposed to move that way. So, I slipped the bra off my shoulders, clasped it, and then put it over my head like a sports bra. Pulling the straps of the pink dress over the bra, my boobs looked so much higher. But the bra was cutting into my sides and forcing an additional fat roll on my back where it cut into my skin. The pain of the bra and the uncertainty of what was happening to me made me want to cry. I wanted to go home. I walked over to the bed, my feet dry by now, and sat down to put the shoes on, trying not to cry. I didn’t notice the dark-haired lady come back in.
“Oh, no honey what’s wrong?” She sat next to me and rubbed my back. She didn’t comment on the back of the dress being wet from now my bathwater hair. Her touch felt familiar and welcome.
“I feel fat and I want to go home.”
“Baby you are home. Is it the dress? You don’t have to wear it. You just told me last week that you bought it for tonight. I thought you were playing with me.”
“No, I want my mom and I want to go home.” The lady was quiet. She continued rubbing my back. After a few moments, she said, “I’m sorry that your mom isn’t coming tonight to hear you read.”
“Huh?” I asked.
“I said I’m sorry she isn’t coming. But I am also not sorry. If she doesn’t want a part of our lives, then I don’t want to be a part of hers. We are each other’s family. Remember you told me that when Papi kicked me out all those years ago? Somos familia.”
I didn’t understand. Why would Mom not want to be a part of my life? What did this lady mean about our life? I started crying. I wanted to go home. I didn’t like this life.
“Lo que tu quieras, vieja. Wear the sweater. Fuck those fulanos.”
I looked up at her, not understanding what she said in Spanish. She moved her face to mine, wiped my tears away with her thumbs and kissed me. I closed my eyes and leaned into the kiss. Her mouth was hot and moist. I had never kissed anyone before, especially not a girl. The kiss felt good. A warm feeling below my tummy pressed me onward in the kiss. It felt like sunlight in my tummy, spreading throughout my body and reaching my mouth. I didn’t understand what my body was doing. Does every kiss feel like this? Or just ones with girls? Confused, warm tears covered my face and all of the sudden I was choking. I pulled away from her lips and surfaced.
I opened my eyes and the walls were green again. I sat up in the tub and looked down at my thighs. They seemed less womanly now. Someone knocked on the bathroom door. Mom yelled, “It’s been an hour. Stop pickling and get out of the tub.” I poured body wash on my loofah and began scrubbing with the cold water. I replayed the kiss in my head again, losing track of my scrubbing. My eyes tried to recapture the bathroom I had just been in. The blue walls, the newness of it all.
Mom yelled outside the bathroom again to get out.
I must have fallen asleep and dreamed it all up. Except, I could still feel warm lips on mine. That couldn’t be a dream. It was a nice kiss. She was a nice lady. It was a nice dress. Maybe not a nice bra. Maybe I would say thank you to Crystal tomorrow on the playground. For defending me from Omar. For being my friend. For being a nice girl.
Megan Bronson is a second year MFA student at Fresno State, where she is an associate editor for The Normal School Literary Magazine. Having grown up in a rural area of conservative California, her work looks at the intersections of sexuality, poverty, and place. Her work has been published in The Vignette Review and The San Joaquin Review.