In the spring of sophomore year, standing naked in front of the bedroom mirror, I discover my first stretch mark. Its long pink-red finger reaching down the pocked slope of my stomach.
Two weeks later, I scout for more. Late on a Thursday, after finishing my homework. I strip down and inspect my lumpy girth: the doughy-soft skin that bulges in pouches of what even my mother has quit dismissing as "baby fat;" the belly that sags below the pubic bone to the wiry bristle of hair between my legs. So low I wonder if, when the big moment arrives, a boy will be able to properly access my privates.
They're everywhere I look. Even my boobs are striated with pale scribbles that track inward to the nipple. These perfect breasts, which sprouted in middle school during a spate of growing pains that throbbed through my chest for weeks on end; which up till tonight had been ideal - large, shapely, pendulous in a good way. The only feature that would've made me attractive to a guy. Ruined now.
It was a matter of time, really. I've been fat so long it's hijacked my entire identity. Most kids at school know me only by a nickname: "piglet." The older guy around
the block prefers "Lady Adipose." Even my dad calls me "butterball," and when he catches me in the vicinity of a bagel or a soda drink, his "little carbo queen."
And now there are stretch marks, tracing fault lines down my belly, my thighs, the ridge of chub along my waistline. I know for a fact only pregnant women and fat people get them. And there's no way I'm pregnant. I've never even kissed a boy.
But the panic really kicks in after I finish my shower. When, toweling off in the steamy bathroom, I hear a tearing like the croak of a frog. If I were wearing pants, I'd check the crotch, the seams. But I'm naked, so I check my body instead.
And sure enough, a stretch mark along my right-side love handle has torn open. Three or four inches, neatly cleft, as if my fat has come unzipped. I wipe a hand across the mirror, twist around for a better look-see. As I do, it splits further. There's no blood, no pain - only a wispy puff of what looks like dust. And a dizzy wave of alarm that washes over me as I probe the aperture, the dull pink flesh within.
Now, I'm no medical prodigy, but I pay attention in Bio and watch House every Monday night. I certainly know enough to realize this isn't normal. This isn't something that happens. People don't just rip open.
So I try and think how to assuage the anxiety. Then I dress, scramble downstairs, ask my mom if I can run to school and grab a textbook I forgot. She agrees, and I dig the car keys from her purse.
Outside, the nighttime dark is a soothing veil of anonymity. I climb into the SUV, truck down to the Zap
Burger. I queue up at the drive-through and slog to the intercom, where the glowing panorama of the menu flares dazzling through the windshield. I don't need it, though. I know my order by heart: a Zapmeister Crispy Chicken Combo, jumbo-sized.
The soda is mammoth: fifty-two ounces. The sort my dad calls a Bladder Splatter. Fortunately, our SUV is built for consumption, with cupholders so wide they fit a bucket of cola like this one. I spring it open, plug my drink into the grip, wait for my change. The guy at the register is young, only a few years older than me, maybe nineteen or twenty. When he hands me the coinage, I don't return his gaze - it'll be all pity. Instead, I fumble my bag of food through the car window and veer out of the drive-through lane.
In Los Angeles, an automobile is the only place you're ever alone. So like always, I eat while I drive. That way no one can watch. I shuttle around Northridge, crisscrossing streets in the dark. Groping through the paper bag, unwrapping the Crispy Chicken Sandwich. I chomp a huge mouthful. Globs of mayonnaise squirt over my fingers. I lick them clean. A sunburst of adrenalin rockets through me. I cram the Crispy Chicken Sandwich further into my mouth.
The taste of sodium, it makes me feel safe and content. A sense of release courses through my body. It blossoms into warm elation.
Next up comes the fries. I dig out a fistful, stuff them in my mouth. The salty flavor gives me tingles. It makes me feel like I am happy. I take a long suck off my soda, gobble more fries. Crushing them in. Faster, faster, faster. Licking salt from beneath my glistening fingernails. Slurping huge gulps of coke.
By the time I return home, the food is howling and clawing in my belly. Propulsive thumps of flatulence burst out of me. Sneaking across the upstairs hallway, past the doorway to my parents' room, a clap of wind barks loose - brutal, exclamatory. It wakes my mom. Her groggy whisper echoes over my dad's snoring and asks if I got the textbook okay. But I scurry to my room and pretend like I didn't hear.
That night, in sleep, I dream of leaping. Of soaring off the ground, arcing through the air. Of lifting over streetlamps and skimming treetops before touching back to the pavement. It's like flying, only different. As if I'm dragging myself skyward through naked force of will.
I awake alone in the dark and get up to pee out the Bladder Splatter. As I return to bed, I can still feel the tickle of breeze on my cheeks. The ethereal cool of vast, starry air.
Dreams are funny that way. People fuss over what they mean, but I find mine pretty straightforward. No phallic shapes, no pervy symbolism. What you see is what you get. I have three recurring scenarios, each representing exactly what it appears to. The first is my dream of leaping. The second's more run-of-the-mill: I've gone to school without putting on any clothes, and the other students point and jeer as I fumble to cover myself. The third's plain scary: I'm chased down long, empty corridors by men in ski masks with shiny pistols. Eventually they catch me, sock me in the gut. They rape me several times before shooting me in the head.
The leaping dream, you might notice, is by far the most pleasant.
So the next morning, I'm still half-dreaming it as I crawl out of bed. As I dress and trail a sizzling waft of bacon aroma down to the kitchen. My mom's frame - thin, but lumpy in places - stands pressed to the counter. She says to sit, positions a plate of breakfast in front of me: two fried eggs, four strips of bacon, a lump of cottage cheese, and several triangles of moist sourdough. Then she steps back, eyes round, and watches me eat.
But the sight overwhelms her. She shuffles to the stove, lifts a half-slice of bacon from the pan, places it on her tongue - reverently, like a communion wafer - and chews it, her eyes pressed shut. Her jaw undulating, gentle, steady. Then she drags the waste bin out from under the sink and opens her mouth. The masticated clump slides from her lips, thumps down into the trash. She continues like this with a few more slices - chewing out the flavor, spitting away the calories. By the time I've eaten my fill, I can see she wants to be alone with the remainder of the food. With the last few slices of bacon and the inch-deep puddle of grease in the pan. So I tell her I'll drive myself to school today.
The student lot is nearly full as I pull in, so I circle awhile, trolling rows of Hybrids and BMWs, searching for a spot. Soon as I find one, the warning bell sings - I'm running late already. So when I hurry inside and discover the nickname - PIGLET - scrawled across my locker door in jagged black letters, I don't have time to stop and consider it. It's not until snack break that I really take in the sight, stooping in the middle of the hallway, tensing back a hot flush of humiliation. Students file past, gawk at me; a few press up their noses into snouts and let out little squealing sounds. I spin out the combo on my padlock, toss open the door.
Beneath my jeans I feel the tug of another stretch mark tearing. I hardly register the sensation in the midst of all this embarrassment. Instead my attention is focused on trying to act unfazed by the teasing.
Preston Davies, who's pretending not to watch from across the hall, walks over. He hovers nearby until I give up ignoring him and ask what he wants. His eyes, milky and dead behind scum-crusted glasses, survey my face.
"You can get Windex from Dr. Halperin's secretary."
The tone he uses is flat, dry. "To wipe off the graffiti. Glass cleaner'll do the trick if you scrub hard."
I roll my eyes, trying to look aloof and unconcerned, and realize then I'm about to start crying. I clank the metal door shut, tell him I don't care what the other kids write on my locker. As I flee down the hall, I repeat the words in my head. Put them on a loop.
I don't care I don't care I don't care.
Truth is, I can't stand to let Preston Davies be patronizing. I'm low on the food chain, but he's even lower. Worse, any public interaction between us threatens to expose one of my ugliest secrets: we were friends once, he and I, as kids. His family lives three doors down, and his mom often babysat me. Until somewhere around the fourth or fifth grade, when Preston's growing dorkiness became worrisome, and I cut off abruptly. It took our mothers about three years to catch on. These days he and I never speak, and I'm not about to start taking advice from such a geek.
I terminated the friendship just in time, too, because by seventh grade, puberty ripped like a hurricane across the gawky landscape of his body. In a space of months, Preston Davies transmogrified into something monstrous. Huge swaths of acne exploded across his nose and cheeks. His lips took on a freakish downturn, so that to this day he constantly appears to be frowning, especially when he's smiling.
And if he isn't half-retarded, he sure comes off that way. Up through the start of high school, he had the nasty habit of pulling his pants down when using a urinal. According to reports, guys would enter the bathroom to be greeted by the grotesque full moon of Preston's bare buttocks.
Basically, it boils down to this: if you have to be a loser at our high school, it's better to be a loser with redeeming traits. You can be a brainy loser, like this kid Alex Northon, who's a complete tech whiz, who runs his own web-based advertising company and even carries a BlackBerry that he checks in the middle of class. Or a sweet loser, like this Mormon girl, Jo, who's always kind and upbeat, even to people who are mean to her. But Preston is a greasy, smelly, useless loser. And that's an unfortunate kind of loser to be.
So I remind him as often as possible. Particularly when members of a higher social echelon are within earshot. Times like that, I mouth off to Preston about all his gross habits. I really tear into him. Not because I think it'll improve my standing with the popular cliques - I know it won't - but more out of a desire to be known for something other than my weight. Thinking maybe I can become the funny, sassy loser, the way Jo is the sweet one or Alex is the smart one.
After school, when I arrive home, my mom's left me a batch of brownies. Beside it, there's a note. She and my dad have taken off, headed up to Santa Barbara for the weekend. I shrug it away. This kind of thing is fairly routine - the riotous din of their lovemaking requires privacy.
I change into one of my favorite sleep shirts, spill onto the couch to catch up on my TiVo. When the brownies are gone, I dig the last half-pound of bacon from the fridge, fire up the stove, and fry it all. Turning giddy at the popping hiss of grease, then killing the flame, laying the meat out strip-by-strip on a plate. There's enough here for two Toasted Bacon and Mayonnaise Sandwiches - one now, one later.
Of course I realize I'm not supposed to be eating this garbage. But it blunts the edge off my loneliness. And truth is, diets are stressful. I know - I've attempted plenty, including some of the edgier ones popular at my school, like anorexia, bulimia. In the process I discovered that developing and maintaining a successful eating disorder is actually harder than you would think.
Until recently, that is, when I learned about laxatives on an episode of Gossip Girl. They give me nasty stomachaches, sure, but I love the idea of losing weight while eating more. And I know if I want to achieve success, I have to push past the pain. Which is why I've taken to hiding a stash of Maximum Strength Ex-Lax in my bedroom.
So lying on the sofa, nibbling the Toasted Bacon and Mayonnaise Sandwich, the roiling agony of my defaced locker ebbs away, and my mind wanders back to the torn-open stretch marks. I reach under my shirt: that first one hasn't healed yet, hasn't changed at all, really. Still just an open fissure snaking down my skin. I wonder, should I do something about this? But of course I'm far too embarrassed to mention it to anyone, if I had anyone to mention it to.
But then a slop of guilt splashes up. This never would've happened if I hadn't been so fat. So, thinking maybe a little excretion will take the pressure off my skin, I shamble upstairs and break out the laxatives.
According to the instructions on the package, I shouldn't expect a bowel movement for six to twelve hours. Which is ideal, really: I can take a tablet now, then eat whatever I want until late tonight, when I'll poop it all out and go to sleep.
I tear open the foil wrapping, pop loose a pill, swallow it without water.
And for a long while, everything's mellow. I eat bundt cake, pickles, pretzels, Oreo cookies with peanut butter. I eat marshmallows, barbecue chips, and Captain Crunch with Crunchberries. I eat graham crackers, Pop Tarts, and cherry-shaped marzipan from my mom's stash.
But by ten-thirty I've got a mad hankering for Red Vines. Since there's time to kill before my appointment on the throne, I figure I'll walk to the liquor store, buy some, and gobble them down before the purgative gush begins.
But cramps whip up as I'm trudging down the block. And because they're early, I don't realize it's the laxatives; I just let out a soft groan and keep walking.
Up ahead, a shape coalesces from the shadows along the sidewalk. A person, hunched on the ground. Preston. I freeze, eye him. He doesn't notice me. He sits perched on the lip of the curb, picking his nose, rolling the booger between his thumb and forefinger, flicking it away.
My tummy gurgles, so loud I think he'll hear. A squeeze of pain coils in my guts, folds me over. Between Preston and the bad stomach, this whole mission starts to look a little ill-conceived. But as I hunch there, struggling to figure what to do, he turns and spots me.
"Annabeth, you alright?"
I throw him a nod, beeline ahead. He swivels his gaze, squinting in the dark, follows my progress along the
street, says my name again. I ignore him and forge on toward the store.
But at the end of the block, rounding the corner, the cramps snap at my innards even harder. A weight plunges out of my belly. I have to tense up taut to keep from soiling myself.
This scenario is turning grim fast.
I weave a circle, survey the empty street. My tummy roils, burps. For a terrifying span of seconds, I focus on clenching tight, resisting the urge to spill loose the contents of my lower intestines. Little pellets of sweat press out of my forehead. All my skin goes trembling-hot. My guts flop, roll, and I realize there's no making it home now, not before the onslaught begins.
I plunge across the street to a strip of trees and bushes. Beyond contemplation, beyond choice. I crash into the brush, plop against the arched torso of a carrotwood. I unbutton my khakis, squat, bracing on the rough trunk. And a soupy mess hisses out of me. Splattering on the seat of my pants.
Nothing can stop the tears from blazing down my cheeks. Spilling out in a hot torrent, blinding me so completely that I don't notice the sound of him crashing through the brush. So that when he speaks my name, the muscles in my arms and legs buckle tight.
I'm sure it's men in ski masks, come to chase me and rape me and shoot me in the head.
But it's only Preston, peeking through the leaves and asking my name. I try to form cogent sentences - they come
out a shapeless, soggy mess. Preston doesn't say anything else. He sidles against my body, helps me drag my pants up, guides me from the brush. When we make the sidewalk, I try again to sculpt words from my guttural sobs.
Preston rubs his hand across my shoulders. "C'mon, let's get you back home."
And he leads me there, holding my forearm, rubbing my back, keeping his face blank and mirthless when my stomach burbles and spits, when my sludgy-wet pants slop and slosh. At the doorstep, I push him off, insist I don't need help. But he follows me inside, moves to the living room, turns on the TV real loud so he won't hear the sounds that burst out of me when I finally reach the bathroom.
I wrap up in there, escape upstairs, clean myself, change my clothes. And return to find Preston relaxed on the couch. I stand in the doorway and watch him, my hands balled in my pockets. And as my brain gropes for words, I suddenly realize his glasses are missing. Those thick, crusty glasses, like the portals of a deep-sea submarine. So I decide to joust with him, as a way of evading the awkwardness of all this.
"Where are your nasty glasses?"
He shrugs. "Got fitted for contacts, actually, just today after school."
"How are they?"
"Real painful, like something's sitting on my eyeball."
"That's gross," I tell him.
"The optometrist says it'll go away. I'm supposed to keep them in for a few hours tonight, then a few more tomorrow. Each day a little while longer, until I can wear them all day without even knowing they're there."
"You can do that, learn to live with the feeling like that?"
He nods. "It's worth the effort."
This is more words than we've exchanged in years. I can see now there's something different about Preston, something other than the missing glasses - a clarity and certitude to the way he talks. He's open and direct, as if it no longer occurs to him that he should be ashamed of who he is. It makes me nervous.
"Probably simpler than getting a seeing-eye dog."
I giggle at my own joke. The sound comes out shrill and metallic.
He says, "I've heard variations on that theme for years now, Beth. If you're gonna mock me, at least show originality."
His comeback catches me by surprise. I blurt an apology.
We stare at each other. Paralytic silence. I sway on my feet.
"So you want a drink or something?"
He nods, gets up and moves past me into the kitchen. I follow, watch him pull a can of Dr Pepper from the fridge.
"I'm not gonna have sex with you," I say.
Preston scrunches up his face, like he stepped barefoot on a pebble.
"That's not why I'm here."
"Good, because I'm not going to blow you or make out with you, either."
"Why would you think I expected that?" he says.
"Because that's what guys expect."
"Not all guys."
I tilt my head, absorb the response, wonder what he means by it. I wonder if maybe he's gay.
Preston breaks open the soda can with a bubbly crack, takes a gulp. I give up trying to think of how to word what I really want to say, and simply say it.
"You won't tell anyone, will you?" Desperation trickles into my voice, much as I try to muffle it.
Preston peers at me a second. "Y'know," he says, "when I was younger, my mom always used to say that other kids made fun of me because they were jealous."
"My mom said the same thing."
"Right, well, you wanna know the truth?"
"They're not jealous of me, or you. That little chestnut is a line of bullshit that moms feed us, because they don't know any other way to explain the concept of human cruelty to a little kid. Truth is, those people make fun of us because they're assholes."
I balk at him. "Why are you telling me this?"
"So you'll stop giving a crap what they think of you."
I mull it over, go back to my original question. "So are you gonna tell anyone or not?"
He rolls his eyes, shakes his head. "No."
I thank him.
"You okay, though?" he asks.
The question dangles a few seconds. I think of the torn stretch marks, of the open fissures on my tummy, reaching down to the pale-pink core of me. And I decide to lie.
"You kidding? I'm totally fine."
He takes a chug off the soda and flashes that upside-down smile that looks like a frown.
"Cool, then I'm going swimming in your pool."
I giggle at him. "You don't have any trunks."
"So what? I'll go in my boxer-briefs."
He turns, sets the soda on the counter, dashes to the sliding glass door. Halfway out, he pivots around, and his lips wrench down - like they're pulled by gravity - into another grin.
"Sure you can."
I cross my arms over my prodigious belly, hoping to hide the dimensions of myself. Preston shrugs, turns and moves out the door, scooping his shirt over his head as he goes. He scampers to the pool's edge, heels off his shoes, skims a bare foot through the water to test the temperature.
Then, absently, I wander upstairs, paw through my closet, in case there's something I can wear that won't be cataclysmically traumatic. I drag a one-piece off the hanger, hold it up, inspect it. It's the only bathing suit I'll even consider wearing in front of others, and I try it
on now. But really, what does it matter? He's already seen me at my worst tonight.
So I wrap a towel around my body, scuttle down the stairs. When I get to the backyard, I force myself to slow down so Preston won't see my fat bounce as I move. But he's in the water now, plunging through the purple-blue depths. The pool is so clear I can make out the pattern on his boxer-briefs - tiny circlets, like keyholes. He noses to the surface, blinks water from his eyes.
"Right on, hop in."
"Gimme a sec," I say. "This is weird."
He twitches, tosses his head. "I can't even see you. The water's messing with my contacts."
I seize the opening: drop the towel around my ankles, cover myself, slide in and kick off the wall. Feeling glacial-huge, big as a Beluga. But it doesn't seem to matter. For some reason, I don't care.
Preston wags his head. "Man, seriously, it's been years since I was in your pool."
I shiver off a little laugh. We paddle around the lapping glow of the water. For the first time tonight, I quit thinking about bacon and Captain Crunch.
Preston's head bobs down, his feet splash up. He torpedoes to the floor, skims along it. I foot myself to the wall, push off, try to follow. But diving under, I hear a shredding sound reverberate through the underwater hush.
A tearing like the croak of a frog.
A stretch mark along my thigh, it's ripped apart like a seam, almost down to the knee. I splash to the pool wall, wrench myself up. For a terrifying second, my body flails there, teetering and flopping against the cement. Fully exposed in all its wet hugeness. Preston says my name, then yells it out. I grope to my knees, clutch for the towel, enwrap my body. Holding my hand over the fault line along my thigh.
Preston says, "Please, Annabeth, please don't go."
And the rift in my leg tears further, down over the soft mound of my kneecap. I'm barely holding back tears as I lunge across the grass toward the sliding glass door, toward the protection of the house.
But Preston scampers past, bars the way. He stands there dripping and shivering. He gestures for me to stop. I lunge back and search frantically for another escape.
"Beth, what is it?"
"This feeling, it's too much!"
"Then get past it!"
I flap my hands, wave him away. "I don't wanna be seen like this."
I flap at him again, cocoon my body in the towel.
"Because I'm gross. I have stretch marks."
His face doesn't change. "Everyone's got stretch marks."
"No they don't!"
"Yeah they do, only sometimes you can't see them is all."
He touches my arm with his fingertips. Every part of my body turns warm in the cool night.
"But one's torn open," I say. "Two or three now, I think."
He reaches down, grabs hold of the towel. "Let go a sec. Are you injured?"
"No, not injured."
"Let go a sec."
I go limp, and the towel drops to the concrete. My body stands arrayed before him, pudgy, comically round. The one-piece sheened skintight over every fat roll. I should be terrified and ashamed. Instead, all I feel is relief.
Preston hones in on the pink fissure at my knee, raises a water-pruned finger, traces it up my leg. He wipes his eyes, scrunches his face and inspects the bare skin.
Then he presses his finger in, and I start to scream.
Everything next, it happens fast.
My flesh opens further, tearing wide now, rending down my calf in one direction, up my flank in the other. I bound away from him in a sort of floundering swirl. Beneath my swimsuit, I feel the fissure open across the flab of my butt.
Then all of me splits open, a web of lacerations.
My skin unwinding. Long peels of it sloughing loose, sagging to my ankles. Husking apart in pallid ribbons that litter the pool deck.
And I realize then, I've come unraveled.
And he's seen it happen. He's seen me opened to the world for the very first time.
I step out of the rubbery coils of meat and gristle and skin, toe them aside. Then step away from Preston as he stands gaping. I'm chilly now, trembling naked and raw.
His lips move, breath words. "It's beautiful."
I turn and catch sight of myself in the sliding glass door's smooth reflection. I am bare now of my sluggish wrappings. The fresh underskin of muscle and tendons a flaring red-pink, like the dripping pulp of a grapefruit. I'm unpeeled and renewed.
I jerk my face back to Preston. He steps closer, raises a hand, reaches out to feel the slippery surface of my new body.
And it's his touch that does it.
Sends me leaping high, riding the air up-up-up. Swooping over the pool, over the grass. Like in my dream.
And all my shame, it scatters away like ashes in the starry breeze.
From the cement below, Preston tosses up his face, follows my progress with huge half-dollar eyes. The wide crescent of his grin looping up and righting itself.
About the Author
BLAIR KROEBER is a fiction and screenwriter, originally from the Bay Area. His screenplay, the suspense thriller The Locksmith, is currently in development, and there's plenty more where that came from.