Authors: Jenny Ruden
“Those letters sucked. You're crazy.”
“Your letters were amazing. Just write it true. Then put it in a Cool Whip container.” He replaced his glasses. “You could start with that night, you know. When we almostâ”
“Shut up, TJ.”
“It will never work.”
TJ sighed. “It worked for all of them,” he said, nodding toward the television.
YOU CAN NOT FAIL
the voice bellowed.
Then the commercial ended.
“I mean you don't want to go to fat camp, right?” TJ asked. “This might be your only hope.”
“But it's just an infomercial,” I said. I looked back to the television where a woman discussed a very absorbent paper towel. I dug around behind the sofa, felt the hard plastic of the remote, and pushed the rubber button. The television buzzed off. “How am I supposed to get thin by tomorrow?”
TJ walked to the basement stairs and sat on the third step. Behind him moonlight dripped in the window. It had to be one hundred degrees in my house, yet there was no sweat on his forehead. TJ never sweated. When he opened his mouth, he spoke slowly, as if I were retarded.
“Look, Bee. Remember that guy who levitated on
Here we go
, I thought. “How could I forget when you bring it up every other day?”
TJ's eyes darted around the room, and he lowered his voice, conspiratorially, “Well, I finally figured out his secret.”
“Yes, TJ. It's called Hollywood. It's called camera tricks.”
He stood up on the step and spread his arms wide. Then he brought them together in front of him like he was praying. He put his chin down near his collar and prepared himself for what looked like a swan dive directly into the coffee table.
“It's called the Balducci levitation. You stand at an angle,” he said, rocking on the balls of his feet. “So from where you're sitting it looks like I'm floating, but really, my foot is just on my ankle, see?”
We had that
episode on DVR. For weeks TJ was over my house pausing it, flipping his head upside down in front of the television, trying to determine if the contestant had some sort of fan contraption crammed in his pants.
TJ stumbled off the step and landed, face down, on our shag carpet, which was the exact color of a tennis ball.
“Didn't it look like I was floating a little?”
“No.” I said. Then, “Well, maybe slightly.”
He studied his shoes like they were to blame. “I'm still practicing,” he explained. “My point is that instead of trying to figure out how the Levitator couldn't do it, I tried to work out how he did.”
“I don't understand how writing down secrets and forgiving people will make me thin.”
“You don't need to understand how it works.” TJ stood and stepped closer to me. “You only need to know that it's possible.” When he reached behind my ear, I expected he would flick out a silvery coin or, if he was feeling mysterious, a gardenia. But he didn't. He smoothed my hair back behind my ears and looked directly at me.
“You never believe what's right in front of your face.”
“I believe in you,” I said.
He leaned in. “Don't believe in me,” he whispered. I could see the red indentations his eyeglasses had pressed into his nose. “Believe in you.”
TJ dropped his hands from my face. When he brought them up again, they held a crumpled ball of paper. I started at it curiously, then I touched it with the tips of my fingers.
“Open it,” he said.
Once in a while, he could still surprise me with a magic trick.
“Go on,” he urged.
I slowly uncrumpled the paper.
I forgive my dad for not seeing me.
“Where did you get this?” I asked, my voice tight.
He shrugged. “It was behind your ear.”
“You're full of magic, Bethany.”
“Tell me how you did this. Seriously.”
But TJ had slipped into illusionist mode where every movement was choreographed and every smile insincere. He might explain later how he'd managed to write this on a restaurant napkin when I wasn't looking. He might cop to how he'd found purple ink, my favorite, and how he'd made the handwriting look identical to mine. Exactly like mine. Maybe he'd admit to somehow crawling into my future ahead of me, but not now. Now he only kissed my forehead, lustlessly. The way you would kiss a cat. “You could forgive him,” he said, referring to the slip of paper, “your dad, for ignoring you at Chuck E. Cheese's.”
“Stop,” I said.
He plucked the paper from my fingers. “You could forgive me too,” he continued, “for everything. You know. Last year.”
, I thought,
but I won't
. Leave it to TJ to present it like an option. An option about as viable as a diet based on forgiveness.
“So if you won't try the diet then will you at least write to me every day you're gone?” he asked as he readied himself to leave. “Not just texts, e-mails too. Long, epic ones.”
My phone vibrated in my pocket. I pulled it out and read the text he'd somehow sent when I wasn't looking.
You my girl.
He'd never told me how he'd managed that trick either.
Not that it mattered. Tonight, just like every other night, I'd fall for him all over again. I'd believe I was his girl. I'd accept that someone so extraordinary could have a thing for meâsomeone so ordinary.
Subject: twas the night before fat campâ¦
i never stopped writing you emails. i only stopped sending them. i bet i've written u fifty this past year. That's almost 1 for every pound I gained. Not that u noticed.
That's what's called a lead-in, TJ. u taught me that. Like in ur magic shows when i'm supposed to bait you with a well-timed, “Now, TJ. Where did those magical doves get to?” or, “Hey, TJ, is it just me or is my Sprite foaming?” I'm still giving you lead-ins. Only in real life u never answer.
At 7 AM tmrw I leave for Utopia. I really hope ur awake. I hope u flag down the minivan. Barricade urself in front of it. I hope u call Jackie a traitor and punch Doug in the face. Then I want u to get ur bullhorn and tell everyone up and down Falls Road that ur sorry about last year. Sorry about what happened between us. Of course I'll forgive u. Forgive u everything. I'll let u take me back to your room. Lean me back on ur bed. Let u kiss my face and neck. My bra unhooks in front, TJ. know that.
I will tell u everything. like how when I was thirteen I started imagining uâ¦ Naked. Always @ the most inconvenient times too. Homeroom, fire drills, American Envy marathons. Then the tingles started. Tingles tingled places I never imagined tingling. ur shoulder blades underneath ur shirt, jutting out like wings, it does things to me. Makes my knees weak. Makes me sneak in the bathroom and fan my red face. And u reading ur trick books and biographies, TJ, I swear it makes me swoon more than anything else. More than ur grunts when u swish basketballs into the net. More than when u cup doves in ur hands like a secret. Something about ur gold-rimmed glasses, shirt off, belt threaded thru loops, a thick book fanned in front of u well, it kills me.
See what happens when I write to u? I guess that's why I stopped. I'm too afraid of where I'll go. Maybe you are too.
PS: you dumbassâ¦I still freaking love you
PPS: I am still sorry re: the doves
WHAT I'M PACKING
IT WAS STILL dark outside when Jackie flung open my blinds the next morning.
“Operation Fat Camp,” she barked. “Let's go.”
I hadn't even packed. Guessing as much, Jackie scurried around my room, her ponytail swinging violently. She opened drawers and snatched shorts and tank tops. She grabbed my cell phone from the nightstand and tossed everything in a duffle bag. When I rolled over, my eyelids growing heavy again, she hauled me out of bed by my ankle.
“No you don't,” she warned. My sister, who weighed one hundred and five, maintained a freakish strength. When I finished brushing my teeth, she shoved my still-wet toothbrush in the bag.
Mom was already downstairs making breakfast. On the table sat a plastic jug of orange juice, whipped cream in a can, and sliced strawberries. She slurped coffee from her favorite Zyprexa Pharmaceuticals mug.
“I used real butter too,” she said, presenting me with a plate of waffles. “And real syrup.”
Mom hadn't eaten sugar in ten yearsâat least not in front of me. She was the kind of woman to make a big show about asking for lite or fat-free everything, even though she didn't need it and even though that stuff's been killing lab rats for decades.
I studied the succulence before me. “Wow. You should send me to fat camp more often.”
She sighed like someone let the air out of her. It was her
I looked at the giant sunflower plate crowded with waffles, syrup, butter, and bacon. Bacon. Sure everything was burnt, but it didn't matter. It looked delicious. Dreamy. You can imagine just how dreamy if a waffle-less, bacon-less, butter-less summer stared you in the face.
For whatever reason, just then, Delilah Rogers, my all-time favorite romance author, popped into my head. She had granted only one interview during her career, and in it she said something that, as I plowed my fork into a heap of waffles, made a lot of sense. “Brains are great, but if a woman really wants things to go her way she should try hysteria.”
Things definitely weren't going my way. The old Honda Odyssey waited for me in the street, its trunk opened like a vortex. A glossy Utopia brochure and U.S. map rested beneath Jackie's keychain on the entry table. And my mom? Well, she couldn't get me out the door fast enough. Underneath her Zyprexa Pharmaceuticals bathrobe, I bet she rocked a cocktail dress.
No. Things definitely weren't going my way. Maybe Delilah had a point. I mean, I always envied her hysterical female characters who super-glued themselves to the legs of their lovers and did not let go. The soft-haired heroines who leaned back in the arms of their fanged boyfriends and ordered, “Bite me.” Those were the best. Maybe I needed to dig in my heels.
“How's breakfast?” Mom asked.
“It'd taste better if I wasn't headed straight into the hellmouth.” I pushed my plate away then pulled it back. I loved waffles.
My mom shook it off.
“It's called Utopia, Bethany. How bad can it possibly be?”
“Why don't you go, and then tell
all about it,” I snarked.
“If I needed to go, I would,” my mom huffed, pulling the bathrobe belt tight around her narrow waist.
“Who said I need to go?”
She didn't respond. She just gave me “The look.” It was the same look she gave our neighborhood, Jackie's old report cards, waiters out of Diet Dr. Pepper, Doug. The same look she gave my dad before he got sick of it and left. It was her signature expression of pity mixed with disgust.
Faced with “The look” now, I willed my jiggly thighs and ankles to slim. I tried to appear slender in my shorts, but the chub seeped out over the button. I felt my mom eyeing the roll. She was about to mention that last year these shorts fit. She was going to say, “You were so motivated to lose weight before. What happened?” Next she'd get into how she searched my room for food and, much to my embarrassment, found it. But she was oddly quiet this morning. She didn't even bring up her whole
but you have such a pretty face
“If you let me stay here, I'll go back on my diet. I'll join a gym.” I stared at the butter pooling inside a waffle square. “I'll try harder.”
Mom sat down across from me. She looked tired, spentâ nothing of the I-Have-It-Together-Superwoman she thought she was and every bit of the single mom she happened to be. She pulled a napkin from the dispenser centered on our linoleum table and dabbed her eyes. “I just want good things for you.”
“Good things don't happen to fat people?”
“No,” she replied. She sniffed once. “Just look at your father.”
Not even seven in the morning, and she was bringing him up. “Dick only wanted to read books and do crosswords. Never understood what teamwork meant. Or sacrifice. He had no drive.”
“No ambition,” I chorused in my mom's sales pitch tenor. “Couldn't even finish optometry school. Needed someone to hold his hand the whole time.”
She looked at me, trying to figure out whether to be proud or offended that I knew her speech better than she did. “That's right,” Mom said. “He was definitely an overweight and unhappy man. You don't want that kind of future, do you?”
Not that this could be verified, mind you, given I hadn't actually seen my dad in two years. Unless you're inclined to count when I ran into him at Chuck E. Cheese's, and he ignored me. Forget about that for now, though. Ancient history. My point is that in my dad's occasional e-mails or too-late birthday cards, he presented himself as exceedingly happy with his new wife and new kids in Ellicott City.