Authors: Jenny Ruden
I started to say something, but then the smoke alarm went off. My mom had burned the waffles.
“Perfect,” she said, which was what she always said when life stepped in to remind her that I was fat, Jackie was dumb, or that we basically lived in a dump.
Perfect. Perfect. Perfect.
JACKIE BARRELED DOWN the stairs and dumped the duffle bag by my feet. “I even packed you a nice blouse in case they have a dance or something.”
. She never used to say words like that. She never used to dress like a Mormon either. This fine morning, my sister wore capri pants and a matching white “blouse” of her own. Her outfit was tasteful, modest. It did little to conceal the fact that everything about her body was flawless down to the neat circle of her navel whose piercing she'd removed last month. Looking thirty-five instead of twenty, Jackie poked a finger in my belly. “You'll so love being thin,” she said, like she held the patent on skinny. “You must get tired of lugging all that weight around.” She tied the strings of her pants in a dainty bow. “Don't you?”
You're wondering what happened to Delilah's planâthe one that involved hysterics? The plan was very much in effect when I said, “Carrying a few extra pounds is nothing compared to hauling a loser boyfriend everywhere. Or a baby.”
Jackie tilted her head at my insult, more curious than hurt. “I wouldn't know anything about that.”
Of course she wouldn't.
I looked from my duffle bag to the car keys and back to Jackie's sensible shoes. My mom's coffee pot belched and hissed.
This is actually happening,
I thought. Sixteen years old on a Monday morning in June, I, Bethany Mitzi Goodman Stern, straddled a vector aimed right at fat camp.
One. Final. Plea.
“Please don't,” I tried. “I've lost weight before. I can lose it again.” Now I was crying. I thought about throwing myself on the floor and kicking around in circles like the three-year-old I used to be. I knew if I did, though, my sister and my mom would only join forces, lift me up, and ever so calmly throw my too-big-butt inside the minivan. After all, they were used to my tantrums considering I used to have them all the time. In fact, according to my mom and all the psychobabble she endorsed, the only thing that ever snapped me out of them was to completely ignore me. If my family wanted me to shut up, then they need only pretend I was invisible. What can I tell you? Years later, and it was still their modus operandi.
My mom and sister packed up the minivan obliviously while I howled, cajoled, bargained, threatened, and then, finally, gave up.
In no time at all, we were standing outside as the sun peeled back a layer of sky.
“Mom spent five thousand dollars,” said Jackie. “The least you can do is kiss her goodbye.”
“This wasn't exactly my idea,” I reminded them.
“You can always come home,” my mom said, like someone held a cue card in front of her. “But at least try it. Try it before you decide to hate it. Promise?”
Massive lie in three â¦ two â¦ one â¦ “Sure.”
Jackie started the car like it was the most natural thing in the world, like we were Magellan and Columbus leaving Baltimore for brighter waters. I leaned back in my seat and looked at TJ's row house, every inch of it still in sleep. I couldn't see the cages that held his doves, but I knew they were asleep too. What lucky winged bastards they were, privileged to hide up TJ's sleeves, the object of so much of his attention.
If this were a Delilah Roger's romance novel, I'd unlatch my seatbelt, run across the street, dig up his house key buried in a fake rock, and crawl next to TJ in his bed. “I want to stay with you,” I'd whisper. Better yet, he'd somehow gotten my e-mail and had chained himself to the minivan the way tree-huggers chain themselves to two-hundred-year-old sequoias.
But there was nothing romantic about my story.
,” Jackie said, pronouncing it voy-
She waved at my mom and pulled away from the curb. “Off to brighter waters.”
I opened my window for one last whiff of Baltimore: Fishiness mixed with cinnamon from the defunct spice factory. We'd been waking up to that fishy/spicy aroma since my dad walked out, which landed my mom back here, in Baltimore, twelve years ago. It was the last place she wanted to be. It was the last place anyone wanted to be.
“But I like it here,” I said, my eyes filling with tears all over again. Yes, I loved my neighbor, but I loved Baltimore too. Sure it stunk when the wind blew up from Dundalk, and yes, the accent was goofy, but it was home. My home. And, according to Dorothy and other great minds, there's no place like it.
I opened the glove box for a tissue, but instead a cyclone of Jackie's condoms poured out. Natch.
My sister drove for two blocks then pulled into an alley where Doug was waiting for us. He opened my door and directed me to the backseat.
“What? I can't even ride shotgun in my own adventure?”
From the backseat I watched my house, TJ's house, China Hon, and the rest of my world disappear like a vanishing act. Now you see it.
Now you don't.
JUST LAST NIGHT I was sitting in my basement with TJ watching
and now, twelve hours later, my sister merged the minivan on I-70 West. I felt like I was stuck inside a riptide that had sucked me out of my house and was about to slam me down at fat camp. Well, not if I could help it. What I needed was a plan. One that would get me back to TJ as quickly as possible. The task before me was daunting, no doubt. Maybe, I decided, checking the time, what I needed was brunch.
Chinese food would do nicely, but it was early morning. It looked like Colonel Carolina's Fried Chicken would have to do. I had a weakness for their nuclear orange macaroni.
“I'm hungry,” I said.
Doug sighed, but I was used to extensive sighing whenever I said I was hungry.
“You're kidding me, right?”
“No. I'm quite famished.”
Then Jackie and Doug debated my hunger.
“It's nine o'clock in the morning,” said Doug. “She can wait.”
“She's so upset though,” whispered Jackie. She tapped her thumbs on the steering wheel. “I promised her she could eat whatever she wanted as long as she didn't tell Mom you were coming with us.”
Doug gasped. “That's idiotic. She should get used to not eating.”
“Do you two realize that I'm sitting right here?” No answer. Evidently they did not. “I want chickenâof the Colonel Carolina variety.”
“How do you expect us to find that?” asked Doug.
Before we could plug it into our phones, Jackie angled down an exit and discovered a Taco Hut/Pizza Plaza/Colonel Carolina drive-thru window. Praise Jesus! There were cameras in the driveway and bullet holes on the menu, but whatever. They had chicken and fiery orange macaroni. I uncrumpled the fifty dollar bill my mom instructed was for emergencies only and handed it to the employee.
“By the way,” said Doug, collecting my change and my chicken bucket, “this is how you got fat in the first place.” Then he tore open the bag that contained my neon macaroni and shoved a handful of my French fries in his mouth. “I'm just putting it out there.”
Jackie touched his knee as a reminder that we weren't that far into our trip yet, then Doug touched Jackie's knee. I realized I would have to watch their squeeze-me-stroke-me marathon for days. The overflowing condoms at Doug's feet reminded me that I'd be forced to listen to their guinea pig sounds all night too. Bonus: We only had one tent.
“Just hand me the bag, Doug,” I said.
Doug did not hand me the bag. Instead he dug his hand inside of it and removed a biscuit. My biscuit. Then Jackie, who was driving, reached confidently into the bag still centered on his crotch and said, “Come on, Bethany. You can share your food with Doug.” She held the fries up and chewed them slowly, like someone was filming a porno of it. From the backseat, I saw the downy hairs on her neck swirling up to her ponytail. “Doug's right you know,” she started. “This is the time to adopt new eating habits, and you aren't off to the best start.”
You could positively smell the hormonesâthick and pungentâin that car. Jackie and Doug were so excited to be driving to California that they forgot what initiated the expedition in the first place:
“I just want my macaroni, guys. Please?”
Then Doug leaned over and kissed Jackie, a sloppy one on the lips. Like I wasn't even there. On and on the kiss went. And on. Did I mention that the only person who ever kissed me was dreaming in his bed right now? And the last time he kissed meâreally kissed meâwas a year ago? Now you can imagine how uncomfortable it was to view this tongue fest, which clearly violated about a hundred traffic laws. I stuck my face right between them, so close I smelled the gardenia perfume Jackie dots behind her ears every morning, so close I saw the razor bumps sprouting on Doug's chin.
They broke apart, a string of saliva between them, then Doug groaned. I guess he was estimating how long until he could be alone with my sister. He had assumed this was their road trip all alongânever mind that the inevitable end was Utopia. I could see this epiphany crash into himâhis small mind grappling with the fact I'd be there for every state, every mile, sticking my face between theirs. He must have been thinking about something bad because instead of offering me the bag like a normal human being, he hurled it back so viciously it exploded all over the backseat.
“There's your macaroni,” he said. Then: “You fat pig.”
He muttered that last part, loud enough for me to hear but quiet enough for Jackie to convince herself I didn't.
“Doooouuuuggg?” That was Jackie's attempt at annoyance.
“What? Your sister's the one with all the demands. Give me this. I want that. She's worse than a baby.”
Jackie, who had a thing for babies, tried her hand at empathy. “She's only sixteen, Doug.”
“Sixteen isn't three. At sixteen I had a job. I went to the gym. All she does is chase that fairy magician around hoping he'll pop her cherry.”
Oddly enough, he turned around to offer me the plastic fork. The macaroni he'd propelled; the utensil required civility. “We all know you like a good romance, so here's yours, Bethany.” He waved the fork like he was conducting an orchestra. “TJ isn't interested in anything but birds, so maybe you should start eating like one, and he'll notice you too.”
What was worse than his words was the smile. Doug grinned almost sweetly. “I'm only trying to help, Bethany.”
Jackie smacked him playfully. “They'll help her at camp.”
“Your mom spent too much money for that, and it's not like she even wants to go.” Doug loved cataloguing how people spent their money, because he never had any of his own. “Take my mom. She went on that new diet. The forgiveness one. Downloaded the e-book for ten dollars.”
“Really?” Jackie interrupted. “Did it work?”
“No,” I said. They'd forgotten I was there again.
“As a matter of fact,” Doug said, raising his voice. “She forgave my dad for â¦”
“â¦ losing his job and for Internet porn, and she forgave the cat for rubbing his butt on the carpet, and she was telling me how she didn't feel hungry lately. Like she could walk by Wawa and be like, meh. It only took a day.”
There were times I hated Doug with a fury so thick it practically suffocated me. Now was one of them.
“Did she forgive you for being a worthless pothead? A tag-along loser that wasn't even supposed to be in this car?'' I grumbled.
“What did you say?”
“Nothing.” I muttered. “I was only talking to myself.”
“Just remember, you wouldn't even be in this car if you weren't so fat. Start with that fact, little girl.”
Then he pitched back my lemonade in this way that resembled some version of friendly, like I could easily catch it, which, of course, I couldn't. It crashed to the carpeted floor of the minivan, spilling ice everywhere.
“Doug,” Jackie whined. “Stop!”
The windows and the seatbelt, already coated with little orange noodles, were now completely soaked. So was the front of my shirt. And my flip-flops. They would be sticky
! Fries limped along the seat and floor. I wiped my face and looked at Doug, who had been dating my sister on and off for two years.
“I thought you'd catch that,” he said.
He faced forward, baseball cap low on his forehead. His light brown hair peered out from under it, all full and curly.
Just then, I wanted to burn those little hairs. Watch his corkscrew curls jump in alarm. Smell the fine ends singe. Crackle. If only there were a blunt object in the backseat, a lead pipe or even a chunky shoe, I was sure I could bring myself to clunk him over the head. But before I could wrap my hands around his neck, Jackie slammed on the brakes.
“Perfect,” she said.
In front of us were orange barrels, giant dump trucks, and cranes. The van wriggled into a construction zone and stopped between a knot of cars. Jackie turned off the engine and flung off her shoes. “This will be awhile,” she said.
Doug rolled down his window, and the smell of boiling tar swept in the car. He pivoted the side mirror in order to better see his reflection. His words echoed in my mind:
If you weren't so fat, you wouldn't be here. If you weren't so fat, you wouldn't be here.
Well, I'd show him! I concentrated on the reversing ding of trucks and the cacophony of jackhammers as I picked the macaroni from my hair. What I needed was an assassin. A hit man. Construction men gathered around a steaming pile of tar. I eyed each one, trying to determine which one might be up for knocking off Doug. One knelt down below a billboard. He shaded his eyes with his palm and seemed to look right at me. Maybe him.