Authors: Jenny Ruden
“See you in eight weeks,” she said.
I watched her drive off into a vaporous cloud. Neither of them waved goodbye. Hell, neither of them turned around. Before she peeled out of the university's gate, Jackie tapped the horn twice, which instigated an eerie echo that to my ears said, WEEP! WEEP!
WHAT BLOWS IN UTOPIA
I SAT OUTSIDE and listened to the mermaid fountain drip water behind me and watched a family of ducks fluff up their feathers. Beyond the quad, golden-yellow hills humped like mounds of Country Crock. Paths wound around everything, neat and orderly. A few geniuses walked on them, heads down, backpacks clunky with books, sandaled feet aimed forward. Even the quivering birds in the trees seemed to sing out ACT scores.
Well, well, well,
So this is college
Sitting on the edge of that fountain, the curled edges of fog starting to burn, I sipped the mocha with extra whipped cream I'd just purchased from a coffee shack. I must've looked like a freshman because the first person to speak to me needed directions.
“Excuse me, but I'm looking for Utopia,” a guy screamed over his truck's engine that rattled like emphysema. “Ever heard of it? Utopia?” His rusted-out hoopty had the inconspicuous conspicuousness of a vehicle smuggling drugs, fruit, or immigrants into the country. It was not the kind of transportation I'd envisioned for the students at California University. “We're lost,” continued the driver. He pointed his thumb at the girl sitting next to him. “My sister forgot the directions.”
Was it that obvious I was en route to fat camp?
Aiming my drink toward the signs sprouting from the manicured grass that read,
Utopia this way
I stated the obvious. “I think it's right over there. You know, where the signs are pointing.”
That was when the passenger, a kid by the looks of her, smacked her forehead. “I told you this was it,
. You never listen to me.” Then she climbed straight out of the truck's window, turning around only to yell, “
,” before tearing off through the grass.
The truck fell silent, and I wondered if he'd turned off the engine or if it had simply died.
“Sisters,” said the driver. “
Let's hope that word summed up sisterhood accurately, because I nodded, indicating I had sibling problems of my own. The driver scratched his head, and a few long strands of hair slid down to cover his eyes. He moved the bangs away and looked at me for a beat. Maybe he was embarrassed to pull awayâafraid when he tried, the truck wouldn't start? He cocked an elbow out of the window. “So,” he began, “you wouldn't happen to know where Copernicus is, would you?”
I sipped my espresso. “I'm pretty sure he died a few centuries ago.”
The dude grinned crookedly. He looked younger than a college student, maybe around my age. He had dark hair and dark eyes, and his words kind of jumbled together when he spoke. “Good point,” he mused. “I guess I'll just ask somebody else. It's a big campus. Someone'll know.” Of course three people walked by, and he didn't ask any of them. He just sat there. Something told me he felt as out of place as me. Maybe he was letting his truck warm up or whatever it required before moving. In the meantime, I checked my phone.
Hey Bee. Guess what? I can levitate a full three inches off the ground! ISYN. So, are you in Cali? Is it beautiful??
I wondered how to answer TJ honestly when the truck parked in front of me distorted my view. Mr. Busted-Truck fiddled with a stereo button and loud angry-boy music swelled in the quiet morning. “One more thing,” he said to me over the stereo. “Before you go to class or whatever, I thought I should mention something. Well.” He shifted some unidentifiable truck part. “You'd look a whole lot better ifâ”
Oh Lord. Not this. Not now.
“Not that you look bad. It's just that.”
If this guy said what I thought he was about to say, I would absolutely die. Just frickin' kill me.
“Well,” I heard the squeak of a clutch. “It's just that you have. You have trash in your hair. I thought I should let you know.”
Then he took off. Finally.
So much for college encounters. The boys here seemed just as eager to point out a flaw as high schoolers. Oh well, at least he wasn't on the verge of recommending a diet. Absorbed in the toxic black cloud the truck imparted, I felt around in my hair because, well, I had to check now. Sure enough, up around my forehead, I felt something sticky. I wondered why, for the last hundred miles or so, no one had bothered to tell me something was stuck in my hair. My trip replayed in my mind, only now every scene featured a giant chunk of gum in my hair, and Jackie and Doug pretending not to see it.
I finally separated the tangle and saw it was a faded yellow piece of paper, dirtied with tar. When I smoothed it out, I reunited with the Colonel Carolina Chicken napkin I could've sworn tumbled down the highway in Ohio.
I forgive my sister for killing Doug's baby.
I texted to TJ.
WOULDN'T IT BE great if college life continued to speed right by me while I stayed frozen in time on the curb? Here I'd wait, with my mocha, for the next eight weeks until my sister fetched me. Oddly enough, though, now that I'd landed outside the place everyone thought I should be, I figured I might as well see what the fuss was about.
I followed the signs pointing me toward Utopia. Bypassing bleary-eyed intellectuals with sweatshirt hoods around their faces, I squished through some grassânot a dandelion in sightâand leaned into the open back window of MontClaire Hall.
Inside a tall redhead stared directly at me. She enthusiastically waved me into the dormitory's common room with hardwood floors, a fireplace, one prehistoric television, and three Odwalla juice vending machines.
“Hi there!” she said in a raspy voice. I dragged my duffle bag behind me like a corpse. “You looked a bit lost staring in the window like that. I was pretty sure this was where you belonged.”
I didn't realize she was insulting me until I was already inside and plopped down in a circle full of Utopians.
Twenty-five girls gathered in the common room of MontClaire Hall. Most of them sat on top of their luggage, checked their phones, or looked absorbed in the reading material the loud-mouthed redhead had distributed. I recognized one girl from the noisy truck outside; she now sat on the floor picking at her black nail polish. The other girls looked like girls everywhere: big sunglasses, flip-flops, tan lines on their shoulders. Truth be told, I'd expected them to be fatter. Oh well, I reasoned, maybe they were
Finally the redhead bellowed, “We're waiting for one more.” She licked her finger and leafed through papers on her clipboard, “In the meantime, let me introduce myself.” She smiled with all her teeth. “I'm Miss Marcia, and I'll be your counselor.”
Something about Miss Marcia reminded me of Timothy Tinsel, host of
. Maybe it was her unchecked enthusiasm as she rattled on about her fat camp experience nine years ago in Pennsylvania. Maybe it was her easy smile. It was probably because when she turned around to retrieve a folder she'd dropped, I observed a gigantic marijuana leaf tattoo on her back.
” said the girl from the truck, who must've seen it too.
Miss Marcia pulled her shirt a little lower and continued. “I'm also a lifeguard,” she said.
I supposed that meant we'd be required to swim here.
“As soon as the last camper arrives, I'll divide you into teams,” she went on. “Five groups of five â¦” Before our counselor could finish, MontClaire Hall's door swung open and there, framed in the doorway, stood a tall African-American girl with a long, expensive-looking weave. Miss Marcia consulted her clipboard. “You must be the girl from Boston,” she said, making a checkmark on a folder.
“Cambridge,” the newcomer's velvety voice returned. “And SFO had a fog delay.” Next she removed a silver stylus from behind her ear and tapped at her cell phone. “So sorry to keep you waiting. I'm almost always punctual.” Then she sat down next to me and hugged her legs to her chest. “Hi,” she whispered.
Miss Marcia peered around the circle of girls. “Well, now that you're all here, let me welcome you to Utopia.”
THE NEXT FORTY-FIVE minutes seemed to last eight days. We learned about Utopia's expectations, rules, commitments, schedule, blah-blah-blah. After that we endured yet another speech about the organizational flowchart of Camp Utopia. There were the owners of the camp, Belinda and Hank, who we'd meet later. Miss Marcia was the next in charge. She counseled all twenty-five girls and some guy, Courtney, managed the boys. We were divided into teams and my team consisted of Atlanta, Santa Fe, Cambridge, and Hollywood. Miss Marcia tapped each of us on the head like it was game of Duck Duck Goose. “And you.” Tap. “You must be Baltimore. We call you by your city and not by your weight.” She said this like I should be grateful. “First things first,” said our counselor waving a hand toward the scale, “I'll need your digits.”
Well, they certainly didn't waste any time.
I swallowed the coffee taste pillowing in the back of my throat as Miss Marcia stood on the scale, which was now positioned in the center of our circle. It was a fancy piece of electronic equipment, and Miss Marcia threw around words like “state-of-the-art,” “cutting-edge balancing technology,” and “calculates to the tenth of an ounce.” I wasn't listening all that closely. Instead I studied the machine's rather large LED display that, as soon as Miss Marcia stood on it, illuminated a slim number in satanic red.
“OK,” said Miss Marcia. “It's accurate alright.”
The girl from the truck raised her hand. “You mean everyone sees our weight?”
Miss Marcia nodded her head. “Yes,” she said and stepped off the scale. “The owners like to instill a little bit of competition among teams.”
The girl crossed her arms. “No way,
. No thank you. My own brother doesn't know my weight. Don't you have a curtain or something?”
Miss Marcia sighed. “It's a necessary part of Utopia,” she said almost apologetically. “It's why we're all here.”
The young girl rolled her eyes.
Miss Marcia continued. “It's just a number,” she looked at a file. “Santa Fe. It doesn't mean anything. Come on up.”
“In front of strangers?”
“These aren't strangers,” said Miss Marcia. “These are your team members.”
“Yes,” said a voice I hadn't heard yet. It belonged to a thin girl. A pretty one. “We're on your side.”
Then the girl with the black nail polish and bad mouth sighed and crossed her arms. Finally she stood up, walked to the scale, and got weighed. Three more girls followed, including the beautiful one. Then I heard one word.
Who was this Baltimore chick, and why was she taking so long? Oh wait. Right.
Here's what I thought about in the eleven steps it took to get to the scale. First, I thought:
Why did I have that macchiato?
Wait. It had been seven full days since I'd tried The Forgiveness Diet. Seven days since Jackie whacked me with her clogs, and Doug took a vow of silence. I thought: Maybe it worked.
Six steps in, I wasn't looking forward to getting weighed, but I wasn't dreading it either. I was kind of curious. TJ had been so adamant about The Forgiveness Diet and that commercialâso, miraculous. Now would've been the perfect time for good news. If the diet kicked in then I could send Jackie a quick text, have her turn the car around, and pretend like none of this ever happened.
So far, on our team, we had a 168.4, 183.1, 159.9, 190.7, 146.2. Now in front of the scale, I slid out of my flip-flops and prayed.
, I thought,
let the diet have worked. Feature me on the next infomercial
. I was practically rehearsing my lines:
I was on my way to fat camp when BAM I was â¦ Thin. Thin. Thin.
I stepped up and sucked in my stomach. Red numbers appeared on the scale's neck, blinked twice, and steadied. It was a large red number and, unfortunately, it was the one that had greeted me before I left.
I weighed exactly the same.
Miss Marcia called out my weight a little too loudly for my taste, then scribbled in a file. “You can step down now, Baltimore,” she said. Yet there I stood, still glaring at that red-hot number. “Go ahead and step off, Baltimore.”
Finally I de-scaled. I sunk one foot and then the other back inside my flip- flops. My eyes fell on each one of my teammates sprawled near my feet: Cambridge, the girl's whose flight was delayed; Santa Fe, who rocketed out of her brother's truck earlier; some chick named Atlanta who sported a giant Bumpit in her hair; and one called Hollywood, who wasn't quite as thin or beautiful as Jackie, but was damn close. Looking at them I realized the unthinkable had happened. I was the heaviest girl at Utopia. The fattest person there. The fattest person at fat camp.
The girls didn't ohh and ahh or anything when I stepped off the scale, but there was a tension so palpable you could have stepped in it. Hollywood with her chunky light-brown curls and triangular purse whispered to Atlanta next to her. They both laughed. Something told me it was my still illuminated number on the scale they were giggling about.
Miss Marcia weighed the rest of the girls of which (surprise!) I still remained the fattest. Then she stacked our hospital-blue files and climbed on top of a metal desk. She secured her hair with a pencil.