Authors: Jenny Ruden
“Let me tell you a bit more about what we do here,” she said.
Just then a black bird slammed into the window behind her. A few of us startled as its limp body slid down with a suctiony squeak. Miss Marcia prattled on unawares about this being the BEST WEIGHT LOSS SYSTEM IN AMERICA. CONSIDER YOURSELVES LUCKY, she screamed. This will be THE SUMMER OF YOUR LIVES.
AFTER MISS MARCIA'S lengthy speech about the best place on Earth, aka Utopia, it was time for our Motivation Orientation, which was scheduled, just like everything else would be. Now the male campers shuffled in, all fiveâcount 'em,
. They wore baseball hats and T-shirts that pulled tight across their bellies. Watching them file past, I ached for TJ. If only he were here as opposed to the chubby boys slouching toward us. Not a magician in the bunch, that much was clear. One guy looked my age, but the rest couldn't have been beyond the eighth grade. The boys settled on a scratchy sofa, then two old people glided to the front of the room and introduced themselves as
. They laid slender hands on Miss Marcia's shoulders and began their speech about
how much better life is when you're thin
“My husband and I were campers at Utopia thirty-five years ago. It's hard to believe we were catastrophically overweight once, but we were. We bought Utopia fifteen years ago and moved it here, to California University of the Pacific.” They looked around, full of pride. “That first long-ago summer at weight loss camp changed our lives. Not only did we meet and later get married, we decided to help others.”
The woman looked at us like there was an applause sign above her head. “Given the prevalence of childhood obesity, we felt it our calling.”
The boys tapped their feet while a few kids clapped. The owner woman, Belinda, wore a lime green shirt and a white jean skirt. Her jewelry looked like it was recently excavated from an ancient archeology site. She had short, spiked white hair. Her husband, Hank, wore a jogging suit in navy blue and white. Something shiny hung from his neck. Something that looked a lot like a whistle. When he spoke, he lisped, which was distracting.
“This is the Cadillac of weight loth programs,” he started. “You
lose weight here.”
Is he staring at me?
“Many of you are a long way from home, but science has proven that young people, when lifted from their environments, often thoar. We're here to help you thoar. We will do whatever it takes to make your journey a thutheth.” He pulled out something from his back pocket. “Including confithating your thell phone.” Thirty groans bubbled up. “It's polithy,” he said. “No dithractions.”
He grinned hugely and peeled a black lawn bag from a roll.
“Commitment,” he urged, snapping the trash bag out like a Fruit Roll-Up.
My fellow team member, dainty Hollywood, gathered phones and other tech from her purse. “All of them?” she asked.
“All of them,” Hank advised. “You have acceth to the computer labs, and we've provided each of you with an e-mail addreth. You can check e-mail onth a day and, of courth,” Hank laughed, “you can write letters.” He crossed his arms. “Anyone ever heard of a letter?”
Hank was the kind of guy who believed kids should smile even as their tongues were being ripped out. That much was evident with his No Thellphone Polithy. I couldn't imagine anyone in my generation agreeing to it. Mind telling me why, then, all these Utopians powered down their phones beside me so, so willingly? Even pretty Hollywood dug out gear from her designer luggage happily, inquiring about rollover minutes and voice mails.
Phonelessness just wasn't an option. How exactly would I text TJ? Or e-mail him? Or send him pictures? Or perform any of the ten thousand other tasks I did in a day that required my phone?
Good thing Hollywood had a cell phone tower up her ass because gathering all her electronic equipment afforded me time to formulate a plan. I shoved my phone deeper inside my pocket just as everyone else emptied theirs. Had the others known about this? Did my mom cleverly omit this factoid in her Utopia pitch?
What I needed was a hole. If I could tear a hole, say, in my shorts with my fingernail I could secure my phone inside my underwear. When Hank and Belinda got to me, I'd just say I didn't have a cell phone because I was part Amish. I knew Belinda and Hank would cop to a bag search, but I was sure they'd draw the line at a strip search. My phone would be safe in my underwear. No question.
I worked my fingernail into the crumb-lined pocket of my shorts. As soon as Hollywood had dumped at least four phones into the garbage bag, Hank shook it, and three other girls deposited theirs. Then, from behind me, I heard that smoky rich voice.
“Who knew these had calories in them,” it said. Cambridge, who weighed 190.7, strutted up to the owners as if she were made of feathers. When Hank widened the lips of the garbage bag, she paused. “It's just that â¦”
Hank shook the bag. “What?” he asked. “It'th juth what?”
“Oh, never mind,” she said and powered down her phone.
“We are not doing this to harm you,” said Belinda. “We'll keep your phones safe.”
Cambridge shook her head. “It's not that. It's just that if I didn't know any better, I would venture that this is a violation of our civil liberties.” She held her phone between her thumb and index finger, but did not drop it inside the bag. “I mean, even prisoners have the right to make one phone call, yes?” She began walking away, still clutching her silver phone. Hank followed her, the nylon of his jogging suit sveet-sveeting. “Prisoners aren't minors, for one. And your parents signed away your rights on the enrollment form,” he said to her back. “Thorry.”
“I'm almost eighteen, sir,” Cambridge enlightened Hank.
“But not yet, Ms. Nelson.”
Cambridge shook her head. “Not quite yet.” She looked at her phone like it was meaningless. Then she tossed it over her shoulder, and all together we watched its graceful curve until thunkâperfect shotâit landed in the trash bag.
By this point everyone's phone was in the bag.
Except mine. Mine was nearly through the hole I'd dug in my pocket
. Just a little bit more. A bit more.
Just as I had almost pushed my phone through the ripped material of my pocket, edging it close to my underwear's elastic band, I heard a song bubble up. It was faint and muffled, but insistent. In no time all the girls were humming the theme from
. Everyone turned toward the garbage bag rattling in Hank's hands. Only I knew better. The song was not coming from the bag. It was emanating from my underwear. Miss Marcia tilted her head. “Baltimore, you're ringing,” she said. “Hand it over.”
“I have a medical condition,” I returned. “I need my phone for emergencies.”
“Policy,” Belinda snapped.
“My boyfriend needs to be able to reach me.”
“And he can,” said Hank. “By e-mail.” He shook the garbage bag. “Phone, mith.”
Miss Marcia looked at the files like she wanted to make a red mark on mine. “This is a test of your commitment,” she said.
I removed the phone from my pocket. Then Belinda pried it from my hand.
“She's busy,” she screamed into it before powering it down.
I had no idea who was calling. In my mind it was Jackie phoning to tell me she'd forgiven me for monumentally screwing up her life. “I'm on my way back now,” she was about to say. “How about a caramel macchiato?” Perhaps it was Doug calling from the side of the road, stranded. “I am a douche.” Then again it could've been my mom, “You're right, Bethany. No one's perfect. Let's get some Chinese food and fully-caloric soda.” And of course it could have been TJ. “I love you, Bee. Come home.”
The caller was never revealed, though, because Hank carried our phones off like dirty laundry.
“You have to respect the program,” Belinda iterated.
“Commitment,” Hank said for the hundredth time before knotting the bag and dropping it on the floor.
Miss Marcia referred to her clipboard and Hank nodded. “Of course there's more to life than losing weight,” Miss Marcia hollered. She glided on those long legs of hers up to the front of the room. She pulled a tape measure from her back pocket. “There's inches too.”
The owners assembled the campers in a line. They continued on their harangue about the healthy, thin person who lived buried beneath our fat. How that person was suffocating, and Hank brought his hands up to his neck in a strangulation gesture. “Trust me,” he gasped. “You will never want French fries again once you taste how good being thin feels.” He gave a thumbs-up. “It's tight.”
Jesus. They must have had a book:
Motivating Teens for Dummies.
Some kind of manual that gave pointers for blowing sunshine up the American teenage behind. I refused to believe that these not-even-all-that-fat people were buying into this until I looked around and realized that indeed, they were. In fact, when Hank and Belinda left, the campers cheered. Clapped. Sang. Wooted. They stomped like they were downright ecstatic to be rid of their cell phones and text messages.
As I watched these Utopians, I had that feeling I always got during spirit week when everyone was forced to be upbeat and the teachers dressed up as homeless people and the cheerleaders donned bullwhips and lacy bustiers. It was the feeling I had during pep rallies and football games. The feeling I got walking down the narrow aisles of the school cafeteria waiting for TJ to catch my eye, and pat the space-he-never-saved next to him. The awareness that somehow I was still outside the window, hands cupped over my face, looking in.
The uncomfortable truth slipped in once again that I didn't fit in anywhere. Even at fat camp. I knew watching the other campers lean toward one another, excitement boiling out of their exfoliated pores, Miss Marcia wrapping a tape measure around middles and bust lines, that I had been right all along. I would hate it here.
Subject: RE: ARE YOU THERE YET?
Of course I got your e-mail, so please stop sending the same one 500 times. I'm here. I'm here. I'm here. Golly gee, it's frickin fantastic. Just as u promised. Thanks for spending all that money to get me out of the house. It's worth every penny. I'm already a shadow of my former self!
I hope you earn that big bonus this summer without me and Jackie around to mess things up. Maybe you can spend quality time w/ur boyfriend too w/out having to explain why you can't keep butterscotch krimpets in the house or why jackie's boyfriend hides in the closet (oops).
Don't worry about me, mom. I'll be fine. There are public weigh-ins here and everything. AND when they wrapped the tape measure around my stomach some kind fellow in the audience actually mooed. What a peach! Pls sign me up for next yr. Better hurry.
PS Jackie h8s me now too.
PPS u both need zyprexa.
PPPS If u see TJ tell him I love him
AFTER THE COMPUTER lab, Miss Marcia led us to a cinderblock stairwell where study-abroad opportunities were posted for Greece and Thailand. Phone numbers were listed on tear-away sheets. French Lessons. Yoga. Discounted Textbooks. I was about to tear one down for NEW YORK STYLE PIZZA: FREE DELIVERY when Miss Marcia warned, “Before you go to your rooms, I want you all to know that we've never had a problem with fighting. It just doesn't happen here at Utopia.” Why she directed this at me, I had no idea. But that's what she said. She said this was a place where girls stayed up all night and talked about how beautiful they were going to be. Never mind that I hadn't stayed up all night discussing whose figure I wanted since third grade while snugly zipped in my Barbie sleeping bag. She had to be kidding, right?
The boys were shipped off to another dormitory on another area of campus. The Utopian girls were housed on one complete floor of MontClaire Hall, two or three girls to a room, with adjoining rooms connected by a bathroom. Needless to say, Miss Marcia and her long legs held private accommodations down by the stairwell a bit closer to the younger campers.
My dorm was in the middle of the hall next to a sun-bleached patch of tile where presumably a vending machine once sat. On my door were the words “Baltimore, Cambridge, and Santa Fe” written in puffy bubbly letters and festooned with curly ribbon. The room next to ours housed Hollywood and Atlanta.
I swiped my Utopia card into the slot and a loud click followed. The red light blinked to green, and I pushed the door open like a coffin lid. Keeping with themes, our dorm rooms, like everything else at this
academic institution, were fancy, old, and probably haunted. There were hardwood floors, dark-mahogany desks with scholarly green lamps on them, and a wall of built-in bookshelves. The ceilings were high; in the dusty corners cobwebs drooped like lace. On one side sat wooden bunk beds and on the opposite side a single metal bed.