That didn’t happen.
In late February, I started my period. Mom hadn’t given me much information about it. I think in my embarrassment I blanked out. The whole conversation is a black hole in my memory. Like so many life-altering events, I have only a vague feeling about it. I thought maybe I would bleed forever. I was so ashamed of this thing that I wouldn’t leave my room except to use the bathroom and eat dinner. Maybe Mom was worried, I don’t know. You teased me about being in my room all the time. “You’re white as a sheet, Abby,” you joked. “You’re such a nerd. You need to get out. Stop reading all the time.”
Something happened over that winter. I didn’t know what was going on, but by the spring I had gained fifteen pounds. I didn’t realize it right away. My clothes just got tighter. I had soft breasts and fleshy hips and still the baby fat over my belly remained. I didn’t get much taller, but I felt unbalanced like a giant mammal. Clumsy. Awkward. I couldn’t run fast without my chest hurting. I couldn’t play anything anymore. I got tired so quickly. I had no energy.
Dad mentioned it for the first time (but it wouldn’t be the last) as the summer came to a close. He told Mom to take me shopping for new clothes. He said my clothes were too tight. He started telling me to cut back on sweets, sugar, desserts. But Mom snuck me things. She let me drink chocolate milk. She gave me Three Musketeers bars which I hid in my underwear drawer. Dad told Mom to make me eat salad instead of meatloaf, vegetable soup instead of mac’n cheese. I wished I could just disappear.
You didn’t tease me about my weight, but you had that look of utter humiliation. You were embarrassed of the way I dressed, my unstylish glasses, my short, chunky way of hurrying after you. You wouldn’t let me hang out with your friends after church. You didn’t invite me to the movies or to play video games at the arcade. You shunned me.
You had ambition. You, at age fifteen, were starting a youth group at our church. It started out as a Bible Study group on Wednesday nights. By the following year, there were thirty teens attending the Sunday night service and about half as many at the Wednesday night group. The church really respected you. They respected the whole family. They thought Mom was the perfect Christian wife. They thought Dad was a good man, just maybe a little too otherworldly. I heard the saying a lot: “Too heavenly minded for any earthly good.” That was Dad.
I was different. I knew that there was something wrong with me. I had had nightmares my whole life. When I was young, I had vague visions of swirling chaos when I closed my eyes. I would cry and Dad would come into the room and pray. Later, when I thought I was too old to cry, I would crawl into bed with you. I saw demons in the curtains, the pile of clothes on the chair, the toy shelf. I piled stuffed animals around my bed to keep away the demons. We would listen to music to hold the demons at bay. They were strangely afraid of music.
The nightmares were different as I got older. I closed my eyes and saw a penis. First just one, alone and hanging limply. Then I saw men naked with this fleshly, pale appendage. Male teachers, our pastor, other men from church. One naked, unappealing body after another. I can’t remember how I even knew what a penis looked like. Maybe from changing diapers in the church nursery. I didn’t know how to make these images go away. But I knew that I was dirty and evil for having them.
Remember when Mom took me shopping for school clothes? How did you get out of going? Mom and I had completely different tastes in clothing. I preferred loose t-shirts, dark clothing that you couldn’t see through, baggy jeans, large sweatshirts, hoodies, and sneakers. Mom wished I dressed more like a girl. She wanted me to wear my hair down with barrettes, blouses with flowers, and lacey dresses. That stuff made me feel like a frosted cupcake. I felt puffed and fat in girly clothes, but with boyish clothing, I could hide strange curves and my soft belly.
I felt lost in the huge, fluorescent world of K-mart following at Mom’s heels with the shopping cart while she waved bright, colorful things in my face. The floor was scuffed and shiny. I wanted to run, but my legs were rubbery.
“Abigail, you haven’t chosen one new outfit. I just don’t think that your slacks from last year are still going to fit. You’re just growing up so fast.”
Mom had already collected a cart of clothes for me to try on: several different sizes of gray, black and blue slacks and skirts, several polo shirts of various dull colors, and a pair of black boots. I didn’t even remember being in the shoe department.
I hated wearing a uniform. I hated that we had to wear skirts or dresses on Chapel Wednesdays. This year, I planned on wearing black Chuck Taylor’s with my uniform instead of dress shoes.
“Sweetie, don’t forget to come out and show me.” Mom insisted on further humiliating me in front of a dressing room full of strangers.
I tried to pull on the size 8 slacks, tears burning at the back of my eyeballs, but they wouldn’t go past my hips. I had gone up a whole size in three months. I held back the impending flood, a golf ball of humiliation lodged in my throat. I was determined to work out more. Maybe I would do the jazzercise tapes with Mom. The size 10 fit well. I didn’t even have to suck in my stomach. But the skirts looked ridiculous. They clung awkwardly to my thick calves and protruding hips. I picked one that hung down loosely to my ankles. It was ugly, but hid my curves.
When we finished deciding what to leave behind, Mom dropped a bomb. “Abigail, you definitely need new undergarments. Let’s see what we can find for you.”
You don’t know what it’s like to have to pick out underwear with your mother. It’s so easy for guys. You either wear boxers or briefs. No big deal. As we neared the Intimates department, I was sure that my face was glowing like a neon sign. I was trying to think up excuses why I didn’t need to get anything. Sure, I had red marks from my bra straps and the elastic waist of my underwear, but it would be much worse to pick them out in public and have the cashier hold them up and look at you, knowingly. Everyone knowing how fat I was.
Mom’s holding up a package of Hanes flowered prints and a package of striped prints. “Which one do you like better?”
Before I can point or nod, a deep, boisterous voice calls out from behind us, “Neither! Check out these, Abby!”
I turn as if in slow motion. I’m in a movie, a dream. This can’t possibly be happening to me. There was Mrs. Johnson, wearing a new wig that resembled a 1920’s bob, and Liberty. And Morgan. Mrs. Johnson is holding up a single pair of underwear: bright turquoise with printed, hot pink letters spelling out Girlfriend.
Mom laughed. “Dorothy! What a sweet surprise to see you here. Liberty, Morgan, how are you guys?”
“Just fine, Mrs. Singer.” Liberty said. Morgan waved meekly and then whispered into his sister’s ear. “We’re going to look at t-shirts, Mom,” Liberty said and they walked away. Any shred of pride I still had went with them.
“Really, Maggie. Abigail needs some flare in her undergarments. Something that reflects her sweet spirit. Abigail, what do you think of these?” She pulls a pair of panties off the rack with green, dancing frogs on them.
“Oh, that’s sweet,” Mom chimed in. “Dorothy, you truly find the cutest things. Abigail, why don’t you look over here and pick out about five or six different ones.”
I was surprised to find a few that I liked. One was rainbow striped, one had tiny red hearts, and several were poka-dotted in various colors.
“Now, Abigail, what size are you?”
Mrs. Johnson has pulled an enormous, padded-bra off of the wall beside her. I died.
“Oh, Dorothy. I don’t think she’ll fit that,” laughed Mom. I wanted to kill them too, both of them. Take them down with me.
“Well, we should have her fitted.” Mrs. Johnson turned to the elderly woman at the customer service counter. “Excuse me, Ma’am. We need a sizing.”
Mom tried to lead me over but my feet had turned to stone. “Come on,” she whispered. “It isn’t that bad. You’ll be more comfortable if the bra fits correctly.”
The employee handed me a tape measure. I simply stared at it in her veiny hands. Her bones, with her transparent skin stretched over like a deflated balloon, held for long, agonizing minutes until Mom took it and stretched it out. “Hold up her arms, honey.”
She poked and pinched. I squeezed my eyes shut. “Looks like you’re a size 32B. Why that’s quite, um, why that’s…I wasn’t that size until I was fourteen.” She strained a smile. “Must be all that miracle grow we’ve been putting in your food.”
Mrs. Johnson was already pulling bras off the hangers. I didn’t understand how she could be enjoying herself. “Oh, that’s nothing. I was already a C cup when I was fourteen. How about this one, Abigail? It’s flexible, soft, and just a little extra padding so nothing shows through.”
I nodded and I took it between my fingers, delicately like it was a snake about to strike. I felt my face hot and pulsating under those Kmart lights as I dropped the bra into the cart.
Francis, I needed you then. I needed you to take the attention, fill the spotlight, absorb the focus so I could be an invisible elephant.