When Comes The Joy – Chapter 1
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The woman in front of me steps up to the teller. She is tall, at least five foot nine. Her brown hair flows down her back in graceful waves. Her waist is slim and her hips round. She can’t weigh more than one hundred and twenty-five pounds. She smiles at the man who steps out of her way, and it looks to be an easy gesture. She is gorgeous. She is everything I want to be. It’s bad enough that the bank machines are down and I have to stand in line where all these eyes can look at me—see the way my shirt clings too tightly to my bulbous form, how the waist on my pants digs into my flesh, letting the fat hang over. I can almost hear their thoughts—she should just eat less. Why doesn’t she exercise more? To have that woman here, a stark contrast to my sweaty self, makes it so much worse.
Another teller waves me over, so I reach for my wallet and shuffle forward. His eyes look vacant. “How can I help you today?” There’s no intonation in his voice.
“I’d like to take out some cash,” I say. He doesn’t look at me. Not my eyes, anyway. He takes my card. I’m just another client. He’s a glorified ATM. I glance over to the woman at the teller beside me. Her teller smiles at her. He laughs. I try to focus my mind back to the task at hand.
“Uh, one hundred and fifty,” I say. Now I’m the one who’s not really looking at him. Instead, I envision the skinny girl inside of me. I know when I leave here and squeeze myself into a seat on the bus, suffering the annoyance of whomever’s seat I’m spilling over into, I’ll close my eyes and work out a whole scenario for this girl, for the me I’m supposed to be. The me who walks into the bank lobby without shame. The me I only dream of. She is skinny, yes, but not only that, her skin is smooth, her bottom is firm and round, her breasts are perky. She is kind and sweet and can tell a joke like nobody’s business. She isn’t bitter. She never gets angry at simple, unimportant things.
“Do you want a receipt?”
She barely cries. If she does it’s because of something beautiful, like a child’s first step or a reunited couple at the airport. She shares in other’s joys. She doesn’t begrudge them. She doesn’t need to. Like the brunette at the other teller, she’s everything I’m not.
My teller has to ask me twice, “Is that all?”
“Yes, yes, thank you.” I gather my card, the cash, the receipt, and work on stuffing it all into my wallet as I step into the sunlight. I wish I’d worn something lighter. It’s only 18 degrees Celsius but the sweat runs along my back. I stand at the crosswalk, surrounded by people, just waiting for the light to change. I pull at the collar of my shirt, trying to let a little breeze in. My wallet falls. I cuss under my breath and bend over to get it. There’s a horrible rip as I feel the fabric of my pants spread. My world stops. My throat tightens. My breath ceases. I close my eyes, frozen, willing this to be a dream, begging whatever power is out there in the universe to let me sink into the ground.
“Check it out,” says a male voice behind me. I glance back and see a flash of pimpled skin under the shadow of a sideways hat. “She actually split her pants.” There’s glee in his voice. I fling my hand to my backside and feel the hole that spreads beyond the reach of my fingers. I whip up and drop my wallet in my bag, then hold it behind me as the light changes and we enter the intersection like cattle. Heat works its way up my neck and into my cheeks. I know my face is red. Tears squeeze from the slits that are my eyes. I try to tune out the muffled laughter. I glance around. Most people have averted their gaze, pretending it hasn’t happened, pretending they didn’t notice, but that muffled laughter reminds me it’s real. These are my fattest pair of fat pants—were my fattest pair of fat pants.
Rather than wait at the bus stop, where the teenage boys are heading, I continue along the street. It’s further from my destination but away from them. I keep my bag behind my bottom, hoping it covers the bright blue underwear that is now exposed. When I make it to the next stop, out of breath and damp with sweat, I’m thankful the bench is empty and sit down, panting. The tears have stopped, I’ve willed them to, but the heat is still in my face. I imagine I’m blotchy and grotesque.
When I get home I pull the pants off like they’re on fire then throw myself on the bed. I moan into the pillow and clutch my hands onto it, hard. I want to eat this feeling away, to indulge in cookies and ice cream and chips, but I don’t. I know that’s what got me here.
I was five and my cousins Daniel and Autumn were over. We spent the afternoon running through the yard, jumping up and down as the ice cold water shot out of the sprinkler. After, we lay in the sun, laughing at whatever two five year olds and an eight year old laugh at. We came inside, asking for snacks. We wanted ice cream sandwiches. My mom hesitated before giving them to us. She handed Daniel and Autumn an ice cream sandwich each and told me I’d already had a snack after lunch but I could have some carrots if I wanted. She’d just cut up some fresh ones. She said that like I should get excited, ‘I’ve just cut up some fresh ones.’ I remember being confused. I remember looking at my cousins eating their sandwiches, the milky white cream dribbling down their fingers, and not understanding why I didn’t get one. Then I saw Daniel’s knobby knees and Autumn’s slim belly. I looked down at the rolls that stuck out of my bathing suit and wasn’t confused anymore. `
I wonder again what would have happened if I’d reacted differently that day. I don’t know what that different reaction would have been—taking the carrots, chewing on them happily? Maybe my whole life would have taken a different course. Maybe I wouldn’t have grown up as the fat girl. Maybe I wouldn’t be lying here now, humiliated, dejected, and obese.
I didn’t take the carrots. I grabbed Daniel’s sandwich and ran into the bathroom. I locked myself in and ate that sandwich with more joy, more delight than I’d ever eaten anything before. My mother banged on the door.’Jennifer,’ she called. ‘Jennifer!’ She was using my full name so I knew she was angry but it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered except how good that sandwich made me feel—the chocolate cookie coating and the sweet and creamy ice cream sliding over my tongue. I was happy. I was safe. And in the white tiled walls of that small room nothing and no one judged me.
A little over twenty-two years after that pivotal ice cream sandwich, I wake up to the sound of my alarm clock and realize I must have fallen asleep during my cry fest. I’m on top of the covers and still wearing the shirt I came home in. I roll over with effort and turn the buzzer off. My fat jiggles, pulling me over further than I intend to go. It’s a feeling I’ll never get used to. I look at the time, though I know what time it is—10:45 on a Thursday morning because I’ve decided to sleep past eleven signifies that you’ve given up on life. For some reason it hits me this morning. I’m twenty-seven. I’m twenty-seven, have been for a few weeks now, and I’m unemployed. I’m an unemployed fat loser who has just grown out of her fattest pair of fat pants. I don’t want to admit to myself that I’m a failure, but it seems pretty evident.
My phone rings in the other room and I almost trip as I hurdle myself out of bed to reach it in time. I pick it up, and my voice is still groggy with sleep, though panting with the sudden dash. “Hello.”
“Hi. Jennifer, are you alright?”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine.”
“You don’t sound—”
“I just ran to get the phone.”
“What is it, Autumn?” I lean on the arm of the couch.
“My mom wanted to invite you over for dinner Friday night. It’s Daniel’s birthday. We’re doing a family thing before he heads out with his friends.”
“Umm … I don’t know. I—”
“No, you’re not.”
“You’re not, are you? I mean,” she pauses. “I didn’t even tell you what time.”
“I was an after thought.”
“It’s Wednesday. You’re just planning this now?”
“No. Mom was nervous, embarrassed. She wasn’t sure you’d come.”
“Itold her you’re family.”
“Be there for 6:15. Okay? I met this new guy. He seems like he may be a keeper. I’ll tell you all—”
“Okay. I’ll be there.”
“Thanks, Jenn. It’ll be fun. You’ll see.”
“Sure.” There’s an uncomfortably long silence.
“So, how are things going, anyways? Is the job search—”
“I’m actually kinda busy right now, Autumn. I’ll have to talk to you later. On Friday.”
“Okay. See you Friday.”
“I’m thinking of you.”
For some reason her words cut like a knife. I take a deep breath. I don’t want her to be thinking of me, pitying me. “Thanks.” I say. “Bye.”
I let Autumn hang up the phone and stare at it. I don’t want to go. I really don’t want to go. At least it will be a good and well balanced meal. I could use that. I return to my room and look at the clock again. I drag myself out of bed and walk to the scale for the first time in months. I step on and squeeze my eyes shut, but I have to open them. I open just one—like a child, like that will make a difference. Twelve more pounds. I step off and breathe deeply. That explains the pant episode last night. I battle to keep back the tears.
I head to my desk and flip open my laptop. It’s been almost four months since I quit my job at the Boys and Girls Club. I’ve almost run out of money. That’s why I went to the bank, I figured if I operate with cash I won’t risk the embarrassment of having my card declined. There’s no point dwelling on my dwindling funds though, what I need to focus on is getting a job. Yet, for probably the fiftieth time, I find myself wishing I had just held my tongue. At first I really liked working at the Boys and Girls Club, but I’d forgotten how cruel kids can be. Their taunts still filter through my mind. It was like being in grade school all over again. Fatso, Lard-Ass, Waste of Space, and that wasn’t even the worst of it. They did this for weeks as I bore it patiently.
One day I told a group of grade eight boys they couldn’t just stay in the hall. They had to either join the other students or go home for the day—centre policy. They started swearing at me, saying such nasty, obscene things I can’t even repeat, about my weight, my supposed hygiene issues, my imagined sexual preferences—bestiality was mentioned. I couldn’t take it anymore. I snapped. I went crazy. ‘Yeah, well your mothers are a bunch of skinny sick bitches who didn’t have the sense to take a morning after pill,’ I hissed. My body shook with rage. The four of them stood there, looking at me like I’d just spontaneously combusted and all they could do was stand in amazement.
‘You can’t—’ said Richard, the smallest one, but I cut him off.
‘I’m going,’ I said. ‘You’ll never have to see my fat ass again.
I walked away with such shame I could feel it, like a hand around my throat. They were kids, just kids. I was supposed to be the level headed adult. It didn’t matter that I felt awful. It didn’t even matter whether they ratted me out or not. I couldn’t work there anymore, not if that’s who it turned me into. I walked into the manager’s office and resigned.
When I passed the boys on my way back out they were laughing—not at me, just laughing, the moment forgotten. Jonathan, the instigator of all the taunting, had made some joke.
Not knowing what I’d do next, I went home. I cried. I ate a bag of Old Dutch Rippled Sour Cream and Onion chips—my favourite—and washed it back with a chocolate milkshake made with skim milk. I tried not to cry again. I grabbed a paper, flipped it to the job listings, and realized I wasn’t looking for a job fifteen years ago, so I went to my computer. As I scanned the ads online, wiping the tears from my eyes, I tried to think of where my skills would best fit. There were dozens of jobs I felt basically qualified for and I applied to dozens of them. And then I applied to dozens more and dozens more, for weeks. It’s hard to find a job.
I sit at my computer, contemplating my options. I have some decent qualifications. I’m University educated. I have a double major in Science and English. I’m not stupid. I can work hard and have a good head on my shoulders but that hasn’t seemed to make a lot of difference. I’ve actually had four on-site job interviews. Not bad, I’m told. But I’ve had zero call backs and although I like to think better of the world, I know why. I open the email from the one job that’s been offered. It only required a phone interview and doesn’t require me to leave my apartment. I haven’t replied because I don’t want to become one of those fat people whogives up on life. It starts slowly. First they get their family members to start taking care of things—picking up the groceries perhaps. They start going out less and less because they’re tired, they’re busy, their favourite sitcom is on, and then one day they wake up and that show 600-Pound-Life is at their door. I never want to be on that show. Never.
I let my mouse hover over the reply icon. I think of those pants, those twelve pounds, my mom, my dwindling bank account. If I take the job I’ll be working twenty five hours a week and it will pay more than my forty hour a week job that had two hours in transit every day. I get up and walk to the mirror above my dresser. I hate what I see. I return to the desk, hit reply, and write my letter of acceptance. This will fix one problem in my life, but it’s not even the biggest problem. I can’t keep being the woman who walks into a bank lobby and hates herself because she knows she’s the most repulsive person there. I can’t keep bursting out of my clothes. I make a decision. In the extra hours this job provides I’m going to transform myself. I won’t just succumb to being a stay-at-home. I’ll transform myself into the skinny me I’ve always dreamed of. I press send and feel a jolt of empowerment. This won’t be a yo-yo diet. Mom and I had done those before and they don’t work—Juicing for hours a day gets old quick. No, this will be a life change. This will be different. I will wake up exactly one year from today and I will be the person I’ve always wanted to be. The person I was born to be.
My first reaction is to call my Mom and tell her I have a job, tell her I’m going to change my life. But I can’t. Mom won’t be here to help me. She also won’t be here to sabotage me with bags full of McDonald’s burgers or our favourite, the Harvey’s Poutine. I stop as I think this, trying to resist the sorrow that threatens to flood through me. Mom was stressed about me quitting my job like that, but I tell myself there’s no correlation to the heart attack that took her two weeks after. If there is a correlation, Billy’s accident could have been to blame as well. He was always reckless on that motorcycle. Mom hated it. But her doctor didn’t mention stress. He kept talking about her health, her weight, how her heart was clogged with plaque. He was explaining what happened, how it had happened, and he gave me this look as he said it, like he wanted to make sure I was taking in every word.
I consider calling my best friend, Tammy, instead. But I doubt she’d join me. She might not even be happy for me. Amazingly, annoyingly, she’s one of those fat girls who seems fine with her weight. She’s active, and her doctor says although she does need to lose weight she’s healthier than some of his skinny patients.
There’s not really anyone else to call. Tammy and Mom, before she died, made up the base of my social circle. It’s not even a circle anymore. It’s just Tammy. There is my cousin, Autumn—5’3, 134 lbs, a personal trainer with muscles that glisten as she leads her bootcamps in the park and, lucky bastard, still curves. But I don’t want to be a project for her. Last time she tried to help me get fit we came pretty close to disowning each other. It doesn’t matter. I don’t need to call. I can do this. I’m motivated. It’s not just the whole miserable life thing—no boyfriend, no job, almost no friends, and the fear of becoming a recluse who lives entirely in the confines of a none too spacious one bedroom apartment. There’s more than that. If I don’t do this I’ll die—probably sooner than later—just like Mom. And at least Mom had a life. At least Mom had me and Billy and a husband who loved her at one point in time. When Dad met Mom she was slender, after me she became voluptuous, slowly creeping up into the two hundred pound club. After Billy, it seemed like a race to tip the three hundred mark.
By that time I raced along with her. I saw the numbers on the scale creep up to 203 on the same day I got my first visit from good ol’ Aunt Flo. I was crying when I asked Mom for a pad. She looked at me. She smiled. ‘You’re a woman now,’ she’d said. ‘Be happy.’ She didn’t know the real reason for my tears. By that time the yo-yo diets had pretty much stopped. She’d accepted her fate. I guess she accepted mine too.
“I’m going to do this,” I speak to the walls. “I have to do this.” In the past few months I’ve hardly cried for Mom. I’ve hardly cried for my lack of a job. I don’t even let myself think about Billy—I won’t cry for him. He’s dead to the world in that hospital room, and dead to me too. I cry today though—for mom, for my dwindling bank account, for the split of my fattest pair of fat pants. It’s all too much. I close my eyes. I’ve been trying not to think about her. When I do, it’s always the same image that pops into my mind. I’d erase it if I could. If there were one memory in my whole life I could eradicate, that would be the one. It would trump every obscene comment that’s come my way, it would beat the day my father left us. All of that is berries and cream in comparison. But this memory won’t go away. It unrolls before me like a surround sound, IMAX theatre presentation complete with sensory overload. I’m living it all over again …