short fiction


Peggi McCarthy

Before Harry loved her, she had been a thing. With her own experience as evidence, Anne Marie supposed that every big woman—and big man, for all she knew—felt the same: like a wall or a tent, like a tractor, like a block of cement: all body. All their thoughts must revolve, as hers had, around tight waistbands and loose upper arms. They all believed life would be different if only their bodies were different, if they didn't run so often out of breath.

When the affair ended, she'd become a thing again. Many months later, on a late fall afternoon, she acknowledged that she'd slipped back. She woke to the fact, nodding her head on a neck as thick and lined as a loaf of sliced bread. The Tiparillo between her lips pointed like a compass needle. She poked among the loops of her brassy curls, which bounced under her hand. Harry had loved her hair. He had loved all of her—she was positive of this—for herself.

She pinched her lips so the cigarette lost its ash and her cheeks shuddered. What was her self? Not her body. Self was something that emerged when loved, something in or around or attached to the body now sitting—for how long had she sat?—squashed in an armchair. For the whole time he'd loved her, she had known her self as a sprite, a ballerina. What her body ate or dressed in had made no difference.

Up to a point.

It would have touched him to see her at home that December day, sighing in a red shift. The gentle self he'd released now tortured her. Unloved, it had at some point bobbed up like a balloon, jerked away on hard ballerina toes. It loitered now just inside Anne Marie's vision with a longing face, like hers but loveable.

"Forget it," Anne Marie said aloud, stubbing the Tiparillo among others into a Valentine-shaped bowl. She pushed out of her chair and thumped into the kitchen. The ballerina followed. Anne Marie trained her eyes on her own pink hands building a tower of bread, bologna, cheese, salami, boiled egg—when had she boiled it?—tomato, ham, beef, and more bread. She nuzzled her face into the sandwich, smearing her cheeks, which had glowed when he loved her, with crumbs.

This was her life now. She smacked her lips. Egg for childhood, meat for the bad teen years, cheese for the present, egg for old age. And the tomato? Tomato to throw at Harry, so the yellow seeds would burst in his eyes. Or to throw at the ballerina. She menaced, but it dodged, twirling its feet like propellers, keeping its Valkyrie face full front.

Anne Marie rested her forehead on the oak table. The flesh pressed in—even her forehead was fat, even her furniture. Three movers had moved that table in: she, her cousin Fred, and Harry. She wept. The straps of her shift cut into her shoulders.

She didn't always wear shifts. At her job in the office of a private school she wore boxy suits, or blousy dresses crumpled at the belt. It was a sitting job, a front-facing job. No one saw the opened zippers at her neck and waist, or her hips bulging as wide as the desk. To the students—pert blondes, Asian girls whispering together, Black girls who held their difference before them like pompoms—to those students she presented her body from the waist up: breasts, shoulders, neck, chins, cheeks, forehead, all indifferent as a shut door. They told the headmistress they detested her. She did not pretend not to overhear.

The summer before—the summer of Harry—she'd worked half-days. In the afternoons she'd stay put in her apartment, smoking, thickening the conditioned air. Her skin turned neither pink nor brown; if anything, gray smoke seeped through her pores. No matter that dogs trotted outside, sniffing the dirt under fences, that her girls flung their arms out, playing Statues on the burning tar, that at night ice chinked like coins behind screens beside her unused balcony. She stuck to herself, by herself. At night she lay in bed like a pile of suds.

One day her cousin Fred had prevailed on her to come out swimming. How he had persuaded her she did not recall. For her the memory began with riding in the crowded Jjeep, her face lifted among others to taste the wind. When they reached the quarry, the men stripped and dove in, yelping. Only Harry stayed behind, working a knot in his shoelace.

She waited, listening to the swimmers' calls bounce off limestone walls. She had not known they would be naked. It was hot; her shift stuck to her. "Going swimming?" he asked.

She patted the slanted rock with her long toes as she sat smoking, big arms around big knees. "Not right now." She waved her Tiparillo for excuse. And sneaked a look at his red back as he tottered across the slant, at the white butt that reared up when he cannonballed.

Insects whirred in the field; birds twittered in the path. She simmered in sunlight, waiting, while the men swam. When she stood up to look, they looked small in the bottomless water. Fred stood for a second on a log. His beard sparkled, but the log turned and he tumbled. Harry swam laps around the crooked perimeter. He looked flat as foam, his whitish hair darkened, face in the water, arms angling up to pull him along.

Heat seethed through her head, shoulders, thighs. She longed to swim, but the thought of the splash she'd make—the dull boom as the blue membrane buckled, water plumes rising past the top of the rocks—made her hesitate. Instead she took her dress off and spread out on her towel.

Not since she was a baby on the lawn behind her mother's house had she lain outside naked. At the quarry as then, the sun buttered her. She breathed a hot perfume that made her stretch her legs as she had in the unremembered yard, her mother's adoring eyes on her in the shimmering light. She'd been plump as a rose then, and her fingers had curled like petals. So they did at the quarry, while a gold haze deepened the black behind her eyelids and expanded, making cream of her spraddled breasts and belly. A cold drop hit the base of her breastbone; then another. She opened her eyes and saw Harry, whose thick white hair dripped from wet points, whose mouth gaped open, whose feasting green eyes fastened on hers.

He blushed. He said, "May I bum a cigarette?" She discovered later that he did not usually smoke.

In his stricken eyes she saw her flesh swoop in promising points and mounds. She was mirror-white, her skin reflecting the kelly-green towel. While they held one another's gazes as if in modesty, she felt the knot behind her ribs let go. Without sitting—she saw how glad he was she didn't sit, didn't crease her flow—she fingered two Tiparillos from the pack, gave them to him to light, and reached behind her purse for her dress. He said, "Please don't cover up." When she shrugged, his eyes followed the roll of her shoulders. Then both spoke at once: "How old are you?"

He was nineteen—too young! Anne Marie washed the smear from her plate, wiped the knife, scraped the bread board. If only she had delayed forever, had never risen from sudsy indifference. But no; the sprite had taken its first strokes, had found itself buoyant. Had leapt.

Since he lived with his family, they'd visited at her apartment. He brought food every day: chocolates in heart-shaped boxes, his mother's cookies, his father's strawberries; he loved to see her eat. Sometimes he reached across the table to hold up her wrist. "Look how your arm shines back at the sherry," he might say. "When your fork moves, you glitter." And they would eat, their gazes like fond bites.

They went to baseball games and movies. He fed her peanuts, popcorn, pretzels, opening his unshaved lips to show how wide she should open hers. She gave him a bubblegum machine and he dropped in penny after penny, poking the colored balls into her mouth. They laughed until their jaws ached and her mouth stung with sugar.

If she cooked he followed her, palming her thighs, which wafted in their own breeze. He turned down the burners and led her into her bedroom to see how candlelight made a cave of her whorled navel. "You're beautiful," he said. Though she ducked her head, she knew it was so. He created virtues of her flaws, lifted her up by invisible strings. She had only her size to thank. From the first moment, everything came from her. Her flesh was the substance and theory of their love: endless, rich, yielding, strong.

She moved joyfully through the office air, swaying like ruffles. Giggles from schoolgirls no longer wounded her. Hadn't Harry squeezed her waist, broad as the green blotter? Held, like celestial hemispheres, the breasts that blocked the Foundress's portrait? Mouthed, like bunched grapes, the drooping cheeks? For the brief time Harry loved her, Anne Marie had breathed, even at the office; she had lived, not humped like a boulder but alert, ready to whirl on one toe.

For him she was as air, a confection. Then his taste changed and she became lard. Are you sure you want that cake? she had heard him say. She looked up from her plate to see his eyes appalled, weighing each part, breaking her into globules. That had been that.

That had been that, except for the part that had condensed into a ballerina. It stayed over her now like a starfish, all akimbo, like a pesky cloud that refused to rain.

The light in her kitchen window dimmed. It was only three o'clock, but it seemed late already, so far along in the year. She could have been Christmas shopping, but had decided to give only cigarettes; she could buy them on Christmas Eve. Going out offered no joy. In air and light, the ballerina bounced painfully on stiletto toes. So Anne Marie decided to stay in, to suffocate in smoke and furniture. She sought darkness. She napped on her fat couch.

She dreamed of solitude. When she opened her eyes, she saw only her room: dark, its unornamented walls meeting in shadow. Street lights shone on her couches and on chairs piled up with clothes. Her baseboards hummed in the quiet. She slept again.

When she woke next, it was going on twelve. Nothing had happened. She made popcorn and sat up to watch King Kong. She stared at the TV with eyes as brown and beady as the ape's, her mass spread around her on the couch. When the program ended, she thought that he climbed into her lap. Each arm, plugged with a leathery hand, rested on a thigh. Each thigh took up a cushion. Each breast hovered like a zeppelin, mashed down by a red plaid throw. This assemblage she recognized as hers, but not the weight.

Slowly her wits came back, while she sat poking the remote control button. Traveling stripes and canned laughter fed her as dreams feed a sleeper. She remembered her name and family, her job, the approach of Christmas. Finally she missed something, and looked up. The ballerina had vanished, dropping a thousand-weight on Anne Marie.

Who trudged apelike through the winter, struggling along sidewalks, knocking the tops off drifts. Whose shins squashed into icy hydrants, who never recognized a bruise. Whose tent of a coat sheathed her as she bused the slow hot route to school. Whose broad forehead made the little girls quake.

The holidays twinkled past. Mail cluttered her big TV-top; bowls and glasses fastened themselves to the flap of her mahogany secretary. In the evenings her apartment festered with smoke and cake and sausages, for though she ate she didn't clean.

Some time after Valentine's day, reaching for a banana, she tumbled off her couch. It moved, though it was a seven-footer and bulky. One lavender cushion popped up as if surprised. Anne Marie looked around. "Cheez," she said, and for once didn't think of ham, "am I strong!"

Over the dull weeks she had displaced all her furniture. She registered a chair on its side, a standing ashtray knocked over, a bookcase hipchecked into the wall. A philodendron lay upended under the windowsill, its roots raised like tangled fingers. The venetian blinds splayed crooked, as if the ballerina in leaving had shoved and kicked, or as if King Kong had been inhabiting Anne Marie's apartment.

Her kitchen chairs stood askew, but the oak table hadn't moved under its load of gallon bottles and pizza boxes. It stuck, when she tried to lift it, by a glue of juices and crumbs. But when a cockroach under the butter dish made her jump, she heard a creak. A cider bottle rumbled off the table.

She picked it up. She picked up the dishes from the table and wrappers from the floor. Some resisted; some dripped thick liquid. She scrubbed the broad tabletop, pushing scraps into her scooped hand. With a grunt she raised the table to her chest; her arms and thighs sang with the effort. When she had moved the table, she cleaned the gooey imprints of its square feet.

She leaned into the mop, filled trash bags with broken dishes and cigarette cartons. She pushed the TV against the living room wall, pulled the couch next to the secretary, which she polished until it glowed. She brought her armchair into the bedroom and piled fat pillows on Harry's side of the bed. How young they had been! How they had flown! Now the floor pushed sturdily against her feet, and her feet pushed back. She breathed the orderly odor of furniture polish.

Swiftly she moved to the back door, her large bones humming with purpose. She had filled six bags of trash: jars, cans, styrofoam boxes, the old meat and spices of her past already congealing in the twist-tied bags. In each hand she grasped three plastic necks. The trash sifted and clanked down four dim back staircases.

Her breath frosted, and the sweat on her neck stung as it froze in the crackling night. Trash unloaded, she became light; she could have broken apart like a praline. She looked up to her apartment and beyond, past the tall keyboard of lit windows. Breath whistled out of her like flute music. Having no partner, she played alone, sending her song high above her neighbors' shades. I am, she played into the air, larger, more beautiful than a ballerina. At last the crescent moon rose, like the silver hood on the head of a woman who wandered among the stars, collecting them like berries in her huge arms.