I hold my breath, squeeze my eyes and make myself small. I'm under my bed, nose pressed against something hard, muscles still. I hear my grandmother's voice. Beautiful, where are you? You can't hide from your mamma. Her soft voice nudges me into laughter. I hear the bed skirt move. I stare at the bottom side of the bed trying to ignore her. There's my beauty, she says reaching for me. I bump my forehead when I twist and reach for her. She pulls me out then hugs me. Her chest moves up and down under my head. She kisses me, says, You're good and solid. My beauty.
She fainted again, I hear Mrs. Crabtree say. I'm lying in a small room at school. She's on the phone, just the other side of the open door. She comes into view like slides snapping on my mamma's View Master. A click and she disappears leaving mustard-colored light to burn my eyes. I blink and she's there again. Her straight back ignores me; she picks at her ponytail. The phone glues shoulder and head together. If she's not careful, she'll get stuck like that. She turns and attaches the phone to the other ear. I see her angry face. The cracks around her mouth look like they'll cave in taking nose, eyes, and face. Her words are quick, short. She's talking to Mom.
She'll disappear, Mrs. Crabtree says. I wish I could. I think about the black and white stickman I doodle in my notebook. If no one could see me, it would save me a lot of embarrassment. Like in gym class. Mrs. Fergus wants us to balance and walk the high bar. It's at least ten feet off the ground. When I look down, my hands get wet and I squat, hug the bar and roll off. Everyone giggles. What was that supposed to be, they say. Your own weirdo technique, they say, and laugh. I try to share in the joke even though my chest hurts, my cheeks feel hot, and something whispers in my head, Not good enough.
Mrs. Crabtree says, Not enough, as though she's angry with Mom. I picture my mother standing at the kitchen counter, phone in hand, eyes tipped towards heaven crossing herself the way she does when she hears bad news on T.V. or sees my father rummage for a screwdriver to work on the cabinet hinge he broke the last time he fixed it. I want to yell; I know I'm not good enough. You don't need to tell me. I know.
When I was in grade two, Brittany—pale blue eyes, blond-curly-haired teacher's pet Brittany—sat down at my table for lunch. Her friends, Sarah, Brandi and Becky came too. I felt warm and gushy inside like I did something right. She picked me. I wanted to say it out loud, but stayed cool. Brittany brushed her index finger over the Twinkies, the two chocolate chip cookies, my apple and the small orange juice carton on the table in front of me. Have anything you want, I said and pushed it all, except a half eaten Twinkie, towards her. She looked at her friends and the sweet smile on her face grew. I wondered what I'd have to do to be like her.
She lost her smile and looked into my eyes as if I had stolen it. She opened her mouth slowly and said, A little piggy. Her screeching laugh spilled and made my cheeks tingle, my throat lock. I thought I'd never be able to swallow or talk or breathe again.
I'm finally allowed to wear the same Levis and tanks Brittany does. Sure they look different on me, but that doesn't stop me. I try to smile, walk and flick my hair the way she does, but nothing works. She gets more perfect and I'm a little piggy. The words play in my head like my Avril Lavigne CD. I hear them even when nothing's bothering me, even when I'm sort of happy.
Mrs. Crabtree slices into my thoughts with more words, We need to keep a closer eye. My face feels wet. When did I start crying? I don't cry anymore. Dad says that's for babies. I've heard Mrs. Crabtree's words before. When I was in grade three, the nurse told Mom to keep a closer eye on the junk she gave me. Snacks stopped. Then, I heard the nurse say, The extra baby layers are melting nicely. I see how everything sticks out. My belly doesn't know how to lie flat.
I guess I wasn't always a little piggy. Mom told me I used to be picky. When was that, I asked. Fingers sketching the sign of the cross as usual, eyes pointing to her boobs, she said, You rejected my milk. From what I heard, her watermelons would have exploded if she hadn't attached some kind of thing onto them to suck'em dry. What baby wants big and fat things over its face anyway, I said, making her laugh. This was nothing to joke about. I was probably afraid of suffocating or something. She said, Your mamma kept you from starving.
I don't think about my mamma anymore. She died a year ago, a few days before my birthday. It makes me really sad to think about her. My parents made me have a party that year anyway. We have to get on with our lives, Dad said. She would want it that way. I wasn't so sure, but I said I'd try even though it felt like something was sitting on my chest.
She used to live with us and take me on the train to a place, for what she called, natural spring water. Dad and his friends found this spring when they were out hiking. It's special water, she'd say. It'll open your appetite. I never asked why I needed anything opened. We'd talk about my grandfather who I never met because he died before I was born. She'd tell me about her days as a teacher, how she thought each kid was her kid, how she prayed for them. She'd talk about Mom and how she liked to skip school, but never got away with it. I'd tell her stories too. Sometimes I'd talk about the new girl in school with her cool pink knee-highs, black striped skirt and sick clothes. Sick is cool, mamma. It's a good thing; I said, when I knew she didn't understand.
My mamma was the one I talked to when I noticed I didn't look right. What do you mean? she asked. Her forehead wrinkled. I'm shorter, darker, and chubbier than... Who, she asked. Just about everybody. Especially Brittany. You should see her. I'll never be like that. My mamma didn't say, You're still developing, like Mom would. Or, things will settle down. I never knew what that was supposed to mean.
When I finished talking and we were so quiet I could hear her breathe, my mamma took my hand and we went into her bedroom. She opened the bottom drawer of her dresser, pulled out an old jewelry case. It tinkled something she called Fur Elise when she folded open the lid. She picked out a tiny gold ring and placed it in my hand. This will help you remember who you are, she said, even when you think others look better or things aren't working out. Who am I, Mamma? I asked. Look at the bottom of the ring, she said. I had to squint to see it, but when I did, the word was clear. Beautiful.
I'll let her lie here for a while longer, Mrs. Crabtree says. And then you can pick her up.
Great. Some time to myself. I wiggle into the cot hoping it will soften and allow me to sink. It doesn't. I twist and see something dancing on the wall. A light peeks through the vinyl slates, plays with my ring. I move my hand and follow the shapes. When I bring my hand down, the ring slips off hitting the tile floor with a ping.
I feel dizzy, can't focus but get up anyway. I breathe deeply, just like they tell me to when I feel faint. My knees shake, my hands are cold. I finally see it, shining in the corner. I look at the wavy letters on its bottom and put my ring back where it belongs. It's loose. Too loose for me.
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