For as long as Papa’s been trying to lose weight, Mama’s been baking cakes. Every Sunday evening Mama bakes a German chocolate cake, a bundt cake, a lemon pound cake, or a pineapple upside-down cake. These cakes are usually frosted to the extreme and showcased in the center of the dinner table on a white plate. No matter how many times Papa and I ask her to quit the cakes, she refuses. I tell her she’s hurting Papa by doing this, by setting out the bait.
Tonight I pass the dining room on my way upstairs and find Papa sitting at the table gobbling cake in the dark. When he’s eating alone, I don’t exist in his periphery, and he acts like he’s cloaked in a shield of invisibility. Hushed, I study his bulwark torso, the uneven bulges of his fat. He’s on autopilot. This isn’t a new sight for me.
On the way to my room, I visit the hallway closet with Mama’s Avon supplies. Stacked in four cardboard boxes is her entire inventory. My hand gropes inside a box for a new tube of lipstick. All these products have names like “Raspberry Date” or “Roman Affair.” I twist a lipstick up to its full height then imprint the tip of my fingernail into the base of the waxy column. For every cake Mama bakes, I nick one of her lipsticks. An eye for an eye. Unlike Papa, I’ve never been caught red-handed.
Despite the cakes, Papa adores her. Certain songs Papa associates with Mama, especially songs by a singer named Donovan. They used to listen to Donovan and Simon & Garfunkel 8-tracks together when they were first dating.
It’s possible that Mama really is at aerobics, Avon meetings, or the nail salon during that three-hour gap between when work ends and she arrives home. Papa and I never question her about anything. We just swallow down our suspicions.
It’s December and I’m on the brink of turning fifteen. Mama takes me to Foley’s to get something to wear for Christmas Day. Most of the clothes in the junior’s department are decorated with lilac buttons or prissy lace. Mama wants me to get a sweater with a vomit-green wreath on the front, but what I really want to wear on Christmas is a professional wig. I imagine myself in a chestnut pixie bob with medium bangs. I browse until I find the perfect item—a pair of ruby velvet pants.
“That’s not your size,” Mama says.
“Yes, it is,” I say. “This is what I want.”
“That’s the size you wore last year. You’ve grown. See if you can find a larger size.”
I know these are the only pair of pants like this in the store. For ten seconds I look for another size but I’m holding the last of its kind.
“I want these,” I say as I wave the pants in the air like a peace flag.
“Fine. Try them on,” Mama says, her tone full of exasperation.
I head to the fitting room and lock the door behind me. As I’m pulling up the velvet pants I discover they are too tight. I can hear the pretty fabric stretching as I tug at the zipper. My tan belly looks like Jabba the Hutt—huge and formless. It’s all the arroz con pollo and the pan dulce stuck inside. I narrow my eyes at my reflection with disgust. Quickly I put on my clothes and walk back to the rack where I found them.
“I don’t want them,” I say in Mama’s direction.
She’s turned toward a display of blue plaid dresses. For a minute, I wonder if I’ve mistaken a stranger, a lone shopper, for my mother, which would explain the stint of silence between us.
“They didn’t fit, did they?” Mama finally asks.
There’s no punishment in her question, but my skin feels chastised.
“I said I don’t want the pinche pants!”
Moments later we head to the men’s floor to get Papa a tie to wear for Christmas. I’m quiet as we ride the escalator up. At the counter, Mama starts talking to the salesperson. I know why we’re looking for ties and not clothes. Mama orders all of Papa’s clothes from the special JCPenney catalog. There are two JCPenney catalogs. There’s the giant one we get at Christmas time, with hundreds of pages of family fashions, and a solid thirty pages devoted to home gadgets we’ll never own like pinball machines and foosball tables, and then there’s the thin catalog for giant men. The selection in the latter is depressingly sparse. Mama sometimes resorts to buying Papa four beige shirts, three identical blue pants, and a bland black belt that reeks of treated leather. Mama rarely talks to me about Papa, and when she does she never mentions his weight.
When we finally settle on a silk paisley tie, I express my relief by making the sign of the cross. On the walk to the parking lot, Mama tells me to quit being a pain in the ass.
At home Papa is relaxing in his mammoth recliner, feet up. His dimpled flesh spills over every inch of the chair. An open bottle of Sprite rests in his cup holder and Jeopardy! is blaring on the television.
“My God, Miguel,” Mama says as we shuffle through the living room with our paper shopping bags. “I’m sure the entire neighborhood can hear our TV.”
Papa lowers the volume on the remote then invites me to join him. When I was little, I loved that my father knew as much, if not more than, the returning champions. For years I dreamed of being a professor just like him, but those aspirations slowly sizzled out. My future plans are constantly changing now, but I’ll probably end up doing something with geography or literature, or museums.
“Just for a little bit,” I say to his offer and take a seat on the couch.
One of the categories is titled American Novels and I sweep it.
“Te ventates, mija,” Papa congratulates me. “You should look into applying for their high school editions. They also have college editions.”
I roll my eyes. While spending twenty-seven minutes firing off answers in our living room is decent enough, I can’t imagine flying anywhere for this stupid show.
“That’s sooo lame, Papa,” I quip. “No way.”
A commercial for the bank Mama works for comes on; it’s an ad for home improvement loans. A Tampax commercial follows showing a teenage girl in a white tennis skirt biking with her energetic friends on a boardwalk. This idyllic portrait of periods is my cue to leave.
I stand up and kiss the crown of Papa’s head. The whiff of his Consort hair spray makes me think of dehydrated chemicals and public school classrooms.
“I’ll be in my room if you guys need me,” I say out of habit, although it’s been years since either one of my parents dropped by my room.
My closest friend freshman year is Selma Garza. Selma is average attractive. Her build is broader than mine but she wears shorts with gusto. In Ancient History we are assigned seats, and for two grading periods we end up sitting side by side. Selma’s grades are terrible. Except in Ancient History where she is doing exceptionally well—as well as I am. When Mr. Rieber questions us after class about our identical test scores, I lie and tell him that Selma and I are study partners.
Selma is mixed. Her father is an OBGYN from Mexico and her mother is white and owns a purse boutique. From what I’ve seen, her parents love each other in equal measure—a rarity, I suppose. The Garzas live in a palatial house outside the San Antonio city limits. Their neighbors are the starting lineup for the San Antonio Spurs, a fact I try to act blasé about despite my ardent crush on Sean Elliott.
When I first visit their house, I open the refrigerator and find only a stout jar of green olives and a slender bottle of seltzer inside.
“Wow! Is this new or something?” I ask as I peer at Selma from the doorway.
Not only do I assume that the refrigerator is new, but I assume they bought the thing from Sears. Later I find out that most of their appliances are from The Sharper Image. This is three years before the store becomes ubiquitous and chichi.
Selma is sitting on a black leather couch in the adjoining room. As she languidly shakes her head, I walk back and open the heavy door again. I slip the sheath over the butter compartment and I find four lipsticks on a plastic tray. They must belong to Mrs. Garza but I know they aren’t Avon. Our refrigerator at home is crowded with jugs of juice, tortillas, cans and cans of biscuits, cilantro, apples, carrots, and lots of chicken and ground beef. I stroll over to the doorway and see that Selma is watching a fashion show on E! so I sneak a glance at the pantry. Their pantry is vacant but for two tennis rackets and a canister of Wilson tennis balls.
“How long has your family lived in The Dominion?” I ask as I leave the kitchen.
“‘Bout four years,” Selma says as she turns to me.
“Do you like it?”
Selma is sprawled out on the leather couch now like she’s sunbathing. I’m forced to sit properly with my hands on my lap in order to share the couch. For sure Selma’s aware that she’s crowding me but she shows no sign of moving. Meanwhile Naomi Campbell is strutting a negligee on the runway. I can’t look at the TV out of embarrassment, but neither Naomi nor Selma is shy about near-nudity.
“Yeah. It’s a great place to play tennis. Tons of courts. Tons of options.”
At home, I start staying up late to study for important exams. From my room I can hear the television on in the den. Papa watches the History Channel and knows scores of details about the Civil War and the World Wars. He has a knack for names and years. Sometimes he grades quizzes and has the television on just for background noise. A couple of times I’ve caught him reminiscing with photographs from when he was a teenager.
When I go downstairs one night to ask him to turn the volume down on the TV, he hands me a picture. In the photo he’s wearing a black turtleneck and indigo jeans. He’s standing in front of a brick school building, holding a textbook at his side. He must be seventeen years old. I smile and hand it back to him. The photo is dry and yellow and feels fake like Monopoly money.
“When I was young and thin, I wore turtlenecks all the time,” he says.
“How Mod of you,” I reply.
“I know,” he says. “I was cool.”
His voice has no self-pity, only nostalgia.
“You want a turtleneck for Christmas?” I ask as I head over to the television set to turn down the volume.
“Hell no,” he laughs.
All around us are his neglected exercise equipment: a treadmill, a stationary bicycle, an Ab Roller, and a set of cast iron dumbbells. He’s so heavy now that he probably can’t fit on the bike seat or between the bars of the Ab Roller. I doubt he can motivate himself to lose two hundred pounds. I worry about the muscles that comprise his heart. It’s an Olympic feat each morning for him just to navigate around the house and cram himself into his car.
Typically, his diets work for a month and Papa will lose anywhere from twenty to forty-five pounds. Like magic, his third chin will recede and his waist will start to taper. For this loss Mama and I praise him, asking him when did he get so handsome. We compliment him but I know the drill. The inevitable Sunday cake will do him in. Then a few days later he will eat two hamburgers instead of one, and then be too tired to exercise that night. The weight will fill him out again. The pants, which were loose just a few weeks before, will now fit just right. The fact that he gains the weight back depresses Papa. He has failed at yet another diet. To console himself he will buy three donuts on the drive home from work. When I’m outside playing with my cat Señorito, I often spot waxy Dunkin’ Donuts bags in the backseat of Papa’s Volvo. Sometimes I’m convinced I’m the one buying the donuts and eating them all. In my panic, I remind myself that I don’t yet have a license, that I didn’t eat the donuts, but even still, for the rest of the night I’m seized with a spinning nausea.
That year, I start to get edgy at the dinner table or whenever I’m in the kitchen. I’m always tense. Our pantry is too full. It upsets me that we have so much food on hand. We don’t need four cans of green beans and five cans of corn. Why do we have six boxes of macaroni and cheese? No one’s starving—that’s for sure. I know that dieting is hell and I never want to diet. More than anything else, I never want to have to lose hundreds of pounds.
Selma’s parents aren’t dieting. Whenever I see Dr. Garza, he’s in green scrubs, fresh from delivering a new batch of babies. I can’t tell how thin he is, but I know for certain that he isn’t fat, and I doubt Mrs. Garza is repulsed by him. I’m convinced that Papa is the only obese parent at my school and I hate him for eating thirds at buffets and for serving himself a heaping bowl of butter pecan ice cream most nights.
Around January I convince my mother that my breakfast, usually biscuits and hot chocolate, is lacking in nutrition. What I need is a breakfast shake packed with vitamins. Each morning I mix protein powder with skim milk and drink my shake. This is all I ingest for breakfast: one hundred and ten calories and half a gram of fat.
When I get home from school I jump onto the treadmill in our den. Normally I jog seven miles. I exercise every day then eat a bag of noodles or a bowl of Jell-O for dinner. Mexican food is out of the question. The only plates or bowls I allow myself to eat off of are from a set my parents received as a wedding gift. Most pieces of the taupe stoneware set are chipped, and neither of my parents uses them anymore.
In the shower, I pinch my waist and my thighs until I’m covered in dark purple bruises. Each week I pinch myself harder until bruises are blooming on top of other bruises. My thin skin is tender and sore. Usually I layer myself in t-shirts and wear cabled stockings under my jeans. No one can get to me. I stay in my room and study all night, reading each assignment twice before going to class.
While I’m fasting, I sometimes do my homework at the dining room table in front of the cakes Mama bakes. It’s a test. If I can sit in front of a cake for hours and smell the coconut frosting and never even pick at it, then I convince myself that I’ll never be fat. Often my parents walk by while I’m studying at the table but they never comment. Papa and Mama are typical tight-lipped Latino parents. They are as eager to talk to me about my weight as I am to talk to them about oral sex.
In the span of a few months, I lose thirty pounds off my adolescent frame. My face somehow remains as round as a moon pie despite all my efforts to chisel it. Later I realize a gaunt face would have probably spurned an intervention from the school. Selma remains silent as I slim down. I visit her house less often and when I do she’s adamant that we go to her country club.
While I sip fruit juice, Selma wolfs down a bacon cheeseburger and icy mugs of root beer. It’s obvious to me that she hasn’t a clue about calories or saturated fat. Even still, part of me wants her to call me out on my liquid diet, to explode at me and force me to join her, but I know very well that she’s proud of my ability to control myself.
Selma fills her mouth with savory meat and smiles at me with full cheeks.
“So, Tatum, what do you think of the guys in our history class?” she asks for the nth time. I freeze in my seat and study her chewing. I wonder if I ask Selma the same shit over and over and this is her way of making it obvious to me. Can’t be.
“Gross. The guys in that class are the ultimate tools, none of them even worth mentioning by first name,” I respond, and then add, “Basically I find China’s Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms more of a turn-on than those losers.”
Selma howls with laughter. Her eyes flutter as she tries to get ahold of herself. It has to be forever since I’ve let myself fall into a laugh so carefree and luxuriant.
After dinner, Selma and I saunter back to her house in the dark. As we’re walking Selma bumps her hip into mine. At first I assume this is an accident, but then she puts her arm around my waist and tugs me closer to her. I hate being touched by anyone, and with her arm on my side it finally dawns on me that she likes me that way. Before I can move or protest Selma nuzzles my neck with her mouth.
I shake myself free and stand five feet from her. Our eyes lock, then she throws her hands into the air and laughs all the way back to her mansion.
Spring Break arrives. Structure is my safety so I scramble to keep myself occupied. I read newspapers, thumb through encyclopedias for information on Frank Stella, tribes of the Amazon, bulimia, Chernobyl, the history of the Ivy Leagues.
In the privacy of my room, I check the diameters of my wrists with a wooden ruler: 71/2 centimeters. The impossible measurements of my dimensions no longer faze me. I stroke my jawbone. It’s as sharp as a samurai’s sword. In the attic of my awareness, I know its steel-trap lock can kill me. After two sets of sit-ups, my heart begins to skip beats. I try to ignore the erratic rhythms of my body but my vitals are becoming more alarming.
My mind focuses outward to distract me. On the walls of my bedroom, my map-pencil sketches of Egon Schiele’s harlots, scotch-taped Basquiat and Shakespeare quotes, and two glossy postcards of the Guggenheim and MoMA surround me. An androgynous David Bowie poster understands my quest to transcend my original self.
I sit by my window waiting for Mama’s car to pull up into the driveway. At 8:15 she arrives. I hear her high heels pound up the driveway. My heartbeat syncs with her stride until she disappears into our house.
It’s hard to contain all my hatred for the unknown. I have systematically turned everyone into an enemy.
Often I remember what Papa told me when I was the new kid at school in third grade: You can accomplish anything you set your mind to, but it all depends on how much you want it. At eight, I studied hard and proved myself just as capable as everyone else. Now I focus on my studies again, but this time I’m not satisfied being as good; I want to be the best. Although I’m still a freshman, I take a blue Sharpie marker to my wall and, in capital letters, write YALE. This single word motivates me day and night. My grades improve because I study like a maniac and ignore everybody. Selma and I talk on the phone sporadically. I’m pissed that I don’t have the option of enjoying her lifestyle anymore. We sit on opposite sides of the classroom now—not our doing. Selma often glances over at me and I know she’s failing the class, but such is life.
I’m so focused on conquering academics that I even forget to feed my cat. Bending down makes me super dizzy too, so I avoid Señorito altogether. I drown out his hungry meows by pumping up the volume of my Smashing Pumpkins CD and convincing myself that D’arcy Wretzsky also finds food to be overrated. A handful of times the coupling of music and not eating have unexpectedly pole-vaulted me into a state of nirvana. I’ve never felt as free or invincible as when I’m empty, but the high is so fleeting. The crash usually knocks me into a heavy, dreamless, disorienting sleep.
When I catch my reflection I see a pudgy face, but I can’t lose any more weight. Already I’m getting too shaky to jog my seven miles. I cut back to four and a half and hate myself for being worthless and unmotivated. The dictator of my mind recruits my delicate jawbone and I am at their conjoined mercy.
People at school make me so tired I can’t manage a decent conversation with them. I’m terrified that I’ll end up talking about food or weight and then they’ll know for sure. Half the time I’m convinced that I’m rotting and smell stale, so I spritz myself with coconut oil to combat my stench. Part of me is certain my skin can absorb calories from the coconut oil so I try to work in extra leg rises to offset that possibility. I’m even too exhausted to rig Mama’s inventory. Like clockwork, she’s baking cakes and Papa’s inhaling them but I can’t keep the tally straight anymore.
In logic and skin, I’m unrecognizable even to myself. My features bear no family name. I’m repulsed by my own sinewy arms, by the chords that are pulled tight in my neck when I gesticulate or swallow.
Instead of eating I take in all there is to know about Caligula, Bohr’s model of the electron, and Edvard Munch. Every detail is ingrained in my brain, and before I even sit down to take my exams I know I’ve aced them.
One Saturday morning I’m sitting in the den watching television. A globe Papa bought me in fifth grade is parked on top of the television, coated in a centimeter of dust. As I position pillows around me on the couch, I stare down the treadmill, my beloved frenemy.
It’s seven a.m. but I like to rise early. There are only cartoons on at this hour so I watch the Weather Channel. On the screen a knot of nimbus clouds hangs over an anonymous beach.
Papa walks downstairs wearing a kelly green t-shirt and black sweatpants. I hear the stairs creak under his immense weight. His eyes have dark bags under them, and although he’s probably slept eight hours, he looks drained. I stay tuned to the Weather Channel for my local forecast, though I have no plans of leaving the house. Papa stares at me, and my face starts to burn under his glare.
I weigh eighty pounds now and try to hide it under a baggy sweatshirt and men’s jeans. I no longer wear a bra or menstruate.
“You should go out today with your friends,” Papa says.
His comment annoys me so I turn to face him.
“What are you taking about?” I snarl.
“You’re always in your damn room. I just think you should go outside and get some fresh air.”
“I like my fucking room,” I say and turn back toward the television.
“Watch your language, flaca!” Papa shouts. He barks “flaca” in the same foul tone as he does “pendejo” or “cabron” when he has road rage and shoots some jerk the finger. I remain still. Papa’s insult rings in my head.
“You’re just pissed that I don’t look like you. Ever wonder if I’m even your kid?”
Now I know I’ve gone too far but I can’t take it back. I’ve impaled his heart.
Papa’s face twitches with a mixture of hurt and fury. He bangs his stone fist against the closest wall.
“Run all you fucking want from me, but you’re mine all right,” he yells.
Papa starts crying and mumbling. He hasn’t yet combed his hair and it’s all messed up. For the first time I notice that he’s balding and I feel compelled to cry, too.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” I wail.
My body is so hollow I sound like a poltergeist.
Neither one of us speaks. The radar image of Bexar county flashes on the television coupled with a clip of mellow jazz music.
Papa finally murmurs, “Come on, mija.”
Together we walk to the kitchen where he serves us cereal. We eat slowly with trepidation. I can hear a woodpecker outside the window ruining our pecan tree. An image of Selma hovers in my mind and I think about how my prettiness was really my will. I can’t swallow my cereal—a hard sob lodges itself in my throat. I feel like I’m going to vomit, like I’m going to cry, like I’m killing everything I worked for. I can’t look up from my bowl so I chew my cereal over and over until it nearly disintegrates into the pool of my mouth. This is the first meal I have eaten with my father in eleven months.
On my paper napkin, I write him a note: I can’t anymore. I need help.
Papa’s bleary eyes read the napkin before he nods and slips it into the pocket of his sweatpants. I push my bowl away and place my forehead on the table. The acoustics of eating, utensils at work, the whole enterprise makes me gag. I cover my mouth and watch as Papa lifts my elbow and walks me back to the den. I curl up on the couch but zigzag my legs so that bone doesn’t bang against bone. The dictator of my mind screams at me for breaking our code of absolute denial.
Papa remains standing. Tears are still trapped, half-expelled, in my throat and nasal passages. My cold hand grips Papa’s wrist. I feel the cereal and milk sloshing in my stomach, an ocean roar, a biological process that terrifies me.
“I’m going to talk to your mother and make some phone calls. We’ll get you help, mija.”
“I want to know where she goes after work,” I gasp. “Don’t you want to know?” My thoughts ram together. “Let’s get help together, Papa. Get help with me.”
Papa’s long doughy face registers a sincere confusion. “What would I get help for?” His question swings in the air like a cruel tease, a double punch to my sanity.
My fingers slide off his wrist. It’s too late to retract my plea for help. The puzzle pieces of my body are on the verge of being rearranged, yet I’m too depleted to panic. The last shred of reason within me knows whatever lies ahead can’t be worse than this gnawing discomfort, this vortex of loathing. Nothing can trump this hell.
With my index finger, I inspect my jawbone like it’s the edge of a cliff. I press it from every angle until I trust it to open and save me.
Ursula Villarreal-Moura is the winner of the 2012 CutBank Big Fish Online Prose Poetry/Flash Fiction Contest. Her work appears or is forthcoming in CutBank, TOSKA, Shady Side Review, and Van Duzer. She contributes book reviews to Nib and Necessary Fiction, and is an assistant editor for the Cream City Review. Recently she completed her MFA in Fiction at Sarah Lawrence College.