Photograph via Flickr by littlegraypixel
It definitely brought out kids’ dark sides. Like Etheridge Taylor was pissed because she said here she was starving herself and then some “dope” like me could just go get operated on and do instantly what she spent every waking hour on.
“I mean, hey, feeling better about things is what this country is founded on, isn’t it?”
That’s me in ninth-grade social studies, up in front of the class, telling them what my tenth-grade fall project is going to be about (the effect on society of making people suddenly skinny, as seen through one kid’s experience: a blog report, plus film by best friend Kenny Elias). They call it the Pre-Report. Our school goes up to ninth, so the Fall Report is your first starring role in high school and there’s all kinds of pressure to make it good. You tell everyone the amazing thing you’re going to do during this life-changing summer of metamorphosis. Kids do crap like build a log cabin in the back yard or go to Spain for a month. Me, I’m going to get a rubber band snapped around my gut and make a movie about it to be broadcast on my fan page.
“The pursuit of happiness, the right to bear arms. All that. Psychiatry— that’s it in a nutshell, isn’t it? Brain plus drugs equals feeling better.”
Mom wanted me to get gastric banded back when I was twelve—as soon as she heard that such a thing existed—but then we found out there were all these rules, so she got His Highness Thermel Navigavilon to promise to do the deed when I turn fifteen this June. Right after the end of the year. T minus two weeks and counting.
Nobody at school ever hate-crimed me about being fat. But when I dumbshitly made the GB the topic of my big project, homies went ballistic. My friends Thompson and Kiesha were conflicted—(Kiesha and Thompson are on the shiny side themselves) and Thompson kept asking if I was sure I was ready for such a “commitment,” like I was getting engaged.
But then folks in ninth down were like, when you getting that operation, man? I gotta get that operation myself. All manner of kid would be grabbing their fat in the hallway to show me, slapping their bellies. I was like the oracle of fatness all of a sudden. Outside the cafeteria, Madigan, an actual JV cheerleader, lifted up her shirt and flashed her positively ripped belly, then she grabbed this two-inch bandwidth of skin, and started wailing about how her belly’s about to swallow her navel ring.
I would dress up as Fat Bastard from Austin Powers. It was spectacular. I just had to do the hair and warts and I supplied the fatness myself.
(For years, Franklin didn’t even have cheerleaders, which the teachers said were degrading to women—obviously, the whole dynamic of me-Tarzan, you-Cheerleader. Instead, they had something called Dream Teams that were supposed to be equal boys and girls. But nobody knew what Dream Teams were, which then morphed into Pep Club, and obviously, enrollment in Pep Club was a bullet to loserdom. So then, three years ago, Macria Norman’s big sister Stace started having secret meetings at her house, and one crisp fall day out pops a renegade cheerleading squad with the full-on retro Charlie’s Angels–style unitards and pom-poms. They ran on the field during half time at the homecoming game with Benson High, blasting out cartwheels and roundoffs.)
So anyway, as to the source of Mom’s obsession, I blame Halloween. Every Halloween, starting when I was nine and originally hit on the idea, I would dress up as Fat Bastard from Austin Powers. It was spectacular. I just had to do the hair and warts and I supplied the fatness myself.
Mom, of course, hated it. Every Halloween, she’d start in about my “self-loathing issues” and how the costume only contributed to my “negative self-image,” which, according to her, was what made me heavy in the first place. Then she’d go on this riff about how, deep down, it was really an attack on her mothering skills. Or lack thereof. That’s what she’d say, or lack thereof. Then she’d sort of sniffle and then laugh. And I’d say it too, or lack thereof. So we could both laugh and things would be cool for a while. But of course, underneath, her mental wheels would still be cranking.
Granted, the whole rubber band on stomach thing was her idea and she’ll never know for sure if I really wanted it or if I was just being a super-good sport. Which, fine, true, I don’t exactly know myself, but I’ll deal.
You couldn’t blame her. Mom’s the type of person that it’s hard to hold things against. And she went sort of temporarily insane with what happened with her and my dad. My Dad is named Ahmed Abdelnour and he moved back to Kuwait before I could remember pretty much anything. I have one semi-memory of this guy who showed up when I was around six: he sat at the kitchen table looking at me like he really didn’t know who the hell I was supposed to be. And I just sat there, being six, and looking back. He said something about taking me to Disney World. But he said it like he didn’t believe for one second that I’d like that—like it was beyond belief that anyone in the world could be into such a thing. And then he went back to Kuwait, no Disney World. We never saw the dude again.
“Do you want a party or something, honey?”
That’s Mom, sitting at the kitchen table with me, making a guilt-offering. Granted, the whole rubber band on stomach thing was her idea and she’ll never know for sure if I really wanted it or if I was just being a super-good sport. Which, fine, true, I don’t exactly know myself, but I’ll deal.
“I don’t know. I just figured I’d have some of my peeps stop by, maybe see a movie.”
“A movie party! How perfect!” Mom support-grouping me. “What do you want to see?” Mom skidding to stop when she sees the look on my face. “No! Jason, don’t do this to me. I’m a single mother. I do not need this kind of aggravation. Should never have bought you that movie.”
She’s talking, of course, about the greatest movie ever made, The Spy Who Shagged Me. I shrug. “Actually, I was thinking of renting La Dolce Vita.”
She gives me ye olde hairy eyeball. “Is that an Austin Powers movie?” Poor Mom, now she has to worry that maybe there are secret Austin Powers movies out there.
“Mom! It’s Marcello!” My man. Marcello Mastroanni. I discovered him last year in Foreign Film and Discovery of the Self Class.
“Ohhh. That darling Italian? There’s a man,” she says and gets up to put away the leftover meatloaf. One of the reasons Mom rules at being a mom and you have to forgive her every single time she says something like “darling Italian” is because she is, without a doubt, the greatest living undiscovered cook in the known universe. I mean, Food Channel Great. And she doesn’t go on about it like some of the other parents with their endive and smoked paprika and organic shiitakes. She just makes this killer mac and cheese and roast beef and teriyaki chicken wings and the kids at school will maim and torture just to come over for dinner. “Do you want some more meatloaf?” she asks me, the box of Saran Wrap in her hand. And after she stretches the plastic over the rest of the food and is sliding it in the back of the fridge, I hear her murmur, “That’s a real man.”
The thing about me is that I was born big. I came out and, bam, I was fourteen pounds— something insane like that. I’m like a beach ball in the baby pics. It’s like being born blind or one-legged or something— I’ve pretty much had my whole life to get used to it. I don’t feel like a skinny kid held hostage by a fat suit or any of those things they say in the fat camp ads. I feel like, whatever, it is what it is.
But the fat kid is basically one of two things in society: (1) funny or (2) evil.
I don’t want to give the impression that being the fat kid is all fun and games. You can’t help but notice that regular kids don’t start sweating the second they walk from one side of the room to the other. And pretty much everyone else can fit into those desks where the writing surface is attached to the chair. And fat people are the last to be media-rehabilitated: gays, African-Ams, Native-Ams, for crying out loud even the Arabs get their sensitivity nods—sitcoms and commercials and music videos. But the fat kid is basically one of two things in society: (1) funny or (2) evil.
I know each and every hardcore big kid in my grade and all but my posse and me are pretty much dysfunctional. Cindy’s eleven with knockers, so she hugs the walls, books plastered to her chest to hide her shame. She doesn’t talk. Neither does Harris.
Lothar Petersen tries to go the retro Chris Farley route. He’s not too bad, but it wears him out just being him. He’s got that please-save-me-from-myself gleam in his eye.
Anyway, we did The Tempest in English this year. Well, Ms. Rushling did The Tempest since it takes half of the kids 45 minutes to read like two Shakespeare sentences.
But that was the class where I learned about the idea of a sea change. She read this:
Full fathom five thy father lies,
Of his bones are coral made:
Those are the pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
I don’t know why exactly, but she read that and the hair on the back of my neck stood up. And then Ms. Rushling wrote “sea change” on the board and said it was the kind of deal where everything changes—on all these different levels—inside and out.
That night I’d started blogging for my school report which I’d decided was going to be called “Hey, Where’d I Go? A Big Kid Gets Skinny” and that’s when it hit me that it had already started for me—the sea change deal. Even before the surgery people were treating me differently. And I was starting to feel different. The cool kids were scouting me. Madigan and Etheridge crossed the cafeteria and invited me to an actual cheerleaders and their consorts party, right in front of Thompson and Kenny.
After they left, Kenny said something like, “Ooh, a cheerleader party! I may crap my pants!”
Thompson had dyed her hair black a few days ago, fully committing to the fat-Goth thing—black nails, black lips—the works. Out of nowhere she snarls, “You’re so blind, Kenny. Can’t you even see that they’re trying to steal Marcello from us?”
(My reality name is Jason, but once we were playing Who Would Be You in the Movie and the girls were putting out the usual suspects—Scarlett Johansson, Leelee Sobieski, Jessica Alba, Halle Berry, Chloë Sevigny, Kelly Osborne. Javier Bardem (Kenny). And I said: Okay, fine, if obviously weight is no object here then Marcello Mastroanni. Kiesha, whose father is a film critic for the Sun-Times and teaches film studies at Maplehurst, squinted and said, “Oh yeah, you got Marcello all over you.”)
The thing about being the fat kid that my mother failed to appreciate was that it made you a minor celebrity.
And then Kenny got stunned and he’s looking at me and I’m just like, Dude. I say, “Please. Be real. Cheerleaders want to steal me.”
“It’s true, they’re grooming him for the second he turns thin, then they’re gonna eat him,” she said, staring at the floor. And at this point I’d like to mention that I started to suspect it last year and this year my suspicions were confirmed: Thompson is hot.
“Whoa, Dude,” Kenny said, laughing, but also looking at me. And he got this dark, faraway look in his eyes—the evil genius one. But didn’t say anything else.
Thompson was also looking at me. Her big green-apple eyes outlined with black eye wings, a crazy, tiny smile on her face. And I’m thinking: Anita Eckberg.
The thing about being the fat kid that my mother failed to appreciate was that it made you a minor celebrity.
When you’re Big, you’ve got their attention: they can’t help but see you. And then, like I said, after the infamous Social Studies Gastric Band Report, every school day involved a certain amount of meet-and-greet.
“I am the greatest child on earth,” I said. And, poor Mom, she had such a problem with irony, she said, “You really, really are.”
That night, the night after the Madigan incident, Mom was camped at the kitchen table with a pile of dirty dishes stacked in front of her, and she was sort of hunched over, holding her head in both hands, her fingers scrunched in her hair, saying, “What went wrong? I don’t know, I just don’t know,” over and over, à la Nicholson, The Shining.
I sat back down and waited, and then, there it was: “Your daddy was big and healthy, but never… not like… Is it because I let you nurse too late? Is that why all this happened? You know I let you nurse till you were almost two. Did I ever tell you that?” (On a monthly basis.) She takes one of those long, shuddering, teary sighs, staring at the stack of chicken bones (buttermilk, fried). “You loved your nursey! You were such a happy healthy baby boy. You loved your food.”
I took my cue. “Never a fussy eater.”
She laughed a little and let go of her head. “Are you kidding? You’d try anything—caviar, liver, oysters, tandoor…”
“Love the oysters,” I put in.
“You were so easy,” she said, and looked at me like she’d just found out I was secretly Batman. “I love that about you.”
“I am the greatest child on earth,” I said. And, poor Mom, she had such a problem with irony, she said, “You really, really are.”
After that episode, I headed up to my room and looked at the mirror where I taped my before-picture (me in swim trunks, feet planted like a yard apart because my thighs were too thick to put my legs together) up next to my “projected after idealized” no-brainer picture (Harrison Ford as Han Solo). Dr. Nav told me to do that—he said it was central to my motivation.
I had to admit, my motivation was not all that it could’ve been.
Like when I looked at the swim trunks picture, I caught myself thinking: okay, there’s promise.
Oh yeah, no question I was overweight. Probably a good eighty past the happy zone, but I had a kind of dense fat. Not all loose and breasty like Dancing Lothar. Plus, I had a good haircut and okay shoulders, even respectable calves (“Thank God, your father gave you something.”) And sure, I’d be curious to know what I’d look like with a neck. Sometimes I stuck my chin out as far as I could and I pretended I was Marcello starring in La Dolce Vita, which we watched last year in Mr. Holt’s highly controversial contemporary film class, and which I rented and watched a second time with Thompson, and then a third time with Herb, and then finally the fourth time, trying to force my ADHD mom to watch. In my room, I called out, “Ciao, bella!” as Italian as I could and walked around in front of the mirror, flinging kisses here, there, all over.
That night, I listened to one of my favorite reality shows: Mom on the phone with Herb.
If you want to get as far away as humanly possible from sexy foreign guys with accents, you need look no farther than Herb. But I don’t know how to emphasize this enough: I am fine with Herb. Yes, he is pale and hairless and a dentist and devoid of all fashion sense. But he also frequently causes my mother to have episodes of sanity and general calmness.
Mom somehow thinks it will traumatize me to see a lot of Herb. So he’s only allowed to spend two nights per week over here. This farce has been dragging on for a couple of years now. The other nights they have these phone calls from hell where Mom starts out trying to supposedly whisper and then forgets and cranks back to regular volume. And then it’s either about my upcoming “procedure” or about how upset she is that my “father” forgot that I existed. The Herb nights are actually decent—they have this Mom-and-temp-Dad flavor where it’s like Herb is auditioning for the role of “Dad” but doesn’t know if he’s got the part yet. Then H and I will engage in some intensive TV-watching together and, thanks-be-to-merciful-God-in-Heaven, no sports shows (including golf, bow-hunting, or saltwater fishing) or “authentic history”–type channels about, like, raising the ark or re-enacting the Weimar Republic. Even better, Herb will sit uncomplainingly through each and every Austin Powers reprisal (the current Mom doctrine allows A.P. viewing once a month, “until that glorious day when you get you own place and can watch every hour on the hour”) and all my foreign subtitles including Bergman, Truffaut, Fellini, and Herzog. Herb never tells me what to do (like Porsche-driving, cell-phone- wearing Bobby, Mom’s dorkus maximus boyfriend for four endless years before H) and he seems to like hanging with me almost as much as with Mom. Or he’s really expert at faking it.
But the little tension that’s come up is that H isn’t so sure about the whole GB deal. He says I’m too young. He even thinks I might lose the weight on my own (which we all know is pure fantasy). Then Mom says things like, “So, in other words, you want him to give up any last chance of enjoying a normal, happy childhood.” And then H turns out to have a fairly strong opinion about all this (which you would never imagine by looking at him). He actually comes back and says, “Jason already is normal and happy, Dee.”
Complicating things further, right before Mom went on the warpath about the Band, last year, Herb—or, The Herb, as some have been known to call him—as well as Herb-Factor, or H-Factor—proposed to Mom and she went off into some sort of episode about needing time, space, my supposed dad-less trauma, her usual laundry list. So later, I called Big H myself and sort of informally accepted for her. “Give her, like, six more months, H,” I told him.
“You think?” He sounded doubtful.
“Yeah, you’ll see. A year tops,” I said. “For real.”
Though later I hear Mom saying to H on the phone, “I don’t know, Herb. I just don’t know.”
Okay, later that week, when I failed to materialize at the Madigan party, my notoriety just got bigger. Madigan and her lady-in-waiting Etheridge rampaged up to me (and Kenny G.) in the halls and said, “We thought you were coming.”
I put on this whole sadness face. “I’m sorry, ladies,” I said. “You would not believe my roster these days.”
“I hear that,” Etheridge said. “I can’t even face my iPad.”
But Madigan just made a little irritation noise and said, “So now you’re all like dissing people and blowing them off. You really have changed, Marcello.” And then the two of them fluffed away.
When we got further down the hall, Kenny said to me, “I’m just glad Thompson wasn’t here to see that.”
“Ay caramba,” I said.
We went out to sit under the awning outside the Domestic Engineering room. There was a nice patch of lawn to sit on out there and it relaxed me to look in the window and watch the girls inside doing Martha Stewart Living with their dress patterns and scissors and straight pins.
“You know what, though?” Kenny leaned back against the brick wall. “You should like go hang with them. The cheerleadettes. Thompson’s just jealous.”
It was crazy sunny out. The grass all lit up and warm. Next year we were going into the high school which was just on the other side of the so-called grassy knoll—you could just see the top of their building if you stretched. I squinted at Kenny. “G-Man, you want me to go over to the cheerleaders’ side?”
According to Dr. Nav they were the virtual Harold and Kumar of Tufts Medical. A laugh riot. Which, if you’ve met either my father or Dr. Nav you’ll have some trouble wrapping your mind around.
He shrugged. Kenny still looked like a total little kid—like, seven. But he had the mind of some kind of philosopher-bard. Totally Spock to my Kirk. “They have fun, they know everybody. In another year they’ll all going to have cars. Like, great cars.”
“You are correct, sir,” I said.
“And me and Thompson and Kiesha, let’s face facts, we’re just gonna hold you back, man. We have nothing to, like, offer.”
I tilted my head back against the wall and the bricks sort of prickled up against my scalp. “Not interested,” I said.
“It’s just opportunity knocking,” Kenny—whose father was a post-apocalyptic day trader—said. “I don’t think you should miss out. Next year when we start high school, you could take the Autobahn to popularity. Re-do everything. Start a new life. Nobody would even remember that you used to be fat and hung out with us.”
There it is. “For many people in society today, fat is a state of disgrace. Or a grisly car accident. Something you want to run away from as fast as you can and not look back.” Kenny says this no one will remember thing to me while it’s right there before us, 228 pounds, five-foot-four, my gut sitting like a footstool on top of my thighs.
But all I say is, “Yeah, thanks, bro.”
Okay, so the next morning I was outside once again, trying to make Dr. Nav happy. (Hear this part in a Sri Lankan accent): “Start with a short walk Jason, and you must make it last a few minutes longer every day, every day.”
Yeah, I was out there. I was hoofing it. Early. In street clothes, to try to cut down on the humiliation factor (sweating, panting, more sweating). Dr. Nav is not the kind of guy who really gets humiliation factors: for one, he wears knee socks. Apparently, Dr. Nav and “Dad” went to Tufts Medical together; they were co-brown skin student buds. According to Dr. Nav they were the virtual Harold and Kumar of Tufts Medical. A laugh riot. Which, if you’ve met either my father or Dr. Nav you’ll have some trouble wrapping your mind around. But all this rich shared history was why he agreed to do this sort of illegal-ish thing of gastric-banding a kid. (When Mom wasn’t bewailing her life to Herb, then she and Dr. Nav had these long Skypes that started out as Mom asking about my procedure and ended up being Mom going on about how Jason’s Dad was such a dog back in the day and does Thermal think all Kuwaiti guys are such dogs and… No? Then why did he leave? Then it was, what is she going to do with Herbie, maybe he’s too nice. And should she be worried that I’m so into these macho Italian movies. And all you guys just stick together anyways.)
So back to the track.
I was trudging along supposedly swinging my arms like Dr. Nav wanted me to do, only my chest fat was interfering with my arm fat, so I was pretty much just letting them bob in place per usual and feeling like a tool and thinking, in addition, what an absolute McDork Kenny was for throwing out motivation commentary like, “take the Autobahn to popularity.”
In the midst of all this deep pondering, I heard someone come up behind me on the track. I thought it must’ve been another heavyweight because I could hear the breathing. But when I turned to look, it was a regular-size kid. A few years older. Looked a little familiar, but I couldn’t quite place him. He kind of waved in this defeated way and I waved back. Then he said, “Walking sucks.”
“Yeah it does.”
“I come here pretty much every day,” he said and fell into the same trudge-step with me, hands in pockets. “Sometimes twice a day.” His jeans seemed like they were too big on him in a not on-purpose way. Fatties like to keep the clothes swimmy loose—camouflage. You’ve got to do whatever you can to avoid the tragic appearance of being stuffed sausage-style into your pants. But, like I said, this weird kid was shuffling and hoisting and I started to suspect he might actually have had his hands in his pockets to hang on to his pants. So my radar goes up and starts rotating—trying to figure out what his deal is—and just about at the same second, this kid says, “You’re the kid who’s getting a GB, aren’t you?”
Now I’m realizing this dude is pretty old—way past my grade and my school—we’re talking practically in college or something. It’s like, what’d he do, read about me in the Pennysaver? But then he says, “Lothar is my little brother.”
Ah yes, Lothar the Grinning; Lothar who’s constantly throwing parties as a pathetically transparent bid for popularity, who dances around with his enormous brother who’s too fat to have friends in his own grade, who dances like a robot because he thinks it makes him look skinnier. I start to say, “I thought Lothar only had one brother —”
And the kid looks at me sadly and those rusted mental wheels of mine finally start to creak and I stop trudging and very quietly say, “No way. You’re Bryce Petersen.”
Only he was more like one-half or maybe even one-third of the Fat Kid Formerly Known As Bryce Petersen. Standing there, smiling like he’s maybe just a little tired of all the paparazzi, but he’s still making an effort for the fans. “It’s me,” he says and lets his hands sort of flap down in a total fat kid gesture, only his armpits are hollow—there’s no fat there to flop against.
At this moment, I’m trying hard not to say anything too unisex, but I still end up saying, “You look awesome.” Which, technically speaking, he does. But there’s a little off-note in there too—maybe it’s just the thing of expecting someone who’s turned thin to also look massively psyched about it. And, well, he doesn’t.
We go back into the trudge-step then, like all this admiration is just a little rich for the both of us, and he says, “Do you really think so?”
And I’m like, “Dude.”
And as the question is burning a hole right through my brain, he leans in and says really low, “Yeah, I got the whole bypass.”
I want to stop again, but that would be too drama queen, so I just keep staring at the ground and trudging as I say, “No way. The bypass?”
The real deal. Where they nip your stomach down to a tiny pouch size and you can’t eat more than a bite or two at a time or you’ll be Clockwork Orange sick.
“The whole enchilada,” he says. “Six months ago, when I turned eighteen.”
“Wow,” I say. “Lothar never said anything.”
He shakes his head. “He didn’t want me to do it. He knew if I did it, then there’d be all this pressure for him to do it. Not to mention that then he’d be the fat kid in the family. You know, instead of, like, blending in with the crowd.”
We go for a few more steps then until he adds, “I guess maybe he was afraid it would sort of change me too—I mean, yuh, obvious—but more on the inside than the outside. Like change me into someone totally different from myself.”
“Woah,” I say, like a lamebrain. Then I top that off by asking, “It didn’t, though, did it?”
At this moment, Bryce kind of ducks his head, like the enemy spies are everywhere, and I suddenly have the weirdest feeling that running into him today wasn’t an accident at all, that he’d set up the whole thing, just so he could tell me whatever he was about to say. He grinds to a halt, then, and says, “Yeah, but that’s kind of the problem. Sometimes I feel like I’m in disguise, you know? Like I’m this fat secret agent in the thin people’s world. And it kind of freaks me out.”
“But you look, like, perfect.”
“Oh yeah?” He looks over both shoulders, bird-dogs the scene, then says, “Check this out.” He pulls his sweatshirt up to his armpits. At first I think he’s wearing another shirt under that one, a loose, flowy, flesh-colored toga deal. And then he grabs it with both hands and I realize it’s his actual belly.
He waggles that horrible mess of empty skin up and down.
There are these deep folds of skin under his chest and armpits that sway and billow like a bell. His belly button looks like my mother’s drawstring purse, all puckered and bulging and deep loose folds in every direction. Basically, where his belly used to be is now just sad, droopy-drawers skin.
He waggles that horrible mess of empty skin up and down. “Shar-pei belly! It’s what happens to you when you lose 128 pounds in six months. It’s like your insides go down but you still got the fat-kid skin. I’m skinny but I’m still as much of a circus freak as when I was fat. Even more now.”
I can’t take it anymore. I have to look away. “They didn’t say anything about that,” I sort of rasp à la Orson Welles, The Third Man.
He lets the sweatshirt fall back down. “Sorry, dude. I didn’t expect to do that. But I think you ought to know the truth. They all like to make it sound so quick and easy, and it’s just really, really not.”
“Can they fix that?” I ask in a freaky, kinked-up voice. “You know—the shar-pei thing?”
He shrugs and stares at his feet. “I guess. If I want to do another operation. They cut out big pieces of the skin and then stitch you back together.” He sounds like he’s going to cry. But then he just sighs and starts back into his trudging again, marching like this beaten peasant, head hanging. “Our Dad says it’s all gonna be worth it, down the line,” he says, like someone just died.
I can’t quite get moving. My knees are jellified and I feel kind of wormy. I slip my hand under the edge of my T-shirt and touch my gut—it’s big but it’s mine. So I’m standing there and Bryce keeps walking, him and his big droopy skin, and finally I call after him, “What does your mom say?”
He doesn’t even look back, just trudges on like dead man walking. “She says whatever makes me happy.”
Hence, it should come as a shock to no one that then I have nightmares for a week. Nothing original—I’m walking naked down the street and no one bats an eye; I’m stuck in an elevator; I’m wearing a giant coat made of hair; I’m drowning and way way way down below me my father is rolling around like he already drowned there a long time ago and he’s waiting for me. He looks up at me through the murky depths, reaching up these long, elasto arms, and I can see his eyes are all glowing and white.
Funny how stuff like this works: you freak out; you have your nightmares; then you go ahead and do it anyway.
But maybe that’s why I picked 8 1/2 for my pre-op party film. Me, Kiesha, Thompson, and Kenny, all on the couch together, watching the long, crazy, opening dream where Marcello gets stuck in traffic, then he’s floating out the car window, looking down at Rome and everybody. And Thompson looks over one shoulder at me. She has sharp little wings of eyeliner edging her eye and again, I think she looks like Anita Ekberg when she tilts back her head and pouts a kiss-type thing at the camera. Then she sort of scoots up her lips, calling to me, “Marcello! Marcello!”
During the endless whipping-of-the-girls scene, I go into the kitchen, to check on Mom’s nervous breakdown. She’s sitting at the table, staring at the phone with the caller ID window that doesn’t work anymore (which she still pays for.) She gives me one of those shaky smiles that look like graphic novels’ wavy anxiety lines. I’m ready to tell her that I’m going to get into Harvard; I’ll become an architect, a pilot, fly her wherever she wants to go, as long as she’ll stop smiling like that. I sit at the table and look at her.
“Hiya,” I say. “Do you want a ciggy?”
She shakes her head and says, “I can’t believe how fast the time is going. Where does it all go?”
I don’t know if she’s talking about tomorrow or big T Time, or what. She stirs the stirrer around in her coffee (after half a swish we both know that Splenda doesn’t need to be stirred) and she says, “You know, I was watching the Today Show today? And you know I was thinking—Al Roker used to be fat. You won’t remember. But since he did his operation? I was wondering if he’s still as happy as he used to be. He looks skinnier, but he looks so. . . . serious all the time now.”
I touch Mom’s hand. I feel like a dork. I put my hand in my lap. “Mom. It’s fine. Al Roker is happy. I’m going to be fine.”
She looks at me with her eyes like these liquid crystals. We’re both hoping like hell that I’m right, clinging to that one tiny word of fine. Then she says, “You know, you are just every bit as sweet as your daddy.”
Okay. That’s all I can take. I stand up and give her a kiss on the top of the head. I see my reflection in the kitchen window as I’m walking out—it looks large and wavy and muy mysterioso.
Back in the viewing chamber, they’re on the scene of little Guido doing the grape stomp. And there’s the town crazy-whore, Saraghina, driving little Guido ape and scarring him for life with her big sexy body and flashing eyes. It’s a great scene. Saraghina is hardly doing anything, just this tiny wiggle with her hips, but the boys are clapping, going apeshit on the beach. Then the priests show up and ruin everything. A priest tells Guido that she’s the actual devil. Anyway, there’s still about fifty-two years left in the movie. Then we’re all going to camp out on the viewing room floor, then we wake up at zero o’clock and they’re all driving me to the hospital. Kenny’s going to camcord as much as they’ll let him.
Thompson looks up at me and makes her hands into claws. She air-scratches me once or twice then turns back to the set. Her skin on the nape of her neck where her hair used to hang down is this whiteness I never really noticed before—almost like it’s bright. These days it seems like I’m always noticing stuff like that: like stuff I’ve never noticed before. I haven’t kissed Thompson yet. I’m waiting until after the operation, biding my time. But once I get it done, I’m planning on making some big changes around here.
I’m watching Thompson, watching the movie, and I can already hear my V.O. for the movie. Just at that moment before they wheel me into the O.R., my voice comes up:
So, most things in life are a mess, granted. You can’t expect much. Like, okay, global warming, or poison air, or whatever. Do we like it? No. This is the reality, people. Sometimes it’s gonna roll that way. You’ll be out in the deep water looking straight down. Maybe the only light you’ll see might be the little crazy sea creature eyes. You’ll see that sad little thing down there, crawling and swimming along, just like you, right? And it’s all ugg and crazy, it’s probably got these poisonous spines from the E. coli in the water. It looks up at you and, you know what I say? I say, that’s your chance. That’s what you gotta do. You basically gotta keep looking at that crazy thing with all your might for as long as you can. Don’t stab it, don’t eat it. Just look. Cause that’s your sign. You can’t even blink because if you do, sea creatures like that? It might just be gone.
Diana Abu-Jaber is the author of the forthcoming novel Birds of Paradise, due out in fall 2011 from W.W. Norton. Her latest novel, Origin, was named one of the best books of the year by theLos Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the Washington Post. The Language of Baklava, her memoir, won the Northwest Booksellers Award. Her novel Crescent won the PEN Center Award for Literary Fiction and the American Book Award, and her first novel, Arabian Jazz, won the Oregon Book Award for Literary Fiction. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including the New York Times, Vogue, and O Magazine. She teaches at Portland State University and divides her time between Portland and Miami.