We were sitting at the new S’barro’s at the mall, taking a break from shopping for a dress. You were not addressing God but rather your daughters sitting there at the table with you. I was eighteen, Karen sixteen.
The dress was for you, for a wedding – I don’t remember whose. But I remember everything else.
How happy we were to accompany you on a shopping trip. You never bought anything for yourself, and your clothes were old.
How unenthusiastically you shopped; how your eyes were so hopeless, refusing to touch the merchandise, as if you weren’t worthy.
How Karen and I said “This is nice” over and over, our voices getting higher and higher with each iteration.
How you wouldn’t tell us your size so we could bring dresses to you in the dressing room, as if the number could mean the same thing to us as it did to you.
How you at first refused to go into Lane Bryant. Then, relenting, found everything to be too large.
How even that small victory was just another defeat.
How much prettier you were than the other lady shoppers, even though you rarely smiled.
How you couldn’t see anything but the size you weren’t.
How your face both sagged and twisted when you pointed out the fat woman at S’barro’s, how the revulsion and desperation were so plain on your face that tears sprang to my eyes and a lump rose in my throat.
How I put my pizza down, unable to swallow, and how you saw that as a judgment on your own appetite.
How I faced the mirrored wall, and met Karen’s eyes for a moment, then looked away when I saw the same despair I felt on my own face.
How in the bathroom, I wept for you. Just for the time it took the toilet to flush.
How I came out of the stall to find Karen doing the same.
How you didn’t notice our reddened eyes, our desperate kindness.
How the woman in question, the fat one you’d have me kill if she were you, looked like a queen to me, big, yes, but other things too: tall and serene and sure-moving as a ship, one of the great ones with HMS painted on its side, the crowd parting before her presence like water.
How she didn’t notice you looking at her, and never once had an expression like yours on her face as she ate her pizza and chatted with her daughters.
How casual they were together, how effortless.
How for them the food was just food. How their talk filled the air around them with laughter and affection. How breathing it felt like smoke, choking me.
How I envied them.
How we chattered at you, constantly changing the subject, trying to lighten your mood.
How you answered us in monosyllables. How your voice was low, your eyes turned inward, but still, you answered us. How that had become your way.
How years later I recalled this and see how brave you were, trying to please us, be with us, take yourself out of yourself, a self you hated but did not want to hate.
How I blamed him and his ever present rage, the constancy of his criticism, for diminishing you. How I hated him.
How you were trapped, how helpless we were to free you from the trap.
How even now this memory haunts the word shopping for me, so that it is a joyless enterprise I execute as quickly as possible.
How you wouldn’t remember any of this, and how my desire to see you smile with happiness at a new dress still has the power to make me cry, and how you wouldn’t believe me even if I told you.
Now, decades later, I read another woman’s story, her pain-weary voice an echo of my own, as she writes of her grandmother (Her obsession with weight). How I wonder how the author carried her own secret burden of weight (anorexia, like me?) How I see generations of women shackled to too-narrow (one might say, thin) expectations of what it means to be worthy, as a woman.
How I wish freedom – of mind, for body – for all my sisters.