Girl With A Fake Waist by Erika D. Price
She’s morbidly obese, the poor girl is. Too young to be that fat. I wonder sometimes what thoughts orbit around her when she’s in Health. When Mr. Duggard tells everyone to open their books, to turn to the chapter on Healthy Eating, to pull out their 2013 American Dairy Farmer’s Association-sponsored New Food and Edible Foodlike Substance Pyramid, do the kids throw eyes at her?
I know they laugh at her in gym class. I know they notice the Rorschach inkblot of sweat that runs atop her breasts and drips down the middle of her belly. When her shirt gets wet, you can see the outline of a belly button, big as a half-dollar. Maybe they don’t even need to say anything, at this point. Maybe she can feel scorn like a phantom limb, twisting unseen, omnipresent.
She sits in the back of my class, by the bookcase, by the door. I usually don’t let kids take seats in that back row, no good can come of it— but I only made her move once. I told her to come forward a few rows. The whole class hushed itself and watched as she pried herself from the desk and lumbered, excruciatingly, forward. Eyes down. Mouth breathing. Four foot seven, at seventeen years old. Rounder every day, like a waxing moon. The next day, she sat in the back again, and I let her.
This semester she started doing some kind of Victorian/Steampunk Goth thing. Her and all her ostensible friends. Kids think they invented whatever self-conscious body modifications they adopt. They think they’ll shock me. They don’t realize I’m only twenty-eight, and have some freshly-pierced holes of my own, and nipple ring scars dating back to before they could even read. They think I don’t know what weed smells like or how Adderall looks on a Valedictorian’s face. Teachers were never fun kids, they think. We were just the circumspect ones.
When they talk to me like I’m their eccentric aunt or their forty-year-old neighbor, I envision myself kicking a desk over and pulling my Percocet and vibrator out of my drawer. You think I haven’t been around? I’d say. I’ve been everywhere you’ve been. I’ve been everywhere you’re gonna be. And I’m here to help, to midwife you into whatever common, sullied adulthood you choose to have. I’m not against you being disturbed or damaged. I’m just offering some balm, afterwards.
Once, I saw her loitering outside the dive bar by my house; I had to sneak out the back, my purse stuffed with the AP Literature exams I’d brought there to grade, my date (the guidance counselor) close behind me with his collar turned up. I see her walking home at 3am, on the main road by the rail tracks, in big boots, carrying an enormous bag with forties and books sticking out the top. When she notices me drunk-driving past her, she waves.
After President’s Day, she came in wearing a thick black corset made of vinyl and bone, tied shut with satin strings. At once, she had a waist. Her perfectly circular form was tapered, with immense force, into a stout little hourglass. She had hot pink glitter eye shadow on, and had her hair pulled up, and back, and highlighted with strips of neon green. She walked into class before anyone else, a cigarette boldly behind her ear, a pencil in her mouth, carrying a Moleskine with a duct-tape raven on it.
I was sitting on my desk, drinking water and combating a wine hangover. “You’re looking spiffy,” I said.
She smiled a little. “It was my birthday.”
I thought she looked rather normal, actually, now that she had a waist-to-hip ratio. She seemed inflated with esteem and purpose. She was standing every inch of her limited height. This made me want to commiserate for some reason.
So I walked up to her and grabbed at the corset’s silky string. “This is beautiful craftsmanship,” I said.
She nodded, cracking open her notebook.
“This isn’t some cheap lingerie-store camisole, this is real, isn’t it?”
I could see she was surprised. “Yeah, it was expensive.”
“Is that real bone in there?” Forgetting myself, I tapped at it. It was. “What is this— an Isis?”
She sat her book down and looked at me skeptically. Kids were filtering in, but artfully avoiding eye contact with either of us. They took their seats and threw their stuff around and texted and chewed, as they do. The bell clattered and clanged above my head but I didn’t peel my eyes from her.
”- How do you know what brand of corset this is?” she whispered through the din.
In college, I’d dated a BDSM power-top who was into suspension games and latex. I still had the holes in my back from when he dangled me (by my piercings) over a pit of sterilized nails with a sweaty plastic Isis ball gag in my mouth. Whenever he bought a new riding crop, cock cage, corset, or set of nipple clamps, he bought Isis. Supposedly, they were the best. When I refused to be locked in his wooden pillory one weekend back in 2004, he dumped me. No hard feelings. He became a clerk for Justice Antonin Scalia. I still had some of the outfits.
But what I told the girl was, “I know a thing or two about…you know, fetish fashion.” I think she understood. She grinned conspiratorially and tucked her cigarette away.
That day in class, we worked on persuasive essays. The girl, she was actually a fantastic writer. Her poetry could be overwrought, but her essays killed. Her literary criticism, too. She had me convinced last semester, absolutely convinced, that Kill Bill was actually a radical feminist retelling of Homer’s Odyssey. When Beatrix is in a coma, the girl wrote, that actually represents the goddess Calypso enticing Ulysses into her bed for seven years. When Beatrix is buried alive by Bill’s brother Budd, that’s a stand-in for Ulysses’ trip to Hades.
This time, though, the girl’s persuasive essay was advocating tax incentives for medical sterilization, with the biggest bonuses doled out to people with histories of addiction or with IQ scores 15 points or more below the national mean. Seemed pretty legit to me. I read part of it aloud to the class. The other students tittered. Someone called it eugenicist.
“It’s very provocative,” I said. “It’s also a well-outlined policy proposal. She even has the proposed tax credits right here in the appendix. $500 a year for every IQ point you are below 90, for life, if you get your tubes tied. And it’s elective, right?”
The girl with the fake waist shuddered under all the eyes that turned to her. She nodded, and mouthed the word “Yes” behind quivering, purple lips.
“So it’s hardly eugenicist,” I said. “Impressive research, I’d like to see more work like this from all of you.”
In the back of the room, the girl just smiled into her book.
When class let out, she came up to me and asked if we could meet up and talk about college. She told me it was urgent, because she wanted to get early graduation.
I told her, “I have a lot of grading to do tonight.”
She said, “I’ll meet you at the bar, then.”
When she pulled into the bar’s parking lot with her friends, it was 11pm. She was in just the corset and a pair of short-shorts, her white thighs spilling out like ivory ham hocks. She knocked on the window of the bar and called, “They won’t let me in!” and stood in the doorway, smoked and sipped from a paper bag and tightened her silk laces.
I finished, paid for my gin fizz, and stepped out. The night was drizzly, with a chill wind that made the hairs on my arms and her bare thighs stand at attention.
Her friends all looked utterly blitzed. The gay kid with the peacock-patterned hair was there, and a gaggle of girls with infected-looking facial piercings and leopard print clothes. They all said, “Hi Ms. Macomb, ” and turned away from me, except for the girl.
The girl’s eyes were red and cloudy, and there was plum lipstick smeared all about her face like she’d been inhaling popsicles.
”A word?” she said.
“Yeah, what’s up?”
She dragged me to her friend’s car. I kicked aside an empty plastic handle of Skoal as I slid in next to her.
“Skoal,” I said. “Nice. I remember trying to mix that shit with—well, everything really.”
“Tastes like charcoal,” she mumbled.
“Pineapple juice works really well. Way better than orange juice…Christ I hope you guys have a designated driver.”
She pointed to the peacock kid. “Todd’s straight edge.”
She drummed on her seat.
“I need a letter of recommendation,” she said. “Stat.” Then she handed me a joint.
“This isn’t usually how it works.”
“I can’t stay here…I tried to make the best of this place but I fucked it up and there’s no going back.” She hiccoughed.
“Who does this letter of rec go to, the School Board?”
She took the joint back, rubbing her nose. “No. I need a letter for the Community College, a form for the school board, and a form for my social worker.”
“I’m getting emancipated.” she rolled down the window and spit onto the gravel.
“Maybe you should wait it out,” I told her, prying the joint away. “Try to get your GPA up, apply to some schools far away. You’d be good at Oberlin. I could see you at Oberlin. Really, you’re a very talented writer.”
As I spoke, she stared ahead, watching her friends through the windshield. Todd was styling his hair, looking at his reflection in the bar’s window. They looked like people I would’ve skipped school with. Teachers are just people who’ve already suffered the common traumas we refer to as milestones.
“I can’t wait,” she said, her voice crackling. “I can’t…breathe in this fucking thing…!”
She started fumbling with her corset. I leaned over and reached for the straps, but she rebuffed me, pushed my hands away and yelped, digging into the top, pulling at her waist. It must have killed her stomach to have it so compressed. She heaved and leaned out the window and spit.
“Let me untie it!” I said.
She began to vomit. “No! Get your hands off me!” She heaved onto the rocks.
After a while, she slid back into the car and laid on her back with hands on her belly. The shape of her torso was unchanged— the damn thing was rigid as armor.
“Where’s the weed?”
“I don’t think you should have any more.”
“You need to take the corset off.”
“No,” she whispered, holding her belly. “This thing makes me look human. It’s like the first time in years I;ve felt like a normal girl.”
“It’s messing you up right now.”
“It’s worth it.” She burped. “It was three hundred dollars, did you know that?”
Tears spilled down the side of her face. She stayed there, horizontal in the car seat, wordless, for several minutes. I moved to get out but then she sobbed and said, “Wait.”
“I’ve done everything wrong. I have to get out of here. You gotta write me that letter of recommendation. Will you?”
“Honey…I think you’d be much better off if you finished up the year. You can go to a real college then.”
“I tried to do good here, I tried to, I can’t.” she bawled. “I ruined it. I had something and I killed it. Please.”
“What are you talking about?”
She puked a little again, this time right onto her face. I tried to roll her over.
“We gotta get you to a hospital.”
“Not yet. Let me have another drink. One of your pills. It’s fine. ”
“What the fuck.”
“I’m not trying to kill. Myself,” she moaned.
I poked my head out the window and screamed at her friends to come get her. The kid with the peacock hair came running.
“Ohh, shit.” he said, seeing her toppled over, a crust of puke on her soft face. She cried at him and coughed and nearly began to hyperventilate in my lap.
“I’m sorry!” she cried. “I killed it! I could have made something pretty like you, but I just squashed it--“
“What?” he said. She reached out the window, for his hand.
“What’s the matter?” I asked. She sobbed and put her thick face against his arm. Drool spilled out of her mouth.
She didn’t respond. A dull cloud of feeling rose up in my chest. I asked the boy, “Did you have sex with her?”
He blanched. “Uh. I’m not...Yeah, one time.” His grip on her hand went a little tighter.
The girl whimpered. One time, both not enough and too many.
“Why would you do that? Do you know what you did?” I gestured toward the girl’s blubbering face.
Her eyes were turning glassy and unresponsive, and the career implications of her dying in my lap flashed across my mind. So I slapped her.
All she did was slowly rise and grab her stomach. “I can feel it,” she said. “It’s happening. It’s done.”
As she sat up, drawing her weight toward the boy, I peered over her shoulder. Blood had started cascading slowly down her leg.
“Get in the front seat,” I told the boy. “You’re driving us to the hospital.”
I wrote the girl her letter of recommendation, but she didn’t end up using it. Her folks shipped her off to some private vocational school on the other side of town, where she learned to style hair and manicure nails alongside a bunch of other disturbed teens, ones with babies that lived.
I heard she returned the corset to pay the OB-GYN bills.
Lately, I’ve seen her working in a strip mall across the train tracks; I see her walking there, dragging a carry-on bag of cosmetic supplies every morning when I drive to school. Her hair has blonde low-lights, now. She smokes clove cigarettes self-consciously under the strip mall’s garish purple awning. She schleps to the Burdenbrock County Community College twice a week, lugging books on Physical Therapy and Human Nutrition.
When I go to the 18-and-over gay bar downtown, I see the boy with the peacock hair, who runs to the restroom to hide from me, but I never see her. Instead, I see her in the Aldi, with square nails like defensive claws, fretting over the prices on bruised pieces of fruit. I see her jogging alongside the tracks in ripped jean shorts and flip flops, thinly misted with sweat. I see her laughing outside the bar with a muscular, truckerish guy about twenty years her senior.
She’s dropped at least forty pounds. She looks great.
© Erika D Price 2013
Erika D. Price is a social psychologist and instructor at Loyola University in Chicago, Illinois, as well as a writer of short fiction. Her work has been published in EFiction, Forge Journal, Red Fez, decomP and others. She is a longtime fan of Liar’s League NYC’s selection of work and its podcast, and is deeply honored to be included. Find out more about Erika atprocessproduct.tumblr.com.
Girl With A Fake Waist was read by Rachel McPhee for the Teachers & Students Show on 4th September 2013