It’s a typical boring Saturday. Susie woke two hours ago, but is still lying in bed, thinking. She stares at the top-bunk ceiling, breathing the air of her shared bedroom. One of those leftover-hot mornings. A lonely box fan whirs in the window. The weather does not seem to care that there are still two weeks until the official calendar summer ends, and Susie is not in the mood to fight with her whiny little sister about what channel to land on for hours of Heckle and Jeckle or Mighty Mouse.
What should she do? She is not in the mood for much of anything. Yesterday she yelled at her mom. She’d held in her anger for so long and then just one little thing (a comment about how Susie’s jeans were too small), and she had let it all fly. Nothing I do is good enough for you. All you see is my flaws. People have all kinds of bodies, you know? She’d cried so hard she had snot coming out of her nose, plus the hiccups. She’d stormed off to her room and slammed the door so hard it knocked the Precious Moments angel with her name etched on it onto the floor. One wing broke off. What had really upset her most was that she waited hours for her mom to knock softly on her door, for her mom to try to console her.
It never happened.
Susie goes downstairs makes herself a white bread peanut butter and butter sandwich and stuffs it in her satchel, along with the rope licorice she has been saving for a special occasion, two peanut butter-honey balls rolled in cornflakes and wrapped in wax paper, plus several slices off a two-pound block of American cheese.
She tells Eileen, the babysitter, that she is going for a walk, to which Eileen gives a quick “stay out of trouble” before resuming her phone conversation, presumably with her boyfriend (by the way she twists the curlicued cord around her wrist and up to her elbow and stares awe-eyed out the window while she talks).
Once Suzie walked in on Eileen and her boyfriend. He stopped by one time to supposedly bring her math book back to her. When Susie discovered them, he had one hand up her shirt, his mouth all over her neck, the other hand tugging her head back by the hair. She backed back out of the room before they noticed her.
Susie walks to Pioneer Elementary where on weekdays she attends Ms. Stern’s fourth-grade class and really tries to stay out of trouble for daydreaming and doodling. She does not mean to daydream, and she certainly does not like the consequences: notes home, smacks with Ms. Stern’s blue ruler, scolding looks. She tries to focus as Ms. Stern calls it, but her helium-balloon imagination reaches for the clouds. She peeks in the window of her classroom, the chairs tucked, the desks empty, no hint of the familiar images of Room 10 except the criteria for the theme paper on the importance of family chalked on the board.
All the girls in her class play hopscotch now. In September it was four-square, and then later it was Double Dutch. Now hopscotch. Susie lately has spent most of recess just standing on the sidelines, waiting for someone to pity her enough to give her a turn.
Ms. Stern says the word ‘criteria’ heavy-like, just as she utters the words ‘focus’ and ‘no’. Due Monday. Double-spaced. Two pages minimum (the word minimum underlined four times).
Maybe she should just fake illness on Monday so she can stay home. That way she would have one less day of school and one more day to write her paper. School has not been going well lately, anyway. Last Wednesday, her class went to P.E. with Ms. Form. Softball again! Waiting to be picked last, only to have the wisdom of having picked her last verified when she missed an easy catch and struck out. Then Laurie teased her, saying her laugh sounded like an elephant, right in front of Bradley, her deep secret desire. She got a C-minus on the spelling test, her worst grade ever. Her best friends aren’t talking to her, won’t tell her what she did wrong. They just scoot their trays away from her at lunch and say you should know.
On Wednesdays, Susie gets pulled out of class to go to Ms. B’s room for reading enrichment, the one nice thing Susie can come up with about school. Ms. B has a room full of books of all sorts and says Susie is a good reader, way above her grade level. She likes to read. She can open a book and before she knows it a whole afternoon will have gone by, and she will have spent the entire time in another dimension or solving a mystery.
After spying in on her empty classroom, Susie plays solo hopscotch, using a penny for a marker. Out of breath, she climbs to the top of the monkey bars and devours her sandwich, smacking between each bite. She’d like to either be a detective or marry Bradley M., who sits behind her in class and never talks to her. She nibbles each peanut butter ball, listens for the crunch, lets the honey and peanut butter melt together on her tongue, licks her fingers clean when she has eaten them both. She invented peanut butter balls herself one afternoon, when she had a sweet tooth so bad and could not find anything else after investigating every nook and cranny of every drawer and cupboard in the kitchen.
She takes the slices of American cheese and pulls them apart, presses them between her palms, squeezes and molds until she has a perfectly round cheese ball to nibble. She puts the licorice rope back into the satchel to eat on her way home.
When Susie returns her sister has abandoned the TV, giving her free reign to watch whatever she wants. Eileen calls out from where she’s perched on the stairs and resumes her phone conversation before Susie replies.
Susie goes to the cupboard and finds what look to her like chocolates. She eats four pieces, tucking the wrappers under the first layer of garbage in the can. They are not the best chocolates she has tasted (kind of chalky and chewy) but they are all she finds in her search for something sweet. They are three weeks into Mom’s latest junk food ban.
Not while I’m dieting, Mom says. None of us need that crap anyway.
Yesterday, Susie went with Mom to do the weekly shopping. Cream pies were on sale five for a dollar. Strawberry ice cream was buy one, get one free. When Susie held up the ice cream, Mom had already turned her down on three can-we-gets. But it was the ice cream she really wanted.
“Please?” Susie said. “I won’t let you eat any, I promise.” She gave Mom her best you’ll-break-my-heart look.
“No.” Stony. “It doesn’t work that way. No junk. I won’t let you sabotage my diet again.”
Susie can’t remember the last time Mom wasn’t dieting. Every day she steps on the scale, her mood lifts and sinks by pounds lost or gained. She can’t resist a new fad. She has tried the California Cleanse and the Tomato-A-Day Trim and will likely try them again. Or she will try a new diet, like the one that had them all eating cabbage soup for dinner every night for what seemed like forever. Honestly, Susie can’t understand why her mom cares so much. Being skinny doesn’t make you happy or nice.
The sweetness of the chocolates lingers on her tongue through an entire Donna Reed episode. During two separate commercial breaks, she goes back to the kitchen, pulls the chair back over to the counter, and climbs onto it. She stands on tiptoe to reach the box, taking out four more carefully, stopping to glance at a picture of Mom in a green dress on the fridge, her skinny picture.
She returns a fourth time in the middle of the Aunt Jemima commercial. It’s an ad she knows by heart, that can pop into her mind any old time, like the Easy Curl Grownup Girl song and McDonald’s Is A Happy Place. Susie once told Mom that she wanted to be an actress.
“You know cameras add twenty pounds, right? Mom said. “Can you believe that? Actresses have to be very thin.”
Early evening, Mom returns from her Trim Twist class, flushed and manic. Susie is two and a half episodes into an Avengers marathon, wishing she could fight like Cathy Gale.
“How was class?” she asks.
“It’s hard,” Pearl says. “But I’ve lost four pounds in three days.”
Susie tries to calculate whether those four pounds will put Mom in her losing weight mood, a mood that could impel her to take Susie shopping downtown to buy her new tights and a newsboy cap, like she did the last time she fit into her skinny pants.
Susie’s toddler-plump little sister Jane practices her ABCs in the adjoining room, saying the seven semi-comprehensible letters she has learned so far over and over again.
Mom plops down on the couch, lifts her leotard-encased legs to the coffee table.
Glued to the TV screen, Susie realizes her mother is staring at her that way she does before she says You look just like Doris Day or You are going to be tall enough to be a model. When Mom looks back at the screen without a word, Susie feels relieved. She never knows how to reply to things like that.
Mom watches the end of the third episode with her. They try to figure out the crime together and for just that little bit of time Susie feels close to her. Pearl strokes the hair on the top of her forehead, plants a kiss there now and again.
When the show ends, she pushes Susie off her lap, gets up, leaves the room.
“Your dad will be home soon.” Already in the kitchen when she says this.
“My stomach hurts,” Susie calls, the only way she can describe the lurching and turning in her gut—hurts.
Mom makes dinner: baked potato, green beans, chicken breast. Susie knew this would be their dinner, because she checked the diet plan posted on the refrigerator that afternoon to see how many days they had left. Day five: two ounces skinless chicken breast, half baked potato, boiled green beans. The dishes Susie likes best Mom only cooks in her losing weight mood: tuna casserole, fried chicken, clam chowder.
When the churning in her gut finally lets loose, Susie barely makes it to the bathroom. The toilet seat cold, her bowels let loose with a force that scares her. Sweating and breathing hard, she has just pulled her skirt back when the churning starts again, and she sits back down. She hears Dad come in the front door. Her skin clammy cold, she worries about just how long she might have to sit there, about just what her parents will do when they discover her. Will she die here on the toilet seat? Her stomach hurts bad now. Every time she tries to stand, the churn tells her to sit down again.
Mom outside the door. “You all right in there?”
“Yeah. Be right out.” Susie straightens her skirt, washes her hands with Mom’s favorite rosemary soap.
Mom and Dad are already seated at the table when Susie emerges, walking slowly, her skirt askew. She sits at the table, her forehead and back of her neck slick with sweat.
“You doin’ okay, kiddo?” Dad asks.
“My stomach hurts.” She drops her fork.
Susie keeps her eyes on her chicken breast, doesn’t immediately respond.
“Tell us what you ate today.” Mom speaks firmer than Dad.
Little Jane picks this moment to toss a hunk of chicken on the floor and pound her fisted fork on the high chair tray.
When Susie tells Mom and Dad about the chocolates she found in the cupboard, they are hushed for a moment.
“What chocolates?” Concern in Mom’s voice.
Susie shows them the empty packaging tucked inside the garbage can.
“Jesus, Pearl! What have you done?” Dad looks disappointed.
Has her mother poisoned her?
“Oh, shut up. She’ll be fine.” Mom takes the box out of the cupboard and reads the label for answers.
Susie stands, silent and confused.
“What does the box say?” Dad asks.
“It says not to exceed six in twenty-four hours,” Mom snaps.
“Well, does it say what will happen if you do?”
Susie begins to cry in that way children do when what the world suddenly feels uncomfortably complicated, in jerking yet semi-quiet sobs.
Dad pulls her close. “Honey, it’s okay. But those weren’t chocolates. Those were for mommy’s diet, and you weren’t supposed to eat them is all.”
“You’ll be fine, you’ll just have diarrhea for a while,” Mom adds. She sounds cold about it, but it’s Mom who makes her a bed in the living room, brings her comforts: a few magazines, a hot water bottle, and the TV remote.
After sipping some drink that Mom says will replace her electrolytes, Susie does not eat any more. She will obey Mom and wait until her stomach stops churning. She is not hungry anyway. She falls asleep on the couch, her head tucked under a green cotton blanket, her stomach still unsure, her mouth dry.
Sunday night, Susie tries to write her essay on the importance of family. After an hour of starts and crumpled pages, she writes, “Family is very important because they are always there for you.” She then expands that into three skinny paragraphs that repeat that same idea in different and sometimes similar words for what Susie feels sure her teacher wants her to say.
At the bell on Monday morning, Ms. Stern instructs them to pass their essays to the front of the room, then pauses at the front of each row to finger through the pile and note anyone who did not turn an essay in at all. Susie feels relieved she has avoided the humiliating I see you didn’t do your homework look.
She also feels embarrassed at the thought that Ms. Stern will eventually read the essay.
On dismissal to lunch, each student files into the cafeteria and waits in line to receive a lunch tray heaped with a sloppy joe and green beans. The swapping begins even while still waiting in line. A friend close behind might whether you like fish sticks or sloppy joes or beef spread on toast. Plus, there’s the home-lunch crowd with their bologna sandwiches and Twinkies. With the right negotiating skills, it is possible to get exactly the lunch one wants.
Susie sits at the table as usual with her friends who have somehow taken her back for now, but she does not feel as normal. Hungry as she feels, each bite passes her lips to her stomach, tasteless and empty. She eats what she is served, trades nothing. She tries but cannot tune out the echoing voice of the lunchroom. Her imagination pulls out words and weaves them into fears that it could a lifetime to unravel.
Liz Shine wrote and read her way out of small-minded, small-town doom. We’re not talking about riches here. We’re talking about how a practice like writing can save a person. How it can give hope, shape identity, and ignite purpose. She hopes to write stories and poems that move readers the way certain works have made all the difference to her.
She lives in Olympia, WA in the USA. She believes in the power of practice and has been practicing writing since some time in the early 90s when she became an adult in the rain-soaked city of Aberdeen. Writing began with journaling, as a way to understand a confusing, sometimes violent coming-of-age. She writes mostly fiction, some nonfiction and poetry, and holds an MFA from Pacific Lutheran University’s Rainier Writers Workshop. She has published in Shark Reef, Dual Coast, and Blue Crow Magazine. She is a founding editor at Red Dress Press.