With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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I used to feel like an imposter because of my breasts, because even before I got pregnant they were pretty spectacular, and it’s made me wonder if I’ve ever actually earned anything, or if all the jobs and awards and opportunities I’ve gotten, really, have just been handed to me because of fat deposits that would be disgusting if they were placed a few inches lower, on my belly. Can you imagine that?
In ninth grade I was moaning in gym class about not having a boyfriend, and Jenny Turner, who looked so angry she might cry, said, “Oh, please. You could have a boyfriend. Look at your boobs.” Jenny had no shape at all, and it turned out she had severe anorexia that had begun in third grade, and she didn’t get her period until she was eighteen; her arms were covered in translucent fuzz, and brown bruises like paw prints crawled up her spine. My best friend in high school, Mara Beckwith, said once, walking by Jenny in the hall, “Is there anything more fucking boring than an anorexic?” Which is so true, by the way. If you talk to one, and in my job I meet so many, you watch her eyes twitch to your wrists and your waist and your thighs, measuring you, measuring herself; you watch the mathematical calculations flit beneath the beating blue vein in the center of her forehead, and then she’ll start telling you, “God it’s awful,” about her methods for staying skinny, like you care about the fancy name she gives to never, ever eating. Anyway, back to my tits. When I was twelve, our class went to a theme park in Western Massachusetts. My breasts were C cups then, and so were Mara’s. The other girls looked like they still played with dolls. I did still play with dolls, I just didn’t look like it.
I don’t really understand how I felt then — the whole world was interested in my breasts, and you’d think that would make me interested, too. I have all these memories — like one time I was out to dinner with my family and walked to the bathroom, and a drunk who looked like my Uncle Mark told me I had a beautiful body, and I remember sitting in the restroom, feverishly wishing my tits would fall off. I actually went through a phase when I was really interested in mastectomies, and I watched videos of the surgery online, and the thought that my body could become sexless was kind of like a security blanket, like a daydream I went back to when I was bored or tired or feeling blue. But my diaries reveal only the obsessive mutterings of an anxiety disorder — endless, circular scribblings about thoughts other people would throw away, like when you stand on the edge of something high and your brain thinks about jumping but you don’t. I had that thought often, according to my diaries. I was at the top of the high diving board at the public pool one day, and I thought to myself, What if I jump the wrong way, what if I jump to the cement? I wrote about it for weeks: about my lack of feeling at the thought, then too much feeling, then fear making my stomach turn and my thighs wobble, the fear that I wanted to kill myself, and maybe I would, even if I didn’t mean to, because sometimes your thoughts make things happen. I’ve been reading my journals again a lot, and it feels kind of strange but I can’t stop — like how I can’t stop checking Mara’s Facebook three or four times a day, even though we aren’t friends anymore.
Anyway, we were on the bus back to school after a day at the amusement park with our eighth-grade class. I wanted the boys both to notice me and to ignore me, and also for them not to know that I wanted them to notice me. I had gotten a sprayed-on fake tattoo of a technicolor dolphin on my lower back — it cost like three bucks at the park — and I was sitting a couple of seats in front of the boys, and when I leaned forward they could see it, and then they asked me to lift up my shirt and slide my jeans down a little to show them the whole thing, and I blushed and told them I would never do that, and then I did, and that’s basically the template for all of my sexual interactions with men, and now here I am, thirty-three years old and three abortions later, and currently pregnant with a perfect little girl, all because of variations in that game I played in the back of the bus in middle school. That’s kind of funny, isn’t it?
In eighth grade I always thought of “the boys” as a single, anxiety-producing organism, a many-armed being, which is odd because just a few years earlier some of them had been friends of mine. Chris Betford used to cut pictures of kittens out of cat-food ads in his mother’s Good Housekeeping magazine because he knew I loved kittens. He would pass me a new kitten picture every few weeks in fourth grade.
Mara came back to sit next to me on the bus, I guess because she wanted the boys to pay attention to her, too. We weren’t friends yet. Mara was half-Iranian and had thick brown hair and fat lips and she was cool, even when we were too young to know it, even before she started smoking clove cigarettes and listening to Nina Simone, cool somehow even though she had the same stupid breasts that I did. We all decided to play suck-and-blow, which only happened because Victor Hanssen saw it in a movie that past weekend. Mara put a credit card to her puckered lips and sucked it so the card stayed there until I sucked it off with my lips and, honestly, I had never felt so powerful in my entire life, and I’m not sure I’ve ever felt that powerful again. The boys didn’t yell — they were quiet and somber as churchgoers — but after I dropped the card from my mouth trying to pass it to Justin Goldman, they started gently suggesting that Mara and I could touch each other’s boobs if we wanted, and it wouldn’t be a big deal, and no one would ever know. It was a wheedling chorus of future doctors and lawyers and financial advisors. Justin’s actually dead now: he died in a car crash before we graduated, and he wasn’t even drunk. I really didn’t want to touch Mara’s tits, but I would do anything the boys told me, because I wanted to be liked; my desire for attention from them was like an unfillable stomach or an open wound. I could barely touch my own breasts at that point, could barely acknowledge they existed. I wailed at my mother to “GET OUT OF HERE!” when I tried on bras in JCPenney, and she insisted on coming in, concerned because she heard me crying, and all I could think about is what a fucking catastrophe it is to look in the mirror under ghastly fluorescence and have everything about you be gross and strange — hairy and round, bubbling with cellulite that you don’t have a name for, stretch marks crawling to your newly huge nipples like the red veins of an eye. I slammed the door on my mom that day, and I crushed the fingernail on her first finger, and she howled, and the blood curved out around her cuticle, her hot-pink nail almost torn off.
But, anyway, that day on the bus Mara didn’t look at me, she looked at the boys, and she said, “What is the fascination,” emphasizing every syllable, “with these things? They’re just globs of fat.” She giggled and poked one of mine, a wobbling protuberance, then did the same to her own. She said it like it was the dumbest fucking thing ever, not just to ask us to do that, but to like boobs, to be interested in them, to try to see them all the time, to care about the things they cared about. Like, maybe it was dumb to be a boy at all? She stared at me laughing, and she had a great laugh, even then, throaty and endless and wild, bouncing off the curved metal ceiling of the school bus. “Come on,” she said, taking my hand. “Let’s go to the front. I’ve got magazines.” She led me away from the hamster-cage smell of turned-on middle schoolers, and I fell in love with her for saving me, and I never really got over it.
Of course, that wasn’t exactly how the boys read that situation, and they told everyone at school that I made out with Mara in front of them for a stick of gum, but no one really believed them, thank God, because I was actually a huge Christian prude. Victor told all the boys about his wet dream about me, too. It was the first one he had ever had and he was in the bathtub and I climbed in with him and I guess that was enough to do it. No one knows this, not even my husband, but by then I was having very detailed BDSM fantasies, as likely to involve Justin Timberlake as Mara, and with lots of rope and the show-offy kind of cruelty. I was the S part, the sadist, but my victims always kind of liked it. I blame Star Wars, especially the scene with Carrie Fisher dressed in a gold bikini and chained to a slug. My fantasies didn’t disturb me though — they helped me fall asleep at night.
When we were all older, in high school, Mara and Victor started dating. By this time we both thought knowing who Patti Smith was made us better than everyone else, and we were brilliant at math, and we still had enormous breasts on tiny, hipless, teenaged bodies. My anxiety disorder had shifted from imagining that I might hurt myself to actually hurting myself. I pulled strands of hair from the crown of my head, so much that I had to hide the raw patch on my scalp every morning. Mara thought this was impressive, not sad, and she parted my hair and examined my injury. “Holy shit,” she said, “What’s wrong with you?”
We used to study at Mara’s house. It always smelled like tarragon and basil and antibacterial soap. Mara’s mom was an Iranian immigrant and a doctor, and she had the same big brown hair that Mara did and is still the most glamorous woman I’ve ever seen in real life. Mara once said “fuck” in front of her, and Mrs. Beckwith slapped her across the face. It was the most exhilarating thing I’d ever seen. Mara’s mother didn’t care that I was standing there. Mara didn’t even react. Her expression barely changed. Anyway, one day when we were working on our Calc homework, Mara told me that Victor’s parents were going away for the weekend, and she was planning to do it with Victor. Other girls in our class had done it, years ago, and continued to do it with all kinds of guys, but Mara and I were obedient to our parents and really involved in our Christian youth group and we’d attended the same nonsensical abstinence retreats together. As Mara was telling me about her plans with Victor — “I’m setting up candles, all around the bathtub, and filling it with bubble bath, and there’ll be champagne, and when he comes in the door I’m going to yell down and he’ll walk in and just see me, in the bath, waiting” — I thought of two things. The first was that this was precisely the wet dream Victor had had of me four years ago, and how nice it would be to arrange the world around you to meet your sexual expectations, and how if I had that power I would be having rough sex with a different stranger every night. (I didn’t know then that the future was barreling toward me so fast, so impossibly fast, that I would fulfill that particular sexual dream at college in Boston the next year, and it wouldn’t be that great and actually got pretty boring after a while.) The second thing I thought of was the last abstinence retreat we’d gone to, held in a hotel in the mountains of Upstate New York. I had heard so many Christian sex talks by that time, starting around the time I played suck-and-blow in the back of the bus, and all they did was make me feel turned-on and ashamed, which, come to think of it, is probably related to the BDSM stuff, but I don’t think there is anything particularly useful about trying to tease out the origins of your sex fantasies.
We got split into two groups, as we always did: boys in one room, girls in the other. What did they tell the boys? Whatever it was, all boys should hear it, Christian or not, because the boys at the youth retreats were all so nice, so friendly, even the straight ones, and they held doors and refilled my cups of juice and they never, ever talked about my body where I could hear them, and they listened when I brought my specific and important ideas to the floor during the meetings, like maybe instead of having Jesus-themed baseball hats we just switch to wristbands, because it’s easier for the girls, because of our hair, and maybe they hadn’t thought of that. They would all nod silently, take notes, and chastely ask me to dance during the cotillion portion of the retreat. They were kind. Mara said they were all gay, even the straight ones. I married one of those youth-group boys, and I’m pregnant, so Mara wasn’t right about everything. My husband, Matt, grew up with the same religious things I did — youth group, Bible study, church every Sunday, even on summer vacation or in Disney World. He’s an administrator at the Red Cross, so I’m mostly supporting us, but he has this huge, expansive, uncontainable heart, which is good because I sometimes feel like mine is missing entirely, like you could slice open my chest and tear my ribs back and my lungs would be an empty display cushion in the jewelry section, a barren red cradle, nothing there. Does anyone else feel like that? Matt doesn’t know that, of course, and really I hide a lot from him. He’s never heard any of these stories, and maybe he’d run screaming if he did. Mara married an Iranian immigrant she met while getting a PhD in some sort of math. They have a child. Her husband happens to be Muslim, like Mara’s grandparents, and from Facebook it looks like she might have converted, which makes me wonder how she felt at all those Christian events we attended and how she felt living in our town, where she was misunderstood and out of place, even more out of place than we both felt for being weirdly religious and big-boobed and sex-obsessed.
“Imagine,” the girl leading our youth-retreat sex talk breathed, putting so much whispered drama into that word that even I stopped doodling. She waited for all the attention to be on her. The word imagine floated like incense, filling the room. “Imagine it’s Christmas morning. Imagine the tree. Smell the pine needles.” I did, I smelled them, I saw the bright golden angel on top of the pine tree, saw the weak morning light around my sister and me as we looked at all our presents. “You see the presents wrapped so carefully. Imagine you’re married now, and this is your first Christmas with your new husband. You’re both so, so happy.” I had shut my eyes, unbidden. I loved this fantasy almost as much as the fantasy where my middle-aged Bio teacher spanked me without mercy after class, her bracelets jingling with the force. “You find the present you’ve wrapped for your husband. You tell him you can’t wait; he has to open it first. You’re so excited. You got him a brand new iPod, and you know how happy it will make him. But—” Then she stopped for a long time. My eyes were still shut. I would have given a lot for a new iPod in 2003. “When your husband unwraps his gift,” she began again, “he finds something . . . horrible.” I opened my eyes. I saw every single one of us rapt, leaning forward in our seats. What horror did he find? “The iPod is full, entirely FULL,” she smiled, but not kindly, “of someone else’s songs.” She let that sink in. “Someone else’s songs. Think of that. No room for him to load his own music, no chance to decide what you and he like to listen to together. Nothing special about the present he unwraps. Someone else has already been there and has put together a soundtrack that he has to listen to. And that, ladies,” she was only a year older than us, but she worked us like a pro, “is what it’s like on your wedding night if you have sex before you’re married.”
I have to admit I had an inkling this was all bullshit, and one of the reasons I knew was because Mara kicked me and rolled her eyes as we clapped and the girl sat down, beatific. I think every girl in that room knew it was bullshit. But, still, I thought of it often, and that day when Mara told me she was going to have sex with Victor in a bathtub, I said, “But what about your husband?” and Mara said, “What the fuck are you talking about?” and I said, “You know, like, what about the iPod, remember?” Which seriously made Mara start laughing so hard that I could barely hear her, and she said, “I can’t believe you’re still thinking of that.”
She did fuck Victor in the bathtub, and other places, too, and by the time we were seniors, Victor’s parents had paid for an abortion. Mara never told me about how she felt, but I imagine this had some emotional consequences, and that Mara’s parents never found out, because we were both raised super pro-life, and we even used to go to an annual rally in D.C. where we talked about dignity for all human life and waved bloody fetus pictures on sticks. Mara stayed home from school the day after the abortion, and I went by to check on her. She was lying under a checkered quilt, reading some big coffee-table art book with a cup of tea. Before I even said anything, she said, “It was nothing. Like getting your teeth cleaned. Stop looking at me like that.” I said, “Like what? I just want to make sure you’re OK.” And she said, “Like this is a big deal.” Then she asked me to leave, because she was tired. We never talked about it again. I wanted to call her after I had my first abortion, because I wasn’t OK, but I didn’t.
We both graduated from high school with honors, and we both went to universities and fell out of touch. Her life went one way and mine another as we floated from success to success. I’m one of the youngest managing directors ever, and I’m a woman, and I’m on all these lists, not to brag, but seriously I’ve done well. Matt and I were even able to buy a place upstate on the river, north of Westchester, where we can just be in nature. We’re so fortunate, honestly. But I guess there was one moment that kind of brought my relationship with Mara to a close, which was during our summer break sophomore year, when I told her about something that had happened to me at college. She and I were sweating in a line for the bathroom at some dumbass house party full of Sarah Lawrence kids, the skin of our backs sticking to the white plaster walls, our hair lifting in the humidity and framing our faces like halos. I was pretty drunk and just kind of talking to her about all of the typical shit that I’d been through with guys, the usual sexual encounters and humiliations. I’d passed out drunk in a friend’s bed at a party and woke up to someone’s fingers inside me, and a different night another guy put his dick in my ass even though I’d said no. Her mouth slid into the shape of a horrified O and she actually took both my hands in hers, held them tightly, and said, “Krissy, I’m so, so sorry that happened to you. No one should have treated you that way.” She was trying to be nice, and that just didn’t seem like Mara, you know? I’d assumed she’d had similar experiences and would just roll her eyes and tell me men are pigs and then everything would go on, just like before. But she made me feel weak, like I was different from her, like I was the victim of something, even though none of those incidents in college even mattered, and they didn’t hurt me at all, because look where I’ve ended up. I make more money than almost anyone — I made more by our ten-year reunion than any of those guys from college, than any of those boys from the back of the bus in Westchester — and when I have this baby you can be damn sure that she’s not going to be fucking nice, no one will call her a nice girl, ever, ok?
I stopped talking to Mara after that, and she didn’t try to see me anymore either. But I just found out on Facebook she has moved to the city. Sometimes I wish I could explain to her why I cut her out, why I needed to erase her from my life, but I can’t. The other night, when Matt and I were in bed, he looked at my laptop and saw Mara’s Facebook page, and he said, “Well, why don’t we all go out? Send her a message, and the four of us can get a drink.” He doesn’t understand why I can’t do that, and I really don’t either. But I wish I hadn’t told her about what happened with the guys in college, because it didn’t mean anything, and talking about it just makes me seem like someone who gets broken by things that don’t matter.
I went for a walk a few weeks ago and thought I saw Mara in Central Park near the zoo. There was a tall woman who looked just like Mara, with beautiful dark hair and a colorful scarf, who was moving through the crowd, pushing a stroller and holding the hand of a dark-haired little boy like the boy I saw on Facebook. I followed them, and when I got closer, I started saying, “Mara,” but the woman didn’t turn around, so I started yelling, “Mara!” People were looking at me, and I probably sounded kind of crazy, to be honest, especially because I was definitely showing at that point, my belly and my tits galloping ahead of me as I ran. When I caught up to her, I grabbed her shoulder, and she turned around, and she wasn’t Mara. She looked scared. “I’m sorry,” I said, “I thought you were someone else.” I guess I just wonder what it would be like if Mara were still my friend, if she could be with me all the time, especially after I have my baby. If she could laugh with her big red mouth like she did that day on the bus and help me show my daughter she doesn’t ever have to do anything she doesn’t want to do.