By Cheryl Peck
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Warner Books Edition
Copyright © 2002, 2004 by Cheryl Peck
All rights reserved.
This book was previously self-published by the author.
Warner Books, Inc.
Hachette Book Group
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First ebook Edition: January 2004
I would like to thank Trudi and Elin who spent years musing aloud, "Why don't you just write down the stories you tell?" until I finally did; Lavender Morning for allowing me to see my work in print; the Phoenix Community Church for sitting still for sometimes an hour at a time while I read to them; Annie for tirelessly reading everything I have handed her over the years; and my family for their sense of humor, which is nearly as twisted as mine.
I would like to thank Ranee Bryce, Teresa Terrill, Mary Jaglowski, Janean Danca and Pam Wong-Peck for proofreading this manuscript and discovering all of those errors that fell below my radar. I would particularly like to thank Ranee for doing it all over again five months later.
I would also like to thank Mary Appelhof, an internationally known author, for her publishing expertise and support. Historically she has been unfailingly supportive of aspiring authors and she is a strong voice in the publishing and environmental communities.
I would like to thank our mayor, Tom Lowry, whose wonderful bookstore was the first home for Fat Girls, and whose support of our efforts helped lead us to a contract with the Warner Book Group.
I would like to thank Amy Einhorn—my editor in New York—for her patience, her faith in me, and for allowing me to actually say to people I've known all of my life, "Amy—my editor in New York—says …"
None of you would be reading this without the tireless patience, confidence, support—and skills—of my Beloved, Nancy Essex. She hates attention and she is driven to make worthwhile all of our time spent here on earth—the two traits every undisciplined writer needs in a partner. I wrote it: everything beyond that point is her work and determination, not mine, and I thank her.
queen of the gym
IT HAPPENED AGAIN this morning. I was sitting there half-naked on a bench when a fellow exerciser leaned over and said, "I just wanted to tell you—I admire you for coming here every day. You give me inspiration to keep coming myself."
"Here" is the gym.
I have become an inspirational goddess.
In a gym.
I grinned at the very image of it, myself: here is this woman who probably imagines herself to be overweight—or perhaps she is overweight, she is just not in my weight division—sitting on the edge of her bed in the morning, thinking to herself, "There is that woman at the gym who is twenty years older than I am and has three extra people tucked under her skin, and she manages to drag herself to the gym every day …"
It is not my goal here to be unkind to myself or to others. Perhaps I am an inspiration to her because I am easily three times her size and I take my clothes off in front of other women. Being fat and naked in front of other women is an act of courage. Perhaps my admirer did not realize that it was exactly when she spoke to me that I was artfully arranging my hairbrush and underwear and bodily potions to cut the buck-naked, ass-exposing mini-towel-hugging moments of my gym experience to the absolute minimum. She wears a pretty little lace-edged towel-thing to the shower and back. I don't, but I understand the desire.
It was not that long ago that she bent over to pick up something as Miss Tri Athlete walked into the locker room and whistled, "Boy did I get a moon!" Junior high gym, revisited: I can't swear that particular exchange was the reason, but I did not see my admirer again for the next month. To Miss Tri Athlete she answered, "Just when I had forgotten for half a second that I was totally naked …" I doubt that she forgets that often. Almost none of us do.
Nor do I: which is why, the first time someone in the locker room said to me, "I have to give you credit just for coming here," I smiled politely and thought ugly thoughts for some time afterwards. Up yours thrummed through my mind. Nobody asked you for credit zinged along on its tail, followed closely by Who died and left you queen of the gym?
"Like it takes any more for me to go the gym than it does any other woman there," I seethed to my Beloved.
"Well it does," my Beloved returned sedately, "and you know it. How many other women our size have you seen at our gym?"
The answer is—none.
There are women of all shapes and sizes—up to a point— from Miss Tri Athlete, who runs in the 20–25-year-old pack, wears Victoria's Secret underthings and is self-effacing about her own physical prowess to women who are probably in their sixties, perhaps even seventies. There are chubby women and postpartum moms and stocky women and lumpy women … but there are very few truly fat women.
Exercise, you might advise me solemnly, is hard for fat women.
Exercise is hard for everyone.
Exercise is as hard as you make it.
Miss Tri Athlete shared a conversation with me the other morning. She said, "It feels really good to get this out of the way first thing in the morning, doesn't it? I think when you plan to exercise in the evening it just hangs over you like a bad cloud all day." She can't be more than twenty-five, she can't be carrying more than six ounces of unnecessary body fat and I've never seen her move like anything hurts. Her joints don't creak. Her back doesn't ache. She sweats and turns pink just like everybody else. She trains like an iron woman, but she's relieved when it's over.
I don't believe it's exercise that keeps fat women out of the gym. I think it's the distance from the bench in front of the locker to the shower and back. I think it's years and years of standing in grocery lines and idly staring at the anorexic women on the cover of Cosmo, I think it's four-year-olds in restaurants who stage-whisper, "Mommy—look at that FAT lady," I think it's years of watching American films where famous actresses never have pimples on their butts or stretch marks where they had kids. It's Baywatch. Barbie. It's never really understanding, in our gut, that if we could ask her even Barbie could tell us exactly what is wrong with her body. And we all know, intellectually, of course, that Barbie's legs are too long, her waist is too short, her boobs are too big and her feet are ridiculous, but she's a doll. What we do not know, as women, is that my sports physiologist, who is in her late twenties and runs marathons, also has tendonitis in her shoulder, a bad back, and passes out if she trains too hard. My former coach for the Nautilus machines had MS. None of us have perfect bodies. If we did have perfect bodies, we would still believe we are too short or too fat or too skinny or not tan enough.
None of us have ever been taught to admire the bodies we have.
And nothing reminds us of our personal imperfections like taking off our clothes. Imagining that—for whatever reason— other people are looking at us.
My sports physiologist is more afraid of wounding me than I am of being wounded. The program she has set up for me to regain my youthful vim and vigor is appropriately hard. Not too hard, not too easy. It's just exercise. The most difficult part of my routine, designed by my physiologist, is walking through the heavy-duty weight room to get the equipment I need for my sit-ups. The weight room is full mostly of men. Lifting weights. Not one of them has ever been rude to me, not one of them has even given me an unkind glance: still, the irony that I make the greatest emotional sacrifice to do the exercise I like the least is born again each time I walk into the room.
Someone might laugh at me.
Someone might say, "What are you doing here?"
I have a perfectly acceptable answer.
I joined the gym because my girlfriend said, "I want to walk the Appalachian Trail." I have no desire to backpack across the wilderness: but I could barely keep up with her when she made this pronouncement, and I could see myself falling farther and farther behind if I stayed home while she trained. I joined the gym because I used to work out and I used to feel better. Moved better. Could tie my shoes. I joined the gym because I dropped a piece of paper on the floor of my friend's car and I could not reach down and pick it up. I joined the gym because I have a sedentary job and a number of aches and pains and chronic miseries that are the result of being over fifty and having a sedentary job. I joined the gym because my sister, who is younger than I am and more fit, seriously hurt her back picking up a case of pop. It could have been me. It probably should have been me.
I keep going back to the gym because I love endorphins. I love feeling stronger. More agile. I can tie my shoes without holding my breath. I can pick papers up off the car floor without having to wait until I get out of the car. I don't breathe quite as loudly. I have lost that doddering, uncertain old lady's walk that made strange teenaged boys try to hold doors or carry things for me.
I keep going back because I hate feeling helpless.
Years ago, a friend of mine convinced me to join Vic Tanney, a chain of gyms popular at the time. There was a brand-new gym just around the corner from where we lived—just a matter of a few blocks. She had belonged to Vic Tanney before, so she guided me through the guided tour, offering me bits of advice and expertise along the way … I plopped down money, she plopped down money, and a few days later it was time for us to go to the gym.
She couldn't go.
She was fat.
Losing weight had been her expressed goal when she joined: now she couldn't go until she was "thinner."
Everyone else at the gym, she said, was buff and golden.
"I'll be there," I pointed out (for I have never been a small woman).
She couldn't go. She was too fat.
She was a size twelve.
I have determined that I don't particularly mind being the queen of my gym. There may indeed be women who wake up in the morning and sit on the edges of their beds and think to themselves, "There is that fat woman at my gym who goes almost every day, and if she can do it …" I am proud to be an inspirational goddess. It has taken me most of my life to understand that what we see, when we look at another person, may reflect absolutely nothing about how they see themselves. Always having been a woman of size, I have always believed that it must be just a wonderful experience to be thin. What I am learning is that the reverse of the old truism is equally true: inside every thin woman there is a fat woman just waiting to jump out.
We give that woman entirely too much power over our lives.
We all do.
tales from the duck side
MANY, MANY YEARS AGO when I was just a child, a neighbor girl's parents came to my house and gave me a bag of ducks. I remember the bag, which was a big, brown paper grocery sack, and I remember the anticipatory expressions on the faces of the adults around me. I remember realizing the bag held some form of moving life. And I remember looking inside the bag to find myself the proud owner of six baby ducks.
It would never have occurred to me to transport six baby ducks in a grocery bag. (I am not the least bit anal retentive, but I would have gone directly to the animal transport store and purchased the official Audubon-approved duck crate. I would have paid $50. And I would have panicked had I discovered, a week later, that I now needed to transport six baby rabbits.)
As you can imagine (brown paper grocery sacks being about the same size they've always been), my six ducks were tiny. Ducklings, really. Ducklettes. I remember them as being somewhat fuzzy—sort of pre-feathered ducks—of a loose, barnyard-mongrel genus of duck. The day they became mine they were black and yellow and they made sweet little peeping noises in the bag.
I immediately released them, thus learning very early in life that even very tiny, fuzzy ducks making sweet little peeps can cover an amazing amount of ground in a hurry. My father loped off across the back yard to examine his fine personal collection of chicken wire. We built a pen for my duck herd and my duck herd spent the rest of their lives escaping.
Not entirely without provocation, I admit.
The Peck family (or at least my immediate twig of it) at the time belonged to a small but fiercely protective cat named "Gussie" after the tennis player, Gussie Moran. (Both wore what appeared to be white lace panties.) Shortly after the duck pen was built and the duck herd was incarcerated, Gus strolled through the back yard and heard an unfamiliar chorus of sweet peeps.
One ear swiveled, not unlike a radar dish.
Her whiskers twitched.
She dropped her belly to the ground, and, peering through the blades of grass, she espied a small pen of hors d'oeuvres.
I believe Gus may actually have contributed to the ducks' arrival. Gus had a dark side to her personality—downright nocturnal, really—and she frequently came home with a swelling belly and began building little nests all over the house. She and my mother waged prolonged battles over where Gus would give birth to and raise her new family; my bed, my mother's shoe collection and the clean laundry basket being on the top of Gus's list and the bottom of my mother's. Sharp words were spoken on both sides when Gus decided to consolidate their daycare problems and give birth in one of my younger siblings' bassinet. I raised each and every one of Gus's children as soon as I found them, and—tortured by the idle threats I heard from the adults around me—I was quite passionate about homing all of her kittens. It is entirely possible I gave the neighbor's family a kitten—which, I vaguely recall, immediately walked the three miles back home, so I had to give it up again—which may have been what provoked them into be-ducking me.
We did not count on Gus.
Compressed all but flat, she seemed to flow like liquid toward the duck pen, and she coiled to pounce just as my father began wiring on his makeshift lid.
She refused to speak to him for days.
She gave up motherhood.
She did not eat.
She spent all of her time lying in the deep weeds, her eyes drawing a bead on my ducklings, her body utterly motionless except for the steady switch, switch, switch of her tail.
Every once in a while when she just absolutely could not stand it anymore, she would release a howl of pure rage and charge the duck pen, sending the inmates into a panicked peeping clutch on the far side. Then Gus herself would spend some time extracting various body parts from the holes in the chicken wire and she would retreat to bathe herself from toe to tail as if to say, I didn't really mean that.
Meanwhile, the ducklings grew and in a very short time became real ducks. Each one would have required his or her own grocery sack.
My father grew tired of retooling the duck pen and wandered off to construct prisons for woodchucks.
By the time Gus managed to penetrate the duck pen, the ducks were roughly the same size she was and there were six of them. They had done hard time. A pact was swiftly drawn: the ducks would huddle together, quacking in mock terror as they raced in tiny circles around their water bowl, and Gus would hunker down and stalk them but never eat them.
My mother amused herself most of the summer by waiting for people who drove into our yard to rush up and warn her that her cat was stalking her ducks. My father used to sit on the back steps with the garden hose in his hand, and when Gus would get the ducks going, he would blast her. I put my younger sisters in the duck pen to see if they would toddle in circles around the water bowl as well. I believe we all grew as human beings.
The tale ends bitterly, of course. It turned out Gus was not alone when she thought of my ducks as food. My own parents murdered my ducks.
My mother—who gave birth to me, and who devoted years of her life to keeping me from watching the miracle of feline childbirth—cooked one of my ducks and tried to make me eat it. I couldn't eat a bite. And neither could anyone else in my family because months of being herded around the water bowl by the spirit of the Serengeti had turned my ducks into about the toughest birds to ever waddle down the pike. My father claimed he broke a tooth and shot a baleful look at Gus.
Once again, she was visibly pregnant.
I LIVE NEXT DOOR to Eleanor. Every morning that I don't go to the gym I see Eleanor and her mother race out of their house, coats, scarves and book bags flying as they scrape off their car, jump in and speed off to wherever it is that Eleanor goes. Sometimes we speak. Sometimes we nod. Sometimes my coat, scarf and book bag are flying as well and we just duck our heads and get on with the going.
Once, back in the fall when my leaves were all piled neatly in the street, waiting for the city to come get them, three little girls daintily rode their pink bikes into my leaf piles in what appeared to be an extremely feminine demolition derby. It was at that time that I realized that unless Eleanor is exactly where Eleanor should be, doing exactly what Eleanor should be doing, I really can't tell which nine-year-old girl is Eleanor. I am a bad adult. While I still do vaguely remember how the world spun around me when I was nine, how none but only the most irrelevant adults could fail to recognize me and my significance to the universe on sight, all nine-year-old girls now pretty much look alike to me.
Several weeks ago I stayed home for three days to nurse an ailing back, and sometime during that brief respite from work, there was a gentle tap on my door and when I went to look, there stood Eleanor. She had one of those color brochures of inedible candies in overpriced tins that seem to be the staple of education finance, and she inquired very politely, in a hurried and obviously memorized speech, which of these delightful tins I might personally wish to purchase. The simple answer would be "none," but there was the noblesse oblige of neighborliness to consider. I gave solemn consideration to several possibilities until it occurred to me that none of the candy ever tastes quite like it should and I should just pick out the tin I objected to the least. So I did so. I asked her if she needed the money now or later and she said it didn't matter—my order should come in X number of days/weeks/months and she would bring it to me. She thanked me very politely and made her escape.
Eleanor is unfailingly polite.
Some time went by.
I don't remember exactly how much time. I had been taking muscle relaxers when Eleanor sold me the tin and at the time I was lucky to have been able to figure out how to open the door to let her in.
However, as my life clipped along, every morning I would see Eleanor and her mother making their run for the car and it would occur to me that I had not yet received my tin. The tin itself was inconsequential: what mattered was that if I did not pay for the tin there was the chance that Eleanor herself might have to pay for it and I didn't want that to happen. No one should have to finance her own education at the age of nine.
One morning I woke up and the whole world had turned white. I keep a male roommate for just that purpose and I listened a moment and heard the rewarding scrape of snow shovel against cement, but I hurried outside anyway to make it appear that I intended to help him, and while I was scraping off my car, Eleanor and her mother were scraping off theirs. I was feeling neighborly and expansive so I called across the yard, "Hi—has Eleanor's tin order come in yet?"
Eleanor's mother seemed to stiffen for some reason and she said, "Eleanor will have to come talk to you about that tonight," and she jumped into her car and drove away. It seemed a little abrupt to me, but I reasoned that she might be running a little late, with the snow and all.
Of course I did go home that night, but not until very late, and Eleanor, I'm sure, was in bed.
In fact, I rarely show up at home on any predictable pattern at an hour a nine-year-old should still be awake. And to complicate things, I had started going back to the gym, so I left about an hour and a half before Eleanor left in the morning.
And so it happened that I was in the downtown bookstore the Friday after Thanksgiving. I had gone to pick up some reading material for my father, who has recently survived a double valve replacement and, having never been sick before, has become somewhat testy about the whole recovery process. It is apparently somewhat boring for a fixer/putterer/man-of-action to be restricted to lifting less than five pounds. I had heard rumors that his caretaker turned her back on him for five minutes and turned back to find him leaning over to pick up a bread machine, which, as everyone but my father knows, weighs more than five pounds, and my goal was to find less strenuous ways to amuse him.
As I walked past the calendar rack, I espied a small child and I thought to myself, There is Eleanor. However, I only recognize Eleanor with confidence when she is exactly where Eleanor should be and the girl in the bookstore could have been any nine-year-old girl with long light brown hair and an aura of femininity about her that would make Barbie look butch. And the child seemed frozen. Not even her eyelids fluttered. She appeared to be staring at the calendar rack. I glanced there to determine what might be holding her attention so rapt and there wasn't much there to entertain me, much less a nine-year-old. I thought about speaking, but then I thought, suppose her name is Phoebe and she's never seen you before in your life?
And so I passed her, like an oversized ship in the aisle.
I found a magazine on lighthouses and the Great Lakes, I found a Penthouse (my sisters and I used to spend hours slung over our parents' bed, reading our dad's Playboy that he always stashed under his side of the bed. We weren't even supposed to be in their room, but we reasoned that if they couldn't see the magazine, artfully hidden by the edge of the bed, they might know we were up to something, but not exactly what. Like there were a broad variety of possibilities to choose from. There are my childrens' butts all lined up along my bed, they're obviously reading something. I wonder what they could be up to now?) I found a delightful book of trivia about the Great Lakes. My Beloved found him a puzzle that actually caught his attention and amused him later when we delivered all of this booty.
I was standing at the checkout, making my purchases, when a small, light-brown-haired child materialized under my left elbow and said, "Um—hi."
Since she appeared to know me, I could only assume I knew her as well. "Eleanor," I greeted her.
"Um—we were going to just buy everyone little gifts."
She drew a deep breath—possibly her first since she'd seen me. "I took the book to my Grampa's and I left it downstairs and neither one of us remembered it and it was the last day so we never got to send the order in so we were just going to buy everyone a little gift."
I laughed out loud, somewhat confusing her. "Oh, you don't have to buy me a little gift, Eleanor," I assured her. "It's fine."
She looked doubtful.
"Really," I assured her. "I was just worried you might have to pay for something I ordered." I refrained from telling her I'd never wanted it anyway.
She heaved a heavy sigh, as only a nine-year-old can. "I thought you'd be mad," she admitted.
"I'm not mad," I assured her. "You have a wonderful Thanksgiving."
"Thank you very much," Eleanor said. She appeared thirty years younger, no longer plagued by the weight of the world, and she dashed away.
I thought back on that visual image of the child frozen in front of the calendar rack, thinking desperately Did she see me? Does she know me? Does she look mad? Do I have to talk to her now or can I just pretend I don't see her?
It must have taken considerable courage for her to come up to me and admit to me she'd lost my tin order. I would have slunk away and tortured myself with guilt and enemy sightings for weeks, but then, I barely recognize the child when I see her, so I guess we don't need to worry about her role-modeling after me.
MEMORY IS A TRICKY THING
- On Sale
- Jan 1, 2004
- Page Count
- 256 pages
- Grand Central Publishing