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A Story for Margaret
When Mom was alive, she claimed that she hated March.
“March is still too cold,” she proclaimed. “And it rains. A lot.”
Mom especially hated the rain, how it chilled her bones, made her feel even fatter. But today, the March sunlight shined a burnished gold on Euclid Avenue.
I crossed the street, and stood in front of the bookstore. The building stood white and frilly, like a Victorian wedding gown—this style was common enough in the Little Five Points section of Atlanta. I sighed, clutched my Kelly bag, and prepared to step inside and greet Margaret. I felt almost strong. But a woman strolled out of the bookstore, large and stocky, wearing a buzz-cut hairdo and a tee shirt in menstrual-red letters: the letters shouted SOUTHERN BUTCH. She smiled, said “Hello” in a surprisingly light voice, and I proceeded to bolt inside the bookstore.
Mom hated lesbians, in addition to many other things. And I didn’t feel any more comfortable among the Southern, and Northern, butches of the world. But Margaret belonged to this world, and I had to probe into this world like a detective. The bookstore had powder-blue walls, gleaming butterfly decals—it reminded me of kindergarten, back in Yonkers, New York. The bookshelves wrapped around the cashier counter like a horseshoe, and posters of Susan B. Anthony and Gloria Steinem stood above displays of books. The books had titles like Woman-Hating and A Charlotte Perkins Gilman Reader. Alternative-rock music played on the stereo, and I smelled cinnamon pastries and coffee. I approached the counter, my high heels making a muffled clack on the carpet. The laminated mat was cool, and said NO PERSONAL CHECKS ACCEPTED. I noticed the cashier’s, a flash of blue-black, lush and straight.
“Margaret?” I asked.
The cashier looked at me, smiled with brownish teeth. She didn’t have slanted eyes. She wasn’t Margaret.
“Hello?” she asked. “Are you a friend of Margaret?”
I nodded. “Yes,” I replied. “I’m Kelly Reznick. Do you know where she’s at?”
“Yes,” the cashier answered. “She’ll be here at one. How can I help you?”
Even feminist bookstores wanted to sell books. I shook my head.
“I don’t need help,” I said. “I’ll just see Margaret later on. When’s her break?”
“Around five,” the cashier said. “Margaret finishes her day at nine in the evening. Are you sure that you don’t want anything?”
“I’m sure,” I said, before I sighed again.
Five in the afternoon—I had to go to my cousin Mike’s house. He was serving a traditional Southern dinner, welcoming me to Atlanta. I had a choice—eat fried chicken with my favorite cousin, or bring back memories with Margaret. The chicken was starting to look more appealing.
“I’ll be back at five,” I then said. “This store’s nice.”
The cashier beamed again, her teeth even browner.
“Thanks,” she said. “Have a nice day.”
Her voice now had a strong Southern lilt. I now smelled gardenias, the cashier’s perfume. I ambled out the bookstore, entered the rush of bohemians on the corner of Moreland and Euclid. At the gas station, I bought a Diet Dr. Pepper and looked behind the Arab store clerk. In the smoke-distorted mirror, I saw dyed-red hair, my frail body. I was finally thin as a ballerina. What would Margaret think of me? I imagined her still big, still rebellious. I left the gas station and approached the bus stop.
“Apples!” said Margaret. “We’re having fucking applesauce for dessert.”
“It doesn’t make you fat,” I replied. “This is a weight-loss camp, you know.”
Margaret was lying on her belly, the afternoon light darkening yellow on her back. She placed the menu on her nightstand, and continued her statement.
“I’ll never be as thin as Linda Evangelista. My mother’s delusional, as usual. And a gaisen garisen.” She looked at me, smiled impishly.
She looked really Japanese now. I liked how she sprinkled Japanese words in her speech, beautiful words I didn’t understand. I sighed and reclined on my bed. The window sat above my hips. I could hear the camp counselors order the girls to march faster, to lose those thunder thighs. The sunlight fell on me too. I could hear a stiff breeze rustle the leaves on the trees. Thick forest surrounded the camp, and I imagined a sea of green, lambent waves. Back in 1989, I was fourteen, five foot five, and 165 pounds. My mother was 36, five foot two, and 280 pounds. She also had my father, who liked to watch hockey and drink beer, when he wasn’t cheating and calling Mom a fat whore. Mom took out a second mortgage to pay for the camp. It was an investment, I guessed. If I lost weight, I wouldn’t attract men like my father. I’d be happy. Margaret was also five foot five, but 145 pounds. I envied her large breasts, generous hips, buttery thighs. She reminded me of those Victorian beauties in paintings by Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec. She probably had guys staring at her, wanting to possess her. But her mother, a glamorous Japanese heiress married to an American lawyer, hated the looks Margaret received. The wrong men wanted to possess her voluptuous daughter. I watched Margaret roll from her belly, and sit Indian-style on her mattress. She was opening a box of tampons. She took out a Zero candy bar. I burned red.
“Margaret,” I gasped.
Margaret smiled, her dark eyes glittering.
Another camper, Samantha Pearl, was expelled for drinking a can of regular Pepsi. Margaret was holding a controlled substance.
“I need real food to survive,” she said, as she unwrapped the Zero bar. “We can’t survive on organic soy alone.”
“I thought that you liked soy.”
Margaret shrugged. “Yes,” she said. “And a hot-fudge sundae afterwards. I eat the servants’ food.” She then chomped on the Zero bar. White chocolate smudged on her lips.
I then put my hands on my stomach, and continued to hear the trees sway.
“What do you think about Mark? The lifeguard?”
I expected Margaret to giggle, like most of the girls at the camp. Me personally, I would attempt to drown in order to have Mark Sutherland save me. I loved his tousled dark hair, his luscious, full lips, his buffed body. I would lose weight to have him. And he was 18, an actual man. Margaret had to notice his sexiness. But Margaret continued to chew her candy bar.
“He’s okay?” I asked.
Margaret wiped her lips.
“He’s okay,” she replied, as if I was talking about what TV show she liked.
Her lack of passion for Mark disturbed me. Maybe she had a boyfriend. But I’ve been roommates with Margaret for two weeks, and she never mentioned a boy she liked. She didn’t even shave her armpits or legs. The senior camp counselor, Ms. Combs, castigated her for the hair, told her to act like a lady. But Margaret liked to piss Ms. Combs off, and continued to be hairy. And Ms. Combs, with her pinched nose and cadaver-like complexion, deserved to be pissed off. I heard thunder in the distance.
“I like Mark,” I said.
“That’s good,” said Margaret. “We all have to like someone.”
She sighed and slipped the candy-bar wrapper in the box of tampons. Dinner was at six, and I wasn’t thinking about applesauce.
After dinner, we had aerobics in the gym. Outside, rain fell, and the windows of the gym seemed to have gray curtains. The instructor was Ms. O’Neill, a tall, buffed, tanned woman whose smile looked plastered on a hard, relentless face. According to rumor, Ms. O’Neill liked Mark, but he preferred to stay away from her.
First came the warm-up. Margaret and I sat on the matted floor, stretching our thigh muscles. I exercised rather vigorously, feeling my muscles ache, while Margaret did the bare minimum. Her face remained prim. She looked like she was eating candy bars. As the class did sit-ups, some girls crying from the pain of unlimbered muscles, Ms. O’Neill approached Margaret. Margaret continued to lie on the floor long after the other girls.
“Miss Carter?” Ms. O’Neill asked, her Texas twang hard as a gun against your neck. “Anything the matter?”
Margaret stood up, her hands on her thick thighs.
“Yes,” she said. “I have my period.”
Ms. O’Neill smiled, as she was listening to an idiot.
“Really? Then I’ll give you a tampon. You asked for a tampon last week. And the week before last too. Do you need to see a doctor?”
Margaret laughed, probably trying to piss off Ms. O’Neill even more.
“Yes,” she said. “I need a shrink.”
Ms. O’Neill nodded. “Margaret,” she said, “you need exercise. Obesity is the number-one reason for premature death.”
“I thought that stupidity was,” Margaret cracked.
Some of the girls stopped exercising and giggled.
Ms. O’Neill smiled again. And it looked pitifully fake now.
“Miss Carter,” she said. “I suggest that you exercise, like everybody else. They are no exceptions here, darling.”
She continued to walk around, ordering the girls to do more sit-ups. The girls grumbled. But they continued to exert themselves.
“After the exercises,” Margaret told me a week before, “all the girls cool down with a Little Debbie snack cake.”
After the aerobics class, Margaret and I walked up the cobblestone path, toward the cabins. I started to talk about my family, again.
“Dave’s in rehab,” I said, mentioning my creep of a brother. “All over again. He’s trying not to drink like my father. But that beer and whisky still tempts.” I stopped, bit my lips. “My mom is disappointed with her life. She used to be Miss Decatur, Georgia, you know. Now, she’s fat, miserable, and in Yonkers.”
“I understand,” she said. “Sort of. I’m fat, but other people try to make me miserable.”
She looked at the cabin and approached the front door. She looked like white smoke in the darkness.
“I have more food underneath my bed.”
I laughed, comforted by Margaret’s gall.
“I hope that they catch you,” I whispered.
Margaret nodded and pushed the door open.
“Michael Hutchence should be caught,” she said. “You heard about him and Kylie Minogue? It’s amazing. The girl’s gone from locomotions to sordid sex.”
“I wouldn’t mind being Kylie, though.”
“I understand,” Margaret replied, as she plopped on her bed. “Kylie’s overrated. All the celebrities are overrated. I’m half Yamamoto, and as you know, the Yamamotos of Kyoto are one step removed from God.”
“Yes,” I said. “And the Reznicks are just Polacks.”
I sat on the bed, watching Margaret grab her reserve of junk food. Her breasts hung down, and she looked creamy, generous. I imagined guys looking at her chest and developing illicit dreams. Margaret didn’t notice how sexy she was. That was probably the best thing of all. She sat on her bed again. She started to eat candy orange slices, the sugar falling on her lap. It now felt cool.
“Kelly?” she mumbled. I started to kick off my Keds. “This is a strange question,” said Margaret.
I smiled, barely moving my mouth.
“Your questions are always strange. I expect an elephant to come up. Or something like that.”
Margaret swallowed her first orange slice.
“You’re right,” she said. “Kelly, have you ever had a crush on another girl?” I turned red.
“Another world?” I quipped.
Margaret shook her head.
“Kelly,” she said, her voice now dolorous. “You know what I mean.”
Another girl? I noticed Margaret’s large dark eyes. You could step in them, and never step out.
“I don’t know,” I stammered.
“I haven’t either,” she said. “I told you that I ask weird questions.”
“But not that weird,” I replied, as I yanked off my socks.
I felt the nakedness of my feet. Margaret stopped chewing her candy. The cabin was now too silent. In the morning, I woke up before Margaret. The bell for breakfast hadn’t rung yet. In the dining room, I ate by myself, the organic oatmeal tasteless. I thought about Mom, alone in the house, sad. She wanted me to be thin and to find a good man. I wanted to share this bad oatmeal with Margaret. But I watched sitting by herself, eating an apple. The juices ran down her full, peach-colored lips. She was enjoying her food, and without me.
Mark was eating grapes blue in their darkness, full of seeds. The seeds collected in a lacy pattern on the tile border of the pool. Chlorinated water from the pool occasionally splashed on the pattern.
I was still bathed in happiness that day; the doctor weighed me, and I’d lost three pounds. Margaret was weighed, and she had gained four pounds. Ms. Combs put her on the vegetarian diet. But I knew about the stuff underneath her bed. I thought that Mark had dark eyes. But he stared at me with blue eyes, dark enough to be confusing.
“What school are you going to?” I asked.
“This fall?” Mark answered, “Middlebury. It’s up in Vermont.”
I imagined Mark bundled up in the Vermont cold, luminous.
“Really?” I said. “Vermont is a cool state. I’ll love to go there one day.”
Mark nodded, as he stuffed another grape in his mouth.
“Cool place,” he mumbled, as another girl approached the pool. She wore a shimmering blue bathing suit, and had a slim waist. Her thighs were fat, but she had that waist—and Mark ogled her. She beamed, her teeth bright and white. She jumped cannonball-style into the pool, and the water splashed on me, making my eyes sting.
“God!” I hollered, as I wiped my eyes.
It just made things wrong. Mark barely suppressed a laugh. I looked at him.
“I hate pool water,” I said.
Mark nodded in sympathy.
“I live in pool water.” He spit out another seed. “I’m going to Lake Shelby later on tonight. Just hanging out. You want to come?”
My heart raced, and my mind swirled with erotic notions. But I smiled primly.
“At what time?”
“The curfew is ten, you know. I can’t mess up my progress here by returning to my cabin late.”
Mark nodded slowly, playing along with my modesty.
“I’ll bring you back before ten. I promise.”
I looked down, ignoring the girl swimming in the pool.
“And Margaret’s coming,” I said. “She’ll be my chaperone, of sorts.”
“Yes,” he said. “Your chaperone. I understand.”
I cocked my head up, continuing to be amazed by Mark’s eyes. He bent down over his crossed legs, picking up the grape seeds. I looked at the tautness of his back muscles. I wanted Mark for myself. And I wanted Margaret to notice how gorgeous he was. And fall for him.
After Ms. O’Neill’s class, I met Margaret in the gym restroom. I knocked on the blue-painted stall door. I smelled a whiff of urine.
“Yes?” she replied. “You want to piss with me? A golden shower?”
“You nasty whore,” I said, still remembering Mark. And still happy.
The toilet flushed and the door opened. I looked at Margaret’s long, half-exotic face.
“Lake Shelby,” I said.
“I heard the rumors,” she said, and I blushed, willing to think as dirtily as possible. I said that I heard the rumors too.
“Come with me,” I said. “Mark’s there. I want you to chaperone.”
“I will, Kelly,” she said. “You’ll need it.” She looked me up and down, maintaining that rakish smile. For a moment, I felt exposed, ready to shudder. Margaret then ambled to the sink to wash her hands. Soap clung to her long hands, a milky lather.
Margaret refused Mark’s cigarettes.
“I’m addicted to food,” she told him, after he pulled back his pack of Marlboros.
But I accepted a smoke. The tobacco left a bitter aftertaste in my mouth. The night was cool, the moonlight scattered through the canopy of the forest. The lake in front of us gleamed in green and blue phosphoresce. We talked about the staff at the camp, and how idiotic they were.
“I work there,” Mark said. “And I just want to get a gun and blow everybody away.”
Margaret nodded in agreement. She smiled at him, amazed and proud of her connection to him. But eventually, the connection started to fade. She noticed how I gazed at Mark. She probably read my mind, and hated what she saw. Mark sidled over to me. I liked how he smelled, his tobacco and sweat. He wrapped his arm about my thick waist.
Margaret stood up, leaned on the truck of a tree. Crickets screeched in the background. Mark then kissed me, his tongue hot, thick. I almost swooned from the sensation. I kissed him back. I touched his chest, felt his heartbeat. I glanced at Margaret.
“I could kiss better than that,” she said.
“Kiss me then,” he said.
I nodded, hiding my gloating underneath my playfulness. Margaret scowled. She wasn’t playful now.
“Kiss Mark,” I said. “He’s great. He kisses like a god.”
“Gods don’t kiss,” replied Margaret.
I laughed softly, before sliding away from Mark. I imagined the streak of dirt on the bottom of my denim shorts. Margaret continued to glare at Mark. Mark stood up, stretched his arms. The beauty of his tall, slim body didn’t make the situation any better. I thought about Mom, reading the fashion magazines, and telling me you should be this way. Telling me not to think, just to act.
“Mark?” I then said. “I want to see you naked.”
I glanced at Margaret, convinced that I looked sadistic. Mark looked at me. He would have kissed me again if I was standing up.
“Sure, Kelly,” he said, as he touched the top of his blue jeans.
The lake glimmered again, and I imagined fish swimming underneath, all in the shine. Mark unzipped his pants, wriggling his hips as the jeans fell to the ground. He pushed down his white underwear. In the slight moonlight, I could see the thickness of his cock, the heart shape at the tip. He was beautiful everywhere. Mark, now completely naked, jumped into the water. He swam faster, splashing water onto the shore. But it didn’t land on me this time. Margaret shook her head. She stormed away from her tree, toward the campus.
“Margaret needs to pee,” I lied.
Mark continued to swim, splashing loudly. He then floated in the water, his hair slick atop his head.
“You’re gorgeous,” I said, trying to comfort myself.
“Of course,” Mark replied.
He turned back, and continued to swim.
Since I was losing weight faster than usual, the dietician allowed me some fatty foods. I ate some scrambled eggs for breakfast the next day. Margaret decided, again, not to eat with me. I glanced up, watched Ms. Combs approach me. She was blonde, petite, and wore a harder expression than usual. I sighed.
“Miss Reznick?” she asked, her accent slightly British.
“Yes?” I asked.
I watched her sit across from me. I smelled her rose perfume. I heard her sigh.
“Kelly,” she said, as she clutched my hand. Her palms felt like spit.
“Yes?” I asked again.
Ms. Combs stared at me with bleary green eyes.
“Kelly, I like your progress here at the camp. You seem to be quite eager to change your figure, your life.”
“I know,” I said, still remembering Margaret, standing hard against that tree. “What’s the matter?”
Ms. Combs bit her lower lip for a moment.
“Kelly,” she said. “Another camper here charges that you were fraternizing with a staff member here. Engaging in inappropriate activity. The dean investigated this charge, and we’ve come to believe that the accusation is true.”
I imagined Margaret coming to Ms. Combs’ office, talking about the cigarettes, the kissing, the nakedness. Making it sound as tawdry as possible, as she always did. I hated Margaret now, of course. But I also felt bad for her. I imagined the tears that she struggled to keep hidden. I sighed.
“Ms. Combs,” I said. “I’ll pack my bags. You can call my uncle. He’ll pick me up.”
Ms. Combs nodded.
“Okay,” she said. “Finish your breakfast, and I’ll see you in the office in about an hour and a half.”
I finished my breakfast, packed my bags. My uncle John drove me home in his black Saab, and I stood in front of my house, the blue of the paint like the color of prison uniforms. I walked up the steps, knocked on the front door. I waited for Mom to waddle to the front door. She opened the door, smiled thinly. She couldn’t pretend to be happy. Mom had the grayish complexion of someone not quite alive. And when she died three years later, a month after her 39th birthday, I didn’t cry too much over her coffin. I hated the overwhelming sweetness of the funeral wreath more. Mom’s appearance didn’t shock me. I was used to her being dead, since the day I was born.
And Margaret came back to my life indirectly, through my cousin Mike in Atlanta. About a month ago, he called me, told me that he met Margaret Fumie Carter at a poetry open-mike. I laughed at the mention of the name.
“Funny name?” he asked, his Southern accent rather faint. “I agree.”
“No,” I said. “I heard of that girl. I want to see her one day.”
“She works for a feminist bookstore,” Mike replied. “Writes lesbian poetry. I don’t know if y’all can relate anymore. But I’ll try to hook you two up.”
The afternoon was a smoky blue, the breeze nipping. I returned to the bookstore at five, and watched Margaret giving change to another Southern Butch. Or Southern woman. I picked up a book from one of the displays. The Feminine Mystique, from Betty Friedan. The other woman strode from the counter. I approached Margaret, smiled.
“Margie?” I asked, as another alternative song played on the stereo.
Margaret looked at me, still voluptuous, still half-exotic with those slanted eyes.
“Hello?” she asked, acting business-like.
I put the book on the laminated mat.
“I’ll pay by cash,” I said.
Margaret nodded, her lower lip trembling. She couldn’t act business-like forever.
“Cash?” she asked. “We don’t accept anything beyond $50 bills.”
I started to unzip my purse, chuckle.
“That’s a good policy,” I said. “Tell your manager that Kelly Reznick said that you have good policies.”
I took out my money, handed it to Margaret.
I felt her wide, cool palms. Margaret divvied up the change. She shook her head, her black hair gleaming in the store light. She then sighed.
“I’m off tomorrow,” she said. “Meet me at the Lenox Mall.”
I pretended to be nonchalant.
“Where?” I asked.
Margaret smiled, that impish smile that I always remembered.
“I’ll tell you,” she said. “Don’t rush.”
I nodded in agreement. The song on the stereo now had vocals, a woman with a rough voice singing about prostitution.
“Who’s the sweet-voiced lady?”
“Ani Defranco,” Margaret answered, as if Ani Defranco was a household name.
I wouldn’t argue with her on that. Margaret handed me back change, the bills and coins cool in my hands.
Margaret shook her head.
“Not that crap. Herbal tea. The type that a bohemian such as myself likes. Tea used to remind me of my mother. But I’m over that now.”
“Good,” I said, as I gazed into Margaret’s eyes. They were still deep enough to get lost in.
The next morning was gray, a prelude to a storm, tornadoes. Margaret and I sat in the food court of the Lenox Mall, bland Muzak playing in the background. We sipped tea, ate pastries, and occasionally glanced at each other. I was surprised that Margaret wore lipstick. It looked like rubies on her delicate lips. Margaret bit into her raspberry scone. She looked at me again. I stared at her, as she blinked.
“Margaret?” I asked.
“Yes?” she replied.
Even with the diners in the food court, everything felt strangely quiet.
“Anything the matter?”
Margaret looked pale for a moment, before she blushed. She put her sconce down.
“Kelly,” she said, “I once dated a man. Two years ago—my parents were divorcing, and my mother was acting particularly sluttish.”
I chuckled, as memories of Margaret and her hatred of her mother returned.
“What was his name?”
“Adam Bloomberg,” she said. “He was a nicer Jew than Woody Allen and Philip Roth. I got along with him. But one time, he kissed me, and I just broke down.” She sighed.
“I was crying worse than a baby. Yes, I had girls before Adam. I knew that I was a dyke. I wasn’t trying to please Mother. Nothing was going to change me.”
I nodded, even as doubt lingered in my mind.
“I understand,” I said. “So why did you date Adam?”
Margaret sipped more of her tea. It smelled like apricots. She put her cup down, and smiled rakishly.
“Adam was pretty,” she answered. “Prettier than Mark.”
I thought about Mark again, naked. I laughed.
“No damn way!” I said.
“Yes,” Margaret said. “Adam was pretty. But I’m still a lesbian. I still love to eat.”
My stomach grumbled. The smell of food filled my senses. Before the trip to the mall, I told myself not to eat too much. But I ate another sconce. I liked the swirls of raspberry jam.
After the tea, Margaret and I strolled to a women’s boutique. I smelled White Diamonds, a delicate scent. Margaret stopped in front of a mannequin; it wore a translucent white dress, the hem brushing against the knees. Margaret touched the heart pendant of her necklace.
“Buying the dress?” I asked.
Margaret shook her head. She turned her head back, stared at me.
“Kelly,” she said. “You’re thin as a rail. I didn’t see you eat a thing at the food court.”
I was ready to say, defiantly, that I liked to binge and purge. But I realized that Margaret was right. I wanted to say that Mom still haunted me, a huge woman in a little house, in a city she hated, and a family that broke her heart. She went to her grave with a mean-spirited husband, a drunken son, and a lonely daughter, still fat. The daughter eventually slimmed down. But Mom was dead. And the daughter was still lonely. I smiled thinly.
“I hate breakfast food,” I said.
Margaret shook her head, returned to looking at the dress.
“That camp still has you captive.”
And you still are a tattle-teller, I wanted to say. But I decided not to. I didn’t have a vacation to bring back bad memories. Maybe I could make a good one. My stomach grumbled. Even though I ate the extra sconce, I was still hungry. I gazed at Margaret’s body, still full and luscious. I would follow her.
“Yes?” she asked.
“What do you want for lunch?”
“Lunch?” she said, as she turned to me. “I thought that you hated food.”
“No,” I replied. “I don’t hate food.” I decided to lie.
“Last night, I went to Mike’s house and ate fried chicken, barbecued ribs, chicken-fried steak. I was a pig!”
Margaret’s dark eyes brightened. They reminded me of jewels. Or oil over a skillet.
“You are a pig!” she said, her voice lighter, my tone. “Let’s go to the Chinese restaurant. You’ll love their honey chicken.”
“Of course,” I said. “And let’s buy a huge ice-cream cake. We’ll eat it together.”
“Right on!” said Margaret.
She extended her hand, and I led her out the store. I heard the clack of Margaret’s shoes behind me. Smelled the perfume, and anticipated the food. I would prove Mother wrong. I had the best of friends. And I would find a good man.
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