For Holly and Susan
The second morning of her honeymoon, Rachel rose absurdly early to catch a boat that would take her to see spotted dolphins. Her new husband — still strange, to call him her husband — danced around their little Balinese room with childlike excitement.
“Hurry, Rache,” Stewart said. “We don’t want to make the boat wait on us.”
“I’m sure they’re not going to wait for us, Stewart. We’ll know we’re late if the boat is gone.”
“Supposed to be a very nice boat. That boy, he said it was one of the finest available.” He clapped his hands and tried to hug Rachel around her middle. “Oh, honey, we’re gonna see real live dolphins!”
Rachel squirmed out of his embrace, turned and patted him gently. “I swear, you’re like a little boy sometimes.”
The boat didn’t fit either Rachel or Stewart’s definition of “nice,” but compared to the other sorry rafts listing in the bay, it was a yacht. It was still waiting when they arrived, and continued waiting a while longer, its crew hopeful that some other tourists would brave the early morning hours for a chance to see dolphins. They were given breakfast — a small square of hard flavored-gelatin pudding wrapped in some kind of inedible leaf, and a baggie filled with hot tea. Rachel balanced the hard little cake on her knees while she used both hands to tilt the baggie up and sip her tea. She dribbled a little down her chin each time she drank. She finally closed the baggie and resigned herself to gnawing slowly at the ambiguously flavored hard pudding.
The boat jerked and the motor gave a garbled cry like a garbage disposal with a spoon caught inside. The island boys opened the engine casing and dug around for a while, finally pulling out a piece of dirty white plastic that had been clogging the engine. They examined and discussed the plastic briefly before tossing it into the water. Rachel peered over the edge of the boat; the water’s surface was littered with floating plastic junk. She had a bad feeling about her chances of seeing any dolphins that morning.
A display of photos from Rachel’s childhood stood on a table; it was her mother’s idea of a good way to decorate the guest-book table at the reception, and she had brought it to the rehearsal dinner for approval. Rachel had been dieting for months for the big day tomorrow, but looking at the pictures of herself over the years, she realized with a sinking heart that she was larger now than she’d ever been before. She could see now how skewed her body image had been throughout her childhood and teens. When each of these photos had been taken, she’d considered herself fat, flabby, and horribly unattractive. She had lamented her disfigurement, her size — sizes she would kill to be right now, sizes small enough to fit into the wedding dress she’d truly wanted to buy.
The first photo showed Rachel posing in a sparkly pink dance costume. Ribbons and lace bedecked the front of the satin bodice, with nothing but a little lace around the legs and a big bow in the back for a skirt. Her legs, in fishnet stockings that were much too grown-up for the seven-year-old wearing them, seemed shapely to her now. But they hadn’t back then.
She could still remember the first day of dance class, as she stood in the studio with the other girls her age, towering over them by at least half a head. She had always been tall for her age, but as she stared at the wall covered in mirrors, she realized that she was also bigger than the other girls. Their legs were thin, almost insect-like in their pale pink tights. Their bodies were flat, all lines and no curves. The contrast between Rachel and the other girls was obvious and grotesque.
The dance teacher noted it, too. She clucked her tongue and pushed Rachel into the back row. After class, the teacher took Rachel’s mother aside and spoke to her in hushed tones, glancing over at Rachel, who was slowly putting away her shiny new patent-leather tap shoes. The shoes had held so much promise, so much glamour, before the class; but now, compared to the dainty shoes of the other girls, they seemed huge, ugly things. Still, Rachel was careful not to scuff them as she shoved them into her dance bag.
On the way home, her mother explained that Rachel was being put into a different class — a class for older girls. “Ms. Carson thinks you’re too talented to dance with girls your own age,” her mother prattled with misplaced pride. Rachel knew better, even then, and her suspicions were confirmed when she went to her next class and stood among the nine-year-olds, each one of them her own height but even pudgier than Rachel. Rachel learned the steps and performed in the recital that year, but refused to go back to dance class after that. She was now eight, and didn’t want to see herself get as pudgy as those other girls in her class, now that she was only a year away from that fate.
The shadow-play started at 9 p.m., but Stewart insisted they get there early “to get good seats.” The seating consisted of a bunch of low wooden benches in someone’s courtyard. A large white sheet was stretched along one side of the courtyard, and backlit figures moved behind it, preparing for the performance.
The audience trickled in over the next half hour, all of them greeting one another and many of them sitting on the ground. It was mostly locals at this show; although there were shorter Wayang Kulit performances put on for the tourists, Stewart had insisted on coming to see a “native performance,” assuming for some reason that that would be more interesting, more authentic, when Rachel knew it would only be more incomprehensible. As they waited for the play to begin, Stewart nodded knowingly as the seats filled up.
“Wayang Kulit puppet shows are the most popular form of entertainment in Bali. They’re entertainment, a morality play, and a kind of religious experience all rolled into one. ‘Wayang’ means ‘shadow’ or ‘ghost’ and ‘Kulit’ means ‘skin’ or ‘covering’–“
Rachel sighed heavily. “Jeez, Stewart, did you memorize the guide book or something? You want to live here and be a tour guide?”
“I just thought you’d like to know some of the history of what you’re about to see, that’s all,” Stewart said.
The performance was worse than Rachel had expected — hours and hours of exaggerated human forms moving jerkily behind the screen, accompanied by a cacophony of gongs, cymbals, flutes, and rapid high-pitched Balinese that gave Rachel a headache. Her butt went numb and her eyes blurred the edges of the shadows.
Around her, people shrieked with laughter at the slapstick comedy, and the little boys shouted with genuine excitement at the battle scenes. Rachel couldn’t understand a word of the story and was unnerved by the bony joints and unnatural movements of the stylized puppets. Sometimes a puppet would be made to disappear by turning sideways, invisible when viewed edge-on. The puppets were unbearably, obscurely creepy. Rachel sat beside Stewart (who seemed to be fascinated by the whole thing, watching the ugly puppets attentively) for three hours before she gave up and went back to their room, alone. The sight of her own shadow flickering on the street repulsed her.
The Rachel of the second photo was in the throes of prepubescent angst, acne sprouting on her shiny face like red cabbages in late summer. Her hair was styled in the absurd swoops and wings that were so popular back then, and her sweater was a yellow “shaker” style with a matching patterned collared shirt beneath. It was a school yearbook photo.
She questioned her mother’s judgement in choosing this reminder of the worst time in Rachel’s life. Middle school had been a hunting ground for bullies, and Rachel had belonged to the herds of squirming prey, attempting to camouflage herself in cheap yet stylish clothes and painstaking hairstyles that now made her cringe in horror. The dance teacher had a son, who had noticed Rachel sticking out like a fat giraffe way back when she took her first dance class. That son ended up in Rachel’s middle school class through some unfortunate accident of rezoning, and he took the opportunity to pick on Rachel as a way to distinguish himself as hunter instead of prey.
Each step she took as she passed this boy in the hall was accompanied by his loud, deepening voice, going “Boom! Boom! BOOM! Watch out, looks like rain, thanks to Rachel’s THUNDER THIGHS!” She could still feel the instinctive shrugging of her shoulders as she tried to make herself small and insignificant as she scurried past him.
He’d gotten others in on the game; it was too much fun, and it distressed Rachel so obviously that soon she had a gaggle of bullies — both male and female — who would thunder at her as she walked by. It reached the point where some of them would spit in her hair as they passed, or wait with their elbows pointed down at her head as she crouched to get books out her locker, her head slamming painfully into their bony joints as she rose. She had no friends, at least not at school, for three years.
The picture didn’t show her legs, but Rachel knew they hadn’t been worthy of the nicknames and taunts. There had been other girls and boys much heavier than Rachel, but they were used to ignoring such attacks and weren’t nearly as much fun to tease as she. Those junior high taunts had been the catalyst for the first of many diets she would try over the years.
By the fourth day of their honeymoon Rachel and Stewart had given up trying to do things together during the day, and Rachel had given up on her fantasies of fruit drinks on the beach and passionate nights — Stewart was mostly exhausted from sightseeing by the time they got to bed. To make matters worse, Stewart had taken a liking to the motorbike rides that were the main source of transportation around the island. Rachel had tried to sit behind one of the island boys driving the motorbikes, but it hadn’t worked out well. The island girls sat sideways on the backs of the bikes, their hands folded demurely in their laps, their thin legs crossed at the ankles. Rachel had straddled the bike and had thrown her arms around the driver as soon as the bike moved, holding on for dear life. She had squeezed so hard that the deft driver had decided to take out a kind of joking revenge on her by driving like a maniac, turning corners at breakneck speeds and whizzing in and out of traffic, narrowly escaping taking the skin off Rachel’s legs. Stewart had tsked and told her that that was the way they all drove, that she shouldn’t take everything so personally. She had declared that if that was normal driving, she wouldn’t sit on the back of another motorbike for the rest of their honeymoon.
So now she wandered the beach alone, while Stewart was out seeing the rice paddies or something.
She was bored, but she wouldn’t doom herself by shopping along the beachside stalls again. She had done that yesterday and made the mistake of showing interest in a sarong hanging in one of the small booths set up on the sand. The little woman tending the stall had literally pounced on her, taken her firmly by the arm and insisted Rachel buy the sarong and several more like it. The sounds of caught prey alerted the other little women, and they swarmed her, holding up their goods like bright wings, trying to force wiggling strands of beads and other trinkets upon her. It had taken her an hour — an hour — to fight clear of them, and even then they kept coming up to her blanket in shifts, inquiring if she was ready to buy something yet, and if she was, would she please buy from them. Rachel had given up in disgust, gone back to her room, and spent the rest of the day lying on cushions on their black lacquered porch.
A little way up the beach, great stretches of fabric painted in brilliant colors and patterns glinted in the sunlight. As she got closer, Rachel realized that the fabric was still wet, and she stood and watched in awe as the magnificent dragon in the pattern changed from blood to ruby to magenta as it dried in the sun.
“You like? You buy, here only ten dollar! You like, you buy!”
Rachel shook her head and disentangled herself from the beachfront vendors, making her way into town, where the little shops and boutiques offered shopping options with less pressure. The relative aloofness of the shopkeepers made Rachel strangely nervous after the exuberance on the beach, and she found herself compelled to buy something in every shop she entered. By the time she’d reached the last sarong boutique, she had two carved wooden masks (a Barong and a Legong), a little wooden chopstick holder carved with unidentifiable monsters, three small purses made from varying kinds of beads, a model of a Balinese boat that looked like a funky spider on water-skis/pontoons, six barrettes, several necklaces, and two Wayang Kulit puppets. She hated the puppets, but thought Stewart would like them, and perhaps he would be grateful.
On her way back to the room, the vivid colors in the window of a sarong shop caught her eye. She was weighted down and exhausted as she staggered into the shop. Last one for today, she thought.
In the next picture, her dress made her look more like a Southern debutante than someone’s prom date. White ruffles and lace fluffed off her shoulders; the princess waist and full, sweeping skirt meant to make her appear smaller than she really was. She was as tan as she had ever been, the result of sneaking off to lie naked in a tanning bed, squinting into the ill-fitting goggles that were supposed to protect her eyes. Rachel squinted now at the photograph in front her of her, and could only barely make out the telltale white raccoon eyes that came from indoor tanning. She’d been good with the makeup.
She was only a sophomore in the picture; her date had been a geeky upperclassman who couldn’t get a date in his own class and had picked Rachel because she was eager to go to prom a year early, no matter who with. Even her friends had mocked her about that, accusing Rachel of using the poor kid to satisfy her desire to dress up and look pretty. Rachel had stuck out her chin and declared she didn’t care, that it was more important to go to the prom than to worry about who with. It had helped that he was well-off enough that going in a limo was a done deal.
That night had ended with Rachel suddenly realizing, while standing on her front doorstep at 4 a.m., that she’d forgotten her keys. Her date offered to buy her breakfast at Denny’s and wait until dawn to wake her parents, but Rachel insisted on going through her bedroom window instead. The window ledge was rather high for a ground-floor room, so she had him jump up first and pull some clothes off a chair near the window, handing them to her so that she could change out of her gown before climbing in. Nervous and out of breath, she struggled to change without ever undressing, and by the time she handed her dress to her date and started to drag herself up the limestone brick wall of her house, she was panting. She landed inside and tiptoed through the house to the front door, where she met her date and took back her dress.
There was an awkward moment as she stood in front of her tuxedoed date in her dirty sweat pants and T-shirt, holding the white prom dress in her hands. He leaned over and kissed her in a sudden, nervous motion, her first kiss as a teenager, certainly the first with any real feeling behind it. She remembered thinking, That’s right, he plays saxophone, as her date poked his tongue in and out of her mouth, as if he were tonguing the reed on a choice jazz solo. She also remembered her crushing disappointment that she was no longer wearing her gown, that for her first kiss, which could have been costumed so dramatically, she was instead wearing the clothes she’d last worn to weed the garden.
The sarongs were gorgeous: bright purples shot through with gold, fiery orange and lime-green batik, red and green and blue and yellow, cotton and silk, flat and textured. There were sarongs that brought out Rachel’s eyes, sarongs that matched her hair, even a few that matched the subtle honey undertones in her skin.
There were none, however, that fit around her hips.
By the time the clerk noticed and came over to assist her, Rachel’s face was hot and her eyes were glistening with tears she refused to let fall. She could tuck in the biggest sarongs, but they would unwrap and fall as soon as she took a step. She looked away as the woman approached.
“You need small hips,” the clerk said matter-of-factly.
Rachel burst into tears.
The woman led her to the back of the shop, pulling aside a beaded curtain and reaching up to help Rachel duck her head. She sat Rachel in a delicately carved chair and offered her tea in a tiny cup. Rachel nodded her acceptance and sipped a little before risking a glance at the woman’s face.
As soon as Rachel looked up, the woman said, “I help you.”
“I help you, with this.” The woman patted her own hips. “I give you massage that make these small. Sarongs fit. But you buy sarongs then, yes?”
Rachel shook her head. “I’m sorry, but no massage, no body wrap, nothing short of liposuction is going to help reduce my hips.”
“I use special cream. You see. Only hurt little bit, then hips gone. You see. Come, lie down.”
She led Rachel to a massage table in the back of the room. Rachel sighed and let the woman talk her into shucking her clothes and sinking wearily onto the padded surface. She doubted she would lose inches in the process, but she was tired from walking and shopping all day, and to tell the truth, a massage did sound awfully good right now.
Rachel was dressed for a frat party in the next picture, taken during her junior year of college. She wore a lot of eye makeup and a long green sweater that made her figure look curvy. She was shown holding on to two of her sorority sisters, arms draped around one another in happy camaraderie. The girl on her left was president of the sorority and had recently lost a lot of weight. In the picture, she still had the shining, hopeful grin of one who finds herself suddenly considered attractive.
They’d had a falling-out later that night. During the party, one of the cutest, most popular frat brothers had been flirting with the president, but ostentatiously dropped her when he saw Rachel enter the room, even though he had met Rachel before. He later told her, as they lay spent and exhausted on his dirty sheets upstairs, that it was a dare he’d been put up to by one of his brothers. He was supposed to lead one girl on, then try to get one of her sorority sisters to go to bed with him instead, despite her loyalty to the sisterhood.
Rachel was horrified to realize that she hadn’t once stopped to think about her sister’s feelings, but had instead hurried off with the cute boy who was suddenly paying so much attention to her. She tried to apologize the next morning, on the ride home, but her friend was having none of it, and the friendship was lost.
The next year, that sister stood up during rush week and said, regarding a hopeful girl they were considering, “I think I speak for everyone when I say I don’t want fat girls in my sorority. We’re already heavier on average than several of the other sororities, and I think we should be concerned about our reputation.” She tried not to look anywhere in particular, but her eyes rested on Rachel and a few other girls who were a little bigger than most.
Rachel bowed her head and did not respond. She deserved it.
The cream tingled at first. Rachel could tell when the woman switched to the special stuff because of its odor. The new cream had a sharp, clean smell, like eucalyptus; it burned her nose a little if she inhaled too deeply. The massage changed from a deep tissue manipulation to a light stroking over her hips. She could feel the woman’s small fingers working the cream carefully, evenly, over her hips, buttocks, and thighs.
Her skin tingled.
The woman was done, but she told Rachel to lie still for a few more minutes. “Vanishing cream must do work, make sarongs fit you.”
Rachel humored the woman, enjoying the slight stinging sensation. But then the stinging became sharper, until it felt like something was biting her, then as if a thousand little bugs were eating her alive. Rachel screamed and jumped from the table.
She caught sight of herself in the mirror. From her waist down to her knees, her skin was a deep purple color. As she watched in horror and considerable pain, the purple faded into her skin, lightening into sickly yellows and greens, like a bruise. She ended up sitting on the floor, staring into her own lap as the pain faded away with the bruise.
The bruises weren’t the only things to fade away. Once Rachel could stand up again, the little woman brought her a sarong to try on.
Rachel ran her hands over her hips, amazed. Her hips were smaller. Her thighs didn’t rub together at the top as she walked around the shop. The sarong stayed tightly tucked around her waist.
She looked at the woman in wonder.
“How much for the vanishing cream?” Rachel asked.
The rest of the pictures were of her and Stewart together. They had met at her first job after college, when she worked as a file clerk and he as her boss. He had flattered her with sweet joking, then flirting, then by asking her out on a date. It was exciting and exhilarating, against company policy; Rachel found it delicious to have a secret, and found it a letdown when Stewart found a better job somewhere else and they made their relationship public.
She had grown complacent with Stewart. Having a boyfriend meant not having to worry about diet and exercise and clothes and makeup. In fact, Stewart was forever suggesting that she wear less makeup, finally admitting he preferred her without any at all. Rachel reacted to this news by starting to wear eyeliner again. She was aware that she was letting herself go, but found she had to work hard against the forces of chaos. She was thrilled when Stewart proposed, as it gave her a goal to work towards; she had to lose 30 pounds for the wedding.
Despite the thrill of becoming engaged, it began to annoy her that Stewart didn’t seem to care that she’d gained more than 20 pounds since she’d met him, or that none of her old clothes fit anymore. He joyfully took her shopping and had her pick out new clothes. To Rachel’s horror, she found herself shopping at the “bigger woman” stores, where the only consolation was that she was near the smaller end of the sizes they carried. Stewart cooed and tried to tell her some stuff about being big-boned, but she was having none of it. She would have to start dieting before she could marry him.
She had to steal the cream. The shopkeeper refused to sell it to her, going on about the dangers, and Rachel was forced to sweep it quickly into her bag when the woman turned to show her out of the back room. Rachel paid for the sarongs — twelve of them — and hurried out of the shop, back to the hotel room.
She appraised herself in the mirror. Her hips were so thin! She struck a pose, admiring herself from several different angles. She walked towards the mirror and away again, imagining she was being watched by a cute, smooth island boy; she could almost feel his eyes on her hips. She shook her ass at the imaginary boy, then giggled. It was very strange, to be a thin person. Her head felt lighter than the rest of her body.
She changed into a different sarong, then another, draping them over her body in strange ways. She discovered that the sweeping pattern on the bright orange one brought out some great sleek curves in her thighs, especially when she posed with one hip stuck out. She swiveled, threw up her arms and blew kisses at the mirror.
Bravely, she took off her clothes and posed again.
Naked, she noticed something. The woman had missed a spot.
Her stomach still pooched out over her pubic mound. The woman hadn’t touched her there; she’d only worked on reducing her bubble butt and cottage-cheesy thighs. Every top Rachel owned had been chosen for its ability to hide this bulge, which was why she hadn’t noticed it was still there until she undressed.
There was no reason for that kind of camouflage now. She had the cream, didn’t she? Besides, her pouchy tummy looked strange with her slender new hips. Stewart was likely to think she was pregnant if she didn’t do something about it.
Her hands shook a bit as she opened the jar of cream.
It shimmered, dark purple with bits of light in it, like stars in a night sky. Rachel dipped two fingers in, pausing to admire the color of the cream in the light of the setting sun before she smeared it across her abdomen.
She looked at those two broken purple lines for a few seconds. They looked disturbingly like claw marks, oozing with unnaturally dark blood. She applied more of the cream and smoothed it into her skin.
Rachel’s arms jiggled as she rubbed the cream in, drawing her attention to the flab there. She slid her cream-covered fingers over her upper arms, trying to sculpt her shape with the cream. She took care of her double chin while she was at it, and the fat under her armpits that made strapless dresses impossible to wear, and the roll of skin that showed when she bent her wrists. Her nervousness was giving her an adrenaline rush, and she allowed herself a moment of pure joy. She was an artist, she had been given the sculpting tool for the human body, for the female body. She would never be fat again!
She bent over and whittled her shins and redid her knees. She even took the fat off the tops of her feet and hands. She hollowed out her cheeks. She gave her hips another once-over, just to even things out.
Thin, Rachel thought, sweeping her fingers in a flourish; thin, thin, thin.
Before she knew it, the cream was almost entirely gone, just a few dark smears left inside the jar.
She stood as long as she could in front of the full-length mirror, staring, thrilled, at her shimmering, dark purple body. The purple changed to blue-brown, green-blue, yellow-green. Pain made her shake; it was worse than last time. She sank to the floor, watching as the green turned an ashy gray.
The sun set as the last of the bruise faded away, and Rachel slowly dragged herself to her feet and flipped on the light so she could look at herself in the mirror. The light shone from directly behind her, backlighting her reflection, making her a black silhouette against the glass, until her eyes adjusted. She stood still for a few moments, trying to take in what she saw. When she moved her hand up to brush some hair from her face, she gasped at the movement in the mirror.
Her elbow, when bent, came to a sharp point. The thin stick of her arm moved without grace. The jerky movement reminded her of those awful Wayang Kulit puppets they’d seen nights ago.
She stared into the mirror as she moved away from her reflection, afraid to look away, terrified that if she turned to examine herself sideways, she might disappear altogether.
Copyright © 2003 Heather Shaw
Copyright © 2003 Heather Shaw
Heather Shaw is the author of short fiction, poetry, and articles on everything from sex to San Francisco. This is her first professional fiction sale. She lives in Oakland with her fiance, sister, and 2-month-old nephew. For more about her, see her website. Heather’s previous publications at Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive.