The Big Girl
When she was fifteen, the Big Girl learned that to stay friends with Gina, Kathleen and Annabeth she needed to compliment them. A lot. Those jeans look great on you. I wish I wasn’t so tall, she confided to Gina. Your hair is so nice and straight. I hate having curly hair, she admitted to Kathleen. You’re so lucky to have blue eyes instead of boring brown ones, she told Annabeth. Petite Gina, blonde Kathleen, and blue-eyed Annabeth liked the images of themselves the Big Girl reflected at them. So they kept her around, but they never really knew her. Why would they want to look more deeply into their mirror when the surface was sufficient?
They were a clique, the four of them. You never saw one by herself, as if they couldn’t exist alone. But sometimes, when the Big Girl walked behind the other girls on their way home from Fort Hamilton High School, she would see her shadow towering over theirs and shrink into herself. She’d imagine her arms were like a gorilla’s, and that if she allowed it, her knuckles could scrape the concrete sidewalk beneath her. That’s when she’d trail behind her friends, hoping that distance would make her smaller in comparison.
What’re you doing? Gina would ask. You’re like my frickin’ dog, lagging back there. We’re not waiting up for you, you know.
And the Big Girl would scurry to catch up because being left behind was worse than feeling like a freak.
Eight years later, as a graduate student at NYU, the Big Girl became friends with Wendy, a young woman who didn’t need compliments, though she deserved them. Wendy was part of a different crew of friends in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. She was uppity, according to Gina, because her family owned their home on Ridge Boulevard, and because Wendy had gone to Poly Prep, a private high school. But the Big Girl was so used to offering praise like a gift to a primitive god she could never appease that she couldn’t stop herself. You’re so beautiful, she often told Wendy.
Wendy only frowned at her. Stop saying that. Don’t you know how pretty you are?
This was an even stranger situation, one that had never happened before. It was as if one of her gods had suddenly turned to her and said, Look, I don’t need this fruit. You take it. It took some time, but eventually the Big Girl could almost believe what her new friend told her.
One night in her late twenties, at an art gallery opening in Alphabet City in Manhattan where the Big Girl was having her first showing, she met Rob. He was too busy staring at her to notice the art on the walls. And his gaze wasn’t coldly evaluative like the ones the other guests burdened her pieces with. It was warm and approving. So what if he was three inches shorter? It only made it easier for him to look up to her.
Now almost forty, the Big Girl, Rob, who has been her husband for nearly ten years, and their seven-year old son, Jason, drive down from Poughkeepsie to her old neighborhood in Bay Ridge. It’s a warm late September morning and the annual Third Avenue Festival running from 67th Street all the way to 100th Street is in full swing. The Big Girl finds a parking spot all the way down on Shore Road off 86th Street and they walk up four avenues to Third. Blue police sawhorses close off the avenue to cars. Pedestrians, strollers, and small, self-contained carnival rides congest the avenue. The smell of various cooked foods weaves through the air: Italian, Chinese, Greek. On the corner of 87th and Third, music blares out from the jukebox in The Kettle Black (which used to be Fitzpatrick’s). The stores on either side of Third spill their goods out onto the sidewalks. It’s been a few years since the last time she visited her old neighborhood, and many of these stores are new to the Big Girl. They stop in front of a toy store on 88th Street to buy a jigsaw puzzle for Jason, who can sit quietly for hours putting the pieces together.
As they navigate through the crowds of people, the Big Girl introduces Rob and Jason to a few acquaintances they meet along the way.
Jeesh, I forgot how tall you are, Mike, “Don’t Know,” Donovani tells her. He looks her up and down as though she is a statute at MOMA.
The Big Girl hasn’t seen Gina, Annabeth or Kathleen in years, but the later recently friended her on Facebook, and they exchanged a series of emails catching each other up on their lives. In the last one, Kathleen mentioned she would be meeting Gina and Annabeth at Nino’s Pizzeria during the festival for a reunion. And she asked the Big Girl to join them. But the Big Girl had been vague about whether she’d show up or not. Maybe some friendships are meant to run their course and exhaust themselves. When she told Wendy about it over the phone her friend had been optimistic. It’s been a long time, she said. Go. See what they’re like now.
Facebook turned out to be mixed blessing. On the one hand, it allowed her to reunite with friends from college she hadn’t seen in a long time and wanted to keep in touch with. But it also made it possible for her to read the postings both Gina and Annabeth left on Kathleen’s pages, which she had to admit she found herself doing every so often, despite the fact that they were as irritating as a fly in her coffee. From Gina’s postings, the Big Girl learned of her obsession with her two children, ages five and eight, cellphone-wielding brats whose sarcastic comments to their mother were proudly posted on a regular basis. And whose softball games were discussed as though they were part of the World Series. While the newly religious Annabeth regularly quoted Bible passages and was a fan of such sites as “If God Brought you to It, He’ll Bring you through it.” Once, when Kathleen posted a cryptic message alluding to the unfairness of life, Annabeth had written back to her that she was “shooting prayer arrows up at God on her behalf.” Neither she nor Gina friended the Big Girl, and if they were holding off until she did, they’d have a long time to wait.
Then there were all the other old Brooklyn “friends” who appeared, many of whom trailed embarrassing memories behind them like toilet paper stuck to their heels. They liked to display photos from high school events and parties, keeping one foot firmly anchored to their pasts. The Big Girl found herself tagged in pictures she’d rather not see. But there she was, often in the background, looming behind her smaller friends like some sort of swamp creature. She’d untag herself but that only meant she couldn’t see the photos anymore - they were still viewable to everyone else. She kept her own postings to a minimum, particularly after Rob, who was skeptical of the whole Facebook phenomena, asked her if she was planning on telling people when she went to the bathroom or blew her nose.
They stroll up the avenue and the Big Girl points out where she used to hang out with her friends, all the corners and bus stops she waited at for them. The newer storefronts offer more upscale goods than back in the day when she wandered along Third Avenue. But when they pass 89th Street, she doesn’t tell them that she once threw up around the corner from Chadwick’s Steak House, which is still there, after drinking too much Vodka and Hawaiian Punch. Or that she stood outside the old Rexall Drug store between 89th and 90th (now an antique store) where they used to buy egg creams, waiting for Scottie Molloy, who’d drunkenly asked her out the night before at a party. And that these were the loneliest two hours of her life. Nor does she point out the spot around the corner from what used to be a Milk Farm Deli (now a pastry and gelato shop) on 90th Street where she used to buy dime bags of pot from Bobby the Dealer.
But she does tell them, this is where we used to eat pizza, when they arrive in front of Nino’s Pizzeria between 91st and 92nd Streets. The large window above the open counter to the left of the pizzeria’s entrance allows them to look in at the ovens, and beyond, to the booths in the back. We’d get a slice and an ice every time, she says. There’s no better pizza than Brooklyn pizza.
She looks inside and notices that the back booth, the one she and her friends often claimed, is taken by three women. The two she can see are Annabeth and Kathleen. The third woman sits across from them but her broad back is unfamiliar, though the Big Girl assumes it must be Gina, who she knows from posted Facebook photos has expanded out of her once petite form. Kathleen has her arm around Annabeth, as though she is consoling her. The gesture is familiar but distantly so, like driving down a street you played on as a child. Annabeth and Kathleen are too absorbed in their conversation to notice her, and the Big Girl ducks out of view before they do.
Can we do that now, Mom? her son asks.
Sure, she says, and they order three scalding hot triangles of gooey cheese and sauce on top of a perfectly thin crust. Once upon a time when she was a teenager, she would have brought home a large pie—for the family dinner—and eaten the entire thing alone in her room. But today, she and her family eat their slices outside on the crowded sidewalk, and follow them by three ices: a rainbow for her boy, lemon for her, and chocolate for Rob. The Big Girl wipes her mouth with a napkin and braces herself for the meeting. She points out the women to her husband, who casually glances in before giving her a one-shouldered shrug, as if to say, it’s up to you. He’s heard stories about his wife’s former friends, and his interpretations of their actions are more sharply defined than hers because they aren’t unfocused by old affection. She asks her husband to wait outside with Jason so she can go inside alone. It’ll be faster that way, she tells herself, less introductions to make. But there’s also the small truth that if she went in with Rob and stood next to him, she would risk seeing a look on Gina’s face that’s she still remembers.
The Big Girl nervously approaches the table like it’s an altar, the same way she did when she was a teenager, never certain of how warmly she would be greeted. The other booths are filled with eaters and she has to remind herself that they’re strangers brought to Brooklyn by the festival, not familiar witnesses she has to feel self-conscious around. What had separated her from these women, she wonders, before remembering one of the last times they all hung out. It was just after she started going to Vassar, and she’d come home for winter break. She met up with her friends at a party on 77th or 75th Street off Ridge Boulevard thrown by some guy named Steve, who they knew from Fort Hamilton. Steve’s parents had gone away for the weekend, giving him the perfect opportunity to invite half of Bay Ridge. In his living room, sitting across from the three other girls on the couch, she listened to “What’s the Scenario?” blasting on the stereo. Gina and Annabeth were tearing down Chrissy Johnson, who they couldn’t believe had the nerve to show up at the party. After hooking up with Frankie De la Russo, who Kathleen said she liked. The Big Girl was trying to tell her friends about some of her college experiences; the drawing class she was taking, the people she met, the beauty of the campus. But Gina only looked bored, Annabeth distracted, and Kathleen vaguely interested.
You talk too much about school, Gina said.
On the couch, Kathleen took a swig of her pink champale. Annabeth laughed and kept looking toward the foyer. The Big Girl shut up. When the front door opened, a blast of cold air ushered in the arrival of Phil McHughes, a boy the Big Girl had had a crush on for years.
Here’s your boy, Gina told her, a smirk on her face. Phil looked over at them while greeting Steve and several other people sitting on the staircase. The Big Girl slouched down into her chair, hoped she looked smaller, and sucked in her stomach. She shouldn’t have eaten all that Chinese take-out for dinner. But then she realized Gina wasn’t talking to her but to Annabeth, who stood up and greeted Phil with a girlfriendly kiss.
Kathleen leaned over and touched the Big Girl’s knee. Whattre you gonna do? she said.
The Big Girl shifted away from her, unwilling to be a member of the rejects club.
Gina resorted to tough love. You gotta get over it. You can’t make a guy like you.
And pretty Annabeth was gloatingly apologetic.
Later that night, Kathleen tried to cheer her up by telling her that Alan Thorpe, who at twenty-three still got around Bay Ridge on his bike (and not in an environmentally-conscious way), asked about her. Chronically high Alan Thorpe, the joke of the neighborhood. The guy used as the standard of how wasted you were, as though that was supposed to make her feel better. Who’s that big girl you hang out with? How come I never see her around no more? he’d asked. She got a boyfriend?
And sure enough, he showed up at the party as though he was given the heads up that she’d be there. He sat across from her in the messy kitchen, the counters covered with beer bottles and blue plastic cups, trying to make burnout conversation. The crotch of his brown cords was split and the Big Girl did her best to ignore it. Kathleen remained at her side, held there by the Big Girl’s Pit Bull grip on her arm.
When the Big Girl reaches Nino’s back booth, Gina turns around and sees her. Well, look who it is? she says. Long time no see.
You all look so great, the Big Girl tells the trio, falling into the well of her old habits and forgetting that she is no longer “The Big Girl” because she fits into a size eight pair of jeans, has learned how to style her thick curly hair, and wears light blue makeup that highlights the hazel in her eyes. Time has not been so kind to her three friends. The birth of two children has pushed Gina’s waist into extinction. Kathleen’s blonde hair is as over-processed as American cheese. And behind her glasses, Annabeth’s blue eyes resemble a white rabbit’s red orbs. All three are case studies demonstrating the affects of sleep deprivation over many years. And too much sun. Or of lives started too soon and moved through too quickly.
The women don’t return the compliment but the Big Girl doesn’t mind. And she realizes that’s the best thing Wendy has taught her.
You look the same, Gina says. She stares her up and down the way she used to survey girls she viewed as competition. The Big Girl can’t tell if Gina is complementing her lack of aging, or insulting her. She gives the same shrug her husband did earlier, having adopted many of his mannerisms over the years.
Why don’t you sit down? Kathleen says, gesturing toward the seat across from her. The one next to Gina.
I can’t stay long. The Big Girl vaguely motions toward the entrance where Rob and Jason wait for her.
We haven’t seen you in years and you’re ready to leave? Gina asks, mock /dead serious.
The Big Girl laughs. Whattre you gonna do?
You still living in Poughkeepsie? Annabeth asks.
Yeah. I teach drawing and painting at Vassar. She considers telling them how she regularly has her pieces displayed at Dia Beacon, a local art organization. And that much of her work is abstract depictions of women who are sometimes beautiful but who often have what one of her reviewers described as “captivatingly ugly” features; five-foot long pontoon feet that allow them to float on treacherous bodies of water; lopsided women with two different-sized yet faultless breasts. Yes, she’s learned to see the utility of ugliness, and perhaps she can thank these women for that. But she doesn’t say a word. What would be the point? Her former friends aren’t art aficionados and wouldn’t be impressed by her modicum of success.
Is that your husband and boy? Kathleen asks.
The Big Girl has viewed Kathleen’s photos on her Facebook pages, which often include a woman named Susan. This had confirmed the Big Girl’s suspicion that Kathleen is a lesbian. Back in the day, her friend would pretend to like unattainable boys to keep her Irish Catholic parents (and everyone else) in their clueless oblivion. And she drank a lot, perhaps to cover the discomfort of having to maintain a false version of herself. But the Big Girl doesn’t know how out in the open Kathleen is nowadays because her relationship status on Facebook states, “It’s complicated.”
Yes, she tells her. The Big Girl thinks she could mention how her marriage is solid. Her husband likes to plan special excursions for the three of them, or for just her and him. His glance is still warm but now broadened by their history. And her son’s teachers frequently send home glowing reports of his kindness and curiosity. She wants to fan these cards out on the table and say to them, See? A full house. I’ve won. But instead she tells Gina and Annabeth, I’ve seen your kids pictures on Kathleen’s Facebook pages. They’re all so cute.
Yeah. How come you haven’t friended me? Gina asks.
Likewise, the Big Girl says.
Gina’s eyebrows elevate to skeptical heights before she gives a grudging nod.
Annabeth wipes her eyes. You seem happy.
The Big Girl nods. Are you okay?
Phil’s been seeing some bitch. And I’m gonna leave him.
There is a faint sense of gratification knowing that Annabeth’s high school sweetheart has become as bitter as aspirin. Once, the Big Girl and Wendy went for drinks in Brooklyn. They’d gone to the Canteena on Fifth Avenue where they found a drunken Phil holding court among his fellow firemen. Annabeth was home with their kids.
Phil had looked over at the Big Girl and smiled. I know you, he told her. He put a heavy hand on her shoulder and then bought them a drink. Several in fact, and stayed close all night, reminiscing about the good times he’d had as a teenager. His glory days before a mundane life of marriage and children had made his present a memory he couldn’t escape. The Big Girl knew that, had she wanted to, she could have taken Phil home that night. But she didn’t. Nor did she ever tell Annabeth what happened.
She’s tempted to say something now to console her old friend and tell her she’s making the right decision but doesn’t because they’re strangers. Who is she to say whether leaving Phil is the best thing for Annabeth to do? She doesn’t know her situation.
I’m sorry, the Big Girl says. To all of them. What if she had given them a more honest portrait of themselves when they were teenagers, she wonders. Maybe it’s better to not think too highly of yourself, especially at a young age.
Kathleen reaches out to brush the Big Girl’s forearm. I’m glad you came. I’m glad you all did ’cause you guys are my oldest friends and I wanted you to be the first to know. She takes a deep breath and exhales. I’m moving in with my partner, Susan.
Gina gives Annabeth a quick look. No shit. Congratulations.
Annabeth blows her nose. Yeah, that’s great.
The Big Girl imagines how these two will gossip about this afterward. How they’ll laugh over it. That’s wonderful, she tells Kathleen, trying to make up for Annabeth and Gina’s congealed responses.
Thanks. Kathleen looks happier than the Big Girl has ever seen her. How sad that even after all these years, their approval should be so important to her.
Your parents are gonna flip, Gina says. Have you told them yet?
Kathleen sighs. No. I don’t know how. But I figured telling you guys was the first step. You’re my oldest and best friends.
An uncomfortable silence follows as the Big Girl stands awkwardly in front of their table, trying to think of a way to leave them gracefully. She feels Gina’s evaluative glance on her again, and wishes she’d worn something more stylish than long shorts, a t-shirt and sneakers stained with paint splatters. She smiles at Gina, trying to deflect her gaze, while the inside of her deflates in proportion to the expansion of her outside, until once again, she is that fifteen-year-old version of herself.
Well, I should go now. It was good seeing all of you.
The Big Girl escapes from Nino’s certain that, as she walks away, at least one of her former friends is staring at her rear view, evaluating it for all its flaws. Ones that she is reminded of now. Her thick thighs and flat butt. Her broad shoulders. And that once she is out of earshot, they will do the same to every part of her and every word she spoke, looking for any protrusion or crack that offers a hand or foothold to climb in order to achieve a superior view. Until they’ve stood on top of her and can now look down.
Mom! Jason runs to her when she emerges from Nino’s. Can I go on a ride?
Of course you can, baby. She takes his hand in hers. It’s sticky from the Italian ice. But she’s got something in her purse to clean him up. Being a mother has prepared her for almost anything.
How’d it go, Hon? Rob asks.
So so, she says. Some things never change. But then she thinks, maybe they do. Too bad she can’t go back in time and tell her teenage self that this moment would come, when all the casual cruelties of the past became meaningless. That one day like today she would try to call up the memories of the times they’d happened and would fail because she had forgotten what it felt like to be the old her.