Maggie wondered what it would be like to be a normal person—one whose mind didn’t whir like an out-of-date hard drive, spinning, unable to keep up with the new expectations of the world.
She stared at Audrey Atkins in her pink bikini, its strings hugging the taut, tan surfaces of her neck and hip bones, and figured Audrey’s mind was as blank and free as an empty beach. Audrey probably woke up this morning--hungover, but not feeling guilty about it--wriggled into that bikini, and set off for the pool party. Nothing more.
Maggie’s day started at four a.m., when she woke from a nightmare about the party. In the dream, she’d forgotten her bathing suit and was completely nude. Everyone was staring, and there wasn’t a towel in sight. When she tried to cover herself, her hands shrank and her body kept growing larger until she woke, gasping in her twin bed.
She didn’t want to go to this party, but she’d promised her aunt she would give college life a better try. The sorority thing was not going to happen, but the honors welcome party had seemed innocent enough. Then Dr. Burman--who was supposed to host a cookout in his backyard--had to cancel, and Dr. Morgenthal volunteered to host. “BRING YOUR SWIMSUIT!” the new Facebook message said.
If cellar door was the most beautiful phrase in the English language, Maggie thought BRING YOUR SWIMSUIT had to be the ugliest. She owned one swimsuit, which was more of a swim dress. It was black and ruched “in all the right places,” her aunt had declared as Maggie emerged from the Macy’s dressing room.
“I’m leaving the tags on,” Maggie said, tugging the lycra skirt so it covered her ass.
“You won’t. You’ll need this—didn’t you see that pool behind the boys’ dorms when we did the campus tour?”
Maggie had seen that pool, and she had to admit, if there was one perk of the honors welcome party, it was that Dr. Morgenthal’s pool was not visible from every window of the boys’ dorm--girls splayed out on the deck below like meat.
Audrey Atkins was playing chicken, wielding a foam noodle as a sword to thwack another classmate. Her legs clenched around the shoulders and neck of a guy Maggie recognized from Dr. Peterson’s Calculus class. Calculus guy looked perfectly comfortable being separated from Audrey Atkins’s crotch by only the smallest triangle of fabric.
Maggie turned away. “Chips?” Dr. Morgenthal offered. Maggie shook her head. “Let me at least take your bag.”
“It’s okay. I might—change in a minute.”
“Good! The water’s great,” Dr. Morgenthal said, “and it’s too hot for jeans today.” She eyed Maggie’s outfit—frayed blue jeans, a black t-shirt, and a cardigan.
Maggie’s hard-drive brain whirred again, reciting all the rules she knew to be true:
When you are a girl who weighs 250 pounds, observe the following:
Do not eat in public, except for tiny bites when no one is looking.
No swimsuits, no shorts, no tank tops.
No dresses if you’re going to be walking, or your legs will chafe.
You are invisible, yet people’s eyes are roaming your every roll and dimple.
Maggie planted herself in the shadiest deck chair by the food table. She watched a fly circle the ranch dip, then land in it. In the pool, the game of chicken had broken up in favor of a cannonball contest. Audrey Atkins bounced on the diving board, drew her knees under her chin, and hit the water with a pebble-sized splash.
“Boooo,” Calculus boy hollered when she surfaced. “I give it a four!”
“Hey!” she said, kicking a wave of water toward him. “Like you can do better!”
“Magnolia Clark!” a voice boomed. It was Dr. Peterson, her Calc professor.
“Maggie,” Maggie mumbled.
“So how’s freshman year treating you so far?”
Dr. Peterson was graying and wore crooked glasses. He also wore a Life is Good t-shirt and Hawaiian floral swim trunks.
“Fine,” Maggie cringed. “Are we still having a quiz on Monday?”
“Please, no school talk now! Did you bring your bathing suit?”
Jesus, will it ever let up?
“You know what?” she said, “I think I’ll go change now. Be right back.”
Dr. Morgenthal’s bathroom was pale yellow, and everything in it was plushy. The bath mat, in the shape of a rose, was softer than new carpet, and the toilet paper was the quilted kind Maggie’s aunt always said was a waste of money.
Maggie stripped off her clothes and stood naked in front of the bathroom mirror. Her mind whirred through all the usual insults—the names of animals she’d been called in the past, the clinical terms her doctor had used, concern knitting his brow. The words she knew weren’t healthy—words like disgusting and worthless. Constant, looping words. She shimmied into the bathing suit and snapped the straps over her arms. Ham arms, her mind spun.
Now comes the next phase—sitting ensconced in a towel, repeating “I’m letting my food settle,” through the next ten conversations to avoid unwrapping.
But before she could reach for her beach towel, the door to the bathroom swung open. A lithe body scurried inside, slammed the door, and locked it.
“Excuse me?” Maggie said.
“Thank God it’s you,” Audrey Atkins said.
“I’m in here?”
“Sorry. I had to—holy shit, I can’t even believe it. Maggie, he is such a pig!” Audrey’s face screwed up into a knot, her eyes swimming.
“You know my name?”
“Um, yeah? From orientation group? Everybody else was like, really lame? But shit, even the professors want to talk to you.”
“He is such a pig,” Audrey repeated, sinking down onto the rose bath mat. “I never should have worn this.”
“Wow, no—I don’t know what happened, but if that guy did something to you, a swimsuit is not an excuse.”
“Do you know this is actually my first time ever wearing a bikini? God, I am such an idiot.”
Audrey stole Maggie’s towel from the floor and wound herself up in it like an exotic cocoon.
“The string,” she sniffed, “slipped when I dove off the board. And Nick—he said my boobs looked like—" she gulped.
“You don’t have to say it,” Maggie said.
“Will you—come sit with me outside? I can’t leave. My roommate gave me a ride, and she’s being a bitch right now. She actually laughed when my top slipped.”
“Hey, the tag’s still on your suit,” Audrey said, and before Maggie could stop her, she stood and snapped the plastic loop with her teeth. Maggie cringed, anticipating the judgment when Audrey saw the size. But Audrey just tossed it in the trashcan.
“Okay,” she said. “You look great, but are my eyes super puffy?”
As she looked at Audrey, her barely-red eyes, her wet hair piled on top of her head, the pink bikini string peeking from behind the bulk of the beach towel, Maggie let her mind stop whirring.
“You’re good,” Maggie said. She opened the door and followed Audrey back to the pool.
Photograph by: Matt Crump