What Daddy Was

Samantha Elliot Stier

Samantha Eliot Stier

My mother doesn’t love me now that I am fat.

It’s not her fault. She can’t help it.

I can’t help it, either.

Since Daddy left she is a heap of blankets, a bottle of warm Chardonnay, an iPad full of digital memories. She is mid-90s Alanis Morissette and swollen eyes and aloe-vera tissues, her voice shrink-wrap thin.

I start seventh grade weighing twice as much as she does. I wear elastic-waist pants and baggy sweatshirts. When nobody is looking, I squeeze the flesh of my arms and hips. I bump into things. I am not used to my own size.

Classmates stare at me in shock. They are skinny jeans and iPhones and whispers in the hallway. What happened to her?

I am still here. I am still here, buried under all these cells.

It happened so quickly. And once it started, it didn’t stop.

Other kids sneak out at night to go to parties, to see their boyfriends, to drink beer by the lake. I sneak out to eat.

I steal Mom’s car keys after she’s asleep and I drive and drive, stomach growling. Burger King cheeseburgers are my salvation. I am an addict. I park on a silent street and sit in the car, eyes darting frantic in the dark, waistband cutting deeper as mayonnaise pickles fall into my lap. I dip fries into ketchup, drink them up, hardly chew. Sugar-sweet cola fizzes on my tongue.

I am hungry, hungry, all the time.

When I eat, I don’t have to think about anything.

Right after, I feel the worst.

But if I keep eating, then after never comes.

***

I am not smart enough for this school. I think maybe the fat has gotten into my brain. Everyone is always a step ahead of me. Awards, honors, AP classes, extracurriculars, teams, clubs, sports. The girls in my class are shiny straight hair, Listerine, silver lockets, carrot-stick lunches. Everything is Prep. At the Prep school we have Prep-tests, Prep-courses, Prep-clothes. I don’t know what we are Prepping for.

At school I eat like a normal person. A sandwich, an apple, a handful of tortilla chips. People glance at my food and I know they wonder how I can be so fat if this is all I eat.

They don’t see me at night, when I am not myself. At night I am like a heroin-addict, so hooked I can’t go more than two days without a fix. I sneak out with the lights off and drive too fast, suck down my salt-and-sugar fast food drugs in the front seat of Mom’s car, windows down so she won’t smell it tomorrow. The burger in my hands that looks so delicious is made up of hundreds of calories. I read the ingredient list online once. Words I’ll never know the meaning of, flavors designed in a lab to keep me coming back through the drive-thru, over and over.

I feel it under my skin, transforming into a blanket of flesh.

I barely find time to shower. I don’t sleep.

My mother doesn’t sleep, either. She is an old bathrobe and unwashed hair. She is a collection of little orange bottles with her name on them sideways. This one is to help her fall asleep, the other is to keep her asleep. This one is to make her happy when she is sad. That one is for energy, and this one to calm her down. If she takes them all at once, what happens?

My clothes don’t fit. I need new ones.

She doesn’t want to look at me.

I don’t want to look at me, either.

***

We are doing Prep work for an exam. I am placed in a “study group,” which is supposed to make me smarter. In study group, I memorize facts and figures and formulas and then I can answer questions on the Prep test. When I get the answers right, I get a good grade, and this is a Good Thing. If I don’t go to study group, I don’t memorize anything, and I can’t answer the questions right. Then I fail. This is a Bad Thing.

Angela is my tutor. Long mascara lashes, pink sugar lips, and gel press-on fingertips. She says she is sorry to hear about my dad. She asks me how I am doing, and I tell her I am just fine.

***

Dr. Stevens says I am “at risk” for diabetes and heart disease and obesity. He says this is very serious, and that I can die from these illnesses. I tell him I am Prepping for death. He does not think this is funny. He wants me to go on a Diet.

A Diet is like a Prep test. I have to eat the Right Things and avoid the Wrong Things. If I don’t do this, I will stay fat. I will fail my Diet.

Right Things are fruits and vegetables, whole grains and lean protein. Wrong Things are everything else. Especially hamburgers, fries, and soda.

I sneak out one last time to say goodbye.

***

My Diet is my worst enemy and also my only friend. I fight with it all the time. Sometimes I cry. When I cry, my Diet will sometimes relent and let me sneak a bag of Doritos or a Twix bar that I have hidden in my closet. Crunch-crunch-crunch-swallow and I feel so much better.

Mom has thrown away all her orange pill bottles. They’re still mostly full so I take them out of the trash and keep them safe in my closet with the crunchy snacks. I never know when I will need to be awake or asleep or happy or energetic or calm. It is good to be Prepared.

Now Mom eats only organic foods that haven’t been cooked. She is yoga, jogging, meditation. She is support groups and juice fasts. She is Adopting a Healthy Lifestyle.

She has written a list of Incentives for me and put it on the fridge. When I lose five pounds, she will give me an iTunes gift card. Ten pounds, new phone. Twenty pounds, new laptop. I don’t know what I will do with all of these new things.

My mother won’t love me again until I am skinny. But love is not one of her Incentives.

Angela asks if I have lost weight. Besides my Diet, she is the only one who talks to me. I tell her I have lost three and half pounds, according to one of the four digital scales my mother has purchased for the house. Angela smiles pink sugar encouragement. This is a Good Thing. This is what Dr. Stevens calls Progress.

I am Prepping to be thin.

Angela thinks that if I push myself harder, I can get better grades. Angela gets very good grades and always aces the Prep tests. She is applying to Harvard and Yale. She pushes herself very, very hard.

***

Daddy didn’t really leave; that was a lie. He met someone he liked better than my mom, but he didn’t leave. He stayed and stayed, and also kept seeing this other person.

Then he died.

How we found out is, he was with the other person when he died. If he hadn’t died, we would never have found out.

Also, the other person was a man.

It would be much easier to tell people only that he died. Or that he was having an affair. Or that he was gay. Trying to explain that he was having an affair, with a man, and then he died, is very difficult. The death part overrules the affair part, and I think the affair part overrules the gay part, or vice versa. I don’t think I can be angry at him for the affair; he’s dead. But it’s also hard to be sad that he’s dead, because he was a cheating lying bastard. I am also confused, because why would he marry my mother if he liked men?

I think this may be why Mom got all those pills.

***

Stomach is always rumbling. It is especially bad at night. I can’t sleep, so I go into the closet to find cookies or chips. They are gone. I am a cheater like Daddy; I have cheated on my Diet.

I find Mom’s little orange pill bottle for Going to Sleep and I shake two out. They are small and white but sit heavy in my hand like a Happy Meal.

Crunch-crunch-crunch-swallow and I feel so much better.

The next morning I am so sleepy, I take an Awake pill. I go to school and mark answers on a Prep test. My eyes stay open wide and my head is all buzz. Left pinky twitches.

At lunch I am not even hungry. I take a Calm pill.

Soon I will run out of pills. But I know I can get more. Kids at my school take pills all the time. Maybe that’s how they all pass the Prep tests.

I get my shiny plastic iTunes gift card. Mom’s teeth are spinach-kale green when she says I Am Doing Good.

***

Daddy was backyard barbecue smoke and baseball games. He was ironed pants and gel-cracked hair. A long time ago, he was a pair of plaid arms at the bottom of the slide.

And on Sundays he was hiking boots and Gatorade, lips Cherry Blast red.

***

Mom doesn’t want to talk about it. She talks to her therapist and she says this is enough. She says I can go to a therapist if I want, but it is very expensive so I have to really want to.

Every time I feel hungry, I take a pill. I get my new phone. I don’t tell Mom that I have nobody to call.

***

These days, I am doing very well on my Prep tests. I notice that I usually mark Right Answers when I take two or three Awake pills right before. Then my brain is all buzz-buzz-buzz and my pinky is flickering. Maybe the pinky is where I store all those facts and formulas.

Angela is pleased. She hugs me and I feel her spine through the ribbed white sweater. She is cotton candy perfume. I pull away because even though I have lost twelve pounds and I have a new phone and an iTunes gift card, I am still lumpy fat cells under my sweatshirt.

Dr. Stevens doesn’t hug me because that would be inappropriate, but he does slap my hand high-five. He is impressed with how much Progress I’ve made. I am no longer at risk, and this is very pleasing to him.

I am getting Good grades so I can go to a Good college and then get a Good job and have a Good salary. I am eating the Right Things and losing weight so I can be thin like everyone else.

Mom and Dr. Stevens and Angela are all very pleased.

***

My Diet is scared of me. I have beaten it. I found a way to cheat. I swallow down fries and a shake, go into the bathroom and make it all come back up. Gag-gag-cough-plop and I feel so much better.

They won’t find out unless I die.

I get my shiny new laptop and download the Most Popular Songs with my iTunes gift card.

***

After study group Angela invites me to Hang Out with her and her friends. I am so surprised I nearly choke on my Listerine strip. Hanging out with Angela was not on the Incentive list.

Angela’s friends are Tinkerbell giggles and checkered tights. At the mall everything is cute. This sweater is cute. Those shoes are cute. You would look so cute in that. Wouldn’t I look cute in this?

At Angela’s house they are vodka-Redbull and Cosmopolitan and reality TV. Later they are sex secrets and lacy bras. Angela is milkshake white and freckled back.

Even later, they are drunken shouts and blurry bodies in the dark, tiny hips moving in circles to the beat of the Most Popular Music. Boys are here. Boys want to touch them. Why is it that boys can touch them? Who made the rules?

I swim across the Jell-O room, vodka zooming through my blood on Redbull wheels.

I find Angela and we join hands. She is laughing. Mouth sugar-pink. It sparkles diamonds in the television light.

I am close enough to lick the sugar off. It will melt on my tongue. My fingers are light against her butternut hair.

But she turns away and the boy next to her gets a taste instead.

Who made these rules? I bet Daddy wondered, too.

***

I am a collection of cells. Some of them are fat.

I am the scratchy carpet of the closet floor, a bare bulb, a throbbing head. I am a mess of plastic wrappers that once contained Wrong Things. I am an Unhealthy Lifestyle.

I am Girl with Dead Gay Daddy.

I take some pills for Sleep and a few pills for Staying Asleep. I take a Calm pill and a Happy pill. Crunch-crunch-crunch-swallow.

The pills are salty bitter powder in my teeth, sliding along my gums. Powder mixes with saliva, slips down my throat and seeps into my blood, into my brain but I’m not Happy yet, I whisper to my Diet.

Not happy yet.

8 Comments

  1. Sam: This is a sad, wonderful piece. I felt this girl’s grief, confusion, and unhappiness (no matter how many pills she took to be otherwise). I felt her being in 7th grade without a father and, essentially, without a mother. Beautiful piece.

  2. Thank you, Kat! So glad you liked it.

  3. Loved the piece. Very sharp.

  4. Thank you so much, Kelly!

  5. It drew me in and I just want to read on to find out what happened. Very moving.

  6. This is a masterful piece. The content and tropes build upon each other, yet the language stays direct, almost detached, thereby driving home moments like, “My mother doesn’t sleep, either. She is an old bathrobe and unwashed hair. She is a collection of little orange bottles with her name on them sideways. This one is to help her fall asleep, the other is to keep her asleep. This one is to make her happy when she is sad. That one is for energy, and this one to calm her down. If she takes them all at once, what happens?

    My clothes don’t fit. I need new ones.

    She doesn’t want to look at me.

    I don’t want to look at me, either.”

    I will think about this piece for a long time, Samantha!

  7. Pamela, thank you so much for your kind words. So glad to know it stayed with you and affected you.

  8. Thank you!

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