Smaller Than I Was by Michele Harris
When I was sixteen, I wasn’t alive. At least, I don’t think of it that way. I breathed, but heavily through my nostrils. Sometimes, after walking up stairs, I’d duck in a bathroom to catch my breath before anyone noticed.
I hated to move. I imagined who I was — my soul, because I believed in souls then — buoying in my body, and moving much made me feel like I was drowning. In gym glass, we were timed on running a mile. Every year I got a doctor’s excuse, except for one. After a quarter mile, I could feel myself sinking, the winter air pushing in like river sludge.
Most other people didn’t think I was alive, either. (The people who did were worse.) They were kind in cruel ways — they saw me, my saggy, misshapen arms, dimpled, fleshy thighs, jiggling gut and pretended not to. I was the same as the scruffy guy on a subway who’s raving to himself. Most people acknowledged the kindness in your invisibility. They feel it’s what you want, anyway. To disappear — at least part of you.
* * *
In seventh grade, David Growler — a short, scrawny, sandy-haired guy in my class — had a friend ask me out. I ignored it. It hurt, because it couldn’t have been true. But he kept persisting. I was too shy to say anything back. He knew me from choir, where he later admitted he liked hearing me sing. He told me it was beautiful. It was the first time in my life where I actually believed I might not be alone until I died.
My parents were planning a trip to Niagara Falls that year, and like every year, they had me pick the hotel. I flipped through the newspapery pages in our AAA book and came across an ad for a honeymoon hotel in the Poconos. Each room had a pink heart shaped hot tub, where a lipsticked woman in a black one-piece was smiling, sipping from a wineglass. I imagined Daniel and me going there for our honeymoon. I didn’t like Daniel. But he liked me, and so I was probably going to end up marrying him. I tried to imagine what sex would be like. I thought about him kissing and touching me. I tried to imagine feeling okay about that. I shut the book and ate a nutty bar.
I liked to peel the wafers apart, layer by layer, and lick the peanut butter from between the chocolate. Each bar had five layers. Sometimes I’d get the three pack so that I could do this fifteen times. Sometimes I would eat two three packs.
* * *
I’d been fat since I was four. I don’t remember if I was fat when I was three, but I don’t look too fat in pictures. When I was four, my Aunt Jean invited me over to play Chinese checkers. While I was there, she had me stand on a scale. I watched the needle shudder to a stop at 98. She sent me home with a Richard Simmons tape, and had me promise that I’d weigh less next time I visited her.
Three months later, my mom told me we were going to visit Aunt Jean. I kicked a towel and shampoo off our scale and got on. I locked the bathroom door and pushed my fingernails into my face with both hands until there were tiny, pink moon marks under my eyes. I told her I couldn’t go.
We went anyway. When I told her how sorry I was, and that I promised to do better, she scrunched her forehead. “About what?”
* * *
For homework in Mrs. Double’s class (first grade), everyone was supposed to find out what their first words were. My parents told me mine was, “more.” It’s possible they weren’t joking.
* * *
After I turned 10, my parents stopped making Easter baskets for my sister and me, and instead just bought a lot of candy and kept it on top of the fridge. My sister had just started college and was coming home for spring break. I figured they hadn’t bought her candy yet. I opened a package of Peeps and unwrapped a few Cadbury eggs. I broke a chocolate bunny in half, and then broke the second half in half. After a couple days, my parents noticed and told me I ate my sister’s candy, and that she wouldn’t have any for Easter because of me.
I cried and felt sick. I went to the dollar store and bought her more candy. I bought her more than before. When she came home that weekend, I made sure she found the candy I left. She said it tasted terrible.
* * *
We ate out at buffets on the weekends. Usually Ponderosa. We went one day when the roads just started to clear after a snowstorm left two feet of shimmery powder in our yard. I had three cups of Hawaiian punch and mashed potatoes and gravy and tacos and fried chicken and ice cream. I ate so much that when we walked back to our car, I got sick in the snow, and it left a deep, pink hole.
I wanted to go on a diet, but I always messed them up. In third grade, two girls in my class kept asking me what I weighed. I didn’t want to tell them, but eventually, I said “135.” They misheard me and thought I’d said I lost five pounds, and told the whole class, and five kids that day congratulated me on losing weight. It was awful.
* * *
I got called a lot of names in school. “Fat cow” (with accompanying mooing noises), “Sumo Santa,” “fat ass,” “ugly,” “Butterball,” “tubbo,””fattie,” “lardass,” getting asked if I was warmer in the wintertime because of my blubber, being told I would die at 25 of a heart attack, but mostly things I can’t remember.
I used to go to my Grandma Harris’ after school, and in the winter, she’d make me soup and a sandwich, and we’d watch The Price is Right together, and I’d play with a plastic T-Rex that used to be my Cousin Robbie’s. She smoked, and my parents told me that was really bad, but that she was still a good person. Sometimes we’d play Gin Rummy.
She died when I was seven. It was the first time I remembered someone dying. A couple weeks later, my Mom, Aunt Donna, and I were sorting through her stuff. They told me I could keep what I wanted. I thought that was terrible. I grabbed a Glade plug-in and a white lamp The Glade plug-in didn’t work, but I kept it anyways. Two weeks later, my Aunt Susan and her family moved in the house, and she complained to my Aunt Donna that, “that fat ass better not come down here and expect me to make food for her.”
* * *
Things I’ve never done because of my weight: climbed a tree, ridden the Spider ride at Hershey Park, ridden piggyback on my Dad’s shoulders, worn a swimsuit without feeling guilty for all the people who had to look at me, done a cartwheel, ridden a pony at Cook’s forest, done a somersault, eaten a meal without worrying if people think I’m a pig, felt beautiful.
* * *
When I was nine, I tried riding a horse. My Aunt Peggy had horses, and my Mom used to ride a lot when she was young. I had trouble getting up on the horse, so my Aunt pulled over a white lawn chair for me to step on. When I stood on the chair, it snapped down the middle. My aunt said it was all right, but my Mom promised she’d leave ten dollars on the table before we left. That was the only time I rode a horse.
When I was sixteen, my friend Sarah and I were jumping on her bed. After several jumps, I tried one in the bed’s middle. The frame cracked under me. We tried gluing it back together, but it didn’t stay. My friend was also poor and her family wouldn’t have been able to afford a new bed frame. She found an extra one in the attic, fortunately. I asked her to promise not to tell anyone. Her mom and sister brought it up for years.
* * *
My friends and I traded notes in class a lot when I was thirteen. I learned to fold them into a long, narrow strip, and crease them again so that the end result was a tiny lined square tucked into a corner flap. I sent one of these notes to a boy on my bus. He was a grade younger than me. He was fat, too, so I figured he wouldn’t mind me so much. There was a Valentine’s Day dance, and I wanted to go. I’d never had a date before. I’d never slow danced with a boy before. He wrote back that day and told me, “Yes.”
The next day, he had a friend tell me he couldn’t go. I ended up going alone and saw him there. I’ve never asked a guy out since.
* * *
My best friend in elementary school was Megan Bieman. She came to my house a lot, and we’d play with my kitchen set or play with board games (I liked Mouse Trap) or cards. I could tell she didn’t really enjoy hanging out with me, but our parents thought it was good.
I don’t blame her, though. One time in second grade, she spilled water all over my toy cereal boxes, and I got really upset. Another time, I asked if she wanted a milkshake, and when she said yes, I gave her some shaken up 1% milk.
We had a lot of sleep overs in fifth grade. One was with two other girls — one named Gina. I’m not sure why, but we decided to all take a bath together. Gina had hair where I didn’t, and a period already, and I was surprised. Before we went to sleep, Megan and Gina were talking about how much it hurt to have your cherry popped. I didn’t know what this meant, so I didn’t say anything.
When we went to high school in seventh, Megan began ignoring me. It must have been a relief. It almost was for me, too.
Last night, I got on Facebook and saw how much weight she’s gained over the years, and felt really good about it, then really lousy.
* * *
In eighth grade, Mom and I begged my Dad to get a computer. We wanted the internet, and our last computer was twelve years old. (I still used it though, and played Jeopardy that had questions about people I’d never heard of, and played pool, and this one game that was like Pac Man but with demons and long blue hallways). My Dad said we could get a computer if the three of us could each lose ten pounds.
After work, he started walking the fields beside our house, where we’d sometimes pick blackberries in the summer time. My Mom and I watched TV. I liked to watch the Simpsons. I’d watch the Simpsons, Seinfeld, the Simpsons again, and then sometimes watch a movie. Sometimes I would read. I really liked Star Wars books. I’d read dozens of them and even got a Trapper Keeper with Darth Vader on it, but I was ashamed and would always pile books on top of it at school so no one would see.
My Dad lost five pounds. Mom and I didn’t. He bought the computer anyway.
* * *
I started using chatrooms on teenchat.net. A lot of them were dirty, and while I rarely entered these ones, I was intrigued by them. One was called “on the bed with my legs spread wide open.” I didn’t really understand why your legs had to be open. I’d been masturbating since I was five, and anytime I did it, I had to close my legs really tight and press them together, sometimes with a pillow in-between, until my heart beat fast and everything felt warm and lighter.
I started talking to a boy named Andrew, who was also 13, and he wanted to be my internet boyfriend. I thought this was great. He wanted to see a picture of me. We didn’t have a scanner, so I told my Mom, and she took a picture of me outside, in front of our rhododendron. I was wearing my best sweater. It was blue and a size large, even though I was bigger than that. I pulled the photo off the camera, and shook it until I could recognize myself. It was good. I looked smaller than I was.
I dropped the photo and a letter in the mail and thought about what it’d be like if Andrew and I met. He lived in Michigan, which was far but not too far. My Aunt Susan used to live in Michigan. We visited her once when I was five. I would play with my cousin’s He-Man toys (he was a year older than me.) That was the first time he made me go into the bathroom and told me to undress. He had an orange crayon with him, and while standing behind me, he pushed it inside me. It hurt. I told my parents, and they told me not to let him do that again.
A week later, Andrew sent me a message telling me I was fat. His friend got on the chat to tell me that, too.
* * *
That same year, my mom handed me a newspaper article about a boy from Pittsburgh who was sixteen and whose heart was failing. He was in a wheelchair and was smiling in the picture. His name was Andy, and the article listed his address in case you wanted to write him a letter. My mom thought I might.
So I did. I typed it up, a whole page. I told him I was sorry to hear what he was going through, but that I thought he was amazing, and a really good person. When I looked down at the article, and at his picture, and him with his Steelers cap and slightly crooked smile, I wanted to kiss him. Not because I wanted him to be my boyfriend, but because I really did think he was amazing, and I wanted to show him that. I closed my eyes and imagined that. It felt dark and warm. My Mom said my Dad kisses by spinning his tongue around in a circle, over and over in the same direction, and that she hates that, so I made sure not to imagine kissing like that.
I used to imagine kissing a lot, and what it’d be like. I imagined a lot of tongue and collision.
Andy wrote me back, saying that he got my letter, and that it was really sweet. He was doing all right but was nervous about his next surgery. He sent me another picture, and there were tubes in his arms, but he was still lopsidedly grinning. I sent a second letter but didn’t hear back.
* * *
My mom told me I was a good person for writing to Andy. When I was five, she gave me an index card with a handwritten note (I always thought her handwriting was like vines that grew across the paper, pretty and looping) that said I was a beautiful person, and that she loved me so much.
She did love me a lot, even though I was so fat, and that’d have to be disappointing to a parent. I mean, your kid is something you created. It’d have to be a little like making art or writing a poem. You wouldn’t want to show anyone a bad poem. I imagine my parents must have sometimes been embarrassed by me.
Especially before they thought I was smart. When I was a kid, my sister got into Gifted. I was hoping I would, but for years I didn’t. They always went on field trips to museums and went to Mr. President and World Events competitions. They had special classes during the afternoons where they talked about books and played with bright, geometric shapes.
When my English teacher finally recommended me at the end of eighth grade, and when I got results from my test, which said I was “well within the range of superior intelligence,” I felt relieved. Happy, really. At least if I wasn’t pretty, I could be smart. That had to make my parents feel a bit better.
* * *
My favorite snacks when I was young:
Pasta. I would eat it hot or cold, with our without butter. I actually liked it when there was too little water in the pot and the noodles came out all glued together. It was like a Twizzler, but made of spaghetti. (Sometimes I wouldeat pasta raw, too, and suck on a handful of dry noodles until they turned sweet and starchy in my mouth.)
I liked cold lasagna, too. I’d pull the ribbony corners along the edge, which gathered a bit of sauce and meat, and eat that until all the edge ribbons were gone.
Doritos. Cool Ranch were my favorite.
Kettle chips. I especially loved these with dip. I’d go through a bag and only eat the curly ones out of it. My mom told me there were a lot of curly ones.
Nutty bars. Chocolate of any sort, really. I would grab a bunch of mini Hershey bars and peanut M&Ms take them in my room with me and read Star Wars books. I tried to do it really quietly, when my parents were watching TV, so they wouldn’t hear any rustling.
Fried chicken and chicken wings. I loved these, and I liked eating the skin. One time I ate friend chicken years later like that in front of my (now) ex. When I confronted him about his drinking one day, he brought it up and told me I was disgusting for it. The last time I tried eating fried chicken, it tasted terrible, and I ended up throwing out the whole box.
Won ton Cup of Noodles, raw. I’d like to eat this and stay up watching SNL and Conan in the summer time. The uncooked won tons were crispy, and very salty. Sometimes I would eat one cup, then some candy, and eat another.
Bread. I loved eating Italian rolls with just a little butter spread. My mom did this a lot late at night.
Fudge. In college, I once ordered two boxes of chocolate fudge off eBay and ate them in one weekend. I loved how they darkly melted so slowly on your tongue that you felt like you were melting into darkness with them.
* * *
I loved to sing as a kid. I’d sing a lot of solos in church, and my Grandma Frazer would get seats in the front row. Even when I wasn’t singing a solo, she’d always make sure to sit in the seat in front of me, so she could hear.
Singing made me feel lighter. Sometimes it felt like I didn’t have a body. I knew one day I wouldn’t, that I would molt out of it when I died, because you didn’t need a body after you died. So it was all right if the one I had now was terrible.
* * *
I was very religious until college. My parents raised me to be Christian. We went to a church where the pastor raised rabbits and grew his own lettuce.
He baptized me when I was nine. Our church had a big tub behind the pulpit, with mint green tile, and once a year, they filled the tub with icy water and the pastor would baptize anyone in the church who hadn’t been, and wanted to be.
I didn’t know how to swim, and I was embarrassed about this. I knew that not knowing how to swim wasn’t because I was fat, but it somehow seemed related. When he pushed me under, my lungs took in water, and I coughed and slapped the tub water for a good thirty seconds before I righted myself.
I knew I was baptized all the same, but I couldn’t help but think it wouldn’t have counted a bit more if I didn’t cough and thrash around as much.
* * *
In ninth grade, our school held a couple pep rallies for the basketball team. Mostly, it was a lot of loud music and cheerleaders dancing, and a few people got free T-shirts.
I would stare at the cheerleader’s legs. They were so different than my own. I loved the spot right above the backs of their knees, where the curves above their calves and the slope of their lower thighs met in an indentation, and you could see the muscle there tense and move. I thought of them as candy-legged. Even the chubbier girls on the squad had nice legs.
It took years for me to realize I wasn’t just envious of their legs. I wanted to touch them. I wanted to run my tongue along the backs of their knees.
* * *
In eighth grade, my Mom asked me how much I weighed. She was hanging up laundry in her closet, and I was sitting on the brown wooden lip of their bed. I always sat down carefully, and even then, the water bed undulated behind me. My stomach moved like this, too. Once, at my best friend’s house, her sister Caroline pointed to my stomach and told me it looked like jello when I moved.
I told my Mom 240. I actually weighed a bit more, but that seemed believable. She was really quiet and didn’t turn around, and very softly said, “Oh, Michele.” She said it sadly. She was sad for me.
I thought about this every time I weighed myself for years, when the needle crept closer to the point of being unreadable.
* * *
In fifth grade, my Uncle Bob took me in a bathroom and had me step on a scale. It was digital, and the number appeared after a big zero flashed three times. It was as if it was blinking in thought, trying to decide if I was fat. It didn’t have a hard time.
My uncle then got on the scale, and the number was forty pounds less.
My Aunt Peggy and Uncle Bob got on my case a lot about my weight. When I was a kid, my Aunt called me “Butterball.” She called her older son “Butterball,” too. He was also fat.
* * *
I only went to my friend Sarah’s house one time during college. She was supposed to be my roommate, but had kept trying to kill herself until they put her in a state hospital. She floated between these and group homes until she was 27.
For a long time when I had talked to her on the phone, it was eerie. I missed her, but whenever we spoke, it was like she wasn’t there, sunk in a lithium haze. At this point, I was down 80 lbs. Her Mom and sister made a big deal about the whole thing. Her stepbrother didn’t even recognize me. When her Mom’s boyfriend saw me, he laughed, and asked where the other half of me was.
Michele Harris was awarded the Paul G. Zolbrod prize and, more recently, the David A. Kennedy prize in the field of poetry. Her work has appeared in Anderbo, Cicada Magazine, Dirtflask, The Columbia College Literary Review, The Prose Poem Project, Eclectica, Escarp, Stirring, and elsewhere. Currently, she works at MIT and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Massachusetts Boston, where she teaches Literature for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.