For Children

Rebecca Arian

If Only

7th & 8th Grade Prose Winner

I push my way to the front of the bus, squeezing my hips between the rows of seats, backpack slipping down my shoulders. The door swings open and I step off through a curtain of diesel fumes. I avoid looking up, knowing what I will see: the same perfectly normal kids I’ve been on the bus with every day since moving here—meaning kids of an annoyingly average height and weight, wearing medium-sized shirts and pants, and laughing with their friends as they walk into school. There is little to notice about how they look. There are boys wearing baseball caps that advertise their favorite sport teams, and girls with colorful headbands and oversized glasses. The biggest problem any one of them has is standing out from the crowd. Mine is fitting in.

As usual, I feel their eyes on me, hear them whispering as if I can’t possibly know. Do they think I’m fat and deaf? I put my head back down and stare at the ground, scuffed as a result of the daily stampede of middle schoolers eager to get into school, or maybe out of school. I know not to walk ahead of the other kids or they might catch my view from behind. 

“Oh my god, gym yesterday was was the funniest thing ever,” I overhear one girl say loudly. I recognize the voice of Lindsay Kuldell. I know her type, the self-appointed Queen Bee.
“Did you see the look on her face when she couldn’t find her clothes in the gym locker?”

“Yeah,” I hear her friend answer, sounding a little uncomfortable. “Yeah, I did.”

“She had to walk to the office in her gym shorts to get something to wear...in front of everybody! And, and…” Lindsay laughs so hard she has to stop and take a breath. “The clothes they loaned her didn’t fit!” She can’t contain herself. She doubles over, as if it’s the funniest joke in the world. 

My face stings and tears press from behind my eyes and threaten to spill over. Everything she says is true. Looking down, I examine my too-tight plaid skirt, seams stretched almost to the tearing point. I wish I could crawl out of my body. 

It feels like almost no one can see past my weight. When I look in the mirror, I see me: shiny brown hair, small dimple on the right side of my mouth, round face with blue eyes, and a few freckles dotting my nose. But almost no one else in my eighth grade class sees that, or at least that’s how it seems. It's like I’m invisible and tremendous at the same time. And I’m scared that no matter how hard I try, I will always be fat and my weight will always define me. I will never be the ‘girl with the pretty eyes’ or the ‘amazing softball player;’ I will only ever be the ‘girl who eats too much and looks like a killer whale.’

I’ll bet not one kid I know can imagine how it feels to have the salesperson in a store say, in an embarrassed voice, “Sorry, sweetie, we don’t carry your size,” and to have to nod bravely like it doesn’t matter. No one knows that I practically starve myself, only to get so hungry that I eat way more than I should afterward. Every time I step on the scale, I see horrible numbers: 180, 185, 190. Mostly, I don’t look anymore.

My mind wanders to school picture days, which are always the worst. I remember when I was in third grade, the photographer thought it would be a fun idea to make up names for everyone. He called, “You, smiley boy, get on up here!” or to the girl clad all in hot pink, “You, pinkie!” When it came time to have my picture taken, I tried to suck in my stomach as much as possible. “You, um—it’s your turn,” his voice trailed off and the tips of his ears turned red. Everyone tittered. What could he say to me? “Hey, fattie, come on up here”?

The sound of Lindsay’s laugh brings me back to the moment.I feel the eyes of the other kids focused on me. Look away, I pray. I bend over to tie my shoe, letting my hair fall like a shield in front of my face.

“Hey, does the scale break when you get on it?” Charles calls out. I stand up and start to walk, not caring where I’m going.

“Hey!” I hear heavy footsteps and then feel a tug on my backpack. “Wait a second. You won’t tell us? Are you embarrassed?” I am so much worse, so much more, than embarrassed.

“Come on, tell us,” Charles taunts, stepping in front of me to block my path. I clench my jaw and concentrate hard to keep from crying as I edge around him. “Get back here!” Charles yells. 

I start to run, not caring where I end up. Fumbling with the rusted latch to the lower school playground, I slip in and sit down inside a small, plastic playhouse, rocking back and forth, my eyes shut tightly to hold in my tears. I hunch over the ache in my chest as if that might make it go away. Taking in a shaky breath, I try to make myself okay, try to imagine my future, a life I hope will look different from today.

Waiting outside my little girl’s classroom, I peer through the window to catch the last few minutes of her school day, but the ‘WELCOME!’ sign blocks my vision. She finally comes out, dragging her pink backpack, and I’m relieved to see her smile. Her ponytail has fallen out and wisps of hair surround her angelic face and bright pink cheeks. “Mommy!” she yells, throwing her arms around my leg and clinging to me. 
I swing her up and into my arms.

“How was your first day of school, sweetheart?”

“It was good,” she replies. “I made new friends.” For a second, I could cry. I’m relieved and happy and maybe even a little jealous; she makes fitting in seem so easy. I smile, kissing her on her forehead and giving her a squeeze.

The whole ride home, she chatters on and on, and every few minutes, I glance into the rearview mirror to watch my animated daughter.

We make dinner together, my sweetheart sitting on the counter singing the ABCs and me stirring the pasta in rhythm to her squeaky little voice. “Knock knock,” she giggles. Her brown curls, so much like my own, bounce up and down and she looks up at me, eyes wide and sparkling.

“Who’s there?” I play along.

“Mommy.”

“Mommy who?”

“Mommy YOU!” She laughs a deep belly laugh and I laugh too, sitting on the kitchen floor and pulling her down from her perch and into my lap. She settles against me and I rest my chin on her shoulder.

The door opens and I hear familiar footsteps. He shrugs off his coat and tosses it across the counter, appreciatively taking in the aroma. “Daddy!”

“Hey, honeybun!” He sweeps her into his arms and quizzes her about her first day as a schoolgirl. Then he turns to me. “Sar, how’d work go today?”

“I finished another article and they love it. I’m so happy,” I reply, smoothing my apron. I mean it, too. I reach out and hug him tightly, inhaling his familiar, calming scent. 

He hugs me back, pulling me into him, whispering softly in my ear, “My talented wife.”

Pressing my back against the dirty plastic wall, my mind returns to the moment. I bury my head in my arms, wanting to hold on to those feelings of being appreciated, of having someone I love be proud of me. 

“Sarah!” I hear Julie’s voice call from across the schoolyard. “Sarah, are you out here?” 

Rolling onto my side, I ease out of the playhouse and squint in the bright sunlight. “I'm coming,” I call back. “Go on in without me. I'll be right there.” I look up at the sky and think of the poem by Louis Sachar that Mrs. Sheinblat made us read in class:

“If only, if only,” the woodpecker sighs, 
“The bark on the tree was as soft as the skies.” 
While the wolf waits below, hungry and lonely,
Crying to the moo-oo-oon, 
“If only, If only.”

If only I can be brave enough to imagine a beautiful life. If only I can keep believing that one day I might be seen and loved for who I am. If only my life can turn out to be how I imagine it. If only…