From the book MAN V. NATURE: Stories by Diane Cook. Copyright © 2014 by Diane Cook. Reprinted by permission of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
Freshman year starts, and somehow everyone is someone else, someone older, someone interested in the faraway future life. Everyone except me. I’m back from a summer at my dad’s divorce condo–decorated to seem remote and armed–and no one cares. I’m watching my old clique grind into boys on the dance floor while the male coaches-slash-civics-teachers roughly separate them, swipe at inappropriate girl parts, and get away with it in the authoritative heat of the moment. I’m watching it all, cringing, but I wish I were in the scrum.
I want to be fondled. I want someone to press me somewhere too hard. I’m hot with shame. The good kind.
I turn to Clara. She never talks because her parents are professors. She still wears girls’ undershirts, and she can’t quit horses. She looks about as far away from the dance as a dead star.
“What do you think Mr. Ryan tastes like?”
Clara turns red. I do too.
My math teacher is breaking up a couple by getting in between them, his groin brushing a junior in a glitter skirt. He has a chestnut beard and glassy eyes. Sharp shoulders. I’m imagining inspecting the pale skin under those fine dark hairs of his forearm as he leans over my desk to tell me what x is. He must taste like just-dug rocks. My mouth waters. His calculus fingers wiggle toward me. He says I’m a ripe pear. He is very close. My ears ring. Pears are rotten.
I smack my head to stop my dirty movie.
That’s when I spot Marni tossing her hair around the way women do on daytime talk shows. She’s screaming at her boyfriend, Mack. She’s louder than the music, and it sounds like one long wee. Marni is attractive and fat, with an unnaturally narrow waist and unnaturally big boobs and ass. Her cheeks and lips are plump, but somehow her jaw is sharp, and she looks like a sexy Victorian porcelain doll. She wears her hair big and together it all works to make her seem normal-sized with a lot to grab. But I’ve seen her getting into her pajamas and I’ve seen her gullet a whole pizza at a birthday party, and there is nothing normal-sized about her. She is a magnificent cow. She was my best friend. I wrote her twenty-six letters this summer and she wrote me none. We haven’t talked since middle school.
Mack grabs some of that big hair. He pulls her to him, mouth wide, rooting for hers. Marni raises her hand. Maybe she’ll stick fingers in there, swirl them around. I want her to. But she scratches at his face and hauls herself across the crowded floor. Couples part for her because somehow she is revered; rumor is she’ll be at least nominated for homecoming, though she won’t beat anyone on cheerleading. In the corner of the gym Theresa and Hill, Marni’s new bests, detangle from their dates. They’re getting felt up, but they somehow know Marni is on the move and they follow. I guess that’s what it means to be bests now. I only know what’s happening because I’m spying from bleacher land.
“I wonder what that was all about,” I say to Clara. My voice is conspiratorial. I’m trying to make gossip. But the dead star barely shrugs.
My knee quivers like a compass needle.
I know Marni’s favorite spot.
Dancing couples step all over me like I’m a cat underfoot. It takes me two whole songs to get across the gym. I throw my shoulder against the rusty door. It squawks.
The hallway is quiet but full of couples pressing against lockers. Skirts inch up thighs; pants creep low. I can’t tell if it’s just style or if they’re all about to do it. Where are the teachers? What’s that smell? I want to grab all their hair as I run, and give a terrific yank. I want to sweep their legs and watch them go down.
The girls’ bathroom is a floor above, at the end of the hall. I hear thudding and I sprint up the stairs. The ruckus gets louder down the corridor. I hear a thump and then an ooph, another thump and an ooph. From behind the door Marni shrills, “Harder!” and it’s like she’s in my ear.
I crack the door and see Marni lying on the floor, coat spread under her, her hair splayed out. She looks romantic and princesslike, and then Theresa lands a socked foot hard onto Marni’s protruding fat gut.
“Ooph.” Marni’s cherub face bunches. Hill stomps her size nines down. They both say, “Ooph,” then Hill wheezes like it’s hot.
“Come on,” Marni growls. She reaches for Theresa’s leg just as Theresa lets it drop. Marni’s head snaps back on the floor. A sick crunch.
I gasp. The three heads jolt. They see it’s just me.
“What do you want, Fart?” Marni sneers.
She’s lying there: beaten, regal. Cracks in the windows make shimmering webs. The heater is clanging. The stomping girls are huffing. Everyone is waiting. I want to join, is what I want. I want to land some full-force kicks. I want to miss and get her shoulder, her head. I want to jam a toothbrush down her throat, make her thin.
“You’re going to get in trouble,” I say. I try to sound loud and sarcastic, but I don’t.
The girls exchange looks and laugh too loudly; one big fake ha each. It’s effortlessly coordinated.
Theresa plants a foot on Marni’s belly, claiming her like an explorer. “She’s in trouble all right,” she says, arching her back, sticking her gut out, rubbing it. She strains her face and moans.
Marni on Mack. Mack in Marni. A little Mack and Marni. My head rushes. I want to watch, hear the sounds.
Marni, a scowl storming, pushes Theresa, who topples down to the tile and stays down, plays dead.
“Get out,” Marni roars at everyone, but I’m the one who runs.
Outside the gym, I find a gaggle of teachers gossiping. A flask is tucked when I skid up to them, breathless. I tell them Marni Duke is getting beat up in the second-floor girls’. I can’t even tell them why. We’re just fourteen.
I’m hot with shame. The stomach kind. The kind that hurts. I run home, punching low tree limbs as I go.
* * *
In homeroom on Monday, everyone whispers about a fight in the girls’ bathroom. The rumor is Marni. The rumor is one girl held her down while another kicked her. People gasp. Marni from Homecoming? Coos of sympathy all around.
I’m summoned to the office.
Marni, Theresa and Hill slouch in the lobby, and the principal calls me in. The girls glare as I close the door.
He asks, “Gabby, what did you see?”
They glare through glass and I can’t speak until the principal lowers the blinds. As they fall, Hill raises a fist. I catch Marni’s eye, and it’s an eye so familiar I’m momentarily grateful to have its attention. Then the blinds are down. It’s just me.
The principal wants my version.
“I don’t have a version,” I say.
He sighs. “Just tell me what you saw.”
I tell him what I saw–Marni on the ground, Hill and Theresa stomping.
“Where?” he asks.
I touch my stomach, watch him jot on a notepad. “But I ran,” I say. “I don’t know anything else.”
“Did they say anything to you?”
I shake my head no. I can’t say.
He stares, pen poised.
I clear my throat, speak sideways. “Marni had a fight with her boyfriend right before. You could talk to him?”
The principal is confused. “Was he there?”
The swirl pattern of the carpet is moving; it wants to crawl up my leg. I shake my head again. “No.”
“And how do you know about this fight?”
I shrug and look at my hands, the skinny fingers and fat tips. They’re like frog hands; sticky, creepy. They’d ruin a lily pad. I smooth my strained jeans. Something smells. I’m sure it’s me.
“I watched them,” I answer.
The principal nods, leafs through a file of papers–the paper version of me.
I brace myself for the lobby, for the baseball bat I’m sure will meet my skull when I enter it, but Marni and the girls are gone.
I walk to the nurse’s office and puke on her desk. She sends me home. I go the backyard route so no one will see me.
* * *
In homeroom Tuesday, everyone whispers about how there was no fight between Marni and Hill and Theresa. People nod. They’re bests, you know. Who lied? The rumor is me. “Gabby,” girls whisper conspiratorially, ready to hate. “Who?” Uncertain glances from desk to desk. “Gabrielle?” Heads shake. No recognition. I’m sitting right there.
I’m in line for lunch and Theresa comes up behind me, digs her plastic tray into my spine. I double over my ravioli.
“Meet Marni out front before fifth. Do it,” she bleats.
I sit next to Clara. Her whole look is skeptical. I don’t touch my food. The ten-minute bell.
“Clara,” I hiss. “Come to the bathroom.”
She startles like I’ve just woken her. Looking out the window is her form of sleep. But she follows.
First-floor bathroom. Lots of postlunch traffic. I peer under doors. The so-what smokers are enshrouded near the sinks. My eyes water.
I grab Clara’s hand, but she takes it away quickly, disturbed. Too close, she seems to say. I think I hate her. “Just stand guard outside the bathroom, okay? When the bell rings, text if you see Marni, Hill, or Theresa.”
“Why? Because you lied?”
How does Clara know a rumor? She’s a corner-sitter. “I didn’t lie. Just do it.”
I lock myself behind a stall door and crouch on the toilet. I can monitor through the crack. I wait.
Girls rush in, rake brushes through their hair, apply shiny gloss with wands, blot, spit into sinks. Cheap perfumes mist the air.
The bell rings; the room clears out. A drip glugs down a drain.
I text Clara a question mark, but I get no response. She’s probably wandered into some empty classroom to wait for her life to begin.
The door swings open. I smell Marni before I hear her, the fake coconut of her sunless tan. Hill and Theresa stifle awful snorting haws. They walk the line of stalls, kick in each door. They’re not wondering where I am. They know. I make myself into a small clump on the toilet seat. The whoosh of the door parts my bangs.
Hill pulls me out. “Nice try,” she mocks.
From behind the cracked door, Clara peeks. We lock eyes. I wait for a mouthed apology. She scans the scene and, incredibly, smiles before bolting. Have a nice day. I hate her.
Hill and Theresa each pull an arm behind my back. Marni smiles and knees me in the groin so hard I dry heave. They scoot to avoid my puke, but when it doesn’t come, Marni knees me again.
“Ooph,” I say and gasp for air. I’m not big like Marni. I’m misshapen, weak. My legs are logs, but my middle is bird bones, doughy, and her knee reaches the center of me.
I’m bent. Hill and Theresa try to pull me up but I pull down, not out of preservation or show of strength but out of defeat. I want to hug the ground. My legs tremble. Marni’s hands reach for my face and I let them guide me gently up because they’re her hands. I know their gentleness from when she taught me things, placed my fingers on guitar strings to press as she strummed, held me up on a bike. When she soothed me after my dad left. I look into her eyes and at her sweet, pink face. She wears more makeup now, and under all the coconut she smells stale, as though she smokes outside so that the smoke will blow away but it gets caught in all that hair. For a moment I think she’s going to smile, rub a smudge from my cheek, kiss me. But then, finally, her fist meets my face. I hear the crack, and now it’s the floor reaching for me. I see their smiles as I go.
Lying here, what I cry about is that not one of them speaks as they leave. There’s nothing to say about the downfall of unremarkable me. The only sounds are their different shoes on the tile: the click of too-grown-up heels, scuff of sneakers, clomp of daunting boots. They strut out the whining door and down the hallway, uncaringly late for fifth.
The tile is cool. Dirt shames my cheek. I have a bug’s-eye view of the bathroom floor, littered with snarls of long girl hair and dropped cigarette ash. A glittery popped-off stick-on nail lies almost close enough to touch.
* * *
I wake up in bed. My head hurts. I can’t breathe right. A rigid thing covers my nose. I tenderly pick. Crusty blood clogs my nostrils. I try to drink from a glass of water but the nose won’t let me.
The door creaks. Mom’s tentative head appears. Her eyes crinkle above her nervous smile.
“Oh good, you’re awake.” She perches at the edge of my bed, smoothes the hair across my forehead, and then I’m aware that I have a bump there.
“What happened?” I gurgle.
Her hand stops in mom alarm. “Don’t you remember?”
The hand continues across my forehead. “Do you want to tell me who did this?”
The hand stops, rests heavily on the protruding bump. It hurts. Does she know she’s hurting me? I think she does.
“I mean, I don’t remember. I mean, I don’t know.”
Mom sighs, disappointed. “Okay for now, Gabrielle. But we’re not done.” Then she brightens like she’s just been handed pages for the next scene. She says, “You have a visitor!” She straightens the sheet across my chest. “Honey, Marni is here.”
I tense. “Why?”
She smiles self-pityingly. Her daughter is strange. “To see you. To see if you’re okay. Isn’t that nice?” She pauses. “Marni hasn’t been by in such a long time. I didn’t think you two were still friends.”
“Well, then, it’s doubly nice that she came, isn’t it? Are you up for it?” She’s up for it, I can tell. She’s already fondling the doorknob.
I remember how Marni’s fist cut the smoky light shining through the cracked windows of that bathroom. It’s half- the-day-left light. It’s the kind of light here now.
I nod, and when Mom leaves, I pull myself up to a sit.
Marni tiptoes in, straight-backed and calm, her face friendly and serene. For a moment, I’m relieved. But when the door clicks behind, her body slouches into a threat. Hands on her hips. She looks at my face and snorts. “You look like shit.”
“Did you come to apologize?”
Her guffaw is from Drama. “No.”
“Did you get suspended?”
She guffaws again. “Why would I? We didn’t do anything wrong. They were helping me. It’s what friends do.”
I flinch. What a jab. “Then why are you here?” I’m acting tough.
Marni squeezes her hands together and looks around the room, everywhere but at me. She shrugs. “It didn’t work,” she says with fake indifference. “I need it to work. And now Terry and Hilly are spooked.” My stomach tightens at the nicknames, the intimacy. “That’s your fault, you know. So.”
“So what?” I yell it just enough, but not enough for Mom to hear, wherever she is.
“Finish it,” she yells back in the same way, but meaner.
“Why me? Why not Mack?”
Marni looks at me, disgusted, like I’m a horror under my fresh, flowery sheets. “I thought you were my friend.” Her chin quivers, and even though I know the logic here is wrong in that way that I almost choke on, I don’t care.
She waits for me to prove it. But I concentrate on the feeling of air through my nose, in and out to slow the anticipation growing in my stomach.
“Fine,” Marni hisses. “Then I’ll do it myself.” She punches at her gut, her fists cluttered with cheap rings, barely denting her fat inner tube, hysterical.
“Stop,” I plead, and grab her hands. “You know that won’t work.”
She looks at me.
“I have to step on it.”
* * *
I make a soft bed on the floor with my comforter and the quilt my grandmother fumbled her way through. It’s how I used to make Marni’s bed for sleepovers. She lies down; I cradle her head, place a pillow under it. Stretch her hair out around her like she’s floating in a pond. I know the pillowcase will smell of coconut after. I know I will let the scent fade on its own before I’ll wash it.
I fold her hands over her chest like she’s a dead person, and I see the slivers of scum under her nails. It’s the dirt from dirty things. It’s Mack’s back skin from scratching. She never cleans. Is that even how it works? I’m salivating.
“What’s it feel like?” I ask, because even though she has stopped liking me, she’s the only person who can tell me.
Marni rolls her eyes. I want to slap her hard, but I have no one else to ask. Does it feel slick like glue? Is it a pressure like shoving? I picture my dad’s girl calendar, tacked on the stainless steel fridge. I can’t ask him. I can’t ask my mom. I can’t ask Clara because I hate her, and what would she know?
Marni bites her lip thoughtfully, and I almost think she’s going to tell me, but then her face scrunches like she’s going to cry, just for a second. “Just do it,” she orders and punches my shin.
I drop my knee with what feels like my whole weight behind. It sinks into her like I’m landing on Mom’s too-soft bed.
“Ooph,” she bellows.
“Shh. You’re being too loud,” I whisper. “Why can’t you just go to the doctor?”
The way she looks at me, I can’t figure out if there is something about the world I don’t know yet, or the other way around. There’s something about the world that isn’t real to her yet, either, like doctors, or problems with simple solutions. The world is where things feel too hard to explain, and so they stay a secret.
I drop my knee again.
“Oh, oh,” she moans, and I worry Mom will hear.
“Shut up,” I snap. I feel the sharp shame of being in trouble even though no one knows. It was always this way with Marni–thrills and pains. I always felt good and bad because of her. I shove her hard with my foot. “You’re trouble.”
She gasps, and then really sobs. “You’re so mean.”
“You’re the meanest!”
I didn’t think I was mean. I thought Marni was mean. Were we mean together? And if we used to be mean together, why couldn’t we still be? I want to be meanest with her.
I find a pair of balled-up socks on the floor and push them into Marni’s mouth. She makes protest sounds and starts to take them out, but I push them in farther until she gags. She quiets down and watches me with big, alert eyes.
I prod my toe into the fattest part, just below her belly button. I step there lightly with my bare foot; steady myself with the bedpost. I place the other foot. It’s like being in an inflatable castle at a street fair; everywhere I step gives way, and it’s hard to get my balance. My foot slips, rakes her side. She winces. I finally get on good, hand on the bedpost, other arm outstretched. Balanced. Her belly squishes under my feet, but beneath all that fat is a small, hard mound that seems to push up against my weight in self-defense.
I begin to bounce up and down, lightly, and Marni huffs quietly into those socks, to the rhythm I make. With each bounce, I gain momentum like I’m on a trampoline, and so I bounce a little harder, faster. I’m no longer slipping. Marni’s huffs get louder and I dig my heels in as a warning. She squeals unhappily through the socks, and after that, the only noise she makes is a tiny gurgle in her throat like she’s going to vomit.
It’s like the fat has melted away, and all I can really feel now is that secret mound. I want to break it open, slay the dragon, save the princess. I don’t want to stop until I’m sure it has worked.
Tears flow from Marni’s eyes; they run through her hair, pool in her ears, spread darkly on the pillowcase. Her balled fists unclench, and she covers her face.
I can’t explain it, but I feel maybe the best I’ve felt since the end of last year, when on the last day of school me and Marni and a couple other girls snuck into movies all day without getting caught. We’d heard it could be done from someone’s older sister. We’d leave before the end of one movie, run into the bathroom, and hide in stalls to wait for the next one; me and Marni squatting in the same stall, feet on the toilet seat, leaning against the walls, laughing into our hands at the fact that we were doing the things other kids did. We were becoming like other kids. And it was so easy. Just a series of steps.
Diane Cook is the author of the story collection Man V. Nature, and was formerly a producer for the radio show, This American Life. Man V. Nature was a finalist for the Guardian First Book Award, Believer Book Award and the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction. Her stories have appeared in Harper’s, Tin House, Granta, and elsewhere and anthologized in Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Prize Stories. She is the recipient of a 2016 fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.