Brittingham: READ MY HIPS
When we lose twenty pounds...we may be losing the twenty best pounds we have!
We may be losing the pounds that contain our genius, our humanity, our love and honesty.
I’d dreaded this day. Dread like a belly bruised from the inside, swirling puke green, putrid purple, and horrid yellow, and dripping black droplets like lead. At five years old, I wasn’t sure I knew how to pray, but the night before in the quiet of my mind, I’d given it a whirl and pleaded with God, “Please don’t let us move to Michigan tomorrow. Please.” Maybe God was more powerful when you were sleeping under a picture of Jesus, I mused. Jesus tacked to the wallpaper with a neat red pushpin. Jesus in a white tunic with outstretched arms seated on a rock, beckoning to children and snowy lambs drawn with shy, humanlike smiles. Maybe he was most potent when you prayed to him from the bed of your religious grandmother, and prayed with an aching heart.
The night before was our final night in Philadelphia. With our furniture already loaded onto a big green-and-white Bekins truck and motoring toward Detroit, we spent the night at my grandmother’s. I insisted on sleeping with her. I snuggled against her back and was serenaded softly by the radio playing “church music,” as she called it—a spiritless choir delivering correct and measured hymns. Its blandness soothed me.
When my mother roused me in the morning, Grandmom was already up and I found myself alone in her bed, wrapped in the worn-soft cotton sheets dotted with tiny blue flowers. It was five o’clock, that eerie time of day when the world seemed painted in watercolor and sound was shrill, as though delivered through a too-loud television. A teaspoon clattered on a metal stove top, a rustling bag chafed my ear. The air smelled of wet tree bark and coffee.
“Come on, sleepyhead.”
I was in no mood to cooperate. I didn’t want to contribute to anything that would hasten my separation from Grandmom. I adored that chubby, sweet-smelling lady more than anyone in the universe. What I wanted was to stay right here with her, forever, in this ugly rented sand-colored bungalow on Solly Avenue.
She appeared in the doorway behind my mother.
“You better get up, there, kiddo,” she scolded gently, and reluctantly I sat up. As much as I objected to our imminent departure, and would’ve been willing to handcuff myself to the radiator had I the resources, I still couldn’t bring myself to disobey Grandmom. The thought that I might cause her grief in any way shattered me.
I was sitting on the edge of the bed, propped up like a rag doll, groggy and limp, when my mother told me to lift my arms. She pulled my cheap, staticky nightgown over my head, the tag that ensured its inflammability scratching up my side. She slid a turtleneck back over my head. I squinted at myself in the dresser mirror. My grandmother came and settled at my side and smiled at me in the glass, then reached out to pat my knee. I leaned irresistibly into her and she curled an arm around me.
“Sit up straight so you can put your pants on,” my mother commanded.
“I don’t want to go to Michigan!” I cried. “I want to stay here with Grandmom.”
“If you want to come back and see Grandmom again at Christmas, you’ll be a big girl and stop making such a fuss.”
Why not leave me here with Grandmom, and you can come back and visit us both? I wept, my face bunched stiffly up and glowing a bitter pink, my lashes heavy with clinging tears. I wanted to beg her, Please, Mommy. I can go to the school around the corner, where the playground is.
My little heart throbbed inside my chest and my stomach heaved, as though my organs were squeezing out tears of their own in there. My chin tensed and my bottom lip trembled as I buried my face in my grandmother’s belly.
“Grandmom, oh Grandmom...!” I clung to her.
I could hear my mother sighing impatiently behind me.
“Kim,” she said. I heard my own breath catch in my thickened throat. “Kim!” she repeated, angrier this time. I turned my head, still pressed into my grandmother, and saw my mother from the corner of my eye, holding two small brown buckled shoes in her hands.
My grandmother’s hand patted my head gently. “You’ve got to get your shoes on, kiddo,” she urged.
Daddy came to the door and wondered out loud, “What’s the situation?”
I hated the way he said that. Sit-chew-WAY-shin. He always wanted to know what the sit-chew-WAY-shin was, always with his big paws set belligerently on his hips.
“Well, are we gettin’ on the road here or what?”
I didn’t like the way things changed after my mother married Daddy. I didn’t see Grandmom as often, and my mother quickly learned that the most efficient way to bribe me was with currency of grandmother: “But I’ll take you to see Grandmom on Saturday...” It was the magic word. I’d do anything she asked.
I didn’t like living with a big mustached dad who came walking in the front door right in the middle of The Jeffersons with his shirt all torn up, stinking of “aftershave” and his knuckles dripping blood. I didn’t like the way Mommy leapt from the sofa and ran to him to nurse his taproom wounds. In my humble kindergartner’s opinion, she was never nearly angry enough for the sit-chew-WAY-shin. If it was me, I would tell him to get lost.
I especially didn’t like it when Mommy brought my baby brother home from the hospital, and my parents beamed over him like he was the neatest thing since the disposal cigarette lighter. She held the squirming bundle out to me, so I could have a look.
Oh, how I wished she would take him back, but I knew darn well that Mommy couldn’t return the baby the same way she’d return a box of weevil-tainted Rice-A-Roni to the corner store. Still, I asked, “Is he staying forever?”
My mother let out a dry laugh. “Of course he’s staying forever. He’s your brother. He’s a part of the family.”
I, for one, didn’t want to be a member of this family. Something about it just felt...I don’t know. So phony. It was like I’d been enrolled in playing half-hearted house with a bunch of kids I’d never really liked that much. I wanted to grit my teeth and snarl under the towering shadow of my father, “You don’t belong to me, you big bully, you,” then turn to the baby in his stupid foofy blue bassinet and point a finger into his screwed-up little pink face, “...and you don’t belong to me either, you poopy-smelly baby,” and then spin around to face my mother and shout, “and you don’t belong to me anymore because now you belong to them!”
But I didn’t say anything. I was just a little kid, and nearly everything was out of my hands.
I surrendered and stepped into my Buster Browns and let my mother buckle them, all the while keeping one of my small hands tucked inside my grandmother’s. I con-sidered dropping to the floor and begging to stay, but I could imagine my mother’s biting admonishment, Oh for Christ’s sake, do you always have to be so dramatic? Maybe she really wouldn’t bring me back to see Grandmom at Christmas. Maybe she meant that. Just in case, I kept my mouth shut.
That day we drove for ten hours to a rectangular three-bedroom house on a tree-lined street with cracked sidewalks, with roots breaking through from below. I cried nonstop for the first two hours on the road. That vast and terrible feeling returned to my heart every time I pictured my grandmother’s sweet, smiling eyes tinged with a watery sadness of their own, and my belly turned over and moaned. The sockets of my eyes seemed pumped with poison, the backs of my eyeballs were burning. Weirdly, I detected the fleeting alcoholic whiff of a doctor’s office. I squeezed out a hot spring of tears.
I whispered, “I miss you, Grandmom.”
I let my head hang forward. When I opened my eyes again, a long glassy ribbon of snot was hanging from the tip of my nose, dangling perilously over my lap. I brought my shirt up to my face and blew. As I pulled it down again, wetter now and heavier like a dirty rag, Daddy thumped his fist against the steering wheel and shouted at my mother, “Jesus, this kid’s been crying since we left Philly! Enough is enough already. Can’t you find some way to shut her the hell up?!”
My mother leaned forward and reached into a paper grocery bag snug between her feet. She burrowed her hands inside, then drew them out again. She held something white. She swiveled around in her seat and offered it to me.
“Here,” she said. I reached forward and took the little package into my hands. It crinkled.
“Ring Dings,” the label read.
I tore open the plastic and that distinctive aroma of chemical chocolate met my virgin nostrils. I reached in and pulled out a little brown cake, like a sticky hockey puck. I bit into it and a surprise creamy-sweet white center seemed to smile on me. The cake filled my mouth, then slid into my belly, padding it. It packed itself like a plaster against my seeping wounds. I ingested more cake; my stomach grew fuller and was soothed.
I consumed my very first Ring Ding. The ache subsided. My tears dried, I grew quiet. I thought of Grandmom again after I finished the cake, but only briefly. For there, in the bottom of the package, was a second one.