The tips of my toes hit the base of the metal scale and the school nurse mutters, “Stand still, stand still.” Titters behind me from the rest of my classmates—without looking I know it’s Christa Walters and her girl gang. Her whispers don’t coalesce into fully formed words, but I feel the intent and again, the girls behind me laugh. The school nurse’s soft belly presses against my side as she shifts me into position. I stare at the sleeve of her white uniform, breathing deeply to calm my stomach. She smells like Lysol and citrus like she drank orange juice before coming here and I’m suddenly desperately thirsty for an orange juice myself to quell the heat rising up the back of my neck and across my chubby cheeks.
“Stand still,” the nurse says again, and I’m aware of swaying, the dizziness in my head moving through my body from my head to my knees. I’ve pushed all the air from my lungs, sucking my stomach in as far as it will go. Or should I inhale? Does oxygen weigh less than everything else?
The nurse clucks her tongue as the clang of weights moving across the slide bar makes me jump. Her pencil scratches across her pad, her arm bumps mine. I can’t bring myself to look up. Even at age six, I know the numbers will be higher than everyone else in the class, even the boys.
“I was your size when I was a kid,” she says. I can’t take my eyes off her sleeve—I don’t want to see her fat body, the way her white uniform bulges at her belly. I don’t want to see my future in the jowls under her jaw.
“All right, move along,” the nurse finally says.
I step off the scale and the next kid jumps on before I’m completely off, chirping a greeting at the nurse. I slink back to my desk, carried by the titters and whispers of Christa and her gang.
Behind me, the nurse says, “Excellent, Sarah,” as she adjusts the weights back down. Down and down and down to Sarah’s perfect balance.
Christa leans across her desk. “What did the scale say?”
“I didn’t look,” I tell her, but I don’t meet her eye. I rest my head against the smooth, grooved wood of my desk, inhaling graphite and polish, tracing the initials left from another student, another class. Z.D., my fingers stroke out the letters again and again. Who is Z? Did she hate school as much as me?
Mrs. K lets me stay in at recess to finish my handwriting exercises, but Christa still corners me as I’m coming out of the bathroom. “I saw you look,” she insists, and a gang of girls surrounds her, agreeing.
I saw you look, they chorus, I saw you look. I’m forced to retreat as they advance, prodding at my stomach, demanding to know my weight. One of them pinches my arm and twists until I cry out. My knees go weak as I search frantically for an escape. The girls back me into the coatrack, snickering and poking until our teacher appears.
She separates us, sends them back to their desks. She kneels in front of me, pity on her perfect face. I want to touch her slender cheek. I want to hide in her shining dark hair.
“When I was your age, I was fat, too,” Mrs. K says, patting her own slender stomach. “Until I got pneumonia and almost died.”
She guides me back to my seat and returns to the front of the classroom. I stare after her, wishing fervently to get pneumonia and almost die.
The girls’ voices follow me to middle school, to the first dance, to Jim Freedman standing in front of my locker, staring at his own feet as he scuffs the floor. “You have a date to the dance?” he mutters. Panicked, I flee. “We saw you look,” the girls’ voices echo in my head as I run out of school, all the way home, panting and crying by the time I reach the front door and, “Boys don’t go to dances with fat girls,” my dad tells me when I try to explain what happened.
In high school, the girls’ voices turn from cajoling to ignoring. Their eyes slide past me, through me, in the hallways, in our classes. I’m in the lunchroom and Chris Carmine hands me a chocolate chip cookie because his mom gave him extra. I stare at my three carrot sticks, my one slice of dry bread, my half a can of plain tuna. The cookie smells of chocolate and guilt. A sheen on top sings of gobs of butter. The lunch I’m eating as part of my 750-calorie diet sticks in my throat. The cookie both tempts me and terrifies me. I manage to swallow and then the cookie is in my mouth, melting on my tongue, the bits of chocolate blending with brown sugar against my taste buds. I hold each bite in my mouth as long as I can, savoring each second of bliss. My body wraps around the taste; I’m blinking back tears before I’m done.
I’m in the second-floor bathroom throwing up after lunch because fat is bad, cookies are bad, I’m bad. I’m a failure, my brain chants as I prod the back of my throat with my fingers. A voice outside the door. “Someone’s puking. Gross.” A titter of laughter, of girls who’ve never had to hurt themselves for eating a cookie.
I lose thirty pounds. I gain forty. I lose 80, 100, 120. I gain it back and more. When I’m losing, people congratulate me, celebrate me. Co-workers circle me, ask my advice. When I gain, they avoid me, like I’m contagious, like they might catch fat if they get too close. I’m afraid to go to the grocery store, accosted as I am by people who give me unsolicited diet advice while peering in my cart. I want to scream. Do they not realize I know a 100 times more about losing weight than anyone?
The girls’ voices follow me to adulthood and are replaced by others—an ex who pinches my stomach and tells me to lose weight. An employer who invites me into his office and says, “I don’t think I have a chair you’ll fit in.” Strangers on the street who oink and bark and moo, turning themselves into the animal they see me as. A man throws a soda can from a truck window, hitting me in the face. “Don’t break the sidewalk,” he says.
I’m thirty-five. The girls are with me when I eat a meal, when I decide whether to have dessert, when I debate if I’m going to get on the treadmill. They’re with me when I try on clothes that don’t fit, or when I talk to my mother on the phone, and she tells me about the newest diet she’s read about. They laugh when I’m afraid to leave my house, afraid to be seen, afraid to simply exist because my existence draws torment and mockery.
The girls, who have become an amalgamation of all the voices, all the taunts, all the torment, all the animal noises, follow me down the grocery aisle, chanting, poking, as I consider and reconsider my favorite bread before putting it back and picking up more salad.
For years, for a lifetime, I practice listening to myself, tuning them out. I try to learn what I love to eat, the ways my body likes to move. I dance and the voices call and wail, but I crank the music and drown them out.
I’m forty-four or forty-five; I might be fifty. I’m climbing a hill, a pack strapped to my back. My legs pump beneath me, powering me up the hill toward my waiting wife. My lungs stretch and fill and I’m not sure I’m going to make it. I’m still fat, I still battle my urge to diet daily. My dog runs in front of me, scampering up the hill toward his other mom before running back as if to encourage me to keep going. It’s too high. It’s too much. I can’t do it. The voices agree; they tell me to go home, to keep hiding.
Panting, sweating, near tears, I finally reach the crest of the hill and my wife’s strong hand is suddenly in mine. I look at her as I take my last steps, half-expecting her to say something like, “It’s about time,” but she guides me up the last steps and says, “Hi beautiful.” We turn to look out over the river rushing far below us and in the ensuing moments, I listen for the voices but there’s nothing—just the sound of water and my own laboured breathing and in my head, a voice, my own voice saying, “You’ve made it.”
Finnian Burnett teaches undergrad English and creative writing. They’ve published with Reflex Press, Bath Flash, Daily Science Fiction, and more. Finn’s novella-in-flash, The Clothes Make the Man, recently released through AdHoc Fiction and their second novella, The Price of Cookies, is forthcoming through Off Topic Publishing. In their spare time, Finnian Burnett watches a lot of Star Trek and takes their cat for long walks in a stroller. Finn lives in British Columbia, Canada, with their wife and Lord Gordo, the cat. Finn can be found at www.finnburnett.com
4 thoughts on “The Weight of My Own Voice – by Finnian Burnett”
What a beautiful and moving story. I feel transported into the narrators mind and experience so deeply. I love the ending, the challenge and reckoning, finally hearing their own voice.
This was so wonderful, so raw, so real! Not only was the writing beautiful – it was also brave. I was literally crying at my desk at the end.