Illustration by Dola Sun
Mona Awad's debut collection 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl will be published February 23. The stories in the collection are funny and frank, and center on an overweight girl on a diet. It's a side of life that hasn't been looked at much in fiction. Being fat has been written about, of course, but the act of going on a diet, not so much. In this story, our hero has lost some weight and goes into a dress shop to try on a dress she's been fixated on for a long time. The idea going in is that, with her new body, she'll slip right into the dress. But in her heart, she knows it won't go that way, and it doesn't go that way.
The von Furstenberg and I
Despite my better judgment, I'm in the fitting room wrestling with the von Furstenberg again. I've thrown it over my head and I'm attempting to wedge my arms through the armholes even though it's got my shoulders and rib cage in a vise grip. The fabric's stretched tight over my face so I can't see and it's blocking my air supply but I'm doing my best to breathe through twill. This is the moment of deepest despair. This is the moment she always chooses to knock on the door.
I can hear the slow—approaching clicks of her heels. Three light raps on the door with her opal-encrusted knuckles. I brace myself for the sound of her voice, all of my nerve endings like cats ready to pounce. When she speaks, I hear her disdain, bright as a bell.
"How are we doing in here?"
We. She means me and the von Furstenberg. The von Furstenberg and I. She saw me out of the corner of her exquisitely lined eye going to the back of the store to retrieve it between the frigid Eileen Fishers and the smug Max Azrias and she disapproves. She knows the von Furstenberg is a separate entity, that it and I will never be one.
"Fine," I say. I remain absolutely still, try not to sound breathless. Like all is well. Just a regular shopping trip.
"Oh good," she says. "You let me know if you need anything." But in her voice I hear: Give it up, fat girl.
Cobalt, formfitting, with a V in the front and one in the back. Cute little bows all down the butt crack, like your ass is a present.
She knows I've been coveting the von Furstenberg ever since I first stood on the other side of her shop window, watching her slip it over a white, nippleless mannequin, looping some ropes of fake pearls around its headless neck. I didn't know it was a von Furstenberg then. I only knew it was precisely the sort of dress I dreamed of wearing when I used to eat muffins in the dark and watch Audrey Hepburn movies. Before I knew brands, I'd make lists of the perfect dresses—and when I saw this dress it was like someone, perhaps even God, had found the list and spun it into existence. Cobalt, formfitting, with a V in the front and one in the back. Cute little bows all down the butt crack, like your ass is a present. The sort of dress I'd wish to wear to attend the funeral of my former self, to scatter the ashes of who I was over a cliff's edge.
"Can I try this on?" I asked her.
Her eyes opened a little wider. Small glimmers of incredulity like slicks of oil.
"What? The von Furstenberg?"
She looked from the von Furstenberg to me, then back to the von Furstenberg, sizing both of us up. We two? Never we two. Sighing, she led me to a fitting room, rearranging items as she went—insect hair clips, Baggallinis, peacock scarves—so it wasn't a totally wasted trip.
The whole time I was in there being asphyxiated by the von Furstenberg, I felt the fact of her clicking on the other side of the door, waiting for me to admit defeat, to come to my senses. Come on.
Today, though, I'm determined to prove her wrong. Today, I won't come out of the fitting room, let her snatch the mangled von Furstenberg from me, ask me, How did we do? as if she did not know how we did. As if she didn't already have the steamer turned on and ready to smooth out the creases of my failed struggle, a task she always undertakes with overdone tenderness. Then after I've left the store, through the shop window, I'll watch her pointedly press a damp rag all over the von Furstenberg, presumably to get rid of the slashes of Secret I leave behind. But those stains are always there when I come back. That's how I know it's all for show. Like, Look what you do, fat girl. Can't you take no for an answer? The von Furstenberg doesn't want you.
Well maybe I don't want the von Furstenberg. Has she ever thought of that? That maybe I despise it? That maybe I'm trapped in this dance with the von Furstenberg against my will?
"Still all right in there?"
"Great," I say, and I'm tugging so hard on the back zipper, my tongue is lolling out of my mouth like I'm dead in a cartoon. But I feel it going up. Higher than it ever has before. And it's not a mirage, it fits. It's on. It's miraculous. And even though I'm panting, my hair in disarray from the struggle, I see we look immortal.
I'm just thinking how I'll wear it out of the store. Picturing how I'll pull back the curtain in the von Furstenberg, turn my zippered, von Furstenberged back to her and say, all casual, over my shoulder, Cut the tag, please? Maybe I'll even ask for a bag for my old dress—would she mind terribly putting my old dress in a bag? Mm? And that's when I see the jagged rip down the side seam. Maybe I couldn't hear the ripping over the sound of my own grunts. That happened once before, with the flesh‐colored Tara Jarmon. It was impossibly tight when I bought it and then I was out one day walking, insisting, and it suddenly wasn't. It suddenly felt easy breezy, beautifully loose. I didn't understand. Until I caught a glimpse of myself in the reflective glass of an office building and saw the slashes on either hip.
"We sure we're still doing okay in there?" Her voice says, A rat who insists on hitting its head again and again against the maze wall gets taken out of the maze. It gets escorted out, politely but firmly, by mall security.
"Yeah," I say, my hands fiddling with the zipper in a panic. But they're so slippery from all the exertion, I have to wipe them on the von Furstenberg just to get a grip. And the zipper still won't go down. I Gazelle. Five miles every morning with a photo of me in a no‐name shroud taped to the little window that counts you down. Five miles, only to be told by the von Furstenberg in no uncertain terms that it counts for nothing.
"Do you need another size?" she asks. By "another" she of course means larger, which we both know isn't in stock.
I asked her once for a larger size and she said, Let me check. And then I loved her. Very briefly I loved her. Loved her hands clasped over her tweed‐clad crotch. Loved the thin curl of her lips, a smirking red line. Loved all the bones in her ostrich throat, the arrowheads of her décolletage, her ash blond hair gathered in a glittery comb shaped like a praying mantis. Then, as she picked up the receiver, presumably to place the order, she said in a low voice, That will be 500 dollars, please.
And I said, What?!
And she said, Well. Obviously you'll have to pay for it in advance. Or you could order it online on our website?
And I said, But I don't even know if it'll f—
And that's when I saw it, the smile on her face. The flicker of triumph. Like, Ha! You know and I know even the next size up wouldn't fit you, fat girl.
"I'm fine," I tell her now through my teeth, tugging with all my might.
I don't know how long I've been sitting here, half in and half out of the von Furstenberg, the pull tab of the zipper in the damp cave of my fist. My old dress, the one I thought I'd never have to wear again, lies like a jilted lover in the corner. I hear her clicking not too far off, rearranging the perfectly arranged merchandise—sequined hair clips shaped like butterflies, purses shaped like swans, perfumes that smell like very specific desserts and rains. I could just put my old dress over it. Go to the cash register. Explain. Offer to pay for the von Furstenberg. But the truth, as she well knows, is that even if it did fit, I cannot afford the von Furstenberg.
I have this terrible image of her coming in here with the jaws of life tucked under her arm. Ash blond tendrils escaping from her chignon as she attempts to wrench me out of the von Furstenberg. How the give of my flesh will be abhorrent to her hands, but not half as abhorrent as her bone white hands will be to my flesh. Other customers will look on as they pass by the open door like I'm a car crash in the opposite lane.
Or maybe I could learn to live like this.
As I sit here, I can already feel myself oozing out of the von Furstenberg. Oozing from the V in front and the V in the back, the volume of my ass threatening to crack the little bows along the fault line. And I begin to think maybe this is it. Maybe this is the only way out. Maybe, if I wait long enough, if I'm patient, I'll just ooze out. First the fat, then maybe we'll find a way to coax out the organs. Some organs I won't even need, like my appendix. Of course, even if we leave some things like my appendix behind, it'll be a slow process. Slow in terms of biological time, but not if you think say, geologically, like, in ages.
From 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl: Fiction by Mona Awad, to be published by Penguin Books on February 23rd, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2016.