Skin and Teeth

The public pool is no place for a girl whose body is still a work in progress. Especially when the Buchanan boys are here.

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The public pool is no place for a girl whose body is still a work in progress. Especially when the Buchanan boys are here. Mimi can’t walk past them without sucking in her stomach, can’t move an inch without second-guessing her limbs, can’t even breathe without wondering if she’s inhaling right.

The boys are three chaise longues over, puffing their skinny chests and shooting Super Soakers at each other. Every so often, they look over at the girls, probably to check if they’re still paying attention. Both parties play a game of looking and not looking at each other until Mimi can’t take it anymore.

She’s stuck here as long as Bethany and Nadia get their thrills from making eye contact with the boys. Nadia’s mom isn’t coming to pick them up for almost three hours. Her own parents are at a wedding in Scottsdale, and if she were to walk home, it would take over 40 minutes, a death sentence under the Arizona sun.

Mimi begins her private act of rebellion by escaping to the little café behind the changing rooms that is nothing but an open window offering coffee, soda, chips, and candy. The only thing the place has going for it is the outdoor seating area, which gives expansive views of desert mountains punctured with cacti. From a bored teenage girl with wheat-colored hair and messy liquid eyeliner, she buys a Coke and a bag of sour cream chips. Sugar and sodium, carbs and trans fats — Mom would kill her.

The only other person around is an old woman absorbed with scribbling in a notebook. Mimi exhales, letting out her gut, then chugs down half the Coke. She shovels the chips into her mouth as if someone will take them away if she doesn’t eat fast enough. When the bag is empty, she feels a mixture of satisfaction and guilt.

She still has a little belly, like a baby. Despite her recent growth spurt, she’s waiting for width in all the right places. At least she has her legs, long and tanned, her selling point, which she shows off as long as she has her towel wrapped around her upper body.

Her friends can have the Buchanan boys. What does she care? She doesn’t stand a chance with Ben anyway. Bethany already fills out B cups, underwires and everything. Nadia will always be adorable with her too-big eyes on a too-small face.

But the image of one of her best friends going out with Ben crushes her ribs like a car compactor.

She knows neither of them actually likes Ben. They prefer Strand Buchanan, his older brother, who is handsome in a Disney-channel-star kind of way. Mimi likes Ben, even though he has Dumbo ears and a too-wide mouth — because he has Dumbo ears and a too-wide mouth.

But it only matters who Ben likes. Mimi is a flower to be picked or crushed beneath his feet. Her role is to watch and wait, without appearing as if she is watching and waiting, while quietly angling herself to be seen.

It’s all so exhausting, and Mimi needed a break. She pats her belly like a gluttonous old man. She can breathe again.

She picks up a copy of The Arizona Republic left on the table and reads it slowly to kill time. The lead story is on the black bear she keeps hearing about. Hikers kept leaving the bear food on the trails, and he came to associate humans with food. In recent months, the bear had chased hikers on two separate occasions. Luckily, no one was injured. When wildlife officers finally tracked him down on a trail after receiving a tip, one of them shot him dead.

Mimi studies the black-and-white photos. In one, the dead bear is limp on the ground while two uniformed men loom over him. Another photo captures the rage of animal rights protestors with fake blood on their hands, mouths open mid-scream. They’re quoted arguing that the bear could have been tranquilized and relocated to a remote area. But the wildlife officers defended their actions: The bear would always be a threat to humans no matter where he went. This was their only option.

Mimi isn’t sure who she agrees with. The officers had a point, but the bear wasn’t at fault. She considers this from more angles, all the possibilities that could have led to a peaceful solution. Captivity in a zoo? No, zoos were jails for animals. Death was better. Maybe —

“Hey, Mimi.”

She whips her head around to see a boy her age with wet brown hair. He wears only blue swim trunks with a white towel casually thrown around his shoulders. Water drips down to his bare feet, and he holds a bottle of Coke.

Mimi’s eyes widen, but she manages a hello back.

“I see you’re reading about my dad,” Ben says.

“I am?” She looks at the bear in the photo. “Your dad’s a bear?”

She feels stupid as soon as she says it, but fortunately, he laughs, under the impression she’s joking. He steps closer until she can smell the chlorine on his skin and hair. Sees the green flecks in his hazel eyes. How his lashes are thicker than any girl’s, his skin creamier than caramel. It’s unfair.

Ben points to one of the two men standing over the bear.

“That’s my dad,” he says proudly.

This is the part where she should act impressed, but Mimi finds herself saying, “Was he the one who killed the bear?”

“Yup. Shot him, straight between the eyes.”

Mimi swallows. She looks down at the photo of the bear again, so limp and sad, a pile of furry skin.

“If he didn’t have a gun, my dad could have killed it with his bare hands. Ka-pow!” He punches the air to demonstrate.

“Really?”

“Yeah. My dad’s a black belt in karate. I’m a brown belt right now, so I’m almost there.”

“Could … you kill a bear?”

“Yup. Bears are dumb. Here’s a tip. If you ever see one, just raise your arms as high as possible to make yourself seem bigger than you are. Then start yelling and making noises. That’ll scare it away.”

“Oh. Wow.”

“They’re dumb that way,” Ben repeats. “That’s what makes them monsters. They can attack anyone for any reason. What if it wanders into town and attacks kids in a playground or something?”

“That wouldn’t be good.”

Ben nods. “My dad’s a hero. They should give him an award for saving the city.”

But he killed him, Mimi thinks and immediately pushes the thought away.

“Yeah.”

Ben slowly walks around until he stands directly across from her. The cheap plastic table separates them, but they stare at each other for a second that feels like eternity. A field of electricity wraps around them. He takes a swig of his Coke.

After he swallows, he opens his mouth as if to say something else, but he just grins. Despite her shyness, she can’t help but smile back.

“Well, I better get back,” he says.

“Okay,” she says. “See ya.”

When he’s gone, Mimi breaks out into the biggest smile of her life.

Ben Buchanan sought her out. Spoke to her. Even tried to impress her. They were bound by eye contact and mirroring smiles. And he even bought a Coke, same as her. If that doesn’t mean they’re simpatico, she doesn’t know what does.

She finds it impossible to read the rest of the paper. Instead, her eyes glaze over at the desert mountains as she replays her interaction with Ben over and over. She can’t wait to tell her friends.

On second thought, what if they embarrass her? They don’t even know she likes Ben.

This will have to be her secret for now.

She wonders if Ben will be her first boyfriend. Her first kiss? She giggles to herself. She can stay at the public pool forever as long as Ben is here.

When she’s back in her chaise longue, Mimi bites her bottom lip to suppress all the smiling she wants to do. She keeps her sunglasses on, and the sky looks bluer still. She lies there for a minute, an hour, she doesn’t know.

Bethany breaks Mimi out of her dreamy trance. “Oh. My. God.”

Mimi sits up and follows her friend’s gaze. She recognizes the shaggy-haired blond boy who just arrived. He’s scrawny and pale, with arms comically darker than his torso and legs, looking like a white Ken doll whose arms have been replaced with arms from a brown one. She’s so distracted by the severity of his tan lines that it takes a moment for her to see the real source of Bethany’s surprise.

Joe is holding the hand of a girl half his height and twice his width. A girl who is, to put it bluntly, fat.

She wears an oversized straw hat and a black one-piece swimsuit with white polka dots, as if to emphasize her roundness. When she takes off the hat, Mimi sees that it’s Martha. Not that it would’ve been hard to recognize her. Everything about Martha is round, even her facial features: round eyes, round lips, round nose. If a caricaturist were to draw her, a series of circles would suffice.

Joe lives at the end of Mimi’s block and is a year older than her. He is constantly skateboarding past her house. Martha is in her homeroom and a couple of other classes, a nice girl, although obviously not in her circle. Mimi waves at them from across the pool. They wave back as they lay out their towels on their chairs.

Bethany turns to Mimi. “Did you know about this?”

“Not a clue.” Mimi shrugs.

“How did this happen?” Bethany asks as if it is Mimi’s fault.

Mimi understands her friend’s shock. While Joe isn’t as hot as Strand, he’s friendly and outgoing, one of the most popular guys at school. He should be with some cool skater girl. Weight issues aside, Martha is still too homely, someone Mimi imagines would make a great nurse or mother of five someday. She never imagined her paired up with anyone. Not even with Dan Brewsky, the fattest guy she knows, because he is a terrible person who goes around calling girls wenches and smells like BO and grape slushies.

“Good for her,” Nadia says.

They watch the new couple step into the water, Joe leading Martha by the hand. They continue to hold hands even in the pool. In that moment, Mimi feels a stab of jealousy. She doesn’t want Joe, but she does want a cute boyfriend not unlike him. Martha is fat while everyone else works so hard not to be. How is it fair she snags him?

But Mimi talks herself out of these petty thoughts. She channels Nadia’s generosity. Good for her. Good for them.

“Hey, Joe,” Strand yells from the pool deck. He’s sitting, calves in the water. “Did you find your new girlfriend in a pig pen?”

Mimi’s breath catches in her throat. Nadia audibly gasps, while Bethany snorts.

The Buchanan boys and their cronies laugh out loud. Even Ben, his beautiful profile in crooked mirth.

“Why didn’t you bring her a float,” Ben adds. “Or maybe all her fat’ll keep her buoyant.”

Buoyant. At least he has a good vocabulary, Mimi thinks bitterly. Her cheeks burn from secondhand embarrassment.

Martha’s face crumbles, and then, lips quivering, she quickly gets out of the pool and scurries away.

Joe looks from Martha to the boys, torn whether to chase after her. His face is a deep scarlet, adding another color to his bizarre palette of skin tones. He cusses and swims over to Strand, grabbing his ankles to pull him into the water. Strand only laughs as if he is being tickled.

Amidst a whole lot of splashing, the other boys jump in. Mimi has never seen Joe lose his cool or anything remotely close to anger. He looks like a devil to be reckoned with, even against five boys. The boys never descend to his rage, laughing and using group effort to dunk Joe’s head in the water.

“They’re going to kill him,” Nadia exclaims.

Mimi is frozen. She wants to do something, but what?

Luckily, the lifeguard, a high school boy, blows his whistle. “Hey, hey! Knock it off. Buchanan, I see you.”

Strand sticks his tongue at him. “He started it.” But he obeys. The boys follow, letting Joe go.

Joe quivers alone in the water, breathing heavily. Depleted, he slowly swims back to his side of the pool. He grabs the two towels, his bag, and Martha’s.

When he’s gone, Mimi exhales. She didn’t realize she has been holding her breath all this time.

“Poor thing,” Nadia says.

“Yeah, but Martha Owens?” Bethany scoffs. “Really, Joe? He should have known what he was getting into.”

“It’s so humiliating,” Mimi says.

“At least it’s not us,” Bethany says. “She should know better by now.”

Nadia and Mimi don’t disagree. Bethany goes back to her Cosmopolitan. Nadia scrolls through her phone.

Mimi removes her sunglasses and sighs. She reapplies sunscreen on her legs for the sake of something to do. As she rubs the thick white cream into her thighs, she notices the webbing of her green and blue veins. She’s mesmerized. The more she stares, the more prominent and peculiar the veins appear, a glimpse at the machinations beneath her shell. It is almost disgusting. Funny how she never noticed them before.

“Maybe we should go soon,” she says to Nadia.

“My mom can probably pick us up early,” she replies. “I’m hungry now anyway. Are you guys hungry?”

“I’m always hungry,” Mimi says.

Even Bethany nods.

When it’s time to go, they walk past the boys. She doesn’t hesitate to meet Ben’s eyes. He smiles. She doesn’t.

 

At In-N-Out, Mimi eats enough grease to send her mother into a conniption fit. Nadia’s mom is not one to care, though, having a few extra pounds on her. She lets them know they can order more if they’re still hungry.

The girls decide to split another box of animal-style fries.

“I really shouldn’t,” Bethany says, but she never stops shoving fries into her mouth.

Mimi’s stomach grows to pregnant proportions. Luckily, she’s wearing a baggy gray sweatshirt.

“It’s like we haven’t eaten for weeks,” Mimi says before taking a long sip of her Coke.

“I’ll have to run more laps tomorrow,” Bethany says. “I wonder how much Martha eats every day to get that fat.”

Nadia rolls her eyes. “Come on, Beth. That’s so mean.”

“What? I just want to know so I never get that big myself.”

Nadia tells her mom what happened with Martha at the pool today, tears rimming her eyes.

“Those boys sound like hyenas.” Her mom shakes her head. “Unfortunately, you’ll meet people like that at every age.”

“Cruel people?” Mimi asks.

“People who act like gatekeepers to other people’s happiness. They don’t gain much except control. Never give them the satisfaction.”

“But what if they have a point?” Bethany asks.

Nadia’s mom regards her gently. “I have a philosophy in life. People can do whatever they want as long as they’re not hurting anyone else. If someone enjoys food a little too much, what does that have to do with me? But if someone’s callous to others, I do have a problem with that.”

Bethany blinks at her as if she’s computing this information. She never stops eating the fries.

 

When Mimi gets home, she takes a shower. If she has her way, she’ll never step into another public pool again. She’ll stick to showers. She would take three showers a day if her parents wouldn’t tease her about putting the entire state of Arizona in drought.

At night, she stares at the popcorn ceiling longer than she needs to even though she’s tuckered out. She thinks how ugly popcorn ceilings are, like upside down dirt painted over.

When she finally drifts into the unconscious, her thoughts wander to inane places.

What if all humans had translucent skin? Thin, like the skin beneath their fingernails. No hair would be needed because their bodies wouldn’t need the protection. They would be exposed and fragile, but the world would also not be a hard place. Their glass-like shells would display the inner workings of their greens and blues and reds. The state of their beating hearts. The levels of pollution in the blood. Not to judge and be judged but to detect what’s wrong so it can be fixed.

People wouldn’t rely on the body to know who they’re attracted to. Everyone would look more or less the same, all with busy, grotesque bodies. The only way to know each other would be to get to know each other.

Maybe the teeth could stay. They could still eat. It wouldn’t be a crime. Everyone in the world would eat as much as they want, growing into fat, translucent balloons. Eating could make them lighter, buoyant, their bodies floating higher and higher into the sky until the sun obliterates everything with light.

Featured image: Shutterstock.com

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Comments

  1. I liked your story, Ms. Zhu. The teens in this story seem to be paying attention to their surroundings—-and each other—which you rarely find these days otherwise. Is this the biggest factor that makes it fiction? Your writing style is colorful, fun, descriptive and unique too. Being flirtatious by the pool with the girls was fun then, and still is with women now, but there’s not much time for that. I live in L.A., ($$$) SO I’m pretty much of a work slave.

    I do wish the bear here had been tranquilized, computer-chipped, then taken to a remote area. There are PLENTY of suitable places in Ca. He could have been transported in a van with the proper crew. I liked your mentioning of In-N-Out. That’s what a hamburger’s all about! Those animal-style fries ARE delicious, and with three locations near me, I’m now craving them. It HAS been over a year and I’ve been good. You’re naughty for having mentioned it. Now I need the closest one to be in Arizona!

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