Flat, a short story by Molly Tolsky
This story originally appeared in Issue #58 of Hayden’s Ferry Review, Spring/Summer 2016.
They just weren’t coming in. I am talking about my breasts. Two by two my friends’ appeared, neatly tucked into training bras and then, once they were properly primed, into full-on cups with wires and pads. I tried one on in the mall — just to see — while my friend Renana stole a thong. With my T-shirt on, standing still, I could pass for a girl who could get felt up, but when I twisted my torso just an inch, the unfilled cups gave way to flat. I bought the bra anyway, for 36 of my parents’ bucks.
I didn’t want to be flat anymore. The land was flat and the pop was flat but it wasn’t fair to be this flat, not as a girl, not for me, not in the summer with the skimpy shirts and the bathing suits and the other girls.
Renana stole things with her chest. It was already so big, so fully grown, most household items fit right in. She took me along to the grocery store to show me how the heist was done. First we swung through the makeup aisle. She found a little premade kit for the busy woman with hazel eyes. Hers were brown. The kit had three square shades of green and a tiny brush fit for a doll. Renana grabbed one from the shelf and peeled away the plastic tag. I stood behind her, keeping watch, while she popped the makeup into her cleavage, swallowing it with pillowy flesh.
“It’s in,” she whispered. “The pig can fly.”
She turned around to present her case, grabbing each breast with an open palm and shaking them for final proof. In her stretchy tank top, baby pink, it was easy to trace the shape of her bra. It sloped halfway down across each boob, extra breast spilling over into a glorious ridge of womankind. On good days I could see her nipples. On bad days she wore turtlenecks. In the summer it was all tank tops. I wore them too, but it wasn’t the same. Mine were cotton, made for kids.
We moved onto the candy aisle. Renana only wanted gum, anything with a burst of mint. Wintermint, to be exact. It was her thing, her signature scent. She went for a three-pack of the sticks, which I thought was pushing it, even for her. Again she unwrapped the plastic while I stood behind her, looking out. There was an old woman at the end of the aisle, gazing into an array of chips. Her hair was white, but long and straight. I reached for mine and smoothed it down. Renana counted each pack of gum as it disappeared into her chest. The old woman stretched her arthritic hands to inspect a bag of Wavy Lays.
“The pig cannot fly,” Renana said. “The pig needs help with number three.”
She turned me around and held me close, like a hug, if hugs were meant to scare your friends. Then she shoved the pack of gum down my shirt. It stuck, nestled against my sternum, suspended there by a cotton blend. I looked down and was not consoled to see the rectangle protruding out of my chest. Renana gave me a thumbs-up, grabbed my hand, and started to walk. We passed the old woman on our way out of the store, and I swear she stared directly at it — my flat chest with its newest growth, hard and green and wintermint.
Outside, home free, we started to run. I kept one hand pressed against my chest so the pack of gum would stay in place. Renana clutched each boob by the hand, but I think she just liked how that felt. I know I would have liked it, too.
Renana ran us to my house. Both parents were out, but my older brother was home. He was sitting at the kitchen counter with no pants on, eating soup. He wore tightie-whitie underwear, except the ones he had on were red. I shot him a look that said everything he was doing should not be done. But he didn’t see me. His eyes were on Renana, who was pawing through her shirt to unload the cache of stolen goods. By the time she got to the second pack, she knew my brother was watching her. She pulled the gum out in slow motion, brushing it first against her lips before adding it to the pile on the counter with the rest.
“I’m so hot, do you have any pop?” Renana asked.
“Diet Rite,” my brother said. “We’ve got loads of Diet Rite in there.”
She opened the fridge, fished around, and closed the door with a beer in her hand. There were her nipples, cold and hard. There was my brother, still without pants.
Because one cannot force one’s body to grow no matter how much forceful thinking one might do throughout one’s day, I turned my attention to bedroom decor. There would be no child-like things in there, no remnants of a babyhood spent with two flat breasts and those same four walls. Stuffed animals were bagged and sent off to a shelter. Posters of dolphins and old-news boy bands were stripped and crumpled into the trash. My little pink jewelry box with the wind-up spinning ballerina was given to a baby cousin who promptly wound the key right off. And after just three months of pleas, my parents agreed to let me change the walls from a pastel baby purple to a respectable navy blue.
Renana sat at the foot of my bed, beer in hand and gum in mouth. She was flipping through a teen magazine while I sat on my desk and stared at her. I mean it when I say I was jealous of everything about Renana. Her teeth were straight and her toes were short and her stomach was flat and her boobs were not. She had gone through three official boyfriends and a handful more whom she’d only kissed. I watched her once, at the public pool, walk with a boy she’d met in the deep end and kiss him behind the concession stand.
She turned a page of the magazine and looked in shock at the image of a man.
“Ask Amy says if you’re ever under attack, the first thing you should do is knee him in the balls.”
“How does she know it will be a guy?” I asked.
“It’s always a guy,” Renana said. “It’s always a guy, always to some girl.” She licked her finger and turned the page to an advertisement for scented pads. Renana was the only person — besides my mom — who knew I hadn’t yet gotten my period. Seeing the ads in magazines and on TV turned my stomach to an awful grind. I started having sympathy cramps, running to the bathroom to pull down my panties to find nothing but cotton, clean and white. Renana insisted she was jealous of me — “I wouldn’t wish the curse on my worst nightmare” — but I was still the only girl at school who never had an excuse to sit out of the swimming unit in gym.
“Some guy followed me home from school last year,” Renana said. She flipped the page of the magazine. “He trailed a few steps behind me the whole way.”
“What did you do?” I asked.
“I tried to make my butt look big.”
I laughed because I thought she was joking. I laughed because I thought her butt was a very nice size, along with everything else. She didn’t take her eyes off the page, but I could tell she wasn’t really reading anything, her lips curling into a wrinkled pout.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean to laugh.”
“I thought if my butt looked too big,” she said, “the creep wouldn’t want me anymore. So I jutted it out, bent my knees, did this stupid little waddle walk all the way home. I tried to go as fast as I could, but I didn’t want him to see me run.” She flipped another page of the magazine to an ad for a different brand of scented pads. “I walked past my house and went to my neighbor’s, who I knew always left their door unlocked. I waited in their laundry room for 15 minutes and then left through the back door and ran home.”
She closed the magazine and took a last warm sip from her bottle of beer. She belched and her breath smelled like wintermint, with the added bonus of skunky bread.
“How come you never told me that?” I asked.
“It was just one day in the life,” she said.
I nodded, but I didn’t know what she meant. My life had never had days like that.
When Renana said she had to go home, I shoved her empty beer bottle into my underwear drawer — behind my bra with the tags still on — and we walked downstairs. My brother had made his way to the TV room, so I quietly snuck her out the front door.
“Next time, make your butt look small,” I said. “No one’s ever followed me home.”
She gave me a thumbs-up and walked down the driveway. When she got to the sidewalk, I closed the door. I sat down on the couch next to my brother and threw a blanket over his still-bare legs.
“Thanks,” he said. “Your friend is hot.”
I couldn’t bring myself to audibly agree. He was watching a movie about alien outlaws. They needed only their minds to steal.
“Meet me at the corner by your house in an hour,” I said. “I think I have something you’ll want to see.”
I hung up the phone and locked my bedroom door. On the inside of my closet hung a full-length mirror I’d grown to hate simply because it did its job. Most days I undressed in the corner of my room, where a plastic chest of dolls used to be, facing the dark and indifferent wall, my head up and focused on navy blue. This time I took off all my clothes and stood there, cold, in front of the mirror. Even my stomach had a curve to it compared to my lack of chest and hips. I turned sideways for a silhouette but turned back around — not a good look. I grabbed my boobs and pushed them together, but I knew the cleavage I made was just a trick. I could do the same thing to my elbow skin. The only part of my body I liked was my belly button, because there wasn’t anything special about it. It just was there, like it was supposed to be.
I got the bra from my underwear drawer, ripped off the tags, and adjusted the straps. First I tried one sock per cup. They filled out the bra nicely enough, but once I put my tank top back on, it was clear this was not a natural fit. My “breasts” looked like two frozen biscuits sitting on a cookie sheet, waiting to be baked. I tried washcloths next — not enough shape. Tissues felt quite nice against my skin, but they flattened quickly and the corners poked out. I found the teen magazine and flipped to the page with Ask Amy’s advice. Once your attacker clutches his groin, make a fist around your keys and stab him in the eye! I tore out the page and the one after it, and crumpled them into two separate balls.
It wasn’t very comfortable, but this wasn’t about being comfortable. Not physically, at least. My mind and heart could warm up to the feel. I stepped back in front of the full-length mirror. An improvement from nothing, that was sure. I gave each paper boob a squeeze. They crinkled like the unwrapped gifts they were. For a moment, I forgot to breathe. I walked up to the mirror and kissed the glass. I even slipped it a little tongue.
An hour later, at the corner by her house, Renana stood waiting for me.
“Holy shit,” she said. “Let me feel.”
She grazed her hands over my top, and then stepped back to admire my work.
“Well done,” she said. “Very natural. You’ve got room in there for a new lipstick.”
“I’m not in the mood to steal,” I said. “I want to go where the people are.”
“My suit’s already on,” she said.
She held my hand all the way to the pool.
The public pool. I’d been going there since before I could swim, when all I’d do was sit on a lounge chair and watch my brother do cannonballs. My mom would be one lounge chair over, speed-reading through a paperback book. It was always the kind with a shirtless man on the cover, scooping an ample-bosomed woman into his muscle-bound arms. There was the kiddie section with a waterfall tree, the ankle-deep pool. The concession stand where everything was a dollar and halfway melted by the time you paid. And the deep end, where the older kids milled, girls shrieking in the water while skinny boys circled like sharks.
We walked into the locker room, which smelled like coconut and dirty diapers and the chemical burn of cleaning fluids that leaves your eyes an itchy red. A row of women lined up in front of the mirror, inspecting their bodies for new tan lines. They made and remade their ponytails. One was putting mascara on. In a toilet stall a pair of little-girl feet stood next to her mother’s, a tinny voice asking what was taking so long. A potbellied grandma sat on the bench, her bathing suit the color of my old baby walls.
We tossed our flip-flops into a locker. Renana threw in her tank top, too. Her bathing suit was two black triangles strung together with long hot pink ties.
“Of course you’ll leave yours on,” she said.
I gave a thumbs-up and we walked outside.
I’d been avoiding the pool all summer long. Last year there’d been an incident in which the lifeguard told me I couldn’t swim unless I was accompanied by an adult. I assured him I was fourteen years old, one year past the pool’s age limit to swim unchecked with the rest of my friends. But he didn’t believe me, or Renana, whom he insisted must be my older sister, implicit in my little-kid crime. “Call your mom and tell her to come,” he said. I walked home by myself.
We took our place in the corner of the deep end near a group of older girls I recognized from school. There were boys in the water playing games with pennies, gasping up for air with empty hands. One of the girls whispered something to the others, and they all erupted with fake surprise. With her feet in the pool, Renana drew some water and released it over the tops of her thighs. We both had our jean shorts on, but she unbuttoned hers to hint at a scant nylon black. The sun beat down onto my shoulders, and I knew they’d burn.
“Look at the lifeguard,” Renana said. She pointed to the white skyscraper chair. There was the bare-chested, red-shorted man, twisting around in his seat while his swim trunks inched down past his crack. “Nice ass!” Renana shouted. My stomach churned while the other girls laughed. He whipped around and blew his whistle, pointing to a sign near the locker room, Rule #3 declaring the public pool a family place. “Sorry, Charlie!” Renana called out, cupping her hands around her mouth. The lifeguard shrugged and dropped his whistle. He was a different one from the year before.
Three boys swam up to Renana and me and asked if we wanted to play a game.
“What’s the game?” Renana said. She still had her eyes on the lifeguard chair while I stared at the boys and their “I’m in,” I said. “I’ve never been more in.” bare white chests. The one who had spoken was the best one going, his dirty blond hair covering most of his face. The other two could have been brothers or cousins, twin noses too big to be officially cute but each with his own green-eyed charm. Dirty Blond was the one who spoke again, his voice nice and low and stupidly sweet.
“Two of us will go underwater,” he said, “and you guys will hold us down with your feet. Whoever can hold their guy down the longest, wins. Martin here will referee.”
“What’s the prize?” Renana asked Dirty Blond. I was thinking the very same thing. The one called Martin plugged his nose and dunked his head, coming right back up. I wondered if he always got stuck being ref, doomed to a life left out of the fun.
“Anything from the concessions?” Dirty Blond said. He was talking only to Renana now. I knew no matter who won, Dirty Blond would later buy Renana an ice cream, ask her if she wanted to go for a walk.
“All right, we’re in,” Renana said. “Right?”
Now everyone was looking at me.
“I’m in,” I said. “I’ve never been more in.”
Dirty Blond grinned. He swam up to Renana’s legs while the green-eyed, not-Martin boy sidled up to mine. We looked at each other, silent but smirking, while Dirty Blond made Renana laugh. She tapped her feet to splash him in the face. He pretended to bite off her pinky toe.
“Gentlemen, take your places,” said Martin, who was hanging onto the edge of the pool. My boy and I locked eyes once more while Martin counted down from five. At four Renana gave me a thumbs-up; at three both gentlemen plugged their noses; at two my boy winked at me and sent me to another planet; at one the boys took their last gasps of air. Martin shouted, “Go!” and down they went.
My feet twisted around in the water until his non-blond hair made its way between my toes. Martin did his best impression of a sports announcer, which wasn’t very good because there wasn’t much to say. “And they’re under, and they’re still under, and they’re still under,” he said. Renana gave out little yelps and laughs. Dirty Blond was tickling her feet. I peered down into the water at my boy, who was swishing his legs back and forth not unlike a mermaid’s tail. He looked like a bath toy I used to love, back when it was okay to love baths. The other girls around us were watching now, a cooing chorus to Martin’s lead. I imagined my boy taking my hand and walking me behind the concession stand. I’d let him kiss me on the mouth for however many seconds he stayed underwater, counting time against laps of the tongue. He was just some guy, but he would do. At least I knew he could hold his breath.
But then something tightened around my ankles. My body began to slip toward the edge of the pool. I looked at Renana, whose smile deflated. She looked like she knew what was going to come. Before we could say one word out loud, both of us were yanked into the water, submerged into a tangle of boys.
I shut my eyes and could only feel hands. Hands on my legs and then hands on my thighs, on my shorts and my stomach and up to my top. Not on my breasts, but the layers that hid them. There wasn’t enough glossy paper in the world. I gasped and swallowed a bottle’s worth of water. The chlorine stung my nose and tongue, burning its way down my crying throat. I twisted my torso and squeezed into a ball until I felt my boy kick away.
When I got back to the surface, Renana was already up and splashing water into Dirty Blond’s face. “Fuck you!” she screamed. “Fuck you, fuck you!” Martin’s head dipped quickly underwater and bobbed back up in the shallow end. I didn’t see where my boy swam off. All the faces in the water looked the same. The other girls were either crying or laughing, but when they pointed to me, I knew for sure. Little wet scraps of paper floated out of my top, bobbing on the water in a shameful paste.
I swam to the ledge and climbed out of the pool. One of the boys — I think my boy — was calling after me, but I didn’t turn around. All I could hear was, “Hey! Hey!” He didn’t even know my name. Clutching my chest I ran to the locker room, breaking Pool Rule #1 while I could hear Renana still breaking #3.
“Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you!” she said. A whistle blew as I opened the door.
Renana stole a T-shirt from somebody’s locker and threw it to me in the bathroom stall. I didn’t want to be stuffed anymore. I didn’t want to look in the mirror. My brother came and picked us up, and the car was bathed in our father’s cologne. Renana sat up front with him, and the two of them started talking but I couldn’t hear over the radio.
I opened the window in the backseat and stuck my hand into the wind. This was a game I had played with myself on slow car rides when I was a kid. How long could I keep my hand perfectly still? Even when the car ran over a bump? Even when the car swerved onto the shoulder and then back into its lane? Even when someone in the front seat laughed at a stupid joke by a stupid boy? There were my fingers, stretched and still. My palm down, nice and flat. There went the rush of the grammar school, the grocery store, Renana’s street. My mother would say to stop right now. Count the trees if you need a game. She was always afraid we’d pass a truck and that would be it, my hand lopped off.
But my mother wasn’t in the car. And my brother was talking up my friend, who was wearing a pair of sunglasses, black and shiny and stolen. And there would always be bigger things to fear than a speeding truck in the passing lane. There were worse things that could be taken from you than an outstretched limb, your own right hand. Somebody should have told me that. My fingers clenched into a fist.