Authors: Jenny Ruden
Above his head, slanted on the side of the rocky mountain, was an electronic billboard. Letters comprised of orange dots urged drivers to PLEASE FORGIVE OUR MESS over and over again. That message PLEASE FORGIVE OUR MESS scrolled continuously above his orange hard hat like a marquisâas soon as the S disappeared, the P flashed across. PLEASE FORGIVE OUR MESS. I looked to Doug, who now checked his phone for alternate routes. Doug: so in love with my sister that he'd forgotten she deserved much better.
Suddenly the minivan felt hot, crowded. Its doors seemed to contract, squeezing me tighter and tighter, pulling me closer and closer to Utopia. The sun beat down with no mercy. Macaroni curled all over the seat. Pink lemonade baked into the carpet. My eyes took in the construction zone, the wavy heat lines twisting above the asphalt.
This bus was hellbent on fat camp, there was no stopping it. However, one couldn't go to weight loss camp without weight to lose, right? Just like TJ'd said, I had a lot of people to forgive. I had a lot of weight to lose. The Forgiveness Diet made sense in a cosmic collision of desperation and marketing kind of way. It had to have worked for someone. Why not me?
Who knew, right? Maybe The Forgiveness Diet was based on scientific fact. For every one person you forgave, you lost three pounds. Or thereabouts. Doug had to be worth ten pounds alone. Of course afterward, I'd have to maintain the loss, but forgiveness enhanced the results the way certain spices enhanced flavors. Maybe it sped up the whole process. Given my sitch, rapid was key. I eyed the chicken bucket on the floor. It looked delicious. I would try this Forgiveness Diet. Let's see how tasty Colonel Carolina looked afterward.
I didn't have any glass fish bowls like they had in the commercial, so I emptied out the Colonel Carolina bucket by eating the chicken in it. The infomercial blipped in my brain. What were the instructions again? There had been that surfer, his slicked hair glistening in the sun.
All I had to do was write down the names of the people I needed to forgive and what they needed to be forgiven for, and the weight would just vanish.
Did this mean I had to forgive Doug for being a model douche?
So be it. I grabbed a yellow napkin from the bag. I fished out a Zyprexa pen from the seat pocket. I wrote: I forgive Doug for bringing Jackie down.
True that. For the past two years she'd been saying, “I'm going to dump him,” but it never happened. Now she didn't even bother saying it anymore. I crumpled up the napkin and flicked it in the bucket.
That wasn't so bad
, I thought.
I can do this
I wrote down the people who had pissed me off. I scribbled every offense, every misgiving, and mean thing. Out it bubbledâeveryone's trespasses. Everyone's screw-ups.
I forgive my mom for being embarrassed by me
I forgive Terrel Bailey, Wendy Schmidt, Allison Continelli, Jeremy Connoll, Merry Rodesky, Piper Fleish, and every other loser at Magnet who calls me Beth Aint Thin Ny
I forgive Victoria's Secret for their too small bras. I forgive food for tasting so good
. I wrote down my father's oversight in Chuck E. Cheese's. TJ's blunder. Even the secret Jackie made me swear on a Hebrew Bible I wouldn't tell. You bet I wrote it down. It took a long time too, writing everything. Maybe an hour. Maybe more. Long enough that I had to shake my cramping hand a few times.
Just look at them all
, I thought, after I was done piling the napkins around me.
No wonder I'm so fat
. And then I did what the commercial said. What TJ had said. I forgave them. Everyone.
“I forgive you,” I said, kissing the napkin scraps tenderly before dropping them in the Carolina Chicken bucket. Then, just to be safe, I forgave them again.
With the construction zone behind us, Jackie steered the minivan past billboards advertising Lap Band surgery and Burger King. Her tanned legs flexed on the gas pedal. Truckers leaned on their horns when they glimpsed her graceful profile and clear skin. Such a beautiful girl, my sister. Everyone said so. I could see itâespecially now that I'd forgiven her.
Did I think The Forgiveness Diet would really work? Well, after I'd finished, I didn't feel so hungry anymore. That was good. Then I thought about TJ. Sometimes he would rig things around the house and out of nowhere an umbrella would blossom or the stereo would serenade me or I'd find a token in the hood of my sweatshirt. My eyes would get all wide, and he'd laugh and start to tell me how he did it when I'd put my finger to his lips. “Don't.”
When you've been head over heels for a magician for as long as I have, you learn pretty quickly that anything's possibleâeven some crazy diet.
Like last year, when TJ's doves were stolen from their cage, he came over to my house totally panicked. We all staged a funeral for the birds because we didn't think they'd last one minute in Baltimore city. TJ wouldn't give up. After countless flyers and Internet postings, I said, “Let's face facts. If given the choice between a cage and the sky, which would you choose?” We were eating ramen noodles in my kitchen. TJ lifted his bowl and drank the broth. “I'd choose here,” he stated matter-of-factly. “I'd definitely come back.”
“For you,” he said, slurping his soup. “I'd come back because you're here.”
And when he said things like that, random things tossed out to the universe while he glugged ramen noodles or shuffled his cards or drove the humps of Dulaney Valley Road so fast our butts lifted from the seats, I believed him. I mean, how could I not?
Two weeks after the dove robbery, when TJ's determination showed signs of wavering, we saw them. His two doves, a little ruffled and greasy, were perched on top of the streetlight. When he opened the cage door, they flew right in like we'd invited them. “Now that's magic,” TJ said, gloating. “For real.”
That's what I was thinking about after I'd forgiven everybody and returned the bucket to the sticky floor. TJ's life philosophy: It didn't matter how magical shit happened. It only mattered that it did.
BLACK EYE IN THE BUCKEYE
I FELL ASLEEP just as our van headed into the cool, inky darkness of a tunnel outside of Pittsburgh.
I woke up in Ohio.
“Is there any chicken left?” Jackie asked. She was still driving and had reached her right hand behind her to tap my knee. “Bethany, hand me the chicken bucket. I'm hungry”
Half-asleep, still dreaming about TJ's doves balanced on the streetlight, I felt around on the minivan's floor, and gripped the bucket. Eyes still closed, it was out of my hands and into hers.
“What's in here?” Jackie asked, all innocent.
I sat up straight. “Wait,” I said. “No!”
“Where'd the chicken go?” my sister asked. “Did you eat all of it?” Alternating between looking at the highway and trying to gauge what was in the bucket, the van swerved a little. “Are there papers in here? What did you do?”
Situated in that trippy territory between wakefulness and sleep, I watched it all happen. First Jackie's hand plunged in the bucket and withdrew a ball of napkin now separated from the others. “Now what's this?” she asked. Calling on driving skills I never knew she even had, she steadied the wheel with her wrist and, using her fingers, straightened the napkin. From the backseat, I watched every ounce of color drain from her face. She swallowed.
“What?” asked Doug. “What does it say?”
Jackie inhaled. Exhaled. She concentrated on the highway ahead. “Nothing. It was nothing. Bethany and her stupid games.” She crinkled the paper again and squeezed it. Squeezed hard enough her knuckles turned white.
Doug reached for the bucket on Jackie's lap, and Jackie's hand snatched his wrist. “No way,” she said. “You don't want to read it.”
Not the best thing to say because now Doug had to read it. Read them all. He ripped the bucket from her lap and Jackie screamed. And then I screamed. Then Jackie angled across four lanes of traffic and squealed the Odyssey onto the shoulder. Then the van rocked when she flung it into park and the door ding ding dinged because she didn't even bother to close it when she flew out her seat and began chasing Doug around the car. Doug laughed. Yes, laughed. He thought it was funny, a game. Until he grabbed a different napkin from my spilled-all-over-the-highway forgiveness bucket and unfolded it, gently, like something delicious steamed inside.
Later, after they had read everything, ev-er-ry thing, after Doug had unfolded most of the napkins, and formed the words with his mouth, I couldn't help wondering if TJ's boss and Doug's mom and everyone else who'd tried The Forgiveness Diet had this kind of experience. They say losing weight is hard, but good God.
When Doug's voice cracked not on the word “baby,” but “mine,” I thought the price for being thin, well, it was sky-high. When Jackie finally climbed back into the van, defeated, tears streaking down her cheeks, she flung her head on the steering wheel. The horn blared. Then she looked in the rearview mirrorâwhere she saw me.
Of course she crawled over the seats in one deft maneuver and beat the holy mother effing Jesus out of me. Did I retaliate when she smacked my face with the heel of her hand? Nope. Did I fight back when she whacked me with her industrial-sized straw purse? No. Did I even yelp when she twisted my hair around her fingers so hard I heard the roots give?
Not at all.
Well, I'd forgiven her.
I felt lighter when Jackie liberated that knot of hair.
After all this
, I thought, wiping the tears that poured from my stinging, tender eye, Doug in the front seat weeping like the baby he never knew,
this forgiveness crap just might work
THE NEXT WORDS Jackie said to me were at California University of the Pacific. “Just think. By the time I pick you up, you'll be beautiful.” She hadn't spoken to me since Ohio, the state where she threw my forgiveness chicken bucket out the window, climbed in the backseat, and nearly killed me. She did ask if I had to pee once in Kansas, but that didn't really count. It wasn't a sentence in the traditional sense. Doug had been just as mute. When he flushed the toilet (twice) while I showered in a Colorado motel, he didn't apologize. When Jackie accidently-on-purpose stepped on my face inside our tent in Reno, she smiled but didn't laugh.
Now that we'd arrived at C.U.P., my sister's words were dumb anyway. Even if I were thin I wouldn't be beautiful. She knew it. I knew it, but I'd kept quiet anyway. I was just glad she was finally talking to me after what was, without a doubt, the singular worst road trip in the history of all humankind. Ever.
She lifted my duffle bag from the trunk and placed it by my feet. Doug,who still refused to speak to me, waited in the car. Jackie didn't turn the engine off; she just let the van idle in front of a dormitory building and said, “Here we are,” like I was twelve, and she was dropping me off at the mall.
A lumpy fog wrapped itself around all the trees and hovered over the stiff grass.
“Wow,” Jackie said, eyeing a scene so spooky it looked like one of those haunted log rides. “This place just oozes intelligence.”
Jackie wouldn't know oozing intelligence if she slid in it, but now was not the time to point that out. I'd caused more than enough trouble already.
Instead I turned to face the immaculate, sprawling campus that housed, according to their website, the best weight loss camp in America. Looking around, I felt every last one of the two thousand eight hundred and forty-four miles I'd just traveled. The air was cool and dampânothing like Maryland air. Even the trees looked different here. The classroom buildings were mission-style, old, and very impressive, if you were into that kind of thing, which I wasn't. The campus was quiet and a thick fog rolled around like a special effect. MontClaire Hall rose in front of me, a white building about three stories high. There were four long rows of windows, many of which were open, so that old curtains sailed out. Directly behind me a fountain gurgled. It was a busty mermaid with a stream of water curving from her tail and pooling along the blue-tiled bottom.
“Have fun,” Jackie said through her clenched teeth.
“A blast,” I offered and tried to smile.
When she patted me on the head and said, “Just call me if it's unbearable,” I had the sudden urge to bite her hand. Her eyes narrowed. “But I know you'll love it here. Right?”
This chilly morning my sister wore a white-pocket T-shirt and khaki shorts, both of which she'd pressed on the travel ironing board she'd brought along for that purpose. Goosebumps trailed her arms and legs. Obviously she was prepared for the California with peach flamingos and year-round surfing, not this foggy and cold imposter.
“It'll get better,” she said, looking down at her clogs. I didn't know if she meant fat camp would improve or life generally. Perhaps she was suggesting she would get better. Either way, I knew now would be the moment for apologizing.
“About that stuff I wrote,” I started, but Jackie held her hand up.
“You were right about some of it,” she said. “About Mom, for one.” She lowered her voice. “And Doug.” She looked back at the minivan, where Doug sat, then returned her eyes to me. “He does bring me down.”
I smiled too soon, mistaking this attempt at conversation as forgiveness. “But it's not your job to point that out.”
I should have continued with
I hadn't meant for you to see those papers. The commercial insisted I write down everyone's secrets and forgive them. I'm sorry for spilling yours, Jackie.
Though the words were balanced on the tip of my tongue, my mouth would not open. Something coiled around our feet as insistently as that fog. Something that I might call hatred, but won't. Whatever it was had changed things between us. I never felt further from my sister than I did at that moment standing on the threshold of fat camp.