Look at you, cutie, you’re all skin and bones! Maya’s mom beams at me and scoops homemade mac and cheese onto my plate. I’m wearing her daughter’s T-shirt and a pair of cotton shorts; both are too big for me. I smile back, encouraged. My arms, always too long for my body, move like a mantis’ as I reach for a piece of bread.
The doctor ushers us into his office so he can deliver the news. I sit on my dad’s lap and wonder if I’m too big for that now. The doctor fixes his eyes on me. You have a bad curve in your spine, and we don’t think it’s going to stop moving by itself. We need to straighten it with some metal so that your body will be healthy when you grow up. He looks me up and down, but that’s what doctors are supposed to do. I imagine him opening me up and I start to cry.
I beg for a trip to the mall. I try on flimsy bras and tight tops, my mother holding more options on her lap. You’ve got such a great body, honey … There’s an earnestness in her voice, a thrust to it. Her eyes sparkle a brighter blue when she looks at me in my skinny jeans and Abercrombie tank. I smile and squirm a little, turning my back to her. If she were anyone else I would call this lust now, how her eyes glimmer with a nagging hunger for something, for me.
It’s July and my family is at the lake. I’m sitting on the beach licking a soft-serve swirl, sweeping the melt from the edges of the cone with my tongue. You’re looking a bit doughy, aren’t you? My father poses the question between licks of his own ice cream. He starts fumbling for an apology right away and next to me, my friend April pushes big sunglasses over her face. She doesn’t look at me. I stand and suck my stomach in and walk across the beach. I drop what’s left of the ice cream into a trash can then wade into the shallows, relieved as pounds disappear with each step into soft sand. I float in the snowmelt until I am numb.
I’m standing in the bathroom the night before my back surgery. The doctor told me I’d probably grow a few inches, maybe three or four. I contemplate my torso in the mirror, running my hands over my flaring ribs. I fantasize about what the fusion will do to me, how I’ll wake up from the anesthesia to a brand-new body, sleek and streamlined, extended and graceful. I’ll wake up with everything perfectly in place, all my muscles and bones redistributed. But when I’m home again weeks later I feel so much the same.
Sitting by my locker, I offer April’s boyfriend some advice. They’re having trouble and I tell him what she’s told me. I tell myself I’m neutral because I know I’m not—I like the power I wield in this dynamic, the way I can have them both. After they break up I drive to his house and kiss him on the couch in his basement. His mouth is sour and my body is stiff against his. I know I’m not supposed to be here but I feel so dizzy from the fact of it, I can’t get up. You’re so hot, he murmurs when I pull away.
I get in the car after fencing practice. My dad looks at me as we pull out of the parking lot. You’ve got my build, with those thick thighs. Sometimes I watch you while you’re training and I just can’t believe how powerful you are. He sounds almost wistful. I look down at my quads, mostly bare in bike shorts and pressed wide against the leather of the Acura’s front seat. I’m quiet as I measure each one’s width with my hands. I lift one, testing. It feels so heavy.
I park my car down the street. Another beautiful girl’s ex-boyfriend—his parents are gone and the house is dark. I want something tonight but I’m not sure it’s him. We lay on his bed and take off our clothes, but he doesn’t get hard. He hasn’t been able to, he tells me, not since her. But he tells me I’m beautiful too. You’re so fucking beautiful, he repeats, but the words sound distant, underwater. I pull my jeans back on, my smallest pair, the ones I can finally fit into again, and I think about the other girl, the one this boy’s body misses. What it must be like to swim through the world in her skin; how I crave the lightness of being someone else.
Paris with Jamie and Ali after graduation. We scramble eggs and sip espresso and drink until the lines between our bodies run like rivers. We speak French instead of English and leave a club at three in the morning with boys who don’t know our names. They call champagne up to the hotel room and I hover at the edge of the bed with one of them, gripping his arm for support. He wears a metal and leather bracelet—c’est du titane, he tells me. I don’t know the words for just like my spine but I nod and ask if I can try it on. It’s a heavy shackle on my bird wrist, and I smile. Be right back! Us girls go giggling to the bathroom and slip hotel shampoos into our purses. I unlatch the bracelet and tell Jamie to put it in her underwear because I’m going to take it home with me. She’s drunk enough to say yes and the boy is drunk enough to forget about the bracelet until it’s too late. We’re strangers with no names and no bodies, already spinning through the lobby’s revolving doors, dissolving into the night.
Mini-interview with Aleina Grace Edwards
HFR: Can you share a moment that has shaped you as a writer (or continues to)?
AGE: Just last month, I was talking with one of the brilliant professors in my MFA program, Krystal Sital, about an essay of mine we’d workshopped, which was a sort of meditation on death in the tradition of vanitas paintings, which were very popular among the Netherlands in the 17th century as reminders of our mortality.
Some sections reflected on my experiences as a child and teenager with severe scoliosis, and Krystal asked a bunch of questions about my medical story—I hadn’t given a lot of explicit context, but all the emotion in the piece clearly hinged on it.
Then she asked me if I thought my story was boring, to which I said of course not!! But her question was so clarifying. I realized I was censoring myself based on an assumption that no one would care about what I had to say, that I was hiding my experience and insight behind other information. I’m sure this is a really common issue for writers, but Krystal helped me get past this block in my own work.
HFR: What are you reading?
AGE: I’m reading Women Looking at Men Looking at Women, a fantastic collection of essays by Siri Hustvedt. I love art history, and the notion of the inside/outside divide that we take for granted as human beings, which she challenges over and over in the book. I also just started Ground Glass by Kathryn Savage, and incidentally, she’s interrogating the same division, but through the lenses of ecology and her father’s cancer. It’s smart and beautiful and devastating.
HFR: Can you tell us what prompted “The Weight”?
AGE: For me, writing flash pieces is a really useful way to explore images or memories I’m stuck on. I’ve been thinking a lot about the ways women are objectified, my own experiences of objectification, and probably most importantly, the ways I’ve objectified myself. With this piece, I wanted to explore how I’ve translated the way other people look at me or treat me into my own worldview, the way I regard my own body. I’m also very interested in the idea that we are not our minds or our bodies—I’ve identified really strong with my body for a lot of my life, and I’m beginning to move away from that. This piece is definitely a part of that transition.
HFR: What’s next? What are you working on?
AGE: The priority for the next few months is a nonfiction manuscript! It’s a memoir-in-essays about my diagnosis with severe scoliosis as a child, the treatments I received, and how I’ve coped with the anxiety and chronic pain that lingers. It’s personal narrative mixed with a lot of research on the history of science, fossils, natural disasters, scoliosis itself, and ancient and modern art.
HFR: Take the floor. Be political. Be fanatical. Be anything. What do you want to share?
AGE: So I just watched Interstellar—twice. I avoided it when it came out because it seemed like there were just too many movies about the intrepid space explorer (Gravity, etc.), but I’ve been on a bit of space kick lately, so I put it on.
I can’t remember the last time I cried so hard during a film. I feel melancholy when anything ends—trips, holidays, even just good meals—and I have a lot of irrational fears about suddenly losing loved ones; anyone who’s delt with anxiety can probably relate. But Interstellar taps into all of this anxiety around our relationship to time, the preciousness and fleeting nature of our short lives, the inevitability of loss. The film’s Roger Ebert reviewer describes Christopher Nolan as “the most death-and-control obsessed major American filmmaker”—yes! Watching Interstellar, I feel like I’m confronting my core fear and coming out okay on the other side. The film’s scientific mechanics involve a lot of string theory, so next up on my reading list is The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene.
Aleina Grace Edwards is a writer and researcher from Los Angeles. She earned her BA in Communication from the University of Pennsylvania and is pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Sierra Nevada University, where she’s also editor for the Sierra Nevada Review. She’s currently working on an essay collection about chronic pain, art, and agency. In the meantime, find her on Instagram and Twitter @aleina__grace.