Alice spots the fat women through the second-story kitchen window. It’s Wednesday, so Dad is out at his feelings meeting. She has just turned eight and has been dragging her drumsticks over different household surfaces to see what sounds they make. The sink has been working well—a satisfying ting, ting, ting. Also the panes of window glass—higher, though, and more muffled. The kitten meows on the ledge. Shush shush, Alice tells him, then bops him lightly on the head with a stick.
It’s the colors that catch Alice’s eye, the parade of bright bodies turning the corner of 49th street onto the avenue, then veering into the rec area that holds the pool.
Back soon, back soon, back soon, Alice tells the kitten. The drumsticks roll off the counter and hit the parquet floor.
The public pool is on Alice’s avenue, which has many trees and a lot of garbage. The sidewalks are cracked but the parking is permit-only—the old woman who lives in the purple house is the captain and she is efficient. Dad drives a Subaru that always works but is always dirty.
From the top step of Alice’s stoop she can clearly see the women across the street and through the chain-link fence. The women are fat and they are swimming. Well, they are about to swim. They are taking off their jean shorts and belly shirts and fringe vests and heart-shaped sunglasses and putting their hair up into ponytails or, if they have no hair, pressing both of their hands onto their heads like a cap—a dance move. A song is playing from a radio that is attached to the motor bike of the boy who lives in the purple house. The song is a rap song that has been playing all summer and even before that, in the weeks when the kids at school believed it should have been summer vacation but it was not, and the air conditioners were working at home but not at school. The fat women are black and they are white, a thing that almost never happens in this neighborhood. They snap their fingers. They lean forward and stick out their butts, then lean back and lift their breasts to the sun, their bellies hanging over their bikini bottoms.
This is interesting to Alice because they are fat like her. As they dance to the rap song, sometimes a swath of fat goes one way while the woman goes another. These are moves Alice, too, has sometimes done, but only alone and only in front of the mirror. Slight rolls of flesh hang down their fronts, just below the elastic of their bras. Flesh gathers on their backs like wings. Alice would like to run a finger through the crease this flesh makes. This is what she thinks about later, at night, in her bed with the lights out. With both hands, she holds the flaps of fat where the low parts of her stomach touch her thighs. She jiggles them—together, then separately—then lets them go. She pats her vagina with her whole hand, once, twice. The thing that most people do not know about fat is that it is more taut than you think. It is not all softness. It bounces. It bounces back.
The following Wednesday, Alice is ready, sitting a little closer, on the bottom step of her stoop, and waiting for the women. In addition to sexy touching, she has also been dreaming of the fat women, which is how she knows it is romantic. She has imagined a birthday party. It is her birthday, a pool party, and the women are her guests. There is cake and ice cream. Everyone eats as much as they want and no one is there to ask them if they are sure they really want to eat that second piece. They eat the ice cream from the pint cartons because it is assumed that each will finish her own pint. No one has to share, no one has to put the ice cream back with one bite left because she is afraid her mom will notice the carton is missing. Then there is dancing. The fat women compliment Alice on her moves. They say they have never seen moves like that, and ask Alice to teach them. Then two women come up on either side of Alice, grab her hands and swing her body back and forth, back and forth. Then they toss her into the water and she swims and swims.
In real life, they are not dancing today. It is too hot, the women say, entirely too hot. They take their clothes off and get right in the water, either by jumping or easing themselves down the flimsy metal ladders. If they ease themselves in, their breasts are the first thing to float. Recently, Alice has learned that breasts are actually just sacks of fat. Her own breasts, which she has had for a year already, are also made of fat. She likes them. She likes to hold one in each hand and jiggle them separately. Strange, though, she thinks, the way people love breasts but hate fat. If the women jump in, they surface slowly, gasping and laughing, then moving across the water slow as manatees. There is a beach ball, which circulates in no particular order. They tap it with the tips of their fingers, then let it fall when they get bored.
Alice sits with Dad when he gets home, munching on a crispy grilled cheese and carrots that Dad has grown in their garden. She knows now that carrots come from seeds and that just because the ones that come from their garden look like crooked knuckles, and not like the smooth ones from the grocery store, does not mean they are bad.
How big will I get? Alice asks Dad, holding another knobby carrot. Will I keep growing?
Dad looks up from the pile of papers he is writing on. Whenever he is writing to his students, he uses the cheapest possible pen, Alice has noticed, usually the free ones from the bank near their house where the trolley stops. Dad is fat, too, but Alice’s mom, Tara, who used to be Dad’s wife, is not. Alice has noticed that this happens often, a fat man with a thin woman. Rarely does it go the other way around.
I don’t know, Dad says. You will very likely keep growing up vertically. I don’t know if you will also keep growing out horizontally. Do you want to?
Yes, says Alice.
Okay, says Dad.
After dinner, Alice and Dad take a walk to Fred’s Water Ice at the corner where the shiny flags are, across the street from the funeral parlor. Everything at Fred’s is red metal—red metal poles that hold up the red metal roof, red metal horses that you can ride for fifty cents. Alice gets a jumbo opaque plastic cup of black cherry water ice mixed with vanilla soft serve. She holds it in one hand and the red metal hair of the horse in the other. Next to her on a Santa’s sleigh is a little girl with her hair up in two poofs secured with bright, colored balls that Alice thinks are cool. She thinks the girl is five, maybe six.
How old are you? Alice asks the girl.
Eight and a half, the girl says, wiping some dust off the sleigh seat next to her. But inside, she says, I’m much older.
Me, too, Alice says.
Her thighs are much bigger than the girl’s, trunks compared to the girl’s branches. Does this matter? Can people be the same age but different sizes? Alice squeezes her thighs together, hard, to see if she can suffocate the metal horse, but she can’t, he keeps right on bucking.
You’re fat, the girl says.
I know, Alice says.
Oh, the girl says. What’s your name?
Alice. But sometimes people call me Alley Cat or Topsy.
Because of your hair?
Can I touch it?
Okay, Alice says. She is used to this from school. Curly hair like hers, so curly it sticks straight out from her head in a circle like a Truffula Tree, is interesting to people, she knows. Alice leans her head down and into the space between their two rides. The girl puts her hand into Alice’s hair and moves it side to side.
Cool, the girl says.
Dad has his right leg up on the sitting part of the red metal table and is leaning over it, stretching. His jumbo cup of mango water ice is empty, and the smallest bit of orange water puddles at the bottom. He wears floppy water shoes with toes and a back but no sides except thin slats. Alice worries about him. At night, after she has put on her pajamas, they meet in her red chair for a story and he does the silly voices and smoothes her hair away from her ears.
The girl gets off the ride and goes to take the hand of a tall man leaning against the red metal fence—her dad. Alice sees how this dad holds himself, chest a little puffed out. He moves a toothpick around in his mouth and his boots are laced up tight and hard. Dad carries a canvas bag with two straps, and usually the tops of vegetables—kale, rhubarb, collards—poke up out of the bag. Alice worries that Dad is too gentle for this world. That he will not last. That one day she will wake up and wait for Dad to pour her the cereal with blueberries and he will not be there.
Dad likes to say that he is a survivor, that he has survived many things. Alice does not know what feelings he goes to talk about on Wednesday nights, but she suspects it has something to do with this. One thing he survived are his parents. His dad, who is dead, used to put his hand on top of the television when he came home to see if Dad had been watching it. If he had been watching it, his dad would beat him, or sometimes not, but the possibility was always there. His mom lives with other old people in a facility in Florida and sometimes sends letters that arrive in manila envelopes because they are too long to be folded in three and mailed in a regular envelope. Alice has never met her.
Another thing Dad survived is Mom, who is not gone, only living in the suburbs with her new husband. Alice spends every weekend there. There is little to report because everyone is so little. Mom has shrunk. Mom’s new husband runs marathons, leaving the house before Alice wakes up and returning halfway through the day, in small shorts and shellacked with sweat. Fifteen miles! Twenty-seven miles! Mom high-fives him and then they both want to high-five her. Alice’s chest starts to feel tight hours before dinner time because there is usually not enough food and she usually goes to bed hungry. This feeling sticks around long after the meal has actually happened, the hunger has actually come, and even through the morning when she can eat again. At Mom’s house, even the air feels thin.
Penny for your thoughts, Dad says, from the red table.
I’m in love, Alice says.
What news, Dad says. Who with?
I’m not sure, Alice says. I don’t know their names. I’ll let you know.
You’re in love with more than one person?
Okay, Dad says. He tosses his empty cup into the red trash. It’s nice to be in love, Dad says as they walk home, and even nicer when someone is in love with you. When your mom was in love with me, I felt good all the time. I would wake up in the morning and jump out of bed.
That night after Dad reads her the story of the princess who rescues the prince from the tower, Alice is almost asleep when she hears Dad crying on the other side of the wall. At first it is quiet like sniff, sniff, sniff, but then it is louder and then very loud, as if Dad doesn’t think Alice can hear him, or does not care.
On the third Wednesday, Alice starts preparing early. She digs her bathing suit out of a garbage bag that sits under many other garbage bags, from that time Dad thought they had bed bugs last summer. Now she is ready. She goes down the steps, looks both ways, and waits for the lowrider to pass, trundling slow. Then she crosses the street, steps over the curb, and presses her nose through the chain-link fence.
She hears the women before she sees them. They’re rounding the corner together.
And he was like—
What a fucking jerk—
Broke down, broke down, broke—
Hot hot hot, too hot you know—
They carry big beach bags and walk the length of the chain-link fence, past Alice and then through the gate. The pool is small, no Olympians here, but big enough to have parts of it cordoned off by plastic buoys for lap swimming. It is surrounded by ten steps of asphalt on all sides, then grass, then the chain-link fence. She has never come here without Dad and a sign says this is not allowed. But the guy with the clipboard who is maybe a lifeguard and maybe not is talking to a girl in a pink bikini over by the showers.
The five fat women take over the corner to Alice’s left, putting their bags on the grass and spreading their towels. They take off their shirts and push them through the holes in the chain-link and there are those back rolls again. One of the women, black, in a cactus-print bikini, who carries all her weight in her lower half, in the part covered by the bikini bottom, sees Alice looking at her and smiles, then turns when one of the other women calls her name. The other woman is white. She leans her bike up against the chain-link fence and then lifts off her loose dress to reveal a floral one-piece and thick arms. She cocks her head and winds an elastic around the bottom of her thin braid, too thin, like Alice’s when her mom pulls and braids it. She wants her friend to put sunscreen on her back, in the part below her bikini top’s clasp, where she can’t reach. There is music from a boy’s bike, slower with no words, just the same beat over and over again.
The guard does not notice when Alice power walks through the gate. She walks over to where the fat women have put their towels. Underneath her overalls she is wearing her multicolored swimsuit. She feels the effects of the elastic fabric—how taut it is and the shimmery sensation it gives where it contacts the denim of her overalls. As she walks, she pooches out her stomach and feels its new smoothness, her rolls of fat now a continuous curve. She pats her stomach a few times. She can feel how it moves, how the impact of her hand moves across the flesh. She takes off her overalls and spreads them on the ground like a towel.
The sunblocked pair of women are sitting on the edge of the pool, waving their legs in the water, while the other three swim around each other happily. Alice walks over and stands next to them on the pool’s edge. She feels sure they will tell her to go away but they don’t. They keep on chatting, talking about a man the black woman had been dating but was dating no longer.
And he did what? honked the white woman, splashing with her feet.
Yeah, said the black woman, how’s that.
Alice is still standing there.
Hi, the black one says then, shading her eyes from the sun when she looks up at Alice.
Hi, says Alice.
The white one and the black one look at each other a minute.
Want to sit with us? the black woman says.
Alice’s chest gets tight, but not like at Mom’s house, more like balloon tight, tight like the head of the drums they play in music class.
Okay, Alice says.
I like your suit, the white one says. It’s pretty.
Thanks, Alice says.
We’ve seen you, the black one says. You live across the street.
That’s right, Alice says. That’s me.
Soon her two new friends are in the pool with the other women, so Alice gets in too. She eases herself down the ladder and, pushing out across the water, does a fast doggy paddle. She can swim only medium well. The beach ball appears and Alice has trouble hitting it with her hands while also staying afloat because she is just a kid and a lot shorter than the women.
Oh, oh, one of them says, noticing, so they move their game into the shallower end. Now Alice is having fun. She dives for the ball and hits it just before it smacks the surface of the water. The women laugh and clap. They take a page from her book and are soon diving for the ball too. Alice bounces up and down, up and down, ready to hit the ball at any moment.
After a while, the women get out of the pool and go to lie on their towels. Alice lies on her overalls.
The women are talking about leg hair and armpit hair and the individual decisions they make about it.
One woman, a white woman with a shaved head, says that a long time ago she decided she no longer cared what the world thought. Fuck it, she says. Her leg hair is very long and Alice can see it moving slightly as it dries in the sun.
Want to touch it? The woman says to the group, and they all do. Want to touch it? She says to Alice. Alice does. It feels soft like the caterpillars that Alice sometimes finds growing on Dad’s carrots in the garden.
The black woman in the cactus bikini starts reading palms.
Want me to do yours? She asks Alice. She takes Alice’s hand in hers. Alice feels each of the woman’s individual fingers, which are pretty and manicured with yellow nail polish, move over the skin of her hand. Later, when Alice wants to feel the good sexy feelings, she will think of this woman.
You’re going to live a long time, the woman says. See this line? The woman traces the line that goes from the bottom of Alice’s index finger diagonally down to where it meets her wrist. But, the woman says, it won’t be easy.
Don’t tell her that, says her white friend. Don’t tell her that. She’s only a child.
Why not? She needs to know.
The women lie down on their backs and get very quiet. The sun is very hot. Alice stays sitting up a minute to survey the bodies around her and revel in her luck. Their breasts look very nice, snuggled up in their bathing suits of various colors. She is happy. She shimmies her shoulders a little and wiggles her toes. She has a body. She lies down on her back too. The air moves fast across her wet arms. The clouds move fast across the sky.
Back at home, after they’ve all parted ways and promised to see one another next Wednesday, Alice lets the kitten walk all over her chest, lets it knead her flesh with its paws because it thinks she is its mother. Meow, meow, it says. It leaves little red claw marks on her breasts, then hops off toward the floor when it hears Dad’s footsteps on the landing.
Dad’s face looks red and smushed, less defined than usual. He shrugs off his totebag onto a kitchen chair. The kitten jumps onto the table and knocks a water glass onto the floor, but the glass is thick and just rolls across the hardwood without breaking.
Jesus, Dad says, Jesus Christ. He picks up the glass very slowly as if it takes all of his energy.
Why are you wet? Dad asks Alice then. There are little puddles on the floor under her feet and her butt is leaving a wet spot on the Indian sheet that covers the couch.
Where do you go on Wednesday nights?
Alice. Answer me. Why are you wet?
I went to the pool without you. What do you do when I’m at Mom’s? Why do you cry in the night?
With his whole palm, Dad runs a hand down his face, wiping it of expression. He takes off his shoes and for once just throws them by the door instead of placing them neatly in the shoe holder as he is always reminding Alice to do.
There are things in this world that are too cruel to tell a child, he says. Even a great one like you.
What things? Alice says. Things like what?
I’m going to take a shower, Dad says.
They have dinner and it is fine. Everything is fine. Dad is his usual self again, smiling and counting his peas into groups of five so they can practice multiplication tables. In the red chair, he does the silly voices.
Good night, good night, Dad says, and flicks off the unicorn lamp.
Alice’s vagina hurts, in that dull achy good kind of way. She thinks about the woman in the cactus bikini but she does not touch.
Outside the window that holds her air-conditioning unit, the wind blows. She feels very awake, her eyes cutting the dark. She can see the outline of every object that is her room—the poster of Emma Goldman with her little glasses and the candles in the shape of panthers and the glass jar full of rocks that she and Dad carried for miles along the shore of Martha’s Vineyard. It started to rain and they had to keep walking a long time but eventually they made it back to the car and Dad gave her his big orange sweatshirt with the oversized hood.
I love you, Dad said.
I know, Alice said. But you don’t love you.
I know, Dad said. His hands were on the wheel but the car was off. It was raining louder than it had ever rained. I’m working on it, Dad said. I’m going as fast as I can.
Okay, Alice said. Go faster, Alice said.
Alice has a feeling then, lying in the dark in her good bed, and the feeling is like a presence, or a spirit, like how people describe their spirits leaving their body when they are dying in ghost stories except she is not dying and this is not a story. The spirit seems to be coming from the outside, from the night, from the street that lies between her and the pool, and it seems to want to tell her something of the future, to make her know that though she is free now, and though she has already done better than her father, the world is still waiting to tell her who she is and what her body means.
She still has the rest of the summer, three months of Wednesdays. The women are there every week, without fail. They buy her ice cream and teach her how to whip it and how to lean back, how to crack her back and how to crack her knuckles, how to whistle and how to snap, how to spit and how to make a man who calls out on the street wish he had never been born.
The spirit knocks at the windowpane—once, twice, three times. Alice is gripped then, suddenly afraid.
Go away, go away, go away, she says to the spirit. And for now, it does.