Big Girls Don’t Cry

[fiction]

I would like to call myself a “big girl.” My mother calls me “cuddly.” My sister calls me “fat” when we row, which we do very often. My friends… Ah, well, I don’t really know ’cuz they never call me anything to my face. They surely must when I’m not around, especially when we go shopping and they try out sizes eight or ten and hunt out the sixteen for me. I hate shopping. Simply loathe it. That isn’t normal for a seventeen-year-old, is it? I don’t like looking at the super-skinny mannequins looking down on me, their clothes draped oh-so-perfectly over their taut plastic bodies. I like buying clothes from a catalogue, where I know no one is judging me. But I feel so fuddy-duddy doing that. My Nan shops from catalogues, ’cuz she’s a “big girl” too and she can’t be bothered weaving in and out of John Lewis in her mobility scooter.

I hate going to parties as well. If I’m ever invited, I tend to melt into the background, clutching my Diet Coke, a fake smile on my face, tears just threatening to spill out. I see my friends going wild on the dance floor. I feel jealous. Oh, I can move. I have rhythm in my bones. But I just don’t want anyone to stare at me. I just like dancing in my bedroom, with the curtains drawn tight.

I guess you could call me pleasant looking. “Sweet features.” Perky little nose, small pink lips. Blue eyes and big chubby cheeks. I try to cover my cheeks by getting my hair to fall over my face, hiding my dimples when I smile. So, it came as a surprise to me when my sister gave me a gift voucher to a trendy hair salon in town.

“Isolde,” she said. “Don’t hide behind that mop, sweetie. Charlie will transform you; I swear.”

And, oh, that was another sore point in my life. Isolde. Why do I have that name? Isolde, she of uncompromising beauty. She, whom legends are made of. Why couldn’t I be a Jenny? Or a Chloe? Well, anything cuddly and sweet, definitely not ethereal and nymph-like.

Well, so there I dragged myself to Charlie’s salon. He seemed delighted to have me. “I will change your look,” he beamed over me. “You will look dazzling, my love.” And he nearly did a pirouette in the excitement of having me on his chair. A few snips and highlights and styling later, I stared at myself in the mirror. I was not sure whether to scream in agony or in ecstasy. All of my hair gone, cheeks left wide open. Hair fluffed up nice and golden on the top of my head.

I could have yelled at him. Torn him from limb to limb and sucked out his blood. But of course, being me, I squeaked a small thank you, and slunk out of the salon, shoulders hunched, trying to disappear into myself.

I’m not always like this. I have my moments too. Like when we discuss art at the city gallery. The guide, Trudy, is a new friend of mine. She’s twenty-one, doing a major in Renaissance art. She’s so grown-up and knowledgeable. I love her company. We discuss Monet, Renoir, and Degas. She tells me about her gap year in Paris, where she painted on the banks of the Seine, set up a stall in Montmartre, drank cheap wine with some “real” artists. She’s just brilliant. But I don’t always get to be with her, because she’s mostly hanging out in vegan artist cafes, or working on her masterpieces.

*     *     *

It’s Marty’s birthday party tonight. I have to go, ‘cuz she is my best friend. Well, we hang out together on Thursdays when we go to the aerobics class at the local community hall. She’s a size fourteen, but she’s much more popular than I am. I’ll wear my black Lycra top and black jeans. Perhaps mum will lend me her sixties-style hooped earrings.

The crowd is the usual one. I know most of them from school. The music is pounding from inside the house. I can feel the vibrations on the driveway. But it’s Ariana Grande, so I’m not complaining. The boys are playing cool, while the girls are giggling, trying to get their attention. By the end of the evening, they’d all be paired up. For the night. Or a week, even. Maybe a month. Only Charlie and Jen have been together since Marty’s last birthday party, and that is a record. How I wish… But never mind, let’s get stuck in with the food. Marty’s mum offers the best birthday spread ever. She’s prepared all the food and then disappeared to her sister’s house in Totton, bless her.

I wedge myself into the darkest corner, afraid someone might ask me to dance. As it is, my big blonde mop is shining like a beacon. How I hate Charlie for doing this to me. I watch and I listen as the other girls gush about what they’d been shopping, which bloke had given them the look, who had been caught snogging whom. Bertha and Tommy? Golly, one would never have imagined! I didn’t join the gossip session. I drank my fifth glass of Diet Coke.

Then I see him.

He is standing with a girl out in the conservatory. He is so good-looking—from the back, mind you. I haven’t seen his face yet. Such broad shoulders, and a thin waist. Honey coloured hair. He’s talking to the girl, pointing out to the night sky. I like the shape of his hands. The girl giggles and looks at him, eyes somewhat hazy. He laughs and I feel a shiver run down my spine. He looks up to the sky again and speaks softly. I try to hear what he is saying, but the girl’s silly giggling drowns his voice.

She turns suddenly and whispers something in his ear. Then she rushes inside, rolling her eyes. The boy’s shoulders slump, and he continues to look outside.

This is my chance. I’ve got to talk to him. I know he’ll escape faster than that girl did, but at least I’d have taken my chance.

“Starry night,” I say, my voice a bit wobbly. “Doesn’t it remind you of that painting?” I look out into Marty’s garden. The stars are on in full blaze. The trees glow surreally, with fairy lights peeping out of their branches.

His eyes light up. “Van Gogh,” he says.

I nod, and hastily drink my Diet Coke. My throat has gone dry. He’s replied to me, good heavens.

“That’s my favorite painting of Van Gogh’s,” I say. “Such a masterpiece.”

His eyes are shining. “Mine, too. I went to Amsterdam last spring and saw the original. Mind blowing.”

“Oh.” A tinge of envy pricks me. Why is it that I’m the only one left to go out and see the world?

“I’d love to go there some day.”

We talk a lot. We discover that we both love Van Gogh and Matisse. He says he’s planning on going to art school after his A-levels. What a waste of those lovely shoulders and arms, I think. A perfect surfer’s body. I want to be a journalist, I tell him. An art critic. It’s the first time I’ve ever mentioned it to anyone, and it feels so right. He laughs and says that please could I be kind to his work in the future.

I’m aware of eyes piercing down my back. There are stifled giggles too. What is this dude doing with a fat girl like me? They want to be with him, flirt with him for sure. But he has eyes only for me. I don’t think he’s noticed my shining mop of hair, or my extra tight Lycra squeezing the bulges into hiding. He transports me to Italy, to Paris, to Moscow. He tells me that the smell of oil paints makes him high. He says he wants to visit India one day and study the miniature paintings of the Moghuls. I reel along with him, images dancing, floating in front of my eyes. Distant smells and visions flash by, and he is there holding my hand, laughing and running, sharing his wonderful world with me.

The party’s winding up. Someone’s wailing on occasion of being dumped. A new couple’s been formed, and they’re leaving behind a heartbroken ex. The bottles and plastic cups are being rustled into bin bags. Leathery pizza stuffed into the bin. Marty’s sitting on the sofa, grinning like a fool. She’s staring at the bunch of gift vouchers she’s been given and totting up the total in her head.

I’ve got to be going too. He says he’ll walk me home. “Thank you,” I say, blushing. The night breeze cools my burning cheeks.

“Er, there is an art show at the university hall next week. Would you like to come?”

I smiled. “I’d love to.”

He looks at me, eyes shining like melting honey. “I’m Tristan, by the way.”

I laugh, taking his hand. I won’t mind being called Isolde from now on.

Susmita Bhattacharya is an award-winning author living in Winchester, UK. Her debut novel, The Normal State of Mind (Parthian, 2015), was long-listed for the Word to Screen Prize at the Mumbai Film Festival, 2018. Her short story collection, Table Manners (Dahlia Publishing, 2018), won the Saboteur Award for Best Short Story Collection (2019) and was a finalist for the Hall & Woodhouse DLF Writing Prize, 2019. Her short stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and been featured on BBC Radio 4.