I have a friend who has always been thin. Both Sasha’s parents, well into their fifties, are lanky, and, for as long as I have known Sasha—into our earliest years of schooling—her parents have been this way, pale academics, who I now see were out of place in the southwest suburbs of Chicago where we were raised. My friend’s parents are still married today. Sasha has since moved away. I can only assume the whole family is still thin. Sasha’s mother, Anna, would sweat nights on a rowing machine in their basement; for her constitution, she subscribed to walks around the neighborhood where they lived, and still live today.
Removed from the subdivision hubs by a road that leads straight into the endless deciduous Orland forests, my friend’s family had settled apart from cul-de-sacs and gated communities to live closer to Sasha’s mother’s father, a doctor who practiced out of his home. Sasha’s parents have lived next door to the doctor’s office for as long as I have known them, and, as children, Sasha and I would invade this property as if it were our own. The Doctor and his wife, a tawny woman named Myrna, would not infrequently drive north to their Kenosha farm, and Sasha and I would be unleashed to visit the Doctor and Myrna’s large dogs, eat ice cream sitting on the counters in the wood-paneled kitchen, and sink into the rooftop hot tub we accessed by climbing a vertical ladder in an upstairs guest room’s closet. We spent one New Year’s Eve in the Doctor’s massage room, lying on leather-covered tables while young boyfriends kneaded our backs, chopping, working out love-knots with their mouths.
Youth—all those rooms with clear designations: two bedrooms, a well-upholstered living room, a piano parlor; a sunroom where, come spring, we watched the backyard pink; the grandfather’s den of bookshelves crammed with medical texts; and a hallway door that led to the office, where patients were seen.
Upon entering the office, we would invade a supply room: tongue depressors and hypodermic needles, speculums in noisy paper and, in glass jars, gauze swabs like cotton candy. On the opposite side of the hallway, the single hallway (for this was a small office), the receptionist’s little pen: swiveling chair, printer with plastic shield that spat paper with perforated margins, two walls of jelly-bright files. Years later, another doctor would join Sasha’s grandfather’s practice and my own family would visit that doctor for all varieties of ailments, but, when we were wandering that hallway, the examining rooms were unexpected and dim. I say dim for it was always night when we came by, and, despite now having seen those rooms many more times in daylight, my own self reclined on the chatty parchment, when I imagine the doctor’s office it is always night. A fat circle of a light on a bendable neck, the burgundy examining tables, paintings of lighthouses illuminating boats crashing at sea. The tools locked in their sterile envelopes. The scales, stalky beasts, always black and cold; the noise as you step on the coarse platform, as you adjust the heavy metal balancers, whips the silence. It was not uncommon for Sasha and me to visit the office during a sleepover. As we grew older and our friendship loosened to include other girls, we almost certainly spent some portion of the night moving through the dark. And these nights of creeping around another person’s house, after viewing some movie or other we wouldn’t feel comfortable watching with the threat of parents, dosed us with small freedoms and dangers, as I understand now, for we might anonymously dial boys or raid a blameless fridge or simply make noise long after adults were likely to retire, even though Sasha’s parents were never parents who chided us for remaining awake. The truth? Sasha’s parents were the only parents I knew who were hands-off, more concerned with their own lives than ours. Sasha’s mother was a minor Hitchcock scholar who taught at a private high school on the North Side, and Sasha’s father, once an English teacher, preached at a mysterious organization whose mission was to dissuade teenagers from experimenting with drugs. Sasha’s father was a bald-headed expert; a snarky man in wire-framed glasses who looked like a monk. Before he’d married Sasha’s mother, he had produced two daughters, who, as far as I could tell, had achieved little. They both lived with their mother in Michigan—three women working as bank tellers. On the other hand, Sasha’s mother had been married before with spectacular results. Andrew, her son from her first marriage, was handsome when I knew him, sixteen to our eight, and, to this day, has only grown more so; he attended a liberal arts college and then medical school, gracing his arm with an old-money Manhattanite named Esther whom he met over a cadaver and married twice, at two ceremonies: one in New York and one in Chicago. But Sasha was the only child her parents had together produced, and the shadowy and older presences of these half-siblings reared her into a strange, and unsettling child.
During second grade, before we became friends, Sasha and I participated in a course for high-achieving children. We were labeled gifted, and as gifted students, we would be excused from SSR, or silent sustained reading, and escorted to a mobile classroom in the school’s backyard. These classrooms were in trailers, and it wasn’t nearly high school before I connected mobile, as in our mobile classroom, and mobile, as in mobile homes. As a teenager, I developed an extreme distaste for the quality of mobility in a residence, though not related to any particular circumstances that would befall me or my family; it was just that I developed a fear of trailers. And this distaste did not diminish when I learned that Sasha’s handsome half-brother, Andrew, had grown up in a trailer before Sasha was born. No, thereupon, I could not help but regard the family as the result of some irreversible trailer life curse. This curse extended onto Sasha, and Sasha’s father, and even Sasha’s half-sisters, and their nameless, shapeless mother. Even their banks were cursed. Still, I never spoke these feelings to Sasha, or to anyone for that matter, not even the girls we allowed into our friendship during high school, though I had been told this information neither in coven nor confidence.
On many occasions, Sasha would reveal something to me. Secrets. As one of those children who seemed to collect damage, a sort of precious misfortune, Sasha would regale me with one trauma or another that I understood was not to be shared. Not with our lesser friends, not with my parents; not with the priests or adults who organized religious education; not with doctors or counselors or teachers. These people—adults—I maintain, to this day, would not have known what to do with the information Sasha disclosed. All of it was green. When Sasha and I climbed on top of the lockers in the girl’s locker room, nobody could have understood more clearly what Sasha was telling me than me. For what she shared became mine: Her father underwent a vasectomy. She was allergic to pineapple. Her mother had told her that it was all right if she liked girls. When he’d been fourteen, Sasha’s brother Andrew let their cat lick his penis while she watched. The secrets of our young lives. I became her.
Just as easily, I might have found her manner unpersuasive. The details, too gruesome. When I first met her in second grade, I was not charmed. In the mobile classroom where we gifted students were gathered, Sasha stuck out, tiny and elfin with dark brown bangs which, rather than having been cut straight across, seemed to be longer above her nose, shaggily tapering into a point. She wore turtlenecks, and she reminded me of a bat. Possibly, she expressed a tomboyish interest in bats; there was another member of our cohort, a gamesome boy named Chase, who also had uncomfortable brown hair and, without a doubt, an expressed adoration of bats. In my mind, I paired the two of them, Sasha and Chase, though now I am certain this was not only a premature pairing but an ill-advised pairing, for Sasha would grow tall, and Chase would remain short. Sasha would pursue drama and art. Chase maintained a boy’s brute love of ice sports. Of all the boys I might have paired Sasha with in second grade, I understand how Chase was the worst. Any other boy might have been better with Sasha. Even an ogre named Zach, whose face appeared to have been clubbed on one side, would have been a better suitor, since virtual sources confirm that Zach has grown into an attractive and muscular adult, a turn of physicality that would have been impossible to predict. Just as it would have been impossible to predict that Sasha is currently without a boyfriend, for she is and has always been beguiling with both men and women, but more convincingly with men. Men have always clustered around Sasha. They ask her to dances and slip notes inside her desk.
Her first college boyfriend wore heavy eyeliner and mesh tank tops. He pushed her into taxi cabs and she delighted in letting him make-out with her pussy. In between, she accepted checks and large bills to accompany businessmen to meaningless dinners. She only gave head, so she wasn’t a whore. Her last year of college, her boyfriend and his roommate forced their way into her body at the same time. She was pregnant only a few weeks.
I have heard that today Sasha is living in London or Cape Town, where she is trying her hand, finally, at writing. I have heard she can be found at Oxford or a private sanitarium on beautiful grounds. I cannot be sure, for I have not seen her in months, and before that, years. She attended my wedding, bringing one of her bank-teller, half-sisters as her date. Sasha’s pupils were dilated; her hair was hennaed and angular.
A noose, gulps of pills—those whispers I’d heard.
At weddings, it’s said, all eyes are on the bride. As the bride, I would like to report that this is not true. All eyes were not on me; all eyes were not on my new husband and me as we waltzed around the dance floor or gripped the mother-of-pearl knife handle and sliced through the cake. All eyes were on Sasha.
Sasha wore a green dress. She was still thin, that was clear to see, even at her station: seated at an unimportant table with her half-sister. Sasha has always been thin, as long as I have known her, and one summer, when we were fourteen, she became much, much thinner.
In a hospital bed, Sasha grew gaunt over a month, maybe more, on a liquid diet prescribed for mysterious stomach pains. Blood draws and X-rays, examinations and tests, was it gout or Crohn’s? Had her appendix actually burst? It had.
Her appendicitis, I pictured frequently as ruby rupture in her gut. She left the hospital much thinner, too thin, with a scar as thick as a measuring tape from her navel to her pubis. My scar, she wrote me in an email RSVP to the wedding, provokes in me no response; three men licked it, one after another, and I did not even grin.
My new husband magnetized the dance floor encircled by his groomsmen, their ties around their heads. No one saw my exit: I left the ballroom, walked past the pianist in the lounge, and into the women’s restroom.
I saw her green dress before her face. She was staring at herself in a full-length mirror. Her waist was nothing. Champagne flowed through me: I’d never felt so earnest.
“Lovely,” I said, approaching her from behind. “I’m so glad you could come. It’s been too, too long.”
Sasha’s face crumpled then became crisp. She sounded sober: “How dare you not make me a bridesmaid? How dare you not call when I reached out to you? When I told you I might kill myself? What is wrong with you?”
I opened my mouth, but Sasha held up a hand. It shook and the scar pouring down her wrist glowed.
“You’re crazy,” Sasha said. “I’m done with your excuses.”
She was right: I had always been the fat friend.
JoAnna Novak is the author of two chapbooks: Laps (Another New Calligraphy, 2014) and Something Real (dancing girl press, 2011). With Thomas Cook and Tyler Flynn Dorholt, she publishes and edits Tammy. A finalist for Sarabande’s 2014 Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction, she lives in Massachusetts.2