The first time I saw Rita she was watering her lawn. Our house had come fully furnished yet there were no curtains. I was sitting Indian style on the sofa facing the living room window. Our bare windows looked unprotected. It made me think of the house as susceptible, like the outside was a peeping Tom. The glow of the ending day had a rich, dramatic quality. It was my favorite time — not day and not night, just all mixed up. Rita’s house was across the street. I didn’t know it was her house, I just thought of it as the house with the beautiful garden and the big front lawn.
Our new home smelled of carpet cleaner and Lysol. Ted had the house thoroughly cleaned as part of the buyer’s agreement. The walls were empty and their beige color spoke to me of nothing. Ted was in the kitchen and I could hear him banging cupboard doors.
“I’m just going to be a second,” I yelled towards the kitchen. My words reverberated in the house. I felt shiftless and distressed but also excited. It was how I used to feel as a kid when there was a lightning storm. I would count the seconds between the flash of lightning and the rumble of thunder to calculate the distance between the phenomena and myself, my existence not important, like I was invisible.
Mom said I could do anything because I was special. She said I better not end up like her — pregnant at sixteen and alone, working at a dive to pay the bills and rent. Mom said she could have been anything but she chose to be a nothing. She said for women like us, our looks were most important. Now that she had wrinkles, it was all over for her. I thought she was pretty, even with her wrinkles, but it didn’t really matter what I thought.
It was better for me to leave since mom’s new boyfriend liked to touch my hair. He was giving me that same funny look that my Health Teacher gave me before he asked me to lift my top so he could check my development.
Ted would be leaving in two days. They were filming another movie in Toronto. The brunt of unpacking would fall on me. I looked at my arms. I could make out the blue of my veins; my skin so white it looked like tissue paper.
The pregnancy books claimed my emotional state affected my baby. I was constantly trying to force a false cheeriness, although I was naturally inclined towards pessimism. It irritated me that Ted was already off the hook.
Next to me was the big screen television that Ted had moved himself because it was so important to him. I noticed a scratch on the glass the size of a slivered fingernail. I began developing an alibi even though I hadn’t touched the thing.
That’s when I looked out the window and saw Rita. She was watering between the trees. The hose was hanging from her fist like a snake. The sky had changed to a dark blue, almost black in places, dirty with leftover streaks of orange and red.
Rita is so big. I should have looked away but I kept staring. I was startled by the size of her. She looked towards me and waved with her free hand. She put her hand on her stomach and rubbed in a circle like a Buddha. I understood she was sending my baby her favor.
Her face is also fat. Some fat people have little heads and fat bodies, but not Rita. She was wearing a red scarf tied on her head and it looked like a sparkler. In a little show of humor, she squirted the hose my direction. The water sprayed towards me but there was no way it could reach me all the way across the street. She jerked the hose to her left and the left over spray clouded and then disappeared. Rita’s mouth was open and her head was tilted back. I could tell she was laughing, not a giggly, polite laugh, but a wild, abandoned laugh.
That same week, I was dragging the trashcan to the curb. The rubber was making a loud scraping noise along the asphalt. There was a lot of trash because of the move and my driveway is on a hill. I pulled from the front of the trashcan, but it was sashaying down the hill like an unruly dog. I could smell the leftover Chinese food from two nights ago.
“What are you doing?” She called out. “Trash day is Friday.”
“They told us it was Thursday,” I called back. I was nervous because I wasn’t used to talking to anyone else but Ted. She stood at the edge of her lawn. She was so big she didn’t look real. She reminded me of a giant stuffed teddy bear. She smiled like I had told her a joke. She put her hand on her hip and angled her head.
“Well, they lied. You shouldn’t be doing that anyway. Where’s your husband?”
“Ted’s in Toronto.”
She didn’t even look to see if any cars were coming, she just walked right across the street. Her legs were so large they rubbed together, except for her ankles. I was surprised by how quick she could move. As she shifted her weight from leg to leg, her body made an almost imperceptible yanking motion, as if it was trying to maintain the load.
She took the trashcan from my hand. There was a burst blood vessel on her bicep that looked like an exploded red and blue firecracker. She smelled like gardenias. It was so strong I could smell it over the trash. It was the kind of perfume old women use.
“My husband’s in the movie business also,” she said. “But don’t ask me what the hell he does because I don’t care. He works in The Industry. That’s how they say it around here. He just works in the goddamn Industry and that’s enough.”
She dragged the trashcan to the curb. She moved with confidence. There was sweat at her brow and her slippers made a clomping noise like how a horse might sound on a cobbled road. I started down my driveway with another trashcan. She hustled back to me. She gave me a look of disapproval as she took the trashcan from me.
“It’s okay,” I said. “My doctor says I’m healthy. I helped move boxes.” I could hear her raspy breathing. It made me nervous, like she might have a heart attack from all that weight, but she seemed used to it.
“I don’t care what your doctor says. You’re pregnant. These things are mysterious.”
Rita’s house is a Spanish bungalow, red tile roofs, and smooth white walls like frosting. Her bungalow is mostly hidden behind trees and bushes. She waters every day at 5:30 p.m. I catch glimpses of her through the trees and because her house is elevated it looks like she’s on a stage. She works methodically, from the left to the right in a circle, taking care with each plant. She wears no makeup and ties her hair up in a scarf. She dyes her hair blonde, but the gray comes through at her roots and temples. She wears rubber slippers.
The first time she invited me to her home was after she moved my trashcans. She said she was lonely since John was on location. I would be doing her a favor by having a cup of tea. Stone steps led up to her lawn. Her lawn was green like a golf course. She said the secret was in the seeding. It was like entering the tropics. The plants and flowers didn’t seem arranged, but on closer inspection her garden was well thought out. The lawn was the centerpiece. It was like an oasis, with the lawn standing in as the water. All the homes around her home looked like a desert in comparison.
There was a large doorknob shaped like a pig. I knocked on the door with the pig’s brass body. I could hear her coming down the hall, her feet making boom noises on her wood floor. She opened the door and her body filled the entire doorway. She smiled and set her hand on my arm. Her hand was large and pink and her gold wedding band looked stuck in her skin.
“I’m so glad you came,” she said. “Shall we chat in the living room?” She led me through the house. The first thing I noticed were the pigs — statues of pigs, a pig umbrella holder, pictures of pigs, and a pig flower vase.
There were pictures on the walls of a beautiful woman. I wanted to look at them but I thought it might be impolite. I wondered if the photographs were of a young, skinny Rita.
We sat in two overstuffed chairs in the living room. Rita took up the whole chair. There was a television and I could tell this is where she spent much of her time. She had a comforter folded on the couch next to a pillow and there was a TV tray leaning against the wall.
She must have sensed my curiosity about the photographs because she took one off the wall and handed it to me. The photo was an old black and white but her cheeks and lips were tinted to look pink. She was wearing a ball gown. She reminded me of a plastic statue from the top of a wedding cake. Her hands were gloved and folded together in a ladylike manner, holding a tasteful handbag. The only way I could tell it was her was the expression on her face. While in the young Rita, it made her look like a woman capable of breaking men’s hearts, in the Rita before me, she looked a little crazy.
“I love your look, darling,” she said. “You’re sort of a young Elizabeth Taylor crossed with a Katherine Hepburn.” She crossed her right leg over the left at the calf. Her rubber slipper hung from her foot and her heel was dry and cracked. Ted had told me I was a Veronica Lake crossed with a young, Ava Gardner but I decided not to mention it.
“You’re so beautiful,” I said, her photograph in my hand. Rita had gained a lot of weight from the Rita in the pictures. She looked at the photograph as if she was judging my comment. She sighed.
“I wanted to be in the movies,” I said, surprising myself. I didn’t ever tell people.
“Ah, well,” she said. She took the photograph and set it on the side table but she was still looking at it. “For every success story there’s a thousand sad ones. We never hear about those stories. There are a lot of us exiled almost-stars. Pretty women like us are a dime a dozen. We didn’t quite make it but we’ve got to be happy with what we’ve got. Someone should make a movie about us, don’t you think? Kathy Bates could play me. She’s fat enough. You need someone very young to play you. How old are you, anyway?” She cocked her head. The burst blood vessel on her bicep looked like a spider.
“Twenty-one,” I said softly. I was thinking that Kathy Bates wasn’t fat enough to play her. My face felt hot. She didn’t say anything. She just shook her head. “Ted wanted to discover me, but I don’t want to be in the movies anymore.” I don’t know why I told her. I was embarrassed by the way I talked. She was quiet as if pondering my statement. She looked back at her photograph.
“Why don’t you go home?” She asked. Her voice was almost a whisper. She looked up from the photograph, her eyes blazing. “He’s old enough to be your grandfather. You don’t owe him anything, you know.”
I lay my hands on my stomach. The baby was getting big, her feet and elbows jabbing me. Rita’s wallpaper was patterned with flowers. It was like being in a fun house, all the visual stimuli. I didn’t answer. It seemed like one of those questions that you’re not supposed to answer.
She was quiet. I could hear her labored breathing, even in repose. There was a calico cat curled up and sleeping under the side table.
“If you change your mind,” she said, “you can always use my phone.” She nodded towards the phone. It was the old fashioned kind, big and yellow, where you had to use your finger to turn the dial. I felt like I was going to cry. I fought it. I hated being pregnant because I cried easily. I stared at her cracked heel to distract me and her heel seemed to blur in and out of focus.
“I have discovered a secret,” she said with a grave voice. “I would like to share it with you, if that’s okay?”
“Sure,” I said, a little frightened by her, but glad for the change of topic.
“I am the star of my own life. I am the star of my very own sitcom. Sometimes it is a drama, but I prefer when it is a sitcom.” She was smiling and I couldn’t tell if she was sincere, joking, or both. I could hear the birds outside. They were making a fuss, fighting over something. I noticed stray popcorn under the couch. I imagined Rita sleeping on the couch while her husband was away.
She laughed and it was like I had permission. I laughed. I hadn’t laughed like that in a long time. It felt like all the bad stuff was coming out as well. I could feel it all the way down my spine. We laughed like that till we were both wiping our eyes.
“Hoo!” She said. “That feels good.” She was serious again. “I used to be a beauty queen.” I must have looked at her with suspicion because she continued, “I’ve got the sash and crown to prove it, if you want to see it?” She made like she was going to get up, her hands on the chair and her body lifted, and I shook my head no.
“Oomph,” she said as she let herself sink back in the chair. She hesitated before speaking. I could tell she was trying to figure out how to word something. “I hope you go home and see your mom,” she said. “You’re young. You don’t understand. Pride is a dangerous thing. All this stuff doesn’t matter. This beauty queen stuff. I hope you change your mind.”
She skated her hand across her stomach. “I got fat just to piss everyone off. I was never supposed to be fat.”
I didn’t know how to respond so I excused myself to the restroom. I couldn’t imagine letting myself go like that. What would it be like to be that fat? Rita was so brave. The soaps in the bathroom were shaped like piglets, lying together in a soap dish.
I washed my hands with a piglet. My face in the mirror was blotchy from emotion. Mom used to say my skin told on me.
Rita was waiting for me with a plate of cookies when I returned to the living room. There was a Bible next to the plate. It was rather beat up looking with slips of papers throughout as bookmarks. The photograph was hanging back on the wall, slanted to the left.
“How long have you been married?” I asked. She laughed and her head went back. I could see the gold crowns on her back teeth. It was a rolling type of laugh, gaining momentum, reaching a pitch, never diminishing, only ending. She finished laughing and she was quiet for a minute. The cat woke up and yawned. He sniffed the popcorn under the couch and left it to rub himself against Rita’s big legs.
She patted the bible, “Let me tell you, darling. I’ve been married a long time but Jesus is my man.”
My baby, Lily, came three weeks early. I was washing dishes when my water broke. It splashed onto the linoleum and the first thing I thought about was I’d better clean up the mess. The contractions came on fast and heavy so I quickly forgot about cleaning. I did manage to change my underwear and pants.
Ted was wearing a beeper. I paged him. I entered the code we agreed on in case I went into labor. I waited by the phone. He didn’t call. I checked the phone to make sure it was working.
I walked up Rita’s stone steps and I had to stop from the pain. I sat on the step and looked towards her lawn. It was so green it looked like it was glowing. I could smell the grass and it made me want to sneeze. The bees were humming. The sun was bright so I had to squint.
Rita appeared before me. Her body blocked out the sun. I felt better in her shade. She was wearing a yellow sundress. Her arms were mammoth-like, the flesh hanging low. She looked like a giant angel.
“Stay here,” she said, as if I could go anywhere. “I’ll pull the car around.” I heard the car round the driveway and screech to a stop. She lifted me by my underarms. I put my arm around her and she helped me to the car. Her body felt padded and soft. I was reassured by the extent of her. I wanted to curl up inside her; there was room enough for the both of us. The back seat door was open. There was a towel waiting for me.
“Lie down,” she instructed.
My head was towards the back of her car seat. Her car was meticulous. She was talking but I couldn’t concentrate. She was saying something about how exciting it was and how she had never had a baby before. She turned the radio to classical music.
She was brusque with the hospital staff.
“Hell yes I’m her mom,” she said when they gave her a hard time. I was relieved to let her handle things.
Ted arrived three hours after Lily was born. He said he had accidentally left the beeper in the car. Rita was with me through the labor. She saw Lily come into the world. She said it was a miracle. She left as soon as Ted got there.
She kissed my cheek. “Lily is a marvel,” she said. She had wet stains under her underarms. Her breath was ragged.
“I’ll never forget this,” I said. I was crying.
“Me, too,” she said.
At first, I was terrified of Lily, but we got used to each other. My world centered on breast milk, spit ups and poops. Lily’s poops didn’t smell bad. I could tell when it was coming by the way her face got red and concentrated. Sometimes, the poops would come out so forceful they’d explode up the back of her diapers and on to her onesies.
I was alone most of the time. I didn’t leave the house. I felt like I had to protect Lily and I didn’t want germs to come near her. I thought I might be crazy. I wasn’t part of the world. My breasts leaked like they were crying. My sweatshirts had stiff, dried breast milk stains.
Rita didn’t come by. She backed off. I didn’t mind. I was relieved. I would see her once in awhile when she was getting her mail. I’d let her admire Lily because Rita liked to see how quickly Lily changed.
When Lily napped I tried to get things done, but most of the time I couldn’t leave her. I was afraid she’d disappear. I studied her. It was like I couldn’t get used to the sight of her. She had a patch of dark hair on her head that made her look like a monk. Her skin was transparent. She looked like me. It bothered Ted, but I liked that she didn’t look like him.
The baby monitor is what got me into trouble. I used it when Lily napped. When it was on in our upstairs bedroom, I discovered something peculiar. I could hear voices. It took me awhile before I recognized Rita’s husband, John. I had only met him a handful of times but he had this way of talking that was very fast and whiny, like Woody Allen.
Most of the conversations were mundane. He had so many business calls. Then he had this strange conversation. He was talking to a woman. I was folding towels when I heard it. I pressed the monitor to my ear.
A woman said, “We carry a ton of ancestral baggage. Your toes curl because when the apes had their orgasms in the trees, they needed to hold on tight or they’d fall right out. Our toes still do this if the orgasm is good. It’s a reflex.”
Lily was sleeping with her arms spread like she was flying. I’d put pillows all around her in a circle so she wouldn’t roll and fall.
With the monitor pressed to my ear, I watched Lily’s chest rise and fall. There was static. The woman made a series of little kiss noises. John made one big kiss noise, and they hung up.
I waited for 5:30 p.m. Rita was there like always holding the green hose. The dusk made everything gloomy. The setting sun had disappeared behind rain clouds. The water from her hose arched. Once in awhile she’d press her thumb against the spray and it would shoot in multiple directions. She was methodic in her watering, beginning on the left and working her way around the yard. It soothed me to watch her. She was in my sight, then out, behind a bush, slowly appearing before disappearing. She spent the most time on her azaleas.
Ted called me that night from his hotel in Toronto.
“How’s our little baby?” he asked. I was sitting on our bed and Lily was latched on my breast. Her mouth slipped off as she fell into slumber but she woke herself and tugged at my nipple again. Her mouth looked like a rose bud.
“She’s fine but she misses her daddy.” He was gone, always absent. Even when he was home, he was a shadow.
“Kiss the little boo boo for me.” He coughed.
“Do you know why your toes can curl when you have orgasms?” I never talked to him like this. It made me want to laugh. “It’ s ancestral baggage from the apes. The apes did it so they wouldn’t fall out of the trees.” I could almost see his face, the way his lips screw up in disapproval.
“Maybe you should have someone come help you. I have to stay in Toronto awhile,” he answered. I imagined him wiping his glasses with his shirt. The line was empty. I could hear a slight buzz. I could see myself in the dresser mirror. I hadn’t showered and I smelled like spit-up and sweat. I hadn’t brushed my hair in days. My hair was spread around my head like a black bush. I continued to look at myself, fascinated. My skin was so white I looked like a phantom. What planet are you from? I asked my reflection — then I felt panic since I wondered if I’d said it out loud. Lily looked like a doll. She was bundled in a blanket and all I could see of her from the mirror was the pink of her face. I made kiss noises into the phone.
“I’m serious,” he said. He was trying to sound important but he came across as angry. I didn’t say anything. He made a little kiss noise into the phone as a concession. It pleased me more then anything he had ever done. It felt like someone had lit a match inside me and I involuntarily gasped.
“Think about it,” Ted said. “We can afford it.”
The light on the VCR flickered 3:15 a.m. while I breastfed Lily on the couch. I was wearing my sweatpants. Lily was eating every two hours so I’d grown accustomed to going topless around the house. Her mouth slipped off and my breast shot milk directly at Ted’s big television. She jerked wildly like a blind animal until she latched back on. I fussed with the other nipple and squeezed, shooting milk across the living room just for the fun of it. The remote was underneath a cushion and I squirmed until I got it. There were usually Psychic hotline commercials and infotainment to look forward to at this hour, but I turned the television on. The volume was loud and it startled Lily. Her hands flew in the air. I pressed the mute button and Lily went back to business.
The televangelist was weeping while his wife with big, purple hair pressed her palms together in prayer. Their mouths moved and even though I couldn’t hear what they were saying I felt like I could.
I ran through the channels until I came across a nature program featuring apes. I watched the silent apes while Lily sucked. A mother ape with sagging, coarse breasts ran across the jungle with a baby on her back. Two large male apes with dangling male organs were feuding. The slighter ape swatted the other ape right across his head with a branch. Oh shit, I thought, now he’s going to get it.
Car headlights came through my curtains. John was coming home. I carried Lily, still sucking, to the window and parted the curtains with my foot. John carried his briefcase and his back was hunched. His bald spot was more visible in the dark.
Just then he turned and he saw me. He looked right at me and it was like we were both looking at ghosts. His face was pale and he looked frightened and tired. I let go of the curtain. It was only an instant, but even with the curtain shut I felt like we were still staring at each other. I could feel the skin along my back and arms rising with goose bumps.
The apes were eating. I had an urge to call John and tell him to watch channel 28. I could disguise my voice. He was interested in apes. He might find the show entertaining. I had this image of us watching from our separate homes and talking through the baby monitor.
Late the next morning, John was standing in Rita’s lovely yard. He started pacing and talking on his cell phone. I carried Lily to my bedroom since I had discovered that’s where I got the best reception. I turned on the baby monitor. Lily was fussy so I put her in a sling and paced the bedroom with the monitor against my ear. It was strange to be able to see him. I noticed, like me, he was wearing the same clothes. He must have been up all night. His suit was badly wrinkled and he’d loosened his tie.
He said, “Yeah, yeah, I promise.” He stopped and picked a leaf, “I’m going to tell her.”
“John,” she said.
“Not about us,” he said irritably. “I’m going to tell her I want a divorce.”
“Are you sure? Don’t do it for me. I don’t want you to do it for me.”
He tossed the leaf and we watched it float down in zigzags. “Listen, I can’t stand it anymore. I can’t live like this.” His hand was at his forehead like he had a headache. He hung up and I turned off the monitor. He didn’t even say goodbye to Rita, just slammed his car door and drove off.
I decided I must tell Rita. She was my only friend and I owed it to her. I put Lily in her front pack and we followed Rita when she went to get her mail. Her mailbox was near the curb so she had to go down her stone steps to retrieve her mail.
“What a lovely day,” she commented when she saw us. She opened the mailbox, “Oh well, more bills.”
She had to move her body to allow me to get near her. She backed up and I worried she might hit a bush. For such girth, she was graceful, and she managed to let me through without effort. Her hair was luminous, blonde with wisps of gray.
Lily was in a front carrier and Rita held one of her limp hands. She hunched herself so she could talk directly to Lily.
“My, my, my, Miss Lily,” she said, “it appears to me you’ve gone and changed on me again, all in two days.” When she talked to Lily with such affection, for some reason it made me want to cry, but not in a bad way. Other people would pay attention to Lily, baby talk her, but it was only Rita that could make me feel like that.
Rita moved her gaze to me, “She’s a lovely baby. You are so blessed. Lily truly is a marvel.”
Even from a distance, I could smell the flowers from Rita’s yard. My body felt saggy and heavy like the mother ape from the show. I had already lost most of the weight from my pregnancy, so I wondered if I felt that way because of Rita. Was I imagining what it was like to be that fat? It was mostly because I was tired. I shifted my weight from one foot to the other.
“May I talk to you?” I asked.
“Always,” she assured. “You can talk to me right now, only let’s go somewhere where I can sit. It takes a lot of energy to be this big. I need to sit down.” She laughed. Rita liked to poke fun at her weight. I tried not to laugh since it wasn’t funny but I could feel my face smiling awkwardly.
Rita led me up her walkway until we were in the middle of her yard. She took two foldout chairs that were leaning against her house and she opened them.
“I’ll be right back,” she said.
It was hard to sit with Lily in her carrier but we managed. Lily was sleeping, her face squished against the carrier. I tried to move her without waking her, but her neck had no support and her head just flopped forward. There was a red crease on her cheek and I put my finger against it. Her skin was hot.
Rita returned with two glasses of lemonade, the ice cubes rattling. She handed me mine and I thanked her. We didn’t talk.
Even though her yard was shaded, I could feel the warmth of the sun. The air looked misty, like we were in Hawaii. The insects were buzzing. A group of flies circled a fountain.
Rita stretched her legs out and I could see the cracks on her heels. There was a trail of veins running up each ankle. She was wearing her floppy rubber slippers and she let them fall off her feet. She closed her eyes and let her head fall back as if she was opening herself to the sun.
“This is the life,” she said, “I’ll tell you, we are blessed. We are blessed by God’s love. I thank the Lord every night and every morning for my life.” Her toes squeezed the grass.
There was a rustling in a tree and when I squinted my eyes I could make out birds hidden amongst the leaves.
Rita opened her eyes and she let her head come back in to place, “Listen honey, I know you’re lonely. I know what it is to be lonely. I’ve felt so bad before that I thought I might be crazy. That’s what loneliness can do. I want you to know that. I want you to know that I understand.” Her face was serious and direct. It occurred to me that she already knew about John.
I nodded my head in agreement. My breasts had the tingly feeling that meant Lily would wake soon and eat. The flies were coming near us. I guess they liked Rita’s flowers just as much as me.
Rita swatted her hand at the flies. She knocked her lemonade over with her foot and we watched the liquid soak in to the grass. Rita picked up an ice cube with her toes and flung it towards a bush. It landed in the dirt.
“You know, it’s normal to feel bad,” she said. She was examining me. I tried to look back at her. I thought about how beautiful she was in her photographs, but that wasn’t the real Rita. That was some created Rita. She was beautiful to me like this, all her folds of fat; her face so round it was dreamlike. I hoped I could be brave like Rita. I wanted to prove it to her. The ice cube had melted and three ants surrounded the new lake as if testing the edge with their feet.
“It’s normal to be lonely,” Rita continued. “I don’t want you to think you’re alone. Whatever you think, just remember — this is normal.” Her hands were on her knees, as if she was about to rise, but she was staring at me earnestly. Lily’s small fingers were curled like they were holding onto the air.
“May I use your phone?” I asked. I touched Lily’s hair, black like my own. I smelled her sweetness, an indescribably mysterious smell- something like sky and cotton candy. Lily gave a soft sigh. Her mouth was turned down in a sleep pout. Her eyelids were moist, like she had Vaseline on them, her eyelashes tiny spider legs. Her arms were outside the carrier and her skin was flushed pink. She would be like me. Her skin would tell on her. I put my finger in Lily’s palm and she clutched without thinking, an instinctive reassurance, her fingers slowly releasing back to their sleepy curl. I looked at Rita and she was smiling as if she knew what I was going to say next. “I’d like to call my mom.”