My stepmother threatened to divorce my father so many times that it soon became a family joke. �Dad cracked a plate,� I might say. �Uh oh. Divorce,� was my stepsister�s squeaky comeback. Marcy was twelve at the time and she was growing from cute and stick-thin to pimpled and not so thin, the beginning of adolescent obesity. One might blame this on the turmoil at home, but I thought Marcy, what with her name, which I�ve always associated with unattractiveness, and her pedigree�my stepmother is not a beautiful woman�was destined to be homely. But I loved her. She was about all I had. I wasn�t popular at school, and I was sure my father didn�t like me. He never took me to see the Tri-Cities Dust Devils play, even though I was a fanatic about baseball and begged him almost daily.
Marcy and I didn�t want our parents to divorce, if only because then we would be separated. The consensus though was that they never should have married in the first place. My father loved fine food and art, and all things academic. He rarely watched TV, but devoured The Paris Review. Margaret called him a snob. He called her a philistine for watching reality television and eating macaroni topped with sliced hot dog. They both had hot tempers, fueled by the evening news and sparked by any mention of politics, a powder keg ready to blow. Watching Peter Jennings was never boring in our home.
Marcy wanted to become a ballerina, and this hope was fading with every Mars bar she ate. I was her sounding board, personal trainer, and quite often, her mirror when she couldn�t stand to look in a real one.
One morning, as on many days, she said to me, �I�m fat.�
Normally my role was then to contradict her and convince her that if anything she was willowy and could use to put on a few pounds. But I was tired of hearing her complain and thought I should do her a favor by telling her the truth.
�Yes, you are fat,� I said.
She then pouted, put her hands over her pudgy pink face, and began to bawl.
�You�re so mean,� she squealed.
�I�m sorry, I didn�t mean it,� I said. I looked around the walls of her room, painted a pale yellow and hung with posters from Petrushka,
�No, you did. And I know you�re right. I�m fat, and I�ll never be thin again.� She wiped her tears with the lace from a tutu that had seams ripping and ready to spring apart.
At dinner that evening the rims of her eyes were still red.
Margaret noticed and said, �You�ve been crying, dear.�
�Yes,� Marcy said, spooning more clam chowder into her mouth.
�Why is that, pumpkin?� Margaret asked, looking over her black-rimmed glasses at her daughter.
�Because I�m fat,� she blubbered. I felt sorry for her.
�Now, who told you that?� Margaret asked, looking pointedly in my direction. She blamed me for Marcy�s weight gain, the stress I caused her by being svelte.
�No one. I just know it.�
�I�m out of patience for this constant self-critique, Marcy,� my father said. �You�re a beautiful girl no matter what you weigh and you shouldn�t let your whole self-concept rest on your relation to what our centerfold-obsessed society deems the correct shape for a young woman to be.�
Dad was an adjunct English professor at the local community college, specializing, on his own time, in feminist literary theory. He wore a clipped salt-and-pepper beard, round wire-frame glasses, gray slacks, a blue shirt, and always a bowtie, which varied in color depending on the day of the week. Green on Monday, tan on Tuesday, yellow on Wednesday, and so on, so that one only had to look at Dad�s tie to tell what day it was. The bowtie was red today. Thursday.
He gave Marcy a pat on the back and told her not to worry. Not surprisingly, Margaret was of a different opinion. She wanted to see her little pumpkin become a ballerina, realize her dream, and wouldn�t let a frivolous thing like weight stand in her way. It was a matter of resolve, self-control, to lose the few pounds necessary to be world-class in her chosen art. To the strong go the spoils�evolutionary and capitalistic theory. She looked daggers at my father. Both Marcy and I caught the look, glanced at each other and simultaneously mouthed the word �divorce.� We grinned.
�Pumpkin, you do have to admit, you�ve put on some weight. You were such a skinny little thing,� Margaret said, her eyes wide with concern.
�I know,� said Marcy, sniffling.
�Well, what are we going to do about it?� said Margaret, punctuating the sentence with a tap of her spoon on the table. I started.
�Nothing,� said my father. �It�s about time we had some ballerinas who weren�t anorexic and had breasts.�
�God, Lawrence, I swear,� Margaret said.
My father balked. The Lord�s name had been taken in vain.
�I tell you what we�re going to do. Diet and exercise. Di-et, and ex-er-cise,� Margaret said, punctuating each syllable with spoon taps. I took her seriously, but her daughter didn�t.
�Mother, you really expect me to go on a diet? And exercise? Not really?�
�Yes. We are starting tomorrow.� And that settled it. I had to say this for Margaret; she could be a drill sergeant when she wanted to. I could already see Marcy sweating.
* * *
In the days that followed, Marcy was put on a regimen of carefully devised low-calorie meals and daily exercise. Because she was too ashamed of her flabby body to display it at the public swimming pool or jogging down the street, Margaret ordered a treadmill and made a deal with one of the neighbors to let Marcy use their backyard pool for laps. Again, I was her sounding board, now to complain about how exhausted and hungry she was, but the scale was her best pal. She visited it half a dozen times a day to record the weight loss of maybe a pound over a week�s time. Despite how slow, it was progress. Margaret allowed Seventeen into the home so Marcy could have a template, regardless of the fact that she wasn�t yet a teenager. To this my father raised a hullabaloo.
�Dang it, Margaret.� That�s the closest he came to swearing. �These are the kind of false images I�m trying to protect our daughter from,� he said one afternoon when he was home from teaching. He had seen an issue reading �Hot Summer Bikinis� in pink print across the cover.
�You�re not being a good father if you don�t want her to be pretty,� Margaret said with a raised voice. �I think you want to keep her fat so she won�t meet young men.�
�She�s not even of the age to meet young men. If she met a young man I would be filing for a restraining order. I don�t care if she goes around with boys. You�re the one who�s doing the damage here. Her whole sense of worth is going to be caught up in what our misogynistic culture says is a woman�s value. Sex sells, Margaret. Do you want our daughter to be a commodity?� My father was livid now. I listened from the top of the stairs, repeating the word �divorce� in my head.
Margaret cocked her head to the side. �Is that why you married me, Lawrence? So you could be self-righteous in living with a woman who is not pretty by any standard? So you could say to yourself, �At least I haven�t sold out to our society�s vision of sex, of beauty, of the happy family?�� She was pacing now. �Well I�ve got news for you. I know I�m not pretty and it�s been hard for me. I don�t want our daughter to grow up being teased and ridiculed. I know doors open for beautiful people. I want doors to open for my daughter.�
My father picked up Seventeen, ruffling the pages, and said, �I�ll concede, you may be right,� and he quickly added, �about the doors opening, et cetera. But this has to go.�
He shrugged his shoulders and tossed it into the kitchen trash.
Marcy had joined me at the top of the stairs. �I don�t know what the big fuss is,� she said.
�It�s just something for them to argue about,� I said. �They like that. It keeps them going.�
In Marcy�s room we lay on her sky blue bedspread under a lace canopy; her bed seemed much softer than mine. I looked at the stills of dancers, and from the photos I could tell that they had an easy gracefulness that my sister lacked and never would get, no matter how much weight she lost or how hard she practiced. She would be happier when she accepted this truth, not chasing some phantasm of a dream. But sometimes we aren�t ready for truth.
�I�ve lost two pounds since last Friday,� Marcy said, rolling on her side and facing me, her head propped on her hand.
�That�s good,� I said. �What�s your goal?� Visible through the canopy of the bed, affixed to the ceiling, were glow-in-the-dark stars. It was just dark enough that I could see their green blush through the lace.
�Do I need a goal?� she asked.
�No. Not really.�
�Then I won�t have one.� She pinched her belly fat, as she had a habit of doing lately. �That should make Mom mad.�
�What doesn�t make your mother mad?� I asked, reaching my hand for the stars, putting them in perspective. It was much better than lying under a real night sky, which made me feel small and irrelevant. I pulled my weasel face: upper teeth over lower lip, upper lip curled, nose bunched, brow furrowed. Marcy laughed, a kind of hulky, overweight laugh.
�You know what I would be good at?� she asked.
�What?� I said, hopeful.
�Tackle football.� And she began to cry.
I put my arms around her, my fingers barely touching behind her back, and held her as she quivered and shook.
�You know, some women get paid good money to do that in their lingerie,� I said, trying to make her laugh again. She only cried harder.
* * *
Orange bowtie, Friday. My favorite tie, my favorite day of the week. It meant Dad would be home, and that maybe he would take me to a Dust Devils game. They were in Tri-Cities this weekend.
He was in the living room, reclined on the brown sofa and skimming a tatty old New Yorker, when I asked him about taking me to the ball field. He flipped the page and continued reading.
�Sure,� he said after I was certain he hadn�t heard. �I think that�s a great idea.�
I ran down the hall to Marcy�s room. �I�m going to a ball game,� I yelled through her door, my voice cracking on the word �ball.�
We celebrated my good fortune by eating a bowl of cookie dough ice cream.
�Mom would kill me if she saw me eating a whole bowl. I feel kind of guilty,� she said, eating quickly like someone starved.
Later I heard retching noises through the bathroom door.
* * *
Dad and I arrived at the ballpark while the players were warming up. They rotated through batters, the pitchers throwing slow balls to stretch their shoulders. Pop flies soared to the outfield while the infielders hurled zingers to each other, the satisfying smack of ball in mitt coming at quick intervals. This was only the second time I had been to an actual game, the first for a class trip to
We watched the Dust Devils� pitcher decimate the Emeralds� batters in the bottom of the first. They scored no runs. The Emeralds� starting pitcher wasn�t bad either, though. He kept the run count to one by the end of the first, after which we went to get soda. Dad was unusually silent, and unsurprisingly he didn�t seem to enjoy the game, but I would�ve expected him to comment on the phallic imagery of the bat, or the obvious underlying homoeroticism of the pats on the butt that the players dolled out to each other after a good hit.
After the top of the second inning the score was up three-zip and I was getting suspicious. Dad hadn�t said a word. I asked him what was wrong. He said not to worry.
The Dust Devils� ace threw some fastballs in the third and held the Emeralds to zero. When there was a lull in the game, Dad said he needed to tell me something.
�Margaret and I are getting a divorce,� he said.
I didn�t say anything. The word didn�t have the power it did when I was eight and my father told me he and my real mom were splitting, but it still left me silent. I thought maybe this was another joke, but my father is a serious man and doesn�t often joke except in an academic, dry kind of way. This was too real for him to kid about. I realized I didn�t care if I ever saw Margaret again, but what about Marcy?
I lost interest in the game. The Dust Devils were tromping the Emeralds and everyone knew they would win. I wanted to go home. But where was home if my father was leaving Margaret? I wanted to stay with him. My real mother was a basket case who left Dad a dozen times, always coming back penitent, before he got the courage to be done with her.
�Look,� he said. �I promise you�ll still be able to visit Marcy.�
�Where are we going to live?� I asked, wondering if we were moving cities, or even states, away.
�Just across town. I can�t afford the rent of a house in the area where we live now.�
* * *
I helped Dad pack up. He didn�t want to see Margaret. He lived in his head so much that his heart had grown dusty and to move there now would have meant some serious cleaning that he didn�t want to do. So he stayed in his head, leaving the matters of the heart, goodbyes and such to me. It was almost like Marcy and I were the ones divorcing.
�What am I going to do without you?� she asked, while helping me pack Dad�s critical theory books.
�Give your mom hell,� I said. �She needs someone to keep her in line. And forget the diet. But throw away the candy bars. Those things are like cigarettes for you. You�ll be okay.�
�I heard about this plus-size dance troupe from B.C. Maybe I could join that,� she said.
�Maybe,� I said.
* * *
Divorce is an odd word. The more you say it, the easier it gets to say. My dad remarried and divorced again before deciding he was better off single.
Marcy tried out for a troupe in Spain called Danza Enorme. She�s still waiting for her callback, but if she doesn�t get it, she�s going to audition again next year. I want them to take her seriously. She deserves that much.
It�s nearly Christmas now, and there�s a light dusting of snow. Marcy and I are going to the Nutcracker this afternoon. I hope she laughs in her low, hulky way at the skinny dancers, and is at the same time awed by their gracefulness.
BIO: Philip Coffeen is a writer and commercial fisherman living in the Pacific Northwest. He is currently attending University of Washington for a master's degree in library science. His poetry has been published in The Gadfly and Open Minds Quarterly. This is his first piece of published fiction.