I stepped carefully onto Nathan’s jet ski. It wobbled as my weight entirely resided on one side of the small aquatic vehicle before throwing my leg over it like I had just watched him do. I shifted so that I sat more balanced in the center, wrapping my arms around him from behind.
“Have you ever ridden one of these before?” he asked me.
I thought for a moment. “I think I rode this one with you, but it was a long time ago, before we were dating.”
He laughed, suddenly remembering. “Oh yeah! We tried to fit three people on this when we came up here with all of our friends, but it had too much weight on it, so you had to wait for the next turn.”
I laughed uncomfortably, remembering the embarrassment of being the person who made the jet ski too heavy to go. “Yeah.” I tried to hide the fact that I was now replaying that unpleasant moment in my mind with a sturdy voice. “Back then.”
He laughed a little, kissed me on the cheek, and told me to hang on to him tight. Soon the wind whipping in our faces almost made me forget that it was a sweltering hot day in the dead of summer.
I had been coming up to Nathan’s family’s lake house for years before he asked me to be his girlfriend half way through our final year of high school. Our families had been neighbors and close friends since he and I were in preschool, so we were often invited to spend our day on the shore of Lake Otis. His father was the city’s most frequented orthodontist, leaving his family with enough disposable income to have the second home, as well as the many luxuries that went along with property on a lake: the boat, paddle boards, canoes, and two intimidatingly powerful jet skis. I spent a lot of time there with him and his family in the summer before our first year of college, living up what felt like our last summer of youth together before college would bring about the change of increased workloads, stress, and summers busy with internships. The submersion of myself in their world of excessively nice things made me feel out of place in the beginning of our relationship, but at this point, the overwhelming privilege of their lifestyles was no longer so shocking.
We rode around the lake whizzing by with the loud motor announcing our presence to anyone who was outside. We sped by families with young children, men drinking beers on their docks, young people fishing, anyone who thought the day was too nice to be spent inside. As Nathan accelerated, he looked over his shoulder to me, laughing. “Look,” he said over the rumbling motor, motioning to his left with his head. “Beached whale!”
My smile slid off my face as my eyes followed his direction to a woman, clearly overweight, lying and enjoying her day in the sun on her property’s dock.
She was minding her own business, completely unaware that my boyfriend, a stranger to her, was making fun of her for her weight. He made these comments careless of his girlfriend with an eating disorder behind him.
I began to cycle through the thoughts of trying to be rational with a mental illness that thrived of irrationality. This comment wasn’t made at me, I thought. Her size and mine were very different. He didn’t mean that comment to hurt or belittle me at all. None of this logic I tried to focus on stopped my mind from racing. If he said those comments about this woman’s body, what was stopping him from making them about mine? What was stopping anyone from making them about mine?
Thoughts of how insecure I suddenly felt, clad in only my bathing suit and a life jacket, swirled around me the same way the water did beneath the jet ski. I suddenly felt like I could feel every ounce of fat on my body—the rolls over my stomach, my thighs jiggling against my will as the jet ski shook us. He eventually asked if I wanted to drive it for a while. “I trust you,” he assured me, while making room for me to sit in front of him. In that moment, I didn’t trust him. I didn’t trust him not to judge my imperfections the way he had just so casually joked about another woman’s.
He quickly taught me how to start the motor, and suddenly we were zooming off. My body was there, but my mind was far off. I was unable to stop thinking about how casually crass he just was. I squeezed the gas lever attached to the handle hard, lurching our bodies forward with its acceleration.
This is why I have to keep doing this to myself, I thought. This is why I can’t eat dinner every day. People like him will always judge.
I squeezed harder.
If I become like her, people will be cruel to me. They’ll make comments that belittle me and make fun of me behind my back. I’ll become everyone’s punchline. If I don’t keep trying to be thinner at any costs, I’ll become her.
I squeezed harder.
Nathan laughed behind me. “Geez, babe,” he said into my ear, “you’re not holding back! Look how fast you’re going!”
I glanced down, seeing I was breaking fifty miles an hour. I began to release my grip slowly, feeling every pound of me jerk forward as I brought us back to a more reasonable speed. I could feel the confusedly-placed resentment I held swell in my shoulders. I didn’t know who to be mad at. Should I have been mad at him for making fun of strangers just because they looked different than he did, or should my anger be placed inward, knowing that at some level, I must have agreed with Nathan in his pointed judgement. If I didn’t agree that the world had a right to judge and mock this woman because of her weight, then why was I so disgusted with the fat on my own body that I frequently put my physical health at risk to lessen it?
We passed the woman again on our way back to his house. I couldn’t look at her.
“That was fun, wasn’t it?” Nathan said to me as we hung up our life vests and returned to lie on the navy-blue lawn and blinding white lawn chairs. I nodded, trying to adjust my bikini to make sure it was covering as much skin as the petite garment would.
Feeling deeply uncomfortable in my skin was a natural discomfort for me. It had been nearly four years of dabbling with almost every common eating disorder symptom, like I was simply switching hobbies. Binging, purging, restricting, obsessive calorie counting, running six miles on an empty stomach, I partook in it all. I shrunk and grew back and shrunk and grew more throughout high school. I felt like the vanishing girl in a magic trick, except my problem was I kept reappearing.
Though Nathan had been my friend since childhood, he wasn’t around to actively watch my shrinking act. His parents sent him to an expensive private school to get a better education, so for the majority of our high school career, we only saw each other on occasions. It wasn’t until our senior year that we reconnected and began dating. He was everything a typical high school girl could want in a boyfriend: he was a generally nice boy, he had great hair, and he was friends with all of my friends. I was everything a typical high school boy would want in a girlfriend: I knew how to apply makeup in a way that made me look prettier without making me look like a whore, and I never argued with him.
A few months into our relationship I confessed to him about the unhealthy relationship between food and my body, but during that particular summer, I was riding the weight yo-yo back up. I was eating relatively frequently, and I was putting on weight instead of losing it. I told him I was sick, but it wasn’t something that was visible in the moment. He meant well, but his sheltered upbringing left his level of understanding of issues that did not affect his life to be slim.
“You good?” He asked me as we laid out to tan in the afternoon sun.
“Yeah, of course!” I inserted artificial positivity into my voice. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
“Oh, you were just being a little quiet,” he mentioned.
“Just enjoying the sunshine.”
“You sure?” He pressed one more time.
It was a trick question. If I told him what was bothering me, I was the over-sensitive stick-in-the-mud who couldn’t hear a joke that wasn’t even about me without getting my little feelings hurt. If I lied and kept insisting nothing was wrong, then that meant I was the kind of spineless person who would rather not mention to my boyfriend that his comment was harsh, and it bothered me that he made it. I would lose either way.
“I’m fine,” I said again, immediately feeling pathetic that I didn’t speak up about how his stupid joke was bothering me, and pathetic that this was even bothering me at all.
His two younger brothers, two and four years his junior, raced up to our chairs, effectively ending the interrogation into my emotional wellbeing. “Nathan,” the youngest, Luke, called, waving a few bucks in the air. “Mom said we could get ice cream at Kate’s Corner Store, but only if you drive.”
He looked at me in a way that asked if I wanted to go. I smiled in a way that didn’t reach my eyes in response.
The four of us loaded into Nathan’s car. I had known Nathan’s brothers for so long that I basically treated them as if they were my own brothers, so the three of them joked around as if I wasn’t even there. The small ice cream and hot dog shop was only a couple of miles down the road. I tried to stop thinking about the previously memorized number of calories in my head, a score board trying to justify some sort of bargain that would allow for me to have some ice cream and not want to throw it up. I discretely googled how many calories were spent while paddle boarding. We had already done that this morning, but I was already thinking of ways to convince him to go out again.
When we arrived, the small place was rather busy with families and their small children. We got in line and pondered our orders.
“Do you want to split something?” I asked Nathan.
“Well, I was planning on just getting something small,” he warned.
“That’s perfect, I’m still full from lunch,” I lied. “I don’t need a lot of ice cream.”
“Yeah, not everyone needs a lot if ice cream,” Luke leaned in to mumble under his breath to us. He nodded towards the man in line just ahead of us, who was, again, noticeably obese.
My cheeks flushed red as if it was me the comment was directed at. “Luke!” Nathan quietly scolded in an oldest-brother kind of way, but still laughed through the reprimand. The middle brother, Adam, tried to stifle his giggles as to not draw the attention of the man in front of us, who was blissfully unaware that three young boys were all laughing at his expense. The three of them seemed to think Luke’s comment was the funniest thing they had heard all day, giggling over and over when they saw that one of them was still laughing. The large man still didn’t turn around. I began to wonder if he somehow heard but was too embarrassed to turn around. Or maybe he didn’t hear. Maybe those were the kinds of comments people made about me, but I just didn’t hear, I thought.
We got our ice cream and sat at the rundown picnic tables outside the establishment. I stared blankly ahead, letting Nathan eat more than half of the ice cream. I felt sick to my stomach for not saying anything again. Nathan didn’t make the rude comment the second time, but he laughed right along. He showed his fourteen and sixteen-year-old brothers that it was okay to make fun of strangers that way just because they’re fat, that the extra space they took up meant that there was less room for human decency. Never before had Nathan done anything that had gotten under my skin so easily. I felt like every comment was directed at me because that was the kind of ugliness I knew people would show me if I were ever to allow myself to be like that. Everyone was so nice to me when I was a thin, pretty little thing, but what if I ever stopped doing all the unhealthy things I was doing to keep myself that way? What would happen if I quit trying to perfect my vanishing act and just allowed myself to take up as much space as necessary?
Strangers would treat me the way the man I said I loved treated others. Nathan said he loved me unconditionally, but I realized that wasn’t true. The condition was a weight limit.
I was silent as he drove me home that night. Nathan made multiple attempts to breathe life into a conversation, but I kept murdering it with curt, one-word answers. I was mad at him for saying those things, mad at myself for being mad about him saying those things, and also mad about how much I could see my body jiggle every time he drove over a bump in the road.
“Alright, what’s up,” Nathan said at last. “You’ve been weird all afternoon.”
“I have not been weird,” I defended.
“You have too. Tell me what’s up.”
I sighed. Maybe he was right. Maybe I would feel better if I just told him.
“See, I knew it.”
“It’s just that...” I paused, grappling with how to tell him what he did was wrong in a way that didn’t make him feel like he did any wrong, how to make the smallest waves from rocking the boat ever so slightly. “I don’t know. You were a little... harsh on that woman earlier today.”
“What woman?” He had already forgotten about her.
“The one we passed on the jet ski,” I reminded him. “The beached whale.”
“Oh, yeah, her.”
“Well, I mean, I’m probably just being oversensitive and everything, but it just seemed a little rough, probably because I’m me, and...you know...”
“You’re nothing like her,” he attempted to make me feel better. “You two have very different bodies.”
“She didn’t come out of the womb looking like that,” I tried to joke to lighten the mood of this confrontation. “She could have looked like me a long time ago.”
“Yeah, a long time ago.”
“And then, again, when you were laughing with your brothers when we went to get ice cream.” I nervously played with my hair. “I don’t know, I guess it made me uncomfortable.”
He noticed my nervous energy and made another attempt at soothing me. He took one hand off the steering wheel, searching for mine to hold. He squeezed my hand with his rough, strong grip. He glanced over and gave me a sincere, warm look. For a moment, I thought maybe he actually understood. Maybe he realized why it was bothering me so much. Maybe it was a good idea to bring this up after all, and it helped us achieve a higher level of mutual understanding.
“Aw, Babe,” he said. “It was just a joke.”
In that moment, we had nothing in the world in common. “Right, yeah, just a joke,” I conceded.
I thought about the woman on the dock again. I wondered about her life as I let my head rest against the car window. Did she accomplish anything great in her life? Was there something she had done that she was really proud of? Maybe she was a cancer survivor, or a veteran, or was just a mom to a few children who she felt that she really raised right. Did she have any great skills to offer the world, like a melodious singing voice, or the ability to create websites that saved people time? Was she the best wife to her husband? Did she do anything at all to matter in this world?
Despite anything she might have done in her life, to him, and to the world, she was just a joke.
Natalie Mitchell is a junior psychology major and creative writing minor at Clark University. After graduating, Natalie intends to continue her education by obtaining a PhD in psychology, then open her own practice as a couples' therapist. Natalie also enjoys singing a Capella with the Clark Keys, painting, and skiing.