Issue 35, Final Fringe

Secrets and Lies

by Kelly Sundberg Issue 24 11.01.2010

Now, I’m sixteen and thirsty because I’ve been riding my bike for an hour in warm silence.  I’m pedaling on a wide, paved street flanked by lilac bushes and green striped lawns.  It is dusk, and my bike makes lazy arcs across the pavement as I weave from side to side.  I have friends who live on this street, and I want to stop for a glass of water.  I see my brother’s car parked in front of his friend’s mom’s house.  They are both home from college.  I look in the windows from the street to see if my brother and his friend are inside, but the house is dark.

As I near another friend’s house, I hear a pickup truck driving behind me.  It has the kind of loud, gunshot engine that so many trucks in Idaho have.  I move to the side of the road, so it can drive past me, but I hear the engine gunning with a revving sound.  Instead of slowing down and moving away, the truck is speeding up and swerving towards me.  I peddle as fast as I can and ride up a grassy hill into the yard of the mayor’s house.  My bike slides in the grass and I tumble off of it.  The truck veers off and drives away.  When I stand up, I look down, and the truck has left deep grooves in the lawn.

I am shaken, but I figure the truck is probably being driven by a big dumb redneck who is trying to scare me.  This is small-town Idaho in the nineties, and the culture is still firmly entrenched in big trucks, chewing tobacco, and beautiful women.

I’m not a beautiful girl.  Or so I think.  That’s why the rednecks don’t like me.  That’s why I get teased so much at school.  That’s why I wear my Dad’s big flannel, plaid shirts.  The bigger the shirt, the better it seems at hiding my soft belly and large breasts.  I am the girl who got breasts at eleven and endured countless humiliations of bra snapping.  Is that where the other secret came from?  I’m not sure anymore, but I remember how it began.

I was at the Methodist church lock-in with my friends Megan, Suzannah, Jackie, and Penny.  It was the kind of function where fourteen year olds eat a bunch of pizza, drink four cups of Mountain Dew, and then bounce off the walls of the Fellowship Hall.  I had recently been inducted into the culture of the “popular girls.”  This was a big moment for me.  Suzannah, Jackie, and Penny were all skinny, but Megan and I were a little plump; we had been friends for years, and it was not uncommon for us to ride our bikes downtown in order to stock up on penny candy, and then slowly walk our bikes home casually plucking Sour Patch Kids from a paper bag and sucking the sugar off them before chewing.

But now that I was friends with the popular girls, it seemed important to lose weight—maybe to me more than Megan; I had always cared what the other kids thought of me.  I started dieting in the fourth grade, but without much success.  When I was ten, my mom took me to her Step Aerobics classes, and I would flail wildly around my purple “Step” in the midst of a bunch of bouncy, spandex-clad, thirty to forty-year-olds.  After class, the women would all pat me on the shoulder sweetly and tell me how great it was to see me trying so hard at that age.

And then suddenly when I was fourteen, I was popular, but I still wasn’t skinny.  I was the ham, the funny kid, and my friends liked me for that, so I played up that role: all the while secretly desirous of beauty—of being skinny—which I equated with beauty.  And that night at the Methodist church, after three large pieces of pizza, I didn’t feel too optimistic about my chances.  Then Penny said with a sparkle in her eye, “Let’s go to the bathroom and throw up.”  I was shocked.  I had seen the afterschool special in which Annabeth Gish polished off an entire pizza and then stuck a toothbrush down her throat.  That special ended with lots of crying, hugging, and therapy. I was not going down that road.  I hung out stubbornly by the beverage table with Megan by my side while Penny, Jackie, and Suzannah walked to the bathroom, arm in arm.  After a while, curiosity overtook us, and Megan and I marched into the bathroom and found, to our dismay, Penny, Jackie, and Suzannah bent over the toilets in a line—stall doors open—vomiting into the clean white bowls.  Megan stood by my side; our mouths were gaping.  They stood up giggling, washed their faces, and we went out to watch a movie in the church basement.  It was a horror movie—rated R.  Those Methodists were pretty liberal.

After the movie, we went to the bathroom, turned the lights off and played Bloody Mary.  If we spun 3 times, while chanting Bloody Mary, and then looked in the mirror, Bloody Mary would appear to us.  I was scared, but not wanting to lose face, I volunteered to go first.  I closed my eyes, and Penny started to spin me by my shoulders.  We were all shouting: Bloody Mary!  Bloody Mary!  Bloody Mary!

Penny stopped me by my shoulders, and I looked in the mirror and screamed, then the other girls screamed, and tumbled out of the bathroom tripping over their arms and legs.  I was left alone now, mute, staring into the dark emptiness of that mirror.  A shadowy horrific shape was in the middle of the glass.  I leaned in closer to see the visage of Bloody Mary and realized the shape was my own reflection.

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Kelly Sundberg

Kelly Sundberg

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Kelly Sundberg grew up in a remote, one-stoplight town sloped up against the mountains of Idaho.  Living in her husband’s home state of West Virginia has further deepened her attraction to stories about small communities with a complex, often uneasy connection with the surrounding landscape and each other.  She is currently pursuing her MFA in nonfiction at West Virginia University where she also teaches composition.