Weight Room Title Bar

By Swordfish

As soon as she landed on the floor after vaulting she knew something was wrong. Seriously wrong. Her right foot was yelping with pain. There was nothing she could do to stop herself crumpling up onto the ground, rubbing the ankle where the pain was centred.

“Abby, Abby, are you alright?” The voices of the gymnastic coach and others in the athletics studio clustered around her. Hands reached out.

“I think so. I just landed badly.” I hope so, that's what she meant.

“Don't try to get up,” coach Ed said. “This could be serious.”

She didn't need reminding. Her ankles, she knew, were her weak point: in the ten years that she'd been training seriously as a gymnast she'd needed operations of both of them, to bind fractured bones. And here she was, back on the floor, damaged again, pain shooting out. She was 18, just beginning her senior year at Sonja Henie High, adulthood stretching ahead. A gymnastics scholarship at college, maybe; further years of training and competing, enjoying the sport that had been her whole life, more or less, ever since she was taken to gymnastics classes as a five year-old kid, tumbling around, grinning prettily through a blaze of brown hair. And now what?

She was taken to hospital. X-rays were taken. Delicate fingers felt around. The injury's bark, she was eventually told, was worse than its bite. It was a hair fracture. Time and rest would heal it. But was it wise to keep putting her ankles at risk? What did she want, a lifetime of hobbling?

“Think about this seriously, Abby,” her father said, back from whatever he did at the office, as they talked in Fellowship, Pennsylvania, where Sonja Henie, Norwegian Olympics skater and movie star of the 1930s, had once stayed over during an exhibition tour to have her skates mended. “I know gymnastics has been your life, but --." Her mother said the same thing.

Abby thought of the thrill of winning prizes, achieving a goal, fulfilling potential. Gymnastics had ruled every aspect of her existence: the hours of training, first thing in the morning, last thing in the afternoon; the absence of any fun time with family and school friends; and always the strict dieting, essential to keep her body steady at 102 lbs, lean, muscular and tiny, a 26-inch waist, breasts scarcely begun. A strong and beautiful fighting machine. For several nights she squirreled herself away in her room, sometimes staring at the ceiling, other times focussing on the trophies, photographs and pennants scattered on shelves and walls.

Then one day she came down to breakfast, exhausted and gray. Mother stood at the coffee percolator; her father sat with the business section; elder sister Josie, not yet flown the nest and currently working in a canine beauty shop, was inspecting her nails. They looked up, expectant. “I've made a decision,” Abby said, the voice slow, the tone grave. Before she said another word she burst into tears.

“If giving up gymnastics means sitting in a shoebox and watching crappy movies like that, then I may have to have a re-think. That was truly awful!” They had just seen “Not Another Teen Movie.”

“Well, my dear,” said Josie, in her usual loud spirits, “that's what movies are like now.” Back from their jaunt to the multiplex, the sisters were seated around the kitchen table, enjoying late-night milk and cookies. “They're not like “Bambi” any more,” she pressed on. “You're probably surprised movies talk.”

“Come on, I haven't been a hermit. I know I've been preoccupied with sports,” Abby said, reaching for her second chocolate cookie, “but you talk as though I've just returned from another planet.” Josie was being exasperating, yet she didn't really mind; when had she had the time before to play at family jousting?

“OK, I'll test you. Do you know who the President is?”

Abby released a short sharp sigh. “Yes, unfortunately. It's George Bush.”

“Father or son?”

“”You are a joker.”

Eyes glinting, Josie pressed on. She liked this game. “But are you aware your guinea pig is dead?”

“Josie!” Abby screamed. “Enough, enough. That was years ago! Of course I remember. I went to the funeral.” A brief image flashed in front of her: ten years old, sombrely carrying her adored pet in its cardboard box out to the back garden. Then the memory disappeared. She looked humorously at her elder sister. Was that what college was going to do to her too, she wondered; give a degree in needling people?

“But that movie,” Abby continued, about to reach for a third cookie. “It was so crass, so stupid.”

“And what do gymnasts do in their time off, read philosophy?”

“We don't have any time off.” Her hand stopped two inches away from the cookies. No more, she decided. She didn't want to put on weight. The fracture had happened a month ago and already she had noticed a subtle change in her body. Muscles had slackened, limbs had lost their sinewy look. That much she knew was inevitable. All activity had not ceased; she was still working out and swimming. But she'd seen enough ex-gymnasts to know what perils could lie ahead if she dropped her guard. There'd been Kika, two years ahead of her at school, a champion gymnast just like herself. Off she went to college; she gave up gymnastics, partied like mad, and her lean lithe body immediately turned to blubber. No-one, in Abby's experience, had fattened up so quickly, or looked so unhappy with her body, afraid of meeting people's eyes. She had pitied her, and taken a vow that whatever lay ahead for herself, the future was definitely not going to hold a blob of a waist, thick round arms, and a double chin.

Even so, she had to admit that being able to eat normally was a great compensation for giving up the sport she loved. For most of her childhood and adolescence she'd been faced with plates where food only occupied a quarter of the available space. That was her food in the corner over there. Tiny portions of meat and vegetables -- you needed a telescope to see them. And no rich smothering sauces, or desserts. No noisy get-togethers at Burger King and their kin, except perhaps on someone's birthday, and then no ketchup and French fries. Every day she had weighed herself; it was part of the routine. Every day it had to read 102 lbs. And every day it did.

Until now. When she stood on the scales and found she weighed 106, it didn't cause any worries. No need to go on a calorie watch, eating beans and lettuce. Her body, she reasoned, just had a little catching up to do. It was certainly being active. Her monthly period had just arrived with the menstrual equivalent of a trumpet fanfare; most months, before, it had barely whispered or failed to visit her at all.

And something, she knew, was happening with her breasts. They had never amounted to anything previously: a little puffiness around the nipples, but nothing you could fit into a bra. When she'd worn training bras for gymnastics -- the smallest available -- there'd been room in the cups to place small fruit or several of her friends' cell phones. She'd always wanted enough breasts to fit an A cup: better that, she reasoned, than the androgynous stick shape gymnastics had given her. After all, she was a woman. Now she had noticed more puffiness than before. And her nipples always seemed sore. Something was on the move, surely.

“Next time I'm here,” Josie continued, “I'll see if I can find a movie that fits your high intellectual aspirations. Something with Adam Sandler in it. Would that be OK?”

Abby chuckled. Josie got up from the table with a look that said “Discussion terminated,” and then chuckled herself. “We had a good time, didn't we?”

“We did, yes. Good night, sis.”

Josie leaned over, kissed her lightly on the forehead, brushed a hand against one of her hips, and went her way.

That was another thing. Abby's hips. The straight lines gymnastics had sculpted her into weren't quite so straight any more. Now she was developing the beginnings of curves, with the hips rounding out to match her apprentice breasts. Bit by bit she was edging outwards. She was even getting a little taller, a late spurt of growth that bemused and amused everyone. Five foot two in September, by November she was five foot three, and had brought her first A cup bra, 32A. Womanhood beckoned. She was pleased, and excited.

But what could fill the hole in her life where gymnastics had been? Wanting to concentrate more on her studies, she found her mind wandering in class, away from the Civil War history, the useless algebra and physics, even “The Catcher in the Rye.” Geared for so long to using her strengths for physical trials, the mental exercises came hard. As Mr Adomian droned on at the front about Archimedes' Principle, Abby's eyes would roam the classroom, taking in the figures of girls far more physically advanced than hers -- girls who had definite cleavage, who teased their hair into peekaboo cascades, and did everything to advertise their sex except mount it on a billboard. Half of Abby envied them their sexual parade, and wondered if she'd be able to join in. The other half thought them frivolous and ridiculous. “There must be more to life than having a sexy body”, that other half muttered. “Mustn't there?”

And yet when she found the eyes of boys in class lingering over her physique she liked it. When boys asked her out on a date, she liked that too. They went to movies, though Abby was picky. Nothing with Adam Sandler in it. “American Pie 3”? Not a chance. Abby preferred going out to eat. Most items on restaurant menus had been forbidden for so long; now, with the help of her parents' generous allowance, she took delight in sampling, trying different cuisines, from low-grade American to highbrow Japanese. She was still watching what she ate, and how much she ate. But she ate. And each time she stood on the scales, the number moved a little higher. 107 pounds. 108. 110. She didn't mind. She was still slim. She wasn't Kika.

Thanksgiving came round. “For the first time I'll be able to enjoy it without feeling guilty!” Abby told her mom as the kitchen filled with pots, pans, and delicious smells.

“That's good!” Her mom patted her on the head. “I'm really sorry you had to give up gymnastics, but at least being able to eat is compensation. Want a little nibble beforehand?”

“No thanks,” she said, “I'm trying to watch my figure”. She'd heard the phrase on others' lips, on TV too, and it just entered her head. Coming from her, though, it sounded odd. Abby Preston the slender gymnast: she actually had a figure?

Official confirmation came from the oracle, Josie, who swept into Abby's room like a tornado just as her sister was dressing.

“Abby, you have to see this!” She was waving the local paper in her face.

Abby peered in the general direction. “What's so special about a car dealer's ad?”

“Above it, above it! There's a school reunion photo. You know these people, don't you? Your gymnast friends. Look at --“ She was going to point out Kika, ungallantly captured by the camera, a sullen smile buried within a face as round as a balloon. But the torrent suddenly switched course as Josie caught sight of her sister from the back, naked except for her bra. “Jesus, Abby,” she yelled, “you've got a great ass!”

A shiver of excitement ran down Abby's spine. These were words no-one had said before; and they came from Josie, who'd once in a squabble called her body a blend of lamp-post and coat-hanger, worth no man's attention.

“Really?” Abby exclaimed, decibels rising. “Really?” She ran to the bathroom's full-length mirror, and peered at herself from the back and side. She was amazed. All these weeks she'd only noticed her growing breasts; now she realised that as she'd been eating, day by day her bottom had been secretly and steadily rounding out, becoming shapely and firm.

“I had no idea!” she said. Embarrassment was mixed with smiles.

“Little sister, I must offer you congratulations. You might be able to get a man yet.”

It was the start of a new era. She went to the mall and returned with a pair of tight-fitting jeans, specially chosen to show off her new rear end. The feeling of her body pushing against her clothes was completely new; she liked it. The look of herself in the mirror in profile, the swell of her breasts balanced neatly by her sweet derriere: she really liked that. Gymnastics had imprisoned her physically in an eternal childhood. But she was Peter Pan no longer.

By Christmas she had inched up a little more, to five foot five. T-shirts and slacks had that shrunken look; her 32A bra, too, was very pressed for space. Before Josie used to tease her that for all Abby knew her Christmas and birthday presents could have been hidden on top of the fridge, beyond her sightlines. Now, standing on her toes, she could see everything. It wasn't edifying. “There's just dust!” Abby said.

On New Year's Day she weighed herself. 114 pounds. She wasn't bothered. The extra pounds weren't made up of fat, she reasoned; but of extra bone tissue, and of gentle curves that seemed to excite every boy in the school.

Especially Hunter. “Could I carry your library books for you?” he said once at the end of school, trying to make it sound like a secret invitation to sex. From the corner of her eye, Abby saw the painting of the school's benefactor, Sonja Henie, innocent and smiling, horribly healthy, hanging on the corridor wall.

“I don't have any library books. So no, you can't,” Abby said with a toss of the head. She was getting tired of Hunter's attentions.

“It's only something you say. Opens the pathway to the first date.” Smug little brute, Hunter. His hair was parted in the middle.

“You're pushing your luck, aren't you?” Abby quickened her steps, away from her locker, down the corridor.

But Hunter was still leering alongside. “Well, let me carry something else. Can I carry your boobs?” And his hands suddenly pushed against them, squeezing them, testing their weight and circumference. Abby recoiled, yelled something quite unprintable, and slapped his face hard. It was over in a few seconds, except for the sound of Hunter addressing a few final words to Abby's departing back. “You've really got great tits!” he yelled.

She didn't need them pointing out. She knew they were noticeable, sitting firm and round on a body still fairly small despite the new curves. With each month that passed they seemed to fill out a little more, stretching the limits of her shirts, outgrowing the cups of her brassieres. Early in the new year, A cups had been replaced by B cups. As Easter loomed, it was clear Cs wouldn't be far behind.

Abby found this scary and exciting at the same time. She was getting a woman's body; that was exciting. And for all the Hunters touching parts she wanted to keep by invitation only it was still flattering to be thought of as desirable. And yet, and yet: to have a body that seemed out of her control -- that was the scary part. Her breasts were going their own way, and there seemed nothing she could do to stop them. As the weather heated up in the spring, so did her breasts. They sweated. When she ran up and downstairs they swayed. And always, at the back of her mind, she kept remembering Kika, the gymnast turned blob.

Yet all in all, Abby was thrilled. She had entered adulthood. And she was a virgin no more: Dean, her best male friend, had led her toward the promised land after a movie, when his parents were out. For a while, when her mother saw her about to leave for a date, curves squeezed into a low-cut dress, a warning hand would appear on Abby's shoulder.

“I have only one thing to say to you,” her mother would say -- “protection?” And Abby would pat her little bag with a smile. “So you're all set?” “Yep!” she'd reply, and waltz into the neon night.

From her high school classmates she could now take her pick. Alongside Dean, she picked Corey, she picked Dave, she picked Rusty, she picked Kent. But most of all she picked Greg, the basketball player, and when they decided they'd become boyfriend and girlfriend the other hopefuls fell away. Every weekends and sometimes inbetween they'd be in the dark at a movie, or a corner of a bar, warming up for the trip to paradise -- her bed or his, it didn't matter.

Greg preferred a movie as the warm-up act. Abby preferred restaurants. She loved eating, and she'd quickly tumbled to the connection between enjoying a full meal and finding her curves as she dressed or showered just a little more accentuated. Eating more had given her -- what was Dean's description, a “spectacular body”? So what, please, was wrong with that? A huge burden had been lifted from her shoulders, and she gambolled through menus like a spring lamb exploring a new world. She especially relished the desserts and instinctively plumped for those highest in calories: the chocolate cake slabs, the ice cream concoctions in fluted glasses that rose up twelve inches and beyond. Slipping the food between her lips, dissolving it in her mouth, feeling her tummy filling up with calories as one course followed another: with Greg beside her these became almost sexual pleasures.

By the early summer, the scales read 122 pounds. Everything about her was getting bigger, her clothes as well as her body. In her gymnast days, she mostly took a size 2 in jeans; now she needed a 4 or 6. And her breasts had outstripped everything. She couldn't believe she now needed a D cup, but she did. Yet she didn't flinch: eating was making her more voluptuous, not fat. And it was getting her more and more attention. Every young man in town it seemed was opening doors for her, getting drinks for her, inviting her to parties. At the high school Prom -- her date was Greg, who thought himself the luckiest man on the planet -- she was the girl every man adored: beautiful, shapely, a vision of heaven in a new red dress picked to accentuate her cleavage. “My, my,” Josie had said, “is this my beanpole sister?” And Abby had beamed, wiggled her body, and crowned herself queen of the ball. By now her gymnastics friends had edged away from her. What was there now to talk about with Abby?

As summer advanced and term ended, clouds appeared in Abby's paradise. For males she'd become the biggest attraction at school. But what would follow at college? She'd be among crowds of new people, no longer a big fish in a little pond. And the back of her mind kept telling her that looks and a great physique weren't everything. She couldn't make a career out of being a party animal and wearing D cup bras. Not a distinguished career, at least. There must be something more to life.

There must be something more to Greg, too. At least she hoped so. Over the hot nights and days, inbetween sex, she began looking for more evidence of a brain, or at least a more interesting personality than she'd previously found. Was she just a sex machine to him? And if he hadn't been so handsome, in a Brad Pitt kind of way, would she be interested to him? Was anything going on above his shoulders?

Doubts of every kind began to worm their way in, and the business of choosing how to spend their evenings became more and more fraught. Beginning with the cuisine.

“You're very hard to please,” Greg groaned one night after Abby had dismissed about every restaurant in town.

“We can't keep going to the same places. I'm getting bored.”

A light suddenly shone in Greg's forehead. “I just remembered! Someone told me about a new tapas bar. How about that?”

Abby immediately took umbrage. “I'm not taking my clothes off in public. You've really got my tits on the brain, haven't you?”

The light dimmed. Greg blinked, uncomprehending. “What's that got to do with Mexican food?”

“What's Mexican food got to do with going topless? I'm not doing it, Greg. People ogling, watching them swing around. Do you want me to get a reputation as a loose woman?”

The light came back on. “Tapas, Abby. I said tapas.”

“Oh.” She simmered down into a resigned sigh.

“How about fish? We could go to Davy Jones' Locker Room at the mall. Someone said they do great swordfish.”

Abby winced. “I don't like swordfish,” she said. “It doesn't taste of anything. Let's go Italian.”

Over to Cafe Vesuvius, then, for at least the tenth time, and another plate of Pasta Primavera with garlic bread. Her breasts were pressing tight against her top -- usually a source of pleasure, but now she felt uncomfortable. Between bites she tried to probe their future. “Greg, where are we going?”

“To my bedroom.”

“No, no, I mean what are we going to be, and do? I was always going to be a gymnast, but my ankle gave out, and now what? I don't know how I see myself. I don't study much. I go out at nights. That's not a career in embryo. And you, Greg, who are you?”

He was a man shovelling spaghetti into his mouth; it was not a good time to ask. Once his mouth became free he looked quizzical: when Abby turned serious he never knew what to say. “I'm a lucky boy with a sexy girlfriend,” he grinned.

“Yes, and?”

“And -- can we have sex please?”

Abby was exasperated, but gave in. She nodded. And then added: “But not before dessert.”

A month later, it was August. College, at Penn State, Altoona, was a few weeks away. The strains between the two of them had eased. Abby sensed it was only a matter of time before college ended the relationship. So why not enjoy things while she could? She settled back into the pleasure cycle -- sex, food, body display. She swam and lingered by the pool for all to admire; she exposed her midriff at any opportunity and purposefully decorated the navel with a stud. This was her summer of fun.

And then it happened. They were in the tapas bar, Abby and Greg, with Dean. They'd just been to see “Gangs of New York,” and Dean was pondering -- he was a good ponderer -- whether Scorsese would ever make a sci-fi movie set on the moon. Or Mars. He didn't much mind. Somewhere other than earth, anyway, where there weren't Italian-Americans.

“I bet there'd be just as much blood. It would just be a different colour. Purple, maybe. Do you think the Mafia are on the moon?”

“Really, Dean,” Abby said, trying not to sound bored, “I haven't given it a moment's thought.”

“They'd fight each other with their tentacles….” Dean was on a roll. And as he rolled the conversation fogged over in Abby's head. Under the table her fingers started playing with her navel stud, feeling the metal against her skin, lifting it slightly, pressing it down, running around the circumference. She'd done this fidgeting often enough. But this time the experience felt different. Her tummy felt softer. She was feeling a little layer of flesh that there'd never been before, and it ran all along her waist front, forming a lip, hanging over her jeans. She began to prod. She began to panic. Had she put on weight? Real weight? Not curves, but genuine fat?

Her hand returned to the table and her dessert spoon. Before she'd thought it an excellent idea to have mango ice cream with dollops of cream. Now each mouthful she took made her think about calories, and danger, and a body slipping beyond her control.

When the fog lifted, Abby discovered that Greg had eased Dean off his hobby horse. They were talking now -- she couldn't believe it -- about Julia Roberts' armpits, and whether they'd ever been seen in a film, and what armpits were good for, and what a stupid word armpits was anyway. “What do you think, Abby?” Dean said.

“I have no thoughts about armpits.” She sounded more censorious than she meant. “Isn't it time we were leaving, Greg?”

Within half an hour she was in her bathroom. She'd taken a shower. Greg was waiting, lying on her bed. After towelling down she looked and felt. There was definitely more flesh around her middle; what had always been a hard, toned surface was now covered in a thin cushion of fat, spread right over her tummy. She could squeeze it, pucker it with her fingers. Gingerly she moved onto her thighs. They felt rounder too; more give in them. She then moved her hands onto each globe of her bottom, prodding and hefting all the while. Some relief there at least: they appeared to be holding firm. Even so, it was clear enough. She had put on weight. Fat weight.

The bathroom scales stared up accusingly. No, she decided. She'd spent her life as a slave to the numbers: why subject herself to that torment again? If she watched herself, she told herself, she might not gain anymore. The test would come, she decided, if Greg spotted any change.

She sidled into the bedroom. Her towel was wrapped around her, then she lowered it teasingly, as though she were a stripper. Better make a game of it, she thought.

“God, you look great!” Greg exclaimed, feasting his eyes.

Oh, Abby thought to herself. Greg hadn't noticed, or wasn't bothered. She breathed a long sigh of relief.

By degrees during the next weeks she pushed the fat she'd found on her tummy towards the back of her mind. She didn't investigate, didn't prod; as she dressed or stood in the shower her eyes and fingers occupied themselves elsewhere. Easy enough to avoid the scales, too, especially when one of her feet removed them from view, pushing them further under the bathroom sink.

Her summer of fun was back on track. “Won't you be needing new springs in your mattress?” Josie said one day, eyes glinting, when they were alone over breakfast. The vacation was drawing to a close.

Abby made a face and stuck out her tongue. “The bed,” she said, whispering, “is holding up fine, and mind your own bloody business. I never made remarks about your activities. I think you're just jealous. ”

Josie made her own face. “Oh, a little. But seriously, you'd better watch out at Altoona. You'll have men all over you. Have protection with you at all times. You don't want to leave college a mother of four.“

The talk drifted to other things: the classes she'd take, dorm life, living away from home, all the business of standing on her own two feet. She'd take American history, she knew that. She wanted, she said, to connect up the dots -- she knew this fact, that fact, but not the bits inbetween. Maybe a language. Some literature. She wanted, she said, to become well-rounded.

“You're doing that already!” Across the table, Josie noticed her sister was getting a little chubbier in the face; she thought it looked cute.

“Oh I think my breasts have settled down now,” Abby said, planning to glance down at her chest. But her attention was diverted by a yawn that swept across her body like a tidal wave, stretching her arms and chest, raising her t-shirt, making conversation impossible. “Sorry,” she said as she regained control, “another late night. What did you say?”

“I said that still leaves the rest of you." There was fat, Josie saw, on her exposed midriff, lying soft and gentle around the belly-button; in the yawn's convulsions, just for a few seconds, her jaw line had generated a little double chin. This was a new development.

“Oh I don't know,” Abby said airily. And her eyes moved quickly away from Josie, towards the plate of waffles, just arrived on the kitchen table, syrup standing by. “Mm,” she said, taking two, “these look delicious!”

Josie and their mother exchanged the same look: amusement mixed with a hint of concern.

“Don't take any wooden nickels!” said her father at Altoona, about to get back into the car after Abby's stuff had been loaded into the dorm, and the campus explored, the cafeteria checked out, the swimming pool found, and the room-mate met.

“What does that mean?” Her voice was shrill with excitement; it had been all day.

Her mother pitched in, more nervous even than her daughter. “Just a saying, honey. We know you'll take care. Have a great term!” Her voice was almost breaking. They kissed. They hugged.

Abby pecked her father on the cheek. He clasped her waist in return, finding more flesh around her midriff than he expected. “See you at Thanksgiving?”

“You know I wouldn't miss a good meal!”

They laughed, and waved, and soon Abby was just a shrinking figure in the back window as the car followed the exit signs. Waiting to turn into the main traffic, Abby's father said casually, “She's put on a little weight this summer. Don't you think?”

“Not now, Don,” her mother said. “My baby's left home, that's all I'm thinking about.” And she dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief.

Abby was too busy to cry. New situations, new opportunities, surrounded her with every step. Will this person be a friend? she thought as she passed other students in the corridor, or glanced through an open door to find a new face combing her hair, playing a guitar, or testing out the bunk bed. More to the point, would her room-mate be a new friend? She was called Rebecca; she was slim, mousy, flat-chested, she had money and seemed to have brains, and by the end of the first night had revealed how much she envied Abby's curvy figure. This girl was OK, Abby decided.

Suddenly there didn't seem enough hours in the day. There were courses to sign up for. There were course books to buy. A library card to get. Getting-to-know-you parties. Classes to attend. Work to do. And inbetween, the campus magnet at lunchtime, dinnertime, or both: the buffet bar. She found herself taking generous portions, always including a dessert. She might as well, she reasoned: extra helpings didn't cost any more, so in a way it was saving money. Besides that, it was a social occasion: everyone needed to make friends, and talking round a table, with a plateful of Mexican, or Italian food, or a shimmering cake, offered an ideal opportunity. In the same way each day ended with a drink, or two, or three -- Abby was getting quite a taste for beer.

She was immediately popular with the men. “Who are you going out with tonight?” Rebecca would say. There'd be a different answer each time. And Abby would trot out in her tight red dress to her date with -- who was it now? There was Hal, hair in a crew cut, pointy chin, head shaped like a wine glass; but he'd made such a strong play and strewn around so many compliments that for one night at least Abby couldn't resist. Or it might have been Tod, who'd lived in Alaska and claimed he'd never heard of Madonna; or Matt, who had part of Mount Rushmore tattooed on his chest; or Brett, a peacock with a gold neck chain, the handsomest man for five miles around, but, as Abby discovered, far less interesting than he looked.

“I mean there was nothing going on upstairs,” Abby said over dinner one night at the Cool Cavalier restaurant, just off campus, with Rebecca, and Beverley, and Tara, and Sue Anne. “The elevator doesn't go to the top floor.”

Tara was curious. “How far does it reach? The fifth?”

“That's no good,” Beverley chipped in. “You've got to know how tall a building he is. Is he a skyscraper, Abby? Forty floors, or two hundred floors?”

Abby looked bemused. This was almost as bad as Julia Roberts' armpits. “How do I know? I don't care how tall a building he is. But however many floors he's got the elevator gets stuck at the mezzanine. I can't imagine him reading a book. Except one about himself. He didn't even know where Italy was. Everyone knows about that, don't they? The leg, the boot, in the Mediterranean. You can't miss it.” She paused to insert the last mouthful of lemon cheesecake. “God this is good. I wouldn't mind another slice.”

“This isn't the all-you-can eat buffet, Abby. You'd have to pay extra. And are you sure you have room?” This was Sue Anne: she sat next to her in history, and she was observant.

“Oh, I have room!” But not as much room as before. To Sue Anne at least the signs were clear: the puckerings in her blouse as the breasts moved a little further outwards; the waistbands digging in each week to more midriff flesh, sending a small soft bulge peeping out into the world; the extra swell around her lower bottom, shapely still, but now with the look of a bottom pushing hard against her jeans' outer limits. If Abby realised at all that she was fattening up, it was only with the furthest corners of her mind, where perceptions drift in and out of consciousness and can easily be lost from sight.

Beverley piped up from her small vanilla ice-cream. “Do you think you'll see him again? Mr Mezzanine?”

“No, that was definitely a one-night stand. They have to know where Italy is at least. That's the baseline.” As if to shake Brett out of her brain, she tossed her head back, and brushed her hands through her dark, lustrous hair, longer than it had ever been before. “But tell me about Dixon, Beverley, what was he like? No -- stop, I need to go the little room. Can you hold the revelations till I get back?”

Beverley was only too glad: Dixon, who had Brad Pitt's eyes, but nothing else, had not been a success, and neither had she. She lingered over Abby's departing figure, snaking through the restaurant to the facilities.

“Is it true she used to be a gymnast? I mean wouldn't her boobs get in the way?”

“Apparently she didn't have them then,” Rebecca chipped in. “She's a late developer. She's got a great figure.”

Sue Anne spread the word. “But have you noticed it's getting a little soft? There's a definite tummy starting.”

“It's called the Freshman Fifteen, isn't it?” Beverley said.

They nodded or grunted. Tara and Beverley lowered their eyes to their empty dessert plates. It wasn't something they wanted to think about.

But Sue Anne had a conspiratorial streak. “Well she must be half way there already. She's fatter in the face too. Sometimes she has a double chin.”

The rest of them shrieked and shook their heads. “NO! No way!”

“The proof of the pudding,” Sue Anne said sagely, “is in the eating. Don't get me wrong. She's a really nice girl, and very attractive. But the extra pounds are starting to show.”

“Let's talk about something else,” said Rebecca, uneasy about talking like this behind her room-mate's back. And so they did, about whether Drew Barrymore was a good role model, and was Sophocles gay, and who was Sophocles, and then suddenly Abby was among them again, freshened up and smiling. All eyes scrutinised her as she settled back into her seat.

“Well?” she said eagerly. She was leaning back against the upholstery, the double chin making a cameo appearance around the jaw. “Tell us about Dixon!” The three girls shot little glances at each other. Sue Anne had been right.

“He was just dull. All he wanted to talk about was Elvis Presley. And then when it was time to perform, if you know what I mean, he couldn't.”

There was heavy giggling. But the girls now had something else on their minds. If extra pounds had been creeping up on Abby, had the same thing been happening to them? Food, alcohol, plentifully available; they had all indulged to some degree. Trying to be nonchalant, Tara started to rub her own midriff under the table. She didn't like what she found.

It was a Saturday night. The biggest night of the week. Rebecca, shy and studious, was going stay in and bone up on the molecular structure of fish. Abby was going to party. So many parties. Thank God It's Friday parties. Thank God It's Thursday parties. A Remember Pearl Harbor party. A Celebrate Matthew McConaughey's Birthday party. Lots to eat; lots to drink. Abby's world back home was far away. Greg certainly was; that flame had died, as Abby knew it would.

During the week one wag had plastered notices around announcing a Celebrate Homer Simpson's Underpants party. If the going got too rough, Abby decided, she could always leave; she would at least pop in. She was at her closet, dressing to kill. She picked black; something sexy in black. On went the blouse, cut short at the bottom to give the midriff air. On went the slacks, streamlined and tight, in succulent velvet. Rebecca looked on and hesitated.

“You're -- you're not planning to wear that out, are you?”

“Yes! Why?”

Who felt the more uneasy? At this moment, it was Rebecca. She was looking at the love handles looming over Abby's hips and the softness of her tummy in front, pushed out in a little roll over the front of the slacks. As the days had gone by she'd seen more and more signs of Abby's rising weight, but had so far kept quiet. She couldn't any longer.

With a tender look she gently tweaked one of the love handles at Abby's side. “These slacks are looking awfully tight. It must have shrunk in the wash. It's happened to some of my clothes too….” And she let the words fade away.

Saying less than she meant, Rebecca only disturbed Abby more. Tight? Shrunk in the wash? She knew in a flash what Rebecca was getting at. It wasn't the slacks that had shrunk; it was her body that had expanded.

She dashed immediately to the long mirror beside the bathroom shower. It gave her no comfort. On either side, just above her hips, extra flesh curved out of her body, enough flesh to squeeze and hold, at least one inch. She squeezed. She held. She panicked. This -- this was her? How could she not have known before? She saw with equal clarity the fat on her tummy, quivering slightly as she moved, the belly button and its stud sunk in deep. “My God,” she said under her breath, “where has my washboard tummy gone?”

“I think I'll wear something else,” she said quietly, back in the room with Rebecca. There was no strut in her voice now.

“Those slacks have probably just shrunk, Abby.”

“A good try, Rebecca, thanks, but I might as well admit it. I'm putting on weight. Time to cover up.” Rifling through her closet hangars, she fetched out a black silk blouse long enough to dangle a few inches past the waistline. She was saved. She could still have a good time at the underpants party. “If I start exercising again, it'll soon disappear,” she said, sounding cheerful again.

Rebecca gave her a shoulder hug. “That's right!”

But neither quite believed what they were saying.

How could she exercise? There was no time. There was work to do -- she was actually working, and enjoying it, stimulating gray matter she hadn't realised she'd got. And the partying didn't stop. Nor did the eating and drinking. At classes, as the teachers droned, she'd got into the habit of absent-mindedly running a hand over the bulge on her tummy, feeling the spread of softness widen and deepen almost day by day. It was as if the act of acknowledging that she had gained weight gave her official approval to continue, and accelerate. There were now five slacks that she couldn't properly button up because of the squishy flesh blocking the way. Her bras and blouses were stretched to the limit and beyond, the blouse buttons just about reaching the eye-holes around and below the breasts.

“Going to the party tonight?” Sue Anne said as they breezed down the classroom aisle after another wrestle with American history.

“What one's that?”

“The Ben Affleck Lookalike party. Only guys who look like Ben Affleck can get in. Some people I know are making masks.”

“Maybe. I don't know. I've got to write an essay about President Taft.”

But she went. Curiosity drove her. Only one guy could properly be called an Affleck dead ringer. Two women were also good matches. The rest were only vague approximations: shortish hair, cocky manner, a certain emptiness upstairs. Abby made straight for the bar. Earlier in the term she had always got served immediately -- who wouldn't want to serve a princess? But now she had noticed that she had to hang around with the rest and catch the barman's attention, as though the weight she'd put on made her less alluring.

“Oh hi, Dixon,” she said, back in the fray with her glass. He wasn't top of her male list, but he was there, sunk into a sofa, and seemed available.

“Oh hi, Abby.” With a hooded gaze Dixon looked her up and down, and noticed with a silent sigh the tummy fat poking out below her blouse. Boy, she's putting on weight, he thought.

“I see you're wearing your blue suede shoes.”

“Oh yes. Never got to any party without them.” He seemed disinclined to talk.

Abby looked down at his glasses, the sideburns left over from a previous decade, and his air of the eternal nerd. “You don't look like Ben Affleck at all,” she said.

“The look must have faded. I did when I came in.”

This wasn't a successful conversation. Abby's eyes began wandering round, searching for someone more compatible. She could see Brett in the distance, neck chain gleaming, a mini-harem clustered round. She didn't move closer. Wasn't there one man on campus who was Mr Right? Even Mr Half-Right would be OK.

Then she found Tara on her arm, bubbling, excited, and the party took a turn for the better. “Don't you know,” Tara shrieked, “it's my birthday! And I'm getting a BMW from my parents! They're going to drive it up her at the weekend.”

“That's great,” said Abby. She thought what present might bring her happiness. A goal in life. A stable weight. The love of a good man. Oatmeal cookies. All of them passed through her mind. Then Abby's night became swept away in beer, food on sticks, and the eternal topic - the search for the perfect male. Tara took photos of friends with her miniature camera; Dixon's suede shoes got trod on; and everyone eventually tumbled back to the dorms, much the worse for wear.

“Hangover?” Rebecca said the next day as Abby struggled to get out of bed, across the room, into the shower. She felt as though she'd been hit on the head with an iron bar.

“Hangover. I must learn not to mix my drinks.”

But the party's biggest after-effect emerged later at lunch -- she managed some lunch -- when Tara showed interested parties and some not interested the photos she'd taken at the festivities. There was Dixon staring into space, Brett flashing his bedroom eyes, Beverley looking very pretty. And then, in several snaps, there was Abby.

She perused them with minimal comment. “Oh yes,” she said; or “I didn't know you'd taken that.” But inside she was shocked. How had her face got so round without her noticing? For a moment she thought it might be the result of a camera trick, some glitch in the lighting or the angle, but the fattened face persisted in more than one shot. Another photo showed her leaning towards the buffet table food, expected pleasure plastered over her cheeks, with her belly visibly bulging out in a roll over her pants. She was mortified. This is what I look like? she thought; Jesus, I'm a fat cat.

“You're not having your dessert?” Sue Anne said as Abby made her excuses and got up to leave a little later.

“Not today,” she said. Alone in the bathroom shortly afterwards she pulled down her pants, lifted off her shirt, and looked hard at the evidence. There was flesh packed right round her belly, enough fat it seemed for a finger to press into and never return. Across the front she could see the ridge marks left by the waistbands of her clothes. And this, she said to herself, is the body of a former gymnast?

Her heart began beating faster. Thanksgiving was only a few days away, and she was due home. Everyone would notice the changes. What could she do to repair the damage? The gym. It wouldn't have much practical effect on her figure, she realised that, but at least she'd feel she was getting a little exercise.

As soon as her afternoon classes were over she fetched out her gym outfit from the bottom of a drawer. Thank God for loose elastic, she thought as she stepped into her shorts in the changing room. Her breasts were prisoners inside her top; down below her midriff hung out, exposed to the world.

Feet apart, she started off with stretching exercises. Then she sat, and caught her reflection in a mirror as she reached to touch her toes, twenty times, down and up, down and up. Each time she bent over, from the corner of her eye she could see the fat on her tummy crease into bulges, increasing in depth as she approached her toes. She could feel the fat, too, wrapped around her, warm and tender, clogging the body's progress as her upper and lower torsos tried to move close together. She was fascinated and appalled at the same time.

And yet the body was still flexible. Muscles hadn't seized up. Yes, she was rounder and softer than before; she got more easily out of breath; but as she looked at herself in the shower room afterwards she decided her curves were mostly in the right places still. Mostly. Maybe all wasn't lost.

The next day she went to the gym again; and the day following. But then it was time for the Thanksgiving trip. Ironic, she thought on the train back home, that she'd been belatedly trying to lose weight just before she was about to embark on the year's biggest meal. She looked out of the window -- fields, trees, nothing new -- and returned to her book, “Because Hot Air Rises,” the Aretha Dubois novel that had just received rave reviews, picked from the station bookstall in a burst of ambition. She'd reached page three, and already found it hard going.

“I mean nothing's happening,” she said to Josie, who'd picked her up from the station after a hard day at the doggie beauty shop. “I'm on page five, and all we've had are long sentences about sunsets and mother earth.”

“It takes a while to get into it, apparently. Page 357 is supposed to be pretty good.”

“You're jesting, aren't you?”

“Yes, I'm jesting,” Josie said, swinging the car onto the freeway, and catching Abby in profile in the process. “Jesus, girl, you've put on some weight!”

“A bit, yes.”

“College obviously agrees with you. Anyway you still look good.”

“You think?”

“Well - mostly.” She glanced again. “Not quite sure about the tummy. You must have done some serious eating.”

“And drinking. It's not that bad, is it?” Abby looked down cautiously at her midriff, looming over her jeans.

“I've seen worse,” Josie said, patting her lightly on the shoulder. “But people are going to notice.”

They certainly did. Every family member and dinner guest felt they had to make a comment. Abby's mother said she was “blooming”. Her father, less diplomatic, told her outright she was looking chubby, but felt sure it was just a phase; she'd soon slim back down, wouldn't she? Uncle Jim, who always showed up for Thanksgiving, invited or not, patted her on the bottom, and said she was rounding out very nicely indeed.

After the meal, which she fully enjoyed, Josie, in a confidential kitchen moment, asked her if she knew what the damage was. How much actually had she put on? Before Thanksgiving, that is?

“I haven't been weighing myself,” Abby said coyly.

“That could be dangerous.”

Abby let out a long sigh. “I know. I should check, shouldn't I?”

They were stacking dishes into the dishwater. Josie was holding one of the family heirlooms, a dish from the 1940s decorated with the face of the singing cowboy Gene Autry. She placed it carefully inside the machine. “Do it now,” she said. “Bite the bullet.”

Abby nodded silently and went upstairs, feeling like someone en route to the guillotine. A watery thought came into her head as she removed her clothes, blew the dust off the bathroom scales, and mounted them. “Maybe it won't be as bad as I think?”

But it was. The last time she weighed herself, during the summer, the scales had read 122. Now, only a few months later, the digital numbers settled at 140. She looked down at the fat on her tummy, at her chunkier thighs. She hefted her breasts and bottom. She fingered the stud in her belly-button, cushioned now with far more flesh than the small amount that panicked her in the summer. She felt fat, and she felt awful. Even 139 would have been better.

“Well?” said Josie, as Abby slipped back into the kitchen, sparkle gone from her eyes.

“Not good. I've put on 18 pounds since the summer! I knew I'd been gaining, but not that much.”

“Don't worry, we still love you. It'll sort itself out!” Josie switched on the machine. Water started to surge and splash, and among the noise rose a still, small voice. “I suppose,” said Abby, sounding very doubtful.

When she went out in the evening to see friends all she could think about was the number 18. She felt she had a sign round her neck, reading “18 pounds heavier.” As soon as greetings were exchanged, sometimes even before, she sensed eyes inspecting her, putting her on the scales, taking in every ounce of softness around her middle or the extra weight in the face. Trying to make things easier for herself, she endeavoured to get her own comment in first; that way at least she could avoid reacting in self-defence.

Dean made it very easy. She met him at the Jumping Bean coffee bar. He'd noticed she'd put on weight, he said, but she still looked very special. “Yes, specially fat,” said Abby.

“Not fat, just a little more voluptuous.” Abby could settle for that, she said; it had the air of a compliment.

Others went for the direct attack. Hunter, who'd once wanted to carry her library books, poked her midriff with a finger and said that if she were carrying any library books now he wouldn't rush to assist her. From anyone else that would have hurt; but Abby just shouted out “Asshole” and moved on.

Then there was Greg. Over their months apart any ardour, as expected, had faded to vanishing point. Greg observed her softer body with an audible gasp and wondered inside how he'd be feeling if they were still lovers. He guessed how she'd feel: like a jelly. Lying on top, he'd be sinking in. Abby, for her part, looked at his sports jock looks, his blank eyes, and tried to remember what she saw in him. “I've gained some weight, as you can tell,” she said, more matter-of-fact than rueful. She was starting to get tired of telling everyone.

“I've noticed. But you still look good.” He didn't even convince himself, let alone her. And certainly not the new girlfriend by his side. They were introduced. Her name was Zilla, model-thin, straight black hair, skin suggesting she last saw sunlight during Clinton's first term. With a self-satisfied look she kept fiddling with the belt circling her waist, rubbing in the difference between Abby's midriff and her own flat tummy.

When Greg sloped off to the bar for more drinks, Zilla fiddled with her belt even more. Abby decided she hated her.

“So you used to be thinner?”

Abby couldn't believe her cheek. But she rallied immediately. “I used to be five years old, too. People change. And your name?” she said, sharpening her rapier. “Short for Godzilla, isn't it?”

“No it's not. It's Syrian, and I weigh 102 pounds.”

By the time Greg returned the temperature had plummeted to the sub-Arctic and the two were staring into space.

She returned to college half a pound a heavier -- she'd really enjoyed the Thanksgiving meal -- and immediately felt the relief of being among people who weren't seeing her current shape for the first time. Nor was she alone. Tara complained that everyone had told her that she'd gained weight too; the gain was smaller than Abby's, but she too now had a roll hanging over her waist. Even Sue Anne, always quick to find fault with others, had been faced with others finding faults in her: she was starting to fill out, friends told her, around her thighs and bum.

“They told me I looked about to pop out of my jeans. The cheek!” said Sue Anne. All three of them were in the canteen, eating.

“You've still only put on a little. I've put on 18 pounds.” Abby took both hands to her spare tyre and squeezed the soft flesh. “It's as though I'm learning to swim and I've got one of those rubber rings around me. I never thought I'd get like this.”

“What are you going to do about it?” asked Sue Anne. Before, she might have said that as a taunt; now she was seeking advice for herself.

Then Tara piped up, shrill and nervous. “Should we all go on diets together?”

Abby looked at the glazed pastry oozing with cream and apricots beckoning on her plate. It looked so good. One hand was still on her midriff, fingers resting on its cushion. Why, she asked herself, not for the first time, did it sometimes feel comforting to be carrying this extra weight? In a flash she saw the rest of the term ahead and the terms that followed: weeks she wanted to enjoy unalloyed, whether studying, partying, drinking or eating.

“I'm going to live with it,” she said. “Or at least I'm going to try. There's worse things in the world than being a bit overweight. I could be living in Iraq. I could be in one of Stalin's death camps.”

“Stalin?” said Tara. “I thought he was dead?”

But Abby pressed on. “I could be a lump of moon rock. You get my drift? What we need, girls,” she said, ”is a global perspective.”

Tara appeared to be mouthing the words silently, trying to get the concept to sink in. “You mean --?” she said.

“She means, I think, that we shouldn't be so self-obsessed. About our looks and things. Is that right?”

“Right, Sue Anne. We should see things --“ Abby gestured vaguely with her hands -- “in the round.”

“Unfortunate choice of word, Abby. Now,” said Sue Anne, after clearing her throat, “am I going to have that apricot thingie or are you?”

A month later, the Christmas break arrived. Abby had studied hard and partied hard, and was looking forward to a few weeks off. The only real cloud on the horizon was the figure she saw when she looked in the mirror. Accepting that she'd become overweight had only led her to eat and drink with more relish. Every night ended, it seemed, with beer and more beer. “What does a few extra pounds matter? The damage has been done”: that's what she told herself if she remembered the word calories as started to drain her third beer. But it was harder to be quite so cavalier when she looked at herself sideways in the mirror and saw her butt, or found that she'd outgrown yet another item from the clothes brought to college in September. Jeans and slacks were her biggest problem; the partial solution of wearing them slung low on the hips, below the worst of her tummy bulge, only brought the tummy bulge into more prominence than before. The other solution, which she reluctantly took, was to buy them in size 8s. She didn't much like going to the lingerie section, either, and pulling out the DD cups. But that was what was now required.

Back home for the holidays, her friends quickly told her that she looked, if possible, rounder than she looked four weeks before. “I know,” she said, gloomily; “but there's so much to eat at college. It's here, it's there, it's everywhere.”

“And now it's here,” said Rusty, one of her old high school boys, grinning and pinching her midriff roll.

“Pterodactyl!” snorted Abby, inside.

Her family told her they didn't think she'd lost any weight, but tried to reassure her that she still looked nice. “Chubby, but nice,” said her dad. Abby winced. The bathroom scales put the details on it, once she'd steeled herself and mounted them. She was now 144. She knew her mathematics; she knew what that meant. Since Thanksgiving she'd put on about a pound a week. She held her sides, she pressed her belly, and her earlier inclination to live with the weight crumbled. “This has got to stop!” she told herself.

Her resolve became strengthened when Josie, just after Christmas, thrust the local paper in front of her eyes. “Look at that,” she cried. There was mischief in her voice. This was someone who had given Abby a joke present of a new book, “The Wit and Wisdom of Adam Sandler.”

All Abby could see was a car dealership ad.

“No, no, above the ad. Are you going blind?”

Suddenly Abby was face to face with Kika again. The haircut was different but she still recognised her. There were two full-length shots, side by side. In one she was blowsy, every inch the ballooned gymnast; in the other, she was svelte, hands resting on trim hips. And above them floated a large caption: “Look at me! I went on the Poundbuster Diet, and said goodbye to 50 pounds!”

Abby's mouth fell open. “She's appearing in an ad for some stupid diet? That doesn't say much for her career.” But then the implications struck home. “My God! I'm now heavier than her! I'm the fat gymnast now. I told myself this would never happen. How did she get thin so quickly? It must be a doctored photo!” She grabbed the paper in her hand, peered closely, but the more closely she looked the more the images disintegrated into dots.

Josie laid a restraining hand on her arm. “It's not doctored, Abby. I saw her myself. She was doing some promotion at Wal-Mart.”

“Wal-Mart? The girl must be desperate.” Her voice trailed away. “Thin and desperate…”

“I thought you should know. If it makes you feel any better, I don't think she looks good slim.”

Abby found some strength returning. “You're quite right.” She peered closely again. “She looks like a garden rake.”

“And you know?” Josie looked at her fondly, and patted her thigh. “I've got used to you being fatter.”

Abby managed a feeble smile.

And then, next term, Abby took a new class. American 20th Literature. There must be something more to it, she reasoned, that “The Catcher in the Rye.” Or this thick novel “Because Hot Air Rises” that she'd struggled and struggled to read, dictionary in hand. She'd glanced at Josie's page 357, and she hadn't been particularly impressed. “Carl bestrode the tumescent dawn,” the page began. Abby's eyebrows had shot up -- what on earth did tumescent mean? -- and she'd dived into the dictionary to find herself staring at “Inflated, bombastic.” “In that case,” she'd said to herself, “what is an inflated dawn?” And she'd cupped her right hand under her head -- her thinking position -- and idly let the thumb wander up and down, round the little double chin that was now beginning to settle in permanently. Shortly after, she began using the novel as a door-stop.

But she liked reading, good reading; and she wanted to learn. She cut down on some of the partying, spent more time in the library, and tried to make the swimming pool at least three times a week. Since she kept up munching on chocolate bars, her weight never fell back, but at least the rate of increase was slowing. She sat in American Lit next to a new face, Luke, who must have been hiding under a table for all of the first term or wearing a mask; she'd certainly never noticed him before. He had no immediately obvious quirks: no Mount Rushmore, or funny parting, or gold chain.

“Hi, I'm Abby,” she'd said, on the first day and felt like adding “and I now weigh 144 pounds.” Her feelings about her current size wandered up and down, just like her thumb. Some days she felt cruelly self-conscious, painfully aware of her bumper breasts and this pillow of fat, this damn tummy, down below. On other days, if she'd slept well, and the sun was shining, and she was wearing new clothes, she accepted her padded figure as something voluptuous, even sexy, certainly womanly. But those days were in the minority.

As she sat in class, listening to the professor pronounce names of authors and books she'd never heard of, her tummy was spread out for all to see, a jelly roll that shifted shape slightly each time she moved. Luke couldn't take his eyes off it. Scribbling notes, he would position his gaze to take in her tummy as well as the pad where he wrote the names Theodore Dreiser, “Sister Carrie” and “An American Tragedy.” He wanted to touch her tummy roll with his finger, not to tease, but to worship it. “Where has this beauty been?” he asked himself; and back in his thoughts came an intriguing answer. “Maybe she was thinner last term; maybe I just didn't notice.”

At the end of the first week of classes, Luke took the first step. “May I help you carry your library books?”

Abby looked startled. She thought immediately of Hunter, and his rude remarks. But Luke seemed different. Quietly spoken, no parade of muscles, no sports jock attitudes.

“Why yes, kind sir, thank you. Your surname's not Skywalker, is it?”

It wasn't. And after he carried her library books, he invited her out for a meal. Not the usual cattle market in the canteen, either. A proper meal, at the Leaping Frog, a French bistro downtown. Easy to get a seat there. Since she'd started seriously gaining at college, guys' attentions had noticeably fallen off, and this sudden resurrection left her bemused, even a little suspicious. He wasn't taking her out just to make fun, was he?

They studied the menu. Abby's mind went back to the hours with Greg over last summer, the bickering over the cuisine, and the sad sense she'd got of two people pulling apart from each other. Now she was fatter, she mused, and Greg was going out with Godzilla. Hey ho!

Then they ordered. “I mustn't have too much,” she said to herself, “otherwise he'll think I'm a hog.” The talk circled around as they tried to find points of connection beyond college. She told him she used to be a rabid gymnast. His eyes widened slightly, then he told her he wasn't. She told him she hated Adam Sandler movies; he said he did too, apart from “Punch-Drunk Love”. Both decided George W. Bush was a jerk.

And then they ate. “It's refreshing to find a woman who's not watching her weight,” Luke said suddenly.

What does he mean? Abby wondered. Am I gobbling my boeuf bourgignon too fast? Or has he seen the extra French fries and done a calorie count? But she realised there was no point in being coy. She'd better air topic A right away. “Oh I'm watching it alright,” she said. “Watching it going up. I've put on so much weight since September, it's incredible.” Then she bowed her head slightly to avoid his eyes, and whispered mournfully, “You're not seeing me at my best.”

He leaped into her defence, and his quiet voice turned assertive. “I think you look great. I wouldn't want you to lose a pound.”

Taken aback, she rested her cutlery on her plate. “You wouldn't?”

“Not a pound. Being curvy really suits you. And what's so great about the beanpole figure? Who decided that was perfection? This -- this --“ -- he was gesturing at her tummy and breasts -- “this is perfection”.

Abby was sure she had turned beetroot. “Nice of you to say so, but you should see me naked in the mirror…” Immediately she wished she hadn't said that. He blushed too, then spilled his beans. He liked the rounder, softer form, he said, and there were other men who did too. Nature designed women's bodies to be cushioned. Fat, he said, was beautiful.

“Fat -- is beautiful? I've never heard that before.”

“I'm sorry,” Luke said, blushing again. “I didn't want to make you self-conscious.”

She speared a fork full of French fries towards her mouth. “So I needn't feel guilty about this?” she said, wiggling the fork. Then she put the fork down and poked her midriff. “And this?”

“Not at all. Not in my book anyway.”

She wasn't convinced, and she said so. “And besides,” she added, “I can't fit into half of my clothes.” She shivered inside: on a first date she was telling him this?

“That just gives you the perfect opportunity to buy some new ones. We all like buying clothes, don't we? I know I do.”

Abby looked at him. This is a strange one, she thought. This one's different. Steady, girl, she told herself.

It was a pleasant evening. But there no immediate sequels; the business of work and play engulfed them both. So many papers to write, so much of Theodore Dreiser to read -- another author, Abby realised, whose books could prop open doors. And then the partying, the long nights in dorm rooms, the fast food feasts that Abby knew were further filling her out.

To balance things out a bit she tried to step up her swimming, and made a resolution to go to the pool not once or twice a week but every day. She'd felt horribly awkward at first parading her body in a swimsuit visibly digging into her flesh. But the embarrassment had lessened -- maybe Luke's words had helped here. “I have nothing to be ashamed of,” she tried to tell herself. And at least her weight gain, she realised now, was fairly evenly spread. Other girls who succumbed to the Freshman 15, or 20, or 25, were not always so lucky. Sue Anne was getting increasingly pear-shaped, spreading fast round the bottom, but staying thin elsewhere. Tara, she noticed, was now getting chunky, widening without somehow getting any curves. It didn't look good. Besides that pair, Abby realised, her own blowsy hour-glass looked quite desirable. Beautiful, almost. Luke couldn't be right, could he? Was it really possible to be chubby and beautiful, and have great self-esteem?

The real test came near the end of term. There were no scales easily to hand, but her weight had fluctuated over the weeks -- up, down, static -- and she knew by the increased difficulty of zipping or buttoning that it was currently up. The usual bunch were gathered in Abby and Rebecca's room talking and drinking. Beverley had just raised the question of what the planet would be like if man didn't exist and the highest rung of the evolutionary ladder was occupied instead by rabbits. The things that become interesting after three beers…

“I mean,” she said, drunkenly, “could they keep order? Would they be able to form an Administration?”

Abby rolled her eyes. “Could I interject here?” And she waved a piece of paper before their eyes.

“What's that, the bunnies' Bill of Rights?” said Tara, swaying lightly from side to side, and giggling.

“It's a letter,” Abby announced, “from my high school, Sonja Henie High. Founders Day is coming up, and they're holding a thing for notable alumni --“

“Al-lum-ni?” Swaying slightly, Sue Anne stretched out the word as though it were glue.

“No listen. This is serious. I want your advice. They want me to speak as a former gymnast about what sports did for me at school, and life's lessons, and -- and look at me! When I was a gymnast I was 102 pounds. Now I'm 140-plus. What kind of life lesson is that?”

The gathering suddenly sobered. This was something most of them could relate to. Only Rebecca, through iron will, an ideal metabolism, and living the life of a scholarly nun, had come through two terms weighing exactly the same.

“Don't go. Lock yourself away,” said Sue Anne. “You're just asking for humiliation.”

“That's right,” said Tara. “I wouldn't want a spotlight on me, not right now.”

“Of course you should go,” said Rebecca. “You have nothing to be ashamed of. Besides, wasn't there some other gymnast who blew up into an enormous balloon?”

“Kika. But she's lost it. Now she's paid money for parading round Wall-Mart being thin.”

“But you just lost weight too, didn't you?”

Abby's voice dropped half an octave. “I think I've put it back on.”

Rebecca kept at her. “You could lose it again if you wanted. You have will-power. Are you going to let your body rule your life?”

“Yeah!” cried Beverley, raising her hand in salute.

“Yeah!” cried Tara.

“Yeah!” cried Abby, suddenly invigorated. She had made up her mind.

As soon as Abby walked through the gate of Sonja Henie High School she felt she had made a mistake. The past is the past, and it shouldn't be revisited: that's what the buildings told her, along with the classrooms, and the lockers, and corridors, in some of which were athletics photos featuring Abby, small and svelte, holding a trophy. She felt the eyes of pupils and teachers boring into her, checking out her tummy fat, or the big breasts perched above, and all the encouragement of Rebecca, of Luke, and her family vanished. No, no, she told herself; this is a mistake.

And then she saw Kika in the distance, with a gaggle of admirers around her. She was signing autographs -- the diet ads had made her a local celebrity again. “Oh no,” Abby muttered, “this is going to be difficult.” She tried to walk past her without catching her eye. But she was out of luck.

“Abby? Is that Abby Preston?” Kika's eyes sparkled, and a hand was outstretched towards Abby's shoulders, stopping her in her tracks. My God, Kika thought, her physique's changed! Thank God I've got thin! She turned on a big cheesy smile; the diet campaign had made her an expert at them.

“K - Kika!” Abby stuttered, wishing she were invisible.

“I didn't recognise you at first,” Ms Wal-Mart said, twisting the knife.

Abby tried not to look at her smile. “I know I've gained a bit, probably too much. But you, you look really good!” Only politeness made her say that -- not what she saw in front of her. Taking in Kika at close quarters, she was amazed how wizened she thought Kika looked. She looked shrunken, suddenly older. There were hollow places in her face; the arms looked spindly. All the bounce seemed taken out of her.

“Thank you!” Kika beamed. “It took a lot of effort, plus of course a great diet product. I guess you've seen the Poundbuster ads. I can certainly recommend it. It worked wonders for me!” Her fan club of girls, clustered around, twittered excitedly like baby birds.

“Please, sign!” one of them cried, thrusting out an autograph book. “You're my idol!”

Kika cocked a head in Abby's direction, and gurgled with a self-satisifed grin, “My fans, you know! See you on the dais?”

“Dais?” pondered Abby, trundling off. “Whatever happened to the word platform? She's giving herself airs, that girl.”

Yet for all Kika's flash ways, Abby didn't feel too discomfited. She couldn't get over how unattractive she thought Kika was. Had she become so acclimatised to her own softer body that anything else now seemed a skeleton? She wasn't sure. All she knew as she walked away was that from those ads she saw in the paper Kika had looked better heavier; and if Kika did, why not…? For the first time since she'd stepped on the scales the night before, and found that she'd reached 151 pounds, Abby felt good about herself.

She continued to feel good even as she was guided to the teachers' inner sanctum, the place where pupils feared to tread, where teachers shook her hand, generally looked her over, and made comparisons in their minds with the pocket-sized girl who used to come first in athletics. There was Mr Adomian, her old physics teacher, staring as though he were considering using her in a demonstration of the laws of gravity.

And there was Ed, her old athletics coach. Here the pangs of embarrassment returned. He hadn't seen her for over a year, when she was still in the process of acquiring curves. She caught his eyes widening. “I've -- I've changed a bit physically, as you can tell,” she said.

“That's OK,” he said benignly. “I guess there's not much time to exercise at college. You're enjoying yourself, anyway.” He was realistic. He knew human nature. He'd seen others balloon.

“Oh, yes,” she said, nodding vigorously.

She has a double chin as well, he thought. “Ankles still holding out?”

She nodded again, and managed a smile. “Even though I weigh more now.” This wasn't so bad, she realised. “I swim quite a bit.”

“That's good,” Ed said, trying to imagine Abby in a swimsuit.

“I still need to keep in shape, after all. It's just -- just a different shape. At the moment.”

“You're doing great,” he said, patting her shoulder. “Well, it's time for the ceremony. Looking forward to your speech!”

Her speech! Fear and trembling suddenly returned. She'd given it no serious thought, apart from thinking of the usual clichés about the value of sports at school. Team spirit. Fulfilling potential. Camaraderie. Great training for life. OK as far as they went, but how could she talk personally, seriously, about what athletics had given her? Athletics had given her a shattered ankle, and a suppressed appetite that had roared into life the minute she was forced to stop heavy exercising. Athletics, she could argue, had kept her thin, then made her fat. Well, not fat exactly, but really chubby, buxom and chubby… Was that what the audience wanted to hear?

She sat on the platform, and tried not to notice the sea of faces filling the floor below, family and friends among them. But there they were nonetheless, her nearest and dearest bobbing up in the waves, glinting: her mother, looking proud in a silly new hat; Josie, looking sassy. Dean had come too. But not Greg: by now he was far out of the loop.

The Principal droned on, giving thanks for the school's benefactor, and praising their tradition of sporting excellence. Then Kika, suddenly, was on her feet, spouting clichés about the importance of the team spirit and opportunity knocking. Abby tuned out: she heard the sound of the voice chirping, but not what the words meant. All she saw was Kika's figure. My God, she's a pencil, a rail, a poker! she thought to herself. The back view's even worse than the front! You can kiss that Poundbuster diet goodbye. Then even Kika slipped out of focus, and Abby's mind became a blank.

What stirred her to life was the applause, and the Principal's voice muttering under his breath. “Abby?” he said. It was her turn. She stood on the podium, blinked nervously, tapped the microphone -- it bit back immediately -- and entered the jaws of death.

“Well, I listened carefully to what Kika said” -- an utter lie -- “and I agree with every single word. Athletics is great. This school is great” -- this wasn't going well at all. “To be able to realise your potential, and the team spirit, yes, and your self-confidence, it's all --“ she searched for a work that would nail it -- “it's all great.” She felt the silence of the hall: it was oppressively heavy, and she was the only one who could end it.

Then suddenly, without thought, without effort, the words came, carrying her along like a leaf in a strong wind. “But that's not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about -- getting fat.” A rumble passed through the hall. “Ever since I stopped being a gymnast I've been gaining weight, and since I've gone to college I've recently put on a whole lot more.” More rumbling. This wasn't what anyone expected to hear.

The Principal shot Abby a querulous glance. But she had taken the plunge; she couldn't stop now. “What I'm going to say now you might not like, especially the girls, but I mean to be helpful.” She paused, and took a deep breath. “It's going to happen to you too. You girls may be thin now but some of you sitting here are going to get chubby, like me. Believe me.” She could see bottoms shifting on seats, mouths muttering, eyebrows being raised. “Some change in life will come along -- going to college, or having babies, or a sports injury, or a relationship, or a change in the metabolism, or just a lot of fast food. And suddenly you'll find, just like me, that there's a bulge on your tummy, and your jeans don't fit, and you're just generally fatter...”

Girls were nervously eyeing each other, looking down at their waists, some pinching their midriffs. “Does she mean me?” some of them muttered.

“And I'm here to tell you not to worry. It's part of life. It's OK. Short-sighted people will make cruel jokes, but they're people not worth knowing. There's more to a person than the outside appearance -- it's what's on the inside that really counts. Even when you're 17.

“And you know? I had issues at first, but I've worked through them and now” -- she gulped a little, and placed a hand jauntily on a rounded hip -- “I don't mind being heavier at all. In fact I like it. I feel healthier, I don't blow over in the wind, and, damn it” -- she said, shaking a hand high in the air -- “we women are meant to have curves!”

She sat down abruptly. There was silence. There was more silence. The tick of the hall clock poked through. And then the floodgates opened: applause without end, loud and vigorous, plus the stomping of selected feet. The Principal leaned over and whispered in her ear, “A bit off-topic, Abby, but you were honest.”

“I just said what came into my head,” she whispered back.

Kika, alongside, looked distinctly sheepish. For all her fame, and the autographs, her applause had been far shorter. Besides, she felt so goddamn thin.

“I have to ask you three questions. They might sound silly, but they're very important.”

Abby and Luke were in a bar booth not far from campus. The spring term had just started. Luke looked into the soft, rounded face he found so beautiful, but felt apprehensive. What was she about to pull?

“OK,” he said. A thought crossed his mind. Was it the lighting, or did she look a little heavier than before? She'd said she'd lost weight during the vacation. But he saw no tell-tale signs. Still, whether her weight went up or down, Abby seemed contented with herself, and that was the most important thing. Then he concentrated and tightened his brows: Abby was asking her first question.

“What do you think of the writings of Aretha Dubois?”

That one was easy. “Unreadable. They suck. Can't think why the critics like them.”

“That,” Abby said with a flourish, “is the correct answer. Number two --“. She took a deep breath. “Do you know where Italy is?”

He looked incredulous. “Of course I do. It's a leg and a boot that sticks out into the Mediterranean.”

Abby looked relieved, chin doubling extra sweetly as she leaned her head on the back of the booth. “Oh, you do know where it is!”

“Know where it is? I've been there!”

My God, Abby thought, he's been to Europe. One up on all my past dates. “OK, OK,” she said, trying not to show her excitement. “Now we come to number three.” She hitched her blouse sleeves up a few inches, as though preparing for a great manual task; the arms revealed were beautifully rounded, velvet smooth. Her tone turned grave and portentous. She was broaching a matter of life and death. “Have you ever at any time in the past had a conversation about Julia Roberts' armpits?”

“Julia Roberts' armpits?” He looked at Abby as though she'd gone mad.

“Or - or - in the future. Can you conceive of ever having one in the future? I mean independently. Apart from this one. This one doesn't count.”

She pleaded with her eyes; he stared wild-eyed, and then steeled himself to make a reply. “No,” Luke said, laughing, “I can safely say I have never given Julia Roberts' armpits a moment's thought. Is that the right answer?”

She leaned over and kissed him. “Thank you,” she announced, firm and decisive, as she leaned back, midriff fat ringed round her in glory. “You are now my boy friend.”

Abby had pulled through.

Copyright Swordfish 2003