"You're coming for Thanksgiving, aren't you?"
"Of course!" Shannon said. "I always come, don't I?"
As she held the phone she could see the scene in her mind's eye, unchanged year after year: the old home in Madison, Wisconsin, the dining table with the leaves pulled out (something only seen on special occasions), the turkey hot from the oven, the cutlery and serviettes neatly laid out, and the faces gathered around, waiting expectantly. Her two sisters, an uncle perhaps, her dad, so laidback as to be horizontal. And her mom, the homemaker deluxe, always fussing round. She'd be there. Living far away in the plastic bubble of LA, she needed to keep a sense of family and belonging.
"We haven't seen you for so long, almost eight months," her mother went on.
"I know, I'm sorry, I've been really busy. Lots of assignments. But I'll be there."
For Shannon, Thanksgiving had long been a special occasion. There was the obvious reason, and there was another. She was a model. She had a figure to keep. She had to watch what she ate; that pretty much came with the job. No ice-cream binges. No pizza parties. And beware pasta! Every calorie had to be watched. But this was the one big occasion when America gave her a license to indulge, and she always took advantage. This year, she knew, would be no exception -- who'd want to reduce Thanksgiving to a thin slice of turkey meat on a cracker?
Still, she approached it this time with a little misgiving. For after five years of working as a model, slim and trim at 117 pounds, she had found herself over the last year or so gaining some weight; at first a few pounds, then five, more recently ten, steadily creeping up, giving her the start of a pot belly, padding her out a bit in the chest and face. She was bemused by it all; she still watched what she ate, she thought, though she accepted that during a recent holiday in Hawaii with her on-again-off-again boyfriend there was more food than usual to watch. Was this the change in her metabolism her mother had told her expect? Already, at 25? Or was it a gene thing, something over which she had no control?
At first, Shannon had easily found ways in her mind to minimize these changes. Yes, she'd got a bit softer round the middle, but it didn't show, did it? Or didn't show much. People in the modeling business still wanted her; still said she looked beautiful. And wasn't a tummy just another curve?
But after Hawaii it had become harder to juggle these thoughts. Some favourite clothes had become too tight to wear, and she'd had to admit to friends and colleagues that she'd "gained a few pounds." One day she overheard a photographer at a session complain behind her back that she was "starting to fatten up." With that phrase ringing in her ears she'd gone back home and fetched out the scales.
She was 129 pounds. No words had been said officially, but she'd begun to realise that perhaps she was now skating on thin ice, and a few pounds more might make her fall through. Even at the best of times it was hard to come back from Wisconsin and not be at least a pound heavier; at Thanksgiving it was impossible. "Oh well," she thought to herself, "I'll just hit the treadmills extra hard as soon as I get back."
She took a good book to read on the plane. At least she'd been told it was a good book. Herzog by Saul Bellow. It was a famous novel. She wanted to read it. She wasn't an airhead; if her looks hadn't caught a photographer's eye when she was sweet sixteen she might have gone on to spread her wings in further education, get a solid degree, cram knowledge into her head. But she had these cheekbones, this natural blonde hair, a gift from her Swedish grandparents, this mouth that said "Desire me, desire me," and those pert pair of breasts, just big enough to give a kick to a figure toned and sleek as a gazelle. The die was cast. She had to be a model.
Sitting on the plane, she thought about her agent's parting words. "Don't eat too much, will you?" he'd said. No, no, she'd replied, and to show willing she refused all in-flight food. Just a Diet Coke. Nothing more, nothing less. The head-set entertainment didn't entertain her; and the more she looked at her novel the more forbidding it became. So she flicked through the airline's magazine to see if any model she knew was featured in the advertisements. Petra was there, of course, the deodorant queen, cool as a mountain stream. Petra was always there. And Roxanne, modeling spectacles; taken after her nose job, apparently. The big bucks girls, the ones the ad agencies loved. There they were, shiny and thin, looking as though their daily diet was carrot juice and a muesli bar.
Shannon herself was still working the clothing catalogues and leaning on car bonnets in auto shows. She felt a spasm of jealousy pass through her, but no more than a spasm. The bigger a model's fame, she reasoned, the bigger the pressures. Even with her more modest career she felt she was living in a goldfish bowl. Everyone was eyeing you, expecting you to be sexy and smiling even if you had a hangover and felt like the inside of a paper bag. You were always on show. You could never just be you -- supposing, that is, you knew who you were.
She looked around at her fellow passengers, few of them with a model's figure, and let out a little sigh. Another hour to go, and then the change at Chicago. She felt the cover of her novel staring at her. Clearing her throat, she picked it up and turned to the first page.
"If I am out of my mind," she read, "it's all right with me, thought Moses Herzog."
"H'm," Shannon mused, "this is going to be a bit different." She took a deep breath, in the process feeling the apron of her belly pressing against her slacks. Settling back in her seat, she read on. Unseen, across her waist, underneath her blouse, the fat on her midriff eased itself into a little roll.
There was the usual kiss and hug round the waist. He lingered a little as he met smile for smile. Something was different about the face, Lester thought. Maybe she'd changed her hair style. Old gallant that he was, he took her suitcase and led the way through the arrivals hall to the car park.
"Brought your appetite with you?" he said, humping the case into the boot. "It's going to be a good dinner tomorrow."
"Oh yes." Shannon could have said something more, but she kept her thoughts hidden. They buckled up.
"Buckled in, are we?" he asked. Shannon grinned. Always the cautious driver. He grinned back, and noted how her cheeks looked rounder, and how her seatbelt as it rode down her chest seemed to dig into her breasts more than before. Then he realised what had happened. She had obviously gained some weight.
"Have you got any errands or business things to do?" He hadn't; his work as a builder and decorator, he said, was winding down for the winter. He'd be in his workshop for the duration, making bookshelves to sell in the spring. "But I'll go home the scenic route."
Shannon's eyes widened. "A scenic route? Here?"
"Well, Memory Lane, then." He settled into the highway leading out of town. "See, they've finished that shopping mall. The Emerald Mall. Another one. Just where we used to live." On the left, approaching, rose a huge squat box of concrete and glass, roadways leading in and out like an octopus's tentacles.
"My God, it's enormous! And there used to be trees, and fields!" She sounded personally affronted.
"And our house."
Twisting her torso, she looked back at the monstrous growth as it receded through the window. Lester took his own farewell glance, accidentally catching along the way a tiny flash of exposed flesh round Shannon's waist. His eyes returned to the road ahead. "Yes," he said, philosophically, "everything's changing. Nothing stays the same." Yes, he said to himself, thinking about Shannon. She looked nice, he decided.
The car turned into the driveway. There was the house, the porch, and the garden, looking manicured but sullen as it always did every November. And the Stars and Stripes, up for the holidays. A house. A home. Shannon's apartment in LA never felt like a home.
And there was her mom, looking as always like Betty Crocker or some other face on a box of cake mix, the hair swept up, the smile bright, the figure well-cushioned, welcoming her to the domestic hearth.
"My baby!" Ingrid cried once they got through the door. The kisses. The hugs. "It's been too long!" Her hands clutched Shannon's arms. "You're looking very well!"
"Thanks, I am well. And you?"
"Oh, she does," said Lester.
"But let's sit down. Let's catch up!" After a bit of bustle, coffee was brought, and a plate of biscuits. Shannon sat back on the sofa, slipped off her jacket, and absentmindedly gave her left thigh a few pats with her hand. Handing out the coffee, Ingrid caught the gesture, and began to take in the visible swell on Shannon's tummy, the new touch of padding in the cheeks, and the puckerings around the blouse buttons that suggested the breasts were having trouble fighting for space. "You look like you've filled out a bit!" she said.
Shannon's heart skipped a beat. Her mother's tone was cheery and approving, but still the remark left her feeling exposed. When she'd been sizing up the Thanksgiving trip she had only worried about the pounds she might put on; she'd forgotten to worry about the pounds that were already there, sitting in residence, rounding out her body. Over the last few months she'd reluctantly grown used to them -- just as a temporary measure. But here she was, on her family's doorstep, suddenly looking twelve pounds heavier. Or was it more? Whatever the numbers were, as she held her cup she felt every one of the extra pounds that were "filling her out", pressing against clothes meant for someone a little slimmer. A few feet away, on a shelf, she could see a framed photo of herself, slender in a swimsuit, one of her early modelling assignments.
"I have put on some weight, just a bit." She sounded rueful, apologetic.
"It's nothing to get upset about, Shannon! It's a natural process. And it suits you, too. Doesn't it, Les?"
Lester looked again at his daughter, the face glowing, the whole body lightly kissed with fat. "The picture of health," he said. "Never looked better."
"You think?" Shannon was starting to feel slightly less awkward. Did the pounds really make her look better? Or was this only parents just being nice? Resting her cup, she touched the clasp on the front of her slacks. "I'm starting to get a bit worried about it," she went on. "There've been comments at work. You know, photographers."
"Oh, they'll get used to it! Put it out of your head. You're here to eat, remember. It's Thanksgiving."
"I know, mom, but -- " Shannon found herself looking at the plate of biscuits, and realised suddenly that she'd had hardly anything all day. Breakfast was just a coffee and half a muffin. On the flights she hadn't even touched the salted peanuts; only liquids. It was now early afternoon.
"But what?" said Ingrid.
"Oh -- nothing!" Shannon reached for a biscuit. She was here to have a good time, she decided. And she was hungry.
Up in her room she did her usual coming-home ritual, walking round slowly, taking it in, inspecting the shelves. It was all there. The gym trophies. The teenage fiction she'd once devoured and found hard to throw away; perhaps she could ditch Herzog for one of those books? The little seat under the window where she'd spent hours reading, dreaming, combing her hair, planning her future.
She knelt on it and looked out, over the backyard, to the houses beyond. Time stood still for a moment, and her life along with it. Did she really want to spend the next five, ten, maybe more, years, living before the camera's eye -- just a smile and a body, a desirable object for consumers? Would employers even want her? Already her body was doing things she didn't really want, building up fat across her tummy, widening her thighs.
Her bed beckoned. She lay down and from the bedside table picked up Wodger, a toy rabbit that had lost a lot of fur to love when she was small. "Hi, Wodger," she said. He seemed pleased to see her. She played with his ears, and turned him gently in the air. "I love you no matter what you look like. Do you feel the same?" The rabbit's beady eyes glistened. And with a kiss on the nose she put Wodger back, nestled up against the bedside lamp.
"Good old Wodger," she sighed, and rested her head on the pillow. Without much conscious thought she began running a hand over her chest. The hand spread over one breast; then the other hand started fingering its partner. They never filled so much space before, Shannon thought. Moving on, the hands then spread down and outwards, towards her hips, feeling the fat clustered round her sides, and inwards again, onto her tummy, pressing into the flesh trapped behind her slacks. "Oh!" she groaned, not without pleasure. "Either I have to lose this weight, or I have to get slacks in the next size." Then she turned to her mother's words, about filling out and how it suited her. Was that true? If so, was it good or bad? She just didn't know.
The reverie was soon shattered. The door burst open. It was Adele, her younger sister, loud, boisterous, a little chunky, just arrived from Chicago, released from university for a few days. They were probably glad to get rid of her. "Shannon!" she cried, and she leaped onto the bed.
Making room for her, Shannon swiftly scooped herself up from the horizontal, forcing the fat slumbering on her tummy into its roll, just about visible between the blouse buttons. But Adele's attentions were occupied elsewhere. She was kissing and squeezing shoulders, saying "It's so good to see you!" Her sister's face, she spotted, was rounder than usual.
"You're looking well!" Here we go, Shannon thought. They held hands briefly, allowing Adele to size her up further. She saw the breasts, the tight slacks, and, circling the waist, poking out, several ounces of spare tyre. "Looks like you've put on some weight!" She said it with surprise and wonder -- the kind of tone you might adopt if you were seeing the Taj Mahal for the first time.
Shannon's heart didn't stop; it just quivered. A model, she knew, should be used to the scrutiny of others, but she still found it unsettling to get this kind of scrutiny, and this kind of comment, right from the family's bosom. Models, after all, shouldn't gain weight, and she had, and everybody here was noticing.
"I'm probably a bit heavier, yes. Well I know I am. Not sure why."
"You're eating more, I guess. It happens. You know about the freshman fifteen?" Shannon gazed up at her and saw someone who was now, on her last admission, twenty pounds heavier than before she'd gone to university. Abandoning athletics; the student buffets; the pizzas; the drinking: it was easy enough. By now the family had got used to Adele being rounder, with tummy flab and a slight double chin.
"But I'm a model, not a freshman. There isn't a model fifteen. Not usually, anyway. It's bad for business."
"Well, change the business!"
"It's not that easy," she said. Fresh pastures beckoning: a pleasant thought, Shannon told herself. But scary. Could she make the jump into the unknown? Thanksgiving wasn't the time to thrash this one out. She got up from the bed and stretched her arms. "But I'm not going to worry about a few pounds now," she said, obviously worrying about them.
"You don't want to eat, do you?" Adele said, hopefully.
She broke into a reluctant grin. "Starving. Haven't had a thing all day."
The next day she was late getting up. Back in her old room, she wanted to savour the experience, shrink herself back into being a child again. Comfort and security, someone to make the difficult decisions for her: that's what she wanted. She stroked Wodger. Then she read briefly, a little more Herzog, but found the noises elsewhere in the house much more interesting. "This is what I remember!" she thought: the sounds of parents getting up, preparing to love and take care of her for the day, each day, every day. "That's what I miss!"
There were other sounds, too. She heard Adele yelling "My God, what a pumpkin pie!" And a new arrival, her elder sister, Francine, the junior school gym teacher a five minute drive away, tongue slightly acid, not Shannon's equal in looks but with her formerly trim physique. "Don't poke it," Francine screamed. And then their mother, dousing the flames: "Quiet, quiet! Shannon's still sleeping!"
She wasn't. Finally she had roused herself. She made her way to the shower, and washed herself, hair included. On the floor she noticed the bathroom scales; she quickly looked away. Not now, she decided; not here. She had gone to the Emerald Mall with Adele last night and eaten at Burger King; she had eaten, she was ashamed to recall, a double whopper with double fries, and a vanilla milkshake. It was all still in her body somewhere. Back in her room, wrapped in a towel, she began the long process of combing, drying, and rubbing down.
A knock came at the door and a head poked round, Francine's. "I heard noises. You're up now? Just wanted to say hi!"
"It's OK, come in, I'm just getting dressed."
After kisses and a hug, Shannon returned to her towelling. Francine's eyes roamed around the room. "This room is always just the same, like when you were a kid! It's like a shrine! Does mom keep it this way, or do you?"
"Both I guess," she said. The towel slipped off her shoulders. Suddenly she was naked. Francine's eyes honed in on their goal.
"Wow, you have put on weight! They said downstairs you'd filled out a bit." She was used to seeing Shannon's hip bones and hollows, and the outline of the rib cage, just as she was used to seeing her own. Now everything looked smoothed out, covered up, softened.
Shannon didn't wince this time. "Was that the first thing they told you?"
"No, no. It was just in passing. They said you were here, and you looked really great, blooming was the word, and -- " Francine kept staring as Shannon, back to toweling her body, moved her torso from side to side, prompting little creases and bulges to briefly appear, then vanish into the golden flesh.
"Well, I have added a few pounds. It happens," she said, trying out being nonchalant. Francine noticed how the towel's movements shifted her flesh about as she dried her midriff. She was fascinated. "That's a proper little tummy you've got!"
Shannon stood in contemplation, hands cupping the sides of the oval swell that rose up from her crotch and tapered away towards her breasts. "I know," she said, sounding guilty. She thought of her meal at Burger King; she already felt a little heavier.
"Your figure can take it. Adele's just turning into a blob. You've got shape!"
"I'm not sure if my job can take it." She sat on the edge of her bed and leaned forward to dry her toes. Her midriff roll arrived on cue. "Models aren't supposed to have a spare tyre. And it's causing havoc with my wardrobe, Francine. I've gone up an inch round the waist, but my clothes haven't." It was getting easier to talk about it.
"I wonder why it's happening. Less exercise? That's what keeps me slim."
"Less exercise. And more food. I've just -- I've just been eating more." It was the first time she'd been honest about it. She switched on the hairdryer for the final push.
"I wouldn't worry about your job," Francine continued. "Aren't there plus-size models too? What's that clothing catalogue called? Zane Bryan?"
Shannon turned off the dryer. She looked rattled. "Lane Bryant, Francine, it's Lane Bryant. I'm not going to be a plus-size! I'd have to gain thirty more pounds to model for him. At least."
In her mind's eye Francine was trying to imagine her sister thirty pounds heavier. So was Shannon. Their eyes met.
"Let's -- let's talk about something else, shall we?" Shannon said. They moved onto other topics. Where had Francine's old teddy-bear gone? Burned in the incinerator long ago. Had she read Herzog? No. Was she going to? No. Wasn't the Emerald Mall awful? Awful, but useful.
By now Shannon was dressed, shirt stretched around the breasts, her tummy and bottom clearly outlined inside her slacks. This morning she felt especially uncomfortable inside her clothes; Burger King had done that, she guessed.
"There, I'm in. Ready for the day!" she said, giving her hips a nervous little pat. It was then that Francine noticed her bottom. Shannon had never had one before, not so you'd notice anyway. But there it was, very cutely rounded, swelling out further as it joined her thighs, giving a new swagger to her walk.
"Wow," Francine thought to herself as she watched from behind as Shannon closed her wardrobe doors. "It's amazing the difference a few pounds make!"
"If you want to be helpful, help lay the table. Don't stand there in the kitchen doorway!" Ingrid was checking the oven's progress, wooden spoon in one hand, glass of wine in another. Ingrid's brother Larry, another new arrival, had joined her. He was one of the few people left in Madison who still wore suede shoes.
"OK, mom!" They giggled a bit, naughty children again, and started gathering the plates and cutlery, the wine glasses, the water tumblers. "It's just," Adele added as she moved out the door carrying her pile, "the smell of the food. It's making me so hungry!"
"Children!" Ingrid said, eyebrows raised in mock despair. "What can you do with them?"
Larry nodded. "Shannon's looking very well. Looks like she's gaining some weight."
Ingrid opened the oven door and began prodding the turkey. Not done yet. "Yes, we've all noticed. I think her appetite's finally woken up. I just hope she doesn't go into a tailspin and go on a crash diet. There's so much pressure in her work to stay thin."
"I would have thought a bit more meat on her bones would help her," said Larry, fingering his glass. "Aren't models supposed to have curves?"
"Only in certain places -- "
But no more was said. The girls were hovering round the door again. "Anything else we can do?" said Shannon brightly.
"No, no. Just hold on to your appetites."
"Very nice," said Larry, thoughtfully, his eyes lingering on Shannon's rear as the girls left. "I mean the wine, of course."
The picture was complete. Family around the table; wine glasses filled; and food spread out as far as the eye could see. Lester had done his usual, raised his glass and proposed a toast, thanking God, whoever He was, for health and happiness and what peace there was in the world and most of all for the love of family. "And now," he said, as he always did, "let's eat our guts out!"
He stood at the head of the table, carving knife in hand, the turkey sitting high and wide on its plate. Ingrid waited with the serving spoon, vegetables circled around, cranberry jelly lying expectant.
"Squash, or roasted?"
"Squash," said Francine.
"I couldn't have both, could I? Those roast potatoes look really good." Ingrid spooned out a healthy amount.
Before diving in with knife and fork, Shannon stretched her body a little, as though trying to create more space for the food she was about to eat. She was going to have some difficulty, she knew; she already felt constricted around the waist. At first she deliberated over every forkful. Her agent's words came back to haunt her; "Don't eat too much, will you?" Then the self-consciousness vanished, and she went with the flow of talk. Do you remember this? Do you remember that? School days. Vacation times. The grandparents who had recently died. And births in the family; new nieces and nephews. All that and the Emerald Mall. Along the way, almost without knowing, Shannon had seconds of everything.
The dinner plates were cleared away. "I've eaten too much as usual," said Adele. Shannon kept quiet. Across the table, Francine could see how Shannon's jawline had softened, not enough for a double chin, but enough for the hints and whispers of one, stealing out for a few seconds as her face moved this way and that. She thought it looked cute.
Larry felt inspired to ask a question. "And how's your work going, Shannon?"
A twinge came over her. She didn't want to think about modelling. She felt the waistband on her slacks digging hard into her tummy. "Oh, it's been going fine," she said, she hoped with conviction. "Lots of car shows. A fashion shoot in Alaska. God, that was cold! And I'm up for a TV ad next month -- suntan cream. If it comes off it could be big!"
"Sounds great! But -- " he hoped this sounded innocent -- "it must be hard always having to keep in shape."
"Right now it is." She cleared her throat; she might as well say it. "I've put on weight this year."
"Yes, she's joined the human race," said Ingrid, carrying in the pumpkin pie. "And very nice it looks too."
"Have you gained a little, or a lot, five pounds, ten pounds. . .?"
"LARRY!" Ingrid shrieked. "A man doesn't ask a woman how much weight she's put on! I can tell why you've never married. You don't have to answer, Shannon love." Shannon was blushing.
"Well it suits you; that's what I'm getting at." He thought he'd better shift the topic. "Can I pour anyone more wine?"
Ingrid shot him a steely look, and returned to the pumpkin pie. "Shannon?" she asked, almost apologetic.
She cleared her throat. "Just a little bit, please!"
"With a scoop of ice cream?"
"A-ha." Might as well. As she stared at her plate the slice didn't seem little at all. It looked like Texas, and the texture, the colour, and the smell kept beckoning. Once everyone was served Shannon cut her way in. There was something different about this pie, she could tell. Ginger. Ingrid had sprinkled ginger, and churned and whipped or performed some feat that turned a pie that could easily sit in the stomach like a lump of lead into a featherweight delight. One spoonful inside her mouth, she immediately wanted another. And another.
"This is delicious!" she cried. "What's your recipe?"
"Choosing the pumpkin, that's the secret." And the talk went on, about food, and meals in the past, and who was Betty Crocker anyway; and all the time Shannon felt her own food struggling to settle inside her, trying to find a place to lie quietly and get digested. By now there was hardly room behind her clothes for her to take a breath.
"Would you like some more, Shan?"
She knew what she had to reply. "No more, mom, honestly. I can't fit any more food in. My stomach's so full!"
"Loosen your pants, then. You know you'd like some more."
A shudder came over her. "I can't do undo my pants!"
"Oh come on, you're among friends!" piped Adele. "I can't see how you can breathe as it is."
"Well it is getting difficult". Shannon didn't know what to do. One more mouthful, one more exhaled breath, and she knew the slacks' clasp would break. If she still could keep that clasp tied, it felt like her weight gain was still within reasonable pounds, and could easily be scaled back. Once she let the clasp go, she'd feel she'd stepped over the line.
She was at the crossroads. Was she going to get back on the treadmill, rejoin the thin brigade of models, worry and fret and live a half-life; or was she going to throw away caution and go wherever her appetite took her? If she did, even without her mom's pumpkin pie it seemed inevitable that over time she would gain more weight. She would spread, she would soften; she would get all chubby. And the camera wouldn't lie.
Shannon looked around the table, as though seeking an answer. She looked at her family, ordinary people, smiling benignly, people not living in a goldfish bowl. She looked at the pumpkin pie, and the empty plates strewn around, remembrances of good food and good times. She even thought about George W. Bush. He was about to invade Iraq, the idiot; the world could end; and here was she worrying about gaining weight?
She took a deep breath, just enough to slip the tip of a finger inside the slacks' waistband and begin the business of easing the clasp out of its hook. It was difficult. There was so little room to maneuver, so much pressure from every ounce, every pound, pushing against the band and blocking her way. She reached an impasse. It wasn't going to work. She tried breathing in further. And then, suddenly, the clasp loosened, the little zip fell away, and the fat on her tummy poured out like water breaking through floodgates. A blazing smile radiated her face. She could breathe! She could live! She could eat! Around the table, everyone burst into applause.
"Happy Thanksgiving, Shannon," said her mother, beaming, handing her the remaining slice of pumpkin pie.
"Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!" And she knew, at that very moment, that she would never fit into those slacks again.
Copyright, Swordfish, 2002 (email@example.com)