short fiction excerpt by Erin Meagan Schwartz
The youth group I joined is a place where we get to strengthen our connection to each other as Jewish people. But I mostly just feel left out. Vivian sees the boys playing football out the window. The two afternoon activities are different in so many ways. Out there, the boys are active and can let their lungs loose as they run around. The air today is brisk and if you’re outside long enough without gloves, eventually your fingers start to feel tingly. Here the girls push down their suffering but show just enough to be worthy and connected to their sisters. They avoid each other’s eye contact as they share their discomfort and hatred of themselves. Instead of tingly fingers, Vivian’s are just numb. She considers raising her hand and sharing her story but decides against it. She barely knows these girls and they wouldn’t understand. Plus, it’s not like she even has a story to share. Doesn’t everyone in this room feel horrified about being a body? When she’s not feeling left out because she isn’t dressed in Roots sweatpants, she is feeling wary of these girls who’ve been friends since they’ve learned how to raise their hands. After Sunday morning, Vivian won’t see these girls for months. Is it possible for sisterhood to survive in this setting? Instead, she opens her notebook and scrawls in it without looking at the page.
“If only we could play football and let our lungs become so loose that they disconnect from our insides and allow our rib cages to shrink. Maybe then we could stop the scrutiny. Maybe that will be enough.”
After a dinner where everyone bonded over cruel jokes and kosher pizza, whispers float around the hotel. The chapter Vivian has been inducted into is deemed the group of misfits and fat girls and they try to embrace the constant jokes which doesn’t do much to lessen the sting. One of the unnamedboys walks by the table Vivian is sitting at and says “a moment on the lips, forever on the hips” as a passing comment. Two of the girls, Tara—Vivian’s assigned roommate—and Yodit lower their slices. Between bites of crust, Shoshanna slobbered “at least we aren’t the hot girls”.
Being taught to not care what other people think of you is meaningless if you aren’t taught to treat other people better. There is a folded piece of looseleaf being passed around like the rarest hot potato—everyone’s hands begging to be scorched for a chance at reading the sacred words scribbled in the fold. Vivian grabs the list without a second thought. She scans it furiously, looking for her name. Would she be renamed as “Ugliest Face” or “Perkiest Tits”, an honor she would bear for years to come? She reaches the bottom of the list, getting a new papercut between her fingers, with a sense of relief and humiliation. They didn’t notice her.
“I’m relieved…right? That list is disgusting,” Vivian whispers to Shoshanna, holding her breath. Why hadn’t they noticed her? Do they find her ugly? If only her chest had grown sooner. If only her headband wasn’t so babyish with its pink satin bow. If only she could spend this weekend without worrying about this. She wasn’t worth degrading or being noticed, which is practically the same thing.
“Thank god we aren’t on the list.” Shoshanna fumed, looking disappointed. Vivian couldn’t tell if she was disappointed in the boys for being gross or disappointed in herself for not being hot enough.
This piece was produced through Lilith’s Here We Are project, with support from the Safety, Respect and Equity Network.