A short contemporary fiction by Pamela Eason
Lily looked at her freshly showered and clothed self in the mirror. Her most recent worst features, the new wrinkles around her mouth, the fat pockets pushing against the side seams of her jeans, and the now perceptible bulge of fat gently rolling over the her mid-rise waistband like a blob of cheese oozing from a panini vied for her attention. Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons whined mockingly in the background, “Big girls don’t cry-yi-yi. They don’t cry.”
I could buy some high-waisted pants like everyone else my age wears to push my belly in and my diaphragm up. She pressed her hands on her sucked-in belly and turned sideways to see the effect, but the thought of shopping for pants and getting them hemmed overwhelmed her. She released her belly, resolved to loose the squishy bulge around her waist, changed to a less clingy button-up shirt, and grabbed her keys.
Lunch with Victoria
“I’m disgusted with myself,” Lilly confided to Victoria, after washing down a fork-sized portion of balsamic-glazed salmon and spring-mix lettuce with a big swallow of her peach-ginger tea.
“Oh you look great,” Victoria reassured her. “If it’s bothering you so much, go get a facial and lose five pounds.”
“I’ve been trying to lose for weeks now,” Lilly said, wiping the front of her teeth with her napkin sure that lettuce was clinging to them and wishing she could swish the tea around in her mouth like her grandmother used to do, “but I lose three and then two come back.”
“I know what you mean. I think it’s our age,” Victoria said with a sigh.
Lilly smiled and nodded and scanned Victoria’s face for some hint of wrinkles, but the scan produced no evidence of flaws. She concluded that Victoria definitely did not know how she felt.
“I read there is a new medication on the market for depression,” Lilly began, knowing that this conversation topic would interest Victoria.
Victoria, who Lilly had known for as long as she could remember, was a mental health counselor. She had miraculously maintained her weight, her poise, and her practice for twenty-nine years. Lilly was sure that Victoria could recite every disorder listed in the DSM-5 and explain the correct treatment for it. Lilly often wondered which disorders Victoria had diagnosed her with, but she was afraid to ask because she knew about self-fulfilling prophecies.
Lilly preferred thinking about ideas rather than people’s psychological problems. The kind of ideas she loved to ponder over however did not help with her often-failed attempts to carry on casual conversations with people as much, she suspected, as an arsenal of knowledge on the kinds of disorders people suffer would have.
“I almost forgot to ask you,” Victoria said as they walked towards their cars. “It’s supposed to be nice weather this weekend. Do you want to go to the Valley Hills Spring Arts Festival with me? I think it would be a nice drive and a fun day.”
“Sure,” Lilly said. “I’ll mention it to Albert and let you know if there’s a problem.”
“Okay. I’ll pick you up Saturday morning if I don’t hear from you before then. Nine o’clock?” Victoria asked.
“Sounds good,” Lilly confirmed, giving her friend a good-bye hug.
In the Grocery Store Parking Lot
Lilly headed to the grocery store to get ingredients for Albert’s Thursday night Greek feast, as he called it. She sat in the car a few minutes thinking about some past conversations with Victoria. Once Lilly had told Victoria, “I think middle earth is where all the possibilities except the ones God chose to actualize on our earth went. It is a hypothetical dimension that really exists.”
Victoria had cleared her throat slightly and said, “Ummm. Now, that’s a thought Lilly.” She followed with, “What have you been doing with your time lately?”
“I’ve been cleaning out closets and doing a bit of marketing for the French Art Shop. You know, the one that opened in mid-town a couple of months ago,” Lilly had said, pretty sure she was being analyzed. She had reluctantly released her thoughts into middle earth hoping that her rejected ideas might find a place there too.
Lilly was just as educated as Victoria, at least she had probably sat through as many classes, but she felt that Vitoria had achieved something she couldn’t, expertise and longevity in one thing. Since her childhood, Lilly’s imagination had moved from one career interest to another. She wasn’t the kind of little girl who knew exactly what she wanted to be when she grew up. Victoria had known emphatically, since fourth grade, that she wanted to be a counselor and had even spent her allowance on Psychology Today in middle school. Lilly had spent hers on paperback fantasy novels. She loved to get lost for hours in the works of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.
When She Discovered Who She Was
Lilly’s childhood ambiguity about her future career had turned into job and career hopping throughout her adult life. Sometimes she changed jobs or careers due to one family crisis or another and other times due to boredom till, at some point in her forties, she had come to the shocking realization that time was running out for her, and she had not achieved greatness at any one particular thing. She couldn’t remember exactly how she came to this conclusion, but after the weight of that cold, hard fact had settled in her mind, quite a bit of heaviness, that she had not even realized she had been carrying around, slid off her shoulders. She found that she was actually quite relieved.
“I’m just a mediocre person,” she had spontaneously announced to Albert, her husband. “I’m a jack-of-many-trades and master of none!” He had looked confused. Maybe he wasn’t expecting the contented smile that had accompanied her startling proclamation. He had tried to put up an argument, but Lilly had assured him that mediocre was who she was and that she was perfectly happy knowing it.
“Look I’m a pretty good cook. Everyone always usually likes what I cook, but I’ll never be a gourmet chef. I’m also pretty good at French. I got us through France without a translator didn’t I? But, I’ll never be the French ambassador. I also knew most of the artists at the Luve, but I’ll never be ….”
“I get it,” Albert had interrupted. “Personally, I love that you are a well-rounded woman,” he had said reaching his arms around her waist.
“Are you saying I’m fat?”
“No. No. No! Of course I didn’t mean that,” Albert had assured her with a kiss to her forehead.
She had, for the most part ever since, maintained genuine satisfaction with her new identity and real relief from the burden of having to achieve anything more. Every now and then though, some of the pressure to do something really important with her life would rear its ridiculous head and her neck and shoulders would stiffen into an old familiar ache.
A Discovery at the Doctor’s Office
Lilly, however, had recently begun to suspect that she was worse than average, and she wasn’t feeling quite as satisfied as she had when she had announced her mediocracy to Albert. In fact, she had noticed little pricks of panic squeezing her chest so hard that she had felt the pressure rising into her eyes and she had wondered if they were bulging out like the eyes of those ugly stress-relieve dolls do when you squeezed them.
This new kind of discontent had started several weeks ago when the nurse told her to press the back of her head against the ruler on the scale.
“Don’t you keep records?” Lilly had asked, after the nurse had weighed her in at five pounds heavier than last year, but the nurse had only twirled her index finger directing Lilly to turn around.
“Five two and a half,” the nurse had announced indifferently as she documented Lilly’s undeniable decline on the line beside Height with a red pen. She had inserted the paper into a manila folder labeled with Lilly’s name and birthdate.
“That can’t be right,” Lilly had mumbled, not wanting the data documenting her demise to be permanently associated with herself. “I’ve always been five feet, four inches. And, everyone’s weight goes up and down five pounds,” she had added.
“People shrink as they age,” the nurse had replied matter-of-factly, pointing to room number two.
Shrink. Ha! she had thought. Squashed down and out is the better description.
Lilly had sat waiting on the examine room table wearing a thin paper top and skirt that didn’t quite go all the way around her and that crunched every time she moved. Goose bumps with prickly stiff hairs had popped up on her legs, and she had wondered why her doctor always expected her to sit in this cold room waiting for so long dressed like this. Maybe it was a psychological experiment. Lilly had looked around for a hidden camera. A hidden camera would definitely be a violation of privacy, not to mention an ethical no no.
Her thoughts had returned to the ruler. There must be some big invisible force, like a hamburger press, pushing down on my head making me expand horizontally, she had thought as she readjusted the paper skirt trying not to tear it and noticing with horror that her thighs slightly resembled hamburger meat. She had ruled out atmospheric pressure since it pushed in on every inch of her, fourteen point something pounds per square inch. The pressure exerted by the atmosphere probably works like shapeware. Lilly had seen shapeware hanging in the underwear section of Target and had considered buying some. Maybe it’s gravity then. Then she had questioned whether gravity pushed or pulled. Newton’s apple falling from a tree is so much easier to understand than Einstein’s curving spacetime paths, she had decided just as the doctor knocked at the door.
“Well hello, Mrs. Lilly. How are you?” the doctor had asked.
It had taken Lilly a couple of seconds to get herself out of her wild orbit around the sun as the tenth planet if you counted Pluto, before she could answer. “Other than just finding out that I have shrunk below average, and I don’t know whether I’m being pushed or pulled on, I think I’m okay,” she said.
There had been one good thing about that doctor’s visit Lilly thought later. At least now I know that I am in a war even if my enemy is invisible. The urge to pull out a magically forged medieval sword to slash and mortally pierce the obscure crushing evil power bent on transforming her into something shorter and wider, or worse, had risen up inside her. Lilly had never learned any combat skills though. Women warriors were not the kind of icons she had grown up with, but, based on the recent ones she had seen, women warriors were definitely not mediocre.
How does a commonplace woman like me fight an invisible force? she had wondered. How does a middle-aged woman fight anything? Maybe it’s too late for me. Maybe I should just surrender. Who knows? Perhaps the battle is over and I have already lost. She had finally settled on the idea that she would know that the battle with the merciless force was not over if things got worse for her.
If I were smarter … If I were significantly smarter, she corrected, I think I would have liked to have been a theoretical physicist Lilly thought as she drove home from the grocery, her car filled with cucumbers, yogurt, and pita bread.
No one knew this about Lilly, not even Victoria or Albert, but she listened to them – to the physicists – to their talks and their theories on YouTube. She tried to decipher the physicists’ illustrations and explanations. She really would have liked to talk to Victoria or to Albert, or to someone, anyone, about how she climbed to the edges of black holes and wondered how hard it would be to stand on their horizon without getting sucked in, but she knew their eyes would glaze over, or worse, roll.
She thought about the petri dishes she had seen stacked on the counter in exam room number two weeks ago. They made her think about cells which made her think about atoms that make up cells and the DNA in them which made her think about quantum physics. She tried to imagine bits of light and matter that would alter their frenzied movement and form as long as she was looking at them. I, Lady Lilly, the infamous quantum physicist, will stare down the fiendish force that strives against me, she said out loud in her best Middle-English Renaissance voice waving an imaginary sword with her free hand.
Lilly imagined herself on the stage at Stockholm Concert Hall in Sweden listening to a particularly dramatic piece played by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra and then stepping onto the blue carpet to accept her Nobel Prize. After the ceremony, Lilly visualized herself stepping out into a hoard of reporters, cameras flashing and microphones poking towards her mouth. One reporter said, “Congratulations. Your accomplishments are admirable. Who do you think contributed most to your success?”
“All the theoretical physicists that came before me,” she answered without hesitation and smiled, her blue eyes glistening more and more with each flash of light. The reporter’s eyes widened, and Lilly added, “I admire them even more than the Ivy League philosophers, and theologians, and lecturers on great literature – you know, the kind of literature that applies to all ages.” She sometimes listened to them too. “I think,” however,” Lilly continued, “and you can quote me, I think theoretical theorists are tragically blessed since physics must somehow underlie all the great philosophical theories, and all great novels, and all theologies”
“Why tragically blessed?” the reporter followed.
“Perhaps, we should schedule a longer interview,” Lilly suggested as she tucked one arm under Albert’s and waved towards the cameras with the other as they made their way toward the waiting limousine.
What she would have said to the reporter, if she had had enough time, was that theoretical theorists perpetually amazed her. Lilly was amazed at how the physicists could pile theory upon theory, adding point to point almost to the seventh or ninth dimension; she had forgotten how many there were now. How they could juggle them all at once without losing even a single principle and at the same time proclaim, “There is something missing!” was utterly astonishing to her.
Sometimes when she heard them speaking of the missing thing that held reality together, she wanted to weep for them. It was almost as if someone had shown them all the intricacies of the world and then blindfolded them so that they couldn’t see the Creator of the reality they were trying so hard to explain with all their props of complicated math formulas and experimental designs. They couldn’t understand that the Creator of it all was the ultimate dimension that holds reality together.
“How was you lunch with Victoria?” Albert asked Lilly as she chopped some cucumbers for the Tzatziki sauce she was making.
“It was okay. I told her I would go with her to the arts festival over at Valley Hills next week if that’s okay with you,” Lilly replied. “How was your day?”
Later than night, after dinner, while Albert was catching up on some phone calls, Lilly wrapped herself in a blanket and went outside to look at the stars. Her mind went soaring towards them and she felt herself becoming weightless and free, like helium escaping from a balloon. The soaring eventually stopped, and Lilly found herself breathlessly standing on the edge of an unfathomable beauty, a splendid grandeur, that was beyond explanation. Beauty and joy and wonder overwhelmed her senses. She lost herself in it. This will take an eternity to explore.
“Lilly, aren’t you cold out there? Why don’t you come back in?” Albert called from the darkness of the porch behind her.
Lilly sucked the helium, that she supposed was her soul, back in and reluctantly returned to her ordinary self. As she walked towards her house, she clutched at the lingering vestiges of the joyous amazement she had just experienced. The marvel of it was still clinging to her, surrounding and warming her like her blanket, and she seriously wondered if she really had been somewhere else. She decided she would not tell Victoria about that.