Pangyrus presents the first place winning story of our spring 2023 Fiction Contest: “The Unbearable Weight of My Heart” by Erin Almond.
Sharon, at the age of forty-three, with three kids, twelve years of marriage, and six pairs of fat pants to her name, was finally fed up. She’d been standing in front of her bedroom mirror, trying on summer clothes, when her mother called about Easter – You’re coming for dinner right, dear, with Jim and the kids? The Easter bunny has been stocking up! – and something inside Sharon – later, she’d think of it as her “rage baby” – exploded forth. It wasn’t just the way her stomach lumped over the waistband of last year’s slim-fit crops, it was the tone in her mother’s voice, the expectation that not only would Sharon suffer the ninety-minute drive with her family on the one day her husband didn’t work, she’d also allow her children to be stuffed full of sugary treats while gorging herself on her mother’s rubbery ham, a dish that Sharon had made clear she hated. As if Sharon wanted to keep getting fatter so badly it wasn’t worth discriminating between shitty calories and ones – like the triple cream brie she’d had with Donna last week – that were worth the loss of self-esteem and the addition of yet another elastic waist skirt to her wardrobe.
Sharon didn’t want to keep getting fatter, although she felt compelled to step on the scale each morning to track the inevitable bad news. At her highest, she’d been 192, at the end of her pregnancy with her youngest, Polly. Before that, with Gabe, she’d gotten up to 187, then eventually back down to 148, but not until she’d finished breastfeeding. (Those who said the weight “melted right off” if you nursed were, it turns out, full of shit.) Before kids, she’d been 125 pounds, always striving for 120, but creeping up to 130 during her period. Already, in her early thirties, she could no longer have a basket of fries on Tuesday and know she only had to skip breakfast until Friday to undo the damage.
Even salad was a landmine of negotiations now, since most dressings were packed with as many calories as a Big Mac, so you might as well eat that burger and fries and at least be honest about it. Not that she’d do such a thing, especially not in front of her kids, unlike her own mother who had sometimes, when Sharon’s father was out of town, made a healthy dinner for Sharon and her brothers, then gone to the drive-through for her own.
Standards were different these days. No one disputed how hard it was to be a mom. Not Sharon, not her husband Jim, nor their three kids who sometimes, when Sharon was having a particularly bad day and was perhaps yelling a bit more than was actually called for, would pat her with one of their sticky paws and say, Mom, are you okay? Which made her feel terrible, because what was the point of all the sacrifice, the gray hair, the stretched out yoga pants, the dining room table awash in dirty socks and crumpled homework, the Legos that could never be entirely picked up so that every time she vacuumed, no matter how carefully she’d scanned the rug, she heard that inevitable crunch, what was the point of all that if she couldn’t perform the most basic function of her job, that is, to be the parent, the one in charge, and not some helpless and somewhat pathetic person tossed this way and that by whatever happened to be howling through her life that day?
It was a sad trick of adulthood, Sharon thought, that after you’d made it through the gauntlet of middle school, and the three ring circus of high school, and the Escher-like maze of college, even after you’d beaten the odds and gotten into a prestigious graduate program in the field of your dreams, once you had kids you essentially landed back where you’d started. Now that she’d blown out her abs and could no longer fit into her professional clothing, now that she went back and forth over whether to dye her hair or just accept the inevitable, she was also in the uncomfortable position of trying to make friends with people with whom she had nothing in common other than the fact that their children adored each other. Or, hated each other, which still required frequent conversations between the parents, given that everyone had to be on high alert about bullying these days, with the suicide rates and the internet, and how much sugar and additives kids consumed, not to mention all those hormones in dairy that were giving girls boobs in third grade.
Every mom had her own way of dealing. The ones Sharon envied posted photos of their culinary masterpieces on Instagram. Or trained for marathons or fought for social justice. Sharon had considered these things, and even thought about the ways in which, back in the early eighties, her mother had dealt with the drudgery of stay-at-home motherdom. Sharon remembered cigarettes and Sloe Gin fizzes, the pungent smell of a home perm. The phone cord stretched across the living room. Tommy wet the bed again last night! Sharon keeps climbing the dogwood, she’s going to fall and break her neck! Derek thought we wouldn’t find out he’d snuck a piece of chocolate cake but he forgot to wipe the frosting off his face before he hid under the table! Sharon’s mother was always talking about her children while simultaneously ignoring them, and every sentence seemed to end in an exclamation point.
By the early nineties, the cigarettes and Sloe Gin had been swapped for prayer meetings, and Sharon’s mother had taken to monitoring Sharon’s teenage body, making sure her jeans weren’t too tight or her skirts too short, while allowing Sharon’s brothers to wear whatever they pleased. When her days’ work was done, she’d sit on the couch next to Sharon’s father, with a giant bowl of ice cream, and watch fake families hug each other on TV.
Well, not Sharon. She wasn’t going to let herself go like that. So after saying, yes of course we’ll come for Easter, Sharon ordered a new dress, a size smaller than her current size,
and vowed to fit into it by then.
Her plan was simple: no bread, pasta, rice, dessert, or wine. No meat, dairy, refined sugar, oil, or salt. She’d swap out coffee for green tea, and exercise five days a week. If this diet sounded extreme – No wine or coffee! Donna exclaimed at pickup, Is that really a life worth living? – it was only because Sharon knew that, unless she took drastic measures, she was headed for a future like her mother’s, and that was the most unbearable thought of all.
The dress arrived, courtesy of the Internet and the invisible global labor that supported it. It was greenish-blue, to match Sharon’s eyes, with a knee-length skirt, tight bodice, and cap sleeves that Sharon knew, no matter how much weight she lost, she couldn’t pull off much longer. She waited until Polly was engrossed in a cartoon before sneaking off to her bedroom. The good news: she could get into it. The bad news: she couldn’t zip it up.
Was it the right style for her, she wondered? Who could she call to ask? The biggest problem with making mom friends was that they came with more children. Take Donna, a massage therapist from Minnesota who’d moved to Boston when her husband was hired at the same Cambridge bio-tech firm where Sharon’s husband worked. Donna wasn’t just beautiful – she’d somehow managed to birth two kids and still retain the body of a curvy teenager – she was great fun, the kind of woman who could tile her own bathroom and polish off a bottle of discount-bin Bordeaux while she did it. Sharon hadn’t laughed so much since she becoming a parent, and for a while this friendship seemed like the answer to her slump.
But then there was trouble between Donna’s 7-year-old son, Nate, and Sharon’s 7-year-old son, Gabriel. Gabe was sweet and intelligent, but stubborn, and Nate, while also sweet and intelligent, was equally as stubborn. Often, Sharon and Donna would be in the kitchen enjoying a glass of wine – it’s five o’clock somewhere, har, har! – when they’d hear screaming upstairs, followed by a violent smash and crying.
Growing up, if Sharon had fought with one of her brothers, a parent swooped in, assessed the situation, and spanked whichever child seemed to be in the wrong. While that was not the way Sharon wanted to parent, you had to admit there was a certain efficiency to the old methods. Now, you had to give each child their say, even last week when it had been clear, that Donna’s Nate was lying about the fact that Sharon’s Gabriel hit him first, but Sharon knew, because Donna was right behind her, she couldn’t just say listen you little shit I can tell you’re making this up, but had to keep a concerned look on her face while he peddled his obvious fabrications. And then she had to not look more concerned when Gabriel told his side of the story, the obviously true side of the story, or at least the one that was easier for Sharon to believe, given Gabe’s sorrowful expression but, then again, who knew? The point was that Nate couldn’t handle it when someone didn’t go along with what he wanted, no surprise given that his parents praised his every “insight.” Yes, even wonderful Donna had her blind spots, and what did she think was going to happen when her kids grew up and got a dose of how life really was, which is to say that most people don’t care about your brilliant ideas but just want you to complete the task they’re paying you for, whether that’s ringing up groceries or repairing a line of code.
All the while Sharon mediated this argument, she couldn’t help feeling like she was auditioning for a role she was not going to get, after all. That role was Best Friend, a phrase Sharon didn’t like, given its childish connotations, but here she was, back in middle school, trying to get in with one of the cool kids, and failing as badly now as she had back then.
The playdate broke up early and when a week of silence went by, Sharon wondered if maybe she wasn’t ever going to see Donna again outside of pickup and drop-off. She wasn’t sure if it was the boys’ argument, or the way that Sharon had handled it, or if it was something else entirely, but the important thing was that her weight had gotten down to 150 that day, even though she hadn’t exactly followed her diet. When Polly hadn’t finished her breakfast bagel, Sharon had done it for her. When she got down to 145, she’d call Donna, and when she got down to 140 she’d get some new pants. What pants had to do with anything she wasn’t sure, but somehow it seemed right to repair the relationship when she herself had reached a higher state of being, and that state clearly involved weight loss.
At 139 – what joy, at the thought of busting through that 140 pound plateau! – she might let Jim go down on her again, although it might be better to save that particular pleasure for the bigger milestone of 130, which would mean she’d finally lost all the “baby weight” and was back to her grad school weight, which was, in itself, only a stop along the way to her pre-thirties weight, her pre-Jim weight, and her college weight, all the way back to her high school weight, which at its lowest had been 105, although she understood that was probably not a healthy weight for a grown woman of her height. She’d only gotten down to it in the first place because she’d experienced a devastating heartbreak when her first love left her for a woman who was thirty-three and who, Sharon understood now that she’d reached that age and zoomed past it, really should have known better than to pick up a teenager who worked in the paint aisle. But then again who was Sharon to judge? If that mature lady had been compelling enough to make that teenage boy leave his seventeen-year-old girlfriend – who at the time weighed a mere 115 pounds – then what could she do? She could stop eating, that’s what, and carve sad faces into her skin with safety pins, but only in places covered by her clothes so no one would know. And eventually she got over being dumped, and gained that weight back, although she still thought about it sometimes, how that was the skinniest she’d ever been at her adult height, and also the
When another week went by without hearing from Donna, Sharon wasn’t sure what was more frustrating, the fact that she’d been dumped by her friend, or that she’d gone back up to 151. She tried to talk about it with Jim, but he only said, “You look beautiful to me, honey, and I’ve never stopped wanting you, so what’s the problem?” and “If it really bothers you, maybe we should stop eating so much pizza.” But, if she based her weight on whether or not her husband wanted to have sex with her, she might as well balloon right back up to 192, because her husband was a horndog who’d remained undaunted even by her 9 months pregnant self, and in fact had relished the advice from Sharon’s OB to have more sex, all three times, when the babies’ due dates had come and gone without any contractions, although, at that point, Sharon could only do it lying on her side, with her pregnant belly (sometimes moving when the enclosed baby shifted an arm or a leg) spreading out in front of her. The pizza comment was worse, because at least the local Italian place wasn’t one of those fast food franchises Sharon’s own mother had driven
through when she didn’t want to cook and why wouldn’t Jim at least give her some credit for doing better than her own mother, instead of implying that if she weren’t so fucking lazy, she might not be so fat?
“Why don’t I show you how much I love your body tonight?” Jim said, when Sharon only sighed in response. “I wish you could see what I see.”
“It’s not how it looks,” Sharon said. “It’s how it feels.” Still, she agreed to plan some Adult Time.
At 5:30 pm, a half hour before Jim was due home, Sharon began prepping a meal she knew, even as she was making it, that none of her children would touch and, in fact, would look at with outright disdain.
Still, she opened a bottle of sauvignon blanc and requested that Gabe clear off the dining room table and Desiree set. These requests were repeated exactly four times, while fielding questions about why wasn’t Polly required to do those things (“because she’s only three, and you guys didn’t have to do them when you were three”) why Gabe had to clear the table when most of the papers, crayons and other detritus were Desiree’s (“doesn’t she sometimes clear when it’s mostly your stuff?”), and why Desiree had to be the one to set the table when she was the one who’d set it last night (“I’m trying to finish cooking here, can you please just do it?”).
At 6 pm, Jim arrived home to eager cheers from Gabe and Desiree – Polly was amusing herself by hanging onto Sharon’s legs while she moved between the kitchen island and the stove, although Sharon had repeatedly told her mommy needs to move her own body – and came in the kitchen to give Sharon a kiss. “Can I help with anything?” he asked.
“Maybe give Polly something to do?” Sharon nodded down at their three-year-old still wrapped around her right leg, which only made Polly cling tighter and yell, “I hate daddy!”
“That’s too bad,” Jim said. “Because daddy loves you!” Still, it took a good five minutes for Jim to extract Polly, and when she flung her arms around and accidentally slapped him hard in the face, Jim yelped and everyone – even the older kids – got quiet.
Finally, the tofu curry, rice and salad were on the table, along with kid-friendly foods like Cheerios, sliced apples, and leftover pasta. Polly sat down and burst into tears. Gabe reached for the apple slices and spilled his full glass of water, while Desiree sulked because she was a teenager now even though she was only ten. Sharon tried to catch Jim’s eye above the chaos, but he was busy fuming over both the spilled water and the fact that Desiree had piled all the leftover pasta on her own plate, thus leaving none for the rest of the picky children.
A few minutes later, Polly wandered from the table and now Sharon and Jim could either coax her back or remind her that once she left, the meal was over, and don’t expect any dessert, to which Polly would respond “what’s for dessert?” and Sharon and Jim would have to decide whether to come up with something and become further irritated by having to bribe a child to, essentially, keep herself alive.
“Ice cream,” Sharon said, finally. “There’s ice cream for dessert.” Jim gave her a look that said he wouldn’t have given in, but now that she had, there was no going back. Sharon shrugged and pulled out Polly’s chair.
Polly, after finally eating some Cheerios, decided to stand on her chair and dance, although both parents pleaded “sit down!” Desiree and Gabe laughed so hard they almost choked, until Polly slipped and banged her head on the side of the table, and dinner ended for
“Bath time!” Jim said.
“What about dessert?” Polly’s sobs dried up quick. “Mommy said there was ice cream.”
Sharon avoided Jim’s gaze while she poured herself another glass of wine.
Jim got Polly a tiny of dish of ice cream and then ran her bath while Sharon told Desiree to clear the table, to which she responded: “But I set it!”
By 9 o’clock, all three kids were in bed, and Sharon and Jim took their own baths. At precisely 9:35, Jim opened the bedroom door to find a freshly scrubbed and perfumed Sharon fast asleep, snoring gently, empty wineglass on the nightstand.
Sharon had finally discovered the secret to losing weight, which was to be so miserable that there was no longer any joy to be had from eating.
“Don’t get me all worked up if you’re just going to fall asleep,” Jim had said the next morning. “It’s not fair.”
“Why didn’t you wake me up?” Sharon asked, pulling a blouse over her head.
“I shouldn’t have to.” Jim, wearing nothing but boxers, stared at the row of shirts hanging in his closet. “If you were looking forward to being with me the way I was looking forward to being with you, you wouldn’t have fallen asleep.”
There was no disputing that logic, because what was she going to say – I’ll be ready to make love to you once I get below 140 pounds, make a real friend, figure out my career, and buy myself some new pants? – so Sharon did what she always did when she had no counter-argument: she burst into tears. “At least you get to leave this house every day!”
“Get to?” Jim turned, his face flushed. “You mean I get to support our family? I get to come home and have my children disrespect me and my wife fall asleep instead of wanting to
make love? Wow, what a lucky guy I am!”
“I would love to get out of this fucking house!” Sharon was livid now, too, not just at Jim’s words, but at his abs, which he maintained by playing squash three times a week and eating whatever he pleased. “I’d love to spend eight hours a day in the company of adults who actually respect my ideas! What do you think I’m doing all day at home, anyway? Taking care of everything. You don’t even mow the lawn anymore!”
“Who gives a shit about the lawn?” Jim roared. “You’re the one who wants to keep up appearances, like some bourgeois princess!”
“Don’t give me that crap,” Sharon cried. “Don’t try to couch your own laziness as some kind of virtue!”
“You think I’m lazy? You try doing what I do – you wouldn’t last one day!”
Sharon, whose eyes often glazed over when Jim talked about his job, lowered her voice and backed away. “Maybe we should give each other some space.”
For the next week, Jim and Sharon circled each other warily while getting coffee from the still-sputtering pot. At dinner, they spoke only to the kids. Jim stayed up late watching Youtube videos of vintage football games while Sharon went to sleep shortly after the kids. They each kept to their own sides of the bed.
All the while, Sharon fumed about how her own dad, the sole breadwinner, had taken care of the yard and home repairs and car maintenance, although there were always tasks that remained unfinished, or weren’t done to Sharon’s mother’s satisfaction, and that had been the basis of more than one explosive argument in Sharon’s own house growing up.
Where did that leave Sharon – if she didn’t want to become like her own mother, who would give her father a to-do list as soon as he got home – but also wanted not to have to take care of every little thing herself? You couldn’t ask without nagging, and you couldn’t get help without asking, so most of the time, it seemed easiest just to do everything herself. But that shit was exhausting, and if she really thought about it, had begun to seem like a punishment for not having chosen a career that made enough money to justify paying someone else to do some of the mind-numbing tasks required to raise three kids and keep their house from crumbling to the ground.
There was no getting around the fact that Sharon had gotten an MA in Literature, which qualified her to work for almost nothing as an adjunct professor, or to make $50 a day as a substitute teacher in the local public schools. Sometimes she thought about getting certified to do something else, but the idea of going back to school and competing with childless twenty and thirty-somethings was so overwhelming she decided to wait until Polly was in kindergarten, or maybe middle school. Anyway, Sharon would figure that out once she got her confidence back, which would only take losing ten pounds, fifteen at the most.
Her stomach twisted into knots whenever she and Jim were in a fight, and this one lingered for another week. Sharon still had dinner, but she found it easy – if she allowed herself a second cup of coffee – not to eat during the day. Soon, the weight began to drop off. The secret to losing weight turned out to be: not eating. As any one of her kids might have said, Duh!
The dress was still tight, but workable with the right underwear. Sharon’s legs looked good when she put on strappy high heeled sandals, and she’d recently colored her hair, so someone who didn’t know her might be surprised to learn she had three kids, was forty three, and hadn’t made love to her husband in three weeks.
They were just packing the kids into the backseat when Donna strolled by with a bouncy brown puppy on a leash.
Desiree, Polly, and Gabe leaped out of the car – undoing twenty minutes of struggle to get them into shoes and jackets and out the door and into their seats with their seatbelts and/or car seats properly strapped. They cooed and petted the squirming puppy, before turning on their parents. “Why can’t we have a puppy? They have a puppy! How come we never get a puppy?”
“Happy Easter!” Sharon walked over, but refused to pet the slobbering creature, even when it put its muddy paws on her new dress.
“Look at that face, have you ever seen a face that cute?” Donna grabbed the pooch’s slobbering muzzle. “How can you resist?”
Sharon felt, once again, that she was being tested, and unless she gave Donna the right answer: Yes, your new puppy is the cutest puppy in the whole history of puppies! she would lose her last chance to be Donna’s Best Friend.
But she couldn’t do it – because wasn’t real friendship, like any real relationship, about honesty? Otherwise, what were they doing in the end, but bullshitting each other? And that meant their friendship was bullshit, too.
Of course, there was an argument to be made that friends could be generous toward one another too, that sometimes someone just needed to be affirmed and not reminded of every little imperfection. Meanwhile, Sharon’s stomach already hurt from the control-top hose, which reminded her that she was down to 143 pounds, which was great, but not quite as great as 140, when she might not have needed such uncomfortable undergarments, but what could she do but smile at Donna and compliment her puppy and try not to be pissed that her “best friend” didn’t mention her new dress or that she’d dropped 10 pounds.
Which sucked, Sharon knew, really sucked, and was something she needed to think about – why she was still getting into these one-sided relationships – but she decided to table it until she did get down to 140 pounds, after which she’d maybe e-mail Donna telling her how much her friendship meant, but that she kind of wished Donna sometimes showed a little more interest in her life, so they could have a deeper, more reciprocal, relationship.
“Come on, guys,” Jim called from the driver’s seat, and Sharon and the kids said good-bye to Donna and her new puppy and got in the car so they could all drive to the little house on Derry Lane where Sharon had spent her childhood and adolescence, holed up in her room with the exact same feeling she had, at that very moment, pulsing in her chest.
“You came!” Sharon’s mother greeted Sharon’s family at the door as if their presence had ever been in question. She still wore her church clothes, navy slacks with a light blue sweater, a thin gold necklace with an attached crucifix lying slant across her bosom. Sharon’s father had his camera out, eager to catch the kids reaching for their Easter baskets before he retreated back to his study – he had urgent work to do online, even though he was now officially retired. Sharon put her hands on her hips and grinned, hoping her new dress would be featured in one of the photos, although her father waved her aside so he could catch the real action, Polly already with chocolate smeared on her face from her hastily opened bunny.
“Guys, wait,” Sharon said. “No candy until after dinner.”
“Too late!” Sharon’s mother laughed. Now that she stood next to Sharon’s father, Sharon could see how much her parents resembled each other. Her mother had cut her gray hair short, her father had gained a few pounds, and Sharon was left with the sense that, had they wanted, they could have swapped clothes and fooled them all from behind.
Jim hugged Sharon’s mom and shook hands with Sharon’s dad and then looked at the three kids gorging themselves on jelly beans.
“Grandmas are supposed to spoil their grandkids!” Sharon’s mother said – and what could any of them say about that? The same lax standards applied to TV watching and table manners, all of which had been closely monitored during Sharon’s childhood, so that it seemed the spoiling grandmother who stood before them now couldn’t possibly be the same strict mother who had once grounded Sharon for sneaking a glimpse at MTV.
And yet, of course she was, because Sharon’s mother had that same face – although fleshier and more wrinkled – which wore the same expression Sharon’s mother had worn for most of Sharon’s childhood, one of intense, concentrated anxiety, often biting her lip, or unconsciously sticking out her tongue while breathing through her mouth in a kind of soft hyperventilation. Sometimes her expression went completely blank, before contracting with a sudden panic, the result of some internal ebb and flow of worry that Sharon’s mother would never share, but which pulsed through her all the same.
“I’ve made ham,” Sharon’s mother said to Sharon. “Your favorite!”
Sharon gave her mother a weak smile and retreated to the bathroom to shuck her control top hose. An hour later, during dinner, when the two younger children wandered from the table – without having eaten a thing – Jim and Sharon caught each other’s eyes and sighed in a way that seemed to indicate their argument was over, since the only way to survive the visit was for them to be on the same team.
Before the dishes were cleared, Sharon’s mother brought a half-gallon of ice cream to the table, along with bowls and spoons. “Dessert time!”
Sharon bit her tongue to keep from reminding her mother of the oft-repeated rule from when she’d been a kid: No dessert until you clean your plate! At the same time, she decided she would have ice cream too, even though she’d already stolen a handful of candy from each child’s basket (if you took from one you had to take from all). She was also wondering why she hadn’t thought to bring something to change into because her Easter dress (which no one, not even Jim, had commented on, all day) was about to get even more uncomfortable.
Anyway, tomorrow was Monday, the perfect day to restart her diet, and maybe this time she’d actually stick with it, and then get back to her twenty-something weight, her high school weight, and finally even her middle school weight, because this time she was going to get it right, and make some real friends, and she wouldn’t worry about whether or not they were cool, and she wouldn’t have her mother standing over her, telling her what was wrong and shameful about her body (everything) and insisting that she hide herself away, and then taking up her ice cream, and her spoon, and showing how it was done.
Image: Easter 2008 by Jo Naylor, licensed under CC 2.0.