Woman of Substance
by Annette Bower
excerpt Page 4-13 in print copy
“The guard goose honked an alert, and the geese waddled back to the water. A man about six foot two came toward them. His dark eyes focused on Frank. Frank gripped his cane against the man dressed all in black.
Robbie straightened her back and watched his quick feet and long legs nimbly sidestep the goose poop on the sidewalk. She held onto her cell phone. Come on. Give your head a shake. I’ve been in this park many times and I’ve been safe. Just because this morning I was bullied, all of a sudden I’m ready to fend off the enemies around every corner.
“Granddad,” the man in black called.
“Jake?” Frank rubbed his eyes.
“Yes, it’s me.” The words held a smile.
Frank clamped his fingers on the bench rail and stood. Robbie watched as the stranger’s two long arms swooped around Frank and wrapped him close to his chest. Seconds before his warm brown eyes closed, the stranger’s five-o’clock-shadowed jaw relaxed and a smile pulled across straight white teeth.
Witnessing the love between these two men, she felt as if her heart grew larger, like the Grinch’s Christmas heart that grew three times its size. With her hands supported on the bench, she stood. Should she wait and say goodbye, or should she just slip away? The stranger’s brown eyes opened and his brow furrowed.
“When’d you get here?” Frank asked his grandson as he slipped back onto the bench.
“A couple of hours ago. Just enough time to pick up the car and find you. Who’s your friend?”
Frank turned and blinked.
Robbie extended her hand. “Robin Smyth.”
The man reached past Frank, gripped her hand, and gave it a quick shake. “Jake Proctor.” He drew his eyebrows together and met her gaze. She felt a glow of warmth readying her lips for a welcome smile.
But then she watched him look down to her chest, past her protruding belly, to the length of her tree trunk legs and finally down to her black oxfords. She tugged at her jacket where it stretched across her chest. Was he going to ask her why she was wearing a costume? Halloween was last week. Stop cowering. If he asks, I’ll tell the truth.
Instead Jake turned away from her. He squatted beside Frank.
Perhaps he didn’t notice anything was amiss. Robbie was caught between pumping her fist into the air and whispering an enthusiastic “yes” and wondering when this man in black might ask her for an explanation. All of the hours she’d spent in the costume designer’s studio getting the torso fitted and natural-looking, and the padding on the leggings which helped splay her legs at the proper angle had paid off. The hours she’d mixed colors in the theatrical makeup department dedicated to creating the illusion of a larger face and securing the right amount of wax along her gum line. The three different fittings to have a latex mold made for her neck had actually worked. Perhaps she appeared ordinary. Or didn’t he really see her? Didn’t he notice her curly auburn wig, her purple bling-encrusted eyeglasses? He wouldn’t know that her eyes were a different color because he hadn’t met her before. So she’d give him that break.
She put her arms on her hips. Look at me! she commanded silently. See me as I am.
Okay, Frank might have eyesight challenges because he wore glasses, plus his age and his apparent physical fragility wouldn’t help. This Jake had the telltale fold that ran from his nose to the corners of his mouth that appear during a person’s thirties. He didn’t wear thick glasses, or if he didn’t see well his shoes would be spotted with goose droppings. He also said he had a car so he wasn’t sight challenged.
She stared at Jake, but he only nodded at intervals as Frank spoke. He reached over and picked up Frank’s open wallet from the bench.
When he looked at her, his eyes narrowed. “Do you meet my grandfather often?”
“No.” She studied the bridge of his nose. “We’ve just met.”
“Let the woman alone.” Frank held his hand open for Jake to return his wallet. “She reminds me of your grandmother when we were young and still went to the movies and dances. Those were good days. After I convinced her to marry me, they only got better. You find a good woman yet?”
“Granddad, I worry about you.” He raised an eyebrow at Robbie.
If it wasn’t such a nicely shaped brow or, if his hair didn’t fall playfully on his forehead, or even if he didn’t have the broad shoulders that filled out his leather jacket, she might be worried. But most of all she enjoyed his height. For some inexplicable reason, she shifted and wondered how far she would need to stretch so their lips could meet. Hello, Robbie, Frank’s talking here.
“You live too far away to worry very hard,” Frank said.
“I’m here now.” Jake nodded toward the worn billfold. “And your wallet is on the bench in plain view.”
Robbie’s cheeks burned. “You, you think I’m asking Frank for money?” She forced herself to stand straight and gripped her hands so she wouldn’t brush at the dirt clinging to the front of her jacket and kept both feet on the ground so she wouldn’t kick him in the shins. These solid shoes would give him a good bruise.
“For starters, you look as if you could use some clean clothes. There’s bread on the bench. And there’s the open wallet and a frail, old, man.” His clipped words and flashing eyes when he nodded toward each item left no room for doubt as to exactly what he thought.
Struggling between her outrage and the genuine concern in Jake’s eyes, she said, “Ah, Sherlock Holmes, I presume.” Nincompoop. Just goes to show a well-fitted jacket and height can disguise real character, too.
“No.” He put his hands behind his back and jutted his chin forward. “I’m a concerned grandson.”
“Stop it, both of you,” Frank growled. “Here’s the picture of Mabel I wanted to show you before Jake turned up out of the blue.” He handed his billfold to Robbie. Behind yellowed plastic was the image of a woman with dark curls smiling at the camera holding a baby wrapped in a blanket.
“That’s our Mabel.” He looked from Jake to Robbie.
“Yes.” Jake stood behind Frank and his hands hung loosely at his side.
Robbie felt a sense of relief. She turned toward Jake and pointed at the baby. “You?”
“No.” Jake sounded resigned. Robbie understood that sometimes a person just has to allow the story to be told.
“Girl, your glasses need cleaning? She’s holding this boy’s mother.” Frank chuckled. “Mabel looked young until the day she died.”
Jake reached toward Frank and spoke gently. “The nurses asked me to bring you back for a rest.”
“Guess we’d better go. Don’t want to rock the boat. They might take away my privileges.” His lips were blue.
“Let me help you.” Robbie felt his bird-like arm through his coat sleeve. “One good turn deserves another.”
He patted her sleeve. “Maybe I’ll see you again, Robin Girl,” he said as he leaned into Jake.
She crossed her arms over her chest. “I’ll watch for you. We’ll protect each other against hooligans.”
Jake’s arm wrapped around Frank’s back, making him appear protective and reassuring as he shortened his stride to match his grandfather’s. The autumn light played across Jake’s black leather jacket and dress pants as they moved toward the care home.
Robbie turned the opposite way toward the path that led to her street. Perspiration formed on her upper lip. Under her breasts, a rivulet of sweat trickled to her navel. While she placed one foot in front of the other, the breeze ruffling the sleeves of her jacket, she thought about the way Frank clung to his grandson and the familiar tone of the banter between them. She was fortunate she lived only eleven miles from her parents and often shared meals, ideas, and memories. She wondered why Jake had been away and why his return surprised Frank. From Frank’s point of view, Jake had been away a very long time. Jake had the tanned look of someone who spent a great deal of time outdoors.
The flip of a curtain at the edge of the picture window across the street indicated Mrs. Mitchell wasn’t quite as involved in her daytime TV. Robbie raised her hand and waved. The curtain dropped. I’d better talk to her now or she’ll be phoning the police when she sees a strange woman coming and going from my door.
Robbie rang the doorbell and thought about what she might tell her neighbor. The truth works or as close as possible.
She heard the thump of the walker as it hit the floor in the front hallway. The door opened as far as the safety chain would allow. “Can I help you?”
The odor of stale air escaped and assaulted Robbie’s nostrils. She reached up and rubbed her nose. “Hello, I’m visiting Robbie and she asked me to tell you not to worry when you see me coming and going.”
“Don’t try to fool an old lady. Are you friends?” Mrs. Mitchell’s hearing aid squealed when she turned up the volume.
“Yes.” Truth. I am probably my own best friend right now.
“Tell Robbie to give me a call when she gets home.”
“All right. I will.” She turned to leave.
“What did you say your name was?”
“Robin Smyth,” she replied loudly.
“Oh. Pretty close to Robbie Smith, though you certainly don’t look like her.” Mrs. Mitchell adjusted her eyeglasses tighter to her eyes.
“No, I don’t. I’ll give Robbie the message.” Robbie continued down the stairs and crossed the street before she heard Mrs. Mitchell’s door close firmly.
Now I’m committed. Three people know me as Robin Smyth. She would have told Mrs. Mitchell the truth if she had opened the door and showed any sign of recognition. I’ll call Mrs. Mitchell later and tell her I have company staying with me or one day I’ll open the door to our men in blue because she will have counted the times a so-called-friend unlocked my door.
Robbie rummaged at the bottom of her jacket pocket and found her keys. A quick twist and the deadbolt slid away. Home safe. She stepped across the threshold and collapsed onto the stool. People accepted her and didn’t question her appearance. All the time, energy, and money she had invested in her disguise for her master’s thesis and just putting her head down and doing the work appeared to pay off today.
After kicking off her shoes and hanging up her coat, she slowly climbed the stairs to her bedroom. Ha! I’m going to have to work harder to be stronger. She slipped off the sweatshirt, threw her slacks into the hamper, then reached around, unhooked the bra, and unzipped her body suit. She let out a sigh of relief as she slid the last of the heavy padding from her arms. Much better. Now she knew that she’d need the cooling packs when she was indoors. Seeing body parts, the polyester torso with careful stitching around foam pendulum breasts, an apron belly, and the stuffed and dimpled leggings, strewn on her bed was creepy. She arranged her wig on the stand, removed the latex neck roll, and finally rolled the wax away from around her gums and discarded the wet mass into the wastebasket. She felt the hot furnace air against her neck, then pushed her fingers through her sticky hair and reached for her dressing gown.
For months, she had felt something was missing from her research about women’s weight and body image. Then Nadine, her professor’s office administrator, challenged Robbie when she said, “You can research all you like, but you’ll never understand what it truly means to be fat. You’re tall, slim, with that cute short hair and amazing hazel eyes. It’s different in your world than it is for some women.”
Later on the same day, Robbie had opened the heavy door and pressed the bell for the meeting room. The security door had unlocked. She could still see the light reflected on the high-waxed tiles. The three women had been seated at a round table. Robbie had slumped into her chair at her meeting with the women who had volunteered to be part of her study. She looked around and said quietly, “A friend told me today I won’t understand what it’s like to be fat until I am.”
Mavis shook out her shoulder-length sun-streaked hair and nodded. “Hello to you, too.”
Sharon sighed and shrugged her shoulders, then crossed her thick calves and ankles, wearing her ever-present white socks and runners.
Margaret’s fashion ring flashed while she drank from a glass of water before she said, “We agree. We just didn’t know how to tell you.”
“Sorry. Hi, thanks for being here.” Robbie held her palms up on the table. “What am I going to do? I’m too far into this, and I need to defend this thesis by December.” She thought about the hours of interviews, the writing and rewriting of her thesis statement.
“I’ll wear one of those listening devices just like a PI, and you can hear what some people say to me,” Mavis suggested as she flipped her hair behind one ear.
“Thanks, but you really can’t count on someone being rude or insensitive every day.”
The women looked at each other. “Oh yes, we can,” they said in unison.
“But according to all of you, I still won’t be close enough.”
“How about you eat a lot?” Sharon asked. Sharon had been the first woman to volunteer. She wore white v-neck T-shirts and jean Capri pants even on the cool days.
“I couldn’t gain enough weight in such a short time.”
“How much do you like ice cream and brownies?” Mavis offered. “Baking is my passion.” Her bangle bracelets chimed as they rode around her wrist while Mavis pretended to stir a mixture in a bowl.
“What about dressing up to look like you’re fat? Men do it all the time. The movies are full of those characters. Whenever there’s a costume party, men seem to find triple D bras and stuff them.” Sharon stood and struck a pose showing off her assets. She flipped her chestnut braided hair across her shoulder and the end tipped toward her cleavage in the V of her shirt.
“I’ve been at those parties and watched the movies, too. It could work. Where would I start?” Robbie brought out her pen and paper from her backpack.
“You know you’d be doing something unusual, don’t you? Women don’t usually dress to look bigger,” Margaret pointed out. She always appeared with full makeup and color-coordinated jackets, pants, shoes, and purse.
“I wonder why we don’t want to take up space. They used to in the past. Remember bustles on skirts.” Robbie tapped her pen on her teeth.
“But how about corsets? Haven’t you been listening? It’s hard in our world.” Sharon stuffed her hands into her jean pocket.
Margaret leaned forward in her chair. “Or the new shape garments as they’re calling them today. Have you ever seen a robust woman model one of those elastic numbers? The other day on a runway show, I could see the model’s pelvic bones through the so-called shape wear and don’t tell me they are designed for models. But you know I was tempted.”
“Skinny wasn’t exactly easy either. I was called chicken legs. Hmmm, is that why I took up running?” Robbie lifted her pant legs up showing how her childhood legs had been replaced by firm calves.
“Yeah, try fatty, fatty two by four can’t get through the bathroom door so she pooped on the floor.” Margaret mimicked a child’s voice. Her blue eyes seemed brighter than minutes ago.
“Or, ‘save some food for Biafra,’” Mavis added.
“Okay, it was harder for some of us than others. If I’m going to do this, I need to get started. My defense is the end of this semester. Any ideas?”
Sharon laughed. “We can lend you clothes but we have to brainstorm how you will fill them out.”
Robbie sat straighter and leaned forward. If anyone could help her solve this dilemma, Mavis, Sharon, and Margaret would. They were talented and had many years of experience as plus-sized women.
“For your height, you could add another seventy-five pounds and still move around comfortably,” Sharon suggested. “Watching the different women at the gym, you could be that size easy.”
“Adding the appearance of over seventy pounds would bring me up to approximately two hundred and ten,” Robbie calculated.
“Perfect. You start throwing around numbers over two hundred and people cringe,” Sharon said, flipping her braid down her back again.
“I’d give my eye teeth to be two hundred and ten,” Margaret added, snapping the closure on her black patent purse.
Robbie’s cell phone alarm rang. “Time. I promised I wouldn’t ask for more than two hours a meeting, and we’re there.”
Sharon rubbed her hands together. “This will be fun. We’ll call the project, ‘Fat like Me.’” Sharon paused. “I suggest we all go home and email Robbie our ideas. On Friday we can compare notes. I’ll use my lunch hour for a little research.””
To read more of Robbie and Jake’s adventures buy now: Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Woman-Substance-Annette-Bower-ebook/dp/B00AN9TE8W/, Barnes and Noble: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/woman-of-substance-annette-bower/1113954859, Kobo: http://store.kobobooks.com/en-ca/books/Woman-of-Substance/MZFwL4pOOUaxITmZkITv8Q, McNally Robinson Booksellers: http://www.mcnallyrobinson.com/9781619352254/annette-bower/woman-substance?blnBKM#.U4SsFPldXOU