That Certain Something


Debbie Simms turned fourteen the year that she got fat and fell in love with Jason Sanders and got thin again. It also happened to be the year her father died, the obvious catalyst for the weight gain, though not the crush. The crush was normal. Every girl in the eighth grade was in love with Jason Sanders. But Debbie would always think of her father’s death as separate; a thing floating near her fourteenth year but completely detached, existing in a realm exempt from the normal restrictions of space and time. Her mother, Janice, said the weight gain was hormonal, that it was her slow metabolism, that Aunt Maureen had thyroid problems, too. Aunt Maureen was three hundred pounds. Now that was fat, Debbie would think, at first, when it was only ten pounds, then twenty. But she knew she was well on her way.

It may have actually been Debbie’s hormones or slow metabolism or thyroid that betrayed her, or it may have been the Mallowmars and King Dons and Hostess fruit pies that she ate, one after the other, while she flipped between Ellen and Austin and Ally. She liked Ellen, and it was especially good if Ellen had on somebody funny, and even better if it was somebody funny or talented but also overweight. Or if she had that little girl on, Brielle, who was, like, a genius. Debbie couldn’t hate Brielle; in fact she loved her. All that bright-eyed cuteness. But even then, she flipped to Austin and Ally a lot because she was in love with Austin, the Austin of years ago when they filmed the show. He was played by Ross Lynch, who was in his twenties now, an actual adult, and not as cute as when he was seventeen. The Ross Lynch who was sixteen and who played Austin Moon was perfect. Easily the most perfect boy in the world, and way better than Brielle, no matter how cute she was.

Sometimes she also flipped the channel to a weird 90s show for kids called Power Rangers, to see what they were up to. She was pretty sure that the brown haired guy and the blond girl liked each other. She thought the show should do something with that plot but they never did, probably because the show was for little kids and all. She told herself that she would only watch for a minute, that she actually needed to relax after a long day at school, and she would watch Ellen and Austin and Ally and eat Little Debbie snack cakes, especially the pink powder puff ones that tasted like marshmallows and cotton candy together. She felt a strange significance in the fact that they were Little Debbie snack cakes, like they were made especially for her.

She had to hide the snack cake wrappers by four-fifteen to be safe, because her mom got home at four-thirty from her real estate job. She wouldn’t get in trouble, exactly, if her mom knew that she spent her baby-sitting money on her snacks, but her mom would be disappointed and give her that look, and a little talk about how they both needed to start taking walks and eating healthy. Debbie knew it made her feel better to say “we both need to…” only that was dumb because her mom was naturally thin and Debbie didn’t really want to go for walks with her anyway.

She hated that her mom’s name was Janice, that they were Debbie and Janice.  She wanted their names to be Elise and Maddie, or Diane and Caitlyn, or just about anything, but they were dumb old Debbie and Janice, which were not good enough names to be in a story or a show or movie. Her Dad’s name had been Mike, which was an acceptable name for a man, though not as good as Connor or Alex. Mike was fine, though. It didn’t embarrass her. In fact, her dad was pretty good all around, except for when he wore his Lee jeans that were too-dark blue and had a waist that was too high. She had hated those jeans. But most of the time he wore pretty good clothes and he laughed good and he didn’t embarrass her in front of her friends. Well, in front of Judy, her only main friend. Especially after she got fat.

Debbie went to the mall with Judy sometimes. She ate lunch at school with Judy, who was so small she looked like a fourth-grader and had thick glasses and carried a purse with covers that buttoned on and off. Judy had matching purse covers for all her outfits: little girl outfits, like red corduroy jumpers with strawberry appliques sewn on, with a red corduroy purse cover to match. Her mom made them. Debbie thought they were dumb and embarrassing, but it was better than eating alone and sometimes old Judy could be pretty funny. Like she would say, “if Mrs. Coakly’s bun gets any tighter, its going to pull her eyes back and she’ll look Chinese.” Then they would laugh a little and feel the cool superiority that she knew the other kids felt; the kids who sat at the big table in the back. Kids like Meredith Lancy and Jason Sanders. Sometimes Debbie laughed more than the situation called for, just so it would look like she was having a really good time with tiny, weird Judy. And it wasn’t so bad. Yeah, for a quiet little girl with dumb purse covers, Debbie thought, Judy could be pretty funny. Only she never seemed to notice the funny stuff about herself, like her stupid homemade outfits with little bumble-bees and strawberries sewn on, and her thick glasses. But they had a tacit understanding: Debbie said nothing about Judy’s clothes or resemblance to an old lady, and Judy never made fun of Debbie’s increasing size and never asked about her dad.

Mostly they talked about people in Hollywood, which Debbie was an expert on, or about Jason Sanders. Or, rather, Debbie talked and Judy ate her perfect turkey sandwiches on wheat bread with one little piece of wilting lettuce coming out the side exactly a quarter of an inch, and looked at Debbie through those huge glasses. “Specs,” Debbie’s dad had called them one time, which Debbie thought was kind of cool for a dad.

Debbie ate her snack cakes or fruit pies, or maybe one of the honey buns you could get for seventy-five cents that were so sticky you had to pull them out of the cellophane wrapper with your fingernail, and maybe part of a sloppy joe or whatever they were serving, so it wouldn’t look like she only ate sweets. She would laugh a lot and be really animated with old Judy, and talk about what actresses looked better with long hair or how she heard that Jason Sanders fooled around with Summer Banks at a party with high schoolers at it. She didn’t know if that was true or not, but she had heard it, or something pretty much like it, when she was in a stall in the girl’s bathroom and Meredith Lancy and Tiffany Peterson didn’t know she was in there. She knew Meredith and Tiffany liked Jason Sanders, just like Debbie herself liked Jason Sanders, because he was so cool he seemed much older than fourteen—almost fifteen—and she liked the way part of his hair fell over one eye. There were rumors that he drank, that his older brother got him beer and maybe other stuff, too, and that he went to high school parties and did stuff with girls. This both repulsed and fascinated Debbie and made her watch him out of the corner of her eye all the time.

Plus, Jason Sanders talked to her sometimes. Like once they were at their lockers, which were pretty close because there weren’t too many names in their class between Sanders and Simms, and his bag was in her way so she just stood there, but then he saw and said “oh, sorry,” and moved it. And another time they had to sign an attendance sheet when they had a sub in history, and he handed her the pencil that was going around and said, “here.” She had liked the way he said it, and sometimes she would think about it over and over in her head: oh, sorry and here, over and over. And she would imagine that he said other stuff, too, or that he looked out from under his hair at her and smiled, just slightly, or that they were at a dance and he was kissing her neck. She even dreamed that once: that they were at a dance or something, and Jason Sanders was kissing her neck and touching her hair, which was longer in the dream, but then all of a sudden her dad was in the dream in his green Eddie Bauer shirt saying Deb? Debbie? Wanna go with your ol’ man to the hardware store? We can get some ice-cream on the way home… but then he disappeared and she couldn’t find him, and then Jason Sanders turned into her dad only different, without one of his arms, and she woke up sweating.

Her dad died in a car accident. He was at the Billing’s house where he was doing a dry wall job. No, supervising  a dry wall job. The Billings were some rich Mormon people they sort of knew because Sarah Billings was in Debbie’s girl scout troop when they were in elementary school. Sarah was pretty and had blond hair and got good grades and was nice to Debbie, but only up to a point. Debbie decided that Sarah was of those people who was just nice enough that they could think to themselves how great they were because they were so nice. Debbie always wished she had hair like Sarah’s, though, and was annoyed and fascinated that Sarah politely refused to drink Coke or Pepsi because of her religion. But at least Sarah was only Mormon-rich, not country club rich. The kids who were country club rich had names like Cooper and Summer. They wore clothes that were nicer than the other students. Debbie couldn’t put her finger on what it was that made the clothes nicer, but the belts and things often had tiny whales on them, for some reason, and she knew they didn’t come from TJ Max and Khol’s. Sarah Billings was rich, by the looks of her house, but they didn’t belong to the country club, and she might have gotten some of her clothes from Khol’s.

It had been Saturday, so Janet and Debbie were home, and Debbie got the phone when it rang. It had been Mrs. Billings only her voice was high and pinched and breathy when she said “Debbie, get your mother…” and she was sobbing. For some reason Debbie had said, “What? Why? What’s wrong? Is my dad the— ?” But her mom, who was wiping the counter after making banana bread, suddenly seemed to know without being told that something was wrong, and her eyes got huge and scared and angry and she started screaming What?! What?! no…no…no before anyone even told her. She crumpled down on the kitchen floor when she started talking to Mrs. Billings, who must have told her that there had been an accident right out in the Billing’s driveway, and Debbie’s dad had been hit–mangled, maybe–by one of his own dry wall guys backing the truck up. Mrs. Billings probably told Debbie’s mom whatever else happened, but even now Debbie didn’t know if he was mangled or if he broke his neck or something or if the truck just hit him in the head and killed him. They thought she didn’t need to know and she never asked. The smell of bananas still made her sick.

Debbie started eating a lot right after the funeral. They were Methodist, or at least they went to a Methodist church sometimes. Debbie wasn’t really sure what Methodist was or why her parents chose that, because she knew there were some other kinds you could choose, and when the minister met with her and her mom before the funeral, he said, “now, as you know, Debbie, we Methodists believe in the communion of saints, with a small s, and the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. You can take comfort in that,” she said okay but it didn’t really make sense. She didn’t know why it mattered how you wrote anything, or what was comforting about “the life of the world to come.” They meant Heaven, and she knew all about Heaven, but it sounded boring. Harp music was annoying. So when she got home after the funeral, she ate. She ate a lot.

It was summer and she had fifty-seven dollars saved up, and she got more every Wednesday night when she babysat for the little boy down the street. Peter. He had Down’s Syndrome. He was nine but he seemed more like four, and he always had a runny nose and seemed oblivious to Debbie, just listening to his little yellow radio and swaying his head back and forth with his eyes closed. His own parents smiled at that–like it was cute or something–and called him Stevie Wonder, whoever that was.  It was an okay job but  Debbie was glad she didn’t have to take him anywhere. She just watched TV and kept an eye on him and waited for her ten dollars. You could buy three boxes of snack cakes with ten dollars, or two packages of mallowmars, which had more in them. There was almost nothing better than the squish of a mallowmar when you bit through the waxy chocolate coating and through the marshmallow, and the tender snap of the graham cracker bottom. Debbie could make a package of mallowmars last a pretty long time—maybe even four days.

So by the time school started, Debbie Simms was fat. Janice took her shopping, which was one of the activities her mom liked best, because you could hide in the manufactured happiness that went with shopping. Janice would get all excited about their “girl’s day out” and chatter the whole time, and Debbie knew her mom wanted her to get excited, too, and be all into getting new outfits, and talk along the way about school and which boys she liked and who was having a party on Friday night. Like Meredith Lancy or Tiffany Peterson or even old Sarah Billings would, if they were Janice’s daughter instead. But even before she was fat, Debbie didn’t really get invited to parties, and now that she was 184 pounds, it was hard to get excited about shopping for school clothes. So Debbie coped by being sullen and only conceding to buying one pair of jeans, which she would wear with old sweatshirts. She tried for sort of a grunge look. And when her mom “treated” her to a haircut on the way home at a really nice place where they offer you tea or soda while you sit there, the lady said “Now, if we layer it through here to frame her face, it’ll really make those pretty brown eyes stand out.” Eighth-graders were not stupid; Debbie knew that was a very deliberate way of not saying anything about her weight, of trying to point out that she noticed something else. The b-word would probably think how nice a lady she was, like ohh, I was so nice to that fat girl, I complimented her eyes.

Her eyes were just boring brown and not that great.

Debbie stayed fat through the Christmas holidays, and managed to smuggle her snack cakes to Oklahoma, where her mom’s sister lived with her three bratty sons.  Janice told her it would be good for them to get away for Christmas, to a place where there weren’t so many memories of her dad, and Debbie said whatever even though she wanted to hold on to those memories like a life preserver and felt a shaky pain when she thought of leaving her own house for Christmas. But she blocked them out and went grudgingly to brown Oklahoma where it didn’t even snow and her cousins acted like she wasn’t there. The only good thing about the trip was the weird structure that traveling provided: Debbie liked airports, the necessity of having to walk down a long thing called a concourse–she liked the sound of that word–and find your gate. She was allowed to pick a magazine at the little store in the airport, and there were articles about kissing and sex in there and she felt a rush of adrenaline, reading stuff like that right next to her mom, who probably thought she was reading about new fashions or fun crafts or something. And on the plane, she could watch people as they walked by to go to the bathroom, carefully evaluating their outfits and their general attractiveness, picking out the good ones, scoffing silently at the dumb ones, and loosing herself in the bright staleness of it all. She seldom looked at her mother, who didn’t seem to feel the same odd security in airports, and wore a look of vulnerability that Debbie hated.

They came home for New Year’s, and Janice went to a party at the Billings; a grown up party so Debbie wasn’t invited, but her mom said she could come, she wasn’t a baby and they’d be happy to have her. Debbie said she had a party to go to, but she didn’t, and she couldn’t go with her mom because Sarah Billings would hear about it, though Sarah was going to Meredith Lancy’s party. Meredith’s parents were rumored to be so cool that they stayed up in their gigantic bedroom watching TV when Meredith had parties and didn’t even come down to check on people. Meredith’s parents each had their own bathroom.

Debbie didn’t want her mom to go to the Billings, who, she thought, were only inviting Janice because they felt sorry for her, so Debbie said she had a stomachache and wanted to stay home. Janice put her coat on, slowly and deliberately, and then turned to Debbie with a look Debbie had not quite seen before, and said, “Then stop eating all those sweets.” She looked like she was going to cry. Debbie slumped towards the TV.

So Debbie stayed home watching boring TV shows, and on her fourth Mallowmar, she got a bitter taste in her mouth and felt a sudden anger surge up inside her, and without thinking she crushed the sticky cookie in her hand and threw the little mess at the wall. Then she sat silent for nearly two minutes, surprised at her outburst, and went upstairs to bed, leaving the little white and brown cookie body on the floor where it fell.

Six weeks later it happened. Debbie and Judy were sitting at their lonely, wobbly lunch table when Jason Sanders himself walked up, casually, hands in his pockets and hair over one eye, and asked Debbie to the spring dance. All he said was Hey. You wanna go the dance? and Debbie could feel her heart beating in her neck, and almost turned to make sure he was talking to her. She managed a “Yeah…” and he said ‘Kay. Meet me at Meredith’s at eight on Friday and was already sauntering away before she could answer. Judy’s eyes, behind the inch-thick glasses, were as big as dinner plates.

For two days the possibilities raced through her mind. Had he secretly found her cute and attractive all year and was only now getting the courage to tell her? Was it the thirteen pounds she lost? Was it her new way of slinging her backpack over her shoulder after history class—did he suddenly think she was cool? She did feel cooler; she was starting to have…something. Not the cool confidence of the popular crowd, but the very beginnings of something she couldn’t put her finger on or words to. Just something. And her life had changed: Tiffany Peterson had even said “Hey, Deb. You can sit with us if you want” at lunch the day before. Debbie had felt a little badly about leaving Judy alone with her perfect sandwich to eat quickly and then go to the library to pretend to do research, but she had to. Judy would do the same thing if they’d invited her to the big table; everything was different now. And Janice noticed a certain openness about her daughter, who ate her salad at dinner, and not much else. It was too good to be true.

So when Friday night came, and Debbie sat in her room in her seventh outfit, her mind bubbling with possibilities about the night: a charming Jason Sanders (who looked even more like Ross Lynch in the daydream), and her future, she tried to ignore the sinking dread in her stomach when she heard an urgent knock at the door.

It was Judy, whom she hadn’t spoken to in five days, her hair stringy and damp from rain, her glasses fogging up when she came into the warm house. Part of their tacit understanding, their odd friendship, was that the two didn’t go to each other’s houses. They had not been the type of friends to do that, only necessary lunch table sharers and occasional mall companions, so when Debbie heard Janice say “Hi, honey. You’re Judy, right? Debbie’s in her room. Go on upstairs,” she was filled with rage that made her arms hurt.

“What do you want?” Debbie said. It was almost a shout.

And Judy, in a glistening red raincoat with ladybugs printed on it, took off her glasses and began to wipe them on her sweater sleeve.

“It is a joke,” she began. “This whole dance thing is just a joke. He’s going to get you to drink a lot and then he’s supposed to…you know, do stuff with you, because he bet Meredith and Tiffany and some other people that he could. He doesn’t really like you.”

Debbie’s arms really ached now.

“How do you know?” she almost yelled, her voice tight and her throat suddenly sore. She was thinking absently that she had never seen Judy with her glasses off, and that without them her eyes were very small and mole-like, and had no lashes.

“I found out from Sarah Billings. She wanted to warn you but didn’t want to tell you herself because of…everything. She was really nice about it and told me to tell you she’s really sorry. So then I spied on Jason and heard him laughing about it with some people. It’s true. It’s just a joke,” she finished matter-of-factly, putting her glasses back on.

Debbie was suddenly enraged, thinking of Judy spying on Jason for her, thinking of Sarah Billings with her sickening sweetness and perfect blond hair saying she was sorry for her, and she stood and screamed at Judy “Get out! Get out of my house! Get away from here! I don’t need you to help! I don’t need you!” And then, one last time when she could still feel Judy standing outside her closed bedroom door and heard her say through it “Debbie, you can’t actually go…” she screamed “GET OUT OF HERE!”

Janice Simms was wiping down the counter after baking for the first time since her husband died (apple muffins, not banana bread), when Debbie came down the stairs and she heard a car horn beep in the driveway. She stopped herself from asking is that what you’re wearing?  when she saw Debbie’s frayed jeans and short shirt, which was pulling so tightly across her that you could make out fat bulges pushing out under Debbie’s bra line. And she stopped herself from saying that whomever was driving the car outside—this Meredith person or her older brother or whatever—should come inside and be introduced, because she knew that kids didn’t really do that anymore.  And she stopped herself from giving Debbie a hug, or insisting she be home by eleven, or finding the cause of the look in her daughter’s eyes; the look that left Janice cold because it spoke of change and grudges and innocence that was somehow already gone. Janice ignored that. Debbie needed this, she thought. Things had been so hard, and this was better than her just eating and watching TV, and anyway, what could possibly happen? They were fourteen for goodness’ sake. Probably at the dance the boys would stand on one side and the girls on the other, too embarrassed to talk or dance, just like in her day. And maybe later, they would go to this girl’s house and watch a movie that might have some bad language or something. But that’s not so bad, really. Debbie probably heard those words before. And she needed this, this party with other kids; the beginning of a social life. At least it was…something.

“Goodbye!” she called as the door slammed, feigning cheerfulness, and turned to face an empty living room, sorry that Debbie wasn’t wearing a raincoat.