“Femininny” by D. J. Thielke

Issue 18 / Summer 2019 / Abortion Ban Protest Special Issue

 

The graduation chat from my online fashion design degree was a mad scramble of affection and admiration and plans. New York, LA, Paris – they wrote the names of cities that exist only in the dreams of girls, dreaming themselves. The streets there were not streets but where they could walk with a fluttering silk scarf; buildings were hollow outposts for the admiring glances of equally hollow men.  

I sat at the computer and watched the promises unspool.

A week later, I got the only local fashion-related job I could find, which was answering emails and writing copy for a catalogue of plus-sized pre-teen clothing. It was a self-contained business – a photography studio/kitchen, two offices, and two owners named Fran, man Fran and female Fran.

“It’s never been confusing before,” smiled Man Fran.

But it was confusing for me. People called for Fran. It didn’t matter if the caller said the last name or not because I got those confused, too. Man Fran didn’t care if I accidentally sent him her calls but Female Fran was easily needled.

Man Fran later told me that she got less phone calls and it hurt her feelings. “She also didn’t trust you at first,” he said, “because you’re skinny.”

“You’re skinny, too,” I said.

“I’m a man,” he laughed, delighted. “I’m allowed to be.”

 

*

 

My mother was alive, then. She had been for a while, but not very. It had been her idea I get a degree.

“You shouldn’t worry about me so much,” she had said. “Find your passion, try rock-climbing, whatever.”

“Maybe I’ll be a nurse,” I said. It made sense.

“Fuck nurses. You want to wipe people’s asses the rest of your life?”

The nurse who had been changing her IV looked at us, both offended and in agreement.

“Whatever you do,” my mother said, reaching for my hand. “Make sure it’s

something unimportant.”

“Your life was important,” I said.

She snorted. “And?”

 

*

 

Man Fran did the magazine layout and advertising while Female Fran did the clothes selection. Sometimes Female Fran would call me into her office for a second opinion.

“What do you think of this?” she said, holding up a parachute-sized pink t-shirt with “I Feel Great Today!!!” in glittery blue letters. Everything had three exclamation points, after the name of the catalogue: Confident and Classy!!!

“I know it’s hard,” she said, somewhere between a joke and a gash of exposed self-pity, “but try to imagine me much younger and a little fatter.”

The t-shirt looked like any number of the t-shirts we sold – teepee shaped, extra-long tubes on the arms, with inspirational sayings about smiles, the location of beauty, LOL’s with hearts where the “o’s” should be.

“The pink might be a little too pink,” I said. This was interchangeable with my other responses, which included “not pink enough” or “not the pink we’re looking for.”

“You’re not as interested in fashion as I thought you’d be,” Female Fran said once, when I didn’t take long enough to consider the t-shirt with “Hot and Healthy How I Am!!!” flaring across its front.

This was an insult, and I ducked my head so she knew I had received it. But it was something I already knew.

 

*

 

When my mother moved to hospice care and the house was empty, I had no excuse not to have an active social life. I went to bars I thought of by their smells and clubs that looked like movie versions of clubs. I spent the first half-hour when I wasn’t drunk enough to dance thinking of mean things I could print on t-shirts for the girls prettier than me:

Loves the Cock!!!

Disease Free (Currently)!!!

No Self-Control, So Birth Control!!!

When I was drunk enough, I’d find a man and have unprotected sex. I didn’t think I wanted children, but who knew the knots of my subconscious? If I wanted to become pregnant, I thought, my body would tell me after the fact. If I didn’t and my mother died, I was going to have my reproductive organs removed. I had a doctor lined up, one who looked at me with pity and rage when I asked for a full elective hysterectomy but who had agreed nonetheless. I thought of it when the men came inside me. I thought, You won’t be here long.

 

*

 

Hey girls! You’ll be rocking and rolling and ready for bowling in our new “striiiiiike!!!” t-shirt. The embossed bowling ball has a silky center sending the nine pins scattered into the stratosphere! Like bowling as in life, play your best and wear cute shoes! 

“I like to start with a greeting and end with something thoughtful,” Man Fran said. “But make it your own, have fun, try something out!” He often gave encouragement in strings, a battering ram of positivity.

“But also keep in the form,” Female Fran said, sweeping by on the way to the kitchen. She often gave critiques mid-movement, as though to give them more momentum.

“Answering emails, though,” Man Fran warned, “that takes more finesse.”

Most of the emails were spam or confused customers thinking they could order through the contact page. Some were pranks, mean ones. The complaints were normally from mothers.

Dear Mrs. Haliber,

We were so sorry to hear you were upset by the design of our “Lives to shop!!!” t-shirt! Your very thoughtful comments about the “sexist and capitalist” implications of shopping were far from our intention. We apologize for any harm done and hope you find some of our other products more suited for your beautiful daughter.

Yours sincerely,

The staff at Confident and Classy!!!

“Sometimes they just want a discount,” said Man Fran.

“Which we don’t do,” said Female Fran, sweeping back to her office.

 

*

 

I tried to visit my mother every day, but on Sundays it made me feel better about myself. Sundays cost me something. The showering and getting dressed, alone and hungover, was hard, as was the careful application of make up with the raucous blur of nausea tugging at me.

There was a TV program on about Joan Rivers, celebrating her, when I got to the hospice.

“Do you believe this crap?” my mother said. “They’re making her out to be Eleanor fucking Roosevelt.”

I said, “Are you upset because she died during self-elected plastic surgery and this feels cosmically unfair when your surgeries are more like tumor-elected?”

“Am I what?” my mother said. “Am I what?”

I said nothing.

“I don’t know anything about that,” my mother said. “I’m upset because they’re making her into a martyr. The woman got rich because she called other people fat. If that made money, every mother in America should be rich.”

“She was a feminist,” I said.

“You’re a femininny,” my mother said, and I was happy I made her laugh.

 

*

 

A funny thing: every time I brought someone to the house, I pretended that my mom was still there. She was there, she was sleeping, I warned men on the porch, so we had to be quiet. We’d cartoonishly tiptoe through the kitchen, fragilely open and close doors. I made a face when one man accidentally nudged my dresser, sent my deodorant sprawling with a clatter. I made another one man take off his boots downstairs.

I started this for safety, thinking they’d be on their best behavior, leave when I asked them, only get appropriately rough. But then it became the only thing that made me orgasm. I pictured my mother on the other side of the wall, hearing me cry out, and somehow this was meaningful to me. It made me think of those times she must have heard me cry when I was an infant, made me imagine I was still an infant, and any second she would sigh, she would groan, she would throw back the covers and come collect me, come rock me and coo to me, bobble me against her shoulder until I fell back asleep.

 

*

 

Dear Mrs. Killgore, 

We sincerely apologize for your daughter, Karen’s response to our Fit and Flirty!!! t-shirt and accompanying image. We in no way intended to convey that her attractiveness was determined by a male “Danny Zucko-esque” figure “with what appears to be a cigarette in his hand.” Your concern for your daughter’s self-esteem and future lung health is inspiring. 

Sincerely –

 

*

 

Female Fran had a side project, a spin-off company with clothes for overweight divorcées. It didn’t call out “overweight” or “divorcée” but it was called Newly Single and Still Sexy! I was called in for second opinions about those products, too.

“What do you think?” she said. She held a corset up to her chest, her face arched in question. “Imagine me a little younger and exactly like this.”

I said, “It’s nice.”

“Come on.” She shook the lacey, ribbony thing so it shimmied independently of her body. “You’re young, is this what young people are wearing these days? What would some young man say if you wore this for him?” I tilted my head to the side so she knew I was thinking. The night before, the underwire in my bra had ripped through the lining and I had had to pull it out in the bathroom and shove it into the slot of the tampon machine. It made one breast hang lower, so I spilled my drink on my shirt, three times, so it would look like an optical illusion. I went home with a guy who, when I told him my mother was in the house, said, “Hold on, then, I’ll go puke on that tree.”

I told Female Fran with more resolution, “Yeah. It’s nice.”

Female Fran sighed and sank back in her chair, picking up an index card from the stacked pile on her desk. She had a habit of folding an index card in half and using the corners to clean the brown-grey gunk under her nails. I tried to be grateful she wasn’t using it to pick her teeth.

“It’s work to appreciate ourselves,” she said. “You know what I mean?”

I said yes, but she looked like she didn’t believe me.

 

*

 

My next visit, my mother’s morphine intake had increased – that’s how a nurse would say it. She slept mostly, woke confused, tried to comfort me. When she asked about my job, I told her I was struggling with names. I hadn’t discovered a universally accepted, inoffensive but casual way to refer to young women. At some unknown point, “girl” turned from innocuous to demeaning. No one said “hey, woman” and if they did, they definitely didn’t use exclamation points. The rest sounded like verbal cringes – Hey ladies! Hey girlfriends! – or slipped into uncomfortably ethnic – Hey chicas! Hey sistas! Hey gurrrl!

She didn’t laugh, and when I looked up, she was asleep again.

All my life, my mother had been a big woman. Not fat, just solid, grand, sturdy. Now she looked like someone had punctured various parts of her and let the air out, her weight loss severe but uneven: a wide belly but her collarbones winged beneath the skin; the muscles on her arms seemingly fallen to the underside; her calves, infinitesimal. My hands wandered to my belly, felt the blood beat of its emptiness. So much could be taken from me, too, and I didn’t have enough to begin with.

 

*

 

Dear Mrs. Bonniville,

We sincerely apologize for any damage our “Dance and Jive and Jiggle!!!” t-shirt could have possibly done. We believe that dancing should be frequent, jiving should be resuscitated, and jiggling is great. We want to encourage anyone and everyone to feel comfortable with their jiggling. 

Best –

 

*

 

I started asking the men to say positive things. This required some clarification: I didn’t want them to say they loved me, and I didn’t want them to talk dirty. I had heard saying positive things to plants helped them grow.

One told me that global warming might have actually prevented the ice age we were overdue for. Another said you could get a plane ticket to the Caribbean for less than $300 on Tuesday. One said that he hadn’t lost his virginity until just now and was so happy I hadn’t asked him to wear a condom because he thought that he would have lost his nerve, unsure how to put it on himself.

Just to keep things balanced in case I didn’t want a baby, I said mean things to my inside after they’d gone. I said, If you’re not pregnant by the time my mom dies, you are getting ripped out of me. I mean it, I said, every rotten pocket for reproduction, every unnecessary organ, you’re gone, you sluts for tumors. I’ll have them take you all out, I said. And I’ll like it. I’ll like feeling nothing.

 

*

 

Man Fran asked me to assist in the next photography shoot. I was the photographer. Not knowing how to be a photographer, I took a picture every time I counted to three, then to five, then to two, then three again.

Man Fran was in charge of dressing the models, encouraging them, suggesting ways to stand in front of the Niagara Falls backdrop. There were three girls, all wearing different colored t-shirts and variations of the signature Buttons Ahoy Sailor Skirt (the nautically white buttons along each side are attached to elastic and allow for slight expansion on those days when your boat needs a wider channel!). They also had plastic neon sunglasses, which they were encouraged to put in their hair, dangle playfully off one finger, pull down their noses to expose a coy wink.

“Beautiful!” Man Fran yelled over outdated pop music. “Beautiful!”

Their mothers, clustered in a nearby corner, hooted and cheered. Two of the girls stopped smiling like they were smiling for a picture and started smiling for real. The third girl started crying.

Man Fran and the girl’s mother went to her side and murmured.

“Can you just blank out my face?” the girl sobbed. Her face glowed red and wet. “I’m going to lose the weight, I swear, just blank it out so no one will ever know.”

Her mother took her into her arms. She mouthed the word Divorce over her daughter’s shoulder and then made a face that suggested a shrug.

I kept photographing – three, five, two, then three again – until man Fran asked me to stop.

 

*

 

Dear Yvette,

No, in no way were the pink tiger stripes on the “Rawrrrin’ and Ready to Go!!!” t-shirt meant to mimic stretch marks. In certain cultures, stretch marks are beautiful, particularly those along the arm, which are apparently most difficult to achieve. Might we suggest you tell your daughter there are worse things than being fat? Might we recommend you thank the heavens that such bounty exists to expand and expand and expand her flesh?

Sincerely yours – 

 

*

 

My period was late. I called into work sick and lay in my mother’s old hospital bed. I raised my legs and felt the blood fall out of my feet.

OK, I said to myself. One shot here. You take or you don’t, but this is it. I listened to rap music about winning. Then I listened to rap about being single and fucking, and I thought, Never mind! I lowered my legs and sat up uncomfortably straight. Then I raised them again. My mother’s body had grown me, then the tumors. Now all the body parts that had sustained my life were gone. I imagined them in biohazard bags and sad. This was your first home, they whispered to me, this was your first home and you abandoned us.

One shot, I reminded my uterus, or you’re going to join my mother.

I said, You know what you want.

But I didn’t.

 

*

 

And before my body had decided, my mother died. The nurses’ hands moved in familiar ways on my shoulder. They asked if they could do anything, but it wasn’t a real offer; they knew they couldn’t. There was a cremation and then an urn. I scheduled a memorial service. I returned to work.

The new catalogue was due. I was supposed to process the photos I had taken, write the copy. I started with the last pictures, the pictures of the two girls who didn’t want their faces blanked out that we took after the third girl left. But there was something wrong about their smiles then. They looked like they had been reminded of who they were and how to feel about that – taught, second by second, frame by frame, their lowered worth, their inescapable bodies.

Enough, I thought, and made a doctor’s appointment.

 

D.J. Thielke’s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in New England Review, Bat City Review, EPOCH, Gulf Coast, Colorado Review, Ninth Letter, Arts & Letters, Mid-American Review, and Crazyhorse, among others. She holds an MFA from Vanderbilt University, where she was editor-in-chief of the Nashville Review, and her fellowships include the James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and the Olive B. O’Connor Fellow in Fiction at Colgate University. She was named the 2018 winner of the Gulf Coast Barthelme Prize for Short Prose, as selected by Roxane Gay. You can learn more about her work at djthielke.com

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