Pregnant, Gland Problem, or Just Fat?
If you’re a petite young woman, there is a certain truth that we all must accept. At some point, probably more than once, an older woman will come up to you and congratulate you on your pregnancy. The kicker is you’re definitely not pregnant and, thanks to the generosity of this exchange, you will become even more self-conscious about your body’s shape. You’ll spend your days playing the seesaw of dieting where one day you’ll devour every delicious thing you can put into your mouth and the next you’ll spend your days eating (or not) and thinking that maybe this time it will stick. Whatever day of the diet scale you’re currently on, we all know that your abdomen will certainly puff out like a bullfrog’s throat as it expands further into the space around you. Food babies are the ultimate catch-22 to the “shorties” of the world. The war on bloating is a never-ending battle where we must occasionally wave the white flag of defeat and surrender to our cravings.
I was on the “screw it, I’m eating what I want,” side of the scale that day. I had just strolled back in through the Cumming’s Library back entrance, with a swipe of my badge and flick of my Chick-fil-A bag into the garbage can. Right as the clock struck three, I was walking around the fiction section with my go-back cart full of James Patterson’s and Debbie Macomber’s. Five out of six of our early 2000’s desktops were empty, with slips of paper cut in what looked like an imposter rectangle scattered throughout. If you were lucky, you might find a golf pencil, but odds are its lead would be dull and barely able to produce a call number. One solitary computer was occupied by an older looking woman. She had thin black hair, complete with a million grey hairs that sprouted from her scalp like a blossoming Chia Pet. Her face, which was in scowl and full of obvious stress, turned toward the sound of the cart’s wonky wheel screeching as I chugged along.
“Miss? Miss, can you help?” she said.
Her eyes turned desperate, like a dog staring into your soul as you’re munching down on a hotdog. I always share, no matter how hungry I am.
I abandoned my cart and walked toward her, confident that no matter what question she asked, it would surely involve some simple keyboard command, or a right click of the mouse. Much to my surprise, on the monitor was an electronic application for a famous retail store. She pointed at the screen, and said, “I don’t know how to make this work. It won’t type.” I hovered over her as I took charge of the mouse and began clicking away. Within ten seconds, the page was clickable once more.
“Thank you, honey!” she said.
I wish this had been the cut in the film of this story, as it would have been placed in the “usual interactions with senior patrons” of my mental file cabinet. But, as I rose back up from my slanted position over the keyboard, my ballooned tummy now came within full sight of her prying eyes. Have you ever seen a kid being told not to touch anything in a grocery store and within thirty seconds placed one finger on the paper towel pyramid, causing it to crash into a complete pile up all over aisle eight? Well just like that curious kid, this lady just couldn’t resist temptation.
Suddenly, without permission or warning, she placed her right hand on my stomach and began to rub in a circular motion. If it hadn’t been for the fact that I hadn’t had sex for the last three years, I might have thought that I was in fact carrying the messiah thanks to her gentle buffing of my “precious” belly. I know most people would claim that they would have slapped her hand away instantly. Or, maybe they would have exploded on her with a slur of curses. But when you’ve had previous women do the same exact gesture to your bloated-out tummy, nothing is a surprise anymore.
“How far along are you?” she said.
My face, which always lacked a poker stance, probably formed into the shape of utter contempt. This gave the lady about three seconds to analyze, retreat her hand, and look to me for explanation. Not being one to simply take it without some fight, I threw down my one line of defense for this exact situation. “Oh no,” I said with an awkward laugh, “not pregnant. I’m just fat.”
After this ultimate mic drop of a comeback, I smiled as wide as the Joker in complete confidence that I got her in a shame corner. This line had always worked, from the time where a woman told me I shouldn’t climb a ladder to retrieve a pair of shoes from the top shelf due to my “condition.” It also allowed me to claim victory when a woman reached into the window of the ticket booth I worked in and proceeded to bless me with a prayer for my imminent bundle of joy. Needless to say, after dropping that truth bomb, the rude person tends to convert to dead silence while slowly backing away before taking off like a shot. In a complete twist that would surprise even the most hardcore mystery reader, she had her own response.
“Gland problem?” she said.
And with that question, my cheeks flushed hot and I felt my tongue swell inside my now not-so-smart mouth. I shook my head left and right, in a state of perplexity and bewilderment. My brain’s circuitry went haywire and it’s possible that sparks flew out of my ears. Her once genuine smile now turned into pursed lips, with no hint of emotion whatsoever. As I stood there, uncertain of a witty comeback or how to even process this latest question, she rose from her chair and picked up her purse as she walked out of sight. There was no apology and no acknowledgement of the hurt she may have caused me with those seemingly harmless questions. There never is, in case you’re wondering.
As I looked down at my roundness, I felt a brick wall of humiliation slam into me like a rogue wave devouring a stingy boat. Numerous feelings of self-hatred and irrational beliefs about my body arose from their recent graves, which took me two years in therapy to dig, one shovel of dirt at a time. I looked around for witnesses to my public whipping, expecting laughter or fake smiles that reeked of snobbery. Warm tears began to swell as I felt my contacts float out of their restricted edges, temporarily leaving me blind. Within a moment, I would lock myself in the staff bathroom and be standing in front of a soap smudged mirror. I stared, poked, and caressed my soft body. I tried to suck in my protruding gut, but it was no use. The amount of sodium in my body only granted me abdominal bloating at that moment.
I had a choice to make which would determine how to move forward with this permanent struggle. I had to choose, right then and there, if my body was a problem. A problem in need of immediate solving through permanent dieting for the rest of my miserable life. It meant no more playing the on/off game with food. It meant always choosing my appearance to others over my happiness of enjoying salty foods. I thought back to all the times previously where after an unwelcomed dance of condescending words, I felt superior to those rude women. But now, someone had beaten me at my best defense. It was time to throw in my towel within the bloody ring. I would no longer fight them or myself. I placed my hand on my belly and rubbed it for what felt like hours. Maybe if I rubbed it long enough, a genie would appear and grant me three wishes. Or I would feel the strength of my body, as it holds within its enclosures all my vital organs.
I regained my composure, wiped away the tears which had pooled under my eyelids, and marched back out onto the library floor. No one, especially an old woman who can’t figure out how to operate a basic computer, would be allowed to determine what percentage of roundness my stomach could be. And maybe next time, when it happens again, I’ll stand there as I place a hand on my belly and say nothing at all before turning on my heel and walking off into the sunset. I’ll be at peace since I chose not to throw verbal punches or “gotchas.” The battle may have been placed in front of me thanks to these women, but I can always choose to take my bloated belly, put on my hater shades, and walk away coolly from that explosion of ignorance like something out of an action movie.
Bethany Bruno was born and raised in South Florida. She attended Flagler College, where she earned a B.A. in English. She later earned her M.A. in English from the University of North Florida. Her work has been previously published in Lunch Ticket Magazine, Dash Literary Journal, Adelaide Literary Magazine, Still Point Arts Quarterly, October Hill Magazine, Litro Magazine, etc. She’s working on her first novel. Read more of her work at bethanybruno.journoportfolio.com.