from A Little Give
“We watched this movie today,” Stevie says. “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, I think. Really old, right from way back when Johnny Depp was still hot. Leonardo DiCaprio was in it. And Leo wasn’t hot-hot, since he played, like, a special person, but—”
“Boy,” Gigi says, “just stop while you’re ahead.”
And he does, bless him. Rolls his eyes and sighs like she’s being embarrassing, like her words are the intolerable part of her. Like he isn’t perched on the edge of her bariatric bed, like his knobby knees aren’t partly cushioned by the towel she’s using to dry out the irritation that stings, sticky and inflamed, under her belly. She asks, “You watched that in school? What class?”
Stevie turns his head to the hole in his jeans, her bedside oxygen tank, the front door next to the refrigerator that’s so short it barely has a freezer. Looking anywhere but at her as if she isn’t the centerpiece of their tiny efficiency, as if he has the choice to do anything but fold. He shrugs, says, “Health. But I barely watched it, Ma. Honestly,” and Gigi feels a small pain in her chest, sharp and pointed. Stevie doesn’t care how big she is, but that can’t be said for the rest of the world: his school sends her letters about prevention as if he’s liable to balloon at any minute, as if making him watch Johnny Depp burn his dead fat momma will ever be some sort of help.
Gigi smiles because what else can she do. Says, “Leo was beautiful.”
Stevie grins and falls against her, presses his forehead to the soft flesh blanketing her clavicle. She moves her oxygen line and cradles him, left arm under his torso, hand on the sharp dip of his waist. She can tell by the skinniness of him that he’ll never be like her, will do so much more. He’ll be rich in money and health and adoration, will be an artist or a doctor or whatever he feels like in the moment, and because Stevie’s such a good boy, she knows, he’ll never shake off his roots. She rubs his back, says, “You wanna put on Riverdale? I was gonna watch it while you were at school, but then I was afraid you’d get jealous.”
“You’re a goddamn saint,” he says, eyes rolling as he sits up. He thinks he’s being witty—droll, he once proclaimed—like he isn’t just a fifteen-year-old with a mouth too smart for his own good, but the reprimand on the tip of Gigi’s tongue seizes and dies when he says, “One episode, then I’ll start supper.” He smiles, lips tight because his peach-colored teeth have recently become a sore spot, and then gently, so incredibly considerate, he pushes a curl of wayward tubing behind her ear. “I gotta go to the library later,” he says, “but first I’m gonna give Mr. Latham the rent check. There anything I should do before I go? Or while I’m out?”
Gigi shakes her head. Knows enough to hold him tight until he wiggles away.
* * *
Gigi spends most of her days in bed, torso angled by a deep stack of pancaked pillows. Before Stevie leaves for school, he brings her breakfast and makes sure her wicker basket is stocked—remote, phone, wipes, soda cans, and snacks. He usually leaves behind a creased notebook page, a doodle of some vaguely anime-ish heartthrob that gives her a thumbs-up with a malformed fist, and she returns to it constantly, runs her fingers over the thick grey lines to feel the impressions in the paper, wears the smudge of graphite as a reminder that she only has to be alone for the length of a school day.
She tries to watch the news but then quickly flips to a talk show. Stares out the apartment’s sole window through the gauzy curtains Stevie ties back every morning, looks out at the tops of overgrown bushes and the laundromat across the street. She listens as the woman at the head of the table outlines the poison that’s killing America—the jobless, those assisted by the government, diseased of their own making. The pink sheets under Gigi have turned fuchsia with sweat. The undersides of her bare legs itch. Gigi breathes through the discomfort and moves on, queues up her usual haunts. Watches Extreme Weight Loss and My 600-lb Life, cries just a little when a six-hundred-and-eighty-four-pound woman is scolded for eating strawberries. When the doctor asks if the woman is really committed to saving her own life, Gigi doesn’t look at her bedside table, at the basket Stevie carefully assembled that morning, splaying Kit Kats against the rim as he said, “A pop of color is just what we need.”
There’s twenty minutes left in the show and the woman is still as big as Gigi. Their bulks are different—the pretty woman on TV has hips wider than a standard doorframe, whereas Gigi’s fat stretches down, belly pulled to her knees like a thick batch of uncolored taffy—but they both have wrists that can be tugged like the back of a cat’s neck, legs that curve with painful lymphedema. They both have the same sort of childhood trauma, the same shade of perverted relative. Gigi holds the remote tight and hopes that this woman will become smaller, better, happier, though the episode is a rerun she’s already seen.
* * *
Stevie walks through the door an hour late, and he smiles before offering an excuse. Gigi feels especially tender, sinuses still rough because the last two women on TV fell into a familiar pattern of lose then gain-gain-gain and ended worse than they began. It’s all hopeless, she sometimes thinks, but as Stevie walks to her bed, as he leans into her side, she’s already feeling lighter. She forgets his lateness as he unfurls her hand and says, “Sorry I was late, Ma.” He puts a piece of fudge—soft, fresh—in the dip of her palm, and she likes the thought that he went out of his way to bring her a gift. The chocolate rests in the center of a white cupcake liner; it looks like a flower, in a way, like the grooves in the tissue paper are the overlap of petals.
“I was at the library,” he says. “Sorry I didn’t text, but my group was being annoying.”
“Yeah, for a project. It’s awful ‘cause I’m the smartest.”
“For what class?” Gigi says. “I actually am the smartest, so maybe I can help.”
“For history, which you suck at,” he says. Squeezes her wrist and pivots so he can dive onto his bed, kicks off his shoes, and then thumps back against shiny wood paneling. He smiles up at the ceiling with a grin so stupidly boyish that Gigi feels the possibility of suspicion well in her gut. “A project on Aristotle,” he says. “Or Napoleon. I don’t know. Haven’t decided yet.”
Gigi puts the fudge on her bedside table to admire it a little longer, to appreciate the gift for the gesture, to decide later whether Stevie bought the fudge or sourced it from someone’s kitchen. She smiles, more touched than concerned, happy that he’s here, that she’s not alone, and asks, “You watch any movies in school today? Or they just making you kids teach other?”
“I learn a lot, okay,” Stevie says. He sorts through his book bag and pulls out a stack of messy loose-leaf. It’s past homework time—they usually do it right after school, get it out of the way so they can watch TV carefree—but he’s already moving a pencil in smooth arcs, too focused to be doing anything productive. He says, “I mean, I learn a lot more from the internet, right, but that’s the state of education today. I manage. I keep on keepin’ on.”
Gigi scoffs, thinks, this boy. Her boy. Wonders how she was so lucky to get him, to keep him. He’s a precious thing, but she never knows how to tell him that. She says, “When you speak, do you ever consider if you’re even actually sayin’ anything?” Stevie just about turns his head horizontal to glare at her. It doesn’t help that he’s swimming in shades of dull, lost in baggy gray jeans and a stretched brown T-shirt, the Salvation Army’s finest. His hair is worse, tousled like the black fur on the arched spine of a cat. Like someone ran their hand along the curve of his scalp and tugged. Stevie sighs, says, “No appreciation, honestly,” and he’s joking, Gigi knows, but his comment sits heavy on her conscience.
She thinks of the women on the TV, remembers their failures. It’s Thursday, which means Stevie will help Gigi bathe, will help her walk and help her undress and help to make sure she doesn’t slip as she sits on the metal chair he’ll have already set in the tub. She appreciates him—now, always, will appreciate him most when he turns from her in the bathroom, lets her pretend privacy is possible in their situation. She says, “I love you,” and Stevie looks at her like he’s trying to find a new sore on her body, like there’s a wound he needs to dress. It’s the look that bothers her the most, more than any snarky teenager tick, because it reverses their roles, makes him the adult and her the child. And he recognizes that, goddamn him, because so sincerely, so sweetly, he says, “You know I love you, too, right?”
Gigi smiles. It’s hollow, but their apartment is the width of a long couch and it’s full to bursting with their beds, the TV, the short fridge and scuffed stove. There’s no room to let awkwardness settle, especially when she knows she’ll have time alone with her poisoned head, knows that there’ll always be tomorrow—school, eight hours of painful boredom, her and her thoughts and her pain, all lit up because she’s becoming worse at distraction the older she gets. She wiggles her toes for the movement, says, “You gonna get started on your homework? Or you just gonna doodle? I don’t think lawyers need to know how to draw.”
Stevie drops the pencil only to pick it back up. He grabs his textbook like it’s unduly burdening him, says, “You know I’m not gonna be a lawyer, Ma. I’m gonna be an astronaut. I’m just gonna be so high, always,” and then, like the good boy he is, sits still just long enough for Gigi to throw a miniature Twix at his head. He laughs, and Gigi grabs a second candy to unwrap. She thinks of the chocolate Stevie always lays out for her, the fudge next to her head, the strawberries on TV.
* * *
The next day, Stevie’s late again. She knows he’s responsible, knows he deserves a little give for all that she takes, but he walks into their apartment with a silly grin, hand at his throat. She’s been waiting for him, has been imagining another piece of fudge with excitement and apprehension. When he offers, “I had to go to the library,” Gigi watches as his fingers play with his collar, as he rubs at the cotton like he’s feeling for something below. She’s been single for a long, long time, but she recognizes the type of stupid he looks.
“You wanna try again, Stevie?”
He puts his book bag on his bed, and she half expects him to open it, to pull out a borrowed book like he was telling the truth, but he stops. Shrugs, walks to the fridge, opens it, closes it, looks at her, at the floor, at the TV. Gigi presses the mute button on the remote, and the pause gives him a flash of courage: “I have a boyfriend. Wait. Wait. No, no, never mind.”
“What d’you mean?” Gigi asks. “Who? When?”
“It’s not your business,” Stevie says. It’s rude, unexpected, and he looks so confused, smile gone but hand still stuck to his neck. He’s not joking, not being flippant for the sake of it, isn’t being droll; he’s on the edge of mean. His sarcasm has never had bite, and Gigi unmutes the TV because the silence is devouring every bit of air in their teeny apartment, pulling the hard-earned oxygen right out of her lungs. The sheets scratch her thighs, and she shifts; the slight rocking of her hips makes her bed groan like it hadn’t been specifically made for someone her size. A commercial plays, and the delicate zoom of a luxury car is so frustrating, so incredibly removed from her world, that Gigi snaps, says, “Then why’d you say anything in the first place?” Feels the thrum of discomfort all over her skin, in her heartbeat and breath. She looks out the window: in front of the laundromat, a man swings a black garbage bag at a girl, and the girl catches herself on a side mirror.
“Ma,” Stevie says. He holds his hand to his mouth, thumb worrying at his bottom lip, and suddenly, desperately, Gigi wants to see his yellowed teeth. It’s a recent shame from her otherwise shameless child, and she doesn’t care for it, doesn’t like how he can choose—that he is choosing—to hide something so unimportant from her. “I want to tell somebody,” he says, “and you’re my best friend, but you’re also my mom. It’s weird, right?”
“No,” she denies. She watches him pick at his ribcage and feels like a stereotype, like one of those slobs who spits venom at their caretaker because they’re the only available target, and that’s not right, not acceptable, not when her boy can so easily declare what she means to him. You’re my best friend, she replays, trying to erase the distress from his tone. “No, baby. You can tell me. Of course you can tell me—what’d you think I’d do?”
“I don’t know.” Stevie shrugs. He moves to his bed, unzips his bookbag, pulls out his textbooks and the usual pile of loose-leaf. Gives her just a hint of dull teeth as he offers, “His name’s Chris.”
“Chris,” Gigi says. “Well, invite him over.”
And in the same tone she hears when she tries to pull the compression wraps off her legs, the same sort of bark he gives when she’s being difficult, when she won’t let him powder the folds of her skin because baring herself in such a way will be the worse pain, Stevie says, “I don’t think so.” He plays with a pencil, avoids her eyes until he just turns his back to her. The apartment has neatly been drawn in half, and all she has is the width of her bed, unfairly small. She looks at the TV, flips the channel down-down and then up-up-up, wondering if it’s fair or right—fair or right for which of them, she can’t figure—that this fifteen-year-old boy gets to so easily decide both their limits.
* * *
Want to read Liz Howey’s “A Little Give” in full? Order Indiana Review 41.1.
Liz Howey received her MFA from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she worked on Ninth Letter as Assistant Managing Editor. She has fiction published online with the American Literary Review. You can find her on Twitter @elizhowey.