All the best things in my life have started with a Dolly Parton song. Including my friendship with Ellen Dryver. The song that sealed the deal was “Dumb Blonde” from her 1967 debut album, Hello, I’m Dolly. During the summer before first grade, my aunt Lucy bonded with Mrs. Dryver over their mutual devotion to Dolly. While they sipped sweet tea in the dining room, Ellen and I would sit on the couch watching cartoons, unsure of what to make of each other. But then one afternoon that song came on over Mrs. Dryver’s stereo. Ellen tapped her foot as I hummed along, and before Dolly had even hit the chorus, we were spinning in circles and singing at the top of our lungs. Thankfully, our love for each other and Dolly ended up running deeper than one song.
El is everything I am not. Tall, blond, and with this impossible goofy yet sexy paradox going on that only seems to exist in romantic comedies.
I wait for Ellen in front of her boyfriend’s Jeep as the sun pushes my feet further into the hot blacktop of the school parking lot. Trying not to cringe, I watch as she skips through the exit, weaving in and out of after-school traffic. El is everything I am not. Tall, blond, and with this impossible goofy yet sexy paradox going on that only seems to exist in romantic comedies. She’s always been at home in her own skin.
I can’t see Tim, her boyfriend, but I have no doubt that he’s a few steps behind her with his nose in his cell phone as he catches up on all the games he’s missed during school. The first thing I ever noticed about Tim was that he was at least three inches shorter than El, but she never gave a sh*t. When I mentioned their vertical differential, she smiled, the blush in her cheeks spreading to her neck, and said, “It’s kinda cute, isn’t it?”
El skids to a stop in front of me, panting. “You’re working tonight, right?”
I clear my throat. “Yeah.”
“It’s never too late to find a summer job working at the mall, Will.” She leans against the Jeep, and nudges me with her shoulder. “With me.”
I shake my head. “I like it at Harpy’s.”
A huge truck on lifts speeds down the lane in front of us toward the exit.
“Tim!” yells Ellen.
He stops in his tracks and waves at us as the truck brushes right past him, only inches from flattening him into roadkill.
“I swear to God!” says El, only loud enough for me to hear.
I think they were made for each other.
“Thanks for the heads-up,” he calls.
We could be in the midst of an alien invasion and Tim would be like, “Cool.”
After he’s made it across the parking lot, he drops his phone into his back pocket and kisses her. It’s not some gross open-mouth kiss, but more like a hello-I-missed-you-you’re-as-pretty-as-you-were-on-our-first-date kiss.
A slow sigh slips from me. If I could avert my eyes from all the kissing people ever, I’m positive that my life would be at least 2 percent more fulfilling.
It’s not that I’m jealous of Ellen and Tim or that Tim steals Ellen away from me or even that I want Tim for myself. But I want what they have. I want a person to kiss hello.
The Miss Teen Blue Bonnet Pageant started back in the 1930s and has only gotten bigger and more ridiculous with every passing year.
I squint past them to the track surrounding the football field. “What are all those girls doing out there?” Trotting around the track are a handful of girls in pink shorts and matching tank tops.
“Pageant boot camp,” says Ellen. “It lasts all summer. One of the girls from work is doing it.”
I don’t even try not to roll my eyes. Clover City isn’t known for much. Every few years our football team is decent enough for play-offs and every once in a while someone even makes it out of here and does the kind of thing worth recognizing. But the one thing that puts our little town on the map is that we’re home of the oldest beauty pageant in Texas. The Miss Teen Blue Bonnet Pageant started back in the 1930s and has only gotten bigger and more ridiculous with every passing year. I should know since my mom has led the planning committee for the last fifteen years.
Ellen slides Tim’s keys from the front pocket of his shorts before pulling me in for a side hug. “Have a good day at work. Don’t let the grease splash you or whatever.”
She goes to unlock the driver’s-side door and calls over to Tim on the other side, “Tim, tell Will to have a good day.”
He pops his head up for a brief moment and I see that smile Ellen loves so much. “Will.” Tim may have his face in his phone most the time, but when he does actually talk — well, it’s the kind of thing that makes a girl like El stick around. “I hope you have a good day.” He bows at the waist.
El rolls her eyes, settles in behind the wheel, and pops a fresh piece of gum in her mouth.
I wave good-bye and am almost halfway to my car when the two speed past me as Ellen yells good-bye once more over Dolly Parton’s “Why’d You Come in Here Lookin’ Like That” blasting through the speakers.
As I’m digging through my bag, looking for my keys, I notice Millie Michalchuk waddling down the sidewalk and through the parking lot.
I see it before it even happens. Leaning against her parents’ minivan is Patrick Thomas, who is maybe the biggest douche of all time. He has this super ability to give someone a nickname and make it stick. Sometimes they’re cool nicknames, but more often they’re things like Haaaaaaaanah, pronounced like a neighing horse because the girl’s mouth looks like it’s full of . . . well, horse teeth. Clever, I know.
Millie is that girl, the one I am ashamed to admit that I’ve spent my whole life looking at and thinking, Things could be worse. I’m fat, but Millie’s the type of fat that requires elastic waist pants because they don’t make pants with buttons and zippers in her size. Her eyes are too close together and her nose pinches up at the end. She wears shirts with puppies and kittens and not in an ironic way.
Patrick blocks the driver’s-side door, him and his rowdy group of friends already oinking like pigs. Millie started driving a few weeks ago, and the way she zips around in that minivan, you’d think it was a Camaro.
She’s about to turn the corner and find all these jerks piled up around her van, when I yell, “Millie! Over here!” Pulling down on the straps of her backpack, she changes her course of direction and heads straight for me with her smile pushing her rosy cheeks so high they almost touch the tops of her eyelids. “Hiya, Will!”
I watch Patrick Thomas from over her shoulder as he pushes his finger to his nose to make it look like a pig’s snout.
I smile. “Hey.” I hadn’t actually thought about what I might say to her once she was here, standing in front of me.
“Congratulations on getting your license,” I say.
“Oh, thanks.” She smiles again. “That’s really sweet of you.”
I watch Patrick Thomas from over her shoulder as he pushes his finger to his nose to make it look like a pig’s snout.
I listen as Millie tells me all about changing her mom’s radio presets and pumping gas for the first time. Patrick zeroes in on me. He’s the kind of guy you hope never notices you, but there’s really no use in me trying to be invisible to him. There’s no hiding an elephant.
Millie talks for a few minutes before Patrick and his friends give up and walk off. She waves her hands around, motioning at the van behind her. “I mean, they don’t teach you how to pump gas in driver’s ed and they really—”
“Hey,” I tell her. “I’m so sorry, but I’m going to be late for work.”
“But congratulations again.”
I watch as she walks to her car. She adjusts all of her mirrors before reversing out of her parking space in the middle of the near-empty lot.
I park behind Harpy’s Burgers & Dogs, cut across the drive-thru, and ring the freight doorbell. When no one answers, I ring again. The Texas sun pounds down on the crown of my head.
I wait as a creepy-looking man wearing a fishing hat and a dirty undershirt rolls through the drive-thru and recites his painfully specific order down to the exact number of pickles he’d like on his burger. The voice on the speaker gives him his total. The man eyes me, tilting down his orange-tinted sunglasses, and says, “Hey there, sweetcheeks.”
I whirl around, holding my dress tight around my thighs and punch the doorbell four times. My stomach is squirming with discomfort.
I don’t have to wear a dress to work. There’s a pants option, too. But the elastic waist on the polyester pants wasn’t quite elastic enough to fit over my hips. I say the pants are to blame. I don’t like to think of my hips as a nuisance, but more of an asset. I mean, if this were, like, 1642, my wide birthing hips would be worth many cows or something.
The door cracks open and all I hear is Bo’s voice. “I heard you the first three times.”
The Truth: I’ve had this hideous crush on Bo since the first time we met.
My bones tingle. I don’t see him until he opens the door a little wider to let me in. Natural light grazes his face. New stubble peppers his chin and cheeks. A sign of freedom. Bo’s school—his fancy Catholic school with its strict dress code—let out earlier this week.
The car behind me at the drive-thru backfires, and I rush inside. My eyes take a second to adjust to the dim light. “Sorry I’m late, Bo,” I say. Bo. The syllable bounces around in my chest and I like it. I like the finality of a name so short. It’s the type of name that says, Yes, I’m sure.
A heat burns inside of me as it rises all the way up through my cheeks. I run my fingers along the line of my jaw as my feet sink into the concrete like quicksand.
The Truth: I’ve had this hideous crush on Bo since the first time we met. His unstyled brown hair swirls into a perfect mess at the top of his head. And he looks ridiculous in his red and white uniform. Like a bear in a tutu. Polyester sleeves strain over his arms, and I think maybe his biceps and my hips have a lot in common. Except the ability to bench-press. A thin silver chain peeks out from the collar of his undershirt and his lips are red with artificial dye, thanks to his endless supply of red suckers.
He stretches an arm out toward me, like he might hug me. I drag in a deep breath.
And then exhale as he stretches past me to flip the lock on the delivery door. “Ron’s out sick, so it’s just me, you, Marcus, and Lydia. I guess she got stuck working a double today, so ya know, heads up.”
“Thanks. School’s out for you, I guess?”
“Yep. No more classes,” he says.
“I like that you say classes and not school. It’s like you’re in college and only go to class a couple times a day in between sleeping on couches or”—I catch myself—“I’m gonna go put my stuff up.”
He presses his lips together, holding them in an almost smile. “Sure.”
I split off into the break room and stuff my purse in my locker.
It’s not like I’ve ever been extra eloquent or anything, but what comes out of my mouth in front of Bo Larson doesn’t even qualify as verbal diarrhea. It’s more like the verbal runs, which is gross.
The first time we met, when he was still a new hire, I held my hand out and introduced myself. “Willowdean,” I said. “Cashier, Dolly Parton enthusiast, and resident fat girl.” I waited for his response, but he said nothing. “I mean, I am other things, too. But—”
“Bo.” His voice was dry, but his lips curled into a smile. “My name’s Bo.” He took my hand and a flash of memories I’d never made jolted through my head. Us holding hands in a movie. Or walking down the street. Or in a car.
Then he let go.
That night when I replayed our introductions over and over in my head, I realized that he didn’t flinch when I called myself fat.
And I liked that.
The word fat makes people uncomfortable. But when you see me, the first thing you notice is my body. And my body is fat. It’s like how I notice some girls have big boobs or shiny hair or knobby knees. Those things are okay to say. But the word fat, the one that best describes me, makes lips frown and cheeks lose their color.
But that’s me. I’m fat. It’s not a cuss word. It’s not an insult. At least it’s not when I say it. So I always figure why not get it out of the way?