In her dream she stands halfway across a concrete dam, a placid lake at her back and a lazy river stretching out below her. Seagulls caw overhead, trading tales of salt and freedom. She imagines the concrete melting beneath her feet, letting the water of the reservoir gently wash her to the sea, where she will float weightless under a bright blue sky. Until then she will wait here. Nothing can make her go back.
In waking life she stands before a floor-length mirror in her new pink-and-red-flowered bathing suit while her father roars above his gin and tonic. No one wants a fat girl, he shouts as he slaps her stomach. Fat girls end up alone. She is seven.
In her dream she sits halfway across a dam, dangling her legs above the sluggish river below. Seagulls above her make the only sound, sharp as salt in an open wound. She imagines stretching out her arms and pushing off with both feet, to soar one weightless second before gravity plunges her into the slowly southbound water. She will float from there all the way to the sea, and she will never go back.
In waking life she sits nailed to her dorm-room floor while a boy from class angrily packs up his books. He's just said these killing words: Why are you fighting this? It's not like anyone else is jonesing to get into your pants. I thought you'd be grateful.
In her dream she lies halfway across a dam, gripping the edge to stop the sky's reeling. A lone seagull mews overhead, freedom a faint echo in its salted refrain. She imagines the tired concrete breaking beneath her, burying her under a thousand tons of angry water before washing her broken body to the sea. Still, it's better than going back.
In waking life she is barely awake, living from one Percocet refill to the next.
Years go by, dreamless, and where she thinks joy should be she feels hollow. She blames it on the Percocet, but even after she gets clean the hollow's still there.
She stays clean anyway, so joy will have a way to find her, if it can. If it still wants to.
She moves to the coast and starts spending her mornings by the sea, the salt of the gulf rich in her mouth, the gulls wheeling and diving above her. She walks along the surf, facing backward so she can watch the water rush into her footprints, and discovers, one day, that joy has answered her letters.
At a local vintage shop she tries on a little black dress in size 24. Outside she hears a mother berating her daughter. Suck in your stomach. No one wants a fat girl. For a moment she's hanging off the edge of a dam hoary with age above a dusty riverbed. The gulls are gone and the only sound is her own panting. It would be so easy to stay here until her fingers go numb and she falls.
But she comes back.
She throws open the door of the changing room and marches ten steps to the girl slouched before the mirror. "You look beautiful," she says. Then she slaps the mother, hard. "Don't. You. Ever. Not ever again."
She wears the little black dress out of the shop, the tag still hanging down her back. She turns as she leaves, searching for the girl, and when their eyes meet she winks.
In her dream she is seven and the dam is breaking beneath her and she is falling, tumbled by raging water, down and down and down and down and down and
In her dream strong hands pull her from the sea. There is something familiar about the voice of the woman who rubs her dry and wraps her in a blanket and hands her a thermos of hot chocolate before sitting in the sand ten steps away. Familiar, and friendly, and safe.
She sips her chocolate and stares at the stranger who saved her. The woman is old and fat and her eyes wrinkle when she smiles. She is wearing the same thing the girl is wearing: a pink-and-red bathing suit covered in flowers. The girl's eyes widen, and the woman laughs and holds out her arms. The girl leaps into them and buries herself in the woman's soft warmth.
"You were the hardest one to find," the woman whispers as she strokes the girl's hair. "But I never stopped trying. Welcome home."
In waking life she runs into the water like a child, diving under the waves again and again. When, hours later, she tires, she lies on the sand in the light of the sun, her greying hair wet and salty on her joyous face, and listens to seagulls chatter in a boundless sky.