She was aware of her frame. And the proportions attached to it. Just as she knew everyone else was. She simply thought that, at the very least, those related to her might not be so judgmental. So undercuttingly eviscerating. Emma was to get a rude awakening that summer she was cajoled into a road trip with her aunt, Rhonda, and cousin, Briana. Something she was talked into by her own traitorous mother, Amelia, who merely wanted Emma out of the way so as to allow her boyfriend of the moment, Heinrich, to move into the apartment and announce his “sudden” appearance at the end of the season when Emma returned.
Not to say that Emma wasn’t accustomed already to her mother’s antics in this regard. Last month it was Pietro, the month before that Sven, the month before that Raphael, and so on and so forth to form one giant melting pot of a penis. For Amelia did not discriminate when it came to dick flavors, open to all creeds and colors so long as it meant she was getting an orgasm. Or at least a warm body to cuddle up to at night. No matter that the majority of them were opportunists seeking to glom onto an American woman that might give them citizenship, or at least somehow ephemerally “sponsor” them. You know how so many men are able to pretend they’re artists nowadays. Amelia was a sucker for an “artist” in need of a visa, herself a potter. Possibly an over glorified moniker for a woman who often got too trigger-happy with her kiln. A trigger that got pulled all the more when she felt inspired by one of her various lovers du jour.
At first, Emma had no idea where she was finding this Ferris wheel of foreigners. Until she stumbled upon her mother smoking “casually” outside the local hostel one day, as though feigning that she was actually staying there as a means to strike up a conversation with people. Of course, she would get around to saying how she was only “just passing by” and stopped for a cigarette and that [insert name here] was more than welcome to come to her house to continue the conversation. This would invariably lead to drinks “and more,” upon which time Emma would not come out of her room until Amelia retreated into the master bedroom with the latest catch in her web. The system might have gone on like that forever had Emma not materialized too soon one evening and “cock blocked” her mother. Ziegfried was indeed very shocked to briefly open his eyes during a passionate make out session on the couch and catch a glimpse of Emma’s egg-like shape opening the refrigerator to forage for some kind of snack. Since, after all, Amelia could never be bothered to prepare any sort of dinner, despite it being her unspoken motherly duty.
While in the past, Emma might have been able to control her hunger long enough to hold out until around 9:30/10 o’ clock, when her mother would finally “retire” from the living room so that Emma could creep into the kitchen long enough to rustle up at least a thousand calories’ worth of carbohydrate-laden sustenance, tonight proved impossible. She had to get to that fridge, and she had to do it now. Ziegfried be damned. In the end, however, it was Emma who was damned. For this was what spurred her mother to “suggest” she join Aunt Rhonda and cousin Briana for the summer. Emma knew it was no suggestion, however, so much as an enforced dictum that was to be adhered to at penalty of being otherwise permanently kicked out. At least this way, Amelia could have time to acclimate her new beau to the idea of a stepdaughter, of sorts. Though Emma knew he wouldn’t stick around long enough even if they did end up getting married. Like the rest of them, he was only in it for potential U.S. legitimacy.
With a heart as heavy as her body, Emma entered the clunker of a station wagon that Aunt Rhonda had probably been driving for ten years. It was a cool, gray June morning in Northern California, and they were due north, determined to end their road trip in Seattle, after stops along the Pacific Northwest in places like Ashland, Eugene, Corvallis, Portland, Olympia and the Olympic National Park. As far as Emma could tell, there was no real aim to the trip. It wasn’t as though Rhonda and Briana really knew anyone living within these points of the route. They were merely passing the summer months with something as frivolous and fanciful as this road trip. And although Briana should have theoretically been someone that Emma could relate to, what with her own father long ago abandoning her as well, she felt like Cinderella amid the wicked stepsisters and stepmother while with these two, always seeming to be conspiratorially laughing at her as she sat in the backseat, her hands folded, trying her best to be demure and inconspicuous despite her weighty, round girth.
It was when they stopped in Ashland that the cliquish conspiring reached a new crescendo. It was around 11:15 a.m. when they paused at The Breadboard Restaurant on Main Street. Rhonda parked the car with a sigh and looked back at Emma to remark, “Well I know it’s almost been an hour so you probably need to eat.” She looked over at Briana, who was filing her nails, and the two tittered. Emma didn’t know anymore what was worse, sharing a car with them or an apartment with her mother. It was a classic catch-22. Incidentally, the book she had brought along for this interminable road trip.
Inside the diner that would not call itself that, Briana and Rhonda pored over the menu, while Emma already knew full well that she would be ordering the French toast. She told the waitress as much when asked, only for Rhonda to put up her hand and say, “Now wait a minute. Let me convene for a moment here with the group.” The waitress smacked her bubblegum and shrugged, walking away to allow Rhonda the chance to size up Emma (pun possibly intended) and say, “You know, I’ll give you five dollars for every plate of French toast you can eat.”
Emma looked at her cautiously, for both parties knew very well that it would be no grand struggle for Emma to wolf down a minimum of three plates’ worth. In 1984, five dollars was the equivalent of twelve. It could buy Emma an entire new arsenal of records to hole up with in her room while her mother “entertained.” Gamely staring back at Rhonda and Briana, neither of whom seemed to know what they were dealing with when they decided to tango with her via their smug mockery, Emma replied, “Okay.”
After four plates, Rhonda and Briana were gobsmacked. After five, the waitress was. After six, the entire restaurant was looking over as Emma started to turn green, yet still they cheered her on. For Americans in the 80s especially loved nothing more than to root for a grotesque underdog (thank the likes of Gremlins and The Goonies for that). Emma would have to suffice for as much in a town as dead and dull as Ashland. A place where the Oregon Shakespeare Festival was a beacon in the way of “amusement.” But now, here Emma was as some off-season divertissement. Some unorthodox source of merriment. Cruel, sadistic merriment in which small bets were being placed among patrons to see how many plates she would top out at.
After the tenth plate, better known as fifty dollars, Emma’s already distended stomach looked like it was about to birth quintets. Her pallor was an indescribable combination of blue and yellow and purple. As though she’d spent months as a stowaway at sea and contracted cholera. It was long before this instant that Rhonda or, at the bare minimum, Briana, by sheer virtue of being younger and therefore, hypothetically, more empathetic, should have said something to stop her. Should have physically stopped her. Instead they let her carry on, making a spectacle out of herself, a walking embodiment of the freak show fatso. But why not, Emma reasoned, if she was at least, for once, profiting from it? Maybe she should run right out and join the circus, it would spare her years more in the purgatory of living with her mother. Surely she could make even more money than what she was about to as she saw fit to move on to her eleventh plate of French toast, which somehow looked even more mountainous than all the rest despite the fact that the waitress had generously and subtly reduced the portions by positioning them just so, masking that there were fewer in the stack with a bit of creative food styling.
Still, this small token of humanity did nothing to prevent Emma from, without warning, floating up into the sky, rocketing through the roof as propelled by her endless stream of vomit. It was a torrent that not only emptied out all that she had literally consumed but also everything that she had metaphorically repressed, taking her all the way to the far reaches of, naturally, France, where, still covered in her own hurl, she was plopped into a seat at a classic bistro where, to her dismay, there was no French toast to be had on the menu. She ordered the pain perdu, supposedly the same thing. And indeed, it did taste better, more natural somehow than all the bullshit she had swallowed in America. She only wished that when the time came to pay, Aunt Rhonda had made good on her promise to give her that goddamn fifty-five dollars.