Rebecca blinked into the dark, and wondered if it had really been her mother or an impostor trying to lure her in to kidnap her.
Her mother let in a crack of hallway light, and leaned forward to let her feel her long black curls. Rebecca’s fingers tangled through the coarse spirals, and she yanked out some dry strands. Her mother tilted her head and smiled. She said she was just down the hall if Rebecca needed to feel her hair again. Only ten steps away. Rebecca wiggled her fingers through her mother’s dark hair one more time, then onto her round shoulder, and down her arm to the cold silver bangles she never took off.
Before her mother left, she turned towards Rebecca and leaned against the doorframe. Her thigh, wrapped in the purple silk of her housecoat, softened against the strip of wood.
She tightened the silk belt around her waist. The smooth fabric never stayed knotted and so she pulled and pulled until her belly was cut in two—half squished up and half squeezed down.
“ How’d I look as a blonde?”
* * *
Butterick, McCalls, New Look, Simplicity, Kwick, Vogue: none of these patterns satisfy her. She threw away those Easy To Make patterns that she had purchased on impulse—she was especially disappointed by the Shift Dress with “easy to construct shapes.” She thought it only accentuated her hips and thighs. She would likely have to pull it apart and change the position of all the seams if she was ever going to wear it out. Maybe the 3 Hour Jacket would work, but then she really does not have anywhere to wear it. Besides, her shoulders are broad, at thirty-eight centimeters; she did not want to look even less feminine.
The back of the Shift Dress envelope outlined the three most common female shapes: apple, pear, and banana. The females had no faces or fingers, and despite the various shaped bodies, each had an identical and impossibly thick yellow bob. Below each figure were tips for dressing the forms. Stitching two semicircle flap-pockets in the front would give some bulk to the hipless, thighless apple. A thin bright belt would draw the gaze to the waist of the wide-hipped pear. And the pointed toe Winkle Picker stilettos would accentuate the long line of the banana. She would not object to being a banana. If she were as tall as her sister, the banana would be perfect.
When they were children, Rebecca and her sister brushed away the glass bits that had fallen off the old stucco siding and splayed out on the driveway. With the thick colored chalk, they traced each other’s outlines, over and over, making star shapes from the curb to the back garage. Rebecca thought hers looked like bloated starfish. Her sister’s looked reaching.
They had the same measurements, Rebecca had glanced at what her sister wrote down for the seamstress who made their bridesmaids’ gowns—34-24-29—but there was a longer distance between her sister’s measuring points. Her sister was stretched thinner and could easily zip up that damned Vogue pencil skirt.
Rebecca hung the skirt from the thread rack as if she was going to steam it and wear it out, but really, she could not bear to have it dangle in her closet. In the sewing room, it was just another garment that she could take the seam ripper to and modify. New panels and pleats. In her bedroom closet, the skirt was hers to wear. Even in black, she never thought it disguised her stomach. She had her youngest daughter yank the zipper up, tooth by tooth. The zipper stretched up her belly creating a two-centimeter roll right over the silver button at the top, and just below her belly was a firm crease.
* * *
Rebecca’s mother closed her bedroom door when she was doing it because she said it was private how a woman shaped her body. Rebecca would lay flat on her belly in the dark hallway and wait for the lamp to flash under the door. Her mother put on “Get Thin to Music” from Wallace records when she did it. When Rebecca heard the needle click and the crackle she knew it was about to begin.
Rebecca would press her face into the carpet and breathe the wooly-grit in rhythm with her mother’s shaping. Rebecca listened to her mother’s heavy steps and felt the music vibrate across the floor. She breathed in rhythm with the beats, and had perfected the breathing-rhythm of the foxtrot. With each exhalation she pushed her belly into the floor, and with each inhalation she felt her ribs firm against the concrete beneath the worn carpet. She wanted to try it.
One morning when her mother was outdoors hosing the grass clippings down the gutter, she went into her bedroom. The wooden sleigh bed took up most of the room. The oversized armoire, stained the same molasses brown, was snug up against the right corner of the bed. She scanned the room and spotted the Wallace record next to a basket of perfumes and lotions.
To warm up, Rebecca locked her fingers together and stretched her arms up over her head. She bent at the waist, first to the right, and then to the left, mimicing the three images on the record cover like she imagined her mother had done so many times. Then she squatted down, and up again. With each upward motion glanced at herself in her mother’s long mirror. She slid the record out of the cardboard case and into her sweaty palm.
“And just what do you think you are doing?” her mother asked with one hand on her hip and two floppy gardening gloves in the other.
“Getting Thin to Music,” replied Rebecca.
* * *
Step 2: Rebecca decided she would have to make her own pattern. And certainly, once she was finished the whole thing, she knew she would require a girdle. Even though girdles were in fashion, her sister thought it was foolish and false to wear one.
Once, over tea, while Rebecca lifted the biscuit crumbs off the table with the pads of her fingers, her sister had the nerve to say that if she restricted herself a little, remembered “a minute on the lips meant a lifetime on the hips,” Rebecca would not have to shape her body with a girdle.
Rebecca told her sister about the distance between her measuring points and her own, and explained, once again, that they were the same weight, but that Rebecca happened to be packed into a smaller body. Her sister ignored her, refused to realize how blessed she was for her height. Instead, she went on about it being an real treat for a man in the bedroom to discover that a woman had a perfect form without the aid of a such a garment.
Rebecca did not see the issue. In fact, and she wished she had thought of this at the time, the girdle was invented by a man—the famous French designer Paul Poiret! She knew her sister liked his work. And also, their mother wore one for most of her life! Rebecca had never heard her criticize Mother. Mother only stopped wearing one during the war because of the rubber rationing, and then, after Father died, she let her figure go—shapeless—like the rest of her life, and didn't bother to purchase a new one. Mother wore those flowing long gowns now, and used the same pattern over and over and whatever fabric she could find on sale at Fanny’s.
She should have also pointed out that in football, players wore pocketed girdles under their pants to keep their pads in place. The football girdles held the hip pads, thigh pads and knee pads snug against their muscular bodies. Rebecca was sure these pads were used for more than protection: the men wanted to look as bulky as possible. The girdle also allowed the men to slide on those too tight, shiny pants. What was the difference?
Her sister certainly spent many of her Sunday afternoons with her back flat on the living room floor doing abdominal crunches while tuning in to her “favorite sport” on her new television. She knew nothing of the rules and regulations of the game.
Rebecca set to work on the perfect pattern, but first she had to smooth out the paper and grab her ruler. She folded the bone white sheet in half so that she would only have to snip along one side of her penciled lines. When she unfolded it, and laid it flat against the table, it created a perfectly symmetrical body.
Before the school’s semi-formal dance, Mother called Rebecca into her bedroom. She was sitting on her bed reading Vogue magazine with her bare legs off to the side. She looked up at Rebecca over the top of the magazine and said that she could use her perfumes, and that she would make some Shirley Temple curls in Rebecca’s hair, but that she would make them look more sophisticated, of course.
Rebecca sat on a stool in front of the long mirror as her mother moved around, sliding pins into her hair and pumping puffs of hairspray. Her bedroom smelled like white sugar.
She held the comb between her lips, and when Rebecca asked her questions, she nodded and hummed, “mmhmm.” Rebecca watched her mother the mirror. Her mother’s upper arms were firm and her skin did not shake even as she unraveled Rebecca’s long curls. Rebecca pressed her arms to her side to see if the skin would stay in place or flatten against her until Mother told her to sit still. Her wrists were thin, but her bangles disguised their size. She wore a black leather belt around her waist—the narrowest part of her body—but her thick cotton jumper creased over the top of her buttocks and hips and just stuck there.
After Mother was done, she pointed to her dresser where there was a box wrapped in white tissue paper and tied with a thick ribbon. After a final hairspray bloom, Mother told her to open it.
Inside there was a knee-length blue floral skirt and a tan blouse that she could change into.
Before Rebecca left for the dance, it happened.
She moved slowly into the kitchen, dragging her feet across the linoleum to where Mother was sitting at the table having a cigarette.
“It happened,” she said as she lifted her skirt and reveled the now brown line down her leg.
“Oh! Well, I thought your belly looked rather bloated,” she said while twisting her lipstick-coated cigarette into the ashtray.
She locked the bathroom door and leaned against it. She twisted out of her panties to examine her period. There was nothing there. No blood.
Rebecca saw that her legs were covered in bumps, and there were two thin parallel cuts on her left thigh. She had shaved her legs with Mother’s new razor using the liquid laundry soap in the storage room. When Rebecca heard her mother coming down the stairs, she swiped the razor over her thighs to finish.
She spent the next hour in the bathroom, tracing the shape of her stomach with her index finger. It looked softer than usual, puffy. She stood sideways and sucked in all the air that she could. Her ribs jutted out, and she walked her fingers up each bone. Even with her stomach sucked in, there were two definite lines around either side of her abdomen that she had never noticed before. A semicircle pocket of fat around her bellybutton.
Rebecca snuck downstairs to the storage room where she knew Mother had a stack of clothes still to be put away. She pulled out her control-top pantyhose and balled them up in her hand as she went back up the steps two at a time. Rebecca folded the reinforced top down four times to create a tight band and pulled it up over her stomach. Then she bunched the long legs up at the thighs before slipping on an old skirt to wear to the dance.
* * *
Step 3: It was already dark, and Rebecca could see her reflection in the window. She pushed her chest out and up, and tilted her pelvis forward. She could never hold her body in this position for long; she thought that maybe she could if she increased her workout routine from six days a week to seven. Perhaps those forty-five-degree Winkle Pickers would give her body the right tilt, enough forward thrust. She extended her arms upward, until she felt a deep burn in her triceps and her collarbones formed a V. She stepped toward the window to examine the shapes. She sucked in her stomach, pulled it up into her ribs, and squeezed her thighs together to create another V. If she were to fold her body in half at the lower abdomen—a meter and a half of peach-colored linen—and crease straight across her lower back, the V’s would press together perfectly.
Perhaps after her project was complete, after she constructed smooth enough lines, she would feel good, more feminine, less puffy. She let her hair down from the tight ponytail, shook it out and rolled her neck from side to side.
Rebecca flicked on the snakehead lamp, angled it toward her project and pulled her stool closer to the table. She measured the shapes that she had already snipped out, and held them up to examine. The bust was workable. She snipped one centimeter from either side of the waist piece and two from the hips. The thigh pieces looked a little wide, but she would deal with them after she worked on the core.
She fingered the bulbous pinheads stuck into the pincushion—her mother’s pincushion, given to her mother by her mother. She pulled out one with a pearl-like head and stick it between her lips. The cool metal tasted like the air before a lightening storm, before the sky opens up and heaves. Mother also sent Rebecca her bobbins, vintage buttons and bolts of lace when the arthritis in her hands got bad. She was still able to crotchet, but she anticipated that her mother would send her hooks and wool through the post soon enough.
* * *
Rebecca had stared down the rusty hole at the bottom of the toilet, though she knew she would not do it. It had been easy enough to gag from kneeling on the grimy bathroom floor, but she could not shove her fingers down her throat. She imagined her nails scaping the tender skin at the top of her mouth and back of her throat.
She hated throwing up when she had the stomach bug and then that hard swallow of the fiery spit afterwards. It burned the intercostals that were repeatedly stretched out and snapped back. The muscles would remain tender even days after the illness had passed.
She needed to lose a couple of pounds to fit into her sister’s handmedown skirt without having to suck in the pocket of fat on her stomach that would always work itself over the top button. No amount of situps, no early morning excercise radio programs, or snappy foxtrot routines had made her abdominal muscles any tighter. And there had been no radio program or elaborate daydream that was able to distract from the sting of the tears.
Rebecca stood in front of the mirror and peeled off her clothes. She pulled the stomach skin upward until it was taut and pinched it underneath her breasts. She held her breath and created the shape that she wanted. Flat. Square. She wished she could pin the flesh up inside of her brassiere. Make a few stitches.
* * *
Step 4: First, Rebecca cleared everything off the wide wall across from the window. She took down the Christian Dior poster of the women in the slender purple tunic suit, the dress size chart, and laminated instructions on how to handle and sew velvet. She shoved the sewing table out of the way, and used her hip to bump it against the sewing machine in the corner. The basket of buttons and thread spilled across the floor but it didn't matter, no one else was home and she was about to create her masterpiece.
She put the lamp on the floor and tilted it up at the wall to create a spotlight. She flicked off the unflattering florescent overhead lights and begin to pin up each paper shape, plucking pins out of her mother’s cushion one by one and pressed them into the wall with her thumb.
She picked up the spool of Chestnut Red Thick Thread, and unraveled a few feet. The wooden spool spun on the ground as she pulled. She snipped the end and pulled it tight, a perfect line. The thread was composed of thin fibers twisted together like muscles. She rolled the fibers between her thumb and index finger and then tossed them in the wastebasket.
She still needed to pin up sleeves, but she had never been too concerned with her arms so she decided to leave it for later. She stood back and looked at the shapes. This was a tighter body than any models on the Butterick or Simplicity envelopes. This was a better than a Vogue body.
Rebecca grabbed the shears and pulled the seam ripper out of its plastic tube. She began by pulling her stomach flat, stretching the skin upwards with her hands. She pulled out a thick pin, and dug into the muscle below her breasts to secure the new stomach shape. It looked identical to the body on the wall. She would have to take a few centimeters off the sides. She drew the seam ripper from her bottom rib to her hipbone, and then sliced off the clusters of yellow fat with the splayed open sheers. She made twenty herringbone stitches down each side using a light peach silk thread. By morning, surely, she will have sewn the perfect body.
Jessica Kluthe is a non-fiction writer and post-secondary writing instructor. She completed her MFA in Writing at the University of Victoria in 2011. Since then, her first book about an Italian midwife has been selected for publication by Brindle & Glass and will be out in 2013. Some of her stories have appeared in Canadian literary journals like The Malahat Review and Other Voices.