Carmel stood in her room and slapped her own face. Once. Twice. Three times. The third time she slapped herself so hard her glasses flew off. She picked them up, went to the bathroom and looked at her flushed cheek in the mirror. For a moment there, when she was in the pool, swimming her laps, endorphins zipping through her body after that fantastic bushwalk, she’d felt fine, more than fine – she’d felt exultant. It had been years since she’d had time to do laps. As she swam she gloried in the fact that there was nowhere to be, nothing to do, no-one to worry about. No jazz pick-up or karate drop-off, no homework to supervise, no birthday gifts to buy, no doctors’ appointments to book; the endless multitude of teeny-tiny details that made up her life.
Each obligation on its own seemed laughably easy. It was the sheer volume that threatened to bury her. Here, she didn’t even have to do her own laundry. Carmel simply had to put her washing outside her door in a little cloth bag and it would be returned to her, laundered and ironed, within twenty-four hours. She’d literally cried with happiness when she read that. She had set herself a goal of fifty laps of freestyle, faster and faster with each lap. She was going to get so, so fit here! She could almost feel that excess weight falling off her. All she’d ever needed was time to exercise and a pantry free of treats. As she swam, she silently chanted in time with her strokes: I’m so happy, I’m so happy, I’m so happy, breathe, I’m so happy, I’m so happy, I’m so happy, breathe.
But then that tiny voice beneath the exultant chanting, just the faintest whisper, had begun: I wonder what they’re doing now. She’d tried to ignore it, chanting louder: I’m so HAPPY, I’m so HAPPY. The voice got louder until it became a shout: No, but seriously, what do you think they’re doing RIGHT NOW? That’s when she’d felt her sanity come loose. The feeling of panic reminded her of one of those recurring dreams in which she’d lost all four of her daughters in some bizarrely negligent way, such as leaving them on the side of the road, or just forgetting they existed and going out dancing. She’d tried to calm herself with rational thoughts. Her children were not lost on the side of the road; they were with their father and Sonia, his perfectly lovely new girlfriend, soon to be wife. Carmel knew from the itinerary that today they were in Paris, staying in a ‘wonderful’ Airbnb flat. Sonia, who ‘just loved to travel’, had stayed there before. It would be cold, of course, in January, but the kids had new jackets. They were on the trip of a lifetime.
They were having a wonderful educational experience while their mother had a wonderful break to ‘recharge’. Their father loved them. Their father’s new girlfriend loved them. ‘Sonia said she loves us more than life itself,’ Rosie told Carmel after only the third time she met the woman, and Carmel said, ‘Well, she sounds like a total nutcase!’ but only in her head. Out loud she said, ‘That’s so nice!’ It was an amicable divorce. Amicable on Joel’s part, anyway. On Carmel’s part, it felt like a death no-one acknowledged. He just fell out of love with her, that’s all. It must have been so hard for him, living with a woman he no longer loved. He really struggled with it, poor man, but he had to be true to himself. It happens. It happens a lot. It’s essential that the discarded wife remains dignified. She must not wail and weep, except in the shower, when the kids are at school and preschool, and she’s alone in the suburbs with all the other weeping, wailing wives.
The discarded wife must not be bitchy or unkind about the new and improved wife. She must suck it up but without developing a sour face. It is better for all concerned if she is thin. Carmel had touched the side and turned to do another lap when she saw that someone had joined her in the pool. The friendly-looking older woman. Carmel almost said, ‘Hi,’ before remembering the silence and ignoring her. She kept swimming and thought about how that woman’s hair was a similar shade to Sonia’s hair. No doubt they both paid handsomely for it. Carmel’s daughter Lulu was fair-haired. Lulu looked entirely unrelated to Carmel, which had never mattered until the day Lulu told her that when Daddy and Sonia took them out to dinner a lady stopped by the table and said to Lulu, ‘You’ve got beautiful hair just like your mummy, haven’t you?’ Carmel said, in a high, strained voice, ‘Huh, that’s funny. Did you tell her that Sonia wasn’t your mummy?’ Lulu said that Daddy had said it wasn’t necessary to always point out that Sonia wasn’t her real mother, and Carmel had said, ‘Of course it’s necessary, darling, you should point it out every single time in your loudest voice,’ but only in her head. Out loud she said, ‘It’s time to clean your teeth, Lulu.’ Remembering this, she’d picked up speed, her arms and legs chopping through the water, harder and harder, faster and faster, but she couldn’t sustain it, she wasn’t fit enough, she was so unfit, and fat, and lazy, and disgusting. And she thought of her four girls on the other side of the world, in Paris, where Carmel had never been, having their hair done by Sonia, and probably sitting still for her, and suddenly she swallowed a giant mouthful of water.
She hopped out of the pool, without making eye contact with the friendly blonde lady, as per the rules, fortunately, because she was crying like a fool, and she cried all the way to her room. There was no way the big man coming down the pathway to the pool hadn’t noticed. ‘Get a grip,’ she said now to her reflection in the mirror. She wrapped her arms around her body. She missed her children. It hit her like a sudden fever. She longed for the comfort of their four beautiful little-girl bodies and their heedless, proprietorial use of her body: the way they plonked themselves on her lap as if she were a chair, the way they burrowed their hot little heads into her stomach, her breasts. She was always yelping at someone, ‘Get off me!’ When she was with her children, she was needed – essential, in fact: everything relied on her. Someone was always saying, ‘Where’s Mummy?’ ‘I’m telling Mum what you just said.’ ‘Mummmmmy!’ Now she was untethered by obligations, as loose and free as a balloon. She undid the tie of her swimsuit and let it fall in a heap on the bathroom floor while she studied her naked body in the mirror. ‘I’m so sorry.
I still care very deeply for you, but we’ve always valued honesty in our relationship, haven’t we?’ Joel had said to her a year ago, while he poured her a glass of wine. ‘It really hurts me to say this but, the thing is, I’m just not attracted to you anymore.’ He truly thought he was being kind and ethical. He believed himself to be a man who did the right thing. He would never have cheated on her. He simply left her, went straight onto a dating website and replaced her. His conscience was perfectly clear. He’d always liked to keep his possessions well maintained, and if they couldn’t be repaired to ‘as new’ then he updated them. Carmel lifted her breasts in both hands to where they used to be, when they were ‘as new’. She looked at the stretch marks on her wobbly stomach and thought of some sappy Facebook post she’d read about how stretch marks were beautiful because of what they represented, creating new life, blah blah blah.
Maybe stretch marks could be considered beautiful if the father of your babies still loved your body. When Joel asked if he and Sonia could please take the girls on a trip to Europe over the January school holidays – Disneyland in Paris! Skiing in Austria! Ice skating in Rome! – Carmel had said, ‘Are you kidding me? You’re going on the trip we used to talk about doing? But you’re doing it without me?’ but only in her head. Out loud she said, ‘That sounds like so much fun!’ And then she arranged all their passports. She’d told her sister that she was going to spend the time they were away eating paleo and doing cardio and weights and yoga. The plan was to transform her body. She didn’t want Joel back. All she wanted was for his mouth to drop open when he saw her. She didn’t need him to gape, although that would be nice. She simply wanted her body to look as good as it was physically possible for her to look, and then maybe, possibly, probably not, but possibly, she herself might check out one of those dating websites where you went to replace your spouse.
‘There’s not a damned thing wrong with your body. You are average-sized, you deluded fool! You are an attractive, intelligent woman, you idiot! You should spend January lying in a hammock and eating cheese,’ said Carmel’s sister Vanessa, who was furious with Joel and the fat-shaming patriarchy. Carmel let her breasts drop and put a hand to the curve of her stomach. Average wasn’t good enough. Average was too big. Everyone knew that. There was an obesity crisis in this country! She didn’t want to fat-shame other people, but she certainly wanted to fat-shame herself because she deserved to be shamed. She used to be two sizes smaller and the reason she was now two sizes larger was not because of her four daughters; it was because she didn’t ‘take care of herself’. Women were meant to ‘take care of themselves’. That’s what men said on dating websites: I’d like a woman who takes care of herself. They meant: I want a thin woman. And it wasn’t like the information wasn’t available on how to take care of yourself! Everyone knew you simply cut out carbs and sugar and trans fats from your diet! Celebrities generously revealed their secrets. They snacked on a ‘handful of nuts’ or ‘two squares of dark antioxidant-rich chocolate’! They drank a lot of water, stayed out of the sun and took the stairs! It wasn’t rocket science! But did Carmel ever take the stairs? No, she didn’t. It was true that she often had the kids with her, and if they walked up too many stairs one of them was liable to run too far ahead while another one sat down and announced that her legs no longer worked, but still, there must have been times when Carmel could have built some ‘incidental exercise’ into her lifestyle. And yet she hadn’t.
She neglected her body, she didn’t get her hair cut for months on end, her eyebrows were left unplucked, she forgot to shave her legs, and it was no surprise her husband left her, because, as she tried to teach her children, actions had consequences. She thought of the long, sculpted lines of Masha’s body. She imagined Masha living Carmel’s life, standing at the front door when Joel and Sonia dropped off the girls. Joel wouldn’t have left Masha in the first place, but say he did, then Masha’s heart wouldn’t hammer with pain and humiliation at the sight of her ex-husband and his new girlfriend. Masha wouldn’t curve her body around the door at a strange angle as if to hide it from Joel. Masha would stand tall and proud. She wouldn’t hunch her body to protect her raw, broken heart. Her sister said Joel’s so-called ‘lack of attraction’ was Joel’s problem, not hers. Her sister said Carmel should learn self-love and texted her links to articles about ‘intuitive eating’ and ‘healthy at any size’.
Carmel knew these articles were written by fat people to make fat people feel better about their sad, fat lives. If she could transform her body, she could transform her life, and she could move on from her failed marriage. That wasn’t deluded. That was a fact. Her sister, who was both wealthy and generous – a most excellent combination – gave Carmel a card for her birthday that said: Carmel, I don’t think you need to lose weight. You’re beautiful and Joel is a shallow idiot and you should give ZERO FUCKS what he thinks. But if you’re determined to go on a health kick, I want you to do it in style and comfort. I’ve booked you into Tranquillum House for their ten-day cleanse while the kids are away. Enjoy! Ness xx PS And then come home and eat cheese. Carmel hadn’t been that happy to receive a gift since she was a child. Now she thought of Masha’s words: ‘In ten days, you will not be the person you are now.’ The word ‘please’ filled her mind. Please, please, please, let that be true, please, please, please, let me become someone other than this.
She looked at her stupid, dopey, pleading face in the mirror. Her skin was rough and red like an old washerwoman’s hands. There was a picket fence of tiny lines neatly indented across her top lip, which was so thin it disappeared when she smiled. The only part of her body that was thin was her top lip. Lips were meant to be plump rosebuds, not mean, thin, disappearing lines. Oh, Carmel, of course he stopped being attracted to you! What were you thinking? How could he possibly be attracted to someone who looks like you? She lifted her hand to slap her face once more. There was a gentle knock on the door. Carmel jumped. She pulled on the Tranquillum House dressing-gown and went to open the door. It was Yao. His head was bowed.
He didn’t make eye contact or say a word. He held out a small card. Carmel took it and Yao immediately backed away. She closed the door. It was a square of thick, creamy cardboard like a wedding invitation. The handwriting was in thick, black, authoritative ink. Dear Carmel, Although you are currently scheduled for free time, we ask that you please report immediately to the spa for the Tranquillum House Ultimate Relaxation and Rejuvenation Signature Facial. It’s a ninety-minute treatment and will be completed just before dinner. Your therapist is waiting for you. Yours, Masha PS Yao is your assigned wellness consultant, but please know that I will also be doing everything in my power to deliver you the health, healing and happiness you need and deserve. It was at that moment Carmel Schneider gave herself to Masha with the same voluptuous abandon that novice nuns once surrendered themselves to God.
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