Tuesday, October 26, 2010

I am thrilled to introduce Valerie Fitzgerald as our first contributor. Valerie is an award-winning journalist, a mother, a phenomenal writer, and an all-around remarkable person. It's been a pleasure to work with her.   
Please enjoy this piece. I found it highly-emotive without veering the course of over-sentimentality; beautifully-written without pretension. The Plunge is the type of story that will stay with you long after you read it. 

The Plunge         
By Valerie Fitzgerald

Maria used to be confident, trim, and athletic, playing pick-up basketball games at the city park with the guys on the weekend. Hair pulled back in a ponytail, she would show up chewing gum. The guys would look her up and down, throw her the ball, and she would promptly sink a three-pointer.  She got to play every time and they grew to respect her. Yes, she had once commanded respect – on the court and in her office, where she had worked as a vice president of a debt collection agency in downtown Chicago. She was merciless. No excuse was good enough. Husband just died and the wife couldn’t pay the bills? Shit happens. Medical bills spiraled out of control? Should have stayed healthy and quit the smokes. You lost your job? Oh well.
She couldn’t say why the anxiety and depression hit when it did but it stormed out of nowhere three years ago with a full force that took her breath – and life – away.  Maria had always been a social animal. She organized birthday lunches for friends. She loved a good sale at the mall. She took her daughter, Graciela, to the park. She always enjoyed inviting the higher-ups to extravagant dinners in their beautiful home. Now, her heart raced and her hands trembled at the thought of doing any of these things.  She hated the hand tremors more than anything. The visibility of the inward.
She had to quit her job.  She and her husband, Robert, a lawyer, had to hire a housekeeper who handled everything while an invisible force flattened Maria to the bed. The doctors examined and examined, submitted her to test after test, gave her drug after drug. Yes, there were skeletons in her closet but nothing that other women didn’t experience. She sat in overstuffed chair after overstuffed chair, spilling her guts to one therapist and then another.  Yet, she seemed to get worse. Her anxiety began to rub off on Graciela, who began to fear going outside their house. And Robert grew weary. There was no dramatic argument, no final fight, just a simple, deflated, “You have to go. We need our lives back.”
The day she left, Maria had packed her entire station wagon – her big prize in the divorce - with all her earthly possessions and then slowly walked into the living room where Graciela was sitting next to her father on the couch. Tears streamed down her face.
“Mommy, why do you have to go?”
 Maria crouched down and said, “Mommy is sick and she needs to get better. Can I have a hug?”
 Graciela shook her head violently, climbed into her father’s lap and buried her face, sobbing. On that note, Maria had to walk out the door and make a cross-country drive to her mother’s bright yellow house in San Antonio, Texas.
She stayed in contact with her daughter via letters and phone calls. The antidepressant and anti-anxiety medication caused her to gain 100 pounds and she felt severely self-conscious about being an obese, absent, unemployed mother whose ex-husband promptly married a stunningly beautiful pediatrician who adored Graciela, who quickly took to calling her, “Mommy.” A knife to the heart.
Her elderly mother, Grandma Magdalena, welcomed her with open arms and immediately tried to feed her arroz con pollo. Feeding was her Mexican mother’s solution to everything. So were telenovelas of myriad one-dimensional characters who routinely blew up at each other for sleeping around. Her mother, an elegant, slender woman who never ate the phenomenal cooking she made, patted a seat next to herself on the plastic-covered floral sofa.
“Come on, mijita. Join me. This show will pick you right up. Here comes the best part – where he catches her in bed with his brother. Andale, mija.”
Interestingly, her mother understood her illness well, because her own sister suffered from it and hung herself from the lemon tree in the backyard because of it. So there were no recriminations - only offerings of te de manzanilla, menudo, homemade tamales, and a soft bed where Maria could cry herself to sleep. The house was frozen in time from her childhood. A giant photo of her college graduation hung in the hallway. Worn tables held dozens of framed pictures of the grandchildren – Maria was the middle of five children. Her mother made no secret of who her favorite grandchildren were – they got top billing in the 8X10 frames while the less loved children resided in tucked away 4X6 frames. It infuriated Maria, who one night replaced every photo in the giant frames with pictures of Graciela. Her mother didn’t say a word and simply hummed and dusted the frames the next day.
The house smelled like cinnamon, and coffee brewed every three hours. Her mother was meticulous about cleaning and even though the house sagged from its age, it sparkled and the bright cheery kitchen carried the sharp lemon scent of cleaning chemicals.  Maria’s father died three years ago from a sudden, massive heart attack. It devastated her mother, but, as usual, she bounced back. She eventually abandoned her slender black mourning dresses for the yellow and red outfits she loved to wear. Her mother was actually quite beautiful and kept herself made up, even if she didn’t have anywhere to go. Maria, meanwhile, lived in her pajamas, unable to muster the strength to even check the mail, where more and more medical bills awaited her. But the thought of Graciela gave her bursts of energy and she lunged whenever the phone rang, hoping it would be her. The tinny voice on the other line soothed her, connected her across 1,300 miles into the brand-new house her ex-husband bought with his wife.
 “Yes, mijita?”
“When can I see you?”
Maria paused, taking a deep breath.
 “Guess what, sweetie? Daddy and I decided that I am well enough so you can stay with me and Grandma Magdalena this summer! Would you like that?” Graciela was silent.
Then, “Can I bring Charlie,” her stuffed toy dog that she had since she was 2.
“Absolutely,” Maria laughed. She could tell her mother had grown silent and alert during the conversation. Grandma Magdalena balanced a cup of tea on her petite legs, sitting erectly and obviously turning down her favorite telenovela, El Fuego de mi Corazon, so she could get a better feel for the telephone conversation.
Maria ignored her mother’s eavesdropping. “What would you like to do this summer, mija?”
Graciela grew silent again and then she began to talk fast. “I have a list, Mommy. I want to see a real live cowboy. Wearing snakeskin cowboy boots. I know it’s hot there, so I want to go swimming all the time. I want to meet my cousins. I want to watch Sponge Bob. I want to go down a giant water slide at a water park. And I want a party so I can meet all my family members.”
Maria had tears in her eyes. She felt a sob building inside her chest, which she clutched. “Mija, we will have a welcome home party. We are going to have a blast this summer. I promise you that.”
Later, in the evening by herself in her room, Maria considered the list. A giant slide at a water park? Swimming all the time? She was embarrassed of her appearance. She covered her eyes with her hand and at that moment her mother gently knocked on the door.
“I couldn’t help but overhear some of your conversation,” said Grandma Magdalena.
“Yes, I noticed,” Maria said dryly.
“I can’t wait for little Graciela to come and spend the summer with us!” said Grandma Magdalena as she picked up Maria’s clothes and organized her many medication bottles on her dresser. Her ex-husband only agreed to let Graciela come as long as her mother was going to be there the whole summer to keep watch over things. Grandma Magdalena didn’t abuse the power that came with this but instead diplomatically inserted herself at appropriate times to ask Maria what Graciela’s favorite foods were, what kind of coloring books did she like, what was she reading these days? All things to get ready for her big arrival in three months.
The last time Maria was on a water slide was when she was 19. She sat in her gorgeous boyfriend’s lap in a tube and giggled right before the lifeguard shoved them down the slide. She had spent that day frolicking at the water park wearing a black two piece, toes painted red, baby oil slicked over her entire body, shiny red lipstick.
She cringed before taking off her dingy pajamas to get a better look. Her light brown thighs were thoroughly dimpled. She peered at her breasts, which had once been cute and perky but now looked like two giant water balloons. Her butt stuck out determinedly. Her face looked swollen and she had severe acne on her chin. Her once long flowing locks had been chopped off and the meds had thinned her hair considerably. But her stomach was truly spectacular. Her lower abdomen was like a separate little pouch that hung over an imaginary line. Angry red marks that looked like slashes ran all over her stomach. Tears formed in her brown eyes. She couldn’t even get away with being called a cute gordita. She was an obese viejita.
She stopped sniffling and grabbed one of her journal notebooks. She looked at her to do list. She spotted the familiar refrain on the list – exercise. She stared at a picture of Graciela at her bedside. Waving the peace sign, Graciela played in the sand at a beach on her summer vacation last year. The sunlight hit her perfectly, and she had a soft golden glow. Maria looked down at her feet. She couldn’t remember the last time she had painted her toenails. She stretched over and realized she couldn’t even reach them. “What the hell?” she said to herself. An irritation that had long been lingering turned into a lightning bolt of anger. Maria yanked open a drawer and pulled out some black sweats that fit tight. She pulled over her head an old t-shirt and looked forever for her walking shoes in her cramped closet. She found them underneath a very dusty pile of self-help books. She found in her sock drawer a bright red headband and she pulled her thin hair back with it.
Just dressing had worn her out. She breathed heavily as she made her way downstairs, where Grandma Magdalena bustled in the kitchen with a comadre. Her mother looked shocked when she saw her.
“Where are you going?”
 “I still have that membership at the gym,” Maria muttered, eyes averted.
“Hellooooo, Maria,” sung out the comadre, who sat eating pan dulce and sipping on some cinnamon-laced coffee. “I hear your precious daughter is coming soon. I will pray the rosary tonight that she has a safe trip here. I haven’t seen you at Mass lately,” the comadre said while delicately licking the sugar off her fingers.
“Yes, I’ve been busy,” replied Maria.
 “Busy? Pero, you don’t work. What do you do all day?” the woman said, glancing at her mother to join in.
Maria’s mother jumped in. “Oh, she does the dishes, the laundry. She’s my helper. I would be so lost without her. And she’s such good company.”
 Then, without missing a beat, Grandma Magdalena said brightly, “By the way, when was the last time your daughter visited?” That settled the score perfectly because everybody knew in the neighborhood that her daughter hadn’t visited in over two years and barely called – a sin in the close-knit barrio where they lived. Everybody knew a daughter was tight with her mother, so Maria staying with her mother was generally looked upon favorably. It was the part of her not having her own daughter that raised eyebrows and brought out the rosary beads.
“I’m off,” Maria sang, waving goodbye to the comadre and shooting an appreciative glance at her mother, who was wearing her pressed white apron decorated with lady bugs.
As she approached the gym, her anxiety rose. What if she saw somebody from the neighborhood? What if she saw somebody from high school? What if she couldn’t even climb the stairs to get into the gym? She breezed by the desk, where five young, fit men hung out drinking energy drinks. She swore she could have heard snickering after she walked past but she settled on just being paranoid.
She had her I-pod, which had 31 songs on it. She had just learned to download songs. On the I-pod was everything from Dolly Parton to Ani DiFranco. She swung her sausage-like leg over one pedal of the elliptical machine and hauled herself up. She almost fell off and looked around quickly to see if anybody noticed. She gripped the handlebars and began to pump her legs. So far, so good. She cranked up the volume. Then, she began to remember. When she first saw Graciela on the ultrasound screen, she was a tiny cashew with a fast heartbeat. A few months later, the nurses handed a wailing Graciela to her, and, as if on cue, she quieted when she heard Maria whisper, “I love you, mija.”
She glanced down at the machine. Wow. Twenty minutes had gone by. Sweat beads began to pop out on her forehead. She noticed her t-shirt collar was soaked with sweat. This was good. She went back to remembering. She was there when baby Graciela took her first step. Her chubby fist held onto a wooden spoon for dear life as she lifted her plump little leg and set it into motion. Graciela raised the spoon in victory when Maria clapped wildly.
She checked the machine again. Sixty minutes. She slowed to a halt and then stood frozen. She couldn’t swing her leg over to get down. Her legs were too cramped. Shit. She stretched and stretched and finally asked the elderly lady working out next to her to help her down. This time, she noticed, a few people peeked at her.
Maria started doing this routine daily and after a month, she had lost 30 pounds. She couldn’t believe it. But she could because she knew the real dream was to go down that slide at the water park with her precious daughter. She lay awake many nights replaying the possible scenarios out in her head. She’d get stuck in the slide.  Teenage boys would throw rainbow raspas at her fat ass as she walked innocently past. The lifeguard would stop her at the entrance of the slide and shake his head no. “Nobody your size is allowed on this ride, ma’am.”
The weight loss slowed even though Grandma Magdalena replaced her tacos with bowls of fresh mango and papaya and grilled chicken salad. Maria still kept going to the gym, though, and held her head high as she passed the obnoxious lazy-ass teenagers who pretended to lift weights. She now weighed about 245 and she had one month before Graciela showed up. They talked excitedly on the phone every night now about the list of things Graciela wanted to accomplish while in Texas. Maria didn’t bring up the slide. She wanted it to be a surprise.
Maria still struggled with depression but she had a purpose now. Her daughter’s visit. She had to be strong for her daughter. Grandma Magdalena got in high gear cleaning the house from top to bottom. She washed all the lace curtains, carpet cleaned all the giant red rugs, and scrubbed the walls.
Maria went to the gym and pushed and pushed, listening to every single song on her I-pod. All 31 one of them. Over and over again.
The month flew by. She closed her eyes and stood on the scale. It spun and stopped at 235. A lousy 10 pounds. The old woman she worked out next to had warned her of this. The weight loss would slow, especially as she gained muscle.
Maria stood in Wal-Mart and stared at the size 24s that she used to wear. She needed a bathing suit with a skirt, she determined. A skirt  that would cover as much as possible. She wanted the suit to be black. More slimming. No loud designs. She tried on the size 24 and it practically fell off of her. She went back and picked out a 22 and then a 20. The 20 fit the best. Alone in the tiny dressing room, she stared at her body again. She cocked her head. Her water balloon boobs had deflated to a more reasonable size. The dimpled thighs were still there but smaller. The butt less big but still looking pretty determined. But it was her stomach she noticed the most. It had shrunk considerably. She could suck it in now. When she looked up, she noticed she wore a faint smile.
The next day she had to pick up Graciela at the airport and she was extremely nervous because the last time she saw her she was 5. She also hadn’t seen Robert in two years. She had prepared everything for Graciela. She borrowed money from her mother and bought a digital camera and taught herself how to use it so she could record all the fun memories this summer.
She stood at the bottom of the escalator at the airport, scanning each face eagerly as people descended. Unable to contain herself, she asked everybody if they had just come in from Chicago. Finally, a worn-out red-faced beefy man replied yes. She stood, poised with the camera. And then, they appeared.
Robert’s bright red hair popped out. He looked the same but wasn’t wearing his usual wire-rimmed glasses. He did wear his white guayabera shirt, cargo shorts, and flip flops. Then, Graciela appeared. Maria was utterly shocked. She was so tall! She had long golden legs and her hair, which Maria had last seen in a curly bob, was now golden-streaked and straight. Where did the curls go? Her hair looked slightly tangled. Graciela pouted and buried her face into Robert’s stomach when she made eye contact with her mother. Maria put away the camera and stood straighter, breathing rapidly from her nerves.
She wanted to run toward her daughter and scoop her up and cover with kisses but instead she paused, unsure whether Graciela even wanted to be there. Robert gently nudged Graciela who stiffly hugged Maria. Maria tried to kiss her cheek the way she used to every night she put her to bed but she pulled away so she kissed the top of her head, which she noticed smelled like strawberries and cream.
“Hi, Mom,” she said flatly.
“Well, hi, sweetheart!” Maria said brightly, trying to avoid tears.
She and Robert shook hands. Shook hands! Robert cleared his throat. “I’ll send you her return information via email in about a week and I’ll call regularly to check on her. She can call us whenever, of course. I need to head back up to catch my return flight.” Graciela flew into his arms and smothered him with kisses. Maria felt a pang of jealousy. Robert glided up the escalator and Maria was left with an athletic child who didn’t speak but glared at her periodically.
They got the luggage, a giant black suitcase that carried her stepmom’s name on it – Dr. Freeman. As Maria lugged it across the scalding hot parking lot to her car, she tried to chat with Graciela.
“So, we now have cable so you can watch Sponge Bob. And guess what? The rodeo is in town this weekend, and there are going to be some real-live cowboys there!” Her voice sounded fake and bright. Graciela remained silent.
She opened the back door where Graciela noticed a new booster seat.
“I don’t use those in Chicago. Those are for babies!”
“How much do you weigh?” Maria asked her and then she felt herself go hot with shame for not knowing what her own daughter weighed.
Graciela titled her chin up at her and announced proudly, “60 pounds.”
“Aha,” replied Maria. “When you weigh 65, according to the state law I researched, then you can sit without the kiddo seat so hop on in my dear.” Another  glare. She wanted to make herself more likeable but it didn’t seem to be going well so far.
When they got to Grandma Magdalena’s house, Graciela unbuckled herself, hopped out, and stared thoughtfully at the house. “I like it,” she announced and bounced up the steps. The door flung open and there stood Grandma Magdalena, lipstick perfectly applied, arms wide open.  Graciela hesitated before allowing herself to be folded into her sweet-smelling grandmother.
Maria tried not to be jealous but she couldn’t help it. She brought in the suitcase, which Graciela promptly opened. Inside were a dozen stuffed toy animals – alligator, snake, Charlie, apparently Charlie’s girlfriend, an owl and on and on. Grandma Magdalena disappeared and returned with a little wrapped present.
Graciela’s eyes grew wide.
 “Here you go, mija,” Grandma Magdalena said softly. “I thought you might like this.”
Graciela tore open the present and whooped with delight. It was a soft, stuffed animal – a kitten with giant blue eyes.
“She’s beautiful,” said Graciela breathlessly. She hugged it to her chest and then walked over to Maria.
“Would you like to pet it?” she asked politely. Maria smiled and stroked the kitten’s head. Maria and Grandma Magdalena exchanged secret smiles.
Graciela turned to Maria, grabbed her hand and pulled her toward the suitcase.
 “Look, Momma. I want to show you something.” She pulled out layer after layer of t-shirts and boyish shorts. She dug her hand into the suitcase, searching while scrunching up her face.
“Ta da! My brand-new glow-in-the-dark goggles. For when we go to the water park! Can we go this weekend, Mommy? Please! I’ve never been to a water park. Just the beach and, well, that’s not as cool as going down a giant slide. So can we, Mom? Huh? Please?”
Maria, whose earlier self-confidence in the dressing room suddenly evaporated when presented with the reality of the slide, said, “Mijita, I read in the paper today that the water park is closed for repairs so we’ll have to find something else to do.” She hated herself for lying but she couldn’t bear the thought of everybody laughing at her fat body.
“Well, we’ll just drive to the water park tomorrow to ask the workers when it will be open again,” Graciela said, staring evenly at her, calling her bluff.
Maria was stuck and she knew it.
Two days later, they stood in a long line at the entrance of Water World, the cheaper of the two big water parks in town. The other one catered to the rich white neighborhood to the north. And it cost $30 more. Maria held two Mountain Dew cans – guaranteed to knock off $5 off the ticket price.
Graciela, donning a sporty Speedo suit, wore her fluorescent goggles, looking like a scuba diver. Grandma Magdalena, who wouldn’t have missed this for the world, carried the tote bag and wore a pink one-piece suit, along with matching pink toenails and a pastel bathing cap covered with plastic flowers. Maria wore her bathing suit and a black cover-up that went to her dimpled knees.  She was sweating profusely and beginning to regret this. Right at that moment, a large black woman, much larger than Maria, got in line behind them. She held the hand of a little girl who couldn’t have been older than 5. They both smiled expectantly at Maria.
“Grandma,” said the excited child, “We’re going in the wave pool, right?” The grandmother laughed and said, “Absolutely, sweetheart. This is going to be a glorious day.”
Graciela peered at them through her fogged up goggles. “We’re going down the big slide, me and my mom,” she told the lady and child. The grandmother chuckled and said, “That’s the best part. I save that for last.”
So apparently there wasn’t a weight limit on the slide, Maria thought to herself. She could already smell the strong chlorine as she bought their tickets. They entered the park, where a large group of teenage boys, most of them tattooed, sat on some paint-chipped benches. Maria gritted her teeth, expecting them to crack jokes about her weight. But nothing happened. They parted to make room for them.
Graciela grabbed Maria’s hand and squeezed it, smiling innocently at her. Maria could feel her heart breaking at her innocence. She had to go down that slide. Fuck it. Fuck Robert. Fuck Dr. Freeman. Fuck it all. She pictured herself on her deathbed, going over her life as if it were a movie. Something told her this scene would play prominently at the end.
Graciela broke free and ran to get a tube. She scraped it across the burning concrete. It was almost as big as she was. “Here you go, Mommy. For the slide. Let me go get mine.”  Then Maria stared up at the white slide. It snaked up 30 feet, about the height of a two-story building.
They now arrived at the bottom of the slide where a lifeguard stood. Maria told Graciela to quickly get in line to save a space for them and then Maria cornered the lifeguard.
“Tell me the truth,” she whispered urgently so Graciela wouldn’t hear. “Am I too fat for this ride?”
The lifeguard, looking surprised, laughed and nodded his head no. “Nah, you’re big but not THAT big. I’ve seen bigger go up there.”
Relief flooded her body. She began to feel more confident. She took her place next to Graciela, who was bouncing from foot to foot excitedly. “Mommy, we’re going to go soooo fast! We’re going to fly down that slide, right?” Maria broke into a grin and tousled her hair. “You bet, sweetheart.”
They finally got to the top. Graciela dragged her yellow tube to her slide and Maria dragged her tube to the slide next to her. She began to hesitate when she looked down over the side. It was an open slide, not a closed one. She noticed a sign that said, “If you are to lose your tube, simply hold your hands to your side.” She settled into the tube and then tried to pull herself onto the slide, but the tube wouldn’t glide the way it did for others. She was stuck. She could feel her face grow hot. She stuck her arms out and began rowing the ground furiously, trying to scoot but she wouldn’t move.
Then, suddenly, whoosh! She was off. It happened within a second. She lost her tube, which went sailing over the edge and she literally rolled over several times, swallowing  water and sputtering as she fixed herself like a bobsledder on her back, hands held firmly to her side, while she screamed, “Holy Shit!!!”
For a brief moment, when she closed her eyes and felt herself speed downwards, the anxiety released its grip. Then she was thrown into the tiny pool where a concerned looking lifeguard asked if she was ok. Maria came up choking a bit from the pool and waved her hand nonchalantly.
“Oh yeah, I’m just fine. Wow. That was sort of fun.” Grandma Magdalena stood off to the side and gave her a thumbs-up. Then, little Graciela appeared, slowly gliding down the last section of the slide, waving happily at her mother.  Maria jumped up and down, clapping and yelling, “Go, mijita!” Graciela gently floated into the pool and waded over to Maria.
 “Mommy, you are so cool. You’re the best. Wasn’t that so fun? It was awesome. Let’s do it again!”
Again? Maria looked up at the puffy white clouds in the brilliant blue sky and grinned. Sure? Why not? She pulled Graciela from the pool and they held hands. Maria leaned down and quickly kissed Graciela on her plump little cheek. Graciela laughed and they began walking toward the giant slide.

Copyright © Valerie Fitzgerald 9/07/10 All Rights Reserved