“Mammary World” by Celeste Augé

I consider lying to my mother about why I got the job in Supervalu, giving her what she expects to hear. All the other girls are doing it. How else can I buy the small stuff? The usual teen excuses. But I want to piss off my mother, so I go with the truth.

‘I’m saving up for a boob job. A reduction.’

Kittens out of the bag, all three years’ growth of them. She gets that frozen face, clams her mouth shut, looks at me. I hate the silent treatment, she’s too good at it. But I’m not budging on this one.

The Irish Mail on Sunday did a special feature on breast reductions a few months ago. I sleep with the folded-up newspaper page under my pillow.

Walking up the village’s biggest hill to the supermarket is the hardest part of my new job. The rest of it is okay, same rules as school. No iPods, no mobile phones, no chewing gum. Don’t ‘borrow’ the stock. Don’t sign into the till on someone else’s name. Clock in when you get here, clock out when you leave. I like that no one checks up on me, that I can take my break with Mary, who smokes five cigarettes in a row behind the stockroom doors and tells us what her neighbours are up to.

Mr O’Connor – Mike I’m supposed to call him – said he would take me on because I didn’t look like hassle. Then he looked right at me, like he could see what was going on inside me, like he knew me better than I ever could.

‘Any problems, let me know. Mary will show you the till,’ he said, and walked back to the door that led down to the stockroom and his office.

‘He doesn’t come out front if he can help it,’ Mary said in a low voice, the kind that older women use when they think someone might be listening. ‘Customers are our problem.’

Nine o’clock on a Monday morning there aren’t many customers.

Bikini Goddess stares at me all morning long, watching every little fumble I make with customers’ change. She’s made of cardboard, and she stands next to the special-offer suntan lotion. She has a perfect fake tan and the exact right-sized breasts – not so big they hang down and make her look fat, not so small you wouldn’t look at them first.  And she smiles the whole time, while people stare at them.

I try to make time move faster by imagining what she is thinking.

Yellow is my absolute favourite colour, I love it so much I have ten bikinis in shades of yellow from pale lemon to sunflower gold. If only I could wiggle my left toe I could hop right out of this blue sky world and whirl across your vinyl floor. And really, my mouth hurts with all this phoney happiness, the drugs don’t even work anymore.

The past three years, I too have learnt the art of the blank face. Whenever I catch another man slide his eyes from my F-cups to the rest of me, I freeze the outside of myself.

This time it’s one of the neighbours.

‘Here’s your change, Padraig.’

‘Great girl. You’re a great girl, Tricia.’ All said to my chest.

‘Only one more hour to go,’ Mary hollers across the aisle. She’s at the express checkout, re-stocking chocolate bars and mints. I’ve discovered that Mary only has two settings, whisper and deafening, and that she lives for cigarette breaks. For her part, Mary has already found out that my parents are the Mannions from down the road in Tullykyne, that I go to the new multi-denominational school seven

miles away in Galway, and that I don’t have a boyfriend.

‘Ah it’s all ahead of you now.’ She whispers when she’s asking questions, and it’s hard not to answer her. ‘I have two sons,’ she tells me, ‘but they’re a bit too old for you yet, love. I don’t like their girlfriends much, but still, you’re too young.’

She sighs whenever she talks about her sons. They’re both away at college, that’s why she’s working in this kip, she says.

I scan through the next customer’s groceries: low-fat yoghurt, multi-grain bread, organic milk, the Times, a six-pack of beer and a tub of Ben & Jerry’s. Cookies and cream, my favourite.

I can’t stop thinking about food. My mouth is watering, longing for something other than the taste of sugar and mint. Something tart, really tart, like sloes in late September, picked off the blackthorn trees before the frosts get them. The kind of tart that makes you scrunch up your face, numbs your lips on the way in.

My body mass index is 32, and I have to get it down to 27 before any surgeon will go near me, even with the full amount of cash saved. Six grand, it’s going to cost. That’s 923 hours in Supervalu.

Maybe it’s time to switch to fruit-flavoured chewing gum.

Break-time and I head out with Mary for ten minutes of second-hand smoke. I have a small bottle of diet Seven-Up and a pack of cherry menthol gum to keep me going.

‘Normally there are four of us on, but Breeda will be fine on her own for a few minutes,’ Mary says, waving at her. ‘Back in five minutes,’ she calls. ‘Ten,’ she says under her breath, ‘don’t worry, we’ll take the full ten. Maybe fifteen.’

This is my first real summer job. Babysitting doesn’t really count.

‘Johnny, have you met our new colleague,’ she says to the man stacking cases of Barry’s Tea in the corner of the stockroom. He shakes his head, but doesn’t look up at me.

‘Not the full picnic, if you know what I mean, but the only one who has survived working down in stock longer than a year. Doesn’t talk much.’

I rest my back against the doorframe, allow myself to drift off to Mary’s chatter about everyone who works here. Official Supervalu news source. I try not to think about food. I’m on the chewing gum diet, only allowed one meal a day. My mother hasn’t noticed yet.

Johnny is shifting boxes from the loading bay over to the pallet next to me.

‘You have lovely green eyes,’ he says when he has to get past. ‘Like the green on a bottle of Fairy liquid.’

He’s standing right in front of me, looking down, all his weight on one foot with the other stretched out, ready to bolt out the door. I’m stuck there, and I can’t help looking at him, at the piece of stubble on his cheek that he missed when shaving, at the way he already has lines on his forehead, furrowed between his eyebrows. All I can hear is Mary laughing.

*

Bib. Bip. Bip.

Three Mars bars, a can of Coke, a packet of cheese and onion Taytos. Three euro and thirty-four cents. Two flat-chested skinny girls, their hair artfully tousled with heavy fringes. They’re a year older than me, go to a different school. One of them has her boyfriend with her. Mark Lindey. We used to hang out together in primary school. He says hi, he’s nice enough, but he’s the same as all the boys I know. It’s like he’s afraid of curves and mounds of girl-flesh. I try to remember what my body looked like before I hit twelve, but all I can remember is the feeling of climbing the railings and racing in Ross Sports. No pictures.

When I picture myself now, on a good day I see those Hindu goddesses we learnt about in religious ed class. On a bad day, a lactating sow: another kind of goddess altogether. Or a pair of breasts with me attached.

The music of the scanners’ bips, the fluorescent lights, even the cardboard cut-out of the goddess of suntans, have settled into a sort of normal.

I am no longer sweating.

*

‘Patricia,’ Johnny calls, and I keep shifting bottles of water down the checkout, a small bip with each successful pass. “Patricia, you’re wanted,” he says, and I realise he’s talking to me. My name badge has my official birth-cert name on it, but nobody ever calls me that. I’m Tricia at home and school, Trish to my friends. Patricia makes me sound like I could be someone else. I kind of like that idea. Someone whose opinion counts.

‘In a minute,’ I tell him, and he wanders off to the back office, via the shelves of wine and down past the crisp packets. Johnny never takes the direct route if he can help it.

‘Right, Patricia,’ Mr O’Connor – Mike – says, and I don’t correct him. I like the idea of this new me, stretched out to three syllables, a grown-up me. He wants to sort out the rota, which shifts I’m able to work for the next few weeks. I can’t talk much, I’m too nervous for anything other than simple answers.

I tell him the day’s I’m free (all of them, really) and I think I answer all his questions. The lack of food is starting to kick in. I hope I’ve been making sense. He comes around to the front of his desk, leans against it so I have to look up at him. His leg is right beside mine, I’m not wearing tights and I can almost feel his trousers against the side of my bare calf. I can feel his heat.

‘So, is there anything you need to ask, no? No problems?’

I tell him everything is just fine, and then I have to stand up so I can do back to work, except that when I get up out of the chair he doesn’t move so I’m standing right close to him and he’s between me and the door. I’m almost the same height as him, and he doesn’t move away, doesn’t say anything. He watches me.

Fuck. Do I turn and go back around the chair, walk the long way to get to the door, or do I wait for him to move?

Except he’s not moving and he’s the boss so I can’t exactly tell him to shift out of the way, so I turn around, go the long way. Almost trip over the leg of the chair.

‘Let me know if you need anything,’ he says to me as I open the door. I trust myself to nod, that’s it.

*

My mother makes it to twelve noon before she calls in, my little brother in tow.

‘Look what I got you,’ she says, confident and urgent. She holds out a small bag to me, pulls apart the handles. It’s a bra.

‘New minimiser,’ she whispers. ‘Best on the market, apparently. NASA technology, designed by engineers.’

Like that will change my life.

My little brother is having none of it. ‘How come she gets an engineered bra and all I get is Jar Jar Binks,’ he says, perfect elocution and at the top of his voice. I could kill him, but at least he has distracted my mother. She pays for her bottle of Ernest and Julio, giving out to him instead of me.

‘Will you try it,’ she comes around and whispers to me. I will, I’ll wear her space-engineered bra with NASA technology, right up until I can get under the surgeon’s knife. However many bips of the scanner it takes.

*

I only take a half-hour lunch break. It’s not like I have much to do – chewing gum doesn’t take up much time. I escape to the bookshop for a few minutes, skim the titles and read a few pages of the new Holly Black book. But I’m saving all my money, so it’ll have to wait for a trip to the library.

Breeda, the other checkout girl, sends me out the back for Mary. She wants her lunch break but doesn’t want to leave me on my own. I’m kind of with her on that one. Mary isn’t in her usual smoking spot, and there’s no sign of her in the staff toilets either.

Johnny is standing in the middle of the stockroom, staring at a stack of pasta sauces. I say hello, not expecting anything back, slowing down to see if I can spot why he’s staring at sauce.

‘It’s the tomatoes,’ he says, as if he knows what I’m thinking. ‘The way they go so easily from smooth plump globes to mush. And how different they taste after they do.’

He’s finished talking, and turns around to look at me. Nods. Turns out his eyes are hazel.

And I barely register Mary leaving Mr O’Connor’s – Mike’s – office, back into the supermarket to finish out her shift, or Mr O’Connor coming to the door of his office a moment or so later.

I can’t stop looking at Johnny and the crates of pasta sauce behind him. I had never really seen tomatoes before, never really considered them, or their sauce.

‘Your eyes really are so green,’ he says, seriously, as if they’re the only green in the world, and I feel like my eyes are me and I am my eyes, the only part of my body that exists.

‘Johnny,’ shouts Mr O’Connor. ‘Johnny.’ Snap, and I’m back to regular me, and Johnny is just Johnny the slightly touched stock-boy. ‘Get away from those sauces and do what I asked you – the shelves need more milk and vegetables, get them out there now before the women start to give out.’

He walks back into the office and pretends to mutter to himself, though I can perfectly hear him. ‘Soft fucker, only reason I keep him on is his shoulders and strong back, that and his father. Daft bastard.’

As if he can sense my back rising with these words, he turns around.

‘And you, are you going to hang around and go soft with him, or are you going to get back in to work like I hired you to do?’

I don’t say a word. I look back to see Johnny’s head slumped forward, closed off. I walk to the fluorescent-lit doorway, walk the wrong way through the exit-only door, back to my ergonomic chair, and the cardboard suntan goddess still smiling at me. One hour to clock-off time. Only 916 working hours left to go until I can get back to my real self.

 

 [This story was first published by the Stinging Fly Magazine.]

Biographical Note:

Celeste Augé is an Irish-Canadian writer who has lived in Ireland since she was twelve years old. Her fiction and poetry have been widely published in literary journals and anthologies. In 2009, she was short-listed for a Hennessy Literary Award and Salmon Poetry published her first full-length poetry collection, The Essential Guide to Flight. In 2010 she received an Irish Arts Council Literature Bursary to work on her second collection of poetry. Her short story ‘The Good Boat’ won the 2011 Cuirt New Writing Prize for fiction.

www.celesteauge.com

 

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