Mona Awad has been nominated for the 2016 Scotiabank Giller Prize for 13 Ways Of Looking At A Fat Girl—the story of a Mississauga girl and her best friend, and the dark humour that comes from their grapples with body image. An exclusive excerpt from the book follows. You can also read, as part of our ongoing series profiling all the shortlisted authors’ creative process, Awad’s essay on her craft here.
13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl
When We Went Against the Universe
We went against the universe at the McDonald’s on the corner of Wolfedale and Mavis. On a sunny afternoon. Mel and I hate sunny afternoons. Especially here in Misery Saga, which is what you’re allowed to call Mississauga if you live there. In Misery Saga, there is nothing to do with sunny afternoons but all the things we have already done a thousand times. We’ve lain on our backs in the grass, listening to the same Discman, one earphone each, watching the same clouds pass. We’ve walked in the woodlot pretending to pretend that it is Wonderland, even though when you stand in the heart of it, you can still hear cars going by. We’ve eaten dry cupcakes at that dessert place down the road where all the other kids go. We don’t like other kids but we go anyway, just for the bustle. We’ve sat behind the bleachers sharing Blizzards from Dairy Queen, the wind making our Catholic school kilts flap against our stubbly knees. Our favorite was the one with the pulverized brownies and nuts and chocolate sauce, but they don’t make it anymore for some reason. So we’re at the McDonald’s on the corner eating McFlurries, which everyone knows aren’t as good as Blizzards, even when you tell them to mix more things in.
We’re bored out of our minds as usual, having exhausted every topic of conversation. There is only so much Mel and I can say about the girls we hate or the bands and books and boys we love on a scale of one to ten. There is only so much we can play of The Human Race Game, which is when we eliminate the whole human race and only put back in the people we can stand and only if we both agree. There is only so much we can talk about how we’d give it up and what we’d be wearing and with which boy and what he’d be wearing and what album might be playing in the background. We’ve established, for the second time today, that for Mel it would be a red velvet dress, the drummer from London After Midnight, Renaissance wear, and Violator. For me: a purple velvet dress, Vince Merino, a vintage suit, and Let Love In, but it changes.
So we decide to do the Fate Papers. The Fate Papers is Mel’s name for when you tear off two small bits of paper and write No on one piece and Yes on the other. You shake the two balled-up pieces in your hands while you close your eyes and ask the universe your question. You can ask aloud or in your mind. Mel and I both prefer in your mind but sometimes, if it is an urgent matter, like now, we ask aloud. The first paper that drops is the answer. Now we are asking if Mel should call Eric to see if he likes the CD she made him of her favorite Lee Hazlewood songs. The Fate Papers already said No, but we’re doing two out of three because that can’t be right even though the Fate Papers are never wrong. Next, we are going to ask if I should try talking to Vince Merino again after yesterday’s fiasco attempt.
The Fate Papers say No to Mel again, then No to me.
The universe is against us, which makes sense. So we get another McFlurry and talk about how fat we are for a while. But it doesn’t matter how long we talk about it or how many times Mel assures me she’s a fucking whale beneath her clothes; I know I’m fatter. Not by a little either. Mel has an ass, I’ll give her that, but that’s all I’ll give her.
If I win the fat argument then Mel will say, so what I’m way prettier than she is, but I think face-wise we’re about the same. I haven’t really grown into my nose yet or discovered the arts of starving myself and tweezing. So I’ll be honest with you. In this story, I don’t look that good, except for maybe my skin, which Mel claims she would kill for. Also my tits. Mel says they’re huge and she assures me it’s a good thing. Maybe even too much of a good thing, she says. It’s Mel who got me using the word tits. I have trouble calling them anything even in my thoughts. They embarrass me and all the words for them embarrass me, but I’m trying, for Mel’s sake, to name my assets. Even with my skin and tits, though, it’s still Mel who looks better. She’s got psoriasis and a mustache she has to bleach and still. It’s definitely Mel who has any hope in hell with any of the boys we like. Which is I guess why she claims the men at the next table were looking at her first.
I hadn’t even noticed them. I was busy eating my Oreo McFlurry, hunting for the larger pieces of Oreo that sometimes get trapped at the bottom, which I hate. It’s Mel who points the men out, saying three o’clock to me without moving her lips or making much noise. I turn and see three businessmen sitting in the booth next to us, eating Big Macs. I assume they are businessmen because they are wearing business suits, but they could just as easily be suit salesmen or bank tellers. At any rate, they are men, their hands full of veins and hairs, each pair of hands gripping a bit-into Big Mac.
Mel says they are totally checking her out. I look at them again and none of them seem to be looking at us. They don’t even seem to be looking at each other. They’re looking at their burgers or into space.
“No,” Mel says. They were looking at her tits. Mel is exceedingly proud of her tits. What she loves most is the mole on the top of her left breast. She wears Wonderbras and low-cut tops to show it off.
“I want a boob guy,” she always tells me. “I wouldn’t want a butt guy because I hate my butt.”
“Yeah,” I say in sympathy.
“I hate it,” she clarifies. “But boys love it. They always give me compliments. Still, I wouldn’t want a butt guy. He’d always want to do it from behind.”
“Yeah,” I say in sympathy again. We both agree we’d never want a
The reason the men are looking, according to Mel, is because she’s been giving off sex vibes all day. I never know what she means by this. My best guess is something between an animal scent and a cosmic force. Mel always says it has to do with the universe. What happens is the universe feels her sex vibes and transmits them to like-minded men and women. She says these particular men can feel her sex vibes. That’s why they’re looking. She’s giving off enough of them for both of us. Which is why they’re looking at me too. They’re totally checking us both out, she says. They checked her out first, of course. But now they’re checking us both out.
I say, “Really?”
And she says, “Totally. Doesn’t that make you horny?”
I hate the word horny. It makes me think of sweat and snorting and wiry hairs.
“I guess,” I say. Though it really, really doesn’t. The men aren’t really attractive. I mean, they’re fine, I guess. But they have these little blinky businessmen eyes and one of them even has gray hair. They look like they are around my father’s age. I hardly see my father since he left, but I know he has a lot of girlfriends. Mainly women he works with at the hotel where he’s a manager. I find traces of them on my infrequent visits to his apartment—feathery, complicated lingerie between his balled-up black socks, a box of tampons under the sink. And then in with his cologne bottles shaped like male torsos, I’ll find a perfume that smells sickly sweet. One time one of them left a message on the machine saying she missed his body oh so much. I can’t even imagine missing my father’s body, and not just because he is my father. No, none of this is making me especially horny. But I say it sort of is because I know if I don’t play along Mel will be angry and a pain to hang out with.
“Wouldn’t it be fun,” she says, “if we went up to them and propositioned them?”
“To do what?” I say.
“To, like, I don’t know,” she sighs. “Let us suck them off. For money. I’d say we’re each worth at least fifty bucks. Maybe even a hundred.”
Mel’s a bit of a slut. But you can’t ever call her that. She hates the word slut and gets pissed if anybody around her uses it. She got super pissed at our friend Katherine once, this girl at our school who wants to be a nun, because Katherine says slut about people she doesn’t like and she says it, according to Mel, with a mouth full of hate. I tell Mel, What does she expect from a girl who only wants to be touched by the hand of God? Mel says it doesn’t matter and really hates Katherine even though we’re all friends.
Mel had to change schools, even, because they kept calling her a slut. Mostly behind her back, but sometimes even to her face, like in an eighties movie. Something about a boy she really liked who already had a girlfriend but the boy found out Mel liked him and started to like her back without breaking up with his girlfriend. So when Mel found out the boy liked her back, she gave him a blow job in the woodlot. But then his girlfriend found out about it and got everyone in the school to start calling Mel a slut whenever she walked by. I guess the boy must have felt guilty about the blow job and decided to tell his girlfriend. Or he was proud of it and just couldn’t stop himself. Whatever it was, Mel couldn’t take it and had to change schools. That’s how I met her and we started getting bored together.
People call Mel a slut at our school too. Because of what she wears on days when we don’t wear our uniforms, but also because of what she wears on regular days, which is nylon thigh highs instead of the itchy wool tights we’re supposed to wear. And she rolls her kilt all the way up so you can see where the thigh highs end. My mother thinks this is why people call Mel a slut. But I don’t think so. Not to sound like an old woman, but you should see girls these days. Some girls roll their kilts all the way up to their crotches. I wear mine down to my knees, but sometimes I’ll roll it up just a little on the way to school. But then it always rolls back down by itself. It’s fine. Later on I’m going to be really fucking beautiful. I’m going to grow into that nose and develop an eating disorder. I’ll be hungry and angry all my life but I’ll also have a hell of a time.
For minutes now, Mel has been seriously calculating how much we might be worth to these businessmen. She has decided that our youth and the fact that we’re both virgins—in her case, only technically—makes us way more expensive than she initially thought.
“At least three hundred dollars,” she finally says. “What do you think?”
“At the very, very least,” I say, playing along. I try to use a voice that tells her I’m just playing along.
I look at the men more closely. Two are fine. But one of them is rather flabby and pale with little worm husk lips and a look of hunger in his eyes that his Big Mac is not filling. His whole face reminds me of the word horny. I know if it comes down to it, this is the one I’ll get stuck with.
“But where are we going to go with these guys?” I ask.
“I’ll bet one of them’s got a big, black car,” Mel says. “Big enough for all of us.”
Mel looks out the Windex-streaked window into the parking lot. I look with her.
There are no cars like that in the parking lot.
“There’s more parking in back,” she says. “You go ask them.”
“You go,” I say. “It’s your idea.”
She looks at me and takes a deep breath and says, “Okay,” and gets up and I say, “Wait.”
“Let’s go to the bathroom first.”
When we get up to go to the bathroom, Mel saunters over to the three men and says hey in what she thinks is her sexiest voice. To me, though, the only difference between it and her normal voice is that it sounds louder. In this voice, she asks them if they happen to know the time.
All three of these men are wearing wristwatches but only one of them—the fat, pale, horny one—consults his. The other two exchange a glance and keep eating.
“It’s about five thirty,” he says, looking up at us. And I notice that when he does, his little businessman eyes do this little dip from our faces to our chests. It’s the littlest dip you can imagine. But it’s all Mel can talk about when we get to the bathroom.
“Could you beeelieeeeve that guy? I mean, he was slobbering all ohhhver us.”
And I say, “Totally, I know. He totally was.”
And she says, “Oh my god, Lizzie, we have to do this.”
And I agree. We have to.
Today was Dress Down Day, which means that though we came from school, we’re not wearing our uniforms. This Dress Down Day had a theme. Normally Mel and I steer clear of the themes because of how lame they usually are, but this one was The Sixties, which we guessed was cool enough. Everybody dressed up like a hippie, including me, but Mel did a cooler thing. She found this minidress with a whacked-out red and white pattern at Value Village for, like, seven bucks. So she’s wearing that and her lips are covered with a silvery frost, which she is now reapplying in the mirror. Her eyelids are lined thickly on top with black liquid liner. All day she got compliments from everyone, even though we know no one except Katherine. Girls we both hate kept coming up to Mel and saying things like, Love your dress. And then Mel said, Thanks, and when the girl was out of earshot Mel finished with, Bitch. And we both laughed.
I finish putting on my lipstick and I watch Mel apply a fresh coat of eyeliner to one closed eye, and I say, “But we can’t have sex with them.”
Mel waves the coat of eyeliner dry with a hand.
“Oh my god,” she says, “of course not. Are you crazy?”
I heave a sigh of relief. “Okay, good,” I say.
“We’re just going to suck them off in their car,” she says. “It’ll make their whole lives.”
“All right,” I say, and run my tongue over my teeth.
I pray the businessmen won’t be there when we get back, but they’re there. And one of them, our friend the time teller, even smiles a not unwelcoming smile. Mel takes a step toward their table; they all look up. Then just as she takes a breath and starts to open her mouth, I grab her hand and pull her back.
“What?” she hisses.
“Let’s do the Fate Papers real quick,” I hiss back.
Mel sighs and sits down with me back at our booth.
I watch as she lamely shuffles the crumpled bits of napkin. I close my eyes tight and ask the universe as hard as I can in my mind.
When the paper drops, I pick it up off the table and unfold it.
Yes, written with purple ink in Mel’s loopy hand.
I make her do two out of three.
“Now what?” she says, as we both stare the crumpled Yes of the universe in the face for the second time.
By then the businessmen are getting up, clearing their trays. The horny one, though, he takes his time about it, smiling at me on the way out in a manner that I can only describe as trying for fatherly but coming off more like creepy uncle. Mel and I look at each other and make a face and fake a shudder and laugh.
Later on, Mel will climb into cars and taxis with men she barely knows while I watch from the sidewalk. She’ll agree to blow a guy in the stall of a men’s bathroom near Union Station for fifty dollars. She’ll wear her Catholic school uniform long after she has dropped out of high school for a man from Sudbury who looks exactly like Sloth from The Goonies. After she drops out, I’ll see her at a coffee shop on her way to a fetish bar or to meet a guy, her earphones full of increasingly obscure music, her shoulders and arms covered in welts and bruises, full of stories involving men who I’ll call The Icks because their names always seem to end in ick. Rick. Vick. There will be two Nicks. She’ll tell me the stories while I stare at the welts, the purply blue swirls of bruise edged with yellow like little inverted galaxies.
Much later on, in the back of a parked van, my wrists will get tied together with a pair of dirty gym socks and I’ll get terrible head from a political science major who will tell me my inability to come is psychological. I’ll go to a park with a man ten years older than I am, an Indian physicist. After explaining resonance to me with violent hand gestures, he’ll dry-hump me between the rocks bordering the man-made creek. Years before that, in a hotel room in the next suburb, I’ll go down on a man old enough to be my father—a friend of my mother’s—every day after school for a week or so until this man feels so guilty he’ll tell my mother and I’ll never see him again. All that week, this man will pay for my taxi ride from school to the hotel. And I’ll ride in it, lipstick matching my nail polish, bra matching my underwear, feeling like a girl in a movie until I get there and then when I get there, see him waving at me by the entrance, ready to pay the driver, I will not feel like that anymore. You look nice, he’ll say in the elevator on the way up, if we are alone. Nice, not beautiful. Never will this man or any man call me beautiful, not for a long, long time.
“They would have totally gone for it. You know they would have,” Mel says, handing me an earbud as we both rise from the booth. “Especially that one guy.”
“Yeah,” I say, putting the bud in my right ear.
“And the Fate Papers said Yes,” she adds, putting the bud’s twin in her left ear and pushing a button on the Discman, “Some Velvet Morning” swelling in our respective ears.
“You know what that means?” she says. “That means the universe wanted us to blow those guys.”
“So what happens when you go against the universe?” I ask her, as we leave behind the golden arches and enter the suddenly ominous maw of a Misery Saga night.
“I don’t know,” she says, thoughtful. “I’ve never done it before. I guess we’ll see.”
As we walk to her house under black-bellied clouds we consider the question, careful to walk the same measured steps side by side so the cord won’t pull too far in either direction.
Excerpted from 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl. Copyright © Mona Awad, 2016. Published by Penguin Canada, a division of Penguin
Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.