The Girl I Hate
by Mona Awad
So I’m eating scones with the girl I hate. The scones are her idea. She says eating one of them is like getting fucked. Not vanilla-style either, the kind with whips. She’s eating the scones and I’m watching, sipping black tea with milk but no sugar. Actually, she hasn’t quite started yet. She’s still spreading clotted cream on each half of the split scone, then homemade jam on top of that. As she does this, she warns me she might make groaning noises. Just so, you know, I know. That’s fine, I shrug, feeling little bits of me catch fire. I’ve got the teacup in my hand, my finger crooked in the little handle that’s too small for it so the circulation’s getting cut off. I watch her bite into the scone with her little bunny teeth. I watch gobs of clotted cream catch in either corner of her lip. She tilts her head back, closes her eyes, starts to make what must be the groaning noises. I pour myself more tea and cup it in both hands like it’s warming them, even though it’s gone cold. Then I pretend to look out the window at the dismal view of the Grassmarket. I say, “Busy in the office this morning,” and try not to think Cunt.
She is after all, a friend and colleague.
“What?” She says, her mouth full of scone. She hasn’t heard me because of her groans.
I repeat that it was busy in the office this morning, loudly, over-enunciating, then I do think Cunt.
“Mm,” she says. But she’s too high on scone to really carry on a conversation. She’s so high, she’s swinging her little stick legs back and forth underneath her seat like a child and doing this side-to-side dance with her head like the one she did when she ate the fried porkchop in front of me at Typhoon a few weeks ago.
There’s her groaning and there’s her stick legs and there’s her aggressively jutting out clavicle. There’s the Cookie Monster impression she does after she describes food she loves (Om-Nom-Nom!). There’s how the largeness of the scone seems only to emphasize her impossible smallness. Mainly, there’s the fact that she exists at all.
There’s also her outfits, which she buys from vintage shops, and which are usually a cross between quirky and whorish. Today, she’s wearing this spandex playsuit like something out of a Goldfrapp video, which she’s paired with sheer tights that have a backseam of little black hearts. Over that she’s wearing a red bell coat like the ones little girls wear when they ice skate in picture books. I had a coat like this when I was five but in pink. There’s a picture of me in the coat, holding my father’s hand in a frozen over parking lot somewhere in Michigan. In the picture, my dad’s got an Afro and he’s looking down at this small thing holding his hand as if he can’t believe how small this thing—me—is. In the picture, I’m about the same size as the girl I hate is now, except that I’m a child and she’s a full grown woman, and I guess I’m looking at her now with my father’s same unbelief, except without love.
She catches me looking at her and she says, “What?” and I say, “Nothing.”
She looks at my cup of cold tea and at my lack of scone. “How come you didn’t get one? Aren’t you hungry?”
“I’m going to have a salad later,” I tell her. “On the afternoon fifteen.”
I’m already picturing it: me in the blissfully empty break room, my M&S lettuce, the dated copy of Hello! I’ll pretend to read if anyone comes in. I won’t turn on the lights.
She shrugs, eats more scone. Then she sort of squints at me like a pirate attempting to gauge the whole of someone’s soul with one eye.
“You’re very salad-y,” she says.
After she’s done, she sinks back in her chair, pats her non-existent stomach through her playsuit, and says she’s feeling sleepy. She sighs, faux pouts.
“Wish we didn’t have to go back to work.”
“Yeah,” I say, signaling for the check and grabbing my purse from the back of the chair. She reaches over and pats the fuzzy leopard print like it’s a pet of hers.
“Pretty,” she says.
On the walk back to the office, we discuss our worst temp jobs. Hers was the one before this one. The boss kept trying to fuck her. Also they had this photocopier she’s pretty sure was possessed by Satan. Also it wasn’t near any good lunch places.
“What about you?”
“The one before this one.” Actually, it’s this one.
“Satanic photocopier?” she offers.
“Fax,” I say, looking at how the long white line of her neck is offset by a cheap black choker.
“Ooh,” she says. “Worse.”
When we reach the office, before we head to our respective cubicles, she turns to me, her lips and her cheeks still flushed from scone, and says, “text me later okay?”
“Okay,” I say. Then she trots off a little ahead of me, and I see how her little heart back seams are perfectly aligned down both calves.
All afternoon, I have the waking dream where she gets so fat on scone, she explodes.
At home, I eat the other half of my M&S salad with the other half of the honey Dijon dressing it came with. I make sure to draw the curtains first. I didn’t used to, but then I caught the owner of the Turkish restaurant next door staring at me from his upstairs window, smoking, just as I had finished my post-salad ritual of dragging all my finger pads over and over again across the empty plate and sucking them one by one. It used to be he would say hello when I walked past him in the street. Now he looks at me like he’s familiar with the details of my most unfortunate pair of underwear. Has fingered the fraying, scalloped edge. Waggled the limp pink bow. Held the Made in Cambodia tag between his teeth.
Post-salad, I try on the French Connection bodycon, followed by the Bettie Page pencil skirt and the Stop Staring! halter. In all cases, I’m no closer but I’m also no further, which is not news at all. Then I just sort of stand in front of the mirror in my bra and my French cuts and attempt to come to grips with certain irrevocable truths. Then I eat several handfuls of flax cereal and 15 raw, unsalted almonds.
Later, while I lie awake in bed, I think of the perfect come back to the salad-y remark. I put us both back in the teashop and I make her say that I’m salad-y with clotted cream in each corner of her lip. But instead of replying, Am I?, I lean in and in a low voice I say Listen, you little skank! Not all of us can eat scones and have it turn into more taut littleness! Some of us are forced to eat spring mix in the half-dark of our bachelors and still expand inexplicably. Some of us expand at the mere contemplation of what you shovel so carelessly so dancingly into your smug little mouth. And the way I say it, leaning in like that, with all this edge and darkness in my voice garnered from years of precipice-induced restraint, makes her bow her head in genuine remorse.
On my way to work the next day, I make a promise to myself. I promise that when the girl I hate asks me out to lunch I’ll say No, I’ll say No, I’ll say No. Then, at around 11, when she sends me a text that says, Weird Swedish Pizza!! Omnomnom!, I text back ☺. We go to the Scandinavian café she loves. She orders a sausage-lavender-thyme pizza square the size of her head plus a Kardemummabullar for later, for what she calls Secret Eating. I get the fennel-pomegranate-dill salad, which comes undressed in a diamond-shaped bowl. While she’s eating the pizza, she watches me forage through limp dill fronds for fennel quarter moons. I try to distract her by making a comment about the weather, how I thought it was supposed to rain today, something to make her look skywards, but her eyes are on me, my fork, the bowl.
“That salad’s small,” she says.
“Not really,” I say, bringing the bowl closer to me. “It only looks small.”
But she won’t let it be. She lifts her heart-shaped sunglasses, leans forward and peers down into the bowl and sort of wrinkles her nose like she’s just smelled something awful.
“It looks small because it is small,” she says, sitting back. She cocks her head to one side, like I’m curious. “How come you got that?”
I say something about how I just like pomegranate seeds, how they’re pretty like rubies.
She stares at me until I feel heat creep up the back of my neck. Then she shrugs. She’s wearing this strappy tank that exposes how her shoulders are all bone. She opens her mouth wide and takes a pointedly large bite of pizza then leans back, chewing, and tilts her tiny face towards the sun.
“I love shun,” she says.
That night, while I’m having dinner with Mel at the bistro with the fun salads, I bitch to her about Itsy Bitsy, which is what I call the girl I hate when I’m being funny about how I hate her. I don’t even wait until we’ve gotten our drinks, I just start in while we still have the oversized menus in front of us. I tell Mel about the scones and the Swedish pizza. I tell her about the salad-y remark. I tell her what I wished I could have told Itsy Bitsy, about scones turning into more taut littleness for some, while others are forced to grow fat on salad. I figure Mel, who’s fat, fatter even than I am, will appreciate how hate-worthy she is. It’s what I love most about Mel.
Mel says, “Itsy Bitsy. Is this the girl who kept eating the lemon slices off your vodka sevens?”
“That was Soy Foam. The anorexic from my old work. This is another one, from my new work. And I don’t hate her so much anymore.”
Soy Foam was annoying, really annoying, but at least I got her. I didn’t at first. At first all I saw was this terribly small woman from accounts who, whenever we’d go to lunch, would order an Americano with steamed soy milk on the side, then eat the foam with a spoon, like soup. Then one night, during Happy Hour, after devouring all my cocktail garnish, she drunkenly confessed she hadn’t had her period in two years and that, as a result of premature menopause, she’d had to start shaving her face. After that, I hated her less. But it’s different with Itsy Bitsy.
“Sorry. So who’s Itsy Bitsy then?”
“The super thin one? With the bunny teeth? Who makes the Cookie Monster noises?”
“Oh,” she said. “Right. Why do you go to lunch with her if you hate her so much?”
“We’re friends. She’s actually nice aside from this.”
She is nice, sort of. My first week, she sort of took me under her wing. Showed me how to use the photocopier. Got me out of a printing jam by banging her little fist repeatedly on the lid until it belched out the other half of my report. Once, when I had a tension headache, she pinched my palm between her thumb and forefinger super hard for five minutes because she’d read online that sometimes that helped. Also, she was the only one at the office who bothered to talk to me. We even have a girl we hate together: Probiotic Yoga Evangelist, this whore from HR. After we caught each other making gag-me faces at her Bikram-Changed-My-Life speech, which she made between spoonfuls of Oikos, we sort of bonded.
“Yeah,” Mel agrees. “I guess that makes it awkward.”
The waitress comes and I order my heart salad with the poppy seed dressing on the side.
“Heart salad?” Mel asks.
“This salad that has heart everything,” I say. “Artichoke hearts. Romaine hearts. Hearts of palm. I love it.”
Mel orders the roast beef and havarti scroll with the sweet potato fries. She suggests sharing the baked camembert appetizer but when I refuse, she doesn’t push like she used to. Maybe she’s starting to understand how I can’t afford to lose what is at best a tenuous, hard won momentum. I tell her she should get it though. For herself. It sounds good.
“I can’t get it for just me. I’m not that much of a pig. I hope.”
“I’ll have a bite,” I offer.
Mel says she shouldn’t get it anyway. She should, you know, be good. “Like you,” she gives me a half smile.
I tell her I’m honestly not that good. Really, I’m—
“You are,” she says. “I wish I had your discipline.”
“You did for a while.” I say looking away.
For a while Mel was pretty committed. Using her mother’s old exercycle, living on Diet Coke and Michelina’s Light. In fact, for a while there, Mel began to look very much the unstoppable force of nature she was when she was seventeen, the girl who wore black bras you could see through her white Catholic school blouse and who blew all the boys I ever professed to love in her bedroom, while I played solitaire in the downstairs den with her mother.
When Mel started losing weight, I tried to be supportive. I kept telling her things like, “You look great, but you don’t want to go too far.” You know, things a friend would say to a friend. But Mel would just sip her Diet Coke sort of smug like she had a secret, leaving half her salad for the waitress to clear away. She lost steam after a few months, though. Couldn’t keep it up. Gained it back plus plus. It was really really sad.
“I guess I kind of went too far,” Mel says now.
“I did tell you not to go too far,” I remind her. Then I realize that’s kind of harsh. Surely she’s suffered enough?
“You still look beautiful though,” I add. I search for something about her to compliment. It isn’t easy. She’s still beautiful but since she gained all that weight back, she’s really let herself go grooming-wise. Usually she’ll wear at least lipstick for me because she knows it depresses me to see her without it, but today her lips are all bare and crackly.
“I love your top,” I say at last. It’s hideous. One of those tent-like horrors from the plus size store. There are some iridescent baubles along the neckline, some frothy bits of lace trailing from the cap-sleeves to lessen its resemblance to a shroud.
“I love the sleeve-detail.”
Mel looks down at the froth, frowning. “It’s okay, I guess.”
“I think it’s nice. They clearly have way nicer things at that store than they did back when I had to shop there.”
“It’s still the same crap,” she spits. “They just have more selection is all.”
We stab at our ice.
“I love your top, though,” she says, eyeing my bustier. “Siren?”
“I thought that place closed.”
“Nope. Still open. New owner though.”
“I used to love shopping there.”
Waiting outside the change room while she tried on PVC corsets and velvet, empire- waisted dresses. The former owner, a corpse-like woman named Gruvella, regarding me with eyes the color of skim milk as though I were about to steal something, not that anything she had would’ve fit me then, not even the fingerless gloves. Mel finally coming out from behind the white and black striped curtain, twirling for me while I sat in the chair with the clawed armrests, saying “Great, that looks great.”
“I still remember that black bell-sleeved dress you got there. The one you wore to the prom with the spider tights.”
“The Bella. I forgot about that dress. God, good memory.”
The waitress brings our food. She’s forgotten to put my poppy seed dressing on the side which often happens with this waitress and sometimes, honestly, I think maybe she does it on purpose just to fuck with me. I tell her about it and she says oh, well, she could change it for me, and I say, could you? And I tell Mel, you go ahead and start without me.
“She sounds pretty annoying,” Mel says. “Sadistic even.”
“Itsy Bitsy? She is.” In fact, I tell Mel that I’m starting to think she befriended me to make herself feel good. To feel extra bitsy. That I think she actually gets off on it, eating copiously in front of me while I eat nothing, and pointing out how I’m eating nothing while she’s eating copiously.
“I guess that’s possible,” Mel says. She picks up her fork and knife, then lowers them. “I feel bad about starting without you. You sure you don’t want at least some fries while you wait?”
I tell her I better not. I’ve been on such a slippery slope lately.
Mel bites into her scroll. “You look the shame to me,” she says. “Shkinnier even.”
“Are you kidding? I’m huge.”
Mel gives me a look like if I’m huge, then what the hell is she?
It’s awkward for a bit.
“So, anyone you hate these days?” I ask.
Mel cuts a large piece of scroll. Then she says there are people who annoy her. Who seriously, seriously annoy her. But no, no one worthy of hate. Hating requires a lot of energy; she’s so tired these days.
“I know what you mean,” I say. “I’m tired, too.”
But I get her going. I can always get her going.
We talk about the girls we hate on television and in the movies. We talk about the one who started out almost fat but then got thin after she swore she’d never lose the weight, she’d stay sort of fat forever and fuck them, them being The Industry. We talk about how we hate her so much for that, for caving to Industry Standards. But we hated her when she was fat too, for her skin. For her defiance of norms which we guess we’re still slaves to. Also, because boys seemed to love her either way, which is rare for boys. We talk about how it is that the boys we love always seem to love the girl we hate most. It makes us want to know every detail about her. What her sign is, if she is a vegetarian, whether she ever did porn or at least posed topless. And if she did, we’ll hunt for it on the net. We’ll download it by whatever means necessary, and as we watch it our hatred will glow, intensify, become something like an emergency and we’ll have to call each other up just so it doesn’t sit there, this lump in our throats. We half-laugh about how we’re masochists.
Then Mel remembers she has an early day tomorrow.
I ask her if she’d like me to drive her home, but she says it’s fine. Really.
I tell her I’m happy to at least drive her to the bus station closer to her house, that I’d really hate for her to have to take two buses at night, both such long rides, and besides, I never see her anymore.
“Okay,” she says, and I try not to hear that it’s sort of half-hearted.
On the ride over, to make her laugh, I tell her all about Aggressively Naked, this woman who works out at my gym who does all of her post-workout grooming naked. She brushes her hair naked. She uses her straightening iron naked. Eyelash curler and mascara naked. Rings necklace and even bracelets naked. Trouser socks and even shoes naked. Only after she’s got herself totally primped will she put on her clothes.
“Isn’t that annoying?”
“It is,” Mel agrees.
“I can’t believe I forgot to tell you earlier. Also, she’s got this body you wouldn’t believe. Like I knew just by her body she didn’t speak English. I knew that when she opened her mouth, something like Danish would come out.”
“Oh my god, stop,” she says, mock-covering her ears. “Just stop.”
Once we get to the bus station, I insist on holding Mel in the car until the bus comes. She takes her bus pass out of her little change purse to be at the ready. I tell her I love her change purse, even though there is really nothing distinctive about it, it’s just a change purse. Black leather with a little zip.
I ask her if she’s sure she doesn’t want me to take her home, it’s a long ride. She says actually she doesn’t mind it, that ever since she started living with her mother, she uses the bus time for Me Time. Me Time for Mel has always been a dark fantasy novel and some Norwegian darkwave on her ipod. It comforts me so much that this has never changed.
I ask her what she’s been reading and listening to lately, but she’s spotted the bus in the distance, so I say okay, good-bye, and tell her I’ll text her later, but she’s already out of the car, running toward the stop.
I go home and do my assessment in front of the mirror. Tonight, it seems there are more truths to come to grips with. Sometimes this happens. How many there are often depends on lighting. Not on how much, but on how it’s hitting me, on how it’s hitting certain parts. I eat a 100 gram bar of 70% dark chocolate square by square. As I lie in bed, I picture Mel in her house, spiky with all of her mother’s strange breeds of plant. I picture her walking up the creaking steps toward her bedroom, surrounded by walls of obscure fantasy and even more obscure CDs. I think of her lying on her back in the too-small bed of her childhood, the twin mattress sagging beneath her, a moon through the window silhouetting her, the gentle rise and fall of her vast stomach, her slight snore, until my eyes close.
At work the next day, Itsy Bitsy is secret eating a Kardemummabullar at her desk. She’s pretending to secret eat for my sake, to make me laugh, like, at look what a pig she is, she can’t even wait until lunch. She over-crackles the paper bag, does shifty eyes before each super-bite. She’s wearing this sixties mini dress with matching white go-go boots like something stitched out of my nightmares. Seeing me watch her, she waves, her cheeks plump with Kardemummabullar. I wave back, and the hate I feel is bottomless. The hate could drown us both. She swallows and mouths Lunch at me like it’s a question and I nod in spite of myself.
Then she texts me:
Banana orgy at Kilimanjaro! Om-nom-nom-nom!!!! }8D
I’ve eaten there with her before. It’s this sandwich and cake shop that has nothing to do with Africa, despite its name and décor. Under a black and white still of Serengeti cranes, I’ll watch her eat a vast ham and gruyere Panini with apricot chutney, slurp down a peanut butter and banana smoothie, then scarf a slice of banana cake. By the time the waitress sets that slice in front of her, I’ll have done eating half of my veggie delite wrap, even though I will eat as slowly as possible. By the time she cuts into her cake, my hands will be empty. And with her mouth full of cake, she’ll say something about how I’ve only eaten half the wrap. She might even point. She might even reach across the table and point at it, my sad, uneaten other half. And I’ll have to say something awkward about wanting to save this other half for later, which we’ll both know is a lie. I might even ask the waitress for a to-go bag, but she won’t be fooled. She’ll look at me like, Huh, and take another bite of banana cake. And I’ll know that once again my bearing miserable witness will have increased the flavor of her food somehow, like salt. I text back ;D, and as I do this, the hate shifts, spreads its wings in me, becomes almost electric, like love.
Mona Awad‘s fiction has appeared in McSweeney’s, The Walrus, Joyland, St. Petersburg Review, and Two Serious Ladies. She holds an MScR in English literature from the University of Edinburgh and is currently pursuing an MFA in fiction at Brown University.