Nonfiction from Candice Kelsey

Photo: Alexas Fotos

Puzzling Things

No hatreds are so keen as those of love.

– Propertius

They called me Fats. Older brothers have a knack for affectionate nicknames. But it was the 80s, and sensitivity hadn’t quite made its appearance onto the cultural scene. For some reason they referred to each other as Gay Boy. I’m not quite sure how they got away with it—I mean, where was my mother?

The puzzle is to build one large pyramid
with six small triangular pyramids,
three larger pyramids with square bases,
five slanted wedges, and a large base unit.

I know where she was during our frequent family road trips. All 5’ 1” of her, blonde and smoking Salem Lights, occupied the front passenger seat of our woody station wagon. Her disapproval consisted of a half-turn, a gravelly Heads will roll, and prolonged sip of her trademark iced tea. Not too commanding. Especially since most legs of any given trip found her with makeshift antennae protruding from her French-twist bun of L’Oréal-bleached hair. What else would brothers do with their respective plastic McDonald’s straws?

I take three of the six small triangular pieces
and place them so that each triangle
has an edge flush with a middle wall of the base
and their points meet in the center.

Some of our deepest family laughs came from watching her walk toward the gas station bathroom looking like an alien, like some oversized insect with extrasensory powers. Today I see more foreboding in it. No one could probe me like the mother ship could. No one was more foreign to me than she was. Still is.

My happiest memory was the perfectly green Kermit the Frog tenth birthday cake even though my oldest brother accidentally sat on it in the car ride home from Montgomery’s Main Street Bakery. Kermit with a crushed skull was better than Kermit hanged in effigy from the kitchen ceiling light or Kermit flung out the RV’s bathroom window onto the Jersey Turnpike in a blizzard. Each incident actual expressions of my brothers’ affection. But why, without fail, did they have to celebrate by singing It’s not easy being green?

I place one of the larger pyramids
with its point down toward the middle
of the base in between two
of the smaller triangles.

I learned quickly that it was also not easy being chubby. My favorite bathing suit was a white one-piece patterned with leaf-bejeweled red tulips. The contrast of red and green with white struck me as the most aesthetically pleasing garment I could ever put on my eleven-year-old body. And I broke it in at Sunlite Water Park, the dream summer destination for any of Cincinnati’s kids. When my mother told me to stand by the edge of the pool for a picture, I was eager to do it. After all, I was wearing the best bathing suit at the best pool and ready to have the best day of my summer. I smiled for her. She told me There, now you can see how huge your stomach looks in a bathing suit.

I don’t know where that picture ended up—it’s not in any of my albums. Maybe I tore it to pieces one day. Or my mother, ravaged by guilt, used her Bic lighter to burn it. Is it weird that in some masochistic way, I wish I could have it taped to my bathroom mirror or clipped to my refrigerator?

The square base of that piece
tilts up and towards the corners
of the base. I do the same
with the other large pyramid pieces.

Food seemed to be the only thing I was supposed to think about. It was my job to write up the grocery lists; I suppose I was the most aware of the pantry’s inventory. I like to imagine it was my way of being important, my way of mattering, my way of exerting a maternal presence that would be appreciated. Something that would earn me a smidgen of praise.

I finally see the irony in it. From the age of nine my mother’s idea of bonding with her only daughter took the form of dieting contests. Who could go the longest amount of time without eating? Who could lose the most weight? Competitions consisting of scales, portion control, and dizziness. Today she remembers fondly all the times she took me out to lunch after a long day at the mall; the other day she texted me Just reminiscing about all our fun lunch dates when you were a little girl xoxo! How does she not remember keeping a weekly ledger of my weight?

I have struggled with a ledger of hate. Writing and erasing. Inching toward forgiveness only to turn the page and see that child in a tulip swimsuit. Is this how we learn to hate?

I place one of the wedge pieces
into each corner of the base leaning
against the larger triangular pieces.

The summer before sixth grade I enrolled in cooking camp where I learned to decorate cakes, whip up omelets, and mince garlic. But the only skill I needed that summer was assembling triple decker salami and mustard sandwiches for my brothers, on demand. Two-a-day football practices made them hungry. So hungry that they sawed off a baseball bat in the garage and then used it as weapon on me, jabbing my rib cage until I made their sandwiches. Was that when I began hiding in the linen closet?

Then, I place the remaining smaller
triangular pieces on top of
the flat triangles of the wedges.

A saw wasn’t the only weapon my father kept in the garage. He also had a vise, an axe, two weed whackers, and way too many BB guns. The vise invariably found its grip tightening on my elbow as punishment for not agreeing to be my brothers’ tackling dummy. The axe, ceremoniously carried by two grand-hooded executioners, sliced through the plastic sinews of my baby dolls, taking my mother’s head-rolling threat to the next level. The weed whackers were the perfect way to intimidate me into doing their chores for them. That or their default: spit torture.

The only comparable weapon my mother kept was a bottle of Nair hair remover in her shower. It remained a consistent threat, hovering over my childhood like the sword of Damocles. I never took a shower without first sniffing the shampoo for that pungent stench of depilatory. I’m not sure which is more puzzling to me, how my mother thought I would be just fine at home when she went back to work or why my brothers never used those BB guns on me. Did they, perhaps, love me?

I slide one wedge piece pointed down
into the open space and then
the other wedge piece inverted on top of it.

Despite all those, my brothers’ most devious weapon was concocted in the kitchen: Serious Mass High Calorie Mix Weight Gain Powder. A magical elixir that helped them be more menacing on the football field and bumped up their numbers for weigh-ins. According to my brothers, everything I ingested would be tainted with this powder. And it is with this particularly maniacal threat that they broke me. This and the bumper sticker they slapped onto our family car: No Fat Chicks.

This move forms the pyramid
and completes the puzzle.

I sometimes find it hard to reconcile the terror I lived then with the relative ease and boredom I find now as an adult. Maybe this is why I feel compelled to write about my family, to figure it out and make peace with not enjoying a single bite of food ever since I was nine. Maybe this is why I spend my weekends solving puzzles, obsessively pursuing solutions to problems. Today my brothers and I have a better relationship. After decades manipulating life’s puzzles in their own rights, they each seem to have become more human. Wives and children helped them, I’m sure. We are now quite civil toward one another. We trade photos of our kids, lament about our aging parents, and even find moments to laugh about our childhood years together. No longer do I fear them, nor do I idolize them. Instead, I see them as the flawed beautiful humans that we all are. Maybe this is what it means to grow up.


Candice Kelsey‘s work has appeared in such journals as Poet Lore, The Cortland Review, and North Dakota Quarterly. She published a successful trade paperback with Da Capo Press, was a finalist for Poetry Quarterly‘s Rebecca Lard Award, and recently was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. An educator of 20 years’ standing with her M.A. in literature from LMU, she lives in Los Angeles with her husband and three children.

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