Man-Size

Gwynne Garfinkle


Things Amy and I wanted to do before she started going out with Ted:

  • start a band
  • write a comic book or maybe a webcomic (Amy’s art, my words)
  • get an apartment together (when we go to college)
  • go to Ireland
  • go to Paris
  • go to Prague

* * *

Ted says Prague is overrated. (He’s vague about whether he’s actually been there.) He says Amy should want to visit Asia, not Europe, because her mother’s Japanese (born in Los Angeles, like us). He says she shouldn’t bother to start a band because it’s next to impossible to succeed in music anymore, what with musicians making nearly no money from Internet streaming, etc. (As if we didn’t already know that. It wasn’t about making money. It was about playing music together.) As for getting an apartment, Ted says that of course it’s he and Amy who are going to do that, and Amy smiles like her heart is melting into her shoes.

But a day or a week later, she’s not smiling.

* * *

At first Ted seemed nice. I was happy for Amy. But now it’s all drama drama drama. One day she’s crying and can’t eat, she sits in the cafeteria nibbling a bit of torn-off crust from her sandwich and looking greenish. “The food keeps rolling up my throat,” she whispers. Then a day or two later, she and Ted are lovey dovey again, like nothing ever happened, like he never shouted at her and called her crazy. They act like he doesn’t break up with her every couple of weeks.

The other day Amy passed out in English class, and after I walked her to the nurse’s office, the thought popped into my head that Ted was a vampire and Amy fainted from blood loss. It seemed ridiculous, but the idea latched on and wouldn’t let go. There was truth in it, even if it wasn’t literally true. (My mom was a huge Buffy fan for years—she even used to write fanfic—so I sort of grew up with vampires on the brain.) Yes, Ted goes to our school, and he’s around in the daylight (and no, he doesn’t sparkle). Amy hasn’t met his parents yet. Ted hasn’t even let her come to his house. He told her his parents are crazy, especially his mother. But for all I know, he could be lying about everything.

Amy said she passed out because she hadn’t eaten, because she and Ted were fighting and it put her stomach in knots. That makes more sense than vampire Ted sucking Amy’s blood. But the thing is, when Amy looks sick and gray-faced, which she always does when they’re fighting, Ted looks amazing. He struts down the hall like he owns the place. Girls stare after him, and not a few guys. He looks more muscular somehow, or maybe taller. He looks like a rock star. Then, when Amy’s feeling better, Ted seems to fade, to become diminished, ordinary. I have to struggle to picture him, he’s so unmemorable: a white guy (not pale, not deeply tanned) with dirty blond hair. I think.

“Jill, when you find a girl and fall in love, you’ll understand,” Amy says whenever I tell her Ted is bad for her. Once she even said, “You’re just jealous that I have someone and you don’t.”

I don’t appreciate her throwing it in my face that I’ve never had a girlfriend. I’ve never even kissed a girl. (I’ve kissed guys, which is one of the reasons I know I like girls.) What I’ve had is wild crushes. A crush on Ms. Gomez, the school librarian. A crush on Judy Ryan when she was a senior and I was in the eleventh grade, Judy Ryan with her ever-changing hair, red or blue or purple or green. She was bisexual and didn’t care who knew, and she was a really talented artist. One time she drew a sketch of me, just tossed it off in a minute, and I treasured it until the piece of paper practically fell apart.

I don’t have a wild crush on anybody right now, and I sort of wish I did. Apparently since I’m not a relationship expert, that disqualifies me from noticing that Ted is a horrible boyfriend. And sure, I want someone to kiss me and put her arm around me and have sex with me, someone to love me, but I don’t want a girl version of Ted.

* * *

It happens again. Amy’s tear-soaked voice on the phone Sunday morning: “He broke up with me oh god oh god Jill I wanna die.”

“Just let him go,” I say, trying not to sound exasperated.

“You don’t understand. Life doesn’t mean anything without him.”

Amy used to write songs and play the piano. She used to draw cartoons. She used to care about going to college. (We’ve applied, but I’m not sure she even wants to go anymore. Ted is vague about whether he’s planning to go, and if so, where.) When Ted came along, Amy’s life shrank to a tiny point. To her it feels like the world. But really, it’s the exact opposite.

Two days later, they’re back together. “How can you stand the drama?” I ask.

“It’s like Wuthering Heights,” she says. “It’s romantic.”

“Heathcliff killed a puppy,” I say.

* * *

Amy’s favorite singers are Adele, Amy Winehouse (“My namesake!” she used to say), and Patsy Cline. When she and Ted are in a breakup, she listens to “Crazy” over and over again. Ted thinks it’s funny and/or stupid that Amy likes Patsy Cline. Ted gets away with saying things Amy never would have tolerated before. He calls her “beautiful and exotic,” and even though she always said she hated being called exotic, I guess when Ted says it, “beautiful” outweighs “exotic.” Ted loves Amy’s long hair. He’s always stroking it possessively in public, which seems a bit much. Amy says he told her, “Don’t you dare cut your hair. If you cut your hair like Jill, I’ll break up with you. That goes double for dyeing it.”

My favorite singer is PJ Harvey. I got into her music when I found out Judy Ryan liked her. My favorite song of hers is “Man-Size.” It’s loud and swaggery, PJ Harvey stealing all the macho thunder for herself. She’s got a girl, and leather boots. She takes up so much space.

* * *

“You don’t like me, do you, Jill?” Ted asks one day at the lockers when Amy isn’t around. I’m so surprised, a laugh escapes me. He smirks, and I want to smack him. “Why don’t you like me?”

I think I’m going to say because you’re hurting my best friend. What I actually say is: “Because you’re a vampire.”.

His eyebrows go up. “Is that what you think?” He doesn’t deny it. I hold my breath. The sounds of the noisy hall—slamming lockers, gabbing kids—recede for a moment. Then he looks directly into my eyes and says, “I know the real reason you don’t like me.”

His voice hints at terrible secrets I must be hiding even from myself. Unease—disease?—fills me. Then he strides off down the hall. He looks massive as a football player. My head buzzes like he just drank my blood.

* * *

Sitting on the bed in Amy’s room Friday after school. There used to be a big poster of Prague on the wall. It’s gone now, the wall bare. A bit of flowered wallpaper ripped off with the Scotch tape. Amy keeps looking down at her phone, waiting for a text, a precious word from Ted. “Ted thinks the reason you don’t like him is because you’re jealous,” she says, eyes latched onto her phone.

“Because you have someone and I don’t?” I ask.

She presses her lips together. She still won’t look at me. “No…jealous of him, because you want me all to yourself.”

At first I think she means as best friends, and then I get it. This is what Ted meant by the real reason. “No offense, Amy, but you know I don’t think of you that way. You’re like my sister.”

Finally she looks up at me. Tears wobble in her eyes. “That’s what I told him, but he said he picks up on something when you’re around.” She seems to be having trouble getting the words out. “He said you’re hiding your true feelings because if I knew, I’d be weirded out and wouldn’t want to be your friend anymore.” She wipes away a tear.

“Amy, come on! How can you buy this crap?” I remember how Amy held me when Judy Ryan graduated, and I knew I would probably never see her again and I cried and cried, and I told Amy how I felt about Judy, and she was so cool and accepting about the whole thing. Where has my friend gone?

Amy looks miserable but determined. “Ted says you and I should take some time apart, until you can get used to the idea of me being with him.”

All at once I go cold inside. Cold angry. Self-protective angry. “And you’re gonna go along with that?” I ask quietly.

She wipes her eyes and looks down at her phone. When she meets my gaze again, she looks resolute. “I love him, Jill. And you don’t want me to be with him. If I have to choose…” She can’t say the words. She doesn’t have to.

“I guess you have to do what you have to do.” I get up, straighten my spine, and walk out of Amy’s room, the room where I’ve spent countless hours. I only let myself start to cry when I’m out the front door. It’s a beautiful spring afternoon, blue sky and vibrant purple ice plants adding insult to injury. I walk the few blocks to my house. I wonder if I’ll ever go back.

* * *

I hide in my room most of the weekend and play “Silence” over and over on my tablet. It’s the saddest song I know. PJ Harvey’s voice is plaintive, soaked in loss. My mom knocks on my door Saturday afternoon. When she comes in, I try to hide the fact I’ve been crying. I don’t want to talk about it, but eventually I do. “Amy doesn’t want to be my friend anymore, because of her boyfriend.” I start to cry again.

My mom sits on my bed and puts her arm around me. At first I wish she wouldn’t because it just makes me cry harder, but then I let myself cry. “I remember when I was a teenager, and my best friend had a boyfriend and I didn’t,” my mom says. “That was really hard. I mean, I know you don’t want a boyfriend, but…”

“That’s not what this is about!” I know she’s trying to be cool and understanding, but the last thing I ever want to do is talk to my mother about my love life or lack thereof. I take off my tear-spattered glasses and clean them with the hem of my t-shirt. “Ted is a horrible, horrible person. He’s really bad for her. All he does is try to cut her down. Why can’t she see it?”

My mom takes this in. “Jill, does Ted hit Amy?”

“No…” I can’t tell her how Ted is draining Amy’s life away. I don’t even understand it myself. “But what he does is just as bad!”

“I’m afraid you’re going to have to let Amy make her own mistakes. Let her live her own life and focus on yours.”

“But he’s killing her, Mom.”

I’m not sure if I mean that literally or not.

* * *

For the first time in ages, I walk to school by myself on Monday morning. Amy and I sit across the room from each other in English class. I notice the other kids noticing—or maybe I’m just so self-conscious about it that I assume everyone’s watching. I huddle in my seat while Mr. Silva talks about Heart of Darkness. I wish I could disappear.

Later I pass Ted talking with some guys outside the cafeteria. He sees me and smiles, triumphant. As he takes in my misery, he grows more and more glorious. He takes up so much space. The very atoms seem to part for him. I blink. I’m not imagining it. The other guys flock around him with his sudden charisma. I feel sick.

I go into the bathroom and see myself in the mirror. I don’t look good. My eyes are red from crying, but that’s the least of it. My freckles stand out brightly against my sudden pallor (as do the couple of zits that appeared overnight), my orange hair overwhelming my skin. I look like I have the flu. I look like I need a blood transfusion, whatever that looks like.

All at once I realize Ted is feeding on me too. Then I throw up in the sink. Fortunately I haven’t eaten anything since last night, so I just dry-heave. I’m still gagging when a couple of girls come in the bathroom.

“Oh, gross!” Sherry Lind mutters and shuts herself into a stall. I’m embarrassed, but I feel too sick to care much. As Sherry pees, I wipe my mouth with the back of my hand and straighten up, and my chalky face confronts me in the mirror. I break out in a cold sweat and hold onto the edge of the sink.

“Hey, are you okay?” Rosie Castillo asks. “You don’t look so good.”

“I don’t feel so good,” I agree.

The toilet flushes, and Sherry comes out and washes her hands. She sends me a disdainful look, and I notice, despite my lightheadedness, how pretty she is, tall and slender, with reddish-gold hair, large eyes and a wide mouth.

“Hey, Sherry,” Rosie says, “I really have to pee, but maybe you should walk Jill to the nurse’s office. She doesn’t look so good.”

Sherry eyes me. “You’re not just hungover or something?” she asks. I shake my head. Her expression softens. “Sorry—it’s just, you always look like a tough rocker chick. I assumed you were hungover or something.” Even though I feel like crap, I’m amazed and more than a little flattered that she ever noticed me enough to form an opinion, much less that one. (Not the hungover part—I don’t drink. But the tough rocker chick part? That I like.) Sherry smiles slightly. “Okay, let’s go. Just don’t puke on me, okay?”

“I won’t,” I say, trying not to breathe in her direction with my dry-heave breath.

I wish I felt better so I could enjoy being escorted to the nurse’s office by a pretty girl. “I hope you feel better,” Sherry says when we get there.

“Thanks,” I say, and she walks off. The nurse takes my temperature, which is normal, and has me lie on a cot. I’m so exhausted, I fall asleep for awhile. The nurse lets me lie there until it’s time to go home.

I stay home the next day. I still feel wiped out and queasy. Even though my temperature’s normal, my mom thinks I might have a virus or something and works at home so she can keep an eye on me. I stay in bed and watch live PJ Harvey videos on YouTube and eat dry toast. Later I sit at the kitchen table and eat the chicken noodle soup my mom heated up. I feel better, but more and more weirded out. I’m not sure if Ted really did this to me—and if he did, I have no idea how to keep him from doing it again.

* * *

I’m afraid to go back to school the next day. I’m tempted to tell my mom I’m still sick, but I don’t. I hope I can avoid Ted, but the second I get there, I see him and Amy at the lockers. His arm is draped around her shoulders. She looks happy in a fragile, tremulous way. She seems very small beneath his arm. She sees me and flinches, averts her gaze. Is she ashamed of dumping me? She ought to be. I wasn’t imagining: it’s freakish how Ted burgeons and puffs up as he drinks in our pain. Now that I know what’s happening, it’s amazing no one else can see. Amy looks tiny in his swollen shadow. How can she not see this? A wave of dizziness goes through me, and it occurs to me that maybe she’s too busy trying not to pass out. No, I think, he doesn’t get to do this to me again. I stare into my locker and take a deep breath to steady myself. “Man-Size” pops into my head, and I hold onto it with all my might. I slam my locker shut and swagger down the hall in time to the tune in my head. Then I glance back. Ted has shrunk back to his average, forgettable self. He looks puzzled. I smile grimly.

In English class, Amy turns and looks at me a couple of times as if she’s not sure she knows me. The feeling is mutual.

* * *

That night after I finish my homework I listen to “Man-Size” over and over in my room. I play along on my acoustic guitar, though really I need an electric one. I’m not a very good guitarist, but I’m working on it. I try to make the song my own, make it part of me. I think of what Sherry said—that I looked like a tough rocker chick. If only I can feel that way, instead of lonely and hurt and afraid. As I listen to the song and play along, I grow stronger. Angrier. Can the song can make me impervious to Ted? I listen to the whole Rid of Me album for good measure.

* * *

The next day I march into school ready for battle, but I don’t see Ted. During English, Amy sits at the front of the class, I in back. I can’t see her face, just her long dark hair bent over a page of her Heart of Darkness paperback.

By lunchtime my fighting spirit has started to flag. I sit in an empty classroom with my bag lunch, put in my earbuds, and listen to PJ Harvey. My appetite is back to normal. I finish my turkey sandwich, and as I’m stomping my foot to “Meet Ze Monsta,” I close my eyes for what must only be an instant. When I open them, Ted is looming over me.

I give a jump. He’s saying something I can’t hear over PJ Harvey. It’s great not being able to hear him. He reaches out and yanks out my earbuds. “I want to talk to you,” he says.

“Well, I don’t want to talk to you.” I get to my feet and collect my things, but Ted’s standing between me and the door.

“Some best friend you turned out to be,” he says. “You aren’t even trying to work things out with Amy.”

I stare at him. Surely that was what he wanted? Then I realize: he wants both of us, all our misery. A delicious misery buffet. “You won, Ted. She’s all yours. I hope you’ll be very happy together.”

Ted scowls. “What did you expect—for her to choose you over me? She’s not a dyke. She’s beautiful and talented, unlike you. She knows how to dress like a girl.” He studies me with narrowed eyes. “You should get contact lenses and let your hair grow. Grow out that ugly dye job. Thank god Amy hasn’t wrecked her hair! You know she only hung out with you because she felt sorry for you. You were just a burden to her.”

“Shut up! Just shut up…” I put my stuff down on the chair. It’s true that Amy’s better looking than me and more talented. Better at getting along with people. More lovable—or, at least, she’s had people fall in love with her, and I haven’t. Maybe I never will. All at once I feel so sick and tired.

Ted is growing before me. He looks like a linebacker. I take a deep breath and let it out. I reach for “Man-Size.” I hear it in my head. It’s not enough. I start to mutter the words. I’m not a good singer like Amy, but I let my voice rise. I feel ridiculous. At the same time I feel like a badass. A ridiculous badass rocker chick. I’ll take it.

Ted shakes his head. “What the fuck are you doing? Crazy bitch. You have a terrible singing voice! Do you know what your problem is? You don’t know how to deal with men because you grew up without a father.” I’m trying to sing over him, but this stops me cold. “I felt sorry for you when Amy told me your dad’s an alcoholic, but you’re just too messed up. Jill Rosenberg, would-be dyke. What girl would want you? I bet your mom is a real winner too. No wonder your dad drank. No wonder he left.”

“Shut your fucking mouth!” It hurts that Amy told Ted about my dad. I push that aside and start singing again.

He keeps monologuing, but I sing over him and only catch a few phrases. Some garbage about how Amy is way too Westernized, and Ted’s been teaching her how to treat a man.

The door opens, and we fall silent. It’s Amy. Some kids behind her in the doorway gawk at us, but only she comes in. I guess we’ve been making quite a racket. She shuts the door and stares at us. “What’s going on?” she demands.

“Your boyfriend has been telling me you only hung out with me because you felt sorry for me,” I say. “But I’m not listening to another fucking word from him.” Before embarrassment can stop me, I start singing another song from Rid of Me, “50 Ft Queenie.”

Ted is average size again. Did I make that happen? He turns to Amy. “See how crazy Jill is? She won’t stop singing.”

“50 Foot Queenie!” I yell—and Ted begins to shrink.

“Jill, have you gone crazy?” Amy asks. “Everyone can hear you out in the hall!” Does she even notice that her boyfriend is at least a foot shorter than her? His skin gleams silver-gray.

“50 Foot Queenie!” Guitars in my head spur me on. My heart pounds.

Amy lets out a disgusted sigh. “Why are you singing that stupid song? You were always so obsessed with that weird PJ Harvey. I was so sick of it!”

Ted smiles. I falter, fall silent. Amy never complained about PJ Harvey before. Does she mean it? What about the stuff Ted said about her feeling sorry for me? Is it all true?

Ted is growing larger again. “Man-Size,” I mumble. “50 Foot…”, but Amy’s scorn seems to have neutralized the songs’ power. I scrabble around for something to sing, something to say, anything that might work. One of Amy’s songs pops into my head. Truth be told, a lot of her songs aren’t that good, but this one is super-catchy. Amy wrote it after her breakup with her last boyfriend Joey (who she hasn’t mentioned in forever). I go straight for the chorus:

“I don’t care if you hate me
I don’t care if you won’t date me
I won’t stay at home alone just crying
If you don’t have good taste
My life won’t go to waste
Me myself and I will be just fine”

Amy blinks, startled. She watches me sing as if she finally recognizes me again.

“Another stupid song,” Ted says with a laugh. “You have the worst taste in music, Jill.” Amy’s mouth falls open. She stares at Ted, and I can see her pondering whether to tell him it’s her song. Has she never played it for him?

“I always loved this song,” I tell her and start singing again. With an expression like she’s about to step off a cliff, Amy joins in, almost inaudibly at first, then louder. Ted shrinks again, faster this time. We sing in unison for a verse and a chorus. Then I just listen to Amy belt it out. It’s her song, after all. Her voice is rich and vibrant. It’s her true voice, not the breathy, small one she uses for Ted’s benefit. Ted cringes at the sound. He keeps shrinking. Amy looks incredulous, her eyes riveted on him, but she doesn’t stop singing.

“Amy…” Ted gasps, but he already looks more like a doll than a person. He wavers, silver and gray and dully shining. His voice becomes fainter. He shrinks to the size and appearance of a silverfish. Amy stops singing. As she watches in horror, Ted crawls onto her sandaled foot.

“Ugh!” She kicks out, sends Ted flying. “He tried to bite me!”

Ted skitters into a crack in the wall. We stare at the spot. He doesn’t come back out.

“Are you okay?” I ask Amy.

For a long moment she’s still and silent. Then she rounds on me and socks me on the arm. “Why didn’t you stay out of it, Jill? Now look what happened!”

“I was defending myself!” I rub my arm. “He was hurting me too, you know. Doesn’t that bother you? Don’t you care at all?”

She starts to cry. “Of course I care! I just loved him so much, even though…” She stares bleakly at the place in the wall where he disappeared.

The bell rings, and I gather up my stuff from my chair. It feels like a long time has elapsed since I ate a turkey sandwich and listened to “Meet Ze Monsta.” We wander out of the classroom.

* * *

It takes Amy a few days to apologize. I tell her it’s okay, but I think it’s going to take awhile before I get over it completely.

Ted’s not gone. He reappeared, regular-size, at school a few days later. I heard him tell one of his guy friends he had the stomach flu. He doesn’t come near Amy or me, now that we know the truth about him. He already has a new girlfriend, Dana Tavris. She’s really pretty and smart. Sherry says that Ted’s always saying, “Dana’s not crazy like Amy.” After I told Sherry what a creep Ted is, she tried to warn Dana, but Dana said, “He’s very misunderstood. Amy really hurt him.” I hope Dana will be okay. I haven’t told Sherry the whole story, but maybe I will if we get to know each other better. Sherry seems to like me, which is sort of a miracle, especially considering the way we met.

With any luck, Amy and I won’t have to see Ted anymore when we graduate, though I’m afraid we might run into others of his kind.

* * *

Things Amy and I are going to do now that Ted is out of our lives:

  • I’m going to learn to trust Amy again.
  • I think Amy has to learn to trust herself again—and get her dreams back, the dreams he tainted and sucked away. She’s writing songs again.
  • We’re staying in town for college, but we’re going to keep living at home for the time being.
  • Definitely we’re going to start a band.

Gwynne Garfinkle lives in Los Angeles. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in such publications as Strange Horizons, Apex, Interfictions, Lackington's, Postscripts to Darkness, The Cascadia Subduction Zone, Kaleidotrope, and The Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk.