It is summer. She is eleven years old. Her birthday fell on Easter, this year. The cake was a bunny; her mother outdid herself. She, her mother, and her baby brother have arrived at the town pool. They do this every day that the pool is open for the entire summer. No one thought to teach her to swim until she almost drowned when she was five. Then there was a flurry of lessons and caution that gently dropped into near-total amphibianism. Her mother will leave her here when the baby gets tired and pick her up before dinner. On lucky days, she might get to spend four or six hours in the water.
She had to stop taking swimming lessons two years ago because everyone watching her swim was making her very nervous. Really, anyone looking at her for any reason makes her nervous. Now that she's older it isn't cute to hide behind doors, in closets, under tables or in cabinets. Sometimes when she tries, now, she gets stuck. Then everyone has to look at you even harder while they try to help you get out. She doesn't understand why they won't just close the door and let her stay there until everyone leaves. She could get out if she was alone.
Lately she has discovered that if she corralls some of the younger children, or runs errands, or gets the grownups refreshments everyone will ignore her, as if she wasn't even there. As if she wasn't something to stare at. Being helpful and useful makes you invisible, and safe. She doesn't hear the words in her head, but there is a sensation like a tiny click as she realizes it in much broader terms. Now she thinks she'll get out and run around to the deep end and do about 98 dives and cannonballs, then go play with her brother.
She's thinking about this as she climbs the ladder, so it's a shock when she looks down for the next rung and sees her body for what feels like the first time ever. Her legs, which she's been looking at for her entire life as various people dressed and washed them, and then as she learned to do the same, look like part of an alien species that she's encountering for the first time. Here in her head, there has never been a judgement on a particular body part. This is how they sounded in her head before: leg, arm, hand, head, torso, foot. Now, somehow, since she heard that click, they sound like this: fat, weak, ugly, ugly, ugly, ugly. The way her hand-me-down black Speedo one-peice is cutting into the dimpled fat over her hip is making her seriously feel like vomiting.
She is paralysed on the ladder, and when she can finally climb out she wraps her towel around herself. It won't go all the way around, and her eyes dart around to see if anyone is laughing or pointing. Retching. All she sees is regular, happy people. They don't seem to be paying any attention to her, so she sits down on the side and covers as much of her body as she can with the tiny towel.
Sometimes things get very weird when you're a kid. Some mornings she wakes up and the whole world except for her is in super-slo-mo mode. It feels like it takes her mother an hour and a half to say, "It's time to go to school." Even swinging in the hammock is so incredibly slow that she can't stand it. Sometimes if she reads and pays attention to nothing else, it will speed up enough so she won't scream. Sometimes it just starts in the middle of the day, too, and those days she sometimes will scream.
Words have been bothering her lately, too. The word "crotch" has become unbearably dirty to her ears and eyes. Not only can't she stand the written or spoken word, but she has an aversion to most things which could be described by the word. Strangely, the crotch of her panties doesn't bother her (except at the laundromat, when so many panties in the basket make the crotchiness of them shoutingly obvious), nor does her own crotch. However, the crotch of a pair of tights has made her hysterical and her mother has bought all new knee-socks to spare them all the drama. And the crotches of tree limbs make her so uncomfortable she has had to stop climbing trees altogether, though if you'd asked her before this she'd have described tree-climbing as, "my favorite outdoor activity which doesn't include immersion in water."
All of a sudden, she wants to leave. If she tells her mother she doesn't feel well, they will go home and she can lie in bed under the covers. She stands up, shading her eyes with one hand and trying to obscure at least her bottom with the towel, looks for her mother and brother. Mom, tanned and lithe in her bikini, holds the baby over her head, then swoops him around in the air over the shallow end, just skimming his baby belly and legs through the water, then claps him to her body for a big hug. He's laughing hysterically as drops of water shimmer in the hot air all around them. "Mom!" She can hear her voice in her head, but it isn't coming out of her mouth. "Mom, I feel sick, I need to go home!" She's afraid they're having so much fun they'll be mad about having to leave. She can't ask them to, but she can't be here anymore.
Her voice still won't come out of her mouth, but it starts talking in her head again. "You can't make them leave. Just go hide in the shower, or the locker room. Come out in a little while when you're more calm, and buy some candy, then sit and eat it in the truck and a few minutes later you can all go home." This is reassuring. Her voice won't come out and tell people what she wants, but it will tell her, secretly in her head, now to make them give it to her anyway. This might be okay. Her voice says, "You're too ugly and fat, so no one will ever love you or want you for anything. Go hide in the shower so no one has to look at you and you don't cry or make a scene or everyone will know how pathetic you are." So she did.