It was only February, night flowers still out, that she’d last pushed into trainers that didn’t need lacing. Escape had meant running from the neighbourhood of packed-in, tucked-up houses and bowed street lights. Past the dairy, the bus stops, well past any capacity she had imagined until, hours later, the yolk of morning broke on the horizon like a promise. Just weeks ago.
Now, escape came from the corner of one room. Bracketed up, too high for comfortable viewing, glowed the screen of the television playing a rerun of ‘Grocery Heroes.’
“Mango Butter!” crowed the show host. “Mango Body Butter, twelve dollars, ninety nine. Kamila, that’s ten percent of what your target budget could be! Ten. Per. Cent.”
Music that meant ‘uh oh’ played.
Kamila, shown in the grocery carpark, fist-sucking toddler on her hip, looked sorrowful and exhausted. She dropped her head like a clearance bucket daffodil.
“Don’t you worry, you’ve got the GH Team and we’re going to get this sorted — let’s go!”
Music that meant ‘hope,’ that meant ‘getting your shit together’ played.
Yeong-Ja muted the ad break. They were repeating news on aggressive inflation management. Whatever that meant. She, too, was muted. Her jaw had been wired shut for five weeks.
They wanted to give it another three weeks.
They weren’t pleased with her progress.
She really had no say in the matter.
So Yeong-Ja planned her days around the schedule for the corner TV in the shared lounge. Before the wire the last thing she had ‘eaten’ had been a soupy mouthful of her own blood. Life through a straw was hardly living. So she watched every show that was about food: competitive cooking, celebrity chef travelogues, restaurant overhauls, and this, ‘Grocery Heroes,’ where households with poor budgeting got a Wake Up Call and lesson in How To Level Up.
‘Grocery Heroes’ was quality viewing. Yeong-Ja took greatest delight in the drone footage of the houses: the glimpses of unmown back-yards littered with up-ended plastic trikes, the bunting of hung laundry out for all to see, a chaotic pet or three. In this episode there had been a game of tiggy filmed from overhead. A collection of seven or so children — apparently from multiple families — rushed and spread as the tagger changed.
They were so hopeless, these families. They bought energy drinks and pre-battered fish. They bought organic pumpkins and luxury biscuits. They bought cereals with exotic flavours and astronomical calorie counts. And Mango Butter.
Yeong-Ja could empathise with Mango Butter; when she’d had the baby she’d wanted nothing more than to rub away the tiger stripes on her thighs. On her stomach. Now stripes were the only evidence.
“Alright,” the host — a second-gen asian-fusion-advocate — declared, slamming his hands on the kitchen counter. He was full of teeth and wisdom to impart. “Are you ready to see your new pantry? What you’ll be cooking with?”
Onscreen, Kamila was joined by a slim man with ears that stuck out. Her husband. In addition to the toddler of indeterminate gender, was a girl child with a knowing, anxious aspect to her. There are strange men behind the camera, the eyes said, why do you let them push you around?
“Now Kamila, you’re from India, right?” the host reminded her.
Kamila nodded and chanced a smile.
“I’ve actually been to India!” The host said. “Amazing cuisine. Beautiful spices. Mm!” — he gave his signature chef’s kiss — “So I’m going to show you now how to make a simple dish — a Butter Chicken — from scratch! Sound good?”
Kamila furrowed her brows and nodded.
“We’re about to Level Up!” the host said to the camera.
There was another ad break. Yeong-Ja was about to silence it when the door to the lounge creaked open. A woman with too much blonde hair, too many chins and pyjamas with cats on them emerged. She waved as though they were somehow acquainted and shuffled in to sit beside Yeong-Ja. There were plenty of seats at a more comfortable distance. They couldn’t possibly be acquainted? The woman looked about 50, and like she’d never set foot in a PaknSave. Unless she was a social worker?
Yeong-Ja kept her eyes fixed on the television.
There was an ad for egg freezing if you were too busy with your career; an ad for fabric softener if you were too busy with kids, cooking, yoga and your career; an ad for retirement living — once you’d enjoyed a successful career.
But Yeong-Ja’s attention was drawn down by a flurry of activity — the room’s other occupant held a pen with the logo for Robert Scott Maxillofacial Surgery and was scribbling across a notepad. The writing read:
Hi, I’m Bianca! [heart]
I can’t speak while I have my wire in. Same as you, I’m guessing?
Start of my weight loss journey [heart]
What’s your name?
How stupid. Of course her name was Bianca, it said as much on the plastic tag on her wrist that read ‘Bianca —’ Oh God.
That’s who she was.
Bianca Dickerson. She was familiar. Mrs Dickerson from third form Social Studies. Mrs Dickerson who was now so large she looked like she had melted over her former self. Like a fried egg over bibimbap. But she didn’t seem to recognise ‘YJ’ as she had been known in high school.
Yeong-Ja scanned the lines, looked at Mrs D’s — Bianca’s hopeful face, and shook her head. She pulled the sleeve of her right hand to ensure her patient tag remained hidden. She thought about taking the pen and writing “no english” but reconsidered the credibility of this.
Bianca would not be deterred, her writing speed became more passionate.
Not everyone wants to talk about their journey. That’s OK.
You look amazing! I hope I can be your size one day. You must be a 12?
OMG I LOVE Grocery Heroes. Chef Dal is so delicious, isn’t he?
Yeong-Ja looked up to where the host — the Delicious Chef Dal — was teaching Kamila how to mask spices with cream and sugar.
“Now Kamila, you probably don’t do this kind of cooking yourself. I know, I know. It’s not super traditional. But the kids are going to love this. Not too hot, not too strong. Trust me it’ll be clean plates at the end of the meal.”
Bianca was scribbling again.
My ex husband was in hospo. His Mum was Thai – gorgeous guy – unfortunately the waitresses thought so too…
God she was distracting! She used to be cool. More than cool. She had been one of the few teachers who had tried to engage with Yeong-Ja. The others typically asked loudly whether she had her ESOL worksheets to do and left her to it. Mrs D had asked her to write a paper on the conflict between North and South Korea. “In your words,” she’d said. “And I’ll ask my star fifth former to help out. Eun came out about five years ago. He’s a good boy.”
Eun was a good boy. And a nerd. But it was the best thing Yeong-Ja had written for high school. An A-minus.
The door opened again. Nurse this time.
“Bianca. Oh! Lovely to see you. Was hoping to find you here. I’ve those brochures I was talking about.”
Yeong-Ja continued to maintain the impression of an avid viewer, but could no longer focus on the words of the show. She missed the philosophies of Chef Dal being shared at the dinner table with the young family. But they all made the faces they were supposed to: impressed, happy, determined.
The nurse was babbling. “I mean, there are the folk who say it’s barbaric, but really it’s less invasive — less risky — than a stomach staple. More affordable too, am I right? You’re just taking to it so well, Bianca. I think I can see the glow in you already.”
From the corner of her eye, Yeong-Ja could see Bianca’s emphatic nodding in agreement with the nurse. Who was she to be handing out weight-loss brochures anyway? She was hardly Heidi Klum. And besides, Yeong-Ja had been a little harsh. Bianca wasn’t that big. She could probably get there with some swimming. Maybe one of those walking groups of white ladies in all the advert breaks. Her ex sounded like a shit. He could at least have been discreet.
The nurse continued to natter on about obesity epidemics. She was full of facts. Nearly two billion people were overweight. This treatment was likely to become more mainstream. Just so hard these days with the way food is advertised. And don’t get her started on unregulated portion sizes. It’s the school kids who get it the worst. They’ve no hope. We set such a bad example as adults.
She went on and on until Yeong-Ja felt certain she had enough detail to successfully sell the SlimJaw door-to-door. The credits for ‘Grocery Heroes’ ran over footage of Chef Dal laughing and Kamila and family smiling.
The nurse left.
Bianca seemed to sag a bit. She was staring into middle space. It was imaginable, the way she might look somewhere further along Her Weight Loss Journey. Even if she was 50-something. She had beautiful yellow hair. Blue eyes. She could be someone else entirely. But right then, in her cat pyjamas, she looked like a test subject during an obesity epidemic. Someone tagged and observed.
Medical people loved living evidence. They seemed to nod all the more fervently when delivering preposterous information. In Yeong-Ja’s experience, certainty had never sweetened or softened those monologues. Diatribes on early attachment, that ‘midnight jogs’ were a significant risk when an infant’s sleeping should be monitored. Lectures on better health outcomes for babies who remained in the custody of family — family like her mother-in-law. Speeches on the higher incidence of postpartum intimate partner violence for migrant women. Explanations that a broken eye socket and wired jaw were, statistically-speaking, not at all shocking.
Yeong-Ja reached over and took the notepad and the pen.
Bianca sat straight.
I was YJ in high school.
You were my favourite teacher.
Jade du Preez is a lawyer who is currently working on a novel with the help and support of colleagues in the Auckland Writer’s Group. She won the New Zealand Writers College Short Story Competition in 2013 and the Wallace Foundation Short Fiction Contest in 2016.