by Holly Robinson
This fat lady sitting behind a tin metal desk, more hair on her chin than head, explains in a voice as tired as the cornflower blue dress she is wearing that in addition to her regular classes, Amy will be taking P.E.
Amy is 11, in fifth grade, starting a new school. Amy and her mother look at each other and then at the fat lady.
"Physical education," she drawls disdainfully.
"And you'll need to wear a uniform. You can buy what you need at the Olympic Shop."
Amy starts school two weeks later without a uniform for P.E. On the first day of school, the P.E. teacher, stern-faced and stern-voiced, sends the boys and girls into the locker room to change. Amy sits on the floor of the girls' locker room, her back up against the cold tile wall, her view of the other girls partially blocked by the dark green metal lockers and the wood benches that looked like the boardwalk at the beach, and watches her classmates gab, giggle and strip. Her cheeks burn. She thinks she is dying. Embarrassed and enthralled at the same time, she is not sure where to look, or not look, first. How can they do that, just take their clothes off in front of each other? Why aren't they hiding in the toilet stalls? She has only glimpsed her mother wearing anything that resembles what one girl is wearing. Another girl turns towards her, wearing something hot pink, something Amy can't look at very long without blushing the same color.
"Hey you, you coming? It's time to go back upstairs. Miss Stern yells at us if we aren't all there. You're new, aren't you? What's your name?"
Amy startles, picturing her own cotton undershirt, yellowed with age, sweat and a thousand washings, laying very flat against her own chest.
"Uh... Um... " Amy thinks fast. "It's Winterhaven," remembering the name of the school she had left, not at all sure if the girl had asked her her name or the name of her last school. Her answer falls into a silent bucket as she realizes her mistake.
Miss Stern directs Amy to the far wall of the gym, where the other kids without uniforms sit for the remainder of the period watching each other and the big hand on the clock.
When Amy gets home from school, she tells her mother that she needs to buy a P.E uniform immediately. Her mother, slumped in a chair at the kitchen table strewn with dirty cereal bowls, white rimmed glasses, crummy plates, stained and chipped coffee cups and a lone banana peel, is nursing the baby. She looks up blankly at Amy.
"Remember," Amy reminds her mother, "the fat lady at the school told you that I had to have a uniform for P.E. Remember, when you took me there to sign up. Remember, before Rachael was born."
Amy's mother shrugs, leans over Rachael's head and picks up her handbag, which sits on the floor next to Liz, her 3 year old sister, who is quietly drawing lines up and down her arms and legs with pink coral lipstick. She pulls out a few green bills from her cracked vinyl wallet, looks at Liz and Rachael and sighs.
"Do you remember where the Olympic Shop is?"
Amy stands very very still. "Yes," she whispers.
"Go right there, buy what you need, and come right back, okay?"
Amy pushes open the heavy wooden door of the Olympic Shop. An older woman, hair pulled back into a tight bun, dressed in a yellow button down sweater and dusty brown plaid skirt that looked older than Amy, approaches Amy.
"What is your name? May I help you find something?" she asks.
"Winterhaven," she answers gravely, gravelly, thinking it made her sound older, more sophisticated. "I need a P.E. uniform for Brookville Elementary School."
The saleswoman sizes her with expert eyes and tells Amy to follow her to the back of the store. Amy walks behind her, past a rack of brightly colored bras and panties, and stuffs a handful of underwear into her coat pocket. The saleswoman puts Amy into a dressing room, a bathroom without a bathroom, Amy thinks. Before she shuts the door, the woman hands Amy three apple green uniforms, short-sleeved, short-legged poplin coveralls with snaps and the school logo on the pocket.
"Take your time, Winterhaven. If you need a different size, I will be right out here."
Amy takes the underwear out of her coat pocket, slipping one item over each of her fingers and surveys the rainbow she now holds in her hands. Red, she thinks, or maybe purple. After trying on each bra and panty, she puts on the cherriest red bra and the purplest pair of panties.
Amy dresses quickly, leaving the rest of the underwear underneath the two unopened uniforms on the triangular bench, and rejoins the saleswoman who is quietly rehanging clothes. She hands her the third uniform, also unopened, and follows her to the register in the front of the store.
"Tomorrow," Amy thinks smugly, "I dress for P.E."
Holly Robinson lives in Portland OR, where she is an attorney by day and an aspiring writer by night. Her first published story appears in the April 2004 issue of Long Story Short. Contact Holly.