Image Credit: Super Mario Bros
I met Hannah Morgan at Ord Public Elementary School on the first day of fifth grade. I had arrived in Mrs. Teply’s classroom a half-hour early because I was more nervous about this first day than usual. A year before my family moved from Ord’s school district into a rural district seven miles away called Fairplay. The move—from a four-bedroom Craftsman on river front property, to a double-wide trailer on rent-free land my father inherited—reflected my family’s poor economic situation.
In 1992 Fairplay only had one school—a one-classroom schoolhouse with one teacher who taught K-through-eighth grades. The entire district enrolled eight pupils. I’d been the only fourth grader. Without competition among classmates, I lost motivation to do my work. My lessons consisted of tedious worksheets, which I finished as fast as possible, guessing at most of the answers so I could read the novel hidden under my desk. I’d almost flunked fourth grade. That’s why Mom decided to put me back in my old school, which was a 20-minute bus ride from home. After a year away from my former classmates, I feared I would never catch up with what I missed, and even worse, I didn’t want anyone to know why we’d had to move or that I’d almost been held back. Still, the prospect of making friends again excited me. At our old house, I’d played kickball with the neighbor kids and explored the nearby creek. We had no neighbor kids at the trailer-house. I spent most of my free time alone, playing Nintendo’s Super Mario Brothers. Even after hours of solitary playing, I couldn’t beat the last level, which required conquering Bowser, a fire-breathing turtle-king.
On the first day of school when I walked into Mrs. Teply’s classroom, Hannah Morgan sat alone at a desk. She wore a knit short-suit I recognized from the cover of JC Penney’s Big and Husky catalogue. I remembered the fuchsia color and those big, black polka dots because I’d begged my mom to buy it for me. She said it looked cartoonish, but I knew she just said that because it was too expensive. However, when I saw the polka dot jersey stretch across Hannah’s belly, I reconsidered. Hannah did look like a chubby Minnie Mouse, except that she also had a fuchsia-colored, fiberglass cast on her foot.
I wore the outfit my mom picked for me. That year we’d skipped the mall and done all our school shopping at Walmart. I wore a simple blue-plaid blouse with polyester culottes from the Jaclyn Smith Women’s collection, which my mom had picked for me. At ten years of age, I was chubby enough that clothes from the juniors’ department were too small, so Mom dressed me like a 40-year-old. As I looked around I noticed—unlike Hannah and me—all the girls wore jean shorts, polo shirts, and expensive Nikes. I longed to be like them, but I just didn’t fit. I didn’t have the right body—plump chipmunk cheeks, fat rolls around my midsection, and thick thighs that swished when I walked—marked me as different. So did my odd clothing.
Even though Hannah didn’t dress any better than I did, over the course of the fall quarter two things about her still made me jealous. First, her broken ankle got her out of showering after gym class for an entire month. Second, she won Mario Brothers before I did by rescuing Princess Peach from Bowser. I consoled myself by remembering that I wasn’t picked on as much as Hannah. During morning recess break, I dodged Stacy, the other new girl that year. Stacy picked on whoever she saw first in the girls’ bathroom, me or Hannah. As long as Hannah entered the girls’ north restroom before me, Stacy would leave me alone. When Stacy scratched “Hannah is a fat ass” on a bathroom stall, I felt relieved my name wasn’t etched in the dull yellow paint. I told myself, reassuringly, “at least I’m not as fat as Hannah.” Surely this meant that I was a little closer to being like the girls I envied.
Fifth grade was the year Mr. Murray, our P.E. teacher, assigned gym lockers and combination locks, and required we shower after class. This wouldn’t have been such a difficult ordeal had it not been for the lack of privacy. The shower stall consisted of a central maypole with six showerheads. There was no way to shower without revealing my entire fat body. I streaked in and out, horrified by the indignity. Looking back on it, I’m sure my classmates—also on the cusp of puberty—felt the same about but at the time the pain at how ugly I felt seemed my own.
In gym, Hannah and I vied against each other to not be the worst athlete. I may have beat Hannah’s time at the arm-hang by ranking second-to-last, but I was also the one person Hannah outscored in Badminton. Lacking the coordination to launch even one birdie into a fair serve, I never scored a single point for an entire face-reddening tournament and came in dead last.
Given that Hannah’s presence had already proved a distraction for the taunts I usually received during gym and recess, the same should have been true in the locker room, except that Hannah wasn’t cooperating, which annoyed the hell out of me. Hannah didn’t give Stacy a chance to bully her because rather than get dressed with the rest of us in front of our assigned lockers, she’d grab her T-shirt and gym shorts, and hobble on her walking cast to the only bathroom stall to change in private. I was mad at Hannah for outsmarting me. Why hadn’t I thought of changing in the toilet stall first? I couldn’t wait to use the stall after Hannah because Mr. Murray gave tardy demerits.
Halfway through the fall quarter, just before Hannah got her cast off, my classmates and I discovered we could fake showering because Mr. Murray wasn’t going to walk into the locker room like he did with the boys. We made it look like we’d showered. Stacy—still wearing gym clothes—turned a few of the shower heads on without getting wet, while some of us sprinkled water at the nape of our necks. Like a contortionist, I writhed in and out of my clothing without revealing a sliver of skin. I clamped my dry towel under my chin to cover my fat belly and budding breasts, while my arms maneuvered my training bra.
After a few weeks of this, Mr. Murray caught on to us. At the end of gym class, he dismissed the boy’s line to our classroom, but kept us girls waiting. He walked our queue, looking exactly like a drill-sergeant, had it not been for his red Adidas track suit. He lightly touched the ends of each girls’ hair. He leaned in close to Stacy’s face.
“Did you shower after class today?”
“Yes,” she said, which I suppose was partly true because she—unlike the rest of us— had at least entered the showers.
He continued down the line. Stephanie Miller, yes. Jessica Hamilton, yes. Dawn Dobson, yes. I was second-to-last in line, only Hannah stood behind me. By this point, it seemed obvious that Mr. Murray knew we hadn’t showered. He’d punish us, probably with lap-running. It also seemed that if given the chance, Hannah would rat us all out.
Waiting for my turn in the lineup, I thought back to the Sunday about a month ago when Hannah and her mom had visited my church. During the service I watched her from my family’s regular pew, and thought about how it’d be nice to have Hannah as a church friend. The only other kids at my church went to Fairplay, and they were weird. Plus, I could be friends with Hannah without Stacy and the other mean girls knowing. I didn’t want them to think that I was like Hannah and risk their bullying me the way they did her. Then another thought came to me: Wouldn’t Hannah—because she was a Christian like me—tell the truth if I didn’t? I could beat her at this. I looked down at the red nylon bracelet on my wrist. It read: W.W.J.D? Jesus would tell the truth, I decided.
“Did you shower after class?” Mr. Murray asked. I felt his hand brush the collar of my shirt.
He clicked his tongue. “Uh, huh, and who else didn’t shower? I know Sarah’s not the only one.”
Stephanie Miller’s eyes, under the shiny bangs of her Dorothy Hamill haircut, started to well up. “I didn’t.”
“All of you. Go shower. Now.” He blew his whistle. We ran for the locker room.
At my gym locker, my hands shook so badly I could barely manage the combination lock. I was terrified that Stacy would corner me for tattling. She’d probably tease me for being fat too, like I’d seen her do to Hannah at morning recess. My only hope was that Stacy would see Hannah’s obese body to make fun of first. I looked down the row of lockers and saw Hannah sitting on the bench, untying her shoes. Her face wore a neutral expression. I could hear her faintly humming to herself over the sound of the showers running. She obviously didn’t notice how I’d saved her from being either a snitch or a liar because I had told the truth first. Even though Hannah and her mom had ultimately decided to join another church, thus crushing my dream we’d be Sunday school friends, didn’t she at least notice my W.W.J.D. bracelet?
This was Hannah’s first locker room shower because she’d still had her cast during those first few weeks of the semester. As I fumbled with my own clothing, I shot glances Stacy’s way, and then back at Hannah, who had undressed quickly and was already in the shower alcove where she hung up her towel, revealing her naked body. Fat wound around her torso like the voluptuous rolls of a Dairy Queen soft-serve ice cream cone. Hannah was the first girl in our class to get her period. (I’d been in the girls’ bathroom when Stacy discovered the toilet clogged with bloody toilet paper. She announced to everyone that Hannah did it). Still it was shocking to see she had dark pubic hair and breasts with brown saucers of skin rimming her nipples. Then there were the stretch marks. I had them too, but not as bad as this. Red, jagged lightning bolt-shaped scars arched across her hips like angry claws with a symmetry that looked tattoo-like.
Stacy, a few yards behind me, undressed in front of her locker, and slipped out of her training bra with the same towel-covering maneuver I used to hide my body. What would she say about Hannah? My fingers thrummed with nervous energy as I grabbed my hot-pink soap case, hung my towel on a hook near the door, and joined the others in the shower. As Stacy entered the shower room, passing Hannah who was on her way out, I expected a snide remark, an insult equating Hannah’s fat with whale blubber, or something equally witty. I waited the whole time we were in the locker room together, but a comment never came.
I nursed my disappointment while I dried off and dressed. Hannah was a lot fatter than I was, why hadn’t she gotten taunted by Stacy? But then again, why didn’t anyone bully me about being the tattletale?
My skin felt sticky under my clothes. I was tying my generic Keds when Stephanie Miller, lacing up her pink Nikes leaned over and said, “I’m glad you told the truth.” Usually a classmate’s praise was right up there with finding Mario Brothers’ coin heaven (the one with the beanstalk and floating clouds), but now I just felt ugly. I’d forgotten to take my W.W.J.D bracelet off to shower. Now it was wet and itchy against my wrist. I took it off and stuffed it into my jeans pocket. It didn’t feel like I’d done the right thing, trying to one-up everything Hannah did. I had hoped she’d be the class scapegoat, taking my place as the butt of jokes. But when no mean words came, the gratitude I felt for no longer being the fattest girl in the class dissipated as swiftly as the shower steam.
The next day after gym class, Mrs. Teply greeted us in the locker room and informed us that she would be supervising our showers for the rest of the school year. She stationed herself in front of the gray cinderblock wall outside the shower room, which reminded me of the gray-pixel brick castle mazes in Mario Brothers. She even reminded me a little of Bowser because she had his short, round figure, and her close-cropped hair cut was vaguely helmet-shaped. I looked around to see who I could share my new observation with and saw Hannah sitting on the bench next to mine, untying her shoes.
“Hey, do you play Mario Brothers?” I asked Hannah in a whisper. She nodded.
“Doesn’t Mrs. Teply look like Bowser from the castle-levels?”
Hannah nodded and giggled. I smiled back.
Surprisingly, Mrs. Teply’s presence eased my nerves. She chattered away, telling stories about the hideous gym uniforms of her youth. She was helpful, too, offering to hold my bracelet so it wouldn’t get wet. She stood there, in sensible flats and polyester dress slacks, while I quickly ducked my naked body under the shower spray, and realized that even if it had been a long time ago, she’d been required to shower after gym class, too. It took a few more weeks, but gradually showering after gym didn’t feel so difficult anymore. I trusted my classmates would follow our tacit, locker-room etiquette: don’t make fun of people when they’re naked.
By Thanksgiving break, I’d also befriended Hannah. She asked me to her apartment above Andresen’s Jewelry Store to play Nintendo. We sat on the shag carpet of her living room, playing Mario Brothers and eating Little Debbie Swiss Rolls, unrolling the chocolate sponge cakes before licking out the crème filling. Hannah let me be Mario, the coveted player 1, but I quickly found her skill at the game exceeded mine. On her first turn as player 2, she maneuvered Luigi down a drainpipe and into a secret Warp World I’d never seen before. This allowed her to skip the most perilous levels by sending her directly to the castle where Princess Peach was held captive. She deftly jumped over Bowser, tripped a lever that plunged the Turtle-King into a lake of fire, and won the whole game.
She didn’t gloat when she beat me. (Which is more than I would have done, had the situation been reversed.) Instead Hannah showed me all the cheat codes. She taught me how to find Warp Worlds and gain unlimited lives.
At first it may have only been my loneliness that compelled me to hang out with Hannah. We were both latch-key kids that year, and going to Hannah’s apartment after school and waiting for my mom to pick me up after she got off work was better than riding the bus home alone. I’d been scared to be too friendly with Hannah in front of mean girls like Stacy, because I didn’t want them to think I was as awkward, ugly, and unpopular as she was. I had thought if I could prove I was better than Hannah, I’d be safe from Stacy’s bullying. It didn’t work. Eventually, after Stacy’s verbal taunts failed to fluster us because we were so used to them, she left us alone.
One afternoon, Hannah and I were eating Frooties penny-candy we’d bought at Ben Franklin’s and playing Nintendo when I made it to the last level, Bower’s castle. To reach the Princess, Mario must first solve a series of mazes. For months, I was stuck on that part until Hannah taught me to crack it. Suddenly, I was in front of Bowser, dodging his fireballs, when with a jump and shoot combo, I conquered him, and won the game.
“All right!” Hannah said when the victory music played and gave me a high five.
The moment felt more ordinary than I had imagined. I was pleased, don’t get me wrong, but it had been such a long time coming that now winning was almost a moot point. After a dozen afternoons of video playing, I’d stopped constantly comparing myself to Hannah. I’d stopped trying to be like the popular girls too. As a result, Hannah and I had become good friends. I unwrapped a blue-raspberry Frootie, popped it in my mouth, liking the way it stuck to my teeth when I bit down.
“Hey,” Hannah said, “want to try it without the cheat codes? Let’s see who can win first without skipping any levels. You want to?”
“Yes,” I said, and pushed the start button on the Nintendo console.
Sarah K. Lenz’s nonfiction has appeared in Crazyhorse, Colorado Review, New Letters, South Dakota Review, Front Porch, and Santa Ana River Review. Three of her essays have been named Notable in Best American. In 2015, she received the New LettersReaders’ award. She holds an MFA from Georgia College and lives in Corpus Christi, Texas.