My pulse thrummed in time with the loud, upbeat music. The smell of chlorine hung heavy in the air on this side of the gym, closest to the Olympic-sized pool. Stepping onto the fake terrain I would be pounding for the next hour, I checked out the swimmers slicing effortlessly through the water and a few women paddling off to one side.
Three kinds of people frequented a gym. First were the ones taking their workouts seriously, rubbing their sweat-drenched bodies with tiny brightly colored towels and wearing fancy watches that measured how many calories they burned. Second were those girls hanging out in the pool. I was neither of those.
I fell into the category of people who finally caved and joined their local fitness center because ten consecutive years of not going to the gym that day were adding up. The evidence was my horizontally challenged body. And yet, despite dragging my overweight ass in here day after day, I struggled to actually work out too hard once I got here.
Who pays to sweat? It was absurd.
Okay, maybe not absurd, but I was awarding myself points for having come here at least three times this week.
Instead of joining the ranks of the dedicated gym rats, my best friend Tiana and I set the treadmills to low, jogged a little and used the time to catch up after work and do some people-watching.
I jerked my head discreetly at a slender blond girl prancing by, neon pink yoga pants showcasing a butt I would never get by jogging at the speed I was.
“How about her?” I asked Tiana, happy that my friend happened to share my affinity for gossiping about the better-looking girls at the gym and talking about the sexy guys working up buckets of sweat. “Do you think she’s hunting for a man or an even better body?”
Tiana smirked, rolling her pretty olive eyes. “Definitely a man. Your body doesn’t care about what label you wear while working out.”
“True.” I sighed, wiping away the few dots of sweat forming on the back of my neck. “I haven’t shopped for labels in so long I didn’t even notice she was wearing one.”
“That’s why you have me.” She waggled her dark brows and set the controls on her treadmill to the warm-up cycle. “Well, for that, and to gently encourage you to start looking for a job that will allow you to shop for labels again.”
“I don’t need labels,” I told her as I fiddled with my own controls. These damned buttons seemed to get more confusing every time we were here. “I thought I had you to help me grow my voluptuous figure by making me be the guinea pig for all your delectable creations.”
“Rather voluptuous than skeletal.” She lectured authoritatively, sliding her eyes to mine. She sounded more like her mom with each passing day.
If someone accused me of sounding anything like my mom, I would be majorly offended. In Tiana’s case, it wasn’t an insult to say. If anything, it was a huge compliment.
Mrs. Jeffry, Tiana’s mom, was one of the best women you would ever meet. Hailing from the Mediterranean, she was a classic Greek beauty who was all about family, food and fun. Traits she shared with her gorgeous daughter.
Tiana’s sleek black hair was piled into a messy bun high on her head. She didn’t give a damn how she looked while working out, but she didn’t have to. She would turn heads anywhere, even if she decided to go without a shower for a year or stop shaving completely. Not that she would, but hey… She was that kind of beautiful that she would probably get away with it.
People would likely think she was starting some new trend.
“But I can always stop experimenting on you. I have a recipe for a chocolate lava cake I was going to try out tonight, but I can always save the recipe and try it out on my family.” She shrugged, blinking innocently.
“Don’t you dare!” Images of cutting into one of Tiana’s rich, perfectly fluffy cakes and watching the chocolate ooze out were already playing in my mind. Having a culinary grad as a housemate was fantastic unless you cared about piling on a few extra pounds—then it was a nightmare. “Let’s make a deal, you bake the cake and tomorrow, we’ll come an hour earlier.”
She pursed her lips, moving them from side to side, considering. “We can’t tomorrow, but I’ll take you up on the extra hour next week.”
“What’s wrong with doing it tomorrow?”
Rolling her eyes, she lifted one perfectly manicured brow. “It’s your birthday tomorrow.”
“So? We don’t have any plans.” To me, birthdays were like downing shots at a frat party or getting an STD test. Unavoidable, but there was really no reason to celebrate.
Tiana shot me a look and blew out an exasperated sigh. “No plans you know about. I, however, have plans for us. We’re going out tomorrow night. Period.”
“Oh, hell no.”
“Yes,” she insisted. She hit the button to stop her machine so she could turn, plant her hands on her hips and give me a meaningful headshake. “We’re going out. We’re even getting you a new outfit. We’ll go shopping after this and have fun. The end.”
“Could it be the middle?” I hedged, trying to negotiate, but I was fairly certain it was going to be useless. When she got that look in her eye, she tended to get what she wanted.
“Nope,” she said. She grabbed her little green towel from its hook and hopped off the treadmill. “Let’s go shopping.”
A quick shower later, we braved the after-work crush in the subway and made our way to the mall closest to our place. Bypassing the food court and the designer shops, our sneakers squeaked against the polished white tiles.
Skillfully dodging our hurried fellow city dwellers, Tiana pulled me into a smaller, quiet boutique advertising a sale.
“There.” She pointed at a dress on display in the corner of the shop. I had no idea how she spotted these things from outside. She was a master shopper. “You have to get that one.”
“You want me,” I jabbed my index finger at my chest, my eyes widening, “to wear that?”
Maybe she wasn’t so masterful after all. “You do realize the flotation devices on my chest are attached, right? I can’t wiggle into that and leave my boobs at home for the night.”
“Really?” She clasped her hands over her mouth in mock surprise. “I never realized. I’m ever so sorry. Are you sure you can’t even let some air out of them?”
Dropping her hands and the act, she laughed and tugged me over to the dressing room. “I know they’re attached. That’s the point. In that dress, they’re going to be front and center.”
“Try front and everywhere,” I told her, turning a skeptical eye to the scrap of black material masquerading as a dress. “It would look great on you.”
She sighed, walking over to run the lacy hem of the dress between her fingers. “It would, but it’s not my birthday. And it’s going to look better on you. I don’t have the curves to back it up. This dress deserves your curves.”
A sales assistant appeared at her side, apparently having overheard what she said. The girl was dressed casually in a cashmere sweater, but she managed to look elegant at the same time with her hair pulled back into a twist.
She put her finger to her chin and looked from the dress to me and back again, then started nodding. “You would fill this out beautifully.”
My eyes wanted to roll so badly. I barely managed to suppress the urge. “You two need to learn that saying things like that could be hurtful to curvy girls who are a bit more self-conscious about it.”
As for me, my thirty post-college pounds didn’t gain themselves, and I knew it. I took full responsibility for the extra weight. I was a stress eater. And with everything I’d been through since college, I was pretty much always stressed.
I wasn’t altogether uncomfortable with it or about it, but I wouldn’t have minded losing just a few of those pounds. Hence, the gym joining. Now if only joining and spending time there would make the fat melt off, that would’ve been great.
In the meantime, I was settling for taking the advice of all those crappy “love yourself the way you are” messages and at least trying to be healthy—Tiana’s chocolate lava cake excluded.
I rifled through the clothes, finding the scrappy dress in my size and plucking it off. “I’ll give it a try, but I’m telling you the girls will not behave in it.”
Tiana clapped happily five minutes later when I emerged from the dressing room. “The girls are totally behaving in it.”
She circled me like I was a show pony on display. Deciding to play into it, I struck a pose with my hand on my hip and jutted it out. She laughed. “It’s perfect.”
The sales assistant, who wasn’t wearing one of those handy name tags—no doubt it was too tacky for her—joined in on the scrutiny. “Gorgeous. Very sexy.”
I looked down, narrowing my eyes.
Where they apparently saw perfect and gorgeous and sexy, I saw pale skin bulging out of the clingy black material and bumps where there should never be bumps. The dress itself had all those qualities they mentioned, but me in it? Dressing room mirrors didn’t lie, unfortunately. And I didn’t see any of those things when I looked at myself in this dress.
It was scooped in the front and dipped into my ample cleavage—not very bra friendly. In the back, the dress hung so low I wasn’t sure if moving incorrectly would show off my crack.
A few helpful straps would help me conceal a bra to tame the girls, but there was nothing to be done about my wide ass or the thunder thighs the dress only covered a few inches of. “I think you both need to get your eyes checked.”
Tiana pulled down on her charcoaled lower lid. “I wear contacts, remember? My vision’s perfect with these babies, just like that dress.”
“Same here.” The sales assistant smiled kindly, her eyes flicking between my stubborn expression and Tiana’s. “I think I’m going to give you ladies a moment. I’ll be at the register if you need anything.”
She disappeared behind displays of clothes and a second later, cranked up a radio somewhere. Tiana and I went a few rounds, which ended with me caving when she told me that the club we were going to was bound to be dark and any flaws I thought I had would be completely hidden.
“You deserve to feel sexy on your birthday, and that dress is smoking,” she said. We argued as we approached the register to pay, the dress hanging over my arm.
We were interrupted by the news coming over the radio when we got to the checkout counter. “Exciting news, sports fans. Businessman Jance Williams is in the process of acquiring the New York Yankees. The billionaire announced the purchase of the team in a press conference this morning. Yankees Manager, Ted Eriksson, has confirmed the sale. What do you think about this news? Phone lines are open right after this.”
“That man owns everything.” I placed the dress carefully on the counter, digging around in my purse for my wallet. Fingers crossed my credit card lets me buy the dress.
Mercifully, plastic was patient. I should be able to get away with one elaborate purchase this month.
I wondered what it felt like to be Mr. Jance Williams, infamous New York billionaire. He probably never had to worry about his card declining. “He’s so fucking wealthy it’s not funny.”
“True,” Tiana agreed. She tapped her lip thoughtfully, her eyes widening as she thought of something. “You should go work for him.”
“As what? A secretary?” I had a fucking business degree, and yet I was working in a bookstore, surviving paycheck to paycheck. I was ready to stop living that way, but jobs weren’t exactly a dime a dozen in this city—despite what movies tried to make you believe. “I have no experience in anything that would mean a thing to him.”
Tiana shrugged, taking my card from the sales assistant and handing hers over instead. “Working for him, even as a secretary, would be getting a foot in the door.”
She slid it back over to me, adding. “The dress is for your birthday. I’m the one who wanted to go out, and I wanted to come shopping, so let me get it for you.”
“Thanks,” I said. I was lucky to have a friend like her. Not because she bought me the dress, but because she knew me well enough to know that in these circumstances, I would be okay with it when I normally wouldn’t be.
The gesture of goodwill, however, wasn’t enough to convince me that getting any one of my body parts into any door at Williams Inc. would turn out well for me. “Get my foot in the door only to get my butt stuck in it on the way out as he kicks me to the curb when he realizes I’m not a skilled secretary?”
She was quiet for a second, and I thought she was going to give me a break and drop it before she turned to me. “When did you grow feathers?”
“Excuse me?” I scrunched up my nose, trying to figure out what she was talking about.
“I’ve never known you to be a chicken.”
“Nope. Come on, don’t do that,” I objected. Scratch ever having been thankful she knew me so well. “You know I hate being called scared.”
Tiana got her card back from the sales assistant and tucked her hands under her arms, miming flapping wings. “Chicken. Little chicken shit. Chicken, chicken.”
“Fine. Damn. Okay, okay. I’m getting a job there. Never let it be said you don’t know what buttons to push.” Truth be told, I appreciated her pushing them. And she knew it.
Linking my arm with hers, I picked up the bag the sales assistant put the dress in and walked out of the shop. Tiana’s brown eyes, flecked and swirled with green, met mine. “So this job you’re getting, any ideas on how?”
“Who the fuck knows. I’ll figure it out on Monday.” And come Monday, I would be figuring it out. I was done with just surviving. I wasn’t a damn tree, if I didn’t like where I was, I could leave. And I really, really didn’t like where I was.
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