A CURIOUSNESS | Ellen C King’s short story captures a childhood curiosity.
by Ellen C King
‘A gentle curiousness’ is how, if asked now, Lucy would describe her thoughts on the female form as a teenager, a curiousness which began in her first year as a teen. As an adult, she feigns indifference and neutrality towards the existence of other women’s bodies, even though in actuality she still has that curiousness for bodies that are so different from her own. She isn’t ashamed of this, but it’s something that she chooses to keep to herself.
At 13, Lucy met Mel. Mel was the physical opposite to her in many ways; fleshy where Lucy was petite, thick shiny honeyed hair where Lucy was frizzy and a redhead, graceful where Lucy was clumsy. The two became fast friends, bonding during shared art and IT lessons, amusing each other with pubescent jokes during dull moments in class, of which there were many. To Lucy, Mel was an easy and calming presence, if slightly enigmatic. To Mel, Lucy was trustworthy and incredibly entertaining. Shortly after they met, their friendship circles merged in the easy way in which they only do at that age and in the close proximity of school grounds.
Lucy often felt the need to watch Mel when she was sure she could do so without detection, either in moments where watching her was appropriate or when no one was paying attention, although she didn’t know why she felt compelled to do this. There was something about her face that at first glance was visually appealing, but after closer inspection each feature didn’t make for an attractive one; her nose had a bump like it had been broken, her teeth were uneven and her eyes sat a little too close together. Each feature on it’s own was unattractive, but as a collective made for an attractive face. Neither girl was seen as particularly attractive to the boys their own age, with the favoured attraction at that point being the antithesis of the both of them – athletic – and perhaps because of this, or for other reasons, each girl cherished the other even more.
Four years later, the pair had taken a trip with Mel’s parents to one of the Spanish islands; it didn’t matter to the two of them much which island it was, it was the taste of freedom (which tasted a lot like pints of vodka Redbull in bars that didn’t care to ask for ID) that they both craved. On this holiday they shared a hotel room, single beds pushed together and all hours of the day spent by each other’s sides. The first few days were spent lazing on the small beach that was a short walk from their hotel; for August it wasn’t as busy as they’d expected it to be and the small cove was only shared with a dozen or so other families, none of which included small children. It was on that beach, skin salty with sweat and sea water, that for the first time Lucy was privy to parts of Mel’s body that were usually hidden beneath the ill-fitting polyester of a school uniform or the stiff cotton of denim jeans.
The water in the cove was fairly shallow and spanned for about 20 metres before joining with the sea, the area that they swam in clear and only with a slight chill. Mel lay on her front alongside her parents on the sand, wearing a strapless pink swimming costume that emphasised the increasingly red shade of her shoulders. Lucy paddled the distance of the beach and back again, returning to Mel and her family, feeling herself growing hungry but not wanting to disturb the three of them when they were likely snoozing. She wrapped herself in a towel and dug her feet into the sand, feeling the grains go under her toenails and knowing she would regret that later. Being the only person awake in their party gave her a bizarre sense of power and allowed her to shamelessly take in the curve of the small of Mel’s back and the way her thighs expanded while laying down like dough proving. She’d never had this much time to take in the way Mel’s body looked unnoticed.
“Neither girl was seen as particularly attractive to the boys their own age, with the favoured attraction at that point being the antithesis of the both of them – athletic – and perhaps because of this, or for other reasons, each girl cherished the other even more.”
Lucy looked down at her own body, at the gentle roundness of the small pouch of fat on her lower abdomen and the barely-there breast tissue more obvious than ever in the string bikini she was wearing. If she were taller then she’d be described as willowy, but as it stood she was more likely to be called scrawny. She tried not to compare her body to other peoples, especially as she was aware she had something close to the type that typically many would like to have. Especially when she knew that Mel was often pained by her own fleshy home and didn’t want to encourage the behaviour that made her best friend feel that way. She tried not to compare her body to other peoples, but often found herself secretly comparing it to Mel’s. She would likely never know how it felt to have an inherent softness and fluffy lines, the way a body like that feels as it moves, which left her feeling almost unfulfilled.
The following evening after another day spent lolling around the beach, the pair were introduced to their hotel holiday rep, a young (but older than them) man with a light tan and short dark hair. They accepted his offer to explore the bars in the small local town that evening, Mel with some trepidation but Lucy with excitement. Bars would mean boys. Bars on a Spanish island would mean uninhibited alcohol consumption. The two had never been on a bar crawl before, favouring house parties with lukewarm cans of cider over fake ID and inquisitive bouncers back at home. They met with the rep, Dan, at the hotel’s poolside bar. He had already ordered their drinks; in his powerful position he got as much free food and booze at the hotel as he liked, and he pushed the plastic cups filled with peach schnapps and lemonade towards the girls. It slid down their throats with ease, too sugary to taste the sharpness of the alcohol. It left their lips and fingers sticky sweet.
As the night went on, they grew more ambitious with their drinks and ordered experimental cocktails which often came in pint glasses, the ratio of alcohol to mixer dangerously equal. Both girls had only been truly drunk twice in their life, both times in the safety of a friends home, and were surprised by how much freedom they felt surrounded by strangers and loud music. Mel could feel her vision softening along with any trepidation she had left within her and let herself move with the crowd, the bare skin of her midriff pressed against the cotton of strangers shirts and dresses, unknown fingers grasping at the hem of her shorts, an arm heavy around her shoulders. Lucy had found herself sat on the edge of the melee on a white patio chair, the plastic sticking to the back of her thighs, placed there by a concerned Dan.
From this position, and in her uninhibited state, she felt comfortable to watch Mel’s body moving openly. She watched as the fat in Mel’s thighs rippled when she rolled her hips and the doughy way her midriff lightly spilled over the waistband of her shorts. She also watched the lust that this insighted in the men she was dancing with and the hungry way they moved towards her. Dan had noticed this too, and went to help move her away from the predatory crowd. He grabbed her sweaty hand and pulled her to safety, sitting her on another plastic chair next to Lucy. Mel looked at Lucy with a soft smile and continued swaying to the music.
The three of them left not long after this; Mel’s energy seemed sapped from her moments after she sat down and wanted to get into her bed. Though neither of them were in the same state as her, Lucy and Dan obliged and walked Mel back to the hotel via the beach, walking shoulder to shoulder while Lucy held Mel’s warm hand in hers. Looking at Dan, Lucy could feel his green eyes burning through her own right down into her mind. Their chatter was menial but the energy between them felt like something much more alive. As they reached the hotel lobby, he asked her to join him on the beach to wait for the sunrise. She felt her cheeks flush hot and agreed once she had made sure Mel was safely in bed.
Dan and Lucy ended up in the sea, stretched out atop the water and bobbing with the waves in the moving darkness. It was Lucy’s first time skinny dipping, although she suspected this was something Dan did often. He was the one to suggest it as they had approached the beach and without waiting for an answer was naked in the water waiting for her. She imagined that he was used to being in this position – the holiday fling for countless young women – and knew what her answer would be anyway. She waited until the last moment to remove her clothes, considering the lusty way men had looked at Mel and comparing the vast difference between their appearances. She had a fleeting worry that he was settling for her small breasts and narrow hips because Mel and her inherent femininity weren’t available before realising that she didn’t really care about that, her dress dropping to the sand and her feet stepping into the chilly brine.
The week that was spent in the scent of the Balearic sea is a memory that Lucy rarely thinks of unless prompted by a reminder on Facebook, although she considers it to be one of the most formative of her early life. She thinks of herself as a strident feminist and theoretically is comfortable with the way she quietly surveys other women’s bodies in the gym changing rooms or on hot buses in summer dresses given that it isn’t in a critical manner. She stopped being ashamed of her curiosity on that beach in the beating August sun, but it was still a curiosity that she kept to herself. A part of her that she wanted to keep a secret, which is why when asked, her younger self had a gentle curiosity, but as an adult she no longer does.
Ellen is a writer, marketer, nail artist, cat-mum and collector of Snazzy Shoes based in South London