Fiction · 10/02/2019

Olive

In the mornings, Olive has an hour of unattended play before the nanny wakes up. She figured this out during this nanny’s first week, but she waited, like a rational person, to test her calculations, to ensure she would be alone. Adults sometimes wavered in their behavior. Her mother made sure that Olive knew this, that there was nothing worth counting on, not completely, that plans can be ruptured even after the cake is ordered and the balloons are en route in a mid-size van, and the banners are hung and Olive’s hair is in curlers, ready to be unspun. Flights can still get delayed, meetings can run over, deals can be so very close to being set in stone, and then one side can back out and screw everyone over. Olive isn’t totally clear on the screw part, but she knows it doesn’t sound fun, that her mother’s voice sharpens, that her usual baby doll, manifests into a darling, with the da shrilling loudly in Olive’s ear. Birthdays can be postponed. Friends can be asked instead to please visit the gift registry at the National Geographic Store. Candles can be thrown out to make way for new, unburned ones.

But the nannies are consistent. Olive’s mother only selected women who were. Women in their mid-twenties in between school and a career, in between adolescence and adulthood, in between independence and motherhood. These women stay with Olive for approximately one year, though it varies a few months, based on the lives they are moving towards.

This nanny wakes up at exactly 8:05 a.m. Olive hears the alarm blare. It sounds like a rainforest. Lots of rushing water and frogs. Olive always makes note of this. Alarms are one of the first ways she can tell the nannies apart. This nanny dyes her hair a peculiar shade of not-red and not-purple that Olive can’t quite match to the colored pencils she uses to sketch her emotion for the day. This is a request from her therapist. Olive and her mother are instructed to communicate through handwritten notes scanned into an email or snapped with an iPhone. After one week of unintelligible black ink on a hotel pad and a few lines on a cocktail napkin, Olive’s mother forwent the handwritten portion. Now, she types her comments, always in an Excel column, where Olive can see the other sheets she has open: the expense reports, the budget projections, the timeline that Olive pretends not to notice spans across all the summer months. Miss you, baby doll. It’s unnerving to see how many times that phrase manifests. Olive knows how easy it is to highlight words, click command and c, then click command and v and watch the text reappear as a carbon copy.

Olive writes wildly, in a cursive that is not exactly what her third grade teacher had in mind when she showed Olive how to swirl the letters with her hand in the air, but Olive is now in fifth grade and she decides to do things her own way. When writing the words: sad and the same, she matches the colors to her mood or sometimes makes contrasting banners like yellow writing with hot pink loops at the end to spell out the word: Emotionless.

Olive had a thesaurus to jazz up her portion. If her mother was going to parrot responses, Olive was going to keep her on her toes. She was determined to catch her attention. Chirpy, Gay, Tickled, Troubled, Miserable, Pained, Aloof, Dead. Olive was particularly excited to find that last one during a feverish journey from eh to bland to numb, finally leading to the four letters her mother never let her say: DEAD. Surely that would provoke a phone call. She thumbed through the big blue book again. Frozen, Dull, At ease, Peaceful, In a blue funk, In the dumps, Alarmed, Cowed, Fiery, Huffy, Tigerish.

Olive recently studied a word her last nanny said shouldn’t be spoken aloud: FAT. Pudgy, Plumpish, Jelly-belly, Roly-Poly, Butterball. FAT is the word the girls, whose mothers go jogging after dropping them off at school, use. The girls who wear their hair in matching French braids. Olive wanted to try that style, but she and this nanny had a misunderstanding about what exactly French braids meant and Olive ended up looking like Princess Leia and had to dip her hair in the sink and then showed up to school with a damp plain braid that dripped onto the back of her shirt and onto her metal chair and provoked rumors that she had, in fact, wet herself. FAT is the word that was uttered during gym class when the students sat on the floor of the gymnasium and stretched their arms across the length of their legs. Olive leaned over to the left and, according to the girls in the braids, her stomach spilled over the top of her pants. The back of her shirt was wet, again because of her hair, but the girls decided that during gym class it must be sweat, sweat because Olive is fat.

One benefit of Olive’s mother’s travels are the gifts she brings back. Sometimes the trinkets are small, like a bookmark or a hula girl keychain, but other times, and this always corresponds with the length of the trip, Olive’s mother will bring beaded necklaces and a cast of stuffed animals that Olive arranges on the edge of her bed like an audience for her slumber. Olive’s favorite is currently a pig in a black t-shirt with the words: Leadership Conference printed across the center. Olive calls her pig Olli and treats her with the same newfound degree of caution and disdain that she does her own appearance in the mirror.

Olli is made of some kind of rubbery material that is far different from the traditional cotton stuffing that can be broken open with enough swings of the animal against the metal rail of the bed. Olli is sturdy, long lasting, meant to be a part of Olive’s life for at least the near future.

The day after the Fat Incident, later known as: The Wetting Herself Incident, even later catalogued as: French Braid Gone Wrong — Mother Gone — Nanny Replacement Incident, Olive took Olli aside for an inspection. The irony was not lost on her. There was something about Olli that Olive knew was different. Olli was fat, just like Olive.

For all of her faults, Olive’s mother made the nannies keep a constant eye on her daughter. She requested daily reports of her behavior, dialogue, and condensed summaries of her responses to age-old questions like: Did you learn anything new today? Olive was not an idiot; she knew she was being interviewed. Each nanny, regardless of her nature, ended up with either a piece of paper or, if she was sneaky, a cell phone to serve as a recording device, and formed her questions in the same pattern and manner of speech as Olive’s mother constructed them. Today, did anything new happen? Were any of your interactions out of the ordinary? Have you discovered something about yourself that was not present yesterday?

Never had Olive found these questions as applicable as she did this day. Yes, something new had happened: she showed up at school with her hair soaking wet. Yes, her interactions were out of the ordinary: her wet hair made it look like she peed her pants and that she sweated, simultaneously. Yes, she discovered that she was fat. Though discovered may be the wrong word, at least in the context of it being determined, but as her thesaurus suggests, discovered can also mean naked and exposed and those words certainly fit in this circumstance.

But Olive does not say this. Olive is smart enough to know that any answer that raises a red flag will prompt a phone call from her therapist, followed by a coincidental Skype session (though only with audio) from her mother. Her therapist and her mother speak in the same concerned tone. Olive imagines them taking long sighs in unison, shrinking their shoulders back, and simultaneously adjusting their glasses. I have a feeling something is off, they will say. As if a feeling means they have no evidence of said thing, but attribute it either to maternal instinct or psychological training, depending on the speaker. How funny, Olive usually begins. Actually, things are very on today. On today? They both will undoubtedly say. Now what could that mean? Olive finds it best not to answer that question, that is what the therapist calls a rhetorical question, a question not meant for her, a question that is intended to be answered by the questioner, an instance that frankly leaves Olive quite confused.

After a few more lines of questioning, Olive becomes tired of pretending to be happy and switches quite dramatically to a state of depressed speech that is both vocal and withdrawn, a combination that is equal parts impressive and disconcerting. Hence, Olive has to go about her business in private, which leads to Olive studying the behavior of her current nanny: this year, the one who likes the sounds of the rainforest.

At 7:05am, Olive slowly rises from her bed that is one part comforter, two parts duvet, making sure not to disturb the row of sleeping stuffed animals. She plucks Olli from the line-up and whispers that they have business to attend to. Olive goes down the stairs in a modified hopscotch to avoid squeaks in the wood. Then she tiptoes to the kitchen. There she holds Olli up to the window’s light, still dim as the sun has yet to fully rise, but she squints for effect, imagining she has her very own pair of glasses on, and studies Olli’s body with focused intensity. She lifts the t-shirt off of the pig’s body. You are fat, Olli. She wraps her fingers around the pig and tries to squeeze the fat out. This technique does not work. The pig compresses, then expands in the very same instant. What are you made of? Olive asks. When Olli the pig does not respond, Olive decides to look for an answer.

Olive lifts her own shirt, a pajama top that matches the popcorn pattern on the bottom; it features a larger bowl of popcorn with glitter around the rims. Her stomach looks not unlike Olli’s stomach, it protrudes and feels both mushy and hard when she tries to squeeze the daylights out of it. Her belly button, an outie, perhaps the precursor to this problem, which she should have seen coming, now looks to her like a cherry on top of a sundae. Suddenly it seems to stick out of her even more; she is frightened. She lowers her shirt back down, then lifts it again, hoping to see nothing at all when the flesh comes into focus. In the quiet of the kitchen, she can practically hear the girls with the braids laughing. They pretend to whisper, but their hushing sounds only make everything louder. Now Olive’s back is damp, she is sweating, just like they said she would.

It is times like these when Olive wonders if maybe her therapist is right when she tells Olive to ask herself: What is real and what is imagined? But this strategy only gets Olive so far because, even after she labels each of the events, she is still certain of how she originally felt. Real or not, the feelings persist; they are big and loud and they refuse to release her. My feelings are my feelings, Olive says and the therapist nods her head and sighs. Then, if the therapist is feeling brave, or masochistic, which is a word that once slipped out of her mouth that Olive wrote down and later researched, the therapist asks: What could change them?

Olive rarely knows how to respond, but this morning, with her hand wrapped around Olli’s neck and her back wet and the girls with the braids laughing in her ear and her mother having missed last night’s call and this nanny not knowing how to properly do hair, Olive realizes the answer is simple: Olive needs to not be fat; she needs to be important. She needs to take precedence over all other matters like meetings and budget cuts and annual sales conferences. She needs to be needed by her mother. Olive needs to be a daughter.

I’m sorry, Olli, is all she says before she lifts the kitchen scissors, the ones that are larger than the orange scissors she uses at school that can barely cut paper. These scissors have a black handle that Olive has seen the nannies use to slice open breasts of chicken. Olive knows what she is doing. Her positioning is intentional. Olive opens the scissors wide, using both hands like she imagines a surgeon would. She punctures Olli right in the stomach and uses her placement to delicately pinch the skin and expose the interior. What Olive sees inside disturbes her: Olli the pig appears like a hotdog that has just had a bite taken out of it. FAT, Olive says aloud, less to Olli and more to herself. Your whole body is made of fat.

Olive raises the scissors again and this time, traces the blade along the glitter of her pajama top. She runs her fingers along her stomach: I am FAT, I am FAT, I am FAT. The scissors open. Olli the pig does not say anything. Olive presses the metal edge against her skin. She needs to see if she and Olli are the same.

Elsewhere, Olive’s mother is settling into work.

There is still a long time before this nanny will be up.

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Jenessa Abrams is a Norman Mailer Fiction Fellow and has been awarded fellowships and grants from the MacDowell Colony, the Ucross Foundation, the Vermont Studio Center and Columbia University, where she earned her MFA in fiction and literary translation. Her writing has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and published in Tin House, Guernica, The Rumpus, BOMB Magazine and elsewhere. Currently, she teaches writing at Rutgers University.