It’s the first week of fifth grade, and Jessie is about to give a presentation to her class.
As part of an autobiography project, the students have been asked to bring in a photo of themselves as babies, toddlers, or preschoolers. Jessie picks one of her dad’s favorites. In the photo, she’s 3 and has no neck, because she’s hunched against the spray from a waterfall. She’s smiling, water spangling her short, silky black hair. She’s wearing black shorts and a yellow sweatshirt, like a little bee shivering in the water.
Back then, her hair was cropped around her ears. These days, it falls to the middle of her back, thick and coarse. She pushes it away from her face, strides to the front of the room, and displays the photo to the class.
They crane forward, and it’s Mike B. who says, “That was you?”
He sounds so surprised that Jessie glances at the photo to check. “Well, yeah.”
His mouth falls open for several seconds. Someone else giggles, but otherwise the class is silent. Jessie, feeling unsure for the first time, remembers to hand the photo to a girl in the front row so that the class can pass it around.
“You were so cute,” Mike B. says. Then he asks, “What happened?”
The way he says it isn’t mean. There’s no sly, malicious triumph in his eyes. He just sounds stunned, full of puzzled sorrow.
No one else says anything, not even the teacher. The 3-year-old in the photo continues to squirm in the water and smile, as one person after another glances between her and her older self at the front of the class.
Jessie’s cheeks burn. So do her eyes. She can’t bring herself to look at anything but the floor as she mumbles about her life. In the seven years since the photo was taken, she has started playing cello. She has read hundreds of books and has gotten a pet dog, Nelson, a miniature schnauzer. She was fitted for glasses in the third grade.
When she has shared everything she is required to share of herself, Jessie returns to her desk, where someone has tossed her photo on the chair. As another student stumps to the front of the room, Jessie folds the photo in two and tucks it into the front pocket of her yellow dress. A pressure has built up in her throat. She stares at her legs, encased in purple tights, and at her body, swelling and bulging under a bulky yellow dress. She looks monstrously swollen, every part of her bloated and disfigured. What has she become? What is she becoming?
On the bus ride home, alone at the front, she doesn’t look out the window for fear of seeing her face in the glass.