Fifteen-year-old Colie is spending the summer with her eccentric Aunt Mira while her mother travels. Formerly chubby and still insecure, Colie has built a shell around herself. But her summer with her aunt, her aunt's tenant Norman, and her friends at the Last Chance Diner&150teaches her some important lessons about friendship and learning to love yourself.
A plot description of this contemporary problem novel may make it sound like a kind of Cinderella story, but Dessen's (Someone Like You) ironic sense of humor and her knack for creating characters with both quirky personalities and universal emotions set her book apart. Colie's fitness-celebrity mom (a female version of Richard Simmons) long ago motivated her to lose 45.5 pounds, but Colie feels just as insecure as she did when she was overweight, and she is a pariah at school. During Colie's 15th summer, her mother goes on an extended tour of Europe, and Colie is sent to outlandish Aunt Mira in Colby, N.C. There Colie is influenced by a singular group of mentors: the young women next door, Isabel and Morgan, who give Colie a makeover as well as a waitressing job; Mira's young boarder, Norman, who has moved out of his bullying auto-dealer dad's house so he can pursue a career in art; and Mira herself, a greeting-card illustrator who is as enormous and eccentric as she is immune to the ostracism of the locals. As readers will anticipate, Colie begins a happy metamorphosis; unexpectedly, her transformation is interrupted by the arrival of a mean-mouthed schoolmate who is all too eager to cut Colie down. Readers will lap up the snappy dialogue, colorful episodes and unexpected pearls of wisdom. The lessons Colie learns about beauty, none of them new, come across with freshness and vitality. Ages 12-up. (Sept.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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May 10, 2004
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Excerpt from Keeping the Moon by Sarah Dessen
"Colie," my mother said with a sigh as she walked down the train platform toward me. She was in one of her FlyKiki workout suits, purple this time; she looked like a shiny grape. Her assistant, standing by the station door, took a not-so-subtle look at her watch. "Will you please try not to look so tortured?"
I fake-smiled at her, crossing my arms more tightly over my chest.
"Oh, that's even worse," she said. Another sigh. "With your hair that color and that thing in your lip you look terrible even when you're smiling." She came closer, her sneakers making squeaky mouse noises on the concrete. Like everything else, they were brand-new. "Honey, you know this is for the best. You couldn't stay by yourself at the house all summer. You'd be lonely."
"I have friends, Mom," I said.
She cocked her head to the side, as if she doubted this. "Oh, honey," she said again. "It's for the best."
The best for you, I thought. The thing about my mother is that she always has good intentions. But that's as far as she usually gets.
"Kiki," said the assistant, whose name I hadn't even bothered to learn because she'd be gone by the time I got back, fired before they even reached the airport, probably, "we've got to go if we want to make that flight."
"All right, all right." My mother put her hands on her hips?the classic Kiki Sparks aerobic stance?and looked me up and down. "You'll keep up your workouts, right? It would be a shame to gain all that weight back."
"And you'll eat healthy?I told you I'm sending along the complete Kiki line?so you'll have your foods with you at Mira's."
"You told me."
She let her hands drop to her sides, and in that one brief moment I saw my mother again. Not Kiki Sparks, fitness guru and personal trainer of the masses. Not the talk show Kiki, the infomercial Kiki, the Kiki that smiled out from a million weight-loss products worldwide. Just my mom.
But now the train was coming.
"Oh, Colie," she said, and she pulled me close, burying her face in the jet-black hair that had almost made her have a total breakdown when I came to breakfast that morning. "Please don't be mad at me. Okay?"
I hugged her back, even though I'd told myself I wouldn't. I'd pictured myself stony and silent as the train pulled out of the station, my angry face the last image she'd take with her on her European Summer FlyKiki Fitness Tour. But I was the opposite of my mother, in more than just the fact that I always had bad intentions. And that was as far as I got.
"I love you," she whispered as we walked toward the train.
Then take me with you, I thought, but she was already pulling back, wiping her eyes, and I knew if I said it the words would fall between us and just lie there, causing more trouble than they were worth.
"I love you too," I said. When I got to my seat I looked out the window and found her standing by the station door, her assistant still fidgeting beside her. She waved, in all that purple, and I waved back, even as the lump formed hard and throbbing in the back of my throat. Then I put on my headphones, turned up my music as loud as I could, and closed my eyes as the train slipped away. It hadn't always been like this.
In my first real memory, at five, I am wearing white mary janes and sitting in the front seat of our old Volare station wagon in front of a 7-Eleven. It is really, really hot, and my mother is walking toward me carrying two Big Gulps, a bag of Fritos, and a box of Twinkies. She's wearing cowboy boots, red ones, and a short skirt, even though this is during what we call the "Fat Years." Being obese?she topped out, at her worst, at about 325 pounds?never stopped my mother from following fads.
She opens the car door and tosses in the loot, the bag of Fritos banking off my leg and onto the floor.
"Scoot over," she says, settling her large form in beside me. "We've still got half a day till Texas."
The rest of my early memories are all of highway, coming toward me from different landscapes: flat, dry desert; thick Carolina pines; windy coastal roads framed by dunes. Only a few things stayed the same. My mother and I were both fat. It was usually not too far to the next place. And we were always together, us against the world.
The last of our stops was Charlotte, North Carolina, three years ago. It's the longest I've ever stayed in any one school. It's also where my mother became Kiki Sparks.
Before, she was just Katharine, college dropout and master of a million small talents: she'd pumped gas, peddled cemetery plots over the phone, sold Mary Kay cosmetics, even arranged appointments at an escort service. Anything to keep us in food and gas money until she started itching to travel again. But after a few days in Charlotte she applied for a job at a dry cleaner's which she didn't get and, in a fit of frustration, accidentally rear-ended a Cadillac in the parking lot. Since we were flat broke, she talked the owner of the car, who ran a gym called Lady Fitness, into letting her work off the cost of the repairs. She started by cleaning the machines and answering phones, but after a few weeks the woman liked her so much she gave her a full-time job and a free membership. A week earlier we'd been back to ketchup soup and ramen noodles, sleeping in the back of the car; now, we had a steady income and a decent apartment. Back in the Fat Years, things always seemed to work out at the last minute.
My mom had been trying to lose weight all her life. At Lady Fitness, it actually started to happen. She'd always loved to dance, and she got hooked on aerobics, taking classes whenever she could fit them in. After a week or two she started dragging me with her. It was kind of embarrassing. She was super enthusiastic, the one voice you could hear above all the rest, all three hundred pounds of her touch-stepping and heel-toeing, clapping her hands and singing along to the music.
The instructors, however, loved her. After a few months one of them started helping her prepare for the certification test so she could teach her own classes. When she passed she became the heaviest?and most popular?instructor in the history of Lady Fitness. She played the best music, knew all her students by name, and used the stories of our Fat Years to emphasize her message that anyone can do anything they set their mind to.
By the time we'd been in Charlotte two years, my mother had lost a hundred and sixty pounds, with me shedding forty-five and a half right beside her. Katharine disappeared, along with the breakfasts of doughnuts and chocolate milk, our love handles and our double chins, and Kiki was born.
She loved her new, strong body, but for me it was harder. Even though I'd been teased all my life, I'd always taken a small, strange comfort in my folds of fat, the fact that I could grab myself at the waist. The weight was like a force field, shielding me as I was plopped into one new school after another, food being my only comfort through the long afternoons while my mother was working. Now, almost fifty pounds lighter, I had nothing left to hide behind. Sometimes in my bed at night, I'd find myself still pinching the skin at my waist, forgetting that there was nothing there to hold on to anymore.
My body had changed, parts of me just disappearing like I'd wished them away. I had cheekbones, muscles, a flat stomach, clear skin, just like my mother. But something was missing, something that made us different. I could build muscle, but not confidence. There were no exercises for that.
Still, I kept working out?doing aerobics, jogging, lifting weights?driven by the echo of words I'd been hearing for as long as I could remember.
Fat Ass! I'd force myself to do ten more lunges, feeling the burning in my legs.
Lard-O! I'd push through another set of repetitions, curling the dumbbell tight into my arm, even when the pain was killing me.
Thunder Thighs! I'd go another mile, running fast enough, finally, to leave the voices behind me.
My mother and I had become new people: even the pictures in our photo albums didn't look like us anymore. Sometimes I imagined our former fat selves were still out there driving around the country like ghosts, eating bags of Doritos. It was strange.
Meanwhile, my mom's classes at Lady Fitness kept growing, with women crowding in hip to hip to follow her gospel. Then the local cable access channel asked her to do a live morning show called Wake Up and Work Out. I watched her before school as I sat at the kitchen table eating my nonfat yogurt and high-energy Grape-Nuts.
"My name is Kiki Sparks," she said at the beginning of every show, while the music built behind her, louder and louder. "Are we ready to get to work?"
Soon you could almost hear the hundreds?then thousands?of women across the city shouting, "Yes! "
It was only a matter of time before she went statewide, then national. The woman who'd hired her at Lady Fitness mortgaged her house to produce a high-tech "FlyKiki" video, which sold a million copies after my mom appeared on the Home Shopping Network and led the host in a five-minute Super Cal Burn. The rest is fat-free history.
Now we have a house with a pool, keep a cook who makes only low-fat meals, and I have my own bathroom and TV. The only downside is that my mother is so busy, spreading Kikimania across the country and around the world. But whenever I miss her too much, I can flip through the channels for her infomercial? KikiSpeaks: You Can Do It!?and find her, just like that.
Sometimes, though, I still think about us bumping along together in our old Volare, me half asleep with my head in her lap while she sang along with the radio. And I miss that endless highway stretching out ahead, full of possibilities, always leading to a new town and another school where I could start again. When the train pulled into the Colby station five hours later, the only person waiting was a guy with shoulder-length brown hair, a tie-dyed T-shirt, cutoff army shorts, and Birkenstocks. He had about a million of those Deadhead hippie bracelets on his wrist, and he was wearing sunglasses with blue frames.
I was the only one who got off in Colby.
I stood on the platform, squinting. It was really sunny and hot, even though the ocean was supposed to be close by.
"Nicole?" the guy said, and when I looked up he took a few steps toward me. His shorts were splattered with white paint and I was sure he'd smell of patchouli or pot if I bothered to sniff hard, which I chose not to.
"Colie," I said.
"Right." He smiled. I couldn't see his eyes. "Mira sent me to pick you up. I'm Norman."
Mira was my aunt. She was stuck with me for the summer.
"Those yours?" he said, pointing at the bags, which the porter had piled further down the platform. I nodded and he started after them, with a slow, lazy walk that was already irritating me.
I was immediately mortified to see the entire Kiki line right there next to my stuff. The Kiki Buttmaster, a carton of KikiEats, the dozen new FlyKiki videos and inspirational tapes, plus a few more boxes of vitamins and fitness wear with my mother's smiling face plastered across them.
"Wow," Norman said. He picked up the Buttmaster, turning it in his hands. "What's this for?"
"I'll get that," I said, grabbing it from him. For the entire trip down I'd imagined myself in Colby as mysterious, different; the dark stranger, answering no one's questions. This image was significantly harder to maintain while lugging a Buttmaster in front of the only boy I'd seen in the last year who didn't automatically assume I was a slut.
"Car's over here," he said, and I followed him to a battered old Ford station wagon parked in the empty lot. He put my bags in the back and held the door as I threw in the Buttmaster, which landed with a clunk on the floor. We had to make a second trip for the rest of the Kikicrap.
"So how was the train ride?" he asked. The car smelled like old leaves and was full of junk, except for the front, which had obviously been cleared out just recently. In the backseat were four mannequins, all of them headless. One was missing an arm, another a hand, but they were lined up neatly, as if they'd piled in for the ride.
"Fine," I said, wondering what kind of weirdo Mira had sent for me. I got in and slammed the door, then caught a glimpse of myself in the side mirror. In all the confusion I had forgotten about my hair. It was so black that for a second I didn't recognize myself.
Norman started up the car with a little coaxing, and we pulled out into the empty intersection.
"So," he said, "did it hurt?"
"Did what hurt?"
He looked over at me and touched the right corner of his upper lip. "That," he said. "Did it hurt, or what?"
I ran my tongue along the inside of my lip, feeling the small metal hoop there. I'd had it done only months earlier, but it felt like it had always been part of me, my touchstone. "No," I said.
"Wow," he said. The light turned green; we chugged slowly forward. "Looks like it would."
"It didn't." I said it flatly, so he wouldn't ask again.
We didn't talk as we drove. Norman's car was downright strange; besides our headless fellow passengers there were about twenty tiny plastic animals glued to the dashboard, lined up carefully, and a huge pair of fuzzy red dice bouncing from the rearview mirror.
"Nice car," I said under my breath. He had to be some kind of art freak.
"Thanks," he replied cheerfully, reaching up to adjust a red giraffe by the air vent. He obviously thought I was serious. "It's a work in progress."
We turned on to a dirt road and passed a few houses with glimpses of water just beyond. We went all the way to the very end, finally turning in to park right in front of a big white house. Around the porch, I could see the beach and the sound. There were little boats out there, bobbing.
Norman honked the horn twice and cut the engine. "She's expecting you," he said. He got out and went around to the back door, unloading my stuff and piling it on the front steps. He put the Buttmaster on the very top, arranging it just so. I couldn't tell if he was being a smartass or what.
"Thanks," I said under my breath, deciding he was.
Mira's porch was the old southern kind: wide and long, running the entire length of the house, and I noticed two things about it right away. First, an old bicycle leaning against a front window. It had Cadillac-style fins over the back wheel and was spray-painted bright red, with a few rust spots showing through. In the metal basket on the front was a pair of sunglasses with big black frames.
The second thing I noticed was a small sign posted over the doorbell, an index card that read, in simple block letters, BELL. For the truly moronic, there was an arrow as well.
I was beginning to wonder what kind of world I had landed in.
"Norman?" A woman's voice came from inside, filtering through the screen door. "Is that you?"
"Yeah," Norman called back, walking up the steps and leaning in close against the screen, shielding his eyes with his hand. "The train was right on time, for once."
"I can't find him again," said the woman, who I assumed must be my aunt Mira. She sounded like she was moving quickly, her voice strong at first and then fading. "He was here this morning but then I just lost track of him...."
"I'll look for him," Norman said, already glancing down the porch and into the yard. "He never goes far. He's probably just having issues with that dog again."
"Issues?" I said.
"Big ones," he said under his breath, still looking.
"Is Colie with you?" she said, her voice rising as she came closer.
"Yep," Norman said. "She's right here."
I kept waiting for the door to open. It didn't.
"I can't stand it when he does this," Mira said, her voice fading again. I looked at Norman, who was pacing the porch, peering over the rail to check under the house.
"We'll find him," Norman said. "Don't worry."
I just stood there. Obviously my aunt was as excited to see me as I was to come here.
I sat down next to my bag and pulled my knees to my chest. There was a rustle in the bushes, and the fattest tabby cat I'd ever seen poked his head out to look at me. He wound himself through the handrail, almost getting stuck, and brushed against me, leaving about an inch of cat hair on my black pants, jacket, and shirt. Then he climbed into my lap, clawed me for a second, and settled in.
"Cat Norman!" Norman said, and the cat turned to look at him, flicking his tail.
"What?" I said.
"Found him!" Norman yelled out.
"Did you?" said the voice from inside.
"You should take him in to her," Norman said to me. "She'll love you instantly."
"I don't like cats," I said, trying to dislodge the monster from my lap. He was purring now, a loud, rumbling noise that sounded like a chainsaw.
"Cat Norman?" Mira called out. "Come here, you terrible thing, you!"
"Take him in," Norman said again. "She's waiting." He started slowly down the steps. I noticed he moved everywhere slowly.
I stood up, the cat in my arms. He weighed about thirty pounds, as much as an entire set of KikiBell weights.
"I'll see you later," Norman said, already walking around the house, toward the backyard.
"Colie?" Mira said. Through the screen, I could almost make out a shape in the hallway. "Is he with you?"
I walked toward the door, the cat curled against me. "We're coming," I said, and I stepped inside.
The first thing I saw when my eyes adjusted was the TV in the next room. It was tuned to a wrestling match, and at that moment some huge man in a cape and a blindfold was leaping to flatten another man in purple spandex, who was writhing on the mat. As the caped man took off, his arms spread, you could see behind him rows and rows of people, aghast, as he fell fell fell toward his victim. Splat.
"Cat Norman!" my Aunt Mira said, stepping right in front of the TV and opening her arms to both of us. "And Colie. Hello!"
Mira was overweight, just like my mother had been before she became Kiki Sparks. She had a wide face and long red hair piled up on her head, like she'd done it in a hurry?a pencil and a pen were sticking out of it. She had on an old, deep green kimono patterned with dragons, a big white T-shirt, black leggings, and flip-flops. Her toenails were painted bright pink.
"Colie!" she cried again, and before I knew it she had wrapped her arms around both me and the cat. She smelled like a mix of vanilla and turpentine. "I'm so glad to see you. You look different, all grown up. And skinny! Your mom's program must work then, right?"
"Right." A piece of cat hair blew up my nose, and my eyes started watering.
"Bad, bad Cat Norman," she said to the cat, who was mashed between us, still purring. "I wonder what kind of trouble you found on this adventure, huh?"
The cat sneezed. Then he wriggled out of my arms, pushed off, and landed with a thud not unlike the wrestler's. He was obviously not a cat who did a lot of jumping; it was at least a second before his considerable girth caught up with him.
"Oh, you're terrible!" she scolded as he walked off, taking his time. Then she looked at me, shaking her head. "He's the light of my life, but he's in his terrible twos right now and going through a real distant phase. It's just breaking my heart."
"The cat," I said, verifying.
"Norman," she corrected me.
"Oh, Norman," I said, looking outside where I'd last seen him. "He does seem kind of spacey."
"He does?" She raised her eyebrows. "Well, it is summer. The heat gets to him, you know. You should see the hairballs he coughs up."
I looked back outside. "Norman does?"
"The cat," she said. "Cat Norman." She pointed under a chair by the door where he'd settled himself and was now licking his back leg, loudly.
"Oh," I said. "I thought you meant..."
"Oh, Norman," she said, and then she burst out laughing, one hand covering her mouth. She had deep dimples, like a child's. "Oh, no, not that Norman. I mean, he might have hairballs, with all that long hair of his. But I've never seen him coughing anything up...."
"I just didn't know," I said in a low voice, and I had that sudden flash that I was fat again, could feel it on me, like I always did when someone laughed at me.
"Well," she said, linking her arm in mine, "it's an honest mistake. Cat Norman was, after all, named after Norman Norman. They are so much alike in temperament. Not to mention they both move slower than molasses."
"Norman Norman," I repeated, as we stepped into the back room. It was big and sunny and, like the porch, ran the length of the house. On the TV another match was in progress, with two small redheaded men in black trunks circling each other.
"But I need them both desperately," Mira said dramatically, glancing at the TV and then back at me. "If Norman Norman didn't live downstairs I'd have no one to open jars for me, and Cat Norman is my baby."
"Norman lives downstairs?" I said.
"Oh, yes," she said easily, sitting down in the overstuffed chair across from the television and folding the kimono neatly over her legs. On the wall was a large painting of Mira and Cat Norman sitting on the grass in front of the house. In the painting she had on a white dress and pink sunglasses shaped like stars; she was smiling. Cat Norman was beside her, his back arched as her hand brushed over him. "He stays in the downstairs room. He's no trouble. I forget he's there half the time."
As I sat down I took in the view of the ocean, the water blue and sparkling. There was a path that led down to the beach, and when I craned my neck I could see an open door and then Norman, dragging one of the headless mannequins. To the right of the path I could see a smaller house, painted the same white as Mira's. There was a clothesline beside it, with a row of brightly colored clothes flapping in the wind.