The only other person I have met in my life with my name, spelled my way (E-S-T-E-R-No-H), was in my grade at my school. She had an older brother my older brother’s age and a younger brother my younger brother’s age. Taller, thinner, prettier, and more popular than I was, and with redder hair than mine, she must have been designed by someone truly fiendish, because on top of everything else she was nice.
Ben was our grade’s smooth-faced matinee idol. Though I was his first kiss, she was his first everything else. In high school, he fell in love with her, lost his virginity to her, and pined for her with the single-minded devotion of an ancient Greek hero as she vacillated between him and one other guy. The more he longed for her, the more I longed for him and hated myself.
In middle school, boys could not get enough of me. I had breasts already and, though no one had the guts to touch them then, maybe that sufficed. When I was 11, there was Billy, who slipped me a note saying, “I like you, call me.” We went on two dates: one to see Surf Ninjas while his mom eyed us from two rows back, and the other to eat pizza at his house while he showed off in true 11-year-old boy fashion: by making it all the way to the end of Super Mario Brothers II.
When I was 12, there was Josh at Jewish summer camp, with whom I split the role of Captain Hook in the Hebrew-language production of Peter Pan. He won a small purple ape for me at an amusement park and later kissed me outside while the rest of the campers were inside watching Robin Hood: Men in Tights.
When I was 13, there was Avi at the same summer camp, Avi who I did not even like. My friend Anna and I had left it up to a deck of cards to decide which of us would get Zack, who was dark and cute, and which would get Avi, who was tall and green-eyed but boring. Anna got Zack. I held hands with Avi and consented to be kissed, like a Southern belle, but I couldn’t muster up the enthusiasm to go further. Poor Avi did not know how to get me excited about him, so, in desperation, on the last day of camp, with his mom waiting outside in the minivan, he told me he loved me. As the moment required some serious dramatic response, I did the only honest thing I could think to do: I cried. But I still did not take off my shirt.
Deep down, I thought I was pretty even with glasses and the chub, and I thought that if I were patient someone would recognize that.Immediately after I broke Avi’s heart/refused to go to second base, boys began overlooking me, and I became catnip to lesbians. Fending off anyone’s advances is difficult for me, and saying no was even harder when I was so desperate for physical affirmation. At sleepovers, I laughed off the awkwardness when a girl kissed me, or put her hand on my hip, or crawled into my sleeping bag. I said, “Wouldn’t you be more comfortable in your own bed?” Meanwhile, my purely heterosexual doppelganger Ester got to have all kinds of straightforward, societally sanctioned sleepovers with Ben. I wondered what the hell was happening to me and how long it could go on.
One morning in 10th grade, Ben and I skipped minyan, the mandatory prayers that started each day at our Jewish day school, and found ourselves a nook off a hallway where folding chairs were kept. We were teasing each other, waiting for the bell that would send us to first period, when we saw a figure push open the double doors at the end of the hall. Ben grabbed my forearm. “It’s her,” he said. “God, she’s beautiful.”
Together, in silence, we watched the slim figure of the other Ester glide past us, elegant even in a T-shirt and jeans. He did not let go of me until she had gone, and I continued seeing her long after that.
Of all the ways the other Ester was different from me, I could change only my weight. Part of me knew that I should find a way to scrape off the doughy lump of my stomach. Still, for a time, I resisted. For the first two years of high school, I remained my caustic, cynical, bookish self. I wore what I wanted to wear—often my older brother’s T-shirts, because they made me feel mobile and protected under cotton tents. Deep down, I thought I was pretty even with glasses and the chub, and I thought that if I were patient someone would recognize that.
It was my friend Deb who made me see the light. Deb was a well-dressed, sophisticated pixie who lived in Manhattan, went to Hunter College High School, and knew infinitely more about the world than I did. “You’re a loser,” she explained to me one day on the phone. “In the eyes of society, you’re a loser.” This was a ploy to make me invest in contacts and hair gel, and it worked.
She had an assist from Sara, my chubby and individualistic best friend who whispered to me that she might be “bi,” who refused to shave her legs or pretend to be less smart than she was. One day I noticed Sara shrinking. After months of counting her crunches and plucking her eyebrows, she was rewarded with a boy as sweetly bland as applesauce.
I was named for an Ester I never met, an aunt who died in her early thirties under mysterious circumstances. For years I told the story this way:
When she was at the University of New Mexico, my father’s sister Ester fell in love with a nice Jewish boy and they were going to get married, until his family intervened. Her family, it turned out, was not high-class enough and, as her intended was not strong-willed enough to stand up for her, he broke off the engagement. On the rebound, she met a charismatic Puerto Rican communist named Juan who swept her off her feet and moved them both to a Spanish-speaking neighborhood far away. He forbade her to see her family, which he called “bourgeois,” even when she gave birth to my cousin, Pedro. Years passed and she got word that her mother, my Grandma Clara, was very sick. She pleaded with Juan to let her go visit. Finally Juan told her to go if she wanted to, but she could never come back or see Pedro again. She went to sleep that night and never woke up. The doctors could never determine any cause except for one: As my normally unromantic father told me, she died of a broken heart. She was 34.
“His name was Jose,” my mother corrected me. As we searched for a cobbler who could repair her shoe, she told me her version:
When she was at the University of New Mexico, my father’s sister Ester fell in love with a nice Jewish boy and they were going to get married, until his family intervened. She was not thin enough, it turned out, and, as her intended was not strong-willed enough to stand up for her, he broke off the engagement. On the rebound, she met a charismatic Puerto Rican communist named Jose who didn’t care that she was fat and moved them both to Puerto Rico. They lived there for a while until he got word that his mother was sick, at which point he and Ester went to live with Jose’s parents in Spanish Harlem. Ester gave birth to my cousin, Pedro, and cared for both the baby and her mother-in-law. Years passed and she got word that her own mother, my Grandma Clara, was sick, and she took Pedro to Albuquerque. While there, her family convinced her to get separated from her husband. She agreed, but she agonized over the decision. One night, Jose called from New York and said that he loved her and he was sorry for treating her badly. He wanted her back. She went to sleep that night and never woke up. She was 34.
That same night there was a prison riot in Santa Fe in which dozens of inmates were killed. The wait for an autopsy was a month long. But my father and his brother pushed and pushed to get her examined before Jewish law mandated that she be buried, and they succeeded.
The doctors found nothing wrong with her.
“Your father would never admit this,” said my mother. “It was probably sleep apnea. It’s not uncommon with heavy people.”
“And her heart?”
Because she was so overweight, the doctors paid special attention to her heart. The muscle was found to be in very good shape.
It took me a couple seconds to absorb this shock. Then I asked, “Is that why you were always telling me to exercise when I was a kid?”
“I think exercise is good for you,” my mother said. “But in my lizard brain? Maybe.”
The next time I visited Deb, I was small and sad from having learned to subsist on Diet Coke, baby carrots, and dry cereal—Kellogg’s 19 eaten flake by flake. She circled me in her bedroom, patting the place where my uncooked challah of a belly had been, and I stood there, contacts in, hair submissively gelled, awaiting her judgment.
Satisfied by my transformation, Deb took me to a house party where a male friend of hers with soft hair kissed me on a broken Brooklyn street. It was the first kiss of my real life, a transformational kiss, a kiss that made me an official straight girl at last. (Beat that, Disney.) In the near future, I would go to more parties and be kissed by more boys; I would encourage any male who found me attractive until finally I would reach a level of disillusionment with the whole process and swear off hooking up. No more, I would say. I want to feel something. When the phone would ring one Saturday night my freshman February of college, and a different Ben, one I barely knew, a dark-haired, rough-faced sophomore who loped around campus by himself with a camera around his neck, would ask me if I wanted to come over, I would strongly consider refusing. Instead, I would decide, OK, once more—but this is it, the last one.
In a “Reader, I married him” kind of way, it was.