WOMEN IN FLIGHT
A is for Amber. She is a starfish, unstuck: all orange-and-white gravel, crushed candy pebbles and super-strength. She mouths Explore. I sink my fingers into sea anemones, trace tidepools. “I’ll race you!” she calls. We hurtle toward the ocean, melt into the waves: two mermaids at sea.
(My mother runs across the grass, short hair shining in the sun. I chase after her. A few feet away from me, she stops. I reach—she gallops forward again, laughing.)
B is for Babette, made of crescent moons and bundles of cherries. When (Mom) forgets my birthday, Babette wraps my belongings up in Christmas paper: my bedroom is a pile of presents. She bakes two cakes and crowns them with candles. I gulp for air and blow with all my might.
C is for Carol. She tells me stories about her girlhood, hopping from stone to stone through the creek, reeling in fish and frying them in butter. She comes from a small town, she says, tucked away in the mountains.
“Where the redwood trees are?” I wonder.
“No,” she answers. “Much further than that.”
At night I imagine them—Amber, Babette, Carol—cradling me, each one a C curled into the next, a set of mismatched nesting dolls, with me at one end, clutching my stuffed turtle, the tiniest c of all.
I fall asleep like this, content, only to wake each morning, bereft. I slap peanut butter on bread and walk myself to the bus stop. Come see me, I chant, under my breath, willing them to emerge from the trees and houses, to walk down the sidewalks. To put their hands on my shoulders and smooth my hair.
At the end of each day I slip my key into the door, snuff out the light. Until, one day, it isn’t enough. I try and fail at: softball, basketball, ballroom dance. You brief me, each morning, on who will pick me up that day, whether she has black or blonde hair, what her car looks like—a beetle, a rabbit, a bug. Still, I sometimes forget, sometimes stand stranded. I ride the city bus and cup my hands over my face, look past the window’s glare at the streetlights that people the night. I walk the leftover distance, a ghost girl.
Finally, I find something that’s mine: a sewing machine, the needle flawless in its path. Fabric flies through my fingertips, reborn: a zoot suit, a peasant gown, a poodle skirt. Actors move across the stage, recite lines, tap their feet: puppets of my creation.
Senior year, I am named costume chief. The crew presents me with a felt hat, a feather stitched into the side. It ripples in the breeze, threatens to break free.
We live in a teepee, a timeshare, a trailer. The women blur together. One of them—Midge?—laughs, uproarious, when she finds you grilling chicken in that old, frilled apron. She hefts a case of beer onto the table and takes a swig. Another wears her hair long, shaves it to reveal a butterfly tattoo. A third thinks I lack discipline, advocates corporal punishment. She waves a feather duster in the air and screams, I told you so.
Marge—Midge?—blows smoke patterns into the air. I pick up her pipe, hold it to the light: swirled sea, trapped bubbles.
“Pretty, huh?” she asks from behind. I clunk the pipe onto the windowsill and turn on the tap.
I sit across from them at dinner and stare: the butterfly unfolds its wings and alights on the head of another, where it disappears beneath a curtain of apricot hair. The woman opens her mouth to ask me if I want any carrots, and rings of smoke emerge. She stands abruptly, chair slicing the floor, and at once I see it—she is a monstrous amalgamation of all the women, their most distinctive characteristics melded into one: she is a pipe-smoking, ring-blowing, tattooed alcoholic, at a height I cannot reach. Who are you? she shouts into my face. He didn’t say he had a daughter.
I run to my room, pull out my memories one by one. Through incantation I bring them back: Amber, Babette, Carol, (Mom). Their names run through my mind, a mantra, a whisper. Who am I? A name I keep to myself, change daily: Alma, Brittany, Cecil, Ciara. I am amorphous, invisible.
There, too, lie the charms, unthreaded, from our road trip one summer. In Austin, Nevada—a single slanted steeple, a jumble of proud, false fronts—I jump into a swimming pool, a liquid gem of blue, while you stand at the edge. I resurface, belly up, limbs out, and still you stand, in the shade of a tree.
I am a mountaineer, of sorts, a sometime-Wiccan, a serial monogamist. I am as fierce as the women who draw you to them. And now we are here:
My hair streams out behind me (this time, I am a mermaid of the wind), and we leap and bound on narrow trails through green hills as our bicycles whir beneath us. You whoop with joy as your bike gives a little bounce over a hill, and I race ahead, swift as Hermes in his little winged sandals. I watch you, and, pedaling hard, beat you at the path you create. My hair whips behind me as I pull ahead. I look over one shoulder as I pass: I am grinning, monstrous. Eyes forward, feet circling, I persist, until—chest filling with air, sinews snapping, wings pushing through skin—I fly.