Paper Birds

By

What if we had met when we were sixteen, instead of now, mid-life, carving out time together without kids, strategizing schedules so our bodies can come together in a dovetailed pact of complicit tenderness, something we never knew at sixteen, but might have begun to discover, something we could have built—an inner scaffolding, a bridge. 

You in your faded jeans ripped at the knee, combat boots, white tee, vintage brown leather jacket, long shaggy hair, glasses, a shadow on your upper lip. Perpetual grin. I’m in burgundy knock-off docs, worn cotton thermal, my skirt a swirl of sixties neckties, a Chinese coin on a black silk string around my neck. My hair a brown tumble too thick to tie back. You can tell I’m studious, curious, a little lost.

How we might have spotted each other at high school, in the hall, if you were going to art and I was coming from art. My fingers stained with ink, your boots splattered in paint, the backwards glances we’d give each other. Who’s that? I’d look for you at lunch, everywhere. I’d see your name on the little cardboard ID squares marking the smudged and mottled papers hanging in the art room. I’d figure out where you lived and walk by, the Sundays swaying through my Walkman, deaf to the birds and the rustling of insects, just hoping to see you. You might be home alone blasting Yes and lying in your darkened room, the window a box of light capturing the sky, thinking of me.

*

And then one day we’d be in your bedroom.

You’d already have held my hand at school and shown me that look of yours, sly smile, lowered lids, and you’d already have kissed me on a shadowy wet walk through the woods, and caught a crayfish quick from the stream behind your house, let its whiskers tickle my fingers while it wagged its lobster tail. paperbirdscYou’d already have felt me up under the blanket while we pretended to watch In Living Color in my living room, my great-aunt’s nubby afghan propped to a tent over our knees, your stumbling fingers as keen as any explorer’s, a splash of color flooding my chest vivid as Galatea’s first blush.

On the wall of your bedroom hangs an M.C. Escher poster, two hands drawing each other line over line into life. And in your eye there is a line as sure as the edge of a knife and something bad, deliciously waiting, panting in the thin rim of your eye, something earnest and deep green, and behind your puffy teenage lips, your tongue lies cuddled in your mouth like some soft animal in the hollow of a tree. And I touch the subtle stubble of your barely beard, where your cheeks melt from baby fat into the start of manhood, a rounded relic of your face now angular at forty-three. One earring tucked into your earlobe, which you no longer wear, but I can still see the tiny mark of that piercing moment in your history.

I need you to coax me out of my army navy pea coat, slip my thermal off my shoulders with your slender hands. Those hands, the same hands that spent summers catching frogs and fishing, shaping boomerangs from plywood, and painting, always painting. The touch of your hands like how a sculptor creates a body. I see myself from above poised still and good as any Degas girl, but then shifting into movement, a lady peeling off her stockings all Toulouse Lautrec, and then an Egon Schiele dark and wily. I grow a flame of red, in your late afternoon bedroom, my body twisting from pencil to charcoal, the lines that hold me together thickening and unwinding into some wilder girl, with glowing hips and starburst nipples, someone who can shed her skin as easy as the selkie slips like birth from the seal to navigate dark water by the grace of the stars.

We’re making out the way that kids make out, as if we’re hungry, because I know the taste of your mouth and you always smell just faintly of Aunt Jemima syrup and spearmint tic tacs and it feels so good to breathe you, and I’ve got my hands on your slim hips, which were as small to my teenage hands then as they are to my adult hands now because we’ve grown in proportion to one another.

We’re alone in your room, your parents still at work, Physical Graffiti filling the room, and we have one can of beer between us, just to loosen us up, one from a six-pack that your best friend had gotten from some older kids and he gave you three. And there it is, precious and right for the occasion. Something wet and slightly fizzy, a little sour and new, this lick of adulthood we swallow.

“In the Light” is swaggering all around us, showing us how to move our hips, encouraging us to be bad. It’s your favorite song, you who were raised on classical music and love all things orchestral, and the synthesizer curdles your blood and lightening shocks your nervous system, and my numinous young body is splayed out on your grandmother’s patchwork quilt, and the sun is shining on my hair making it look auburn, and my tits are sitting high on my chest like two meringues, and this corkscrew in your gut shifts your dick into unwind, so you start to fumble with your button fly.

You worry you might blow a load all over me before you even touch me. I know, because you’ve told me what it was like when you were a boy, how sudden and violent you’d cum, a projectile spew of lust foam boy milk. What you don’t know yet is what it will feel like to be inside of me, what it might feel like to be inside any girl, but me, you have been in love with me since the first moment you saw me.

I’m lying in a ray of sunlight, suddenly bare before a boy. But not just any boy. Before you, I’d only kissed one other boy, and he was from out of town, and we kissed only once, probing but fleeting. You are my first boyfriend and I have practically burned a hole in my panties wanting you. I have pressed your yearbook photo to my brand-new cleavage and cried. I’ve written your name in swirly twirly letters all over my notebook and branded our initials together in my mind as if they are carved into the trunk of an ancient oak.

And what came later in my life—all the trouble and isolation, the drugs and running away, the aching loneliness—that wouldn’t have happened, because I would have known love. I would have had this memory of being safely in your arms, since this one click in time, instead of stumbling into each other’s lives at thirty-six and forty-two. If we could have found each other then I might have loved someone, truly and sweetly, with all the musk and magic and invention of the young.

If I could re-write our histories into something shared, I’d have to rip the page out from the real story of our lives, shake off the words, muddle the dates, times, locations, the five year age gap, the different towns we grew up in, the unforgivable fact that you didn’t find me then. Clearing those pages plain, paperbirdsbI’d make time fall away and distance shorten impossibly, fold upon fold, until the page was no longer a record of our histories but an origami swan. Something that could fly wherever it wanted.

In the dark cave of your bedroom, your body rises above me, glowing softly from the streetlight out your window. Your chest has this little valley that I run my finger down, you hardly have any hair there yet, and you’re skinny still, this was before you built your body up, before you biked from state to state. You have just started to do sit-ups, chin-ups, push-ups, your lean boy body growing into something harder, stronger. You want to be a man. You have it all right there in front of you. A girl, willing and wanting. The house to ourselves. Led fucking Zeppelin.

I’m ready. I’m craving you. I want you to fill me up with this swag of muscle that bobs before me, something I’m too timid even to name. Your hair tumbles onto my belly as your body lowers to press against mine. Your lips graze my breasts and my body snaps invisible circuits. I nibble your ear and lick the crescent of it, a trick that makes you whimper and arch your back.

Your glasses are on the floor; my bra is twisted around the lamp. A pool of slobber and girl juice darkens the lining of your Italian jacket, which you laid out gallantly under my ass. You aren’t shy to spread my legs and look, show your awe and intrigue at the mystery between my thighs. You aren’t scared to inhale the rich earthy scent and envelope the whole of me into your mouth. You aren’t too timid to trace every fold with your questioning fingers and slip into the dark little vortex.

*

Listen, I’ll tell you the truth. The real story. The scribbled page of my history, the one I didn’t edit, erase or fold into something new.

Sixteen and I’m getting finger fucked for the first time behind a couch in a plaid and panel living room at a post-performance party for my theater troupe. The arm that snakes its way out of my skirt belongs to a twenty-four year old grad student, our assistant drama teacher. He’s in acid-wash jeans, John Lennon spectacles, full beard. I’ve got new tits and have only kissed one other boy and only then once, that much is true. The teacher’s helper becomes my secret boyfriend until the day he’s on my front steps sobbing, shit drunk, and begging for me to take him back. I don’t know what to do but sneak him into the house, let him sober up in my bed, hold his hand, but keep my body distant. We never even slept together. I wouldn’t let him. I was afraid of it.

At seventeen, my first boyfriend in college proudly sends me a dozen red roses in honor of my busted chastity, an event that I marked with a private sigh of relief more so than any celebration, and I’m mortified. He takes me home to Connecticut for Thanksgiving, to his father polishing the hull of a boat. I break-up with him, no explanation.

Summer of eighteen I scoop ice cream in the East Village, sell tickets at the Angelica Film Center, make my own clothes from remnants scrounged in the garment district, my hair a dirty grown-out platinum blonde. I want to be Debbie Harry with a touch of Courtney Love. I like girls, I like boys, I kiss a girl in the closet. I walk home alone late at night, and wonder if I’m safe, or if the long arms of the city might spear me at any moment. I share a studio apartment with three other kids where we divvy up a futon and a pullout couch, each of us hugging an edge.

Nineteen, on the floor at a club in New York City, closing out the world after twelve hours of dancing to rhythmic colors swirling twirling through black air stale and dirty with sweat but sweet with the wafting vanilla of dry ice, lights flashing to the tangled mania of electronica, my head atop some beer and smoke soaked jacket, the tiny pocket I sewed into my pants to hide my stash blissfully empty.

Twenty, and I’m on a doctor’s table in stirrups, there’s a probe up my cunt. I’m home for spring break to get checked out because my parents don’t want to believe I’m bipolar like my grandmother, they’ve decided it must be an ovarian cyst that’s spun me into a roller coaster of dangerous emotions and strange behaviors. I feel like a piece of meat slapped around town, one doctor’s office to the next, my Dad the omniscient ambassador. I’m a broken doll, dumb and mute; nobody talks to me about what’s going on.

In the hollow of the MRI tank, a camera snaps color splot pictures of my brain. Are my secrets encrypted there, never shared with anyone, like the diary I used to keep as a girl, every word a stack of letters piled atop each other, illegible to prying eyes. Can this machine read my history, see the raves and little tabs of E, the lists of failures I tally every night in bed: still can’t ride a bike, spoke too soon in class, wrote a shit poem and thought it was special, nearly drove my car off the bridge in a blink of dumb impulse. Can it tell that I’ve only dared admire myself in the mirror as beautiful when I was precariously high. Good news, Dad says, nothing wrong.

Years of pills and blood tests and frowning psychologists, and evading my parents’ eyes and questions, and running back to New York City. Days where I’d watch my body meander through the city streets, my eyes bobbing above me high as spycrafts, my head a lost balloon straying towards the ocean.

You would have held me then. And carefully reassembled me, putting the pieces back in place with the same steady grip and aligning eye you used to construct your models in architecture school. Instead of going to Italy and Greece you would have come to visit me in New York City. We would have stepped out the door together, hand in paperbirdsahand, strolled wide-eyed through the Guggenheim, unwrapped Rainbow falafels in the park, people watched over coffee at Veselka’s, and then walked home to Brooklyn, silhouettes bobbing along a scaffold bridge against the lapis sky.

And those days when I felt achingly hollow and cold, so cold, from deep in my bones to the icy crust of my skin, from nothing but sadness, nothing but pinning myself lost and wrong, I could have reached for you, and the softness of your voice would have woven me comfort. And I could have whispered my secrets to you, under the covers, while you held me tight, our bodies forming origami. If you’d have been there, you’d have helped me through it, and we would have rollicked the storm together, a tiny boat fighting for air.

It’s been sixteen years since the worst of it. And all we have is a jumble of memories real and invented, and now. Body to body we are finding some way to love. We’ve grown into ourselves. My hips are ribboned since pregnancy, those months forever etched into my skin as rings mark time a tree. Our hair is going gray, and you trim yours close to your head as it thins. We both schedule time to exercise at gyms and yoga studios, and you’ve taught me how to ride a bike. I give you boxes of colored pencils, black china markers, bright sticks of chalk and pads of paper, and I pose for you, one still hour at a time.

And as the pencil scratches the scene before you, you erase some of the walls drawn inside you, that scaffolding built from years as father-husband-professional, someone who had forgotten the pleasure of being immersed in art, the expansion you feel when you grip a piece of charcoal and run it on paper. You sketch my legs stretching long from the chair, skirt to heels, while I sit, fingers tapping the computer, recording our lives in my lap.

Our kids holler and giggle their own litany of jokes and memories, and we set them up with Harry Potter, so we can go upstairs, to talk and feel each other’s skin, so we can question why now. The wireless speaker you gave me so that I would remember to listen to music is waiting. We find Physical Graffiti online and fill the room with it. We’ve both heard it before but never before together. But, oh, if we only could have, how I would have loved to watch you hear it for the first time, your eyes squinted shut in wonder, your tongue nudged over your bottom teeth as if daring to taste something new. This was the anthem you played over and over again all that year of sixteen. My time-warp memory takes shape within me like a song.

I’m grafting pleasure into an invented past like a science experiment, but not without writing the truth. They’re both here: the real story, running line after line from the history script of my life, and the imagined page—ripped out, blanched, and refolded, its delicate flight pressed with luck, its quirky beak pointed in one direction.

This is a still life for painting if ever there was one, and I’m making of it a little shrine in my mind: art supplies and origami swans, Led Zeppelin on vinyl, Mazzy Star on tape, the brass twinkle of a coin necklace, leaves of our mothers’ philodendrons, wild onions we plucked from our backyards, and the army green shoulder bag we both carried—the same exact one we figured out, with a red star, funny, like a clue to something. This is our still life and I want to paint it with you, our canvases side-by-side, brushes poised between our fingers, the hand an extension of the heart.

Our memories will infiltrate the paint and the color will wash a wild flight of words and images so bold they can only have tumbled out of our imaginations, cleaved and collaged from our real but separate lives. My taped-together teenage self lies crumpled in a fold of my memory like a note crammed into a pocket, but there floating above it is the holographic image of our young selves entwined atop your grandmother’s quilt, our long hair making a brown sea on the patchwork, the loose braid of our skinny legs, the empty beer can crushed and forgotten in the corner of the room, your earnest finger tracing the shadow of my eyelashes to the curl of my cheek, the room infused with music. And I’m beginning to remember that real or imagined, pleasure is pleasure, if you are ready to feel it.

***

Rumpus original art by A.D. Puchalski.


Liz Greenhill is a writer, visual artist, and acupuncturist. You can find her in Portland, Oregon and at www.elizabethgreenhill.com. More from this author →