a game of flight
time 4 minutes
tl;dr Three quick memories, woven and ruined together by time.
When I am eleven and don’t know how to be anything more than empty air, I have to be cool enough to master The Blob. Summer Camp: ‘06. A dinosaur-sized, three-quarters-filled cushion floating in the camp’s murky lake. Jump onto it, and the kid on the flipside gets flung into space. Comparative mass is everything.
It’s my first time, but Kyla is right behind me. Kyla, my fellow adventurer through all things childhood and beyond. Kyla, who I’ve somehow managed not to speak to for nearly three years. But this was back when nothing could pull us apart.
I climb the rickety ladder, teeter on the platform, and jump, cannonballing my body for maximum impact. The similarly-sized kid on the other end flies up at a reasonable height, screams mostly as a dramatic bit, and splashes into the water.
Now it’s me, crawling toward the spot on The Blob where the camp has shoved two pieces of black tape in precarious x to mark where to sit for ego demolition. The journey is treacherous, out on a limb, and you’re a loser if you fall off on your way over.
I make it, relieved. Now I just have to Icarus my way into the lake. I look up to where Kyla should be standing, and she is not there. I behold, instead, the largest 13-year-old girl I have, up to that point in my life, ever seen. She is known at the camp for winning a caramel apple eating contest when half of us, including her, were given caramel-covered onions as a prank. She looms over me, and from my mouth comes what I can only describe as the squeak of a mouse who just barely missed the cheese.
She doesn’t need to jump. She simply walks off the platform, and gravity does the rest. I feel my lungs drop down to my thighs, reorganizing every organ in between. This is called flying. If I’m screaming, I can’t hear it, because I’ve broken the sound barrier. For a moment, I wonder if I’ll be the first trans girl on the moon.
And then Newton’s other laws catch up with me. I am falling, flailing my wings spectacularly. There is all the time in the world to brace, but my limbs move too slowly to be useful. I slam into the lake, leading with my tummy. Three miles away, in the camp’s neighboring Amish settlement, the horses whinny as they hear the smack of water on flesh.
And then there is fluid up my everywhere. My nose is a bubble factory, and I won’t hear anything but sloshing for days. I am dredged up to the surface by what little air remains in my lungs, but as I climb out of the lake, I want to molt off my entire skin, which burns fresh against the summer sun.
I look up to see Kyla make her jump, and the miracle occurs. As Kyla hits the pillow, the 13-year-old on the X bounces ever so slightly, and then sinks back into The Blob. Uno Reverse, and Kyla flies off the back side. When she swims up to me, she can’t stop laughing, and it infects me, bubbling up from my lungs.
She always knew best how to push the air right out of me.
I’m eight and faking a faint. Feinting, if you will. I don’t know why I need the attention, and I feel guilty even as I half-fall, half-climb to the ground, but I’ve learned to trust 8-year-old Alice, dubious storyteller that she is.
Mrs. Keats sees only the aftermath. The girl on the ground, cheek pressed to the cold, waxed concrete of the school hall. It’s the end of the school day, and all the parents are here scooping up their kids. She adopts me in that moment, drives me to my mom’s office.
I am already feeling terrible about the drama. My mom surely gives me something to eat and drink, though all I remember is the lie. My dad meets us at the children’s hospital, where the doctors have me hooked up to machines I’ve only, til now, seen in ET
Something in me isn’t quite phoning home.
At first, the doctors detect, as they often do, nothing. Which makes me feel all the worse. But I’m in it now. For weeks, I feign illness. Fainting spells, stomachaches, trouble walking. Everything is faded.
The doctors start looking harder. They think it’s the stomach. My tummy hurts the more they check.
One day, I’m told to drink a milkshake full of barium. George of the Jungle plays on one screen, and on the other, we watch my x-rayed intestines as the milkshake digests. Then, a hiccup. The doctor scribbles something in the notebook. Something real.
The follow up, an endoscopy, shows an ulcer in my small intestine. The doctor says it can be caused by stress or bacteria. I test negative for the flesh-eating bacteria. I later learn he asks my parents if something is wrong at home. Kids my age don’t just get ulcers.
I am convinced, for years, that I have caused my own ulcer, by playing this game of falling. Then, I turn back to see from where I fell.
This one is the most fragmented. There is a bluebird, stranded from its nest, eggshell still stuck to its molten wings. She hikes the treacherously tall grass, squawking unseeing.
I scoop her up before I can stop myself. I am tiny, but she is smaller. My mom tells me that birds, once touched by human hands, cannot be re-accepted by their mothers. That my scent will linger, taint the life.
I try feeding the bird many different foods, until I figure out what it likes. I cannot yet kill a worm, so I find berries instead. Her face, my fingers—stained by the juices.
At church, I drink communion, feel the blood worm its way down my throat. I hear how much God worries about sparrows—and me, who doesn’t yet know the intricate differences between birds, thinks, No, I’m her mother now.
The bluebird grows, but I cannot teach her to spread her wings. I don’t know when exactly she leaves, but one dewy morning, she has finally chosen.
Some things we can only teach ourselves, pushed into the empty air by one impact after another.