If We Were Birds
If we were birds, we’d be vultures; not for your hair or my eagerness to cut to the bone, but for how we circle each other and our own rotting heartbreaks. I’ve been avoiding the music of a man from Kentucky because I’ve been trying to smother the memory of an ex singing covers of that coal cooked music, and of being utterly alone in a crowded bar in Tallahassee beside him. But up on the mountain, surrounded by serenity, I think maybe it is safe to play. His music makes more sense here, I think, but I don’t know if that means here in this place on the mountain, or here with you. I didn’t know you’d been avoiding his music too. When his voice breaks through our ritual circling, we find ourselves singing about love neither of us are sure we’ve ever known, one strong enough to crack the frost that grows over our lonely bones like vines strangling the trees.
I cook the dinner because you’ve brought night coffees and laughter, and though we aren’t drinking—unlike last time—I feel myself growing drunk on being seen and the phantom feeling of almost being someone’s little sister again. Part of me hopes this is how you see me, how can an almost brother abandon his almost kid sister? Another, older, maybe more pathetic part hopes for something different. And yet another part hopes you never see me at all, afraid that, like the actual older sister I haven’t spoken to in a year, and like other men I’ve loved in my life, you will see something that tells you I’m not worth your time.
Once the table’s been laid you fold your hands—I think, an old habit from your missionary days—and as a joke I ask you to pray over the meal but then you do. You speak the prayer in your soft, unassuming way of talking and I don’t understand a word. We’re heathens finding comfort in these muscle memories: the folding of hands, the lowering of heads, the closing of eyes. You wouldn’t know, but this is the first time I’ve prayed in fifteen years. Tomorrow I will think of your prayer as we sit in the sun, on top of a mountain, and tell each other about our lives—stories we’ve already shared and ones we haven’t.
I’ve noticed we always come to tears when we’re together. I don’t know if that means anything, but I do know this is the first time I’ve noticed your crow’s feet and how they catch your tears before they can meet your cheeks. When you grin or do that open mouth laugh you like to do, they fold in on themselves and I can see the years of joy you’ve accumulated, and I’m filling up on the satisfaction of knowing I’m helping them grow deeper. But now, we are not laughing.
You’re talking about your mother, and yours is a ghost cry, one that almost breaks the surface tension, but you swallow it down or beat it down or calm it down so I can’t see. I’m not as strong as you. Mine fall to the table, leaving a constellation where they land.
When we talk about our childhoods, separated by a decade, it feels like staring into a cloudy mirror or murky water. The images are distorted but similar enough. I don’t think you’d agree. I think you’d look at my pop-punk, millennial Myspace childhood, spent squished like a specimen between the dark of my room and the light of my desktop, and compared to your Rancid, 1990s, punk’s not dead, skinhead, leave me for dead adolescence, you would not see yourself.
But, I think you would be convinced if you could see the things I’m too afraid to say aloud: that I spent years hungry for retribution against the men who hunted me down in chatrooms and used lies as lures, against men who watched me watch them devour me pixel by pixel, breath by breath. That in my fantasies, I have been a giant stepping on ants and pulling them apart while they cry for me to stop, as I have cried, and like I imagine you have cried. I have imagined myself as a god cherry-picking the worst possible plagues to remind them that my power is not something they can keep in jars or recordings of my little girl body but fuses I have lit over and over and blown out just as many times. That I have hallucinated my booted feet against the skulls of people who’ve hurt me. And who’ve hurt you, one of the good ones. This is what I think as we sit in the sun on top of this mountain: that you’re one of the good ones. One of the ones who has yet to bend me into your preferred shape. This, I think, is why I always cry with you.
But these are things I do not speak. Not out of fear that those words will change how you see me. These words are piled and clogging my throat, and should I spit one out, I fear they will all follow. Including this old, rotting, pathetic thing that’s been sitting in my gut like a stone.
If we were trees, we’d be willows; not for our weeping habits but for the music that hangs between us on the outskirts of Babylon. We are a shelterbelt of our own making, breaking haunted winds that keep carrying narcissists our way. You tell me again how your brother’s wife’s sister broke you, robbed you of your music and deepest secrets, and my fists are turning. I am Midas, and I want her in my reach. I am the Minotaur, waiting for her in my labyrinth. She is clueless there, a woman with no cords or qualms. She is still dragging you along by the heartstrings, even now, and when you speak of her you hold your hand to your chest to keep it from unravelling. I don’t know if you know this about yourself. If you are aware of the threads slipping through your fingers. I have become the Fates’ blade, wanting to sever these ties for you. But this is one my imagined edge cannot cut.
It is four in the morning and there is only an echo of the moon nailed to the early morning Carolina sky outside your window. I have come to you from three states south, holding something under my tongue. We talk of our wilder, sadder years and make water rings on your table. You are singing something for me, and your voice sounds different after three years here, seasoned by Appalachia and baked in by suffering. This is a manufactured witching hour, when the accidental brushing of hands doesn’t carry the same weight in daylight. But between us few things carry uncomfortable heaviness. Except this thing under my tongue.
We worry the early morning into morning like fingers making divots in stones, talking of the lovers we are still healing from. And when the sun is up you are standing in the kitchen making cortados and pancakes. The day sews the thing under my tongue in place while we go sightseeing downtown. When we’ve worn day into evening, we buy a bottle of Wild Turkey and return to your place above the coffee shop. I take your glass and into it pour good times and an ice cube you’ll thank me for tomorrow. You order us hot wings while we work on emptying the bottle. The Carolina sun is sighing against the horizon outside, and as she goes, she and the whiskey are dancing, dissolving my sutures into something sweet and sultry under my tongue.
I tell you about my ex, a man whose accusations were fueled by paranoia. In his head, I am an assassin, a fly on the wall, a whore with one thousand legs all spread and waiting for anyone. Anything. Should he tell it, I am a vice around his mother’s throat and an oracle constantly writhing and seeing the future in amphetamine stars. I am an informant with his therapist in my pocket. I am a Jezebel. A Black thing and therefore a sexual thing, and though I am both I am disgusted at his association of the two.
You raise your glass and about my ex say, “That Fraggle Rock looking fucker.” We are laughing, wheezing, while you fumble your phone for some photographic reference to a program that I’m too young to have seen for myself. When the laughter leaves us, aching and—yet again— crying, you hold my hand and tell me what I know now is true, that this ex is a liar afraid of being singed by the light I carry. You give me a grin. A small squeeze of my hand. That thing under my tongue is coming loose and, feeling brave, I squeeze back.
I pour you another drink and realize I’ve never seen you drunk, and you’re on the fast track there. It takes me more to get to that place and I’m trailing behind. I don’t know now how we got to this story. Maybe because this was something sitting under your tongue. Something with legs, with arms. A thing with a beating heart wanting to be made real by your voice.
You tell me about a night back when in your wild years. Where mine were marked by self-destructive sex and ecstasy binges, yours were marked by rage and violence. You’re swimming in Wild Turkey up to the eyes and you keep your hands still and flat on the table, a habit—I think—from a lifetime you don’t know anymore. My hands fidget in my lap and you tell me the story of a man outside a bar with a loud mouth. This is back in your gang days, and the man has something to say about you or your hair or your tattoos or your friends. In the way you tell it, he’s got something to prove. Maybe too much liquor has dared him to pick a fight—in my imagination you are the smallest of the bunch. Maybe a passing glance, eyes lingering too long, the wrong colors at the wrong bar, has precipitated this moment. You tell me of the scuffle. Of the bottle against head. Then body along the ground. Then, of boots on skulls. Of blood on dirt road. Of open eyes staring up at nothing at all. You tell me how he stayed there. How his friends, your friends all shouting became one loud humming picking apart the base of your brain. You tell me, through choked voice and broken sobs, that you don’t know what ever happened to that man.
Your hands, still on the table, spill shame across the surface. We have come to tears before, but this time you are weeping. There is no choking it down or shoving it down, only breaking down. I want to reach across the table, want to grab your hand and return to the early evening game of squeezes and grins but I can’t. The words piled between us are too thick for me to break through. You are someone dry drowning across the table, trying to keep your head above imagined waters that are leaking through from some other time in some other place. You are a flightless Icarus, shaking with relived trauma while he recounts his fall. You are Oedipus, ripping out your eyes on the road out of Thebes. You are Polyphemus and your former self is Odysseus. Or maybe it is the other way around.
I am the man on the earth watching Icarus’s plunge. I am Calypso on the shore holding something under my tongue and watching Odysseus turn into a dot on the horizon. I want to touch. I want the warmth and reassurance from you, someone who I’ve never had reason to fear. But hot wings are calling with a hard knock on the door. You are trying to swallow down these things while also spilling out apologies. You wipe away your tears because the real world—the now—is there, just outside your door, waiting. I finally close the gap, my hand on your arm. I tell you to stay. I’ll venture down.
I’m on the steps that lead to your front door, holding an obscene number of wings and thinking how drunk you must have been to order fifty. I am in the in-between, half out the door and up in your place. I am half gone, half rooted. I can get in my car and drive three states south. But this thing under my tongue. Your words haven’t washed it away, or made it curdle in my mouth. It is still there, squirming, wriggling. This thing has limbs that are gripping, fighting, against my better judgement. I bite the legs off, right there on the staircase. I swallow the pieces. Let me be done with this childish thing. Let this thing sit in my gut. Let time and fear liquify it. I come up the stairs, back to you. I pull you from your chair. Pull you to me, and your head bends to rest on my shoulder. I won’t say this thing I’ve driven four hundred miles to say. And I think, in that moment, that I never will.
Even now, it hangs there, at the top of my stomach, unspoken. It is bending and catching on to small breezes, reminders of you, like the drooping branches of the willow. And when we are together again, this thing bursts with yellow. Blossomed and fragrant and beautiful under the light you bring where you go.
Photo by David Clode