Alex Leslie: Stories Like Birds

She is told to never go into the ocean alone. Of course, she goes into the ocean alone.

Remote: they drove hours past a post office and then a tree covered in bras, nailed into the bark by loggers. Laura watched the D cups, stained by rain and the orange inner bark, flock past the windows. Nailed through, their savage steel nipples make her lightly finger her flat chest. She is twelve.

Don’t go into the ocean alone, and she does.

The water yawns back, leaving a space to enter.

There is no hospital, no phone reception: these are the reasons. This isn’t swimming water. Open water, sweepings.

She goes in. There are no witnesses.

Feels the pull, her body throttled in a turbine, her salt-stung lungs, her body going deeper and deeper beyond any decision.

The wave turns her; all that remains is the mute hold, inside the rotations.

Then she is spat out. The feeling that overcomes her, for the first time, the humiliation of the ocean’s indifference.

No one has seen. The first thing she does is twist around, beached, soaked and prone, the ocean withdrawn to a silver crawl below her half-clenched eyelid. Voices carry from behind the truck parked above the sun-bleached logs.

The ocean’s sound that a minute ago she was just one part of. Now she knows that it is made of tunnels.

When the friend throws himself from the bridge, this is what she knows: he was spared the sound of his own dying.

She walks slowly up the white beach. She hears her brother’s voice, high and rubbed bright on the dunes and she begins to run towards it.

 

*

 

When Laura is in her early thirties, she dates a woman with a four year-old boy. The kid is terrified by the city’s rapid transit system, carves his fingers into Laura’s palm, wraps one shoe around the inside of her calf. This is the only time he claims her. Laura doesn’t drive and when she sometimes picks the kid up from kindergarten, she dreads these trips, blank-eyed commuters taking in the silent theatre, the kid grasping marks on the insides of her arms. The automated voice chants names of stations — Marine Drive, King Edward, Broadway City Centre — and the numbness enters her bloodstream at the place he is anchored.

One night in her girlfriend’s apartment Laura clicks a video on a work acquaintance’s Facebook page and watches it once, twice, and the kid, always watchful of her, runs over, demanding, “What’s that! Show me!” The video shows a flock of birds traveling above a lake. The birds move in a sheet, spreading and folding, a surge of interlocking triangles that tents the lake, opens a slow, flurried eyelid over the furious blue, the sky. The kid stares at the video, transfixed, his fingers on Laura’s neck. He has his mother’s habit of lightly touching the person he is talking to. They are both nervous, tactile.

“Again. Again. Again,” he chants.

The video solves Laura’s problem with the kid’s fear of rapid transit. When he begins to clench, she announces, “Birds!” and repeats with anticipation, leaning into her, “Birds birds birds.” Passengers watch, a few always peering at the screen to see what the kid responds to instantly, his head flopped to one side, his smile spreading. She doesn’t know why the video works: she accepts its magic and repeats it endlessly. The kids’ eyes tunnel into the morph and sway of the bird cyclone. Hypnotized, he nods when she whispers, “Again?”

They get through the video six or seven times before their stop near the girlfriend’s apartment. She always puts the phone on mute because the soundtrack is the filmmaker (in a boat in the centre of the lake, she assumes) bellowing “Oh my god! Oh my god here they come again!” and she knows that the voice, its mock alarm and adult lack of awe, will turn the kid off. The Internet is full of videos intended to transfix you, Laura knows; everyone has a little digital spell to fall back on. Reluctantly, she comes to love the small warm stone of his head on her shoulder, the whirling silence of the video, how completely she can fulfill his request.

“Birds, birds.”

When the kid’s mother breaks up with her a little over a year later, Laura sits on her bed in her apartment, slips her phone out of her pocket to text a friend. Instead her thumb pilots itself to the Internet icon. Then to the window with the bird video,. She presses the play button. The birds fill her hand. The sound from her throat falls into the black and blue core of their endless turning. Her hand is full of shifting wings.

It is this video she watches when she loses her job to government cuts the following year, and six years later when her brother dies in a car accident. The video is bookmarked between a news site and an online dating service she never checks and never stops paying for. She never shows the video to anyone. She wonders how the kid survived without it after his mother asked her to disappear, and how she responded to his requests for birds.

 

*

 

Laura is seven years old the first time she leaves home. She is seven and she is leaving. Later, much later, leaving will reveal itself as always more work than staying, but when she is eight and nine and ten and eleven, leaving is effortless, a matter of launching — whatever comes next is irrelevant.

She is running down a hill, past cherry blossom trees in a row like cheering people, cloudy heads of blooms all the way down, and she is traveling down a very steep hill and oversteps and for a moment there is no ground, the angle of the hill deepens, her eyesight is bowing to the sky and she’s sure she is about to slam into the dappled pavement, the even squares laid down by the city with the date stamped at the end of every block. And her whole face will scrape off and require surgery that will leave her looking like a tire tread forever. But her back saves her, it whips up and her knees are in front of her instead of her feet. She falls backward — falls vertically onto the hill made flat by the thrust of her body, her shoulders pressed toward each other, her hair damp with sweat or blood and the bright pain of light through the cumulous cherry blossoms. This is how far she gets the first time she leaves home.

Her scalp is soft in one place. She sees clouds for weeks. Nobody believes her except for her brother when she whispers to him, “I died.”

Her concussion is not a concussion: it is a confirmation. She ran away and it was just a mistake that she returned, a snafu on the path to her ultimate exit. At night she shuts her eyes and sees blowing streets of white light, sees her grandfather who died the year before. He is lying in a pool of water. Leaving doesn’t happen all at once, but in pieces. It begins with running. Her brother nods fearfully when, once a day for a month, “I died.” She relishes how impressed he is. He asks her what it was like and she shakes her head at the pinky finger he holds out to guarantee secrecy. She shuts her eyes and remembers the footless step, her celestial headache blooming from the eyes in the trees. She bargains with him to rub her temples in gentle hoops in exchange for news of the afterlife. Then she denies him, smugly.

She knows she can’t describe it to him, anyway. The impassive thundering in her body, how it held her down.

She and her brother will sit across from each other in a restaurant in their twenties and confess that they were both always afraid living in that house and both swallow sound and leave their bodies on a regular basis.

There is a spot on her head where the flesh is soft, will always have an entrance to defend, an indentation that she rests her palm against when she gets too tired. She watches the video of the bird and misses the boy she grew up with and her head rings in this one place.

 

*

 

When she’s halfway through her twenties, a friend from her undergrad degree, now distant in this forest-city of acquaintances, jumps from the highest bridge downtown. She learns this news from a message also sent to forty-seven mutual friends. She focuses on the flawless black print on the screen, the elements of print becoming small hard-edged men, the permanent bellies of d’s and the outstretched wings of t’s, the perfect straight tunnels of o’s. The screen has strobe depth; the blank spaces between the incisions of symbols, bubbles. She scrolls down the responses, a few OMG’s. One person has written !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!. Punctuation has the advantage of being an end in itself, a pure response, a digital yell.

She is at her desk at her job at a gallery and someone is asking her how the new coffee maker could have broken down so quickly. The coffee machine is important and Laura startles herself by turning and snapping, “there’s a Starbucks on every block.” Her feet are so hot inside her shoes, as if she is standing balanced on a light bulb’s scalp.

She copies the message into an email, types what the fuck and sends the email to a friend who knew the dead friend better than her. She spends half an hour sending messages to which she does not expect responses.

Every day she crosses two bridges to get to this job. This city of bridges where she was born has always known jumpers. They are a routine myth, unseen and accepted and rarely mentioned. She searches the city on Google maps and examines the blue and black lines, the warp of inlet and coast and crossings. The message about her dead friend still open on her desktop, she thinks, It’s just a set-up, look at all those bridges. She’s old enough to recognize when she’s at her most dramatic, her most paranoid; these thoughts have become another thing she has invented in order to outsmart. Still, she tells herself, people jump from buildings as often as they jump from bridges. It is only a matter of levels She googles the height from which a human body must fall in order to die on impact.

And is this different for water and pavement? And does water become solid if a body approaches it fast enough?

Stop.

“Have you ever tried to kill yourself?” Laura’s friend who was close to the jumper, asks her.

They raise noodles from large bowls in a Japanese restaurant across from the downtown public library. The friend’s eyes are hooped in navy, which she has tried to conceal with makeup, producing an owl’s regal stare. Laura swallows, adds, “I’ve wanted to, a few times.”

“Who hasn’t,” the friend says.

They eat.

The jumper has flung himself into the new gulfs opened between the people who knew him. He did not leave a note. This is a thing people who did not know him ask Laura — did he leave a letter? It is a thing people know how to ask.

TV trained them to want a body, a discovery. Instead Laura googles are bodies found when people jump from bridges and the name of her city and reads that in these incidents the body is almost never recovered. She googles tidal patterns. Eyes the charts, the long loops and the filigreed eddies.

His body is not breaking down, is not being deboned by currents and all the salts of the world. His body is rotating, hand to heel, pinwheeling through open space. She remembers him waving across a room at a fundraiser, making small talk at a housewarming. These moments lack staying power.

What remains: an endless gentle tumbling, all parts of him intact. For months following his death, clothed and orbital. She cannot imagine the moment he jumped — he was a shy person like her, never forthcoming — but she cannot stop his somersaults. His sandy hair, perpetual motion. He is the first person her own age to die.

 

*

 

She rides her bike around her parents’ neighbourhood late into her teenaged nights. Under her, the bike is light, another component of the agile darkness. She rides for hours, her legs slackening with exhaustion, her pendulum knees swinging, because this is her only time alone, inside a world of distant graffiti branches and faceless houses.

The habit becomes convenient during her first relationship, with a girl from her high school who lives in a neighbourhood down the steep hill. She leaves and returns during the night, glad that she gets to leave, escape on the cold metal speed of her bike, glide off down the fast black streets, hop the boulevards sideways, tease the gutters with the swift, stripping edges of her wheels, still feeling what she had done inside of her, the wide warmth of that, but traveling fast away from herself, like a pellet of blood that whips up and down all the wet speedy roads of veins but never makes its way to its source.

She rides to get tired enough to return.

There is the fall down the bike’s shining spine before the hill assumes its shape, the city flattens into a bowl, darkness flanked by ocean. She stays out on her bike for as long as possible, the ache entering her legs, settling in her knees, exhaustion that does not burn out but hardens in pockets. She continues until she has to return to her parents’ house, her body spent enough to crumble into bed; immediately, she is asleep. Her brother, always younger no matter how much time passes, never the escape artist she learns to be, complains: their mother broke a plate by throwing it like a Frisbee down the stairs and it broke in two perfect thick halves on the entranceway floor, just in two like an orange when you pull it apart; their mother screamed at their father for hours, then left and returned, left and returned, each time louder, the tide coming in.

The last summer before she left, Laura remembers — the downward pull of the hill, her brother’s blame pulling her back to the surface, and the girl she fucked to learn how, how she rode her bike until dawn more than once, light rising through her eyes, a dawn in her blood, her arms and thighs crossing each other’s revolutions, the soaked streets rivering and the door shutting behind her, body throbbing mutely past decision, how her brother said, “You’re never around anymore,” how she responded,

“Don’t worry, I’m already gone.”
chilcoAlex Leslie has published a collection of stories, People Who Disappear (Freehand, 2012), which was shortlisted for a 2012 Lambda Award for Debut Fiction, and a chapbook of microfictions, 20 Objects for the New World (Nomados, 2011). She edited the Queer issue of Poetry Is Dead magazine (http://poetryisdead.ca/magazine/queer-issue.html). Her work has won a CBC Literary Award and a Gold National Magazine Award. She is working on a collection of stories entitled This Could Be You. Website: alexleslie.wordpress.com 

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