I only know what they showed me on television. But you don’t know what that is either. It’s sort of like how you, one day, might want to feel what it’s like to fly. When you grow up, you’ll have bird families nesting on you. They’ll build their homes in your branches, and they’ll use the worms and caterpillars climbing down your spine to feed their young. And they’ll fly. They’ll fly around your topmost branches and even though you’ll be intimate with the wind, you won’t know what it will feel like to touch a cloud. But you’ll think about it sometimes. And maybe even wish for it. When you see the birds flying – that’s sort of how I think Christmas is. It’s a joyous thing that I’ve seen from far away. I’ve seen others stretch into it like it’s a habit, like it’s as easy as plunging off a branch and rising high into the blue. It’s not something they need to think about. But you and me, we have our roots in different places and no matter how hard we try to picture what it’s like up there in that space, we won’t be able to.
Someday, maybe you’ll learn the language of the birds. Maybe you’ll manage to talk to them. And you’ll ask them what it’s like to fly. That’s what I did. I asked what Christmas was really like. Not the pretend kind I saw from far away. But I don’t know if I ever asked the right question, not exactly. Because even if you’re speaking the same language as someone else, when your roots are in different places, can you be sure you mean the same thing when you say “always” and “regular” and “just”? Could you explain to the birds what it’s like to draw water from the earth?
I was helpless. I couldn’t fight it anymore. I had tried, and I had failed. “Fine!” I yelled at last, opening my mouth wide and screwing my eyes tightly shut.
“Yes!” Paige giggled and placed half her chocolate bar in my mouth. I opened my eyes and grinned, biting into the bar. Paige’s face was a sight – she seemed to have dunked her whole lower jaw into a bath of chocolate rather than had a few squares. But it was mid-July and the stuff was melting in our fingers as we held it, sprawled on the grass in the public park.
I had vowed to stop eating junk-food at the beginning of the summer, but I had broken the resolve more than I cared to admit. It was almost always with Paige. She had such a motherly instinct, always wanting to feed her dolls. When they got boring, because they couldn’t actually eat, she tried to feed me. She would stretch out her pudgy little hand with such an air of generosity and real happiness in the act of sharing that I couldn’t turn her down.
“Fi, Fi, let’s go swing! Swing swing swing swing!” She was already off, shoving her last square of chocolate in her mouth as she ran, the repetition of the word echoing behind her as she ran to fulfill her immediate desire. I got up from the little blanket I’d spread out for us and followed her to the run-down little playground.
It was a beautiful day. I was happier than ever that I’d been offered the job of babysitting Paige. When I look back at that day, it seems like a dream, too good to be true. If I’d known that three months later I would be trudging through the ghostly streets of a ruined town with Paige clutching my hand and a rumbling belly, I wouldn’t have fought so hard against eating the chocolate.
“Gertrude?” the clerk at the DMV smirked involuntarily when he read the name. He stifled his sneer as best he could, but she’d already seen and noticed it, as she always did.
“Yes, um, so can I please renew my license?” she asked quickly. She wanted to get the whole thing over with. The clerk asked her to wait a moment and went to a back room to do whatever it is they did at the DMV that took so damn long.
Gertrude sat, unmoving, on the uncomfortable plastic chair and fumed quietly. She cursed her parents for the umpteenth time for giving her such an old-fashioned name. She’d learned to like it in her teens because she felt it gave her an air of fragile antiquity and maybe some sort of old-fashioned elegance. But now, in her mid-twenties, she was learning to hate it again. Her boyfriend always told her he loved it, but they’d been together for so long that she never took his compliments seriously anymore.
She looked up at the large clock and sighed. She’d been waiting in line for what felt like forever, and now the sneering clerk with his comb-over and his ugly, crooked teeth was chatting, quite audibly, with one of his coworkers while he waited for something to come out of the printer. Gertrude stared at him sullenly, but looked away quickly when she realized that he might look back and see her watching him.
Instead, she put her head down and examined her nails. They were too long again, and she was much too lazy to paint them. It just didn’t seem important anymore, this having nice nails business. She just wanted them short enough so as not to be in her way and damn appearances. But even as she thought that, Gertrude scoffed inwardly at herself. She still cared about her looks, much more than she ought to. She felt the nape of her neck tingle right now, in fact, and was sure that one of the fussy, mean old ladies who were in line was watching her and frowning at the tattoo that was clearly visible on that area.
Gertrude felt that everyone disapproved of her, no matter where she went. Whether she was buying books that were technically considered teen-novels or walking into a designer-clothing store, she felt as if people stared and watched her, thinking that she was strange and odd and altogether not quite right.
Being not quite right didn’t bother her when she was alone. In fact, within her circle of family and friends she enjoyed being the odd one out. She liked having unique tastes and being considered a bit of a strange bird. In fact, she took offense when she was told that she was too normal. She felt that being normal was boring, wrong even. Especially as she wanted to be a teacher. Teachers needed to be odd, special, or plain nuts in order to have an effect on their pupils. Gertrude was convinced of this because the only teachers she’d ever had who had any impact on her were the weird ones that people laughed at but listened to.
It was only when she was out and about on her own that Gertrude felt uncomfortable. She kept her head down as often as possible so as to hide the large birth-mark that covered half her cheek with a purple tinge. In those moments of honesty to herself, she knew that she was hiding herself more than the birth-mark and that it only gave her an excuse to do so.
“Excuse me, Miss?” the clerk was back and had apparently decided that he couldn’t say her name without laughing. His formal address to her was almost more insulting than her name said with a snicker.
“Yes?” she answered, raising her eyes and looking at him politely. Like most clerks, he didn’t meet her eyes. She always tried to meet everyone’s eyes when she spoke to them, almost defiantly, as if to prove something.
“I’m sorry but you didn’t fill out the proper forms online, so we can’t renew your license yet,” the clerk said without sympathy. He was already looking behind her, his hand hovering over the button that would make the screen flash and the next number called.
“I did fill them out,” Gertrude said quickly, before he could dismiss her. “Can you check again, please? If you don’t have them then I’ll fill them out right now,” she offered eagerly.
The clerk emitted a little noise of distaste and impatience and without a word got up and went back to the computers that for some inexplicable reason weren’t set on the clerks’ desks.
Gertrude hated him for a few moments before reminding herself not to be a mean, selfish and judgmental idiot. She looked down again and tried her best to imagine the clerk as a good person who had a family and friends and belonged to another life that didn’t consist of the DMV. It was hard to imagine, but she nevertheless tried, in order to stop feeling bad about herself for hating someone so fiercely that it hurt.
You may not comprehend my emotions. I admit it, I tend to be overly dramatic at times. That trait of mine is part of my charm, however. Or so it used to be. Now, it seems I’ve become so over-the-top that I just don’t fit anymore. For someone like me, there’s nothing worse.
I started out fine. Well, that’s not strictly true. I started out gleaming, perfect, utterly spotless. I was completely black-and-white then, no doubt whatsoever between the two. Then the change began. I was worn ragged, day after day. I saw the uglier side of the world, was trodden down upon, completely used up. But see, that’s what made me cool. That’s what made me fit in to the scene I’d always wanted to be part of. I was tattooed, grungy, dirty and scruffy. But I looked good. No one could dismiss the fact that I looked damn good.
Until the day it got to be too much. Until I started not being able to function properly. I’d been so worn down, that I wasn’t a comfort anymore. I started being ignored. Week by week, I was left alone more often than not, until one day I was simply finished. Capute. Finito. Face-down in a drawer in the closet, and a new clone occupying my place.
It’s a hard life, I tell ya, being a Converse high-top.