He quivers on the ground, a small bird, not yet able to fly. Bobby Jacobs, grinning like a Cheshire cat, stands over his sparrow body. I don’t intervene. I wait until Bobby leaves before swooping in with my inadequate triage.
“He’s an asshole,” I say.
Small, cowering bird boy, whose name I do not know, trills his agreement. I help him up.
Sometimes, a shove is more debilitating than a punch. I know from experience that it is possible to be punched and remain on your feet. Maybe, like me, before he learns to fly, this boy will have to transfer schools and get a whole new wardrobe and a boyfriend named Steve.
His slumped shoulders telegraph that, even in his own body, the boy does not feel at home.
“Thanks,” he says.
He looks at the ground. Searching for worms? Suburban schoolyard soil is an unlikely place for living things to thrive.
I try to make eye contact, but he will not raise his gaze to meet mine.
I’ve seen him before. I’ve been at Chester High for over a year. I’ve never once asked the boy his name.
“I’m Andrea,” I say.
“I know.” Sad little dove. He walks away without telling me who he is.
I don’t follow. I used to be a bird boy, but I left the flock.
“Hey.” Steve appears out of nowhere and wraps an arm around my shoulder, claiming ownership of me.
“What’s up?” Chuck, one of my boyfriend’s jock friends, gives me his patented hello head nod.
My eyes demand to cry, but I ignore them. Forget the bird boy. You’re happy. You’re loved. So what if no one knows? They knew in Greenville and it nearly killed you.
I go straight home after school. Steve wants me to come to his house, but his friends will be there, scratching themselves and swigging vodka out of the bottle and talking about women in ways that make my skin crawl, so I tell my boyfriend I’ll catch him later – when the two of us can be alone, with no pretense and no pretending.
I tuck my penis in between my legs and sigh. If I only had a vagina, I would be like all the other girls.
Steve looks at me from where he is reclining on my bed. My parents aren’t home. Not that they’d mind Steve being in my room. When it comes to boys, Mom and Dad seem to forget that I’m not Andy anymore. I’m Andrea. I love other people’s penises as much as I hate my own.
“You’re so sexy,” Steve says.
“I can’t believe you love me.” I walk across the room, careful to swing my hips and suck my belly button into the hollow of the spine so that I will look like an hourglass, instead of the ruler that I am.
I wish it were dark.
I lay down.
Steve’s arms are lead, heavy and constricting, rooting me in place. My boyfriend is everything I’m not – bearded and masculine and capable of real intimacy. He’s man enough to be open about his feelings, whereas I’m not yet woman enough to admit the depth of my own vulnerability.
“Of course I love you.” Steve’s caterpillar fingers spin cocoons in my hair.
“Why’d you get dressed?” he asks.
“It’s only underwear.”
He hooks a crooked finger into my tighty whities, the kind I have to wear to conceal the secret only he and Mom and Dad and I and my team of doctors and the people at my old school (the one I had to leave to make my transition) know about.
“I like you naked,” Steve says.
“I don’t want you to see –”
“Andrea.” His voice is apple cider and hot chocolate and a forbidden sip of Grandpa’s Irish coffee on my eleventh birthday. I sip it in. Just that word.
“I know,” he says. “There’s nothing to hide.”
I take off my underwear.
“How were your boys?” I ask.
I half expect him to respond “You’re my boy” and I cringe in anticipation of those words. Invisible internal knives slice through me. Severed arteries and limbs. Bleeding naked in advance, I dance away from the possible realization of my projections and kiss him so hard he doesn’t have a chance to answer my question.
“Wow,” Steve says. “Again?”
I look down at our naked bodies, so alike and yet so different. Then, I flip over onto my abdomen.
Legs like scissors wrap around me, shearing flesh from bone. He plunges deep. No matter. I am ready. We’ve used enough lube. Hot. Wet. Inviting. Every time we do this, it feels like the first time. I was a virgin before Steve. He was too, before me. I never imagined I would find anyone who would love me enough to explore this most terrible of intimacies, sublime and delicious. Exquisite.
He comes inside me, as if we were any other high school boy and girl, unprotected because we are too dumb and young to worry about such trivialities.
“My parents will be home soon.”
“You wanna stay for dinner?”
Steve always wants to stay for dinner. My family is much more functional than his. In our house, we understand that there is enough danger and violence outside, so we are careful to be kind. My boyfriend calls my house “the sanctuary,” and I suppose it is kind of like a church or mosque or temple or some other religious institution. Mom and Dad worship at the altar of me, their false idol. Never mind that the rest of the world rejects people like me. My parents think I’m brave. I love them too much to tell them that it isn’t bravery if it’s necessity.
Mom walks in carrying a pizza. Dad shuts the door behind her. Even though they each have separate vehicles and even though Mom starts work an hour before him and he finishes an hour after her, they commute to and from work every day in Dad’s dented Honda. They say they value their together time – and they do. I am forever walking in on them kissing. My sex therapist parents practice what they preach.
“Steve,” Mom says, “I hope you’ll stay for dinner.”
I squeeze his hand.
“Andrea is so lucky to have a friend like you,” Dad says, patting my “friend” on the shoulder.
In my mind’s eye, I see my favorite DA Powell poem. His words are seared into my soul. What is a friend but a lover held at bay?
After the pizza, I walk Steve to his car and kiss him long and hard beneath the streetlight – in full view – because I can. Because, here, no one knows what lies beneath my skirt and I can dare to fly.
When I run into her on the street, I am predictably alone. A bird soars overhead. A towhee, maybe, or a thrush. My feet remain fixed in place. Why did I come here? To the city. As if I were a normal girl. As if I were bullet proof.
She does not recognize me, despite the fact that she has been my obsession and my muse for the last two years – ever since before I left Greenville and my family moved an hour and a half away, to Chester.
My shoes are roots that tether the tree of my body to the soil of the sidewalk. I thought it would be fun to venture into the city that bisects the line between my old life and my new one. Evidently, I have ventured too far.
She passes me. A thousand empty promises wind their way from my brain to my lips.
I lied to her. I lied and she believed me.
My first and only girlfriend looks even more beautiful than I remember. The scent of her lingers – cinnamon and sugar. Christmas cookies and hot tea and unrequited love. Just as I am telling myself that I am safe and she is gone, I sense the pivot of her heels. With expert precision, Julie swivels on her own internal axis, turns and approaches my still still self.
She peers deep into my eyes before she speaks.
“I’m sorry. I just couldn’t not tell you that I love your outfit.” She was always so… personable.
I look down. I begin at my feet and trace every visible inch of myself, from my Jimmy Choo shoes to my short, pleated skirt and button-down blouse. Thankfully, I cannot see my face.
Of course Julie loves my outfit. I learned everything I know about fashion from watching her.
“Where’d you get it?” she asks.
“Oh, so many places,” I say evasively. “I’m kind of in a hurry.”
But I do not move and neither does she.
“I used to have a necklace like that.” Julie points at the long, graceful swan of my throat. “But the clasp broke.”
It didn’t break. A year and a half ago, she tore the necklace off and threw it at my feet. I picked it up and had it fixed and now, when I wear it, it acts as a reminder of all I’ve given up to become who I am now.
Of course she doesn’t recognize me. The last time she saw me, my hair was shorter and I was dressed in jeans and a V-necked t-shirt with a mustard stain on the front. The last time she saw me I was someone else.
Julie reaches out a hand to touch the necklace that was once hers. My Adam’s apple trembles. Please, please, don’t let the delicate flesh of her fingertips trace my body like braille and remember that we are not two strangers meeting on a street.
Without meaning to, I pull back.
“I’m sorry.” Her eyes telegraph her embarrassment.
She continues to apologize. “Oh no. I’m a total idiot. How inappropriate.”
“You must think I’m so strange,” she says. “I really have no boundaries.”
But I am the one who lacks limits.
She sticks out her hand. “I’m Julie.”
“I really do have to go,” I say. So rude.
“Oh yes.” Julie shoves her hand in her pocket as if, in doing so, she can erase the gesture. “Stupid me. I have a bad habit of stopping strangers on the street to ask where they got their shoes.”
“Jimmy Choos,” I say, “from Saks.”
“I’ll go at lunch tomorrow.”
Now, I know where she’ll be at lunchtime tomorrow.
Just as I am turning to walk away, the girl I once loved, but was never in love with, reaches out and touches my bare shoulder. “You haven’t told me your name,” she says.
“Andrea.” I speak the truth before I can stop myself.
Andy. That is a name I haven’t allowed anyone to call me in well over a year, but I don’t bother to correct her.
“Nice to meet you,” she says.
A sudden flash of our lips pressed together, her slender, ringed fingers descending my torso before cupping my manhood in her hand. An erection – hard and brutal.
“Let’s do it,” she’d said. “I’m ready.”
That was when I’d ended it, when she’d thrown the necklace and walked out. I hadn’t even tried to stop her.
Once again, she must be the one to walk away. I stand at the crosswalk, breathing in and breathing out. I watch as the light turns from red to green and green to red and finally back to green again before the trance is lifted and I am able to move my pretty shoes again.
I shouldn’t have come here, but I had to see Steve.
“I’ll wait here,” I tell Chuck when he answers the door.
One look inside sends snakes slithering down the pearl necklace of my spine. Each vertebrae threatens to collapse as I recall my last party, like this one – back in Greenville.
The press of male bodies, too numerous to count. A topless drunk girl allowing herself to be fondled by a boy I didn’t recognize. Insults hurled at my head. Crying, alone, in the bathroom, before finally slinking home with a busted lip and ripped t-shirt.
These kinds of parties make me hate jocks and everything they stand for.
“Aren’t we a little young for frat parties?” I say as soon as Steve comes to the door. Even though this isn’t that, and I know it, I refuse to go inside.
“I hate them too,” Steve tells me.
He doesn’t of course. He finds them trivial and slightly off-putting, but he can’t possibly abhor them as much as I do or he wouldn’t come.
Despite the cool night air, Steve, clad in a t-shirt and jeans, joins me for an impromptu outdoor stroll.
I take his hand. My fingers, like wool, weave into his, knitting together our two separate selves.
“What happened?” he asks.
“I ran into her, in the city.”
Steve doesn’t speak. He simply pulls me towards him, encircles me in his sports-strong arms and lets my slight frame be swallowed up in his larger one. He doesn’t ask any questions and I don’t offer any explanations.
My boyfriend already knows the depth of my guilt. I’ve told him all about my bird boy self and how I flew away at her expense.
When I am finally ready to leave, Steve asks if I want him to drive me home, but I say no, I’d rather walk.
“Text me when you get there,” he orders. “Let me know you’re safe.”
I kiss him one final time beneath the dully flickering streetlight, then make my way down the street and out of his protective line of sight. Guilt presses, like an anvil, on my chest. Images of her crying face flash before my wide open eyes. Broken necklace. Broken heart. I lied to her. She never knew. Never understood. Should I call her? Explain? She seemed happy. Friendly. She seemed herself. Not that I ever really knew who that was, any more than she knew me.
The soft sounds of someone else’s whimpers intrude upon my thoughts. The noise is coming from the bushes, off the street, beside the yellow house two blocks down and cattycorner from where kids are getting shitfaced on beer from a keg and fucking one another – wasted – because they believe that that’s what a good time consists of.
I hear another stifled cry and veer off of my intended path to investigate.
Bird boy. De-winged and helpless. His body is a crumpled, emasculated heap. Blood seeps into his shirt from an origin I can’t immediately identify. Black eye, busted lip. The imprint of a boot upon his back.
“You okay?” I ask. “Should I call 9-1-1?”
“Just another Friday night.” Brave boy, attempting a weak smile.
“How about I help you home?”
He gestures at the yellow house. “I already am home.”
“Some guys from the party came by to say hello.”
Again, I offer him a hand. He takes it. As we walk together towards the inviting porchlight and cracked open front door, I say, “You don’t have to take this. You don’t have to live this way.”
Clipped wing around my shoulder. Bloody breath in my face. “Don’t try to save me,” my sad sparrow rescue project says. “I’m just killing time until college.”
Then, he disappears into his house – without a thank you or goodbye or even a proper introduction. I am two more blocks down the street when I see him – Bobby Jacobs – leaning on a lamppost.
“You look hot,” he says.
“Leave me alone, Bobby.”
I speed up to pass him. Bad idea.
Cruel, calculating cat boy senses the bird in me, grabs me by the shoulders and sends me spiraling downward. What’s he doing? This is a residential neighborhood. The unmistakable stench of cheap beer assails my nostrils and I know: Bobby Jacobs is drunk. An intoxicated predator. Sober prey. I try to yell, but a heavy hand descends over my mouth.
He’s done this before.
“Come on, Andy,” he says, “You know you want to.”
Andrea, I think, even as he is undoing the buttons on my blouse, straddling me with his muscled thighs, pinning me beneath him. With his free hand, he lowers his pants then hefts up my skirt. I come untucked.
“What the fuck!”
Bobby’s scream shatters the air. His punch smashes my jaw, which breaks into a thousand tiny glass pieces.
“Fucking freak.” He scrambles to his feet then kicks me, once or twice, or maybe a hundred times – hard – in the ribs. I don’t bother to count. Why would I? All the air has already been knocked out of me.
They know. Rumors buzz like bees around me and no one will make eye contact. Post-mortification Monday. Shame sheds my already paper-thin self-esteem.
It would be better if they insulted me to my face, like the kids at Greenville. Words that felt like sticks and stones, but nevertheless were an acknowledgement that I existed. Last week, these people thought I was beautiful. Now, they avert their eyes when I pass.
Even Steve. He told them all he never investigated beneath my skirts. He called me a lying cunt. Evidently, the limits of his love do not cross from private into public. I understand. I wish I didn’t. Only bird boy speaks to me. He finds me in the cafeteria, alone, eating my turkey sandwich, and pulls up a chair. I meet his blue eyes with my brown ones and force my lips to smile.
“Hi,” he says. “We haven’t officially met. I’m Adam.”
Dara Lyons: "I am a summa cum laude graduate of New York University and my work has been read by over half a million readers. I have written twenty novels, two children’s books, a nonfiction book about yoga, numerous articles, short stories, and two full-length screenplays."