Like a bird


By Maya Slobin

My pointer finger hovered over the buzzer. Eyes closed, deep breath, and a push of a button next to the scratched name card: Fuller. I waited, a buzz, and a walk up the dingy steps.  

The walls grew tight on the trek, and I felt an invisible elastic band wrap like a snake around the middle of my throbbing forehead. The halls smelled like urine. The smog of the New York City streets was far better than this dank space. A place that I would have deemed inhospitable for the Eloise I used to know. 

3A. Third floor. Slogging up steps, I shoved my hands into the pockets of my puffer jacket to stop the shaking. A dirty wooden door. I waited four and a half minutes before knocking.  

The person behind the slab was not Eloise. Not the girl with two caramel-colored braids or the bright purple leggings with green polka-dotted patches that her nonna had sewn on to cover their holes. Not the girl who did handstands against the padded blue walls in gym class or wore black converse that came all the way up to her knees.  

I had done handstands with her one day in 3rd grade and the teachers put us in time out. We hadn’t cried or protested, just huddled together in the corner and stuck our shoelaces in the holes of each other’s converse, poking our socked feet underneath. The feeling tickled, and her laugh permeated throughout the sweat-smelling echoey space and turned her freckled cheeks into a grin. A gapped-tooth-yellow grin of front teeth still rugged from their recent protrusion through gums.  

“I think we should be friends,” she’d said. She smelled like honeydew and lime-flavored seltzer. “No one else would ever do handstands with me during gym class.” 

We snuck our notebooks and markers under our jackets with us to outdoor recess that day. And each day after, while the other kids played basketball or four-square, we sprawled our bodies across the blacktop working on a book of our secret language or drawing pictures of each other with unicorn horns and wings. No one came over to bother us.  

Her drawings always came out cleaner, more fully formed and realistic than mine, and I pretended not to mind. I never let her help me. I later found out she got her talents from her mom, an artistic Italian woman who wore dangly rainbow earrings and spent her days in their basement painting.  

“I have something to add to the secret language,” she said with widening eyes. “We have to poke each other in the belly button and say ‘poink,’” she said, blue crystalline eyes gazing into mine with a cold-hard serious face.  

“What will it mean?” 

“It means that we have to abort the situation, that something has gone terribly wrong.” 

She put her hand on my shoulder. “We’ll protect each other.” 

We hung out after school and drew castles in the dirt with sticks. It was always my backyard. We didn’t go to her house too often. My mom told me she had heard the other moms talking about the Fuller house at my younger sister’s soccer game. Apparently, they never mowed their lawn. They were the ugly-lawn house. The one the town gossiped about.  

One day she invited me to come over for dinner after school and I took her bus home instead of mine. On the ride, we pressed our notebooks against the seat ahead of us, making our creations bumpy and squiggly as the bus jolted to stops.  

When we got to the one-story white house with dirty shutters, she told me that she loved her lawn, and that the flowers made her want to dance and sing. So, I held her gloved hands and we spun in circles until we got too dizzy and nauseous to breathe. Inside, we snuck handfuls of mini semi-sweet chocolate chips from the jar on her countertop when her mom went to the bathroom, shoving them into our mouths and savoring the bitter glob until it was warm and gooey, more fun to swallow.  

Her mom made spaghetti with canned tomato sauce. It tasted like ketchup and I had four servings. The sauce got all over her two younger brothers’ faces, and they were loud and messy. The house was loud and messy. Her dad was mostly silent, a quiet man who wore glasses and had a computer-y job. Her mom squeezed his hand a couple times throughout the meal while he continued staring into space. Eloise had always called him boring, but I liked him because he told me I seemed like I was good at school and that I would be a good influence on his daughter. The idea that I had something to contribute to such a whimsical person brought warmth to my cheeks.

When we got to talking about school, I decided to tell her parents about the time I stood up to the bully Leila Saunders. The one who made fun of the patches on Eloise’s leggings and told her that the knee-high converse were weird.   

But that got me thinking about how sometimes I wasn’t the one who stood up to bullies. Like the times when people made fun of Eloise’s hands. Her hands that I secretly found revolting, the one facet that made me want to abandon her. 

She had a skin-picking problem. Dermatillomania, I had found out years later when I decided to research the reason her fingers and the palms of hands were perpetually raw and destroyed. I had seen her do it in moments when she thought no one was watching, peeling the skin in urgent but concealed shame. But clearly most of the damage was done in private, for what was accomplished in my line of sight could not have produced the extent of decay of her palms.  

When people asked me what was wrong with her, I’d always tell them that she burned her hands in a fire. I figured that something like a fire made sense, an accident that could happen to anyone. If her hands had been burnt in a fire, she was normal and, by association, I could be normal too.  

But one time I agreed to partake in their plan to get her to show us her hands. I guess I just wanted to know what was wrong with her, to see the horrors of her habits in broad daylight, not hidden by perpetual Band-Aids and pockets.  

 We begged her to give us high fives, demonstrating just how easy it was and framing her as a stupid fool for not wanting to do it. Encouraging and demanding over and over until she dug her hands deeper and deeper into her yellow puffer jacket pockets and cried.  

She didn’t talk to me for one day. 

When I finally asked her what was wrong, she said “nothing.” I knew it was because she would never admit that there was anything wrong with her hands in the first place.  

So, we were back to hanging out at my house after school and doing crafts and creating imaginary worlds. On the day that she started talking to me again we played a game on the swing set in my backyard, climbing up to the top of the monkey bars and thrusting our bodies to the ground. Over and over again, we soared and fell, imagining that for those few moments in the air we had taken flight–flying like the birds we watched with the old binoculars we found in my attic, sitting at my window, admiring different species each day. We jumped and plummeted until our ankles were bruised and swollen and our hands, tired of catching our falls, were encrusted with a layer of dirt. We would have kept going. We were going to be like birds, but my mom caught us. 

“What are you doing?” She shouted, witnessing our dirty hands and dirty clothes and signs of exhilaration. “You girls are going to end up dead if you keep doing such reckless things.” 

 I heard the voice, but kept my eyes confined to Eloise sitting on the ground, heaving for air after the subsequent falls, her eyes glazed over, gone somewhere else. She poked my belly button and shouted “poink” and we sprinted past my mom’s looming presence in the doorway to the safety of my bedroom. We lay on our stomachs, talking, getting dirt and grass all over my already-stained rug.  

The next day she came to school acting all quiet and told me it was because her dad had an “Irish temper.” I asked her what that meant, and she told me she didn’t want to say anything else. So, during recess we drew four-leaf clovers with big red Xs over them in our notebooks. I didn’t say anything when I saw quiet tears plop onto the pages, smudging the green and red ink. 

The next day, she hadn’t restored. She refused to take off her puffer, even when Mrs. Linder told her she absolutely had to put it in the class cubby. She didn’t take her hands out of her pockets all day. She stared blankly into space during reading, hid in the bathroom for the entirety of recess, and barely uttered a word to me. But at the end of the day, she started to cave.  

“Can I come over today? Can I take your bus?” She didn’t look at me when she spoke. We were sitting next to each other on the blacktop for dismissal, surrounded by boys throwing paper airplanes and girls playing hand games.  

“It seems like you don’t want to hang out with me,” I said. I was bitter. We hadn’t gotten to sit in corners and work on our secret language or write poems about raspberry lemonade that day. And it was all her fault.  

Her face stone cold, she sat in silence. It was 70º, and her hands still hadn’t left her puffer. 

“He left us.” 

I hadn’t known what she meant. Her eyes were stuck to the ground. 


“He got so mad, he was throwing things, breaking things. He said it’s all my mom’s fault. He took all his stuff and put it in the blue duffel back that we use for trips. Then he slammed the door.”  Tears welled in her eyes, but she didn’t let them fall, for we were sitting on the blacktop for dismissal. Boys throwing paper airplanes and girls playing hand games and Eloise telling me her father abandoned her. “My mom got so angry too and took her favorite of all her paintings from the wall and broke it over her knee. And then she just said, ‘that damn Irish temper.’” 

I sat for a minute picturing the serious computer-y man with wire-rimmed glasses who didn’t know how to have a family. I pulled her close to me, and neither of us cried. She took her hands out of her pockets and hugged me back. 

I was there to help her put her knick-knacks into boxes–a collection of wooden Italian dolls, a special glow-in-the-dark spy pen, mini-colored pencils in a glass jar sealed with a cork top, a sketchbook filled with rainbows.  We sat in that small bedroom she shared with both of her brothers in a house that was too big for her mom to afford on her own. She couldn’t afford any house because she was a woman who sat in the basement painting and not doing computer-y things. So, they would move to Chicago and move in with Nonna.   

“I won’t make any friends there,” she said.  

“But you have friends here. Why wouldn’t you have friends there?” She shook her head in response. 

“I have one friend,” she sighed. “You’re the only one in the world who doesn’t think I’m a creep.” She was quiet for a moment, and then shook her head again. “You do think I’m weird, but you’re the only one who isn’t grossed out enough to run away.”  

We still hadn’t talked about her hands, but for the first time ever, I was offered a clear view. She put them face up, leaving her palms exposed, vulnerable to my inevitable attack. She silently looked at them.  

“Well, if you’re worried about people thinking you’re weird, why don’t you just stop doing that,” I said.  

She walked out of the room and slammed the door, leaving me sitting on the springy twin mattress, looking at the popcorn ceiling and walls of chipped paint.  

It would only be one day, I told myself. Like last time. Just one day of her being mad because she had to forgive me. I was all she had. She was all I had.  

But two and three and four passed and she moved away and left behind the one-story house and the overgrown lawn where we had once held hands and danced.  

My life transformed into a year of playing 4-square at recess and participating in the appropriate games during gym class and speaking in normal languages and doing the monkey bars the proper way, alone in my backyard. But a year wasn’t too long for me to ascend from my bed with tears in my eyes when my mom cracked the door and handed me the black landline.

“Hi.” The scent of honeydew and lime seltzer, the taste of bittersweet chocolate chips, throbbing ankles from repeated intentional falls.  

 I was silent because I didn’t think I could respond without crumbling. But the silence waned, and I managed to ask about how life in Chicago was. 

“It’s okay.” She was quiet for a moment. “I don’t have many friends here. And I miss you.” 

For some pathetic reason, I didn’t want her to know how desperately I longed for our dirt-stained days–that feeling of owning the world.  

“Oh. That sucks.” I listened to her jagged breathing. “Remember Leila? Her and I became good friends. We hang out almost every day.” 

I became a different person on these calls with Eloise. Over the years, I had boys chasing after me and countless parties to go to and too many friends to keep track of. I kept picking up the landline and calling because if she believed me, maybe I could too.  

When we were 14, Eloise called to tell me that she hated her nose and her body. When she came back to New York for a brief visit so that her mom could visit old friends, she stopped by, and I saw scars on her thighs and realized that her hands weren’t healed. I had almost forgotten about the habit. The visit was strange and when we hugged, she felt like a stiff log. It was a sweltering August day and her mom had merely pulled up outside my house in her Honda 

Civic. Eloise stood outside and we talked for five minutes. They were in a rush, her mom had said.   

Our phone calls became fewer and farther between. She moved back to New York for art school when we were 18, but we hadn’t made the time to meet up. Besides, I had been at college upstate at the snowy desolate state school that everyone from my high school went to.  

I suppose I shouldn’t have been too surprised by what I saw behind the dirty wooden door. I suppose that I couldn’t pretend that there was any remaining scrap of the girl with two caramel-colored braids or the bright purple leggings with green polka-dotted patches left in this person who was not the Eloise I knew.  

The memories of us that raced through my head were enough to eat me from the inside out. But the door was open now. And she wasn’t in the hospital anymore and I was there to see her. She had fingerless gloves on. I wondered about the state of her palms underneath. 

A month earlier, she had gotten high on God-knows-what with her art school friends at a party. The party had felt too hot, too sweaty, and too confining of her wings. She had sent me a text at 2:27 a.m. that said, “I’m finally going to fly.” It was the first text she’d sent me in two years. Two years in which I’d left her to fend for herself because it was easier that way. Two years since I realized that telling her lies about my life was not worth the burden of knowing I was beating down an already broken bird.  

 She left the party, walked three blocks home, and jumped off the 3rd story balcony of her apartment.  

As soon as I had heard the news, I got out of bed and went to my backyard. I had gotten home for winter break the day before and felt purposeless without the stressful, comforting weight of readings, assignments, and exams. The playground was rusty, untouched for years, weathered from the elements. We should have just gotten rid of it. I climbed to the top of the monkey bars and jumped. I felt myself soar through the sky and the wind on my cheeks. And when I looked to the right, she was right there beside me, her braids blowing, her eyes wide, eager to be living.  

When I landed, there was a buzzing in my head. I was weaker now, my bones feebler. I clutched the grass with my hands and melted into the ground. We would never have wings.

Maya Slobin is a sophomore studying in environmental studies, history, and Spanish from Long Island, New York. She enjoys creating visual art and writing creatively during her free time.