Gone Lawn
a journal of literature
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Gone Lawn 17
Winter, 2015

Featured painting, Red tears fly in the sky by Iryna Lialko.

Featured Novel Excerpt
New Works

Melissa Wiley

Pterodactyls on Planes

While snow fell in lavalieres of ice the last Saturday of April, Steven dropped the ring I was no longer wearing down four marble stairs. And for this, nine years later, I was finally grateful. For the voice of something falling that caught the light on its way down. That sounded a tinkling note of alarm after the organ had done playing "Pachelbel's Canon." And watching my husband's best man board our plane from Chicago to New York while I ate a hummus sandwich at the back of the line, I realized all I had ever wanted was for him to think me a pretty girl. For him to know I had evolved from a pterodactyl to a woman choking down a crust of bread while gripping a suitcase weak at its handle. That I was evolving fast from predator to prey, faster than he knew.
I was falling further down the food chain, a little further every day, and I wanted him to realize this too. My wings had atrophied into two blunt bone stubs I scratched with my fingernails when my skin began to crumble. While my legs shot out from a pelvic bone shaped like the wings of a moth. Both went limp as worms now in the tub, and I would be nothing but a white worm next, I wanted him to know also. I'd grow twice as long every time someone cut me in two. But the smallest, whitest worm devours more meat than a girl and pterodactyl combined, masticating everything but the bone from the bodies left behind.
I wanted to tell him this the moment I stepped onto the jetway, watching his silhouette recede as he ducked inside the nave of the plane, expecting some flying dinosaur to come snatch me by the nape the while, as I did always. Knowing full well that you don't have to be a pretty girl to be a tasty piece of meat. That there is something grisly too in wanting to be prettier than you are.
Matters get even grislier, however, when you consider that Steven sleeps only with women with most of their weight in their bottoms while mine is most in my top. With irises painted toothpaste blue while mine are fecal brown shot through with violet. Their heads always weighted with cataracts of curling blonde hair and a little too well read for comfort. While I have forsaken Proust for Wodehouse and my dirt-dark hair grows straight as the head of a mop. Straighter each day over scalp beginning to slacken from my skull, to molt like snakeskin with no new skin lying beneath it like a lighter blanket. Ready as I am to surrender all my bones to the dogs while I become the world's longest worm, longer each time you try to chop it up.
You have to look a pterodactyl in the face, in other words, to realize just how much uglier I could become. But this is too much to ask of any man with twin turtle eyes green as any swamp, looking down from his rock for fresh fish and never up at the sky for vultures and such. It is too much to ask of any New Yorker with girls perched on squat amphora thighs overspreading every coffee shop, girls who have never eaten a lizard for fun. Girls who stand always slack to one hip twisting their corkscrews always blonde while reading French authors absent of translation. Who never know the frustration of sitting with their seatbelt strapped inside a plane when you once had fine, featherless wings of your own. When the bones of your back still flap hard like phantom limbs once you reach a certain altitude. So that you breathe more heavily now than you used to do.
It had been more than three years since we'd seen each other last, he said once he spotted me slouching halfway down the aisle, switching my purse from hand to hand trying to look as if I had not seen him first. But this, I explained while still standing a few rows back, was only because I'd left three tampons in for two consecutive weeks when I came to New York last April. Otherwise, we'd have met a year ago, for a beer and some nuts and whatever else turtles in Brooklyn liked between their meals. When I added, projecting my voice so that he could hear, three tampons didn't amount to a tickle when your sole sexual partner was so well endowed, that anyone with a vagina deep as mine could make the same mistake. A year last Easter, it was, and then I'd gone to the emergency room after my husband had met him in Williamsburg. Though I'd have loved to have seen his neighborhood and had that beer and macadamia. This while shoving my bag inside the compartment just above my seat, just one away from his own, so that I could touch him on the knee if I only wanted.
Three tampons left inside me for so long had made me start to stink like a corpse at least nine days old, I said, of that last New York jaunt. And I didn't want him to think I reeked as well as looked aggressively undesirable, always with too straight of hair when I knew he liked it tendriled and wrapped around some sapling trunk. The fact I was sitting only a seat away from him this moment I had to credit to a daily salad of spinach and strawberries, I said, to the point I almost overdosed. I was too healthy for three tampons left in too long to kill me, in other words. This while he unzipped his eye pillow from his backpack then pulled the window shade shut, so a slim saber of stinging orange light shot out above his elbow crook.
This morning had been his last of a five-day librarian conference in Chicago, when he'd had a 7 am meeting, he groaned. So it was lights out once the plane took off, he muttered, after repeating his astonishment at seeing me here, and only the one seat between us both. Got it, I said, promising not to wake him. Feeling far less surprised about the odds myself. Not mentioning the ring that was missing on the fourth finger of my left hand at the moment, only because I was having it resized, I kept silent. Because losing weight little by little was a sign of the worm to come.
But then I would want to wake him, I knew as soon as I promised I would not. Because I don't like letting someone else sleep so long as I'm still conscious. And then I thought perhaps I looked a little nicer than when he'd seen me last, in my new and nautical dress I had just bought. That he might want to examine my epaulettes while thinking about turtle flesh, how it tastes to the birds that spin them over on their carapace. Then he could consider how pterodactyls' features form in their next life, when they have no wings left. How birds such as this can only become passably pretty girls, with their chromosomes wriggling with the worm to come next. Because some things only become clear at certain points in the troposphere, in the space above the clouds only metal birds can plunder. Where a woman once a bird of prey herself still tires from the effort she no longer makes to keep herself aloft.
After closing the shade shut of its last light sword, Steven introduced me to the woman who sat between us, a fellow librarian at NYU wearing copper-rimmed glasses and an artichoke suit with no pockets. When I shook her hand knowing I might have simply smiled instead, because I owned no suits myself and ate no artichokes but was sheathed within a striped nautical dress with brass buttons at my breasts. Then I leaned across her lap to tell Steven I'd sat beside a man who had bought me a bloody Mary the last time I'd flown to New York without my husband, whom I was really getting tired of, after so many years, I confessed. That we'd exchanged email addresses while the plane taxied to the gate. That we'd never written each other a word but gotten a little drunk.
Then adding that my husband was coming to join me only the day after next, I tapped him lightly on the knob of his wrist, imprinting him with a swirl of lines at the end of my fingertips. An epidermis arabesque akin to a tiger imprint, whose skin, I've read, is striped in imitation. This, though, you only find out once you peel back all their fur from nerve endings gone dead then hang its hide above your bed.
And this, I knew at once, was why I was not a pretty girl, even in the age of dinosaurs long since passed. Because the moment I touched someone, the swirl of my fingertips became a species of tiger stripes, immutable as the worms within your chromosomes from the day you hatched. And then I knew the only difference between a predator and its prey was one of appetite. That a body with a fresh-stopped heart alone satisfied the larger. That happy with hummus as I was, I ordered my steak juicy as an apple leaking all its nectar blood, such liquid being the juice of things that feel, remember. Of women who stink too much to take the train to Brooklyn when they start to decay from the tampons rotting inside them. Pterodactyl women with the lines of a tiger on their fingertips alone able to survive such a nasty case of toxic shock syndrome.
But what of blood between my legs when I had never wanted him to probe the space, not him in particular? Much as he looked like my husband, to whom I was attracted still much against my resolve. When Steven was the predator of girls prettier than myself and my husband only ever the wingman when they were younger. And then my husband being such a lost puppy in the wilderness without me, I joked, as Steven tied the silk of his eye pillow about his cranium, tilting his seat back in tandem. Which was why I went to New York alone a few days without him, I clarified, just as he started to snore like a chainsaw. Puppies being a little too tender of meat sometimes for a recovering carnivore like myself, who once ate turtles for breakfast. Puppies being not always the best of company for pterodactyls who are pterodactyls no more.
With Steven asleep and the plane alighting on the cloud cover, I opened Mary MacLane's "I Await the Devil's Coming," a memoir of a 19-year-old almost as miserable as myself at times in 1902, a memoir so histrionic it was really quite funny, I remarked, earlier during the safety demonstration, by way of assuring him I'd occupy myself while he dreamt and dozed. That I would not wake him however much I wanted, to which he nodded glassily, too trusting, I knew. His beard a studied nine-day shadow against a nose with a bell shaped like escargot. A snail I almost thought I would bite, so hungry was I still.
Mary MacLane, I realized well before we reached our cruising height, awaited the Devil a good long while, but she didn't know him at all, which is typical of anyone you want to meet too much. She knew the Devil as little as others know Jesus Christ, those who await the latter with equal avarice. Precocious as she thought herself, she knew nothing of divinity or its opposite, only of hunger unsatisfied. She desired something more than the same food put upon her same plate each night. She was a predator without prey as yet. A tiger in a pig pen, as most adolescents are and too many remain all their lives. Those of us who cannot yet touch anyone's wrist with our finger pads without imprinting them with lines wound so tight they'll make you dizzy if you stare too close.
And so as Steven lay slumped against a window admitting no sunlight, I read the Devil worship of little Mary MacLane, wanting the while to tell him the only thing an unpretty girl like myself could to a man certain to live all his life devouring one big-bottomed girl after another: That to live a more satisfying life, you have only to embolden your appetite. To begin slaying larger prey and eating with your fingers. To kill for your supper while letting your chin drip with their red nectar. It's the only explanation there is, I wanted to assure him but never did, why the hungrier creatures commit more carnage. Why tigers live longer than barn cats, for instance. Why this world has become a vast, spinning abattoir, where most of us go to bed with half-full stomachs.
But then, having been such a pretty pterodactyl with a taste for ugly meat, I wanted him to fatten himself, to feed on worms if there was nothing more savory. Hunched as a turtle as he was within his seat with his green eyes hidden behind lids with webbed cerulean veins. I felt my hunger mount for meat that only grew tenderer the more worms it ate. And woman as I was, with nothing but a hummus sandwich still with a little less than half to eat, I knew nothing mattered more than hunger satisfied only to hunger again later on. That all reality, in New York and Chicago and the skies in between, derived from the turtle eating the worm simply so that something else could swallow both of them then die and be eaten by more worms afterward. So that some pterodactyl-woman could screech then heft the turtle from its rock and feed herself once more.
I would, had I the chance and Steven not slept the flight away, told him too that my mother had sewn me two polka-dot wings for a dinosaur musical when I was nine years old. That the pterodactyl's song was the score's saddest one, so at its final refrain I collapsed my wings, distancing myself from the fans at stage's end that made them float through wind. That I pretended to die at song's last notes though my teacher said I needn't. That I could simply bow and smile instead like the brontosaurus. But still I eddied and withered like leaves spun from a tornado then stumbled tearfully back to the chorus.
But then your only recourse when someone fails to find you pretty enough is to talk until you have nothing left to say, until one of you loses your appetite and decides to fade away, to sleep most of the flight slumped within the window seat and snore louder than you can tell your story. Because words are what we give each other when beauty has gone missing. With enough of them, we can tell ourselves who we are when we look in the mirror for a pretty girl and see only a woman who has lost her wings. Someone who eats as much spinach and strawberries as the Devil himself but whose stomach still growls with hunger everlasting.
When he opened the window as the pilot lowered the plane into LaGuardia, I squinted at the light reflecting off the wing, saying that was the problem with those of steel versus those of cytoplasm. Wings stiff as the arms of a corpse but still not dead if also not living. Wings that blinded paying passengers while reflecting sunlight too pure in punishment for trying to glimpse the skyline in the distance. But Steven only nodded while raising his phone to take a photograph. Then he pointed to a brown bricked high rise in the Bronx, saying that was where he lived in high school. He was adopted as a baby, I knew, and both his adoptive parents had since stopped breathing. I was not adopted, he knew too, and both of mine had long died too. But a high rise where you lived with your adopted parents in the Bronx deserves a picture out the airplane window, even if it looks the same as all those within its purlieus. And I said he had quite the view, because he'd lived on the 44th floor overlooking the Hudson. When he nodded again, saying he'd help me find my way downtown, to my hotel in the Village where a fireplace was lit, I knew. Where the French restaurant attached to the breakfast room served turtle soup. So that I would feel at home, surviving on amphibians as I used to do.
If a pterodactyl devours turtles, what does a woman once a pterodactyl herself devour? A woman devours devils, which she expels from her womb roughly every 28 days, when she plugs the holes between her legs with a swath of cotton in the shape of a shrunken phallus still stiffened. And if she suffers a lapse of memory or is just too long used to a partner with too large perhaps a penis, then she does not feel the cotton shaped like a phallus inside her at all, not one or two or even three, and subsequently nearly dies of trying to stop the bleeding. She misses seeing the best man at her wedding, in Brooklyn for a brew, but fortunately sees him on flight a year later by accident. When she is dressed like a sailor turning into a worm with her wedding ring at the jeweler's being shrunken.
The day before my wedding, I weeded my mom's flower beds and read half "The Brothers Karamazov". Next morning, I washed my hair in the sink but forgot to apply conditioner, so that my hair soon tangled in the snow afterward. Steven's girlfriend at the time, a woman named Hannah, helped comb then tried to tease it with a curling iron, but the tease refused to harden. Three weeks later, my husband reported Steven slept with her best friend, a woman with hair as dark and straight as my own and equally flat a bottom. He told Hannah and they ended their relationship, when he moved from Chicago to New York to sleep with someone different. Someone several inches shorter than myself looking more like the dawn, the type to which he was accustomed.
On the bus into Manhattan, I asked if his two-year girlfriend had done anything new with her hair, which I assumed was blonde and long as ever, when he told me he'd broken up with her about a month ago. She wanted to move to Seattle, he said, so I said he'd dodged a bullet there. And as the bus swam through the tunnel snaking from Queens into the Upper East Side, I added that mountains were best enjoyed from a distance if he wanted my opinion. That the problem with people living in Seattle was that everyone wanted to climb one. That walking up such heights was one form of hubris to which I was immune to temptation. Perhaps it was the straightness of my hair, perhaps the swell of my breasts over my bum, but then I just didn't like mountains and preferred grass growing on flatlands. Dandelions my favorite flower for any odd bouquet you might watch wilt at any wedding reception.
But he said when he'd visited Seattle with her the summer before the city had been nice. Nicer still the helicopter ride they'd taken over Mount St. Helens a few days afterward. To survey the wreckage, I offered, imagining the blackness below, a hole of ash with no plants or animals to eat and feed your appetite always mounting for more color. No, to witness the regrowth, he replied. The wildflowers were endless, he embroidered, looking toward the Empire State Building's shrill steel spire. Each petal a thousand of times bluer than the sky.
But what do you need beauty like that for when you have traffic like this? I joked while the bus stalled on the freeway. Then laughed loud enough for the both of us, because I would have liked to see those blue wildflowers more than anything.
At Union Square, Steven pointed me toward 8th Street, saying I only had two blocks to walk to go. Looking over his shoulder at a blonde woman with hips like lotus blossoms, he asked where I would eat that night. I said I had no idea but would enjoy wherever it was. Because I was waiting for no one, no devil or puppy or divinity of any kind, and could eat whatever I wanted.
We hugged, I smiled, and he said, "What?" as I waved goodbye. "I didn't say anything," I responded, when he laughed, explaining I looked like I had more to say, he was certain. But I only smiled and waved again, repeating how good it was to see him. Then that I was sure he'd find himself another pretty girl to replace the mountain climber, of whom there were far too many in this world as it was.
I said everything I'd needed to except that my teeth were beginning to shift in elevators. That they were detaching from their gums while my scalp was molting from its skull while the voice of an invisible woman hidden behind the buttons warned me of the next floor to come. A woman I assumed had perfect teeth as well as a voice that never weakened. Whose skin was pasted to her bones with glue that never came unstuck. That whoever the invisible woman inside the elevator in my apartment complex was, she was the woman for him, I reckoned. She spent all her time running from lobby to penthouse and so her legs were strong. But she lived in Chicago, so to meet her he would have to move back quick, before she found someone.
I had forgotten to warn him too I might be a worm the next time we saw each other, which I knew wouldn't be too soon. That I would be wearing my ring again, a half size smaller than it was before or maybe smaller, that I would grow back twice as long anytime someone cut me in two. That all birds were birds of prey to a worm of any length, and so I wouldn't live much longer. I was relieved, though, I wouldn't have any hair for any girlfriend of his to try to curl, hairless as most worms are. When I wouldn't bother with being pretty at all but just slither through apples.
Inside my hotel room, a bronze hand wrapped around the light bulb's base of the lamp above the bed. Its fingers were thin as talons, like there was nothing but bone to grip a string of fraying filament, beneath which it was much too dark to read my book still unfinished. So I put little Mary MacLane on the windowsill so she could look out for the Devil herself, somewhere in Washington Square Park or somewhere else, and placed my fingers over those of the hand with electrical wires where the marrow should have been. Where all the blood, I'm told, is made, inside our body's whiteness.
And walking to a sushi restaurant half an hour afterward, I saw the Devil in the flesh. Because you do not have to wait for these things, Mary. The Devil comes to you.
I saw a woman with skin smooth as a mannequin walking toward me down the sidewalk. As she came closer, I noticed her staring at my midriff, just below the brass buttons at my areolae, when she stopped me and told me my dress was a dazzler. That she had always wanted to wear a sailor dress herself but that I looked prettier. She had sunglasses on, so I couldn't see the color of her irises. But I knew they were as red as the lacquer of her fingernails, that her pupils were the repository of all her body's blood begun to boil into something gaseous, because otherwise her skin was white as the bone beneath invisible.
I thanked the Devil then slowed my pace, feeling less hungry than before. And observing men turn their heads to watch me pass, I felt my pelvis begin trying to flap its wings, molded in the shape still of a moth. I felt my bones struggle for movement and ache with exhaustion. I felt the Devil's gaze still warming my back, where my wings were once but had long since fallen. And I knew the Devil recognized a pterodactyl a pterodactyl no more when she saw one. That old birds of prey identify each other by scent alone, the aroma of fresh carrion. And that those who feed on dead and dying things know a woman whose skin is loosening from her skull and whose gums detach farther from her teeth whenever she rides an elevator. That she may look pretty for a moment inside her new and nautical dress, but she is thinning into a long, white worm, faster than she might have were she better. That she'll wriggle the rest of her life inside an apple other pretty women will eat for knowledge. Knowledge of how to satisfy the hunger that never does vanish.

Melissa Wiley is a freelance writer living in Chicago. Her lyric essays appear or are forthcoming in Prick of the Spindle, Beetroot Journal, Eclectica Magazine, Lowestoft Chronicle, among other publications. She speaks softly and carries a big umbrella.