Daryl and I are driving to Chicago’s Midway Airport, for unknown reasons.
Well–not unknown, probably. Just untold to me.
Daryl called me at midnight, told me to pack a bag for two days, he’d be at my house in half an hour, and I should come out and meet him. He’s my boss–as in, I work for him. Also, I love him. Which isn’t kosher, exactly, but it’s a temporary job. And a temporary love.
It’s October, and I can’t figure out what to pack, so I leaf through the fashion magazines my roommate keeps stacked on our coffee table. The glossy models counsel me to be both realistic and idealistic. Dress for the job you want, not the job you have, one advises me. On the next page they tell me to rein myself in, to dress for the body I have, not the body I want. I have neither the job I want nor the body I’d like, so I take both pieces of wisdom and decide to dress for the weather I want, not the weather I have.
I pack summer clothes and put on a tank top and a striped skirt. No jacket. I leave a note on the table for my roommate and go downstairs to wait for Daryl. On the street, the wind blows my skirt up, causing a pack of drunken boys driving by to wolf whistle at me. My vain optimism has (again) left me exposed and shivering. I remind myself of those other sage pieces of advice, the kind that people carve into driftwood and hang on their walls, to dance like nobody’s watching, and love like I’ve never been hurt. I decide that what I’m doing is brave. I am dressing like I’ve never been cold.
Thankfully, Daryl pulls up the next minute, rolling down the window of his shiny sedan and telling me to get in because I look freezing.
I throw my bag in the backseat and turn the heat up full blast.
On our way out of the city, we hit a red light beneath the underpass for I-90. Overhead, the highways are a rush of noise, a river of lights. This late at night, the headlights look less like the eyes of predators and more like the beams from a lighthouse, calling the ships home.
The city is dimly lit, always, even in the middle of the day, even in the middle of the night. A man walks slowly along the length of stopped cars. Over his shoulder is a rod the length of a vaulting pole, which he carries like a runaway child might carry his rucksack. Bags of pink and blue cotton candy dangle from the pole, spaced evenly along the length of it.
“You think anyone actually buys that stuff?” I ask Daryl.
“What I want to know is, where’s this guy getting cotton candy?” he says.
“Like, is it organically sourced?” I say, cracking myself up.
Daryl doesn’t laugh. “Yes,” he says, turning to stare at me. His eyes are so blue I feel like drowning. “Exactly.”
I can’t decide whether to laugh or match his stare, so I compromise and choke a little on the spit gathering under my tongue.
How could I not fall in love with a man who does that to me?
The first time I met Daryl, he swept me off my feet.
I mean, he picked me up.
It’s not an easy thing to do–men hardly ever try. I’m 5’11” and I have the wingspan of a sandhill crane. Which is six feet and some change, if you’re wondering.
I was standing in the middle of the office–Daryl’s office–and I’d gotten myself stuck. What I mean is, I couldn’t move. And not for any good reason, like quicksand, or a net trap, or anything. It was my first day on the job and my first month being single and I was in the middle of the plush green carpet, in the waiting area of the law office, about a foot from the gleaming wood desk where I would be answering phones and greeting clients, and my legs had stopped working of their own accord. I couldn’t move at all.
Daryl swooped in, like some oversize bird himself, and plucked me up, right off the carpet. He twirled me around and I felt the world grow larger and larger.
“Welcome to the firm,” he said, and his voice was like milk warmed on the stove. Creamy. Sweet.
I swayed on the new spot he’d placed me in and felt laughter bubble up in me.
But this wasn’t the moment I fell in love with Daryl.
I fell in love with Daryl because he brought me pie in the middle of the night when I couldn’t sleep.
It was rhubarb, which, as everyone knows, is the best kind of pie.
I would have fallen in love with him even if he’d brought me a terrible kind of pie, though–like pecan. Or mincemeat.
Because he took me to see his friend’s bluegrass band, and when I asked if people were going to dance, he took my beer away from me and led me up to the stage, where we danced alone to a cover of an old Bob Dylan song on dark carpet with ground-in popcorn kernels and an inexplicable disco ball twirled above our heads.
I fell in love with Daryl, because when he found me trying to make his bed, nearly in tears because the blankets wouldn’t fit right, he didn’t say anything, just took the blankets away from me and said, let’s sit down for a minute.
He put his arms around me and held me while I cried, there on his imperfectly made bed, at six in the morning.
My ex-boyfriend, Tony, once told me that my emotions were like a badly trained St. Bernard: too messy, too slobbery, and too big for their own good. He thought this was quite a clever and poetic thing to say.
You can see why he’s an ex.
At the airport, Daryl walks quickly and with purpose to our gate. I keep asking him where we’re going, and he keeps grinning at me like a little kid.
I find this unbearably endearing.
The gate says Kalamazoo, MI, but there’s no one there. Daryl pulls me forward. “Hurry,” he says.
The door to the jetway is open for some reason, and we can see the plane outside, so we board ourselves.
The plane is tiny, a little toy of a thing, with two seats on each side of the aisle and no more than eight rows. There’s a man in a suit dozing against one of the windows and a flight attendant who smiles cheerily at us.
“You just made it!” she says. “Sit down, sit down. It doesn’t matter where.”
I seatbelt myself in and press my face to the window and then we’re airborne. Below us, the dim city fades into dim suburbia fades into dim nothingness. I glance over at Daryl. He’s reading–he’s always reading–and tonight he has a book called, mysteriously, Sex After Fascism. Stalin is featured on the cover.
In many ways, I know I’m a cliché. The secretary and her lawyer boss. A cliché, or a porno flick. But I also know something that Daryl doesn’t. That I’m falling in love, not with him, but with my own life. There is so much possibility in the world. This is a temporary job and a temporary love and my hands are on the walls of my world and I am pushing outwards.
The plane begins to descend. It’s almost dawn now, and the sky is lightening. As we near the ground, the sandhill cranes come into view. Hundreds and hundreds of them, clustered together on the browning grass, so that it’s difficult to pick one out from the others. They blur together in a great red and brown cloud.
Daryl’s still reading. I glance over his shoulder: he’s on a chapter entitled “Toledo.” The word on the page makes my heart jolt, and I press my face back against the cool glass of the window, watching the cranes.
A year ago, I lived in a small suburb of Toledo, in western Ohio. That summer, Lake Erie bloomed with algae. It carried a toxin that couldn’t be killed. Boiling the water only made it stronger, more concentrated. We were advised not to use any water at all and all the restaurants and shops shut down for the summer.
I used the water anyway.
The day they announced that the water was toxic and we shouldn’t touch it, Tony didn’t come home until past midnight.
I kept my phone next to me all night, though in my heart I knew he wouldn’t call. Tony was busy, he had work, he had friends, he didn’t need to check in and he didn’t need me to act like his mother. I let him tell me all of this each night and still, I’d made dinner: salmon and asparagus and rice, all cooked with the water, before I knew it was toxic.
I waited until ten, until the rice was hard and the asparagus was cold and the salmon was congealed, and then I shut my phone in the bathroom and went outside to eat by myself. There was no one else out; even the streetlamps seemed dimmer. I felt I might be the only person left in the world.
When I came back inside, Tony still wasn’t home. My phone watched me silently. I’d left the TV on, and the bleached blonde newscaster was telling the residents of Toledo to absolutely not use the water. Below her, the words “Water Warning!” flashed in yellow.
I filled a bowl with warm tap water and scrubbed down the whole apartment.
When Tony finally came home, I was already in bed, though I’d left all the lights on. I could hear him in the living room; there was a sharp thump! and he cursed and then he was in the doorway of the bedroom.
“How was your day?” I said.
“Oh. I’m sorry,” I said. I was always sorry. “How come you’re home so late?”
“I was working,” he said, and his voice was surly.
“You could’ve called,” I said.
“Sorry,” he said. He was always sorry, too.
I rolled over onto my side. “I was worried,” I said. “I made dinner.”
“Kris, I’m under a lot of pressure at work right now. You have no idea. I’ve barely been sleeping.”
“I know,” I said. “I share a bed with you.”
“Fucking Sandy at work can’t get anything right. I have to do everything.”
“Oh,” I said.
“She’s such a cunt. And disgusting. Today she was talking about dieting and then she went out to lunch and brought back fries and I had to watch her stuff them all in her fat fucking mouth.”
I was curled up and I could feel the rolls of skin and fat on my own stomach.
“That’s a shitty thing to say,” I said.
“Well, she’s a shitty person.”
“I really wish you would’ve called.”
“Fine,” he said. “Fine. You win. I’m selfish and mean and a terrible person.”
“Well,” I said. “Not always.”
I tried to make it a joke, but we could both hear that it wasn’t. Tony went into the living room and slammed the bedroom door shut, turning off the light as he went so that I was alone and bathed in darkness.
I fingered the golden locket at my heart, a gift from Tony in our first year together. It was empty inside; I hadn’t put anything in there.
I got up and went into the bathroom, where I stuck my head under the faucet and drank directly from the tap. My hair and face dripping, I went back to bed.
We were together for many years, Tony and I.
For many years, I was barely alive.
We breathe the dead in, every day; they’re in the dust we kick up, the drifting pollen in the spring. But I was not truly dead. I hadn’t disappeared into smoke or memory, as the dead so politely do.
I was a ghost who no psychic called out for. Every day I willed myself into being.
That night I slept on the floor. I dreamed that a sedge of cranes came for me. I grew tinier and tinier, until I was a small bird, nestled on their backs, and I felt only relief as they lifted me from the earth.
The airport is miniscule; they pull a set of steps up to the plane and we disembark, right onto the tarmac. It’s dark still, but less so–the sky is beginning to hint at dawn.
Daryl takes my hand and leads me away from the airport, toward the fields we’d flown over. The sandhill cranes are there, hundreds and hundreds of them. They’re all shadow, all light. They seem not to have bodies.
“Oh,” I say, and it comes out all breath, no voice at all.
The cranes are dancing. One of them, in the center, larger than the rest, is leaping with abandon.
Daryl and I watch. He is smiling and I cannot breathe. “I’m going to go look over there,” he says, and points at a clump of oak trees gathered atop a small mound.
As Daryl walks away, the great crane approaches me. He comes right up, looks at me, and bows, bending his twig legs at the knee and dipping his head.
I bow back.
The flock surrounds me then, circling me like a dance, and the four closest to me spread out their wings and bend their legs and I lean back into them and spread my own arms: and then I’m up, lifted into the air as if I were a dancer myself. I lie back, into the bed made for me by these four wings. Their feathers are greasy and coarse against my bare skin, and I can feel the trembling tension in each wing.
The biggest crane, the one who’d bowed to me, who I now think of as the leader of the cranes, is outside the circle. He’s bouncing, leaping straight up, jumping higher each time: first five feet, now ten, now twenty feet in the air. The cranes holding me are trembling more violently, their wings twitching so quickly I can feel the bones within them, and the motion gets faster and faster until I can’t feel the bones at all, as if the wings were an engine vibrating beneath me. The leader calls out suddenly, a great whistling chirrup. The whole flock answers back as one, their voices coming from all around me, and then we’re up, we’re in the air, we’re flying.
The cranes remain in their circle formation as we rise, and the four supporting me stay close together, their wings beating smoothly as one. The motion is no longer jerky or tense; it’s as though I were lying on a comforter stretched tight in the air, rippling gently up and down in the breeze.
I glance back at the ground, but there’s a circle of cranes below me, and I can’t see Daryl at all.
We fly in this way until the sky evens out into a clear perfect blue. Below us, the scrubby brush turns to rippling water, which becomes a huge sheet of lake, still and dark. The wind is sharp and cold. My skin prickles. There’s a whispering in my ears, the sound of something, some voice–but the cranes are silent.
Please come home. Please come home.
The wings supporting me grow more fitful in their movements and then my feet tilt downwards and we’re headed towards the earth. We land on an island–a sandbar, really, though it’s big enough to fit maybe fifty people.
The cranes set me down gently. The sand is cool and damp, clumping between my toes.
On the other side of the island, perhaps thirty yards from me, is a little girl, wearing a pale sundress. I tug at my own skirt. I want to call out to her, to ask her if her skin has goosepimples like mine. I don’t. I watch her, and she watches me, but we don’t wave and we don’t move. The cranes are making a ruckus overhead.
Suddenly, the cranes are all above the girl. They circle her: once, twice, three times, and then, as I watch, the child turns grayer and grayer. Her skin turns grainy and the grains soften into a powdery dust, and then, for just a moment, she holds her form: she is a child-shaped sand sculpture. And then she crumbles. The dust settles into a pile, some of it skimmed gently off the top and carried away by the breeze.
I look around the island and I see that there are dust piles everywhere. The whole island is dust.
The cranes are whistling and calling and chirruping and they are rising over me and I realize suddenly what they mean to do to me.
And now: I hear in the winds, the sound again. It’s not the whining call of other ghosts, but my own voice, or God’s voice, or my mother’s voice–is there any difference?
The leader of the cranes approaches me. The flock is still rising overhead, and I know that at his signal they will begin to circle.
Three times and you’re out.
The great bird raises his beak. It’s sharp, I can see that now. He lowers it until it’s even with the locket at my throat.
The cranes above me begin a slow circle. Once around.
My neck feels heavy, as though it’s being pulled into the ground by the weight of my necklace, as though someone had hooked a rope around me and tugged with all their might.
The cranes begin their second circle. They’re calling to each other.
Over their cries, over the sharp hissing of their beating wings, I hear the voice again.
Come home to the body you live in, the skin that stretches for you, the bones that hold you, the joints that bend for you, the blood that flows for you–for you. All of this is for you.
The birds don’t react. I don’t think they can hear it.
And then I get it.
I pry open the locket and a flood of water, thick with algae and scum rushes out, splashing against my bare legs, my feet.
The leader of the cranes lets out a sharp cry and then he opens his beak wide. I unfasten the golden chain and drop it into his beak.
He swallows it whole.
The flock lands, chattering. The leader of the cranes whistles and then nods to me.
I climb onto his back, fitting myself between the joints of his wings, and he carries me back to the field, flanked by the rest of the cranes.
The flight back is bumpier; the crane’s sharp-feathered wings graze my legs with every beat, and I can feel the scratches forming along my calves. From the air I see Daryl, tiny, pint-sized, looking up, looking for me. We glide downwards, and Daryl grows larger and larger, until he’s human-sized again. I tumble onto the grass and stretch my arms up, like a triumphant gymnast. I am human-sized, too.
The crane bows to me and then bounds off to his brethren, stiff-legged and proud.
Daryl has moved to a picnic table nearby. I join him.
See the fog that stutters from the clouds? That is for you. This table is for you, the feel of lacquered wood beneath your fingertips–that is for you. And the ground is for you, the earth soft with rain, and the mud, and the flying birds, dipping in and out of the sky, between the patches of fog–these are all for you.
Daryl is saying something, but I can’t hear him. His voice rumbles in my ears like the warming engines of an airplane, and above us, the cranes are flying, not in circles, but in a great dark sheet of wings and legs and beaks. They grow tinier and tinier, until they are just a black spot in the sky, and then they are gone.