1. The Flying Woman in Profile
The flying woman is just a little bit glamorous. I don't know if the flying came before the glamour or vice versa, but her beauty is airy, and her flying has style. In this picture, she wears her hair long and wavy. Her nose flips up at the end, like a ski jump, and her skin is ruddy from the wind. She's a more beautiful woman than I am. I don't mind.
If the image were a daguerreotype, she would seem mysterious. If it were a bust, she would seem noble. If it were a holy card, she would be a saint. But the image is a photograph on my wall, and when people see it, they all say, Who is that? She looks so far away.
2. The Flying Woman in Flight
The flying woman didn't fly above the clouds. "It's cold up there," she'd say, "and there's not enough air." She skimmed the roofs and treetops. Her legs dangled behind her, and she wore her wheelchair strapped to her back. "It's hard work," she'd say. "It takes focus." But she needed to fly every day. Otherwise, she had trouble falling asleep.
She used to solve this problem by taking trips. She strapped on her wheelchair and a backpack and flew to a new town every day, then camped there for the night. She covered a lot of ground—she made it to Ohio and back—but she got lonely. To combat this, she decided to start from the same place every day, and gave herself projects. She sat on top of every water tower in the tri-county area. She saw the top of every courthouse. She had been very close to balancing on top of every car dealership flagpole, wrapping herself in the massive American flags, and sinking slowly to the ground.
Sometimes the flying woman invited me over to get drunk. We sipped beer and sparkling wine and talked about our jobs. The flying woman was a supermarket checkout girl. I worked at a beauty salon. Then the flying woman would announce that she felt airy. She'd burp, and suddenly she'd rise an inch off the couch. She'd burp again, and she'd rise a foot. We'd put music on, and soon she'd be burping, spinning, floating in the air as I danced on the ground. I got rug burns on my feet; she got a headache from bumping her head on the ceiling.
At that point, we'd decide to go to bed, and she'd ask me to sleep over, to hold her down for the night. I slept with her coiled in my arms, this close to happy. When her body floated up, I held her closer, and dreamt of the moment when I would sit up and cover her lips with my own.
3. The Flying Woman in High School
When the flying woman went to high school, she did not know she could fly. She did not know many things about herself. But she did have desires, nagging fantasies that seemed as impossible as marrying a European prince or traveling back in time. Especially during liturgy, she used to look up at the ceiling and wish to float up there, right in front of everyone, like the host the priest held above his head. And then, one day, she did.
The entire auditorium gasped as the flying woman, then more of a flying girl, rose towards the ceiling. When she reached the top, she panicked. She wanted to fall, like things were supposed to. With that simple shift, the moment broke; she plummeted and crashed on the seats below. Something in her body broke, and she passed out from the pain.
When she returned to school in a wheelchair, no one could decide: had it been a miracle, or a sin? The priests, sent from around the world to examine her, treated her with wonder and condescension. For a short time, letters poured in, asking would she pray for peace, speak to angels, send a scrap of her clothes? Her classmates shunned her. Eventually, the priests determined that her flight had been a miracle of faith, but, like Peter, who first walked on water only to sink into the sea, she had failed to believe.
Privately, they warned her never to try that sort of thing again, at least not within the house of God.
4. The Flying Woman in Love
One day, I went to the flying woman's house for dinner and found her talking to a man. He wore bicycling gear. He left as soon as I arrived. The flying woman told me nothing about him, and we ate our spaghetti in peace. Then, the next day, after work, she told me she was in love.
She had met the bicyclist as he was cresting a hill on his bike, right as she was flying over it. She had surprised him so badly he fell over. They laughed about it for a long time, and the bicyclist invited her out for a drink. They discovered that they shared a love of gin and tonics, shark movies, and historical fiction set in the Renaissance. They both hated Catholicism, and cars.
I said that the bicyclist sounded pretty nice. For a stranger.
I saw less of the flying woman after that. The bicyclist could do many flying-friendly activities, it turned out. He could hang glide with her. Mountain climb. Skydive. She could follow him for hours on his bike rides, like some sort of private superhero, warning when hills, children, or cars approached. After a day of perfect compatibility, they would go back and drink gin and tonics, watch shark movies, or read historical fiction set in the Renaissance. At night, they'd have sweaty, passionate sex. I knew the last part was true, anyway, because I went by her apartment one night, as a surprise, and heard moans through the door. My face flushed with shame, and I left without knocking.
I'm sure afterwards they fell asleep in each other's arms, no longings unfulfilled, no one floating away, or left behind.
One day, the flying woman called me, sobbing. He had gone, just up and left a note saying he had decided to bike across the country. He had promised to return, but he didn't say when, if ever. I held her, let her wipe her nose on my shirt, and hoped he'd find another flying woman. Or get hit by a truck.
5. The Flying Girl in Peril
After the accident at school, the flying girl kept flying, despite the priests' warnings. More than once her mother found her sprawled on the floor, a bump on her head from having shot up to the ceiling too fast. She would punish the flying girl, call her prideful, but the flying girl never gave up. Soon she could do a lap around the top of her room. Then two. Then ten. Then a hundred. And then—she went outside.
In those days, she didn't have her compact chair, just a standard folding one that was too big to carry on her back, so she never went far. But she maintained a small patrol route around our town. She even gave herself a superhero name. She refused to tell me what it was, but I saw the shirt she wore. She had written a huge "A" on it with permanent marker. I asked her if it was for "Angel," and she laughed. Hard.
I was the first, and last, person the flying girl ever saved. For me, it started in church. The saints in stained glass windows talked to me. Not about God. They wanted candy. Something sweet, they'd say, something small. Every week, they kept it up, begging me for Hershey's, Reese's, M&Ms.
They told me about the other girls who had brought them cakes, chickens, paintings, and even armies. They never called me the right name, just kept saying, Please, Regina, Joanie, Catherine, Ann. Kit-Kat, Milky Way, Mars. Something blest. King Size bag of something good.
Finally, on All Saints Day, I gave in. Before the first Mass, I placed my pillowcase full of Halloween candy at the feet of a small, unpainted statue of Mary that stood beneath the stained-glass windows. I think the saints had been expecting this (they kept reminding me about Halloween), but they acted completely surprised, like a small child's parents opening a gift they had helped pick out. They sang my praises during the entire service, blazing sunlight even as, outside, it rained. I thought I was free. Then came their reward.
They wanted to teach me to fly. But nothing they taught me made any sense. They whispered about teenagers and jumping fish and a girl who couldn't walk. I tried to fight it, but the whispers won.
One night, they got me to climb to the top of our town's parking garage. It was winter, and I had to clamber up drifts of snow to get to the edge. Now, they said. I jumped.
For a minute, I swear, I hovered. That's why she saw me. Why she had time. The flying girl rocketed towards me, screaming, and caught me just before I hit the ground. The impact shattered her wrist, and she dropped me. I fell with a thud, and she crumpled into a ball beside me, crying. When my heart stopped pounding, I looked over and saw her shirt with the "A," her cape. I picked her up and carried her to the hospital. We trudged through the empty streets in the wee hours, the wind so cold our tears burned our faces, and in that silence we became lifelong friends.
I never heard the saints again. But sometimes, the flying woman told me she heard whispers urging her, "Higher. Higher." I like to think I was the voice that whispered, "Come back."
6. The Flying Woman in Transit
Last fall, the flying woman decided to migrate. I offered to come with her. I had taken up cycling during the bicyclist incident and had gotten pretty good. We bought matching bicycle clothes (she had discovered they were very aerodynamic) and set off for Miami, or some equally warm place with a preponderance of grocery stores and hair salons. We figured it was three weeks down to Florida, maybe longer if we decided to take breaks from traveling. We took back roads, and the flying woman flew high enough overhead to see around the next bend, but low enough to shout down to me, "Look at those cows!" or "What a pretty house!" Most of the stuff was too far away for me to see; two minutes later I'd spot a cluster of cows or a white and yellow farmhouse and yell back, "Oh, yeah!"
We took turns carrying the wheelchair, which was a little heavier than usual because we had fitted it with off-road tires for camping. At night we roasted cheap hot dogs and talked about old memories, small things we had left behind. Now that we were on the road, we felt like we had stepped out of our lives and finally become important.
We made it all the way down to Savannah this way. We thought about staying there until one of the locals told us sometimes they got snow. We were disappointed, but we decided to celebrate getting so far south. We got a motel on the edge of town and bought two bottles of cheap champagne. We had no music, so we sang, and the flying woman bounced against the ceiling. I held her hands and pulled her around the room, smiling up at her in drunken bliss.
Eventually, she asked me to pull her down, and after some jumping, I grabbed her leg and got her onto the bed. My nose brushed her cheek. She turned to look at me, and before I could think I kissed her. Her mouth was warm and wet. It tasted like bubbles. She pulled me on top of herself to keep from drifting. We kissed again. I felt her body rising beneath mine, in danger any moment of floating away.
We got our shirts off without incident, and with practiced hands unhooked each other's bras. I took her nipple in my mouth and felt her rise slightly, press her skin to mine. I grinned at her with unabashed happiness, and she pulled my mouth back to hers.
Even with her hands hooked behind the headboard, getting our pants off was a bit more of a challenge. We giggled raucously as I pulled jeans and panties off of her thin, tiny legs, which were already floating towards the stucco ceiling. I pressed my palm against her hip and kept her centered. I worked my way slowly, made her sigh in the ways I'd always imagined while tracing the contours of my own body. I traced the soft crevices of her lips, pressed my tongue into the deep, wet center. I heard her moan, and her whole body pushed against my grip. I kept my hand steady, held her back. Then she cried out, deep and unrestrained, and I felt her sink. I lifted my head and kissed her. She held me and whispered over and over, thank you thank you, oh god, you saved me.
7. The Flying Woman in Memory
I made a lot of plans that night, or at least I started to before I passed out. But when I woke in the morning, she was gone. I didn't believe it at first. I lay in bed, smiling, waiting for her to come back with breakfast, a map, a car, a home, anything, as the hours wore on. Finally I went to the front desk, and they told me she had checked out hours ago, paid our bill. I must have looked the way I felt, because the clerk touched my hand and asked if I was okay. I rode my bike in circles all day, asking about a woman who could fly, or perhaps one in a wheelchair, but no one had seen her. I stayed in the motel till my money ran out, but she never came back.
I don't know what happened. Maybe she was ashamed. Maybe she met the bicyclist at the Waffle House next door, on his way back to find her. Maybe migration is a solitary thing. I still live in Savannah. I still cut hair. Now I watch the sky. And sometimes I even go to church, and pray for that elusive miracle, not just the touch of lovers, but love.