Joyland

New York |

Letting Snails Go

by Nora Lange

edited by Amy Shearn


Birdy got busted after less than a day back upstate. Busted by Margaret in front of Sunfrost Farms grocery store collecting a kitten from a shoebox that read: I couldn’t feed them. They’re always hungry. Margaret was visibly discontent, twisting her gingham button-down shirt with her ring finger, and demanding to know why she hadn’t heard Birdy was back in in town. She didn’t like being out of the loop: Had Birdy decided to finally join the real world on Facebook? Had she contacted Darlene? She’d better be attending their twentieth high school reunion. Darlene would require an answer about her attendance.

“You know how Darlene can be,” Margaret warned.

***

It was growing dark. The rain splashed against the moving cars. It seemed each summer became rainier upstate and though the region knew bears and experienced snowy winters, people had difficulty with the increasingly heavy rain. Birdy sat dressed for her high school reunion in the yard underneath the palapa her father had built after seeing an advertisement in a travel magazine for the Bahamas. She watched the cars drive poorly in the rain, sipping on a bent can of Miller Lite (all her father had), clipping at her split ends with a pair of dull scissors. She got buzzed and tightly braided her hair. Not a loose side braid like she wore in high school, but a tight braid, a corseted crown of hair that snaked around the circumference of her skull, stretching out the skin on her forehead like a map. Wearing her hair this way made her feel awake and fresh in her body, like being submerged in water, like getting a splinter.

Her father was standing at the kitchen counter reading obituaries. It was his evening ritual, crack a Miller Lite, decide from a stack of boxed meals which meal appealed most and read the obits. Everything was as it had been since she’d last been there to see him. The dishwasher was broken. The clocks were set to the wrong hour. The fridge was empty save for a few crusty hot dog condiments. Her bedroom was still being used to store damp furniture and moldy photo albums, all of which were the result of the ghost: A seven-year-old boy who’d drowned in the eighties, everyone’s least favorite decade. The ghost boy apparently lived in the laundry room and had issues with water, which was why the ghost liked to make trouble with the pipes, because of his water issues.

After her run-in with Margaret at Sunfrost, Birdy thought about calling up Darlene, but the two of them hadn’t spoken in over twenty years. Darlene transferred to their Catholic high school from her boarding school after she’d been caught selling her parents’ uppers and credit cards. She was a force, Darlene. She demanded unwavering loyalty. She regularly listed the characteristics about each girl in the group she found to be intolerable, which could take hours. Trouble began when Birdy got ballsy. Sophomore year in front of the girl group a fed-up Birdy told Darlene her look was outdated. (She could have just called her a bitch.) It was time Darlene update her look, put a gun to her head, pull the trigger, and call the new look: Jackson Pollack Visits Sarasota for the First Time. Certainly that would wow people, not to mention you’d be worth more millions, Birdy had said to the group of girls, formerly known as her friends.

Birdy had chosen Sarasota for its promise of an eternal ocean, the intoxicating smell of the sea, access to unlimited air conditioning, and because that’s where her mother had met her fourth husband, a jewel of a man, a retired real estate agent known for his protruding gut and his direct, no-nonsense sense of humor. (She’d always thought real estate agents dealt in real estate for life.)

Birdy’s time in the group had been short, but she’d managed to make a few of Darlene’s exclusive slumber parties where she saw things, like how the rich lived, and experienced things, like her relationship with Margaret shifting. Once, outside on her expansive terrace Darlene had demanded protection against the draft, a shawl, a coat, something, rubbing her arms to indicate her pressing need. Birdy offered to run inside and grab her a coat. In the back of Darlene’s walk-in closet she found many coats, and Margaret stripped down to her underpants, her hand moving over her panty-covered vagina, her head strained back like a mare.

“Please,” Margaret had said.

Birdy assured her that she would not say anything to Darlene. And said there was no shame in masturbating, though Birdy knew that wasn’t accurate. People delighted in shaming other people, especially when it came to pleasure, especially women and pleasure, especially in high school. Though, as Birdy would later find on reaching adulthood, that wasn’t accurate either. Shaming women and their pleasure would go on indefinitely. Birdy’s father had given her a bumper sticker for her eighteenth birthday: Guilt is the gift that keeps on giving. The sentiment had a way of resonating as the years passed.

In the wet high school parking lot Birdy ran into her ex, JP, short for John Paul, the Catholic school jokes eternal, eternally un-amusing. His red shoelaces were untied, now all she’d think about for the rest of the night was when and where JP would trip over his soaked red shoelaces. He smiled, said hi, and asked her if she was still working in the city as a puppeteer. She was still working as a puppeteer, as long as her projects remained inspirational. A string of Yelpers had recently taken issue with what they called her dark morbid themes, insisting puppetry was for children’s birthday parties, and the occasional bachelor and bachelorette party. The things bachelors and bachelorettes asked Birdy to do with her puppets had her later burning them in effigy. (She would not share this information with the Yelpers who’d simply needed to be assured of their rightness. She needed to stay in business. The city was expensive.)

Birdy’s latest project was modeled on Batesian mimicry; in order to survive, an otherwise harmless organism must learn how to mimic a noxious predator. She told JP she’d been stuck developing a major combat scene set to take place between the two central characters, both female. It wasn’t combat, exactly, since neither would have weapons traditionally associated with warfare. Instead they would need to rely on their ability to adapt behaviorally, mastering observation and emulation. One of the two characters was a wealthy brunette loosely based on Veronica from Archie Comics. The other was a blonde middle-class girl next-door type loosely based on Betty of the same comic book. Birdy was at a standstill about which of the two would win. Someone would need to suffer, to perish. She revised that sentiment—much too dark, she noted. Earlier that evening she’d asked her father what she should do about the ending and the toilet started running. The ghost, her father explained.


***

It was packed and discernibly muggy inside the auditorium. Their high school wasn’t known to splurge, but there was an actual deejay deejaying instead of some high sprite swiveling his eyes around, lip singing along to Greatest Hits of Dead People.

“JP! Birdy!” Margaret called out. Nothing slipped by Margaret.

At the punch bowl, Margaret asked Birdy if she’d ever hired an animal communicator, perhaps she should consider it since she’d decided to take on the responsibility of raising a kitten that would eventually become a cat, etc. Another woman at the reunion commented that the proper term was animal psychic, leading to a debate about whether a psychic only looked to, or toward the future, and Margaret insisting that in order to predict, look toward, or to the future one must also consider the past.

Ladling boozy cherry punch into plastic cups, Margaret, and the other woman, went on to discuss how successful women resented being seen as male clones, and whether or not Birdy should remain childless or sneak in children before menopause in addition to the kitten she was now responsible for raising responsibly. Birdy politely excused herself; she had to go change her tampon.

In the bathroom Birdy took from her pocket the two snails she’d taken from the parking lot. She put them inside of her mouth. She let them slide around, along the ridges of her teeth, her salivary glands, and underneath her tongue. She let them compete for space, because that’s what civilization was good at. She thought: Like, you, Snail, I too want to go unnoticed. I too need to learn to self-edit. Washing her hands, stopping before carelessly grabbing a paper towel from the dispenser, Birdy considered self-preservation. It was pouring outside. The window to her Honda left open in the parking lot. The fabric of the car seats would be soaked through by now. Cherry punch’s fault, she let her mind wander, trace and outline the Atlantic, let her mind go where it wanted, reach that previously uninhabitable mental space, dirty bathroom, dirty thoughts: People have fucked in here, in this very bathroom.

Birdy’s thoughts turned to her ex, JP. Her father had always been fond of him. Fond was her father’s word, and he used it often to describe the things he admired, which were few: low fat boxed microwavable meals, raw talent, coupons with worthy savings, general decency, like waiting your turn in line, and not running red lights in most circumstances. (Emergencies were emergencies.) Her father was a man of habits, something he’d learned from being in the army. Birdy came to see this part of him as a relief and not as stultifying, which was the characterization her mother, with her new husband in Florida, had perpetuated. Her father liked JP because he would empty the trash before leaving their house and no one had to ask him to do it. He did it without provocation. Her father still brought it up, all these years later.

Margaret entered the bathroom. Birdy was picking at the hairs on her arm. Margaret said something about Birdy’s morbid tendencies, and how she had the name of a good therapist. Margaret, like Darlene, was all for a show. But Margaret could be kinder. She strapped kindness on like dynamite even if there were occasions when it didn’t fit. And unlike Darlene, Margaret was not rich. Margaret was like Birdy. She was from the woods. JP was also from the woods. Darlene then entered the space like punctuation, shiny silver nails to parallel her silver patent-leather shoes, a giant button on her chest indicating her principal role on the welcoming committee. Birdy took the two snails out of her mouth and put them on the bathroom counter.

“Jesus fucking Christ, Birdy!” Darlene screamed, hitting the counter with her fists. Birdy safely moved the snails to the linoleum floor.

Margaret and Darlene got over it when they saw themselves. They stared at their sculpted reflections in the mirror, and the other’s, and in tandem applied lip-gloss: top lip, bottom lip, blot, blot. It was like they remembered nothing about their general disdain for each other, or for anyone else. Birdy admired them. Whether they didn’t remember the details, or whether they remembered them precisely, it wasn’t important. They got by, moved forward and looked good doing it. Their makeup sufficiently touched-up, Margaret and Darlene agreed it was time to go top off their refreshments. The reunion would soon run out of booze. The drinking rules were different upstate, and the weather being what it was meant people would be getting loose. Darlene knew the drill. She’d written the night’s program herself, and more guests were sure to arrive, especially those that hadn’t RSVP’d. Not to mention the economy was tanking.

Birdy eyed the sentiments etched on the bathroom stalls: Jenn loves John and John loves Jenn 4-reel & 4-eva!!! to the more complex, I finally brought my Sharpie to school, but I have nothing to say. She came to realize she’d hand the two female leads in her puppetry project a stalemate. (Her best thinking happened in bathrooms.) Why not end on a figurative expression? She wanted to like more people, be like more people. She wanted to find all the babies of the world to be cute, but she didn’t find that to be the case. Some babies were flat out ugly. The wet seat in her Honda was her punishment. By now her father would be in the living room, covered up in a blanket, snoozing to a loud MSNBC program, several empty cans of beer by his side. Birdy pictured him getting to know the kitten she’d retrieved from the box, and the seven-year-old ghost boy living in the basement popped into her head. Would he be stuck there forever?

“Birdy? You there?” It was JP. His words hung there like articles drying on a clothesline.

“Maybe,” she said. “Sometimes.”

It didn’t take long before they found themselves sitting side by side on the cool bathroom floor. JP repositioned himself. He asked Birdy what she wanted. She said she wasn’t sure, but that she’d be sure to let him know when she was. He said: Let's see where this goes. Birdy knew that saying that was like saying nothing. It no longer bothered her. She thought back to a period in time when JP would say things like: Been missing you, been thinking of you, conveniently leaving out I. She asked if he was still married. He said No. She told him she wanted to watch him watch her touch herself without him touching himself, and if he couldn’t handle that then he should get out of the girl’s bathroom.

Birdy did a bit of shifting around too. She was trying out G-strings, but despite the hassle-free ads depicting fun-loving women holding margaritas jumping up and down on trampolines, they weren’t for her. JP drew closer. It wasn’t cloyingly transparent. Twenty years earlier his hands would have already been down her pants, but they were grown-ups now. It seemed he was capable of more. Mortality was different. Nothing could change the fact that death was nearer. Birdy was the one putting her father to bed, plugging in the nightlight so he could find his way in the dark. She chopped the wood for winter and brought it into the shed. She brushed his hair, which he’d let grow long. It was Birdy that put his hair in a pony for him. She pulled his socks on over his hammertoes, and tied his shoelaces since he couldn’t easily bend over.

Deadlocked in their high school bathroom, Birdy touched herself. JP watched her closely, sometimes his eyes watered, which she wanted to find endearing but that was expecting too much from the situation. They held eye contact and smiled. She asked him to squeeze her body parts. Away from the music and the crowded punch bowl, the two snails gradually advanced across the checkered linoleum. The smaller of the two slowly inched forward, the other followed. Birdy and JP took their time sitting there. If they needed more time, they’d pull the fire alarm. Is this reality? The question was asked but by who was unknown.

“How are you?” he asked.

“I’m learning,” Birdy answered.