My assistant Erin plies the hideous reptilian skin of my loathsome wings with a special mix of lanolin, Vaseline and coconut oil—the homeopath’s latest concoction mixed with some eczema treatment recommendations from a famous dermatologist—and the woman in the black turtle neck does my face make-up for this latest talk-show appearance. I forget which talk-show—there have been so many in this year of discovery and wealth and revulsion. Then I spot the mug—hot lemon water, no dehydrating coffee for me, please—on the desk. The CBS logo. I keep hours with no regard to circadian rhythm, daylight, conventional clocks, so I flick my phone on to see the appointment. The Morning Show. Pleasantry. Contentment. Mild bawdiness. They’ll light me for glory and surprise, hiding the way the wings look in close-up, that crusty shameful skin that I stopped examining months ago.
“Susan, they look magnificent. Magnificent. They have the lighting perfect for you and when you unfurl, well…” Erin says.
“Ratings through the roof,” I say.
“No. Come on. Just you wait,” Erin says again, reaching back into the jar of goop and scooping another dollop onto her fingers. Erin and this kind woman doing the make-up—they would have avoided the choice. Each would have told the figure in the green room to leave that night from a year ago. But who knows? Every culture has the stories. Ovid’s horrible punishments, the Pixiu of China, the Aida Kandicha of North Africa, all myths and legends, stories of creatures and transformations no one has seen, only recounted as with a dream that gets retold until it becomes a shared memory and, in my case, unfortunately, one that I market.
“Yes. Sell, sell, sell,” I say as the make-up woman folds up the bib and sets it on the counter. We plan to write a book. All these appearances will cultivate an audience. And before that my agent said we could find a movie deal. Meantime, I make paid inspirational appearances—I am the poster woman for “Anything is possible.” Endorsements and a short gig with a reality show with tie-ins on advertising: Macbook, Hanes, Farmers Insurance and a bunch of others.
Erin hums to deflect my sarcasm and draws her fingers across the skin of my wings. I can’t feel it, or I rather I think I can’t, but then when she does this, it reminds me of my mother brushing out my hair at night, a methodical, comforting ritual I only felt in the emotional not tactile sense of feel, except when that gentle tug would work against my follicles and my scalp got that sensation a little on this side of pain. Endorphins. That was the last touch I remember from her before my father left us and she became brittle like the skins on my wings. I had dry hair.
I have dry hair. That is nothing compared to the wings. Last night I crawled to my fire escape on the Upper West Side so I could see the lake at Central Park, the subtle movement on its surface, the way the streetlights and buildings get reflected there. I did not turn my apartment light on. Then I unfurled. I could hear the crackly skin. It’s not like it once was. Not at all. I will say nothing about this on the show.
On camera they have me on a stool as we have requested, not the usual couch chairs for guests, and they will zoom in on my face and torso, my turquoise Givenchy blouse, exhibiting glamorous chicness. When they pan out I will get the cue. Erin has carefully stitched open the seams in the back, the horned tips of the wing bones poke out and they will slide through and open like sails and the audience will swoon. I will bow or dance in a circle—this part at least I can improvise. Then questions from the audience, the host will tease about the book, and cut to the next segment. The camera will not linger or focus on the wings because they are hideous. This routine with slight variance—how many times have I done it? But I worry about the seams. And this is a new blouse. It looks gorgeous with my eyes and skin, distracts from the thinness of my hair, but if the wings do not open the right way—there’s one chance for it to happen.
And now she’s smiling, her lustrous hair and open face turning to me.
“Do you want me to?” I ask.
The audience stands up, cheers, roars.
“Don’t you get tired of this?” she asks, then turns back to them.
“Oh, never, I never tire of it,” I say. I bow. The wings spread. The audience roars in approval.
I am awake, sitting again on the fire escape in my bathrobe, my wings furled, the lake in the park aglow with the lights of buildings. Its surface is a broken mirror once the breeze picks up. Buildings lose their shape. The shards and circles of light almost look alive. I hear the ping of my phone through the open window and see that it is Erin. Tomorrow I have a plane ride, ironically, to Hollywood and there I will talk business about the documentary, the possible movie deals, the one where I could be played by Charlize Theron and CGI and a green screen. We have not decided how we—how I—will talk about the wings, and the choice—the world behind the curtain, that night the shadow entered the green room where I was left alone—how I lacked the precise ear for irony so many other burgeoning comedians had. The shadow hissed the joke even I, as a comedian, misunderstood. “Don’t you want fame? The power to fly more than swim? To soar more than to hide? To escape this life that is like breathing with gills?”
Irony is different on stage from what it is in life, different in conversation and friendship and family and romance from how it forms for an audience. And I chose the wings. I swore at the time it was a dream, and I did what they say to do, pinch myself. I pinched hard, bruising my forearm. And then, with the yoga flexibility, that late-in-life youth-regaining decision I was so proud for having made, I felt it with my fingertips—the first protuberance of the bones straining my skin. Yet I had to go on stage and do my set. Ignoring the change is a performer’s trick—ignoring anything that happens before and after you hit the stage. But I was not meant for comedy or even acting, what I hoped to come of it all someday. Besides, the wings took over. All the scriptwriters and producers since the choice. I’m famous, despite the inspirational speeches, for my freakishness. Without it, no inspiration to anyone.
I go from crouching to kneeling and then relax back on my haunches, the best way to balance if I decide to let the wings stretch a little, which might be good, though a lot of attention if anyone sees in this city where anyone could see anything anywhere, where there is a strangely attentive anonymity. I curl my toes into the spaces between the iron bars of the fire escape landing. Down on the sidewalk near the lake, now and then through the trees, I see a woman jogging with a light fastened to her green ballcap, the ray of it bouncing in rhythm to her stride. She is confident and free in this iteration of New York, safe and protected, lower crime, greater exposure. I’m jealous of her, though who knows what else she faces? She has no visible hideousness, but there is any possible kind of hideousness in the rest of her life. Still, she jogs like she is happy, at least in that moment, like she is light, free.
I feel the breeze of night. I will catch a chill if I stay out on my solemn perch, this Spartan fire escape, a New York stamp of urban character, much longer. I long for that moment when the wings started growing, the sting of it, like shin splints or the spikey growth pains I had in my knees in high school. After the time on stage I was confused, then exhausted. The wings grew that night as I slept, a night that felt like any other. They grew without pain. I never saw it happen, and for some reason I feel like if I could have seen them take shape, I would have answers I do not have, instead of that memory of the shadow offering me the choice back stage before I had to yuck up another pathetic audience. It’s why I do not sleep well. It’s not just the judgment of my mother who told me I would not amount to much at the rate I was going, who would criticize my body and then if I lost weight, my outfit, her teetering voice in my mind like grating music. Becoming famous would be my revenge. Only that night after the choice I woke face down, the wings flapping on their own, the hideousness visible in the reflection on the dark face of my alarm clock.
I shiver and pull my arms in, the way people do when they are chilled, some endocrine reaction that does little. Then I do something that makes me blush, though I’ve done it many times since the choice. I loosen the robe and pull the wings around me to stay warm, trying to ignore the dry, scaly, flaking feeling, disgust welling in me. I could go inside but staying out in the night breeze helps me breathe, not because of the wings, but because of the openness of the sky, the hiddenness of dark, and the night around me like a blanket.
But the wings get sore, the muscles in my back pulling in a way I can’t hold. Because the wings want more than this. They want to stretch and flap and send me into the night air. I flapped them once and took to the sky and they rattled with excitement. I felt the currents underneath, the air billowing in heat waves that only the wings sensed when the rest of the day they had been numb. When I flew I was terrified, and separate from the wings and their pleasure, the world shrinking into a thing distant, unrecognizable, itself frightening. I panicked and landed on the sill of my bathroom and pulled a fingernail out yanking the window down to let myself in. And I weighed myself on the scale because for once in my life I felt lighter than I had been. I feared hollow bones, many chambered hearts, the frenetic life of a bird, or the ugliness of a bat. And so, the wings became only a prop. And an excuse to not talk to my mother.
I pull down my robe to let my wings spread. I reach into the open window and shut off the light, turn over the phone. I can feel the air again—the waves. Currents. A language only I understand. I am no longer cold. The skin on the wings seems to shine, to gain flesh. I feel them daring me.
Then I see real movement on the face of the lake. A body rising, a swimmer taking shape. The outline of her body is familiar, a silhouette that echoes my own. The strokes that bring her from the depths are like the waltzing stride I have practiced since I was young to feign confidence. I know her. She is another night creature, but one who has kept all her secrets.
Joshua Wetjen is a high school English teacher living in Minneapolis and working in St. Paul. When not working or chasing his two children, he likes to practice jazz guitar and sample new restaurants with his wife. His work has appeared in Right Hand Pointing, Newfound and The Cleaver and Opossum.