Flyer

Flyer

Jennifer Porter

Maryanne, well, she was just, Maryanne, with her strawberry-blond hair and readily-burnt skin. Her brother created stunning sculptures that fetched high prices in Detroit art galleries. Maryanne couldn’t draw, let alone sculpt. She was soft and curvey—a bookkeeper at a landscape maintenance company. She wore khaki slacks, button-down oxfords and, in the winter, sturdy, weather-proof boots.

At one of her brother’s parties Maryanne was puzzling over the horsed-overs when she was approached by the Brazilian poet, Rafael. He had thick swirls of black hair and luminous dark eyes that always seemed ready to weep. When he spoke to someone, he took all of them in. He came to Detroit to live in one of those writer’s houses and though he could have any woman he wanted, he was always alone whenever Maryanne saw him.  

“How are you tonight, Maryanne?” Rafael said in his smooth electric voice that sent shivers all over her body.

“Oh, okay. How ‘bout you?”

 “I have been thinking all day about the pair of peregrine falcons that are nesting on the Fisher Building.” Rafael pointed toward the window. “You can see them from here with binoculars.”  

They walked to the window and stared at the Fisher Building. Maryanne liked its Art Deco elements: the forlorn faces and the large eagle sentries.

Rafael looked at her. “I’m sorry, I did not bring my binoculars to the party.” 

Maryanne shrugged. “How can they nest on such a steeply pitched roof?” 

He shook his head. “Lower. They’re nesting just several stories above ground. To the left of the door arch. See there,” he said, tapping against the window. “There is a box for them, but they don’t use it.” A platform jutted from the sill of an arched window. “Peregrine means wanderer,” he said. “I am a wanderer. Or pilgrim, as some would say. On a journey to recover my heart.”

Maryanne thought about Rafael’s heart and how she wanted to crawl inside it and live there, its smooth sides beating against her, caressing her with every life-affirming moment. But she stood there, her mouth hanging slightly open, working hard to find something, anything, to say to Rafael.

“Peregrine falcons are the fastest flying birds in the world, Maryanne. And you know what?”

She shook her head. 

“They mate for life.”

And Maryanne said, “Today, I had to credit Mrs. Johnson fifty dollars on her account because Earl weed-whacked her annuals.” 

Rafael stared wistfully at the Detroit skyline.

***

Most every night, Maryanne dreamed she was flying. She could peer down like a hawk as she coasted above the world. She felt free and light and often woke up with aching muscles in her arms and sweaty sheets beneath her. She wondered how she could know what the landscape looked like from a bird’s-eye view, how it felt very much as if she were flying over Venice or Paris or London or Detroit. Some days the dreams sustained her through the monotonous hours at her desk but other days, they depressed her to the point where she made mistakes, paying Detroit Edison the amount owed to Consumer’s Energy, for example, or billing Mrs. Smith for Mr. Jones fall clean-up. She never realized the mistakes until her boss stormed over to her desk and yelled.

It was on those days that Maryanne questioned the meaning of life. To be more specific: the meaning of her life. Was it some kind of nasty trick that her life was paying bills and sending invoices, watching Downton Abbey, and checking her Match.com account for potential connections with men that held no interest to her.  

She kept going to her brother’s dinner parties because there, there were the kind of people she was attracted to and if all she managed was to hang around on the periphery of their existence and appear to them as a floating specter in the corner of their eye then it was a good night. But there’s only so long a fairly bright woman can steadily move through a life that feels like swimming in a giant bowl of plain yogurt. When her dreams are the only times she feels truly alive and her waking hours are muted in the slack grays and browns of a snowless winter.

***

On the day before her thirty-fifth birthday, Maryanne rented a small cottage on the shore of Lake Superior and lay awake most of the night, listening to the waves crash against the pebbled beach. She tossed and turned and when she did sleep there was no relief in her dreams. She had felt for the longest time as if she were wandering aimlessly along the bottom of a deep gorge without a river running through it. Her mind was parched. The dark granite cliff walls that surrounded her allowed not a single drop of sunshine to reach her. There was no one to guide her out. No one to hold her hand. A thick blanket of snow had fallen upon her heart and soon her heart would freeze entirely then crack and shatter.

In the morning she drove to the Porcupine Mountains State Park then hiked to the wooden overlook built on the edge of the cliff overlooking the Lake of the Clouds. Maryanne thought the trees looked glorious in the autumnal blaze. Naturally, she was entirely alone: it was early morning, with a crisp chill to the air. She’d watched her breath all the long hike up the trail, telling her breath good-bye, this is it.

She climbed to the top rail of the fence-like barrier and … jumped. It was a straight shot down; she was whizzing past the rock mountain face. Well, not really a mountain like the Rockies, but a five-hundred foot drop anyway. She expected to splatter and be done with it.

Instead, Maryanne watched the film of her sorry life, that she very much expected to be in sepia (it was in full-color, HD, 3-D, surround sound), and about 2.5 seconds into the fall, she changed her mind. It was the disappointed look on her deceased father’s face that flashed before her that weakened her resolve. “You’re going to ruin the Porkies for us, kid?” he said and Maryanne remembered family vacations as a child, her father searching through the UP’s abandoned mining towns for those glass insulators they used to put on the top of telephone poles.

As soon as she regretted her decision she flung her arms out to the side at an instinctive forty-five degree angle (palms up) then shot straight forward, immediately suspending the fall. She zoomed a remarkable distance, and when her “energy” gave out, she pulled her feet in and crash-landed in a small clearing, somersaulting through the brush and forest litter. Not a single creature seemed to notice this remarkable and unusual occurrence in Maryanne’s life and so she took it upon herself to shout at the heavens until she collapsed, broken down by the angst that had propelled her to jump in the first place.

When her senses cleared, Maryanne wondered if it had been a dream. She could hear the wind whisper in the evergreen trees and see the pine needles bend in response. She could smell the organic matter of the woodlands and when she touched her face, she felt the gentle touch in her fingers and on her cheeks. She stood up and began picking the bits of leaves and needles from her hair and clothing. A bruise was forming on her right forearm and she remembered the rock she’d smacked against when landing. She poked the bruise and said, “Ouch.”

She was too scared to jump from the wooden overlook again to see if it were true. Plus, she wasn’t quite sure how to get back up there. She had left her phone with its handy GPS capability in the car. Maybe the flight had been an anomaly in her life or another cruel joke. Not that she believed God sat around playing pranks on his beloved. Encouraged by this thought of a benevolent higher power, she began walking around, searching for something to climb up and jump off of.  

She found a rather impressive boulder, surrounded by other not-as-impressive boulders that served as stepping stones to the highest point. She huffed and puffed her way to the top, catching her breath while appraising the situation. She was about twenty feet off the ground. If she jumped and could not soar, she would be seriously injured.

If Maryanne knew anything, it was that the realization of one’s dreams does not come without a cost.  

She jumped.

She soared, swinging her arms open at the same angle as before.

She tumbled again upon landing, laughing enough to fill her mouth with forest floor.

She soon found out that she couldn’t walk or run and then take off flying. When she did this, she remained earthbound. She needed to drop from a higher spot. She began climbing (painfully and awkwardly) the tallest pine tree (the needles scratching her), crawling to the middle of a nice sturdy branch. She looked out upon the Porcupine Mountains and lost her breath in the spectacular creation. She thought she must have been over one hundred feet in the air. What did she have to lose at this point? She crouched, bracing her heels against her bottom, counted to ten, sighed deeply, and dived.

Just like a flying squirrel she could glide. She rapidly learned to twist and turn to navigate back to the ground, with too many instances of close encounters of the treed kind. She would be black and blue, her clothing shredded, before night fell. She was surprised that whirring past the tree trunks seemed to occur in slow motion, her vision staying in time with her speed. She easily oriented herself to the lay of the land when she soared above it, as if she did have the eyes of a hawk.

It took a while before she thought to land on top of a tree and save herself the climb. This realization made her feel like a complete dummy but hey, at least, she made progress and got to the ranger’s station before it closed for the night and they locked the parking lot gates.

*** 

Maryanne flew secretly at night—jumping off water towers, cell towers, city buildings she could easily access—gliding as far as she could stretch the glide. She kept making mistakes, misjudging when to throw out her arms, when to put down her feet, how far she could go when she jumped from a certain height. She was always sore, scratched, injured. She thought she should fly barefoot then broke her pinkie toe, catching it on something hard and listening to it snap back. She halved a popsicle stick back at home and used it as a splint then wrapped the toe in first-aid tape. She took a week off then got restless.

Sometimes she felt discouraged; she was never going to get this soaring thing right. She started studying the masters of her craft: birds, in life and in books, on YouTube. Why did she have to be just a flying squirrel? she thought, comparing herself to the great flyers. 

She snuck onto the flat roof of one of the 11-story wings of the Fisher Building and watched the peregrine falcons, thinking about Rafael and his heart. Maryanne did not need binoculars anymore to see far away. She wanted to mate for life. She wondered if she’d ever have the courage to show Rafael that she could fly. 

Most every afternoon, she took a nap after work and woke up starving: craving a Cornish game hen or a squab or some other form of poultry that she’d thrown into the crock pot that morning. She started eating a lot of berries and snacking on sunflower seeds. She wanted to see Rafael. She’d been dreaming about him: delicious moist dreams that woke her with intense longing. 

She put together a flying outfit comprised of black yoga pants and top, with a snug-fitting black Lycra hoodie, and a pair of steampunk aviator goggles. She landed best in a simple pair of black ballet shoes; boots didn’t provide the flexibility she needed. Her feet often ended up cold and wet.

When Maryanne found an open rooftop door on the Renaissance Center, it became her favorite launch. Over time, she learned to manuever her body so as to soar directly over the Detroit River before landing on Belle Isle. Several times she crashed into the river and the swim to the Detroit side had been long and cold. Closer and closer she’d get to the water until the polluted river only grazed her chest. The rush of the wind against her face, the way her body tightened for the launch then eased during the glide, the smell of the river, the lights of the city, the sense of accomplishment she felt on a perfect landing, were addicting. After the soar, she’d walk across the MacArthur Bridge then take a bus back to her car.

Maryanne wondered why she could fly. How can you save someone when you have to climb the skyscraper first? She had to take the elevator like a regular person then get on the roof, all the while the victim would be screaming hysterically as he dangled from a thin thread of hope. Plus, she didn’t think she could catch someone mid-air, and there was no way she could stop a school bus full of children from dropping off a bridge.

Maybe flying was one of those things that existed for pure enjoyment. That’s why her father collected glass insulators—“For the fun of it, kid,” he’d say. Flying was fun. Her favorite dreams had been the ones in which she’d flown and now that she was actually flying, those dreams stopped coming. She loved soaring above the earth, the wind racing past her, her mind focused into precise consciousness so that she was sensually hyper-aware. It made her so horny.

*** 

It didn’t bother Maryanne to keep books all day because she could soar after work. She dyed her long hair raven-black then shaved the sides of her head. She bought coral pink knee-high leather boots with delicate laced details and she pierced her belly button. She got a tattoo across her entire back: wings. She started playing the guitar. After about four months, she showed up at one of her brother’s dinner parties and no one recognized her, not even her brother. When Weld announced who she was, the partygoers erupted in spontaneous clapping, surrounding her and begging for details. 

Rafael did not but stood, staring wistfully upon the Detroit skyline. Maryanne was famished, filled her plate with chicken wings in all flavors and approached him, her heart trembling.

“So, Maryanne,” he whispered in her ear. “You have been—transformed?” 

She nodded, chewing.

“What is this on your back, wings? Let me see.” He slowly turned her and ran his smooth hands over her exposed shoulder blades, being ever so gentle on the black and blues and the myriad red scratches. “Mmmm,” he said as if she felt very good to him. 

His hands felt so good to her that she had to set her plate down on the windowsill for fear of dropping it. She was going to have to talk to him, express herself, express her new self. But he was the wordsmith and she was? She wasn’t sure yet. Somebody else but also the Maryanne she had always been. She knew she could fly, but no one would believe her if she told them she could. And sometimes, she still got it all wrong. She crash-landed or smacked into something or misjudged so that every time she dived it felt as if she’d never soared before.  

“What kind of bird are you, Maryanne? Let me guess.” He turned her to face him. He put his pointer finger to his lip and wore his face in a puzzle. “I think, a beija flor. Yes.”

She was transfixed. Never before had she wanted someone so badly. She wondered if she was falling in love. How foolish to fall for someone so far out of her league. He was an award-winning poet for Pete’s sake.

“Do you know what this beija flor is? It is a bird who kisses the flowers for their sweet nectar,” he said. 

Maryanne knew this was her opening. What should she say? “Hey, Raff, I can fly, did you know?” And he would laugh or worse yet, smirk then stare at the skyline. Yet, he was waiting for her to jump in that space with him, where they could flirt and see where it went. It was like diving into the black of night. Something she’d done and done well at times. She grabbed Rafael’s hand and pulled him along.

 He laughed and teased her, “Where are we going? Is this an adventure? Take me on an adventure, Maryanne! I have been so bored here.”

They raced up the stairs to the roof of the high-rise, shoving the door open. The rush of winter took their breaths away. Rafael hugged himself then shivered. Maryanne ran to the edge of the roof, frightening him. He pulled her back.

“No, it’s okay,” she said. “I want to show you something. I want to show you who I am. Promise me, you’ll just watch. Don’t be scared. I just want to show you and not anyone else right now. Okay?”

“A mystery? Yes! I promise.” He zipped his lips closed with his fingers, his eyes moist and bright.

“Close your eyes but open them when you hear me say your name.”

He closed his eyes then opened them quickly. “You’re not going to kill yourself, are you?”

She shook her head. “You have to trust me.” 

He searched her face for the truth, found it then nodded and closed his eyes.

He was so beautiful. Maryanne climbed onto the ledge of the roof. The city light pollution cast a magenta glow upon the night sky. Traffic rushed below. The air was crisp, clean, forceful. She wondered if the peregrines had had any successful hatches. Their nesting platform seemed cold and empty. She spotted the falcons huddled together in a niche on the building, the bitter wind ruffling their blue-gray feathers. She didn’t want to be with Rafael (or anyone else) who did not love her as she was. Rafael’s teeth began to clatter. She drew in her breath.

Maryanne dived, yelled for Rafael, then soared.

Jennifer Porter

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