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When they’re newborns, the children weigh enough that we only have to stuff one marble in each leg of their footie pajamas so they don’t float up and crack their soft skulls on the overhead lights or scrape their peach faces along the popcorn ceilings. They come out stone-like, lolling and heavy, but in only a few weeks we wake in the middle of the night to find them starting to rise like balloons, their shoulders and backs and tiny buttocks hovering in their cribs. The marbles anchoring them to their animal-print blankets the only thing keeping them in contact with their mattresses. As they start to crawl we shove lumpy stones into the pockets of their swishy dungarees. By the time they can walk we have clamped heavy metal bracelets to their wrists, which they will wear until they are old enough to demand choice in what anchors them. Until the end of puberty, when they finally sink back to the earth like the rest of us.
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We know they experiment, especially when they become teenagers interested in sex, smoking, and beer as much as leaving the ground. Unlike children on television and in movies and scribbled in the books they read they do not have to dream of flight. Their empty bones will tempt them as they tempted all of us until we filled with leaded marrow after our breasts ballooned out and our voices deepened and our beards were more than whiskery shadows that itched at our throats. At night when they sneak out of their bedrooms through creaky windows and wheezy doors, thinking that we do not know what they are up to, our children congregate in alleys near stinking dumpsters and leaky gutters, huddle in circles in dark playgrounds and upon rotting picnic tables, and in hushed voices dare one another to pluck off their weights. By then their weights are as varied as hairstyles and t-shirts. Some girls wear heavy stones on their ears that stretch their lobes like taffy, boys loop rocks through their shoelaces. Chains dangle from shirt collars or spindle across forearms like shiny, three-dimensional tattoos. One at a time they pluck these off like a game of strip poker, and the earth leaves them behind, their stomachs flip-flopping at the sensation of departure. Someone eventually squirms, chirping out a fearful warning. An unattractive girl or a short, curly-haired boy whimpers and the game ends.
Every year at least one of them plucks off too much and a hearty breeze pulls them away. Last year, it was a girl, Jane Telli, a cheerleader with blond hair the color of sunrise and a smile that belonged in a toothpaste commercial. Her skin was smooth as fresh leather boots. She wore heavy shoes that thwacked against linoleum tile like a heavy staff and a thick necklace made of copper and brass braided together that her parents had found somewhere in Mexico while on vacation for their twentieth wedding anniversary. Its weight made her neck and upper back strong, so she helped throw her fellow cheerleaders, catching them with outstretched hands. On a dare from the quarterback of the football team, who she was thinking of sleeping with to lose her virginity, she plucked off her necklace and gave it to him. Jane steadied herself by leaning a hand on his strong shoulder while she pulled off one of her shoes. But she didn’t account for the imbalance she would experience, the teetering vertigo of the sudden weightlessness. She stumbled, shocked by the whoosh and pull of her own lightness, tripping backward. Before the quarterback could grab her she was flying away like a jet, pulled by the night breeze that carried the scent of lilacs and pine needles, disappearing into the darkness beyond the bruised-yellow glow of the closest streetlamp. No one ever saw her again.
The children that disappear into the air trail away like released balloons. On the rare occasion that they fly away during the day, we watch with mouths cavernous in horror, as they turn into twisting, screeching dots. Nothing more than a blemish, until they’re pinched out like a dimming speck of light. We do not know where they land, if ever they do. Some imagine them rocketing into the ocean. Swollen and suffocated, their pale skin taking on the gray sheen of rot as they sink to the sandy floor, nibbled on by fish. Others picture them taking up position along satellites in space, their bodies compacted and embalmed by the vacuum of airlessness. Floating like Technicolor statues for future astronauts to find and photograph against the backdrop of the cerulean marble of Earth.
Jane Telli’s parents cried at her funeral, leaden and so heavy on their church pew that it began to creak, sagging beneath their metal weight. Her mother’s tears were silvery, her father’s watery eyes gleamed like platinum. All Jane’s friends sat near the rear of the church, the quarterback of the football team the most solemn of them all, a heavy cross pinned to his tie to hold him down. He felt the most searing lightness that day, the image of Jane’s mouth twisted in a surprised, fearful O invading his every thought. When he dreamed she was hovering above him. He pictured the two of them anchored to his bed, naked and warm, the blankets tucked under the mattress so their bodies bounced like buoys in a pool of sparkling water, only to wake sweat-soaked and empty. He kept his head down the entire funeral service and left before it ended, slinking to his parents’ car. Flashing his eyes up toward the sky, he considered for a moment pulling off his shoes and the heavy belt that sagged down his waist so he could fly away and join her.
Because there was no body there was nothing to bury. Jane’s parents shook their heads as they exited the church, her father taking in the sky, the perpetual sign that someone had lost a child to the air. No matter how long it had been, parents scoured the clouds whenever they walked outside. Not out of hope but out of gut reaction, a grieving tic, part of the innate, endless search.
Stories like Jane Telli’s keep our children occupied with grief for a while, but like any catastrophe, the memories dull and blur and soon they are at it again. We tell them to be careful. We say, if you’re going to do anything, do it at home, in the basement or the attic or on the screened-in porch. But we know the outside world is different; that rush of empty space pulling on the nape of the neck, the endless possibilities of the wide swath of star-spattered night. One could go anywhere and everywhere. To be indoors is not the same; it is like wanting to feel the depth of the ocean by submerging oneself in a bathtub.
We are vigilant and hopeful, listening for the sounds of our escaping children. The soft click of the front door closing, the tiny whoosh of a raised window frame. We let them go because to tell them to stay only pushes them further away. We lay in our beds, weight sinking deep into our creamy mattresses that seep around our shoulders and hips, waiting for the sounds of their return. We think of family dinners where they chew their broccoli and tough chicken breasts, bodies crashing softly against table edges like lapping waves. Whisper to one another about them crawling as toddlers. Knees and wrists skipping against carpet and linoleum like leaves that blow over asphalt on blustery afternoons. Silence covers us while we listen, staring at our bedroom ceilings, the sheets shifting above our rising ribs.
And with the rare exceptions of the Jane Tellis, we hear the tinklings of their late homecomings. Their feet brushing against creaky floors, the pull of night air behind them when they slip through sliding doors` These noises are our cue to slumber while our children glide up to their rooms, their bodies still tingling with the flurry of near-flight. We know they will be there bobbing to greet us in the morning.