Bird of Paradise
by Federica Silvi
I must have been around fifteen when I first met Alice; she wasn't much older, but in my mind, there were light years between us. Everything about her added to a cocktail of admiration, impatience and powerlessness I kept forcing down my throat, although I'd come to realise I didn't like the taste. It was more than the usual teenage reverence for those who had already been my age; I wasn’t just in awe of what seemed to me unattainable wisdom and worldliness, in stark contrast with my imperfections, and my longing to know more about life than I’d had the time to learn. It was her beauty I was hungry for. A beauty so devoid of effort and full of grace, I realised I'd been yearning for it since I became fully aware of my body, and began to wish I could reshape it, crop it at the sides, hide it from the world.
It was no surprise that I let Alice into my life in the summer, the season when I loathed myself the most. We started hanging out at the public pool, lying next to each other on an old, threadbare beach towel that barely contained us both. She could spend hours lying on her stomach, reading a book, perfectly still but for the hand turning pages every few minutes; when she got tired of that pose, she rolled over to rest her head, closed her eyes, and let the sun stroke her skin, as if she trusted it to do her no harm. I too had books to pass time with, sunglasses to shield my face, and a thick layer of sunscreen on every inch of my body; before too long, though (a couple of pages, sometimes even less) I felt the urge to twist and turn, never quite sure what limb to put my weight on, until each of my limbs felt too sore to ignore the discomfort. I didn't need a mirror to know my back was turning a deeper red by the minute, despite the cream wrapping my body like a heavy yet worthless armor of grease. The only position I could hold was the cruellest of all: seated, with nothing to lean my back on. Hunched, aching shoulders; shoulders exposed to the light, legs crossed in the book's shade. Reading was half pleasure, half escape: if I kept my eyes on the page, I could pretend my legs were not covered in stretchmarks I'd only ever seen in women twice my age; I could ignore the sweat lodging between my stomach rolls, and look down at something other than my chest, the only part where my body seemed reluctant to pile up flesh. Most of all, I could pretend Alice wasn't there, stretched out on the towel like a model in a swimsuit advert. By the end of the summer, our afternoons at the pool would reward her with a an even, chocolate tan. My skin, on the other hand, was a fantasy of blistery red on milky white; uneven ink blots marking big mistakes on a crumpled page, a Rorschach test I couldn’t bring myself to look at or try to understand.
Swimming was my only diversion from all that putting myself down. The water refreshed me, lifted me up, erased my weight and made me forget my shame. I swam thirty, forty lanes at a time, too happy to heed the fatigue that cut my breath short towards the end, elated to feel the lightness I imagined people like Alice could take for granted. I swept past groups of children jumping from the deep end, elderly ladies paddling along, mothers and fathers with arms outstretched to keep their kids afloat; as they stopped to give way, I imagined they could sense the grace and strength I gained with every stroke, and recognised in them a force too relentless to obstruct. Goosebumps and wrinkly fingers usually broke the spell, and sent me back to the concrete slab where Alice, who didn't swim, had been waiting all along. There, one afternoon, I felt an unthought-of idea take shape; when I tried to pin it down, it became blurred and confused, like the equations I tried to unravel in school, only to find that the line of thought I'd chased for hours was a dead end. The idea was this: that I was capable of things Alice had never known, and would never grasp; and that one day, I couldn’t tell how soon, they’d show me the way to a happiness I barely believed I could reach. That had to be true, because I'd never seen her face light up like mine did the moment the water surrounded my body. But how could I not see it, if it was so obvious? How could her beauty not be everything I needed to conquer the space I wanted in the world?
Alice and I became inseparable in the years that followed; nevertheless, I can't remember a time in my life when I felt more alone. Standing in the dingy dressing room of yet another fashion store, bathed in neon light that turned my skin a pasty white, I observed my figure from every angle, suddenly aware that my body was mine alone to bear, and I couldn’t expect anyone, or trust anyone, to call the flaws I saw in the mirror with their proper name. Alice let me try everything I saw her wear, oblivious to what was going to happen, even though it happened every time. She couldn't possibly know what it felt like to stare at yet another bunch of clothes that didn't fit, knowing I picked them because they looked good on her, feeling betrayed as soon as I realised the person in the mirror was still me. She didn’t have to suck her belly in when she tried on a pair of jeans, only to see her hips overflowing the moment she released it. She could wear cropped tops without worrying her stomach would stick out like a sagging no man's land. She had skirts that hung loose from her hips, while I had skirts that hugged my thighs so tight, I didn't dare to walk or sit, and began to despair I’d ever know the meaning of “comfort”. I stood still in the neon-flooded changing room until I found the will to undo the zip and unscrew the buttons, as if the thin layer of cheap fabric, bursting at the seams, was the safety protection for a bomb about to explode.
I met other girls who looked like Alice. The girls from my neighbourhood, who stopped to stare as I ran around the block, shouting mock words of encouragement as my feet stomped on the concrete in what felt like slow motion. The ones I noticed briefly in school hallways, and did my best to stow away in my mind, so I could practice their relaxed stance, try their smiles on for size, check what I looked like if I tilted my head back to laugh like they did. And the ones I saw at parties, in the arms of guys I fancied; they were so distant from anything I could see myself turn into, the only reaction I could fathom was a hostility they never did anything to deserve. Alice hadn’t done me any real or imaginary wrong, and yet was the worst of all, because of how alike we were. We resembled each other as if I was her botched prototype, and she a potential I was doomed to never achieve.
That’s how it started: the daily count of my flaws in the wardrobe mirror, with unforgiving eyes trained to detect the slightest change. As the number began to go down, a strange, new eagerness took over. My round, childlike jaw took on a sharp, defined line. I could slip inside my jeans without undoing the button; soon enough, I’d need to buy a belt, or go down a few sizes. Days and months went by, one short-lived victory at a time, in a war I never seemed to win. I wanted to see my collar bone stick out, I wanted a flat stomach, I wanted my thighs not to touch. Excitement turned to impatience: what more could I do?
It was never enough. Victory dances on my parents’ old, unreliable scale in the bathroom; skipped breakfasts, and dinners replaced with powdered soup in a tea mug; hours spent at the supermarket, reading calorie counts on the back of every package. And the workouts, every day; they left me exhausted, devoid of life, incapable of thinking about anything but the endgame: the day I’d look in the mirror, and see Alice on the other side.
It would have been easy to blame Alice for everything that happened, but even I knew it was all my doing. Her voice couldn’t smother my constant belittling and berating, because she didn’t have one. Her face never gave away how my shrinking and starving made her feel, because all I ever saw on it was a serene, inscrutable smile. There was no photo of her pinned above my bed, for me to study while I planned what little cruelty to inflict on my body next; there couldn't be, because she only existed within the well-guarded, deceitfully safe space of my mind. If Alice had been real, she wouldn't have wanted to live in a fixation. If she had been my friend and my role model, like I pictured her, she would have told me to let go. Perhaps, if I had heard it from her, I would have began to listen much sooner.
The day I say goodbye to Alice, I'm wearing my old gym clothes, brought back from the bottom of a drawer I thought I’d emptied long ago. It's been years since the last time I could fill every inch, see the fabric stretch instead of hanging loose; years spent thinking a moment like this would bring back the old shame, the stinging disappointment for the amount of space I took up in the world. The peace I feel instead is hard to believe at first; it’s like a light spring drizzle, wet enough to convince me I haven’t just dreamed it up, but still not heavy enough to count the drops on my skin.
I'm standing on a yoga mat, in a room full of people I once would have feared the gaze of. My right leg is stretched behind me; the left is bent, knee facing forward. My right arm, raised to reach up for the sky, starts coming down slowly, carefully, until it’s wrapped behind my back. I’ve done this before. If I measure the distance well, I can slide my left arm under the bent knee, and stretch it back until the hands can touch and bind. Sometimes, it’s like trying to measure a bulky object’s perimeter, and realise I ran out of tape. Other times, like today, everything clicks into place. I twist my head up, eyes fixed on the ceiling, trying my hardest to focus on my breath. Muscles stretches and burn; my knee can barely hold the weight. I don’t know how much longer I can stay still, and every second that passes, I feel a wave of happiness rise above the pain. It’s a long lost sensation, felt once but never forgotten; it’s been here since that afternoon at the pool, since that swim that gave me so much joy. In the same breath, I realise where Alice came from: a time when my body felt like a blight and a burden, and my mind was the place I retreated to escape its bounds.
The teacher calls the next pose, the Bird of Paradise. With a dull sound, my back leg shifts towards the front; I rise up, straighten my back, point my left straight up to the ceiling. The hands are still clasped together, holding the raised leg from behind. There’s a mirror right next to me, to the right, and for what feels like the first time, it's not Alice I wish to see. I take in my red face, my clothes drenched in sweat, and feel grateful for everything that’s real. The weight on my right foot, and the pain in my left leg, still holding strong, despite the impulse to fold and crash down to the floor. The twitch in my arms, the hands that could slide away from one another, but instead resist and stay together. And the force that unites these unstable parts: it comes from a place I didn't know existed, and it has taken me out of a dark place I didn’t think I’d escape. I don't stop to think at how Alice would do what I’m doing; at how much better I'd be, how much more gracefully I’d flow, if I wasn't me, but a perfect, made-up somebody else. I'm a bird of paradise, a force of nature. My beauty is in the strength of my body, and this moment of joy, this swell of pride, belongs only to me.