No Space for Wild Girls

I never stop marvelling at our changing world.

When I was young, and could have sailed away on the sheer volume of my tears as I looked for somewhere I belonged, the world made sure I was buried alive; pushed down to explore fierce underworlds illuminated only by rock quartz and fireflies. Spittle on the bus and fractured fingers, and later, blister packs full of soothing syllables to keep the lid on a boiling girl. These were the days of dial-up AOL taking wobbling steps toward the future; of plastic barbed wire bracelets and grimacing around smeared cherry lip gloss and wondering how to be like them. Girls. Girls My Age. The ones who could talk without creating silence; they went to town in groups and got good science grades despite laughing through class and the boys liked them. They didn’t embarrass their families by getting caught naked in the open-air community swimming pool after breaking in to feel the water against their limbs in ripples of living silk. They didn’t sleep in their clothes. Or see ghosts.

I know, things were different for me even beyond the realms of alternative then. Lying on scratchy hospital linen, I wondered how I’d got there. I knew girls in baggy grunge shirts and thick kohl eyeliner, who streaked their hair pillarbox red and wore their outcast status like medals. They were spat on too, sometimes, but they were never in the bed next to mine. Perhaps they hid their Otherness better, or kept their scars from stumbling through womanhood’s bramble patch a secret underneath their long sleeves. I didn’t hurt myself that way, in descending ladders of shiny white tissue; but I saw the world in wild paint and heard music in empty rooms, and spent too many hours in an obscure and mystical world of my own. I tasted the fresh trails of other lives and infinite possibility on the air the same way you know the season is changing; when the sweet breath of spring exhales itself into the world, or a frost yet to fall on orange leaves flicks out an icy tail in premonition. I worshipped the world too strongly, saw it without veils.

Back then, you didn’t talk about it. You took your pills and were mute as a novice under new and silent vows. It would upset your family, damage your chances, if anyone knew you weren’t a real girl. You took step after blind step through the thicket, heart and eyes held out in your hands for wicked queens to eat. There was no space for wild girls. When your ears pricked up, you flattened them down before anyone could see and cry wolf. When a rogue feather sprung out through a papercut, you apologised, smoothed it back down with handfuls of spilled oil, and brushed the fledgling stars firmly out of your hair.

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Now I see them in colourful crowds or unapologetically alone. On the bus, online; packs of wild girls, with watercolour hair and winged dreams. The world blinked while I was away, busy being an aura floating in drugged isolation; it had code pumped straight into its veins that changed its digital DNA forever. In just five, seven, ten years; the lungs of the globe expanded and suddenly all those girls like me could breathe easier too. I see them striding purposefully through the tube station, across the road, with sleek fur and smiling lips, hips that demand space to swivel, teeth out and dipped in ink, and know they are bolder than I could ever be. Whether they live with or without diagnosis, minds clear or clouded, they live.

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It feels too late for me.

I know – it sounds so defeated, so self-pitying – but I have years of this enforced solitude and doctor’s orders like bleached cotton bandages wrapped around my head, and don’t know if my skin could take this new sun after all. I feel too old to join the pack. I’m just a handful of years ahead of this tidal wave of new women tumbling sand and sea glass into something more refined, but what a difference those years have made. Or perhaps it’s the toffee time effect of all those waiting rooms blurring into one another; perhaps I’ve sat behind so much shatter-proof glass it’s simply grown around me.

Now there’s space for wild girls. They tap destinations into online journey planners with foxes’ claws. When they get papercuts and a hawk’s feather springs out, they laugh, and test its strength against the wind.

Fly. Fly.

I hope you soar as high and far as you wish, now that the sky is open.

Exit Wounds

Honk and I hop up to the bar, preening, magpies looking for shining girls. I’m all slicked-back hair and the kinda cheekbones you get after laying in bed for weeks eating nothing and listening to sad music. Honk bundled me into the shower and a clean shirt like ‘Do you think this is helping? You gotta get back in the game.’ Watching me brush my teeth like my mother, ‘Where’s your self respect at?’

We scoot around and knock back sour shot glasses and dance with girls with glitter-streaked tits and those glow in the dark rave sticks I remember from back in the 90’s – I remember Blue Lou once got ‘em confused with the sherbet ones, stoned out of his mind like, and bit the end off and had radioactive yellow all around his lips for a couple of nights.

I’m jiving with some girl under the orange strobes and I get this shudder running through me. I feel like ghosts are thick and close in here and I hope Honk is okay – he’s done up like Baron Samedi in a tailcoat and eyeliner and the girls are over him like pretty ants making sly, sliding eyes at a lonely honey jar. I try and focus on the mermaid shoulders of the girl in front of me, painted artful green-blue.

‘What’s your name?’

‘Annie, but most people call me AK!’ We’re shouting at one another in that eardrum-busting intimacy you get anywhere people are trying to figure out if they can screw to a bassline.

‘AK?’

’47!’ she yells, her hand picking out that pop-pop, wrists flickering.

‘That’s my lucky number!’

She spins around so I can see the lotus flower tattooed between her shoulder blades, between the thin ruby straps of her flimsy Indian cotton top. She tips a finger under my chin. ‘You’re cute.’

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The room spins and I gotta find Honk. I look over the jostling folks for his top hat, and I think I see it, but the face underneath is some pointy-chinned pixie-woman, all appropriative Bindi’s and the same fucking Indian cotton tops and patchouli oil. Honk’s type all over. I hope he ain’t snorting anything. I watch silver bangles glinting as arms raise themselves up to the beat, hypnotised like watching sunlight on the water. Annie is trying to grind her hips into mine and I’m just kinda standing there like my sleeves are stuffed with straw, like my eyes are painted on a sack and I got an old pitchfork handle up under my coat and it’s real awkward.

When I wake up I know I ain’t slept with anyone, and not just because the rest of the bed is the same sick unhappy fossil I got dragged out of last night. You can tell when you’ve shared a bed with someone, there’s a warmth there that doesn’t leave when they do.

I shuck myself back into my fraying blue denim pants and I need a coffee because I’m itching everywhere. Scratch under my chin and find this weal like a big bug bite, a white lump under the surface like a spider egg. But I can’t kid myself cause I know it’s weeks of shit eating their way out of me. Pints of cheap alcohol and metal sweat and bad convenience food that you cook under a pierced plastic film. Honk is there, watering the goddamn plants. He slumps into a chair and hooks his long pale foot around the table leg. He ain’t smiling, he’s looking at my phone like a black brick on the side, by the shiny green plant leaves freckled with tap water.

‘You don’t have to do it,’ he says first off. No preamble or nothing. I go check my phone and Jack is there like a ministering angel saying Man that sounds tough you wanna catch a flight and come straight out? Come stay in the cabin, we got plenty trees and whiskey and boo ain’t no trouble.

When I don’t say anything he pours me out some strong black. ‘Come on, you don’t have to do that, I’ll take you to the sea, huh?’

It takes a while before I can get my head around it. I push my hands out like I’m trying to show off the size of a fish I caught and let my hangover do the honest talking. ‘It’s no good, man. I can’t just go put my feet in the water, I need to…I need to put the big water between me and it.’

We just wait a while, listening to the traffic through the thin little window panes. We aren’t in St Anthony’s now but somehow the beds are still all floor mattresses and the hob rings are always crusted up with pasta sauce and the sunlight still filters through a sweatshop Om. I can smell ancient cigarette ash like this rickety two-floor over the electricians is our own personal Pompeii. I get a crazy sweat on, I don’t wanna be found by tourists in the same terrified position, palms up against a rain of fire.

He asks it straight. ‘What am I gonna do if you take off to fucking America? With that crazy bitch in the middle of no-place?’

He means Boo and their marital troubles, but I just murmur all noncommittal, ‘He says she’s okay now.’

He snorts, ‘This ain’t the way to get over it.’

Just then, I hear someone come out of the bathroom. It takes me a second to place those seaweed green shoulders but then her face slots into my memory like a penny.

‘Hey AK.’

She wraps the towel tighter around herself, eyes wary like her body got caught speeding. I stare at Honk.

‘You got some nerve, son.’

He just shrugs, sips his coffee. ‘More than you, yeah?’

I’m booked on that plane before 47 fires out through the front door, all stained flannel, and recoil and exit wounds.