Rory Cahill has a wing instead of an arm. From the edges of his neck, spreading down his shoulder, over his biceps and triceps, around his elbow and lengthening along his wrist, are intricately inked feathers. Every inch of tan skin slinks and ripples with lines of the tattoo, as if wind flutters around him.
He always wears those A-line shirts as soon as the sun’s out, even in winter, as if he can’t stand to have a sleeve hiding his skin. Or he just wants to show off that physique. (Nobody complains unless they’re jealous anyway.) I definitely don’t complain. He sits in front of me in Pre-Calc, and even though the dress code forces another layer onto him I can stare at the back of his neck, where the first thin black feather peeks out from his collar. When I know the answer to the problems on the white board, I let myself fantasize about skimming my finger right there, and up into his hairline where I know the short hairs will tickle him. I’d put my tongue against that feather and Rory Cahill would say my name.
Nobody knows why he got it. I mean, one wing? He’d fly in circles.
He’s been asked before. By friends and enemies, in homeroom and in the quad, and memorably, during the pep rally against Newan High, Sandy Redford the head cheerleader asked right into the spotty microphone: “The question of the day isn’t whether we’ll defeat the Bighorns, or even by how much! The question is why does Rory Cahill have a one wing?”
Everybody laughed and cheered, and his buddies prodded Rory from where the basketball team stood in a line, across the gym floor to Sandy. She shoved the microphone under his mouth, (nearly gagging him I thought), and he said, “So I don’t have a disqualifying advantage over the other team.”
He was everybody’s favorite after that. We’re all shallow in the 11th grade.
His girlfriend Chaz wore these hoop earrings, with a tiny sterling silver feather dangling off the left one, and never walked on his right side as if it was this huge deal to block his wing. They broke up on a Tuesday afternoon when she couldn’t get him to answer some question. It had to do with his older brothers, and I only know that much because she yelled it louder and louder, getting the whole cafeteria’s attention. He just stared up from the plastic chair as she screamed. But his mouth stayed shut. She leaned down and scratched his forearm with her lacquered nails, leaving a long red line behind.
Rory didn’t come to school the next day or the next, and when we saw him on Friday there was no sign of the cut.
A rumor started up that Rory’d go out with anybody who told him why he had a wing for an arm.
Molly called me to break the news while I scrubbed burned marinara off the bottom of a pot, and I dropped it into the sink so hard Mom yelled “Don’t chip my new porcelain!” but I was nearly too full of hilarity to hear.
We threw around ideas, the worst of which was to identify his body in the event of face-altering nerve gas, the best of which was that he was under a curse. “At night,” I whispered, “he transforms into a swan with one human arm.”
No kidding, at lunch he sat with Tyler and Erik Quinn under the walnut tree where no girls would sit because the walnut husks stain anything, and Martha Coolidge, Brita Thomson, and Cherry Seeler all made passes. Martha pretended to drop apple right there and talked with him for two minutes before he smiled and she practically ran away. Brita was better, in that she actually has History with him and asked for notes before making her guess. Cherry just marched up, planted her hands on her diminutive waist, and said, “Because you like being the center of attention, obviously.”
Her voice was harsh, but she said it with that little knowing hip cock, like openly acknowledging their mutual narcissism was in any way flirtatious.
Rory only told her that the attention was a welcome side-effect.
Eleven people made guesses over the next week, one of which was in fact that he got the tattoo for body-identification purposes. That made him laugh, until the 10th grader who asked said, “Does that at least get me bonus points?” and then Rory choked. He pulled a paperback out of his bag and proceeded to totally ignore her and everybody else (including Tyler and Erik) for the rest of lunch.
Four minutes before Pre-Calc started that day, Almund Brady paused by Rory’s desk.
“Oh, my god, Nut, seriously?” said Molly from two desks over. If she hadn’t said anything Rory might not have looked up from his book. He put a finger between the pages and tilted back to look at Almund. (Giving me a better view of that one little feather I wanted to kiss.)
After a short pause, Rory shrugged. Okay, sure, why the hell not?
Almund wiped back his floppy hair and smiled that famous smile. “Because you’re stuck on the ground.”
Rory stared for a moment, and I almost expected that Almund was right and Rory was gonna have to decide if his pride was bigger than his straight. But just as the bell rang, he shook his head. “I wish,” he said and Almund slunk to his desk, the picture of dejection.
I wondered if kissing that feather would be worth making a guess.
Molly spent the night on Friday. We put in Bleach and drank Nati Light I found under my brother’s bed, and spent three hours with fine-tipped blue markers, drawing designs on each other’s skin. She wanted tight, choking vines to wrap around her arms and fingers, with tiny thorns and loads of petals. I stripped off my shirt and unhooked my bra, then spread out with my stomach against the floor and told her to give me wings. The pen tickled against my spine, against my shoulder blades, and I imagined it hurting like a needle, imagined the burn. I fell asleep half-naked in the pillows next to her, and dreamed about turning into a bird. A wide-winged egret or swan. Something long and graceful.
Saturday, I ran into Rory (literally) in the alley between Rotter’s Books N’Music and the drug store. I had a roast beef sandwich in hand that Eddie from the snack counter in the drug store made special for Dad, with Worcestershire sauce, and was balancing my soda precariously as I dug for my keys. Rory had the entire paperback series of The Chronicles of Amber tucked under his non-wing arm.
My soda erupted between us when our shoulders collided. It splashed across his A-line, soaking through and sticking it to his chest, and spilled down my face and neck, turning the curls of hair into wet black snakes. I dropped my mouth open and dropped Dad’s sandwich, too, hands flicking at my sides. Rory froze, and so there we were, inches apart, and my chin level with the brown soda-stain.
It made him smell like syrup, of course, and I was hungry. So when I tilted my head up to apologize, I couldn’t remember the words for I’m sorry.
I just pushed up on my tip-toes and kissed him. I grabbed his face, sliding my fingers into his hair, and kissed with all my strength. Any second he’d shove me away and it would be over.
The shock of my life was that he kissed me back.
His wing slid around my ribs, fingers flattening on my spine. He pulled me closer. The books in his other arm cut against my chest. I fluttered my fingers down his neck, until I found the edge of his shirt and then I held onto him. As he squeezed me, as he pulled me higher on my toes, I opened my mouth and thought, this is who I am without knowing what I meant.
My heels hit the asphalt and my heart beat like a laugh. Rory moved his stack of fantasies to both hands, between us. Raise shield, evasive maneuvers. He said, tentatively, “Joy?”
I swiped at my sticky hair. (Did he know it was my name, or was he just having a good time?)
Rory gripped his books.
There wasn’t anything I wanted to say, and if I didn’t leave I was just going to kiss him again. I looked down at Dad’s sandwich bag, decided it was trash, and spun.
The paperbacks slapped onto the ground, in a hollow sort of clatter, and he caught me around the elbow. “Wait.”
I did, and he stepped behind me.
He touched my neck, and I thought he is going to kiss me there but instead his finger swiped under the collar of my tee shirt and tugged it down.
My wings! I clapped my hands onto my mouth and stood rigid, caught between horror and hilarity. I wanted to call Molly right then, even while his hand was still on my back, and whisper what was happening.
“It’s smearing,” he said. Calmly. Like he was concerned and not pissed.
That’s why the first words I ever said to Rory Cahill were, “So much for permanent marker.”
“Why draw wings?”
I twisted my head to look at him incredulously, and he released my collar but left his hand there, just barely breathing against my skin. So many words tumbled through my head. I’ll tell you if you tell me. To remind me I can fly. Because your feathers are h-a-w-t. It felt good. I want a pair of my own, so I don’t fly in circles.
Instead I said, “Why not?”
He laughed. “Good answer.”
“I learned from the best.”
“If I guess it right can I kiss you again?”
“No.” It was out of my mouth before I could swallow it back. I didn’t want a game. I didn’t want guesses and flirting and walnut stains on my shoes.
But he surprised me, like I must have surprised him.
Rory Cahill didn’t say another word, but kissed me, and opened his mouth, and I thought, this is who he is.
image by The G via Flickr CC.