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"Past Tense"
by Daniel Friedman

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Mary Allen
Catamaran Literary Reader Editorial Intern

A Thing with Feathers

            The day you kissed her is when I found the first feather.  You told me about her.  You told me you were sorry but I didn’t care.  About it.  At all.  I wasn’t jealous. You took her to the zoo and stared at elephants and then you kissed her.  When you called to tell me I could hear you pacing empty circles, chain smoking.  It was annoying.  I combed my hair, tucking my newfound feather neatly behind my ear.  I was rather fond of it.  It was soft, barely there, tickling the spot on my neck where my hair ended.  
            You didn’t care for elephants much.  You didn’t care for her much either.
            I went to buy stamps so I could send you a letter.  Orange County felt large between us.  I hoped a note would transcend the city lines of several unattainable miles.  I used my nice ink pen to draw a carrier pigeon on the envelope while I was waiting in line at the post office.  I thought it was romantic.  The post office worker who took the letter complimented my feather, said it was a nice shade of grey, that the dark charcoal color really looked nice with my pale pink skin.  I said thank you and smiled at him a little. I thought my feather looked like regret.
            On the train ride back home to the Bay Area after Summer I asked you to fuck me in the tiny dirty Amtrak train bathroom.
            “It’ll be like joining the Mile High club.  Only not,” I said.
            You smirked at me, stroked my hair and pulled my head onto your chest, looping an arm around my shoulders.  I sat for a while, content to watch the windows change scenes, listen to the clicking of the tracks, feel your breath on my ear, a little nasally, like always.  When I finally did get up to use, actually use, the bathroom I winked at you.  When I looked in the bathroom mirror I discovered another feather.  It had sprouted deep in the tresses of my hair, near the bump on my skull where it meets my neck.  It was pale grey, with almost a blue tint.  I didn’t want to feel so lonely. I stood there for a moment, stroking it, wondering if you would peek your head in, take me up on my offer, take me.
            You didn’t.
            When I sat back down I didn’t touch you and you didn’t try to reach for me again.  I put my headphones in my ears, turned on music with no lyrics and tried to fall asleep.  It worked for a while until I heard a loud thud against my window, which startled me awake.
            “What was that?” I asked you.
            You looked to me to the window back to me.  “I think it was a bird.”
            I noticed a suspicious white feather sort of glued to the window by what I assumed to be bird crap or bird vomit or bird tears or maybe part of its insides.  “Is it okay?” I asked.
            “Probably not.”
            “That’s awful,” I said and pet my new feather.  I stayed awake until we made it home.
            You didn’t start to notice the feathers until about the 452nd time I asked you what was wrong.  We sat on your bed with our feet parallel, flat on the floor.  On my way in I saw the letter I sent you last summer in the penguin mailbox I got you for your birthday last April.  You hadn’t opened it yet.  I ended up stuffing the unread letter into my coat pocket later that night on my way out.  I could feel another feather poking through the skin behind my ear.  It stung like rejection.
            “What’s wrong with you?”
            “What kind of question is that?” you asked, your brow furrowing.  “Nothing .”
            “Wrong.  What’s wrong, I mean.  With you.  Something is wrong with you and you know it.  I know it, you have to know it.  What is it?”
            “I dunno,” you said. “That’s the problem.”
            “Is it me?”
            “No.”
            “Is it us?”
            “No.  I dunno.”
            “I think you’re depressed.”
            “Brilliant.”  I’m still not sure if you actually meant for that much sarcasm to show.  “I’m sorry I’m like this.”
            “Stop it.”
            “What’s with all of the feathers?” you asked, tired of letting me run your head into a wall.
            “This just happens sometimes,” I said.
            “Why?”
            “I dunno.  I get anxious.  When I get anxious I get goose bumps.  If I get them enough, I start growing feathers.”
            “Oh.”
            I didn’t need to think that this was your fault too.  This had happened before.  Many times before.  I remembered when I was 17 and my grandmother died, I grew so many feathers all at once that I had to stay home from school.  The pain of each sharp end pushing its way out of my soft skin was more than I could take.  I lay in bed, blamed the shock, said I was sad and sick.  I never mentioned the real reasons.  My brother noticed my coat of feathers whose watercolor shades of graphite grey could only be grief.  He brought me soup and said, “It’ll be alright.  Once they grow in you won’t feel a thing.”
            He was right.  It was like living life in armor.  Soft, feather light, barely there armor.  The feathers always grew in long around my face and on days I didn’t want to hear the world I would push the feathers down over my ears and they would block out every sound, sanding them down to a pleasant almost inaudible hum.  On especially bad days I would let the feathers fall over my face completely and sleep the day away.  
            But they would always fall out eventually.  I never forced them, they would just shed away until none were left.  And then life would continue in a similar fashion, but always a little bit different than before.
            My feathers grew in around my head in the shape of a skullcap, all the dull boring grey of denial.  This is when I stopped listening to you not telling me the truth anymore.  It didn’t make a difference.  I got really into what I thought was Eastern spirituality.  I sat and meditated under big trees and ate only raw organic foods.  
            “We all need to take time to realign ourselves with the rhythms of the universe, or something,” I said to my roommate one day.  She pretended she couldn’t hear me over the dishwasher.
            “I’m gonna make you some soup,” she said smiling.  I didn’t argue.
            I never invited you along on my spiritual journey because I knew you knew that this was just some charade I was playing at.  I didn’t need to give you more reasons to think I was silly.  Finding your “authentic self” is great and all, but if you only find the good parts, you can only be so authentic.
I tried to dye my feathers blue to hide the dull muted grey.  It lasted alright for a day or two.  My lab partner told me I was pretty.  My roommate said it looked nice.  I took a shower at your house and all of the blue dye ran straight out of my feathers and right down the drain.  When I was done, my feathers were dry and rough and sickly blue grey like dead people skin.  Your shower tiles were stained.  You never said anything about it.
            I crawled into bed with you and pulled your limp arms around me.  I kissed your soft cheek.  When you thought I was asleep you turned off the bedside lamp.  I watched you through your REM cycle and fell asleep in the morning when your alarm went off.
            The day I stopped calling you was because I pulled the first feather out.  I looked at myself in the foggy wet mirror after I stepped out of the shower.   I grabbed a feather near my temple and yanked it out.  Then another, out.  And another, out.  Out.  When I was done I looked like a skinned, slaughtered chicken.  All I could think about was the way it made my skin ache and tingle like it does when a fever finally breaks.  I didn’t want to tell you about it and you never wanted to hear it, so my fingers never dialed the number and I hoped I would never hear from you again.

Mary Allen is an editorial intern with Catamaran.  She is a young person living, working, learning and writing fiction in Santa Cruz, CA.

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