Twelve by Leonora Desar

When you turn twelve your real self dies. That’s what Natalia said. Back when we were girls who danced on the ceiling to Lionel Richie, still eleven. Watch me, ladies, Natalia said. Watch me fly. Her head swinging between her thighs, dark freckles pinwheeling to the floor. No, not the floor, she said, the ceiling. Cause I just switched them and turned off gravity. Here, you do it. DO IT, dodo birds.

We did. Stampeding through her living room in the South Bronx with our heads between our thighs, making the world go upside down. Thwacking Skipper dolls and headless dolls and plastic cups filled with her ma’s cigarette butts. Her ma Maritza, who snores and snores in her red lace undies on the couch, her white breast popping loose. Butterfly-shaped veins waving to us as we fly by—goodbye, girls, goodbye.

We flew so that we wouldn’t turn into that. Into butterflies that died. Even though part of us wanted it, wished for it. A different freedom— waists pinching, breasts fisting through our skin instead of wings.

Natalia’s breasts fisted when the boyfriend came. Maritza’s boyfriend, Cliff, who stands in doorways. Who never wears a shirt, only a thatch of chest hair, thumbprinted with white. And gray boxers, just like his eyes, which remind me of dirty swimming pools. Those old man socks that graze his thighs.

Hey, he says to Natalia, when we come in. What, you don’t say hello?

He comes towards her, then stopping, and looking odd without his doorway. Hello Natalia, he says and says. His waxy chest still coming. Natalia’s legs sinking through the floor.

When you turn twelve your real self sinks below the East River, Natalia had once said. Natalia was always telling stories about where lost girls go. One day they hear a call. A call like the El train roaring down Intervale Avenue, where we live. A sound like a boy calling. Out the window, head titled back, hair waterfalling down his body like he’s Jesus. Follow me, says the Jesus boy, says the El train.

And it’s so easy to go, Natalia. When you have a mother like our mothers—who keep the windows shut so tight that cigarette smoke fills rooms like water filling a tank, sealing you in. Who sprawl all day long on second-hand couches, breasts popping loose like cuckoo clocks. Their boyfriends standing in doorways, watching the daughter’s breasts telling the time.

Your face is nailed in when you start junior high. Silver studs in two moons orbiting your cheeks and eye, like you had meant to get your ears pierced but kept missing the mark. Like the scar you carved to take away the pretty—a welt like licorice, spiraling up your cheek, then over your brow to just below your nostril. Looping back into a hawk’s wing around your light brown eye.

Your real self is gone, Natalia. You left her on the East River’s palm. In your pajamas with the green balloons, the ones you wore before the doorway man. That smell like you and your mother, mixing, quilting together like your hair used to on the pillow at night, when Maritza told stories about the lawyer women she works for as a secretary, how they all cry like little babies, same as anyone else, when a man dumps them. Your ma’s perm and all your unbrushed hair like a scarecrow, smelling like burnt leaves over river. And that’s when she plays you that Lionel Richie song. And you dance on the ceiling, heads between your thighs. Now you believe in gravity, but your real self knows—the ceiling is not just a ceiling. The floor never just a floor.

Leonora Desar’s writing can be found in Harpur Palate, Devil’s Lake, SmokeLong Quarterly, Psychology Today, the Bath Flash Fiction Award anthology, and elsewhere. She also received an honorable mention in Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction Award, and was a finalist for Black Warrior Review’s flash prose contest and SmokeLong Quarterly’s Kathy Fish fellowship. She lives in Brooklyn and holds an MS from the Columbia Journalism School. She reads for the Bellevue Literary Review.

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