By: Sofia Kwon
Kent Place School, New Jersey, USA
I am losing everything, and I don’t know why, and it seems like I’m the only one who notices. I walk around, limbless and lifeless, and my mother says, “Good morning,” and pours me cereal. The breakfast table moans under the weight of my white bowl, and the chair creaks in sympathy, but these sounds are interrupted by a dissonant birdsong. I hear the bird shrilling away, boastful and arrogant, and I want to go outside and snap its neck until I know every little bone has broken. Either it dies or it loses its voice, and I don’t care which as long as I never have to hear it again.
It wasn’t always this way. When I was little, I used to love birds. In fact, I used to love all animals. I watched rabbits on green, sloping hills of grass and weeds and flowers. I watched mice nibble cheese and squirrels scale a mountain of bark. I watched the neighbors’ domestic cats cross the street, bored and yawning lazily, but I loved birds most of all. I used binoculars to spot them perched on branches, hiding in the green, sleeping in a nest or moving their wings frantically to keep afloat. I devoured book after book about them. When I turned eight years old, I was given an encyclopedia about birds, and I turned page after page to see an owl with unblinking, yellow eyes surrounded by the cold and the white, or an ostrich, a clumsy majesty running in orange dust.
Now I am done with birds and animals and silly little things. I am standing in tight shorts and an oversized T-shirt that soaks up underarm sweat like a sponge in a bath. My legs are exposed, which means everybody knows that I haven’t shaved in a week. There is hair all over me in a tangled jungle.
“You’re a young adult now,” my mother told me when I turned thirteen. “It is time to be done with childish games.” She began teaching me how to play the piano, how to study, how to cook noodles. Yet she never prepared me for this: standing in a musty old gym in ratty sneakers surrounded by a bunch of bored, hormonal kids slouched against the wall, waiting to see me run against another girl—a girl more graceful than I. Chelsea is soft yet sharp, full of angles and curves. I am smudged, undefined, too hard for my own liking. She is blonde and tall and athletic, rosy-cheeked and bright-eyed. She puts her thick hair into a ponytail and smiles at her friends.
“It smells awful in here,” someone says.
I sigh. I wish Coach Bell would just blow the whistle already so I could get this over with. The more I stand here, the more I feel like I’m naked. I just want to run and then sit down and forget it all ever happened. And yet I don’t want to run ever, and I hope his whistle suddenly breaks. I hope that the whistle’s sound is replaced by a larger, more ringing noise—the sound of the bell signaling the end of class.
But the bell doesn’t ring and the whistle doesn’t break. Coach Bell blows it hard and suddenly I am pumping my legs as hard as I can and yet it isn’t enough. I feel like I haven’t moved. Meanwhile, Chelsea is far ahead of me. She touches a point on the gym floor to show that she’s done with her first lap. By the time Chelsea runs back to the start, I’ve barely touched that same point. I wish I could stop and take a breath. My lungs feel like they’re on fire. Suddenly my legs feel like they’re made of bricks, not bones. My breath comes out in shallow gasps. I feel the heat of everyone’s stares on me and there are tears in my eyes. I beg myself not to cry as I run back to the starting point, but the tears are blurring my vision and I’ve realized that my shoe is untied, but it’s too late because I am falling, I am falling, I am losing everything, I am falling—
BAM. I hit the floor.
Chelsea watches from the bench, where she has sat for a comfortable minute. I am on the floor. My face stings from the impact. I hear someone snigger, “Are you okay?”
Coach Bell blows his whistle again. It feels is if time was severely altered. I can only move sluggishly. Everything seems like it’s in slow motion. I cough and jog back to the starting point, and it seems like an eternity before I’m there. I tell myself, “Only ten more seconds ’til you’re there. Nine, eight, seven, and then you’re there. Six, five, four, three, two…”
I don’t realize the tears streaming down my cheeks until I’m back at the bench. People stare at me but say nothing; they just look away. One boy rolls his eyes.
Later, after the run, I will crawl into the corner of a bathroom stall and sit and wait for a while. I will wait until there are no more people in the locker room, until I hear no more laughter or chatter, until I’m alone and watched by no one. And then I will sit and think about how my mother told me that I have to grow up. I will wonder what she would tell me to do right now. And then I will stop thinking about my mother, and I will stop thinking about how I am losing everything, and instead I will think about birds. I will think about how they sing. I will wonder if they are at peace. I will wonder if they are happy.