(AWP Intro Journal Award Winner)
At a bar in the city, a man in a suede jacket stares at a woman made entirely of paper. The woman, her blank white skin covered mostly by a cashmere sweater and black slacks, stares back. The man is handsome in a non-threatening way. She gives him a look with her paper eyes and her papers lips—one that says come on, try me—so the man walks over and sits down.
He’s visiting from out of town. He sells dictionaries. A dying art, he says. She waits for this to culminate in a pick-up line, something about paper. She’s heard many in her lifetime (I can read you like a book), and none have been successful. Instead, he tells her the definition of uncommon words.
Muscariform: Having the form of a brush.
Nit: The egg of a louse or other small insect
Ungula: A hoof claw or talon
He pronounces each word carefully, like a spell. Mildly impressed, a little drunk from the martini she’s been drinking, the woman asks if he’s memorized the words and their descriptions for the sole purpose of flirting with women at bars. Unembarrassed, the man says yes.
And how has that worked out for you? she says.
Faultily, he says, containing a fault or defect; imperfect or defective.
The woman laughs. She tells the dictionary seller that her name is Page. She waits for a pun but it never comes. Empty drinks gather around them, the only evidence of the passage of time in the dark bar. Page puts a hand on the dictionary seller’s leg. He pulls his barstool closer. They whisper conspiratorially about other bar patrons—the two twenty-somethings fumbling through a first date by the window, a business man swiping through his phone a few stools down, his face ghoulish in its glow—and giggle to themselves like children at the back of a school bus.
The dictionary seller says: I have a room in the hotel next door. Would you like to see it?
Page says yes.
They go to the dictionary seller’s room, which is full of cardboard boxes. Page opens one and sees the blue leather spines of dictionaries. They drink the little bottles of alcohol from the room’s fridge and flip through the pages, choosing words at random.
Page says: Batidaceae
The dictionary salesman says: Nicknackery
Page, smiling, moving closer, says: Lamnidae
The dictionary salesmen, his mouth next to her ear, says: Aquapuncture
He looks down at the page. The introduction of water subcutaneously for the relief of pain.
Page splashes the dictionary seller with some of the vodka from the little bottle. They fall back against the bed, Page’s skin crinkling like newspaper. This is the second test. While the dictionary seller tugs off her clothes, she waits to see if he will say something stupid (should I worry about a papercut?) but he doesn’t. While his head drifts between her legs, she pours the rest of her vodka on his hair and laughs.
They start dating. The dictionary seller visits Page’s rainy city more and more frequently until, finally, he buys an apartment downtown and lives there full-time. One day he gets down on one knee, and says:
Marriage: The legally or formally recognized union of two people as partners in a personal relationship. See also: A combination or mixture of elements.
Page’s paper heart folds into her chest. It’s raining, and she’s covered as much of her body as possible in rain gear, to ward off sogginess. The dictionary seller’s hair is pasted to his forehead. She says yes.
The dictionary seller becomes the husband. They get a new apartment, a bigger one. They don’t make much money—Page works as a waitress, and the husband keeps trying to sell his books—so instead of buying furniture, they use stacked boxes of dictionaries as chairs and tables. For entertainment, they read the big leather books to one another, filling up the little apartment with words they never would have heard otherwise.
At night, their throats hoarse from speaking, they fall asleep on a broad rectangle of cardboard boxes, their dreams pulsing with words like lycopodium and centrobaric.
One morning Page kneels over the toilet and vomits confetti. The husband sets down the dictionary he’s reading and goes with her to the doctor’s office. After the appointment, Page meets him in the waiting room.
Pregnant, she says, having a child or other offspring developing in the body.
See also: of great importance or potential; momentous.
The husband takes her hand. Page’s eyes are soggy. She’ll need to dry them out later.
Yes? Says the husband.
Yes, says Page, and smiles.
Page’s belly swells. At the restaurant where she works, people say You’re like a balloon, You’re like a cantaloupe, You’re like a bowling ball, and she enjoys being described as something other than a scroll or a book—something that isn’t defined by what others write on it, something finished, not waiting to be filled out.
Instead of reading words to each other, Page and the husband take turns reading the dictionaries to whoever is growing up inside of her.
When her water breaks, her paper knees bloat with moisture, and she takes slow steps to the bus stop, the husband holding her shoulders.
Halfway through her labor, she smells burning. Like a campfire. The pain below changes, becomes searing.
Oh, says the doctor.
I’ll be right back, she says.
Smoke is filling up the room. The husband is asked to leave. A nurse opens a window and begins fanning the air. She holds Page’s hand.
It’s nothing too serious, she says. These things happen.
The doctor returns in what looks like a hazmat suit. Sweat trickles down her forehead as she opens up Page’s legs. More smoke billows out. Something falls from her, a burning weight, and the baby is born. But the doctor isn’t holding a baby. She’s holding a small ball of flame. The nurse steps back a little. Inside the flame, Page sees a little face, two arms, two legs.
It’s a boy, says the doctor. Also, he appears to be made of fire.
Page reaches her arms out. She is full of a new kind of happiness, something like an earthquake in her chest.
Give him to me.
We should really get you fitted for a suit, first.
But she’s already grabbed him. Almost immediately her chest begins to blacken and curl. Smoke makes her eyes tear up. The little burning arms reach out towards her face and she leans over to kiss him, but passes out from the pain before their lips meet.
When she wakes up, the baby is gone, and there are bandages around her chest. Her husband is sitting next to her. His hands are swaddled in bandages, too. He kisses her forehead.
Beautiful, he says, and doesn’t need to define the word.
Their baby is special. Page, having once been a special baby herself, is not intimidated by this fact. The hospital provides them a crib, a kind of giant plastic egg, which lets them carry their son around without risk of setting anything aflame. He peers up at them through the plastic, his orange face twisting and swirling. When he cries, he grows a little brighter, like someone has poured lighter fluid on him.
His little plastic egg is pleasantly warm to the touch.
The first few weeks are wonderful. They get back to reading dictionaries, this time huddled around his plastic crib. They turn off the lights and read by the flickering light of his body.
Incandescence, says the husband.
Luminosity, says Page.
Phlogiston, says the husband, and they both laugh, thinking the word sounds like a very ugly town.
Sometimes, when it’s her turn to wake up in the middle of the night and find out why their child is crying, Page removes him from his plastic egg. She can’t help herself. She reaches down and brings the screaming boy to her chest, her eyes already flooding from the pain. Her tears hiss and pop as they fall into his body. She does this for as long as she can, opening a window so the smoke can drift out of the room, biting and tearing her bottom lip to stifle a scream.
Held against her, black flakes of paper fluttering through the air, the baby stops crying.
She tries to cover the burn marks with long sweaters, but one day the husband enters their bedroom as she is getting dressed and sees the charred streaks along her chest and arms. She expects him to yell, but instead he only looks hurt, as if he was the one who had been burned. He shakes his head in disbelief and closes the door.
Neither of them has healthcare, and the baby soon becomes very expensive. He outgrows the egg, and Page and the husband must buy him a special suit—not unlike those worn by astronauts—to keep him contained. He waddles around their home like an alien explorer, his head swiveling around inside a transparent helmet. He gets taller, so they have to keep buying new suits, each of which is more expensive than the last. Page takes on more hours at the restaurant and the dictionary seller begins working as a cashier in a department store downtown. This qualifies them for healthcare, but the provider won’t cover the full cost of the suits.
People have certain expectations about a child made of fire. They think he will be—no surprise here—hot headed. Quick to anger. Precipitous, even dangerous. Page is familiar with these shallow expectations. Being paper, people have always assumed she was flighty, ephemeral, a blank slate waiting to be impressed upon. Some expected her to simply flutter away with a strong gust of wind. She has often worried, in her weaker moments, that they are right.
In truth, their son moves through the world with stubborn persistence. He laughs very little, even as an infant, and stares at each new piece of the world as though it’s some profound puzzle that only he can solve. Page spends hours watching him stumble around the house picking up objects—an orange, a sneaker, a small plastic train—and bring them towards his helmet, eyes transfixed, mouth set in the grim concentration of an archaeologist. She is already expecting him to be a genius.
Occasionally, she still holds him. She unzips the suit and gives him a tight hug, burning herself again. But like any child, he’s grown weary of her affections. The smoke burns his eyes and he begins to cry and squirm as she holds him. He can tell she’s in pain, and this only frightens him more.
After a while, he maintains a cautious distance from her. He won’t even let her touch him when he’s wearing the suit.
She can recall only a single outburst. For anyone, this would be an exceptional feat. Most days, her son is quiet and diligent, to the point that she wonders if knows he is a son at all, and not some stranger renting the second bedroom in their apartment, consuming the occasional free meal—via a small hatch in the front of his helmet—before sequestering himself in his room, pouring over schoolbooks by the shimmering light of his own face.
Once, however, when he is ten, his school holds an event. Each child is expected to give a presentation on what career they’d like to have in the future. The son, perhaps because he has spent most of his life in a special suit, wants to be an astronaut. He wants the career in the way a person dying of thirst wants water. His room is a testament to obsession: his walls covered in photographs of famous astronauts, his ceiling strung with mobiles of the solar system, his bookshelves covered in model space shuttles he’s built with his father (their favorite pastime.) He has watched “Apollo 13” more times than Page can count.
So, for weeks, he puts together his presentation. He spends hours gluing astronaut facts onto a large poster board. He sews a NASA patch to the front of his suit and spray-paints his backpack a hue of cosmonaut white. Page and the husband watch from the living room, arms draped over one another, faces locked in expressions of parental pride.
But after he presents his hard work to the class, all anyone asks about is how a kid made of fire will travel to space.
Wouldn’t he be, for example, a risk to the rest of the crew? What if his suit were to rupture somehow? Lacking the excess oxygen, how could a person made of flame survive an extended stay in space?
In essence: would any space organization ever allow such an obviously dangerous specimen onboard one of their very expensive vehicles?
Later, after a frantic phone call from Page, the teacher reports that the son takes these questions in stride. He answers them calmly, arguing that he will be such a well-trained, intelligent astronaut that no space agency will be able to deny him. He says, with the kind of determination so natural to a ten-year-old, that he will build a rocket himself if they refuse to let him onboard one.
Then, according to the teacher, he returns to his regular seat at the back of the class and listens quietly while other students talk about becoming doctors and pop stars.
This narrative surprises Page and the husband, because this is not the son who returns from school that afternoon. When he arrives at home, he rushes through the house, foregoing his customary greeting to his mother in the living room, and slams his bedroom door. Page, assuming it’s her maternal duty to begin giving him space, doesn’t check on him until she begins to smell smoke.
Opening his door, she’s buffeted by black clouds. The son has removed his helmet and is resting his face against the wall, a nimbus of flames spreading from his head to a poster of the moon, its edges coiling inward and raining flaming bits onto the floor. Page rushes over, forcing the helmet back onto his head before stomping out the fledgling inferno with her foot.
Later that night, after seeing what the son has done to the poster, the husband removes all the dictionaries from the apartment. No one will accept the boxes, so he piles them in the alley behind the house, where they quickly turn to pulp in the rain. As he carries the boxes out of the house, Page tells him that he’s being dramatic. They’ve made it this long without any of the books catching fire, nothing has changed.
At least keep one, she says, for memory’s sake.
But the husband simply shakes his head, his eyes drifting to the old t-shirt wrapped around Page’s charred foot. Fire hazard, he says.
Page flips through a dictionary, looking for a retort, a word to explain to the husband that their son poses no threat to all those stacks of paper. He’s just a kid, after all. He’s allowed a temper tantrum or two. She flips through page after page, unable to find the proper word to explain herself, until the husband slowly pulls the book from her hands and takes it outside.
There are no more outbursts. Without his dictionaries, her husband struggles for words. At night, Page waits patiently as he tries to describe his day, pausing between each sentence as though he were dragging them up from somewhere deep inside himself.
In the evening, when the son has locked himself away in his room, Page and the husband sit together in the living room, haunted by the conversations they’re no longer having. When she asks the husband about his day, he looks at her as if she’s presented him with a complicated calculus problem. He trudges through a few sluggish statements, scraping the fabric of his pajama pants with his fingernails.
I’m sorry, he says, I’m very tired.
I’m tired too, Page says. I work just as much as you do.
I didn’t mean it like that.
You’re not the only one making sacrifices here, she says.
It’s not a competition, he snaps. But even as the words leave his mouth, his face is contorting in pain, thick with regret. It’s not the kind of thing he would normally say.
Slowly, as though each word were a pit he might fall into, he says: I just mean that it’s hard for me, too. I hope that’s clear.
Page stares at the husband; his skin and bones. She wonders: does he feel bad for himself? Living between these two, abnormal people? Does he think that he’s playing the protector, getting rid of all his books, keeping them safe from their own son? She wants to remind him that it was his idea to get rid of the dictionaries in the first place, that he helped create this silence forming like a ravine between them.
I know, she says.
Still, Page is content in her own way. Her life is not perfect, but it isn’t bad. People had always told her that things would be hard for someone made of paper. She had no other expectations. She enjoys watching her son devote himself to his studies, even if he won’t let her touch him, even if he rarely leaves his bedroom. She watches him build model spacecraft at the kitchen table with his father and tells herself: this is being alive.
So imagine her surprise when, one night in bed with her husband, he says with almost perfect clarity:
Do you ever wonder why he wants to leave so badly? Why he can’t stop thinking about everything that isn’t here?
And for a moment, she is just like her husband, incapable of words. She stares at his shape in the dark, wondering what kind of expression he has on his face; if he looks as frightened as his words make her feel.
No, she says, and means it. Because despite her aversion to stereotypes, she is not unfamiliar with the allure of wanting to fly away.
I do, the husband says. I think about it all the time.
The son graduates high school with exceptional grades, and is accepted to a prestigious university on scholarship. He will study engineering. He takes almost nothing with him when he leaves—a single suitcase full of clothes and nothing more. He leaves behind his posters and his models, and Page and the husband leave the room intact, a kind of museum piece that the son temporarily inhabits on the rare occasions that he returns home.
It’s hard to keep in touch with the son after he leaves. The few times he answers their calls, he seems happy. I am learning so much, he says. He doesn’t mention friends or lovers and Page doesn’t ask. The sound of his voice makes her smile at the husband, and he smiles back.
Sometimes, when they can get the money together, they visit him. They have a meal at the school’s food court. The son is large now—just over six feet—and he’s sewn new patches to his suit, the icons of different space agencies from around the world. Behind his helmet, his flame seems bright and healthy, and he waves his hands so energetically when he speaks that Page is able to ignore the way he only talks about orbital velocities and rocket thrusters—the way he doesn’t ask them a single question about how things are back home, or mention if he misses them.
He is, after all, a boy wrapped up in his own dreams, driven by nothing else than his desire to achieve them. What else could you ask for in a child?
Sometimes Page sits in his old room, staring at his boots lined up in neat rows along the bottom of the closet, gently turning his miniature spacecrafts over in her hands. She traces a long, white finger over the burn marks on the wall.
In the living room, the telephone sits in its cradle, beckoning. She wants to pick it up and call the son, to tell him that she, too, lived a life full of unfair expectations. I was not normal either, she wants to say. I was defined by certain elements, reduced to a strict set of particles. People expected me to slip through sewage grates, to flutter underneath hotel room doors. They expected me to harbor secrets, ancient prophecies, letters of love. They wanted to fold me up into different shapes—an airplane or a boat—and toss me out of windows, send me bobbing down gurgling rivers.
I stayed anyway, she would like to say. Even when I wanted to leave.
One day she yields to the phone’s insistence and calls him. It is one of the rare times when he answers. They talk about the weather. He tells her he is applying for internships at various space agencies. His prospects look good.
He has a certain way of speaking, like he is reading off a script. Page searches for notes of joy or frustration in his voice but can’t find them.
When it’s her turn to speak, when the line clears up for her to fill it with words about her life, she doesn’t know what to say. She feels melodramatic. A movie version of a mother, hoisting her insecurities on her child. When has he ever said her life was easy? When, now that she thinks of it, has he ever even shouted at her?
I’m proud of you, is all she says.
I know, the son replies, still reading from his script, his tone revealing nothing about whether the words have touched him in any way.
When she finishes the call, the phone is so hot in her hand that she wonders if her son has transmitted some kind of ambient heat over the line. She can’t tell if it’s a signal of understanding, some evidence of what he can’t say, or simply a warning.
The son doesn’t need to build his own rocket ship. After a few years of working as an engineer for NASA, he manages to make himself so indispensable that they want to send him to the International Space Station. Page has never seen her son so happy. He calls her almost every night for a week, going over the flight plan item by item, telling her about the training he’ll need to prepare for zero gravity.
They’re giving me a suit, he says, almost breathless, an actual one. A real astronaut suit.
Even the husband seems infected with excitement. One night he returns home with a small package wrapped in construction paper. When he tears it open, Page recognizes the blue binding. A dictionary.
Lodestar, says the husband.
Nova, says Page
Pulsar, the husband shouts, and they laugh, give one another high-fives, dance in the kitchen.
We raised a space man, they say.
Page thinks this should be some crescendo. She thinks every life deserves a climax. She’s lived in the rising action for too long, but no longer, because her son is going to space. A few weeks before takeoff, she calls the son and demands that he come home for a few nights. We must celebrate, she says, again and again, until he relents and agrees to catch a flight back to the city. She makes reservations at the son’s favorite restaurant, a steakhouse down by the water. She spends money that they don’t have to reserve a private room that overlooks the docks, where you can hear the gentle rattle of sailboat frames knocking against one another as they bob on the waves.
She knows it’s wrong—she tries to kill the thought even as she’s thinking it—but she feels that her son should be changed, now. When they pick him up at the airport, she goes so far as to reach out for him, something she hasn’t attempted in years, only to have him take a smooth step backwards and extend a glove in greeting.
The son is still the son. His voice, despite his excitement, still seems to reach them from across a vast distance. He still does not ask about their lives—about his mother’s paper fingers, now stained a light brown from the coffee she delivers at the restaurant, or the drooping of the father’s shoulders, the man’s swelling belly. Any possible betrayal of his feelings, a smile or a concerned crinkle of the eyes, is hidden behind the flame of his face.
As they sit down for dinner, and the son announces that he’s unable to eat steak, due to his new astronaut diet, and must order a bowl of spinach instead, as he refuses to say a simple word of thanks for spending so much money on the reserved room, as he doesn’t even bother to turn and look out at the water, to enjoy the swaying of the boats and the setting sun clothing itself in streaks of lavender and orange, she almost gets angry. She almost tosses her fork on the plate and shouts.
Instead, she just says: Could you, for once, show a little appreciation?
They sit in silence for a few moments. The son pushes around the spinach on his plate. Page looks at the husband, who looks back. He is frowning, but in a way that says thank you.
He places a hand on her knee beneath the table. It feels heavy, like a small animal. She wonders, as she has often wondered, what it would be like to have a body like his. All that bone and gristle. The labyrinth of blood and acid cycling through him, always. A form so thick that moving it seemed like dragging a thick branch through the mud. She thinks of that first night at the hospital, both of them sitting there with bandaged hands, something solid and quiet gathering between them in the room.
If he were a different kind of man, he would tell a joke here. Say something to defuse the gravity and allow them all to float back into a lighter world. But he doesn’t. He is better than that.
Finally, the son is forced to speak.
I appreciate it, he says, and that is all.
A few weeks later, their son goes to space. Page and the husband stand on a viewing platform a mile away from the launch site. Their son is strapped inside a long, clean tube pointed toward the sky. They wait, a little nervous, expecting some error, some unplanned explosion, some terrible miscalculation. But after an hour, a plume of flame and smoke erupts from underneath the tube, and they watch it sail upwards, as if pulled steadily by a string. The people standing around them, their eyes hidden behind binoculars and sunglasses, cheer.
Page considers the son, strapped aboard the craft, surrounded by so much heat and light. She wonders if he feels some kind of kinship with the elements around him, as if he could finally pull off his suit and climb outside, join up with all those flames and lend what little energy he has to the force of moving the ship. It must be nice, she thinks, to know you are exactly where you’re needed. That kind of purpose.
She hopes he is safe. She hopes he stays buckled into his chair, chatting, perhaps, with the biologist seated next to him.
When they finally walk away from the platform, she looks at the husband. She sees the wrinkles spreading across his features, crinkling the corners of his eyes and lips. Behind him, the sun disappears behind a deep purple curtain. She realizes that her paper face is only now beginning to yellow, to crumple along her various fault lines. And for a moment she feels the old fear return, the trembling suspicion that a strong gust of wind will find her and carry her towards the clouds, send her drifting over the world, reduce her to a sharp dot in the sky. But it’s only a moment. She lets the feeling run through her, vanishing into the heavy promise of her body.
A drop of rain falls on her forehead—a threat from the sky—so she takes the husband’s hand and leads him to the car.