The steel-framed front door to my bliss was sleek and modern but unassuming. Every seventeen-year-old knew where to go. I passed Penumbra’s Wing Emporium every day on my way to my government job; I was the fastest person in my division when it came to completing Form JX7073, which the public doesn’t know about but which pretty much holds the country together.
Everyone in my workplace was a woman over fifty. The government, as well as civilized, polite society, assumed we were invisible. There was no threat that we will get the notion to reveal the classified information we have. Our power touched every citizen, yet each person dismissed it as a benign talcum, so smooth you do not feel the rough granules. The women of my division accepted that.
My perspective changed Monday when Frances had the nerve to walk in sporting a flashy pair of line-green satin wings. I had brought in two dozen pudgy cream-filled Bismarcks that scarcely received a nibble amidst all the chaos. They would turn crusty by tomorrow; the Amish shop I patronized doesn’t use preservatives. I resolved to enjoy the leftovers as I watched “Dancing with the Stars.”
Mavis dropped a whole stack of GW5555s when she saw Frances flounce into the breakroom, bold as can be, to get her cup of coffee. Normally we would milk this into an excuse for overtime, but in this case Mavis and Frances just sorted them into reasonable order and I refined their efforts until everything was correct. Frankly if Frances wanted to shock us, all she needed to do was throw caution to the wind and put two Equals in her coffee instead of her customary one. What had gotten into our meek little chickadee?
“Good god, girl. What have you done? I think there’s something in the dress code about regulations against wings. If the left wing or the right wing is too prominent, we can be accused of being too political or offending someone. The division can’t risk being investigated,” said Mavis as she brushed a stray flyaway strand of hair from her oily forehead. She brushed it to the wrong side though. She told me once that sometimes she performs acts like this on purpose, just to mess with my OCD and that I could save a fortune in shrink fees if I just lightened up.
“I just thought it was about time I got a pair,” Frances replied with conviction. “My niece Mandy helped me pick them out. She thinks the color will be in for a while and that the handpainting is a classy, but unique, touch.”
Mavis circled her, shaking her head and smacking her spearmint gum. “Management is not going to like this. Not at all.”
I couldn’t help thinking that I had never seen Frances look prettier, not even on her wedding day when she was fifteen years younger, twenty pounds lighter, and had a professional makeup artist choose the shade of rose her cheeks would blush She glowed like a convention of lightning bugs. Then it dawned on me. She had done it. She had flown.
I wanted to ask about it, but Frances and I were close as the North Pole and the South Pole, and I didn’t know the social conventions surrounding first flight. Was the participant eager to share the details or did it carry a bit of shame and disgust like one’s first period? I was far too ignorant of such things. My mother had taken my sister to get her first set of wings at seventeen, the customary age. My brother went with friends to get his first set and returned home smelling of bourbon and experience. No one had ever invited me to be initiated.
All day long I was drawn to the vivid orchids on Frances’ wings and my productivity suffered. I completed ten fewer forms than on my least productive day, a blustery February Thursday back in 2012 when I suffered from walking pneumonia.
On my walk home I allowed myself the luxury of stopping in front of the glass and staring at all the options inside. The variety wasn’t at all intimidating, as I had irrationally expected it to be. I was stronger than I gave myself credit for. After all, I had survived a layoff, two divorces, a miscarriage, the death of my father. My strength held my marrow together, not allowing it to threaten to flake away. I had always been tougher than I appeared to be. Why shouldn’t I fly?
That night Paula Deen completed an awkward tango before DWTS broke for commercial. I wiped Bismarck custard from my hands (honest, I didn’t lick it off) then I picked up the phone to call my mother. Only she could answer my question and take responsibility for the cavernous gap in her parenting.
On the third ring, my mother picked up.
“Hello,” she wheezed.
“Were you in bed? I didn’t mean to wake you.”
I heard her take a drag from her inhaler. “No, no. I was just doing the dishes. Jack came over for dinner. He brought me the prettiest yellow roses.”
“Sounds like it’s getting serious,” I gently teased.
“He’s a little too serious if you ask me. I am not letting a man tie me down again. What can I do for you, hon?”
The question grasped the walls of my throat tighter than my cat clutches the curtains. Maybe she had a good reason. My mother is constructed of good intentions. I reserved most of my anger for myself. I could have bought a pair of wings anytime. I’m definitely old enough to take responsibility for my life, its triumphs and mistakes. I didn’t need a guide for my rite of passage.
“Mom, why didn’t you ever take me wing shopping?” She didn’t have any moral or philosophical objection to wings, nor did my late father. They often left us with babysitters while they flew off on their date nights. I remember Venice and Paris being frequent destinations. Her current set of wings was pale pink studded with seed pearls, flattering to her gray hair.
“I didn’t think you wanted to fly. You seemed so peaceful with where you were. Whether you were reading or chatting with your friends or whatever, you seemed content with where you were. I envied that peace actually. You didn’t seem to have any need to escape. It never dawned on me that you wanted wings. Well, there’s nothing stopping you. Just go to Penumbra’s. I might have a coupon. Hold on. I’ll check my purse.”
“That’s OK. I can afford them.” The government paid me well for my part in keeping the free world free.
“Anything else, dear?”
“No. I was just curious.”
“One of your best traits, darling. Good night.”
“Good night, Mom.”
The next day I considered asking Mavis to join me at Penumbra’s, but I decided against it. I ate my tuna salad sandwich in silence, then took an early lunch.
Just inside the doorway, the new styles beckoned. After several seasons of elongated maxi-wings, designers were now pushing cropped, compact offerings. A cobalt blue pair with silver edges and a pebbled texture all but winked at me so I gripped it with my left hand and pet its surface with my right hand.
I noticed a teenage boy watching me and gave him a smile. No one else in the store had bothered to acknowledge my existence. He approached.
“Don’t believe the hype. It’s a bad design. My dad had a pair. He said they threw his balance off. The T-Shorties are more aerodynamic, but they’re ugly.”
His sincerity made me smile again. “Thanks, young man,” I said before realizing that young men probably hate being called that when they are trusting that young girls actually view their swagger as fierce and fully male. I find their effort as transparent as dragonfly wings, and as charming.
“No problem.” He paused. “You looked like you might need some help.”
“I did. I’m new at this. What about these?” I held up a pair of copper wings, a rare set in metal, embossed with eagles peering through turquoise eyes.
“Well, maybe if you lived in Arizona. Here in Ohio you’ll look kitschy, and not in the good way.”
His young sister ran up and thrust a sticky paw into his hand. I could smell the sugar in her pores.
“Tim, we have to go NOW. Tomani’s just finished making their raspberry gelato. You promised we’d go there.”
I recognized the name of a rather famous establishment, but it was located in Rome. Surely I had misunderstood. To my astonishment, the child had tiny wings, white with purple polka dots. Incredible how permissive some parents are today. I need to mention this to the President. He may want to introduce some regulations in the name of public safety.
The boy waved as she yanked him out.
“Check out the clearance rack. There are some great deals,” he suggested, his back turned.
I shuffled to the back of the store as fast as my arthritic left knee would allow. Because the clearance rack had limited offerings, I took a few minutes to arrange the wings by size and color, so I could breathe steadily while browsing. What riches! I saw forest green wings with bark shavings for the bohemian types, neon fuchsia wings with rhinestones for the divas, beige leather wings for the conformists, and black distressed denim wings for the hipsters. I squealed when I saw the set meant for me, a raku pottery pair with one-of-a-kind shimmering swirls in coppers, corals, and azures.
The salesclerk at the register had a platinum blonde topknot encircled with a jeweled headband and wore a teal miniskirt as thin as spun sugar, despite the three-blanket day we were having. She sniffed air with all scent removed when I handed her my selection.
“I can’t sell you these. They are a Gordon Marassi original. Priceless, really. Very generously donated to the store when he did a trunk show here. I don’t think these are right for you. Our recycled trash bag line has some appropriate utilitarian styles.”
She took the wings from me and gently placed them aside for later when she would no doubt order a minion to restock the rack.
“These are the ones I want,” I said to the arched, sculpted eyebrow. “They are a graduation gift for my granddaughter.” The ice princess warmed up to approximate a frigid demeanor.
“Oh, she’s a lucky girl then and you’re a generous grandma. Would you like them giftwrapped then?”
“No, thanks.” I handed her my credit card and she ran it through the reader.
A uncontrollable smirk forced her Botoxed lips into subtle movement.
“My information says you are have no granddaughter, you are 57, your guilty indulgence is lavender bubble bath, and you have type O blood. You are currently seventeen pounds overweight and your cholesterol is high. I cannot authorize this purchase. You are simply not worthy of this pair.”
I liked it so much better when the credit card swipe just revealed your ability to pay.
“You work on commission, don’t you, dear?”
Then she snapped to her senses. Even on clearance, the wings were pricy. She wrapped them in a protective cocoon of tissue paper and slipped them into a sedate steel-gray shopping bag.
Bag in hand, I had superhero confidence and my mouth popped open with the force of my well-aged outrage.
“Mark my words, you and your snobby ilk will someday need something from someone outside your limited orbit. They will put the spoon between your lips, drive you to the emergency room, or pray for your soul. They will do it with a pure heart, despite your contempt. They healed the bruises your kind inflicts with compassion and wisdom. I hope you thaw enough to thank them profusely.”
She stared in reply and I knew my words had probably gone into a vacuum, but I had said them. I had said them. I had proclaimed my prophecy.
Despite the temptation, I didn’t fly back to the office. I had timed my shopping with the exquisite precision of a well-crafted wristwatch. I had enough time for a walk back. That way, I could enjoy the mellow saxophone tunes played by the man in the wheelchair on the corner. Without counting them, I tucked a handful of bills into his tip jar, grateful for all the joy his music had given me.
The afternoon passed without much fanfare. The President, all aflutter over the SZ3131s, scheduled a meeting for the 30th. Kate fussed because she had her colonoscopy scheduled for that day already. She had a major crush on the President and always strived to make herself look good when we met with him. I debated where to go on my first flight, not knowing whether most people went to someplace wild and exotic, the place of their fantasies, or whether it was better to go a place closer and more comfortable.
I clocked out and put the wings on in the visitors’ restroom. They seemed to possess an intelligence of their own. They pushed me out the door and into the air. I knew I could control the speed and the destination with voice commands; that was noted in the instruction manual. Being out of control was preferable though. More accurately, I was under control of the best-intentioned kind, but I only knew that because of my position.
I ended up at the front door of a humble ranch in a small town in Tennessee. I heard the doorbell ring, but I know I didn’t press the illuminated circle.
Keith, whom I hadn’t thought of in years, answered the door. He was my high school boyfriend and my first true love. Some pleasantries revealed that he was currently and recently single.
Some things are worth the wait. My flight was perfectly timed.
For good karma, I sent the salesclerk at Penumbra’s a thank-you note with a picture of Keith and me wearing matching wings on our honeymoon cruise.