Bird is the Word


Geneva is 12 years old. At 12pm on the 12 day of the 12th month. It is approximately 12 degrees outside, and probably 62 in the house. The thermostat says otherwise, but it is an old house with stingy insulation and a whistling flue in the stone fireplace. She can’t be faulted for lingering between sofa and blanket; it’s warm there. She can’t be faulted for watching hours of a Super 70s Series Holiday Marathon. Her whole day will be a festival of feathered hair and polyester flares. Nostalgia overload. She feels the past in her bones–all burnt sienna macrame and avocado linoleum, an aproned housekeeper in a haze of indoor cigarettes smoke—even if it’s not her past. Geneva, after all, was born in 1989.

It’s the nostalgia then for the act of watching the past. After the babysitter quit, she spends  afternoons on her parent’s sofa, teal chenille, sun faded, dog-haired, her greasy fingers coating the pillows in a layer of salty-snack topsoil. She watches hours of syndicated television and dozes herself back to 1972 on another Pleasant Valley Sunday.  Her mother thinks  it was weird, funny, but weird.

“I watched this when I was your age,” she  says, home from work, blocking the Brady façade with her oversized handbag, a hand on a hip. “I thought it was pretty dumb then.”

Her father thinks it is borderline dangerous.

“Other kids don’t do this kind of thing. They don’t subsume themselves in the past. They experience new things. They push the envelope,” he says, as if he thinks she can’t hear him the kitchen. She can always hear them in the kitchen

“I don’t know, Dan. The other kids her are into Star Wars and hobbits and shit. They get pretty obsessive too.”

“But that’s space,” he says. “That’s grand mythology. Hero’s journey. Archetypal Joseph Campbell stuff. Geneva’s failing math because she’s writing love poems about Danny Bonaduce.”

It hadn’t been a love poem. Not exactly. And she hasn’t failed math. Yet.  But in April, she gets sent to a therapist after refusing to leave the house in clothing that post-dated the series finale of “The Partridge Family” (March 23, 1974), and languishing for three more days on the sofa.

Geneva doesn’t have much to say to Dr. Loftus. Only that 1973 seemed like an objectively better and less complicated time to be alive and be twelve  years old than 2001. The doctor sighs and says something about Vietnam and Watergate. How it’s always hard to be twelve years old. But honestly the doctor seems to agree. “Music has never been as good. Rolling Stones. Allmans. Midnight Train to Georgia. Kid, you have no idea how good we had it. And I don’t mind telling you, we were pretty groovy in those days. You know, I wore platform shoes and a pony tail my whole first year of graduate school? Boy howdy. The coeds loved those. 73, man. 73 was a hell of a year.”

He looks wistful, afternoon sun milking up the lenses of his glasses. And they sit, for a long beat, as she stares at Dr Loftus’ plentiful silver ear hairs and tries to imagine what he might have looked like in velvet bellbottoms. Then a motorcycle howls down the divided highway outside. He shakes off his nostalgia and tells her he is sure that 2002 will also be a hell of a year if she’ll just give it a chance.

It sounds like bullshit.

Because it is bullshit.

She sits in the waiting room and listens to him tell her mother something about 9/11 and the challenges of being a child in this terrible and frightening time. Geneva thinks about going back in the office and reminding them that she spent sixth grade trying to figure out whether she was in love with Marcia Brady or just wanted to be her and that had been months before the Twin Towers fell and they hadn’t been able to get her mother on the phone for six hours in DC. Geneva isn’t worried about terrorists, but she sometimes thinks that she is lost in the wrong time,  that no time machine does or will ever exist to deliver her to the right one, and she could very well spend the rest of her life grieving, trying to make someone, anyone, understand how she feels and still be deemed crazy.

Or sent to a wilderness program that will force a break-up between herself and the television, separate her from the past.  The hope is that she’ll refocus, learn to live in the present, and glom back onto 2002.  The reality is  that she spends three weeks in the Pacific Northwest shivering in the rain, eating cold, wormy macaroni and trudging through mud in fabrics that had not  been invented in 1974. On the bonus, she meets Perry, whose spiky black hair and spikier black eyeliner belie a much wider cultural knowledge and musical interest. The pair become fast friends and sit beneath the trees at night, breaking curfew to describe episodes and music videos in precise detail, as if they could conjure footage against the cloudy sky. By the time Geneva returned home, she’s been primed for Bolan, for Bowie, for Iggy, for painting stars on her cheeks with body glitter, and organizing music-based field trips to see Perry, who, conveniently lives in Manassas, only three suburbs away.

She spends most of eight grade failing to figure out whether she is in love with Perry or just wants to be her. Geneva’s hair gets shorter and spikier and blacker. She steps cautiously beyond 1974, to 75, 76, to 77. Her father seems altogether less concerned.

“I figure one of these you’ll get to Springsteen,” he says. “I’d love to share that with a kid. The Boss, you know. How great is the Boss?”

Her mother figures that ship has sailed, and tries not to pay much attention to the bluster, the studded belts, the boots Geneva wears inside the house, befouling the new white Berber wall to wall. At least she is passing math. At least she has moved away from the television, even if it’s just a twelve feet and one room away to the computer.

“Newer technology,” says her father. “She’s thinking about the future.”

She isn’t, but she knows it will be impossible to explain to her father. She is lost in the wrong time. No time machine can deliver her to the right one, but at least Perry exists, and for now they are best friends and can be lost together. 

Geneva magic markers  a Punk’s Not Dead tattoo on her forearm and her mother groans about the mess.

“You’ll ruin the placemat with that ink,” she says

“The good news is nobody will give her a real one of those until she’s eighteen,” says her father.

“I wouldn’t swear on that,” says her mother. “But that good news is that she’ll hopefully grown out of wanting it.”

Geneva doesn’t think she will, but why argue. It is almost Christmas. It is cold out. She has proper excuse to keep wearing long sleeves. It will be months before her mother even notices the stick and poke partridge Perry’s friend in Manassas had already tattooed on her bicep.  

The Author

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