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longing upward [narrative]

girls on elevated surfaces

It’s a Saturday night, and there’s a drunk girl standing on the bar. Her dark hair, still bearing the remnants of a fading dye job, swings back and forth in time with the plastic beaded necklaces on her chest as she gyrates her hips. She can’t see the boy bouncing below her, waving one fist in the air while his red cup sloshes tepid beer on another girl beside him. She can’t see that girl, wiping the beer out of her carefully tied, trendily braided pigtails that are just starting to frizz. She can’t see the boy standing behind her and staring, wearing a t-shirt that says something like “To the guy who invented zero, thanks for nothing!” and shifting from foot to foot, just slightly off the beat of the music. 

The girl on the table can’t see any of this; she is so high up. Everything is a mosaic: a collage of people who all look a little softer around the edges from above.

I am standing at the edge of the party, just far enough from the speakers that I can hear some guy retching in the bathroom but not far enough that I no longer feel the sticky, slightly damp wall of the basement against my back. The poor bathroom boy bangs open the door and wipes his mouth with his sleeve as he pushes past me. I stumble back in my heels. 

The place to be is up there, on the table, where everyone can see just the edge of your purple panties from under your skirt, but they can’t touch you. You can’t even see them. You have risen above it all. 

It’s not uncommon to hear someone scoff at one of these parties, “girls and their fucking elevated surfaces.” And it is indeed a common sight. There’s something about being out and drunk and young that makes us want to haul our heels onto the first table in sight. I don’t exempt myself from this group—I love the feeling of my heels digging into the bar as much as the next girl. But sometimes, I look down into the fog of beer and swinging high ponytails and wonder just how I found myself up there. 

Before it was bars, it was trees. I was one of those kids who was always late for dinner because I was busy watching the sun set through a spiderweb at the very top of a redwood tree. Sycamores called to me with their marbled branches that reached up in all directions—I discovered that they were okay to climb if you could get ahold of that first branch. Maples were pretty good if you could get one with a lot of close-together branches in the middle because it was easy to reach the next one if you sort of shimmied along the trunk. Redwoods, however, were the true test: easy to climb, but also easy to fall off of. If you grabbed onto the wrong rough, furrowed handhold, it would bend and then snap, brittle under the weight of your young body, which was suddenly as breakable as any branch. When I managed to reach the top, I was Leslie Burke, swinging across the river with a yell: “We rule Terabithia and nothing crushes us!” 

To be so high up was like coming up out of the deep end and taking your first breath of chlorine-saturated air. It was looking up at the stars and thinking that if you leaned too far back, you might fall up and into the sky. It was knowing that the power to keep holding on was in your own hands. 

When you’re up so high—on a grimy bar as champagne bubbles rise up in your throat, or among the uppermost curving branches of an elm tree—there's a lightness about you. It’s fitting that the Latin root of “elevated” is “levis,” which means light. When you are elevated, you leave behind the fear of all those eyes that might weigh your shoulders down. Up here, you are without weight, without a body: pure, bright, blinding light. 

A friend once told me that the more elevated a subject is, the less gravity acts upon it. For example, on the very top of Mount Everest, the force of gravity is 9.77 meters per second squared, while for the rest of us down at sea level, it’s 9.81 meters per second squared. It’s a minute difference so insignificant that the human body will barely register the gravitational shift from Mount Everest (let alone the top of the sycamore tree two blocks away from my childhood home). Still, my neck stretches farther, and my shoulders stand straighter when I’m at the top of that tree. Even on top of the bar, the 42 inches of elevation change—let’s say 47, if you add the height of my heels—is euphoric. The air isn’t so heavy with the smell of sweat and beer up there. It rushes into my lungs, and I can dance like nothing has ever held me down, like I've always been floating, airy, free. Or maybe that’s just the champagne talking. 

Emily Dickinson writes that “Delight is as the flight (...) Flung colored, after Rain.” And maybe that’s all the elevation gives us: sheer delight. Maybe the drunk girl, thrusting her hips and waving her arms on the bar and stumbling a little as she dances, isn’t thinking about her childhood in the trees. Maybe she isn’t thinking about the etymology of the word “elevate” or serendipitous allusions to poems by Emily Dickinson. Most likely, she isn’t thinking very much at all, save don’t throw up in front of all these people. Even so, there must be some long-hidden part of her that longs to be up, bobbing and buoyant with lungs full of fresh air, as there is within me. To pull herself above the rest of the world that looks down on her every day. When we were young, the thought of what people whisper about the girls in too-short skirts didn’t weigh so heavily on our scrawny shoulders. Maybe all she wants is to be back in that tree, suspended at the precipice, intoxicated by the possibility of plunging to the earth. Maybe something about dancing on that bar conjures that weightless feeling of skinned knees and tree-bark calloused palms, hair that used to be in a neat ponytail full of bark and pine needles. The feeling of reaching up and up and up.

**The illustration for this article is a study of a work by Devin Elle Kurtz.



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