“For your transgressions, may you live as you deserve!”
“Ma’am, please just go on through, the train is right there,” I’m trying not to sigh my entire soul through my teeth.
It’s been a long freaking day. Halloween hits and everyone thinks they’re funny and I am a captive audience for them personally, and, like, can I just do my job, please? I got it, tricks are fun; the treat is my suffering. Next in line, please? And now I’ve offended some elderly woman in a patchwork hat in the damn subway just trying to get my tired ass home. That is literally all I want right now. I just want to go home from my crappy job that super does NOT pay me enough and I don’t know exactly what I did to piss her off, but whatever it was–
My stomach lurches.
The train is rumbling and I can barely hear the woman muttering as she ka-thunks her way through the turnstyle.
Of all the times for everything to catch up to me—all I can think is how I’m now that jerk standing in the middle of everything holding up the flow of traffic. I try to shuffle off to the side, so I can hurl in peace if I need to, but the floor seems to swallow me whole and the feeling of plummeting hits me and my roiling guts like a freight train behind schedule.
A rumbling like a million trains at once fills my ears. The sound reverberates through my bones and my guts aren’t rolling so much as pulsing now. Somehow it feels steady and soothing, like my body was too quiet before.
With all the noise and hustle of everyday life? To quiet?
But this is more like being in the middle of a live concert, you know?
“Rrrrrbbt,” a feeling somewhere between coughing and humming.
Eyes open and THAT IS THE BIGGEST— BUG—OH “RRRRRRBT RRRBBT REEEEE”– ‘HOLY MOTHER OF TOADS!’ Those sounds are coming out of me!
And then I’m leaping away, my poor impulse control is finally gone and damned if I can’t stop the compulsion to run from my own visceral panic before SPLASH! The pulsing in and around me literally engulfs me, warm at first, cooling as I sink, and deliciously wet. At which point I become aware of two very important things:
1) I am a little frog. Just a little guy in the world. I am here.
2) Weighted blankets have nothing on the pressure of the water holding my little body suspended with the barest flick of my little froggy feets.
Some part of me is quietly losing my ever-loving shit, but is torn between the delight of little guy froggy with little froggy feets, and the sheer cosmic horror that I am— something has happened? To me? Brain is not focusing on it exactly, because what the fuck, but probably also because I am a FROG.
I kick, I kick, I relish the physical sensation of my limbs and the water warming as I come back to the surface, not for the air, but for the heat. Again, it’s soothing. I’m dimly wondering if I should be regretting the detour to the sandwich shop next to my building, the one that sells the discount day olds, or hoping they never stop feeding folks like me who chose between rent and groceries, because $3.75 for this is probably a steal.
FISH, FISH, FISH, FISH, FISH!
I’m back out of the water and clinging to a stick, away from the biggest fuck off fish I have ever seen in my life, wondering if all the cheap, just-got-paid sushi nights are coming back to bite my froggy little ass, my little heart is hammering and I finally understand the line “in my throat,” because that’s basically where it is.
The wind blows and the world tips and that fish is under me, but my stick holds me above water. I feel hunted, but somehow this is still better than dodging the landlord and the calls from my electric company updating me that I’m out of grace.
A beetle flashes in the sun in the distance, and for a moment, my mind’s eye sees a patchwork hat before my tongue is out and I am once again free falling, trajectory: beetle-ward, landing zone: away from the fish.
Something sticky under my hands slips through my fingers, my tail bone stings, my head aches, and the rumble of the train is not so soothing rattling my teeth in a familiar uncomfortable way. I’m propped on my elbow on the train floor, and maybe I fell sleep standing, which is such an embarrassingly rookie move. I want to scrape the skin off my hand when I get home. A teenager rummages in her bag and gingerly holds out a fistful of napkins to me as I haul myself up. I nod at them in thanks and feel my heart break, surprised to be angry for the loss of a life I didn’t know I wanted.
I make it home, chuck my coat and my jeans in a bucket to soak out the worst of the metro sludge, shower, and go to sleep. Maybe I can get the dream back.
We are in November. Christmas music has been blaring for days over the loudspeaker. Why??
I find myself looking for the damn hat in the same stop most evenings.
Maybe if I beg, I can go all at once by fish. I looked it up and most of them don’t have teeth. I might not even notice. I could get the warmth of the water and the peace of a world overwhelmingly and comfortingly so much bigger than me before it all comes to a neat and useful end. I don’t even need to know what kind of fish.
I am so pitifully desperate for a what was probably just some wild dissociative episode.
I’m so busy looking for the goddamn hat, that I run right into some broad-shouldered mountain of a human in a patchwork vest. I blink, nose smarting from the run-in with a disturbingly familiar selection of fabrics. Firm hands set me back and I look up into a critical, unamused eye.
“You weren’t meant to enjoy that, you know,” the mountain frowns in disapproval.
“I didn’t—uh, I didn’t mean to—uhm…” I trail off suddenly unsure what exactly I’m defending. I know I haven’t found the same old woman again, but I feel like whatever I want to say to her, I should say it now.
One eyebrow lifts, waiting.
It’s like being a little frog again. Brain doesn’t want to fully work and all my thoughts are happening at once and jumbled and then I’m crying in the middle of the platform.
A heavy hand lands on my head. WHUMPF, WHUMPF, WHUMPF.
I am trying desperately to inhale enough air to say something, anything, around the ball in my throat, my eyes are watering so much I can’t see, but I know this person is taking some kind of pity on me.
I inhale and exhale and “KEEEEEEER!”
Oh fuck, yes. Not exactly the same, but I will absolutely take it!
The air is rushing and I can feel it moving with too many parts of my skin in a ticklish way, because it’s more that it’s ruffling all the individual points stuck into it than touching me directed. It makes me shiver.
Feathers. They’re feathers. My vision is—still kind of swimming? Separated? I can’t make sense of it with the same concerted effort as I usually need to make out a sandwich board down and across a busy city street, so I stop trying to twist my head this way and that before I crack a bone.
There is no fish to eat me here. There is no busted water heater. There’s no customer service line. The sound of others scrabbling in the tree, but more importantly, the thrum of activity vibrating into my feet from my very specific tree limb shoots me into the air. I don’t even bother with the part of me mentally choking on my own spit and just want to live with this whooshing sensation.
It’s short lived.
Another body slams into mine and up is no longer a specific direction. Birds and frogs share that same space in the throat reserved for when the heart has too much energy for one little chest cavity. I’m obviously in danger, and that’s where the remnants of my human mind flare into focus.
Unfortunately, it has terrible focus.
I’m feeling for the air to grip me the way my little bird brain knows it should while simultaneously knowing the sheer joy of living and dying outside of the bullshit of human systems, when a cry goes up overhead.
Ah, that way is up! Those are others who’ve come to chase off the predator intent on me! I swoop up to meet them and be among them. All of us circling, diving, plucking, screaming, and there’s no part of me that isn’t fully invested in this. I have never been so elated.
Realistically, I know this is more in defense of the whole group than just me, but all the same, why have I never felt this kind of support in human life? Why have I had so little opportunity to be this kind of support? I am fueled as much by my determination to fight as part of the whole as my rage against the social structures that failed me in this way.
I adored little dude froggy life, but this—
And then there I am stumbling into a news stand.
I want to scream my bird scream.
I mutter apologies, check the time, and stumble back to wait for the train.
I don’t know what’s happening. I don’t care. Live as I deserve? What did I do to deserve this?
I get into a fight with my manager. It’s earlier than usual for me to be on my way home, so I take my time as much as anyone can in the regular rush of foot traffic. When I get to the stop, I can’t bring myself to go down. I can’t bring myself to face the potential of running into the patchwork whatever they are. I want it too much.
I can’t face being yanked back into this place.
I don’t know what they meant to happen to me, or what I could have possibly done to go through—all this. There’s a park across the street, so I cross away from the stop, away from the hope and the rough return and the dismal head space that follows. I walk in and keep walking.
I suddenly understand all the movies where someone takes a walk to clear their head.
The sounds of the city are almost distant filtering through the bodies of trees the farther in I go. The wind moves my hair, and it’s not a dissimilar feeling to the way it ruffled in my feathers. It hurts to think about. I wonder if throwing myself into the pond will give me the same warmth in my skin that was so satisfying as a frog. The edge of the pond is a few yards off the path, so off I go to sit by the water.
I can’t help wondering what I might have known next.
The ground is damp. It seeps into my jeans. I decide mammal skin definitely doesn’t experience sensation the same as amphibian, but I stay put to watch the water.
After a while a patchwork quilt lands beside me. I don’t even give a shit. Whatever is coming is just gonna be whatever it is.
“You’re very peculiar, you know?” A lanky kid, all knees and feet and elbows, sprawls next to me on the quilt.
“I don’t even know what I did to you,” I shrug. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t change the world. “Sorry for whatever it was, I guess.”
The kid lounges back, jutting their legs out and idly knocks the toes of their shoes together.
I flop back on the wet grass idly hoping it’s muddy enough to sink into.
They glance over and frown. With the kind of long-suffering sigh perfected in teenagerhood, they blow out the words I honestly didn’t really need. “It wasn’t a good day for me.”
My entire world and how I exist in it got shaken up, because—
“You turned me into a frog.”
“Because you were having a shit day.”
“And I was part of that somehow?”
“You bumped me.”
“I bumped you…”
“I thought you were rushing me.”
A turtle surfaced its head in the middle of the pond and blipped back under after a moment.
“You got better, though.” One of their feet wobbles back and forth, and they don’t sound all that confident about it.
I have a few different choice responses like:
a) Define ‘better’?
b) I didn’t even notice you were in front of me until you were in my face about it
c) All that power to hurl my body and soul through whatever the fuck that was, and you can’t keep your temper to yourself???
d) What the fuck
I don’t say anything.
“You didn’t mean any harm. I said what I did in a fit—unbecoming of my age…”
I don’t question it.
“…and I didn’t think through that what you deserve is better than what you’re getting.”
This hits harder than it probably should.
We’re both quiet listening to the cyclists back on the path and the horns wailing as if from another world rather than just beyond the tree line. Birds sing and I think about community, I think about inevitability and the way its relative and not, I think about depression, about apathy, about human connection, and—I am spiraling so hard that I imagine an autopsy of my organs frozen in this moment will find them knitted into half a sweater.
“Can’t you send me back?” I swallow, somehow knowing the answer isn’t what I’m gonna want.
They shake their head and shrug roughly. “I shouldn’t have done it in the first place.”
“But it’s not that you can’t?” The thought is occurring to me as the words are pressing desperately for more.
The kid leans over to look me in the face, holding my watering eyes before they answer. Again, they shake their head, beads clicking in the air above me. “I also just can’t,” they push back, the emphasis feeling a little desperate in return. “I can only exert so much force at once? I don’t know how to explain it exactly.” They toss back to lie on the quilt next to me.
The space in the frog and bird throats is shared by humans, too. My heart is thumping away in there as I’m making connecting the dots.
“That’s why I came back so quickly?”
A jerky shrug in my peripheral vision. A reluctant nod.
I think I already knew what I wanted before they found me. “Send me back, please.”
Their hand is in mine, squeezing.
“I can’t keep you there.”
I squeeze back and nod. “I know.”
All of me is warm and the smell of milk is heavy in my nose. A rumbling in my small bones tells me I’m safe and I stretch untested limbs into the boundaries of other bodies around me.