“Did you ever levitate someone?” the woman asks my partner.
We’re in the darkened group-fitness room at the gym, waiting for the Sunday yoga class to start. A few of us had been chit-chatting about something-or-other, and Bret had made a joke about levitating.
“What?” he said. “Oh, you mean that party game…?” He looked at me. “That game you told me about.”
“Right, ‘Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board’,” I said. “That thing we used to do at slumber parties.”
“Yes!” the woman yelped. “I’m so glad you said that! I was beginning to think I had made it up. Even my friends who did it with me say they don’t remember it.”
“No, we definitely did it,” I said, remembering. “And it worked, somehow.”
“It did!” She looked at me almost ravenously. What did she want me to say? “How do you think it worked? It had to be some kind of energy!”
I realized she was going down a path I couldn’t follow. Yes, energy, I wanted to say. F=MA. Work equals displacement in the direction of the force. It’s physics. But it didn’t seem like this little mystery of physics was what made her eyes shiny in the dim room.
“Yeah, I guess it was just that everyone was lifting at the same time…” I said.
“But there was no weight! The person just floated! But I remember that we lifted her all the way up, and then someone laughed and she fell.”
She didn’t say it, but I could see it in her face: “the spell had been broken.” She wanted it to be magic. But it wasn’t. Or at least, the levitation wasn’t what was magical.
I’m sure I could ask my middle-school friends about “Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board” and they would remember it, too. I couldn’t tell you whether we did it once or many times. Middle-school was so long ago now that the edges of the memories have blurred like Instagram photos. Nothing in the corners is clear anymore.
But in the center, if I squint, I can see us, a group of maybe ten girls, one lying on her back, eyes closed, arms crossed on her chest in the posture we believed to signify death. Someone — whoever introduced the rest of us to this game — kneeled at the “dead” girl’s head, intoning in a solemn voice a rather long, improvised story about how the girl had died. Shaman-like. The rest of us kneeled along either side of the “dead” girl, eyes closed, the index and middle finger of each hand poised under the body of the “deceased.” Our job was to listen. Possibly, our job was to allow ourselves to sink into the fiction that was being woven for us, not only about the pretend death of our friend, but about the spell we were casting. About the power we were trying to invoke.
At the appropriate moment, the storyteller would turn the tale to its inevitable conclusion, the moment we were primed for, and we’d join her in chanting “light as a feather, stiff as a board” over and over in unison, lifting, each of us with her four fingers, the dead girl a few inches off the floor. It did work. It was eerie. But it wasn’t supernatural.
Afterwards, we went back to being the giggly, “brace-faced,” “hyper” or “dorky” or “spastic” kids we always were, by our own descriptions (how dated that language seems now!), putting the hand of the girl who fell asleep in warm water or filling that unsuspecting hand with a soft-serve of shaving cream. I never fell asleep — I was that kid — so I was always a participant, not a victim, when it came to writing embarrassing things on people’s bodies with markers or eyeliner, or collecting bras and freezing them in paper cups.
When I think of those times now, what stands out to me is a different sort of mystery than the incantation that allowed us to levitate each other. The actual lifting, I’m pretty sure, was physics, force applied in a direction, moving a mass a little ways through space. What’s astonishing to me now is how we worked together so fluently and agreeably, how we sat in a circle of common purpose, and for a few enchanting minutes, became stronger together than we believed we could be.
There are so many stories about the terrible things people do to each other. True stories. Setting aside the historical — atrocities on a massive scale — and the unthinkable things people do individually — shootings, assault, rape — there are still more stories of the mean and damaging things children and teenagers do and say to each other. These are nearly routine. I remember those realities, too.
But this memory of a ghoulish slumber-party game gives me chills of another kind. There were moments we created together, out of our kinship as girls of 13 or 14, in which we were strong enough to defy gravity. It was a kind of love, I think, a dedication to each other and to the desire to exert some force on the world and see it move. In the daytime, during the week, we went to school and we listened and learned. We mostly did as we were told. But in the middle of the night, with no adults around, we made up our own stories. We believed, and invented the power to lift each other up.
Copyright © 2019 Jennifer Brown. All rights reserved.