I understood—instinctively, if not denotatively—the word ethereal before I stumbled across its definition during junior-year SAT prep. Ethereal: extremely delicate and light in a way that seems too perfect for this world. Ethereal: it’s the silver ribbon of sound that threads the air when Elise reads her lines for Pandora’s Box; the twist of Lauren’s hair in its ballerina bun; the cowlick in Meghan’s hair, the one that sets off her heart-shaped face like a shower of sparks. Ethereal is the China-doll skin of Emily’s neck when she bends over her algebra homework and the thrill of my sister’s Clinique Happy perfume. You call a girl ethereal when her eyelashes dust her brows, the way Julie’s do, or when a glance at Ella’s limbs makes you think of willow trees.
All my girlhood, I wanted to be ethereal. I wanted that watermark—that one perfect freckle, that dainty wrist-flick, that je ne sais quoi so many girls wear like pearls—as much as I wanted to be loved by the girls who had it. I thought of Carrie Ann’s cerulean eyes and Raquel’s electrifying laugh and wanted to cup that beauty in my palms like a lightning bug. Long before I knew I loved girls in a romantic way, I knew I loved them in an important way. The way that I loved the smell of changing leaves, or the crunch of a perfect Honeycrisp, or taking that big breath before blowing out the candles on my birthday cake. The way that I longed to love myself.
One day in second grade, I stumbled across a white hardback book in the nonfiction section of the library. Witches & Magic-Makers, the cover hollered in red block-script. Beneath the title stood a robed man with a long white beard, one hand contorted in a wizardly way, the other holding open a spellbook. Beside him were a cauldron, a broomstick, and a black cat. The book, chock-full of incantations and potions, was my custom-made birthday present from the universe. It was my chance to bid adieu to the piddling magic of Sabrina and Harry Potter and enter the clandestine, cobwebby portal to real magic.
Brimming with anticipation, I dimmed the lights in my bedroom and hunkered down cross-legged on the carpet. After hours of painstaking indecision, I decided that the first potion I’d attempt would be “Aromatic Magic.” The book hailed it as an old favorite for attracting love, and I had a lover lodged firmly in mind. Scott Nichols was the most popular boy in Mrs. Roberts’ class— he beat all the boys in gym class, no matter the game. And he had gelled hair that gleamed under the fluorescent classroom lights. Plus, with Scott Nichols as my boyfriend, I’d automatically be the most popular girl in class.
I followed the book’s instructions as well as I could: I gathered sage, rosemary, and thyme (all McCormick’s brand, all pilfered from the kitchen cabinet) and dumped them in a green plastic bucket (after all, I didn’t have a “satchet bag” in which to keep my herbs) and sloshed in a few cups of water (the instructions didn’t call for water, but how, I reasoned, could a potion be dry?) and stirred the mixture with my mother’s best wooden ladle. I didn’t have bergamot oil to drop into the potion every seven days, and I couldn’t very well keep the bucket under my pillow or next to my skin, the way the instructions said to, so I just sat it under a pine tree in the backyard and hoped for the best.
Days blurred into weeks as I waited for Scott Nichols to realize his dying love for me. I figured it must be buried way down deep in his heart—it had to be, since it was taking him so long to find it. (Sixteen years later, he still hasn’t discovered it.) I waited for Scott Nichols all autumn, and all throughout the slush of winter, and then I unclenched my hopes and let them stagger away. When I rediscovered my green bucket the following year, it was brimful with rainwater and speckled with mud. I dumped it out lest the standing water attract mosquitoes.
So Witches & Magic-Makers wasn’t my key to ethereality—fine. I turned to my imagination for magic, certain that if the ever-so-wise narrator of Matilda was to be believed, we only use a tiny portion of our brains. If I could break out of that tininess, I knew I could be as powerful—maybe more powerful—than my hero, Matilda. All it’d take was focus.
My best friend, Nadia, became the tortured bystander to my quest to ethereality. First, I told Nadia that I had the rare and marvelous ability to see invisible people. In fact, certain people could actually choose to become invisible, and they liked to hang out with me. Aaron Carter was one such person. After a few days of meeting Aaron on the playground during recess, I confessed to Nadia that he’d asked me to be his girlfriend.
“There he is,” I’d whisper, pressing my palm against the window of our second-floor classroom. “Don’t you see him? On the jungle gym? He’s waiting for me.”
Nadia, bless her soul, always kept a straight face when she said that, no, she couldn’t see Aaron, but boy did she wish she could. And I would sigh and smile—with only a modicum of smugness—and tell her that if she focused, she could develop my special powers, too. It’s a testament to our BFF-ship that we kept up the Alaina’s-seeing-invisible-boyfriends ruse for months.
Eventually, though, Aaron and his antics grew stale. When winter suffocated our town, leaving the playground patched in frost and mud and the sky the color of stainless steel, I knew Nadia and I needed an extra dose of magic in our lives. So, one recess, I led Nadia under the big oak tree in the corner of the schoolyard and told her I had a secret.
“This tree,” I said solemnly, placing one ungloved hand on the cold trunk, “is the Tree of Life. It’s the portal to another world.”
How Nadia didn’t roll her eyes, I’ll never know.
“Place your hand on it like this,” I said, nodding at her, my eyes wide. I waited until she complied.
“All right, now, close your eyes.”
When we opened our eyes, we were in an alternate universe. Yes, everything looked the same, but it wasn’t: the skies were grayer, the air was more billowy, and we were witches. We could control the weather and cast spells that our classmates couldn’t see and wage wars against invisible monsters. We adventured over the barren, windy hills, pretending to be battered by storms no one else could sense, and we cast away demons that swooped down from the clouds and banished rival witches who lurked in the woods. We tried to topple power lines via telekinesis so our school would get an early dismissal. We avoided ice because it was infested with Blizzaks (which were, incidentally, the name of my dad’s snow tires, but Nadia didn’t need to know that)—shape-shifting black demons that would rise out of the ice and devour us.
But eventually being witches got boring. Spring came and suddenly the playground didn’t seem the least bit eerie or enchanted. The grass was thickening and the birds were returning and everything looked depressingly suburban, depressingly normal.
And then I happened upon the book Ella Enchanted, and my sense of magic was renewed. I hurried to find Nadia.
“Nads,” I squealed, “I have a secret! But you can’t tell anyone.”
Nadia, now older and wiser, raised her eyebrows.
“I’m cursed.” I waited for this confession to trigger an avalanche of emotion on Nadia’s part. After a few moments of her non-reaction, I forged ahead. “I have to obey any command anyone gives me. Like, if someone told me to do a…a backflip, I’d have to do it.”
Nadia’s mouth hardened into a flat line. “Then do a backflip,” she said in a monotone.
My heart stalled.
“What?” I blinked at my best friend. “Here? You’re really gonna make me do that here?”
Nadia nodded. “Yup. Right here. Do it now.”
I dropped my eyes to my laminated desk. I didn’t do the backflip, and I never brought up my “curse” ever again.
But my nagging need to be ethereal, like a stomachache that wouldn’t go away, sat with me through all of my schooling years. My vision of ethereal changed from wielding magical powers to simply having clear skin and fitting into a size four at American Eagle. Ethereal meant observing and obeying the social order. It meant watching the track team’s sprinters shoot around the track like the arm of a human Ferris wheel and admiring the girls’ chiseled stomachs and metallic bras and taking notes on how to be more them and less me.
I realized I would never be as enchanted with myself as I was with the girls around me, and for the first time in my life I felt truly cursed. Why did I have to be a laundry list of flaws and shortcomings? And why was I so blah, so me, when every other girl got to be silhouetted with starshine, dappled with charisma, candied with the scent of September?
I brooded through the beginning of my college years, hawk-eyeing other girls’ bodies—always better than mine, scrutinizing their personalities—always more bubbly than mine, and festering in self-pity. My therapist attributed my fascination with other girls to low self-esteem, and I figured that since she had three diplomas, she must be right. So I kept pining after the girls around me, now not only adoring their bodies and minds and hearts but also their well-developed self-esteem, and I resigned myself to a life of miserable adoration.
And then, fast as casting a spell, I was stolen from my sorry world and dropped into what felt like an alternate universe. The magical ending came when I was sitting at a laminated desk, eyes down, trying not to look as inferior as I felt—a girl walked in and showed me a magic I couldn’t ignore. I looked at her and I thought: oh. She answered questions I hadn’t realized I’d posed.
What separated this girl from Elise and Lauren and Meghan and Emily and Julie and every other girl who’d ever sent shockwaves through my soul? Nothing. Everything. She wasn’t as pretty as Emily or as lithe as Lauren or as sweet as Meghan. To be honest, she wasn’t pretty or lithe or sweet at all, and yet one glance at her confirmed that my life was rewriting itself.
You see, this girl was openly queer.
Just by existing she showed me how to locate my own ethereality. She didn’t come from ivory-sidewalked suburbs where the biggest scandal around involved which families had skipped Easter service or whose parents were considering divorce. She didn’t shop at Hollister or Abercrombie in meek deference to her better-liked peers. She had short hair and look-at-me biceps and a smile that made my insides feel like a bottle of champagne just uncorked. Truthfully, I knew nothing concrete about this girl, didn’t know if she’d break my heart or remake it, but I wanted to find out. I wanted her magic, but mostly I wanted her. And I dared to wonder if she might want me back.
If there is anything ethereal about me, it’s my queerness, it’s my ability to see a brown-haired girl and suddenly understand the definition of sacred, it’s the way I can read a map of the stars in my girlfriend’s fingerprints. I will never be as enchanted with myself as I am with the girls around me, but I will always be enchanted by the way my girlfriend’s lips undo me and remake me in the same kiss. And maybe I’ll never master telekinesis or harness the wind or concoct a potion, and maybe that’s okay. Maybe those aren’t the brands of magic I was missing, or was wanting, at all.
Alaina Symanovich is an MFA student at Florida State University with a concentration in creative nonfiction. Her work has appeared in Sonora Review, Entropy, The Offbeat, Fogged Clarity, and other journals. Damaged Goods Press recently published her book of poems titled “Fortune.”