Elegy with Red Lace and Birds

by Courtney Justus


In the Buenos Aires of my dreams, it is always summer, slicked over red
tile of my grandmother’s old patio where my brother and I dropped water

balloon after water balloon, green and pink fluorescent as marshmallow
candies from the nearby Plaza de Olivos, balloon skins bursting to something

tender, puddles pooling beneath roses and hydrangeas, a bird of paradise,
the neighbor’s clothesline with starched shirts, a tank top trimmed with white

lace billowing like waves. With our cousins, we ate Kinder eggs and lost
the tiny toys within, not immediately but always: a puzzle, only four pieces,

a translucent blue frog, a yellow bird inside an egg you could crack open
again and again. This before I learned Kinder had been banned in the States,

banned like parts of me I folded, at fifteen, inward like wings of paper cranes.
I was a paper girl in a red plaid skirt, waiting in the rain for the bus before

it got dark, and when I picture the bus stop on Santa Fe where I waited every day
after school on La Calle Libertad, it is always in winter, here where I scraped for coins

in my bubblegum pink coin purse, shivered in torn blue stockings, then trudged
home, hung my head to ask my mother for more spare change. I missed my stop

again and my mother was angry that I was home late, but how could I tell her
I was only waiting? Waiting for the buses she called safe, buses with roses entwined

on the side, buses with vanilla stripes and streaks of scarlet like a blush. They passed
the clinic with meringue walls, the glass-walled coffee shop I never entered,

darkened boutiques with red lace intimates framed in the windowpanes, the kind
you wore on Christmas for good luck. Those sweltering Decembers, candlelit halls

of the San Isidro quinta, my dress patterned with amber suns. It is always
summer at Christmas, but when we lived in the States I forgot, drew pictures

in school of a family in sweaters, not of opal pools or backyard asados or sparklers
singeing my tender finger pads, grey sticks dimmed to dark red. At fifteen, I didn’t

have red lace of my own, was still trying to fit between girls like a corset,
girls with salmon fingernail polish chipped to the quick, girls who spoke

British English, o’s curving inward, a’s hollowed out, their wallets lined
with fifty-peso bills, that flash of lavender a thing of dreams. Ten pesos

wrinkled in my uniform pocket felt like the world, a bridge to ice cream
on concrete steps off Santa Fe y Libertad, sitting by the apple green kiosco

and licking until I reached the caramel center, lips creamy, body laceless
but sitting by other bodies. Those girls called out my ironing board body,

como tabla de planchar, scraped kiwis clean with a plastic spoon as yellow
as that bird I lost and never named. My mother bought me push-up bras, no lace

until the burgundy bra a cup size too big, on the top of the sale pile, and I would
stare down at the half-empty cups, tuck the folds of my stomach into thin fabric, suck

in air, trip on the same tired r’s and d’s, confuse syllables, hold my tongue as words
of the skirted girls piled like Jenga towers around me. My handwriting barely fit

on the lined pages in my purple binder: indistinguishable e’s, jagged I’s, letters
ballooning across the lines. I never filled that space of curving lace bracketing

my girl body. Nunca encajé con esas chicas. No fitting in. Nunca encaje, never lace
like the taut bralettes on plastic bodices, like bird wings slicked over girl skin.

Courtney Justus was born in Houston, Texas, raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and now lives in the suburbs of Chicago. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. She is a Tin House YA Workshop alumna, a Best of the Net nominee, and a recipient of residencies from SAFTA and the Weymouth Center for the Arts and Humanities. Her work appears in The Acentos Review, Frozen Sea, Anti-Heroin Chic, Isele Magazine and elsewhere. You can find her at