A mother pigeon roosted on the threshold of the balcony dividing the open air from the apartment we rented at the close of our freshman year of college. For a week, she sat snugly between two doors facing each other as blankly as a woman and her mirror’s reflection. Only one was made from glass, the other a wooden frame strung with wire netting. Someone had cut some of the wire away with scissors in the shape of a lawnmower too small to mow anything.
I was walking toward the balcony to throw the nest in the garbage when Sam said I couldn’t destroy life the mother still was warming. I couldn’t steal her babies as she foraged for worms and spiders she found crawling on our carpet, which we had yet to vacuum because mine had broken and I had no money to repair it. I could, of course, toss the nest whenever I wanted once Sam wasn’t looking. Yet for a while I remained obedient.
Next morning, Sam told me I washed my hair too often. She washed hers only once a week as a way of retaining her hair dye’s color, not red but cinnamon, she told me once without me asking. It complemented her pale complexion regardless, and several men confessed it made them notice the rest of her. Then she held a strand of mine close to her face, saying it lay so deeply in between brunette and blonde it had almost no color. I continued washing it, though, every morning.
And while I pretended to kick the pigeon nest into traffic as she turned to pour herself coffee, she mentioned the light around my head had begun to darken. Even pigeons, she added, were animated by spirit, her word for the sacred presence inhabiting all atoms’ field of emptiness. Spirit alone, she said, sends electrons dancing around an atom’s nucleus. In this way, she came as close as she ever did to explaining how she saw certain aureoles from a distance.
In the past six months, I’d abandoned my lifelong Catholicism, becoming more receptive to Sam’s spirit in the process. After agreeing to live with the pigeons a little longer, I closed my eyes then tried to envision impossibly tiny ghosts cloaked in radiance. I tried imagining them dispersing into steam, becoming yet more ghostly, as when hot water was added to bags of powdered hot chocolate. I tried for the sake of our friendship believing one for every atom existed.
Instead, I saw only bubbles fleeing soap bricks. I opened my eyes and began washing dishes, immersing my hands in suds that shimmered like soft and rounded diamonds. Unlike Sam, I could not see spirits. Still I could envision thousands of bath bubbles hanging off a piece of bloodied mucus.
And though I knew soap bubbles were powerless, I liked them better than any spirit, perhaps because soap bubbles didn’t mind if you popped them. Perhaps because without mirroring Sam’s same loveliness, I could still luxuriate in my own skin awash in all its atoms. Even now, I can sit dry at my desk sunken in a lather of them. I can sit silent until my bubbles cloud and blacken.
From a class on classical civilization, I remembered while drying ceramic plates scalloped at their edges, priestesses in ancient Greece offered pigeons to Venus. The goddess loved the birds because of their fecundity, I imagined, though my professor had cited only their beauty. Venus loved them in any case so much she made them her sacrificial victims. Smoke arising from their burnt corpses looking like gray snakes mutating into dragons became a holy incense. The goddess was charmed while charming their snake souls from them, yet I told Sam nothing about this. I kept it as a secret between myself and Venus.
A day later, I stood in our kitchen making us omelets filled with green peppers and slim slices of Swiss cheese for garnish while the fat hatchlings cheeped as though they were starving, there in their purgatory halfway between the outskirts of Chicago and the walls of our apartment. Their cries grew louder as their mother regurgitated broken worms they choked on when swallowing.
As I flipped the omelets over and watched their albumen bubbling, Sam smoked a cigarette and examined her palms’ etchings, marveling at their seams and pale, smooth tapestry. She held each hand up to a street lamp filigreed by a dogwood tree outside our window facing the alley and compared their lines’ patterns, all her fingers splayed like feathers fanned for flying.
She did this often. She explained more times than can be worth mention that the lines on one hand charted life lived as spirit intended while the other reflected reality, the earth below the heavens. The more closely they matched, the more closely aligned you were with your destiny, she whispered then susurrated until I no longer listened.
The importance of the lines matching she nonetheless repeated while a naked lightbulb in the kitchen flickered like a wind-tossed lantern. And though I still find myself doing the same on occasion, I’ve long forgotten which hand turns the knobs of ovens as spirit might wish it. I’ve forgotten whether the right or left hand flips a book’s pages in league with some gnosis while the other strokes itself in erogenous places. I’ve forgotten which hand decrees what should happen but often doesn’t. I only know that the fate and life lines descending from the center of my palm on my left hand run parallel, never touching. Where the lines meet on the right, there is crosshatching.
Not long afterward while Sam was away at her part-time job stocking shelves in the library, I sat home painting an empty milk carton, an image of beauty impoverished to the point of penury. Shading its handle into the shape an earlobe hanging from its skull too loosely, I heard our handyman, a Montenegrin named Amer with sepia hair grown down to his shoulders, sweeping the hallway.
I dropped my paintbrush onto my palette then opened the door and ushered him toward the nest of pigeon babies. The nest was wedged so tightly between the two doors opening onto our balcony that I didn’t see how the mother nudged either door more widely open. Yet she had flown away for the moment, giving Amer time to dispatch her offspring. He wrapped their small bodies in sandwich paper he found on the counter, using what lay smeared with mayonnaise as makeshift cerements. And for this I am still grateful to him. For this I still nearly love him, because I have never seen anything as ugly as their pink beaks gaping for larvae, their nascent talons and bruised, purple eyelids. The sallow, lurching life of them.
And while the pigeons began suffocating at dumpster’s bottom, Amer resumed sweeping. A few minutes later, he knocked on my door hanging still partly open, when I smiled from behind my easel and thanked him. He left his broom leaning against the doorframe of the opposite unit and walked again through my entrance. He said my eyes and lips were beautiful to him.
I shut the door while refusing to face him, because I didn’t believe him. I was finished, though, with painting the milk carton. I lay down on my bed and listened to the cicadas’ singing rise into a cacophony then lower into silence.
I closed my eyes for several minutes and felt a warmth circulate through my abdomen. The spirits I bathed in had begun to darken. Ink ran through my arteries in place of lye and glycerin. My blood thickened until all the spirits inside me quietened in the blackness now cloaking all their atoms. Amer had hushed them as well as the cries of the young pigeons. Night had at last come to the heavens.
I listened a little longer to my heart’s rhythm then stood and undressed before a mirror Sam had hung outside our kitchen. I let my skirt and blouse drop like brittle leaves from tree limbs. I unhooked my bra and hung it from the doorknob Amer had twisted open. Coiling my panties around my ankle into a silken bracelet, I stretched their cotton isthmus into a rounder island.
Confronting my reflection, I watched my hips, their cream and unbroken surface, widen into a tub for someone to take a bath in. My tongue swam across my gums, rediscovering their softness. With this muscle made for tasting sweetness, I grazed the roof of my mouth in a smooth abrasion.
On the other side of the door, Amer kept sweeping, and I listened to the scrape of his broom as though it were music. I looked through the keyhole, naked and quietly breathing. He would make love to me, I knew, if I wanted. Next time I saw him, buying cereal at the grocery, I could see this was what we both were thinking. For a while, this became enough for me.
After the school year ended, my parents had expected me to return to Indiana. Only rather than working again as a lifeguard while helping with farm chores on weekends, rather than obeying a homing instinct more reliable in pigeons, I waitressed in a diner a few blocks from our apartment. Aside from Amer, no men noticed me noticing them. I had left the only love that was certain for a world lonelier than I imagined.
And I might have gone home that summer had men mounted me as readily as male pigeons will any female of their species, had Amer not been the only one to all but offer himself to me. At least this is what I’ve told myself in the years since. I have told myself that too little male attention made me abandon them, made me distrust people who loved me without question. I have needed, I suppose, to find a reason for leaving them.
In place of real lovers or a boyfriend, I settled for having a friend more attractive than average. I settled for sharing an apartment with a woman who resembled Venus in the painting by Botticelli, almond eyes lost in limpid dreaming while she held hair stained by strawberries to her pubis. I settled but offered the goddess nothing, no doves or pigeons she didn’t need slaughtered to enhance her fecundity.
By escaping the place I was born in, I didn’t succeed in reconciling myself to a near loveless reality. I only avoided becoming again my parents’ oldest daughter. I didn’t mind painting my dad’s barns or driving his tractors, spraying weeds overgrowing his crops with fertilizer, but I didn’t want to be loved for only being familiar. I wanted to continue being someone wearing no clothes behind a door outside which someone was sweeping. I wanted to become someone capable of averting her destiny. My parents’ love, otherwise given so freely, demanded nothing except that I allow them to know me wholly. That threshold summer, I refused them the only thing they asked of me.
I left them for what became forever without quite intending it to happen. I chose Sam over them as soon as I met her my first semester, after which I hardly went home on vacations. I chose her over them even once our friendship ended, because when the world asks you what you are, being a daughter makes no difference. A daughter was hardly anything then and remains even less now that I can no longer be one to either. They both died too quickly for me to resume loving them. Their spirits have never paid me a visit, perhaps in retribution.
Yet while they were living, the most beautiful girl on campus had seen a glow surrounding all my body’s edges. Sam had seen then told me what she witnessed several times in succession. Rainbows shot from out my chakras as I studied in the library then softened into a pastel fusion. Later, she mentioned my soul didn’t fit inside my body but hovered just above it, accounting for my poor coordination and awkward movements. Something angelic about me nevertheless, she insisted, because when she slept in the same room with me her dreams grew more vivid. She had found, she said, someone connected to another dimension.
Yet however weakly bound to sublunary conditions, I still had wanted to rent another apartment. I liked a smaller one with hardwood floors on a quiet side street closer to a grocery. Sam, though, wanted more space to walk back and forth across the carpet. She needed room to inhale the nothingness where all spirit resided, space to study the lines on one hand dictating what is destined to happen and in which the other takes no interest.
The window sills lining our living room and kitchen were wide and barren. The paint that kept the wood from breathing was flaking when we moved in. After we filled all the closets, it molted yet more each evening while we slept, as if the wood itself were metamorphosing into something reptilian. Eventually I bought a can of green paint and painted vines over top the vanishing white. I painted them in the evening, though by morning the vines looked hungry. In the haze of the one lamp we’d bought at an antique outlet, I’d depicted their tendrils reaching with a rapacious longing, some so thick they appeared predatory.
Later, Sam said we needed real plants to usher a higher energy into the apartment, so I took some of my tip money and went to the florist. Were I home with my parents, I’d have spent a majority of my evenings tending to my mom’s flower beds, weeding then showering them with hose water, careful not to deluge petals reticulating with a delicate webbing of veins and arteries. At the florist in Chicago, I chose an Asian pitcher plant, which was flowerless. Something carnivorous that couldn’t be damaged.
Sam asked if we’d need to fetch it insects. I didn’t think so, I responded. Those crawling along the vines I’d painted beneath it would find their way into pitchers whose secretions of nectar tricked them into slipping down their stomachs. Ants and spiders parading along the plant I’d only depicted would find themselves attracted to the one salivating with real digestive juices.
I was watering the plant with soured orange juice while across the nearby intersection, inside a slim stretch of parkland, a man was bouncing on a rope tied between two trunks of two aspens. At first I saw only a shadow moving between them, a tightrope walker lost from his circus. Then I looked more closely at the funambulist casting it and recognized Amer, extending his lean legs longer as he walked and bounced yet higher. Children were gazing up at him dividing the air with both halves of his body.
He fell off the rope and brushed his hair from his forehead once I shouted to Sam to come watch him. She had been dyeing her hair a deeper shade of cinnamon, and she walked toward the window with a towel wrapped around her, the rest of her skin gleaming and alabaster. Listlessly she looked out the window then said that she would do him, and I wondered how long before that happened. I wondered, wishing she wouldn’t.
Feeding our Asian pitcher plant some crumbs from a muffin, she told me she knew the number of atoms in anything on which she focused her attention. She looked at me closely, but I didn’t ask her how many atoms I had, as I sensed she wanted. Instead, I let her stare until her face darkened.
It was my 19th birthday, and Sam had forgotten. I didn’t feel like reminding her either. I didn’t answer a phone call later from my sister and parents. My mom had mailed Sam money, she later told me, with a note asking her to treat me to dinner. Yet we did nothing. Sam, I realized not long afterward, had used the money to buy herself a new sweater. Another piece of clothing men would only take off her.
That evening, I stayed inside and read while listening to Ella Fitzgerald scatting with Sammy Davis Jr. Sam had started dating a man named Eric in his forties who claimed to remember life as a fetus within his mother. He recollected sliding down his mother’s fallopian tubes, he’d told me once when the three of us had coffee. He’d felt squeezed and frightened and had yet to forgive her. His mother lived in Sweden, and more than a decade had passed since he’d taken time to visit.
For years, Eric had worked as a philosophy professor concentrating in Schopenhauer. Only he was recently fired for sleeping with his students and raising their grades based on his pleasure. Sam said he bit all her fingernails, one after the other, while they took taxis downtown together. As they lay sprawled naked on his bed, he bit each in turn yet harder. I wanted my fingernails bitten as well, I never told her or anyone. Instead, I’ve only dreamed of someone doing the same to me, wrapped in sheets and in darkened taxis. It remains a fantasy.
The number of atoms in any given thing or person, I refrained from telling Sam while watching Amer regain his balance, hardly made a difference. In a pigeon breast alone, there must be millions. In the meat I’d never eaten but would if desperate dwelled whole cities of spirits. All those millions of atoms filled with as many spirits, yet only enough pigeon meat in any given bird for a sandwich. Still I wished at times I could witness their radiance. I wished I needed love from bodies less than spirits, which are more abundant.
After searching for Sam on the Internet, I have found only a New York artist raised in Minneapolis. Sam liked to borrow then lose my watercolors without replacing them, so at first I assumed she’d made her quondam hobby into a business. Her website’s portfolio consists solely of underwater swimmers, all women with thick lips like Sam wearing one-piece swimsuits and breaching the water for oxygen.
Yet the artist looks younger than Sam would be now at 36, with long brown hair Sam’s original color whose roots I only glimpsed. She looks even slimmer than Sam was in college. The women filling the paintings are all more curvaceous than the artist, modern mermaids ensconced in bubbles hinting they cannot breathe so easily underwater. Although we see only their upper bodies, I suspect no fins fan below them. The real Sam, however, is not wasting time painting other women less lovely than she is. The real Sam is counting atoms after having orgasms.
Yesterday, I lay beneath a locust tree in the park near the apartment where I often leave my husband to wander among those who are nameless. I swatted honeybees landing on my legs while reading a book on Pluto, that far-flung asteroid and former planet. I read while hardly caring why a ball of ice lost its status once scientists found larger ones circling the rim of our solar system.
Looking up from my book, I watched clouds that once were cumulus thin into ribs coming detached from their spinal columns. I watched and felt a liquid beginning to fill my belly button. In another few minutes, my navel was brimming with sap from either the tree or bees within it, either honey or resin, and the little pool felt sticky when I touched it.
As I rolled over on my front and continued reading, a man resting his back against the tree trunk beside me began strumming a lute. He wore no shirt, only biker shorts stained cherry red from no near or falling fruit. Beside him bounced a macaw with bright blue plumage orbiting the grass surrounding the tree, a bird disinterested in flying. The macaw preened its feathers, oblivious to their bright and blazing beauty. A bird with no palms and so no destiny.
After moving in with Sam, I didn’t go home until Thanksgiving. My mom drove me back to the city and pointed to the new ramparts dividing the freeway from the houses they were shielding. They looked like honeycombs, she said with wonder, the emotion I still associate with her most freely. For a moment, she stared as if she expected honey to ooze from the cracks in the concrete, as if we could taste it were we only to pull the car over on the road’s shoulder. Gray honeycombs piled one on top of the other.
While she drove, I wasn’t wearing my glasses, however. I was listening less to her than to the radio’s music. I was letting the interstate blur in front of me, though had I seen more clearly I also know I would have seen no honeycombs in the concrete.
As she walked with me into our building, Amer was leaving. I introduced him to a woman whose hand he held rather than shook, holding it as if it belonged to a small mammal baby. Gently, he placed his right over top of hers while cradling it with his other. He bent closer to her face and said she had a lovely daughter. He looked at me with all the love spirit had yet to offer, and I saw my mom’s face freeze then brighten with the same realization. He said he had to leave us to begin painting another unit, and after that I ignored him whenever I saw him. I waited for love less easy and got it while my life and fate lines diverged on my left hand at a wider distance.
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