My Nest Away From Nest
MONDAY, OCTOBER SIXTH. Hawthorne University of Applied Sciences is located in Boston, Massachusetts. The school is just off of Huntington Avenue, on Parker Street. Hawthorne was founded in 1932 by Nelson Hatch, who had also been an esteemed member of the National Audubon Society. The school has always had a strong connection to the Audubon Society (Anton Frye, the university’s current Dean of the Faculty, is also an Audubon member) and the ornithology program is the only reason students even attend Hawthorne as it is widely regarded as one of the best in the world. Greater Boston has over thirty-five university campuses, and the likes of Harvard, UMass, and MIT leave Hawthorne and its bird program in some rather large educational shadows. But if you know birds, you’ve heard of Hawthorne University, and if you never studied there you wished you did.
It’s Monday morning and I find myself getting back to my nauseatingly monotonous routine. Or is it monotonously nauseating? I won’t bore you with the mundane details of the route delays on my way to work, but I still somehow managed to arrive earlier than usual. It seemed unusually usual, or something along those lines. I’m not even sure what that means exactly, but that was exactly how I felt: there was something so very not right with the way the morning felt, that it didn’t seem to worry me in the least. Unusually usual.
The radio this morning tells me that the six swan boats from the lagoon in Boston’s Public Garden were stolen last night. The famous boats had been moored to the dock waiting for the return of spring, but somehow somebody bird-napped all six of the giant fiberglass Mute Swans (Cygnus olor). It’s one of the strangest crimes I’ve ever heard of, and there’s no leads as of yet. Sometimes the reasons for why so many people do so many ridiculous and cruel things can really surprise me.
I pull into the university staff parking lot, park my car and turn the engine off. It’s bitter cold, but my gloved hands are wrapped around the giant-sized cup of Brazilian Copacabana Beach Bourbon blend. I learned from the coffee menu board that the Copacabana Bourbon is a nutty blend with subtle cocoa notes. A mild and pleasing complexity. Who knew how fascinatingly diverse a cup of coffee could be?
I stay in my car for a few more minutes in an attempt to mentally plan out my day. I do this sometimes; I try to decide how the day will unfold before it actually happens. One time I was pretty dead on, but that was one positive note out of who knows how many miserable days I’ve had here. Okay, I admit it’s not as bad here as I make it out to be, but this is how you subconsciously see your world when there’s a giant void that needs filling: you hope that it gets filled as soon as possible, so that you can simply get on with your life. You imagine everything else just falling into place after that.
Right now, I’m wondering what new blend of coffee I’ll try after work, and I’m also imagining that I’ll be able to avoid Jerry Humphries all day.
I look up from my seat, and I notice Professor Nickwelter’s car right in front of mine, facing me. This isn’t his usual spot, so I just assume that a substitute instructor or some clueless student took Nickwelter’s regular parking space. I stare at the car for a minute, remembering a time when I was all too familiar with the sight of it: a black Honda of some sort with the same long, twisted crack in the windshield. If I was in the passenger’s seat and I looked through the splintered window at just the right angle, I could see two cars in front of me when there should only have been one. Maybe two shining Hancock Towers instead of one. Perhaps two Willets (Tringa semipalmata) flying above the traffic in front of me. The long, stout bill and distinctive black and white underwing pattern easily identify a willet. Or I might have been lucky enough to see two setting suns, turning the Massachusetts skies into an amazing concoction of brilliant reds, oranges and blues. The most beautiful of these colors would seem trapped right there between that crack. I always tried to keep my head in just the right position, so as to make the most out of my travels with the conversationally-challenged Professor Nickwelter.
I decide to get out of my car and take a closer look, telling myself this is purely for old time’s sake. I sling my bag over my shoulder, and with books and coffee in hand I walk closer to the scratch on the hood from when I tossed him the set of keys he’d forgotten from my apartment window. There must have been thirty or so keys on that one big metal ring. I never had a clue as to what they were all for.
There’s the dented hubcap from when he tried to make a point about how reliable his Honda was. “See, you can knock it as hard as you want, and the car can take it,” he said, giving it a good, hard kick. The hubcap flew right off, and we had to hammer out the indent from the toe of his shoe to fit it back on again. His designer shoe from Italy, of course. Much like his car, for some reason Professor Nickwelter never liked anything that was made in America. Which is why I think he was attracted to me in the first place.
I peer in through the front passenger’s window, and imagine myself sitting beside him again. Those seats were almost unbearable, not because of the make of the car, but because Nickwelter’s wife sat in this car more often than I ever did. Beth Nickwelter has a much larger frame than I do, so this seat had conformed to her shape much better than mine. I was swimming in the seat of my boyfriend’s wife.
It was on a class field trip a few years ago, when Nickwelter first made his intentions clear. I was the student and he was the teacher. Myself and a few more of his students accompanied Professor Nickwelter to Cape Cod to take part in the Christmas Bird Count, an annual count of bird life taken primarily during the Christmas week. Groups of birders from the U.S. and Canada are assigned a day and an area fifteen miles in diameter, and they make a list of all wild birds they see on that day. The twenty-seven of us reported one hundred and thirty-three species that day, the majority being the 4474 Herring Gulls (Larus argentatus) and the 4051 Dunlins (Calidris alpina). Unusual species we had spotted were the Least Sandpiper (Calidris minutilla) and the Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea), of which we saw two of each. I almost missed the one Northern Saw-Whet Owl (Aegolius acadicus) entirely when my teacher and I were making out in the woods.
I felt horrible about having a relationship with a married man; it was probably the worst thing I’d ever done. But Professor Nickwelter loved me much more than he ever loved his wife, even though he never told me so. Those three little words that every girl waits to hear were never spoken. At least not to me anyway. I’m twenty-nine now and I’m still waiting for someone to tell me they love me.
If I hadn’t slept with Professor Nickwelter.
I run my fingers along the edge of the roof as I try to remember everything I can about this car. But then suddenly, my stomach seems to jump into my mouth; there’s someone in the backseat! I jump back awkwardly, tripping over my own feet. The coffee spills on the ground and one of my textbooks hits the back door as it flies from my grasp. Did this person see me? Was he watching me the entire time? I only hope that I can retrieve my book and get out of sight before some vagabond in the back of Nickwelter’s car jumps out and grabs me.
I try to reach for my book without getting too close to the car, but then the window rolls down and Professor Nickwelter sticks his head out. “Isabelle?” he asks, without really asking a question.
“Professor?!” I put my hand over my heart, in an attempt to calm myself down. Considering how close my relationship to Professor Nickwelter once was it does seem a little strange that that is what I call him. Professor. The truth is, I don’t even think about his first name anymore. Call it an experiment, or maybe I’m just fooling myself, but perhaps I can will myself to forget it. Everyone else around here calls him ‘Professor Nickwelter,’ so why shouldn’t I? Besides, what better way to forget a memory then to start with a name? “You scared me,” I tell him.
“What are you doing here?” he continues, probably already aware that I never call him by his first name anymore. So aware that it doesn’t even bother him.
“I just dropped my book, and now I’m picking it up,” is the best I can come up with.
“Oh. I see.” And that’s the best he can come up with. I think he outdid me.
I take the textbook into my hand and notice him watching me. It’s not so much that he’s watching me, but more like he’s staring blankly in my direction. Almost exactly how I was staring into the void of the screw on the bus four nights ago. I wipe the coffee off of the wet side of my book.
“What are you doing in the back of your car, Professor Nickwelter? Were you sleeping?”
“Hmm?” he asks. I seem to snap him right out of the peculiar state he’s in. “Oh, why yes. Yes, I was.”
I’ve tried my best for the last two years to not give Professor Nickwelter too much of a thought. I mean, that part of my life was over, right? It was temporary at best. The silly crushes and, as much as I loathe the word, affairs have to end eventually. So why do I choose this moment to approach the man who’s given me nothing more than misery, heartache and a birthday dinner? I suspect it’s because these feelings of loneliness, inadequacy and rejection have been piling up since the moment he broke it off with me two years ago. I think it’s the fact that I need to feel safe somewhere. With someone. Maybe anyone. So I ask him, “Do you mind if I sit with you for a moment?”
“You know you don’t need to ask something like that Isabelle,” he replies with a reactionary flick to unlock the door. I get in, but leave the door open behind me.
We sit side by side quite uncomfortably and with words unspoken for some time. It must have been a few minutes, but I can’t be certain. Our eyes glance off one another’s, back and forth. Something desperately needs to be said here in order to break this silence, but I’m sure as sugar not going to budge. I don’t even know what I’m doing in the back seat of this haunted car anyway. It smells funny; not like how this car used to smell, but a new kind of scent. One that doesn’t bring any memories at all to the surface, like smells are renowned for.
“Beth and I had a fight last night,” he starts. “Again. She didn’t kick me out, but it wouldn’t have been long before she did. I always did have to make the first move with her.”
“I’m sorry,” is the most obvious I can do. I’ve always hated how I seem to want to apologize for other people’s mistakes.
“It’s not your fault,” he says calmly.
Of course it wasn’t. But I still feel at least partially guilty. Whether he wants me to feel this way or not, it’s there. “Well, in a way,” I admit, “it kind of is my fault. Don’t you think?”
“Nonsense. Not at all. It’s my fault for being this way.” I’m not sure in what way exactly he’s intimating at, for I know Professor Nickwelter in many ways. He’s kind, yet selfish. Warm, yet isolated. Handsome, yet unattainable.
He stares down at his folded hands. His tired eyes are distant, and seem focused on something that’s been forever out of his reach. His skin is leathery from years of smoking, but those years are now far behind him. In fact I wouldn’t have known that he’d smoked at all if his face hadn’t shown it. But there’s no denying that he is still an attractive man. My mother once told me when I was a little girl that men were most attractive in their forties. Of course I didn’t believe her when I was younger, but I know now that she was right. Even though Professor Nickwelter must be at least fifty. I don’t know for sure because he’s done a remarkable job at dodging my date-of-birth inquiries over the years. I notice his eyes are tearing up. I get the feeling that he really has no idea where his life is going anymore. If indeed he ever had any idea.
“It’s always been my fault Isabelle,” he continues.
But what about me? Do I really have an idea as to where it is I’m heading? I turn my head and look out the open door to my right. I see Jerry Humphries parking his ugly brown car a few of spots over. I close the door quickly so that obnoxious little slime won’t see me. I see him take a large empty birdcage from out of the trunk, and he walks from his car to the faculty entrance.
Just as I turn back to Nickwelter, he wipes some tears from his eyes. I put one hand on his knee and move a little closer to him. Maybe it’s just that I’ve been feeling a little undersexed lately, but I can’t seem to help myself. Desire and emotion can only be bottled up for so long before they simply find the easiest possible release.
If only Templeton had returned from the washroom.
If Claude had simply asked me The Question.
He stops weeping, just long enough for me to timidly inch my words a little closer to his ear. “Do you still love me?” I ask. Even as I’m saying the words, I don’t really know why they’re being said. By the time I realize I’m still in control, it’s too late. The words are already out there. Although a part of me is hoping he might say yes.
“I already sent my signals Isabelle,” he turns and says quietly. “Do you really have to ask me that?”
Yes, he’d sent his signals, just like the Australian Superb Fairy-Wren (Malurus cyaneus). A courting male will pluck a bright yellow flower and show it off against his own cobalt-blue plumage. Nickwelter is also similar to the fairy-wren in that they are socially monogamous, yet sexually promiscuous birds: pairs will bond for a long time, but they will mate with many other individuals during that time.
And if you’re keeping score, the percentage of bird species that are monogamous is ninety. The percentage of mammal species? Three.
“Unfortunately, my marriage is a little shaky right now. I can’t risk losing Beth.”
Now he thinks of his wife? It seems as though those two are always arguing about one thing or another. I pull back a little and ask him, “What are you saying? That if your marriage was going just fine, you’d say yes?”
“Yes. I would.”
“That’s sickening! Here I am, looking for something, for anything! Some twit stood me up the other night, and all I’m feeling right now is that I’ve spent my entire life being rejected! And you’re just worried about yourself, and some fat wife that would never love you another day of your life if she ever found out about your affair! With one of your students, no less!”
“You are talking about yourself, are you not?”
“Of course I am! Why, are you sleeping with another one of these kids?” I know I’m mad at the man, but I’m not sure what’s made me fly off the handle like this. I consider that perhaps it’s all the coffee I’ve consumed over the last few days.
Nickwelter notices too. He knows I’m usually more in control of my emotions. “Isabelle. Bella. We all make silly, stupid mistakes that we regret for the rest of our lives. It’s terribly normal in a depressing sort of way. What went on in this car a minute ago…all I’m asking is for you to try and forget about that, and everything else that’s ever happened between the two of us. Please? Can’t you do that for me?”
I’ve got to give the man at least some credit for almost making it sound easy.
“Believe me, Professor. I will certainly try!” I get out of the car, and slam the door behind me. I hate myself for a moment when I think of the words I just said to this man. A man who, for better or worse, is still a good friend of mine. But how could he say those things to me? I mean, to think that I was still hung up on him. Really? It was only a moment of weakness on my part, wasn’t it? I suppose that’s how it all started back in Cape Cod years ago. And I suppose that’s how things like that always start: in moments of weakness.
I walk angrily towards the ornithology department’s faculty entrance, but I stop when I see Jerry Humphries coming back outside. I freeze for a moment, and wonder if I should head back to Nickwelter’s car to apologize, if only to simply avoid this oncoming weasel. Another moment of weakness. I can’t believe I don’t find myself in more awful situations than I do, seeing how often my mind wants to run back to its familiar comfort zones.
But I don’t turn back. I walk right by Humphries. Sure, he might have smiled perversely and said a greasy good morning. And yes, I might have caught his reflection in the school doors, observing me from behind as we passed one another. I do my best to put both of these men out of my thoughts for now. All I need to do now is hope that I can hide myself away for the rest of the day. Away from Humphries. Away from Nickwelter. And away from those feelings I should never have let loose in the parking lot.
I watch out the window a minute longer as Humphries takes another large cage out from the deep trunk of his car. There must be a shipment of birds coming in this morning. I should have double-checked my calendar.
I toss my textbooks and bag onto the desk in my office. My own office. As much as I enjoyed sharing an office with Mrs. Claus for the last two years, it’s nice to actually have my own space outside of my own home. I call it my nest away from nest. Mrs. Claus is a great woman, but we really don’t have all that much in common, aside from how much she can sometimes remind me of my mother. That being said, the amount that we don’t have in common is far more tolerable than the amount that we do. The most ironic thing about Mrs. Claus was at Christmastime she would have the tendency to overdo it with the office decorations. It was a little too much for me to handle, but I wasn’t about to say anything to her. I mean, she was Mrs. Claus after all.
If Mrs. Claus had been telling this story, it would be much more festive, and it would probably reek of gingerbread and peppermint.
I have just enough time to sit down before there’s a knock on my door. Professor James enters the office, placing a notepad onto my desk. “Your mother called for you last night, Donhelle. She said she tried calling your place, but you weren’t home. Out tearing up the streets at all hours on a Sunday night?”
“Something like that,” I smile at him. Steffen James is maybe the most likable person I know, even with the annoying habit of calling everyone at the university by their last names. Just their last names. Even the students. At five foot three, he stands about an inch taller than me, which I’m sure is a welcome relief for his ego. He has the upward-curving nose of the Pied Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta), the red cheeks of the European Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis) and a short-trimmed beard, which has always reminded me of the look of the Short-Toed Eagle (Circaetus gallicus). Men with beards are a big issue for me. My father had a beard when I was growing up, and then decided to just shave it off one day. I barely even recognized him. My own father. I kept looking at him when we were at the dinner table, watching his jaws clench and cheeks expand like I’d never seen them do before. That was probably around the same time that I had started to lose respect for my father. He wasn’t the same man that had raised his little girl. He was someone new to me now, and I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable.
Professor James once said that he was thinking of shaving his beard off, but I kind of freaked out and begged him not to. That was a year and a half ago, and he hasn’t mentioned it since. I do still imagine what he would look like without it, but all I see is my father, so I usually try and distract myself with something else instead.
I read the note he handed me. All it says is ‘MOM’ in Steffen’s bold, confident printing.
“Quite the detailed note,” I say, as I tear it from the notepad and drop it into my wastepaper basket. “Thanks Steffen.” I figure that I was at The Strangest Feeling last night when my mother tried to call, though I wonder why she didn’t leave a message on my answering machine at home? Maybe it’s time I break down and get myself a cell phone. Why was Professor James at the school answering phones anyway? “What about you then? What were you doing here on a Sunday night?”
Steffen holds up a stack of textbooks and papers under his arm, and exhaustively answers my question. “Just getting my paperwork ready for today’s classes. I’ve got Nickwelter’s Comparative Anatomy class this semester, and it’s kicking my tail feathers.” I can tell the instant he mentioned Professor Nickwelter, he wished that he hadn’t. Steffen James knows all about my history at this school. He taught me when I was a student here, and now he helps me out a great deal with my responsibilities as head of Hawthorne’s ornithology program. He’s seen me at my best and worst, and he knows when something will rattle my nerves. Something as stupid as mentioning a name. He tries his best to change the subject. “Anyway, my C.A. was cancelled on Friday due to the fire, so I’ve got twice as much to cover today in order to stay on track. Hey, did you hear about the swan boats being stolen last night?”
Back it up a little Steffen. We’re not moving on just yet. “I had a talk with him this morning you know? Professor Nickwelter. Outside in the parking lot. Beth kicked him out again, although he won’t admit it.”
“I really don’t think we should be talking about this Donhelle,” was Steffen’s response. “Poor Nickwelter must’ve had another rough weekend.”
“You can’t say that it’s not his fault though, right Steffen?”
Professor James studies my eyes for a moment. He knows that this is the type of subject that could unravel my entire day. He thinks about it, and I can tell he almost says something else, but he resigns to his old trusted standby: “I really don’t think we should be talking about this.” As kind as Professor James is, his only character flaw is that his home life was perfect, and he really doesn’t like to get involved in lives that aren’t as perfect as his. He gets downright awkward about it actually.
If Steffen James had been telling this story, he’d definitely leave out all of the bad parts.
“Genetics is easy,” he starts. “There’s a logical reason and a purpose for everything. Like the Atlantic puffin’s bright orange bill plates that grow in spring for their courtship rituals, and then shed after breeding. Or the spruce grouse’s digestive sacs that increase in size in the winter to support the bird’s seasonal diet of conifer needles. You know all of this too, of course. But relationships are a whole other entity, outside the realm of science. It’s an unanswerable question that requires constant calculations and deductions. It’s the formulae that we know we’ll never deduce, but we also know that we can never stop trying.”
He sits down on the small chair across from me, thinking about the gibberish that he just churned out. After a moment of thought, he comes up with something new to say. Something safe that won’t allow me to dwell on past mistakes. “Hey, did that spaghetti do a number on your stomach this weekend?”
“I’m fine, thank you,” I say as my mind still tries to piece together what Steffen had said.
“I would have given you a ride home, but you flew out of the restaurant like a peregrine falcon!”
Falco peregrinus, I think to myself. “It’s all right Steffen. I took the bus home.”
“That’s good. The last time I rode the bus the driver got lost. We ended up in Brookline Village! Do you believe that?”
“Well, I got home safe and sound. It was pretty uneventful.” I take a stack of papers from my bag, and holding them upright, I tap them onto the desktop so the edges are flush. It’s the illusion of looking busy. I notice Humphries as he walks past my office, another large cage in his hands. He sneaks a peek at me on his way by. There’s a look in his eyes that doesn’t even care if I ignored him on my way in this morning. He’s just being himself. I think that bothers me more than if he actually was upset with me.
Without moving my head, I scan the office with my eyes, taking in the few pieces of my past that are on display. There’s my Hawthorne University ornithology diploma. After six years of studying genetics, statistics, comparative anatomy, physiology, ecology, quantitative analysis, taxonomy and avian science, it was my greatest achievement to finish top of my class. Five years ago seems like a lifetime now.
Next to the diploma is a small hand-made box, given to me by the Dias family, who lived across the hall from me during my first few years in Boston. The ornate wooden box is sealed, and according to South American superstition, bad luck would follow should I ever view its contents.
Above that is a painting given to me by Luis Dias. Luis was only three years old when I first met him, but we grew very close, and when I accepted my current job as head of Hawthorne’s ornithology program two years ago, he had given me this painting as a gift. He said it was a portrait of me and that he had painted it with his bare hands. I accepted it graciously, even though all I could see was just a mess of color, somewhat in the shape of a child’s hand. The Diaz family moved out of the building last year, and now there’s a mean old Romanian man with a glass eye living alone across from me.
There’s a bottle of Brazilian Pinot Noir, given to me by the ornithology staff for my birthday last week.
My shelf that’s bursting with textbooks and field journals.
My Massachusetts teaching certificate.
And Steffen James.
He’s still waiting for me to say something more, since it seems he’s exhausted himself of any more thoughts. We’re all just waiting though, aren’t we? The state bird of Massachusetts is the Black-Capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus). I moved to Boston almost twelve years ago, and I’m still waiting to see my first black-capped chickadee.
I take the stack of papers from in front of me, and tap the edges flush once more. Part of me wonders why I’m still trying so hard to look busy, while another part of me wonders why I can’t just move on. “You’re right,” I say to Professor James.
“About what exactly?”
I realize that I’m simply answering my own question. “I do need to move on. This whole ridiculous situation with myself and Professor Nickwelter has gone on long enough, don’t you think?” A little unsure of what kind of answer I’m looking for, Steffen nods cautiously in agreement. “It’s not healthy for me to be in a relationship like that, right? Even if both of us did want it.”
“I really don’t think we should be talking about this, Donhelle.”
I push the stack of papers aside. “And I really do think you’re right Steffen. Thank you again for the phone message.”
With textbooks still under his arm, Steffen rises from his seat and turns to exit my office, but he reaches back for the notepad on my desk before he goes. “I’d better put this back before Humphries realizes I stole his notepad. Have a good day Donhelle.”
Steffen James closes the door behind him, leaving me alone with my thoughts.
I remember the last conversation I had with Professor Nickwelter before our relationship ended. This was two years ago. We were walking through Boston Common, and he told me how this couldn’t go on anymore. I let go of his hand for the last time. His hands always felt horribly cold to me.
“I’m not feeling what I think I should be feeling in this relationship Isabelle.” Thinking back on this moment now, I know he and Beth must have been having another fight at the time. “It’s not your fault though,” he continued. “it’s just chemistry.”
Chemistry? I don’t know how I ever swallowed that road apple. “What’s the feeling?” I responded.
“You said you’re not feeling something. What’s the feeling supposed to be?”
“It’s just that; a feeling. It’s not something that can be explained with words, it’s just sort of a sensation more than anything.” I looked up at the Great Elm, and considered the irony that in the eighteenth-century its very branches were used for public hangings. “That’s all I can tell you Isabelle.”
We stood gazing at one another for a few minutes more, each of us not knowing what else could be said at this point that would make anything better or worse. The six swan boats in the lagoon bobbed up and down, waiting for someone to say something. After much deliberation, Professor Nickwelter thought of the perfect words: “You can keep the wristwatch I gave you though. It seems to keep good time.”
Just go ahead and hang me. Those branches have been begging for this for centuries.
I snap out of my semi-sentimental flashback to find that I’ve scribbled something onto my Avian Structure and Function textbook. I sit back, almost in disbelief of what I’ve written. It’s the question I should’ve asked under the Great Elm two years ago:
“Then why the hell did you fuck me?”
Embarrassed by my own thoughts, I pull some tape over the words. I gather my books, and leave for my Avian Field Study class. And I try not to think about the watch I had thrown into the Charles River that very same day two years ago.