Of the Ambiguous and the Once-Amphibious
WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER EIGHTH. I wake up and it’s staring right at me with empty, dried-up sockets. Wanting to lick its zippered lips. It wants to leap on me from those hollow legs.
Templeton Rate’s aftertaste stings like poison and it’s left my body inert. It hurts underneath my fingernails. My jaw is sore; my hair in knots, my taste buds flared. And for some reason, one of my big toes is in an incredible amount of throbbing pain. It all adds up to being a most invigorating feeling, one that I can admit to now that I wish I hadn’t gone so long without.
Still, all isn’t quite right, is it? My clothes are not on the floor where I’d left them. Instead, they’re on the bed and above the covers, as though tossed there from the floor, rather than the other way around. As I gather them up, I do so routinely, but certainly this is embarrassingly far from routine for Isabelle Donhelle. Slowly and awkwardly, much like my performance last night, I put my clothes back on while still under the covers, just in case Templeton enters as I’m dressing. Even though he’s unfortunately seen it all, I’d still rather save myself as much embarrassment as I possibly can.
When I see my socks on the floor, I instantly realize that, although I put my socks on left foot first and then right everyday without thought, today I would be pausing to think about it. Because this isn’t my modest one-bedroom apartment on Newbury Street. Because I’m used to mornings where the first sound I hear is Claude rattling his beak along metal bars. Because I always wake to the smell of coffee lazily drifting in through my open window, and to the ultra-hygienic taste of mouthwash still on my tongue from my habitual 3:00 AM trip to the bathroom. Instead, I’ve got the sound of this crooked ceiling fan whirring hazardously above me, the smell of these horribly-faded pink bed sheets and this long-forgotten lingering taste of sex and cigarettes.
I don’t even have a clue as to where I am. Or where Templeton is for that matter. I only pray that I’m still in Boston.
On the floor just beyond my socks and shoes, lies a pair of women’s underwear: a tiny blood-red mound of string and mesh fabric. They’re certainly not mine, and yet I can’t help but stare at them. I wonder who the last girl was to wrap herself in these sheets just as I’m doing now. I also think about how desperately I need that 3:00 AM oral cleansing right now.
What am I doing here? What exactly brings a girl like me to a place like this, and into pink sheets that smell like spoiled milk? What takes me from helping a struggling student after hours in the library to this? How does this happen? What is it that attracts a girl like me to a misfit like Templeton Rate in the first place?
If he hadn’t offered to pay for the cab ride last night; if he hadn’t suggested a return to The Strangest Feeling for coffee and dessert; if he hadn’t made out with me at the university library; if only that report hadn’t been so horrible and appeared so suddenly on my desk at home two nights ago in the first place.
It all culminated in the first sex I’ve had in the last two years. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I feel as though I’m much more intimate with the sexual devices of the avian world than I am with my own inner-workings. In birds, there is not usually a true penis-vagina copulation; instead, most males impregnate the female by what is known as a cloacal kiss, where the male mounts the female and presses his cloaca, or anal opening, against that of the female’s cloacal opening, into which he deposits his sperm. This will take anywhere between one to fifteen seconds. Embarrassingly, the whole process I’ve just described borders closely on the level of romance I experienced with Templeton last night.
I snap out of it and look again into the dried-up eyes of this thing in front of me. This leathery brown horror staring at me from the foot of the bed is a dead frog, or at least as far as I can tell, half of one. It still has its head and front legs, but with the charming addition of glued-on googly eyes, a zippered mouth and a key chain coming out of its torso, as if it were meant to hang fashionably from a belt. This grotesque thing is Templeton’s change purse. Part of me is totally freaked out at the idea that someone could keep money inside a dead animal turned into a novelty key chain, while another part of me just finds it more than a little baffling that Templeton Rate would carry a change purse in the first place. I remember reading somewhere that sailors had sometimes killed Wandering Albatross’s (Diomedea exulans) and made purses out of their webbed feet. I was reminded of that last night at The Strangest Feeling when I saw Templeton take this monstrosity out of his coat pocket and then oh-so-gentlemanly offered to pay for dessert. I was immediately disgusted then, but even more so now that I know it had been there all morning watching me sleep.
Waking up in an unfamiliar bed, being watched by a frog full of loose change, while another woman’s panties lay on the floor is about as unsettling of a thing as I can imagine.
I notice there appears to be a cigarette hanging from the side of the frog’s zippered lips. I move across the bed for a closer inspection, and realize that it’s simply rolled-up paper, torn from a page of lined foolscap.
Cautiously, I unroll it to find a note. It’s obvious that it’s from Templeton due to the charcoal scribbling, all in upper case, and the poor spacing with no punctuation:
YOURSELF OUT AVOID ZIRK
AT ALL COSTS
My first thought is that I wished I’d actually waited long enough to see Templeton take some notes in the library yesterday afternoon, if for no other reason than to see exactly what he’s using as a writing instrument. I mean, charcoal again? Seriously?
And what the hoop is a zirk anyway?
No sooner do I ask myself this, does the door open. There’s that sour milk smell again. A twenty-something man in what appears to be a spandex bodysuit enters the bedroom. The reason I’m wondering if I am in fact still dreaming is that this white bodysuit is covered with fifteen or twenty familiar red stylized Canadian maple leaves. If I am truly dreaming, I only hope that I could be at home in my own bed right now.
“Zirk?” I ask, almost to myself. I try to cover up a little more with the bed sheet, even though I’m already dressed.
“Don’t mind me, gorgeous. I’m just getting some more ammonia.” The stranger pulls open a dresser drawer and begins digging through some rolled-up tube socks.
“What? Ammonia?” I rub my eyes hard with the balls of my hands, foolishly hoping that he’ll be gone when my vision clears. Unfortunately he’s not. “Um…do you know where Templeton is?”
He turns to me with a peculiar look in his eye. He spots the red panties on the floor and then focuses back on me, as if trying to make a connection between the two. On his bodysuit, there’s a maple leaf situated right between his legs, in true Adam and Eve fig leaf style. I pull the covers a little bit tighter around myself. He asks me, “Templeton?”
“Templeton Rate. Is he still…around?”
“Templeton went out for breakfast.” He gestures towards the change purse at the end of the bed, as though he had put it there himself. “Didn’t you get the note?”
I wave the note timidly in my hand, and he goes back to work searching through the sock drawer. Above me, the precarious ceiling fan gives me hope that there might be a quick end coming to this awkward situation. I’m almost afraid to ask, but I go for it anyway. “Do you mind me asking? What’s with the get-up?”
He slides the dresser drawer closed and opens the next one down. “The get-up? If you hadn’t realized yet, it’s Halloween.”
“Not for another two-and-a-half weeks, it isn’t.”
“Sure, if that’s how you want to look at it.” He continues to speak with his back turned to me, more focused on his search than anything. “But some things don’t have to be celebrated for only one day out of the year, correct? Why do you put your Christmas tree up weeks in advance?” I don’t want to tell him that my landlord doesn’t allow Christmas trees in the apartment at any time of the year, but he’s not waiting for a response from me anyway. He feverishly continues to root through the contents of the open dresser drawer.
I’m trying not to stare, yet I can’t help but notice one of the maple leaves on his suit is wedged uncomfortably between the crack of his fanny. I’m not sure if he’s supposed to be a luge pilot or some kind of superhero, I just try my best to block out the entire image instead.
I’m not certain I received an actual answer the first time, so I ask him again: “Is your name Zirk?” For emphasis, I even point to the unrolled paper in my hand.
“You haven’t seen a bottle of ammonia around here, have you?” he answers obliviously. He closes the middle drawer and slides open the bottom one, continuing the harried search.
With a quick look around me, the first thing I take note of is a grocery bag filled with t-shirts on the floor beside the bed. They all must be from old music concerts, as I can make out faded tour dates from ten years ago and rock-and-roll mullets through the translucency of the plastic.
For some reason, there’s a pink lawn-flamingo stuck in the carpet. Plastic flamingos are commonly thought to be imitations of the Lesser Flamingo (Phoenicopterus minor), since that is the bird they most resemble. However, in ornithology circles it is believed that they are in actuality their own species. This theory is supported by phonetics, as a plastic flamingo is properly pronounced with a long ‘a’ sound (“flay-mingo”), unlike their real-life counterparts. Interestingly, the number of plastic lawn flamingos drastically outnumbers real flamingos in all of North America by a count of nearly fifty-to-one.
Hanging from the ceiling in the corner of the room is a plastic five-bird mobile. They appear to be Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos), but due to the juvenile nature of the designs, I can’t tell if these are male drakes or females. The real key of course, would be the drake’s unmistakable green head and yellow bill (females have light brown heads and dark brown bills), but since it appears the heads have all been shot off with a pellet gun, it’s impossible to tell. And truthfully, not very important at the moment.
I don’t see a bottle of ammonia anywhere.
The bottom drawer doesn’t appear to have what this costumed intruder is looking for either. I ask him, “Does Templeton know you’re rummaging through his bedroom looking for ammonia?”
“This isn’t Templeton’s room, gorgeous. It’s my room. And before you ask…yes. You’re in my bed.”
I’m instantly too disgusted to respond, so he’s allowed to continue freely without retort. “This is my dresser. And I’m looking for my bottle of ammonia, which I’ll be using to wash my money. Your ass in my bed notwithstanding, I seriously cannot stand other people’s dirt. Do you know how many people have handled a common twenty-dollar bill?” Even if I had an answer for him, he doesn’t give me time to open my mouth. “One point two million. That adds up to over ten million dirty digits all over poor Andrew Jackson’s face. Not to mention the twenty-two million all up in Abe Lincoln’s grill. And nearly thirty million fingers have been in George Washington’s curly locks. Those are some seriously filthy numbers. You don’t even know who those hands belong to.”
I can’t help but notice the poorly concealed bulge on his costume. This man really knows how to make a girl feel uncomfortable. “I guess I never thought about it that way before,” I say to him, for lack of anything better to say.
“Of course you didn’t.”
I look back down at the plastic bag full of shirts. I think one of them says Toad The Wet Sprocket on it.
He catches me looking. “You’re probably wondering why I’ve got that bag of shirts? You’re wondering why I keep them there, aren’t you? They’re so old and faded I’d never wear them again. I don’t even like looking at them. And I certainly don’t want anyone to ever know that I’ve been to a Crash Test Dummies concert before. You see that fan shaking above your head? If that fan should fly off in the middle of the night and slash my head open, I’m going to want something on hand to save my life. Some kind of bandage to stop the bleeding, you know? And what’s better than an old Spin Doctors t-shirt, right?”
I look to the plastic flamingo in the floor and the shot-up mallard mobile, and I’m finding that these birds are doing very little in the way of making me feel the slightest bit at ease here.
If Zirk had been telling this story, he’d make it incredibly hard to follow.
I notice a digital clock on the floor; it’s blinking 9:23 AM. If the time is correct, then my Evolution class started almost half an hour ago. “I don’t want to be rude,” I say, throwing the covers off myself and jumping out of the bed. “But I’ve really got to go.” I pick up my socks and shoes and head for the door.
He keeps talking, even as I leave the bedroom. And even as I’m out of the apartment and making a break for it down the stairs to the street, I can still hear him yelling something to me about having a happy Halloween.
I sit outside on the curb and put my socks back on, left foot first. Then my shoes. Yesterday’s snow is already gone. Already a forgotten moment in history. I give myself a moment to catch my breath and focus. Where am I? Did Templeton even live at this apartment? I may not know where in the city I am, but at least I don’t have to listen to anymore of Captain Canada’s crazy ramblings.
I don’t recognize anything around me at all.
There are rows of dingy apartment buildings, and across the street is a tiny park with a swing set. Only the chains are hanging where the seats used to be.
I see a poster for some movie called Dead Ducks, and I wonder just where that saying had ever originated from.
The telephone pole beside me has a faded picture of a girl stapled to it; she can’t be any older than twenty. There are piles of wilted flowers. A wooden cross lies flat on the sidewalk, fallen over from where it had once leaned. There’s a large chunk of the wooden telephone pole missing, at about knee-height. These are all tragic telltale signs of an accident that must have killed this girl. Perhaps she was sitting on the curb, right where I’m sitting now. Maybe she was lost, just as I am. I pick up the cross and lean it back up against the telephone pole.
As I do, I notice the dead carcass of a bird laying in the gutter. The front of its head has been caved-in. I can tell that it’s a Domestic Pigeon (Columba livia domestica) and that it’s probably been dead for over a week now. This girl, whoever she was, gets her own roadside memorial. But the bird? Nothing. A tear swells in my eye as I think that maybe Templeton left me here for dead too. Will anyone leave a memorial behind for the memory of Isabelle Donhelle when I’m gone? Or will I be left in the gutter without a second thought?
Due to the broken skull, my best guess is that this bird was likely killed by a glass collision, flying headfirst into a window. Astoundingly, hundreds of millions of birds are killed by glass collisions annually. Diurnal birds such as pigeons are attracted by the internal reflection of buildings with many windows. For all I know, this bird might have even flown right into Zirk’s apartment window, two floors above me.
I know I should take care of this dead pigeon somehow, but I don’t. The best I can do is shuffle down the curb to sit a little closer to it. I think back thirteen years to the bloody raven on my Power of Science textbook. I suppose some memories have a harder time than others when it comes to leaving for good…
I remember the light disappearing from the raven’s eyes as its pupils dilated and it died right in front of me. It was the first time I had ever seen anything die. I remember the blood as it slowly trickled off the edge of the paper. The smell made my nose sting. It soaked right through the page numbers. I remember seeing the one feather that had snagged on the broken window, still alive as it blew ever so gently in the wind…
I remember kissing Templeton in the library last night. I remember Mr. Giacomin shaking his head at me disapprovingly as we exited. I wasn’t embarrassed at the time, but I wish I was. I remember being outside in the parking lot and picking up where we left off. I remember how cold it was. I didn’t care that there were other students mingling around the university grounds. I didn’t care that Templeton had dirt on his face. I think that maybe it was our heat that melted what little snow had remained…
I remember Templeton suggesting that we get a bite to eat, as he was craving a piece of pie. “I know a really great place,” I remember him saying to me. He hailed a cab, and he paid for it himself, all in loose change. I remember the sound of the zipper as he opened the frog’s mouth and dug his dirty fingers inside for the money. I was completely horrified by the sight of it. I remember Templeton telling me his fantasy of a world in the future inhabited by giants who use humans as change purses. I laughed a little as he told me all about it. I remember seeing the cab driver’s license; his name was Wilbur, which we both found funny for some reason. Even funnier and more amusing than Templeton’s peculiar imaginings. I remember that Templeton didn’t help me out of the cab when it stopped…
We were back at The Strangest Feeling, and I remember thinking that this would be the once-promised second date I had wished for a week ago. Kitty remembered Templeton, but I’m not sure if she recognized me. She informed us that the kitchen was out of pie, so we opted for a deep-fried chocolate bar and some coffee instead. I remember looking at Templeton, and although we didn’t have much to say to one another, I came to the conclusion that I genuinely liked him. I thought Templeton Rate could actually make me happy. He made me smile, even though I’m not entirely sure why…
I remember Templeton suggesting we go back to his place. I asked him if he lived nearby, and I remember him telling me it was too far to walk so we’d better get another taxi. Templeton didn’t open the door for me on our way out of the diner. I don’t remember what directions he gave to the driver, but it felt like we were going in circles for a half hour. I remember our hands exploring one another for the first time in the back of the taxi. I remember everywhere that his hand had touched me. I remember not wanting it to end…
For some reason, I wonder which of these memories would still be in my head years from now. Which ones will make the cut?
I turn away from the pigeon just in time to hear familiar footsteps approach behind me. Templeton Rate sits down on the curb beside me; the dead pigeon between our feet.
“Say, that would make a great handbag, wouldn’t it?” He nudges the bird with the toe of his shoe.
And then I remember just how rude he can be.
“Where have you been Templeton? I’m late for my class, and I don’t even know where I am.”
Templeton turns to me, confused. “I went out for breakfast. Didn’t you get the note I left you?”
I’d stashed the dirty note into my pocket on my way out this morning. I take it out and wave it in his face. “You mean this, right? Thanks a lot. It was very kind of you to leave it behind.”
“You’re welcome.” He removes a cigarette from his coat pocket and strikes a matchstick on the sidewalk. He takes a quick drag, and then he holds the smoke out to offer me a puff.
“No thank you. Haven’t I told you yet that I don’t smoke?”
“Well, thankfully, I think we skipped that whole boring first-date interview process yesterday.” He flicks some ashes onto the dead pigeon.
“Don’t do that! That’s disrespectful.” I push his hand away in the other direction. I take another look at the note, just to make sure I didn’t miss any details that might help to clear things up for me. Nothing.
He glances over, and taps on the ‘avoid zirk at all costs’ part of the message. “So, did you heed my warnings?”
“That’s a difficult thing to do considering how you left me in his bed.”
“Well, I don’t have a bed of my own yet. It makes for an awkward living situation.”
“Tell me about it.”
“Seriously though,” Templeton continues. “Zirk is crazy. Mentally, he’s just totally out to lunch. Completely one-hundred-percent fucked-up. I honestly have no idea how he manages to hold down a full-time job. You should have just avoided him entirely.”
“Now you tell me.”
“He works with me at the hotel you know? He’s a doorman too.”
I have to ask, “What’s the deal with the costume?”
I can’t tell if he’s joking with me, or simply has no idea what I’m talking about. Either way, I decide not to dwell on it; it’s probably best to just keep things moving along. “Never mind,” I say.
He takes another long drag of his cigarette and looks off into the distance, watching the morning clouds roll into place. I’ve never seen anyone so peaceful. I wish I could calm myself down a little, but I’m still upset about everything that’s transpired. “If you went out for breakfast, why did you leave your wallet behind? Just to keep an eye on me?”
“He doesn’t have eyes anymore,” he says calmly.
Finally, I turn my attention away from him. “I’m really mad at you right now Templeton. Do you know that? This isn’t how you’re supposed to treat people. I’m mad, and it doesn’t even seem like you notice.”
“Don’t worry about it. I notice everything.” Templeton takes one long, last drag of the cigarette, and then extinguishes it at his feet. He motions to the girl’s picture on the telephone pole beside us. “Did you know her?”
“Hmm? No. Why would I know her?”
“She was in your class, wasn’t she?”
I take a good long look at the picture, but it’s not ringing any bells. Curly brown hair. Toothy smile. Her whole life ahead of her. She looks just like any of the girls at the school, or anywhere else for that matter. Students are students. They’re all the same, aren’t they? If this dead girl actually did attend Hawthorne University, then she went completely unnoticed by me. “Are you sure?” I’m already starting to put this morning’s events behind me. “What was her name?”
Templeton looks at the picture at little more closely now too, as though he’s searching it for hidden answers. “I don’t know. I didn’t know her.”
Tied to one of the flowers is a note that reads ‘We’ll always love you Autumn.’ Again, I find myself wondering about my own memorial.
He tries changing the subject while I’m not paying attention. “I think it’s funny.”
“What’s that?” I ask.
“It’s funny how the ideas of life and death are so separate, but at the same time they’re so closely connected to one another, aren’t they?”
I don’t have an answer for him, since I don’t really know what his point is. He doesn’t embellish either. After another minute though, I get tired of waiting for an explanation. “I’m not sure what you mean,” I confess.
“What is it that you see when you look around you?”
I scan everything with my eyes: the dead pigeon, the dead girl and the dead flowers. I even envision the dead frog back upstairs.
Strangely, he knows exactly what it is that I’m seeing. Another xerox copy of my thoughts. “All you see is death, don’t you? But all I see are the traces of life that still surround it all.”
He’s right; aside from the sound of traffic in the distance and a plastic bag blowing by us on a breeze in true American Beauty style, I don’t see anything in the way of life here. There’s so much loss and sadness on this sidewalk. I want to tell him I know he’s right. I want to tell him that I can’t help but see the worst in everything, because of my own inability to see the best in myself. And I want to ask him to elaborate, to share his own feelings on the subject, or maybe even ask him to apologize for abandoning me twice now, but thankfully Templeton continues before I can say anything too stupid.
“Do you see that?” He directs my attention to an old rusted car parked about ten feet from where we sit, and he points out a long scrape on the trunk. “You see where the paint has been scratched right off? There’s a story about what happened there. Somebody somewhere knows that story, and they experienced it first-hand. That seemingly insignificant little scrape has its own complicated story for why it exists.” He reaches his hand out to feel something on the telephone pole beside us. “Somebody carved their initials into this telephone pole. Do you see? They stood right here in this very spot and scratched a W and a C into the wood with who knows what. Maybe a pocketknife? Maybe a rock? I don’t know why they did it, but there’s got to be a reason.” He picks up the wilted flowers, and inspects them delicately. Some ants crawl out onto his hand, but he doesn’t bother flicking them away. “These flowers were left here by someone. Someone that went to some shitty corner store and overpaid for them. And somebody somewhere grew these flowers and cut them and sold them for the sole purpose of taking advantage of that one person’s mourning.” He tosses the flowers back down at the base of the telephone pole as though they don’t mean anything at all now.
“I don’t know,” is what I tell him, which is certainly an understatement for how I feel. I don’t know why on Earth he’s considering the origins of a scrape on a car, carvings in a telephone pole or even where the flowers must have come from.
“Don’t you see?” he pushes. “All around us are casualties of life. Things that still exist, but at the same time are also non-existent. And yet the signs are still there; within all the dead shit there remain the signs of life. Imagine we were sitting in the middle of a graveyard; what would you see? All you would see is death, wouldn’t you? Most people would. But what’s really more important to you: life or death?”
I don’t know the answer to that. I don’t know what’s more important. I only know that I’m lonely. I know that all I desperately want is for someone to finally love me, and not expect to receive cheapened birthday greetings; not cheat on their wife; not leave me scared and alone in their creepy roommate’s smelly pink bed sheets.
“You know Isabella…”
“Isabelle,” I correct him.
“Right. You know, I was thinking that I like you. It’s not particularly easy for me to be so open and honest. I know I’m not perfect. I probably say shit you don’t like and do fucked-up things that piss you off, but I think that I do. I think that I really do like you.”
I can’t believe it, but those three words that I’ve been waiting forever to hear? This was actually the closest anyone’s come so far. It’s kind of pathetic in a way. I’m still mad at him, but instead of telling him everything, instead of being as honest as he’s being with me, I simply decide to say, “I think I like you too, Templeton.”
“What do you say I get you back to school then? I’m missing class too, you know.”
It occurs to me that my car is still sitting in the staff parking lot. We get up from the curb and walk to catch a bus to the University. In an unexpected move, he even pays for my bus ride with some more change from his pocket.
I instantly recognize the familiar orange plastic seats of bus #3031. This was my birthday present to myself last Thursday. This was the same bus I had gotten off of to avoid Templeton Rate a week ago. The same one in which he’d found me, all alone and miserable. Where he’d spotted some sign of life that I was previously unaware of.
I sit in the same seat, and notice the same screw twisted into the pole in front of me. I was searching for answers within its X-shaped void just a week ago, but there’s nothing hidden from me that’s worth looking for now. There’s nowhere I’m trying to run from, nothing I’m trying to ignore. Templeton even puts his arm around my shoulder.
As I turn to him and smile, I notice something on the other side of the window. Right around the corner from Templeton’s apartment building, nestled between the same triple-x porn shops, is The Strangest Feeling café. Strangely, we were only about half a block away.