Molt – Chapter Six

Unnecessary E’s

I HAVE NO idea who Phil Ferguson is, but I know he’s smarter than this. I could never pick Pat Vargas out from a crowd, but I can tell you where Pat will be this time next year. I have no emotional attachments in any way to Caren Kessler, but I’m the one who’s going help decide her future, aren’t I? I can’t help it if they all seem the same to me though.

All birds are called ‘birds.’ There are so many families of birds, so many different phylums, classes and orders, that it’s nearly impossible to learn every one of them. They have to first be broken down into more basic categories. Field identification teaches us to use locomotion (walking, hopping, swimming and flight patterns) and habitat (birds of a sea coast, shorebirds, wire and fencepost sitters, deciduous forest and marsh birds) as useful starting points for identification. Noting the silhouettes of flying birds is useful too; the shape of the wings, whether pointed or rounded, narrow or broad, slotted or unslotted; the length of the neck and tail in proportion to body length; the position of the feet, and whether they extend beyond the body and tail while in flight, or if they’re tucked in close to the body.

By comparison, all students are simply ‘students.’ So many come and go – from year to year, from class to class – there’s no way I can possibly identify them all. All I have to go by are the reports that I mark, and the grades that I assign to them.

This is what I’m doing tonight. After what happened between Professor Nickwelter and I this morning, I almost dragged myself to The Strangest Feeling again, but by now I figure Templeton Rate is probably busy chasing some other naïve girl around Boston anyway. It’s just as well, I suppose. I told myself earlier today that it was time for me to move on, so here I am marking papers and trying to imagine who exactly these students really are. But I’m not quite ‘moving on,’ am I? Since I’m doing precisely what I was doing this time a week ago.

On a Monday night, in my humble one-bedroom apartment conveniently located above the Starbucks on Newbury Street, I sit alone at my desk with my Tanzanian Ol Doinyo Lengai blend: full-bodied, with hints of herbal, peppery notes. Marking my students’ papers, I systematically use a blue checkmark for every correct notation, and a red circle for every wrong one. The desktop background on my computer is the same Indian Blue Peafowl’s (Pavo cristatus) tail feather design that’s been there for the last eight months.

Sometimes when I’m feeling wild, I use a green marker for the checkmarks instead of blue. If this isn’t screaming lonely, I don’t think I could be trying any harder.

Phil Ferguson is correct when he says one can identify the Eastern Meadowlark (Sturnella magna) as alternating its flight pattern between sailing with the wings spread and flying with rapid wing-beats. However, he’s wrong when he states that the Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) has an undulating flight pattern. The kingbird flies in a straight line, with continuously quivering wing action. Red circle. I’m thinking that Phil is the kid that’s always trying hard to get noticed; he tries so hard that he ends up being right only half the time.

Caren Kessler made the mistake of claiming that a particular bird spotted on a telephone wire outside her Inman Square apartment was a Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea), which is a deciduous forest bird. I’m sure what she described must have actually been a Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica), which she would have recognized had she noted the obvious forked tail. Red circle. I’ll bet she’s the kid with the inch-thick glasses that can never see my projection screen. The one with attention deficit disorder that won’t allow her to go an entire class without running out of the lecture hall for some reason or another.

But Pat Vargas is dead on when he says the European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) can be identified in the winter by their speckled plumage, while after the season it is more of a glossy black. Blue checkmark. Could this be that quiet kid in the back, who always dresses in a different camouflage pattern for each day of the week? With his knowledge of wildlife, I’ll bet he’s done some hunting in his free time too.

Of course, Pat could just as easily be a girl. It’s all just insufficient data at this point.

I know everything there is to know about birds because I have to know everything there is to know. I also know it all because I’ve always had this innate ability to catalogue such information. Call it a gift or call it a curse, but all I know is that, academically speaking, I’ve breezed through my entire life at the top of my grade curve.

I take a deep breath, a sip of my coffee and a long look around me at this nest I’ve built for myself. The nest crafted from the sticks and leaves and mud of my past. Nestled quietly on one of my bookshelves is a tiny black and white picture of my family. Mom. Dad. Me. No brothers or sisters shared this moment with us. It was the last year I lived in Ville Constance. I believe the picture was from a holiday dinner at the orphanage, and I think one of the kids must have taken it, since the angle is a little off. But I really can’t remember.

I don’t know if I’ve ever spoken with Tyler Izen, but he’s tried to convince me in his reports that the Barn Owl (Tyto alba) uses sonar to find its prey in complete darkness. Of course, the truth is that barn owls utilize echolocation to catch prey in the dark, where their facial discs form receptors that bounce sound between their ears. Their two ears are of different heights, which helps them to localize sounds and pinpoint the precise location of movement and its direction, so they can catch prey in darkness or scuttling underneath leaves and snow. I know this because I have to. If I don’t know it, then Tyler Izen never will. But who the stink is Tyler Izen anyway? Red circle.

I started collecting all of this information back in high school. Yes, that’s right; it was about the same time that Mrs. Wyatt wouldn’t let me play for the basketball team.

I wouldn’t be here now if I didn’t score perfect on my biology finals; if I didn’t join the Doneau High science club; if I had never met Cindey Fellowes; if I wasn’t rejected from the basketball team.

Rejection after disappointment after misery. That’s all that your life adds up to, especially when you pick the worst possible moment to look back on it all.

…………

Cindey Fellowes was the kind of girl that always wanted so desperately to be noticed, that nobody knew exactly who she really was. I was looking over the list of girls who had been cut from the basketball team, and I was upset when I read my name on the initial list. Right there at the top, although it wasn’t even alphabetical. Cindey was looking over a similar list next to me, when she found out she had been cut from the Doneau High volleyball team, and after only one tryout. She told me how she’d been cut from pretty much everything at the school, so she was planning on joining the science club instead. Mostly just to feel as though she was a part of something, and partly because no one could ever get cut from the science club. I think that after only a minute of talking to this girl, I had felt as though I needed to be a part of something too.

If I wasn’t rejected from the basketball team.

That was part of the charm of Cindey Fellowes: she despised herself so much that she made others hate themselves too. Charm? That’s not quite the right word, but it’s close enough I suppose.

If Cindey Fellowes had been telling this story, she’d make you think it was all your fault.

…………

Jonah Mitcherson has three full pages of blue checkmarks, but when he turns the page to see the giant red circle around his descriptive and informative writings on the Rufous Hornero (Furnarius rufus), he’s going to regret he had Professor Donhelle checking his facts for him. At least I assume he was talking about the rufous hornero, since he continued to refer to it as an Ovenbird (Seiurus aurocapillus), which is actually a warbler. Jonah’s confusion no doubt lies in the fact that the rufous hornero is a member of the genus Furnarius, and that the horneros family are also known as ovenbirds. I know that the bird in question was actually the rufous hornero since he described it as building mud nests that resemble old wood-fired ovens. I know this because I have to know this. It can be easy to accidentally mix up genus and species, but this is one of the most careless mistakes I’ve come across this semester. I’ll wager Mr. Mitcherson did some rushed and heedless internet searches to write this paper; never actually cross-checking whether or not his information was correct before heading out to the pub to get liquored up with his booze-head pals. And yet, I’m somehow finding myself envying his social life.

…………

The Doneau High yearbook labeled us ‘The Science Club,’ but we were really just a bunch of kids with different science-related academic interests thrown together in a room after school because we had no other place we could fit in. I guess that was the truth behind most clubs actually. I was even more pathetic, since I didn’t even have a science-related interest at the time; I was just there because Cindey told me she’d be there.

As much time as Cindey and I spent together in school, we never saw much of one another outside the halls of Doneau High. Her family lived on a farm, just outside of town. The school bus would pick her up every morning, and take her home every afternoon, but I had never actually seen where she lived. Cindey claimed her home life was normal, but I always wondered about the details of this self-proclaimed normal existence. As boring as Ville Constance was, I didn’t think anybody here could ever be categorized as normal. We would see each other every morning before class, we would eat lunch together and then spend another ten or fifteen minutes after school together. Interrupted by two months of Claude, that is. And just like Claude and I had our own special place on the yellow electrical box behind the gymnasium, Cindey and I had the science clubhouse, known more affectionately to the rest of the school as ‘Room 210.’

I know what you’re thinking though. Aside from sitting around reading Power Of Science textbooks and quizzing each other on anything and everything from genealogy to protists, just how did Cindey Fellowes have such a profound affect on the direction my future would take? As far as Cindey herself goes? Not much really. Friends in high school are friends due to circumstance much more so than because of compatibility. To be honest, those unnecessary E’s in her name really drove me bananas. The reason I bring up Cindey so much goes back to one of our after school science club cramming sessions.

Thinking back to that particular afternoon, I can remember myself, Cindey Fellowes, Darlene Turcotte and Sonia Desjardins. Of our regular group, only Julie-Anne Loucette wasn’t there. She told us she was getting her eyes checked that afternoon, but we all knew that she was secretly seeing Marc Courchaine after school. We were all quizzing one another on every subject imaginable, when suddenly, out of seemingly nowhere, something came crashing through the second floor window of Room 210. It startled every one of us; in fact I think Sonia might have even soiled herself, since she left the room before we even realized what had happened. I don’t think Sonia ever came back to the science club after that day, now that I think of it. Because I had befriended Cindey Fellowes, I was now sitting at a desk in Room 210 after school with blood-covered shards of glass in front of me.

If I hadn’t joined the Doneau High Science Club.

It was a raven that had flown through the window at that moment, and it was dying right there in front of me, bleeding on my textbook. Cindey and I carefully examined the poor bird, which was still alive, but suffering from tremendous pain. Darlene soon fled the classroom as well, off to retrieve someone at the school who had some kind of authority in matters concerning wildlife flying though windows.

I looked at Cindey, with eyes so wide as if to say “this is the most important, most significant moment of our lives.” Cindey, however, was simply grossed out by the entire event. While her heart was persuading her to wrap the unfortunate animal up in loose-leaf paper and toss it back out the window, my heart was letting me know that I didn’t have any use for Cindey Fellowes from that moment on. But I needed her to get me to that day with the bleeding raven on my desk. It’s all connected. It’s all important.

If I hadn’t met Cindey Fellowes.

That’s all it took for me to pursue my ornithological interests. The events from that afternoon all led to me enrolling at Hawthorne University of Applied Sciences in Boston, Massachusetts. I left my dysfunctional parents, Antonia the Ostrich, the litter of orphan angels, my best friend Cindey Fellowes, my non-boyfriend Claude, the Doneau High basketball team, my bloodied science textbook and the whole godforsaken town of Ville Constance behind me for good.

…………

I’m reading a report written by some kid named David Lee. Some idiot kid who has no idea that there’s a difference between the Laurel Pigeon (Columba junoniae) and the Bolle’s Pigeon (Columba bolli). Obviously, brown, rather than dark gray plumage and the lack of dark bands on the gray tail distinguish the laurel pigeon from its popular Canary Island relative. I know this because I have to know this. I can’t believe they think that they’re impressing me with any of this information. Red circle.

I stop for a moment, and look at the phone across the room. I take a second to think about calling my mother back. My twenty-ninth birthday was four days ago, and what, she calls me last night? Three days late? I stay put at my desk, send her a quick and emotionless thank-you email and leave it at that.

Skimming through Lester Coolidge’s paper, I notice he’s catalogued, or attempted to catalogue the calls of woodpeckers around the world. Sorry Lester, wrong on pretty much every account. Let me correct these for you: The Red-Headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus), deciduous of southern Canada and eastern/central United States, produces a ‘tchur-tchur’ sound, while the Gila Woodpecker (Melanerpes uropygialis) found in desert regions of south-western United States has a similar, but more rolling ‘churr’ call. And finally, the Grey Woodpecker (Dendropicos goertae), common in much of equatorial Africa, has a very distinctive loud and fast ‘peet-peet-peet-peet’ call. I know this because I have to know this. I’d say ‘A’ for effort, but it doesn’t seem as though there was much effort put forth. Red circle. My red marker is drying up fast.

I turn my eyes towards the wall clock, as it silently ticks to 11:28. It’s just about time for the nightly arrival of the delivery truck downstairs. Exactly one minute later I hear my blown-glass Atlantic puffin trinket rattle against the window overlooking Public Alley 434. Every night this truck pulls into the alley behind my apartment with all of the next day’s frappuccino, cappuccino and macchiato supplies. Not to mention the boxes full of metal thermoses, corrugated cardboard coffee cup sleeves and wooden stir sticks. All of this used to bother me to no end, until four days ago that is: last Thursday night at The Strangest Feeling, when my caffeine addiction was first conceived. Now I’m sitting here with a cold coffee on my desk and wondering just how much they can fit into the back of that delivery truck.

I have only one thing of extreme importance in my apartment. Sure, I do have the same horrible habit as most people for keeping small, sentimental, yet ultimately insignificant items around me. Items like the letter from my sister Antonia that sits folded inside its original envelope, and rests safely between some books on my shelf. She wrote to me when I first moved to Boston and promised to write again just as soon as she was adopted. I never heard from Antonia again. A pink plastic lighter that fell out of Claude’s pocket fifteen years ago, and now sits at the bottom of the drawer of my bedside table. I found it sitting in the rocks around the yellow electrical box the day after he dumped me, and for reasons that will probably become clear on a psychiatrist’s sofa one day, I decided to keep it for myself. The two pieces of rock-hard gum from The Strangest Feeling that lay inside a tiny wicker basket on my kitchen counter. I wonder if I’ll ever tear open the paper wrap and read the sugar-stained cartoons inside. Probably one day, when I really need a laugh.

But the only item of real importance within my nest is my parrot, a Blue-and-Gold Macaw (Ara ararauna), who I have sympathetically and pathetically named Claude. I suppose some names are impossible to forget, aren’t they?

There are two families of parrots: the true parrots (Psittacidae) and the cockatoos (Cacatuidae). Cockatoos are quite distinct, having a movable head crest, different arrangement of the carotid arteries, a gall bladder, and a lack of the Dyck texture feathers that produce the vibrant blue and green colors found in true parrots. This coloration is due to a texture effect in microscopic portions of the feather itself that scatters light. The spectacular red feathers of certain parrots owe their vibrancy to a rare set of pigments found nowhere else in nature.

Claude was rescued by Professor Nickwelter while on a university birding expedition in Brazil five years ago, and was brought back to the school for the purposes of rehabilitation and study. The poor bird had fallen victim to a horrible device common in that part of the world: a claw-like metal spring trap set in the trees, which clamps onto its prey and drops to the ground for capture. Most of these traps are set to capture rare birds, to keep as pets or to sell overseas, but sometimes they are simply cruel torture devices. The poor bird must have been clawing for life for possibly a day or two before Professor Nickwelter came along, it’s left wing almost completely severed. Suggesting that amputation of the wing and rehabilitation for the bird was the best thing to do, Nickwelter brought it back to Boston with him.

The parrot remained nameless for a couple of months, until Professor Nickwelter proposed that I pick a suitable name. Just one of the perks of dating your superior, I suppose. I decided that Claude would be the best fit for him. If the raven that flew through the window of Room 210 and landed on my textbook had actually lived I probably would have named him Claude too.

Macaws are monogamous and mate for life, but in captivity, an unmated macaw will bond primarily with one just person: their keeper. Since I had named him and spent more time with Claude than anyone else, he picked me. I formed such a unique bond with Claude, it was suggested that I bring him home with me.

I hear him rattling his beak along the bars, so I walk over to Claude’s modest, one-bedroom cage. He may be lacking the ability to fly anymore, but I still have to keep his cage locked tight, or else he’d chew up anything he could get his beak on. I toss in a new doggie chew-toy once a week to give him something other than metal bars to gnaw at.

Turning from his spectacular third-story view of Public Alley 434, Claude looks at me. “Poop,” he says, indicating that it’s dinnertime.
When I tried to teach Claude how to ask to be fed, I was getting frustrated and used the word “poop” as one of my famous curse word substitutes. He doesn’t know why I said it of course, but that’s now our codeword for food. I grab a measuring cup and a pre-arranged bag of mixed sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, pine nuts, almonds, dates and dried apple from the kitchen. There are some foods that are toxic to parrots, and to most birds in general. Cherry pits, avocados, chocolate and caffeine should be absolutely avoided. I wonder if he’s at all envious as I take another sip of my Tanzanian Ol Doinyo Lengai.

Claude’s solitary wing is not his only identifiable characteristic. He has a butterscotch-colored underbelly, where most macaws will be golden or orange. There’s also a thin gray fork-shaped line, it almost looks like a scar, running along the right side of his lower jaw. But everything about Claude is special to me. The look that he gives me when he wants something isn’t greed. It’s not using me to get his way. It’s not selfish happy birthdays or affairs. It’s not men.

It’s love; and I think that’s why I named him Claude in the first place. I suppose since I never got the chance to have that meaningful relationship with the Claude from my youth, I can just come home and not worry about who’s loving who the most.

The most curious thing about Claude is that I taught him how to count to ten, and he understands how to use the numbers one through ten, but he doesn’t understand eight. If I hold out five jellybeans, he can identify them as five. If I hold out ten, he knows there are ten. But if I have eight of anything, he’s stumped. He simply skips the number eight when counting. It’s strange, but love is about acceptance and compromise, isn’t it?

If Claude had been telling this story, he’d skip chapter eight.

“How many scoops Claude?” I ask, holding out the bag of food and the measuring cup.

“Two scoops,” he replies. It’s always two scoops. Macaws thrive on frequent interaction, and their high intelligence requires constant intellectual stimulation to satisfy their curiosity. Plus, it just makes him happy to answer my questions.

Now, after all that I know about macaws, Leonard Gillespie has the audacity to sneak into his report that a parrot’s feet are heterodactylic. He obviously was not paying any attention at all when I covered dactyly last week. Anisodactyly is the commonest arrangement of the digits, with three toes forward and one back. You’ll find this in perching birds and hunting birds. Parrots and other climbing birds are zygodactylic, with two toes in the front and two in the back, with the outside toes being longer than the inside toes. This is also found in cuckoos and roadrunners. Heterodactyly is similar to zygodactyly, except that the foot’s two long toes are arranged in the front, while the two short toes are situated in the back. I know this because I have to know this. Another sloppy mistake calls for another faded red circle.

Even Claude clucks his tongue in disappointment.

Reading through this last paper, it’s apparent that I may have to switch my marker colors; the red simply isn’t going to make it through to the end of this one. I’m not even sure what it is that I’m reading here; there are eleven pages of random, uneducated gobbledygook, all written in what appears to be charcoal:

CHICKENS CAN’T SWALLOW WHILE THEY ARE UPSIDE DOWN. AND THEY CAN’T SPIT WHILE THEY’RE RIGHT SIDE UP.

NORTH AMERICAN GEESE CANNOT COMMUNICATE WITH EUROPEAN GEESE BECAUSE OF THE LAUNGUAGE BARRIER.

DONALD DUCK’S MIDDLE NAME IS FAUNTLEROY.

I say the words out loud, mostly to check if it sounds as dumb spoken as it does on paper. “Donald Fauntleroy Duck?” If any of this is actually true, maybe I don’t know everything there is to know about birds after all. The report is complete trash. I’m not even sure why I flip back to the cover page to check the name, since I won’t know who this person is anyway. Since every kid in that lecture hall is just a name to me, and nothing more. But I check anyway.

My jaw drops. How can this be?

“Templeton Rate?”

NEXT CHAPTER

Molt – Chapter Five

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.

Hmm?

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.

NEXT CHAPTER

Molt – Chapter Four

Two Months of Kissing Claude

I WAS IN grade ten when I first met Claude. He had transferred to Doneau High in Ville Constance from a smaller high school in a smaller town even farther north. Cindey Fellowes told me that this new kid was eyeing me up in the hall as we came out of biology class one morning. I saw him too, but I pretended not to notice. It seemed so much easier to simply appear interested in class rather than boys, but fourteen-year-old urges have to give way sooner or later.

Claude was a natural beauty. Hidden under long, disheveled dirty brown hair and thick eyebrows were dark brown eyes that seemed to never look any further than my own. In fact, I don’t recall ever seeing him blink; his attention was unyielding. He strode through the halls of Doneau High everyday in the same fur-trimmed brown coat with an assured confidence that never seemed to waver. Even when he’d bump his shoulder into the wall as we sneaked glances at one another.

Our insecure peeking soon became timid smiles, which then turned into the odd “hi” and “hey there” greetings. It seemed a strange coincidence, but each morning when I came to school through those big red double doors, I would see Claude. We would say hello and then proceed with our daily schedules, sometimes without seeing one another for the rest of the day. Those mornings alone quickly became the only reason I went to class each day.

…………

Sunday, October 5. For three straight nights now I’ve imagined that the yellowed glass doors of The Strangest Feeling were actually the big red wooden doors of Doneau High, and that Templeton would be waiting outside for me just as Claude once did. But just like all dreams, this one has now been interrupted by the embarrassment of reality. It’s Sunday night and I’m sitting in the exact same seat I was in last night. And the night before. And the night before that: the night that I met Templeton Rate.

If I hadn’t returned to The Strangest Feeling.

On Friday night, I stuck my face to the cigarette-stained window, hoping to find him in the diner waiting to buy me that cup of coffee he promised. Okay, I guess he didn’t technically promise, but there was something about this man that I seemed to want to desperately cling to. He wasn’t there, but I went in anyway. I ordered a coffee, and waited for him to follow me in again.

Three days and thirteen cups of coffee later, I realize that Templeton Rate probably isn’t going to show. I also realize that I have a caffeine addiction. What made me think that some rude, insincere guy with filthy hands would plan to show up looking for me? Especially when he’d abandoned me with his bill just three nights before. What made me feel as though I even wanted to see this peculiar individual again? What is it about Templeton Rate that made me wonder what it was that I had been waiting twenty-nine years for?

Kitty’s not working tonight, but that’s fine by me because I’m not here to see Kitty. Although I must admit, I do miss her cheery smile a little.

“I don’t think he’s going to show, honey,” I hear from behind the counter. Her nametag says ‘Sylvie,’ and she pours me another cup of coffee. Which brings my running total to fourteen now.

“Excuse me?” I mumble.

“You’re waiting for some guy, aren’t you?” she asks, with her Boston-thick accent. “Kitty told me there’d be a pretty young blonde in here tonight who’d be waiting for some guy that wasn’t going to show. I’m assuming she meant you.”

I barely spoke two sentences to Kitty the previous three nights, but I guess she knew what was really going on. I’m sure she could sense my desperation. Maybe Sylvie can too. “Is it that obvious?” I ask.

Sylvie is a heavy-set woman, probably in her late forties, and looks as though she’s been here most of her life. There’s something about overweight people that makes me want to place my trust in them. She puts the coffee back on the machine behind her, and then leans in towards me, her giant breasts getting some much-needed support. She has a sparkling hairpin that catches my eye as it pokes out of from under her hairnet; it has what appears to be a Painted Stork (Mycteria leucocephala) design on the end of it.

“You French?” she asks, picking up on the same fading accent of mine that Templeton did.

“French-Canadian actually.”

“What the hell are you doing waiting for some loser out here then? You’re a pretty girl. You can definitely do better than this, can’t you?”

“I’m not sure if I can.” I’m not sure if I have the strength to try and do better than this. Simply being here now seemed like a giant step forward for me. “I just needed a change, I think.”

“Listen to me honey. All I’m saying is that I don’t want to see you sitting here in the same seat thirty years from now, waiting for the same guy that’s never going to show.”

“I appreciate that,” I tell her, even though I didn’t really.

…………

I came to school late one Wednesday. My twelve-year-old sister Madeleine, that pernickety princess, was holed up in the bathroom all morning. Thankfully, she was on her way back to the orphanage that day. Although, I think she presumed that she was off to some fantasy world where the other kids actually cared about what she looked like. I could smell the hairspray through the door. I knew I was going to be late, but I still didn’t want to miss seeing Claude that morning.

I banged abrasively on the door. “I need my bathroom Madeleine!”

“It’s still my bathroom too, bitch,” she growled back at me in her usual pleasant demeanor. She had the charming ability to refer to me as ‘bitch’ in just about any situation, claiming that it was actually a term of endearment. I knew better than this of course, but I’ve never been very good at telling someone they’re wrong.

Late as I was, my mother had the nerve to inform me that she simply must get some of her gardening done. Something about new bulbs that needed to be planted, and according to her gardening bible, it was recommended that they be planted midweek before 9:00 AM for the best results. Because of this vital agricultural predicament, I had to walk Madeleine back to the orphanage that morning on my way to school. I tried to explain how important it was that I didn’t miss my first period gym class, but Mom told me she’d write me a note. Of course, a note for Mrs. Wyatt certainly wouldn’t make up for any missed chance encounter with Claude. This boy had a hold over me that I couldn’t resist. Even at fourteen, I wondered if it was healthy to need someone this way.

I put my mother’s note into my pocket, and headed out the door with Madeleine. It started raining after only a block or so, but I had no intention of going back to get an umbrella and being even more late than I already was. We had never really talked to one another in the short time that I’d known her, but Madeleine nonchalantly asked me questions as though we were the best of friends.

“Do you have a boyfriend?”

I told her no.

“Have you ever kissed a boy before?”

Again, I told her no. And unfortunately, it was the embarrassing truth.

The rain was really starting to come down, but it couldn’t put a stop to Madeleine’s relentless one-sided conversation. “I have a boyfriend at the orphanage,” she said. “His name’s Leo, and we’re going to get married.”

Leo? My brother Leo? Is it okay for my non-literal sister to marry my non-literal brother? I felt really sorry for Leo at that moment.

I wanted to ask her if Leo even knew about this pre-arranged matrimony, but decided not to. Instead, I asked her, “But what if Leo gets adopted Madeleine? What if you two never see each other again?”

“It doesn’t matter, because we’re in love. Maybe we’ll leave the orphanage together one day, and go to some deserted island to spend the rest of our lives. That’s how love works.”

My sympathy for everyone but Madeleine seemed to change right then and there. I looked at this twelve-year-old girl all soaking wet from the morning’s sudden storm, and I started to feel incredibly sad for her. I realized then that Madeleine and all those poor kids at the orphanage didn’t know the first thing about how love really worked. I certainly wasn’t the expert on boyfriends and kissing, but I knew I had the love of my family, and that that would never change. My siblings had next to nothing at that moment in their lives that would still be there in fifteen years. They had to keep those make-believe stories going in their heads just to get though the day. It didn’t seem fair to me. Not for Antonia. Not for Leo. Not even for Madeleine.

If Madeleine had been telling this story, she would have dreamed up a much different, much more positive ending.

We arrived at the orphanage, and I walked Madeleine to the front door where Mr. Martin was waiting for her. He said “hello” to me, and I waved back politely.

Madeleine hesitated before walking to the door. She turned her body back to me, without making eye contact. “Well, thanks for the talk.” It was the first time she’d ever thanked me for anything, not that I had done much to deserve such gratitude. Then she ran in through the front door to rejoin the litter of angels inside.

That was the last time I ever saw Madeleine. Some family from New Brunswick adopted her the following week, and I doubt she ever saw Leo again either.

First period gym was almost over by the time I neared the school. I was completely soaked from the rain, which had since passed, but I hoped to at least catch a glimpse of Claude in the halls between classes. Yet, as I approached the big red doors of Doneau High, impossible as it seemed, I saw him. He was at the flagpole, smoking a cigarette and looking a little misplaced. I walked up to him with a courage I never knew I had, trying to dry myself off as best I could. When he saw me coming he dropped his cigarette and instinctively extinguished it under his boot, even though the puddle beneath him had already done the job.

“Hey,” he said to me.

“What are you doing out here?” I asked. It had occurred to me then that this was the first non-greeting I’d ever spoken to him.

“Waiting for you,” he said timidly, avoiding direct eye contact. He leaned up against the flagpole. “You’re late. Have you got a note from your mother?”

I smiled at him, and produced the folded paper from my pocket. He took it from me and briefly examined it before handing it back. “Your name’s Bella, right?”

Isabelle,” I replied, but I didn’t want Claude to think that I was correcting him. “Or Bella.”

“Listen Bella, these stupid days here just seem a lot easier to take when I see you every morning. I like it when you say hi to me. That’s why I wait for you out here every day. I wait until I see you coming, and then I make it seem as though I’m just arriving too. I know it sounds stupid, but I was wondering if you’d like to meet me after school.”

I couldn’t believe this conversation was happening. My heart was fluttering so fast I thought it was going to burst. I couldn’t wait to tell Cindey.

“So what do you say?” he asked.

And all I could manage to respond with was, “You smoke?”

…………

I pull my eyes out from inside the dried-up empty coffee cup. “It’s weird, you know?” I say to Sylvie.

“How’s that?” she asks as she wipes the counter in front of me.

“He told me he wanted to buy me another cup of coffee. Then he went to the bathroom and never came back. He seemed to just disappear. I’m starting to wonder if he was even here at all.”

“Maybe he wasn’t,” she says ominously.

“Excuse me?”

“I mean, maybe he was a spirit. Like a ghost or an angel or something…”

An angel? I remember when I was younger I heard one of my siblings praying through the wall in my bedroom. He was saying things to angels, but I didn’t know what an angel was. So the next morning I asked my father.

Angels are just like you and me and your mother,” he told me. “They’re regular people that just want to help one another out.

Was Templeton Rate even there at all, or was he just one more from the litter of angels?

“…If you believe in those kinds of things, that is,” Sylvie continues. She finishes wiping the countertop and goes back into the kitchen, leaving me alone to think about it.

If Sylvie had been telling this story, she’d probably have a refreshingly different perspective.

“I don’t know,” I say, shouting over the counter and into the kitchen. “He told me he worked part-time as a doorman. If he was an angel, why would he come to see me?”

She comes back out with a fresh pot of coffee. “There must be a reason, honey. Damned if I knew all the secrets of the universe. But angels are supposed to help sort peoples’ lives out, right? Has your life changed at all since then?”

I watch the coffee as it pours into my cup. The color is fantastic and the hot steam rises slowly between us. This brings my total to fifteen. “I’m drinking coffee now. Do you think it’s possible that an angel visited me in order to make me start drinking coffee?”

“We all need a vice, honey.” Sylvie pours a cup for herself now too.

“I don’t know what it is though. He was rude, intolerable and self-centered, but I feel inexplicably drawn to him.” I remember exactly how Claude had once made me feel. “Like he has some strange, undefined hold over me.”

“Wow,” Sylvie seems to say with a little remorse, “I’d love to feel inexplicably drawn to somebody.”

“It’s not as magical as you might think,” I tell her.

…………

Claude and I met that same day after school. I waited for him at the yellow electrical box behind the gym, just as I promised I would. Of course, we really didn’t know each other very well at all. Our two-minute conversation that morning was the only one we’d ever had up until that point, and thinking about it now, it feels like it was the last one we ever had too.

He came stumbling around the corner, not the least bit surprised that I was really there waiting for him. The nervousness that only two teenagers in just such a scenario can feel was shared between us, and we figured that the best way to overcome it was by making out every day after school on that yellow electrical box. A part of me was disgusted by the cigarette taste of his mouth when we kissed, while another part of me just told myself to take what I could get. I still had no idea how all of this had really come to be anyway. It seemed impossible to me then that something like that could ever happen twice in one lifetime. What are the chances?

It was on a Monday, the fourth afternoon behind the gym, when Claude sat still for a moment after parking himself beside me. His hair was cut a little shorter that day. I wondered if his mother still went to the barber’s with him to get his haircut, or if she did it for him herself. I waited for him to move closer, to kiss me, or to say something. Anything. But maybe he was just waiting for the same from me.

“I like your hair,” I told him, but my words seemed to have little effect. He appeared very nervous, as if trying to find the strength to say whatever it was that was on his mind.

“I need to ask you a question Bella,” he said quietly.

“What is it?” I asked, knowing full well that he must want to ask me to go steady with him. I wanted so badly for Claude to be my first boyfriend, and I was sure he felt the same about me being his girlfriend. He’d probably spent all weekend preparing himself for this moment. All he had to do was ask.

“I need to ask you a question,” he nervously reiterated, “…but not now.” He moved in closer to give me a kiss, and I made no effort to hold back. I desperately wanted to hear him ask me what it was I surely had an answer for already, but instead I gave in to those beautiful pouty lips of his.

I guess he could always ask me tomorrow,” I thought to myself with his tongue in my mouth.

“So what was it that he wanted to ask you?” Cindey Fellowes prodded as we made our way through the hordes of students crowding the halls of Doneau High. This was about two weeks into my relationship with Claude, and he still had yet to ask me the question, which had come to be known officially as ‘The Question’ between Cindey and I. “Maybe he had a math problem or something he wanted you to help him with,” she suggested. “I mean…it’s kinda weird that he would bring it up and never actually follow through with asking you, isn’t it?”

It did seem a little weird. Claude and I were still making out behind the gym every day, so I guess I just assumed he felt we were already an item. Forget such technicalities as actually having to ask me. My only problem with the whole arrangement was that we never did anything else. He had never taken me to a movie, or out for dinner like normal boyfriends did in normal relationships. I had never seen where he lived or met his parents, nor had I ever been offered a ride in his car. He hadn’t yet been absorbed into my life outside of grade ten either.

I made the mistake of telling my parents that I met a nice boy at school named Claude, and that I really liked him. I was even dumb enough to tell them about The Question. Dad assumed he was a drug dealer and wanted to sell me something illegal, while Mom guessed that he wanted to sell me something religious. Both of them, of course, wanted to meet Claude as soon as possible, but that just wasn’t conceivable since I couldn’t seem to get him anywhere further than the yellow electrical box behind the gymnasium.

“What do you kids do every day after school, sweetheart?” Mom would ask, trying not to sound as though she was really asking if I knew what a sexually transmitted disease was.

“I don’t know…” I would tell her. “We just hang out. We study at the library sometimes, and other times we study in the cafeteria.”

“That’s a lot of studying…” Dad would say ambiguously in his best non-ambiguous tone. “I never did that much studying when I was your age.”

I wanted to say “and look where it got you, Dad,” but seeing as how my after-school activities could very possibly lead to eventually working at the paper mill myself, I decided that silence was a much better alternative.

“Well, as long as you can keep those grades up sweetheart, there shouldn’t be a problem with you seeing this boy,” Mom concluded reassuringly. Only to throw in the not-so-subtle “but we do want to meet him,” hint.

My parents always tried to find some sneaky way to get the answers for all of their overbearing questions, but they weren’t going to crack my secret code on this one. They may have found out where the missing mixing bowl went when I was seven, or what exactly had happened to the severed gardening hose, or that Cindey Fellowes and I were actually watching the Learning Channel’s History Of Sex unsupervised on her thirteenth birthday, and not The Breakfast Club, but they weren’t going to get anything from me this time.

So they went to him instead.

Two months of kissing Claude had culminated in my parents showing up completely unannounced after school, and at my locker of all places. They were even devious enough to come by on Valentine’s Day, a day when I was sure to be seeing Claude after school. Dad had signed up on the graveyard shift at work that week in preparation for the day’s big event. How perfect. I was at my locker, unsuspectingly showing Cindey Fellowes the hickey I got from Claude the day before, when her attention suddenly turned to someone behind me. I didn’t even notice Cindey sneak away as I rolled up my turtleneck sweater, and turned to see my parents standing there.

“Is that a rash you’ve got there?” Mom asked me. “Because I’ve got some cream in my purse that would clear that right up.”

I couldn’t answer; I was too freaked out at the sight of my parents silhouetted by the Doneau High Valentine’s Dance poster on the bulletin board behind them.

“Your father will go back to the car and get it, sweetheart. It’s no problem.” She moved in to try and get a closer look with her fingers, but I was too angry to let her. I smacked her hand away.

“What are you guys doing here? There’s no parent/teacher conference today, is there?” I don’t even know how they knew where my locker was.

“Your mother and I were in the neighborhood,” Dad started, “and we thought we’d give you a ride home.” How utterly convenient. I looked at my Degrassi High watch; I had to meet Claude in five minutes!

“We practically live in the neighborhood,” I tell him. “I can walk home, you know. It’s not a problem. Not in the least conceivable way at all.”

“We’re not trying to make a problem sweetheart,” she said. “We just…”

And that’s when Claude made his unexpected and oh-so-untimely appearance. He tapped me on the shoulder, as though we had a big game to prepare for. “Five more minutes Bella,” was all he said before stopping to notice that these weren’t teachers I was talking to. My mother, my father and Claude all took a few long seconds to look each other over. Like the Common Kestrel’s (Falco tinnunculus) piercing stare as it circles the vole before swooping down for the inevitable kill. No one wanted to make the first move.

“Mom, Dad…this is my friend Claude,” I said nervously, beating them all to the punch.

They did their best impression of a mature greeting.

“ ‘Allo,” said Dad.

“Hey,” said Claude.

“Well, hi there sweetheart,” said Mom predictably.

The silence continued for what felt like another minute, as uncomfortable glances and uneasy hand gestures were exchanged. From somewhere around the corner, I could hear a locker door close. It seemed like the only sound in the world right then: the creaking hinge, the metal latch connecting back into place and the slow, reverberating footsteps walking away and fading into silence.

I thought I heard the sound of water dripping slowly from a tap in the girls’ washroom: tiny droplets hitting the pool at the bottom of the sink one after the other, in a perfect rhythm of loneliness.

I blinked once or twice nervously, and I could actually hear my wet eyelids as they slapped together.

All of this until Claude bravely spoke up, “So five minutes, okay?” Then he left, walking away from us, yet still keeping an uncertain gaze on my parents for a moment before turning his head away too.

Dad tried his best to take something positive from this painfully impassive assembly. “He seems very…punctual. How are his grades?”

Mom, however, only had vague warnings to deliver. “That boy will break your heart if you’re not careful Isabelle. He’s far too good-looking to take your relationship seriously.” I could tell she was genuinely concerned because she referred to me as ‘Isabelle,’ and not her usual ‘sweetheart.’ Of course, I knew better because I was in love, and isn’t that how it’s supposed to work?

That’s certainly how Madeleine would have perceived it.

Sometimes I felt that I wanted Claude for no other reason than for making out behind the gym. I also just liked the way the word ‘boyfriend’ sounded. My parents left the whole thing alone from that point on, and we never spoke of Claude again.

And then, one day after school on the yellow electrical box, my relationship with Claude ended. We pulled our lips apart for a second, and he said, “It’s my birthday today, you know?”

I had already made sure that we’d established when each other’s birthdays were at the beginning of our relationship in proper teenage girlfriend fashion. “Yeah, I know,” I said to him. I knew that day was his birthday, and I’d made him a card the night before out of flimsy construction paper that had said in haiku:

A birthday itself

Is not so very special,

Not special at all

It can only be

As special as you are then,

As you are to me

I’m not entirely sure what the words I wrote meant, but it had the right number of syllables and I was proud of the effort I had put into it. I slipped the card into his locker first thing in the morning, before Claude even got to school. He didn’t meet me outside at the flagpole anymore.

“So…?” he asked me, as if waiting for something more.

“So what?” was all I could give him.

“So what do you say?”

I thought about this for a moment. What do I say? I wasn’t entirely sure what he wanted to hear from me. So I gave it my best effort. “Um, good for you…?”

“No. That’s not it.”

“Way to go?”

Still nothing.

“What do you want me to say, Claude?”

“You’re supposed to say happy birthday.”

“I made you a card. I slipped it into your locker this morning. Didn’t you get it?”

“Yeah, I got it. But it didn’t say happy birthday on it.”

“Well, happy birthday then.”

“Thank you.”

He leaned back into position to continue where we left off, but I wasn’t going to leave it at that. He seemed so self-righteous listening to me say exactly what he had wanted to hear. “How old are you?” I asked him.

“Sixteen.” he replied, followed by another attempt to make lip contact.

“No. I mean in terms of maturity. That’s a pretty immature thing to say to me Claude.”

“I would say happy birthday to you on your birthday Bella. I can’t believe you’d be so selfish.”

Selfish?”

He got up, turned to me, and said it: “I don’t think I want to see you anymore.”

If Claude had been telling this story, he wouldn’t have put much thought into it.

Then Claude walked away. He dumped me right then and there, behind the gym and on his birthday no less. Maybe the worst thing about it all was the fact that I’d never learned what it was he was going to ask me. Not only had The Question remained unanswered, it had remained unasked.

…………

“Claude was a foolish kid,” I say to Sylvie, “but I’ve heard it said that the jerks are harder to get over than the good ones.” The bottom of my coffee is nothing more than a mound of sugar. “I’m still waiting for the other half of the equation to find out if that’s true, but it certainly has taken me a long time to forget about him. As embarrassing as that sounds.”

She looks at me the way my mother used to look at me right before saying something profound. “The ones that are easily forgotten are the ones that aren’t worth remembering.” I didn’t notice until now, but Sylvie has already locked the door and turned the outside lights off. The Strangest Feeling was closing up for the night. She gives the counter in front of me one final wipe, and motions to the empty cup in my hands. “Did you want to pay for that now honey, or should I put it on your tab for tomorrow?”

I give her a ten for a night’s worth of coffee, and insist that she keep the change. “Actually, I don’t think I’ll be showing up here tomorrow,” I say. I remove my coat from the stool beside me and slip it on. I wrap my scarf around my neck, take my purse and then I thank Sylvie for the company tonight before heading out the door.

“My name’s Maria,” Sylvie replies.

“What? But your nametag…?”

“Is still at home on my kitchen counter. I borrowed Sylvie’s nametag. Besides, what does a name matter anyway when all I’m doing is standing behind a counter?”

I tell her she’s probably right, and I unlock the door to let myself out.

Sylvie disappears back into the kitchen as I leave The Strangest Feeling with the feeling that I would be all right.

NEXT CHAPTER

Molt – Chapter Three

The Strangest Feeling

THURSDAY, OCTOBER SECOND. I remember sitting on the bus. This is a horrible place to start a story, but I suppose it’s as good a place as any other I can think of.

Boston, Massachusetts. One month ago. It’s my twenty-ninth birthday, and I’m sitting on the cold, orange plastic seat of bus #3031, probably the oldest bus that the MBTA owned. This thing seems to be running on time that had already run out. Every bump in the road causes every piece of it to shake violently. Some things shake when I’m certain they shouldn’t. I can feel parts of myself shaking that shouldn’t be. The floor seems to move independently from the rest of the bus, which certainly has to be a safety hazard. On the seat next to me is an old ragged newspaper. The date is smudged, but it appears to read ‘November 2, 1982.’ That can’t be right, can it? One of the banner ads above me has a picture of a Spine-Tailed Swift (Hirundapus caudacutus) on it, the second-fastest bird in the world. I think it’s an advertisement for an ink-jet printer, but I’m really not sure.

Professor Nickwelter and a few more of the teaching staff at Hawthorne University decided to throw an intimate birthday dinner for me, and after calling it an evening, I decided to treat myself to this spectacular bus ride. Happy birthday me.

There’s something about turning twenty-nine that seems to instantly make you feel older than thirty. I can’t explain it, but I can certainly feel it tonight.

I remember when I was a little girl, growing up in Ville Constance and dreaming of this day. Well, let me make it clear; not this day as it’s turned out to be, but this day as I thought it would be. An imaginary life. With the perfect husband and flowers beside my bed. It’s my personal opinion that until girls turn sixteen, they shouldn’t have even the slightest concept of marriage explained to them. It’s a dangerous idea to have in your head when you’re an eight-year-old girl. Like carrying around a loaded gun, not that I would have any idea what to do with it. So many dreams are forged at that age; dreams that seem realistically attainable, that it’s hard to face the inevitable and disappointing reality of it all.

So now I’m twenty-nine years old. I’m allergic to flowers and about as close to being married as I was twenty-one years ago. Actually, it seems as though I might have been closer back then, because that’s when I still had some hope. I guess you could call this my mid-life crisis, but feeling so near to the end as I do right now, my mid-life crisis must have happened around the time I was fifteen. Although, for the life of me, I can’t recall what that event must’ve been. I can only narrow it down to one disappointing day:

If I hadn’t been cut from the Doneau High basketball team.

Thinking about all of this, I start to zone out. My thoughts are somewhere else entirely, but my eyes are focused squarely on the metal pole before me. I’m paying specific attention to a tiny screw in the center, attaching the pole to the seat in front of me. One of those screws with the X-shaped hole in the middle. I know that buried somewhere deep within that empty black cross lies the answers to whatever it is I’m asking myself. I’m looking, but not seeing. The mind and the eyes are so closely related, that it’s impossible to imagine just how far apart mine were at this moment. Like they were two Snow Buntings (Plectrophenax nivalis) on opposing mountain peaks. Or like the American Rhea (Rhea americana) and the African Ostrich (Struthio camelus), who so obviously shared a common ancestor, but haven’t had contact with one another since before the continents divided. The entire world is flying by me just outside that window at a steady pace of fifteen miles-an-hour. But I remain completely unaware of it.

I almost seem to be getting somewhere when my senses come crashing back together. A hand grips the pole in front of me; a little dirty, but a perfectly flawless hand nonetheless. It covers up the screw and seemingly all of the answers buried within it, and it’s enough to bring me back down to Earth.

What force could have been responsible for this near-impossible task? At the time, I had no idea who he was. And yet, even as this man would bring my feet back to the ground at that moment, he would later try to take them right off again. But I’m getting ahead of myself here. What did happen on that bus at that moment?

He’s staring right at me, and a little too obviously for my liking. I cross my legs and adjust the top button of my blouse, so as not to give this creep a free show. I try my best to focus my thoughts back to the dinner party I had escaped from.

Okay. Concentrate. It’s Thursday night. I was just downtown at Café d’Averno with the four of them; there was Professor Nickwelter, former head of the ornithology department, now my assistant at Hawthorne University; Professor James, head of genetics; Professor Claus, our zoology expert; and Jerry Humphries, who runs the school’s bird sanctuary and laboratories. I don’t know whose idea it was to invite Humphries, as no one here seems to be able to stand the despicable man. Especially myself.

We would have an unscheduled long weekend due to a small fire this morning in the university’s south laboratory. A blown fuse box I was told, but more likely it was a student horsing around. Quite a dangerous place for a fire, but I was told no serious damage was inflicted. In order to make sure the rest of the school was safe, we were given Friday off.

Café d’Averno, as far as I know, is named after a famous lake in Southern Italy, Lake Avernus. The ancient Romans considered the lake to be a gateway to Hell, and that its volcanic fumes that filled the air were deadly enough to kill every bird that flew in its vicinity. The word for Hell, Averno, literally means “a place without birds,” and maybe I’m just biased, but I personally believe this to be a correct statement.

At the center of Averno’s, there was a fountain surrounded by eight Muscovy Ducks (Cairina moschata) meticulously carved into the marble base. The French crossbred Muscovy ducks and mallards for cooking to obtain Barbary ducks, which have a milder taste. A popular belief is that Muscovy ducks had gotten their name from the musky odor of their flesh.

There’s something about birds that I find extraordinarily soothing. Whenever I’m feeling uncomfortable, or if I simply need to calm myself down, I have a habit of looking around for birds wherever I am. They’re everywhere, whether real or not. You’d be surprised if you really focused on it. Anyway, the duck carvings on the fountain were just enough to put me at ease again. That is, until I turned back to the dinner party. Or more specifically, towards Professor Nickwelter.

Nickwelter and I had a history together of which everyone here knew about, and it only served to make the meal even more uncomfortable. For me, at least. But everybody had always done their best to try not to bring up any off-handed mention of our shaky past. It’s been two years since our relationship had ended, and I’m still awkward about the entire situation.

If I hadn’t slept with Professor Nickwelter.

After hors d’oeuvres, we ordered dinner. Nickwelter, James, and Humphries all had the roasted duck, which is quite remarkable coming from three grown men who have made the studying and caring for birds into their chosen career. Professor Claus (who is affectionately known as ‘Mrs. Claus’ by the faculty and students at Hawthorne) had the tofu spinach burger with cabbage. I ordered the spaghetti with meatballs, and was met with cheers from the surrounding company. They had actually made a bet earlier as to what I would order; three of them said spaghetti. Humphries guessed pork chops. Pork chops? I’ve always hated pork chops, not that he would know that. I’m almost certain that pork chops weren’t even on the menu, but apparently he had his reasons. The pretentious twit. Although, now that I think about it, I hadn’t noticed whether or not I’ve ever eaten such an exorbitant amount of spaghetti, with meatballs or otherwise, that people would take such an active notice either.

I tried to change the subject, to talk about something other than myself. But once dinner was served, the conversation had quickly been forced back towards me, and it was definitely the figurative arrow I did not want pointing my way. It went something like this:

PROFESSOR NICKWELTER: “You look magnificent tonight Isabelle. Is that a new wristwatch? Whatever happened to the last one?”

PROFESSOR JAMES: “I hope you don’t consider yourself old for being on the brink of thirty. You’re still a spring chicken, Donhelle! By the way, do you know the origins of the term ‘spring chicken?’ Remind me to tell you later. It’s really quite an amusing anecdote.”

MRS. CLAUS: “Isabelle, why don’t you come by my place after dinner for some non-fat organic birthday cake? I have a family recipe that’s to die for.”

JERRY HUMPHRIES: “You need a ride home tonight, Bella?”

And my answer was the same for all of them:

ME: “I think the spaghetti was bad. Excuse me while I go use the ladies room.”

We hadn’t been at the restaurant for any longer than an hour, and I had already made three trips to the ladies room. It seemed to be the only the place I could go to get some air. Engraved in many of the tiles on the bathroom wall were images of Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis) standing one-legged in pools of water. When roosting, cranes will tuck one leg up under their feathers to keep it warm while standing on the other. In the Middle Ages, it was believed that a sentry crane held a stone within its hidden foot, and would drop it if he fell asleep or if its attention was diverted, thereby waking its companions. In heraldry, a crane is often shown holding a stone, as a reminder of alertness.

If only I had been paying attention that night.

To make this exhaustingly boring story just a bit shorter, I decided to simply leave Café d’Averno early. I honestly don’t know if spaghetti has the capability of going bad, but they let me go on my own without too much of a struggle, even though I had gotten a lift to the restaurant with Mrs. Claus. Humphries still had the ride home offer on the table, and I still declined. That smug little weasel. For some reason, the idea of riding public transit seemed to appeal to me much more tonight than it ever had before in my life.

If I hadn’t decided to take the bus home.

Had all the talk of me being another year older, another year closer to thirty, been getting to me? Maybe a little bit. The truth is, I’ve never dealt with change very well. I am from Ville Constance, after all. The Constant City. I know I’m getting older, we all are with every passing second, but I guess I’ve felt as though things never seem to change for me as much as I think they should. Do I avoid change because I’m really just itching to turn it around? Do I keep my life stagnant because I’m aching to do something completely unexpected? Was I staring so intensely into the void of that screw in front of me because I’m really just afraid to be a part of the changing world around me? Is the world changing without me?

I turn back to this man on the bus, his gaze still upon me. A part of me wonders if he’d ever taken his eyes off me at all, while another part of me wonders whether or not I actually wanted him to. He nods his head towards me, and I tighten up defensively once again. The level of discomfort I’m feeling at this precise moment is completely unexplainable. What’s this guy staring at me for anyway? And why me? Again, I adjust my blouse and turn my body away from him. In my head, I count down from ten before looking back up…

Three…Two…One…Zero.

And there he is.

“Can I help you?” I ask abruptly, defiantly. As soon as the words leave my lips, I worry that maybe I shouldn’t have said anything at all. My mother always told me never to talk to strangers, but when exactly comes the point in one’s life that Mom’s advice can be disregarded? When can I make my own decisions without having to still hear her voice nattering away inside my head?

“Are you offering your help,” he begins calmly, and then blinks in what seems like slow motion, “or do I have to beg you for it?” He isn’t cracking a smile at all; he just says this matter-of-factly. As though the ambiguousness of his words can only be interpreted one way.

That’s it for me though. I pull the bus dinger as if it was a parachute’s ripcord and I I’m perilously close to hitting the ground. I get up from my seat and run across the shaky floor to the exit at the back of the bus. The driver slows to a stop and I jump off into the darkness of the city. I turn back to make sure the man didn’t follow me off the bus. He didn’t. Bus #3031 speeds off to where, just one minute ago, I thought I was going.

Taking a look around me, I discover a part of Boston that I don’t recognize. It’s dirty. It’s smelly. It’s making me uncomfortable. But I think that not knowing where I am is exactly where I want to be. Directly behind me, and nestled in between two of the vilest triple-x establishments I’ve ever seen is The Strangest Feeling, a little diner with yellow smoke-stained windows. Beneath the alternating green lights flashing from one pornography shop to the orange lights flashing from the other, The Strangest Feeling seems strangely welcoming.

So I go in.

If I hadn’t walked inside The Strangest Feeling.

Inside, it appears to be one of those retro eateries that make you feel as though you’re sitting right in the middle of the 1940’s. I sit up at the front counter on a stool with a flat plastic cushion, even worse than the seat on the bus.

I begin to take in everything behind the counter; malt vinegar bottles, pancake syrup, plastic bears filled with honey, jars and boxes stuffed with dozens of different types of tea bags and an old-fashioned pop bottle with a faded image of Marilyn Monroe on it.

The night waitress comes out from the kitchen. She pulls the menu out that’s wedged between the sugar dispenser and the ketchup bottle and she tosses it in front of me. But before I can open the oversized laminated menu she speaks up.

“What’ll it be sweetheart?” she asks me, instantly reminding me of my mother. She smacks her bubble gum as though she really doesn’t care what my answer will be.

I’m almost too overwhelmed by the sight of this girl to give an immediate response. Her nametag says ‘Kitty’ for one thing, and her lips are this sort of neon green color. The kind of color that should strictly be reserved for tacky electric signs on steak houses. Or maybe they were just reflecting the flashing green porno shop signs outside. Feeling pressured to make some kind of decision, I simply ask, “What’s your special?”

“Tonight’s special is pea soup with our homemade cheese bread.” She smacks her lips a couple more times before finishing her response. “I highly recommend it.”

I’m not really full from my earlier meal at Averno’s. Since my dinner guests had never stopped bombarding me with ridiculous questions, I didn’t get the chance to eat my meal while it was still hot. It’s really not fair that there were four mouths shooting off questions and only one mouth left to answer them. They all took turns talking and eating, while I was too polite to speak with my mouth full, so I opted to not even try.

“How bad could it be then?” I ask, mostly to myself.

She answers anyway. “No worse than tomorrow’s special, I suppose” she says with a smirk. “Is that all then?”

Behind the counter I spot a varied selection of tiny cereal boxes, three ceramic dancing Hawaiian hula girls with ukuleles, and a large coffee maker with five pots of coffee brewing. I don’t know if it’s because there are five full pots of coffee and I’m the only customer in here, but I think about having some. I’ve never had a cup of coffee in my life before; just the thought of it has never appealed to me. I think it’s partly because my father once told me that caffeine was a drug, and I’d be good to stay away from drugs. I take a moment to consider how much of a lame-o I must be, and then I ask Kitty for a cup of coffee.

“You sure about that?” she asks, as if seeing right through me.

“Maybe just a tea then,” I say, taking it back. But I the part of me that was looking for a change tonight is what stops Kitty before she can walk away. “No. Sorry,” I say, the words stumbling out of my mouth. “I think I will have that cup of coffee.” It’s subtle, but I know she’s rolling her eyes at me a little.

If I hadn’t asked for that one cup of coffee.

“Thanks,” I confirm.

“You got it.” She writes my order down in her head, and saunters back into the kitchen. I slide the menu back into its resting place and consider just how bad tomorrow’s special might be. I also wonder when neon green lipstick was ever in style.

I take notice of the large Jones Cola machine, a breadbox that may or may not contain bread, a coffee bean grinder and an old-fashioned metal fan with a wire grate covering the blade. An unplugged cord is loosely tied around the base. Above the order window to the kitchen are about a dozen black and white photographs, which appear to be both employees and patrons of The Strangest Feeling. On one of the walls there is a poorly painted mural of a sunrise; the colors are cracked and bubbled, showing years of neglect. On the ceiling are matching painted clouds.

But in this entire diner, I can’t seem to find a single image of a bird anywhere. It makes me feel a little uneasy; as though I’m way too far out of my element.

It really is the strangest feeling.

An early October Boston chill creeps inside the diner. I almost reach for the newspaper down the counter, but then I remember how tired I am of reading about bad news. And I worry that the paper could potentially have the same date as the one I saw on the bus earlier.

Kitty comes back out and pours some coffee from one of the pots into a generous-sized ceramic mug. She places the mug and a spoon onto a tiny plate in front of me. The spoon has a design on the end of it that I can’t make out. I imagine that if I held it at just the right angle under the diner’s dim lights, it might be charitable enough to resemble an African Penguin (Spheniscus demersus). Maybe I’m trying too hard to look for a comforting sign, but maybe the unknown is better right now. Maybe I need to feel out of my element tonight.

If I hadn’t been out of my element.

Kitty tosses some plastic cups of cream onto the table, smacking her gum all the while. I can smell that pink, sugary flavor with every bite. If smell could be described as pink, this was it.

I try my best to seem as though I belong in this caffeine-induced society. Tearing the lids off of two cups of cream (actually, it’s more like I was picking away at it until I could get a grip of the slippery paper seal with my teeth, then pulling slowly enough so as not to spill it all over myself), I pour it in with a dash of sugar. That’s right, a dash. It sounds like the correct amount. I think from a stranger’s perspective, I must appear pretty experienced for someone who’s never had a cup of coffee in her life.

I take a sip.

And it’s really not very good. I pour in what must be the equivalent of three or four packs of sugar into my cup.

Another tentative sip.

It’s tolerable now. Who knows, maybe it’ll grow on me by the end of the night?

Five minutes later, I’m hoping the pea soup and cheese bread might grow on me as well. I’m also hoping that there really are peas in here somewhere, because I can’t tell for sure. At least the bread is decent enough, though I can’t seem to decipher the crust from the actual bread. There are a few reasons running through my head as to why this diner is called The Strangest Feeling. Still, I feel more content here all by myself than I did at Café d’Averno earlier tonight with my incessant co-workers. And I certainly feel safer than I did on the bus.

That is, until ringing bells indicate the door to The Strangest Feeling has swung open. A lone man enters, and he sits right beside me at the counter, even though there are plenty of other empty seats in here.

“What can I get you, sugar?” Kitty asks him, smacking her bubble gum between those crayon-colored lips.

I catch his reflection in the mirrored mini fridge behind the counter. It’s the same guy from the bus; the one I specifically came in here to avoid. How the fudge did he follow me in here so quickly? I made sure he didn’t get off the bus when I did. I can see his reflection motion towards mine as he replies to the waitress, “I’ll have what she’s having.”

“And a coffee?” she asks.

In the reflection, I see him glance down into my coffee cup to check its contents. “Yep.”

Kitty walks off, and I continue to stare at him from the mini fridge. Before I can decide whether sitting here any longer is still a good idea, his eyes turn to mine in the glass. That same smile from the bus is still smeared across his face. “You recommend the pea soup and cheese bread?” he calmly asks my mirror image.

What do I say now? Panic mode has set in, and yet I feel as though it’s far too late to do anything rational. “Not really,” I say to him. “I just wanted to try something new tonight.”

If I hadn’t answered him.

Our reflections don’t turn away from each other, and I get a much better look at his features now. Beautiful brown eyes beneath a thick, messy head of hair. A strong jaw and that overly confident smile breaking through cracked lips. His skin has a certain hardness to it; well-tanned, but with just the faintest trace of dirt or soot on his face. Probably from the same source as the grime on his knuckles I captured earlier.

“You get that feeling often?” he asks, reaching into his coat to scratch his armpit. “That you want to try something new?”

“To tell the truth, I get that feeling all the time,” I say to him. “But tonight’s the first time that I’ve ever acted on it.”

He peers into the kitchen now, as though he’s already growing impatient for his meal. With his elbows, he pushes himself up to take a better look. He’s not paying attention to me, but still asks, “Is that a French accent?”

“Uh…yeah.” I say. “French-Canadian.”

With a quick motion, he reaches over the counter and grabs a spoon from behind the bar. I don’t know why he does it, but he sits right down again and turns back to face my reflection. “What’s that?” he asks, as if just realizing I had answered him.

“I said I’m French-Canadian.”

“Is there such a thing?”

I can’t tell if he’s joking or not. He’s not blinking. He simply stares through the mini-fridge, and into my eyes like he’s waiting for me to go on. He rattles the spoon between his teeth.

Before I can utter another word, Kitty makes her timely return. She sets down an empty cup, pours some coffee for him and then refills mine. She’s still smacking her gum as she tosses some more plastic cups of cream onto the countertop.

I pour some more cream and sugar into my coffee. From the mini-fridge I notice this man next to me doing the same. Mimicking exactly how I prepare my cup of coffee. How can he do that? Didn’t I conceive of these particular measurements myself just now? Do I not reserve the right to be offended by someone else’s identical coffee-preparing preferences? I turn to him, and I force the words out, “I can see what you’re doing.”

“Hmmm?” he replies innocently, without even a hint of innocence.

“You follow me in here, you sit right beside me and you order the same thing I do. And now you’re putting the exact same amount of cream and sugar in your coffee as me.”

“Strangest coincidence, isn’t it?”

I pick up my spoon, and stir the coffee around. He does the same. Our metal spoons clinking with the rims of our ceramic cups in perfect harmony. He places his spoon back down, just as I do.

Upon closer inspection, I notice the t-shirt he’s wearing underneath his buttoned-up weathered coat has an image ironed on the front. It appears to be the feathery cap a Brown-Headed Nuthatch (Sitta pusilla). At least, that’s what it looks like from this angle. It’s enough to make me smile a little, whether I mean to or not.

He holds out his hand. “My name’s Templeton Rate.”

I don’t move an inch. Templeton Rate, I think. Sounds made up to me.

“I know it sounds made up, but that’s really my name,” he says, as if taking the words right out of my head. Actually, the words were still in my head, so I guess it was more like he got in, made a xerox copy of my words, and then got back out again before saying it. Well, whatever. You get the idea. Either way, I wasn’t really sure just what to make of the situation I’d now found myself in. It was all very strange. Although I think I was finding the slightest bit of comfort from the head of the nuthatch peeking out from Templeton Rate’s coat.

I know he can smell my fear, and he presses on. “Are you going to get into the habit of trying new things?” he asks. “Because it’s really not such a bad habit to have, you know.”

Maybe he was right. Maybe this was going to be a new habit for me. Maybe it should be. That change in my life that I always seemed to avoid for fear of ending up somewhere I didn’t want to be? Maybe this was it. Who am I kidding? Of course this was it.

It was at that precise moment I made the mistake; the one mistake that led this story to end it the way it does. I could’ve gotten up right then and there, but like a fool I stayed.

If I hadn’t had that first cup of coffee; if I hadn’t entered The Strangest Feeling; if I hadn’t gotten on that bus; if I hadn’t lied to my co-workers about the spaghetti; if I hadn’t been cut from the Doneau High basketball team.

That’s right Mrs. Wyatt; this is all your fault.

Templeton repeats his last question, since it probably seems as though I didn’t hear him. “I said trying new things is really not such a bad habit to have, is it?”

“I don’t know,” I start. “The bread’s a little stale. And the soup is watery.”

That’s what I chose say to him. I just couldn’t leave well enough alone. Those were the words that sealed my fate, and the fate of the whole city. Maybe even the world. That’s not being too dramatic, is it?

“I’m not going to lie to you,” is what he says back to me. “I’m much better than stale bread and watery soup.”

And I believed him. Whoops. Sorry world.

If I hadn’t believed a word he said.

His hand is still held out in front of me, so I lift mine into his. It’s the warmest hand I think I’ve ever felt. In fact, it’s so warm that I have no problem telling him whatever it is he wants to know. “Isabelle,” I say to him.

“That’s a little bit better…” he replies, not letting go of my hand.

Whatever he wants at all. “Isabelle Donhelle.”

“Ah. Perfect.” He pauses for a moment, thinking about this. “You know, that name sounds more made up than mine. Are you sure you’re telling me the entire truth?”

“Of course I am,” I say defensively.

“Really?”

“Why wouldn’t I be?”

If I hadn’t told him the truth.

He stares back into my eyes, much deeper than I’m comfortable with. It feels like he knows I’m lying, even though I know I’m not. “That’s funny…” he starts, as he raises the cup to his mouth. He takes a loud slurp. It’s almost loud enough that one would assume he’s doing it intentionally, for whatever reason men do anything. But it’s just loud enough that I can tell he simply has no manners. Basically, he’s a pig. Although, the fool that I am, I chalk it up to poor parental guidance, since he seems to be trying his best to be a gentleman.

He swallows the coffee, but before he can finish what it was he had started to say, he squirms uncontrollably in his seat, as though he just had a sip of flat root beer. He turns back to me accusingly, “Fuck,” he says. “Do you really drink coffee with this much sugar in it?”

“Actually, that’s something new for me too. I guess I’m really spreading my wings today, aren’t I?”

“Of course you are.” He places his coffee cup back down in front of him, but he continues to feel the handle with his fingers. “But you’d better be careful when spreading your wings that you have a safe place to land.”

I look down to the floor, but I can’t tell if I’m looking for a safe place, or if I’m looking for the right thing to say instead.

It doesn’t matter though, as the moment is ruined anyway. Templeton’s hand tips his coffee cup over. Steaming, sugary coffee spills onto the countertop and drips down onto the checkerboard-tiled floor. I can’t tell for certain if this was intentional or not, since he doesn’t seem the least bit surprised or embarrassed. The waitress runs over to clean it up. I tell her “sorry,” since Templeton clearly isn’t going to. In fact, he doesn’t even acknowledge her. Again, I blame this on an unfortunate upbringing. She says it’s all right and asks Templeton if he wants a refill, but he continues to ignore her, keeping his attention focused entirely on me.

“So, are you new in town? I haven’t seen you around Boston before, Isabelle Donhelle.”

I try my best to forget about the coffee too. “It’s a big city, Templeton Rate.”

“Hey, I’m from Schenectady. I know big cities. This is nothing.”

Schenectady? I don’t know whether to laugh or just agree with him. He sure seems serious. Maybe I’m just thinking of another Schenectady. “And I’m always on the lookout for cute French girls in greasy diners, so I know you’re definitely new around here.”

“The truth is that I really don’t get out much.”

The waitress comes back with Templeton’s soup, bread and a fresh cup of coffee.

“So tell me something,” he says to me, and then waits for a response. Although I’m not quite sure what it is he’s looking for.

“Pardon me?” I ask.

He reaches for the salt and pepper, and shakes some into the hot pea soup as he clarifies. “I want to know something about you that I couldn’t have pieced together just by sitting here at this counter for the last ten minutes. Like what do you do for a living? Have you ever mixed your whites with your colors? When I say French impressionist, do you think painter or comedian? Do you have a jealous boyfriend? Have you ever seen the sun set from underwater?”

“I can answer the first one for you.”

“Go ahead.”

“I’m a teacher. Well, professor actually.”

“And the rest?”

“I either have no idea what you’re talking about, or it’s simply none of your business.”

“Do you sleep naked?”

Again, I’m not sure whether he’s serious or joking, so I don’t answer.

He takes a package of saltine crackers, crushes it inside his palm, and sprinkles the contents into his soup. “I guess that falls under the ‘none of my business’ category, right?”

“That’s right.”

“Well, teacher is a good start,” he says, satisfied for now with the amount of information that I’ve awarded him with. “I’m a student. But I also work part-time as a doorman.”

“I see. What is it that you study exactly?”

He takes some more packages of saltines from the counter, and crushes them in his hand too. “I guess that depends on what it is you’re teaching.”

“It does, does it? I don’t think you’d ever find your way into my class Templeton. You kind of need to know something first.”

Pouring more cracker dust into his soup, he tries his best to impress me. “I know that the human heart creates enough pressure to shoot blood thirty feet. I know the circumference of the Earth would never be exactly the same, no matter how many times you measure it. I know why it is that vertical stripes look better on fat people than they do on skinny people. What makes you think I don’t have what it takes?” There’s a mountain of crumbled crackers on his soup now.

“It’s just that you seem like the type of guy that copies the answers from the person next to you is all.”

“I don’t copy answers. There’s no need to copy anything when there aren’t any right answers in the first place.”

“For nothing at all? What about your vertical stripe paradox?”

“Listen to me Isabella. The amount of things in this world that we don’t know so greatly outnumbers the things we do, that I don’t think any ‘answer’ can ever truly be one-hundred percent correct. Does that make any sense to you?”

“I don’t know if you’ve been paying attention, but my name’s Isabelle. Not Isabella.”

He ignores me completely, and takes a big bite out of the bread. Again, this is kind of bite that only a lack of proper parental supervision can be held responsible for. “There’s a difference between having the right answer and knowing the truth.” The Templeton Rate Guide to Etiquette obviously doesn’t say anything about talking with a mouth full of food.

“That’s profound. I don’t know how you could ever top that.” I don’t mean to sound like I’m challenging him, but that’s how it comes out.

He forces the bread down his throat without much gratification. “Fuck. This cheese bread really is terrible. I’ve got to take a shit.” Templeton gets up to use the bathroom, but turns back to me before exiting. “I want to buy you another cup of coffee though. What do you say?”

What should I say? For too long I’ve avoided situations just like this when maybe I should’ve taken the chance instead.

He leans in closer to me, almost closer than what I’m comfortable with. I can see a tiny piece of bread still lodged between his two front teeth. “Look at you. I can tell you’re wanting to break out,” he says, coming a little closer. I can smell the hint of cheese and coffee on his breath. “You’re itching to do something completely unexpected, aren’t you? You want to become someone you’ve never had the chance to be before. And you want me to help you get there, don’t you?” Even closer now. There’s a disregarded nose hair that’s grown longer than the rest, and I can see it fanning back and forth with his every breath. “What do you say Isabella?” His faults are just obvious enough that I can tell he’s the most realistic person I’ve ever met. And there’s the familiar little brown-headed nuthatch poking its head out from under Templeton’s coat. How can I possibly resist all of this tonight?

So I don’t. “Isabelle,” is what I say, correcting him once again.

He doesn’t say anything else; he just turns and walks towards the washrooms. As he exits, I replay the whole encounter in my mind. I still wonder how it is that he managed to follow me here, and I think that I’ll ask him as soon as he comes back.

What does Templeton Rate want from me? And what do I want from him? I’m not entirely sure, but I’m hoping to figure that out too when he returns.

Then a feeling comes over me, one that I haven’t felt for probably two years, since I accepted the teaching position at Hawthorne. It’s the feeling of anticipation. I finish off my meal, and discover that even the bread and soup are not so bad now. Why is that? Why is it that when you sense a particular feeling in your heart, all of your other senses take a temporary vacation?

If I hadn’t remained at that counter, waiting for him to return.

I hear the men’s room door as it swings open, but I don’t look. I wait for Templeton to sit back down beside me so I can ask him everything I need to right away. So I can get all of these thoughts out of my head that have been accumulating since he left. But it’s not Templeton who exits from the bathroom. Another man, a fat man who must have come into the diner when I was fumbling with my emotions, stumbles by me and breaks my train of thought. The stench of men’s room is all over him, and I pray that my pseudo-date’s smell is not so similar when he comes back.

If he comes back. It’s been ten minutes now, and the steam from our coffee has vanished. It’s cold, but I swallow the rest of mine with determination. I wonder if maybe I did put too much sugar in my cup. The soggy mess of crackers sinks slowly into Templeton’s untouched soup.

It’s after twenty minutes that I figure I’d better go and investigate his whereabouts. I rap my hand on the men’s room door, and call out to him. “Templeton?”

But there’s no answer.

I try again with the same result: no answer. So I creak the door open a little and take a peek inside, but I don’t see anything apart from a tiled wall in front of me. So I carefully take a step in. Around the corner are two urinals against the wall. I’ve heard the horror stories, and seen them in movies before, but I’ve honestly never seen a urinal in person until this moment. And trust me, if you’ve never seen one either, don’t go out of your way to fill that void. I won’t go into too much detail, but I’m sure you could stuff a pillow with all of the hairs in there. They were everywhere: on the wall, on the floor, stuck to the inside, floating in the puddle of water, and all over the little white puck-thing covering the drain. Black hairs. Brown hairs. Red hairs. Yellow hairs. All of them thick and curly. I know I wanted a change in my life, but right now this might be going a little too far outside of my comfort zone. I take a step back, and the urinal flushes automatically, which is the lone bright spot of my visit to the men’s room; I wouldn’t want to have to flush this thing manually either.

The two stalls behind me are closed. I give each one a tap with the back of my hand, even though I really should be leaving at this point. “Templeton? Are you in there?”

Still no reply.

I open the first door, and I almost fall back from the stink that wafts towards me. It smells an awful lot like that fat man who walked out of here ten minutes ago. And it’s also obvious that the toilets in this washroom aren’t self-flushing like the urinals. If I still felt any fear from the presence of Templeton Rate, it pales in comparison to my discoveries in here. Some foul graffiti is written and carved into the side of the stall. I see an etching of what seems to be a Canadian Goose (Branta canadensis) sodomizing some poor cartoon man, and it offends and confuses me even beyond the scientific implausibility of it all.

If this bathroom had been telling this story, it would be scratched inside the stall with accompanying pictures.

I reluctantly try the next stall over, and although Templeton is not in there either, I am relieved to find that it’s relatively clean.

I turn to face the mirror for a moment, before enough of my strength returns that I can get out of here. There’s a little white sticker on the bottom corner of the mirror that reads:

 Our Restrooms Have Been Professionally Sanitized

By Sani-Squad For Your Health And Well-Being.

There’s a toll-free number in the corner for this Sani-Squad, and I almost feel like jotting it down so I can call to report a missing employee, since he obviously hasn’t been anywhere around these parts for some time now. However, getting out of this washroom as fast as I can and breathing in the air of that dirty diner is of much greater importance to me right now than logging a complaint to some poorly-run sanitation company.

I come back out hoping to find Templeton waiting for me at the counter. Maybe we somehow missed one another in the bathroom? Maybe he was using the women’s washroom? Maybe he went out to pee in the alley rather than use that filth-infested men’s room? I wouldn’t blame him one bit. But the only thing waiting for me is my bill. And his. And two complementary pieces of sugary pink gum.

I have no idea why I paid for Templeton’s meal as well as mine, and I have even less of a clue as to why I bothered taking the gum with me when I left The Strangest Feeling.

NEXT CHAPTER