Creative Nonfiction

 
Fall 2005 [Issue No. 8]

Queer Ducks (Part 1 of 2) ▪► Julie Marie Wade

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“Their courtship starts in the fall, and by the time mid-winter rolls around, their pairs have been formed.  The male attracts the female by ruffling his bright feathers.  Once together, mated pairs migrate north, heading for the female’s place of origin.” 

--Willamette University website

 

It’s May again.  Blue ribbon threading through the clouds. Mushroom-mottled lawns.  Fuchsia blossoms.  A new dexterity of light.  And here they come again—green-winged, web-toed, as elegant as odd in their gentle tufts and curves.  Two returning mallards, males, skidding gold heels down into the pond.

 

▼▪▲

 

The summer of 1989 my parents install a swimming pool.  Bulldozers encroaching on the back lawn, fat tires treading, black skid marks through a sluice of green.  I watch the concrete split open like a gaping mouth.  Our hose snakes and oozes for three and a half days: the brick-lined bathtub, the bottomless pit. Then, a neighbor slashes our tires.  Phone calls: This is Bill Erlivich.  My wife’s having a garden party, and your fucking bulldozer’s ruined the ambiance.  Another set of tires, another slashing.  My father and I camp in sleeping bags, guard the machinery.  Our cat perches, dark sentinel, on the tip of the steel claw. 

 

▼▪▲

 

No one likes me in school until they discover I have a swimming pool.  Can we come over to your house? they plead.  I let them because I am lonely.  Erica Gregory always holds her nose when she jumps from the concrete stairs.  Her breasts are 34Cs; her swimsuit is pink with a zipper in front.  “I dare you,” she says, “to pull it down.”  I tell her, “No thanks,” a little remorseful since I’ve thought of it before, then reach over and toss her a towel.

 

▼▪▲

 

The ducks don’t come until later.  Rumors ripple out in the Sound:  New watering hole, not bad, sometimes a cat stalks from the bushes.  A few sea gulls stop by.  My father scrapes bird shit with a six-foot broom.  Stomach weak, he retches in a garbage can filled with decaying lawn clippings.  I dream green.  I remember rolling in the grass, my mother scolding in pantomime from the living room window—sometimes she bangs on the glass.  Now I sit with the cat, my long legs splashing, a chlorine streak in my hair.  There’s green for you.  Mittens dips his paw in, twitches at the cold, then drinks it, sip after sip from the cup of his soft, pink pads.

 

▼▪▲

 

A boy is coming over, and just this morning my grandma has bought me a bathing suit: two-piece, pink, unreliable strings. I stuff the cups with shoulder pads.  I want to be impressive. Andrew Pommer, the hyperactive son of my mother’s friend: tall and lean with jet-black hair and cheeks that burn bright auburn.  The adults sip iced tea made from concentrate, sift through magazinesAndrew does a cannonball; his swim trunks inflate with the plunge.  “Betcha can’t do that,” he hollers, paddling around.  Our mothers recline on gold-cushioned chairs.  I take a running start, I pull up my knees, my top springs free in the air.  Underwater, I search for it.  I surface with two foam shells.

 

▼▪▲

 

“Ducks, goddamn ducks!”  My father stands on the deck, embracing his inner cuss.  He feels manly at the chance to profane.  “Go on, you feather-headed motherfuckers!  Get on outta here!”  They are not impressed.  The two males paddle carelessly, one end of the pool to the other.

 

▼▪▲

 

Judy Collins appears on Oprah , singing a Bob Dylan song  The audience rises in standing ovation.  I think it’s sexy.  I think it’s the sexiest thing I’ve ever seen.  When Austin Rood comes over, I try to seduce him with the same song.

“I thought you wanted to play chess,” he says, skeptical.

 “I do—later.  First, let’s dance.”  I am humming, dangerously close to his ear.  He is five inches shorter.  My neck gets sore.

“If we’re not gonna play chess, then at least can we swim in the pool?”

“All right, fine”—angrily now—tucking a green-blond curl under my ear. 

After he dives in, I tell him, “By the way, those black things on the bottom—they’re duck turds,” and turn up my radio.

 

▼▪▲

 

Our neighbor Evo from Yugoslavia is a hunter by pleasure and trade.  He wears a thick denim jacket with a fur collar and drives a sleek red El Camino.  My mother says he made his fortune in the Alaska fisheries and retired here to smoke himself to death. 

“What is it you hunt exactly?” my father inquires.

“Pheasant mostly,” Evo replies, tapping his fat cigar. 

“Can I ride in the back of your car?” I plead. 

“No—but you can wash it,” Evo offers with a generous wave of his hand. 

“Really?!” 

“Of course.  There are buckets and sponges inside.”

My dad leans in closer; his eyes moisten in the mushrooming smoke. “Tell me something, off the record—Julie, you run along now—”closer still, with a barely audible whisper—“you ever take out a duck, man?”

 

▼▪▲

 

In 1993, my parents enroll me at Holy Names Academy, an all-girls Catholic high school on Seattle’s Capitol Hill.  I take “World Cultures” first period and announce to my mother I’m becoming a Jain.  No more tuna fish sandwiches or spraying the roses for aphids.  I am militant.  The craze lasts three weeks until I am sorry, but hamburgers at Dick’s are too delicious and aren’t we, just by existing, already causing harm? 

In the same class, we watch Barbra Streisand in Yentl and read a book called Sex and the Teenager: Choices and Decisions for Today’s Catholic Youth.  In the film, Yentl, a young woman posing as a man, meets and marries Hadass, a woman, who accepts her in her masculine disguise.  When they kiss each other, the room erupts in laughter, and my whole body quakes. I study my sex book, highlighter in hand, searching for an explanation.  When we do the anonymous Q and A, I write on my note card, “If Yentl had wanted to have sex with that woman, how would she have gone about it?”  The teacher, pretty and nervous, blushes but does not answer.

 

▼▪▲

 

It is spring again.  The light, acrobatic, contorts and bends, sliding through the bedroom curtains.  My father in the kitchen fussing with his tie—he gestures to the phone as I walk by: “Called Animal Control, and they put me on hold.  Can you believe that?” 

My mother in her slippers drops her gardening shears, beats at the water with the compost broom.  “Don’t shit in there, don’t you shit in there!” she screams as our green guests return for the season.  “Bill, where are you?! They’re using this pool like a goddamn toilet bowl!” 

I tap quietly on the living room window.  She stands bawling in her soggy shoes.  “Mom, I need some flowers to take to school today.  It’s the Mass of the Reconciliation.”

 

▼▪▲

 

Sometimes on weekends I walk to the beach with a bag full of stale bread.  I feed the birds to feel popular, alluring; they know I have what they need.  The birds fly from all over to beg at my feet: sea gulls and buffleheads, a mallard or two, and those greedy, intrepid crows.  Often my aunt goes with me, toting binoculars and her Audubon guide, Tips for a Birding Life.  She lives in Redmond, an hour away, returning on weekends for my grandma to wash her clothes. 

“You know what I love best about birds?” she says.  “It’s the way they’re so centered, so focused.  It’s like they’re completely in touch with God’s plan for them, and they never seem to lose direction.”  I nod absently, peeling the sesame crust. 

“They’re not like people,” she sighs, squatting down in the sand till both of her knee joints snap.  “Julie, sometimes, I tell you, I don’t know what the world is coming to.  My next-door neighbors at the condo, Jack and Michelle—have I told you about them?”  I nod again, though I’m not sure she has.  “Do you know what I found out just yesterday?  They’re not married.”

I look up and find her wide eyes prompting reply.  “Really?” 

Really.  I tell you, I was so shocked I didn’t know what to say.  I hardly managed to keep my composure.” 

“How did you find out?”  I ask. 

“It was very innocent on my part,” she assures me.  “I saw Michelle in the carport the other morning, and you know, it’s your neighbor, so you try to make polite conversation.  I asked her how she was and how her husband was doing—you know, completely benign—” 

“Completely.

“And she corrects me and says, ‘Oh, Jack’s not my husband.  He’s my boyfriend.’  So cavalier people are these days, living in sin like it’s no big deal.  In my day that kind of thing was completely unheard of.” 

“Your day—meaning the ‘60s?” I clarify. 

“Well, not that there weren’t a few loose girls or some boys who got a little fresh, but by and large, there wasn’t the- the epidemic we see today.  What’s so hard to understand?  If you’re not married, you shouldn’t have marital relations.  It’s as simple as that.” 

Aunt Linda always calls sex “marital relations.”  She is forty-nine and has never married.  I can’t help but wonder what else she has never done.

 

▼▪▲

 

The first of July, the mallards depart, synchronized and stellar in motion.  Without warning or warm-up, they take to the sky, skimming the water with one final stroke of their wings.  It is spectacular.  I watch from the deck and want to applaud.  Perhaps I envy their freedom.  Brave birds, I commend them, having watched them dodge dozens of Spaldings, one menacing Nerf, and an untethered tetherball.  “Sharp-witted bastards,” my father murmurs under his breath as he fishes each deterrent out with a net. 

“Why don’t you leave them alone?” I ask.  “They’re not really hurting anything.”

“Julie, it’s the principle of the thing.  Your mother and I paid a lot of money to have this pool put in, and it’s something that we like to think has brought a lot of enjoyment to our family and friends.”  I stare at him.  “Well, hasn’t it?” 

“Sure, I guess.” 

“These ducks were not invited here.  They’re not welcome here.  They have all of Puget Sound to putter around in, and shit in, which is a whole other matter.  They just don’t need our 65- by 12-foot little oasis here to use as their private lagoon.” 

I return to reading: Tennessee Williams, Carson McCullers—each steamy, Southern page.  Their words burning.  And even though it’s summer vacation, I still study Sex and the Teenager almost every day. 

 

▼▪▲

 

Each year on the Fourth of July we celebrate Aunt Lindabird’s birthday.  In the backyard we picnic with corn-on-the-cob, potato salad, and barbecued franks and beans.

 “I’ll tell you why your dad hates birds so much.  This is a true story.” 

“No, don’t!”  My father glares at his sister, though his face soon softens with laughter.

“C’mon, Bill, I’m going to tell them. Julie deserves to know.” 

“Anyone for another wiener?” my father inquires, and I cringe at his choice of words.

 “Julie, when your father was a little boy—he couldn’t have been more than three years old, and I don’t think I was even born.  Mama?” Linda nudges her mother, who has fallen asleep in her chair.  “Mama??

My grandmother startles awake. “Yes, what is it, dear?” 

“I’m about to tell the story where Bill first developed his fear of birds.” 

“Are you sure nobody wants another wiener?” 

“Yes, dad, we’re sure.” 

“Now, Mama, how old was Bill when he got locked in that chicken coop?”          

“I don’t think I remember Bill getting locked in a chicken coop.” 

Of course you do, Mama!  You have to!  I wasn’t even born yet, and you’ve told me the story about a hundred times.  Remember?  It was on Daddy’s parents’ farm, in Oregon??” 

My grandma remembers now.  The tight lines relax in her face.  “Oh, that was back in 1945, I think.  I must have been pregnant with you then, Linda.  Bill was just three years old.  Couldn’t have been much more than that.  Such a cute little fellow, and so curious.” She grins at me, front teeth capped in gold. “Your father looked just like Dennis the Menace when he was a boy.  They used to call him ‘Billy the Menace.’” 

“Very clever,” I sigh. 

“And we had gone down to visit Johnny’s family outside of Portland, and they kept chickens, see.” 

“Let me tell it, Mama! –So Mama and Daddy were inside with Daddy’s parents and somehow Bill got himself out of the house and wandered into the chicken coop.  He figured out how to open the door, but once he was inside, the door closed behind him, and he couldn’t get it open again.  And he started crying—I mean, it’s understandable, a little boy all alone in a room with at least a dozen hens.” 

I study my father, how he cuts his meat methodically and dips each round slice in ketchup first, then mustard. 

 “Anyway,” Linda resumes, “Bill is in the chicken coop crying, and the more frazzled he gets, the more frazzled he makes the chickens.  They start to balk at him and flap their wings, and poor Bill is covered with feathers, and he’s got chicken poop on his shoes, and he’s miserable.  He’s hated birds ever since,” she sums up triumphantly.  

“I don’t hate them,” my father sighs.  “I’m just not partial to them.” 

“You hate them,” she sneers.  “I can tell by the way you tense up when a sea gull lands on your car.” 

“I tense up because they always use my car as a Handi-can, and right after I’ve finished washing it,” he says, reaching again for the tongs. 

“No, it’s no use, Bill.  You’re just going to have to admit that you harbor fear and dread for some of God’s finest creatures.”

“Fear and dread, huh?”  My father has stopped using utensils and picks up the franks with his hands.  “I may not like birds all that much, but let’s set the record straight here.  Julie, when your aunt was a child, it wasn’t good enough for her just to like birds.  No, she had to own birds.  They had to live in the house with us, chirping all the time, making that tweet-tweet noise morning, noon, and night.”

“Bill, you’re exaggerating!”  Linda scrapes uneasily at her plate with a spoon. 

“I am not exaggerating.  Julie, I kid you not.  Your aunt must have had four canaries—”

Three!”          

 “Then, as if that wasn’t enough, she finds this little duckling one day, down there at Lincoln Park, and what does she do?  She brings it home with her!  Can you believe that?!”   

“And what was I supposed to do?  Leave that orphaned little duckling there all by itself?  It didn’t have a mother.  It was going to die if I didn’t save it.” 

“Yeah, yeah, and this duck grows up to be a huge bird, like one of those mallards we have in our pool.  She kept it in a box in the basement until it was flying around like a goddamn ghost down there!”

“Bill, your language!  Think about mother!”  Grandma has dozed off in her chair.

“Julie,” my aunt says, “when the duck was fully grown, we took him to my friend’s house in the country and let him live with her.  He was never really well-adjusted, never really able to take care of himself, but she took care of him.” 

“He was pampered is why!”  My father spears the last of the hot dogs and spins it around in the air.  “That duck never had to work a day in its life because everyone was always feeding it and preening it and cleaning up after it!  How was it supposed to learn how to live according to Nature’s plan?  You people killed its instincts!” 

My mother pushes through the screen door with a flaming cake in hand.  Haltingly, we start to sing Happy Birthday.      

 

▼▪▲

 

I fall in love with my college roommate.  She doesn’t know.  She is long, lithe, golden-haired—a swimmer.  She wears green sweaters and Birkenstocks and, almost always, the same pair of boot-cut boy jeans.  I learn to love at last the stench of chlorine.  I follow her, lap after lap, down the beaded lanes.  We are swimming in the center of a necklace.  And afterwards in the locker room, with a flick of my eye, I drink her in quickly, each gentle tuft and curve.

Sex and the Teenager cannot help me now.  I play Bob Dylan, smoke cigarettes, study foreign films for their frank gratuity.  In Seattle on a Saturday night, I watch the premiere screening of Romance.  “No one admitted without proper ID,” but I have mine, and I am pleased with myself since I only turned eighteen the month before.  Some people have sex in the theater.  I chew my nails, pretend to be inured. But when the French porn star moves toward the young nymphomaniac, his ten-inch cock exposed, I flinch far worse than all my classmates did at Yentil.

In addition, my literary tastes are changing.  I browse the brochure section at the campus health center: “Getting What You Want From Your Body Image,” “Getting What You Want From Relationships,” “Getting What You Want From Sex.”  I make my selection, a slender pamphlet from the corner—“How Do I Know If I’m A Lesbian?  A Brochure For Young Women” — stuff it quickly in my pocket, run away.

 

▼▪▲

 

I bring Becky to my parents’ house for the weekend.  She is excited when I show her the pool.  “How come you never told me you had one before?”

“No reason,” I say.  “I guess I was saving it for a surprise.” 

We sip iced tea made from concentrate and lounge in the gold-cushioned chairs.  We impress each other with imitations of our mothers.  Then she is off, she is running; her body arcs in the air, curls swiftly down; she glides under water to the other side.

“This is fabulous!” Becky shouts, surfacing.  “Come in, come in!  The temperature’s perfect.”

I walk to the edge—feet burning, skin burning, everything suddenly burning.  I drop to the deep like a stone.

 

▼▪▲

 

“Becky, have I got a story for you,” my father begins.

 We are sitting in the backyard at the picnic table.  My mother is armed with wasp spray.  The umbrella tilts in the breeze. 

“What’s that, Mr. Wade?” 

“Every year about this time, just as it starts to get warm, these two ducks show up and take over our swimming pool.”

I roll my eyes; Becky catches my scowl and smiles.  “So they just swim around in it?” 

“No—no, no.  They live in it.  They go off and get their grubs and their leaves and whatever it is ducks eat, but they always come back.  They’re here, I don’t know, a good sixteen hours a day—splashing around, preening themselves—you know—”

“Just basic duck stuff,” she offers. 

Exactly.” 

I make subtle stabbing motions with my knife.

“And the damnedest thing is, they’re both males—big ones—these great big green-headed mallards.  What we’ve got on our hands is a couple of feather-faced queers!” 

“Bill, they are not!” my mother exclaims, embarrassed.  “I’ve told you before they’re just bachelors.”

“Or could they be widowers?” Becky suggests, a helpless look in her eye.  “You know, maybe they’ve lost mates and ended up traveling together?”

My father puts down his fork, hot dog drowning in ketchup.  “No, no,” he laughs, shaking his head.  “I’ve studied these birds, studied them hard.  Believe me, I know a queer when I see one.” 

 

▼▪▲

 

My aunt sends me letters at college.  Each one sports extra postage and a hand-written Handle with Care. 

A sample:

Hi, Julie,

How are you?  I am fine.  I certainly hope you are doing well and staying out of trouble.  (Ha!  Ha!)  Nothing much to report here.  Last weekend I went to Juanita Bay Park in Kirkland with my Audubon group, and you’ll never guess what I saw—a Western bluebird, a gray-cheeked thrush, a vesper sparrow, a chipping sparrow, and an American tree sparrow!!  Yes, it was a very productive day for me, and I felt lucky to be in the presence of such experienced birders.  For the most part, they are good Christian people.  Most of them are a good 20-30 years older than me, but I don’t mind that.  I met a man on the bus ride home, and he was telling me about his daughter.  She’s about your age.  I think he said she’s a sophomore, but I could be wrong.  Anyway, he and his wife sent her to a Christian school, thinking it was all for the best, you know, just like your parents did.  Turns out she’s gotten herself involved with drugs and alcohol.  They even found a pack of cigarettes in her dresser drawer.  And they’re worried that her roommate is pushing her to be experimental with “other things” as well.  Honestly, Julie, I don’t know what the world is coming to, I don’t.  People everywhere are succumbing to temptation.  Be strong and take good care of yourself. 

Love and God bless!

Aunt Lindabird

 

P.S. I am enclosing a copy of the pamphlet I received.  It’s called “Birding Hot Spots of King County,” and it includes a checklist of Washington birds.  I have taken the liberty of checking off the names of all the birds I know you have seen, many of which you have seen with me J

x Brown pelican

x Great blue heron

x Canada goose

 

I stop when I get to Mallard  

 

 

▼▪▲

 

Personal Checklist

1/98—New Year

  • Spend less time alone with Becky, try to do more group activities, maybe join a club (though you hate clubs, in the long run, this may help curb current suspicious and antisocial behavior)

  • Find boy and become extremely interested in him (you know this is possible, it has happened before—recall Andrew Pommer, Austin Rood, and Lee Bennett, who you made out with in grade school)

  • If necessary, fake a crush (good target would be Cody Ferguson since Becky has a crush on his roommate); could also date Brian Kleppers if the situation continues to feel extreme and out of control

  • Try very hard not to date any more gay men or Christians as these have complicated matters in the past

  • Set limits to the insanity—under no circumstances should you subject yourself to more Veggie Tales videos or root beer keggers; you must value yourself more than this

 

▼▪▲

 

I watch a special on ostrich mating—an accidental sightingBetween channel switch and fork lift, my eyes are caught, suspended.  Two of them, tall, graceful, tutu-ed at the waist and running hard.  Stunned, I am stunned, I forget to swallow.  The deep and preened announcer’s voice descends: “Note how the male pursues the female at breakneck pace.”  Frame narrows for a close-up.  “An amazingly swift bird, the ostrich can exceed more than 50 miles per hour.” She is screaming, screaming—a wild and terrified fanfare.  “Soon the female tires and succumbs.  He overtakes her with a violent plunge.  Feathers rise up from their squawking bodies, hang in the humid air.  She seems to be suffocating.  “One can only marvel at nature’s elaborate game of hard-to-get.”  I sit back in my chair, shaking. Both long, curved heads engorge with blood.

 

▼▪▲

 

Email from my father

Dated 5/98

 

Dear Julie,

How are you?  Your mother and I love and miss you very much.  Do you know yet what time you will finish with final exams next Friday?  Your mother and I would like to get there and pick you up before it gets dark, if possible.  I can stop at the liquor store and pick up some boxes if you need some extra ones for packing.  I am keeping busy at home with the garden.  Your mother always has me working hard!  You won’t believe it but those silly gay ducks are back again.  They’ve been here about a week now, and you know Mittens.  He’s playing the big tiger.  I can’t get over how persistent they are.  Your mother even tried to get rid of them with the hose, but what a mistake that was.  “They’re ducks!” I told her.  “They love the water.”  I came home and there she was, spraying them like crazy, and they were quacking away not minding at all.  We’ve tried everything we can think of, but I guess they’re here to stay.  See you soon.

Love,

Dad & Mom

 

▼▪▲

 

I date Brian Kleppers.  He is short, slight of build, allergic to shellfish, afraid of large bodies of water.  I like him, grow intellectually enamored, though I hope, secretly, never to see him without his clothes.  We play chess.  We try to impress each other with our swift and sophisticated moves: knights to queens and castles.  A number of dorm mates ask me if my boyfriend is gay. “No, he’s just—sensitive,” I say.  The situation continues to feel extreme and out of control.

 

▼▪▲

 

Personal Checklist

9/98—Sophomore year

  • Since you have established a comfortable relationship with Brian, it is ok to spend more time with Becky again; girls with boyfriends need time off occasionally, hence the “girls’ night out” phenomenon—take advantage of this whenever the opportunity presents itself

  • Separate laundry into hot, warm, and cold loads before cramming it all indiscriminately into the washing machine

  • Consider having sex with Brian—he is a good person, very smart, interesting, a phenomenal chess player, the prototypical “odd bird” that you’ve always found fascinating and fun to be around; you’ve already made the first move by kissing him.  Since  he’s much too shy to ask, you’ll have to initiate what follows

  • Remember: It is not ok to be a lesbian, no matter what the brochure says—the first step toward rehabilitation could be more (and repeated) sexual contact with men; Brian is a virgin; you have nothing to lose

 

▼▪▲

 

Hi Julie,

I’m at Mom’s house watching a movie called “Bird on a Wire” on the TBS Superstation Saturday Matinee.  It has Mel Gibson and Goldie Hawn in it, and your grandma and I both think it’s a real treat.  Just nonsense mostly, and very funny.  Have you seen it? 

I wanted to drop you a line and see what you have been up to.  Sometimes college can be a Bermuda Triangle of an experience—people pass through it and seem to disappear!   Recently I went to Lake Sammamish State Park with the Audubon gang, and I was a little bit worried because that’s where Ted Bundy used to pass his time and look for unsuspecting young women to violate and murder.  Thankfully, though, he has been put to death, and I was able to enjoy myself and be somewhat comforted by that fact.  I even saw a ring-necked pheasant and a pileated woodpecker when I was in the park and added 2 new birds to my list!  Other than that, life is mostly the same around here.  I hope you are working hard at school, but not too hard, and that we still recognize you when you come home!

Love and God bless!

Aunt Lindabird    

▼▪▲

 

Brian comes to the door, his tap tentative, his tendency to hang back in the hall.  “How are you?”  he asks, clearing his throat and shifting one foot to the other.

I shrug.  “All right.”

“And you’re sure your roommate doesn’t mind me being here—”

“Brian, she’s gone for the weekend, remember?” He nods cautiously, and I motion for him to step inside.

We lean awkwardly against the bedposts for a while, surveying each other with curious, speculative eyes.  Brian takes his shoes off.  I take off mine.  Socks next, then sweaters.  We mirror each other undressing without discussing our vanishing clothes. 

“Should I turn off the light?” Brian asks.

“If you want to.”

In the dark, we fumble with each other.  Kissing.  Kissing and touching through clothes.  Kissing, unbuttoning.  Kissing, unzipping.  Finally, we arrive at underwear: our layers immense, our anticipation clearly untoward. 

Brian interrupts the procedure: “In case we do—you know—follow through with this, do you have the—”

“Oh, yes.  Right in the drawer.  Plenty.”

“Phew.  That’s a relief.  I couldn’t remember if I was supposed to bring them.”

“No, no.  I’m prepared.  Should we try one on you?”

I reach down the way women do in movies, to the place the camera never shows.  His hand intercepts mine.

“Not yet.  Let’s kiss some more.” 

He puts my hand on his shoulder, and it occurs to me I’ve never touched his skin before.  Not the soft, white flesh of his shoulder.  I kiss him there.  I kiss him down the long line of his chest, smooth and hairless as the boys I used to baby-sit.  A momentary terror passes through me.

“Brian, how old are you?”

“Twenty.”  He is touching my breasts, squeezing the nipples between his index and middle fingers.  I feel odd and oddly not aroused, but I can offer no better suggestions.  “Why?”

“No reason really.  I just was thinking about how you’re really smart and sometimes really smart people go to college early is all.  You hear about that kind of thing sometimes…prodigies who are sixteen or fifteen or, you know, nine—going to college at a very young age.” 

His body, what I can discern from the porch light seeping through the blinds, reminds me so much of a crab.  I try not to think about it, keep kissing, touching, but the image always returns: soft-shelled, Dungeness, with their white ribbed flesh, tight bodies packed beneath claws.  I remember the dead ones washing up on the shore, the helpless way they folded in their skins. 

“Are you ready?” I ask.  He is holding my breasts with his slender and pincer-like hands.

“I don’t know,” he stammers.  “Maybe we could just—”

I reach down.  I touch him.  I slide my hand inside his fly, feeling for the warm lump of skin. 

“I’m small,” Brian sighs, “too small.  I don’t think I can do this.”

“Sure you can.  Everything feels good to me, really good.”  In my mind I see dismantled crabs—legs, pincers, carapace— a large family’s Sunday meal.

“No, I can’t.  I’m sorry.  It’s not you, it’s me.” There is panic in his voice, regret, relief.  He dresses in the dark and quickly leaves.

I spread a rainbow’s worth of condoms on my skinny bed—Does any possible pleasure outweigh its potential risk?  Can you have an orgasm without actually having sex?  What if I die a virgin?—shuffle them, sadly, like cards.

 

▼▪▲

 

Dated 11/98

 

Dear Julie,

Your mother and I are so looking forward to having you home for Thanksgiving!  We have a lot to be thankful for, and this holiday should prove no different.  How are your classes going?  Keep your eye on the ball and just do the best that you can. Do you think you can pull off another exceptional term like you did last year?  We’re rooting for you!  Mom wanted me to let you know that we’ve been invited to Andrew Pommer’s wedding on December 5th, so you should be planning ahead to get done with any work you might have to do that weekend.  I guess Wanda’s not crazy about the girl, but Linda and I met her, and we didn’t think she was too bad.  A little bossy maybe and used to getting her own way.  Andrew’ll have to be careful about that.  Oh, and Evo’s daughter Deanna—remember, the one who used to baby-sit for you—she’s getting married too.  Did your mother mention that?  Naturally, all the neighbors were relieved after all that business about her being a lesbian a few years back.  I knew it wouldn’t pan out but some people thought she and her friend Heidi were pretty seriously involved.  Turns out though it was more of an experimental thing and both of them have assured their parents there’s nothing to worry about.  It seems Heidi is even dating Carol Kent’s son now, so everything has worked out for the best.  We’ll see you soon. 

Love,

Dad & Mom    

 

 

▼▪▲

 

Personal Checklist

1/99—New Year

  • Concentrate on making new friends, males and females—try not to focus on the fact that Becky and Cody Ferguson have both decided to study abroad in China; so your real crush and your fake crush have become friends?  So what?  Try to maintain a healthy emotional balance between respectable indifference and functional distress

  • Stop pursuing Brian; it is unbecoming and will not get you anywhere in the long run; you should probably admit to yourself that this fascination with effeminate men is not helping

  • Transfer affections to someone more distinctly masculine, someone who is secure with himself and not such a great big nerd; even though you care a lot for Brian, you need to be realistic about the degree to which you are actually attracted to him

  • Recall Michael Curtis from freshman history and the honors lit seminar—find out if he still has that mousy, annoying girlfriend (what was her name?)—make a point to stop by the coffee stand where he works more often

 

Update 2/99:

  • Michael Curtis still has that mousy, annoying girlfriend.  Her name is Lacey.  She was standing right in front of me at the coffee stand, talking to her friend about how she and Michael want to study abroad in Cuba together. 

  • Consolation: It probably wouldn’t have worked out anyway.  He makes a lousy latte.

 

▼▪▲

 

Poetry becomes my release, my revenge, my endless reincarnation.  My true life, my successful adventures, I’m convinced must take place on the page.   The poems start small—a stanza or two, a dozen haikus hand-crafted on napkins at Denny’s.  The secret, I’ve decided, is to simply observe, stop trying to participate

 

I observe:         

 

Espresso Girl

 

She has that certain look that makes her

perfect for the job,         jet-black hair that’s overdyed

with auburn

 

A ring on every finger, silver serpents and a

dragonfly where

her wedding band would be

 

her nose is pierced with a diamond stud, pale skin offset

by lip paint called “black cherry,”

 

eyebrows plucked and drawn in, uneven,

mocha eyes the color of the coffee that she stirs

 

 

I notice a trend emerging in my work.  My secret, I’ve decided, is worse than I ever imagined.

 

▼▪▲

 

On my father’s birthday, the ducks arrive.   They are early this year, but April has been mild.  I am in the kitchen getting Dixie cups and ice cream when I hear his cry. 

“Goddammit, Linda, they’re back!”

My mother, broom in hand, brushes past me on the stairs.  “Did you hear what your father said? Those goddamn ducks are out there shitting in our pool, and the bingo girls are coming over on Tuesday!”  She is nearly in tears.

My father yells, “Julie, where’s Mittens?!  Have you seen Mittens?!”

“I think he’s sleeping on my bed.  Why?”

“Why?  I’ll tell you why.  I’ve been training him,” my father declares proudly.

“What do you mean, exactly?”

“For when those ducks showed up again.  I bet you didn’t know this, but cats can swim.  And Mittens—” prouder still— “is going to jump in the pool and kill them.”

Now Aunt Linda, rising from her chair, attempts a moral intervention.  “Bill, what are you doing with the cat?   Bill?  Bill?  Julie, what’s he doing with the cat?”

I shake my head.  “Don’t worry, he won’t succeed.”

We stand at the window.  My grandma inquires where the rest of the family has gone.

“Out,” I say matter-of-factly.  “They’re trying to scare off a couple of ducks that my dad thinks are gay.”

Aunt Linda puts down her binoculars, disgusted by the sight of my parents slapping the water and screaming at the top of their lungs, my old cat cowering behind the bushes.   “This is ridiculous,” she huffs.  “Those ducks have every right to be here.  It’s probably the only decent place they could find, what with the state of our modern ecology.  I’m going right out there and give them a piece of my mind.”

“The ducks or my parents?”

She bangs on the window, waking my grandma again.  “Those ducks are victims of circumstance, outcasts from a world of diminishing water resources.  They need support,” she protests.  “They need love!” and storms outside to the pool.

 

▼▪▲

 

Personal Checklist

9/99—Junior year

  • Reevaluate relationship with Kara—are you becoming too close?  Greg Pickett read that butterfly poem you wrote about her and started asking people at Saxifrage if you were gay (a very dismal turn of events in light of recent dating attempts)

  • Limit trips with Kara to Queen Anne Thriftway olive bar to once a week at most and visits to Capitol Hill to a maximum of twice a month (i.e. every other weekend)

  • Find out if JCPenney’s has a drug test for potential employees before smoking weed again

  • Consider studying abroad next semester—look into costs, etc.

  • Go out with Brian again—he’s probably matured a lot since last year and besides that, you don’t have any other prospects

 

▼▪▲

 

“Tell me, Julie, why do you want to study abroad?  What do you hope to gain from this experience?” Jan Moore, Director of Cultural Exchange, studies me, her plump elbows placed squarely on the table that divides us.

“I want to get away from my crazy family and my emotionally retarded ex-boyfriend,” I say.  She frowns, brow furrowing like a dark hedge bent by the wind.  “Oh—and I also want to learn more about the world and my place in it.”     

 “I see.”  Still frowning, still regarding me with an easy scorn.  For a moment, I contemplate prostrating myself on her desk and pleading for mercy.  Let me out of this fucking nightmare!! “Where is it exactly that you wanted to study?”

“Wherever’s fine.  I’m not really picky about location.  Just as long as it’s overseas and lasts a long time.” 

She doesn’t get my sense of humor.

“… And is culturally enriching, of course.”

 

▼▪▲

 

Personal Checklist

1/00—New Year (millennium edition)

 

  • This is your chance!  It is the year 2000 and anything can happen.  This time next month you will be in England!  All you have to do is survive a few more weeks of awkwardness with Brian, one uncomfortable good-bye to Kara, a difficult parting from Becky (at least this time, though, you’re the one who’s leaving), and you’ll be on your way.  THIS TIME THE POWER IS IN YOUR HANDS!

  • Even though you are really and justifiably stoked about this whole upcoming escape from the hell that is your current life, you need to stay focused and not lose your head.  Remember that this trip to Europe is for intellectual and cultural enrichment, not just sexual experimentation (though sexual experimentation is key to coming back a different and more exciting person)

 

▼▪▲

 

I am lonely in London.  My roommate has a boyfriend at home.  He sends her roses from Washington on Valentine’s Day and Florida oranges for Easter.  My host mother thinks I am strange, keeps trying to send me away—pubs, plays, museums.  Don’t I realize where I am?  The whole world at my fingertips, and I’m reading Shakespeare upstairs in my room.

In the evenings after school and long before supper, I stay in the house alone.  Because it is cold, and because there is no shower, I make tea and brood in the bath.  No bubbles, no oils, only the thick steam and the delicate condensation.  Even the curtains glimmer with a coating of dew.  My feet become restless.  I jiggle the faucet with my curious toes.  Slowly, with practice, refining the flow.  As I slide down to the end of the low, sunken tub, spread out my legs and soften my knees, I begin to feel something foreign.  My body quivers; my fingers fasten to the slippery ledge.  I challenge myself to hold on.  Soon the water concentrates, its forces accumulate, strumming and strumming till I am swollen like fruit, my body to bursting.  I think of Becky; I think of Brian; Kara sometimes, in the interim.  Sounds rise out of me—such dark, feathered words.  Singing and splashing, I come.        

 

▼▪▲

 

Dated 3/00

 

Dear Julie,

How are you?  Your mother and I love and miss you very much.  We have put up a big calendar in the living room and every night we cross off another day and count how many are left until you come home.  May 14th is circled in red, and that means we are only sixty-one days away from your homecoming.  Mom wanted me to ask if you got the cookies she made.  There were 15 dozen home baked goodies, and it cost her $37.00 to mail them.  If I were you, I would drop her a line sometime soon to thank her.  A handwritten letter would really mean a lot.  Your grandmother is well, though her arthritis flares up from time to time.  She wanted me to send you her love and to remind you to be sure to keep warm, being as it always seems so cold and dreary when London is shown in movies.  Not much else to report on the home front, except that your mother had a really strange experience the other day and wanted to tell you about it.  She was vacuuming upstairs in the dining room and she had the French doors open to let the air in, and I guess this blue jay was going full speed ahead not watching where it was going and it ended up flying right into the house!  Scared the hell out of your mother!  She didn’t know what to do and she was really scared the bird was going to crash into one of her cabinets or the plates she has up on the wall.  It could have been a real disaster, but fortunately she kept her head and turned off the vacuum and just kept still.  The damn bird gave the place the once-over, then turned around and flew out about as quick as it came.  I tell you, Julie, if it had happened to me, I probably would have had a heart attack!  Be safe and have fun.  Remember, 61 days and counting! 

Love you,

Dad & Mom

 

▼▪▲

 

I meet a girl on a train.  She is American, round-faced with soft, curly hair.  Her eyes an astonishing blue.  Like me, she travels to school each day in central London, steps out on the platform at King’s Cross station.  Sometimes she drops a letter in the tall, red box that reminds me of a fire hydrant. 

Almost at once, I am burning. 

Breeayn writes songs and strums a gentle guitar.  We eat lunch in the park, feed the pigeons—share cigarettes to cut back on our smoking.  Her mouth to my mouth and back again: a fire circle, a gold, residual flame.  Her fingers move as if conducting music.   

And when we travel, we sometimes share a bed: five pounds instead of ten at any hostel.  There in the dark I listen to her breath, huddle to the wall, try my very hardest not to touch her.

                                                                  

▼▪▲

 

Personal Checklist

4/00—mid-program reflection

 

  • You came to Europe, at least in part, to develop your sense of sexual adventure; other people you know are dating Brits, fucking Brits, or some combination of the two; you are spending all your time in the bathtub and out on long walks with Breeayn (note recurrence of sexual fantasies about women, particularly said walking companion)

  • Use upcoming travel plans as opportunity to spread social wings; ask yourself, “What am I so afraid of?  I’m five thousand miles away from everyone who knows me, and even the people who know me don’t know me all that well.  If you intend to be a writer, you need to accrue some serious life-experience points, and what better place to begin than in Scotland?”

 

  • Corollary to the above: consider drinking more; so far, your use of alcohol has been entirely too conservative for the direness of your situation; how hard can it be to get laid in this country if you are American and substantially intoxicated???

 

▼▪▲

 

Dated 5/00

 

Dear Julie,

How are you?  Your mother and I love and miss you very much and are getting very anxious to have you home.  We were glad to hear that you are safely back in London and there are only 13 days left until you ride that big diesel bird back across the ocean.  Are you looking forward to coming home?  Make sure not to get on the plane unless it is a Boeing jet, preferably a 747.  DO NOT fly Airbus under any circumstances.  Your mom is making deviled eggs and potato salad for your return, and Grandma and Aunt Linda are planning on coming over to the house for a little celebration.  Be careful about what you say to Linda, though.  She’s put on a lot of weight and stopped frosting her hair, just to warn you.  I think she might be going through a depression or something, especially when you consider that Mom (your grandma) is getting up there in years and Linda doesn’t have any husband or children of her own.  Could be that she’s lonely without someone to love.  Give our best to your host family and thank them for everything.

Love and safe travels,

Dad & Mom

 

▼▪▲

 

 

For our last supper in London, friends from the program meet up on Baker Street.  Breeayn and I pose together by the statue.

“I never read Sherlock Holmes, did you?” I ask, already tipsy.

“No.  I was never too interested in mysteries.  All the suspense and not knowing makes me sick to my stomach.”

I nod, and the cameras flash. At dinner, we drink and tell stories till the fourth bottle is empty.  Then, the conversation turns political.

 “So, is there gay marriage in England?” someone asks, and Anna responds, given that her mother is English and she has visited London on six separate occasions.

“No, I don’t think legally there is, but queers living together in London don’t attract quite the same attention as queers living together in, say, Boise.”  Anna is from Idaho, and somewhat bitter about the fact.

It is the first time I’ve heard the word queer in a context other than my father’s.  Anna speaks with authority and pride.   I regard her curiously: her small, freckled face and sharp articulations.  As the conversation unfolds, I lean forward, full weight of my body bent on listening. 

Later in the bathroom, I ask Breeayn: “What did Anna mean when she said ‘people like me’?  What kind of person is she?”

“I guess you weren’t there in York when she came out to us,” Breeayn says.

Came out?” I repeat the phrase awkwardly, and with a certain fear.

“As bisexual.  I just assumed you knew.”

I shake my head.  “What did she say about it—I mean, did she elaborate at all?”

“No, not really.  She did say she’s involved with a queer activist group at her college, though.  You should talk to her.  You don’t have to be queer to join.”

And suddenly the word was everywhere—the most derogatory of all words, the most defaming.  Queer.  Queer.  Queer.  Like a volleyball or boomerang.  I sat back at the table in a fog of wine while their easy, knowing language passed around me. 

 

▼▪▲

 

“Why do you want to work for JC Penney’s?  What do you think you can bring to the company?” The manager scrutinizes me through mascara-rimmed eyes.

“I’m prompt…I’m efficient…I’ve worked retail since I was seventeen…”

“But do you have any special talents?  Any skills?”

I shift nervously in the chair, sweat streaking my new nylons.  “No, not really.  I mean, I’m a college student.”  She clicks her square nails.  “But, but, I’ve worked women’s sportswear and lingerie before.  I know how to fit bras, dress mannequins, work a cash register.”

“OK.  Well.  We don’t have any openings in those departments.  They’re non-commissioned and pay varies based on years of experience.”  Susie hesitates, consults her notebook.  “I do have an opening in shoes, however.  Minimum wage with a 6 % commission.  One week of training at minimum wage.  Then, you’re out of my hands and into Carol’s.  She’s a bit of an odd bird, and not the kind of lady you want to mess with.  If you do well, she’ll keep you on.  If you slack, she’ll send you right back where you came from…Lamonts, wasn’t it?”

“Yes.  They went bankrupt last year.”

Her eyes shine—a smug pity.  “Well, then, it seems in your best interest to do well.”    

 

▼▪▲

 

Dear Julie,

It seems like forever since you have been home, and now your mother informs me that you’ve moved in with some girls you met in England.  I’m sure they are lovely people and that you are making good choices about how to conduct your life.  Just remember—nothing is as valuable to a young woman today as her reputation.  Your mother also shared with Grandma and I the good news of your commissioned selling position at JC Penney’s.  I would find it terrifying to know that my salary depended on how many pairs of shoes I sold, but I’m sure you’ll do fine.  Do your best to take only day shifts so as not to be out alone after dark.  When I used to work downtown, Mama (your grandma) would pick me up at the bus stop every night to make sure I wasn’t walking without a chaperone.  Thankfully, I still have my Audubon group, which is really giving me a purpose in life.  Last weekend we went to the Des Moines Saltwater State Park, and I added a Cinnamon Teal and a Sandhill Crane to my list!  I’m planning to work the phone lines at PBS to raise money to save the endangered species.  I know you don’t have any money to contribute just now, but pray for us and for our cause.

Love,

Aunt Lindabird

 

 

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