Bird, Window

One

Dusk, my desk, a poem lodged inside me, stillborn—a flash of darkness at my window, and then a crash in the room next door. Bomb, gunshot, sonic boom? I arrive in time to hear glass shatter and watch the window collapse. Shards of glass scattered among the volumes in the bookcase, at my feet, and then as I heedlessly walk, in my feet. There is blood. I imagine an owl, a steely crow, an eagle with a majestic wing span struck the glass, then, scarcely stunned, flew past my window.

Hadn’t I seen a flash of darkness?

This violent intrusion must be a sign, a message about my life, the poem I’m struggling to write. And then I remember a childhood neighbor’s pronouncement: if a bird flies into a house, it means that someone will die. I don’t believe this piece of folklore, and yet…it matters to me that the bird survived. A dead bird cannot portend a promising future.

Two

A bird crashes into my window. An accident. Random collision of soft animate being with hard inanimate object. It happens all the time. And not always accidental: bombs fall on children, planes explode in the sky. Who am I to attribute personal meaning to this? Any meaning at all. It is dangerous to take what happens in even one’s own life personally. Only by chance did the bird hit the window of the room next door and not the window I face all day long.

Three

And yet…and yet.  My writer’s brain insists on meaning. Nothing is random.  And then it says…Because…it says. Chronology implies Causality. Character arcs and revelations. The bird symbolizes…it says. There must be an epiphany in here somewhere, it says. Everything is personal. And then…and then…The bird lives! The poem is born! My writer’s brain holds out for redemptive endings.

Four

People never say how violent it is when some living thing comes into or out of this world. They speak in euphemisms. He died peacefully in his sleep surrounded by his loving family. Mother and baby are resting comfortably.   

The deaths I’ve witnessed haven’t been peaceful. My mother thrashed. Her limbs turned mottled and blood-deprived. My uncle’s mouth turned to an O, a cartoon drawing of a gargoyle. People I loved looked nothing like themselves as they died. There were transformations, but search as I did, I could not find the epiphanies. Nothing was revealed.  If they escaped their bodies, I could not track their flights. And yet, from their throats emerged the cries of wild birds.  

Five

A day later, I stumble upon him (or it—why does my brain assign a gender?), feet up, eyes glazed, stiff, in the dirt in the dark corner of my yard. A lowly sparrow, ants already crawling over him. Inside him. Impact turned animate being into inanimate object. A violent almost-entrance became an exit.

A small brown bird, indistinguishable from the many of his kind that flank my bird feeder.

Competing for a few seeds. As I strain for my few words.

This is the story I want to tell:

A bird crashed into the window of the room next to my office. I saw the flash, heard the crash and ran, to find a glorious bird with a massive wing span. The blow scarcely stunned him. In the sky beyond my sight, he still flies. His violent emergence into my life can only mean that something good is about to happen.

I wait for further signs.     

##

Photo at the top of the page taken by Books Smuin. 

Homunculus

“Why do all the kids in these paintings look like old men?” Sabine asked, inspecting the legacy of some long-dead Italian.

I tilted my head back to drum up a few extra millimeters of breath, placating my air hunger for another minute or two, and replied, “I think those kids are supposed to be Jesus.”

“And why, exactly, does the baby Jesus have your dad’s hairline?”

I shrugged. “The immaculate recession?”

She rolled her eyes, but didn’t say a word. She couldn’t. It was my birthday. My fortieth, in fact. A day I had never expected to see.

In honor of the occasion, we’d left home for a trip down the coast in our wheelchair-accessible minivan, putting our faith in the traffic gods to deliver us through the San Fernando Valley and into the rolling hills of the Santa Monica Mountains without a blood sacrifice—though, as anyone who has ever served time bumper-to-bumper in Los Angeles might, we would’ve considered it.

Our destination: the Getty Center—a haughty fortress of travertine and glass that dominated a ridge of the aforementioned mountains, offering views without to rival those of the art within. Promises of French Impressionism had drawn us forth, driving us through the endless rooms of Renaissance religious artwork that the late oilman J. Paul Getty preferred—including, of course, prematurely aged baby Jesi.

“There’s a name for those little dudes, but I can’t remember it,” I said, nodding at another one of the proportional dwarves as we headed for the nearby exit. “They used to be all over the place in the Middle Ages.”

“Why? Was there a plague that made everybody forget what babies looked like or something?”

I exhaled something approximating a laugh. “No. Jesus was supposed to be a perfect being, so he couldn’t come out all needy and naïve. He had to be wise beyond his years from the start. He had to be perfect.”

“Yeah. Perfectly creepy.”

She opened the door for me, and we plunged into the searing sunlight of outside, exiting one of four spare, angular buildings in favor of an equally spare central courtyard clad in porous limestone. The courtyard, liberated from the surrounding urban sprawl, spanned the visible world, creating an interstitial purgatory less Hieronymus Bosch than Michelangelo Antonioni: sterile and lonely and vast.

No matter how much it may have looked like one, however, this place was no afterlife. In the afterlife, one likely didn’t struggle for breath, as I was at the moment. The schnitzel and stuffed grape leaves from the Israeli place we’d stopped for lunch bloated in my guts, shattering the illusion of inviolability as it squeezed the vigor of all creation from my scarred and atrophied diaphragm.

This wasn’t a new phenomenon for me. Once upon a time, I could breathe on my own. All the time. As my Duchenne muscular dystrophy progressed, however, I required ventilatory support overnight. And then during the day for a few hours. And then a few more. And so on, until my current schedule of three additional hours, three times a day.

But I was also a stubborn American, programmed for rugged individualism, suppressed emotions, and a hatred for all weakness. So I only ventilated in private. Beyond the relative obscurity of my home or minivan, I took my chances with hypercapnia and its mostly tolerable symptoms of headache, fatigue, and muddled thoughts.

From the outside, such masochism must seem baffling. Why would I, crumpled and cachexic novelty to all, care how I presented myself to other people? It would be like water worrying about its perceived wetness. More likely, I was trying to convince myself of something. That I wasn’t getting worse. That I wasn’t going to die. That, somewhere deep inside, I was still the same little blue-eyed boy who had walked the black sand beaches of Hawaii and fished the alpine lakes of the Sierra Nevada for the briefest of moments and taken it all for granted.

I never understood society’s aversion to taking things for granted. There’s no contentment in it. Better to pretend the status quo will last forever as long as you possibly can. Right up until the point you leave your ventilator in the car on the far side of a three-quarter mile tram ride and find that you desperately need it.

Sabine, looking as exhausted as I felt, collapsed onto a short wall for a quick rest and social media update. As she flicked through her phone, I glanced past her. The land fell away on the other side of the wall, revealing a terraced garden and then the entirety of the sprawl—a mosaic of well-organized cubes and haphazard garnish that paved nearly all the eye could see.

The toothy buildings of Century City rose in the medium distance, with the grasping skyscrapers of downtown well beyond. At the edge of perception drifted a hazy suggestion of the gossamer Pacific, remote to the point of obscurity, yet so much closer than the tsunami of revitalizing tidal lung volume that awaited me on the back seat of the van. I felt as stupid as I did inadequate for leaving the ventilator behind, but I wasn’t about to abandon the Getty because of it. Not until I saw me a Van Gogh.

Sabine snapped her fingers. “Homunculus,” she said, glancing up from her phone with a satisfied grin.

“Gesundheit,” I replied, forcing another breath and bracing against a world increasingly bled of color and sharpness.

“No, you dork. That’s what they call the weird Jesuses. It means ‘little man.'”

As she spoke, my eyes locked on a kid in a wheelchair with obvious Duchenne crossing the courtyard not far away. Check that. Two kids. One on either side of puberty. Brothers, no doubt. Puffy-faced and puffy-limbed like I had been at their age, before I emaciated into my current form–now more Charles Schultz than Peter Paul Rubens.

“Poor bastards,” I said.

“Who? The Jesuses?”

I nodded. “Everyone deserves a childhood. Martyrs most of all.”

The boys, surprisingly flanked by both parents, turned in our direction, and I fought the urge to hide, to spare them a glimpse at the specter of their future. I knew the life these two would lead, or at least the path that their debilitation would take, robbing them of everything they once were and could have been and replacing it with a terrified cesspit of traumas and regrets.

Growing up, I’d witnessed my destiny every three months in the silent, skeletal sentinels of the child muscle clinic. Now that I’d become that destiny, I felt only pity for my younger self. For these boys. I had become my fear. And theirs.

Sabine squeezed my forearm. “You okay?”

“Yeah. Just getting old.”

“Me too.”

The boys drew nearer. Unable to escape any other way, I closed my eyes. If I couldn’t see them, maybe their passing wouldn’t be so bad.

“Forty years,” I said, shaking my head. “You know they stop keeping track of mortality rates for Duchenne at age twenty-four? Half of us are already dead by then, so I guess it’s not worth the hassle.”

She squeezed my arm harder. “But you’re not dead.”

“I know. And I feel guilty every day because of it.”

“Guilty? Why?”

“Like I said, half of us are gone by twenty-four. I’m forty. What have I done with all that extra time?”

“You found me.”

I opened my eyes. The boys were gone. Their parents too. But not Sabine.

“Yeah. I found you. A beautiful, able-bodied woman to love me and take care of me. I’m a god damn unicorn.”

She snorted, then stood up. “Come with me, Mr. Unicorn. There should be some Wheatstacks for you to eat in the West Pavilion.”

***

We headed into the appropriate building and blew through the first few rooms like in that old Godard movie, chasing the brass plaques as they ascended chronologically toward the mid-nineteenth century; there wasn’t enough time to see everything and I didn’t want to miss the good stuff. Story of my life.

I blame whoever first decided we should all live every day like it was our last. Carpe diem and all that. So much pressure. So exhausting. If I lived a single day like it were my last, I’d be too tired to leave the house for a week.

A sudden crowd announced the arrival of the Impressionism gallery. I skirted a slow-walker and darted through the congested opening, nearly colliding with one of the Duchenne boys making his way out. He didn’t look at me, and I returned the favor. We passed each other like those clichéd ships in the night. Two Titanics—one still chugging to New York, and the other already at the bottom of the sea.

His older brother followed, nearer the iceberg but not yet sinking, and I decided those of us with Duchenne needed a secret wave, like bikers sharing some dilapidated highway, though most of us couldn’t raise our hands anymore. Maybe a secret head wiggle would do.

There were barely 10,000 of us in the whole country, we brothers (and the rare sister) in disease. Why estrange ourselves from each other?

Inspiration struck me as I slipped past the second boy and I whispered, “What’s up, my brother?”

He either ignored me or didn’t hear, but his trailing mother must’ve seen my lips move because she smiled and mumbled a greeting. She knew what I was. So did the dad. I was a seer, and the news was all bad. Still, they had to be nice to me. If they were, it meant their own children might still know kindness in their debilitated future.

I had parents too–long-since divorced, but both still living—yet these boys and I were the three of us orphans, for muscular dystrophy is an orphan disease. It’s not common enough for a cure or treatment to be economically viable, so there isn’t one. In short, we’re not worth the effort. If only we had AIDS instead, our hope for the future might be something more than mere delusion.

We were literal orphans as well, despite our living parents. Like Mowgli or Tarzan, we’d all been raised by a species alien to our own. For no matter the love these Homo sapiens showed us, they’d never understand our kind completely—we, the Homo dystrophus. With our difference in lifespan, in presentation, in social interactivity, we were demonstrably “other,” and perhaps even deserving of our marginalization—like Neanderthal man, consumed by the fitter species until we were but broken threads in a wider tapestry. Ain’t internalized ableism grand?

Another breath and I was beyond the so-called family, deposited into the heart of the crowded gallery. I found an opening and cut right, stopping in front of one of several works by Claude Monet.

After a moment, Sabine appeared at my side. “Why are you looking at that one when the birth of Impressionism is right next to it?” she asked, motioning at a sunrise view of Le Havre painted in 1873.

But my eyes were locked on The Portal of Rouen Cathedral in Morning Light, done twenty years later. I stared at the puffy, drab brushstrokes and wondered how many of the abbreviated, messy things streaked across the canvas. 10,000, perhaps? Discrete, yet all bound to the same repetitious, atrophied palette, and all working together to create the pale imitation of something holy to our pattern seeking brains.

I whispered the name to myself. Ruin. That was me—a ruin of my former self. A stained heap of marble going through the motions until I toppled into obscurity. Or perhaps it was pronounced “rue on.” Either would do for my purposes.

When I looked away from the painting, Sabine had moved across the gallery to check out Van Gogh’s Irises. As I turned to follow, the floor beneath me wobbled. No, not the floor. It was me.

I gasped for a breath that didn’t want to come. Sabine was too far away. There were people everywhere. Talking, walking, obstructing. The only opening was out, so I took it, veering through a doorway and into the elevator atrium.

The family was there. The mom saw me and smiled again.

“How old are you?” she asked.

The dad jabbed at the elevator button, keeping his eyes locked on a nearby gift kiosk.

“Forty,” I managed. “Today.”

“Congratulations.”

I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing. The world swayed beneath me. Stars wriggled across the room.

“It’s nice to see you out,” she said. “They won’t say anything, but I know the boys appreciate it.”

I glanced at the nearer boy. The older one. He winced, then stared at the top of his pudgy knees.

“Why?” I said, face flushed and heart thumping.

“You give them hope,” she said. She reached for my shoulder, then thought better of it. “Forty years old and you don’t even need a ventilator.”

My diaphragm forced an involuntary heave. What little color remained drained from the world. My vision tunneled. Air hunger crushed my spine behind my distended guts.

But I smiled anyway.

Probably best to keep up appearances.

##

Missy’s Got a Gun

“I don’t want to live in a country that doesn’t allow me to own a gun,” I yell, shoving my chair into the dining table. Rob wears a blank expression like he hasn’t meant to start one more war with me. We’re married liberals who can’t talk about anything political, especially gun control while details of another school shooting are roaring from television speakers in the next room.

“I didn’t mean to…” he starts, dropping his fork, pushing his plate of fish away.

“Yes you did,” I sneer. “You always mean to force me into discussions I don’t want to have. Then, when I disagree with your point of view you’ll say, You’re not thinking clearly, Melissa, or, Melissa, you’re being naive!”

“Okay, so I did mean it.  But surely you can see that guns do more harm than good.  And Jesus, you’re not living in a backward, little, redneck town anymore. It’s West Hollywood!  Get a grip,” he says, reaching up to touch my arm as I jerk it away.

“It disgust me that you can’t hold it in your consciousness that life’s different for women, Rob, that I might actually need the right to own a gun someday. If this country fell under attack, exactly what do you think would happen to women?”

Rob’s head drops. He doesn’t plan to answer.

“Well, I’ll tell you what’ll happen. If we can’t own guns, women will be forced to rely on men for protection. Now, let’s traipse back through history and see how that’s gone for us. You gotta know, even the men you thought were the nicest will expect payment for services rendered!”

“Oh God!  Six shots are going to keep you from being raped?” Rob throws his hands in the air. “It’s always that for you, after all these years,” he says, pulling up an empathetic, daddy face that almost looks genuine with his snow-white hair. It’s bullshit. Rob’s a master role player when his back is up.

“You damn right it’s always that for me! I have a vagina! Any catastrophe that happens in the world has the potential to be so much worse for me. If war broke out, sure you might be killed, but women will be taken and used like toilets! And your sudden benevolent tone after bullying the fuck out of me on the topic makes me sick!”

“Now you’re just being belligerent, Melissa,” he says, rising, leaving the room.

I don’t stop him from leaving because I want to right myself, and I can’t right myself in front of him. Whenever the gun control battle comes up in an amplified, frightening way, Missy, my angry, fifteen-year-old, teenage part of self comes up too, wreaking havoc through my forty something psyche. Missy’s rage sends rooms spinning in my mind. I begin to vibrate from the inside out until I’m covered in hot sweat. Her long-standing feelings of diminishment, and desecration, are much stronger than the feelings of the kind, intellectual person I’ve become after two decades of recovery.   

Gathering my keys, driving to Canters Deli, I’m overwhelmed by my own division. Adult me is having to consider damage control with a spouse, frightened over the reality of another school shooting. While teenage Missy opens a flood gate of memories she holds of our massively large, violent, lunatic mother, and the pearl-handled thirty-eight revolver she owned while we were growing up in the ugliest poverty. 

Missy ached for our mother’s gun to be hers as she watched our mother place the revolver in the glove box of her burgundy Oldsmobile, or at the top of her bedroom closet in a small, tan metal box. 

Missy ached to own the gun because she wanted to point it at our mother, who habitually slapped her face until it lost all feeling, and say, “You’re not such a tough bitch now, are you? Just take one step closer! I’ll show you just who you’ve been fucking with all these years!”  

Missy ached to own the gun because she wanted to wield it at the random men coming in and out of our house who made her feel like she had to step out of her body, to set it aside for awhile, like her body was a pair of pants or a shirt, and say, “I’m going to blow a hole in the center of your chest if you try and take my body! It’s mine! I fucking live in it!”

Missy would sneak the pearl-handled thirty-eight down from its place in the closet when our mother was out, and though she was too delicately framed to raise the weight of the pistol with confidence, she’d practice taking aim with her free hand under the butt of the handle aiming it at different objects in our mother’s bedroom. The bedside lamp. The large metal fan. A clock on the wall that wouldn’t stop ticking. Other times she’d set the gun gently down on our mother’s puke-green bedspread, running her fingers over the cool metal, marveling at the beauty of the pearl. She’d dream of days when she wouldn’t be small, having no way of knowing she’d never get very big…that many things would always feel futile.

Sitting in my Civic in Canter’s parking lot, I see a text from Rob flash on my phone. “Where’d you go?” 

I don’t answer.

I want to get my adult self back to the forefront of my mind and body. I don’t want to live in the shadowy darkness of my past. I feel I need to cry, but I can’t.  My body won’t produce tears when I get like this, and this is another sign for me that the teenager in me, Missy, still has a strong hold. Missy won’t cry if you’re pulling her fingernails out. Her pale-skinned face looks like mine, only it’s hard like the metal of the pistol, and cold to the touch. Her eyes are black disks without my wide range of expressions.

I watch in the short distance a little, old, black lady sitting on a stool on the sidewalk holding her Styrofoam cup up for change. Her lips are moving.  I know she’s singing a gospel hymn because I’ve heard her singing many times before. Watching her, a her I’ve experienced in times when Missy’s been sleeping, by handing her change, or asking how her day’s been, tight bands start to relax around my rib cage. I start to feel more like adult me. I know I’ll soon be able to go into Canters and eat a mountain of rugelach. The cinnamon with nuts are my favorites. The raspberry runs a close second. I’ll get Rob a black and white cookie. I’m not the kind of person who can go home empty handed.  

With my excitement over feeling more like myself, my depression kicks in too.  Missy doesn’t have depression. It’s my old, adult friend, my sobering, my acceptance, my no longer denying in a certain moment something about myself that is true. Spending over half my life in therapy has not defused my teenage self, Missy. I can’t stop her circular, relentless thoughts about the pearl-handled thirty-eight revolver anytime a strident discussion about guns comes up. It doesn’t matter that I’ve made us a professor, a writer, that we’re ambitious, well traveled, successful, living in a different state from our birth, in great comfort, or well liked by a great many people. Protection, protection, protection…it doesn’t mean anything to her.

At home I slip up behind Rob who’s sitting at his computer in his office. I set the bag with the black and white cookie on the desk next to him. I can still hear the school shooting news in an endless loop from television speakers in the other room. The news frightens me, because I’ve  known loss so intimately.  Adult me desperately wishes there were no guns in the world, certainly no automatic weapons.   

“Feeling better?” Rob asks. “You want to talk?  I know you don’t believe me, but I didn’t mean for things to get ugly.”

“I can’t afford to get into it right now,” I say, not wanting to wake Missy after getting her settled down again.

“Fine,” Rob says, flippantly adding, “But you can’t live the rest of your life like someone’s coming for you, Melissa!”

“Why can’t I, and why shouldn’t I?” I ask. My voice is somewhere between firmness and a shout.

“Because you’re living in a more civilized time than the one you were born to!”

“Prove it!” I say through gritted teeth, feeling Missy stir, only slightly.

“I can’t prove it,” he says. “It’s just so! All you can do is count how many years you haven’t been violated against the years you were physically violated, and be reasonable.”

“Reason is for people like you, who can afford it! I’ve never had that luxury!”

“I seriously hope you discuss this with your therapist. I want you to get help!”

The cavalier tone scorches me, “You know what I want you to want for me, Rob?” I seethe, afraid I won’t be able to keep Missy at bay now, but I do.

“What’s that,” he says, turning all the way around to face me with a smirk.

“If there’s ever a time when I’m cornered by a group of men who’re about to rape me, I want you to hope for me that I at least have a thirty-eight revolver in my hand so I may kill the first six men coming at me and watch them die before the seventh man gets to me!”

Rob turns his chair back around, opening the bag with his black and white cookie. I walk away, unable to shove off the last images I hold of Missy running her fingers over the cold metal of the pearl-handled thirty-eight revolver. She’d been fantasizing about what she’d say if she could hold the gun up in the face of  a particular, filthy, middle-aged mechanic, a friend of our mother’s who’d been spending time around our house. Missy was fast running out of ways to avoid him when our mother was out.

Mid fantasy the door to our mother’s bedroom sprang open, slamming into the wall. Missy scrambled to cover the gun with the green bedspread because her first thought was of how our  mother would beat her for having the gun out. But she couldn’t get the spread up from its tight tuck at the foot of the bed. In the same scrambling instant it was coming to her consciousness that it hadn’t been her mother who’d shoved open the door to the room. It was the mechanic.

Missy broke into a cold sweat, looking from the man’s stunned, grizzly face, back to the gun on the bed. With six feet between Missy and the man, seconds of time rolled into one long permanent moment. 

In that interminable moment the man’s face moved from stunned to cautious to jeering, as Missy’s right hand fumbled backwards feeling the cold pearl on her fingers tips.

She could pick up the gun, she thought. She could blow the biggest hole right through the mechanic’s heart, spattering blood all over her mother’s bedroom, just like she’d imagined. 

“Aw, you won’t do it,” the man sneered. “You’re just an itsy, bitsy girl!”

Missy’s teeth chattered wildly as she didn’t know how to make herself take a firm grip on the pearl handle.

Light flashed to darkness, to light, to darkness again. The room shook wildly as though the earth would destroy it from utter distaste. Then there was the scream. The hideous sound that never reached the surface of Missy’s mouth. Where all memory ends, endlessly cycling back to the beginning with our massively large, violent, lunatic mother, and how she once owned a pearl-handled thirty-eight revolver, while we were growing up in the ugliest poverty. 

##