Are there pigeons in Iraq?

February 29, 2008
I watched the gabardine leaves flutter from the canopies that shaded Central Park from the sun. Like every other autumn weekend that year, I was sitting on my benck, next to the middle-aged man reading the Times Book Review. [It was] Sunday, and I couldn’t stand being home with my parents. Channel 23 was reporting live from Baghdad at two o’clock. Charlene and Paul would have been glued to the television set anyway.

It was a relief to escape that fake, apathetic mood of our apartment. Charlene and Paul never spoke about much anymore, really. I loved the freedom to swim in my own imagination before I was forced back into reality. I came to watch the city pigeons as they hooted and hopped back and forth on the limbs of the beech tree. Gregory used to take me here as we crossed the park on our way home from Grandma’s apartment. We would sit on a bench near to the one I claimed every Sunday to watch the pigeons flap their wings, taking off and landing on that spectacular beech. This colossal tree looked like an untamed sculpture, the hair of Medusa. Yet to me the stillness of the limbs in the chilly breeze was statuesque. I remember admiring the beech envying its tranquil stance, its free existence.

Months and months of watching the pigeons with Gregory alerted me to the birds’ behavior as they darted from limb to limb. When they neared our bench hoping for morsels of our sandwiches, I would tell Gregory that I wanted to touch them because they looked like they wanted a pat. He would tell me, “No, city pigeons are dirty.” We would sit in the park until Gregory thought Charlene would start worrying. I don’t know why I call my parents Charlene and Paul instead of mom and dad. I guess it’s because Gregory does.

Gregory had left for Iraq six months before, in May. As I sat on my bench, zipping my jacket closed for warmth, I looked up at the fine initials scrawled into the trunk of the beech. U could see them from my seat across the path. Gregory + Melina. I remember the day that Gregory carved it into the tree. We had been walking home form Grandma’s house and he had his new Swiss army knife in his pocket, a Christmas gift from Paul. “Is anyone looking, Mel?” His eyes never left mine as he paused at the beech.

“No, why?” I saw him extract the knife from his pocket and flip the blade. “You can’t do that, Gregory,” I hissed. I continued the walk home, knowing my brother would catch up with me as he always did. Finally, he came up the path, huffing and puffing.

“Why do you run away?” he asked with that twisted smile that made him look even more handsome. “Afraid of a little danger?” I walked back to our apartment, nose in the air, and didn’t speak to him. Oh, how he loved to torment me, and how I loved to make him feel guilty.

The pigeons seemed to know that Gregory was gone that autumn afternoon. They danced and hooted on the limbs of the beech. Somehow, they seemed nervous. Were they always this jittery? Where has the boy in the green jacket gone, the boy who brought a loaf of our beech every Sunday? You lonely idiot, I thought. The pigeons wouldn’t even recognize him. What are you crazy? Talking to pigeons…

I sat there, almost frozen, tears welling in my eyes. The man next to me ruffle the paper, folded it carefully into four sections, and slid it into his wrinkled leather briefcase, He stretched and stood up to leave. It had gotten very chilly as the day wore on.

Five-fifteen. It was time to go. I had forgotten my scarf, and I could scarcely move my neck. Gazing across the path, I said a private goodbye to Gregory’s birds, and headed for 96th street.

Are there pigeons in Iraq?

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