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Blackbirds

The Window is my favorite thing about this apartment. After long days at work, I often take a stool and sit by the Window for hours, watching the little blackbirds fly from branch to branch, listening to their high-pitched chirps. Sometimes I bring my sketchpad over and try to capture the movement of the branches as they are pushed slightly down then spring back up as a bird flies off of them, or the way that the leaves shake when two birds land on the same branch. Pages of my sketchpad are filled with charcoal drawings of wings fluttering against the cloudy blue sky as the birds fly away in a perfect sideways V-shape. Other times I ignore the birds and in Rear-Window-like Fashion, watch the people. I often try to figure out the relationships between my neighbors. Like the couple probably in their mid-20s who live across the street. Sometimes I see them cuddling on the couch, wrapped up in each other’s arms as they watch T.V. Sometimes I watch as their mouths move angrily. I imagine her yelling at him for leaving his go**amn dirty dishes in the sink, and expecting her to just clean it up because she has to clean up all of his messes, doesn’t she? And then I watch as he brings her a bouquet of lilies and they make up with a kiss on the cheek, and all is right in their world once again. Between the birds and the people, it’s all good material.

I scoop out a tablespoon of sugar from the lumpy “Great Value” package and dump it into the cup. My father loved blackbirds. A flock used to live up in the towering oak tree over our Washington house. I remember waking up many a morning and running downstairs in my checkered pajamas on my way to the kitchen only to find my father standing by the window in the hallway, his thick black glasses perched on his nose and his coffee swirling up in whispers of steam in his left hand. Sometimes he would hear me behind him and turn around and give me that lopsided smile of his with a cheery, “Good morning, Squirt!” Other times, he was too lost in thought to even notice my footsteps behind him. Once as I stood there at the base of the stairs, watching him watch the blackbirds, he turned around, his blue eyes dreamy. “You know what convinces me that there must be some sort of higher power out there?” He was a scientist. He clung more desperately to the laws of the universe than he did to those of spirituality or religion. “Blackbirds,” his eyes glanced over to me, then into the shadows of the hallway. “The way they always travel in perfect alignment with one another. How they instinctively know their place in the group. And those nests. Such complex nests...” His voice trailed off. He tapped at the window. “Not many things make me believe in G-d, but blackbirds...blackbirds are one of them.”

I pour milk into the coffee and watch as it diffuses into the cup. An aching pang simmers deep in my stomach. Everyone said it would get easier, that time would heal the wounds. But I miss Dad everyday. I think about him during moments like this, when I’m all by myself in my apartment drinking my daily cup of coffee like he always used to do. Or when I’m daydreaming in class, feeling lonely. And sometimes just when I see something on the street that reminds me of him, like the fire hydrant on 42nd and 3rd that he accidentally hit once because he swerved up onto the curb to avoid hitting a car, or the music store that he always used to wander into, his face inspired as he inhaled the scent of the instruments. I tell him about work, and about my rent and mom, and ask him questions about heaven and what he’s up to in the afterlife. I imagine his big hands glazing over the typewriter that he insisted on using even after computers became mainstream, or the wistful blue of his eyes as he listened to his favorite Johnny Cash song.

I glance over at my sketchpad strewn across the coffee table by Window Jeffries. After Dad’s passing is when I really began to get into art. I like the fact that with my pencil and eraser, I create worlds. Worlds where college students have wings. Where daughters don’t need. I pour in the espresso and sigh.

An image flashes through my mind of the time when Dad and I took a trip to the pet shop. After seeing the longing look in Dad’s eyes when he gazed at the blackbirds out the window, my mom decided that we should buy a bird. One sunny Saturday, Dad took my hand and we crossed the B-train over to the pet store on the other side of town. When we walked into the shop, a smiley lady with black hair and a red T-shirt with a sticker that read, “Ask me for help!” took us to the bird section. Surrounded by a flurry of feathers and squawks, we took turns holding different birds, gauging whether any particular one forged a special connection with us. At the end of the visit, we only walked out with a flier about dog shelters and throbbing headaches. We were almost home when we looked down at the side of the street and noticed tiny tadpoles swimming in the water gathered from the recent rain. My dad took the cup he was holding and scooped one up, and we returned home needing a tank of water rather than a bird cage. Every morning for two months, I would wake up, climb out of bed in my Cinderella jammies, and visit the tadpole in the fish tank, until one day, it sprouted legs and we had to let it go before it hopped out.

Outside on the street, a woman walks briskly with her toy poodle, and I think about how lonely my mom was after my dad’s passing. We didn’t talk about it at first, her and I. Maybe we were trying to protect each other. Tears over Geometry homework, that was one thing. But for her to see me when I was actually broken...I just didn’t want that. In the days before his death, while Dad lay meekly across the crinkly white hospital bed, my mom and I barely looked at each other. I think we both knew that to acknowledge each other’s pain would be to recognize in part our own.

I move to the sink and pour water into the cup. At first, I slept a lot. Waking hours were too hard. I thought maybe I could escape the desperation of my reality through dreams. But then I’d close my eyes and see Dad’s blue eyes and the wrinkle on the side of his mouth that would appear when he laughed really hard, and I’d open my eyes and the pang in my stomach would just be bigger, and it would ache more, and then it would just keep growing and pulsing until it filled my throat and pounded in my ears and it was all I could hear and all I could swallow and I felt a thousand times worse than I did before, as if that was even possible. That’s when I began drinking. Not excessively, and not every day, but more than I did before. I was a junior in high school and had been to a few parties before, but now I didn’t just go to the parties to have a good time. I went because I didn’t know how else to get rid of the ache.

One night I distinctly remember. I always drank just enough to make the ache shrink to a manageable size, but not enough to have my memory erased the next morning. I was sitting on the rug, leaning up against the couch in the host’s living room, red cups scattered on the floor around me. Someone had knocked over a cup of beer in the corner of the room, and it streaked across the carpet in brown fingers. I leaned my head back against the seat of the couch. Somewhere in the back of my brain memories were surfacing, floating around in the sea of alcohol I had tried so hard to drown myself in. A guy from my Pre-Calculus class who I had been flirting with in the kitchen earlier lowered himself onto the rug next to me.

“Do you want to see if we can find somewhere to be alone?”
I was present enough to know I was just going with him to try to escape my loneliness, but desperate enough to go anyway. We sat on the bed of his truck and he draped his arm around my shoulders and I knew I should feel happy sitting there encompassed by his arms, but all I felt was an absence. All I could think about was how heavy his arms felt around my shoulders, like it was my body but not really me. And then I had a vision of myself, sitting on his truck with his arm around my shoulders that didn’t feel like my shoulders, and all of a sudden I didn’t want to be so close to him like that, in my skin tight skirt and plunging neckline, my brain wandering off into oblivion. I wanted to be held. I longed for someone to whisper stories to me and stroke my hair, as my dad used to do every night before he tucked me into bed. And then suddenly I couldn’t stand sitting there anymore, craving an impossible comfort in someone else’s arms. I got up, walked inside, washed the makeup off my face in the bathroom, and left. The next morning, I set up an appointment with a therapist for the following Monday.

I reach into a fridge and take out the bottle of chocolate syrup, squeezing some of it into the cup. When the pain of missing my dad gets really tough, I try to think about happy memories. There’s one that I always come back to. I was 11 years old. My mom, dad, and I were on the way back home from a cross-country road trip, and we still had about six hours left to drive. Around four hours in, we were passing through this small rickety town when we saw a strawberry-picking garden on the side of the road. Our stomachs were growling because the last rest stop had been hours ago, so we decided to pull over and pick some berries for the ride home. We got out of the car with a few stray containers in hand and walked along the rows of strawberries, plucking the biggest and reddest ones from the bushes. When we got back into the car, the boxes of strawberries secured in my lap, the sun was low enough to cast a golden glow around us, giving the impression that all of the trees and bushes were shimmering. My mom started humming a cheer she used to sing at summer camp, and after a few notes, Dad chimed in with the words. I moved the strawberries under one arm and used my other hand to tap on the window to the beat. In that moment, driving into the gold singing a generation-old camp song with my mom and dad, our mouths stained red from the strawberries, I didn’t wish that the time would go by faster or slower. I didn’t care about arriving back home. I just smiled and tapped along.

I take a spoon and mix up my chocolate-syrup coffee mix. Raising the cup to my mouth, I take a sip of the sweet liquid with the taste of the memory, the imprint of strawberries against my lips. I feel the warmth of the coffee trickling down and imagine the flutter of blackbirds behind the window, their wings carrying them high, high up into the sky.




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