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The Thing With Feathers
She's standing beside me at the empty bus stop, wearing a long, eggshell-blue painter's shirt and tattered loose capris, her dirty-blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail. She is looking up at the sky. That's when I notice her; when I realize that the woman standing beside me, at the No. 51 Bus Stop on Sundown St., Moss Landing, CA, is looking up at the mellow Pacific sky.
I look up, too.
There's nothing in it apart from the sun. I glance at her, sidewise. She seems a little bit – dazed, I think, and I cannot help but edge away a little bit, lower my gaze to avoid eye contact. Still, something about her expression must have been mirrored in my face, because then she looks straight at me. Her eyes widen, her mouth half-opens in amazement, and just as I start to consider escape routes, she cries out. “Andy!”
My heart skips a beat. Then her features slide into focus, into the familiar lines. “Oh – er – Lena?” I falter.
For perhaps half a second we're just staring at each other, she in her oversized clothes, me in my gray business suit and tie. Before we can say something more, the bus arrives with a cloud of choking exhaust fumes and a screech of worn-out brakes. “I'm waiting for the next one,” she hastily tells me. “I'll give you a call.” Lena turns away, and before I can find out how she knows my phone number she vanishes.
The conference in Monterey lasts most of the morning. During lunch I have a meeting with one of the company's West Coast clients, then after lunch it's a round of house calls. It's the first time I'm in Monterey on a business trip, and the only reason I'm staying in Moss Landing and not Monterey is because I'd had such short notice; all the hotels there had been booked.
Anyway, the point is there was plenty to keep me busy. By the time five-thirty rolls around I have a pounding headache; it doesn't help that I'm still jet-lagged from the flight. So the text message on my cell phone, which I discover on the bus ride back to the motel, is the first time throughout the entire day that I remember about Amy. It's brief, and like the encounter at the bus stop, just a little enigmatic. “Meet me Sat. Moss Landing Cafe, 9:30 a.m. -L” How does she know that I would be leaving Sunday and not Saturday? Probably just a guess, I suppose, but still.
I don't see her again for the next few days, despite Moss Landing's tininess, and don't even think about it until Saturday arrives.
I'm vaguely nervous for some reason. I wake up early, at six, and can't go back to sleep. Instead I get up and pace the small motel room, with its discolored and peeling wallpaper and crusty brown carpet, and think about nothing much. Well, nothing much apart from how much nicer the carpets are at my own apartment. The blinds are drawn, leaving only filtered, pale patches of light on the floor.
Six o'clock. Actually not bad, considering the time difference. Then again - six o'clock was also the time that Lena and I had always risen at during college, so that we could go up to the bell tower and watch the sunrise along with our other roommates. We'd never missed a day, not even during finals. Some of the others in our dorm had laughed at us, yeah, but we all had our little habits and they didn't give us too hard a time about it. That had been a long while back, I suppose. How many years? No; my mind, stupefied, balks at doing arithmetic in the morning. Finally I grow tired of my own circlings and end up watching the staticky T.V. to kill time until I can reasonably head to the – what was it? - the Moss Landing Cafe.
It's a small, red and white building on a nondescript street, lots of run-down suburban houses and empty lots. Lena is standing outside and she waves to me as I get out of the taxi. It feels more like a reunion than our brief run-in by the bus stop.
I'd been worried, on the ride there, that it would be awkward. But I've forgotten so much from college; I think I barely remember any of my roommates. Even Lena. I'd forgotten how things could never be awkward with her, because she always acted like she'd known you for years and years. Actually, it wasn't even so much that she acted that way. If she'd been acting it would have just been more awkward. No; Lena knows you, no matter whether it's the first time you're meeting her or the hundredth.
“Hey, Andy!” She smiles broadly, and her eyes are bright against her tanned skin. I smile, too. “It's been a while,” I tell her, and then for no reason we both burst out laughing. That's when I notice that she's standing beside two bikes.
“Hop on,” she said. “We're going for a spin!”
I haven't been on a bike in ages. Also, as my stomach reminds me, I haven't eaten breakfast. Also the smells from the cafe are certainly more tantalizing than the questionable range of dried cereal and soggy scrambled eggs at the motel. I voice my concerns, but she just smiles again, in that way of hers.
Tentatively I begin to pedal after her. The breeze picks up, and for half a second I can swear we're on the beach and that the ocean is right beside me. Then I pedal faster and the sensation was lost in the rush of wind in my face. I can't help it; I'm grinning like an idiot, I'm following a girl I basically don't know anymore on an empty road going who knows where when I could have still been sleeping or getting extra work hours in and I'm grinning like an idiot.
My thighs are burning already, though it's a flat road. There isn't much of anything around, certainly no cars, and Lena takes pity on me. She slows down a bit so that we're side-by-side in the middle of the street. Now we can talk a little, though not about anything important. Again, typical Lena. With my other roommates, or the other dorm buddies I've encountered since graduation, conversations always go the same way. We'll talk first about our jobs, then about kids and husbands and wives if applicable, then it invariably goes either to politics or to reminiscing about the good old college days. That's if we haven't run out of things to say in the first two minutes.
But Lena, I still don't even know what she's doing in Moss Landing after twenty whole minutes of conversation.
“Wait here,” she suddenly says, and I brake. She does, too, then climbs off her bike and trots off down the road. “What are you -” I call after her, but the wind gusts and she just kind of waves a hand at me. I shake my head and settle down, looking around at the endless fields of kale or broccoli or whatever and trying not to think about how I'm still hungry.
When she does come back she's holding a pair of binoculars and a sketchbook. “What are you, Harriet the Spy?” I ask as we get back on our bikes. “Nah,” she said, then laughs. “Don't worry, Andy, we're almost there.” I don't bother asking where 'there' is.
We pass through a grove of trees. Then they open up and in front of us is the water.
“Elkhorn Slough Reserve,” she whispers for some reason, then grabs me by the hand. “Leave the bikes here. Let's go.” I don't protest. Now she's the one that seemed tense, and I find myself getting edgy, too.
The wind has calmed down somewhat and it's like yesterday, the sun warm on the dried golden grass lining the trails and glinting off the brackish water. Hardly anyone is here besides us and a ranger that salutes us as he drives by in a truck. Lena is quiet.
I start to think again about the last time we'd met, after graduation. God, how long ago that had been! It felt like yesterday but how long ago it had been! All of us had been different then. We still talked about books and movies as though we were literary critics, we still had time to talk about them. Anyways. Even Lena had been different – now that I've been with her for an hour I can see that she's dimmed in some undefinable way, that somewhere in the years that lie between then and now, a shadow has crept up on her and wrapped itself around her.
I almost jump when she speaks up. We've reached a fork in the trail. “Left,” she says, and we go left, leaving the shade of the oak trees. The trail narrows and reaches out into the slough itself, segmenting a shallow area into pools of barely moving water. I can see the shadows of small fish against the silty bottom, obscured occasionally by clouds that they stirred up. Nothing much else. Just as I start to wonder why we've stopped here, Lena says, “Look up.”
My breath stills.
In the air above the ponds there's maybe twenty or so birds. I've never seen birds like them before. They're gorgeous, with bone-white feathers, black caps on their heads, and paradise-orange beaks. The birds are swooping like nobody's business, turning, gliding. Even with my limited knowledge of ornithology I know these are no seagulls but something more refined. It's hypnotizing, the way that they flutter in the air before a dive. Right before us, one of them pauses in the air, its geometric wings holding it perfectly still, and then it gently folds them and drops to the water, bursting out again in a fount of droplets with a struggling fish in its mouth.
I hear the scratch of pencil on paper and know that Lena had sat down to sketch them. She'd sort of been an artist in college. She never said that she wanted to be one for a living, and so far as I knew never took a class, but somehow paintings, drawings, and photographs signed “L” ended up in our student galleries on a regular basis. The scratching stops for an instant, and as I stare at the birds I feel the pair of binoculars being pressed into my hands. Pulling the neckstrap over my head, I lift them to my eyes and stare some more, fiddling with the focus of the lenses until the bird's outlines are crisp. Now they look close enough for me to reach out and touch their herringbone feathers.
There are train tracks nearby. One is rumbling in the distance; as it comes closer and increases in volume, the birds do not scatter, but shifted further down the slough. Lena says something over the that I don't make out over the rush of the oncoming train, and as it fades she repeats herself.
“They're Caspian terns. Aren't they beautiful?”
I lower the binoculars. Now the birds are tiny and far away, little white specks moving against a bluish-greenish backdrop of oak-covered hills. Her voice had hitched a little as she said that. I turn to look at her and find that tears are streaming down her face; the notebook on her knees is already wet, the graceful sketches blurred.
“Lena… are you – are you okay?” I curse myself for not being able to say anything better. She looks up, her eyes reddened and puffy. I suddenly feel like crying, too, as ridiculous as that is, and I sit down hard next to her. “C'mere,” I tell her, and she leans her head on my chest and starts to sob. They're not pretty sobs or restrained sobs, but real ones, Lena ones.
She bawls for a while. I hold her tight as we sit there, in the dust, and continue to watch the birds. And yeah, I guess I do tear up a little. Get a knot in my throat and all that.
Finally she quiets down. I can feel her chest heaving as she takes deep breaths and become uncomfortably aware of her body against mine, but just as I'm about to speak she sits up and wipes her eyes. Then she starts to talk, so quietly that I have to lean in close to hear it. She's looking down.
“I… Andy… it's been a long time. Two – two weeks ago...” She has to stop to take in more air, gulping it down as though she's drowning. And maybe she is. “Two weeks ago I had a miscarriage.”
I try to process this as it reaches my ears. Just as I'm making sense of it, she speaks again. “The baby was so tiny... Andy, I could have held her in my hand. She was so tiny." A pause. "And a week ago… I got a – sorry, sorry -” she sniffles, getting a Kleenex out of her pocket - “I got a divorce.”
I'm stunned. You have to understand, out of all our college friends and contacts, Lena was the only one that had never been involved with anyone else. In fact none of us could even think of her that way. She was above it. It wasn't that she was aloof, or that she was unsexy or whatever. She just wasn't made that way, and it wasn't that none of us could imagine her having a husband or even a boyfriend, it was just that it never crossed our minds to try to imagine it. She lives life for different things. Lena is made differently.
And now she's telling me that she's been married, pregnant, divorced.
“I -” I stop. What can I say to her? I can feel the distance between New York City and Moss Landing growing again. Or rather, I can feel the distance between Andy and Lena the college students and Andy and Lena the – I don't want to say middle-aged, just Andy and Lena the adults. What can I say to her? Tomorrow I'll be gone from here. We'd been friends before and I guess we'd all, all of us, thought that we'd stay friends. But life happened; we got jobs, moved around, phone numbers and addresses changed. I'm with Lena again today, but when I'm on the plane tomorrow I'll be thinking about how many clients I still need to follow up with and whether the boss will get mad at me again for messing up the files and whether I'll make it home in time to get a couple hours of sleep before the work day. All I manage, in the end, is “It's a screwed-up world.”
She nods, slowly, as if giving due consideration to this monumental statement. “He was a nice guy,” Lena says softly. Of course he was; she wouldn't have fallen for anyone that wasn't made like her. She wouldn't have fallen for anyone without dreams in their head and a pencil in their hands. “I came here straightaway afterwards. To watch the birds. I – don't think he'll come back. But he was a nice guy.”
She looks up at the sky now. For a moment, before the sun hits her face, I can see why I hadn't recognized her at the bus stop. Then the clustered darkness surrounding her pulls back a little bit and something intangible in her shines through, and I can see why I had recognized her at the bus stop. I look up at the sky, too.
And in the sky above us a tern is flying.