Black Birds (A Short Story)

She had planned it poorly when she agreed to let Tony pick her up for lunch. Linda had a nagging feeling when they sat down to eat that she would soon be dumping him. But she was more surprised than he was when she blurted, “I wanna break up with you,” right after their bony young waitress laid their meal on the table and walked away.

Linda got up and left him sitting there staring at their food: her taco salad, his giant beef and bean burrito, her sweet tea and his Dr. Pepper. She briefly returned to the table to grab her sweet tea, but walked away quickly before he had a chance to argue with her or plead. She hated when he did that.

Her glow of satisfaction faded quickly when she stepped outside into a sauna of damp heat. The August sun bore down with vindictive energy on her particular spot in Winter Park, Florida, and she squinted as she struggled to pull her shades from the bulky, white purse slung on her arm. She realized that she would have to call her sister for a ride, and saw that her sense of timing had been exquisitely poor.

Her cell phone pulsed and throbbed in her hand before she had a chance to flick it open. It was a text from Tony: “Want a ride?” Linda glanced over her shoulder but couldn’t see past the reflections on the plate glass window of the restaurant into the interior. She assumed that he was staring at her smugly from the coolness inside, and she texted “No!” She wandered down the length of the shopping strip and decided to hide inside Whole Foods. She wasn’t going to discuss anything with Tony, and certainly wouldn’t ride with him in his car. He might trick her.

Tony closed his phone and put it back into his coat pocket. He wanted to track her down and make her explain, but decided to let her go. If this latest episode in their series of break ups was just a product of one of her moods, then it would be smarter to let her work her way through it without any guidance (“interference” was her term) from him. If she really wanted to break up, then he’d let her. He was tired of making the effort to keep her happy.

He glumly ate a few taco chips and started on the burrito. He put too much hot sauce on it and had to ask Melissa, the waitress, for an extra soda. He mopped his forehead and watched his server’s hips sway as she walked away. She swiveled around and smiled at him as if she knew that he was studying her curves in action, and he turned away in embarrassment and looked out the window. He picked just the right moment to see Linda pass by. She was wearing heels and looked hot and uncomfortable as she impatiently walked back and forth on the sidewalk.

Linda’s torso was shaped like a pear with narrow shoulders and a wide ass, and her short, floral print dress with loud, tropical colors did little to hide the fat accumulating on the back of her thighs just above her knees. Today she had pulled her frizzy, brown hair into a pony tail on one side of her head, and she looked like a refugee from the eighties, an aging material girl who was getting too old to “just wanna have fun”. Tony finished his burrito and burped. He began to eye her taco salad. Break ups with Linda always made him hungry.

She couldn’t get Bobbi to answer the phone. Her sister was forever hauling her brats back and forth from the doctor, the supermarket and school, and she never picked up when she was driving. Linda debated between waiting at the bus stop at Lakemont and Aloma and walking home. The bus service was notoriously bad, and she didn’t know if she’d have to circle down town Orlando twice before finally traveling in the right direction to get home. It had to be 95 degrees out and her feet were already killing her. She needed a ride.

And she was getting hungry–she had been too nervous to drink her diet shake at breakfast–and now she felt a little woozy. She began to long for the taco salad waiting at Tony’s table for her to devour, but resisted the urge to go inside. She went back to the Whole Foods to buy something to nibble.

Linda wandered through the narrow aisles amongst aging hippies and New Age wannabes, and couldn’t seem to find anything appealing. She got trapped between two grocery carts blocking her path at the meat counter. A 30 year old blonde couldn’t decide between ground buffalo and free-range beefsteaks. She had a baby in a papoose slung across her chest and wore Birkenstock sandals. Earth Mama asked the clerk whether the methane emissions of cattle were more detrimental to the environment than buffaloes’, and Linda forced her way past when the clerk began a long winded spiel about bovine digestion. She was accosted at the grain bins by a sixty year old man wearing a golf cap and sporting a white goatee. He asked her if she like to bake bread while he stared at her breasts.

Her phone lit up as she backed away from the creep, and she told him that her fiancée was calling. She snapped the phone open and cried, “Hi, Tony!”

Tony was surprised when she answered, and her tone of voice sounded too friendly even for a good day when they were getting along. It usually took at least a week for her to respond after a break up, and he had expected his call to go straight to voice mail.

Linda said, “Sit tight. I’ll be right there!” and hung up before he could say a word. Tony raised two fingers to get Melissa’s attention, and he ordered another taco salad for Linda and a beer for himself. He knew that the drink would make his belly feel more bloated than it all ready did, but the restaurant didn’t serve hard liquor.

She breezed in a few minutes later and sat down across from him. She picked at the scraps of the first salad left on the plate in the middle of the table, and seemed surprised when Melissa arrived with a fresh order. Tony waited in silence as she chattered about her sister, the hot weather and a shopping trip that she planned to take with her mother. When she had chewed and talked her way through her meal she wiped the grease off her lips, paused, and nervously smiled at him without making eye contact. He decided to show her some mercy and said, “Do you need a ride home?”

“Would you give me a lift? Thank you, Tony.”

“No problem.”

He went up to the cashier and paid, and they walked together in silence to his car. He didn’t open up her door for her, and drove faster than usual down Aloma toward Semoran.

They got stuck at a light. A sunburned, homeless man with dirty pants and the scraggly beginnings of a beard stood on the curb next to them and held a cardboard sign. The letters were too small to read, and when she stared too long as she tried to decipher the message, the man came over with a tentatively hopeful look on his face. She rolled down her window and gave him two quarters she hurriedly dug out of the bottom of her purse. And when he took them and said, “God Bless,” she was too flustered to notice the sarcastic note in his voice.

They pulled up to her house, and Tony didn’t respond when she leaned against and kissed him on the cheek. She no longer knew whether or not they had broken up, but he had made up his mind about something. He seemed to be made of stone as he sat gripping the steering wheel with both hands.

She got out of the car and walked to her door, but she didn’t hear him start the motor and drive away. She looked back and saw him staring straight ahead. Nothing remarkable caught her eye when she surveyed her neighborhood. There were parked cars, puddles in the curbs, cinder block, ranch houses and trees. Her neighbor, an anorexic twenty year old named Tammi, wasn’t out sunbathing in her pink bikini. Tony kept staring.  Her curiosity was piqued.

Linda got back into the car. He glanced at her long enough to register her return, and went back to staring straight ahead. She said, “What are you looking at?”

“The black birds,” he said.

She squinted up past the rear view mirror and saw a row of bedraggled starlings perched on a telephone line. They crowded against each other, rustled their wings and looked wet and miserable. There must have been a sun shower in the neighborhood while they were at the restaurant. A black bird occasionally took off to stretch its wings, but soon returned. His spot might be taken, and if it was the prodigal just shouldered his way back into the line at another spot. The starlings mostly ignored each other, but made sure that they remained huddled together with wings touching.

“Do you like the birds?” she asked.

“They’re okay,” he said, and then he took her hand and gave it a squeeze.

She wanted to remove it, but instead she leaned over and rested her head on his shoulder. When the car got too hot they went inside and made love in her bed. Their post coital drowsiness slid into a nap, and when she woke up Linda discovered that she was huddled tight against his hairy, sweaty body.

She gradually separated herself from him and rolled off the bed without waking him. He farted in his sleep, and she knew that she had made a timely escape. The faint whiff she got was familiar—she knew from ten years of experience that the man couldn’t handle beef, beer and beans at one go.

She padded in bare feet to the kitchen to get a glass of water, and as she shook ice cubes from a tray she made a mental note: the next time they went out on a date she would drive herself to their rendezvous.  He wouldn’t fool her again.

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Trouble in Paradise

Many remember the good times in a relationship, the wonderful moments when two people make a connection and feel less lonely, the intoxication when love and desire begin to undermine reason, the comradeship of finding someone with whom you can share thoughts, feelings and ideas. I remember many of the these initial rush-of-love moments, but since they occurred more than thirty years ago they’ve lost some of their vibrancy.

But I can clearly recall those moments when a relationship suddenly and unexpectedly imploded, and I’ve never been able to forget the slow burn-outs when a love affair took much too long to turn to ash and blow away. A sudden rejection turned out to be a more merciful way of ending things, much more preferable to a prolonged period of being bound to someone whom you no longer really love and who you know doesn’t love you.

I ended two or three relationships, usually in an indirect manner. I would call less frequently or propose fewer dates when I began to feel the energy and good will between me and a lover begin to die. At other times I was on the receiving end of an abrupt dismissal, or was left dangling for a long time until the obvious conclusion occurred to me that I had been dumped. What went around came around, but I recall feeling devastated and unfairly treated when I was the one who was cast away. I suffered from the doubt that I was unworthy of being loved, and sometimes took three or four months to patch my tattered ego back together after a rejection. I seldom took into account that my actions might affect others in the same way.

The most devastating dump happened to me when I was a freshman at the University of Dayton. I met a girl named Madonna at a mixer for incoming scholarship recipients. She had short, blond hair, brown eyes, and was very intelligent. I noticed her when I walked into the room, but she made the initial approach and she peppered me with questions. We didn’t exchange telephone numbers, but I assumed we would meet again as we were both enrolled in chemistry and biology classes. I saw her a few days later. She was wandering around erratically on the lawn of the Roesch Library while squinting down at the ground. I was intrigued by her eccentric behavior, and when I asked her what she was doing she told me that she was studying grasshoppers. We began talking once more, and I eventually asked her out. She told me in a vague, offhand way that she had a boyfriend named Bob at Kent State, but didn’t hesitate to accept my offer.

We both were commuter students and lived at home with our parents. When I arrived at her address off of North Main for our first date she served me a beer in a frosted mug and asked if I smoked. I thought she meant tobacco (I was very green), but was brought up to speed when she pulled a joint out of a small, tin box. We smoked it and then drove to a theater showing avant garde animated movies. The weed, the surreal cartoons and the intoxication of her company made the evening float by like an odd but enjoyable dream.

I remained in a state of enchantment for about two months. I fell madly in love with her and forgot that Kent State Bob existed. Madonna was a playful lover, a good companion and a person who appeared to have a strong sense of morality. She had attended Chaminade-Julienne, a Catholic high school in downtown Dayton, took her Catholicism much more seriously than I did, and was concerned about my lack of faith. Of course spiritual matters weren’t a matter of pressing concern when we were rolling around on a sofa in her parents’ rec room, or steaming up the windows of her car.

We decided to go to the homecoming dance, and I made reservations at an Italian restaurant near her home. I could tell that something was wrong when I arrived to pick her up. She wasn’t hostile, but she didn’t smile at me or look me in the eye. She and her Mom fussed with her dress for several minutes, and then we drove in silence to Antonio’s. She spent the meal pushing her meatballs around her plate and spoke to me with difficulty. The easy flow of conversation that we usually shared had dried up, and I wondered what I had done. She waited until I paid the bill and we were sitting in my car in the restaurant parking lot to unburden herself.

She told me that her conscience was bothering her about cheating on Kent State Bob, and that she would have to find some way to choose between him and me. I understood, though nothing was said directly to me, that Bob was unaware that I was his rival. She then suggested that I take her home as she had ruined the evening. I felt sorry for her when she began to cry and tried to jolly her into a better mood. I talked her into going to the dance.

Madonna began to drink heavily almost as soon as we arrived. She mixed beer, wine and booze, and started to look ill after we had been there for about an hour. I drove her home. She told me as we sat parked in her parents’ driveway that she was going to be sick, but wanted me to come inside anyway. I held her hair back as she vomited into her bathroom sink, and then helped her get into bed. I believe that I lovingly tucked her in.

The next two months gradually became more and more hellish for me. I could tell that her affections were washing away from me, but nothing I did stemmed the outflow of the tide. As I grew more desperate to hold onto her my jumpy and sometimes irritable behavior did nothing to support my cause. I couldn’t stand the feeling that everything I did and said had a bearing on her decision, and felt angry that Kent State Bob wasn’t suffering through similar trials. The contest was unfair.

One day she told me out of the blue that I was like a pretty dress. That sounded insulting and I asked her what she meant. She explained that I was like a pretty dress in store window that she wanted to buy, but found the price too costly. She thought that one day the rough spots in my character would smooth out, but she couldn’t be sure. I was an attractive bet, but too risky. When she told me this she acted as if she were doing me a kindness.

I should have gathered up what was left of my dignity and walked away at that moment. She was telling me in her oblique way that it was over. It didn’t occur to me that I could have told her that she was like a fickle princess in a fairy tale who dangled her affection before her suitors like a prize that had to be won. Instead I hung on.

I dreaded the break up call that I knew was coming, and wasn’t surprised when she finally got up her nerve and dialed my number. But I was devastated nonetheless. Nothing prepared me for the hollow feeling in my chest that suddenly appeared when she hung up. My heart was gone and was replaced by an amorphous blob of numbness. At times the numbness gave way to a strange, throbbing sensation that was quite painful. I’ve experienced worse moments since then, of course, but at the age of 18 it was impossible for me to know that the loss I felt was not all that great. I had to learn to judge the scale of events by going through much harsher times.

No other break up ever affected me as strongly, and I guess I could thank her for that. She toughened me up. I could also thank her for teaching me to stick up for myself in a relationship, and that mutual respect is the ground of anything worthwhile that can be shared by two people. And I could thank her for teaching me to never test the love of those closest to me. But I don’t really want to.

One Helluva Year

In the summer of 1983 I had just graduated from Wright State University with a B.F.A. and worked at Miami Valley Hospital.  I was the third shift receptionist at the nursing school dormitory on weekends, and my chief duties were preventing the uninvited from entering the building and expelling the invited (boyfriends) who stayed past the curfew hour.  I spent my free time painting and drawing to get ready to apply to graduate school. I wasted a lot of time and emotional energy trying to manage the end game of a disastrous relationship with a woman named Jane.  I decided to wait her out until she finally decided to dump me as I knew from experience that she could be vindictive if she felt wronged.  She finally came by uninvited on a Sunday morning an hour or so after I had fallen asleep.  She seemed surprised to find me in bed, even though she knew my working hours, but pressed on.  Jane quickly said her bit and was out the door before I had completely woken up, and I remember feeling a mixture of annoyance and relief as I heard her quick, sharp footsteps retreat down the hall.

I intended to take a break from romance for a while, but Dave, a friend of mine from the University of Dayton, had other ideas. He may have been listening for the sound of my front door slamming when Jane exited my life. Before I had time to revel in my new found freedom he arranged for me to meet two women who were complete strangers. The first appeared to have been coerced, and maintained an attitude of vigilant indifference whenever I spoke to her as I attempted to figure out why she was sitting in a chair next to me. (Dave the Matchmaker tended to strike without warning or explanation.) The second woman was Judy, who in less than a year’s time became my wife.

Judy and I began dating steadily, and we both knew early on that our relationship was significant. We shared many interests and attitudes and spent a lot of our time together simply talking. Unlike some of the women I had dated in the past, she had a kind heart and a steady moral compass, and was direct. She didn’t care to play games, and I began to trust her completely. I thought that I had finally found a clear, straight path to happiness, and was surprised when twists, turns and obstacles sprang up before me.

My sister Carla gave birth to her first son in early September. My family’s happiness was undercut by our growing concern for Tony, my younger brother. He had gradually become more and more listless after losing a job a few months earlier. In November he landed in the hospital the day after we celebrated my Grandfather Reger’s 80th birthday. The diagnosis was complete and irreparable kidney failure. Tissue compatibility tests were performed shortly after, and it turned out (as I somehow already knew) that he and I were a nearly perfect match. I agreed to donate a kidney when the results came back. Tony was surviving on dialysis but only just. He needed another chance.

Judy and I got engaged in February, and my brother and I went under the knife about one month later. I almost died during the operation when the stitches burst on the cut end of my renal artery and I lost half of my blood in a matter of seconds. The surgery was a success for my brother, and his health was restored almost immediately after receiving the kidney. He still has it thirty years later and is healthy and happy, and I have suffered no after effects.

It took me a few months to recover. In the scramble to reach the burst artery my intestines got battered and rearranged, and I had the uncomfortable sensation for weeks afterward that my insides were roaming about trying to find a stable, new configuration. Judy helped take care of me when I left the hospital and offered comfort when I dealt with two difficult things that occurred while I was still recovering: one of my cousins committed suicide shortly after my brother went through a minor rejection episode.

Judy and I went to visit her parents when the pain from the operation had largely subsided and my strength had begun to return. Her Mom and Dad knew about our engagement, but we had never so much as spoken on the phone. They lived in eastern Pennsylvania, about 12 hours down the road from Dayton. I was nervous about meeting them because Judy had told me that her parents had disapproved of a previous boyfriend that she had brought home, and he, obviously, was no longer in the picture. We stayed there for three days, and I managed to pass muster. When we got back Judy and I began to plan the wedding.

In the middle of the summer of 1984 we both began to have trouble with our roommates. Our impending marriage seemed to stir up envy and animosity in both households, so Judy and I decided to move in together. We found a small house to rent near the western edge of Wright Patterson Air Force Base, and shared a few anxious moments when huge bombers violently rattled our windows as they descended  to land. The first time it happened we had no idea what was going on, and I was struck by the odd notion that giants had suddenly come from beyond the horizon to crush us.

I wasn’t sure whether we’d make it to the altar as we began to learn how to live together. Our families had radically different assumptions when it came to domestic matters, and we were both surprised at times when our expectations were not met with enthusiasm and understanding by the other party. Most of my relationships had been ended abruptly by girlfriends who suddenly found me unworthy of their affection. I spent three weeks waiting for Judy to come to a similar conclusion, and only relaxed on August 25 when she walked down the aisle of Immaculate Conception Chapel and joined me at the altar.

Judy and I have gone through other roller coaster years during the thirty years we’ve been married, but few match the sheer intensity of the year of our courtship. I could call that time a trial by fire as we both had to find inner resources to deal with the more difficult moments, but there were so much happiness in the mix that no title seems to fit. When I look back I’m sometimes surprised that we managed to pick our way around the rubble and potholes of such a difficult path, and sometimes have the sneaking suspicion that our marriage was preordained. No obstacles could have blocked us. At other times I think that we just got lucky to find each other and stick. In the end all I can say is that it was one helluva year.