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Pigeons (Or What I Wanted To Say)

I.

The pigeons that lived on my balcony those years ago were perfect – small, solid shapes like napkin holders on the railing, gray as puritans. I woke to their cooing, then, in spring, their fucking, noisy as Italian porn stars.

Eggs would appear soon after, in nests fashioned from leaves and twigs from the giant tree that grew nearby and cast the long sepia shadows over my plain white walls in the evening. The eggs were brave and dreamy as hyacinth. These small ovals, seeming pulled from the pigeons’ very souls. Remember how I rescued one, that one time? The egg had somehow rolled from the warm nest to the cold concrete. I was determined to pick it up and return it to safety, beside its sleeping twin. You fretted that the mother would reject the baby if I touched the egg. I had heard that folktale too, so we consulted Google. Opinion was divided. We waited until the father returned in the evening, when the mother finally got off the remaining egg. I stepped outside, trying to be as unobtrusive as a shadow, and gently picked up the egg and returned it the nest. Days later, I woke to find two gray hatchlings in the nest. They were tufted with soft yellow down. Their eyes were sealed shut. Their helplessness touched something in me. I think it was the first time I recognize honest helplessness and the role it played in the animal world. In my own world.

“You saved them,” you said to me when I showed you. You said it with a little bit of pride – you trusted my instinct to return the egg to the nest. You would never doubt my pigeon mojo again.

Generations of pigeons were born and fledged on my balcony. I loved them as pets. I would recognize them in the plaza with other pigeons. I knew my pigeons. I could pick them out in crowds of hundreds. Though I cannot explain it, the pigeons seemed to trust me. They would allow me to hand-feed them, to pick up their young when I wanted to handle something fragile and precious, to help. Where once there had been one kind of infinity, now there were two.

When I left, I missed the pigeons. I’d think of them, and myself, slowly learning the pigeon’s nature. Of the weird connection to them – possibly the only connection to another living creature that did not rely on praise to sustain goodwill. Even to a dog, one must say, “Good boy.” But to the pigeons? Anything I had to say to them was insignificant. My affection was based only on mutual joy. They liked my balcony; it seemed a good place to breed. I liked them.

I know it is irrational but even two thousand miles away, I would wonder if I’d ever see them. I’d open my curtains and hope to find them on the railing.

II.

Remember when we used to play Crazy Lady Who Wants To Meet The President? We were in Manassas, wandering the battlefields, and I’d run at you, screaming “I wanna see the president!” and you’d grab me, somehow get me onto the ground while I laughed hysterically. You managed to never hurt me as we were playing. I would say, “No, really show me how strong you are,” wanting to really see how you’d handle some crazy lady charging the president but you would still somehow get me gently on the ground, immobile, neutralized, but unharmed. It was only later I realized you were showing me how strong you were. That restraint – I didn’t bless it then, but I do now.

Yesterday, when I ran into you for the first time in five years, I felt that same restraint from you. I felt the weird dream-like knowledge that of course this was going to happen. Of course. I live only across the street from you. We were going to bump into each other; it was practically destiny. An accident that had to happen. But when it happened, it was still a shock – it is always a shock when fate slaps you, when you get what you deserve. I burst into tears, and could say nothing.

“Hi Cara,” you said with a little smile, as sweetly and calmly as if I had never gone away. You held out your arms and I fell into them, crying, shaking, trying to regain myself. You felt just like you always had – strong and solid as a wall. I always thought of you as a wall, a division between me and the rest of the world. You were protective, and you didn’t let any of the riffraff through. For ten years, you didn’t.

We talked for an hour, standing there in the rush hour pedestrian traffic. You made me cry once more when you talked about Bo, but aside from that small outburst of emotion, everything about our meeting was perfectly normal. I kept thinking you look tan, and your eyes look very blue, and you look cute in your white shirt and olive pants. I was used to seeing you in those dark pinstripe suits. The new look suits you. I was thinking I wanted to suspend time and talk forever. Talk about the past, and the present, the good and bad times.

“It was all worth it,” you said suddenly. “All the bad times. Because you’re here now.”

I felt it then. The pang of unworthiness that is built into Time’s name.

III.

The first day back, it was snowing. I went to the mall and bought a gorgeous Calvin Klein coat and some warm boots and tried to ignore the fact you were so near to me. I marveled at myself in that moment. How could I care so much about someone who was only a friend? The attempt to be lovers had been a disaster. Not in a bad way, because nothing between us could stain permanently, but in just a very flat way. I guess this what people mean when they say they love you, they’re just not in love with you. In any case, I loved you. I just wasn’t in love with you. And it was mutual. And that was awesome.

You reminded me yesterday as we stood there and caught up how we used to go into DC and pretend we were clearing federal buildings – museums and such. You’d show me how to hold my fake gun, remind me not to point it at you, and then we’d play like four year olds. Remember prison cake? Remember meeting the president? Remember the US Mint police? Remember when my computer died and I lost my book? Remember you used to make those chicken wraps and you found a way to “hide the taste of vegetables”? Remember.

You quoted some of my own lines back at me, lines I’d written for books that I wrote on your living room sofa. “What was it?” you asked, squinting your eyes. “Something about a museum…”

I thought back, trying to remember. Oddly, the memory of writing them was stronger. Me on your sofa, slaving away, asking for your input.

“Something like, I am a museum…” you prompted.

I knew what you were talking about but couldn’t remember it verbatim. I’ve just looked it up. Here it the paragraph you were thinking of:

Later, in his bed, it took him a long time to fall asleep. He was reluctant to abandon the keen awareness of Julia Anderson, who was somewhere in the world, maybe thinking of him, but probably not. When sleep finally came, he dreamed that he was at home in Chicago and that he was talking to Julia on the back deck of his parent’s two-story Colonial. “What do you know of me?” Julia questioned. She held both hands over her heart, as if she were pleading with him.

“I am a museum filled with the art and science of you,” Jon replied.

I see the weaknesses in it now. I see that the “two story Colonial” says nothing about how he is feeling. It evokes nothing but bland upper-classness. And the character – Jon – was anything bland. He would have been more accurate in his thoughts. He would have said something about the emotional character of the place. Secondly, the fact that I put in a dream sequence is rather weak. I know better now not to hide what you really want to say in fugue states. Just say it, and live with the consequences.

All this was present even the first snowy day back; the air was familiar. I plodded through the powder to get a salad at Cosi and wondered if you were home too, and what would you think if you were trekking out for lunch too, and saw me? Would I look the same? Would you?

When I returned to my place, it was filled with pale pearl winter light; I’d left the curtains open to watch the snow. And there, on the railing, stood two pigeons.

They were not the same old pigeons. They were new to me. But driven by some instinct, they had come to show me themselves. I took their puffed-up, cold figures as a good omen. I knew then that you would be around again.

IV.

Friendship is not retroactive. There is no sense in wishing that we could be exactly as we were or in fact that we will ever be anything again. Yet I have one solitary plea. You owe me nothing, of course. You gave me more than any person has the right to expect in this lifetime. And yet I am asking for one more thing. Just one more.

I am asking that your accidents become promiscuous as roses.

V.

Whether we choose it or not, we entered Infinite Mode a long time ago. Somewhere along the way you – like the character Jon – will wake from a telling dream, and know the faithless memories declare allegiance not to you or to me, but only to the truth.

The mistakes I made could fill the Library of Congress. I learned only after I met you that love is a verb. It isn’t just a feeling – it’s the actions that support the feelings. I see now that you understood that all along. But as you know, I’m a slow developer. And a social creature.

I would do it better now, though I am not asking for that opportunity. I understand the reasons for the frozen gulf between us. I respect that calm space. I imagine I can wave from the battered banks, and you might wave back, and it will be enough. Some people, you know, create marriages and lives together. This is what we created, and we should bestow it with respect. It might not be flashy or very satisfying, but it is perfect because it is ours.

You said there was nobody you got along better with, nobody who got you like I do. Well, my darling, the same is true for me. That is our punishment for our stupidity, I suppose.

Though I hardly recognize these streets without you, I do not want my life to become a living past. Frame after frame of “remember when…”

There is a repeated vacancy, of begging for your jokes and your sweetness. But it is no longer unbearable. There is silence and quiet in that longing; I feel no reason to give voice to it. Light mixed with snow. Sun on glass. What magnificent disorder.

If you change your mind, you know where to find me. For as long as we occupy these same streets, there will always be tension between us, like the distance between a sparrow and a cat – though that sounds predatory and I don’t mean it that way. I just mean there is a lifetime of potential in that space. Atoms crashing.

Find me in June, okay? With A.

And I do believe – oh God I know – that Bo is real.

With love, as ever –

C.

Cara Ellison

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