L I T T L E B I R D S
Lara is twelve and refuses to wash her hair. She has read that shampoo is made with horse hooves and is protesting cruelty to animals. We buy her special hair products, the kind made with mangoes harvested by indigenous rainforest monkeys. She protests the frivolity of this purchase, citing its obscene price tag. The hair clings in grungy lumps to her face. It looks perpetually wet.
Your daughter, Elizabeth informs me when I come home late from the hospital, and retreats into the kitchen, defeated.
Lara loves me still. Still calls me Daddy. Still holds out hugs. She has not yet learned to eye me with suspicion the way she does her mother. I am exempt from her war of independence.
But I’m not a hero, I want to tell her. I want to repeat this to everybody. To the ones that come to me with their complaints, their short breaths and burning chests. To the ones who hope that I will fix their mistakes. Their hearts flutter inside their rib cages. Free me of this pain, doctor, they say. They want so much of me.
There is a story I know I should tell. It starts with the town I grew up in, a settlement in nowhere on the edge of nothing. We had trees and a lake. We had cookie cutter houses and a general store. A postman who brought us milk. A mayor who was elected because he was well-liked. We had morning greetings and ice cream parlors and a main street called Main Street near a train station called Train Station. We had even sidewalks without cracks. We had lamp posts made of wrought iron. We had a clock in the square that always told the right time and shiny yellow traffic lights. Things were pretty where we lived, and everything that wasn’t pretty disappeared into the forest, because we kept planting trees when there was something that had to be hidden.
If they can see then they know they’re about to die, she tells us, and spends the rest of dinner with her arms crossed over her chest while we cut into our pork chops. She sighs loudly and chews her hair.
It’s a good thing you didn’t wash that, Elizabeth mutters. I make a chhht noise between my teeth but she ignores my warning. All that grease will fatten you up now that you’re starving yourself.
A man, my age. Maybe older. His family sits beside him in the room. They hold his hand, they touch his leg. There are so many of them. His wife, his son, his daughter. Two grandchildren, fair-haired twins who look frightened. An old friend – best friend – a bearded man with a hearty laugh. They rest their arms on him and nod as I speak. All synchronized. Up, down, up, down. Like they’ve practiced. Like they are in performance, or military. I explain the surgery to them. I tell them the risks. They knit closer, like they are protecting him. I am good at what I do, I reassure them. They nod, they say they know, they want to believe, they have to believe. Together they will chase the risks from the room. Together they will save him.
Sometimes at night, when I am sleepless, my mind will fill with images of my wife and daughter, their eyes brimming with boundless adoration. They are sweet and beautiful, my Lara and Elizabeth. And yet the vision stirs dread in me. I fear that my very presence will be the thing that breaks them.
In our perfect town was a perfect girl, a girl named Vera who loved to dance. She was descended from a line of Russian ballerinas, her mother the owner of the ballet studio in town. By day Vera’s mother taught young girls in pink leotards to plié, by night she trained her daughter to be precise and graceful. Vera could be recognized from blocks away. Where she went, she danced. Where she danced, people smiled and gave her corridor. When she wasn’t dancing, she still seemed like she was dancing. She walked with deliberateness, her every step resonating with intention. She glided, floated. Once I bent down to look at her soles, checking for a layer of air beneath them.
I tell Elizabeth to calm down. I tell her this is a phase. She turns on me. Accuses me of being too soft on Lara. Why do I always come out looking like the bad guy? she asks. This is not a question I can answer without endangering myself.
I would have failed out of college. Every day of classes was like the day before. The world bled around me. I tumbled through it on mute. People blurred, their names, faces, facts, fictions all mingling and interchanging. I was a freshman older than all the rest, not some pimply eighteen-year-old but worn at twenty, back from a war everybody had hated. My mother called. I would not pick up. She wrote me letters. I ignored most of them. One said only, Are you alive? to which I responded, No.
I listed myself pre-med for no other reason than that it was an outdated dream. Years ago some other version of me had wanted to be a doctor. I followed through on this as if I were paying tribute to a fallen brother. But it was all the same to me, all of it. Lectures about things that didn’t matter, theories like air. A man stood up there, sometimes a woman, slides whirring like a Ferris wheel, chalk smearing across the blankness of green.
I loved to watch Vera dance on the banks of the lake, her hair wet, moisture threading down her body. Her pirouettes rained outward. When she arched and reached out to the sky behind her, I dreamt she was a mermaid.
The only story I could come up with was the one that I thought was true. Where a boy loved a girl for the rest of his life and would do anything to keep her happy. Vera told me that was the beginning of every other story in the universe, but most of them ended badly.
Elizabeth asks why my work nights are getting later and later, why they blend into each other so much. I am away days at a time. There’s a law against this, isn’t there? she asks. She and Lara aren’t speaking, not since Elizabeth came home with a freezer worth of steak and a lock for the refrigerator.
I don’t know how to explain to her the way the ground feels firmest when I have my hands in somebody’s chest. The way the noise of my body distills into a single point, the point at the end of my fingers, the point of the scalpel. I trace pathways of arteries and veins, follow thin nerves and swathes of flesh, logical roadmaps where everything makes sense. There is relief in those moments of mending. There is forgiveness.
One day soon, I will take my daughter aside and tell her, Be careful of boys. Not because they want to kiss you or paw you or slide their hands up that skirt you insist on wearing. But because boys fall in love recklessly before they know what love is. Because boys promise worlds that maybe even grown men never learn to give.
Everything is precious these days. Not just puppies and babies, but also snakes and beetles and trees and scarves and jingles on the radio.
We were eighteen when Vera finally let me kiss her hips and touch her thighs, when she finally let me fumble my way into her. From then on, all I wanted was to be drenched in this thing we called love.
Vera. I should have told you to run away. When you cried into my arms because your father would not let you go to that ballet school in New York City, I should have been more generous in my thoughts. I shouldn’t have harbored that selfish glee, that concealed satisfaction at your tears. It wasn’t the tears themselves, of course, that I was happy about, it was the fact that those tears fell on my shoulders, that for weeks I imagined I could smell the salt on my sleeves.
In all honesty, some days when patients come to me with that pleading look in their eyes I want to tell them: What’s the point? Every moment I extend your life, you will damage somebody else. You will make your young son self-conscious with a careless remark or you’ll injure your aging mother with neglect. Maybe you will be the cause of a tragedy, like a deadly traffic accident or a flu that you pass to somebody else that kills them. Or maybe you will just live to keep making the same mistakes. The benign ones nobody notices but cause an accumulation of damages like a diligent termite. You’ll leave the lights on when you leave the room, you won’t recycle. You’ll keep eating fried chicken, you’ll keep being lazy about the gym. You’ll be miserable and you’ll lash out at somebody and make them miserable too.
Of course I should have answered the letter. Of course I should have agreed to see her, but I was afraid. I envisioned her angry, decades’ worth of slander flying from her lips. I envisioned her a broken woman, bent by confusion and betrayal. I imagined she hated me. I imagined she loved me. I imagined she would try to kill me. These are my excuses. This is my defense.
You get to play the good cop, and what about me? She won’t eat. She brings in squirrels and pigeons that she finds on the street and I’m the bad guy that has to kick them out because they’re dirty and dying and sometimes even decaying. And when she talks back with a filthy mouth, where are you?
When I was scared and young, I thought one day I would learn courage, that these were things that came the way white hairs and lined skin and sleepless nights did. But now I am scared and old, and I have a little girl who is no longer little, a girl whose eyes will one day dim with the knowledge of her father’s cowardice.
Lara as a toddler, climbing up shelves, pulling down books, throwing tissue boxes across the room; Lara throwing tantrums because her potatoes touched her peas; Lara singing "You Are My Sunshine" to herself while sitting on the toilet; Lara crying in the middle of the night when Elizabeth was too tired to hear; Lara following me through the house with a plastic stethoscope around her neck; Lara laughing at stories; Lara thinking about jigsaw puzzles; Lara’s face shivering with joy when presented with her first cone of cotton candy; Lara drooling in her sleep; Lara’s handprint artwork for Father’s Day; Lara wanting to fly; Lara and the little blue block with the letter N that she always carried with her; Lara with her face pressed against the goldfish bowl; Lara twirling; Lara smiling; Lara barring the door in the mornings because she did not want me to leave.
I make my way down the stairs, my bag slung over my shoulder. The kitchen hums, the refrigerator still a prisoner. My hand glides across its magnetic surface, catching upon a photograph of me and Lara by a snow fortress we made eight winters ago. I finger it and pull. It’s mine.
Soundlessly I exit into the yard, and that’s when I see Lara, my Lara, huddled over something in Elizabeth’s rose bushes. Her silhouette is slight against the lavender of morning. I hear small desperate peeps. A chatter of chicks. She starts, her head turning, her body protectively concave. We lock eyes.