When they finished talking for the first time, Sara said, “Follow your bliss.”
He narrowed his eyes. “Bliss?”
“Yeah, it’s just something I say.” She was leaning against the door in a rainbow scarf.
“Well, okay.” He waved and bobbed away on long legs, his thin frame rising up and down the hall like an upended surfboard. He took a left at the stairs without checking to see if she was looking.
Once behind the door, Sara undressed in her boxcar room, threw on her fleece pants, and from the bedroom called Tim, who was working on tagging ptarmigans in northern Saskatchewan, colder even, somehow, than North Dakota.
She heard Tim switch on the space heater plugged into his old truck’s cigarette lighter. While the phone crackled, she played with her locks, rolling the hair into golden burritos.
“You there?” she asked when he cut out.
“Yeah,” he said.
“I think he tried to hit on me.”
“He’s a mad scientist-type. He’s got these big eyes that go bonkers when you say something unexpected.”
“Well, two floors below, but I always see him.”
Pause. “You thinking about me?”
“I was before I called, doofus.”
They hung up around eleven, and she slumbered under the down quilts, a pile of dishes for the morning. She remembered the Monday inspection at the College of Ed. The sledge hammer-wielding country professor taking down an office wall and the vicious, furious bureaucrats. Not fun her life: mediating between erudite professors and suited hardasses.
The next morning, Sara wrapped in a parka. Small pile of plastic colored portfolios in hand. David again. He was staring out the window above the stairwell that was kept lit all day. The window was gray with snow and dust and the suppression of clouds. Against the dull glass, motionless under his trench coat, David looked like a shadow left by some owner.
“How’s it?” she asked, above him.
David’s eyebrows jumped about his face, and he turned. “Oh,” blurted. “I’m just zoning. You?”
“Oh, fine. Work.” She raised the portfolios to show the label. “Cognitive Dissonance: Case Studies.”
She wanted to tell him the files matched the academics who penned them, but his gaze swiveled back to the window. Along the street, snow was pushed to thigh-high piles on the curb. “Say,” he sputtered. “I was thinking. We should go get a coffee.”
Hugging her portfolios, she said, “That’d be nice, but I told my boyfriend I’d call him tonight.”
Too quick, he said, “Oh, you have a boyfriend; what’s he do?”
“Studying birds. He’s been doing catch and release.”
“And you’ve been separated?” David put his hand on the stairwell banister, which, unless she went around, blocked traffic.
“Well, we met in Montana backpacking. And now we talk online.” She shuffled feet, was starting to get hot. Squeak, squeak, went the parka.
“Where’d you go backpacking?” he asked. He followed her eyes to the hand on the banister and jerked it away as if it were something hot.
“Glacier National Park. You ever been?”
He nodded. They mulled for about a minute on bears and rangers. They’d both dropped cameras in geysers. Funny, not-so funny.
Finally, “I’m sorry for asking you out. I didn’t realize you had a boyfriend. Anyway we should still hang out. I study birds too. It’s what I did my masters in. It’s cool meeting other outdoorsy people.”
She was smiling, nodding, not paying attention. In her head, she was calculating. What were the odds of meeting, living underneath, and attracting another bird dude? Was there something bird-like about her?
“Yes, let’s definitely get coffee,” she found herself saying. “I’m sure we’ll run into each other.”
He looked out the window. “I guess I’ll let you get back to what you’re doing.”
She checked her watch. Her eyes went wide. “I gotta fly.”
She walked past him, flapping a glove.
He trampled up to his room, wiping boots on the mat. He left the door ajar and spread the curtains across his windows. Light flooded in over the dusty and paper-strewn room as if for the first time in months. At his computer desk, he opened a file.
The experiment is proceeding. I can deal with the rejection. Subject is intriguing (if bubble-headed) and willing to be friends. Must remember not to call too soon and seem pushy.
Merging field notes with life had improved his anxiety; the slow, analytical assessment helped wrap his thoughts around the incomprehensible minds of others.
He cracked the window and watched snow melt on the radiator between window and desk. It was always too hot in the room. He checked his mail. There was a rejection slip. He had grown fond of these. He read the slip, its well-mannered, trite way.
He considered himself successful for 34. Three publications. Already, ready for long-term work. Out of grad school, he’d landed a job with a nonprofit that studied captive birds, birds used as pets, released in the wild. The study concluded that populations of captive birds released in the 21st century wound up stagnant. Dead as goldfish flushed from a toilet bowl. A much different story from the house sparrow and starling explosions of the 1800s.
The NGO was impressed with his work, and that his findings that only took him $4,000 in expenses. The only way to keep track of a bird in the wild had been to tag it and monitor with the owner’s permission. If the blip on radar stopped flashing that signaled a life squeezed out.
For him, nothing unrevealed was glimpsed by the study following blinks on screen. But there was a quality to birds he loved. Something about their ornate delicacy and yet wildness. Their precision for what they did. The artistry of evolution visible in the folds of their kaleidoscopic wings.
Months later and Sara crashed home with a hill of manila folders. A post-it note licked the space above her peep hole:
Coffee tonight, Tulley’s?
Two nights of coffee. Now more? He was unraveled, David, but with an undercurrent of sweetness. Harmless, sensitive. He carried the threat of a limp shrimp cocktail. Sizing him up one night, she realized she even had ten pounds on him.
She knocked on his door. He answered in redundant denim and Levis. Plans? Yes, already. Hiking? Next weekend? Did she trust him truly?
He was making eye contact now. More engaged, dare she say it, charming in a dull way? Or was that just the weak spot from being away from Tim?
“What, in the cold?” she asked. Snowshoeing, she reminded him, it’s called.
A week beat by, and they drove across the still-dark hazy rises outside of town, the fog from their travel mugs sparkling in the green radio light. The hills rose higher and higher like rice paddy terraces, erupting and then hovering over the scrub plains.
He pulled into a crotch between small mountains. The roads icy, but plowed and sprinkled with a mixture of gypsum and sawdust. The parking lot was clear, except for two porta-johns, patronized by snowmobilers.
The pair carried their aluminum shoes, rented from the university outdoor shop, to the edge of the wilderness.The bare hills were a slur of mud and ancient sea stars, skeletal fish, coral crustaceans, stacked onto a fiery goo of volcanism at the edge of what was once an inland sea. Sara liked the buttes and the bare outlook, peering over the flatness of the Dakotas.
They were jogging uphill, both of them in shape. Talking little. Gradually, the hills widened, the tree-line receded. They slogged to an expansiveness of small mountains on plains.
They chatted now, drifting to his job search, her schooling. Almost three masters already.
Lectureship positions for David. Not career defining, but something to take him away from the cold and dark and gift him some cash. She mentioned her side-writing. Then they turned to his one tentacle foray into the scribbling world.
“Writer’s workshop,” he said. “I thought I wanted to be a writer at one point.”
“Why’d you quit?”
“I didn’t really have anything to say.”
She smiled. Incomprehensibly, she felt something loosening inside.
A skier passed. His apparition like that of a lightening bolt. The syrupy slush of his Telemarks was blurred by their voices and by snow. “Excuse me, good morning,” he half-panted as he pushed uphill.
They took a break beside the bowl they were hiking, watched him go. Sara pulled out a Power Bar and split it, forking over half.
“Why does he push himself so hard?” Sara asked, munched.
“Maybe,” She replied, unconvinced. “He’ll miss though what’s out here if he focuses on the exercise.”
“Maybe he’s been out here a million times.”
She swiveled to take in the sharp edges of the unfamiliar. Ponderosa pines, weepy and knotty. She espied deer scat and rabbit tracks.
“You haven’t mentioned any birds yet,” Sara stiffened, realizing that’s what she expected of Tim.
“I was too caught up with breathing. I heard lark sparrows earlier. Swallows obviously. It’s hard this season. We’d need a dump truck of berries.”
They started climbing again. “What’s your favorite bird?”
This question had once angered him beyond speech. Birds were poetic, each made to thrive in certain niche canvasses. Morphing into fitting cogs and shards of life. What is somebody’s favorite puzzle piece? But what people, he learned, were really asking with “what bird?” was “who are you?” He had spent many hours framing an answer.
“Indigo bunting. Hands down. Because of the color and sound. And because of their habitat. They can be quite easy to find because they live in ecotones, between forests and fields, yards and prairies.”
“Is that you, edges?”
He smiled the fullest she’d ever seen him.
“If the bird fits,” he said.
The skier was passing them, this time downward along the arc of their traverse. The man had taken the snake-like grip off his skis and was gliding. He fanned across the snow, creating a teardrop stain across the face of the mountain. Across the bowl, the skier waved, almost flying.
“Funny how we do that,” David said.
“Do what?” The skier was zipping out of sight.
“Wave to strangers when no one else is around. In a city, no one’s waving.”
“That would take all day. Out here, it’s a surprise. You’re not expecting a person to hatch out of the middle of nowhere.”
He stared at her. She pretended she was absorbed in ponderosa. They rose and followed the ski tracks.
At home, he typed:
Subject will make an excellent friend.
Five weeks, and then he found a note on his door.
Lunch again tomorrow? Same place?
They didn’t have much to say. She talked more about her work. Still the controversy about the professor who’d commuted with an ax so he could finish obliterating a wall before Admin could debate the office size. Her frustration was beyond usual. An ax in the age of campus killing? This was her ass: an ivory tower Paul Bunyan.
He went home and wrote:
Subject is showing signs of opening. I am growing attached.
She called Tim. Only one of six of her tree lamp lights switched on.
“How are you?” she asked.
“How am I?” he said. “Let’s see… how am I…”
The news came in a couple days later that David had an interview in Florida. She came over to wish him luck. They stood at the door.
“I’m only slightly nervous,” he said.
“Right,” she said. She was smiling with her mouth open.
He was on his way out to the airport. Suddenly, she hugged him. Face warm.
Even in February, Florida felt like Florida. He had packed fleece sweaters out of habit and one collar shirt, which he wore every day for three. He elected to spend most of the interview discussing the studies he did with the pets he helped tag and then watch die as little blinks, little pieces lost from the puzzle. When something dies, you can see the niche that’s been left behind.
The interview lasted longer than expected.
The next day he phoned Sara to see if she’d pick him up at the airport.
“How did you do?”
“I think I blew their hair back.”
She gathered him in her Rav-4, and he begged for a dinner stop.
“I can cook something. A little celebration?” she suggested, her voice cracking a note.
He had thought about this moment, had read about it in Men’s Help forums. He said, “You know, I’m actually in the mood to go out.”
They drove staring straight ahead at the black road with bright yellow lines, the snow piled like mountains around them.
“I wish I could finish my thesis,” she frowned over her coffee.
He bit a slice of bacon. “Why don’t you, obvious question?”
“Because I don’t focus. Maybe you can, but every time I think, my mind zings a million miles. I can barely do my taxes.”
“Didn’t you complete two thesis things already?”
She mock glared.
“You still taking ADHD pills?”
“No, but I quit writing while I was on those pills. Medical meth. Mean time, I’m thinking about Tim, and my thesis and this job I’m in.”
“Fucking A. I’m 33, and I’m a space accessory for a Dakota uni. I should be like you, finishing my thesis and getting the fuck out.”
“It’s not such a bad school here.”
“I don’t normally stress this way, but this — ” she paused, her hands circling around her coffee. “It’s like you know how you have everything figured out when you’re twenty. Everything seems natural, engrained. You’re going to do a bunch of research and become a teacher or go off somewhere and study for a living. And then something happens and you just don’t care anymore. You want to have fun and do things and make the world better, but something happens. You forget the code.”
“Look, Sara, you’re just having trouble seeing where you fit in.”
“Fit in?” She for-real glared him. “Science and art are full of people who make breakthroughs when they’re young, when they’re our age. After that, their mind settles into clay. I’m young, or whatever, and something needs to happen now.”
A memory clicked in his brain. “Sara, you remember what you told me the first night we met, in the stairway?”
“Follow your bliss?”
“See where it takes you.”
She wondered if that was helpful.
They squeezed in through the back door of their apartment complex, trailing snow, and trudged up. There in between doors, he pulled her aside and slammed his face into hers.
“No,” she grumbled.
He kissed again, softer, and she stood, retreating to the wall with his serpentine belly threatening to press against hers.
She broke it off and stormed to her room. He followed.
“You don’t know what you’re doing,” she said.
“So, you do like me, finally?” he asked.
She smirked at him. She sat in the chair beside the pullout sofa covered in the blankets she slept on and the warm light of her lamps. She was still holding her keys. “This isn’t a good time.”
He walked over to her and sat on the edge of the sofa. “Do you like me? Look, all I’m claiming is if two creatures feel the heat for each other they at least need to deal with it.”
“This isn’t a good time,” she said, firmer.
“You can ignore this?” He aimed his eyes from his groin to hers.
He huffed out of the room
Dawn erupted over his windowsill, and he wrote: Sorry about last night, give me a call. Posted it over the peephole.
And he wrote:
Relations with subject, only recently so promising, have taken a turn for the worse. But certain complications, i.e.: a job in Florida. Subject is feeling trapped, life squandered. What is my role here?
“I don’t think I can talk right now,” she’d texted.
But then the call came at eleven. He went to her room and knocked.
“I got the job,” he said, smiling.
“Great.” She’d been crying. “Tim and I broke up.”
He arched an eyebrow. “This didn’t have anything to do with me did it?”
“No,” she said, flat. “Well, in a way, but not because of you, but because I realized I was tired of waiting for him.”
“Is he coming back?”
“In a literal sense maybe. Who knows?”
They went over to the small table set next to the window. The chairs’ had leaf designs welded into their backs with copper.
“So what about us?” he said.
She laughed. “You got a one track mind, mister, I’ll award you that.”
He begged her gaze.
“What are you expecting?”
“I’m expecting you to follow your bliss and act.”
“That might be a bit too much right now,” she said and got up from the table at the kitchen area. He followed her and tried to kiss her.
“Look I just hung up with my boyfriend and you’re about to leave. Can’t you appreciate what shit I’m in right now?”
“Your boyfriend isn’t here. I’m here!”
“We’ve only spent like one week together if you add up the times we’ve hung out.”
He steadied his arm against the path in front of her, pushing against the fridge.
“How long did it take until you were fucking Tim?” he said.
Something inside her shattered and hardened. “David, Get out.”
They dueled a steely stare. His arm lifted from the fridge as she was ninety percent sure it would.
They were quiet for a few days. One night, she sat with her feet tucked besides her hips in the chair by the window. Steam rolled off her tea and out the open window as she quietly drank.
Where was this confident guy the first day they met? Success changes people, she knew. It makes you something above yourself. Or at least a shadow jutting ahead, murky and thin.
And the opposite is true. Like now. This wasn’t her. This moping. She needed to steady herself. She knew the molecules in her brain would right themselves. Didn’t she trust herself? It was important, a lesson learned. She wasn’t 20 anymore.
Experiment failing, but job found in Florida. Wanting to cut losses and say “fuck it” to subject. But subject is going through existential crisis. Subject may need space. I cannot create the most supportive atmosphere because of imminent departure.
He spent time at coffee shops and tried not to think. Took the back exit of the apartment building to avoid her. He left a single note saying:
Want to hang out before I leave. But want to give you time to think. Remember, No Pressure! Sincerely, David
The first time he scribbled the note, it said, “love” before his name, he scratched it unrecognizable and put “always.” Then he thought better and wrote a new one.
Did he love her?
He had no measurement.
A note on his door: Come see me. ☺
He pocketed the post-it and floated up to her apartment with two beers. He opened one on the way. She was wearing a tight t-shirt that hugged her chest and let the hint of her naval slip out. She offered a spot on the couch.
“I made up with Tim.”
He kept his cold beer cradled against his crotch.
“Look it wouldn’t work out between us,” she said.
His face felt like cracking plaster.
She sighed and leaned back in the couch. “You’re leaving, you need to think about that. When was the last time you had sex?”
“About a year ago.”
“Your body’s telling you it’s time to reproduce, and you’re not thinking clearly.”
He leaned forward, brow rippling like when they had met. “But we’re here. Your boyfriend is stuck up in Canada, and who knows where he’ll be in another year? You said that, remember? And you think you’re going to be able to stay together when both of you are flying back and forth across the planet? You’re telling me that’s your big picture?”
“Look,” she said calmly. There was an odd serenity about her. It was new to her, but not so new.“I know who Tim he is. You’re right, I don’t know where he or I’ll be in another year, but I don’t need to know. What I do know is that he’s there for me. You want to have this sweaty relationship, impregnate me, and then take a plane.”
“And why can’t we do that?” He grinned.
She barked a laugh. But then a filament of anger glowed inside her. “Look, you think I’m some kind of bird you ditch from an experiment.”
“I don’t—” he began but stopped because he wasn’t able to disagree.
On the slow walk back to his apartment, he recalled approaching a kestrel nest in the Utah Canyonlands. It was at the edge of a cliff fall, perched above the drop. He reached in to touch the eggs, feel their weight, when mother kestrel screeched down, a fighter jet with talons.
He heard the wind breaking around her and ducked in time, managing to hold onto a tree to keep from sliding into the fall. He steadied himself as the mother made another pass, drawing a talon from the base of his scalp to his ear, snatching his hat, exposing his brow to the sunlight.
He’d had the sense to leave the nest alone after that.
Clinton Crockett Peters is the author of the essay collection Pandora’s Garden from the University of Georgia Press. He has been awarded literary prizes from Shenandoah, North American Review, Crab Orchard Review, and Columbia Journal. He holds an MFA from the University of Iowa where he was an Iowa Arts Fellow and a PhD in English and creative writing from the University of North Texas. His work also appears in Orion, Southern Review, Hotel Amerika, DIAGRAM, The Rumpus, Catapult, and elsewhere. He is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Berry College.