With One Stone
Right after James stopped the bird from nesting in the garage and from shitting on his father's brand new Jeep Cherokee, his girlfriend began regarding him with an expression he didn't recognize. It was as though he had grown a second nose, or changed his eye color from blue to green. Even when she wasn't looking at him directly or talking to him, the skin between her eyebrows seemed a little pinched, her lips slightly pursed.
She couldn't let it go, the bird thing. She raised the topic constantly, anywhere, in the middle of any activity, with no context whatsoever. She didn't want to discuss it for long, just shot off a question or two. Nothing James could say seemed to satisfy her. When he spoke she just looked away with that new, pinched look.
James was used to her drama. It was one of the things that drew him to her in the first place - she was seven years younger and looked at things from the perspective of her late adolescence: wide-eyed, mystified, passionate, hopeful. He liked to show her his world and watch her react. He taught her to sit motionlessly in the woods, listen to the insects shift sticks, watch the squirrels change direction on one foot. He loved the way she absorbed the roar of a waterfall through her entire body and played it back to him later in bed, naked and flowing over his tanned skin.
She made the smallest things seem huge and James found himself noticing things through her eyes as well as his own. When he rode his motorcycle home from work he imagined her thighs squeezing his hips from behind, her fists digging into his belly, urging him to go faster, turn sharper, wanting him to scare her. Calm down, he told her imaginary form. I've been in too many accidents, healed too many broken bones. I'm erring on the side of caution now. Most of all, he loved showing her how far they could go without hurting themselves. It was wisdom he didn't realize he had until she came along.
"It's just so out of character," she told him abruptly, standing in line at the grocery store. "I didn't know you knew how to shoot a gun. I didn't even know there was a gun in your dad's house."
"Is this about me or the gun?" James asked, trying to be funny.
"It's about the bird," she said. "The one you shot."
James began to anticipate when she would bring it up next. In the car, on the way to her mother's house for dinner, she turned down his Bob Dylan tape, which he knew she hated, and stared up at the rear view mirror as though something on the road behind them held an answer.
"Wasn't there some other way to do it? You couldn't have just moved the nest out of there?"
James had already explained this to her before but he did it again. "No," he said. "Trust me, I've been through this before. You move the nest, she moves it back. You try and keep her out, she finds a way back in. She'll memorize the schedule of the garage door opening and closing and there'd she'll be, flying in when you leave for work, flying out when you come home. She'll find cracks in the foundation you didn't even know were there."
His girlfriend turned the look right on him, her back pressed against the passenger side door. "You know this for a fact," she said. "Why would she go to so much trouble, just to shit on your dad's car?"
"Because once a bird decides to build a nest somewhere, nowhere else will do. That's where she wanted to have her babies. Next week, we'd have had six screeching, worm-hungry little birds, gearing up to shit on the car. Then we'd have to leave the garage door open all the time, because who can kill a nest full of little babies? And at that point, why not invite all the animals in the forest in? Why not open up the car doors too? That would make a great home for a raccoon, or a squirrel. And then why not open the house..."
"Okay, enough," she said. "I get the point."
"Good," James said.
"So you shot a pregnant bird," she said and turned her pinched look back toward the window.
James saw it coming when they were leaving the movies the next night. They went to see Fargo, which she seemed to find hysterical in the theater, but now walking to the car she was irritable, flapping his hand off her elbow.
"After all," she said. "You're the person who taught me to slow down when we pass a horseback rider on the road because horses get freaked out by cars. I didn't know that. You told me about fox hunts and said you felt sorry for the fox. I've watched you sit on your dad's deck and watch a spider weave a web across the slats."
"So?" James said. He was growing irritable too. She was taking this too far. He wanted to discuss the movie with her, not the bird.
"Exactly," she said.
The next night in bed, he noticed the far away look in her eyes, the pinch in her forehead and he spoke before she did.
"What now?" he asked.
"Did she splatter?" she asked. "Did you put her in the same bag with the nest? Did you put her in the trash?"
"God," James said. "It was the humane way to do it. It was fast, no suffering. She didn't see it coming, didn't know what hit her. I promise."
She rolled away from him, her legs still entangled in his. He stared at her bare shoulder, rolled forward as though to protect her chest.
"Did you hit her in the head or in the belly?" she asked, but her tone was flat, empty of question. James knew better than to answer.
The last time she mentioned it, she was leaning against his bureau, getting ready for work. The skeptical look emerged from behind a sheath of wet hair blasting around her face from the dryer. She had a funny habit of air drying naked after a shower, blow drying her hair while her skin was still glistening, wet.
"Were you scared?" she asked. She shut off the hairdryer with her thumb but kept holding it to her head as though threatening to blast out his answer with noise at any moment.
"Look," he said. "It was a favor to my dad. That's all. You don't have to make a capital case out of it. What are you trying to make me into here?"
"Nothing," she said. "It's just not something I can see you doing. Maybe you never really know what a person can do."
Something about her tone alarmed James and he moved toward her, took the blow dryer from her hand, set it down on the bureau.
"Sure you do, honey," he said. "Just try and see where my priorities were. Understand how you can't let things get out of hand, know where to draw the line."
She leaned into him when he pulled her close, her damp hair engulfing his nose. He worried about the way she held back a little, not sure if it was a desire not to get him wet or something else.
Still, weeks later, when he realized he was no longer finding her clothes in his laundry pile, discovered that her shampoo bottle in his shower had been empty for weeks, and listened to yet another message about a crisis at work, he was really surprised. He had never imagined the relationship ending with her disappearing out of his life in slow increments. In fact, when he had allowed himself to imagine the end at all, it was more of a bang. A straight shot, right to the head.
About the author:
Juliet Latham lives in West Chester, Pa where she battles nightly with a wily rabbit who likes to devour her laptop cord. She teaches writing at Temple University, Ursinus College, and is currently leading a poetry and fiction workshop at The Attic, a community center for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from Temple University.