Sunday, March 11, 2012

Flights of Fancy


Well, he’s done it again. Chris has put on some song late in the evening, waiting for me to be ready to go to bed, and the song turns out to be one I’ve known forever, and here it comes flying into my consciousness carrying so much emotional baggage that it ought to have a surcharge added to its ticket to cover the extra weight. No, not Jimmy Buffet this time; Peter, Paul, & Mary.

They look so young! It’s a concert I’ve seen before, filmed, I think, in the mid-eighties. That they look young to me is odd, for I don’t think I’ve seen many pictures of them since. I haven’t gotten used to them looking older. But I have gotten used to everyone else looking older, and while once they looked older than my parents, now they don’t look all that much older than me. And of course, Mary is now ageless, being dead. Her onscreen vibrancy is sadly poignant, almost creepy. The music, too, strikes my ears as history. “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” I don’t even know if I’d like that song, if I heard it for the first time now—even under the film of nostalgia, the lyrics strike me as somewhat maudlin and vague. But I can’t hear it now for the first time, and I can’t hear it at all without also hearing the sounds, even smelling the scents, of the school where I learned it first as a small child. I was not exactly a happy child—I failed too often and at too much for that—but what I loved then I loved now, both because my taste hasn’t really changed and because it is usually the happy parts I remember.

But this song has a new association, now, too. When I was little and learning this song, I had never left anyone on a jet plane, and I’d rarely left anyone by any means, not in a serious way. I mean, I’d gone on trips away from one or both parents, and missed them, but there is a security in missing one’s parents. They will so obviously reclaim you again. Missing one’s mate, the kind of leaving described in the song, is entirely different. Now, I’ve done exactly the thing the song is about, that except I’ve generally left by Greyhound Bus, not by jet plane. I returned by jet plane once, though, and like they say in the song, I returned with plans to wear a wedding ring.

And oddly, your story intersects mine at this point, though at the time neither of us knew the intersection might prove important. The intersection is only that--two otherwise unrelated sequences happen to cross in time and place. But time and place are important, and through a trick of sensory memory, the two stories have become inextricably linked in my mind, like how certain books will forever recall the taste of whatever it was I happened to be eating when I read them.

So, in brief, I’d gotten an internship searching for and monitoring birds’ nests in the desert near Lake Havasu. I had no particular bird-related ambition, but I was kind of directionless at the time, and it seemed a better way of keeping body and soul together than bagging groceries (not that I’m very good at bagging groceries, anyway). I had no idea what I was doing, and for some reason I still don’t understand, my coworkers mostly disliked me. At least I got to wander around the desert and learn stuff, so I had a good time doing that.

As you said, I like birds, and I liked being more or less forced to learn enough about them as species so I could learn a little about them as individuals. The house finch female who wasn’t quite brave enough to tweet at me by herself, so she flew off to fetch her mate so they could tweet at me together. The phainopepla chick who was so good at holding still that I finally touched the end of its beak, just to see if it would blink (it didn’t). The gnatcatcher male who lost his mate and abandoned his eggs but not his territory, and spent days singing its boundaries, over and over--had he fallen into a simple do-loop of instinct, a default behavior revealed by the loss of his family? Or was he calling for a new mate, or even grieving? So many tiny bird childhoods, so many small family stories. Do they get nostalgic about the fleeting weeks when they were chicks? Do the songs they learned then years later strike home?

But when I was not in the field I was generally at a rental house in Lake Havasu City, pacing up and down in the backyard, talking on the phone. Most of those conversations were with Chris, then only my boyfriend, a man I missed severely both for his own sake and because living for months in a city where the only people who know you don’t like you can be a very lonely thing. One of those conversations with Chris stands out in my memory, along with two conversations I had with other people. All of my conversations that spring are laced in my memory with the backyard I was pacing around in—the volcanic pea gravel sprouting occasional weeds, the ridiculously out of place swimming pool where grackles would perch on the float full of chemicals to drink (ew!), the dead pigeons in the corner by the fence…seriously, dead pigeons. We had a neighbor who liked to feed the birds, but there was a city ordinance against feeding pigeons, so when pigeons came to his feeder he would shoot them, firing into our yard in the process. My boss had a fight with him over that one.

Anyway, one of those conversations was a job interview (I got the job). Another was the first time I spoke to you—you were speaking in a professional, not a personal capacity, of course, and it was to the professional I spoke. I forgot your name no more than halfway through the conversation, and it took some time after meeting you later, in person, for me to work out that you had been the person on the phone. The main reason I remembered the conversation was that I was asking for, and received, some useful information. Nevertheless, I can throw my mind back into that memory, and it is definitely your voice on the phone. If I’d known, I would have told you about the kestrel who came to eat the shot pigeons. I’d have made you a present of the mourning doves balancing on the power cable overhead, their tails as sharp as ink-pens, their bodies rocking back and forth as their small weight made the power cable roll. It is an odd thing to speak to a friend and not know it, to be so thoroughly a stranger in memory. I know you do not remember that conversation at all.

The third stand-out conversation my mind links with that pea-graveled yard, the brave little weeds and the dead pigeons, was with Chris, when he asked me to marry him. I told him to ask me again but not on the phone…I meant yes, of course, and I should have said it then, it would have made just as good a story as his actual proposal months later. I’ve been an idiot at love as often as I’ve been anything else, but at least it seems to have worked out, anyway.

That was the spring I was accepted to graduate school. I deferred for a year, so I could be with Chris, before beginning another two years of being apart so I could go to school and he could work. As you know, we got married over spring break and then I returned to campus. There is something wrong, it seems like, in being apart from one’s mate, something beyond simple missing. When I returned (on a jet plane) to Chris after my brief and largely accidental sojourn with ornithology, it was like the desert’s reunion with rain. When I returned after finishing my coursework at school….

I could have to leave again, or he could, for whatever reason. Things happen. But for now, there is no reason, no date to look towards in the future when we will not be together. When he put on this song—found it, actually, by channel-surfing and landing on PBS—I got up and ran over to his chair and hugged him.

-best, C.

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