On our first date, he bought me a taco, talked at length about the ancients’ theories of light, how it streams at angles to align events in space and time, that it is the source of all information, determines every outcome, how we can reflect it to summon aliens using mirrored bowls of water. I asked what the point of it all was, but he didn’t seem to hear me. Lying on the grass outside a tennis arena, he held my face toward the sun, stared sideways at my eyeballs, and began to cry. He told me I was the sign he’d been waiting for and, like looking into a crystal ball, he’d just read a private message from God in the silvery vortex of my left pupil. I disregarded this and was impressed instead by the ease with which he rolled on top of me and slid his hands down the back of my jeans, gripping my buttocks in both palms and squeezing, all in front of a Mexican family picnicking on the lawn.
He was the manager of an apartment complex in a part of town where the palm trees were sick. They were infested by a parasite that made them soft like bendy straws, and so they arched over the roads, buckling under the weight of their own heads, fronds skimming the concrete surfaces of buildings, poking in through open windows. And when the wind blew, they clattered and sagged and you could hear them creaking. “Someone needs to cut these trees down,” my boyfriend said one morning. He said it like he was really sad about it, like it really pained him, like someone, I don’t know who, had really let him down. “It’s just not right.”
I watched him make the bed. His sheets were a poly-cotton blend, stained, faded, and pilly pastel landscapes. What was supposed to keep us warm at night was a spruce-green sleeping bag. He had an afghan he said his grandmother had knit—a matted brown-and-yellow mess of yarn that he laid asymmetrically over the corner of the bed as a decorative accent. I tried to overlook it.
I hated my boyfriend but I liked the neighborhood. It was a shadowy, crumbling collection of bungalows and auto-body shops. The apartment complex rose a few stories above it all, and from our bedroom window I could look out and down into the valley, which was always covered in orange haze. I liked how ugly it all was, how trashy. Everyone in the neighborhood walked around with their heads down on account of all the birds. Something in the trees attracted a strange breed of pigeon—black ones, with bright red legs and sharp, gold-tipped talons. My boyfriend said they were Egyptian crows. He felt they’d been sent to watch him, and so he behaved even more carefully than ever. When he passed a homeless person on the street, he shook his head and muttered a word I don’t think he could have spelled: ingrate. If I turned my back during breakfast he’d say, “I noticed you spilled some of your coffee, so I wiped it up for you.” If I didn’t thank him profusely, he’d put down his fork, ask, “Was that okay?” He was a child, really. He had childish ideas. He told me he “walked like a cop,” which scared off criminals on the street at night. “Why do you think I’ve never been mugged?” He made me laugh.
And he explained something he thought most people didn’t understand about intelligence. “It comes from the heart,” he said, beating his chest with his fist. “It has a lot to do with your blood type. And magnets.” That one gave me pause. I took a better look at him. The texture of his face was thick, like oiled leather. The only smile he ever gave was one where he lowered his head, stuck his chin out, and pulled the corners of his mouth from ear to ear, eyes twinkling up idiotically through batting eyelashes. He was, after all, a professional actor. “I’ve been laying low,” he explained, “waiting for the perfect time to break out. People who get famous quick are doomed.” And he was superstitious. He carved a scarab beetle out of Ivory soap and mounted it with putty over the door of our apartment, said it would protect us from home invasions and let the aliens know that we were special, that we were on their side. Every morning he went out front and blasted the bird droppings, which were green and fluorescent, off the front stoop with a high-pressure hose. He hated those birds. They circled overhead, hid in the palm fronds when a cop car passed, screeched and cawed when a child dropped a lollipop, stood in thick lines on the electric wires, stared into our souls, according to my boyfriend.
“And also,” he went on, putting his hands in his pockets, a gesture meant to let me know that he was defenseless, that he was a good boy, “I have to pick up a package at the post office.” He made it sound like he was going on a secret mission, like what he had to do was so difficult, so perilous, required so much strength of character, he needed my support. He slid the pick-up slip from the postman across the counter as proof. “You’ll do great,” is what I said, trying to belittle him.
“Thanks, babe,” he said and kissed my forehead. He looked down at the kitchen tile, shrugged his shoulders, then lifted his chin to show me a brave grin. I left him alone to clean the floor, which he did by picking up each little crumb with his fingers, then dotting out stuck-on dirt with squares of paper towel he wet in the sink. He had a theory about how to stay in shape. It was to tense your body vigorously during everyday activities. He walked around with buttocks clenched, arms rigid, neck and face turning red. When I first moved in, he ran up the stairs with my suitcase, then stared down at me as though I would applaud. And once, when he saw me glance at his arm, he said, “I’m basically an Olympic athlete. I just don’t like to compete.” He had a crudely drawn tattoo of a salivating dog on his shoulder. Underneath it was written, COMIN’ TO GETCHA!
And he was short. I had never dated a short man before. The thought crossed my mind: Perhaps I am learning humility. Perhaps this man is the answer to my prayers. Perhaps he’s saving my soul. I should be kind. I should be grateful. But I was not kind and I was not grateful. I watched with disgust as he unpacked a box of books he’d found in the trash, squatting down rhythmically to place each one on the shelf. These were his constant calisthenics. His legs were iron, by the way. His hamstrings were so tight he could barely bend at the waist. When he tried, he made a face like someone being penetrated from behind.
“When I get paid,” he said, dusting the mantle, “I’m going to wear my yellow sports jacket and take you out on the town. Did I show you my yellow sports jacket? I bought it at a vintage boutique,” he said. “It was really expensive. It’s awesome.”
I’d seen it in the closet. It was a contemporary, size 8 woman’s blazer, according to the label.
“Show me,” I said.
He ran, tucking his shirt in, licking his palms to slick his hair back, and came back with it on. His fingers barely poked out from the cuffs. The shoulder pads nearly hit his ears, as he had basically no neck. “What do you think?” he asked.
“You look very nice,” I said, masking my lie with a yawn.
He grabbed me, picked me up, pinning my elbows, twirled me around, making pained faces from the effort, despite his Olympic strength. “Soon, babe, I’m gonna take you to Vegas and marry you.”
“Okay,” I said. “When?”
“Babe, you know I can’t really do that,” he said, putting me down, suddenly grave and uncomfortable, as though the idea had been mine.
“Why not?” I asked. “You don’t like me?”
“I need my mother’s blessing,” he said shrugging, frowning. “But I love you so much,” he confirmed, stretching his arms demonstratively above his head. I watched the plastic yellow button on the blazer strain and pop. He gasped, went on a mad search for the button on his knees, smushing his face against the base of the couch while he grasped blindly with his short arms under it. When he stood up, his face was bright red, his jaw was clenched. The look of sincere frustration was refreshing. I watched as he sewed the button back on with blue thread, grinding his teeth, breathing hard. Then I heard him in the bathroom screaming into a towel. I wondered who had taught him how to do that. I was slightly impressed.
He came back from the post office two hours later with a large, oblong cardboard box.
“I got hit by one of those birds,” he said, turning his head to the side to reveal a bright green smear of bird shit along his face. “It’s a sign,” he said. “For sure.”
“You better get cleaned up,” I said. “Your agent called.”
“Did I get an audition?” he asked. He came toward me with open arms. “Did she say what it was for?”
“A beer commercial,” I said, backing away. “Your face,” I pointed.
“I’ll fix it,” he said. “Babe, we’re gonna be rich.” I watched him peel off his clothes and get into the shower. I sat on the toilet and clipped my toenails.
“The trick to acting,” he said from the shower, “is you really need to give it one hundred fifty percent. Your average actor gives maybe eighty, at most ninety percent. But I go all the way and then some. That’s the secret.”
“Uh-huh,” I said, flushing my toenails down the toilet. “Is that the secret to success?”
“Yeah, babe,” he assured me, whipping open the shower curtain. His body was a freckled mess of jerking muscles and stubble. He shaved his chest almost daily. He had a scar on his rib cage from where he told me he’d been stabbed in a bar fight. He had all kinds of stories. He said back home in Cleveland he used to hang around with gangsters. He spent a night in jail once after beating up a pimp who he’d seen kick a German shepherd—a sacred animal, he explained. Only his story of burning down an abandoned house when he was sixteen had a ring of truth.
“And you know what else?” he said, squatting in the bathtub and slathering the towel between his legs. His towels were all stenched with mildew and streaked with rust stains, by the way. “I’m handsome.”
“You are?” I asked innocently.
“I’m a total stud,” he said. “But it creeps up on you. That’s why I’m good on TV. Nonthreatening.”
“I see.” I stood and leaned against the vanity, watched him wrap the towel around his waist, pull out his bag of makeup.
“I’m a face-changer, too,” he went on. “One day I can look like the boy next door. The next day, a stone-faced killer. It just happens. My face changes overnight on its own. Natural-born actor.”
“True enough,” I agreed, and watched him dab concealer all over his nose.
While he was at his audition, I walked around the apartment complex, kicking trash into corners. I sat in the concrete courtyard. There were birds everywhere, pecking at trash, lining the balconies, purring like cats between the succulents. I watched one walk toward me with a candy-bar wrapper in his beak. He dropped it at my feet and seemed to bow forward, then extended his wings wide, showing me the beautiful rainbow sheen of his jet-black chest. He flapped his wings gently, with subtlety, and rose from the ground. I thought maybe he was trying to seduce me. I got up and walked away, and he continued to hover there, suspended like a puppet. Nothing made me happy. I went out to the pool, skimmed the surface of the blue water with my hand, praying for one of us, my boyfriend or me, to die.
“I nailed it,” he said when he came home from the audition. He shrugged the yellow blazer down his stiff arms, laid it on the back of the bar stool at the kitchen counter. “If they don’t hire me, they don’t know what’s good for them. I really hit a home run.” I kept stirring the spaghetti. I nodded and tried to smile a little. “And I saw the other guys that were auditioning, and man,” he said, “they were all the worst. I’m a shoo-in. My agent call yet?”
“No,” I said. “Not yet.”
“I should go rub my crystal skull,” he said. “Be right back.”
I had a bad feeling about what my boyfriend had brought back from the post office. The box sat on the couch, unopened. He stood at the sink, vigorously scrubbing the plates from dinner, buttocks clenched and vibrating. “What’s inside?” I asked.
“Open it up, babe,” he said, turning slightly to make sure I caught sight of his devilish grin. It was the same grin he gave in his headshots. “Check it out,” he said.
I licked my knife clean and cut through the packing tape. The box was full of Styrofoam peanuts. I fished around inside and found a long shotgun padded in bubble wrap.
“What’s it for?”
“To shoot the crows,” my boyfriend said. He held a plate up to the light and polished it frenetically with a paper towel. I thought for a moment.
“Let me take care of it,” I said. “You need to focus on your career.”
He seemed stunned, put down the plate.
“You do enough around here,” I said. “Unless you would actually enjoy shooting those birds?”
He picked up the plate and turned his back to me.
“Of course not,” he said. “Thanks, babe. Thanks for your support.”
He slept that night with his phone next to his ear on the pillow and didn’t touch me or say anything at all except “Good night, skully,” to his crystal skull on the bedside table. I put my head on his shoulder, but he just rolled onto his side. When I woke up in the morning he was staring at the sun through the smog from the balcony, holding his eyes open with his fingers, crying, it seemed, though I wasn’t sure.
I still hadn’t cleaned the vacant apartment by the time the couple showed up to see it in the afternoon. I found them wandering around in back by the pool, sharing a huge bag of Utz potato chips. The man was younger, maybe midthirties, and wore a button-down shirt much too big for his wirey frame. The shirt had rectangular wrinkles in it as though it had just been taken out of its packaging. He wore jean shorts and sneakers, a red Cardinals hat. The woman was older, very tanned and fat, and had long salt-and-pepper hair parted in the middle. She wore a lot of turquoise jewelry, had something tattooed on her forehead between her eyes.
“Are you here to see the apartment?” I asked. I had my clipboard with the requisite forms, the keys.
“We love it here,” said the woman frankly. She wiped her hands off on her skirt. “We’d like to move in right away.”
I walked toward them. That tattoo on her forehead was like a third eye. It looked like a diamond on its side with a star inside of it. I stared at it for a second too long. Then her boyfriend chimed in.
“Are you the manager?” he asked, thumbing his nose nervously.
“I’m the manager’s girlfriend. But don’t you want to see the place first?” I jangled the keys for them.
“We already know,” the woman said, shaking her head. She moved gently, like dancing to soft music. She seemed sweet, but she talked mechanically, as though reading off of cue cards. She stared resolutely at the stucco wall above my head. “We don’t need to see it. We’ll take it. Just show us where to sign.” She smiled broadly, revealing the worst set of teeth I’d ever seen. They were sparse and yellow and black and jagged.
“These are the forms to fill out,” I said, extending the clipboard toward her. The man continued to eat the chips and walked to the edge of the pool, stared up at the sky.
“What’s with the birds?” he asked.
“They’re Egyptian crows,” I told him. “But I’m going to shoot them all.”
I figured they were weirdos and nothing I said to them mattered. From the way the man nodded and dove his squirrel-like hand back into the bag of potato chips, it seemed I was right.
“Now listen,” said the woman, squatting down with the clipboard on her knees, breathing heavily. “We’re selling our estate up north and we want to pay for a year’s rent in advance. That’s how serious we are about renting this apartment.”
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll tell the owners.” She stood and showed me the form. Her name was Moon Kowalski. “I’ll let you know,” I said.
The man wiped his palms off on his shorts. “Hey, thanks a lot,” he said earnestly. He shook my hand. The woman swayed from side to side and rubbed her third eye. When I got back to the apartment there was a message from my boyfriend’s agent saying he got a callback. I went back to bed.
“I got you some ammo,” said my boyfriend. He put the box right in front of my face on the pillow. “So you can shoot the birds.” He seemed to have turned a corner. He seemed in high spirits.
“Call your agent,” I told him. Then I turned my head. I could not stand to see him roar and pump his fist and dance excitedly, thrusting his crotch in celebration.
“I knew it, babe!” he cried. He pounced on me in the bed, flipped me faceup and kissed me. His mouth had a strange taste, like bitter chemicals. I let him peel my shirt up to my throat, twist the fabric until he could use it like a rope to pull me up toward him. He unzipped his shorts. I looked up at his face just to see how ugly it was and opened my mouth. It’s true I relished him in certain ways. When he was done, he kissed my forehead and knelt by the bedside table, index finger on his crystal skull, and prayed.
I picked up the box of slugs. I’d never fired a gun before. There were instructions on how to load and fire the shotgun in the box it came in, with diagrams of how to hold the butt against your shoulder, little birds floating in the air. I listened to my boyfriend on the phone with his agent.
“Yes, ma’am. Yes, ma’am. Thank you very much,” he was saying. “Uh-huh, uh-huh.”
I really hated him. A crow came and sat on the sill of the window. It seemed to roll its eyes.
There were people I could have called, of course. It wasn’t like I was in prison. I could have walked to the park or the coffee shop or gone to the movies or church. I could have gone to get a cheap massage or my fortune told. But I didn’t feel like calling anyone or leaving the apartment complex. So I sat and watched my boyfriend clip his toenails. He had small, nubby feet. He collected the clippings in a pile by dragging his pinky finger neurotically across the floor. It pained me to see him so pleased with himself. “Hey, babe,” he said. “What do you say we go up on the roof, try the gun out?” I didn’t want to go up there. I knew it would make him happy.
“I’m not feeling well,” I said. “I think I have a fever.”
“Oh man,” he said. “You sick?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I think I’m sick. I feel terrible.”
He got up and ran to the kitchen, came back chugging from a carton of orange juice. “I can’t get sick now,” he said. “You know this commercial is gonna be huge. After this, I’ll be famous. You want to hear my lines?”
“My head hurts too much,” I said. “Is that your new hairstyle?” He was always putting gel in his hair and he was always squinting, pursing his lips. “Is that gel?”
“No,” he said, lying. “My hair’s just like this.” He went to the mirror, sucked in his cheeks, pushed his hair around, flexed his pectorals. “This time when I go in,” he said, “I’m gonna be sort of James Dean, like I just don’t give a shit, but sad, you know?” I couldn’t stand it. I turned and faced the wall. Out the window the palms hovered and shimmied and cowered in the breeze. I didn’t want him to be happy. I closed my eyes and prayed for a disaster, a huge earthquake or a drive-by shooting or a heart attack. I picked up the crystal skull. It was greasy and light, so light I thought it might be made of plastic.
“Don’t touch that!” my boyfriend cried breathlessly, leaping over the bed and grabbing the skull out of my hands. “Great. Now I need to find a body of water to wash it in. I told you, don’t touch my stuff.”
“You never said I couldn’t touch it,” I said. “The pool’s right outside.”
He put the skull in a pocket of his cargo shorts and left.
The buzzer rang the next evening. I got on the intercom.
“Who is it?” I asked.
“It’s the Kowalskis,” the voice said. It was Moon’s voice. “We couldn’t wait. We’re here with cash and a moving truck. Buzz us in?”
My boyfriend hadn’t come home yet from his callback. He’d called to say that he was staying out late to watch the lunar eclipse and not to wait for him, and that he forgave me for touching his crystal skull and that he loved me so much and knew that when we were both dead we’d meet on a long river of light and there’d be slaves there to row us in a golden boat to outer space and feed us grapes and rub our feet. “Did my agent call yet?” he had asked.
“Not yet,” I’d told him.
I put on my robe and went downstairs, propped open the gate with a brick. Moon stood there with a manila envelope full of money. I took it and handed her the keys.
“Like I said, we couldn’t wait,” said Moon. Her husband was unloading their moving truck, lugging black garbage bags off the back and placing them in rows on the sidewalk. Those damned crows flew across the violet sky, perched on top of the truck, cawed quietly to one another.
“It’s late,” I said to Moon.
“This is the perfect time to move,” she said. “It’s the equinox. Perfect timing.” Her husband set down a moose head mounted on a shield-shaped piece of plywood. “He loves that moose,” said Moon. “You love that moose, huh?” she said to her husband. He nodded, wiped his forehead, and ducked back into the truck.
I went back upstairs and started packing, stuffed the money Moon had given me at the bottom of my suitcase, cleared out my drawer, my boyfriend’s makeup case, wrapped the shotgun in that terrible afghan, zipped it all up. Watching from the mezzanine as Moon carried in a large potted tree, her husband slumped behind her under a bag of golf clubs, I felt hopeful, as though it were me moving in, starting a new life. I felt energized. When I offered to help, Moon seemed to soften, flung her hair back and smiled, pointed to a woven basket full of silverware. I helped Moon’s husband carry the old mattress out to the curb. We set it up against a tree and watched it veer back precariously toward the apartment complex. A cluster of crows sprang out from its leaves. “Gentle souls,” the man said, and lit a cigarette.
When the truck was empty, Moon told me to sit down in the kitchen, rubbed the seat of a chair with a rag. I sat down.
“You must be tired,” she said. “Let me find my coffee pot.”
“I should get going,” I said.
“No, you shouldn’t,” said Moon. Her voice was strange, pushy. When she spoke it was like a drum beating. “Be our guest,” she said. “Want saltines?” That third eye seemed to wink at me when she smiled. She found a plate and laid out the crackers. “Thank you for your help,” she said.
I looked around at the walls, which were mottled and scratched and dirty.
“You can paint the place, you know,” I told Moon. “My boyfriend was supposed to have painted already. Of course he didn’t.”
“The manager guy?” the husband called out from the brown velour sofa they’d set in the middle of the living room.
“How long have you two been a couple?” Moon asked. She laid her hands down flat on the kitchen table. They were like two brown lizards blinking in the sun.
“Not long,” I said. “I’m leaving him,” I added. “Tonight.”
“Let me ask you one thing,” Moon said. “Is he good to you?”
“He beats me,” I lied. “And he’s really dumb. I should have left him a long time ago.”
Moon got up, looked over at her husband.
“I’ve got something for you,” she said. She disappeared into the bed- room, where we’d piled all the garbage bags full of stuff. She came out with a black feather.
“Is that from the crows?” I asked.
“Sleep with this under your pillow,” she said, rubbing her third eye. “And as you drift off think of everyone you know. Start off easy, like with your parents, your brothers and sisters, your best friends, and picture each person in your mind. Really try to picture them. Try to think of all your classmates, your neighbors, people you met on the street, on the bus, the girl from the coffee shop, your dentist, everybody from over the years. And then I want you to imagine your boyfriend. When you imagine him, imagine he’s on one side and everybody else is on the other side.”
“Then what?” I asked her.
“Then see which side you like better.”
“You need anything,” said her husband, “you know where to find us.”
I went home and put on the yellow sports jacket. It didn’t fit me any better than it fit my boyfriend. I put the feather under the pillow.
That night I had a dream there was a monkey in the tree outside my window. The monkey was so sad, all he could do was cover his face and weep. I tried handing him a banana but he just shook his head. I tried singing him a song. Nothing cheered him. “Hey,” I said softly, “come here, let me hold you.” But he turned his back to me. It broke my heart to see him crying. I would have done anything for him. Just to give that little monkey one happy moment, I would have died.
My boyfriend came home the next morning with a black eye.
“I can’t talk to you,” he said to me, rubbing the skull in his small, rough hands. I sat on the bed and watched him. His brow was furrowed like an old man’s. “I can’t even look at you,” he said. “They’re saying you’re a scourge. A bad scourge.”
“They?” I asked. “Do you know what a scourge is?”
He cocked his head. I watched his wheels grind. “Um,” he said.
“You love me, remember?” I said.
“Scourge means you’re going to ruin everything,” he answered after a long pause.
“What happened to your eye?” I asked him, reaching a hand out. He blocked my arm with a swift karate chop. It didn’t hurt. But I could see his heart beating through his shirt, sweat leaking down his arm.
“It’s not good for me to talk to you,” he said. He went into the bathroom. I heard the door slam, the shower run, and, after a moment, the nervous tapping of the razor against the tile. I sat on the bed for a while. The sun flickered harmlessly through the swaying palms.
I got my suitcase and lugged it up the two flights to the roof. I’d been there only once before, one night soon after I’d moved in, when I couldn’t sleep. My boyfriend had come up and found me sitting on the ledge. We had talked for a while and kissed. “If you get torches and wave them up to the sky, it’s like a signal to the aliens,” he had said. He got up and twirled his arms around like propellers. “It’s the light that calls them.” He looked deep into my eyes. “I love you,” he’d said. “More than anyone else on earth. More than my own mother. More than God.”
“Okay,” I’d told him. “Thanks.”
Up on the roof I unzipped my suitcase, pulled out the shotgun. It was easy enough to slide the round into the magazine tube, as they called it, pull the action back. That’s what the instructions said to do. But there were no birds around. I tried firing off a round, hoping it would startle the Egyptian crows, hoping something, anything would leap up in front of me, but my hand shook. I got scared. I couldn’t do it. So I sat for a while and stared down at all the concrete, the palms flapping to and fro between the electric wires, then lugged the suitcase back down to our apartment.
After that he’d disappear a lot, call me from some window alleyway, talk fast, explaining his regret, ask me to marry him, then call back to tell me to go to hell, that I was trash, that I wasn’t worth his time on earth. Eventually he’d knock on the door with huge scabs all over his arms and face, body thrumming with methamphetamine, head bent like a naughty child’s, asking to be forgiven. He always hid his shame and self-loathing under an expression of shame and self-loathing, swinging his fist back and forth, “shucks,” always acting, even then. I don’t think he ever experienced any real joy or humor. Deep down he probably thought I was crazy not to love him. And maybe I was. Maybe he was the man of my dreams.
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