Bird Watching

John J. Audubon, Song Sparrows. Image Public Domain.

John J. Audubon, Song Sparrows. Image Public Domain.

You could blow him over with a whisper or a shrug. That's right. He walked on his toes as if they were unstable springs planning to catapult him to a fall in an instant.
     A 10 year-old scrawny little thing, freckled and pale. He was nasty though, that Dennis. He called us homos when he was mad. All squeaky voiced and shrill. We knew it was a bad word though we didn't know what it meant. I don't think he did either.
     “He must have heard it somewhere," my mother said.
     Dennis was the last one standing when we picked teams for kickball. His team didn't try to hide their collective groan. I get it. He couldn't throw, he couldn't kick, he couldn't catch and he ran all funny like his feet didn't know which way they were going. Sometimes we threw the ball to him, but off to the side a bit. He’d shimmy and falter and we would giggle like we couldn't control it.
     "Homos!," he said.
     We woke up one day and Dennis was in a wheelchair. Just like that. He looked like a mini Dennis in that wheelchair. Like he lost some of himself when he sat down.
     My mother said it was M.S.
     We agreed, "it is a mess."
     We never saw Dennis walk on his toes or run all crooked-like again. He became one with his chair. We didn't play with him. We didn't know how. We couldn't make fun of him anymore and he didn't get mad.
     My little brother though. My 7 year-old littlest brother. I think he was kinder than the rest of us. He pushed Dennis in his wheelchair even though he was barely tall enough to see over the back of the chair. He pushed Dennis down sidewalks, on paths in the woods. They went bird watching. They had guidebooks and binoculars and peanut butter sandwiches and they went to look for birds. The wheels on the chair acted as legs and my brother was the wind spinning them like pinwheels, fast and faster as they zoomed down the sidewalk; my little brother and Dennis going bird watching.

Chateau Neuf du Pape!

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Robert swore in fine wine tones. 
Chateau Neuf du Pape!” he'd proclaim with the hint of a flare. 
Robert had an extensive vocabulary and liked to rub it in. He was superior. Excuse me.
I lived with Robert briefly in 1985. Me and my boyfriend Billy. It was a tiny apartment in the back of an abandoned storefront. Billy and I slept on a futon stuffed in an alcove carved into one side of the hallway. We had to bend our knees to lie down even though we were short.  
Robert was impatient with us. He said we didn't do our "fair share." We knew when he was mad: He ignored us loudly - usually within banging distance. 
Robert's bed was over the kitchen. He had to climb a ladder to get to it. The bathroom was down some steps. It had a claw-footed bathtub that lured me with warm bubbles. Scented candles crowded a shelf attached to the wall. Scattered on the floor lay a collection of gay porn magazines.
Hard to look at. Hard not to. 
Robert was tall and slight and looked older than he should have for his twenty-three years. He called himself an artist and wore a black beret and round wire-rimmed glasses under a shock of unnaturally white/blonde hair. His skin was pale as if it had never seen the sun. He was easy to pick out in a crowd. 
At night, sometimes even on cold evenings, Robert put on his long wool coat, donned his beret just so, and went out. Billy said he went to the Wall. The one near the train station. Billy told him it was dangerous and not to go but he went anyway and did things gay men do, but with men he didn’t know.
Robert hung out at a nightclub on the edge of town. Billy and I strung along at times. Jubilant gay men packed the place. Wild-eyed and dancing to Donna Summer like there was no tomorrow. It was a giddy time. These men were "out" of the closet and out on the town. 
The last time I saw Robert he still wore a beret but his sunlit mane was gone. His cheekbones were too sharp. It had been two years. He sat on a bench in front of a church, one leg crossed over the other. Beyond the black rod iron fence behind him was a small graveyard. The kind with gravestones older than your ancestors, half tipped over and leaning askew, their once deep etchings all but erased. No matter. Those people stopped being missed a long time ago. 
Robert was happy to see me, I think. I asked him how he was.  
"Just dandy," he said with a sideways smirk. 
He seized a drag from his cigarette like he had just came up for air. I had my camera and snapped a picture. In the darkroom, the photo revealed itself in the tray of developer. The rod iron bars behind Robert looked like a prison. He was the last thing to come into focus.
Robert died of AIDS soon after. So did so many young men like him.


Dancing with Flies

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I count in German. "Eins, zwei, drei, vier, funf, sechs, sieben, act, neun, zehn . . " 
I’m naked with a fly swatter. Pauli is on the bed laughing. I flit around his tiny room, chasing flies, slashing air, squashing them, one by one. Swing, eins, swing, swei, swing, drei . . . .
I am dancing with flies. 
"You are beauty," Pauli says in broken English. 
Pauli lives on a farm in Austria. I'm an American backpacking in Europe. I don't remember how we met. Must have been Vienna? Pauli is tall, thin and bearded. His eyes are kind. I go home with him. He is twenty. I'm nineteen. We make love. He falls in love with me. I revel in it and can't wait to leave. The next adventure beckons. 
It is my nature after all. 
We take walks. One day we see the farmer yelling hard consonants and poking the tines of a pitchfork into a male pig, prodding him to mount a sow. The sow is so little to the male's huge and squeals over and over, trapped in it’s nightmare. We watch horrified and mesmerized and hysterical. 
Pauli is an artist. On a trip to Vienna, he sketches me while I sleep. He swipes a few lines of charcoal across a large piece of paper with a conductor's flourish creating a full-bodied, minimal expression summing up all that I am. He colors in the border of my blanket with bright red pastel. A final touch. I fold the drawing into a square and slip it in my backpack. I've kept it all these years. The fold creases are permanent. I don't mind. They show time passing which is as it should be.
The day I leave, Pauli presents me with a mug he bought for cheap at the Gmundner Keramik factory, a few miles away. 
"They sell it hundreds years," he says.
It’s white, with hand-painted green swirls racing around its perimeter. A spill of green paint drips down its insides underneath the shine of glaze.
It’s imperfect. It’s perfect. 
I carry the cup back home across the Atlantic and drink years of coffee from it before I drop it in the sink. A large triangular piece breaks off the rim. I super glue it back on and use the cup for two more years of coffee before it breaks for good. 
Pauli sends me letters. Inside one is the key to his apartment. I don’t write back and one day the letters stop. I still have the letters. Not the key. 
After I left my husband I scoured eBay for used Gmundner ceramics. I buy most of what I find. 
The crazed and chipped ones are my favorites.