The Parakeet Book

by

02/04/2002

Kenmare St & Mulberry St, New York, NY 10012

Neighborhood: SoHo

This very quiet bird, with whom I am hoping to build a relationship, is called Number Two. I received Number Two and his ex-companion, Number One, as a Valentine’s day present from a woman I used to go with. Her name was Johanna. Johanna used to work in my office–in fact she used to work for me.

I felt a little guilty about that, but I swear I didn’t do anything to encourage her, except I did, finally, sleep with her. I always knew that Johanna was interested in me, even at her first interview, but I was able to sidestep the whole business until the Christmas party, when she asked me to dance and held herself so close I could feel the clip of her brassiere digging into my sternum. As I danced with her I thought to myself that I had been alone for a long time and here was a woman who really wanted me, though I had no idea what exactly what it was she liked about me. She didn’t really like my jokes, particularly, and our conversation was only mildly stimulating. Nevertheless, I thought it might be good for me to be involved with someone again, even if she might, one day, sue me.

Johanna gave me the birds because she thought they would be therapeutic for me. She thought I was too introspective and self-involved and having a pet would “bring me out of myself”. First she suggested a cat, which I rejected because Johanna had two cats, both of which I found hugely irritating. If you ever wore anything fuzzy, like a sweater for example, one of the cats would rhythmically pump its front paws against you, apparently in search of a nipple. The other liked to sleep as close to your face as it could get, and it would slither up in the bed until you could hear it breathing, which I found revolting. Once I awoke from a nightmare in which I dreamt I was being smothered by Johanna, pressing her cashmere shawl tightly over my nose and mouth, but it was only the cat. From then on I wouldn’t sleep over unless she locked the cats out of the bedroom.

I suggested a couple of fish. But Johanna thought that fish wouldn’t have the desired therapeutic effect (they wouldn’t “bring me out of myself,”) because fish didn’t acknowledge your existence even when you fed them, and you couldn’t pet them. I pointed out that you could pet a fish, if you really wanted to.

Finally we settled on these two parakeets, a green one, and a yellow one, which I named Number One and Number Two for convenience’ sake. We had a big fight about that, but I insisted they were my pets, and if she wanted to name them, she could keep them at her house.

Number One was my favorite because it seemed very cheerful and sang a lot, and it always tried to bite my finger when I stuck it in the cage, but I didn’t have it for very long. About two weeks after I got the birds, I went out of town for a few days on business. While I was gone, Johanna decided to clean out the cage to wash it. She deposited the birds in a cardboard box during this operation, but somehow Number One managed to get free and started flying around the room until it finally came to rest on a window sill. As Johanna approached with a grey army blanket held out in front of her, the bird got scared and squeezed itself into a tiny space between the upper and lower halves of the living room window, where the air conditioner was, and then it wiggled its way down the window pane until it flew out into the New York winter.

I used to think about what happened to Number One after it escaped that night. It must have been quite a sight, a little green bullet flying through the streets of lower Manhattan in the middle of a long grey winter. I imagined bundled up New Yorkers scurrying through the streets where they would come upon Number One, a little bird, bright green and yellow striped, singing its little lungs out, sitting on a stone window ledge outside the bank building next to the dirty pigeons and the muddy sparrows. This little singing native of tropical climates, who had seen nothing in its four month life but the inside of its cage, one pet store, and my small New York apartment could not help but think, “How did this happen?” as it sat on the stone window ledge of the bank building, freezing to death.

Some few weeks after Number One left, I ended my relationship with Johanna. It was an unhappy scene, with Johanna lying on the floor holding on to my leg on the fourth floor landing of her loft building, insisting that I mustn’t go, that I couldn’t leave her. I tried to step down but she gripped me tighter, her whole body wrapped around my left calf. It was as desperate a moment as I ever hope to see, and I knelt down and unwrapped her arms as gently as I could, which wasn’t easy because she was very strong. There wasn’t much to say, really, but I tried to explain that something better would come her way soon and walked down the six long flights of stairs to the street. I could feel her eyes on my back all the way down. I can’t explain how Johanna came to feel this way about me or what she thought she was clinging to as she held my leg in her death grip. Some part of me really wanted to believe that it was me that she wanted so badly. But now I think it was only that I put up so very little distraction from whatever fantasy she had going about her lover, whose space I just happened to occupy for a time.

Nevertheless, I did find myself wishing I had a camera with me on top of those stairs, so I could take a picture and send it to a woman who felt about me the way I felt about Johanna, just to show her. “See how lovable I am?” the caption would say.

So here I am, back in my apartment. Just me and Number Two. I remove the top of the bird cage slowly and carefully, so as not startle him. I am successful, I think, because he just sits there, not making a peep, waiting for whatever fate will next befall him. I stand very quietly, my index finger still pointing straight out in front of me. Without moving my head, I glance down, just my eyes, toward the cage on the floor. Number Two is still there, waiting. I nudge the cage with my foot. The bird falls over, then rights himself. I kick the cage again, a little harder this time, and the bird takes flight, suddenly, erratically. It whips around the room wildly, three times and then crashes, with a sickening “thop”, into the hard, white wall. It lies on the ground, motionless, yet I stand for a moment, very still, in the middle of the room with my index finger pointing straight out in front of me, like the parakeet book says.

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