He calls me Babe, always a nice treat, to be someone’s something. When I, confused by the familiar romantic nature of the word, ask him why he applies this honorific, he deadpans “because you are one, a Babe.” He fiddles with my strands of thin blond hair, plucks each piece of twine, tunes strings about his knuckles. I call him “My Darling” and that is who we become, Babe and My Darling.
My Darling hauls into Babe’s one bedroom, packed with the relief of leaving his parents’ home and a swelling desire to be under Babe. Babe lifts a window; who can afford AC in this economy? and My Darling plops onto their couch, his life in boxes cramped into their common space. Babe joins My Darling on the small sofa and My Darling rests his sweaty head on Babe’s lap. For a moment the wind brushes past Babe’s face, and a chill whisks down his back. My Darling undoes Babe’s pants, Stop, he cautions. I feel gross.
Oh, please, My Darling flips. Let me Christen our new home, and so he does.
Later, after work, the boxes unpacked, but not removed, the small space in an order Babe and My Darling agree on, My Darling brings home his pet.
Mom asked me to take in Siegfried. He lifts the cartoonish silver dome bird-cage. Say hello to your daddy Siegfried. And sure enough, the bird squawks a shrill hello.
When did you get this bird? Babe asks.
Five years ago. My Darling places the white cage on the coffee table. Water boils on the stove top and Babe rushes to finish cooking, his gait reminds My Darling of a mother’s. Babe’s apron, floral of course, but the pallet blends time, somehow a new-retro of summer garden daisies, roses and tulips. My Darling whispers that word, retro….retro, over and over allowing the R’s to tumble in his mouth. I bought him with my first freelance check and my family hates him.
That’s sad, Babe says, flipping the chicken in the oven. My Darling agrees and enters the bedroom to change. While the rice simmers, Babe examines Siegfried. He walks around the cage at a safe distance, each one gaining some perspective. The bird hops in a concentric circle and tilts and turns his head. Siegfried chirps quietly now and again, cocking his head at his new, strange friend outside the cage. Babe removes a table cloth from the cabinet and relocates an art deco lamp. The table cloth is blanket thick and maroon. Babe lifts the silver dome and it wobbles; the bird chirps at Babe to steady. Siegfried finds his new vantage point suitable: a view of the apartment and a corner of his own. Babe leans into the cage to say hello again and Siegfried hops to the edge of his domain. Siegfried bows his head and walks to the edge for a pet, so Babe’s finger penetrates the cage. Siegfried considers the appendage with flits of his head and blinking eyes.
Ouch! Babe shouts.
What’s wrong? My Darling rushes from the room without pants, tie askance. Babe’s face remains close to the cage as he rubs his pricked finger.
He pecked me, Babe says. But it’s fine.
Babe and My Darling look nothing alike. Babe, tall, slender, possesses a flat chest emaciated by carbs and a rapid metabolism. His hair shines blonde in the sun and light amber in the winter, but about his face rests a trim beard that blends the shades to ginger. My Darling tugs at the beard hairs to bring Babe in for a kiss, to thrust his tongue past the teeth into his tonsil holes. Babe likes this control, an abjection whereby he hands himself over unto the whims and desires of My Darling; Babe likes the passivity of it all, the release one could achieve when a man takes charge. We all need a daddy, Babe quips. And just because something is bad doesn’t mean I don’t want it.
My Darling stands taller than Babe, not by much, but enough that it remains clear who the Daddy is. My Darling enjoys Babe’s submission—he feels like a husband with his wife, he looks like a man, and with Babe, he feels like one. A real one. He is needed, worried after. My Darling wonders out loud if this heterosexual fantasy they imbibe in will turn toxic if left to sit too long, like cheap wine. Babe shrugs, asking if it matters. If it’s working, why worry with the politics of it all. Why worry about an unwritten expiration date? My Darling agrees that things are working.
Babe plays with My Darling’s hair. It feels fake, like doll hair. Babe senses its thickness; it is hearty, maybe Midwestern, and Babe tugs at it, testing its tensile strength. My Darling lowers his head onto Babe’s lap and situates his head onto Babe’s bone thigh. Siegfried chirps, as he does often, somber and definite. Babe learns to like Siegfried. He tells My Darling that the chirping keeps him up at night, but My Darling doesn’t notice. Are you sure that is what is keeping you up? Maybe you need a hobby. No, Babe says. It’s only the bird. My Darling doesn’t believe Babe, but doesn’t think it is worth a fight.
We don’t fight a lot, Babe tells his friends. It all works out okay, I promise.
One night, let’s say 3 am, My Darling snoozes, wrapped up in Babe, whose eyes leap open at every chirp from Siegfried. The compromise: Siegfried stays in the common room and the bedroom door remains shut. This doesn’t work and the chirp, chirp, silence, chirp of Siegfried into the night keeps Babe awake. Babe rustles My Darling to show him the problem. What’s wrong? Do you hear the bird? No, you’re imagining things, go to sleep. I can’t Siegfried is keeping me awake. Chirp, chirp. Do you hear that? You’re being crazy. No, I’m exhausted.
My Darling rolls away, flipping his back, eyes shut to end the argument. I need my sleep for work, and My Darling disappears again.
Babe rises from bed, woozy, he bangs their bedroom door as he exits to the common room. He approaches Siegfried’s cage and leans in to stare at him. The bird tilts his head and chirps once more. Babe smacks the cage and the bird jumps. Quiet. I need to sleep. Siegfried hops around, looks back, cocks his head and chirps. Babe tugs at his face, sits on the couch and pulls out his secret cigarettes from the behind the couch, he sits opposite the bird considering what to do.
The next afternoon, as My Darling enters the apartment, he hears the familiar chirp of Siegfried and a new one, younger sounding, a spry bleat. Sure enough, a new bird, feathers painted bright yellow and dabbed lime edges on a body more stout than Siegfried. There in the same cage as dear Siegfried, hops a bird called Rostam, Babe’s new present. Babe pivots, cooking tray with a roast splayed out, carrots and potatoes flank the fatty edges; Babe’s smile, cheery, but put upon his lips with far too much effort, meets My Darling’s leer. I wish you had asked before. I’m sorry I thought Siegfried could use a friend, maybe that would keep him quiet. He is quiet. Not to me, I can’t sleep. Besides, I paid for Rostam with my own money. Sure. And My Darling dives into their room to change. Babe returns to making the home.
They mash on dinner. Babes uses his normal meal rhythms and conversation topics. How was your day, My Darling? It was fine. Babe clanks and gnashes his food. What did you do today at work? More of the same. My Darling’s mouth fills to the brim, ripping at the roast with his canines, unable to break through the fat. Both birds chirp in unison. Babe’s fork drops hard onto the porcelain plate and he lets out an oopsy! as both birds begin to squawk in turns. My Darling wipes his face, releases his utensils, his chair scratches the wooden floor, and he excuses himself from the table. Is everything all right, My Darling?
He thumps the bedroom door closed while Babe finishes his meal and gathers the dishes. He wipes in thin circles with soap and water spilling onto the plastic counter top all the while humming to himself. The birds pick up the tune and sing along. When the cleaning is complete, Babe sits down with his new book, “Care for Exotic Birds.” My Darling emerges. He covers himself in all black: blazer, jeans, sneakers, and t-shirt. He leaves the apartment with such speed the birds gabble about it amongst themselves. Babe thinks they’ve become fast friends.
While reading, Babe becomes warm and opens the window, who can afford AC? Soon he dozes and begins to dream in rules of care for exotic birds:
- Your bird needs tender love and care
- They will need company so purchase a pair or dedicate 30 or more minutes a day to play with them
- Try a variety of foods and observe their effect on your bird’s stool before settling on a brand
- Keep track of your bird’s water levels and do your best to provide fresh filtered water
- Clean their cage regularly, at least once a week, more often for more birds
- You can purchase supplements to give your birds more luminous feathers
- Ensure the birds are given space to fly around
- Avoid playing loud music or making too many loud noises
- Use a gentle spray bottle to help bathe your birds
- To keep noise to a minimum, reward silence, rather than scolding noise
My Darling stumbles first into, then through the door. Babe, long asleep, rustles little at his noise until My Darling begins to change in the bedroom and his jeans catch his ankle, his leg hangs in the air and he hops on the other foot crashing on top of his snoozing lover. I’m sorry Babe. My Darling wraps up the rustled lover. I love you, he repeats three times, jeans half on as his eyes begin to close. Babe rolls and now they hold each other to sleep.
In the morning, My Darling starts slow while Babe makes coffee, fries two eggs and lays out ibuprofen next to a glass of water. He emerges, jeans removed, hair thrown to turmoil, stroking his temples with the pads of his fingers. A gulp of the pills and a sigh. Over the stove, he hugs Babe from behind and strokes his chest, kissing his nape as his head rests above the blaze. Babe coils their necks like snakes. Babe spins to face My Darling, I love you. I love you too.
In the ensuing lover silence, the birds chirp at one another. Do you hear that, My Darling whispers, they love us. They are our children, Babe agrees. I love our children. The birds feign through bleats and gawks something near I love you. The eggs burn from lack of attention.
Then, as occurs, a strange thing happens. Each day, when My Darling strolls in, the worries of work wash off in a chorus of kisses and I love you’s. There descends from all angles a salt of love and a pepper of squawks; for joy reigns here, yes it does in this home, and Babe releases the birds to fly, fly about their space and bang about like wedding bells at noon. This ritual occurs and Babe adores every moment, remarking what is religion if not rituals and My Darling asks when Babe became such a philosopher. I have some ideas up my sleeve. I’m sure you do, My Darling lifts Babe into the air and into the bedroom. Let the food burn.
Another week of domestic bliss and a surprise from My Darling: two more birds, what a splendid gift, their expanding family now six.
Now, four children and a wife, My Darling begins coming home complaining of headaches and slipping into bed. These aches continue for a week and Babe cooks for two as he normally would, placing My Darling’s food on a plate in the bedroom, then after thirty minutes having stood untouched, Babe wraps them in foil and places them in the fridge. Following Babe’s solo dinner, he sits down on the couch with a romance novel from the pharmacy and pages slowly. He opens the cage to release the birds, let them fly and hop, all four. The chirping plays like music to Babe, a symphony from their talented children. Peering over the novel, Babe watches the birds bounce and play together. Oh, what joy they bring him now.
Saturday morning, My Darling emerges feeling revived. The birds are out and one perches delicately upon his shoulder. He continues as if nothing is there. On the couch, Babe has coffee poured and muffins warmed for them. Are you feeling better? Babe asks. Why, yes I am. What do you think was wrong? I don’t know, I kept seeing colors and feeling them on my chest. I closed my eyes and saw China red, it burned and pressed me down. Then, dynasty blue soothed the pain and smelled like pure menthol. It never ceased and the colors grew tropical in my waking hours, the sun refracting pleasant beach yellows, cool deep greens and olives, then this morning, it all stopped. Thank you for your patience. You’re welcome. They kiss.
My Darling stands to snag water from the fridge only to find five plates of glistening foil. He smiles and asks Babe to put the birds away. Then he lifts Babe like he is empty, filled with hollow bones, closes the curtains and takes him to bed.
My Darling begins coming home later each night with an excuse. Babe accuses him of cheating, ruining the home they built. My Darling brings home two new birds and their lives expand.
With six children out and flying all hours, Babe begins to fray. He burns food at the edges, waits to see if My Darling notices or comments. Home alone all day, he burns his cigarettes onto his feet then makes My Darling kiss the sores at night. He crushes up pills, nothing dangerous, allergy medicine, melatonin, and lets the powder sit on the counter in full view of the front, but then just when My Darling unlocks the door to enter, Babe leans over the pile and snorts. My Darling comments on this, worried no doubt, but doesn’t know what to do.
One day, Babe lets one of the newer ones, Ginger, an off-orange parakeet, fly off out the bedroom window. He calls My Darling and suggests they eat at a restaurant far from home; Babe will meet My Darling there after work. Babe dresses well for the occasion: spring yellow Oxford buttoned to the neck, a sapphire Euro-cut suit that drops off at the ankles and wrists, he exposes both, and about his right wrist, he straps a watch that matches his leather shoes.
So stylish, My Darling says.
I only want to make you happy.
They stumble home, smooth stomps from Sauvignon, they claw into the apartment and then their talons turn on each other. The birds chirp in unison repeating in screeched tones and gravel timbres, I love you, I love you.
Babe releases them into the hot air of the apartment, while My Darling lays on his back arms folded gently behind his head so that his triceps ripple. Babe falls on top and kisses his neck, rubs his tongue flat and long onto tiny untrimmed hair. My Darling removes his shirt and Babe slides down his chest slipping in kisses at each inch amidst a bite here and a bite there, as My Darling closes his eyes, hefty from wine. He listens for the birds. One lands on his chest above Babe’s head. The talons nibble at his skin and My Darling sprouts chills. He counts the chirps, how he loves these birds, loves what they mean to them, this home out of nothing, oblivion, out of love. He hears five distinct voices, but thinks little of it as he falls asleep while Babe has him in his mouth.
The search for Ginger begins and ends in 24 hours; Babe plays dumb and My Darling loses hope of survival: tropical birds don’t last long on their own.
I don’t want you to be lonely all day, My Darling says.
I have plenty to keep me occupied.
I will replace her for you, My Darling promises.
Babe doesn’t say no.
My Darling arrives from work the next day with two new creatures and a bag of sprays, oils and pills to add shine and beauty to the children’s feathers. Babe notices My Darling’s eyes have aged yellow.
How, Babe wonders aloud. Am I to take care of all these birds?
They’re not simply birds, My Darling says. They’re beauties, little tomes, representatives of the joy of our love.
What are you saying?
But My Darling ignores the questions, sauntering to the cage and adding two more, crammed in to the tiny apparatus.
We need another cage.
Babe lifts the bag of supplements in search of a receipt. How can we afford this? Do we have this money?
I have the money, don’t worry, trust me.
Babe must, and silences his worries.
My Darling can’t rise from bed again and describes with his eyes closed the visions he has.
I am a general in a field of rolling green flanked by my soldiers. To my left and to my right are bird-men in helmets and shields. You approach me, long feminine strides, curled blonde hair in a white dress and kiss me off to war.
Let the birds out, bring them in here, let them fly around me.
I am now on the Adriatic coast in a Terracotta building lined with white stone. I am an artist in flopping robes overlooking wave after wave of clear blue. Our birds sport backpacks all seven children coming home from school up a stone hill to our cottage. You have cooked us a meal, a wonderful feast and in this dream, I love you.
Do you love me now?
And finally, I see us in the west on a mountain, we are older now, a man and his wife. Into our warm Christmas abode bursts oh, so many grandchildren, a cathedral of our love, say your prayers, the walls protect us from snow. Our future is in these dreams, I see it. Babe, don’t you see?
Please sleep, rest, you need it. Babe holds down My Darling’s arms across his chest in an X, and My Darling finally quiets his raving. Babe steeps himself tea and considers these visions: they are safe, wild things. The chirping irritates him again and with My Darling asleep, Babe collects the birds into their cages.
My Darling, bed ridden, now calls for Babe to see him. Eyes shut, the panic of deep dreams quiet, he hands Babe a credit card. Please drive to the store and purchase more children for us, I want to dream with them amongst me.
Babe consents. Out of the apartment, down dim drudges of asphalt, Babe walks in mustard street light and considers his skin. So pale and thin, the veins leap out gifting his wrists colors, some blue, maybe red, definitely violet. It is the violet that he strokes as he turns the corner onto the store’s street, the front of which is nude, not the color, but naked, bare, an iced lime light of weird fishies about the front window. A bell rings.
Now inside, a lone clerk stands head down looking at her phone which in profile places a second chin under her biological one. Babe’s entrance, without a greeting, doesn’t stir the clerk, whose head bobs in a doze. There are future-pets scurrying about in cages and behind plexiglass; Babe notices a distinct lack of fish, but the smell says they’re not far off. Fifteen steps into the store, Babe bends at the waist to the sound of a crack in his spine, how old am I these days, and gazes at the birds, the children My Darling desires, and he will give them to him.
There are three birds he is considering. The first glitters swan white, a true natural beauty who possesses the elegance of the upper crust of high society. The middle one, though much uglier, displays personality: feathers of myrrh dazzle, recalling the eyes of Babe’s mother. When was the last time I spoke to her? The final, the most serene really, a kaleidoscopic range of reds, yellows, and a hint of purple, which dance as it hops. Babe remembers warm summer swims. To pick between the three, he cannot and buys them all up.
At the counter, Babe fiddles with cash.
Babe hands the clerk the money and sees her nails jagged and uneven. He smiles and she doesn’t return one, but her eyes have black in them. On the street, the new cage swings against Babe’s steps as coins hop staccato, the new children squirm, bleat, squawk.
Babe returns with the demanded amount and My Darling calls him to the room to inspect them. Release them and the others as well. Babe follows instructions. Now, lay atop me and close your eyes. Imagine them with me.
In a whirlwind, the birds spin; they fill every inch in kaleidoscopic colors and gust gales about the small enclosed room. Their wind smells of pets, that rank stink of uncleaned cages and soiled wood chips. Its color fades away from rainbow and muddles down, dims to auburn. Babe’s eyes shut if only for a moment, the future My Darling desires.