In the morning, Miranda comes into the kitchen where I’m making coffee.
“They’re back,” she says. “What?” I say, even though I know. By the time the hot water starts to drip, she’s gone again. I sip my coffee and wait for my brain to burst, for that skip-and-jump feeling in my heart. If she’s in the shower, we’ll be okay. If she’s in bed, or worse yet, in bed with the curtains drawn, we’re in for another round.
I know I am supposed to be supportive and encouraging and resilient, but no one ever considers what it’s like for the other person. No one ever says, but how are you? I picture some stranger saying this to me as he rolls down the window of his car. Picture him yelling, “I know about Miranda, but how are you?” In traffic, at stoplights, I find myself looking expectantly out the window.
But Miranda doesn’t have cancer. She’s never lost a baby and she’s not dying. She has birds.
At first, the attacks were occasional. In an instant: fast breath, racing heart, dizziness, darting eyes. Then more frequent, with numbing after-effects that left me feeling like I had a sick dog, not a wife. Now, they’re never about one specific thing. She fears nothing and everything at the same time; she fears she’ll never accomplish her dream.
“But what is your dream,” I say. If only she’d tell me, I’d make it happen.
“Exactly,” she says.
She watches sitcoms, wears sweatpants, won’t drink anything caffeinated. She keeps her hand on her heart, trying to time its pacing, trying to untangle the tightness she feels there. I yearn for the sound of her voice. Sometimes she sits in the shower, knees up, eyes unblinking. I know because our shower is made of glass.
People change, I tell myself.
When I tell her I’m leaving her, it comes out easy, like I’m on stage. She looks at me for a long time with more words than have come out of her mouth in days and says nothing. We both know I love her too much to ever leave her, so threatening it was worse than actually doing it.
One day I take her to a therapist’s office I’d looked up online. She doesn’t even complain, which is the scariest part. Ten minutes in the car and I’m second-guessing. We can still turn back, I think. We can change our lives, but I know we can’t. I’m the stable one, and Miranda—my Miranda—is the one who once jumped out of a still-moving car to rescue an upturned flowerbed. The one who wanted to get married in Vegas and who gives $20s to homeless women on the street. The one who once, after witnessing a father hit his daughter across the cheek, came home and made harsh, hurtful love to me because it made her furious, she said, and fury is just another form of passion.
I didn’t understand, and when I told her I didn’t want to make love like that, I think it excited her more. It’s one of the things I think she likes about me the most: that I am the woman in the relationship, and she, impulsive and uncontainable, is the man.
We’re like that tether ball game you play in elementary school, I think. And love might not have anything to do with it at all.
Inside, Dr. Simon looks like Santa Claus. The hairs under his nose twitch when he breathes. He doesn’t ask questions, makes no pleasantries or small talk. He begins right away, and I am thankful.“You need to think of it in a way you can visualize,” he says. “Some patients like to think of animals. Animals with certain features that they think resemble their anxieties.”
Quack, I think.
“Animals?” Miranda says.
The sound of her voice is painful and I want to close my eyes and sleep inside her throat.
“I know it sounds a bit ludicrous,” Dr. Simon says. “But try to answer the question.”
“Birds?” she says, timidly.
I look at her, stunned. Birds? What the fuck?
“Good.” Dr. Simon nods approvingly. “Tell me why.”
“Miranda,” I whisper. She levels me with her eyes. I know she is thinking, you forced me to come.
“That’s what it feels like?” she says. “That’s what I picture? The beaks, the claws, the racing, beady eyes. The flutters and flapping.”
Something like pride flushes my cheeks. How hard it must have been for her to say that. How awful it must be to have a bird for a heart, or birds in your head, beating their wings and squawking and thumping like that. I think of their beady eyes, their pointy beaks, their creepy claw-like feet, the way they shudder and shift.
“Very good Miranda. I have a good sense now of what it feels like for you. And that is excellent news.”
“Yeah?” she says.
“Oh yes.” He leans back slowly. His eyes are everywhere on her. Miranda’s body relaxes. She has pleased him, and this pleases her, and I realize then that it might be him, not me, who will be the one to save her.
That night I stay up watching YouTube videos on how things are made. Jam, bulletin boards, light bulbs.
When I get in bed, I pick up one of her arms and slide under it. She doesn’t wake up, but then again, sometimes I think she’s sleeping only to look over and realize she’s just breathing slowly, eyes open. I put her hand on my chest, but it feels the way I imagine it feels for those soldiers who lose limbs in battle. Like their arm is still there, even when it’s not.
Or is it the reverse?
The next evening when I get home from work, I expect Miranda to be in bed. Instead, she’s gone, and the apartment is full of birds. Birds, everywhere. Parrots. Robins. Cardinals. Loons—couldn’t tell you. Red, blue, shimmery. Black. Brown. Feathers flutter down from places I can’t see. They perch on candlesticks, on the mantle, on the fireplace. Birds bob in front of my feet, all sizes, all kinds. There is squawking and chirping and song. I’ve never seen anything like it. My house is a zoo. It’s the birdcage at the zoo. It’s the sky.
I want to cry. Or scream. A scream like you’ve always wanted to let out but never had the opportunity, because opportunities like that are rare. But they’re also real, and mine was here, and I’d earned it. But all I can think and hear and feel are the feathers, the wings, the colors.
“Miranda?” It’s pathetic, what comes out, how un-loud it is. “Miranda!”
Then the smell hits my nose. I step on something and feel a concentrated, dizzying stir near my foot. A bird squawks and shakes its feathers violently. Then I hear her. At first, I can only see her bare legs until the birds flying in front of her clear out. As soon as I see her, my head empties. Her face is flushed pink, her eyes bright with something I haven’t seen since I used to come home and find her alive. Her face tilts up as she follows the flying patterns of the birds and when her head moves, I let my eyes rove from her face, to her neck, and down. She’s wearing just a T-shirt, naked, from what I can tell, underneath.
“Aren’t they beautiful?” she says. One of them brushes her cheek with its wing and speeds off, frightened.
She laughs. Tilts her head back and lets out striking, tinkling laughter.
I ought to demand to know where they came from, how she paid for them, if she stole them. Ask what the hell we’re supposed to do now.
I mean, they are everywhere.
But all I do is stare at her mouth, wanting to see inside it, wanting to know where that laugh came from, and what else could come from that place.
“Miranda,” I say, and she nods.
I whip off her T-shirt and pull her down on the couch, touching her everywhere like she is new. The birds resting there startle and squawk, disrupting the silence that had fallen over the others. While Miranda and I roll around, the birds fly overhead, ducking over and under one another, their colors and sounds mixing together. At first it’s strange and chaotic, but then, after they settle down again, it really is quite beautiful.
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