Robin redbreast. First of the season. What’s that old song? Robin redbreast, have you any wool?
No, that’s not right. What is it?
“Jesus, Beverly, I’ve called your name four times. Do you need a hearing aid? I wouldn’t be surprised, at your age.”
My age? She’s two years younger. If I’m old, then Eve is, too. I sigh. “No. I don’t need a hearing aid. I was just looking at the robin outside. Sign of spring.”
She shakes her head. “Whatever.” She digs through a box and pulls out my binoculars—my precious binoculars. “Beverly, what the hell? Do you really need all of these?”
“Of course I do.”
“Three pairs of binoculars? Really? Unless you’re cop on a stakeout, one pair should be more than sufficient.”
I suck back another sigh of disgust. For a younger sister, she has always been remarkably willing to question my older, wiser judgment. Isn’t she supposed to look up to me, maybe even idolize me a little? Ha! Not in our family. I’m lucky they remembered to feed me, that I even survived childhood at all. And Eve was no help along the way. I want to lash out, say something nasty, get her off my back, but that’s not my style. Never has been. So I just say softly, “You don’t understand birding.”
“You’re damn right about that,” Eve mutters.
Most of the time, it’s just not worth picking a fight—or, rather, letting her start one. But it is fun to play with her a little, so I pretend like I didn’t hear her. “What?”
“Nothing.” She shoves the binoculars, all three pairs, back into the box and drops a piece of bubble wrap (much too loosely for my taste) over the top of them.
She wipes her hands on her slacks. “You do understand that you’re moving to an apartment, right? No woods, no fields, probably not all that many birds.”
The robin outside the window has caught a worm. Good for you, buddy, I think. I barely manage to suppress a cheer.
“There are birds everywhere,” I say, forcing myself to turn away from the window and look at my sister. “They’re basically dinosaurs, you know.”
“Yeah, yeah. Whatever.”
I hate when people say “Whatever.” It’s so rude and dismissive. I would go so far as to suggest that it’s the worst thing you can say to another person. One of the worst, anyhow. To say “whatever” means you don’t care enough about the other person to be part of the conversation. You should say what you really mean—don’t just end the dialogue. That’s cowardly. Not that I should talk about cowardice. I could probably win some sort of timidity award, if there happened to be such a thing. Too bad there isn’t. I could use any sort of cash prize that might come with it.
I shake my head hard, trying to reset my brain. Sometimes, mostly on the rare occasions that I have to be around other people, I realize I have far too rich an inner life. Then again, I find myself—and my birds—a lot more interesting than most people. “Yes?”
“What do you say we pare down a bit? Just two sets of binoculars?”
I sigh. “Whatever,” I say, wishing she would notice that I’m being sarcastic. Knowing she won’t, I suddenly feel even more alone. I wrap my arms around my elbows; it feels like a chill has just run through the room. “Just make sure you don’t throw away the Nikons.”
She sneers, holding them up. “These? They’re all scratched up and crappy.”
I take a deep breath and force myself to count to ten. It’s anger management. I read about it in a magazine once, back in the olden days when I could still afford luxuries like magazines. One . . . two . . . three . . .
I blow out a stream of hot breath. “The Nikons were David’s. I want to keep them. You’ve already given all his clothes and everything away to Goodwill. I’m keeping his binoculars.”
I see her flinch out of the corner of my eye. She hates when I mention David. She doesn’t want to be reminded that my husband is dead. She doesn’t like to think that anybody she knows well could die. It means she’ll die someday, too. People like my sister (I think they’re called narcissists) are always afraid of death.
“Okay,” she says. “Fine. Whatever. I’ll just put all three pairs back in this box. Sort them out yourself. I can’t be bothered with your birdy nonsense.”
I smile to myself. It’s the first battle I have ever won with her. Sixty-five years. I guess I was due.
“So, do you like the new place?” she asks, moving on to start packing another box. Her voice is too chipper—it sounds false, like a human being trying to mimic a bird call. I fight the urge to slap her—though I guess you can’t really call it an urge if you know there’s absolutely no chance in the world you’ll act on it. More like a wish. A dream. What is that line? A dream devoutly to be wished? Something like that . . .
“Beverly! Christ, I’m serious. Are you getting senile? You’ve always been vapid, but this is ridiculous.”
I have to shake my head like a dog next to force myself to pay attention to her. “What?”
“I asked you a question. The new place? It’s nice?”
I sighed. “It’s a lousy little apartment, Eve. There’s nothing nice about it, except that it’s cheaper than here.”
“I envy you,” she goes on, pretty much ignoring me. She’s talking to hear herself talk. Makes sense. She is her favorite person. I don’t even make the list. “You get a fresh start, new place, new people. It’s exciting.” Her voice still has that overenthusiastic, fake quality: the same tone it usually has when she’s talking to other people, not just me. Realizing she’s using her “other people” voice on me suddenly annoys me. She’s just not . . . genuine. I may not be cool or smart or confident or any of the words somebody might put on a list of desirable human qualities, but at least I am what you see. I don’t try to be anything else.
“I don’t like people all that much,” I say to her, turning back to the window. The robin is gone; only a small patch of dirt is left, the hole from which he must’ve pulled his worm. Good for you, little guy, I think. Good for you.
“You’re antisocial, Beverly,” Eve says. “Always have been.”
“Maybe I wasn’t popular in school like you, but that doesn’t make me antisocial,” I say.
“It kinda does.”
“Kinda? You sound like you’re fifteen years old,” I say. “Even I know it’s creepy, or whack or whatever the kids are saying today, for someone registered with AARP to talk like that.”
“Age is just a number.”
My sister is a walking version of a badly embroidered pillow; she’s chock full of pithy, saccharine sayings.
“Whatever,” I whisper. I wish I had the guts to say it loud enough for her to hear, but despite six decades of constant friction between us, I’ve never found the strength to really stand up to her. Or anybody. It just seems easier to let other people do what they like and hope they’ll leave me alone. It’s the human version of playing possum. Heck, it’s gotten me this far. Why change now?
Eve takes over when we get to the new apartment. I have to admit, I’m almost grateful she’s here. She’s bossy with the movers, pointing and shouting, and, at times, giggling and flirting with the one who seems to be in charge. He’s older than the other movers by a good three decades, but he’s still too young for her. Not only that, but Eve seems to have forgotten that she’s married. It’s none of my business, I guess. But she does look like an old fool. That makes me smile a little. I’m always happy to see Eve get some much-deserved comeuppance, especially since I’m no good at giving it to her myself.
I let her feel important, let her direct the orchestra, so to speak. I don’t care where all my stuff goes. Not really. As long as the movers don’t put my bed in the kitchen, I’ll be fine. Fine, fine, fine. Just me, alone in a new place. All fine.
I suppress a shudder of terror, and wander to the back of the apartment. The tiny dining room will barely hold my table, much less the sideboard and wine rack David and I bought right after we built our home. At the back of the room are some sliding glass doors covered by cheap-looking white plastic Venetian blinds. I pull them open, trying to ignore the awful, human-like squeal they make as I drag them along the metal track, and look outside.
The courtyard is gray and depressing. Maybe it’s just the leftover traces of snow on the ground. Or the fact that the “view” is of the back end of all the other apartments. Which means, since it’s technically still winter, the patios are just storage bins full of covered-over grills and rusted-out lawn furniture. Or maybe it’s the lovely focal point management has seen fit to set up at the dead center of the yard. No, it’s not a fountain or gazebo or even a bench. Not even close. It’s a dented, hunter-green metal garbage can with a dispenser full of kelly-green plastic bags for cleaning up dog poop, and there’s a huge sign attached reading, “Clean up after your pet,” with a line drawing of a human being cleaning up after . . . is it? Yes, it is: a cat. Because doesn’t everybody walk their cat on a leash around an apartment courtyard? Huh, I think, as I lean forward and peer out the window. Apparently, nobody but me has noticed the bags and the garbage can because I can see, plain as day even from this distance, several huge mounds of dog poop cluttered around my barren patio. At least I hope it’s dog poop, because I really don’t want to see the size of a cat that takes a crap that big.
Stay positive, I tell myself. Thoughts are actions. What you think becomes real. Real, real, real. Lah dee dah. Maybe I’m the one who’s a walking embroidery pillow.
I read all this self-help garbage. Eve sends it to me. She thinks a pile of books on grieving and anger management and positive thinking will help me. But I don’t need help. I’m perfectly fine, except for the fact that my husband is dead. If it weren’t for that one thing . . .
Eve’s voice is all sickeningly sweet and cooey like a mourning dove’s song. At first, I’m surprised she’s being so nice—I’m pretty sure this is the first time today she hasn’t yelled at me—but then I remember that the movers are still here and she has some desperate need to impress them, to make them think she’s a hip old lady (or not-so-old lady) who is kind and generous enough to help her poor, pathetic, widowed sister.
I answer without turning away from the window and my gorgeous view of the poop piles. “Yes?”
“Where do you want the guys to set up your television?”
I sigh. “It doesn’t matter. I didn’t even sign up for cable, so I wasn’t planning to use it much.”
“Beverly, you need cable. How can you function without television? How would you watch the news and your shows?”
I turn and face her, arms crossed over my chest. I notice that the mover she likes best is standing right behind her, observing our conversation with what looks like a glint of amusement in his eyes. He’s right to be amused. It must be hilarious to watch two old ladies arguing over something as silly as television. We’re creeping up closer to death every day and we’re wasting time talking about TV. The mover’s probably wondering if we remember when TV was first invented, and I don’t want to admit that I almost do.
“Beverly!” Clearly, Eve has let the nasty tone in her voice get away from her; she turns with flushed cheeks to smile apologetically at the mover.
“What shows?” I ask.
“Oh, the kind of stuff we always watch—History Channel, war movies, football on Sundays, of course . . .”
She keeps talking, but all I can think is that I’ve never seen her watch any of these things in the sixty-some years I’ve known her.
“. . . maybe a little Jersey Shore . . .”
“What in the world is Jersey Sure?” I ask.
“Oh, it’s great. All the kids watch it.”
“Wonderful,” I say. “Just put the TV wherever you want. On the wall to the right of the front window. Okay?”
Eve makes a huffy sound. “Whatever.”
I hear her chirping away as she leads the head mover back into the living room, with her hand planted firmly on his slightly withered bicep—he may be too young for her, but he’s no spring chicken. Or robin. I turn back to the sliding glass door. I know it’s only early March, still cold, but there are no birds here. Not even a stray sparrow or a black-eyed junco foraging among the twigs and debris of the courtyard. This is not a good sign. With David gone, birds are my only . . . well, I know I shouldn’t say “friends,” but friends. I’ll never make it here with Eve as my only connection to the outside world, especially when you factor in not only the obvious (the fact that we can’t stand each other) but also the reality that she lives five hours away.
I need my birds.