THE NEXT morning I overslept — waking up around 11 — and only because the Aloe Vera in the kitchen window kept complaining she was thirsty. She wouldn’t stop and so I got up to water her and then I stood at the counter, nuking a cup of day-old coffee in the microwave, listening to my messages. There were five — my client with the problem opossum wondering where the hell I was, one from Bernie inviting me to his cottage for the labour day weekend, two from my mom urging me to go to Bernie’s cottage and, oh, since I was going could I drive my dad up as well — and a text from Evie.
I went to text her back, but then stopped. I texted Noah instead — suggested we talk. Then I called my client — postponed the opossum eviction until tomorrow. Then I took a long shower — savoring the white noise of the water. I didn’t want to come out. I was thinking about Noah, about Evie, about Evie in my bedroom, in my bed. I know this is going to be a surprise — but my entire life I’ve never actually slept alone.
My mom tells a story about me when I was baby. She’d put me down to sleep every evening and as soon as she’d leave the room, animals would gather round. Sam, our old golden retriever, would come and lie on the floor beside the crib and Selma, our tabby cat, would climb into the crib and curl up at my feet. My mom never believed that old wives’ tale about cats smothering babies and so she wasn’t bothered about Selma. What freaked her out was the morning she came into my room panicked that I hadn’t woken up at 5 a.m. like I usually did, and she saw not only Sam and Selma, but a half-dozen house mice sleeping on my belly, a quartet of fat spiders dangling above my head — like some bizarre nursery mobile —and a menagerie of house sparrows roosting on the window sill. Mom screamed and I guess she woke me up and I started balling and everybody scattered and Dad came rushing in. Eventually, the animals learned to vamoose before mom came into my room in the morning — but they always came back in the night to cuddle.
Like this morning when I woke up a centipede was messaging my scalp and a rat was sleeping in the crook of my left knee. I tell you, what woman is going to put up with that? Or is going to want to share her bed like that? That’s why all the sex I’ve ever had has been the furtive teenage kind — 20 minutes with Heather Meyer in the basement rec room of her parents’s house and when I was at Guelph, a half an hour in Tricia’s dorm room every Friday, before Biology Lab. I had other opportunities. Noah invited me a along on all his co-ed camping trips, but I always begged off. My Dad — in the category of too much information — used to complain bitterly that he could never get my mom alone in the bedroom without Selma the cat wandering in and plunking herself down in the middle of the action. Can you imagine me and a co-ed getting it on in Algonquin Park, only to look up and find Bambi, Thumper, the big bad wolf and Poo bear. Go ahead and laugh! Go ahead! But it’s a big problem. Never mind, that Noah, my best friend since I was an undergrad, thinks I’m encroaching on his territory, the logistics of getting Evie alone to myself for any serious length of time — well, it was just too complicated.
I know what you’re going to say. I have the power, right? So just use it — just tell all the animals to stay away and they will. Oh they will all right, but they won’t like it and they’ll let me know that in all sorts of little ways. It’s like living with a million and one passive aggressives. And however bizarre it seems, I don’t really want to hurt their feelings. I don’t want them to stay away forever. They have kept me company for so long that I would miss them if I couldn’t hear their soft snores and feel their breath tickle my skin. I doubt I could get to sleep, if I was entirely alone.
Besides, it didn’t matter anyways. Until, I talked to Noah, I was not free to take Evie up on her invitation.
Noah didn’t call or text me back the whole week. I knew I’d see him at the Saturday ball hockey game with the guys — despite how angry he was with me, he would never miss the weekly game. But I’d have to wait until after the game to speak to him alone and what was I going to say to him?
I discussed this matter with my class on Friday afternoon. I teach an ESL class to birds. It used to be open to all species — but the raccoons would usually fall asleep, the dogs wanted me to throw the stick, not etch letters in the dirt with it and the cats kept attacking the birds and rodents. Now I just hold two classes — a very short one for ADHD mice and squirrels and an hour long one for birds. It’s purely drop-in, but I have some regulars, a few jays, a pair of cardinals, and in the summer a flicker. But things do tend to fall apart when those smart-aleck crows show up.
I was sounding out the words and scratching the letters with my stick into the big patch of dirt in the backyard that serves as my blackboard. The idea was to get each of my students to sound out the word with me and recreate the letters in the dirt with a talon or beak. It was slow going but there was some progress — particularly with the jays. I tend to focus on short words that figure prominently in their lives: worm, bug, fly, water, wings, beak, mate, eggs, chicks — that sort of thing.
Well, anyways I got to the word mate, and of course little Miss Crow in the back blurts out — as if she had been keeping this secret all week and couldn’t stand it anymore: “Adam’s got a girlfriend!”
And that was it for class discipline! They all wanted to know about Evie and then we got into a discussion about Noah. Most of these birds choose a different mate every summer — so they know lots about courtship, nesting and rivals. And they’re ruthlessly pragmatic about it — which isn’t surprising since they have to find a mate and raise a family or families in one short summer.
“Why do you have to confront your rival at all? Just sneak the female into the bushes,” said a chickadee — a species of energetic philanderers. But most of my students thought that before I confront my rival — which must of course be done in the presence of the female — I should spend a little time bulking up and rehearsing what I was going to say not only to Noah, but to Evie to entice her to choose me.
Well, what they actually suggested was that I should preen my feathers until they shone and practice my singing — interspecies communication isn’t always straightforward. You have to interpret, extrapolate, translate.
They live such pared down lives in the wild — such short lives — that there isn’t any leisure time for all our human shit — the melodramas, the gossip, the petty jealousies and feuds. Oh they understand dog-eat-dog and the deadly games of alpha males. What they don’t understand is our prolonged childhood — our inability to get on with it.
My students were very impatient with me. And they left the class insisting that they wanted to see some progress — that this writing and reading stuff was all right, but summer was waning and I had to get going on more important matters.
This depressed me — all Friday evening long. Then my Dad called me and made things worse.
“Adam, I think Bernie’s got a tapeworm.”
“Bernie’s enormous — he does not have a tapeworm.”
“I hear some very vicious growling coming from his belly. Hey, do you think a tapeworm can affect someone’s brain?”
“I read somewhere that there’s this type of fungi spore that ants breath in. The spores grow and take over the ant’s brain and force the ant to climb to the top of a tree toward the sun — because the fungi need sun to grow — and then when the ant gets to the top, it latches onto a branch, dies and then the fungi grow out of the top of the ant’s head. Do you think that a tapeworm could grow into Bernie’s brain and force him to do stupid things?”
“Why? What’s he done?”
“You mean lately?”
“Dad, why are you calling me? What do you want?”
“Your mother says you can invite Noah to Bernie’s cottage on labour-day weekend.”
“Again with the labour-day weekend!”
“Can’t help it — She won’t shut up about it. She thinks you need to get out more — socialize. So will you come? Or do I have to keep calling you?”
“Okay, okay. I’ll come — but I’m not hunting and I’m not fishing. I may not even go outside. But I don’t know about Noah coming.”
“Why? Why not ask Noah?”
“Well, it’s just a bit awkward…he’s pissed off at me.”
There was long pause, during which I could hear CSI New York in the background. Then Dad said tentatively, “You should talk to him, Adam. I mean, can you really afford to argue with him?”
And I knew what he meant. Noah, despite him being a jerk sometimes, was my only human friend and if I lost him, where would I be?
I went to the ball hockey game on Saturday morning. We play at the schoolyard at Parkdale Public on Landsdowne. The guys are more Noah’s friends than mine, but it’s shinny and so he couldn’t really stop me from showing up and playing. He didn’t talk to me, but acknowledged my presence with the slightest of head nods. We divvyed up into teams. I was on Noah’s side, but he didn’t pass to me. He played as if I wasn’t there, moving around me, ignoring my call outs, looking passed me as if I were just an empty space. Now I was pissed off — he can be such a bloody baby.
A teammate passed the ball to Noah. I stick handled through the players and intercepted the pass. Noah said nothing — did nothing. I did it again and again — muscling my way into plays — making sure his stick never touched the ball.
He began to push back, shouldering me out of the way. I whacked him in the shins with my stick — bit silly I know, but effective. He dropped his stick and shoved me hard. I shoved back. The game had stopped, but we didn’t notice. We were two bull moose with locked antlers — until a couple of the guys pulled us apart.
“What the fuck is going on?” one of them shouted at us. Noah said nothing. He just picked up his stick and walked away.
I shrugged and mumbled “sorry” to the guys and walked after Noah, trying to catch him before he reached his car and locked me out. I reached him at the parking lot, just as he was putting his stick in his trunk. “Noah, Noah….if you’re pissed off with me — just say so. If you have something to tell me — TELL ME!”
He said nothing.
I sighed. Obviously, I’d have to be the one to start. “Look, I’m sorry. I didn’t expect Evie to…well… to…”
Noah had stopped what he was doing — and was almost smiling. “You didn’t expect her to choose you,” he finished my thought for me.
I shrugged. “Most of the time they choose you, Noah — but if it really bothers you, I’ll just tell her.”
“Are you insane?” Noah slammed his trunk. “Only a moron would say no to Evie.”
“So, it’s okay with you?”
He stared at his feet for a moment, then shrugged. “Do what the hell you want.”
He wouldn’t look at me and it seemed that that was all he was going to say. He opened the car door.
“Fine, fine,” I mumbled and turned to walk away.
He called me back. “Adam, you do know it’s a ride right? You do know it’s just for fun? Don’t take it too seriously.”
“Why do you think she’s so interested?”
“I don’t know. I was wondering about that myself.”
“She collects… oddities. Her place is full of them — you’ll find that out when she invites you over. Just remember that a collector is always collecting.”
“So she wants to collect me?”
Noah shrugged. “Just…just don’t take her too seriously.”
I nodded and assured him that wouldn’t — I wouldn’t, of course, take her too seriously. Really, what guy would? Certainly, not me. I smiled. This had gone easier than I thought it would. I had kept my friend and had a clear path to Evie. When Noah left in his car, I took out my cell and texted her.