Charlie J. Stephens ~ The Owl People

Not just beau­ti­ful, though—the stars are like the trees in the for­est, alive
and breath­ing. And they’re watch­ing me.” Haruki Murakami

From a dis­tance, the first thing I noticed about Claudette and her hus­band Ezra is they both radi­at­ed a strange, beau­ti­ful weight­less­ness. They’d recent­ly moved into my build­ing: a brick two-sto­ry with an open floor plan and large win­dows. They lived in the apart­ment above mine, and even before I first met them, a cou­ple weeks lat­er in the foy­er, some­thing com­pelled me to linger in the hall­way, hop­ing for a brief encounter.

Another thing I noticed right away, based on the qui­et they emanat­ed through the floor­boards, is they took off their shoes when they got home, some­thing I’ve always had a slight­ly crit­i­cal atti­tude towards, but am start­ing to admire. In the past I thought shoe­less house­holds were a fool­ish attempt to try to keep the grime of the world away.  My phi­los­o­phy was more to let all the muck in and get stronger for it. I imag­ined their clean feet, housed in cot­ton, how they must skate across their pol­ished floors and maybe even hold each oth­er and dance some­times. The low hum of their music trick­led down to me in the evenings, sound­ing like a cho­rus. I don’t know how to explain it, but even then I want­ed to be near them. I would come to notice the way Ezra held him­self, so secure in his body, like no trau­ma had ever befall­en him, and I would admire his kind eyes, but it was Claudette who would pull me like a mag­net.

Back in my own apart­ment, the floors were scuffed from my son Zeke, whose favorite thing to do was to set up obsta­cles to jump over, and then run at top speed from room to room, tim­ing him­self. Sometimes this was tire­some to me, but most­ly I appre­ci­at­ed his inde­pen­dence and ani­mal­is­tic delight. I was 40 when I had him; some­times it takes us queers longer to remem­ber about things like hav­ing babies.

At the store, at restau­rants, and on the street I get ma’am’d and sir’d with equal reg­u­lar­i­ty. I’ve noticed that peo­ple are gen­er­al­ly quick to cat­e­go­rize oth­ers, uncom­fort­able with ambi­gu­i­ty. When I was younger, start­ing around age five, peo­ple gen­er­al­ly assumed I was a boy. I think it’s the aging—now that I’m mid­dle aged—that caus­es peo­ple to linger with the fem­i­nine. Everything is soft­en­ing. Everything. And when I speak, all bets are off. Several friends of mine take testos­terone, and over the years their voic­es have tak­en on a low, pre­his­toric tim­bre. Their bod­ies devel­oped into shapes with more angles, wider backs, and hard­er stom­achs. I nev­er want­ed to inject myself with hor­mones though, sure that with my luck I’d get the worst side effects: acne, bald­ing, and patchy hair sprout­ing up on my shoul­ders. And besides, I like exist­ing in the in-between, not quite fit­ting. On a real­ly good day, I might even describe myself as enig­mat­ic.

So I have my boy­ish body and my effem­i­nate voice, and often peo­ple do not know what to make of me. Because of all this, and the fact that I had been sin­gle for all prac­ti­cal pur­pos­es for awhile (since I wouldn’t be men­tion­ing my recent roman­tic encoun­ters that could most accu­rate­ly be described as hor­ri­fy­ing­ly dis­as­trous) I wasn’t the best can­di­date in the eyes of most adop­tion agen­cies.

In the end I took out a loan, and head­ed to the sperm bank. The donor I picked out from the cat­a­logue had a master’s degree and a mis­chie­vous grin. His father had been from Ghana, his moth­er from Sweden. My own father was mixed race as well, Nigerian and German, but he died from alco­holism before I got around to ask­ing him what else he knew about our ances­try. I thought this donor choice might, in a strange way, keep our lin­eage cohe­sive some­how. Even though I’m a quar­ter black, my skin is white like the inside of an almond, and my curls only come out after a long swim in a warm ocean.

The first time I actu­al­ly came face to face with Claudette and Ezra, we were all enter­ing the build­ing at the same time. I was ner­vous to speak to them, what with their weight­less­ness, their clean floors, and the play­ful danc­ing I’d imag­ined, but I didn’t want to waste any time with my own shy­ness. Sometimes—more and more lately—I have been able to rise above my own inse­cu­ri­ties.

Oh hi!” I said to them, hold­ing open the door, a churn­ing in my stom­ach, “I think you live in the apart­ment above mine. I’m Frankie. It’s real­ly nice to meet you.”

Great to meet you too!” Ezra said. “We love the apart­ment. So much light.”

Claudette smiled but seemed seri­ous, and didn’t say any­thing at first.

I’m glad to final­ly meet you,” she said after a very long pause, look­ing at me intense­ly. That is when I first real­ized she was an owl. So focused. I couldn’t tell what she was focused on exact­ly, but I found myself real­ly want­i­ng to know. I won­dered what her ‘final­ly’ com­ment had meant—if she’d been curi­ous about me based on some­thing she’d heard through the floor­boards, some­thing she’d seen from a dis­tance. I knew I was prob­a­bly read­ing too much into this, but I couldn’t help but won­der.

Ezra looked at her and then back at me. I real­ized he was an owl too. He was not quite as focused as Claudette, but pro­found­ly good at mak­ing eye con­tact, some­thing that I real­ly had to work at.

He asked, “So, what do you do?”

I had long ago adopt­ed my mom’s work­ing class stance of bristling when any­one asked that. But I didn’t hold this against Ezra. My mom just hat­ed that ques­tion, and I guess I did too.

It’s such a cap­i­tal­is­tic con­ver­sa­tion starter, ” she used to say at our lit­tle kitchen table when I was a kid. She won­dered out loud why peo­ple felt the need to ask that, as if that was the most inter­est­ing thing about them. And she won­dered why peo­ple didn’t respond to that ques­tion in more cre­ative and inter­est­ing ways like, I try to be kind to peo­ple, I believe what chil­dren tell me, I like to talk to trees, instead of which bank they worked at, or which legal firm, or which clin­ic. She had worked cut­ting gloves in a fac­to­ry until her own hands were almost dis­fig­ured. Then there had been a fac­to­ry fire that result­ed in chron­ic lung prob­lems, and she got a set­tle­ment.

The oth­er ques­tion she hated—for the same reason—and the one that was direct­ed at me grow­ing up, was what I want­ed to be when I was old­er. Adults love to ask a child this ques­tion. I told every­one who asked that I want­ed to be a marine biol­o­gist, spe­cial­iz­ing in whales.

What I real­ly want­ed, but knew bet­ter than to say out loud, was that when I looked into the future, what I saw with such pow­er­ful clar­i­ty was me—completely alone—living in an igloo in a cold, oth­er­world­ly place. I would exist there, hap­py, hun­dreds of miles from the near­est human, care­ful­ly observ­ing the arc­tic hares, the nar­whals, and the ringed seals that would make up the most pro­found con­nec­tions of my life.

A marine biol­o­gist! Specializing in whales!” the adults would say back to me, always impressed.

I had been gone from Claudette and Ezra a lit­tle too long. This hap­pened to me in con­ver­sa­tions some­times. Unfortunately, it usu­al­ly hap­pened in con­ver­sa­tions that mat­tered to me the most. I was work­ing on being more focused when I talked to peo­ple but some­times I float­ed up and away. Ezra gave Claudette an almost-imper­cep­ti­ble glance then turned back to me and said again, slight­ly loud­er. “So Frankie, what is it you do?”

I’m a marine biol­o­gist,” I told him quick­ly, not hav­ing intend­ed to lie. It just came out. I hoped I could still get to know them with this untruth between us. Later that evening, after putting Zeke to bed, I real­ized I hadn’t asked them what they did for work, then tossed and turned all night, wor­ried that I had been rude.

Over the next few weeks, I saw Claudette and Ezra more often. On the side­walk or on the stairs. I learned that Claudette illus­trat­ed children’s books and Ezra was an archi­tect. I found out that he did all the cook­ing, and that they had been train­ing, for fun, to get their pilot’s licens­es.

Of  course they like to fly, I not­ed, build­ing upon my owl the­o­ry.

It was a rainy Saturday morn­ing a cou­ple weeks lat­er that Claudette and I end­ed up alone togeth­er. Zeke had slept over at his friend’s house the night before, and Ezra was at the gym. We came into the build­ing at the same time and sat next to each oth­er on the steps, com­fort­ably, as if we had done so many times before. She told me they were from Virginia but had moved to California, need­ing a change. Both their fam­i­lies were old-mon­ey fam­i­lies, and the two of them had been try­ing to have a baby. Surrounded by their aging par­ents who were eager to have their first grand­child, and some col­lege friends who already had one or two kids, they had start­ed feel­ing over­whelmed by the pres­sure. They need­ed a break from it all.

They would try again, she told me, but for now they want­ed space to be alone togeth­er, just the two of them.

And here I am now, far from the madding crowd,” Claudette said after a long pause.

Thomas Hardy based that nov­el on a poem,” I said back to her, grate­ful to have some­thing slight­ly notable to add to the con­ver­sa­tion. “But dis­tinct from the poem, Hardy want­ed to show that qui­etude and iso­lat­ed calm were false ideals.”

I couldn’t agree more,” she said. “I think we humans need each oth­er.”

She looked like she want­ed to elab­o­rate, but stopped her­self. Instead she smiled, abrupt­ly got up, and head­ed towards the ele­va­tor, leav­ing me won­der­ing. I sud­den­ly thought about my igloo and what a com­fort it was to me still—like I could always find my way there if life with humans got to be too much for me. Of course I wouldn’t real­ly be alone now: I had Zeke. But he was still young and curi­ous enough that he would see it as a great adven­ture. I won­dered what Claudette would think of the igloo and my strong propen­si­ty for soli­tude.

Until next time, Frankie,” she called back to me, smil­ing a sad smile as the ele­va­tor opened for her. I wasn’t sure, but I had the sense that she was on the verge of tears. As the doors closed, I wished I’d reached out, offered a hug or some­thing, but maybe that would have made it worse.

I don’t tell many peo­ple this, but some­times I have visions where I can vis­it peo­ple while they’re sleep­ing and com­mu­ni­cate with them. In the days since sit­ting on the stairs with Claudette, I hadn’t been able to stop think­ing about her pres­ence, or Thomas Hardy’s per­spec­tives on iso­la­tion. Last night, as the visions came, I made my way up the stur­dy brick of our building’s exte­ri­or, to Claudette and Ezra’s apart­ment. I sat at Claudette’s feet, want­i­ng to con­vey to her that she was an excep­tion­al­ly spe­cial per­son, that she made a dif­fer­ence to peo­ple in pow­er­ful ways that were below the sur­face. It wasn’t about me. It was about some­thing much big­ger and more impor­tant than I could explain, even to myself.  In our wak­ing life we hadn’t even talked much real­ly, but every time I was near her I felt more con­nect­ed to the world, like an unen­durable weight was lift­ed off my shoul­ders. I had watched her have the same effect on oth­ers as well. Zeke for one, often talked about her in a way he didn’t talk about any oth­er adults—about what she had said in the hall­way or how she made peo­ple laugh, and asked me a lot of ques­tions about her I didn’t have any answers to. Even the build­ing man­ag­er, well known for his pinched demeanor, bright­ened in her prox­im­i­ty.  (He was a turkey vul­ture, his cheeks and nose dark red with rosacea.) Claudette was gor­geous but that wasn’t what this was about either. As the vision con­tin­ued, I reached toward her, scooped her up in my arms which were sud­den­ly mas­sive, and lift­ed her up into the sky. I held her there until each of her mus­cles, every sin­gle one, could just let go for awhile, and rest.

We float­ed like that between some stars for a long time. Her face was so close to mine, almost like we would kiss but it wasn’t about that. It was about the thing under­neath lips touch­ing, under­neath the act of lean­ing in even: it was about the momen­tum beneath every­thing. It was ardor but not the usu­al kind, and our eyes met in the dim light and did not look away. I heard a sound like a sym­pho­ny, and real­ized it was our own chas­mic breath­ing, sound­ing like laugh­ter as it just kept echo­ing and echo­ing.

When the echoes fad­ed into still­ness, I tucked her back into bed, where Ezra snored gen­tly. I leaned over to him, pat­ted his soft, hairy chest, and told him he didn’t need to wor­ry. That per­haps Claudette and I might go up and rest in the uni­verse togeth­er from time to time, but he didn’t need to feel threat­ened in any way. Maybe I would care­ful­ly brush the hair out of her eyes or hold her hand, but it wasn’t any­thing for him to feel jeal­ous or inse­cure about. It wasn’t about what was hap­pen­ing on Earth, where they were togeth­er and in love. It was very impor­tant to me that the owls had each oth­er, nest­ing in the light. I hoped they could both take this in and under­stand what I meant.

Later, back in my own bed, curled up under win­ter blan­kets, I slept bet­ter than I had in a long time.

When I hap­pened to see them the next after­noon, head­ing out for an ear­ly din­ner, I hoped I wasn’t star­ing too much, but I couldn’t help but look for some sign of recog­ni­tion from the night before. Claudette seemed to hold my gaze for just a moment longer than what I would con­sid­er nor­mal, but I couldn’t tell what she was feel­ing or think­ing. Ezra had a bounce in his step with his arm slung hap­pi­ly over Claudette’s shoul­ders. It made me feel good, see­ing them like that.

Later that week, Zeke brought a book home from the school library. When I saw it was about owls all the hair on my arms stood on end, and I leaned close to give him a big hug.

What made you want to check this one out?” I asked him. He looked at me qui­et­ly, his eyes so bright and dark. (I think Zeke is a white-tailed deer, but it’s too ear­ly to know for sure.)

I’ve just been think­ing about them a lot late­ly. Like, how can their necks spin around like that? How do they hear so well with such tiny ears?”

Good ques­tions,” I told him.

We grabbed an old blan­ket and sat on the couch to read it. The page he liked the best was about eye­sight. Zeke had recent­ly become the one who read books out loud to me, sound­ing out the longer words in his small boy-voice. He read that owls have incred­i­ble dis­tance vision, their eyes not like ours; instead they have tubes that are basi­cal­ly binoc­u­lars. “A Hawk Owl can find—primarily by sight—a mouse up to a half a mile away,” he read.

I thought about Claudette and Ezra. I won­dered what they saw in the dis­tance, beyond the streets, over park­ing garages, above the trees and past the refinery’s smoke­stack. I won­dered how their owl instinct had served them already, where it would lead them next. I real­ized how easy it was for me to see these attrib­ut­es in oth­ers, and yet not in myself, even after all these years.

Lately, I’ve been hav­ing strange thoughts. I can sit out­side at the park and watch peo­ple walk by, or pay close atten­tion to the per­son bag­ging my gro­ceries, or the woman who deliv­ers our mail, and all I can see is how we are all melt­ing down into the same stuff. We’re all just water and bone, held down by grav­i­ty. Most of us long for some­thing, and most of us are not sure how to get it, but we keep try­ing any­way. I know I am dif­fer­ent, that my brain works dif­fer­ent­ly. I see things that oth­er peo­ple often don’t notice, and also miss things that many peo­ple find obvi­ous. I can watch a whole crowd of peo­ple wait­ing for the train, and see them as their skele­ton selves, keep­ing qui­et or mak­ing small talk, get­ting their tick­ets ready or read­ing a book, all in a kind of exis­ten­tial naked­ness. Like high-vis­cos­i­ty glass, I can see how we are, cell by cell, slow­ly being pulled back to the dirt.

Running into Claudette and Ezra became a part of reg­u­lar life. I was always glad when our paths crossed. We didn’t invite each oth­er over, and we didn’t talk too much. Sometimes they seemed hap­py togeth­er and some­times they didn’t, same as every­one. Zeke bor­rowed sug­ar from them once when we had start­ed mak­ing cook­ies and real­ized we didn’t have enough. Little things like that. I hadn’t tried to vis­it them again the way I had before, but I always paid close atten­tion to them in wak­ing life. I hoped that—even though it wouldn’t make sense to most people—they knew that I cared about them in a way that felt sim­ple and pro­found at the same time.

Last night, some­thing unprece­dent­ed hap­pened: I was the one vis­it­ed. Claudette tapped on my win­dow and when I opened it, she leaned in slow­ly and whis­pered, “You’re very good with ani­mals.” Then she laughed a low laugh, and it sound­ed just like the echoes from when we had been togeth­er before.

I can do it too,” she said, and I watched as she flut­tered off the win­dowsill, into the cool night. I got back into my bed and couldn’t stop smil­ing, alone there star­ing at the ceil­ing, hands rest­ing on my ribs to make sure I was still real.

Making break­fast for Zeke a few days lat­er, I heard a sound at the front door. When I got there, the hall­way was emp­ty but on the mat was a piece of paper with a draw­ing of a small fox sit­ting in a field of stars. I stood there and stared at it for a long time, until Zeke yelled from the kitchen that the pan­cakes were burn­ing. I put the draw­ing in my pock­et and all day and late into the night—whenever I had a qui­et moment—I took it out and ran my fin­gers along its soft edges. Long after Zeke went to sleep, I sat alone on the couch and held it in my hands.

When I final­ly went to bed, I closed my eyes and my breath­ing got deep and steady. I found myself in a vast field of white, stand­ing alone at the entrance to my old igloo. I stood motion­less, watch­ing as its edges slow­ly dis­solved back into all the ice sur­round­ing it, until I could bare­ly tell it had ever been there at all.

~

Charlie J. Stephens is a queer, non-bina­ry fic­tion writer liv­ing in Northern California. Charlie has lived all over the U.S. as a bike mes­sen­ger, wilder­ness guide, book sell­er, and sea­son­al shark div­er (for edu­ca­tion­al pur­pos­es only). Charlie’s work has recent­ly appeared in Hinterland, Fresh.Ink, Prometheus Dreaming, Original Plumbing (Feminist Press), The Flexible Persona, The Forge Literary Magazine, Gravel Literary Magazine, Rappahannock Review, and Not Your Mother’s Breast Milk. Charlie is cur­rent­ly work­ing on a col­lec­tion of short sto­ries, as well as their first nov­el. More at charliejstephenswriting.com.