“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.