When he was a boy in Iran, my father avenged the deaths of a flock of pigeons by dashing out the brains of a cat. He’d made pets of the birds, fed them stale lavash, felt comforted by their throaty coos. Seeing them afterwards—bodies separated from wings, bits of beak, tips of toes scattered in the yard—was not the worst example of senseless death he’d live to see, but it was the first.
Even to a child it was clear that the cat, self-satisfied and cleansing itself of feather-fuzz with its small tongue, was the perpetrator of the crime. It wasn’t easy to catch, but my father was determined. He used milk and a stone, each cupped in a palm.
I have heard this story so many times that, when I see the parakeet on the sidewalk, my father’s voice echoes in my head: “Those birds were magic.” That depth of wonder had never made sense to me, not with birds, not until I see the parakeet. I’m besotted by the color of it—spring-green like the shoot of a new flower, like the tender inside of a just-snapped pea. It drops down in front of me as if falling from the sky. If not for its constant jittery movement, I might have dismissed it as a leaf.
I throw my arm out in front of Vartig so he doesn’t take another step. “Look down!” I cry.
“Look up,” he responds, gesturing to a nearby tree. Among the dark leaves, brighter specks shimmer: parakeet friends.
I’m frozen, torn between crouching and rising on my toes to get a better look. Vartig carries on down the street.
“No, wait,” I say.
“They live here,” he says. “I see them all the time.”
I stretch my hand towards his elbow, but can’t get a grip. He reaches into his pocket for his keys.I’d never been to Vartig’s before, even though we’d been together three months. After getting his doctorate from Brooklyn College, he kept stubborn residence in an apartment near campus. What had started as convenience persisted as a badge of honor. Manhattan wasn’t even a glimmer on the horizon; his neighborhood might as well have been a foreign country. He thought I was being xenophobic the first time I said that. For two children of immigrants, we spent a lot of time nitpicking each other’s perceived racism.
“I’m talking in terms of hours,” I’d explained. “In the time it takes me to get out to your place, I could fly to Rome.”
“I’ll take you to Rome,” he’d said.
And I believed him, although neither of our degrees or careers suggested jet setting was in our future. We did meet out of town, though—at an academic conference in Philadelphia. When I saw him speak on a panel, he presented with a clarity and confidence I longed for—in front of a crowd, I just dissolve. He is a lecturer, an expert; I’m a grant writer, behind the scenes. Within thirty seconds of him leaving the stage I was clawing at the event program, looking for his bio to find out where he lived.
When I saw that it said Brooklyn—it didn’t say which neighborhood, otherwise I wouldn’t have felt quite so relieved—it was like the world was shifting. So of course I believed he’d take me to Rome. I hate to say it, but I even bought a dress that I thought would look romantic against the backdrop of the Trevi Fountain. We talked about continuing on, after Rome, to Tehran, to see the places our families had settled, and to Yerevan, to see where they were actually from.
But now, three months later, I’m visiting his apartment for the first time. It’s not that I’ve refused to come; he’s never pressed me. Or, if I’m being totally truthful, he’s never even asked. We’ve been meeting in the city after work or he’s been slogging up to my place. He won’t leave anything there, though I’ve offered him a spot for his toothbrush. He can’t complain about the commute; doing so would be a tacit admission that I was right about his neighborhood. Besides, I think he likes waking up where there’s something to eat in the morning besides deli coffee and a buttered roll.
Sitting cross-legged on the floor of his monastic apartment, when it’s clear that I won’t let the parakeets go, Vartig tells me that they are likely descended from a Brazilian shipping crate that overturned at JFK back in the 1960s.
“Or that’s what everyone says,” he continues. “To me, it doesn’t make sense. What about the climate change? The diet? The stressors of urban life?”
At this, he rubs his eyes, which are long-lashed and wary. They are the eyes of my cousins, of the boys with whom I went to Armenian summer camp.
“I don’t know what I’m talking about,” he says. “I’ve never actually given it any thought.”
“I don’t know how I’ll ever think of anything else,” I say. I’m ready to head back outside now that we’ve dropped off my hastily packed overnight bag, stuffed with a variety of impractical items I’d gathered in a rush after Vartig discovered he’d forgotten the pills he takes every morning for his irregular heart. “I’ve got to take some pictures.”
He leans over and presses his forehead against mine. “Shara,” he says, “every eighteen year old art major at Brooklyn College has done a photo essay on those birds.”
I want to wear the parakeets like a brooch on my coat, like a crown on my head; I want to cover myself in them as if I were a tree, as if I were their home. “I’m not going to mount an exhibit,” I say, but I can’t deflect the burn in my face.
He’s standing at the window, backlit by the morning sun, a white towel around his waist when I awake.
“Did your father ever talk about eating caviar for breakfast in Iran?” he asks. I sit up, squinting at him and patting my hair down from the unruly heights it achieved overnight. “All the time,” I say. “Yours, too?”
“Can you imagine?” he asks.
“I’ve never had it,” I say.
“I haven’t since I was little,” he says. He sits down beside me on the bed. “I took a bite and it popped between my teeth in this way I didn’t expect. The taste was so fishy. I spit it out.” He reaches his hand into the thicket of my hair, musses it back skyward. “My father hit me across the mouth.”
“Oh no,” I say, covering mine.
“It was the only time he ever did something like that. It was early on, soon after we got out to LA, and it was, looking back, a moment he must have so been looking forward to—a spoonful of caviar, shared with his son,” he says. “And I ruined it.”
“You were just a kid,” I say.
“I bet that, as an adult, I’d like the stuff. But I haven’t tried it again.”
“Let’s go to Brighton Beach today!” I cry. “I bet we could find some affordable tins in those Russian grocery stores. You can’t live too far from there, right?”
“I just said it was a bad memory, Shara,” he says. “Why would I want to do that?”
He takes his small round pill from the orange bottle beside the bed and places it on his tongue. He swallows without water. I push the covers off my legs, pull the towel off of him, and head with it into the bathroom. I let the shower run hot and step in. I repeat our conversation in my head, trying to hear it the way one of my girlfriends might, recounted later over cocktails or a muffled cell phone connection.
He lets me think we’re speaking the same language then makes sure that I know we are not. He wants only as much connection as he wants. I could draw a map of his manipulations in the steam on the mirror. I lean forward, searching for my reflection. It is impossible to define: a photograph taken too close.
The year I was twenty, I spent a semester in Paris, living and dying by the small folded map I kept in my pocket. It was before smart phones; I didn’t even have internet in my apartment. The only way I knew to get anywhere in the spiral of that city was by orienting myself, painstakingly, with that map. I have it now, coffee-stained and fingerprinted with buttery smudges of croissant, framed on my wall. My aunt, my father’s sister, lived on the other side of town, in one of the fancier arrondissements. She and my uncle conned me into going to Armenian church with them three times over those few months. The first time, they left me a message with an intersection, a place to rendezvous on a Sunday morning. I assumed I’d find a café there and that they’d buy me a tartine. Once I saw their stout shapes and smiling faces beckoning me up the steps of the ornate basilica, there was no graceful way to back out. We embraced, kissed/kissed, and I spent the next hour or six squeezed in between them on a pew, not knowing if I was listening to French, Latin or Armenian. I’d grown up hearing my father’s phone conversations with his family without learning their pidgin dialect: old, older, new and newer languages, jumbled together into one.
In the courtyard after the service, my aunt introduced me to the priest, a disconcertingly handsome young man. His look wasn’t one I usually went for—lush-locked dreamboats were too obvious for me. But even in his religious get-up, this guy was pretty chaud. I stood dumbly, staring at him from under the cloche hat I’d affected that month, and when he said, “Enchanté,” I forgot all of my French.
The second time, I was equally unsuspecting. After a few hours of gorging on waffles and coffees in Antwerp, my aunt, uncle and I piled into their laughably tiny black car and continued our cross country road trip—a simpler endeavor in Belgium than in the States, of course. We were going to swing through the French-speaking South of the country, through Luxembourg and head back to Paris admiring the Art Nouveau swirls of a few border towns in France along the way. I thought I knew the itinerary and so was surprised when, before we even hit Brussels, my uncle pulled into a church parking lot. It was not Sunday and yet there were quite a few people streaming towards the small chapel.
“It’s just a funeral. Not someone we knew well, but he was important in the community,” my aunt explained.
“We’ll just stop in.” My French was better at this point, but faced with the widow on the receiving line, I was as dumbstruck as before the priest.
The third time, it wasn’t actually a con. It was, in fact, my idea. My return to the States was impending and I was looking out at the world through layers of homesickness. I missed my parents, friends, school and country; I missed Paris in anticipation of leaving. I missed my aunt even though I didn’t yet know I’d never see her again. I thought I understood, in my small privileged way, what it was like to feel a chasm between where I was and where I belonged, to feel I was in that chasm, unable to pick a side. My family, Armenians in Iran, had left in the ‘70s, under duress, and dispersed across Europe, Canada and the States, landing wherever there was a soft place for them. Ex-patriots of a country that didn’t claim them, twice removed from the place they were. My aunt and uncle were so moved that I wanted to meet them at the basilica. I sat between them at the service and watched the priest’s mouth, still understanding nothing.
Not that there is anything religious about my relationship with Vartig. I don’t worship him; he never makes me feel close to God.
“Did you go to church when you were little?” I ask, folding yesterday’s shirt into my bag.
“Of course,” he says. “Isn’t that the first question other Armenians ask you when they see your last name, ‘Where’d you go to church?’”
“I guess so,” I tell him. “My father went to the church potlucks sometimes, but we never went. My mother’s influence—a total Upper West Side atheist. I bet she’ll put up a fight about having the funeral there, although she lets him think she’s going along with it.”
He reaches out to knead the pad of my palm, a small, comforting gesture. “I forget you’re only half,” he says.
“Because your hair is so dark. Take it down from that ponytail.”
While I was in the shower, he pulled on black pants, folded into cuffs, with a grey t-shirt, rolled at the sleeves. He sits on the loveseat with his boots on the coffee table, his arms folded behind his head. His hair is close-cropped on the sides but longer on top and brushed back. He looks like he’s relaxing after a day doing something insidious—patrolling a fence, barking orders. He is cold and beautiful. If I told him he looked like a fascist, I could ruin his day.
I pull at the rubber band holding back my hair. The smell of his shampoo fills the room.
“So do you believe in God?” I ask.
“What a question,” he says. “Do you?”
I look away, beyond him, through the window. It frames the day, sunshine and endless sky. There are no tall buildings blocking the view. I feel the flutter of wings in my stomach.
“Are you looking for the parakeets?” he asks.
“See,” I say. “Sometimes you do know what I’m thinking.”
“Oh, go find them if you want,” he says. He says something more to me, something in Armenian or Farsi; his face softens when he does this as if he is being sweet, as if he’s invoking a secret that we share, as if.
I bend close to him on the couch, cup his face in my palms, and reply with the only Armenian I know, a phrase my father taught me. “Chem haskanum,” I say. It means I don’t understand.
Outside, I turn corners, catch my toes in cracks looking up, into the trees, into the sky, into the sun. I don’t see any parakeets, not even one. I might well have imagined them.
Nicole Haroutunian is co-editor of the digital arts journal Underwater New York and writes the blog Our Books Are Better Than We Are. She has an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and lives in Woodside, Queens.