Judith Shaw 

Colors Only Birds Can See in their Mating Rituals

Even before seeing Simon we saw his tie. It poked through the doorway and he followed, almost as if the tie were pulling him. A whoosh of air, perhaps from the elevator closing, had caught it like a kite.

Now the lock clicks softly as Simon leans against the apartment door to make certain of the catch. Leftovers of the morning newspaper in one hand, scarf dangling from the other, he nods to us almost invisibly. Alice and I, sitting on the couch, know he neither expects, nor wants, anything from us. Not a nod in response, no wife behavior from Alice—no thrown kiss, barrage of inquiry, show of delight. No sister-in-law sweetness from me. Alice has yielded to the implicit ground rules Simon has generated over the eleven years of their marriage, and reluctantly I have acquiesced: ‘Rules for Order,’ Alice calls them.Let Simon have these first few minutes to disassemble himself, reassemble, greet home at his pace, sniff his lair. I know the routine well, heed it without resignation or ridicule—anymore. We have scrutinized it, Alice and I, and all of Simon’s behavior. We have argued, analyzed, argued some more. Love, she says, is loving the hard parts too. Over the years I have watched her skillfully balance the seesaw of being Simon’s lover, learned the strength that holds her here. The way I see it, her Simon universe is turbulent for sure. Even Simon’s somewhat tender and extravagant indulgences we learned—violets in January, masses of garden roses covering the tabletops in November—are impulses calculated, premeditated, never incidental. But Alice, as she embraces Simon’s absurdities, his often-prodigal extravagances (we think), refers now, in these several past years, to only a flutter of disturbance. An obsessive and perhaps narcissistic personality, a psychiatrist might say, but Simon has never seen one.

Alice, eldest sister of us six, pediatrician extraordinaire, a saint who ministers to children whose parents can’t pay, who visits sick babies and oppositional teenagers at home in a time when the word ‘house call’ is barely remembered, practically extinct. Loving daughter Alice is, exemplary business partner to me, and, I admit regretfully, a more compassionate wife to Simon than any of us sisters are to our men. We haven’t learned what comes naturally to her—a capacity for knowing that Simon’s anger or sarcasm, his losing control, are symptoms of an upset in him, not what they seem to suggest about her. She knows about forgiveness, what the payoff is, knows the doorway to Simon’s delicate inside.

Around Alice bellies soften, jaws relax, bitterness melts; there is less justification for thinking bad thoughts, no vindicated gossip. We all become better people. Simon too.Now, as Simon turns toward the hall table to lay down the newspaper and his scarf, his tie flashes; startling, chic, expensive looking, even at this distance. Selected carefully, I’m sure. A departure from his usual small-patterned J. Press mode. He looks stylish, buoyant, pleased with himself tonight. There is no portend of danger. His face carries a cheerfulness, no hint of agitation.We had been laughing and joking, Alice and I. Sister talk, of chubby thighs, shorter skirts. But also somewhat more seriously of the medical insurance reorganization about, this year, to force us to reconsider our low-fee pediatric practice, perhaps jettison us onto the list of the unemployed. Now we are quiet. Simon’s amiability is fragile, easily shattered. Something small can do it when it does, something that interrupts his sense of order, perhaps a vase of wilting flowers, a temporarily closed subway entrance—or not. In the next few minutes we will know if he can hold onto the relative lightness, the exuberance of the man who walked in, or disappoint us with another, become our Mr. Hyde. If he finds a wrong, which shall it be? Earlier we permitted Simon to suck vigor from our ebullience, frequently without his saying a word. Tonight will he ridicule our lightheartedness? Mock our logic? Resent our pleasure in ourselves? Together, Alice and I will succumb to his inclinations, keep up with his humor (easy for us), slide into reverie if necessary, step aside from any anger (if possible). He will be the tone setter; we will give up in these moments that we too are originals. It’s what works.From the sofa, across the wide expanse of living room into the entrance foyer, we watch Simon pick up the mail, shuffle through it, reshuffle, leave the throwaways, pocket the others. He disappears for a few moments to use the toilet, wash his hands, his face: freshen, he once called it.Back in view, Simon surveys the glory of his hearth, as if saying hello to each painting, each magnificent photograph, approving his conquests. Constantly tonight, he is paying attention to his clothing—fidgeting with the buttons on his shirt cuffs, moving his belt buckle, brushing imaginary specks from his jacket in the manner of someone who has just finished eating. He moves toward us, watching his reflection in the glass of a series of framed lithographs. Always, I am rocked by his preoccupation with himself. He is smiling, fingering his tie now, as if reminding himself of it, or perhaps distincting it for our appreciation. A new asset like his Hockney or his iPad Air. Typically, acquisition gladdens him, lifts him from his customary introspection and ponderousness. As he walks down the hall toward the living room I see the tie more clearly—sumptuous moiré silk, black and yellow triangular shapes on a dark green background. Placing the tie dead center between the lapels of his open jacket and tossing his head in a way that orders his silken hair, he stops for a deep breath and makes his entrance.

A kiss for Alice on the lips, briefly. She has to almost stand to catch it. And the usual for me, a pat on my hair. How is it for Simon, I wonder, to find me here at dinnertime, occasionally in the very next week, tonight feigning skepticism about a snowy drive up the Hudson. He hasn’t said one way or the other, but, of course, I haven’t asked. (A convenient bed and breakfast, he often says when Alice announces I am staying overnight; an