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; and, “you should be in Charlie’s bed where you belong,” he adds. All this with a smile; he likes my visits.) However, I am simply background to Simon, another person on whom to practice his speeches, toss around his ideas and opinions. He speaks of everything in my presence: his investments, wins and losses, unpleasant rashes in private places and their torturous itching, his glee at outbidding his best friend for an attributed-to- Olmsted tiny garden property in Connecticut. Just another family member he can be both intimate and vulgar with. And here I sit, three, four times a month, insisting still, after all these years, that Alice will be better off with me here if things go wrong. Sometimes they do.

Soda water for Alice; she will drink wine with dinner. Scotch from the Laphroaig bottle for himself, mine, as always, no-name, from the crystal decanter with the blue enameled badge. Scotch, it says in old English script. Ice cubes, two each. I wonder again if he thinks, even for a second, that I am privy to the secret of his decanter, that it holds the throwaway of the household, not the scotch of the manor. No knowing. He doesn’t care. No possibility of his imagining I might prefer the other, or, I am certain, of his allowing that I even know the difference.

Simon sits down on a straight chair opposite the sofa, stands up to remove the mail from his pocket, take off his jacket which he tosses, but carefully, onto the piano bench. Again, he seats himself, arranges a tiny crewel embroidered pillow at his lower back and takes a large swallow of his very large drink. Ignoring the napkins, he sets the glass directly on the polished peach wood of an eighteenth-century inheritance of Alice’s from our grandmother—a long, low table once used by scribes. Alice and I watch (no longer with mumbles of protestation and remonstration) as condensation weeps down the glass and wets the table, the beginning of yet another stain Alice will later polish and disappear. I can never not hate this act, the incongruity, Simon’s perfection about so many things and his casual destruction of the patina of this table. I imagine he does it to get at us in some way, quietly and covertly upset us, undermine our family chronicle. By now it has become a game. He knows Alice will erase his mischief, bring the table back to its original pristine. Sometimes, I think, let the watermarks stay, but that is foolishness. Simon will become wild and vengeful at the disruption of what has become an amusement to him. Like an autistic child whose routine is altered.

Now, looking down, not at the wet left by his glass but at his chest, Simon moves his tie a bit so it is exactly over his shirt buttons. I am moved to comment on its beauty but he hasn’t opened the conversation yet and I am always intensely curious at his selection of topic. No way would I lead or distract his thoughts. He selects one white pistachio from a bowl to his right, a bowl as old and as beautiful as the table, opens the shell, and half of it begins to fall. Moving quickly to catch it his elbow hits his glass with such force that the liquid splashes upward as if it were being hurled. Precisely, as though it had been aimed, the scotch melts into his tie and shirt. The glass lies on the carpet, the remainder of the Laphroaig dribbling onto a perfect Persian rendering of a one-legged bird.

Until this moment there had been no words since the drinks were poured. Customarily, Simon began conversation after a few sips, a nut or two, a cursory read of the first class mail. He would peek at himself in the mirror above Alice, attend to what needed his attention, push back in his chair, balancing on its two back legs, one foot on the floor and his other crossed and resting on his knee. Then Simon would begin the adjustment of his genitals. It is as though leaning back in the chair was his cue for this behavior, his ‘ahem.’ This diversion, the power of his prolonged fumbling, keeps me from hearing his first words, always. Somewhere into his second sentence Simon usually comforted himself. Mostly, what Simon calls a conversation is really a monologue on recondite subjects he has researched and knows we will be vague about or ignorant of, but will want to hear, like the use of an optical lens in Renaissance painting or the medicinal role of cabbages in Greco-Roman and medieval gardens. Lately his intense interest is in the future development of a simple-to-use anti-snake venom, like an EpiPen, he says. It will forestall thousands of deaths in India each year from cobras and kraits. Even in Mexico, he tells us, in remote places—places Alice and I have worked, tending babies in isolated villages—there are poisonous coral snakes that kill. We are fortunate, he says with emphasis, never to have encountered one. Actually, Simon is principally interested in pontificating, captivating his audience, holding them raptured. His membership at a private library endows him with researchers around the clock. We are beneficiaries and enthusiastic listeners. We give him what he wants most. Attention.

Simon choreographs most aspects of their couple life together, and conversation is primary. Alice, herself an eloquent and voluble conversationalist, seldom initiates innovative conversation when there are many guests at the table, guests Simon has named the ‘second tier’ or ‘outsiders,’ those not close family or intimate friends of theirs. Serious conversation—political or economic points of view, for instance—are rigorously monitored by Simon at these gatherings, although he is known to consider another point of view after some reflection, even ask Alice for an opinion. It is only at Alice’s and my office that Simon has absolutely no say and no place. He wouldn’t dare. That will forever remain untested.

Pearl, the housekeeper, recruited from Jamaica by Simon eleven years ago, at the time he and Alice were married, now stands there wordlessly, eyes fixed on the shattered glass and the wet rug. A tray of cheeses and toasts clutched in her hands is beginning to tip in the direction of the floor. The yellow design on Simon’s tie has been subdued to the color of tea by the scotch, the gorgeous green now the color of Marine camouflage. And his pants are splattered. There is no sound. No one moves. Only the cat jumps off the sofa, finds a place under a chair. Even Alice, I sense, seems somewhat perplexed, can’t quite assess the impact of this moment, the possible magnitude of it. Finally, after staring intensely at the tie and moving his fingers over the soaked silk, Simon kicks the pistachios off the low table, the bowl barely missing Pearl’s leg before crashing into the wall. The toasts slide off Pearl’s platter and mingle with the porcelain pieces and the nuts. Simon rushes from the room, bent, almost crouching, holding himself in a posture of pain, running toward the privacy, and safety, of his bedroom.
“Oh, Mrs. Alice,” says Pearl, “this is getting too much for us all.”

Pearl, having long since completed her pledge to the household, has chosen to stay on, ostensibly in return for two paid round-trips to Kingston each year, although I think she can’t bear to leave Alice alone with Simon. She has spoken these words before, after incidents much louder and more threatening, like the birthday night last year when Simon ripped the dining room drapery with his steak knife. Pearl still hopes Alice will leave, as I used to. But Alice won’t. She has chosen Simon over years of others, some occasional dalliances, some more serious. I know the list. The neurosurgeon from Toronto; the Japanese architect; the Cleveland first violinist; an illustrious chef who cooked naked in her kitchen, she told me, and taught her the secrets of quenelles, and a perfect crab soufflé. There was a senator who had a comatose wife; a Staten Island ferry boat captain; a museum curator who brought her icons from the Adriatic; and Harry, a man young enough to embarrass us all. Alice, for so many years, looking for her future. Now, Simon, forevermore.

Simon needs her, she has told me. No one ever has before. Simon lusts for her within his love, and that is different. The others were in lust, she said, and thought it love. Choice made. This is her place, her life. She reassures me this is no mistake. In their privacy, Alice tells me, Simon cries sometimes and tells her his tears are tears of exultation, gratitude. It is only with her, he says, that life will work. In their years together he has become a senior partner at his office after much resistant static; lowered his blood pressure; come full circle in his understanding, and appreciation, of Alice’s tutelage about HDL. Most significantly, he has begun to speak once again with his eldest son, a child with his first wife. And Alice says, when they are in their nest together, when the lights are low and Charlie Rose has gone home, he still, tenderly and with patience, takes her breath away. She is not ready, she says, to turn this exquisite ecstasy in for what she has come to know as a temporary craziness or a few hours of angry silence.

Alice tells me again—a reminder—that in the sanctuary of their bedroom, Simon will lie down, knees up, shoes flat on the quilt, arms outstretched. It is always the same, his arrangement on the bed, his misery. Alice has been a partner to its privacy often. Tears will run from his eyes. Not many. He won’t sob. It is more as though he is filled with a deep sadness, that these moments rekindle a memory of loneliness or pain, or, perhaps, humiliation. He doesn’t say, doesn’t know. He will hold his mouth closed, pursed, like a young child insisting he will not talk to the grown-ups. Consumed by these recollections, Alice says, the contortion of his face is both sad and ugly to see. The organization of his adult personality is lost to him. What she witnesses, when she does, is an affirmation, she presumes, of a fragmented and crushed child. Then something happens. His face will relax. It is as though he is not defending against anything anymore. His mouth will open slightly and he will open his eyes. The pain or embarrassment or humiliation, the sadness that twisted his face will disappear. There is a quiescence, then the atmosphere will become charged with his thoughts. He will get down to business, zoom in on what to incriminate. Repair the insult to his soul.

Alice thinks he will blame the tie, see it as the cause of his anger, the disaster of this incident. Stuff it in an old shoe, toss it in the trash. Getting rid of what he blames shallowly heals his hurt. His decision contemplated, and finalized, he will act, taking long enough tonight for Pearl to clean the pistachios and porcelain pieces from the floor, scrub the stains on the carpet, and for the family to resume, become re-involved in whatever it was Simon interrupted. Or, as in the case of the torn dining room drapery, Alice reminds me, long enough for the evidence of that episode to be erased.

We hug, murmur familiar comforting words to each other, make a decision to move to the kitchen, proceed with dinner, return to a regular rhythm. Alice pulls leaves from a stem of sage for frying—a Simon favorite. As the moments pass, as at times like this before, the pink returns to Alice’s cheeks, our focus leaves Simon behind. We’re veterans of this war by now, know that the treaty has been signed for tonight. We’re into the cooking, slicing zucchini for a quick soup, warming bread, deciding to sauté tomatoes, dribble them on the roasting lamb. We’re making decisions about real life: Bill Evans or Astrud Gilberto? Malbec, or maybe a Syrah, Alice says, or a Cornas Simon loves to drink with lamb? Alice is confident Simon will be soothed by a quick bath (Simon always bathes), will slip into espadrilles, loose clothing, make a fresh drink. No one, not the two of us, not Pearl, will mention the incident to him. Not tonight, or ever again.

We hear his noises, the clack of ice, softly padded footsteps, a confident, genteel whistle of the seemingly debonair man he must long to occupy always. Moving down the hallway to join us in the kitchen, Scotch in one hand, the unopened mail in the other, Simon kisses Alice, this time generously and long. Setting the drink and mail on the counter he affectionately cuddles Alice’s bottom and pats mine, a habitual inclusion of me in the intimacy— and the apology. He tastes the salad dressing with his finger, arranges himself on a stool, nodding toward the oven indicating appreciation for the fragrance of rosemary and lamb. His face is peaceful now, rosy, winsome. He is our guest rather than the other way around. Simon knows he owes us. His mood is friendly, affable, light-spirited. He tells us a joke he heard long ago, when he regularly listened to comedians, about a ninety-two-year-old man who finds a talking frog in his bathrobe pocket.

“The frog begs the man for a kiss,” says Simon, “which will return her to her former self, a gorgeous, voluptuous woman. This done, she promises to live with the man forever.”

“At my age,” says Simon, mimicking an old man, “I am better off with a talking frog in my pocket than listening to the disappointments of a beautiful young woman.”

We laugh together, pick at the lamb as Alice slices, affectionate pals in this moment. Simon shuffles through the mail, selects one envelope, opens it, and begins to read aloud.

*****The title of this story, “Colors Only Birds Can See in Their Mating Rituals,” is a phrase from the novel, Evidence of Things Unseen, by Marianne Wiggins.

Judith Shaw: “Colors Only Birds Can See in Their Mating Rituals,” in this issue of American Literary Review, is one