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,