Kristen Arnett

Cowbirds 

Bitzi Monsoon shared her tragic backstory exclusively at dinner parties. It took approximately seventeen minutes to tell the whole thing start to finish, which covered her first two glasses of wine. While guests leaned in, smitten by the quiver of Bitzi’s frosted hair and the matching tremor in her voice, she’d have her third glass. After kind words and condolences, she drank the fourth. If the party was large enough and she told it just right, she might even get to finish the bottle.

Drink in hand, it started like this:

When Bitzi was barely three years old, her mother drifted off to sea in an inflatable raft and subsequently died from exposure. At the time, Baby Bitzi’d been sick with the flu. Her mother went out for milk, stopping at the beach to clear her head. Exhausted, she’d fallen asleep in an abandoned raft. Out on the empty beach, the fated waves came for her, dragging up the shore inch-by-inch.

Oh no, people murmured, passing around a cheese plate. I’m so sorry.

It changed my life forever. Bitzi poured wine down the side of her cup, a jeweled puddle forming on the tablecloth. Can someone please hand me a napkin?

Adrift for a week, the sun cooked her mother’s head until her brains parboiled. There was nothing in the raft. No food, no water. The gallon of milk was found on the beach, spoiled to curds in the heat. When the coast guard found her, she’d been incoherent. Her mother died in the hospital less than twenty-four hours later.

That’s so sad, people whispered, reaching for another bite of hummus. How awful for you.

It’s made me who I am. Resilient. Bitzi held out her glass. Is there any more Riesling?

A mother swallowed by the tide, unwillingly taken from her beloved child. That was the story Bitzi told people, anyway. It was much more interesting to hear about sun-cracked lips parted on Bitzi’s name; her mother’s shaking hand reaching desperately toward shore and her only child.

Do you remember her at all? people asked, shaking their heads and patting her shoulder. You were so young.

I can never forget. Bitzi poured the last few drips in her glass and reached for the bottle opener. Can we…

Let me get that for you, they said, uncorking a fresh one.

The smell of the wine was thick in the air, no room for garlic or onion.

Thanks for listening, Bitzi said, taking the bottle with her to the restroom.

_

The real story was standard issue fare: Bitzi’s mother, gone out for undisclosed reasons, left her three-year-old stranded at the next door neighbor’s apartment. Bitzi’s ancient babysitter snored on the ratty sofa cushions, blissfully unaware she’d just been gifted someone else’s child.

But for Bitzi’s logic, the raft story was true enough. “Enough” was all that really mattered when it came to party stories. After all, her mother had essentially floated off, at least from her daughter—drifting into obscurity, away from any semblance of normal parenting responsibilities. The raft event seemed as plausible as the clichéd truth. So she told the story at parties, and people liked hearing it almost as much as Bitzi liked telling it to them.

It was as clear in her head as if she’d watched it on television, and in truth, she’d seen a scene very much like it once on The L Word. If anyone ever brought that up, Bitzi shrugged it off and took another sip of her wine.

Are you going to compare a television show with my mother’s death? Her watery eyes pleaded. Are you going to do that to me, at a party? Do that to me, an orphan? Her shoulders drooped. Anyone callous enough to bring it up immediately changed the subject and brought her a fresh drink.

There was no actual proof that her mother was dead. There’d been no further communication. Radio silence from the one person who held Bitzi’s genetic code; her father already a no-show since insemination.

Bitzi conjured her mother’s death in her mind: the choppiness of the water, her fatigue after staying up all night with a sick toddler. How her mother lay her head down in the sun-warmed vinyl interior of an abandoned raft, just for a minute, before heading back to tend her sick child. It seemed perfectly plausible. It’s what Bitzi would have done.