Little by Little
Unearthly flute-like calls pierced the cobalt skies of early May, a trill on steroids, repeating manically. A looping, relentless distress call in two parts. Looking back, I see it for what it was: the wood thrush first sounding the alarm. Throughout that morning, the unnatural song circled the air as I navigated the familiar trail on my usual rounds. I noted it on my pad and planned to swing back the following day to investigate further. Then I rushed home for lunch to meet him.
Even there, I thought I could hear it, albeit far off. Muffled by the heavy curtains in my bedroom, I paused beneath Bradley and asked, “Do you hear that?”
He stroked my thighs, opening my legs wider.
I looked toward the window.
“A bird making a fuss?”
Maybe he registered it subconsciously, the worrisome song beyond my walls, somewhere past the groaning, my salt-tinged skin, the rustle of my sheets.
Or maybe not. Either way, we didn’t heed the warning. The moment of us listening for something outside ourselves ended, and he kissed my lips hard and started again. Animalistic, our bodies snaked together in distraction, in pleasure, while the world began its unraveling.
First, the incessant warbling of the wood thrush. Then morphing sky, a crescendo from blue to pink. The singsong calls faded.
And the rain started to fall.
Thin puddles formed on the patio, as we laid chest to chest, our hearts slowing from their gallop, our gazes fixed on a mauve, bubblegum hue misting up from the pooling water. We rubbed our eyes, and it was still there.
“Weird. I better get.” Bradley pulled his pants on at the end of my bed. Heat still simmered in the room above us. “Batten the hatches.”
I hated to see him trudge home. I fantasized each time, as I laid in my sheets, still tangled, that he might stay. Instead, he would kiss my head and say his line.
“Be a good girl, Joy.”
Then he’d march the two dozen or so steps home across my front lawn, across two-lane Sullivan Street, through his own yard, and past the imposing wood door of his comfortable white home, the one he shared with his wife.
Of course, he took this route, so public, only when she was at work at the hospital, where she saved lives while we ruined hers. When she was at home and he visited me, which was rare, he’d disappear through the mulberry trees lining the back of my property. He’d slink through the alley lined with garbage and recycling cans, emerging on Barren St. From there, he’d circle back to his house, giving me a slight nod as he came down the block. I always stood at the window to watch for him, waiting for the nod, the tiny spark of acknowledgment of what we’d just been together, before he vanished, again, inside.
That first day of rain, after he left, I also took to the front window. It was open, the screen slick. I pressed my palm against it, wanting to feel the cold, the wet. This was a mistake. The exposure, only a few seconds, left the pad of my hand raw and blistered. I yanked it back.
“Son of a bitch,” I yelled to my empty house. This pain was a punishment. I deserved to feel it. And it stung. My palm throbbed, pulsating with kinetic energy like nothing I’d felt before. Tears sprung to my eyes, and I stumbled to the bathroom to find an old ace bandage and something to ease the pain. Inside the lowest cabinet, in the back, behind the tampons, there was a bottle of nearly dried out calamine lotion, a relic from a camping trip to Maine years ago. A trickle of the pink cream slithered out, barely enough to cover my hand, which ached and stiffened.
I didn’t know it then, but I’d live with this scar until the end.
Two hours later, I lifted the phone with my non-burned hand. I called his number.
“Did you make it?”
He breathed heavy into the phone. “Not without some damage.”
“My arms, my neck. Anything not covered got hit with that rain and is blistering up.”
“Fuck. I put my hand on the screen. Same thing, it’s all raw.”
“Stay inside. I mean it. Stay there, Joy. Until this passes. Be a good girl.”
I could picture him in his house with bandages wrapped around his neck and arms. She’d have a well-stocked medicine cabinet, effective ointments, bandages that adhere and stay put. Once, I’d stepped on a tiny piece of broken glass in their backyard, at a happy hour they’d thrown for the block. This was a thing they did from time to time; put out a small sign in their yard that said, “Come on over!” with a picture of a martini glass on it, and all the neighbors knew this meant they were having drinks on their patio and that we were invited. That day, after cutting myself, she’d ushered me inside, chastising me for being barefoot.
“Where are your shoes, Joy?” She’d eyed my bare feet, with my toes painted a gaudy pink. I had tried to walk up on those toes, so as not to get any blood on her floor. She’d whisked me toward the hallway bathroom. “Let me see it,” she said once there, the two of us squeezed into a space only meant for one. I sat on the closed toilet and raised my foot. She grabbed my ankle and leaned in, squinting. “Just a wee little cut but so much blood.” She wrinkled her nose, which was pierced. She wore a tiny gold dot of a stud in it. “You’ll be fine. Just get those shoes on your feet!” She’d wiped it and placed a bandage over the cut. She was so nice, and helpful, and I could see that she was probably caring and adept at her job as a nurse. I wanted to befriend her then, but pushed the thought out, because I knew even then that what I wanted more was Bradley.
The initial worldwide panic over the rain stewed chaos for weeks before it eventually subsided into grim acceptance. Everyone took indoors to wait. By the end of June, the world as we knew it was gone. Once a mere sprinkle, the rain turned relentless and heavy, then solidified into a sludge, which dropped in wet clumps from the magenta clouds and filled the streets in a stagnant, rose-colored river. The gunk deepened, became thigh-high, covering car wheels. There was no way to go anywhere and nowhere to go. All greenery vanished. Lawns first, like the one I watched Bradley cross that day. Leaves, coated in pink film, scattered to the ground like October, where they were covered not by blinding white snow but by cotton-candy-colored muck. News anchors dubbed it “The Pink Poison” before they abandoned their reports sometime around Juneteenth. Children slept in schools, trapped and deemed too vulnerable to make a run for it, until their parents showed up, so badly scarred that many died in the hallways. Workers hunkered in office buildings, pizza places, malls and factories. Some trudged recklessly through the streets to try to shelter at home, never to be heard from again. Families were separated; lovers divided.
From my window, I watched the skies for birds. Old habits die hard. My research assignment on urban migratory stopover sites ended without fanfare, not even a perfunctory email from my director saying, “Given the state of the world, the project is on pause.” The Wi-Fi was spotty until it failed completely, so in a way, I understood. But a desire for normalcy kept me gazing into the clouds, fed by the misplaced belief that perhaps any day, the rain would stop, and my work would be waiting. To see one bird, its wingspan flared, soaring through the pink sky, would be a signal of hope. Perhaps a great blue heron, a dinosaur among us, its long legs trailing behind its sturdy body. It was a bird that had indeed lived through worse and survived.
But the skies were empty.
The wood thrush, the red-bellied robin, the blue jay, the mourning dove — could they have flown somewhere without rain? Did such a place exist? I asked myself this. And as everything I knew fell away, as I realized all that was left was trying to survive, I’d try to remember: Was the sky that day blue? Were there tinges of pink? Was there a scent in the air, a stifling humidity, anything more I should have noted, or just that wood thrush in distress? Maybe I’d failed to pay attention when it had mattered most. Maybe I was walking too fast, distracted, just waiting to be home in bed with him.
When I wasn’t fixated on the sky, I peered through the rain into his house. I could barely make out Bradley’s silhouette across the street, moving in the same patterns every day. He appeared to shuffle in a haze from one room to another before he would settle at the front window, mug in hand. Peering at him, two yards and a street and the rain between us, his face was too small and distorted for me to make out any singular expression, so I had to invent them. Something in his posture, his square shoulders filling the window for hours, comforted me. We stood in our separate spaces, watched the rain like this, and clinked our mugs on the windows. I wiped tears from my cheeks with my sleeve. This was our ritual, and it made our days bearable. Or maybe all I can really say is it made mine that way. What he felt or thought, I couldn’t know.
In July, my food supply waning, I prepared the house for my eventual death. I couldn’t picture who would come to find me, or any of us. I wanted my home to be a time capsule of who I was at the end. I gathered, from around the house, relics from past lives that no longer served me. Books on painting and dieting, habits I never did latch on to. Old college textbooks. Clothes I wore in my early 20s when I frequented bars, sexy little dresses with no backs and flirty hems. One dress I decided to keep was the one I’d worn to that backyard happy hour, the first time I remember Bradley noticing me. The rest, I threw into white garbage bags, which I pitched from the doorway into the backyard whenever the rain slowed to a drizzle. The pile of garbage grew to half the size of the playset, a wooden monstrosity that had been there when I’d moved in five years ago. I’d kept it up, thinking … one day. Instead, it anchored the mountain of my discarded things.
Whenever I opened my door and perched just inside where the rain couldn’t reach me, I strained to hear any sounds of life from before: the drone of cars on the nearby freeway, motorcycles revving, the godawful weed whackers and leaf blowers. People standing around a grill, talking and laughing. Of course, there was none of that. I listened anyway. Early on, there were so many sirens. Even that distressing noise was gone, leaving behind only a marked silence. Sludge falling on sludge with an ominous soft plop and the low whisper of wind rustling empty tree branches.
One day, I emptied the garbage can in my garage, and, using a broom, I pushed it out into my driveway. It became a vessel to collect what fell.
The last time I saw Bradley was weeks ago, before the streets were totally impassable. He had shown up on my porch. The electricity had flickered for weeks before it died, and my phone had been dead for days. He’d knocked on the door and called my name, yelling it over the rain pounding on the roof. I heard his voice from the bath, where I’d been soaking in the dark. I answered the door, wet inside my bathrobe. He wore a raincoat, a ridiculous women’s beach hat, winter boots and gloves, and he held an umbrella over his head. But his face still looked reddened from exposure. He handed me a package of venison sausage wrapped in cling wrap. Before all this, he’d smoked meats in his backyard.
“It won’t go bad,” he said. “Could last you a long time if you eat it little by little.”
I let him hug me for many minutes, his arms firm against my back. I hoped his scent would imprint into the terrycloth, but all he smelled of that day was the rain, astringent and wet and deadly. We separated slowly. He placed his hand on my face, his thumb over my lips.
He didn’t ask me to follow him. I suppose I didn’t offer for him to come inside either. What I ached for was so simple: to not be alone. But I couldn’t say it out loud. So, he said, “Be a good girl, Joy,” and I said nothing. He turned back into the falling pink rain, crossed the street, and was gone.
I tried not to look at photos. It was painful to do so. But some days, I gave in. In one, my mom stands next to my father at the sea’s edge; both are teenagers. My mom wears a flowing, airy yellow dress; my father is in red swim trunks and tries to splash her with the foamy wake. The photo only captured the side of her face, but from just this sliver, I could see she was joyous and in love. I imagined there might be a picnic spread out behind them. I don’t know who snapped the photo, maybe a friend of theirs. At first glance, the photo filled me with a senseless jealousy that it was my mother there and not me. I wanted to be her. I wanted to be young and at the brink of the sea, my toes wet. I wanted to escape what I knew — that I would die soon, never having been splashed with salty wake by a man I love.
I should have been happy that they, my parents, laughed by the water once, their future together a blank slate stretching before them. All I felt was relief that they were not here anymore, not experiencing the rain, even if it meant I was alone. The real sadness was the sea. The photo was a reminder of what it was, before. Now, my guess was that it was ruined, polluted, its inhabitants, both those that swim and those that fly, all wasted in the pink rain. That vile image of the new ocean filled me with rage; I walked, dazed, into the garage and stood at the edge of the driveway. I tossed the photo into the garbage can. My parents’ smiling faces and the sea were quickly covered by pink gunk, disappearing down for good.
Now, I talk to myself. I report all of this, as an offering. I’m eating my last meal, a bowl of canned peaches, at my front window. He’s not standing there, across the way. She is. Her arms are crossed, and her hair is long and wet like she recently showered. I don’t know how she ever made it home from the hospital. It happened weeks ago. Bradley stopped waiting at the window with his mug soon after. She stares at me like she knows something. Somehow, through the rain and distance, her eyes cut me. She starts yelling into the glass, her breath fogging up the window. She bangs her fist on the pane, which flashes as it catches in the misty glow, vibrating with each pound. Bradley appears and picks her up around the waist, pulling her back into the dark house. The curtains flap shut.
I’m stunned, not by her, but by the peaches: their sweetness, their syrupy fragrance, the shapes they form as I bite them, and their cold weight as I move them back and forth on my tongue. They’re exquisite. I should have realized it before.
Outside, the pink rain falls, blurring the world, and Bradley returns. I press my forehead against my window, and while our eyes seem to meet, what he doesn’t know is that I think only of the peaches, about all the natural delights wasted, gone, unappreciated.
I think again of the wood thrush; the way it was two steps ahead of the whole world. It was brilliant and made of softness. I swallow the last peach with a groan and remember my favorite thing about the wood thrush: its ability, unlike any other bird, to sing two songs at once. It could harmonize with itself; even alone, it could pull from within something complex and beautiful and offer it to the world, even if no one was listening.
What goddammed wonder. What a goddamned waste.