Rhea DeRose-Weiss received her BA in Literature from the University of North Carolina at Asheville, where she won the Thomas Wolfe Award for Short Fiction, and an MFA in Writing and Consciousness from the New College of California. She has published fiction and nonfiction in various magazines and journals. Her personal essay “Goodbye, ‘Rock & Roll Sexy’” is pending publication in the Fall 2008 issue of Whore! magazine. Rhea currently lives in San Francisco and teaches writing at the Academy of Art University. She is working on a collection of short stories titled The Neon Artist.
The seagull peers in my direction, first out of one eye and then the other, turning his shrewd head from side to side. I look around to see if there is someone else to whom he might be giving the eye, but there is no one. I do believe this seagull is in love with me. It’s possible that he is actually considering an attack—it’s a fine line, sometimes—but I prefer to call it love. I prefer to believe he is admiring my avian bones, the swanlike curve of my neck; he is longing to touch feather to that stretch of naked skin. I stare back with what is intended to be an encouraging look but is probably imperceptible behind my fashionably oversized sunglasses. His feet are a translucent pink, almost delicate in contrast to his surly demeanor. The little red mark on the bottom of his beak makes it look like he has been sipping Kool-Aid. A surly Kool-Aid sipper with delicate feet—I like him already. But one mustn’t appear smitten too soon, so I coyly look out at the water. I’m sitting on the stone steps above the little strip of beach along the San Francisco bay, between Fisherman’s Wharf and Fort Mason. Because it’s Memorial Day, I am free from the stifling confines of my office but not sure quite what to do with myself. I haven’t done much exploring of the city on my own since I moved here almost three years ago. In fact, I spent most of the last three years with my ex-boyfriend the poet, but since we broke up over a month ago, he isn’t speaking to me at this point in time. Since then, I’ve decided to become one of those women who goes out and does things on her own. I am trying to learn how not to feel lonely in a crowd. But there is something particularly lonely about a holiday after you have recently broken up with someone—even an innocuous, decidedly unromantic holiday like Memorial Day.
I am surrounded by people—people walking, people riding bikes, people lolling in the sun. On the beach, children dig in the sand with large, brightly colored spoons, and in the water, swimmers, slick like seals in black wetsuits, move in seemingly nonsensical loops. The braver ones wade out with nothing between them and the icy cold except bathing suits, swim caps, and goggles. Farther out, there are sailboats and barges, and beyond that, the abandoned shell of Alcatraz, and the regal arc of the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s a warm day for San Francisco, one of the few that jump out at the end of the summer like party guests from behind furniture: surprise!
I turn back to my feathered admirer, who is still giving me the hairy eyeball. Perhaps, I think, he is a man trapped in the body of a seagull. Perhaps he is trying to communicate something to me with his intense bird stares—a longing to transcend his form, a desire to be known and understood as more than a seagull—a bird that is, after all, merely one of many common scavengers flocking to the California coast.
When I was maybe nine or ten, my father bought me a copy of the book Jonathan Livingston Seagull. I obstinately refused to appreciate its philosophical value, as was the case with all the books my father bought me as a child, but it did instill in me a sense of the seagull as a majestic being.
My ex-boyfriend the poet despised seagulls. “The pigeons of the sea,” he called them. “Mean and dirty animals. Even Gary Snyder didn’t like them, and he was a nature lover if there ever was one.”
My ex-boyfriend the poet had a penchant for the California Beats, who I never much cared for. A lot of verbal masturbation, if you ask me. But I didn’t argue with him: we had enough to fight about without adding seagulls or Gary Snyder to the list. We argued about how to pit an avocado and whether intelligence was based on nature or nurture. We argued about the girls he’d slept with during our first break up, whose identities I discovered one by one, in various unpleasant ways, after we got back together. We argued about how much I drank; we argued about how much he drank. We argued about who needed therapy and who was emotionally unavailable. We argued about things that had happened months ago, years ago. We argued about who had said what five minutes ago. We built fortresses out of petty resentments and irrational jealousies; we pronounced our hatred over the walls. We went to bed furious and then clung to each other in the morning, whispering apologies in the baptismal light.
Nearby, a dark-haired woman in red shorts has begun running up and down the stone steps. Her daughter, a prettier, effortlessly slender version of the woman, sits down nearby and begins to speak casually into her cell phone in a language I can’t quite make out from where I sit. I’ve been reading this book lately about being present in the moment rather than dwelling on the past or obsessing about the future. I wonder who is more present in this moment, the running woman or her daughter. Obviously it should be the woman running—in tune with her body, her mind uncluttered by other people, other places. But what if she is thinking about the fat on her thighs and the disdain that wrinkles around her husband’s mouth and how much she will have to run to eradicate the knowledge that her marriage has died a boring and predictable death? And maybe her daughter is telling her friend on the phone about the ripples in the water, the way the floating loons disappear beneath the surface to catch a fish and appear again, like a sleight of hand, twenty feet away.
There were moments with my ex-boyfriend the poet when we would consider the future, not as something ominous looming in the distance, but as something to lean into together, a warm and hopeful wind. Sometimes, in the apologetic light of morning, my ex-boyfriend the poet would talk about having a baby. As if that could hold us together, turn us into the sort of normal, balanced people who are capable of raising a child. We could barely take care of ourselves. But there were moments, I admit, split seconds, when I entertained the fantasy. After all, who doesn’t want to believe that she could change herself, change her life, just like that? Who doesn’t want to believe in “through thick and thin, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health?”
Perhaps I was just looking in the wrong direction. Perhaps my seagull has come to rescue me from the quotidian human plight. Perhaps he will hold me safe in the ardent warmth of his great wings. It’s not unheard of, the love between a woman and a bird. Take for example, “Thumbelina,” one of my favorite stories as a child. Of course, Thumbelina was very small and could fly on the back of her beloved swallow. I, although unusually petite, am of human size and would have to learn to fly on my own. But just the other night I dreamt that I could fly. Usually in flying dreams I start off on the ground and take big leaps into the air but don’t go very high—even asleep, I’m afraid of heights. But the other night I was soaring at cloud level over vast landscapes. My mother told me about a book she read recently: the author was a woman who, like me, was single and closing in on thirty, and so she vowed to say yes to every man who asked her out for an entire year. In the end, of course, she got married. The lesson here is that one should be open to possibility. The problem for me, however, is not choosiness. I am not a woman who gets asked out a lot, period. I am a woman who smiles too little and ends up hugging the bar at last call, disheartedly eyeing her prospects.
When I was fifteen my father left—the freewheeling musician type, he was never quite cut out for the responsibilities of family life. My sister, who was only twelve at the time of the divorce, tells me that afterward our mother didn’t get out of bed for days at a time. Oddly, I can’t remember, although I do recall standing outside her door one night, listening to her sob. Now when I ask my mother if she wants to get remarried she says, “Why? I’ve already had kids, what would I do with a husband?”
My avian love has been joined by another gull and is momentarily distracted from his pursuit. Or perhaps they’re discussing his chances with me. Maybe the second one is giving him emotional support: “She obviously digs you. Go for it, man!” Unless he is one of those misogynist, frat-ish companions: “C’mon, let’s go. You can’t be serious about that chick: she’s like, landlocked and shit. C’mon dude, bros before hos.”
It must be the latter, because there they go, off into the sky, flapping their awkward, unfathomable wings. But he isn’t the first, he won’t be the last. It probably wouldn’t have worked anyway. We might have been soul mates—social misfits with hearts full of longing—but physicality is not so easily overcome. Now that I think of it, Thumbelina did not marry her swallow. He left her in a flower where she met a small prince who had arms the right size to hold her through the night.
With my ex-boyfriend the poet, what it finally came down to was this: I no longer wanted him to touch me. The arguments about avocados and past lovers became irrelevant. The petty resentments and irrational jealousies sifted through our fingers like sand.
Out in the distance people continue to swim their nonsensical loops. They call to each other every now and then, with indecipherable staccato syllables. From where I sit, it sounds like a game of Marco Polo—one in which the boundaries keep shifting and finding each other is no longer the point.