In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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When the chickens came to live at our house, I think I knew my roommate Addie was pregnant, but I wasn’t saying anything, and neither was she. She’d been spending too much time in the bathroom or her own room with the door closed and no one else around her. I didn’t knock to tell her there were chickens in the kitchen. She didn’t come out to look.
The chickens had appeared hours earlier under the oak trees at the housing co-op down the street, shitting and pecking near the basil and marijuana as if they’d sprung out of the soil. The guys who lived there said they found them two seconds from death; that their cats were crouched down low, rear ends hunched and ready to attack. The men from the co-op didn’t even question whether or not we’d take the chickens in. It was nighttime, and where else did they have to go?
“We can’t have chickens,” I said to my roommates.
“But look at how cute!” someone answered. Addie must’ve heard this — our walls were thin — but she didn’t come out then either.
The co-op guys left with arms full of our food, some beer, and a roll of duct tape, while the chickens squabbled in a cardboard box on our kitchen table. I didn’t catch the terms of the trade. Because they called us the “house of foxes,” we tended to do them favors. That we inspired lust in bearded men who lived communally and baked their own bread was enormously flattering. We repeated “house of foxes” to each other and giggled.
The chickens scrambled over each other, trying to hop themselves over the sides of the box. They were mostly reddish brown and not yet fully grown, stuck in that ugly, awkward stage between chick and chicken. Some feathers were still yellow and stuck out at strange angles. If they were cats, it would have looked like someone had petted them in the wrong direction and then doused them in hair spray.
“At least take them outside,” I said. “We just got rid of the fleas from the stupid cat.” Then I looked at a roommate and felt guilty. This roommate was from LA and was always giving up something: meat or dairy or refined sugar or shopping malls. We were all this way to some extent; we were in college in California, and more than anything we wanted to do the right thing. Bleach was banished from our house. Weeks earlier, during the flea infestation, another roommate from LA had cleaned our house from top to bottom with some kind of citrus oil. For days everything glowed and smelled sweet with citrus, but the oil only left the fleas shinier and more slippery. After that, two roommates caught me spreading flea powder in the corners of the living room when I thought they weren’t home, and we all had to stop and talk about our feelings. Addie didn’t come out of her room then either.
“I’m sorry. Look, chickens have mites,” I said now. I didn’t know if this was true, but it seemed like it could be, and I wanted to be convincing. “They can’t stay in the house.”
“But it’s cold out,” one roommate said.
“They’re too little,” another added.
“You’re a vegetarian,” a third insisted. “Don’t you care?”
“They’re chickens,” I said, as if maybe someone had missed this fact. “They can’t be in the kitchen. It’s not sanitary.” I knew Addie would back me up on this, but I wasn’t about to knock on her door.
The chickens bobbed up and down as if dancing to the sound of their own clucks. Then one squawked, and four of my five roommates simultaneously rushed toward it. I knew then that the chickens had won.
You could say I was waiting for Addie to come to me, and that’s why I didn’t go to her. Addie and I were slightly more like each other than we were like everyone else in the house, even though Addie and I weren’t really alike at all. Still, we had an unspoken understanding based on who we weren’t. For one thing, we were not from California. I don’t know if that explains it. We were girls who did not cause scenes. Instead, we made an art of quick exits. When angry or sad, we disappeared. We didn’t slam doors, just yanked ourselves out of situations quickly, like pulling teeth. Our roommates were different. They broke into pieces like dropped dishes. Someone was always expressing herself. I don’t mean to say this was good. In my family we didn’t yell, or, if we did, we didn’t mean it. Hard things weren’t discussed at any volume.
House meetings always sent Addie and me out for a drink afterward. Once, over sambuca with espresso beans, we tried to find words for the difference between us and our roommates. “They emote,” Addie said. She leaned over and made a scooping gesture with her hand, as if pulling her heart out of her chest. She looked at me and blinked behind her glasses, then we both laughed.
Later, back at home, I opened an e-mail from George, who was too old for me but whom I’d been staring at in class all semester. We’d never spoken, but when the instructor would have us trade papers to practice proofreading, George would write flirty notes in my margins. I think you need a comma here, he’d write. I could probably loan you one of mine. His e-mail tonight read, This class is killing me. Coffee after? I closed my laptop and sat alone in my room, staring at the ceiling, wondering what it would be like if he were here.
The roommates and I moved the chickens from their original box to a larger one to give them more room. “They need to flap,” someone had proclaimed. Everyone was suddenly a chicken expert. Two roommates put shredded newspaper in the box for padding. They wanted to build a coop in the spring, after it stopped raining.
Up late one night, studying at the kitchen table with the box at my feet, I could feel the heat of the chickens through the cardboard. The warmth surprised me. When Addie walked in, I didn’t even hear her. That’s how silent she’d gotten. She moved quickly through doorways without saying a word. She didn’t seem to notice me as she pulled out a pot, filled it with water, and put it on the stove. Her bathrobe hung to the floor, and a towel was draped over her shoulders. I’d never actually seen a person look green, but I thought the way Addie looked that night must have been what people meant when they said that. She looked like wax, not even real.
“No.” She opened a cabinet door, and a dust-colored moth darted out. From beneath the table came a soft rustling, then a blatant cluck. Addie turned around. “What the hell?” she said. I thought for sure she’d already heard the chickens. I quickly explained. “We can’t have chickens in the house,” she said. I could tell she was trying to smile, but she was frowning. Her nose always wrinkled when she did that. “I just want a normal house,” she said.
“The stuff that dreams are made of,” I told her. I should’ve said something better. I asked if she was making tea.
“No.” She looked at the pot of water. “I’m just steaming my head. I’m not feeling good.” She paused. “I think it’s the flu.”
I’d heard her get sick every morning for a week. I could’ve said something right then. It was dark out — no one else was in the kitchen. Instead I asked, “Do you need anything?” She made another kind of face. Sometimes something in her expression would break open, and there’d be this soft person inside you didn’t see the minute before.
“No, I’m OK,” she said and flipped the towel up over her head. “I just need to rest.” Her voice was muffled with steam.
In the morning the kitchen smelled like chickens. Rain pounded the roof and poured down the sliding glass door into the backyard, where the ground was bumpy with an overpopulation of worms, attracted by the compost heap. From three different places above me in the kitchen, the ceiling dripped. The box with chickens in it looked more bent than it had the night before, the edges more rounded. Wetness darkened the corners on the bottom. I put my hand above the box and was even more struck by the warmth. I worried faintly about poultry and combustion. What feathers might do under pressure.
On the dry-erase board I wrote, We need to do something about the chickens, and underlined it three times.
The thing was, our house was too full and chaotic already. The walls seemed to press in around us. Hair clogged the drains, Christmas lights hung off hooks, there was a pit in the backyard where we’d tried to build a pond, and I was always trying not to step on something. The house was full of CDs, shoes, clothes, and friends who came to visit, and sometimes it overflowed with accusation and complaint. We were six girls with several always-visiting boyfriends, one cat, a boxful of chickens, and one bathroom. The math wasn’t making any of us very happy.
Endless trails of ants reappeared each morning no matter how many times we scrubbed down the counters or sprinkled cinnamon along the moldings. I took the yellow sponge and wiped them all up. Killing the ants gave me a pleasure I can’t quite explain. The lack of insecticide in the house made us all a little bloodthirsty. I looked at the black mass still writhing in the yellow sponge and then held it under the hot-water tap, hoping to drown them.
I decided it was important to not bother Addie. Here’s something I understood: not everyone wants to get in touch with her feelings. Addie’s boyfriend stopped by to pick her up that afternoon. He stood in the living room and looked at his feet and said they had a few errands to run in Sacramento. When they walked in later that day, Addie leaned on him, her eyes red. She didn’t say a word. They closed the bedroom door behind them and said things to each other I couldn’t hear but thought I understood. On the dry-erase board I wrote, Quiet, guys, Addie is napping, and drew Zs above the words. I put it right under Addie’s note to me: George called. She’d underlined it with three small hearts.
I had cautiously agreed to have coffee with George. He was foreign, mysterious, and completely terrifying to me. I mean to say he was exciting. I’m not sure “George” was even his real name. I knew he was from a country at war and had strong opinions, and because of his age, I assumed he’d been in the war. He was so different from anyone else I knew — so elusive about anything that had happened before the start of the semester — that it was easy to imagine all kinds of possibilities. My roommates nicknamed him “The Assassin,” and we all laughed nervously.
When George and I sat down over coffee, I fidgeted and blinked through the whole conversation. Eventually I asked, “So, you were in the military?”
He hunched his shoulders. “Yeah,” he said and watched for my reaction.
“What did you do?” I asked.
“You don’t want to know,” he said, leaning back in his chair.
“Oh.” I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“People don’t understand what happens over there,” he told me.
I did. Or I thought I did. I’d seen pictures on protest signs.
What I wanted to say was Time out, date over — all deals are off. I wasn’t prepared for this. I was a vegetarian. War didn’t fit in with that. I wanted to swing the conversation back around to the price of coffee or the bad cafe art all around us: unidentifiable mythic creatures holding out bony fingers, orange chalk on denim. It was horrible. His ponytail indicated to me that maybe he wasn’t very happy about his past, but I couldn’t form anything close to a question. For weeks I made a list in my head at night of reasons why I couldn’t be with him. It boiled down to this: I didn’t even want to touch something that painful.
But the more I talked to George, the more I couldn’t not talk to him. I liked him. He was gentle and smart — and about a million years older than I was. He sent me e-mails late at night, his writing as cadenced and lyrical as his accent. One night George wrote: Have I ever told you how fond I am of your name? and my heart unexpectedly leapt. Another night he invited me to a play, and we went to dinner beforehand. Something in the way he looked at me, his eyes narrowed, not quite smiling, made me feel sexy for the very first time. I found it was a trait you could turn off and on, a way you held your head, an inflection in the voice, something alive and moving. I’d dated before, but this was a new experience: this moment of leaping off a cliff where you decide it really can’t be that far down. Why not? I could absorb anything he had to say.
After the play, in the dark parking lot, I leaned into him. His beard was sharper than I expected. I thought, This is what it is to kiss a man. I mean that he wasn’t a boy. We sat on the hood of his car, and he threw a knee over my knee, this funny, playful gesture. It made me want to hug him.
He took me back to his place and led me into his bedroom, where he untied the knot that was my body. It wasn’t my first time, just the first time it had felt like this. He called me the next day and left a message. I called him back, but he didn’t answer. I called again the next day, and, again, he didn’t answer. I thought he must be wearing himself out, working night shifts. It took a week of him not answering for me to finally get a clue. I stopped calling him. My confusion turned to anger, which I swallowed. Then he was sitting next to me in class again, and after a few awkward silences, we went back to muttering under-the-breath jokes.
My theory was that if you never mentioned certain things, they didn’t necessarily exist.
One day when I got home from class, I walked into a house wrecked by chickens. One sat in the living room on the couch, one on a pile of magazines on the table, and one perched high on a bookshelf. Their box lay in pieces all over the floor, with shreds of soggy, smelly newspaper all around it. They’d gotten into everything. They had spilled pencils all over, had pecked apart a bag of bread. A thin coat of feathers covered the carpet. There were loose papers everywhere: unpaid bills, shopping lists, accusatory notes about dirty dishes. It seemed important to pick these things up and get the chickens out, even with Addie’s door closed like a vault down the hall. Addie’s boyfriend’s car wasn’t in the driveway, but I heard her moving inside her room. I herded the chickens into the backyard and began cleaning up the house. Partway through, I picked up the phone. “Look,” I said to George’s voice mail, because of course he didn’t answer. “I didn’t deserve that.”
I turned on the television, and the news blared at me while I cleaned. One segment showed children in a faraway country scattering and ducking from men with guns. Some of them actually giggled as they ran.
My roommates eventually came home and saw what wreckage I’d yet to pick up. We called a house meeting immediately. One of the girls suggested cookies and beer with a new tone of voice, one that implied we liked each other.
“We need to get rid of the chickens,” someone said.
“I think something just bit me.”
“They totally wrecked the carpet,” said one of the roommates. She tugged at a loose corner of the carpet and peeled it up, then stopped suddenly and shrieked. “Oh, my God!”
The rest of us got up to look. Under the flap of carpet we counted seven unidentifiable insects still in their larval form. They must’ve been crawling around everywhere in the floor underneath us.
“That’s it. This is totally disgusting. We can’t live like this.”
“I vote we spray for bugs.”
“I vote we move.”
“I’m not sleeping here with worms under the carpet.”
“Where’s Addie? We need her here.”
“I’ll get her,” I said.
The clinic couldn’t perform an abortion until at least six weeks into pregnancy; it took cells that long to attach themselves enough to then be torn away. Addie had learned that on her first trip to Sacramento.
I knocked on her door and said, “Hey, Ad. Come out. Can we talk?”
When Addie stepped forward, she was a new shade of gray. There wasn’t going to be a second trip to Sacramento, because she’d miscarried that afternoon. She said later, “I think it was a girl. I don’t know why, but I think I could tell.”
I used to think that some sadness was so big you couldn’t ever touch it — that if you saw it in another person, the polite thing to do was to pretend not to; or that some subjects were so unspeakable that to share them with anyone else would diminish their seriousness. And then I thought maybe I’d gotten it all wrong, and it was better to talk about everything. But looking at Addie in that moment, I knew that nothing I could say or not say would change anything.
Outside, the rain had finally stopped, and moonlight was shining down into the backyard, where the chickens pecked in the grass. We all gathered in the living room. Then there was a knock at the front door. I swung it open and saw George awkwardly standing there in a white T-shirt and faded jeans, his hair pulled back, his eyes full of sorrow and something I couldn’t read. He was dressed like an ordinary college kid, but that was it. He didn’t fit in here. I suddenly felt sorry for him.
He shifted his weight and opened his hands outward, toward me. “I didn’t mean —” he started. Addie and my other roommates appeared in the hall behind me. For a moment, it seemed like we were all going to sit down together.
We heard a loud noise from the backyard. We looked at each other for a second, then all rushed outside, with George right behind us. One of the chickens, terrified and thrashing, had its head caught in the chain-link fence. The rusty diamond of wire was dug in beneath its feathers, and there was bright-red blood on the ground below. Without a word George stepped forward.
George lifted the chicken gently, supporting the weight of its body, which seemed to immediately ease its suffering. Then in one fluid movement he placed his hands around the chicken’s neck and twisted, as if wringing out a towel. He held the body away from him as it jerked, and for a minute the only sound was the beating of its wings. When it was over, George laid the chicken’s body in the grass, and we stood there gaping at him, relieved and astounded. Who knew anything about this man? Our nickname for him was suddenly even more stupid. He looked down at the chicken and then back at us.
“I just wanted —” George said, gesturing away from his chest. A feather stuck to his arm, and I could see the beginnings of an older man’s belly under his T-shirt. He moved toward me, and I reflexively stepped back. With his hands outstretched he seemed to be asking me for something, or reaching for me. Then he stepped backward, a new expression on his face, like maybe he didn’t trust us, his arms out in front of him as if in defense.