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Phillip Lopate describes the shape of Manhattan Island as‘a luxury liner, permanently docked, going nowhere’. This feeling of being tethered to the land, unable to get to sea, was a feature of New York life for much of the twentieth century. New York was an island without a coast. The West Side piers that once welcomed the Lusitania spent most of the twentieth century crumbling or behind barbed wire, while the East Side’s coves and points were cut off from pedestrians by six lanes of the Robert Moses-designed Franklin Delano Roosevelt Drive. It wasn’t much easier to reach the shores of Brooklyn, Queens or the Bronx, either: with a few exceptions, they were largely reserved for municipal or industrial use, and easiest to see from the Staten Island Ferry (en route to the borough with the most beaches). Now, slowly, the city is reclaiming its shoreline, with some spectacular results.

The Birdcage by Nicki Pombier Berger

OBJECT: Birdcage

BODY OF WATER: Gowanus Canal

 

Kate was scouting the pan-Asian buffets when she first saw the magician. A few chirpy women were clustered around him, and Kate watched from a distance while he rendered them boneless. They gripped each other’s elbows. They tittered and yelped. She moved to the edge of their circle and watched while the magician folded the nine of hearts into a triangle, stabbed it through with one woman’s lapel pin, an emerald dove, then vanished both from his hand. The card reappeared, unwrinkled, unpoked, in the liner pocket of another woman’s jacket.

The women shrieked. None asked what happened to the dove.

Kate was impressed, but didn’t stick around for another act. She was not a woman predisposed to wonder, not a believer in much beyond the evidentiary. As a litigation lawyer, she manipulated language to conjure or advance a particular reality, which might seem to some like slight of hand.  But there was no magic in it for her. She wasn’t looking for it.

She was looking for her husband, who wasn’t where she’d left him. Kate had her third gimlet in one hand and her first plate of food in the other, and went right to hungry rage when she couldn’t find Mike. They had a system for these non-tabled events – she hunted and gathered, he schmoozed and held the plates. Where was he? Kate brought her plate up to her chin, took a nibble of Pad Thai.

They were at the holiday party for Mike’s firm, an investment-banking biggie whose belief in the failed magic of real estate securities spelled impending disaster, evidenced nowhere. Here was Midtown indulgence at its finest, the same degree of shebang Kate had been going to for ten years now, undiminished, if anything enhanced by the mood of coming doom. She wove through banquettes by the hundreds, spread thick with slick meats, and fruit plates too landscaped to eat, cheeses and cakes and steaming vats of this and that, sushi rolls like zygotes, eyeing her from every table.

“Speaking of zygotes,” she said, picking up a spicy tuna roll with her drink hand and wagging it at Angie, a fellow wife who materialized beside her. Formerly Kate’s partner in food scouting, Angie was secretly pregnant, six weeks along and not telling anyone except anyone who asked anything like how’re you doing, which was everyone here, of course.

Angie made a face. “Don’t rub it in.”

“Can you believe you’ve got a little fish in there?”

“I hope not. God, put that thing down, I feel sick. The smells in here!” She clutched her stomach. Kate rolled her eyes.

“Seriously! And I’m stuck with this.” Angie lifted her vodka-less soda, and Kate clinked it with her gin.

“Have you seen Mike?”

“He was with them.” Angie rounded her hand over an invisible stomach. Mike’s department had four women huge and hard with late-term pregnancies, their belly buttons visible like third nipples. It’s like a disease, he told Kate. I hope you’re not a carrier, she said back.

She poked at Angie’s future mound. “You’re one of them now.”

Angie moaned miserably, clearly ecstatic. “I should find them, actually. Get a few tips. Before I never see them again.” She gestured vaguely at the room. Kate saw Mike’s boss not far away, gripping a highball, laughing himself pink to the scalp. She saw one of the first-year analysts bent over a brick of Manchego, sawing hard against its rind, his wine glass spilling unnoticed. Kate saw, high above, an acrobat, hired like the magician to charm them all blind to the end. The acrobat dove through an arc to no oohs or ahs, her bare legs bound in spirals of ribbon, and alighted alone on a platform near the ceiling. Kate saw the magician amid another clutch of women, and clicked her glass against her teeth to keep from laughing.  And then she saw the magician see her; Kate bit down on her glass, tipped it back, downed the rest slowly, showing the length of her neck.

“You go ahead,” she told Angie. “I’m still hunting.”

Angie left, and the magician lifted his chin at Kate, pointed to his shoulder. Kate touched hers, and there it was: the nine of hearts, slipped beneath her thin strap, cool as a palm against her skin. She put the card on her plate and her plate on a table and grabbed a glass of white from a passing tray, and when she turned back, the plate and card were gone, and though the magician was nowhere to be seen, she could feel him, as a wire feels a bird just taken flight.

Taking another glass of wine from the bar, she made a full circuit of the room, raising her two glasses with a shrugging smile when she passed people she knew, or thought she might know, or should. Can’t talk, important business, delivering drinks. No magician. Down a corridor lined with silent auction prizes, yacht rides and Hampton mansion weekends, lunch with Eli Manning and portraits painted to order from all manner of artists, she passed into a room crooned to by a Dominican Sinatra, and there he was. Mike, standing with Angie and the others beneath a behemoth ice sculpture of the bank’s crest, an eagle with wings held primly in, beak cocked, knowing and silent.

Kate turned quickly, took shelter behind the charity obelisk, a towering glass cylinder filled near to the tip each year with kumquats, each fruit attached to some child whose life was somehow bettered by the bankers. Who counted out the kumquats? Where did it come from, this fruit in such bulk? By what measure does a child become a kumquat? Kate ticked her fingernails against the obelisk and finished her wine, peeking back at Mike. From this distance he was small – squinting, she did a mental I’m squishing your head – and abstracted. A Mike-person, a banker, and a handsome one at that. Another sip of wine. Animated as always, Mike reached a hand out in emphasis, touching Maya’s forearm where it rested on her belly like it was a desk. A husband person. Kate felt like that acrobat, unwatched, watching from a private landing high above. By what measure does a life require a kumquat?

“Blue skies,” sang the Sinatra person, “smiling at me.”

They’d had an understanding. They didn’t need kids. But when the Mayas started blooming, at Mike’s firm and Kate’s, too, and among their friends, and Mike’s sisters, the space between them started to feel like an absence. Kate resisted, maintained a vigilant silence on the subject, deeply resented the suggestion that it was simply a matter of time. She was still fine. Another sip of wine. Mike and Maya looked right, side-by-side, and it struck Kate as impossible that it was she who was attached to Mike, that Mike was her husband-person. From this distance he was so clearly Maya’s.

She felt relief so sudden and deep and fleeting she rested a palm on the obelisk to steady herself. When she pulled away, the nine of hearts clung to the glass where her hand had just been, and when she looked up, the magician was there in place of Mike, a deck of cards alive in his hands, his face visible to Kate between Mike and Maya’s backs. He caught her eye, lifted his chin skyward.

Perched on the ice eagle’s beak was an actual bird. And then came the bad magic.

A caterer passed by, a raven tattooed up his neck. Kate backed out of the room, moved quickly to the nearest bar, where the bartender’s wrists were inked with wings. He shook out a gimlet and stuck it with a parrot-topped stir stick, and Kate startled, knocking into a man whose eagle crest cufflinks caught the light as he shook spilled drink from his hand.

Kate put down her gimlet and made for the bathroom, but the bathroom attendant was readingTo Kill a Mockingbird, and, in the mirror, there was the tremor of a forgotten feather in Kate’s own hair, peacock, pinned just above her temple, drawing out the flame in her hair, the blue of her dress.

She needed Angie. Food and Angie. Back in the party, she hit the first table she saw. Oysters, thank God, as far from flight as animals can get, limbless and slick, like little stopped hearts. She picked one up and slurped it down and heard a caw and shut her eyes, opened them when she heard it again, looked up and there it was, the bird again, no sparrow or chickadee or wren, but a crow that no one else seemed to hear or otherwise notice, a crow, possibly the first of thousands soon to come, thousands with intent to descend and blind them with their beaks, deafen them with Biblically thunderous wingbeats, feathers loosed in fury and drifting like ash, like burnt scraps of paper, the crowded ceiling descending, crumpling down in the shapes of these birds, each bird a shard of untold truths and failed hopes and petty victories, a bird for each transgression—

But. Kate didn’t believe in transgressions, didn’t believe in Biblical fury, didn’t tamp her hopes down into some dark inner pearl. She plucked an ice cube from the platter of oysters and sucked it, nice and slow. She smiled at the caterer, who had the loveliest skin, cloudy tan, like wet sand, smooth as a sea-stone and completely blank. She looked up: the bird was gone, and she moved to the window, needing to touch something.

The night sky had a cozy glow that signaled the hope of snow. Below her the city’s millions lit windows and taillights and who knows what private little fires. Kate fingered the waterspots on the glass, felt herself returning. She needed Mike. She wanted her husband-person. She turned from the window and bam, a bird struck the glass. Kate shrieked. The band went up a decibel, and with the panicked feeling that is the opposite of surprise but also the embodiment of shock, she recognized the opening notes of Free Bird, and someone hollered it out, Free Bird! and Kate finally lost it.

She slid along the window to an unmanned banquet, dropped to the floor and crawled under the table, pulling the heavy drapery still behind her. The dark was pitch. The carpet was a comfort and a surprise. The table was high enough for Kate to sit up, and she took off her heels and wrapped her arms around her legs and pressed her face into her knees.

The curtain lifted, and Kate saw feet, and then shins, and, all at once, a birdcage. The magician peeked in at her and smiled. Up close, his face was round and pale, his nose nudged like putty, smashed a bit to one side. He had the chin skin of a daily shaver.

He climbed in, arranging himself cross-legged, pulling in the empty birdcage, lit a squat white candle stuck within in. He grinned at Kate and pulled the curtain closed. His face vanished. The birdcage lantern cast little light, but Kate could see his hands, and the cards they worked like thought made visible, fast and synoptic, hypnotic, and she stared and stared.

“Pick a card,” he said.

Nine of hearts.

“Remember it, okay?”

Nine of hearts. Nine of hearts.

“Have you got it?”

Kate nodded, and then spoke. “Nine of hearts.”

Their laughter threw the flame into spasms. He tried again, and this time Kate kept it in her mind. She released the card back to him and it took on a life of its own, surfacing over and over as though it were some kind of gravity or true north the deck must always come to rest on, no matter the configuration, no matter the shuffle or split. And then it took flight from the deck entirely, appearing in her hair, in the crook of her arm, tucked in the inner velvet of her tiny clutch. He tore it into shards and opened his mouth and pulled it whole and dry from within.

“Hand me your ring,” he said.

A pause. In their silence the muffled party out there raged on, and Kate could tell even through the curtain that things were approaching that level of hysteria they do around midnight, when things start to get middle school, slip into cliché, when secret crushes get clumsily revealed, when kisses are sloppily planted, when threesomes are casually suggested in transparent jest, when desperation is betrayed on everyone’s faces, when even the happiest of them begin to wonder whether they aren’t, after all, deeply unsatisfied, or whether their satisfaction is in fact just complacency.

“First tell me something about what you’re doing. One thing,” Kate said.

“One thing… Magicians never tell their secrets.”

“Something I don’t already know.”

She heard the wingbeats of cards shuffled, shuffled and shuffled, a separate breath under the table, a third living thing.

“Magic is wasted on believers,” he said.

“I’m no believer.”

“Marriage is a believer’s game.”

Kate handed him her wedding ring.

He made it disappear.

Her nose stung. She turned her face so he couldn’t see.

He reached toward her, and his wrist brushed her ribs. Kate stiffened.

“No,” he said, “I’m just…” He pulled a tissue box out from behind her in the most ordinary of gestures. She took it and clutched it in her lap with both hands, as if it would fly away if she let go.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “Sorry. I don’t know.”

“Why are you sorry?”

Just yesterday Mike sketched and framed a fat, maternal owl for their friends’ baby son. By what measure does a family require a child?

“I feel trapped.” Kate felt a small release, like the words themselves were birds that had been waiting to be freed.

“Magicians don’t believe in trapped.”

“How convenient for you,” she said. She could feel the closeness of his face, feel his hand on her bare arm, the grainy rub of his pant leg against her thigh where her skirt slid up under the coaxing of either magic or his other hand, which touched her so lightly that, of all that night’s questionable realities, it was the one thing she could not convince herself was really there.

“I’m not,” Kate started.

He let her go.

He blew out the candle. There was the momentary tang of candle smoke, scattered by a sudden rush of wings, and the immediacy of another breathing thing in the dark. Kate heard the bird fluttering in its cage without crying out. The magician found her hand and pinched one fingertip, and then touched her knuckle with the small cold circle of her ring.

Kate crawled out with as much dignity as she could muster, and the evening began to right itself. The magician was shorter than she thought, and younger. No more than twenty-five, Kate guessed. He pulled the birdcage out and produced a comb and ran it through his thick hair in two quick strokes.

They walked silently to the elevator as if ending a date. The button was pushed but no one was around. The elevator opened and he held the birdcage out to keep the doors from closing.

“The thing is,” he said, “you’re not – ” he shook the birdcage. “You can do whatever you want.”

He looked like a child.

“You sound like my mother,” Kate said, and that was the end of the magic.

He handed her his card. It said just Magician. Kate tucked it into her clutch. She found Mike, who stroked her hair where the feather had been, his palm warm, his voice low and slurred, his smell familiar. “You love that feather!” He looked genuinely dismayed.

When she got home, Kate looked for the card, wanting to throw it away. But it had already disappeared.

A couple years later, Kate thinks of the magician. The cover of the Post shows a family of peregrine falcons nesting in City Hall: “ENDANGERED MARRIAGE: mates-for-life Perry and Ginny stick it out above City Hall”. A picture, an action shot, of one of them nest-building, a stick in its beak, wings spread wide for a landing. It is probably Ginny, Kate thinks, making their nest egg-ready.

“Only the Post could turn that into some kind of commentary,” she says, poking the front page. They are stopped at a bodega, picking up juice. It’s muggy, June, the first rainless Saturday in weeks, the air thick with threat or promise.

“I feel like there’s a bird story like this every year. Weren’t there some famous hawks? In the Chrysler building or something?” Mike yanks Franny’s leash to keep her from nosing at a passing dog. Their pug wheezes, straining against her harness. They joke that she is practice. Kate isn’t sure this isn’t what a child would be like.

They are looking at apartments in Brooklyn. They joke that it will make it easier, make it happen – there’s something in the water, people say. They stop midway across a cobblestoned bridge and look down into the Gowanus. There is most certainly something inthat water, Kate thinks, and covers her eyes, smiles out toward the distant housing projects.

“A birdcage,” Mike points. “Crazy.”

Kate sees it floating, and her whole body thrums. As a wire missing a bird. It could be the same one, or it couldn’t.

What is it that buoys the birdcage, there in the Gowanus? Is it the clench of some disease plaguing the water, the diseases that make of the canal a body thick with tissues and run through with pain, that make it reject any offering, like the beer can floating there, or the shoe over there, or the birdcage, or the bra Kate sees floating cups up, looking like a sleeping mask? Is it simple physics she’s not equipped to imagine? Or magic?

Kate has a secret. There’d been a blip early on, much too early to tell Mike, just a few months in. Twelve years ago. A missed period, a month of secret fear, another missed month and a trip to the clinic. A pain impossible to locate or name, an intensified inverse of the strange pleasure she’d seek as a little girl, pressing deep into her belly button. Somewhere in there. A week avoiding Mike completely, and then, over coffee, a conversation, the kind normal for a few months in, the where is this going kind, the kind Kate typically resented so strongly that her body answered the question before she even spoke: where is this going? The end. But that time Kate felt drawn to Mike with a fierceness that seemed independent of her will, as if her secret had its own gravity; and maybe it’s true that their years together have always orbited that never-told truth.

She’d called her mother for affirmation before she got it done. Instead, her mother let a cold few seconds tick by before saying, “It’s the most permanent thing you can do.”

Kate thought she meant the abortion, and so complete was her rage that she didn’t go home for two years. But now, looking down at the Gowanus, it strikes her that her mother meant a birth.

Kate and Mike are trying all kinds of magic, homeopathic and acrobatic, contorting themselves and monitoring themselves and doing everything but the medical thing, which Kate is putting off as long as possible for fear that the doctor’s warning was in fact prophetic.

Or for fear that what she’ll feel is relief.

Kate is not a nest builder.

It’s not too late, everyone says. Just wait. When you least expect it. Watch. You’ll get twins!

She watches the birdcage float, unsure she even wants one.

 



Nicki Pombier Berger is the Founding Editor of Underwater New York. She writes fiction, and works in nonfiction using oral history tools. She has worked at StoryCorps, and is Chair of the Board of Advisers for 3 Generations, a non-profit that curates stories from survivors and advocates working on human rights issues, connecting audiences to ways to action. Nicki has an MFA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College and a Bachelor of Science in the Foreign Service from Georgetown University, and will complete the Oral History Masters of Arts program at Columbia University in Fall 2013. Presumably she will stop going to school at some point. She lives in Brooklyn.