Dead Birds and Trash Squirrels

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I’m in Philadelphia. This has been a childhood dream since… my childhood. Actually, visiting Philli wasn’t really the dream, it was just to see the Liberty Bell and other historical sites. Now that I am here, I’m less than impressed, but I’ve only been here for three days. And I still haven’t seen the Bell! It is loud and dirty, crowded and colossal. I’m broke and no one will hire me. The air has that dingy quality to it that big cities do; the effect of too many cars in too little space and too few trees to digest the pollution. The worst part of Philadelphia has been the dead birds. They’re everywhere. Like water from a well, the birds are drawn to skyscraper windows, only to be knocked unconscious and splatter on the pavement; a Jackson Pollock painting gone wrong. What’s even worse is that no one picks them up. They rot on the pavement. Wings stretched, cracked, flattened, bystanders side-stepping the Samaritan. It’s quiet sad, really.

If birds are the Samaritans of Philli, squirrels are the Ninjas. As I walked out of the dorm complex yesterday, I was overcome by surprise at one of the best sites I have ever seen. A gray squirrel- frayed tail, apathetic eyes- leisurely made his way out of a campus trash can and onto his spot of lawn a few feet away. I stared at him, speechless, and the little punk stared back. His eyes said, “Ha, bet you wish you could do that.” Then he took another bite of his Trash Surprise. I told my husband about the incident later that day, only to discover that he had seen the same thing! Apparently, this is a common occurrence here.

Honestly, maybe the reason I don’t like it here is because I’ve never spent an extended period of time in New England. It’s probably just culture shock. Maybe I just need to explore more, but I’m scared. I’ve never explored on a large(er) scale on my own before. So I need to make a decision: Will I be a dead bird or a trash squirrel?

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I picked him up and we went to Coffee Tree. He seemed fairly normal at first, which is why I was confused by what he had said the day before. He had texted me an apology saying he was rather strange right now. I assumed he meant he was still in the state he was in when I saw him last. No, as the afternoon ticked by, it became increasingly obvious that Jacob had lost himself. His curly hair was gone. His head was shaved. He had three new tattoos and a labret piercing. The sprightly Jacob I knew had been replaced with a post-modern Brahman. He said conversation was “pretty hard” for him, which I said was okay, and then we continued to stare at the teas and espresso machine in front of us. The baristas at the shop were as friendly and talkative as ever, but I felt like I was with a child, so my guilt quickly pulled me back to his side.
It was beautiful outside. The snow was only a day or two old and it outlined the sidewalk with crayola white. His silence was unnerving, his pained waddle, always two steps behind me, was not the bouncy, angsty step I remembered.
After an awkward car ride back to his house, we hobbled inside, met his two cats, and sat crossed legged in the living room. Jacob laid out a sketch pad and colored pencils- the pad between us and the pencils fanned out to my left. We sat in utter silence, save the clock- ticks, while he slowly pulled himself into a trance-like state. I asked him if he usually focuses on an idea or a feeling. He didn’t answer, but instead starred at the blank page. A few seconds of silence passed.
“You said you drew me?”
He shook his head like a dog awaking from sleep.
“Huh? Uh, yeah.”
He turned back a page in the sketch-pad and revealed a beautiful drawing; it was the most intricate one out of all of them. It was utterly astonishing. It was a flower, made up to look fairly cerebral, planted in an antiquated looking vase made up of emerald gems. The Flower was perfectly created, each petal fluid and pear-shaped. There was an impression of a nose and mouth, but the rest of my face was invisible among the delicate details of the brain. Every curve was lined with many colors, lightly shaded to create an alluvial fan. I was speechless.
“Why did you draw me? Why not someone else?”
His eyes flicked up.
“You’ve always had good energy.”
He sounded slightly peppy.
As He began to lightly and slowly scribble across the page, I saw that his meditation was not just an attempt to make sense of the mush of his mind, but also to create something beautiful out of what he didn’t understand.
He said at this point, the damage is probably irreversible.
My comparatively quick movements along the other half of the page and back and forth between different pencils shocked him like a fish touched with a finger; he was so unaware, so sensitive.
He said his mom thinks he should socialize more. I asked him who his friends are; he didn’t really answer, he only looked down. I knew he meant Noah. The corner of his mouth twitched. I drew and drew, allowing the emotions of confusion, creativity and oddity to baptize me and channel onto the paper. I first sketch a blue flower from a trumpet vine. The vine connects to the outline of what becomes the world- but not quite the world, an eye, really- which is veined with rivers. Covering the globe is a scroll- or maybe it is woman’s hair. At the paring of the scroll is a delta. Drinking from the rivers is a fiery hummingbird. It’s body is blue, but it’s wings are red and orange. Tapping into the Eye with it’s golden tongue, it drinks the syrup of life into it’s own River.
I put the last colored pencil down. Jacob startles and hazily stares into my eyes.

“Come back.” I plead. “I see you beneath those brick eyes. Come back.”

But he didn’t see the words in my eyes. He squinted and his brow molded into a furrow. His hands shook, his shoulders hunched; He had shriveled. He is burning flash paper.
“I’ve never really studied your eyes.” He mumbled. Suddenly, he began burrowing- a rabbit seeking refuge in the earth of my soul. I retreated- shot up a wall. Of course, he was puzzled. As he tilted his head to the right I say,

“I’ve always had difficulty being vulnerable.” He nodded in understanding.

Silence. Minutes. He continues to observe, to journey deeper, to look for himself in me.

“What do you see?” I ask.

He began to search again. I relaxed, breathed, tried to let him into see me, see my soul. My heart is racing, my palms are clammy. The only comfort I had in that room was the plush cat weighing down my right leg. Some moments stick like the brutal sweat of a southern summer. I may live in that moment for an eternity. After moments, I broke. It was too much for me; he would not voice what he saw and I am cold from exposure. I blink- a veil.

“I can’t get over how content this cat is.” I smiled when I could’ve wept. Glancing up at the clock, I noticed the time. We had been seated in stillness for over fifteen minutes.

“Well, I had better be going.”

He startled again and as we stood, I could see the sadness on his face, in his bones as we stretched the stiffness out of our settled muscles. Putting on a coat is very different when one is grieving. I slipped it on anyway. Shoes, purse. I turned and he was there, very close, fragile as a child after a nightmare.

“Jacob,” I whisper, “I’ve just always wanted you to be happy.” I pause, but then say, “In order to find yourself, you must be yourself.”

We hugged goodbye and I again felt how small he was. He didn’t want to let go, but I moved back first and he reluctantly surrendered.

Outside the sun illuminates the neighborhood’s new snow. The glistening is beautiful, almost translucent in spots, but all things considered, my level of my appreciation is at an all time low.
When I was a child- I loved to play in the snow. I loved to sink my puggy kid-hands into the ice crystals and make snowballs, shove snow in my face, and make snow angels. But when my fingers turned purple and my mouth grew numb, the tears would start.
There is something every child must learn: Cold snow can burn.