"Bird or Bat" by Laurie Stone

Laurie Stone

Laurie Stone

Laurie Stone is the author of several books of fiction and nonfiction. A longtime writer for the Village Voice, she has been theater critic for The Nation, critic-at-large on Fresh Air, and a member of The Bat Theater Company. She has published numerous memoir essays and stories in such publications as Open City, Anderbo, Ms., nthWord, TriQuarterly, The Literary Review, Threepenny Review, Speakeasy, Intar Journal, Signs, and Creative Nonfiction. She is at work on My Life as an Animal, Some Kind of Romance and The Pain of Language, a collection of essays.

Bird or Bat

I was in Russia, where I didn't understand the language or culture. It was like having sex with a stranger, and I felt at ease. I saw myself as if from someone else's perspective and in a way that was pleasingly indistinct.

St. Petersburg is a city of reflections: pumpkin and azure facades saturating wide canals, billowing clouds and blue sky shimmering in rivers that rush toward the sea. My father's parents were Russian. Maybe Russia was in my father's eyes. On the streets, bearded men had my father's eyes, although my father didn't have a beard. I was told to be afraid in Russia because foreigners were resented, but I couldn't see the animosity any more than I could read the rest of what made Russia Russia, and so I wasn't afraid.

I ate cheese that tasted like pencil eraser. I ate hard sausages I had to gnaw on for a long time before they could be swallowed although they were delicious.

It was light all the time, though the brightness dimmed for a few hours after one in the morning. My hotel room faced a courtyard, and outside the window in the draining light I watched small, squeaking creatures fly around. My neighbor, a fat man with piggy eyes and a caramel voice, said they were birds. He knew Russia better than I did. Still, I didn't think birds squeaked that way, although maybe they did. I wanted them to be bats. I was sure they were bats.

I once broke up with Gardner, a man I was with for many years, thinking he was too old, although I didn't want to lose him up or find someone closer to my age. We picked up again after meeting by chance in front of a Chinese restaurant near where I lived in New York. Maybe it wasn't so much by chance, but in any case we went back to my place to have sex. He was carrying around a virus that in him was a shabby overcoat but in me expanded into gray goo that rendered me exhausted and spacey for months. It was like falling under a spell, and it lifted as unaccountably as it had set in.

After weeks of feeling that my head was filled with Styrofoam and my legs made of lead, I rose from my couch and walked a mile to the tennis courts in Riverside Park. The sun was setting and the light was flat. My dog Sasha sniffed around and calculated the vectors of squirrels. Gardner walked with a boyish spring as I padded unsteadily beside him. Then all at once bats filled the sky, swooping and circling over a thicket of trees. They had voices like bells, or maybe the bells were sounding in Riverside Church. It seemed the bats were guiding me to recovery.

I would have been lonely in Russia had it not been for Kate who spoke excellent Russian. She was enrolled in a writing workshop at the school where I was teaching, and each day she would ask if I had slept well, if I needed to buy water, if I wanted to go to the market. The pretty hippy she'd once been glinted through the puckers and lines of middle age. It turned out she was married to an actor I'd once profiled in the Village Voice, and the coincidence came back to her as we circled one of the canals that ring St. Petersburg like necklaces, the one in the middle that has a name like the Russian word for mushrooms. "You wrote about my husband," it hit her. 

"Who is your husband?"

"Claude Powell." She snapped a picture of me smiling under a bridge.

"I love Claude Powell!"

I didn't know him apart from the time we'd spent at the interview, but I admired his performances and after leaving Russia, I went to visit Kate and Claude in Berlin, where he was doing a show. Their daughter, Grace, en route to London after fleeing an au pair job in Spain, was spending a few days in their rented flat. She was prickly around her mother, and at first I was baffled, since Kate was the kind of affectionate and understanding mother I had longed for all my life. Next to her parents and two, dazzling older brothers who made their writing, acting, and traveling ventures look easy as butter, Grace saw herself as a failure who couldn't even stick an au pair job. Kate didn't hover, but she liked to extract pain where she perceived it, and after watching mother and daughter for a while, it struck me for the first time in my life that being loved could be a burden: You couldn't loathe yourself without causing your mother to suffer.

Claude was English, working class, clever, and fluid, a living Daumier cartoon and he was sexy in that energy, even though he was no one's idea of handsome with his little paunch and thinning hair. English accents have always bewitched me. Even Miss Astle, my high school English teacher who found my ideas and demeanor repugnant and was horrified years later to learn I'd become a writer, had still sounded funnier and smarter to me than all the other teachers.

Claude had a less sunny side. He'd be lampooning beer consumption in the UK, say, or chronicling a visit to Brecht's theater, or reveling in anti-Bush graffiti on the walls of an art park in East Berlin, when he'd suddenly remember he wasn't famous enough. Lesser lights hogged stages that should have been his! The reason for their success is they knew how to market themselves, the bastards! He hated marketing! That kind of thing.

One afternoon Claude, Kate, Grace, and I were having lunch in the garden of a posh cafe. The sun was brilliant, the air balmy. Yellow jackets lazed around honey pots on the tables, and a gentle breeze stirred the anemone arrangement in the center of ours. It was a brilliant day, and I was nestled against the bosom of a generous and gifted family, feeling a sense of peacefulness and inclusion that, looking back, may have been worming inside me like a sleeping virus because the family wasn't mine and my place at the table not assured. Who knows? What prompted Claude's eruption this time was no clearer to me than at any other juncture. Perhaps it was a newspaper headline that didn't mention his name or the shift of a splinter he carried in his ego or liver the way I did mine. He suddenly complained that he wasn't appreciated enough in Berlin. He had to beat the bushes for producers and grants! It was an indignity at his age! Venues should be lining up to book him, directors begging him to act in their plays! 

As Grace was swirling her spoon into a bowl of melon soup and Kate was spreading brie on a cracker, Claude broke into a hammy grin. "I know what I'll do to get noticed. In my next piece, I'll play a black lesbian with cancer!"

In a flash, all the dreaminess of travel, where no one was specific, where birds and bats were interchangeable and offence could not be taken because I didn't understand the language, went flying out the window. I heard a popping sound like the breaking seal on a vacuum jar. Kate had found me the cheap, luxurious hotel where I was staying. She'd included me in her life. It didn't matter. My lips went tight and in a sandpapery voice I asked Claude when he thought that white, affluent, middle-aged men had become a disadvantaged group and why he thought that minorities who got somewhere had no talent.

Color drained from his face, and he looked at his hands. "It was a joke."

Grace's eyes darted from her father to me, then back to her father, where they parked. She was a willowy girl with long, reddish hair. She wanted to be a chef but feared that cooking wasn't intellectual or creative enough to measure up in her family. No one had discouraged her. It would have been against their religion. I liked her prickliness, even her lectures about what foods protected you and which ones poisoned you, as if there was a root or leaf that could save you from being yourself.

She flinched, and I saw that I had hurt her by going after her father, and I let go of the thing that was eating me or it let go of me. I didn't believe that Claude would have made his crack about a black man with cancer, gay or straight, or that he would have said anything of this sort if a person of color had been present. Still, I wished that I had teased him for being self-pitying or engaged him about the issues. Did he mean to comment on the culture of victimhood that regards disability as an accomplishment? I didn't think he believed any of that, but so what, so what?

Grace slid her index finger across the top of Claude's hand that lay on the table. Kate reminded him that only weeks before he'd won a grant to develop a solo show and that a publisher was bringing out a collection of his theater texts. A part of Kate was sick to death of her husband's whining, but she found it in herself to soothe him. It was the way their marriage worked. Did it hurt her? She moved the conversation to the Kathe Kolwitz show we were going to visit next, and as we walked to the museum I wondered why I ever thought my confrontations provoked or not produced anything apart from an adrenalin rush I was consoled by before it left me feeling stranded.