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The Idea of Birds

We read poetry aloud. He is on the ground in front of me. I rest my elbows on my knees and lean over in my beach chair. After swimming, his black curls have slid down his neck, his hair now heavy and immobile to the wind. The ocean breeze carries a chill, so he puts on his t-shirt, covering the stone Andean cross around his neck.

I read poems about trains, about the people and places that pass by in an instant, Indians and women in calico dresses, about something lost on a journey, or found. Then he reads “Mock Orange” and “Eros” by Louise Glück. He doesn’t know what they are about but knows he feels sorry for her.

We trade books. Read on.

I pull my shirt over my wet swimsuit in a vain attempt to shield myself from the wind. My damp towel is still wrapped around my legs as I close my eyes. As he strums his guitar, his bracelets brush against the wood.

Soon he moves to the chair beside me. “I always wanted to do this,” he says. “You write a poem and I’ll write the music, then we will put them together.” He gives me a sheet of paper that he ripped from his journal. I use the journal as a surface, and he warns me not to look inside.

He fumbles around with mellow guitar chords, and gradually, it turns to something that flows with the wind. For a moment I tap my pencil on the paper, unsure what to say. I look around me and write:

I coast into town on fumes,
penniless, with only myself for company,
and stare across the flat gray sea,
as if I could see all the way to you.
I know you’re out there way beyond,
the kites shaped with writhing newts,
the parasailors that billow like colorful mushrooms,
the pale seagulls, dropping and rising above the water,
but this, dipping my feet into the water,
is as close as I can get.

Later he will ask me to record the poem. I will sit on his bed, curled against the wall, with the mic bent towards me as we record different versions until we get the tone he wants—soft, an almost whisper, intimate. And then one more, one where I don’t stumble over the word “writhing.” I will say it over and over to make sure I get it right. “Writhing, writhing writhing.”

That day on the beach, seagulls dot the sand, surveying, their heads regally held parallel to the ground, their eyes sharp. They’re looking for subsistence. Any bit of pretzel or stray boardwalk fry that will keep them going on, keep them flying for another day.

“I like birds,” he says.

“In general?” I ask, “Or the idea of birds?”

“’The idea of birds’ is like the name of a poem,” he says. His wide lips form a smile, pushing up the apples of his cheeks.

We run back into the water. I can feel the tide pulling me out.

More of Valerie’s work can be found at valerielute.com