The first day, Benjamin’s ponytail embarrassed her. Two days later, she put it in her mouth. She cried the first time they had sex. He said, “I can’t wait to tell you I love you.”
Raina and Benjamin had met while she was taking a summer birding course in the Sierra Nevada, a weeklong class during which students went out into the field with an instructor, and in the evening, the group listened to recordings of birds they had heard that day. Benjamin was the instructor. Raina had signed up for the class mostly because it afforded her a somewhat easy week in the woods. It was summer camp for grown-ups, with students from other disciplines sharing the dining hall and bathrooms.
The wildflower group were very patient, able to stand over a pink flower the size of a baby’s toe for an hour, discussing its sex parts, how it’s not really one flower but two. The mushroom hunters were younger than the birders, dressed more like citified hipsters than naturalists, their skinny jeans and worn leather jackets brown as bark. They stayed out hunting morels all day, earning twenty-five dollars per pound. The birders, by contrast, were a more varied and less attractive group. Being older, they were more practically outfitted for the conditions. Two lesbian couples were taking the class for the second time. They looked like a foursome: a family on vacation trying hard not to lose sight of each other, shades of green and yellow weatherproofing their athletic bodies. At thirty-eight, Raina was the youngest woman in the class. The rest of the women were retired ex-wives and wives, there without their husbands, without their children, finally doing what they wanted to do. The few men were even older than the women, and treated the class like an epic scavenger hunt. Raina spent the first few days simultaneously trying to categorize the birders and the birdsongs. She couldn’t figure out where she fit in, but Benjamin had identified her right away.
Raina had come to the class with her one birder friend, Joyce, whom she had met on a group walk at Crissy Field Lagoon. They ran into each other again while Raina was birding by herself and getting high on Percocet. Joyce was watching a flock of bushtits with her new binoculars.
“Hey, I think we were on a bird walk together here.”
“Oh, yes,” Joyce said, and immediately launched into a guilty admission. “I just bought these binoculars and I am so embarrassed. You won’t believe what I paid.”
They were Leicas, and when Raina looked through them, she could see the tiny bristle hairs above the bushtit’s bill. Her drugs were kicking in; she was perky.
“These are amazing. How long have you been birdwatching?”
“Two months,” said Joyce.
Raina immediately regretted asking Joyce to admit that she had paid what was clearly a large sum of money for such a new hobby. She tried to defuse the situation.
“I would buy a better pair if I had the money. You can see every little barb. And on the bushtit too—the sexiest, at least in name, of all the birds.”
Joyce laughed and said, “Pendulous tits!”
They began birding together on a monthly basis, Joyce always lagging behind a little. She was sixty-one but didn’t look it. She had the round, freckled face of a child, with sweetly small blue eyes and a turned up nose. She didn’t wear makeup, and her hair—the color of sand—hung limply around her pink cheeks. She had very large breasts that seemed to defy gravity and would often say, “I am not wearing a bra today,” as if she needed to say it before Raina noticed for herself. Everything else about Joyce was reedy, her long thin arms, her spindly legs, which also seemed to slow her down. Joyce was also sure to let Raina know that she wasn’t always this delicate, that the stress of her teaching job and medication were to blame. She had recently taken leave from her job as a seventh grade biology teacher and gone on disability because her therapist told her she had suffered a nervous breakdown. Joyce was hesitant to tell others that she didn’t need to work anymore, but Raina decided Joyce should tell everyone that she was retired.
With Joyce on disability and Raina on summer break from her own teaching job, spending a week in the woods was a simple decision. They shared a tent cabin, Joyce roused each morning from her Ambien haze by Raina’s alarm. The first morning, all of the birders wanted to get up extra early so they could hear the dawn chorus. Raina was unimpressed—outside was cold and drippy, the chorus far from pretty. All of the birds came on stage together, like punk rockers vying for the front of the stage, shrilling away for the most sexual position. To her, it seemed a waste of time, but when the others raved that it was remarkable, she conformed. By that afternoon, the group was exhausted and agreed that 5:45 a.m. was too early to get up the next morning.
Benjamin sat next to Raina at lunch, asking her about her teaching job, her “projects”; she couldn’t think of one worth putting words to. Her paint-by-numbers Cardinals in Winter was currently eclipsing the collection of poems she had been revising for several years. Instead, she told him about wanting to get back into playing guitar. She hadn’t been in a band for two years, quitting the last one after she unsuccessfully tried to make the lead singer her boyfriend. They had sex once, but afterward she felt like she had forced him a little. The next day, she went to the rehearsal space, cleared out her gear, dropped the key in the mail, and hadn’t played a note since.
She asked out of polite reciprocity, “Are you working on anything?”
Benjamin plopped down the manuscript of a bird book he had been writing for ten years and asked her to read a few pages. Did he keep the pages rolled up in his back pocket? She thought, at that moment, that he was kind of ugly and self-centered; she wondered if this was his way of flirting with her. When he got up to talk to another student, she killed a bug by closing it between his pages and then peeked at the crushed remains. The stain resembled a pelvis.
Everyone went their separate ways after lunch, but Benjamin caught up with her.
“Would you join me for a short walk up the hill?” he asked.
She felt obligated to say yes. He was her teacher.
He told her all about his family, how his mother had died when he was nineteen, how he hadn’t been there for her even though he knew she was dying, how his father never called him. Raina’s attention was split between Benjamin and the hill. The quality of light and wind seemed surreal, like weather she’d never encountered before. She was reminded of the times she had stayed home sick from school and had seen the secret weather of weekday afternoons. Maybe she was coming down with something. Maybe she was sick. The clouds moved too quickly. The hill seemed a contradiction to her—crispy and brown in places yet still dotted with patches of packed ice from a late, wet winter. A snow-rose grew from one of the frozen spots, but Raina knew that wasn’t what it was called. Surrounding her were mostly pine trees that had let loose their cones. Later, she would learn some were ponderosa pines, which emitted a butterscotch scent, and some were gray pines with their prickly cones.
“That’s mistletoe there in the lodgepole pine.”
“The one with the cornflake bark. The mistletoe is actually a parasitic plant scattered by bird droppings.”
He asked if he could give her a hug. Here, too, she felt obligated, but when he took her head in his hands and put their foreheads together, she thought he might be the worst person in the world. He hadn’t cut his hair in twenty-seven years, not since his mother had died. She thought, he’s a hippie, he’s a Burning Man, he’s a vegan.
The next morning, Raina woke with a migraine. Everyone told her it was altitude sickness and she should drink lots of water. She took one of the four Percocets she had brought on the trip. Benjamin told her that if she felt ill while they were out in the field, he would have someone drive her back to camp. His attention consumed her. She was exhausted by 9 a.m. and could not regulate her temperature. Benjamin offered her his mustard-colored sweatshirt because she was shivering. She looked awful in it, like she needed a blood transfusion. This would get him off her back, her breasts obscured by his oversized, condiment-hued top. But by the end of the day, when the weather warmed and she returned his shirt, he told her it smelled like her.
The morning after that, as Raina entered the outdoor bathroom and shower area, there was Benjamin, wearing his glasses for the first time, his hair out of its usual braid. She felt shy. He was preparing his contact lenses, and when he saw her he said, “Seeing you is the perfect way to start the day.”
She blurted, “You wear glasses.”
Her urge to pee intensified at seeing a stranger who had a crush on her so early in the day, both of them vulnerable in their morning softness. Knowing she’d never pee with him in the bathroom, she left, her bladder heavy.
Instead of suffering through the rest of the week wondering if she was attracted to or repulsed by Benjamin, Raina decided to get on with it. She approached him at lunch and asked what he was going to do during their mid-afternoon break.
“Hang out with you.”
She asked if she could see his tent cabin, and once they entered, she sat on his cot; he got on his knees and started to remove her hiking boots. All these maneuvers were foreign to Raina, and made her feel both adored and self-conscious. Her thoughts raced: Do my feet stink? Will he take off my socks and see that I pick my toenails? How can I reject someone who has gotten on his knees within a couple of days of knowing me?
Benjamin made his bed for her. He did not use the cot, but rather unfolded several wool blankets that were stacked in the corner-—a scratchy nest. He said, “I never sleep in a bed because I don’t want to get used to it. I spend so much time camping, it’s just better to have a consistent sleeping situation closer to the earth.” Closer to the earth, ick! she thought. And then she climbed down from the cot onto his makeshift bed and let him kiss her mouth, her breasts.
During the week, Raina had learned little about birdsong but a lot about the changeable nature of attraction. At first she was disgusted by his complexion. Benjamin’s face was always some shade of red. His cheeks would ripen from pale pink to russet, depending on his exposure to the sun. But instead of being turned off, as she had always been by ruddy blondes, she marveled at her new affinity. Tucked under his white eyebrows were beady blue eyes. His teeth, crooked on the bottom and slightly buck on the top, were yellowing with age, as was his facial hair.
The remainder of the week was filled with sleepless nights, during which she would sneak into Benjamin’s tent and leave before the sun came up. They didn’t have sex, but they did nearly everything else, Raina finding herself turned on by the exact image of the man who had so recently repelled her. Only Joyce knew what was going on, or so she thought, and since Raina didn’t have her regular group of close girlfriends to talk to, she relied on Joyce.
“What do you think of him?” Raina asked.
“He seems like a very rare bird. I would go for it.”
“But he has a ponytail,” Raina said, and then admitted to Joyce that it was beginning to grow on her, when, in fact, it already had. By this time, she had sniffed it, chewed it, and braided it for him. Still, Raina was glad to have someone’s permission to like him.
Benjamin’s newest interest was in clouds, and he managed to work that into one of the day’s lessons. He presented the class with a somewhat half-baked slideshow on the different types of clouds, focusing mostly on the Altocumulus Standing Lenticular clouds that form over mountains in the Sierra Nevada. These saucer-like clouds, he explained, appear like stationary lenses over the crests of mountains but are, in fact, the result of swiftly moving air, evanescing and accumulating. Invisible vapor exchanges itself for condensation, only to vanish again on its way down the other side of the mountain. Raina could barely pay attention, looking instead at the real clouds out the window, those that did not understate their velocity at all.
A week later and 150 miles from her apartment in San Francisco, during their first candlelit dinner at his cabin in the woods, he casually told her that he was capable of creating a dangerous space into which women fall. Raina instantly dissociated from her body.
“Dangerous?” she asked.
“You may want to be careful.”
She cried a little.
“I like you,” he said. “Don’t despair.”
He walked her into his bedroom, which had almost no furniture, except for a lamp and a futon mattress folded against the wall. He was a minimalist, she guessed, and though she was skeptical, she was also thankful that he was not entirely a hippie. When she first met him—with his long straw-colored braid and bracelet made out of plant fiber—she worried he would have a dreamcatcher over his bed. He didn’t. He had nothing. The only décor seemed to consist of items that had infiltrated from the outside: a spider webbing itself into a corner, a moth stupidly circling a hanging bulb. That night they had sex for the first time: “I can’t wait to tell you I love you.”
The next morning, Benjamin made a point of reminding Raina that he had held her the entire night. Then he rushed onto the porch to put fresh sugar water in the hummingbird feeder. She watched him through the glass and wondered how he could bear to spend so much time alone. He lived nearly eight months out of the year by himself in this cabin, only leaving in the summer to teach natural history classes around Northern California. He also kept insisting that he had no friends. To her, every part of his life, what he did and how he thought, presented itself as a challenge she wanted to conquer, if only because she couldn’t imagine herself living as he did.
Each night, Raina would study Benjamin’s routine, resentful that he had the strength of character to do the same rituals every night—floss, brush teeth, comb and braid hair, spit, remove contact lenses, stretch, moisturize. Raina was always in bed several minutes before him, rushing through or completely skipping one or the other of these rituals in her desire for comfort. At first, she misrepresented her bedtime habits, mimicking his without seeming too obvious, but eventually she watched to see if she could pull him out of his pattern. He never shifted his orbit, even while she lay there, naked, waiting.
Once in bed, Raina was on top of him in seconds, so turned on that she had to think of some ex-boyfriend to slow down. She was even off the Percocet so she could fully experience their sex. Benjamin, on the other hand, never had an orgasm. Each time they messed around, the whole scene would end with him lying back, shutting his eyes, and smiling innocently. Raina would hover around him, surveying his bland expression, his fair pubic hair, gauzy and web-like. She wondered if it was the contrast of both the color and texture that made her own body hair seem vulgar. He was monochromatic, his sexual self curiously chaste and contented. She was mystified by the balance of it all, how he maintained equilibrium before, during, after.
They had been dating for over three months, seeing each other on many occasions since the class ended, but each time it was Raina who would endure the long drive to spend the weekend at his cabin. He never once came to the city, so she would pack her car full of fancy foods he had no access to. Each drive, she would listen to a self-help book on CD and try to internalize the advice. Since the first kiss, she had no control over her feelings, and was sure she would lose him if he knew how neurotic she was. She thought that if she listened to relationship advice, codependent cures, and tomes about not taking anything personally, she would become more loveable. Also, she had tried to break up with him three times since they began the relationship: once, because he said there were “threads from the summer he felt he needed to pursue”; another time, he explained that he was “empty and numb”; the third time, because he had stopped fucking her.
The deprivation started slowly—if she sneezed, he would not kiss her because he was afraid he’d get sick; then, he began to eat a raw clove of garlic every evening, and Raina was convinced this was meant to dissuade her from approaching him. At first, he would offer an excuse, saying that he felt like he was getting a cold. Later, he would just pop the clove in his mouth and say nothing. One night, she tried chewing a garlic clove but threw up immediately after.
On their last day together, they hiked the trail around the reservoir at Hetch Hetchy in Yosemite National Park. He explained to Raina that this “lake” was what broke John Muir’s heart and killed him, that it used to be a lush valley like Yosemite, but it had been dammed and flooded.
“Do you know where all this water goes?” he asked her.
“No,” she said.
“This is the major water source for San Francisco.”
Raina felt humiliated that she had not known this, but Benjamin did not have a condescending tone. He had a way of teaching her things about nature without patronizing her. However, he seemed to derive little pleasure from their outings, asking her afterward, eagerly, “Was that fun for you? Did you see things you’ve never seen before?” He wanted her pleasure by proxy. She would craftily exaggerate her reactions to please him though Raina was rarely effusive herself because enthusiasm made her feel out of control. But after their Hetch Hetchy hike, she did not have to force the intensity of her experience. It was poetry, but the metaphor came too easily: “You let the bear come between us,” she said.
The path around Hetch Hetchy was not treacherous. It was, in fact, somewhat Disneyfied, Raina thought, with its not too rugged hiking path. Trees tucked themselves into the cliff leading up from one side of the path, and gnarled shrubs twisted down the slope toward the water. They were hiking to a waterfall Benjamin knew about, birding along the way. He spotted one bird that was impossibly far away and became obsessed with identifying it—some species of duck floating in the middle of the reservoir. Raina’s crappy binoculars could not even distinguish it as a bird. The water was blindingly gold-plated by the sun, and she could barely look at the dot that Benjamin couldn’t take his eyes off of. Raina walked on, leaving him perched atop a boulder, revising his assumptions—bufflehead then widgeon then redhead. As she walked around the bend, she came face to face with a black bear that was walking toward her about thirty feet ahead. She turned around and walked quickly back towards Benjamin, tapping him on the shoulder.
“Ben, Ben, a bear,” she said breathlessly but calmly, the adrenaline compressing her lungs. She kept walking past Benjamin, moving with the hastiness of a lady rushing to the bathroom. Although he turned his head to see the bear, he did not follow Raina, who kept swiftly walking away from what she guessed might be her violent death. Benjamin, on the other hand, stayed put. Raina turned around to see Benjamin still perched. She motioned with her hand to come her way while he pointed up the hill into the trees, signaling that the bear had gone off the path and was up above them. She looked up: there was no bear, no movement of the clouds. There was no sound, only dread. Benjamin and Raina were now at least forty feet apart when the bear descended from the hill. In a moment, there was the bear between them on the trail. The bear faced Raina. Ambling or charging, she could not tell.
So she ran, flew really, her feet barely touching the ground, only stopping after several minutes when she was in an open area, no sign of the bear behind her. She was not sure how far she had run or how long she’d been standing when Benjamin came walking around the bend, to her eye, strangely casual, like a hiker just out for a stroll. She burst into tears, the cry she had been stifling since her flight instinct had kicked in. Then she sucked her breath like a child recovering form a tantrum. He rubbed her back and then directed her to the edge of the trail; he made her watch the bear, who, after she had taken off running, walked up the path only a short distance with Benjamin following behind. Soon the bear had become irritated with him, taking the slope down toward the reservoir, stopping to bathe in a small pool of water among the rocks.
“Look at her,” he said, “she’s having a bath.”
Raina’s eyes burned.
“I don’t care,” she said, snotty. She was annoyed he had referred to the bear as a “she,” feeling that this was his way of telegraphing that she had overreacted. It’s just a little girl taking a dip in the pool. She hated him at that moment.
“You’re okay. She was never going to hurt you. Look at her.”
“Why didn’t you follow me? You let the bear get between us,” she said.
That night, in bed, she imagined cutting off his braid. The next morning, she asked him to floss her teeth for her. He did, and she hoped this would mean something about his level of commitment, about his ability to be intimate. She wanted to be like her parents. They had been married for forty years, and when she was a kid, they shared a toothbrush—it was pale pink with gray, splayed bristles. Raina used to think it was disgusting, but now she wanted that familiarity.
It was clear to her, however, after the long drive home, that Benjamin was a monster, worse than the bear that chased her. Once she returned to her apartment, she called him, crying and listing every infraction he had committed. She was breaking up with him, again, for the last time. He responded as if void of every emotion, agreeing it was inevitable, mostly because she wanted too much from him.
Two weeks later she got the idea to spy on him because, after a short morning of birding in Marin, Joyce had left her expensive Leica binoculars in the backseat of Raina’s car. She was not sure she’d have such a good opportunity again to see him from afar, to watch how he lived without her, alone. The three-hour trip took two and a half hours, but Raina could not even recall the route once she arrived, missing long stretches of road as her mind raced.
She kept thinking about her parents’ toothbrush while she hid behind Benjamin’s house. He had told her that Native Americans used the leaves of the manzanita tree to brush their teeth. And as she crouched amidst the web of smooth red branches, she chewed a leaf and waited for inspiration. Then she chewed a Percocet. She had to pee and decided she would hold it until she got inside; this way she might have the option of urinating in his box of old photos, which were filled with pictures of ex-girlfriends. She especially wanted to spoil the one he referred to as a “practicing goddess.” She would pee in the box, but not because she was jealous. Rather, because when she asked him why none of his relationships had worked out, he flatly said, “I always wished I had met my wife in high school, but since I didn’t have a high school sweetheart, I feel as though I missed meeting my soul mate.” That’s why she would piss in his box of sob stories.
From under the trees, she could see into nearly every room in the house since all the back doors were sliding glass. She watched him through binoculars as he moved through his afternoon, hovering over the kitchen sink and then over his computer, faultlessly, as though he knew he was being watched. When he left the house around 5:00, she untangled herself from the latticework of branches and stumbled up the hill with a full bladder. His futon mattress and bedding were set out on the porch, being purified by the sun. As she opened the glass door, she let her hiking boot rub against one of the pillows, leaving a coffee-colored smudge.
It was that accident that spawned ideas. She considered dirtying all the bedding. She walked back out to the yard, scraping up a handful of dark dirt and putting it in her pocket. A nice head rush overcame her when she stood up. In the kitchen, she looked through the garbage and cupboards. For what? She didn’t know. There was an expensive jar of honey she had brought to him on one of her visits. She inspected its dusty neglect.
In the bathroom, she positioned a stepladder in the shower to reach the grouted tile above, and, after applying a layer of honey to a small area, she daubed the spot with the dirt from her pocket. Remembering her bladder, she quickly ran into the storage closet and peed in the box of photos. Next, she picked a corner of the bedroom, killed the spider that was living there, and did the same thing, smearing the tile with honey and dusting it with dirt. Instead of rushing, she delighted in the project, like being stoned and painting by numbers except without the numbers. In thirty minutes, the house was dappled with subtle patches of dark-brown fuzz.
Seeing the “mold,” he would begin to feel ill, disoriented, anxious. His throat would feel sore. Maybe he was coming down with something that raw garlic could not cure. He would do research on the internet or maybe he was already well versed in the dangers of mold. He would need to get out of there. He had no friends. He’d call her. He would need her.
Raina returned to her place in the manzanita stand, her hair inexplicably out of the bun she always knotted on top of her head, frizzy yet greasy. She didn’t know for how long she would squat there, practicing her side of their imagined conversation. “That sounds like toxic black mold,” she would offer. “Don’t touch it! Disturbing mold growth sends more spores into the air,” she’d say. “Why don’t you just come stay with me for a few days and we’ll figure something out?” Each time she rehearsed, she tried to sound more natural.
Nicole Brodsky is the author of Gestic (a+bend press) and Getting Word (San Francisco State University Chapbook Series). Her poems have appeared in numerous publications, including Kindergarde: Avant-Garde Poems, Plays, Stories, and Songs for Children. She has played guitar with the musical project The Size Queens and currently plays bass in the San Francisco-based band Apopka Darkroom.