We were both staring at the kitchen floor when we heard the thud. Two minutes of silence, then the stifled gong of a crash. We ignored it. Me and her, opposite sides of the kitchen. I wanted her to say something awful back to me. She kept quiet. Examining the floor, I noticed she’d just cleaned. The kitchen smelled like industrially cut rose petals laced with cough syrup. Dollar store cleaner. She wasn’t crying, but I knew she was close. I had landed a heavy blow, though I only half-remembered what we were arguing about. Something about her jeans getting stained because I mixed lights with darks. With every second, silence ate away the echo of what I said in the heat of the moment, but it wasn’t smoothing things over.
I must have made the laundry error while absorbed in this book. A short story collection about the mundanity and soul-crunch of suburbia. Not a bad book, but all the men seemed sad and didn’t want to say so, and all the women could talk about was how sad and stuck they were. I looked up and saw her scratching herself. Red and nervous. She did this when she wanted to unload on me, tell me off, but raked away at her freckled forearms instead.
What? I pried. What do you want to say to me?
She knew I was picking a fight.
You need to be more attentive, she finally told me. You’re home most of the day. I can’t have you messing up my clothes while I’m gone because…
She stopped herself. She wanted to say because I didn’t know how to do laundry—washing, drying, folding, all of it. That I was incapable of doing that one thing. The quiet elbowed itself between us again.
Come on. Finish it, I demanded, not wanting to be the only bad guy.
She swiped two fingers across her faded eyebrows as if putting on contour.
I do not want to do this on my day off, she said. Please, will you just…
She twisted her mouth open, but nothing came out. Aggression coursed through her in shuddering breaths. I wanted her to tell me to screw myself, so we could slam the door in each other’s faces. Left alone to brood about being right or, in her case, confused…frustrated. It was my mistake, after all. I should’ve said sorry.
Another noise broke through. A crackle. Turning to the living room window, we saw nothing save for the cold ten a.m. October sun creeping over the roof of the brick-laid apartment building across the street. We turned to each other again, both curious about the sound but preferred to stay focused on proving the other domestically inferior. She opened the cabinet nearest her and poured a bowl of knock-off Aldi-brand cereal: Jack of Apple. The flakes chiming into the bowl signaled our argument was to be continued after breakfast.
We walked away from each other. I to the living room, her to the kitchen table. I heard her crunch loudly. In mid-bite, she said she knew how demanding my job was. A concession. She assumed I was still writing marketing copy for a firm out of New York. She assumed nothing was amiss because, for the past two months, we paid our bills on time, and she never asked about my job. Making boring things sound good doesn’t interest me, she once explained. I didn’t care for it myself, which might be why they fired me.
The reason they provided: conflicting visions on brand messaging. For a month, I collected unemployment and borrowed money from my aunt in Danbury to keep ourselves afloat. Then I snagged a job at my neighbor’s company, Edible Insults, where we drove around a refrigerated truck, delivering themed edible arrangements. The thing that separated us from our larger competitors, my neighbor told me, was that Edible Insults offered pejorative dessert and fruit salad packages, hence the name. If your girlfriend broke up with you, order the Cardiac special: anatomically correct, burst-open hearts made of strawberries and cranberries left at her doorstep. Got fired from your job? Order the F*ck You package with a hand flipping the bird made of guava and persimmon. My neighbor drove the truck while I sat in the back to secure the arrangements. It gave me time to leaf through the book about the sad suburbanites.
I wanted to tell her the truth about my job situation, but when I would see her come home with swollen feet and plop onto the couch half-asleep, my rehearsed explanations faded away. She was working six days a week, often skipping lunch. Was she taking more shifts to get away from me? Mitigate our arguments with distance? There was always something to spat over, most recently how we barely afforded groceries for the month and had been living on McGriddles to the point they tasted like jelly cardboard. I wanted to come clean, but I was afraid the revelation would urge her to move back in with her mother. Leave me for good. It never felt like the right time anyway because the right time does not exist. In a warped way, because I was so anxious holding my secret tight to my chest, I’d get angry. Since she was the only person I saw most days, she’d be the one in the line of fire. I would like to think I was about to tell her that morning when she was sitting at the kitchen table, slurping frustrated cereal.
I turned on the TV, once again setting aside the issue for another day. Maury was on, announcing who was (or wasn’t) the father. A rerun, but we needed background noise—any noise. I thought about a new edible arrangement: the You Were Wrong banana bread with a big X of red velvet cake frosting on top. We reverted to this shaky silence while flabby white people yelled into a camera, saying that if Jessup isn’t their baby, they’re walking out the door. In this détente, interjected by Povich’s cheesy, yet biting questions leading to the big reveal, I absent-mindedly excreted a belch.
Jesus! she remarked. Who does that?
I saw her get up and pour what was left of her cereal into the sink.
What’s the problem? I asked. It’s not like you don’t take a dump while I’m showering.
But I’m eating! she said, entering the room, letting out a deep breath. Listen, she continued, I know you have a lot on your mind with the firm, but can you have some courtesy when—
I just don’t see what the big deal is. You’re overreacting.
Can you just say I’m sorry?
For ruining my appetite!
Would that be such a travesty?
She had put on a few pounds but still looked great. Truthfully, I enjoyed how her clothes became more form-fitting, skin-tight around the waist. But, just like before in the kitchen, I wanted to clip her.
Asshole, she whispered loud enough for me to hear.
*Aheuuuh! There it was. That crackle again.
The sound came from outside. Probably some bird on a powerline calling for a mate, or to agree with my girlfriend. I got up to go to the bedroom, holding my beat-up paperback of the suburban story collection. I didn’t want to hear any more. After I passed her by, she muted Maury and said:
That’s right. Go away. Get lost in that stupid book. Why do you carry that thing around everywhere you go?
Because I like the stories, I groaned. It’s better than arguing over bullshit.
She stood and said, Why is it every time I have something to say to you…you just walk away. But whenever you got something to say to me, I can’t seem to get rid of you. You ever notice that?
I went back into the living room, watching some redneck being told that he was actually his cousin’s father.
Ah, I said. Here we go. Come on, let’s go. Let’s get to it.
I don’t even know what you’re saying. You’re so frustrating.
Well, what? What? she flailed, sitting down, looking up at me, legs crossed.
You really think that you’re never wrong, huh? I scoffed, accepting that this would spill over into me confessing about losing my job. The argument that would end things between us.
What am I supposed to do when I live with someone who thinks the same way?
Babe, I sighed. You just don’t understand what the last few weeks have been like—
I could not ignore the sound anymore. I turned to the window. She continued glaring at me, waiting to react.
What the hell is that? I said, forgetting the source of our tiff.
Really? At least finish your point so—
Shh-shh! I hissed back.
And there it was again—*Aheuuh! A minute went by. Sounded like a crow, but with a twinge of pain in its caw. Desperate. The way a hungry toddler gets fed up with riding in the stroller halfway through a walk. We listened, stared at each other. Soon enough, the furrow on her brow flattened. With each call, I could tell she was, little by little, coming down from the hill she was ready to die on. In our ground-floor apartment, the window unit clicked off, the scratching sounds in the walls faded away, the clonging, bumping pipes went quiet. As if our home, too, was trying to figure out what that was.
I looked out the window. First at the power line, then at the weed tree across the street growing along a chain-link fence. She did the same, peering through the other window. We heard it again—*Aheuuh! I looked down, into an empty trash barrel, and there it was. A bird. A catbird gingerly twitching its gray wings in a dirty puddle, its black eyes looking around terrified yet blank.
It’s a bird, I told her, surprised at the softness of my voice. Down there.
I moved to the side, let her get in front of me, and I intuitively pressed my nose to her shoulder as we observed the poor thing together. She hummed a faint aww. I then peeled away, put on shoes, and got a broom from the kitchen.
What are you going to do with that? she asked, worried.
I’m going to go out and help it. Come with me.
Morning was still cold. The sun had not yet settled itself to burn off the fog resting on our little side street. We both investigated the trash barrel. The bird looked up at us sideways. Me to her. Then her to me. I thought of this special buffet arrangement Edible Insults offers for Halloween parties. The Poe: a blackberry raven pecking at an eyeball of white chocolate and shaved Jerusalem artichoke. The insulting part is how bad it tastes.
Poor thing must’ve hit our window, I said to her. Looks like its wings are too wet.
Maybe it’s forgotten how to fly, she pointed out, staring at the broom in my hands.
The catbird stopped calling out, petrified. Breathing more akin to twitching. I had the broom ready. I told her to lay the barrel flat so it could hop out. Be careful, I said as if it was about to dart out and mob us—go full-Hitchcock. We stood behind the prone trashcan and waited to see if it would fly away on its own. One minute passed, then another. Me holding the broom, her shivering in a tank top. Nothing happened. Just us standing there. Cold still. I inserted the broom and the catbird jumped back, then tried to fly away, albeit through the bottom of the barrel. It kept banging its beak against the plastic, flapping its hurt, wet wings.
Wrong way, fella, I said, shifting the bristles behind it as the bird continued to flap. As soon as I was in position, I quickly pulled toward me.
When the catbird was free, its head spasmed back and forth, adjusting to the sudden brightness. The moment it saw us, it started hopping away, flapping furiously. Soon it got airborne—until it crashed sideways into my black sedan parked along the side of the road. We both cringed, hissed through our teeth as the bird slid down from the window back to the ground. The catbird squirmed under the car. That’s where it remained for about five minutes, collecting itself, pecking under its crumpled wings, trying to register the next course of action.
A call for help.
She went inside and came back with a handful of pistachios, almonds, and torn-up bread. She tossed them under the sedan. I didn’t think it was a good idea. I thought about rats scavenging whatever this little bird did not eat, and they’d come back, make a nest in my car, which would be cause for another disagreement. But I kept my mouth shut. She came back to me and leaned her head into my shoulder as I held the broom. We must’ve resembled some 21st century American Gothic: her in an Aeropostale tank-top ending at the navel, me shirtless with dirty royal blue gym shorts. Our paleness stiff from the cold air.
Didn’t expect to be doing this on my day off, she told me, forcing a chuckle.
Yeah, I mumbled, making sounds to fill the air. Pretty strange start to the day.
We sat down on our front porch and watched. The catbird got out from under the car, started pecking at the nuts, getting sliced bread caught in its beak. The sun shined on the black cap at the top of its head. Having collected itself, it hopped onto the openings of the chain-link fence, trying to make its way to the weed tree. Hopping through one diamond-shaped opening after another we watched the catbird navigate its way up the fence, then fall. After a few minutes, it tried again and failed.
Do you want to just sit and watch this? I asked her.
Yeah, she admitted. It’s strange, but I do. Keep an eye out while I go inside and make us some sandwiches.
For the rest of the day, we watched the catbird try to learn to fly. It never got warmer. We bundled up in hoodies and sweatpants and ate peanut butter sandwiches for lunch and dinner. We barely said a word unless to commentate on the little guy’s progress. Almost had it there, one of us would say. We were wary of any squirrels or large birds that might swoop in, but there were none. The street was abandoned. Nature was letting this trash catbird have a go at survival. We must have eaten seven sandwiches apiece.
Maybe we should just take the broom and end it, she floated to me.
But look how much it’s trying, I said. It at least deserves to try.
She nodded, linking my arm with hers. We disagreed, but it wasn’t an argument.
Afternoon light waned. We only registered how long we’d been sitting on the porch when the sun began to set. The catbird was still trying. It was getting harder to track its progress as the gray-blue evening blended with the gray bird.
The sun went down, and we could only see a tiny shadow bouncing through the diamond openings—clasping with skinny legs—and heard faint, rattling metal. She got up and gave my shoulder a squeeze.
I have to shower and go to bed, she said. I’m opening the store tomorrow. You should come to bed too. You can’t be groggy for work.
We had no orders for Edible Insults the following day, so I would be at home, doing nothing.
Wish that were the case, I mumbled under my breath.
What was that? she asked.
I didn’t say anything, I retorted lightly.
She went inside. Soon after, I followed her. I went to bed that night hoping the catbird had made it to a branch, where it could rest, even for just one night.
Matt Gillick is from Northern Virginia. He received an MFA from Emerson College in 2021. He is also a co-founder of Cult, a new literary magazine. Other published work available on mattgillick.com.