Birds at Night

Photo by Benjamin Balázs on Unsplash

We could hear the music, muted out here on the balcony, but lovely and soft, and we swayed slowly all alone, a quiet world with no one else in it to burst the dream that we had carefully weaved and convinced ourselves was reality. His hands were heavy on my waist and I concentrated on that weight, told myself that it meant something, reminded myself that I was awake and clearheaded, that he was here, too.

He had found me out here when I had come for air, for a moment to breathe. He knew that I had been avoiding him, and he had crossed the polished dance floor of the party that was well out of range of my usual social engagements at almost the same moment that I opened the door that led to the cool September night. He stood away from me for a moment as he shut the door quietly behind him. My back toward him, my eyes on the expanse of neatly trimmed lawn ahead of me, I leaned on the railing holding my breath so as not to disturb the night around me, as to try and forget that I needed to breathe. I could feel him there behind me, as I had become accustomed. This dream of ours was intricate.

“Who are you hiding from?”

His Westminster accent was clear in the quiet night, the familiar rumble in his voice making me finally exhale. Low and comforting, it was a sound I was sure that I would always know, would be able to pick out in a crowd years from now. I would hear it and wonder if it was real, or if my mind was playing tricks on me the way the night plays tricks on your eyes, the way your remembered dreams feel like memories. I heard his slow footsteps coming nearer and I turned to face him, my back against the railing.

A bird called close overheard, clear and strong, and I wondered what kind of bird was awake at this time of night. They should be sleeping, all of them, resting for the day to come. It was too late for their piercing songs in this quiet darkness.

“Everyone, at the moment,” I replied truthfully. I thought this would make him smile, but his look was appraising and serious. His eyebrows, the right always slightly higher than the left, rose, and he stopped and put his hands in his pockets. He stood there, easy and loose, an arm’s length away from me. His suit was a light gray color, his shirt crisp and white under a neat navy tie. His eyes looked blue and bright, even in this dim light. They would be intimidating, that light, intense shade of blue, if it weren’t for those crooked eyebrows of his. Those made him look soft, gentle in a way that I knew he was, but had trouble putting into words. Easy to know and recognize, trust and want. There was a warm tightness to him, a condensed confidence that gave his movements a gracefulness, his words thought and weight.

It hadn’t taken long, all of these realizations. They had been silent in my mind, it seemed to me, waiting for their moment to announce their presence, waiting for the right moment for their own birdsong, and a short introduction from an old friend was what finally shook them loose. A handshake and a burst of sparkling new observations. It had happened so fast that it felt as though it may not have happened at all.

He took a few steps closer to me, and I felt myself brace against the railing, my hands hidden by the folds of my borrowed, emerald green gown, but gripped the smooth wood of the railing under them tightly. I couldn’t think clearly if he spoke with honesty, as I was sure he would. If he spoke gently in that new, familiar voice and told me his own twinkling realizations, I would be lost across this divide forever.

No, I was too far from home for this to be real. I should wake up in my bed an ocean away and try to remember the face of the man I had dreamt about, the man with the voice that echoed in my head, the man with the midnight-colored tie. He should be a sweet memory to call upon, a daydream that was a brief reality. The closer he came to me the closer he came to ruining it, and my knuckles turned white with the effort of it all.

I looked down at my feet, my heels abandoned next to me. I had forgotten to polish my toenails. I stared at them, peeking out of the folds of my friend’s dress, and wondered what it was like to be brave. To be the type of person who allowed themselves fun and freedom on overseas trips, someone who didn’t think too hard or too much, someone who wasn’t bothered about the thought of a bird being awake in the night. Someone who polished or didn’t polish her toenails because she wanted to, not because she thought it was expected of her. What freedom someone like that would have, what a life.

He reached toward me then, his hands on my shoulders and sliding down my arms, warm on my skin in the crisp air. I want more time. I wanted to walk to him and bury my face, close my eyes and pretend.

“You look beautiful,” he said quietly, sincerely. I shook my head. I felt like an imposter in this dress, felt too miserable to look beautiful. His hands rested steadily on my upper arms as he stood high above me, my face near the buttons of his impeccably tailored suit. They blurred as my eyes burned while I thought of airplanes and goodbyes, regrets and bravery. I didn’t want him to see me cry in this pretty dress and bare feet, but it was all just too much. Just a little more time. Please.

I went to him easily as he tugged toward him, gently. It wasn’t a real possibility that I couldn’t. You can’t control your dreams even when you’re awake. His arms opened and he bent his lips to mine in one motion that was already so familiar. My tiptoes on his shoes were enough to let him straighten up, but he kept a firm grip, his fingers splaying on my back and suddenly I listened to that night bird sing again with reverence. Keep singing, please. Let us hear your song. Let me remember it all.

“I’ll miss you in the morning,” I whispered, my lips brushing his when I spoke, but my eyes were open. He looked beautiful this close, his hands on my face as he touched his forehead to mine.

“I love you,” he said, his eyes still closed, “I need you to know that and remember it, please.” Please.

I first saw him three weeks ago when I had come here in an inexplicable moment of daring, in some sort of break with my regular life. I knew what it was, that first night, those first words. I knew what it was. Kate made her short introductions, and although it had been nearly ten years since we shared a tiny dorm room, I could see her hitch a crooked, knowing smile. I pretended not to notice and refused to admit later that she was right but accepted her offer to wear her beautiful green gown to the party he asked me to attend with him.

I felt it in the dark car on my way back to the hotel alone late that first night, the vibration of knowledge like a current through my veins. I knew exactly what it was when our shoulders brushed the next day, when he broke a cookie in half to share with our coffees. I could feel it when I watched him laugh, when he kissed me lightly while we stood on the sidewalk three days later.

I could hear it in the blood pulsing in my ears when he said my name, recognized it in the tingling in my hands as I fixed a button on his coat. Knowing and saying are different. Only one makes it real.

We danced together now on the cool final night of an adventure, the music softly making us a memory to share. His eyes were clear when I looked up at him and he smiled in that way that showed all of his teeth, the way that reached his eyes, the way that made me hold still for a moment and remember where I was. Far from home, but closer, perhaps, to some surprise beginnings. Broken cookies and birds at night, green dresses and blue eyes, different moments of bravery and small, massive moments that course the changes in life. We chase them all and have to hold on to the ones that mean the most.

About the Author

Cory Essey

Cory Essey lives in Pittsburgh, PA. Her work has been published on The Write Launch, Discretionary Love, and Two Sisters Writing and Publishing.