We’re watching Hitchcock’s The Birds, and you complain about the plot: birds don’t attack for no reason like that.
I say, “What makes you so sure they don’t have a reason?”
You squint at me as if you’ve just woken from a nap and I am a strange room you don’t recognize.
Always we hang out at your house because my house is depressing, what with my mother hibernating like a vampire in her dark bedroom. Your mom, on the other hand, buys peach wine coolers and lets us drink them. Also your house has all the premium stations and so many pets that there’s always something alive to press against.
Only lately you’re not so lonely. Every few minutes you glance down at your phone and grin.
The funny thing about you and Ethan Costa: he didn’t notice you until Gus Mather burst so many blood vessels in your neck that you took to wearing turtlenecks to conceal the wounds. You are still wearing them. Those hickeys are like rocket boosters spewing out spent fuel, the way they propel you, give you momentum.
The funny thing about you and Gus Mather: he asked me out first, but I thought he wasn’t good enough for me.
I didn’t understand then that most boys’ number one criterion in selecting a girlfriend is that her desirability first be demonstrated by her being another boy’s girlfriend.
You take a swig of your peach wine cooler, say Ethan texted that he’s coming over later. A blush rises from your green turtleneck: mercury in a thermometer.
I pop a powdered-sugar donut hole into my mouth. Always we suck the powdered sugar off before we eat the cakey centers, but now the sugar tastes chalky and I long to spit the hole out.
“Have you ever thought about how donut holes are named for the empty space their departure leaves in something else?” I say, the hole a hard lump inside my cheek like the balled-up socks we used to stuff inside our training bras during sleepovers.
You ignore me. Punch letters into that phone.
My stepdad Guinotte says that all of life is dukkha. Dukkha comes from Sanskrit, literally means to have a poor axle hole. In other words: life is a rickety, ass-bruising ride.
Guinotte says desire is what makes it so. Desire clogs, clutters, makes us sick. Desire is why my mother won’t drag herself out of bed—she’s filled with the stuff, Guinotte said the other day while stirring pork and beans on the stove. “Filled with—we use that phrasing in conjunction with so many negative emotions: envy, hatred, anger.”
“And love,” I said.
Guinotte said, “Yes, love is dukkha too.”
To end your suffering, you must empty yourself, he said. Like shaking out the contents of a purse is how I imagine it, only then what good is the purse?
When I told you this, you said, “Your mother’s depressed because she’s married to an ass who shits on love.”
Now your cat’s claws draw blood as she kneads my leg, creating a scatterplot of pinpricks, and you say, “I don’t know why you let Cleo do that to you.”
The funny thing about you and me: I love you more than you love me. I’ve always been your satellite. Still, when you say, “You don’t mind, right? We can watch Marnie next weekend,” I conjure the shower scene from Psycho. The stab, stab, stab of the knife sounded by discordant strings.
Marnie is the second and last film Tippi Hedren made with Alfred Hitchcock. Because she broke her contract. Because Hitchcock tormented her. The key to understanding the plot of The Birds: Hitchcock’s plot to get his hands on Tippi. He wanted her. She rejected him. So he plotted revenge via hundreds of live birds.
When Tippi’s character walks upstairs alone for no discernable reason, despite the birds jabbing holes in the house’s shutters, perforating the wood as easily as paper, you say, “This makes no frigging sense.”
“That’s what Tippi said,” I say.
In Astronomy, Ms. Guttiérrez taught us that contrary to popular belief, stars are not stationary objects around which planets revolve. Stars and planets orbit together around their joint center of mass. Only the greater the discrepancy in their masses, the closer that center of mass is to the more massive object. Thus, most stars appear fixed in space, their only movement their spinning in place. But here’s the funny thing: if a planet is close enough to its star and massive enough, the star’s revolution around their joint center of mass is visible. The planet makes the star tremble.
Hitchcock filmed that iconic attic scene—or bedroom scene, as Hitchcock referred to it—over the course of five days. Even if the birds’ legs hadn’t been tied to Tippi’s dress with elastics, the birds would have pecked and clawed. They’d been trained to attack.
As Tippi Hedron flails her arms and gasps and moans—if it weren’t for the wing flaps, the audio could pass for a sex scene—I wonder aloud how long Hitchcock would have insisted on shooting that scene if it hadn’t been for Tippi’s nervous breakdown. If her doctor hadn’t insisted that she be given a week off to recover, that the scene be wrapped up.
“But if he loved her,” you say.
There’s so much you don’t get.
In the ballerina jewelry box I’ve had since I was a girl, there’s half a broken heart dangling from a tarnished chain: “ST NDS.” I once complained that you had all the vowels, and you said, “What’s so special about vowels?”
As the Rod Taylor character carries the stunned Tippi down the stairs—her eyes vacant, her body limp—I consider what I couldn’t quite put into words back then: vowels are the breath of a word, the beating heart, what give it life. Until the teeth, tongue, or lips snuff the life out.