April 10, 2008

Xavier I

While I was a student, I lived in Provo, Utah. My abode was an old historical mansion on Center Street, a street lined with soaring Sycamore trees. And I took up a tiny studio in the big house. The tiny studio featured a terrace. Not really. Not officially. But the big, south-facing windows opened up onto a portion of the roof. A nice, flat portion, which offered plenty of nearly-nude sunbathing opportunities.

(As an aside, I have a history of roof appropriation. While living on the North Shore of Oahu, I would climb a tree, across a walkway, up a ladder, and onto the forbidden roof. Once I had reached the roof, I would either spend the night sleeping under the stars, or spend the day lying under the heat of the sun – both activities veiled by the solar panels.

It was my bizarre landlord, Mary Lou Whipple who forbade such tricks (a white woman who had adopted Polynesia into her heart, even if Polynesia had in no way adopted her). She lived next door with her “nieces” – a group of 8 girls from all over the place (Fiji, Poland, Wisconsin, Australia…). This was her way of getting around the town’s laws that restricted the number of unrelated people living under one roof. She always introduced the girls that way, anytime she was outside and someone else came along. “These are my nieces,” she would chime, their faces signifying their annoyance or confusion, depending upon which niece you were looking at. She also had a son named Amigo, who visited once in a while, and whose visit would always bring her odd, but sincere request for us girls to ‘accompany Amigo to the hot tub.’ None of us indulged her.)

Back to my roof in Provo. One morning I awoke, crawled out my window and gazed into the high branches of the gigantic pines above me. I saw a very large, intimidating bird with his wings spread, just like those Michael Jordan posters that showcase his arms outstretched, indicating just how tall he really is. It was a spectacle. He was clearly proud of his wings and I understood why. Every so often, in his spread-winged stance, he would rotate a quarter-turn. I was in love. This rather big guy was probably wet from the night and was strategically placing himself in patches of sun to dry his wings and body (which looked rather feeble in comparison to his massive wings).

He seemed so showy, and also so ugly. This was a bird with what we might call bad posture and a very ugly beak. His head and neck seemed to bend toward his stomach. Slouching. But somehow, this did not take away from his impressive intimidation factor. Clearly, he was into his bad posture.

I started making a point of watching his morning routine and then I noticed he had friends. Four. Xavier (the first), Cassidy, Oliver and Astrid, they were called.

They were high flyers and my best view of my friends was from the roof plank. Out through the window I would crawl and winch my neck upwards and there they would be, circling, gliding all together. These four glided – they were not flyers; in fact, they almost never flapped their wings. Their wing-span was probably 6-feet.

And then they would sit. High in the pines, after their circling in the sky, all four of them. Sometimes they liked to chat and they would perch on the same branch – four black bowling pins in a row. Other days, when skies were greyer, they were more often scrambled in the branches. Xavier and Astrid high above, close together and then Cassidy on his own sulking with Oliver below, his slumped neck craning up to survey the others once in a while.

My late summer/fall that year was spent watching my friends with devotion. Their wingspan, their gliding capacity, my admiration grew by the day. Then one late night, in the basement of the BYU library, sitting and studying operant and classical conditioning, I wanted to classify my friends.

I found the section of the library containing wildlife and birds and started thumbing through different descriptions to try to pin them down. I thought I would love them more if I knew what they were. So I searched for a bird their size in Utah, who performed the morning show-off ritual (they all did this, not just Xavier – four of them on the branches, wings spread, wimpy body, spectacle).

My conclusions were totally unexpected and somewhat distressing. Xavier, Cassidy, Oliver and Astrid were Turkey Vultures. To my dismay, I realized that all of this time I had been obsessed with buzzards.

For a few days I protested. I refused to be their audience for the morning display. Or to watch them in the sky gyrating high above.

But then after some thinking, I came to relish the fact that they were buzzards, scavengers. I imagined them circling around different places for food scraps, namely the best little bakery in Provo, which dumped a whole lot of donuts every night in the parking lot dumpsters out back. (I know this because my siblings had a tradition, called ‘dumpster diving.’ My sister started it and we (sometimes me) would sneak to the dumpsters and steal whole bags of baked goods – donuts and cupcakes and rolls. Julie would even serve them at parties she hosted).

So, I related with them and stopped resenting them. They were like me, or at least like my siblings. Poor, but they still had refined taste and very little will-power when it came to certain delicacies, even when pronounced ‘expired.’

At this point I was emotionally attached to my birds. And then one day they vacated their branches and left me behind. Without ritual or ceremony. They didn't even say goodbye.

I went to Mexico that winter to try to find them. I drove to Baja California with two friends, half-way down the coast. I thought I spotted them a few times – I was sure this was their destination. Turkey Vultures go to Mexico, after all, for the winter, and other warm places too, but I thought Xavier, Cassidy, Oliver and Astrid would like Baja. I liked Baja. I found two dogs named Bobby and Pinto, but no Turkey Vultures.

There have been other animal attachments since then. Many. Anthropomorphizing animals is a specialty of mine, but Xavier, Cassidy, Oliver and Astrid have a unique, sort-of mangy place in my heart. I think it is one reason I was drawn to Xavier the human. He was actually Xavier the II when I give credit where it is due.


Anonymous said...

I now clearly understand the legacy I have been facing and I prepare myself for a lifetime search of Xavier I, 'the first'.

JR said...

Beautiful. It's amazing, the contrast of being repulsed by the vulture's face and the beauty of the vulture in flight. All of our best to the search.

Anonymous said...

until I read the post I totally thought you were suggesting something mean about xavier's nose.

now I've read the post and I'm still not sure you're not :)

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