Phillipa didn’t seem like the sort of person who’d keep a seagull in the freezer. I was looking for ice at three in the morning when I found it, right behind the microwavable meals and fish sticks. The tap water at her house had this gassy tang, like residue from a pot of boiled broccoli; I thought making it cold might help.
The beak caught my eye. There were red lipstick markings near the tip, in the shape of a smile. The bird’s head was stuck to the roof and its feet were encased in ice, all the way up to its chapped, inverted knees. And its wings were spread, like the bird was trying to fly home when death turned its lights out.
I looked down and felt my bare feet turning numb on the linoleum.
My sense of where this day would go, or how I’d reign myself in enough to get through it, seemed to melt into the pattern of brown squares across the floor.
The streetlights shone in through her blinds, creating shadow tracks on the wall. It wasn’t dark enough for me. She slept on the far side of the bed with her face wedged between her slender arms, her back slightly arched. I watched her twitch and move around for a moment, then sat down and pumped her shoulder gently back and forth.
“Phillipa, wake up.”
She raised her head; her eyes rolled open; blonde locks hung across her face.
“Why are you keeping a dead seagull?” I asked in a hushed, calm voice.
She tried to focus for a second, but sleep, or the lack of it, was taking her back.
“Hey,” I said, with more urgency. “Tell me, please.”
“There’s a seagull in your freezer.”
She sighed, surrendering. “It’ll take too long to explain, Dean. It’s nothing.”
I was starting to argue when she pushed me off the bed with more force than I expected and told me to leave.
It was cold and eerily quiet outside her front door. All I wanted was to go back inside and solve this seagull mystery and crawl into bed, but that was out of the question.
Timing is everything. I should have waited to ask her about the bird. It might have come up naturally over scrambled eggs and coffee.
I changed in my early twenties, when Zara and I were together. Or something changed me. These things are hard to tell, even years later.
We’d been living in our apartment in Bakersfield for three months when she fell pregnant. Which shouldn’t have come as such a massive goddamned surprise when you think about it; all we did in Bakersfield was fuck and get stoned.
Neither of us knew how to handle the situation. We panicked and cried and workshopped a series of terrible, long-term ideas that would have driven us to murder each other if we’d been unlucky enough to follow through with them.
Zara’s dad intervened when he found out, and he took us to a private clinic to schedule an abortion; we couldn’t afford to raise a child or to reverse the process of becoming parents.
The nurses were nice to us. There was no drama or judgment on the big day. It was like having a tooth pulled; a decision was made and all we had to do was show up and be brave.
The experience brought us all closer together. Our family and friends were kind and positive. The flood of support was overwhelming; we were the recipients of constant phone calls, surprise visits, and grocery-store cake.
It was hardest on her. I’ll never deny that.
But as we were starting to move on, weeks later, a strange thing happened; Zara started telling people we had a miscarriage. This miraculous lie just popped out in conversation with a complete stranger in a bank, and I guess she preferred how that sounded. Something clicked in her. And from that day, everyone, myself included, especially myself, let her start believing this lie, one tall tale at a time.
Phillipa’s house was in the war zone of Ocean Beach—close to the beach, close to the bars, close to the head shops and liquor stores. It’s a crazy-old neighborhood. Full of spirit. There’s spray paint on the walls, cigarette butts and food stepped into the sidewalks. People live here. I hated being in the suburbs and complained about the sterility and fake serenity all the time.
I got coffee and a croissant from a gas station and walked to the Ocean Beach pier for an unknown reason. The ocean calls out to restless souls. The sky was turning gray at the edges; sunrise was pushing up against some heavy clouds. The pier’s sickly, orange lights shone across the water in shimmering legs that stretched out toward the horizon. It was just a few fishermen, some homeless people, and me, soaking up the silence.
We had fun at the bar last night. Phillipa wanted to keep it casual—call it a night and meet up another time. But I kept buying more drinks, lengthening our blind date, hashing out conversations, and eventually we went back to her house to open a bottle of wine.
We stayed up until we were both slurring and cross-eyed. Phillipa was a student, originally from a town called Grand Rapids. The one in Minnesota, not Michigan. Hometown of Judy Garland. Like Bakersfield with water, she said.
I told her I was originally from Arizona and moved out here to join the military, but fell in love with the ocean and decided to open a business selling recycled glass.
She liked that.
We finally capped the night off with clumsy, barbaric sex—the kind I used to think about when Zara lay in an L-Shape next to me, crying in our dark room about the child we weren’t having. And afterward I lay awake, staring at the roof, until I got up to drink some water.
I was lost in my thoughts when a commotion brought me back to the moment.
A fisherman was cursing and swearing at something. A pelican had stolen his bait and gotten the hook stuck in its wing. It was flapping around his feet, knocking over his tackle box, and getting tangled up in line.
He was an older man, with a full head of silver hair gelled back. In good shape despite the hard lines in his face from spending too many years in the sun without protection. He tried to get to the bird, and it pecked him.
“Fuck you!” he said to the pelican, which was backed up against the wall, bobbing and weaving its long neck defensively.
“Hey, let me give you a hand,” I said to him, walking over to see if we could free the bird together.
“Stay out of this,” he said, holding out his arm, urging me to stop moving.
The bird was picking at its wing when the man raised his booted foot very slowly— and then brought it straight down on its head.
Zara’s lying became more convoluted over time.
She’d bring “our loss” up in public, howl at the sight of a baby on cue, weep into her sleeve when we found ourselves around kids. And I just had to stand there and frown along, stroking her shaky hand. Once, I tried to talk to her about it when we got home, in private, and she told me I’d gone mad. “How can you say that to me!” she cried. In her eyes, swimming behind a head of unbrushed hair, I saw that she’d exchanged the truth for her miscarriage story and needed to hold on to it for dear life.
Meanwhile, my friends had moved away from Bakersfield and were living like free savages. They were having the time of their lives, apparently.
I missed being free.
After six months I couldn’t stand the thought of living like a prisoner of Zara’s truth any longer. So I started lying to her. A little at first, just to go out for a bit on my own. Then a lot.
I made up birthdays, farewell parties, and other big occasions that I “had to attend” in Ventura and San Diego and drove out there alone. I’d go to bars and get fall-over drunk and play the numbers; you hit on enough women, you’re bound to find someone as desperate for contact as you. Sleeping around was easy before Facebook killed anonymity.
Zara suspected things and accused me of screwing around, but I stuck to my script and never veered off course. Eventually, even when it didn’t make sense, she accepted the truth I gave her.
Like everything in life, even telling lies, practice makes perfect.
I knocked on the door of Phillipa’s apartment.
She answered wearing a gown and a scowl that cut her pretty face in half. “You forget something?”
“I want to apologize.”
“Can I come in, please?”
She sighed, looked at me suspiciously, stepped aside.
I waited in the kitchen while she made coffee. “So, are you going to tell me about the seagull?”
“Look in the spare room.”
I got up and walked to the extra room in the apartment, just a tiny nook that was more of an office space than anything. There was a desk, a chair, and a bookshelf full of mason jars, each one hosting a critter. There was a baby rabbit, a snake, a frog, a mouse, and a hedgehog, all preserved in formaldehyde.
“Jesus, are these all yours?”
“Yeah,” she said, standing in the hallway with two cups of black coffee, brewing steam.
“Why?” I asked.
“I like to … preserve them.”
“You like dead animals?”
“They’re not just dead animals. They’re everything—part of this earth and the cycle of life. I think it’s beautiful, and in a weird way, these magical creatures are suspended between life and death. It makes me feel connected to it all. I don’t know—I can’t explain it. You weren’t supposed to see this stuff. It’s my thing, and if you’re gonna judge me and be an asshole about it, you can leave.”
“No judgment. I think it’s cool.”
“You’re a terrible liar.”
I smirked. “So the seagull—it’s bigger than these other little guys.”
She nodded, looking out of breath for some reason. “Yeah, it’s actually not going to work out. I’ve been meaning to bury it, but keep putting it off. I’m sorry you found it.”
For a number of reasons, that sounded therapeutic.
“Let’s do it together,” I said. “We can kill two dead birds with one stone.”
I remember the end of Zara and I.
I got home from a serious night, my clothes heavy with the smell of a bar, my breath pickled sharp. A red truck was parked out front, piled high with her things. My dad was waiting outside the entrance to our apartment, arms folded, face roiled in disappointment.
“Dean, we need to talk,” my old man said me.
“This is an intervention,” he said.
My heart froze in my chest.
He put his hand on my shoulder, his eyes shiny and black. “Not for you, asshole. Zara.”
“She’s not well. Everyone knows that.”
“You should have done something,” he said, leaning in close. “You stink.”
I knew that.
As we walked upstairs toward the open front door of our apartment, my legs felt like they’d crumble. I couldn’t live this way any longer, with our lies and our shame weighing on us like blankets dipped in tar.
Zara sat cross-legged and expressionless on the couch, her face as gray as the morning sky. In sweatpants and a tank top, she looked childlike. Her shoulders were dangerously sharp, her cheekbones sunken deep into her face.
Her father came through with a box of books and photo albums, laid it on the floor in the lounge. They both looked up for a moment, somberly, and carried on loading things into it, like I wasn’t really there. Like it was a stupid cardboard cutout of me.
There was hardly anything of hers left inside.
“Zara, are you okay?” I said.
She didn’t answer. Just shook her head.
Her father motioned me out the door. “I’ll take it from here, Dean. You’re not in this.”
“I want to help,” I chirped without a single ounce of conviction.
“You’ve helped enough. Go take a shower. I can smell you from here.”
I couldn’t fight or plead my case. I had no right. A wave of relief and sadness filled me up simultaneously as I backed away, finally free.
The pelican was still on the pier when we got there. One eye had burst out of its socket, and its long beak was crushed into the cement. Flies were buzzing around it already. There was a lot of foot traffic by that stage, but people just formed an imaginary barricade around the dead pelican and went on with their day.
Nobody seemed to care or notice me putting it into a trash bag.
We took the birds to the dog park near the edge of Ocean Beach.
Phillipa picked a spot near the fence, farthest from the road, where the soil was a bit softer.
I got down on my knees and started digging, using an old plastic dish I found on the ground. It was hard work, but the repetition felt good; I remember not wanting it to end, wishing there was time to make the hole big enough for me to squeeze in.
When we laid the gull and the pelican to rest, an old feeling of relieved sadness filled me up. A feeling linked to Zara and me and the dead-weight we carried.
The sun was bursting through the clouds. It was turning out to be another typically warm day in San Diego, where the blinding weather makes our indignity vanish.
We stood above our birds for a moment and listened to the neighborhood waking up. The cars heading down Sunset Cliffs Boulevard and the dogs barking and children getting ready for school.
“May you soar across the heavens forever,” she said, breaking our silence.
I wanted to walk away, until she reached out and squeezed my hand. “Shower off at my place?” Phillipa asked me.
“That’d be great,” I said.
I needed a shower. And more time. And a kick in the face. And some new lies to cover up the old lies and the older ones below those, piled high up on top of the real me, which lay buried underneath it all.
Reality was knocking again.
I’d lost my wedding ring somewhere during the course of the last twelve hours and had to think of a story to tell my wife.
This story was first published by the James Franco Review. It also appears in the Ocean Beach collection.