On the day that Andrew was finally leaving me we hit traffic between New Haven and Guilford. Andrew had stuffed his belongings haphazardly into the Subaru that morning even though this had all been planned for a week. He believed that boxes were a waste of space and material, so the backseat had become a mound of sweaters still on hangers and shoes that I doubted would ever again find their mates. Now every few moments Andrew would tap the brakes and a book would tumble out of the pile and hit one of us on the head and we would curse and blame all of our distress on that damn hardcover.
“What’s the point though?” Andrew asked irritably after tossing a copy of Native American Myths and Legends over his shoulder. “Isn’t a wedding enough of a party? Why celebrate the engagement too?”
I rubbed my temples. “I really don’t know.”
It wasn’t lost on me, the strangeness of having this conversation while sitting in the physical ruins of our marriage as we crept forward on I-95. But we had RSVP’d to Fari and Paul weeks ago, before I’d known Andrew’s mind was made up, and now it seemed easier to force it for one more evening rather than explain our split to a party full of near-strangers. If nothing else, we agreed, we had retained our civility. After the engagement party Andrew would keep driving, up to Boston and his shiny new fellowship, and I would take the train back to the apartment in the city with its empty bookshelves.
I pressed my forehead against the frosty window to avoid the possibility of further discussion. Silence, I had learned, could sometimes be a weapon and sometimes an instrument of peace.
When Fari and Paul had gotten engaged, Fari had called me for the first time in a year to tell me the news. “I thought you weren’t sold on marriage,” I had said, the words tumbling out irretrievably.
Fari was too rosy to be bothered. “We weren’t, but we decided to give it a try.” She said it with the same nonchalance as someone deciding to make a bulgur salad for the first time. Oh, let’s just give it a try. What have we got to lose?
Fari had continued on to say how she had seen many of her friends thrive in marriage. “Laurel, I know we haven’t been in touch enough, but we just love you and Andrew. You guys are basically our relationship idols.”
I had related this conversation to Andrew hours later. “Huh,” was what he said before turning back to highlighting passages in a dense looking text. I stood there in the doorway for a long moment before walking away.
By the time we crossed the Sagamore Bridge, we had settled into a curated co-existence. Andrew was listening to an audiobook that reimagined ancient myths in a 21st century setting. His dissertation was on bird symbology in various mythic traditions, and I could tell he was really jamming on this shit in a way that I would have found nerdy hot when we had first started dating, but now that we were splitting up I felt was arrogant and played. Every so often he would snort-laugh knowingly along with the narrator. I had plugged in my headphones and was listening to an episodic true crime podcast, which was rather melodramatically called Indicted. I wasn’t so much genuinely interested in the show as I was desperate for some distraction from this road trip, but it was enough to keep me listening.
Cape Cod in December was raw and barren, with rows of shuttered businesses and scraps of the gray-brown sea visible through deadened scrub. I popped out a headphone and said I couldn’t understand why anyone would live here. Andrew rolled his eyes. Between the two of us, neither one had ever climbed a mountain, but Andrew was still pretending he wanted to.
The party was at a place called the Boardwalk, which was surreptitiously devoid of ocean views. We were an hour late and Fari and Paul looked like they had already overdone it on happily-ever-after, or at least well liquor.
“My favorite duo!” Fari flung her arms around us in a double hug. She was still tiny but her New England hick accent had thickened with time. We’d been roommates in college, perfect foils for one another, me with my metropolitan preoccupations and Fari with her refreshing sincerity. As I hugged back stiffly I could feel the gaping distance between my life and hers in this moment. I almost wished I had told her about the divorce, but I didn’t see how such a confidence could fit into our now-friendship, wilted as it was by sparse, perfunctory text messages and annual holiday cards.
“So! You defended right? We can officially call you Doctor?” Fari asked Andrew, arm linked through his. She had hated Andrew at first, had said he was a pretentious prick. He had grown on her by the time we got married, but even so it always stuck with me, her initial judgment of him.
I excused myself to find the bar.
“Well, most people think the owl is obvious. Wisdom, intelligence, those are the popular characterizations,” Andrew was saying to Fari and two of her bridesmaids around midnight. As the night wound down the two of us had found ourselves inescapably in the same conversation. “But there is also a mystical element to owls that was held sacred by ancient civilizations.”
The bridesmaids, petite and as cheaply dressed as Fari, were nodding along. I gulped more of my gin and tonic. Such a fuck, I was thinking. Such a stuck-up fuck. For so many years I had striven to care about Andrew’s ornithology symbology, and where had that gotten us? It seemed unbearable, this final conversation. I’d be glad to never see his fake thick-rimmed glasses again. I was beginning to feel tipsy and self-righteous.
“What about a sparrow? A hawk?” The bridesmaids were quizzing Andrew.
“I believe the hawk symbolizes war,” I interjected between sips, even though I knew that wasn’t true. The bridesmaids’ coiffed heads bobbed up and down with enlightenment.
Andrew sighed like I was a particularly senile dog who had just messed the carpet. “No, no. Laurel’s referencing the modern usage of ‘hawk’ as a name for warmongers. The bird’s ancient significance is its close association with the human soul.”
“What about a woodpecker?” The tiniest bridesmaid giggled. Not very subtle.
Really, he had never given me a fighting chance. I could have handled a knock-down, dishes-smashing brawl or even an indiscrete affair. Instead it had been subtle, a progressive turning away. Silent, lethal. His refusal to allow our marriage to come undone more messily seemed the worst thing of all.
I refilled my gin and returned to the circle.
“You know,” I said, pointing right at Andrew. I was pretty sure I was interrupting someone, but I felt fuzzy and spiteful, “owls are not wise. Owls are murderers.”
“No, I’m fucking serious!” The bridesmaids raised their eyebrows at me in disbelief. “I heard it on Indicted. It’s a true crime! An owl murdered this woman and her lawyer proved it and he proved that owls have been killing people on the down-low throughout history! They’re assassins!”
“That is unsubstantiated,” Andrew smiled tightly.
He always had to be above everything. Like my job, which he treated as a passing phase even though I actually kind of liked marketing. Or his tirades about the materialistic undertones of U.S. holidays. His derision of non-microbrewed beer. That goddamn non-response when I told him Fari and Paul thought we were a perfect couple. Huh. I was getting the spins and I felt like screaming.
“Well 20-point word for you, Mr. PhD. But I’m right about the owls.” I had stepped closer to Andrew and he was trying to shhh me, which made me talk louder. “You think owls are so serene and mystical and then BAM! One cracks your skull open with its pointy little beak!”
The bridesmaids had stepped backward, but they were blurry anyway. Andrew stopped shhhing finally. He put two fingers to his forehead and stared at the ground, saying nothing.
“And by the way?” I got right up in his face, even more livid. “These glasses are fake!”
I snatched them and held them high for everyone to see, since by now what was left of the party was staring at us, the uncoupling couple. Before I could launch the fake glasses across the room Fari grabbed my arm and pulled me out the front door and into the parking lot.
“Jesus, Laurel. What’s going on with you?”
“Nothing much,” I said. “My husband’s a prick.” I bent over and retched into a bush that looked like a pile of dead sticks. Everything seemed dead on this peninsula. He’s leaving me, I wanted to say. He just stopped caring. How does that happen? But I was too sick to say anything.
When I finally sat up and wiped my mouth I caught sight of the Subaru, hatchback brimming with Andrew’s belongings, turning out of The Boardwalk’s lot and onto the main road. Andrew didn’t put his blinker on, just pressed on the gas slowly, accelerating so carefully that the car made no sound at all as it coasted onto the paved road. It didn’t even leave behind a cloud of dust.
The next morning I woke up at Fari’s hungover and humiliated. In the kitchen, the bridesmaids groaned and held their heads and bacon popped on a griddle. My stomach lurched. I had hours until my train back to the city and no desire to relate the details of my marital failures to the bride-to-be. I excused myself for some fresh, dead-winter air.
I picked through the wooded trail near Fari’s place, keeping my eyes on the roots and stones poking up through the frost. I was picturing Andrew trying to hike a real mountain in his new life in Boston. The thought almost made me smirk, but also reminded me of our honeymoon in Costa Rica. How one morning Andrew had woken me up before six and wrapped me in a bed sheet and carried me out to the patio of our cabina. How he had gestured grandly toward the volcano just beyond. The day’s cloud cover was quickly encasing it, but at that moment we could see the crater and the great frothy smoke it disgorged into the atmosphere. We had stayed there on the patio as the clouds rushed in, Andrew reading aloud volcano facts from his guide book. And I had kissed the back of his hand three times in a row.
I took in a sharp breath and held it down in my chest to stay calm. It was so much easier to be drunk and angry. I had reached the look-out at the high point of the trail, and I found it to be just as much of a let down as the rest of Cape Cod at that time of year. I was standing at the top of what could barely be called a hill and all I could see were a bunch of boxy-looking shingled houses and two busy roads. No sea. What a joke this whole nature thing was.
On the way back down the trail I distracted myself thinking about how I would redecorate the apartment. Distraction was an important skill I had cultivated during the non-breaking break-up and it was especially practical in the aftermath of last night. I had always wanted, I told myself, to have lots and lots of candles around my bathtub. It seemed excessive but also romantic. I had seen it on Pinterest. Also Andrew had left a bunch of furniture, which I would have to do away with somehow. I briefly considered starting a bonfire, but settled on selling it all on Craigslist and keeping the profits. Yes, that would be vengeful and also fairly lucrative.
A rustling sound came from the side of the path, startling me almost to the point of a scream. When I looked down it was to my left, no more than two feet away. Small and camouflaged against the slushy ground. A snowy owl.
My first thought was to cover my head. Duck and run. But the owl was just sitting there casually in the harsh morning light. It blinked at me twice.
“Assassin,” I whispered to the owl. I knew I shouldn’t, but I was trying to get a rise out of it.
The owl just blinked again. “Come on, owl.” I said. “Do your worst.” I was daring it to come at me.
“I see you, you evil being,” I said, louder now.
The owl was starting to piss me off. I just wanted it to try to crack my skull, even though I knew that would be a terrible thing to happen. “Come on, you murderer! You’re not as smart as you fucking think you are!” I waved my arms and kicked a bit of dirty slush toward it.
The owl seemed to react to this. It fluttered one of its wings a bit but it stayed there on the ground. I saw then that the other wing was bloodied, its feathers splayed at odd angles.
“Shit,” I said to myself. I stopped waving my limbs around. What was I supposed to do with a injured assassin bird in the middle of the woods? I dialed Fari on my cell phone, not taking my eyes off the creature.
“An owl?” she answered. “Damnit, Laurel, you have all the luck. I’ve never seen a snowy owl!”
“God, who cares, Fari. Just help me make sure this thing doesn’t die.” She agreed to call Wildlife Rescue, or whatever kind of place will come help a maniacal injured fowl on a Sunday morning.
I hung up the phone and crouched carefully down for a better view of the wing, which put us eye to eye, me and the owl. It was a small thing. I wondered if it was a kid. A pre-pubescent owl. How could I be married to Andrew and not know what a kid owl was called? I looked into the owl’s eyes, and it stopped blinking and looked into mine. Its eyes were as pure and light as real maple syrup. I wondered if this owl held the answers to all of life’s eternal questions. It was unlikely, but I asked anyway.
“What’s going to happen to me?”
The owl didn’t make a sound, but its eyes held onto mine.
“How come he couldn’t even care enough to hate me?”
Thick tears began to drip down my face. I was sniffling and crouching there on the wooded path, waiting for an owl to give me answers. I felt wretched and lovely at the same time and I kept just staring into those molasses eyes and crying. Eventually the silence stopped feeling like an attack and began to feel like something nice, like a delicious blanket covering my exposed and achy body, or maybe like a warm bath by candlelight. But then something brittle snapped somewhere in the woods and the owl swiveled its head and it was over.
I got to my feet and stood there with the owl for a while longer. I couldn’t say why, but I didn’t want to leave it. “You’ll be okay, right?” I asked. I didn’t move.
The sun was getting higher and the trees were crackling as ice melted off their branches. “Okay owl. I’m leaving,” I said a few moments later. “But believe me, you’ll be okay.”
I nodded at the owl to show that we had reached a point of mutual respect and civility despite how I had started off our interaction. It looked back and blinked at me once more, which I took to mean it understood. I pivoted on the trail so the owl was behind me and walked silently out of the woods.
Kristen Milano’s experiences growing up in the Berkshire, Adirondack, and White Mountains greatly influence her writing. She holds a degree in English from Williams College as well as a Master’s in Education from Harvard University. Kristen lives outside of Boston with her husband and their incorrigible cat, Marcy. This is her first publication.