The Finch

By Stephanie Iancu

The petals were already falling, creating a bright carpet of yellows and lilacs on the street. The early spring sunlight crept through the narrow crack between the two buildings and landed on the kitchen table. She opened the window and inhaled deeply, willing the crisp air to awaken her from the drowsiness she had been feeling since December.

She picked up her plate from the table, a few breadcrumbs sliding off and landing on the gray kitchen tile, and placed it in the sink along with her cup. She stood there for a few seconds, watching the stream bounce off the inside of it, progressively turning the dark brown circle of coffee at the bottom lighter and lighter until it had almost vanished. She hunched over and dipped her head under the faucet. The warm water trickled over the top of her forehead and slid down her nose into the drain. She closed her eyes.

He was at work already and would not be returning until late; their new normal. There had been moments of sweetness in the beginning, long afternoons sitting on the grass in front of the library, eating crisp apple slices, and talking about books. Nights   crouching on fire escapes, holding stemless glasses of rioja, watching the lights progressively turn on in neighboring apartments, the city simultaneously falling asleep and humming with a newfound liveliness.

But even then, something had been almost imperceptibly off. The sunlight had always been slightly too bright, the aftertaste of the wine a little too bitter. Like one of those puzzle pieces that are the right shape and color—perhaps a fraction of sky or ocean—but belong somewhere else entirely; a small difference in the cut making it impossible to finish the task in its entirety.

But the sign had been unarguably clear, and they both knew it. This was it. This was the path that had been predetermined for them, the string that would bind them for the remainder of their earthly existence. They had never really talked about it, the fear of breaking the still fragile bond overcoming their curiosity.

She headed back into the room and began grabbing her clothes out of the old oak wardrobe, the caffeine she had just consumed doing little to abate her fatigue. She pulled a soft brown sweater over her head and laced up her loafers as she sat on the edge of the bed. As she looked up, she caught sight of her distorted reflection in the cheap mirror. Her features were drawn, but simultaneously still distended from the long night of sleep. She had taken to going to bed before he got home, pretending to no longer be awake as he entered the room and dropped heavily beside her.

She did not know if he had chosen to spend more and more time at work or if he now spent his evenings somewhere else, perhaps nursing a bottle of sake in one of the small bars he took her to after they had just met; or maybe with another woman, dipping bread in olive oil and listening to jazz records in a softly-lit downtown apartment. She imagined this woman to be the opposite of herself, a freshly divorced lawyer who wore sharp wool suits and dark red lipstick, or perhaps, a younger, flirty bartender with smudged eyeliner and kaleidoscopic tattoos.

She took one last look at herself in the hallway mirror, grabbed her purse, and stepped outside. The city that day was bright and stark. She thoughtlessly ambled toward the station, cars rushing past and mothers dragging their children by the hand, their noses turning pink from the icy wind. As she walked, she felt her tiredness turn into a bone-deep restlessness. This strange sense of agitation felt familiar. She had often felt this way as the seasons began to change; when the balmy winds of the South came in and stirred up memories of an early life spent beyond the mountains that surrounded the city. She could almost still hear the piercing screech of the gulls, feel the strength of the waves crashing against the jagged, slippery rocks, and see the curve of the coastline as it disappeared from view beyond the pines. Nostalgic sensations that were neither melancholy nor comfort.

She looked up and noticed she had arrived in front of the station's mouth, the mud-stained steps leading down to the dark and musty underpass. Something was pulling her to keep walking. She veered right onto a side street and quickened her pace. She took several deep breaths, letting the brisk March air travel smoothly through her lungs. The side streets were quiet, with most children already in school and their parents busy at work. She passed the small greengrocer’s, its owner—a frail, bearded man whose age could have been anything between fifty and eighty—giving her a silent nod as she walked by. She was a block away from the park now, its thick canopy of trees a haven anytime she felt the need to escape.

She had asked for the sign when she was twenty, the same age her parents had asked for theirs. A romance for the ages, their friends and family would joke. It was winter and she had just moved to the city. She was reading The Great Gatsby as she willed the warmth to return and bring the barren trees back to life. A green-eyed visitor from a warmer place had crossed her mind as she was sitting at her desk one afternoon, watching the snow fall heavily, the world outside already dark and dense even though it was barely past five. She knew this was the promised symbol, the one she had been waiting on for almost a decade.

“I always go with the lavender tea,” said the voice over her shoulder and she hesitated over her order on that June day.

She did not respond, taking a step toward the register and placing her order, hastily pulling bills out of her wallet. Engaging in small talk with strangers always made her nervous. As she shuffled to the side and sat down at a small round table by the window, she heard his voice again, low and grainy. He was smiling and joking with the young man at the register, speaking with a self-assured tone she usually found aggravating. But something about him also translated a sense of agitation, perhaps even a hint of anxiety. She could sense he wasn’t good at these things either.

She finally looked up. He was facing sideways, his strong profile visible to her from where she stood. There was a familiarity to him. As he moved away from the register, he approached her table, his eyes meeting hers.

“I would be curious to know your thoughts,” he smiled warmly, pointing to the steaming pot of herbal tea that had just been placed in front of her on a small silver tray. My mother used to pick it herself and brew it for us when we were kids. It grows pretty much everywhere down South. Warmer climate and all that.”

His eyes were an unusual shade of green, a dark forest with flecks of sage sprouting around his pupils. Something in her chest felt like it had locked into place. She let out a small gasp, her eyes widening. He seemed to realize this at the same time as her, his limbs stiffening, his expression changing into one of bewilderment. Neither of them knew what to say.

She often thought about that moment, wondering if this was how everyone else had felt. Her sister liked to tell everyone that she and her husband had both experienced an instant sense of relief as they had both reached for that same copy of The Stranger with the dusty teal spine. Meeting each other had been like a homecoming.

At first, things were awkward, disjointed. They moved around each other like two rigid puppets, trying their hardest to hasten what would be a life of bliss and companionship. It will just take some time, she told herself. But they were so different. He was bold, clumsy, always chasing after something new, his interests changing from week to week. She was subtle, introspective, planning out even her most minor errands. She struggled to accept his mercurial nature. He failed to understand her aversion to spontaneity.

Arguing with him was exhausting. He was evasive, brushing away her concerns and bringing up stories she had told him about her past, stating that they now compelled her to lash out at him. When he was the one overcome by frustration, she would minimize his emotions, often citing the lack of adversity he had faced as the cause of his excessive sensitivity.

But no one defied the sign; it was embedded in the very seams of society, an essential component of a harmonious life. And the sign had never proven to be wrong, the spirits of all those it had brought together now moving in symbiosis down a cloudless path.

Was there just something wrong with her? Had there been some kind of biological error in her cells that had grown and expanded as she grew older, causing a revolution that could no longer be reversed?

She had never felt the urge to seek out another presence but her own. She dreamt of a life of expansive horizons, underlined by a comfortable, peaceful solitude. She understood the comfort found in community, the certainty of a pair of hands ready to break your fall. But the concept of a soulmate was never something she had felt a yearning for. The moments she had alone without him were the ones she treasured most.

Despite having spent two years analyzing the causes and mechanisms of sadness, she was still unable to escape it. As the months went by, she began carrying it around with her like a knapsack. Caged in a fate she had never truly chosen, she dreamt of reconnecting with herself rather than striving to build a fraught relationship brick by brick every morning only to tear down its load-bearing walls at the end of each day.

As she lifted her head to look up at the magnolia branches swaying above her, she thought of the many dawns she had spent waiting for the darkness to recede.

When the soil no longer grows flowers, move along.

She felt a flash of something by her ear, the whispering whoosh of a pair of wings. As she looked down, she saw a small finch had settled on the corner of the bench next to her. How strange, she thought, they shouldn’t be back until at least next month. The small bird hopped sideways in her direction, letting out a chirp. It swiveled around and cocked its head to look at her, briefly illuminated by a ray of sunlight. Its other eye a bright emerald.