“A pair of pigeons moved in beneath your air conditioner a couple weeks ago,” Kate informed the divorce lawyer who lived in Apartment 4B. “They’ve been shitting into my yard ever since.”
4B had been out of town when the birds appeared in early June. Since then, pasty white globules had settled on the rough concrete and endured. Kate was all in favor of the blue jays and cardinals that sometimes paused on her rhododendron and co-opted the cats’ imaginations for hours. She lodged no complaints against the pigeons that passed through her airspace on their way someplace else. But the 12 feet of enclosed alleyway accessible only through her basement apartment were sacrosanct. She’d bought pots and planted ferns and impatiens. The pigeons laid all that to waste.
“You need to block the space under the AC,” Kate told her neighbor. “Spikes, a shoebox, anything.”
4B kept her hand on the doorknob as she surveyed Kate in the hall.
“No can do,” she said. “Even if I could get beneath the AC from inside my apartment, I wouldn’t want to. It’s nice, having birds.”
“They picked me, you know? Out of all the window ledges in the city, they chose mine. I want them to feel at home.”
“Do you know how filthy the guano of a New York City pigeon is? It carries an incredible amount of disease. Wet, dry, doesn’t matter: It will make you sick. My family and I eat out there, Debra. I have cats.”
“I’m glad, Kate. I’d only ever seen you.”
Arden had arrived on Kate’s home front shortly before the pigeons. By virtue of dating Kate’s son, rather than desecrating Kate’s yard, her welcome had been warmer than the birds’.
“Any luck?” Arden asked from behind her laptop, as Kate returned downstairs.
“She thinks the pigeons have chosen her, like she’s some sort of Disney princess messiah. If she weren’t such an awful neighbor, I would feel sorry for her.”
That was the difference between Liam and his mother, Arden thought. Whereas Kate made her home in the realm of almosts, casting glances now and then to what might have been demanded of her had circumstances been more favorable, Liam inhabited the more grounded territory of what was. For better or worse, he took people as they came.
Arden hadn’t intended to live with Liam’s parents this year after college (with Kate; Liam’s dad was never not traveling for work). After taking her job in the city, she’d found a room in Crown Heights, four minutes from the subway, for $600 a month. It was right as she’d duct-taped the last of her boxes that the roommate she’d be replacing had called, frantic: Arden knew how she was going to move in with her girlfriend, right? Well, she’d caught that harlot in bed with the hairdresser — her hairdresser, if you could believe it! — and the long and the short of it was she needed her old room back quick.
Arden called friends and combed Craigslist. Everything was too expensive or raised too many red flags, like the guy in the walk-up who’d advertised for female roommates based on height and flexibility.
“Stay in my room,” Liam suggested one evening just before graduation. He’d be working in Boston for the summer; his childhood room in the city would be empty, just a resting-ground for his stuff. “At least until you find a place.”
“It’d be a monumental imposition on your parents.”
“It was my mom’s idea to ask you.”
So Arden’s boxes of clothes and books joined Liam’s bins of sports trophies and schoolwork in the second bedroom of the basement apartment on West 108th. At first their piles faced each other with the trepidation and interest of kids at a middle school dance. But their borders relaxed. Arden borrowed books and sweaters and lodged her own on Liam’s shelves.
She’d assumed she’d pay rent, but Kate wouldn’t hear of it and seemed frankly offended that Arden would mention it at all. Instead Arden helped around the house. On the way back from work, she picked up groceries according to the lists Kate left on the fridge. She watered the plants and scrubbed the plastic deck chairs of their winter grime. She fed Kate’s two elderly cats.
“We have a problem,” Kate said one morning as Arden was leaving for work. Arden ran through the lists of apartment dos-and-don’ts she might have transgressed but could think of nothing. “Come with me.”
Kate led Arden out to the yard and pointed up to the fourth-floor window ledge, over which a pair of gray tail feathers quivered.
“Pigeons,” Kate spat. “Using our yard as their personal shitbox. And 4B’s out of town.”
“Don’t tell me you, too, are now calling the neighbors by their apartment numbers,” Liam said, when Arden told him, in a phone call on her way home from work, of 4B’s refusal to evict the birds.
“Only as unwitting stage names.”
“It’s too bad, about the birds,” he said. “I was going to call my mom.”
“I’m sure she’d love to tell you about the pigeon saga.”
“No, I wanted to talk to her about something, but now’s probably not good.” He sighed. “You know how I lost my keys last week, so I stayed at my aunt’s?”
“Julia — my aunt — kept badgering me about it. I get that I have to be more careful. It’s on the list of Self-Improvements to Make Pronto, right up there with buying fewer water bottles and managing to parallel park. But she wouldn’t drop it.”
“I wasn’t thinking. I said I got mugged.”
“While I was running around the reservoir.”
“Harrowing! What else did the mugger take? Or was it muggers, plural?”
“It was just one guy, and he just took the keys. They were all I had with me, since I was running, you know?”
“Why would a mugger take just your keys?”
“People don’t look at what they’re taking, when they mug you.”
“Not when it’s a bag or a wallet, maybe, but if it’s just keys — why bother?”
“Okay, Julia didn’t ask that. She bought it, end of story. Except, not end of story, because now she’s telling people. I got a call from my junior-year roommate asking if I was all right.”
“It’s amazing your mom hasn’t heard.”
“I should probably call soon.”
“Which version will you give her — that you were mugged, or that you told Julia you were mugged?”
“Definitely that I was mugged. Have you met my mom?”
“Why didn’t you tell me about what happened with your aunt?”
Liam did not answer immediately.
“I guess I forgot about it,” he said. “I was embarrassed.”
Liam’s fib did not trouble Arden. They fibbed. Little things, like why they were running late or couldn’t make it. Tweaking things about themselves to try them on for size: telling the lady sitting next to them on the plane that they were physics Ph.D. students funding their studies by modeling nude for university art classes. Mendacity for sport or convenience, mendacity by omission, little white lies that harmed no one but greased the tracks of everyday life, and, forged together, forged Liam and Arden together, too.
But this mendacity was supposed to have existed in their shared interface with the world, never between them. The point was less the convenience it brought about in their concourse with other people, than that their equivocations could be shared, like sheets drawn up and over them to make them a realm; to make their one small room an everywhere. That was what had started it, or fanned it into life and flame — the unexpected pleasure of mythmaking together, the way they could knit their prevarications into a fiction that, presented to the real world and accredited, itself became a world.
The game had not involved playing each other, too.
“Are you there?” Liam asked.
“Sorry,” Arden said. “Bad reception. Obviously I’m on your team.”
When Arden got back to the apartment, Kate was unpacking a big cardboard box, looking pleased.
“Hello,” Arden said. She dropped her bag on the table by the door and took off her shoes. “Good-looking box.”
“Just you wait.”
White packing peanuts spilled over the edge as Kate drew out another box, whose angrily bright colors depicted a kid wielding a water gun erupting in frothy shoots.
“Fires up to 40 feet, which should just reach that window ledge. Those shitpots are toast.” Kate slid a razor along the box’s edges and pulled out the gun. “Of course, I’m not going to hurt them. Just spook them into reconsidering their abode.”
She filled the tank with cold water from the kitchen faucet, and together she and Arden went into the backyard. An old wind chime Liam had made in summer camp out of screws and latches jangled. No tail feathers hung over the ledge.
“Not a problem,” Kate said. “It’ll be good to get the hang of this thing before combat.” She hefted the gun up to her shoulder. “It’s really only suitable for situations like this, or for watering hard to reach plants.”
She pumped the tank, aimed, and shot. Water rocketed upwards. Just short of the ledge, the water slowed, paused, and hung for a moment, then cascaded back down.
A pair of pert eyes flanking a stumpy beak peeked curiously over the ledge and down at the women. With new venom, Kate pumped the tank and fired. Again the water ascended, hesitated, and fountained back downward. The bird cocked its head. Kate tried to pump the gun a third time, but the tank was out of water. Kate lowered the gun in disgust and went back inside.
Arden sat down in the deck chair she’d scrubbed a few weeks earlier. If the problem was that Liam might have fudged things with her, well, surely so, too, had she. Not on purpose maybe, and certainly not maliciously, but still, in small ways, of course she had. Who knew what complete honesty could even be?
It was just that there had been questions — not even doubts, just twinges of disquiet — that Arden had dismissed, and that now, between her and Liam, probed for space. Had he really slept at Sid’s that night last year and not at Eloise’s, and had he really not gone through Arden’s emails and texts? Often Arden had urged Liam to temper the whoppers he’d been ready to tell. There had been no need, when he’d wanted to skip out on a work picnic, to blame his nonattendance on her having fallen down the stairs. His distortions tended to be more reckless, more erratic, more gratuitous than hers. He claimed that he only told lies in which he was comfortable being caught. But his comfort was expansive. And anyway Arden was not sure his guiding principle was as alleged.
“I need something really good,” Kate called through the window. “Like clam pasta. Will you be here for dinner?”
“I wish. I said I’d meet friends.”
“Gabrielle and Nora. You met them, I think. I lived with them senior year.”
“I liked them!” Kate hesitated. “You could always invite them over here, sometime, if you wanted. Even tonight. But you probably have plans.”
Kate looked at her shyly through the window bars.
“Your mom got a water gun,” Arden told Liam the next day, on the phone, from Liam’s room. Usually they talked on Arden’s way home from work, since cell phone reception, Wi-Fi, and privacy all were all hard to come by in Kate’s basement apartment. But Liam had been busy. Arden spoke softly from his bed.
“To disturb the pigeons, since Debra won’t evict them. It’s very plastic and bright.”
He laughed. “You’ve eaten the pomegranate seeds, Persephone. You are tied.”
“I even called 4B ‘Debra.’ What gave me away?”
“Just, you know: The cats. The pigeons. The impossible neighbors upstairs.”
“Must have happened last night, my pomegranate downfall. We really painted the town — by which I mean the garden, which, of course, is world enough. Gabbie and Nora came over. If, this morning, your mom’s head did not hurt as much as mine, I will be very impressed.”
“Hell of a time.”
“I wish you’d been there. What were you up to?”
“Eloise and I went to the new Thai place that opened.”
“What brings her to town?”
“She works here.”
“There’s no what.”
“It seems like there’s a what.”
“Not on my end, nope. Is there one on yours?”
“It just seems like you’re being thorny about Eloise. Which I get: It’s my fault for not being clearer with her, or warmer about you, when it was easier, or more fun, not to factor you in. But that’s background noise. It’s hardly the real thing.”
“What kind of unreal fun?”
Kate held a military-grade slingshot.
“It’s from the Army and Navy store,” she said. “State of the art. I wanted something guaranteed to reach four stories up. What I really wanted was one with a wrist-brace stabilizer, since those are supposed to be the best. But apparently you need a federal firearms license to buy one in New York.” She pulled a face. “That’s probably a good thing, given the people out there, but it’s too bad for little old me. This is the most powerful one they’d sell me. Isn’t it beautiful?”
Arden tugged the sprawling strands of her attention from her conversation with Liam and tried to see the slingshot through Kate’s happy eyes. Its pistol grip branched into sleek steel arms, from which an elastic band cradled a launching pouch. The steel shots were cold and heavy in Arden’s hand. Altogether it looked like an answer — elegant as an equation, and Kate’s to command.
“You’ve upped your game, Elmer Fudd. Those birds’ll have to keep up.”
“This game is mine,” Kate said. “Anyway, I’m still only going to frighten them — a nice little ping against the air conditioner, a nice little whoosh through their tail feathers. They’ll get the message, all right.”
“They’ll definitely get some message.”
Kate glanced at Arden. The tenderness with which she had considered the slingshot became something that Arden did not recognize.
“You know,” said Kate, once they were outside, “Liam’s had a sheltered life. His father and I didn’t. We wanted to make things good for him.”
“He’s a lucky kid.” Kate took a steel shot from her pocket.
“It might come as a surprise to him, but the room in which you’ve been staying isn’t his. He has no jurisdiction over that space. It’s mine.” She tucked the steel shot in the pouch. “Who stays there is, and always will be, my decision.”
“I say this,” Kate continued, raising the slingshot, “because I don’t like liars, and I don’t like cheats. Liam’s father, as I imagine you know, has been both.” She adjusted her aim. “I heard you on the phone earlier. Were you going to tell me you two broke up? Or, as I gather my son suggested, were you going to wait until you’d found somewhere to go?”
With a sharp snap of elastic, the steel shot catapulted up and hit the bricks just left of the window. It fell easily, gracefully, and with the relief of a return.
“I should have said something immediately. I’m sorry. I can leave right away.”
Kate handed the slingshot to Arden. “Avoid the window. We don’t want shattered glass, on top of the pigeon shit.”
The slingshot was light in Arden’s hands, and chilly, except in the hot imprint where Kate’s hand had been.
“I don’t understand.”
“I’d like you to stay, if you want to. As my guest, not Liam’s. Now load that shot.” A vision of the surprise that would color Liam’s face bloomed before Arden. She felt the shame he would have felt before his mother, had he known what Kate had heard. Arden loaded the shot.
Arden peered up at the window ledge. She would have liked to see the home the birds had made and that she was being asked to break.
A beak emerged over the window ledge. The pigeon raised its head.
“I’ve never used a slingshot. I could hit the bird.”
“You could,” Kate said. “But you won’t.”
Arden pulled the elastic back and squinted at the window ledge. If she hit the bricks, as Kate had, Kate couldn’t complain. She aimed for a brick just left of the air conditioner and released the shot.
It swerved to the right and struck the air conditioner square in the middle, producing, as Kate had predicted, a resounding ping. With a sharp shuffling of feathers, both birds erupted from their perch, screeching their alarm. They circled around the patch of sky above the yard. Arden and Kate watched them boomerang back toward the ledge.
“Shoot again,” Kate hissed.
“The birds,” Kate said. “Just the tail feathers. Go!”
The slingshot felt easy in Arden’s hands. The movement was simple, the physics clear. The elastic cracked, and above her, the smaller bird folded and fell, unevenly, its unhurt wings pumping frantically to keep itself aloft.