Excerpted from the Hardcover edition
Parakeet (Melopsittacus undulatus)
i suppose it all started with simon mellinkoff, though I hardly could have anticipated the consequences of our connection during that fateful hour I spent strewn on the sofa in his office. I was a college freshman with the flu—feverish, foggy, and fond. But even if, at eighteen, I’d had the foresight to see every curve of the course on which he would set me, and to know how long it would be before I would return to earth, I do not think I would have risen off that sofa, blown my nose, shouldered my backpack, and stepped outside onto a straighter, safer path. I think that, even with powers of prediction, I would have done exactly what I did, which was stay, and sigh, and squeeze pillows, and wait for him to come back.
Simon Mellinkoff was a freshly widowed professor of Latin. Our university in San Diego was as crowded as it was sprawling, but I was one of only twelve students who enrolled in his Intro to Latin course. On the first day of class, he appeared ten minutes late in opaque black sunglasses that contrasted with his fair, silvery hair. He left the glasses on for the entirety of his introductory speech, as if he could not yet bear to make eye contact with any of us. He had a lit cigarette in his mouth, which he stubbed out and replaced between his lips, where it gave his speech a clipped, crippled quality. Also, he was shaking, but I didn’t think anyone noticed besides me. Perhaps this was because I had inexplicably taken a front-row seat while everyone else had opted for distant desks where they could idly doodle in their notebooks. I wondered what was the matter with Simon, and my left ovary, that radar for all things hurt and helpless, twinged.
Still, despite his initial distance, Simon managed to inspire a rather unorthodox sense of classroom intimacy, and counting him, we became a cozy baker’s dozen. He exuded a curious kind of dark warmth, and soon it enveloped us all—even the back-of-the-room doodlers. He insisted we call him Simon. He cringed and puckered if we called him “Professor,” as if our uttering it soured his mouth. He had little patience for the traditions and trials of academia, and was decidedly averse to consorting with his fellow professors or following any of their unwritten rules for ascending the nauseating spiral staircase to the top of the ivory tower. The only work he had ever published was an exposition on the love-hate relationship between Catullus and Lesbia—“ ‘May I Perish If I Do Not Love Her’: Antagonism and Passion in the Love Poems of Catullus”—while he was still in grad school, long before his hair turned gray and his wife made her unfortunate exit, complete with its indelible effects.
Once, during the second week of class, while explaining the positive comparative superlative comparison of adjectives to us uncomprehending novices, Simon Mellinkoff called his colleague, the only other Latin professor at our university, a smirky Englishman with a supercilious affect, a “summus maximus bore.” I don’t know if he ever told the Englishman he was a summus maximus bore to his face. Well, I’m sure he didn’t because, outside of his classroom, Simon was the sort who rarely had the time of day for anyone. That’s why it was so surprising that he opened his office, his home, and, ultimately, an entire new life to me, Margie Fitzgerald, a shy, skinny girl from suburban Orange County, an only child, a hunter for relics, a lifelong loner.
A week later, while seeking to illuminate the positive comparative superlative comparison of adjectives once more, Simon Mellinkoff stood at his lectern and said, “Rosy, rosier, rosiest,” with ample pauses between each phrase. “Beautiful, more beautiful, most beautiful,” he said. He said these things while looking right at me.
He was alone, with a little seven-year-old daughter to raise all by himself—too young of a daughter, perhaps, for a fifty-year-old dad. Theirs was an almost-family with a piece missing. I felt his loneliness from afar. Once, two months into the semester, I saw him sitting without a smile on a stone bench in the middle of a bustling quad on campus. (Subsequently, I examined this bench and found that it was engraved with a Latin sentence, which might have been why Simon was drawn to it: officia magistri sunt multa et magna.)
Students swirled all around him on their way to and from classes, but Simon was very still. I saw him sitting there on his bench and he saw me as I pushed my yellow bicycle across the quad. Our Latin class began in ten minutes, and I mentally recited that day’s vocab terms and their definitions: magister, teacher; bonus, good, kind; periculum, danger, risk . . .
After spying Simon, I kept my head down, as was my habit back then. Today, it may seem hard to believe because of some San Diego Sun articles portraying me as a domestic terrorist, or because of a certain party I once threw in Little Italy during which I danced naked with only a bright green snake wrapped around my neck, but I have always been bashful. New to college, and living two long hours away from home, I led a solitary existence, sequestered in the moldy apartment I shared with a pair of fellow students, or hiding out at the university Crafts Complex, where I spent much of my free time. Already I had taken several weeklong crafting courses, including Intro to Stained Glass, Ceramics, Metal Fabrication, and Wonders of Weaving—Always Alone.
A nervous rose unfurled on my cheek when I passed Simon on his bench. I feigned fascination with the fallen eucalyptus leaves (our campus was groaning with groves and fragrant with their medicinal smell) that I crushed under my bicycle tires. I was a terrible Latin student and I knew it. I’d started out very strong. In fact, I’d aced the first quiz and finished it so fast that I’d had time to sketch an assortment of plump parakeets on the back. “Very complacent,” Simon had written beside my drawings in the same red pen with which he had scrawled a decisive A on the front. But that was before I’d become baffled by declensions and conjugations.
I felt Simon watching me as I crossed the quad. Peeking at him sideways, I saw his silver hair glimmering in the sunshine. His hands rested on his kneecaps. Birds convened at his feet, as if he had scattered an abundance of seeds, but he appeared oblivious to them. Maybe he had watched me before that. Maybe, I mused, he had watched me wheeling my bike and walking to class every day since the semester had started, while I stared at my shoes or at the sky.
In class, just a few minutes later, in the middle of a lecture about genitives and subjunctives, he suddenly stopped speaking and stared at me with his gray-browed frown. He placed his unlit cigarette between his lips and pulled it back out again. Simon’s stare, I sensed, saw right through my sundressed shell into the convoluted clockwork of my head, the hot little happenings of my heart. I stayed perfectly still in my seat. I wondered if its worn woodgrains were turning pink with my pervasive flush. Suddenly, it seemed as though only the two of us were in the room, he with his stick of chalk erect in his hand, I straightbacked with my knees pressed together in an attentive pose. The other eleven students telegraphed faint annoyance at their swift exclusion from Simon’s universe, which was momentarily occupied solely by me. I had the feeling I used to get as a girl when I fell asleep with a dish of orange blossoms beside my bed and their neroli essence seeped into my dreams—a feeling of limitless longing.
He addressed me in a gentle tone, the kind that he might have taken with a stray animal too scared to come into his arms. His question surprised me, for it had nothing at all to do with his lecture, and his asking it, I noted, perfectly illustrated a Latin term he had recently explained to us: non sequitur. “Do you—are you—” He paused. “Do you have any friends?”
I did not. But I didn’t say so for fear of offending Jane, who I knew counted herself as my friend. She had sidled up to me after our very first Latin class and said, “You remind me of Audrey Hepburn. But with curly hair. So delicate!” and had complimented me several times on my home-sewn sundresses. So, I didn’t answer Simon that day. Weeks later, when I sprawled for that hour on his office sofa, my temperature rising with the passing minutes, I tried to recall whether that had been the moment when he had charmed me, or whether it had been something else, such as
his “rosy, rosier, rosiest” comment;
his smell, which was the clean smell of beach sand mixed with the essence of filterless cigarettes and, when he was close, of blue hyacinths—spring flowers that unfurl out of subterranean bulbs and are redolent of water, and especially of tears;
his wry, bone-dry delivery of jokes;
his Back East accent, which hinted at what would surely be beautiful bedroom whispers;
his tragic clothes, which he selected without the guiding hand of a wife;
his mystified, half-smiling, half-sad reactions to the strange drawings his golden-haired girl, Annette, made when she spent occasional afternoons tucked into a corner of our classroom, wearing the exact same canvas slip-on shoes that Simon always did, but in miniature;
his penchant for sitting on the top of his desk with one leg bent up and one forearm (he always rolled up his shirtsleeves) resting on his knee as he masterfully escorted us through a declension;
his mentioning that his mouthful of a last name had originally been Melnikov, a Russian moniker deriving from melnik, which means, he explained, one who mills grain, but that his father had changed it to Mellinkoff sometime in the early sixties when he decided the original sounded too unfriendly;
his confession that he had received seventy-nine parking tickets from the campus police for leaving his rattling, tomato red BMW 2002 in undesignated spots, and his insistence that he would never pay a single one of them;
his spontaneous proverbs and matter-of-fact tips for life (“Feet are important,” he once declared apropos of what, I don’t know, but our Latin readings mentioned all manner of body parts, and he gazed approvingly at my soft, sandaled, and cherry-tipped toes when he said it);
his habit of addressing his daughter by the diminutive form of her name, Nettie, and how easy it was to imagine him saying my own name with the same familiarity and intimacy because, being another two-syllabled moniker ending in “ie,” it was not unlike the one he called the little lass he stirred from bed each morning and folded back in each night;
his unforgettable declaration that “marriage is like Chinese water torture,” which burned itself into my brain, partly because of the shock of hearing it uttered by a widower (for weren’t widowers supposed to glorify marriage, miss it, and mourn the loss of it?);
or maybe it was his perpetual aura of both vague happiness and vague unhappiness, and the quiet strength, the sense of moderation and temperance, he employed to ensure that he ventured too far into neither.
Oh, I still don’t know just when or why it happened, but suddenly I was absolutely enamored with Simon Mellinkoff. It was probably the “rosy, rosier, rosiest” comment.
i wasn’t the only one who noticed Simon’s humble but haunting charms. Jane—who reminded me of Marilyn because she had Marilyn’s cloudy hair and cushiony proportions—noticed, too. Once, we commiserated over our shared fascination with him. “What a daddy!” she exclaimed breathily during our first study session in her bright apartment on Mission Bay. We drilled each other on vocab and drank PG Tips because Jane, a sophomore, had spent the previous summer in a study-abroad program in England. I regretted telling her about my own crush almost as soon as I uttered the words. Some of the juice, the succulence, was lost when I blurted it out of the private realm (a hidden hothouse, hand on hibiscus) in which it had flourished.
I didn’t speak of my feelings about Simon to Jane again until much later, but they were still thriving when, at the end of our last Latin class before winter break, she and I lingered in the classroom to melodiously wish him a Merry Christmas. She hoisted her book bag over her shapely shoulder, and I stuffed my latest quiz into the pages of my textbook, somewhere between cubiculum and cupiditas.
“Thanks,” he said, “but I don’t do religious holidays. I’m not a believer,” he added.
I resisted the urge to raise a hand to my chest and cover the Mary medal that always dangled from a chain around my neck. “Oh,” we fluttered and blushed, batted lashes and exited.
And my crush was still there after winter break was over and I dutifully attended Latin while in the throes of a horrible illness, some physiological manifestation of mental malaise and holiday hopes unfulfilled—a consequence of home horrors, for home was where I’d discovered that Dad, dependent as ever on Dorals and glasses of Maker’s Mark with a splash of water, had childishly stashed an entire month’s worth of dirty dishes in the oven, and also where Old Peep, my pet parakeet, had disappeared under mysterious circumstances.
Jane waited for me as I packed up my Wheelock’s Latin at the end of class. I paused to rest my heavy head on the desk, which was permanently perfumed with the sweet-and-sour smell of other people’s palms. “I just feel so awful,” I said huskily. The room was empty but for the three of us: me, her, and Simon. He paused on his way out the door to hover above me where I languished. Jane tittered and looked at him with deep blue bovine eyes.
“You’re welcome to use my office for a nap,” he told me, “if you want. If it would help.” I swallowed, and strove not to show my shock. “I have to go teach another class,” he continued, “so you’ll have some peace and quiet. I can let you in right now.” I collected myself and followed Simon outside, looking over my shoulder at Jane, who offered a few feeble, false sneezes.
Simon’s office was in the Literature building, at the very end of a musty, seemingly interminable corridor. All the other professors had decorated their office doors with postcards, cartoons, pictures of dead writers, and other nerdy ephemera—but not Simon. “You don’t have any doodads stuck on your door,” I slurred, pleasantly impaired by a potent concoction of cold medicine, PG Tips, and what I could only call love.
Inside, it was dim, brown, mannish. He pointed to the long, soft sofa. Sunlight snuck dustily through slits in the shut blinds, and slivers of the outside air—heavy and oceanic, full of seahorses and slippery kelp and phosphorescent diatoms—came in with it. There were a few Magic Marker mysteries scrawled by his pigtailed progeny and taped to his filing cabinet, and a picture of him as a much younger man, engaged in some improbable-were-it-not-for-photographic-proof athletic feat, hung up on the wall behind his desk. (In the photo, Simon’s hair was black, showing that at one time he had more closely approximated the amorous dark-haired stranger who always populated my orange-blossom-infused dreams and held me in a front-of-him-against-the-back-of-me embrace.) “Doodads,” he echoed, and I swear he was smiling when he shut the door on his way out, though the term had no Latin origin (Doodad: noun. Origin: rosebud mouths of cute coeds, friendless bicycle pushers, soft-soled sick girls, complacent Margies).
No, I never thought about leaving during that hour I lay in Simon’s office, and I definitely didn’t nap. I only waited for him to return. I reclined on the sofa in a state of fluish arousal, cuddly and clammy and coughing carefully into pillows lest any other professors hear me behind his closed doodad-free door. I imagined him dismissing his class early and rushing back to me, lean legs striding inside his funny black-and-white-checkered trousers, wondering, hoping I would still be there, assuring himself that I must be eighteen because everyone in college is at least that, unless they’re a genius or academically advanced, which, as my Latin scores of late evinced, I most likely was not, and then telling himself that whether I was eighteen wasn’t any concern of his anyway, as what sort of guidance could an eighteen-year-old offer a motherless seven-year-old daughter? I lay, and I waited, dreaming of all these things, and of the things he had said and might say, and I shut my eyes tight, curled in my toes, clung to pillows, swoony from the memory of having been declared rosy and beautiful, of having been seen, and wakeful with the possibility of being seen again.
When I finally heard his key turn in the lock, I shut my eyes and arranged my features in a tableau of dreamy unconsciousness, lips parted, forehead dewy. “Oh my,” I heard him whisper. I was unaccustomed to attention from men, or even boys, and unsure of how to act. When he settled himself quietly into the chair behind his desk, I stirred and stretched and looked around as if uncertain of my surroundings. I gave him a slow glance. He stared at me with his hands resting palms down on his desk. “How was your nap?”
I stood, and he appraised me. My sundress was one of the many I had made after a course in Strategies for Simplified Sewing at the Crafts Complex. The fabric was printed all over with windblown stalks of wheat. The straps were slim and tied at my shoulders, and the bows they formed hung limply, skimming the bones of my back. I wondered if he was an Audrey man or a Marilyn man. I perused the books on his shelves while he watched me, statue-like, from his chair, palms still pressed into the desk. That was when I learned that Simon Mellinkoff had interests beyond Latin and the love poems of Catullus. His library included such titles as
Animals Nobody Loves
Mammals and Morality
Tortoises, Today and Tomorrow
A Sand County Almanac
The Cookbook for People Who Love Animals
Elephants, Entertainment, and Exploitation: A History
Rattling the Cage: Toward Legal Rights for Animals
Research, Rabbits and Reform: An Animal Rights Reader
Our Ancestor the Ape
Animal Rights in the New Millennium
Dominion: The Power of Man, The Suffering of Animals
Hymn of the Dolphin, Ballad of the Whale: Saving the Sea’s Cleverest Creatures
Cruel Science, Burdened Beasts
And these were just some of the books he kept in his office at school, a small portion of the vast collection, I would soon learn, that filled his study at home.
“You like animals?” I said, sniffing.
“ ‘The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated. I hold that, the more helpless a creature, the more entitled it is to protection by man from the cruelty of man,’ ” he said, not taking his hands off the desk or his eyes off my shoulders, my neck, my face, my hair so electrified by that long, soft sofa. “Mahatma Gandhi.”
I knelt down to examine the books on the lower shelves. There, I found a misfit, a lonely work of fiction. I read the spine aloud in a scruffy voice hemmed in by mucus and nerves. “An Armful of Warm Girl,” I murmured. I lifted my eyes to see Simon, finally, pull his hands off his desk. “That’s a nice name for a book,” I said. And then came the moment that led me to where I am today. The title of the book came true right in that room, and he had the armful, and I was the girl.
Excerpted from The Lovebird by Natalie Brown. Copyright © 2014 by Natalie Brown. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.