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This year, for my partner’s birthday, I wanted to do something really special. We both love animals, so I knew it would have something to do with that, for starters. But we already have a dog and the apartment is zero percent big enough to fit anyone new except maybe a cockroach or two, so a pet is out of the question. Besides, I think surprising someone with a life change disguised as a gift is actually pretty rude.
Anyways. We’re out at the bar one night, just your typical Thursday night thing, and I’m tired. I’m pretty much always tired, but especially at night. My partner, on the other hand, could go for hours. We’re sitting there in the bar, soccer match on at the far end of the room, the bartender going full sass, yelling at some guy who had fallen asleep on the barstool (right there with you, buddy) and my partner talking to a shy looking dude sat on her right. I’ve basically ignored him since he joined our table, even though I know it’s not nice of me. She does this when we come here, this thing, almost always: finds a person sitting alone, taps them on the shoulder, and says something controversial in the hopes of getting into some kind of heated conversation. Let me give you an example.
My partner: *smiles warmly at guy at next table over*
Partner: Hey, how are you?
Guy: Yeah, I’m good, just waiting for a friend/watching the game/drinking until I die, etc.
Partner: Good? You’re good? Well, not so hard to be good when you’re a white man, is it?
Me, I like my conversations lukewarm. But it’s crazy how much life these encounters give her, so it’s kind of nice to watch her come away from one with a glow on her face like she’s just spent half a day in the sauna. (Me, I would prefer to actually spend half a day in the sauna.) But that night, anyways, it’s already late and I have to be up early the next morning, and so I start sleeve tugging, like baby, let’s go home, we can come again on Saturday. And she’s sweet, says of course she’ll come home with me, but I know she’s having fun talking to strangers and wants to stay. But I get my way this time, because I am a brat and she loves me.
But as we brace ourselves against the harsh winter outside, the wind screaming hollow sounds in our ears like a manic cat, the full moon presiding over everything in a manner that, to be honest, does seem a little bit arrogant, I get an idea. The other half of the birthday present, the half that doesn’t have to do with animals, will be this. I will tell her: you are more important than me. You want to stay out late, let’s stay out late, let’s never go home. Your wish is my command. Just then, though, the wind picks up speed and we pass a kebab shop, the sign lit up in red, so we go in for some fries and hot air.
A few days later, we’re walking the dog in the park when the idea really comes together. We take the route that goes through the petting zoo, but of course, it’s getting colder and so they’ve taken most of the animals, the goats and camel and bunny rabbits, inside. I don’t really know what inside looks like, but I imagine a sort of darkish, speakeasy vibe with leather armchairs and glass ashtrays. Then the dog barks at a crow, and I stop imagining things.
“Where do you think that stork went?” my partner asks. We took a special interest in storks after our trip to Bulgaria last summer. It was so beautiful, their nests lining the streets, high up on telephone poles, stork families of three or four nestled up together in the cool morning air, the blue silhouettes of mountains on the horizon.
“I don’t know,” I answer. “They go to Africa for the winter, right?” But I’m not really paying attention, because I know exactly what I’m going to do next.
That afternoon, when my partner is out working and I’m home on the couch with the dog curled around my legs, I look up the phone number for the park service online. This is already a big step for me, because I really hate making phone calls. But I do a round of the nostril breathing my therapist taught me, and then I dial.
“Hi,” I say, tentatively. “I’m a frequent visitor to the petting zoo and I was wondering, um, what’s going on with the stork. Like, did he get to go to Africa for the winter, or is he still around?”
The woman on the other end pauses, and then shouts something away from the receiver.
“Yeah, he’s here,” she says finally, sounding bored. “Here, you know what, I’ll just go ahead and put you on with him and you can ask whatever question you want.”
There’s some shuffling and then someone drops the phone and picks it up again, and then finally, the stork answers. His voice is deep and rich, with an accent I can’t quite place.
“How can I help you?” he says.
One week later, the time has come. D-Day, B-Day, November 16th. We wake up late, lay around for a while, and try to do the whole breakfast in bed thing, but it’s not easy to stay sitting upright and the dog keeps licking our faces and diving for our plates when we’re distracted, so we give up and head for the kitchen.
“So,” I say, harvesting the next round of toast from the toaster with a fork even though everyone says that’s dangerous, “I was thinking tonight we’d go somewhere a little different for a drink, like I don’t know, maybe Lion’s Den? We haven’t been there in a while, right?”
My partner makes a face that looks really hesitant. I know she’d rather just go to the regular bar, and I feel a little bit crushed, like maybe the whole plan will fall apart.
“I know it’s your birthday, but I have a really good feeling about that place tonight. Just come with me for one drink and if it sucks we can go anywhere you want. I promise.”
I’m not usually one to lobby so hard, but if I want this to work out, I know I have to sell it. Finally, she nods in agreement, and I kiss her on the mouth. Then the dog gets jealous and kisses both of us on the mouth.
That night, it’s not easy to get us out of the house, because first my partner has to finish screen printing a new batch of t-shirts. I’m all antsy from the coffee, my secret weapon for staying out as long as my partner wants, so I start nagging, like come on, we’re gonna be late, and she’s like, late for what?
So I shut up and wait until the shirts are all laying flat to dry, but when we’re out the door, I pull on her sleeve and we get there in record time.
The Lion’s Den is dark and weird like an Alaskan winter, which is exactly why I chose it for tonight. There’s always someone there getting naked, or playing checkers against themselves, or watching the owner’s pet ferret dive under the tables to intercept fallen peanuts. Generally, though, people mind their own business.
It’s nine fifteen when we arrive, right on time. The bar is pleasantly full, each table lit by a single candle stuck in a wine bottle, the old, hardened wax dribbles forming stalactite rings around the glass. My partner really wants to sit at the barstools up front, but I’m like, no, come on, there’s a nice table in the back. She sighs. “I thought this was my birthday.” I almost want to cry when she says that, but I put on a brave face and pull her towards the back.
The stork is there, waiting for us at the table I reserved. He’s got this red velvet bowtie around his neck, which is charming as fuck.
“Stork,” I say, “I’d like to introduce you to my partner. It’s her birthday today.”
He ruffles his feathers and extends a wing out to her, and I know she’s sold. I tell the two of them to sit down while I order three beers from the bar. When I get back, they’re already deep in conversation, the stork explaining how he’s resting here for the winter because of a strain in his shoulder.
My partner nods. “It must be hard to be away from your family.”
“Well,” says the stork, his long beak glistening with drops of beer, “it is hard, in some ways. But long term partnership, in a sense, is all about independence. If all goes well, anyways, I’ll join them in the east this summer.”
My partner puts a hand on my knee, and we ask the stork about his migration route, his favorite stops, etc. We go on like that for a while, talking, drinking, and showing him pictures of the dog from our phones.
A few beers in, though, the thing happens. The horrible, dreaded thing. My eyes begin to shut involuntarily, stinging like snails in salt, a combined response to the thick cigarette smoke and my pure, unfiltered sleepiness. I know I’m supposed to fight it, but then I picture my bed.
“Should I get us a round of schnapps?” I hear the stork ask, his soft words barely making it through the thick mist of eyelids and dreamland I’m floating in.
I’m about to say no, let’s go home, but then I blink my eyes open and see my partner’s face glowing and her eyes sparkling and head nodding, and so I find myself saying yes, too. When the stork comes back with three little glasses of peppermint schnapps, the kind that tastes like mouthwash in the best way possible, we raise our glasses.
“Happy birthday,” the stork says.
“Happy birthday,” I say.
“Happy birthday,” my partner says, “to me.”
We clink glasses, drink, and I lean back in my chair, remembering the sounds the storks made that summer, like soft little clicks against wood, the frogs singing in the creek. My head is thick and heavy, even after the peppermint, so I rest in on my partner’s shoulder. She pats my hair, says she’ll wake me up when it’s time to go home, and then I don’t hear anything anyone says anymore because I am dead asleep like dirt in winter.