top of page


That’s an animal. When I first heard the sound this morning, I labeled it as another upset alarm and let it dissolve into the rumble of New York July. Now it’s 5 p.m., and I understand that can’t be true. No car alarm composer would send something so shrill and throaty into the streets. No vehicle has ever cried so desperately for help.

Still in bed, I peel back the window shade and search for something in distress. Two floors below, the crowds are thickening, voices already swelling with alcohol. Shadows are sliding up from the sidewalks. Nothing is out of place.

My hangover is fading, but I can’t stop sweating—my air conditioner is stored across the river in my aunt’s air-conditioned basement in Queens. This mattress is losing its edges among half-filled garbage bags and clothes I don’t wear but wade through. When the lights come on, the cockroaches stay put.

It’s all compounded, the mess and the heat and the bugs, summing to a lassitude in my solar plexus. I’m pinned like a butterfly in a book. The animal continues to wail at irregular intervals, but I turn up the volume on my laptop, melt into a laugh track.

It’s a Thursday—I should be at work. I’m a customer service liaison for an online pharmacy that ships Viagra all over the world. In a dim office near Penn Station, I answer phones and reassure men who can’t get things to go up or down. My supply of sick days depleted, I recently discovered some untapped bereavement leave. At 9 a.m. this morning, on the bathroom floor, I wrote an email to my boss explaining that my grandfather had died and I was heading to Maine to scatter his ashes in front of a lighthouse, back next week. My grandfather died eight years ago from Parkinsonism, which looks like Parkinson’s but isn’t.

My email went unanswered all day, no condolences sent. My stomach squirmed each time I reread it—how transparent it seemed now. Surely, the higher-ups were debating my future this minute, standing with crossed arms to hide their pit stains amid all that computer heat.

A phalanx of beer bottles is aimed at my bed. Seventeen bottles, I count, though it’s hard to know which were emptied yesterday. I remember drifting to sleep late last night on the F train as I watched a dusty grape roll under the seats. I remember waking up at 169th Street and then at Avenue X. I remember forgetting where I was going, switching uptown to downtown to uptown again.

And later, I snorted cocaine off a toilet seat and wound up on a stage where I wasn’t allowed, in a cavernous basement writhing with shirtless men. I poured a cup of beer directly on to the chest of a bouncer who was trying to escort me out. He wasn’t angry. His eyes were bloodshot and exhausted; I was a gnat. The only clues on my phone are three blurry photos of the shadow of a wrought iron fence I seem to have taken while sitting on the ground. Somehow I made it back to this mattress—I usually make it back.

On a return trip from the bathroom, the animal screeches something like a word, something human, and I decide to investigate. To go out on the fire escape, I must move an empty ceramic pot from the windowsill. The bottom of the pot sticks like it’s been coated in superglue. I yank and pull and twist, but it won’t budge. I end up contorting myself around it.

Somehow there is less air outside. The sun hits my stubbled cheeks, and I scan the street. A group from a historical walking tour is gathered below my fire escape, bovine European tourists under my feet. The guide speaks into a mini megaphone: These apartments used to house up to twelve adults. Sometimes when I hear this line, I miss my eleven roommates. With my hand as a visor, I scan the facades of the neighboring buildings, checking every balcony and sill and railing.

And there she is: a gray macaw, on a ledge, pressing herself into the gray brick of the building across the street. She has matched her color almost exactly, some camouflage instinct fooling pedestrians and predators alike. Her head tilts, and she lets out her cry.

She’s alarmed! She’s paralyzed. I hear her fear. I see it in the undulations of her body. She is right to be alarmed, I think. New York City is alarming. We should all be so alarmed.

She’s led a cloistered life, I bet. She knows the inside of her cage, draped with a blue towel at night. She knows heaping piles of seed and vitamin drops in her water. She knows her owner’s apartment, with seafoam carpets and a marble slab coffee table, her magnetic friend in the mirror. She was never supposed to see all this.

I hold my arm horizontally in front of me and cluck my tongue, instincts from twenty years earlier taking over. She looks at me. For a moment, I think she is going to fly across Orchard Street, around crossed cables to alight on my pale arm, but she presses harder into her corner.


My first living friend was an orchid. A deep purple, he was a Valentine’s Day present from my mother. He lived on my nightstand.

My unpruned child brain had conflated the words orchid and oracle; I believed they were one and the same. So I posed questions about the future. When will I get married? Will the sun swallow the earth while I’m alive?

And I got gnomic answers from the plant. He was wiser than me, or I was wiser than I knew, echoing adages I’d learned from sitcoms. Still, he got me through long nights when the pipes teemed with snakes and yetis roamed the neighborhood.

Orchids are delicate, though, and I was overeager, prone to overwatering. By Thanksgiving, his purple was blanched, and brown speckled his leaves. He became less willing to share his axioms with me, stammered when he did. Soon, he was only a dry stick in some dirt.

“My oracle is dead,” I confessed to my mother, though she had known for weeks. I cried into her shoulder and into her sleeve. I could not keep a single plant alive while she cared for hundreds. Every surface of our house was covered with plants: weird plants, tall plants, translucent and maroon-tinted and white-spotted plants, humanoid cacti. My mother had a penchant for going to greenhouses and picking out the saddest plants she could find. Slowly, gently, she would nurse them back to life, singing to them until they were green and reaching for the sun.

In the days following my oracle’s death, I cried so much that my mother took me to a pet store. She tried to usher me toward the hamsters and mice, but I had no interest in Rodentia. A cage of parakeets mesmerized me. I picked out a yellow one with a lime underbelly and sagacious purple eyelids. He seemed unfazed by the tornado of color around him.

They jammed him into a red Animals Crackers box, poked with holes but decidedly too small. The front of the box depicted zoo animals in cages: a zebra, a hippo, a lion, and a giraffe stooped to an acute angle. I could hear his nails scratching on the cardboard. My mother assured me he would be okay, and I assured him in turn. At home, I opened the box, and he flew in big, frantic circles, an electron cut loose. My mother rushed to shut off the ceiling fan.

We were inseparable then. He perched on my shoulder, followed me room to room. At a table full of bickering siblings, I had only to turn my head to speak to him covertly. He’d rub his cheek to mine and trill. His cage took the spot on my nightstand, and I whispered to its house-shaped silhouette whenever I couldn’t sleep.

I longed for him to talk, really talk. My mom warned me that parakeets aren’t really talkers, not like mynas or cockatoos or macaws, but I was undeterred. While other boys were catching pop flies and earning iron-on badges, I was practicing with my bird in front of the mirror. When he couldn’t master cracker or bird, I tried the words I’d first learned, mama, dada, baba. Sometimes, he’d clear his throat, like a timid ahem before a proclamation.

But perhaps I was the problem. Some say that parakeets are constantly mimicking human speech, only they talk too fast, in too high a pitch for us to comprehend. If we could slow down a bit, retune our auditory nerves and slacken our eardrums, maybe we’d understand.