March 7, 2017

“Thinking About Macaws” by Courtney Justus

“Thinking About Macaws” by Courtney Justus

Thinking About Macaws

The first time I rode in John’s brown minivan was on an afternoon in late August during our freshman year of college. There was a coffee-flavored e-cigarette in the cup holder between the driver’s seat and shotgun. I hardly noticed it at first, since I was too intent on listening to The Smiths, our favorite band. As soon as I got in the car, I took John’s CD case out of his glove compartment and started flipping through it.

“Put in Louder Than Bombs,” John said. “It’s their best album.”

I did. After “Is It Really So Strange?” started playing, I noticed the e-cigarette for the first time and asked John what it was. He explained, then offered me some. When I refused, John picked it up and began inhaling deeply.

My excuse for not smoking was that I was a musical theater and choir girl. I also happened to be majoring in Environmental Studies and thought that cigarettes of any kind were overpriced pieces of poison that clouded your better judgement. I didn’t say these things to John, but I could sense his disapproval when I refused his offer.

“It isn’t that bad for you,” he replied, taking another drag and blowing smoke out the open window.

In the warm days of August and September, John would stop by my dorm and I would make him coffee. We would sit on my bed, talk for hours and listen to The Smiths, The Rolling Stones and The Beatles, but mostly just The Smiths. He would drink from a red mug with a picture of John Lennon on it. The mug actually belonged to my roommate Sarah, who had been friends with John since high school.

“Are you sure Sarah would be okay with you using that? You can always just use one of my mugs,” I told him the first time I saw him reaching for it.

“No, it’s fine. Sarah’s way too chill. She wouldn’t care. And I just really like this mug,” John said.

Sarah was always gone when John came over. Her schedule was completely different from mine, so she never saw him while he was there, and I never told her about the visits, either. John came over almost every day, around 2:30 or so, after we had both finished class. He would stay until around 4:30 or 5, then go back to his room. Sarah would get back around 6 or so, and I’d have her mug scrubbed spotless, clean and dry in its normal place, so that it would look like John had never been there in the first place.

One day, Sarah came back to the room around 4:45, shortly after John had left. I was on my laptop, working on a paper for my Integrative Biology class. Sarah went into the restroom and started washing her hands. As soon as she’d turned on the water, I suddenly realized that I had forgotten to wash her mug. I stopped typing and turned toward the bathroom door to find Sarah standing in the doorway, holding her mug, an inquisitive smile on her face.

“Was John here?” she asked, twirling the mug around in both hands.

“Yeah,” I said sheepishly.

“He’s a pretty cool guy,” Sarah replied, putting her mug back by the sink. “I remember when he went through his last breakup, with this girl Marilyn. She was kind of a snob, honestly. Kept bragging about her trips to Europe and talking about how she could’ve gone to Yale but chose to come here instead.” Sarah shrugged. “He likes you better, I think.”

I smiled at Sarah, then laughed softly. That night, I listened to as many Smiths, Stones and Beatles song on my iPod as I could before falling asleep. I imagined myself on a date with John, sipping a chai tea latte while he drank black coffee. Every time he came to visit, I made sure to tell him as much as I could about my latest Biology project, or my family trip to Brazil back in tenth grade. He had a longing to go to Brazil and London, and I told him that maybe we could go together one day. For a while, I planned our trips in my mind. We could kiss in front of Big Ben, sip scalding hot chocolate in front of Buckingham Palace, hold hands on the London tube, sip sweet liquid from côcos gelados at a nature reserve in Brazil. Those were a few of the dreams I had for us before he and Charlene started dating.

The day I first met Charlene, she was wearing a long, flowery skirt and a silver charm bracelet with little gold leaves on it. She talked exhaustively about Oregon and swore when her phone went off. The only reason I knew her, or any of these things about her, is because John invited me to hang out with him in his room one day in early October, and I found her there, hunched over a book titled Where’s The Water? Why Africa Is So Thirsty. Her messy dark hair hung over her face. She was stroking John’s neck with one hand, smoking the coffee-flavored e-cigarette that I knew could only belong to him in the other. As the iPhone in front of her buzzed, she muttered several swear words in a low voice, one after another.

“How’s it going?” John asked when he saw me. He raised up his palm, and Charlene placed the e-cigarette in it like an offering. He put it to his lips, inhaled deeply, and closed his eyes, leaning backward against the wall, which sported a large poster of a macaw and a map of China.

I nodded at John, then turned toward the girl. “Hey. I’m Karen.” I looked at Charlene, and caught a glimpse of her pale blue eyes before she turned back to her book.

“Hi. I’m Charlene,” she said. “Sorry, I don’t do handshakes.”

“We just don’t do handshakes around here, man!” John said loudly.

Charlene laughed. She then put her hand on John’s shoulder, met his eyes, and began to talk about Oregon. John listened intently as Charlene explained that she had been accepted to Oregon State University, her dream school, where she wanted to study forest engineering. He nodded and took both her hands in his. Just before I looked away, I saw them sneak a kiss.

“It’s cool that you’re interested in the environment,” I said. “I’m an Environmental Studies major.”

Charlene and John stared at me blankly, then suddenly burst out laughing. I turned my back to them and started checking e-mails on my phone as Charlene started talking again. After listening to her ramble on for what felt like hours about Oregon, sick trees, and the amazing organic food you could find in Portland, I told John that I had homework I needed to catch up on and should get going.

“All right. Well, you take it easy, man,” John said, inhaling from his e-cigarette.

I narrowed my eyes at John, who was looking at the book in Charlene’s lap. He knew that I hated when he said take it easy, man because it reminded me of my grandfather Ricky, who was a huge hippie back in the day and now lives in a trailer out in Nebraska with his partner Steve. They adopted four mangy dogs which they named Paul, John, George, and Ringo. There is never a shortage of marijuana or beer there, which is why I have only visited my grandfather and Ricky once. I pictured John living in a trailer like that, full of e-cigarettes and books about the environment, holding Charlene’s hand as they smoked outside.

“I will,” I said after what felt like an hour. “Bye Charlene. Nice to meet you.”

Charlene looked up, then back down without a word. I closed the door just as they started laughing together. Then, I was gone.

After meeting Charlene, I told John he should stop smoking, because it poisoned him and might one day kill him. We were standing by the soccer field, watching our friend Katie defend her team’s goal in a white jersey with blue numbers. Her shiny brown ponytail swished back and forth quickly as she kicked the ball away from another girl in a red jersey with white numbers. Tim, John’s best friend, was taking pictures from the bleachers as part of an ongoing sports photography project and out of his poorly hidden interest for Katie. As Tim snapped another picture, John slapped my shoulder and shook his head.

“You know what your problem is Karen?” he asked. “You never wanna have any fun.”

“I do want to have fun,” I said crossly. “I just want the kind of fun that doesn’t involve me slowly killing myself.”

“You’re such a downer, man,” John replied, taking a long drag of his e-cigarette. Coffee-flavored, as usual. “You’ve gotta enjoy life while it lasts.” He blew a long trail of smoke out into the open field.

“Yeah. I’d like to do that with functioning lungs, thank you very much. Oh, and stop calling me man and telling me to take it easy. It makes you sound like an old geezer. Like a drunk old man!” My voice had risen to a yell by then.

“You think you’re gonna save the world with your Environmental Studies major?” John snapped at me. “You think you’re gonna be able to save all those parrots?”

“They’re macaws,” I said, irritated.

“Yeah, well, whatever. Just because that macaw at the reserve you keep droning on and on about just died right in front of you, that doesn’t mean you have the solution to everything that happened!”

“Maybe I will someday. That’s what I’m studying for. At least I know what I’m doing with my life. Do you?”

John lowered his head as I walked away. A few seconds later, I heard shouting behind me. Katie’s voice called out above the others, saying something about a foul. When I turned back to look, I saw John staring blankly out at the soccer field, e-cigarette dangling from one hand. His dark eyes reminded me of the macaws at the reserve I stayed at in Brazil. They had wide, dark pupils in the middle of their eyes. Laura, the main tour guide, had one named Paolo. She told the tour group in her broken English how, every morning, Paolo ate fresh mangos and well-cooked quinoa. Occasionally, she fed him in front of us as Paolo squawked happily. He couldn’t eat coffee beans, she explained, because they were bad for him.

“It hurt them very much, to eat coffee beans,” she said in a soft, cooing voice, looking at Paolo. He jerked his head in Laura’s direction, then moved it quickly from side to side, as though he suspected that one of the tourist might be carrying coffee beans, ready to poison him at any given moment.

The way Paolo and the other macaws looked at visitors made me think they were sad and wanted to escape. Yet the reserve had been their home for days, months, or even years, and they probably couldn’t imagine any other place as home. Or maybe they could, but didn’t want to take the risk of leaving, out of fear that some hidden danger would reach them. Like someone would throw coffee beans at them, and they would choke on them by accident, the cacao and caffeine leaking in and becoming part of them like the colors of their feathers, the hardness of their beaks.

One day, I saw Paolo standing alone on a branch and gave him a nut I had found on a hike. It turns out, it wasn’t a nut; it was a coffee bean. He collapsed in front of me moments later.

During midterms week of the spring of freshman year, I went with Katie, Sarah and Tim to the library to cram for midterms. After around an hour, most of us fell asleep in the library basement, also known as the Research Dungeon. Katie, the English major in our group, had already spent many hours in this part of the library doing research for various papers. She had warned us that this part of the library was haunted and that most of the shelves smelled like expired funnel cake. We had all laughed at her while she insisted that the section containing dozens of copies of the Oxford English Dictionary smelled exactly like the time her mother opened a container of funnel cake after realizing it had been in the fridge for over nine months. When we all got down there, I realized she was right, and tried to go back upstairs, but Katie stopped me.

“We don’t have time to waste looking for another study spot. The library is packed. Let’s just camp out here.”

With a collective groan, we all took our places at an old oak table, opened our textbooks and began reading. Sarah, who had slept poorly the night before, promptly passed out, followed by Tim, then Katie and me. After what felt like only a few minutes, Sarah got up, groaned loudly and proposed that we all go to Starbucks.

“I need a latte so I can keep awake and keep studying for American Politics,” she said, fanning herself with a stack of papers. The way she said needs made me think of the macaws I saw in the rainforest when I visited Brazil. They would caw, caw, caw as the tour guides brought fresh pieces of fruit up to their beaks. It was always warm where they lived, and just the thought of Brazil was making the library feel even colder. I rubbed my eyes and thought of John’s face bent over a book, John hugging me, John’s eyes alight as he asked me about Brazil, and then of John in bed, sick with a fever of a hundred and one, his car parked in the lot just outside his dorm building.

“I have an idea,” I said quickly.

Outside, it still felt as wet and sticky as it did in the early afternoon, like we were all deep inside a cup of hot chocolate. Katie squinted and brushed a few stray strands of hair out of her face, her hands rather pale, neon pink nails practically glowing in the sunlight. Sarah tucked her aviator glasses into her backpack, her blonde ponytail falling over one shoulder. Tim had his hands in the pockets of his khakis, like he was embarrassed to be seen with a group of girls like us. John once told me that Tim wrote love notes for Katie, which he stuck in his pockets to give to her, but he always chickened out and just kept them there, out of sight. I’m still a bit dubious about this story. Then again, I’m doubtful of a lot of stories John has told me.

I had my cell phone in one hand, John’s car keys in the other. As we walked away from the library, I told everyone to wait for me by the dining hall, which was long deserted by that time of night.

“What are you doing?” Sarah asked.

“I’m getting John’s car,” I said, my voice shaky.

“Do you think he’ll be okay with that?” John asked in a dubious tone.

I shrugged. “Probably. He owes me, anyway.”

Everyone looked at each other and nodded before I hurried over to John’s room. The sky was dark and open, the world ready for my taking.

John promised me once that I could use his car anytime. After his roommate Brendan opened the door, I walked over to John, half-asleep in his bed, and asked him how he was feeling. He mumbled a few words I couldn’t understand, rolled onto his side and fell asleep. Brendan snickered and went back to playing Grand Theft Auto V on his PlayStation 4. From where I stood, I could see John’s car keys glistening on his nightstand. When John started snoring, I snuck them into my pocket and left quietly.

John’s car was parked in its usual spot: right in front of the sycamore tree in Parking Lot Z, right by his dorm building. Once I was in the car, I called Sarah and gave her my location, telling her that I could swing by the dining hall to pick everyone up.

“Don’t worry about it. We just went to Katie’s room. The dining hall looked too creepy from the outside. We’ll meet you in the parking lot,” she said.

“Ouch. Okay, cool. I’m in John’s car,” I replied before hanging up.

Once everyone had climbed into John’s car, I put in one of the self-made CDs that I always carry around wih me in my backpack and skipped to the third track, “Asleep” by The Smiths. It’s still my favorite song. As the song began, a red Chevy drove quickly past us with three guys sticking their heads out the windows. They were wearing sunglasses and smoking cigarettes. One of them had on a bright green and blue tank top that made me think of Paolo.

“Karen, did you get permission to use his car?” Sarah asked as I backed out of the parking lot. From her seat in the back, she bent forward and picked up John’s e-cigarette, which he had left in one of the cup holders. Even though the red Chevy was gone, I still couldn’t stop thinking about macaws. Even now, I keep thinking about colorful birds and hidden poisons that can find us in all these different ways that we’re not even fully aware of.

I shook my head. “Nope,” I said promptly, turning up the volume, letting Morrissey’s voice envelop me like a cloud of smoke. Like coffee-scented smoke, an invigorating, dangerous smell.

“That’s what I thought,” Sarah replied, putting John’s e-cigarette to her mouth and inhaling deeply, blowing smoke out the open window.


* * *

Courtney Justus currently resides in San Antonio, Texas. Her poetry and fiction has been published in Eunoia Review, Arsenic Lobster Poetry Journal, Trinity Review, poems2go and Tipton Poetry Journal. She is co-editor of  Trinity Review and enjoys traveling, reading and blogging in her spare time. You can reach her at and “Thank you to my friends and family, near and far, for their support.”

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