Birds

To keep his mind off the dull, hollow ringing in his ear, Arnold stared intently around the hospital emergency room. He couldn’t quite remember when the ringing had started and for all he knew, maybe it had always been there. It felt like being the butler to an overly demanding widow, a bell constantly ring ringing in his ear. The flu was really getting to him.

The emergency room was nothing like what he had imagined. Being of a particular generation and level of health, Arnold’s only frame of reference for hospitals were movies and television shows and this was not his envisioned glossy, white bastion of recovery with lights bright enough to disinfect and hospital staff feverishly running around tending to patients’ needs. Instead, the seedy yellow lights inside the hospital inexplicably built within a castle flickered lowly, scattering light unevenly across tiles which alternated in shade between heavily eroded seafoam and the teeth of a consummate coffee drinker. He couldn’t tell if the lights were buzzing strangely or if it was just his head but, all in all, it felt much more like a bus stop restroom than a hospital.

It had been almost an hour since the receptionist chewing gum loud enough to blow a bubble through Arnold’s deafness had waved him into his curtained-off section of the emergency room. That the emergency room here was just a single room parceled out into plots was a bit too literal for Arnold, who had expected a personal room, preferably with a variety of glass openings to always be in the line of sight of the nurses and doctors hurrying about the halls. Instead, all he got were walls of anti-microbial, stain resistant mesh patterned with what appeared to be flower leaves sans blossom.

“Sir, for the last time. You cannot smoke in here,” he heard a nurse through the curtain say to someone.
“Oh, just the one. Baby, I can quit you know. I just want the one.”
“Do you have any idea where you are?”
“What do you mean?”
“You are in a hospital room, sir. You were extremely intoxicated and smashed your head against a fire escape. You’re lucky a passerby spotted your body or we might not even be having this conversation.”
“Well, fuck,” came the response. “Now I could really use a cigarette.”

The nurse and the drunk argued for another several minutes until the nurse apparently had a revelation and took away the lighter with which the drunk had been producing a faint clicking noise, like a dog scratching at a cage.  After Arnold had fully lost track of time, a doctor finally came in to see him.

“So what seems to be the matter?”
“Well, I’ve had the flu for like the last ten days. You know, standard symptoms. High fever. Lots of sweating. I’ve actually been sleeping on towels since I sweated through all my sheets. Headache. Body aches. All that stuff.”
“Okay, you look like you’re in better shape right now. Do you still have a fever?” the doctor asked while tapping her pen against the clipboard and focusing on nothing in particular above and to the right of Arnold’s head.
“I think the flu is pretty much gone. My fever is down to below 100. Or 38, sorry. But it’s my ear. At some point, I went sort of deaf in my left ear. I just can’t hear out of it. When I close my other ear, it’s just a ringing sort of noise and that’s it. It’s been like this for at least 5 days, I think. Maybe you should write some of this down?”
“Right. What you have is otitis media with effusion. It will clear up on its own in about a month.” She stood up.
“Wait, what?”
“Was that a hearing or comprehension related question?”
“No, no, I heard you. Did you say a month? There’s nothing I can do about this, I just have to be deaf for a month?”
“Unfortunately, that’s the case.”
“Why?”
“Okay. In general, when you get sick, there’s a lot of fluid stuff going on. The runny nose is a prominent example. Now, what happened is that when you had a very high fever, your Eustachian tubes expanded. This allowed a lot of fluid in, but now the tube has tightened up a bit due to a reduction in fever and the fluid is still there and cannot flow out as easily as it did in. It can only flow out in relation to the now-tightened Eustachian tubes and you’ll just have to wait for it to do so. Now, the fluid in your middle ear can get infected. In that case, it’ll become Acute Otitis Media. You’ll notice this if instead of dullness and a lack of hearing, you begin experiencing throbbing pain. This means you should come back for antibiotic treatment, but even then, the fluid would probably be in your ear for the same time afterwards.”
“So sometime within the next month, my ear will just pop and go back to normal?”
“That is certainly a way of phrasing it.”

Outside the hospital, Arnold called his girlfriend while trying to remember the last time he saw her. It was midterm season for her and she said that getting sick would have been a death sentence. Arnold said he understood. Luckily the majority of his friends were well out of school and, like him, some hated their jobs enough to want to get sick, so Arnold had no shortage of temporary company and necessity deliveries. 20 granola bars from Mike on Monday. A box of tea and over-the-counter flu tablets from Zach on Tuesday. Fresh fruit from Pete on Wednesday. On Friday, Brian came by with a pizza and a six-pack of beer, which he skulled before going out.  They agreed to meet at a nearby pho restaurant. Arnold’s mom prescribed soup a general cure-all and he figured that maybe this would help get the fluid out. It made sense, hot soup, tubes, fluid, everything. Forget one month, this would do it on the spot. Julie, ever practical, was already there, seated and waiting for him.

“I missed you so much,” he said, realizing he had expressed the emotion before actually feeling it.
“It’s been a while,” Julie said, crossing her legs.
“What? You’re going to have to repeat stuff because of the ear thing. I’m going to be kind of deaf for up to a month.”
“Just sit down,” she said at the same volume.
“You know, I love the spoons at this place,” Arnold said when the food arrived. “Most places give you those standard little ladles, but they can slide into the bowl. So if I’m using chopsticks for the noodles, I have to have somewhere to put it down, and the table’s always a bit suspect. Here, they latch on. And now I don’t have a care in the world. See?”
“Yeah,” she said. “We need to talk.”
“Sure, we’re already talking.”
“I think I want a break.”
“What?”
“I think I want a break!”
“No, no, I heard that,” Arnold said while looking around the rest of the restaurant to gauge how many others had heard. “I meant ‘what?’ like I couldn’t understand why you would want a break.”
“So you really meant ‘why’ is what you’re saying.”
“What?”
“Jesus, Arn. I’m just not happy in this anymore. We never do anything. It’s the same old thing, over and over.”
“How can you say that? I’ve been sick in bed for the last ten days. That’s a new thing,” he mugged.
“It’s not just that. It’s in general. We never make an effort to go to new restaurants, bars, or anything I want to do.”
“That you want to do? But you said you’re broke and need to focus on school.”
“Look, Arnold. I’m just not happy and I don’t want to do this anymore.”

Sitting at home Arnold wondered how he should react. He put on music that he thought appropriate for the circumstances but everything sounded like it was being played out of a fishbowl. Television was the same, just moving lips and empty warbles. He tried to nap but rolled over onto his bad ear, which sent spikes of discomfort shooting through his body. Finally, holding the phone to his working ear, he dialed the airport and asked for the cheapest flight leaving in three hours, assuming that’s the fastest he could pack and make it to the terminal. The customer service representative on the other end of the line laughed in amazement at the enquiry and after a five minute hold told Arnold that the best availability she had was a flight to Paris later that evening, which Arnold immediately booked.

Initially, the destination was inconsequential, Arnold just thought that flying in an airplane might unclog his ear. Or was that the cure to whooping cough? Didn’t matter! The act of getting on a plane would be enough to solve his problems. But now that he was going to Paris, Arnold was even more excited. What better way to get over a breakup than in Paris, the city of romance? That this was the cheapest flight available was a sign that everything was going to be just fine, Arnold told himself as he gathered his passport, several days’ of clothing, and several packs of gum since he found chewing gum to always help with his ears when flying. The process took longer than expected as he realized that the bag he packed had been a gift from Julie, which he sent down his building’s garbage chute before tossing all the items into a grocery store bag and catching a cab.

What Arnold hadn’t accounted for was the importance of communication. Deaf in one ear despite the flight and mute in French, navigating Paris turned out to be much more difficult than he had figured. To make matters worse, Arnold was starting to think he was losing his mind. All the people he stopped to ask for help just made bird noises. “Chirp chirp chirp,” the young girl told him with indifference beyond her years when he asked how to get to the hostel he had booked on Rue Oberkampf. “Squawk squawk!” was all he got from the businessman who nearly pushed him out of the way when asked about transport. When he tried to collect himself by getting a beer, the waiter at the bar had lazily koo-rooed before disappearing forever into a dusty backroom. Losing all hope, Arnold walked around aimlessly, avoiding the crows, pigeons, and Cornish hens all around him. Instead, he looked at the city itself, the buildings with their grotesque faces which the birds called home. With its regulations, legal, social, or whatever, on building height, everything in Paris seemed perfectly uniform and perfectly fake. The tightly clustered seven-story buildings created an even line across the Parisian horizon which made the sky behind it look unnatural, like a backdrop inserted behind a different picture in photo-editing software.

After crossing through several arrondisiments, exhaustion set in and he sat down on a park bench beside a woman feeding pigeons and cooing, though he couldn’t tell if the noises were meant for him or for the birds. He realized he should have told someone about this trip. That way it would get back to Julie and she’d tear herself apart wondering what Arnold was getting up to in Paris. Who wasn’t doing anything now? He checked his watch as bells began to ring before realizing he was nowhere near a cathedral, which were further apart than the Paris of television had led him to believe.

“I’m sorry, you’re a lost American right?”
“What?” Arnold asked, more from the shock of understanding language than the fluid in his middle ear. Looking up, he traced to the origin of the sound to a small woman in a short black dress with bright red lipstick spread equally across her lips and the cigarette in her mouth.
“I asked if you were a lost American,” she said, this time enunciating the way Arnold did to non-English speakers, as if the same words said slower and louder would somehow break the inherent language barrier.
“Oh! Sort’ve, yes. I actually flew here from Canada. But I moved there from the States. So when it comes down to it, you’re right, I’m a lost American.”
“It kind of sounds like you’re not even sure what you are,” she said, pausing mid-sentence for a drag off the almost entirely crimson tip of the unfiltered cigarette.
“Let’s just say it’s been a confusing few several days.”
“Life is confusing. That’s what my parents always said. It’s a very French way of downsizing the importance of your personal feelings by making them intangible and universal. Perhaps I could help you though. Would you like to, how do you Americans say it?” she thought aloud before setting her mouth into a flinty oval and saying, “’smoke a joint, man’” in an unaccented impersonation of a typical stoner.
“What?” asked Arnold, who after losing her at the end of her first sentence was marveling about the depth of his new companion. The French, they really are as existential as television led you to believe, he thought while wondering if he should mention having watching Godard.
“Sorry,” she said, covering her slight blush by looking down at the cigarette she had just leisurely tossed onto the concrete and then stepping on the ember in a single smooth motion with her small, leather shoes embroidered with pyramid spikes that were anything but punk rock. “Do you want to get high? I have some marijuana.”
“Ah, now that sounds like an idea,” Arnold said. “What are the sorts of laws here about that sort of thing? In Canada, we’re pretty open about smoking, but isn’t it a bit more illegal here?”
“Well, do I know your name?”
“No…”
“Then don’t worry, I won’t report you.”
That was good enough for Arnold, who couldn’t help but marvel at his change of fortune while watching the girl’s tight ass move beneath the loose fabric of her dress as she led the way. In the interim moments of silence, he had figured it all out. They would smoke, then talk, then kiss, then go to her place. That was how it generally worked out. Maybe Paris wasn’t so bad after all. Maybe he could even get a refund on his deposit at the hostel since he had never showed up. He knew he could just tell the receptionist that his flight had been cancelled and voila, refund. By the time they got to the alleyway of her choice, Arnold was no longer watching her ass from behind, but walking in line with her and holding her hand.
“This is an interesting spot for this sort of thing,” he said. “Makes me feel young again. This is how you smoke when you’re a high school kid in the United States and your parents are home.”
“Well, just because I won’t tell the police about you, doesn’t mean they can’t find us themselves.” She took out a miniscule torch lighter matching her outfit and lit what looked identical to the cigarette she had been smoking when they first met.
“So, what do you do?” he asked, grimacing while holding in as much smoke as he could without coughing. Perhaps with his chest so full and his neck so tight, the fluid would decide to drip out to wherever it belonged outside the middle passage of his ear.
“Oh, this and that.”
“I suppose we’re all really just doing this and that,” said Arnold in as existential a tone as he could muster.
“Mainly this.”
“What? Honestly I’m really stoned right now. Do you guys use that term? I’m really high but I’m glad I did this. I’ve been sick for like the last ten days, just stuck in bed with the flu doing nothing but sweating in and out of fever dreams. And then.” He paused, knowing that nothing was less appealing than whining about other girls. “It’s been so long since I smoked. I actually stopped my second semester of university after I almost failed out. But, you know, when in Rome. Or better yet, when in Paris. Right?”

He giggled but then realized that the girl was no longer looking at him. Rather, she had her gaze fixed to the entrance of the alley. Arnold opened his mouth to ask her if she got paranoid since that had been one of the main reasons he had stopped in the first place but before the thought fully formed in his mind, two shadowy figures appeared, their forward motion distorting their bodies into Rorschach blots against the white marble of the buildings. He tried to think of what to say, but the girl and the shadows had already acknowledged each other. Before he could do anything else, two sullen-faced guys in sweatshirts were in his face. Arnold tried to figure out how old they were but they chirped and spat angrily while circling him, alternately jutting their heads close to his face to an extent that rendered them ageless.
“Just do what they say!” the girl said. “You’ll be fine.”
“What do they want?”
“Chirp! Chirp!” they said with piercing vigor.
Arnold figured they wanted his money, but he could not part with this passport. There was no way he could get back without it and at that moment, all he wanted was to just fly home.
“Look guys, I can give you my wallet. It has like 30 euros in it, but that’s all I’ve got. I need my passport to get back to Canada.”
“Chirp! Chirp!” they shrieked back indignantly.
“I don’t understand you!” Arnold snapped, looking around for the girl who was no longer even in the alleyway. The response was exactly what he expected, followed by a firm push against the wall behind him. He tried to reason with the two, but all that happened was more screaming and pushing with the commotion not raising the attention Arnold had hoped for.
This went on for quite some time and something finally went pop.

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