I am with my new friend Karen from school. She hung out with the not very popular girls. If I’d taken a minute to think about it, and shamefully, furtively, I did, I knew that the class divide ran along money lines. We lived in a suburb and the self-assured ones were rich. I was never quite sure where my family stood, where I stood, because we did not discuss money at home. To make matters worse, our home stood in a no-man’s land of a few houses, neither here nor there, but close to the bus stop where everyone congregated. Because of that uncertainty, I hung out with everybody. The popular ones were nice and friendly, but their easy familiarity made me cringe. The bulk of us were regular friendly. We had our gripes and our loud laughs. We did not try to be proper. The third group was flotsam, held together by chance and currents. They seemed rather sad, rather shy, a little bit slow and dull. They wore hand-me-downs from a long line of siblings. One girl always tried to look perky. She wore new clothes from a discount store, and accessorized but was not a full member of the middle group. I don’t remember the boys. They were just an unkempt, dusty, noisy mass with its own divisions. In class, we worked together, the bright and slow, the boys and girls, in teams of three that varied by subject. The teacher broke down our carefully constructed order to create teams of equal strengths. Nobody objected. We didn’t know we were allowed. We tested the waters, made do with the new friendships, the boys not that bad, the outcasts a good lot too.
I head out to Karen’s after class one day, to do an assignment there. She lives on a side street on which I’ve never set foot before, in a three-storey apartment building I didn’t know existed. The apartment has its own smell, as dwellings do, but my nose does not recognize what makes it different from ours. I am ushered in the family room and introduced to the adult there, an aunt, surely not the mother, as mothers are active and working. I don’t have a stay-at-home mom, but I do know that stay-at-home moms offer us kids freshly-baked cookies or healthy carrot sticks. I look around the tight space, cluttered ceiling-high with porcelain figures in coy positions. They are funny-looking, none of those high society ladies with pretty dresses. No, these are unfamiliar models, dwarf-like in their desire not to take up too much room. I stare at them curiously, wrack my brains to find something pleasant to say, come up with a lame “I love their colours,” which seems to do the trick. They’re all shiny, clearly loved, and I respect their status in the family. Knick knacks are not welcome in my home. “They gather dust,” says my mother dismissively. That’s not true, of course, only if you don’t love them.
On top of the massive television, an older model encased in wood, sits a bird cage and a bird called Tiki. Before she married, Karen’s mom was a waitress at a snazzy downtown bar called the Kon Tiki. “We served the best Mai Tai in town,” she says. I nod, suitably impressed, though I have never seen a live Mai Tai. “It’s an exotic drink, with an umbrella stick.” I smile and nod, feeling like a fool. “That’s where I met her father.” Her voice trails off. I’m not sure if the story is finished. I turn back to Tiki. We watch him jump from perch to perch, in a dizzying dance. Maybe I am making him nervous, my voice too loud, my smell offensive, my thoughts foreign. Wrong, wrong, wrong. I certainly feel I don’t belong, looking in from outside, navigating an unfamiliar terrain mined with unknowns. I don’t know how to be myself, so I resort to being polite which also feels wrong but safe. I look at Karen, who beams back at me. “Isn’t he funny, jumping like that?” she asks. “Does he do that often?” “Only when Tiger wants to play with him.” Tiger is a tabby. He’s lying on a frilly pillow, tail twitching, eyes unblinking. His ears perk up when he hears his name and he lets out a meow. I think the bird is sensing my unease as I watch it trapped in its cage. It’s a real cage, with bars, a small mirror, toys, a feeder with hulls swimming on the surface. The water may not have been changed recently, as debris mar the surface. Tiki is molting but I don’t know that. I see feathers littering the bottom of the cage, and half feathers poking through the bird’s plumage. Tiki seems to be pecking his wings as though he’s mad, like those girls who cut themselves. Or perhaps there used to be two birds and only feathers remain. I shudder at the thought.
I look for their bookshelf so we can swap stories but I see none and I suddenly suspect there is something deeply wrong with this place.
On my walk back, I can’t get the bird out of my mind. My friend laughed when I suggested we open the door. “Tiki doesn’t want to leave its cage, not with Tiger around. When we clean the cage, he grips our finger and never lets go. Poor Tiki bird! His wings are clipped so he won’t fly away.” I dream of Tiki, free, singing from joy, with other birds for company, doing what birds do. Instead, his best friend is his reflection in a mirror, his universe his toys inside, the cat outside. There is a rock in my stomach, and it weighs heavily on me.