Bird

Sejal Shah

I have not been to Cobbs Hill since last summer, when I returned to Rochester for a wedding. I was with A. We had each flown in from the larger cities where we lived and we were restless in our quiet town after each event ended. It was an Indian wedding; you had to pace yourself. We found ourselves on one of those nights parking on Highland after driving around and then hiking up the drive. Red radio tower lights blinking in the distance. It took on the quality of a date or of high school only after we began walking.

Sitting on our hill looking out at our city, we talked, the way you talk when you are looking at a skyline—any skyline, and it is warm enough, a particular kind of warm, which is not too hot, not humid, not anything but enough to make you glad that your skin is the only layer between you and the world, heat-lightning in the distance, talking too much to people you don’t know well enough. But no one is listening to anyone too closely. Overtalking. This was seventeen again. We listened to the sound of our own voices, heard them cross each other. We leaned into each other.

When my parents were young, when they were new transplants to this country, they brought their young children, my brother and me, to Cobbs Hill. And summer and fall evenings we would chase each other around the reservoir and race each other down the hill. My parents and their good friends, a childless couple, kind but frozen in that way of people without kids, would walk patiently, their after-dinner digestive. I always looked for the roof of the house with eight chimneys. As though I had a tic, I would count all eight and wonder the same thoughts: Who lives there? How can you have eight chimneys? The house was one of many talismans for me, landmarks in the two or three miles of this city I still recognize as mine. The sky was a faint pink-purple and you could even see the top of our high school from that hill. Now it surprises me to consider how many other people to whom that park must belong. I rarely went to the non-reservoir side of the park, where there are basketball courts and fountains and tennis courts. I don’t play tennis. For me, Cobbs Hill is the reservoir, is the scrubby patch of pines and the clearing where people practice tai chi, is the cement structure, house-like, at the top where people sit with their kids or their lovers. And it is the hill we sled down or sat by for kissing. At the top, we’d always pause to look at the view. We would sit on the steps leading down from the pavilion and the gatehouse that looks like Greek or Roman ruins—something classical about the architecture, something dignified—though these columns were built in the 1900’s and they are not in ruins. Cobbs Hill felt like my backyard, the corner of the city and the suburbs, an intersection, a line. It was where we learned to drive, where we ran sprints in track practice. If you run again and again up and back the same hill, you lose your breath. Pausing at the foot of the hill, hands resting on your hips, you will look at the row of pine trees instead of the skyline, because that is what you can see, and you will begin to belong to a place and it will belong to you.

That summer night, I was walking with A. We strolled and paused behind a Canadian goose, which wasn’t able to fly, but just squawked in dismay to another goose, its friend, floating on the reservoir. It walked in front of us on the circular pavement path surrounding the water, flapping its wings and hopping. And it was something, watching an animal that was never going to make it, this bird who had stopped being able to fly, and would not make it over the iron fence and what was going to happen to it; and we were walking in the perfect night air and though we liked each other and talked, we were back somehow in high school, powerless, driving around looking for a pizza place open past eleven. We were never to kiss. We were only to look at the dark water, only to talk around and at, to nod at the three other people who were there on the hill at night, to stop a moment to lean into the bars around the reservoir and then to resume walking. He chased after it a bit—we wondered if we could scare it into flying. Startle it. It didn’t seem right for a tall bird to be walking in front of us like a woman in shorts, exercising.

At the wedding, while waiting to get a drink at the bar, A and I had suddenly realized that almost everyone we had grown up with, and almost everyone there, was married. We were in our thirties, but it still surprised us. A lives in San Francisco. I live in New York. In those places we are single and not merely odd.

I can see, at Cobbs Hill, my seventeen year-old self with B before our first date. We were going to dinner at a place his mom had recommended, and it was spring but still cold. He picked me up at my house and we stopped briefly at Cobbs Hill to look at the sunset. And I am nineteen, running down the hill the night we both knew it would never work out, and then in my early twenties with C and he had brought a bottle of white wine and two glasses. He was always scaring me because he wanted to talk about things I didn’t want to talk about. It was winter again (it was nearly always winter then in Rochester) and when we got out of the car B was there with his girlfriend. So we drank that wine and talked but we also got out of the car and went sledding. It was a steep hill—and you could spill right out into traffic on Monroe—but that and the stories of people who had been paralyzed—they never stopped us. I shared a sled with B’s girlfriend, one like me, whom he did not marry. I only remember that she had dark hair and one of us must have held onto the other in order to stay in the sled. B and C liked each other, too; we went out for beers once or twice at Rohrbachs.

A is for animal, B is for boy. We, all of us, were in our early twenties then. Who knew how any of it was going to turn out? We were young, each pair of us an animal. We were ourselves, fledgling: birds who would never lift off, never rise.

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