Birds of a Feather
William Wright tightened his wife’s loose-fitting mask, securing the silk ribbon. “Better?” Esther thought she heard him whisper as she nodded in recognition. William’s sequin guise pecked her cheek. Rap tap, Rap tap tap. No verbal communication was truly possible; gestures and diffused sounds were their only alternatives in the boisterous South Beach ballroom.

She signaled to the dance floor, hoping her husband would recognize the 1950’s mambo. They had danced to that same mambo on their first date twelve years ago, when she invited him to her cousin’s First Communion celebration. William could not recall it, though. Instead, his gloved hands flew with repulsion and reached for his watered-down Chivas.

Rap tap, Rap tap tap.

“It all sounds the same,” Esther could hear his words echoing in her head. “That damn two-three beat. Who the hell could dance to that?”

No need to get him started on the routine this-is-America speech and how anything but four-four time was simply unpatriotic. It would give Esther a headache.

She remembered a young open-minded boy right out of college who enjoyed tasting exotic foods, who tried learning how to mambo even though he knew his white hips couldn’t gyrate accordingly, a boy who couldn’t understand why people on this planet couldn’t relate to one another. And the music didn’t all sound the same. And the beat so foreign to William’s pearly-white ears actually aroused him.

Rap tap, Rap tap tap.

The hall was teeming with drunken birds smoking and gossiping and taking on airs. That was the suggested theme—the birds that is, not the taking on airs. The precocious peacocks and penguins pointed to the trashy toucans; in turn, the toucans talked about the cockatoos cavorting in the corner; and the cockatoos, of course, rumored about the roosters romping in the rear of the hall. What a sight!

Rap tap, Rap tap tap.

Ignoring the Cuban melody, William admired the five-foot, nine-inch monarch butterfly that fluttered by, dateless, on seven-inch spikes with a rawhide harness and whip. Certainly a popular guest at the ball. At least William and his lawyer friends thought so. With the subtlety and precision of a well-oiled weathercock, William occasionally shifted positions, remaining stoic and tall as to not lose sight of the winged dominatrix.

William’s eyes continued to pan the room pretending to take equal notice of the other costumers strutting by. He was actually pretty good at this ritual of deceit. It seemed convincingly innate at times. It must’ve been one of those secrets his father passed on to him; a secret all fathers and sons pass down to one another generation after generation for posterity’s sake.

Esther pointed to George W. Bush in drag, draped with an American flag and rhinestone earrings, which matched the fifty rhinestone stars dazzling his red, white, and blue frock. Greeted by applause, W. waved his hand in a circular, Queen-motheresque manner. W. in drag? she knew William was thinking, his eyes rolling back and forth in his plumage-packed head as if saying, “How does that fit in with the theme?”

Now that’s a costume! Esther thought to herself, wishing they would’ve come up with something as ingenious. She was sure her husband would not have appreciated that liberal gesture. So, Esther conceded by wearing the glittery mask with the soft painted smile and stringy feathers his mother, the respected Mrs. Lehman-Wright of Palm Beach, picked out for her.

The black Valentino frock Esther wore was simple and conservative. All she had to do was add a few strands of glitter at the collar and extend an old stardust cord straight down. Esther managed to include some of the mesh intertwined in their feathered headdresses to the glitter twine decorating her frock. It gave it a consistent look. This made her costume less flighty. Esther had to admit that she did like that grounding feeling.

The only parts of their costumes containing actual feathers were the headdress they wore, as William was wearing his Armani tuxedo. But that was enough to pigeonhole them as the most avant-garde birds of the evening. What bird they represented, or from what right-winged planet they hatched, Esther was still not certain. But the guests certainly approved of their abstract attempt.

Esther and William heard oohs and ahs from the spotted owls who, in all their wisdom, proclaimed that the couple represented couture dactyls from the Jurassic era.

“Very territorial,” Esther heard one of them hoot. (As if he had the inside scoop on bird-like reptiles that lived eons ago!)

Then there were wows and yeahs from the erudite emus who were convinced that, like them, Esther and William Wright represented flightless birds “metaphorically conveying man’s angst toward his confinement on Earth.”

“Bravo!” they shouted, jerking their heads in spastic, uncontrolled motions. “Bravo!”

They parroted each other with grins and lies as not to offend the costumers and, consequently, humiliate themselves by displaying such a lack of appreciation for abstract art. The flock, of course, was as clueless as Esther was to what she and her husband embodied. But the guests’ fancy feathers and boas and scarves and platinum beaks camouflaged this ambivalence only too well. Ooh, ah!

Esther nodded her beak from one side to the other, acknowledging the crowd. The array of ostrich feathers tickled her ears. She was hoping to rid herself of the suffocating mask, wishing it would crash to the floor or perhaps even fly away through the faux stained-glass window over the main door. No such luck. Besides, William would soon resecure the ribbon, not allowing the feathery guise to reveal Esther’s olive complexion. How thoughtful of him.

Flashbulbs exploded like fireworks from every direction. She’d have to cut these pictures out of the local paper and South Beach magazines. She often laughed at how nine-to-five secretaries glimpsed at these pages during their mid-morning bagel run and wished they could have been part of such a soiree instead of watching another episode of the Housewives of … wherever, while painting their toenails.

Rap tap, Rap tap tap.

Esther smelled the chemical odor of the glue that held her mask together tight against her nostrils. The sweat and hot breath were steaming the glue, pasting Esther’s skin to the shiny black canvas. No matter which way she crinkled her nose or maneuvered her chin, another part of her face found itself stuck to the inside of the mask. Even if by chance William would forget to check the fastening, the mask was slowly melting onto her skin; there was no escaping it.

Relax, Esther kept repeating to herself. But her hot breath bounced back into her face. The distinct, uncontaminated scent of the Stoli martini entered her pores, drifting her away from what had turned out to be another long-winded evening with the South Beach quasi-elite. Close and steady. It felt like his hot breath last night. Close and steady.

While aimless birds fluttered north, south, east, and west, in strolled Van Gogh, his head proudly piercing a sunflower-scattered canvas. His mutilated ear was nothing but a bloody bandaged clump. The neon orange hair and eyebrows looked too prim, too out-of-the-can prim. But the replica was more than formidable.

“Look!” Esther tried to shout across to her husband. Her stretched arm conveyed what she was admiring. “Van Gogh!” she attempted to mouth. Her hot muffled words circulated behind the mask.

Close and steady.

William nodded yes, pretending to understand his wife’s diffused words, and he reached for his drink. His body dutifully shifted to face the porcelain-skinned, S & M butterfly that everyone was still admiring.

As impressive as Van Gogh and George W. Bush and all the other non-avian costumes were, William Wright did not appreciate them. He almost seemed perturbed at how Esther dared to admire them. After all, the invitation clearly suggested—in black gothic boldface—an avian theme. To him, the extraordinary show of creativity was simple defiance. To her, their defiance, the fact that they could not be jailed into any thematic hencoop was extraordinarily emancipating.

Rap tap, Rap tap tap.

Esther needed her drink.

Close and steady.

Then she noticed it. That smirk. That made-in-Taiwan smile on his mask. Who was that behind all that sparkle and sequin? Why was his mask smiling at her with such a Cheshire grin? It was almost obscene how his feline eyes peered through the egg-shaped perforations at the shapes and shadows on the wall, thinking no one could discern what ideas were developing behind the feathery mask.

Rap tap, Rap tap tap.

He was too still. Across the bar, the half-naked butterfly sat dangerously still as well, seductively sipping the ambrosia set on the bar. Couldn’t she see the trap? Didn’t she understand that through this stillness all William was doing was hypnotizing his prey? All that leather and all those spikes were no match for William’s well-thought-out-son-of-a-bitch strategies. He’d stealthily maneuver himself. Tail down. Shoulders up. After a few minutes—wham! She’d be nothing but a helpless, flightless caterpillar forgetting how high she once flew, how powerfully her wings once fluttered.

Esther forced herself to indulge like all the others. She reached over her husband for her drink, needing immediate relief. She pretended that the giant wasp in butterfly’s clothing was not there. She pretended that she hadn’t been to the doctor’s hours earlier that day where he warned her how unwise it was to drink “during this special time.”

She pretended that she and William were back at her cousin’s, twelve years ago, dancing to the familiar Cuban mambo with so much innocent euphoria. Esther tried to pretend that the black eyes behind her husband’s feathered mask were really shining bright, even perhaps winking at her without anybody noticing. She pretended that the chiseled smile was truly his grin telling her how much he still loved her.

Close and steady. Rap tap, Rap tap tap. Ooh, ah!

Maybe it was just the strobe and laser lights ricocheting off the reflectors that made William’s eyes starburst. Or maybe it was the monotonous Rap tap, Rap tap tap of the conga drums now reverberating in Esther’s dehydrated temples that created such a magnificently hypnotic effect. Then again, enough consumption of alcohol in the right setting at the right time has been known to cause such a preternatural stare in the most common faces.

Inching under William’s jacket, down his back, her index finger gently played with the childhood cicatrix above his waist. Such a familiar touch. She could tell by the tiny swelling that it was rosy in appearance; it was always that way when he sweated or exerted himself. The baby-soft scar felt cold and smooth like polished rose quartz.

Arching his back to flee her captivating touch, he reached for another sip of the ameliorating Chivas. It was too watered down, but it was the nearest prop. Esther started to laugh at the absurdity of manners enveloping them all in the ballroom, shrouding them behind their erect spines and diplomatic gestures. But her laughter froze in place, caught by the rapidly melting adhesive on the inside of the mask.

She closed her eyes and reached round William’s waist. He was warm and safe. Albeit, her husband was now an intimate stranger who she had somehow forgotten to stop loving—how she could have been so careless, she still couldn’t figure out—but he was warm and safe.

Rap tap, Rap tap tap.

She hoped that later he would surprise her by reading some Dunbar, giddy at the news she had to tell him. It would cause their bodies and souls to dance. He would tell her that he already knew because of her angelic glow.

He used to caress her until she fell asleep, not expecting any satiating dramatics in return. That was her husband, William, behind the feathers and the Armani couture. That was the familiar stranger she could not stop loving.

Rap tap, Rap tap tap.

William nudged his wife, signaling that it was time to go. The five-foot, nine-inch masochistic butterfly had surrendered to Van Gogh’s wit.

AGUSTIN D. MARTINEZ is a former high school principal, English teacher, and translator living in the DC metro area. While a translator and managing editor, he published as work-for-hire The Multicultural Spanish Dictionary, How Everyday Spanish differs from Country to Country, currently available in its 2nd edition. His short stories have appeared in Arcadia Literary Journal, The Binnacle, The 34th Parallel Magazine, The Write Room, Apropos Literary Journal, Press 1 and Hinchas de Poesia.