The desert cardinal.
It sings and behaves almost exactly like its scarlet cousins. It never flies away from seasonal changes or difficult weather, and it also tolerates drier conditions than its bright red family members.
Why do you need to know that? Because I am a birdbrain. I connect things that are totally unlike each other. I am a surrealist. And for me, being a cardinal is all about never flying away when the winter comes, never giving up.
There was a time in my life when I wasn’t entirely sure of who I would become. Let me say clearly, “I am not now, nor have I ever been a homosexual.” And if I had been one, like a couple of my friends turned out to be, I would not be ashamed to be one. But there was a time, in my high school years, when I really wasn’t certain, and I was terrified of what the answer might be.
And it was in high school that I met Dennis.
Now, to be honest, I noticed him while I was still an eighth grader, and he was in my sister’s class and two years younger. It was in the locker room after eighth grade P.E. class was ended and sixth grade P.E. was getting dressed for class. I was returning to pick up a book I had left. He was standing just inside the door in nothing but shorts. The feeling of attraction was deeply disturbing to my adolescent, hormone-confused brain. I didn’t want to have anything to do with that feeling. But I felt compelled to find out who he was anyway. He was the younger brother of my classmate Rick Harper (not his real name). In fact, he was the book end of a set of twins. But I came to realize that it was Dennis I saw, not Darren, because they were trying to establish their identities by one of them curling his hair, and the other leaving his straight.
Nothing would ever have come of it, but during my Freshman year of high school, I encountered him again. During a basketball practice where the ninth grade team was scrimmaging with the eighth graders, the seventh graders were all practicing free throws at the side of the junior high gym. While I was on the bench, he came up to me from behind and tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around and he tossed me his basketball. “Play me one on one?” He asked. I almost did. But I remembered that Coach Rod had warned us to be ready to go into the game when he called on us. I had a turn coming up. So, I told him that and promised I would play him some other time. He grinned at me in a way that gave me butterflies in my stomach. Why? To this day I still don’t really know.
Dennis’s older brother and I were in Vocational Agriculture class together that year and both on the Parliamentary Procedure team preparing for a competition. We were at Rick’s house. After a few rounds of practice that convinced our team we would definitely lose the competition, David and his brother trapped me in a corner.
“Hey, Meyer, how’re ya doin’?” Dennis said. Darren just stared at me, saying nothing.
“It’s Beyer, not Meyer,” I said. Of course, he knew that. The Meyers were a local poor family with a bad reputation, and it was intended as an insult. And it also rhymed, making it the perfect insult.
“Still one of the worst basketball players ever?”
“I try. I’m working on it really hard.” That got him to laugh and ask me to give him a high five.
“Goin’ to the basketball game later?”
I knew then that he wanted to be my friend. I wasn’t sure why. He was picking me out of the blue to make friends with. We didn’t move in the same circles, go to the same school, or even live in the same town. He was a Belmond boy, I was Rowan kid. And he didn’t know I was only a few years past being sexually assaulted and not ready to face the demons my trauma had created within me.
Later, at the basketball game, he found me in the bleachers and sat down beside me. In my defense, I am not a homophobe. And neither he nor I turned out to be a homosexual. He just wanted to be my friend and was taking difficult steps to make that connection. He was the one taking the risks. I greeted him sarcastically, and looking back on it, somewhat cruelly, because I was filled with too many uncertainties. I never meant to drive him away. But I will never forget the wounded look on his face as he scooted away down the bleacher seat.
He tried to talk to me several times after that. He apparently never lost the urge to befriend me. But as much as I wanted to accept his friendship, it never came to be. I have regretted that ever since.
Dennis passed away from cancer early this year. It is what made me think about who we both once were and what I gave away. I went on to actually befriend a number of boys through college and into my teaching career. I never chose any of them. The friendship was always their idea. I went on teach and mentor a number of fine young men. I like to think I did it because I felt a bit guilty of never really being Dennis’s friend. I hope somewhere along the way I made up for my mistake. I hope Dennis forgives me. And I wish I could tell him, “I really do want to be your friend.”
The pyrrhuloxia is a member of the family of cardinals and grosbeaks. And it does not migrate away from troublesome seasons and bad weather. There is dignity in being a pyrrhuloxia.