—the collective noun for flamingos
For a karaoke party, I wear head-to-toe pink. Feathered boa. Flamingo umbrella. I sing Rihanna: You can stand under my umbrella. When I open the umbrella at the start of the chorus, it rains hot pink confetti, which is actually a deconstructed pom-pom from an old cheerleading costume. (Don’t ask.)
Months later, my straight neighbor says he’s still finding boa feathers and pink confetti in corners and under furniture. He says that one day when he moves apartments, he’s expecting to find even more.
Sitting on the porch in December, I watch a gray mottled bird with a bright pink mohawk—changing plumage?—dart into a palm tree. I reach for my phone, but the bird darts away just as quickly.
I invite my straight neighbor into my bed.
“ABSOLUTELY NOT,” he texts back.
“SORRY,” I say.
“WHY ARE YOU SORRY?”
No more doughnut shops for me. My eyes glazed over as I stood in line, watching as crumpled money was exchanged for crisp paper bags soon to be grease-stained and tossed aside in a scattering of sprinkles.
It was almost my turn, and I was feeling the pressure to make a quick decision, to waste not an instant of anybody’s time.
“Your order, sir?”
I could no sooner calculate the heartbeats I’ve spent trying to be at home where I live.
Words I couldn’t say:
“I don’t know.”
Embarrassment. Embarrass. Etymologically: a halter. We are embarrassed by the grunting animals of ourselves.
When Christine suggested a day at the spa, I balked. It was my first time in Los Angeles, and I knew I’d need to watch my wallet or else embarrass myself by ordering from the kid’s menu and drinking only water, but no, Christine explained, Korean spas are their own thing: already cheap for up to twenty-four hours of explosive relaxation. And the one by her house accepted a Groupon for ten dollars off.
“Only thing is, we’ll have to undress,” she explained. “Naked. The full monty.”
But that, for me, was not the fearsome part.
“We’ll be separated by gender. It’s the only way.”
The whole time? I’d all but forgotten how to walk without her.
“No, not the whole time. You’ll see.”
Some sunburns you never forget. In Miami, on a spring break trip senior year, we spend all day on the beach drinking frozen cocktails. Jaymie slurps a hot pink one called Pussy Juice. I finish a sand-colored one called Suntan Lotion.
That night, Jaymie wants to get her nose pierced. I want a tattoo.
“Waiter! Another carnitas for mi amigo!”
“No, not a taco! A tattoo.”
Stuck like paste to a leather chair, I stare at a sign that says it is not possible to provide legal consent to permanent body art while intoxicated. I am not intoxicated. I am inebriated. So much so that I misquote the beginning of the line—an error that remains engraved on my back.
’Twere now to die ’twere now to be most happy.
Othello. Clarissa Dalloway. Close enough.
The next day, we embark on the twenty-four-hour return trip to snow-stricken Connecticut. Squeezed into the backseat of Jaymie’s car, I’m as pink as a lobster that barely escaped the pot.
Within a couple weeks, Jaymie easily removes the nose ring and never looks back.
My back, however, is always turned in the direction of the mistakes I can’t outrun.
My brother, in jail for ten years, develops a growth on the skin covering his left shoulder blade—a growth the size of, as he calls it, a Vienna sausage. Malignant melanoma. It takes the State a very long time to remove it.
At least you’re more than your shell, says the ocean, locking me into that sense I get on long walks, that I am one spark away from exploding.
Last time I sat here at Miller’s Seawall Grill, a middle-aged man at the next table flounced and lisped with his cadre of retired schoolteachers and oil-money wives. He held a kind of court I envied, dropping brand names of Chardonnay into juicy island gossip.
“Here you go, ladies,” he trilled. “Mop this up with your dinner rolls!”
Dear God, don’t let me be like that, I prayed, so loud and so . . . placating, treating his loneliness with easy company.
But isn’t that what company is for? Or so the ocean suggested.
“She seems / unnatural by nature,” poet Kay Ryan writes in “Flamingo Watching,” the title poem from her 1994 collection. I first hear Ryan read the poem on The Poetry Magazine Podcast during one of my commutes in Houston, my first year out of college. The year is 2009. President Obama, who wouldn’t publicly endorse marriage equality for several more years, has lately won The Nobel Peace Prize. Though I majored in English, I haven’t yet given much thought to graduate school. The effects of the Great Recession linger, and I’m grateful to have landed a full-time job teaching at a very small, very strange elementary school on the west side of town. The administrators and fellow teachers seem to think I’m doing a decent job, for a first-timer. I’ve bonded with my students, many of whom are on the Autism spectrum or have severe ADHD. All my work-related problems seem to coalesce, however, around a highly privileged group of parents, most of whom are devout Christians.
These parents are not rude, necessarily. To avoid outright confrontation, I’m drawing on all the camouflage skills I learned growing up in an even more conservative, more family-oriented area of Texas. I’m keeping things professionally airtight. I try to anticipate problems before they arise.
I’ll need a date for the annual fundraising gala. Easy: I’ll ask my good friend, Rachel. She’ll like the free alcohol and be a hit with the dads.
I’ve already put a target on my head by saying I live in Montrose, the so-called gayborhood, but when it comes up, I’ll mention how much cheaper it is than Midtown, and how living in New England has made me used to high-density, walkable areas.
The point is not to lie or to mislead, though there are no laws on the books protecting me from workplace discrimination—especially not at a private school. The point is, rather, to make myself accommodating to these churchgoers and bigots. I may be young, but I know that—in most cases—it isn’t homosexuality itself that confuses, frightens, or disgusts them. What they can’t abide goes most precisely by one name: flamboyance.
“The natural elect, / they think, would be less pink,” Ryan reads, balancing out the loud, monosyllabic rhyme (“think” and “pink”) with a tone of gently scathing condescension, getting away with the crime before it’s been detected and finishing with a wink that lets me know that she knows that we both know what this is about. Less pink, they’d prefer, “less flamboyant in general.”
The final four lines, as poets like to say, shred me. The lower echelons of hyperbole are inadequate when describing poetic endings that plunge the blade up to the hilt and give it one fierce and final twist. Ryan writes: “They privately expect that it’s some / poorly jointed bland grey animal / with mitts for hands / whom God protects.”
One of the biggest challenges of well-meaning and well-deserved success is that, in order to secure it, we must compete with bad-but-popular ideas. Where these bad ideas come from interests me less than why they stick around. Invariably, there’s some passage in some scripture that some demagogue has chosen to interpret too literally; or maybe we do our best to shame and root out bullies because we know the large-scale dangers of which they are capable. But shouldn’t people wise up, before long? Shouldn’t logic prevail, eventually? If religion doesn’t teach us to see past our own prejudices and to live outside of what we assume to be our limitations, if it doesn’t put a spotlight on the naturally flamboyant and faithfully extravagant among God’s creatures, what good is it? Like Ryan, I want no part in any so-called religion that prescribes uniformity, blandness, and a total renunciation of intellectual dexterity.
I’d rather live like the flamingos.
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JUSTIN JANNISE is the author of How to be Better by Being Worse, which won the 19th annual A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize. A graduate of Yale, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and the University of Houston, Justin teaches at Prairie View A&M University.