BY AIMEE NEZHUKUMATATHIL
A flamingo returns to a soda lake for food and to dance. The dance is legs akimbo, spindle-stick and joint-backward steps from all you know. In hot temperatures, a thick crust of salt is left to bake in the heat—perfect sodium-rich mud to form rock-hard towers, about two feet tall, for nesting its singular egg. Flamingos gather around lakes where few fish can live, so they don’t have to compete with anything that eats their favorite food—algae.
My freshman year in college: seventeen and still stretching, my legs outgrew my torso and I shopped for jeans in the men’s sections of the thrift stores my friends and I rummaged through after class. Tiny waist and no hips. I didn’t yet know this body could break into salt. Boys in their late twenties would cruise us over at UDF (United Dairy Farmers, how Midwestern), the convenience store closest to the freshman honors dorm. My girlfriends and I bought ice cream during study breaks, each of us with a dollar to our names, and we could scrounge up enough to buy a pint to split if we gave a few extra giggles and smiles and promises of parties where we’d be sure to show up later to the checkout guy. But of course these parties were fiction.
To find a monogamous mate to build their egging structure, a flamingo locks step and step with other flamingos, head-flagging with stretches from their mighty necks and snapping their beaks to the left, then to the right as they march in unison. The ones who move the most succeed in finding mates in a dance of mimicry and rhythm that is marvelous—especially in gatherings of upward of several hundred thousand birds. It’s a search for the right partner who wants to step together through one of the longest bird lives on the planet: about fifty or so years together.
We sometimes danced with these older men at clubs, and I confess: I was flattered by all the attention lavished on my brown body after years in junior high and high school being largely ignored by boys those years, with my pink plastic eyeglasses and nose always in a book. Since I was twelve, my skinny legs stretching through the night kept me up and sometimes crying as I stumbled into my parents’ bedroom, moonlight falling over their bodies. One of them always woke up for me, shuffled down the stairs to boil water for a hot water bottle, and massaged my legs until the cries stopped and I fell asleep with the heat tenderizing my calves. Tylenol never helped. You’re growing, you’re growing, that’s all, they reassured me the next day. Your legs will be so long, and that’s good—very good!
When flamingos sleep, they tuck one leg under their feathers, alternating with their other leg to regulate body heat and keep one leg warm at all times. What we think of as a flamingo knee is actually its ankle. A flamingo’s actual knee isn’t visible through its belly feathers.
I hate to say it looks like marching because that seems to mean war or violence these days, as in a recent case out of Florida. A flamingo named Pinky at Tampa’s Busch Gardens was so beloved, she was named the zoo mascot. Pinky became one of the most visited animals at the zoo, with children especially wanting to see the famous bird featured on so many souvenirs inside the zoo’s gift shops—until one of the most gruesome zoo animal attacks in Tampa history. People at the zoo that fateful day noticed a forty-five-year-old man acting somewhat erratic, pacing back and forth, but none could imagine why he reached over, grabbed Pinky by the neck—in front of children watching—and hoisted the five-pound bird over his head, throwing Pinky with brute force to the hot cement. Her foot was nearly severed from the trauma. The veterinarians wept as they euthanized her the next day.
My girlfriends and I would hit the college bars for dancing, never drinking anything more than water, and we always walked home in groups or at least pairs. We’d study through the day and maybe take a “disco nap” to help us stay out late. At around nine in the evening we’d start getting ready, and we’d waltz into the bars with barely any ID checks, in boy jeans and chunky black shoes, a mess of choker necklaces, and thin straps of leather bracelets. We’d hear stories of a girl who never made it home. I thought that was just the nineties. Before cellphones to check in and to call for backup from your friends, or to call the police with a few buttons. But twenty-five years later, another story from my alma mater of a young woman missing: Someone last saw her at a quarter to ten, before the bars even mop and close up.
We were like flamingos flying long-distance, mostly at night. So many kidnappings happen in the dark, when we think we are safe, in a routine, in a place where “bad things” like that just don’t happen. When a flamingo flies in daylight, it does look comical, its long legs dragging down under the fluff of feathered torso.
Someone called the police to say they found her body the next day at a local park.
There is a darkness beneath all dances of color. Everyone associates pink with a flamingo, but a flamingo also has twelve black principal flight feathers, mostly visible when in full flight. Such an unexpected slash under all that fun color.
Someone said she was just finishing up her shift at a local restaurant.
Twenty-five years after my girlfriends and I made dancing from Wednesday to Saturday nights part of our freshman-year routine, I’m now a professor at a big state university. If I’m out late at night, it is usually to pick up something for a late-night craft project for one of my kids. I still look over my shoulder in a dark parking lot. I text my husband to let him know I’m in the car and headed home.
Someone said she was due to graduate in less than three months.
I see young coeds lining the sidewalks near campus on their way to dance. And dance and dance, even in the middle of the week, as I once did. I say a silent prayer for them all to come back safe to their nests late at night, again and again. So far, every one of them has come home. When I see groups of young women out together, I can’t help but silently offer something like prayer for them: Tonight, let them tuck their legs under safe covers, let their parents breathe steady in their own bedrooms and receive no panicked late-night phone calls.
Under a brilliant moon, and unbeknownst to us, the darkened world silvers and shimmers from pink and ebony wings, a small thunder. We can’t possibly hear such an astonishing wind while we try to keep in step with our small dances on this earth. But we should try. We should try.