After the Bees
by Carson Beker
The bees came into Sara's life along with Heidi. It was, at first, a surprise to hear the persistent buzzing in Sara's Fifth Avenue apartment, and to find a bee perched on one of Heidi's fire-engine red dreads.
"Bee! There's a – there's a bee!" Sara couldn't keep herself from squealing like a 12 year-old at a picnic.
"There's more than one," said Heidi, grinning as two, three, then four more bees buzzed into the air and hovered around her. Sara backed away. She was surely allergic. Wasn't everybody?
Heidi had the gift of being immune to rules. It would never have occurred to her that she should call before coming over and that it might not be appropriate to drop in wearing an apiary for a hat. Sara, by contrast, was allergic to air, terrified of time, and worried on such a microscopic level that other lawyers imagined she could intuit the flaws in their cases. Asking "why" led to knowing things, which stapled them into place, which alleviated her heartburn. The presence of bees in her apartment unmoored and unnerved her, causing acidic questions, "How many?" "Where?" "Why?" "How?" to well up in her throat.
"Wha— why are there bees?" she asked.
"Because I'm a beekeeper," Heidi said, matter-of-fact as concrete.
"You can't keep bees in an apartment." Yet there were bees in Sara's apartment.
"Why not?" Heidi smiled serenely, the bees forming a halo around her head. Sara hesitated for a second, partly because there were so many reasons you could not keep bees in an apartment, and partly because of the way Heidi looked when she smiled.
"Well," she said, "how do they get pollen or honey or whatever it is they eat?"
"Just like the rest of us," said Heidi. "They go out."
"Alone?" Sara imagined the bees filing out of a top floor window and milling about, confused, looking for life in the grey and yellow streets. Looking for a place to land and be still in a city that did not allow stillness. Searching for a place to belong before the cold set in, inside.
"No, no, no." Heidi loved her triple negatives. "They come with me, obviously. We take the subway, go to the park. When it's too cold, we get take-out."
With two long fingers, Heidi picked a tiny yellow body from her red hair and brought it close to her face. They looked similar, really, Heidi and the bee. Heidi with her big glasses, high cheekbones, and thin proboscis, the bee with that impatient stare, as if waiting for Sara to do something intelligent.
"We need a drink," Heidi diagnosed. "I'll have wine. And boil up some sugar and water, can you?"
Before Sara could answer, the bee in Heidi's hand took to the air and zoomed past Sara's ear. It settled on the only unstylish object in Sara's apartment: a yellowing, floral lampshade inherited from her grandmother. Sara looked from the bee on the ugly, painted flowers back at Heidi, who was unwrapping her headscarf, and retreated into the kitchen. She opened the refrigerator and poured herself a glass of wine.
"Bees don't belong in apartments," she told herself, as if reading from the boldface heading of a legal memorandum. But then, could she be sure? Sara was new to this whole lesbian thing. She still loved saying the word, sometimes out loud, dragging the "s" – Lezzbian. It felt exotic to her, as if she had become a citizen of a foreign country. She was just being introduced to the customs of these lezzbians, and for all she knew, they all kept bees in their apartments. Lezzbians. Lebzzians. Bzz.
By the time Sara returned with the wine and the sugar syrup, three new bees were trying to gather pollen from her grandmother's lampshade. Heidi slowly took one boot, then the other, off the antique atlas on the coffee table. She dipped one long orange nail into the syrup, cupping the liquid. Underneath, the nail was painted red. She walked over to the lamp, finger outstretched, and carefully coaxed the largest bee over to her hand. The women watched as the bee dipped into the sugar water and buzzed off to tell the others.
"Aren't they beautiful?" Heidi asked. Sara closed her eyes and sipped from the sudden sweetness of Heidi's words.
Heidi and Sara, being polar opposites, met by collision: Sara was simultaneously answering the wrong email, reaching for something in her purse, and speed-walking down Fifth Avenue, and Heidi was gliding out of Central Park like a processional Virgin Mary on wheels. The force of Heidi's stride sent Sara flying through the air and into a pile of her own papers. Seconds later, Sara was on her feet, papers in her arms, turning to run. Heidi laughed and told her to stay, then, fixing her eyes on Sara's, she demanded coffee. Sara followed meekly behind her, bleating apologies.
When Sara hesitated at the counter of the coffee shop, Heidi ordered two hot chocolates with extra cream and carried them across the room like twin thunderbolts. When Heidi looked into her eyes for the second time, Sara dropped two unopened packets of sugar into her drink.
Two months after the intersection of their lives, Heidi's red licorice hair had become a familiar sight in Sara's building. The residents elbowed one another, the doorman waggled his salt-and-pepper eyebrows, but the smell of Heidi's sandalwood lingered in the elevator as if it belonged.
Behind Sara's door, the women cooked, watched movies about bees, licked syrup from one another. The bees flew back and forth from Heidi's fingertips, humming contentedly inside the painted floral lampshade.
Heidi and Sara also argued. Sara wanted to know when she would see Heidi again. Heidi wanted Sara to stop asking and enjoy the fucking moment. Sara should learn to relax. Heidi obviously thought fairies came at night to carry used teabags from sink to trash. Sara was behaving like a neurotic Chihuahua.
Their arguments had a rhythm to them, like the humming of the bees, and always ended with their bodies meeting in hundreds of different combinations: elbow to belly button, lips to toes, eyelashes to armpits. Some mornings, Sara smelled so much of Heidi that it took her several minutes to realize that she was, again, alone. Empty were the rooms in her apartment, empty the honeycombs in the lamp. The bitterness of this, her first experience of loneliness, she medicated with honey, scissoring the heads off plastic honey bears because honey does not flow like tears.
It might have continued this way, Sara's loneliness pitted against Heidi's independence, divided by the bees, except that a car alarm woke Sara one night, hours before dawn. Confused and groggy, she patted her bedside table for her glasses and impaled her left ring finger on a poisoned spear. Sara had not remembered the pain of bee sting from childhood. It was bitter, barbed, steely, cold, running through her finger and down her arm, worse and double worse than any pain she remembered. She screamed them both fully awake and sat up. She was allergic. She must be. She clutched her stung finger to her heart and waited to die.
Heidi flew out of bed in a tornado of sheets and ran across the room. Through her myopic eyes, Sara watched Heidi's blur run right past her, shove her aside even, to squint at a tiny yellow corpse dotting the "i" of Anais Nin's diary.
"You killed it!" Heidi cried, "You're so goddamn clumsy, why can't you ever be careful?"
Sara put on her glasses and saw her reflection in the mirror behind Heidi, her thin, spinsterish lips, the frown of her nascent wrinkles, the stiffness of her limbs, the orderly bones of her ribcage all in a row. She compared them to Heidi's extravagant hair, hips, breasts. The contrast surfaced in her mind like the masthead of a legal brief: drone versus queen. Outside, an ambulance screamed by. Inside, over the humming of the bees in the lampshade, Heidi was still screaming, hair writhing around her face like angry snakes.
"What the hell is wrong with you?" Heidi finished, throwing her arms in the air.
Sara swallowed and tasted venom. What was wrong with her, she wondered. Why was she so clumsy? There were more sirens outside the apartment. She should be careful. She had been told this a thousand times. She should be graceful. She should be considerate. She shouldn't walk around in court like men do. She should cut her hair, it's not professional. She should know better. That's too low-cut. That's too short. That's too long. That doesn't fit. She should do what the gentleman says. She should be nice to the gentleman. Be polite. Be good. Play tennis. Play golf. Play a social sport. Find a husband. Don't be a spinster. Wear gloves.
As her mind worked, Sara felt herself moving, walking out of the bedroom, into the living room. What was wrong with her? The colors, that's what. That's the wrong color. That color doesn't look good on you. That's the wrong shade of foundation. There's a mole on your face. You have too much makeup on. You should really cover up that mole. Why are your eyebrows so dark?
Sara walked over to the buzzing lampshade. Somewhere behind her, Heidi followed. What was wrong with her? Her father, that's what: pink is for girls. You need to be careful, protect your honor, you're too young. The priest in her Catholic prep school: you are seducing me, how dare you, the way you walk. Heidi: You're too nervous. You're so silly. You're so clumsy. You're so clingy. I'll call you when I call you. Don't wait up.
A car honked outside. Sara found herself humming two notes, like a siren. She reached the couch. She took the buzzing floral lamp in one hand, the cord in the other. What was wrong with her? The Yes, that's what. Yes, Dad. Yes, Father. Yes, Professor. Yes, Sir. Yes, Counselor. Yes, Officer. Yes, your Honor. Yes, I do. Yes, I'll do that. Yes, to divorce. Yes, you can have the house. Yes to coffee. Yes to bees. Yes, I'll make you sugar water and wait for you to come over and fuck me and leave me, and yes I'll worship you the whole time for being a free spirit and beg you for more.
Sara yanked the plug loose. Heidi took a step forward but Sara was faster. With spindly arms, she picked up the buzzing lamp, not caring now that she was getting stung, not caring about the pain in her skin. She took two steps towards the window, raised the lamp above her head, and threw. The floral lampshade, the bees, and the lamp's hard, marble base flew through the air and crashed through the double-paned glass of her 11th floor window with its must-have view of the Brooklyn Bridge. Suddenly, there was blessed fresh air in the apartment, and the humming of the bees was gone. Outside, far away, there was the sound of something smashing to pieces.
Heidi's scream turned into a howl that flew out the door and down the hallway, followed by the sound of a front door attempting to slam over luxurious carpeting, followed by the squish of neighborly eyes pressing into peepholes.
Sara stood perfectly still in the quiet of Heidi's absence. Then she took her head in her hands and swarmed across her carpet, first one way, then another. She sucked at the stings on her fingers and arms. She felt the venom throbbing through her. She thought she felt it sliding down her throat, into her lungs, across her heart, and along with it came the chill of loneliness, which she thought must kill her if the poison didn't.
There was buzzing in her head. Her body throbbed. Sara stood for a while with her head between her hands. Buzzing. That was it for her then, brain failure. She fell onto the couch. The buzzing persisted, became louder. She toppled over, pressing her face into the white leather pillows. The buzzing was louder still. Sara realized first, that she wasn't dead, and second, that the buzzing was louder on her left. She raised her head.
On the cover of the coffee table atlas, just south of the Marianas Trench, there was a single black and yellow dot. It was buzzing.
Sara sat for a while, staring. She stood up, unsure at first, and then, with increasing resolve, went into the kitchen. She walked around her center console twice, enjoying the feeling of her bare feet on the cold tile, and then she took the bottle of wine out of the refrigerator.
Two glasses later, Sara was smiling, on the couch, cell phone pressed to her ear.
"I think I forgot something at your house," said Heidi's voice, filtered and reduced over the line.
"I'll keep my eye out," said Sara, watching the bee scale the Annapurna of her naked knee.
Sara adapted quickly to life as a beekeeper. She spent less time at the firm. She discovered which merchants had the freshest flowers and which would deliver lavender and geraniums to her house after midnight. She left her therapist. She spent hours wandering the Natural History Museum. At the Philharmonic concert, she sat through a half hour, then escaped to the rooftop terrace and hummed at the moon. She walked through Central Park at night to watch the owls. At these moments, she acquired additional bees, living gold stars for breaking the rules she had followed since grade school.
A few generations of bees after Heidi's disappearance, a new woman was seen in Sara's building. The new woman wore long skirts and a black hat with a big purple flower. She never took that hat off, even though it was August and the city steamed like the inside of a couscous pot. It was Sara who finally looked into the woman's eyes and lifted the hat.
Underneath, an emerald green bird with blurring wings and a long thin beak flittered nervously from side to side. The new woman blushed.
Sara smiled at the buzzing and chirping in her apartment. She smiled at the fireflies and city lights illuminating, in equal measure, the darkening sky. She smiled at the things she was beginning to notice while humming around the city with her bees – the other women who buzzed as they walked, the young girl with goose down in her hair, the pretzel vendor in the tall, quacking hat, the red-faced man who smelled of wet wool, the young professional with a tiny snout poking out of his lapel, and the woman carrying a large bag of oats and sugar cubes, all of them catching her eye, as if to say, "Yes, now you belong." She smiled most of all because she realized, after all this time and just when she needed it the most, that she was really quite good at making nectar.
Copyright © 2012 by Carson Beker