“This is insane,” Ben said, anxiously running his fingers through his hair and pacing around the room. “Are you sure this is necessary?”
“Trust me, Ben,” Albert said, “this is going to do the trick.”
Ben flopped on the couch like an amiable toddler in a pathetic attempt at a temper tantrum. He stood up and started pacing again. He took a deep breath.
“Fine, I’ll do it. Where’s the suit?”
Albert’s efforts to contain his excitement were only moderately successful, something he realized as his feet left the floor in a spontaneous outburst of anticipation. He pulled out the suit, brushed it off and proudly displayed it to Ben. “Here it is,” he said. “I think it will fit you perfectly.” He giggled, then clapped his hand over his mouth.
Ben glared at him. “Look, if you’re going to take that much pleasure in all of this . . .”
“Sorry. I’m sorry, Ben. I just . . . I think this is finally going to work. It’s been so long, you know. I was starting to give up hope, but now I really think it’s going to happen.” He smiled broadly. “You stud.” He couldn’t resist.
“I could walk out right now. I don’t have to do this, you know.”
“I know. I know. I’m sorry. No more joking. We need to get you in the right mood.”
Ben pulled his t-shirt over his head. Albert couldn’t help but notice that he was ripped. Ah, youth. Too bad Bessie’s not going to see that, he thought. Ben begrudgingly donned the suit, which hugged him like a second skin.
“It’s kind of tight,” Ben whined. He shrugged his shoulders, flung his arms about haphazardly. “It feels like the seams could just rip right out.”
“It’s fine, Ben. It looks great. Check it out.”
Ben stepped over to the mirror, eyes closed, bracing himself. He opened his eyes slowly, one at a time. A smile came over his face. He looked almost . . . alluring.
“Huh. Not bad.”
Albert clapped his hands. Now he knew it was in the bag. “OK, so here’s how this is going to work.” He explained the plan in such painstaking detail that Ben felt he was embarking on a mission to Mars. Well, Ben thought, maybe that’s apt. He was envisioning his hero’s welcome when Albert’s voice startled him back to attention.
“Got it?” Albert’s eyes bore into him. “Are you sure you’ve got it, Ben?”
“Yes. I’ve got it.”
“OK, at 5:00, I’ll take you to Bessie. And then we’ll just see how it goes, ok? It might take a while. It’s fine if it does.” He felt protective of Ben suddenly, so young and inexperienced, and with so much at stake. Given how protracted the process was likely to be, he’d been deliberately vague about the timetable and he felt some guilt about that, but he knew if he revealed the truth to Ben the whole situation might just implode.
At the appointed hour, Ben and Bessie finally met. It was palpably awkward at first, each of them so unfamiliar with the most basic rules of engagement. The first time, they didn’t spend more than 30 minutes together, both drained in their own way when the interaction was mercifully over. With subsequent visits, a level of comfort and familiarity blossomed, creating the hoped for atmosphere of trust and desire. It was going according to plan, but after three weeks of daily contact, Albert knew it was time to ramp things up. He bought Ben a beer to prime him for a little escalation.
“So, I think you need to dance with her,” he said at the bar, after Ben seemed sufficiently relaxed.
“Are you fucking kidding me? I am not going to dance with her. How would I even do that? You’re crazy, Albert. This is going too far.”
“It’s dancing, Ben. I didn’t say you had to sleep with her.”
Ben snorted. “Yeah. That’ll be next week?”
Albert adopted a soothing tone. “Just dancing Ben. No one is going to see you.”
“Whatever,” Ben said. In for an inch, in for a mile, he thought. A crazy fucking mile. “Let’s just get this over with.”
The next day, Ben approached the quest with a new level of commitment, tempered by a heightened level of anxiety. He and Bessie eyed each other warily, Bessie perceiving the subtle shift in the situation. Their weeks together had admittedly brought about some weird-ass connection, but this? Ben wondered how Bessie felt now. He looked at her forlornly. He didn’t know how to dance, hated dancing, actually. And certainly nothing had ever prepared him for this situation. He lifted his right arm awkwardly, then his left, striving for some disco era undulation. Bessie seemed to respond. Ben eased himself sideways, trying to lead with his hip. He moved back in the other direction, seeking a rhythm or cadence or anything superior to his innate and pervasive clumsiness. He spun himself around, only briefly losing eye contact with Bessie, who watched him with a level of intensity he had not previously observed. He shuffled sideways again, his face erupting in a smile when he saw her mimic him. He went the other way and she followed. He eased himself forward, leading with his head. Bessie, clearly intrigued, shadowed him with an unexpected level of grace and attention. Oh my god, he thought, this is actually working. On the other side of the glass, Albert, riveted, was having the exact same thought.
A tone sounded. It was low and the music was playing, so Albert initially wondered if it was part of the song. It sounded again and he felt a jolt of adrenaline, realizing with certainty that it was the sound he’d been anticipating all these weeks. It was pinging again and again and again, the most beautiful sound he’d ever heard in his life, at the regular intervals he knew indicated that this whole crazy scheme had finally brought about the intended result.
Albert was mortified to recognize a tear rolling down his very own cheek. He swatted it away like a bug, wiped his hand on his lab coat. He was a man of science, for god’s sake. But it had worked!! Despite Ben’s reluctance, his protestations, his awkwardness, it had really worked. All the sensors confirmed it. Bessie was ovulating. Albert tapped on the glass, gave Ben the thumbs up.
Ben slowly backed away from Bessie, not wanting to jeopardize her reproductive renaissance. He gave Bessie a shy wave, reached behind his back for the doorknob and slowly exited the room, closing the door like a parent terrified of disturbing his child’s slumber. At the muted click of the door, Albert greeted him with a whoop and such a hefty pat on the back he nearly knocked Ben to his knees. Ben peeled the suit off his sweaty body, quickly pulled on his own normal clothes. A stray feather remained on his neck and Albert gently plucked it off.
“We did it! You did it! Thank you, Ben. I can’t thank you enough. I know it took forever and I know you felt ridiculous, but it worked. You’re a hero! You may just go down in history!”
As Ben walked home along the river at the end of the day, he reflected back on what he had thought he would be doing as an intern at the zoo this summer. Some perfunctory experiments, a little vital sign monitoring, perhaps some data analysis if he was really lucky. Or maybe he would have been assigned to sweep the floor, clean the cages and sit for hours in front of six seemingly identical closed circuit tv screens. But donning a bird suit and wooing a nearly extinct species wasn’t something he could have conceived of in even his most aspirational burst of imagination. Albert’s hyperbole aside, he had accomplished something noteworthy. OK, maybe he couldn’t add it to his Tinder profile, but how many people could say they had singlehandedly thwarted the extinction of a rare bird through their own charm, charisma and dance moves? Well, maybe not singlehandedly. Albert did conjure up the whole plan after all. Screw Tinder. Maybe from now on he’d just rely on Albert. The prey whisperer. The wing man. The hatchmaker.