When she walks along Pacific Beach in the warm evenings of summer, Renee Lowe turns heads. The 38-year-old has long brown hair and the good looks that once made her a teen model, but it is neither her face nor her slim figure in shorts that causes the stir and draws the crowd; it is her Pumpkin Cheeks — a three- year-old cockatiel. Perched on her shoulder, he preens and warbles and clearly enjoys the attention.
“He is not camera-shy at all,” she tells people as they angle their cameras. “He loves having his picture taken.”
Renee has the pitch-perfect California voice: light and breezy, with just a trace of flatness, which is the birthright of native Californians, the gift of Dustbowl Midwesterners whose spare inflection, like the mean brown dirt that swept them here, held nothing grand enough to voice the massive vision of blue ocean and oranges that grew as big as a fist, or to describe the rich, loamy soil that begged planting. When Renee takes calls for the law firm she works for, her voice assures callers they will be taken care of.
But for the moment no one is listening to her; they’re gazing at the bird nipping at her lower lip. Pumpkin Cheeks’s fans know to find him on his own website, where he is shown posing on a hot pink toy Corvette. With his white body and yellow head, blue-gray eyes, and bright orange cheeks (from which he gets his name), he’s a knockout. And like all those with an adoring public, his is no longer his own. “If it’s too chilly, and my boyfriend and I have left him at home, people who’ve seen us together come up and ask if he’s okay, if everything is all right.”
Renee Lowe lives alone with her bird.
* * *
Invitations had gone out and the RSVPs were coming in. There was a final fitting for the wedding dress, which had not been hemmed yet. The cake was ordered, the minister scheduled, and reservations made at Saint Mark’s Lutheran Church. The pale-blue bridesmaids’ dresses were due to be picked up. Everything was in place. Then, two weeks before the ceremony, Renee and her parents canceled the wedding.
Later, Renee and John, her fiancé, eloped. The date, September 21, 1979, was three weeks after the scheduled wedding date. And exactly 20 years later, perhaps because of the anniversary date, Renee found herself talking about how her life turned out. She was not, however, willing to tell me John’s full name. “Let’s just call him ‘John-who-is-no-more,’ ” she said. He was in the Navy. They met during her last year at Glen A. Wilson High School. He told Renee how his parents were divorced when he was two, how whenever his father came over to spend time with them, to take them out, his mother locked all the kids in the back room and refused to let her ex-husband see them. “He told me how his father would be outside all day, crying and begging to see his kids.”
John grew up hating not just his mother who, suggested Renee, was a dominating, controlling woman; he held a rage against all women. (Renee’s parents had a sense of the young sailor’s disturbed feelings. This is why they convinced her to cancel the wedding.)
“But he talked to me and said we should elope. I was 18 and everything was legal.”
He hit her that first night. She did not want to talk about it.
“We were in bed together and I said something. I’d rather leave it there.”
“Didn’t you have a clue?”
“Not one. Not one clue. It just happened.”
In 20 years, the climate surrounding spousal abuse has changed radically. In the late 1970s, Renee had nowhere to turn — no halfway houses or shelters for battered women. She called the police, who did nothing, she says.
“He kept me a prisoner. I couldn’t go anywhere. I couldn’t wear shorts. If I went out with my friends or saw my family, he’d interrogate me. If he caught me speaking with a man, I knew I was in trouble.”
She lived in constant dread. Anything, she quickly learned, might set him off.
He’d beat her and then carry her, unconscious, into the bedroom where he’d continue.
“Afterwards he’d cry and tell me he was sorry and beg me to forgive him. He always promised he wouldn’t do it again.
Renee wore sunglasses to hide her black eyes, and she stayed away from her family and friends when her bruises showed. Beaten when she was pregnant, she suffered two miscarriages and today does not think she can have children. This went on for a year and a half.
“I knew he was going to kill me.”
Then her mother called and, according to Renee, deduced what had been happening.
“She told me she’d never say they’d told me so. I told her, ‘Well, then, come and get me.’ ”
That next morning she was on a plane to Idaho, where she stayed for six months.
Later, Renee moved to Arizona, where she remained for three years.
* * *
As a child, Renee dreamed of working with wild animals, tigers and lions. She grew up with two older brothers in a Los Angeles community called Hacienda Heights. They had dogs and cats, but no birds. One hot day in 1997, she and her boyfriend, Jeff Nixon, an electronics technician from Motorola, were strolling through the Adams Avenue Street Fair. When Nixon saw a bird store and suggested they step inside, Renee was grateful just because she figured it would be cooler inside.
Nixon grew up with Amazon parrots, Tulkans, black minah birds, and cockatoos. As they entered the shop, he loved the racket and the beat of wings from the cages.
Renee did not know what to make of the musty air ravaged with twittering, squawks, and ear-piercing screeches. A brightly colored Lutino cockatiel with orange cheeks flew from his perch to the cage door as they approached. Later she said it was as if he were expecting them. Jeff bought her the cockatiel as gift, and they took it back to his apartment. Renee let the bird perch on her finger. Then she watched and watched…