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…
“Is this all I do?” she asked. “My finger’s getting tired.”
Jeff suggested that she try running her finger down his feathers. She did; the rest was, as they say, history.
Today the pair nuzzle happily together. Pumpkin Cheeks likes to nibble Renee’s lips and rub his head along her chin. But it is not just Renee. Pumpkin Cheeks approaches everyone. “We’ll be at the bay, and I’ll set him down, and he’ll run 30 feet just to say hello to someone.”
Renee and Jeff have built the bird a little tent, which he stays in when they go to the beach.
“When he’s in his tent, he starts singing and whistling like crazy. He’ll do this wolf whistle, which is very loud and strong, and if a woman happens to be walking by, she’ll look at Jeff and smile, thinking he was the one who whistled. If it’s a man,” she said, “he doesn’t get a smile.”
Pumpkin Cheeks not only whistles, but he meows and barks. Renee feeds him a mix of millet and sunflower seed to keep his energy up. He loves mashed potatoes, rice, and pasta. His wings are clipped every week or so to make sure he doesn’t fly away.
Renee’s apartment, filled with her parents’ heavy oak furniture, is dark beige, except for Pumpkin Cheek’s large, square cage, which is covered with a sky-blue blanket close to the shade of Renee’s never-worn bridesmaids’ dresses. The blanket insulates the bird at night and blocks light from intruding in the morning.
“As soon as he sees light, he starts in.”
Renee slips the cover off the cage at 6:45 each morning and unlatches the door.
Pumpkin Cheeks then hops out and follows her into the bathroom, where he drops and lifts his head in time with her brushing her teeth. By 8:00, when she is about to leave for work, Pumpkin Cheeks has been returned to his cage, with its view of the sidewalk pedestrians moving back and forth. He gets afternoon sunlight and, with the mirror in his cage, is always ready to sing to his reflection. By evening, says Renee, he is eager to see her again.
Renee was ringing up sales at Gemco, in Tucson, Arizona, when she looked up and saw her husband. He had tracked her down and was standing in front of her register, staring at her. Frightened, she said little except to answer his questions. Did she want to get back together with him? No, she said. Did she think they had a chance of making their marriage work? No, she said. All right, was his response, then he was getting a divorce.
“My shift was over, and I was ready to leave, but I told him I’d just come to work because I didn’t want him waiting for me when I left the building.” John didn’t. He returned to California and divorced Renee. She later left Arizona and came to San Diego, where she now walks along Pacific Beach’s boardwalk with her bird.
I asked what happened to John.
“I heard he got married and had a child. Eventually, he killed himself.”
According to Renee, he got drunk, took some pain pills, and put a plastic bag over his head.
Renee calls her marriage a major mistake and says she will never again let a man have that kind of control over her. As for relationships, she is not sure.
Besides, she says, she has Pumpkin Cheeks, and right now he’s plenty.
“Good morning, Mommy,” he calls out each evening when she returns from work. He hears Renee’s key turn in the lock and says, “I love you, Mommy.”
* * *
Kerstin Schildwaechter lives in South Mission Beach. She’s also had man trouble.
While Renee Lowe’s was a fight for her life, Kerstin found herself struggling for her soul.
“I broke up with my boyfriend and gave up cigarettes all in the same week,” she said. “It was the most difficult week of my life.”
Kerstin, a curvy 30-year-old with shoulder-length blonde hair and beautiful deep-blue eyes, had been seeing Jerry (not his real name) for two years. He was a longtime windsurfer; in the course of their relationship, Kerstin took lessons and came to love the sport. Jerry was 18 years her senior. “I never thought I’d date someone so much older than myself, but I had several dreams in which an older man figured, so when we actually met, I guess you could say I was ready for him.”
For a while, the relationship felt magical. But over the two years that they saw each other, every Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Year’s, Jerry was never around.
“He’d say he was going down to Baja, and then he’d disappear for a month.”
Abandoned and rejected, Kerstin agreed to take a month-long trip to Baja. She arranged to have her practice covered (Kerstin consults with those seeking early cancer-risk detection). But before leaving, something happened she hadn’t expected: On Halloween Day, October 31, 1997, she became a born-again Christian. The trip down to Baja was still on, but now she left with a different sense of herself. And she packed a Bible.
“It turned out to be the best of times and the worst of times.” Baja was beautiful, she explained, all turquoise and gold. It was impossible not to fall in love with the place. “Jerry and I forged a deep connection there,” she added.
The bad part was, he also failed her. They were in a party of ten campsites with some 25 people, most of whom were avid windsurfers and Jerry’s friends. She knew no one and felt isolated. Jerry proved so unsympathetic that she moved a quarter of a mile down the beach to a bed-and-breakfast, where she stayed for the remainder of their holiday.
“It did not help that he had also been ‘born again’ some years before, but it had not stuck for him. He was not very supportive of my conversion.” They saw each other after returning to San Diego, but the accumulated circumstances of their Baja excursion prompted Kerstin, in late December, to break up.
“But then it was almost New Year’s Eve,” she said, “and I thought about facing it all alone, and I thought, ‘Oh no!’ ”
December 28, 1997. She remembers the date she jumped into her little white Miata and drove down to the Humane Society on Sherman Street and got her first look at Jake.
“There were four or five people who wanted him, but I saw him first.” Jake, now more than two, is a handsome dog with a sleek body and a shiny black coat. He has a spotted chest and paws and amber-colored eyes. When I saw him at Kerstin’s apartment, I sensed about him a charge, the kind that electrifies the air with a thoroughbred horse just before a race. Jake was wired to catch attention and hold it. Like Renee’s Pumpkin Cheeks, the dog draws a crowd.
“Everywhere we go, people stop and admire him. If he is on a leash or in the car, couples walk by and say, ‘Look! What a beautiful dog!’ They stare and make funny sounds, sometimes they talk to Jake before moving on, but always they turn back to get a last look.” She admits she can’t understand his appeal. “Maybe,” she laughed, referring to his markings, “it’s because he looks like a Chippendale dancer with a permanent tuxedo vest.”
And Jake is not just good looking. He’s smart (placing near the top of his graduating class at obedience-training class) and eager to please. Kerstin says he loves people more than any dog she’s ever seen, and yet he’s still a fine watchdog. “And he’s affectionate and cuddly.”
Kerstin’s December breakup did not stick. Jerry and she continued to see each other, though they weren’t getting along. Kerstin agreed to spend Valentine’s Day with him. She told herself this would be a final test.
“We were on our way to his place in Tijuana when he turned in to the Vons on Midway Drive. When he came out, he had my Valentine’s Day card. I asked myself then, was this all I meant to him?”
At his home in Tijuana, she saw ugly aspects of his personality that she’d earlier tried to ignore. He was so negative, she recalled, and mean. She told him it was over.
* * *
Kerstin stares out the picture window that dominates the living room of her South Mission Beach apartment. Against a backdrop of sunny sky and blue water, private yachts and powerful speedboats trolled past from the docking harbor on their way to the open sea. On the hardwood floor, Jake’s long legs tucked under him, the dog kept his eyes glued to his mistress. She turned away from the window, saw him, and smiled.
Looking at Jake, she was reminded of a remark made by one of the pastors at her church, Clairemont’s Horizon Christian Fellowship. “If humans tried on a daily basis to be faithful to each other, happy and forgiving, kind and encouraging, to be completely loving, we still wouldn’t be half as good as our dogs.”
“You know, I love Jake, and my cats too,” she said, referring to Tiega and Rhaja, the cats asleep in opposing corners of her living room. “But I’m born again, and even if they should pass out of my life, I won’t ever feel alone again.”
Kerstin is not waiting for a man. When God is ready, she says, the right one will come into her life, one that will be a spiritual companion. She is not impatient.
“God’s time is not our time.”
She has turned back to the window.
It’s two years since her breakup, and Jerry — who’s never strayed from her thoughts — has slipped back into her life. He’d asked if she thought it was possible to turn back time, to start over again. So far, she’s given him no answer.
As Kerstin gazes at the scene on the other side of the glass, her eyes turn as blue as the water they watch. From his place on the hardwood floor, Jake, his eyes amber gold, watches her back.
— Jangchup Phelgyal
Jangchup Phelgyal is a recipient of a Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University.