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“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.

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