Stephen and I moved in together in 2005, just after the songbird mating season in north Florida. When our real estate agent opened the door to the six-room house with high ceilings and a corner fireplace, we sighed as if we'd finally come home. We bought a bell-shaped bird feeder on a pole and stuck it in the ground outside our bedroom window. Chickadees and woodpeckers arrived, along with an overly aggressive male cardinal. We called him Mr. A, the A standing for that multipurpose term often used to describe a bully.

Before long we also noticed a Mrs. A. The pair was always in each other's orbit, but Mr. A wasn't much friendlier to her than to other birds. Then, the next spring, we spied him tenderly feeding her a sunflower seed. "See?" Stephen said. "He's not a total A."

Our home quickly became the haven we'd intended, but in 2008, we left it. Stephen had been recruited by a university in Idaho to run its environmental science program. I hated to go, especially to follow a man, but Stephen was my perfect mate, someone who challenged me intellectually and accepted my quirks. In a leap of faith, we married, rented out our house, and headed west. And then, a few years later, back east, when he took a position at a New England college. All in all, it was seven years of adventures and seven years of stress. By 2015, we were ready to head home.

I found a job in Florida, near our old neighborhood. We moved back into our house and hung the bird feeder outside our bedroom window. Almost instantly, two cardinals showed up. Cardinals can be long-lived, monogamous birds; we decided these were Mr. and Mrs. A.

In our new routine, I got up early to walk our dogs. Stephen stayed up late, writing. He woke me when he came to bed and jostled his pillows; the dogs and I woke him while we got ready for our morning ramble. One night, after weeks of disturbing each other, Stephen took pity on me and slept in our spare room. Later that month, I caught a cold and wanted to be left alone with my sniffles; he went to the spare room again. Before we knew it, sleeping apart had become an arrangement. Stephen wrote till the wee hours, then slept late in the spare room. I woke up with the birds.

One morning I noticed a skein of Spanish moss hanging from the feeder and plucked it off. The next day more was in its place. Mrs. A was building a nest. Soon she was sitting on it night and day. Where the hell was Mr. A?

Weeks went by, or it felt like weeks. Mrs. A kept to her post. Mr. A reappeared and squawked around, preening his feathers and bullying other birds. Meanwhile, I worried about the consequences of separate bedrooms. Sex, of course, doesn't depend on spending the night in the same bed, but if sleeping time knits couples together, would sleeping separately pull us apart?

The author and her husband, Stephen Mulkey, in Gainesville, Florida. Photo: Pamela Cannon.

There came a day when Mrs. A flew off and Mr. A flew in. He perched on the nest and cocked his head left, then right, ogling whatever was at the bottom. Had the eggs hatched?

He seemed to be pecking something. "Stephen," I yelled. "Come quick! I think Mr. A's eating the babies."

"You're demonizing him," Stephen said. "He's a bird."

And in fact, Mr. A wasn't eating; he was feeding. For the next couple of weeks, I marveled at his labors. Who knew there were so many fat brown bugs in our yard? Who knew Mr. A could rise to the occasion?

The day the first Baby A fledged was our eighth wedding anniversary. In the air-conditioned bedroom that was now my room, we undressed in golden post-thunderstorm light. As we moved closer and closer together, the storm moved farther and farther away. That was mere circumstance, of course. And suddenly I saw that it was all mere circumstance: our schedules, the spare room, who slept where. None of it could touch the essence of our marriage.

With the babies out of the nest, Mr. and Mrs. A resumed their companionable nonbreeding life. I was surprised to discover that cardinals, too, select separate sleeping quarters each night—a thicket, a leaf pile, a tree hole. I learned that every year they move through different stages in their relationship, but ultimately, they tend to stay together.

Stephen and I are still together, even though we often sleep apart. Maybe our separate beds are a temporary pattern. Or maybe they're an expression of faith, a deep inhale and exhale, as if the spirit of our marriage can expand into every corner of this house.

Michele Leavitt is the author of the memoir Walk Away.


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