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For the Gay and Heartbroken, Pets Can Be a Saving Grace


Benjamin Brenkert felt betrayed by religion, his husband, and queer life. A cockatiel came to the rescue.

One Sunday morning in May 2017, I found my ex-husband with an older, unidentified white man behind a strip mall in Seaford, N.Y. They sat together in the Honda HR-V we co-leased. (I found them by using the location tracker on my ex-husband's iPhone.) When I drove up, I asked my ex, "What are you doing here?" His reply, "What are you doing here?" His question revealed to me a sad truth about the world, one I had not fully understood since my departure in 2014 from the Jesuit Seminary: the world is not full of honest people.

In the immediacy of everything, I was shocked, and felt desperately betrayed. We were supposed to spend the day at my mom's house to do our laundry and later to take her to dinner. I didn't ask my ex any more questions: instead I went to our apartment and packed my bags.

I had helped my ex obtain his green card, attend university, seek out every opinion about ways to whiten his skin because my ex felt he was a "too dark skinned Latino." His sad inferiority was likely the result of the trauma he suffered at the hands of his abusive grandmother in Ecuador.

I was afraid to confront the man my ex had taken up with, fearful that the cops would be called, that my professional license and employment would be jeopardized by any outburst. My own anger at my ex and his lover scared me. Further, for about two months my ex remained in our bedroom with the shades drawn, went on walks at night without his phone, stopped taking my calls, stopped cleaning, stopped doing his homework, refused to work and spent hours shopping at Roosevelt Field. Our mutual friends knew of my concern, I asked them, "What do I do?" There was no answer.

And so when, back at our apartment my ex refused to answer questions about this stranger, I left and never returned. The simple home we established shattered, the photos of us hanging in the stairwell smiling became part of our history.

As the time between my departing from my ex grew, I reflected on another recent leaving, the days since my departure from the Jesuit Seminary. I pondered the safety and security of an all-male celibate order. I pondered the slap on the wrists I received for certain trysts. I pondered living paycheck to paycheck as a fee for service social worker while using gay dating apps like Grindr and Tinder. I pondered how quickly I felt alone, without any home or sense of stability or balance. And I pondered how tired I grew from easily hooking up with men but having no connection with them. It was then, in my strife that my ex came into my life with a message on Grindr, and within months we were married at Bronx Supreme Court.

Friends warned me, "Don't be so hasty to get married." My family was absent from my life, thinking that I had left the Jesuits irrationally. I was desperate to fill the emptiness I felt for 10 years while sleeping alone on a twin bed. Before I entered the Jesuit Seminary, I used AOL chat rooms, like LongIslandM4M and gay bars to meet men. I knew that world because I was in it. Now, in my naivety I downloaded apps on my iPhone that I did not understand, nor know how other men used them. I met men who wanted sex, but not intimacy. I met men looking for "generous" older gays, essentially asking their partners to pay them for sex.

I fell for a young immigrant 13 years my junior, who said broken English, "I have nothing in America." In person he was attractive, with dark round brown eyes, skin the color of coffee, and an innocence that morphed overtime into entitlement. During our brief courtship I weighed shortsighted goals, he'd help pay for the rent, he'd learn English, we'd pursue citizenship together, I'd be pursuing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. Indeed, my love for my ex grew daily. It was all going well until it did not go well anymore.

Still, my mind was trained, somehow with a conviction, perhaps unlike Jesus's relationship with Judas, that if I was ever betrayed by man that I could never go back to him. It's what happened to my ex and me: once he took advantage of my love and generosity, I left without ever looking back. Following my departure, there were incessant phone calls, pleading and crying. He showed up in the morning to follow me to work, or late night at my part-time job. Suddenly I came head to head with a certain truth; marriage is cheap, divorce expensive.

Once the divorce proceeding started, I returned to an important theme of my life: hopefulness and resilience.

I returned to discernment about the priesthood, this time in the Episcopal Church and resumed spiritual direction with a nun in Ronkonkoma, at the Cenacle Retreat House. The summer came, and my plate was full, working as a therapist in a mental health clinic, spending time with friends, going to the beach, and getting back to a healthy program of recovery. I had not had a drink of alcohol since September 12, 2012. I even tried to restart my freelance writing career, an important part of my post-Jesuit Seminary life that my ex-husband's co-dependency stifled.

Then one afternoon, on my way home from class at Columbia University it hit me: I was depressed, anxious, full of rage at the world, feeling victimized by the Jesuits who wouldn't let me come out as a gay seminarian. Feeling burnt out by seeing hyperactive children at my mental health clinic. Feeling rejected by my family who said, this divorce is what you get for living the "gay lifestyle."

By this point the Episcopal Church concluded from our communal discernment that "its too soon for you to consider priesthood with us," whatever that meant. I got no credit for being a Jesuit in good standing. Everything around me felt like it was closing in, nowhere did I feel love, just victimization, betrayal. I stayed away from rebounding, for some reason the thought of being with another man so early after leaving my ex repulsed me. I hoped for resilience, hoping against fear, knowing already of the finitude of my marriage. Once during a brief visit with his therapist, my ex informed me that he "could not see himself as a co-equal partner in our marriage." Unfortunately, New York divorce law agreed with him. The judge, who I met once, threw the book at me.

There I was, out of love, out of answers. I needed to be other oriented, to get out of my head or shell, or whatever melancholy was taking over my soul. Somehow I thought: adopt cockatiels.

My coworker, a school psychologist who worked with me on our special education team, often told me about her cockatiel named Polly, whom she had since she was a teenager. She told me "he's almost 20 years old." She showed me pictures of Polly, whose grey and white wings orange circles under his eyes, and yellow crown made him look like a diva. We'd laugh about Polly's molting, his penchant for classical music; I'd sing her the song "Polly" by Nirvana. It made hard IEP meetings tenable.

That's just what I needed, laughter, a distraction, something to help me focus on the present. I went to Parrots of the World, in Rockville Centre. I saw the famous storeowner who had his own shows on Long Island television. I heard the noises of the birds, the raucous conversations. I saw other families picking out snakes, turtles, holding ferrets, bemused by the storeowners clipping wings while telling the family of a guinea pig about the best diet: calcium and vegetables.

My tour took me to the bird aviary. I saw cockatiels, parrots, finches, parakeets, love birds. I think I started to salivate when I observed and heard two cockatiels singing to each other. Their song was radiant. They looked like twins. I invited the storeowner over and he said, "aren't they a pair." (To myself I said: I was also paired once!) I said, "how do I get them home." About $500 later I had the two cockatiels, a starter cage, food, toys, vitamins, all I would need to bring home with me to start my family.

I named them Rebecca and Nicodemus after the Biblical characters. My days soon had order: I'd wake up at 5 a.m., clean the cage for 30 minutes, then leave for work. I'd return home, sometimes after a long day and let the birds out of the cage. We'd try to bond, connect; they helped me forget about my ex because, unlike him, their love of me was unconditional. I fed them food out of my hands, sunflower seeds and walnuts, let them bond with each other while teaching them songs, and imitating their songs. I bought the book Cockatiels for Dummies, and became an "expert" on caring for these native Australian birds. My sister, whose home I now shared, told me, "your becoming a father."

Quickly two cockatiels grew to eight. One, named Amos, with a stubby foot, required several vet visits, medicine, including isolation and food through a syringe. When Amos succumbed to chlamydia, the storekeeper replaced him, thus entered Obadiah to my flock.

These days, Rebecca, Nicodemus, Obadiah, Ruth, Stephen, Sheba, Martha and Zachariah are responsible for teaching me everything about love and care of the soul. A friend chimed "Eight is Enough," like the television show. I never watched that show; it ran before my time.

Over the past fours years, I've learned something about life and love: that they just keep going. Perhaps it's not something new or wholly unpredictable: If you stop loving, you stop living. In a modern world where love trumps hate, my cockatiels taught me that being a pet owner was my saving grace. These days when I wake up at 5 a.m. its sunny and full of cockatiel speak. Cockatiels for the lovesick, that's not something I learned in the Jesuit Seminary.

Benjamin Brenkert is a New York-based writer who left formation to become a Roman Catholic Jesuit priest after learning that more and more lesbian and gay employees and volunteers were being fired by the church.

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Benjamin Brenkert