Fiction · 08/09/2017

The Cat

For many years I lived alone with my cat. I worked at a job like everyone else, but I only shared my life with my cat. He’d been my mother’s cat before she died and, at the moment she died I’d seen his shadow in the window. He was a marmalade cat, an unneutered tom with big cheeks and the fuzzy balls to match. Mom had kept him outdoors but I didn’t care. After she died I let the house fill with his musk.

I brought him with me when I moved to the city, and it wasn’t a bad life for the two of us because I always had someone to talk to. Then, one by one, all the people around me started to get married. I decided that it was time to start dating, and I thought maybe there was a man for me. Maybe there were children in my future. I didn’t want to ride the subway in the evening wearing sneakers and pantyhose. Of course, I discussed this with the cat, and he tucked his paws beneath his chest and blinked.

“Well,” I said. “I’m waiting.”

He closed his eyes an extra long time, then opened them. He had green eyes like spring pools and when I knelt down in front of him I could see my own reflection. I put my face up to his dry little nose, and he turned his head so that his whiskers scratched lightly against my cheek.

“Anyway,” I said, “a cat’s lifespan is only fifteen years, twenty tops. You’ll be leaving soon.”

+

One of my co-workers set me up with a guy named Michael, who had a thin nose, and freckles on his face. On our first date, he appeared at the bottom of the stairs to my walk-up with a bundle of carnations. The flowers were pink with brown edges and fuzzy stalks. Michael had slicked his hair over to one side with too much pomade. I let him come up to my apartment so I could put the flowers in a vase. The cat sat on his haunches by the door, and Michael reached down to pet him, but he lifted his tail and walked away.

“What’s that smell?” asked Michael. I led him out the door.

Michael and I ate dinner at a cheap Italian place that I’d chosen so that I could let him pay without me feeling beholden. It was an old-school place with paper doilies under the water glasses, iceberg lettuce with cubed provolone. We sat drinking half-glasses of heavy red wine.

“I can’t wait to grow old,” Michael said. A few strands of hair freed themselves from the pomade and fell across his forehead. His grandparents were in their nineties, he told me, but whenever he visited they were still puttering in their garden.

“They don’t have much to worry about anymore,” said Michael.

I thought, maybe Michael and I would grow old together. At least Michael had the audacity to believe in growing old.

+

On our second date, Michael hadn’t overdone the pomade. He wore a plain t-shirt and generic sneakers. He didn’t bring flowers, so I didn’t let him in, but I could hear the cat meowing as I took off down the stairs.

Michael and I walked the perimeter of the park together, hugging the curb to avoid being run over by bicycles. At the boathouse by the pond we came across a small crowd of children making a circle. A red-tailed hawk stood in the middle of them, busy disemboweling a squirrel. Bit by bit, the hawk unflossed the dark, glossy innards from the cavern of the rodent’s body while the children stood enraptured.

“Carnage on a Saturday,” said Michael.

The pond smelled slightly of sewage. There was thick, green algae coating its surface. A plastic lid to a coffee cup floated by. Two mallards, a mated pair, skidded to a stop on the water, so close that I could see the ash that clung to their wings. Michael sat with his thigh against mine. He put his arm around my shoulders and pulled my head in toward his armpit.

“Are you allergic to cats?” I asked.

He answered me with his eyes on the pond. He said: “I can get used to anything.”

Later that night, Michael and I ate at a different Italian restaurant. This one was trendy. The menu contained words like garlic scrapes and aioli. We sat outside at a sidewalk table and the hot breeze from the subway grate blew up onto my legs. I sponged up too much olive oil with my bread and made myself sick, but I didn’t want to complain. Michael told me that in college he’d sung a capella. Now he taught music at an elementary school and moonlighted at a puppet theater.

“Puppets for adults,” he said, and he mimed moving sticks through the air.

+

At bedtime, at home, the cat had moved from my bed to the bathroom sink. I brought my blankets to the bathroom, and made myself a nest on the floor. The cat slept above me, nestled in the sink as if it were a cradle.

+

On our third date, Michael didn’t want to leave the neighborhood, so we decided to go to an action movie. There were a lot of fireballs on the screen, and cars chasing each other, and people hanging precariously out of the cars. I watched the movie as it played across his face.

My mother always told me not to marry for love. She said you can love a rich man as well as a poor man.

She herself had never married.

When the movie was over, I said Michael could come over to my apartment.

The cat was sleeping in the bathroom sink when we got home so we left the light off and skipped the bedtime preparation. We went straight back to my bedroom, where I’d tidied up for Michael. My clothes were folded neatly in their crates and I’d pulled up the blankets on my bed, which at the time was a futon that took up most of the floor.

“Doesn’t it hurt your back to sleep on that?” said Michael.

I told Michael, “It’s good for you.”

I sat down cross-legged and waited for him to join me. It wasn’t easy for Michael to sit on a futon. He folded his legs up like a spider. I put one hand on each of his cheeks and drew his face down towards mine. He opened his mouth and kissed me wetly, our teeth clicked, he took me by the shoulders, we slid down onto the futon and he rolled his body on top of mine. I closed my eyes and put my hands on his ribcage. His skin smelled faintly of rubber cement. He pinched one of my nipples. I hooked my leg around him. He unbuttoned his jeans, kicked them off, pushed my skirt up, pressed into my underwear.

“Wait,” I said into his mouth.

“What, what,” he panted.

He pulled my underwear aside without removing it.

The cat scratched at the bedroom door.

+

The next morning Michael put his hand on my belly and kissed the top of my head.

“You’re great,” he said.

He sat at my kitchen table, reading a day old newspaper. I didn’t bother to get dressed. I didn’t bother to take a shower. The cat was back in the bathroom sink and when I went to brush my teeth he wouldn’t move until I turned the water on.

In the kitchen, I brewed some coffee for Michael and sat across from him. The front page of the newspaper covered his face. I put a coffee mug in front of him and he peered at me.

“Want to go out for brunch?” he said.

“No thanks,” I said. The cat walked in and pulled himself up onto my lap. I rubbed his velvet ears between my fingertips. He turned to face me, flexed his claws into my chest, yawned so deep that I could see the back of his throat, could see the black spots that marred his gums. I held him close and he let me, although his tail began to switch back and forth.

“I’m ready for you to leave,” I said to Michael.

Michael folded the newspaper into thirds as if he were going to read it on the train, but he left it on the table. When he stood up to go, the chair scraped across the floor.

“What about next weekend?” he said. I looked at the cat and I looked at my hands. I didn’t bother to stand. I didn’t want to stand before Michael with my hair uncombed, wearing the sweats that I used for pajamas.

My mother always told me, “Give a man a hug and next thing you know he’s on top of you.”

Michael called me in the middle of the week, but I didn’t answer the phone.

+

Lately, I’ve noticed that my cat has moved permanently onto the bathroom floor. It’s cool in there, when I lie against the tile, and there are no street sounds to wake us after I turn the fan on.

Sometimes my cat has fish breath. Sometimes his paws are damp with urine. Sometimes he grows fierce with me when I pet him. He purrs louder and louder until he snaps. I have puncture wounds on my wrist. His tail grows as thick as a mace, or a morning star. Sometimes, in order to live with him, I have to lock the door.

+++

Melissa Benton Barker is an MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles. Her work can be found on Lunch Ticket, Gravel, Crack the Spine, and elsewhere.