by Lauren Waterman
Once, he told her, he’d had a cat.
“That sounds kind of ominous,” she said.
It was two o’clock in the afternoon, and they were lying in his bed. She’d been awake for hours, reading his copy of The Norton Anthology of English Literature (Volume One, comprising the Middle Ages through the Restoration) and watching him as he slept. Every so often, she’d noticed, he seemed to stop breathing entirely for several seconds, only to start up again with a loud, snoring gasp; concerned, she’d begun to monitor the duration of these apparently oxygen-free intervals with the stopwatch on her cell phone. By the time he finally opened his eyes, a little after one-thirty, she’d clocked seventeen pseudo-deaths, the longest of which had lasted well over half a minute. But her admittedly amateur diagnosis of sleep apnea was summarily dismissed.
“What was the cat’s name,” she asked him.
“Roosevelt,” he said.
“Every morning,” he continued, “I’d hear him scratching at the bedroom door.” He raised his right hand, curled the tips of his fingers inward, and pawed desultorily at the air in front of her face. “He’d be like, ‘Yo, I’m hungry.’” To enact the cat’s imagined dialogue, he dropped his already-low voice down a register and affected an exaggerated Brooklyn accent. “He’d be like, ‘Dude, where’s the food?’”
She laughed again and then buried her face briefly in the warm nook where his neck met his shoulder. His skin smelled, faintly, of peanut butter. “Why didn’t you just feed him?” she wondered.
“I was sleeping,” he said.
He’d first seen the cat stalking fallen leaves on the sidewalk outside of his ex-girlfriend’s apartment. Or rather, he revised, his then-girlfriend. Not Katarzyna, the spoiled, demanding one he’d moved in with after only seven months, the one who’d refused to accept the finality of their breakup, thirteen weeks later, even when he started sleeping exclusively on the living room couch. Paige. The Ph. D. candidate. The one who, for the first third of their two-year-long relationship, had been seriously involved with someone else. When he spotted it, the cat was circling slowly around a spiraling eddy of late-autumn detritus; after a minute, it pounced.
Six days later, he was again alone on her street in his idling car, having just dropped Paige off following a dinner during which she’d expressed her fervent desire for them both to set aside any lingering negativity about their relationship—negativity which, she allowed, might have stemmed from the duplicitous fashion in which they’d first started dating (he’d been aware of her boyfriend, mostly, but her boyfriend, of course, hadn’t known about him)—and announced her conviction that the best way to do so would be to spend some fixed amount of time—say, two weeks—apart, sorting through and resolving (and repressing, he surmised) their respective bad feelings, after which they could reunite and start over. Start fresh, Paige had said.
Like daisies, she thought, listening.
He was just about to drive off when the cat reappeared. It crept purposefully into the cone of light cast by his car’s headlamps and stopped there, seeming to fix him in its glass-marble gaze; it was, resolutely, in his way, and he was uncertain as to how best to displace it. Honking the horn seemed, on such a quiet street, like an overreaction (and furthermore, he noted, might have had the undesirable effect of inducing Paige to come back out of her nearby brownstone and begin talking again), and an experimental revolution of the vehicle’s engine only caused the animal, which was still staring at him, to incline its head at a slightly more obtuse angle.
He, himself, had grown up pet-less, and was therefore far from confident that if he simply started driving, the cat would scramble safely clear of the car’s rolling tires—back then, he explained, he was more than a little disconnected from the entire concept of instinctual self-preservation. So he shut off the engine, opened the door, and began making the kind of breathy, aborted whistling sounds that he thought he remembered having seen people use to shoo strays on television.
But this cat, instead of retreating, seemed attracted by his efforts. It strolled around the car, ducking neatly under the still-ajar driver-side door, and bowed deeply in front of him, twisting its neck in such a way that its dandelion-colored eyes stayed locked on his even as the back of its glossy black head met the asphalt. He reached down, tentatively, to touch it, and as he did, the cat lowered its haunches and rolled over onto its back, exposing, he said, its soft white belly.
His home was not, she had to admit, a particularly hospitable environment: The long, narrow entranceway was lined on both sides with a series of seven-foot-tall custom-made shelves which sheltered his neatly alphabetized—and, in her never-voiced opinion, nearly obsolete—compact disc collection (he owned, he estimated, somewhere between twenty- and thirty-thousand albums), and almost every smooth, reasonably level surface in the place was obscured by a leaning pile of outdated periodicals. Newspapers and pop culture magazines were stacked high on the kitchen counters, the coffee table, and even across two-thirds of the three-cushion-wide couch; the first time he’d permitted her to enter his apartment, a full nine weeks after they started dating (a delay ostensibly engendered by his embarrassment at his situation, but also, she later suspected, designed to ensure that she was already enamored enough to overlook it—he was a music critic, she’d said to herself, as if that explained things), there’d been nowhere for her to sit while they ate Chinese take-out and watched American Idol except atop his amply-sized lap. When he finally did clear a small part of the sofa for her a few weeks later, shifting several years’ worth of Rolling Stones to a spot against the wall, he did so with all the pomp another man might employ while proffering a spare key. It was impossible to imagine him keeping a pet.
“Cats like paper,” he insisted, when she’d said as much. “Roosevelt loved to rest his weary paws on those blown-in subscription cards.”
“Yeah, I’m sure it was a big step up after life on the street.”
“That’s just what I thought.”
He hadn’t exactly decided to take the cat with him, he told her. It was more like it had decided to come. Their door-side détente—which had lasted long enough that he’d begun to consider cutting the engine—had culminated in the cat’s brushing his fingers with its rough, sandpapery tongue; he’d responded by sliding his hands under what he persisted, nonsensically, in thinking of as the animal’s armpits and relocating it, in one swift motion, to the passenger seat of his car. “He seemed thirsty,” he reported. “I couldn’t just leave him there to starve.”
Back home, he realized that he wasn’t certain what sorts of things a cat required, so he emptied the contents of his paper shredder into a lidless file box and opened an ancient can of tuna. The name, he said, was derived only indirectly from the country’s 26th and 34th presidents: He’d actually taken it off a Brooklyn-born college basketball player whom he’d idolized, very briefly, in the early 1980s. (Later, after their breakup, when the most inconsequential details of his biography were suddenly rendered semi-precious as a result of their unforeseen scarcity, she’d learn, via Google, of one Roosevelt Chapman, an East Flatbush-bred power forward who led his team, the University of Dayton Flyers, to an unexpected victory in the 1984 West Regionals. It was the same year, she knew, that his father had left.) The next day, having managed to sleep until noon despite what he described as some truly relentless meowing, he walked over to a pet supply store on Lexington to purchase some litter, a plastic box, and a medium-sized bag of kibble—just enough, he figured, until he could figure out what to do next.
“What was it like,” she wanted to know, “being the Other Man.” When he didn’t answer, she went on, careful to keep her tone as light as helium. “Is there a word for that?” she asked. “Is it . . . Mister?”
He sat up abruptly, dislodging her head from his shoulder. After a moment, she followed suit, adjusting her pillow and pressing her straightened spine into the headboard with as much dignity as she could muster.
“It was awful,” he complained. “Imagine falling for someone who, whatever she might have said, was fundamentally unavailable. Every time we were together, I knew it had to end. She always had to leave, to go home, to Eric.” He still said the name, she couldn’t help but notice, with a barely-veiled mixture of jealousy and contempt.
“Wait: She lived with the guy?” Somehow, that seemed much worse than what she’d been imagining. But not for him—of him.
“That really isn’t the point,” he snapped.
“Okay,” she said quickly. “I’m sorry.”
“When we met,” he continued, “Paige told me that she wanted to be with me. But she also felt like she owed this huge piece of herself to someone else, and she couldn’t just walk away. That had an effect on us, even after she did finally decide to leave him. Honestly,” he said, “I’m not sure it would even have been possible for me to get over it.”
She drew her bare legs toward her torso, making an imperfect isosceles triangle of her thighs, her calves, and the rumpled surface of the bed. They’d been seeing each other for months, by then, but she still hadn’t shaken that feeling—more typical, to her, of unrequited or unconsummated romance—of heightened awareness of the negative space between them; she spent what seemed, even to her, like an inordinate amount of their time together considering which part of her body he might be looking at. (As a result, she was forever flexing, always pushing something out or sucking something else in.) Gingerly, she placed her hand, palm up, atop the comforter, only a few inches from his, in the hopes that he’d take it. He didn’t.
The end came, as it so often does, when he was not expecting it. After a difficult first week together—characterized, he said, by days-long spells during which the cat somehow managed to disappear entirely, emerging from wherever it was hiding only to eat, drink, use the litter box, and engage in periodic late-night bouts of high-volume caterwauling—they had come to a kind of understanding. They’d settled in to their respective roles, he told her, of provider and pet. Sure, there were a few surprises: He’d been unnerved, initially, by the determined way in which the cat barreled through his busted bathroom door every time he sat down on the toilet. But when it began to make a habit of roosting beneath his desk while he worked, tiny paws tucked invisibly under its furry, rounded chest, he’d discovered that even he was incapable of cohabiting with a small, dependant being without falling at least a little bit in love with it.
But on the night that Paige finally summoned him back to Cobble Hill to celebrate the end of their two-week moratorium, he was stunned to see that the trees on her street were littered with hand-lettered signs that pleaded for the safe return of a particular Lost Cat. He tapped the brake, slowing his car down just enough to confirm that the pictured feline—known, apparently, to its rightful owners as Santa Claws—was indeed the selfsame one currently residing in his Upper East Side apartment, and then he accelerated, blowing right past Paige’s blind front door and executing a series of quick left-hand turns that led him, in very short order, back across the bridge to Manhattan. It wasn’t until he was halfway up the FDR, he admitted, that he thought to send Paige a text; in it, he claimed to have been held up at home by an ornery overseas editor demanding an emergency revision of a rap review that, in fact, he hadn’t even written yet.
The cat bum-rushed him as soon as he entered the apartment, bumping its head enthusiastically against his denim-clad shins. Quickly, he scooped it up and zipped it into his jacket like a shoplifter; he held it there, curled against his chest, for the duration of the return trip. As he sped back towards Brooklyn, he couldn’t help but notice that the cat’s strangely mechanized-sounding purrs—which, more than once, had prompted him to imagine it vivisected, its insides almost identical to the guts of a grandfather clock—were being echoed by an increasingly sinister series of rumbles emanating from the depths of his own intestines. Across the East River, the gargantuan red letters atop the Jehovah’s Witness building glowed menacingly: WATCHTOWER, they said. Helplessly, he drove towards them, feeling as though a threat that had always been present had somehow suddenly coalesced.
In the version that he told her, that day in his bedroom, he released the cat on Paige’s block, exactly where he’d found it, mere meters from its home. (Even in a lie, it seemed, he couldn’t bear the idea of simply taking it straight to the address listed on the flyers—the promised reward would have felt like a ransom.) But that wasn’t what he did. Instead, he proceeded all the way to the desolate western end of Atlantic Avenue, where the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway roared overhead.
He parked the car in front of a hydrant, lumbered inelegantly into the passenger seat, and opened the door. Then he unzipped his coat and deposited the cat, meowing plaintively, onto the curb. He was careful to position it so that its paws were pointing in the right direction, thinking that it really should be able to recognize the neighborhood—after all, they were less than a third of a mile from its house. But he didn’t stick around to see which way it went: The disturbance in his innards had escalated to the point where he felt as though he might explode, and he needed, desperately, to find a bathroom.
Once his sickness had waned, he found it significantly easier to reassure himself that Roosevelt would be just fine; nine lives, and all that. But for months, long after he’d reunited with Paige—and disposed clandestinely of the cat’s accouterments, dragging the litter box like a body into his building’s garbage room in the middle of the night—he was dogged by doubts. For one thing, he never saw the animal again. For another, those Lost Cast signs stayed up through Christmas.
He offered this story to her shiny and sanitized, a lighthearted anecdote with an ending that he clearly considered to be happy enough. “Those people probably thought that Roosevelt had been on some kind of character-building expedition,” he said, “like an Outward Bound for urban cats.” And she accepted it, just as she accepted everything about him, then. His disarray, his disdain for others, his self-aggrandizement; he reached for her, and he was forgiven. Afterwards, they dressed and went to the diner on the corner, where she ordered cinnamon whole-wheat toast and iced coffee and he devoured a sausage-and-potato omelet.
But, eventually, when she understood him better—a thing that she accomplished only an embarrassingly long time after their association had ended—she was able to perceive that there’d been something jagged hidden in his narrative, something uncomfortable that he’d left unsaid. What he’d really been revealing, she’d come to suspect, was the sad tale of his final, failed attempt at truly loving something; later still, she’d interpret it as irrefutable proof that he never really could have.
Lauren Waterman is a Brooklyn-based writer whose fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in FiveChapters, Fourteen Hills, Anderbo, and MonkeyBicycle; her nonfiction has been featured in New York, Boston, InStyle, and Vogue. To read more (or say hi!) visit her website.