My old cat had been dead for seven or eight years, or possibly longer, or shorter, when I found him living on the lowest part of the bookshelf that was blocked by the couch. He was on a giant dictionary that I had inherited from my ancestors, who had carried it physically with or on them for generations. Leaving the couch in place as a partial barrier I said, “I thought you died.” I had another cat now and had for seven years. The new cat looked at the old cat, then looked away. Trying to make things lighter, I said to the old cat, “Have you been eating this (new) cat’s food the whole time? But you’re both so fat!” The old cat sat with his legs turned in. “And what about the litter box?” Nothing. “You haven’t been petted for eight years,” I said. “That’s so sad!” Still, I did not pet him.
I think there had been a body. What did I do with it? Put it in a black garbage bag? There might have been a shovel. Rigor mortis. Did I bury him at the park? Put the bag in a trash can? He ran away? I couldn’t remember if those details were this cat or another, or television. The old cat kept his eyes half closed, maybe sleeping. I called an old neighbor, who had long since moved from the building after finding a job. She must have met the old cat; I had probably asked her to feed him or look in on him occasionally. “When your cat died, it was a whole thing and you went on and on about it and made everything about you,” she said.
“Oh, yes,” I said. “It wasn’t like he just went missing. There was illness and the cessation of breath, a veterinarian, maybe – the whole nine yards. But, here he is.”
Laszlo, my old boyfriend with whom I’d originally had the old cat, came to see him. “That’s him alright,” he said. “Didn’t we even decide to end it early and put him out of his misery? The vet gave him a shot, there were those monitors, the non-denominational minister, the cat flatlining, coming back, then flatlining again, the white sheet, the clear blue garbage bag and then that big oven that spews ashes over the city – and you said – this is so impersonal! And you talked about necessary changes for end-of-life animal care? And we drank vodka in the old subway bar and had sex in the bathroom?”
“Laszlo,” I said, “who knows?”
The old cat never moved from his spot on the book, on the bookcase. At least, not when I was home. Since he’d survived for eight years this way I told him – just do your thing, or, keep doing you, to encourage self-confidence despite his eccentricities, in light of his neglect. I put additional food in the new cat’s bowl, but the extra provided went uneaten. I took note of the old cat’s attitude, which was slightly wisenheimer or severe, but maybe just supremely angry. After all these years, he must have been a changed person, though I couldn’t remember what type of person he was before. He didn’t play with toys, even though I bought new feather balls and catnip mice. He didn’t so much as bat the toys away when I threw them toward him and they landed on his back. I thought – yikes, what a weirdo. It’s sad to say, but it really was like living with a little weirdo, him always on that bookshelf and no interaction with the new cat. “Sorry for this whole situation that I guess has been going on the whole time you’ve been here,” I said to the new cat. “I didn’t know. Sorry, okay?” The new cat batted the feather ball around in classic cat style and I couldn’t help but think – that’s how a cat is supposed to act.
I called my ex-boyfriend, Axel, who I also dated when I had the old cat. “I guess I’m some sort of animal abuser now or have been for the past eight years or however long,” I said. “Just move on,” Axel told me.
The new cat wouldn’t come near me as much. I called Gabor and told him my life was falling apart, or that life was ongoing, but I was falling apart. “What,” Gabor said. I repeated myself. “Maybe we should sleep together in a bar bathroom like we used to?”
I went to lunches that were putting me in the poor house and ordered $25 coconut meat-based, meal-smoothie tonics in an attempt to get my mind off things. My friend Martinique, who was independently wealthy and whose life was her work, was of little to no help.
“Is this all you’re going to talk about the whole time?” she said. At the end of lunch she confronted me about being a bad tipper, or not tipping my appropriate share. “It has to do with an underlying stinginess of the soul,” she explained.
“You haven’t even come to see the old cat,” I said. “Aren’t you curious?”
“Not especially. I can’t put off dinners or socializing or buying plants for my solarium to come see the old thing.”
“He’s not a thing, he’s my cat,” I told her, but the words were disingenuous.
I went to the local pet cemetery to look for any evidence of the old cat, like his name, possibly. Hadn’t Laszlo and I put what was left of his ashes here? It was a fun place, full of music, maypoles, bubbles and toys. It was separated by species. The dog area was called the Great Patch and people had obviously spent a lot of money on renovations and major improvements over the years. On the Great Patch people threw balls to no dogs, held leashes that no animal would return to. It smelled the way it should, though in the absence of living animals, the scent may have been artificial. It occurred to me to get a dog. The cat area had no such comparable scent, or people playing with ghosts, but catnip had been freshly planted. What was his name? Attila? Atuna? Big Tuna? Something to do with fish – he loved fish – or fish skeletons? It might have been Cahuenga, after the street my one-time dream house was on. It was possible the old cat still wore his collar with a nametag, but if he did, it was so tucked under his chin into his personal space that I wasn’t going to try to check. I looked for his portrait among the tombstones with portraits. His name might have been El Pollo, which was the name on one tombstone that bore a portrait whose subject kind of looked like the old cat, or else just had his coloring.
I meet up with Gabor in a bar bathroom and we do sex games for old times’ sake, but he just doesn’t want to see the old cat. “What was his name?” I ask. “Jumbo?” Gabor says. It doesn’t ring any bells. I cry into the mirror as Gabor sticks something large inside my underwear. I give Gabor a look of grave disappointment, and then tell him that I prefer larger, veinier things. The bartender bangs on the door. “Everyone knows what you’re doing in there; now get the hell out.”
Seeing Ilya, I have to admit there is something tender between us and I ask him to go to the art gallery bathroom with me. He likes to squeeze my nipples between the knuckles of his index and middle fingers, and I have to admit I like it. I confess to him that yes, I do want to kill the old cat – but what would the new cat think of me and could I live with myself and would I have to kill both if I killed one.
“This has taken a dark turn,” Ilya says.
I show him a phone picture of the old cat, taken with a flash that exposed his grotesque nature, his red eyes. “You want permission to kill it? I don’t have that kind of authority,” he tells me.
Gerardo suggests there was a body mix up – that I was given the body of another cat, or the cat I saw die was another cat. We meet at the laundromat bathroom, which is a secret favorite of mine due to its domesticity. Here, I can get something done that might lessen my guilt over the cat/s – guilt that has spilled over to the new one – like my laundry, for example.
“It’s not that simple,” I explain to Gerardo. He accuses me of being thick-headed and unable to see the complexity of life, moreover the simplicity of it. Gerardo and I exit the bathroom together. Someone has thrown bleach onto my damp clothes and I have to admit to Gerardo that this isn’t the first time this has happened.
A man comes up to me, putting his hands over my eyes in the to-go line for the coconut meat, meal-smoothie tonics I am now addicted to, saying, guess who. When I say, who? he states his name, Robin, and invites me to the main restaurant’s bathroom. “Excuse me, Robin, but am I supposed to know you?” I ask. He talks about our history, something like we’d been around the same people before in restaurants and art galleries and building meetings. “From around,” he says, “walking into bathrooms, or wherever.” My confidence compromised because of the cat situation, I feign recognition. “Oh, yeah, good old Robin!”
“I am not old,” he says.
“I mean in the sense of our history old.” I don’t point out his gray beard, yellowed teeth, hunched back, or cane.
“We haven’t been in similar circles that long for the state of our relationship to be described as old.”
I follow him to the bathroom and after our interaction tell him about the old cat. “What is it with people talking about their stupid fucking cats? Who cares?”
I cry as I resume my place in line for the meal-smoothie tonics, the wait now estimated at two hours.
I begin moving things out of my apartment – chairs, a desk, my hurricane lamp, and papers – to the apartments of Nikita, Rasmus, Hugo and Simona, all of whom I’ve met in bathrooms and are open-minded people who do not accuse me of much. I have my new blender shipped directly to Lusine’s studio – I’ve taken a liking to her and spend a lot of time amongst her large, three-dimensional paintings. We agree that buying the ingredients to blend the meal-smoothie tonics ourselves will save money.
I text a toilet to Austenfrau and we meet at a new one. Even though it’s especially small, too brightly lit, and has a full, broken toilet bowl, we stay and go about our business. Regarding the state of the bathroom, I tell Austenfrau, “That’s the risk meeting in unchartered ones, but it’s kind of a thrill!” He looks disgusted.
With his tongue somewhere in my asshole and his hands on his phone, Austenfrau texts me a manhole.
I reply with a sand timer, but my mind is elsewhere.
“It takes you too long to come,” he says.
“Do you like cats?” I say.
“No,” he says, “I don’t care.”
At my own studio, I avoid the bookshelf and make sure to say things like just a little spring-cleaning, and, tidying the place up, when removing my items so that neither cat will think anything amiss, though my sudden cleanliness, glowing skin from the meal-smoothie tonics, and contentment with Lusine more than likely signal to them that something is off. I’m gone for long stretches.
Things have gone south with Lusine. The blender was my purchase and I have to protect my investment; there are very specific instructions for how to use it properly, and I can neither afford a new blender if this one breaks, nor go back to buying the meal-smoothie tonics at retail price, as I am currently using all of my funds to pay off the blender that I charged to my credit card and don’t even have enough money to buy cat food. Things also go south with Nikita, Rasmus, Hugo and Simona. With my possessions scattered at various studios around the city, my own studio feels tidier, but the smell from the litter box along with the heavy energy of the cats persists and even grows.
I text a hat to Klaus, who wears hats, as a warning that the wind is picking up to hurricane levels, though he’s probably received the government’s warning text already and has taken proper precautions. He texts me back with a toilet. I text a crying cat. Communication stops.
Stuck at my own studio, I don’t want to so much as look at either cat. At night, I hear the street cats fighting – they are notoriously horny, vicious and often kill each other, sometimes leaving corpses at my building’s entryway. I’ve always ignored the noise outside, stepped over the dead ones, but now it occurs to me to try to put my old cat out there; it’s somewhat cruel that he’s been so cooped up, stuck in the same spot for all these years, and perhaps it is best for him to be amongst his energetic kind.
I move the couch away from the bookshelf. It’s my first good look. The old dictionary resembles more of an oversized fur coat than an oversized book. “Cats are supposed to be hygienic,” I say, annoyed at the idea of cleaning and disappointed in the old cat’s enduring physicality. The old cat rolls his eyes to the back of his head and keeps them there, possibly in a trance, somewhere dark. The reality of the situation is if I move the old cat it may be far worse than I can imagine, meaning beyond his violently attacking me, beyond seeing exposed innards or bones or a demon – a vision and subsequent stomach or heart feeling I don’t want to experience, if it can be avoided. Except, that presence persists most likely as something like a curse. Even if it isn’t visible, it isn’t unavoidable. I cannot afford to move out of my studio. I put the couch back in place.
Cat/s featured in Somesuch Stories Issue 2. Global stockists and online ordering information can be found here.
Jen George is the author of the critically- acclaimed The Babysitter at Rest, available via publisher: Dorothy Books.
Photograph by J Italia