Sig loves me. He’s sitting at the counter, eating a bagel right now, but I know he’s thinking about me. Today, like every Sunday, he sits all day here in this café where I work. A man across the coffee shop is pulling his knit cap down over his ears, stressing the threads and busting the hem at the bottom. Sig, who I assume has been speaking to me for a minute or so, asks if I’m paying any attention to our conversation, and I am. The man in the hat takes startled notice of someone nearby and paces through the restaurant, pausing at the postcards and leafing through them restlessly.
“Check out that guy over there,” I whisper, “Not yet…Okay: now.” He turns, releasing a fake yawn and catches the man ripping off his cap and furiously scratching his head.
“What about him?”
“Are you looking at the right guy?”
“The scratcher?” he says and glances back over his shoulder.
“Stop craning. Leave him alone. Yes, the scratcher.”
“What about him? You know him?” He’s here every Sunday too. The way his nervousness inhabits his body is delicious and I always find myself watching him. I feel restlessness like he does but I don’t understand why.
When I get off work and we get back to his apartment, Sig is intent on napping. This is just how he is: two double-shot cappuccinos and he’s ready to pass out. I join him, sliding off everything but my underwear. He lies there, fully clothed. Sig never sleeps naked. He just can’t sleep without something on, that’s all. I feel like postponing his nap—his ability to fall asleep so conveniently always pisses me off. I wrap my legs around his—his jeans feel cold against my bare skin—and I curl against his chest. I kiss his neck, slowly, glancing up at his face. He looks groggily at me, smiles and leans his head back against the pillow again.
Back when we used to tease one another, one of my favorites was “Sig, you hate sex.” Seriously though, I could go over the past two years and, without fail, provide conclusive evidence that every sex act to date has been initiated by me. This is not to say that it isn’t all very good, if somewhat short in duration—a fact that I never mind much—but everyone needs to feel desired sometimes and I had to learn to live without that once his initial excitement wore off. But we love each other. We love each other unconditionally. Though I guess, subconsciously, I’ve always thought he had the better end of the deal than I.
Ask anyone who knows me and they’ll say that I’m fiercely independent. I know it’s true because for the first few months, I didn’t want anything to do with him. We met on the front steps of his apartment building where I had decided to sit and eat a sandwich and he recognized me from the café where I work. Sig was patient. He never asked where I went when I left his place, never asked when I’d return. He just kept everything the way I wanted it to be until then: bed made (sheets tucked not too tight), room temperature at 70 degrees, and clean, thick towels folded and always warm from the dryer. He later told me he often just slept on top of the covers so that he would always be ready for me. He trained me to want to come back, sit on his steps and wait for him to find me there and to take me in.
* * * * * *
When it’s just about another girl, it doesn’t really bother me. He tells me on the phone as I’m wading through a parking lot, searching for my car. It’s Monday and my day off. Even 24 hours later, I’m thinking about the scratcher from the café: that shared restlessness is still there. Sig starts with the standard we-need-to-talk and all I can say is I-thought-I-parked-near-plus-sizes.
It had happened the night before—his guilt ran through him like diarrhea, forcing him to let it out as soon as possible. I’m very curious so he tells me everything.
Matilda. Elegant. Quiet. Pretty.
It wasn’t cheating: technically Sig and I had broken up a month ago so he could try new things. Until this, nothing really changed which I took to mean that our love is unbreakable. And since when did Sig kiss people? He barely ever kissed me, he never had a sex drive—some people just don’t—so what got him to kiss her?
I would say I don’t know why I go to Petco next but I think it’s because I wanted someone to say no to me, unequivocally and with valid reason: something I could understand. So when I ask the clerk to see the selection of ponies, I await a cold reply. Instead, she purses her lips into a heart-shaped blob of gritty lipstick and motions for me to follow her. She unlocks what looks like a jail cell and releases the powerful odor of shit and stale newspaper. There are no walls in this long corridor—only small, square cages all the way to the ceiling filled with cats in various states of disrepair. At the end of the hallway is a dented metal door. She opens the last cage on the bottom right, pulls out a deflated looking animal and thrusts it into my arms.
“This is Gracie. We call her that because we found her outside Gracie Mansion. Tomorrow at 9am, she has a little appointment with the incinerator,” she says, indicating the imposing metal door.
I look down at it. It seems tired and it lays its head against my hand. I hold it out for the clerk to take it back but she doesn’t budge: she must get paid on commission.
Walking home with the cardboard box in hand, I feel disgraceful. I didn’t want this cat at all—I don’t know why I couldn’t firmly refuse it. Apparently saying no is harder than I thought. Emblazoned on the side of the box is a cartoon cat flying into space on a very retro rendering of a rocket ship. In big block letters, as if to broadcast my failure, it says Cosmic Kitty Carrier. I can feel the cat’s de-clawed paws sliding against the bottom of the box as it rocks with my stride. Sitting on my bed, I open it slowly, praying that there will be no cat inside but there it is, cowering in the corner, covered in vomit, looking up at me. I can’t let it wander around my place like that, tracking seafood bisque colored chunks across my floor. The smell coming from the box is overpowering so I close it, sliding the cardboard slats together and putting it on the floor, propping open my bedroom door. We all have our own problems. I can’t be held responsible for this animal.
Sig comes over to talk about things. By the time he gets to my apartment, the door has slowly slid the Cosmic Kitty Carrier into my bedroom and closed. When he tries to enter, he trips over it.
“What the hell is that?”
“It’s just a thing,” I say. “A thing with a cat in it.”
“A cat? Why?” He squats down and opens the box. “She’s filthy. You have to bathe her.” He rolls up his sleeves like a surgeon and, turning his head away from the box, lifts the cat out. I swear the thing looks embarrassed, its arms sticking straight out, blinking in the light.
He sits it in the sink, puts the faucet on the spray that you use for vegetables and works the dried clumps out of its fur. His arms look strong and clean: hairless. He seems soothed to have a job to do.
“Does she have a name?” he asks, working up lather. The thing is going to smell like my shampoo by the time he finishes with it.
“Matilda.” It’s the first time I say her name aloud and the way it forces my tongue to roll through my mouth feels perverse. I wish that I wasn’t sorry for saying it. He turns off the faucet calmly—nothing gets under his skin.
He dries the cat, feeds it some leftover chicken and carefully carries it into my room, wrapped in a towel. He holds it like a newborn in his arms. The dark of its tabby coat makes his blonde hair seem to glow as he leans in to let it bat at his nose.
“Maybe you want to hold her?” They both look at me. I shake my head. Its purr is so loud that it sounds like something is broken inside it. He puts the cat down next to me and kneels by the bed. He won’t even sit on my bed anymore. He’s sleeping with her now. I can tell. I’ve been replaced so quickly that I don’t even know where I should be sitting.
“You can sit on my bed. There aren’t rules. This can’t possibly feel right to you.”
“No, it hurts like hell and I’m very sorry,” he takes a breath, “but this is how it has to go.” We stand. He pats the cat on the head. We look at each other, swaying slightly from foot to foot. He leans in and very slowly, presses his lips to my cheek and his hand on the base of my neck. I stay completely still: alert. It lasts long enough that even he can’t deny what’s happening. As he pulls away I can see that he is fighting himself, warring over the trajectory he has plotted and how much he wishes he could be like me: someone who can stray.
I can’t believe how long we’ve been standing here. Finally, he kisses me right. He kisses me and both of his hands are tight on the back of my neck. Neither one of us pulls the other to the bed, the floor. We just stay.
“It feels like you’re another person,” he says. I pull him as close as I can, trying desperately to stay this other person, the one that’s keeping him here.
We move to the bed. The cat accommodates, cautiously jumping to the floor and making its way to a chair across the room.
We make love like two different people. He turns me on my side facing away from him and he pulls me in, engulfing me. He doesn’t want me to look at him so I stare into the room. The cat is asleep in the chair, breathing slowly, its hair not quite as matted and in some places: soft.
We both sleep naked that night. He passes out quickly, easily. I sleep for short spells. I wake, I sit up, I watch him—grateful that he’s come back to me. I feel, in spite of the past few days like I’m finally ready to sleep.
Morning breaks. The cat is still sleeping in the chair and I realize it’s slept through the night—I didn’t know they could. Sig sits and swings his legs off the edge of the bed. The cat lifts its head. He slides on his boxers and then his jeans. I wrap my legs around his back and playfully try to pull him back into bed but he resists. I sit there, holding my knees to my chest, covering myself, as he dresses and finally kneels by the bed to say goodbye.
This was the last time. He says that we both knew that. I grab his hands, shaking, begging him to stay. I ask how he can be so cold, tell him I know that he still loves me—that no one else will be the same. Naked, I cry. He can’t leave me like this. He remains inevitably human and therefore he must wait until my sobs dry out before he can go.
The cat sits at attention. We watch him leave my bedroom and both our ears twitch as, in the next room, the front door clicks shut. After he’s gone, I lean myself bare against that door, feeling the icy pain of the metal surging against my back until I warm it to match me.
I had to bring the cat back to the shop in one of Sig’s old shoeboxes because the Cosmic Kitty Carrier was inoperable, still wet with vomit. It wasn’t intended for a round-trip voyage. The same clerk seemed glad to take it back, this time placing it in a cage far from the dented metal door at the end of the corridor.
“You bought her time.”
“I’m not a cat hotel.”
“She’s a new arrival now. Her file will say she was released for adoption by owner. That makes her a much easier sell than saying she was found outside Gracie Mansion; no one really wants a stray.” She pulls out a clipboard with a pen attached. “So, what’s her name?” She looks at me, waiting.
“She can have mine.”
* * * * *
The café feels unusually empty for a Sunday but the scratcher is here. He moves like he’s consistently surprised that his body responds to his mental commands: a ballet of ticks and shivers. The manager begins to yell at him, accusing him of scaring off the customers and of stealing petty change from our tip jar. My favorite stands, composes himself somehow and—with the manager still yelling—pushes his way out of the café with more dignity than I’ve ever seen before or since. And I stay, motionless, still staring at his newly empty chair, overcome by the grace he could only possess on his way out.