In the kitchen, Cathy unwrapped the McMuffin, which was now wet from the rain, and let the wrinkled yellow wrapper fall into the trash can. I looked into the pile: torn plastic bags, shards of broken glass. I asked her if she had anything to drink.
“Ed, I don’t think you should,” she said. She put the McMuffin into the microwave. “How long do you need to stay here, do you think?”
“Jaime decided to split,” I said. Jaime was her sister. She either knew already or didn’t care, because she didn’t have anything to say to that.
The microwave made a “ding”. Cathy, holding a glass of gin and something, came into the living room and handed me the warmed-up McMuffin on a dust-covered plate.
“Look at you, feeding the homeless,” I said.
“Don’t be shitty,” she said. I was being shitty. Cathy had found me at the playground where she taught kindergarten, and I wasn’t feeling so hot about that.
“There was a raccoon at the seesaw,” I said, changing the subject. “Came up to me out of the blue.”
“There aren’t any raccoons around,” she said. “In all my years I’ve never seen one.” She glanced at the clock by the door.
“Well, he was there,” I said. “Right in front of me, staring at me with his big raccoon eyes.” I took another bite; the wet bread was foul in my mouth, but I kept eating.
“Do you have a place to stay tonight?” she asked. “Can I get you a cab or something?”
“So then,” I said, ignoring her, “I give him a piece of my McMuffin. He chokes on it, that greedy motherfucker. The piece is too damn big.”
Cathy smirked, her lips twisting into an ugly, lopsided slug.
“It’s no laughing matter,” I said. “You have to understand, Cathy: that McMuffin was everything I had. I wanted him to have it. Can you understand that?” But she just sipped at her drink and listened to me go.
“You ever think about what it’s like?” I said. “To love someone like that?” I took out a pack of cigarettes and started to light one up.
“Don’t,” she said. “You’ll stink up the room.”
“Oh, please,” I said.
“Could I have a drink, at least?” I said. She stared back at me, her eyes vacant and unmoving– dumb or maybe distracted, I couldn’t tell.
“I wouldn’t mind being loved like that,” Cathy said after a while, filling her glass up to the top.
“That’s not the point,” I said. I lit up a cigarette, ignoring her scowl. “You love someone enough, they could treat you like a human shitstain. It wouldn’t matter.”
“Unconditional, you mean,” she said. “Like a mother.”
No, not like a mother, I was going to say, because I didn’t know anything about being a mother and didn’t care to know then. But something in the way her eyes sank made the conversation seem different suddenly.
“Sure,” I said finally. “Like a mother.”
She leaned back her head and emptied the glass.
“You don’t have kids, do you?” I asked Cathy. She was thirty-eight or thirty-nine, or maybe even forty. I’d never really paid attention when Jaime talked about her.
“No,” she said, wiping the liquor from her lips. “No, I don’t.”
On the windowsill, a row of bottles lined up, dying strains of sunlight pouring through their translucence. A faint orange brushstroke seeped into the room, onto the walls, but outside there wasn’t any sun to see. The only thing out that window was another brick building, the color of shit.
Cathy stumbled into the kitchen. As she rose, I noticed a tattoo of a pine tree under her neck, faint around the edges. She came back with another drink; her hands shook and half of what was in the glasses spilled onto the carpet.
“Easy,” I said, putting the cigarette out on her table. “Maybe take a break, hey?”
“Okay,” she said. But she held the glass.
For a while we sat there together, listening to the hum of the radiator. It was so quiet at moments that I was afraid to swallow.
“Are you still hungry?” she asked.
“Yeah, a little.”
“I’ll make you a something. Would you like a grilled cheese, Ed?”
“Sure,” I said. “What the hell.”
The smell of smoke in the air made me think of summer camp at the beach, where I’d met Jaime fifteen years ago; I thought of the tinged campfire smell of her hair when she crept close to me, our feet in the sand. Cathy had been our counselor. I imagined her then, with her new pine tree tattoo, dancing at night along the edges of the deep black California water with her friends, or maybe another boy.
“Hey, listen,” I said, almost in a whisper. “I lied about the raccoon. There wasn’t a raccoon.”
“That’s okay,” she said, dragging her feet unsteadily towards the kitchen. The room was dim by now.
“Thanks for everything,” I said. “Really.”
She turned around and looked at me, something soft in her eyes, and hiccupped.
“You’re very welcome, Ed.” Cathy smiled—she tried to cover her face but I saw it anyway.
Before I closed my eyes I heard the shutting of cabinet doors, then the quiet whisper of an open refrigerator.
I woke to the sound of Cathy’s wailing and ran into the kitchen. She was on the ground; a slice of cheese and pieces of bread lay on the square tiles of the kitchen floor.
“It’s ruined,” she said to me. “All of it.”
“Jesus Christ, Cathy. What the hell?”
“I wanted—I wanted to make something for you, Ed.”
“It’s just a sandwich. It’s just a goddamn sandwich, Cathy.” I was on the ground with her now, my hands grabbing her wrists to stop her from pulling at her hair, a mop of glistening gray.
“No, Ed,” she said, her head shaking like a kid. “You don’t understand.” She threw the fallen piece of cheese against the wall. “I wanted to give you something. Like the raccoon.”
“Alright, easy. Let’s get you in bed, okay?”
She wouldn’t move.
“Please. Get up. Get up with me now.”
“Ed,” she said. “Stay. Have a drink with me.”
“I can’t,” I said.
“Ed, really. I wish you wouldn’t go.”
“Thanks. Thanks for everything. You’ve helped me a lot, really.” I started to get up.
She grabbed my sleeve—not forcefully, but not gently, either.
“I can keep doing that,” she said, “Helping you, Ed—you can have all of it. The drinks. You can stay here if you want. Let me go to the store and make you something to eat, whatever you want.”
“Cathy—” I jerked away from her and stood up.
“Take it all,” she said. There was a sad animal look in her eyes. “Tell me what I can give you.”
“I can’t. I’m sorry.”
“Why—why would you come, then?” She was shaking, whimpering, a little girl looking up at me—like I could help her, like I could do a goddamn thing about anything. “Why would you say those things?” She looked up at the ceiling, with all its crumbling yellow plaster. “I just wanted to be left alone. I don’t understand; why, Ed? Why wouldn’t you just leave me alone?”
I ran then because I didn’t know what else to do. I ran out the stairwell and out onto the street and I ran to the playground where I finally stopped and lay down, and the last thing I remember thinking, before I fell asleep in the rain-fed mulch, was that maybe I loved Cathy after all. And what would she say if I ran back to her, other than that she was tired of being casually deceived; that she wanted just to be left alone to quietly lament whatever it was that I could not, in many years to come, hope to understand?