A Menagerie of Strays

My partner trails me up the hill, both of us weighed down with sacks of groceries, the plastic handles pressing into the flesh of our palms. We are halfway home when I see it: a blur of black fur skittering across the driveway and into the hedge. The thing is wounded — I can tell by her gait. I stop. I set down my grocery bags and peer into the hedge. Partner watches from the sidewalk, her hands in her pockets, her buzz cut hidden by a knitted hat with a ridiculous pompom. She tells me what to do. “Get as low as you can,” she shouts, but I am already crouching. I try to get even lower. Her body casts a long shadow that bends on the curb and spills onto the street.

The kitten stares at me with tiny golden eyes. She isn’t cute, just black and small and serious. Partner digs through her grocery bag to retrieve a package of almond cheese, which she opens with her teeth and then delivers to me. I break off a piece. The kitten moves toward it and when she does, I scoop her up and put her in my jacket. I’m surprised by my success. My heart is racing. Her heart is racing too. I can feel her skeleton, her tiny ribs and vertebrae just beneath her fur. She clings to me, breathing.

Later it will become a joke of sorts, a scenario that Partner will share for laughs at gatherings: two lesbians lure a stray kitten with almond cheese on their way home from the co-op. Could we possibly be more queer?

Eight months earlier, when I told Partner I was saving my money and moving to Seattle, I had hoped to escape her. I was nineteen then, and imagined myself boarding a plane alone and arriving in a new world. It would be a clean way to leave her. I had already missed so many opportunities.

If I were going to leave, I should have left when she confessed she had a crush on a co-worker whose hair reached her ass, and who wore cut-off shorts that revealed her smooth thighs.

Or I should have left her on the day she burned her arm with a butter knife heated by a candle and said that I would never love her enough.

Or I should have just let her leave me one of the many times she threatened to — because I cut my hair too short; because I laughed at the wrong moment; because I sent a postcard to a friend I had once wanted to kiss. I’m leaving you if you don’t change, she often said, and in those moments I instructed myself to let her. In her absence I would find new space to breathe. I would hurt for a while and then recover. And yet I never let her go. Instead I would cry and promise to change. I didn’t want to be left. I changed by learning to cook, eat, and sleep on her schedule; I changed by never asking for anything. All my life I had practiced at being invisible. Partner allowed me to excel at this.

It seemed to me now that if I were going to leave, I would need to find an excuse and slip away unnoticed. My leaving would simply complete my disappearance. My dream spun itself around in my mind for a few days before I revealed my plan to her. “I want to leave here in September,” I said.

Partner didn’t hesitate. She said, “I’m coming too.”

“Okay,” I said. “That’s great.” My brain re-shuffled all the pieces of the dream. I ignored the sinking feeling in my gut. What did I know about what I wanted?

In Seattle now, our lives are nearly silent. We work food service jobs on opposite ends of the city and commute for hours every day on buses. In our bedroom each night we fall asleep on the hard futon, each of us facing opposite walls. The futon is the only piece of furniture we own. The living room remains empty except for a couple of cushions and a few milk crates that hold books.

We live in an apartment building called The Rexfield. On the outside, the building looks majestic, all turrets and coved windows. On the inside it’s damaged. The carpet is gaudy and worn. A free box at the bottom of a sweeping staircase features a random assortment of scarves, videocassettes, and mismatched shoes. On the front porch there is always a cluster of people my own age smoking cigarettes. They have tattoos and piercings, pink hair and asymmetrical hairdos. They are also friendly. They nod and wave when I come home. I want them to know me, to take me in, to offer me cigarettes and a couch to sleep on. I want to complain to them about Partner, about how I have to ask her permission before I drink a beer, and I want them to open a bottle, hand it to me, and say Fuck that shit. Sometimes I fantasize about buying a pack of cigarettes for an excuse to sit on the porch, but I never do. Partner would smell the smoke on me. She would ask what I was up to. There is no answer I could give that Partner would approve of.

The smokers on the porch don’t seem to notice the kitten at my chest when I pass this time, or if they do it doesn’t catch their interest. Once inside, I set her down at the foot of our futon, and she curls into a ball to sleep. Partner leaves to buy cat food and litter. When she returns, she empties an entire can of wet food on a saucer. The gelatinous part spreads and threatens to creep past the edge. The kitten lifts her nose to sniff. She licks it once, and then returns to sleep. She remains in that spot all night long.

In the morning I notice her belly. I see no wound, but something’s not right. Her abdomen is bright pink, hot, and firm. I pack her into a shoebox with four quarter-sized holes. It’s a twenty-minute bus ride to the vet’s office. On my lap, the box mews. Passengers look at me.

The vet is an older man with well-trimmed beard and glasses. He smells like Comet. The kitten barely fills his hands. Her fever alarms him — it’s 106 degrees, which he explains is unusually high. He traces her swollen abdomen. She purrs. The vet says it’s clear she’s been attacked by a larger animal — a raccoon, for instance, or a dog. She can’t tell us her own story. He explains that half of her body right now is an abscess, and warns me that as the infection surfaces it will look like cottage cheese. It will stink and slough off. He wants to keep her overnight. He tells me he will only charge me the cost of expenses. I feel certain there are two reasons for his kindness. First of all, this cat is a rescue; her care is a shared burden. But also there’s a hole in my jeans. My hair was once short but I haven’t cut it in months. I look like what I am: ragged and unsure.

When I return the next day to bring the kitten home, the receptionist smiles warmly and tells me that rescue cats make the best pets of all because they’re grateful.

She’s wrong. The kitten spends most of her day under the futon, hiding. In the middle of the night, she climbs on top of the covers to pee. This happens several times a week, and each time Partner and I argue about who will carry the bedding down the two flights of stairs to the basement.

“I just want to sleep,” I say. The small puddle is spreading at my feet, but I can tuck my knees to my chest and ignore it. “I promise I’ll do it in the morning.”

“I did it last time,” Partner says. “It needs to happen now.”

I hoist myself from the bed and gather the covers. It’s 2 a.m., and the Rexfield is silent, but the corridor is lit. Underneath this layer of obedience, I am burning. I wonder if I will have this cat forever, if I will spend the next fifteen years washing bedding in the middle of the night.

The apartment manager at the Rexfield is a grey-haired artist who lives alone and chain-smokes. He lives in the apartment next door to us, where he grows geraniums in window boxes. Sometimes he leaves his front door open and I can see that the walls of his entryway are lined with giant canvases, completed paintings stacked one atop the other. I think about taking a step inside so I can glimpse the paintings, of hollering “Hello” and asking what he paints, but I don’t. I mind my own business. One day, though, he stops Partner outside our front door. I’m inside already, but I can hear them. He asks her if she wants to earn some extra money. He will pay her to clean out the apartments that were vacated this week.

I follow her to the first one because I want to see what people leave behind. A pile of unlaundered clothes. A few paper coffee cups. A broken dish in the sink. In the bedroom I find an aquarium, half full of water and blooming with algae. I kneel and peer inside. There is life in there. Two zebra danios swim through the murk. I look longer and spot a crawdad crawling through the weeds.

Partner brings it home, cleans it, and places it on top of a milk crate in the hallway between the bedroom and the living room. Sometimes I lie on the carpet and watch the crawdad crawl around while the danios dart back and forth. If I’m still for long enough, the kitten comes out from under the bed and sits next to me. She watches too. When I pet her she purrs furiously, as if her fear has heightened the experience of touch.

One night, as I carry an armful of peed-on blankets down to the basement, I notice a fishy smell. Over the course of the week it worsens. It’s strong enough that I mention it to Partner. I mention it to our neighbors across the hall. Everyone has noticed it. Nobody knows what it is. I imagine an old trash bin rotting away in some dark unnoticed corner. Another possibility occurs to me, some distant association with the smell of rotting flesh, but I dismiss it before I even name it.

For a while, it seems the crawdad is preparing to die. His motions are sluggish. His back is growing algae. Partner and I take turns staring into the tank, wondering if he’s died until he finally digs a claw into the gravel and pushes himself forward. One day, in what appears to be the throes of death, he summons all of his energy and thrashes against the aquarium wall. He lands on his back and wriggles all of his claws until his thorax loosens and his interior emerges, protected by a new shell, delicate and clean. The old shell sits at the bottom of the tank, looking complete, like a second crawdad. Partner reaches her hand in the aquarium to lift it out. She holds it above the water while it drains. Then she leaves it in the bathroom trash on top of a pile of used tissue and swept-up cat litter. It startles me every time I sit to pee.

Once in a while, I pick Partner up from her job on the other side of town where the customers wear denim or khakis. Her boss, with her mane of brown hair and sprayed bangs, looks like she could have been a member of the Brat Pack. Her husband’s an ex-marine. They make sure that everyone knows they’re swingers. Every week Partner comes home with stories from their “Big Bed Wednesdays.” I picture a literal big bed filled with strange naked bodies. One day, when I arrive to pick up partner, the ex-marine approaches me. His hand is meaty and his grip is tight. He doesn’t let go. “How come we’ve never had you two to our place?” he asks. I blush and I shrug. “We have parties on Wednesdays,” he tells me. He nods at Partner. “She knows all about it, I’m sure.” It’s been months since Partner touched me. When she wants to touch me, I let her because I’m lonely, but she rarely wants to and I’ve learned not to ask. As we walk now to the bus stop she asks me what I think of the ex-marine’s invitation. “Gross,” I say, and wait for her to agree. She says nothing. I wonder if that’s what she wants: to touch strangers instead of me.

After a week of doing laundry in the fishy-smelling basement, the neighbor across the hall asks if I’ve heard about what happened. He tells me about how the apartment manager found him, the tenant who hanged himself. The story has already passed through many mouths, has been whispered from one neighbor to the next: the manager unlocked the door to one of the basement apartments, nearly certain of what he would find inside. The tenant hung from a rope beside the bed. He had been there ten days already. The authorities came to remove the body, but it was the manager’s job to clean the remaining mess.

The smell in the basement lingers. I think about the apartment manager’s job; I consider how it must feel to meet potential tenants, to run their credit scores, to select them, to hand them their keys and welcome them to the building, and then some months later, to clean what they’ve left behind — the broken dishes, the scum in the sink, the blood on the bedroom floor.

I lie in the futon every night, thinking about how I can make my life bigger. I want to learn French and travel to Europe, but when I mention this to Partner she tells me that’s bourgeois. I don’t have her permission. Still, I dream of being in a different place, of moving farther and farther away. I dream of roads paved with red bricks and a language that feels new in my mouth. I’m not sure how to get there. It seems like I should go to college. Partner might leave me if I did that, and I might let her.

One morning, when Partner has already left for work, quiet fills the house, and with it, possibility. A surge of energy runs through me. I sit in front of the aquarium and pick up the phone. I dial 411 to get the phone number of a state college sixty miles away. I call their main number to request an application. The woman on the other end of the line asks me for my address and promises to send a packet out today. Her friendliness catches me off guard.

A few days later, when my envelope arrives, I don’t hide it from Partner. Instead, I explain my plan. “I’m leaving here in August,” I tell her. My voice is clear. I brace myself for the fallout. I’m willing to sleep on the floor if I need to, willing to search the local classifieds for a new place to live. My heart lifts at the thought of an empty room, a space that is mine — what if this moment is the beginning of the end? What if I have already begun my escape?

But Partner isn’t angry. She doesn’t disapprove. “I’m coming too,” she says.

I get the sinking feeling, the one I’ve grown so used to. “Great,” I say. That night on my side of the futon, I lie awake, staring at the wall.

It’s the hottest day of summer when Partner backs a yellow Penske truck to the curb of the Rexfield and we fill it with our stuff: boxes of clothes and some kitchenware, the futon, the milk crates, the aquarium. Though we’ve rented the smallest truck available, it’s less than a quarter full. The sun is so hot and so bright, the truck container so dark in contrast, that I can barely see inside of it. Our black cat is the last thing I need to load. She sits in a small plastic kennel, one that I hold by the handle as I peer into the darkness and assess the safest spot to place her. The sun heats through my hair and burns my scalp. Partner is in the driver’s seat already. The truck is running and she is waiting. I place the cat between the legs of the futon. She stares at me from behind the kennel bars, her eyes bright in the darkness. She blinks, stares, blinks. I stare back. I take one breath and then another. I allow myself to know something: I don’t want to sit next to Partner. I don’t want to move with Partner. For the first time it becomes clear to me that to say I’m leaving here is not the same thing as saying I’m leaving you. It occurs to me that the latter statement is utterable. I’m leaving you. My mouth can form those words. My voice can say them.

I will not say those words today — I know that — but I keep standing there in the heat, staring back at the black cat’s eyes and gathering strength for some future moment. Finally, I lift my arm to draw down the container door. It makes a satisfying shudder as it closes the space between us.

This Cave

“Subjective: she can access mysticism only after she applies yellowface, when she no longer feels the need to be in so much opposition.”

Dreaming of Ramadi in Detroit

“When we get to the Dallas airport, the televisions are showing a headline about a hunter who paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to kill an endangered rhinoceros.”