Every night, she comes home around midnight to find Neurotic Cat Boy tractor-beamed to the SyFy Channel. His modus operandi’s to procrastinate the entire day away, until he’s worked himself up into a toxic froth of self-loathing. By the time she gets off work, he’s fallen into the paralytic stupor of pure despair.
“I suck,” he says, as soon as she walks in the door.
“Poor sucker,” she replies.
Neurotic Cat Boy’s slender and awkward as a giraffe. He nibbles gently on organic produce and spends much of his day, when he’s not in classes, reading the body language of their various cats in order to better anticipate their feline needs. It’s become increasingly apparent that he’s not cut out for the aggressive academic posturing of grad school. Neurotic Cat Boy’s earnestly transparent in both his shortcomings and his insecurities. It’s not difficult for her to envision the highly-competitive students in the Art History Department sensing blood in the water when he blinks his long-lashed doe eyes and begins to stammer. She suspects his peers, and even some of his professors, too, are guilty of assuaging their even-deeper insecurities at Neurotic Cat Boy’s expense.
“How was work?” he asks.
“Sucky,” she says.
She works as a night word processor at one of the downtown law firms where her supervisor, Barb the Word Processing Manager, wields her petty tyrannies over the droning room of clicking cubicles with the zealous gusto of a passive aggressive demagogue.
“By the way, the internet called. They’ve run out of stuff for you to buy,” he says, gesturing at a small pile of packages from eBay on the kitchen table. “Ha ha,” he adds, to make sure she knows he’s being mournfully droll.
Sometimes he tells her something cute or funny the cats did. Sometimes he tells her he’s left a hot potato for her in the stove.
“Why do I suck so much?” he inquires plaintively.
“Go to bed,” she tells him. “Suck less tomorrow.”
It’s not that she’s unsympathetic, but she has her own problems. She’s already completed her graduate degree and now, drowning in student loan debt, it’s become apparent that typing’s her sole “marketable” skill. Neurotic Cat Boy’s seven years younger than she is, so she’s already been there/done that. Sometimes she wants to tell him that completing his seminar paper on psychoanalytic trauma and the use of meat in the paintings of Chaim Soutine is the least of his worries. But she suspects Neurotic Cat Boy, key witness to her awkward thirty-something flailing, already knows this.
She works in a skyscraper located across from the Capitol building. She goes in at 3:00 in the afternoon, then spends eight hours transcribing depositions from tape, putting changes into legal briefs, and decoding revised sections of real estate contracts scribbled onto yellow legal pads by harried, Type-A attorneys. At 8:00 p.m., there’s a stressful flurry of activity to ready documents for the last FedEx pickup for overnight delivery, and then again at 10:00 p.m., for the last DHL pickup for overnight delivery.
Most nights she comes home with an aching neck and a fisted knot clenched between her shoulder blades. Every once in a while, though, there’s a slow night, and after Barb, the Word Processing Manager leaves, she and the other night word processor, Lydia, forward the phones to the smoking lounge, where they smoke Marlboro Lites and gossip—the Midwestern city spread below them like a sleepy Lite Brite board, cursor blink of cars crossing the Olentangy River Bridge.
Lydia likes to complain about her husband, Miles. Lydia thinks Miles has OCD. Miles can’t seem to hold down a steady job. She says he goes through whole rolls of paper towels every day, and that the entire house reeks of Windex. Lydia’s also upset because her daughter, Roxanne, who’s at college in Pennsylvania, isn’t doing very well in her classes. Lydia says it’s because of Roxanne’s boyfriend, who recently quit his job as a night stocker at Big Bear and moved to Pennsylvania, where he’s been illegally living in Roxanne’s dorm room. Lydia’s worried Roxanne’s going to get pregnant and quit school.
Each week is a muddled blur of bus rides, cup-of-soup, and the endless bony clicking of computer keys. The weekends are a different kind of blur: grocery shopping, errands, laundry at the coin-operated Soap-n-Suds, where she and Neurotic Cat Boy can have a cheap beer while they wait for their clothes to dry. Sometimes, if they can afford it, they go to a movie.
More and more often, though, she wakes up in the middle of the night, pinned down by the hot weight of limp cats, riddled with anxiety, wondering if this is what her life is going to be like. Sometimes she studies the familiar ridge that Neurotic Cat Boy’s body makes in the bed next to her—he likes to sleep in the fetal position, with his head completely under the covers—and wonders what they’re doing together. She feels immense tenderness for him, as if he’s a large jittery cat, but sometimes it just all seems so arbitrary. She suspects that like many other young artistic couples they’re at loose ends in their lives. She imagines them huddling together in a creepy forest, like Hansel and Gretel, for safety. When pressed, they describe their relationship to others as being on a year-by-year lease, with an option to renew.
But even the sleepless nights are better than the ones where she dreams all night that she’s still at work. On these nights, she sometimes wakes up Neurotic Cat Boy by typing on his face.
At work, there’s a kerfuffle when Barb, the office manager, discovers a sticky note in the morning clinging to the lip of her waste paper basket with the word Earwax written on it. Barb goes into a tizzy, insists on showing the sticky note to all of the word processors, asking if it’s theirs. Barb can’t actually blame any of the employees for leaving the sticky note (as if she could blame someone for something like that) because obviously, any of the 100+ lawyers who work for the firm could have dropped it into Barb’s waste paper basket as well. But still, she won’t let it go. Why would anybody write down a thing like that? Barb keeps asking. What could it possibly mean?
Later, on that first night of Earwax-gate, when she gets home and tells Neurotic Cat Boy all about Barb and the sticky note, he seems harried and distracted. Plus, he’s doing the purse-y thing with his mouth that means he’s keeping a secret he wants to tell her but won’t. When she looks inside the oven to see if there’s a potato inside, she finds a Polaroid of Neurotic Cat Boy’s penis instead. There’s another one upstairs inside the medicine cabinet taped to her face cream, and one in the bedroom taped to her snoring fat black cat.
Following the opening salvo of Earwax-gate, she and Lydia initiate a full-blown battle with Barb the office manager by leaving a cryptically-inscribed sticky note in her waste paper basket every night at the end of their shift, after the janitor’s made his final rounds on the floor. Barb doesn’t say anything about the sticky notes after the first one, though. But she keeps every single one of them in her upper right hand desk drawer. They know, because they check. Here is the list of words they leave:
When Barb informs them she’s taking a week off at the end of the month to attend a Christian workshop on learning how to be more judgmental, they’re unsure of whether to view this as a victory of sorts, or a setback.
At home, she similarly doesn’t say anything about Neurotic Cat Boy’s Polaroids, although she keeps every single one of them in a Ziploc baggie that she hides at the bottom of a steamer trunk where she’s been storing the secret stash of vintage marbles she compulsively buys on eBay.
Weeks pass, and the law firm does a rollout of Microsoft Word as the new word processing software. She misses Word Perfect, in particular the reveal codes: being able to see where the brackets of boldness begin and end, the clarity of being able to distinguish a hard return (HRt) from a soft return (SRt). Weeks pass, and the Polaroids transform from dick pics into more elaborately costumed photographs: a torso, crotch, thighs, but never a face. First, Neurotic Cat Boy puts on her stockings, sometimes her bras and underwear, then eventually her lingerie.
“Are those my earrings?” she asks him one night when she spies a glint of sterling and amethyst as he pulls back his wavy hair into a man bun. They’re at the late-night All-U-Can-Eat buffet at the Chinese karaoke bar, where they sometimes like to go as a treat after paydays.
“I didn’t think you’d mind,” he says. “Do you?”
She isn’t sure what, exactly, Neurotic Cat Boy is asking her, so she shrugs and helps herself to a Crab Rangoon from his plate.
Any relationship, she thinks, is like watching the images surface on a developing Polaroid. It used to bother her that Neurotic Cat Boy never told her that he loved her, but lately, Neurotic Cat Boy’s begun to feel more like a younger brother than a lover. Lately, it seems as if most of their conversations are held either through or about the cats.
“Tea-Head, the Cat, wants to know why I suck so much,” he says when she comes home from work.
“Tell Tea-Head the Cat to tell you to suck less tomorrow,” she replies.
Later that night, after they’ve returned from the All-U-Can-Eat Chinese buffet and karaoke bar, after they’ve watched the episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer that Neurotic Cat Boy has taped for her, after he’s fallen asleep—wrapped up tightly as an enchilada in his protective wrap of blankets—she wonders, again, if she really does mind. She pulls back the covers and wakes him up.
“Oh God, what’s wrong?” he says. “Are the cats okay?”
“Why don’t we ever say, ‘I love you?’” she asks him.
“Well . . . um . . . what is love, really?” he stammers, even though he knows she hates it when he answers a question with another question. “What does it even mean?”
She feels a strange queasy wash of something like vertigo. Who is Neurotic Cat Boy, really? Who does this stranger’s face belong to, this face onto which she types the unconscious language of her dreams?
It doesn’t come as a surprise that Neurotic Cat Boy profoundly misgauges the moment, the significance of this uncomfortable precipice—hovering on the lip of a deepening canyon of not knowing and not saying. He pauses uncertainly, then responds by picking up the nearest curled-up croissant of a cat. He holds the cat up in front of his face, like a cat mask, or a ventriloquist’s dummy, and switches into the special cat voice they sometimes like to use.
“Tea Head the Cat says that for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, we promise you that you’ll never run out of toilet paper again for as long as we all shall remain together,” says Neurotic Cat boy, in cat voice.
“Seriously?” she says, nonplussed.
“Yeah,” he says. “Is it okay if we go back to sleep now?”