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Sweltering

I’m writing this morning.

Because June was intense. Because I drove so many miles, worked so many shoots. Because my hands and wrists ache and my body feels beaten. Because the characters in my head have begun to circle back around and around, nagging at me at every inopportune moment. In the car. In the shower. In the middle of church.

Because there’s no room left to push them aside.

Because I got a reminder this morning from a journal that they need my bio for the story of mine that they’re publishing next month..and I remembered for a short moment, before helping Evaline with her toast and fruit, that I am still a writer.

Because, somewhere, at the very, very end of the day, after all of the faces have been wiped clean, the dishes loaded into the washer, the photographs edited and backed up, the calendars synced, the dog brought in – at the end of it all, I’m who I always was. The girl who writes.

And because, it’s cheaper than therapy.

While going through and peeking at half-finished short stories, looking for where to start –  this old piece caught my eye. The title seemed appropriate for what is supposed to be a sweltering first day of July.

Reading it reminded me of being a young mother with my first baby, of being a graduate student walking Cambridge alone and seeing my reflection in shop windows, wondering who I was and where I was going and if it really even mattered at all to have a firm direction, so long as there was coffee and fiction. I remember being that mid-twenties married woman,  living back with her parents, sleeping as a family of three in her childhood bedroom and saving pennies to move somewhere out on their own. I remember being a woman who had miscarried twice. And I remember being a woman, processing it all.

Sweltering

The summer he found us, we had stopped sleeping in the same bed. Hottest summer on record, worst we could remember anyway. Too hot to be so close, together on a mattress, waiting to burst, igniting our small apartment, causing all that damage.

So, we slept apart. She on the bed, beneath the rickety ceiling fan that warbled in painful, slow rotations, doing little more than pushing the thick heat down onto her, though she insisted it helped. It calmed her, the motion and sound of it. The whirring lulled her, she said.

I slept on the recliner by the living room window. It’s where I first saw the cat – out in the parking lot, a small black curl of fur sleeping on the hood of our station wagon.

He was just sitting there? she asked in the morning when I told her about the cat.

He was sleeping, I said, pouring milk over my Cheerios. I envied the cereal, bobbing up and down in a cold white sea, while I sat with a small trail of sweat tickling its way down my back. Sweat had become like a second skin that summer, a constant. We were only clean in the shower. I would start sweating while toweling off; Julia would be damp again before clasping her bra.

The cat showed up at our door that night – made it through the front entrance of our building and all the way up to the twelfth floor. We found him sitting patiently on our daisy patterned Welcome mat when we returned from grocery shopping.

So that’s the cat, huh? Julia asked, nodding at the inky black animal. I bent down, spilling apples from a paper bag, expecting the cat to run. Instead, as my eyes became level with his, he purred.

He’s brave, I said, on my knees, picking up fruit and listening to the rumbling of his stomach, or chest, wherever it is that cats purr from. Someplace deep within.

He’s smart, is what he is, Julia said. He slept on our car, then made it up all this way to see us.

We let him into our apartment, our lives. We became the couple who mingles in the pet section of the grocery store, squeezing chew toys and fingering pink-feathered birds incensed with catnip. We chose special food, the kind with aluminum foil lids, with pictures of Egyptian cats. Dry food, in three different varieties, for active cats, for elderly cats, and for younger cats – considering we knew little about our newest roommates history. We fumbled through it, becoming cat people, until it eventually became normal, routine. We went to the checkout with a carriage full of cat paraphernalia and forgot to buy milk.

I came home from work and find Julia sitting beside the window. The cat, we hadn’t named, except to call him Cat, sitting beside her on the soft arm of the recliner.

I’m ovulating, she said without looking at me. I was in the process of taking off my dress clothes and sat on a kitchen chair, tugging at the toe of a black sock.

Ok, I said, carefully. We hadn’t talked about babies since the spring – the hopeful, blooming spring.

But,I don’t think we should try anymore, she said. It’s too much. She touched her fingertips to Cats head. He blinked. Her lips pinched and she turned to see me, standing now in an A-frame t-shirt, boxers, barefoot. I only nodded.

It was fine with me. The thought of having clinical, purposeful, it’s time to make a baby sex, in that awful heat wasn’t appealing anyway. Nothing was anymore. The only appealing thing was relief – the thin hope that the apartment would catch fire, that the overhead sprinklers might explode, drenching us both.

The cat began to take over my chair. First, leaving coarse black strands of fur, then his scent, and the reminder as I slept, that his body had been there. That while I spent nine hours a day at work, on the subway, on the elevator, he was there – owning my space. I always moved him when I came home, picked up his sinewy black body and laid it on the wood floor, where he’d look up at me with his gold-flecked eyes, then stretch and walk away. Like he’d planned on getting down anyway.

He’d go and see Julia, who liked to feed him. She liked that he weaved himself between her ankles while she popped the lid off of the containers.

Over the next few weeks we dipped into the damp dredges of summer, the final breaths of it blowing over us like steam from an iron. Julia began taking the cat out for walks. She even got him to wear a little blue collar with a jingling silver bell. She’d take him to the park and play as though he were a dog. She’d chase after him and he’d dart under shrubs or on top of park benches. He’d come home with his tongue sticking out, he wouldn’t be panting or drooling, it would just be poking out of his mouth like a small pink flag. I saw it as a sign of resignation, defeat. You win; now please take me back in doors.

Toward the end of August we hid from the heat in an air-conditioned movie theater. The movie was mediocre, a movie Julia had wanted to see. I hardly even watched, just let it roll in front of my eyes like scenery passing by a train window. The two hours spent in the cold was like heaven, like being lifted out of my sagging, melting body and being given life again. For a moment, I was reborn.

And then we walked home and found the cat deep asleep on the blue suede cushion of the recliner.

I wish you’d just let him be, Julia said as she smoothed cold cream in a white layer over her cheeks. She stepped out of the bathroom and glared at me, as I was poised over the recliner, preparing to lift the cat from the chair – my bed.

Where am I supposed to sleep then? I asked.

Come back to our room for the night, she said. He looks too comfortable there.

So, I lay with her on our bed. On top of the covers, we didn’t touch, just laid side by side beneath the heat.

Do you think he knows us? Julia asked without turning to look at me.

What? I faced her, closer than I’d been in weeks, saw the faint freckles of her cheeks. What do you mean?

I mean, the cat, I think he knows us, she said and rolled on her side to look at me. Like, maybe he’s someone we knew, and that’s why he sought us out.

Like, reincarnation? I asked, following the curve of her shoulder down to her collarbone. The smooth ivory bumps of bone beneath her skin.

Sort of, she said. I don’t know. She wrapped her fingers around the straps of her tank top and tugged it upward, hiding her chest beneath the thin pink fabric.

Do we know anyone who died recently? I turned away and looked up at the ceiling.

Does it have to be recent? Maybe this is their third or fourth incarnation. Who knows how these things work. Maybe it’s my grandfather. Or yours, she said quickly, her words growing stronger, building to a fast crescendo. I’m just saying only someone who was desperate to see us would bother to make their way up twelve flights of stairs in this heat, she said and threw her arm in the air. She clicked off the light.

I guess that’s true. I conceded into the dark, not actually believing a word of it. That a cat who defecated in a box beneath our bathroom sink, then licked himself clean, was somehow a relative. That he was somehow here for a higher purpose.

The ceiling fan warbled above us, wavering through the same dying notes, over and over.

Woosh-wert-wert-wert-Woosh.

Man, it’s hot, I said.

Yeah. She rolled onto her back and without looking at me said, it’s too hot. Do you mind sleeping on the floor?

My wife was in our bed alone. The cat was on our recliner. And I was on the floor. Still, when I closed my eyes, I felt the breeze from the fan fall down over my damp lids and it felt being kissed.

What if, Julia whispered, my eyes opened to see the roundness of her head leaning over the bed, a dark shadow hovering above me. What if, the cat is someone we didn’t know.

Mmmhmm, I said, too tired to move my lips.

No, I mean, she began to explain, but then stopped. Her shadow slid back over the edge of the bed and I heard the muffled sniffles of her tears.

Julia?

What if he’s our baby? she stuttered through choked whispers, through the gentle waves of crying. I pulled myself up to the bed and slid my arms around her. Our baby. Two lines that had come together once, forming a plus sign on a stick of urine.

I know I sound crazy, she said, but I would’ve been due this week. Her voice was faint now, drifting as her body relaxed in my arms.

Woosh-wert-wert-wert-Woosh.

We lay together, our skin sticking, the feeling of sweat drying everywhere – except on the crook of my elbow, tucked beneath the damp warmth of her neck. Our sweat pooled there, hidden from the forgiving breeze of the fan.

I didn’t say anything, didn’t want to stop her from falling away, asleep. I knew that whether she was right or wrong was pointless. It wasn’t about that. It was about her need to put our loss into some sort of gilded light – to make sense of the surge of blood that came, carrying away more than we could bear.

She slept there, on my arm – while I stared out the window and wondered like a new boyfriend, how long I had to hold her before I could sneak away and sleep on my own.

When I finally detangled myself from her, I went to dethrone the cat, to reclaim the recliner as my bed. He was spread out, paws stretched from armrest to armrest, with his head tucked down, buried in the cushion – in uncat-like posture. He looked peaceful as I reached down and scooped him, two hands beneath his body.

He didn’t squirm as I lifted him. He didn’t move at all. In fact, he was limp – just fur and bones that dangled from my hands like a raggedy doll. I gasped, and threw him to the ground – cringing at the soft thump, and the way he just laid there, splayed on our wooden floor, fur glowing almost iridescent in the blue-gray light of the moon.

All the mystery of the animal, the grace and wonder and curiosity – all seeped out, nothing left but a small hump of flesh and fur at my feet. I stared at it, and at my hands, and then back at the body, trying to figure out how to clean it without waking Julia.

As quietly as I could, I pushed the cat into a garbage bag and left the apartment. My fist tightened around plastic sack as the elevator took us down. As each floor lit up on the buttons over the elevator doors, I grew angrier at the animal in the bag. At the hair and smells it shed on my chair. At the hope it had brought Julia – that there was some purpose to it, to life, that there was sense behind every bad thing. When all there really was, was this: a dead cat and me, walking from an apartment building at two in the morning, into the miserable, sweltering night.

I held my breath while swinging the rusted metal door of the dumpster open, and then heaved the bag in, where it disappeared into the black, hot, stink.

I wiped my hands on my thighs, rigorously, but it wasn’t enough. Up in the apartment, I washed them under a fierce stream of steaming water, took a shower even, but it wasn’t enough to feel clean. Not enough to rid myself of the feeling of holding death.

I sat down on the recliner, stared out the window to the parking lot and wondered how I could explain this to Julia in the morning. How I could tell her over bowls of soggy Cheerios, that the cat had simply died. No signs of struggle, no explanations, just a random, bad thing that happened while we slept.

I couldn’t. And so I pulled open the window and let the night air in. So thick and humid that it felt like drowning, just breathing it. It’s my fault, I would tell her. I left the window open, and the cat escaped, I would say. It probably walked out on the ledge and made its way to the fire escape. That’s I would tell her.

I thought these things and lay back in the chair, eyeing the sprinklers on the ceiling, wondering just how much more it would take for them to turn on.

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Filed under: fiction, Myself

About the Author

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Writer, Photographer, Wife, Mother to four rambunctious and amazing children.

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