by Joe Okonkwo
I don’t want to see you anymore. I’m not feeling it.
The text slammed into Harold’s phone. A totally unexpected broadside. He had seen Brett three times in the one week since they met online and with each date the connection lunged deeper. Their first date was at The Windowsill Bar, an intentional decorative travesty with wood paneling, imitation Andy Warhol prints, Christmas lights, Mexican piñatas, and a display case filled with glass phalluses. They started with cocktails and shy, trite talk about the weather before whirling into a grope-fest so ferocious, the doorman warned them to cool it.
Issue #104 soundtrack: Andrew Preston "10 Watt Moon"
Coffee inaugurated dates two and three. After both they went from espresso to Harold’s place and spent hours sequestered in the bedroom engaged in round after round of the most animated sex Harold had had in years. They snuggled between rounds—fifty-one-year-old Harold locked against the chest of thirty-year-old Brett—and brainstormed honeymoon locations, each carefully stressing the strictly-hypothetical nature of such talk.
Harold: “I vote for Rio de Janeiro. I mean, if things between us were to get to that point.”
Brett: “Montreal’s my first choice. You know, assuming you and I get that far.”
By the end of that date, whatever remained of Harold’s defenses crashed and shattered. One week, three dates. He had run roughshod over infatuation and skipped directly to love. It felt right, good. He felt good. Brett made him worthwhile.
After Brett left that night, Harold raced to his computer, found an online florist, and sent two bouquets of roses to Brett’s house and two to his office.
A fourth date did not materialize.
I’m not feeling it.
Harold did not call Brett. He did not text back. He did not want to hear It’s not you...it’s me. And he dreaded It’s not me...it’s you.
The next morning he called sick at his paralegal job, then lay in bed staring at Brett’s text which he realized now was not a broadside at all. More like a worm that had oozed under the door, then lay there, casually, waiting to be discovered, passive-aggressive and cowardly.
He put the phone on the nightstand, grabbed the remote, and turned on his favorite guilty-pleasure program: a trash-TV show ablaze with baby-mama drama. Enraged young mothers—struggling to afford diapers and formula—fighting to prove that some no-good male was indeed the father. The show was tyrannized by fat black girls named Shameka with glistening weaves and fat white girls named Becky Rae who lived in trailer parks. Today’s episode featured the return appearance of a girl who had graced the show a few weeks earlier. The scoundrel she had alleged was her child’s father hadn’t been, and she’d come back to accuse some other rascal.
The show’s host—a wrinkly old man with a gut and a decently-convincing toupee—began reading the paternity test results. “In the case of five-month old Keisha...” He paused for effect. One second. Two seconds. Anticipation hushed the raucous, game-show-like studio audience. “DeShawn...you are not the father!”
The audience gasped its shock, its outrage, its delight. The accused man jumped up and down in slaphappy triumph and the defeated mother screamed and cried and ran off the set while a rabid camera crew hurtled after her to capture her humiliated flight backstage for five million shocked, outraged, and delighted daytime viewers.
Harold turned the TV off at 11:00. He got up, stretched, trudged to the bathroom, urinated. He looked at himself in the mirror as he washed his hands. He didn’t wear depression well. It shot through his wilting eyes that were made more so by the bags drooping beneath them. Despite his current melancholy, Harold knew he was far from ugly—and that few would classify him as handsome (a guy once smiled patronizingly at the end of their first and only date and said he was “pleasant-looking”).
Harold took another look, dried his hands, and thought, Average.
He left the bathroom and stared into his living room. Immaculate. When he first moved to the Astoria section of Queens and leased this apartment five years earlier, he had stood in the empty space for hours strategizing: furniture placement, picture placement, where on the glossy hardwood floors to station his faux Oriental rugs. He’d mentally assigned his crystal vases, ceramic bowls, and decorative mosaic boxes to specific areas on his shelves and accent tables. So when moving day arrived, he’d been able to skip the interminable arranging and rearranging and experimenting: his possessions went directly from the moving boxes to their preordained locations. Locations that hadn’t changed since.
Harold loved admiring his handiwork. He’d always had a flair for decorating. He often regretted not pursuing interior design when first selecting a career path. Paralegal work is practical, he (and his parents) had rationalized back then. A successful interior design career hinged on networking, connections, who you knew. When Harold was younger, he hadn’t known anybody.
He went to the kitchen. He kept his weed there. It was too early to light up and he didn’t care. Today (and perhaps tomorrow) was all about luxuriating in the emerald extravagance of self-pity. He stored his pot in a fleur-de-lis patterned antique sugar bowl in the pantry. He always had to remember to hide it when his mother visited from Buffalo. It slipped his mind last Thanksgiving. Helen MacIntosh went into the pantry one morning expecting to sweeten her decaf, found the marijuana, promptly flushed the $200 stash down the toilet, and spent the balance of her stay pontificating on the perils of narcotics and raging that she had not raised her son to be a “common druggie.”
He grabbed his pipe, filled it, held it to his lips. He was about to light up when he heard a sound, whiny and persistent, outside his front door. It sounded like a cat. Harold put the pipe down and opened the front door.
It was a cat. A darling long-haired, gray cat that looked up at him with pleading in its scared and friendly eyes. Harold walked out into the hall.
“Hey there, cutie. Where’d you come from?”
The cat meowed. Harold stepped toward it, cautiously, afraid it might bolt. It didn’t. It let him approach and immediately rubbed against his knees when he crouched down. It purred when he petted it. Harold looked up and down the hall in search of its owner, but didn’t see anyone. The cat had no collar, no identifying information.
“What are you doing in the hall? You lost? Did someone—”
“Is the cat down there?” A man’s snarly, high-pitched voice ricocheted down the stairs.
“Yes,” Harold called back. “It’s here.”
“Is she yours?” Accusatory. Harold detected a Long Island accent.
“Do you know who the hell she belongs to?”
“No,” Harold said, worried the accuser might stride down the staircase and force him to prove it. He didn’t know the guy. He barely knew anyone in the building. The pre-World War Two apartment building housed ten units on each of its six floors and Harold knew the first names of exactly two neighbors.
“I don’t know who the hell she belongs to either,” the screamer continued, “but whoever abandoned her in the hall, whoever would do such a thing to a helpless animal is a cruel, cold-hearted son of a bitch!”
A door slammed. The screaming stopped.
Harold took a quick peek under the cat and confirmed it was, indeed, a she. He petted her. “You’re kidding. Someone—someone in this building— just put you out?”
The cat plunked herself onto her back and looked up at him. He rubbed her stomach. She purred some more.
“Well, holy shit. What am I gonna do with you?”
As if on cue, the door to the next apartment opened. His neighbor stepped into the hall.
“Take her in and keep her,” Annabel said. “That’s what you do with her. Nobody knows which apartment she came from or who put her out. The poor thing roamed the halls all night, meown’ and cryin’. It’s just shameful. You need to take her, Gerald.”
He had reminded Annabel more than once that his name was Harold. She never remembered. He had finally accepted that, to her, he would always be Gerald.
It occurred to him that he was squatting in the hall in his sleep pants, undershirt, bathrobe, and bare feet. He felt embarrassed and inappropriate until he saw Annabel’s outfit—one of those frumpy sleeveless dresses that old ladies wore, more nightgown than dress. He had always been unsure of her age. Sixty? Seventy? She had banked thirty years in the building to his five. Annabel had always treated him well. Better than she treated her husband, a miserable, overweight man named Stan who looked like he should have retired or died decades ago. Harold often heard them arguing through the walls—Annabel screaming things like I hate you and You’re destroyin’ me and Stan avenging himself with I wish you’d kill yourself and put us both out of your misery. Sometimes they fought with the front door wide open.
“I always had dogs growing up,” Harold said. “I wouldn’t know what to do with a cat.”
“You feed ‘em, you change their litter, and you wait for ‘em to pay attention to you. That’s what you do.” She shook her finger at him. “Someone’s gotta take her, Gerald.”
Her bossiness irked him.
“Why don’t you take her?” he challenged. “You like cats.”
Annabel dropped her finger. “Well...uh...yeah...Sure I do. But I already got one and she’s territorial.”
The cat remained on her back. Harold stroked her stomach. January penetrated the building. No radiators or heat in the hall. The chill shrouded the hard tile floor and numbed Harold’s bare feet. How long would the cat survive, freezing as she wandered the building? Or would the super put her outside? Technically pets weren’t even allowed. He turned a blind eye to the hordes of cats and half dozen or so small dogs that resided there, but he would never permit a cat to straggle, vagabond-like, through the halls indefinitely.
He posted the sign in the vestibule around 12:30. He didn’t own a marker to make the sign, so he’d had to suspend his self-pitying and go out into the world to buy one. While out, he bought a few tins of Grand Kitty Gourmet cat food, some kitty litter, some cat treats. He had dithered over the treats, hesitant to spend too much on a cat who would be with him temporarily, but decided she deserved some comfort food. He poured the kitty litter in the aluminum roasting pan his mother had cooked the turkey in that last Thanksgiving, then sat on the floor beside the cat while she dined.
“I’m gonna have to call you something. But what? Let’s see.” Harold pondered. “The ancient Egyptians were super fond of cats. And I’ve always had a thing for ancient Egypt. So how about I call you...Cleopatra? Yeah. That works. Good thing you’re a girl or I’d have to call you King Tut.”
Cleopatra finished eating, then jumped into his lap. She purred when he scratched her behind the ears.
“Doesn’t take much to make you happy, does it? A little scratch. Shelter. Food. Kitty litter. That’s all you need. Fuck. Do you know how lucky you are, Cleopatra?” He tickled her between the eyes and where her whiskers grew. “Mind if I call you Cleo? It’s less cumbersome than Cleopatra—might wanna think about changing that.”
She looked up at him. Love and trust shimmered in her alert, wide eyes. It made him think of Brett. The way Brett looked at him their last time in bed. That delicious look that gutted Harold’s defenses and compelled the swift dispatch of four bouquets of roses.
“Well, Cleo, you and me: we’re members of the same club—The Got Dumped Club. What does that say about us? What’s wrong with us? Why does it always have to be so difficult? Why doesn’t it ever work out?”
He started to cry. Cleo stood on her hind legs in his lap, touching her front paws to his chest, as if to comfort him. She meowed and flicked her tail like a charged wire.
“You are so, so sweet.” He wiped his tears. “But you know this is temporary? Right? I can’t keep you. I can’t afford you. Don’t you need food, like, every day? And kitty litter, and trips to the vet? Money doesn’t grow on trees, Miss Cleo. The way things are at my job, I could get laid off any time. The economy sucks. You’ll have to go to a shelter if no one claims you.”
It saddened him to think about Cleo at a shelter, subsisting in a cage, waiting—indefinitely?—to be adopted. Everybody wanted a kitten, a baby, something young and perfect they could raise from its first weeks or months on earth so they could engineer its development into adulthood and claim the credit. Who would adopt a discarded, full-grown cat?
The doorbell buzzed throughout that day. An elderly woman from the second floor gave him an old pet carrier. The super brought a proper litter box. “It is not right to make cat go to bathroom in roasting pan,” he said in his thick, gravelly Eastern European accent. A fifth floor neighbor knew a vet who facilitated pet adoptions. Annabel brought three tins of food. No one knew who owned Cleo and everyone commiserated with Harold on the inhumanity of abandoning a helpless kitty in a hallway. The flurry sideswiped him: except for the super and Annabel, he had not met any of these people until today.
The radiator blasted. The apartment boiled. Harold perspired. He sniffed an underarm, remembered he’d been too busy that morning lolling in self-pity to shower. At 4:00 he went into the bathroom. Cleo scratched at the door and meowed to be let in.
“Oh, come on. Can’t a guy have some privacy? I’m making myself fresh and pretty.”
He removed his clothes, looked in the mirror. He placed his hands on his slightly puffy belly, on his flat, undistinguished chest and, for the second time that day, thought, Average.
“Maybe that’s why Brett wasn’t feeling it.”
He ran the water for his shower. A gray paw slid under the door.
“Wow. She misses me.”
He stepped into the shower.
They played the rest of the afternoon. Harold extracted a shoelace from an old sneaker and lashed it to and fro across the floor while Cleo chased it, panting, eyes focused with religious-like fervor on the darting string. Afterwards he fed her treats which she plucked from his fingers and nibbled on daintily while lounging in is lap, him thinking, Imagine having you to come home to every day. She’d been there less than a day.
Cleo explored. She invaded closets; hopped onto windowsills and radiators; took up residence on the kitchen counter; propelled herself onto shelves, tables, and night stands, endangering Harold’s strategically-arranged crystal vases, ceramic bowls, and decorative mosaic boxes. He held his breath each time she maneuvered her fluid body around a vase and gritted his teeth when she knocked small seashells off a shelf. But he didn’t stop her.
Her explorations complete, she found him at the computer in his bedroom and invited herself onto his lap, then tried to step onto the keyboard while staring at the screen, inspecting it critically. Harold nudged her back down to his lap, petted her with one hand, tapped the keyboard with the other, searching out veterinarians and comparing fees.
“Don’t get excited. This does not mean you’re staying. I’m just doing research. Just in case you were to, you know, hypothetically move in.”
Cleo licked his petting hand. He didn’t like it—her tongue felt like wet bristles—but let her do it anyway. She stopped after a couple of minutes. He looked down to find her napping. She looked content, at peace, loved. He needed to use the bathroom, but couldn’t bear to disturb her—or stop admiring her. She really was gorgeous. Tufts of long, sleek gray fur, thick, warm, a treat to trail his fingers through. Pretty face, innocent and mischievous and affection-seeking. That whip of a tail.
Imagine having you to come home to every day.
Harold’s defenses crashed, like something shot down from the sky. He clicked on the first online pet supply site he saw and bought a carrier, a covered litter box, a bed, a collar, a scratching post, and a three-month supply of cat food and kitty litter. He purchased pet insurance. He booked an appointment with a vet. He found a general information cat site: best foods, best exercise, healthiest treats.
“I’ll give you wet food just once a week. It says here that dry food is better for your teeth: prevents tartar buildup. I’m never giving you table food. That’s for sure. What do you think you are, a dog? And you’re getting a scratching post, so don’t even think about scratching up my couch.” He kissed the top of her head. “Cleo. Cleopatra.”
She purred, but didn’t wake.
7:30 and they were in the living room, Harold watching a rerun of a sitcom about a rich, alcoholic lothario in Malibu who allows his loser of a divorced brother and his young son to move in with him. Low-brow bathroom humor that assaulted the viewer with a blitzkrieg of fart jokes and big breast jokes and poop and penis jokes. It was one of Harold’s favorite shows.
Cleo sat on his lap.
Harold felt good. For the first time in years the prospect of work the next day didn’t drown him in dread. But the thought of leaving Cleo for an entire day did. He had heard about a new trend in which some companies allowed and even encouraged employees to bring their pets to work. Something about how pets made employees happy and happy employees had greater morale and greater morale translated into lower turnover and increased productivity. A pet-induced domino effect. Harold resolved to get his company to implement this policy. If it wouldn’t, he’d find a job somewhere that would. Maybe a design firm.
He gave Cleo’s head a little scratch. “In the meantime, I have you to come home to.”
The sitcom ended and another started, this one about a fat delivery driver living in Queens with his thin wife and deranged, socialist father-in-law. Harold thought the delivery driver was kind of hot in his uniform shorts. He had good calves.
The doorbell rang.
“You’re popular today, Cleo. No doubt that’s yet another neighbor bringing you food. You’re the building’s number one charity case.” Harold grinned. “And I am a hero.”
He kissed her, then nudged her off his lap as she meowed in protest. He danced his way through the living room and answered the door.
A young woman stood clutching the sign he had posted that morning.
“Hi,” she said, smiling, apologetic, holding the sign as if she might hide behind it. “I’m Jillian. I live right across the hall. I think you have my cat.”
Harold didn’t move, couldn’t talk. He stared at her, disbelief pummeling him like a drum.
“Sir?” Jillian said. “Harold, right?”
“Yes. I’m Harold. Sorry. Come in. Come in please.”
He ushered her inside and into the living room. Cleo was sitting on the couch. When she saw Jillian, she meowed and hopped down to the floor.
“Thank you so much,” Jillian said. She hugged Harold. “My fiancé and I ordered takeout last night and I guess she slipped out when we were paying the delivery guy. It’s kind of embarrassing, but we didn’t even realize she was gone till now.”
“Oh. Well. She’s ok. She’s...really friendly. Really sweet.”
Jillian was pretty. Hazel eyes. Streams of polished auburn hair that free-falled over her shoulders and down her back. Nice breasts. If he’d been straight, Harold might have been attracted to her.
Jillian went to Cleo, picked her up. “Thanks again.”
“You’re very welcome. Gonna miss this kitty.”
He scratched Cleo’s head. She did not meow. Or look at him. Or seem interested. She was aloof, distant, a cat. Cleo closed her eyes, nested her head against Jillian’s shoulder.
Harold escorted them to the door and they left.
He sat on the couch, tried to watch the sitcom. The delivery driver with the good calves was in trouble with his wife and clumsily trying to maneuver his way out of his latest shenanigans. Harold turned the TV off. He went to the kitchen and retrieved his pot pipe, still full from this morning when he’d been too distracted with the cat to smoke. He made up for it now. He opened the window, blew the smoke through the screen. The thought of work the next day suffocated him. Maybe he’d call sick again. He had plenty of sick time, and being out multiple days rendered the lie believable.
He returned to the living room. Two seashells that Cleo had knocked down still lay on the floor. Paw prints blotched the glass top of his dining room table. He hadn’t seen her hop up there. The apartment felt empty. Harold went back to the kitchen, smoked more pot. Yes, he would definitely call sick tomorrow. He thought about Cleo. He realized he didn’t know her real name. He had forgotten to ask.
Joe Okonkwo's novel Jazz Moon, a story set against the backdrop of the Harlem Renaissance and glittering Jazz Age Paris, will be published by Kensington Books in 2016. His short stories have been published in Chelsea Station Magazine, Penumbra, Best Gay Love Stories 2009, Shotgun Honey, and Best Gay Stories 2015. He earned his MFA in Creative Writing from City College of New York. For more, visit the author online at joeokonkwo.com.
Graphic artist and painter Allen Forrest was born in Canada and bred in the U.S. He has created cover art and illustrations for literary publications and books. He is the winner of the Leslie Jacoby Honor for Art at San Jose State University's Reed Magazine and his Bel Red painting series is part of the Bellevue College Foundation's permanent art collection. Forrest's expressive drawing and painting style is a mix of avant-garde expressionism and post-Impressionist elements reminiscent of van Gogh, creating emotion on canvas.
For more, visit the artist online at art-grafiken.blogspot.ca, view his art for sale on allen-forrest.fineartamerica.com, and follow him on Twitter.
Andrew Preston is a Kentuckian folk songwriter and storyteller with a passion for the experimental. Having recently completed his degree in research psychology, he is working to complete a second degree in traditional music. When he isn't touring the area or birthing music-babies in the confines of his apartment, he enjoys spending his time hiking, pickin' with bluegrassers, embracing the glory of 8-bit gaming, and spending time with his cat, Brenda. For more, visit Andrew on Bandcamp and Facebook.