Cat Box Blues (Story Excerpt No. 8)

After last night’s storm, my campus shortcut is mud. From the edge of the community garden, I toe a muck mound next to a carrot patch, another one by the lettuce. Nope, no can do—not in holey canvas Chucks. And now I’m officially running  late despite best efforts.

I backtrack swiftly, jog along alleys, jump puddles with cartoonish animation so remote from my mood as to be criminal. Here’s another should-be crime: although summer classes are done, I was out of bed by eight AM to make Mr. Crosthwaite’s ridiculous office hours. Excuse me: office hour. All I want is blankets and darkness and silence; all I get is unwitting exertion beneath the Kansas summer sun.

On that topic, I’ll add air conditioning to my list of wants. It’s only nine-thirty and already oppressive heat bathes me in sweat. The morning sky is ablaze, brilliant blue. I shrink from the firmament, my gaze cast groundward as I slog up Fourteenth Street. I wipe my damp forehead with a likewise-damp forearm and sigh. Then, chagrin: I recognize this gesture as a copy of my mother’s hot-flash tell. Well, that’s just perfect.

(I’d say, “Mom, are you okay?” and Mom would bark that bitter post-divorce laugh-like sound and say, “My superpower is to completely ignore the egregious shit that life throws my way.” And then I’d say, “Oh.” And then I’d say, “Um, are you sure you’re okay?” And she would fan herself and say simply, “Yes, dear.”)

Ignore it! I tell myself. It’s a little warm, what’s the big deal? But the sun throbs deifically overhead. I slow my climb, sweating. A rivulet runs down my spine beneath the cotton Clash T-shirt. The big deal is, I realize, there’s no escape. Rivulets run down my cheeks.

As I crest the hill onto campus, Dyche Hall rises into view, and I head southbound along Jayhawk Boulevard. The school grounds are quiet. Humidity rises from untrodden green lawns. Moisture from the pavement evaporates unevenly, and Rorschach blots on pale concrete provoke interpretation. There’s a bird, there’s a car, there’s beautiful Sean’s bedhead-hair. There’s Janet flipping me off good-naturedly. And look, there’s my geek ex Eddie in his Mariners cap and Werner Heisenberg hoodie with a bag of Cheetohs and a sardonic grin.

No escape.

Winded, I park my Chucks on Janet’s imagined face. My fingers scrabble around in my backpack, bounce off the phone in there, and I squeeze my eyes shut: nope, nope, restraint. I extract the Pall Mall box instead, tap its end. Out slides the remaining cigarette, bent but thankfully unbroken. I touch the lighter in my jeans pocket—then think twice, withdraw. Man, it’s getting bad. The past three cigarettes were each, in succession, supposed to be my last. Such a liar-to-myself. Well, then again—each of those cigarettes was my last, at least for a while. Up until the point I smoked another one.

The truth changes.

 I slide this one behind my ear and shove the empty box into the backpack’s depths. I peer inside the bag, shake things up, rattle past the class journal and water bottle: there it is. I grab my phone and punch at its smooth face with my fingers, stare at the notification.

Yep. Still there. And yet I still can’t quite believe it.

Voicemail. From Eddie.

A message from Eddie, as yet unplayed, after months of the stonewall-silent-treatment-cold-shoulder. It’s Schrödinger’s cat in my inbox, neither heard nor unheard, dead nor alive. Now, of all times. Now, after all this. Why? What does he want? Did Eddie psychically tap into my weekend’s despair—subconsciously prompted, he calls to ask forgiveness? To say he wants me back? Unplayed, unheard—that cat is still in the box, and still in the bag.

Zip up the backpack. Keep walking. Wipe sweat from brow. What’s crazy is, I don’t even care what Eddie has to say. It took me six weeks in Kansas to finally get over him, to finally want something—someone—else. And as of Saturday night, the future I had finally come to want is forfeit.

My superpower is the provocation of brutal irony.

Mr. Crosthwaite told us in class that the mere observation of a quantum-level phenomenon changes that phenomenon. Might that be true too of me and my-level phenomena? If I had just stayed in bed, would none of it have happened? If I hadn’t lingered in the kitchen Saturday night—if I hadn’t been standing there in the dark, illuminated by an open fridge—if I hadn’t loaded up on post-party-drunkard orange-juice-in-a-coffee-cup and coming-down-potato-chips and too-hyped-up-to-sleep-Cinnamon-Toast-Crunch-no-milk—if I hadn’t been just standing there, observing….

Maybe Janet and Sean would not have sneaked out of her room giggling like children, messy-haired and ruddy-cheeked. Janet wearing Sean’s T-shirt, its edges down to her upper thighs. Sean wearing only wrinkled shorts and a beautiful goldfish tattoo. Maybe they wouldn’t have entered the dark kitchen, whispering about sandwich fixings and switching on the light, and maybe I wouldn’t have been standing there holding a single potato chip aloft, ready for a bite, frozen in surprise and then in shock and then in dread.

We three stared at each other for a long minute. Janet crossed her arms over her chest. “Hey. I didn’t know you were up.”

“Sean?” I said, setting the potato chip down on the counter. I didn’t predict it at the time, but that chip would sit lonely, uneaten, for the rest of the weekend. So close had it come to fulfilling its destiny—yet its sole purpose d’etre remained wanting. Eventually Viv would get home and clean the kitchen and throw it in the compost with an angry mutter.

“Hi there,” Sean said. Seriously. Just as friendly and nonchalant as he’d been at the coffee shop, at the July Fourth fireworks, at the party. Just a nice, friendly guy. “It’s Wil, right? You live here too?”

Did he just say It’s Wil, right? like he only vaguely remembers?

Janet said, “Did you have fun at the party?” and smiled. Like she knew. Like she’d planned this. Egregious.

Or maybe it was just a nice, friendly smile.

I turned in, but I couldn’t sleep. Later I heard Janet and Sean talking and laughing through the wall. Then their voices fell quiet—and what remained was the occasional, subtle sound of movement and soft sighs. I rolled over to silently weep, and that’s when I saw the message on my phone from Eddie. Brutal irony! I was so surprised, I laughed right through the tears.

Not a laugh: a bitter laugh-like sound.

I stayed in bed until Sunday afternoon, numb and nauseous. I could neither sleep nor face the day. A cat in its cozy Schrödinger box—hanging out perpetually at the quantum level—strategically unobserved and thereby foregoing reality’s vicious collapse.

Dammit, I want to smoke the thing behind my ear so desperately. I should have thrown it away, like I planned. So will I throw it away—like I planned? Will I purposefully savor the predictable but inevitable growing sense of yearning, push through the anguish of withdrawal bravely, prove to myself my own inner strength and power of restraint—like I planned?

The lower east entrance of Wescoe Hall, all concrete and angles, is a sheltering little nook under the broad overhang of the main entrance stairs. Beyond the glass door is an empty hallway, ostensibly leading to Mr. C’s office. But before I pull the door open, my gaze recalibrates to catch my reflection in its surface. Hair in a frizz-haloed ponytail, eyes puffy and red. Better take a moment and gather as much dignity together as possible before facing Crosthwaite again.

“You’re my first student to simply not finish the final writing assignment,” Mr. C told me. “May I ask, why?” It was Thursday, the last day of class, after everyone else had dropped their journal off at his desk. Meanwhile, I had approached empty-handed and said with a shrug, “Sorry, but thanks anyway.”

I’d figured he would just ignore me. Since he didn’t, I was taken off guard. “I got distracted,” I explained, nonchalant. Oh man, I was so happy that day. Was it really less than a week ago? Way back when, Sean seemed imminently part of my most promising future. “You can fail me. It’s fine.”

Mr. Crosthwaite adjusted his glasses, as if he didn’t trust their clarification of the very sight of me. “Interesting transitive use of the verb ‘fail,'” he said. Then after a moment, he added, “Drop off your class journal during my Monday office hours, between nine and ten.”

“I didn’t do the assignment,” I insisted.

“Bring in what you have.”

“I probably won’t have time.”

“And if I don’t see you Monday—”

“I get it. I know. I’ll fail!”

“—I was simply going to say, I hope you’ll keep writing. You have a gift.”

I was on a giddy Sean-high that day. And in that moment, Mr. Crosthwaite’s words seemed like mere superficial icing on a crazy-delicious Sean-crush-cake. I probably smirked and rolled my eyes. I can imagine myself doing those things. Maybe I just smiled and walked away. I hope so.

Because today, Croshtwaite’s words echo in my heart’s empty chambers. Today they’re etched in my bones.

In the shade of Wescoe Hall’s upper level overhang, I rest against the wall, cool down. I smooth my hair back into the elastic band, and accidentally knock the cigarette from my ear. I pounce after it as it rolls to the base of a cement-enclosed trashcan.

As I pick up the cigarette, I notice a curious pool of rainwater in the can’s dented metal cap. Such a spacious dent—as if a boulder had fallen on it, or someone smashed it with a bat. I peer down into that shallow pool, glimpse a subtle shift along its surface. The movement below is a reflection of movement above: a V of birds crosses overhead, dark silhouettes against the rippling blue brilliance. I look up from the trash toward the real birds in the real sky, just as they dip and disperse, swoop and glide—from perfect order to seeming chaos, yet just as beautiful.

The geese have no mind to leave their reflection in water. Water has no mind to reflect their image.

Gently I lay my bent cigarette down in the dent pool. I watch it absorb the rainwater. I observe it transform—from cruel temptation to benign soggy refuse.

Ready?, I ask the girl in the door glass, self-fanning. Are you sure you’re okay?

I’m just in time. I push past my reflection and move on down the hall.

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Cats in oil on canvas.
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