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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Story Excerpt No. 5

If you know my kind, you’ll recognize the art of the creep. Front-facing chair at an innocuous angle. Trappings of homework on the little table in front of me, arranged slightly askew: pen, pencil, journal, assignment sheet, coffee cup. Me, seated in a relaxed-looking slouch position. It appears to the naïve onlooker that, whenever I gaze  in Sean’s approximate direction, I’m merely concentrating on my assignment. No, I’m not watching for his shy but warming smile. No, I’m not waiting for his dark forelock to swish in front of his eyes for a second before he pushes it behind his ear. No, I’m not yearning for a glance at that awesome goldfish tattoo, by which Eddie would be so cynically amused.

I’m contemplating. Oh, now I’m writing something down, see? Mulling it over. Jotting another note.

I’m none too proud of myself at the moment. I walked into Café Amor Fati with an armful of Mr. Crosthwaite’s homework, real work that needs to be done. But it’s impossible for me to concentrate with Sean working the counter. Mine is the self-defeatism of a true professional. I can make wrong choices in my sleep.

Amor fati: what an irony.

I sip coffee, Sean pleasantly positioned within my peripheral vision’s scope, as the entry bell jingles over the door.  A beautiful woman steps into the coffee shop, and I feel a twist in my gut, a flash of warmth across my face. I mean, beautiful. The epitome of self-confident feminine femaleness, my polar opposite, all pleasance and charm and sensuous simplicity with an air of tacit complexity and oh God I can hear his friendly, “What can I get started for you?” and my heart wrenches with ire and I feel like I might cry or be sick or scream and she orders a latte.

I flip my hood up to block my view, stretch it along the sides of my face like a curtain. “How’s your day going?” Sean asks her, and she says something witty and bewitching. “So far, so good,” as I grip my pencil, and then, “How about yours?” as I break the fresh, pointy lead on the paper. I glare at the rough-edged stump, a mere remnant of good intent. “Pretty good, sun’s still out,” he says. “Stormy weather’s rolling in soon.” I set the sorry pencil down, take up the proud pen. Stare down at my assignment sheet through the fabric tunnel of my own ridiculousness:

You have achieved Step One toward the dissolution of writer’s block. You have begun to psychoanalyze your muse.

I smirk, tapping the pen, recalling Crosthwaite’s class lecture. “’The geese do not wish to leave their reflection behind; the water has no mind to retain their image,’” he’d recited, strolling along the rows between desks. “You and your muse are not dependent upon one another for existence or significance. Nonetheless, the connection between you manifests in the art you create—which, once loosed upon the world, holds its own manner of self-sovereignty.” He’d stopped at my desk-side, freaking me out a little. Looked down at my backpack on the floor, considering the Filth band patch sewn on the side.

“‘Live the chaos,'” he read aloud. Classmates around me shuffled, someone laughed quietly. My face heated up. “Live the chaos, yes,” he said. “Let’s take that advice.” Smartass. Was he making fun of me?

“It’s just the name of an album,” I sullenly tried to tell him. But by then, Mr. C was already wandering through the desk rows again.

Per your prior assignment, you’ve now documented your primary sources of inspiration and personal influences. This five-item list itself becomes a resource for further discussion.

I suck down more coffee through my hood-tunnel. Turn to the first page of my journal, take a look, cringe a little. In class, Mr. Crosthwaite had demanded to know: “What makes an impression upon you? What compels you to action? What, by your very nature, must you love? What must you hate?” At home later, self-soothed by two cheap beers and one bad joint, I’d composed my list:

  • Babysitting (hate)
  • Airplanes/flying (hate)
  • Punk rock records (love)
  • Looking around in people’s houses when they don’t know (love)
  • Tales of heart-rending misfortune (love)

On Monday, we’ll relate your list of inspiration sources to the discourse of complexity. Be prepared for class by considering the following questions.

Monday. Tomorrow. Mr. Crosthwaite’s going to pick on me, I just know it. Stupid Filth patch.

Question 1: What do you consider to be the simplest item on your list? What potential complexity could arise from this simplicity?

Not rocket science. Concentrate. I lay my journal down flat in front of me, open to the page where I’ve jotted my list. Question 1, Question 1. Question 1 was actually two questions in one, dammit…

Relax. Think. I write the word Simple at the top of the next blank journal page. The simplest item on my list had to be punk rock records. Unlike the other items, which were saturated with context-sensitivity and emotional baggage, a Blatz or Op Ivy record simply was what it was—a specific and proper noun with no grey areas. It was pure. It had weight, mass, location. Its identity was not dependent upon opinion or circumstance. Satisfied, I scribble on the next page of my journal for a moment, then close my eyes to think.

What complexity could arise from something so simple? What could contaminate such purity? Scratches? Warping? The fact that you gave away all your duplicate LPs to your ungrateful ex?

The beautiful woman with the latte has passed my table and sits at a booth behind me. I push my hood back, eager for a tranquilizing glimpse of Sean. He’s still at the counter. Now he’s taking money from some high school kids and smiling that same warm expression that turns my center to liquid. What a genuinely kind smile he has. It is in itself a simple thing, unburdened by ulterior motives or self interest. Eddie’s smile was always more like a sneer. Eddie’s smile shone brightest when he was one-upping someone with a sarcastic jab.

I could enjoy many years to come basking in the warm, simple smile of Sean St. John.

Once more, I contemplate potential complexity of punk vinyl. I guess there could arise issues of authenticity—you might accidentally pick up a bootleg. Or rarity—finding a first pressing or limited edition is cause for celebration. I jot these down. What about the fact that I won’t even walk into a record store if I have no money to spend? Collecting records can be something of an addiction. Complexity arises from issues of temptation, of self-discipline. I write, Coping with desires. I stare at it, uncomfortable with the wording, and scratch at it for a second. Coping with material desires, it says now. I scribble it out and write, Coping with obsession.

Question 2: What do you consider to be the most complex entry on your list? What potential simplicity could arise from something so complex?

Suddenly I’m attacked at the lower buttock by an insistent buzzing vibration. I jump up with a “Whoa!” and rattle the little table, splashing coffee over Mr. C’s assignment sheet, the tabletop, the floor. I manage to brace the little table before anything falls, but I don’t dare check to see if I’ve gained Sean’s attention. I turn away, toward the back corner of the room. I grapple in my back pocket for the stupid cell phone, which has been on vibrate since I’d missed Mom’s last call.

“Honey, how’s everything going?” Mom asks. “I heard you had dinner with Aunt Mir last night—that’s great.”

“Yup,” I say. News sure gets around fast.

“She said you’re looking happy and healthy. Sounds like this Kansas visit is doing some good. Helping you get past this whole Eddie thing.”

It bugs me, hearing my mother say that name just now. I chew on a response, then swallow it. Turn my head slightly, stealthily: Sean’s profile is visible at the espresso machine. I look back down at my homework, eager to change the topic. “So did you go on that date with Frank yet?”

“Francis. As a matter of fact, we went out last night for the first time.”

“How’d it go?” I write the word Complex on the next page of my journal.

“It went well. We had tapas on Capitol Hill, caught a jazz band downtown. A couple of drinks….”

“Wow, that’s quite a first date.” I flip back a couple of pages to my inspiration list.

“I was pleasantly surprised. He’s funny and friendly. And handsome too.” I metabolize this last comment with a shudder, turn to my assignment page to write, Other people’s houses. “How about you, honey?”

How about me? Tread carefully. It’s a mom-ism, emotion-laden and context-sensitive. “Oh, I’m just fine.” I look across the room again at Sean. Feeling bold, I actually watch as he wipes down the countertops. The goldfish tattoo moves subtly along the muscles of his arms as they adjust and stretch; the forelock of dark hair hides his eyes for an instant, and he brushes it back with his palm. A perverse train of thought pops into my head right then—Just go for it, for once! Be one of those liberated one-night-stander women! Break the Eddie hex! You’ll leave for Seattle in three weeks, and you’ll never see him again. Be crazy, go wild… Live the chaos! I shake it off.

“I should go. I’m in a café now and I’m probably bugging people.” I cross out the line I’ve just written in my journal, and replace it with a new scrawl: Tales of heart-rending misfortune.

“I love you.” She says it, I say it back. It’s our thing.

I stare at the page again, the words there. Consider the infinite complexity of the lovelorn, the unlucky, the wayward, the lost: timing is everything, for better or worse. The root of so much we take for granted can be traced to sheer coincidence, woven into a mad tapestry of complexity as robust as the universe and all of time itself. And love? Love above all! At essence, it emerges from complete chaos, no matter the medium: a blind date—high school sweethearts—work partners—tandem seats on a bus—it’s all random, chance. Amor fati, indeed.

Love is just an accident, an outlier, a by-product.

Its dissolution, therefore, must be as natural, all-pervasive, and law-bound as entropy itself. The simplicity that arises from the tales of heart-rending misfortune? I write it down: Predictable but inevitable.

“I’ll take that, if you’re done with it,” a voice says at my shoulder.

I whirl around. And I mean, whirl. Like a ballerina on her toes. Or maybe a tornado ripping through a quiet Kansas wheat field.

“You’re about empty.” Sean St. John is standing right. Next. To me. Pointing at my coffee cup. He glances at the splatter of coffee on the floor. “Oh, did it spill? I can get you a refill.”

He turns to walk away, and I say “No!”

No is such a heavy word. It can be so emotional. Contextual.

“Well, I don’t want to take it if you’re not ready.” He smiles. Is he making fun of me?

Tense beat. He’s not. He seriously is not….

“You can take it,” I breathe. “I’m ready.”