Megan Harlan: Missing

It all came to a head when I mentioned to my boyfriend Tim that I might want to get a cat. I’d always had cats as a kid, I told him, and our new apartment seemed to need one. Of course, I didn’t mention the hole in our lives in our new apartment, which I hoped a cat-its warm, lithe presence-might help to fill.

I really hadn’t meant my cat talk as a hint for Tim to take the initiative, though maybe, as I look back on it now, it was a kind of warning. But the next evening, as I walked in the front door late from a long day of work, Tim greeted me with a big smile. “Emily,” he said. “I got you a cat.”

Seated on the floor next to Tim was a young woman. She was petite, finely pretty, about my age, her brown hair shorn close to her head. She wore dark, sleek clothes, a tight brown shirt, black pants. She was licking her hand.

“I’ve never seen that breed before,” I said mildly, playing along with the joke. Tim gave me a deadpan look, his face blank as air. A very small chill slid down the back of my neck. “You call that a cat?” I asked.

“What would you call it?” Tim answered, his voice rising. “Remember, you said you wanted one?” He looked both hurt that I didn’t appreciate his present, and annoyed by my stupidity.

The woman approached me on all fours right there in the front hallway. From deep in the back of her throat I could hear a thrumming noise, bristly and resonant. She bunted her nose against my knee.

“See? She’s purring,” he said. “I think she likes you already.”

Something inside me felt like it was sliding, and then like a strong, precise stream of air, as if from a tire-pump, was being blasted into my head. And then I exploded.

“Get away from me!” I yelled at the woman, jumping back from her pert little nose. “What is wrong with you?” I yelled to my boyfriend.

“What, you don’t like the color? Did you want to pick one out yourself?” he yelled back.

What could I say to that? I ran into the bedroom and slammed the door. I looked around at the mess; I was suddenly so tired, all I wanted to do was crawl into bed. Through the door, I hollered to Tim, “Sleep on the couch!” while dimly realizing that that was probably what he had intended to do, with the girl, all along.

The next morning, I awoke to find myself alone with the girl pretending to be a cat. Tim had already left for work. I had the day off, and it was a good thing, too: I needed some time to weigh my options. Tim had really gone too far this time, and I had just about had it.

“Get up,” I ordered the woman, as I started to make coffee. “It’s embarrassing, watching you crawl around on the floor like that.”

She sat back on her haunches, her arms straight, her hands on the floor. She stared at me with her huge yellow-green eyes, as if she could see right through me. I couldn’t imagine what she was thinking.

“What are you thinking?” I yelled. “Why won’t you say anything?”

She yawned. Her small, perfect teeth glittered in the sunlight streaming through the window. Then she snapped her mouth shut. The delicacy and the laziness of the gesture infuriated me.

“I’m calling the cops!” I yelled. “Right now! I don’t know what kind of relationship you’ve got going on with my boyfriend, but you are not staying in this house!”

She blinked a few times and situated herself in a shaft of sun. She curled up into a ball right there on the hardwood floor, pulled her knees under her chin, and gazed, somewhat forlornly, at the wall.

I picked up the phone. I dialed 911. A woman answered, “What’s the emergency?”

“There’s a crazy woman in my apartment.”

“Did she break in?”

“Well, no, my boyfriend brought her home last night. But she thinks she’s a cat.”

“Uh huh,” said the emergency lady. “What is she doing now?”

“Right now she’s dozing on the floor. But that’s not the point. I don’t want her here!”

“Maybe you should call Animal Control,” said the 911 woman.

“Very funny,” I said. “Really, what am I supposed to do?”

“She’s a friend of your boyfriend’s, and you want us to throw her out? We are busy people. If she threatens you or becomes violent, call us back.” She hung up.

The girl-I swear-was smirking at me.

I grabbed my purse and ran out the door. She didn’t have any food, but that wasn’t my problem.

Things hadn’t been right between Tim and me for a while. Several months earlier, I had been fairly certain that Tim was having an affair with a woman named Janelle who worked in his office. But I never had any proof, or at least, nothing definite-nothing that couldn’t be explained away by Tim.

For example, one day when I was looking for a set of keys, I found Janelle’s name and phone number written in looping, dramatically girlish hand-writing on a scrap of paper on Tim’s desk. It had to be Janelle’s home number, because it didn’t have the network prefix number from Tim’s work. I asked Tim about it. I said, “Why do you have this Janelle person’s home phone number?”

Tim looked at the note. The first thing he asked was, “How do you know it’s a home phone number? Did you call it?” he added, with evident disgust that I would stoop to such a thing.

“I didn’t call it! I wouldn’t do that!” Already, you see, he had me on the defensive. “But that’s not the point!” I yelled. “The point is that she gave you her home phone number, which I know is her home phone number because it doesn’t have the network prefix number from your work!”

Tim’s demeanor had calmed as I spoke, and he answered in a completely different, thoughtful tone, “I don’t remember her giving it to me. I have no idea when or why she would have done that. I just don’t remember.” He looked at me sadly, as if he could only remember for my sake, as if we were in this together.

And so it went on from there: Hang-up phone calls in the middle of the night; a flurry of late meetings Tim had to attend, often with inexplicable drinking involved; his sudden interest in long-distance weekend bike rides that he knew I wasn’t in shape for, and so, unfortunately, couldn’t accompany him on. I never had proof. I would never hire a private investigator. I would never follow Tim around myself. Not that I am above doing these things; but they are somehow beyond my reach, like running for Congress or starting an organic vegetable farm. In theory these ideas sound like they have potential, but in practice I would just never do them.

After a while, I could not look at Tim without thinking of Janelle, too-or, at least, of his possible intimacy with her. It became a thing between us, a form I could sometimes almost feel, like the warmth of an unseen body. Tim and I were no longer a couple, but had been joined by this other creature, the Janelle of my fantasies or the Janelle of Tim’s secret reality-either one, it almost didn’t matter-and for some time we were fairly happy together like that. Or I suppose I wasn’t so much happy as resigned, which can feel like the same thing, until you remember how much you’ve had to lose.

When I came home, Tim was back from work, and he was calling the woman pretending to be a cat “Sabine.” “Here Sabine,” he said, holding out a bit of canned tuna fish on his finger. “Here’s some food for Sabine.”

“So she’s a French cat? A French kitten?” I struggled for words. “A French sex kitten cat?” I yelled. I was, however, getting tired of yelling all the time. Tim once again gave me his hurt-and-annoyed expression, while the woman-cat, having finished licking the tuna from Tim’s finger, chewed prettily on her fingernails.

I walked into the kitchen. I was suddenly so famished that I decided dealing with this situation could wait. I grabbed a cold roast chicken leg from the fridge. As I stood there eating it, I noticed that Tim had installed a very large rubber flap onto our back door.

“What’s this?” I yelled.

Tim said, “That way she can get out. We won’t have to deal with kitty litter or anything.”

I kicked at the rubber door flap. I crouched down and peered through it, at the browning rhododendrons and grass outside. If you were ever to have a cat, a cat flap wasn’t such a bad idea.

“Somehow, I thought she’d be an indoor cat,” I said facetiously. It felt sort of good to play along with Tim, rather than constantly yell in indignation and outrage. Make pointed and stealthy remarks, I thought to myself. Wear him down with my sharp but understated wit.

“Well, I think it’s better that she has her freedom,” said Tim from the couch, as he flipped through TV channels. “But if it bothers you, we can keep her inside.”

Warming to my new quietly cunning attitude, I asked Tim, “So where did you find her? I’m assuming not at a pet store.”

“Actually, it was kind of sad,” answered Tim, gazing at a nature documentary about the African bush. “I was driving by the park, on my way home, and I saw her tearing after a bird. She caught the thing in her mouth, but somehow it managed to get away. And she just sat there and cried, this little trickle of blood running down her chin. I guess she must have been really hungry. I noticed that she didn’t have a collar on, so I called to her until she let me grab her, and then I brought her home.”

“Touching,” I said, with not just a hint of sarcasm.

“Yeah, good timing too. I know how much you wanted one.”

When we went to bed, I allowed Tim to sleep with me. It was one way to make sure he wasn’t sleeping with Cat Woman. I don’t know where she slept, though I could hear the cat door flapping back and forth all night.

I really didn’t have a plan. It just seemed smarter to bide my time, not do anything rash. I couldn’t get a handle on what, exactly, was going on, though I ran the possibilities over and over in my mind: Maybe Tim had gone crazy, and really did think that the woman was a cat. Or maybe he was having an affair with this crazy girl, who thought she was a cat. Or maybe they were both putting me on, and wanted to have an affair right under my nose, and for some reason thought that this was the most convenient way to do it. She had, after all, moved right in.

Or maybe they were both crazy, and they both thought she was a cat.

Or maybe she was a cat, and I was the crazy one!

Months earlier, I’d dragged my friends through the Janelle predicament. I instigated enormous conversations detailing every suspicion I had, with the intricate, strategic paranoia of military intelligence. And my friends offered passionate analyses, as if my defensive line against Tim’s possible infidelity could be strengthened simply by talking about it enough. But of course I never took action-never confronted Tim with an ultimatum, never spied on or tracked Janelle down, never just up and left, taking my lack of trust in Tim as reason enough to end the relationship. Unless I was certain I would do something, it would be embarrassing to start up this sort of thing with my friends again.

So the only person left who would listen to me about the cat woman was my mom. But that was a risk. My mother is of the Old School, relationship-wise. For a crushingly subjective mix of biological and anthropological reasons, she believes that men, unlike women, simply don’t pay enough attention to relationships to be held accountable for their actions in them. She is also convinced that men respond best to a willfully accommodating woman, one who provides generous mounds of mushy, acquiescent yin to cushion his steely, unconcerned yang. Sometimes, she seems to marvel that I have ever been in a relationship at all.

But I was desperate, so I called her. “Hey Mom.”

“Hello honey,” my mother said with her usual cheer.

“Mom, I’ve got a bit of a problem.”

She made a quick, deep sigh. “Okay, I’m listening.”

“Uh, well, it’s Tim.”

“What have you done this time?”

“I haven’t done anything. It’s really kind of a funny situation.” I laughed nervously, to illustrate. “I said I wanted a cat, and so he brought home this woman who’s pretending to be a cat.”

“Tim is such a nice young man, and he loves you so much,” she said, in a way I knew she meant but which still didn’t make me feel better. She was silent for a second. “Are you sure she isn’t a cat?”

“Positive.”

“I mean, absolutely sure. Because Tim is such a nice young man and he loves you so much.”

This was a logical circle I would have to do my best to break. “Let’s assume, Mom, that he is and does, and that he’s also brought home a woman, whom he’s claiming is our new pet cat. What should I do in that situation?”

“Well, he probably thinks she is a cat!” she said loudly. “Sometimes we simply have to accept the people we love. Even if we don’t like how they act very much.” She delivered this in a weary tone, as if she’d had all too much experience with this sort of acceptance.

I felt my energy, my righteous indignation at Tim and the cat woman, seeping away. It wasn’t like my mother was convincing me. It wasn’t like she had suddenly converted me to the relationship Old School. It was just that I felt so alone.

The next evening, when I walked in with groceries, Tim was sitting on the couch, his head in his hands. I had been planning on starting a fight with him-the reason for which I would make up as I went along. So when I saw him like that, I had an eerie, guilty feeling, as if time had been fast-forwarded half an hour, and we were already midway through a miserable exchange. “Tim!” I said. “What’s wrong?”

“Oh, it’s you,” said Tim, peering at me through reddened fingers. He sat quietly for a second. “She’s gone,” he explained. “Not that you care.”

“Sabine left you?” I imagined her slinking into the lives of some other squabbling couple.

“She’s missing, get it? I’ve looked everywhere. She never stays out this long. I’m afraid she got run over or something.” His voice trailed off at the awfulness of this possibility.

“Well,” I said helplessly. The apartment did seem colder, stiller without her. I felt a small sting of panic and said, “Let’s go out and look for her!”

“There’s no way we’re gonna find her,” said Tim, coming out from behind his hands.

“We’ll put up signs!” I exclaimed, grabbing some paper. “Here, write down some things to describe her.”

Tim wrote:

LOST CAT!!!

RESPONDS (SOMETIMES) TO “SABINE,” “BEAN,” OR “JELLY BEAN”

BLACK AND BROWN SHORT-HAIR

GREEN EYES

Beneath that he drew a baffling, detailed picture, because Tim draws poorly, but with unflagging energy. The drawing looked like a little Christmas tree with stumpy legs and dreamy, Japanimation-style eyes. He added a heart-shaped thought cloud over the creature’s head, in which he scrawled, “Bring me home!” It was, to sum up, the saddest thing I had ever seen.

“I know you hate her,” Tim mumbled.

Ignoring him, I said, “We’ll make copies and put the sign up everywhere! Come on, get your shoes on, we don’t want to waste any more time!” As I issued these commands, I could feel Tim look at me searchingly, as if I was the one hiding his beloved Jelly Bean.

We spent three hours scouring the neighborhood for her-Tim sneaking around people’s yards and calling for her, me posting signs on lampposts with Scotch tape because we didn’t have anything better at home. I kept waiting to feel elated that the girl had left, that it was just me and Tim. Instead I thought: It’s just me and Tim, and whatever twisted stuff fills in for things like honesty and trust.

By the time we returned home, both of us were exhausted, fed up, and hungry. I went to the bedroom, blindly stripping off my clothes. I hurtled my camisole into my closet. It was there that I saw her.

She was curled up behind my laundry bag, tucked into that little pike position she makes when she’s fast asleep. She was snoring very softly. I knelt down and touched the back of her head, her soft short hair. I could crush her, I thought. I could take my old steel-toed Doc Martens, and beat her to death around the head. But she looked so peaceful, so forgotten to the world, that instead I started to stroke her, running my hand lightly down her back, in circles across her stomach. She didn’t stir. But after a few minutes she made a thrumming noise, precisely mimicking that soothing feline sound of pleasure at the attention of another. Then her hands started kneading, like a kitten does against its mother’s belly, or a cat does against a blanket if it was weaned too early. We sat there like that in the dark of my closet, her body shuddering lightly against mine, and I felt more peaceful than I had in months, probably since I’d moved in with Tim.

I picked her up in my arms, brought her out to Tim. He gave a small cry, grabbed her from me, and began kissing her all over her happily writhing body. I was touched by this, I honestly was. Then I went back to my closet, and got to work packing.



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