Archive for September, 2008

Death of a Cat

September 26, 2008
It was 6:45 when Ashley heard that Leo had died. She knew the exact time because after she hung up the phone, she checked the clock to see how much longer it would be before her apple pie was finished baking. It had five minutes to go. The clock was wooden with brown hands, except for the second hand, which was red. The hands rotated around an unusually large knob in the middle of the clock. The brown of the hands was slightly darker than the wood of the casing, which likely was not genuine wood but rather some kind of plastic that had been painted and finished until it was indistinguishable from the real thing. She could not remember if it had a label on the back that explained what the wood was made of, nor could she think of a reason why she had never thought to check.
     The pie still had 3 minutes to go. Its crust must be golden crown by now; she wondered how the last few seconds of baking changed the pie, if it would taste any worse if she took it out now than if she left it in for the full allotted time. Maybe the crust would be doughy in places or the apples would not be as crisp as they should be, but it would still be an apple pie. She wanted to get up and taste it, but she was fused to the chair, her arms resting lightly on the table.
     She was in a purgatory of impassive observation, unable to do anything more than catologue the details of the room around her. She had looked past the ornamental handles on the cabinets a thousand times, never before noticing that the point of the handle resembled the button nose of a teddy bear she had sold in a garage sale when she was fourteen. She had thought she was too old for stuffed animals and used the money to buy a new tank top. The bear was brown, a shade between graham crackers and pretzels, and his eyes looked like black marbles. Even now, she could see her reflection in them. During the heights of her imaginary phases, the bear acquired so many human characteristics that it felt obscene to let him drag about unclothed. She took a leftover baby t-shirt from the floor of the closet and stretched the neck over its head. The bottom of the shirt fell past the bear’s toes. She could not remember the color of the tank top, whether it had wide or skinny straps, or even if it was tight enough that her stomach showed when she raised her arms.
     Her eyes drifted back to the clock. It had been a gift from Leo, the last one he gave her before they broke up. She had never considered taking it down. When she looked at the clock, it was easy for her to remember how happy they had been then, how his eyebrows crinkled whenever she made him laugh. She could even summon up the sensations of him draping his arm over her shoulders, clearing the way for her to rest her head on his chest. She had felt so comfortable, so safe.
    With every tick of the clock, Ashley felt his life slipping farther away from her. Of course he was already dead–had been dead for three days now–but he still seemed real. Even during the separation after the end of their relationship, she knew he was only a few miles away, and even closer than that should she decide to call him. Many times she had envisioned him living and wandering, working his way through the bitterness that lay between them and a reconciliation. She knew they could not be as close as they had been, and indeed she did not want to be; that had been the beginning of their determining rift. But she still liked him and even loved him occasionally, and she had held on to the hope that he would understand her again, that they might be almost as close apart as they had been together.
    He died three days ago. He often went several days without talking to her, so she had not been worried, even though she thought of him several times over the weekend. She imagined the next time he would come to visit, what shows and movies they would watch together–he on the recliner, she on the couch–what she would find to throw together at the last minute for dinner. She had not felt a tremor on Friday afternoon. She had always thought she would somehow know when someone she loved died, as if she could feel the subtraction from the earth’s weight when his soul ascended. It reminded her of an experiment she heard about once in high school: This German-sounding scientist (she could not remember his name) constructed a box only large enough for a small animal to fit under it. No sound could escape from the box either; all connections between the world inside the dome and the world outside it were effectively severed. In the experiment, the scientist put a cat inside the box and then waited until he was certain it was dead. The question he wanted to investigate was whether the cat died when it was hidden behind the dome or whether the moment of death came when scientist lifted the dome and saw the dead cat. He even said the cat could be alive and dead simultaneously, since there was no way to know what had happened inside the box. Ashley had thought, back then, that the answer did not matter.
    It was finally time to take the pie out of the oven. Ashley approached the task with a ridiculous severity, as if the pie were the entire world or a chid entrusted into her care for the evening. She absentmindedly reached her bare hand into the oven, but the outrush of heat forced her back. Even then, she considered reaching in and burning her hands; she had not cried yet and felt guilty about it. For the safety of the pie, though, she found an oven mitt and gingerly set the pan on the counter to cool. It would be too hot to eat for at least fifteen minutes. She hated burning her tongue, not so much for the seconds of immediate pain as for how it dulled her sense of taste afterward, sometimes for as long as a day. She could not trust her senses to know if the spaghetti sauce was too spicy or the cocoa too hot or the applesauce too tart, or if any of it mattered.
    The thought of eating anything at all nauseated her. As much as she liked pie, it would be the first food she ate since she heard about Leo. He had loved her pies. Cutting through the crust and dishing out an apple-gooey slice, topped with a scoop of ice cream, seemed to her a brazenly inappropriate response. It had only been a few minutes since she heard, and already she was distracted by mundane earthly thoughts: how many slices to cut it into; with whom could she share it now; was it better with one scoop of ice cream or two?
    Ashley could not face the pie any longer. It mocked her from the counter, disparaging her claims on the life that eating it would prolong. From a rational perspective, of course, she had no more or less to live for now than she had three days ago. Leo was really no more than a supporting character in her life, but now that he was gone, she thought he needed to be an omen, some kind of symbol that would point her life toward a new, invigorated chapter. Simply moving on would be a desecration of his life, a denial of its significance to her.
    She came into her bedroom and closed the door behind her. She wanted to be alone now in a way that mere solitude could not encompass. On the wall was a carving Leo had made for her. It showed a forest scene, with healthy trees growing tall on either side of a stream. The stream bisected the scene. On the left side of it a boy sat, his hands massaging the bankside grass and his feet dipped in the water, the left one creating a wake that subtly drew the right foot toward it. A girl sat on the opposite bank. They were both looking through the flowing water, down to the sparkling rocks twinkling on the stream bed. They might have been diamonds, and if they were, the largest one in the center would have been quite valuable. Through some visual trick he had refused to explain to her, the rocks shone brightest when you looked at them from either side of the carving–when you took the perspective of the boy or the girl. When you stood directly in front of the stream and leaned in to examine the rocks closely, they disappeared. The carving was his “friends again” gift to her.
    Ashley had been falling asleep to music for as long as she could remember, which explained why the only stereo system in her apartment was in her bedroom. Whenever Leo brought over something he wanted her to hear, they listened to it there, seated side-by-side on her bed. A few weeks ago, he came over after she was finished working, and she was already yawning when he started playing the CD. They hardly ever touched anymore, but that evening she was too tired to remember, and before the first song ended she rested her head against his shoulder. He did not pull away, and before long she was asleep in his lap. The room was silent when she awoke; the CD had stopped playing, which meant her nap had lasted at least an hour. She had never been able to read his expressions, but the face he displayed when she woke up was especially ambiguous. She sat up too quickly and was momentarily lightheaded.
    For several nights afterward, she imagined her pillow was his leg, and she found the same delightfully comfortable position on it, sleeping better than she had since they broke up. She looked at her bed, sheets and quilt neatly made and pulled up over the pillow, and saw his severed legs there. The accident had been gruesome, of course, and for a horrifying instant she imagined his body parts lying all over her room. She was trying to remember what you were supposed to use to get out bloodstains when she finally caught herself and pulled her mind back to reality. Even so, the afterimage of carnage was too strong for her to handle, and she hid in the closet. 
     She came out a moment later, relatively calm and holding a white strapless dress. She had bought it for a wedding they went to the previous summer. It was the only strapless thing she owned and she had never gotten used to wearing it. Leo said she looked great in it, except for the look of embarrassed panic that crowded her eyes whenever she felt she had to adjust it. Even that could have been cute, Leo had told her, if she could have kept herself under two adjustments every five minutes.
    Without really thinking about it, she laid the dress out on her bed and undressed while she stared at it. Sometimes she put it on when he came over. She always changed into something more comfortable after a few minutes, but seeing her in that dress made him smile. She wished he could have seen her wearing it now. She hoped the accident really was an accident. Andy had not sounded very convincing on the phone, but she had dismissed it because they were both in shock.
    Regardless of whether he had lost control of the car or if he deliberately drove it off the road, he was dead. Knowing his mindset when it happened could not change that, of course, but it suddenly became important to Ashley. She knew he sometimes lied to her about how happy he was, not because he wanted to deceive her, but merely because he did not want to worry her. She loved him for that, but she never told him. She figured it would not have been a safe thing to say. After their reconciliation, they had become almost as comfortable as they had been when they were together, but it was a carefully regulated comfort. They were fine as long as they kept to safe subjects–books, some movies, how cold or warm or windy it was–but anything that might broach real feelings was dangerous. She never told him about her new crushes or the first dates that followed from them. She had heard about how depressed he became after she broke up with him; she assumed that any evidence of her moving on or enjoying her life would push him away again. Sometimes their conversations were so cautious and polite that they felt worthless, but she kept them going because she thought they made him feel better, that it was what he wanted. But maybe he thought the same thing. He had always avoided confrontation, and besides their time apart, she had never seen him keep an enemy longer than a day. Every time he came over, ate the food she made, sat there while she rested her head in his lap, must have been excruciating for him. He was just as unsatisfied with their friendship as she was, except that she wanted more from it while he wanted less, would have been happier without her calling every other night to disinter his humiliation with calibrated banter.
    With her bra straps sprouting from the bust of the dress, she looked either pitiful or iconoclastic. She had a feeling that Leo would have liked it, or that he would have said he did. Ashley rummaged through the closet and found the pair of white high-heels she had worn to the wedding; she put them on over her pink ankle socks and twirled and preened in the middle of her bedroom, as if he were there watching her. Even though she never got him to join in, he always said he liked watching her dance.
    Ashley remembered the pie in the kitchen. Before, it had felt like a nauseating desecration, as if the living forget the dead by eating. Now, though, she thought of it as a memorial. Her cooking had been one of his least-adulterated pleasures. She was going to eat pie in remembrance of him.
    She got a knife and fork from the dishwasher and pulled a stool in front of the pie. The crust flaked up where she cut. She cut it in half first, the knife sliding easily through the still-warm pie, and then she cut out a piece from one of the halves. Placing the piece on a plate, she stabbed into it with the fork. Apple filling spilled out onto the plate. She left it there to congeal.
    She shuddered.
He regretted it already. Even if she lifted her head and howled at the ceiling, like a captive wolf grieving the disappearance of the moon, or if she started pacing and stamping and crying in anger, it was not going to be worth it. He had miscalculated.
    He watched her on his computer screen, staring at the clock he had given her a year ago. She looked at it so intently that he wondered for a moment if she knew. Andy had promised not to give her any suggestions, but the way she looked up, not merely as if she could see his face there, but as though she could feel him staring back, made him wonder.
    No, he told himself, that part of the plan had worked. The fault, and now the burden, was entirely his. In the whole range of reactions he had anticipated, he had never considered that she would calmly watch the clock while her pie finished baking. If she was feeling anything, he could not see it.
    She got up, finally, but only to take out the pie. She lifted it carefully, as if her world would fall apart if she dropped it. She set it on the table with the same level of caution a chemist would give to a radioactive sample. She had not even lost grip of the phone when Andy called.
    Leo had never been able to read her thoughts, but he had thought he would be able to now; he had envisioned a grief intense enough to watch, something he could have read on her lips with the clarity of a practiced deaf man. But he might as well have been blind, too. If the announcement of his death was affecting her at all, he could see no signs of it.
    He felt her stoicism smirking at him. She was not smiling, certainly, but her blank face was so far removed from what he had expected to see that it felt like mocking laughter. And if Andy had played his role correctly and she believed he was really dead, she was not laughing at his ineptitude but at his insignificance.
    Behind all of that, though, more frustrating than her lack of emotion–or his inability to discern it–was the awareness of what he had lost. He could not go back. He could not ask her to forgive him for this. Even if it was not miles outside the scope of her beneficence, it would abort the experiment before he had gathered his findings, and he could not come up with an empty-handed explanation that would satisfy her. Only now did he realize that even the deepest external insight would not have satisfied him. On a whim, he had gambled everything they had rebuilt, and now he had to live with the loss.
    He had thought through the consequences beforehand, but now that he saw them from the other side, they were unrecognizable. His thoughts about Ashley went through a cycle, from affection, to percolating wrath, to considered apathy, and then back towards something like love; they had been spinning for so long that at times he forgot where the cycle started. He had to be so careful with her. Even after they were officially okay again, maintaining a balance of peace was like riding on the roof of a car. The scope of what he could tell her was so narrow and regulated that it felt worthless. But she persisted in smiling when she saw him and answering his resolutely banal e-mails as if they were important. Perhaps they were to her.
    They still had some good times together, usually based around some safe tertiary activity, such as eating or listening to a new song or watching a movie. She seemed content with the way their friendship had evolved, but he always wondered if it was an act, if she pretended to be happy so she would not hurt him again.
      It had been hard to keep the cameras secret for so long. Occasionally he slipped up by mentioning what she had been eating recently or how long she took to pick out an outfit, but she was not a suspicious person and he was good at lying to her. During their breakup, he watched every meal she ate from the clock camera, and after he gave her the carving with the camera concealed in the big rock, he often left the feed on when he went to bed. When he woke up in the middle of the night, it was soothing to watch her breathing in her sleep. He always turned them off, though, when she had someone else in her apartment, not so much because he thought she would disapprove as because he simply did not want to see her with a date.
    Once, he turned on the bedroom camera and saw her crying on the bed. She was wrapped in a towel and her hair was wet. He called her and casually asked how she was doing, and she explained she had just gotten out of the shower, and that her date that night had been a waste of time, and it was frustrating her because they had all been wastes recently. He watched her throughout the conversation. Seeing her smile when he asked if she was washing the man out of her hair made him feel surprisingly good.
    Knowing that he could not see her or even call her again, that he was limited to watching her through two concealed cameras, Leo felt trapped. He wished he had installed a microphone so he could hear her sing and dance to the radio. She had a weak voice, but he liked hearing her sing. He felt like he was looking at her from inside a box, one with walls that let him see out but kept her from seeing in. When he really died, she would not know anything had happened.
    She was in the bedroom now, laying out a fancy dress on her bed. She seemed to smile as she looked at it, as if she were getting ready for a party.
    It would not take too long for her to find out. Andy was the only person he had included in the experiment; as far as his other friends or family knew, he was alive and well. He would have to move away–he did not want to be around when she heard the truth. He needed to change his phone numbers and email addresses too. She would eventually find him if she wanted to, but not during the dawn of her anger. Even if he deserved it, he did not want to face that.
    He took it for granted that she would be furious. Her grief was invisible, but surely her rage would not be. She accepted his departure easily because her role in it was passive; indeed, she thought she had lived unaware of it for three days. But welcoming his return would be her choice. He was a prodigal who had squandered his life, and who now knew that the exchange was not worth it. Before he could come back, he had to believe that all the forgiveness of God indwelled her, and he could not imagine her loving him so magically.
    Her favorite pie was peach; she only made apple pie because he liked it so much. Watching her in the kitchen again, Leo imagined she saw his face in the pie. Cutting into it was her vicarious revenge.     
    He cut the feed from the cameras and turned off the computer. He could not watch her anymore.