by Michelle Filippini
They sat on the bench at the beach blinking in the unfamiliar sunlight. It was that heartbreaking time of the day where the sun makes its slow descent into the lake and the gathered families pack up for the day, tired from the sun and each other.
“Well, we’d better think about heading back,” the man said. “Norm …”
“Yes … Norm,” the woman agreed. “He’s been locked up a long time. It makes me sad.”
“I know. I feel sad for him too. But what else can we do?”
There wasn’t anything else they could do.
Their cats hated closed doors. They wanted in on the other side, refusing to accept that any part of the world was closed to them. The woman was afraid of what she might find on the other side. She still had the rabbits dream. Her mother was asking her if she’d fed the rabbits. The question filled her with dread because she knew it had been a long time—too long. She overfilled the container with carrots and lettuce and stopped in the garage on the way out to the backyard to scoop a bowl of rabbit pellets. But the burlap bag was empty. She couldn’t remember if she had reminded her dad to pick up another bag at the feed store that was on his way home from work. They both had their roles in this and it looked like she might have failed in hers. Besides, he was dead, or at least dying, and she shouldn’t be burdening him with petty errands. The rabbits weren’t his problem. She opened the door leading to the backyard and headed out back toward the two hutches. Bad daughter. Bad pet owner.
Norm was supposed to be a birthday gift for the man. They’d lost their old gentle Siamese six months ago but still had two others who were perfectly sufficient. The two—a timid three-legged aging male and a feisty younger black-and-white female—coexisted peacefully enough. Maybe they didn’t love each other, but neither wished the other harm. The man and woman didn’t realize at the time how lucky they were.
Whenever they brought a new cat into the home, they followed the rules. The cat was sequestered in the guest room until it wasn’t sick anymore (their cats all came from public animal shelters) and/or the resident cats had gotten used to the idea that their lives were about to change. Slowly, the new cat was introduced to the native population. Some hissing and growling, even a swat or spitting, took place. Eventually everyone settled down and normalcy returned. So the woman spent the first few weeks with Norm in the guest cat room, administering eye ointments and, with the help of the man when he returned from work, forcing pills down Norm’s throat. The latter required they straightjacket him with a towel; Norm was, after all, a big cat. His size and the slightly cross-eyed Siamese face they saw on the Petfinders site had reminded them of their beloved other. “Norm!” You couldn’t say his name without attaching an exclamation point to the end of it and smiling.
The woman grew to love him those first few weeks, as she did all of them in the beginning. The small dark room became their warm, safe cocoon. She didn’t feel guilty about not working because she knew she was doing something important. She read books while he purred on her chest and didn’t mind that his bad eye oozed ointment and illness when he rubbed his face up against hers. He drooled in ecstasy. The others whined and clawed outside the door but she and Norm pretended not to hear them. She wished it could go on forever but eventually he got well. It was time to open the door.
They used to believe that nothing bad could happen to any of them inside the house. When they had to leave, they did a head count. That night they’d been running late and rushed out. It was after midnight when they returned and they went through the usual motions before heading upstairs to bed. They found two easily but not the third. Armed with flashlights, they split up. The man took the downstairs while the woman went upstairs. She had just poked her head underneath their bed when she heard his cry from downstairs. Oh God, oh God, oh my God. He’s dead. He’s dead! She ran down the stairs; it was true. There was his little body, just pulled out from underneath the guest bed, stiff and hours dead. The other two nervously hovered nearby. The cat wasn’t even three yet and had been such a people person, it was like having a dog. After that, the man and woman realized they weren’t safe. Darkness was within as well. That’s when they really dug in.
Norm wasn’t like the others. From the moment they sprung him from his room, it was clear he would settle for nothing less than world domination. The man and woman pulled at their hair in shared bewilderment. It was as if he had completely forgotten his recent wretched circumstances before they rescued him. He viewed the middle-aged hobbled male cat as small prey when he wasn’t ignoring him. It was the female feline he wanted at. His chest heaved; he clucked and grunted. He clawed at and under the thin cheap door that protected her from him, crazed and drooling. From the other side, the tiny female spat and growled and hissed, occasionally thrusting out an impotent paw. It was thrilling and distressing. The peace in their quiet house had been broken by an interloper.
“Are you sure he’s fixed?” the man asked the woman.
“That’s what they said at the shelter, and his paperwork says Neutered. I even asked Jim to check him when he gave him his rabies shot. Everyone who’s looked at him says they’re pretty sure.”
“Pretty sure? What the hell does that mean?”
“I don’t know. I’ll ask Jim.”
There was a test. Apparently it was possible to neuter a male kitten before both testicles had dropped, meaning there could still be some testosterone roiling around in him. Feeling around down there was all well and good but it couldn’t tell a person definitively. If there was a retained testicle, it would mean risky exploratory surgery to find the skittish organ, but at least Norm wouldn’t be doomed to a life of solitary confinement and the female wouldn’t be terrorized by a feline Fatty Arbuckle. The man and woman were desperate for answers; they wanted their harmonious family life back. They got their answer a week later when the test came back negative for testosterone. “I think he’s just that kind of guy,” their vet joked over the phone. Funny.
It was good that the woman worked at home, they decided, since she was, as their vet’s wife put it, busy rotating the livestock. She went out less and less, telling people she was busy with work. That was true to a point, but it was more that the complicated inner lives of her cats required her presence at home. If she had to leave the house, she watched the clock like she did at home. It was important to be equitable in the amount of time each was given free reign of the house. Sometimes a part of her wondered whether the cats were just an excuse not to leave the house—whether she was unwell—but she didn’t spend much time dwelling on such abstract notions. Norm was here, he was theirs, and his needs were real. She’d never been loved so greedily, and he was a most excellent lap cat, soft and pliable, like a plush toy come to life. It was important, worthy work.
The only pets the woman’s parents would let her keep when she was a child were rabbits: strictly outdoors. Her dad built two large wooden hutches, one for each of them, and set them up in the backyard where she could watch them from her bedroom window. As far as cages went, they were comfortably sizable, and he even put metal tracks on the windows for plywood shades that could be slid open or shut, depending on the weather. She could look out at the rabbits and they could look right back out, each wondering what the other was doing. Were they bored? Happy? On weekends, they were let out to roam the expansive backyard, and at the end of the day it was her job to round them up and herd them back to their miniature houses. Sometimes they were hard to catch in the big backyard with lots of hiding places, and there was always the fear that maybe this time she wouldn’t find them—that they had escaped the confines of the yard, or a neighbor’s dog had got them, or they had hopped away somewhere to die alone. She worried about them all the time, whether they were safely caged or happily, dangerously outside. Finally her dad drove them out to Lake Merced, where they were set free, as he said, to be with the rest of their rabbit friends. She relaxed a little. It wasn’t until many years later that the likely consequences of their treacherous action became clear to her.
The woman measured out her days in blocks of time: Norm had been out for three hours so it was time to put him away and let the others out. Or to let him out and put them away. Three hours was the ideal, but it varied. Sometimes she would let him out and hide with the others in the master bedroom. At least he’s out, she’d think. Later, she’d go downstairs and find him back in his room with the door ajar, sitting quietly on the bed looking confused. Sometimes when the man returned at night, tired, he went into Norm’s room for a while to read or fall asleep and she went upstairs to be with the others. There are five hearts beating in this house, she would marvel. Is this how other people live, she wondered, each in a room of his own? Her father died at home in the open space between the dining room and living room, not in a room of his own but still alone.
The rabbits: She is walking in the backyard toward the hutches, afraid as always about what she will find. She pictures various scenarios: The rabbits are miraculously fine, being dream rabbits (somehow she knows it’s a dream); the rabbits’ doors are open and they are missing; the rabbits are dead in their filth, shriveled up and festering with flies and maggots, food and water bowls bone dry. She imagines all these things as she walks toward them, but the dream ends before she reaches the hutches and unlatches the doors, as she knows it will. She sees it all in her mind’s eye in her dream and accepts that she’ll be left wanting each time. Her father died even though he said he wouldn’t, so he’s no help, and the rabbits have not been fed.
She goes upstairs to their bedroom, directly above Norm’s room, with that familiar heavy sadness dragging on her but not sure why or for whom it’s felt.She can hear the man speaking playfully to Norm, laughing, behind the closed door. The man and woman had begun communicating in their own kind of shorthand: “Is the door shut?” “Can I let them out?” “Did you open his shade? “Is he tucked in?” “What was he doing?” The loneliest part of her day was closing him up for the night. Leaving him in the dark. She could feel his eyes on her after she’d pulled the door shut tight and went upstairs to the others. Hearing them all right above him. He couldn’t know that most of the time, the woman was alone with her thoughts and the TV, the man exhausted from his day away from the house.
She herself doesn’t mind being behind closed doors. It’s the shutting and especially the opening of them that is gnawing at her. They’re going to have to make a decision soon about Norm’s room.
About Michelle Filippini
Michelle Filippini’s poetry, fiction, and nonfiction have been published in Kanilehua, the Sierra Nevada Review (2008 & 2012), Two Hawks Quarterly, Language and Culture, Suss: Another Literary Journal, Eclectic Flash, Glint Literary Journal, Moonshine Ink, QME (Quiet Mountain Essays), MFA/MFYou, and in Eclectic Flash‘s “Best Of 2010” anthology.