Cost of Living

Listen.

Every night my cat sneaks into the kitchen, on the prowl. I don’t know how she does it, but she opens the fridge, gets the tub she wants from the top shelf, and pries off the lid. 

This is my story for the gentleman sitting across from me at the table. Our date is what you might describe as “blind,” but I can tell he’s in it for the long haul. He’s looking for ball and chain action, and here I am, trying to keep things light. 

The real downer, I’m saying, to this nightly feline debauchery, is that Jane (my cat) can open the door, but somehow cannot close it. I awake daily to the sour cream heart that has become her nose, and a fridge full of lukewarm everything. 

“So why don’t you just put a stool or box or something in front of the fridge?” the man asks. 

Well, I could say, Jane is like a lucky charm; you don’t put something down in front of that. My family lives by the superstition that if you wait for a cat to pick you, not the other way around, you’ve probably got a good thing coming. Jane wandered Eve-style straight out of my garden and into my life two years ago, but the fridge thing is new. I’m waiting to see where it goes and, in the meantime, it makes for talk, nervous or otherwise. 

Out loud I say, “It’s like a trick with the kinks still getting worked out.” 

When the man I’m sitting with came to pick me up, I opened my front door so fast that the bouquet of red roses he held out got caught in the jet stream, and began waving their petals like tiny, eager flags. My door throwing was a timeworn gesture that he most likely mistook for excitement.

***

My garden grows fruits over flowers, and its intricacies are just enough for me to abide. In the morning you take a mason jar whose lid has not gone missing, mix with water one teaspoon of Epsom salts per plant, and saunter into the great outdoors, which—if you make it so—can be just about anywhere. 

Even better than Epsom salts is fish tank water (it’s the nitrates you’re after), but I can’t do this anymore, not since having made the amateur’s mistake of cohabiting Bettas with Neon Tetras twice. Twice! 

At motherhood, I must admit, I’d fail. I catch myself slipping even with the cat, who has made the executive decision that dry kibble is a dietary staple so long as it’s cut with the protein rich drippings of a cooked pack of bacon. While big on taste, I think it’s the lack of nutrients that significantly lowers Jane’s standards; this cat would stalk a flower vase, a stapler, and three old bananas with malice, but wouldn’t know a mouse if it plopped on her head and used her whiskers as rappelling lines. Perhaps it explains my feelings of awe for the engineering feat that is an opened fridge door in the morning. 

“Who am I, your VIP beautician?” I’ll ask as I drag a comb across her sunbeaming side.  

Not that I can presume to know what it’s like—being a mother. My sister has a baby, and I can hold them, but cannot take responsibility. I was holding her daughter, Sabrina, up to the window to see a rainbow the day Zeus blew in. Zeus, another stray, crashed through Jane’s cat door just as a thunder storm struck, breaking up the rainbow moment, hissing and spitting because, as I later pieced together, Zeus is afraid of thunderstorms. 

As the neighborhood’s most recent unchipped, unneutered renegade with a name on his collar but no home address, you look at Zeus stalking out in the garden, the grassy field, and can tell he doesn’t miss one old thing—a born-again barn boy through and through.

Do I nail Jane’s door shut? I wonder. 

Zeus, I’m always thinking—what a name for a tom.

***

It turns out this man is uninterested in my cat stories. He’s looking for love, just like I suspected, and fears time is running out. He has a PhD in psychology and gray streaks in his hair. I want to take the opportunity to point out our drinks: my piña colada and strawberry daiquiri to his thimble of Merlot. “Does this read like the same book to you?” I want to ask, shaking his shoulders.

But like his PhD, he is weighed down by serious topics and asks how I feel about children. “Oh, I don’t know,” I say. He’s trying to corner me with his thinly veiled marriage shtick, but I’m on to him, and feel my charms become ooze. I don’t exactly change the subject. 

“What’s black and crisp and goes up and down?” I say as hors d'oeuvre are placed on the table.

He doesn’t know.

“A baby in a toaster.”

That gets a laugh.

“What’s red and swings back and forth?”

He shakes his head, poking at the soft parts of an oyster.

“A baby on a meat hook!”

Inspired, I do an original on the fly. “What do you call a baby floating facedown in seaweed?”

This guy still doesn’t know. I point at what he’s eating with my fork. 

“Clam bake.”

***

The truth is I’m out tonight for my sister, not for myself. She set this thing up and takes it very seriously. 

My sister thinks I’m depressed, but I think she’s depressed. How couldn’t she be? The baby here—the husband gone. 

“I have no interest in anything that is the way it’s supposed to be,” I told her the other day. “No job, no money, no man—who needs it!” I would like, I told her, to defy every cost of living. To be the housewife for nobody but me. I’d even written a poem about it:

“‘The Housewife’s Single Regret,’” I recited for her.

Hired.

Of course I remember being 

hired.

I remember the distinct presence

of an invisible, toothy eye, 

dog-whistle silent, but singing:

No.

Don’t move—

just keep thinking.

We are definitely paying you

to sit there

and think

whatever it is you think

it is

you possibly might 

be thinking.

 

There is a kind of freedom in it, though, this need for escape. 

“Off the grid,” I said. “No one in charge other than me and the whims of nature.” 

My sister refuses to understand—she would kill to have her husband back to help make money and raise their child, amongst other things.

“Kill,” she said one night cutting through a piece of meat, “kill.”

“Of course you would,” I said to her. “You named your daughter Sabrina, after that god-awfully unfunny TV witch.” Two months after her husband all-of-a-sudden tragically died. 

***

How do I explain to this man what I’ve tried to say to my sister? A parable might help.

There’s the story of the scientist looking back on his love of science and how that seed was planted in one bugle-call astrophysics survey course from a professor so overjoyed with the elegant discoveries the universe was capable of unfolding (if you just looked) that even a 6.9 earthquake beneath the Californian institute couldn’t shake the professor from the chalkboard, the students from their chairs. 

“We were,” remembers the scientist, “glued.” 

That is what I wish for—not earthmoving passion, but for the earth to move and me, just so occupied, to not even notice. 

“Joyous intensity,” is how the scientist described it. 

You cannot get this “joyous intensity” from four gulps of wine, dinner, a walk on a beach, and a movie. 

“You get it on the outskirts, the outskirts!” I hear myself crying across my plate, as if to a man so very far away, yet certainly in the same desert. 

Anything else?

I look down at the table and apprise all that exists between us. The coconut shell I’m drinking out of quadruples, I’m pleased to announce, beyond a cup into a hat, a boat, and a very strange seashell. 

“No, no, no, look,” I’m saying, “you’ve got to use your imagination.” 

***

The only time I’ve deserved to be slapped was a time when I wasn’t. 

“Fuck Pete,” I said once about my sister’s late husband. She’d been crying while trying to get teething Sabrina to sleep. “Was he even that great?” 

I knew it was a bad thing to say, but I wanted her to feel more powerful than she did. I wanted her to feel that this—if looked at from another angle—could be the great unexpected moment when her life oddly turned toward the better. 

But the look she gave me—I could have been a blood offering for each and every god.

***

The date isn’t all bad, and it’s true I don’t like to give these things a fighting chance. My defense mechanisms, my sister says, come off like a cat toying with a curious bug. 

“You spend too much time with that damn cat,” she’ll say. 

“But I loooooove my damn cat,” I respond, and stick my whole face into Jane’s scruff. Somehow she smells like coconut—Beach Memories is what I’d call the candle of Jane. 

My date would like to go to the riverside after dinner. Oh, hell, I think, two beats from an eye roll. But I suggest the bridge overhanging the river, a concession. Under the moon I gently confide more on the subject of babies. We breathe in the soft night air, and feel softer ourselves for it. I’m tipsy but not wasted—philosophical.

“Aristotle didn’t think a baby was human until it laughed,” I mention with authority. 

“Rats laugh,” he says. “All you have to do is tickle them.” 

“No!” I gasp. I feign shock, slight despair.

Did you know, my date asks, that before the incubator was standard hospital machinery, Coney Island presented hundreds of premature babies to thronging crowds as a sideshow, showcased in this inventor-doctor’s newfangled gadgetry. “They were wonders,” he says, “babies so small you could fit them in the palm of your hand.” In that time, hospitals simply told parents their child would die. In which case you took a cab to the freak show as your last-ditch hope. “The outskirts,” he says, reminding. 

He is a fine, decent man, my date. But I don’t say that. I say, “I learned that when children began to be seen as people with rights, they stopped working for us and we started working for them.”

“‘Economically useless, but emotionally priceless,’” he quotes. “But that’s just part of the cost of living.”

“Exactly!” I say. And then, “You ever read ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’? I mean, those guys wrote that stuff for our benefit.”

Of course he has. This man has been to school so many times. 

***

When I get home, Zeus’s handiwork is waiting for me: Jane rolling around in a fresh batch of kittens. Not exactly what I’d expected—I’d hoped to attribute the belly gain to the bacon, the kibble, the late-night excursions to the fridge. Though this could explain the fridge.

Do pregnant cats get late-night cravings? 

I drop to my knees and hold the naked creatures in my hand—not one to a palm but all five. When they meow they say the whole word—me-ow—tiny and perfect, a blind need-factory symphony. Their eyelids are lines made from the indentations of baby pinky nails pressed into the finest of sands. 

Fur, warmth, milk; I use my fingers as shields to corral them against Jane’s side. They fan out, a small phalanx to her body’s cove, knowing food, knowing mother. My cheeks are flushed, the whole of me radiating heat, just giving it up. 

What in this world is simple?

Lightning could strike, thunder roll, the earth slide, and I wouldn’t flinch, wouldn’t think to look out that window, to sit there and not here. No, I wouldn’t choose to sit anywhere but here, to sit here and marvel.

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