She lived in the apartment upstairs, and sometimes we rode the elevator together and talked about the economy going to hell or how we both loved Billie Holiday or the weather when we really couldn’t think of anything. Her hair was cut short around her chin and I liked that about her. Lots of girls can’t pull it off but I think she had the right bone structure or skin color or something because it looked good. I only saw her sometimes but it was nice when I did—she seemed clean and pleasant and wore good clothes that weren’t too stylish but not frumpy, either. Girls who wear too many fancy clothes with the purses and those shoes with the heels and their mascara are always hiding something, if you ask me. They seem so shiny and glowy with their long, long endless legs and then you meet them and you realize they hate their dad or their first boyfriend hit them once, hard, in the backyard and told them not to tell and they didn’t or they’ve got some mom who’s always telling them they’re fat. But Cat wasn’t like those girls so I thought she probably was different, better somehow. I imagined that really she didn’t walk so much as floated because she didn’t have all the heavy things weighing her down like the rest of us since she lived in the apartment upstairs and wore clean, tasteful clothes and sounded smart when I talked to her in the elevator for the minute or so it took to get from the lobby to the seventh floor.
“Good-bye Charlie, see you next time,” she would chirp in this way she had of talking, holding soft onto the ends of each word like she wasn’t quite ready to let it go, just yet. I would turn and wave until the big metal doors closed shut.
On those days I ran into Cat I would usually lay awake at night and think about her in that apartment, square above mine. I decided she probably had lots of art on her walls. But not in that pretentious, slick way like some people I’d known. No, she would’ve picked out something real interesting, something with meaning to it. I mean you could just tell that about Cat. And besides the art I imagined that she had nice rugs that she put in all the rooms—probably Eastern-looking, Tibetan or Indian or something, that she would sometimes just lay on and stare at the ceiling from. I could picture her short hair spread out around her head like some little brown beautiful Japanese fan, and there was probably nice gauzy moonlight coming through the window and lighting the whole floor, too. Milky white.
I guess I was probably half in love with Cat, or more maybe full in love, even. But I’m not so sure anybody has really managed to figure out what that is, so I can’t say for sure. I do know when I saw her, though, there was this rosy glow around her hair, that brown short perfect hair, and around really all sorts of things. I’d be slapping together a goddamn ham sandwich, even, in my kitchen after seeing her, and it’d have this whole shiny tint, warm-like and warbly. I also know she smelled like woman’s deodorant if I stood close enough, flowery and soft and crumbly, like you just wanna put your face up against her little upper arm to get that smell in your nostrils, get that clean in you, for a bit at least.
But what I really remember is the day when it all kind of slid somewhere else in me, slipping from obscurity and hazy rosy half-thoughts into some place, where I can’t really explain, but a more concrete place that probably smells like a bit of lavender or mowed grass or something if you had to describe it at all. Late March, biting cool air slipping into spring, I remember because that morning Elena my oldest sister had called me on the telephone. I had to sit on the bare ground and stare at the clingy dust that lined the creases between the dun-colored walls and floor and nod my head, listen to her talk about the things that I always wanted to forget.
Elena was the smart one out of us all, but she never did get why I hardly called. That I couldn’t think about all those things because I maybe never would have been able to crawl up off that floor again if I did, what with all the sandbags tied to my heart. Plus my oldest sister’s voice had this way of sounding sharper than it was in real life over the phone, far away and shrill and small. But I guess maybe that’s just because that was how I thought of her when she wasn’t right there with me: far away and shrill and small.
She told me all about our mother, the paleness and the shaking and told me I had to come home, that everyone was asking after me and inevitably demanded to know why in hell I ever would have gone so far away knowing what I did.
I really couldn’t ever understand what our mother would want with me when she had Elena there, gracious and somehow pretty when she sat by the bedside all that time. So I think I told her I just couldn’t pick up and go right then, couldn’t afford to leave the job, the life I had and then click went the line. That was late March and our mother was still alive then.
It’s hard to explain how I actually really did love them. But I mean maybe it hadn’t been enough, could probably never have been enough. Or maybe it was too much, if I think about it. Probably if I’ve figured out anything it’s that loving someone too much thickens your blood, the walls of your veins and makes it near impossible for the muscles to pump and push and beat. And I mean really what’s there left to give to the ones you love when you’ve got a second-rate heart on account of loving them more than it can stand, some cruel paradox of living. That was a favorite word of Cat’s, paradox, and I think it became one of mine, too, after a while.
Anyhow, it was that day, the day of the last phone call late in March, that Cat stood across from me in the elevator, and through the pale of her blouse I could see this faint shadow of lace that fringed her black bra, a slight raised shoreline around the cupping curve of her small breasts. It was a glance, a short, warm look and then I kept my eyes on her forehead while she talked at me, and she probably saw the blush all over my face but hell I don’t know.
“You all right, Charlie?” she asked with that voice of hers, the songbird. My name on her tongue felt warm and round, the ‘r’ formed with a soft, lilting mouth. The thing that really bowled me over, though, just really got me so I said the first thing that came into my head, was that I think she meant it. I think she honest-to-goodness meant it, and that, especially, I liked about Cat. Somehow, she managed to mean things she said.
I must’ve laughed before I said anything. Sputtered, probably. “In honesty? I guess not, but isn’t that just really how it goes?”
I wanted to kick myself after I said it, said that dumb, wilted thing. It gave me this soggy feeling inside, like the words were just limp remains that probably meant something big, something huge even, but a real long time ago. Lifetimes ago. And she just kind of looked at me, head cocked in one of her funny ways, frowning, I think. But that real delicate, real nice kind of frown that makes you think maybe there’s gotta be a quiet spot where you could just lie down and someone else would want to keep you there, just watch your chest move up and down a little, rhythmic-like, while you slept and you breathed, or some goddamn thing like that. I mean you just got that feeling, like you maybe wanted that person to keep you there.
Well Cat looked at me, and then at the two yellow pressed elevator buttons stacked right there one on top of the other, before she said anything.
“I don’t know if it’s always got to go that way,” she said and then paused, gave me some kinda heart attack with the way she bit that lower lip of hers. “You know what? You should come up and I’ll make you some tea. I’ve got cupboards full of the stuff. What do you say?”
It wasn’t really much of a question so much as she already had seen I was coming up with her, knew I would follow her wherever right then. I got this image of us just sitting, some kinda sepia-toned image and fuzzy around the edges, cross legged maybe, with probably near a hundred of these tea cups all different sizes and chipped and painted and whatnot all over the floor around us, our own little poppy field of porcelain. We had drunk them all, hours and hours and not a move but to drink the tea, not even to go to the bathroom. And what was best about the whole thing is that I don’t think we said much of anything at all but it really was better that way, warm and clean because of it.
At the door Cat had to jiggle the key a whole lot and push the stuck door hard before it jerked open, fussy. She sighed a little, or laughed maybe, or both, and I followed her through that door I had imagined for how many months, the door that really looked just like the door one floor down, my own, dull brown plain wood and a gold peep hole and boxy gold numbers nailed to the panels. The whole apartment was pretty basic, small like mine with wood floors and dun-colored walls and there weren’t many rugs, just one square maroon thing set near the sofa and the television.
Her kitchenette was right on the left as you got in the door, beige fridge and tiled counter and half eaten toast on a plate left near the sink. I mean there was all that and there was also that smell, her smell, pretty and soft and probably half imagined all over the place, clinging warm around my skin.
I sat at her kitchen table and she filled the kettle at the sink, this beaten-up tin thing with a lid that flipped up. The first thing I remember saying to her was, “You don’t have any art on your walls.”
She glanced back at me before closing the kettle lid and putting it on the stovetop. “I guess not. Do you?”
I shook my head. “No. I mean not that I wouldn’t like some, if it was any good. But that feels like plans, sometimes. Like you’ve got to make plans when you buy things, and I guess right now I don’t have any I’m so sure about. You see what I’m saying?”
“Sure. I suppose I’ve got some plans, but a lot of times I’m not even sure I like them much,” she said with this look on her face, lips just parted like maybe she’d said something that even was a surprise to her, something she’d had there all along but she barely knew it until the words came tumbling out together all in a row, fresh and dripping. “I mean maybe that’s why my walls are still bare, too. Never really thought about it. But I guess now it doesn’t even matter. I’ve been thinking about getting a place closer to work, anyhow.”
When the kettle whistled she poured the hot water in two plain cups before sitting down with me, dropped a tea bag in each. The tea smelled strong like mint and I decided I liked the feel of it warm around my face, like her smell.
“You like the tea?” She asked.
I nodded. I thought it was good, too.
“You feel any better?”
On the tabletop her arm was pretty close to mine, enough so I thought I could feel the soft downy brush of her arm hairs and the hot blood of her veins near my own. “I think a little bit. But mostly I guess I like you sitting here with me. That’s the nicest part.”
She smiled at me, the damn cutest smile I’d maybe ever seen or would ever see with round lips and these teeth that you could tell never had braces but were perfect in a crooked way.
The thing about Cat, though, is that she kept looking at you when you said things like that to her, looked you straight in the eye and didn’t turn her face away to hide like other girls because they don’t understand that it’s not a game and you mean it. But I guess a lot of times we don’t mean it, not really, so that’s what they learn. It gave me this sinking sad feeling, though, that no one had ever really meant it before and they knew it. But she kept on looking me in the eye, not confrontational or nervous or curious or anything except maybe tender. You never met anyone who could look at you tender the way she could.
“So what is the matter, Charlie? If it’s okay I ask. I hate to see you look so down. I really do.”
I remember I could feel her looking over at me, not telling me to say more, but just patient.
“I got this call from my oldest sister today, that’s all. Her name’s Elena, real smart. Think you’d like her a whole lot.”
“What’d she want to say?”
“Oh god, just talked about home stuff. Depressing is what it was.”
I stopped there but I could hardly think with her looking over at me like that and with her arm so warm by mine and this strong mint steam all in my face and her smell of deodorant and hot skin, so it was finally I just let whatever words were in my mouth fall out there on the table between us.
“I mean, she talked about how our mom’s dying. She’s been dying. We’ve known for years now. But I mean I guess it’s really…I guess it’s just that sometimes it feels too hard to love them the right way, and still make it out all right, you know? I can’t think if I’ve ever even said ‘dying’ before right now. But Elena called and she said it’s worse, a whole lot worse lately and she’s been talking about making preparations, you know, and my younger sister’s moved back home I guess. She never lived so far away, but still.”
When I’d said it all, spit it out into the air, Cat did this thing, the most beautiful thing I think a person could do right then. She just laid her cheek, softer than anything, right down on my arm on the table, held my hand tight with both of hers, her paws. “Oh, Charlie,” she breathed, and I could feel the warm air of my name on my own skin. “Oh Charlie.” And that was it, none of those sad limp words like “terribly” or “sorry” or the pitying looks.
Putting my face against her hair, the only thing I probably was capable of doing at all, I was surprised to find my own wet tears against it. I just let it be, though, let the salt and the hair and skin press together until for a bit I didn’t know which was which, her skin (her skin!) or mine, everything just warm and soft and sewn together and nothing mattered but that everything was really connected, this real heady rush buzzing in the edges of my brain.
When she let me kiss her by the window in her living room, hushed yellow light glowing through beige curtains like the ones in my apartment just downstairs, just millions of years away, the clingy dust swept up and thrown out into outer space with the stars and meteors and moon and maybe aliens, too, I hoped, it felt like my feet had started to hover just above the floor, buoyed up by my own little cushion of air. I remember thinking I’d finally got what it was to be Cat, without all the goddamn sandbags on your heart. I really remember thinking that, and burying my hands in her hair. It was one of those times when everything feels so full that it’s fragile. When you’ve got this rare thought that maybe someone actually wants to stay there, right where they’ve been. And it’s greatness but you’ve got another feeling in your stomach and maybe it’s just you’re scared as hell but you can’t really ever know.
But Cat had her hands wrapped tight around the back of my neck even though it was sort of damp from sweat, and in between my own hands she felt warmer than any girl I’d maybe ever held, softer, too. And for a bit, in between her lips I forgot about it all, the phone calls and the loving that was too hard and my empty apartment downstairs. In between her hands that pulled the t-shirt over my head and didn’t even laugh when I got the stupid thing stuck, that took me to a bed with a yellow quilt and paused just to hold my face for a minute while she looked at me with these pretty eyes, set a bit wide on her face.
And I guess I should’ve seen it, seen that laying a girl like that down on a bed in low afternoon light, pulling back the fabric on some lacy thin blouse like it’s just tissue paper in your hands and seeing that pale skin and running your hands over its warmth and its sweet scent, it can’t ever be like you want it to be, not really.
The last magic thing was the smell of her sweat, earthy and faint and so damn beautiful in that room pressed against me. But that was before it all sort of began to unravel, rose threads fading from all the light in the room. Or more really, I started to unravel, piece by frayed piece. It’s just that what happened then wasn’t supposed to be a part of Cat’s story. At least not the story I’d written for her on the inside of my own skull.
I found rough, scarred skin on her thigh and a damp look in her eyes when I brushed my fingers against and realized the hell she felt now that I knew the secret. But more than that, I didn’t know everything, didn’t know the whole ugly truth in those burns. And of course that’s probably the biggest hell there is.
I felt my whole body sick and expanding out against its skin, pushing it taut with knowing how ragged her edges were, after all. But I think most of all I knew I’d ripped through the shimmery magic hovering all around her, and there wasn’t any way to hide from that kind of thing.
I guess I asked, in words or just with my face, how she’d gotten the scars. She told me about the kitchen filled with the sweet terrible scent of gin and her father in a typical and clumsy haze. About how he accidentally knocked a pan of hot cooking oil into her lap and never let her see a doctor, wrapped it up in make-shift gauze and bandages for weeks just so he could forget about the questions that should have come with that kind of accident, let her suffer quietly for his own mistakes.
The thing really is that I couldn’t stand to look at her anymore afterward, but not on account of the burn being ugly or anything like that. No, nothing on Cat could ever have been ugly. The truth is, when you’ve half fallen in love with someone you realize you wanna absorb everything that’s inside of them, even on top of all your own mess. And that’s what got me scared shitless because I knew then that I’d really never be able to crawl up off the floor anymore if I loved Cat in the real kind of way, the way I could’ve before I looked around the room and saw the yellow light and the clingy dust that lined the creases between the walls and floor. It hadn’t ever gone anywhere, not any of it, if I thought about it.
I got up and went into her kitchen, hot salty tears that I didn’t deserve to cry stinging my face. She didn’t follow. On the table sat our empty teacups and I looked at them for a minute before I threw mine on the floor, watched it crack into a million jagged pieces on the wood and heard the high thin chink hover briefly in the air. On one big porcelain piece I wrote with a black felt pen I found on the counter, ‘I’m sorry, it’s too hard’. It didn’t make me feel better, just maybe a little nauseous and so I left it there on the counter and went out her front door.
After that I don’t remember much but that I walked to the deli down the street with the sandwiches I liked and only realized I was still shirtless when I went in the door and the man at the register told me I had to find a shirt or get out. So I left and I wandered but I can’t really know where, so much, just that everywhere I saw seemed dirty and it felt like hell that I couldn’t ever stay anywhere.
When I think back on my knowing Cat for a little, the biggest thing, in the end, was that I somehow got that t-shirt back. I didn’t deserve it. But one day, weeks later from my window I saw Cat in a patterned dress and walking through the parking lot like maybe there was actual asphalt under her feet, this time. She didn’t see me but got into a pick-up truck full of cardboard boxes with this guy, real big and telling her to hurry up. I supposed she was finally moving closer to work, like she’d said.
I went up to her apartment, empty with the door left open, and there by the living room window folded real neat was my t-shirt looking just the same as it always had, but maybe different because it had this smell like a bit of woman’s deodorant around the sleeves, flowery and soft and crumbly. I tucked it right under my arm and shut the door behind me as I left, and thought about calling Elena or catching some train or going in to work even though it was my day off, but I wasn’t really sure about any of it, still.
When I unfolded the t-shirt in the hallway, I finally saw written on the inside hem in black felt pen, “Go home, Charlie.” I went on into the elevator and all I did was just put that t-shirt on over the one I already was wearing, but that seemed really like the right thing to do.