“I’m not very good at talking about this stuff. So. Nevermind.’’ She buries her face in the pillow. I mean, I’m very good at talking about it either, but I wish she would at least make an effort. Aren’t poets supposed to put their feelings into words?
I can’t tell if she’s actually asleep or faking it. Sometimes she’s so still, I worry she’s died. I squint in the dark, stare at her belly, make sure it still rises up and down. It does
I crawl out of the bed, feet hitting the cold linoleum. Bed may be too generous a word, really just a mattress on the ground. I prefer it that way. It keeps me grounded. And on my teacher’s salary, a bed frame was a luxury I’d rather trade for other fine things. Especially cheeses, the really stinky, mushy kind, the ones that are creamy and white with a pungent rind. That’s one thing me and Anjela have in common, our appreciation for a nice camembert or brie or roquefort. But she eats them very delicately, the way you’re supposed to, with teeny nibbles that let you really savor each salty, briny note. My preferred method is sticking a big hunk in my mouth and not even chewing, just letting it dissolve. Around Anjela though, I pace myself. I take small, unsatisfying bites, like someone civilized.
But she’s asleep now, or at least pretending very hard, and I’m hungry and finding it harder and harder to care about decorum. I pad over to the refrigerator, peering through the dark so I don’t accidentally kick the cat. He already doesn’t like me very much.
There’s a round of brie in the fridge, a half-circle the size of my palm. It’s not the best quality, but a bit of honey spruces up even lackluster cheeses. I cut off a fat chunk, drizzled honey on in a zig-zag. The sweet and salty dissolves so nicely together on my tongue.
It must look quite disgusting from the side, me in my underwear, leaning against the counter, stuffing cheese in my mouth. Thank God no one saw me. Except for the cat, who’s slinked on soft feet into the kitchen, unblinking eyes fixed on me.
I think he knows I never gave him a name, and I think he holds it against me. We had been cordial to each other at the shelter, me scratching the nape of his neck, him shaking with a muted purr. That’s how human-cat relationships were supposed to be. We both looked to the Humane Society volunteer smiling at us, as if trying to prove to her that we could do this, that we were a good match. The volunteer told me he was called “Pasta,” which I thought was a stupid name. Pasta is what you call a chubby, jovial cat, a tabby that loves babies and sleeps with his stomach spread out over a sunny windowsill. But this guy was slender, black, yellow eyes like a lizard, his head always bent down with modesty. I talked to him through his crate on the way home, and promised I’d come up with a much better name than “Pasta.” I never did though. And I never talked to him aloud after that either. It seemed silly, the kind of thing only desperate, terribly lonely people do.
I put down my square of brie and squat, put my lips together in a pshh-pshh-pshh for him to come to me. He doesn’t. He’s antisocial --- that’s what I tell everyone who comes over. And people take my word for it, smile knowingly, nod politely at the cat and leave him alone. The first time Anjela came over though, she told me there was no such thing as an antisocial cat. She sat down criss-cross, slapped her thighs, and he came towards her. She scooped him up, and he seemed surprised at first, but pleasantly so. Soon he was purring against her neck.
“He’s a cutie,” she told me. “What’s his name?”
I panicked. “Pasta.”
“Aww, Pasta. Baby. Baby Pasta. What a fitting name.” She stroked his head.
It was bizarre to feel like a third wheel with your Tinder date and your pet. I felt I oughta say something.
“Um. The lady at the Humane Society said he had abandonment issues,” I tried. “Some little girl got him as a Christmas present but then they realized they couldn’t take care of him. So they gave him up, and then the same thing happened again. Another family adopted him and then took him back again.”
“Abandonment issues, huh?” Anjela looked him square in the face. “You and me both.”
She shot me an accusing look. “You’re not gonna abandon him too, are you?”
“No, of course not.” I felt a little guilty, because in truth, I had been toying with the idea of taking him back. He’d been in my apartment for two weeks at that point, and we had made no progress. I figured two weeks wasn’t long enough for him to develop any attachments. But honestly, I’ve always been plagued with unrelenting, unfaltering, self-destructive loyalty to everything that stepped with even one toe into my life.
That’s why I remain a teacher even though the job drained me of every ounce of energy. Who was I to leave those kids? And that’s probably why I kept letting Anjela come after that first date. It does worry me sometimes that she could be a serial killer or an expert swindler -- we did meet on a dating app. But I think us gay women are a trusting sort when it comes to other women. Surely lesbian serial killers exist, but not any that I know of. There’s an unfortunate lack of representation on even the longest-running true crime shows.
But I can’t lie, I didn’t just answer her text messages and her pleas to come over only because of a sense of duty. I was fascinated by her. I taught Language Arts, which meant years of my own education spent hunched over old poems written beautifully by dead people, analyzing their words, coming to my own conclusions and drafting my own analyses, wishing there was some way I could see if the meanings I arrived at were the ones they intended. And then there’s Anjela, a real-life poet, still very much alive, very much willing to discuss her poems in real-time with me.
She’s the kind of person people wanted to be liked by. Not that she is likeable, just that she seems at once warm and hard to please, someone with high standards you have to keep entertained constantly to win attention from. And everyone does want her attention, her lazy smile, her soft laugh. She’s sophisticated in very subtle ways, and to be liked by her makes you feel like you too are something fine and prestigious, something worthy of appreciation by a true aesthete. She wears thin gold jewelry -- probably real gold -- and drinks her coffee black, always with an Altoid to follow so her breath doesn’t smell bad. She carries around a thick leather journal full of pencil sketches of flowers and loose drafts of poems, and sits at my table, banishing me to the couch, while she scribbles ferociously in that journal, pausing every few moments, lifting her pencil and laying it lightly against her lips. She knows what she likes in all the categories that matter -- she can name a favorite album, book, painting, type of flower or bird or pastry. And she knows what she wants at any time, what she wants to eat, what tea to drink, whether to go out in the rain or just stay in and gaze out the window.
Cats recognize these things, and mine was absolutely in love with Anjela. Whenever she came over, he would crawl out of whatever crook he’d been hiding in all day, run over to her like a dog. I tried not to take it personally. I just knew I’d never bring her to my classroom around the kids. I’d never hear the end of it for the rest of the year -- “Where’s Anjela? You’re boring. We want Anjela.” Kids recognize those things too. Everyone does, really, kids are just vocal about it.
Maybe the cat wants a little cheese. I smear some on my finger and point it in his direction. Maybe he’ll lick it off. I know I’m projecting, but it seems like he’s frowning at me.
I know I’m stalling. I have to go back to bed eventually. It’s just even the idea of having to lay next to her, feel her heat, her body, her presence there is infuriating. That’s my bed. My mattress on the floor. I’ve never even seen what her house looks like because I never could just invite myself over there the way she does to my apartment. Hers is a sacred space apparently, a temple my elephantine presence would disturb.
I know the sooner I go to sleep, the sooner it will all be over. We’ll wake up, I’ll drive her home like I always do, and then I’ll never contact her again. I can put this little episode behind me.
But will I though? It seems a pattern deeply ingrained into the fabric of my life, a lesson I keep getting taught over and over again that I just never seem to learn. If not Anjela, some new person will waltz into my life and latch on to me, call me at all hours of the night when they’re feeling naked and alone, help themselves to the cheese in my fridge and get cozy in my sheets. Because they all know, all of them, the ex-girlfriends, the needy friends, the students, everyone, they all know that I will come to their aid no matter how pained, heartbroken, exhausted I am myself. I will always give them attention, shelter, love, even if I get nothing in return. I will give a home to all the abandoned cats in the world, even if they end up liking my Tinder hook-ups way more than they like me.
Whatever. It’s much too late, too early in the morning to think about any of this coherently. I slide back into bed, inching as far to my side as I can, trying to ignore the presence of another body under my blanket.
I wake up, and she’s gone. I stand sleepy and confused in the kitchen, wondering how exactly she left. She doesn’t have a car -- did she walk all the way home?
I realize I left the cheese sitting out on the countertop. It’s now sweaty and lukewarm. I wonder if Anjela saw it as she walked past. Either she was in such a rush to leave that she didn’t notice, or she did see it, and thought me forgetful and disgusting. And if she did see it, that also means she made the choice not to put it back in the fridge. All the possibilities equally annoyed me.
What really annoyed me was the reason she left without saying good-bye. What was it she said last night -- “I’m not really good at talking about this stuff?”
The “stuff” was me finally asking for a return on investment. We weren’t together, not officially, although the amount of work I put in was a relationship’s worth. Anjela, for all her artistic perfection and alluring personality, had much she needed to figure out. She had what she described as TV static burbling away inside her head, a constant thread of thoughts that knotted itself over and over, like a pair of headphones left too long inside one’s pocket. She needed someone to help detangle it all, which I was happy to do at first. I enjoy hearing about others’ inner processes, allowing them to dive deep into their feelings, their grievances. Anjela could go on and on, weaving ever-more complex metaphors, anecdotes branching off her main concerns like branches on a tree. It was fun to listen to -- she was a poet after all. But all that outpouring left her exhausted and emptied. She wasn’t so good at doing any listening of her own.
And of course whatever I had going on inside my skull could never be as important as Anjela’s problems, but after eight grueling hours listening to the gripes and sorrows of students forced to learn about adjectives, I had some unloading of my own I wanted to do, though I reasoned she wasn’t my girlfriend, and so it wouldn’t be fair to complain so much to someone casual. But she certainly didn’t think that way.
She’s like a cute pet that has completely overwhelmed its owner with its constant needs and demands. It seems to always end up like this, this time was especially ridiculous. She’s not a kitten stupidly given to a young girl that couldn’t manage its care -- she’s a grown woman. And that’s exactly what I had told her last night.
Anjela, usually so good at voicing her thoughts, was suddenly at a loss for words. As soon as she was asked to give and not just take, she fell silent, moody. She went straight to bed.
And now it’s the morning, and I’ve brewed twice the amount of coffee that I need. Anjela usually stays a little later on Sundays, and we drink a mug each, talking or doing the crossword -- that’s another thing we have in common, our love of the crossword. It’s a chance for us to both flex our vocabulary. I’d never met anyone better than me at crosswords before Anjela. I drink both portions of coffee. I hate letting things go to waste.
There’s papers to be graded. I’m already two weeks behind, and my students are at that annoying age where they want to see their results immediately, not realizing how much it takes out of me to critique each one. But I can’t really blame them. I was that impatient at their age too.
I decide to go for a walk first. It’s been a chilly fall that followed a chilly summer. The trees are skeletal, the sky is grey, everyone walks with noses buried under scarves. The sun is paler, always hidden behind a stormy film. I can see why they scheduled all the holidays around this time. I don’t know if I could survive the dreariness without corporate cheer and sugary seasonal beverages.
My apartment complex sits behind a mall, which was a popular location in the 90s. But all the big department stores have since moved out, and only the bulky cement shell remains, housing just a few bleak and tiny kiosks selling cheap jewelry and counterfeit perfume. The only thing of value to me is a craft store with exceptionally cheap construction paper. It’s a godsend since they make us buy all our own school supplies. I really ought to stock up for the holidays --that’s when we make all our crafts. Thanksgiving’s not that far away. Every year I try to teach the kids the unsanitized version of the pilgrims’ arrival, and every year I get parents complaining. This time around, I’ve given up. We’re just making turkeys out of the outlines of our hands.
I’d thought about inviting Anjela to my parents’ for thanksgiving. They’re still not too comfortable with the whole “daughter dating girls” thing but they’d rather I at least date a woman than be single. But I doubt Anjela would have appreciated the gesture anyway.
I do buy some construction paper, as well as food for the cat. I made the mistake of once purchasing the fancy, organic kind for him and now he refuses to go back to anything affordable. The morning’s double dose of caffeine is still raging in my system and I’m shaking. It’s cold too.
It’s the kind of cold that makes me understand why Anjela acts the way she does towards me. It’s the kind of cold that makes you want to crawl into someone’s arms, doesn’t even really matter whose arms they are, and mine were always open.
I’m glad to be home. It’s comfortable in here, really, even when I’m alone. Well, not alone -- the cat emerges as soon as he hears the food bag rustling. My phone rings. I’m already irritated.
“Yes, Anjela?” I cradle the phone between my ear and my shoulder as I open the cat food bag.
“Are you mad at me?” She’s crying. I don’t really know how to answer the question.
“No.” Stupid stupid stupid.
“Are you sure? That’s why I left early, I thought you’d be mad if you woke up and still saw me there.”
“I’m not mad.”
“Can I come over tonight?”
I’ve poured the cat’s food into his bowl. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. I have some papers I need to catch up on for tomorrow.”
“Pleaaasee.” The word is stretched out, rising up and down with her sobs. “I’m really not having a good day. It’s almost Thanksgiving… you know how the holidays are for me.”
“Anjela, I’m really not sure we should see each other still.”
A pause on her end. “I can’t believe you’re abandoning me. You said you wouldn’t.”
“I’m not abandoning you.”
“Yes, you are. I’m having a crisis and you don’t even care.”
I sigh. What am I supposed to do? “Um. Okay. Fine. You can come over tonight, just later. I have to grade these papers first.”
“Thank you! Thankyouthankyouthankyou.” She hangs up before I can say anything else.
The cat has finished his food and blinks at me slowly. I extend my hand, trying to scratch his head. He stands up and heads to the other room. I swear if cats could roll their eyes, he would have done it to me then. I know I probably won’t see him again until later tonight, when Anjela comes over.