Content warning: Swearing
My cat, Oreo, is the best poker partner I've ever had. Hands down—no pun intended. Don't let those old Coolidge paintings fool you; dogs really don't know what the hell they're doing once you sit them on that rickety ladder back chair, and their paws just aren't made for holding the cards steady. Trust me: If you want a reliable means of collusion in a game of Texas hold 'em, British Shorthairs are the way to go.
Of course, it also helps that Oreo can talk now.
Last month my boyfriend, Mark, came into the living room while I was watching TV. He didn't sit, which was the first red flag. The second came in the hushed form of those infamous four words: "We need to talk."
There was a program playing, some roundtable discussion where the panelists debated the ideologies of Buddhism. My finger grazed the remote's mute button, but I kept the volume on, hoping the panelists' words would eclipse Mark's.
It didn't work.
"It's not you, Trevor, it's me," he began, right before telling me how I made everything about myself and he just couldn't take it. I said nothing because I didn't want to prove his point. Then he left and took eighteen months of memories with him into the dusty Las Vegas night.
Well, I decided to follow the teachings of the show and take the Buddhist approach: four Budweisers and two joints.
When that didn't work, I opted for the casino, since I was already losing things.
It was on a whim that I grabbed Oreo, usually silent and antisocial, during one of his coughing fits, tucked him under my armpit like a fifteen-pound black-and-white football, and shambled out the door.
We staggered downtown through the palm trees and lights of the Vegas strip. Colors bright as the future illuminated the casinos. Eventually I chose one glowing hot pink named Flamingo.
The bouncer out front stopped me before I could enter. He gestured to Oreo. "No cats allowed."
"He's a service cat, bro," I said, slurring my words.
It wasn't until I offered him my last two joints, which I'd been saving for after the casino, when I could legally file for bankruptcy, that he finally relented.
The stench of tobacco and desperation congested the casino. In the poker room we sidled up to a sparsely-populated table. Oreo sat on the chair beside mine. After I exchanged my life savings for a pile of black tokens, he wobbled on his hind legs, flopped his paws down on the emerald felt, and coughed on the stack of poker chips I'd split with him.
"My friend's playing too," I interpreted.
The dealer, a twenty-something in a green visor, looked askance at my cat, probably wondering how we'd evaded the bouncer, but what could he do? We were already inside. He gazed over the top of my head as though seeking another, less persuadable bouncer.
Still, when dealing, he shrugged and jokingly tossed two cards to Oreo, who pawed at them and coughed.
The game proceeded like normal, with all of us raising our bets, folding when appropriate. I moved Oreo's chips to the table's center, just to get that loss out of the way early. It wasn't until the dealer was collecting our cards that I bothered to flip Oreo's hand over.
Imagine our faces when we saw my cat sitting on a royal flush.
Technically, because I had gone all in with Oreo's chips, the dealer had no choice but to declare Oreo the winner of the round. With a smile, I snatched up our winnings.
We all thought it was a fluke, until the next game when Oreo had four-of-a-kind, all 6s.
Then the dealer politely asked us to leave.
Standing there on the sidewalk, $600 richer than before because of my cat, I hugged Oreo. And that's when, for the first time, he spoke, his voice like a squeaky toy: "Let's go again. That shit was too easy."
Understand: I was cross-faded at the time, blissfully numb in a stupor of alcohol and weed, so my cat speaking never seemed that far-fetched.
We jaywalked to Bellagio, with its air-conditioned rooms and more lenient cat policies. Oreo perched on my shoulder like a pirate's parrot as we devised our poker tells.
When we were at Bellagio and Oreo purred like a '92 Camaro, I knew to fold. And at Caesar's Palace, when he bent down and licked his crotch, I sat back and awaited his royal flush.
Suddenly the center strip unfurled before us like uncharted territory, and we spent the next three weeks exploring. The only casino we didn't try was The Mirage—Mark's workplace. The place we met.
Upon leaving Flamingo we made a pact: Oreo keeps his talking a secret, and I give him seventy-five percent of our winnings. What he needs with all that money is beyond me, though once, I swear I smelled something in the kitchen that wasn't Meow Mix.
Today is Sunday, which is bad for two reasons. The first being that Mark and I had our "we days" on Sundays, when we went shopping or ate out or performed karaoke for drunk strangers.
The second being: It's been one month, to the day, since our breakup.
Meaning, I need a distraction.
Oreo lazes on the couch, holding a can of seafood pâté that I don't recall purchasing. The TV is tuned to QVC, where a woman is advertising vacuum-sealed barramundi.
"Crazy shit, huh, kid?" he asks when I flop down next to him. "They think of everything."
"Where's your phone?" he asks, yellow eyes glued to the screen. "I need that."
I squeeze the cushion. "Hey, let's have a we day." I can hear my neediness. "How about we go to the casinos?"
"Hell no. We've been every day this week."
Which is true. In this last month, Oreo and I have been approached by strangers who've heard of our status—rivals from neighboring cities, sponsors who want to design T-shirts using Oreo's likeness.
So much for "What Happens in Vegas."
"C'mon," I plead.
Oreo ignores me.
I grab my phone, dangle it like a treat. "Fine, you can have all the barramundi you want," I lie.
And I'm surprised, after all this time, how easily he folds.
At Flamingo the bouncer holds out his hand. "Hold it," he says, and points to a sign that wasn't there last night. On it is an artist's rendition of Oreo, ten pounds overweight. Two words orbit his head: "NO CATS!"
"What the hell? We were just here yesterday," I protest.
"New day, new policy. No cats," he says, folding his arms over his chest.
"Owner said so. You gotta problem, you take it up with him."
He doesn't even budge when I offer him a joint.
"Son of a bitch," Oreo squeaks as we stalk off. "I left QVC for this?"
"Relax," I tell him. "It's just one casino."
But when we try Caesar's Palace and Bellagio, they've got the same anatomically-inaccurate anti-Oreo signs, the same muscle-bound bouncers standing between us and a brighter, greener future. "Owner said so," the Bellagio guy reiterates. "It was in the newsletter."
Later, Oreo issues some not-so-nice comments regarding the newsletter and where the owner can shove it.
It's getting late. The color has drained from the sky. The nightlights of the city wash over me and Oreo, bathing us in muted hues.
As we're heading back home, he abruptly slaps his tail against my back. I stop and follow his eyes across the street to an oasis of palm trees and a miniature waterfall. The one casino we haven't swindled: The Mirage.
Memories of Mark return in waves, so many it feels like I might drown. There's one I can't shake: me sitting down at his empty blackjack table on the night we met. After I lost four games in a row, Mark's white teeth appeared as he said, "Busted." And I'd replied, "You mean the game, or checking you out?"
He loves telling that story. Loved.
"No, it's probably the same thing there," I say.
Oreo dangles his paw in my face. His claws emerge on command. "Humor me, kid."
So we jaywalk to The Mirage.
There is no sign out front. The bouncer glances at us, nods, tells us to enjoy our night. And just like that we're in.
Oreo scoffs. "Guess this place didn't get the newsletter."
Though I hate myself for it, I can't help but check Mark's old blackjack table on our way to the poker room. In his place a blonde croupier is dealing. Somehow it's not a relieving sight.
In the poker room Oreo picks our competition. He's got a nose for sniffing out weak players, says they smell like piss and Bud Light. That's how we wind up at the table of a bald man with a beer gut.
I'm so busy sizing him up that I almost miss my name.
The dealer stares at me. Mark.
My mouth dries up trying to form a response, but then his eyes soften.
My cat—our cat—jumps onto the table. Mark makes a show of rubbing his belly. Oreo, the little actor, purrs and curls his tail.
What are you doing here? My brain has the words, if my mouth would only cooperate.
"We're short-staffed in here tonight," Mark says, reading my thoughts like only he can. His tone is matter-of-fact, impersonal. "You were wondering, right?"
My fingers are shaking. "I'd like to play," I say, nodding to his cards. It doesn't feel as good as I'd imagined, ignoring his question. The man beside us perks up, ready to go. I empty my pockets on the table and Mark converts the cash into chips.
"Sure." He gives Oreo one last rub. "Go on, you."
"No, he's playing too," I say.
Mark blinks. Something crosses his face, some emotion that clouds the sunshine of his eyes. "Hold on. Are you the ones who got that stupid no-cat policy started? You and Oreo?"
The bald man leaves to take a call, tells us he'll only be a minute.
My lips hover around the shapes of a thousand words. Somehow they settle on: "What no-cat policy? No one told us about that when we came in."
"Well, no," Mark says, "because we all thought that newsletter was bogus. We haven't had any incidents here of anyone using cats to cheat."
He's staring at me but I can't meet his gaze. Oreo meows unconvincingly.
Mark frowns. "Oh, Trevor, please tell me you didn't—"
"Sorry, that was the wife," Baldy says, pocketing his phone. "Y'all ready to play?"
Oreo slinks into the seat beside me, and Mark's question once again slips into the void.
Oreo and I forfeit the first few games, as usual, to lull Baldy into a false sense of security. "Busted," Mark says the fourth time we lose, out of habit surely. But it makes me wonder if he's waiting for my response, waiting for me to say the magic words from our love story, waiting for me to make everything right.
I nudge my stack of chips over to Oreo. "I'm gonna sit out for a bit."
He opens his mouth to argue but knows better, plays it off as a yawn.
Oreo and Baldy get their cards. As they're weighing their options, I stare at Mark until he's forced to acknowledge me. "What?" he says.
"Oops." I pretend to look away. "Busted."
But the come-on doesn't work in reverse. Mark rolls his eyes, deals another card.
"Nothing? No reaction?" I feign indignation.
He sighs, deals a fourth. "What would you like me to say, Trevor?"
It occurs to me that I have no idea. "Why did you leave?" I ask.
"I told you already, didn't I?" Mark deals the fifth card. "I can't keep a ship afloat if it's full of holes. I can only patch up so many."
"I don't need patching." This time the indignation is real.
He turns to me. "I want to believe that, Trevor. Really, I do."
Before I can respond, something in my peripheral vision stops me. I look to see Oreo moving our entire stack of chips forward, thousands of dollars worth. He's all in. So is Baldy.
Panic twists my organs like balloon animals. "What are you doing?" I demand, to which he responds by licking his paw and rubbing his face—the straight flush signal. He reveals his cards: 10-6, all diamonds. Then leaps onto the table, slinks behind the winnings, pushes them forward.
"Not so fast, bucko," Baldy interjects, dropping his cards. Ace-10, all hearts.
Oreo stares, opening and closing his mouth. It reminds me of the time he ate some peanut butter. The only thing he's eating now is crow.
"Come to papa!" Baldy reaches past Oreo and collects our chips, the culmination of a month's worth of poker games.
"Oreo," I say, surprised at how even my voice is. I don't think the realization's hit me yet that we've lost all our money.
"Shit," he hisses. He says it again, raking a paw across the table. His claws leave ghostly indents in the felt.
Mark stops collecting cards. The ace of hearts falls from his grasp. He turns to our cat. "Did he just talk?"
But Oreo is like this casino, a mirage, already off his chair and heading for the exit. And I'm right behind him. It takes everything in me not to peer over my shoulder for one last glimpse of Mark.
The TV is still on when we get home. It's the only sound in the house; Oreo hasn't spoken since we left The Mirage. When we returned he ran ahead of me, through the cat door, and disappeared.
Which is why I'm surprised to see him now, thirty minutes later, walking on his hind legs, dragging a plastic bag overflowing with cat food. "Later, kid," he says, heading for the door.
I lean over the arm of the couch. "What's going on?"
"What's it look like, numbnuts?" Oreo snaps. "I'm leaving."
I know I should be mad. He lost all my money and now he's splitting? Maybe it still hasn't registered because I only feel an emptiness. I'm being left, again.
"You can't go," I say, desperate. "We've got a match scheduled tomorrow. We could get the money back."
Oreo shakes his head. "It always has to be your way, doesn't it?"
I recoil. Mark said the same thing last month. Verbatim. I try to recall where Oreo was during the breakup. Outside? In the room?
"I didn't even wanna go out tonight," Oreo says. "You didn't even listen to me."
"You're right, I'm sorry. I'll get you that QVC food, I promise."
"Too late now."
"Come on, don't be like that," I say, and realize my cat is breaking up with me. I also realize I didn't even try this hard to keep Mark around. "We can still work this out."
He stops, looks me in the eye. "Look, kid. It's not you, it's—"
His words are cut short when he starts coughing. It sounds worse than it ever has, a rumbling noise like a lawnmower than won't start. He hunches over, arches his back, and retches, producing a hairball the size of my fist. The unfinished sentence joins Mark's in the void.
Not that I mind. I'm sure I can fill in the blank.
We stare at the soggy, matted clump by my feet. Entranced, Oreo paws it like a ball of yarn. Then he looks at me, blinks his disinterested yellow eyes, mewls. Dropping down on all fours, he pads to the cat door.
He doesn't respond.
"Wait, what about your stuff?" But he's already gone into the night, leaving the cat door flapping. Silence clutters the room.
"Hey, where the hell do you think you're headed? Get back here!"
The words aren't mine.
Instinctively, I grab the TV remote, wield it like a scimitar. But when I turn around, there's no one there.
Then the voice comes again: "Goddamn mangy fleabag."
And that's when I look down.
There, smack dab on the polyester rug, the hairball is speaking, unleashing a stream of invective, cursing Oreo's mother and his intelligence and accusing him of being born out of wedlock. All in the same squeaky-toy voice Oreo's been using for the past month.
My real poker partner.
Disoriented, I shake my head, catching a glimpses of the TV. And something comes to me, said by one of those panelists last month, just after Mark walked out. A Buddhist woman on the show had likened the process of reincarnation to upgrading a cell phone. "It's like a new shell for something from the past. You come back as a different version of your old self. Hopefully better, wiser."
I'm not sure why I remember this—I'm agnostic. But that's what I'm thinking about when I take a step forward. How people come back, how they can change. How when Oreo comes back through the cat door, he'll be voiceless, altered.
Maybe it wouldn't be for the worse.
I'm still thinking about that when grab the screaming hairball, I step outside, and dump it in the trashcan. The night grows quiet and still around me.
On the couch, awaiting Oreo's reincarnation, I flip through the muted TV channels. There's an Allstate commercial promoting accident forgiveness. According to The Weather Channel, this week looks bright. Things are finally starting to warm up.
Before I can stop myself, I grab my phone and scroll through the contacts list until Mark's name and number materialize. And maybe it's desperate, extrapolating romantic advice from a weather forecast. But maybe it's not. Maybe I've changed too. Maybe I'll know what to say this time, how to play my cards better, wiser.
I give Mark a call and wait for what happens next.