Three days after Thanksgiving, I got sick. I saw stars and white disks, and then cats. Tabby, calico, black.
They’d sit in doorways or prowl over the armoire, tails erect. At night, I’d get in the bath and feel a gentle, chapped hand on my shoulder. Then I’d whip my head around, and nothing. My ears rang.
I called up my dear friend Tess and told her to meet me at the Marlton Diner, a chrome 50s spectacle midway between her house and mine. Shiny, bloated jukebox. Naugahyde stools. Pies the size of pillows. I explained my symptoms in my calm, hospital voice, as I fingered the receiver’s little holes. I said, “Tess, it’s simple. I’m
She said she’d be there in an hour. She said, “The baby’s coming with.” Her son never slept, and Tess dragged him everywhere, like a husband.
I left the house in my slippers and drove like a fiend. Wide turns, passing on the right, running reds. At one point, some madman, driving a Volvo with all his windows down and a tiny beagle yelping from the backseat, shouted obscenities at me and gave me the finger. You bet I wasn’t going to dream of this world when I was dead.
I got to the diner first. Slid into a booth, took off my gloves, and waited for the waitress to make her way over. She came, crane-like and slow in her white tuxedo shirt and black vest, nametag missing a letter. She had the telltale look of a mother: ghostly, harmed. I could just picture her at home sucking diabetic candy in bed and watching the Late Show, her teenaged son downstairs slipping money out of her purse.
I ordered a cappuccino and told her two were on the way.
When Tess arrived, she looked beautiful, like a female warrior. Eyebrows severely plucked, her long hair released from its usual tight braid. I was seized with the desire to kiss her and call her baby. But not in front of the kid.
Tess took her time, removing her hat, her coat, the kid’s hat, the kid’s coat. She unfolded her laminated menu, perused the options.
“I could order the Jell-O,” she said. Then she looked over at the kid. He was the timid, silent type, and his doll-eyes were big in fear and aimed at me. “Here you go, lover,” she said, lifting a packet of jam out of the dispenser on the table and presenting it to him. The kid beamed. He wrapped his little paws around the prize (eyes still glued on me), and then, like an otter sliding off the bank, slithered beneath the table.
“Okay,” I said.
“But I don’t really want the Jell-O.”
The waitress came back. Pen and pad poised, her weight shifted onto one leg. A calico cat curled itself up in the corner.
“I’ll just have a hot chocolate,” Tess said, looking up.
After the waitress left, Tess put her hands flat on the table and leaned forward conspiratorially. “That’s how it starts.”
“How what starts?” I said.
“Whatever it is you got.”
A hand emerged from under the table and placed the jam packet, now licked clean, in Tess’ open palm.
“Also,” I said. “my gums are bleeding.” I stuck my finger in my mouth and brought it out to show her.
Tess nodded knowingly. “I hate to say it, but I think you need a man.”
I paused. “What I need is a holy man. Someone to sit over me and pray and chant and stink up the whole house with incense.” I put my cup of cappuccino back on its saucer. All sugar.
“Ha,” Tess said. She sipped her hot chocolate and came away with a foamy cream mustache. Bless her sweet-pout lips. Then she reached down and put her hands over the kid’s ears. “I mean you need a regular lay.”
Now the kid was emerging for good. He asked Tess—his hands cupped around her right ear, so I couldn’t overhear, but I did—if he could go play with Santa. “All right, but that’s not Santa Claus, honey,” Tess said.
“That’s a mannequin. A dummy, dressed up like a man.”
The kid nodded, but seemed not to understand the distinction.
Two weeks later, Tess had found me a man and delivered him to my door. I was still seeing cats, but now there was also a man on my stoop. He’s a musician, Tess told me. He’s in a band. Glee in her voice.
“Oh, lord,” I said. “How old are we?”
“Don’t judge yet,” Tess said.
The musician was called Gary. He took me out for a drink at Josephine’s, where everybody in town went on blind dates, because it was badly lit and had a back door. There was Christmas décor now, and people wearing silly red hats with pom-poms, drinking steamy glasses of buttered rum. I ordered a Bloody Mary, but there was too much pepper in it.
“You don’t like your drink,” Gary noted. This one was a fast worker. Somehow he had managed to slip his hand onto my thigh.
“I’m full from dinner,” I lied, even though giving up the truth would’ve cost me nothing.
“Oh yeah? What did you have for dinner?”
“I microwaved a hot dog.” Then I crossed my legs to get his hand off me. “It was disgusting, to tell you the truth.”
He looked a little afraid of me now. The thing about single guys in their late thirties? They were just getting it together. So if you made one little remark with the slightest twinge of acid, they got afraid. They’d think maybe you were a militant one.
“So what did Tess tell you about me?” I said.
“Uh, she said you were pretty and good with kids…”
“Huh,” I said. “Did she also tell you that I see things?”
Gary’s brow furrowed. I noticed he had a lot of wrinkles around his eyes—I kept thinking “prune-wrinkles”—and then suddenly waves of pity were crashing over me. I had a cinematically vivid image of Gary lying on his beat-up sofa in his underwear, strumming his electric guitar. Then he’d toss it aside and jerk himself off, imagining my mouth around his cock. I wanted to make a run for it.
I glanced behind me. A black cat sauntered across the door.
“You mean, like, hallucinations?” Gary said. “Of what?”
I ran my tongue over my upper teeth, tasting the salty little rivulets of blood.
I told him.
He didn’t say anything for a while. Then, “I hate living with cats. The thing you always forget is they shit in your house.”
I stared at him.
“Listen,” I said, grabbing his right hand. “It was good to meet you—you seem like a good person—”
“What? Are you fucking kidding me?” he spat out the words. “We’re just getting started here.”
I lowered my chin. “If you have to know, I think I may be dying.”
His jaw went a little slack. He believed me. “Oh, God. Can I do something?”
“No,” I said, frowning. “Not really.” I said I was sorry, leapt up from my seat, and headed toward the last cat I’d seen.
And this I remember clearly, this ambiguously daft parting sentence, which he half-shouted at me, as I bolted from the premises and his person: “I’m glad you told me about the hot dog—”
I didn’t turn around.
I got in my car and started driving on 73. There was only one place to go and so I headed there, imagining her nestled in bed in her terry cloth robe, drinking a microwaved mug of milk and nodding off.
When I got to the house, it was late. I parked my car on the street—there was an unknown car behind Tess’ in the drive—and walked up the lawn, ready for all manner of confession. In her flowerbed, one of her red garden gnomes was on its side. I righted it, then knocked lightly on the door.
Tess answered after several dead minutes, her cheeks flushed. “What are you doing here?” she hissed. She was wearing the exact robe I’d imagined, clutching it closed at her sternum.
“Tess, please…” I tried.
“Listen. You have to go!” she whispered hoarsely.
Before I could object, the door was in my face.
I turned around in slight shock and faced the street. I could smell snow. Not wanting to get back in the car, I sat on Tess’ porch and hugged my knees to my chest.
After a long, wintry silence, a woman emerged from the house next door. She was talking on her cell phone. Suddenly, she began waving her arm at a car approaching from the end of the road. “I see you, I see you,” she said. “Do you see me?” Across the road, yellow Christmas lights flashed on and off, outlining a row of shrubs, a set of windows.