Copyright is held by the author.
THE CAT was definitely not beautiful. Gregory thought she was ugly, but did not say so to his girlfriend. There was no need. Alice was angry enough with him. He wasn’t going to further fuel that anger. Why were women so complicated? If they were going to successfully live together, he would have to accept her cat.
“Lovely cat,” he murmured unconvincingly.
“What?!” pronounced Alice. “Gregory, you are just about the worst liar I have ever known.” Then she began to laugh. Her long red hair bounced happily as her whole body rocked with mirth. This was better, much better, he thought to himself. He smiled, relief spreading over his youthful face.
“OK, OK, I admit it. I lied. I didn’t want you to get angrier,” Gregory affirmed in self-defence.
“Angrier? Since when have I been angry?”
“Come on, Alice, you can’t tell me you haven’t been angry all morning. I know you hate unpacking boxes. But that’s what happens when people move in together. They put their stuff in boxes, drive them over to the new house, forty or fifty times, and when they least feel like it, they take everything out of the boxes, and put the stuff away.”
“Why can’t we wait till tomorrow? What’s the rush? I can’t see straight anymore. We don’t have anywhere to go tomorrow, no work, no school. We’re on holiday. Remember?”
Gregory’s shoulders began to droop. He knew he had the strength to finish tonight. He wanted to. He did not like clutter. But his resolve was diminishing. Alice could do that. She could make him give in to fatigue. Was he learning to relax with this woman? Was she teaching him not to be so up-tight?
Dinner was over. Gregory and Alice were sitting comfortably at their kitchen table savouring the red wine he had carefully selected for this special occasion. The apartment was looking pretty good. They had arranged their posters and paintings in the dining room and living room. Only their bedroom was left for the final touches. A feeling of ease and well-being was circulating through Gregory just as the alcohol hit the relaxation centre in his brain. Learning to relax, to take life a little more slowly, was definitely something to look forward to. This woman was right for him. He looked at her with something like approval or affirmation.
“What’s that look supposed to mean?” Alice queried.
“Huh? What are you talking about?” Gregory slowly responded, not understanding her meaning.
“Are you drunk from a little wine?”
Gregory shifted his body in the chair and began to smile more broadly. Yes, perhaps he was drunk after all. “I’m not sure, but I’m definitely in love.”
“Oh, yeah? With whom?”
“I think perhaps with that beautiful feline creature of yours. It’s so satisfying aesthetically to look at her.” He leaned back further in his chair and raised his wineglass to the light. He gazed into its clear red depths, enjoying the moment of playfulness with his chosen partner. Alice started to laugh. The sound of her laughter was pure pleasure. Gregory put the glass down on the table and got up from his chair.
“I think, my dear, it is time to remove ourselves from this blessed kitchen of ours, much as I truly love its delicate-smelling aromas.”
“And where is it, my love, that you would like to go?”
“Just around the corner from here, via the narrow corridor on the right of the door, there is a bedroom, waiting to be used for the consummation of our collective agreement.”
Alice also rose from her chair. “And what collective agreement might that be?” she asked.
“Why, my dear,” Gregory spoke as he moved closer to her, encircling her shoulders with his right arm, and drawing her smaller body to fit into the embrace of his taller one, “the agreement to live together for better or for worse. Remember?” he asked, his face leaning towards hers. Before she had time to respond with another witticism, he closed the gap between their two faces and planted a kiss upon her mouth.
In the aftermath of their shared pleasure, Gregory picked his watch up from the night-table beside the bed. Nine o’clock.
“Why are you looking at your watch? We’re on holiday. It doesn’t really matter what time it is Gregory.”
“No, but maybe we could finish putting this room together before the end of the day. Then everything would be done and —”
“— and nothing, my dear. What difference does it make if the room is a bit messy? It looks pretty good to me. And what do we have to do tonight? Will we turn back into pumpkins at midnight or something, like Cinderella’s carriage?”
Gregory turned to face her. He leaned his head on his hand, elbow pressed into the mattress. Was she angry with him? Angry about his desire for order? He reached his free arm toward her face and, with his fingers, brushed a loose strand of hair from her eyes. He stared deeply into what seemed like buckets of psychological perceptiveness. He sighed. She fathoms me so easily, he thought.
“What are you thinking, Gregory? What aren’t you saying?”
“Alice, do you have to be such a good psychologist in the home as well as the office? Can’t I be just a little bit mysterious to you? I’d like to be able to hide some of my neuroses from you.”
“Sorry, love, you’ll just have to bear with my superior powers of analysis. And besides . . .” She sat up abruptly as she addressed him, the blanket falling away from her torso, dropping to her hips, revealing the naked line of her curving, sinuous body, “. . . any four-year-old could figure out your neurosis, your continuous quest for orderliness and equilibrium, your desperate fear of being unprepared for the possibly unclean future.”
Gregory gazed at her near-perfect skin and recalled the joys of their shared lovemaking, wondering if a resumption of that activity would quell the need to set the bedroom in order. He moved his gaze to her eyes, longing for some sign from her.
“I’m not going to tell you what to do now, what desire to satisfy first.” She smiled good-naturedly as she said this, and he wished for his dependency on neatness to go away, to disappear somewhere into nothingness, so that he could be a normal guy in love with a normal woman, and not this ball of neurotic needs. Before he could make any decision, Alice leaned over and kissed him on the forehead. Then she got up and put on her bathrobe that was hanging on a hook behind the door.
“Come on,” she said, “I’ll help you clean up the room. There’s no use waiting any longer.” Gregory heard the disappointment in her voice and promised himself that this would be the last time he gave in to that imperious voice demanding obedience to the god of order and harmony. He closed his eyes and repeated to himself, I will not be a neat freak . . . I will not be a neat freak . . .
So he had problems. Everybody has problems at one time or another. He was just like everyone else. Only more so. And if Alice wasn’t such a good psychologist no one would be the wiser. He hated her ability to see through him.
Gregory was sitting at his desk at work. He couldn’t concentrate at all. Since that last time they had made love two weeks ago, on moving day, he could feel Alice waiting, hovering, expecting. She wanted to talk. About what? The fact that he was feeling paralyzed, the fact that he couldn’t face his fears, the fact that he was afraid to touch her?
Gregory stood up and turned off his computer. No use sitting at his desk, accomplishing nothing. He suddenly felt the desire to see Alice, to tell her he still loved her, that he wanted to go on living with her despite what was now going on between them. He picked up the phone.
“Hi . . . It’s me . . . Yeah, I know it’s the middle of the day. It’s also Tuesday, and you don’t have patients after two o’clock. Listen. Don’t say anything yet. I need to see you. Is it possible? I can’t go on like this anymore. I can’t work . . .” The outpouring stopped. He closed his eyes and passed his fingers through his hair. He listened to Alice’s soothing voice telling him where to meet her. She was ready for this, had been for days. She had just been waiting for the offer to talk to come from him. He felt like a child with her sometimes. Perhaps that was part of the problem.
“I don’t know, but if I feel like a child, how can I make love to you, seeing that you obviously play the part of the mother?” They were sitting comfortably in the coffee shop around the corner from her office. His confession was draining all his energies. He felt tired but, oddly enough, he also felt brave, braver than he had ever felt. My God! He had just exposed a hundred fears, things he never would have dreamed of telling anyone before.
Alice looked at him and shook her head. It seemed to be a gesture of compassion not of negation. She didn’t speak. Perhaps she had already understood all this before. If that were the case, how could she have chosen to live with him in the first place?
“Look, Alice,” he took her hand in his, and gently stroked it, “is any of this a revelation to you? Did you already know? Please answer me. You’re awfully quiet. You play this waiting game all the time. You’re not my therapist. Just react.” Gregory drew back from her now, but she did not allow him to remove his hand. She placed her other hand on top of his and held it between her own. But she still did not break the silence. Gregory kept his head down. He was truly tired now. What if we are at an impasse? What if we can’t get through this? What will we do? Why am I so complicated? At the end of this self-interrogation, he finally raised his eyes. Alice was crying.
Things were definitely better since their talk. Better for them, but his ungovernable urge to clean everything was not yet a thing of the past. Gregory still felt he had so much to learn about himself. What about those other uncontrollable impulses, like straightening the papers on his desk, like making sure the computer was exactly in the middle of his desk, like placing his shoes in the same place every night before going to bed? How could he be spontaneous in love-making if he was worried that his shoes were scattered randomly on the floor instead of in their proper setting under the bed. It hadn’t been so bad before they moved in together. They usually stayed at Alice’s place, and he didn’t have to worry about sheets and blankets falling on the floor in an excessive burst of passion. His sheets and blankets were lying cosily on his bed in his perfectly neat house, and if his shoes were not sitting obediently under the middle of Alice’s bed, it didn’t really matter, because he could argue with himself that they were still in transit, almost as if he were still wearing them and the night had not yet arrived in which they, too, were to go to sleep beneath his own bed.
How had he reached his third decade and been able to function? Well, for one thing he had not had a cat disturbing the perfect symmetry of his home while he was out. He sometimes sat at his desk at work, eyes closed, trying to picture what “ugly cat” as he so named her, was wrecking at that moment. He left the house in the morning quaking with fear that the position of some small object would be altered. They couldn’t after all lock the damn animal up in a bare closet. She had to have some space in which to wander. He had already made sure that most things in those rooms, designated as “cat territory,” were almost impossible to move, but, as luck would have it, there was always something different when he came home—a pillow on the couch in an odd position, or perhaps a book of Alice’s, left haphazardly on a table, was now untidily lying on the rug, its private interior pages open to the undiscriminating eyes of the world at large, possibly a repeated victim of treading cat paws. He took to taking inventory of everything and locations of everything before he left for work in the morning. He was waking up fifteen minutes earlier so he could do this. Was a cat going to destroy his peace of mind or was he going to get help?
“Maybe I can’t live with anyone, certainly not a woman and her ugly cat,” Gregory said, squirming uncomfortably in the chair. Here he was again in Dr. Haitink’s office, complaining. He thought it was complaining. So far, for the last three weeks or so, all he had talked about with this psychologist was his anger at having to make changes in his life. He hadn’t really talked about his fears. So far he had just blamed everybody else, especially the cat, almost as if everything would be alright if he and Alice could just get rid of it. The more he talked like this, the more he hated himself. He knew he wasn’t being honest. Did he know how to be honest? Maybe not. He certainly knew how to be miserable. He was getting more and more depressed.
Gregory sighed before he spoke again. “I can’t work anymore. I’m tired all the time.”
“Because this ugly cat is going to mess up your house? You think about it at work, too?”
Gregory suddenly looked as if he would be sick. Could that happen? Would he have to run out of the good doctor’s office, down the corridor to the bathroom to vomit? He certainly wasn’t vomiting anything resembling the truth. The action of physically vomiting would probably be the most truthful thing he could manage.
“OK, Gregory, we have been seeing each other now for nearly a month. You’re really unhappy. We both know it. You can’t work. You can’t sleep. You can’t stop thinking certain things. You can’t stop visualizing certain things. And probably you can’t make love to your girlfriend. Am I right?”
Gregory nodded dejectedly. “But I loved her. I wanted us to live together. Hell, I even envisioned children sometime in the future.”
“I’m sure you still love her and want all of those things.”
“But I can’t live with anyone. I’m better off alone. When I was alone, everything was fine. Everything was under control. I didn’t care what her cat was doing to her apartment in her absence.”
“Well, what do you want, Gregory? Do you want to go back to the way it was or do you want to find out why it is the way it is? It seems to me you have to answer that question before we go any further. If you can’t answer that question, I don’t know what we can do for you here. I can keep asking the question over and over. And you can keep not answering it. But I can tell you one thing right now. All your anxiety and sleeplessness is going to come to a head. They’re going to take a physical toll. Even if you can’t make up your mind right now about where we’re going, you have to talk to Alice about that cat.”
A wave of panic swept across Gregory’s face. How could he ask her to give up the cat? It would be like asking her to choose: “Me or the cat, one of us has to go.” Her possible answer terrified him. At his point, the cat was offering her more affection than he was. If he were her, he would choose the cat for sure.
It was Saturday. Gregory was running in the park. The weather was perfect for running. He had already been out over an hour and still he didn’t feel like going home. He had left Alice asleep. She liked running, too, but he hadn’t felt like waking her. Well, maybe it was more like he hadn’t felt like bringing up the subject of the cat. When you run together with someone, you have to talk and he was afraid to, although he knew Dr. Haitink was right yesterday when he had referred to his inability to cope with his present situation. If he didn’t do something now to change the way things were at home, he would crack. He had to create a more comfortable environment with Alice, one in which he could achieve some absence of anxiety before he would be ready to tackle the big issue of order, perfection, control, whatever it was called. He needed a prolonged moment of relaxation.
Another half hour, he thought, and I’ll go home. He savoured the peace of this repetitive activity. The calm before the storm.
As he crossed the footbridge over the stream that ran through the park, he lifted his eyes and heard his name being called. Alice was running behind him, trying to catch up. He slowed his pace. She was smiling. He watched her approach him and felt a pang of self-pity. Would he have to give up such a graceful creature as Alice? He felt so undeserving of her. He had tried to be her partner, but at this very moment, the premonition that he might have to release her from their fragile partnership seemed to be a very likely reality.
“You could have woken me, Greg,” she said, as soon as she caught up.
“I…I… wasn’t sure,” he stuttered in reply.
They jogged a while in silence. Alice touched his arm. “How are you doing with Dr. Haitink? You don’t have to tell me . . . ,” she hesitated, “. . . if . . . you don’t want to, but . . . it would be nice to just . . .” she searched for the desired word, “. . . to just know if you think it’s been worth seeing him.”
“No . . . it’s okay to ask. I wanted to tell you . . . I think. Well . . . mostly it has been hard. Everything is hard for me lately, Alice. He thinks that . . . I’m not coping too well . . . with . . . you know . . . uh . . . our . . . uh . . . living arrangement . . . uh . . .”
“Gregory, the cat’s gone.” She stopped. He faced her.
“It’s okay, Gregory. My friend Muriel took her this morning. I don’t need a cat. It’s okay. I understand how hard it is for you.” She touched his arm again. Her chest was rising and falling from the exertion of the past few moments. His own chest hurt with something like the pain of joy.
“You gave up your cat . . . for me?”
“Of course, you idiot. I know that you don’t feel comfortable if things in the house are moved around when you’re gone. It’s crazy, but . . . so what?”
“Oh, Alice, I don’t know what to say, only that . . .”
“You need the house to be cat-proofed and safe,” she smiled. “Well, it is now. I’m sorry I took so long to realize how much anxiety that animal was causing you.” Alice shrugged and then reached her hands to his face. She placed her palms tenderly on each of his cheeks and rocked his head from side to side.
Gregory closed his eyes and sighed deeply. Tension deserted him. In slow motion he leaned his body forward. Alice removed her hands from his face and, with her hands on his shoulders, drew him closer to her. Gregory wrapped his arms around her, moaning softly into her ear, as he allowed the pressure and the weight of the last few weeks to dissolve into the air around him, with the long exhalation of breath.
“I’m sorry, Alice. I haven’t been much good to you lately. I’ve been so afraid that the cat was—”
“— more important than you. How could you have thought that? How could you think something so ridiculous? Your neurotic behaviour itself is something that could keep me stimulated for centuries.” She began to laugh and he joined her, happy that she was mocking him. “You’re so crazy, you could never be boring. That cat didn’t have a chance.”
“Alice, what would you say to running back home and . . . uh . . . messing up the sheets a little bit, maybe even flinging our running shoes towards some distant corner of the universe?”
“Gregory, you fool.” She was serious now. “I don’t care where we put our shoes. We can place them very carefully in the same spot every night, as long as we’re in the same spot. You know what I mean?”
Gregory nodded. He felt his heart swell. If someone asked him at that very moment what he thought love was, he would have to say it was being told by a woman that it was okay to put one’s shoes neatly beneath the bed before getting into it. He didn’t say it, though.
They started jogging home.
“I wouldn’t dump the doctor just yet, if I were you, Gregory.” She must have been reading his mind.