2. Cat Food and Foreign Languages

May 13, 2010

“Is that your lunch?” Rose asked.

The thin man with white hair tufted around his face like a ragged halo was pouring dry cat food into a dish with the concentration befitting life-and-death surgery. The dish and two others—one with water and the other with an especially pungent tuna fish—stood in a tray of water. Neither he nor the man watching him—David, was his name, she remembered (wrongly)—said anything.

David (whose real name was Nate) looked up at last and said, “This is Arnold.”

“Glad to meet you,” Rose murmured, wondering, as she had on other occasions, why Asian families so often gave their children names they couldn’t pronounce.

“The food’s for Arnold’s cat.”

Rose nodded. In the downstairs bathroom, plastered like a fragment of graffiti on the wall next to the bathroom supplies, was a postcard-sized black-and-white photo of a cat dressed in a frilly jacket and bonnet with the inked-in caption, “Never forget Arnold.” She hadn’t been able to decipher the caption, like most of the graffiti on the wall, hastily jotted in a crabbed calligraphy, it was punctuation- and pronoun-challenged. Was it supposed to be, “Never forget [me,] Arnold”? Or “[I’ll] never forget Arnold”? Not both, though, she was pretty sure of that.

The three of them moved to the open back door, David (Nate) and Rose lingering in the doorway to watch Arnold as he balanced the tray filled with water and dishes of food while he navigated the back stairs.

At the soft clatter of the food tray, a large orange cat with white bib and paws sauntered out from the trash bins to weave itself around Arnold’s legs.

Upstairs, Rose wondered about Arnold, wondering at the same time why she was wondering. He was definitely not her type, with his nervous glances and breathless speech, but she tried to imagine what his life was like—where he lived, did he have a lover, did he love anything besides classical music and the big orange tabby cat? But she had wondered that about Dave (Nate) as well, when she was first there. Especially because he had blinked when he mentioned his wife—he hadn’t called her name, simply said “his wife”—blink.

Men often blinked when they mentioned their significant other, girlfriend or wife. She wondered why, puzzled over it, perhaps more than was worthwhile. She had thought about asking—she was, most of the time, a very straightforward person—but she knew there would be no meaningful response.

“Why did you blink just then, when you mentioned your wife?” Rose might ask.

“Excuse me?” the man would reply.

“When you mentioned your wife, why did you blink?” Was that any clearer?

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“I don’t know what you mean either—when you blink, that is, but I believe in body language.”

“Unh-hnnh”

“You know, that the way we move and gesture when we talk, or even when we don’t talk, means something. They say women can read body language better than men. What you call “women’s intuition” is really just reading body language.”

“Everyone blinks.”

“Yeah. But this is different. And the blink is a very specific kind of blink. Like this.” Demonstration of blink. “And you do it when you mention your wife. See? You do it when I mention your wife, and I don’t even know your wife. What does it mean?”

“I did not blink.”

“Yeah, you did,” Rose would insist.

“It doesn’t mean anything,” the man would reply.

Conversations like that were definitely not good for friendly relations, so she never tried to solve the enigmas that plagued her. She just continued to wonder. Rose was not very good at understanding men, even though she had grown up with four brothers. Perhaps that was why: she expected most men to be like her brothers, even to be her brothers perhaps, but most men were not. And inside their strange and unapproachable minds, there was something unknowable bubbling around about women.

It had to do with sex. She was pretty sure of that, and her women friends confirmed the idea. Her generation had been obsessed with sex and had made little effort to suppress that; they were known for “sexual freedom.” It was part of the free speech movement. Her best friend in high school, Annie, had been nicknamed Annie Jane Freelove by the boys. And in college, dating, accompanied by uninhibited sex, seemed more like a game of musical chairs than a search for a longtime, monogamous partner.

The orange tabby continued to weave through Arnold’s legs. A large metal comb with a plastic handle had mysteriously appeared in Arnold’s hand, and he was making futile gestures to pass it through the cat’s matted fur. The cat lived outside dodging the daily challenges that oozed from between the smelly dumpsters where it hung out, sleeping in the sun. Cat clearly wasn’t a big groomer. It was a pretty cat though, with large golden eyes in its broad orange and white face. Rose could see why Arnold was smitten.

The cat started wheezing, its head outstretched and wobbling back and forth. Part of kitty’s dinner lay, newly risen, on the cement. “Nate,” Arnold’s fluty voice floated up from below. “Can you throw me some paper towels?” David (Nate) stirred next to her. Oh! thought Rose.

Nate moved past her carrying a roll of paper towels and one of the store’s plastic bags meant for CDs.

What Rose really wanted, as she watched the men scoop up the cat’s reworked dinner, was to be home. In her cottage that stood in the middle of a large garden, with her own cats—the brave Fergus and Baby.

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