5. Wherefore Art Thou Romeo

May 13, 2010

Brad was having trouble with his cat.

No matter who was visiting—male or female, old or young, friend or enemy—Romeo got upset. And it wasn’t a matter of sulking or hissing or even an occasional focused swipe of the unsheathed paw at the offending intruder. No, it was full-out cat fury. Something akin to the fighting frenzy of Cuchulain.

First, his eyes would dilate, then contract, leaving slivers of black in a vibrating circle of bluish green. Then, the hackles would start to rise around his neck and shoulders, and from the very depths of his feline soul would come a low rumble that grew in force and loudness as it rose up through his body toward that pink-hued mouth that was lined with pointed teeth and carpeted with a bristling tongue. The final sound was an unearthly screech, likely to raise the dead as well as the living.

If the intruder didn’t leave immediately, Romeo attacked: a flying mass of electrified black and white, spittle dashing, and screaming, every barb in his body targeted to the unhappy limbs of his beleaguered victim. Brad had deflected several attacks by leaping in between his hurriedly leaving friends and his in-flight attack cat.

Brad was unable to soothe his easily distressed cat. No matter how he orchestrated visits, they always ended in panic and flight. He loved his cat though. He had raised Romeo from the age of six weeks, and Romeo, up until the age of nine had always been a docile and amiable companion. Guys came over to watch football, women came over to watch opera; through it all Romeo ruled as cat pal of the apartment: a large purring tuxedo cat who spent his days sunbathing in the window and promenading for the passersby on the street and his evenings hanging out with Brad’s pals, lounging on laps and licking the potato chip salt off fingers.

Something had happened. Brad wasn’t sure what but it had to do with a girlfriend, Elizabeth, Romeo’s favorite, but who had gone the way of many of Brad’s girlfriends—off to greener and more romantic pastures. The next girl who showed up on Brad’s door set off the madness of Romeo. She had escaped, barely, halfway through Cosi Fan Tutte, and after the experience had refused to return Brad’s phone calls. From there on it was all downhill.

Finally, Brad had faced facts: Romeo was refusing to share.

The first year, as the attacks grew and visits dwindled, Brad had puzzled over the situation, and tried to solve the problem by shutting Romeo in the bathroom until he calmed down. But Romeo’s erratic behavior only increased. Brad had no idea how to approach the problem. Should he take Romeo to the doctor? How could he manage that? The idea of stuffing his fifteen-pound maniac feline into a cat carrier was daunting. The damage he would sustain might be worse than leaping in front of the attacking cat. On the other hand, he couldn’t take Romeo to the pound: Romeo was old and Brad didn’t feel he could survive the guilt. He wanted a normal life though. He wanted to invite his friends over. And he wanted a girlfriend. Badly.

While it was true he worked in the office at Plutonium, rather than on the floor, his vision was barraged by young babes. Most of them ignored him, he had to admit; he wasn’t much younger than his cat, in cat years, that is to say he was over forty. Really he was quite a bit younger; Romeo, after all, was twelve, which made him, what? Eighty-four? No, Brad was a young man, by comparison. And Romeo was, despite his name, neutered, which really, given the state of things, was an advantage.

There had been that young woman who had come to see Rose the other day, for instance. Now, she was hot! Brad had been on the floor, in Jazz, when she flounced up the stairs to Classical. It was her skin, startlingly fresh, and the set of her shoulders. Brad had thought about them for a second and decided it was time to bring some returned CDs back to Classical. Rose was a good egg. He could talk to her about opera while surveying the front, as it were. If that’s what the expression was.

Upstairs the two women had been engaged in a quiet and cryptic conversation; neither of them paid Brad any attention. Rose had just taken the CDs, barely glancing at him, and returned her attention to the young woman, leaving Brad with the option of going back downstairs or pretending as if he were looking for something among the bins.

He chose the latter.

While he was dawdling over Beethoven, Rose’s young friend walked up behind him. He turned and smiled but she was looking elsewhere, and he was left vulnerable, struck suddenly speechless by the closeness of her youth and beauty. When she turned her violet-blue look in his direction, her blonde hair swung across her cheek and his heart stopped. In the background, over the strains of Puccini, he could hear the snap of Eros’ bow. She moved past him, her gaze directed toward the other side of the aisle, scanning the labels from Walton to Stravinsky. The notebook page she had been marking was just visible and covered with strange marks: M—1111, long line W—

The marks seemed utterly in keeping with her essence: exotic, inscrutable, profound. He was in love. But she stood as if across some shimmering desert of heat and vipers, a life-saving oasis, solitary and visionary but unreachable. Likely to evaporate as quickly as a mirage.

And walking sedately and with great dignity across those vast sands, in a line that drew an invisible wall between Brad and this blonde vision, was a large, implacable, green-eyed tuxedo cat.

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