All cats were assholes, but Pete didn’t care—this one was cute. Besides, people had been calling Pete an asshole since he was in elementary school. It was something he and the cat could share in common.
He stood on his side of the glass window that took up half a wall near the back of the pet store, watching. On the far side was a narrow pathway of peach-colored linoleum fronting a wall of neat cubbies outfitted with gleaming gridded metal doors. Inside each cage was a cat—in a couple of them, more than one—lazing in a jungle of hammocks and platforms and blankets, playing with felt mice and bunches of feathers that looked like fishing lures.
Pete’s cat was in the far right cubby, second from the bottom. He crouched down to get a better look at her.
He’d never had a cat before, or any pet at all. He didn’t know too much about them, but even he could tell this one was barely past kittenhood. She was a rangy slip of a thing tucked into a fuzzy tortoiseshell ball at the back of the cage, staring out at him with wide electric-green eyes. Her ears were too big for her little upturned-triangle face. Though he couldn’t hear through the glass, he could see she was meowing at him. She had a black splotch on the roof of her mouth that matched the one on her nose, and tiny predator’s fangs still too small to do much harm to human skin.
Angie had claimed to like the idea of cats, if not the animals themselves. “If it weren’t for your allergies,” she reminded him many times over the decade they’d spent together. “And besides, Petey-bear. You can’t know what you’re going to get ahead of time. One that’s going to tear up the furniture, or never figure out the litter box.” Angie had shaken her head, sliding the last of the dishes into the dishwasher after declining his help yet again. She said he deserved to rest after a long day at work, but he suspected she hated the way he loaded the dishes, and rather than secretly rearrange them after the fact, opted to exclude him from the exercise altogether.
“You know, one of my girlfriends had a cat that used
to pee on the clean laundry. She couldn’t turn her
back for a second.” She’d grimaced and shuddered.
“Best not to risk it.”
He’d agreed at the time. Angie had been right—he was already getting monthly allergy shots at the clinic. Why go to all that trouble and then invite a shedding, dander-producing potential disease vector into their home? It didn’t make sense.
But Pete didn’t live in that home anymore. The oddly-proportioned New Traditional McMansion in Bucks County had gone to Angie, while Pete kept his black Escalade and frequent flyer miles and his 401k. Now he lived in a sleek fourteenth-floor Hell’s Kitchen one-bedroom with brand-new stainless steel appliances. The building had a juice bar and a yoga studio on the fifth floor. The property manager hosted Thirsty Thursday Cocktail Hour and hosted movie nights on the tenth-floor outdoor “community space” which was a balcony with some furniture and a couple of potted trees. Pete was a forty year old divorcé with deep forehead lines and daily Lipitor habit. He hated the features and amenities.
But he liked the floor-to-ceiling windows looking out over the Hudson and the fact that his commute to the insurance firm had been reduced from 90 minutes on the train to a 15-minute walk, especially because he didn’t have to spend the extra 75 minutes of his day at home within that ugly, soulless house. He liked that pets were allowed without any increase to his already astronomical monthly rent. Not that he couldn’t afford it. It was the principle of the thing.
Pete squatted, peering in at the cat. Down here, the glass was filthy, clouded with tiny handprints, but he could still see her meowing at him between the smudges. He didn’t know much about cats but she sure seemed to talk a lot. Maybe she was waiting for him to answer back.
He looked around. There was no one nearby, so he meowed back under his breath. That just seemed to wind her up more, and she started meowing like crazy, uncurling to stand facing him, her short little tail swishing back and forth. Like this, he could see the proportions of her were all wrong—not just the tail and batty ears, but her shoulders were oddly narrow and her torso shorter than Pete would have expected compared to the other cats.
Another thing they had in common: Pete was barely 5’7″. He had always been on the short side. Born early and sickly ever since, according to his mother, and she told him so up until the day she died. She hadn’t allowed him to run on the school track team, and cried every time he came home muddy and scratched from playing in the creek with his friends, worried he would get necrotizing fasciitis or tetanus or worse. The slightest cough was cause for concern
and a week’s bed-rest while she bustled between the kitchen and his bedside, bringing soup, tea with honey and lemon, a warm, damp cloth.
Once, Pete had tried protesting.
“Ma, I’m fine,” he said, after she plucked the beeping
thermometer from his mouth. “Really. I’m not sick. I
feel great. It’s probably allergies, or something.”
And thereafter, he was catless and dogless, the oak tree he’d joyfully and furtively climbed during his mother’s infrequent absences was gone, and an air purifier took up residence in his bedroom. He was no longer allowed shellfish or cashews or peanuts at mealtimes, or any time in between, or to play with his friends down in the creek. He wasn’t allowed to play with those friends at all. When he brought Angie to meet her for the first time, his mother took the opportunity to recite his medications and maladies, admonishing Angie to take care of her baby boy, as if she expected Angie to shove aside her Sunday brunch in favor of taking notes. Angie, still in her lavender shoulder-padded church dress, had nodded, brow furrowing with the gravity of the responsibility laid in her broad lap.
Pete thought about the Thai place across the street from his apartment building, and the spring rolls he’d seen other diners order: giant pink shrimp nestled in with sweet herbs and carrots, glassine noodles, and swaddled in sticky rice flour wrappers. They came with a little dish of peanut sauce with a puddle of bright red chili oil floating on top.
He’d tried sushi for the first time out to lunch with his friend Bill two weeks before, dipping the bright slivers of salmon into soy sauce and grazing it across the mound of wasabi by the side of the plate. Pete didn’t like it—the fish had been too briny and chewy, an unfamiliar texture, like biting into his own tongue. But he was glad he’d tried it, all the same.
The cat’s name was on a dry-erase placard at the top left corner of her cage door. Olive. F. 1 yr, 2 mos. She had stopped meowing. She flicked an ear in his direction.
A shoe squeaked on the linoleum floor behind Pete. It was an employee—a dark-haired woman in a bright yellow smock. He stood, waving to catch her attention. She turned to look at him, head cocked, breaking into a smile that didn’t reach her eyes. He cleared his throat.
“Excuse me,” he said, wiping his damp palms on his
pants, “Could I—” he gestured at the window with
one inarticulate hand.
“You wanna hold one of em?” The woman—teenager,
really, he was realizing, or a college student—ambled
over, yanking at a heavy set of keys attached to her
smock on a retractable lanyard.
“You betcha.” The girl flipped through the set of keys,
trying one after another in the lock. “Just give me a minute—there.” The door sprung open, and she
slipped inside, inviting him in with a tilt of her head.
“Come on in. Which little guy were you looking at?”
Pete swallowed and pointed at Olive. She ignored
both of them to lick at her shoulder.
“She’s a cutie,” the girl said, fishing for another key. “Yeah,” Pete said. He could see the blanket inside the cage more clearly, now. It was blue and knitted and worn. The girl was kneeling to reach Olive, who was now at the front of the cage. The toys around her were chewed up and dirty. Pete could buy her new ones, and wash her blanket, and pick out a little bed where she could doze in the afternoons. He could get one of the soft-bristled brushes he’d seen on his way
over to the window and brush her fur so she wouldn’t be itchy in the winter or too hot in the summer. He could take her to the vet so she could be healthy and strong, and buy one of those cat towers for her to play on, so she could sit at the top and look out the window at the pigeons roosting on the roofs of the buildings below, the taxis crawling by at rush hour, the seagulls winging in lazy circles over the dumpsters on garbage pickup days.
“Here,” the girl said, and handed him the kitten.
It all flashed through his mind for a split second, kitten in midair on her way towards him, limbs splayed, claws out. My allergies, toxoplasmosis, fleas—but by then he was already touching her, cradling her chest in one hand and gathering her hind legs in the other. She was soft, softer than he’d imagined, and warm like a roll fresh from the oven. She smelled bread-y, too, and strangely smokey, and he resisted the urge to bury his nose in her fur.
Instead, he cupped her to his chest and she fussed, wriggling against his woolen sweater until she was appropriately arranged, before launching into a startling, thundering purr.
Pete blinked. His eyes were tearing a little—the allergies, he thought, and forced himself not to rub
at them with his fur-covered hands. That would only make it worse.
Maybe Olive liked shrimp, he thought, examining her pointy face and squinting eyes, touching a finger to the back of her paw. Or perhaps Pete did. He didn’t know.
Maybe he could take her home that very day, a litter box and food bowls and her blanket in tow. They
could sit together on the couch in his sky-high apartment and share the spring rolls. If he didn’t like
the shrimp, then Olive could eat them, and lick her whiskery chops and little cat toes, curling up on the pillow next to him. And he could stroke her back and scratch behind her ears as they watched syndicated sitcoms and the evening news, not caring about the hair she was shedding on the white couch, until she fell asleep next to him, a warm weight against his thigh, unspooling as she dreamed shrimp-filled kitten dreams, the sun setting over the Hudson.