For we did love them, which is to say we watched them. Knew their habits and spoke gently and quietly about them. Loved them and did not ask for love in return.
Whenever we’re someplace waiting, my husband likes to hear small stories about my family. People knew my grandmother by her Siamese cats. She kept them in a room, on the third floor, and called it her cattery. For them I tried to play Mendelssohn, but the piano was on the first floor, a long way down. They could not—I was sure—even feel the vibrations. My mother worried to herself that my grandmother loved cats more than people. When my father came to this country and met my mother’s family, he’d joke that the cats knew more English words than he did, but no one, he told me, would laugh.
You know already that when my mother claimed to worry about people she often meant herself. I worried about her. I worried about dying before my parents did. I imagined it, every now and then, so the story had somewhere to exist. What I imagined: them having to take care of a half-conscious, half-knowing me in bed. My body, but my brain not there, and them dragging up their old arguments, as old as myself, because I could not stop them, lying there. Dear God, my husband said, that’s horrifying. I said, I’ll go back to my grandmother.
She was a biology professor, and she studied the bodies of cats. As she did with many creatures. In the summers we spent together in the Northeast, I’d go to her office and sit at her desk and twirl her Rolodex and write with highlighters all the names I knew in rainbows. Here’s the part I struggle to remember. In her lab there were dead cats sheathed in plastic. I was sure (was I?) they were not alive—unmoving, their fur at and all about them, some eyes open, some closed, their tongues out—they couldn’t be. They were the first dead red-blooded animals I’d seen. I had to say something to her. How could you? I began, meaning to ask how could she look at them. I made myself look. The way I made myself imagine my death. My inner eye has always made me see my sadness. The dead cats were together, hanging in plastic and on display, on hooks. Jesus, my husband said. You were just a kid to see that. So I’ll change the subject now, I said.
Once I saw a cat come back to life. She’d been in pain, and my grandmother and I drove her at night to the family vet. He was in a T-shirt; he was eating a sandwich. This was in a very small town. I was young and you know I could have details wrong. He put her in a small aquarium and dripped anesthesia inside through a metal tube, and we watched her head drop and then her body thud down on one side of the glass. I wanted to leave the room, but my grandmother said, You should see this. Like the piano, like Mendelssohn. A part of my education. He was still chewing a bite from his sandwich when he took Ginny Woolf from the aquarium and laid her on the examination table and made a long cut and showed me her organs and ovaries and, on her ovaries, small cysts. He felt them and tugged at them with his fingertips. He twisted.
Does she feel that? I asked. She’ll be sore tomorrow, he said. He sewed her up and placed her back in the aquarium, and I sat and sat through four songs without words, I hummed to myself until I watched her wake up and kept her sweet eyes open but down. God, we’ll never put our child through watching things like that, my husband said.
I’ve never owned a cat, and my grandmother died a few Novembers ago. Last Thanksgiving we spent at my mother’s. We were waiting for the rain to stop when her only cat came to rest herself in a swirl in my lap. She had wispy whiskers and a crooked tail and was small as a mixing bowl. No wonder, my husband said, and that was all, because he wanted me to ask what he meant by that. I said, What. No wonder that when we were ancient we’d worship them, he said. He stood and stretched. The rain’s letting up, he said, and it’s late now. We should start driving back. No, I said, that’s not it. You know the story only ends when I tell it to.
Originally published in ZYZZYVA No. 114. Copyright © 2019 by Olivia Clare.