It was summer when we laid her down dead. I’d had that cat damn near half my life and it was all my fault. I’d killed her by accident with my evil ways.
I sat with my friend Veronica in the veterinarian’s office on Eighth Avenue, tears erupting. The vet eased the syringe into Butterball’s fat, white, furry, cat body. He looked up at me with droopy eyelids. “I’m sorry,” he said.
“She used to just flop all over the house,” I told him. “Just walk to the center of the room and flop her big body all over the wood floor.”
“Flop,” the vet repeated, closing his lips in a most wrinkled way. His light blue lab coat was riddled with yellowish stains. He looked like he had a bad day.
I thought of when she used to plop down on the floor, her belly fat expanding out into an almost flat pancake of white fur. She’d lie in her pancake and look up at you with heavy-lidded yellow eyes. Let out a silent cry. When she meowed it was mute: a silent whisper of air. Only her jaws clicked open and shut as she raised her head, bobbing it up and down with anticipation as if you could hear her like a dog’s silent whistle.
We had the body boxed up and drove around and around the city wondering what to do with the little cardboard coffin. I just held it in my hands. We finally buried her at the base of a large tree in a small woods outside of town. We used old tin soup cans for shovels to dig an obscenely large oblong ditch--suitable for a small human, really--in the packed soil. Veronica said we had to dig it deep or dogs would come and dig up the hairy body. Together we piled rocks like a stone blanket over the loose dirt of the cat grave. As I settled the last one, I looked at the pile of rocks. The events of the past few weeks fell into place in my mind, one by one, like the stones.
First, I met Jake. I never intended to cause trouble. I was troubled enough. Jake tripped over me at a club one night and tipped his whole life over so hard it slid into hell. I spilled beer on his arm. His entire body, actually. Our eyes met, locked. His were odd small slants: tiny slashes sliced into his face but they were sparkling deep, full of pure soul. My soul had taken an extended hiatus. I was looking for it any place I could: in the trashed bedrooms of strange boys, in the seedy backs of bars. I had been through a miserable string of affairs and felt hollow as an empty bottle. My soulless beer-spilling self looked up at him and we just clicked. Our eyes slid into place - snick - like a bullet sliding into a barrel. The perfect crime.
Jake looked down at his dripping arm. It was ridiculously thin. Tattooed. And now very wet with beer.
“They’re all wearing beer this season,” he laughed, looking down at his wet shirt. His laugh was high, horsy.
“Just a little moist,” he said, wringing the bottom of his t-shirt in both hands. A stream of yellowish fluid fell and splashed between us.
“It’s a good look for you,” I stated, pointing awkwardly at his back. “A beer cape. I like it.”
We talked for a while about motorcycles, exchanged bar stories, lame most- embarrassing-moment stories, like the time I played pool for an hour with my skirt wadded up in the back of my fishnets with full underwear exposed. I couldn’t believe I was telling him these things.
“Once during a show with my old band Fargo,” he explained, his black spiky hair standing alert, “I jumped off my amp and split my pants clean up the crotch. I wasn’t wearing any underwear.” He took a slug of beer. “I do that.”
“Heh, heh,” I laughed. “Thanks for the warning.”
When the bands finished and were loading out their gear he came up and said, “I gotta split. Here.” He thrust a crinkled cocktail napkin into my hand and took off.
“Jana,” I said after him. “My name’s Jana.” But he was already gone.
I unfolded the napkin. It had his email address on it, no phone number. That seemed strange. Impersonal. I was a little dismayed. Even more dismayed when I read his username: “Ace.” I gave a secret little grimace to myself. Ace. Good god.
I emailed “Ace” the next night around nine, and he answered only two hours later. We sent several messages back and forth, witty little flirtations, but not once did he ask me out. Over the next two weeks we talked about life, our innermost dreams, past relationships gone sour. He told me about his room full of Kiss memorabilia. I told him about my extensive Pez collection and how my cat Butterball had chewed one of my favorites just a few weeks ago: the Yoda Pez.
Finally, I wrote him: “So, do you want to get together and spill alcoholic beverages on each other again?” The next day, a Wednesday, he wrote, “Jana - I am entirely too dry and would love to once again be spilled upon. Let’s meet at The Albion at nine. - Ace”
We met at the bar and the first thing he did was produce a beer from behind his back and present it to me. Inside the pint glass, hovering murkily at the bottom of the amber fluid was a Yoda Pez. I smiled and peered deep inside. Through the round glass, his green plastic head was enlarged grotesquely on its beige stalk. “I got it from a street vendor,” he explained. “Just today. It was fate.”
“I can’t believe that,” I said, fishing Yoda out with two fingers. “This is amazing.”
Yoda dried out on the bar while we eased into conversation. “So what’s up with that username? Ace,” I muttered.
He stared at me blankly for a moment. ”Ace. Like Ace Frehley, from Kiss.”
“Ohhhhhh,” I answered, the flash of enlightenment sparking dully across my brain, then sputtering out. “Of course”.
“Yeah, the most bad ass guitar player in history! What, did you think I was some kind of dork?”
“You are a dork.”
He smiled a grin of slightly crooked teeth. He had a quarter inch gap between the two front ones. He later showed me how he could spit beer between the gap.
A stream of hipsters filtered in, clogging the narrow artery of the entrance. We moved to a more private sector of the bar. In a back wooden booth in the red seamy light we talked in low tones, hushed and hurried words that blended comfortably together into one long streaming thought. He secretly watched re-runs of Dynasty. I watched Dynasty too. In that moment it was like we were soulmates living our separate existences on opposite sides of town.
When the bar closed he said he would walk me home. We were giddy from beer and the conversation and the night. At my doorstep when I invited him in, he told me he better let me go. He leaned in slowly and kissed my neck. I reached to return and he awkwardly grasped my elbow.
“There’s something I need to tell you, Jana.”
“You used to be a girl,” I stated, squeezing where his boobs might once have been.
“No,” he said. “I have a girl. A girlfriend.”
My lips fell open, incredulous. “Jesus, you prick!”
“I’m really sorry. I should have told you sooner.”
“Uh, yeah.” I stared across the street at a homeless guy in a drooping tan sweater, picking through the trash.
I should have left then. Just said ‘No thanks’ and a simple ‘Goodbye.’ It seems so easy, looking back. But I was too stunned to move. We sat on my front steps in the foggy streetlight, and he told me how they had been together for six years. He didn’t love her anymore. They didn’t have that “connection” anymore. How he just felt so drawn to me. Red alarms sounded in my head, but I still couldn’t move.
“I want to be with you, Jana,” he said.
The homeless man had pulled a potted cactus out of the trash and was turning it over and over in his grubby hands.
I didn’t email him for nearly five days. During this time I thought of little else. I spent time with my cat Butterball, asking her advice. She didn’t have much to say about the matter. Just sat there clicking her jaws.
I met for coffee with Veronica. She sat across from me at the café in a short-sleeved black dress with a red embroidered rose snaking greedily up one side. She was a beautiful large girl with long dark hair. We were best friends since we were kids and grew up side by side.
She was stable. Relatively. Much more so then I. She had a boyfriend who worked selling car insurance online. I clung to her advice for some shred of sane romantic boyfriend action. At least hers had a job. I mean I just dated complete and horrific losers: technical institute dropouts, wannabe rock stars, potheads, TV junkies. One had even worn a sandwich board advertising an acrylic special at a local nail salon. That was his job, just standing there on the street. Most were additionally either alcoholics or Al-Anon-damaged twenty-two year olds who talked about their codependency like it was a separate being that walked around town, ready to suck them back into the alcoholic hell that is/was/could be their lives. But I digress.
“He’s a bum,” Veronica said flatly. “You hear me? He doesn’t even have a job.”
“He does!” I explained. “He has worked at a comic book store: the same one for five years. If that’s not stability, I don’t know what is.”
“Really! There’s nothing wrong with him. He’s almost a regular guy.”
Except, I thought, that he drank a little much and, apparently, had the capacity for great lies.
“He even has an almost natural color hair.”
“Who care’s about his hair? He’s got a girlfriend! That’s a major flaw in a guy!”
“Well, you know what to do.”
“I do,” I said. “Know.”
I called him for a drink. “Just to talk.”
I had, in every way, intended to do the right thing. We met on my front porch where we drank from the cans of beer he brought over. We drank. We talked. Four hours later we were upstairs in the blue hallway of my apartment shucking our clothes off faster than cornhuskers in July. His chain wallet clanged to the wood floor. We made out in a pile of his work pants, my thrashed print skirt and our matching studded belts. We had sex in my room underneath two hundred trembling Pez.
Butterball took to him immediately. Afterwards, lying on our sides in our underwear on the floor, she paraded up on top of him and ceremoniously flopped down on his side. Her paws jutted out, crossed, and her belly sagged down over his hip, casual, in an almost rock and roll way. She had staked her claim
A few hours later I asked him, “What are you still doing here? You have a life waiting for you.”
He mauled the cat’s ears absentmindedly. His pale blue eyes stared at me, murky with a tangle of thoughts. “I like it here.”
“I do though.”
We were silent. He moved his hand to my back, scratching lightly there.
The next night he came over again. I lit some Virgin Mary candles in the house, along with some others along the windowsills, to drive out the evil we had spawned. We drank a bottle of dimestore whiskey he pulled out from a paper bag and sat out on the fire escape. Our feet dangled down over the street, honking cars.
“Sandy thinks my Kiss dolls are stupid,” he stated. Below the cars pressed on through the tight jam. “But you don’t.”
“Some people just don’t understand these things,” I told him. “I mean, if only I had Kiss Pez, then things would be perfect. Then we could both be happy.” He stared at me. Then kissed my chin.
When we finished the bottle we crept back inside. All the candles’ wax had turned soft and hot. A faint burning scent filtered through the room.
We sat on the floor. He leaned back against my old chaise lounge that I had dragged in from the street. He pulled out a pocketknife from his pants pocket, clicked it open. “I can’t go back to a world without Kiss figurines,” he laughed and dug the tip of the blade into his forearm. He sliced it quickly upwards. A burst of crimson sprang from the cut in a long red line. We both sat there watching as though all words had been sucked from the room into the blade. The candles flickered.
I started to chuckle, shaking silently. Uncontrollably. I couldn’t help it. “That was stupid.”
He burst out laughing. “I’m an idiot.”
We laughed, then sat in the dark as the line of blood thickened and hardened. He crawled over and we held each other for a while. Slowly, as though the act had drained the last of our energy, we sank into sleep.
A few hours later I woke up covered in blood. The scab had broken open, dripping over the both of us. I woke him up and we had sex with the blood rubbing, sliding between his chest and my breasts like bleeding under warm water. It was pure, sexy, evil.
Afterwards, he turned me over, facing away from him. He wrapped his arms around me tighter, rocking, until I was enclosed in a strange cocoon of his bloody bony limbs. The cat lay flat in the corner, watching.
Next morning an email: If it takes 100 Pez to convince you how much I want to be with you, I’ll find them.
I didn’t want to become The Other Girl. The Mistress Girl. It seemed fateful that if left to continue I would contract some rare incurable venereal disease or perish in a fiery crash. I sought redemption. I smiled and nodded at old people. I became deliberate in all my motions, Careful Girl, Together Girl, drinking my morning coffee with intent, making sure I didn’t carelessly cross the road too fast lest I become Roadkill Girl. Things that happen to those with minds crowded with thoughts. To bad girls. To sinners like me.
Jake came over, as he did many times during those few weeks. We turned on the TV and the Brady Bunch was on. It was the one where Greg goes on a date and his brothers left a box of frogs in the back seat of his convertible. Jake howled with obscene horsy laughter as the frogs land on Greg’s date’s head and splop right in their pizza.
In the dead quiet of night I lay next to a sleeping Jake. He was heavy in my bed, squooshing the mattress into a sad deep “V.” His skin was faintly illuminated, filtered red from the curtain, a stark contrast to his ink-black spiky hair. The darkness of it set off his tattoos, which clung to him like thorny plants twisting around his shoulders, through the crook of his arm, reaching down to his wrists in pointy fingers of faded black ink. I put my hand on his bony chest to feel the slow thick beat in there, like a tom in a flat ribbed drum.
The next morning after he left the apartment I “carefully stepped” to the coffee shop down the block. As I was carefully stepping home, a conga line of four kids paraded past yelling, “Sinner, sinner, sin-NER! Sinner, sinner, sin-NER!” kicking their legs out on the “NER.” Maybe I just imagined it. Maybe they were yelling “winner.” I trod grimly home.
It must have been one of the most sweltering days in San Francisco history. A hundred and two degrees at least. Butterball lay flat on her back on the wood boards of the floor, belly up and limbs splayed open like a frog on a dissecting board. The candles on my windowsill had melted to sad soft blobs, leaning toward the sun like strange misshapen aliens beckoning out the window to an already crazy world.
Jake walked in to the open front door. I was nude, sprawled out on the battered chaise lounge. My tiny drug store fan whirred furiously, spawning only the faintest warm breeze to waft in our general direction. In one large thin hand he cradled a tub of ice cream. He knelt by the lounge and fed it to me – Blueberry - from a plastic spoon.
“That cools the soul, don’t it?”
“Mmmmm,” I said, pulling the blue, icy cream off the end of the spoon. Jake took off his clothes and climbed on the lounge. He took the pint of ice cream and dripped its melted contents all over me. At first it felt good, then slowly melted to an unpleasant mess. I looked down at my blue-streaked nude body. “Sticky,” I said, realizing that our meetings nearly always included some sort of goo or blood or food.
“Hold on.” He leapt up, nude, and left the room. I heard his big flat feet padding across the linoleum in the kitchen. He returned with a glass of ice water. Standing over me he tipped the glass. One clear stream of glorious cold water fell and splashed against my chest, drops rolling around the sides of my breasts. He bent and licked them off. Then did the same to my arms, thighs, until the skin was cooler to the touch. With the last third of the glass he raised it and dumped it over his tattooed chest and back, shaking out every drop from the glass.
We had sex on the cool wet mattress without a sound, except my drug store fan whirring to the relief of no one. Only the sun shifted slightly in the sky, bending its strange wax aliens toward the window so close they flattened themselves against the glass.
The next day I was peeling them off the sill when the phone rang. I picked it up with one hand, holding a handful of pink wax blobs in the other.
“So, have you dumped the creep yet?” Veronica stated.
“God, that’s so… blunt.”
“Well you either have or you haven’t,” she explained. Her voice sounded preoccupied as though she was painting her toenails while making this reminder call. Don’t forget to dump your boyfriend today, as though it was something a person might forget.
“Well have you?” she asked, impatient.
“Um, not exactly.”
“Not exactly? What are you waiting for? God, Jana! How would you feel if you were that other girl? His real girlfriend.”
How could I explain? I knew what she was saying. I knew it was lame. “Can’t I have a little joy?” I implored. I didn’t have much.
There was a long exasperated sigh on the other end of the line. “Oh Jana.” The way she said it sounded so final. As though she had officially lost all hope. “He’s not going to give you what you want.” She paused for dramatic effect. “Ever.”
“If you want to meet someone with potential,” she continued smartly, “why don’t you join a group or something. Take a class. Something you like.”
“I went to AA for a while.”
“That’s not the same thing!” she shrieked.
“That’s the guys I like.”
There was a long silence. “What can I say then, Jana. Leave him. You’ll find someone else.”
“I don’t want anyone else.”
“You will,” she said. “You’ll have to.”
I had barely placed the phone back in its cradle when it rang again. It was Jake.
“Can I come over?” he asked.
Some time later the door buzzer blared. Butterball’s eyes widened to full yellow globes. I stupidly slid a Snickers bar – the kind he liked – down the back of my jeans so he would later find it when his hands reached around back there. I instantly regretted the decision. It wasn’t nearly as hot as the previous day, but I could already feel it softening.
His face was grim at the door. “Hello Jana.” Some of the spikes on his hair were drooping and pressed nearly flat in places as though he had slept in an alleyway all night and woken up to come straight here.
“What’s going on?”
“You’d better sit,” he stated. I sat. He lowered himself to the battered chair. He sat there silent, head down. Looking into his hands. I could feel the Snickers slowly melting in the crack of my ass.
“Well, what is it? What is it?” I nearly shouted. I was already angry but didn’t know at what.
“Sandy’s pregnant. She wants to have the baby,” he blurted, glancing up briefly. I glared at him with wide black eyes. Pits of hell. Unblinking. The situation lay knotted on the floor. Outside a woman began screeching obscenities at a man directly beneath our window, drawing out key vowels. You son of a biiiiiiiiiitch! You monumental aaaaaaaaaass!
“What are you going to do?” I asked.
“What can I do? She wants to have the baby. I don’t.” His voice was tense controlled frustration. His hand fidgeted nervously with his studded bracelet. “But it’s her decision, right? That’s how it works. That’s the deal, right?” His eyes were dark, glassy. He looked into the corner of the room where all my papers and junk were piled. I suddenly realized what a mess it had become.
“I can’t just leave with all this going on,” he offered. “I have this responsibility now.” His face puckered. “Have to figure out how to pay for stuff.”
“But Jana,” he continued weakly, finally meeting my eyes. “I don’t love her. I love you.” The words were like abstract shapes that hung in the air. What did they mean anyway, those sounds? I stared at his crooked teeth.
You jeeeeeeeeeeerk! You jeeeeeeeeeerk!
He got up and pathetically knelt down at my knees. I felt a sick feeling grasping, then crawling up my spine. “Jana sweetheart, don’t give up on us. I want to be with you.”
My throat felt tight as a stalk. I knew he was trouble. I should have known you can’t permanently bond with people over spilt beer or a mutual love of toys. “I want you to go,” I said. “This very second.” He wearily stood and walked sheepishly towards the door.
The woman outside began banging her fists into the hood of a car. The thud of denting aluminum shook the apartment window, which vibrated with every blow. “I’ll make this work somehow,” he said before he left. “We’ll figure something out.”
He closed the blue painted door. I chucked the flattened Snickers in the trash.
As if on cue, Butterball collapsed on the kitchen floor the next night. Just dropped dead. Nearly. Well, dead enough. I took her to the vet to finish the job. Her kidneys had finally given out, unable to filter out the inner poisons that finished her off.
After that I spent the next several nights alone. She was all I really had to truly call my own. I took my double shot of karma like a thick pill lodged in my heart to rot. I had lost everything.
I remembered Jake lying on his side, talking to me over the fat Kiss candle I had bought for him with the cat’s wide body drooping all over his midsection. Peter, Paul, Ace and Gene Simmons were illuminated, a white-hot flame licking above their heads inside the glass. We had sex for nearly three hours that night while that little glass hell burned.
I saw him several months later with Sandy, pushing an ochre-colored stroller down 16th and Valencia with the baby like a tiny pink worm wrapped inside. He looked terribly thin. Sad. She was as fat as he was thin, with a smug little smile and it suddenly occurred to me she must have known. I watched them pass from across the street. Watched them even when they had rounded the corner and gone.
I turned and walked into a coffee shop just to be off the street where they had been. I ordered a cup and sat there looking into it like a black mirror, watching it grow tepid, then cold. I thought of Butterball sleeping silently in the earth in her soil bed, planted like a big soft seed. It comforted me to think of her like that, and I imagined I was there, crawling down into her deep dark hole. It was completely still. I lay quietly with the bones.