The more days I log on this planet, the less I believe in the proposition called accident. The Catholics call it miracle. The late evolutionary biologist, Stephen Jay Gould, called it contingency. Brits in the 19th century used the word Providence. Today, we use the words serendipity, synchronicity, and the term black swan event. Whatever you call coincidence, it operates throughout all eras, peoples, persons, places and experiences. The ubiquity of the improbable remains as common as ever.
Tonight I clacked away on my laptop in one of those Bohemian coffee houses that have mushroomed all over the hides of big cities and small towns . I wrote some nonsense about the inherent subjectivity of mathematics as language. My imagination sailed on the caffeine produced by two green teas and one hot chocolate – skim, no whip, please. I slaved over a metaphysical tome which will some day be published posthumously and lead to the great ego boost I needed as a struggling writer.
About 40 minutes before closing time, as I wrestle to make cogency of my latest rewritten chapter, the woman beside me decides to start a conversation. Oh boy. Between my ears, but not so you could notice, I slaver over women all year long at coffee shops. I deploy the coffee house stare. Make eyes at women too beautiful for me. I imagine that we will some day be married posthumously and lead to the great ego boost I needed as a struggling writer.
This woman who started up a chatspeak; she was not someone I mentally drooled over. Not that she looked homely or that I am Brad-ass Pitt. No, she seemed obtuse, different, one could say from a first glance.
“Death comes in threes. This week, this last two weeks. There’s been the tsunami, then my I-Phone dies, and someone at work lost a friend.” She wore an old woman’s dress hat with a velour rose stitched to a front brim turned up like Yosemite Sam’s.
“Oh yeah,” I humor her. Maybe she’ll layoff now.
“And my cat. I lost my cat this week.”
My compassion perked a bit. I could identify with that. I mean, I’d lost a cat, too. Few years ago. “That’s tough,” I murmur in half-meaning.
“He was Siamese. His name was Dean Martin. I had a contest with friends. Whoever could come up with the best celebrity pairing. He has a brother: Jerry Lewis. I was closer to Dean.”
“That can be kind of rough,” I say in a pat on the back sort of way.
I’d given up a couple social engagements this evening in favor of my metaphysical masterpiece One of the them gave up on me first, a friend who seemed to gradually blow me off. Married. Kids. We were supposed to have shared post-Holiday dinner. He never called, though. That’s okay. I’ll write. But Ms. Lonely Hearts goes on:
“He was beautiful. He had blue eyes. He was cross-eyed,” she mumbled. She had a hard time letting the words loose from her tongue, as if people didn’t listen to a lot of what she said. Well I guess that makes sense. She worked as a technical writer, she said. But it seemed like she gave up on herself before she ever got started explaining something. She seemed to resign herself to addressing the thin air, probably carried on whole dialogues with teapots and cats and talked back to the TV news. I’d already once-overed her Coke bottle glasses with thick, out-of-date frames and lenses in the shapes of eyes. I’d glanced at her baggy, old brown dress that hid her hips like a burlap bag. She lacked of society because she lacked society within herself. She’d test high on the Asperger’s spectrum, my mind brushed over her high knickers and concluded.
“I had a male die on me a few years back,” I said, making more eye contact with my laptop than her eyes.
“A lot of people don’t understand how it feels. I’ve had people come up to me: ‘Oh, he’s just an animal,’ they say. Or they actually make jokes about it.”
“Yeah, I had the same thing. But when you’re single, grieving that animal can be even harder than grieving a person. Because no one else knew that cat but you. So the grief and the burden of explaining it falls on you.”
“Exactly,” she sniffled. “And the world doesn’t know and nobody cares.”
The primitive male brain, say the experts who study the reptilian complex, assesses threats and looks for mates. When a female walks into a room, that penis-sized region near the brainstem subconsciously assesses her as a potential mate in a matter of a moment or two. And sometimes it does that not so subconsciously or reptillian y. So I sized her up as a prospective mattress tester. She seemed vulnerable and definitely open. But I didn’t like to think that way about women anymore.
And I didn’t find her attractive, though my inner pig tried to make her into someone I’d like. No, having sex with strange women never worked for me anyway. Well, maybe once it did on my birthday in Albuquerque, but that wasn’t how I wanted to play it. I wanted to make something of my own grief, over my own dead cat. I chose to let the counselor in me come out instead. But then she changes the subject—
“Hey, I’m trying to take the music from the song of this band I follow, and put my own happy birthday lyrics to it, and then send it to their website.”
“What’s the band?” I asked. I thought that a woman across the coffee shop kept eyeing me. I felt hopeful, ‘til I realized she held hands with another woman. “The band you’re following.”
“Oh, Cheap Trick. You ever heard of them?” she said.
“Cheap Trick? Of course. Band from the 80’s.” I felt sorry for her, a fan of a washed-up band from Rockford, Illinois. What good could from Rockford?
She let a few more tears drop from her sallow cheeks, and more seemed to steam-up her glasses. I decided to trot out my canned spiel about grief and death. I used it often with clients.
“I think that when someone dies, we have a chance to be closer with them than when they were alive, because we’re not separated by bodies anymore. We all share the same heart, I believe, so that means we can share our feelings and experiences with loved ones that have gone on as if we were one with them.”
She nods. I don’t know if she buys it. It sounds more and more like a greeting card every time I unpackage it, I guess. That’s the problem with standard condolence lines. I need to repair: “It’s hard though, to say anything when something or someone you love dies, that will make it better. There’s nothing you can say or do that can take that pain away.” True, but I feel more and more like a two-legged Hallmark card.
“Did you ever dream of him after he died? Your cat I mean?” she says.
“No. I had a friend, though, with a cat named Star, who kept coming back to him in his dreams after Star died. Following him around, wanting to place fetch. Finally, he had to tell Star that it was time to move on. And Star wandered off, looking back every few steps, until he was gone.” I remembered a LOST CAT poster taped to a street light pole. I’d flitted by it on Western Avenue on my way into the city.
“I had that kind of dream after my grandmother died,” she said, trying to make connections. “I was on the Clark Street bus, and then she got on. I said: ‘Do they let you come back like this?’ She smiled and winked and said: ‘Oh, every once in awhile I escape.’”
I chuckled along with her. “It’s funny, but my grandmother came back in my dreams after she died, too.”
“Maybe only cats and grandmas are smart enough to escape.”
“Either that, or they’re the only ones that can fit under the fence.”
We laughed, attracting the attention of the barista wiping down the counter for closing.
“My cats have L names,” I said. “Lynx and Lightning. They’re sisters. And Lynx is part Siamese, just like yours. Lynx has bright blues and she’s cross-eyed.”
“Really,” she said as she swigged the last of her cold Earl Gray and fumbled with a notebook on which were written just a couple lines of her birthday song. I couldn’t read them upside down.
“Dean Martin was smart.”
“Yeah, but he drank too much. I read that Siamese cats are cross-eyed a lot.”
She nodded. “It was an old trait they bred out, but sometimes it comes back.” Every once in awhile, she’d doodle down a line from her made up song, and I’d take the opportunity to finish the next metaphor in my meta-opus, the hornbook on reality to end all further philosophical and scientific debate by melding the disciplines of science and theology once and forever. I was a genius; posthumously, of course.
“My Lynx is smart, too,” I said. “And a bit of a pain in the ass.” They sounded like pick-up lines, loaded with too much coincidental identification. But I wasn’t trying to sleep with her. How I wished she was the beautiful young blonde who’d been sitting a table away earlier in the evening.
“Do you collect anything?” she asked.
I explained my obsessions with CD’s, DVD’s, books, despite their technological obsolescence. The conversation turned toward music again. She wanted to go to a concert at the House of Blues to hear a band called the Raspberries, a 70’s troupe with a handful of hits. I surprised myself with my vocal riff of one of their top 40 numbers, Please Go Away. All that car singing paid off. But the conversation always turned back to the cats.
“I saw him walking through the hall, the day after he died,” she said. “And I felt him nuzzle against my feet.”
Okay, maybe I had the diagnosis all wrong and she was really psychotic.
“That ever happen to you, after your old cat died?” she wondered.
I looked up at the molded tin ceiling and thought about it.
“Well, no,” I said. “But one time. In the middle of the night after I’d been out dancing all night, I saw this spectral cat float above my bed. That was back when I had my old tom.” The story was true. Maybe we had shared psychotic disorder.
She spoke again of her grandmother, of how, when she finally received that brooch her grandmother had promised to her after she died, she’d slept with it on, and on that night, she had the dream about her grandmother getting on the Clark Street bus.
“I think when that happens,” I said, “the people we love are saying goodbye to us, and we’re saying goodbye to them.”
She nodded, tried to jot a lyric down. “I wonder why a cat would come back then?”
“Maybe he misses you as much you miss him.”
Big mistake. She really started sobbing now, and the couple on the other side of the place looked over at me like I’d just broken up with her.
“People think,” she slurred, “it’s not s’posed to hurt as much because it was only an animal.”
“I know,” I said. “Like love has different degrees. Like there are different kinds of love. Like the love you have for an animal’s inferior to the kind you hold for your grandma.”
She nodded again. She knew. And she knew that I knew what she really felt just now.
“When something you love dies,” I began, “you’re here and that thing you love is somewhere else. It feels like you lost it, because you can’t find it anywhere you look. You finally break down and cry because you believe you’ll never see it again. It feels so real while you’re still here, and then the loneliness needs to find a way out of you.” I heaved in something between a sigh and a sob. “When you die, you become one with what you lost, so the grief isn’t real anymore. There never really was any sense to it. Everyone that ever died belongs with everyone else, and when you go over to them, you belong to them again, and that makes crying impossible. Then, even the memory of your grief is forgotten.”
“That’s very Buddhist,” she said.
I shrugged. “Well I think it’s a lot of things.” I didn’t really think it very Buddhist. More like early Vedic, but definitely not Hallmark. “I think there’s a part of us, an observer part, that contains the grief. It watches the grieving and it can hold it for us. That Buddhist?”
She sighed. “Yeah.” She asked me what I was writing. I told her about it; that it was the most fun project I had right now. I knew I’d never get it published, so I didn’t take it seriously.
For awhile now, I’d wanted to be with her. I didn’t need to get back to my writing. I was done for the night. I thought about my friend, Dave, the friend who seemed to have better things to do then go out for dinner. Our friendship, which went back years, felt pretty much dead. He fell out of my life. Who wasn’t I to have that happen to me? I’d personalized it before, put all kinds of meaning on it. Yet I didn’t need to feel resentful or sad anymore.
And I’d just turned down going to a party so I could write a short story later about the Grand Canyon and solitude. And I’d just knocked out a short inspirational piece about how, when I choose one thing, I must grieve all those choices that I negate by implication. No, there were no accidents. I’d struggled with the idea of moving west for years, but had stayed in Chicago so I could belong to a group. The truth was, I’d made my choice to move years ago, and just hadn’t carried through with it because I grieved the family, the friends, the history I’d leave behind. I’d made my choice to move on. I needed to experience the grief. This truth I hid from myself until now.
This woman, who called herself Sooz so no one would call her Suzanne or Susan or, God forbid, Suzie, was my relationship for the night. She, the one I’d chose to be in relationship with, the one I’d chosen to love. And yet I’d laid down pity instead. Long ago, I’d learned not to confuse love with pity. So at some point in our brief intercourse, I showed her my love instead. I loved her, I did. I didn’t want a damn thing from her. I only wanted to listen without judgment and share my own experience. I’d relinquished my desire to fuck her or to fix her.
“Sometimes I think they teach us more than anyone or anything can,” I said.
“Who?” she asked.
“What did your old boy teach you?”
“Not to take what I love for granted. I took him in for a check-up and ended up leaving him to be put to sleep. I learned that, just for starters.”
“I think Dean Martin taught me about unconditional love,” she said, and a tear wandered down the side of her face. I excused myself and brought back a couple napkins. The couple in the corner smiled. I’d gotten back on their good side.
“Jerry Lewis is different,” Sooz said. “He doesn’t like to be cuddled or petted like Dean did. He misses Dean. He really does. But I just don’t-. Dean was my favorite.”
“Lightning, she’s the un-Siamese one. She’s my favorite. Lynx doesn’t like to be handled, either. She drops down on the floor right in front of me when I come home and wants me to rub her belly. But I’m always too busy.” I glanced out the frosty January window, thinking about my old male. Too busy for him before he died, too. Do we ever learn not to take something for granted?
“Yeah, Jerry Lewis always runs away when I try to pick him up. But then when I do pick him up, he purrs like he likes it.”
“I know,” I said as the barista came by to pick up my empty mug painted with dried hot chocolate. The place was closing in 10 minutes.
“That’s how my Lightning is. Sometimes she runs away, and sometimes she let’s me pick her up. I try to leave her alone if she doesn’t want to be handled. I try to remember what it’d be like if someone 10 times my size tried to pick me up against my will.” I wanted to finish my thread about death and grief. Something I needed to tell myself. “Listen, what I meant by all that before is that grief is temporary. You die, then you wake up. ‘It’s all been a bad dream,’ you tell yourself. ‘I was alive on this planet and everything died and left me alone.’ And then you forget you even had the dream.”
She seemed to register something of what I said. “I’m just glad he died Monday, before the snowstorm, and after Christmas. This way, I got to take him to the vet and have him put down before he really started to hurt.”
“Yeah,” I said, still remembering my old male who never had a name.
She told me she wouldn’t be able to see the Raspberries, since her boss had docked her a day’s pay for taking off to take Dean Martin to the vet, and since she had to pay for his cremation.
I felt shitty. Why did happiness seem to depend on money? Why did penury pile on top of death?
I thought awhile before I made my proposition. I’d thought of it since she’d mentioned that she’d lost her cat.
“It may be too soon for you, but I have a cat in need of a home. She’s boarded at my vet. She was feral once. I have a feral colony in my backyard and I try to find places for them.”
“Maybe. But I don’t know that Jerry Lewis can ever stand another cat besides his brother. I went Siamese because Siamese cats are like dogs. Not aloof, you know?”
I nodded. Lynx acted like a Golden Retriever in a cat’s body. I packed up my computer and slipped on my leather jacket.
“You come here a lot?” she asked.
“Sometimes.” I thought about offering her a ride. It was cold, but it would sound like a pick-up. I didn’t want her to think that. “Take care.”
“Goodbye” she said with a low inflection that marked the sad end of something. I think she wanted to exchange numbers. I don’t know how I knew, but I guess it wasn’t too far off to believe that. Something inside told me this represented a one-off event, a one night stand where you both shed some of your secrets, but without the lay down.
On the drive home, I slipped in a CD of operatic arias mixed with electronic music, hybridized hymns of old and new. I flew home on that expressway, and with every house window I glanced into which had left on a light as I shot past, I felt a strange connection, as if me and the people in those homes were one.
For some reason, I started thinking about self-esteem, and how self-worth and self-esteem are not the same at all. How my self-worth remains undeniable and unchanging, while my self-esteem – being my current perception of my self-worth – fluctuates from moment-to-moment.
My self-worth can’t be added to or subtracted from. It is what it always was and will be. I don’t need to do anything, to get anyone or be anyplace. And I don’t need to get rid of any evil inside. Self-esteem may tell me that I have to do all that, but I don’t.
Self-esteem really wasn’t all that important, I decided. They say if you want self-esteem, to do estimable things. But I didn’t need to do anything to improve my self-worth. I did estimable things to increase my awareness of the worth that I already had. Just knowing that boosted my self-esteem.
I thought back about all that aloneness I spend with me in coffee shops, crafting imaginary romances built from a woman’s glance or smile. I thought about an email I sent out to an old flame last week which remained unrequited. It’d really bothered me. I made it mean that the universe had once again passed me by. I thought again about Dave, who’d blown me off for dinner, who didn’t return my Christmas call. I thought about all I’d given up in the trades of success and recognition and belonging to a wife and children, all in order to alone myself in coffee shops so that I could be intimate with the world through written words that never made their way beyond my closet shelf. I thought about my grandmother, about the LOST CAT from the poster plastered desperately onto a light pole, a cat that would most likely end up dead in some alley. I made up my mind that my self-worth survived all of these losses intact. I could grieve. I had to grieve. I couldn’t skip my feelings anymore. But knowing that a woman named Sooz shared that grief helped me realize that grief and loneliness stood temporarily, while joy and belonging lasted forever.
I got home and Lynx greeted me at the front door, as usual, by lying on her back and sticking her paws in the air like an overfed lioness. Wanting to pull me down to her level while I usually just stepped over her and hung up my coat.
I crouched. I listened to her soft purr and rubbed her belly. Her purrs sounded out at the frequency of a diesel engine, her contentment unconcealed. I perked some decaf and grabbed the cat brush. She hopped up on the washer, and I brushed her more than she’d ever been brushed in her whole life at one sitting. She ate that up like cat food from heaven. I think that’s what it was – food from heaven.
© 2015 by Michael C. Just