[Note: This story was previously published in BNP Magazine- Jan 2018. Alexander Greene graciously allowed us to use it here for the pusposes of the Writers’ Forum critique]
The Cat That Lived
by Alexander Greene
The cat died on a Saturday morning amidst a blaze of activity designed to save its life. Hooked up to tubes, bandaged and shaved in crucial areas, the cat awaited execution atop the sterile metal table in one of the examination rooms. Howling dogs could be heard in the background.
It was Jane who called it “execution”. The veterinarian had softened such harsh realities to “putting the poor thing out of its misery” or “putting him to sleep.” But then the vet had also joked about putting her own husband to sleep and had not intended that to come across as a peaceful transition.
“There could be some spasms after the injection. It may not look pretty. Are you sure you wouldn’t rather wait in the outer office while we do this?” she asked.
Jane shook her head. Her husband, Jason, watched from behind. Despite the sadness of the moment, he found himself intrigued by the unfolding event, semi-detached as though he were watching a National Geographic television special or one of those made-for-T.V. movies that were so popular a few years earlier.
He noticed the calmness of the vet, the way her face would contort into a grieved expression without the substance of grief, as though she wanted you to believe that she was killing her own pet rather than yours. He did not feel convinced.
The vet-tech attached another tube, one into which fast-acting poison would later be injected. The first shot is only a sedative to calm the animal, he was told. The second one paralyses the heart. Ka-boom!
Robert could envision a future world in which the elderly were dispatched with the same precision and the consoling pre-eulogy of the attending physician “putting the poor thing out of his/her misery”.
“It’s better this way,” the vet said, her eyes offering another rendition of sadness and sympathy as she discharged the contents of the syringe through the tube leading into the cat.
The cat’s head, which until this point had been free-moving, slowly dropped to the table, its eyes flickering then glazing over as the lids closed one last time. And that was it.
“Would you like us to take care of his remains?” the vet asked.
“Please,” Jason said, clearing his throat and answering before Jane could argue a case for burying it in the backyard where she would undoubtedly place a headstone and flowers and grieve, periodically, in an almost human way.
Now, in front of him, she began to cry and he considered that he should, perhaps, hold her, console her for the pain he knew she felt. He could not bring himself to do so and instead passively watched her.
“It’s not always so peaceful,” the vet said, checking for a heartbeat. There was none. “I’ll let you say your goodbyes,” she added, leaving the room.
Jane gently stroked the cat’s fur then suddenly pulled back as the body was already stiffening and now gave the appearance of a stuffed toy rather than something that, moments before, had lived.
“We did the right thing,” he told her. “He’d only have lived another week and been in pain. His liver was gone. You spared him some pain.”
“But not myself,” she blurted, turning away from the cat and shielding her face in her hands. “He was my cat. I had him before we were married. I feel like part of my life has died as well.”
“He had a damned good life. He ate better than we did. He slept on the bed between us and he peed wherever he felt like. He was a fat cat who got damned lucky.”
“You don’t understand,” she said, walking out and leaving him alone with the corpse.
“But I do,” he said to the cat. “She killed you with all that fatty food she fed you. But what did she do to me?”
In the car on the way home she was silent, staring at the fields slipping passed. Ahead a stray cat sat curbside watching the car as it approached. She looked but paid it no attention.
“Do you think he felt any pain?” she finally said.
“No pain. He was purring right up until his heart stopped. Not a bad way to go really.”
“I miss him already,” she said. “It won’t be the same without him.”
“Nothing will be the same,” he said, knowing it to be the truth; the cat’s illness merely brought to the surface the years of resentment which had followed the incident. And in a selfish way he found himself glad of the cat’s death for the pain he knew it caused her.
“You just don’t understand what I’m feeling.”
“I understand more than I’m given credit for.”
“He was my child, my baby. We never had any children so he was it.”
“Your choice, not mine.”
“We didn’t need children,” she said.
“You didn’t need children.”
He pulled the car into the driveway and got out. He was standing in front of the house that he always considered hers – she had picked it.
It was a small brick house surrounded by pine trees. She had decorated it, selected the shrubbery and the flowers and the cobblestones and, on the inside, the furniture and the color of the paint on the walls, in the same way that she had selected the pattern of their dishes and the design of the bed sheets, all of which, at this moment, he hated more than he knew he could ever express.
And he had allowed her those pleasures because it made her happy and, at the time, he just wanted her to be happy, just as the fat cat sleeping between them made her happy.
It was not his house. It held none of his persona. And standing by the front door he knew he would become to it the stranger he already felt he was.
Inside, she wandered through the rooms noticing the emptiness before settling on the couch. She told him so and he shrugged and replied, “Only now?” and with a nod apologized for the cruelty of the statement.
“Why even apologize when you don’t mean it?”
“Let’s not start,” he said, pouring himself a scotch and her a large glass of sherry, knowing she would be starting on something more volatile, such as the half-empty Southern Comfort she kept hidden in the garage behind the laundry supplies.
He handed her the glass and raised his in a toast. “To the cat,” he said, “who was lucky enough to have an easy life and a quick way out.” He took a large sip.
She sat silent for a moment, sipped at her drink before speaking. “I had hoped that things had changed with us,” she said.
“Things never change.”
“More’s the pity. You can’t just forgive me, can you?”
“Forgive? That’s easy. Forgetting is the part I can’t seem to do. Knowing that it was so incredibly stupid…” He took another sip, shook his head. “Rehashing again, I suppose…”
“To hell with you,” she hissed, and then finished her drink with a gulp.
“Do you remember the plant you got when we were first together?”
She nodded. “I bought it right after we made love the first time.”
“And the antique, Oriental, glass paintings?”
“They broke. The frame wasn’t strong enough to hold it.”
“Not after you threw the salt shaker at it. And even though you said that the plant would grow with our love, it knew something you didn’t. It died.”
“And you’re glad that the cat died, even though you’d never admit it.”
“I don’t begrudge the cat. But you, you could have told him ‘no’, that your marriage meant something more than getting drunk and giving in.’
“Damn you,” she shouted, charging from the room and slamming the door behind her.
“No, damn you,” he found himself screaming after her. He poured himself another drink. The cat got lucky, he thought.
In the next room he could hear her crying. He wanted to pack his bags, to walk out, relish the revenge he wished so desperately he could obtain.
How could I ever trust you again, he thought? How could I leave you alone and not wonder? All his life he had expected that he would have a marriage of trust and love and in his mind he knew that he could never have betrayed her in the way that she had betrayed him.
It had felt as though his life had ended, as though someone had sliced a section from him, a lump of flesh seething with all the lost hope and idealism.
Their wedding picture in a tarnished silver frame stared back at him. There were two happy people he could not remember. They looked happy, almost certain of the choice they had just made, moments before the flash went off. Like thoughts of the cat, those moments seemed muted now.
He went back outside and stared in through the window. It was quiet outside, the cool air pressed comfortably against him. Safety in silence, he considered.
He watched as she came from the bedroom, a wrinkled tissue in her hand, and she sat down on the couch.
The motions felt right. He looked away then back again. He watched as she came from the bedroom and sat down on the couch, next to the fat cat.
He would go inside in a moment and tell her he was leaving. He looked at the cat. The cat’s liver was infected, swollen, and he was on a medication that would flush out the toxins. The cat had a fifty-fifty chance. They would know tomorrow, although he felt the cat was goner.
The motions felt right. They felt comfortable and well they should for he had practiced this scenario for a week now.
What if the cat had to be put to sleep? He considered how cruel it would be to leave her on a Friday night and have to have the cat put to sleep on Saturday morning. And yet he knew he could not stay. Each day he remained was like living life as an endless pattern forever renewing and becoming ever harder to change.
He watched her on the couch, petting the cat. This is not my house, he told himself expecting the cameras to pull back and the final credits of this God-awful movie to roll up the screen. This is not my life.
He would walk in and she would look at him. And she would see the expression of detachment in his eyes and know that what was to follow would hurt her for she knew nothing other than the fact that she needed him in her life, even if she had hurt him repeatedly.
“I can’t stay here,” he would say, and she would frown and not make it easy for him.
“What do you mean you can’t stay here? Don’t be ridiculous. What are you talking about?”
‘Us,” he would mutter. “I can’t live like this anymore.”
And her eyes would glaze over and the beginnings of a tear would form. “What are you telling me? Do you want a divorce?”
And his heart would skip a beat because hearing that word come forth from her mouth meant both pain and freedom, the former from the destruction of union, if even only in formality, and the latter from the relief of the burdens he had been carrying with him. “Divorce” was a word of power to be served up like a good cocktail.
“Yes,” he would say. He had trained himself to say that word, not allowing the guilt or the thoughts of intense pain that he would be causing her to stop him this time; she had caused the same pain upon him to such a degree that he could no longer live with it. “I want a divorce,” he would say slowly, clearly, savoring the fact that finally he would get the last word.
“Oh God!” he imagined that she would mutter, believing however that a more accurate response would be a belligerent acceptance of the proposal.
In his pocket he fingered the house keys, feeling the jagged edges, biding his time. He could feel the pressure in the coolness outside guiding him on.
Perhaps the cat would live, he thought, sliding the key into the lock and turning the handle. As the door opened he could see the cat on the couch next to her. It looked up at him for the briefest of moments before closing its eyes, its head falling gracefully. Peacefully.
©2016 Alexander Greene
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