I sat a long time before going up to the house. Vanessa lived on the left side of a duplex behind the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge. There was a pink beauty salon chair on the white paint chipped front porch. Weathered cardboard boxes filled with National Geographic magazines and empty Marlboro 100 packs were stacked in the corner. After I knocked at the door, it opened and I saw Vanessa standing there before me. I knew her as the regular who always asked for extra soymilk in her reusable coffee mugs but my manager called her Fat Madonna. I didn’t get the joke until he showed me a picture on his phone one day.
I was a barista at the coffee stand in the Justice Center and Vanessa worked in the Clerk of Courts office a few floors up. That was how she was able to get fake IDs. They came from women who had to surrender their drivers’ licenses after getting DUI’s.
“Hey, Moira,” Vanessa said, “come on in.”
I lingered in the doorway, hoping that we could just get this over with, but it wasn’t the kind of transaction we should do out in the open. I followed her into a dark stairwell and then into a living room that was painted purple and had brown shag carpeting. The smell of catpiss and cigarettes hit me first. Then my ears were assaulted by a wailing cat. I looked past Vanessa’s shoulder and saw two cats humping on the floor, the top one was white and long haired and the other was tiny and brown, claws out and bracing the carpet.
“Don’t mind them,” Vanessa said as she handed me a driver’s license for a woman who kind of looked like me but was actually a lot prettier. “They’re always at it these days.”
“Are they fixed?” I asked.
Vanessa had brown eyes that were so dark they swallowed her pupils. “They’re cats,” she said.
I waited for more of an explanation, but she didn’t give one. She grabbed a pair of purple rimmed glasses off a bookshelf and said, “want to try out your new ID?”
Vanessa promised to show me how to do a lemondrop if I got past the doorman. The guy barely looked at me or the fake ID in my wallet. I made it into the bar and saw Vanessa waiting at a table by the juke box. She was the kind of person who stuck out in a crowd but also didn’t. Her hair was dyed black and curly. She wore purple cat eye glasses and a button down short sleeved shirt that showed off cleavage and vines of colorful tattoos that wound around her arms. I didn’t have any tattoos and I bought most of my clothes at H&M. I caught my reflection in the mirror behind the bar. I was tall and formless. Pale pink skin and boring blue eyes surrounded by straight brown hair that was shredded with split-ends.
I sat down and Vanessa got up to buy our drinks. She returned with shot glasses, sugar packets and lemon slices. Her gap tooth showed when she smiled. She was kind of like a young Madonna, but in a pretty way, not how my manager made fun of her. “Okay, Moira,” she said, sitting down opposite me. “First, you put sugar on your hand. You lick it off, take the shot, then bite down on the lemon.”
“I can’t have sugar,” I said and watched her take a white packet off the plate.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“It’s got carbs.”
Her dark eyes blinked behind her glasses. “Do you have an eating disorder or something?” she said.
“I’ll do the shot without the sugar,” I said and reached for the glass. Before I took it, she smacked my hand and snatched it from me.
“No,” she said, clutching it close to her neck, “that’s not how you do a lemondrop.”
The stink of catpiss and cigarettes was always in Vanessa’s house. The walls were a sickly shade of blue and cracked with fine white lines, like candy wrappers left in a sunny car. She had a set of antique metal ashtrays, one on the kitschy blue and red polka dot kitchen table and another atop the scratched wood windowsill. A pastel portrait of Iggy Pop in a black rimmed picture frame hung on the wall next to a vintage sign from the 1950’s that read “STRESSED is just DESSERTS spelled backwards”.
The shelves in the living room were filled with academic textbooks, underground punk zines and feminist journals. One of the zines was the size of a letter from a law office and printed on fluorescent pink card stock. Vanessa took it off the shelf and told me to look at it. “There’s a lot of great stuff in there about taking care of your body. Might be a ginger-yogurt paste recipe for your split ends.”
I opened the zine and thumbed through the stiff pages. It looked like it had been made on an old-fashioned copy machine. I imagined someone who looked like Vanessa hovering over a chugging Xerox in the back of a twenty-four hour CVS.
Vanessa lit a stick of incense and said, “It’s also got a recipe for an abortion. I had to give myself one at home once.”
“You did?” I left the zine folded like a triangle on my lap.
She walked around the kitchen and waved sandalwood smoke from her hand. One of the cats, the tiny brown tortoise-shell, sat in the sink next to dirty dishes while the big fluffy white cat chased strands of smoke through the kitchen as if they were buzzing flies. Vanessa’s face was dimly lit and surrounded by a halo of incense. “Yeah,” she said, “I got really sick but it got rid of the baby. I saw it in the toilet.”
The white cat stood on its hind legs and swatted at wisps of disappearing smoke. Vanessa hooked the incense into a sloped wooden holder and sat next to me at the table. She reached for a pack of Marlboro 100’s atop a pile of take-out menus and dollar-saver coupons. “It was sad,” she said, twirling a long white cigarette in her fingers. “But I felt so spiritually connected to the baby that I knew I didn’t had to have it then.”
I watched her light the cigarette. The white cat got bored chasing incense and walked out of the kitchen towards the living room. Vanessa blew chalky clouds of smoke towards the ceiling and said, “I told the baby, ‘I love you, but I can’t have you now. I’ll have you later.’ And the baby said it understood.”
“Wow,” I said and ran my thumb over the dull edge of the pink covered zine. “So does that mean you still want kids someday?”
“Of course. Don’t you?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“That’s fine,” she said and smiled, showing her gap tooth. “What I really want to do is be a mentor to young women. I’ll be a mom later.”
A couple weeks passed and Vanessa called early one morning to tell me that her tortoise-shell cat was pregnant. The sun still hadn’t risen outside so the streets were cast in a fuzzy purple light. I always slept with the window wide open in the fall.
“They’re really not fixed?” I said, sitting upright in bed.
“No, my ex-roommate found Siouxie in an alley behind the Terminal Tower.”
“What about the boy?”
“Lemmy?” she said. “We found him under the bridge. He was just a kitten.”
“So you’ve never taken either of them to the vet?”
“We always had barn cats in Vermont,” she said, “and they were fine.”
I yawned. “If you don’t want to deal with kittens, maybe you could make that abortion tea for her.”
“That wouldn’t work on a cat.”
“It was a joke.”
“That’s disgusting, Moira,” she said. “It’s not even funny.”
The litter arrived Halloween weekend. There were five in total. Three of them were all white and two were orange and white striped. The fluffy white cat didn’t wait for the tortoiseshell one to recover from delivery before trying to mount her again. Vanessa had to keep them separated in different rooms. The only door that worked inside her apartment was to the bathroom, so she kept the fluffy white one in there all day while the momma cat and her kittens had free reign of the kitchen, living room, and bedroom.
Whenever anyone needed to use the bathroom, Vanessa would just hold the momma cat while the white one roamed the apartment. Then, when they were done, she would lock him away again. But once the kittens were just a little bigger than grapefruits, the daddy cat tried to have sex with them as well. He’d catch them by the back of their necks and pin them down. It got to the point where Vanessa kept him in the bathroom all the time. If someone had to use the toilet, she would say, “just make sure Lemmy doesn’t get out.”
Collecting five kittens in a one-bedroom apartment with few working doors wasn’t easy. As soon as I’d stuff one or two inside the bedroom, another would shoot across the living room or leap from the sink to the top of the fridge. Vanessa anchored the curtain that divided her bedroom from the living room with bungee cords while I dove onto the bed with an armload of kittens like a soldier rescuing orphans from a blasted building.
It wasn’t good enough to just get the litter inside. The momma cat also needed to be put away. It took ten to fifteen minutes of chasing them and, even then, one or two might break through that curtain at the last minute and we’d start the whole process over again.
“Why don’t you just get him fixed?” I asked one night after coming out of the bathroom. The fluffy white cat immediately ran to Vanessa’s leg, rubbing up against her affectionately.
“I don’t have the money or time,” she said and lit a long white cigarette. “That shit’s expensive.”
Vanessa spent Thanksgiving with her family in Vermont and asked me to cat sit. The first day I went over, I brought a friend from school to help me. Aleisha loved cats and had two of her own. On the drive over, she asked, “what’s so hard about putting some food in a bowl for some cats, Moira?”
She was done after one visit.
I went by myself the second time. On my own, it took closer to thirty minutes to get all five kittens plus momma cat behind Vanessa’s curtain with the bungee cords in place. When I let the fluffy white one out to play, he rammed his head against my palm, mewing each time I scratched behind his ears or pet his feather duster like tail.
He was, I thought, a vicious rapist who didn’t care about attacking his own children. But he was also an adorable animal who just wanted some space to roam and a little physical contact with another living thing.
His body was elastic. I picked him up into my arms and he felt like a warm-blooded stuffed animal. I heard the kittens and momma cat crying from the bedroom but I kept daddy cat on my lap and watched a VHS copy of Star Wars. It got dark outside around five o’clock. He purred like a gently sputtering motor and nuzzled his head beside my breast.
Later that night, when I had to put him back in the bathroom, he looked at me with sticky amber eyes, as if to ask why I betrayed him. I shut the door and waited before letting the rest of the cats out.
I pulled out my phone and googled local veterinary offices.
When I made the appointment, the secretary asked the name of Vanessa’s cat. It was a simple question with a simple answer but I still hesitated. I flicked my eyes around the street and watched falling snow dissolve on my windshield. Then I turned to the passenger seat where I had the cat carrier I borrowed from Aleisha.
“Lemondrop,” I said. “Oh, and he’ll need shots and everything, too.”
The vet was a guy in his mid 30’s who kind of looked like Adam Levine. Both of his cheeks dimpled when he grinned. “I’ve never seen a cat do this,” he said, watching the cat wave his paw at him. “It’s almost like he’s giving me a high five.”
“Is he gonna be okay?” I put my hand out but the cat was more interested in the vet.
Adam Levine tapped his hand to the cat’s paw, almost like a fist bump. “Oh, yeah,” he said, “we’ll keep Lemondrop here overnight and then he should be good to go. We’ll only contact you if there’s a problem.” The cat purred and didn’t look back at me.
Vanessa came home a couple days early. It was still dark when she called. I put her on speaker phone, “my brother and his redneck wife showed up with their shitty kids,” she said. “They’re like Trump supporters.”
I sat in bed and clutched the phone. I imagined her walking through her living room with burning sandalwood. She continued, “the place looks clean. Did you even spend any time with my cats?”
“I cleaned up after myself,” I said, waiting. My belly was bloated with anxiety.
“Why do they still have food in their bowls?”
“I gave them extra last night because they eat so fast.”
“Moira,” she said and I knew she was clenching her jaw, showing her gap tooth. “You can’t overfeed kittens. They’ll get sick.”
“If you didn’t want to come here twice a day, you should have just told me and I would have found someone else.”
“How was Lemmy?” she asked. “Did you at least let him when I told you?”
“You didn’t see?”
I sat in bed and cringed, awaiting a blow to the face. The phone vibrated in my hand and I saw the veterinary office calling on the other line. Vanessa’s breaths were heavy and impatient. “Moira,” she said, “what happened to Lemmy?”
The vet who looked like Adam Levine called me personally to let me know that they found a tracking chip implanted inside of Lemondrop. He was someone else’s cat. “This happens sometimes,” he said, “I’m sure you had no idea.”
“No,” I said, “I didn’t.” The phone trembled in my hand. A frosty breath of air licked at me through the open window. One of my neighbors was baking with sage.
“His chip must have been implanted when he was real young which is why we didn’t see a scar,” he said. “It’s strange that they didn’t also have him fixed, but maybe he was too young for that.”
“So what’s gonna happen?” I asked.
“Legally, we’re not supposed to contact the registered owner without your consent,” he said. “So it’s up to you, Ms. Fischer.”
I looked out the window at falling snow on Clifton Blvd. “Can I say no?” I asked.
The streets were covered in half a foot of slush by the time me and Vanessa got to the clinic. I parked the car and Vanessa immediately hopped out. Her worn leather boots were up to her knees and her black curls fluttered beneath a pink knitted hat. I turned off the car and grabbed Aleisha’s cat carrier from the backseat before going inside.
Vanessa’s throaty voice filled the lobby over barking dogs and blasting heat vents. People sat on vinyl benches and hugged cat carriers over their knees while others yanked dogs on short leashes. I walked up behind Vanessa and saw Adam Levine in a white coat over a red and orange plaid shirt. He didn’t look happy and I couldn’t face him.
“His name,” Vanessa said, “is Lemmy. Why the fuck would I name my cat Lemondrop?”
I wandered over to the aquarium and watched the tropical fish. There was a big orange and white guy with feathery fins that fanned out in the water. Several were tiny and silver, shooting across the perimeter like pointed arrows. Then there was this fat yellow one just floating there by a stream of bubbles, light and airy, like it wasn’t even alive. I still had my gloves on and traced my finger over the glass.
Later that night, after we got the white cat in the bathroom so he could heal from the surgery, me and Vanessa went to the bar. I had my fake ID ready but the doorman was busy talking to the band as they set up on the stage. Vanessa went right to the bar and I used the bathroom. When I came out, I saw Vanessa at the table by the jukebox. She had two shot glasses waiting, and a plate loaded with lemons. I took off my coat and sat down.
“Here,” Vanessa said, pushing the plate of lemons towards me. Discordant squeals sounded throughout the bar from the band’s equipment check in the next room.
The shot glass was warm in my cold hand. There were sugar packets on her side of the table, but she didn’t touch them. Her brow was set in a stern line over her glasses and she looked past me towards the stage.
Screeching audio feedback sliced my eardrums. I waited for her to look back at me. When she didn’t, I said, “can you pass me some sugar?”
“I thought it had too many carbs,” she said, slowly turning back in my direction.
“I want to do it the right way,” I said, “how you’re supposed to do it.”
She smiled and showed her gap tooth. And I felt better.
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