Jennifer Bates

It’s close to midnight. The smell of cumin travels up to the second floor of the condo in spicy smoke. Jaydon’s cooking dinner. Lily laughs in the next room. I hear her friends laugh,too. It’s robotic. A sleepover teleported through waves. I open the bedroom window and watch the moon. It hangs bright. It makes me feel safe and settled. You get this, I say to it. You’ve seen all sorts of crazy things, all types of war, all types of disease. In the back of my mind I hear it answer. It says something very cheesy, something about how it’s holding the sun for our tomorrow.

Both cats vie for a spot at the sill. Hazel makes the first attempt. Her paws measure the height of the ledge. Her belly is a Covid ball. I try coaching her through it. “Come on, Hazel, you can do it. Take a run at it, get momentum.” She makes a few worthless attempts before sliding down to the floor. She stares up at the ledge like a check box on her bucket list. It’s sad, really.

Jim sails over her head from across the room. If he was a human he would be a surfer, or maybe a rock climber. Hazel is more like me. She probably makes all sorts of promises when she’s sneaking food from Jim’s food dish at night. “This is the last time, I swear,” and, “I’ll actually run after the mouse when they throw it tomorrow.” I’m sure she has a load of excuses about hormones and getting older, too.

I was underweight in my twenties, partly from the psychology of being a female, partly from being a single mother. My family would tell me I was going to blow away. My friend Anna would say, “When do you ever eat, Jen? I never see you eat.” I couldn’t answer her back then. It took decades and the coronavirus for me to understand there was actually a pattern to my skinniness.

During the second week of quarantine I started to draw the lines of the pattern. Jaydon was standing at the fridge deliberating over how many chicken breasts to thaw for his next cumin dinner. JT and Lily were sitting at the table. “When do you ever eat, Mom?” he asked. He sounded like Anna. “I feel like I never see you eat a meal. I mean, I know I have to eat all the time. My metabolism is so high . I mean, guys my age eat probably sixty times more than women your age, but still, like you just don’t eat .”

Since moving back in with us I’ve come to the realization that Jaydon is the reincarnate of Holden Caulfield and Rainman. There’s always way too much information that gets divided and then sub-divided into percentages based on a twenty-year old’s intellect.

“I’m a grazer,” I said as I bit into a popsicle. I glanced at my husband, JT. He would concur. “Don’t do that. That makes my teeth hurt,” Lily chimed in. “Are you talking to me?” “Yes,” she said. Then she turned her screen my way. “Say hi to Ailee.” “Hi, Ailee.” I flashed a smile and waved. I thought about all the times I was skinny in my adult life. Single parenting in my early twenties, separating from my ex (both times.) It seemed the pattern synced with survival mode. It wasn’t a matter of stress as much as it was a matter of budget. These were the times I struggled most financially, the times when I was dirt poor. The equation back then wasn’t should I feed myself or pay my rent, or feed myself or pay my electricity bill, it was more along the lines of should I feed myself or buy a bottle of wine… feed myself or get a new skirt?

The quarantine forces our fridge full of food. Everyone cooks. The house smells like fried fish, homemade spaghetti, stir fry and chocolate cake. This must be what it’s like to be a housewife, I think. Or at least one back in the fifties. The laundry and dishes are endless. The floor constantly needs cleaning. The countertop is full of stains and crumbs.

JT starts reusing containers. Things start getting confusing in the fridge. Do we have cottage cheese? Or is that yesterday’s chicken? What’s marinating on the top shelf? It looks like dissected kidneys. Is that garlic? There’s actually so much food that things are hiding behind other things. There’s so much food that when JT asks for meatballs I can find all the spices and fresh ingredients right in my own house, I can do it without planning.

I can eat, I tell myself. We have food. Yet years of psychological associations have been embedded. A pattern has been established. And yet there’s something, oddly, that feels settling about eating like I did in my twenties. Maybe it’s that Covid has paused time. It’s forced the world to slow down. Maybe there’s some nostalgia to what work feels like right now, to what the world feels like. There’s safety. There’s family. There’s actual time, not just moments. Change is happening. There’s opportunity for a reset.

Maybe the moon knows these patterns. I ask it if it does as I close the window for the night. It doesn’t say anything cheesy back this time.

“Thanks to Sheltering in Place, Animal Shelters are Empty”

– Wired , April 4, 2020

“Mary, I think it’s time.” Stu sets down his coffee mug. Like a gavel, he means to call business to order.

Mary could give a rat’s ass what Stu has to say. She’d like to take his mug and smash it into the keyboard. But before that, she’d like to fill it with the toenails she found on the bathroom floor this morning, the ones she had to sweep up before tying the trash off.

“Ah huh, what’s that?” She doesn’t turn away from the sink. She rubs a scrubbie against burnt tomato sauce. Her hands work as fast as steam perculates in her bloodstream.

“I think it’s time to get Vic a buddy.”

Victor. Really? Victor? 

Mary suddenly loses her breath. It’s true. She knows it full well now. She married the biggest dipshit on the planet.

“Oh really? This is your solution to the quarantine? The virus hits and ‘Presto!’ Now there’s three assholes for Magic Mary to clean up after?”

As if on cue Victor wakes from his nap. He arches his back and saunters over to the litter box. They listen to him pee. Satisfied Victor flicks sand against the radiator, sand that no amount of vacuuming will ever reach. He jumps on the counter and nuzzles his face on Mary’s sleeve. 

Mary is Victor’s favorite. Mary’s laptop has the best files to convert, mess up, or erase all together. Mary is also more artistically creative than Stu, which means there’s always a water jar to knock over or a canvas to smear loose hair on. Mary spends more money on things like sweaters and jackets, which gives Victor pure joy, especially during the long winter months. He can knead silk lining into the perfect shape of his body. He’s even demonstrated his skill at making a fort out of her favorite shawl and how thrifty he can be with a pair of pantyhose.

It’s been a hunch for awhile that Victor thinks he owns the one bedroom apartment on Selby. When Stu and Mary come home after a long day of work Victor half lifts his head, the way Mary does when she thinks she hears the toilet running at night. They do impersonations of Victor’s thoughts: “Oh, they’ve finally decided to come home and feed me dinner. Hooray. Look like a shitshow much, Stewart?”

All three of them refer to Stu as a shitshow. None of them know what else to call someone who makes a career out of being a barista.

Mary clears her throat and prepares for battle. “Let me get this straight. You want to add to our bills, instead of decrease them? While you’re out of work, your solution is to get a second cat?”

“We have all this time right now. We’re home. We can actually acclimate the two animals properly,” Stu says as he chews toast. 

“I’m sorry, are you trying to say ‘acclimate’ or are you choking? I can’t understand you with food in your mouth.” 

“I’m sorry, are you a bitchy animal hater?”

“I’m sorry, will we ever be able to have grown up furniture? I’m sorry, will Mary ever be able to own anything nice for how hard she works?”

“I’m sorry, is Stu the only one who has a fucking heart? I’m sorry, was it Stu’s idea to get a cat in the first place? Victor was your idea, remember?”

Victor raises an ear. There’s a slight possibility he’s being called to eat. It’s hard to know during Covid. Nobody seems to be eating on schedule anymore. 

“Fuck that! Do you think I set out to purposefully get an animal to lay on my head half the night? To clog up my foot room in our stinking, stupid, full size bed?” Mary pretends she’s reading from a notepad. “Cat litter on sheets, check. Scratched up couch, check. Ruined suede coat, check. Hey! I want one of those! No, wait! Give me two!” 

Sometimes when they argue like this Stu relents. He can’t stand the thought of the downstairs neighbor tuning into their lives, hanging on every word like an airing of the Jerry Springer show. It was embarrassing. 

“That’s right Yasmine! Did you hear that?” Mary shouts to the floor. “It was my idea to get a cat! And for the record, it’s my idea to get a second cat!”  

Mary and Stu actually like Yasmine. She also has a cat and volunteers to watch Victor for free whenever they go out of town.

“You say it all the time!” Stu’s toast has grown cold. It drops crumbs as he argues back. “Victor needs a friend. Victor is home all by himself all day. Poor Victor this, poor Victor that! You say it all the time!”

“You say you’re going to get a real job. I guess we all say things we don’t mean.”

Mary storms into the bathroom. It’s the only place other than the bedroom she can go to escape. She looks at her reflection the way a superhero does when they’ve just realized they’ve been set to the task of saving the Earth. “We’re not getting a fucking ‘nother cat.” She can see it in her eyes. She means business.

That night Mary and Victor have the bed to themselves. She hears her phone ping. There’s an email from Stu. He’s sent it to her from the couch.

The email has a link. When Mary clicks on it it takes her to a picture of a cat. Pearl. She’s five. 

“I see you’re the same age as Stu,” Mary says to Pearl. 

Pearl is all white except a few black patches. Mary stares at the picture.

“It looks like you have shit on your face, just like Stu does, too.”

She hits the reply arrow. 

I hope you know we WILL be getting a bigger bed.