The Cat Psychic

I’d never seen a cat in a cardigan before. I liked the alliteration of it, though. It made some sort of sense that a cat would wear something buttoned rather than, say, a turtleneck. Plus, the soft turquoise really did accent the orange striped fur nicely, and I’m normally not one for mixing cool and warm colors.

“I’m a cat psychic,” the man behind the animal said. I hadn’t even noticed a man sitting there before, in a matching turquoise sweater. They were on a stoop-I learned that word shortly after moving to New York City. People don’t have porches here; they have stoops, cement steps you sit on when the humidity spikes or when you just want to people watch while enjoying a nice breeze. The cat was on the bottom step, the man two up, but his legs reached down to the feline. Besides the sweater, the man was wearing cut-off jean shorts with ragged threads hanging down, a pearl necklace, and flip-flops that matched the sweater. He had a nice pedicure. I learned long ago not to talk to strangers, but the stranger the person the more I wanted to talk to them. Call it a character flaw.

“Meaning you’re a cat that’s psychic or a psychic that specializes in cats?” I said. The cat sneezed, shaking its head in the process.

“I can tell you what your cat is thinking,” the man said. The cat was cleaning its whiskers. Licking its paw and then wiping them over its face, flattening its pert ears and pulling white whiskers down, squinting as it did so.

 

My boyfriend, Nathan, has taken to speaking only in Post-it notes. He leaves them all around the house. I go to the fridge and see, “Don’t cry over spilt milk, try water with your cereal,” and, “Why must you insist on bacon?”

My boyfriend, Nathan, has taken to speaking only in Post-it notes. He leaves them all around the house. I go to the fridge and see, “Don’t cry over spilt milk, try water with your cereal,” and, “Why must you insist on bacon?” On the table there is a note saying that chartreuse is an overlooked color and on the empty coffee pot a reminder that it just upsets my reflux anyway. There’s even a Post-it flaking off the cat saying she needs to be brushed, meaning can I pick up a brush later. On my underwear is a reminder of our anniversary and on the mirror a note that I should love myself as much as he loves me. I’m beginning to think that note is not as encouraging as he means it to be. He stopped talking a few weeks ago, saying it would improve our non-verbal relationship. I blamed it on his brother’s death. That meant my boyfriend was the last survivor of his immediate family, and I thought his nightmares would finally stop.

I met Nathan at Coney Island. I was there with someone else—an accident. I taught night classes at City College and one night, not wanting to be alone, I asked the secretary if he’d like to go to Coney Island with me. I hadn’t been there yet. He immediately said yes. I thought we were friends, but on the subway ride down he told me how his dreams had come true. I’m not what you call a stunner, so didn’t think he would have fantasized about me; I guess he had low expectations when it came to women. The night went from awkward to even more so when he put his arms around me while playing mini-golf, even though I was winning. Nathan was the freak in the “shoot the freak” game, and the secretary was a bad shot. I, however, was not. The secretary’s infatuation with me made me bold. I picked up a rock and wrote my number on it—I always carried a Sharpie. I threw it and it hit Nathan in the head, drawing blood. The secretary and I ran and then my cell rang. I walked the secretary to the subway, apologizing for the confusion and insisting he was a nice guy, and met Nathan for dinner at Nathan’s—he was corny like that.

 

My cat doesn’t need a psychic. That’s what I thought when I heard the man speak. She’s perfectly happy, purrfectly if I want to be corny. Nathan dotes on her, and she, on him. She follows him through his morning routine–bed, bathroom, shower, breakfast, and then he puts her on his shoulder while he reads the paper. He still does that, reads an actual paper newspaper. She rubs against his cheek, his head, stretches her paws out to push the paper away, and hangs her tail in front of his face, and the whole time she’s just all purrs. I don’t get in the way of Nathan-Rowein time. Sometimes she stares at me when he kisses me goodbye—he leaves first because it’s a long train ride from Inwood to Coney Island. But the minute he’s gone she snakes through my legs, purrs, waits for me to feed her, and then leads me to the litter box and waits for me to clean it before begging for a scratch. Then I leave for the day job and shut the door on her sweet, innocent face. She’s a cream point ragdoll or something, just a soft white with peach on her face and ears, all fluffy and blue-eyed feline. If Hitler had championed Aryan cats, she would have been his ideal.

 

“Your cat is not happy,” the psychic said. The cardiganed animal looked up from its cleaning, as if acknowledging my presence for the first time. It smirked and then curled its tail around the front of its body. I saw the tip moving back and forth, up and down. “I can tell you this now, she is conflicted about you.”

The old man got the gender right, but that’s a fifty-fifty guess. I wondered how he could tell me anything about Rowein, anyway. Did he read cat fur like tea leaves? Did the way it fell across the cuff of my jeans show frustration and jealousy?

“There has been an upheaval in your life,” he continued. Another easy guess. I knew about cold reading and was getting tired of just standing there.

“You got room on your stoop for one more?” I asked. He scooted over and I sat down next to him. The breeze was pretty good there. This was my first time actually sitting on a stoop. I had decided to take the day and walk through Harlem, never having been there before. I was supposed to meet Nathan for dinner at Coney Island. That’s what a Post-it asked at least. Dinners weren’t as fun without him telling me about his day. I began to miss his stories. They weren’t the same boiled down to messages that fit on little slips of paper. Being a freak wasn’t exactly fun and games. He dealt with a lot of assholes, but to me it was still enthralling.

The man’s cat curled around my feet. I reached down and scratched between his ears.

“You’ve got something stuck to you,” the man said, reaching over. He pulled off a Post-it note.

 

Nathan’s story was an episode of Law and Order; hell, it was an entire season’s arc. Except the cops never came. He covered those childhood scars with tattoos to try and reclaim his pain. In that he was like another story, the way he wore his life on his skin. I had never meant to fall in love with him. I was the straight-laced college graduate that owned suits and shirts with buttons. The most I’d ever rebelled was when I left to go to New York in the first place, ignoring my father’s pleas that I work in his office, and forged my own life instead. Not that I talked to them anymore, suburban angst is an easy road to hatred.

Nathan was estranged from his family with extreme prejudice, but through the joys of the Internet he kept tabs on them. They kept sending him letters and reminders that whatever happened to him, they owned him body, mind, and soul. Well, his father did at least.

The first to die was his father, followed swiftly by his mother. The letters used to come like clockwork–each month on the twelfth–even after he moved in with me and everything was in my name. Then the letters were addressed to both of us, and I was pretty freaked. After four months of no-letter bliss, or anxiety waiting for something worse than a letter to come, a quick Google search showed they had passed.

 

Rowein was a giant tattoo on Nathan’s back. He found her meowing on the boardwalk one night after work, a couple of years before we met. He insists she was his first savior, showing up like that all bedraggled and in need of care at a time when he thought he couldn’t care about anything anymore. He took her in for shots, grooming, spayed her, and then brought her to his little hole-in-the-wall place he called home. She gave him something to do besides mope—he could throw little wadded-up balls of paper and watch her roll around batting them. He played tag with her, and still does, running around the apartment like it’s bigger than a glorified studio. She took up the last place of real estate on his back, some thin slice scars blending into her cream fur. A burn mark makes up the pupil of one of her giant blue eyes, staring back at me when I massage him.

 

“I like your pearls,” I told the man. He reached up and fingered them.

“They were my grandmother’s,” he said. The cat had fallen asleep on my shoes. I resisted the urge to move, although whenever I’m immobile, I suddenly have to go to the bathroom. “My grandfather gave them to her instead of an engagement ring.”

“Well, they suit you,” I replied.

He smiled and I saw that his teeth were perfectly straight, the perfection that comes with veneers–with no spaces between his teeth and just a tad too big for his face.

“What does your cat think of me?” I said, reaching down to scratch it once more. It rolled over, soft belly exposed where a button was undone, and batted at me with one sleepy paw.

“You bite your nails, it shows signs of stress and makes for uneven scratching. Also, his name is Roscoe.”

“And you are?” I asked.

“I’m Ferdinand,” he said, reaching out a hand. “And it’s nice to meet you, Jenny.” I shook his hand before realizing I hadn’t told him my name.

 

I wanted there to be more humor in the way Nathan’s father died. I wanted him to be able to laugh at it, to see it as fitting. But he died from a blister. Nathan found the story in a newspaper. His father had decided he needed to atone for his sins and so started walking. Just walking. His feet blistered and bled and he kept going, the blood crusting and cracking and crusting over again and still he walked on, not stopping for water or food or even to go to the bathroom. His pants were pure filth and waste and his skin desiccated, but his toes, they were moist with maggots and disease, the ultimate cause of his death. It was a story the newspapers loved. They spoke to his bereaved widow, the one son they could find, and sent out a plea that his estranged son forgive him.

The cat shifted positions again, pushing the top of his head into my ankle.

“Is he saying something?” I asked, now reading into every movement Roscoe made instead of enjoying the warm fuzz against my leg.

“You’re a good person,” Ferdinand said. “You’re sitting here on a stoop talking to a lonely old man and his cat.”

It was the worst thing that bastard could have done to Nathan, have others ask for his forgiveness without knowing the story of his life, only of the old man’s death. They judged Nathan for not giving his father peace; they never judged his father for what he had done to his children.

 

“My boyfriend has this tattoo,” I told Ferdinand, contented cardiganed cat sighs cascading up from Roscoe while I spoke. “It’s on his calf. He tends to be literal, so on one calf he has this sad calf, all huge doe eyes like those old paintings, but that’s not the one I’m talking about. I’m told it hurts a lot to tattoo on the calf because of the muscle. Anyway, he has this one tattoo that always makes me cry. And I don’t know why. It’s sunflowers, Van Gogh’s sunflowers right there on his calf and they’re so vivid, so bright I cry. The painting doesn’t do it to me, but there on his leg the artist did a really good job.”

The cat shifted positions again, pushing the top of his head into my ankle.

“Is he saying something?” I asked, now reading into every movement Roscoe made instead of enjoying the warm fuzz against my leg.

“You’re a good person,” Ferdinand said. “You’re sitting here on a stoop talking to a lonely old man and his cat.”

 

Nathan’s mother’s death was too kind for her. I held more anger in my heart for Nathan’s parents than he seemed to. Heart attack in her sleep. She already had diabetes, but she never suffered. She hadn’t lost any toes or fingers. She hadn’t slipped into a coma and been raped by the nursing staff of some third-rate hospital. She lay in her bed, alone because her husband had died, and then simply passed on.

 

“Why do you love me?” was a note Nathan had left on the fridge. I turned around and he was there, waiting. I didn’t know what to say immediately which, in the movies, is a bad move. In the real world he understood I didn’t like being caught off guard, especially when it came to how I felt. I yelled when confronted with emotions because they confused me. I usually settled down quickly. This time I felt the tears come.

“I don’t think I ever said I did,” I replied and he embraced me. He loved me for my honesty, at least that’s what he said, so that’s what I believed. I seldom gave him answers to his questions, even when I really wanted to.

 

“I’m supposed to meet my boyfriend for dinner,” I told Ferdinand. Roscoe had moved his way up into my lap where he seemed asleep, but the minute I stopped petting him would nudge me until I started again. We each had some fresh ice tea by our sides, we being Ferdinand and I. He had reapplied his lipstick, a soft coral pink with a hint of orange. It smudged on his glass and I wanted to pick it up, to see if perhaps I could read the man from the lipstick stain, to see if the creases and folds told his story.

“But you’re unsure,” he said. Again an easy read. I was sitting on a stoop with a strange guy and cat rather than heading home to change for our anniversary. Dating, not marriage.

“His brother died,” I said instead. Avoidance is always on my menu.

Roscoe looked up at me and meowed.

 

Rowein watches us sleep. She’ll sit between us and just stare, never blinking. It freaks me out. Every night, me not being the best sleeper—especially beside a guy who thrashes when his past attacks—I’ll turn over and breathe in a pile of fur, and she’ll be there, watching over Nathan but turning to eye me for disturbing her.

It’s worse when we try to have sex. I can’t take the staring so put her out and close the door. She’ll just scratch and scratch the whole time. She never meows, never lets out any sound except for her paws at the door. In fact, save for when she purrs, she never speaks and now, here I am with a mute love. And I do love him.

 

Nathan has tattoos covering everything but his face and the soles of his feet, and that’s only because the ones on his feet wore out. Where he doesn’t have tattoos some scars are visible, although light. The ones on the bottom of his feet are tough for me to see, thin white lines of past pain. There are pox marks on his nose and forehead. His pinkies were broken and healed wrong. I can even feel scars over his heart when I lay my head on his chest and listen to him, even with Rowein watching us both, one eye judging me, the other loving him. He’s a seven-year-old boy at the same time he’s fifteen, twenty-two, forty-seven. I forget his ‘real age’, the one on his driver’s license. He wants to see the world through innocent eyes and is wizened at the same time. When we go walking he points out manhole covers.

“They’re the museum of the street,” he says, telling me the history.

He cooks vegetarian meals and makes me realize I will never like okra or brussels sprouts but do in fact like beet greens. He takes me on late night jogs through the park and knows the names of all the wildlife we see. We go on salad hikes through Central Park, and I never imagined anything in New York could be edible. He has a scar I kiss every night and have since the first day we met. The one just on the edge of his hairline where the rock hit.

When we got the news via certified letter that Nathan’s brother had died I yelled. He knew I would.

“Stop crying, you should be so fucking happy,” I screamed. “You’re free now! There’s no one left,” I yelled. “What the hell! It’s over, you pitiful ass,” I said in what was several decibels above anyone’s speaking voice. And he just sat there head in hands. He cried himself to sleep that night with me right there, berating him, trying to understand in the loudest way possible.

 

“Rowein is a conflicted soul,” Ferdinand said. He was still playing with his pearls.

“She’s my boyfriend’s guardian,” I replied, “and he hers.”

“There’s more to it than that,” he said, sipping his tea.

“How did you become a psychic?” I asked.

“Oh, I had no choice,” he said. “It’s who I am.”

“So who am I?” I asked.

“I know cats,” he said and I sighed, taking another sip of tea. Ferdinand lived in a good neighborhood for people watching. It’s amazing just how many people populate every part of New York. That’s part of why I liked where we lived–it was still slightly wooded. There were as many birds as people in Inwood, and not all the birds were pigeons.

“There’s this other tattoo,” I said, wishing I could find meaning somewhere. “It’s just hash marks. Four lines and then the fifth crossing them out. The inside of both wrists. He won’t tell me what they are, not like he’s talking now anyway. I think it’s the number of times he wanted to kill himself. There are a lot of hash marks there. They scare me, yet the pattern is really nice–like a basket or something woven there on his skin.”

“Rowein wants to trust you,” the man said. “It’s hard, she’s all knots inside. Fear and worry and love and a shred of indeterminate hatred, like all cats have. She wants you to have a reason for being there but you’re loud. You can be so very loud.”

Roscoe shifted then and stood up on my lap, yawning. He reached a paw up to my face and touched my chin, lightly. My eyes met his deep orange ones and I saw them, Rowein and Nathan, fighting for a place in the world together and yet alone.

 

Nathan’s brother was a suicide. That’s what really worried me when he stopped talking. He was a gunshot, loud and abrupt and final, with his kid–Nathan didn’t know he was an uncle until the letter arrived–a two-year old sitting in a truck at the gas station. When Nathan’s brother walked in with a gun, I bet people thought it was a hold-up. I bet they thought, “Shit, some redneck is going to shoot us all just to take some smokes and booze.” I bet they thought nothing about him and then he screamed for attention, had people come up around him, kneel down, and shot himself spraying them all. Performance art. Post-modern robbery, where you leave your brains all over everyone instead of taking their wallets. He just wanted to matter, I’m sure, and having a child wasn’t enough.

 

“I have a gift for you,” Ferdinand said. He went inside. Roscoe climbed off my lap and began to clean himself. He nudged me a few times in the process, just pushes with his body. I wondered if he needed his cardigan unbuttoned, but didn’t feel I knew him well enough to take off his sweater. He continued to nudge me, so I stood and he shook his head. I wondered if I did the wrong thing. I picked up the ice tea glasses and went through the open door. I met up with Ferdinand in the hallway, which was good because I didn’t know which apartment he was in. He handed me a cat brush and took the glasses.

“Brush Rowein,” he said. “Brush her, only you, not your boyfriend. And talk quietly. Tell her the truth. And wait right here.” He walked up the stairs and out of sight. Roscoe curled through my legs–a weird sensation–sweater mixed with the familiar soft of fur.

He came back and handed me a stack of Post-it notes. “Speak to Nathan on his terms,” he said. “And only write answers.”

I dug out my Sharpie and wrote “Meow” on a slip of yellow paper, showing it to Roscoe. He meowed back and swatted at it. I figured it worked, and tonight would be one interesting dinner, our table covered with yellow squares of paper. Maybe they would be an answer, or at least help us find ours.

Victorya Chase currently teaches surgeons to write fiction and poetry under the theory that it helps them connect both to themselves and to their patients. Her works have previously appeared in ASIM, The Mothman Files Anthology, and A Cappella Zoo, among other places. She is currently working on a novel about Nathan, Jenny, and Rowein.