The Cat Lover
When a door opens and you can’t see who’s coming, it’s almost always a cat that would like to be your lover. All cats are small, so the opening door looks like an accident. It’s not an accident, though. These cats take great care until one paw hooks and the door swings open.
When the door opens, the cat sits at a distance. This is the distance of masked balls, eighteenth-century calling cards—once known by humans, never forgotten by cats. you see its slanted eyes. you see its elegant face. The cat stares at you in all its wildness and comes to rest upon your heart.
Last night my cat lover woke me from a dream where I’d been looking for someone who wouldn’t come to find me. This was some– one I’d known years ago, and I was searching the narrow streets of an unfamiliar city. When the cat woke me, I realized the entire family had gone to bed in chaos: My son was asleep in front of the television, my husband on the living room couch, my daughter in my son’s room, and me in my study wearing all my clothes—soft velvet clothes, something I do when I hope there will be no night. It was three AM, and there was an unplanned feeling to the house, as though all of us, in order to sleep, had entered different zones, and the house itself hadn’t been allowed to dream. The cat purred on my chest, but I shook him off and went down– stairs to cover my son. Then I wandered to the kitchen and ate lemon ice that reminded me of a place in France where summers were so hot, ices dissolved as soon as they hit the street. I had to stay in the store to eat them. I never knew what they looked like.
While I ate, it occurred to me that nothing has skin—neither my children, my husband, nor me. Falling into his body was just something I did over fourteen years ago because light bound us together like gold. I finished the ice and my cat lover visited again: The approach, the encounter, the looming, and then he rested against my body. His fur and my soft velvet dress felt the same—dark, pillowy textures, things to love and dream in. I felt his small wild heart beat against my chest.
Schrodinger in Exile
Words didn’t work properly at the time. He was stern on the coarse street. When people bumped into him, he covered them with his own black coat and explained that they were moving according to the laws of Brownian motion: Each street behaved like a cigarette, emitting puffs of pedestrians, sometimes in rings, often in clouds. Pedestrians couldn’t feel the exhale or inhale of the street and didn’t know they were being sucked in and released at intervals. This ignorance, combined with fuzzy notions of free will, gave them the idea they could behave like trucks. They entered the streets honking and screeching, and there was much rearrangement of bodies as they shifted gears, accelerated, and worked clutches. They enjoyed the illusory sense of speed and didn’t care when they arrived too early or too late because sometimes it took an hour to walk a city block and five minutes to walk two miles. Schrödinger hoped his words had authority in the coat’s wooly darkness, but as soon as he finished lecturing, people blasted out, popping buttons.
Traffic congestion was complicated by the fact that visible things (five percent of the universe) were jockeying for position with dark energy and dark matter (ninety-five percent of the universe). Schrödinger alone understood this: At night he woke up with a pounding heart and reached for one of his two wives who slept on either side of the narrow bed in the dreadful furnished room they’d been forced to rent. Whenever he reached for one, the other also woke up, and he was surrounded by annoyance at being woken and hearing the same thing about dark matter again and again when there were more important things to worry about like getting out of the dreadful room and going back to their country. They always turned on the light and made tea on the Bunsen burner, which they laced with scotch. He rejected the tea. He left and walked through the streets, which were as crowded at night as they were in the day. At night he didn’t try to lecture the honking, button-popping, careening pedestrians. Instead he leaped over inhales and exhales of the street looking for the space in between the fall and rise of the breath even though he knew that he, too, was caught in the breathing. Eventually he returned to the fourth-floor walk-up where his two wives were still drinking tea. He wished that he could assign dark matter to one and light matter to the other, but he knew that everybody in the world was similarly permeated. Sometimes this elated him, and he embraced them both on their rickety chairs, toppling them to the floor, holding them close, when they said Edwin, it’s time to sleep, and pulling them back to the narrow bed where he was comforted by the beating of their hearts.
But at other times these thoughts about the permeation of dark matter depressed him when he came home. And although this, too, went against the laws of physics, he had visions of dark matter suffocating everybody. He sat on the floor with his head in his hands, and his wives put down their cups and sat beside him. one rubbed his back, the other rubbed his shoulders, both telling him: Edwin, we understand the way you see things, but even so we get by. When they began to talk, he said that the furnished room was depressing, and one of them always said that his exile wouldn’t be forever and they would return to their house with its books and clocks and comforting beds. They knew he would counter by saying everything was temporary, and they always invoked carefully worked-out systems of space and time. They talked about how the sub– atomic related to the atomic, and how the atomic related to the world of couches and cars and clocks. They talked about velocity, planets, and galaxies. They talked until he fell asleep on the floor.
When his black coat got holes and his wives had to buy him a used one, Schrödinger grew more distraught. He started to lecture children, as well as his wives, who began to take circuitous routes to shop for groceries. When he went out at night, he stopped leaping between the inhale and the exhale of the street and arrested pedestrians. Soon he began to ignore his own principles, which he’d not worked out completely because his own brain was also a random particle. One evening he was forced to arrest himself for speeding. It was warm inside his coat, and sound was muffled. From an opening in the flap he could see pedestrians expanding and retracting in the milky light—thinking they were walking, not knowing they were only particles of smoke. In the distance he saw his two wives. They each had baskets of food and were aloft on circuitous routes. The breath of the street was a labor of love, the act of walking an act of faith. Schrödinger said a few words and let himself out. After all, he thought, I’m not very far from home.
I’m always impaling myself on silver things, things my lover gives me when I’m not looking. He buys me silver rings and puts them on me when I’m asleep. He buckles my waist with a silver belt, drapes me with silver necklaces, fastens anklets under my jeans, puts six earrings in the holes of my ears. Silver and never gold, because silver is the color of the accident one longs for. It’s light that slants through rice paper shades, a face on the street that carries you through the solstice.
You can’t love someone without hurting them—that’s what my brother told me once. We were home from college, washing pots in the sink, and my brother had just gone crazy on LSD. He thought he could climb walls when he was only scaling a chair. He thought he could see the truth when he was staring at a shopping list.
But one thing I knew, he’d said to me then. you can’t love someone without hurting them. I saw that when I looked inside my brain and all the cells were singing, you can’t love someone without hurting them. They were beautiful, those cells. All of them were made of silver.
My parents were getting divorced, just as I am now. Light was coming through the kitchen, the kind of light that makes you think you’re in another century.
Is it fifth-century Greece? I’d asked my brother.
No, he answered. It’s the Huang dynasty.
I wanted to hug my brother and say everything would be okay: His
brain would stop singing. He wouldn’t have to hurt people he loved. In fact, things didn’t go well for him until he got a PhD in physiology and discovered that those years of watching his own brain cells had paid off. Now he lives in Rome and writes papers with titles like The Neurophysiology of Indifferent, Compatible Systems.
Sometimes I wake up at night, impaled by silver, and think about my brother, far away in Rome. I think how he’s found love and hurt a lot of people in the process. I also think of my lover in a small beige room, surrounded by flowering trees. I lie in bed alone, wearing heavy silver.
Why don’t you take those off when you go to sleep? my lover asks, touching the scratch marks on my arms and neck.
For God’s sake, what are you doing to yourself?
I don’t answer because then I’d have to tell him about the random silver of his face the day he stepped out to meet me.
Your face was like that, I would have to say to him. Don’t you remember? It was the day before the solstice, people were racing around to buy presents, and you stepped forward to meet me. A week later you gave me a silver bracelet. A week after that you gave me silver keys. But none of this would have mattered if your face hadn’t been an accident.
Thaisa Frank, the author of the forthcoming collection Enchantment, is the author of three previous collections of short fiction and the novel Heidegger’s Glasses,which sold to ten foreign countries before publication. She is also the co-author of Finding Your Writer’s Voice: A Guide to Creative Fiction Her essays have been anthologized, and she contributed to the Afterward to the Signet Classics edition of Voltaire: Candide, Zadig and Selected Stories. She is the recipient of two PEN awards, has been Visiting Associate Professor in the Honors program in Creative Writing at UC Berkeley and teaches writing in MFA programs in San Francisco. A native of the Bronx, NY, she lives in Berkeley, California. Her website is www.thaisafrank.com