The Subtle Art of Caring for a Stray
by K. Joffré
Somewhere along my life I had to become a good actor–not a Meryl Streep–but good enough to scurry off with small lies every so often. There were a few big lies, mostly about my sexuality, but most were small lies; like where I was, what I was doing, who was I doing it with, so forth and so on. What people never tell you about lying is that it creates a compulsion which blossoms into a habit. If you always lie then you are compelled to continue to lie even when it isn’t necessary. This was probably why I had never confessed to Bobby Lee that I had been to his ex Jason’s apartment earlier that year for a night of hot sex that turned into an awkward early morning good-bye. I had also neglected to tell Bobby that I did not like Jason because Jason had also lied to me when we first met, leading me to believe he liked me when he was just using me for a place to stay. Bobby assumed that I had never been to Jason’s place, and so introduced our destination as somewhere deep in Brooklyn where he used to live with Jason.
“Oh?” I offered, with a raised eyebrow. I bounded up into the large U-Haul truck with Bobby Lee at the wheel, and I marveled at Bobby Lee’s new pair of perfectly rectangular black glasses. Bobby Lee had a tall square face, with bits of spiky hair on top, and the glasses made him look even more blocky, like a grinning mad square.
“When did you get the glasses?”
“I got them a week ago, do you like them?” But before I could answer he continued, “I couldn’t renew my driver’s license without an eye test. Turns out I have astigmatism.”
“Should you be driving large machinery?”
“We’ll be fine; the road just looks a little wider than usual.”
Bobby Lee was like a fly in a jar, all fussy energy, and to make matters worse, he was practically blind now, steering a six thousand pound truck that was about to barrel down Manhattan streets and highways. I gripped the dashboard of the truck hard. The chaos started early; Bobby Lee yanking on the wheel yelling out of his door ‘come on!’ as some black luxury sedan outside honked its horn and sped ahead of us. I was worried that this move would take all day and we’d end up back in the U-Haul watching Bobby Lee drive at night, squinting his way through darkness trying to navigate against black cars.
“This isn’t going to take long is it?”
“I don’t think Jason is moving too much stuff. I think he’s leaving most of it behind. He’s sort of a mess…”
“Oh?” I offered, again, with a raised eyebrow. This time Bobby Lee opted to stare at me instead of on the road. Too obvious? Better tone it down. “Oh sounds bad. Where’s he moving to?”
“With me, in the apartment. It’s only temporary.”
“Do you really think that’s a good idea?” I said, subtly letting Bobby Lee know that I didn’t think it would be a good idea.
“No it isn’t. I’m going to be cramped for a while.”
We drove towards Bushwick, up and over highways that were perfectly foreign to me. In Los Angeles the highways are grey and bland, utilitarian, like power lines. In New York the highways can sometimes be astounding, like racing your car on the edge of a grey chandelier. Sometimes the highways dipped into parts of the city that were barely seen, exposing impossibly placed graffiti or camps full of old hermits. We drove across bridges that ran over shimmering water, almost always with a full view of Manhattan’s tall dildo buildings. I was enthralled to see the city like this, in a speeding car, with the wind in my hair, driven by a maniac. We drove through bridges and tunnels, and the highways flattened out with no trees in sight. Bobby Lee sped between the sparse cars dotting the rest of the trip. The highways here were like LA’s; dreary and flat. Out of the off ramp, the streets were like Los Angeles streets; long, full of dirt, weeds, dusty like a forgotten city. The houses lined up in a row, all the same exact height, with paint dulled by years of a lack of upkeep. Bobby Lee slowed the car and started reading street names by squinting his eyes behind his lenses. I looked around and wondered whether these were the same streets I wandered around some months ago after my tryst with Jason. It was hard to tell where we were because every building looked the same.
Jason stood in front of his building waiting for us–arms in his pocket–wearing a simple white shirt, frayed denim jacket, and shorts, looking sheepish and out of place. He signaled for us to get out of our truck and follow him down some stairs towards the entrance to his apartment, and as I walked down into his place I vividly remembered the last time I was there. Back then the walk was dark and flush with a sexual charge, but now, under the bright sun, it was like walking into a trap.
“Jesus, Jason. Look at this place. There’s garbage everywhere. Have you even done the dishes just once?” Bobby Lee made a big show about stomping around on the garbage, turning on all the lights, and waving his hands around the dirty sink stacked with dishes and taken over by a crew of small flies.
Jason rolled his eyes, shook his head, and simply said: “I’m never home.”
Bobby Lee, without a follow up word, let his hands fall to the sides and slumped his shoulders. I could see a history worth of arguments, phobias, and red flags pop up in an instant between them, and just as quickly they were gone, tumbled out of Jason’s rolling eyes and off of Bobby Lee’s slumping shoulders.
“Well what are you taking with you? I gotta warn you, we’re not taking half this stuff. I’m not moving trash into my apartment, Jason, you’ve seen how small it is.” Bobby Lee said.
Jason casually walked around his hovel, steadying himself on visible ground between the stacks of cardboard and paper, and started dictating to Bobby Lee what he would take: this couch, that table, a few drawers from a dresser (but not the entire dresser). I was scratching my hair, looking around, really taking in the piles of junk everywhere, trying really hard not to hold anything over Jason. We all had our demons, our vices, but this kind of place could change what you thought of people.
Jason ignored my walk about and went on directing what he would take to Bobby Lee’s apartment: “I’m also taking the cat obviously.”
“There’s a cat here!?” I screamed. I was so loud that I startled them both.
“Her name is Diva,” replied Jason in a soft matter-of-fact voice.
“Diva’s still alive? That’s a nice surprise. I was expecting your hoarding to kill her off.” Bobby Lee laughed at his own dark joke then started blowing kisses in the air: “Diva? Diva?”
“I think she’s under the bed.”
Jason led us towards the back of his apartment to his bed, a single mattress on springs, with a lone window above it. I shot a look towards Jason who didn’t return it. I had been here, we both had been here–together–and apparently a cat had been underneath us, and Jason didn’t exactly lie to Bobby Lee like I had, but his silence was a sort of lie. Bobby Lee put his hand on the mattress and looked underneath it. I could feel Jason attempting to ignore me, so I dropped it. We were both now lying to Bobby Lee.
“Divaaaa” Bobby Lee had found his old cat. The cat responded by rustling some newspapers. Jason found the cat’s cage and put it on top of his bed in preparation to capture the feline. Bobby Lee tried luring the cat out but something about it scared him. He stopped looking under the bed, stood up, looked at Jason and demanded: “What is wrong with that cat? What did you to do Diva?”
“She’s just a little dirty.” Jason, exasperated, stooped down and under his mattress, reached both arms in, clucked his throat, and slowly pulled out the cat. I gasped at the sight of it The creature that Jason pulled out in no way shape or form resembled a normal house cat; it was a very large pile of orange fur with a hard spiky shell on its back, like a furry anklyosaur. The “cat” had an indignant look on its face, and meowed resentfully at being moved out of its safe zone.
“What did you do to Diva?” Bobby Lee said in a rare show of genuine anguish.
“She’s fine. She just has really dirty fur.”
“How does a cat grow a shell?” I asked.
“It’s just matted fur.” Jason said with what I could tell was a mixture of curt condescension coupled with a hint of humiliation.
I felt a deep despair just looking at the hard shell that I dared to reach out and touch. The prickly ends of the spiky fur felt like an appendage, a furry leg, and as my finger slid down I reached the hard back plates which felt like a crusty carapace. I shuddered. Could people grow shells of hair on their backs if we just cowered under a bed for years? How was Jason so non-plussed about his monster cat living under his bed? This cat was a living refugee of the relationship between Jason and Bobby Lee, a relationship I now understood had been too young, too careless, and too cruel. Bobby Lee and I shared the same disgust, and then the same resolve, we were not only moving Jason, but we were saving Jason and this monster cat.
Moving in New York was a permanent way of life for us. Bobby Lee had moved two or three times, Jason was about to move his third time, and I had probably lived in four different places over the last few years. I kept large boxes tucked away in a small closet in my room, ready to be built and used to store things to move, and my rolling bag was always on hand ready to skedaddle with me. We’d seen so many neighborhoods between us: Harlem, Midtown, “Bushweek,” Queens, but you knew the perfect place to move to was someplace where it was both safe and a little dangerous, a little too scary for rich folks, but not too scary for poor families.
While Bobby Lee and Jason both carried furniture, and I helped them load them up into the truck, I also recognized the mark of shame on Jason. I wasn’t conscious of being poor when I was growing up until my mother urged me to invite friends over after school one day, and that’s when shame announced itself, almost as if it had been a quiet guest just waiting to be noticed. How would I explain to my friends how I lived? What my mom did? Why there were so many people living in this apartment? How small it was, would they think it was too small? Would they think less of me? To Bobby Lee, Jason’s apartment was just a symptom of a disease Jason had, something he could cure with Xanax. I recognized Jason’s shame, the shame of having nothing, of having to explain yourself, swallowing the shame down, staying busy in order to avoid it. Jason hid it well. Ultimately, my friends didn’t care how I lived because they lived the same way, and they had fun visiting, and I then visited them, and I saw that they lived in small shaky houses in dirt fields, and I was fine with that. When we shared our shame, it disappeared. I returned that old good mannered gesture now to Jason.
“Is that chair coming?” I pointed to a chair Jason had left on the sidewalk.
“Oh. Yeah I think so.”
Jason was doing his best not to look at me, but unlike the first time I met him, it wasn’t to be pointedly stand-offish–or to seem better than me–but to avoid compromising himself in the lie that I had never been there before and maybe also to hide his shame. The move took all day, like I feared. The sun started to set as Jason and Bobby Lee carried a mattress and a cheap bed frame into the truck.
“Is that everything?” Bobby Lee said.
“Yeah, I think that’s it. The rest stays. My asshole landlord will have to deal with it.”
“Okay. now you have to make me a promise before we go.” Bobby Lee said this like a stern mother would, stealing a glance at me while doing so. I thought Bobby Lee was going to out me, ask us not to hook-up in his apartment. I tensed up and looked at Jason.
“You gotta promise me to clean that cat tonight. I’m not having Diva run around my place lookin’ like a ninja turtle.”
Jason rolled his eyes and the hint of a familiar devilish smile cracked his angelic face.
“She just needs a washing.”
“I’m serious, that cat looks like it’s in pain.”
“She’s not in pain. I’ll handle it, Mary.”
Diva rolled around in her cage peacefully unbothered by our racket, letting her bigger quills protrude outside of the holes of her cage like a terrible porcupine. She didn’t look like she was in pain to me but she didn’t look happy either. Jason carefully carried Diva in her cage to the front of the U-haul to ride in his lap, and he nestled awkwardly between the driver’s seat and the passenger seat. After a brief debate over the legality of having three people ride in front of the U-Haul truck we settled the matter by having Jason promise us that he would duck down if Bobby Lee saw any cops.
“Alright, boys, I got this! No worries! Say goodbye to Bushweek, Mon!”
“Get me outta Bushweek, mon” Jason replied.
Bobby Lee peeled away from the curb, this time going forward, and down the road towards the highway.
“Why do you guys call it Bushweek?” I asked.
Jason answered: “When Bobby and I lived here the train would sometimes break down before Bushwick (Bobby interjected: “This part of the neighborhood is too broke down for the MTA!”) so we’d have to hop out and catch a cab. One time we got into a cab with a Jamaican driver who couldn’t understand where we were going. We gave him our cross-streets; he didn’t get it. We gave him step-by-step street directions, but he kept getting lost and turning down the wrong streets. He’s totally lost for fifteen minutes and it’s obvious to me that he doesn’t speak a word of English. We’re trying to tell him where we live, and Bobby screams at him that we live in Bushwick. The cabbie goes: “Ah! Bushweek, mon! Easy!” Bobby starts yelling, goading this guy on, “ja mon, we going to Bushweek mon! Take us to Bushweek!”
Bobby Lee started laughing: “That guy was great. He wouldn’t shut up about Bushweek, he was just as happy as we were that he knew where he was taking us.”
“That’s kind of a cute story. I thought you guys were just being racist.” I said.
“Well it’s a little racist.” Jason clarified.
For the very first time I felt like a piece of both Jason and Bobby had been shared with me. Something real, beyond the drinking and the clubbing, even if it was a twisted memory of the past, it was a dumb inside joke they almost unintentionally shared with me, but it still felt like it meant something.
Bobby Lee drove down dark evening streets with two hands on the wheel, peering through his glasses away from the harsh lights of oncoming traffic. I rolled down the window to feel the wind in my face and to calm my anxieties over Bobby’s driving. Jason’s demeanor changed during the drive: he became effervescent, playful, and mischievous.
“Bobby those glasses. They’re awful. Why’d you get them?”
Bobby Lee was struck by those comments. Jason’s opinion was the only opinion Bobby cared about.
“You think they’re ugly?” Bobby Lee looked over at me as if to question why I hadn’t said anything about them.
“You look like Napoleon Dynamite.” Jason said, practically cracking himself up. Jason loved toying with Bobby Lee’s emotions when he was in high spirits. At first I had considered this a sinister character trait, but now it felt different, like it was a language between them that I started to understand. Jason poked Bobby because he knew it could get a reaction, and Bobby was only sensitive to Jason and no one else, and in that way they communicated how important one was to the other. I decided to speak their language and try and join in.
“You do look a little nerdy.” I smiled at Bobby Lee during my confession in order to soften the blow.
Jason started laughing and Bobby Lee let out a hearty“fuck you guys..it’s too late for me to change them–you should have been there to help me pick something out…” and he went on and on until Jason calmed him. This was their language, similar to the language Bobby and I had, I liked to egg him on, and so did Jason, and in that moment our differences felt like they were melting away.
Bobby Lee drove up towards a turnpike, narrowly missing a few cars here and there, and he settled into a steady speed on a mostly empty highway on the way back to Manhattan. We played music and I listened to them talk about life in Bushwick then, versus now, and life in Manhattan with all of its possibilities. There was always new food to try, new bodegas, new stores. Manhattan appeared on the horizon, a glowing beacon in the dark, Jason’s new home, which he quietly contemplated. He looked over the Bobby Lee’s driver side window to look at the lights, then settled back down, and he looked at the overhead street lights as his head moved to the music on the radio. Bobby Lee jerked the car to the right to avoid a slow driver, then back to the left, almost knocking me off my seat. I admonished him: “You’re going to get us killed!”
“Sorry everyone sorry, I’m having a little trouble seeing with these glasses. The lanes look so big.”
Bobby steered the U-haul in frightening directions a few more times along the trip, until we entered the city proper, back to the hermits living in the alleys, and the skyscrapers, the traffic, and the familiar neighborhoods. We moved Jason into Bobby’s Midtown building, taking his few essentials–struggling with his big mattress–and finally letting Jason set up his living space while we returned the U-Haul and walked back with pizza and mixers for our drinks.
“I see you’ve already set up.” Bobby Lee said to Jason.
“Wasn’t hard. Didn’t have a lot of stuff.”
Jason and Bobby Lee turned their attention to the matter of their monster cat, and I took the opportunity to inspect Jason’s new living space. It was an odd setup: The place was a one bedroom with a living room area which was cordoned off by two freestanding japanese floral print room dividers. Behind the dividers was Jason’s new living space, which was in total square area a significant step down from his old place, but was pristine, which was an improvement. I poked my head around the partition and saw that Jason had set up his bed, a small table, a laptop, and a TV. The setup was almost identical to mine. I wondered about Jason now, for the first time, as someone who was almost exactly like me. Jason king of the night, gorgeous, manipulative and insufferable, was also hurting, also just like me, stranded out in a dusty urban desert with only two friends to help him out. I found it impossible to hate him now.
“Kinda small right?” Bobby Lee breathed into my ear. He was also peering around the partition.
“You both going to be fine?” I said.
“Yeah we’ve been through worse. I’m trying to get him to come out tonight but he doesn’t want to. That’s the thanks I get.”
Jason was busy in the bathroom running the shower and using a heavy duty tub brush to scrub his monstrous cat to no avail.
“I think I’m gonna to have to shave him. These hairs are too crusty!”
“Well shave him on the bathroom floor. Don’t make a mess!” Bobby Lee said, handing me a drink.
“I’ll get him to come out,” I said to Bobby Lee.
Jason looked around the bathroom, found some clippers, and started work. Diva lay still on Jason’s lap with a wide-eyed expression on her face, her tail twitching in anticipation. Jason sat cross-legged–wearing pajama pants and a simple long sleeved white shirt–and nestled his cat in one hand while he moved the clippers over Diva’s back. The cat purred in adulation as the first of its big chunky clumps fell on the bathroom floor with a tuft of stray fuzz falling on Jason’s leg.
“We’re going to the Roxy tonight, Jason, with or without you,” Bobby Lee called out from his kitchen.
“Go ahead, Mary, I have to get settled. I can’t start drinking now.”
This was the very first time I had seen Jason lacking in extremes: He was neither a hot nightlife know-it-all, nor a runaway destitute. He appeared now agreeable in the same way every one of us appears agreeable when we just want some peace and quiet at home. Jason stared at the ground, at the fur that fell from his cat, swiped his bare feet across the bathroom floor to haphazardly sweep the abundant falling cat fur into a messy pile next to him. I was intimidated by Jason when I first met him, by how he moved expertly through the world I wanted to belong to, by how he made my heart beat faster with a look. Now, all I could see him as was as some poor schmuck with a cat he wanted to care for. In that moment, Jason no longer made my heart flutter, but he made it laugh. He wasn’t any different from Bobby Lee or me, just a weird-looking runaway with nowhere to go. I connected my iPod mini to Bobby Lee’s laptop and started playing a song I secretly devoted to Jason: Kings of the Wild Frontier, by Adam Ant. It reminded me of the time Jason told us he was part Native American, but had no real connection to that past because his family had stopped talking to him. Bobby Lee started admonishing me to turn off “that shitty weird music you like” and Jason rolled his eyes without appreciating the gesture–which was fine–because any hostility that Jason had sensed from me or I from him had vanished, replaced with a feeling of kinship that turned stabs into pokes. I was going to return the favor. I was going to get Jason off that floor and out with us with the simplest torture. I took a daring photo of Jason shaving his cat on the kitchen floor using my phone, I handed him a vodka tonic mixed drink, and then I whispered at him from the doorway of the bathroom with all the seriousness that I could muster:
“Hurry up and shave your pussy. We’re going to get wasted.”