by Treena Thibodeau
You are not doing enough. This announcement goes out at regular intervals over the P.A. system inside the cramped fitting room of my skull. You are not doing enough. I’m supposed to be meditating, but instead I’m dress-rehearsing conversations with people who now only exist inside of glowing rectangles. Visualize: sending my breath out. Think about viruses, try to pull just my own droplets back in. Sometimes it helps if I visualize a cat’s tail sliding through my fingers. I don’t have a cat, so I mentally borrow my sister’s. If no one is around to hear, I’ll screw headphones into the sockets of my ears and sing along with kirtan recordings, making a mess of the Sanskrit. I sing loud enough, maybe I’ll call monsters out of the lake. This week a creature that is not a goose but is definitely the result of something a goose fucked landed on the water and is now on patrol. We nicked this house too, a family member’s rural getaway in a part of Connecticut called the Quiet Corner. We came here the week the morgue trucks came to Queens and have remained since, possessions spreading in the cabin like a spill. I thought I would feel lost here in the woods, so far from the familiar grid of home, but I do not. Squirrels get into the frame of this house and chase shelter and I put out a catch-and-release trap but they are too wily for it.
Like the creature on the lake, I circle. I take long walks on dirt roads, upsetting the local dogs, loudly FaceTiming friends back in New York. A neighbor asks my partner when we are leaving. Our mail carrier hurls our packages into the bushes. I’m walking and a long-haired black cat comes to investigate, arching its back like a dolphin under my hand. I take her picture.
The next time I see her, she is on a poster: LOST CAT. Last seen July 8, according to the sharpie. There is a photograph. Why do cats always look so miserable in pictures? This one apparently answers to the name of Sassie. I text the photo I took to the number on the poster and get an OMG THANK YOU!! in response.
The cat I stopped to pet was someone’s lost family member, but I didn’t know. I just walked away. It bothers me, the missed opportunity at a rescue. I go out looking for her with the last of the shelf-stable quarantine tuna.
I just want to find this cat. In the fall, I will leave here, return to teaching on the Lower East Side. My seventh graders will slip their masks up their faces until they are blindfolded; they will stick pencils out of them like tusks. I will push supplies to kids with a yardstick, sheltering behind a plexiglass shield while I learn their names. I just want to rescue Sassie. When the kids use that word, sassy, I can’t tell if it’s a compliment or an insult. In March, I bailed on my city, and by June the NYPD was kettling protestors on the Manhattan Bridge and setting off fireworks to keep everyone awake. You are not doing enough. I hoist my beliefs on flimsy cardboard through the calmly disciplined protests in Hartford and write checks and listen to podcasts.
You are not doing enough. I want to do one good thing. I want to find this fucking cat.
The Connecticut State forest borders the road, deep, full of hawks and owls and fishercats. I stand in front of this impenetrable mass of thorns and poison ivy and wave the packet of tuna like a dowsing rod. The cat does not come. She is not in the tangled grove by the lake where we saw a truck with a confederate flag that time. She is not in the family cemetery which has exactly nine graves belonging to deceased members of the Philips family. I can not find her in the lot where someone has knocked down all the trees with the intention of putting up houses. Everyone wants to move to the country. I will not find her, and I tried is this weak, wet-cardboard thing.
When I finally see the cat, she is in front of the same exact house where I saw her last time, the house with the trampoline and the chickens. She sits like she is waiting for a bus, one she has waited for since July 8. I’ve barely got my phone out, dialing the number from the poster, when a woman in a pickup truck pulls over and leaps out in gum boots. It’s happening. We are going to have A Moment. We can not hug, of course. But I will watch her hug the cat, this cat that has somehow survived all the things out here that want to kill her.
“Sassy!” the woman cries, and to me, “Thank you so much. We’ve been looking for her.”
“I’m so glad you hung the posters,” I say, and realize we are too close to one another. My calculation of six feet varies according to circumstances. “I’m Treena,” I say. “I live down the road.” And I do live here, sort of. We are alive, and this is where our mail gets chucked in the general direction of our house.
“Are you ready to go home?” the woman asks, not to me, but to the cat. I’m already writing this story in my head. Perhaps this woman is a Trump supporter, as so many of the homes here proclaim, eaves saggy with bunting, 2020 support signaled on their crewcut lawns. But we will bridge our differences through a shared love of cats.
The woman, whoever she is, has the cat in her arms, and I’m backing off. Six feet, seven, but wanting to linger here, where briefly, I do not feel like a failure. I want to hear about how happy her children will be, when she brings Sassy home. But the woman has a worried look on her face, stirring the patch of white fur on the cat’s belly.
“Sassy doesn’t have white.” She looks at me.
“Are you sure?” I ask.
“This isn’t my cat.” She sets it down. The cat flops over bonelessly and yawns. “I almost put it in my truck. I almost stole someone’s cat.”
We look at each other. We laugh awkwardly. I wish the woman could have just pretended that it was her cat until I had left. I walk away, embarrassed by the tuna I am carrying.
The cat is still lost. In the time we have left, I will keep an eye out for her. I will watch for movement in our bushes. When I hear thumps in the walls, I will wonder if she has somehow gotten inside the house. I am still hoping to do something good.
Treena Thibodeau‘s work has appeared in The Rumpus, Atticus Review, Lunch Ticket, Able Muse, and Newtown Literary, and has received generous support from the Vermont Studio Center and the Tin House Summer Conference. She directs the online reading series, TGI (www.tgicast.com) and can be found on Twitter @TreenaThibs. She holds an MFA in fiction from Columbia University.
Photo source: Hang Niu/Unsplash