One day, the doorbell rang. I answered the door. Sitting on the step was a grey and white longhaired cat. It was my father in disguise. I had never seen my father before, but I recognized him immediately. One recognizes one's own. We had the same eyes.
My mother had warned me when I was a child that he might show up someday. After she told me that, I felt anxious every time the doorbell rang or a stranger came to our house, afraid that it might be him. But as the years went by and he never appeared, I stopped worrying. In fact, I stopped thinking about him entirely. It probably never occurred to my mother that he would show up as a cat.
My father meowed in a low un-catlike tone. His fur clung to his bones and he wore no collar. I could tell he expected me to take him in. There was so much I had to say, but nothing that I could utter or acknowledge. I was about to close the door when my husband saw him. Aaron had always wanted a cat. Our dog, Buckwheat, was too large for our laps and didn't know any tricks.
"Look at you," Aaron said to my father. "Are you a poor little kitty?"
My father looked up at my husband with big, sad eyes.
"It isn't a poor kitty," I said. "It's my father, and I don't want anything to do with him."
"But just look at him," Aaron said. "He's starving."
My father swayed to the side, as if he might faint. He was a good actor and he knew how to get people, just like my mother had said.
I had pork chops in the oven, broccoli on the stove, and bread and apple butter on the table. The scent must have been wafting out the door, because I noticed my father licking his lips with his sharp, pink tongue.
"No cat, no father," I said to Aaron and shut the door.
Back inside, we had an uncomfortable dinner. I could tell Aaron was upset—he was probably thinking about how much he wanted a cat, not how much I didn't want a father. Outside, my father howled—a pitiful, primal cry. I tried to ignore them both.
As a child, whenever people asked about my father, I said that he was dead, and moved myself, somehow, to the brink of tears. I knew that by giving this answer, I created in their minds the sense that they had hit upon some trove of unspeakable, terrible anguish, and I hoped I moved them to compassion and morbid fascination as to what had actually happened. Suicide? Train wreck? A drowning? By not giving one answer, it was like suggesting them all.
The truth wasn't that interesting. He was an alcoholic and had cheated on my mother. He left before I was born. I lied about all of this because it seemed to me that a dead father was preferable to an undesirable one.
My father howled again and maybe I imagined it or tricked myself into hearing it, but it sounded like an apology.
"Why don't you give him a chance?" Aaron said. He had hardly eaten a bite and just scooted pieces of food around his plate.
"Fine," I said. "Let him in. But just for dinner."
Aaron rushed to the door. I heard the click of the handle, the squeak of hinges, and I heard these not as the noises of a door opening, but as the audible sounds of one's life changing. Buckwheat, who had been lying underneath the table, bolted out of the room. She wasn't afraid of cats—quite liked them, in fact—but seemed to be afraid of my father. My father paid her no attention. He took a seat at the table and rested his paws on the tablecloth. Aaron served him a pork chop. My father gobbled it down, making nasal grunt-like sounds as he ate. Bits of sauce flew across the tablecloth as he wrestled with the meat.
I waited for him to say something—to meow again as he had outside, but he remained fixated on the pork chop and didn't even look my way.
"I never wanted to see you, you know," I said to him. "I was happy with my mom. I liked having her all to myself. You would have ruined it. She always said it would have been like having two children instead of one."
I thought it would make me feel better to get that off my chest, but it left me feeling angry. I scooted the broccoli around on my plate. Still, my father didn't look at me. I had the feeling he was here for food, and food only.
After dinner, he disappeared down the hall with the bone, and proceeded to throw up on the couch.
"The poor thing," Aaron said. "He really was starving. His stomach couldn't hold it."
"No," I said. "Cats just aren't supposed to eat pork chops."
That evening, I called my mother.
"It happened," I said.
"No, Mom. But you'll never guess who showed up. I don't know how he—"
"Yes. The doorbell rang, and I answered, and—"
"You didn't let him in, did you?"
"I didn't. But Aaron saw him, and you know how bad he's wanted a—"
"I always knew something like this would happen."
"And so we let him in, just for dinner. That pork chop recipe you gave me—"
"He always had a thing for pork chops. I guess he picked the right night to show up."
"But Mom, you won't believe—"
"What? What did he do? Ask you for money? Did he take something? Oh honey, was he mean to you? Or did he just talk about himself the whole evening?"
"Mom, he's a cat. He's got long grey and white fur, he's skinny, and he looks like—remember Snowball? And his eyes—"
"Why does that not surprise me. A cat. Couldn't even show up as himself."
"Well, do you think he could really help it? I mean, why would anyone, why would he—?"
"Oh, he could help it. Believe me. Nobody just becomes a cat. He signed himself up for this. Where is he now?"
"With Aaron in the living room. They're watching football. I told him—Aaron—that I didn't want—"
"Honey, listen to me. You've got to get him out of your house. Right now. If you want me to talk to Aaron for you, I will, to explain—"
"I can do it," I said.
"Because if he stays there, well, I don't even want to think about it. And I don't want you to have to think about it either. You don't need this right now. Or ever."
"Yes, Mom, I know."
"Promise me. Promise me you'll—"
"Yes, Mom. Don't worry."
When I got off the phone, I went to find my father. The game had just ended, and he was making himself at home on Buckwheat's bed. He turned around four or five times before plopping down—and then licked himself, one of his hind legs stretched high in the air. Buckwheat was hiding under the piano bench, alternating between growling and whimpering.
"Oh no you don't," I said to my father and picked him up. It was the first time I'd touched him, and I was overcome by a desire to nuzzle my face in his fur. Instead, I held him out in front of me and deposited him outside on the porch.
"Where is he?" Aaron asked.
"Outside," I said. "I know you want a cat, but I just can't— I talked to my mother. She thinks it's a really bad idea to keep him here."
"Of course she thinks it's a bad idea, but he's your father. Maybe you'll find that you really like him."
"I don't think so," I said. "Why don't you pick out a different cat, one who isn't related to me. I just want to go to sleep and forget any of this happened."
In bed that night, I watched the shadows on the wall change from blue to grey to grey-blue and back again. The grey was a very specific shade of grey. I had the feeling I was looking at a color that would never exist again, beyond this room.
Somewhere outside was the familiar low howl of a hungry, lonely animal. I'd heard that sound many times before, but this time it was sadder, more pitifully drawn out. Then came a ruckus as other howls and meows joined in, and garbage cans toppled over in the night on an empty sidewalk. It was a catfight, and I heard it as if it were happening in my own bedroom.
"Do you hear that?" Aaron asked, but I offered no reply.
I kept watching the shadows.
In the middle of the night, it rained and thundered, and at the crossroads of sleep and wake, having forgotten what had happened the previous day, I saw a strange cat on the window ledge. Its wet fur was illuminated by cracks of lightning, and it peered inside and meowed—seemed to meow, though I heard no sound other than the thunder that rumbled miles, or maybe only streets, away. It seemed unreasonable, in fact, it seemed cruel not to let it in. And that is what I think I said to Aaron, who was more awake than I: "Let it in." With that, I fell back asleep, as if nothing at all of importance had just happened.
I awoke to Aaron softly kissing me, licking the inside of my ear, then my eyelids and nose. But he didn't smell like himself—his breath was heavy, as though he hadn't brushed his teeth the night before, or any night ever—and his tongue was rough and small enough to reach the crevices and small spaces around my ears and eyes. I felt the soft familiar weight of Aaron's arm on my chest. But when I opened my eyes, I saw that it wasn't Aaron's arm, it was my father. I pushed him off.
"Aaron," I said, and nudged him. "He got in."
Aaron moaned and turned over.
"How did my father get in?" I asked. I imagined him breaking into our house, opening the door with his paws, even though he didn't have opposable thumbs. Just like my mother had said: crafty.
"You said to let him in."
In a second's recollection, I remembered the cat from last night, wet and shivering in the rain.
"Can we keep him?" Aaron asked. "He needs a place to stay, I want a cat, you could have a father..."
I didn't like to admit it, but I had always wanted a father, just not my own. Now, with no other prospects in sight—I couldn't be picky, because how many fathers does a person get?—I thought, maybe it won't be so bad.
"Okay," I said. "He can stay. Temporarily."
"What should we name him?" Aaron said.
"He already has a name. It's Dennis."
"That's not a good name for a cat. That's a people name. I was thinking something like Rocky. He looks like a Rocky."
"I don't know," I said. "I mean, he's your cat. But he's my father."
It was hard to tell how much my father was father, and how much he was cat. He looked like a cat, but unlike most cats, he came when called. He wore a blue collar with a bell on it that Aaron picked out—a tracking device. We could hear my father when he ran around, or when he jumped on top of things. He liked to sleep on my dresser by my perfume bottles, and in the laundry basket. Buckwheat hid under the piano bench whenever she heard the bells jingling.
Aaron went to the pet store and came back with a scratching post, catnip, a wind-up mouse, and a squeaky toy.
"He isn't going to go for any of this," I said.
"How do you know?" Aaron said. "Cats love this stuff. Here, Rocky!"
My father came running down the hall, his little bell jingling furiously. He walked past the toys and inspected them. When he got to the scratching post, he circled around it and rubbed against it suggestively.
"Look at that," I said, disgusted. "He's not even using it the right way."
Aaron wound up the mouse and placed it on the floor. It spun around frantically, banging into the wall and starting up again. My father watched it, not amused.
"See?" I said.
"Maybe he just needs more stimulation," Aaron said. "Something more intellectual."
"What, like chess?" I said, and at that, my father's ears pricked up.
"You like chess, do you?" Aaron said to my father, and went in search of the chess set that we never used.
Aaron set it up and my father swatted at the pieces, but couldn't get them to go to the squares he wanted. After a while, he took to playing with the queen, rolling on his back with the piece in his mouth. He seemed to take his frustration out on her.
"Don't bite her," I said, and tried to take the piece away from him. "It isn't yours."
My father turned and walked away with the queen still in his mouth. When he was gone, Buckwheat came out of hiding to retrieve the catnip and squeaky toy.
"You shouldn't talk to your father that way," Aaron said.
"He was biting her," I said. "I don't want him to ruin our chess pieces."
"But we never even play."
My father slept in our bedroom, which is where he seemed to want to be. He looked so peaceful asleep, his belly rising up and down, his tail curled around his body, his little cat eyelids. It was the only time of day I didn't mind him so much, the only time of day he didn't seem like my father. Sometimes he even reminded me of Snowball.
Sometimes in the night, Aaron moved toward me, his hand reaching for my belly button, his finger in that little space, circling round. When his hand moved below that equatorial line crossing my navel, I had to pull away from him. "The cat," I said, to remind him.
My father followed me around the house when Aaron wasn't home. I couldn't tell if he was bored or lonely.
"What do you want?" I'd say to him, accusingly. But when he looked back at me blankly, I regretted my tone.
For some reason, he especially enjoyed it when I did the laundry. He had some strange fascination with it and he'd watch as I measured out the detergent and loaded the clothes. Then he'd sit in front of the washer and watch everything tumble round and round.
"He's been hitting the catnip again," Aaron said. "I knew he'd like it."
But my father didn't like catnip—that was Buckwheat's thing now. My father liked dryer sheets and softener, sitting on top of the dryer, and the final spin cycle on the washer.
"Don't you see?" Aaron said. "He likes to be close to you. You never pet him, so the next best thing he has is your clothes."
"That's crazy," I said.
"Do you ever pet him?"
"No," I said. The thought of making him purr repulsed me.
"But you pet Buckwheat."
"Yes, but she's a dog. She's just a dog and nothing else."
"Why does that matter?"
"Because," I said.
"He's still there, isn't he?" my mother said, the next time I talked to her on the phone.
"Yes, but only temporarily," I said.
"I knew it. You should have gotten rid of him that first day."
"Well, we're trying it out. Aaron likes him."
"And what kind of trouble has he been getting into?"
"He's sober, Mom. We've kept the alcohol locked up—"
"Well that's good, but has he torn up any curtains? Have you had him declawed yet?"
"We're not going to. He hasn't scratched anyone."
"That's a relief."
"He coughs up hairballs, though," I said. I hadn't planned on telling her this. It was the one thing about my father that made me feel sorry for him. It was an alarming sight—he'd disappear to some corner, usually behind the TV or couch, hunch his back, and start retching.
"I hope you don't have to clean it up."
"No, Aaron does. He changes the litter too."
"That's good. And how is Buckwheat taking it?"
"She doesn't like him," I said. "He tries to sleep in her dog bed."
"You should make him sleep outside."
"He's an indoor cat, Mom. He's been sleeping in our bedroom."
"Oh, honey, no. In your bedroom? Just when you were starting to think about—"
"I know," I said.
"No, not with him there—"
"This never would have happened if you hadn't let him in to begin with. But now that he's there, you've got to show him who's boss. Otherwise he'll try to—"
"I know, Mother. We're just trying it out, to see how it goes."
I noticed that my father's breath wasn't smelling too good. It wasn't quite like cat breath. I had smelled that before. This was like people breath.
"What have you been feeding him?" I asked Aaron.
After that first night, my father hadn't eaten dinner with us at the table. Instead, while we ate, he curled up on the couch and watched Jeopardy! His food bowl was in the kitchen, and he ate from it when he pleased.
"Oh, you know, cat food." Aaron paused. "And leftovers."
"Leftovers?" I said. "Is that where they've been going?" I had been wondering about the absence of the meatloaf, and the tortellini, and especially the coq au vin and the cobbler.
"That's the kind of food he likes," Aaron said. "And since when are you smelling his breath?"
"Since I wake up with him on my pillow every morning, his face in my face."
"He likes you, don't you see?" Aaron said. "You're the reason he came here."
"No, he came here for the food," I said, though I wasn't sure I believed it.
Seeing my father during the day—eating, burping, licking himself—I felt repulsed by him. But at night, when he curled up next to me, I almost liked him. He seemed to enjoy being close to me, and I began to want to pet him.
I started to let myself scratch his ears and behind his head while he slept because it felt nice to be close to him, and because I didn't think he knew.
Buckwheat hadn't been sleeping in her dog bed at all. Instead, she slept under the piano bench or on the couch. I figured she was scared of my father, but then I caught my father spraying Buckwheat's bed, and I understood the real reason.
"No!" I shouted and clapped my hands to scare him away. "Bad cat." I couldn't quite manage "bad father."
He raced down the hall, and I threw the dog bed in the wash. Not long after that, I caught him spraying the piano bench, the couch, and the laundry basket. He sprayed my perfume bottles, and I had to throw them away. These were only the times I caught him. Who knew what else he had marked?
"We've got to get him fixed," I said to Aaron.
"You can't neuter your father," he said. "Are you worried he's going to father more, um...?"
"No," I said. "He's spraying our whole house. Marking his territory. He got your guitar this morning. He even tried to mark Buckwheat, but she ran away from him."
"Well, you know, that's what cats do sometimes."
"Dogs too," I said. "We spayed Buckwheat."
"But this is your father. Don't you think you should think this through? Have you thought about how this might affect him?"
I had, and I didn't care. He was a cat, and had no choice as to what we did with him. If he didn't want to be neutered, he should have thought twice before becoming a cat.
"Well," I said, "he's on probation. He marks one more thing, and he's going to the vet."
My mother thought it was a great idea.
"He deserves it," she said. "He didn't ruin anything, did he?"
"Unfortunately," I said. "He sprayed the sweater you knit for me."
"The bastard. Someone should make a sweater out of him."
Not long after, while I was doing the laundry, my father climbed into the dryer and sprayed all the clean clothes.
"No!" I shouted at him.
I called the vet and made an appointment. When the day came and it was time to leave, my father was nowhere to be found.
"He knows," Aaron said.
"Next time we get a cat, let's not get one that understands us," I said, and went off in search of him. I looked under the sink and in the coat closet. Finally, I found him hiding under the bed.
"Okay, out," I said. The door of the cat carrier was open, and there was a meatball inside to lure him in. The space under the bed was too low to crawl under, so I tried fishing him out with a broom.
He didn't budge.
I tried to pull the bed away from the wall but it was too heavy.
"You can't hide under there forever," I said.
That night in bed, Aaron rolled over toward me. He started kissing my neck, licking my ear, rubbing under my nightgown. It had been a long time.
The cat—my father—was asleep on the pillow, next to my head. I started kissing Aaron and reached for him, but I touched the cat instead.
"Aaron, we can't," I said.
"Sure we can," he said, and nuzzled himself in closer.
"No, I mean the cat—my father—he's on the pillow, right here."
"He won't watch us," Aaron assured me. "He's asleep, and it's dark."
For the first time since the cat had shown up, I felt a change, as though gears that had stalled inside me were starting up their slow rotation again. I thought of what we had wanted to try—had started to try—before the cat arrived. I turned toward Aaron and we found each other, keeping our lips at a distance. In the dark, there existed the possibility that he was no longer himself, I was no longer myself, and I began to melt.
I felt something warm and wet, but the smell was stronger than usual and strangely familiar. "Aaron," I said, just as he rolled on top. "Did you—?"
"What?" he said, panting.
"My leg's wet," I said.
"No," he said, "I didn't."
I sat up—I still had my nightgown on—and saw the cat glaring at us from the end of the bed.
"Oh my god," I said. "Do you see what this is? He sprayed our bed. He sprayed the sheets and my leg! He's marking me!"
I pushed the covers off the bed, and the cat howled and fell off. He ran down the hallway.
"Bad cat!" I said, and chased him. "Very bad cat!" I found him on Buckwheat's dog bed, licking under his tail. He looked up—not surprised to see me—and went about his business. It's true, of course, that animals forget what they've done almost immediately afterward. But this was my father.
"Do you want to get neutered?" I asked him, and his ears shot back close to his head in fear. "If you don't want to get fixed, then you have to go."
I caught him just as he tried to race past me. I grabbed him tightly, held him roughly as I took him outside, and threw him out onto the street.
"I don't ever want to see you again," I said to him. "I didn't want to see you in the first place. You aren't my father. You aren't even a cat! I don't ever want you to come back to this house..." And he sat there, in the middle of the road, listening to me while I said these and other, harsher words I have tried, and been able, to forget.
I walked back to the house, exhausted, drained, wondering who I had become. By the time I reached the door, he was a shadow in the road, and then a shadow walking away, a shadow that receded under the dim street lights until it was only a long and empty road.
I realize now that I didn't so much want him to go away, as I wanted to go into the past and change things—to alter the course of events in such a way that my father could have been a father and not a cat. This cat, who under other circumstances—but no, there are no other circumstances.
Sometimes I see cats that look like him. They'll have the same hunch of the back, or the grey and white fur, or there'll be something in the shape of the ears. I'll see the cat from a distance and watch, unseen, and wonder how it can roam the Earth on four legs, being so close to the ground, wonder why it won't stand up straight and walk toward me, as if by having two legs, it would be any more susceptible to the conditions and requirements of love.
Title graphic: "Observation" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2012.