When I unlock the apartment I wait for Mala to meow for her meal. When I kick off my shoes I anticipate her whiskers on my heels. When I set the mail on the table I wait for her to run her black ears beneath my fingertips.
When I set the grocery bags on the counter I expect her to inspect them. When the bags are empty I expect her to leap inside. When I open the refrigerator I expect to see her on the bottom shelf licking the bacon.
When I sit on the couch, Mala leaps up onto the armrest, descends the pillows, and approaches my lap. The moment I turn to pet her she’s gone. When I sit on the toilet I can feel her doing figure eights around my ankles. There’s nothing but tiles when I look down.
It’s a pavlovian response, but unlike Pavlov who conditioned his dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, Mala has conditioned me to associate her with everything I do. People don’t train cats. Cats train people.
I still leave the hall closet unlatched so Mala can come and go as she pleases. I still look both ways before opening the oven. I still find myself clicking my tongue in the middle of the night, trying to lure Mala out of hiding.
In the morning the sun casts its rays through the blinds. I follow the bloody paw prints from the coffee table to the kitchen. When I double back they’re gone.
There’s no such thing as a haunted house, just a haunted head.
That afternoon I find myself shell shocked at the grocery store. I’m standing in the pet supply aisle, staring at the tuna cans, litter containers, and tiny felt mice. I’m not sure how I got there, but I’m frozen in the section unable to move on.
When I close my eyes a tornado rips the roof off the place. The precut meats float out from behind the glass. The produce spirals into the sky, and the salad bar evaporates. The shopping carts rattle, the check out counters creak, and the shelves quake. Glass shatters everywhere. All of the customers panic. Their screams fade so fast they sound like squeaks. My surroundings whoosh into sky, yet somehow I stay grounded.
The storm drops a building on me. A metal table crashes at my feet, followed by a kennel, a stack of forms, and a pen. I fall backward as the cushion of a chair rises up beneath me.
When I open my eyes I see Mala staggering along the windowsill to my left. She shakes her head like Ray Charles at the height of a song. She’s loopy from the drugs they gave her before the examination. The bandage wrapped around her paw doesn’t help her footing.
“Are you sure she should be up there?” My mother asks.
I nod. Mala can stay there. She likes looking out the window and that manicured lawn, empty lot, and overcast skyline might be the last view she’s ever going to get.
I look down to find I’m no longer holding a shopping cart, but a piece of paper. When the veterinarian realized I was emotionally incapable of deciding whether to euthanize my pet she gave me a form to rate Mala’s quality of life in her current condition. I had yet to write a thing down.
We removed Mala’s little toe after it swelled to the size of the pad of her paw. Two months later the toe next to it swelled up and left another trail of blood across the apartment. The nurse confirms this second growth is infected.
The form asks how I would rate my pet’s mobility. Mala steps forward, slips on her dressing, and lands on her chin. Not well. Maybe a 2 out of 10.
The nurse’s phone sits on the counter. The photo app is zoomed in on an x-ray of Mala’s little lungs. I’m no astrophysicist but I recognize a constellation when I see one. Mala’s cancer has spread.
That would explain the coughing fits in the middle of the night. I wanted to write them off as hairballs. It was spring. She was shedding. My reasoning made sense.
Kind of like I wrote off the poops I found outside of the litter box as dingle berries, and the dried puke as cat food that simply rolled out of the can.
I’m told a university does feline chemotherapy. It will cost a small fortune and it will leave Mala in agonizing pain. Best-case scenario it buys her a week. A week I’m supposed to be working, smiling at customers, and answering, “How’s it going?” with “Great.”
The vet on the other side of the counter stands up. “I’ll give you some time to reach a decision.”
My father takes that as his cue to get up. My mother grabs his wrist and yanks him back down. “Wait.”
The clock on the wall reads a quarter past six. The clinic has been closed for fifteen minutes.
Mala rubs her whiskers along the window.
When I open my eyes I’m back in the pet supply aisle, struggling to keep my composure.
When I get home the welcome mat gets wedged beneath the front door. I drop my groceries to pry it free before Mala darts out into the hall. A box tears open and soda cans spill across the entryway.
When it occurs to me that my urgency is unnecessary I lay down on the floor. There’s a rust colored splotch of puke on the carpet beside my head. I wrench myself up, wet a rag, and press it into the bristles. I hesitate, thinking this is the last piece of puke Mala is ever going to give me.
I stay up too late reading because there’s no one there to knock the book out of my hand. In the morning I oversleep because there’s no one there to whine for her morning meal. When I finally do get up I decide today is the day I’m going to throw out the litter box.
When I check the mail I find a handwritten letter from the veterinarian. The card has a sunset on the front. I don’t need to open it to know what it says inside. I’m sliding the card back into the envelope when something slips out: a 3 by 5 card with a paw print. I open the envelope to find two more paw prints. The clinic sent me three. The missing one would’ve been red from all the tumors.
When I go out that night I stay out because there’s no one waiting at home. At the risk of sounding melodramatic: silence isn’t always golden, sometimes it’s pitch black. Sometimes it’s a hole in the drywall, sucking up all the furniture, ripping the carpet off the floor, and gobbling up all the toys I left there.
Still there’s only so much comfort in a crowded room. People fade into the foreground as my focus is drawn to the wall. Blank spaces are vortexes for intrusive thoughts to pass through. This brick wall beneath the speakers is no different.
The moment I close my eyes I hear the bricks recede into the crawlspace one by one. I hear that empty grid of mortar crumble and swirl like dust on the wind. I hear the floorboards upend and slide into grates in the ground. I hear the ceiling tiles flip over and lower. I’m back in that room, with the tubes and the needles.
I kiss Mala on the forehead, thinking I have more time than I do. I can feel her pulse stop.
The vet whispers, “Now she’s at peace.”
Mala dies with her big yellow eyes open. I try to close them but it’s not as easy as they make it look in the movies. It takes a couple of tries, and even then I don’t get it right.
I open my eyes and I’m back in the coffee shop, back on the bus, back behind the counter where I clerk. I’m a town over from the animal hospital, but I’m not safe here. Not when there are rooms with walls and time to stare at them.
What you might call a moment of quiet reflection I call irresponsible coping.
If I close my eyes I’ll find myself holding a lifeless bundle in a towel, sobbing at the ceiling. A child who just doesn’t understand. So I try my hardest not to. I try not to even blink for too long.
Stoics tell me it’s not my fault, like that must be the only thing that pains me.
When a family member dies, most jobs give you three days of bereavement leave. Someone you love is gone. A part of you is gone. You’re now the lone archivist of you’re shared experience, the keeper of their memory. You get three days to get your shit together and then it’s back to smiling for coworkers, back to small talk about the weather, and the president’s wacky antics.
Maybe others are far less selfish than I am. Maybe they’re just better adjusted. Maybe their support systems are in perfect working order and I’ve let mine fall into disrepair.
Here I am grieving a cat, not a grandparent, not a spouse. Ain’t no one got time for that. So push I it down. I try not to daydream. I try to count things: actors in the Marvel Cinematic universe, first party games on the PlayStation 4, the X-Files merchandise I own, anything. Anything I can do to exhaust my mind, to avoid looking at flat surfaces for too long.
That room is waiting beneath everything.
No place is safe when it’s my head that’s haunted.