I was offered $250 bucks to watch two cats. At least, at the time I thought the guy had two cats. The last time I had been to his place there were only two cats, a young string bean gray tabby and an older white fluff ball. The owner’s an aging Latino soap opera hunk and he’s still cut from a slab of South American tan marble. Let’s get rid of those budding questions, dear reader, nothing sexually weird happened, but then again… how do I know he’s still ripped? Because he lived next door to my ex and since this is SoCal and he’s an actor he’s shirtless most of the time, outside whispering sides to himself for his next audition. The cat owner is a nice guy, but you’ll learn that the crazy starts where the eccentricity ends.
For instance, who needs a cat sitter for two nights and a day? No one, that’s who. Unless your cat is on disability and if that’s the case why are you going out? You should be with your cat! I didn’t point out this glaring plot hole because I knew he was a little off and the money was easy.
One more thing to clear up before we jump into the madness; she wasn’t my ex the first time I saw his place and those two cats. She was when I took the cat-sitting job. I couldn’t say no. I love cats, cats and I are instant buddies, cats break up my cold poker game exterior. Meow. $250 bucks to watch two cats for two nights while Soap was out on a shoot was a great deal for a guy like me. And I needed the money. Yeah, we’ll call him Soap. He still gets industry work and he makes one-of-a-kind leather jackets that sell for thousands.
He also lives in a studio apartment with seven cats. Is that a fucking typo? It’s not. Soap got five more cats between the time I first saw his place to the last time when I took the job. My ex told me about the five extra fur balls the day of the job when I arrived to get Soap’s keys. She lived next to him. Awkward? In retrospect not at all compared to the cat sitting.
Don’t worry, we’ll get there soon. I gotta say I’m about three beers into this anecdote and I’m writing off the cuff. I have no idea how to end this, anticlimactic and bitter is what I’m thinking, but that could just be the beer talking. I also don’t own a cat myself. Shocking, right?
I get the keys, she goes to work, and I get inside as quickly as I can without opening the door too wide because the string bean gray tabby and two black kittens bum rush me. I don’t remember any of their names. My relationship with animals, cats in particular, is very informal and crass. Cats seem to respond better to “hey, fatso” or “dickhead” rather than their owner-given names. It must be how I call them not what I call them. Dumb dicks.
The studio apartment is nice, open, with plenty of light from large windows facing east and west. Hardwood floors, a large queen sized bed next to the door with an enormous mirror on the wall over it. In the mirror I see two more cats, but when I look they’re gone. Instead of a headboard there’s a poster of Soap on the wall, a movie one-sheet starring him as a boxer. Shirt off, gloves on, heroic expression, greased Latino lightning. Soap doesn’t look like a cat guy. He looks like the kind of guy who’d eat cats alive and say “this is one way to skin a cat, bitch!” Very intense gaze that makes you wonder who’s going to die and you look around hoping you’re not the only person in the room. Ok, I can deal with this, I think, knowing I’ll be sleeping in that bed with the poster of Soap hanging above me. I just feel like I’m being watched, and of course I am. Seven pairs of eyes are studying me from close up and afar. I look at the skinny gray tabby, “you’re the troublemaker, aren’t you?” I ask it and it responds with a whine and a head bump.
Cats are easy. They are loners like myself, so I settle down to read a graphic novel adaptation of James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia. It’s an incredible book and I’ve been excited to read this graphic novel adaptation for months. I get a few pages in and the cats get used to my presence, soon they’re back to pestering one another and loafing as if I wasn’t there. The two black kittens cuddle on my shins and lap. That’s when I get an email from my ex. She forwarded this email from Soap detailing my duties for today, tonight, tomorrow and the next night before he returns the following morning. He’s using her as a buffer because he knows he’s being difficult. Using her as a buffer as if to say it’s her fault he’s being particular in the care of these cats. He wants me to shoot the messenger. He thinks I will because she and I are no longer together, as if that implies hatred. I’m too nice, he should know that because I’m taking care of his seven cats when they don’t need anyone.
His neediness is advertised through his cats and the apartment. I pity him. Also, $250 bucks.
I said before cats are easy. If you set out food they’ll only eat when hungry if you’re not around. They sleep most of the time, too. They use a litter box sparingly when there isn’t a human to annoy with poop smells. Soap believes his cats are different, he thinks they’re some sort of clockwork felines. He believes they must be fed on a tight schedule using four bowls, two cats per bowl and one bowl for the big white fluff. The food is a mix of dry and wet food and should only fill a quarter of the bowl. He details how I should go about this because the cats will “go crazy” once they hear the wet food cans and the dry food bag. He makes it sound like I’ll have to throw them off me as I dish out quarter bowl servings. This isn’t the case. There’s a calico who gets curious and sneaks onto the counter, I toss it off. The gray tabby gets in my face, curious and sweet, what’s the rumpus, bro? I pick Gray Tabs up and plop it on the floor. I’m not sure about any of their genders. The two black kittens mew from the floor, the counter is too high for them. Soap wants me to serve them at the same time, yet their bowls go in specific locations and in the email he says the cats know which bowls are theirs. 3×5 index cards with two names on each mark the bowl locations, except for the one reserved for big white fluff. The cards are placed in four areas of the studio apartment. One on the kitchen floor, two on a dividing wall nook type thing above the stove that looks into the living area, one on top of the fridge because Calico gets a solitary order, too. So, there are actually five bowls. I was just as mixed up then as I am now. The lapse in memory has nothing to do with the beer.
*hic* *glug glug glug*
The cats move with me, feasting from the moment the first bowl is set down. They move around, feasting at one and then another. Their eating patterns are dictated by which bowls have more wet food and which bowls are unoccupied. The name tags and locations mean nothing. A fight breaks out between Gray Tabs and Calico, “knock it off, fuckers!” I say in a bro voice as if we’re best buds in an after hours club. They look at me as if they’ve never been yelled at and I think that’s true. I go back to reading, the two black kittens snuggle with me. Gray Tabs and Calico take a break on different levels of a cat tree that reaches the ceiling.
The white fluff doesn’t eat. White Fluff eyes me with suspicion, so I say hello and carry on a one-sided conversation until it hisses at me. Very well, Whitey, just please don’t pull a hunger strike.
I pause to read what Soap has written on his walls. Ex calls them affirmations. They’re more akin to a serial killer’s scrawl in heavy handed black paint. The phrases revolve around the entire apartment in a two-foot width from the ceiling. Things like I am the alpha and the omega and I am God, which is redundant to me. More positive quips like I am energy and more convoluted things he tells himself like I am the never ending [blah blah blah]. You get the idea. Soap has graduated from eccentric to creepy. I imagine he unwinds every night reading these words and phrases and thinking of adding more. He’s affirming his worth and importance in the world. It’s not a bad thing to do. I constantly measure my unworthiness. I thank Soap for the life lesson, but this extreme raises my hackles. What he’s doing is creating a world where he is still king. Like Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, or mother fucking Angelyne and her pink sarcophagus (it looks like a Corvette, but if you open up the trunk you’ll find canopic jars). What Soap’s affirmations help him ignore is that relevance is a fickle pop-culture phenomenon and trying to keep up with it is like herding cats.
I want to take a shower, but the bathroom is sparse and uninviting. The toilet paper sits on top of the mirror over the sink so the cats can’t get it. No matter how I sweep with the dust pan there are always invisible bits of litter on the floor. The litter box is inside the bathtub. There’s only one litter box for the seven cats. Soap says in his email via Ex that when the cats are done eating they one by one use the litter box in a nice orderly fashion. Like how he believes they eat like clockwork, this detail is utter bullshit. He says I need to clean the litter box between each use. I don’t do that because only two cats use the box half an hour apart. I read. I text Ex and wonder if I’ll ever find love again while understanding that I never will if I keep talking to Ex exclusively and continue to be this nice. I look around the room. I get why Soap is the way he is – this place is safe. It’s a refuge from the chaos out there. It is the fantasy of control and it feels good. I sympathize and worry that sympathy can lead to assimilation. This safety is not sustainable.
My skin crawls. I decide not to shower. I shut the windows and turn on the A/C. It’s dark out, the cats are settling down. Except for Gray Tabs who bullies the other cats. “Hey, string bean piece of shit, you wanna fight?” I say laughing and we chase each other around for a bit. I roll a paper ball and flick it around, watching Gray Tabs get mauled by the kittens as they all go for it. They get tired and I go to the fridge to see if there’s anything to eat. The fridge is empty except for a filtered water pitcher and a large jar of raw bee pollen, as in pollen collected by bees. Little yellow pellets the size of large ants. I stare at it, wondering what the hell this stuff can do, and then I spy the medical vials and a syringe laid out all the way in the back corner. I shut the fridge, blushing. I feel like I’ve invaded his privacy. I think steroids. I look in the cabinets. No food. I need to see what the vials are, so I duck back into the fridge. No, not steroids, antibiotics for cats. Soap plays doctor with his cats. Soap has no affirmation in black paint referring to a medical degree.
I prowl the apartment, trying to piece together Soap’s psyche.
There’re news clippings of his acting career legacy from Variety and other Los Angeles sources. The dates are conveniently cut out of the clippings, but Soap looks the same and the only tell is that the articles have yellowed with age.
I won’t allude to the obvious Dorian Gray reference, but I just did *hic*
I grab Soap’s keys and head out for some food from the nearby grocery store. I return, careful not to let any of the beasts slip out as I enter. I eat, talking to myself and the cats. I’m taking in more protein and carbs, more of everything really. My metabolism is so high that I burn through everything. I’m trying to build muscle on my tiny, skinny 5’5″ frame. I strip down to my underwear and stretch my body out, a before bed ritual I have to help me unwind. I admire my physique in the mirror, my diet and weight lifting is working, but a wave of depression hits me and leaves my lungs feeling like dried husks. What’s the point, buddy? Ex should’ve been home by now. She must be on a date. I’m hurt that she isn’t hurt, that she got back in the game so fast (later I’d find out her dating life was misery just as solitude was mine). Our relationship was hot, affectionate, and fun, long conversations and searing romance, but our futures have diverged. It was a mutual break-up and I made the mistake of placing my self worth on our future together. Without her there is nothing and I am stricken with dread of freedom. I used to think my social anxiety was pretentious, a symptom of being a writer, but it has gotten worse. It’s full blown damaged nerves and depression and the break-up did not help. Like being unpublished, these are symptoms of being a writer. These are also symptoms of a mental condition that deserves respect and socializing with strong friends.
And I chose to be alone in a crazy man’s apartment taking care of his cats.
But at this point I don’t think he’s crazy, yet. It’s a close call. No food, the affirmations, the way he believes his cats are almost mechanical all points to a guy who lacks control out there in the real world, he lost something or someone and he’s just picking up the pieces. His news clippings show a respect and pride for his acting career and the need to believe it hasn’t changed.
As I eat and think too much the black kittens join me on the couch. One sprawls on my book. The other one talks to me in loud mews that stutter. “Hey, what’s up, little man?” I pet it and it curls up at my side. The one on my book is asleep. I choose this moment to try out his weight and exercise equipment. I bench press the barbell without weights, it’s heavy enough as is and I stop to see if the cats are judging me. Calico and Gray Tabs cast heavy shade, who’s the string bean piece of shit, now? There are a set of adjustable dumbells on either side of the bench and I can’t even lift them as they are set to the heaviest weight. I won’t tell you just how heavy. I know, I know, the man card was revoked a long time ago. I laugh at myself and I hear my phone vibrate from the couch. I lunge for it.
It’s her, I think. My neediness is disgusting and it takes me a moment to realize it’s not her. It’s him. Soap is on the other end of the phone call.
“Hey, can you open the window?” He says and my body reacts before my mind does, my stomach lurches, my muscles go numb. I look out the window as if he’s there and he’s not.
“The window?” I say.
“Yeah. I just noticed it was closed when I checked my phone. They like the fresh air.”
Yeah. Plot twist. You called it way back, didn’t you? I look at myself in the mirror, the big floor to ceiling mirror half hidden behind the bed. I look at myself and I see it in the reflection over my shoulder. Not a nanny cam, a true security camera. It’s got infrared bulbs ringing the lens for night vision. It’s serious and aimed at the mirror so it can see every corner of the apartment except the bathroom.
“I can only view two minutes of pre-recorded video, it’s not live or anything.” He says, sensing my hesitation and anger. Mother fucking baloney. I know how movie sets run and how cheap bandwidth is these days. Actors sit around all day while the lighting department gets their shit together, and I can play a game on my phone with someone across the globe without a stutter in the action. Soap has had nothing better to do than watch me watch his cats in real time.
This goes beyond caring and loving these animals. He’s using the situation to control me in his controlled utopia. He says the camera is there to stop people from breaking in, but if that were the case why isn’t the goddamn thing outside the apartment?
Soap then has the gall to ask if Ex will be spending the night here with me.
I don’t bother to dignify his perverse paranoia with an answer. I open the window and leave the A/C running. I pretend to believe him, smiling with casual dismissal, no harm done, buddy-o! but in the back of my head I wonder if he enjoys watching me in my underwear. I could leave, I should leave. The cats will be fine, but the money is still in limbo. Also, Ex lives next door. If I leave she’ll never hear the end of this betrayal, let alone never be safe from his next turn down his hairball spiral.
“Also, buddy, if you could not leave so much? I get a text every time the door opens, makes me think my place is getting robbed, ya know?” I wonder if he can see the murder in my eyes from the mirror’s reflection. All my depression evaporates in a blaze of rage. In this moment I’d kill him and it feels good to feel something so pure even when it’s so negative.
“And how are they? Did you see how they know where to go when it’s time to eat?”
“Oh, yeah, it’s crazy!” I say with every ounce of acting I’ve got. He knows they did no such thing, watching me the whole time. He’s fishing for validation and I don’t want to burst his fragile bubble.
“And the litter box? Isn’t it something that they do that?”
“Yup.” I take comfort in the fact that cats will eat their master without hesitation. I look at Gray Tabs and nod, you got this, tough guy, man does not survive on bee pollen.
“You haven’t had any problems?”
“Well… the white one…”
He says White Fluff’s name here to correct me.
“Yeah, [name redacted to protect the innocent] doesn’t really like me.”
“Oh? That’s odd… [redacted] loves everyone. Although, my girlfriend of ten years never got along with [ok ok, I just don’t remember the cat’s name because it’s weird. REDACTED.]”
Ten years? You don’t say. I think to myself and add it to the evidence against Soap’s sanity. I don’t dare mention that White Fluff didn’t eat. Anything to not have to do something extreme, like pay a vet bill. Or give it a shot of antibiotics myself. Do not fuck this up for me, White Fluff!
“Well, I gotta get back to set. Have a good night! Glad everything’s ok…” He says and I never noticed before, but now that I’m on DEFCON Five alert I can hear the ellipsis in his voice, like he wants to be nasty but can’t because doing so will snip the thin line that separates his lies from reality. If he calls me out on my bullshit then it instantly spotlights his own. I do my best not to laugh as I hang up. Still, now I’m on guard and try not to look at the camera. I try to pretend nothing’s changed.
I put on my pants.
I text her about the camera and the climbing creep-o-meter. Holy shit, I didn’t think it was for real! She texts back, relaying a time months ago when Soap had taped a passive aggressive note to the outside of his apartment saying CAUTION: Camera on premises, I will be notified of any intrusion. The sign was taken down a few days later. She didn’t see a camera so she thought he was bluffing to salve his paranoia.
The camera is on the inside! I explain via text. If your security is on the inside then there’s no deterrent to stop them from coming in, which is how he explained it all; burglar prevention. Actually, this is how you design a trap.
The story teller in me extrapolates the next twist. Soap isn’t on a shoot far away in the middle of nowhere, he’s close by, studying his prey before he closes in. I take stock of any weapons on hand, there’re steak knives, the weights, and there are these cats. I can throw them at him or at least they will get in the way, giving me a chance to pounce. The problem is I’m exhausted. The problem is I must maintain a civil manner in order to secure the money owed me and to prevent Ex from taking any collateral damage. This part of L.A. contains a certain craziness I have never experienced anywhere else, that includes Philadelphia and East L.A., where both urban landscapes have their own brand of crazy, but it’s borne from the struggle to survive a flood of inequality and maintain a decent quality of life. The West half of L.A. is crazy because entitlement reigns supreme here, and it is the patron saint of those terrified of obscurity.
I go to bed in my clothes. The comforter is scratchy and stiff. The pillows are too soft. There is no scent of Soap and I think of Suskind’s Perfume where the main character has no scent of his own and goes on a killing spree as he tries to find acceptance in an indifferent world. I’m falling asleep. I feel the gentle weight of the black kittens sneaking on me, finding spots to sleep. Gray Tabs leaps on my back and sits between my shoulders. I calm down.
And I wake up to dishes falling on the floor. I scramble from the bed, “you mother fuckers!” I shout, because even with all the creepiness I know it’s the cats just being cats. Sure enough, two food dishes on the floor, kibbles still rolling everywhere, and White Fluff is sitting on the stove with a look of shock and awe that’s either “Holy shit, I don’t know what happened!” or “Goodness, I didn’t think it’d be that loud!”
White Fluff licks his chops. “You sneaky bastard.” I mutter.
I pick up the unbroken dishes and look for something to sweep up the kibbles. I don’t want to use the dust pan that seems reserved for the bathroom and kitty litter, but I do find a Swiffer-type broom. It’s the only thing in a skinny closet in the kitchen. It doesn’t even look like a closet. But I pull at this panel in the wall during my search, and there’s the broom… AND a duplicate poster of Soap in his boxing outfit, but it’s not the full-sized poster, he cut this poster to fit inside the closet. Cut it so it’s just the center strip of the poster, Soap looking muscular and regal. It’s just his image and the broom in this closet.
And if he’s watching me in this moment then he’s seeing me staring into his kitchen closet at this minimalist shrine to himself. I know it’s not just the door that triggers his phone notification, it can only be sound and/or light. The door has no wired connection to the camera, I checked, so between the crashing dishes and me yelling and now playing with the cats, there’s a lot of volume and changes in the lighting as I turn on the lights and then turn them off. I go back to bed and this time sleep peacefully surrounded by purring. I’m so blissed out that when I hear Ex get into her apartment next door I couldn’t care less. My only hope is that this bullshit doesn’t enter her life. No one deserves this level of entitled crazy control. I pity the cats.
The next day I spend as motionless as I possibly can. It’s easy for me to do. I read. I do play with the cats, I can’t help it, but they get bored with me. Even gray Tabs yawns after fetching paper balls and batting a feather toy around with me. The kittens pass out in the middle of the floor. I leave the apartment for lunch and dinner. He texts me within seconds, everything ok? I respond, yup. Knowing that he knows that everything’s ok. He’s only texting to make sure I know he’s watching and trying to guilt me into staying inside all day. Fuck you, Soap, I won’t eat bee pollen and cat food. Did he assume I’d be just like him? That I would know to bring my meals packed, or order expensive delivery?
I get a text from Ex, he says I shouldn’t worry about the camera, he won’t watch us if I come over. This guy… this fucking guy. I tell her to stay away even though I want more than anything to talk to her face to face, to pretend things are the way they were. She tells me not to give up on the $250, which at this point I’m thinking is a small price to pay to flip off the camera and waltz on outta here. She reminds me I’m halfway through today and I can leave as planned in the morning tomorrow. I do need the money. I need to keep this powder keg contained. I need to not indulge in fantasy the way Soap has been consumed by his own.
I read and get absorbed in Ellroy’s L.A., where men torture themselves over women and become haunted by their unattainable salvation thanks to bad decisions made for the right reasons. The cliche is there’s always a woman. Cherche la femme, it’s the driving force in The Black Dahlia. Find love, find peace. The woman is power, the woman will save you, your flaws or chivalry ruin everything. Ten years. I find myself thinking about Soap. I’m staring at the graphic novel, the point where [redacted] shoots [redacted] in the heart. The frame that would be lovers looking into each other’s eyes if not for the gun smoke between them.
You should read The Black Dahlia. Anyway, back to Soap right meow.
Ten years. That’s a long time to only be boyfriend and girlfriend. I wonder who she was, the woman who broke Soap. I may be projecting my own affairs onto him, but it seems to me when you’re in a long term relationship you risk becoming the relationship, your self changes into the bond between you. There is no more you. There is only us. And that’s bad news. Judging by how he’s gotten worse he never saw the break-up coming. The break-up broke him. She got out because she was aware of her own needs, of herself, and saw that the us wasn’t cutting it anymore. Or maybe it was the hoarding of seven cats in a studio apartment? Occam’s Razor. She noticed his eccentricities were no longer endearing and got out.
Out the window where the cats get their fresh air I can see the steps that lead down to [redacted] ave. There’s a tree and the branches hush in a gentle breeze. I hear footsteps and watch a gorgeous raven-haired model dressed in all black take the steps to the front door, which was propped open by a tenant on his way out. In the one to two seconds I watch her rise up the steps I have her body, her clean face etched in my brain. She’s looking down, her jaw is set. She does not want to be here. The cats watch her in sync. Before I can even fantasize about her the cats tense up, and all seven of them appear and skid to a halt in front of the door. White Fluff’s tail blows up. Her boots stop walking just outside Soap’s door. I see and hear the doorknob turn.
The door is locked. It’s a habit of living in a city and of being anti-social. I always lock up. I consider opening the door, but it strikes me that this is the woman who used to be with Soap for ten years. I think this because who else would try to enter his apartment without knocking? Soap would have told me she was coming over and for what reason if he knew. There’s one photo of her tucked into the frame of a smaller mirror by the kitchen. It’s an old 3×5 film print, but it’s her. It’s the only pic that isn’t Soap in the whole apartment. I saw her for mere seconds, I can’t imagine the pain of losing her after ten years. Still, it doesn’t excuse Soap’s current behavior, merely helps explain it. My own break-up hurt like hell, what’s my worth without her? How do I start over? My worth is my business and how I pick up the pieces won’t be like this. Everything he’s done since that break-up has been a cry for help; his Cadillac with the Hemi under the hood, his custom Harley, his now shrunken but steady acting career, the leather jackets he designs all help veil a man scrambling and scrabbling for an anchor to reality when actually everything is fine. The only thing wrong is that he can’t accept it. Peace is worthless to those who wish to be great. Peace is the horror of life because it seems banal. We’re told stories in order to learn how to overcome problems, but what we’ve learned on accident is that there must be conflict in order to feel alive. Anything less than chaos is a life not worth living is what we absorb and when there’s not enough drama we create it. He’s found an unending source of conflict and validation in his cat collection.
I am in the eye of a mental hurricane.
I think he’s learned to play nice and Zen in order to magnify his problems and make the drama of his life seductive. I stop playing my role in his story. I don’t text or call him about the mysterious woman. With any luck he wasn’t watching the camera feed. With any luck she can live without whatever it was that brought her to his door.
I finish the graphic novel that night. I feed the cats and clean the dishes. I clean the litter box. I shut the stupid window. I hear Ex come home after work and it doesn’t hurt to know she’s living her life without me. The problem was never her, or the break up, the problem has been my understanding that nothing is wrong, only that changes are taking place. Stasis is the elephant in this apartment. I need to move, be dynamic, adapt. Soap has declared war on change and seeing how he lives was like being visited by my ghost of Christmas Future.
The next morning I say goodbye to the cats. Gray Tabs bumps my fist with a soft forehead, the black kittens ring around my ankles and mew, Calico judges me from the top of the fridge. White Fluff hisses at me and I feel sorry for all of them. They have no choice but to remain here, captive to his wish for things to stay the same.
I leave that morning and wait for the eastbound bus on the corner outside the apartment building. I hope Soap learned something about his life by watching it removed through technology. I hope he gets his shit together.
He calls me.
“Hey, you left.”
“Yeah, I gotta go.”
“There’s no way you can stay until I get there? It’ll be a little after noon, I think.”
“No.” I say with no room for argument, a tone I use rarely. A tone that is nothing but confidence and energy. It feels good.
“Ok, that’s cool. How about next weekend? I’m going to be away–”
“I can’t do it.”
“You can’t call off or trade shifts? I’m sure this pays more.”
“Look, it worked out this time. I have my own life.” I hang up on him. I do have my own life. It may not be glamorous or have enough conflict to grasp attention or fame, but it’s mine and I am happy. The struggle was stopping a momentary lapse of sorrow and despair from becoming more than a moment. It took seeing someone consumed by self-medicated pity and doubt to end it. It took seeing his Ex leave to know that he’s on his own. So am I. So are you. And there’s nothing wrong with that unless you want it to be.