“Bodega Cat” – Fiction by Tabitha Laffernis

Cats – Otto Dix, 1920

The grand finale of our Summer 2018 issue is “Bodega Cat,” Tabitha Laffernis‘ fantastically frisky tale of a young woman seeking companionship & discovering primal urges in New York City.

{ X }

THE BODEGA AT NIGHT IS LIT UP WITH AN ACID BRIGHTNESS.

She smells freshly juiced. “That’s a real injustice of a person,” the cat said, whiskers twitching. “Exquisite face and dimensions. Sharp as a tack,” still talking, like it was normal. “But the real injustice is how they treat her. See how they’re complimenting her lip color instead of asking what her book is about? She comes in here, nearly every day, and they don’t know what she’s studying at grad school. They’ve never asked.” He looked at me. “She’s just the pretty girl, to them. Not like you. You’re not pretty enough to be distracting. They asked you.”

He was right, and as I started to ask why on earth he’d be qualified to say this, the answer made itself known. He was shaggily handsome, but not awww-inducing, nice eyes, slightly scrawny limbs, a shiny, healthy coat. Not the best looking cat I’d ever seen, but well-cared for with an inquisitive stare. You, it said. Yes, you.

“Are you negging me?” I asked.

“No,” he said, and I believed him.

“What’s your name?” he asked me.

“Kayla,” I said. “What’s yours? I should’ve asked first.”

“Gus,” he replied. “You’re interesting, Kayla.”

“Thanks.”

“What do you do?”

“I’m a physician’s assistant,” I replied. “Derm.”

“Derm. Which one’s that again?”

“Dermatology. Skin.” Cancer and vanity, I sometimes say, but of course that’s reductive and I don’t want to seem petty. I flushed at the thought.

“Skin. Right. I wouldn’t know.”

The joke melts the ice a little.

As the girl walked past I saw a textbook sticking out of her bag. Aleinikoff, Martin, Motomura, Fullerton and Stumpf, Immigration and Citizenship: Process and Policy. “That looks intense,” I told her, and she gave a half-smile. “Yeah,” she replied. “I’ve barely slept this semester.” The shadows under her eyes looked Sphinxy instead of tired. Her other hand held a plastic bag of potato chips, mac and cheese, frozen burritos. My moment of investigating her as a person immediately dissolved. Idiot bitch, I think. It just popped into my head, no warning. She’s skinny as a rake, except where it counts. My own basket contained some yellowing broccoli, corn popped in coconut oil, a sad but large carrot. This bodega is convenient; the produce is lousy.

“Come visit me again tomorrow?” the cat asked.

“Yes,” I said. “Yes, I will.” And I felt something I hadn’t felt in a while.

{ X }

It was innocent enough, to start. It was so hot. That night I’d lain on top of sweat-damp linens, sprawled so that each joint of my body hung as if off ball bearings. I lay there waiting for the man on the news that had been breaking into houses to steal money and stroke women, unable to sleep a wink, though I was so, so tired. I was tired because it was in my bones, that exhaustion of having to explain myself, of having to check myself at every second-guess. I was tired because I walked everywhere, a remnant from the days when I said I walked because I wanted fresh air, but really the air was fetid and I couldn’t afford a subway ticket.

I wondered if the man who was breaking into houses was maybe a nice guy. If he was just looking for something. He was just running his fingers through women’s hair; I wanted to run mine along the cat’s flexed spine, and I’m a good person, I thought.

Before he started breaking into houses my greatest fear was waking up with a mouse between my legs. Mouse shit appeared on the kitchen mantel, the vanity where my hair dryer sat, even on fresh sheets. I wondered where the cat was, slinking along a roof or a fire escape. Or if he was keeping the bodega clear of rodents, protecting it in the night, a service he hadn’t even thought to offer me.

That night, my torn underwear looked like an invitation. Not for vermin, I reminded myself. Not for the man pushing in A/C units to find sleeping beauties. And slid a hand into my knickers.

{ X }

I stopped in for a bacon egg and cheese before work. “I didn’t expect to see you so soon,” Gus said. “Couldn’t sleep for ages,” I replied. “I missed the alarm this morning. No time to make breakfast.” He probably knew my breakfasts were more assembly than cooking, just Greek yoghurt and maybe a little muesli sprinkled on top. He sniffed. “I can smell my food somewhere,” and chased off, presumably after a mouse behind the cladding.

Dammit, I thought. I was wearing a nice dress. I’d made an effort for what, twenty seconds? I paid for the sandwich. “What’s your cat’s name?” I asked the bodega guy, because Gus didn’t have a tag, and I didn’t want to accidentally say it out loud before asking the owner. “Gus,” he said. “Grumpy Gus. Takes him a while to get comfortable with new people.” I laughed, all teeth and gargles. “I’m Umer,” he said. “Kayla,” I replied. “Are you new, Umer? I haven’t seen you here before.” “Yeah,” he said. “It’s my uncle’s store. Just helping out over summer.” “Nice,” I said. “How long have you had Gus?” “About four years,” he said. “He was a rescue, so I don’t know how old he was before that, but he was still small.” He held his palms a short width apart. “So he’s like, 30-something in cat years?” Perfect, I thought. Age-appropriate. Umer looked over me. “Nice dress, by the way.” “Oh,” I said. “Thanks. I’ve got a thing tonight.”

That was true, though of course wasn’t why I’d chosen that particular dress. I’d have a white coat and rubber clogs on most of the day, but the dress on its own was a real stunner. It was a russet red, firm fabric cut to give me peaks and valleys and nudge me a little closer to the league of the law student with the refined carb addiction. Gus had barely seen it.

The “thing” was Mitchell, an Australian developer with just enough tattoos to seem interesting but not enough to seem like he couldn’t hold down a job. He lived in Stuy Town and his kitchen didn’t seem to have food, just protein powder with lids opened and flung across countertops. He had low-hanging testicles that slapped noisily against my pelvis. He fucked like he was digging for water, but I suppose there’s a drought in Australia. I wondered if Californians had sex the same way. But he was nice enough, and attentive enough to still be texting after a few weeks, and had a surprising, Antipodean turn of phrase. We ran into a colleague of his once, a flaccid-faced project manager, who he later described as ‘the honeydew in the fruit salad’. I’d decided to keep him around, until one of us got bored, and I’m sure he felt exactly the same.

We met for drinks at a Chelsea bar, halfway between my practice and his firm. I’d spent the better part of the day doing mole checks and injecting cortisone. “Are you sure you don’t want some fillers?” my boss, Clara, had asked, inspecting the imminent cracks at my temples. She herself was a life-sized spackle, something that inspired confidence in our uptown clientele.  “Maybe next time,” I said as I walked out, an exchange that happened nearly every night.

Mitchell had already ordered me a drink when I arrived, an Old Fashioned. On Clara’s orders I was meant to be cutting out sugar, but saying hey-I’m-on-a-diet was something men, no matter how many CrossFit sessions they’d logged, never seemed to respect in a date. “Thank you,” I said, ever gracious, before asking how his day was.

Four drinks later, he was ordering an Uber. The dress had worked on him, at least. “Let’s go to my place this time,” I suggested, warm from the whiskey. He hesitated for a second. “Brooklyn, right?” “You’ll be at work in twenty minutes,” I said. “Promise.”

As we stumbled out of the car, I yelped. “You okay?” he asked. “Yeah,” I said. “I’ve just realized I’m out of toilet paper. Do you mind if I stop in at the bodega?” “Sure,” he said, or perhaps that’s what he always said in my recall of him. I stepped towards the Scott Naturals and tried to figure out how I’d Tetris them into the already-full bathroom cabinet.

“That’s the thing, huh?” joked Umer as he saw Mitchell waiting outside. “Lucky guy.” He was cute, too, Umer. Young, though. Probably early 20s. Definitely too young. “Where’s Gus?” I asked.

“Right here,” he said, and Gus leaped up.

“Hey, baby,” I said, grasping his face. “Missed you!”

“You’re drunk,” he replied, and slunk away.

“Can’t even get the cat to stick around,” I slurred to Umer, and he laughed. It’s not funny, I wanted to scream. Instead, I picked up a few cans of tuna and some anchovies. “Hey, Umer,” I asked. “Could I also have a tuna salad sandwich?” “Maybe your date’s not so lucky after all,” he said, gesturing towards the counter-buys for gum, but started throwing it together. I unwrapped it as soon as he handed it over. “Mmmm,” I said. “This is exactly what I needed.” I held it loose, just loose enough for some of the filling to fall out and into my pneumatic cleavage. “Hey, Gus,” I called. He turned. Our eyes locked before he let his trail down the front of my dress. Slowly, he purred towards me. I kneeled and reached for his chin again, this time holding out my fingers. Softly, deliberately, he licked them. A caress like moist sandpaper.

“You right?” Goddammit, Mitchell.

“Yeah!” I said, standing up. “Want a bite?”

“No thanks,” he said.

Back at the apartment, I fixed him a drink. “I’ll be right back,” I said, excusing myself to brush my teeth and splash some water where the tuna fell. “Cool,” he said. In the bedroom, he brusquely pushed my straps down before a meaty hand tugged at my soaking underwear. “Holy shit, Kayla,” he said. “You’re so wet.”

And like anyone who’s been in a drought, he drank long and hard without coming up for air. I wondered if it even occurred to him as he tongued away that he wasn’t the reason; that maybe it was a memory of someone else, or maybe it was just gravity.

I woke up a couple of hours later, though I’d never totally fallen asleep. Another fitful night, this time with a damp arm draped over me. A hand too close to my soft stomach. I rolled on my back so it stretched out, long and lean. And recognized in that moment the ache: it hadn’t been enough.

Gus takes a while to get comfortable with new people, Umer had said. Gus and me both, then.

{ X }

“Who’ve you got tonight?”

“Nobody.”

“Tomorrow?”

“Nobody.”

Clara seemed disappointed at my answers. “Aren’t you on dating apps?”

“Decision fatigue, I think they call it.”

“Are you complaining about having too much choice? Fuck that noise. To be single and good-looking in New York.”

“I’m not that good-looking.”

“Even better. You’re more approachable, you know?” Clara wasn’t the person to speak to if you were fishing for compliments.

{ X }

“What about this guy?” Clara had taken my phone, flicking through faces with anodyne bios attached. The occasional ripped torso, glamor shots that looked too good to be true. “Love whiskey, love it if you do too,” she read under the face of a 29-year-old called Mark. “God, they all think they’re the only ones to love whiskey. And that women don’t. And you know what? They probably drink, like, blended shit.” She looked up, the glow of the screen making her fresh Botox more obvious than usual.

“Should I set up a profile?”

“Clara. You’re married.”

“You know,” she whined a touch. “For fun. I wouldn’t do anything.”

“You don’t need any more validation. You’re a pain in the ass as it is.”

She smirked. “No arguments there, honey. Oh, this one!” She swiped on a data scientist. Allen, 36.

“He’s all right, I guess,” I said. And he was. Big eyes, a cowlick that American Crew couldn’t quite slick down, a beach photo that showed wiry muscle. “Actually, he’s pretty cute.”

“He likes you! Say something! Can I write something?”

“Give me the phone.”

Gone fishin’, his bio read. From Bar Harbor, Maine. Cute.

Why go fishing? I typed. I’ve got a ton of canned tuna in my pantry.

“That’s a terrible opener,” said Clara, looking over my shoulder.

“Don’t you have a patient?”

She looked at her watch. “Oh, shit. Eczema John’s probably here by now. Always so fucking punctual. It’s like he’s obsessed with me.”

“Bye, Clara.”

“Bye, baby girl.”

Half an hour later, I’d set up a date with Allen. Tomorrow’s great, he’d written. See you at 8.

{ X }

“Oh,” Clara was disappointed. “He’s scruffier than he was in the photo.”

“Fuck off, Clara,” I said, and she blew a kiss as she walked down to the subway.

“Kayla?” His voice, an unexpected mewl, felt like olive oil coating my lips. “So glad you could make it.”

We’d been talking for a while, and drinking for a while, two hours or perhaps more. I’d been resisting the urge to run my fingers down his neck, counting the knobby bones of his spine, hoping to feel the silken tuft coating his back. “Do you want to go for a walk?” he asked as he downed the last of his beer. “Yes,” I said. “That sounds lovely.”

He talked and talked under lamplight about how music wasn’t the same as it used to be, even though he wasn’t even born in the 70s. How he didn’t know why anybody would take a chance outside of Manhattan. How the wage gap was a fallacy because women were simply more likely to do jobs like teaching and aged care that paid less, in such earnest that I realized he didn’t know he was making the case he was trying to disprove. It didn’t matter, though, not for a second. He could have been describing in lurid, hot-skinned detail how he was going to cut off my air supply, graze my nipples with his teeth, skim my pussy with his tongue, finger me under a table, eat my asshole like it was his last meal on Earth. Everything in that voice, the wiles and screeches, hitting me like an IV drip. The uniform fuzz of hair on his chest, arms, his back, where it joined the hair on his head at the nape. His fingernails, sharpish, scratches I could feel before they happened.

Central Park late at night was dewy and squirmy, heavy with the funk of the city. We wasted no time finding a bench, far enough in to lose the sounds of Broadway, but floodlit, the silvery threads on my breasts snatching in the light. My shins were scraped and swollen from straddling him before we fell to the wet grass, buckles straining open. He was hard as a rock.

Allen’s jaw clamped down around a firefly that glowed through his teeth. God, he was feral. “Deeper,” I said. I bit into his shoulder. “Ah, fuck,” he said, the firefly escaping, but he didn’t stop. I could taste the copper in my throat, could smell every leaf, every blade of grass, every wing on every cockroach. I kissed him, that firefly smell on every kid’s hands in summer like a residue on his lips.

I pulled away, opening my eyes. And there it was, staring, unmoved at the foot of the bench. A rat. A throb of veins and guts and surging blood; survival and sustenance and fun in a neat package. A plaything. A gift, for those so inclined. “I’m so close,” I whispered. “Get it for me.”

“What?”

“The rat,” I said, louder. “Catch it. It’s your trophy. It’s for me.”

“What the fuck,” he said, and came with a lurch. “Jesus, Kayla.”

“Get it for me,” I said. “GET IT!” His erection was already starting to dwindle. The rat had disappeared across a path.

“Did you finish?” he asked, but was already peeling away from me, hoisting up his jeans. I shook my head.

“I still can. I will if you get the rat.” I was clammy. You don’t love him, I reminded myself.

He looked at me, sweat pearlescent under the lights. “Yeah, I’ve got an early start tomorrow… do you need me to walk you to a subway or anything? I can get you an Uber.” He pulled out his phone.

“No,” I said. “No, I’ll just walk.”

{ X }

“Let me guess. Tuna salad sandwich?” Umer asked, politely ignoring the grass stains on my work clothes.

“Yes please,” I said. “Where’s Gus?”

“In the corner,” he gestured, where Gus was being stroked by the law student on a midnight burrito run.  The ache I’d felt after Mitchell had returned. Allen had been so promising, but he scared easily.

“Gus,” I called, when the sandwich was ready. “Come here, baby.”

He walked to me, too slowly. Not giving an inch. Why couldn’t I have wanted – no, needed – a dog, I thought. Boundless energy and appreciation, slobbering on your face at every waking moment. Gus was so arch, so unimpressed. I offered him some of the sandwich.

“Oh,” he said, disappointed. “I was being polite when I ate it the other day. I don’t really like mayonnaise.”

“Fuck,” I said. “What the fuck, Gus.”

“You okay, Kayla?” Umer was giving me the look his uncle would give me when I bought bulk Gatorade on a weeknight.

“Yeah,” I said. “Just, uh, tripped over the cat.”

Gus scoffed.

“It’s Tuesday night, Kayla. You’re a mess. Again.” He stretched, his spine curling into a C.

“Are you happy here?” I asked him. “Come back to my apartment. It’s nice. Fuzzy pillows, and things you can scratch – I mean, after I rearrange some stuff – and I’ll get the expensive cat food. And the building has been reported for rodents, like, six times in the past couple of years. You’ll love it.”

“I’m happy here,” said Gus. “Are you?”

This isn’t about me, I thought, but I knew better than to say it out loud. He’d just pick holes. I looked at the counter. Umer had put his headphones on, checking something on his phone.

“Fine,” I said to Gus, his expression just like Umer’s. “Fine.” And reached down to pick him up. Easy enough. I could’ve clutched his knobbly scrawn with one hand. And in my work bag he went.

“Bye, Umer!” I waved as I walked out.

Gus struggled in my bag.

In my apartment, I let him out. He jumped to the windowsill immediately.

“What do you want from me?” he asked.

“Companionship,” I said. “That’s it.”

“I’m not a fucking dog, Kayla.”

I knew he, too, would leave. Just like the others. So I sat there, mirroring his stare, until the sun came up, and I opened the window to the fire escape.

{ X }

TABITHA LAFFERNIS is a recovering Brooklynite recently back in her hometown of Sydney, Australia. Her work has been published in Gigantic SequinsHobart and Seizure’s Flashers series. She loves noodle soup and hates Pringles.

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