By Meghan O’Brien
Copyright.©Meghan O’Brien 2002
Susan stared at the fat gray cat lying directly in front of the door, paws extended into the air as if supporting an invisible tabletop, blocking further entrance into her house. He’s done this since he was a kitten.She sighed. The gray cat, christened Gus only moments after Maggie had held him that first time, to the delight of the young man selling him and his littermates, slowly tilted his ears in her general direction.
“You know I’m here, fat ass. Now get out of my fucking way,” Susan snapped, angered beyond reason at the feline. “You’re the last fucking thing I need right now.”
Gus looked up, meeting her blue eyes with his green, and yawned as if bored with her ire. He buried his head back between his arms and continued his rest.
Susan felt her face turn hot and she blinked back tears. Maggie had always laughed when Gus displayed his typical brand of stubborn mischievousness. He’s mad at us for leaving him , she’d smile, scratching behind his left ear and coaxing him into a reluctant purr. He’s just letting us know that he doesn’t have to let us back in if he doesn’t want to.
She snaked her leg through the narrow opening of the door, shifting the boxes she carried in her arms impatiently, and pushed Gus backwards with her reaching foot. He meowed his disapproval at her drastic action and stood up, acting highly offended. She ignored his rueful stare and pushed the door open the rest of the way, sighing in relief as she stepped inside and set down her heavy load. Gus sniffed around the boxes and then looked up at her with a plaintive stare. She stared back. She thought she felt some understanding pass between them, and it shook her.
“Just go away,” she said to the gray cat, and walked away.
Gus was sitting on the cardboard boxes, staring meaningfully at nothing at all when Susan finally returned to them early the next morning. She hadn’t been able to bring herself to do anything with them the night before, nor had she been able to bring herself to visit with Gus, who had spent the night meowing outside her bedroom door. She, on the other hand, had been able to bring herself to enjoy six beers before passing out in front of a blaring television.
In the daylight, head pounding from the unusually large volume of alcohol she’d consumed the night before, Susan could see that Gus had not forgiven her for locking him out of the bedroom the entire night, nor for ignoring him completely since she’d returned home. Gus had always held grudges. Maggie had insisted it was part of his charm, but Susan was never sure that it was truly an asset to his personality.
Of course, it had been easy for Maggie to accept Gus exactly as he was, personality quirks and mood swings and all, because the cat had bonded with her from the very first day they’d brought him home to the tiny apartment they’d rented that year. In fact, the two of them had been inseparable nearly from the first week he’d entered their lives, scampering from room to room, exploring every corner and crevice he could find. Susan had loved him, too, of course, and Gus had returned her affection, but both of them always knew that Maggie and Gus had something special, something that transcended the bond of human and pet.
Susan thought that they’d first really seen this special connection the night that Gus disappeared, only a week and a half after they’d brought him home. Maggie had realized, with a start, that they hadn’t seen Gus since before they’d eaten dinner, and that had been nearly three hours before. It wasn’t like Gus to go off on his own for long periods of time, even then. He could generally be found within a ten-foot radius of Maggie and naturally, when every foot of that safe zone had been turned over and no gray kitten had been found, they had started to worry.
The way they’d run around the apartment, frantically yelling the kitten’s name, probably looked really funny, Susan thought now. But at the time they’d been panicked. When Susan finally heard Gus’s faint meow coming from the direction of the bathroom, she’d laughed in relief and run to the small, tiled room, expecting to see Gus playing in the bathtub or shredding a roll of toilet paper. Instead, she’d found an empty room, desolate and with absolutely no sign of the furry gray kitten.
“Gus!” she yelled again. She opened the closet door and checked to make sure he hadn’t been locked inside. “Gus!”
Maggie rushed down the hall and into the bathroom with her, looking so worried that Susan’s heart broke. “Gus!” she screamed, sounding on the verge of tears.
Again, a faint meow. Distinctly coming from the area below the sink. Susan dropped to her knees, as did Maggie a moment later. That was the first time they noticed the large, gaping hole in the wall directly under the bathroom counter. It looked as if a panel had fallen off the wall, for some reason, and a large hole had been created as a result.
“Gus, are you in there?” Maggie cried. Susan put her hand on the other woman’s back, trying to calm her down. They both squinted to see into the hole. At first, Susan thought that they were imagining the noises, as she couldn’t seen any sign of Gus in that dark opening.
“Gus, baby… please come out,” Maggie said softly. Two eyes suddenly glowed in the dark, staring out at them.
Susan sighed. “Do you think he’s stuck?”
“He might be scared,” Maggie answered, “Or maybe he just likes fucking with us.”
Looking back in later days, Susan wondered if it might have been the latter.
“Gus, you’re okay… c’mere,” Maggie said in a soft, sweet voice. “Come to mommy.” After a few moments a dirty gray paw emerged from the dark, followed by an even dirtier gray leg, a chest, and then a filthy and scared gray face, which looked up at Maggie and squeaked pitifully. Gus trotted up to Maggie and jumped in her lap, reaching up to nudge her chin with his nose. She laughed and hugged the little cat, who had started to purr so loud that Susan was afraid he’d pass out from the effort.
It seemed from that day forth that Maggie and Gus had nurtured some kind of very special friendship, a symbiotic nurturing that had been present up until the moment Maggie had to leave for the hospital.
Gus meowed suddenly and Susan realized that she’d been standing in the hallway, staring at the cat and the boxes for some time, lost in her memory. The gray cat stood up and arched his back in a stretch, and jumped down off the box on which he’d been slumbering. Ambling up to Susan’s feet, he stared up at her and meowed again.
She lifted her eyes over his head, staring not at his needy eyes but instead at the boxes that she dreaded opening. Maggie O’Donell was written on the side of each box, the carefully penned words identical to one another.
“The least they could have done was spell her fucking name right,” she complained to no one in particular, though Gus was a seemingly attentive audience. She ignored his empathic gaze and knelt down to open the first box.
Susan finished her second beer with the kind of desperate swallow with which one approaches slightly warm, stale liquid, not enjoying the taste but rather enjoying the increasingly mellow buzz that enveloped her. Gus laid on the other end of the couch, alternately staring at her and the television that flickered in the dark, casting crazy shadows and light on the walls and the furniture. She could sense the cat’s anger and sadness, feelings that seemed to match hers if not in thought but intensity.
She opened another beer with her bare hand, barely grimacing as the sharp edges of the bottle cap dug into the already raw skin at the center of her palm. She’d opened a number of beers over the past couple weeks.
She chanced a glance over at Gus and was relieved to find that he wasn’t looking back at her. It seemed as if he was finally deciding to leave her alone. Like humans, she supposed, cats must have their limit beyond which a certain number of rebuffs have become enough, and they resolve to just stop trying. She felt guilty that she’d been ignoring him, she really did, but she just couldn’t bring herself to have anything to do with him. Not when stroking his head or even feeling him walk heavily over her lap overwhelmed her with memories and sorrow.
Susan was aware that Gus definitely knew that Maggie wasn’t coming home again. She hadn’t been sure that he understood until he stopped sleeping by the front door, almost two weeks after she’d come home with her boxes. He wasn’t going to begrudge her having left anymore, she realized, and he wasn’t interested in blocking the door so she couldn’t come in. He knew she wasn’t going to come in, most likely, and he wanted to leave the possibilities wide open in case of a miracle.
The clinginess he’d displayed from that moment had further confirmed for Susan that the cat knew that he had lost his other half. They had both lost their other half.
I know you’re my soulmate , Maggie had told her once, and I know I’ll be with you for the rest of my life. But I also think that an animal can be your soulmate, too… and I know Gus is mine.
Gus had been relentless in his pursuit of some comfort from Susan, some affection to ease the pain of the loss of their constant companion. Every time she sat down, he was pushing his way on to her lap. Every time she walked through a room, he was at her feet, nearly tripping her. He meowed outside her bedroom door all night. She couldn’t seem to get away from him, and from the constant reminder that they were both confused, and hurt, and utterly alone.
She had ignored every advance. Every meow. She was pushing him out of her lap, walking around him without glancing down, shutting him out of rooms. She felt like a horrible bitch, but she didn’t know what else to do. It was all far too much for her to bear.
Movement from the end of the couch caught Susan’s eye, and she turned her head to watch Gus stand up, shake his head, and jump off the couch. She breathed a sigh of relief and took another swig of her beer as the fat gray cat walked out the door and into cold, empty rooms unknown.
Susan noticed that she hadn’t seen Gus in hours almost immediately, of course, but she forced herself to ignore his absence for nearly a half day before she started to worry in spite of herself. As much as she wanted to enjoy the respite she felt when he wasn’t around, reminding her of how her life had fallen apart, she couldn’t help but remember the panic that Maggie had felt the last time he’d disappeared, the tears that had threatened to fall the entire time they’d spent searching for their tiny gray kitten. She knew how upset Maggie would be if she thought Susan wasn’t going to look for her little baby now.
“Gus!” Susan cried, standing in the middle of the living room. She looked around at all the usual hiding spots, hoping to catch a glimpse of thick gray fur. “Gus!”
Susan walked through her house, each room seeming emptier than the last, calling out for the gray cat, over and over again. Nothing but silence met her cries.
She felt herself start to panic. Where is he? Did I ignore him until he literally decided to disappear? A flash of intense guilt stopped her cold in the middle of the bathroom. How would Maggie feel about this?
The morning they left to take Maggie to the hospital, she’d sat in the living room with Gus curled up on her lap. Both woman and cat had been quiet and pensive all morning, but Susan had sensed some unspoken communication between the two, some meeting of the minds. Maggie’s hand had stroked Gus’s back until the moment that Susan insisted that they leave, that they were going to be late. Maggie held Gus in her arms and kissed his soft head, between the ears, before placing him gently on the floor.
“See you later, Gus,” Maggie said softly, obviously holding back tears. Her voice had been weak and the hands that put on her coat even more so. Susan thought that both Maggie and Gus looked doubtful of her promise.
Driving to the hospital, fighting back an overwhelming grief and anxiety, Susan concentrated only on the feeling of Maggie’s hand in hers. They hadn’t said much, the gentle touch of their hands all that was needed, but Maggie had said one thing.
“Just please take care of him while I’m gone, okay?”
Susan stifled a sob, standing in the bathroom, completely and totally alone now that she’d chased Gus into hiding. She suddenly realized just how completely she’d broken her promise to Maggie. She’d promised her soulmate that she’d take care of Gus, but she hadn’t been able to see past her own grief and depression to recognize that of her other mate. In that moment she felt more miserable than she ever had before in her entire life, so miserable that she was sure she’d burst with it.
“Gus! Please…” she sobbed, tears finally leaking from her eyes, “please come out. Please come here. I’m sorry…”
She sank to the floor and covered her mouth with her hand, trying in vain to stifle the harsh sobs that escaped her. “I need you,” she said aloud, both to Maggie and Gus, she presumed.
A quiet meow startled her. She turned her head and looked to her left, under the low bathroom counter. Bright green eyes glowed at her from the dark.
“Gus,” Susan said, holding a tentative hand out towards the cat. It was all the invitation he seemed to need. Gus came crawling out from below the counter on his belly, slowly approaching her. He hesitated only a moment before crawling into her lap and curling into a ball, much the way he had done with Maggie every evening when they watched television. He purred and stared up at her face. With a small cry, he flipped his body over slightly and reached a long gray paw up to touch her chin.
You two are the most important things in my life , Maggie had used to say to her, when they’d shared their giddiness at the good fortune life had handed them. I can’t believe how lucky I am to have found both of you.
Susan stroked the fat gray cat slowly. He closed his eyes in appreciation.
“Did she tell you to take care of me, too?” Susan wondered aloud, thinking as she looked into Gus’s now open eyes that he had understood the question and answered it with that gaze alone. “I’m sorry,” she said again to him, squeezing him gently into a hug.
Sitting in the quiet bathroom with her lover’s cat that Saturday afternoon, Susan realized that her pain for the dead couldn’t cloud her commitment to the living, no matter how painful it was. She felt grateful to Gus that he understood her grief and, for once, hadn’t held a grudge.