The Way We Live
Ellen Fagg, editor
Waltzing the Cat
For as long as Julie can remember, her parents have eaten vicariously through the cat. Roast chicken, amaretto cheese spread rum raisin ice cream—there is no end to the delicacies her parents bestow on Suzette. And Suzette, as a result, has developed, in her declining years, a shape that is at first glance a little horrifying. It isn’t simply that she is big-and she is big, weighing in at twenty-nine pounds on the veterinarian’s scale—but that she is alarmingly out of proportion, her tiny head, skinny tail and dainty feet jutting out from her grossly inflated torso like a circus clown’s balloon creation, a nightmarish cartoon cat.
Julie remembers picking Suzette out of a litter of squealing Pennsylvania barn cats, each one no bigger than the palm of her hand. Julie was sixteen years old then, and she zipped Suzette up inside her ski jacket and [p.182]drove back to the city with her brand-new license in the only car she has ever really loved, her mother’s blue Mustang convertible—the old kind—passed on to Julie and then sold, without her permission, when she went away to college.
Suzette was tiny and adorable, mostly white with black-and-brown spots more suited to a dog than to a cat, and a muddy-colored smudge on her cheek that Julie’s mother would always call her coffee stain. But too many years of bacon grease and heavy cream have spread her spots huge and misshapen across her immense and awkward body, her stomach hanging so low to the ground now that she cannot walk but only waddle, throwing one hip at a time out and around her stomach, and dragging most of her weight forward by planting one of two rickety front paws.
Suzette has happily accepted her role as family repository for all fattening foods. She is, after all, a city cat who never did much playing or exploring anyway, even when she was thin. She didn’t really chase her tail even when she could have caught it, and the places she used to like to get to under her own power: the side board of the dining room table or the middle of the king-sized bed, Julie’s parents are happy, now, to lift her. Suzette has already disproved all the veterinarian’s threats about eating herself to death, about Julie’s parents killing her with kindness. This year as Julie turns thirty, Suzette will turn fifteen.
[p.183]The cat and Julie were always friends until Julie left home and fell in love with men who were raised in and smelled like foreign places. Now when Julie comes home for a visit the cat eyes her a little suspiciously, protective, Julie thinks, like an only child.
Julie doesn’t have any true memories of her parents touching each other. She has seen pictures of the year before she was born when they look happy enough, look like two people who could actually have sex, but in her lifetime, she’s never seen them hug.
“Everything was perfect with your father and me before you were born,” her mother has told her, confusion in her voice, but not blame. “I guess he was jealous, or something,” she says, “and then all the best parts of him just went away. But it has all been worth it,” she adds, her voice turning gay, as she makes the cat a plate of sour cream herring, chopped up fine, “because of you.”
When Julie was growing up, there was never anything like rum raisin ice cream or amaretto cheese spread in the refrigerator. Julie’s mother has always eaten next to nothing, a small salad sprinkled with lemon juice, or a few wheat thins with her martini at the end of the day (one of Julie’s worst childhood nightmares was of her mother starving to death, one bony hand extended like the Ethiopian children on late night TV), and Julie’s father ate big lunches at work and made do with what little [p.184]there was at home. When Julie came home from school in the afternoon she was offered carrots and celery, cauliflower and radishes, and sometimes an orange as a special treat.
Julie has forgotten most things about her childhood, but she does remember how terrified her parents were that she would become overweight. She remembers long tearful conversations with her mother about what Julie’s friends and teachers would say, what everyone in the world would say, behind Julie’s back if she got fat. She remembers her father slapping her hand at a dinner table full of company (one of the times when they pretended to eat like normal people) when she, caught up by the conversation, forgot the rules and reached for a warm roll from the bread basket. She remembers that her mother bought all the family’s clothes slightly on the small side so that they were always squeezing and tucking and holding their breaths, her mother saying it would remind them to eat less, feeling the constant pressure of their clothes.
What Julie knows now that she is an adult is that she was never fat, that none of them were ever fat, and she has assembled years of photographs to prove it. The first thing Julie did when she went away to college was gain fifteen pounds that she has never been able to lose.
After college, when Julie left home for good, her father, in a gesture so unlike him her mother relegated it to the beginnings of senility, began to listen with great [p.185]regularity to the waltzes of Johann Strauss, and her mother, for reasons which are for Julie at the same time unclear and all too obvious, started over-feeding the cat.
In her real life, Julie lives in the mountains two thousand miles west of her parents with her husband, a man named Matthew, who is handsome and successful and who tells Julie, whenever she needs to hear it, that he would not love her even one little bit more if she managed to lose the fifteen pounds she gained in college.
Julie and Matthew have three big dogs whom they love desperately and spoil like children, although Julie discourages Matthew from giving them table scraps which she has read can lead to stomach infections. Julie and Matthew talked about having real children when they first got married, and though they both seemed to like the idea, Julie did not stop taking birth control pills, and Matthew finally stopped bringing it up.
Julie works part time in the art gallery, and part time at the homeless shelter in the city nearby, stirring huge pots of muddy-colored stew and heaping the plates with it, warm and steaming. Her free time she spends in her garden where she grows every vegetable imaginable, even the ones they say won’t grow in the arid Rockies. She loves watching the tiny sprouts emerge, loves watching them develop. She even loves weeding, pulling the encroaching vines and stubborn roots up and away from the strengthening plants, giving them extra water and [p.186]air. She loves cooking for Matthew whole dinners of fresh vegetables, loves the frenzy of the harvest in August and September when everything, it seems, must be eaten at once. She loves taking the extra food to the shelter, and at least for a few months, putting the gloomy canned vegetables away.
What Julie loves most of all is lying in bed on Sunday mornings with Matthew and the dogs piled on top. She feels then like she is part of everything, the moon sliding behind the mountain, the sun, up and already turning the tomatoes from green to red, the breath of the dogs and Matthew’s hand on her forehead, unconditional, strong. Her life seems perfect to her then, and although she knows even as she thinks it that it isn’t true, she thinks sometimes that she could lie there, perfectly content, forever.
Aside from the weight issue, which always gets them in trouble, Julie and her mother are very close. Julie told her mother the first time she smoked a cigarette, the first time she got drunk, the first time she got stoned, and at age sixteen when Julie lost her virginity to Ronny Kupeleski in the Howard Johnson’s across the border in Phillipsburg, New Jersey, she told her mother in advance.
“It’s just as well,” her mother said, in what Julie regards now as one of her finest moments in parenting. “You don’t really love him, but you think you do, and you may as well get it over with someone who falls into that category.”
[p.187]It wasn’t the last time Julie followed her mother’s advice, and like most times, her mother turned out to be right on all counts about Ronny Kupeleski. And whatever Julie doesn’t understand about her mother gets filed away behind the one thing she does understand: Julie’s mother has given up everything for Julie; she will always be her harshest critic, she will always be her biggest fan.
Julie’s father has had at least three major disappointments in his life that Julie knows of. The first is that he didn’t become a basketball star at Princeton because his mother was dying and he had to quit the team. The second is that he never made a million dollars, or since he made a million dollars if you add the several years together, Julie guesses that he means he never made a million dollars all at one time. And the third is Julie herself, who he wanted to be blonde, lithe, graceful, and a world class tennis champion. Like Chris Evert, only thinner.
Because Julie is none of these things and will never be a world class sportsman, she has become instead a world class sports fan, memorizing batting averages and box scores, penalties and procedures, and waiting for opportunities to make her father proud. Fourteen years after Julie left home it is still the only thing she and her father have to talk about. They say, “Did you see that overtime between the Flyers and the Blackhawks?” or “How ‘bout them Broncos to take the AFC this year,” [p.188]while Julie’s mother, anticipating the oncoming silence, hurries to pick up the phone.
Julie knows that her mother believes that it has been her primary role in life to protect Julie and her father from each other: Julie’s rock music, failed romances, and teenage abortion; her father’s cigarette smoke, addictive tendencies toward gambling, and occasional meaningless affairs. Julie’s mother has made herself a human air bag, a buffer zone so pliant and potent and comprehensive that neither Julie nor her father ever dare, or care, to cross it.
The older she gets, the more Julie realizes that her father is basically a good person who conceives of himself as someone who, somewhere along the line, got taken in by a real bad deal. She is not completely unlike him, his selfishness, and his inability to say anything nice, and she knows that if it were ever just the two of them they might be surprised at how much they had to say to each other, if they didn’t do irreparable damage. Still, it is too hard for her to imagine, after so many years of sports and silence, and he is ten years older than her mother. He will, in all likelihood, die first.
Julie’s parents, she had noticed in her last several visits, have completely run out of things to say to each other. They have, apparently, irritated and disappointed each other beyond the point where it is worth fighting [p.189]about. If it weren’t for the cat, she realizes, they might not talk at all.
Sometimes they talk about the cat, more often they talk to the cat, and most often they talk for the cat, responding to their gestures of culinary generosity with words of praise that they think the cat, if it could speak, would say.
On a typical afternoon at her parents’ house, Julie’s mother might, for example, stop everything she is doing to fry the cat an egg. She’ll cook up some bacon, crumble the bacon into the egg, stir it up Southwestern style, and then start cooing to Suzette to come and eat it.
The cat, of course, is smarter than this and knows that if she ignores Julie’s mother’s call, Julie’s mother will bring the egg to her on the couch, adding maybe a spot of heavy cream to make it more appetizing.
At this point Julie’s father will say, in a voice completely unlike his own, “She’s already had the milky-wilk from my cereal and a little of the chicky-chick we brought her from the restaurant.”
“That was hours ago,” Julie’s mother will say, although it hasn’t quite been an hour, and she will rush to the cat and wedge the china plate between the cat’s cheek and the sofa, and then everyone will hold their breath while Suzette raises her head just high enough to tongue the bacon chips out of the egg.
“We like the bak-ey wak-ey, don’t we, hon,” Julie’s father will say.
[p.190]“Yes, yes, the bak-ey wak-ey is our fav-ey fav-ey,” Julie’s mother will say.
Julie will watch them, and try to search her conscious and unconscious memory for any time in her life when they spoke to her this way.
The closer Julie gets to thirty, the better she and her mother get along. It is partly an act of compromise on both their parts, Julie doesn’t get angry every time her mother buys her a pleated Ann Taylor suit, and Julie’s mother doesn’t get angry if Julie doesn’t wear it. They had one bad fight two years ago on Christmas eve, when Julie’s mother got up in the middle of the night, sneaked into Julie’s room, took a few tucks around the waist of a full, hand-painted cotton skirt Julie loved, and then washed it in warm water so that it shrunk further.
“Why can’t you just accept me the way I am?” Julie wailed, before she remembered that she was in the house where people didn’t have negative emotions.
“It’s only because I adore you baby,” her mother said, and Julie knew, not only that it was true, but also that she adored her mother back, that they were both people who needed to be adored, and the fact that they adored each other was one of life’s tiny miracles; they were saving two other people an awful lot of work.
When she is at her home in the mountains Julie doesn’t speak to her parents very much. She lives a life [p.191]that they can’t conceive of, a life that breaks every rule they believe about the world getting even. She knows that she has escaped from what her parents call reality by the narrowest of margins, and that if she ever tries to pull the two worlds together the impact will break her like a colored pinata, all her hope and humor spilling out.
One summer night, when she and Matthew have stayed in the garden long after dark planting tomatoes by the light of a three-quarter moon Julie feels a tiny explosion in the core of her body, not pain exactly, nor exactly joy, but a sudden melancholic relief, the snap of the last line that’s been holding a boat too tightly to shore.
“Something’s happened,” she says to Matthew, though that is all she can tell him, and Matthew wipes the dirt off his hands and wraps them around her and they sit for a long time in the turned-up dirt before he takes her inside and to bed.
When the phone rings the next morning, so early that Matthew doesn’t pick it up until just after the machine does, and Julie hears her father say her name once, something she has never heard before in his voice, something not quite grief but closer to terror, she knows her mother is dead before Matthew gets off the phone.
She hears him say, “We’ll call you right back,” hears him pause, just a minute before coming back to the bedroom, watches him take both of her hands and then a deep breath.
[p.192]“Something bad?” she says, shaking her head like a TV victim, her voice already the unfamiliar pleading of a motherless child.
Later that day, Julie will learn that sometime in the night her mother woke her father up to ask him what it felt like when he was having a heart attack, and he described it to her in great detail, and she said, “That isn’t like this,” and he offered to take her to emergency, and she refused.
But now, sitting in her bed with her dogs on all sides of her and Matthew holding her hands Julie can only see her mother like a newscast from Somalia, cheeks sunken, eyes hollow, three fingers extended from one bony hand.
Julie’s mother was supposed to go to the dentist that morning, and her father tried to wake her up several times, with several minutes in between—minutes in which the panic must have slowly mounted, realization seeping over him like an icy dark wave.
On the phone he says, “I keep asking the paramedics why they can’t bring one of those machines in here,” his voice losing itself in sobs. “I keep saying, why can’t they do like they do on TV?”
“She didn’t have any pain,” Julie tells him. “And she didn’t have any fear.”
“And now they want to take her away,” he says. “Should 1 let them take her away?”
[p.193]“I’ll be there as soon as I can get on a plane,” Julie tells him. “Hang in there.”
“There’s a lady here who wants to talk to you, from the funeral home. I can’t seem to answer any questions.”
There is a loud shuffling and someone whose voice Julie has never heard before tells her utterly without emotion how sorry she is for her loss.
“It was your mother’s wish to be cremated,” the voice begins, “but we are having a little trouble engaging reality here, you know what I mean?”
“We?” Julie says.
“Your father can’t decide whether to hold up on the cremation till you’ve had a chance to see the body. To tell you the truth, I don’t think he’s prepared for the fact of cremation at all.”
“Prepared?” Julie says.
“What it boils down to, you see, is a question of finances.”
Julie fixes her eyes on Matthew, bare-chested, who has started the lawn mower and who is now pushing it in ever diminishing squares around the big garden in the center of the yard.
“If we don’t cremate today, we’ll have to embalm, which of course will wind up being a wasted embalming upon cremation.”
Julie counts the baby corn stalks that have come up already: twenty-seven from forty seeds, a good ratio.
“On the other hand, you only have one chance to [p.194]make the right decision. So if you are willing to handle the expense of embalming, well, it’s your funeral.”
“I don’t think she would have wanted anyone to see her, even me,” Julie says, maybe to herself, maybe out loud. She wants only to get back in bed beside Matthew, pull the dogs on top of her and replan her day in the garden. She thinks about the radishes ready to be eaten for dinner and the spinach that will bolt if she doesn’t pick it in a few days.
“In this heat though,” the voice continues, “time is of the essence, the body has already begun to change color, and if we don’t embalm today, it will be a real mess by tomorrow.”
“Does she look especially thin to you?” Julie says, before she can stop herself.
“Well, like I say,” the voice picks up, ignoring her, “rate of putrefaction in the summer is triple that in all the other seasons.”
I cannot leave, Julie thinks suddenly, without planting the rest of the tomatoes.
“Go ahead and cremate her,” Julie says. “I can’t be there until tomorrow.”
“They’re going to take her away,” Julie tells her father. “It’s going to be okay though. We have to do what she wanted.”
“Are you coming?”
“Yes,” she says. “Soon. I love you,” she says, trying [p.195]the words out on her father for the first time since she was five.
There is a muffled choking, and then the line goes dead.
Julie hangs up the phone and walks out in the middle of the yard to Matthew. She says, “I think I am about to become valuable to my father.”
After a lifetime of nervous visits to her parents’ house, Julie walks into what is, she reminds herself, now only her father’s house, as nervous as she has ever been. She can hear Strauss, the “Emperor Waltz,” or is it “Delirium,” make its way from her father’s study to the kitchen door.
The cat waddles up to her, yelling for food. No one ever comes to the house without bringing a treat for the cat.
“I thought cats were supposed to run away when somebody dies,” Julie says, to no one.
“Run?” Matthew would say, if he were here. “That?”
Julie’s father emerges from his study looking more bewildered than anything else. They embrace the way people do who wear reading glasses around their necks, stiff and without really pressing.
“Look at all these things,” Julie’s father says when they separate, sweeping his hand around the living room, “all these things she did.” And he is right, Julie’s mother is in the room without being there, her perfectly [p.196]handmade flowered slip covers, her airy taste in art, her giant, temperamental ferns.
“I told the minister you would speak at the service,” Julie’s father says. “She would have wanted that. She would have wanted you to say something nice about her. She said you never did in real life.”
“That will be easy,” Julie says.
“Of course it will,” he says quietly. “She was the most wonderful woman in the world.” He starts to sob again, lifetime-sized tears falling onto the cat who sits, patient as a Buddha, at his feet.
That night before the funeral, Julie dreams that she is sitting with her mother and father in the living room. Her mother is wearing Julie’s favorite dress, one that she has given away years before. The furniture is the more comfortable, older style of her childhood, her favorite toys are strewn around the room. It is as though everything in the dream has been arranged to make her feel secure. A basket full of garden vegetables adorns the table, untouched.
“I thought you were dead,” Julie says to her mother.
“I am,” her mother says, crossing her ankles and folding her hands in her lap. “But I’ll stay around until you can stand to be without me, until I know the two of you are going to be all right.” She smoothes the hair around her face and smiles. “Then I’ll just fade away.”
It is the ftrst in a series of dreams that will be with [p.197]Julie for years, her mother dissolving before her eyes, until she becomes as thin as a piece of paper, until Julie cries out, often waking Matthew, “No, I’m not ready yet,” and her mother solidifies, right before her eyes.
On the morning of the funeral, all Julie can think of is to cook, so she goes to the market across the street for bacon and eggs and buttermilk biscuits, and comes back and does the dishes that have already begun to accumulate.
“If you put the glasses in the dishwasher right side up, I discovered, they get all full of water,” her father says.
Julie excuses herself, shuts the bathroom door behind her, and bursts into tears.
Julie fries bacon and eggs and bakes biscuits and stirs gravy as if her life depends on it. Her father gives at least half of his breakfast to the cat who is now apparently allowed to lie right on top of the dining room table with her head on the edge of his plate.
They talk about the changes that will come to his life, about him getting a microwave, about a maid coming in once a week. They talk about Julie coming east for his birthday next month, about him coming west for the winter. They talk about the last trip the three of them took together to Florida. Did Julie remember that it had rained, like magic, only in the evenings, did she remember how they had done the crossword puzzle, the three [p.198]of them all together? And even though Julie doesn’t remember, she tells him that she does. They talk about Julie’s mother, words coming out of her father’s mouth that make her believe in heaven, she’s so desperate for her mother to hear. Finally, and only after they have talked about everything else, Julie and her father talk about sports.
Before the funeral is something the minister calls the interment of the ashes. Julie and her father both have their own vision of what this word means. Julie’s involves a hand thrown pot sitting next to a fountain, her father, still stuck on the burial idea, imagines a big marble tomb, opened for the service and cemented back up.
What actually happens is that the minister digs up a three-inch square of ivy in an inconspicuous corner of the garden, digs a couple of inches of dirt beneath it, and sprinkles what amounts to little more than a heaping tablespoon of ashes into the hole.
Julie can feel her father leaning over her shoulder as she too leans over to see into the hole, whatever laws of physics she knows not being able to prepare her for the minusculity of those ashes, a whole human being so light that she could be lifted and caught by the wind.
The sun breaks through the clouds then, and the minister smiles, in cahoots with his god’s timing, and takes that opportunity to refill the hole with dirt, and neatly replaces the ivy.
[p.199]Later, inside the parish house, Julie’s father says to the minister, “So there’s really no limit to the number of people who could be cremated and inter . . . ned,” his voice falling around the word, “into that garden.”
“Oh, I guess upwards of sixty-eight thousand,” the minister answers with a smile that Julie cannot read.
Her father has that bewildered look on his face again, the look of a man who never expected to have to feel sorry for all the things he didn’t say. She pulls gently on his hand and he lets her, and they walk hand in hand to the car.
After the reception, after all the well-wishers have gone home, Julie’s father turns on the Strauss again, this time “Tales From the Vienna Woods.”
People have brought food, so much of it, Julie thinks it is like they are trying to make some kind of a point, and she sorts through it mechanically, what to refrigerate, what to freeze.
It has begun raining, huge hard summer raindrops, soaking the ground and turning her mother, Julie realizes almost happily, back to the earth, to ivy food, to dust.
She watches her father amble around the living room, directionless for a while, watches a smile cross his lips, perhaps for the rain, and then fade.
“Listen to this sequence,” he tells her. “Is it possible that the music gets better than this in heaven?”
Something buzzes in Julie’s chest now every time her [p.200]father speaks to her in this new way, a little blast of energy that lightens her somehow, that buoys her up. It is a sensation, she realizes, with only a touch of alarm, not unlike falling in love.
“She would have loved to have heard the things you said about her,” her father says.
“Yeah,” Julie says, “she would have loved to hear what you said, too.”
“Maybe she did,” he says, “from … somewhere.”
“Maybe,” Julie says.
“We always get it wrong, this family … ,” he says, and Julie waits for him to finish, but he gets lost, all of a sudden as the record changes to the “Acceleration Waltz.”
“I love you so much,” her father says, suddenly, and Julie turns, surprised, to face him.
But it is the cat he has lifted high and heavy above his head, and he and the cat begin turning together to the tryptic throb of the music. He holds the cat’s left paw in one hand, supporting her weight, all the fluffy rolls of her, with the other, nuzzling her coffee-stained nose to the beat of the music until she makes a gurgling noise in her throat and threatens to spit. He pulls his head away from her and continues to spin, faster and faster, the music gaining force, their circles getting bigger around Julie’s mother’s flowered furniture, underneath Julie’s mother’s brittle ferns.
“One two three, one two three, one two three,”[p.201]Julie’s father says, as the waltz reaches its full crescendo, and the cat seems to relax a little at the sound of his voice, and now she throws her head back into the spinning, as if agreeing to accept the weight of this new love that will from this day forward be thrust upon her.