Nikki Hodgson finds solace in the companionship of an imperturbable cat.
IT STARTS IN TEL AVIV. He is standing in the office when you arrive from Jerusalem, water dripping from your coat, your toes stained red from your shoes. He’s just returned from London. In the process of grabbing his laptop from his bag, he pulls out the underwear lying on top, and then gets caught in conversation. Now, unaware of the item in his hand, he flails his undergarments around while talking. You laugh, but you don’t think of him like that. In fact, you see his perfect body, deep tan, and highlighted hair and you just assume he’s gay. You’re from San Francisco. You can’t help it.
But then a few days later, he kisses you in a hotel elevator. There aren’t any sparks, not the way you imagined, but you have this list and he checks out. British accent: Check. Into the outdoors: Check. Politically aware: Check. Speaks Italian, lives in France, highly educated: Check, check, check. It’s like you willed him into life.
Your family and friends are too far away to notice the change at first. They see your Facebook photos. You’re dancing salsa in Turkey, now you’re running a race in Morocco, then you’re cycling in France, now you’re skiing in Switzerland. Your Facebook status follows you to Venice, then Florence, then a small town in Umbria where you stay with a friend from Czecho and get drunk with Ukrainian truck drivers. Your mom rolls her eyes. Your friends laugh. It’s so typically you.
You know beyond a shadow of a doubt that he doesn’t love you.
Only it’s not. Because the backdrop for all of this is your empty and anxious heart. You know beyond a shadow of a doubt that he doesn’t love you. In Grenoble, you sit at the base of a mountain and ask him, just to make sure. He looks at you with sad, tired eyes. The next day you tell him to cycle Alpe d’Huez alone. You don’t have enough heart to give anymore.
Your internship doesn’t turn into the job you’d hoped for, but you’re not ready to go home. You can’t face home. You feel like a shadow of yourself. When your visa expires, you simply slip across the border and into France.
He’s sailing around the Mediterranean, but he said you could stay at his place in Grenoble. You can’t really afford it, but you don’t know what else to do. Your life feels like it’s in shambles and you need some space to think. So you amble around the place in your underwear with the windows open, ignoring the curious looks of the old gossips watering their flowers in the retirement center across the street. You eat ravioles du Royans every night, you don’t do the dishes, you try to watch the Simpsons in French, but you hate the way Bart’s voice sounds. It’s all wrong.
Then you find the box of condoms in a bathroom drawer. It shatters you. You want to slam the door on this place and on him, but you don’t have any money or anywhere else to go. You feel trapped, frustrated, and horribly, horribly alone. So when this stupid cat shows up meowing at the back door, you don’t chase him off. You don’t really like cats, but you’re desperate for company. The only human interaction you have is when you accidentally bump into your neighbors in the hall.
“Bonjour,” they sing out, laden with groceries, armed with two dogs.
“Bonjour,” you chirp back.
You’d like to add, “Please, could we grab a drink sometime? I’ve forgotten what it’s like to sit with friends. I can’t remember the last time someone gave me a hug.”
But you don’t; you can’t. Instead, you smile. They smile. Then you shut the door and, for lack of anything better to do, slump to the floor.
The cat is still there. He keeps meowing. You throw a sock at him to shut him up, but he attacks it. You laugh and startle yourself. That’s the first time you’ve laughed in a week.
At night, you kick him out into the garden. You feel sort of bad doing it, but you don’t want him to piss on the walls or anything. You never know with cats.
He finds the bedroom window and presses his face against it, meowing. When you look at him, you see yourself, begging an indifferent man to let you into his heart. You get up and open the door. The cat is the weirdest looking thing you’ve ever seen: blue eyes, splotchy fur, a splash of black on his face. He spends the night clawing your head and sticking his nose in your ear. You try to pet him, but he bites your finger. You laugh; that’s twice in one day.
He becomes your companion in France. You imagined sitting in the garden with a handsome blue-eyed man. Instead you’re sipping rosé and sharing slices of comté, your favorite cheese, with a blue-eyed cat. You talk to him in English flecked with the few French words that feel comfortable. “Well, mon cher, what now?”
Then you slip into nonsense, the sentences your British Grandmother used to make you recite because she detested the way Americans swallow their words. “How now brown cow,” you say in an exaggerated British accent, crisply enunciating each word. The cat wears a permanent expression of indignation. “I know. I used to give her that same look,” you confide to him and the two other cats who are just there for the cheese. Then you miss your Grandmother, but she died years ago from cancer so you call your Dad instead. He doesn’t answer. Probably out mowing the lawn.
You finish the rest of the rosé straight from the bottle, pick up the cat, and close the door. In the evenings you hear the sound of France 24 blaring from neighborhood television sets. It’s mixed with laughter and the clinking of wine glasses, forks scraping against plates, friends chattering. “Ah, ouais?” twisted into murmurs of delight over the chocolate mousse. A whole evening of “Mais, oui! Bien sûr.” You can’t be a part of it so you shut the door and draw the blinds.
That cat becomes the antithesis to your sadness. He doesn’t understand it so he doesn’t create the space for it. He doesn’t tiptoe around your tears. When you sob in the shower, he sticks his paws on the edge of the bathtub and tries to catch the water. He makes you realize how insipid and pointless your sadness is. The mountains are still there like sentinels around the town, people still gather to enjoy rosé in the park and live la vie merveilleuse, and the cat still attacks your feet no matter how depressed you feel.
It takes another year for you to realize this. Another year of moping around the apartment while Mr. Mediterranean ducks in and out, throwing you a few kisses like scraps from the table. He names the cat “Oddball” for his strange appearance and his propensity for crawling in the dishwasher, the sink, or anywhere you wouldn’t expect to find a cat.
Oddball becomes neutral territory. You and Mr. Mediterranean suddenly become estranged parents, united only in your shared adoration for this absurd feline. While dancing around discussions of your “relationship,” your future plans, and the soul-crushing sadness that cripples you whenever he talks about his future plans, you can both laugh at the cat.
You pick him up even though he hates it and you sob into his fur.
When you finally get around to booking a ticket back to San Francisco and packing your things into boxes, Oddball hops in and out of the boxes. He gets into your bags, rolls around in a sweater, tries to eat a sock. You pick him up even though he hates it and you sob into his fur. He’s wriggling, indifferent and preoccupied with the sock, so you let him go.
A week later, you’re on a plane gliding over the Golden Gate. It chokes you up every time and you barely remember to lean back and let the tourists next to you catch a glimpse. “Home. This is my home,” you tell them, happy to belong to somewhere.
Over the next few months, Mr. Mediterranean e-mails you updates about the cat and how fat he’s getting, how angry he gets at the taunting magpies, how the neighbors have adopted him and started calling him Leon. You want to tell this enigma of a man that you miss him, that your heart aches for France and that spot next to him in bed. Instead, you forward amusing pictures of cats and write, “Tell Oddball I miss his furry little face. What a silly monkey.”
And that’s that. You’ll never see either one of them again. You stare out the window at the San Francisco Bay and imagine telling the cat, “C’est la vie, mon cher, c’est la vie.” But he’s a cat and he’s in France and he doesn’t care.