In the hopes that Jason the Grasscutting Teenage Boy might notice me—staring out the kitchen window—when he took a break from his mower, exhaustedly wiping his brow with a paisley rag.
Before he arrived one summer Saturday, I drew a Loreal matte red lipstick dot in the middle of my nose, and whiskers on my cheeks with the cacao dreams Borghese eyebrow pencil Mother received as a gift with purchase at the Macy’s makeup counter, along with a miniature blue pleather backpack I used for phosphorescent dinosaurs and the archaeological misadventures I created from clothespins. “Meow,” I said, taping to a purple headband the ears I’d carefully drawn on the blank underside of the cover of a used-up sketchpad, crayon-coloring the tawny triangles, pink on the inside, cutting them with Mother’s left-handed safety scissors (though I was right-handed). “Hisssss,” I jumped as I pricked my bottom with the safety pin I used to attach my tabby tail.
Headband on, whiskers materialized, I stared into the mirror:
In spite of the hair I had, which was a dull shade of brown, as stringy as hay, and brittle as undercooked pasta, incapable of holding a curl no matter how many hours Mother spent wrapping, re-wrapping the long, limp strands around a small-barrelled iron (“simply the best for curling troublesome hair,” according to Glamour), my hair as a cat was lustrous, wavy, cascading down my back the way a secret waterfall might. My nails were long and pink, and I was lanky and sleek. As a girl, I was smaller than most, with stumpy dimpled hands and legs that remained stocky although at Mother’s insistence I frequently ate powdered chicken noodle soup and pickles for lunch, and when other people’s grandmothers offered me cake at the birthday parties I was rarely invited to, I politely declined in favor of a glass of ice water with a splash of lemon.
RING—the doorbell, a scurry of feet, and I tiptoed to the top of the stairs as mother opened the door to Jason the Grasscutting Teenage Boy. Stealthily, palm-paws sweaty, eyebrow pencil whiskers pricked, I peered around the banister, at Mother, wearing her long, green nightgown that showcased her nipples and a pair of slip-on, square-toed flat shoes with bows on the toes—she made me sit for hours at The Shoe Pavilion while she tried to decide between them and a pair of Sam and Libby slingbacks in beige. I stared at Jason, long blonde-hairy legs, pock-marked face, strange dual-toned voice that made me cringe and glow inside my cat stomach. I watched his mouth move, his chapped lips, which I imagined were framed by minute, sparse hairs, maneuvering around “b-a-c-k-y-a-r-d, m-a-’-a-m,” Mother’s hair-sprayed head bobbing up and down in agreement, yes, yes, the backyard please, door shut, Mother returned to the kitchen, and I attempted descending the stairs on all fours but found it too difficult, so I stood up, a momentary biped, creeping kitchenward, past Father, who lay sprawled among newspapers and empty ice cream bowls on the couch, his head covered by one of the afghans my grandmother knitted for us when her hands still worked.
“I am going,” Mother shouted, wrapping herself in a lightweight teal Talbots cardigan, “to the store for soft drinks, milk, sunscreen, and high-fiber cereal. Father is sleeping. SLEEPING. I’m aware that you like popsicles. Would you like some popsicles?”
I was tempted to say yes; I longed for popsicles, imagining their metallic fruity taste creeping down my throat, the fibrous frozen texture, the sound they made when I split them apart, the stains the grape ones made on my white canvas shoes.
All I could say was “purr.”
“Excuse me?!” said Mother, brandishing her car keys. “Excuse me, but popsicles? I’ll buy popsicles, but just this once.”
“Purr,” I said, but she did not hear me as she left, keys jingling in her hand.
The house was quiet, apart from the clicking of the air conditioner and the hum of the lawn mower outside. I lay on the floor next to Flossie, resident real pet, and she stretched her long cat legs and yawned in the light of the bay window, which provided a perfect view of the backyard and was framed by long, cloth curtains that filled me with a strange kind of dread. Something about the hot air balloon toile pattern made me lonely, the familiar stiff taupe figures waving at the world with vacant cloth-person eyes, reminiscent of the kind of doll that doesn’t come alive with the others when you shut your bedroom door to picnic alone in your Perseverant American Pioneer Lady outfit—complete with calico bonnet and lace breeches, skirts spread over the grass as you eat your heart-shaped marmalade sandwich underneath the knotted cherry tree.
I braced myself against the window, staring at Jason the Grasscutting Teenage Boy as he rounded the backyard, creating strange patterns as he mowed, watched his arm muscles expand as he leaned into the lawn mower, which massacred the small blades of grass. I cracked the window open to smell the fuel intermingled with the fresh, vernal odor of clipped greenery, as reminiscent of summer as puss-filled mosquito bites, Revolutionary War reenactments, encyclopedia-reading, and frog-sounds at night. I stared at the sweat darkening his heather-gray t shirt that probably belonged to his father in the past, and wondered what men smell like when they approach you after a long day of cutting grass and peering into microscopes and driving large automobiles, or planes, and it was probably like firewood, or crushed ladybugs, or aftershave lotion, but softer, saltier, somehow, like unlaundered underpants.
I was imagining that someday when I was older and no longer stumpy we could live in a mushroom-shaped house and fly biplanes over the Kalahari Desert, or maybe own a chocolate factory in the poppy-coated fields of Lichenstein, and he would buy me estate jewelry and I would wear acid pink Dior lipstick and would never have to wait for my mother to decide whether she wanted to go to Aerosoles or J.C. Penney, and I would learn to metalsmith and make him pocket knives and cutlery out of geodes and agates when suddenly, as he neared the sawtoothed oak tree, a swarm of hornets emerged from the ground, overtaking him. Arms flailing, he ran towards the house.
I jumped up. “Dad!” I screamed, “Dad!” running into the living room, pulling the blanket off his head, but he belched and turned over.
I heard a desperate knock at the back porch door, and I opened it, staring straight up at Jason the Grasscutting Teenage Boy, sweat-drenched and covered in welts. I motioned for him to follow me inside, and he sat at the kitchen table in one of the strange anthropomorphic chairs Mother bought during a brief but frantic garage sale phase she went through when I was a toddler. Trembling with bewilderment, I felt my face flush as I scoured the medicine cabinet for some kind of insect bite ointment or salve, cotton balls, bandaids. I heard him groan with pain, and the low sounds his throat made sent a series of confusing shivers down my neck.
“Calamine lotion,” I said, desperately, “is all we have.”
“It’s fine,” he said.
It’s fine it’s fine it’s fine echoing in my head as I edged closer, clutching the lotion and cotton balls tightly, feeling the tiny bottle grow moist with the heat from my hands, and I realized I’d altogether forgotten I was a cat, or supposed to be a cat as I bent down, screwed open the lid, poured the pink powdery fluid onto a clean cotton swab. I wanted so badly to make eye contact, but all I could do as I swabbed the welts on his legs was stare at his Tretorn nylite sneakers, crusted with dirt and motor grease. I wished I had access to those sneakers when his feet weren’t in them, to smell them, push my small hands into the moist, sweaty darkness molded to his insole, to measure my feet against them when no one else was watching, deep inside my closet fort lined with human-sized blue rabbits and long billowy nightgowns.
“Um,” I said, “you can do the rest,” motioning to his arms, neck, face, wondering why I swabbed his legs for him in the first place, and whether he thought poorly of me for doing so, whether he was confused, whether he knew the way I thought about his shoes.
“It’s fine,” he said.
Still kneeling, I looked up, noticing the whiteheads that lined the crevice beneath his nose.
“Your ear,” he said.
“Your ear is broken.” He reached out, pulled the headband out of my hair, and propped up the paper cat ear, which had fallen flat. He smiled and handed it back to me.
Dumbfounded, I clutched the headband as the door opened and Mother entered, her arms full of groceries.