On the weekends she stayed with him, the first sound she heard in the morning was the meowing of his cat. The people in the apartment next door also had a cat, only theirs was put out overnight; his was strictly an indoor cat, black and nearly a dozen years old and just beginning to turn fat. The next-door cat always came to its owner’s front porch and yowled to be let in. His crouched in the bedroom window, peering down, and the two cats carried on a conversation until the next-door cat went inside.
“It’s an aubade,” she said to him one day.
“A morning song.” She turned her face toward him and kissed his neck, feeling the sleep-warmth of him radiating from under the blue sheet. “ ‘Aubade for Two Felines.’ ”
“What time is it?” He always wanted to know the time, as if time mattered.
She’d known him now for nearly a year, knew by heart the stories of his bad marriage and worse divorce, and of the lovely house in the country he’d had to forfeit. Of course, the stories were all as seen through his eyes, so she tried to take everything he said as if she were a confirmed skeptic. But she was not a skeptic; she was in love with him.
She could never get him to admit that he was in love with her. “I’ve decided to be fond of people,” he said. “I’m too old to love them.”
Sometimes she said, “It’s her, isn’t it?” meaning the ex-wife, meaning that she had soured him on love, meaning to give him an excuse for again not declaring his love for her — even though they practically lived together.
Other times she said, “But I love you; I don’t mind saying the word to you,” meaning she wished for reciprocity, for mutual declarations, for at least the idea of love, whatever it had to do with the two of them.
Whichever way she put it, he changed the subject. She despaired of ever hearing the word.
One day something changed. It was his birthday, and the champagne they drank to celebrate had gone to his head; his eyes glistened and his speech was slurred and he would not look at her, but only at the cat asleep in her lap where she sat under the bay window.
“That cat,” he said. “He used to be an outdoor cat. Had six acres to hunt, stayed out most of the time, except on really cold days in January. He hunted rabbits and pheasants and field mice, and one day he brought home a rat. He must have gotten it near a neighbor’s trash pile. Birds, bunnies — you name it. He was always bringing his trophies home. That’s cats.”
“So they say.” She held the cat in her lap and listened to the man; she watched his face. His demeanor was solemn, intense.
“He’s healthy as a horse now, that cat. I only have him at the vet’s for his annual shots. But all the years I was married and we lived on those six acres, he was at the vet’s over and over. He’d get into fights — other cats, raccoons, maybe a skunk or two — and his wounds would abscess. He always had to take pills, get shots, have the abscesses lanced. And worms. He was always getting worms, especially tape, from the stuff he ate in the wild.”
“Poor kitty,” she said, petting the cat’s wide brow and stroking its tattered ears.
“You pay a price for being free,” he said. Now he looked at her. “I think I’ve finally learned that.”
She felt the old cat purring under her hands. Ah, she thought, so this is how he says it.