Leaves rustle in the cardboard box my cats call their bed. I think they
are leaves. But the tabby cat tugs at the gray blanket, scooting away,
reaching for the fleece once more. I realize the rustling continues when
her paws are off the bed. I also notice that instead of peeking inside
the box, she’s set on keeping her head high, as if her body is immersed
in a bucket of water. She blinks at me, and I stare at the box.
Wriggling continues near the opening, where cardboard flaps are pushed
inward. I don’t think ants are this strong, and the few I’ve seen this
past month suggest that no one is using any sort of leaf for any parade
or burial procession. Truthfully, there is no leaf, though a sliver of
neon quite like the glimmer of a harmless soap bubble tells me that my
cat is arguing with a wasp.
The scratching slows, and I see a pinch of fleece sucked inward. The
argument may be moot. The wasp grows quieter and I hope it is happy
because noon is the time for infinite napping. A pile of napkins sits on
the counter and I count the seconds between each rustle.
He’s using all he has to scrape a song out of dead trees. It feels like
a scalp massage, listening to him, while I reach for a napkin and grab a
shoe recently deemed missing. He is not a horse. He continues to make
noise. I place the shoe next to its identical twin, who rests on a shelf
in the same place for months at a time, toe box pointing diagonally as
if to scold anyone and everyone who can’t keep still. Including myself
after drinking three cups of hot chocolate.
The rustling booms into a frantic rattle, capable of turning the heads
of strangers like the fists of a girl who realizes that the HELP
button isn’t working, that she will stand stuck within this chessboard
elevator. She can only hope that the walls don’t fall, that the floor
doesn’t swallow with the insistence I see in this unhappy wasp that
pulls and pulls on the fleece blanket draped over a cardboard box. Over
one thousand seconds pass. The leaves outside fall, barely impressed.
I always insisted that flats didn’t hurt. But Lori, with her Sharpie,
had points to make as she traced around my calluses. She wanted to go to
podiatry school, and I was willing to help. I just returned home, in
front of the Home Shopping Network, which reminded me that if I cared
enough, I could seize a promotion and finally, buy gray plaid shoes with
memory foam so my feet wouldn’t ache so much. Lori just wanted to remind
me of ways in which I was cruel. Mainly, to my bones, and the scarred
fishtails on which I stood. She was one of my nicer roommates. Wanting
her to stay that way, I took a bus to the shoe store.
I threw my shoes in a rusted trashcan. The one that accepted empty water
bottles unconditionally, though the can for recycling stood less than a
foot away. Two years old, with holes at the heels. Indeed, the passing
of time suggested that like most women at crowded bus stops (the ones
loudly pleading for their children to be quiet as they finished their
back-to-school shopping), I would never pay off my medical debt as a
foot model. My hammertoes, bumpier still, would never traumatize those
poor men waiting for hours at the urgent care clinic. Nor would my
ingrown toenails command a second look as teenagers gossiped in packs,
walking home from the magnet school.
Teenagers, again, walked before my asphalt indifference. Commercial
after commercial, best friends smiling with those huge retro headphones
blaring in some department store. I argued with Lori that it didn’t
matter, that my toes were less than ordinary, and life could be lived
barefooted. She laughed, mentioning downtown potholes. She said she’d
pray for my ankles.
I walked into the shoe store and gave in, seeking heels. Lori would
start a podiatry practice, and I’d be willing to help.
You make little caves in my sofa, and from their mouths spring gray
cotton. Fortunately, these past three months, you haven’t broken the
skin. Instead, you wake me with the poke of your snaggletooth, that when
lit by the ceiling bulb above, lends your lips a sinister froth. One eye
blinks, cloudier to anyone who looks closer, anyone soft enough to pour
you some water every other morning after the reach for brewed chai.
I used to hate the color pink, but I’ve grown into it more. Rosacea
blotches my already inpatient skin, my blunt jawline scaly and newly
sore. Orchids supposedly beautify the individual, though they hang from
the sills of every business worth remembering. I like wearing orchid
dresses, as they are safe. Despite what some savvy marketing
psychologist may preach in her dozen e-books, I am one in the crowd, my
thoughts afloat like excess paperwork falling from third-floor office
windows. Some days, my path is walked by dozens of frantic flamingos. Or
maybe they’re just waitresses at the newest Grease-themed restaurant.
Spotting these shades of pink, from kitchen windows and within my
closet, you creep into my bed with squinting eyes. I remove my
headphones and admit I like Bush to a concerning extent. The boy next
door plays them at full blast.
"Don't let the days go by."
I no longer have an alarm clock, thanks to you. You’ll ram your head
against mine and paw at the corners of my feathered pillow. Unlike the
sofa, it bears no caves. I open my eyes and I see your tongue, confident
in its flicker. You know when it is time to eat. Like the pillow, your
tongue is pink.
Each morning, intuition feeds at four. And I get to work on time.
I don’t remember my birthdays. This is only to be expected, for I never
had a birthday party, save for the time when the ratio of adults to
children was eight to ten. But I realize it was just a ploy for my
parents to announce my sister’s conception, amidst balloons, strawberry
ice cream, cake, and my telling the camera, “I already have this!” as I
held an Asian Barbie doll that slightly looked like me. The last party,
and the last helium menagerie of short-necked giraffes bobbing along the
sidewalk, sighing for air.
Exactly two months from my birthday, two years ago, I sat with a friend
to catch up. She rolled her eyes, scolding lazy construction workers she
almost ran over on her way to see me. The line across her lips was just
as deliberate, her brows pigmented diagonally as I talked about ending
my relationship. The only thing she had to say was “Think of your
future.” I ran through the list as I always did, treating each item as
if it was happening for the first time. Of course, only to me. His
parents inquired about my finances more so than my own, the mother
suggested I didn’t take care of him as we divided our cooking duties,
and the father predicted I’d dance with Congressmen, share their suites,
deny my clothes. This is what happens when girls with boyfriends
continue their schooling out of state.
I showed her the text messages. And him too. Not the boy who gave me
grief a good sixteen months after the breakup. Just a person with whom I
developed a silly fascination with, someone who made me believe movies
like A Beautiful Mind are historically accurate, that I could do
anything in the wake of my twenties, that love motivates us to do what
we never thought ourselves capable of. The lady whom friends jokingly
referred to as my “big sister” could only shake her head as I insisted,
“But it’s love!”
“You’re giving this unnecessary attention.”
Eyebrows rose as conversations stretched. Twenty minutes, sixty minutes.
Three hours and fifteen minutes. “I’m sorry to interrupt,” a staff
member barked, dropping a pile of copies on his desk with a scolding
thud. She’d interject again to hiss, “Stop harassing her!”
“She’s not my student, so I suppose she’s fair game.”
His wordings and mannerisms were muddied enough for me to unearth, given
my already existing difficulties in discerning attitudes and reactions
in general. When he stamped his foot on the ground with a shudder,
biting his tongue, blinking hard, I had a good idea. No one receives a
pull on the trigger with a smile, and once that trigger is pulled, no
one lingers to provide a monologue with all the facts and details you
need to write your review by the deadline.
I couldn’t comprehend the granola bars, coffee, the cute bacon sandwich.
Offering rides as I walked to a bus stop five minutes away. You wonder,
“Why would he waste his time?”
Additionally, the insistence on keeping in touch. “Let me know what you
decide to do.” “Thank you for telling me how things are on your end.”
“Hopefully we’ll catch up one day.”
When I came to visit many months back, my phone shook in my purse. One
of my former instructors giggled. “And what does ___ say?”
“___ doesn’t text. In fact, he doesn’t really care for phones.”
“And you know this how?” The embers which singed my ears without a
thought for private discipline revealed as much.
The last time we saw each other, it was over trays of sushi. He
professed a fear of shallots as my tongue rested on slabs of avocado. A
sliver of seaweed settled between my teeth and he only stared, hands
clasped to mouth. I thought to bring up my friend, who wasn’t dancing
with a Congressman, but someone kind of comparable.
He tapped the pinewood with a black chopstick. “We shouldn’t talk about
this. But did I ever tell you our conversations remind me of the ones I
have with my sister?”
I crunched on a sharpened ice cube, my forehead meeting his glance more
so than my kohl-glazed eyes.
“No, no. I mean, it’s not like they’re the same. But they’re similar.
And that’s a good thing. You remind me of her!” The clasp remained
tight against a budding grin.
“I text people at 2 a.m., only for them to text me to go to sleep. I’m
rather inconsiderate.” Similarly, my tone grew brusque, my back no
longer cushioned against my chair in what was a state of calm.
“And she calls me at 3 a.m., which means it’s really 5 a.m. where she’s
at, and it’s always about something work-related.”
“I always say it’s a good story.”
“Yes! She does that too!”
“But at this point in life, we can do that. Do whatever we need to do
the next day, forget about the party three hours before, you know?”
“Yes, I remember that time. Maybe you two should exchange emails. You’re
really a lot alike.”
My forehead glistened, while the cherry blossomed lamp swung back and
forth, threatening to fall and oust the mango ice cream in its porcelain
“No. Well, you’re different, but you do remind me of her. She turns
twenty-seven ten days before New Year’s but we never did anything
because, you know, Christmas and the stuff that comes with it. I’m
buying her something today.”
Thankfully, he didn’t have to drive me this time. Home was a ten
minutes’ walk, headphones blaring annoyances only Fiona Apple could sing
Two weeks later, as the office packed their bags to embark on winter’s
vacation, my colleague handed me a yellow envelope.
Hurriedly, I tore the paper, and opened a high gloss card with a koala’s
head concealed in a bucket.
“Your birthday is never a secret!” He scrawled niceties below.
I remembered my birthday that year, and the sear of misunderstanding.
Kristine Brown is a law student who shuffles between poetry, prose, data entry, and wishing she could properly fly a kite. Her writing appears in Hobart, Burningword Literary Journal, and Truffle Magazine, among others. She has written one novel, Connie Undone. You can read her poems about cats at https://crumpledpapercranes.com/.