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Release date: March 5, 2019
Publisher: Oliver Heber Books
Print pages: 272
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Tanya Anne Crosby
The Virtues of Cats
Gillian’s husband left. That’s who she was. She was the girl who’d married too young, whose husband couldn’t, or wouldn’t, stick around. As far as pity parties went, there must be worse, but it didn’t stop Gilly from celebrating her desertion with impunity.
And oh, how she celebrated.
For one, she’d witnessed enough sunrises by now for that miraculous event to seem mundane, although it wasn’t always that way.
A memory teased her—Kelly, high atop the roof of her grandmother’s house, and all that natural beauty sending her fifteen-year-old pulse into overdrive. Arm in arm, they’d lain, watching a Texas sunrise and listening to the thump, thump of their hearts under a pink and yellow sky. It was the first time a boy had ever put a hand in her pants.
She’d crawled out through her bedroom window in her pajamas, sans underwear, and the surprise of Kelly’s exploring fingers, along with the look of shock on his face when he discovered her moist, trembling bud, was enough to make them pull apart, like polarized magnets. Afterward, they’d lain staring at the sky, enjoying God’s mastery, as the electricity produced by their bodies relayed pleasure across their synapses. Funny how she could still feel those spectacular currents coursing through her body with but a memory, and still the notion of pursuing similar results under similar circumstances was about as thrilling as a Neti pot.
Gillian also visited local animal shelters the way some people toured cemeteries, but not out of some misplaced sense of social responsibility. It wasn’t anything so noble as that, because Gillian realized long before walking in the door, she wouldn’t be taking home a new pet.
Nor would she be volunteering at a sidewalk adoption, because, let’s face it, she was usually too hung over in the mornings. It was all she could do not to puke.
The most good she ever did along that vein was to push prospective adopters toward taking home a fur baby of their own. “Aww, he’s adorable,” she said to woman at the shelter this morning.
A bit overweight, with frazzled red-gray hair, she stood petting a three-year-old male Maine Coon. The feline was far too lovely to end up in a shelter. Either he’d gotten lost, or he’d peed on somebody’s socks one too many times. If it were the latter, it served his master right for leaving clothes all over the floor.
Her husband used to do that. Kelly would leave his clothes everywhere, shedding them like snakeskin the minute he walked through the door. Gillian hated that habit of his so much, and yet she’d spent a great majority of the past three years drinking too much, and alternately hating him and daydreaming he would come back to do it some more.
Clearly, ambivalence had become her MO—her marital operandi—because she certainly didn’t display that sort of contradictory emotion where anything else was concerned. She loved her grandmother. Loathed her father. Felt sorry for her mother. All strong, straight-up emotions without the least bit of a willy-nilly mixed in.
Rubbing the inside of one brow to will away a lingering headache, she eyed the wilting man standing behind the cat-loving woman, his expression bored as he waited for his wife to decide which kitty to buy. Her shirt was generously smudged with garden dirt and much too tight, revealing extra lumps on top of her natural breasts, like a second pair of boobs. Evidently, she didn’t pay much attention to her appearance, and yet she still managed to keep her man.
Unlike you, Gillian.
“Isn’t she lovely?” the woman asked. She smiled as Gillian reached out to caress the cat’s lush fur. How hot the poor thing must be? It was 107 degrees in the shade. After two weeks of one-hundred-plus-degree temps, the city was considering brownouts. The back of Gillian’s neck was damp and her hair stuck to her skin as she continued to pet the cat. The woman’s smile faded. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Were you considering this one?”
Considering him? As in taking him home? “No.” Gillian shook her head. “I already have three.” Not true. She didn’t have one. Gillian sighed. “But I would . . . if I could.” No, again. She would not. Three years of visiting pet shelters and she still had an empty house, because Kelly was right: she had an unhealthy fear of commitment.
The woman knit her brows, looking confused. “Do you work here?”
Gillian shook her head. “No,” she said, and smiled, though there must be something innately wrong with her that she didn’t run like wildfire from moments like these. To the contrary, she was like a self-flagellating priest, punishing herself for even considering the joys of communing with another warm-blooded being. This was how she knew she wasn’t a sociopath, because sociopaths weren’t compelled to self-recrimination.
The woman frowned. “Well, if you don’t mind . . . I think I’m taking him home.” Smiling nervously, she pulled the cat out of Gillian’s reach, as though she suspected Gillian of being some peculiar breed of cat burglar, lying in wait to steal other people’s prospective pets. “Sweet baby,” she cooed, dismissing Gillian.
And that’s usually the way it went, with Gillian looking on as another potential fur baby shuffled off to a new home, feeling inexplicably resentful and thrilled for the animal’s good fortune.
But this was the inalterable truth: in her current condition, Gillian wasn’t fit to adopt. In fact, some part of her longed to be adopted herself. So this was why she visited shelters, not because she longed to save animals, but to commiserate with them and comfort them, because she understood full well what it felt like to be rejected. Someday, she hoped to provide a stable home for a pet, but until she fixed herself, she didn’t trust herself with an innocent creature’s life.
“Good luck,” she called after the woman, waving as the trio wandered over to speak to the handler, who in turn smiled companionably over at Gillian—it wasn’t the first time her presence had incurred a sale for Operation Kindness.
“Honey? Do you like him?” the woman asked her sweaty husband.
“Uh? Yeah. I do,” he said, more animated now that the wife had chosen her cat. Probably because now he would get to go home and put his feet up in his La-Z-Boy, somewhere near a window unit that would blast cold air directly into his face.
“Here,” said the lady, dumping the hairy cat into her husband’s hairy arms. “What now?” she inquired of the handler.
“Do you have any other cats at home?”
“Only one. She’s a baby,” the woman said. “They’ll get along fine.”
Without missing a beat, the handler said, “If not, he’s welcome back. You may return him for a full refund within seventy-two hours. After that, you can bring him back, but we’ll be unable to refund the adoption fee.”
“How much is the fee?”
The woman cast a glance at Gillian as she stuck a finger into another cage containing a highly adoptable young tabby—the question annoyed her, because under no circumstances should you be allowed to take home a living being on a trial basis. Sometimes life threw curve balls, but you had to know up front that you were willing to play for keeps.
The kitty in the cage immediately came forward to sniff Gillian’s finger and she nuzzled the cat’s wet nose, pretending to ignore the woman adopting the Maine Coon.
“One hundred twenty, but that includes neutering, a microchip, and all vaccinations, including FeLV and FIV. Plus, all our cats have been treated for fleas and dewormed.”
“Wonderful!” the woman said, pulling out her wallet.
The handler asked, “What will you name him?”
“Maurice,” the woman said, smiling at the husband, who now had his overlarge fingers threaded into the animal’s thick fur. “What do you think, honey?”
The husband nodded dutifully, repeating, “Maurice.”
Gillian probably would have named him Charlie. He looked like a Charlie. Oh, well. She hoped he’d found a stable home. She had been visiting him for a week, even though she’d realized the cat wouldn’t last. Heartsick over the fresh loss, she pretended to duck into the store for pet supplies.
It was a particular form of torture, putting herself through these visits; simply because she never brought one home didn’t mean she didn’t grow attached.
Once inside the store, Gillian paid a visit to the fish, peering at them through smudged glass. Fish would be easier . . . safer. But she didn’t believe in putting living beings into a bowl for one’s viewing pleasure. Fish were meant to swim free. She’d rather see them out in their own habitat, diving through the reefs. Kelly always said he would take her snorkeling, but in all their years together, not once had they ever come close. It was always work, work, work.
Gillian also hated zoos. Animals belonged in the wild. It was different with cats and dogs, because cats and dogs had domesticated themselves. They craved human contact.
Point in fact: You couldn’t pet a fish, could you? No. Nor did fish aspire to living in bowls, where they were at the mercy of humans. On any given day, what if its human was lazy? Leaving excrement to swirl about in the bowl. Poor fish would suffocate in a PH nightmare—a fate only slightly worse than living with a man who couldn’t look you in the eye.
In the end, that’s how it was with Kelly.
He could barely acknowledge her, and whenever he did, he’d had that intensely unhappy look in his deep, dark eyes—part fury, part disgust, part pity. But it was easy for him to judge. He was a paragon of virtue, always taking the high road, while Gilly opted for the low road—but then, of course, shouldn’t that be expected? She was a Frazer, not a Noble.
Damn you, Kelly Ruby.
Bored with the fish, Gillian moved on, opting not to wander aimlessly through the remainder of the aisles. Only this time, before heading out the door, she did something she didn’t normally do: She made her way over to the tag dispenser and chose a tag—you know, those silly name tags pet owners stuck on the collars of their newly acquired best friends. She chose a black bow tie. Going through the process a bit aimlessly, she engraved the tag with the name “Charlie” and then gathered up her items and took them through the line at the register.
After that, she left the store, quietly amused by her purchase, because, what the hell? She could buy a name tag, but not a cat.
Gilly, Gilly, Gilly . . . what is wrong with you?
Something, for sure.
She felt the proof of it like a black hole, straight through her soul. It wasn’t so much a thing that could be defined, or a tear with boundaries. It was like a great sucking vacuum, threatening to pull her inside. If she let go, she might never be seen again—and worse, the entire event would probably go unnoticed, like a stray cat who’d come around now and again, only to vanish, his absence as insignificant as the squashing of a mosquito on the back of your arm. It would be gone for months before someone idly noticed, and then, in passing, wondered what befell him.
Someday she would stop just being a visitor and bring a pet home, she promised. Someday. But a cat. Not a dog. Dogs were too needy, and though Gillian loved the idea of needing and being needed, she couldn’t bring herself to cross the line, not even in her head.
Out in the parking lot, she unlocked the door to her Z-3 and slid inside, tossing her purse onto the passenger seat, along with her brand-new purchase in its royal purple velvet bag. No sooner had she climbed inside and settled behind the wheel when her phone rang. Wondering who could be calling so early on a Saturday morning, she fished the cell phone out of her purse—the instant she saw the name on the caller ID, she wished she hadn’t bothered.
It was her dad. Joe Jr. was not someone she ever aspired to talk to. Ever.
Letting the call go to voicemail, Gillian checked her other missed calls—two more this morning, one from an unknown number. Sensing the calls must be related, she waited for the phone to beep with her father’s message, and then proceeded to check them all at once. “Gillian.” His voice was stern. “Call me.”
Not in this lifetime.
Not unless she must.
The next message was from a woman whose voice Gillian didn’t recognize. “Hello, I’m trying to reach Ms. Gillian Frazer, concerning Ms. Rebecca Frazer. Please call as soon as possible.”
Gillian’s heart thumped. She blinked, staring at the number, then hung up and punched call return without bothering to listen to the second message.
“Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital, Plano.”
A sudden tremor appeared in Gilly’s voice. “Hi, uh, this is Gillian Frazer. I understand you’re trying to reach me about my grandmother, Rebecca Frazer?”
The woman was silent a long moment, presumably checking her records. “Please hold,” she said. All the while Gillian waited for the woman to return, she chewed the inside of her lower lip, feeling tension build in her shoulders. Thursday. That was the last time she saw Gigi—a quick stop before going to happy hour. But she was fine then, wasn’t she? Why was she in the hospital? Why hadn’t Gigi called? Had the hospital called Joe because they couldn’t reach Gillian? Despite Geeg having two sons, Gillian knew good and well that Gigi would have referred them to her, which only meant her grandmother wasn’t alert enough to speak. A sick feeling settled in Gillian’s gut.
Thursday, Friday, Saturday.
She counted days on her fingers. It had been two and a half days since she’d last talked to her grandmother. Two whole days. No missed phone calls. Guilt mixed with fear and gurgled in her belly—she was an awful granddaughter. Self-medicating had taken precedence over caring for the people she loved. Quick on the heels of guilt came a massive dose of self-reproach.
Stop drinking, Gillian. What the hell are you doing to yourself? Stop drinking.
It was an interminable moment before another voice appeared on the line, and the woman’s tone bled with sympathy. “Hello. Ms. Frazer? This is Karen Hobbs, a nurse with Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital, Plano. Your grandmother . . .” She paused. “Well . . . I’m afraid she’s had an . . . event. Can you please come in?”
“Is she okay?”
“I’m sorry, I’m not at liberty to discuss that on the phone.”
Gillian fought a tidal surge of nausea. “I’m on my way,” she said, and hung up. The instant she ended the call, she unlatched the car door, shoved it open, and leaned her head outside, puking on the white striping of the asphalt parking lot. After she was finished, she shut the car door and stabbed her key into the ignition.
Jeff & Joe
Gigi’s “event” was a massive stroke.
Evidently, this was how they referred to potentially life-altering cataclysms that befell old folks—an event, not like a concert but more like a total eclipse, after which, when the light returned, things might or might not remain the same.
Upon Gigi’s arrival in the ER, they’d given her a tissue plasminogen activator through an IV, followed by a mechanical thrombectomy, during which they’d removed a large clot. Fortunately, the procedure stopped the brain bleed. However, because of her condition, as well as her advanced age, they’d opted against more invasive surgical procedures. By the time Gillian arrived, she was resting in a drug-induced coma. They had her stabilized and Gillian was allowed to see her for a total of thirty seconds—eyes closed, mouth twisted horrifically, stretched across a wheeled bed—before they whisked her away for more tests. Her grandmother wasn’t gone five minutes when Gillian’s father and uncle arrived, arguing emphatically. Her Uncle Jeff marched into Presby waving her grandmother’s DNR like an eviction notice. “Says here she don’t want to be susitated,” he announced to Gillian, his lip curling with contempt as he pointed to the document he held in his hand.
Meanwhile, her dad attempted to wrest the legal document from his brain-dead brother, lowering his voice, but hardly approaching a whisper. “I ain’t saying no. All I’m saying is we ought to read the damned thing afore we hand it over. Give it to me, eegit!”
Jeff shook his head, but with one quick tug, Gillian plucked the document from her uncle’s oil-stained fingers. “Resuscitated,” she corrected. Then, ignoring the complaints that erupted at her back, she marched Gigi’s will over to the nurse’s station, handing the document over to the nurse on duty. Afterward, she returned to banish her father and uncle to the waiting room, where, presumably, they would continue to argue the merits of keeping their mother’s end-of-life wishes to themselves.
“She’s your daughter,” her uncle said in response to something her father said.
Gillian didn’t catch Joe’s muttered complaint, but she wished she had; anger toward the men in her family was a welcome distraction. As for herself, she opted for the hall, pacing while she awaited the doctor’s return.
At this point, Gigi’s vitals were stable; a DNR wasn’t applicable or necessary. But that wouldn’t stop Jeff or Joe from continuing their debate, to little avail. Her grandmother’s living will provided that Gillian, and Gillian alone, was authorized to make decisions on Gigi’s behalf. Leave it to her father and uncle to go searching for a will for all the wrong reasons. Both of Gigi’s sons were testosterone-impaired sperm donors. Neither had the good sense God gave a rattlesnake. At least rattlers intuitively understood the consequences of sparring with another of their species. No good ever came of two poison-fanged creatures locking jaws, and yet those two did at regular intervals, no matter who stood by as witness.
Fight. Impregnate women. Sleep. Fight some more. This was the life cycle of a Frazer male. During their fifty-some years, both men together had ruined more women’s lives than a Catholic all-girl’s prep school and a high school prom, combined. With Gigi gone, Gillian felt utterly and hopelessly alone. The thought alone made her long for a good cry, but luckily, she was particularly adept at keeping tears in check. If, at any given moment, she dared give in to her grief, she would end up in a quivering mass on the floor, worthless to everyone.
In this way, she was not unlike her grandmother. Gigi never bowed to her circumstances—unlike Gillian’s mother. Both women had married good-for-nothing men, but Gigi had brushed herself off, held her head high, and kept on living as best she could. “Don’t be a woman who needs a man,” she’d said. “Be a woman a man needs.”
On the other hand, her mother would say, “Gilly, honey, it’s a woman’s lot to suffer. That’s the way of the world.” And even more insidious was this: she’d often said such things while trying to convince Gillian to compromise herself, something Gillian was not predisposed to do. So, she took her examples from the woman who’d raised her, not from the one who’d given birth to her.
Nevertheless, she forgave Maria everything, because Maria was a victim, who wore her badge willingly, though not wittingly. There was a difference. One accepted her lot in life, because she couldn’t conceive of shedding it. The other wore it vengefully, pinning the same badge on her only daughter, because she believed: “I am screwed, and therefore we are both screwed.”
To Maria’s credit, having realized who she was, she had driven six-year-old Gillian to Gigi’s house one day, tearfully acknowledging her inability to be the parent Gillian deserved, and then she’d left, returning only now and again for misty-eyed reunions Gillian mostly endured, though not so much because she was angry. Deep down, even as a child, Gillian had suspected her mother’s days were numbered, and so she’d braced herself for the inevitable outcome every time she walked out the door. In the end, the abandonment had been a good thing, because Gillian only ever understood “normal” after living with Gigi.
It was close to 1:00 a.m. There was something about walking the empty halls that exacerbated Gillian’s sense of loss. As she paced, she had the most incredible yearning to call Kelly—a longing she realized she shouldn’t cave to. He was probably sleeping in anticipation of an early meeting, and the last thing he needed was a phone call from his ex-wife about a woman who was no longer part of his life. But it didn’t escape her that, even now, he was the only person she longed to call.
Finally, they wheeled Gigi back into her room and Gillian caught another terrifying glimpse of her grandmother’s face, and then it was a good forty minutes longer before the doctor reemerged into the hall. Crossing her arms, Gillian’s throat constricted as she listened to the doctor’s explanation. Because of Gigi’s stroke, much of her brain was compromised. Her motor skills were affected. So were the language areas of her brain. She had what they suspected was global aphasia, a condition in which individuals were unable to understand language in written or spoken form. She was also affected by paralysis—hence the alarming facial expression.
“Is she going to be okay?”
The doctor’s smile was barely discernible. There was a note of sympathy in her tone. “I don’t know. We’re running tests . . . she has yet to speak or show signs of cognizance. I’m sorry, Gillian. We hope to know more soon. Her vitals are strong,” she offered as reassurance.
Gillian nodded, swallowing past the knot in her throat. Her eyes burned like twin coals on fire. “So . . . how long will you keep her?”
It was a dumb question, because Gigi clearly wasn’t in any condition to go anywhere, much less home. But it seemed pertinent, somehow—not for the least of reasons: the simple act of asking implied the situation must be temporary, and therefore her grandmother might eventually wake up and go home. More to the point, Gillian realized hospitals no longer kept patients for extended stays—especially not old people with no hope of recovery. There would be next steps to consider, and soon.
“Ms. Fraser . . . it’s simply too early to say.” The woman reached over and placed a comforting hand on Gillian’s shoulder.
Gillian nodded again, peering in through the open door at Gigi’s contorted face.
The woman who’d raised her—who’d bandaged her skinned knees, who’d made sure she never went without a meal—looked perpetually on the edge of a heart attack, even during sleep. The unsettling countenance made Gillian want to go home and shove her head beneath a pillow.
Later, she would kick herself for not asking more questions, but at the moment, all she could think was that Gigi needed her. “Can I go sit with her?”
“Yes, of course. We’ll move her into a private room in the morning, then you can feel free to stay as long as you like while she remains here.”
Gillian crossed her arms. “Thank you. Okay. Thanks, that’s what I’ll do,” she said, and peered down at her sandaled feet, because the carefully guarded sympathy in the doctor’s gaze threatened to unravel her composure.
“I’ll let your father and uncle know they can join you.”
Gillian hugged herself tighter, wishing she wouldn’t do that, even though it was as much their right to see their mother as it was hers. “Thank you,” she repeated, and she stood rooted in place for a moment as the doctor moved away. Steeling herself, Gillian waited until the doctor was out of sight and then pushed open the heavy door and walked into the antiseptic-smelling room.
“Gigi,” she called softly.
The woman in the steel-framed bed, dressed in faded green cotton, lay so still, her resting body and terrorized expression so at odds that it made Gillian’s stomach burn—or maybe that was the headache powder she’d slipped into her coffee an hour ago? It hadn’t touched her headache, but, thankfully, she had an extra one in her purse.
Gigi looked smaller than she had only a few days ago, diminished in a way a loose cotton gown and a tightly fitted twin bed shouldn’t accomplish on their own. Her metal-framed bed was surrounded by blinking, beeping apparatuses, one connected to her finger, some to her arm and some to her torso. “I’m here,” Gillian said, heartbroken, approaching the bed and taking Gigi by the hand.
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