I was scrolling through job boards one afternoon when I saw the headline. Wanted, it read. Cat Performer:
Client seeks actor or actress for long-term position. The ideal applicant will have:
- Convincing cat impression.
- Ability to sit, lie, and crawl for long periods of time.
- Ability to follow simple directions.
- No criminal record.
- No ticklishness.
Since graduating college a year prior, I’d lived with five roommates in a three-bedroom house off Belmont. Ours was a dingy, poorly-ventilated place where everything smelled like a basement. In 2014, it seemed as if everyone wanted to move to Portland. Our landlord had raised our rent for five consecutive months, I was behind on my student loan payments, and I lived almost exclusively on white rice, frozen edamame, and teriyaki sauce.
I had a job at an artisanal ice cream shop whose owner kept a portion of our tips for himself. Whenever I tried to up my hours, he’d have some excuse to keep me part-time. To make ends meet, my roommate John started selling blood plasma. Once, I, myself, went with him to donate, only to discover I was anemic. My roommate Krystal, who’d gotten a Hyundai from her parents for graduation, started driving Uber on weekends. I would’ve done the same if I could’ve afforded a car.
Worrying about money took up most of my time. The theater projects that’d gotten me through college had gone by the wayside, and I hadn’t auditioned for anything in months. I’d started to remember my performances more for the anxiety of appearing on stage than for the joy of acting. Still, I clicked Reply to the job post, then hammered out a cover letter, citing my love of cats and my roles in college productions—a bit part in a Tennessee Williams play and a lead spot in an O’Neill one-act, among others.
My expectations were low: there’d been no response to the twenty other resumes I’d submitted that month. It wasn’t like I was applying to anything all that particular. I just wanted something that’d pay enough for me to stay in the city with my roommates, who were closer to family than anyone I was related to back in Idaho. To my surprise, a response to my email arrived within minutes, from an assistant who scheduled me for an interview the following morning.
The address I’d been given was in Dunthorpe, Oregon’s equivalent of Bel Air, three bus transfers from our neighborhood. I landed at an imposing wall of ivy-covered basalt and pressed a button on a steel panel. An iron gate slid across the drive without a creak. The house loomed ahead like a European chateau in miniature, all granite and brass, with arrowslits and a ditch at the front—a moat.
I was halfway up the drive when a man emerged from the castle. Dressed in jeans and a white cardigan sweater, he was solidly built, neither fat nor muscular, but sturdy. The man shook my hand and introduced himself as Dan Kaiser. He led me across a short stone bridge, through a broad oak door, and along a foyer lit by sconces and a Romanesque candelabra. We turned into a high-ceilinged room that was fitted not with the kind of medieval furniture I’d expected, but with a boxy midcentury couch in black cotton, positioned before a low table of dark wood and situated on a white fur rug that seemed, even under my cheap Oxford shoe, artificial.
“A Poäng,” I said, recognizing the armchair opposite the coffee table—a piece of Ikea furniture my roommates had in our house, the same as everyone I knew under thirty. We’d gotten one at Goodwill for $5.
“Actually, these pieces are by a Dutch designer. Joost von Fleet is the guy’s name,” Dan said. “His latest collection is an experiment in how closely he could copy Ikea’s designs without getting sued.”He settled into the chair and crossed his legs. “This model’s called a Poängus. See?”
I nodded even though I didn’t see at all.
“Let’s jump right in,” Dan said. “The resume Kimber sent suggested you have some acting experience.”
I explained that in high school, I’d been in productions of Cats and The Cat in the Hat. While an undergraduate, I’d minored in theater, and, as a sophomore, I’d had a role in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof—which didn’t have an actual cat for a character, although there was the obvious symbolic resonance.
Dan’s glassy gaze suggested he wasn’t concerned with my resume’s specifics. Instead, we drifted into a discussion of cats and their behavior. I noted it’d be beneath a cat to acknowledge someone who called its name, that a cat in a good mood would walk with its tail upright, and that a cat might greet you briefly when it came into the room where you were but never if you came into a room where the cat was. While I spoke, Dan squinted and nodded without moving his neck. He seemed impressed. I explained that when I was growing up, my mother had a cat named Buddy, a Siamese I’d spent a lot of time watching. I didn’t say that this habit of mine had to do with Buddy’s tendency to attack unprovoked.
“Right,” Dan said. “This all sounds great. Really good.”He leaned forward in the chair, elbows resting on his knees. With his furrowed brow and thick sweater, he resembled a thoughtful polar bear. He said, “I guess the main thing now is I’ll want to see your cat impression.”
Without further ado, I dropped to all fours and prowled from one end of the living room to the other, hips swaying slightly. I rubbed my shoulder against a corner of the sofa, blinked slowly, hissed, and pounced on an imaginary mouse. Then I stretched, reared back, and delivered my best tomcat yowl—a long, high-pitched lament, informed by the indignation I sometimes felt considering all the years of effort I’d put into school, only to graduate into a job scooping overpriced ice cream.
When I finished, Dan clapped furiously. “Brilliant! Perfect!”he said. “You’re a natural.”
To be honest, I felt my performance was a little overwrought. But I was flattered by his enthusiasm.
I returned, on two legs, to the sofa, and Dan told me about his life—that on graduating college, he’d been given a sum of money from his parents, which he’d used to purchase a pile of technology shares after the dot-com bubble burst. He’d invested wisely: within a decade, he’d increased his wealth fiftyfold. Now he funded new ventures, helping young entrepreneurs launch their careers, setting them on a path to change the world for the better.
All this he related with choreographed smiles and self-deprecating head-tilts that suggested he’d told the story many times before. Only when he began to talk of his marriage did a certain unsteadiness inflect his words. For years, he said, he and Katie had wanted children, but for reasons he didn’t share, they’d been unable to conceive. After ruling out adoption, the couple decided they’d like a pet. The problem was that she had a cat allergy, and he was allergic to dogs. Anyway, real pets were messy: even those newfangled hypoallergenic cats shed constantly. That was why, as Katie’s thirty-fifth birthday approached, he’d decided to seek out another option.
“Which is where you come in,” Dan said. He told me what he had in mind, but before I could speak, he gave the rate at which I’d be compensated. At the amount he proposed, I’d be able to pay off my loans in a little over two years.
“Not to mention we’ll feed and house you,” Dan said. “Good food, too. We’re not talking Whole Foods kibble.”
I stared at him. I couldn’t have afforded a gumball from Whole Foods.
“Look,” he said, producing a sheaf of paper from a blue folder on the faux-Hemnes end table to his left. He laid the document onto the coffee table alongside an expensive-looking pen. “I’ll be in my office down the hall. Take all the time you need.”His teeth, when he smiled, were small and so white that they looked plastic. He patted my shoulder as he left the room.
The contract had all kinds of stipulations. I was not to enter the house unless in-character. My hours were to be six days per week, from 6:30 a.m. until 11 p.m., with Tuesdays off. I was to hold everything seen, heard, and experienced at the home in strict confidence. While working, I would relieve myself in the designated litter box. At the end of these terms was a sentence in bold: Should the employee lapse from the character s/he has been hired to fill, KAISER ENTERPRISES LLC reserves the right to terminate this contract at any time.
Intimidating though the contract’s legalese was, I was thinking of other things. I wondered: What if Dan saw something in me? What if he took me under his wing? He seemed to have some respect for the arts, for creativity. Maybe he’d become my patron, like the ones who’d supported Andy Warhol or Lou Reed. I considered how it’d feel to focus on theater, on art, without worrying about money. I pictured buying the house on Belmont and living there with my roommates rent-free. These fantasies, of not only staying in Portland but of escaping the service industry rut in which I’d been stuck, were so vivid that I couldn’t help but believe their plausibility. In no time, I’d worked my way through the contract, scrawling my signature across its half-dozen highlighted lines.
The suit itself was of skintight Lycra, covered with an inch-thick coat of polyester fur that was patterned like a patched tabby’s: white forelegs with spots of grey-brown and rust-red along the flanks. The knees and tops of the toes were reinforced with a gel padding that made crawling surprisingly comfortable, even for a performer as tall and thin as I am.
My first night with the Kaisers found me inside an oversized box, smelling cardboard and listening to the clack of a dolly’s wheels as Dan shuttled me along the first floor’s flagstone hallway. Soon the box turned, the floor grew smooth, and I heard a cacophonous cheer. Then the voices fell to murmuring, punctuated here and there by the hollow tlack of a wine glass settling onto laminate furniture.
From beside the box, Dan said something. There was laughter. I heard heels coming closer. Dan spoke again, there came a brief pause, then the sound of something shifting overhead.
Light poured in. A woman screamed. My eyes ached from the effort of adjusting, but before I could make out anything, I heard the sound of heels again, growing fainter now. “Katie, wait!” Dan said, his footsteps fading quickly away.
I saw that I was in the living room. The air smelled heavy with wine. From beyond the box’s lip, two dozen people peered back at me. For a long moment, everything was still. Then an older man with horn-rimmed Ray-Bans raised himself from the Poängus and stood beside the box. “What a big boy!” he said, reaching inside to tousle the fur atop my head. I shrank away from him. “Not too friendly,” he said, nodding. “That’s good.”
Soon other partygoers gathered round to take turns admiring me. The guests were wealthy in an understated way, Pendleton shirts on the men, geometric gold jewelry for the women. As on many social occasions, I felt the urge to retreat, to hide in an empty room or a quiet corner. I assumed an anxious, defensive curl, wanting to make myself as small as possible. But the clearer I made my unhappiness, the more the partygoers seemed to approve of me. When they’d reach into the box, I’d inch away, and they’d laugh. “Looks like Dan found the right one,” they’d say.
In a few minutes, the crowd grew quiet. Dan and Katie stood looking down at me. She was several inches taller than he was, with dark bangs that fringed carefully-shaped brows above deep-green eyes. It was difficult to avoid her stare.
“What do you want to call him, hon?” Dan said, placing a hand on Katie’s shoulder.
There was a pause. I licked my tail in a show of indifference. Its polyester felt like sand on my tongue.
“How about—Walter?”Katie said.
The whole party seemed to inhale at once. “Honey, I don’t—” Dan said. His voice sounded small and tight. He placed an arm around his wife and steered her away.
Gradually the murmur of conversation began again. But it was quieter now, and with something different in it, some strained quality I couldn’t quite pin down.
Soon the guests were saying their goodbyes, leaving via the foyer I’d passed through on the day of my interview. Nobody said a word to me or tried to touch me, although I felt a few resentful glances directed my way. I could hear Dan, at the front door, wishing everyone a safe drive. Of Katie, though, there wasn’t any sign.
I hardly saw Katie in the first days after the party. She seemed to spend all her time cloistered in the master bedroom, the sound of a TV audible through its frosted-glass French doors. To help fill those long, empty hours, I might’ve snuck my phone into the house beneath my suit. At the ice cream place, my coworkers and I would often cover each other, keeping an eye out for the owner’s Tesla as we took turns scrolling through Instagram—a small act of rebellion. At the Kaisers’, though, I spent my time practicing, devoting an hour or two to my prowl or pounce, then sprawling across the floor again. I was grateful for the opportunity I’d been given and didn’t want to waste it. I tried to view my work as a kind of method acting, like my roommate Krystal would do, staging one-woman reenactments of the life of Calvin Coolidge in a public bathroom on Mount Tabor. Someday, I told myself, I’d look back on this role as my first professional gig. Obeying the contract was a matter of artistic integrity.
All the same, there were certain things I chose not to do. The suit had a zippered flap at the bottom to make using the litter box as natural as possible. But when I had to go, I’d use the toilet beside the box, then splash a little sink water onto the sand. Nor did I claw at the furniture or leave dead animals around the house the way Buddy would’ve done. Every role involves an element of interpretation. I figured Dan didn’t really want to clean the litterbox anyway.
A little after 5 p.m. each afternoon, Katie would descend the long staircase from the second floor, making her way into the kitchen to cook dinner. She wouldn’t acknowledge me, though, and if I rubbed myself against her shins, she’d stand stock-still until I moved away. Dan, by contrast, would always greet me when he arrived home from work. “Hey, big guy,” he’d say, squatting and trailing his thick fingers through my fur—“big guy” being the only term with which he’d ever address me. Then he’d prepare my meal, which was delivered twice weekly from a high-end pet company—teriyaki salmon or chicken paprika in foil tins he’d reheat in the oven, delicious steam issuing forth as he set the food before me. Compared with the diet I’d had before, the food was decadent, even if it took a few days to get used to eating without hands.
To judge by the party where I’d been introduced, I assumed the Kaisers were frequent entertainers. But this suspicion proved groundless. Every night, after dinner, Dan would wash dishes. Then the couple would retire to the living room to watch TV. Usually, this would be some ensemble comedy—Parks and Recreation or Friends. Neither of them ever seemed to laugh, though. Dan would sit stiffly in the Poängus, hands on his thighs, so still that sometimes I’d think he was in the midst of a meditation. Meanwhile, Katie would be on the sofa chewing a strand of dark hair, her long legs tucked beneath her. I’d lie curled in the couch’s opposite corner, but she’d pay me no mind.
Afterward, the couple would turn out the lights and retreat upstairs. I’d wait in the dark for a few minutes. Then I’d crawl through the house and out the kitchen’s oversized pet door, breathing in the smell of night and dew-damp grass as I crossed the backyard’s broad lawn, breaking character only to turn the guest house’s doorknob. The guest house was a two-room Dutch Colonial that was mine to inhabit whenever I wasn’t working. I’d toss the cat suit into the washing machine, take a short shower, then collapse into bed, feeling oddly wrung out, even though I’d spent much of the day dozing.
My first paycheck arrived on a night two weeks after the party. Although I knew what I’d earn, still it was surreal to see the sum deposited, an amount five times what I’d have made serving ice cream. For the first time in a year, I made a payment on my student loans. Then I set up payments to recur each month. I fell asleep smiling.
On the afternoon of my third Tuesday with the Kaisers, I set out to visit my former roommates. I left the castle via a side gate, catching the 35, the 8, and the 15 buses across town. My friends shouted my name and thumped me on the back as I came into the kitchen. Though the house was cramped compared to the Kaisers’ home, it was good to be back. I felt I’d been gone a long time.
As always, my friends were having a debate—a habit that came, I figured, with our liberal arts degrees. Today the subject was the missing Malaysia Airlines flight. Everyone talked over each other, producing their phones to marshal evidence in support of some theory or other: that Russia was behind the plane’s disappearance, or China, or the U.S. While we’d often deride conspiracy theorists, we were drawn to current events in which systems worked in inscrutable ways—the same way they seemed to act upon our own lives. My friends’ voices were loud and passionate, and the conversation’s jumble was familiar, even if the presence of so many people in the kitchen overwhelmed me in a way it wouldn’t have a few weeks before.
“So tell us,” John said, once the conversation had settled into a lull. His iPhone case had a sticker with the words, This machine kills fascists on it, the letters faded from years of handling. “What’s it like to be a cat?”
On moving out, I’d billed my new job as a part-time gig, an eccentric couple’s idea of performance art—the kind of thing Krystal might have done. I’d said the housing I’d been offered was my main motivation for taking the job. I hadn’t wanted to lie, but from how my friends looked at me when I told them of the gig, I’d seen that even free housing was enough to make them envious. “It’s boring,” I said, adding, “I don’t think I’ll stick with it very long.”
“What’re they paying you?” Krystal asked, sipping from a jar of homemade kombucha.
I shrugged. “Enough to get by,” I said. Then I asked Ellen how she liked her new job cashiering at the co-op. Soon the conversation drifted away from me, into a discussion of applying for food stamps.
All through the visit, I could feel my friends watching me. Before, we’d been in things together. I wondered what right I had to earn so much more money than they did.
I couldn’t think too hard about this question. But acting, like all art, requires moving beyond thought. As my bus crossed the Willamette’s dark waters into downtown, I resolved to disappear even more into my role—to embrace it so totally that even I’d forget I was playing a part. If I worked hard enough, I figured, then the guilt would take care of itself.
I took to falling asleep watching cat videos on my phone, noting the way this kitten pawed at something or that tomcat rolled across the floor, making plans to practice each maneuver myself. My days off I’d spend in the darkened guest house, scrolling through cat-related message boards. On workdays, I’d arrive early and stay late. I told myself this was a temporary thing, just until I’d perfected my performance. Dan gave no sign that he was surprised by my commitment. Instead, he’d greet me in his usual way each morning, knuckling my scalp as I lay curled beside the oven. “There’s my big guy,” he’d say. “There he is.”
At TV time on an evening some four months into my tenure, Katie began to caress the fur atop my ribs. Her eyes were paled by the screen’s glow, but the gesture seemed almost unconscious. I took this to mean my hard work was paying off. My heart leapt, though I stayed perfectly still.
Within a week, she’d started acknowledging me when she came down for dinner, first with a tentative, “Hi, there,” then, “Hey, you,” and finally, “Hey, there, Walter.” Then, during the day, she started leaving open the master bedroom’s twin doors. The room was on the second floor, at the end of a long hallway that ran from the top of the staircase past a bathroom and a trio of doors that were always shut. When I crawled into the bedroom, she’d be propped up among a half-dozen pillows in the couple’s king-sized bed, its glossy black frame indistinguishable from the Malm my roommate Colin had gotten for $20 on Craigslist. The bedroom always smelled of baby powder, and on a screen above the dresser, TV news would play. At the same time, she’d have a laptop balanced on her thighs, watching what sounded like CSI or House.
It didn’t occur to me then how depressed Katie was—a failure I can only attribute to my detachment from any sense of what was normal for people like the Kaisers. My mother, who for two decades had worked as a receptionist at the YMCA, would get French manicures and spend nine months’ savings on a Chanel bag when she felt blue. Meanwhile, the Kaisers decorated their mansion with furniture made of particleboard. In the context of their castle, it’d always be understood that such a decision was a choice: the furniture’s tackiness underscored the fact that the Kaisers could’ve furnished their home any way they wanted. To the extent that I thought about Katie’s TV habit, I considered it along similar lines. She could’ve done all sorts of things, but chose instead to stay here, in her bedroom, watching network dramas day in and day out.
Over dinner, Dan would do the talking, teeth flashing as he described some new project as “the next Uber” or “the next Amazon.” On Wednesdays, he’d relate whatever he’d learned in therapy that afternoon. “Curtis is really helping me see how much I’ve blocked off,” he’d say, furrowing his brow. “He’s showing me that I haven’t been true to my emotions.”
Katie would nod, pushing puttanesca across her plate. She rarely raised her own topics of conversation.
Now and then, my friends would text to ask if I was alright. I’d reply by saying that I was busy, but that I hoped to visit soon. Then I’d curl up on the bed beside Katie or stretch myself across the floor near Dan, smelling feet that’d spent a day in high-end Italian loafers.
I was napping on the couch one afternoon when Katie came downstairs. It was a damp November day some six months into my career as a cat. She knelt beside me, caressed my fur, and whispered, “I’ll be back soon, Walter. I promise.”
She left to run errands every other week or so. She’d say goodbye, and then in a couple of hours, she’d return, muscling paper grocery bags through the door that led from the garage to the kitchen. Today, though, her farewell unsettled me. I couldn’t have said what it was, exactly—an unfamiliar stress on her words, or some unusual tremor in her hands. Whatever it was had me wide awake. Even when her S-Class had left the driveway, I couldn’t get back to sleep.
After a little while, I slunk off the sofa and crawled upstairs, thinking to curl atop the Kaisers’ bed, looking out at the grey sky and the misty rain that soaked the trees and the grass and the guest house. Maybe then, grateful for the warmth and comfort of the Kaisers’ home, I’d be able to fall asleep. On my way along the landing, though, I noticed something: the hallway door nearest the master bedroom was ajar. Without thinking, I pushed my way inside.
Through the doorway was a bedroom, its walls pale blue, the ceiling sponged with white clouds and dotted with plastic stars. Opposite the bed stood a dresser of real wood—oak, by the look of it. I could just make out a miniature baseball bat on top, alongside a little pot of curled clay and a Wolverine action figure. Beside the action figure sat a framed photograph that I had to rear up to see. The image was of Dan and Katie in the snow with a small boy between them dressed in boots as red as his cheeks. Merry Christmas from the Kaisers!, read a caption superimposed on the image in a snow-covered font. Dan, Katie, and Walter.
I left the room, trying to strip what I’d seen of meaning, to view it the way a cat would have. It was no use. When Katie returned, I was on the sofa, dread knotting my stomach like a hairball. “Hi, Walter,” she said, embracing me. “Back again. Mommy missed you.”
Later, I vomited a little onto the living room’s faux-fur rug—an accident. Dan came in to find me retching. I thought he’d be angry. But he only went to the kitchen and returned with a roll of paper towels, cleaning the spot in silence.
Things spiraled from there. Katie would seize me often, planting kisses all over my head, repeating my name, and imbuing my fur with the lavender scent of her lotion. She’d ask me questions—whether I was hungry or would rather wait until Daddy came home for dinner, or if I wanted to come with her to the store. I’d feel guilty for failing to reply.
One evening, over dinner, Katie interrupted Dan mid-monologue. “I think we should get Walter a brother or sister to play with,” she said.
Both Dan and I flinched. “What?”he said.
“I don’t know. I just feel like he must be a little sad without company.”
“When I was a kid, we only had Geoffrey, but he never got lonely,” Dan said.
“Maybe we could send him to some kind of daycare. Somewhere he could make friends.”
For a long moment, Dan chewed, his jaw flexing more vigorously than usual. I could feel him looking to where I lay stretched against the sideboard, a gaze not entirely friendly. “So the thing about LLCs,” he said, continuing what he’d been saying before.
In the weeks that followed, I watched how Katie walked, with her shoulders slumped and her chin tucked into her chest. When she cooked, her methodical method of dicing vegetables would often give way to a motion so violent that I worried she’d sever a fingertip. And there were times, as the three of us sat watching television, when her cheeks glistened with tears. Her sorrow unsettled me. I worried that if I tried to comfort her—if I huddled up against her, if I allowed myself to lick away her tears or purr with my head in her lap—I’d lose sight of what I was supposed to be: a cat. Instead, I embraced my role further. I began depositing the occasional puddle of dark urine into the litter box. I filed my nails to points and used them to claw at the side of the sofa. One night, while crossing to the guest house, I found the body of a dead crow in my path, its eyes oozing pus. I dragged the bird inside, leaving it at the foot of the staircase, just like Buddy would’ve done.
I wanted the Kaisers to punish me—to reestablish some distance between us. But they took my misbehavior in stride, cleaning up after me without a word of complaint. For Dan, this reaction was part of a larger shift. The more Katie clung to me, the more distant he became. First, he quit greeting me in the morning. Then he let Katie serve my meals. He didn’t call me “big guy” anymore, and if he’d pet me at all, his thoughts always seemed to be elsewhere. That I’d now paid off a third of my student loan debt, and that paychecks continued to arrive in my bank account every two weeks, came to seem, more and more, like some failure on my part.
Eight months after I started with the Kaisers, an invitation appeared on the refrigerator’s stainless steel door. It was maybe four inches by six, printed on expensive cream-colored paper and fringed with blue ribbon. Braden turns five!, it read.
“It’s not a good idea,” Dan said to Katie over a dinner of some kind of lasagna. “I don’t think we’re ready for it.”
“You mean you don’t think I’m ready for it,” Katie said.
“It’s only been eighteen months—”
“I don’t know why they’d invite us in the first place. Seems like ever since I wouldn’t get behind that workplace chat app, Arthur’s had it out for me.”
“They’re only trying to include us,” Katie said.
“Or when he kept wanting me to do hot yoga. When I finally put my foot down, he wouldn’t talk to me for weeks.”
“I’m going either way,” Katie said. “I just want to know if you’ll come.”
“We’re not going,” Dan said.
This went on for a while. Afterward, Dan washed the dishes, then trudged silently upstairs. Katie lay beside me on the floor and trailed her fingers through my fur. “Oh, Walter,” she said. “I wish you’d tell me what you’re thinking.”
I knotted myself more tightly into a ball. She kissed the crown of my head, then turned off the light and followed her husband.
On the night of the party, Dan stood beside the banister, tapping at something on his phone. I rubbed myself against his shins. When he didn’t respond, I slunk off to the dining room and lay with my head atop one curled paw.
In the three weeks since their argument, Dan had all but ceased to acknowledge my existence. Whenever I entered a room, his eyes would sweep over me like I was invisible. He’d ignore my cries and the way I’d run myself against his legs. Late at night, I’d wake to find myself curled cat-like in the guest house’s bed, watching the light that still glowed from the castle’s second floor. Sometimes there’d be a text message from John, or Colin, or Krystal: You OK? Rather than reply, I’d slip into my cat suit and crawl across the nighttime lawn, collapsing in the kitchen two or three hours before Dan would appear for breakfast. He looked a little more exhausted each morning. Meanwhile, Katie’s grief seemed to have entered a newer, wilder phase. She was more manic than ever, her hands so shaky and fluttering that whenever she touched me, my heart rate would spike. Sometimes she’d throw herself on me with such abandon that I worried I’d suffocate.
I lay watching her descend the stairs in a strapless silver gown. She’d teased her hair high, and her eyes were dark with mascara. Beside her, Dan looked wildly underdressed: he wore desert boots, jeans, and a too-large sport coat. “Ready?” he said.
She swept past him to me. Her hot breath smelled of peppermint toothpaste. “We’ll see you soon, Walter, honey,” she said. “If you need anything, just call.”
Soon I heard the familiar echo of Dan’s 7 Series in their cavernous garage and the hollow rebound of its tires on the cobbled drive. I was alone.
Although it wasn’t the first time I’d been unsupervised in the Kaisers’ home, at that moment, tonight the fact of my aloneness struck me differently. I lay in the dark, feeling a kind of prickling in my groin—the same as I’d gotten as a teenager, sneaking out to smoke weed in some city park. Also, though, I felt strangely out-of-sorts, dejected in a way I hadn’t been since the night of Katie’s birthday. These feelings seemed to amplify each other, leading into an attitude not unlike I’d had on signing my contract: a frustration with the past, along with that naïve hope for the future. This time, I saw how absurd my optimism was. All of which led me to do something I’d been told expressly not to do: I broke character. I stood up.
It was like stepping into a dream. Everything looked smaller from above—the matte dining room table with its elliptical fruit bowl, the sideboard whose antique crystalware clashed with the house’s budget modernism. I circled the table twice, then strolled into the living room, hearing my feet pad softly across the floor, experiencing a strange sort of déjà vu to see the space as I hadn’t since the morning of my interview. On my way upstairs, I noticed for the first time little holes all along the staircase’s wall, places where there’d been pictures once. From the landing, I could see the doors of the Kaisers’ bedroom, dimly reflecting the last rays of twilight in early spring. I turned toward Walter’s room.
Sometimes I wonder what would’ve happened if I hadn’t gone back into the room. Would I have accepted everything that came after? Would I still be with the Kaisers, my mind emptying gradually of everything from a previous life? But I was a cat; I was curious. And you know how the saying goes.
The door’s latch made a hollow sproing as I opened it. When I turned the overhead on, I found, to my horror, that the bed and dresser were gone. The stars had been removed from the ceiling, which now was painted the same uneven beige as the walls. The bedroom was empty.
For a moment, I wondered if I’d made a mistake. I left the room and went into the two beside it. The first contained a stationary bike and a dust-covered treadmill. The second had a half-dozen vintage pinball machines and an old Panasonic above a few antique videogame consoles: PlayStation, Sega, Nintendo 64. That room, too, seemed long unused, its leather beanbag chair stiff to the touch.
Katie must’ve emptied the room at night—I’d have noticed otherwise. But why would she do that? I staggered down the hall, collapsing onto the Kaisers’ lavender-scented bed. Walking on two feet had worn me out. Gradually, my thoughts slowed, replaced by an exhaustion like I hadn’t felt since the night of Katie’s birthday. In the end, I did the same thing I’d spent so many days doing since Dan Kaiser had hired me: I went to sleep.
I woke in the dark to the garage door’s grinding stutter, confused, thinking I was back in the room I’d shared with John in our house off Belmont. Downstairs were voices and footsteps. When I heard Katie’s butterfly-tread on the staircase, something clicked into place. I slipped from the bed and onto my hands and knees just before the light burst on.
“Walter!” Katie cried, throwing her arms around my neck.“I missed you. I missed you.”
She repeated the phrase over and over, her breath so fervid that I could feel it through my suit. The smell of her perfume was oppressive, cloying, like the air inside a mausoleum. I heard Dan’s footsteps bringing him to the doorway. When Katie leaned away, I saw sooty lines where the mascara had run down her cheeks. “Oh, say something for me, Walter,” she said, taking my face between trembling hands. “Honey, anything. Please.”
Again I felt that compulsion to answer her. This time, though, there was something gathering in my chest—a tension that grew gradually hotter, fissioning, until I did the only thing I could do. I closed my eyes, threw back my head, and yowled as I’d never yowled before. It was a cry of such anguish and volume that I was sure the neighbors would hear.
When it ceased, I found Katie staring at me. Spots of red mottled her cheeks, and her thin lips were drawn into a hard line. I didn’t realize she was angry until she struck me—a single, closed-fist blow to the side of my head. Her wedding band’s diamonds dug into my scalp.
I reeled back, thinking of the patchy way Walter’s bedroom had been repainted. The image opened something through which not sorrow, now, but fury poured forth. “Stop it!”I shouted. “I’m not your fucking son!”
To my surprise, she did, her face assuming a look of such horror that for a second I couldn’t make sense of it. Then I understood. In all my months here, she’d never once heard me speak. She leaned away, reaching for the floor with one hand, backing away without taking her eyes from me. Only when Dan touched her shoulder did she turn and dart past him. Somewhere, a door slammed.
For a long moment, I stayed where I was. Dan filled the doorframe, leaning against the left side, looking past me to one of the twin Hafley nightstands. He seemed so weary that I half-expected him to fall asleep where he stood. He said, quietly, “I think you’d better leave.”
At first, I wanted to protest, to tell Dan that I’d done everything right—that I’d even used the litter box. Then I wanted to say how unfair the whole situation was, the fact that any of my friends would’ve jumped to take my spot. I missed the chaos of our crumbling house, missed even its moldy walls and the raccoons in the crawlspace. When I thought of Walter’s empty room, I knew that the Kaisers and I were strangers to each other.
Maybe it was the fact of how little I’d said in the months since becoming a cat, but no words would come. I climbed to my feet and slipped past Dan into the hall, hearing the shallowness of my breath as I hurried down the staircase.
In the guest house, I changed quickly from the cat suit, stuffing it into a duffel bag with my other belongings. From beside the castle, I could see lights all along the second floor, the home glowing an ethereal yellow-gold against the grey sky. I hurried on through a neighborhood of quiet multimillion-dollar homes to the bus stop. My friends would let me stay with them as long as I needed, I knew. Only once the 35 bus leaned around the bend did I remember the fare, digging through my things to find the change that’d bring me home.