Disgraced (Short Story)

I.  

I have never understood the emotion of admiration; but then, I am a cat. Cats feel a lot of things, including pride and affection, but at our very essence lies independence, the source of all dignity. If I ever need a mentor, I will be my own. Admiration is a color of feeling I will never see.  

But I have glimpsed its ghastly reflection in humans enough to sense what a trap it is. I have seen it lurking in their star struck eyes, and that alone is enough to make my spine curl and my tail fur bristle.  

I especially used to cringe at the looks the young women gave Michael when he brought them into the apartment we shared, the sickly-looking glazed-eyed expressions that a male friend of his later explained by saying, “Look how much they admire you. I wish I was you.”   

“Who is Michael?” you may be asking. He is a recent college graduate. I live with him. He is human, which of course limits him in countless ways, which means I am forever having to look out for him. Michael is also something called an actor, a person who pretends for a living. Women always used to croon over how talented and perceptive he was and, except for finger-combing his hair, he would act all humble, like he never got that kind of praise when he actually got it all the time.   

Michael had become a local celebrity from stealing the show in community plays, even when he was just a minor character. He was getting a lot of glowing press for his talent, and even talent scouts and reviewers from bigger cities were taking notice. Hence, all the admiration, which is what humans give you when you are successful at what you do.  

I saw the dangers early. I would have banned admiration from the apartment if I could have, suspecting it of being the trap it was. I saw the lurking menace in how women visiting Michael would cross their legs, “accidentally” hitching their skirts as they giggled, their eyes never leaving his face. I wanted to be brave for him, but every time I saw such outrages, I dove under the couch and hid inside the netting above the floor until they left.   

Shivering, I would hear them calling to me in their high-pitched voices, “Here, here, kitty, we don’t bite,” like they were eager to prove how “good” they were with cats. I crawled higher into the wooden framework of the chair. I was not about to let them use me as a flirting prop.  

When women displayed egregious admiration, I always expected Michael to be scared too, to maybe hide under the couch and shiver with me, but instead he always seemed pleased, which scared me even more. He patted his dark wavy hair as if making sure it looked just right for his admirers so they would gawk over him even more. Could he not see the wrongness of it all? Could he not see that they were looking at him that way because of their own need, because their admiration satisfied a hunger that had nothing to do with him?   

The problem was much bigger than a few women though. If it had just been them, I might have figured out some way to banish the threat, but sometimes his former college professors from his old acting classes came to eat dinner with him, respect peeking from their wise-looking eyes. Reporters who interviewed him seemed eager to impress him with details about what schools they had gone to and the grades they had made. A prestigious critic who wrote a column visited once and praised his “incredible repertoire of nuanced emotional expression.”    

There seemed to be no one he had not charmed. Male friends used a deferential tone of voice when they spoke to him and always let him decide where to go and what to eat. They laughed nervously and asked him for advice.   

I could have foretold his doom because as an accomplished predator myself, I knew that what appeared to be a gift was actually conditional, and that if it was ever taken back, it would not be taken gently.  

I could have told him that it all could change in the blink of an eye if he made one wrong move, because he was not their idol; their idol was something in their heads, something they needed him to be for them, which made him not their master, but their slave.  

II.

How am I so wise about humans, you may be wondering. Well, maybe cats are just much smarter than you ever thought they were. But I think it might also have to do with the radioactive turpentine I sniffed.   

Sometimes Michael painted set designs for his own plays. He had a jar of turpentine in his studio, a strong-smelling paint thinner, but I had never paid much attention to it until The Event.  

It happened about a year ago. A small green glowing rock, which I now believe was a meteor, crashed through the upper window and smashed the glass jar of turpentine on the floor. Curious, I felt compelled to sniff the spilled turpentine, which had turned from pale blue to bright green. I should have fled when I saw electric sparks jumping out of the fluid. Instead the oddity wooed my curiosity. I sniffed the puddle deeply – and began to gag. The vapor burned my nostrils and my throat. I fled the room coughing and sneezing. I drank all the water in my water dish to sooth the burn. Finally my symptoms calmed down. But soon afterwards, I started to have something called insight. Over the next few days, I began to understand human words, then I began piecing together bits of syntax until I could understand most anything anyone said. I must admit I am not sure if the turpentine really was radioactive; it is just a theory I have based on some superhero movies I watched later.   

At any rate I began to analyze each visitor who came through the door based on whether they were good or bad for Michael. And I concluded that all his adoring fans were bad for him.   

My insights were a blessing, but they were also a curse.  

The most painful insight was learning that Michael could be just as dishonest as anyone; he was an actor after all, and not just on the set. He could turn the charm on and off when he felt like it. But he was my adopted human, and despite his many flaws, I loved him like he was my own kitten. I believe I am the only one who ever saw him as he actually was, unguarded, relaxed, and free of all his masks.  

But I would never admire him; even if I could,  I liked him too much for that.  I did even better: I knew him. I knew him even beyond his being a warm lap to sit on and a scratcher of ears and a bringer of toys. He was a pattern. I always knew when he was in the kitchen because he liked to chew on whole ice cubes and I could hear the distinctive one-two rhythm of his crunching. And at night he slept with a tattered teddy bear that had one eye missing, a toy I doubted anyone knew about since he was in his late twenties. Sometimes tears fell silently from his eyes as he slept.  

He was always on the verge of blowing up at me when I did something “bad” like shredding his toilet tissue, but he never went over the edge; he always caught himself and “scolded” me in a tolerant, gentle voice instead. I took great advantage of this. I liked to see how far I could go. The zest of life is not for conformists, I say. But he always seemed to think I did bad things by accident. For this I pitied him.  

He liked pickles for snacks, and his breath always smelled vaguely of vinegar. Because I often fell asleep to that smell, lying on his lap, I got to where the scent of vinegar always made me sleepy. He would stroke my ears softly as I drifted off. He had never hurt me, and I knew he never would.  

As for toys, he was always bringing me colorful stuffed mice and porous cardboard to scratch on, and fuzzy balls with googly eyes on springs, and elastic, iridescent strings.  

I did not always reward him for his kindness. For a new toy I had a ritual. At first I would act utterly bored with it as if I had seen that kind of toy all my life, all the time secretly wondering, “What magic is this?” I would sniff the toy broodingly and wander off with an upturned nose, because it was undignified to gawk at a new toy just because someone expected you to. However, as soon as Michael went into another room, curiosity would get the best of me and I would go scampering into the living room and start batting the new toy around, chasing it, flicking it into the air, and having the time of my life. The worst part is that by the time Michael would get back, I would be so immersed in my play, I would be unable to stop, which meant all my attempts at dignity had been for naught. He would smile and say in a ridiculous high-pitched voice, “Does kitty like the fluff ball? Huh? Does wittle kitty likey the fluff ball?”   

Granted, it was an unforgivably condescending thing to say, but the mortifying truth was that I really did likey the fluff ball, I likeyed it a lot. And I liked Michael. But I did not admire him. I would never do something like that, not to anyone, not even if I could. And because I liked him, I felt it was my duty to watch out for him, as if I would have done with my own kitten. Or maybe I should say, as I should have done on a tragic day long ago.  

III.  

The Day of Doom began routinely. Michael put fresh kibble in my plastic dish and ate his breakfast before checking the computer in his office. That was when all the commotion began. I heard objects flying as he cursed. “No, no, no, no,” he screamed again and again. I was tempted at first to hide, but this was Michael and I knew he would never hurt me. Maybe I could help, but when I sauntered into the office, he barely seemed to see me. He had his hands clamped over the sides of his face and he was gritting his teeth, and the whites of his eyes were mapped with veins. Then his cell phone began to ring and after answering he yelled  into the receiver in a way that made my fur stand on end. “Now everyone knows. My career is over,” he finally said. “Over. I will be lucky if I can dine in a public restaurant. Show my face in the street. I might even have to move.” As he hung up  the phone, I wondered what he had done. How desperately I wished then that I could speak, or I would have asked.   

I had a wild, silly thought: I wondered if anyone had seen him decapitating a mouse. I was thinking strictly in terms of my own experience, of course. But why would I connect his experience to my own?  I have always chased mice as long as I can remember, especially when Michael and I used to live in a rented house close to the woods. And for the most part, I never felt any shame, regret, or guilt over it.   

And why should I? When I chase a mouse, I lose myself. I am all instinct. I yield to an altered state of heightened risk, heightened desire, and heightened pleasure. I stalk. I corner. My eyes rove from side to side, my head on a constant swivel, every sense sharpened, every cell of me awake. My nose twitches, my ears perk; I can smell the warmth of the shivering body; I can almost hear its tiny heartbeat. I chase. I corner. I entrap. And in the end, I triumph. I am a cat, a huntress, a killer, and I am good at what I do.   

Usually, just afterward, I feel an immense sense of pride and accomplishment. Except one time, when I lived at the rent house, as I was staring at the still, decapitated body of a black mouse, I had a chilling flash. For a moment, just a moment, the mouse transformed. It looked just like one of my two-week-old kittens who had died years ago after a dog had snapped its tiny neck with a bite. My kitten, too, had been black and so tiny, she had not even opened her eyes yet, and I had been unable to stop the dog. I had yowled, rushed at him with my claws, and hissed at him. I had managed to scare him away but the damage was already done. I had tried to revive her, to lick her awake, but there had been nothing I could do to bring her limp body back to life.   

That night I discovered a stray black sock in the outdoor laundry room. I picked it up with my mouth and dragged it around with me for days; everywhere I went, the sock went too. I had licked it clean and tried to keep it warm until one morning I woke feeling like I was choking on all the lint I had in my mouth from licking that sock so much. I retched and coughed the lint out onto the grass. From that point on, I had to fully acknowledge the truth: my kitten was gone, and she was never coming back.  

Staring at the mouse, I relived that moment of sickening horror, and I had the feeling that there might be some connection between what the dog had done to my kitten and what I had just done to the mouse. For the first time in my life I knew remorse. I was so confused, I gave up chasing mice afterwards.   

That is what gave me the idea that maybe Michael had decapitated a mouse which, I must admit, was a very strange thought since I have never seen a human chase one. But I did sense a common emotion: a shameful remorse.  

Michael did not go to rehearsals that day. Or the day after that. Or the next.  He spent most of the day sitting on the couch crunching ice cubes and staring at the wall or lying down facing the backrest of the couch, knees bent, with an afghan halfway covering him. He ordered a lot of pizza, and pizza boxes began to stack up on the coffee table and some days he went without changing clothes.  

Aside from the sudden absence of visitors, his new schedule did not sit well with me. I am a creature of habit and I hate change. There is a particular corner of the couch I inhabit on the days he is at work. In the afternoon it is perfectly positioned to absorb the full lulling rays of the sun. I tried lying on top of him, but he shooed me away. “Ouch Sheba!” He said. “Your claws must be ten inches long!”  

I cried out when he raised his voice to me and suddenly he was all apologies. “Sorry I yelled, Sheba,” he softened his voice. “I love you kitty, you know that.. I just need to trim your nails is all.” I trained innocent, soulful eyes on him as he went on. “ So, so sorry. Pretty kitty. Pretty, pretty kitty. Forgive me?”  

Of course I forgave him. But, as you might imagine, I did nothing to make his life easier for him. My motive was partly selfish. I wanted my spot in the sun back.  

But I also wanted him to snap out of whatever stupor was stealing his soul from him. Ergo, I caterwauled, waking him in the early hours in the morning. I am all about tough love, and I find that nocturnal expeditions do wonders for my mood; I have never understood the human habit of waiting until dark to sleep, and I thought a different experiment might lift his spirits. Once he saw how the dramatic shadows of night time made everything you did an adventure, perhaps he would return to his senses. I wanted my old Michael back.  

My strategy was to make as much noise and sow as much chaos as possible. I begged for salmon treats in the most strident, demanding tones I could muster. I knocked over his beer bottles running at maximum clatter velocity. I overturned drinking glasses and batted their straws under the refrigerator. A couple of times he yelled at me, “What are you trying to do, Sheba? My career is ruined and everyone hates me now, do you understand? I thought cats were supposed to sense when their owners were feeling down and be sympathetic! You of all people are supposed to be my friend!”  

Well I did feel some pity, but I had to laugh inside. There was nothing more hilarious in the world than Michael thinking he owned me. Who, I could have asked him, served who food?  Who bought who special toys? Who served as whose bed? Who groomed who? Ha! Own me! I dropped to the ground and rolled onto my back luxuriating on the plush living room pile carpet as I stretched and squirmed to scratch my back. I yawned lazily as he glared at me, but after a few moments his eyes softened; I knew he could not resist my charms for long, especially once I flashed my soft belly at him.  

But as I saw the self-pity returning to his eyes, I flipped onto my feet, darted off to the bathroom and proceeded to shred the toilet paper in his master bathroom. Before long it was flying everywhere like confetti. I rationalized that I was saving him from his brooding thoughts while — I must admit — having a little fun for myself. I love the sound paper makes when I tear it. It is the music of chaos, my favorite melody!  

But this time, my antics had failed to get the rise out of him I had hoped for. After a point he stopped yelling at me and just let me do whatever I wanted, which took away all the fun. It was not just sobering; it was downright scary. It was like Michael was dying before he actually had died.  

The phone rang. More yelling commenced. I still could not tell what Michael had done. What I was able to gain from the conversation was this: All of his admiration, which he had so treasured, had gone away, had dried up, possibly forever. He had tried to hide his shame, whatever it was, but whatever his unacceptable deed had been had gotten out. Now his acting career was in jeopardy and he was “depressed,” which is why is needed alcohol and why all the funny-looking bottles that I liked to tip over kept appearing all over the house.  

I got a little more insight into the situation when his main girlfriend Angela came. I had never liked Angela. Usually she would speak to me in a high-pitched voice that came across more condescending than charming and sweet, but this time she ignored me altogether. She was clearly enraged.   

“What were you thinking?” she screamed at him. What bothered me more than anything was that he was not fighting back. I unleashed a hiss at her because I did not think he deserved it. He filled my food dish every day, gave me tuna treats on command, bought me fluff balls on springs, and stroked my ears. Plus, he was patient with me when I toppled his beer bottles, seeming to think I did not know any better.  I thought that all of this, regardless of whatever else he had done, should be taken into account. But Angela paid me no attention.  

Instead she said something that made my ears perk. “You didn’t just embarrass yourself Michael. You really hurt people, innocent people, and now everyone knows what you did. You could go to jail, Michael. You could go to jail for what you did.”  

The tone of her voice chilled me. I didn’t know what jail was, but I knew it must’ve been bad, and I knew it wasn’t here, which meant that if he had to go there, I would be alone.   

He heaved a sigh. “I apologized,” he said. “I made a formal public apology and I meant every word of it. What else do you want me to do, Angela? Go back in time?”   

The last question made my ears twitch and my tail flick. Could you do that? Go back in time? If I could, maybe I would go back and save my kitten from the dog that had killed her. I would know to show up minutes before he came, and I would chase him off before he had a chance to hurt her.  

A long moment of silence hung in the air until finally Angela said, so silently I could barely hear her, “We’re through.”  

“Angela, no,” he said, “you can’t leave me, not now. I need you.”  

“You should’ve thought of that before you disgraced yourself and me.” She took her coat which was slung next to her on the sofa put it on, and buttoned it up. She was sobbing into her collar as Michael followed her to the door, but she help up her palm to stop him from coming any closer. “Stay back. I can’t even look at you anymore.”  

Michael stopped and watched her walk out the door and slam the door behind her. He staggered over to the sofa and collapsed into it, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees and his face propped on his hands. For a long time he made no move at all. He just stared at the door looking barely alive. His face was a chalky blue. Even his lips looked almost white. His eyes were pale and dull.  I meowed at him to get him to snap out of his stupor, but still he would not move.   

I tried all my usual tricks. I tore around the house toppling everything I could  from lamps to drinking glasses. I clattered and shattered and disrupted and caterwauled. Michael had an open jar of pickles on the coffee table and I toppled it too; I thought for sure that would arouse his anger; Michael loved his pickles. But Michael still did not make a move.   

At last I went to him and looked up at him and decided to try something else, so I went and got one of my fluff balls from under the refrigerator. I jumped up on the couch and dropped it in his lap. It was my nicest one, the most colorful and the least soggy, and it still had glitter on it that I had not yet managed to lick off. I nudged it toward his elbow so it would graze his skin.  

Slowly Michael raised his head and turned his face toward the toy and picked it up and looked at me. A hint of a smile appeared on his lips. “Thanks kitty,” he said, and laughed. Then, all of a sudden, he buried his face in his hands and began to sob uncontrollably. I had never heard him cry like that before and I was tempted to run away, but instead I crawled onto the part of his lap not occupied by his elbows.  

I am pitiless in the wild, a heartless predator in the woods. And I may have just destroyed a lot of his possessions. But I felt for him at that moment. I could hear in his sobs all the regrets I had ever had about my kitten. And I wondered if we could just go back in time right then, both of us. I could save my kitten and the mouse that looked like her, and he could refrain from doing whatever he had done that had hurt people.  

Then a funny thing happened. We didn’t go back in time exactly, but time kind of stood still. Michael’s sobbing tapered down. Then, sniffling, he began to wave the fluff ball in front of me. “Does kitty like the fluff ball?” he said. Of course I liked the fluff ball. As I tracked it with my eyes, he laughed and wiped his eyes.  For that moment, I was only aware of the warmth of his lap and the colorful fluff  ball and his gentle voice.   

It was hard to believe someone with such a gentle voice had ever hurt people. I wished he could undo whatever it was he had done but I was glad the admiration was gone. It is my theory that no one who admires you can ever truly love you. But I am a cat, and I suppose I can only understand so much about the human world, no matter how much radioactive turpentine I sniff.  

Rather than try to sort out human nature, I decided to gnaw on my fluff ball because I liked the way its soft texture felt against my tongue and my teeth. Gently chewing, I was lulled by the steady ticking of the wall clock as Michael stroked the fur behind my ears. Shutting my eyes, I thought about admiration and how it was such a sad substitute for love. Admiration was like a feeling made of cardboard. I was glad I did not feel it. I was glad I never would.  

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