Feral

In graduate school, I fell in love with a visiting (and married) professor, something I realized was a cliché. Worse yet, I got pregnant. Cue the after school special music. Who could I blame but the father, an Irish poet who disdained birth control? Something about the commandments “Thou shalt pull out,” he joked, and mostly, he did. Mostly.

The pregnancy test seemed like a joke. I survived a high school boyfriend, three English majors in college, five broken condoms, and dozens of one night stands. When I saw the positive sign appear, I shook it again, trying to get a different read.

Instead of telling the poet about the pregnancy, I quit going to class and spent most of my time reading true crime books. The nastier the story, the better I liked it. I especially loved the ones where the victim escaped at the last second. She gnawed through the rope with her teeth, threw a vial of a perfume in her captors’ eyes and then ran naked, wearing only flip flops, to safety. Take that! I thought giddy with hormones.

Hours evaporated while I hunched in the window seat of my apartment, turning the pages and devouring stale marshmallow bunny Peeps by the packet full. The books had titles like The Killer in Me and Dead before Dawn, worlds away from the crap I was supposed to be reading for my Master’s Degree in Women’s Studies. These were not literary works. They were grisly tell-alls with dime-sized drops of blood splattered on the covers— stories about twin girls discovered in pieces in car trunks, a severed finger wedged in the “W” pages of a dictionary, a woman’s decapitated head peering white-eyed from a fish tank full of guppies. They were mostly Midwestern tragedies that ended with descriptions of weeping mothers and jaw-clenched fathers—true tales where no one was saved and the bodies often stayed missing.

I ate them up and went back for more.

*   *   *

I lived in South Philly at the time, on a street littered with Pabst beer cans and used condoms. The main sound effects at nights were cars gunning and men yelling, “Fuck you, puta!” But the rent was just about affordable on my stipend, so I ignored the groaning plumbing, the brown stains on the ceiling, and the moldy basement where parts of the wall pulled away when I brushed by leaving dust on my sleeves.

Feral cats multiplied in the backyards of that neighborhood. I saw two of them often— a huge orange tom and a small, teenage-looking female, also orange with white spots; a cat a child would name Patches or Ginger. I gave her smelly cans of tuna fish knowing it was a mistake, because then, she would never leave.

One morning, while I was staring at the pile of dirty dishes in my sink, I glanced into the back yard and saw her move across the patio wall with something dangling from her mouth. I thought at first it was a mouse or a baby squirrel she’d killed. Squinting, I realized it was a newborn kitten. The mama cat went by with three more of them, hurrying as though late for an important meeting.

*   *   *

Later that week during a rainstorm, I skipped my evening class, “Women’s Bodies: The Skeletal Remains of Gender,” to build a makeshift shelter out of a discarded piece of plywood that had turned up in the basement and two wooden crates stuffed with an ugly brown and orange afghan made by my now dead grandmother. I set it up on the back patio with no real hope that the cat would use it. After it got dark, I tiptoed outside and leaned down to look into the shelter. Yellow eyes glowed back at me. She hissed. I counted four small wiggling bodies— all nursing— and left her alone.

*   *   *

The next night, after missing class again and failing to present my paper on Le Fanu’s In a Glass Darkly, I drank an entire bottle of silty red wine and called the married man on his secret cell phone—In bed, he liked to move his hands carefully over my skin, saying things like, This is your patella, your clavicle, your cranium.”

“Something is wrong with me,” I said to him, only slightly slurring.

The line buzzed. In the background, I heard a roar of laughter, and then what sounded like a cork popping in the distance. I recalled his wife, a thin, anemic violinist with a mane of black hair streaked through with white.

I pictured him hulking around the lobby of the Walnut Street Theater, waiting for her to finish with the orchestra. He was a giant of a man with broad shoulders, a sloping nose, and dark hair that fell across his forehead in a boyish cowlick. He didn’t like being tall, so he was often hunched over, as though perpetually ducking through doorways. In my bed, his feet dangled over the edge of the frame.

After a moment, he said, “Are you ill or are you just feeling down?” He sounded authoritative, fatherly, just as he had in his lecture “Crime and Horror in Elizabethan Poetry.”

I heard a woman in the background, her voice going up at the end of her sentence. It was likely his wife, the one who could never give him children. I hung up and ran to the bathroom to get sick in the toilet, observing myself from a distance as a pulp fiction author might: The woman realized that she had made a mistake. Maybe a big one…

*   *   *

He liked me to scratch him in bed. He liked me to use my nails to leave long lines in his skin. He called me his “Tyger, Tyger, burning bright.” I wondered what his wife would think. How could he talk his way out of those marks? I imagined that they never slept together anymore. That’s what I believed at the time.

*   *   *

My favorite story from that fall involved a woman held captive in a man’s basement for three days without food or water. She knew that when he returned, the man would cut her into tiny pieces and feed her to his python. I forget how she knew this; perhaps there were remains of other bodies in the basement. When she heard him leave the house, she found a rusty saw and began working on her foot, which was chained to the wall. She kept fainting because of all the blood. Finally, she cut off three of her toes, and that was enough to break free and to hobble up the stairs to escape. It reminded me of the stories I’d heard from my grandpa about how you couldn’t keep a fox in a trap because it would chew off its own leg. Sometimes, all that was left in the morning was a fluffy tail or the foot, and sometimes, nothing at all.

*   *   *

The feral kittens grew. I imagined my future— them getting bigger and bigger and becoming runny-eyed versions of the mother, my back yard overrun with cats on top of cats on top of cats.

The mother cat kept moving the kittens. Some instinct told her to switch locations often, perhaps to keep them from potential predators like me. I longed to snatch their furry bodies and hold them in my hands. Late at night, I fretted about their fate. Were they frozen? Would the tattered-ear tomcat slaughter them? Would she be able to keep them safe?

*   *   *

There was one moment when I could have told him about it and didn’t. A Tuesday night. He brought a bottle of expensive wine to my apartment. I started to undress when he opened the door but he said he didn’t want to fuck, he wanted to talk.

“I want to know who you are,” he said, or something like that. Likely, it was more poetic. We sat on the sofa. I poured the wine into mismatched juice glasses. I reached for his cock, and he stopped my hand, saying, “There could be more than this.”

I gulped my wine and told him a story from one the books I’d been reading, about a girl who was kidnapped by her long lost cowboy dad, how he swooped her up in the middle of the night without so much as a note to her mother, forced her to ride palominos and learn the difference between a wheat crop and milo.

He listened, his foot jiggling up and down, the shoe hanging from the tip of his socks. He always wore these thick oatmeal colored sox even with shorts, some tribute to the mother country. “You like to tell stories,” he said, and gave a sigh of exasperation, the same one he gave in class when the wrong answer was offered.

When he left, I shut the door behind him and turned the lock, knowing he would hear it. I hovered behind the window shade, out of sight. He walked a few paces away and then stopped dead, a shadow under the street light. I could just make out his profile, the jutting of his Adam’s apple, his whiskery cheeks. Then, he looked at his watch and hurried his step, rushing around the corner without a look back. For that, I never forgave him.

*   *   *

I called my friend, JoAnne, a former Texas beauty queen with not one sentimental bone in her body. She gave up pageants because she grew weary of the constant critique. “I know my ass is flat,” she said in her sweet, Southern drawl. “I don’t need for a panel of men to tell me that on a regular basis.” JoAnne showed up at my house the next day with thick garden gloves and a wire cage.

The kittens hissed and spat when I picked them up: wild, electric things. Above me, the mama paced back and forth across the top of the wall in distress. I imagined her leaping off and landing, claws first onto my face. I could lose an eye, be made to wear a patch. She crouched low, meowing. The kittens responded with high-pitched, hysterical noises.

Once we had them all in the cage, I leaned against the patio wall and sobbed. JoAnne patted my back with hard thwacks. She was the only one I had told about the pregnancy. “There, there,” she said briskly. She reminded me that I didn’t have to drink or smoke or overdose on cold medicine to change things.

I explained to her that though I supported women’s rights and even wore a pro-choice button on my denim jacket all through high school, I didn’t want to be a person who had done it. JoAnne touched my hand, uncharacteristically gentle. “Not all life is precious, honey,” she said. “Think of Eva Braun.”

We farmed the kittens out to other graduate students who gave them names like Yorick and Dante. I thought of keeping one, but then told myself no. I was not meant to be a nurturing thing. The mama cat kept showing up, howling, searching for them until I took the garden hose to her.

The next week, I made the appointment.

*   *   *

The procedure took no time at all. One minute, I was flirting with the physician’s assistant while lying flat on my back on a gurney, and the next, I woke up with a sheet over my legs. For one second, I worried that there had been a horrible mistake. I would whisk back the covers and find my legs bloody stumps—a crazy hospital mix-up! Somewhere, someone else had accidentally been given an abortion! Then, JoAnne appeared at my side. “You did awesome,” she said, as if I had leaped over flames to rescue a family of three.

“Oh, it was nothing,” I said, trying and failing to stand up.

*   *   *

My mother called. She told me about the plumber who came to fix the kitchen sink and somehow managed to mess up the pipes so that a dark sludge now bubbled up into the tub. “Where is it coming from?” her voiced sounded frail, like an elderly shut in. After my father died, she became an old lady overnight. He had been a bully of a husband, but without him, she steered rudderless, bumping blindly from one minor household problem to another. “I can’t take baths anymore,” she bleated. “You wouldn’t believe the mess.”

I told her it would be okay. I watched the mama cat run across the wall in an orange streak as if her tail were on fire. I hung up the phone before my mother could ask me to visit.

*   *   *

I borrowed a raccoon trap from a lady who made animal rescues her life’s work. She lived in a row house filled with cats. The sharp ammonia smell of pee emanated from under her door. I worried that I might become her, a woman consumed with saving wild creatures.

“Did you know that a female cat can have five litters per year? Multiply that by the average age of an outdoor cat which is about ten years and that’s 500 kittens,” the lady said.

“I’m no math whiz,” I told her, “but that seems like a lot of goddamn cats.”

I thanked her for her time and hurried for the door, trampling on toys shaped like flattened rats.

I caught the mama cat and had her fixed by a local vet for $20. When I let her go, she sprang from the cage and disappeared over the wall into the night. The next morning, she was back on my patio as if nothing had happened. When I tried to pet her, she scratched my hand. Her claws snagged my skin, drawing blood.

*   *   *

A few years later, I read in the Inquirer that the poet would be giving a reading at a local bookstore. I put on my best black dress and high heels. I sat in the back of the room. I waited until he finished signing books and, when the line died down, I approached him with my book. Not a copy of the poetry he’d written, but one of my favorite books from that fall, a pulpy paperback called The Killer Inside.

“I’m sorry about before,” he said, moving his shoulder in such a way that suggested that “before” was something that happened just back there, in the other room—some small indiscretion, as if he’d accidentally stepped on my foot.

“I had your baby, you know,” I said. He froze his pen in mid-air. “He’s called Duncan, after your father. A boy with black curls. He has your eyes, my nose. Some mild allergies, but nothing too serious.” I kept talking, watching his face go from open-mouthed surprise to beet red, though I couldn’t tell if it was embarrassment he felt, or anger.

If the scene had been one of the books I’d read that summer, he would have throttled me in the parking lot and hidden my body in a dumpster behind the Acme. I continued lying and told him that our boy thought he was dead. “I said you were hit by a bus,” I explained. “I made it a life lesson for him. ‘Don’t be like your father. Always look both ways before you cross the street.’”

He stared at me, his face gone slack. I leaned in, as if to kiss him.

“Just kidding,” I said.

I turned and walked slowly from the room. A tickle went up my neck, as if he was right behind me, his hands reaching for my neck in hot pursuit.

*   *   *

I only saw him once more, later that same summer on a subway platform. At least, I think it was him—those broad shoulders and that dark wing of hair seemed unmistakable. I hid behind a large woman in a beige raincoat and made sure we stepped on separate cars. I could feel my heart beating in my rib cage like a wild animal. When I looked around the car, I was relieved to see that he had vanished in the crowd of bodies; his once familiar shape indistinct from everyone else’s.

The thing is I liked him. I did. I liked the way he told stories, the way he got the details exactly right—coltish legs, the jutting feather in a hat. I liked how he felt about poetry. How he banged his fist on the table when he talked about Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish.” As he read, I leaned closer, racing to the end to see if she would throw the warrior fish back. He touched my face. “Why must you be in such a rush? Why don’t you savor the not knowing?” He started back at the beginning, enunciating each word in his buttery brogue. When his eyes caught mine again, I looked away, scribbling cat heads in the margins, to keep from reaching out to grab him up.

*   *   *

When I got rid of the thing, it was the size of a lentil, a fingernail. It’s not like it could have survived on its own. I hardly ever think about it.

Some nights, I admit, I run it around in my mind. The baby emerges with a shocking mop of black hair and an Irish lilt to his cry. Or the baby is born with my eyes, or my mother’s eyes, or the yellow eyes of a cat.

When I really can’t sleep, it’s the mama cat I see, pacing back and forth along the back wall, a part of her ear missing, chewed off by some tomcat. She’s looking for her kittens, and I can’t explain to her that they are perfectly fine, safe in row homes instead of locked outside in the cold like her. She makes a horrible sound, the screech of a creature tuck in the ribs by a sewing needle.

Stop it, I want to tell her. It’s over. They are never coming back.

By Aimee LaBrie

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