I worked in that store for longer than anyone had expected when I first applied. Five years just last month. I mean, yeah, it wasn’t a big deal but it paid the bills. Things just changed after dad died. Plans stopped making sense. Nothing ever stuck; business school, moving abroad, or that origami store project. None of them lasted.
So I accepted that was my life now. I accepted I’d never get married, have kids, or a house of my own. I accepted that maybe I wasn’t born for it. That was Javi’s life, not mine. It was Javier the one who made it. The one who had it all: the wife, the job, the house, and the wisdom. Dad would’ve been proud.
That’s why I woke up early every day. That’s why I pretended to shower for five minutes before giving up and putting on the worn out khaki uniform. That’s why I jump started my car that morning and drove to the same place to stack shoes and books. That’s why I fantasized about quitting in the most absurd of ways... but settling wasn’t so terrible after all.
After work, I’d drive back home. Every day, except for Thursdays when I’d drive to Javi’s for dinner. He’d rarely visit, made me go to him instead. “If only you welcomed order into your life,” he’d say. He loved pretending to be a grown up now, home-ownership and all. Kept acting like Design and Home just interviewed him, when it was Lore who did everything around the house.
It was a little family tradition, that weekly dinner thing. Mom thought it’d make us closer —love each other more or something— and we went with it. It was at Javi’s place either way, so all I needed to do was show up. We weren’t always in the best terms, but we got along. Sometimes he’d give me a weird fatherly look, like the one you’d give a toddler who got lost in the park. He’d try to give me money and all. “I can pay for my own rent,” I’d roll my eyes but accepted on occasion.
Nothing was exceptional about that Thursday. I survived the day with a couple of Lunchables and made sure to grab some cheap wine before I left —to look put together at dinner, of course. I drove there purely through muscle memory. Maybe that was the ideal estate, you know? Being so absorbed into one's self, everything else seemed irrelevant.
I was only a few blocks away when I spotted the weirdest kitten in the street. He had half an ear cut off, hair scruffy and in chunks, and looked at me with big sad eyes. Without giving it much thought, I stopped to grab it and positioned it softly in the passenger seat. I made one last turn and parked right outside Javi's house. Cat in one hand and wine in the other, I got out and knocked on the door. Lorena was the one to greet me.
“Come in, Fer! How are you?” She stopped talking and realized the content of my hands. “Is that a kitten you’re holding?” She asked.
“I found her and she looks like she needs some help,” I replied.
She inspected the kitten from afar. “I might have some of Marbles’ vitamins left, if you wanna take them,” she said.
“Could you? That’d be great.”
“Good. You’re finally here. I’m starving!” said Javi, as he approached us.
“This cat cannot come in. No way,” he said as soon as he understood what was happening.
“Don’t listen to him. It’s fine,” said Lore. I was causing trouble. I could tell, but I didn’t mind. I held out a smile and pretended to ignore their argument.
“But she could get Marbles sick!” Javi replied.
“She’ll stay in the backyard and Fer will take her after dinner,” she said.
Her word was final. I followed her through the living room and the window panels. I deposited frightened Cat on the floor and headed back inside.
Dinner wasn't exceptional. Lorena wasn't the greatest cook but it was better than anything I’d make. She was nice enough, Lore. She wasn't particularly good at anything, though; average looking –almost mundane– with spongy long curly hair that fell carelessly on her shoulders. She tried playing housewife and sometimes succeeded. She spent her days working one of those boring bank jobs, where all she did was count money that would never be hers.
They loved each other, though. I could tell in the way Javi always assisted her in the kitchen; or how she always made sure his pockets were inside his pants and not sticking out like that of a child's. They were in synch, almost like siblings, one would say. Or like an elderly couple that’s been together for too long and learned to ignore each other instead.
“You’re into cats now, huh?” Javi asked.
“It seemed like she needed help,” I replied.
“You do know that pets are a responsibility, right?” He said. “You gotta pay for the food and the sand and… oh that vet bill is gonna be through the roof!”
“Thank you for the unsolicited advice, Mr. Cat Expert, sir. I’ll keep it in mind,” I said with a smirk.
“Take some of Marbles food and please don’t kill the poor thing”
"So... how's everything at work?" Lore had found a way of making things better yet again.
"You know, lots of people, lots of stuff to sell. Nothing new," I replied.
"What happened to that online poker tournament you’d mention?" Javi asked.
I sucked, I thought.
"Being a professional gambler sounded depressing," I said. Which was also true.
Javi started talking about baseball or the stars or his job. I barely heard them on the background; like a car radio during a long road trip, only receiving interference. I couldn’t listen anymore and they knew it. They were used to changing topics and leaving me behind. I never tried to catch up.
Javi was repairing the sink, so it was Lore who walked me to the door.
“Give this to her every morning. It should make her feel better,” she said, as she handed me a little bag.
“And remember to take her to the vet as soon as you can.”
“I will,” I promised her.
"Are you sure you're ok?"
"Yeah, yeah. Don't worry"
She hugged me tightly, as if it was the last time we would ever see each other.
"Take care," she said.
I drove back sweating and sick to my stomach. Nameless Cat had been fed and was now asleep in the passenger seat. Did she do it on purpose? No, that couldn't be. That could never happen.
I bathed Smuthy Cat as Lore had instructed and showed her her new home. So what if it was a rushed rushed decision? Everything would be fine. Javi was overreacting, as he usually did.
“He thinks he knows everything about animals because he’s around one, but he never even looks at it,” I confessed to Listening Cat. “Plus, animals are highly recommended for people with depression... not that I am, but it can’t hurt.”
I couldn't fall asleep that night. I kept trying to remember every detail about dinner. The wine made my memory fussy but I hadn’t imagined it. Suddenly, it hit me like a cat in the face: I loved her. I loved her manly clothes, and how she talked about the same movies, and how her nails were always red and a bit uneven. And how she always cared... but it was pointless, wasn’t it?
I imagined dozens of scenarios where I confessed my love and we ran away together. We’d leave town and settle somewhere in the West Coast; far enough to run away from Javi, but close enough so we could keep in touch once he forgave us. I imagined our kids, running around and playing with Sister Cat, sporting their mom's wild curly dark hair and their dad's constant fear for life. They would never be sad. No, I would never let that happen... but it was pointless, wasn't it?
I wondered if it was worth fighting for. I was tired, you know? Filled with a sadness so profound, it exhausted me. It had been tiring me for years; preying silently, waiting to eat me slowly from the inside out. It never rested, but rotted every intention of improvement instead. I spent the rest of the night shifting between joyous optimism and overbearing anguish.
For the first time in those despised years, I didn't get up for work. I stayed in bed with Sleepy Cat and pretended it was only the both of us. Abandoned and lonely and hopeless. We’d found a place to hide from the world, and hiding was what we would do. My phone rang a couple of times —my boss, maybe— but I didn't bother. I lay in bed instead of having breakfast, or pretending to shower, or driving. I lay in bed instead of reordering boxes, ignoring customers, or getting ready for close. I lay in bed and the world around me stood still.
Around mid afternoon, I heard a knock on the door. It was persistent, even after I pretended not to be home. I was forced to get up against every fiber of my being and investigate.
“I saw your car on the parking lot,” said a voice from the other side. Javi’s voice.
I walked, cat in hand, to confront my torturer face to face.
“What are you doing here, Javi?” I asked as I opened the door.
“They called from the store. They hadn’t heard from you and got worried.”
“So they called you?”
“I’m your emergency contact,” said Javi irritated.
“Well, I have the flu. Thanks for stopping by, but I got it.”
“Is this about the cat?,” Javi asked.
“Have a safe drive home, Javier.” I said, closing the door.
“Can you believe Javi is trying to come between us?” I asked Thoughtful Cat as we walked back to bed. She meowed at me, understandingly.
“I know. He can be such an asshole,” I replied.
When the sun rose again on Saturday, insomnia had gotten the best of me. The dark circles under my eyes were almost bright enough to shadow any other feature I might’ve had before. I was not a man anymore, but a shadowed face. Not a man but an entity; oblivious and lost. I grabbed my car keys and Passenger Cat, and closed the door behind me. Muscle memory helped me once more.
Driving gave me much needed clarity, or so I thought. I was ready. I had found it, my source of motivation. I had found her. Who gave a fuck about Javi? He already had the house and the job and the wisdom. It was unfair he also got the girl, and I was going to tell him just that.
"Look, Javi. I love you, ok? You'll always be my brother, but this is what we both want and I have to put our happiness first," I practiced.
"Take that! You thought you were so great? Well, not anymore you're not!" I switched gears and speeded up to my brother’s house.
I walked to the front door while holding clueless Cat in my arms. Oh, were we ready. We stood there as an an outer force knocked, mere spectators of our own chaotic life.
To our surprise, Lore was the one to open. With those old ragged clothes of hers, and that hair that made her face look like a balloon, and those lips that kept craving moisturizer that never came. What horrible children would she bear.
“Are you okay?” she asked, as we both cried in her arms.