Big Cats

by Drew Nelles

      “You know I’ve never been catcalled?” Asuka said. “Walking down the street or whatever, past a construction site—never.”
      “I saw the strangest thing today,” I said. “I walked by a man holding an entire peeled banana in his hand. He was talking on the phone and holding a peeled banana. It was perverse.”
      “Other women complain about getting harassed all the time,” Asuka said. “But it’s never happened to me. Is it weird that I’m sort of insulted?”
      This was a few months ago, when I still lived in New York. Asuka and I were sitting at the bar down the street from my place. The bar is called Applebee’s, although it isn’t an actual Applebee’s. I had a frosty pint of Budweiser in my hand. What I really wanted was a Chivas Regal with milk.
      “Am I so ugly?” Asuka said. “Am I so unfuckable?”
      “I’d fuck you,” I said. Asuka has cat’s-eye glasses and an androgynous bob, which might be why men fear her. But all women are beautiful. This is something I believe.
      “You’d fuck anything,” Asuka said. “You’d fuck a Neapolitan mastiff.”
      “Gorgeous dogs,” I said. “Very noble.”
      There’s a guy at Applebee’s I call Bushmills because he only drinks Bushmills. He calls me Gary, even though my name is Lester. Bushmills is Irish. I mean the man, but I guess the whiskey is, too. Just now Bushmills yelled, “I’m Protestant!”
      The bartender said, “You’re mean.”
      “I’m just lonely,” Asuka said. “I’d rather be gay. But I wouldn’t know where to start.”
      “BMW M760,” I said. “Lexus ES 350. Those are just cars.”

      Albuquerque is a weird place. Everything here is so new, all built after the 1950s, impermanent. (Go west, young man, go west.) On weekend mornings, I like to walk down to Java Joe’s for a cup of piping hot coffee, then head across the street to the Grower’s Market. I’ll do a lap and get a burrito with carne adovada, beans, and potatoes, then sit under a tree and watch the Mexicans roast green chile in the cage drums at the corners of the park. At night, I like to drive my Mercedes C300 through the desert with the windows down, smelling the wonderful smoky smell of the creosote.
      Although I’m only forty-five, I moved here to retire. I have plenty of money. I was an early employee at a technology startup, where I wrote some of the code, still used in millions of trades every day, that made the company attractive to a much larger financial-services conglomerate. The acquisition resulted in a handsome payout of my shares. In any case. Do you have an online investment account? Odds are that it uses my code. I like to think about this, sometimes—the great web of life, the interconnectedness of all things. The way my beings and doings, however small, might have overlapped with yours. Markets are an expression of creativity. This is something else I believe.
      These days I watch a lot of old cartoons. That’s where things get down to brass tacks. Cats versus mice, cats versus dogs, coyotes versus roadrunners, chicken hawks versus chickens—ancient rivalries, played out again and again, in scenes of astonishing violence. Rabbits who dress up like women, with lipstick and breasts and hats made of exotic fruit. Perfectly round black bombs. A company called Acme that manufactures everything. You can see the entire cosmos in these cartoons. I’m not talking about you, specifically—I’m using the impersonal you, in the sense of one. I’ve always preferred the French on for this reason. You use it the way you use one, but it means we. It’s collective third-person impersonal as opposed to singular second-person impersonal. These things interest me. My French isn’t what it used to be, though.
      Sometimes I receive phone calls. Robots, speaking to me in Chinese. I hunt for the meaning in their words. I’m close, I think, to understanding. The other night someone else called, too—a strange man who told me that I have destroyed him. “You have destroyed me,” this man said. His number was private. I put him on speakerphone as I drove through the desert.

      You might not know that I enjoy karaoke. I like to stand in a bar full of people, or half-full, and sing a sad song. “The Killing of Georgie,” “Pale Blue Eyes.” I dress up for the occasion, a tie and shirtsleeves. Sometimes, when I’m finished singing, I might touch my face and realize I’ve been crying. It’s important to be in touch with your emotions.
      Back in New York, I went to karaoke every Thursday at Applebee’s. One night, I sang “For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her,” which is a beautiful song. After I finished, I sat down and asked the bartender for room-temperature tap water. Then I felt a sort of friction at my shoulder, and when I looked over, there was a glamorous woman rubbing her jaw against me. In cats, this behavior is called “bunting.” Cats have scent glands along their chins, the way skunks have scent glands in their anuses.
      I asked the woman what she was doing. “Taking a shit,” she said. “What does it look like?” She was drunk; she had the gin eyes. She was beautiful, though, like all women. Her lips were red. Supposedly women wear lipstick because it evokes, in the hidden minds of men, the labia. This is according to science. It’s true that the woman had a certain pulchritude about her, a certain je ne sais quoi.
      When I asked for her name, she said, “Franny.” A wonderful name. Old-fashioned, slightly childlike. She told me her husband’s name was Theodore, which also is a wonderful name. Theodore was cheating on her; that’s why she was bunting against my shoulder. Franny’s dog, a Bully Kutta, was named Adolph. He had a mark under his nose that looked like a Hitler mustache. Adolph’s name, Franny said, was in jest.
      “I’m Jewish,” I said.
      “Oh, darling,” Franny said. “No, you’re not.” And she was right.
      I decided to tell Franny a joke. A guy walks into the local records office and says he wants to change his name. The clerk asks for his current name, and the guy says, “Adolph Fuckface.” The clerk feels bad for the guy and offers to take care of the paperwork right then and there. He asks what the guy wants to change his name to. The guy says, “Carl Fuckface.”
      When I finished, Franny said, “That’s funny,” instead of laughing.
      I have a history with married women. I don’t say that to make myself seem interesting. It’s just a statement of fact. I’ve never had much of a personality; I am, instead, a vessel waiting to be filled, a screen on which to project your desires, and so on. Attached women seem to sense this. I’m very simple, agreeable, generous. It’s easy to be generous with a woman when you know she will, eventually, return to her husband’s bed. Have you ever tried giving? It just feels good to give.
      The karaoke host called Franny’s name and she accepted the microphone like a gift. She performed a rap song with impressive dexterity, not even looking at the lyrics onscreen. The song, which I didn’t recognize, was unimaginably profane, a blur of depravities: pregnant dogs, school shootings, blind men playing football. This was the night Franny and I took up with each other, which is how I like to think about it—“taking up.” Antiquated, a little bit blue.

      That week, I quit my job. I interfaced with human resources, sorted out my exit package. At the end of my last day, the boss asked me to step into his office. I guess Walt considered himself my mentor, although I can’t say I saw it that way. I’ve never known how to relate to men; they’ve always been strangers to me. I either love them or pray for their swift deaths.
      The company was in Downtown Brooklyn. One of those open-plan places, cold-brewed coffee on tap and catered lunch. Walt had a corner suite, the sole concession to tradition. When I came in, he was looking out the window. He pumped my fist like it was the walking beam of a handcar. He wore the uniform of his tribe—jeans, sneakers, five o’clock shadow—but as usual he looked uncomfortable.
      “I’m sorry to see you go, Lester,” he said. “You’ve been with me, almost, from the beginning. But I understand. You want to strike out on your own. Find your fortune.”
      “Actually, Walt,” I said, “I’m going to retire.” I sometimes got the sense Walt wanted me to call him “sir,” but I never did. That would be bizarre.
      “Retirement is a death sentence,” he said. “I know you’ve made a pile of money from the acquisition, but you’re still a young man. You should stay on board while we join the new company. I need you by my side.”
      Because I try to be encouraging, I said, “You’ll do great, Walt.”
      “No, Lester,” he said. “Don’t you see? They’re going to put me out to pasture. Shunt me off to the bowels of the corporation, pat me on the head, tell me I’m doing a fine job. They don’t want me. They just want the IP, the tech. The code.”
      “The code,” I repeated.
      “The code,” Walt said. He said it in a way that felt meaningful, like even now he was speaking in code, like even the word “code” was code. But I didn’t know how to break it.
      “You know, Lester,” he went on, “when I was a child, my twin brother, Guillaume, fell down a well. This was way before twenty-four-hour news or the internet or anything like that. But it became quite a local story, I can tell you. It took the fire department fifty-six hours to rescue him. And even now, in our little village in Quebec, Guillaume is known as the boy who fell down the well. I came to New York, the greatest city in the world. I made something of myself. I’m a millionaire now—I have millions of dollars. But Guillaume will always be the boy who fell down the well.”
      “I didn’t know children actually fell down wells,” I said. “I thought that was just on Lassie.”
      “Children used to fall down wells a lot,” Walt said. “Times were tougher back then.”
      “I didn’t know you had a twin brother,” I said. “Or that you were from Quebec.”
      “My name is really Gauthier,” Walt said. “I anglicized it after I came to America. But I do miss Quebec sometimes. When I was a child, there was a superior, Canadian version of Lassie called The Littlest Hobo. It had a fantastic theme song.” He hummed a few bars, then seemed to stop mid-note. “You’re probably not even supposed to say ‘hobo’ these days, though. You can’t say anything anymore.”
      I realized that Walt was very sad. It was touching.
      “When I started this company,” he said, “I thought things would be different. I thought I would be a titan of industry. But everything is childish. Sneakers and jeans at the office. ‘Unconscious bias training.’ I’d like to be wearing a bespoke suit right now. Looking out of this window, I’d like to see Manhattan, not silly little Brooklyn. I’d like to be in One World Trade Center, waiting for another plane to hit. I should have built railroads or wildcatted for oil. Instead, nothing is real. Nothing is serious.”
      Walt walked over to his desk and took out a box wrapped in gold paper. “Here,” he said. “A parting gift.” I unwrapped the box; it was a bottle of fifty-year-old Chivas Regal Royal Salute. It probably cost ten thousand dollars. I didn’t remember telling Walt that I liked Chivas Regal.
      He produced a pair of cut-crystal glasses and sat down behind his desk. “We should have done this every day. Scotch at the office. Three-martini lunches. Affairs with the girls from the typing pool. But we were born too late, Lester, you and I. These days there’s no typing pool. You can’t call anyone a ‘girl’ anymore. They’re women now. You have to eat lunch at your desk—sometimes dinner, too. You can have a beer at five o’clock, but only if you keep working. Who made these rules? I’m the boss of the company. I should make the rules.”
      Walt raised his glass of my Chivas Regal Royal Salute. “Salut,” he said, which is the French way of saying “cheers,” and we drank. He swirled the Scotch around, like he was playing a part, the part of a businessman who drank Scotch. I understood that what he was saying was objectionable, but I didn’t want to make a fuss. I wondered if he had any milk.
      Now Walt squinted at me and cleared his throat. “Perhaps I should leave with you,” he said. He tried to sound offhand, but I could tell he’d been waiting for this moment. “I can break my contract. I’d lose the money, but that’s all right. What good is money without dignity? Without power. We could start a new company together, you and I. We’re a great team, Lester. You handle the tech, I handle the business. I’m very interested in cryptocurrencies nowadays. They say that’s the future. Cryptocurrency.”
      “Cryptocurrency” is a wonderful, mysterious word. Secret money, dead money. I thought about pointing this out. But something else came out of my mouth instead.
      “Actually, Walt,” I said, “I have cancer.”
      I didn’t have cancer, but I felt impolite about quitting. Anyway, having cancer seemed, on some level, true. Maybe I did have cancer. People get cancer all the time—they have things growing in them and don’t even know it.
      At this, Walt paled. “Cancer?”
      “I’m afraid so,” I said. “I definitely have cancer. Of the colon. The doctors don’t give me long. I’m moving to Albuquerque. I’d like to live out the rest of my days in the yellow New Mexico sunshine.”
      “Cancer,” Walt said again. “Oh, Lester.”
      He strode over to me and clutched me to his bosom. I felt his tears on my scalp, Chinese water torture.
      “Anything you need,” he whispered in my ear. “Anything at all.” His whiskers grazed my cheek. For a moment I thought, or hoped, he might kiss me.
      I know what you’re thinking. Perhaps Walt is my mystery caller, the man I destroyed. I’m afraid that’s not the case. I thought I would hear from him after I quit; I thought he would check up on my colon cancer. But he never did.
      Eventually I found out why: Walt died. At first, I wondered whether it might have been cancer, but it turns out he was struck by lightning on a golf course. Struck by lightning! Tell me there isn’t a God. Go on—tell me.

      I was trying to wrap things up in New York before my move to Albuquerque. Put a bow on the whole twenty-odd years. I asked Asuka to have dinner, and she said she wanted to bring along the man she’d been seeing, so that I might offer my opinion. The man was a foot fetishist and a communist. These were the two things Asuka told me about him. “Try not to bring it up,” she said beforehand, on the phone.
      “Which one?” I asked. But Asuka was already gone.
      I thought it might be interesting to invite Franny, so I did. We waited for Asuka and her foot fetishist at a wine bar in the Village. Franny and I didn’t have a lot to say to each other just then. I’m comfortable with silence. I like all that room in the air. But Franny seemed a little jumpy.
      “It’s just sort of awkward,” she said. “Me meeting your friend. And her—friend.” Franny and I had only been together the one time.
      “Oh,” I said. “Feel free to take off, if you’d like.” She looked at me like I had just told her to kill herself. I realized I didn’t know anything about her at all.
      Asuka was half an hour late, as she always is. Her foot fetishist was named Jesús. He wasn’t exactly handsome—he was sort of a nebbish, with coarse skin and dried saliva at the corner of his lip—but he radiated an abstrusely attractive quality. Asuka and Franny sized each other up, wary but not uncivil, and then Asuka excused herself to wash her hands. Popular culture tells us that an unspoken pact exists among women requiring them to go to the restroom together. But you know what? That isn’t always the case.
      “So,” I said to Jesús. “I hear you’re a foot man.”
      “I am,” he said.
      “I’ve never understood it, myself,” I said. “I don’t mean to judge. It just seems a little—unsanitary.”
      “Washing the feet is a key part of the turn-on,” Jesús said. He sounded like he was reciting a line from a script. Skimming the wine list, he raised an index finger to the waitress.
      “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet,” Franny said. “Their whole body is clean. John 13:10.”
      “I didn’t know you were religious,” I said.
      “I’m not,” Franny said. “Or—not really. I used to be.”
      “I hope there is a God,” I said. “I truly do.”
      “You want unsanitary?” Jesús said. “One time I dated a coprophiliac.”
      “That is absolutely vile,” Franny said.
      Now Asuka reappeared. “What are you all talking about?” she asked.
      “Jesús was telling us about his affair with a scheisse fetishist,” Franny said.
      “Come on, Lester,” Asuka said. “I asked you not to bring up the foot thing.”
      “I thought you didn’t want me to mention communism,” I said.
      “I’m happy to talk about either,” Jesús said.
      “So,” Franny said. “What would this coprophiliac ask you to do?”
      “You know, communists don’t believe in God,” I said. “Opiate of the masses, and all that.”
      “I would defecate on his chest,” Jesús said, “and he would smear it around on himself. It wasn’t my cup of tea, honestly. But, you know. Each his own.”
      Asuka raised her face to the ceiling. “Why can’t I just meet someone normal?”
      “Once, at a party,” I said, “I had a little too much to drink, and the hostess, whom I barely knew, brought out a leash and a collar and insisted I walk around like a dog, licking her feet and lapping up spilled drinks. Afterward we went to a hotel and had perfectly vanilla sex.”
      “People are full of surprises,” Franny said.
      “I hate fetish shit so much,” Asuka said. “It makes me feel like I have to join a special club to have sex.” She turned to Jesús. “I think you, as a communist, should be against kink. I don’t know what the right communist term is, but it’s essentially saying you need to buy things and join a special club to be sexually expressive.”
      “Personally, I believe it’s offensive to be a communist,” I said. “What about the Soviet Union? What about China?”
      “Wait, I’ve got it,” Jesús said. “Commodity fetishism.”

      If this were a film, now would come a montage: the love affair of Franny and Lester. Depending on the kind of film, the music accompanying the montage might be romantic or sad or ironic in some way. I’m fine with that, just as long as it’s nothing clichéd. No “You Make My Dreams Come True,” no “Eye of the Tiger.” I’d like it to be something special. When I think about this time with Franny, now, I really do see it as a montage, although that might be the effect of having seen too many movies. I’m not a film buff or anything. But Face/Off, The Room, Rashomon—those are just some of the movies I’ve seen.
      I made myself available to Franny. We’d go to Applebee’s, or out to dinner somewhere. Once we tried balut, which is a fertilized duck embryo eaten right out of the eggshell. Another time we had black bear meat, illicitly served at a fashionable restaurant. Franny declared both dishes vile. After we had sex, Franny always gave herself what she called a “French whore’s shower”—soap and water, splashed from the sink onto the face, armpits, and vagina. I don’t think you’re supposed to say “whore” anymore, though.
      It wasn’t all so unwholesome. Franny taught me many interesting things. She told me about her Catholic upbringing, her father’s membership in Opus Dei, the secret society that rules the world. Her father practiced the mortification of the flesh. He wore a sackcloth and kneeled for long stretches of time. Sometimes he whipped himself raw. “John was clothed with a garment of camel’s hair, and had a leather girdle about his loins, and he ate locusts and wild honey,” Franny said. I thought she was talking about her father, but then she added, “Mark 1:6.” Her father’s name was Bruno.
      On the instances when Franny spent the night, we did tai chi together in the morning. I learned to see the world as a series of energy flows, which is another way of thinking about the interconnectedness of all things. I’m not sure what she told her husband on these occasions; I didn’t ask about such matters. After tai chi I would steam a little milk for Franny’s allongé. She called me her darling.
      The other night, I received a call from my mystery man. “You have destroyed me,” he said, again. Whosoever did I destroy? I wondered this but didn’t say it out loud; I worried that speaking might break some kind of spell. I was interested in the riddle of his identity. It’s important to appreciate the puzzle of existence.
      I know what you’re thinking: the mystery caller was Franny’s husband, Theodore. And you know what? You’re right. You clever thing. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

      On my last day in New York, Asuka and I went to the Queens Zoo. We walked for a time behind a teenage girl and her parents. The girl had the flat face and slanted eyes of Down syndrome. “He’d make a comfy blanket,” she said of the Andean bear, regal and sad. Of the sun conure, she said, “The color of his feathers is like orange sherbet.” It was clear that this girl had a gift for symbolism. In another time, another place, she might have been a holy woman or a witch.
      “What’s in Albuquerque, anyway?” Asuka asked.
      “Cars and telephones,” I said.
      We stopped outside the puma cage. The great beast lay in the shade, heaving with breath. I tried to catch its gaze but it defied me, staring ahead toward the afterlife.
      “Let’s do ‘Mouse and Mouser,’” Asuka said. I cleared my throat.

      LESTER: I went to the market, my lady, my lady. I went to the market, my lady.
      ASUKA: The further you went, good body, good body. The further you went, good body.
      LESTER: I bought me a pudding, good body, good body. I bought me a pudding, good body.
      ASUKA: The more meat you had, good body, good body. The more meat you had, good body.
      LESTER: I put it in the window to cool, my lady. I put it in the window to cool.
      ASUKA: The faster you’d eat it, good body, good body. The faster you’d eat it, good body.
      LESTER: The cat came and ate it, my lady, my lady. The cat came and ate it, my lady.
      ASUKA: And I’ll eat you, good body, good body! And I’ll eat you, good body!

      Something else you might not know about me: I love Paris. I believe that people who dislike Paris are childish. Who cares if it’s dysfunctional, expensive, clogged with tourists? So is New York. So is heaven, probably. Paris is a wonderful city. I spent some time there in my youth.
      I thought it might be nice to do something with Franny before I left for Albuquerque. A last hurrah. So I took her to Paris for a week. We rented a little apartment in the 4th arrondissement. We ate croissants from Pierre Hermé. We walked up the steps of the Sacré-Coeur, which looks like the Taj Mahal. We stared at the exterior of the Pompidou and didn’t go inside. What a place Paris is! I’ll miss it when it’s gone, underwater.
      One night we went to a little cave à vin, so that I might introduce Franny to andouillette. Have you ever tried andouillette? It’s sausage made from a pig’s colon. It’s what they call an acquired taste; you have to acquire it. When she took a bite, Franny immediately spat the andouillette back out.
      “That is vile,” she said. “It literally tastes like shit.”
      “I know,” I said. “That’s the point.”
      “All my life,” she said, “men have been telling me what to eat.”
      “The French prize this for the very reason that it tastes like shit,” I said.
      “The French are idiots,” she said. I realized, then, that I was in love with her.
      Back in our apartment, we drank some very good wine. We were set to fly back to America the next day. I felt like we ought to put a bow on our time here, so I stood up and started to sing. It felt right, in the moment. I put my arms out, like I was being crucified, which in a certain sense I was. In a symbolic sense.
      The song I sang was “Plaisir d’amour.” One of my favorites. It goes, J’ai tout quitté pour l’ingrate Sylvie / Elle me quitte et prend un autre amant / Plaisir d’amour ne dure qu’un moment / Chagrin d’amour dure toute la vie. I’m not sure I got all the conjugations right, but I muddled on through. When I finished, I lowered my arms to my sides. Obviously there were tears on my face.
      Franny applauded. She was a good sport about it. “Bravo,” she said. She didn’t know a word of French.
      We made love, which is the only way to have sex in Paris. Afterward, Franny said she wanted a cigarette, to complete the picture, but you can’t smoke inside anymore. Not even the French can smoke inside. Instead, she settled for more wine. When she brought our glasses into the bedroom, she said something interesting.
      “I don’t think I’ll go back tomorrow,” she said. “I think I’ll stay here a while.”
      “I thought the French were idiots,” I said.
      “They are,” Franny said. “But so is everyone.”
      “I’ll stay with you,” I said. The wine was making me brave. “I don’t need to go to Albuquerque. We can live in Paris. We can get French citizenship. I’ll enlist in the French Foreign Legion. I’ll fight in France’s wars.”
      “Oh, darling,” Franny said. “Nobody said anything about you staying with me.”
      I had to sit with that one a while. Finally I asked, “What about Adolph?”
      “Theo can take care of him,” Franny said. “For a change.”
      Then I said, “I have cancer.”
      “Oh, darling,” Franny said. “No, you don’t.”

      Last night I was standing in my yard, waiting for the yips of the coyotes. Sometimes they catch small dogs and tear them to pieces, which seems like it should be cannibalism but isn’t, technically. My phone rang, and once more my mystery caller told me I’d destroyed him. I was getting a little tired of this routine, though, so this time I spoke.
      “Walt?” I asked. By then I knew Walt was dead; I just chose, in that moment, to believe differently. It might be possible to receive messages from the next world. The ancients believed this—who are we to say otherwise? You and I are no better than them. We know no more than they did.
      “Who’s Walt?” the voice said.
      It was Theodore, of course, as you know. So did I, I think, on some level. The nose knows.
      Theodore asked, “Why did you do it?”
      “Do what?” I said. “I didn’t do anything.”
      “You broke the code of the brotherhood,” Theodore said. “You broke the laws of men.”
      Eventually I got the story out of him. When Franny didn’t come back from Paris, Theodore flew there himself. She refused to see him, so he chased her across the continent, city to city, hopping among the glamorous capitals of Europe like a spy in a film. Finally, in Zagreb, he suffered a nervous breakdown. Now he was in a psychiatric facility in San Bernardino. (There are so many places in the world: New York, Albuquerque, Paris, Zagreb, San Bernardino. Kinshasa. Cochabamba. The sea.) In the facility there was a schizophrenic man who chewed his own pinky finger off. “I have to disappear,” the man said to Theodore. “Even if it’s just one piece at a time.” Theodore told me he hadn’t slept in days. He was on so much lithium, he said, that when he lay awake at night, he pretended to be an alkali flat.
      This struck me as an evocative metaphor, and I said so. In exchange—silence. That was okay. I don’t mind silence. It seemed like we ought to share a moment.
      “How’s Adolph doing?” I asked at last.
      “He blew his brains out in a bunker,” Theodore said, “with Eva Braun’s lips around his cock.” It was good that he still had a sense of humor.
      Then he asked, “Do you know where Franny is?”
      “I will probably spend the rest of my life answering that question,” I said. I felt like Theodore and I might become friends, which would be nice. I’ve never had many male friends. Men have always been strangers to me.

      The truth is that I didn’t move to Albuquerque to retire. I moved here to die. No, no, I don’t have cancer, although that would be rich. It’s just that I can sense it—that I’m close to death. I don’t know how or when it will happen, but I know it will be soon. I’ve made my peace with this; I’ve had a fine life. I’ve been to the Louvre, the Prado. I couldn’t get close to the Mona Lisa, because of the crowds, but I spent hours hunting for myself in Las Meninas, wondering when I might appear in Velazquez’s mirror. I’ve eaten some good meals; I recall a beef carpaccio with kosher salt and truffle oil in Venice, a friend’s ’96 Latour. People say I’m still handsome, but I know I have a certain puffiness about my face, a growing paunch, a fantastically furry back, a hairline in tactical retreat. It doesn’t matter. I’ve known love.
      Every morning I do my tai chi. I drink my milk, I watch my cartoons. (“I knew I shoulda taken that left turn at Albuquerque,” the rabbit says, again and again, in his wonderful Flatbush accent.) I say hello to my neighbors, all fellow retirees, right there with me on the threshold of death. I’m a bit lonely, but that’s all right. Everyone, all around the world, is lonely. I’ve been thinking about getting a dog—maybe a mastiff, like Franny’s, something dignified and ponderous. It would be nice to know that I can keep a creature alive and more or less happy.
      I did have a cat once, briefly. Three cats. This was back in Paris, when I was an undergraduate on exchange. It was the summer I got very good at Luigi’s Mansion. A boy named Andrew, with whom I’d gone to school in Minnesota, wanted to spend the summer in Paris, so he sublet the other room in my apartment and brought along his Nintendo GameCube. As a child, Andrew had been religious, although when he arrived at my door that May I didn’t know what, if anything, he still believed. He was a few years younger than me, quiet and gentle, exquisitely sad. He had small hands. I was a little bit in love with him, I think, as I often am with people.
      My apartment, which we called Luigi’s Mansion, was in the 11th arrondissement. It was hot that summer—a lot of old people died, in fact, from the heat—and no one in Paris has air conditioning. We spent most of our time at home, playing video games, with the door wide open, and at some point, a stray cat walked in. The cat was affectionate, beautiful: deep green eyes, grey fur with notes of amber and violet. Since the cat was French, Andrew decided that his name would be François. I wanted to kiss Andrew then; he was so provincial.
      We fed François, who grew hugely fat. One day a friend was over, playing video games, and when François staggered into the room, she pointed at him and announced, “That cat is pregnant.” We started calling François Françoise. Franny, for short.
      I believe in coincidences. I believe coincidences are all there is in life. Of course, I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.
      We made Françoise a little nest—old dishcloths and copies of Le Monde in a cardboard box. When she gave birth, though, it was in Andrew’s dresser, on a pile of his jeans. I was alone. There were two kittens; they looked like gerbils and sounded like baby birds. There was also a third, stillborn. Françoise hoovered up the afterbirth of the living kittens and licked them clean, but she left the dead one’s placenta uneaten, and that kitten stayed, wet and grotesquely twisted, in the corner. I’m not proud of the way I disposed of the thing. But I’m not ashamed of the fact that, when the kittens were born, I wept. That afternoon, I believed in God, the miracle of creation, the sanctity of life. It’s important to hold on to these moments.
      The kittens were sweet little things. They looked nothing like their mother; one was orange, the other calico. They used the apartment as a jungle gym. At one point, the GameCube fell on the calico’s foot, and she needed to get a toe amputated. The GameCube was far bigger than she was; I suppose it’s a wonder she wasn’t killed. Still, the amputation cost three hundred euros. There was some confusion at the veterinarian’s, since the euro had only just come into effect, and all we had were francs.
      When the kittens were old enough, we gave them to the neighbors—one to the British couple across the street, the other to the Malian woman next door. Once Françoise stopped nursing, though, she needed sex. There was a long, miserable week between the departure of the kittens and the next available veterinarian’s appointment. Have you ever known a cat in heat? It’s unbearable. Françoise’s heart was full of lust. She dribbled blood around the apartment. She grew surly, withdrawn. To prevent her escape, we kept the door closed, and she stood by it, day and night, yowling a sound from the deepest recesses of her lizard brain. Tomcats—and that’s how I thought of them, as tomcats; rakes and womanizers to a man—loitered on the other side of the door. I imagined they were tempted like hobos in an old cartoon, borne aloft on their noses by the scent of pie cooling on a windowsill.
      I hope you’ll forgive what I’m about to tell you; we were desperate. On the internet, Andrew read that one could alleviate a cat’s concupiscence by using a cotton swab to simulate intercourse. I’m putting this delicately because I’m uncomfortable. We were going to ravish the cat with a Q-Tip. Andrew put his small hands around Françoise’s torso, and she arched her back invitingly. When I tried to put the Q-Tip in her vulva, though, she let out a scream of such primal violation that I pulled away, ashamed. We suffered through a few more sleepless nights, and then Françoise’s sex organs were removed. What a gift—to us, I mean, but also to her. It must be such a relief.
      By then, summer was nearly over. Andrew owed me hundreds of euros in rent and veterinary bills. We had a falling-out; he moved to the Panthéon and took Françoise with him. I didn’t mind. I’m actually quite allergic to cats. I suppose I’ve been thinking about all this because, earlier today, I was walking down the sidewalk in the yellow New Mexico sunshine when I saw a cat that looked just like Franny. She flopped herself at my feet and turned over, asking for a belly rub. She had a penis, and the tag on her collar said Bowser, but I called the number below it to explain otherwise.
      “Oui?” a woman said. “Allô?”
      “Hello,” I said. “I’m with a cat here. The tag says Bowser. But I’m sure this cat is actually named Franny. I knew her, twenty-five years ago, one summer in Paris.”
      “I am sorry,” the woman said. “My English.”
      “C’est correct,” I said. “Français?”
      “Oui,” the woman said. “Eh bien, Québécois. Mais—c’est quoi ça? Vous avez Bowser?
      “Non, non,” I said. “Pas Bowser. Franny.”
      “J’suis desolé,” the woman said. “J’comprend pas.”
      Of course I knew, on an intellectual level, that this cat was not Franny—that Franny must be long dead by now, in a pet cemetery somewhere in Paris or Minnesota. It’s just that I chose to believe she was still around, frozen in time. Trapped like a mosquito in amber, like a mastodon in tar. Like a child down a well. In any case. The Québécois woman and I spoke for a while, about this and that. My French isn’t what it used to be, but I muddled on through.